Women and Revolution – On International Working Women's Day

Mainstream feminism has attempted to reduce March 8th to a vague and depoliticised celebration of the female sex as a homogenous group, but to socialists and working class women the world over, it is a day for mobilizing. International Working Women’s Day was instituted on the proposal of comrade Clara Zetkin at the second International Conference of Women Socialists, held in Copenhagen in 1910, with the aim of mobilizing women for the struggle against bourgeois domination.

Much to the chagrin of liberals and moderates alike, this is exactly the role that International Working Women’s Day has played – most notably in 1917. Russia’s February 1917 revolution began on this day with a strike of women textile workers. A mass demonstration of women marched on the municipal Duma demanding bread. These most oppressed and downtrodden of the working class called on their husbands and brothers to join them and on International Women’s Day (February 23 by the old Russian calendar) 90,000 workers came out on strike (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution). Strikes increased in the days that followed, with the masses calling for bread, an end to the war, and down with the tsar and the police. This was the beginning of the Russian revolution.

Equality is the order of the day for Marxists. Among the first groups with socialist aspirations were the Levellers in 17th century England. They called themselves levellers, because their goal was to “level” the vast imbalance of wealth and property in society – lowering the excessive standards for the tiny minority that made up the aristocracy and the new bourgeois ruling class, and raising the level of the vast plebeian majority to heights they could only dream about. In the words of Lenin on International Working Women’s Day 1920, “Capitalism combines formal equality with economic and, consequently, social inequality”. The Egalité heralded by the French bourgeois revolution is reduced to the “‘equality’ of the well-fed and the hungry man, of the man of property and the propertyless” – and Liberté, the freedom to sell your labour and be exploited for profit. The inequality between men and women is one of the most glaring manifestations of the inequality on which class society is built and on which it depends.”

If we wish to do away with inequality in society, we must explain why it exists, where it comes from, and how it is maintained. With regard to the emancipation of women, we must not be satisfied with any explanation that depends on women being physically or psychologically inferior to men. In fact, despite the wear of childbearing, women live longer on average, and in many societies, carry out the brunt of the physical work. In tsarist Russia, women were preferred to horses for pulling sleighs and even barges, since of course, women were cheaper to maintain (!!!). Yet, it is still “politically correct” for elected women’s reps to get up at union and party meetings when things are getting a bit heated, and say “we need to keep it down; this is not a woman-friendly environment!” – as if debate and passion are frightening to women and that’s what keeps them away from politics – a “man’s domain”. Ironically, the best-spoken, loudest, and most articulate speakers at these very same “rowdy” meetings are often women.

Women in the labour movement

There is certainly a shortage of women active in the labour movement and its workers’ parties, but again and again when it matters the most – when it is a question of putting food on the table and there are tangible results to be gained – women come out en masse. The early liberal feminists (the famous suffragettes) fought for the legal rights of women to participate in politics and to work outside the home. But there was a clear division between the workers’ wing, who sang the Red Flag at meetings and saw these legal rights as a stepping stone, and the liberal wing, who were oblivious to the fact that working women have always been working both inside and outside the home. To the bourgeois liberal elements, participating in politics and working outside the home simply meant hiring working class women to do domestic work and raise their children for them – this was easy enough.

There are fewer women than men in politics, not because we’re intimidated and can’t stomach it, but because we are busy doing a million and one tasks that class society expects but will not and cannot pay for. This material explanation for participation or non-participation in politics is even clearer if we look at it in class terms. It’s the working class that collectively has the power to change society, but this is also the class that has little time to participate in the party and trade unions especially when the activities of these organisations are frighteningly lacking in tangible results. When they work eight to twelve hard hours a day for the boss, working class women and men will spend what little spare time they have with their family and friends, and resting in front of the television, rather than going to a union or party meeting. The majority of people active in parliamentary and trade union politics during non-revolutionary periods tend to be petty bourgeois students, youth, and union bureaucrats and members with higher paid jobs. The mass of the working class remains generally unrepresented until they have a concrete reason to get active, and then they enter political activity and begin the task of winning back their traditional mass organisations. This is the process that we see again and again in times of revolution, and working class women play a decisive role in this.

Where does inequality come from?

Academic feminists blame inequality (not just sexism, but also racism and all kinds of prejudice) on some abstract, supposedly innate force called patriarchy that pits white men as a homogenous and equally advantaged group against anyone in society who is not a white man. This argument simply doesn’t add up. Certainly, under capitalism, the majority of ruling class exploiters are white men. And there is no doubt that working class women are doubly oppressed, and that a good number of people of colour, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities are among the lowest ranks of the working class and poor. But to explain this inequality along the lines of gender and skin colour alone does not account for the fact that working class women of all ethnicities have more in common with their working class brothers than they do with Margaret Thatcher or Condoleeza Rice. And this is an oversight that’s deliberately maintained. “Divide and rule” isn’t just a strategy for winning at a game of RISK; it’s a strategy used again and again by the ruling class to distract from the real issue, the real enemy – that is, capitalism.

Fortunately, explaining women’s inequality does not depend on believing in this evil sprite patriarchy, which makes all men naturally prone to want to subjugate women. Inequality only appeared with the emergence of class society. Contrary to the claims of our educators who would like us to believe that capitalism has always been and will always be, society was not always divided into classes of haves and have-nots. The Communist Manifesto begins, (after the exciting bit about the spectre of communism haunting Europe…) with “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Marx and Engels, 1848). In Engels’ footnotes to the 1888 English edition of the Manifesto, he adds, “that is, all written history”.

Roughly 8,000 years ago, (give or take a thousand,) a transition was taking place that would change society forever. This transition, called the Neolithic revolution, paved the way for technology, science, philosophy, art, and literature, but was also the beginning of private property and the division of society into classes – the beginning of inequality. The cause for this drastic change was the newfound surplus that resulted from the discovery that plants could be cultivated and animals could be domesticated and bred. It is not difficult to imagine why this might be more productive and efficient than gathering wild fruits and running after large animals with sticks and stones. Whereas before, everybody spent every waking hour producing the bare minimum for survival, (very often they did not succeed, and whole communities would die of starvation) there was now the possibility of producing more than this bare minimum. For the first time waging war on your neighbouring tribes allowed for the taking of slaves, who you could feed with the surplus, so that they could maintain your farm while you devoted your time to less immediately material matters – such as science and culture. You can see where this is going – the most important advances in human history went hand in hand with its most despicable feature.

Before cultivation and domestication, sustenance was gained by hunting and gathering. Women who were continually bearing and feeding children worked in and around the dwelling and gathered edibles nearby. “One of the most absurd notions taken over from 18th century enlightenment is that in the beginning of society woman was the slave of man” (Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State). In reality, the nuclear family of mother and father and their “legitimate” children simply did not exist. It was not practical when survival required everybody pitching in and working together. Primitive Communist housekeeping meant the supremacy of the women in the household. While it was obvious who a child’s mother was, there was no way to be sure of the father. For this reason, lineage was traced through the mother and women were held in high regard. This is not to say that life was easy or pleasant for these women (or men for that matter). Imagine no electricity, no washing machines, no birth control, and no vaccinations or cures for disease. Nothing could be more ridiculous that the claim of some fringe green activists that technology is the real evil in the world and that we ought to “return to the land” and to this primitive communism.

For women, the new surplus that came out of increased productivity meant the end to their respected position in this matriarchal society. Farming replaced hunting as the realm of men, but women remained the bearers and nurturers of children. The new surplus that came out of farming fell to men, and for the first time, there was a question of who owned this wealth. The division of labour between men and women was the same, but their domestic relations were turned on their head. The very fact that a woman was at home taking care of children – a fact that had previously made her the matriarch – now kept her from participating in the gaining and division of wealth. And because it was now possible to have wealth, it was now possible for some people to have more than others. When a man had a large number of slaves and produced a large surplus, what happened to this property when he died? For the purpose of inheritance, it now mattered who a child’s father was. This meant keeping your woman your woman, making sure she didn’t go out and meet other men, making sure she honoured and obeyed, etc. When the ruling class adopted the popular religion, they made sure that it taught all this. The monogamous family unit with a dominant father and suppressed mother arose out of a desire to know without a doubt who a child’s father was. (Origin of the Family offers a great deal of insight.)

Capitalism depends on women’s inequality

The French utopian socialist Fourier said (as is often repeated by Marxists) that the status of women in a society is an indicator of the health and progress of that society. When asked in what time period and as what gender she would prefer to live, Miss Universe 2004 (formerly Miss Australia,) proudly responded, “I have to say, this time period because we have as much freedom as we want. And I choose the sex of female because females have a lot to say in today’s society”. (Quoted from transcript by www.ruggedelegantliving.com) The majority of the world’s women only wish they could live as naïve a life as this Australian treasure. Women make up 70% of the world’s poor. In Canada, one in five women live in poverty. 56% of Canadian single-mother families live below the poverty line, as do 49% of single, widowed and divorced senior women (Morris, “Women and Poverty” 2002 www.criaw-icref.ca). We all know the statistics.


In its distorted form under capitalism, equality for women has meant that capitalists can pay their workers half as much, because it is no longer the man’s responsibility to support the whole family. The legal rights gained by women in the west have not lessened the burden of domestic work. Similarly, capitalists exploit the work of children to reduce costs. All over the world, even here in Canada (in British Columbia, it is now legal for 12 year olds to go to work), the whole family needs to work to maintain itself. Under the guise of “gains for women”, this has really only benefited capitalism. Employers pay workers the bare minimum for their maintenance, and if this bare minimum can now be divided among three or four family members, that means three or four times the work can be done at the same cost.

It’s all about unpaid work

Capitalism depends on ever-increasing profits, which depends on the continual expanding of markets and cutting of costs. In a finite world where cutting costs means attacking workers and limiting their “spending ability”, this can be quite a challenge, and a bit of a catch-22. Fortunately for the ruling class, a good half of the world’s work is done for free – that is domestic work and the work of rearing children. There is certainly a basis for saying that this is some of the world’s most important work, and dividing it up among individual family households is a surprisingly inefficient and illogical way to get it done. It makes good sense to collectivise and socialise this work. Much of domestic work can in fact be mechanized and need not be done by people at all. But this would require investment that is just not available in a society where trillions of dollars in profit produced by the working class goes into the personal accounts of a few leeches. Paid socialised domestic work is not an option under capitalism – look how much trouble the Canadian government is having implementing a shamefully stingy national childcare programme! Imagine asking big business to dig into their pockets and dish out the money to pay for all the domestic work that women are currently doing for free. This is the half-hearted utopian pipe dream of the well-intentioned social democracy, with their legislated gender parity and subsidies “for working families”, but it ain’t gonna happen.

The Marxists have always explained that equality for women will not be possible until women are able to participate fully in production and in the running of society. This will not be possible until domestic slavery is eliminated – until domestic work and child rearing are paid work and not totally relegated to an individual woman in her own family and household. In Women and the Family, Trotsky correctly explains that, “to alter the position of woman at the root is possible only if all the conditions of social, family, and domestic existence are altered.” So while the academic feminists flail about trying to make “women-friendly environments”, it is important that we keep our sights set on doing away with this rotten system that cannot afford equality.

A planned economy is good for women

Despite its degeneration into Stalinism, many important gains were made in the Soviet Union. The efficiency and incredible productivity of the planned economy astonished everyone. The improvements for women in particular cannot be denied, and the rate at which the situation has regressed since the fall of the Soviet Union is equally telling. “From a backward, semi-feudal, mainly illiterate country in 1917, the USSR became a modern, developed economy, with a quarter of the word’s scientists, a health and educational system equal or superior to anything found in the West, able to launch the first space satellite and put the first man into space” (Alan Woods, Introduction to Ted Grant’s Russia: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution). “In a period of 50 years, the USSR increased its gross domestic product nine times over (…) The USSR had a balanced budget and even a small surplus every year (…) not a single Western government has succeeded in achieving this result.” In tsarist times, laws permitted and encouraged a man to beat his wife; a women was legally an appendage of the household and “in some rural areas women were forced to wear veils and were prevented from learning to read and write”. The soviets immediately passed a series of laws giving women formal equality (including the rights to live separately from one’s husband and to be head of the household; the right to divorce, to abortion, to paid maternity leave, and equal pay; the concept of illegitimate children was abolished). But again and again in his speeches and writing, Lenin asserted that this was not enough. The 1919 Programme of the Communist Party proclaimed: “Not confining itself to formal equality of women, the party strives to liberate them from the material burdens of obsolete household work by replacing it by communal houses, public eating places, central laundries, nurseries, etc” (Marxism and the emancipation of Women, by Ana Muñoz and Alan Woods, www.marxist.com).

The early Soviet government provided “free school meals, milk for children, special food and cloth allowances for children in need” (Woods, Intro. to Russia: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution). Pregnancy consultation centres and maternity homes replaced the dangerous potions and superstition of the babushkas – old women who had been widowed one too many times, had no place in tsarist society, and were forced to live as witches on the border of town. Unbelievably, the life expectancy for women more than doubled from 30 years in tsarist times to 74 years by the 1970s, because of tremendous improvements in healthcare. By 1971, there were pre-school places for over five million children and 49% of students in higher education were women. “The only other countries in the world where women constituted over 40% of the total in higher education were Finland, France, and the United States”.

All of the gains made by women in the Soviet Union have been clawed back since its collapse. “Not since the Dark Ages after the collapse of the Roman Empire has Europe seen such an economic catastrophe in peacetime”. Production plummeted by around 60% between 1990 and 1997. Unemployment for able-bodied people (something that capitalism depends on) was illegal in the Soviet Union and literally did not exist. Homelessness was unknown. Now both are skyrocketing. Unpaid wages and pensions, increasing prices, and devastating poverty have led to a rise in alcoholism. Incredibly, “the Russian population of 150 million now consumes substantially more vodka each year than the 280 million of the USSR in the late 1980s”. This has led to a drastic increase in domestic violence. “In 1993, 14,000 Russian women were murdered by their husbands or boyfriends – a figure 20 times higher than in the USA”. For many Russian women, the only way out is some form of prostitution. The “lucky” ones are purchased as brides by rich westerners who, for reasons we can easily imagine, are unable to find themselves wives in the usual way.

Socialism depends on women

The gains of the Soviet planned economy give us just a glimpse into the possibilities that will open up under genuine socialism, with a democratically planned economy, in which women democratically decide what the priorities are. Women playing an active role in the work force and in the running of society are absolutely essential to socialism. Lenin and the Marxists recognized that “where there are no landowners, capitalists or merchants, and where the government of the working people is building a new life without these exploiters, men and women are equal before the law. But this is not enough […] We want the working woman to be the equal of the working man not only before the law but in actual fact. For this working women must take an increasing part in the administration of socialised enterprises and in the administration of the state” (Lenin, “To the Working Woman” 1920, from The Emancipation of Women). Stalin would later claim that Soviet women had achieved complete equality. By this time however, the bureaucratisation of the state meant that there was no workers’ participation and therefore no participation of women in the running of the state. Despite the many gains, Stalin’s claim was so different from the reality for Soviet women that it would serve only to alienate them further.

Equality for women is of the utmost importance to Marxists. In the words of Lenin, “The Proletariat cannot achieve complete liberty until it has won complete liberty for women”. Yes, let’s pay particular attention to the day-to-day struggles of working class women. Let’s aim to discuss with and empower working class women; let’s give them a reason to get active in politics. Let’s push for the NDP and trade unions to call unapologetically for paid, socialised child-rearing and domestic work. We must adamantly oppose sexism, racism, and all of the prejudices of class society. But we must continually explain that there is no real lasting solution under capitalism. So long as capitalism, class society, survives, these problems will not be eradicated. When capitalism was booming a certain degree of improvement was possible. Now we live in the epoch of the long-term decline and decay of capitalism. Therefore not only do these problems persist, but they actually get worse. Therefore spending our political energies trying to find a solution under capitalism is a waste of our precious time!

Masses of women do rise up, and they will rise up, but it will be on a class basis, alongside their male comrades, and it will be for practical reasons – for peace, land, and bread. And when a revolution is successful, it will spread like wildfire. It will mark the beginning of the end of the bourgeois family. Domestic work and child rearing will no longer be a burden as it is for many women today, but it will be covered by fully funded and top-quality childcare and public services that are only possible with a planned economy. This way having children will become a real joy, which it should be, and women will have the time and resources to be educated and to participate fully in the running of society. Only then will we see sexism and inequality begin to whither away.

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