For a Communist Women’s Movement
The article below is an edited version of a document titled “For a Communist Women’s Movement vs. Feminism,” which was written by Cairo Turner and Mónica Mora and adopted by the 16th SL/U.S. National Conference last year. As the article motivates, the feminist program is an obstacle to advancing women’s rights. Since the overturn of Roe v. Wade this past summer, attacks on abortion rights have continued unabated. Last month, a federal judge in Texas issued a ruling invalidating the Food and Drug Administration’s approval in 2000 of the mifepristone abortion pill. The Supreme Court has temporarily stayed the ruling, pending appeal, which preserves the threat of a national abortion pill ban. What is necessary to fight these attacks and open the way to women’s liberation is to build a communist women’s movement today.
For decades, women’s rights in the U.S. have been under attack, culminating in the recent overthrow of Roe v. Wade. Hundreds of thousands of women and youth protested during the “summer of rage” because the democratic right to abortion was taken away.
The conditions of most women, particularly black and immigrant women, are worse now than they have been for generations: crushing inflation, unemployment, evictions, medical bills piling up—the post-pandemic “new normal.” The lockdowns exacerbated the burden of domestic work for women stuck at home caring for children and elderly people, while they tried to keep their ever more oppressive jobs. Many women never returned to work after the lockdowns.
There has been a constant erosion of abortion rights for years, including under Trump. The strategy of Republicans during the Trump administration was to pack the courts with anti-woman conservatives. The Democrats’ and feminists’ response was to hold protests against justices like Brett Kavanaugh and to sign everyone up to elect Democrats who after some grandstanding would continue voting for the anti-abortion Hyde Amendment, as they have been doing for decades. And now that the feminists have achieved their goal with a Democrat in the White House, Roe has been officially overturned.
After the Supreme Court leak about the overturn of Roe, the feminists went into a frenzy to mobilize people to vote for Democrats in the midterm elections. After all, this worked so well the last time. Many protesters ended up voting for the Democrats as supposed defenders of women, some young people for the first time, because they considered doing so the only way to fight back. This was the answer of the feminists, whose single issue was to bring back Roe.
As was obvious to everyone, the Democrats used the topic of abortion to get themselves elected. Those who voted for them hoped that they might pass a law codifying Roe, which most people already see is not happening, or that maybe several Supreme Court justices would die around the same time so the president, in turn, could appoint pro-abortion judges. Well, the midterms have passed, the Democrats have been elected and what has happened? Literally nothing. And what are the feminists doing? The same thing. This is clearly a losing strategy, even to regain the limited right to abortion that Roe was.
The feminists tell people that the all-out retreat on women’s rights is the result of conservatives being in power. But it is, in fact, the feminist program that is the obstacle to advancing women’s rights today.
The Need for Communism to Emancipate Women
Women’s oppression is rooted in the system of private property, which requires the bourgeois family. This institution is key for the ruling class to pass property to its heirs and to acquire a constant supply of wage slaves to exploit. And where better to get them than from the current wage slaves? And who better to raise this next generation of workers and fill their heads with bourgeois propaganda than the family? Why would the bourgeoisie pay for childcare, laundries and public kitchens when the family is right there to take care of all that for free! And women have the special privilege of being the sex tied to the home to make all this happen. Women workers have an extra special treat of having to grind away at work all day for less pay in terrible conditions and then go back home to their horrible and crumbling housing to look after kids and husbands.
To free these women from their double oppression as workers and domestic servants requires the socialization of the functions of the family. To even begin to address their oppression requires going right up against capitalist profits and property. Quality, free 24-hour childcare requires expropriating large amounts of the bourgeoisie’s property to build nice, clean facilities where kids can play and get healthy meals, plus hiring and training tons of new staff, such as teachers and early childhood experts.
But who is going to do this? Get the Democrats in Congress to pass a bill or Biden to sign an executive order? Of course not. The bourgeoisie will never pass legislation to expropriate themselves! Expropriation of the bourgeoisie will happen only through proletarian revolution led by a Leninist party. Real power lies on Wall Street and in the armed bodies that defend capitalist property. Only by sweeping away the bourgeois state and having workers establish their own state can the needs of workers and the oppressed be met. Workers rule is not some utopian thing but the only realistic answer to the oppression of women. In order to take even the tiniest of steps in this direction requires a women’s movement that fights for socialist revolution.
The strategy of the feminists is counterposed to this perspective because their whole program is to seek formal equality under capitalism, not to overthrow the ruling class. Instead of fighting to sweep away the state through workers revolution, their strategy is to use the state (the repressive apparatus of violence whose whole purpose is to maintain bourgeois rule) to better serve women. If your starting point is not the need to make a revolution, it is necessarily the preservation of capitalism, which means the preservation of the family and betrayal of the fight for women’s liberation.
What about improving the conditions of women under capitalism? Plenty of women live in decrepit housing with abusive partners and can’t even make ends meet. Fighting for a pay raise, affordable housing and women’s shelters is urgently needed right now. But it is the feminist program that impedes this fight in every way. To achieve these measures requires a confrontation with the capitalist class. The feminist program is an obstacle to that because they want to preserve unity with the bourgeoisie. And it seems to be going quite well…for the bourgeoisie. Witness the overturn of Roe, the lockdowns, the recession and just the miserable conditions that poor, black and other minority women are forced to endure every day.
The feminist program promotes unity of all women, including bourgeois women, under the logic that they will fight for the advancement of all women. We communists draw a class line and point to the fact that class comes first. The interests of the workers are opposed to those of the capitalists. A bourgeois woman has a material interest in the stability of the capitalist order that oppresses the working class. So, there is no “sisterhood” between the rich woman and the poor woman.
To maintain capitalism, the ruling class pits male workers against women workers (e.g., unequal pay). This division between the sexes prevents class unity, keeping the profits flowing to the bosses and their rule unchallenged. The exploitation of the working class and the oppression of women are interconnected. Therefore, the struggles for workers’ emancipation and for women’s emancipation can either go forward together or fall back separately. Promoting the unity of all women betrays the fight for women’s liberation. Expropriating the bourgeoisie includes bourgeois women. What does Nancy Pelosi care about more: women getting the right to abortion or the political stability of capitalist America?
The Popular-Front Movement for Abortion vs. Communist Pole
Feminists resort to methods and tactics that flow from their politics of class collaboration, such as the popular front (trans-class political bloc) they built this past summer. This popular front consisted of all “progressive” pro-abortion elements, ranging from the man in the Oval Office to working-class women and fake socialists, like the SL/U.S. was until recently. Its purpose was to fight against all the backward anti-abortion people and to get a new Roe. This could only lead to complete failure to restore even the limited right to abortion.
But what most people want isn’t the limited right to abortion but abortion that is accessible to everyone, as seen by the calls for free abortion on demand. To get free abortion on demand or make abortion accessible to all will require going completely against capitalist interests. Working-class and black women are the main ones who do not have access to abortion. For them to have full access requires desegregation of the ghettos, expansion of health care free at the point of service, a massive public works program and job training and hiring. This will require taking huge swaths of the bourgeoisie’s property and cutting into their profits. An alliance with the liberals has a price, which is sacrificing the needs of millions of poor women. This shows the urgent need to draw a class line in the women’s movement.
Any struggle against women’s oppression, including against restrictions and bans on abortion, must take place independently of any bourgeois force, centrally feminism. What’s clearly called for is a communist women’s movement. Abortion is a basic reform demand that the bourgeoisie could grant if it wanted to. But full, unhindered access cannot come through legalistic means. Revolutionaries are best at waging even the struggle for reforms because they understand what is necessary to win.
The precondition for advancing the fight for women’s liberation or even for full access to abortion is a split with the feminists and all those who conciliate them. This is the job of socialists, but instead, so-called revolutionaries have been busy cheerleading and bolstering the authority of the feminists and their movements.
The socialist feminists of Left Voice have a radical posture with their anti-imperialist, pro-black and pro-union feminism and anti-bourgeois rhetoric, but what they do with that is more effectively build the left wing of the popular front around abortion. As described in a 15 May 2022 article, they go to liberal protests and call for a “movement to win national legislation to guarantee safe, free, legal abortion on demand” (our emphasis). Keeping the struggle for abortion in a legalistic framework is the program of the feminists, who tie the struggle for abortion to the two-party system and the letter of the law.
Left Voice attempts to reconcile socialism with feminism. Their program is class collaboration because it tries to build a bridge between the socialist program and that of the bourgeoisie. In their article “The Antidote to Midterm Despair Is Socialist Feminism” (8 November 2022), Left Voice stated:
This was their sad attempt at saying they are opposed to the Democrats, which is popular to say now. But Left Voice’s call to break with the Democrats means nothing, as they have no intention of exposing why any movement for women’s rights based on an alliance with any bourgeois force is a fundamental obstacle to advancing the struggle for women’s liberation. They pride themselves on being socialist feminists and tailor their demands to be as palatable to as many left-liberals as possible, which keeps them within the popular front.
Although Left Voice may have you think otherwise, the struggle for abortion cannot advance in an alliance with a wing of the bourgeoisie. That is because any alliance with the bourgeoisie, even their shadow, automatically subordinates the fight for abortion rights (or indeed, any struggle) to bourgeois politics and confines it to what is acceptable to the bourgeoisie, strangling the struggle. To be a communist is to understand that the central task is to fight for leadership of the movement by breaking women and youth from feminist politics and from illusions that an alliance with the bourgeoisie will bring gains for women.
While other centrist organizations, such as the Internationalist Group (IG) and previously the SL/U.S., do not call themselves socialist feminists and claim to be against single-issue popular fronts, they stay squarely in the pop front by not drawing a class line against feminism. One expression of this is how both turn the Women and Revolution articles from the 1970s, such as “Fight SWP/WONAAC Reformism—Free Health Care for All, Free Abortion on Demand” (May 1972), into a list of liberal demands.
In “Free Abortion on Demand” (September 2022), the IG says:
The entire goal of W&R articles was to provide revolutionary leadership by drawing a class line against feminism. All the articles are intensely polemical on the concrete issues of the time. W&R went against all popular fronts and confronted the feminists and their reformist socialist collaborators like the Socialist Workers Party, exposing how they negotiated nothing more than what is possible under capitalism and how they invited bourgeois politicians to their events and excluded us.
Our goal then as now is to give a working-class character and orientation to the women’s liberation movement. What the IG often counterposes, as WV did, is a labor contingent, more militant class struggle and the need to break with the Democrats. But without taking on feminism as the bourgeois force that ties the struggle for women’s rights to the ruling class, the call for labor mobilizations is just a social-democratic cover for the feminists’ aims.
Until recently, WV echoed the liberals in hailing the feminist movement of the ’70s as the model:
By omitting that what was key during those struggles was to draw a class line and that the feminist program was an obstacle, WV put forward pure liberalism. The SL/U.S. turned the vanguard party into a group of nice progressive people whose purpose is to fight against the conservatives. “The summer of rage,” the Women’s Marches in the Trump years and all the bourgeois press promote the 1970s women’s movement because they see it as what needs to happen today in order to improve conditions of women. No! What happened in the ’70s is proof that feminist movements cannot fundamentally alter the status quo because of their politics. Everything since shows the need to organize a communist opposition to break women from feminist leadership.
The WV No. 1161 article is a glaring example of the longstanding betrayal of the SL/U.S. in not fighting for a communist women’s movement. It’s a revision of basic Marxism, embracing the framework of progressive pro-abortion people vs. backward anti-abortion people. Instead of trying to break women away from feminism, which paves the way for restrictions and bans on abortion rights and chains the women’s movement to the bourgeoisie, WV presents the Christian right as the main political obstacle. This is totally compatible with the pro-abortion popular front, which presents the reversal of Roe v. Wade as the fault of Trump installing conservative Supreme Court justices.
The WV No. 1161 article goes on to state: “For the working class to take up the fight for women’s emancipation would require a great leap in consciousness, and for that to happen, a revolutionary leadership is key.” What was needed was to fight for the working class to champion women’s liberation. Instead, WV put forward that people should be nice, woke allies of women, which again is totally compatible with the popular front and a bastardization of the tasks of Marxists. The SL/U.S. abandoned the task of fighting for communist leadership today, leaving the leadership of the women’s movement to the liberals. For the working class to take up the fight for women’s liberation requires breaking them from their misleaders, and that means forging a communist pole in opposition to all bourgeois forces.
To better satisfy its pop-frontist appetites, the SL/U.S. said in the WV No. 1161 article: “In the U.S., the democratic right to abortion raises the question of women’s freedom.” No, it doesn’t. Abortion is a democratic demand that the bourgeoisie can grant with ease. WV deforms this understanding to better merge with the popular front, making its Marxoid verbiage palatable to feminists who think that abortion means women’s liberation.
Both the IG and WV criticized feminism and the socialist feminists for being sectoral and bourgeois and staying in the framework of capitalist politics. The IG says: “Revolutionary Marxists fight intransigently for the rights, and full liberation, of women and all the oppressed. This struggle means forthrightly telling the truth that for all the talk of ‘socialist feminism,’ feminism is a bourgeois ideology, posing a sectoral struggle along gender lines that keeps the oppressed within the framework of capitalist politics” (“Supreme Court Cancels Right to Abortion: Trigger for Ultra-Rightist Mobilization,” August 2022).
What the IG doesn’t say is that the program of feminism is the direct cause of the all-out retreat on women’s rights, that a communist women’s movement needs to be built in complete opposition to all bourgeois forces, above all feminism, and that it is the job of socialists to carry out this split. To polemicize against feminism the way that the IG does and WV did gives a left cover to all those who dislike “white women feminism” and want a feminism that is “intersectional” and champions the issues of the oppressed. By doing so while covering themselves in loud phrases about the class struggle, they help maintain unity with the feminists.
Recognizing the popular front is not enough: revolutionaries have to take on feminism, the main thing that chains women’s struggles to the bourgeoisie. Just saying it’s a bourgeois ideology and sectoral does not do this. Another glaring example of the IG not seeing their job as breaking young women away from feminism is that they do not say a word against feminism or the socialist feminists on the ground. In a forum that the IG published (“Fight for Abortion Rights with Class Struggle,” November 2022), the word “feminism” isn’t even mentioned.
It is urgent for the labor movement to organize in defense of abortion. But if this is done under a program that conciliates the obstacles to achieving the emancipation of women, it’s a betrayal. The IG capitulates, as the SL/U.S. did, to the liberal leadership of the movement for abortion rights despite calling for “struggle” and a “break with the Democrats.”