Marxism and women's liberation

“When I am by myself, I am nothing. I only know that I exist because I am needed by someone who is real, my husband, and by my children. My husband goes out into the real world… I stay in the imaginary world in this house, doing jobs that I largely invent, and that no one cares about but myself.”

“Woman and Her Mind: The Story of Daily Life”, Meredith Tax, 1970[1]

“I always feel like I’m about to collapse. Since I am physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted – the kids are just irritants, and so is the job. Every day is a giant struggle, and all I can see, for years and years ahead, is more of the same.”

“I’m so tired of feeling like I don’t measure up in every aspect of my life. Go to work? Miss time with kids. Work from home? Can’t give undivided attention. House dirty, laundry piled up, kids sick. The thread is breaking.”

“My partner is great about sharing tasks. That’s not it – it’s the finite nature of time and money. And the complete lack of financial security that I guess almost everyone feels – it hangs over me like a cloud.”

Testimonies from a survey of women, 2011[2]

The lives of women today are a world away from those of their counterparts fifty years ago. In the early 1960s, unequal pay was accepted as legitimate, divorce was restricted and stigmatised, abortion was illegal, women in the public service did not have the right to work after marriage, rape in marriage was not recognised as a crime, sexual harassment was rife, childcare virtually non-existent and women could not get a bank loan without a male guarantor. Governments, the mainstream media, bosses and other powerful forces regarded the concept of women’s rights primarily as a target for ridicule. Mainstream popular culture was prudish and held little place for women outside traditional romance. Representations of women typically involved aprons, meal preparation, smiling children and vacuum cleaners, reinforcing constantly that the primary role of women was to create an environment of domestic bliss. Boredom and a sense of isolated frustration, summed up by Betty Friedan as “the problem with no name”, came to symbolise the experience of women – if in reality mainly middle class women – in this period.

Today, the contrasts couldn’t be starker. Formal equality in relation to the law in most of the Western world has effectively been achieved. Women account for nearly 50 per cent of the workforce in most of the developed world and can be found in a range of traditional and non-traditional industries.[3] Gender studies courses of some description are offered at most major universities, and there is an entire academic industry dedicated to the study of women and gender. There has been a proliferation of government departments and programs aimed at the well-being or advancement of women in some capacity. Women’s representation in high office and in boardrooms and war rooms has risen dramatically. Brutal imperialist wars are justified on the basis of liberating women, and the Western world is presented as superior and a sense of national cohesion forged around its supposed “tolerance” and “respect for women”.

At a personal level, far from being afflicted primarily with soul-crushing boredom, the majority of women today struggle with conflicting demands of waged work, childcare, care for elderly or extended family and a range of domestic responsibilities – the notorious “double burden”. The sexist representation of women in the media, advertising and popular culture is no longer limited to the presentation of women as dutiful wives and mothers. It now encourages women to be seen, and aspire to be seen, as sexually available and attractive to men at all times. The phenomenon of “raunch culture”, described by Ariel Levy in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, symbolises this shift.

But as much as things have changed, they have stayed the same. Structural inequality continues to underpin and perpetuate sexist ideas and practices, even if the exact nature of these has changed. At work, women continue to earn less than men and tend to be concentrated in lower paid, female-dominated and highly casualised industries and jobs.[4] In no small part because of this, women continue to be more likely to be the primary carers of children, dependent at least in part on the wages of male (and less often female) partners or struggling to make ends meet as single parents. Affordable 24-hour childcare is a fantasy, and the lack of it is a major barrier to the participation of women with children in the workforce on an equal footing with men. Despite being the majority of university and high school graduates, women are more likely to be found in the lower rungs of every industry in which they are represented. Women who experience multiple forms of oppression, such as Aboriginal, migrant, lesbian, transgender and disabled women, continue to face compounded discrimination in relation to employment, welfare, housing, health care and social support. The gender stereotypes, which due to their all-pervasive and debilitating nature have an immeasurable impact on the confidence, assertiveness and achievement of women in all areas of life, persist. So long as women remain structurally unequal, there is the basis for various forms of degrading, belittling or abusive treatment, both at an interpersonal and institutional level. Sexist representations of women are used to sell products; but they also stoke insecurities and influence and shape the life choices and desires of the mass of people.

Sexism endures because, despite some changes, the system of capitalism has weathered the challenges of the 1960s and 70s. Neither the integration of a layer of women into the establishment, nor the increased representation of women in a workforce still subordinate to capital, has brought actual equality for women. Rather, it has accentuated and widened the class divide between them.

Any strategy for winning women’s liberation today therefore must involve a thoroughgoing transformation of the social conditions which underpin women’s oppression. It must take as its starting point the only social force capable of mounting a serious challenge to the system: the working class. Workers have both an interest in and ability to stand up against the rich and powerful minority who are responsible for the gross inequality and oppression of capitalism today, and in so doing mount a challenge to the system itself. This is the only basis on which there is the potential to unite all the oppressed and exploited around collective power and united strength, and to bring about a world without oppression and inequality.

For those committed to this goal, the oppression experienced by an entire half of the working class is of central importance. Understanding how women’s position in society has changed over the last fifty years, how capitalism has adapted and coopted a form of feminism, and how this has affected the way the mass of people approach questions of women’s rights is vitally important for Marxists, as it should be for all those wanting to fight sexism today. But analysis is not enough. The revolutionary essence of Marxism – its emphasis on the potential of the working class to take power and reorganise society, the transformative effect such a struggle has and its inherent potential to liberate all the oppressed – needs to be at the heart of any theory and practice of women’s liberation.

Women as a social category

It has long been recognised that treating women as a social category will tend to downplay or ignore the diversity inherent in different women’s experiences.[5] In a society saturated with class prejudice as well as an array of other forms of bigotry, this has and will tend to mean that white, middle class, heterosexual women become the neutral subject or touchstone for understanding women’s oppression, as a result of both the greater influence they are able to exercise and the resources at their disposal. This has been a justified criticism of the women’s movement both historically and today, and reflects a key problem with an approach that takes as its starting point a form of oppression for which those subject to it cannot be meaningfully united. It is also a problem inherent in an approach that treats different forms of oppression as essentially discrete or without a unifying source, which in effect precludes (or at least is logically highly sceptical towards) the building of a united movement capable of challenging all forms of oppression in an integrated manner.[6]

The Marxist approach, which understands society as a dynamic totality composed of contradictory parts, all of which are fundamentally shaped by the mode of production, equips us best to avoid these pitfalls and consistently oppose oppression while at the same time fighting the various individual manifestations of its different forms. Marxists recognise that women can at the same time comprise a meaningful social category and be hopelessly divided to the point where the category itself is legitimately called into question. Not only are there directly counterposed material interests between exploiting and exploited women, there are also the surmountable but no less real differences between women on the basis of race, ability, sexual orientation and age to name just a few. This is a tension common to most oppressed groups. Even the working class, which is the one oppressed group that can be effectively united around a common objective interest, comprises myriad different experiences that cannot be fully understood simply by reference to what unites workers. In addition to those relating to race, sexual orientation, age and ability, differences between workers in higher and lower paid jobs or industries, in better or worse organised workplaces or where there are varying traditions of struggle are real, and must be taken into account in any concrete analysis of the working class today. For other oppressed groups, this is even more the case.

However, such differentiation does not negate the categories themselves. Women, along with other oppressed groups, are both united and divided in an ongoing dynamic contradiction. Only by understanding this, and by situating women’s oppression within a system that depends on multiple forms of social inequality – all of which need to be challenged in order to win liberation – is it possible to discuss women as a social category without being blind or indifferent to the multiplicity of women’s experiences. The use of the term and category women in this article should be understood in this light. Unavoidably, the full complexity of women’s experiences will not be able to be captured in a discussion of this length, nor adequate account taken of the many forms of overlapping and intersecting oppressions that affect women. Further studies in each of these areas are required in order to fully understand the totality of women’s oppression today.

The material basis for women’s oppression today

Women’s oppression is of course not unique to capitalism. It has been a feature of human society since class divisions first emerged some six thousand years ago. The most important contribution to our understanding of this process is Engels’ The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, published in 1884. Subsequent contributions by Marxists such as Chris Harman[7] and Marxist-feminists such as Karen Sacks[8] have built on Engels’ main propositions.

In contemporary capitalist societies, women’s oppression continues to be inseparable from the exploitative class relations that are fundamental to, and the defining feature of, modern capitalism.

Specifically, it rests on two key pillars – the particular experience of women’s direct exploitation in the workplace, and the privatised nature of the maintenance and reproduction of the system’s most important commodity, labour power, primarily organised in modern capitalism through the social and economic institution of the family.

Women in the workforce

Women are a permanent and integrated part of the workforce in virtually all countries in the world today. They make up nearly 50 percent of people employed in Australia, and the vast majority of Australian women will spend most of their lives working for a wage. Women also make up over half the workforce in North America, East Asia, the Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa, and 40 percent globally.[9]

The part-time and casual nature of women’s work is a major contributing factor to their lower pay and status at work. Women are three times more likely to work part-time than men, both in economies with above and below average levels of part-time employment. Australia has the third highest rate of part-time work for women in the advanced capitalist world at 38 percent, behind only the Netherlands (60 percent) and the United Kingdom (39 percent), and level with Germany (38 percent).[10]

Women also tend to be concentrated in low-paid industries. In Australia, women make up over half the workforce in health care and social assistance (78.3 percent), education and training (70.6 percent), retail (55.9 percent), accommodation and food services (54.2 percent), administrative and support services (52.1 percent) and financial and insurance services (50.3 percent).[11] Health care and social assistance and education and training, the two key industries employing women, are also the second and third lowest paid industries in Australia.[12]

The result of this is that nearly 45 years after the first generalised equal pay ruling, women working full time in Australia earn just 82.5 percent of what men do. Measured in terms of lifetime earnings, the gap is closer to half, with university-educated men expecting to earn around $3.3 million over their working lives, compared to just $1.8 million for women in the same category.[13] Women thus represent a large and significantly underpaid section of the workforce.

The unequal position of women at work is of benefit to the capitalist class in three important ways. Firstly, it lowers the overall wages bill for the capitalist class and thus increases the average rate of exploitation of the working class. Secondly, it puts a downward pressure on all workers’ wages by increasing competition between sections of the working class and giving employers a means to undercut previously won gains. Connected to this, it has also served historically to weaken organisation within the working class, as women have tended to be more poorly unionised than their male counterparts, adding a further downward pressure on wages and conditions.[14]

Lastly, it acts to pit male workers against female, as male workers have often viewed lower paid women workers as a threat to pay and conditions historically, as well as a symptom of declining status for industries previously dominated by men. This classic divide and rule strategy on the part of the employers – which is also and more commonly today used against migrants and refugees and other supposed “threats” to jobs – holds no advantage for workers. It is instead a key way in which dissatisfaction with working conditions and pay is channelled away from those responsible towards usually highly vulnerable groups of workers.

In addition to receiving lower wages, and partly because of it, women workers face a series of other barriers that disadvantage them both economically and socially, and that enable bosses better to take advantage of them. Lack of childcare and difficulties associated with having and caring for children while working are an important aspect of the structural discrimination against women. Studies show that professional women without children earn the equivalent of their male counterparts, but the same can’t be said for working mothers.[15] Because women on average earn less than men, they are much more likely to drop out of the workforce in order to care for young children for prolonged periods than men are. Economic necessity dictates, for everyone other than the very wealthy, that the higher-earning parent should continue working while the other takes a break, regardless of the wishes of those involved. This in turn has a long-term impact on the earning capacity and associated financial independence of women. This reality is both a product of, and reinforces, the idea – adhered to by women as much as men – that women’s key responsibility and natural inclination involves caring for others, with paid work having to be fitted in around these demands.[16] The exorbitant cost and limited availability of childcare also means that both parents being able to work while children are very young is increasingly becoming a luxury that only middle class and wealthy couples are able to afford.[17]

This economic inequality affects different women in different ways, frequently acting to compound other forms of discrimination. A survey by the Human Rights Commission carried out in 2008 highlighted some of the key concerns of these different groups. It concluded:

[I]ssues of primary concern to Indigenous women in remote communities were basic living conditions, such as the ability to live safely, access to housing, access to education or employment and access to healthcare. For women in low-paid industries, particularly those in female dominated sectors, better pay and basic workplace conditions, such as tea breaks and access to toilets, were the important concerns. For refugee women, access to education and employment without the fear of racial discrimination was most important, along with the need for social acceptance of cultural difference. For women with disabilities, the ability to live safely and have autonomy over one’s life decisions was critical, as well as the ability to access education and employment.[18]

For all the differences, a common theme running through the experience of oppression amongst divergent groups of women is inadequate income, discrimination at work and lack of access to services.

The workplace is therefore a place where women’s oppression is often very keenly felt, whether as a result of low pay, poor conditions and lack of adequate support that can at times lead to outright exclusion. This experience shapes and affects the self-confidence, economic independence, personal choices and standard of living of the majority of women.

Privatised reproduction

The social and economic institution of the family, which assumes primary responsibility for the maintenance and reproduction of the labour force under capitalism, is a key source of women’s oppression.

The family is not unique to capitalism, and has been a feature of most preceding forms of class society in some form or another. It has adapted and changed over time, driven both by its own internal contradictions and in response to the changing nature and requirements of production.

There are several features that distinguish the family under capitalism from forms that have gone before. Most importantly, the family under capitalism has effectively ceased to have the significant productive as well as reproductive role it did previously for the labouring classes, as large-scale industrial processes came to dominate commodity production. Increasingly, family groups found themselves with fewer means of subsistence independent of capitalist industry, or were denied the right to them entirely. Instead they were forced to depend on the waged labour of one or more members for their survival. This underpinned the changing role and consequent view of the family, from being the centre of production, social and working life to being an apparently independent sphere separate from production. The family’s focus, in theory at least, on care and the cherishing of the individual attributes of its members arose because of, and came to be seen as in direct contrast to, the soullessness of waged labour and the productive sphere.

The historical path this transition took was by no means smooth. The effect of the Industrial Revolution in England on the newly emerging working class was to almost destroy old family ties as all people – men, women and children – were forced into long hours of back-breaking labour which rendered impossible any “family life” as it is now understood. It was from observing this trend that Marx and Engels conjectured, not without justification, that the working class family looked set to be destroyed as a result of exploitation. “[T]he concept of the family does not exist at all, but here and there family affection based on extremely real relations is certainly to be found” was their observation of working class domestic life in 1846.[19]

In Australia, it took an ideological and legal offensive by middle class reformers to impose the nuclear family on the working class, and in so doing arrest the descent into degradation, high infant mortality and collapsing life expectancy amongst workers that was at the same time an immediate and long term threat to industry. This offensive encountered both resistance and support from the working class, motivated by concern about their ability or willingness to support dependents, and alternately a desire to restore some dignity, personal comfort and security to working class life which the family alone seemed to offer.[20] On the other hand, Indigenous families were routinely broken up by the practice of removing children of mixed race, a practice that continued into the 1970s.[21]

Attitudes to the family within the working class thus are and have been inextricably linked with the question of living standards. They cannot be seen simply as a reflection of attitudes towards women on the part of men, or to the merits of female participation in the workforce, as is often assumed by some feminists.[22]

The family and women’s oppression today

Far from dying out, the family continues to fulfil the social function for which it was promoted in the nineteenth century. It still today assumes primary responsibility for the well-being and motivation of workers by providing a source of care, comfort and nourishment in order that another day, month, year or decade can be worked. The health and socialisation of children continues to be overwhelmingly taken care of by the family, as is a large proportion of care for the elderly, sick and disabled.

A ready supply of exploitable labour power (i.e. workers willing and able to work for a wage) at the lowest possible cost is the most important consideration for the capitalist class. Without human beings being prepared to work and to accept as compensation only a fraction of the value produced through their labours, there would be no profits, no capital accumulation and no attending power and privilege for the capitalist class. That workers in most cases desire to replicate the institution of the family, readily carry out its functions without any expectation of compensation and accept the raising of children and care for others as their personal responsibility makes the family an extremely efficient and cost-effective mechanism for reproducing labour power from the point of view of the capitalist class. The family thus has a dual role as both an essential economic and social institution, inseparable from and conditioned by the underlying mode of capitalist production.

The vast majority of work performed in the family setting is done voluntarily, without any direct compensation, and disproportionately by women. Although women and men in the advanced capitalist countries tend to spend almost an equivalent number of hours working every week (when the total of waged and unwaged work is taken into account), women still perform a greater share of the unpaid work around the home, particularly when they are caring for young children.[23] And while the gap between the domestic labour that men and women perform has consistently been narrowing over the last couple of decades, the sense of responsibility for the home and children continues to be felt more keenly by women. The combined weight of the gender stereotypes, the economic imbalance between women and men and the demands and expectations of bosses continues to lead to situations where women find themselves effectively forced into primary caring roles, regardless of the intentions or individual wishes of themselves or their partners.

The family is also the basis for the gender roles which play such a pernicious part in undermining the confidence, aspirations and participation of women in public life. Whether it’s the degrading and objectifying image of women as sexually attractive partners – now covering almost every stage of women and girls’ lives, not just young adulthood – or potential child-bearers, unfulfilled and childless career women, or the demeaning and patronising presentation of women as sink-bound figures in perpetual maternal service (or a combination of the above), the various stereotypes of women rest ultimately in the roles designated to them, and that they usually in reality carry out, in the family structure.

The separation between waged work and domestic work also contributes to and reinforces these stereotypes. As Lise Vogel describes, “[i]solation of the units of domestic labour appears to be a natural separation of women from men as well. Confinement to a world that is walled off from capitalist production seems to be women’s time-honoured natural setting.”[24] This creates an observable division of labour that appears to reinforce the idea that women have a natural capacity or inclination to carry out caring work, while men strike out into the world to valiantly provide for their vulnerable dependents. This, along with the myriad other ways in which the gender stereotypes are imposed and reinforced, powerfully shapes the attitudes, aspirations, self-image and behaviour of people living in capitalist society.[25]

The unpaid and unappreciated nature of women’s work in the home furthermore creates and contributes to the economic disparity within male-female relationships, and a situation where women to a greater or lesser extent tend to be dependent on male earnings. Added to this, bosses rely on the stereotyped idea that the proper place for women is caring for children at home, not working for a wage, in order to underpay women workers. So crucial are such ideas to the structure of the modern workforce, they persist even in situations where the vast majority of women, including those caring for children, also work for a wage. This, combined with the lack of adequate childcare and maternity leave, creates a situation where women are more likely to be marginalised and disadvantaged in the workplace and economically dependent at home. This in turn affects and is reinforced by the way social services are provided, public policy created and laws written.

The combination of the lived experience in some form of family arrangement, and the consistent reinforcement of it materially and ideologically in every area of life, forms the backdrop against which people form attitudes about the roles, characteristics and abilities of men and women. Consequently, and hardly surprisingly, prevailing attitudes tend to reflect this reality and are thus generally sexist.

This holds despite living arrangements less and less conforming to the traditional nuclear family model. The family endures as the ideal against which variations and so-called deviations are measured, and continues to inform the sense of identity and obligation to others amongst all people, even those who consciously attempt to reject traditional family life. For this reason, the family is also the basis for the oppression of those whose gender identity or sexuality does not conform to the heterosexist norm consistent with the family structure. The liberation of women is therefore inseparable from that of lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

The key to the persistence of the family over time is its function in relation to capital generation and accumulation. Its role in both maintaining and reproducing the working class, and imposing the responsibility for an enormous amount of the unpaid but socially necessary labour associated with this onto women, has meant that despite many other changes, it has endured – and with it women’s oppression.

The family and the working class

Privatised reproduction, organised primarily through the capitalist family, is also a key element in the oppression of the working class as a whole.

The ongoing extraction of surplus value from the labour of the vast majority by the capitalist class is the social and economic drive that shapes the lives of all people living in capitalist society. The exploitation at the heart of this system cannot be reduced to, or understood purely as, a simple economic transaction. By necessity, exploitation forms the basis of an immense ideological and social structure that acts to reinforce, legitimise and defend it. The exact nature of this structure is conditioned by the particular and changing needs of production and the competitive capital accumulation that drives it. Consequently the rise and fall of social institutions and practices largely depends on their capacity to augment and aid this process.

The small minority whose privilege depends on the subordination of the majority therefore does not confine its interest in the lives of working people to the hours in which they are at work. There is also an imperative for them to influence and where possible control the behaviour, ideas and aspirations of those they exploit. In this the institution of the family plays a key part. Imbuing workers with the necessary ideas and attitudes – from deference to authority and a commitment to punctuality, to the belief in the democratic and “natural” qualities of the capitalist system – is a requirement for a cooperative and obedient workforce, and one in which the family plays a crucial role. Ensuring that workers lead relatively fixed and stable lives that enable them to be reliably exploited over years and decades is also an important function of the family.

The capitalist class further requires workers to be healthy enough to work for as long as possible, and to have new generations raised to replace them when they die. The domestic arrangements, sexual desires and reproductive activities of workers therefore matter to the long-term integrity of the process of exploitation and capital accumulation. Added to this, from the capitalist class’s point of view the working class family is an important market for the consumption of an ever-increasing array of goods and services. This means that the nature of consumption, the shaping of desires, lifestyle and recreation, are all also aspects of life that the capitalist class has an interest in influencing as much as possible.

On a broader level, the family acts as a stabilising force, by creating a sense of permanence and obligation to others, particularly dependents. The fear of being unable to provide for family members frequently serves as a strong disincentive for workers to raise objections to degrading treatment or low pay, for fear of losing jobs and the ability to provide (although this can at times work the other way). The family importantly also offers something in return to workers: comfort and a sense of meaning and personal fulfilment which to some degree compensates for and distracts from what is denied workers in the everyday activity of work. This explains why workers frequently uphold and cherish the family and values associated with it, despite it being an aspect of their subordinate position, and often a site of unhappiness and abuse.

So the capitalist class uses its control over production, the dissemination of ideas and the making of laws to influence not only what goes on in the workplace where direct exploitation takes place, but also (more or less successfully depending on the levels of resistance, working class organisation and their own class cohesion) to control almost every aspect of social and personal life under capitalism, within which the family is central.

Any genuine Marxist approach must seek to understand the dialectical relationship between the oppression and exploitation of women and that of the working class, mediated by the structures of industry and the workplace as well as the institution of the family. These must then be analysed and understood as part of the totality of capitalist society. This is the only basis on which to understand and integrate the various forms of social inequality and oppression that exist and overlap under capitalism, and to develop an effective strategy to fight them.

Reductionism

Analysis of women’s oppression that situates it within the structures of class exploitation and oppression is often rejected as “reductionist”. Indeed, there are widespread claims that Marxism is reductionist, and that we therefore need feminism in order to avoid this error. Rarely are these allegations backed up by any definition of reductionism or explanation of how other theories avoid this error. There are versions of Marxism such as the Analytical school which are reductionist. Stalinism, which is often taken to be Marxism, contained major elements of crude economic reductionism.[26] But this does not mean Marxism in general is reductionist.

Reductionism refers to analyses which oversimplify complex phenomena. It is “the forced and immediate insistence on a direct link between elements which are, in fact, only connected by a variety of mediating factors”.[27] The argument which looks at the unequal relationships between women and men in the family and concludes that men’s desire to control women is the cause of women’s oppression is a classic example of reductionism. It ignores the impact of capitalist exploitation, the structure of the workforce, how the family is both structured by these and in turn structures women’s experience of work, to name just some of the contradictory elements of the family.[28]

As Martha Gimenez points out, “[t]o argue…that class is fundamental is not to ‘reduce’ gender or racial oppression to class, but to acknowledge that the underlying basic and ‘nameless’ power at the root of what happens in social interactions grounded in ‘intersectionality’ is class power.”[29] Along similar lines, Sandra Bloodworth argues: “[t]o say that class is fundamental to an understanding of family violence is not to simplistically ‘reduce’ women’s oppression to class, but to situate that oppression in capitalism, to show how gender oppression intersects with class oppression. They do not just ‘intersect’ as separate aspects of society. Class exploitation gives rise to oppression and so they are fundamentally linked.”[30] There is nothing inherently reductionist about an analysis of women’s oppression that starts from production and economics, any more than there is about one that starts from biology, gender or human psychology. The Marxist argument that all forms of oppression are rooted in the exploitative economic process of capital accumulation can only be shown to be an oversimplification if another independently operating power structure can be proved to exist that is responsible for women’s oppression.[31]

On the other hand, the dialectical method of Marxism is a guard against reductionism. It involves recognising society as a totality made up of contradictory parts which impact on each other and are in turn impacted by the whole. This totality includes both objective reality and subjective consciousness, social structures and human action, economic factors, culture, law, state institutions and other factors. None of its parts can be reduced to other parts; rather, the contradictory impact of these parts on each other and the whole drives constant change, resulting in a new reality which cannot be reduced to any of its parts. Therefore any aspect of society must be understood concretely and in its historical context, taking into account the dynamic nature of any social reality. Lastly, not all the parts are of equal importance; some are more fundamental than others. This too is a matter of concrete investigation and determination.

Of course, understanding the dialectical method does not guarantee correct conclusions; that must be the end result of a concrete analysis and the correct application of the method. But neither does attempting to graft elements of very different theories onto Marxism – especially if that grafting is based on a misunderstanding of the nature and cause of reductionism.

Difficulties of a period of working class retreat

The decades of defeat that the working class has suffered – and its retreat both politically and organisationally over the last thirty to forty years throughout most of the advanced capitalist world – has shaped political ideas and activism in a profoundly negative way. Amongst those concerned about women’s oppression, it has led to a drift away from class politics, as the working class is less obviously a force to orient to for those seeking fundamental social change, and towards a more middle class orientation led by the new layer of women columnists, academics and politicians. Added to this, the popularity of post-modern ideas over the last few decades, with their emphasis on fragmented discourse, identity and introspection, has further undermined any idea that the class struggle, and the left wing politics associated with it, has anything to offer those questioning oppression.

This has brought about a shift in both popular understanding and public debate. The emphasis has moved away from fighting for women’s rights championed by the Women’s Liberation Movement – rights at work, equal pay, childcare, control over our fertility, social service provision – towards a focus on issues such as body image and eating disorders, violence and sexual assault, individual sexist behaviour and language, as well as the degrading presentation of women in popular culture and the media. It is after all the sexist and frequently abusive behaviour of individual men towards women which tends to be the most readily observable form of sexism, and often the most debilitating from the point of view of individual women.

Of course sexist behaviour and other direct expressions of sexism by individuals should be condemned, and where possible challenged, and efforts made to deepen and extend understanding and awareness of how sexist behaviour affects women’s lives. But it is also important to recognise that, because both men and women internalise to a greater or lesser extent, and in turn express, the values and attitudes that accord with their social reality – which is sexist – education without real social change can only have a limited effect. Ultimately, male violence and abuse and the low self-confidence of women with regard to their relationships and bodies will persist so long as women are structurally unequal, and the corresponding sexist ideology that makes women perpetually vulnerable to such exploitation and abuse continues.

It will only be possible to effectively convince individuals on a mass scale not to behave in sexist (or racist or homophobic) ways when there is a change in the social reality that legitimises such practices. That is why campaigns aimed at improving the general economic and social position of women are actually a key step towards stamping out offensive and abusive behaviour towards women. They put women in a better economic position to escape abusive situations, build their confidence and self-respect, ensure more services are available, and create more pressure on men to treat women respectfully.

Because the issues of violence and sexism in everyday life can be so personally devastating, because they emphasise the areas of women’s lives in which they are the weakest and with the least power to confront them, a political emphasis on them tends to lead away from anti-capitalist, working class politics. Furthermore they tend not to draw those concerned toward an orientation to mass, collective action needed to seriously challenge women’s oppression. More commonly they lead towards identifying men, and most often working class men, as the key perpetrators of sexism and therefore the main problem and natural target of any anti-sexist activism or measures. So it matters how these issues are confronted. Obviously individual men need to be challenged; and everyday sexism should be made a union issue, emphasising that sexism and abuse of women divides our struggles to fight for a better world.[32] But as some American feminists have concluded after years of experience in fighting around the issues of sexual violence, campaigns or political movements that target the sexist behaviour of individual men and appeal to the state as protector of women against them tend to undermine such efforts, encourage identification with authority and drag those involved to the right.[33]

The other problem with the increased focus on the personal effects of sexism is that women are at their weakest and most atomised when they experience or try to confront the manifestations of sexism in their personal lives. Focusing on these thus tends to reinforce and encourage identification as victims – which, while undeniably reflecting the reality of sexism, does not help to challenge or change it. Only by fighting back with the aim of changing social conditions can the reality of oppression and the suffering of the oppressed be fought and ended. This must involve women and other oppressed groups gaining the confidence and fighting spirit to defy the patterns of submission that are the effect of that oppression. An identity based on victimhood, or a political movement that takes this suffering as its starting point, is not an effective basis for such a struggle.

Even amongst those attempting to maintain some commitment to Marxism against the retreat from class politics over the last couple of decades, including some socialist feminists, there exists a pronounced lack of confidence that Marxism provides an effective theoretical and practical guide to liberating the oppressed.

Self-described Marxist-feminist Lise Vogel, whose mostly useful work on domestic labour and its relationship to the political economy of capitalism has recently been reprinted, maintains that there was an “indisputable failure [on the part] of Marx and Engels to develop adequate tools and a comprehensive theory on women”,[34] and therefore there is a need for Marxist theory to be “revised”.[35] Similarly, in her book Dangerous Liaisons, Cinzia Arruzza argues that a “renewal” of Marxism is necessary in order to “go beyond counterposing cultural and economic, material and ideological categories” and that “class and gender can be combined together in a political project” that does not downplay or inadequately address questions of women’s oppression by “making gender a class or class a gender”,[36] as the Marxist tradition is supposedly inherently inclined to do. In an almost identical formulation, Heather Brown in her book Marx on Gender and the Family questions whether “a Marxist feminism that does not lapse into economic determinism or privilege class over gender” is possible.[37] Nancy Holmstrom, in the introduction to her 2001 book The Socialist Feminist Project, similarly suggests that Marxism “reduce[s] sex or race oppression to economic exploitation” and thus cannot effectively “integrate class and sex, as well as other aspects of identity”.[38] Indeed, the premise of her book, and many others in this tradition, is that Marxism alone is an inadequate framework for understanding and fighting women’s oppression, and needs the addition of another theory – feminism.

This has been accompanied by much agonising over exactly how Marxism has failed women. Whether that is the supposed blind spot of Marx and Engels in relation to women’s role in the reproduction of labour power, the inadequacy of their personal contributions or the ensuing failure of the socialist movement to take up questions of women’s oppression in a manner fitting for today, the problem is generally assumed to require a fairly thorough overhaul of Marxist theory and practice.

It is undoubtedly true that Marx and Engels did not outline a comprehensive, stand-alone account of women’s oppression under capitalism, and that the framework they established for understanding class society and the inequalities inherent in it can and should be further elaborated and built on. It is also true that individuals and organisations identifying as Marxist have at times failed to uphold the revolutionary core of Marxism, including the opposition to inequality and oppression that that entails. And there can be no question that fine-tuning our understanding of the material basis of women’s oppression is an important part of developing an effective strategy for liberation.

But these truisms hardly call into question the entirety of Marxism, and they largely miss the point. Marxism is more than a mere set of analytical tools to describe the world. Nor does what Marx wrote about women, his own personal behaviour or precisely how the categories of political economy apply to the underpaid and unpaid labour of women represent the sum total of what Marxism has to contribute to women’s liberation.[39]

The measure against which Marx and Engels’ contribution must be judged is the extent to which their key insight – that the working class represents both the object and revolutionary subject of history with the potential to radically transform the mode of production and in so doing liberate all of humanity – contributes to our understanding of and ability to fight women’s oppression.

The key test of the veracity of Marxism, and its relevance to women’s liberation, therefore lies only partly in the sharpness of the analytical tools and framework it supplies us with. Just as – or even more – important are the real dynamics of working class revolution and the nature of the society resulting from a successful socialist revolution, the possibility of and need for which remains the key contention of revolutionary Marxism. As the German Marxist Clara Zetkin put it: “The materialist view of history did not, it is true, give us ready-made answers to the woman question, but it gave us something better: the correct and precise method of studying and understanding the question.”[40]

What is Marxism?

It is necessary first to establish exactly what is the revolutionary essence of Marxism. Too often, this is overlooked in favour of a purely analytical, abstract or academic view, which tends to be quite compatible with a left wing form of reformism. Alternatively, but just as mistakenly, Marxism is equated with the crudely reductionist and anti-revolutionary politics of Stalinism.

Marxism is neither of these things. It is at its heart the theory and practice of working class revolution. It is fundamentally about the working class taking control of society and in so doing creating a world without inequality and oppression that is organised to meet the needs of human beings, not those of an exploiting minority.

Crucially, this involves the self-conscious action of the mass of working class people who, in asserting their interests against those of their rulers, are forced to confront the myriad manifestations of class rule and in so doing develop an understanding of the need for the thoroughgoing transformation of social and political life. As a matter of practical necessity, it involves workers reasserting their humanity against a system that treats them as mere parts in a productive process, and confronting the prejudices that the capitalist class relies on to maintain stability and order. This is a transformative process for those involved. The Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács describes how workers’ revolution is at once an active, practical process and a philosophical one that profoundly affects those involved, and moreover one which forces workers to confront not just their own subjugation, but the whole mode of social organisation:

With the emergence of historical materialism there arose the theory of the “conditions for the liberation of the proletariat” and the doctrine of reality understood as the total process of social evolution. This was only possible because for the proletariat the total knowledge of its class-situation was a vital necessity, a matter of life and death: because its class situation becomes comprehensible only if the whole of society can be understood; and because this understanding is the inescapable precondition of its actions. Thus the unity of theory and practice is only the reverse side of the social and historical position of the proletariat. From its own point of view self-knowledge coincides with knowledge of the whole so that the proletariat is at one and the same time the subject and object of its own knowledge.[41]

Importantly, the working class cannot develop its own independent forms of class power within the mode of production it is destined to supersede in the way previously oppressed classes, such as the bourgeoisie, did. This is what makes the process of revolution so integral to Marxism – only in the process of overthrowing the old order can workers come to a full understanding of their historic task, and only through their own activity can the new and democratic structures of a future socialist society be created.[42] As Marx and Engels most famously expressed it in The German Ideology, socialism

is further determined by the manner in which this must be effected. It can only be effected through a union, which by the character of the proletariat itself can again only be a universal one, and through a revolution in which, on the one hand, the power of the earlier mode of production and intercourse and social organisation is overthrown and, on the other hand, there develops the universal character and the energy of the proletariat, which are required to accomplish the appropriation, and the proletariat moreover rids itself of everything that still clings to it from its previous position in society.[43]

Michael Löwy, in his study of the conditions under which Marx developed these insights in the 1840s, described the character of a socialist society as “determined by the very process of its creation”.[44] Working class revolution therefore is at the same time a practical struggle and an ideological one, in which all the old ideas are challenged and consciousness changed. Marx again:

Both for production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution: the revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeeds in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.[45]

There is nothing straightforward, neat or automatic about this process. It does after all involve human beings, not robots. As Marx had noted earlier, “actual communist action to abolish actual private property…will constitute in actual fact a very rough and protracted process”,[46] but one which will be aided and accelerated by conscious intervention on the part of those committed to the working class realising this end – a task Marx himself undertook.

The nature of working class struggle, particularly when it reaches revolutionary proportions, is therefore not a dry economic or technical question as it is sometimes portrayed, but a fundamentally human one. Those who attempt to denigrate Marxism by criticising it for “class reductionism” thus display a dismissive contempt for the oppression experienced by working class people and for the dynamic of working class struggle, and the way in which a range of questions of social inequality arise inevitably and organically in its course.

Lenin, writing about the 1905 revolution in Russia, recognised this dynamic, likening workers’ revolts to “festivals of the oppressed and exploited”. The profound and transformative effect they have on those involved means that “[a]t no other time are the masses of the people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order as at a time of revolution. At such times the people are capable of performing miracles”.[47]

Women’s oppression and revolution

Revolutionary struggles, as indeed partial struggles do on a smaller scale, throw up a challenge to women’s oppression in a number of ways. The adage promoted by detractors of revolutionary politics – that women are meant to put their demands on hold and wait for their liberation “after the revolution” – demonstrates an ignorance of what revolutionary struggles actually involve and demand of those who take part.

Firstly, in order to succeed, revolutions require the active involvement of masses of women. Because the widest possible participation of the working class and its supporters is key to the strength of any revolutionary movement, women must play, and indeed have played, an active role in revolutionary movements. And in the process they have frequently burst to the forefront and led others.

Perhaps the most profound example of this is the February revolution, which marked the beginning of the momentous Russian Revolution of 1917. Although the revolution ultimately failed to establish a socialist society, being destroyed by isolation and the counter-revolution led by Stalin, the revolution and the years immediately after 1917 represent the most well-developed example of working class power so far known.

And it was women who started it. The February revolution began when women workers, shrugging off the caution of their male comrades, downed tools and marched through the streets of Petrograd demanding that other workers join them on International Women’s Day. Their demands were “Down with the war! Down with high prices! Down with hunger! Bread for the workers!”[48] In their book Midwives of the Revolution, Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar describe the process which unfolded:

It was not women in the queues for bread and fuel who began the street protests, but female textile workers from a number of plants in the Vyborg district of Petrograd. They downed tools collectively, left the mills and moved speedily and deliberately in large groups from one factory to another. They did not restrict their search for allies to the textile sector. They demanded from workers in other industries, and notably the metal industry which was regarded as in the vanguard of the labour movement, not just moral support, but active participation. At each stop, the women would cajole and insist that now was the time to cease working and show the employers and government that workers had finally had as much as they were prepared to take. The women rammed home their points by throwing whatever they could lay their hands on (stones, snowballs, sticks) at factory windows and doors, and invading the buildings. Their methods were persuasive enough to convince masses of workers that this was not a simple bread riot, as so many politicians were assuming, but something much wider in scope.[49]

Women’s involvement continued throughout the revolution. In her study of their role in Petrograd, Moira Donald describes how “[t]he revolutionary mood of the women was not…dispelled after February. The female masses of Petrograd remained an important source of support for any party which could gain their allegiance. At least some members of the Bolshevik Party recognised this and were determined to ensure that the Bolsheviks would win the battle for that support.”[50]

From Bolshevik reports Donald was able to paint a picture of growing involvement by women workers in strike action and street protests, often alongside men. A strike in May in a dye and cleaning works involved approximately 350 workers, the majority of whom were female, as well as salespeople who worked in affiliated shops. In a June strike by waitresses and waiters in Petrograd’s teashops and restaurants, “only the Bolsheviks seemed to have realised the political significance of their actions and demands.”[51]

It is no coincidence that it was the Bolsheviks – the most committed to continuing and extending the fight for workers’ power – who played the most active role in organising women workers.[52] The Bolsheviks built up support amongst some of the most oppressed women in Petrograd – soldiers’ wives and laundresses – assisting them to form workplace committees and organising for them to take part in the Petrograd soviet.

This cannot be understood as arising purely from the Bolsheviks’ long-standing commitment to the equality of women, although that was important. As early as the 1890s, in response to a suggestion from Lenin, they produced a pamphlet about women, and in 1899 Lenin proposed adding a clause on women’s equality to the party’s program.[53] The Bolsheviks also produced journals, organised amongst women and participated in conferences about women’s rights throughout their history.

As Kollontai wrote, the Russian revolutionary movement in 1909

was the first to include in its program the demand for the equalisation of the rights of women with those of men; in speeches and in print the party demands always and everywhere the withdrawal of limitations affecting women; it is the party’s influence alone that has forced other parties and governments to carry out reforms in favour of women. And in Russia this party is not only the defender of women in terms of its theoretical positions but always and everywhere adheres to the principle of women’s equality.[54]

However just as important as their pre-existing political positions on women’s rights was the Bolsheviks’ commitment to the victory of the revolution, and their understanding that women workers’ involvement was vital in order to achieve that. Because of the war, women made up almost 50 percent of the Petrograd workforce, but their relatively recent entry into industry in large numbers and into low-status unskilled areas meant they were less well organised than some of their male counterparts. The Bolsheviks appreciated the urgency of addressing this and seizing on women workers’ willingness to fight and organise.[55] In this way for them, sexist behaviour and prejudice rightly came to be seen as counter-revolutionary. This is a key point which fundamentally distinguished the Bolsheviks’ approach from that of their political rivals, who showed far less interest in the activities of women workers.

Women became leaders as well as participants in the 1917 Russian Revolution. Unskilled women workers, some of the most oppressed and downtrodden in Russian society, gained the confidence to lead other workers, and in so doing broke down the habits of passivity, deference and timidity which their oppression imposed on them. The case of P.G. Glizer, a 19-year-old seamstress, was not atypical:

Glizer [heard] from a male worker on 27 February that her workshop should stop work because the tsar had been overthrown and they should join with the revolution. With the other seamstresses, she made a red banner with the slogan “Long live Freedom!” and listened all night to speeches promising a better life. When nothing had improved by May, Glizer’s workshop asked the owners for hot water for their lunches and for ventilators to be installed… She heard of a trade union that could help her, but did not know how to find it… Glizer met the union secretary, a female Bolshevik called Sakharova, who sent a union representative. This young girl noted down their grievances and then negotiated with the owners, returning at the end of the day to say that their demands had been met. The following day, the trade union organised a meeting in the workshop, and almost all the women joined. Glizer also became a Bolshevik, was elected chairperson of her factory committee, and in August became a member of the local soviet.[56]

They also took part in the insurrection, with women being encouraged to join the Red Guard, given intensive firing practice and ultimately taking part in the storming of the Winter Palace. As Richard Stites notes, “there were more armed Bolshevik women involved in the events of October 25 than there were women in the famous Women’s Battalion which guarded the palace”.[57] Women workers also played a role in the uprising in Moscow, particularly in the Moscow Province textile belt.[58]

Soldiers’ wives, who lived in abject poverty while their husbands were at the front, and washerwomen, perhaps the worst paid and worst treated group of women workers, rapidly organised in the early days of the revolution, assisted by the Bolsheviks and in particular the prominent Bolshevik organiser Alexandra Kollontai.[59] The impetus and atmosphere of revolt created by the revolution spurred these women into activity.

As well as drawing women into political action as independent agents and leaders, revolutions compel the working class to collectively challenge the prejudices and assumptions that are commonplace in times of social peace. The unity and solidarity that is necessarily forged between workers in the course of struggle breaks down and supersedes old divisions, and the newfound power of the oppressed generally arouses an intolerance towards degrading treatment.

This was evident in 1917 in relation to action and debates regarding wage increases. Divisions between better paid skilled workers and lower paid, unskilled women and young workers were well established in pre-revolutionary Russia, and an important contributing factor to the low status of women. Equal pay became a key issue in the workers’ movement in the months immediately after February, as workers quickly came to realise the need to improve the conditions of all in order to advance the position of each. S.A. Smith describes how during this period, “[t]he diminution of wage differentials was the result of conscious policy on the part of factory committees to try to improve the dire situation of unskilled workers, women workers and youth”.[60]

The way in which the struggle elicited greater sympathy and political support for those most disadvantaged and persecuted by the inequalities of the system is evidenced in the Petrograd metal industry. Here, during fraught negotiations between the workers’ committee and management, workers proposed and adopted a policy whereby the higher wages of the skilled workers would be distributed to the lower paid until the negotiations were completed. The workers’ representative argued for it thus: “We must show our true mettle. Are we the same as the exploiting bourgeois, or are we a bit more aware and willing to help the chernorabochie [unskilled workers]? Let us, the masterovye [skilled workers], lend a hand to our starving, ragged comrades.”[61] The cooperation and mutual respect collective action demands thus compels workers to counterpose their movement to the old prejudices of bourgeois society and organically begins to raise issues of broader social justice that workers come to see they have a direct material interest in.

In the same way, women fighting effectively as equals alongside men in struggle inevitably calls into question for all involved the idea that women naturally belong in the home raising children, or that they should defer to the authority of men. The Bolshevik leader Krupskaia gives an example of this in her description of a meeting of revolutionary youth that she attended during 1917:

One of the items was that all members must learn to sew. Then one young fellow, a Bolshevik, asked: “Why should everyone learn to sew? Girls, of course, must be able to sew, otherwise, later on, they will not be able to sew buttons on their husbands’ trousers, but why should we all learn?” These words raised a storm of indignation. Not only the girls, but everybody expressed indignation and jumped up and down from their seats. “The wife must sew buttons on trousers? What do you mean? Do you want to uphold the old slavery of women? The wife is her husband’s comrade, not his servant!” The lad who proposed that only women learn to sew had to surrender.[62]

Stites cites a similar example of women in a bakery queue in July 1917. They expressed little interest in the news that universal suffrage had been granted by the Provisional government, as they already had the vote in the workers’ councils and soviets, but when a nearby soldier smirked and said: “‘Does that mean I can’t hit my wife?’…the crowd livened up. ‘Oh no you don’t honey,’ they shouted. ‘None of that. You just try it. Nothing doing. Let ourselves be beaten anymore? Not on your life. Nobody has the right now’.”[63]

In this way, struggle changes ideas and forges bonds across long-standing divides. It forces people to see themselves and each other in a radically different light, as equals, in ways that permeate even the most personal and intimate aspects of life. Just as Marx described, such struggles lay the basis for a socialist world. Indeed, it was through observing this very tendency on the part of French workers that Marx came to understand the potential of the working class to create a new type of society. As Michael Löwy describes:

Marx saw in the proletariat a sphere which – in contrast to the bourgeoisie, dedicated to the atomistic individualism of its private interests – tends towards solidarity and association; in other words, the class which provides, in embryo, the model of the future society.[64]

Marx wrote to a friend about his experience of mass working class struggles in 1844:

One must know the studiousness, the craving for knowledge, the moral energy and the unceasing urge for development of the French and English workers to be able to form an idea of the human nobility of this movement.[65]

It is this dynamic that explains why people who might be sexist or otherwise bigoted at one stage, can be the same people who in different circumstances will fight for the oppressed and to overthrow those who perpetuate and benefit from the status quo.

But more than just challenging ideas and prejudices, workers’ revolutions also strike at the structures and institutions of society on which oppression rests. Taking over and reorganising production necessarily involves a total and thoroughgoing restructuring of society. The subordination of life to capital accumulation, and the artificial distinction this necessitates between “personal” and “public” or working life must be challenged.

Most importantly, revolutions create new structures of workers’ power in the form of democratic workers’ councils, which provide the basis for mass involvement in decision-making about how the resources and productive capacity of society should be used. They allow the majority of oppressed and exploited to take control of and transform their social conditions according to their own needs. This involves both practical and political changes. The wholesale reordering of transport, communication, food production and industrial production is necessary in order that workers ensure mass participation in the struggle and successfully stave off the inevitable counter-revolution.

Similarly, the establishment of communal kitchens, laundries and nurseries, as occurred after the October revolution, relieves working class women of this burden in order that they can better participate in the revolution. The revolution also established political rights that are yet to be achieved in much of the world today. The December proclamation of the new workers’ state’s program included the scrapping of laws criminalising homosexuality, abolished the concept of illegitimacy, and secularised marriage and divorce.[66]

This is not to say that there was no resistance to some of these and subsequent measures; there was certainly debate within the soviets regarding these questions. But ultimately, the context of revolutionary upheaval and the ideological turmoil it created meant that the mass of backward male workers, and indeed backward women workers, were able to be won over by the Bolsheviks and other more advanced layers of the working class in a way that would not have been possible before the revolution. Workers were able to be won over because, as John Lauritsen and David Thorstad note, these measures were “an integral part of the social revolution. The sweeping reforms in sex-related matters were the immediate by-product of the Russian Revolution”.[67]

As the revolution demonstrates, workers have no reason to impose the prescriptive nuclear family model on others, nor to maintain sexual inequality of any sort, when they are in control of their lives and society. The types or number of relationships people might form, their sexual practices or their behaviour and dress would be of no practical consequence to workers, as they are for the capitalist class. For the capitalists, social organisation and domestic arrangements are economic considerations with ideological implications. They have an interest in minimising the cost of labour power and the provision of social services as well as maintaining the stereotypes which buttress the family. In a society where people’s needs took precedence over profit margins and economic competitiveness, eating, bringing up children, socialising and caring would not be organised according to how cheaply, quickly and minimally it could be done, but would be a major focus of time and energy, and creative innovation. Judgmental or bigoted attitudes that accorded with and reflected the idealised institution of the family, insofar as they endured, would therefore have no bearing on, and offer no assistance in, society fulfilling its needs or goals. Without such a material base, and without a ruling class with the power to impose them, there would be no basis for these sexist ideas and practices to persist.

The complete restructuring of society that eliminates all the old vestiges of exploitative class relations, of which women’s oppression is an integral part, is therefore the natural direction the struggle must take if it is to succeed. For this to happen, workers don’t have to set out with this conscious intention. Rather, it emerges as a natural requirement of the struggle. As Marx noted:

It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do. Its aim and historical action is visibly and irrevocably foreshadowed by its own life-situation as well as in the whole organisation of bourgeois society today.[68]

Working class revolution therefore has the potential to liberate all the oppressed – not just because the participation of the mass of oppressed people will be a precondition for victory, but because only the working class has the social power and propensity to reorganise society, and in so doing strike at the structural basis of all social inequality.

Analysis of women’s oppression centred on domestic labour

Despite the indisputable importance of revolution and the transformative nature of the class struggle to the theory and practice of genuine Marxism, it is rarely emphasised in Marxist-feminist and socialist-feminist work, if recognised at all.

Vogel, whose work is currently enjoying a resurgence on the left, including among Marxists, barely mentions revolution and explicitly plays down the importance of women as part of the working class. She argues that “[t]he specific character of women’s oppression in capitalist society is established, in short, by women’s particular dual position with respect to domestic labour and equal rights”.[69] Insofar as she does allude to the underpaid waged labour of women, she argues that it is only significant as a site of struggle for formal equality, that is, to eradicate low-paid “women’s work”.

She criticises socialist-feminists and Marxists for arguing that women’s oppression is a product both of women’s role as waged and domestic labourers, arguing that this approach “focus[es] solely on economic phenomena. It fails to account for the oppression of women not in the working class, and cannot explain the potential for building progressive women’s organisations that cross class divisions, nor the possible obstacles to uniting women from distinct racial or national groups into a single women’s movement. Put another way, the claim that women’s oppression rests on their dual position with respect to domestic and wage labour is economistic.”[70] In line with this, Vogel dismisses the German Marxist Clara Zetkin for “gloss[ing] over the issue of domestic labour in the household” in her efforts to organise women workers in the 1890s.[71]

She goes on to argue that an analysis centred on domestic labour and equal rights is preferable – in part because it better lends itself to the building of a “broad based women’s liberation movement”, and in so doing avoids reproducing the “economic determinism of the socialist tradition.”[72] In other words, the analysis of women’s oppression must be made to fit the strategy to which Vogel has a pre-existing commitment.

Economism is a tendency within the workers’ movement which downplays political questions and argues that the workers’ movement should confine its activities to the immediate conflict between workers and their bosses. It is a tendency that Lenin and the Bolsheviks famously battled against. Lenin insisted that a revolutionary organisation should function as the “tribune of the oppressed”,[73] rather than just as a means to narrowly improve workers’ economic position.

However there is nothing necessarily economistic about the argument that the underpaid waged labour of women is an important element of their oppression. Aside from the workplace being a centrally important aspect of women’s everyday experience of sexism under capitalism, paid work is also a major source of potential power which can provide a basis to challenge oppression. Vogel’s apparent lack of interest in the process whereby the overwhelming majority of women can be involved in self-emancipation is a more significant problem than the danger of economism. Economism can be fought within the workers’ movement by Marxists who are committed to extending the economic struggle of the working class into a political one that challenges all forms of social injustice and oppression. Looking to a force outside the workers’ movement, as Vogel does by advocating an independent women’s movement, might help avoid the problem of economism, but it cannot on its own lead to the liberation of women. More often, as Martha Gimenez has pointed out, “[r]itualistic avoidance of ‘economism’ and ‘biological determinism’ tends to lead, unerringly, to dualism hopelessly mired in the dead ends of multiple causality, multiple interdependence, mutual interaction, and so forth”.[74]

Ironically, an over-emphasis on the domestic sphere can just as easily lead to the reductionist conclusions Vogel attributes to the socialist movement. By hingeing her analysis of women’s oppression almost entirely on the inequities of domestic life, Vogel oversimplifies both the material basis of women’s oppression and the structure of the capitalist economy. Nor does it more compellingly lead to the conclusion that all women can unite, given the immense gulf in the experience of domestic labour for women of different social classes. The experience of migrant, Aboriginal and other low-paid women juggling paid work with inadequate childcare, in addition to taking responsibility for the sick and the elderly, is a world away from the experience of wealthy women, who are likely to employ their poorer counterparts on low wages as nannies and cleaners, and who can afford to pay for decent aged care – again, performed overwhelmingly by underpaid women. Aboriginal, single and unemployed women with children also face the ongoing threat of having their children removed (i.e. stolen from them by the state or welfare agencies) that rich women almost never do.

For the vast majority of women in the world today, the labour they perform has a dual nature. It involves both unpaid domestic labour centred in the home and waged work (as, for that matter, does that of working class men). There is a dialectical relationship between the two, with each acting to reinforce the subordinate position of women.[75]

Importantly, the productive sphere exerts more influence in this process, shaping the conditions under which the domestic sphere functions. The changes in home and family life that have resulted from the increased participation of women in the workforce, the expansion of capitalist production into labour-saving devices for the home and the marketisation and commodification of various domestic responsibilities (most importantly food production and preparation) are just some of the ways in which the productive sphere has affected and shaped the domestic.

The analysis of women’s oppression centred on domestic labour also tends to exaggerate the separateness of private and public life under capitalism. This has also been a feature of the analysis of those feminists who posit the domestic or private sphere as the structural basis for an independently operating power structure responsible for the oppression of women, usually called patriarchy. This approach is frequently justified by reference to Engels, based on his comment that:

According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life. This, again, is of a twofold character. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of articles of food and clothing, dwellings, and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organisation under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labor on the one hand and of the family on the other.[76]

But in order for patriarchy theorists to sustain an argument based on Engels they have had to ignore the end of his argument:

However, within this structure of society based on kinship groups the productivity of labor increasingly develops, and with it private property and exchange, differences of wealth, the possibility of utilising the labour power of others, and hence the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which in the course of generations strive to adapt the old social order to the new conditions, until at last their incompatibility brings about a complete upheaval. In the collision of the newly-developed social classes, the old society founded on kinship groups is broken up; in its place appears a new society, with its control centred in the state, the subordinate units of which are no longer kinship associations, but local associations; a society in which the system of the family is completely dominated by the system of property.[77]

The important point and clear implication here is that the apparent separation of the private and public spheres hides an underlying connectedness between the two, and a dialectical relationship in which production is the more heavily weighted part. This means, as Gimenez points out, that “theoretical perspectives that postulate the independent origin of male supremacy cannot legitimately claim support in Engels’ statement”.[78] As Heather Brown also notes, Marx alluded to this relationship in his discussion of women entering paid work in Capital. There he argued that the effect of paid work on the independence and social position of women altered both their social position and the dynamics of family life.[79]

How the reproduction of the working class is conditioned by the broader economic imperatives of the capitalist system, and the exploitative productive process that underpins them, must be a matter of concrete analysis. An over-emphasis on the separation of these spheres cannot adequately account for the full complexity of the capitalist system, nor women’s unequal position within it. Vogel’s approach, which seeks to understand women’s oppression almost solely through their role in reproduction, is therefore profoundly inadequate.

Putting struggle and revolution back at the centre of a strategy for liberation

In addition to being disorienting analytically, Vogel’s approach is politically debilitating. An understanding of women’s oppression rooted predominantly in domestic labour to the exclusion of paid work cannot lead to a strategy for liberation because it does not identify a source of power that women can exercise. This is not because one does not exist, but because the analysis skews the focus away from the site of it.

Unlike waged labour, domestic labour is individualised, atomised and does not readily push those who perform it together as allies in collective struggle. It does not bring people together for hours each day, force them to cooperate and build bonds in the course of work and pit them against a common enemy perennially on the look-out to undermine their working conditions and living standards, as is the case for those in paid work. And most importantly, domestic labour does not represent a source of collective power for those who undertake it, as waged labour does by virtue of the fact that profit-making depends on it. The effect of women taking action by withdrawing or slowing down the domestic labour they perform would most immediately be felt by children, the elderly and in the overall health of the working class, none of whom are responsible for women’s oppression.

On the other hand, and as already outlined, at high points in struggle the workers’ movement both challenges those who benefit from women’s oppression, involves women as political agents and gives rise to structures which relieve women of the disproportionate burden they bear with regard to domestic labour.

Vogel’s insistence on the importance of building “women’s organisations that cross class divisions” is the logical conclusion and aim of her analysis. The problems inherent in such a strategy for women’s liberation will be discussed further below. Vogel also talks about the need for a “socialist transition” away from capitalism as a way to end women’s oppression, although there is little to suggest that by this she means the revolutionary struggle of the working class that is central to Marxism. Indeed, she does not seem to think that such a transition would even disrupt the existing domestic arrangements of people much at all, arguing that “[k]in based sites for the reproduction of labour power – that is, families – have a definite role in social reproduction during the socialist transition” and that “[s]ocialist society does not, it is clear, abolish the family”.[80]

It is one thing to argue that working class people will not readily reject the family and the significant comfort and security it provides without at least the partial development of a viable alternative. But Vogel seems to suggest that so long as domestic labour is shared “among women, men and, in appropriate proportion, children”, women’s oppression could be resolved without taking the “drastic” action of abolishing the family structure. Such a position artificially separates domestic labour and the family from paid work and all the other structures which perpetuate women’s oppression. It also significantly downplays the extent of social upheaval that will be necessary to liberate women.

Once we recognise the way the workplace conditions domestic labour and family life, it is inconceivable that domestic labour could be reorganised to the extent sufficient to alter the political dynamics of it without the fundamental restructuring of production. This could only happen as a result of the conscious activity of workers fighting for things like genuine equal pay, equal opportunity so women can leave unsatisfactory relationships, comparable working hours for women and men so they can genuinely share domestic labor, shorter hours overall for both women and men, and much more – all of which immediately raises the need for a massive struggle by the working class as a whole. Vogel’s ambiguous position on the question of working class self-activity and the necessity of revolution, which such struggles would raise, can only serve to give comfort to left wing reformists for whom preserving the existing structures of the system, while hoping also for social equality, has a strong appeal.

In a final and related point, what exactly Vogel foresees occurring in this “socialist transition” is unclear. Her references to “existing socialist societies” (which in 1983 could only have meant the USSR, China or their various satellite regimes) hardly suggests it involves the working class democratically seizing the productive resources of society and reorganising them on a democratic basis to meet their needs. Nor does Vogel leave much room for the agency of women workers, or indeed any workers, in the transition to socialism, referring instead to the “proper management of domestic labour and women’s work” as a “critical problem for socialist society”. It can only be assumed that Vogel does not see the process by which a socialist society might be brought about as central to the outcome in the way Marx clearly did. For all Vogel’s efforts to construct “a more adequate theoretical framework”[81] than Marxism can offer, in practice it has led back to a political orientation not that dissimilar to the inadequate and conservative Stalinist and reformist politics which cannot point a way forward for women’s liberation.

The retreat from Marxism

Vogel is just one of many socialist or left wing feminists who have retreated from the revolutionary content of Marxism.

In her useful and informative book about women and class in the United States, Johanna Brenner correctly identifies the problem women liberationists face today: “[s]econd-wave feminism has come up against a deep impasse that stretches across US politics, rooted in the decline of working class organisation in the face of the employers’ offensive and the increasing centralisation and mobility of capital.”[82] But while she identifies that challenging capitalism is vital, the solution she offers is nevertheless vague and inadequate:

The solution to the political impasse facing feminism cannot come from feminists alone. It will require a serious and disruptive challenge to capital, a broad and militant “rainbow movement” including new, more social and political forms of trade union struggle and national political organisation independent of the Democratic Party.[83]

While these developments would be welcome from the point of view of revolutionary Marxists, they hardly constitute a viable strategy for the kind of struggles that are needed to end sexism.

Hester Eisenstein has likewise criticised the shift to the right amongst mainstream feminism in her timely book Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World. Like Brenner, she identifies the need for a more radical challenge to the system than what more right wing feminism alone can offer. But when it comes to addressing the question of what such a challenge would concretely involve, her suggestions are limited and inadequate: consciousness raising; imploring male leftists to “overcome their ‘inability to dream’”;[84] a greater awareness of class and the way it divides women; an orientation to the union movement and workers’ struggles on the part of the women’s movement; supporting programs that empower Indigenous people and a return to state-led development;[85] plus a “transformed maternalism” in which the existing state takes more responsibility for health and childcare.[86] Supportable as these measures are, they do not threaten the framework of capitalism or bear any resemblance to the self-conscious activity of the mass of workers that is the crux of classical Marxism.

In the same vein, Nancy Fraser argues for a return to an improved form of feminism in response to the rift between the historic movement for “gender justice” and the strand which has “fall[en] prey to the most opportunistic of seducers” in neoliberal capitalism.[87] Somehow, a form of feminism that is non-economistic, anti-neoliberal, anti-androcentric and anti-statist (if it can be generated at all) will be able to avoid the impasse of mainstream feminism today. Again, she makes no mention of the role of working class self-activity, nor the means by which the structures which uphold oppression might be dismantled.

Somewhat differently, Heather Brown has attempted to counter the idea that Marx and Engels were reductionist in their approach to gender and the family through a thorough reappraisal of their writings on the subject. However in her eagerness to relieve Marx of the dreaded curse of reductionism she comes to some questionable conclusions, arguing that Marx (as opposed to the much maligned Engels) was not reductionist or economistic because he took into account “the unique ways in which economics and the specifically capitalist form of patriarchy interact to oppress women” and that he “began to discuss the interdependent relationship between class and gender without fundamentally privileging either”.[88]

The implication here is that only by treating class and gender as independent political and social forces can reductionism be avoided, and that it is therefore necessary to demonstrate that Marx did this in order to prove his non-reductionist credentials. As much as Brown’s analysis does correct misconceptions about Marx, and to a lesser extent Engels, there can be no question that Marx “privileged” class as a form of social differentiation. The nature of gender as a social category is qualitatively different, and to recognise this fact is in no way to downplay the importance of the question of women’s liberation, as so many left wing feminists seem to assume. Rather, it is the basis on which the interlocking nature of oppression, and the full complexity of the capitalist system, can be best appreciated.

As the above examples illustrate then, there has been a wholesale retreat from emphasising the revolutionary essence of Marxism and the importance of struggle in changing mass consciousness and breaking down prejudice. Holding this back further still is the seemingly unbreakable consensus that classical Marxism, by virtue of its supposedly “reductionist” or “economic determinist” nature, cannot adequately account for, or offer a strategy to end, women’s oppression. Underpinning both these trends is the underlying weakness and long-term retreat of the working class movement globally, both politically and organisationally. A revival in the class struggle has the potential to turn this situation around, but short of that, it is imperative that Marxists defend the idea that working class revolution has the potential to liberate all of humanity, and keep alive an understanding of the political movements and organisations whose actions have demonstrated the veracity of this contention historically.

Giving up, looking for theories to merge with Marxism, or embarking on “rethinks” in non-revolutionary periods, as many have done, can only give weight to Lukács’ observation that “all attempts to surpass or ‘improve’ [Marxism] have led and must lead to over-simplification, triviality and eclecticism”.[89]

Women and class

One political issue on which feminists broadly agree is that a cross-class women’s movement is both possible to build and a necessary step to liberate women today. Indeed this is one of the few contentions around which socialist feminists, an otherwise quite heterogeneous group, are in broad agreement. Vogel argues for it this way:

Socialist feminists maintain, against some opinions on the left, that women can be successfully organised, and they emphasise the need for organisations that include women from all sectors of society… They observe, moreover, that mobilisation demands a special sensitivity to women’s experience as women, and they assert the legitimacy and importance of organisations comprised of women only. It is precisely the specific character of women’s situation that requires their separate organisation. Here, socialist feminists frequently find themselves in opposition to much of the tradition of socialist theory and practice. Socialist-feminist theory takes on the essential task of developing a framework that can guide the process of organising women from different classes and sectors into an autonomous women’s movement.[90]

However the increasingly glaring class divide between women today means that there is much less of a material basis for the idea that there exists a “sisterhood” of women, or that women share a common interest around which they can practically unite, than there was in the 1960s.

Most obviously, women today are prominent in the ruling institutions of capitalism, in stark contrast to a generation ago. In 2010 Australia experienced its first female Prime Minister, the current Governor General is a woman, until recently the head of the Australian Industry Group was a woman, a woman heads the Australian Council of Trade Unions and the richest person in the country, Gina Rinehart, is a woman. The representation of women on boards and in the higher echelons of society has dramatically increased over the last 40 years, despite being still far from equal.

Reflecting and reinforcing this, within most of the ruling classes in the advanced capitalist world today, there is an effective consensus that women legitimately belong in leadership positions, should be treated equally and that resources should be devoted towards enabling them to succeed and advance, even if this is at times token. International Women’s Day breakfasts are now a regular and unremarkable feature on most corporate calendars, women in business and political networks abound and there is even an all-male lobby group, Male Champions of Change, whose sole purpose is to advocate for more female representation at the CEO and upper management level. It counts among its members the CEOs of some of Australia’s largest corporations, including Telstra, ANZ, the Commonwealth Bank, Qantas and Woolworths. As The Economist put it in a 2009 special issue on women in the workforce, “[t]oday women make up the majority of professional workers in many countries…and casual sexism is for losers”.[91]

This reflects the fact that overwhelmingly, middle and ruling class women have been the main beneficiaries of the gains of the 1960 and 70s. They have pushed their way into boardrooms, through preselection battles, into newsrooms and the social commentary set, in no small part because of the changes that working class women and unions were crucial in fighting for. These women now have real influence over the dialogue surrounding women’s rights. Respected feminist historian Marilyn Lake, in her book Getting Equal. The history of Australian feminism, titled her chapter on this process “The Institutionalisation of Feminism”.[92] As Alison Wolf in her book The XX Factor points out:

In 2012, about 70 million women worldwide belonged, in their own right, to either the upper-middle class of “highly educated professional and salaried” workers and affluent business owners or to the tiny group of super-rich. And the number is climbing fast. Seventy million is an enormous number… But 70 million is also a small minority. Many women in rich developed countries have low incomes, limited possibilities and unpleasant jobs. These profound changes involve our elites; women are not advancing together in a vast sisterly phalanx.[93]

As Wolf suggests, the majority of working class women have not enjoyed such benefits during this period. Instead, their situation has deteriorated both economically and socially as a result of decades of neoliberal attacks on the rights of migrants, Muslims, Indigenous communities and workers’ right to organise, plus cuts to the welfare state and social services. As the British Marxist Lindsey German pointed out as early as 1988:

[A]lthough there have undoubtedly been major advances for women in the past decades, these have been nearly all advances for bourgeois women. They have been about a minority of middle- and upper-class women gaining access to the once closed worlds of men – in business, finance, journalism or higher education. These sorts of advances have in fact led to the dominant ideas inside the women’s movement being more right-wing than ever. At the same time there are less real gains for working women, and indeed some major attacks on hard-won rights.[94]

Those unable to outsource their domestic responsibilities, who have to work long hours for low pay and who are forced to negotiate underfunded and dilapidated health, education and welfare systems – including Aboriginal women and a growing number of poor non-Aboriginal women facing the humiliation of quarantined welfare – are a world apart from their sisters who have risen to the boardrooms and ministerial offices as a result of the opening up of opportunities for women. Working class women have been subject to an unremitting neoliberal assault, led in part by the female beneficiaries of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Australia’s first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, is an example in point. Despite her own ground-breaking achievement, she initially opposed the high profile and very significant equal pay campaign led by the Australian Services Union for low-paid women social and community sector workers which culminated in the 2012 equal pay ruling.[95] She also abolished the single parent’s pension for women with children over eight years old, a move which targeted some of the poorest and most vulnerable women in the country.

The sector with the highest percentage of women directors in Australia,[96] the insurance and banking industry, is also that with the greatest gender pay gap – 32.7 percent in 2012 compared to a national average of 17.5 percent.[97] Westpac CEO Gail Kelly, one of the highest paid women in Australia, appears blissfully unperturbed by this fact, while Heather Ridout, in her role as head of the Australian Industry Group in 2004, was a key advocate for WorkChoices, a Howard-era anti-worker policy which had a particularly pernicious effect on women workers.

So while formal legal equality, the introduction of anti-discrimination laws, greater availability of reproductive procedures, the theoretical entitlement to equal pay and the sea-change in attitudes towards gender equality have undoubtedly affected the lives of all women, rich and poor, there has been a significant class differentiation in the distribution of these gains.

It is therefore increasingly at odds with the times to insist that all women can or should unite. There exists now a significant, high profile and self-conscious layer of women who have no interest in liberation of any sort, and any movement that included or aspired to include these women would be dragged to the right, if it was not openly reactionary. This is not a strategy for liberation today.

It is also the case that any upsurge in organising around women’s rights cannot help but have a class aspect to it, so integrated into the international working class are women and so stark is global inequality today. As Nancy Holmstrom puts it, “the workforce of the United States is increasingly female and minority… Even NOW (the National Organisation of Women) is considerably more class and race conscious than it was in its early days… The brutal economic realities of globalisation make it impossible to ignore class, and feminists are now asking on a global level what they asked on a social level in the 1970s.”[98]

The Women’s Liberation Movement: a model for today?

The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 70s is usually put forward as the template for the sort of movement argued for by socialist feminists. But this movement was the product of a very specific historical period that is unlikely to be repeated.

It emerged at a time when the left was relatively strong, the anti-Vietnam campaign suggested victories were possible and radical struggles for liberation in many forms were gaining ground internationally. It emerged during a period in which women, particularly young women, were both being drawn into struggle and were facing a contradiction between the aspirations and expectations born out of their increased participation in education and work alongside men, and the reality of officially sanctioned sexism and the lack of opportunities for advancement, as well as basic economic and social equality. This drove a radicalisation amongst a layer of women (mostly white, students and middle class) and demands for social and economic structures to adjust to the new reality of women’s lives.

It was also a period in which, especially in the US, the sensibilities of people on the left were backward on this question, and lacked in some cases even an elementary understanding of and sensitivity towards women’s oppression. This led many women to look away from the traditional left and towards an orientation to separate women’s movements. This was further encouraged by the fact that in the 1960s, greater common ground between women in different social strata could be found, such was the structural discrimination across ruling institutions and mainstream social life. This context meant that organising a separate women’s movement could seem like the logical tactic to adopt, and a legitimate way to challenge the sexist attitudes and structural discrimination women faced. This situation is very different today. As Wolf observes:

The young female students of 2008 have never – unlike their ancestors – experienced anything that remotely resembles a caste system. On the contrary, at the top, men and women work together, and have work lives and habits that are increasingly similar. Elite women’s lives are, as a result, increasingly different from other women’s. It is a new and comprehensive fracture.[99]

And, for all the romance associated with it, the Women’s Liberation Movement did not in fact provide a positive example of how all women can unite. Instead, it was riven by splits after a relatively short period (two or three years in Australia). In the US, a flagrant disregard (and at times deliberate marginalisation) of the particular concerns of poor and Black women wholly discredited the mainstream women’s movement in the eyes of many, leading to bitter splits and acrimony.[100]

In Australia, the movement was far more left wing and originated from the activities of working class militants and union organisers, many of them Communist Party members and union militants involved in the unions’ campaign for equal pay. But even here, Germaine Greer was to comment years later that in her book The Female Eunuch, poor women hardly rate a mention. A report on a feminist meeting planning International Women’s Year (1975) commented that the “aggressiveness and hostility…was vicious… The women’s movement is dead.”[101] The Marxist-feminist Ann Curthoys concluded: “[w]hereas the task of a Marxist class analysis is to assert common class interests, culture and structural situations across gender and other ascriptive lines, the task of feminism is to assert the unity of women.” But, she argued, the category women, “which [according to feminist theory] is potentially able to be called into being as a self-conscious social group is being constantly split apart by class and ethnic allegiances”.[102] The Women’s Liberation Movement, reflecting as it did the spirit of the times, made a huge impact on attitudes in society. However, it never mobilised anything like the hundreds of thousands who demonstrated against the Vietnam War, or the militancy of tens of thousands of students, and its impact on the working class was minimal in comparison. The nostalgic elevation of its influence by those for whom the existence of such a movement is the key or only way to challenge sexism has only served to distort and confuse our understanding of women’s oppression and what it will take to end it ever since.

Fundamentally, the absence of shared material interests between women mitigates against a united movement of women. The degree and scale of soul-searching that has gone on since the collapse of the Women’s Liberation Movement (and others) over the question of how movements of the oppressed can be sensitive to other forms of oppression that intersect and cut across each other highlights the profundity of the crisis this breakdown caused.

The conditions and factors that temporarily brought a particular layer of women together in a movement in the late 1960s no longer shape women’s lives today, nor do they inform attitudes towards sexual politics or the struggle for women’s liberation. The era of unashamed misogyny characterising official politics and social institutions which gave rise to the last major upsurge in struggle is unlikely to be repeated, at least in the Western world. It is therefore inappropriate and dogmatic to hold onto an organisational and strategic schema that no longer fits with reality.

What sort of organising is needed?

Regardless of whether or not a cross-class women’s movement is likely to emerge today, and what the politics of such a movement might be, there are theoretical problems which underpin the argument for the necessity of such a movement.

One is the idea that only women are able to fight or have an interest in fighting sexism and for liberation, so gains will only be won when women organise separately to fight for them. But there are plenty of women today for whom defending the system and their privileged position within it is far more important than combating sexism – which if successful has the potential to undermine their profits. The idea that there could be unity between these women and working class and most Indigenous or migrant women is laughable, and increasingly seen as such today.

It is also the case that historically the workers’ movement, comprising both women and men, has been more instrumental in winning gains for women than have women alone. Male-dominated unions such as the metalworkers were some of the most active in the union-led campaign for equal pay in Australia, raising the demand, taking action and covering the issue in their publications. Male doctors such as Bertram Wainer and Ken Davidson in Victoria played a crucial role in the first successful campaign for abortion law reform in the late 1960s, in the face of police violence and threats of jail. This reflects the fact that class position and politics, as much as if not more than personal experience of oppression or lack thereof, is the crucial determinant of where individuals and organisations line up in the struggle for women’s rights.

Just as in revolutionary upheavals, the workers’ movement has tended to take up the struggle against women’s oppression because their enemies – the bosses and government – are also the ones responsible for the oppression of women and because there exists a natural connection between the two. The more commitment and experience a particular union has in fighting, the more likely it is to be aware of this, and to recognise the importance of broader issues of social equality as a means by which to both weaken the bosses and strengthen the bonds of solidarity between workers that are necessary for victory. This explains why it has traditionally been the most militant unions, not the most female-dominated, that have been at the forefront of struggles for social justice in Australia. For example, it was the militant Builders Labourers Federation which campaigned for women’s right to work on building sites and struck over the rights of gay students in the 1970s, and Communist-aligned unions such as the waterside workers and seamen that took up issues of Aboriginal rights.[103]

The other element to the argument, related to the first, is that a separate women’s movement is necessary to force male workers to take the issue of women’s liberation seriously. The assumption here is that male workers will resist this or need to be somehow forced. The examples above show that this is not the case, even well short of revolutionary struggles. In the high points of workers’ struggles, whether they like it or not, success will involve confronting issues of oppression. Action that workers take in order to advance their interests, whether strikes, demonstrations or occupations, depend on wide layers of support to be successful, meaning there is a pressure towards mutual respect and cooperation across traditional divides. Action itself requires practical measures which start to bring people together, whether it’s organising childcare for strikers’ children, organising food and funds or involving community groups in action. All this involves generating a sense of solidarity and community, and reorganising the way things are done, in order to achieve a common goal. A tendency towards challenging women’s oppression is therefore an organic part of the struggle, and not something that needs to be imposed on the workers’ movement from the outside.

This does not mean that there is no role for organisation and conscious political intervention. It should not be taken for granted that working class consciousness and action will automatically develop in this direction, or develop with sufficient rapidity to overcome the inevitable challenges and attempts at sabotage, simply because such a tendency exists. Active intervention that takes as its goal developing working class consciousness to the greatest possible degree (including an awareness of the need to oppose and fight all forms of oppression), establishing and maintaining democratic structures through which the working class can reorganise and run society, and uncompromisingly overthrowing and destroying all remnants of capitalist rule in order that humanity be liberated is absolutely necessary.

But an organisation capable of such intervention cannot be drawn from women alone. It must involve the most class-conscious and determined layers of the working class with an orientation to leading others in action, who attempt to generalise the struggle, build solidarity where the capitalist class tries to break it down, politicise and expand struggles where they emerge and win others behind the need for thoroughgoing social transformation. What is needed, in other words, is an organisation of anti-capitalist revolutionaries based in the workers’ movement, committed to fighting all forms of oppression and to leading the fight for a democratic, socialist society run by workers.

This is not to say that if women were to get organised in the course of revolutionary struggle, or for that matter in times of relative social peace, Marxists would not be involved in or supportive of such a movement. What attitude to take to such a development would be an entirely concrete question. But the proposition that an independent movement of women is a necessary prerequisite for women’s oppression to be addressed by the workers’ movement in the course of revolution, or for sexism to be challenged, is dogmatic, ahistorical and reflects a lack of appreciation of the nature and dynamic of working class struggle.

Because revolutionary Marxists have an understanding of the need to raise consciousness about the inequality and oppression of the system as much as possible before a revolution, they have also been the ones who have pioneered progressive positions on questions of oppression.[104] But the correct political approach is not an ironclad guarantee against backward ideas and practices finding expression even amongst people theoretically opposed to them. Because revolutionary organisations are both a part of resisting the prejudices of capitalism, but also inevitably rooted within the system that generates them, they cannot wholly escape the pressures on their members towards practices and sensibilities that reflect the unequal and oppressive social conditions of capitalism. To expect otherwise would be utopian, or require an unworkable and counterproductive cordoning off of revolutionaries from the rest of society and the working class. Maintaining and following through on a commitment to acting in accordance with revolutionary Marxist principles, while acknowledging and attempting to consciously oppose the inescapable pressures capitalism simultaneously exerts, is an ongoing and continuing challenge for any and every revolutionary organisation.

Conclusion

A working class revolution to overthrow capitalism is needed to liberate women. This is why revolutionary Marxism is of enduring relevance to those wanting to fight sexism today. The fundamental principles and theoretical framework of Marxism – which involves an understanding of the revolutionary potential of the working class, a recognition of the ability to and the necessity for workers to fight to liberate all of the oppressed, a commitment to active intervention into the working class movement to better realise this potential and the need to build a broader body of theory based on this experience in order to strengthen future struggles – continues to be the framework through which the capitalist system and women’s oppression can best be understood and fought.

Any serious renewal of the struggle for women’s liberation in the context of a capitalist system in crisis – a system that has experienced three decades of neoliberal offensive and which formally accepts women’s equality and now counts many women in the ruling class – will most likely be dependent on a revival of working class struggle. The changing place of women means that any revival in struggle will necessarily involve masses of women and therefore will have a tendency to organically take up women’s demands, rather than this having to be forced on reluctant workers. In the course of this struggle, resistance on the part of the wealthy and powerful women, who will stand in solidarity with the men of their class, will need to be overcome.

Given the scale of the crisis plaguing world capitalism, the re-emergence of mass politics in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere and the increasingly stark nature of class inequality, including within oppressed groups, this is not a far-fetched prospect. The re-emergence of such struggles is the only way forward in the fight for women’s liberation today. That makes the clarification and defence of the Marxist theory of women’s liberation profoundly relevant.

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Marx, Karl, and Engels, Frederick, 1846, The German Ideology, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/index.htm.

McDermid, Jane and Hillyar, Anna, 1999, Midwives of the Revolution, UCL Press.

Meekosha, Helen and Pettman, Jan, 1991, “Beyond Category Politics”, Hecate, XVII, (ii).

Rees, John, 1998, The Algebra of Revolution. The dialectic and the classical Marxist tradition, Routledge.

Ryan, Edna and Conlon, Anne, 1975, Gentle Invaders, Nelson.

Sacks, Karen, 1982, Sisters and Wives. The Past and Future of Sexual Equality, University of Illinois Press.

Smith, S.A, 1983, Red Petrograd, Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Sharon, 2013-14, “Black feminism and intersectionality”, International Socialist Review, 91, Winter.

Stites, Richard, 1991 [1978], The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia, Princeton University Press.

Stone, Janey, 1996, “A Different Voice? Women and work in Australia”, in Rick Kuhn and Tom O’Lincoln (eds), Class and Class Conflict in Australia, Longman Australia.

Summers, Anne, 1977, Damned Whores and God’s Police, Penguin.

Tax, Meredith, 1970, “Woman and Her Mind: The Story of Daily Life”, http://www.meredithtax.org/us-movement-history-strategy/woman-and-her-mind-story-daily-life.

Vogel, Lise, 1983, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, Rutgers University Press.

Vogel, Lise, 1999, “From the Woman Question to Women’s Liberation”, in Rosemary Hennessy and Chrys Ingraham (eds), Materialist Feminism, Routledge.

Vogel, Lise, 2000, “Domestic Labor Revisited”, Science and Society, 64, (2).

Wolf, Alison, 2013, The XX Factor, Crown.

Workplace Gender Equality Agency 2013, Women in the workforce: by industry, July 2013 fact sheet.



[1] Tax, 1970.

[3] Stone, 1996.

[4] Fieldes, 2013.

[5] For a discussion of this point by a Marxist-feminist in relation to the Women’s Liberation Movement in Australia, see Curthoys, 1988, pp72-73; also Meekosha and Pettman, 1991.

[6] For a discussion of this see Bloodworth, 1991.

[7] Harman, 1994.

[8] Sacks, 1982.

[9] Elborgh-Woytek et al, 2013.

[10] Wolf, 2013, p46.

[11] Workplace Gender Equality Agency, 2013.

[12] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012.

[13] Anne Summers, “Gender pay gap still a disgrace”, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 January 2013.

[14] Ryan and Conlon, 1975, pp33-34.

[15] “Women in the Workforce: Female Power”, The Economist, 30 December 2009.

[16] Fieldes, 2013; Bloodworth, 2004a.

[17] Matt Wade, “Childcare costs: families spending 9% of income after subsidies”, The Age, 9 December 2013; see also Fieldes, 2013.

[18] Human Rights Commission, 2008.

[19] Marx and Engels, 1846.

[20] Bloodworth, 1990.

[21] Lee Ack and Bloodworth, 1998.

[22] Summers, 1977, p259.

[23] Rachel Browne and Eleanor Spring, “A mother’s work vacuum-packed”, The Age, 17 July 2013 (based on Families Working Together, 2013).

[24] Vogel, 1983, p154.

[25] See particularly Fine, 2010.

[26] Rees, 1998, pp4-6.

[27] Rees, 1998, p99.

[28] See Fieldes, 2013 and Bloodworth, 2004a.

[29] Gimenez, 2001.

[30] Bloodworth, 1992.

[31] Sandra Bloodworth showed how one of the most popular theories of such a structure, i.e. patriarchy, is fundamentally flawed: Bloodworth, 1990.

[32] For a good example of fighting sexism at work see Corey Oakley, “Interview: Taking on sexism in a Melbourne workplace”, Red Flag, 1, 12 June 2013, p7.

[33] See Bumiller, 2008.

[34] Vogel, 1983, p35.

[35] Vogel, 2000, p9.

[36] Arruzza, 2013, p128.

[37] Brown, 2012, p218.

[38] Holmstrom, 2002, p2.

[39] For a discussion of these issues see Bloodworth, 2010.

[40] Stites, 1991, p233.

[41] Lukács, 1968, p20.

[42] Lukács, 1968, pp55-56, 68-69, 79-80, 246, 277-284.

[43] Marx and Engels, 1846, quoted in Löwy, 2005, p112.

[44] Löwy, 2005, p112.

[45] Marx and Engels, 1846.

[46] Löwy, 2005, p90.

[47] Lenin, 1905.

[48] McDermid and Hillyar, 1999, p147.

[49] McDermid and Hillyar, 1999, p151.

[50] Donald, 1982, p132.

[51] McDermid and Hillyar, 1999, pp160-161.

[52] Stites, 1991, p301.

[53] Bloodworth, 2010, p97.

[54] Kollontai, 1909.

[55] McDermid and Hillyar, 1999, p147.

[56] McDermid and Hillyar, 1999, p157.

[57] Stites, 1991, p306.

[58] Stites, 1991, p306.

[59] Stites, 1991, p304-5.

[60] Smith, 1983, p72.

[61] Smith, 1983, p72.

[62] Krupskaia, 1942, p270.

[63] Stites, 1991, pp294-5.

[64] Löwy, 2005, p91.

[65] Quoted in Löwy, 2005, p102.

[66] Bloodworth, 2010.

[67] Lauritsen and Thorstad, 1974, p63.

[68] Quotes from The Holy Family in Löwy, 2005, p102.

[69] Vogel, 1983, p168.

[70] Vogel, 1983, p169.

[71] Vogel, 1983, p110.

[72] Vogel, 1983, p32.

[73] Lenin, 1903.

[74] Gimenez, 1987, p 39.

[75] Fieldes, 2013, p39.

[76] Preface to the first edition of Engels, 1884.

[77] Engels, 1884.

[78] Gimenez, 1987, p39.

[79] Brown, 2012, p215.

[80] Vogel, 1983, pp174-175.

[81] Vogel, 1999, p141.

[82] Brenner, 2006, p222.

[83] Brenner, 2006, p222.

[84] Eisenstein, 2009, p208.

[85] Eisenstein, 2009, p223.

[86] Eisenstein, 2009, p227.

[87] Fraser, 2013, pp224-226.

[88] Brown, 2012, p220.

[89] Lukács, 1968, p1.

[90] Vogel, 1983, p31.

[91] “Women in the Workforce: Female Power”, The Economist, 30 December 2009.

[92] Lake, 1999, p253.

[93] Wolf, 2013, p203.

[94] German, 1988, p39.

[95] For more on this campaign, see Judge and Bottomley, pp177-187.

[96] This is based on figures for both the ASX200 and ASX500, reported in “Australian Census of Women in Leadership”, Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, Commonwealth of Australia, 2012.

[97] Anne Summers, “Gender pay gap still a disgrace”, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 January 2013.

[98] Holmstrom, 2002, p8.

[99] Wolf, 2013, p42.

[100] See Smith, 2013-14.

[101] Lake, 1999, p258.

[102] Curthoys, 1988, pp72-73.

[103] Bloodworth, 2004b.

[104] See Lee Ack, 1991.