Why socialists need feminism

Saturday, December 1, 2012
Women's oppression is integral to capitalism, which only the working class can overthrow.

A recent speech by a leading member of the US International Socialist Organisation, Sharon Smith, represents an important contribution the discussions of socialists and activists on women’s liberation.

The struggle for socialism is a unifying struggle that encompasses many other movements to end all forms of oppression and exploitation. All progressive struggles are the business of socialists and socialist parties. At the same time, all struggles are strengthened by Marxist-educated, highly conscious activists.

Some Marxist traditions have viewed feminism as a less important part of the fight for socialism, insisting that because the oppression of women and non-traditional gender identities is a systemic oppression under capitalism, class struggle alone will resolve it.

Commenting on this trend, Heidi Hartman wrote in her 1979 article “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism”: “Marxism and feminism are one, and that one is marxism.”

This view comes with excuses not to engage with feminist struggles, such as the argument that they represent a “liberal” campaign, fighting for the rights of “middle class” white women, and not for workers, or by counterposing women’s liberation campaigns to other struggles against oppression, enlisting so-called degrees of oppression to support one campaign over another.

Such arguments ignore the multi-faceted nature of feminist struggle, undermine campaigns by pitting them against each other and neglect the responsibility of socialists to be part of movements to end individual oppressions and raise awareness of the necessity of broader struggle.

Smith makes a very clear argument against reducing women's oppression to a problem that can be solved by class struggle alone — or class reductionism.

“(There are) some in our own tradition, the International Socialist Tradition,” Smith says, “who I would argue fell into a reductionist approach to women's liberation a few decades ago. I would also argue that our own organisation has borne the stamp of this training.”

She offers a quote from Inessa Armand, the first leader of the Women’s Department of the 1917 Russian revolution: “If women’s liberation is unthinkable without communism, then communism is unthinkable without women’s liberation.”

Smith says, quite simply, that “neither is possible without the other”.

Why is this the case? Why does socialism needs feminism and vice versa? It is certainly true that the oppression of women cannot be resolved or eradicated without the overthrow of the capitalist system.

Capitalism relies on the institution of the family. First, the ruling-class family unit passes on the inheritance of wealthy individuals to future generations. Second, the working-class family unit provides the system with a supply of workers.

In this case, the responsibility of replenishing the energy of working members of the family and raising the next generation of workers — the “reproduction of labour power” — generally lies with women. Even with the gains of feminist movements, this hasn’t radically changed since the 19th century.

Smith says class reductionism “reduces issues of oppression to an issue of class, and is usually accompanied by a reiteration of the objective class interest of men in doing away with women's oppression without taking on the harder question – that is: how do we confront sexism inside the working class?”

It is unlikely sexism, misogyny and the oppression of women will spontaneously disappear if the working class takes power. This is because individual men benefit from women’s oppression.

Women take on the task of reproduction in the family. In the workplace, women make up most of the employees in lower-paid service and community sector jobs. “Women's work”, only slightly modified, continues to be a reality today.

Power structures remain to enforce this imbalance. Frederick Engels identified that violence is written into the very fabric of the family from its beginning. Violence against women continues in many forms, but remains especially prevalent in the home.

There is material incentive for men to maintain the status quo, even though fundamentally there are greater gains for all members of the working class, including males, to be made by achieving equality. Ruling-class men in capitalist society, however, gain absolutely nothing from women's liberation. Their objective interests are opposed to gender equality.

Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected,” Lenin famously argued

Another point Smith makes is that "while the capitalist system is based upon exploitation of the working class, and that class is the key division in society between the exploiters and the exploited, at the same time the system of capitalism also relies upon specific forms of oppression to maintain the system, and those forms of oppression affect people of all classes, not just workers."

She gives examples such as racial profiling by the police and the sexist “glass ceiling” that prevents women getting to the upper echelons of corporate management.

“Now it would be wrong, I think, to say, 'Oh who cares about those rich so-and-sos, the oppression they suffer is nothing compared to the suffering of the working class and the poor',” Smith observes. “That is true, it isn't the same — but championing the rights of all oppressed people is crucial not only to effectively fight against oppression, but is also necessary in preparing the working class to run society in the interest of all of humanity."

The working class could not achieve its historic goal of abolishing class oppression if women do not take part as equals and as leaders in the class struggle. This is because majority of women are members of the working class and the majority of the working class are women.

This is why an independent feminist struggle is necessary. Freedom from oppression can only be forged by those that suffer this oppression, and when they consciously fight together to overthrow their oppressors.

In the case of women, this means a movement organised and led by women, which takes the fight for women’s rights and needs as its first priority, and refuses to subordinate that fight to any other interests.

Independent space for women is often needed to develop female leaders, not only for feminist organising but also for the socialist movement. Feminist consciousness-raising groups in the 1960s and ‘70s played a big role in the development of the movement at that time, allowing women to share experiences of sexism, overcome their slave mentality, and gain the confidence, pride and courage to take on leading political roles.

This remains important for women and people of non-binary gender identities.

Socialists must not segregate themselves from such groups, especially not by joining the chorus of right-wing voices hurling criticism at feminist organising.

Smith condemns such attacks: “I would argue at this point in history when feminism has been under sustained attack for the last 40-odd years with no end in sight, the last thing we should feel compelled to do is to attack feminism.

“On the contrary, we need to defend feminism on principal as a defense of women's liberation … To set up a straw figure of feminism, knock it down, and then think that our job is done intellectually does a disservice to the fight against women's oppression and to Marxism in general.”

Just as crucial, socialist groups should not simply delegate female members to the responsibility of doing feminist work or keeping a women’s caucus, without ensuring sexism is addressed in all aspects of political work.

To address issues of unconscious sexism in socialist groups, the heightened consciousness of those members engaging in feminist work must necessarily be shared through education, discussion and actively taking part in struggle.

In movements, it is important for socialists to fight to keep women’s rights organisations and struggles independent of ruling-class forces and parties. Drawing links with other campaigns against oppression also raises consciousness of the need for socialism.

It must be made clear that while women’s oppression cuts across class lines, and all oppression should be fought against no matter what class is affected, a feminist movement that is not majority working-class women and led by working-class women is unlikely to succeed in achieving the goal of liberating women as a whole. Only the working class has the interest of overthrowing the capitalist system.

Smith does not suggest that we should "uncritically embrace all wings of feminism, come what may". In particular, she identifies two strands of feminism with which Marxism cannot reconcile.

The first is bourgeois “power feminism” of the kind championed by US writer Naomi Wolf. The second is separationist feminism, which says that men are the ultimate enemy and seeks to create a society of women without male contact.

But Smith says some of the best socialist and Marxist feminist thinkers have been grossly overlooked by thinkers both inside and out of Marxist traditions, such as Lise Vogel and Martha Gimenez.

To conclude her speech, Smith reiterates the reciprocal relationship of feminism and socialism. “If the role of revolutionaries is indispensable then it is also the case that we will be most effective not by minimising the challenges we face in fighting sexism, but by acknowledging them. Not because there is any doubt whatsoever that working-class men are capable of fighting for women's liberation, but because our aim is to make that a reality.”

The fights for equal rights of members of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, people of colour, women, and all other oppressed groups are socialist struggles, and must be engaged in by all who consider themselves committed to the revolutionary transformation of society.

Further reading:

Sharon Smith's full talk can be found here

Feminism and Socialism, Resistance Books

Feminist Thought, Rosemary Putnam Tong

"Marxist Feminism / Materialist Feminism", Martha Gimenez

The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, Lynda Sergent ed

The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Frederick Engels

On the Emancipation of Women, V.I. Lenin

Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks

From GLW issue 948