Book launch: “Marxism and the liberation of working class women”
On May 24th a discussion panel lectured in the National Congress on the occassion
of the presentation of the book “Marxism and the liberation of working class women”,
by Cintia Frencia and Daniel Gaido. Below, the contribution of the three speakers:
Olga Viglieca, Cintia Frencia and Jorge Altamira.
A strict separation between exploiter and exploited women
We have the privilege of living in a period of great women struggles and we are witnesses of something that did not even happen during the climax of the suffragist movement nor during the so called second wave of feminism in the `60s: it is a curious effort in order to fuse into a single unity the women’s movement – including socialist women- and the feminist movement. And in renaming the first one as the second one.
In the same way, there exists the purpose of categorizing every women struggle for their own claims as a “feminist struggle”. Nevertheless, feminism is just one of the fragmented political currents that exist within the women movement.
This attempt of appropriation forgets that the paths of working class women and the feminist movement not only were not always coincidental but many times have been confronted. A very clear example is the one of socialists and anarchists in relation to suffragism at the beginning of the XX century. Or the strikers of the Centennial and the First International Feminist Congress, held in Buenos Aires in 1910. Or working women and Russian feminism between February 1917 and afterwards. And it is worth stopping a minute on this because the document that was read in Plaza Congreso on March 8th states that the February revolution in Russia was a “feminist” revolution. And it’s not true: The Russian League for Women Equality, which grouped tens of feminist or suffragist groups all over the Empire supported the perpetuation of war, because it stated, as great part of the suffragist movement, that the opportunity of entering the labor market and occupying places in the State’s administration was later going to guarantee women the right to vote – political rights. Whereas Russian women workers and the soldatky – women whose men in the family were on the front – desperately wished for them to come home, for the war to stop, for the shortage to stop. And on their way to achieve this, they managed to bring down, as we know, a millennium of czarism.
There were also differences among the wide women movement and the second wave feminist movement. One example is the relation of the American feminists and the black women of the United States, who denounced the racism and the classism of the “white feminism”.
Another example comes from the little groups in Buenos Aires in the ‘70s, as the Argentinian Feminist Union, who went as far as – told by two of its participants, the psychoanalyst Nancy Caro Hollander and the poet Hilda Rais – denying to repudiate the Trelew’s massacre or the Pinochet coup in Chile because the leftist men also had patriarchal practices. 
Nor did the feminist organizations felt attracted by the rise of the women movement expressed by the piquetero movement. And what about the discomfort that was generated by the entering of thousands of picketer women in Women National Encounters, where it was expected that they spoke as individuals, in order to control their interventions so that they referred to “gender questions and not social issues” and to rip them off their political identities? Did anyone see feminist groups in the women commission of the III Worker’s National Assembly, which elaborated the most thorough gender programme of the working class since late XIX Century until now?
However, different feminist currents usually claim as their own the struggle of all women. For example, the Mirabal sisters, assassinated for their resistance to Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic – not because of specific gender demands.
For the notion of sorority to be credible it is necessary to erase – resignify?- the history of the female exploited. The one of the Franc-Peruvian utopian socialist, Flora Tristán, and her call to build working class parties which integrate women workers to the struggle for socialism in the first half of the XIX Century.
For the synonymy women struggle/feminist struggle to be possible we have to forget 150 years of socialist militancy, from the I International to the anarchist Luisa Mitchel in the Paris Commune and, of course, the women liberation program, taken to practice by the Russian Working class in the October Revolution.
And at last, but not least, we have to cross-dress the ideologs and protagonists of those battles of the working class. That’s why many historians “with a gender perspective” present as feminist everyone from Russian women workers that started the February revolution to Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg, or the bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai, Inessa Armand, even Krupskaia. All socialist militants who have written enough as to dissipate any confusion regarding their comprehension about the oppression of women and the route to their emancipation.
And here at home, they have also turned into post mortem feminists the anarchist women workers of the heroic epoch – Virginia Bolten, Juana Rouco Buela, Pepita Guerra -, working class militants, judged by the Residence Law, speakers in the May 1st acts since 1890 and for the first two decades of the XX Century. None of them – unlike the leaders of the Socialist Party – participated in the First International Feminist Congress, celebrated in Buenos Aires during the feasts of 1910!They were busy with the Centennial strikes.
This type of confusion is the one Cintia Frencia and Daniel Gaido’s book sets to amend. A book that cancels a pending debt with Clara Zetkin, surely the most important builder of the socialist working women movement of the XIX and XX Century. We haven’t worked enough to rescue neither her militant history nor her theoretical contributions. This allowed some women biographers to define as “a feminist across borders” the informant of the Thesis for the propaganda among women in the III Congress of the III International.
Cintia Frencia and Daniel Gaido’s initiative to relocate Zetkin, Kollontai, Armand, at their correct place in history and not where the feminist currents locate them – who want to see in them feminist socialists, as if the socialist weren’t socialists and the feminist, feminists. Many times, strongly combative women, women who are clearly road partners, but who believe that the feminine oppression is resolved via a class conciliation towards the inside of the women universe, and in struggle, thus, against men, whatever class they belong to, whom they identify with the universal executors of the oppression of a transhistorical social system, patriarchy.
Cintia and Daniel rescue an elightning definition by Zetkin: “sharp separation” between women of the exploiter classes and women of exploited classes, and this principle –say the authors- settled the programmatic basis for the development of a working women mass movement. The condition for the existance of a movement of working women is its class consciousness, its political autonomy, a “sharp” delimitation from the currents that promote the confrontation between the exploited women and men, and the alliance of exploited and exploiter women.
Clara Zetkin does not question the demands of feminist women from the well-off classes, their desire of living unlocked –she says- as if they were in a doll house. She considers that their aspirations of participating in the development of culture, in an economic aspect as well as from the moral or spiritual point of view, are completely justified. But she stands out that “the struggle for the liberation of proletarian women has nothing to do with the struggle for the liberation of the bourgeois women against men from their class. It has nothing to do with free competition. The final objective of the struggle of working women –says the German woman- is the conquest of the political power by the proletariat, and the proletarian woman combats, elbow to elbow, with the man from her class”.
And she emphasizes the insurmountable limits of legal equality and democracy to pull women out of double oppression. Her analyses have a ferocious actuality: “In this revolutionary period, the feminist ideologies of all parties and bourgeois powers are used to prevent women of the working people to be grouped under the flags of communism, for the assault against the capital and its State. The feminist conceptions that the bourgeois parties used to repudiate before as a heresy, are nowadays treasured as a cornerstone of the wall against which the red wave of bolshevism will crash. Feminism comes in handy for them to inoculate among the wider mass of women the superstitious faith in the bourgeois democracy” (Zetkin, 1921, p. 665). After almost a century, equality feminism continues demanding capitalism “a women’s citizenship” and a transformation into a capitalism with womanly features – which class would that woman be from? – via “a gender perspective”.
The book starts by analyzing the treason of the bourgeoisie on women despite they were the protagonists of the overthrow of absolutism: the prohibition of participating in public life, the deprivation of the right to work, to study, to inherit, their rights over their children. This shows a bourgeoisie that locked up its class sisters in minority, in a little room, in embroidery, in obedience. But it threw women workers away to the workshops and mine holes, and in the same act in which it installed the double oppression, gave them, gave us, the master key to intervene in social production, to combat capital, to move forward in the construction of a regime without oppressors nor oppressed.
From this point, Cintia and Danial take us to the Paris Commune and Luisa Mitchel –another post mortem feminist-, to the debates regarding the issue of how to bring working women closer in the different Internationals. Zetkin, Luxemburg, The Equality paper, the pre-war conferences, the Bolsheviks, the socialist delimitation with suffragism and with the Socialdemocrat Party itself, the February revolution, the red October, the worker’s State.
In Marxism and the liberation of working class women, Gaido and Frencia worked in the reconstruction of our linage, the linage of the socialist working class women, putting together a guided tour through our past, but one that speaks about and orders the tasks of our present. Those discussions are the foundations of an organization as the Plenario de Trabajadoras. And we are in front of a meticulous and central work which comes with a present included, because the comrades translated texts which are not even translated into English. In view of the reproaches –some in bad faith, others the result of plain ignorance- that the left has recently showed up in an opportunistic manner to thrive from the “feminist” struggle for women’s rights, we can answer that the question of women is present throughout the entire history of socialist currents right from their genesis.
The difference is that, for Marxists, double oppression and domestic slavery are the distinctive features of the situation of women under capitalism – which returned women to social production as part of the working class, but without relieving us from domestic slavery. On top of salaried labor, work at home was added in order to reproduce labor force – i.e. also of benefit to capital- though man would be the indirect beneficiary of this situation.
Soon enoguh, Marx warns, in a letter to Dr. Kugelmann that “woman has turned into an active part of our social production. Someone that knows anyhing about history knows that the important social transformations are impossible without the agitation among women”. They have an evident protagonism in every revolution of the epoch: in the French Revolution, in the People’s Spring in ’48, in the Paris Commune and, of course, in the February and October revolutions.
Cintia and Daniel make a rigorous recount of the debates in the Internationals about the place of working class women, how to win them over to a revolutionary perspective, and the organizational ways that this purpose must acquire.
The Third Congress of the III International, Lenin and Trotsky’s one, in 1920, is an exemplary answer to those questions. The theses on the woman, presented by Zetkin and defended by Lenin, are of a shivering actuality. The theses “must underline rigorously that the truly emancipation of the woman is only possible though communism. Is it precise to clarify deeply the insoluble link between a woman’s situation as person and member of society and private property of the means of production. As so we’ll delimit with all precision the fields between us and the bourgeois movement for “women’s emancipation”.
Its resolutions “propose to educate women in communist ideas, attract them to the party ranks”, “struggle against existing prejudices among the male proletariat towards women, and to increase the consciousness of men and women workers to make them understand they have common interests”, “include the issue in the party’s agenda”, “to carry on an organized struggle against the power of tradition, the bourgeois customs and religious ideas, prepare the road for more sane and harmonious relationships between sexes, guaranteeing the physical and moral vitality of the working class”.
The October revolution, Trotsky will say, honorably complimented the woman program. The Stalinist Thermidor shattered those conquests and dissolved the organisms that were in charge of organizing and direct the struggle of women workers. That explains the strength of the feminism of the second wave in the astounding rise of women in the ‘60s. The politization of sexuality, of the family structure, of daily life, the rights of sexual dissidents, the impugnation of biology as a fate, the impugnation of motherhood as the prime social function of women, wouldn’t be new to Zetkin nor Kollontai, nor Inessa Armand nor Eliazarova. Nor for the anarchists, who were pioneers in the debates on these aspects of the feminine oppression since late XIX century.
Marxism and the emancipation of working class women is a roadmap, a reconstruction of our history that I invite you to read, to discuss and also to complete, because great part of our history needs to be restored. The debates that took place in Paris, London, Berlin, were also held by the Argentine working class in 1890, in 1900. The union founding organizations in Argentina, as the Fora and the UGT, didn’t establish a difference between the general program of the working class and the women’s program: the struggle against white slavery traffic, the right to divorce, the struggle against prostitution, for health, for education, were present and were only lost after the bureaucratization process of the unions and the State’s and clergy interference in them.
What is in discussion, today as then, is that if the oppression of classes is the domination over which rises any other dominations. Or if, as hold the feminism and was explained by Shulamith Firestone sharply: “The patriarchy is a system of sexual domination, which is the basic system of domination over the rest of the dominations rises, as the class and race ones”. The book of Cintia and Daniel is a solid answer to that question.
 Elvira López, in the opening speech regarding the congress expressed: ”Its program has given place to all matters of human interest and to propose them it is not necessary to be affiliated to any determined sect, neither to profess no creed… it’s not catholic nor liberal, not socialist nor conservative (…) it’s simply feminine, which means that it proposes to expose the interests of humanity by mouth of women”.
Presentation of the book Marxism and the liberation of working class women
Reconstructing the history of the socialist organization of women
As Olga Viglieca pointed out, this book tries to talk of the past, but from the present, taking into account that many debates are still current nowadays. This book picks up the experience of the organization of the suffragist movement and particularly of the socialist movement of women in Europe during the last decades of the XIX century and the beginning of the XX, which coincide with the first feminist wave, where the struggle for democratic rights had turned into a political question of prime order for women, that’s why the whole movement will be marked by the struggle for the right to vote.
The debates that take place among the whole of the women movement didn’t have a marginal character at all, because we are talking of movements of massive characteristics, on the one hand, the suffragist movement was actually a mass movement, with its epicenter in England and presence in all Europe and, on the other, the socialist women movement, organized fundamentally by the German social-democracy and by Clara Zetkin, which reached the number of more than 120 thousand oorganized women in 1914, who claimed themselves not only as strugglers for women’s democratic rights, as union activists, etc, but they embraced the cause of socialism. We are talking of mass movements from which it was possible to structure an international organizational experience, with at least three international meetings of socialist women, to which the whole of organized women in different organizations- which acknowledged the principle of class struggle – were convened and all of which had a crucial importance at the moment of this development.
Then, having a women’s movement in ascent, internationally speaking, and with our country also at the centre of the political scene – because, no doubt, the movement NiUnaMenos in Argentina is a reference for many of the struggles that are women are developing at an international level -, it seems fundamental to recover not only this tradition of women’s organization to these debates, but to come up with conclusions that allow us to set out on the road towards their liberation in better shape.
Having said that, this is our contribution, together with Daniel, who couldn’t take part in this presentation, and we expect that this will be matter of study and it will be completed, as Olga said.
The socialist women in Germany – where this experience began more strongly – had a very important theoretical background in that moment. Already, by 1879, August Bebel, one of the leaders of the German Social-democracy, had edited a book, Woman and socialism, previous to Marx and Engels’ book, known by everyone, but, Zetkin says, “beyond the theoretical blanks that this book may have, it is the first time that, from socialism, from the working class organizations, there is an attempt to systematize a definition of which is the origin of the oppression of women and which should be the strategy to undertake the struggle for their liberation”. This, naturally, will be completed and developed more exactly in The origin of the family, private property and the State, by Engels and Marx, in 1884, and these were the sources with which socialist women and working class organizations could count on to be able to face and take a stand on the question of women in general and working class women in particular. Nonetheless, the question of women was not a new one that showed up at the midst of the XIX century, but –as Olga said- women had been protagonists of the main bourgeois revolutions, they had a very important role in the French Revolution, a very active political intervention in the Paris Commune, though it was not registered as such, but they did have a very active participation and there was an attempt, an effort, to establish an equalization between the rights of women and workers during that brief working class experience. However, the problem of women appears as a political issue with the development and the irruption of the industrial revolution. With the incorporation of large layers of women to the labor market, what Marx and Engels pointed out becomes a reality – the basic principle to be able to go further in the liberation of women- that is, they are given back their role within social production. This aspect is of most importance, because it is what allows a civil rights demand – which women were struggling for, generally from the petit bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie in former periods – to acquire massive characteristics an to become a problem not only of the petit bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie, but fundamentally of women workers, that had been dragged to the world of labor, but were excluded from the civil and political world, and prevented them from being able to organize themselves politically, as in unions, in view of the conditions of exploitation that capital imposed on them.
It’s on these bases that Clara Zetkin will make an effort to speak to those women and will establish the necessity towards the socialist parties to strongly embrace the organization of working class women, particularly those from the industrial sections, which had gained room in the textile and food industries. This encouraged many debates within the working class movement in general, but also within the I International; i.e. not all of whom claimed themselves as defenders of working class organizations understood that the role of women was within production and it was necessary to organize them together with the men workers. One of the clearest examples are the sayings of Proudhon, who considered that women had two destinies, either to be a courtesan or a house keeper, so, working class and socialist organizations in no way should support the inclusion of women in the labor world and much less organize them. Marx and Engels will strongly debate this, and already in the II International not only this discussion will be settled but also, by initiative of the leaders of the German Socialdemocracy, the civil rights claim will be included: the right to vote – universal, free and secret to all men and women workers. This means a great leap forwards, because it is understood that women not only have to be organized politically, but that it is necessary to struggle openly for the conquest of civil rights. Nevertheless, they don’t consider that the conquest of civil and democratic rights for women, within the frame of the capitalist system, would effectively allow a liberation from the conditions of oppression which they lived under. Then, all the process of development of the women organization of the German Socialdemocracy and afterwards of the women Socialist International will be marked by a strong debate, which is expressed in the sharp delimitation pamphlet, which Clara Zetkin wrote in exile, and she will establish a polemic with feminists because she,unlike them, considers that there is not a single woman question but that there are several questions, and that the woman question will be determined by the social class they belong to. To make this palpable she will take the example of the analysis of the struggle for universal suffrage: the claim for universal suffrage is not the same for the petite bourgeoisie, for the great bourgeoisie and for the working class. In the great bourgeoisie, the women that actually lead the suffragist movement were claiming, ultimately, the right to managing their properties, that is, to have the same right of exploitation that the men from their classes had.
In no way, the claim of the right to vote for these sections of women has to do with improving the infrahuman conditions of exploitation that working women put up with in the textile workshops or in factories, or workers in general, but it was the last stage of liberation for private property, of emancipation for private property. The petite bourgeoisie had other problems, women needed to enter the labor market, within the liberal professions, then, neither the right to vote or the struggle for democratic rights implied the same as to the great bourgeoisie nor to the working class women; finally, what they were claiming for was the equality of competence in the labor market with men, to be allowed, of course, to have the same rights than men, to be able to access these professions, they demanded “free competence”. Now, working class women already have the same conditions than men to access the labor market, because they were being exploited in the same or worst conditions than the men inside the factories; their problem was not economic independence, they had already conquered it, their problem was to have civil and political rights to struggle against capitalist exploitation which imposed on them the labor regime at the factories, textile workshops and others. That means that for them it was not a final goal but a tool, a very necessary tool to organize themselves politically and in unions under equal conditions, along with their fellow men workers.
“At least there are three questions on the woman: -says Clara Zetkin- naturally, it unites us that all of us want the right to vote, then we might march separated but strike together”, and so socialist women and suffragists came together on many occassions and at decisive instances and in massive demonstrations. We must also highlight the methods with which the suffragists struggled, which were the ones of mobilization, direct action and street fight. The virulence with which they defended the right to vote was something that made us socialists meet with them on the streets many times; however, the strategy or the goal that suffragists and socialists saw in the right to vote was abysmally different, and this was also true of some polemics related to which were the tactics that should be developed at certain times. There was a debate in the bosom of the German socialdemocracy which arose from the publication of a petition to the German monarchy for the recognition of the civil, democratic and political rights of women – the ones that were excluded; a group of feminists made this petition in the name of all German women. This was reproduced by Vorwärts, which is like the Prensa Obrera of the German socialdemocracy, summoning readers to sign the petition and defend it – all women of all political parties asking the right to vote to the monarchy. Clara Zetkin reproduced it in her paper, The Equality, which was the one that structured the whole women movement, and called any comrade or comradess who acknowledged the existance of class struggle not to sign such a petition. For Zetkin, the pilars of the women’s struggle couldn’t accompany this petition to the German monarchy, firstly, for not being produced effectively out from a debate with working class women, and secondly, she marks a substantial difference in the tactic, “we won’t ask the monarchy, which has proscribed German socialdemocracy and women from the political and civil life of this country for years, for permission to obtain civil and political rights, we have to uproot them, organizing the factories, the centres of working class women, organizing women in unions and politically in an independent perspective and so imposing the right to vote. The petition was rejected by Clara Zetkin and, finally, this position was rectified; this means that the position over which the women movement of the German socialdemocracy was structured allowed even to put in their place in many cases the very directions, in this case, from the German Socialdemocratic Party, which gave in to the pressures of the bourgeoisie and the petite bourgeoisie as regards democratic rights.
This experience allowed to hold, as I said at the beginning, three international socialist women conferences, in 1907, 1910, and 1915; the three of them had a very important role. In 1907, when the first conference took place, it was decided to embrace a legislation for the labor protection of working class women; this had also been a torrid point of debate against feminists, particularly against the little bourgeoisie, which considered that a protectionist labor legislation for women workers would settle obstacles to their aspiration of entering the liberal professions; i.e. “if you put on us maternity licenses, equal salary to equal labor, maternal kindergartens -a legislation that we today would be discussing in any union-, a series of protective measures to motherhood, this will imply difficulties as competence in the labor market in relation to men”. Firstly, feminists rejected this legislation. Otilie Baddier will point out this as a definitive inflexion point or break point with the petite bourgeoisie feminism, because she says “if we don’t acknowledge the over-exploitation conditions that women workers endure and we don’t battle for protection, not only in their condition as women workers but as well as mothers, we are admitting capital exploitation with no limits”.
The First International Socialist Women Conference made this labor protection legislation for women workers part of its program. In the 1910 Conference the problem of the international day of the working class woman will be voted due to an initiative of the American socialists, which had already gone through the experience of organizing a specific day to go out to battle for the rights of working class women. The women at the Conference make this experience their own and the interesting thing about the voting is that, though it establishes as its axis, as its centre, the fight for the right to vote, there is a clear understanding of the partial, democratic nature of this fight, in the perspective of giving women the necessary tools in order to integrate them to a struggle for socialism; then, they understood it was necessary to establish a particular day of organization for the rights of women. And the 1915 Congress was fundamental, I believe, because it was right an year after the break out of the war and also the explosion of the II International. The II international, the one that had voted the statement against militarism and rejected the tendencies to world war, finally, with the break out of World War I, it’s going to split up too into a thousand pieces and the parties grouped there will turn to vote the war credits of the bourgeoisies from their own countries, not only suffragists defended their nationalist parties, but many of the self claimed socialists. From a proposal of the Russian women socialists a Third International Conference will be called, many of its participants had to do it in secrecy and against their own socialist parties’ directions which, by that time, were supporters of the wars of their national bourgeoisies; this third conference was to vote a rejection to war, a strong debate will take place, the Russian women held the position of war on war and revolutionary defeatism; the English ones, the German ones, with more moderate positions, but finally a categorical rejection to war is voted and a call is made for recuperating the international socialist unity of workers in rejection to the imperialist war.
The location and the experience of the German socialdemocracy in the structuring of this movement, which had mass and world expansion characteristics, was not only a huge contribution to the women’s movement, but it was a contribution to the very own socialist organization of the workers in general, which allowed to locate the socialist parties always in a revolutionary vanguard position of unity of the proletariat, even when many of its organizations had already surrendered to World War I. All the aspirations of the socialist women’s movement even in the feminist movement, were made real under the Russian Revolution: the first country to legalize the abortion, in facilitating divorce, in decriminalizing homosexuality; a revolution that not only gave all the democratic rights that the suffragists and the socialist women’s movement claimed for, but tried to put into practice, what socialists understood was the necessary basis to effectively establish the elimination of the oppression that weighs on women, which is the socialization of the domestic duties and children raising. They were experiences of the kind of communal feeding places, communal nurseries, etcetera. The own conditions of the revolution regarding the limits of its development were marked by civil war, by world war and, later, the ascent of Stalinism ended up leading to the failure of all these attempts at establishing the socialization of domestic work, children care and, thus, the material bases to advance in the effective liberation of women, not only in the formal field, democratic, civilian to the law, but Stalinism produced a great setback in all these conquests, it criminalized prostitution again, criminalized abortion again, once more pushed great masses of working women to misery and, thus, there was a great revival of prostitution; a whole set of regressions, but I think the most harmful of Stalinism is to erase all the experience of world organization that socialist women went through during the end of the XIX century and beginning of the XX, which has made huge theoretical and practical contributions to women’s movement in general and working class women in particular. Many times, when we suddenly read theorists of the second wave pick up things as if they were a novelty of the women’s movement, one says: “These women in 1907, in 1910, were already discussing the problem of sexual rights, reproductive rights, autonomy over our own bodies, etcetera”.
I believe that recovering that history is fundamental. We have a huge challenge, we are again facing a struggle for a democratic right, because the right to abortion is that. We won’t overthrow capitalism with the right to abortion, but we will achieve to build a great women’s movement against the State, against the government, capable of developing a political strategy of independent organization which will not only allow us, of course, to conquer the right to abortion, but fundamentally to move forward in the political and union organization of women against the State, against the government, against capitalist oppression.
A straightforward delimitation with gender feminism
Good evening. It is usual, on TV programmes and newspapers, to observe that journalists highlight, when there is a political meeting, and, sometimes, cultural, the scarse number of women and, occassionally, the complete absense of women. They point this out as an expression of the subordinate role of women. Then they mark this fact as a manifestation, depending of the newspaper, of different aspects, such as patriarchy, misoginy, etc. At our meeting today, on the contrary, there is a scarse number of men. In a context of politicization of the working class in Argentina, this reveals a political backwardness. The question of women and their struggle has a major political importance for the working class. There is a coordinated political action on the part of the church among the working class movement to deviate it from that struggle. The bureaucracy in the unions is clerical in this country. On the other hand, the approach towards the femenine movement from the point of view of “gender” run in the same direction, sometimes even in explicit terms, in order to separate the working class from this struggle, whose unity would bring to light its social and political nature. The following exposition is aimed at developing, in the form of a polemic, the basis for a socialist strategy of the working class in view of the rising struggle of women and also of the proliferation of tendencies that characterize this struggle within a framework that leaves aside class struggle, the decadence of the capitalist society and political crises.
The queues of February 1917
In the book by the comrades Cinti [Frencia] and Daniel [Gaido] there is a tale that I must have read a thousand times. It is connected to the story, very well known, of the Russian women workers who went on strike on the International Day of Women Workers, in february 1917, against the opinion, the warning and the stand of all political parties. They quote a description by a participant of these evnts – Ithink that from the comittee of Viborg neighbourhood – that caught my attention in a special way. This testimony explains that women went on strike turning a deaf ear to everyone, overwhelmed by the endless lines they had to endure outside bakeries during dawn in the Russian winter – and many times carrying their children. A partisan for women struggle with a gender perspective would have claimed, in view of such situation, that men shared the sacrifice imposed on by the situation – and she would not have been wrong. She would have said: “Go to the factories where men are and split up the line, one day one of you, one day the other”. It is not what Russian women came up with: they took the “shortcut” of going on strike and marching towards the nearby factories, predominantly male, to unravel a mass political mobilization, that triggered the revolution and the overthrow of the tsar. In the greatest revolution in history,the question of women was faced, on the International Day of Women Workers, with the method of class struggle and social revolution. Triumphant in October of that same year (nine months pregnant), it passed the more radical and all-encompassing female legislation and rights in history. This is the debate that we have here. If we have to tell men to join the queue – as it should be -, as a strategic goal that would put an end to women’s subordination or unite the working class and workers, men and women merged, to prepare methodically a socialist revolution – in the example that we take, the general strike, and, in turn, insurrection, to finish off the tsar, or more in general capitalist and bourgeois dictatorship. From here comes the special attention that Cintia and Daniel’s book puts on the formula by the socialist, then bolshevik and right away communist leader, Clara Zetkin, in favour of “a clear breakup” of the vanguard of women workers and socialists with gender feminism – that is, with the strategy that puts forward a pluriclass front of women and that confines the female movement to the boundaries of the bourgois Estate and capitalist society. The expression “clear breakup” is also very powerful, because there is not possible political progress without the exercise of delimitation of strategies and programmes – that is, without clarity.
On class and gender
Clara Zetkin’s idea that the women workers’ movement had to split up from the bourgois women’s movement, it is already historically inspired by the Circular [of the Central Comittee of the Communist League] of 1850, by Karl Marx, who summons the proletariat to build a party independent from the bourgeoise. Because Marx had taken part in, as the communist that he was, in the 1848 Revolution, as the left wing of the bourgeois movement. After the defeat of those revolutions and the massacre that took place in Paris, in June 1848 against the French workers, he concludes that “we must break up”, with “absolute clarity”, in particular with the “socialist” wing of that bougeoise, represented by Louis Blanc and others, by the French centre-left, that wanted to represent all classes, in a sort of social Estate, without the need to overthrow capitalism. This is also the fundamental point of view as regards the women’s movement. As Olga and Cintia have said so well during their presentations, the question of the condition of women in an exploitative society, where a minority confiscates the work of the majority, concerns women from all classes. That is why their class condition, not gender, determined the conduct of the ones and the others, taken as a whole. Political development divides into incompatible fields women who, on the other side, share some and certain common interests. Class struggle and political processes given birth by them remain in society and define the fields under dispute. Feminism, as a pluriclass movement, is a movement doomed to division, in the face of the problems of society taken as a whole.
A socialist activist
That is why Clara Zetkin not only develops the marxist point of view on the question of feminism and women; she takes as her basis the point of view the international proletariat and the Party’s point of view. The question of proletariat revolution is the frame for the politics on the question of women – not a diversion from it. The book proves that there is a sistematic effort on the part of socialist women so that women join the Party and the Party becomes stronger at the core of women’s movement. Women must be active in merging the struggle for women liberation and the fight for the emancipation from all social exploitation. In order to do this, a woman should become a political activist and a socialist political leader. She is a socialist woman of socialism, not of feminism. From the book, one concludes that it examines the question of women as a socialist, and not that it examines socialism, say, as a woman; though there is a dialectical relation that enriches the struggle for socialism as what it really is and must be: a struggle for universal emancipation. Emancipation in particular, in this case of gender, is a contradiction in terms. This book is very important as a critical recovery of history, but specially if one has the capacity of reading it in the key of the present. Current debates have a strong echo in the book, and I would even say that back then they took a higher level or bigger magnitude than today. Because the quotes trancribed – from the contenders in this political struggle -, show that the texts from bourgeois and petit bourgeois feminism from the past are far superior than those of the present. What happens to the feminist movement is what happens to the bougeoise in general: intelectually vigorous in its period os ascention, it tends to decompose in its period of decadence. Which takes us to the uneven political development. Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Nadezhda Krúpskaya, Aleksandra Kollontai, just to mention those included in the book, were intelectually and politically ahead of their times in the themes that they adressed, as in this case the condition of women in a period of revolutionary struggle and revolutionary organization. There is a period of ascention since ’68. Now we face a new period and new attempts, as it can be seen from the last mobilizations on March 8th, in numerous countries around the globe. Or the grand mobilizations of women in the USA. It is in this context of popular rebellion that we confront the new/old disputes.
The fundamental point of view that breaks us apart from this other feminism, or the bourgeois and petit bourgeois concepts of women, is this thesis of the gender theory; which is not a thesis based on a social difference produced by the historical development of society, but an ideologization of a femenine condition. As they say: gender is a cultural construct. The method of “cultural construct”, in contrast to the antagonistic historical development of the human condition, influences all the current pseudo-science in most of their branches of knowledge. We face a definition. It is an a priori. It is not the real story of women, and hence of men, through history and their reciprocal relations in different societies of exploitation, but the discovery of something, as a cultural construct, as an ideology, “of what woman is”, not of what woman really is through her practice, but what woman is because of that ideological scheme. Severalcurrents that claim their belonging to marxism have taken these ideologies as their own, as a manifestation of the “open” character of historical materialism. We are in the face of a vulgar confusion between the open character of science and ideological mistification, because marxism simply starts off from the infinite character of the human capacity for knowledge and the consequent conditional state of current knowledge, but it does admit scientific status for speculative representation. The gender assumption embraces the aspiration for social equality for women, not only in rights, within the framework of a society of exploitation that is distinguished by the exponential growth of society. That equality is manifested, therefore, only in a part of the bourgeoise and the petit bourgeoise, and in an irregular and unstable manner. Instead of putting an end to the society of exploitation and opening the way for women and men, they say “let’s keep society as it is and fight for women to become integrated in it in line with our definitions”. Then, for example, a woman worker that receives a raise would be developing as a woman just like a woman that is appointed for the executive directoy of General Motors. Tomorrow, however, the director of General Motors will reduce the salary of the General Motors’ woman worker. We are in the presence of an ahistorical construct. English sufragists in the XIX century, from whom these present gender currents descend, adopted a directly political point of view, which picked up a fight that was inaugurated by the first working class party in history, English chartism. It was a fight for women’s rights that had been rejected by the leaders of the French Revolution. It was a fight between censitary suffrage and universal suffrage – two developments of the bourgeois Estate. This same suffragist movement became, during the First World War, a current that stood up for the imperialist bourgeiose of its own country. The conquest of the right to vote and be chosen must not be confused with gender equality in Estate institutions,which aim at reinforcing the political personnel of the bourgeoise and to co-opt a fraction of feminism. Women empowerment – acentral aspect of the gender programme – substitutes the conquest of political power, on the part of women workers, in the context of a workers government, for a hierarchy reserved to bourgeois or professional women. The conquest of universal suffrage takes place when the Estate has ensured the collaboration of the working class through reformist parties and the bureocracy in unions. The UN carries on different programmes of development which are announced as having “gender perspective”, meaning the integration of women. This is enlightening on the mistifying use of language on the part of an organization whose programmes are based on social exploitation and economic privileges for corporations. The so called White Helmets have been sistematically dennounced for commiting abuse on women and children. Because any programme of development from the UN is a programme of social exploitation that includes women “with a gender perspective”. A programme for sexual education “with a gender perspective” fosters diverse sexual orientations, but abstracts itself from the social conditions of that relation, which is constrained by exploitation and poverty; the lack of a human horizon. It is curious that a sexual education with adjectives is advertised in an alienated society. Sexual education”with a socialist perspective” would deal with this alienation, in the first place, and with the revolutionary struggle necessary to give it an end. Education is propaganda -Trotsky explains -, it is class struggle in the cultural arena, including political education. Under capitalism it serves to the reproduction of the dominant ideology. Soviet education is also propaganda, because it is still a society that has not abolished exploitation, but where power has been taken by the proletariat to destroy the oppresion of the bourgeoise. Then, education us an anti-capitalist socialist education. Revolutionary parties must defend education, sexual education, development, etc., in the perspective of a working class government and socialism.
In the same line, there is a mistification of the theme of patriarchy. Capitalism claims, since the French Revolution, its condition of a sytem of formal equality. Patriarchy is a system of personal domination. Bourgeoise revolutions take down all forms of personal domination. Therefore, patriarchy is clearly distingushed, as a principleof social construction, from capitalist exploitation. Now, historical processes are not pure, it is not a clearcut interruption, as Clara Zetkin said, a rupture with clarity. Anyone knows that in Brazil slavery was abolished by the end of the XIX century. Slaves descendants, and not only them, are more eslaved today that under the slavery system. But they can’t propose to abolish slavery anymore, but capitalism. The same happens in the USA with African Americans and (“illegal”) immigrants. So, in many families, women are treated worse than when thay had no rights now that they have rights, why? Because a regime of exploitation tends, because of its conservative tendencies, to perpetuate the elements of exploitation that were formally substituted by other form of social exploitation. But it is not about patriarchy anymore, but about the dissolution of the family as economic unity and patriarchy as personal domination. One thing that strikes my attention about texts on the topic of gender is the lack of thought about the family – to which Marx and Engels pay all their attention: private property, family and Estate; its the Holy Trinity. Because family is where the domestic slavery of women is produced or derveloped. Does this mean that women are going to escape from this domestic slavery “by means of a cultural construct”, and not by means of the abolition of the nfamily, that is, the socialization of domestic activity? A domestic salary for women who reproduce this form of slavery, leaving aside the perspective of salaries in a capitalist system that tends to finish off the conquests gained by the masses; there where it functions as a special allowance,it has not stopped the expansion of misery. Then, again, the abolition of this oppresive family, in which hedious events occur, requires the abolition of caapitalism. Because with the abolition of capitalism all the economic activities are socialized, and the economic basis of the man and women relation is erased, it becomes a truly personal relation.
Now, here we have a very interesting problem. Within this “cultural construct” some enlightening deformations are produced. On March 8th, during the mobilizations in the Basque Country, many youngsters marched singing the songs from the Spanish Revolution or the songs from the Resistance to the Franco regime. This caused on me a vivid emotion. I had the feeling that the “revolutionary institutions” – and music is part of this, revolutionary music is an institution – were back at the front. But when I listened harder, the song said “to the misogynistic Estate”. This means that in this “cultural construct”, the Estate plays the part of the male, and then we have a political organization of males based entirely on the subjugation of women, and not a capitalist Estate settled completely on the basis of exploitation, on the part of a capitalist oligarchy, of the masses of the proletariat. The fact that the class nature of the Estate is obscured, in these terms, shows the function of gender feminism in social theory, as an absolution of the class nature that explains the existance of the Estate, in a time of wars and barbarism. Is the aim of these wars to produce gender horrors or to reinforce the punitive power of the Estate for the fulfilment of imperialist objectives? Now, if “everything is a cultural construct”, how do we fight against violence towards women? Tell me what is the cultural tool to struggle against violence towards women! All the proposals to protect women, post-violence, do not function; and pre-violence, by definition are not going to work because they are at the core of the current social regime. In our Party we have sistematically encouraged, since long ago, the socialist organization of women workers with an active approach, so that they are in the neighbourhoods, in factories, etc., mobilized against violence. Mobilized from the point of view of propaganda and mobilized from the point of view of direct action. I say “propaganda” because we must persuade many workers that the path towards emancipation is forged, in the first place, by respect towards their partners and respect towards any woman in general. Socialists must put up a political fight within our own class and, first and foremost, mobilize the proletariat in support of the struggle of women workers and women “tout court”.
Women, class and party
Now, think, what is the difference between this gender approach and what Olga [Viglieca] and Cintia [Frencia] have explained? There was a Socialist Party in Germany that kept growing incesantly, and it was practically a Estate within a Estate. It had five newspapers per Estate (Germany is divided in several Estates), it had coperatives, unions, papers, choirs, symphonic orchestras… There were two Estates: monarchy and the Socialist Party. And there was the socialist organization of women, that rapidly clashed – so they say – against the bureaucracy of the Party and the bureaucracy of the socialist unions. The same would later happen to the youth with the Party bureaucracy. In the debates between the women workers of the SP and feminists, on more than one occasion the party apparatus supported feminists, specially when an alliance between socialists and feminists was being hatched – that is, to develop a pluri-class front on the basis of femenine demands. The organization of women in the SP was identified with the left of the Party. Class colaboration was first explicit in the women’s movement and then during war it will be explicit in the Estate’s political collaboration with German capital, German feudal landlords, against the proletariat from other countries and against the German proletariat. But it began as a proposal of class collaboration in the women’s movement. That is, behind this is the problem of turning the women’s movement in the starting point for a Popular Front. Gender feminism represents, on this point, a way of political deviation for the masses as a whole. The most advanced workers must dispute this field, becoming themselves, in the first place, the most energic supporters of women’s struggle. Here, finally, there is the following issue: within the left in Argentina, gender theories are completely settled in – the cultural construct, the alliance with bourgois women and class collaboration. Even in Frente de Izquierda (the Left Front). Just like in that Julia Roberts’ movie, we sleep with a potential ideological and strategic adversary. The deliberate action of avoiding a clear delimitation with gender feminism, just as the adoption of its theoretical method, is a common feature of the trotskist leftism, which must be battled in theory and political action. The “gender equality” leftism as a way for the equality of right is a completely antagonistic strategy to those socialist women who have never been refuted by history. Those socialists carried out the October Revolution. Conciliation between marxism and gender feminism is directly manifest in the political field of the left which fosters broad parties, ideologically “diverse”, incorporating that feminism. From the gender field, the petit bourgeoise has imposed its class position: not on the Partido Obrero, but on the diverse party and on movimentism. Broad parties – as they are called in Europe – have no ideology or programme. They merge identitary constructs. What does “identitary” mean? That they are organized around a criteria that is separated from social development in the field of work – ethnic, gender, nation. Anything that is not an entity historically generated by class struggle, but defined outside of class struggle. Although it is conditioned by class struggle – and marxists take it as part of class struggle -, contrarily, it is defined by others as non related to it, justifying this as an improvement from reductionism. Then, feminist, ecological parties are created “with diverse perspectives”. Each one has a different perspective. Obviuosly, if everyone holds a different perspective, capitalism can be at ease: we will never gather the necessary force to be able to overthrow the capitalist system. We can already see this, this that we are criticizing and which Frencia and Gaido’s book deals with so clearly, we see it in trotskist parties that become blurred within alien organizations or practice within them a strategic bandwagoning. Instead of this, we need tocarry out a campaign with this book, in order to develop a class consciousness on women’s struggle in the proletariat. With a big male attendance.
What is the closing point of this presentation? The struggle for legal abortion.
A decisive element in this struggle is the intervention of the working class in favour of legal abortion. In particular, because of the fact that the church and the union bureaucracy are against it. Here we have a phenomenon which is quite the opposite of what we have described with Cintia and Olga. Now the point is not that there are bourgois women and working women, now the point is that there are workers that follow bureaucracy and workers who are class independent in face of the women’s movement for the right to abortion. The women’s movement for the right to abortion is a massive movement, but among worker, a part follows bureaucracy, in a passive way or not taking a stand, because bureaucracy does not encourage them to take a stand against it, because they are scared that if they encourage them to take a stand, workers will begin to debate, someone will come up with an idea, and on his way home or wherever to, he is going to tell his wife: “Dear, today I took part in a political debate: I am going to fight for this one.” And hence he discovers a new political aproximation. That the male worker becomes interested in women’s struggle and takes it as his own equals to class consciousness. He is a worker with class consciousness because he has come out of himself and understood that his own emancipation is a struggle of universal nature, and it is related to the emancipation of humankind, as the lyrics of “The International” say. So, there are many chores ahead. To encourage this movement towards victory or massiveness. To interest, say, workers. To develop an intense propaganda. Because the construction of women – cultural, psicological, human – will be the work of women themselves, under the conditions of freedom that they contribute to create, struggling for the government of the exploited and for international socialism. No one can tell you what a woman is like. It is a life experience; and we struggle so that this life experience has no obstacles, can be developed in full capacity; so that women discover their femenine personality, their human personality, their social personality, through their own experience.
Olga Viglieca is a journalist and a writer, founder and national leader of the Plenario de Trabajadoras. Script writer of the film La cena blanca de Romina and the play Nenina .
Cintia Frencia, former legislator of the Partido Obrero in Córdoba and leader of the Plenario de Trabajadoras, she is a teacher at the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba and co-author of the book Marxism and the liberation of working class women: from the Socialist Women International to the Russian Revolution.
Jorge Altamira is founder and national leader of Partido Obrero and its international current, the CRFI. Altamira founded and directed Prensa Obrera and this magazine. Author of La estrategia de la izquierda en Argentina (The strategy of the left in Argentina) , El Argentinazo, el presente como historia (Argentinazo, the present as history) and No fue un martes negro más (It wasn’t just another black Tuesday), among others.