The Marxist tradition and women's liberation

by Tess Lee Ack • Published 14 April 2020

NOTE: This article was subsequently published as a pamphlet, with minor revisions, by Socialist Alternative.

The purpose of this article is to examine the theory and practice of Marxism as it relates to women’s liberation. In response to feminist criticism, many Marxists have been unnecessarily defensive. In reality, the revolutionary Marxist tradition has a proud record. This is very clear when we compare the politics and activities of the “first-wave” bourgeois feminist movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century with those of their Marxist contemporaries. Indeed, many modern feminists would agree with at least some Marxist criticism of bourgeois feminism. However, any theory which sees gender rather than class divisions as fundamental ultimately ends up with the same limitations and weaknesses.

The main currents within modern feminism – bourgeois feminism as exemplified by organisations like the Australian Women’s Electoral Lobby, socialist feminism, radical feminism and separatism – have a broadly similar critique of Marxist theory: that Marxism, because it is “sex-blind”[1] and “obsessed” with class and economic questions, cannot explain the oppression of women, or deal in any satisfactory way with questions of personal life. Even socialist feminists, who in varying degrees see class as important, believe that a feminist theory is necessary because patriarchy[2] exists alongside but separately from capitalism (or any other form of class society). In fact, they argue, class struggle often conflicts with the needs of women, as working class men allegedly benefit directly from the oppression of women.[3]

The inadequacy of Marxist theory, they claim, is “proved” by the historical record. Women in “socialist” countries (or countries that until recently called themselves socialist) are obviously not liberated. Indeed, they often bear a burden of oppression greater than their counterparts in the West. Furthermore, “male-dominated” Marxist organisations, East and West, have supposedly never taken the question of women seriously enough.

A common socialist feminist attitude is expressed by Sheila Rowbotham. She writes of the “Marxist orthodoxy of Stalin’s rule” and comments:

My generation…inherited a Marxism which had only continued in the western capitalist countries as a defensive body of orthodoxy surrounded by protective walls, encrusted with fear, stiff with terror, brittle with bitterness, aching with disillusionment.[4]

The International Socialist Organisation has no quarrel with the statement that women are oppressed in countries like the Soviet Union. Indeed, our own literature has repeatedly drawn attention to the phenomenon, as an important part of our argument that these societies cannot in any way be regarded as socialist.[5] Nor do we disagree substantially with Rowbotham’s description of the Stalinised Communist Parties of the West. This is not the place to go into a detailed argument about the class nature of societies like the Soviet Union.[6] In brief, these are bureaucratic state capitalist class societies, and since they are not socialist, they do not prove anything about Marxism or socialism. After the Stalinist counter-revolution of the late 1920s, the Communist Parties in the West increasingly lost any claim to be the bearers of revolutionary Marxism and largely became tools of Soviet foreign policy (although there were many committed and dedicated people in their ranks who at some level retained the Marxist vision of human liberation).

Neither the so-called “socialist” countries nor the Western Communist Parties are a useful guide to the Marxist view of women’s liberation. It is rather the case that revolutionary Marxism has been abandoned, and this has led to the downgrading of the question of women’s (and indeed human) liberation. There is a direct relationship between adherence to a genuinely revolutionary Marxist tradition and a commitment to women’s liberation.

However, because most feminists (and indeed most people) accept without question the socialist credentials of state capitalist countries and the organisations which support them, it is necessary to review the genesis and development of Marxist theory on women and examine how it has fared in the hands of various currents within the socialist movement. The starting point is the work of Marx and Engels themselves, and in particular, Engels’ The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, which provides the theoretical framework. A whole series of questions relating to women’s oppression have arisen since Engels’ time – particularly in relation to sexuality and the ability to control fertility. But Marxists today can still use Engels’ analysis as a basis to deal with them.

Marx and Engels on women

Marx and Engels were influenced by the utopian socialists who preceded them. They often quoted Charles Fourier’s thesis linking social progress with advances in the condition of women,[7] and were familiar with the work of Robert Owen and Henri de Saint-Simon on the questions of women’s rights and sexual freedom.[8] In The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels spent a lot of time examining the appalling experience of working class women and the impact of industrial capitalism on their health, the family and the relations between the sexes. He did not see these as trivial issues.

From his observations, he drew conclusions which were developed more fully in later works. Among the most important of these was that the working class family was in the process of dissolution. This turned out to be mistaken, but it was not an unreasonable prediction at the time. He did not foresee the coming together of two factors which would lead to the recreation of the working class family: the capitalist class’s alarm at the prospect of killing off the proletariat, and its concern to ensure a steady supply of reasonably healthy and appropriately socialised workers; and the desire of the working class itself for the family as a refuge from the misery of industrialisation. Nonetheless, Engels’ observations of the proletarian family were extremely important in the later development of his ideas.

Engels further concluded that, despite all the horrors involved, the mass entry of women into the workforce was historically progressive and laid the basis for equality between the sexes. This was later spelled out more fully by Marx:

However terrible and disgusting the dissolution, under the capitalist system, of the old family ties may appear, nevertheless, modern industry, by assigning as it does an important part in the process of production, outside the domestic sphere, to women, to young persons, and to children of both sexes, creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of the relations between the sexes.[9]

As part of the workforce, women have a social power they do not possess as wives and mothers, and can take an active part in their own liberation and that of their class – the two go together. This focus on women as workers, with power, rather than as passive victims, is one of the key differences between the Marxist and the feminist approach, and underlies any genuinely revolutionary approach to the struggle for liberation.

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels used the phrase “abolition of the family”.[10] They argued that the family only existed in its completely developed form among the bourgeoisie. Abolishing the family was part and parcel of abolishing private property, and a precondition for ending the status of women as “mere instruments of production”.[11] They looked forward to the destruction of capitalism bringing with it the abolition of the “community of women springing from that system, i.e. of prostitution both public and private”.[12] They advocated the abolition of all rights to inheritance (an earlier version talked of equal right of inheritance for legitimate and illegitimate children);[13] the equal liability of all to labour and the free education of children in public schools.[14]

In Principles of Communism, Engels posed the question “What influence will the communist order of society have on the family?” and answered it as follows:

It will make the relation between the sexes a purely private relation which concerns only the persons involved, and in which society has no call to interfere. It is able to do this because it abolishes private property and educates children communally, thus destroying the twin foundation of hitherto existing marriage – the dependence of the wife upon the husband and of the children upon the parents.[15]

These were extremely advanced ideas. Underlying them was a view of the family as a social institution which perpetuated the oppression of women and a rejection of the notion that women’s main role should be that of wife and mother. Coupled with this was the understanding that the emancipation of women depended on their being involved in social production.

Within the socialist and workers’ movements, Marx and Engels’ ideas were controversial. Followers of Proudhon[16] in France and Lassalle[17] in Germany believed that women should not be involved in social production, where they competed against men, but should remain in their “natural” sphere, the home. Marx and Engels frequently engaged in heated debate on this question. They argued for women to be organised and brought into the workers’ movement. It was Marx who insisted that an English schoolteacher, Harriet Law, be appointed to the General Council of the First International.[18] He also promoted the formation of working women’s branches of the International in areas where there were high concentrations of women workers.[19]

The origin of the family

The publication of Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which made extensive use of Marx’s notes, was a landmark. Here for the first time was a thorough materialist analysis of women’s oppression. Engels argued that it was not a “natural” or inevitable phenomenon, but was associated with the development of class society. The family (and hence relations between the sexes) is not a natural, unchanging institution. Family forms have varied enormously throughout history. Further, there is a link between family forms and the way production is organised in different class societies: changes in production lead to changes in the form of the family.

Engels located the origin of the oppressive family with the beginnings of private property and the division of society into classes. In pre-class societies, there had been a sexual division of labour, but this had not led to the systematic oppression of women. The absence of a surplus and the need to survive imposed a certain egalitarianism on these societies, usually described as primitive communism. However, once ownership and inheritance of property became an issue, the previously existing mother right (the tracing of descent through the mother rather than the father) had to be, and was, overthrown. Engels called this “the world historical defeat of the female sex”, when “the man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of his children”.[20]

With the rise of the family came also a change in the nature of domestic labour. It was no longer a social function, but a private service, with the woman as domestic slave, excluded from social production, economically dependent on the man, and condemned to monogamy. Engels went so far as to say that, within the family, the man represented the bourgeoisie and the woman the proletariat.[21] This was an unfortunate formulation, implying that men were the enemy. But the main point Engels went on to make was that “the first condition for the liberation of the wife is to bring the whole female sex back into public industry, and…this in turn demands that the characteristic of the monogamous family as the economic unit of society be abolished.[22]

Engels argued that the coming social revolution would destroy the economic foundations of monogamy and its complement, prostitution. With the single family no longer the economic unit of society, housework and childcare would be socialised. This in turn would lead to sexual liberation for women. Engels was not completely free of the prejudices of his times; nor could he foresee the impact of cheap, safe contraception and abortion, still less the development of techniques such as in vitro fertilisation which open up the prospect of the complete separation of sex and reproduction. He believed that socialism would lead to the development of a “higher form” of monogamy. But he also made it clear that this could not be definitely predicted or prescribed:

What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear. But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who have never known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and…that will be the end of it.[23]

Engels’ critics correctly point out that some of the anthropological evidence he used has been refuted by more recent investigation, but they go on to argue that this completely discredits his conclusions. The heated debate over anthropological questions[24] has obscured an important point: that it was a Marxist who made the first serious attempt to offer a scientific explanation of women’s oppression, and that all subsequent efforts to argue an alternative have to take account of this seminal work. The importance of Engels’ book is that it locates women’s oppression in material conditions – in class society, rather than in “natural laws”, human nature or the ideas in men’s heads – and therefore shows how to get rid of it. By changing the material conditions, by getting rid of class divisions and exploitation, by destroying the institution of the family, women can be liberated from the oppression of past ages. And crucially, it gives women themselves, as workers, a leading role in their own emancipation. It is not simply a matter of waiting for a revolution to come along and liberate them, they are themselves an integral part of the struggle. Every small victory in the class struggle is a step towards liberation. The struggle against oppression and exploitation are inseparably bound up.


Some of Engels’ ideas formed the basis for a book by August Bebel of the German SPD (Social Democratic Party), Women Under Socialism.[25] This was the single most popular publication of the SPD, going through hundreds of editions, and being widely translated. It was instrumental in converting a whole layer of women to socialism and bringing them into political life. According to a historian of the period, Hilde Lion: “For the proletarian woman who was intellectually alive, Bebel was almost always the way to Marx”.[26] Even today, it is easy to understand how inspiring women in the nineteenth century would have found passages like this:

The woman of the future society is socially and economically independent; she is no longer subject to even a vestige of dominion and exploitation; she is free, the peer of man, mistress of her lot. Her education is the same as that of man, with such exceptions as the difference of sex and sexual function demand… She chooses her occupation in such fields as correspond with her wishes, inclinations and natural abilities, and she works under conditions identical with man’s. Even if engaged as a practical working woman in some field or other, at other times of the day she may be educator, teacher or nurse, at yet others she may exercise herself in art, or cultivate some branch of science, and at yet others may be filling some administrative function. She joins in studies, enjoyments or social intercourse with either her sisters or with men – as she may please or occasion may serve.

In the choice of love, she is, like man, free and unhampered. She woos or is wooed, and closes the bond from no considerations other than her own inclinations. This bond is a private contract, celebrated without the intervention of any functionary… The satisfaction of the sexual instinct is as much a private concern as the satisfaction of any other natural instinct. None is therefore accountable to others, and no unsolicited judge may interfere…all bashful prudery and affectation of secrecy regarding natural matters will have vanished…all the circumstances and conditions which until then condemned large numbers of women to celibacy and to prostitution will have vanished…[27]

From today’s standpoint, we can criticise certain formulations used by both Bebel and Engels, and their attitude to some questions of sexuality. For example, both disapproved personally of same-sex relations – though they were opposed to legal sanctions against homosexuality. (The German SPD was in fact the first party to campaign openly for the legalisation of male homosexuality, with a speech by Bebel in the Reichstag in 1898[28]). Both tended to idealise heterosexual monogamy – though without the double standard of one rule for men and another for women. But the sexual prejudices of their time did not prevent them from creating a theoretical framework on which future Marxists such as Alexandra Kollontai could build.

And even with their limitations by today’s standards, the ideas put forward by Bebel and Engels were light years in advance of anything else at the time. The first-wave feminists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by and large did not advocate sexual freedom for women, did not argue the existence of a female sexuality equal to men’s, did not champion homosexual rights and did not call for the abolition of the family as a condition of women’s liberation. Indeed, one of their main criticisms of Marxists was that they advocated “free love”!

One feminist historian comments that “the suffragists tended to be Victorian prudes who would have been scandalised by the current demands for sexual liberation”.[29] A partial exception was the radical wing of the German feminist movement, which was close to the SPD. The League for the Protection of Motherhood and Sexual Reforms, also known as the New Moralists, campaigned for the spread of contraceptives and the repeal of abortion laws. But these “exponents of free love and of contraception were generally ostracised by the feminist movement in England and America”.[30] They also met opposition from the conservative League of German Women’s Associations, which campaigned for the vote, but fought against abortion and contraception. Mainstream feminists usually advocated celibacy for single women and abstinence for married women who wished to avoid pregnancy. Sexual radicals were a minority in this period, but more of them were to be found in the ranks of the socialist movement than in feminist movements.

Nor were the first-wave feminists concerned with improving the economic position of the vast majority of women, so as to make them economically independent and increase the possibility of social independence. For the most part, they confined themselves to agitation for the vote and with various forms of legal equality, such as divorce law and property inheritance. While socialists support such reforms, we do not confuse winning democratic rights with liberation. The major beneficiaries of these reforms were the middle class women who made up the bulk of the feminist movements. This is not surprising: the philosophical underpinning of first-wave feminism was nineteenth century liberalism. Unlike Marxism, it made no claim to be a theory of human liberation. But even in the limited area of democratic reforms affecting women, it is interesting and enlightening to compare the positions taken by the socialist movement and the bourgeois feminists.

Marxism, feminism and the struggle for reform

The major question for the bourgeois feminist movements in Europe and America was female suffrage. Marxists supported the right of all adult women to vote as a straightforward democratic demand, though without any illusions that the vote could fundamentally change the position of women. This was a very different starting point from that of the bourgeois women’s movements, who wanted votes for women along class lines on the same basis as men (property qualifications were usually involved). Class interests were often used as an argument for the right of middle and upper class women to vote. A historian of the suffrage movement comments on the movement in the US in the 1890s:

Social conditions were in flux in America. The rapid increase in foreign immigration and the protests of the labour movements struck fear into the hearts of the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant middle classes. The “race suicide” scare, which suggested that the lower orders were outbreeding them, added to their paranoia.

As members of this group, the suffragists shared these feelings of insecurity… They no longer demanded a ballot on the grounds of justice, but pointed out that enfranchised Anglo-Saxon middle class women could outvote the pauper and the foreigner.[31]

The British suffragettes of the Women’s Social and Political Union suspended their campaign in 1914 and threw their considerable energies into supporting the imperialist war effort. The right to vote was to be their reward for their loyalty to class and Empire. In both the US and Australia, the Women’s Christian Temperance Unions formed a significant component of the suffrage movements. They advocated votes for women as a social reform “for the protection of Home, and for Purity”.[32]

Within the socialist movement, Marxists were the most consistent supporters of women’s voting rights. For example, the German socialist movement[33] initially opposed votes for women because of the dominance of the Lassalleans, but the efforts of Marxists like Wilhelm Liebknecht and Bebel[34] eventually corrected the position, and in 1894, the SPD introduced a bill for women’s suffrage into the Reichstag. In 1906, the reformist Austrian SDP, despite the fact that party policy called for female suffrage, ran a campaign to extend suffrage only to all adult males.[35] This led to a major debate at the first international socialist women’s conference, organised by the German Marxist Clara Zetkin in Stuttgart in 1907. The Austrians were backed by delegates from Belgium, Britain and France, who argued that the demand for restricted suffrage was more “realistic”. The attack on them was led by the revolutionary Marxists, Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai.[36]

Protective legislation for women workers was a controversial issue, and one on which socialists and feminists differed sharply. It was opposed by the bourgeois feminist movement for clear class reasons. Using classic liberal arguments, they said that protective legislation “interfere[d] with women’s freedom and her equal rights with the male”.[37] Interestingly, protective legislation was also initially opposed by Zetkin, who was in general a resolute opponent of the bourgeois feminists.[38] On this issue, it seems she was to some extent influenced by their ideas, though from a different class perspective. She changed her position as it became clear that to uphold an abstract, formal equality meant in practice the super-exploitation of women.[39] It is true that protective legislation can at times disadvantage women. But Marxists in the SPD argued that this called for the extension of protective laws to men rather than denying them to women.

Abortion and contraception are relatively straightforward questions today. The idea of the “right to choose” has a real meaning when contraception and abortion are relatively cheap and readily available, in the advanced countries at least. Of course, struggles to defend and extend reproductive rights are still necessary, but the concept of a woman’s right to control her body and fertility is not as problematic as it was in previous times, because the material means exist. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, the idea of birth control was often associated with reactionary currents such as Malthusianism and eugenicism (the pseudo-scientific proposal to construct a “superior race” through selective breeding).[40] It therefore acquired an extremely racist and anti-working class content.

In their desire to “strengthen the race”, the Malthusians advocated birth control for the working class and opposed it for the middle class. There was strong support among many middle class radicals and bourgeois feminists for these ideas, particularly for limiting the numbers of the working class. Their support had nothing to do with the right of women to choose (since if the Malthusians had their way, workers wouldn’t get any choice). It had far more to do with their attitude to the working class, which was either one of hostility and fear; or a patronising attitude that ignorant workers had to be guided and looked after by their natural superiors. Marie Stopes, for example, set up the first birth control clinic in Britain in 1921. She argued that such clinics were needed in cities because “We have been breeding revolutionaries”.[41] It is hardly surprising that the workers’ movement was suspicious of those who advocated birth control.

Marxists such as Zetkin and Lenin condemned laws against abortion and contraception, which they saw as democratic rights. “Such laws”, wrote Lenin, “are nothing but the hypocrisy of the ruling class. These laws do not heal the ulcers of capitalism, they merely turn them into malignant ulcers that are especially painful for the oppressed masses”.[42] But they attacked the Malthusians and those on the left who saw birth control as a way to reduce poverty or increase the bargaining power of the working class by limiting its numbers (or even, in a bizarre debate within the SPD, as a way of denying the Kaiser military forces![43]) They argued that class struggle, and ultimately revolution, was the way to raise living standards.

Middle and upper class radicals set up clubs and committees to discuss issues such as sexual relations and birth control. One example was the London Men and Women’s Club, founded in 1885 by Karl Pearson, a socialist and eugenicist. A number of prominent bourgeois feminists were members, including Olive Schreiner and Annie Besant. Although the purpose of the club was to discuss the relationships between the sexes “from the historical and scientific as distinguished from the theological standpoint”,[44] Eleanor Marx was refused entry because she was living in a free union with Edward Aveling. The group was united around issues such as divorce law reform and opposition to the sexist attitudes faced by middle class women in the professions. But they were unable to agree on a position on birth control. Some women argued that it “vulgarised the emotions” and led to immorality. Most agreed that birth control allowed men more control over women’s bodies, because men were naturally “beasts of prey”. The minority who argued that sex could be mutually pleasurable were accused of supporting prostitution.

By the early 1920s, news was coming through about the advances in women’s status in Russia, and this created a new context for the debate. Communist Parties supported the right to birth control as a simple democratic right. However, eugenicist ideas were still very prevalent. In Britain, Stella Browne tried to marry the ideas of Marx, Malthus and feminism. (She was simultaneously a member of the Malthusian League and the Communist Party in the early 1920s.) As an ardent campaigner for women’s right to choose, she argued:

Abortion must be the key to a new world for women, not a bulwark for things as they are, economically nor biologically. Abortion should not be either a perquisite of the legal wife only, nor merely a last remedy against illegitimacy. It should be available for any woman, without insolent inquisitions, nor ruinous financial charges, nor tangles of red tape. For our bodies are our own.[45]

She argued for access to contraception on the same basis, and also championed female sexuality in terms similar to those of Alexandra Kollontai. However, Browne accepted a lot of the ideas associated with eugenics, maintaining that “lack of militancy among all races was due to ante-natal circumstances… She wanted selective birth control to ‘produce and build up a race fitted to carry out Communist and Feminist ideals’”.[46] Her continued adherence to Malthusian organisations and eugenicist ideas no doubt played a role in discrediting her otherwise progressive ideas on birth control and female sexuality. Despite the Communist Party’s support for birth control, she left it in 1923. She later joined the Labour Party, which refused to take a position on contraception and abortion, and spent the rest of her career as a single-issue campaigner for abortion law reform. The organisation she set up in 1936, the Abortion Law Reform Association, did not see abortion as a class issue, and therefore did not campaign for free abortion on demand. Rather, the focus was on a cross-class alliance of all women to win rights which in reality are only denied to working class women, since abortion is nearly always available to those who can pay enough. Browne’s concessions to feminism actually led her away from the fight for the kind of revolutionary change necessary to liberate women.

So on these major issues affecting women, let alone questions such as equal pay, Marxists had a consistently better record than feminists. As Boxer and Quataert note, “it was the socialist movement that offered the strongest and longest-sustained assistance to women seeking redress of past injuries and freedom for future development”.[47] Ultimately, the bourgeois feminists were interested in formal, legal equality with men of their own class and removing the restrictions on their own advancement. This necessarily meant ignoring or actively opposing the rights and needs of the majority of women, those of the working class. The liberation of working class women would involve destroying the class system which the bourgeois feminists wanted to be part of. Carol Bacchi’s comments on the US suffragists are generally applicable to the first-wave feminists:

Politically they aligned themselves with the Progressive movement, which supported temperance, social purity, child welfare, factory legislation, municipal and educational reform, designed to alleviate the most pressing problems accompanying industrialisation and urbanisation and in that way to preserve social peace and the essence of the status quo. A few forged an alliance with working class women, but the vast majority saw no common interest with this group.[48]

The real Marxist tradition

Feminist criticism of the Marxist tradition is misplaced in another sense. Within the socialist movement, it has been the revolutionary Marxists (often in a minority in the movement as a whole) who have had the best positions and been the most consistent fighters for women’s rights. The highpoints of the fight for women’s liberation by socialist movements were the struggles of German Social Democracy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Many of the advances made by and for women were subsequently destroyed, by reformism and Stalinism respectively.

As outlined earlier, in the early days of German Social Democracy, bitter theoretical struggles took place between supporters of Marx and Lassalle over female labour and suffrage. These struggles were eventually won by the Marxists, and the SPD’s position on women was influenced primarily by Bebel and Engels. The SPD developed a cadre of talented and articulate women leaders (notably Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg and Luise Zietz), who were mostly associated with the left wing of the party. The SPD published a great deal of literature on and for women, organised women workers into unions with phenomenal success,[49] campaigned successfully against laws restricting their political activity,[50] ran Marxist study groups for them[51] and so on.

But despite the earlier defeat of the Lassalleans, underlying tensions remained, and this was to have a profound impact on the SPD’s policies on women. Of all the socialist parties in the Second International, the German SPD was considered to be the best example of orthodox Marxism. Marx and Engels themselves had been more closely associated with it than with any other national organisation, though their attitude had often been critical.[52] Marxists, including Lenin before 1914, generally looked to the SPD as the model of a Marxist party, and its theoretical leader, Karl Kautsky, was revered as “the Pope of Marxism”. However, while the party formally adhered to revolutionary Marxism, its practice became increasingly reformist. The Erfurt Programme of 1891, written by Kautsky, attempted to synthesise the two. But in reality, it cemented a division between the party’s maximum program (which talked about the ultimate goal of socialism and revolution) and its minimum program (which dealt with the day-to-day reforms that preoccupied the party.)

For a time, the “Erfurt synthesis” held. But the late 1890s saw the emergence of a new reformist current around Eduard Bernstein.[53] He called for an accommodation to “progressive” bourgeois elements, including those in the bourgeois women’s movement. The left’s fight against revisionism within the party – led by Rosa Luxemburg in her pamphlet Reform or Revolution – was inextricably bound up with a fight to hold the line on issues affecting women.

Since 1891, Zetkin had edited Die Gleichheit (Equality), an SPD magazine aimed at advanced women workers, party cadre and Vertrauenspersonen (spokespersons).[54] It contained a mix of theoretical articles and more practical information intended to inform and train women leaders in the working class and the party. Even before Bernstein’s offensive, there were repeated attempts, resisted by Zetkin, to make the magazine more “popular”. Zetkin maintained that the job of Die Gleichheit was not to win over the masses, but rather “to provide an educational and promotional influence within the movement”.[55]

However as the reformists became more dominant, Die Gleichheit gradually changed. From 1905, supplements were added for housewives, mothers and children; the political level was lowered and diluted; and Zetkin was forced to include household tips and articles about cooking and fashion.

Another significant battle involved Zetkin and Lily Braun. Braun’s revolt against her aristocratic background initially propelled her into the bourgeois feminist movement. She broke with them in 1896 to join the SPD and in 1898 became one of Bernstein’s strongest supporters. Like him, she advocated an alliance with bourgeois feminist women.[56] Her 1901 pamphlet, Female Labour and Co-operative Living, advocated the establishment of household co-operatives. Zetkin vigorously opposed the proposal, describing it in a letter to Kautsky as the “latest blossoming of utopianism in its most dangerous, opportunistic form”.[57] In Zetkin’s view this was a bourgeois reform which could only benefit middle class women with secure incomes. Underlying Braun’s proposal was the idea that socialism could be gradually realised within the capitalist system. Zetkin further argued that most workers (including women) prized the single family establishment, and that only through class struggle, and ultimately with revolutionary change, would they begin to change their old thoughts, habits and beliefs.[58] In the meantime, it was wrong to impose what we would today call “pre-figurative forms”[59] of living on them.

Zetkin, supported by Kautsky, succeeded in scuttling Braun’s proposal and weakening her influence. But the war was far from over. The growing strength of reformism encouraged a revision of the Marxist position on women. Reichstag deputy Edmund Fischer wrote an article called “The Woman Question”[60] in 1905, in which he said that female labour was “unnatural, socially unhealthy, and…a capitalist evil”. He went on: “The so-called emancipation of women goes against the nature of women and of mankind as a whole. It is unnatural, and hence impossible to achieve”,[61] and “the first and highest good in life for the woman, buried deep in her nature, [is] to be a good mother and live to educate her children”.[62]

The final victory of reformism carne with the outbreak of World War I, when most of the SPD leaders capitulated to nationalism and supported the war. The first to oppose it were Luxemburg and Zetkin. For a short time, Zetkin used Die Gleichheit to agitate against the war, but she was forced to resign as editor in 1915 and was expelled in 1917. She later joined the Communist Party. Die Gleichheit had a sorry fate. It increasingly became a “family paper” and politics virtually disappeared from its pages. In 1922 its subtitle was changed to “Magazine for women and girls of the working people”. (In Zetkin’s day it had been “Magazine for the interests of women workers.”) With its circulation well below what it had been with Zetkin as editor, Die Gleichheit suspended publication shortly after, re-emerging in 1924 as Die Frauenwelt (Women’s World). Thoenessen comments: “So well was its political tendency hidden beneath the supplement, edifying stones, patterns and fashion illustration, that no-one could rightly discover it anymore”.[63]

After Zetkin’s departure, women’s work within the SPD was taken over by reformists like Marie Juchacz, who in the first speech by a woman deputy to the German Reichstag, announced: “The ‘Woman Question’ in Germany no longer exists in the old sense of the term; it has been solved”.[64] At the same time, the SPD, now in government, dealt with the mass unemployment that followed demobilisation by decreeing that women should be sacked. The following order of priority was assigned:

1. Women whose husbands had a job.

2. Single women and girls.

3. Women and girls who had only 1-2 people to look after.

4. All other women and girls.[65]

The SPD was now an explicitly reformist party which saw its job as the preservation of the capitalist system. Indeed, its first task in government was to put down the revolutionary upheavals which followed the war, and stabilise German society (a task which included the murder of Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, leaders of the new Communist Party). It was at pains to distance itself from its more left wing past, including the fight for sexual equality. In 1919, the SPD party newspaper announced: “With Marie Juchacz, we have a new and totally different kind of woman”, and in a far from subtle swipe at Zetkin added: “Gone is the era when the activists of the women’s movement believed that they had to prove their equality by taking on male characteristics”.[66]

Increasingly, the SPD’s “women’s work” concentrated on social welfare, with the emphasis on women as wives and mothers rather than as workers. Juchacz devoted most of her energies to building an organisation which focused on the special needs of working class children.

There was a similar pattern in other European socialist or social democratic parties. Commenting on this phenomenon, Anderson and Zinsser note that women associated with right wing parties generally saw themselves as “traditional women, and thought it appropriate that women deal only with social welfare issues”.[67] But they are at something of a loss to explain why left wing women should also retreat into social work in this period. For Marxists, the explanation is quite straightforward. The combination of World War I and the Russian Revolution had a profound impact on the organisations of the Second International. Previously, they had combined reformists and revolutionaries in their ranks, but now they had to choose between reform and revolution. Most split, with the revolutionaries setting up Communist Parties consciously modelled on a successful revolutionary party, the Russian Bolsheviks. The reformists’ general retreat from the ideas of Marxism necessarily entailed a retreat on the question of women’s liberation. It was left to the German Communist Party to carry on the tradition established by Engels, Bebel and Zetkin. (And in fact the Communist Party went much further, in particular on questions of sexuality. Wilhelm Reich, who was a member of the German Communist Party in the 1920s, had extremely radical, if somewhat flawed ideas and a large following, especially among young people. His work was denounced by both the Nazis and the Stalinists, but enjoyed a revival during the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 70s.)[68]

For a long time, the German SPD had the best record on women, precisely because it had the strongest Marxist current. The comparatively poor record of other socialist parties reflected the weakness or complete absence of a genuinely revolutionary Marxist current within them. The full significance of this is apparent when we examine the record of the Bolsheviks.

The Russian Revolution

Russian women made enormous gains as a result of the October revolution: full suffrage, equal pay, equal opportunity in jobs and education, free abortion and contraception, easy civil marriage and divorce, abolition of laws against homosexuality, adultery and incest, free maternity hospital care and paid maternity leave, nursing breaks, reduction of the working day, and protective legislation for women workers, with women inspectors to enforce it. Most of these were enacted by simple decree within a year of the revolution. These measures, in backward and impoverished Russia, were far in advance of anything that existed anywhere in the world at the time. In its totality, this body of legislation still surpasses anything in the world today. It is hardly the mark of a party that did not take the question of women’s liberation seriously.

But impressive as all this was, the Bolsheviks recognised that such laws were nowhere near enough to guarantee full liberation. The backward and entrenched attitudes of centuries could not be made to disappear overnight. It was necessary to create institutions to replace the functions of the family. As Kollontai put it, the separation of kitchen from marriage was as important a reform for women as the separation of Church from State more generally.[69] Lenin was even more forthright:

Notwithstanding all the laws emancipating woman, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and the nursery, and she wastes her labour on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-racking, stultifying and crushing drudgery. The real emancipation of women, real communism, will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins against this petty housekeeping, or rather, when its wholesale transformation into a large-scale socialist economy begins.[70]

(Lenin had strong views on housework, often referring to it as “stultifying drudgery”. This was possibly due to his own personal experience: he was known for doing his share.[71])

So a program was begun to establish maternity and nursing homes, creches, laundries, mending centres, communal housing and restaurants. The scope of this program was breathtaking, but its achievement was unfortunately limited by the weakness of an economy ravaged by World War I and the civil war. (Feminists like Emmeline Pankhurst, who supported imperialist intervention to crush the revolution, contributed to holding back reforms that would have benefited women.) The Bolsheviks were also concerned to bring women into leading roles in political life, so they established special schools and programs of practical and political training for them. Noting that women often voted for men to represent them, the Bolsheviks called on the soviets and other bodies to practise a sort of positive discrimination, and to elect women delegates and officials wherever possible. In 1919, the Zhenotdel was set up to oversee and lead this work. This was a special section of the Central Committee secretariat, headed first by Inessa Armand and after her death in 1920 by Alexandra Kollontai. Lenin had always opposed separate party organisations for women, arguing:

We derive our organisational ideas from our ideological conceptions. We want no separate organisations of Communist women! She who is a Communist belongs as a member of the Party, just as he who is a Communist. They have the same rights and duties.[72]

This has often been interpreted as a “downgrading” of the question of women’s liberation, but this is not the case. It is in fact an argument against the “ghettoisation” of women’s work, which should be the responsibility of the whole organisation, and not just an extra burden for its women members. More recent experience confirms Lenin’s position.[73] However, at times special measures may be needed, as Lenin explained:

The Party must have organs – working groups, commissions, committees, sections or whatever else they may be called – with the specific purpose of rousing the broad masses of women… This naturally requires that we carry on systematic work among the women. We must teach the awakened women, win them over for the proletarian class struggle…and equip them for it. When I say this I have in mind not only proletarian women, whether they work in the mills or cook the family meal…[but also] the peasant women and the women of the various sections of the lower middle class. They, too are victims of capitalism… We must have our own groups to work among them, special methods of agitation, and special forms of organisation. This is not bourgeois “feminism”; it is a practical revolutionary expediency… We cannot exercise the dictatorship of the proletariat without having millions of women on our side. Nor can we engage in communist construction without them. We must find a way to reach them.[74]

The Zhenotdel was therefore not a “separate” or “autonomous” women’s organisation. (In fact, many party men worked for it.) It was directly responsible to the leadership of the party, a means of implementing party policy. Local branches of the Zhenotdel were attached to party committees at all levels. The Zhenotdel produced a newspaper called Kommunistka (Communist Woman), helped organise the communal kitchens, nurseries and laundries, and established mechanisms to enable women to play leading roles in political life. These involved literacy programs, training women in the political and administrative skills necessary to run factories, serve in the soviets and unions or as officials, and regular delegates’ assemblies, which by the mid-twenties involved over half a million women.

None of this came out of the blue. From the beginning, the Russian Marxists (and especially the group around Lenin which later became the Bolsheviks) had paid considerable attention to the question of women. Their reading groups included Engels’ and Bebel’s books as part of the basic literature of Marxism, and their program always included social and economic demands aimed at improving the status of women. In the early years of the twentieth century, Lenin used the paper Iskra to organise and cohere the Marxists in Russia. Three pamphlets were always included with the bundles of Iskra smuggled into the country. Nadezhda Krupskaya’s pamphlet The Woman Worker was one of them.[75]

Lenin’s book on the development of capitalism in Russia, written in the 1890s, devoted considerable space to an examination of the conditions of women, and his study led him to constantly emphasise the importance of involving and relating to women. It was usually Lenin who inserted or improved clauses on women in the party program, for example increasing the length of maternity leave, shortening the working day for nursing mothers and giving them free medical treatment.[76] He also initiated a number of congresses specifically for women. Addressing the 1,147 delegates at the First Congress of Women Workers and Peasants in 1918, Lenin made the famous pronouncement: “Root out old habits, every cook must learn to rule the state”.[77] (The Russian word “cook” refers to a woman, men who cooked were “chefs”.)

Kollontai often gets a lot of the credit for the Bolsheviks’ work on women, but this is at best one-sided. For a start, it overlooks the many other women in the Bolshevik party who contributed to the work among women. It also underrates the influence of leading men in the party on the question. The image of Kollontai battling alone against the entrenched sexism of the party men is grossly exaggerated.[78] Inevitably, she did encounter some backward attitudes, but the fact remains that she was elected to the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party a year after joining in 1915, and she was given a post as a cabinet minister after the revolution – the first woman in the world to achieve such a position. Kollontai herself paid particular tribute to Sverdlov, Trotsky and above all Lenin, whose authority was crucial in the formation of and allocation of scarce resources to the Zhenotdel. It should be remembered too that the Bolsheviks were doing special work among women before Kollontai joined them, with their paper Rabotnitsa (Working Woman). Krupskaya, Armand, K.N. Samoilova, Klavdiia Nikolaevna and Anna Ulianova-Elizarova were among the leading Bolshevik women involved in this work, but Lenin was closely associated with it. Indeed, the initiative for a separate journal for women came from Lenin, in 1913. (Russian women workers had been radicalised during the 1905 revolution, and had been in the forefront of many struggles, demanding maternity leave, nurseries in the factories and an end to sexual harassment. When the class struggle revived from 1910 onwards, women were again prominent. By 1913, the Bolshevik paper Pravda was receiving more correspondence from working women than it could handle, hence Lenin’s suggestion to publish Rabotnitsa.)

The Bolshevik government made a tremendous start on creating the political basis for women’s liberation. What they achieved in a few short years was a vindication of Engels’ theory and Marxism generally. They did not need a separate feminist theory to introduce the most sweeping improvements in women’s status in history; nor did women need an organisation separate from the party to press for their rights. The lead came from within the leadership of the Bolshevik party – from the women and men who were the most advanced and committed revolutionary Marxists of their day. Their achievements were limited, not by lack of feminist theory or commitment to women’s liberation, but by the poverty and backwardness of the Russian economy. Given the desperate economic conditions that prevailed, it was not surprising that the Bolsheviks fell short of their aims; nor that many women were forced by material circumstances to cling to the security of the family.

The revolution defeated

The failure of revolutions in the advanced countries sealed the fate of the workers’ state and of Russian women. In a desperate attempt to buy time, the New Economic Policy was introduced in 1921, and this badly affected women, who were mainly unskilled workers and therefore suffered most from unemployment, despite government attempts to protect them. By the end of the 1920s, a new ruling class had arisen under Stalin and consolidated a form of bureaucratic state capitalism. It is from this point that we see a qualitative change: the gains made by women start to be rolled back as a matter of deliberate government policy rather than under the force of circumstances. The priority of the new ruling class was capital accumulation to catch up with the West. This meant massive industrialisation and the diversion of resources away from consumption towards production. It also meant the super-exploitation of the working class. Women were brought back into the workforce, but they lost protective legislation, mechanisms such as piecework rates made it impossible for them to earn as much as men, and maternity benefits were slashed. Childcare continued to exist, not to liberate women from the family, but to facilitate their exploitation. Indeed, an essential project of the Stalinist counter-revolution was the strengthening of the family, forcing back onto women the responsibility for housework and childcare. There was a sustained attack on Kollontai’s ideas about sexual freedom, which eventually intimidated her into silence. Kollontai’s advanced ideas had often met with criticism within the party, particularly from older members including Lenin, whose attitude to sex was undoubtedly puritanical by today’s standards. But it is necessary to draw a distinction between the personal prejudices of individuals and party policy, which was unambiguously for sexual freedom. As the Bolshevik Grigorii Bakkis wrote in 1923:

The present sexual legislation in the Soviet Union is the work of the October revolution. This revolution is important not only as a political phenomenon which secures the political role of the working class. But also for the revolutions which evolving from it reach out into all areas of life… [Soviet legislation] declares the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured and no-one’s interests are encroached upon – concerning homosexuality, sodomy and various other forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offences against morality – Soviet legislation treats these exactly as so-called “natural” intercourse.[79]

The project of restoring the family meant clamping down on sexual freedom. Stalin’s regime tightened up marriage and divorce laws, reintroduced alimony and laws against homosexuality, and banned abortion. The need for labour led to an obscene cult of the family and motherhood, with women being rewarded with medals for bearing lots of children and punitive taxes for single people and small families.[80] The Zhenotdel was disbanded in 1932 and women were removed from positions in the Red Army and leading positions in the party. Stalin regarded intellectual women in the party as “herrings with ideas”.[81]

Just as the earlier victories for women were inseparably tied up with the victory of the working class, so the defeat of the working class also meant defeat for women. The re-establishment of capitalist relations of production led inexorably to the strengthening of the family and the special oppression of women.

The Russian experience was reflected in the Communist Parties outside Russia. The first three congresses of the Communist International discussed questions relating to women and emphasised the importance of bringing them into the parties and combating prejudice in the parties themselves and in the working class.[82] If we look at the Australian Communist Party’s paper, Workers’ Weekly, or its journal The Communist in the early 1920s, we find articles discussing the position of women in capitalist society compared with communism, arguing against those who opposed the entry of women into industry, campaigning for equal pay and condemning those who only gave lip-service to sexual equality.

The CPA found an audience and recruited among left wing feminists who had opposed World War I. Australian feminists had split over the war. Some, like their counterparts in the British suffragette movement, supported it and handed out white feathers to civilian men. Rose Scott, President of the Women’s Suffrage League and the Peace Society of NSW, was a prominent pro-war feminist. Others opposed war in general, but refused to take a stand on this particular war. But others joined the Women’s Peace Army, which opposed the war and took part in the anti-conscription campaign.[83] Many of these women were won over to communism and played a significant role in the CPA. A report from the Melbourne branch in 1925 noted that “the only section with any fight in them is the women. They beat the men in Melbourne by miles”.[84] In 1928, the CPA set up Militant Women’s Groups which published pamphlets such as Woman’s Road to Freedom and a monthly paper called Working Woman. The CPA-led Minority Movement had an eight-point women’s program and held a number of women’s conferences.

But by the mid-1930s, the CPA had quite a different focus. While they continued to do some good work, and never adopted the cult of the family in its grossest form, Stalinist politics had an impact, particularly during the period of the Popular Fronts, when Communist Parties were trying to dampen down class differences. Working Woman became Women Today and modelled itself on mainstream women’s magazines, complete with fashion advertisements and household hints. A few years earlier, the paper had refused to publish such things, explaining:

The Working Woman exists for the purpose of helping all working women to see the necessity to fight for the improvement of their conditions – not to help the boss to further lower their standards and increase his profits. The workers have always been forced to economise, but there is no need for them to do it voluntarily and take pride in it.[85]

The triumph of Stalinism on the left was almost total. Communist Parties around the world became essentially agents of the bureaucratic state capitalist ruling class in Russia, their policies on every question dictated from Moscow. The fight for women’s liberation had no place in the Stalinist scheme of things: everything had to be subordinated to the “defence of the Soviet Union”. During World War II, the CPA joined the employers in opposing pay strikes by women because they undermined the war effort. At a Melbourne munitions factory, the CPA union secretary exhorted the underpaid and angry women to remember “the boys in the trenches”. The women shouted in reply “We know all about our boys in the trenches…they’re our husbands and sons”.[86] Defying their union leaders, the women struck and won their demands.

Stalinism buried the Marxist tradition for decades. Trotsky and his tiny groups of supporters struggled to keep alive the ideas of revolutionary Marxism, but after Trotsky’s death in 1940, the movement he left behind increasingly lost its way. Isolated and marginalised, the Trotskyists were pressured by Stalinism on the one hand and the massive shift to the right which accompanied the post-war boom on the other. Most ended up accommodating to one or the other, or degenerating into sectarian irrelevancy.[87]

Despite all these distortions, however, there remained a certain legacy on the left of fighting for women’s rights. There were no substantial women’s movements for a whole period, yet women continued to fight over issues such as equal pay and abortion, and these campaigns were often led by socialists inside and outside the Communist Parties and the unions.

The Stalinist monolith began to disintegrate in the late 1960s. The virtual rebirth of the revolutionary left intersected with rise of new movements, including the women’s liberation movement. But the revolutionary groups were too small and politically disoriented to rapidly re-establish the credibility of genuine Marxism. Sometimes they were sectarian towards the new movements, at other times they made too many concessions to them. Our own tendency made mistakes in both directions, principally the latter.[88] It has taken a long process of clarification and debate to reclaim the Marxist tradition with regard to women’s liberation and make it fully relevant to today’s struggles, and the debate is continuing. But we can be confident today that this tradition is the only firm basis on which to map out a strategy for the liberation of women, and of humanity.

[1] This term is used for example by Heidi Hartmann, in her article “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union”, in Lydia Sargent (ed.), Women and Revolution: A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism, Boston, South End Press, 1981. For a summary of feminist critiques of Marxist theory, see also Rosemary Tong, Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction, Unwin Hyman, London 1989, chapters 2 and 6.

[2] Acceptance of some variant of patriarchy theory is common to nearly all those who call themselves feminists. Even those socialist feminists who are uncomfortable with some aspects of patriarchy theory generally maintain that Marxism does not adequately deal with women’s oppression. For a Marxist critique of patriarchy theory, see Lindsey German, “Theories of Patriarchy” in International Socialism, 2:12, Spring 1981; Chris Harman, “Women’s Liberation and Revolutionary Socialism” in International Socialism, 2:23, Spring 1984; Tony Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation: 1640 to the Present Day, Bookmarks, London 1987; and Lindsey German, Sex, Class and Socialism, Bookmarks, London 1989.

[3] The dominance of feminist thinking on this issue is illustrated by the debate within the International Socialist tendency. See articles by John Molyneux, Sheila McGregor and Lindsey German in International Socialism, 2:25, 2:30 and 2:32.

[4] Sheila Rowbotham, in her Introduction to Women’s Consciousness, Man’s World, Penguin, 198I, page x.

[5] See for example Chanie Rosenberg, Women and Perestroika, Bookmarks, London, 1989.

[6] See Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, Bookmarks, London, 1988; or for a brief summary of the argument, Peter Binns, Tony Cliff and Chris Harman, Russia: From Workers’ State to State Capitalism, Bookmarks, London 1987.

[7] “The development of a given historical epoch is best of all defined by the relation between the progress of women and freedom… The degree of feminine emancipation is a natural measure of the general emancipation.” Fourier as cited by Marx, quoted in Beatrice Farnsworth, “Bolshevism, The Woman Question and Aleksandra Kollontai” in Marilyn J. Boxer and Jean H. Quataert (eds), Socialist Women: European Socialist Feminism in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries, Elsevier, New York, 1978.

[8] For a summary, see Bonnie S. Anderson and Judith P. Zinsser, A History of Their Own: Women in Europe from Prehistory to the Present, Vol. 2, Penguin, London, 1988, pp375-381.

[9] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, International Publishers, New York 1967, pp489-490.

[10] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1971, p55.

[11] ibid., p56.

[12] ibid.

[13] Frederick Engels, Principles of Communism, Appendix to The Communist Manifesto, p90.

[14] Marx and Engels, Manifesto, p59.

[15] Engels, Principles of Communism, pp93-94.

[16] Marilyn J. Boxer, “Socialism Faces Feminism: The Failure of Synthesis in France, 1879-1914” in Boxer and Quataert, p77.

[17] Werner Thoenessen, The Emancipation of Women: The Rise and Decline of the Women’s Movement in German Social Democracy 1863-1933, Pluto Press, Glasgow 1976, pp16-17.

[18] Anderson and Zinsser, A History of Their Own, p373.

[19] Boxer and Quataert, in their Introduction to Socialist Women, p9.

[20] Frederick Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, International Publishers, New York, 1975, pp120-121.

[21] ibid., p137.

[22] ibid., pp137-138.

[23] ibid., p145.

[24] Space precludes even a summary of the debate here. See Chris Harman’s lengthy note 1 to his article “Women’s Liberation and Revolutionary Socialism” in International Socialism, 2:23, pp37-40, and Eleanor Burke Leacock’s Introduction to Engels’ The Origins of the Family, International Publishers, New York 1975, pp7-66.

[25] August Bebel, Die Frau und der Sozialismus, translated by Daniel de Leon and published in English as Woman Under Socialism, Schocken, New York, 1971. It was originally published as Woman in the Past, Present and Future in 1878, before the publication of Engels’ Origins, but was subsequently revised to include some of Engels’ material and arguments.

[26] Quoted in Thoennessen, The Emancipation of Women, p37.

[27] Bebel, Woman Under Socialism, p343-344.

[28] Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, p250.

[29] Carol Bacchi, “First-wave feminism: history’s judgement” in Norma Grieve and Patricia Grimshaw (eds), Australian Women: Feminist perspectives, Oxford University Press, Melbourne 1981, p156. In a survey of historians’ attitudes to the first-wave feminists, Bacchi discusses the “revisionists” who “criticise the suffragists for the shallowness of their vision” and “the way in which they allowed race and class interests to interfere with their assessment of women’ s problems” and the “new revisionists” who defend the suffragists with the claim that “it is necessary to understand the women within the context of their time and that it is unfair to judge them by today’s standards”. The tolerance of the latter group is not, however, usually extended to Marxists.

[30] Richard Evans, The Feminist Movement in Germany 1894-1944, quoted in Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation p73.

[31] Bacchi, “First-wave feminism: history’s judgement”, p157.

[32] Cited in Darryn Kruse and Charles Sowerwine, “Feminism and Pacifism: ‘Women’s Sphere’ in Peace and War”, in Grieve and Burns, Australian Women: New Feminist Perspectives, p47. Kruse and Sowerwine note that the US WCTU had 200,000 members by 1883, when it formally endorsed women’s suffrage. By 1892, the Victorian WCTU had 4,000 members in nearly 60 branches.

[33] Ferdinand Lassalle’s General German Workers’ Union merged with Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht’s Social Democratic Workers’ Party in 1875 to form the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany. It was banned under the anti-socialist laws of 1878 for twelve years, re-emerging as the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in 1890.

[34] Thoenessen, The Emancipation of Women, p32-33.

[35] Ingrun Lafleur, “Five Socialist Women: Traditionalist Conflicts and Socialist Vision in Austria, 1893-1934” in Boxer and Quataert, Socialist Women, p220.

[36] Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, p77.

[37] Thoenessen, The Emancipation of Women, p50.

[38] For Zetkin’s attitude to the feminists, see Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, pp72-74; and Jean H. Quataert, “Unequal Partners in an Uneasy Alliance: Women and the Working Class in Imperial Germany”, in Boxer and Quataert, Socialist Women, p116.

[39] For an account of the debate within the SPD, see Thoenessen, The Emancipation of Women, pp39-42.

[40] See Sheila Rowbotham, A New World for Women: Stella Browne-Socialist Feminist, Pluto Press, London 1978, pp18-19, 23-24.

[41] Quoted in Julie Waterson, “The Politics of Abortion”, in Socialist Worker Review, 105, January 1988, p16.

[42] V.I. Lenin, “The Working Class and Neomalthusianism” in Pravda, 137, 16 June 1913. Quoted in Lenin, On the Emancipation of Women, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, p32.

[43] Quataert, “Unequal Partners”, in Boxer and Quataert, Socialist Women, pp126-127.

[44] Quoted in Waterson, “The Politics of Abortion”, p14.

[45] F.W. Stella Browne, “The Right to Abortion” reprinted in Sheila Rowbotham, A New World for Women, p114.

[46] Rowbotham, A New World for Women, p28.

[47] Boxer and Quataert, Introduction to Socialist Women, p2.

[48] Bacchi, “First-wave feminism: history’s judgement”, pp157-8.

[49] See Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, p69 and Thoenessen, The Emancipation of Women, p57, for figures.

[50] The Combination Laws, which forbade women from joining political organisations, were abolished in 1908. Thoenessen, The Emancipation of Women, p49.

[51] Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, p76.

[52] See for example Marx’s 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme, an attack on the residual Lassallean ideas in the SPD.

[53] See Carl Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917: The Development of the Great Schism, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (Mass.), 1983, chapter 1. See in particular pages 16-20 for a summary of Bernstein’s revisionism.

[54] The system of Vertrauenspersonen was a means by which the SPD circumvented to some extent the Combination Laws. Although women could not join political organisations, individuals were not banned from political activity. The network of women Vertrauenspersonen played a large role in the education and organisation of women. Thoenessen, The Emancipation of Women, pp48-49.

[55] Thoenessen, The Emancipation of Women, p49.

[56] ibid., p61.

[57] Quataert, “Unequal Partners”, in Boxer and Quataert, Socialist Women, p130.

[58] ibid., p131.

[59] That is, organisations or institutions which “pre-figure” socialism, the idea that we can create small “islands of socialism” within a capitalist world. This was one of the major ideas in a popular feminist attack on Marxism and Marxist organisations in the late 1970s, Beyond the Fragments by Sheila Rowbotham, Lynne Segal and Hilary Wainwright, Pluto Press, London, 1979.

[60] The article appeared in the Sozialistische Monatshefte, where “people who held views that could be broadly termed revisionist… could publish their opinions without hindrance”. Thoenessen, The Emancipation of Women, p98.

[61] ibid., p98.

[62] Quataert, “Unequal Partners”, in Boxer and Quataert, Socialist Women, p133.

[63] Thoenessen, The Emancipation of Women, p120.

[64] Marie Juchacz in her first speech in the Reichstag, 1919, quoted in Anderson and Zinsser, A History of Their Own, p397.

[65] Thoenessen, The Emancipation of Women, p91.

[66] Quoted in Anderson and Zinsser, A History of Their Own, p398.

[67] ibid., p399.

[68] This fascinating chapter of Marxist history will be the subject of a future article in this journal.

[69] Quoted in Cliff, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, p140.

[70] Lenin, “A Great Beginning”, in On the Emancipation of Women, pp65-66.

[71] William Mandel recounts a story told him by Dora Lazurkina, a Bolshevik who knew Lenin in Switzerland. Lenin was writing when he heard his wife, Krupskaya, and her mother whispering about a household task that needed doing. “But Vladimir llyich had already set aside his pen and rapidly crossed the room. ‘Don’t argue with me’, he said, ‘I also have got to take part in keeping house’.” William M. Mandel, Soviet Women, Anchor Doubleday, New York, 1975, p36.

[72] Quoted by Clara Zetkin in “My Recollections of Lenin”, Appendix to Lenin, On the Emancipation of Women, p110.

[73] See Chris Harman’s article “Women’s Liberation and Revolutionary Socialism”, in International Socialism, 2:23, pp29-37, for an elaboration of the argument and an account of the British Socialist Workers Party’s experience.

[74] Zetkin, “My Recollections of Lenin”, pp110-111.

[75] William Mandel, Soviet Women, pp31-32.

[76] See “Materials relating to the Revision of the Party Programme”, in Lenin, On the Emancipation of Women, pp49-53.

[77] Quoted in Anderson and Zinsser, A History of Their Own, p299.

[78] Many socialist feminists – such as Boxer and Quataert – would like to claim both Kollontai and Zetkin for their camp. But they themselves would have rejected this label: both were adamant that feminism and socialism were incompatible.

[79] Quoted in John Lauritson and David Thorsad, The Early Homosexual Rights Movement: 1864-1935, Times Change Press, New York, 1974, p64.

[80] Chanie Rosenberg, Women and Perestroika, p95.

[81] Beatrice Farnsworth, “Bolshevism, the Woman Question and Aleksandra Kollontai”, in Boxer and Quataert, Socialist Women, p.204.

[82] See Duncan Hallas, The Comintern, Bookmarks, London, 1985, pp51-53.

[83] See Kruse and Sowerwine, “Feminism and Pacifism”, in Grieve and Burns, Australian Women: New Feminist Perspectives.

[84] Quoted in Tom O’Lincoln, Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism, Stained Wattle Press, Sydney 1985, p46.

[85] ibid., p47.

[86] Quoted in Janey Stone, “Women in the Metal Trades”, Front Line (International Socialists), No.5, Melbourne, December, 1976.

[87] See Alex Callinicos, Trotskyism, Open University Press, Bristol 1990.

[88] For a discussion of these as they affected the British Socialist Workers Party, see Lindsey German, Sex, Class and Socialism, chapter 10; and Chris Harman, “Women’s Liberation and Revolutionary Socialism” in International Socialism, 2:23.

Against reductionism: Marxism and oppression

Sarah Garnham critically examines theories on the left that have emerged in response to identity politics.

The failure of identity politics: A Marxist analysis

Sarah Garnham presents a wide-ranging critique of identity politics and its toxic impact on the fight against oppression.

Marx and Engels on women’s and sexual oppression and their legacy

Friedrich Engels published his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884. He argued that women’s oppression arose with the development of classes in society.  Most feminists of the 1960s and 1970s recognised Engels’ work as a key text, whether inclined to agree with or oppose him.  Yet for all the debates about the book, there is very little understanding of the actual content and importance of not just Engels’, but also Marx’s contribution to establishing the basics of a fight for women’s liberation.