Articles posted by Radical Socialist on various issues.

Pre-Congress discussion: 17th World Congress


Wednesday 26 April 2017

The International Committee meeting in February 2017 decided to hold the 17th World Congress in February 2018. The meeting voted by a very large majority to approve three documents to open the internal discussion. It also decided to publish the documents:

 Capitalist globalization, imperialisms, geopolitical chaos and their implications

 Social upheavals, fightbacks and alternatives

 Towards a text on Role and Tasks of the Fourth International

We are therefore opening this section in International Viewpoint dedicated to contributions in the pre-World Congress discussion.

Women and work in Western Europe

Women and work in Western Europe


Monday 12 August 2013, by Jacqueline Heinen

This article was first published in International Marxist ReviewVol 2, No 2 in Spring 1987. It is republished here as part of our effort to build an archive of contributions from within the Fourth International on questions of feminism.

Any analysis of the position of women in Western Europe and the effects of the economic crisis on the women’smovement in different countries, is bound to appear overgeneralised and superficial. This is because the impact of the crisis is different in each country and because it does not affect all women in the same way.

However, the women‘s movement on a European level has pinpointed certain common issues with, for example, the issue of women’s right to work becoming a central theme on International Women’s Day demonstrations. Issues such as the sexual division of labour, violence against women and domestic labour are issues which affect women in different social layers and from different political backgrounds who are nonetheless drawn together in common activity. The crisis undergone by the women’s movement since the 1970s has also provoked much debate, especially amongst socialist feminists within that movement.

The following article does not attempt to deal with all the issues affect ting women and the women‘s movement in Western Europe. It does not deal in depth with the issue of women and reproductive technology, nor does it discuss the action of European women in solidarity with sisters in the Third World. It merely attempts to pinpoint the ways in which the crisis has hit women, particularly women workers, and identify the responses of the women’s movement and the lessons of the struggles which have emerged.

The feminisation of poverty and unemployment

Unemployment in Western Europe continues to rise. But what figures often fail to show is that female unemployment is a higher proportion of the whole than male unemployment in almost every country in Europe apart from Britain and Ireland. [1]. Workers’ buying power has declined by 1-1.5 % per year since the late l970s. In West Germany four to five million people live in an extreme state of poverty and the figure is almost twice that in Great Britain. The large majority of those living in poverty are women. [2].

In an article in New Left Review of January-February 1986, Frigga Haug shows how the policies of the West German CDU-led government have promoted a rapid feminization of poverty.

In West Germany today more and more women are doing part-time jobs. Funding for vocational further education has been cut by 25%. Rehabilitation provisions for the unemployed are conditional on the length of compulsory contributions so that it is predominantly women who have been housewives who remain excluded. The cutbacks in the welfare sector affect women doubly: as potential employees—nurses, social workers, teachers-their jobs are being dispensed with, whilst the work is shifted back on them in their families as private individuals. Women’s pay remains on average still 30% below that of men (in the low pay sector women constitute 90% of employees); accordingly, women’s pensions are considerably smaller than men’s. Owing to a complicated system of calculation women must on average reckon with a 70% loss even before retirement (men .with 50%). Since their income even before retirement is generally small, this means that a large proportion of female pensioners live below the social security line. [3].

This alarming picture is not only true of West Germany. [4]. In Belgium successive measures taken to undermine rights to unemployment benefit whilst giving higher sums to heads of families have put single women looking for work in an often desperate situation and have made young women totally dependent on the family.

Of course the question of poverty cannot be put in terms of gender without first being explained in terms of class and race. Ethnic minority men in the USA and Britain and immigrant communities as a whole in Europe are twice as likely to live in poverty as are white women for example. In this sense it is probably more accurate to talk about the impoverishment of women rather than the feminization of poverty. It is nevertheless the case that within each of these categories it is women who suffer the worst effects of policies of industrial restructuration and austerity measures.

The bourgeoisie’s political goal moreover, is not just to boost the rate of profit or grab an increased percentage of the national wealth at the expense of the working classes. It also seeks to change the relation of forces between the classes in a lasting way and to dismantle the most important gains that the working class has made since the Second World War. These include social legislation, trade union rights, ability to control the work process and to radically reduce the weight of the working class on the political scene in general.

In order to establish this dreamed of ‘dual society’ where one third or more of the working class would be denied any kind of social protection, the ruling class must put an end to class solidarity through which, however inadequately, the underprivileged are protected. And it is of course firstly by attacking the most exploited and oppressed layers that this goal can be achieved. Women, young people, immigrants and especially young immigrant women are a prime target because of their role and social status.

Family and work: a question of priorities

The massive entry of women on to the jobs market since the Second World War has done nothing to resolve the situation. As Jean Gardiner points out in relation to Britain:

The economic and welfare reforms implemented in Britain after the Second World War had contradictory effects for women. Women were to benefit from the increase in job opportunities associated with a commitment to full employment, from the expansion of education and from collective provision of a range of welfare services. Yet none of these changes challenged the traditional assumption that the majority if women would continue to be primarily housewives and mothers dependent on marriage rather than employment.

The commitment to full employment did not entail ensuring that all women with children who desired to work had the opportunity to do so. The expansion in welfare services did not include nursery provision. Vocational training and promotion ladders remained geared to male working lives. Sex stereotyping continued to be reinforced by the education system.

Sexual inequality was built into tax and social security legislation. Growing numbers of women, particularly married women, were drawn into a narrow range of relatively low paid jobs, consistent with traditional notions of women’swork. Women were expected to retain responsibility for the care of home and family in line with their continued economic dependence on marriage and a male breadwinner. [5]

Such observations are not specific to Britain, but are valid for all the industrialised capitalist countries which have undergone unprecedented growth in women’s economic activity. Everywhere the same contradictions arise.

On the one hand women constitute an important part of the workforce—in many countries it is predicted that soon one worker in two will be a woman and, more often than not, a married woman. [6]. On the other hand women are not thought of as workers at all. Still the dominant ideology dictates that above all they are responsible for the home and the rearing of children.

In Sweden, West Germany and Britain a growing number of families are dependent on one parent and in three quarters of all such cases that parent is a woman. But this has not changed the widely held conviction that women work for “pin money”. [7] That women usually spend three times as many hours on domestic tasks as their spouses tends to underline this perception of their role. [8]

The current economic crisis forces employers to maximise their profits through short-term solutions and the bourgeoisie is tempted to attack women because they are the most vulnerable on so many different levels: as workers who have come late onto the jobs market and who work in the least organised and most unprotected sections; and as wives and mothers whose weight of family responsibilities forces them to accept part—time work at worse rates of pay than any other form of work including homework. The cuts in social spending tend to force the more stubborn to accept this state of affairs. Here women are once again coming up against one of the fundamental contradictions of the capitalist system.

While the capitalist development of the forces of production tends to undermine the family-household system by pulling women into wage labour, capitalist relations set up a counter-tendency reinforcing the sexual division of labour ( . . . ) It is because one consistent tendency of the capitalist system is to reduce working-class living standards and to force working people to accomplish the labour necessary for their reproduction in their own time. [9]

The establishment of adequate nursery provision presupposes a significant increase in social spending and thus the amount the employers would have to pay to the state.

If part-time work is high among women it is because the ruling class wills it so. In Britain, the first country in Europe to promote female part-time work on such a large scale, it was designed to feed on the contradictions outlined above. The policy met little opposition from the workers movement. In Northern European countries, for instance, many women accepted part-time work even before the recession really started. And they did this- usually encouraged by their husbands—because of the tensions that their economic activity provoked in the home and because of inadequate childcare.

It is no accident that the rate of part-time work is so much higher where the number of women (and hence of married women) in the job market is highest. [10]

Originally the unions, at best, remained silent and at worse welcomed with open arms the introduction of this new form of work considered so suitable for women’s needs. But at the same time as the economic crisis deepened the number of women forced to accept low wages and conditions increased dramatically. Gradually sectors of the Western European workers movement have begun to understand that part-time work ‘for women’ was a trap helping to divide the working class.

The right to work, but not the same right to work

Unfortunately the same cannot be said on the issue of job segregation. Prejudice on what constitutes women’s work and men’s work is widespread.

Certain branches of industry have always had a majority of female workers (i.e. clothing, textiles, tobacco, shoes etc). But this tendency was reinforced with the massive penetration of women into the service sector to the extent that whole areas of employment are completely feminised. The result is that women are trapped in a limited number of sectors and jobs. One extreme example of this is the situation in Sweden where more that 40% of women work in the five “female” professions: as secretaries, in ancillary work, as shop assistants, in cleaning and childcare. In West Germany the picture is virtually the same but with some women also working on factory assembly lines and in the mail order business. The same type of segregation is also to be found within different industries.

At Olivetti in Turin research by IRES (a research institute linked to the CGIL trade union federation) recently revealed that even when they have the same qualifications and the same seniority, women are in lower grades and are less well-paid than the men. At Aeritalia (the aeroplane manufacturers), again in Turin, even women with qualifications are mainly employed as typists. In a questionnaire distributed nationally by the Bank Federation of the CGIL to all female workers in this sector, two workers out of every three stated that there were no equal career prospects for men and women. Many thought that this was linked to maternity, which however, none of them wanted to give up. [11].

Contrary to what might have been expected ten years ago with women’s increasing economic activity, the recession and the massive introduction of part-time work, has tended to encourage job segregation. Neither has the introduction of new technology opened up a wider spectrum of jobs to women. Instead from the start they have been trapped into carrying out routine tasks at the keyboard. The opportunity of becoming qualified in some areas such as computer programming have in general been reserved for men. Yet again the vicious circle is repeated: men refuse to do the repetitive work, they are better prepared for change, they are more readily available to take up a training which often takes place outside worktime. [12]

We are thus a long way from the expectations excited by the exemplary struggles of women workers in Canada, the USA and Sweden in the 1970s, demanding the right to enter jobs and sectors traditionally controlled by men (such as the mines, steel and car industries). In more than one example employers were forced to concede in the face of campaigns and court cases supporting the right of women to do the same work as men. Many women workers have since lost these jobs in waves of redundancy or in the name of ‘seniority‘. Nevertheless the figures for the USA still show a real progression for women in jobs which were previously closed to them. [13]

However in Sweden where several women managed to get into the steel or car industry as welders, cutters, drillers or lathe operators, it appears that most of them have since been forced to leave these jobs for ‘easier’ work in typically female areas. In steel they are now to be found on the production lines, as packers, in-sorting or checking.

European statistics dealing with traditional male-dominated bastions of industry show that the general decline in employment caused by restructuring and redundancy is proportionately higher among women than men. [14]. It is thus unlikely that they have been able to hold onto those jobs which they managed to force their way into. All this facilitates still further the aim of the employer to force women into part-time and irregular work.

Ruling class strategy

Can we conclude that ruling class strategy is to send women back to the home and re-establish a reserve army of labour in the same way they did after the First and Second World Wars? It would be very difficult to do given the importance of the work done by women in today’s economy. The employers are acutely aware of this especially since some of these sectors are expanding as in the case of the electronics industry where profits depend on a super exploited workforce doing jobs that most men would refuse. However, the bourgeoisie also have to take account of the power to resist which women have learned under the impact of the women‘s movement of the 1970s and their refusal to give up their economic independence. But this independence is only relative, both on the economic as well as on the social level. And because of this the bourgeoisie is able to undermine the gains women have made and push them into the unskilled and part-time sector.

In forcing women to retreat the bosses have a key card to play: women’s “guilty conscience”. This false consciousness makes women reluctant to complain about having shopping to do when they are tired; guilty about snapping at children; anxious about the house not being as perfectly clean as they think it ought to be or about reading or watching television or simply doing nothing instead of getting everyone else‘s food ready. Such problems hardly affect men, or only a small minority, and then only if women push them and educate them (and this in itself constitutes yet another job for them to do).

The ruling class relies on the build up of these thousand and one daily problems in order to undermine women’sresistance. It is in the context of this desire to trap them in their status as wives and mothers that we have to see the series of attacks launched against women’s rights in the last few years. The international campaign for the right to abortion and contraception, for example, was one of the main gains, however limited, of the women’s liberation movement of the l970s. Whether through the use of violence, as in the United States and Canada, or rhetoric about the rights of the foetus, as in Britain, Ireland, or Switzerland, the supporters of the ‘right to life‘ are motivated by the same goal: to reduce women to breeding machines and to strengthen the family.

The reactionaries are even prepared to use the opposition of many feminists to embryo research and new reproductive technology to support the notion of the “rights of the foetus”.

The ability of the bourgeoisie to fight the enemy on their own terrain is evident in other respects as well. In West Germany, the ruling CDU uses feminist language and talks about the “feminisation of society” in an attempt to upgrade domestic work and restore family morale. ‘The CDU no longer needs to propagandise a conservative model of women. Instead it offers a dynamically remodelled hybrid: the caring housewife and mother with part-time work. Just how much, according to this scheme of things, the household chores are shared between the “marriage partners” is a matter of individual choice. [15] In most European countries, the call for women to give up work in order to look after young children is given the title of “parental leave”. Of course in 90 to 95% of cases it is the women who take this leave. But as official statements stress, each couple is, after all, free to decide.

The family– shaken but unbowed

In France the old refrain about population decline and the need to have more children has been rehearsed many times. Socialist Party president Mitterrand of France went even further than his conservative predecessors in implementing the special benefits scheme for the third child. Now other European governments are following suit on the assumption that, even if such measures have no practical importance, they can serve as a model for public opinion. These measures are of course highly dubious. The lowering of the birth rate does not simply result from a ‘decline in moral standards’ or from the revolutionary ideas of the women‘s movement on the issue of contraception, but from structural changes in society ‘since the Second World War.

It would however be short-sighted to maintain that the idea of the family as a haven is only an idea of the far right seeking to preserve moral fibre. The deepening economic and social crisis pushes people in on themselves giving more appeal to the traditional family, particularly within the working class. Of course the crisis of the family is also in evidence. The number of divorces is increasing and more and more couples are living together without being married. There is an increase in violence within the family.

This violence is largely carried out by men against women, but also takes the form of the maltreatment of children by their parents (more often by the mother) or of mothers beaten by their adolescent sons. A direct relation exists between the increase in unemployment, reductions in social spending, the increased tendency for the responsibility of children to fall on the family (and thus on women) and this increase in violence.

Although it is now less frequently the case a large proportion of divorced people subsequently remarry and many unmarrried couples reproduce traditional family relations. As an institution the family is set to survive.

The vast majority of women continue to opt for marriage and family life, not surprisingly since society today offers them no real alternative. This is particularly so if they want to have children or have them without wanting them. This is particularly true of young unemployed women or students who cannot afford their own accommodation, as they might have done ten years ago and for whom marriage—or at least living together—appears to be the only solution for escaping from the straightjacket of the family. Only a tiny minority of women consciously live out the aims of the women’s liberation movement and choose to break from the traditional framework to live alone or in a collective.

The bourgeoisie’s ideological attacks have facilitated a retreat in relation to advertising, where feminists began to think they had made gains. We have witnessed a revival of sexist posters centred on women as object with pornographic overtones. This is particularly true in France, [16] but many people who are aware of this kind of exploitation have noticed the same phenomenon in other countries in Europe. Such publicity campaigns would have been unthinkable a few years ago, when the women’s movement was stronger.

The crisis of the autonomous women’s movement and the new wave of radicalisation

It is a fact that in most countries in Europe, with exceptions like the Spanish state, the feminist movement hardly bares any resemblance to what it was in the l970s. In some countries it has all but disappeared as an independent and coordinated movement capable of nationally leading campaigns for the rights of women to equality and independence. ‘Those groups which see themselves as part of the autonomous movement are generally organised around concrete goals—self-help groups, battered wives centres, rape centres or research groups taking up one aspect or another of women’s oppression. Although some national or international meetings have taken place on issues like abortion, violence or the tight to work, nevertheless the public expressions of these movements in mass demonstrations on the streets and other similar initiatives are much rarer that they were ten years ago.

This phenomenon should hardly surprise us given the setbacks, not to say defeats, suffered by the workers movement since the beginnings of the l974 economic recession. How could the divisions and the general decline of the organised workers movement in countries like France, the Spanish state and Italy fail to have its effect on other social movements? Even the peace movement and the ecology movement, which have taken centre stage in the last few years, have undergone difficulties as a result.

In addition, ten years ago it was easier to gain even a limited victory on issues which concern women like abortion and contraception than is the case today. Whatever the reservations of the ruling class in making partial concessions to women’s right to control their own bodies, it was possible for them to retreat on the legal level as long as their direct economic interests were not touched. But it was the reverse in relation to questions like unemployment, wages, social spending. These issues which centrally affect women are at the very heart of the austerity policy of the bourgeoisie and will not be changed without mass mobilisation of the whole working class. But in order to maintain itself and develop, the women’s movement must be able to win. This is particularly important in a movement which does not have permanent structures or institutional means to ensure negotiating power and preserve the gains it has made.

It would, however, be erroneous to conclude that the women’s movement has disappeared or that the page of feminism has been turned. Firstly, it is important to guard against any hasty generalisations because the situation varies from one European country to another. Recent initiatives in countries where the crisis of the movement seemed very grave, must be underlined. In France, the ‘national meeting of women’s centres’ which took place in Paris in December 1985 brought together hundreds of feminists, active and non-active, from feminist groups, from the family planning associations and from trade unions, who came to discuss their experience collectively and map out perspectives for action. This showed anything but the disappearance of feminist forces from the French political scene. [17]

We must furthermore underline the great success of the Jornadas in Barcelona in November 1985. This meeting brought together 4,000 women from all over the Spanish state; young women, older women, workers, and even peasants, who found their own ways of mobilising for the meeting by word of mouth, since the press gave it no mention. Two abortions were performed during the meeting in defiance of the extremely restrictive abortion law adopted by the socialist government and more than three thousand women signed a statement claiming collective responsibility for the terminations. ‘The Jomadas showed clearly that the feminist movement was alive and well. It constituted a reference point for women who, in one way or another, are rebelling against capitalist and patriarchal society, against its norms and laws’ claimed one of the organisers of the meeting. [18]

Feminism is not dead

If the independent women’s movement as such has lost some of its capacity for mobilisation, feminist ideas have gained ground amongst the broad masses and among working class women in particular. Events in Britain provide the best example. Leaving aside the example of the miners’ wives or the women of Greenham Common which we will come back to, it is important to note that specific structures for women in the trade unions and in the Labour Party have taken up a series of issues such as abortion, violence against women, sexual harassment at work and creches which were previously the concern of relatively small independent feminist groups or organisations.

The Women’s Action Committee in the Labour Party and trade union women within the TUC have battled for the election of more women to leadership bodies. Labour Party women played a leading role in adopting left positions on international issues such as Ireland, the Malvinas war and against NATO. Within the peace movement all indications are that, whatever the changes, the women’s movement has not disappeared in a country like Britain.

Equally in West Germany it has been shown that women workers, particularly in the steel industry, have been in the forefront of the struggle for the 35-hour week. The feminist arguments which developed in support of a seven hour day that is for a reduction in work time which would take account of the specific problems of women and the sharing of domestic tasks within the home-—is evidence of the enduring nature of the German women’s movement, even though the women workers in question may never have participated in a women’s group. The initiative taken by women linked to the Communist Party on the occasion of Mothers’ Day, l0 May 1984 got a wide echo: 20,000 women participated and subsequent meetings were held in 1985 and l986. Conceived originally as a one-off initiative, the character of the meeting changed with the participation of women activists from the Greens; women from the ASF, the women’s organisation of the Social Democratic Party; and of trade union militants who all found a point of reference for the exchange of experiences. They also expressed a willingness to establish more lasting links between the different organisations.

Even in France where the workers movement was going through a profound crisis, the women’s conference organised by the Communist-led trade union federation, in November 1985 showed how much young women workers, who do not know much about the independent women‘s movement, are influenced by its ideas and objectives. Prefacing their remarks with ‘I’m not a feminist but . . .’ many women present denounced machismo in the union, the lack of initiatives by the trade union leadership and took up the need to take positive measures to get women elected to the leading bodies to play a real role. Of course the CGT leadership decided not to follow this meeting up and is determined to make everyone forget some of the more ‘extreme’ notions being put forward such as a women’sdemonstration for jobs. Nevertheless, this initiative demonstrated the existence of a deepening radicalisation which it would take more than a few manoeuvres by the bureaucracy to suppress.

On a more general level, we have seen that women workers have often been in the forefront of the workers‘ struggles that have developed in recent years. In the 1983 steel strike at Beckaert Cokerill in Belgium women workers fought both redundancies and restructuration and the bosses‘ “solution” which consisted of ‘saving the men’s jobs‘ but putting the women onto part-time work. The women gained broad international support for their struggle.

Another example was the near general strike in Denmark in the Easter of 1985 which followed the breakdown of annual negotiations between employers and the main trade union federation, LO. It was the unskilled workers (organised in their own union) who took the initiative to extend and consolidate the mobilisations and to form an inter-company strike committee in one of the main industrial estates in Copenhagen. It was here that the strike held out for longest. It was the women who were first to take up the struggle to force the trade-union bureaucracy to release funds for the strike and thus allow the workers to hold out. They were also the first to organise solid support around the Tuborg factory where the workers took action immediately following the defeat of the strike against the government. More recently during the printworkers’ dispute in Britain women workers as well as the strikers‘ wives organised specific women’s demonstrations of several thousand women, picketing and construction of barricades as well as solidarity campaigns.

What stands out in each of these examples is that from the moment they took up demands affecting the entire workforce, the women showed a determination which totally surprised the trade union leaderships. This was undoubtedly because the women suddenly became aware that they were most affected by the bosses‘ attacks on all fronts. Perhaps because they feel they have more to lose than the men and perhaps also because, being less organised, they are less ready to accept the bureaucracy‘s attempts to put a brake on the movement.

It is certainly no coincidence that women’s voting patterns in national elections, which for a long time tended to favour the right wing, have changed. In Britain, France and elsewhere, elections have brought an equal and sometimes greater number of women voting for workers parties. There is undoubtedly a link between this and the aggressive right-wing campaigns against the social services and the rights of the most oppressed in society. [19]

The miners’ strike: a pointer to the future

It is within this general framework that aspects of a new radicalisation have begun to appear in the last few years, in particular the mobilisations of women workers of which the most exemplary was the British miners‘ wives in the 1984-85 strike. There have been previous examples of movements of solidarity with strikers organised by their wives in particular in relation to struggles against closures and redundancy: in the Erwitte and Speyer disputes in West Germany in 1976; the docker’s strike in Denmark in 1983; or more recently in the Sagunto steelworks strike in the Spanish state. In the case of Sagunto the struggle was in defence of a whole community threatened with extinction by a government decision to close the large steel furnaces on which the economy of the town depended. The women’sorganisation, which took on the task of publicising the struggle at a national level, was often more radical and imaginative in its initiatives than the steel workers whose jobs were threatened. But the women’s combativity did not lead them towards taking up their specific problems as women within the framework of that struggle.

The extraordinary step forward represented by the Women Against Pit Closures lies in the dual aspect of the struggle which these women led. On the one hand they took up the organisation of the collective canteens or financial support, tasks which were decisive for the long duration of the strike; but on the other hand they also participated in the pickets, the daily confrontations with the police, the public meetings and national and international tours. In doing so they gained confidence in themselves and discovered their own capacity for collective discussion of problems of emotional and economic dependence at home. As a result the women began to radically challenge relations within the family and social relations in general. This new awareness expressed itself in the very moving speeches, interviews and written accounts made by the women themselves.

It was wonderful to observe it and every day to talk through the relevance of what we’d been doing in the women’smovement with these women and how far those ideas were important—and how far they weren’t at all. The antagonism to men which they associated with the women’s movement was felt to be offensive and deeply wrong. [20]

Many of the women were able to recognise themselves in the following speech by Lorraine Bowler of the Barnsley Women’s Action Group during a l0,000-strong women‘s support rally in May 1984:

“At the beginning of the strike women from the Barnsley group wanted to go picketing and we were told that it was a bad enough job organising the men. All I can say to that is that women do not need anyone to organise them. They can organise themselves. The proof of that is shown in this hall today. I’m sure that for some or most of the women here today it is the same in their homes as it has been in mine over the weeks. There are arguments now as to whose turn it is to go on a demonstration or picket and whose turn it is to babysit. Talk about job-sharing we’ve seen it at its best over the past eight or nine weeks. In this country we aren’t just separated as a class. We are separated as men and women. We, as women have not often been encouraged to be involved actively in trade unions and organising. Organisation has always been seen as an area belonging to men. We are seen to be the domesticated element of the family. This for too many years has been the role expected of us. I have seen change coming for years and the last few weeks has seen it at its best. If the government thinks its fight is only with the miners they are sadly mistaken. They are now fighting men, women and families.” [21]

The fact that many of these women work outside of the home undoubtedly aided their entry into this struggle. The fact that they were thrown up against police violence allowed them, as it did their Irish sisters, to become more politically aware and to reject the very foundations of the system which they were up against. ’

It is the first time in history that such a mass awareness among working class women of their double oppression developed. This awareness extended both to the fight alongside men against the bosses and the government and the simultaneous challenge to the traditional relations within the home; the need to fight for their own independence and for the movement as a whole.

Starting from basic class demands in the face of massive redundancy threats, they came to the conviction that they had a special role to play in the struggle. The women also understood that the ability of the miners to understand their needs and-their demands would be decisive for the unity of future struggles. This is surely the main explanation for the fact that a good number of these women’s groups decided to continue organising after the defeat of the strike. Women Against Pit Closures continues to occupy a central place in the Justice For Mineworkers campaign which aims at the reinstatement of all workers sacked or imprisoned as a result of the strike. The influence of feminism within this process is obvious. But what was of greatest significance was the forms of self-organisation which the women developed to carry out their solidarity work.

The structures imposed at the beginning by the nature of the mining communities themselves reflected both their degree of cohesion and the separation between the men’s and women’s worlds. The collective kitchens, the groups organised around popularising the strike quickly took on another dimension (without undermining their original function) because of the exchanges of experience and collective thinking by the women about their own reality. They were encouraged in this by the example of the women of Greenham Common. ‘It was only women that made peace camps, it was the women who made a stand for peace. I know men agree with it, but it took women to get up off their arses and do something before things moved‘ said one wife from South Yorkshire. ‘They are brilliant those women!’ added another. [22] The setting up of coordination between Women Against Pit Closure groups and Greenham Common Groups underlined the common dimension of the two struggles.

The women’s peace movement to the rescue

The specific struggle of women within the peace movement is an international phenomenon and one aspect of the new forms of women’s radicalisation referred to above. Despite the difference in the level of mobilisation in different countries, such ‘movements within movements‘ perform the function of bringing a feminist dimension to the anti-war mobilisations and bringing a new political dimension to the women’s movement itself. Greenham Common is the best known example of this type of campaign.

The camp installed by these women outside the military base of the same name which was designated as the site for 96 cruise missiles became a catalyst for the British peace movement. Through their combativity and en- durance over the months and years, their daily confrontations with the forces of law and order forcing the military authorities to transform the base into a veritable fortified camp, the women of Greenham Common have helped to popularise the objectives of the peace movement both in Britain and abroad. Despite the deployment of cruise missiles which was seen by peace activists as a grave threat, the women did not give up. Their obstinacy helped ensure that the question of nuclear armament remain a central political question.

Since the (defensive) effectiveness of cruise missiles depends on their unseen mobility, the continued existence of the peace camp has limited their activity. The Greenham women, backed up by an organisation called Cruisewatch, have made each missile journey public, and have slowed its progress.

The nine-mile perimeter fence round the United States Air Force base at Greenham is a patchwork of dams, a symbol of army fallibility and peace women‘s determination. [23]

In many cases these women, workers and housewives who have never been politically active before, were motivated to get involved in the struggle for peace by concern for their children’s future. ‘We do not want our children to die in a nuclear holocaust‘, said Helen John, one of the spokeswoman of the movement, who left her husband and five children in order to go and live at Greenham. [24] On the basis of a spontaneous reaction to the threat of war, the women of Greenham developed a critique of all aspects of government policy calling for actions at schools, hospitals, offices, to demonstrate the ‘link between the lack of funds for these institutions and the money being poured into the arms race’. [25] By these means they began to push the trade union leaderships to put their congress resolutions into practice. Because of their tenacity and their links with trade unionists locally, the women managed to get the Trade Union Congress representing nine million trade unionists to support International Women’s Day for Disarmament on 24 May 1984. [26]

The women of Greenham have also played an important role in the establishment of links with other anti-war campaigns, particularly with the independent peace groups in Eastern Europe, thus showing the truly internationalist character of this movement. In the course of trips to the USSR where they were received like heroines of the anti-imperialist struggle, they managed to make contact with the spokespersons of the Moscow group (to the great displeasure of the Soviet bureaucrats who did everything to prevent it).

Through their activity, debates and their subsequent challenge to the traditional role of women in society, the women of Greenham, became, in the same way as the miners‘ wives, a source of inspiration for feminists the world over. [27]

However, underlying the motivation of many of the women of Greenham (and that of activists in the Dutch Vrouwen voor Vrede or the German Women for Peace Groups) is the concept of the ‘non-violent nature’ of women and other theories which are dangerous for feminists. ‘Dangerous because they trap women within a set of values conjured up for them by patriarchal society: psychological and political make-up flowing from the maternal function, from "natural" qualities of gentleness and goodwill towards the human race. [28]

Some German feminists have developed this approach systematically. They put the question of male violence at the centre of their actions, believing that war is only one aspect of that, on the same level as rape, violence in the home and pornography. But such an analysis only serves to confuse cause and effect. It is not male violence or the psychology of individual males that is the root cause of militarism and women’s oppression, but the system of production and reproduction as a whole and centred on the social relations of domination. [29]

The super-hierarchical and oppressive institutions of the military establishment synthesise all the most reactionary values in society such as submission, blind obedience and discipline. They make typically ‘masculine’ values like virility, aggression and strength into supreme virtues. Such institutions consider women as minors that have to be protected and defended like children and old people in order to enclose us in the social role ‘for which we were created’- which fits in so well with their interests—that of wife, mother and at best nurses, teachers and secretaries. The essential function of the army is to maintain and defend an oppressive society, a class and patriarchal society, whose interests and order we utterly reject. [30]

So wrote Spanish feminist Fina Rubio who was echoed in a different way by US feminist, Johanna Brenner:

“The link between women’s liberation and anti-militarism rests on our opposition to this social order and our demand for full participation in public life, a living wage and creative work. The right to live as a lesbian. Collective responsibility for children. Thus to be able to mother without depending on a man. We oppose militarism because it denies these goals-in its defence of capitalist power and capitalist interests around the globe, in its celebration of masculinity defined by women’s inferiority. in its absorption of resources and corresponding impoverishment of social expenditures.” [31]

In this framework we are in complete agreement with all those women who, at the inspiration of the Greenham women, have in their ideas and activities stressed the scandal of the choices made by the state in relation to ‘public spending‘. The anti-militarist collective in Barcelona also confirms that: ‘To remain in NATO would imply coming to the aid of patriarchy in the oppression of other women. This is yet another argument for being against military blocs and for a neutrality policy which is active and solidarises with all women and all oppressed peoples of the world.’ They then suggest: ‘We think that we must make an inventory of the costs of maintenance of the army, of nuclear material, of arms factories and personnel employed and attempt to draw up an alternative budget which is at least partial if not total) [32]

Whatever disagreements there may be with particular aspects of the orientation of the international women’s peace movement, there is no doubt that its discussions and activities have breathed new life and ideas into the women’smovement and helped to approach the relationship between oppression and patriarchy in a new light.

Black and immigrant women in revolt

A further important element in the radicalisation of new layers of women is the development of feminism among immigrant women and those from ethnic minorities in a number of European countries. Here again the participation of working class women from these communities in exemplary struggles is a new phenomenon. From the strike over wages by Turkish, Greek and Yugoslav women in the car components factory in Pierburg, West Germany in 1973; that of Asian women at Grunwicks in Britain fighting for trade union rights and the strikes by Philips workers in a series of countries, we have already seen several examples of some of the most exploited layers of women fighting for their basic rights. But what is new is the determination to organise themselves independently and on a permanent basis.

In West Germany, Southern European immigrant women held their first national conference in 1984. The delegates declared that they would take up the struggle on three fronts at the same time: as women oppressed within the family; as immigrants who are totally dependent of their husbands, because they do not possess their own residents‘ permits; and as workers doing the lowest paid and most menial jobs.

In France, beyond the Immigrant Women’s Collective which has existed since 1982 and is the umbrella organisation of most of the immigrant women’s associations, there is now also an Association of Arab Women, which came out of a festival organised in 1983 by an independent immigrant radio station which made air time available for the discussion of the problems of women immigrants. This included discussion on previously taboo issues like contraception. In the meantime, a second generation of Arab women were playing a role in the frontline of the anti-racist movement, taking up the discrimination to which they were subjected to by their brothers and demanding more freedom.

The demands and preoccupations of immigrant women have forced feminists in different European countries to look at things afresh. Nowhere has this been more the case than in Britain where women from the ex-colonies are part of the advance guard of the movement and are challenging many of the old ideas of the movement. In particular they reject the choice posed to them by the radical feminists: either fight racism side by side with men or fight sexism alongside feminists. Their strong reaction against the incomprehension or insensitivity of many white women to their needs has led to a number of them rethinking the issue of family and the role that it plays for ethnic minorities in imperialist countries like Britain.

That many white socialist-feminists ignore racialist attacks on Black households is not new. However, in doing so, they also ignore the fact that harassment and racial attacks from white women and white men, and sometimes white families, can impel solidarity within Black households. Whatever inequalities exist in such households, they are clearly also sites of support for their members. In saying this, we are recognising that Black women may have significant issues to face within Black households. Struggles over sexuality and against domestic violence, for example, have been important issues for all feminists, including Black feminists, and have involved confronting assumptions about domestic relationships. But at the same time the Black family is a source of support in the context of harassment and attacks from white people. [33]

In particular immigrant women, like women in Latin America and other colonial countries, established that the right to choose cannot be reduced to the right to abortion and contraception as the European and US movements have tended to do.

In the last few years, women of colour have alerted white feminists to the eugenic and racist prejudices informing certain doctors’ readiness to grant or withhold abortion or to introduce the dangerous injected contraceptive Depro-provera. Some doctors are known to give abortions to women they consider ‘unfit’ mothers only on the condition that the women agree to their concurrent sterilisation . . . These realisations have prompted many feminists to rephrase their previous demand for the right to free contraception and abortion and call instead for reproductive rights. [34]

All these facets of the new forms of radicalisation represent a decisive contribution to the recomposition of a future women’s movement. In most countries in Europe the overall political situation and defensive character of many workers’ struggles does not facilitate the task of socialist feminists who are hoping to define an orientation based on a class perspective, taking account of all aspects of the specific oppression of women and men. This is obvious in a case like the miners’ strike, so exceptional in its scope and duration. As the women from Women Against Pit Closures said: ‘Nothing will ever be the same again.’ What exactly is the way forward in a movement which is so diverse—not to say dispersed, as the women’s movement is today?

Some possible lines of resistance

The above analysis tends to show that women have not surrendered to the effects of the crisis and that the inherent contradictions of capitalist society have only served to increase women‘s awareness of their position, even in the home where the weight of patriarchal relations weighs most heavily. The setbacks and partial defeats that the autonomous women’s movement has suffered, the fragmentation of its forces in different countries, have not prevented advances in analysis of the forms which discrimination against women can take in this period. Equally they have not prevented the development of struggle, sometimes successful, in new areas. Any discussion on strategy should base itself on these gains.

The introduction of new technology in the tertiary sector brings with it not only the loss of jobs in the short and medium term, but also a substantial worsening of women’s working conditions who make up the major proportion of the workforce in this sector. In relation to employment the most pessimistic predictions of the experts have not been immediately fulfilled. [35] In the first instance there has been a small creation of jobs because of the new requirements brought about by the introduction of microcomputers. But as time goes on, the automisation of most of the more repetitive tasks will lead to the opposite development. The fall in the price of office computers will undoubtedly contribute to this as it will allow every employer, however small time, to equip themselves with computers.

In West Germany, for example, where more than 200,000 jobs have been created between 1966 and 1982 in the banking sector alone, the trade unions predict that B0-110,000 jobs will be lost between now and 1990, out of the current 550,000. In the post office which is the biggest employer of female labour in the country between 40-60,000 jobs will disappear in the coming years. [36]

This type of job loss is accompanied by new forms of work organisation which tend to strengthen job segregation. One example in Denmark is the opening of broadcasting stations in outlying areas where women research assistants work on monitors which feed into a central computer. Many women like the fact that they no longer have to make long journeys and are thus in a better position to live up to family responsibilities, since this policy of decentralisation is accompanied by a policy of flexible hours. The major problem is however that the prospects for promotion are negligible and these women are assured of being trapped for ever in the lowest grades and worst paid jobs. It is no surprise to learn how the few (skilled) men working in such a place thirty kilometres from Copenhagen reacted: ‘I have no intention of working here more than two days a week‘, said one programmer, ‘because if I lose contact with the division in Copenhagen, I will not have the necessary information for going good work. Two days a week is quite enough. [37]

The joys of working for oneself

But the ability of the bosses to ‘make a man (in this case a woman) a slave to the machine does not stop there as the development of homework within the area of new technology demonstrates. In some countries, especially in northern Europe, the number of firms which are proposing to ‘solve’ women’s problems by installing a terminal in their homes now goes beyond the odd special case. In Britain this affects mainly semi-skilled technicians because the cost of telecommunications is so expensive that home work by unskilled female operators would not be financially viable for the time being. But technological development and privatisation will ensure that companies will extend this system if they can make a profit. The advantages are obvious: lower wage costs, limited contracts (that is to say no contracts at all since the women workers would be independent piece workers), nil risk of workers agitation, etc.

Women who have chosen this work have generally done so under duress, either because they cannot find other work, or because they have no one to look after the children. But a study carried out in Britain in 1980-81 showed, as one might expect, that most of the women complained of isolation, of the impossibility of doing their work with the kids around and of the constraints on their work time imposed by the clogging up of the central computer. Many started working at night, either to get some peace, or to avoid waiting hours for access to the figures that they needed or to economise on electricity. [38]

The reaction of most women workers questioned seems to show that for the time being they reject a form of work which traps them in the home and deprives them of social contacts which they particularly value, even if they might do a job which they do not enjoy. [39] Nevertheless, the possibility of struggle against the threat of an extension of homework will depend largely on the wider capacity of the workers movement to reply to unemployment connected with the introduction of new technology. The pressure of redundancy is a powerful argument at the disposal of the employer. But the examples of resistance seem to be limited since the trade-union leaderships seem more interested in the effects of restructuration in the main traditional bastions than in the female-dominated sectors.

Refusing to be slaves to the machine

The fight against job loss is not just a matter of saying ‘no to redundancies’ as important as that may be. It also raises the question of a decrease in hours or pace of work and a redistribution of labour in order to create new jobs. Typists at INSEE (the French national statistical centre) gave an example of this in a nine-week strike in 1981. Previously working a non-stop seven hour day, they managed to get 25 minutes extra breaktime and one hour of manual work other than on the screen, reducing hours worked on the machine to 5 hours 35 minutes (a big improvement, but still very wearing on the sight and on the nerves.Those who have taken up the fight against the harmful effects of work with a VDU are particularly concerned with health problems. The actions taken by US women show some steps forward in this respect. More than ten years ago workers in the administration at Boston University created a ‘9 to 5’ organisation. At a national level this organisation eventually had12,000 workers as members.

In 1983 it decided to launch an awareness campaign on working with a VDU, receiving more than 6,000 responses to a preliminary enquiry in 1982 and more than 40,000 in a 1983 survey. The results of these two surveys confirmed other studies conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) concerning increase in stress levels, the deterioration of sight among women working on VDUS etc. The causes of this were obvious: the rhythms of work dictated by the machine, the worker remaining in the same position all day, the absence of breaks, the lack of human contact, and all this for low Salaries. [40] Canadian workers at the Surrey Memorial Hospital set up an inquiry in-to the effects of radiation coming from VDU screens. It showed that out of seven women who were pregnant at the time, three had miscarriages, three had given birth to malformed children and only one had a normal pregnancy. The inquiry went on to prove that the machines were emitting above the normal level of low frequency radiation. Those in charge of the hospital had the audacity to respond that: ‘One also has to take into account the effects of alcohol on the foetus. How can you prove that these girls did not have a tot of whisky every night’? [41]

In this and in other cases, preventative measures for pregnant women have nearly always had to come from the women themselves. This is a basic issue of conditions of work which it is important that the trade union leaderships also take up. Another aspect of the struggle which is beginning over the introduction of new technology is over the deskilling that is involved in the vast majority of cases and especially for women. The CFDT (one of the two main French trade union federations) started an action for the training of all personnel affected by work reorganisation in the Cheques Postaux division of the post office following the effects of office automation. Firstly. The women workers had to be given confidence they could be retrained and that their objections to doing retraining outside of work time would be taken into account. After lengthy small-group discussions many women agreed that the demand for training for all was an important one. APEX (the British white collar union) has noted that, taking into account most job evaluation schemes merely evaluate one job in relation to another, ‘no amount of juggling can correct deskilling which often occurs if trade- unionists neglect job content at the stage of implementation or extension of electronic systems. [42]

The ‘comparable worth’ solution

Assessment of job content is something which feminists in the USA have been concerned with in their far-reaching campaign on the question of comparable worth. This involves a comparative study between different types of work in order to show how certain aspects of women’s work are systematically passed over when job evaluation takes place. The policy of equal pay has remained inoperative for the most part, whether it is the result of specific legislation like the Equal Pay Act in Britain which was preceded by mass mobilisations or whether it was the result of legal decree establishing the principle of equality between men and women. The British Equal Pay Act is ineffective because, in most instances, the law is not implemented by the employer, even where the work is equal. Official bodies that police the act fail to enforce it. This was nowhere more evident than in the recent case in a British industrial tribunal of a woman worker in the canteen at Cammell Laird shipyards who was claiming discrimination.

The tribunal judged that, although she was doing work of equal value to a man, this did not mean that she should be remunerated through equal bonuses. Finally and most importantly, these type of laws have no effect because ‘equal work’ does not really exist. In this sense the fight for ‘comparable worth‘ has the advantage of highlighting the systematic downgrading of the work women do and of ex-posing the mechanisms of job assessment. According to one author the concept “threatens to upset the way the labour market in particular and society in general are organised‘. Firstly, because it is costly. Secondly, because it knocks on the head the idea that the value of men’s work is superior to that of women. Thirdly, ‘comparable worth would redistribute not only economic resources, but also labour market power to women workers’.” [43] However, the main problem with this approach is that it takes place within a certain established framework that of the hierarchy of values and jobs which prevail in capitalist society.

“Most campaigns for comparable worth aim only to distribute people meritocratically into a hierarchy of jobs, to decide where women’s jobs should be on the ladder-should a secretary get paid more or less than a truck driver? A favourite theme of comparable worth campaigns is to compare nurses to skilled male blue-collar workers; in the Denver campaign a common example involved nurses and tree-trimmers, and a recent pamphlet by the Democratic National Committee Women’s Task Force compared nurses and sign painters. The message is that nurses are smarter because they are more educated—what an outrage it is that smart nurses are paid less than dumb tree-trimmers! . . . But this kind of elitism can easily be turned around on women and divide us. If nurses are smarter than truck drivers, then aren’t nurses also smarter than secretaries? Than waitresses?” [44]

This is certainly not the way to forge unity between white and Black women who are so newly making their voices heard.

A movement that intends to speak for all women can hardly afford to accept such inequalities in opportunity and position between us. When comparable worth studies open pay scales up to negotiation, feminists ought to be arguing for reduced pay differentials between all workers as a key part of the charges. [45]

Quite apart from this another problem comes out of the work quoted. This type of approach ends up merely accumulating case histories and giving pride of place to all sorts of experts who are the only ones deemed capable of working through the legal maze. Although ultra-leftism can be a danger here, we must also be wary of the value of court actions to defend women’s rights. Experience shows that it is possible to use successful legal action in order to encourage women to mobilise against discrimination; but equally it is dangerous to set off on a purely legalistic road giving the last word to the representatives of the established order.

The fight against shiftwork and nightwork

In their desire to make new and costly machinery financially viable, and to increase work productivity, the bourgeoisie is increasingly enforcing more and more shiftwork. This affects more men than women proportionately, but women feel the problems very acutely because of home and childcare responsibility; shiftwork often upsets the delicate balance they have established in their double day’s work. Most women workers who were asked showed an ambivalent attitude towards part time work which they saw as a guarantee of independence and social contact, but also as something which kept them away from their families. A further nuance was the difference in attitude between relatively skilled office and other workers and unskilled women workers regarding the priorities which each put on their family / work scale of values. [46] But both groups, when asked, if asked, would almost certainly say that they do not want to work irregular hours because this would mean too much upheaval and possibly family conflict.

At the Angers factory of Thompson in France the 70% female workforce (S2 % of the unskilled workers) delayed management setting up a new shift system there for two years. That was after several minor stop-pages, innumerable pressures and the promise of various alluring offers(such as 13 months wages on retirement and a significant reduction in the work week). In the end they sacked about ten of the most intransigent. The workers claimed that ‘Shift work is slow death’ and were confirmed in this conviction by tales of woe from colleagues already working shifts who had to get the children up at five o‘clock in the morning and worried about them leaving them alone at night in an empty house. They spoke of the ruination of family life, of their children being brought up like orphans, of problems with their husbands who did not appreciate their wives working such hours. [47]

But if shiftwork poses such grave problems, then nightwork can constitute a threat not only to workers‘social life but to their health and mental stability. Employers within the EEC have made clear their intention to fight to lift the legal ban on nightwork. A debate on Convention 89 of the OIT has been promised by the European parliament between now and 1991. In several countries such as Belgium, the government has begun sounding out the trade unions by producing material on the career openings for women that would be possible with the introduction of nightwork. Elsewhere, as in Switzerland, the employers have tried to get abrogation of the law.

The management of a watch factory, Ebauches SA of Neuchâtel, where nightwork for men had been in force for some time tried to introduce it for women also. The women resisted, encouraged by feminist groups, socialist organisations and sections of the trade unions. Following a broad mobilisation which included demonstrations of women in nightdresses and protest actions of all kinds, the Federal Office of Industry (OFIAMT) was forced (at least provisionally) to take the side of workers against management. In their case to the OFIAMT management argued:

"Women are more tolerant of monotonous work than men. A man could do the work very well but after only a short time he would be demanding a change in his work situation. This work demands patience, professional awareness, and endurance because it is repetitive work. Experience has shown that women are better adapted to such work. Women tend to get more job satisfaction from boring and repetitive work. They do not get bored but allow their imaginations to flow. Experience has shown that they do not want change in their work. Whereas once a man has mastered a certain work process, they either want to change to something else or they want to change the process to suit them [and that is something we don’t want here). The jobs in question offer very little chance of promotion… [48]

A little less subtle than the Belgian government’s propaganda! The support committee for the Neuchatel women organised a forum on the implications of nightwork on health in which several doctors, specialists, trade unionists and other workers came to testify to the effects of nocturnal activity on workers‘ physical and mental condition. Take the example of the labourer employed on the railways who simply said: ‘It is now 12 years that l have worked nights and on shifts, without any regular meals, and hardly ever hot meals. Out of 20 colleagues who have retired, there are three, no more, who have reached 65. [49]

The main consequences of this type of work are well-known: sleeplessness, stomach problems, nervous depression etc. These sort of phenomena also occur with shift work which starts at four or five o’clock in the morning.

So rather than taking up the discrimination involved in banning nightwork for women and thus banning them from certain jobs, it would be better to turn the problem on its head and take up the employers proposals to lift the ban in order to instead demand its extension to all workers, male and female, except in socially necessary areas. This was the position adopted by French feminists in the Etats Generaux on women and work which brought together about 2,000 women in 1982.

We believe that a double response is necessary. On the one hand, it is important that laws against sexist discrimination should prevent any opportunity for an employer to refuse a woman a job that she wants on the grounds that she is a woman. Any anti-sexist law must take this into account. On the other hand it is necessary to take a fresh look at al legislation on nightwork for men and women. Nightwork is forbidden for men and women in Sweden, why not in France? Of course there would have to be exemptions, but shouldn’t that be up to the male and female workers to decide? [50]

Keep your dignity, keep your job

Sexual harassment may have been taken up in different ways in different countries [51] but it is one issue which has shown the real impact of feminism in challenging centuries—old taboos. The literature on sexual harassment is abundant, especially in the USA where in-depth studies have shown that between 40-80% of women asked said that they had been victims of sexual harassment at their place of work. In Britain research has established a figure of 60%. [52]

It didn’t matter whether the women were old, young, white, black, good—looking or not, the only common factor that one survey done by the Michigan Task Force could uncover, was that the women who were sexually harassed had all eventually lost their jobs in one way or another: either they had been sacked, they had left, or they had been transferred. [53] What characterises sexual harassment is its coercive character and the threat it poses to women‘sjobs, not to mention their health. [54] “The difficulty comes from the fact that, for several reasons, women do not dare talk about it”, explained a worker on Antoinette, the women’s journal of the CGT (the French Communist Party-led trade union federation) [55]. Antoinette has recently been taken to court for defamation of a manager in the PTT (the French post office and telecommunications agency) accused of sexual blackmail of one of his employees. It is the first time that a trial of this character has come before a magistrate’s court in France.

Another controversial case was that of a parliamentary representative of the German Green Party who was denounced by one of the secretaries of the parliamentary fraction of the party for sexual harassment. He was stripped of all his functions as a result since his colleagues felt that such activity was unacceptable and in breach of their support for the women’s liberation movement. In itself, this event is quite banal, but what caused the real heat was not the act of aggression itself, but the fact that the party deliberately chose to make a political issue out of it. The women in the Greens’ Bundestag (parliament) fraction drew up a document on the basis of a survey to which they received 1,000 replies. [56]

The document established that 78% of the men asked claimed ignorance of any cases of sexual harassment. But it also revealed the refusal of the workers’ movement in most cases, to confront the issue. The fact that the food industry trade union, for example, could reply to the questionnaire “that to our knowledge there is no example of this type” is amazing. And as for the public sector union (OTV), who were asked if there had been any cases of sexual harassment at their congress or during trade union training sessions, it replied that “it is a purely polemical question. We have never heard of anything like this”.

Trade unions and women’s liberation

The statements by these two German trade unions should hardly be surprising. Ever since feminists have fought publicly on the issue of women’s oppression they have encountered opposition within the workers’ movement to any issue outside the traditional trade union framework which was considered to belong to the so-called area of ‘private life’. In the past it was common to encounter the question ‘Is contraception an issue?’ [57] It took the huge movements on abortion and contraception to force the unions to admit that it was.

It took several more years for some of those organisations to also recognise that leaving the final decision on abortion in the hands of doctors or committees of experts was no solution either. Today only IG Metal, one of the main trade unions within the German DGB trade union federation, agrees that, ‘The right of a woman to control her own body is the only criteria that can be taken into account’. Feminists in Britain had to wage a ten year campaign, with mass demonstrations organised by the National Abortion Campaign, before the l985 Labour Party conference finally agreed to abolish the ‘conscience clause‘ whereby Labour Members of Parliament were able to vote how they wished on the issue of abortion, thus giving them the right to vote against the line of the party which was for a woman‘s right to choose. These are important steps forward although we must have no illusions in their immediate import. ‘It is rather depressing to understand why the Powell Bill failed’, explained one NAC activist about the lastest legal threat to abortion rights, which was finally rejected in parliament through a procedural manoeuvre. ‘Unlike John Corrie’s bill of five years ago, it was not defeated by the weight of the labour movement fighting with pro-choice groups and the women’s movement . . . There is very little activity on this question. [58]

The German trade unions have made a radical turn since the Green’s scandal in parliament. Some leaders even talk about patriarchy. At its last congress, the OTV did not just come out against this type of sexual harassment, but went so far as to condemn violence and rape in marriage. [59]

This is a long way from the reluctance to even discuss such matters in the past. This is linked to the fact that in countries like Britain and West Germany the position of women within trade unions is changing, both numerically and in terms of their status within these organisations. [60]

The battle for trade-union representation

In the past few years a battle has been started by women to get more representation in the leading bodies of the workers’ organisations. Quite apart from the battle by WAC inside the Labour Party, most of the British trade unions have been forced to take some measures to increase the presence of women in their leaderships. In the National Union of Tailor and Garment Workers, for example, there is a majority of women on the leadership, whilst 42% of the executive of the major manual public sector workers union NUPE is female. But this is not the case in the rest of Europe.

In West Germany women workers are still only entitled to the smallest voice when it comes to decision making. But the example of the Greens who adopted the principle of 50% quotas of women at all levels of the party has begun to have an impact in other political parties as well as in the trade unions. [61] Having calculated that it would take 90 years to become barely half of the leadership through waiting their turn, the women in the GTB textile union with a predominantly female membership, declared that they had had enough and demanded immediate measures to make their voices heard. In southern Europe, however, the picture is very different because the general loss of union membership in these countries is very often accompanied by a proportionate loss in female representation.

The situation in Italy seems particularly dramatic for a country where women’s committees in unions went through an unprecedented development in the mid 1970s. At that time several union bodies, like the CGIL-CISL-UIL. Joint union committee in Turin or the FLM metal workers union, took a very innovative approach. They proposed the ‘I50 hours of education‘, an experiment in collective self-education, open to non trade-union women on issues like women’s health at work, abortion or the problem of the family. This initiative had a big impact on all the women’s groups within the unions. From 1975 to 1978, supported by the trade-union left, these feminist organisations were strengthened and beginning to be recognised. New coordinating committees were set up starting with the biggest, the committee for the coordination of metal worker delegates, on both a local and a national level and the women demonstrated in their thousands in separate contingents on demonstrations.

In 1978, the new female presence in the union was totally accepted. [62] But today, not only have all the structures disappeared, but the participation of women in the life of the trade unions has gone through a massive regression. This was underlined by an official of the CGIL at its last congress: ‘Women workers represent 30% of the members. In the intermediary congresses only 25% of delegates were women and their interventions on the platform were only 15% of the total. In the regional conferences the proportion of women was even lower, reaching only 10to 11%. [63]

The question of numbers is important given the apathy of trade union leaderships to any decision which doesn’t suit them. This is especially the ease when it comes to defending the interests of the most oppressed layers, where there is every chance that resolutions concerning women’s rights would remain a dead letter if women were not present in leadership bodies and in the negotiating committees to defend their rights.

However, there are many difficulties. Many women still see their work as a source of pin money, supplementary to the family wage and judge that their domestic tasks are more important than any other, even when their children have grown up. Moreover, trade union meetings usually take place outside of work time—a major obstacle for most women. Furthermore, women are concentrated in small and medium-sized workplaces where the level of organisation and mobilisation is much weaker. Finally women have little confidence in themselves and are not encouraged by sexist attitudes which continue to prevail in the trade unions.

Fight corporatism, chauvinism and sexism

Of course numbers are not everything. It is also important that the attitudes of workers organisations on the question of women’s rights allow the battle to be fought. In fact if you examine the platforms of the trade unions you are usually quite struck by the progress that has been made. This is undoubtedly the result of the pressure of the autonomous women’s movement in the last 15 years or so. [64] But trade union leaders continue to ‘forget’ women when it comes to the negotiating table just as they also’ forget’ the special interests of young people and immigrants. This was underlined by Claudia Pin], a former trade union full-time worker and journalist on the West German DGB’s monthly journal, who speaks from experience: ‘It is not surprising: in their vast majority, these (trade union leaders) are former skilled workers who have never questioned the conditions of unskilled workers, especially women piece workers or typists.’ [65]

Of course it is difficult to generalise as the activity of IG Metall in the electronics factory of Rhenanie-Nord-Westphalie in Detmold, WestGermany, showed. In this factory which employs 1,500 people and TOO women workers who do piece work in the home for miserable wages, IG-Metall carried out a massive mobilisation of the women and through locally based meetings managed to unionise first 150 and then 400 of the women. They are now represented on the union council fighting to get a collective contract. But this is an exceptional example. Generally, trade union representatives are rarely sensitive to the question of the sexual division of labour and tend to justify all sorts of discrimination.

In the 16 proposals for CFDT members on VDUs dated 1982 the presence of women is noted in the following way: they talk about ‘female computer scientists, female workers on the cathode screens, female wage earners, female employees‘, that is to say, they translate the different grades into the feminine where possible or applicable, but no mention is made of the division of labour existing between men and women and the coming changes. and none of the problems of the sexual division of labour are even sketched out. [66]

The author of the above lines, Chantal Rogerat, was a former editor of Antoinette sacked by the CGT on the eve of their forty—first congress in1982 for a “grave error” for having defended a socialist feminist line in the women’smagazine of the CGT as well as supporting Solidarnosc and publishing letters from readers expressing disagreement with the line of support for Jaruzelski put forward by the CGT and the Communist Party in France. [67] She is a living example of the difficulty of trying to impose a feminist and internationalist point of view on organisations whose degree of bureaucratisation is extreme and whose direction is reformist. And this is the whole nub of the question. Nine times out of ten the demands of the most oppressed layers conflict with the line of compromise defended by the workers‘ organisations, especially in a period of recession. Belgian women in the ‘Women against the crisis’ campaign went through this experience. At the beginning of the l980s, at the height of huge waves of struggle against the government, they managed to set up a broad trade union united front in defence of women’s rights against unemployment and part-time work, against rearmament and for the right to work for all, especially migrant women. But the policy of support for the government by the Christian trade unions (CSC) and the refusal of the FGTB trade union federation to wage a serious struggle against government policy helped to break this campaign. And what is true in Belgium is also true elsewhere.

Women’s rights and reformism

We can see from the tenth conference of DOB women (in West Germany), how much the unions limit themselves to their function of ‘cooperative societies’ in periods of crisis: what is at the centre of their policy is the defence of minimum demands, the attempt—and only that- to limit the damage in the deterioration of conditions of work and life. There was no question of qualitative advances in the feminisation of the trade unions because of the accumulated problems in establishing a compromise in a crisis and the differences the unions as to the state of the discussion. [68]

This was in 1981. But even four years later at the eleventh congress, the representative from the DGB leadership made it clear that new technology was vital to the competitiveness of German industry on the world market. This is exactly the same type of logic defended by the CFDT, the majority union at Thompson in Angers, during the struggle described above. The struggle looked lost at the beginning because the CFDT kept being evasive in order to try and fit in with management’s demands, making alter-native proposals which in fact were not satisfactory either to management or workers. They kept drawing up formulas for the cheapest human and economic costs which had the effect of frittering the movement away and handing the initiative to the employer. In this way the profoundly radical idea of refusing to do shift work, taken up by the Angers workers was not taken up by the CFDT. [69]

This defeat had repercussions within the workers’ movement on a national level as well as among the bosses who decided to take advantage of it in other factories. We could give many examples like that of the Italian electronics multinational, SGS, whose management decided to introduce night work for women workers and received a sympathetic hearing from the CISL. The trade union official responsible did not hide the fact that the union encountered strong resistance from the women who wanted nothing to do with nightshift working, even with a 50% wage increase and the exclusion of Sunday working.

The trade union representative castigated the rigid attitudes of the women in the following terms: ‘We can see here how much day to day culture, habits and lack of ability to imagine a different relationship to leisure still holds sway here’, she declared. Insisting on the high cost of investment and the rapidity with which machines become obsolete in the electronics business, she asserted: ‘We are witnessing a continuous cycle which is not imposed on us by the demands of technology (as is the case in chemical or steel industries) but by the economic and financial situation. [70]

This last example shows that reformism is not the preserve of men only. It is simplistic to assert as Anna Coote does in an article in the journal of the British Communist Party, Marxism Today, that ‘Labour institutional blindness persists in spite of our efforts to make it see’ (us being women) and that passive resistance by trade-union leaderships in relation to feminist demands come from the fact that it is men who control these institutions and organisations. [71]

Of course men tend to be conservative on these questions and this is reflected in the orientation of left currents within the workers parties as well as in the trade unions (and it is true that these currents are largely dominated by men). Despite very progressive positions on many issues they have great difficulty in incorporating a feminist perspective into their struggle. This is true in the case of the Bennites in the British Labour Party and in the case of the opposition inside the CFDT in France who very seldom take up the demands of women in their activity or even in their platform.

The congress of the British National Union of Mineworkers rejected the demand made by Women Against Pit Closures for associate membership and devoted precisely 15 lines in its annual report on the role of the wives’ groups, even though they continue to be in the frontline of the battle in defence of the victims of repression. Conservatism is also present in many of the far left parties which may have a correct programme but are nonetheless extraordinarily passive when it comes to defending it in day to day activity. Some have dragged their heels when it comes to recognising basic rights such as abortion. However we will never resolve anything using Anna Coote’s method which recommends a separate struggle from men and then “making alliances” with them. For us it is clear that this road will lead to an impasse.

What perspectives for the feminist movement

The fact that working women are forced to do a double shift is one of thebasic things which divides male and female workers in capitalist society. This unpaid work done by women in the home takes on a decisive importance for the capitalist class who, without it, would have to increase wages and cut into their own profits as a result. But if this is true for the capitalist class, it is not true that women’s work in the home contributes to improving the standard of living of the working class as a whole—and that this therefore serves the interests of the male working class. It is not by fighting men as such—who also suffer from the system of exploitation—that we will solve the problem.This is not to say in any sense that we should postpone the struggle againstthe specific oppression of a particular group, especially women. Nor is itto underestimate the breadth and difficulties of the struggle now against sexism within the working class which is obviously a factor in the oppression of women.

The capitalist drive for profits creates the conditions under which men and women negotiate the division of labour within the household. In this process, men have an incentive to protect their traditional family roles which, however burdensome, also confer important privileges. For men to share childcare and housework equally would substantially decrease their (already small) leisure time, since domestic work has to be done along with a normal work day . . . The traditional ideology (domestic work is the woman’s responsibility) strengthens men’s positions and undermines women in the conflict over who will have how much free time. [72]

The fight to get men to take responsibility for domestic tasks has an importance which neither Marx nor Engels saw (although Bebel did more) because they were convinced that the massive involvement of women in the labour market would break up the family. Instead women, while becoming an essential part of the waged workforce, have not been liberated from ‘their’ domestic tasks as a result and because of the wage differentials with men, for most, economic dependency continues.

How can domestic tasks which today fall on women become a collective responsibility? How will the struggle to change social relations and the relations between men and women develop? Unemployment, the lowering of the family income, the absence of collective establishments, the renewed attacks on the right of women to control their own bodies create an enormous pressure making it all the more difficult for women to find the time to get organised and the energy to fight the sexual division of labour within the family. However, the solution is certainly not the one proposed by some British feminists who propose an incomes policy which would undermine male wages in order to increase female wages, or in other words to redistribute that part of the cake which the capitalists choose to give to the working class. [73]

And nor is it a matter, as some feminists seem to hope, of relying on a ministry of women‘s rights to resolve the problems. Even right-wing governments like the Kohl government in West Germany are promising this whilst at the same time making massive cuts in social spending. The examples of France and the Spanish state show the limits of such ministries in governments led by Socialist Patties pursuing policies of austerity. At best all such bodies are able to do is create a discussion in the media about women’s problems and occasionally subsidise certain projects or centres within the women’s movement, as is the case in the Spanish state. [74]

Feminism = idealism?

A coherent response to the attacks that women are subject to would have to include the fight for a policy of a minimum wage, of work for all, forth creation of equipment collectives which will also create jobs-alongside of a challenge to the sexual division of labour, the fight against all forms of violence, for minority rights and for the right to choose . . . Is this unrealistic? If you look at the problem from the point of view of the economic resources potentially available, of course it is not. Is it simplistic, taking into account the defensive character of workers struggles today? This argument is a more serious one. But is the attempt to reconcile the interests of the employers and the workers any more realistic? This is not what the examples we have given above would indicate. To negotiate on the basis of a relation of forces established in the course of struggle is one thing. But to limit your objectives and abandon from the beginning certain demands because of ’the needs of the national economy’ or ‘modernisation’ is another. Is it idealistic, given the state of the women’s movement today‘? The movement is dispersed. It has suffered deep divisions. Contrary to the illusions pedalled by some feminists of the “first wave”, it is clear that not all women have the same interests (even if they have some common interests).

Nowadays feminism is pluralistic and cannot be reduced to one unitary ‘Women’s Liberation Movement’. However this does not negate the need for an independent movement, capable of taking initiatives and leading national and international campaigns in defence of women’s rights. The history of the women’s groups within the peace movement, their ability to pose new problems and to make themselves heard because they were both in-side the peace movement and organised autonomously as women, tends to confirm this. Of course it is not easy to win demands which will make a big hole in the employers‘profits as the demand for creches or nursery schools, for example, would. The difficulty is compounded given that these demands also imply a change in social relations.

We want not just any form of childcare, but parents and worker-controlled childcare, cheap and based in the community and workplace. And we need to put these demands into an anti-capitalist, pro-woman political framework. This political framework must offer a vision of democratic and participatory institutions to meet real life needs, replacing of the fundamentally hierarchical and privatised institutions—including the isolated nuclear family-that we have. The conflict women face between being caring and being autonomous is not inevitable, but the effect of the way society is organised: the way production is organised, the way work is organised, the way our daily needs are met. We have to insist that the road to a more human society is not through forcing women back into the kitchen, but by making the one-family kitchen obsolete. And until that’s possible, by making everybody—husbands, kids, etc—share responsibility for family care. [75]

It is a long-term political project which presupposes the overthrow of the whole system and we have not got there yet. But it is important to know where we want to go. Precisely because the women’s liberation movement carries a significant challenge to social relations, it can play an important role in the recomposition of the workers’ movement—-on condition of course that it participates in that movement and that feminists who defend an anti-capitalist view know how to make their voices heard. The strategy which the women‘s movement needs in order to achieve unity in the face of divisions and also to retain its memory and continuity, is the subject of many debates at the present time.

We are not pretending to have all the solutions and do not think that it will be easy under present conditions. But the movement must show its readiness to fight all forms of discrimination and to solidarise with the struggles of the oppressed and exploited in general, both at the national and international level. Despite all the limitations the mobilisations of feminists in Western Europe have shown on several occasions the deep internationalist consciousness that exists. For us, socialists and feminists, this is a very important gain because it is from our ability to listen to each other and learn from different situations that we will draw our strength to carry on in the struggle for the liberation of women and to change society.


[1] The average unemployment in Western Europe has now reached 10% of the active population. In one in every two cases the rate of unemployment is higher for women than for men, reaching or going beyond 20% in countries like the Spanish state, Belgium or Italy. For more detailed figures on the situation of women workers in Europe see International Viewpoint No 94, 10 March 1986.

[2] For the horrifying statistics on this see “Alt = Arm” in the collection Frauen in dern BRD, (VSA, 1983)

[3] Frigga Haug, “The women’s movement in West Germany”, New Left Review, No 155, January-February, 1986, p.73

[4] In l977, statistics for the US showed that 47% of women heads of family in the US were on the poverty line and that proportion must have gone up since. Even taking into account that poor families tend to undervalue the man’s income in tax declarations (especially in cases of divorce or where a couple are living together) the situation of such women is nonetheless serious

[5] Jean Gardiner, “Women, recession and the Tories”, in Essays on Thatcherism (London: Laurence and Wishart, 1983), p.189.

[6] In Europe, an average of 60% of married women are economically active. This percentage goes beyond 70 and 80% in Belgium and Sweden respectively

[7] Figures given by the Equal Opportunities Commission for Great Britain show that nearly one million families depended on one person in 1985. Out of those, 151,000 were women. The proportions in Sweden and West Germany follow similar patterns.

[8] See Paola Manacorda and Paola Piva, Terminale donna, (Ediziono Lavoro, 1985), p.97 and Femmes et marché du travail, (Paris: Hatier, I985), p.61

[9] Johanna Brenner and Maria Ramas, “Rethinking women’s oppression”, New Left Review, No 144, March 1984, p.60.

[10] In several countries (such as Denmark, Netherlands and Sweden) part-time work concerns nearly half the women who are economically active. In Europe on average 80% of the part-time workforce is made up of women workers (nearly 95% in West Germany and Great Britain). We are talking then about roughly a quarter of the active population involved in this work and all that it brings with it; low wages, insecurity of employment, minimal benefits, irregular hours, lack of promotion prospects.

[11Rinascita, 28 June 1936

[12] On the question of job segregation and the impact of new technology on female labour, the literature produced by the women‘s movement is plentiful, especially in the USA. For Europe see Diane Werneke, Microelectronics and office jobs, (Geneva: ILO, 1983); Jacki West, “New Technology and Women”, “Office work” in Work, women and the labour market, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982); Cynthia Cockburn, Brothers - Male dominance and technological change, (London: Pluto Press, 1983); Le sexe du travail, collection of contributions from the tenth world congress on sociology, Mexico, 1982, (Grenoble: University press, 1934; Cahiers du feminisme, No 28, Spring 1934; “Hoch die Technologie-—Neider moit der Frauen-nerwerbsarbeit?” in Traumen verboten, ed. by Karin Roth, (Hamburg: VSA Verlag, 1984); Frauen computer, ed. Elisabeth Vogelheim, (Hamburg: Rororo. 1984); Terminale donna, op. cit.; Patricia A. Roos, Gender and work, New York: State University of New York Press, 1985).

[13] Mary Alice Walters, “Ideological offensive against women”, in Intercontinental Press, December 2 1985.

[14] See “Employment and unemployment”, Eurostat 1985, (Office of Statistics of the European Community, 1935). It is not possible to see exactly how this is reflected by profession because the statistics do not distinguish between men and women.

[15] Frigga Haug, op. cit.

[16] A notorious advert depicting a woman in a bikini did the rounds in Paris. It said, ‘On September 2 I will take the top off‘ . The same poster was displayed a few days later with the woman’s top off and the slogan; ‘On September 4 I will take the bottoms off ’. Such a publicity campaign delighted the Parisian male who is not after all so atypical in Europe.

[17Cahiers du feminisme, No 35, Spring 1936.

[18] Ibid.

[19] The figures for France leave one in no doubt. They show that waged work has a big influence on the way women vote. See“‘Les femmes et la politique: le role essentiel du travail”, Critique Communiste, No 39, March 1985.

[20] ‘Women in the miners‘ strike‘, interview with Jean MacCrindle by Sheila Rowbotham, Feminist Review, No. 32, Summer 1986.

[21] Barnsley women 1984, “Women against pit closures”.

[22] Huw Benyon, ed. Digging deeper, (London: Verso, 1985).

[23] Sue Finch, “Socialist feminists and Greenham” Feminist Review, No 23, Summer 1986.

[24] Extract from an interview by Valerie Coultas in Socialist Action, 7 July 1935

[25] Anne-Marie Granger and Linda Woods, “De Greenham Common a Bonn, de Copenhagen a Comiso, les femmes en lutte contre la militarisation”, Cahiers du feminisme, No 27, Winter l984

[26] This date was chosen as an annual celebration at an intemational European meeting of women in 1982

[27] See “Acerca del feminismo, el pacifismo . . .” the contribution of the DOAN group to the Jornadas in Barcelona, in the Bulletin of the Jornadas, p.38

[28] Fredérique Vinteuil, ‘Les raisons d’une participation’, Cahiers du Feminisme, no. 27, Winter 1984.

[29] Unlike the imperialist states, continually seeking to conquer new markets, there is no economic compulsion on the USSR towards the use of armed force internationally. The compulsion rather comes from the need to maintain the sphere of influence of the bureaucracy, as for example in Afghanistan. Thus the dynamic towards the use of armed force is different in each case whilst the situation of women is broadly similar, in both camps

[30] Fina Rubio, ‘Mujeres en el ejercito? No, gracias’. contribution to Jornados op. cit. p.39.

[31] Johanna Brenner, “Thoughts on Women and the Peace Movement”, Against the Current (new series), no.1, January-February 1986

[32] ‘Las mujeres ante la militarizacion de la sociedad’, DOAN group op. cit. p. 14

[33] Kum-Kum Bhavnani and Margaret Coulson, “Transforming Socialist-Feminism: The Challenge of Racism”, Feminist Review, no. 23, Summer 1986

[34] Lucy Bland, ‘Sex and Morals: Rearming the Left’, Marxism Today, September 1985.

[35] Notably S. Nora and A. Minc, “L’information de la societé”, Documentation Française, (Paris: 1986).

[36] Frauen am Computer, op. cit., p.37, 48.

[37] Eva Gurtnarson and Gitte Vedel, ‘ll lavoro a distanza’ in Terminale donno, op. cit..

[38] Ursula Huws, ‘Le moderne lavoratrici o domicilio’, ibid

[39] See especially Daniele Kergoat, ‘Le travail a temps partiel’, Documentation francaise, (Paris: I984).

[40] See Robin Baker and Sharon Woodrow, ‘The Clean, Light Image of the Electronic Industry‘ in Double Exposure, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984).

[41] Cecilia Bright, ‘La defesa della salute’, in Terminale donna, op. cit. p.17.

[42] Jackie West, op. cit. p.77.

[43] Helen Rebick ed., Comparable Worth, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1934), p.25.

[44] Johanna Brenner. “A Socialist Feminist on Poverty and Pay Equity”, Sojourner, April-May 1986

[45] Ibid.

[46] Daniele Kergoat, op. cit.

[47] Marie Victoire Louis, “Thompson on l’échec d’un syndicalisme”, in Temps Modernes, no. 476, March 1986, p. l25.

[48] Travail de nuit des femmes, (Neuchatel Parti Socialiste Ouvrier, 1985).

[49Travail de nuit: ne pas céder, (Neuchatel: Comité Travail Santé, 1986

[50Etats généraux-Les femmes dans le travail et le travail des femmes, (Paris: 1983).

[51] The issue of nursery provision, despite being central to the analysis of the women’s movement and very much present in trade-union demands, very rarely sparks off actual struggles. This is undoubtedly partially linked to the weakness of community organisations in most countries in Europe and at the lack of focus for struggle- finances for nursery provision tends to come from different authorities at different levels of government. In the ease of workplace nurseries this problem is linked to the difficulty of getting the trade unions to act since many rank and file workers do not see this issue as a priority in a period of recession and unemployment

[52] Nathalie Hadjifortiou, Women and Harassment at Work, (London: Pluto Press, 1983).

[53] Elissa Clarke, Stopping sexual harassment, (Detroit: LERP, 1982

[54] See Peggy Crull, “Sexual Harassment and Women’s Health” in Double Exposure, op. cit.

[55] Josette Dubois, interview with Dominique Lacan, “Antoinette en proces—le chantage sexuel en accusation”, Cahiers du Féminisme, no. 36, Summer 1936.

[56] Sybille Piogstedt and Kathleen Bode Ubergriffe—Sexuelle Belastigung in Buros and Betrieben, (Hamburg: Rororo, 1984).

[57] Margaret Maruani, Les syndicats a l’épreuve du feminisme, (Paris: Syros, 1979).

[58] Ann Potter, ‘Women‘s rights-mobilise the labour movement’ Labour Briefing, August 1985.

[59] Steffi Engert, “Feminismus in den Gewerkschafien”, Was Tun, 9 January 1986.

[60] In Britain the increase was very marked from 16.5% in 1960 to 29% in l978, to over one third in 1985. See “A woman’s place is in her union”, in Women, work and the labour market, op. cit.. In West Germany it went from 15.3% in l971 to 20.7% in 1981. The proportion of women delegates to the DGB congress over the same period went from 6.4% to 11.6%. See Frauen in der BRD, op. Cit.

[61] The women’s conference of the DGB does not yet require quotas but does demand “equal representation at all levels”. See Was Tun, 12 December 1935.

[62] Bianca Beccalli, “Feminisme et syndicalisme: le cas italien an cours des années 70” in Le sexe du travail, op. cit.. See also L’acqua in gabbia—Voci di donne dentro il sindicato, (Milan: La Salamandre, 1979 and L’esperienza a tornino dell’Intercategoriale donne CGIL-CISL-UIL (Turin: Musolini, 1979

[63Unita 23 January 1986.

[64] See the comparative study of trade union policy in Europe in “Femmes travailleuses: feminisme et syndicats”, Cahiers du Feminisme, no. 10, June 1979.

[65] Claudia Pinl, Das Arbeitnehmerpatriarchat, (Cologne: Kieperheuer & Witsch, 1977).

[66] Chantal Rogerat, “Syndicats et division sexuelle du travail”, Temps Modernes, March 1986.

[67] See Cahiers du Feminisme, nos. 18-20.

[68] 68) Frauen in der BRD, op. cit..

[69] “Thompson ou l’échec d’un syndicalisme”, op. cit.

[70] Pinuccia Cazzaniga, “I turni di lavora in un’azienda elettronica” in Terminale donna op. cit.

[71] 71) Anna Coote, “The feminist touch”, Marxism Today, December 1.985.

[72] Johanna Brenner, Maria Ramas, op. cit.

[73] Bea Campbell began to develop these ideas in the journal Red Rag towards the end of the 1970s. She also put forward similar ideas in the debate published in Feminist Review, no.23, Summer 1986.

[74] Frigga Haug, op. cit. See also New Left Review, no. 151, on the women’s movement in the Spanish state and Cahiers du Feminisme which carried regular articles throughout the period of the Socialist Party government.

[75] Johanna Brenner, “Women, the Right and the Family”, Against the Current, Spring 1982.

German Marxists Unite: Founding Conference Resolution

Germany: What we are and why we fight - resolution of


the ISO


Friday 24 February 2017

This resolution was adopted by a very large majority (one vote against, one abstention) by the founding conference of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), German section of the Fourth International, held on December 3-4, 2016 in Frankfurt.

From their membership of the Fourth International, the two organizations which meet have common bases, programmatic references and strategic orientations. But with the new organization, we wish to truly realize a new departure which leaves behind certain weaknesses of the past. At the same time, we wish to invite the forces which can meet in what is developed here to engage in a process of discussion and rapprochement in our common sectors of intervention. Our long term objective is to stubbornly work towards going beyond the current state of revolutionary and anti-capitalist forces and to do what we can to contribute to their rapprochement and regrouping.

What defines us politically

We are for:

- democratic rights, civil liberties, against generalised surveillance (including on the internet); - a revolutionary break with capitalism, for the replacement of the bourgeois state by the self-administration of the producers; - in the still-dependent countries, the growing over of democratic and national struggles into revolutionary anti-capitalist struggles; - a democratic socialism based on socialised ownership of the means of production, the self-organisation of workers, the self-determination of peoples and the guarantee of civil liberties, the separation of party and state; - pluralism of parties and multiplicity of tendencies; - the extension of forms of self-organisation and respect for democratic rules and rights in struggles; - the fight against all bureaucracies (whether Stalinist, social democratic, trade union, nationalist or other) which dominate mass organisations; - women’s liberation and an autonomous women’s movement; - gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer liberations, and opposition to all forms of sexual oppression; - respect for the right of self-determination and independence of oppressed peoples; - the fight against racism and all forms of chauvinism; - the separation of religion and state, the fight against religious fundamentalists; - defence of the environment from an anti-capitalist and anti-bureaucratic viewpoint; - an active internationalism and an anti-imperialist international solidarity, the defence of the workers’ interests in every country without exception, without sectarianism or subordination to utilitarian or diplomatic considerations; - the construction of revolutionary, proletarian, feminist and democratic parties made up of active members, in which rights to free expression and the formation of tendencies are recognised and protected; - the construction of a revolutionary pluralist mass international.

It is to realise these objectives that we are part of an international grouping of revolutionary Marxist organisations from different countries. We have in common the conviction that we must unite our forces in order to play a determinant role in the class struggle of each country, which can lead to the victory of socialism. The development of its national sections is the means by which the Fourth International seeks to attain its emancipatory goal, because in the course of a revolution, an international organization cannot replace the action of a national section or act in its place.

It is precisely because, without doing ourselves violence, we have been able to meet on this programmatic basis, that during the process which has led to the fusion it clearly appeared hat this unification should have been on the agenda for some time already. And we also want to stress here that with other forces, which have not participated in this process of rapprochement, but with who we often collaborate in a highly satisfactory manner, we see many common points which would justify a common political and organizational orientation, and even make it appear as indispensable. Because we do not wish to give the impression that we with this new formation we rule out other possibilities of recomposition in the near future, that other opportunities for regroupment will be closed.

The following points are intended to specify the nature of our identity more clearly.

Recomposition of the left

With the fall of the Wall, there was for us a change of paradigm: a critique of Stalinism no longer had to confront the existence of the Soviet Union, but rather a manner of practicing politics without an emancipatory project which had survived Stalinism. We must break with this conception and these practices if we wish to find an internationalist and eco-socialist response to globalised capitalism.

Our identity is no longer solely informed by the label “Trotskyist”. We consider ourselves today as an internationally organized current which seeks to contribute to the reconstitution of the consciousness of the political class and the formation of a mass anti-capitalist party, through the construction of revolutionary parties in each of the countries, and also a revolutionary international.

We should add that we have a high enough consciousness of ourselves to affirm that we have something of importance to contribute to this process. But that involves recognizing that we do not have readymade answers to every question. The gains from our discussions and ideological developments, our balance sheet of the 20th century, cannot in themselves provide usable models for elaborating the “correct” revolutionary politics we need today. That is why we are ready to learn from others.

That means that the defence of our ideas is not for a one way path but an exchange with the other components of the radical left on a basis of equality. That differentiates us from groups and organizations which draw their references from the same source as us, but which falsify this tradition in a doctrinaire and sectarian sense and finally discredit it. That is why, in a certain sense, to be an activist with us is not a “long tranquil river” :we do not wish to take away from anybody the responsibility of independent critical reflection and, much more, we seek people with whom we can reflect together on the lessons of the past and their links to the challenges of today. We wish to encourage creativity and initiative.

From our viewpoint, all the current parties and organisations, small or large, ours as much as the others, are only provisional phenomena which, in the best of cases, can play a positive role in the construction of the future revolutionary party and the international, in the sense of the organisation of the most conscious part of a movement in the class struggle and the social movements with emancipatory aims.

Unknown terrain

Everywhere where it is possible, we defend forms of organization capable of transforming workplace struggles or localized combats into conflicts which concern society as a whole (for example when we stress the general of strikes or branch level agreements). Our activists are involved in very varied sectors – not only in the trade unions, the trade union left, the social movements and educational associations of various types – but also in the attempts at fairly broad regroupments which work towards the recomposition of the radical left.

Where ever it is, when we are with others in local initiatives, committees or coordinations to act together on one or several points, we are active according to the following principles:

- We take into account the level of consciousness of those engaged in this struggle and we seek to realise the broadest unity; - We stress the autonomy of those who fight – even in relation to their own organisation – to allow the development of all types of organs, even embryonic, which are capable of contesting the right to initiative and control with the dominant apparatuses; - We defend democracy in the movements and organisations; - We seek to develop the consciousness that the basis of all wealth is the forces of nature, and that their protection and preservation is worth more than profit; - We are for a solidarity-based world order, for solidarity with the oppressed and exploited and not with the governments, we elaborate perspectives of struggle which transcend the framework of the national state; - We stress the need for a break with capitalism.

Serious work in several associations or committees naturally limits the time and energy available to work in one’s political organization, and can even sometimes lead to phenomena of distancing from one’s own organization.

It is not however by a distancing from these structures that the problem can be solved. Because we have to deal with a much more pressing problem: the illusion that revolutionary organizations can today be built in a “vacuum”, without close contact with the broader processes of politicization. That leads to the construction of illusory worlds, a culture of “as if” for little groups who play at being parties, to pure propagandism and a miseducation; all the activity of the militants being devoted solely to what allows the identical reproduction of this organization and its little apparatuses, turning it more or less into a sect.

Although we are active in different sectors and movements and there is room for different practices with us, we discuss them together regularly and we try to link them with each other. It is with a common method – that of revolutionary Marxism – that we try to understand reality, put our experiences in common and draw balance sheets. It is thus that we organize and preserve a sort of “collective memory”.

Developing consciousness

Movements can grow enormously over time, as is the case with the movement against environmental destruction. Anti-war movements experience highs and lows. Most protest movements are unstable. After a time they disintegrate or they are absorbed by the parties. That was the case with the Grünen (Greens), who only took a few years to abandon their opposition to the system and make themselves at home in it (for example in the parliaments and ministries). The desire to struggle, feel that one can do it, that one has the strength for it, experiences fluctuations. Those who, even outside of phases of the rise of big movements, remain active and reflect on what it is necessary to do so that the next wave is successful are the vanguard of the movements of emancipation. We are convinced that the relationship of the organization to the movements and vice-versa should always be a relationship of independence. Also, the total independence and separation of our organization from state institutions and enterprises is the first condition of our autonomy.

We do not hide our convictions. We are convinced that revolutionary socialists can only establish their credibility when, in the course of great movements, they are capable of ensuring that the majority of the population make concrete demands. It is out of the question that they behave in a way which instrumentalises other organizations and movements or specific individuals. We can only convince men and women to participate in our organization if our own behaviour is accord with our long term goals. Many people fear joining an organisation because they are afraid of losing their personal freedom. So they choose rather to work in rank and file committees, or “affinity based collectives”. In working there, one has no obligations, but in fact one is also unorganised, because there is no lasting political agreement, and these structures dissolve sooner or later. Often, they are not even democratic, because the decisions are taken by a few activists or by cliques.

Even in a revolutionary period, without the dynamising role of a revolutionary organization, the huge potential of an impetuous mass movement risks hanging fire. But one cannot gain a place in its leadership by self-proclaiming its legitimacy, or by administrative means. It is only possible politically, that is by conviction, democratically. We convince by our person and collective engagement and we do not seek to tell others how to behave.

Understanding the need for a revolutionary rupture is not today a very widespread thing outside of the radical left, even among those who have not much or nothing at all to lose in the context of this system. That is why we consider participation in the reconstruction of a political class consciousness as one of our main tasks. Following the victorious offensive of neoliberal capitalism, it has declined enormously. The great majority of the population, of the class of those who depend on a wage to survive, has lost the notion of a project which is specific to it. The attempts to imagine how we could live otherwise are received by a generalised scepticism, any kind of “ideology” is rejected, the question of power does not seem on any agenda. We have this present in spirit when we engaging in debate and make proposals for action. In our publications, we take account of the level of knowledge and consciousness of those we address. We wish to establish a bridge between their wishes and their immediate feelings and the strategic objectives of the conquest of political power by the wage earning class.

Political consciousness is multiple. Revolutionary consciousness is, in the “normal” period of class struggle, only present among a small minority of the population. The merciless struggle against the existing system and the radical rupture with the modes of behaviour marked by capitalist competition demand, in non-revolutionary times, a high level of political conviction and individual commitment. Preserving one’s convictions can generally only be done at the price of great difficulties. The phases of decline in class activity lead most people to abandon the revolutionary ideals of their youth.

That is not the least of the reasons why it is vital for a revolutionary organization to continually recruit new youth so as to escape the danger of routinism and an inability to correctly approach new situations. Even non-revolutionary socialist consciousness is not very widespread today in the Federal Republic of Germany. There are few examples of active engagement for a revolutionary transformation. Nonetheless, the members of the radical left can constitute an important link among all those who seek to free broad layers (particularly in the trade unions) from the grip of a conception which only knows social partners, and lead them towards a politics of confrontation.

Organising ourselves democratically

We wish to be an organisation with a flat hierarchy where everyone is required to pitch in at all levels. But even a small organization of the radical left is not simply composed of “equals”. Some have more influence than others. The constraints of and the time taken up professional activity, children and other obligations are not identical. Also some more or less make political work their profession or leisure activity, while others cannot do so or don’t want to. Not everybody is at the same level of knowledge, familiarity with arguing, drawing up texts and so on. The members of leadership bodies have more influence than others.

That is why an organisation without clear democratic rules is inconceivable for us. It follows that functions and posts can only be occupied after an election and for a given, very limited, period. Then we vote again. For us this allows decisions to be transparent, and that is no small thing. Experience has shown us that in groups where there are not regular votes on important decisions, it is a more or less noticeable clique which decides in advance at secret meetings, in encounters in cafes or after the official end of a meeting. It is rare for this not to be a male clique.

A political grouping like ours, not very numerous but nonetheless represented across the whole of the country, needs a place where different experiences can be reported and discussed in common so the balance sheet can be drawn. We call this place the federal conference or coordination. The role of the coordination is to encourage members to act, coordinate, inform and educate themselves and to make them capable of forging their own opinion. It is there that the decisions which concern everyone are taken, after having sought the broadest possible consensus. If this is not possible, an open vote can be envisaged. The majority principle is an absolute rule, but it is not a goal in itself. If important decisions only receive a very narrow majority, it is the sign that it is better to seek a broader consensus and reopen the discussion.

If that doesn’t work, the following fundamental principle apples: even a majority can be wrong. But that can only be established if the majority has the right to implement its proposals and the minority can freely criticise. That does not mean that there is no place in the organization for different practices and projects. When this is the case, we discuss it together regularly and we try to coordinate them. Than requires a high level of critical capacity and comradely behaviour from everyone.

Despite the existence of a coordination, all the members should have the ability to decide at any time what their organization does, the federal conferences should be sovereign both formally and in reality, with the coordination determining overall orientation.

Without the broadest autonomy of local groups in the definition of their local activity, without the right for activists to discuss freely among themselves above the basic structures the politics, orientation and projects of the organization, the influence “from above” empties internal democracy of its content.

How we deal with divergences

At the end of the day it is about knowing how the organisation reacts when isolated members or groups have different viewpoints on certain questions, whether this amounts to divergences between themselves or in relation to the coordination. In this case, rights of tendency and faction play an important role for us. In summary: it is about the freedom of all comrades to form on all questions and at any time organised currents of opinion inside the organisation. This right is recorded in the statutes and cannot be challenged in practice. However this right is in no way a panacea. We know by experience to what point the game exacerbated by tendencies and factions can be damaging. For example, when it is no longer possible to influence the orientation or composition of leadership bodies except by belonging to one of the internal currents, or when the members – in particular the leading members – identify more with their tendency or faction than with the organization. Then polemic against other currents or diplomacy between them increasingly determines the life of the organisation. In this way also internal democracy can be considerably damaged.

And yet we defend the right of tendency and faction because it guarantees the right of expression of each comrade and reduces the risk of politically unjustified splits. But when tendencies and factions crystallize and persist, the cohesion of the organization is harmed.

Particularly in small organizations with a few dozen or a few hundred members, settling divergences though decisions taken by small majorities is often destructive. That is why the norm should be that the internal current set up before a conference are dissolved when it is over. For that, we need an organizational culture where the consensus and active participation of militants in the elaboration of what we wish and decide plays the most important role possible. So it is for the leadership bodies a task of the first importance to always do as much as possible so that the members take an active part in the definition of the positions and orientation of their organization, and what practically flows from that.

Rather than strengthening divergences, discussion and decision taking should always be related to the concern to find out what we can do together despite our different viewpoints. The basic discussion on these divergences can be diverted towards the work of reflection and elaboration of the organisation, where, removed from the need to decide rapidly and in a deeper fashion, it is possible to discuss in a spirit of self-education. In the same way, we reject any moral pressure on activists to lead them towards taking a position in favour of an internal sensitivity.

On the other hand, belonging to a common political organisation is not a goal in itself. There is a limit: where there is no longer common political work or the capacity to act together. We pay attention to what happens in situations where members feel pushed outside of or to the margins of the organization. For that we need an organizational culture where consensus and active participation in the definition of common objectives and decision taking play the greatest role possible.

An organisation for its members

We are a community of people who rebel against the social order. Critique is our vital element. We cannot conceive of a truly revolutionary organisation without free discussion. It is however only possible in the comradely community of the group. That is why organizing ourselves is a condition of our free development as political individuals. We unite to work on a common political basis. That done, we do not abandon our individuality. But we reduce the social differences, between young and old, men and women, native and immigrant.

Defining the utility of the organization for its members is a vast enterprise. That goes from participation in a context of rich and stimulating discussion up to efficacy in common action. That implies obligations, among them financially supporting the organisation through dues and, according to the possibilities of each person, participation in its activities and the definition of its orientations. But if the members do not feel that membership of the organisation is useful to their effectiveness and their personal development at the political level, that they do not live in a space where practical solidarity and internationalism exists no formal appeal to obligation can be useful.

Better, the organization should prepare and accompany all it wishes to do by political persuasion and the motivation of its members. It should not try to dictate to members what they should think. Only one’s own convictions can be presented externally in a convincing fashion. That is why minority opinions (of local groups, currents, isolated militants) should be able to be expressed openly. The sole conditions are that it is clearly specified that one is not speaking in the name of the organisation, and that these minority opinions fall within the common programmatic framework. Exerting discipline over opinions does not make revolutionaries sure of themselves as independent thinkers, but a repellent blend of zombies and robots.

The utility of the organization for its members and for the struggle in favour of what we want does not increase if everybody does the same thing in the same way. It increases much better if the political militants engaged in very different sectors and with very different ways of doing things exchange their experiences, confront them, draw the balance sheet, and seek permanently to cooperate in action and pull together on the same rope – and as much as possible in the same direction.

By organizing collectively, we can gain in political and organizational experience, and develop our personal capacities more than by remaining isolated. Certainly, that requires being ready for open discussion, mutual confidence, comradely relations, but that opens in return the possibility of finding oneself with a group inside the organization.

An organisation for youth

In organisational construction as we conceive it, winning youth and integrating them on a lasting basis is a priority. That excludes both the idea of burning them out through activism and banning what might be called the modes of behaviour specific to youth.

One of the ways to encourage youth to participate in a revolutionary organization is to set up a specific independent structure for youth, which can preserve its dynamism at its own rhythm and with its own rhythm and with its own forms of action, including the right to make “mistakes” without being bothered by “adults” in their own development. It is naturally the young comrades who will know what form of intervention is most appropriate among youth. If the construction of a youth organization or something of the same order, in sympathy with our programme, proves feasible, we will actively support this project.

An organization for women

The first social oppression, well before the complete establishment of class society, was the oppression of women by men. This oppression persists until now. Patriarchal structures are to large degree strengthened by class society. This oppression represents a considerable weakening of the working class as a whole. Without the fight for women’s liberation, the socialist transformation cannot be attained, and not can it be guaranteed that it would really be the point of departure of a general suppression of exploitation and oppression.

In the workers’ movement also, including in its revolutionary component, women were and are oppressed. We support everything that goes in the direction of an autonomous women’s movement, because it is the sole means of effectively advancing the fight for women’s liberation.

In our own organisation also, the dominant male behaviour constitutes an obstacle to the blossoming of the political activity of women. It is then necessary to make a constant and conscious effort to fight and transcend this, both through political education and through specific organizational measures like the right of women to caucus at any time and all levels of the organization, or again the establishment of quotas in leadership bodies if women request it. And in the event that several currents are presenting themselves for voting, quotas for each political current.

In a revolutionary organization, the political culture of the society that we wish to see should already be perceptible. Workers’ democracy and self-organization are not goals for tomorrow. Even if they can only be fully developed after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, these principles should already enter into force in the ranks of the workers’ movement, and in the first place inside revolutionary Marxist organizations. For us internal democracy is a bridge towards the democracy of the councils.

The Labour Movement in Africa


Introduction to Pambazuka’s Special Edition on the


labour movement in Africa

(From International Viewpoint)

Friday 10 February 2017, by Shaun Whittaker

In the face of multiple crises of profit-driven socio-economic systems that have driven millions of people in Africa into hopeless poverty, the urgent questions of our time are quite clear: How do we change the balance of class forces in favour of the working class? What are the radical reforms around which a program of mass action could be initiated? How do we form mass workers’ parties all over the continent? What about organisations of the jobless, the landless and the homeless, the feminist structures, the youth?

Humanity has entered an interregnum of long duration and ever-increasing morbid symptoms. This conjuncture will generate a whole layer of populist leaders and movements, and new waves of suppression and militarism for the foreseeable future. These are the ways in which capital would attempt to survive the multiple crises that beset the profit-driven socio-economic system – in specific the breakdown of the world capitalist system since 2008. So this confluence of historical events will also spawn enormous struggles all over the globe that the left-wing should prepare for in earnest.

Are we ideologically equipped for this? Ideology is an imperative site of struggle. For sure, we should start with our ideas about transformation and grapple with what that would mean in practice for the left-wing on this mercilessly exploited continent. A frequently voiced criticism of Marxism(s) on this landmass is that it is Eurocentric and was developed by ‘white’ males, and is therefore not of relevance. Similarly, the opposition to Marxism(s) in Latin America continued for a very long time due to the perceived harsh evaluation of Simon Bolivar by the young Karl Marx. Fortunately, the works of the Argentinean radical thinker, José Aricó, has put that to rest now. Clearly, it is high time that we fully debunk all these misconceptions about Marxism(s) on this continent as well.

The essentialism that dismisses Marxism(s) in such a cavalier manner does not even begin to wrestle sufficiently with that theory of transformation, and fails to provide a left-wing alternative to the socio-economic crises. In fact, in contrast to Marx’s political attitude towards Bolivar, that revolutionary intellectual was appalled by colonialism in Africa and elsewhere, and referred approvingly to the resistance of the slaves. The critique of the (anti-social) logic of capitalism – and the urgent need to transform it - reverberated throughout Marx’s writings when he, for instance, pointed out the fate of colonised peoples, i.e. that with ‘the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production’, Africa was turned into ‘a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins’. Similarly, in The German Ideology, he remarked favourably on the fugitive slaves of all the colonies and the insurgent slaves of Haiti.

Indeed, the so-called marginal works of Marx provided a strident criticism of slavery in the southern parts of the USA, colonialism in India and Ireland, etc. So, the left-wing today still fight for the universal values that arose out of class struggles (e.g. of the ‘black’ Jacobins) in the aftermath of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. After all, the emergence of industrial capitalism cannot be comprehended without acknowledging the links with colonial capitalism in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

The pan-Africanism of the elite, the conservative ‘black’ nationalism and the third worldism of a Frantz Fanon represent a political cul-de-sac. If anything, this era requires the hegemony of the working class – whatever the social manifestations of that class might be as unemployed, casual or part-time workers, etc. And the continent actually has a long history of Marxisms and anti-capitalist struggles. Cases in point include the noteworthy correspondence of the Workers’ Party of South Africa with Leon Trotsky in the early 1900s; the remarkable leadership provided by the South African revolutionary socialist Isaac Tabata over a period of several decades; the anti-colonial resistance of Jonker Afrikaner and Jakob Marengo in Namibia, etc. In every single country on this continent is to be found valiant histories of anti-colonial fighters and anti-capitalist activists. It is just that we have yet to complete the writing of this crucial history. And it is an urgent project for the organic intellectuals of this continent and the left-wing in general.

Another pressing task is the promotion of multilingualism. We should strengthen the network of left-wing activists on the continent by finding practical ways to overcome the language barriers presented by English, French, Portuguese, Arabic, etc. There must be linkups with left-wing translators, and the development of effective multilingual programs. We need to convert all the crucial left-wing literature into key African vernaculars. Surely, the works of Antonio Gramsci, André Gorz, Rosa Luxemburg, Amilcar Cabral, Neville Alexander and many others deserve to be translated into African languages. And this would constitute a vital part of the cultural liberation of the continent. This special issue of Pambazuka News could regrettably not obtain papers from North Africa, where massive struggles are ongoing, probably due to the language barriers. Nonetheless, the translation of the paper on Congo Brazzaville published in this edition shows that it is possible.

Besides the ideological aspect, the struggle, of course, is also about the organisational forms that this assumes. This Special Edition is fortunate to host the first public debate on the recent conference of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), the largest trade union on the continent. Following that meeting of December 2016, some of the political questions ought to be clear by now: How do we change the balance of class forces in favour of the working class? What are the radical reforms around which a program of mass action could be initiated? How do we form mass workers’ parties all over the continent? Should workers’ councils be founded? What about organisations of the jobless, the landless and the homeless, the civics, the feminist structures, the youth committees, the reading groups, and so forth? Does it make any sense to prioritise the struggle for a living wage in the context of mass unemployment? Should the left-wing not be calling for the abolishment of the wage system and rather put forth radical reforms that would benefit the entire working class?

Radical reforms could focus on, for example, the demand for 50 litres of water and 1 kilowatt hour of electricity to be provided free per person on a daily basis, food banks that prepare one free meal per day, a basic income grant, and, in the longer term, the equal distribution of jobs and wealth, a shorter work week, social housing, etc. A crucial conversation would have to be about whether or not the working class should support industrialisation or, alternatively, what kind of industrialisation must be tolerated in light of the ecological crisis which holds tremendous implications for this continent. Any serious left-wing project ought to permanently keep this calamity in mind.

In the final analysis, the challenge for the left-wing is to link up with the jobless, the landless and the homeless in a mass workers’ party and to unite employed and unemployed, formal and informal, permanent and temporary, urban and rural, women and men, young and old, ‘black’ and ‘white’, etc. Political lessons from elsewhere would suggest that the left-wing – not the trade unions - should take the lead in building such a workers’ party.

And it ought to be a non-sectarian leadership that could combine the entire working class and all those left-wing political tendencies that concur on mass action as the primary way forward. In fact, as we always insist, trade union members should join such a mass workers’ party as individuals, and not as a bloc. The patient building of a revolutionary mass party with a politically conscious cadre is a better option in the longer term.

Lastly, we would like to thank all the contributors to this Special Edition for their significant inputs – without their time, effort and commitment this issue would not have materialised. And it was important to receive articles on dissimilar countries such as South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Congo Brazzaville, the Ivory Coast and Namibia. The unevenness in mass consciousness among different working classes is evident, but this should not demoralise us in fighting for another world that is possible.

Similarly, the comrades of Pambazuka News ought to be recognised for their exceptional role in providing a platform for left-wing discourse on the continent over so many years. This publication has become central to continent-wide discussions and should only expand.

It is our hope that this edition on ‘The Labour Movement in Africa – Prospects and Challenges’ will likewise contribute meaningfully to the much-needed ongoing dialogues among left-wing activists. In deliberating on the prospects and challenges, let us be guided by Gramsci’s aphorism, viz. optimism of willpower, pessimism of intellect.

On behalf of the Marxist Group of Namibia, I dedicate this Specific Edition to all the working class leaders of this continent – in particular to the memory of Johannes Nangutuuala, the leader of the Namibian general strike of 1971-72, who died under mysterious circumstances while in the company of a Swapo securocrat. Memory is a weapon.

A luta continua!

Shaun Whittaker, Guest Editor

Thursday 26 January 2017

Pambazuka News

The Question of the Decolonization of Education in Fascist India

We are publishing this article by Comrade Murzban Jal. We consider it an important contribution to current debates, both on how to characterize the regime, and on the nature of its ideological offensive. We hope it will provoke thinking and discussion. We are open to dialogues, and will be willing to consider publication of responses.  -- Administrator, RS Website




Castro sitting in military uniform in the United Nations Organization does not scandalize the underdeveloped countries. What Castro demonstrates is the consciousness he has of the continuing existence of the rule of violence.....(Is this revolutionary violence? My insertion, M.J.)....


Frantz Fanon.


The European elite undertook to manufacture a native elite. They picked out promising adolescents; they branded then, as with a red-hot iron, with the principles of western culture; they stuffed their mouths with high-sounding  phrases, grand glutinous words that stuck to the teeth. After a short stay in the mother country they were sent home, whitewashed. These walking lies had nothing left to say to their brothers; they only echoed.


Jean-Paul Sartre.



The School, this privileged instrument of the bourgeois sociodicy which confers on the privileged the supreme privilege of not seeing themselves as privileged, manages the more easily to convince the disinherited that they owe their scholastic and social destiny to their lack of gifts or merits, because in matters of culture absolute dispossession excludes awareness of being dispossessed.


Pierre Bourdieu & Jean-Claude Passeron.




The Production of Reified-Fascist Consciousness


Following the triumph of the fascists in the 2014 National Elections and following the consolidation of power by the Indian fascists led by theRashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) or the National Voluntary Corps which has paralyzed the secular and democratic forces, the fascists now seek a complete transformation of the educational system where they claim that hitherto education under the auspices was not nationalist, but determined by left-wing ideologues. The Indian fascist movement which was born in the early 1920s with V.D. Savarkar’s book Essentials of  Hindutva and the birth of the RSS in 1925 which learnt a lot from the fascist movement in Italyand later from German Nazism imagines that it is truly nationalistic.

The central part of thinking a critical education programme is to be understood within the historical materialist matrix of concrete modes of production and the class struggle emerging thereon. Talking of education devoid of the class struggle is mere empty talk. Also talking of a “general education system” is mere rhetoric. Instead of this empty talk, or talking through a form of what is known as “false consciousness”, which we know since Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness as the reification of consciousness”, we talk through a concrete historical perspective. This concrete historical perspective we call after Antonio Gramsci as historicism and humanism. Class struggle will govern this process of historicism and humanism.   

In actuality we shall be arguing out a new education programme rearticulating the entire project of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment constituted within the theoretical problematic of class struggle. At the outset it must be said that by both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, we do not mean only the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, but the World Project of Renaissance and Enlightenment. We base our model on Samir Amin’s theory of the 3 waves of Universal Humanity—Amin calls it the “Humanist Concept of Universalism”—where the Eurocentric model of unilinear history is displaced with a multilinear and dialogical theory of history.[i] In this new theory of history, a very different idea of emergence of knowledge systems emerged where in the ancient world, Indian, Iranian, Greek, Chinese, Babylonian and other systems in a state of dialogical discourse initiated the emergence of philosophical and scientific discourse. This, in a certain way, one can call the basis of the emergence of philosophical and scientific thinking.

What we claim is there is no “Western” world, nor no “Eastern” world. This location of the “West” and the “East” are very modern fictions that emerged in the cranium of the British imperial forces. From this fiction, there emerges another fiction: that there is something called an “Eastern Method of Education”—this imagined “East” that is said to be spiritual—in contrast to an equally imagined “Western Method of Education”—with its pretensions of rationality and objectivity. The entire education methodology in India is based on this illusion. Thus when we claim that we deal with ‘education’ we are merely educating illusions. What one calls the “colonizing of education” is the actually a systematic structure created merely for geo-political reasons.

It is at this vantage-point where one relates education policy that is yet in the grips of the ideology of the colonized mind with the central ideological perspective of geo-politics. The education system of this colonized mind based on imperial geo-politics creates an imperial form of Occidental cosmology.  Here it is imperative to say that the ruling ideology of Occidental civilization is its essential expansionist mode. We know that thinkers like Paulo Friere and Frantz Fanon in realizing the inherent imperialist attitude of the contemporary education system, argued for an alternative form of education. What this “imperialism of categories” (to borrow Ashis Nandy’s term) does is that it creates as the model the American model of education, forgetting this inherent imperialism and destruction inherent in this model.  Being centrifugal in mode, this Occidental model divides the world into two regions: the centre and the periphery.  A part of the periphery, the Occidental center hopes to occupy by being accepted with consent and other part, or “the margin” which rejects the center and labeled as “Evil” has to be destroyed.  According to Occidental cosmology reality is a manipulable thing to be ruled over.  Instead of real humanity and real nature we have the understanding of reality (both nature and humanity) as either something inert, almost dead. Knowledge in this perspective is about power. The imperialist have perfected this macabre ‘art’ of power politics.

And instead of the concept of the real sensuous self, Sigmund Freud’s architecture of the repressed unconsciousness enters the discourse of education that is governed by the old colonial patterns and the new imperialists’ interventions in education in India.  Not only does the idea of the repressed unconsciousness fit into the concept of the authoritarian nature of the colonized person, but also the ideas of neurosis and psychosis.  This imperialist and masculine ‘man’ that the Indian elites are trying to imitate, mime and create (in the celebration of the will to imperialist power) is constructed thus that it is made to rules nature and other people. 

The model that is created is the pyramid model. It is hierarchical and despotic. On top of the pyramid of life is perched the western male.  But this western male who sits on the pyramid is suffering with repressed unconscious. The early model in the era of developing capitalism there was the rational ego that was recognized as the centre of the human psyche. Now things have changed.  Instead as Theodor Adorno and Slavoj Zizek have pointed out, late capitalism has erased this model of the ego and instead has replaced it with the idea of narcissistic and psychotic self who imagines himself to be at the centre of the world. Thus it is not merely that the elites are on top of society and the western male is on top of the world. Instead we have the neurotic and psychotic elites who are sitting on the top of the pyramid.

This is the philosophical basis lies for the understanding of the emergence of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist education. We need a coherent anti-colonial and anti-imperialist education. This philosophical and scientific thinking has to be highlighted. After all, as Fanon had rightly stated, we all are black skins who are wearing white masks.

That is why we also say that there is something else and that education does not exist by itself, just as the political economy and the ideology of “development” do not exist by itself. Education has as its core class struggle and the struggle to regain humanity and thus those who talk of “development” without mentioning that this “development” that the Indian state is now talking of is only brutal capitalist development, one is only talking through the air. What one does in this phantasmagorical talk of development devoid of humanity is actually that one actually imposes what one knows after David Harvey as “accumulation through dispossession”. Accumulation through dispossession, whilst being a process of accumulation of capital (and poverty) is also an accumulation of alienation, repression and psychosis. What it creates is a divided self, a self that is hysterical and paranoid. The system that modern bourgeois education system seeks to produce is a broken down society and a broken down individual. 

Instead of the colonial-capitalist education system in India, one needs to articulate a completely new and different problematic itself, that we call “synesthesia”—a very different  educational philosophy where reason, feeling and thinking are synthesized as the unity of philosophy, science and the arts. The leitmotiv of articulating a philosophy of people’s education policy is based on understanding education as cultivation of humanity as humanity. The idea of the historicization and humanization of knowledge is the essence of this New Peoples’ Education Program. The triad of science, philosophy and the arts serves as the methodological basis of this program. We have thus a complex in our framework: the understanding of the laws governing nature and society and the philosophical issues of the quest of truth, ethics and beauty.  The questions of the sublime and the beautiful are central to this New Education Paradigm. To create the sublime feeling of enthusiasm is the main part of this program. 

It is thus that we claim that a people’s education document is based on the understanding of education as cultivation of the human mind. But it is not merely the cultivation of the mind that is important, but the cultivation of humanity as humanity. Its starting point is philosophical: its main questions are: “what can humanity know?”, “what can humanity do?”, “what can humanity hope for?”and “how can free humanity be truly possible?” The modern principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are its guiding principles. Challenging educational orthodoxy is its leitmotiv. De-schooling society is its essence, since schools have become the prison-houses and panoptic systems that imprison young minds. To render the necessity of critical thinking is its motto. Philosophy, science and aesthetics are its three basic epistemological components. Perception, understanding and reason along with feeling, willing and desiring are its ontological components. As Marx had once said: let us produce according to the laws of beauty.[ii] The critique of human alienation and the commoditization of education are its important concerns. Not only the critique of alienation in modern capitalist India, but also the critique of alienation in traditional caste-based society, combined with alienation in centres of learning (schools, colleges and universities) shall be forms of communist programmatic concerns.

The most fundamental point in this theory of alienation is how alienation has been mobilized by the Indian ruling elites in the service of globalization and imperialism and in the background of western post-colonial colonial power. Look what the colonialists think of the speaking and thinking subject that was and is subjected to colonialism:


What? They are able to talk by themselves? Just look at what we have made of them! We did not doubt but that they would accept our ideals, since they accused us of not being faithful to them. Then, indeed, Europe could believe in her mission; she had Hellenized the Asians; she had created a new breed, the Graeco-Latin Negroes.[iii]



We must admit: we are this strange breed of Graeco-Latin Negroes. We are this “hellish other” (to borrow Sartre’s term from a different context). The only thing is that we feel that we are less black than the Graeco-Latin Negroes. In fact we think that we are almost as white as the Europeans themselves. The Hindutva thesis that V.D. Savarkar had launched in the early 1920s in the background of constructing a phantasmagoria of an imagined “Aryan race” is precisely this thesis of British colonialism that the reactionary elite in India are now emulating.



The Need for a Radical Decolonization


The following points are important in the scientific, philosophizing and aestheticization of education[iv]:


(1)   Education is in actuality of educating the class instincts of the India working classes. It is directed against the thesis of the “white man’s burden” that the Indian elites are carrying since 1947. It is the tearing out the white masks. Tear of the masks and seek humanity that lies behind these phantasmagorical masks.

(2)   Consequently the cultivation of humanity is the culmination of the Subaltern Indian Renaissance. But this Indian Renaissance is a Renaissance “from below”. It therefore follows the subaltern logic of class struggle.  It studies humanity as humanity (free from superstitions, free from semi-feudal values, free from caste and patriarchy, free from communal hatred, free from scarcity and want and free from the capitalism mode of production). As the culmination of the Indian Renaissance “from below”, it talks of a New Humanism for India. Cultural transformation is the main point in this program of Communist New Humanism.

(3)   It follows the research methodology of historical dialectics where science is seen as a unified science. Here neither are the different branches of the social sciences split from one another, nor are the natural sciences split from the social sciences.  It sees the unity of the natural and the social sciences since it sees the unity of nature and society. Its method is human natural science also known as the natural science of humanity[v], where social history as natural history[vi] is marked as its leitmotiv. By science we do not mean a form of scientism or positivism. Instead we have something very different:


History itself is a real part of natural history—of nature developing into humanity. Natural science will in time incorporate into itself the science of humanity, just as the science of humanity will incorporate into itself natural science: there will be one science.[vii]


Science here, in the very Marxist humanist sense, does not merely study facts, but as human natural sciences unites facts and ethics. It always sees the human basis of facts. The humanization and naturalization of knowledge and education is thus its philosophical premise. What human natural science does is that it critiques the dominant methods of education that have been borrowed from colonialism. The critique of Eurocentrism (the method that claims that the West is inherently endowed with reason, whilst the rest of the world can only develop on borrowed European and American methods, a model that is the basis of the neo-liberal political economy of globalization, a political economy which the new establishment strongly believes in) and the critique of the colonization of education find its place in this process of the humanization of education. Thus this critique of Eurocentrism is also coupled with the critique of the indigenous colonization (known as “Brahmanization”) of education. The New Indian Renaissance finds two sites of the colonization of the Indian mind: Eurocentrism and Brahmanism. Whilst we involve the method of humanization of knowledge, we also set up different interventions within the domain of a general theory of humanist education where Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Humanity, the Hegelian dialectical method, the Marxist critique of capitalism, Jotiba Phule’s theory and praxis of “manuski” (humanist) education, along with B.R. Ambedkar’s program of the annihilation of caste (and semi-feudal values) is taken as its motif. Thus the best that world education has to offer shall be taken.

(4)    With these principles of the New Indian Renaissance and human natural science, the role of education as a weapon that grips the masses comes up. Education as the cultivation of the human mind and as the study of knowledge links this scientific enterprise with developing societies. The critique of pre-capitalist forms of exploitation (wrongly christened “Indian feudalism”) and neo-liberalism finds its place here. A rethinking of Indian history from the perspective of the Asiatic mode of production where caste, communal-fascism and patriarchy along with economic and cultural underdevelopment is undertaken in the production of the Renaissance “from below”. The philosophical and scientific foundations of the annihilation of caste, communal antagonisms and patriarchy are laid in this paradigm of the New Indian Renaissance.

(5)   From this we deduce the political economy of underdevelopment where the centre and periphery of globalized capitalism’s accumulation of wealth is scientifically critiqued. Both the economic and cultural dependency of India on borrowed colonial models is reviewed.

(6)   This critique of the colonization of the mind is not based on the ideology of abstract intellectualism. Instead it unites the intellect and the will, thinking and feeling. It is consequently based on what is now being called “synesthesia” or the “union of the senses”. The leitmotiv of this project of synesthesia is philosophical, in the sense it will seek the groundwork of knowledge based on the question: “how is free humanity possible?” It thus seeks the groundwork for the possibilities of free humanity. What we mean by “education” is consequently based on the above premises. G.W.F. Hegel’s theory of dialectical logic, Marx’s critique of alienation and his reworking of Ludwig Feuerbach idea of “species being”, Gramsci’s theory the organic intellectual, J.P. Naik’s theory of understanding education as a Revolution with a Revolution, Ivan Illich’s idea of de-schooling society and Paulo Friere and Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas of bourgeois education as cultural subjugation shall be the guiding principles of a people’s education policy. The idea of challenging educational orthodoxy is the leitmotiv of this program.

(7)   Understanding this challenging of educational orthodoxy impels us to articulate the role played by material labour in this New Cultural Transformation. In this materialist ontology of labour a different understanding of India’s social history is seen where the Asiatic mode of production is articulated along with the traditional Asian craft and guild system from an anti-Brahmanical perspective. In this critique of Brahmanism one documents the labour movement in India. One also documents how the false division of people as pure and clean (the Brahmans) and unclean and impure (the Shudras), along with the false construction of Brahmanical rituals as “spiritual sciences” and the consequent spurious division of the “spiritual sciences” and the “indigenous technical-material sciences”, was made since Shankara’s counterrevolution against Buddhism in 8th century C.E. What happens in this divided world is that rituals and mantras were declared true, whilst material sciences were declared false. This division between sacred and the profane also led to the declaration that the latter were false and also that the castes practicing them were polluted and unclean. The Brahman/Shudra hostility based on the purity/pollution opposition was institutionalized since this counterrevolution.[viii]But these Brahman/Shudra, material labour/spiritual labour divisions were never seriously challenged, nor was the dubious theory of the privileging the so-called “spiritual sciences” challenged, even in independent India. Both pre-colonial India as also British colonialism took this division and opposition as something natural to Indian civilization. Whilst industrialization in India did break up the village communities, the caste system was revamped in modern lines to suit modern capitalism. The old opposition between Brahman and Shudra was transformed into the new opposition of bourgeois and proletariat. What one now needs to do is to critique both the traditional caste mode of production as also the destructive industrial model that India has undertaken as the dominant economy since independence. Our main critique is that of neo-liberalism capitalism and imperialism. This part of subaltern social history which inverts the Brahmanical and neoliberal theory of education articulates the program of people’s education. The plural and cosmopolitan understanding of Indian social history determined by the labour question shall emerge in this site.

(8)   This ontology of labour now takes a new twist where a new discipline is created: the discipline of “desireology”. Here education ceases to be obsessed with the mind as such. Instead it involves a paradigm shift where “ideas’ are displaced for “desires”. We cease to be involved with consciousness as such, but from now on education deals with the dialectic between labour, alienation and the deep unconscious. In this sense we follow Andre Breton’s First Manifesto of Surrealism which privileged the element of the fantastic in dreams. What Marx calls the estranged mind in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and the phantasmagoria in Capital now become the main objects of educating desires, especially in the critique of neo-liberal capitalism and fascism.  The synthesis of science, philosophy and the arts is now realized as a dramatrugy—the struggle against fascism. It is thus on this site that a radical critique of fascism shall emerge. Indian fascism has two parts: one that is based on the hierarchical caste system and the other which emerges from industrial capitalism. Real education has to be anti-fascist and anti-fundamentalist. Here it must be said that fascists cannot think, nor can they philosophize. They can only create mass hysteria and then destroy human civilization. True and authentic education will directly have to confront fascism. It will soon become a life and death struggle, just as neighbouring countries in South and West Asia are battling their fundamentalists and fascists.

(9)   Based on the above 7 points the philosophy of emancipatory praxis follows. The praxis of free-universal education emanates from this struggle against neo-liberal capitalism and fascism. We move thus from theory to praxis. The poor and wretched masses of India are the main focus of this campaign.  Whilst removal of illiteracy is its main focus, the accompanying program of offering an alternative education to the mainstream reified types of schools is made here. We move then to forming educational collectives. Educational collectives de-school society from the outside. This “outside” remains literally “outside” the schools, colleges and universities at the first level, but consequently penetrates the formal educational systems, thus transforming them from hierarchical systems to systems of radical equality. It neither remains on the older spaces of civil society (meaning at the level of the NGOs now totally corrupted with international MNC donations attached inexorably with imperial interests) and the state (i.e. waiting for a so-called welfare or even the so-called socialist model of education, i.e. the education system that existed in the USSR). Instead educational collectives transcend both civil society and the state, and move in the New Site of the “commons”. Education, i.e. true and authentic education, can only be possible when the understanding of the commons and the consequent occupation of the commons is possible. The understanding and occupation of the commons is only possible when the Subaltern Indian Renaissance is understood, started and then completed. Consequently it is imperative to differentiate the “Renaissance from above” that included the Hindu reform movement (led by Rajaram Mohan Roy) and the “Renaissance from below”.

And that is why I insist that the “Renaissance from above” led to Indian liberalism. Now the fascists have come. It is time for the “Renaissance from below” to speak for itself.[ix] And once this “Renaissance from below” speaks for itself, it immediately relates itself to the most urgent issue of democratizing and socializing humanity. This “Renaissance from below” does not deal with the imaginary theme of “Western education” vs. “Eastern education”. It deals with the present era—the extreme brutality of capitalism in the era of late imperialism in permanent crisis. The conflict in this era is the conflict between fascism and socialism. The education of the masses shall thus be based on this conflict.


[i] Samir Amin, Capitalism in the Age of Globalization.  The Management of Contemporary Society (Delhi Madhyam Books, 1997), p.80.

[ii] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982), p. 69.

[iii] Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Preface’, Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the World (London: Penguin Books, 2001), p. 9.

[iv] See my ‘Towards a New Education Policy’, in Mainstream, VOL LII, No 44, October 25, 2014

[v]Karl Marx, op. cit, p. 99.

[vi] Ibid., p. 98. Also see Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983), p. 27.

[vii] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, p. 98

[viii] See my ‘Asiatic Mode of Production, Caste and the Indian Left’, in Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. XLIX, No. 19, May 10, 2014.

[ix] See my ‘Towards a New Education Policy’, in Mainstream. Also see my Why We Are Not Hindus (Delhi: Aakar Books, 2015).  

Statement on Bhangar Land Disputes and Atrocities on Peasants

It is over a decade since Mamata Banerjee made peasant discontent with government takeover of their land the unique selling point by which to make herself and her party the focal point of opposition, so that she could co-opt a part of the grass roots agitations that had developed in Singur and Nandigram, and marginalise the more radical elements. When she won elections in 2011, and again in 2016, it was by the pretence of being the great supporter of peasants.  The reality is different.

The new land acquisition law by which the TMC government has been operating has moved away from the colonial to a neoliberal market oriented set up. Under the old act, the state would declare that a project was in public interest, and take over land at a compensation rate to be decided by the state. Under the new style, direct acquisition rather than state intervention is being highlighted.


Austerity, neoliberalism, and the Indian working class


International Socialist Review Issue #103Features

In recent years, the Indian economy has been the darling of pundits commenting on international economic outlooks. During the quarter from April to June of 2016, India recorded a 7.1 percent increase in GDP—down from 7.8 percent last year, but still impressive enough to be at the top of the world’s economies. Much of this has been attributed to the pro-business policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his willingness to push through a number of changes to the laws regulating the Indian economy. At the same time, India finds itself in the midst of a crisis.

First of all, almost no one believes the Indian government’s figures about growth. They are now based on market-price calculations rather than on production figures, which most analysts agree are widely inflated.1 Second, whatever growth there has been has depended almost entirely on state expenditures, up some 18 percent over last year. Third, actual production rates have ground to a halt: railway freight, one of the best indices of how much is being produced and traded in the country, declined 9 percent this year. Fourth, the Bombay Stock Exchange took a massive dive in August 2015, as foreign investors withdrew upwards of $2.5 billion from several funds.2 This crisis renewed calls for economic reforms, especially labor laws, which are seen as overly restrictive for businesses. Finally, the public banks, which control some 70 percent of the country’s investments, are known to sit on a glut of bad loans. The combination of these factors produces an unsustainable situation.

At the same time, there has been a debate on the left about where this growth has come from. Since an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the Indian workforce labors in the informal sector of the economy, it has led many to conclude that the driving engines of growth in India are not based on exploitation at the point of production but rather on extractive industries and financialization, or what in other contexts has been called accumulation by dispossession. While these critics have been quite right to focus on the egregious actions of the Indian state against tribal populations (who live on large mineral reserves), the creation of Special Economic Zones, and the privatization of state-owned industries, they have largely ignored the way that the majority of the economy still depends on the exploitation of labor. In fact, the only way to understand the history of neoliberalism in India and the current crisis that Indian capital faces is to understand the last forty years as a systematic attempt to reorganize the labor process to benefit Indian capital.

The decline of labor
The current crisis and the bourgeoisie’s solutions stem from the ways that neoliberalism was implemented in India. It was not merely policy changes and a liberalization of trade; the implementation of neoliberalism required the crushing of India’s once impressively powerful labor unions. In fact, it is only by comparing the unions now to the power of labor in an earlier incarnation that one can see just how far labor has been pushed back onto its heels. The years which ushered in neoliberalism were also the years when labor was handily defeated and defanged by ruling classes everywhere, which makes it difficult to accept the argument of some left analysts that the expansion of extractive industries is more important than a weaker union movement for the restoration of profit rates.

The years between 1974 and 1984 were probably the height of the combativity of the Indian working class, but this period also saw the first decisive victory for the capitalist class, a victory that it has held onto ever since. The global economic downturn of the early 1970s had ripple effects in the Indian economy. Stagnating wages, inflation, and unemployment all made the Indian working class desperate. Beginning with the strike wave of 1973, when there were more than 3,370 industrial disputes, continuing until 1984, when the Bombay textile strike was finally defeated, the Indian working class was able to demonstrate its extraordinary social power.

Nevertheless, the unions were defeated, primarily by the government of Indira Gandhi, but also by communalism and the politics of Hindu chauvinism (in the case of Maharashtra). Nor can the totally bankrupt strategies of the official left unions be overlooked as a contributor to the defeats. This period ushered in the process that we today call neoliberalism. In fact, without the systematic repression of labor and the rewriting of important labor laws in this period, capital would not have been able to massively restructure the economy. Indian capital relied on the state to implement martial law in the 1970s because it had such substantial class enemies and a much stronger labor force. Defanging most of the unions by law meant that the state could legally repress them, thus tipping the balance in capital’s favor.

The great railway strike
The nineteen-day long railway strike of 1974 brought the entire nation to a standstill as some 1.7 million workers downed tools in the largest industry-wide strike in the nation’s history. It was provoked by a decade of organizing inside the railway industry, in which rank-and-file workers demanded raises, job protections, and challenged horrific working conditions.

One of the legacies of colonialism was the interpretation that the railroad companies applied to worker’s “shifts.” “Historically,” writes one analysis of the strike, “many of the British-run rail networks had termed the work of the loco staff as ‘continuous,’ implying that workers would have to remain at work as long as the train ran on its trip, often for several days at a stretch especially on the goods trains. Independence did not change this. The spread of diesel engines and the consequent intensification of work in the Indian Railways since the 1960s created much resentment among the workers.”3

The railway workers were represented at the time by two unions: the pro-Congress National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR) and the Lohiaite socialist-inspired All India Railwaymen’s Federation (AIRF). The two unions had already become thoroughly bureaucratized and bought off by the government by the mid-1960s, and saw their primary task as controlling the anger of railway workers rather than addressing their grievances. So when anger built up in the rank and file, they had to organize themselves, replace their union leaders, and set up independent unions. There were dozens of smaller unions up and down the country that had been engaging in local actions in the years leading up to 1974.

In February 1974, the unions organized the National Coordinating Committee for Railwaymen’s Struggle (NCRRS), which brought all of the unions, the political opposition, and the main trade union federations together in order to prepare for the strike. The government of India refused to budge, and was preparing for its own crackdown. On May 2, the government arrested the leader of the impending strike, George Fernandes, without any warning. In response, the workers immediately went out—not waiting until May 8 as planned. The entire nation was brought to a standstill as 1.7 million railway workers dropped their tools. In Bombay, electricity and transport workers as well as taxi drivers joined the protests. In Gaya, Bihar, striking workers and their families squatted on the tracks. More than 10,000 workers of the Integral Coach Factory in Perambur, Tamil Nadu, marched to the Southern Railway headquarters in Chennai to express their solidarity with the striking workers.

This display of solidarity, while important, was short of what was necessary to defeat the repression that was coming. What would have been needed was a full understanding of what the Indira Gandhi government represented, something the Communist Party of India did not possess. In fact, the CPI not only joined the government and supported martial law, it also instructed its affiliated unions not to strike. Two things ultimately broke this strike even before the state was able to use its full force: divisions in the working class about how and when to offer solidarity; and the Left’s confusion about whose side Indira Gandhi was on. The realpolitik of the various official left groups has always dominated their class solidarity instincts, and this has allowed the state and capital to divide the working class at key moments of struggle.

As glorious as the strike was, the government was prepared to be brutal and vicious. More than 50,000 workers were arrested, along with the top leadership of the strike. Another 17,000 workers were fired from their jobs. The railway colonies were practically under siege. For instance, in Mughalsarai in Uttar Pradesh, which has one of the biggest railway yards in the world, women were assaulted and even children were attacked. The Border Security Force (BSF), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), and the Provincial Armed Constabulary were deployed in the townships where railway workers lived. There were also instances of workers being forced by terror to work. Instances of train drivers being shackled in their cabins were reported at the height of the strike.4

It took the full force of the state to crush the strike—but it hadn’t defeated labor yet. Indira Gandhi’s imposition of the emergency laws in 1975 allowed her to make some important changes to the Indian constitution and remove several civil liberties, implement repressive censorship and security laws, as well as eliminate the right to strike, but still labor and other forces protested. It was, in fact, the movement of the left-wing activist Jayaprakash Narayan (also called the “Bihar movement”) that ultimately ended Indira Gandhi’s military rule.

Bombay textile strike
In this period of restructuring, the Bombay textile strike of 1982–84 was the last real gasp of a fighting labor movement in India. The restructuring of capital begun in the 1970s accelerated. Already the state was offering protections to smaller firms so that they could compete in the domestic markets (these laws were initially designed to protect handlooms), giving the smaller power loom workshops an advantage over the large industrial mills, which were not only taxed and regulated but also were required to recognize unions.

Labor laws in India before 1975 protected workers in workplaces with more than one hundred employees, allowing them to have access to unions and some kind of regulatory enforcement of their rights. But with the growth of power looms, the shift in the marketplace away from cotton to synthetic materials, the aging infrastructure of the industrial mills, and the bosses’ contempt of the unions, the owners sought to abandon the mills altogether and shift over to the smaller workshops. The Ambani family’s Reliance Industry made its seed money in making just this shift.5 When the unions struck in 1982, they were protesting working conditions, stagnating wages, and the lack of bonuses.

The textile mills had once been the strongholds of the Communist Party in Maharashtra, but they were replaced after independence by the Congress-Party affiliated Rashtriya Mill Mazdoor Sangh, which had sole bargaining power with the textile mills. The RMMS refused to challenge the bosses when wage increases tied to bonuses based on profits were denied. (Textile workers were paid about thirty rupees a month with a dearness allowance of another fifty rupees, while the official living wage was pegged at 165 rupees.) The rank and file was accordingly forced to organize around the state-backed union leadership.

This time, however, the strike faced two disadvantages. First, as capital was looking to get out of the mills anyway, the strike became the pretext for asking the state to intervene and solve the conflict for the capitalists. The state helped break the strike by providing legal cover for the mill owners as they transferred their assets out of the mills. Bosses were allowed to declare bankruptcy (often right after they had taken out loans from the banks), and in many instances were able to either purchase power loom workshops or buy back the mills and turn them into real estate.

Secondly, part of the way that the Communists had organized throughout the 1960s was to lead campaigns around Marathi nationalism, including the campaign for a separate state for Marathi speakers. Bal Thackeray, founder of the Shiv Sena, was centrally involved in the strike activities of 1982–84. When the strike failed, the Shiv Sena was able to scapegoat workers from other parts of India as responsible for the economic problems the workers faced.6 The real lesson from this strike was ignored by the unions: The state was not a reliable ally in the fight against capital. Not only did the state make it possible for big capital to escape with its assets intact, it also allowed the transfer of control of the industry to smaller firms without any of the regulatory oversight.

Political, not structural, defeats for labor
These two historic strikes were key defeats for the Indian working class, and arguably, the class has never really recovered from them (in much the same way that American labor has never really been the same since President Reagan fired the air-traffic controllers in the PATCO strike). But the reasons that they failed were political rather than structural.7 At each moment it would have been theoretically possible for the Communist parties in India to resist very differently than they did, and their refusal to lead the working class with slogans and the organization of solidarity allowed the class to be decimated. This historic defeat is what inaugurated the four main problems that the Indian working class faces today: draconian labor laws; right-wing Hindu and Marathi chauvinism; the over-reliance on the state to settle industrial disputes rather than preparing to fight until victory; and finally, the lack of any real solidarity between the more than ten major trade union federations. It is impossible to understand neoliberalism without understanding these political failures. And it is also important to understand these failures in order to counter those who diminish the importance of the working class by mistaking conjunctural realities for structural ones.

Labor reforms
To make matters worse, the current regime in charge of the Indian state is asking for even more from the Indian working class. Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power promising a massive overhaul of India’s regulatory regime, with labor laws in particular in his crosshairs. Modi’s “Make in India” plan hopes to bring foreign investment to India, but India’s labor laws are normally cited as the reason that manufacturers don’t want to come to India. At issue is Modi’s attempt to make it easier for employers to lay off their workers in order to pursue his plans to bring more manufacturing to India. The Industrial Disputes Act of 1947 requires employers to give two-months notice and seek government approval before laying-off a worker in any workplace that has more than one hundred workers. Modi wants to raise that limit to 300, thereby making it more attractive to invest in larger enterprises and less risky should they fail—currently, 85 percent of India’s businesses employ fifty people or less.

The biggest target that the Modi government has its eyes set on are the flimsy labor laws that offer the Indian working class the barest of protections. In addition to laws that protect workers at large workplaces from being laid off without government notice, Modi’s plans include decertification of unions, hiring and firing at will, and even going after some of workers’ basic rights to organize. In Rajasthan, for instance, the BJP government has just eliminated the protections that workers had under the Industrial Disputes Act (which protects workers from being laid off without compensation), the Contract Labor Act (which protects casual labor from being exploited), and the Factories Act (which governs workplace safety and regulation). The state of Madhya Pradesh followed suit not long after. Now there is talk of a large overhaul of all of the labor laws at the federal level, which would completely undercut the kinds of protections that unions have relied on in order to defend even the barest of gains. It is important to remember that a mere 7 percent of the Indian working class is unionized.

The rollback of workers’ rights represents the bourgeoisie’s solution to their crisis of profitability, as well as the ordinary operation of capitalism when it smells blood in the water. One reason these laws are necessary is because of the high cost of doing business in large factories, and the industrial classes want to move towards larger factories to compete internationally. Currently, manufacturing is dominated by the informal sector in India—84 percent of manufacturers rely on workplaces of fifty people or fewer.  Modi’s plans match the Organization of Employers recommendations to overhaul the labor laws:

  • India is perhaps the only country, where the requirement of strike notice, barring public utility service, is totally lacking. Therefore, Section 23 of the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 [is to] be suitably amended to provide at least a compulsory three weeks strike notice. . . . To deter illegal strikes, it can be proposed to provide for 8 day’s deduction of wages for each day of illegal strikes.
  • Provision for recognizing a Bargaining Agent under the Trade Unions Act, 1926 may be introduced to strengthen the collective bargaining machinery. A union with 51 percent membership should be recognized as the Sole Bargaining Agent. In cases where no single union has 51 percent, the top 2–3 unions with more than 25 percent membership may come together to form Joint Bargaining Councils. A union with less than 25 percent membership should not have a right to challenge a collective agreement nor raise a collective dispute.
  • The number of outsiders in the Trade Union Executive should be restricted to a maximum of two persons as against 50 percent in the legislation and out of the two top positions of “President” and “General Secretary,” at least one post should be held by the internal employee.8

In part, the reason that the bourgeoisie is so interested in overhauling the labor laws in India is because they are the main weapons of the major trade union federations to settle disputes with management. As a result, almost all trade union activity in the major unions is geared towards electoral politics and forming coalitions with other parties rather than shop-floor organizing. Now that the BJP has won a handy majority, the emptiness of that strategy stands revealed, just as does the atrophying of labor’s muscles throughout India. While there are slight signs of hope in the new data on strike figures, even here there is weakness, because the balance sheet reflects the turnout of the massive symbolic one-day actions that the unions have called regularly since the National Democratic Alliance came to power and not sustained struggles to gain a share of profits.

YearStrikesDays LostLockoutsDays LostTotal Lost
2000 426 11,960,000 345 16,800,800  
2002 295 9,664,527 284 16,921,382  
2003 255 3,205,950 297 27,049,961  
2004 236 4,828,737 241 19,037,630  
2005 227 10,800,686 229 18,864,313  
2006 243 3,160,000 192 10,600,000  
2007 210 15,055,713 179 12,111,039  
2008         17,434,000
20099 167 8,075,046 178 9,547,009 13,365,000
2010 199   172   18,068,000
2011 179   191   14,483,013
2012 260   179   12,727,973
2013 178   20   3,654,361
2014 88   16   18,232,773

10 Source: “Industrial Disputes,” Labor Bureau, Government of India, at http://labourbureau.nic.in/idtab.htm.

The 2015 strike
The unions that have retained some combativity—auto, airlines, nursing, domestic labor—have continued to grow, but even so, the picture continues to look tough for labor. But on September 2, 2015, ten of the twelve major national trade union federations called a massive one-day strike in response to a breakdown in negotiations with the central government over economic reforms and minimum wages. Media estimates of participation in the strike were generally inflated, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that millions of workers participated. ASSOCHAM, the Indian chamber of commerce, estimated that the strike cost the economy $3.7 billion dollars.

The strike was felt most acutely in the transportation, banking, and mining industries. In states like West Bengal, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh, it massively disrupted everyday life as buses and taxis stopped running and banks were closed. The strongest attack against strikers was in West Bengal, where the ruling Trinamul Congress Party unleashed its cadres and the police. More than a 1,000 people were arrested and dozens were wounded. Television reports showed police officers dragging female activists through the streets. In the days leading up to the strike, the chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Bannerjee, declared that she would use her power to stop any disruption to the economy.

The strike was the result of a breakdown in negotiations between the main trade union federations and the central government. The main issues related to differences over a new minimum wage (unions were asking for 15,000 rupees and the center countered with 6,330), universal social security, a reduction in layoffs, a halt to price rises in key consumer goods, and improved enforcement of labor laws. But there was also a push back against some of the new legislation that Modi was trying to implement. The unions objected to the disinvestment in public sector undertakings (PSUs), the unwillingness to recognize unions in a timely fashion, the introduction of foreign direct investment into railways and defense, and the lack of any limits to the contract system (casualization).

More serious threats
But the most serious threats came through amendments to India’s labor laws, many of which the unions rely on for basic protection for their workers, especially limits to how employers lay off their workers. These are all reforms that the capitalists in India have been clamoring for, citing them as the primary reasons that they are unwilling to invest in large enterprises in India. This is all the more worrisome given that Indians themselves have been willing to overlook the genocidal policies of their country’s current prime minister in exchange for 7–8 percent growth rates. In fact, India’s economic success has allowed its rulers to get away with murder—literally.

But had the analysts bothered to look below the surface, they might have seen just how unstable the Indian economy actually is. The economic data only tell part of the picture, not the least because the data are completely jerry-rigged. India’s growth rates this year miraculously jumped from 4 to 7 percent when the Central Statistics Office announced it would be recalculating how growth was to be measured—switching from GDP to gross value added.11 Simply lowering the poverty line similarly halved India’s poverty rate. The World Bank routinely assesses poverty as earning less than two dollars a day, but India now counts urban poverty as thirty-three rupees a day (fifty-five cents a day) and rural poverty as twenty-seven rupees (forty-five cents a day). This has remarkably reduced poverty in India from almost 50 percent to 30 percent without materially changing anything.

But the story gets even worse when you look at the rest of the official figures. These figures are just for people living in abject poverty in India. Slightly better are those that fall under the Empowerment Line, who earn 50 percent more than the abject poor or 75 cents a day. The number in this group rises to 56 percent, a whopping 680 million people. And if you look at what the World Bank considers to be vulnerable sections of the population—those who still have trouble meeting basic needs—you add another 413 million people to the mix. That’s close to one billion people living in dire straits. What that leaves are the two hundred million people that India considers to be middle class and the tiny section of the very rich.

This is not only a human crisis; investors have recently begun to withdraw from the Indian economy, citing the slow pace of labor reforms. Using other indicators than the manufactured GDP numbers, India’s economy looks troubling:

  • India’s cargo traffic—rail, air, and sea—is sluggish. Two-wheeler sales are decelerating. March’s factory-output figures showed the slowest growth in five months, though the seasonally adjusted HSBC India Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index indicated a nineteenth straight month of expansion in May. Exports fell in April for the fifth month in a row.12
  • There is a crisis in profitability in India, with returns on investment shrinking (see figures below). The preferred strategy over the last thirty years has been to try to make the working class pay to restore them, which accounts in many ways for the abysmal wage rates in India. Median household purchasing parity is under three dollars a day.13
  • This has resulted in a massive concentration of wealth at the very top with few productive outlets. In June, the Boston Consulting Group issued a report that the number of Indians with ultra-high net worth (UHNW) tripled in 2014. India went from 284 people with a net worth greater than $100 million in 2013, to 928 people in 2014. That puts India in fourth place behind the US (5,201), China (1,037), and the UK (1,019). India ranks third in the world in the number of billionaires.14

It’s something of a joke that the Indian ruling class has run out of ideas about selling the economy. It used to be that the ruling class tried to say that it cared about the poor, and its election slogans stressed “bread, clothing, housing,” (roti, kapda, makan), or “electricity, roads, water” (bijli, sadak, pani), but now they’ve given up even talking about the social problems that the poor face, and instead extoll the Indian economic miracle by referring to “India Shining” (Bharat Uday). They note that the good days (acche din) have come as India pursues manufacturing as part of Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” campaign. None of this, however, hides the current crisis of profitability, which is a direct result of the fact that the Indian ruling class pursued the same policies as the rest of the world when it faced a major economic crisis in the 1970s.

Neoliberal outcomes to the defeat of labor
After a period of robust, even astronomical growth beginning in the 1990s, and continuing on into the twenty-first century, the economy is once again facing serious problems. The right wing in India and the capitalist class have used these new glitches in the economy to argue for their standard solutions—the suite of neoliberal policies: restructuring the working class, especially reducing legal protections on unions and workers; more deregulation and informalization of production; a further reduction in the regulatory regime and the scope of its laws; an end to what little social welfare continues to exist; an expansion of state-sponsored infrastructure development, but a continuation of the privatization of state-owned industries; and a greater reliance on the state to force through development against those sections of the population that might otherwise resist displacement.

Two things have happened as a result of twenty years of pursuing neoliberal policies in India that are key if we want to understand the crisis that India will be facing in the coming years. First, the entirety of the growth that has been generated in India has been on the backs of the working class, whose wages are abysmally paltry. The main target here has been unions and the laws that favor them. This is not a strategy that can continue indefinitely, and not just because it results in the immiseration of the Indian working class, but also because we know that for many of the industries global competition requires economies of scale making large workplaces still important and potentially locations for organizing workers.

Second, even as the Indian ruling class has amassed a vast fortune, it has run out of productive places in which to invest its profits. India is facing a decline in its investment-to-GDP ratio, which measures how much capital is getting reinvested as a proportion of the total output of a country. India’s investment-to-GDP ratio has fallen to below 30 percent from a high of 40 percent a decade ago.15Most of the growth that was generated in India over the last decade depended on these high investment rates, especially the purchasing of heavy machinery and the construction of infrastructure, all of which was important for India to recover from the problems it inherited from British colonial rule. This rapid decline in investment rates is normally talked about as a result of high interest rates; however, earlier this year the Reserve Bank of India lowered interest rates, but this hasn’t solved the problem.

The investment rate is important because it shows that capital cannot reinvest profitably. Instead, capitalists would rather save their money than put it back into the economy. In comparison, China’s investment-to-GDP ratio is 47 to 50 percent.

Accumulation by dispossession?
That there has been substantial real growth over the past twenty years cannot be disputed, but there has been a debate about how those gains have been achieved. According to David Harvey, capital accumulation can no longer happen through simple reproduction but has to happen instead through what he calls accumulation by dispossession: the use of state power to acquire land, dispossess the people who live on it, and then extract the resources underneath. 16  Harvey lists all of the ways that the commons are raided by the state for the benefit of freeing up areas that allow capital to expand. This, Harvey claims, is the way that capitalists have resolved the crisis of profitability. These land disputes have also been a focus of the left and are the scene of some of the most spectacular resistance by peasants.

There are problems with this view, the most important one being that it changes both the agent and the method by which this accumulation is challenged. If Harvey is right, accumulation by dispossession can only really be challenged through social movements, organized largely by the people affected by this dispossession, but lacking in many ways the economic power possessed by labor. Moreover, several critics have noted that Harvey’s definition of accumulation by dispossession is so capacious that it even includes surplus value extraction and, therefore, becomes less useful as a tool for explaining the shift in nodes of accumulation. In India there are additional problems. First, most of the land that has been acquired through state coercion has been gifted not to capitalists from the Global North, but to Indian and other Asian firms; accumulation in the Global North, then, cannot be used to explain accumulation in the Global South. Second, mining and the extractive industries account for 2 percent of GDP as of 2014, so we can’t say that there is a shift to extractive industries as the primary source of economic development in India. Third, most of the land that is acquired in this way is actually set aside for new real estate development—land for manufacturing and new commercial campuses—and not for extraction. Most of this land is used to bypass ailing infrastructure and to provide space for the expansion of the service sector (as in the Mahindra World City outside Jaipur), or in manufacturing (as in the Noida Special Export Processing Zone). And even here, much of the economic activity is the same that would happen in any city.

Fourth, the kind of industry that is developing in these zones relies on expanded accumulation for which the new labor rules are important—workplaces that deal in workforces of more than 300 people. Other analysts, like Kalyan Sanyal,17 use Harvey’s ideas to make radical claims that the informal sector—comprising a good chunk of the jobs of the working class—makes it impossible for workers to do anything but barely survive; claims that are belied by the rise of new slum entrepreneurs in places like Dharavi and Delhi. This should make us rethink whether it is the case that the primary struggles are no longer at the point of production. The All India Organization of Employers has produced another graph that makes the same point. If you start in 1980 and draw a line through to 2010, measuring the number of industrial disputes, there is a very clear pattern:


The fact remains that the gains in India’s growth have been concentrated at the very top. In 1971, total sales of the top twenty industrial houses in India accounted for about 61 percent of the net domestic product of the private organized sector; the corresponding figure for 1981 was 87 percent.19 To come to the situation in the early part of this century, note the continued dominance of what the business press regularly calls the “big four” of Indian business: the Tatas, the Birlas, the Ambanis and the Mittals. In key industries like energy, telecom, steel, automobiles, IT and retail, these four business houses either continue to dominate or are poised to do so in the near future.

Another measure of the concentration of Indian capital at the top can be seen from the following: In 2008, of the 500 surveyed companies, the top twenty private companies accounted for about 40 percent of the sales, 47 percent of after-tax profits, and 45 percent of market capitalization.20 This concentration of capital at the top also becomes a barrier to profitability. Michael Roberts has shown that profit rates in India are falling largely because so few firms are willing to invest in capital formation so long as the infrastructure in India is as terrible as it is. 21 

Low capital investment means low productivity, which also means a severely falling rate of profit. The goal of the bourgeoisie currently is to get the state to shoulder the costs of infrastructure improvements, so it can get on with the business of investing and raising profitability again.

The fact that disciplining labor has been so important to the neoliberal project has not been accidental—it has been the primary way that accumulation has proceeded. But it is not enough to argue that labor is important economically. It also matters whether or not labor can fight back in serious and substantial enough ways to fundamentally alter the economic arrangement. Historically, there have been reasons to suspect that Indian labor unions, tied to large political parties, have been unwilling to act in decisive ways against big business.

Most of those who take labor seriously are cynical about large labor unions that are dominated by the official left (i.e. the Stalinists) as well as unions (the non-Stalinist trade union left) so tiny as to be unable to influence labor struggles in important ways. All of this is to say that getting a very good understanding of the nature of class and social struggle in the New India is a very difficult thing to do because of the ways that the working class has been defeated and the ways that the various strands of the left in India have responded to that working-class defeat.

Here’s how Craig Phelan characterizes the problem:

One reason why so little is known about Indian labor and trade unionism is its complexity and diversity. There is no coherent Indian industrial relations system; both the central and state governments have been prolific in passing labor laws. Rather than a single national trade union federation, there are no less than twelve, each of which in turn serves as the labor wing of an established political party. There are also a growing number of unaffiliated unions that, although usually lacking in resources, pursue their own agendas free from the domination of political parties. Indian trade unionism is deeply divided along ideological lines, and it is further divided by caste and community ties. By law, only seven workers are needed to form a union, and therefore an unhealthy level of union proliferation is reflected in the workplace, eroding collective bargaining strength, stifling worker militancy, and undermining any sense of working-class unity.22

Another example: by most estimates India’s informal and unorganized workforce is at about 85 to 90 percent of all workers, a massive 300 million workers. That means, that even when strikes do happen, they are limited to very small sections of the economy. The minimum wage, such as it is in India, guarantees workers in the official economy an average annual salary of around $700 a year, putting them at barely above the poverty line. For the rest of the economy, it is a one-sided class assault. This has meant that capital accumulation has proceeded virtually unabated; but does that mean the working class is increasingly irrelevant to the process of accumulation?

Ultimately the problem is not hopeless, as jobs have not shifted into the frictionless world of post-Fordist production. This is how Pranab Bardhan explains how labor was reorganized:

With the current decline of agriculture there has not been a commensurate increase in manufacturing particularly in labour-intensive industries; some of the successful cases of industries both in exports and domestic production are in capital- or skill-intensive activities (vehicles, car parts, machine tools, pharmaceuticals, etc.). The real expansion has been in the service sector, not just in business processing, software, communications and finance, but also in traditional services (like trade and transportation). The contribution of the service sector to GDP is now more than 55 percent (the major part of which, contrary to popular impression, is still in the traditional service sector). Even with the widest definition of all information technology-enabled services, they employ less than one-half of 1 percent of the total labor force.23

These facts are important because they dispel the claims that Harvey makes about where the new nodes of accumulation actually are.

Signs of hope?
For the last ten years, the Indian media has been going wild about the rising Indian middle class and its massive consumptive power as the exemplary symbol of India’s enormous economic growth rates. Much of this new Indian middle class works in the service industry, mostly private, though some are employed as civil servants. But the jewel in the crown of this new middle class has definitely been India’s much touted IT sector, even though it employees a tiny fraction of India’s workers. Still, the IT sector has been the coveted place for students to try and find jobs, so much so that it has skewed the priorities of the nation’s educational system and produced a glut in the IT job market.

But ever since 2008, with the global financial crisis, the IT sector has been facing a serious crisis. Earlier this year, India’s largest IT firm, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) announced that it would be issuing letters of termination. Rumors began to circulate that it would result in as many as 25,000 layoffs in Bangalore, Chennai, and Hyderabad. Around the same time, Yahoo, IBM, and HP also announced that they would be laying off employees. Unions speculated that 35,000 people had already lost their jobs in the last two years for cost-cutting purposes. Until the beginning of this year, the laws that govern the IT sector had not been tested, nor was it clear that IT workers qualified as laborers protected under the Industrial Disputes Act.

The intervention of the major unions, the organization of rallies and protests, and the filing of petitions in the courts resulted finally in a ruling that IT workers were indeed workers, and that their layoffs were therefore illegal without proper legal notice. By February, the companies had all announced much smaller layoffs and the unions had revealed significant successes in organizing what was otherwise seen to be an unorganizable sector. Industry journals in the United States even began to worry that the growth of trade unions in Indian IT would put the entire model of outsourcing at risk and threaten their profits. Trade unions have continued to agitate since then for greater openness in hiring and firing in the entire IT sector. It should come as no surprise, then, that thousands of tech workers joined their fellow unionists during the most recent general strike.

These should be signs of hope for the left. They serve as a reminder that the power of capitalism to suppress working-class dissent is not total and that the working class continues to fight back. Even if the current trade union leadership has no real strategy for confronting capitalists in India, they are sometimes forced to bring their members out on strike and to fight in the streets where workers get a sense not only of their power, but who are their real allies.

The most recent mobilizations of labor in India have not been decisive, but they demonstrate both the unevenness of the gains of economic growth, as well as the real force that the working class is capable of mobilizing. What is revealed, most importantly, is that the Indian economic miracle has not been without its problems. There is no uniquely Indian fix to the problems inherent in capitalist accumulation; nor has the working class disappeared into complete inactivity. The recent massive general strikes reveal some of the strengths that labor has left, while the signs of new organizing offer some hope of renewed vibrancy as well.

  1. “The elephant in the stats,” The Economist, April 9, 2016, http://economist.com/news/finance-and-ec....
  2. “India stock market witnesses massive plunge,” The BRICS Post, 24 August 2015, http://thebricspost.com/india-stock-mark....
  3. V. Sridhar, “Chronicle of a Strike,” Frontline, Volume 18, Issue 19, September 15–28, 2001.
  4. See Nrisingha Chakrabarty, History of railway trade union movement (New Delhi: Centre of Indian Trade Unions, 1985); T.N. Siddhanta, The Railway General Strike (SI: AITUC, 1974); Stephen Sherlock, The Indian Railways Strike of 1974 (New Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2001).
  5. “Dhirubhai Ambani: Streaking up the ladder, ” India Today, October 9, 2013, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/dhiru....
  6. The Shiv Sena was an Indian far-right regional political party whose ideology is based on pro-Marathi ideology and Hindu nationalism (Hindutva).
  7. This is important because some, including Nivedita Menon and Aditya Nigam (see their Power and Contestation, India since 1989), conclude that labor has become irrelevant both to economic questions in India and to the social resistance to neoliberalism.
  8. “Industrial Unrest: Past Trend & Lessons for the Future,” All India Organization of Employers, http://ficci.in/spdocument/20188/industr....
  9. Source: “Industrial Disputes,” Labor Bureau, Government of India, http://labourbureau.nic.in/idtab.htm.
  10. Statistics on 2009 labor disputes, Closures, Retrenchments, and Layoffs in India, Government of India, Ministry of Labor and Employment, http://labourbureau.nic.in/ID_2009_ALL9.pdf.
  11. David Ashworth, “India Now Uses Gross Value Added to Calculate Economic Output,” Market Realist, 28 May 2015, http://marketrealist.com/2015/05/india-n....
  12. Raymond Zhong and Gabriele Parussini, “Behind India’s World-Beating GDP Data, Central Bank Sees Weakness,” Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2015, http://wsj.com/articles/behind-indias-wo....
  13. Eric Bellman, “India or China: Which Asian Giant Has More Inclusive Growth?”, http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2015/....
  14. “No. of Indians with over $100 million hits 928,” Times of India, 17 June 2015, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/busin....
  15. Rahul Anand and Volodymyr Tulin, “Disentangling India’s Investment Slowdown,” IMF Working Paper (WP/14/47), March 2014.
  16. David Harvey, Limits of Capital (London: Verso Books, 2007).
  17. Kalyan Sanyal, Rethinking Capitalist Development (New Delhi: Routledge India, 2014).
  18. “Industrial Unrest: Past Trends & Lessons for Future,” All India Organization of Employers, 1, www.ficci.com/spdocument/20188/Industria... (1980–2010).
  19. Pranab Bardhan, “Notes on the Political Economy of India’s Tortuous Transition,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 49 (December 5–11, 2009), 31.
  20. The Economic Times, “Top Companies in India 2015,” http://economictimes.com/et500.
  21. Michael Robert’s Blog, “India’s Modinomics,” https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2....
  22. Craig Phelan, et. al., “Labor History Symposium: Workers, Unions, and Global Capitalism: Lessons from India,” Labor History 52:4, 535–562.
  23. Pranab Bardhan, 31.