Women's liberation and the fight for socialism

By Lisa Macdonald

With the advent of the long economic downturn in the mid-1970s, capitalism launched the most concerted worldwide offensive against women's rights in 40 years. In the neo-colonial countries, women are bearing the brunt of IMF and World Bank-imposed economic structural adjustment programs, the rise of religious fundamentalism in many countries is pushing women back into the dark ages, and women are the largely invisible victims in the increasing number of localised wars over the ever shrinking resources not in the hands of the imperialists.

In the former Soviet bloc countries, as the restoration of capitalism removes most of the protections for workers that accompanied the planned economy, it is women who are thrown first onto the scrap heap as privatisation creates skyrocketing unemployment and public welfare spending is slashed.

And in the imperialist countries, the gap between average male and female earnings is widening again, abortion access is under attack, and the right wing's propaganda campaigns against the so-called special privileges of disadvantaged groups and for the strengthening of the traditional family are rapidly gaining ground.

For socialists struggling to overthrow capitalism, this global increase in gender inequality as capitalism turns the screws harder on the working class places the question of women's oppression and their revolutionary potential at the centre of our work. How we assess the balance of class forces, our strategic and tactical approaches to the working-class and progressive movements, and our party building perspectives all involve a careful consideration of the particular situation of women and their role in the struggle.

For women fighting for equality with men, women's deteriorating situation at the beginning of the 21st century poses more clearly than since the beginning of the 20th century both the need for revolution and the fundamental correctness of the Marxist approach to women's liberation.

The Marxist explanation

Since Karl Marx and Frederick Engels first developed their materialist conception of history in the 1840s, Marxism has sought to understand and combat the specific oppression of women. Engels' explanation of the roots of women's oppression in the main institutions of class society—private property and the family—rather than in the realm of the natural or biological, was an enormous advance, laying the foundations for a scientific approach to women's plight which posed, for the first time, liberation as possible.

While the development of industrial capitalism created the material conditions that made gender equality a realisable goal by incorporating women into waged work and giving them a degree of economic independence from men, and while advanced capitalism grants women full legal rights, women will remain the "second sex" for so long as private property and the economic and social shackles of the family which props it up remain intact.

The correctness of this analysis was borne out throughout the 20th century, not only in the failure of the most economically advanced capitalist societies with the most complete bourgeois democracy to eradicate gender inequality, but also in the successes, and the failures, of building socialism, most clearly in the Soviet Union.

The idea that women can be liberated within the framework of capitalism and the idea that the socialist revolution will in itself liberate women have both been proven false. For gender inequality to be abolished, not only must women be brought fully into social production, but private domestic labour must be replaced by socialised services, and there must be a thorough-going, conscious struggle against the bourgeois culture and social psychology of sexism. The truth of this Marxist analysis has never been more evident.

Bolshevik policy

After the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia, the new Marxist-led government granted women complete equality under the law. Abortion was made free and legal at any stage in pregnancy, and laws giving the foetus human rights were abolished. Homosexuality was legalised. Gender discrimination in hiring and firing workers was forbidden, and prostitution was decriminalised.

Striking at the heart of women's oppression, the 1918 Code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship was the most progressive family legislation the world has yet seen. It recognised only civil marriage and allowed divorce at the simple request of either partner. In 1926, de facto relationships were given legal equality. The code abolished illegitimacy and endeavoured to make familial relations independent of the marriage contract. It also abolished adoption as the first step in transferring child-care from the family to the state and separated property ownership and inheritance from marriage.

The code entitled all children to financial support when their parents separated, and women with children consistently won significant payments through the courts. For single mothers, where individual paternity could not be established, often all the men named by the woman as possible fathers were ordered to pay support.

Despite the enormous progress, the Bolsheviks understood clearly the limitations of formal equality. While considerable resources were allocated to establishing public child-care, kitchen and laundry facilities, especially during the period of war communism, the Bolsheviks were always acutely aware that the facilities were insufficient and not of a high enough quality.

Lenin wrote in 1919:

Notwithstanding all the laws emancipating woman, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and the nursery, and she wastes her labour on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-racking, stultifying and crushing drudgery. The real emancipation of women, real communism, will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins (led by the proletariat wielding state power) against this petty housekeeping, or rather when its wholesale transformation into a large-scale socialist economy begins.1

As well as having economic independence and freedom from domestic work, argued the Bolsheviks, women must be integrated as equals into all spheres of society's functioning. Addressing the Fourth Moscow City Conference of Non-Party Working Women on September 23, 1919, Lenin said:

In order to be active in politics under the old, capitalist regime special training was required, so that women played an insignificant part in politics, even in the most advanced and free capitalist countries. Our task is to make politics available to every working woman … The participation of working women is essential—not only of Party members and politically conscious women, but of the non-party women and those who are least politically conscious … The work that Soviet power has begun can only make progress when, instead of a few hundreds, millions and millions of women throughout Russia take part in it. We are sure that the cause of socialist development will then become sound.2

The Bolsheviks' initial efforts to dismantle the family and free women were severely limited by the legacy of Russian underdevelopment, the lack of state resources and the weight of a backward peasant economy, society and traditions. The wartime devastation of the industrial base, unemployment, famine and poverty all seriously undermined the early socialist vision of women's liberation.

Nevertheless, compared to the state of women's rights in the far more technologically and economically advanced capitalist societies almost a century later—where women in parts of the United States may soon be charged with infanticide for having an abortion, where employed men get rewarded with tax discounts if their wife stays at home full time, where single mothers are increasingly being penalised for not being economically dependent on the fathers of their children and where almost all public policy extends rather than ameliorates women's unpaid family tasks—the progress towards freeing women made by the Russian revolutionaries was monumental.

This progress was possible, not because it was conceived and implemented by women. In fact, it was made largely by men, a consequence of the social conditions of the time, in which women were largely excluded from political activity.

Nor were the gains forced out of the Bolsheviks by mass pressure. On the contrary, the Russian revolutionaries had to lead strongly, struggling against the backward attitudes on gender relations among the masses—the peasants in particular, but also the mass of women.

The gains were made because the Bolshevik Revolution was a profoundly conscious revolution led by Marxists who had a thorough understanding of the foundations and character of class oppression in all its forms and how to dismantle it by mobilising all the oppressed in their own interests. The Bolshevik leadership fought against bourgeois ideas and practices within their own party and in the broader population, including against the "emancipation of women" movement in Russia which, like all bourgeois feminism at the time, aspired only to rights for women with property.

The suffrage struggle

The struggle for women's right to vote that occurred in the capitalist countries at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century provides one of the clearest examples of how the Marxist analysis of capitalist society and how to overthrow it produces the only consistent advancement of women's rights and liberation.

The struggle by women of property for full democratic rights at that time—including for access to tertiary education, the right to control their own money and property, and for the vote—was a thoroughly progressive movement. It attacked the prevailing social norms, many of which survived from the pre-capitalist epoch, and like all democratic reforms, the victories of this "first wave" of feminism benefited the working class by loosening the bonds on all women.

However, the bourgeois and middle-class women who led the suffrage movement in Europe and the United States did not envisage or campaign for women's suffrage in this anti-capitalist framework. Almost all of the women's suffrage organisations in England demanded the vote on the same basis as men had it—that is, for people of property only.

This perspective also shaped their movement-building approach. In the words of suffragist leader Christabel Pankhurst:

A working women's movement was of no value: working women were the weakest portion of the sex: how could it be otherwise? Their lives were too hard, their education too meagre to equip them for the contest. Surely it is a mistake to use the weakest for the struggle! We want picked women, the very strongest and most intelligent!3

In the United States, where universal white male suffrage had been achieved in the 1840s, racism was a defining feature of the bourgeois feminists' suffrage campaign. The white middle-class women leading the movement repeatedly compromised feminist and democratic principles in their effort to win equal franchise with white men while shoring up their racial privileges. Southern white suffragists rallied around a platform that argued that female suffrage in the South would strengthen white supremacy because Southern white women outnumbered Southern black women by two to one, and black women in the North were often excluded from suffrage marches for fear of offending the South.4

Revolutionary Marxists condemned this and demanded universal male and female suffrage. In a resolution put to the 1907 International Socialist Congress, German Marxist Clara Zetkin analysed the suffragist leaders' perspective in class terms, pointing out that it was not due to short-sightedness, but was the inevitable consequence of the vote being "of least importance to the women of the Upper Ten Thousand and it means the most to the female proletariat … [the latter] cannot therefore count on the support of the bourgeois women."5

She argued, in line with the Bolshevik leadership's position, that all socialist parties must fight for universal suffrage for women, and do so, not as "the final goal, as it is for bourgeois women … [but] as one phase of the battle towards our final goal.

The obtainment of suffrage aids the bourgeois woman to tear down the barriers in the form of male prerogatives which tend to limit their educative and professional opportunities. It arms the female proletariat in their battle against class exploitation and class rule in their effort to acquire their full humanity. It enables them to participate to a higher degree than heretofore in the attainment of political power by the proletariat, for the purpose of erecting a Socialist order which alone will solve the women's question.6

Criticising not only the bourgeois feminists but also some socialist parties that argued that tactically the campaign for universal suffrage in Europe could afford to wait until after the male proletariat secured the vote, Zetkin applied a Marxist analysis to conclude:

The advocacy of universal women's suffrage by the Socialist parties is not based on ideological and ethical considerations. It is dictated … above all by an understanding of the class situation … the proletariat has a vital stake in the political equality of the female sex and it must fight for the full civil rights of women.7

Against those bourgeois feminists and socialist parties which argued opportunistically that suffrage for propertied women was the most readily winnable step towards eventual universal suffrage, Zetkin pointed out that the European ruling classes were prepared to consider limited suffrage for women because they viewed it as a counterweight to universal suffrage for men, including working-class men. She described limited suffrage for women not as the first step towards the emancipation of the female sex but as "the final step towards the political emancipation of property.

It is a privilege of property and not a universal right. It does not emancipate the female because she is a woman, but rather in spite of the fact that she is a woman. It does not raise her to full citizenship because of her personality but because of her wealth and income.8

The resolution was passed by the congress, and in carrying out its line the socialist parties played a vital role in drawing working-class women, and men, into support for universal women's suffrage. Had such clear Marxist leadership been absent, the vote for all women might have been much longer in coming.

Party work

At the heart of Marxists' singularly consistent championing of women's rights is our understanding that the struggle for women's liberation is central to the struggle for socialism—both before and after the socialist revolution.

It is not just that, as Lenin put it, "The proletariat cannot achieve complete liberty until it has won complete liberty for women".9 It is also that the process of constructing that complete liberty is a profoundly conscious one and requires the active involvement of the majority of society.

Freeing and encouraging women to organise in every sphere against their specific oppression as women provides the best conditions within which they can develop class consciousness and join the struggle to overthrow capitalism and then to build a socialist society.

In the course of the many debates and experiments in carrying out this perspective in the new Soviet Union, and by socialists in the capitalist countries at the same time, the basic elements of the Marxist party's approach to women's liberation work were worked out. Reviewing these reveals that most of the questions we confront today regarding the relationship between a revolutionary party and an independent feminist movement and its leadership are not new.

The Bolshevik party's point of departure was that socialist women should be in the socialist party, not organised separately. The "Theses on Methods and Forms of Work among Communist Party Women", adopted by the Third Congress of the Communist International in July 1921, noted:

All women who fight for the emancipation of woman and the recognition of her rights must have as their aim the creation of a Communist society. But Communism is also the final aim of the proletariat as a whole and therefore, in the interests of both sides, the two struggles must be fought as "a single and indivisible struggle".10

In this framework, the Bolsheviks campaigned tirelessly to recruit women activists to their organisation and leadership.

Secondly, Marxists stressed the need for special sections in all socialist parties to organise women from all social layers into a mass movement, win its leadership and convince women that building socialism is the only path to meeting their special needs.

As Lenin noted in a discussion with Zetkin before the third congress of the Third International in 1921:

The communist women's movement itself must be a mass movement, a part of the general mass movements … She who is a communist belongs as a member of the party, just as he who is a communist … However, we must not shut our eyes to the facts. The Party must have organs—working groups, commissions, committees, sections or whatever else they may be called—with the specific purpose of rousing the broad masses of women, bringing them into contact with the party and keeping them under its influence. This naturally requires that we carry out systematic work among the women. We must teach the awakening women, win them over for the proletarian class struggle under the leadership of the Communist Party, and equip them for it. When I say this I have in mind not only proletarian women, whether they work in mills or cook the family meal. I also have in mind the peasant women and the women of the various sections of the lower middle class. They too are victims of capitalism … We must have our own groups to work among them, special methods of agitation, and special forms of organisation. This is not bourgeois "feminism"; it is a practical revolutionary expediency.11

To achieve this, the 1921 congress resolution, reaffirmed in 1922, directed every member party, whether it existed legally or semi-legally, to organise "special apparatuses" at every level of their party to: strengthen the "will" of working women by drawing them into all forms and types of struggle; fight the prejudices against women held by the mass of proletarian men and increase the awareness of working men and women that they have common interests; educate women in Communist ideas and recruit them to the party; put on the party's agenda questions directly concerning the emancipation of women; and conduct a well-planned struggle against the power of tradition, bourgeois customs and religious ideas.12

The Communist parties were directed to make available whatever resources the departments needed to do this work, which they characterised as "agitation and propaganda through action". This meant:

… above all encouraging working women to self-activity, dispelling the doubts they have about their own abilities and drawing them into practical work … teaching them through experience to know that every action … directed against the exploitation of capital, is a step towards improving the position of women.13

Concretely, this involved ensuring that women were represented in all organisations which strengthened revolutionary activity. It also involved intervening in all public meetings and debates on women's issues; doing house-to-house agitation to reach unemployed women; having special supplements and regular articles on the question in the party and trade union press; distributing leaflets and pamphlets on women's liberation; and making effective use of all educational institutions in the party.

The Comintern discouraged special courses and schools for women only, but stressed that all general party schools must "… without fail include a course on the methods of work among women"14 and should be attended by representatives chosen by the women's department.

The third basic element of Marxist parties' approach to women's liberation work developed by the Bolsheviks was the understanding that the winning of women must be the work of the whole party, not just the women in it. As Lenin constantly pointed out, Marxists' approach to organisational questions must flow from their political analyses, and there is no "women's issue" that is not also of vital importance to the entire revolutionary struggle.

Lenin had to fight for this anti-separatist approach within the Third International. As he told Zetkin, the national sections

… regard agitation and propaganda among women and the task of rousing and revolutionising them as of secondary importance, as the job of just the women Communists. None but the latter are rebuked because the matter does not move ahead more quickly and strongly. This is wrong, fundamentally wrong! It is outright separatism. It is equality of women … reversed … In the final analysis, it is an underestimation of women and of their accomplishments.15

Of course, these perspectives on women's liberation work were carried out unevenly by the Communist parties, reflecting the unevenness of their Marxist understanding and development. But the leaders of the International led, always striving to educate and convince the member parties through discussion and example. And in every case where their orientation was carried out, it was proven correct.

Since then, every experience in the struggle for women's liberation—whether in the revolutions made in Cuba, Vietnam and Nicaragua, or in the mass women's liberation movements in the imperialist countries—has reaffirmed the Bolsheviks' perspective and methods.

Tragically, the Russian revolutionaries' vision, program, policies and methods of work for women's liberation were never fully developed; indeed they were substantially reversed under the Stalin bureaucracy, which had wrested power from the original Bolshevik leadership by the late 1920s.

Under Stalin's policies of forced collectivisation and industrialisation, women poured into the labour force, and by the end of the first five year plan, the falling birthrate and growing number of "unsupervised" children provided the ammunition the new bureaucratic leadership needed to move against the idea that the state should assume the functions of the family.

In 1936, a new law was drafted and passed with virtually no opportunity for public discussion; it made divorce more difficult, increased penalties for non-payment of alimony, criminalised abortion, instituted a wide range of pro-natalist measures and re-criminalised prostitution and homosexuality. It was accompanied by a propaganda campaign which appealed to the need for "social stability", emphasised the importance of individual family responsibility and lectured on the joys of motherhood, upward mobility and the happiness of the worker mother. In 1944, the Family Edict eradicated the last vestiges of the 1926 code, withdrawing recognition of de facto relationships, banning paternity suits and reintroducing the category of illegitimacy.

The seeds of the Stalinist reversal were sown in the material conditions of the 1920s. As Leon Trotsky explained in The Revolution Betrayed:

The real resources of the state did not correspond to the plans and intentions of the Communist Party. You cannot "abolish" the family; you have to replace it. The actual liberation of women is unrealisable on a basis of "generalised want".16

The triumphal rehabilitation of the family, taking place simultaneously … with the rehabilitation of the ruble, is caused by the material and cultural bankruptcy of the state. Instead of openly saying, "we have proven still too poor and ignorant for the creation of socialist relations among men, our children and grandchildren will realise this aim", the leaders are forcing people to glue together again the shell of the broken family, and not only that, but to consider it, under threat of extreme penalties, the sacred nucleus of triumphant socialism. It is hard to measure with the eye the scope of this retreat.17

The ideological reversal under Stalin was, however, political and bore all the hallmarks of Stalinist policy in other areas. Trotsky summed it up:

The most compelling motive of the present cult of the family is undoubtedly the need of the bureaucracy for a stable hierarchy of relations, and for the disciplining of youth by means of forty million points of support for authority and power.18

The bureaucracy's overturning of the original socialist vision and plan required a massive struggle, which cost thousands of lives. The main author of the 1918 family code was imprisoned in a mental institution in 1937, and many of the most valiant advocates of the Bolsheviks' program to liberate women were murdered or disappeared into labour camps.

Despite the Stalinist reaction, the enduring material gains for women made as a by-product of the socialisation of production are becoming starkly evident with the restoration of capitalism. The "Women in Transition" report released by unicef in October 1999 surveyed a wide range of social indicators among women and children in twenty-seven former Soviet bloc countries. It found that considerably more than half of the twenty-six million jobs lost to privatisation between 1989 and 1997 were women's jobs. In Russia alone, between 1990 and 1995 women lost seven million jobs, while men lost one to two million.

Along with their wages, when they lose their jobs women in these countries generally lose access to child-care, health care and sometimes accommodation.

The rate of decline in women's employment between 1989 and 1997 averaged nineteen per cent; the drop was greatest in those countries furthest along the path of so-called economic reform. Even in countries where employment has begun to grow again in the last few years (for example, Lithuania), women's share of jobs has continued to decline.

Not surprisingly, unicef found that the women's unemployment rate is directly proportional to the number of children they have. For young women especially, even one child entails a big drop in the employment ration.

With a rapidly rising rate of single motherhood and declining economic security, it is not surprising that prostitution is skyrocketing. The report points out that women from eastern and central Europe now dominate street prostitution in a number of major cities in Western Europe.

For the ordinary women of the former socialist states, the much lauded "end of history" is in fact the beginning of a spiral downwards into greater misery.

The imperialist countries

It was not until the "second wave" of feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s, after the first wave won basic democratic rights for women, that many parts of the Bolsheviks' original platform became core demands of the movement in the imperialist countries.

World War ii and the postwar economic boom drew masses of women into social production in the advanced capitalist countries and sharpened the contradictions between, on the one hand, women's relative economic independence and greater educational levels as the universities were opened up to meet capitalism's need for more skilled labour, and, on the other hand, the traditional ideas about women's "primary place" in the family. These contradictions were fueled and given an organisational framework by women's participation in the mass movements for civil rights and against colonialism from the late 1950s to the 1970s.

The workerists on the left, such as the International Socialist Organisation in Australia, try to dismiss the second wave as a bourgeois movement, and to assert that it represented very little gain for the working class, including its women. They are wrong. The second wave was a mass movement which, at its peak, actively involved millions of working-class women in a myriad of campaigns and discussions around women's oppression and liberation.

More important than its composition, the politics of the second wave were profoundly progressive. While the movement was instigated by educated, middle-class women, it raised demands that were primarily in the interests of working-class women: abortion on demand; free, 24-hour child-care; equal pay and educational opportunities; affirmative action in the workplace; fully paid maternity leave.

Even if some socialists didn't recognise the dangers to capitalism inherent in this movement, the capitalist class certainly did, and by the late 1970s it had moved decisively to demobilise the movement. It succeeded largely because the movement developed in advanced capitalist countries in a period of economic growth, so the capitalists' capacity for bribery and cooption was significant. In all the imperialist countries, they bought off much of the movement leadership not just with legal reforms, but also with funding and positions in the bureaucracy. In Australia, the Labor Party completed the process more effectively than occurred in any country.

The failure of the left to prevent this demobilisation was in large part a legacy of the Stalinism which dominated the socialist movement. The economism of the Communist parties prevented them from taking the Marxist analysis and methods into the movement; unable to provide a credible alternative to either liberal or radical feminism, they eventually adapted to elements of both.

What was left after the demise of the mass movement was a layer of femocrats, the official voice of feminism, a small core of radical feminist separatists concentrated in academia, and the anti-Stalinist Marxist forces, including the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, which were too small to do more than maintain some of the annual women's liberation activities such as International Women's Day marches.

With the post-1975 economic downturn, the ruling class, having proceeded to neutralise and fragment the movement, launched a concerted ideological offensive against many of the central tenants of feminism and thus began to pave the way for material attacks on the gains of the second wave. Individual advancement and anti-political correctness countered the collectivism and consciousness raising of the 1960s and 1970s.

Gender issues and feminism remained on the public agenda—a testament to the mass impact of the movement, which had raised consciousness and expectations to such a degree that they could not be quickly rolled back—but it was an increasingly specific type of feminism, a thoroughly bourgeois feminism.

This feminism was promoted in frequent media stories about women who "make it in a man's world" and testimonies from recanters from the second wave. Among the younger generation, do-it-yourself feminism was created, in which women are lauded for their achievements, but only in so far as they succeed within the existing structures and by individual effort.

By the mid-1980s in the usa and Britain, and by the early 1990s in Australia, media commentators and politicians, including some second-wave leaders, began to argue the need to redress a feminism that had "gone too far". The men's rights movement was born, sociobiological explanations of gender inequality were reappearing in the "scientific" and mass media, and government policy and rhetoric increasingly asserted the need to stabilise the traditional family as, in Prime Minister John Howard's words, "the very fabric of a healthy society".

Within the left of the women's liberation movement (as in the left more generally), the neo-liberal offensive produced postmodernism as feminist activists, principally the self-labeled"socialist feminists" around the social democratic and Communist parties, became disillusioned with the failure of social democracy to deliver on their demands and discovered a supposedly "new" theory of oppression and liberation focused, not on common experiences and struggle, but on the differences among the oppressed.

Most recently, the individualism at the heart of postmodernism has combined with the dregs of radical feminist separatism to produce "identity" politics. This perspective is largely confined to university students, who can still exist in a world of abstract ideas, largely protected from the realities of a class-divided society (although the attacks on public education will break this down somewhat). Nevertheless, identity politics has an increasingly tight grip on campuses and, since universities are the principal site of activist feminism today, identity politics is a serious challenge for Marxists.

The attractiveness of identity politics lies, to a large extent, in its posture of radicalism. It appears to be a break from the reformism of the official feminism of social democracy, to which the new generation of feminists, spontaneous feminists, are seeking an alternative. To that extent, many of the young women who gravitate to identity politics are potential Marxists.

The problem is that identity politics is far from radical. It is bourgeois to the core, a deepening of the anti-collectivity that undermined the second wave. Because it focuses on individuals' experiences as oppressed persons and/or oppressors, rather than on the economic and social structures through which oppression is maintained, identity politics is not capable of correctly assessing, let alone defeating, the ruling class's attacks on women's rights. Indeed, it is a barrier to defeating the attacks because it excludes the possibility of building a movement which unites in action all those who support the demands for women's liberation, regardless of their personal experience of gender oppression, and this is the only sort of movement strong enough to stop the ruling class.

Class and sex

Despite the gradual banishing of class from feminist ideas over the last two decades, under the neo-liberal offensive class differences are increasingly impacting on the past gains of women.

Women who have benefited most from the gains are less affected by the attacks and can choose to ignore the circumstances constraining other women's lives. Today, in Australia, most ongoing feminist organising is confined to defending the rights of the "haves": defending women's careers in the ruling-class political institutions using methods, such as lobbying, which do not risk mobilising masses of women.

The result is a growing division between the "sisters in suits", with their decisions of self-interest, and the broader population of women who have different interests. Neo-liberal economic policies are creating the material conditions to consolidate that gap.

The ruling class cannot completely roll back women's increased work force participation and economic independence. The super-exploitation of women, and their downward pressure on all wages, is too valuable to individual capitalists for that to happen. However, the longer term need of the capitalist class to maintain the social division of labour through the family means that it must once again create the ideological climate and material conditions to force or guilt-trip the majority of women, whether or not they are also engaged in waged labour, into resuming primary responsibility for domestic labour and the care of unproductive members of society, whether or not they are also engaged in waged labour.

The ruling class is making significant headway in its campaign to re-create pre-second wave social conditions. In Australia, the recent decline in public support for abortion rights, the mounting evidence that women are leaving the work force because they can no longer afford child-care, and the figures released in December showing that in 1999 the 20-year-long trend of declining marriage rates was reversed are just a few indications.

The dominance of bourgeois feminism in its various forms and the non-existence of feminist campaigning mean that the class-differentiated impact on women and the class interests inherent in these attacks are not yet clearly or widely manifested. However, even in the organisation of annual feminist events in this country—International Women's Day, Reclaim the Night and the National Organisation of Women Students Australia (NOWSA) conference—there are struggles over the direction of the movement which impact on its class politics: whether it is inclusive or exclusive, whether men can participate, whether abortion access is a central issue (some argue that it is not for lesbians), whether to use the annual events to celebrate or raise demands and so on.

The ruling class is making effective use of class differences in its anti-feminism drive, making much ado about the official feminists' "jobs for the girls" and their failure to represent the interests of the women "battlers". The fact that there is a dose of truth in these accusations makes it that much harder to win working-class women, and men, to support feminist ideas and activities.

Parallels to last century

When you survey the landscape of feminism today, you are struck by the parallels with the politics at the time of the first wave. The nineteenth and early twentieth century bourgeois feminists' preparedness to undermine working-class women's living standards in order to extend the rights of relatively privileged women, and the capitalists' support for them as a means of containing the emergence of a more radical, mass women's liberation movement, is little different from the "rights for some women" approach of official feminism today.

In 1896 Zetkin pointed out

Bourgeois society is not fundamentally opposed to the bourgeois women's movement … the granting of political equality to women does not change the actual balance of power. The proletarian woman ends up in the proletarian, the bourgeois woman in the bourgeois camp.19

More than a century later, we can conclude that neither has the granting of some economic power to a small layer of women who identify and act with the interests of the bourgeoisie seriously undermined the balance of power. Until the struggle for women's liberation intersects with working-class struggle, it will not do so.

There is, however, a crucial difference between the first wave and today; that is the qualitatively higher anti-sexism consciousness, created by the second wave especially.

Acknowledgment of systemic discrimination and the expectation that women have a right to equality with men remain strong in society at large, especially among women, and the contradiction between this expectation and women's declining ability to exercise this right is a recipe for growing social instability.

Feeding this instability is the fact that it is far more difficult for today's bourgeois feminists, operating as they are in a moribund, crisis-ridden system, rather than one on the rise at the time of the first wave, to shore up mass illusions in capitalist political organisations and institutions when the majority of women's experiences contradict these. Along with the politicians and their system, the femocrats are suffering a deepening public credibility crisis which will make it considerably more difficult for the ruling class to use them to contain the anger that its attacks will generate over the next period.

Socialist leadership

On the negative side of the comparison with the early 1900s, today there is no socialist leadership strong enough yet to counter bourgeois feminism's containment of the potential mass movement. And no Bolshevik revolution has just been made which socialists can point to as evidence of the absolutely conscious and consistent struggle communists wage for women's liberation. On the question of leadership, the political balance of forces is, at present, very much in favour of them, not us.

However, the collapse of Stalinism in much of the world, while initially having a demoralising impact on the working-class movement, has cleared the decks for the re-assertion of Marxism as the solution to the immiseration of the oppressed. As the inability of capitalism, even in the most advanced countries, let alone in the Third World, to deliver the goods for the majority of women becomes increasingly clear, socialists, more and more free of the shackles of Stalinist distortions, are better and better positioned to resume leadership of discussion and activism around women's liberation.

This puts enormous responsibility on our shoulders, but the basic task is clear: all those who rail against women's oppression and aspire to liberation must be convinced that socialism provides the answer—snot just theoretically but also in practice. The spontaneous feminist consciousness that is still everywhere around us must be transformed into socialist consciousness.

Concretely, this means that until there is an upturn in the class struggle that brings masses of working-class women into political action, we in Australia have to focus our work in the presently thin, radicalising layer, principally students. The extent to which we can win activists away from the individualism, separatism and identity politics of bourgeois feminism to a Marxist understanding and organisation is today the best measure of our progress towards rebuilding a mass women's liberation movement.

The truth of the old saying that those who are not part of the solution are part of the problem will become clearer as class divisions sharpen and struggles break out. But we can't wait until the class struggle picks up significantly, until the labour movement decides that it has no choice but to fight seriously, until there is once again a mass women's liberation movement. We need to immerse ourselves in the battle of ideas within feminism as it exists now if we are to develop socialists' influence and build a cadre force that is ready to lead the mass struggles that will eventually emerge to defend and extend women's rights.

Throughout its history, the DSP has endeavoured to strengthen the culture of study, discussion and debate about women's liberation, and encouraged the gaining of experience in action as the healthiest basis for the development of an independent feminist movement which fights uncompromisingly for the interests of all women. We have done this understanding that, while the Russian Revolution was achieved without a mass women's liberation movement, it is impossible for the working class to carry through the socialist reconstruction of society without masses of women being mobilised to play a conscious and leading role. In the advanced capitalist countries, since the second wave and the intertwining of feminist demands and consciousness with all other social struggles, an independent, mass women's liberation movement has become a precondition for a victorious socialist revolution.

It is in that political framework, even given the absence of a women's liberation movement as such in Australia today, that the DSP intervenes strongly in NOWSA and other forums for feminist discussion, and in all major mobilisations for women's rights, such as Reclaim the Night marches. It is also in that framework that the party underwrites the annual IWD collectives and marches and works to strengthen them politically, make them a left pole in feminist activity that will attract, involve, organise and recruit the most conscious activists, and maintain a public profile for Marxist feminism.

Without a party membership—the whole membership—which understands thoroughly the Marxist analysis of women's oppression and how liberation will be won, we cannot even hope to hold sway against the relentless onslaught of bourgeois ideas in feminism. That's why we emphasise our internal educational work on this question, as well as continue our efforts to generalise Marxist analysis in the activist milieu through Green Left Weekly, Resistance books and pamphlets, Links magazine and public discussion forums. This is key to the party's very conscious approach to developing leaders, comrades who are educated, confident, experienced and able to lead in the women's liberation movement, and in the working-class movement as a whole.

Revolutionary potential

It would be a grave mistake to conclude from the current low ideological, political and mobilisation level of the women's liberation movement that the revolutionary potential of women is somehow less today than it was at the time the poor women of Russia catalysed the masses into revolt with their demands for bread and an end to the war.

On the contrary, in addition to the higher expectations and greater political experience gained by women since 1917, many technological developments (in contraception, for example), as well as women's further incorporation into waged work and the legal, educational and other reforms won by the mass movements, have strengthened the revolutionary potential of women.

Women make up the majority of the working class, and because women's oppression is rooted in the very foundations of class society, consistent struggle for gender equality inevitably leads to direct confrontation with capitalism. Women's struggle for gender justice is integral to the working class's struggle for socialism.

While at present there may be few campaigns in Australia, they could develop quickly as the capitalist rulers move on from their ideological offensive against feminism into deeper material attacks. The discontent and anger that will result only require leadership to realise their potential. Every break, however small, from the grip of the anti-struggle leadership today is therefore crucial, and we will strive to be there with our press, experience and national organisation.

We will also follow closely developments in those countries where there are mass struggles, from which we can draw enormous inspiration and learn a great deal. Of course, you don't learn or gain much from passive observation; extending solidarity not only aids those struggles, but also strengthens the movement in Australia by increasing activists' understanding of how struggles succeed or are defeated, how various forms of oppression are interconnected and the thoroughly internationalised nature of oppression under imperialism and the need for an internationalist perspective to defeat it.

To quote again from one of the greatest feminists of our epoch, "The proletariat cannot achieve complete liberty until it has won complete liberty for women". The other side of Lenin's point is that women cannot be liberated until the very foundation of their oppression as women—the family—is obliterated, and that is impossible outside of socialism. The task of women's liberationists then is to build working-class movements and Marxist parties that can open the door to socialism.

Every step we take along the path to rebuilding a mass women's liberation movement—one which has rejected the false paths of separatism and exclusivity, one in which working-class women are the majority and in which Marxists, the most consistent fighters for women's liberation, lead—is a vital step towards a larger, more unified, more experienced movement for socialism and towards the liberation of all women.

[Lisa Macdonald is a member of the national executive of the Democratic Socialist Perspective in Australia.]


1. V.I. Lenin, "A Great Beginning", Collected Works, Vol. 29, p. 429.

2. "The Tasks of the Working Women's Movement in the Soviet Republic", Collected Works, Vol. 30, p. 44.

3. Barbara Winslow, Sylvia Pankhurst, UCL Press, London, 1996, p. 66.

4. See Andrew Sinclair, The Emancipation of the American Woman, Harper-Colophon, New York, 1965.

5. "Women's Right to Vote", Philip S. Foner (ed), Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings, International Publishers, New York, 1984, p. 101.

6. ibid., p. 99.

7. ibid., pp. 101-102.

8. ibid., p. 104.

9. "To the Working Women", Collected Works, Vol. 30, p. 372.

10. Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, Ink Links, London, 1980, p. 215.

11. Clara Zetkin, "My Recollections of Lenin", in Lenin on the Emancipation of Women, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965, pp. 110-111.

12. Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos, pp. 211-228.

13. ibid., pp. 224-5.

14 ibid., p. 227.

15. "My Recollections of Lenin", p. 114.

16. Pathfinder Press, 1972, p. 145.

17. ibid., pp. 151-152.

18. ibid., p. 153.

19. "Only with the Proletarian Women", Selected Writings, p. 78.