Weinstein, Trump … Feminism or class struggle?

Printer-friendly version

On 25 May, Harvey Weinstein, the now notorious American film producer, was led in handcuffs from a New York police station to a court where he was charged with rape and sexual abuse. He was freed on bail while awaiting trial and fitted with an ankle bracelet to monitor his movements.

Ideological uses…

The “Weinstein affair” has been known all over the planet since the New York Times and the New Yorker published an inquiry into the numerous cases of sexual abuse committed by Weinstein, who has been denounced by dozens of women. Since then an even greater number of women have exposed similar aggressions and crimes by other men in all sectors: cinema, business, politics, etc.

At the beginning the media coverage of the “Weinstein affair” served mainly as a pretext for embarrassing Trump and pushing towards his impeachment. In the days of Bill Clinton, sexual abuses committed by a man who had a feeling of impunity because of his powerful position were used to weaken the president: the famous “Lewinsky affair”[1]. In October 2017, when the Weinstein affair came to light, the ignoble behaviour of this character was an open secret in American intellectual and cultural circles. By mediatising the resulting public anger, the American bourgeoisie had found yet another way of implicating the president, who also has form in this same area (among other things, the difficulties he now faces for his pay-offs to two women, a playboy model and a porn star, to keep them quiet about extra-marital affairs early in his marriage.)

At the same time, the international impact of this case shows that there is much more involved than yet another Machiavellian strategy of the bourgeoisie. It reveals a real and profound indignation around the condition of women in this society. The participation in International Woman’s Day demonstrations on 8 March 2018 was much bigger than in previous years  and held in more countries (there were demonstrations in Turkey, Russia, Philippines, India, Pakistan, Switzerland, South Korea, Congo, the Ivory Coast, etc) and with more determined slogans denouncing rape and other forms of aggression against women.

This legitimate anger was however rapidly recuperated by the bourgeoisie through a social network campaign orchestrated by the media and entertainment industry, marked by a tendency to blame men in general and to spread feelings of victimisation and guilt. The truth is that the ruling class only wants people to express themselves freely when they are dragged into false dilemmas: men against women, good men against chauvinist pigs, while at the same time making full use of traditional reactions of puritanism and prudery. Righteous speeches proliferated; in several countries governments passed new laws or planned to do so, claiming to strengthen “equality between the sexes” around issues of pay, or to ensure harsher penalties for sexual harassment and attacks. The ruling class could not remain silent in the face of widespread anger which was, however, unable to break out of an inter-classist, sectional framework, unable to raise itself onto a class terrain, and which thus posed no real threat to the bourgeoisie’s class privileges. The bourgeoisie thus took advantage of this situation to keep everything inside the mystifications of democracy, inside the illusion that discrimination could be eliminated in the context of existing society.

This is a mystification. When prisons are full of men who have harassed women in the street or beaten up their wives, what has to change in society to remove the material basis of such behaviour? The bourgeoisie knows perfectly well that imposing harsher penalties on base behaviour towards women is just applying sticking plaster to a deep wound, and this makes its empty gestures even more despicable. By offering women the protection of the state, the bourgeoisie is simply imprisoning the “woman question” in the cage of bourgeois democracy, reducing it to a matter of deviant behaviour in a society where there is supposedly no inbuilt obstacle to “equality between men and women”.

This is precisely the trap that has to be avoided by this wave of legitimate indignation. If women are viciously exploited, mistreated, considered as slaves and sexual objects to men, this is not the product of a kind of “deviation” in this society, or of a tendency for it to go backwards, but an expression of its real nature as a system of class exploitation and oppression.

of a real oppression

The workers’ movement didn’t take long in highlighting the specific condition of women in capitalist society. In 1845, Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England in which he described how capitalism was destroying the health, the future, the lives of children and women by integrating them into the inhuman conditions of production in the big factories and mines. He also explained how a boss could easily abuse women in his employ because he wielded the power of life and death over them. But it was above all in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State that Engels showed that the subordination of women was deeply linked to the division of society into classes, to the existence of private property, arguing that the historic struggle of the proletariat contained within it the possibility for the real emancipation of women. Basing himself on the work of Morgan, Engels demonstrated that the appearance of private property gave rise to the family, the initial economic cell of class society. The man was now in charge and the woman was turned into an object, the property of the man and the procreator of children who would inherit the property of the male head of the family.

In the same period August Bebel, in his classic work Women and Socialism, described how capitalist relations perpetuated this position of women in the service of the man and how the social structures of capitalism were based on this position, especially bourgeois marriage. In capitalism women remain the property of men, reduced to a useful object at the beck and call of masculine desire. Bebel demonstrates that the logical expression of this situation is the fact that prostitution is necessary to the good functioning of capitalist society.

Marxism was thus very early on able to show that the subordination of women to men was not fundamentally a moral or even physical question, but a material and social one.  With the development of the productive forces, humanity was led to abandon the collective social forms of primitive communism and adopt a form of organisation based on private property and the division into social classes. Capitalism, by integrating men, women and children into production has got rid of the old sexual division of labour but its social structures retain the framework of the subordination of women to men, particularly through marriage and the family.

The behaviour under the media spotlight today fully confirms this. Social evolution since the days of Engels and Bebel, far from putting women in a better place, has perpetuated her situation as an object for use. Women are still considered as fundamentally inferior beings, and the material development of the system has led to a growing dehumanisation of women’s relationships with men. Advertising, for example, makes brutal use of the female image, treating women as sexual objects. Pornography has become increasingly widespread thanks to the internet and acts as a vehicle for educating young people in completely reified relations between the sexes, normalising the most degrading behaviour and justifying sexual violence and harassment, especially at work where relations of domination and submission are more visible than elsewhere. 

Furthermore, the workplace less and less supplies the minimal conditions for a social life. The decomposition of the social fabric and current conditions of exploitation produce and accentuate an atomisation of the individual which plunge many into solitude and sexual misery.

At the same time, the bourgeoisie has also developed a concern for the “woman question”. Feminist movements are nothing new and have appeared regularly throughout the history of capitalism. After all, don’t bourgeois women also suffer from the rule of their husbands? No doubt: but the feminist movement begins from a basis of inter-classist demands which, on the one hand, can only have a very limited effect in the context of this society, and, on the other hand, present a real danger for the proletariat in the sense that, like all inter-classist movements, feminism draws us away from the class demands and positions which alone contain the solution to the problem.

The necessity for a fight on class lines

Through a deep understanding of the inextricable link between the oppression and exploitation of women and the organisation of capitalist society, the workers’ movement was able to take up the concern for the situation of women while demarcating itself very clearly from the feminist movement developed by a part of the bourgeoisie that was calling for women to have access to education, the right to vote and so on. Clara Zetkin and August Bebel, within German social democracy, and Alexandra Kollontai in the Bolshevik party, to mention only a few, all emphasised the primary responsibility of capitalist society in the condition of women and thus the importance of linking this question to that of the working class as a whole, to the united struggle of male and female workers for the construction of a new society where men and women will live without chains.

What’s more, it was the workers’ movement which was behind International Women’s Day, the first of which took place on 28 February 1909. After 1914, International Women’s Day saw militant marches against the imperialist war, and in Russia, on March 8 1917[2], the mass demonstration of women (and male) workers raised slogans against war and hunger and was the spark that lit the fires of the proletarian revolution.

What has changed for women under capitalism since the situation described by Engels in 1845? In the developed countries, women have gained a certain number of rights: access to education, the vote…some are even at the head of big companies or even big countries! But their condition, in a more subtle and hypocritical way, is not that different. If women are no longer forced to work up until the day they give birth as Engels saw in English industry, an unemployed woman is bound to remain unemployed if she is pregnant and the chances of young women finding jobs is reduced by the “risk of maternity”. As in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the working class is basically faced with the same problems. But in the past workers’ parties could take up these questions and develop propaganda and education which had a real impact on the working class. Today, when capitalism can only keep going by engendering the decomposition of social relations, the working class is experiencing great difficulties to recognise its class identity. This is a major obstacle to understanding the necessarily revolutionary character of its struggle, which has to integrate the fight for a radical change in the feminine condition. What the workers’ movement has always put forward - that women will only lose their chains when the whole of humanity is freed by the victory of the proletarian revolution and the building of communism - the proletariat is finding hard to understand because of the low level of its class consciousness.

In this situation the bourgeoisie is posing the problem on the rotten and dangerous ground of inter-classism. According to this ideological standpoint, which derives from the ruling class, women must unite to free themselves from men and seize some of the power that men try to conserve for themselves and against women. Not only does this conception hide and exclude the antagonistic character of social relations (as though female workers have the same social or economic interests as bourgeois women), it also encourages the illusion that the state is the guarantor of “equality”, the force that restrains the powerful and slightly reduces their advantages in favour of the weak. In this framework, the feminist struggle is supposed to put pressure on the state to obtain more rights and more equality. Above all, it’s the old formula of divide and rule, the cultivation of obstacles to the unification of the class struggle, both in the future and in the immediate. 

The indignation being expressed against the unjust, humiliating, and degrading treatment of women reveals the visceral incapacity of the capitalist system to allow a real improvement in the living conditions of the exploited. In complete opposition to all the arguments about the existence of social and economic progress, these conditions are getting worse given the continuing tendency towards the unravelling of the social tissue. All the “oppressed categories” (women, immigrants, homosexuals, this or that race or ethnicity, etc) who feel threatened or rejected are not suffering as a result of their particular condition as such but because the capitalist system only operates on the basis of two categories of human beings - the exploiters and the exploited - and through the competition of each against all which, under the pressure of the crisis, and above all of social decomposition, tends to exclude any form of difference, to restrict solidarity to the ghettoising framework of the defence of particular interests or identities.

What August Bebel wrote in the introduction to Women and Socialism remains impressively relevant today:

“The woman question deals with the position that woman should hold in our social organism, and seeks to determine how she can best develop her powers and her abilities, in order to become a useful member of human society, endowed with equal rights and serving society according to her best capacity. From our point of view this question coincides with that other question: in what manner should society be organized to abolish oppression, exploitation, misery and need, and to bring about the physical and mental welfare of individuals and of society as a whole? To us then, the woman question is only one phase of the general social question that at present occupies all intelligent minds, its final solution can only be attained by removing social extremes and the evils which are a result of such extremes”.  GD, 2.7.18

Picture: International Women's Day, March 8 1917, a spark for the revolution in Russia


[1] See also the article written at the time of the “Strauss-Kahn scandal”, when “DSK” was president of the International Monetary Fund and a potential candidate for the Socialist Party in the presidential elections in France: “Affaire DSK: la femme est toujours le ‘prolétaire de l’homme’”, Révolution Internationale no 424.

[2] Last Sunday in February in the Russian calendar. Subsequently the 8 March became the official day of the event.



Social issues