Workers Vanguard No. 1031
4 October 2013
Traditional Courts Bill: Dire Threat to Women
South African Government Promotes Reactionary Tribal Leaders
(Women and Revolution pages)
The following article originally appeared in Spartacist South Africa No. 9 (Winter 2013), newspaper of the South African section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist).
In December 2011, the government introduced a new Traditional Courts Bill. The bill would give traditional leaders, headed by tribal chiefs, unchallenged legal power over 17 million rural black inhabitants, who are balkanised according to tribal background along the same lines promoted under apartheid. Chiefs would get increased powers to make laws, decide cases and hand down punishment—including evictions and forced unpaid labour—often with no possibility for appeal.
The biggest losers under this bill are black women, the “slaves of the slaves,” who already suffer from grinding poverty and triple oppression. Backward traditional practices oppressive to women are widespread—from lobola [bride price], forced polygamy and ukuthwala (marriage by capture) to virginity testing, all of which are reinforced by the traditional leaders. Women are commonly denied the right to represent themselves in the traditional courts, and forced to be represented by their husbands or other male family members.
After the bourgeois parliament discussed the Traditional Courts Bill in late 2012, misinformation reports were spread by the ANC [African National Congress] and the government saying that the bill had been withdrawn. This method is commonly used to defuse anger against particularly unpopular new laws (similar tricks were tried with the Protection of State Information Bill, which has now been passed). The fact is that the Traditional Courts Bill is now being reviewed by the provincial governments and pushing it through is still very much on the agenda of the ANC/SACP/COSATU [ANC/South African Communist Party/Congress of South African Trade Unions] Tripartite Alliance government.
The bill is part of the increased state repression which has been deployed in response to mounting social unrest. In order to administer the neo-apartheid capitalist system, the leaders of the Alliance are compelled to reach for the same weapons that were previously used by their own apartheid butchers. The government led by President Jacob Zuma, in particular, has relied on stoking poisonous tribal sentiments and anti-immigrant chauvinism, while sharpening the most repressive tools of the state—massacres of strikers, police brutality, de facto states of emergency, etc. The strengthening of the chiefs, tribal divisions, and traditional backwardness is part of the package of neo-apartheid rule.
The bill also underlines the lesson that national liberation struggles led by petty-bourgeois and bourgeois nationalists are incapable of ensuring real and lasting rights for women. Throughout its 101-year history, the programme and policies of the ANC have been guided by the basic aim of fostering a black capitalist layer which could participate in exploiting “its own people”—a task which they did not want to leave solely to the white and foreign capitalists. The interpenetration of the ANC leadership with the chiefs and other traditional leaders has been a key part of this programme, and a clear indicator that this party represents the class enemy of the liberation of workers, women, and the oppressed black majority in general.
Just look at Mandla Mandela, a grandson of Nelson Mandela and ANC member of parliament. As chief of the Mvezo traditional council in the Eastern Cape, he has become notorious for using this position to enrich his family and suppress criticism or challenges, all the while promoting the most hideous backwardness to shore up his despotic reign. For example, in 2010 he officially defended the barbaric “culture” of kidnapping women (particularly young girls) known as ukuthwala, telling a parliamentary committee on rural development and land reform, “for a girl to be taken as a wife through ukuthwala—the process has nothing to do with age—When you are going to discuss culture do not even try to bring in white notions as such an approach will turn things upside down.” In 2011, three of Mandla Mandela’s “subjects” in Mvezo took him to court after he ordered their eviction from their ancestral gravesite to make way for capitalist developers to build a hotel and stadium.
Bourgeois-nationalist ideology has always relegated women to being “baby-makers” and servants of men. The capitalists and their lackeys are the enemies of women’s liberation. As revolutionary Marxists, atheists and fighters for women’s liberation, we fiercely oppose the Traditional Courts Bill. We seek to link the fight against this reactionary bill to the necessary broader struggle against the whole system of capitalist exploitation. The struggle for women’s liberation is inseparable from the struggle for socialist revolution, and both require a fight to break the working class from the influence of bourgeois nationalism as part of forging a Leninist party to act as a tribune of the people. The working class as a whole has a vital interest in stopping this reactionary bill, which will also be used to further clamp down on any struggle against the neo-apartheid capitalist order.
Tribal Chiefs: Tools of Racist Capitalist Oppression
Life in the former bantustans is hell for the black masses, especially women, and the traditional leaders play a central role enforcing this misery and keeping the population in check. Research conducted by the Rural Women’s Movement has uncovered cases in rural villages of KwaZulu-Natal where parents are forced to pay R1,000 [$100] or a cow to the tribal chief as a fine for their daughter falling pregnant out of wedlock; where traditional leaders deprive families of the “right” to bury loved ones because of such unpaid fines; and where many other instances of despotic abuse run rampant, including imposition of endless arbitrary “taxes” to fund traditional leaders’ parasitic lifestyles.
One of the most brutally oppressive, backward practices perpetrated against women in the name of tradition is female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision. It is often found alongside male circumcision in societies where cultures attempt to make sharp gender/sexual distinctions as children reach puberty, and it continues to be practiced in rural parts of South Africa, although the government does not acknowledge its existence. FGM is a heinous crime against women, which must be categorically and unconditionally opposed. In contrast, male circumcision, when performed under safe medical conditions, is a procedure that is vastly less deforming. Yet every year in South Africa, scores of young boys die as a result of botched circumcisions at traditional initiation schools. This highlights the tribal leaders’ bitter hostility to Western medical advances and the cheapness of black life. This year in May, over 20 boys died in just one week in Mpumalanga province. The ANC’s provincial minister for “health,” Matshego Dlamini, grotesquely justified this, explaining her refusal to intervene by saying, “This is a tradition; as a woman I cannot go; if they are dead or not, it is a tradition”!
The chieftaincy is a bastion of reaction, a remnant of pre-capitalist society which survived through widespread collaboration with the former colonial and apartheid rulers. Throughout Southern Africa, the chiefs fight tooth and nail to deny women abortion and other basic democratic rights. There is a large overlap between the chieftaincy and the ruling ANC. This helps the chiefs increase their power and wealth, while the chiefs in turn are an important part of repressing the rural black population and delivering them as voting cattle to the ANC.
Defending the Traditional Courts Bill during a speech to the National House of Traditional Leaders in November 2012, Zuma lashed out at black intellectuals who have been critical of the bill: “Some Africans who become too clever take a position (where) they become the most eloquent in criticising themselves about their own traditions and everything.” Zuma, whose government just a few months earlier had carried out the massacre of 34 striking black mineworkers in defence of the profits of London-based Lonmin Platinum, demagogically intoned, “Let us solve African problems the African way, not the white man’s way.” In fact, the Traditional Courts Bill stands very much in the tradition of the white rulers—from British imperialists in the colonial period, to the Afrikaner nationalists during apartheid—who seized upon and reinforced the most retrogressive aspects of tribal and traditional culture as a means of propping up their rule and amassing profits from the blood and sweat of the black masses.
A prime example is the Native Administration Act of 1927, which created civil, divorce, appeal and high courts under control of the tribal headmen and chiefs, reinforcing and imposing tribal divisions on the black population. That act codified the minority status assigned to women by traditional customs, declaring: “A Black woman...who is a partner in a customary union and who is living with her husband, shall be deemed to be a minor and her husband shall be deemed to be her guardian.” This was part of a notorious series of laws enacted by the British rulers as they went about entrenching the migrant labour system—the Masters and Servants Act, the Natives’ Land Acts beginning in 1913, the Urban Areas Act, and various Pass Laws and Poll Taxes, all of which served to dispossess blacks of their land and create a pool of cheap black labour with no rights.
After coming to power in the 1948 elections, the National Party government would fine-tune this racist system and take it to new extremes under apartheid. As noted in “‘One Chief, One Vote’: The Revival of Traditional Authorities in Post-Apartheid South Africa” (African Affairs, 1997): “The African reserves in the countryside played a crucial role in the government’s efforts to establish tighter control over African labour.... In the African villages, the administration of the pass book and the running of the labour bureaux, where permits had to be annually renewed, were the responsibility of the chief.”
The heart of apartheid was the migratory labour system, the reduction of South African blacks to dispossessed foreigners within their own country and the reduction of the surrounding black states to labour colonies for South Africa’s mines, factories and farms. Thousands of workers, maimed for life while toiling for the white ruling class, were dumped back on the bantustans. The full brunt of this system was borne by the women relegated to the unspeakably destitute “homelands.”
The migrant labour system and the superexploitation of mainly black labour remain at the foundation of the capitalist system in the “new South Africa,” but now with the ANC-led Tripartite Alliance government acting as the black overseers for the still predominantly white capitalist rulers. This fact, and the role of the traditional leaders in this system, was highlighted by David van Wyk, a researcher for the Bench Marks Foundation, who noted in an interview with Amandla! (September 2012): “An Angloplats personnel manager told me that they’re using local councillors and chiefs as recruitment officers. A woman who tells me that she went for five interviews and at each interview she was asked for sex and at each interview she refused and every time she didn’t get the job. [It’s like] what they said about post-colonial Kenya, that ‘contracts are signed on the thighs of women’.”
As communists, we seek to eradicate the inherently racist migratory labour system. This would mean on the one hand massive investment to promote the economic and social development of the rural areas here and in neighbouring countries. It also would involve a major programme to provide quality, affordable housing for all in the cities and other areas where industry is currently concentrated, including adequate housing for workers and their families to live comfortably. The capitalists and their government are not going to do any of this, because it does not serve their class interests. What’s needed is a black-centred workers government, part of a socialist federation of Southern Africa, to build a socialist planned economy in which production is organised to serve the interests of the majority rather than the profits of a filthy rich minority.
The COSATU leaders have never fundamentally challenged the migrant labour system or its counterpart, South Africa’s “domestic service” for African women who have made it out of the desolation of the rural areas. This is no accident—it flows from their treacherous class-collaborationist politics, which chain the working class to the bourgeois-nationalist ANC via the Tripartite Alliance. A fight against the migrant labour system is going to take a political struggle against the class-collaborationist trade union tops.
Eradicating the migrant labour system is also intimately connected to the land question, a burning issue at the centre of the dispossession of the non-white majority. A century after the Natives’ Land Act of 1913, the white minority still owns more than 70 percent of urban and arable rural land. We are for the expropriation of the large, white-owned farms and for their transformation into collective and state farms under workers rule. Much of the remaining land in the rural areas is now under the control of the tribal chiefs as a result of the Communal Land Rights Act of 2004, which gave them control over the land of their subjects. A black-centred workers government would put an end to the privileges and power of these rural despots.
At the ANC’s founding in 1912 (initially as the South African Native National Congress), a considerable number of the delegates were tribal chiefs, leading to the creation of an “Upper House” to accommodate traditional leaders who joined the organisation. Along with the intellectuals, lawyers and other representatives of the black petty-bourgeoisie who formed the ANC, the chiefs’ main concern was begging the British colonial rulers to grant them a privileged position as black aristocracy within the system of white capitalist rule. For example, at the 1912 founding, one of the five basic aims outlined for the organisation was to “promote understanding between chiefs, and loyalty to the British crown and all lawful authorities and to promote understanding between white and black South Africans”!
The ANC would later adopt a more populist stance aimed at attracting mass support, exemplified by the 1955 Freedom Charter, a bourgeois-populist programme. This was in large part a result of the white rulers’ refusal to grant even the most minimal concessions, instead increasing repression of any independent black political activity, including banning the ANC and other black-nationalist organisations by the early 1960s. At the same time, the apartheid rulers sought to co-opt the tribal chiefs and use them to police the black population through the hated bantustan system. For the most part, the chiefs were willing collaborators, a fact which led to significant hostility toward the chiefs among the base of the ANC-led Congress movement and other wings of the anti-apartheid movement.
Some of the sharpest expressions of this hostility occurred during the 1980s, at the same time as massive strikes by the black trade unions and township revolts rocked the country. But the ANC leaders’ calls to “make the country ungovernable” were never intended to launch a struggle to overthrow the hated apartheid rulers; rather, the nationalist leaders were cynically exploiting the militancy of the masses in a bid to pressure the white rulers into a negotiated settlement. At the same time, they sought to mend ties with the traditional leaders who had collaborated with the National Party government, trying to give them “liberation” credentials by creating a mythology about the tribal chiefs’ resistance to apartheid. In 1987, the ANC launched CONTRALESA (Congress of Traditional Leaders) as an organisation of “progressive” tribal chiefs, hailing this as “the chiefs coming back to the people.” Since coming to power in 1994 following the deal with the white rulers, the Tripartite Alliance government has been in charge of maintaining the same profit system as before. They have inherited the structures that existed during apartheid.
Women’s Oppression, Tradition and the Family
As part of administering neo-apartheid capitalist misery, the ANC and other Alliance leaders also romanticise tribal societies, including conciliating and promoting izangoma (witchdoctors) and other quacks who are euphemistically referred to as “traditional healers.” The disastrous state of the public health care system—with public hospitals chronically overcrowded, understaffed and decrepit, if you can even make it to one—means that traditional healers are the only “health care” many ever see. Some women go to them for abortions because legal abortions in hospitals are not accessible. We stand for women’s right to free, safe abortions on demand. We defend science and science-based medicine against “traditional medicine” muti and other so-called “alternative medicine,” opposing government subsidies or other promotion of traditional healers.
The disastrous effects of the bourgeois nationalists’ promotion of traditional backwardness were shown horrifically by the “AIDS denialist” policy of the Thabo Mbeki government (a policy in which Zuma, Mbeki’s deputy until 2005, as well as the leaders of the SACP and COSATU, were complicit for years before later distancing themselves). A Harvard School of Public Health study showed that some 330,000 South Africans died of AIDS between 2000 and 2005 because a timely antiretroviral (ARV) treatment programme was not implemented. The meagre aid which the profit-driven imperialist system rationed out to Southern Africa was further obstructed, as Mbeki and other ANC leaders rejected medical science and actively blocked the implementation of an ARV programme, instead promoting traditional healers and other merchants of death pushing herbal and “natural” cures. Because HIV/AIDS is a sexually-transmitted disease, its spread has always been fueled by the subordinate position of women. We always opposed the deadly “denialist” quackery, and we continue to demand free ARVs for all who need them as part of the struggle for free, quality health care for all.
Besides their role in furthering ignorance, promoting anti-scientific prejudices and superstition, the traditional healers are part of the repressive political structure that runs from the community sangoma [traditional healer] straight up to the House of Traditional Leaders, which is part of the bourgeois state. A primary function of that repressive structure is to enforce the subordination of women to men. This is done through promoting and legitimising anti-woman, patriarchal practices. Along with lobola and ukuthwala, this includes virginity testing and initiation ceremonies like uMemolo, where young women are taught subservience to men and how to be the bearers of traditional culture to the next generation.
These backward traditional practices are remnants from an agricultural and slave culture. They are a big factor in legitimising and promoting violence against women, including some of the highest recorded rape statistics in the world. It is the most vulnerable women who suffer most under these practices. For example, the thugs who practice ukuthwala usually kidnap women who are orphans or come from poor families. As always in class society, the traditions and culture which are upheld most vehemently are those which are acceptable and beneficial to the wealthy.
Strengthening the traditional courts means strengthening this repression of women. In many systems of customary law, African women fall under the guardianship of their fathers or, after marriage, their husbands. They have no contractual capacity without consent of their guardian and are not allowed to appear in court without the assistance of their guardian. They are excluded from political processes of the tribe and are sometimes precluded from obtaining land rights. Traditionally women are not included in lobola negotiations; sexual consent and other sexual rights belong to family members rather than the women themselves.
A common misconception is that women’s subordination to men, like the patriarchal family of today, have always existed. Another misconception, particularly prevalent among feminists and others who oppose women’s oppression from a bourgeois-liberal framework, is that the source of women’s oppression is simply backward patriarchal ideas (mainly those of men). On the other hand, nationalists in particular apologise for forced polygamy, lobola and other anti-woman practices, romanticising them as uniquely African ways of showing “respect” between families. Another justification for these things argues that since women are often accorded prominent positions in traditional African practices, they can’t be oppressive to women.
As Marxists we understand that women’s oppression is material and that the view of women as inferior to men is a reflection of that material reality. Engels explained that women’s oppression is rooted in the development of private property and the division of society into classes, both of which are tied to the development of the family. Early human societies lived in a form of “primitive communism.” This meant humans hunted and gathered the bare minimum in order to survive, and shared this equally. The division of labour between men and women was based on the biological reality of childcare—i.e. women were responsible for bearing and nursing of the young—and implied no subordinate social status for women. The division of labour between the sexes was equal, both worked to produce the necessities of life. The functions of the household were a communal and collective responsibility.
This primitive social equality was overthrown when advances like the development of agriculture enabled humans to produce more than the bare minimum needed to survive. This social surplus became the property of a minority, which were men, creating the first class divisions in society. This led to the development of the institution of the family as a means of passing ownership of property from one generation to the next. It also gave rise to the state, an organisation of dominance used by one class to suppress another.
The patriarchal family decreed monogamy for women so that men could ensure that their offspring inherited their property. This put an end to the communal family. Therefore family functions, raising children and household labour, became private and lost their public character. Women, confined to the individual home, became isolated from social production, which became a male sphere. As Engels wrote in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884): “The overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.”
So what is the role of the monogamous family for people who have no property to pass down? The family under capitalism also serves to rear the next generation to work on the land, in the factories and mines, and to serve as cannon fodder in the bourgeois army. It serves to train youth to obey authority, inculcates religious backwardness and generally acts as an ideological brake on social consciousness. In this way the institution of the family ensures the maintenance of class rule for the capitalists. It is the main source of women’s oppression, an economic and social unit which is a mainstay of social reaction along with organised religion. It is also at the root of discrimination, legal persecution and other oppression of homosexuals. Despite liberal laws on paper, anti-gay bigotry is virulent in South Africa, with regular reports of murderous attacks against gays and lesbians, particularly in the townships and rural areas.
Unlike the feminists, who view women’s liberation as a task of women only, we understand that the fight for women’s equality must be taken up as a necessary part of the struggle to liberate the working class as a whole. This includes fighting to integrate women into social production. The trade unions must fight for free, 24-hour childcare to be available for all; for the extension of maternity leave rights for working women; for free access to birth control and free, safe abortions on demand; and for other demands to give women greater access to decent jobs and financial independence.
Fighting for these demands requires a political struggle to replace the current pro-capitalist trade union leaders—who, in the case of the COSATU leaders, directly subordinate the working class to the capitalists via the Tripartite Alliance nationalist popular front—with a class-struggle leadership. Struggling against the pro-capitalist union misleaders is a crucial part of the necessary fight to forge a revolutionary vanguard party. We want to open the way for women to play an active and leading role in the working class, which uniquely has the social power and objective interest to overthrow the capitalist system.
Especially in countries of belated capitalist development like South Africa, the fight for women’s liberation can be a powerful motor force for socialist revolution. South Africa never experienced a bourgeois-democratic revolution. Instead, capitalist oppression was imposed by the imperialist colonisers on top of pre-capitalist societies, leaving in place and reinforcing all the accumulated backwardness of those societies, particularly brutal oppression of women. We oppose the “cultural relativism” of nationalists and others who justify barbaric, anti-woman practices like female genital mutilation and marriage-by-capture in the name of tradition, and we seek to put an end to such practices. There is nothing uniquely African about such practices—for example, lobola is a version of the bride price, something which has been practiced in societies in Asia and Europe at different periods, and still is today in countries like Afghanistan.
We fight for women’s emancipation through socialist revolution. We seek to get rid of the institution of the family, which is the source of women’s oppression. The functions of the family—childcare, housework, etc.—can’t simply be abolished; they must be replaced by social institutions. In a socialist society, the workers state would seek to provide free, 24/7 childcare which is easily accessible at home and in the workplace; communal kitchens and laundry facilities; and other measures which would free women from household slavery and allow them to participate socially at every level. This is only possible on the basis of a socialist, planned economy, where production is freed from capitalist anarchy and irrationality and organised and run according to human need rather than profit.
“Two-Stage Revolution”: Betrayal of Women, Socialism
The SACP claims to oppose the Traditional Courts Bill. Last year, delegates at the party’s 13th national congress voted to reject it outright, just a few months after the SACP Central Committee issued a mealy-mouthed statement calling for “more discussion” on the bill and arguing, “Aspects of the Traditional Courts system that are progressive should be retained, but aspects that are in conflict with the non-sexist, democratic and nation-building goals of the NDR should be rejected.” Not surprisingly, though, none of this has caused any noticeable disturbance in the SACP leaders’ harmonious relationship with the capitalist government that is pursuing this reactionary bill—a government which they are a prominent part of. To take one example, Yunus Carrim, a member of the SACP’s Politburo, is deputy minister of the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs—the very government ministry responsible for the bill!
The SACP leaders have a long history of betraying working-class interests in the name of the Menshevik/Stalinist schema of “two-stage revolution”—known in South Africa as the “National Democratic Revolution” (NDR). According to this schema, which serves as an ideological justification for their historic alliance and interpenetration with the ANC, conditions are not currently ripe for socialism. Therefore, first must come a political bloc with “progressive” bourgeois nationalists. Then, in some far-off and unspecified future, this will evolve into socialism. Throughout history, the “second stage” has in reality always been the bourgeois nationalists slaughtering workers and communists.
In 1964, historic SACP leader Govan Mbeki wrote the following fine words denouncing the traditional leaders: “If the Africans have had chiefs, it was because all human societies have had them at one stage or another. But when a people have developed to a stage which discards chieftainship, when their social development contradicts the need for such an institution, then to force it on them is not liberation but enslavement” (The Peasants’ Revolt). However, in the name of the class-collaborationist alliance with the “progressive” ANC nationalists, the SACP leaders went along with every grotesque conciliation of the chiefs, and today they are among the most craven apologists for the government of the Traditional Courts Bill.
In order to go forward in its struggles, the working class must break with the Tripartite Alliance and with the reformist politics of class collaboration packaged as the National Democratic Revolution. In opposing the “two-stage revolution” schema, Spartacist/South Africa, section of the International Communist League, stands for the programme and perspective of permanent revolution developed by Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky. This posits that in countries of belated capitalist development, the outstanding democratic tasks historically associated with the bourgeois revolutions can only be carried out through the assumption of power by the working class, and that the working class, once in power, must fight to extend the revolution to the advanced capitalist countries to ensure the successful building of socialism.
South Africa is a particularly striking case of the applicability of Trotsky’s permanent revolution, a unique society where European colonisation created a strong overlap between race and class through the brutal suppression and superexploitation of the black majority. To stress the intimate link between socialist revolution and national liberation for the black majority, and to combat the dominance of nationalist ideology, we raise the call for a black-centred workers government as a concretisation of permanent revolution. A black-centred workers government would unite the different tribal and language-based groups, and would include an active role and full democratic rights for the coloured [mixed-race, partly Malay-derived] and Indian minorities, as well as for those whites who accept a government based centrally on the black workers.
The measures needed to dismantle the racist migrant labour system and to free women from domestic slavery underline the vital need for an internationalist perspective: Development of the rural areas, programmes to provide housing and childcare to all, etc.—all these things will depend for their ultimate success on linking up with an international planned socialist economy, meaning the extension of socialist revolution to the advanced capitalist (imperialist) countries of North America, West Europe and Japan. In fighting for that goal, we seek to build a Leninist revolutionary vanguard party of the working class that would champion the cause of the vast unemployed urban masses, the landless, immigrants, women, agricultural labourers and all of those oppressed under neo-apartheid capitalism.
For New October Revolutions!
Black women played a heroic role in the struggle against apartheid, but because that struggle was politically dominated by bourgeois nationalism, their hopes of liberation were unfulfilled. For a positive model in the fight for women’s liberation, we look to the Bolsheviks of Lenin and Trotsky. The Bolshevik-led October Revolution of 1917 was a dramatic confirmation of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. The revolutionary government in the young workers state fought to carry out the Marxist programme for women’s liberation. They immediately removed all impediments to legal equality, giving women the right to vote, breaking the hold of the church over marriage and divorce, and making these simple matters of civil registration. The Bolsheviks legalised abortion, set up literacy schools for young girls, outlawed discrimination against homosexuals, and abolished the concept of illegitimacy of children born out of wedlock.
But as Lenin explained, such legal changes are only the first step to the liberation of women. The second and more challenging step is laying the material foundations needed to actually replace the social functions of the family and liberate women from household drudgery. The Bolsheviks struggled, despite scarce resources, to provide large-scale socialised domestic services as a first step (see “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 59, Spring 2006, for a more extensive look at what the Bolsheviks did). But Russia was a backward capitalist country, and after the revolution the young workers state was economically devastated, isolated and surrounded by hostile imperialist powers. Lenin and Trotsky understood that the key to building socialism in Russia was the international extension of workers revolution to the more advanced capitalist countries, particularly to Germany.
This revolutionary internationalist outlook was later trampled on by a conservative, nationally-narrow bureaucratic caste represented by Stalin, which came to power in a political counterrevolution and pursued the anti-Marxist, utopian programme of “socialism in one country.” Despite the subsequent bureaucratic degeneration and Stalinist misrule, the gains made by the Soviet workers state were tremendous, not least for women. Trotskyists defended the Soviet Union against imperialism and capitalist counterrevolution, and fought for proletarian political revolution to oust the bureaucracy and return the workers state to the road of Lenin and Trotsky. This is our perspective toward the remaining deformed workers states today—China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam.
One of the places where the Russian Revolution had a profound impact on the conditions of women was Soviet Central Asia. At the time of the October Revolution, this region was even more backward than Russia, still in a pre-capitalist mode of production and marked by the hideous oppression of women under customary Islamic law. The Bolsheviks undertook systematic work among these women, seeking to win them as allies and demonstrate the liberating potential of the communist programme to the peoples of the East. This was captured by Trotsky in a speech given in April 1924, celebrating the third anniversary of the founding of the Communist University for Toilers of the East in Moscow:
“The sense, strength and the essence of Bolshevism lies in that it addresses itself not to the labour bosses but to the mob, the underdogs, the millions and to the most oppressed of the oppressed.... And this, moreover, means that the Eastern woman who is the most paralysed in life, in her habits and in creativity, the slave of slaves, that she, having at the demand of the new economic relations taken off her cloak will at once feel herself lacking any sort of religious buttress; she will have a passionate thirst to gain new ideas, a new consciousness which will permit her to appreciate her new position in society. And there will be no better communist in the East, no better fighter for the ideas of the revolution and for the ideas of communism than the awakened woman worker (applause).” (“Communism and Women of the East,” reprinted in Spartacist [English edition] No. 60, Autumn 2007)
We fight, in this spirit, to build the revolutionary internationalist party needed to win new Octobers here and around the world.