Workers Vanguard No. 976
18 March 2011
For Womens Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
Women and the East German Deformed Workers State
(Women and Revolution pages)
The following article was translated from Spartakist No. 185 (October 2010), which is published by the Spartakist Workers Party, German section of the International Communist League. It is based on an International Women’s Day 2010 presentation by Barbara Köhler in Hamburg.
In Berlin, we held our forum on Women’s Day, and on my way to it the subway TV ran a news item that Alice Schwarzer, Germany’s icon of bourgeois feminism, had spoken. She stated that she was against Women’s Day, a “socialist invention” having something to do with striking women textile workers. In her own words: “It’s got absolutely nothing to do with feminism!”
Occasionally even this reactionary lady says something true. As a bourgeois movement, feminism makes men the hindrance to achieving women’s equality. Thereby it deepens the division of the proletariat fomented by the capitalists, setting men against women. We communists know that the oppression of women is inextricably tied to class rule and exploitation. We fight for mobilizing the entire proletariat, men as well as women, against the special oppression of women. Without women, no socialist revolution; without socialist revolution, no liberation of women!
Schwarzer was expressing the hostility of the bourgeoisie to the proletariat—International Women’s Day marks the strike of women textile workers in Manhattan on 8 March 1908. But what we think of above all is 8 March 1917 (February 23 according to the old Russian calendar)—the women textile workers strike in St. Petersburg. That was the beginning of the February Revolution in Russia. For us communists, March 8 commemorates a day of struggle by the entire working class.
Over the entire past year, we ran articles and gave forums counterposing our communist program to the bourgeois propaganda marking 20 years of counterrevolution in the former East German deformed workers state, the DDR, with which we were inundated all year long. It was with this same program that we intervened in 1989-90 in the incipient political revolution in the DDR. The central issues were defense of the DDR against imperialism, proletarian political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy as well as socialist revolution in the West—the fight for a Red Germany ruled by workers councils (soviets).
The bourgeoisie would like to lay the DDR to rest once and for all, but it is still obsessively fixated on it. In German bourgeois circles, one of the most devastating labels you can apply is “DDR methods” or “socialism.” When Ursula von der Leyen was still Minister of Family Affairs, she came out for more kindergartens, but only because the German bourgeoisie wants to raise the low birthrate and simultaneously have well-trained women in professional life. And for this sin, even this top-echelon Christian Democratic display model of a mother was accused of DDR methods.
So everybody talks about it, but what was it really like for women in the DDR? As communists, we apply programmatic standards in order to understand and explain things. Thus we cite the utopian socialist Fourier as an authority on the woman question. Fourier stated, “The change in a historical epoch can always be determined by women’s progress towards freedom.... The degree of emancipation of woman is the natural measure of general emancipation.” Marx cites Fourier very approvingly in The Holy Family (1845). This is one of our guidelines. But at least equally central is Engels’ important insight in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) that women’s oppression is rooted in the institution of the family, which is characteristic of all class societies. Engels explains that the first condition for the liberation of women is their integration into public industry and thus into public life, leading to “the abolition of the monogamous family as the economic unit of society.”
The DDR arguably constituted the most advanced society for women so far in the history of mankind. In important respects it was even more advanced than the young, revolutionary Soviet Union. While the Bolsheviks advanced a revolutionary program for women’s liberation aiming at replacing the functions of the family by socializing housework, the material poverty of the young workers state was a huge obstacle to actually putting this into practice. The DDR even at its founding, despite having emerged out of the Second World War and despite the reparations claimed by the Soviet Union, nonetheless possessed the basis for a highly industrialized society. This made a big difference.
At the end of the 1980s, over 90 percent of women in the DDR worked or were in training or ongoing education. They really had lots of economic and genuine personal independence. Women and men both acquired broad scientific training, with women working at highly skilled jobs, much more so than in the West. Among people up to 40 years old—all of whom were raised in the DDR—there were as many women as men in every form of training and education. And single mothers could be professionally active and have children because there was an extensive system of childcare facilities, often linked directly to the factories.
What made this possible in the DDR was the victory of the Red Army over Nazi Germany in 1945. The state machinery and economic power of the German bourgeoisie was smashed in the East and a state was founded based on socialized property forms—in Marxist terms, a workers state. However, this workers state was, as we Trotskyists say, deformed from the beginning because political power did not rest with the working class but with a Stalinist bureaucracy.
On the one hand, there was all this economic independence because women were active in production. But at the same time the institution of the family, which according to Engels is an institution for the oppression of women, existed in the DDR. Not only did the family exist, it was singled out and hailed. This is a contradiction that requires explanation. As Trotsky said in 1940 in regard to the Soviet Union, and is equally true of the DDR: “The workers’ state must be taken as it has emerged from the merciless laboratory of history and not as it is imagined by a ‘socialist’ professor, reflectively exploring his nose with his finger” (“Balance Sheet of the Finnish Events,” In Defense of Marxism).
The East German deformed workers state was Stalin’s “unloved child.” This was one instance of his betrayal of revolutionary opportunities in all of Europe and parts of Asia at the end of the Second World War, betrayals committed by Stalin for the sake of his agreements with his imperialist allies, the U.S. and Britain. For example, in Italy the Stalinist Communist Party made the partisans disarm and itself joined a capitalist popular-front government, thereby preventing a workers revolution and subjecting the workers to the U.S. command. In Germany, following the war the socialist aspirations of the proletariat were bureaucratically throttled. Initiatives by the workers to take over factories and towns and run them through embryonic workers councils—the anti-fascist committees—were suppressed.
The DDR and the other “people’s democracies” arising from these social transformations were deformed workers states that came into being as a defensive Soviet reaction to the imperialists’ escalating Cold War. Thus the DDR set out to build “socialism in one country” on the model of the Stalinist degenerated Soviet Union of the 1940s. The DDR bureaucracy was even willing to give it a try in half a country. This program of “socialism in one country” fundamentally contradicts Marxism, which states that socialism, as a preliminary stage to communism, must be an international social order with a material basis that transcends the bounds of even the most developed capitalist countries. To put it another way: You cannot construct socialism on the basis of material scarcity in an isolated country.
The October Revolution of 1917
Let’s go back to the program of the Bolsheviks that led the working class to victory in 1917. From the outset, their program posited that the revolution had to be extended internationally. They always saw the Russian Revolution as just the beginning of revolution on a worldwide scale, and it never even occurred to them that it could survive in isolation. Early Soviet legislation granted women wide-ranging equality and freedom that even today have not been realized by the economically most advanced “democratic” capitalist countries.
Some central characteristics: civil marriage was introduced, along with divorce at the request of either partner, and any and all laws against homosexuals were abolished. The director of the Moscow Institute for Social Hygiene reported in 1923 on the underlying principles of Soviet legislation: “It declares the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured and no one’s interests are encroached upon.” And in 1920 the young Soviet Union was the very first government on earth to overturn criminalization of abortion—really and truly a gain! For the first time, women were given the right to control their own bodies and were no longer degraded into reproductive machines.
The Bolsheviks were aware of the fact that the family, along with the social functions it fulfills in class society—raising children, taking care of food and clothing, seeing to education and looking after the elderly—could not simply be abolished by decree. Trotsky spoke of the “family as a shut-in petty enterprise.” These functions have to be replaced through the socialization of housework. In the major cities of the early Soviet Union, the first steps were taken to set up facilities for socializing housework such as kindergartens, canteens and the like, but the material basis for extending them simply was not there. But the Bolsheviks in the revolutionary period of the Soviet Union told workers the truth: the liberation of women will occur once we have been able to socialize housework; at the moment we cannot simply shake this out of our shirtsleeves, but we are fighting for the extension of the revolution to the economically advanced countries—this is the way to get there!
Degeneration of the Soviet Union and Its Effects on Women
These policies of the Soviet leadership changed because the leadership changed. In 1923-24, the hopes of the Russian working class for a speedy extension of the revolution were destroyed, particularly when a great opportunity for the working class to seize power in Germany was wasted. It was the German Communist Party’s policy of looking to the Social Democratic Party and waiting for it that blew it—as well as the Communist International’s hesitancy at this point in time (for more, see “A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 56, Spring 2001). Hence this great possibility for bringing the Soviet Union out of its isolation was allowed to slide by.
With the Russian working class broadly discouraged, a conservative bureaucracy under Stalin seized political power. Its program was to settle down within the status quo, constructing “socialism in one country” and seeking peaceful coexistence with imperialism. Thus the leadership no longer sought to extend the revolution but only reacted to the pressure of imperialism. This bureaucratic layer no longer strove for the extension of the revolution to eliminate material scarcity, instead functioning as kind of a gendarme to administer the existing generalized want.
With Trotsky, we say that this constituted a political counterrevolution in the Soviet Union. But the socialized property forms still existed. This is why we fought for a proletarian political revolution in the Soviet degenerated workers state and do so today in the remaining deformed workers states. This means that the imperative task is defending the social basis, the socialization of the means of production. But it is also necessary to drive out the leadership layer, this caste, and restore the entire power of the working class, including its political power. Leading the working class to this point, however, requires a revolutionary party, as in 1917.
In the Soviet Union, Stalin’s reactionary political line quickly became directed against women. In 1936, a new constitution was adopted that banned abortion and hailed the family as the so-called unit of socialism. In his fundamental work The Revolution Betrayed (1936), Trotsky explained the underlying mechanisms:
“Having revealed its inability to serve women who are compelled to resort to abortion with the necessary medical aid and sanitation, the state makes a sharp change of course, and takes the road of prohibition. And just as in other situations, the bureaucracy makes a virtue of necessity. One of the members of the highest Soviet court, Soltz, a specialist on matrimonial questions, bases the forthcoming prohibition of abortion on the fact that in a socialist society where there are no unemployed, etc., etc., a woman has no right to decline ‘the joys of motherhood.’ The philosophy of a priest endowed also with the powers of a gendarme.”
And so it was on the model of this Stalinized Soviet Union that the DDR was constructed.
The DDR: A Deformed Workers State from the Outset
In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky explained the dual character of the Stalinist bureaucracy. An understanding of this is vital if you want to grasp the contradictions in the DDR’s policies toward women. The bureaucracy is a parasitic caste sitting atop the socialized means of production; it vacillates between fear of the working class and fear of imperialism, trying to maneuver between them so as to preserve its privileges. And though Trotsky’s book was written in 1936, in our intervention into the incipient political revolution in the DDR in 1989-90 we were often told it sounds like it was written about the DDR bureaucracy, as if it were an up-to-date handbook.
The proletarian 17 June 1953 uprising underlined the DDR bureaucracy’s contradictory character as a caste, rather than a class owning the means of production. With this uprising, the working class was attempting political revolution, that is, the overthrow of the leadership to gain political power while maintaining the economic foundation of the DDR. At that time, considerable sections of the Socialist Unity Party [ruling East German Stalinist party] went over to the side of the workers. One can hardly imagine a whole segment of the capitalist class going over to the side of the working class in the event of a socialist revolution! The bureaucracy was not a class but a caste, comparable to the bureaucracy in the trade unions.
Trotsky also explained in The Revolution Betrayed that the bureaucrats actually needed the family, namely for the social regimentation of the populace. Trotsky showed that families, far from being units of socialism, were units of social backwardness in which women, children and youth were held captive, an “archaic, stuffy and stagnant institution in which the woman of the toiling classes performs galley labor from childhood to death.” That was one reason the bureaucrats needed the family—as an instrument of regimentation—but they also needed it to provide the services that society was unable to provide, due to material causes. Here, of course, it is important to see that the leadership in the Soviet Union and later in the DDR generally did not have achieving this material basis as its goal, but rather constructing “socialism” within the confines of a single country.
A revolutionary leadership in the DDR would have presented an internationalist program to the working class. Like the Bolsheviks, it would have said: We want to extend the revolution, we want to expand our material basis; this cannot be done here at this point, but in the meantime we will simply do what is possible. But what is possible cannot be simply dictated by the bureaucracy. Instead, the workers, both men and women, taking the factories as their starting point, must determine the policies of the workers state through workers councils. In a struggle to construct such workers councils, a revolutionary leadership in the DDR would have based itself on the most advanced sections of the working class. That is Trotsky’s program and it’s our program as well. But of course that is just what the DDR bureaucracy did not do, since such a struggle for workers councils would have meant dissolving itself. Hence the family was pushed, presented as a fighting unit of socialism, thus reinforcing reactionary notions within society.
Over the years, kindergartens, canteens, laundries, etc. were unevenly but steadily expanded, with a significant part of these facilities directly linked to the factories. However, the DDR leadership promoted this not because they wanted to do something for women’s liberation but because it desperately needed young, well-educated women in the workforce who in return demanded that childcare be provided by society! The number of daycare slots for children up to three years jumped by leaps and bounds from a scant 4,700 in 1950 to over 50,000 in 1955.
This demonstrates the great effort to attract women into production in the early years of the DDR. There was another great leap between 1970 and 1975: from 166,000 to nearly 235,000 (Donna Harsch, Revenge of the Domestic, 2007). This was to fulfill [Erich] Honecker’s promise to raise the living standard, which in 1975 had been termed the “unity of economic and social policies.” Honecker had replaced [Walter] Ulbricht in 1970-71 following a series of scares the bureaucracy got from working-class actions, starting with the incipient proletarian political revolutions in the DDR in 1953 and Hungary in 1956, through the 1968 “Prague Spring,” to major strikes against price hikes in Poland in 1970.
The bureaucracy talked itself into believing that under Honecker it could eliminate the DDR’s ever-worsening performance vis-à-vis West German imperialism, in regard to the economy and living standards, by running up debts to Western bankers and increasingly cutting back on investment in many areas of the economy. The result was that in 1989 only 30 percent of the country’s machines were operational at any one time, while expenditures for housing construction expanded from year to year right up to 1989. This had brought the DDR to the brink of bankruptcy in the early ’80s, temporarily averted by selling DDR-processed Soviet oil to the West. But doing this caused the efficiency of the DDR economy to collapse even further.
In 1989, there was virtually one kindergarten place available per child, and in many towns the availability of daycare slots stood at over 80 percent. But in some locations women were unwilling or outright refused to use these slots out of concern that kindergarten care was inadequate. Things were even more critical in laundries, where the clothes were damaged or washing took far too long. Trotsky explained this the following way: If workers do not really have control over and cannot determine what they produce, how they do it, how they organize it, then this will impose a sort of gray curtain of indifference upon all labor. And simultaneously this whole stuffy, backward weight of the bureaucracy enveloped society like a suffocating blanket.
Also a problem with childcare facilities was that they generally were not open around the clock. The standard time they were open was approximately 6 a.m. to 6-7 p.m. This of course made it very hard for women working shifts, leaving many women unable to take jobs they would have liked, because the childcare was not there. We are for top-quality childcare around the clock. During our intervention into the incipient political revolution in 1989-90, we often had discussions with women who saw themselves as communists but had been so deeply molded by family propaganda—this mommy propaganda that the DDR bureaucracy constantly churned out—that some were against having round-the-clock childcare, arguing that mommy really should be caring for her children in the evening. This shows how, thanks to the intervention of the bureaucracy, backward notions were preserved and became deeply ingrained in people’s minds.
It is interesting and important to see that there were very many women who wanted to be heard. They felt, OK, we’re told it’s a socialist society, so we have the right to get more of these facilities, which replace housework for us. There were many protests directed at various levels of the bureaucracy, very many letters were addressed directly to Honecker, in which a woman worker would complain roughly: “Comrade Honecker, it’s unbelievable that in the major factory where I work I’m unable to shop for groceries at lunchtime because there’s nothing in the store. You absolutely have to change this.” A very large number of proletarian women, of working women, thought they had the right to more and that they could organize it themselves, and better.
[TO BE CONTINUED]