Feminism and Marxism

Soma Marik

(Edited text of a talk delivered on 8th March 2005 titled The Feminist Critique of Marxism)

Let me begin at the outset by questioning the most innocent sounding word in this title – “the”. The placing of this participle suggests that there is one monolithic feminism and one equally monolithic Marxism. Once this assumption is granted, we can move on to a convenient positing of a war between the two.

The struggle for women’s equality has been and still continues to be a long fight. Many of us, critical of Soviet and Chinese style Marxism, or Stalinism and Maoism to call them by better names, had been critical of the left with good reason. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the restoration of capitalism in China, and so on, however, we can now remind ourselves that our struggle for liberation, in Shelley’s word,

Owns a more eternal foe
Than Force or Fraud: old Custom, legal Crime,
And bloody Faith the foulest birth of Time.

Translating this into our contemporary situation, I want to emphasize that unless capitalism is directly challenged, the worst oppressions on women cannot be removed. Unless we question the basic logic of globalised capitalism, we can at best seek to redistribute poverty equally among men and women, rather than fight against poverty and exploitation. Unless we can challenge US imperialist hegemony we will pick out as fundamentalism only those whom the US designates, not realising that Christian fundamentalism in the US or the Saudi brand of Islamism are as oppressive to women, or nearer home, that there is a repressive potential in every religion. Unless we challenge the rule of capital, we cannot hope to eradicate the most powerful force that backs patriarchal power today. So while it is evident to me that socialist theory and practice in the 19th and 20th centuries had much that was deficient, any critique that merely rejects it to accept capitalism and hope to, at best, present capitalism with a human face or a gendered capitalism, must be rejected. Critiques that focus on transforming revolutionary socialism in the light of experiences of the 20th century – feminist critiques, ecological critiques, critiques that emphasize democracy, and so on – need to be elaborated. And, if we are clear that we are combating capitalism and patriarchy, our awareness of the nature of alternative society we want will also be clarified. Only in such a case can we avoid alternative traps of reformism dressed as gender sensitivity and an authoritarian patriarchal “socialism”.

Instead of an excessively theoretical presentation, let me remind you now of the fact, often forgotten, that this day, the International Women’s Day, was born as the International Working Women’s Day, at the initiative of the International Socialist Women’s Congress, with support from the Congress of the Socialist International. Its great initiators were Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Louise Zietz, and other socialist women. With the exception of England, where there existed a powerful suffragist movement, the struggle for women’s suffrage throughout the continent of Europe was organised more militantly and more massively by the socialists, not by the liberal feminists. My aim is to examine, rather briefly and necessarily selectively, some elements of the work of the women socialists, and the way a feminist critique emerged in their work and shaped socialist discourse. Often they did not call themselves feminists, because they identified the term with bourgeois liberal feminism. But their own struggles reveal varieties of gendering of socialist theory and practice.

To go back even further, we can emphasize that socialists, both pre-Marxist and Marxist, often had a very strong commitment to women’s liberation. The critiques of Marxism that seem relevant to me are often the Marxist-feminist and socialist-feminist critiques of ungendered variants of Marxism. What all types of Marxist radicals have in common is a deep hostility to capitalist class rule. But Soviet style Marxism and its imitation all over the world has been criticised by feminist Marxists/socialists for viewing women’s liberation as a more or less automatic adjunct of socialism, for not paying serious attention to the issue of gender equality within the revolutionary and mass organisations, etc.

This is therefore very different from those feminist criticisms that think of the possibility of achieving all or most goals of women’s liberation within the framework of capitalism, as well as those that see patriarchy as a self-contained system with no or negligible connections with existing class and other dimensions of oppression (e.g., caste in India, or race in the US).

Let me quickly run through some highlights of 19th and early 20th century socialism’s feminism and its self-criticisms. The German worker August Bebel became a socialist, and at the same time, he was engaged in dialogues with feminists. As a result, his most widely read book, Die Frau und Der Sozialismus (Women and Socialism), rewrote the Marxist vision of socialism by placing women at the centre. Clara Zetkin in her speech to the 1896 Congress of the Social Democratic Party of Germany remarked that when it appeared it was not merely a book but an event. In Bebel’s lifetime, 50 German editions appeared, apart from translations in numerous European languages. More people were recruited into socialist parties with this book as study material than even the communist manifesto. So it is difficult to see why many historians and feminists provide a critique of 19th century Marxism’s failure to address the gender question. Bebel’s book can be examined for many reasons. Let me make just two points. Thoroughly up to date for his age, he quoted Krafft Ebing and others to present a clear discussion on sexuality. Secondly, he presented, in a very readable and narrative mode, the problems faced by women workers – what we today call their dual oppression, and emphasized that the struggle against one could not be taken up adequately without the struggle against the other.

Socialist women like Zetkin were instrumental in organising women in trade unions and in the parties. Their achievements can be seen from the following figures. In 1891 there were 4355 women members of the trade unions. By 1908, when legal bars on women’s political participation finally collapse, there were 138,443.
A year after the union leadership had formally accepted the need to draw in women, Zetkin was warning that in practice the task was being left to a few women organisers.  She was also clear that sexism within the working class was taking its toll.

"In order to fulfil this task two things are necessary.  The male workers must stop viewing the female worker primarily as a woman to be courted if she is young, beautiful, pleasant and cheerful (or not).  They must stop (depending on their degree of culture or lack of it) molesting them with crude and fresh sexual advances. The workers must rather get accustomed to treat female labourers primarily as female proletarians, as working-class comrades fighting class slavery and as equal and indispensable co-fighters in the class struggle."

If it was tough to unionise women it was tougher to organise them in the party.  There was the stiff resistance by the state in the form of laws forbidding women from joining political parties. There was the competition from sections of the feminist movement.  And there was resistance within the party to women trying to attain full equality with men in the party.
The Law on Association was the biggest hurdle to bringing women in the party. To circumvent the law Agitation Commissions were set up in different cities in 1889 - 1895, to co-ordinate work by trade unions and the party among women. The 1892 congress (Berlin) had set up a system of Vertrauenspersonen. Vertrauensmann means spokesman in German, a clearly masculine term.  By changing the term to the neuter gender constitutional provision was made whereby individual women could act in a political capacity skirting legal barriers. By building up a network of such spokespersons whose task was described as educating proletarian women in political and trade union matters and awakening and reinforcing their class consciousness, the SPD intended to get round the hurdles set up by the state. When, after 1895, all the Agitation Commissions were banned despite the formal lack of linkages between them, this individual centric method of organisation became even more important. In fact, discriminatory practices and sexist attitude among not inconsiderable sections of party men had also led the women to feel the need for an autonomous space.  
Between 1901 and 1907 the number of female Vertrauenspersonen rose from 25 to 407.  Their addresses were regularly published in Die Gleichheit.  There existed a Zentralvertrauenspersonen , to serve as a connecting link. Zetkin was elected to the national executive of the SPD, while Otilie Baader became the Zentralvertrauenspersonen.  Till the abolition of the legal restriction in 1908, the number of women who were actually members was relatively low.  But thereafter, female membership grew rapidly.  The circulation of Die Gleichheit also rose quite fast. In 1900 its circulation was around 4000 per issue. By 1907 this had grown to around 70,000.  In 1908 there were 29,468 women in the party, a figure that rose to 174,474 in 1914.  

Russia also presents a complex picture. I have written several times about the shortcomings of Lenin and the Bolsheviks concerning women’s liberation. Lenin’s view of organisation has been much debated. A serious attempt made by him, and usually not recognised by those who would understand Leninism only through its Stalinist caricature, was the attempt to abolish hierarchy and enable worker activists to have a greater voice in the party, unlike in so-called mass parties. But Lenin’s attempt to unite the vanguard remained deficient in his inability to view gender fissures within the class clearly enough. The idea of a professional revolutionary was not a full time bureaucrat, but an activist released from other duties or responsibilities. Since, however, the “private” domain was left untouched, very militant women often remained no more than wives of working class revolutionaries rather than revolutionaries themselves. Cecelia Bobrovskaya, a Bolshevik who was a midwife by training, wrote in her memoirs that she had met many such women who were tied down by family cares. So Bolshevism failed to realise that here too there was a need for intervention so that men and women shared responsibilities.

But let me stress that feminist critics of Marxism were not well placed. In Germany, the feminist critics of the Marxists were inside the umbrella organisation of liberal and non-socialist feminists – the Bund Deutsche Frauenvereine or League of German Women’s Organisations.  The BDF was willing to give affiliation to organisations like the German-Colonial Women’s League. Under the attacks of capitalist ideologies, this organisation succumbed easily. Gertrud Baumer, president between 1910 and 1919, argued that the ultimate aim of female emancipation was not equality, but the equal influence of female values. She explained that women should therefore limit themselves to house and the family rather than go into male professions. The BDF moved further right, till, its official organ, Die Frau, still edited by Baumer, went on being published almost all through the Third Reich. Likewise, in Russia, liberal feminists like Anna Miliukov failed to get the most important liberal party, the Constitutional Democrats, to accept the demand for women’s suffrage. Anna’s husband Pavel, the historian and the future minister in the Provisional Government, led the charge against feminist claims for equality. By contrast the Social Democratic party in the Congress of 1903 adopted a programme, where key demands included votes for all adults irrespective of sex, crèches and maternity benefits for working women, etc. A lacuna was the absence of a demand for equal pay for equal work. But the demands that were in the programme were not rituals to be trotted out only on special occasions. Every strike wave saw these demands being raised. With a growth in the ranks of women workers after 1905, their own experiences began shaping demands and struggles. When women themselves took a leading role, the demands could change. In 1912 alone, in 22 strikes in which women were present in a significant or dominant number, an end to sexual harassment in the name of searching workers as they left the factory premises, was a major demand. In 1913, this was even the main reason for the strike at the Grisov factory. But centralised charters of demand still did not reflect this. The demands raised by the women workers displayed a growing awareness that demand standardisation did not conceptualise their specific oppression. Sexual harassment by supervisory staff was one of the prominent demands in a large number of struggles. Though infrequently, the demand for equal pay was raised. In 1917 too, we see similar patterns.
Women workers were aware of problems posed by male bias in the unions. At the Petrograd Cartridge Works, after demanding an 8-hour working day, men also demanded overtime payment for work on Saturdays, while women workers resisted this, saying they needed time for domestic work, for standing in queue, or for looking after their children.  When society treated domestic burden as solely a woman’s burden, the overtime would come as a punishment to the women. Tsvetkova, a woman worker in the leather industry, described the situation she faced at her workplace:
“Instead of supporting women workers, organising them, … many male comrades regard them not as full and equal members of the workers' family, and sometimes do not even take them into consideration. When the issue of unemployment and lay-offs arises, they try to ensure that they remain in work and that the women are dismissed, relying on the fact that women will not be able to resist because of their weak organisation and helplessness. When we women try to speak and prove to the men that they are not behaving properly, and that we should try to find a way out of the situation together, we are not allowed to speak and the men will not listen.”

There are two ways of reading these bits of evidence. We can say, this proves the Bolsheviks who led the unions and the soviets were insensitive. Or we can say that Bolshevik limitations were being sought to be rectified by Bolshevik feminism itself. This failed in the end, but not for want of trying. Alexandra Kollontai, and to a lesser extent Inessa Armand, Leon Trotsky and Nicolai Bukharin were among those Bolsheviks who had a different view on women’s liberation. They felt the need for a long struggle and transformation. Kollontai, the most important of them, stressed that economic determinism was inadequate, but she also sought to relate psychological and other dimensions of women’s liberation to the creation of a situation where economic dependence no longer existed. Kollontai’s discussions on sexuality resulted in a sharp reaction from a puritan current. She was accused of writing pornography, because in The Love of Three Generations, the attitude of one young woman to sexual relationships is very casual. In fact, she was pointing out that when old social orders collapse, so do old moralities, and in such times, new moralities emerge only through trial and error. The attacks on Kollontai were part of a general regression. While formal lip service was always paid to women’s liberation, as quotations from Stalin can be hunted up to show, in fact patriarchal values and practices were brought back. This was part of the whole process of restoring and widening social stratification, special privileges, and so on. But it would be wrong to think that till non-Marxist or non-socialist feminists drew attention to these shortcomings socialists were totally ignorant of this. Both those who want to praise and those who want to condemn Bolshevism tend to quote only Lenin. But if only Lenin (in the discussion with Zetkin, 1920, published after his death) is taken as an example of Bolshevism, it is a derecognition of Bolshevism’s feminism, and its sustained efforts, from 1905 to 1924, to restructure class and party. It is to underestimate the creation of the Zhenotdel, the party women’s branch that mobilised both party members and non-party women. One cannot ignore the running battle between Armand, Kollontai, Samoilova and others in zhenotdel against the typical patriarchal views that “in these critical times, we need to concentrate on general class issues, not petty women’s issues”, emanating from many local party committees as well as some leading elements. Criticisms levelled by the Bolshevik left cannot be ignored if the aim of criticism is not to run down revolutionary efforts as such, but to sharpen the tools of revolution. Kate Millet, in her book, while tracing the decline of the early promises held out, quotes Trotsky. Studies of Russian women communists and the problems of gendering the process of socialist construction repeatedly come back to the path breaking initiatives of Kollontai, Armand, and their less known comrades like Slutskaya, Samoilova, and others.

Under much more difficult conditions, when Marxism had become identified with Stalinism, and when colonial rule and mainstream nationalism made any kind of Marxism an unusual option, women who joined the CPI, the Mahila Atma Raksha Samity, the Girl Students Federation or the IPTA in the 1940s were an independent minded lot. This comes out at different levels – the peasant party member asking whether her body was hers to control or whether her husband had the right to beat her up; the urban middle class women insisting that the paper Ghare Baire [Quote from Manikuntala.] must be produced, sold and otherwise circulated by women alone. This comes out from the different meanings attached to the word discipline by male and female members – for Sajal Roychoudhury a disciplined life was necessary because other wise there would have been much social opprobrium about the CPI and/or the IPTA promoting dissolute behaviour. For Reba Roychoudhury discipline was the key to cultural-political achievements. Neither Manikuntala, nor Reba Roychoudhury, saw their acts or beliefs as conscious feminist criticisms, and so one could ignore them. But in fact they are Marxist-feminist autocritiques. Bani Dasgupta argued, in an interview with me, that Aloka Chattopadhyay’s comparative obscurity was not solely due to the abilities of Gita Mukhopadhyay, which she too had, but due to Gita Mukherje’s proximity to Biswanath, even if he never lobbied for her elevation.

And so we return to the present. As I said at the outset, I am interested in such feminist critiques of Marxism that strengthen class unity on the basis of equality of women and men, and refuses to push off the struggle for women’s liberation to the utopia when there will no longer be other oppressors. I remember always the words of the rank and file Bolshevik woman who wrote in 1917, “comrades, we are often told that things will be done without us. If they are done without us they will be done against our interests”. Such a feminist critique of Marxism today would also have to present a critique of all variants of Marxism that, pushing revolution into the ever-receding horizons, compromises with globalisation and thereby with capitalist patriarchy. Such a critique will have to challenge all those hierarchies and priority buildings that decide certain oppressions are more important than certain other oppressions – so that, for example, the struggle for women’s liberation from the oppressive religious personal laws (Hindu, Muslim Christian, any other)  is subordinated to a spurious brand of fighting fascism.