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Vol. 73/No. 40      October 19, 2009

Marxism and the fight
for women’s emancipation
(Books of the Month column)
Below is an excerpt from Feminism and the Marxist Movement by Mary-Alice Waters, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for October. The booklet explains how winning the liberation of women is inseparably linked to the struggle of the working class to transform all economic and social relations through the fight to overthrow capitalist rule. It draws on the lessons of the revolutionary workers movement over more than 150 years in championing women’s struggle for emancipation. Copyright © 1972 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

From the inception of the Marxist movement to today, for nearly 125 years, revolutionary Marxists have waged an unremitting struggle within the broad working-class movement in order to establish a revolutionary attitude toward the struggle for women’s liberation. They have fought to place it on a sound historical and materialist basis; and to educate the entire vanguard of the working class to an understanding of the significance of the struggles by women for full equality and for liberation from the centuries-old degradation of domestic slavery.

This battle has always been one of the dividing lines between revolutionary and reformist currents within the working-class movement; between those committed to a class-struggle perspective and those following a line of class collaboration. Women’s oppression and how to struggle against it has been an issue at every turning point in the history of the revolutionary movement. Our ideological and political forebears, the revolutionary Marxists, both male and female, have led the fight against all those who refused to inscribe women’s liberation on the banner of socialism, or who supported it in words but refused to fight for it in practice.

This is very important. Our opponents often try to saddle us with responsibility for the positions taken, not by the revolutionaries within the working-class movement, but by the reformists—by the right wing of the pre-World War I American Socialist Party, by the Stalinists, or else by the sectarians and ultralefts who refused to recognize the complexity of the class struggle or the need to fight for democratic rights. But those tendencies do not represent our tradition. It is precisely against such forces that revolutionary Marxists have battled over the decades.

The first dividing line came as early as the founding of the Marxist movement itself. The Communist Manifesto in 1848 boldly proclaimed:

“On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain… . The bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion than that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women.

“He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.”

The line of division established here and in all the subsequent writings of Marx and Engels on this subject was that between utopian and scientific socialism. The pre-Marxian utopian socialists—such as Fourier and Owen—were also fervent champions of the emancipation of women. But their socialism, as well as their theories on the family and women, rested on moral principles and abstract desires—not on an understanding of the laws of history and the class struggle rooted in the growth of humanity’s productive capacities. Marxism for the first time provided a scientific materialist foundation, not only for socialism but also for women’s liberation. It laid bare the roots of women’s oppression, its relationship to a system of production based on private property and a society divided between a class that owned the wealth and a class that produced it. Marxism explained the role of the family within class society, and the function of the family in perpetuating the oppression of women.

More than that, Marxism pointed out the road to achieving women’s liberation. It explained how the abolition of private property would provide a material basis for transferring to society as a whole all those onerous social responsibilities today borne by the individual family—the care of the old and sick; the feeding, clothing, and educating of the young. Relieved of these burdens, Marx pointed out, the masses of women would be able to break the bonds of domestic servitude, they would be able to exercise their full capacities as creative and productive—not just reproductive—members of society. Freed from the economic compulsion on which it necessarily rests, the bourgeois family would disappear. Human relationships themselves would be transformed into free relations of free people.

And finally, Marxism took socialism and women’s liberation out of the sphere of utopian yearning by proving that capitalism itself produces a force—the working class—strong enough to destroy it, capable of carrying through the momentous task of abolishing the tyranny of the possessing few over the overwhelming majority of humankind. For the first time, socialists could stop wishing for the new and better society and begin to organize to bring it about.

The struggle for women’s liberation was thus lifted out of the realm of the personal, the “impossible dream,” and unbreakably linked to the victory of the progressive forces of our epoch. It became a social task in the interests of all humanity. Thus, Marxism provided a materialist analysis and a scientific perspective for women’s liberation.

Those women like Juliet Mitchell who charge that Marxism does not have an adequate place in its theory for women are being dishonest. It is not the degree of adequacy in Marxism’s theory that they really question. They fundamentally disagree with its materialist analysis of women’s oppression and all that flows from it, including the need for a revolutionary Marxist party to lead the working class and its allies to power.  
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