Marxism and Women's Emancipation

Marxists must energetically take up the cause of women, fighting against inequality and all manifestations of oppression, discrimination and injustice. But we must always do this from a class point of view. While fighting consistently for each and every reform that represents a real advance for women, we must explain that the only way to really achieve the full emancipation of women–and all other oppressed layers of society–is through the abolition of the capitalist system. This requires the utmost unity of men and women workers in the struggle against capitalism. Any tendency to play off women against men, or to divide and segregate off women from the rest of the labour movement in the name of “women’s liberation” or anything else is thoroughly reactionary and must be energetically combated.

We fight for the sacred unity of the proletariat, irrespective of sex, race, colour, religion or nationality. Thus, our fight for the cause of women necessarily presupposes an implacable struggle against all kinds of bourgeois and petty bourgeois feminism. Such tendencies, where they gain influence in the labour movement, invariably play into the hands of the most reactionary elements, play a divisive role and sow confusion among those women who are moving in the direction of socialism. In this, as in all other questions, we must take a firm class position. As we have seen, the Bolshevik party and the Communist International in their resolutions always spoke of “working women” and not women in general. It goes without saying that the struggle for the rights of women includes all women proletarians, including housewives, female unemployed, school-students, etc. But the key element is the working women who today represent a large and growing section of the working class.

The mere achievement of formal “equal rights” without transforming social relations, is extremely limited and leaves untouched the fundamental roots of the oppression of women in capitalist society. In the last period much of the supposed “improvements” related to “positive discrimination” have, in fact, served as a vehicle for the advancement of a layer of petty bourgeois careerists. In the last decade or so, the voice of militant petty bourgeois feminism, formerly so strident in its demands for “equality” (the right to have women priests, managers and so on), has got less and less audible. Why? Because, the middle-class feminists are largely getting what they are asking for.

The bourgeoisie has made a bit of extra room for female managing directors, judges, bankers, bureaucrats and priests. The promotion of women in middle management has risen from perhaps 4 to 40 per cent of the total over the past 20 years in the USA. 419 out of the Fortune 500 now have at least one woman on the board, and a third of them two or more. The biggest companies are far better at promoting women than those at the bottom end of the Fortune 500. So some women are doing very nicely. These bourgeois and petty bourgeois careerists were always in favour of the emancipation of women “one by one, commencing with myself”.

That is why we were always implacably opposed to bourgeois and petty bourgeois feminism. It has nothing in common with the real struggle for the emancipation of women which can only come about by the overthrow of capitalism. Once these career women had solved their personal “problem” within the confines of capitalism, they were quite happy to forget about the 99 per cent of women who suffer the most dreadful oppression and exploitation, while the erstwhile “feminists” join the ranks of the exploiters. A similar phenomenon has occurred with the middle class blacks who have made a fortune out of the “race relations industry” in recent years. The ruling class can always make this kind of “concession” to a movement that does not threaten its rule in any way.

We are not in favor of “positive discrimination”, whether for women, blacks or any other section. It is a petty bourgeois demand that acts as a diversion from the fundamental roots of inequality. By its very nature, the establishment of arbitrary quotas for women, blacks, etc., serves as a vehicle for the advancement of a minority of careerists which gives the impression that “something is being done” while leaving the basic problem untouched. This method does not provide a genuine answer to the problem of discrimination, but provides a diversion and an exercise in tokenism. Moreover, it is usually a method used by the bureaucracy to block the left and staff leading committees, councils and parliaments with female or black careerists and stooges. The clearest case of this is the USA, where this method has been skillfully used by the bourgeoisie to defuse the race issue by creating quite a big layer of black careerists. Middle class blacks have used the fight against racism to set themselves up with good, well paid jobs and then decide that it would be better for them to be more “moderate” and “reasonable”.

It is true that sometimes honest working women and young girls might call themselves feminists without clearly understanding what this means. We should have a flexible and positive attitude towards them, in the same way that we would have towards members of oppressed nationalities. But just as we are opposed to nationalism, so we are opposed to feminism. The fight against discrimination does not affect this stance in the slightest. We always approach the question of inequality from the standpoint of the working class and socialism and from no other standpoint. It is one thing for working class women to express their concerns about the problems faced by their sex (unequal wages, the burden of housework, the problems of bringing up children, sexual harassment and violence against women) and to want to fight against these things, and another thing altogether when bourgeois and petty bourgeois tendencies attempt to exploit the problems of women to drive a wedge between the sexes. The natural concerns of working class women are a kind of declaration that they see the existence of inequality and are against it. This can be the starting point of participation in the struggle to change society along socialist lines, whereas bourgeois and petit bourgeois feminism treat the question of women in isolation and seek a solution within the confines of the capitalist system. This inevitably leads to reactionary conclusions.

For Marxists, the root cause of all forms of oppression consists in the division of society into classes. For many feminists, on the other hand, the oppression of women is rooted in the nature of men. It is not a social but a biological phenomenon. This is an entirely static, unscientific and undialectical conception of the human race. It is an unhistorical vision of the human condition, from which profoundly pessimistic conclusions must flow. For if we accept that there is something inherent in men which causes them to oppress women, it is difficult to see how the present situation will ever be remedied. The conclusion must be that the oppression of women by men has always existed and therefore, presumably, will always exist. Marxism explains that this is not the case. It shows that, along with class society, private property and the state, the bourgeois family has not always existed, and that the oppression of women is only as old as the division of society into classes. Its abolition is therefore dependent on the abolition of classes, that is, on the socialist revolution.

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