Spartacist Canada No. 167
Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
Down With Harper’s War on Women’s Rights!
Free Abortion on Demand!
Women and Revolution
We print below, edited for publication, a presentation by Miriam McDonald, editor of Spartacist Canada, at a September 25 Trotskyist League forum in Toronto.
For us communists, the struggle for women’s emancipation is crucial to the struggle to overthrow the oppressive, exploitative capitalist order. The oppression of women is central to all class societies. In countries of belated capitalist development, it is deeply rooted in pre-capitalist “tradition” and religious obscurantism. In these countries, the fight against women’s oppression is a motor force of revolutionary struggle.
The condition of women in the most advanced capitalist countries, while far different, shows the limits of freedom and social progress under capitalism. The institution of the family is the main source of women’s oppression in both the imperialist and neocolonial countries. I’ll expand on this later, but this understanding really goes to the heart of the question.
I’m going to talk a lot about abortion because the availability of safe, free and legal abortion is a good measure of the condition of women, which is in turn, to paraphrase the great utopian socialist Charles Fourier, an index of the general advancement of any society. This spring, right-wing Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper announced a “foreign aid” plan ostensibly to improve maternal health in the so-called Third World. Typical of imperialist “aid,” this had nothing to do with assisting women. Indeed, Harper’s plan denies funding for abortion. Abortion is almost completely illegal in most of Africa and South America. Worldwide, at least 70,000 women die every year from botched backstreet abortions. Some 8 million suffer complications and are maimed and disfigured.
Harper’s scheme provided a perfect snapshot of how the imperialist system works to reinforce and deepen the oppression of women in the countries it subjugates. But it was also a wedge against abortion rights in this country and had everything to do with bolstering his anti-abortion Christian fundamentalist base. Indeed, on May 13 some 15,000 people rallied on Parliament Hill for the banning of abortion. Heavily mobilized by the Catholic church, the rally included several Tory and Liberal MPs. There was no countermobilization by the defenders of abortion rights—an indictment of the misleaders of the trade unions, of the NDP social democrats and the feminists.
It was indicative that one of Harper’s first acts in office was to cancel the paltry childcare program negotiated under the Liberals in favour of a “pro-family,” anti-working-class measure pushed by the right-wing REAL Women of Canada. Now we have a new outrage in the ongoing offensive against Muslim women, a particularly ugly face of the racist “war on terror.” When the Quebec government moved to ban women wearing the face-covering niqab from receiving any government services and from all public-sector employment, Harper and the leader of the federal Liberals, Michael Ignatieff, fully backed this racist move.
As part of our fight for women’s liberation, we oppose the veil in all its forms as an instrument and symbol of women’s subjugation and oppression. But we utterly oppose these racist bans which mean fully veiled Muslim women are to be hounded out of public and social life. They reek of the Nazi edicts that forced Jews to wear yellow stars.
Like the bourgeois Tories and Liberals, the New Democrats trumpet so-called “family values.” The NDP is what Marxists call a bourgeois workers party. While linked to the unions via the labour bureaucracy, it has a thoroughly pro-capitalist program of maintaining the present system with a few cosmetic reforms. It is a left prop to capitalist rule and, when in power, it oversees the administration of the bourgeois state and the exploitation of the working class. As such, it is a political obstacle to the struggles of workers and all the oppressed, not least women.
Grinding unemployment, poverty, lack of social services—all this is intrinsic to capitalism. Huge numbers of working-class families teeter on the brink of disaster. It is workers who are being made to pay for the capitalist economic crisis, and as capitalist governments pile up massive deficits, workers will pay for them too, in layoffs and cuts to social services. Defeating this onslaught requires the fight for a new leadership of the working class and oppressed—a revolutionary workers party dedicated to the fight to sweep away this barbaric system of capitalist exploitation.
Why We Defended the Soviet Union
To understand the world today, it is necessary to understand the impact of the capitalist counterrevolution in the former Soviet Union and East Europe twenty years ago. This was catastrophic for workers internationally and a direct blow to women in every corner of the globe. In the Soviet Union and East Europe, the return of capitalism saw the dismantling of social gains like abortion, free childcare, health care and education.
Upon coming to power through the October 1917 workers revolution in Russia, the Bolsheviks put into practice a number of crucial measures to begin the liberation of women. They made marriage and divorce simple matters of civil registration, entirely independent of the reactionary Orthodox church, as part of an early decree giving women equal rights with men. Insofar as the poverty of the country allowed, they established communal kitchens, laundries and childcare centres to free women from the drudgery of housework—measures that sought to bring women into the workforce and political life and lay the basis for replacing the family with socialized alternatives.
The Bolsheviks abolished all laws regarding consensual sexual relations (e.g., sodomy, adultery, homosexuality) because they thought the state had no business interfering in private sexual matters. In 1919, the Communist Party created the Department of Working Women and Peasant Women, or Zhenotdel, to organize special work among women, which included building over 25,000 literacy schools and donning the veil to reach the women of the Muslim East. In 1920, abortion was made legal, free and available. For the Bolsheviks, the liberation of women was an integral part of the emancipating goals of the communist program. The proletariat as a whole must embrace the fight against women’s oppression as part of its historic task of freeing humanity from the outmoded system of private ownership and production for profit.
In The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), Friedrich Engels traced the origin of the institutions of the family and the state to the division of society into classes. With the rise of a social surplus beyond basic subsistence, a ruling class could develop based on private appropriation of that surplus. The centrality of the family flowed from its role in the inheritance of property, which required women’s sexual monogamy and social subordination in order to determine the paternity of the offspring. Engels termed this “the world historical defeat of the female sex.”
In the thousands of years since the advent of class society, the institution of the family has taken many different forms according to the needs of the ruling class, its economy, politics, religion and culture. Under capitalism, the family serves not only as the principal mechanism of inheritance for the propertied classes, but as the means by which the next generation of wage slaves is raised. A big part of this is instilling bourgeois ideology, “morals” and obedience to the powers that be. As such, the family is vital to the maintenance of production for profit. Full equality for women, abortion, divorce, the myriad forms of sexual expression human beings enjoy—these questions are explosive because in some way they challenge the institution of the family.
The Bolsheviks understood that only socialist revolution could lay the material basis for the replacement of the necessary functions of the family. They recognized, too, that without qualitative economic development, a fully socialist economy and the liberation of women were a utopian fantasy in backward, isolated Russia. Most importantly, they founded the Communist International with the goal of forming revolutionary proletarian parties and fighting for socialist revolution, especially in the advanced industrial countries like Germany.
In The Revolution Betrayed (1936), Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky explained that from the beginning the Bolsheviks recognized that “the real resources of the state did not correspond to the plans and intentions of the Communist Party. You cannot ‘abolish’ the family; you have to replace it. The actual liberation of women is unrealizable on a basis of ‘generalized want.’ Experience soon proved this austere truth which Marx had formulated eighty years before.”
The gains made by women in the Soviet Union are one of the reasons why we Trotskyists stood for its unconditional military defense against imperialist threats and internal counterrevolution. Stalin turned back the clock on many of these gains—for example, abortion was made illegal in 1936—but the enormous power of the planned economy remained. Despite its Stalinist bureaucratic degeneration, the Soviet workers state was able to provide all with a job, housing, health care and education.
Afghanistan and Counterrevolution
The road to capitalist counterrevolution in the USSR went through Afghanistan—and so I’m going to take some time to sketch this history, which has so fundamentally shaped the present world. Since their 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. and Canadian imperialists have used the brutal oppression of Afghan women under the former Taliban regime to justify the neocolonial occupation of that country. Indeed, in defending the persecution of women wearing the niqab, Quebec’s minister responsible for the status of women, Christine St-Pierre, invoked this bloody imperialist occupation. “There are people in Quebec, in Canada, and other countries around the world,” she said, “who have gone to Afghanistan and spilled their blood so that these things won’t be tolerated” (Globe and Mail, 10 March). The ban on the niqab has as much to do with women’s liberation as the NATO occupation of Afghanistan does, i.e., nothing.
The news is full of stories about the horrors of life for women in that country. A few weeks ago, the horrific death by stoning of a young couple made headlines. We are told that Afghanistan’s maternal and infant mortality rates are among the highest in the world, that for a girl to attend school is a death-defying act as the air in some schools is deliberately poisoned, that schoolgirls regularly get doused with acid, that female politicians are shot for daring to work outside the home. All this, and much worse, is true. But the bourgeoisie’s concern about the plight of women is counterfeit. Its sole purpose is to line up support for the imperialist occupation.
The anti-woman Islamic cutthroats came to power in Afghanistan in the early 1990s with the support of U.S. and Canadian imperialism, and of the NDP social democrats. Today’s U.S. puppet regime in Kabul upholds the same hideous oppression of women. In the lead-up to the 2001 invasion, we called for the military defense of Afghanistan against the imperialists, while giving no political support to the woman-hating Taliban fanatics. From the outset, we called for class struggle at home against this bloody war and occupation. Every blow struck against the imperialist occupiers is a blow struck against our “own” ruling class. U.S., Canada, NATO: Out of Afghanistan now!
When there was a real possibility of liberating Afghan women, the imperialists were on the other side. In the late 1970s, a modernizing Afghan government moved to implement modest reforms for women, lowering the bride price and instituting education. The Muslim fundamentalist mujahedin responded with violence and terror. To protect its borders from this threat, which was backed by the CIA, in late 1979 the Soviet Union sent its Red Army into Afghanistan at the invitation of the left-nationalist Kabul government. The U.S. government spent billions to fund the mujahedin “holy war” against the Soviet Union, the biggest CIA operation in history.
We declared “Hail Red Army!” and we called to extend the social gains of the October Revolution to the Afghan peoples, especially the terribly oppressed women. Sending the Soviet army to clean out the reactionary insurgency opened a road to liberation for the Afghan peoples. For us, the overriding class and social questions—defense of the Soviet Union and the fight for women’s rights and social progress in Afghanistan—were crystal clear.
Under the Soviet military umbrella, the Afghan government began mass literacy campaigns and provided medical care. By the late 1980s, half of all university students in Afghanistan were women. Women made up 40 percent of the country’s doctors, 70 percent of its teachers and 30 percent of its civil servants. 440,000 female students were enrolled in educational institutions. Women in the workforce increased fifty-fold, and 15,000 women served as soldiers and commanders in the Afghan army. Once nothing more than chattel property, women enjoyed a real measure of freedom from the veil and subjugation for the first time in Afghan history.
Objectively, the Soviet intervention cut against the grain of the nationalist Stalinist dogma of “socialism in one country.” We warned from the start that the Kremlin bureaucracy, in its quest for “peaceful coexistence” with U.S. imperialism, might cut a deal at the expense of the Afghan peoples. In the end, that is exactly what happened. The Soviet forces were pulled out in 1988-89, paving the way for a bloody onslaught against Afghan workers, women and leftists. None of this mattered to the anti-Soviet reformist “socialist” and feminist organizations of the 1980s. They howled with the imperialist wolves in demanding Soviet troops get out of Afghanistan. When the Red Army withdrew, the International Socialists grotesquely called this a “victory,” gloating that a “defeated Russia will spur the struggles of the oppressed nationalities in Eastern Europe and inside Russia itself” (Socialist Worker, March 1989).
But the Soviet Union was not militarily defeated in Afghanistan. The withdrawal was a political betrayal. It flowed from the whole outlook of the Stalinist bureaucracy, which subordinated the interests of the international proletariat to defense of its own privileged position as a parasitic layer resting atop the USSR’s collectivized economy. Thus the bureaucracy undermined the defense of the Soviet workers state. We fought for a proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist misrulers and to return the Soviet Union to the Bolshevik internationalism of Lenin and Trotsky.
The Soviet bureaucracy’s attempt to trade Afghan blood for good will in Washington only whetted the appetites of the imperialists, who were intent upon the utter destruction of the Soviet workers state. Strengthening the forces of capitalist restoration, this betrayal was a direct precursor to the final collapse of the USSR itself.
The Fight for Abortion Rights
This brings us back full circle to the struggle for women’s liberation, now more difficult because of the colossal defeat of counterrevolution. Its impact has been felt around the world, both materially and on the ideological level. Reactionary ideas take hold and grow in reactionary periods, and over the past two decades there has been a rise of fundamentalism of every kind. All variants of the “opium of the people,” as Marx called religion, are freely disseminated. This false consciousness is rooted in despair and the lie that class struggle and authentic communism are no longer possible.
It’s not accidental then that we encounter increased opposition to abortion among young people, men and women, including those who express interest in communist politics. The right to abortion is an explosive issue because, in allowing a woman to control her own fertility, it poses the question of women’s equality. It represents an attack on the holy institution of the family in bourgeois society. We oppose the restrictions the ruling class imposes on this basic right, including the unwritten ones of class, race, prejudice and access. At all stages of pregnancy, this is a medical procedure between a woman and her doctor in which the state has no place.
In 1988, thanks above all to the efforts of the heroic Dr. Henry Morgentaler, Canada’s reactionary abortion laws were struck down in the Supreme Court. Since then, there has been no legal restriction on abortion in this country. Yet access is so poor in some parts of Canada that it might as well be illegal. Today only one in six hospitals across the country offers abortion services. In rural and northern communities, women must travel hundreds of miles to reach one of the few clinics or hospitals where the procedure is available. In PEI, there are no abortion services. Doctors are flown into Kelowna, B.C. because local doctors are so besieged by anti-abortion fanatics. And Canadian women had to seek the help of Dr. George Tiller, murdered in 2009 by an anti-abortion fanatic in Kansas, one of the few doctors anywhere to provide late-term abortions.
For Native women, who face huge barriers of every kind, it is much worse. There is no privacy on the reserves, and to even get her travel paid for a woman must often get permission from the band council. Eighteen years ago, in an article titled “Torture of Native Women in NWT” (SC No. 89, Fall 1992), we described how Native women were forced to endure abortions without anesthetic. We also wrote about the cultural and social taboos among the Nisga’a elders in B.C. who barred a teenager from getting an abortion.
Barriers to abortion are only one part of the terrible conditions of life for many Native women, who are disproportionately targets of sexual violence and brutal racism. Over 500 Native women—mostly young, vulnerable, poor, sometimes with drug addictions—have been murdered or gone missing in recent years, preyed upon by racist, sadistic killers. The lives and deaths of these women are a matter of utter indifference to the ruling class. It will take a socialist revolution to smash this racist order and put an end to the deep-going oppression of Native peoples.
Harper’s far-right coterie—including the cabinet—is full of religious “end-of-days” revivalists who are vicious opponents of abortion, gay rights, women’s rights, evolution and much else. A recent book by journalist Marci McDonald, The Armageddon Factor, documents the all but unfettered influence of Christian fundamentalists in Ottawa, some of whom are truly wacko. The parliamentary aide to Saskatoon MP Maurice Vellacott, Timothy Bloedow, wants a society where tribal councils dispense biblical “justice” as they did in the days of ancient Israel. He is an acolyte of one Rousas J. Rushdoony, who, according to McDonald, believes that for “sodomy, adultery and blasphemy, or even consulting a fortune teller, the sentence prescribed in the book of Leviticus should apply: death by stoning.” And it’s not only Harper and the Conservatives. True to its Christian Fabian roots, the NDP has a “faith” caucus. The Liberal Party has been aggressively courting evangelicals, and the parliamentary “pro-life” caucus includes numerous Liberals.
Over the past several years, anti-abortion MPs have introduced a flurry of reactionary bills—a dozen, according to Canadian Dimension (July/August 2010). One would have made it a separate offence for killing a fetus when a pregnant woman was murdered. Another would have penalized anyone who “coerced” a woman into an abortion. None became law. But, ultimately, what the capitalists will be able to get away with will be conditioned by the level of labour and other social struggles.
The regulation of abortion and contraception has historically been a powerful weapon in the hands of organized religion and the state. Modern abortion laws show how social and legal institutions have changed to reflect the interests of the capitalist class. In 1803, Britain’s Ellenborough Act marked the advent of abortion as a statutory crime in the English-speaking world. The preoccupations of the ruling class shown in this law and others that followed include protecting the male’s right to heirs, punishing women for illicit sex and protecting population growth.
Abortion was made illegal in Canada in 1869, punishable by life imprisonment. For the next 100 years, botched abortions were the leading cause of death for women in their child-bearing years. In a 1938 test case in Britain, a Dr. Alec Bourne turned himself in after performing an abortion for a 14-year-old girl raped by four soldiers. He was acquitted on the basis that her pregnancy “would make the woman a physical or mental wreck.” The case was pivotal in Commonwealth countries and, until 1969, a loophole in the anti-abortion laws.
By the 1960s, the political climate was changing. In the U.S., the mass mobilization of black people in the Southern civil rights movement and the subsequent Northern ghetto rebellions challenged the racist bourgeois order, shattering the Cold War anti-Communist consensus. This paved the road for the mass protest movements that followed—against the dirty U.S. war in Vietnam, for the rights of women, gays, students.
There was also growing discontent in Canada, particularly in Quebec where opposition to national oppression provoked deep-going social struggles. In 1968, Pierre Trudeau became prime minister and, particularly in English Canada, the myth is widely believed that he was some kind of liberal reformer. After all, he famously proclaimed that “The state has no business being in the bedrooms of the nation” and liberalized the laws on abortion and homosexuality. But abortion remained in the Criminal Code and a committee of doctors had to approve the procedure. More to the point, the capitalists do not dole out social reforms out of the goodness of their hearts, but only in response to social struggle. Trudeau’s main role was to repress the fight for social and national emancipation in Quebec, notably when he sent the army into Montreal to round up hundreds of left-wing activists in the 1970 “October Crisis.”
The fight for abortion rights waged by Henry Morgentaler, a Polish-born Jewish survivor of the Auschwitz death camp, came in the context of the struggles in Quebec to throw off the shackles of the Catholic church. The tumultuous battles of the 1960s and early ’70s reshaped Quebec society. The dominance of the Catholic hierarchy was broken, and birth rates plummeted from one of the highest in the world to one of the lowest.
Morgentaler started out in the Montreal of the early 1960s as a humanist fighting against the confessional school system. Alongside the Mouvement Laïque de la Langue Française, he launched the Committee for Neutral Schools. He began his long battle to overturn Canada’s reactionary abortion laws by opening a clinic in Montreal’s francophone East End in 1969.
Throughout the 1970s Morgentaler was viciously prosecuted by the Canadian government. Acquitted three times by largely working-class francophone Québécois juries, he was vindictively retried and jailed for ten months. Only in 1976 was he finally absolved of all criminal charges. His prosecutors had to reluctantly admit that no jury in Quebec would convict him.
The enforced subjugation of Quebec within a unitary country is a cornerstone of the Canadian capitalist state. The class and other social struggles in Quebec during this period culminated in the near-insurrectionary general strike of 1972. Instead of solidarity, these struggles were met with a wave of chauvinism from the NDP and the Canadian Labour Congress union misleaders. This Anglo chauvinism in turn pushed Québécois workers deeper into the arms of their own class enemies, represented by the bourgeois-nationalist Parti Québécois.
Recognizing that the working class of this country is deeply split on national lines, undermining its ability to wage anti-capitalist class struggle, we Marxists advocate independence for Quebec. Taking the national question off the agenda would create far better conditions for the workers to see that their real enemies are their “own” capitalist exploiters.
Anti-Abortion Reaction in the 1980s and ’90s
In the renewed Cold War climate of the 1980s, as the imperialists joined with the most retrograde anti-woman forces in Afghanistan, the war on women was brought home as the Canadian ruling class again targeted abortion rights. In 1983, Morgentaler opened his Toronto and Winnipeg clinics, and they were quickly raided by the cops. In Manitoba, the ruling NDP government, whose cops twice raided Morgentaler’s clinic, hit him with conspiracy charges as well.
When I interviewed him for our journal Women and Revolution (No. 27, Winter 1983-84), he denounced this “most vicious of prosecutions” at the hands of the Manitoba NDP. Fuelled by the state’s legal persecution, a shears-wielding anti-abortion fanatic attacked Morgentaler outside his Toronto clinic. Would-be murderers besieged the clinic after it reopened in 1988. It was firebombed and destroyed in 1992.
The feminists who organized the abortion rights campaigns of the time were generally pro-NDP. Many were around ostensible socialist groups which, in true reformist fashion, kept their demands within the limits acceptable to bourgeois liberals. The campaigns were framed around single-issue calls such as “repeal the abortion laws,” later reduced to “choice.”
The idea that poor and working women, facing poverty and the pressures of the family, can exercise “choice” over their own lives is a cruel joke. The wealthy will always be able to get medical care, including abortions. The barriers and restrictions target young, working-class and poor women, who can’t afford quality health care, childcare or housing. We intervened in these struggles with our program of women’s liberation through socialist revolution. As we do today, we called for free abortion on demand—part of free, quality health care for all—and for free 24-hour childcare to address the deep class and race oppression of poor and minority women.
We stood out for our defense of women’s rights internationally—from Afghanistan to Poland—and for this were routinely attacked and excluded from protests by the feminists and their often male enforcers, including at International Women’s Day demonstrations. The “pro-choice” feminists and reformists lined up behind the Cold War drive against the Soviet Union, thereby trampling on women’s rights. In Poland, then a bureaucratically deformed workers state, they hailed counterrevolutionary Solidarność, the clerical-nationalist outfit promoted by the Pope, the CIA and the pro-capitalist CLC tops. Solidarność came to power in 1989, and in 1993 it made virtually all abortions illegal.
During the 1990s and later, a tidal wave of anti-abortion violence saw clinics, doctors and nurses in the U.S. and Canada subjected to firebombings, murders and attempted murders. Patients faced vicious harassment by the anti-abortion fanatics. So-called “bubble-laws,” called for and supported by the feminists, were enacted, preventing any protest around a clinic. This included pro-abortion protests, depriving clinics of any measure of social defense.
Portraying the capitalist state as an ally flows directly from the political logic of feminism, which puts the fundamental dividing line in society between men and women. Marxism, in sharp contrast, sees the class divide as fundamental. We look to the working class—women and men—as the social force with the power to lead all the oppressed in struggle and ultimately to sweep away the entire barbaric capitalist system. In the face of murderous anti-abortion reaction, we call for a fight to defend and extend women’s rights, including the right to abortion, through the independent mass mobilization of the oppressed backed by the social power of labour.
Defend Women’s Rights, Defend Immigrant Rights!
Here as in Europe, there has been a sharp spike in nativist reaction and anti-immigrant racism. The French ruling class has just expelled 8,000 Roma. In Britain last year there was an outbreak of virulently chauvinist strikes. In Canada, the Conservative government has whipped up another wave of vile anti-Tamil racism against desperate refugees from Sri Lanka.
We have long defended the just cause of the oppressed Tamil people, championing their right to self-determination. During the civil war in Lanka, we called for military defense of the nationalist Tamil Tigers and opposed the Canadian government’s ban of the Tigers under “anti-terrorism” laws. We demand full asylum for Tamil refugees fleeing the bloody triumphalist Sinhalese regime in the wake of the Tigers’ defeat in 2009.
The fight for women’s liberation is inseparable from the fight to defend immigrants and ethnic minorities. The Canadian working class is decisively multiracial, and minority and immigrant women are increasingly a central part of that working class. These workers are horribly exploited and abused. One figure tells the story: in 1980 immigrant women made 23 percent less than Canadian-born women, but by 2000 the gap had doubled to 45 percent.
An all-out struggle to organize minority and immigrant women workers would do much to revitalize the declining labour movement. But instead of waging a serious unionization campaign, the union tops push nationalist protectionism against the “export” of jobs to China and Mexico. Poison to class struggle, this channels anger over job losses into hostility toward foreign workers and immigrants while building illusions in the benevolence of one’s “own” capitalists, who are responsible for the destitution of the working class.
Today the rulers scapegoat Muslims in the so-called “war on terror.” It is in the direct interest of the working class to combat this racist hysteria. Muslims are the immediate target, but a more fundamental purpose is to divide, intimidate and constrain the struggles of working people. The state-backed furor against Muslims has increasingly targeted Muslim women. The Quebec ban on fully-veiled women from receiving public services has had wide support across the country, thanks to a decade of stepped-up anti-Muslim racism. The claim that banning the veil will foster women’s equality is itself a veil for racism and anti-woman bigotry. These bans only deepen the isolation and oppression of Muslim girls and women, driving them from schools, universities and the workforce.
The greater prevalence of the Muslim veil today is partly due to the rise of political Islam internationally. But it is also due to the endless racism, poverty and hardship suffered by Muslim immigrants and their descendants, which also reinforce the reactionary hold of the family and religion. Alongside the veil, there has also been an increase in what are essentially “honour” killings. Violence against women is brutally indifferent to class and ethnicity. But these killings grow out of the clash between a woman’s desire for independence from “traditional” culture and the legacy of pre-capitalist social and economic norms that persist in large swathes of the world.
We stand with the many women who seek to escape the cruel tyrannies of religious traditionalism, from the veil to the bride price and arranged marriage. Not so for many of our opponents on the left, whose embrace of Islamic reaction goes back to 1978-79, when they backed the Iranian mullahs as they swept to power. We were thus pretty much alone on the left in opposing the proposed introduction of sharia courts in Ontario a few years ago, and in decrying the “honour” killing of Pakistani teenager Aqsa Parvez by her father in suburban Toronto (see “The ‘Honour’ Killing of Aqsa Parvez,” SC No. 156, Spring 2008).
We Marxists fight for the voluntary integration of all minorities based on full equality, and for full citizenship rights for everyone who makes it here. The eradication of racism, women’s oppression and all forms of discrimination requires a revolutionary struggle, mobilizing the power of the multiracial working class to uproot capitalism and liberate humanity from poverty and want. This is counterposed to the “multiculturalism” propounded by the Canadian rulers and the reformist left, which promotes illusions that the capitalist state can be used as an instrument to fight racist oppression.
This state exists to defend class rule based on private property; it is used by the capitalists to suppress and exploit the working class. The supposedly liberal program of multiculturalism strengthens the hold of “community leaders,” with their ties to mosque, church or temple, and denies that minority communities, like the rest of society, are class-divided. The struggles of immigrant and other minority workers for jobs, unions and equal status require breaking free from the political grip of religious and other conservative community leaders.
The fight for women’s liberation is a litmus test for revolutionaries everywhere. Thumb through the back issues of our paper and you will see our articles opposing the bourgeoisie’s moral panics and anti-sex witchhunts—against pornography, prostitution and youth sexuality—that have seen countless people framed up for entirely consensual relations with youth, and gay and women’s rights trampled.
It is a measure of how far back political consciousness has been thrown in this post-Soviet period that the reformist left groups rarely address the explosive questions of women’s oppression. The political horizons of these groups, who aim only to ameliorate the “excesses” of capitalism, typically through political support to the NDP, are defined by what is possible under the rule of capital.
We fight to build a multiracial vanguard party of the type built by the Bolshevik leaders Lenin and Trotsky, which led the world’s first socialist revolution in October 1917. Karl Marx defined communism as “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” The woman question is a very powerful lens through which to see this goal. We are for a society where everyone can fulfill their potential in a materially abundant world where want puts no limits on human development. In this world, a woman will be able to have children (or not) with the full support of society, including contraception, abortion, childcare, medical care, time off from work and every other thing she might need.
We are a very long way from that day. But I hope that, by putting it in the context of the international situation and the broader fight for human liberation, you have a perspective beyond the immediate horizon. We are in a trough right now where the class struggle is mainly being waged by the class enemy. But one thing you can be sure of: it will change. And when the working class again begins to flex its muscle and to move onto the stage of history, we revolutionaries will be there, fighting for the program of communist revolution. In a communist future, women will be fully and equally integrated into society, and anti-woman violence and bigotry, the reactionary constraints of family and religion, and the repressive role of the capitalist state will all be but barbaric memories of the past.