Looking to new international structures in a new era of socialist feminist activism
``... By including the worldwide celebration of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day among its recommendations, the international conference in Caracas discussing the proposal [this past November by Hugo Chavez for the formation of a Fifth International] gave socialist feminists extra momentum for sharing ideas for coordinating our IWD 2010 actions and events.''
By Susan Dorazio
March 8, 2010 -- One hundred years ago, German revolutionary socialist Clara Zetkin proposed, and the women of the Socialist International approved, a call for an International Women’s Day. This annual event would be an explicitly socialist response to the major issues facing women in the opening decades of the 20th century. These issues, in particular the rights of women workers and the right of women to vote, centred on conflicts in the workplace and community brought to the fore by rapid industrialisation in the US and Europe.
Zetkin and other socialist women, including the women of the Socialist Party of America, were determined to distinguish their participation in women’s and workers’ rights struggles from that of the liberal parties and organisations. For example, for socialist women, the main thrust of woman’s suffrage wasn’t the promise that women would civilise political discourse through their moral superiority. It was simply their civil right as community members. And as workers, participating in militant actions for good wages, benefits and working conditions, rather than lobbying for protective legislation.
For socialist women in 1910, political action was to be based on a socialist platform that would further the building of a revolutionary working-class movement by challenging the assumptions of capitalism and the dead-end strategies of liberal reform. Political action was to be consistent with the socialist principles and program that form a socialist alternative to the capitalist system.
One hundred years ago, as now, a united working class organised across national borders was a basic tenet of socialism, forming the basis of such international gatherings as the Socialist International in Copenhagen in 1910 that gave rise to International Women’s Day. Over the past century, the effects of invention, technology, world wars, large-scale immigration and the daring accomplishments of artists, writers, political theorists and activists – not to mention the dramatic photos of Earth from space—have vastly increased people’s global consciousness.
Thus, as we socialists move the theory and practice of internationalism into the second decade of the 21st century, we have the potential for bringing about broader and deeper forms of internationalism, ones that take the principle of solidarity to new levels.
International socialist feminist work group?
One such possibility is an international socialist feminist work group growing out of personal and political contacts among women comrades in the democratic socialist movement. Coming together at the international level, on both a personal and political basis, will enable us as to confront critical global issues—such as the climate crisis, the economic meltdown, imperialist wars and occupations, erosion of civil liberties and the deterioration of the infrastructure of our cities, towns and regions—in a particularly concerted and cooperative way.
The founders of International Women’s Day were inspired by working-class women taking their demand for women’s and workers’ rights to the streets. In this spirit, and to motivate the formation of a work group, we should ask: How can we transfer this grassroots focus to the international level? At the same time, how can we bring our international perspective to our local and regional political work? And in both cases, how can we apply feminist process to international, cross-cultural, communication?
First of all, we need to proceed from the conviction that the concepts of socialist feminism, and structures such as an international socialist feminist work group, are essential to the goals and methods of the democratic socialist movement. This sense of purpose will arise from our belief that this effort prefigures the kind of structures and processes we will expect in the socialist society we are working to create.
Coupled with conviction and purpose must be persistence. Forming such a work group won’t be easy. Language, cultural and political differences will impede us. The stresses of poverty, lack of support services and too many demands on our time and energy are also inhibiting factors. But we can’t give up. Those of us who have been able to stay in touch with socialist feminist comrades here in the US and other parts of the world can attest to what an important and energising experience it is.
In building the work group, there will be many socialist feminist principles to keep in mind. For one thing, the projects that we embark on must put related issues in a socialist feminist context. This may seem obvious, but all too often our organising efforts get derailed as we defer to liberals, rely on hierarchical structures or avoid discussion of political differences (for example, the role of electoral activity in party and movement building).
Deciding on specific projects will also be challenging. Two recent events may serve as examples of how our workgroup could coalesce for action. One is the proposal this past November by Hugo Chavez for the formation of a Fifth International. By including the worldwide celebration of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day among its recommendations, the international conference in Caracas discussing Chavez’s proposal gave socialist feminists extra momentum for sharing ideas for coordinating our IWD 2010 actions and events.
The other event was the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen last December. Local events prior to the Copenhagen meetings, including the many left-wing alternative actions and events during the Copenhagen meetings, gave both red and green radicals many opportunities to share and discuss their positions on climate change and the environmental crisis.
Over the coming months, many of us will be grappling, personally and politically, with our response to this crisis, and exploring ways that a synthesis between revolutionary socialism and radical environmentalism can be achieved. Central to this effort by socialist feminists will be grounding ourselves in the principles and agenda of revolutionary ecology (as articulated so well by the late Earth First! and IWW environmentalist and labour organiser Judi Bari), an analysis and program that places environmental demands in the context of women’s rights, workers’ rights, human rights and civil liberties.
With this in mind, I proposed to my international contacts in Australia, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Scotland, Sweden and the US, that our International Women’s Day 2010 events focus on stopping the worldwide assault on the public sector, since this assault infringes on all these rights, disproportionately affects women, exposes the heartless and calculated policies and practices of global capitalism, and links our issues to those that socialist women were organising around at the time of the founding of IWD 100 years ago.
Once we decide on a project, there are several possibilities for collaboration. These include a common set of demands, a joint press release and leaflet, and an online calendar of our various actions and events. We can also share our planning processes, photos, our post-event assessments and any media coverage we get—and put together statements on issues of both immediate and ongoing concern to socialist women and to the democratic socialist movement.
Future internationally coordinated campaigns could be organised around such issues as violence against women, the economic crisis, war and peace, abortion rights and reproductive justice, heterosexism and LGBTQ rights, women’s rights and workers’ rights, the intersection of youth and women’s issues, and the links between revolutionary environmentalism and revolutionary socialism, including job creation and industrial re-tooling (such as moving from automobile to mass transit production).
In 1910, the women of the Socialist International were deeply committed to helping transform society from capitalism to socialism. These founders of International Women’s Day put forward a revolutionary agenda backed by militant activism. Their strategies were based on education, organisation and agitation. They weren’t afraid to debate women’s rights dissenters in their own parties, or to form left-wing blocs within broad social movements.
Today, we have the means not only to continue their program and tactics, but to take the program and tactics in new international directions. Let’s do it.
[This article first appeared at The Socialist Webzine. Susan Dorazio is outgoing convener of the Women’s Commission of the Socialist Party USA. She can be reached at susandor (at) crocker.com.]