Women and Class Struggle
(«Proletarian»;Nr. 8; Spring 2012)
“...The first condition for the liberation of women is to bring the whole female sex back into public industry, and that this in turn demands the abolition of the monogamous family as the economic unit of society”. (Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State)
The bourgeoisie boasts of having liberated women by opening the doors to the world. Is it necessary, as reformism claims, to be content with extending the work of the bourgeoisie? Should we, contrary to Marxist analysis, look for “specific” causes of the oppression of women? These are the questions that are generally bandied about among the “Left” on the subject of the oppression of women.
For the first time since primitive communism, capitalism has actually reintegrated women into social production. In spite of the brutality with which this was done communists have always stressed its revolutionary nature. But they have shown that all the female workers gained was exploitation, constant insecurity and the unemployment that goes hand in hand with wage labor without being relieved of the millenial yoke of petty housework. Whereas, among women in the exploited class who live off their salary, capital destroyed the two foundations of a monogamous family (1) i.e., inheritance and the economic supremacy of the husband, it still has not abolished the family, for the same reason, – as Trotsky explained in The Revolution Betrayed, that the family cannot be destroyed, much less abolished, by decree; it must be replaced. Its disappearance presupposes that society assume the domestic responsibilities necessary for the survival of the species. Capitalism cannot do this.
The double slavery of women workers is thus rooted in the deepest contradictions of capital. Socialization of production has brought women back into public industry, but only by subjecting them to wage slavery. The foundations upon which the family once rested have been destroyed. The domestic economy has been absorbed into capitalist industry (how many families still bake their own bread, can their own preserves, make their own linen etc.?) so much so that, to compensate for the imbalance of its own system bourgeois society has had to institute a whole network of cooperative organizations which are nothing other than what Lenin called, “germs of socialism” even though they reflect all the defects of the market economy that surrounds them. But the family outlives its necessity, bringing its full weight to bear on the working woman, since the condition for its disappearance is the socialization of exchange and distribution, i.e., communism.
This is the ultimate reason for the oppression of working women in bourgeois society. Their situation as women conditions their super-exploitation in the factory, where child-bearing and servitude depreciate their labor power and place them at a disadvantage in the incessant competition capital creates and maintains among those it exploits. Chronic unemployment, which is the fate of the proletariat, is further aggravated among women both by competition and by all the other factors that combine to drive women back into the home. Capital not only stands in the way of the emancipation of women, but also obstructs the realization of the social tendency it has itself engendered, i.e., the return of women to public industry.
Bourgeois society has inherited the monogamous family form from previous societies. In Engels’ words, it “comes on the scene as the subjugation of the one sex by the other; it announces a struggle between the sexes unknown throughout the whole previous prehistoric period”. (The Origin of the Family). It is a form of family based on private property, the dominance of the father, and inheritance of wealth by the children, which restricts women to domestic duties and prohibits them from public activity. This family conformed so well, at least during its early period of expansion, to the capitalist mode of production that the bourgeoisie, as soon as it had become the ruling class, strove to reinforce it by increasing the authority of the father over his family (the Napoleonic code took away freedoms that women were accorded by habits and customs in effect during the Middle Ages).
But capital could not develop without destroying the foundations of the family (while remaining just as indissolubly linked to it as it was to private property) by drawing women out of their age-old seclusion. Among the proletariat, women’s work is the direct consequence of the needs of capitalist exploitation and its constant quest for labor, and it is this work that breaks up the family. Among the bourgeoisie and petit-bourgeoisie, however, it appears as a secondary and later consequence of the destruction or disintegration of the family.
The destruction of the peasant and artisan’s family followed the destruction of small production. With it disappeared the pre-capitalist form of servitude that condemned women to a limited, mind-dulling role in the family industry (2) as well as the safety and security she received in return. The bourgeoisie boasts of having liberated women, which it has done but for capital and within its own limits. Even the bourgeois family, guardian of property and accumulator of capital, loses its rationale when capital becomes so concentrated that its reproduction is carried out by banks and corporations. The liberalization of laws concerning women that we have seen in the past years is the result of this dissolution.
While women workers are not the only ones crushed in the contradictions of capital it would be false to conclude, as many groups do, that women as a whole, and in particular those members of the petit-bourgeoisie who share a similar lot, are in the same situation as women workers, or that there is a general oppression of all women which may or may not be supplemented by wage slavery.
It is true that the generalization of capitalism turns everything into commodities and gives all work, even capitalist work, the charcteristics of wage labor. It thus results in a (relative) uniformity of lifestyles such that modern feminists can present “women’s problems” as representative of all women. In reality if bourgeois society extends the contradiction between social labor and persistence of the family to all women, this contradiction nonetheless assumes different features for each class. The bourgeois woman does not experience the exploitation of wage-slavery, which is based on the production of surplus-value. More often than not her employment consists in helping to extort surplus value from the proletariat. She relieves herself of domestic duties in part or altogether by engaging a maid, i.e., a proletarian. “So long as society is incapable of taking upon itself the material concern for the family the mother can sucessfully fulfill a social function only on condition that she has in her service a white slave: nurse, servant, cook etc. Thus the proletarian woman is not only enslaved to her own family but to that of the bourgeoisie and to a large extent the petit- bourgeoisie” (The Revolution Betrayed).
The oppression experienced by bourgeois women is essentially legal in nature (ownership of property and free disposal of possessions) or related to professional promotion, when she encounters resistance from men hostile toward their new competition. Democratic reforms offer a partial solution, since child-bearing and the family remain an unavoidable handicap, linked to the very nature of this society, in competition with men for “careers”. It is true that capital also creates competition between male and female members of the proletariat, since the employment of female workers at a lower price serves to increase the general level of exploitation. But at the same time it compels them to unite against it. Male workers cannot adequately defend themselves against exploitation without fighting against the exploitation of women workers and women workers cannot improve their situation without fighting alongside their class brothers against capital. The two have the same historical goal: to overthrow bourgeois society and institute a class dictatorship. But among the bourgeoisie competition between men and women is irreversible, which is why oppression of bourgeois women is expressed in feminist movements which are aimed essentially against men.
A typical form of this struggle was the demand of the old feminist movement for the right to vote. Today, now that legal equality is close to realization, there are a few feminist voices that sometimes speak of the destruction of capitalism – as it has become more and more clear that women’s liberation will be impossible without it; but since they do not wish to countenance that the class struggle is the only way to accomplish this destruction, they inevitably fall into sterile speculations about the revolution of consciousnesses.
This new feminism flourishes in the middle class. Admittedly a near-infinity of categories exists between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat: the petit-bourgeois strata which, by definition, live in “intermediate conditions” – the strata which lacking their own ideology, constantly vacillate between proletariat and bourgeoisie. But recognizing that these strata – some of which are very close to the proletariat – exist, and taking them into account is one thing; but to try to build social theories on the basis of their necessarily hybrid conditions is something altogether different.
Therefore, communists reject the thesis that women of all social classes, on the basis of a “specific oppression”, can act against capitalism as a whole and pursue their struggle until the end of their oppression. This can only be done by those who have nothing to lose in this society: the powerful and growing army of the proletarians of both sexes.
Historically all battles fought by women as such, in the name of their liberation have always remained on the terrain of bourgeois democracy; it could not be otherwise. Movements that aim for the unity of women above classes always fall into the hands of their bourgeois component. They only succeed in guaranteeing their own submission to the bourgeoisie. Interclassism is the substance of feminism: “They would have to reconcile classes”, wrote radical feminist writer K. Millet (Sexual Politics, p. 89), “unite the lady and the worker, the prostitute and the dignified mother in a common cause. This is the way to insure the success of the revolution”.
It would be wrong to think that feminist groups have a monopoly on interclassism. All the reformist parties adopt the same positions and want to unite women of different social strata.
Marxism has shown that, on the contrary, women’s liberation will be the task of the communist revolution and the deepening of class struggles.
But this does not mean that fighting the oppression of women is useless before the final revolution! On the contrary, fighting to relieve working women of petty housework that crushes them and fighting salary and job discrimination is not only part of an elementary defense of the proletariat, but also is a condition of their unification.
Without it there would be no question of effective resistance against capitalist exploitation since it uses the divisions it creates between levels of workers to its own advantage. Without it there would be no question of women joining the revolutionary, political struggle.
Moreover, communists point out the abyss between real equality and formal equality between the sexes, and they have always included “democratic” reforms in their programs such as the right to divorce or to abortion, reforms that are compatible with bourgeois society but that it has never entirely achieved. They combat laws like those that restrict abortion because they are an additional burden to women – and particularly the proletariat – who lack the means to procure abortions and also because the elimination of legal discrimination, though it would not end the oppression of women, reveals the real economic nature of this oppression, and clarifies the objectives of the struggle: “The peculiar character of the supremacy of the husband over the wife in the modern family, the necessity of creating real social equality between them and the way to do it, will only be seen in the clear light of day when both possess legally complete equality of rights”. (Engels, The Origin of the Family).
The Russian revolution realized these rights more radically than any bourgeois democracy. Only when it was crushed by the combined weight of isolation and the forces engendered by domestic small production did the Stalinist counter-revolution rediscover the “sacred character” of the family as one of the conditions of the capitalist development of Russia.
Finally, it would be false to conclude from the necessary class intransigence that communists do not try to rally non-proletarians, and especially elements from the intermediate strata to the side of the revolution. On the contrary they exploit all the contradictions of capitalism to achieve this. But they do so not on the basis of a reformist and interclassist feminism, but on the basis of agitation and propaganda for communism.
(1). Engels calls a monogamous family the form of family that appeared with class society: “It was the first form of the family to be based not on natural but on economic conditions – on the victory of private property over natural, communal property”. (Engels, The Origin of the Family). Its aims were to “make the man supreme in the family and to propagate, as the future heirs be his wealth, children indisputably his own”.
Thus Engels does not consider monogamy in its etymological meaning, a couple consisting of one man and one woman (a definition by which our society could hardly be called monogamous) but in its historical sense: the family that, following after the different forms of family of primitive communism, for the first time consecrates the insolubility of the marital tie and whose structure has remained basically the same throughout ancient, feudal and bourgeois society.
(2). Just as small-scale production is the carrier of the most reactionary social oppression of women, the emancipation of the petit-bourgeois woman from her domestic slavery is inseparable from the transcending of small scale production. The emancipation of working women can only come about through the struggle against capital.
If, however, a woman of petit-bourgeois status were to defend her social class, she would also be defending her enslavement as a woman.
International Communist Party