A Marxist Feminist Reply: Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation
Updated: Mar 5
In recent years, the global women’s movement has reintroduced the strike as a form of struggle on a mass scale. It was in the labour movement that the strike as a form of struggle was born. Thus, the feminist magazine ‘Bang’ (#2, 2019) had the labour movement as a theme. It puts forward the tenuous myth that Marx’s “narrow” economic class theory has contributed to ignoring living conditions and rights of “a number of groups, such as women and black people” in the class struggle
In recent years, the global women’s movement has reintroduced the strike as a form of struggle on a mass scale, starting in Poland in 2016. International Women’s Day on 8 March in 2017 and 2018 saw internationally coordinated strikes in many countries. In 2019, up to seven million people went on strike in Spain on 8 March, which, like the latest feminist strike in Switzerland on 14 June, must be among the largest ever strikes in Europe. In recent years, feminist strikes and mass demonstrations have swept across Latin America as well as India and South Africa and were a main feature of the revolts in North Africa. The protest movement in Hong Kong also challenged sexism.
It was in the labour movement that the strike as a form of struggle was born and for socialists it has always been a central strategy. That the youth climate movement is also striking is a very important step away from individualism (the era of postmodernism and “identity politics”) and towards collective action. Shutting down their workplaces or schools by sitting down or filling the streets clearly signals that the machinery must be stopped for change to be possible.
When workers strike, class struggle becomes more conscious.
Karl Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, 1847“Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people of the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle […] this mass becomes united and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests.”
The fact that the feminist magazine ‘Bang’ (#2, 2019) had the labour movement as a theme reflects the same development within the women’s movement. There is, among other things, an article by Anna Remmets that discusses the important issue that has been discussed in many parts of the world, including up to 8 March — how should the strikes happen? One aspect is that women dominate in jobs where it is extremely difficult and sometimes illegal to strike — the health and social care professions. Insecure and temporary employment make it even more difficult, not to mention work without contracts or in the informal sector. In addition, there is discussion about unpaid work, so-called reproductive work or “household work”: should we go on strike from that? Remmets emphasises the International Women’s Strike network as a trailblazer that wants to extend the concept of strike to include women outside the established labour market, without agreements or completely without income, which I will come back to.
There is also an article on the concept of class. Here, Ulrika Holgersson puts forward the tenuous myth that Karl Marx’s “narrow” economic class theory “has contributed to the fact that a number of groups, such as women and black people, their living conditions and rights have never been recognised as legitimate in the class struggle”. As a Marxist, there is a lot to reply to in that.
The strangest thing about the article is that it highlights Gayle Rubin’s contribution in the 1970s as pioneering. “American anthropologist, Gayle Rubin, opposed interpretations of capitalism as the origin of women’s oppression. According to Rubin, women’s oppression had a much longer history.” But this was widely known long before Rubin. Holgersson herself begins her article by mentioning Friedrich Engels’ analysis of the origins of women’s oppression in connection with private property and the emergence of class society about 10,000 years ago. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, as the book that Engels completed in 1884 is called, is still — despite important updates — fundamental to understanding where women’s oppression originally came from.
Marxism is an ideology but also a tool for action that is constantly evolving with the living battles and setbacks against which it is tested. Getting hung up on just one person, Karl Marx, is un-Marxist. I will try to show how Marxism developed, but I will start with Marx since he is referred to specifically.
Ulrika Holgersson believes that it is hardly an exaggeration to say that Marx was completely uninterested in women as a special group with specific social rights and that this became Engel’s lot instead. That is not true. Karl Marx did not start out as a feminist, but he was also influenced by the incipient women’s movement (see, for example, Hal Draper’s, Marx and Engels on women’s liberation). And as Engels writes in the preface to the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, it was Karl Marx who started the work on the book but he was unable to complete it before his passing. It is clear in the book that it was written in order to contribute to the struggle for women’s liberation.
Holgersson believes that Gayle Rubin saw what Engels had overlooked — the role of reproduction in development. “It is not only the production of goods but also the reproduction of people, not only the need to be measured, but also to be sexually satisfied, which conditions human existence”. Now that is exactly the point of the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Again, already in the foreword, Engels reiterates what has been central for Marxism both before and after — to focus on production AND reproduction.
Engels, ‘Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State’, Preface, 1884“According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life. This, again, is of a twofold character. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of articles of food and clothing, dwellings, and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organisation under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour on the one hand and of the family on the other.”
This is in line with what Nancy Fraser, Tithi Bhattacharya and Cinzia Arruzza, who have greatly influenced the International Women’s Strike, write in the manifesto, “Feminism for the 99 Percent”:
“Feminism for the 99 Percent”“The critical point for us, and key to understanding the present, is that class struggle includes struggles over social reproduction: for universal health care and free education, for environmental justice and access to clean energy, and for housing and public transportation.”
A theme for Holgersson is that Marxism believes that it is production that drives society and history forward, and that Marxist feminism therefore overstates that the solution for women is to enter production, i.e. get paid work and their own income. The same line of thinking is found in Nancy Fraser et al.: “By the same token, and pace traditional understandings of socialism, an exclusive focus on wage labor’s exploitation cannot emancipate women”.
In reality, socialism has not just focused on wage labour, but the idea that wage labour has not contributed to liberation at all is a one-sided assertion in the other direction. In the case of Europe and the United States at least, it is clear that the three major waves of widespread women’s struggles, together with labour struggles and other movements that led to economic, legal and cultural progress were all preceded by periods when many more women received paid employment — the end of the 1800s, the 1960s and the last 20 years.
That definitely doesn’t mean a final emancipation but having one’s own income makes women less dependent on the family and freer to demand more equality. At the same time, there is a wider significance. With paid employment, you get a workplace — an arena for organisation and you often become part of a team. Together with your workmates, it is easier to see the common conditions — it was no coincidence that the #metoo movement against sexual harassment was often based around workplace-based appeals — to jointly demand change.
But Marxism or traditional socialism have neither seen women’s right to wage labour as the ultimate goal nor claimed that reproductive work is therefore worth less. On the contrary! When the labour and women’s movement in the 1970s fought, with great success, for the establishment of preschools, it was because children’s care is important. Children need trained staff, pedagogy, good facilities, etc. The same was the case when the expansion of other welfare reforms was won through struggle. However, none of these issues will be resolved as long as capitalism and class society exist. Children’s groups and classes will continue to be far too large, cuts and privatisations constant, parents’ working days far too long, many women’s jobs just too unsafe and poorly paid, etc.
A basic idea of Marxism and the socialist movement is that this class society, capitalism, in itself and every day cultivates exploitation and hierarchies such as the exploitation of workers, racism and the gender-power order. The conclusion is that there must be a fundamental social transformation in which capitalism is abolished. In a socialist society, its major assets would be commonly owned and managed. It has never before been so clear that today’s private ownership of banks, oil assets, large industries, etc., leads all of humanity towards ruin. If society instead owns these assets, we can commonly decide what should be produced, how much and in what way. Here we come to the core of the argument. The whole purpose of a socialist social transformation is that resources must be transferred from today’s destructive production to production in the name of welfare, i.e. to reproduction.
A massive expansion of welfare is the first thing that would be implemented. Even in a so-called welfare country like Sweden, there is a need for hundreds of thousands more employees in school, healthcare and social care to reduce stress levels and increase quality, even more in many other countries. One of the most important reforms that a socialist society must carry out is a greatly shortened working day, for more time for children, the elderly, cooking, leisure, community involvement etc. Already in the 1990s, the Women’s power inquiry (government investigation) found that shorter working days for both partners in the family is among the surest ways to increase gender equality in household work.
There is reason to look towards those Marxists who have managed to go from words to action. Those who not only carried out revolutions but also started building another kind of society. It is no coincidence that International Women’s Day, 8 March, which is still the day that brings together millions of feminists around the world in struggle, has its origins in the socialist revolutionary movement.
The Communist International noted that the Russian Revolution of 1917 had begun on International Women’s Day and that this date would henceforth no longer vary from year to year but be fixed to 8 March. It was not only gender equality reforms such as the abortion law, the right to divorce, sex crime legislation and LGBTQ rights that saw the light of day in Bolshevik Russia for the first time. Welfare reforms such as daycare centres, canteens, laundry rooms and parental leave were also implemented. And significantly, the Communists understood that there was a need to continue fighting against the old structures. That the revolution must be permanent.
Inessa Armand and Alexandra Kollontai were the first two leaders of the women’s committee, Zhenotdel, which was set up for this purpose (the model was then spread to the entire international). Kollontai showed, among her many contributions to Marxism, how household work that was previously considered private, in the sphere of the home, had now become tasks for the whole of society (which then found an echo again in the 1970s with the slogan, “The personal is political”).
Armand’s attitude was that:
Karen M. Offen, European Feminism 1700–1950“As long as the old forms of family, home life and child rearing are not abolished, it will be impossible to abolish exploitation and slavery, it will be impossible to build socialism”
Of course there was resistance, for example, among male party members. But it was not that the party as a whole didn’t understand the importance of women’s struggle. Lenin, for example, said that “the working class cannot achieve freedom until complete freedom for women has been won”. (VI Lenin, On the Emancipation of Women)
Leon Trotsky wrote in 1923 about the challenges they faced:
Trotsky, ‘Old Family to the New’, 1923“To institute the political equality of men and women in the Soviet state was one problem and the simplest. A much more difficult one was the next — that of instituting the industrial equality of men and women workers in the factories, the mills, and the trade unions, and of doing it in such a way that men should not put women at a disadvantage. But achieving the actual equality of man and woman within the family is an infinitely more arduous problem. Domestic habits must be revolutionised before that can happen. And yet it is quite obvious that unless there is actual equality of husband and wife in the family, in a normal sense as well as in the conditions of life, we cannot speak seriously of their equality in social work or even in politics. As long as a woman is chained to her housework, the care of the family, the cooking and sewing, all her chances of participation in social and political life are cut down in the extreme.”
The way forward was both material improvements for all as well as raising the cultural level and education of the individuals who make up the class.
Then one must ask: what happened? For the Soviet Union did not develop along these lines but rather along opposite lines. The failed revolutions in other countries, the war of imperialism against Russia and poverty all caused Stalin’s bureaucratic dictatorship to take over more and more. The counter-revolution worked on all levels and one of them, which Trotsky writes about in Revolution Betrayed, was the re-establishment of the traditional patriarchal family. For example, abortion and same-sex relations were criminalised again in the 1930s.
When the great wave of women’s struggles broke out around the world in the late 1960s, it erupted against all aspects of gender oppression. That it came to develop a radical feminist emphasis was partly in polemic against a male chauvinist left that was linked to Stalinism or its variant — Maoism. There, a male “proletarian culture” was cultivated as its view of the working class. The worker, they argued, was a white, heterosexual man. Radical feminism, in turn, argued (also incorrect) that women’s oppression was the original oppression and that the women’s struggle is above the class struggle.
Over the past 30 years, the socialist programme has evolved as socialists have used it in concrete struggle. There have been ground-breaking campaigns such as the campaign against domestic violence, against sexual harassment, against the deadly violence, against wage discrimination, LGBTQI+ struggle, against the sex industry, for abortion rights and much more.
To sum up, Marxism is both useful and necessary in the women’s struggle. The working class is the force that can revolutionise society, which is the start of the abolition of the gender power system. Women constitute an ever larger and above all an increasingly militant part of the working class, both in the formal sector, in the informal sector and in the welfare professions. In order for the class to be able to unite and manage to raise a resistance against capitalism, the issue of fighting against both sexism and racism must be high on the agenda.
So back to Anna Remmets question about what kind of strikes are needed. The youth climate movement has gone from practicing individual veganism to striking. Furthermore, from school strikes to demanding of the unions that they also join in, and “All out strikes”. If all the unions went on strike, emissions would decrease immediately, at least on that strike day. Not just that. The social change that is necessary demands that power is challenged. The same is true with the feminist struggle. It is essential to stop production in order to challenge the power of companies and banks, as well as the states and the politics that back them up.
In all revolutions, a lively discussion about personal freedoms, about how gender roles must also be questioned, begins. The most recent example of this was during the spring’s long occupation of the square in Khartoum, Sudan. The women’s groups rose and demanded of the male participants that they educate themselves in questioning and opposing sexism, and the women’s groups also refused to unilaterally be responsible for the cleaning tasks first assigned to them by the Revolutionary Coordination.
This is just a glimpse of what will happen when the whole society is changed from the ground up. For the revolution to proceed there is a need, by mass struggle and revolutionary leadership, to challenge the economic system and the capitalist state. When the working class and the majority of the population have the power, including over the economy, the material base exists for real liberation of all sexes.