Lindsey German Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Lindsey German

Women and the Marxist tradition

(July 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 78, July/August 1985, pp. 20–23.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

DOES the Marxist tradition have anything to offer women? The argument has been debated hotly since the early days of the women’s movement. On balance, most feminists would answer no, or not much.

Their arguments range from the ridiculous and moralistic – that Marx was a patriarch who oppressed his wife – to sophisticated and serious analyses which either dismiss the Marxist tradition out of hand, along with all other socialist traditions, or which assert that other traditions like anarchism or utopianism have more relevance to the women’s movement today.

The argument has resurfaced in a number of writings over the past few years. Michele Barrett’s Women’s Oppression Today, Lise Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women and Barbara Taylor’s Eve and the New Jerusalem are all influential books which cover the subject in different ways. And a recent article in New Left Review by Elizabeth Wilson and Angela Weir also takes up the argument.

And while some writers, notably Wilson and Weir, are prepared to acknowledge the importance of Marxism in developing theories of women’s liberation, the general implication of most of the writing – and certainly the ‘common sense’ of the women’s movement – is that the ideas of Marx and Engels are at best outdated, at worst too immersed in patriarchy and an obsession with class to have any relevance to today’s women’s movement.

To test the truth of these various assertions we need to look at two areas. Firstly, at what Marx and Engels actually said on the question of women. Secondly, at concrete examples of how those standing in the Marxist tradition have tried to organise women.

Marx’s theory of revolution was based on the ideas of scientific socialism. His ideas contained similarities with many other socialist ideas of the time, but also one important and fundamental difference. The difference lay not so much in the aims of the socialist project, but in how it would be achieved.

The Communist Manifesto spelt out that: ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.’ Capitalist society created – as did other class societies – fundamentally antagonistic classes. But, unlike in other class societies, in capitalism the exploited class, the ‘gravedigger of capitalism’, had the power and the organisation to overthrow the system which created it.

‘The proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of modern industry, the proletariat is its special and essential product.’

The working class could achieve socialism precisely because it was forced to act collectively.

‘The proletarian movement is the self-conscious independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.’

Unlike the Utopian socialists, Marx believed that socialism would not come about by right-minded people simply getting together and changing their ideas. This was what Marx described as idealism, because it started with the ideas in people’s heads, not with material conditions which gave rise to those ideas. In order for the working class to change its ideas, it would have to struggle against its exploitation, and thereby create the conditions for the struggle for socialism.

That was why Marx referred to the proletariat as the revolutionary or universal class. And it is in this kernel of his theory that many of the initial confusions among feminists arise. The common and sometimes wilful misinterpretation is that Marx only talked about workers, that he wasn’t concerned with personal relations, or that he dismissed the notion that struggle could come from anywhere but the working class. All of these to a large extent miss the point.

When Marx placed the power of the proletariat at the centre of his theory of revolution, he wasn’t making a moral judgement that this class was the most exploited or oppressed. He was making a political judgement (and one which has been vindicated over and over from his lifetime to the present day).

He saw that the working class is the only class which has the revolutionary potential and organisational coherence not only to fight capitalism – many different sections of society can do that – but actually to beat it too.

WHAT then was Marx’s attitude to the oppression of women? He and Engels had very advanced ideas for their time. The Communist Manifesto, written in 1848, talks about a socialist future where women will not be treated as property, and where the family as we understand the term would be abolished in favour of free, collective relationships.

The family was an institution of class society, based on private property. The proletarian family was a complete mockery, with men, women and children living and working in horrendous conditions.

The bourgeois family too was a mockery of a different sort. It mirrored prostitution, where women were bought and sold as property, and was crucial to preserving the inheritance of the ruling class, ensuring the preservation of their property. Engels believed that the working class family would disappear because it was not based on property.

On this he was clearly wrong. He didn’t see how the family was to become for the working class the ‘heart of the heartless world’ – the area in which so many workers placed their aspirations.

Nevertheless, his Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State provided a materialist analysis which for the first time gave a coherent explanation of the oppression of women in class society. It located the rise of the family with the beginnings of private property, and it pointed the way to the abolition of women’s oppression through the ending of class society which had created their oppression in the first place.

The theories of Marx and Engels were not abstract schema. Both understood from close study the hideous reality of family life for working people in England. Capital and The Condition of the Working Class in England paint a picture of slum housing, infant mortality, crippling working hours and conditions.

The answer to the barbarity of a system based on accumulation was for Marx and Engels nothing short of proletarian revolution. They had no doubt that either the working class would emerge victorious, or it would be crushed by the capitalist class and its state. The answer to the problems of women’s oppression lay in women organised and fighting as part of the working class. This was in marked contrast to the Utopians. Although some Utopians shared many of the ideas of women’s equality, all too often their plans for a prefigurative future rested heavily on the labour of women in the home or commune.

This insistence both on the working class organising as a class and on the necessity of a revolutionary road has laid the ideas of Marx open to much criticism from feminists. The pull of the individual solution and the dominance of moralism are so strong in the women’s movement that talk of women organising as part of the class is all too frequently regarded with hostility. And the socialist feminists in the movement are clearly dominated by reformist ideas.

Michele Barrett in a New Statesman article written last year has indeed suggested that Marxism and feminism are mutually opposed because feminism is about ‘political emancipation’ – a fight for equality under capitalism – whereas Marx wanted to liberate the whole of humanity through socialist revolution.

There are two points about this argument. Firstly, it implies by sleight of hand that Marx and those who support him were never concerned with the everyday struggles of women – all they want to do is wait for the ‘big bang’ of revolution. This argument is current in the women’s movement as: ‘The revolution is all very well, but what about the here and now?’

Secondly, the argument shows how the women’s liberation movement is prepared to accept the ideas of reformism – and how the movement has changed. In the late sixties the term ‘women’s liberation’ denoted both a far reaching personal liberation for women and an identification with liberation struggles such as that in Vietnam. The idea of a total transformation of society was accepted by large numbers of women’s liberationists.

The fact that today Michele Barrett reduces women’s liberation – now called feminism – to legal equality under capitalism is a sign of the abandonment by her and others of the liberation of the vast majority of women – the working class.

In this sense, Marxism and feminism are opposed. Not because, as she puts it, Marxists aren’t interested in women’s equal rights. But because to limit the struggle for women’s equal rights is to simply fight for reform of the existing system.

Marx did not oppose such reform, or abstain on the struggle for political emancipation. As a later revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, put it, ‘Revolutionaries are the best fighters for reforms.’ And Marx clearly defended the rights of those unequal or discriminated against to be equal. But, unlike present day feminists, he saw that a fight for equality in bourgeois society would at best still only produce a sham equality.

HOW were Marx’s ideas on women put into practice? For much of his later life, the potential for class struggle was low. It was shortly after his death that his youngest daughter, Eleanor, tried to apply some of his ideas in her work as part of the socialist movement and in organising round the new unions of the unskilled – including many women.

Up until 1888, only a tiny percentage of British workers were in unions. These were restricted to the craft trades. The unskilled men, women, and Irish immigrants were excluded. A number of strikes changed that. The East End match girls struck against worsening conditions. The London dockers took action over pay. The gas-workers organised into a union (of which Eleanor Marx became president) and won the eight hour day. Workers in dozens of industries joined unions. Eleanor Marx, as well as being instrumental in forming the gasworkers’ union, also agitated among women and men in a variety of industries.

In this she was in marked contrast to many of the feminists agitating at the time. They tended to treat women workers as victims to be pitied and cared for, rather than people who could fight for themselves.

Annie Besant, the key agitator round the match girls’ strike, believed victory for the strike lay in winning respectable public opinion, such as the backing of The Times newspaper. There were, however, those even worse than Besant. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, a well-known feminist, actually had shares in the Bryant and May factory.

Union membership swelled dramatically. As Tony Cliff has noted, ‘The female membership of all trade unions increased from about 37,000 in 1886 to nearly 118,000 in 1896.’ Marx’s theories about the working class emancipating itself began to have a resonance. Unfortunately, however, the Marxist organisations which existed at the time were not able to take advantage of this upsurge in struggle. True, this was in part because they were tiny, but their size was a reflection of their sectarianism and inability to relate to day-to-day struggles of workers.

Even though a number of the leading figures who built the new unions considered themselves Marxists or were influenced by Marxism, they, like Eleanor Marx, tended to act as individuals, and not as part of a socialist organisation. That meant that, when the employers once again went on the offensive in the 1890s and the union movement ebbed dramatically, there was no organisation which could consolidate what gains had been made.

The Second (socialist) International, which Eleanor helped found in 1889, had more long term success in organising women.

The biggest party of the International was the German SPD. It organised women both into a party section and into the trade unions in very large numbers. By 1914, 175,000 women were members of the SPD. The leader of the German women, Clara Zetkin, saw her main job as agitating to get women into and active in the unions. The party produced a women’s daily, Die Gleichheit (Equality) and was committed to universal suffrage.

They were also committed to the idea of equality through the theoretical writings of Engels in The Origins of the Family and of their own theoretician on the question, August Bebel. Unfortunately, however, lots of the valuable work done by Zetkin and others meant very little. This was due to the nature of the SPD itself. The party was one which increasingly talked socialist revolution in the abstract, but acted in a reformist manner. This practice was enshrined in the notion of a minimum/maximum programme. Socialist rhetoric was wheeled out from time to time, but the day-to-day practice of the party had no real connection with the struggle for socialism.

Women’s liberation, like socialism, could safely be consigned to the far distant future, and divided from the idea of day to day struggle. The party’s true reformism was demonstrated in the crisis of 1914, when the bulk of its leaders supported the imperialist war.

Along with the abandonment of revolutionary politics went an abandonment of women’s liberation. In the aftermath of the war, after the SPD had been instrumental in drowning the revolutionary movement in blood, the SPD backed a policy of women being thrown out of work before men. In the 1930s, it was the Communists who campaigned for free abortion, not the SPD.

Such policies were not a consequence of Marxism – but a sign of the complete abandonment of Marxism. Yet at least the SPD had attempted in the years before 1914 to organise women as part of the working class to fight both for socialism and for political equality under capitalism.

Whatever its faults, it had a much more impressive record than its non-Marxist count parts. This is true if one looks at the British movement – a movement where Marxism never had a toehold and which was dominated by the ideas of Labourism.

The biggest women’s movement Britain – the suffragettes – was dominated by upper class and upper middle class women. Although many of these women were under the influence of left Labour ideas, they tended to lose these ideas as the movement progressed. Even the best of them, Sylvia Pankhurst, regarded campaigning for the suffrage and the other activities she took up as a left wing form of social work.

Not only that. The suffragettes campaigned for votes for women on the same basis as that of men – in other words on the basis of property. This would have excluded the bulk of the working class. Such an idea was anathema to the German and Russian socialists, who always fought for universal suffrage.

THE best known example of Marxism and women’s liberation in practice is the experience of Russia in the years following the Russian Revolution. The Russian Marxists – the Bolsheviks – had been committed to organising women before revolution. In 1913 they established the paper Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker) in response to the large number of women workers taking action. After the revolution, equality at least at a formal level was on the agenda. Marriage and divorce became simple, non-religious affairs. Childcare was deemed the responsibility of society. Nurseries were provided. Communal restaurants and laundries were introduced. The right to work and to control over their own bodies was for women enshrined in law.

In short, the Russian revolution heralded the most important step forward for women’s liberation ever seen.

There was no part of the world where anything like these reforms had been achieved. Indeed most of them are still not freely available today even in countries like Britain, where the functions of the family remain almost totally privatised.

But the reforms could not survive in isolation from the rest of the revolution. As it deteriorated, so the gains that women had won were destroyed or hampered. One of the most telling ironies of the Stalin period is that not only were these reforms rolled back, but the old image of woman as wife and mother was glorified in order to serve the needs of Russian accumulation.

Why were the Bolsheviks able to achieve so much in such a backward country, while far more advanced capitalist countries achieved nothing? Because they attempted to put into practice ideas developed by Marx. The workers did make their revolution, took over their industry and seized power. In the process their ideas changed drastically. The old ideas about women being in the home and not having the right to equality began to disappear as women took an active part in the revolutionary process. The examples of Russia and Germany, and others which vindicate the Marxist tradition, are either ignored by feminists or are dismissed as inadequate. They do not fit in with the idea that the only way women can struggle is separately.

WHAT does all this mean in terms of a Marxist theory of women’s liberation? The key factors which Marx located still exist. The unit of reproduction under capitalism is still the privatised family. Women still suffer oppression in class society. Even some of the most basic demands for women’s equality – like free childcare – cannot be met by a crisis-ridden capitalism. That same capitalism tries to place ever more burdens on the working class family.

Late capitalism has seen a huge increase in women workers. Despite the recession, there seems no sign of this trend being reversed. Women are joining trade unions at a faster rate than men. They are now much more centrally part of the working class – and therefore much more capable of fighting to change the world – than ever before.

At the same time, capitalism itself has developed and has changed women’s personal lives. Advances in technology mean that housework is much less the heavy manual work it used to be. Contraception has led to a constantly declining birth rate in the advanced capitalist

countries. These factors have freed women from the old drudgery. True, they have freed them to be exploited by the capitalist class. But this at least gives women the potential to fight back together, rather than remain atomised in the home.

The theories which Marx began to develop nearly 150 years ago are, if anything, even more relevant when 46 percent of workers in Britain are women.

There is much to deal with today that Marx and Engels did not deal with. Arguments about abortion and contraception have moved on since their time. Women’s patterns of work have changed beyond recognition. Women have had the vote for over 50 years and have nowhere near won political equality.

But Marx and Engels were products of their time. They could no more have dealt adequately with them than they could have theorised the trade union bureaucracy or imperialist war – developments which only became fully apparent after their deaths.

It is their method, and their general theory of revolution which can be applied to understanding how the present day world works and how it can be changed. And that theory has far more to contribute to ending women’s oppression – through ending class society – than all the theories of feminism.

That is why the key to fighting for women’s liberation lies in fighting to implement the socialist ideas which Marx and Engels developed.

Lindsey German Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 16 October 2019