Spartacist Canada No. 183
UQAM Feminists Fail to Gag Marxists
For Women's Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
We Marxist revolutionaries drew the ire of the feminist student bureaucrats at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) this fall when we organized a public meeting titled “Marxism or Feminism: For Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!”
The fight against women’s oppression is a major issue in Quebec as it is in every capitalist society. Until well into the 20th century the English Canadian rulers maintained the oppression of the Québécois through an alliance with the deeply anti-woman Catholic church. For women this mostly meant being baby-making machines until either menopause or premature death. The hold of the church was shattered through the social struggles of the 1960s and ’70s, but the legacy of this profound oppression is deeply felt in Quebec.
This history has helped to sanctify the ideology of feminism with a status akin to a secular religion. From the bourgeois parties and the petty-bourgeois nationalists of Québec Solidaire (QS) to the reformist left, it is unavoidable. Falsely deemed synonymous with the fight for women’s rights, feminism is all that is on offer to young activists concerned about women’s oppression. For Marxists, however, the struggle to emancipate women is inseparable from the perspective of working-class revolution to overthrow the capitalist system.
The Roots of Women’s Oppression
The oppression of women is rooted in the institution of the family, which arose with the advent of private property as the mechanism for passing property from one generation to the next—the monogamous wife is supposed to ensure the paternity of the heirs. The family serves in general as the social mechanism for rearing the next generation, and under capitalism, where the masses of youth are slated for wage slavery, it seeks to instill obedience to authority. Organized religion and the family enforce social conservatism and conformity to the “family values” ideal. The institution of the family reinforces, as Friedrich Engels put it, “the supremacy of the man over the woman, and the individual family as the economic unit of society” (The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, 1884).
The private property system, upheld by the state, and the family are the most basic and deeply intertwined aspects of class society. They cannot be “reformed” away. To succeed in winning freedom for women requires a workers socialist revolution to overturn capitalist property relations. While we fight to defend every gain wrested through hard struggle from this ruling class, the inescapable conclusion must be that the entire capitalist system must go, and a workers state created, which will rest on a collectivized and planned economy where production is for human need, not profit.
Feminism is an obstacle to the struggle for women’s liberation because it places the sex line (men vs. women) above the class line (workers vs. capitalists), necessarily tying workers—women and men—to their class enemies. Our meeting challenged the political hegemony of this agenda. In response, our posters were torn down and our event was vilified by the student bureaucracy in a blatant attempt at censorship.
At UQAM, in order to display any posters, one must obtain the approval of one of the student associations, a bureaucratic hurdle with which we complied. We didn’t have to wait long for the blowback. When our posters were vandalized, our comrades returned to the AFESH social sciences student association to get more posters approved. We were met by a flat “no” from the student bureaucrats, under the pretext that AFESH could only endorse activities that were “progressive” and feminist.
When we raised the absurdity of blocking an event that supports women’s liberation, one student hack replied: “Go put your posters up without stamps and get them torn down.” Invoking its “feminist mandate,” AFESPED (which represents students in political science and law) also refused to approve the posters. Reflecting the pervasive anti-communism of this milieu, a student bureaucrat even came out against Karl Marx’s call, “Workers of the world, unite!” These associations, which are seen as strongholds of student activism in Quebec, chose to censor us rather than politically debate a strategy for the liberation of women.
We object to the whole conception that student associations should adopt “mandates” and political charters since these are inevitably used to censor dissenting ideas. We stand for the democratic right of free expression for all student groups, not least ourselves. We have no interest in silencing our political opponents, including those who uphold this capitalist system which we seek to do away with through socialist revolution. It is precisely through the clash of political opinion that one can actually learn something.
Refusing to be censored, we continued to distribute our Marxist newspapers and promote our meeting. We clearly polarized a section of the campus left. One student activist told us that “everyone is talking about the meeting” and that it had created a real stir. We also took the fight to student general assembly meetings. On September 17, a Ligue trotskyste/Trotskyist League supporter presented a motion to the AFESPED General Assembly which affirmed: “Since advertising and holding a public meeting is a democratic right and part of freedom of expression, AFESPED should approve the posters for the public meeting on ‘Marxism or Feminism: For Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution’.” Over repeated interruptions by the chair, our comrade denounced the political censorship against us and explained that it is only the program of revolutionary Marxism that can open the road to the emancipation of women. Our motion only lost by a narrow margin.
In any case, the censorship bid flopped. Our meeting, held on September 20, was a success, attracting 25 people and featuring lively discussion. The feminists who opposed it stayed away, content to fraudulently denounce us as indifferent to women’s oppression rather than accept our invitation to defend their views in political debate.
Why Marxists Oppose Feminism
Feminism—including its “socialist” or “materialist” variants—is not premised on the destruction of the capitalist system that is the main source of women’s oppression today. Rather, it is a bourgeois ideology that seeks to transform the status of women within this society. Indeed, many feminists hope merely to advance a layer of women into the boardrooms and the upper reaches of academia and the media.
As the comrade who gave the main talk at our UQAM meeting explained:
“If you divide society between men and women, as do the feminists of all stripes, you necessarily seek an alliance with all women, including women who are in power, who tenaciously defend capitalism, and who have nothing much to do with women’s liberation. Are you really close to the interests of women like Pauline Marois, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher? Do you think that when the bourgeois government seeks to ban prostitution, this is in order to liberate women?”
The logic of feminism is class collaboration. It also means relying on the bourgeois state to “defend women.” The role of the capitalist state is to defend the interests of the capitalists. It has nothing to do with ending the misery of the oppressed!
A perfect illustration of the bankruptcy of this strategy, which can only reinforce the repressive forces of the state, is the former Parti Québécois government’s Charter of Quebec Values. Cynically touted as a defense of secularism and equality between men and women, this proposed law would have banned the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols by anyone who works in public or publicly-funded institutions. It would have meant the firing of large numbers of Muslim women workers and would have barred the few Muslim women in Quebec who wear the full-face veil (niqab) from receiving government services.
The Charter unleashed a wave of anti-Muslim bigotry and also exposed divisions within the Québécois feminist milieus. A “March of the Janettes”—named for the elderly pioneer feminist Janette Bertrand—brought out thousands of fleur de lys-waving Charter supporters. The main feminist group, the Fédération des Femmes du Québec (Quebec Federation of Women), opposed banning women wearing religious garb from government jobs but said that fully-veiled women should be banned because their niqabs “hinder communication.”
For its part, Québec Solidaire backed the proposed ban on public services for women wearing the niqab. The feminist sisterhood may be powerful, as the saying goes, but it doesn’t include fully-veiled Muslim women. In their embrace of nationalist reaction, these feminists clearly have nothing to offer minority and working-class women. As we noted in our article opposing the Charter:
“Despite important gains like abortion rights and formal legal equality, the secular bourgeois Quebec that emerged from the Quiet Revolution remains a ruthlessly exploitative society that offers no road to the liberation of women (or anyone else).”
—“No to Reactionary ‘Charter of Quebec Values’!” SC No. 179, Winter 2013/2014
Among the groups that give a more leftist colouration to feminism is the reformist Front d’Action Socialiste (FAS), with origins in the Montreal student milieu. Formed in spring 2014, FAS is not part of QS, but a FAS member was on the communications team for this petty-bourgeois populist party in the recent elections. So much for FAS’s socialist pretentions!
FAS declares that it is “resolutely feminist,” asserting that “patriarchy” is a “structure of oppression” that “does not depend solely on capitalism” and that “specific struggle against patriarchy is necessary to end the oppression that women experience” (FAS, April 2014). Another FAS statement affirms: “Feminism is a movement of emancipation that seeks to abolish the inequalities between men and women, like those we have confronted in the workplace. To be a feminist is to refuse to be submissive and docile” (“The Reality of Women in the Workplace,” undated).
This is a purely individualist response to the social fact of women’s oppression. It cannot be ended through a “struggle against patriarchy” or a fight against “docility.” To quote Marx and Engels, “‘Liberation’ is an historical and not a mental act.” The liberation of women can only be achieved by overthrowing capitalist rule. This alone will lay the material basis for replacing the family and its functions.
Marxism: The Program for Women’s Liberation
Our model is the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, which overthrew capitalism and laid the foundations for an egalitarian society. The Bolsheviks understood that without qualitative economic development, the liberation of women was a utopian fantasy. Nevertheless, the new workers state did all that it could to implement the promise of women’s emancipation (see “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 59, Spring 2006). A new law provided for fully paid maternity leave and nursing breaks, while public nurseries were instituted in workplaces. Two decrees established civil marriage, as well as divorce at the request of either partner. As well, homosexuality and abortion were legalized. Many of these achievements are lacking even today in the most advanced capitalist societies. The Russian Revolution did more for women’s liberation than 100 years of feminism, and this is despite its later Stalinist degeneration which reversed many of the gains made by women.
From the earliest years of our tendency, the struggle for women’s liberation has been central to our perspectives. This included publication of the journal Women and Revolution (which today appears in the International Communist League’s theoretical journal, Spartacist). On the front page of the first issue, a “Women’s Revolutionary Manifesto” declared: “Our goal is not equality in slavery, but an end to slavery! We don’t seek liberation from men, but liberation with men!… To struggle for the liberation of women is to struggle for socialism” (May-June 1971). We are dedicated to building a revolutionary party that will lead the struggle for socialist revolution. Women will play a leading role in constructing such a party, the necessary instrument for the liberation of the working class and all the oppressed.
Re: “For Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution,” reprinted in Workers Vanguard No. 1062
Comrades drew my attention to the article mentioned above and the problem on the question of the veil. So I read the article, and there is indeed a problem. As part of the polemic against the feminists, you correctly explain their position on the issue of the veil. But this explanation is insufficient. The article doesn’t state that we are against the veil as a symbol of women’s oppression. Feminists who read our article could respond by saying we are for the veil and thus insensitive to women’s oppression. Wearing the veil is not freedom to dress as one wants. It has another meaning: to be subjected to all the oppressions of family and society (see your article, “No to Reactionary ‘Charter of Quebec Values’,” reprinted in Le Bolchévik No. 206 [SC No. 179, Winter 2013/2014]).
As I said in my presentation, we are known for our position on the veil, for example in Iran and Afghanistan where we’ve had as one of our main slogans, “Down With the Veil!” The point of being against the law is that it is a racist law against the Muslim community in countries in which Islam is a minority religion. But we are of course against the veil, including in such countries. This is essential, particularly in the current situation with ISIS and the imperialist propaganda against “Muslims.”
We thank the comrade for her letter. Our article “UQAM Feminists Fail to Gag Marxists: For Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!” (first published in SC No. 183, Winter 2014/2015) rightly attacked those feminists who backed the former Parti Québécois government’s xenophobic Charter of Values, which would have barred Muslim women wearing the headscarf from public sector jobs. We also took out those, including the petty-bourgeois nationalist Québec Solidaire, who called to ban women wearing the full-face veil (niqab) from receiving public services. As we wrote, “The feminist sisterhood may be powerful, as the saying goes, but it doesn’t include fully-veiled Muslim women.” However, the comrade is quite right that we should also have stated that we are opposed to the veil. As she said in her presentation at our forum at the Université du Québec à Montréal last September:
“We say: the veil is the symbol of women’s oppression, but we don’t give the bourgeois state permission to ban it. This law has nothing to do with women’s liberation, but is a racist law for excluding girls from social life—school, work, etc.”