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Workers Hammer No. 241

Spring 2018

For new October Revolutions!

The Russsian Revolution and the liberation of women

Part Two

We print below the second and concluding part of a public talk given by Amy Rath, member of the Editorial Board of Spartacist (English-language edition), in London on 11 November 2017. It has been edited for publication. Part one appeared in Workers Hammer no 240 (Winter 2017-18).

The Bolsheviks in Russia based their programme for women’s liberation directly on the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, enriched with decades of experience in the class struggle. The centrality of the woman question has been part of Marxism from the very beginning, contrary to all the claims of feminists that Marx ignored the oppression of women. The story begins with Charles Fourier, the early 19th century utopian socialist, about whom Engels wrote: “He was the first to declare that in any given society the degree of woman’s emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation” (Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, 1880).

Fourier understood the role of private property in the subjugation of women, and advocated the replacement of the family by collective child-rearing and full sexual freedom. But, while he was a ferocious critic of bourgeois society and culture, Fourier had an entirely subjective idea of how to overthrow them. Engels characterised Fourier and the utopian socialists as anti-materialist idealists who believed that:

“If pure reason and justice have not, hitherto, ruled the world, this has been the case only because men have not rightly understood them. What was wanted was the individual man of genius, who has now arisen and who understands the truth. That he has now arisen, that the truth has now been clearly understood, is not an inevitable event, following of necessity in the chain of historical development, but a mere happy accident. He might just as well have been born 500 years earlier, and might then have spared humanity 500 years of error, strife, and suffering.”

Marx and Engels, on the other hand, based their programme of proletarian revolution on the material reality of early capitalist society, especially in Britain, where industrial production was indeed transforming daily life. The advances in British industry showed that the huge leap in material abundance required to build a classless society could happen. Furthermore, the new class being created, the proletariat, was the only class capable of seizing power from the capitalist class and reorganising production and distribution based on collective ownership by all who work to produce the means of living. This meant that Marx saw the material basis for actually achieving a worldwide socialist society, as opposed to only dreaming about it, as the utopians did.

Marx addressed the liberation of women in the founding document of proletarian socialism, the Communist Manifesto (1848):

“Abolition [Aufhebung] of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists….

“But, you will say, we destroy the most hallowed of relations, when we replace home education by social....

“The bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parent and child, becomes all the more disgusting, the more, by the action of Modern Industry, all family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour.

“But you Communists would introduce community of women, screams the whole bourgeoisie in chorus.…

“The real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production.”

That is, as wage slaves and baby machines.

You will note that the standard English translation of the Manifesto says “abolish the family”, not replace. Here’s an interesting note: there’s a translation problem in this passage. “Abolish” in English is not a good translation of the original German, Aufhebung, which implies a dialectical development superseding the old and advancing to a higher level. “Replace” is a better translation, but it took the Russian October Revolution to clarify that point. Marx and Engels knew that the “production and reproduction of life” was the basis of every human society. That includes raising the next generation, which is the very part of the family that must be replaced and cannot be abolished.

Marx and Engels understood that the family was a social institution that changed through historical and economic circumstances. Far from a “natural” formation based in biology or endowed by God, the family is a social construct of class society. When people lived as hunter-gatherers (which was the vast majority of the 200,000 years our species has been around), the tribe or band, not the “pair bond”, was the basic unit of human existence. The band was the primitive and organically developed form of human association, on the basis of kinship. Out of the first incipient loosening of tribal bonds, the many and various forms of the family developed.

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Engels describes how the family originated in the Neolithic Age, as society first split into classes. Relying on the information available at the time, Engels drew heavily from the pioneering work of Lewis Henry Morgan among the Iroquois in upstate New York for an understanding of early, pre-class society.

The invention of agriculture created a social surplus that allowed, for the first time, the development of a leisured ruling class that lived off the labour of others. The family, specifically the monogamy of women, was needed to ensure the orderly transmission of property and power to the patriarchs’ heirs, the next generation of the ruling class. The primitive communism of the hunter-gatherer collective was shattered into opposing classes, while the ruling class dominated through a state maintained by armed bodies of men. This meant, for example, that the old methods of collective rearing of children could no longer function. The idea of the patriarchal family — “my children, my wife, my mother” — was born. While much more has become known about the early stages of human society since Engels lived, his fundamental understanding has only been enriched by the new discoveries.

One example from the not-too-distant past comes from the testimony of 17th century French Jesuit missionaries among the Naskapi hunting people of Labrador in Canada. As related by Eleanor Burke Leacock in her fine introduction to Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (International Publishers, 1972), Jesuits complained about the sexual freedom of Naskapi women, pointing out to one man that “he himself was not sure that his son, who was there present, was his son”. To the Naskapi man, this made no sense. He replied: “You French people love only your own children; but we love all the children of our tribe.” Care of the children was the work of the band as a whole.

Engels puts the Marxist perspective like this in Origin:

“With the passage of the means of production into common property, the individual family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of the children becomes a public matter. Society takes care of all children equally, irrespective of whether they are born in wedlock or not.”

This sounds pretty clear and unambiguous, right? Well, many leaders of the Social Democracy, the Second International, sought to water down this conception or simply throw it out altogether, as they did with so much else of the truly revolutionary content in Marxism.

Marxism v revisionism

In 1909, Alexandra Kollontai, who later became a leader of Bolshevik work among women, observed:

“There is probably no other question about which socialists themselves are so little in agreement as the question of marriage and the family. Were we to try and organise a survey among socialists, the results would most probably be very curious. Does the family wither away? Or are there grounds for believing that the family disorders of the present are only a transitory crisis? Will the present form of the family be preserved in the future society, or will it be buried with the modern capitalist system? These are questions which might well receive very different answers.”

—“The Social Basis of the Woman Question”

They did receive very different answers. Many leading members of the Second International turned their backs on the concept of replacing the family. Karl Kautsky, the main theoretician of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the leading party in the Second International, wrote:

“The modern form of family is in no way opposed to the socialist system of production....

“This much is certain: whatever alteration the traditional form of the family may undergo, it will not be the act of socialism or of the socialist system of production, but of the economic development that has been going on for the last century.”

This was in The Class Struggle (1892), Kautsky’s popular development of the ideas of the Erfurt Programme, the SPD programme adopted in 1891.

Kautsky’s views on the family were just one position among many in the SPD. There was by no means homogeneity on the woman question, as there was not on many other strategic questions. While there were indeed some outright male chauvinist ideologues in the party who thought that women should all be in the kitchen, for the most part backwardness expressed itself by disparaging party work among women as separate, lesser work for women members only. The overtly reformist wing of the party, the revisionist wing led by Eduard Bernstein, actually supported bourgeois feminism and were joint members of the various German feminist groups. This was quite appropriate to a tendency that saw the achievement of socialism as a slow advance through many reforms.

The contradictions of Clara Zetkin

Prominent left-winger Clara Zetkin fought for years against the influence of bourgeois feminism within the SPD. She identified the goal of feminism as “equal rights” for women in education, the vote, the right to exercise a profession, while maintaining the existing capitalist order. Basic democratic questions were important, Zetkin insisted, but they left untouched the actual source of the problem: the exploitation of working people, men and women, for the profit of a tiny ruling class.

Zetkin saw the oppressive conditions within the family as flowing from capitalist property relations. Women of the bourgeoisie benefited from the exploitation of labour, just as ruling-class men did. The division of the classes was decisive. Likewise Rosa Luxemburg, the main leader of the left wing of the SPD, wrote in “Women’s Suffrage and Class Struggle” (1912):

“Most of those bourgeois women who act like lionesses in the struggle against ‘male prerogatives’ would trot like docile lambs in the camp of conservative and clerical reaction if they had suffrage…. In 1871, in Paris, when the heroic workers’ Commune was defeated by machine guns, the raving bourgeois feminists surpassed even their bestial men in their bloody revenge against the suppressed proletariat. The women of the property-owning classes will always fanatically defend the exploitation and enslavement of the working people by which they indirectly receive the means for their socially useless existence.”

I will return to the subject of feminism later.

Now to something much more entertaining. One particular aspect of Origin especially bothered the gentlemen of the Social Democracy: its line on sex. Engels wrote that sexual taboos were inventions that supported the existing social structure and cultural values of a given society, as determined by its ruling class. Contrary to Engels’ emphasis that monogamy is a social construct invented by patriarchy, Kautsky wrote that, under socialism: “For the first time in history monogamy will become a real, rather than a fictitious, institution” (The Class Struggle). You have to wonder what his wife thought of that!

Not everyone in the Social Democracy clung to this retrograde view. August Bebel’s Woman Under Socialism (1879), which became a central recruiting document for the SPD, was pretty good on the question of sex. Even today Bebel’s words on sexual privacy remain some of the best formulated: “How I shall eat, how I shall drink, how I shall sleep, how I shall clothe myself, is my private affair, — exactly so my intercourse with a person of the opposite sex.” Or, I might add, the same sex, because Bebel made history by giving the first speech for gay rights ever recorded in a European parliament. That was in 1898, when he stood up in the Reichstag and argued against the sodomy laws.

The most important voice in the Second International on the woman question was Zetkin, whom Lenin later won over to Bolshevism. At her most left, Zetkin spoke about the woman question in ways like Marx’s and our own. In the famous speech she gave at the 1896 Gotha Congress she formulated the concept of special work among women and motivated its importance, and the SPD adopted it as its formal policy. This speech was published with the title “Only in Conjunction with the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism Be Victorious”, which is a Bolshevik concept. There’s a lot of great stuff in the speech, but it also reveals another side to Zetkin’s politics:

“It must certainly not be the task of Socialist propaganda among Socialist women to alienate the proletarian woman from her duties as mother and wife. On the contrary, she must be encouraged to carry out these tasks better than ever in the interests of the liberation of the proletariat. The better the conditions within her family, the better her effectiveness at home, the more she will be capable of fighting. The more she can serve as the educator and molder of her children, the better she will be able to enlighten them so that they may continue to fight on like we did, with the same enthusiasm and willingness to sacrifice for the liberation of the proletariat. When a proletarian then exclaims: ‘My wife!’ he will add mentally, ‘Comrade of my ideals, companion of my battles, mother of my children for future battles.’ Many a mother and many a wife who fills her husband and children with class consciousness accomplishes just as much as the female comrades that we see at our meetings.”

How can we account for this reactionary idea of “revolutionary motherhood” from a Marxist considered at the time to be the leader of party work among women? Like the Social Democracy generally, Zetkin had the view that the triumph of the revolution would result from the “slow accretion of forces” in society. The whole idea was that revolutionaries needed to spread socialist ideas and culture deeply through society to help bring about the “maturity” of the class. Well, “socialist housewife” — why not? Women had to raise good Social-Democratic children to build the forces of socialism. For Zetkin, the question of the dissolution of the family was relegated to the far, far future.

Zetkin’s words are an example of opportunist capitulation to the existing consciousness of the more well-off layers of the German working class. There was an objective problem in Germany at the time in that married women often did not work (they just got fired), but as you can see the party also accommodated to the current reality.

For Leninists, in stark contrast, revolutionaries must consciously build a vanguard party of trained cadre, both men and women, to intervene into the proletariat, win the advanced workers over to the revolutionary programme and lead the class in action to overthrow the oppressive capitalist system. Acting as a tribune of the people, the party must champion the fight for the liberation of all the oppressed and exploited.

The SPD saw the family as “naturally” transforming or disappearing due to the economic pressures of capitalist production. Marx himself also spoke about this — and it was true enough at the time, when women and children were working 14-hour days, six days a week in brutal conditions. But history proved otherwise.

Many aspects of the capitalist order do undermine the family: women at work, public education. The family in pre-capitalist society was based on a home-centred peasant economy. You produced what you needed in the home and on the farm. With the advent of capitalism, production moved out of the home, which does in fact loosen the economic ties of the family. Work outside the home gives women the basis for independence.

So the bourgeoisie goes to work to shore up its eroding institution. Women are the main reserve army of the unemployed in capitalist society generally, sent back to the kitchen at times of economic contraction. Today you have “family values” in the United States. In Germany in Zetkin’s time, the catchphrase “Kinder, Kirche, Küche” — children, church, kitchen — was coined to express the proper sphere for women.

Opponents of revolutionary Marxism

Trotsky summed up the difference between revolutionary Bolshevism and social democracy succinctly in Lessons of October (1924):

“By Bolshevism — and we are stressing here its essential aspect — we understand such a training, such a tempering, and such an organization of the proletarian vanguard as enables the latter to seize power, arms in hand”


“by Social Democracy we are to understand the acceptance of a reformist opposition activity within the framework of bourgeois society and an adaptation to its legality — i.e., the actual training of the masses to become imbued with the inviolability of the bourgeois state”.

The Bolsheviks threw out the opportunism on the woman question of the Second International and insisted that the liberation of women was strategic to proletarian revolution. But there’s more: they waged a vigilant campaign to turn the work of all the Communist Parties in the Third International (Comintern) towards the working woman. They infused the Third International with the consciousness of the centrality of the fight for the liberation of women, savaging the social-democratic ideas that belittled this work. They knew that without the woman worker the proletarian revolution could not conquer. And also that without the proletarian revolution, women would remain subordinated in the oppressive family.

James P Cannon, a founding leader of American Communism and the founder of American Trotskyism, once said that everything revolutionary on the fight against black oppression in the United States came from Moscow. The Comintern fought to transform the consciousness of the American Communists in order to make the liberation of black people central to their work. The Bolsheviks did the same thing on the woman question on an international scale.

The fake socialists today reject this history, tailing bourgeois feminism instead. They may call it socialist feminism, or feminist socialism, or transnational feminism; they coin one term or another to cover up the fact that they are capitulating to feminism pure and simple. Feminism is antithetical to Marxism. It is a bourgeois ideology reflecting the interests of petty-bourgeois women who want to challenge the old boys club of wealth and power — so that they can join it.

Insofar as feminists recognise the family as a problem, it is usually to talk about “gender roles” or arguments about who is to do the dishes or feed the baby. The young feminists that the so-called socialists are tailing might like the idea of life with no housework, but they certainly would not like the idea of giving up their proprietary ownership of their children and their homes, such a source of prestige among the petty bourgeoisie. Thus the Marxist programme of replacing the family is thrown overboard even by those claiming to be Trotskyists.

There is a strain that we have dubbed “neo-Kautskyism” among left groups like the Socialist Workers Party here and the International Socialist Organization in the US, centred on the publication Historical Materialism and Haymarket Books. These reformists are trying to resurrect some of Zetkin’s older ideas in a ludicrous attempt to say she was really a feminist. They do this by redefining the term altogether, turning Marxism on its head. They advocate a dismal “gender equality” as opposed to the full liberation of the entire human race. But what they really like about Zetkin is the right-wing fights she waged against Leninism in the Third International. I refer you to “Clara Zetkin and the Struggle for the Third International” in Spartacist [(English-language edition) no 64, Summer 2014] for a full treatment.

Lately the most popular kind of feminism around is the wildly witch-hunting anti-sex kind. A wide range of behaviour — including flirtation and innuendo, a vulgar text or a crude joke, not to mention unpleasant sex — is being lumped together with real crimes of coercion and assault. Those called out for what someone has deemed sexual impropriety, no matter how trivial, how unproven or how long ago, run the media gauntlet, are declared guilty and their careers ruined. [For more on this question, see “Sex, Scandals and Power”, Workers Vanguard no 1126, 26 January.]

Sexual harassment and discrimination are rife in this anti-woman society, from quid pro quo come-ons to pay inequality. But the Hollywood of well-heeled entertainers who seek to advance their careers is worlds apart from the situation for working-class women, who are desperate to make ends meet and far more subject to the whims of their bosses.

As Marxists, we oppose any and all efforts of the state to regulate the manifold consensual expressions of human sexuality. The guiding principle in any sexual encounter should be effective consent, that is, nothing more than mutual agreement and understanding, regardless of age, gender or sexual preference. Of course, determining what is truly consensual in this viciously class-divided, racist, sexist, not to mention religious, society is complicated. Rape, however, is not on the spectrum of sex. It is a degrading, brutal and horrific act of violence. To treat any bad encounter as rape means to demand legal retribution, or else some form of vigilante justice.

Take the case of Roman Polanski, which is again in the news. Forty years ago he had consensual sex with an “underage” girl. California law calls this rape: the consent of the girl does not matter. Polanski was hounded out of the United States and has been persecuted ever since for what was no crime at all. Despite that, he has continued to make some damn fine movies and deserves all the accolades he has ever gotten.

The family: prop of the bourgeois order

The family, the state and organised religion form a tripod of oppression that props up the capitalist order. I will focus on the family’s part in this. People’s personal choices are constricted by the laws, economics and prejudices of class society; this is especially true of the working class and the poor. It is the institution of the family that ties sex and love to property — or to the lack of it.

In Capital, Marx explained that the cost of labour power tends towards the minimum required for the maintenance and reproduction of the worker — his daily living expenses, his training and the maintenance of his wife and children, the next generation of wage slaves. The family isn’t so good for men, either — the very definition of manhood is the ability to support your wife and kids. To boost profits, the capitalist seeks to drive down the cost of labour — not just the wages paid into the pockets of the workers but also services like public education and healthcare, which are necessary to the maintenance of the proletariat. The family is to raise the children, as well as serve as the main support for the sick and the aged.

The reproduction of human labour power has not only a biological but also a social character. Babies and children are socialised to behave according to certain norms, to respect authority and to develop the habits of obedience and deference so useful for capitalist profit-making. From the time that they’re toddlers, children watch television, with some parents, usually mothers, controlling which programmes they watch. Or parents take a child to a movie that glorifies “family values”, patriotism, etc.

Taking a child to church or other religious instruction is also a form of domestic labour, in its own way important for the maintenance of the capitalist system. Parents decide whether or not their children are subjected to religious indoctrination. At least initially, such indoctrination is imposed upon children against their subjective desires. There probably isn’t a four- or five-year-old on the planet who would not rather play games with other children than attend religious services.

The family is central to the suffocating “morality” and codes of behaviour mandated by capitalist society, which are geared to penalise the expression of sexuality in children from birth. As babies’ and toddlers’ primary caregivers, mothers more than fathers begin the process of that sexual repression, teaching children to feel shame about their bodies and to suppress their natural curiosity. The sexual proclivities of a group-living mammalian species like Homo sapiens are ill-suited to the rigid heterosexual monogamy decreed by bourgeois morality.

We cannot know the sexual practices of communist society because these will be determined in the future. Any projection, much less prescription, that we might make would carry the imprint of attitudes, values and prejudices shaped by this repressive class society. But the social pathology associated with sexual rivalry has little reason to exist in a fully free, communal society in which sexual life is independent of access to food, shelter, education and every daily need and comfort. When the family has withered away along with classes and the state, the communal upbringing that replaces it will lead to a new psychology and culture among the people who grow up in those conditions.

Patriarchal social values — “my wife”, “my children” — will vanish along with the oppressive system that spawned them. The relationship of children to one another and to the persons who teach and guide them will be many-sided, complex and dynamic. The communal raising of children under conditions of material abundance and cultural richness will produce human beings whose mental capacities as well as psychological well-being will be vastly superior to people in this impoverished, oppressive and class-divided society.

How is the reduction and redistribution of domestic labour to be achieved? After socialist revolution, in the transition from the dictatorship of the proletariat to full communism, the transformation of the family is a corollary to expanded production and greater abundance. Under a planned, socialist economy, all kinds of economic activity — from making steel and computers to cleaning clothes, floors and furniture — will undergo a constant, rapid increase in output per unit of labour input. Long before a communist society is attained, most housework may well be automated.

More generally, there will be a steady reduction in the total labour time necessary for the production and maintenance of the means of consumption as well as the means of production. The family’s withering away, or disintegration, grows out of economic success. It will be replaced by new ways of living that will be immeasurably richer, more human and fulfilling.

In a fully communist society, most time will be what is now called “free time”. Necessary labour will absorb such a small share of time and energy that the individual will freely grant it to the social collective. Everyone will have the available time along with the requisite material and cultural resources to engage in creative, self-satisfying work.

In our “Declaration of Principles and Some Elements of Program”, the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) lays out our task of “building Leninist parties as national sections of a democratic-centralist international whose purpose is to lead the working class to victory through socialist revolutions throughout the world” (Spartacist [English-language edition] no 54, Spring 1998). Only through the seizure of power can the proletariat end capitalism as a system and open the road to a world without exploitation and oppression. Crucial to this perspective is the fight for the emancipation of women, whose oppression goes back to the beginning of private property and cannot be eliminated short of the abolition of class society.

The “Declaration” explains our goal:

“The victory of the proletariat on a world scale would place unimagined material abundance at the service of human needs, lay the basis for the elimination of classes and the eradication of social inequality based on sex and the very abolition of the social significance of race, nation and ethnicity. For the first time mankind will grasp the reins of history and control its own creation, society, resulting in an undreamed-of emancipation of human potential, and a monumental forward surge of civilization. Only then will it be possible to realize the full development of each individual as the condition for the free development of all.”

For new October Revolutions!


Workers Hammer No. 241

WH 241

Spring 2018


No Brexit reversal!

Down with racist anti-worker EU!

Corbyn puts lipstick on EU pig


Ireland: Repeal the Eighth Amendment!

No illusions in parliamentarism

Fight for free abortion on demand!

For women's liberation through socialist revolution


Hands off Puigdemont, Ponsatí

Independence for Catalonia!


Quote of the issue

In honour of Karl Marx


Propaganda offensive targets Russia

Cloak, dagger and poison pen


Victory to university strike!

Defend pensions!

For free quality education for all!


Italy elections

Populism and right-wing reaction


Genocidal terror in Myanmar

For an independent Rohingyan state!


For new October Revolutions!

The Russsian Revolution and the liberation of women

Part Two