Thursday, 11 September 2008

Marxism & Women's Issues

The emancipation of women has long been been of importance and controversy for Marxists. In this article an exposition of a general Marxist theory of women's oppression will be explored before proceeding to consider the lessons to be drawn from this understanding. In so doing it is necessary to critically examine those attempts on the left to champion an 'anti-capitalist feminism' as the logical solution to this form of oppression, as expressed most recently by the Alliance for Workers Liberty's front organisation, Feminist Fightback.

It is first necessary to briefly examine what is meant by the term 'feminism', particularly given the wide range of meanings that it has been attributed.

A clear definition of what Feminist Fightback takes this term to mean is provided within its founding statement of 2006, in which it declared: "we think feminism is about ordinary women coming together to challenge sexism in their own lives, and to support women around the world demanding their rights". In this founding statement, Feminist Fightback highlight its attempt to reach broader layers of 'women of all ages', implying the founding of a movement that aimed towards broad struggles for "freedom, equality and social justice" [1].

Feminist Fightback would later substantiate this fairly vague statement with a commitment to 'socialist feminism', predicated upon a combination of challenging women's oppression and an equally vague commitment to 'anti-capitalism'. As with feminism, the varieties of 'anti-capitalism', and indeed 'socialism', are many, a point upon which Feminist Fightback chose not to dwell in an attempt to reach those 'broader layers' the founding statement touches upon.

It is crucial for us to oppose the suggestion that feminism is able to adequately provide a solution to the root causes of women's oppression, as well as the claim that feminism is able to adequately explain its origins. Feminist Fightback's support for feminism is substantiated by the acknowledgment that while many female revolutionary figures of the twentieth century rejected 'feminism', citing revolutionary heroines such as German communist figures Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxembourg, it would be "sectarian" for socialists today to do so, following the advent of Stalinism in Russia and movements of 'socialist feminists' during a period of second wave feminism [2].

The term 'feminist' arose for the first time in the 1890s, brought about by movements focusing largely upon the promotion of equal property rights and access to education, and eventually, movements calling for the extension of the right to vote to women.

These movements were sharply criticised by the female revolutionary figures Feminist Fightback cites. These revolutionaries rejected feminism while waging fierce polemical attacks in defence of a commitment to the principle of the right of women to vote, to engage freely in political activity and other basic rights. These remained principles intrinsic to a project distinct from that perused by 'feminist' movements.

Rosa Luxembourg is one such female revolutionary figure, indeed arguably one of the most important revolutionary female figures of twentieth century political history. An activist for the revolutionary transformation of society, she also rejected the politics of feminism. Writing before the ascendancy of a Stalinist bureaucratic control of the Soviet Union, Luxembourg would distance herself from an explicit commitment to 'feminist' politics, agitating against the suggestion that such politics could adequately resolve the inequalities facing women.

This does not mean that Luxembourg ignored women's oppression. She famously attacked the reformist-dominated Belgian Social Democrats for dropping their call for women's suffrage, understanding this as a basic demand that the state must be forced to grant, not voluntarily, but through political pressure. Luxembourg did not view these issues within a political vacuum, instead viewing among socialists the abandonment of demands pertaining to women (such as the right to vote) alongside the abandonment of revolutionary methods.

Women's suffrage is, on this account, viewed not just as the goal of women but a common class concern for men and women of the proletariat within the broader context of an explicitly communistic struggle for political power. Luxembourg made it quite clear that the absence of any semblance of political rights for proletarian women is an injustice but that:

"we do not depend on the justice of the ruling classes, but solely on the revolutionary power of the working masses and on the course of social development which prepares the ground for power".

It is for this reason that Luxembourg suggests the "mass struggle for women's political rights is only an expressing and a part of the proletariat's general struggle for liberation", women's suffrage is supported because this "hastens the hour when the present society falls in ruins under the hammer strokes of the revolutionary proletariat", not as an adjunct or issue in any way distinct from this project. As distinct from our Feminist Fightback friends, Rosa Luxembourg understood the need for the kinds of demands posed by women's oppression to be linked necessary to an adequately rigorous and principled revolutionary strategy [3].

This is a view shared by other female revolutionists of this period, such as Russian revolutionary leader Nadezhda K. Krupskaya. Krupskaya notes that the commitment Rosa Luxembourg expressed to advancing a stated dedication to women’s suffrage was shared by Lenin in his report on the International Congress in Stuttgart, condemning the practices of the Austrian Social-Democrats in putting off the struggle for these electoral rights for women [4]. While raising these slogans expressing a commitment to women's rights Lenin made it clear that it the source of this oppression is capitalism, not a lack of rights. In contrast to feminists of this period, for Marxists the oppression of women is understood as impossible to entirely remove within the confines of a capitalist society, extending from an analysis of oppression as embedded within the material relations of class society. This is an understanding that extends from the analysis provided by the most influential contributors to modern Communistic thought, Karl Marx & Fredrick Engels.

Karl Marx

Support for the equality of the sexes and the championing of women's rights run through-out both the writings of Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels and those subsequently inspired by these works. Marx cites the words of utopian socialist Francois Fourier in arguing that the degree of female emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation of any society, in a discussion of the nature of communist society, while Engels would expand upon the nature of the nuclear family and its implications for women within 'The Family, Private Property and the State'.

In this work Engels highlights that it is not the case that the oppression of women has occurred in all human societies, indeed it is possible to observe relative equality within pre-class societies. Within what Engels describes as 'primitive communism', a degree of right to basic resources and as such embryonic equality is noticeable, due in large part to the fact that the sexual division of labour carries no subordinate social status, as it would later do so, with the emergence of class division. Within a system of 'primitive communism', the role of women in the production process afforded a degree of political power within society.

If we accept this premise it poses the question: what were the circumstances in which we may begin to see the emergence of class society and what were its logical consequences for women and the family? It is possible to understand these changes in human social organisation according to both how people gain their livelihood: the particular mode of production in that society, the sexual division of labour, and the subsequent implications for the political power of women.

A number of changes may be observed over time, including technological advances creating a situation in which a 'social surplus' is created which is then appropriated by a minority, creating a division of class. Engels notes that with the first iron plough drawn by cattle, large scale agriculture became possible, creating a comparatively unrestricted food supply. This marked a turning point in which production for use to production for profit became increasingly prevalent.

Accompanying the development of private property, production transferred from the household. The decline of household production took places as capitalists invest money accumulated via trade in the production of goods, marking the growth of wage labour alongside a decline in household production, with dramatic effects on the nuclear family. The proletarian family increasingly characterises domestic life under capitalism in contrast to pre-capitalist, multi-generational family forms defining the ‘early days of the industrial revolution’.

It is for these reasons that the family became the compulsory, patriarchal family of class society, as child rearing becomes increasing tied to the social oppression of women.

The reasons for this development relate to the needs of these new social forces: men of wealth required sons for the transmission of that wealth, and the primary function of the legally wedded wife was to be the breeder of heirs to a man's property. With the predominance of private property over common property, and with the interest in inheritance, father right and monogamy took the ascendancy and marriage became more than ever dependent on economic considerations.

Alongside the rise of class society is the rise of inequality, as the surplus created is initially shared instead of being accumulated by any one individual. Surplus grew alongside inequality as the position of the male is consolidated as the "head" of the nuclear family household for the purpose of inheritance, the passing on of property accumulated within the production process. This creates the 'double burden' of domestic and childcare work alongside waged labour for many women. With the division of social class the family emerges alongside what is described as the 'worldwide-historic defeat of the female sex'.


An understanding of the nuclear family as a product of particular historical circumstance, and as such subject to potential change, must serve as the basis for the furthering of communistic demands pertaining to women's issues. Marx notes in the German Ideology that "It is with the abolition of private property that the abolition of the family is self-evident". In drawing this conclusion we as Communists argue that women's oppression can only be ended when relations of production on which it depends are overthrown .

Soviet Union

Feminist Fightback argue that there exists a "the massive regression in political culture which Stalinism and social democracy brought about on this issue", but to understand the emergence of Stalinism and its consequences for the family and issues pertaining to women, it is necessary to understand the material basis of this regression in 'political culture'.


The coming to power of the Bolsheviks following the 1917 revolution would create a situation in which substantive gains for women were possible, including the removal of infamous laws placing women in a position of inequality, restricting divorce and surrounding it with disgusting formalities, denying recognition to children born out of wedlock, enforcing a search for their farthers, etc. As Lenin noted at the time, these remained laws "numerous survivals of which, to the shame of the bourgeoisie and of capitalism, are to be found in all civilized countries" [4].

The removal of old laws that kept women in a position of inequality as compared to men remained progressive developments; the October revolution resulted in political and legal rights in equality with men in sharp contrast to that which has and had been achieved by any government before and after it. However the achievements that were gained by women within the Soviet Union would soon be clawed back by the increasingly bureaucratic Stalinist leadership.

The attempt to 'abolish' the family in a context of generalised want resulted in a situation in which the laws introducing formal legal equality concerning the family and marriage established by October revolution were subsequently mutilated by vast borrowings from the laws of bourgeoisie countries. Resolutions celebrating the 'complete and irrevocable triumph of socialism in the soviet Union' were made all the more cruelly ironic by the introduction of laws challenging some of the more important civil, political and cultural rights of women, including the right to abortion. Prohibiting abortions served to criminalise working women, servants, peasants wives, namely many of those most vulnerable within the Soviet society.

As Marxists we view the condition of women not in isolation, but inseparable to and from the particular development of individual societies. Rejecting he abstraction provided by Feminist Fightback, the 'degeneration of political culture' may only be understood in the reference to the needs of the ruling stratum in creating a 'cult of the family' in which a stable hierarchy of relations could be ensured in support for authority and power of the Stalinist mis-leadership. This bureaucratic distortion of Stalinism in no way implies that it is "sectarian" to not support the political project of feminism. A project soundly rejected by principled female revolutionists before the advent of Stalinised rule within Russia.


While acknowledging that the subordinate position of women is the result of the capitalist system, implying a system of exploitation and division of labour, and that women can only be liberated fully when capitalism is overthrown and replaced by communism, this does not mean however that Communists simply wait for communism. The role of Marxists is clear in fighting for full equality, demanded alongside the defense and extension of existing rights.

Revolutionaries involve themselves in the struggles to advance equality as intrinsic to a wider project of human liberation. Our solution is that provided by Marxism in liberating and unifying those directly oppressed and exploited by capitalism in the fight for a politics able to end this exploitation and oppression. In so doing, we fight for an organisation that can successfully bring about the material conditions for the end of oppression and divisive capitalism.

The role of the revolutionary is to act, in the words of Lenin, as:

the tribune of the people, able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; ... able to generalise all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; ... able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.




[1] Feminist Fightback, Founding Statement

[2] http://socialistyouth.org.uk/page.php?4

[3] Rosa Luxembourg, Women's Suffrage and Class Struggle

[4] Lenin, The Emancipation of Women

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