A Class Perspective on the 'Women Question'

Sylvia Pankhurst - The Chainmaker (1907)

We cannot talk about proletarian and communist revolution if it does not express both the emancipation of the proletariat from class exploitation, and, on the same basis, the emancipation of women from gender oppression.

Submitted by Internationali… on April 24, 2019

1. The general terms of the ‘women question’

The issues facing women have made an urgent political reappearance in recent years, ranging from the horrific numbers of women killed by their partners to the scourge of wage differences and harassment at work.

Clear evidence has emerged that gender equality – so often trumpeted by various politicians as the objective of public political intervention in "democratic" countries under conditions of advanced capitalism – is a mirage whose achievement remains a hundred years away (according to studies looking at the current rate of the equality gap between men and women worldwide).1

Since the dominant ideology of every historical age is that of the ruling class, these studies – which testify to the impact of gender inequality – do not in any way differentiate between the situation facing women who belong to the ruling class from working class women and those who live in conditions similar to the proletariat. It is these women who have a very close association with poverty, so much so that the term feminisation of poverty was coined by the social sciences in order to describe the phenomenon by which most of the planet’s poor are women.

This situation marks the massive difference that separates the exploited women of the lower classes (proletarians) from the women of the bourgeoisie who, for example, can afford to pass on domestic drudgery to third parties, and pay for it with portions of surplus value extracted from the working class, appropriated through the exercise of a bourgeois occupation or simply by virtue of their belonging to a bourgeois family in the first place.

The democratic spokespeople of the ruling class and the radical (or not so radical) feminists fail to consider the irrationality which is inherent in the reality of women’s subordinate economic position in the advanced capitalist societies (even where the State establishes formal equality of women before the law) and they complain of the loss in economic terms that the limited participation of women in the life of the nation represents. What they forget is that capitalism is an anarchic mode of production in which an economic activity that meets the real needs of society is impossible: capitalism is based on production directed exclusively at the realisation of the exchange value of the commodity and the surplus value contained in it, in short: profit. In a society of this type, any public planning run by the bourgeoisie, which tries to integrate women in the same way as men, in order to promote the good of that society, is a fantasy that can only arise in the mind of a social democrat and/or a feminist. In fact, feminists are often inclined to formulate programmes whose actual implementation would primarily require the overturning of capitalist society. Regardless of this fact they continue to believe their programmes are possible in current society. Hypotheses of this type can be considered only if they don’t take into account the enormous advantage that the bourgeoisie, including its female component, draw from the subordinate status of working class women regarding the only thing that really interests the bourgeoisie itself: maximum profit and capital accumulation. Many democrats admit that society, taken as a whole, is damaged by the exclusion and subordination of women throughout its various branches. However they’re silent on the fact that this is a society divided into social classes with antagonistic interests. To affirm that current society sees its potential GDP diminishing due to the ‘female question’ only amounts to saying that unemployment and the under-utilisation of industrial plants depress growth, but all these cases are phenomena determined by the modus operandi of capitalism and are accentuated by the unfolding of its insoluble crisis.

2. Proletarian women

Capitalism has historically uprooted working class women from the narrow base of feudal-era family economic units (let alone other earlier class formations) and thrown them into the jaws of the labour market. The sale of female labour in exchange for a wage has also taken place in ways that are particularly advantageous to capitalism, in conditions that have allowed the bosses to take advantage of a female labour force, especially regarding married women, who have often formed an industrial reserve army, (i.e. a low-cost workforce to be used with maximum flexibility).

This has been possible because of the position traditionally held by women in the family, which has led to them being placed second with respect to the spouse or male partner on the labour market. This has allowed bosses to pay women workers a wage less than the real value of their labour power. In the aftermath of the industrial revolution women were employed en masse in industries, together with children, which contributed to lowering the overall price of the workforce. This created a situation so dire from a social and health point of view that the bourgeoisie, driven by workers' struggles, was forced to run for cover and regulate the exploitation of female and child labour to ensure the existence of successive generations of proletarians.

What’s more, the free domestic work performed by women in the family, whilst not producing value, nevertheless suits capitalism because it frees the rest of the family from this burden, and reduces the cost of a man’s wages if the expense of paying for permanent hired help were to be considered necessary to reproduce his own labour power. The disadvantage that the female proletariat derives from its function in the family is proved, among other things, by studies that report that homosexual and bisexual men are on average paid less than their heterosexual class brothers, while this relationship is reversed in the comparison between heterosexual women and lesbian women living in a couple relationship2 , because of the different family arrangement in the first case and the lower probability of having children in the second. It must be said that these data are at least partly clouded by the inclusion of self-employed women and worker/managers as well as the failure to include gay women who are unemployed.3 However the data background does not change: if you are married and you have children you will probably be paid less for the same job. In periods following the industrial revolution, and especially in the last 60 years, the mass participation of women in the labour market has also been conditioned by this economic context. For married women especially, they’ve had limited inclusion in phases of general expansion and relatively high wages4 , but their numbers have soared in phases like the one we have been experiencing since the early 1970s, where the rate of profit is lower and a single wage is no longer sufficient to support the family. Naturally we’re not advocating the reactionary idea of invoking a return of women to the hearth and home; here we’re simply pointing out that the facts show that capitalism has certainly not viewed the mass entry of the female labour force into the labour market for its emancipation but rather, as always, for the maximistion of profit. Indeed, like the immigrant labour force, the female labour force, as is, is less well paid, and is used by the employers to reduce the cost of labour as a whole.

Free housework carried out within the family, discrimination in the workplace, sexual harassment, gender-based violence, cuts in social services for children, for the disabled, and for women in difficulty: this is the reality which women workers and women on the margins must confront every day; not to mention the violence, including practices that violate a woman’s physical and mental integrity, and the open discrimination that women experience in so-called developing countries. However, the conditions to which the female proletariat is subjected in the advanced capitalist countries illustrate in a striking way the structural aspect of this question, where women’s emancipation is not attainable within the framework of rights recognised by the bourgeois state in its democratic form.

3. Harassment and commodification of bodies

As highlighted even by the media, one in three women between the ages of 16 and 70 have reported that they have been a victim of some form of physical or sexual violence – from the most common "simple" harassment to the most brutal sexual abuse. The scandal of "harassment and sexual abuse in the entertainment world", to which the media (desirous of salacious content) has dedicated ample space, has revealed, as if we didn’t already know, the ubiquity of this phenomenon in bourgeois circles, as well as the hypocrisy of those who try to clean up their image by paying out cash in the context of a typical public relations operation, so common to the beautiful bourgeois world. In certain so-called left-wing circles – openly on the side of the ruling class – violence and gender harassment pass through a pathological macho reflex of some male proletarians, who feel threatened by the loss of their domestic supremacy and by the "ascent" of their partners, and the loss of their functions as head of the family ... These "leftists", are silent on the conditions of social degradation in which these tragedies are often carried out.

In fact, despite the partial integration of the female proletariat into the labour market and the changes in sexual customs and family law in the capitalist metropoles, sexist prejudices are still widespread among men of all social classes – and even among women – and the desire for control over women’s choices, emotional or otherwise, often leads to the mentality that women are a mere object of property, a commodity object used for advertising purposes or even by some men for use for the personal satisfaction of their own libido. However, this situation is not at all the result of an innate social sickness or cultural degeneration, but the natural consequence of the social inferiority to which capitalism forces women, and in particular women from the working class and related social groups. This subordination is aggravated on a supra-structural level – but in this case the effects on the structure and on the degree of exploitation of the female proletariat cannot be ignored – by the use and propagation in the media of what are, very often, degrading images of the female figure, which strengthen such pre-existing secular mentalities, and exploit them without the least "social" scruple. This is done at the expense of chatter about so-called responsible capitalism. If the logic of profit requires the commodification of the female body in order to occupy a market share or place an advertisement, why give it up? It is merely a fact, and this applies to any company, obeying the laws of capital valorisation.

The proliferation of capitalistically unproductive expenses in terms of the production of surplus value (like advertising or the distribution of multimedia contents) is typical of capitalism in its imperialist phase, and it causes a plague which is already endemic, proving that capitalism and the division of society into classes are the real crux of the problem. Of course, to cover some sectors of the market, the media also presents issues with feminist participation, which, however, does not have a great effect on the improvement of the real conditions of existence of the female proletariat and related social groups, as well as being of very dubious efficacy for the ambitions of bourgeois women, many of whom also remained trapped in the same squalid mechanisms we mentioned above in order to be able to "make a career" (just look at the recent scandals in Hollywood). However, even the commentators on "the Hollywood thing", could not help but notice how this environment – the product of a reaction to whitewash the scandal – was deeply sexist and not only in media representations. The same dynamic is shown in the fact that the most desirable roles are mostly assigned to young, beautiful actresses. Moreover, in a world based on the exploitation and oppression of wage labour, it is not surprising that forms of dominion inherited from previous modes of production are incorporated into the bourgeois world, and due to the subordinate position occupied by females in the family, working class women are penalised in the labour market for their reproductive and care functions, compared to their class brothers. The superstructural consequence of the substantial inequality between men and women is found in all classes, (with of course a woman's body being more commodified than a male one) – but these consequences are pushed further in literally capitalist terms, through the market of in vitro fertilisation and uteri for rent – and depicted as a tool of pleasure or an object whose main quality is beauty. This can be seen in all media, the creators of a fertile ground for sexism and it is functional for capitalism, where proletarian women often find themselves in a reserve of underpaid labour power, often forced into involuntary part-time roles. The media, unsurprisingly, haven’t said much on the violence and harassment faced by women workers who, at the mercy and blackmail of the boss, cannot raise their voices if they care about maintaining their wage slavery. The innumerable sexist humiliations which working class women face in the workplace, (similar to those suffered by bourgeois and petty-bourgeois women, though they have the means to defend themselves by resorting to bourgeois justice), include – but aren’t limited to – outright dismissals, sexual harassment, and demands for sexual favours in return for career advancement.

4. An emergency issue to be resolved with repression

Almost every day we are bombarded with news of gender violence and femicide, but the only solutions put in place (and often without even too much conviction) by the bourgeoisie in every country are a tightening of prison sentences to be imposed on those who commit such crimes, leaving out any form of support for the victims, which is deemed too expensive in a phase of dismantling the "welfare", which has fallen victim to capitalist austerity. And given the current state of bourgeois law and the belief of individual responsibility, there is little scope to treat the offender as anything other than a deviant, holding out little hope of rehabilitation Finally, it should be noted that often the cases given centre stage in the news, especially in the case of murders, are exploited in a racist and patriotic way (e.g. if they see a migrant as responsible). Faced with such a depressing picture, it is not surprising that a substantial number of women have joined movements to raise demands and combat gender-based violence and rampant sexism.

5. Welfare cuts and economic spending

The management of state finances is in perfect harmony with the class nature of the bourgeois state. While the state is carrying out a scorched earth policy around anti-violence centres and other associations that assist abused women (places that can’t even get the few funds allocated in the budget by the local authorities and the central state5 ), it is instead increasing the budgetary funds directed to its imperialist military enterprises and to internal repression. The various reforms on work, pensions and schools, together with interventions in favour of the restructuring of the industrial sectors in crisis and the rescue of the banking system, should have made it clear a long time ago to any supposed revolutionaries that the spaces for mediation within bourgeois institutions are now close to zero and that reformism has run out of time. The issue of gender-based violence, as noted by the associations themselves, is certainly not a governmental priority.6 Governments may, though, have an interest in safeguarding the family as a social shock absorber in the face of a feared re-emergence of the class struggle, not to mention the advantages for capitalism to be able to count on a constantly underpaid workforce, (like women), whose low wages are closely linked to their family role.

6. Different points of view on the issue of women

Democratic feminism7 , in its various forms, has, in critical moments, always chosen to take sides with the ruling class, despite mouthing emancipatory ideals. Working class women, on the other hand, have been able to carve out a decisive role in the class struggle whenever the proletariat has attempted revolutionary action. This is proof of the undeniable contrast between the social nature of feminism and the proletarian class struggle. The cases are innumerable: from the Commune of Paris to the Russian Revolutions of February and October 1917 to cite just the best-known cases. In all these cases it was proletarian women, together with those of related social sectors and those deserters originating from the ruling class, who participated in the class movement as conscious members of the dominated class, politicising the objective social antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and challenging the domination that the bourgeoisie imposes on the rest of society to organise it in accordance with its class interests. In particular, the female proletariat played a decisive role at the dawn of the February Revolution (which began on March 8th), fraternising with the soldiers of the Tsarist armed forces and protesting against food shortages and the war which caused them.8

These results were achieved by the female proletariat fighting alongside their class brothers and certainly not isolating themselves, or making their own particularistic claims that clashed with the general class movement. During the imperialist massacres of the First and Second World Wars, however, feminists, as mentioned above, actively collaborated with their respective bourgeoisie in exchange for promises that committed governments to eliminate some of the legal and political discrimination that relegated women to the status of second-class citizens. It is precisely on this point that the distance between the battles of democratic feminism and that of the revolutionary proletariat is measured: feminism both in its institutional and in the radical-reformist guise, after having obtained equality before the law in the countries of the capitalist metropolis, is now fighting so that, thanks to changes implemented in the law by the State, the social barriers that prevent each woman from advancing according to the bourgeois canons of career advancement and of receiving a "just salary" are eliminated. The proletariat, instead, has as its historical objective the emancipation of humanity from exploitation through the abolition of wage labour and the socialisation of the means of production, an indispensable premise for the elimination of all forms of oppression and gender discrimination as well as national and ethnic discrimination.

Moreover, it is clear that the ideal of the career woman desired by institutional feminism precludes the most basic class solidarity on the terrain of demands, sacrificing it on the altar of professional success, and leads, as in those cases held up as a model by the feminist movement, to the rise to prominent roles in bourgeois society, which equate in all respects to the social climbers in question in the rest of the bourgeois class. Naturally we will hear objections raised by some feminists who adhere to intersectional feminism9 who instead claim to have recognised the issue of class struggle and social stratifications within the female gender and socially discriminated sexual and gender orientations. These are some of the fringes of the feminist movement that we call radical reformists. This feminism is radical-reformist because it inherits from traditional feminism a purely individualistic conception of social relations and its claims, (like those of institutional feminism), come down, at the end of the day, to requests for intervention aimed at the capitalist state, to be carried out within its framework and compatible with it.

For radical-reformist feminism, the class domination that falls on the proletariat and characterises it as an oppressed class turns into an oppression that affects the individual woman in her double identity as a woman and proletarian or in a discordant identity for men, at least for the ideological presuppositions of feminism, of man and proletarian. If class domination is reduced to a question of devaluation of the person in their individuality, then the passage from the enunciation of anti-capitalist slogans to the acceptance of the rules of the game of the system – which is inherent in founding a pressure group for the progress of a category from the legal point of view – is very short. There is good reason why the law, an instrument of the ruling class to perpetuate its domination, has, at its core, the isolated individual, who has to be recognised as an equal of other individuals. Femininsm inspired by the theory of intersectionality, therefore, finds in bourgeois democracy fertile soil in which to anchor itself, despite its radical slogans.

7. Women in the class struggle and in the revolution

Radical-reformist feminism admits, unlike mainstream feminism, the use of class means of pressure such as the strike, but its conceptions of the class struggle do not go beyond the level of the class “in itself”. In its attempt to repaint itself red, it has often flirted with rank and file unionism and exalted the isolated disputes animated by the trade-union radical-reformism as the non plus ultra of the class struggle. Although rank and file unionism is not as directly compromised with the ruling class as the traditional unions, it is still based on bargaining between capital and labour and therefore must legitimise itself before the employer in order to continue as a permanent organisation that co-manages and contracts the price of selling labour power. Due to the inherent limitations of trade unionism, which push the various grassroots unions to imprison demand struggles in rigid sectional barriers, radical-reformist feminism’s recognition of the struggle for demands, dominated by the grassroots unions, does not give it Marxist credentials or as one might expect, even simple membership of the proletarian camp. Just as radical-reformist feminism suffers from the original vice of being born as an inter-class movement, base syndicalism is limited by its nature as a permanent organisation for the contracted sale of the labour force, which prolongs its existence beyond the exhaustion of a demand or a series of disputes, excluding the development of struggles to the political level. The alliance or solidarity between the two movements, whose political conceptions do not go beyond the horizon of reformism, cannot therefore solve their respective problems: contrary to what happens in mathematics, two negatives do not make a positive.

For our part, we have always maintained that the best way for the proletariat to defend itself during demand struggles is by self-organisation outside, and if necessary against, the unions. The proletariat itself has demonstrated the validity of these forms of conducting struggle by putting up a more radical fight whenever it has been able to set up strike and self-organisation committees independent of the unions. In the areas of personal services, where the female proletariat is more represented than the male, self-organisation and forming connections with users of services are inescapable factors to avoid being crucified by the smear campaigns conducted by the bourgeois media. This is easier said than done, given the inconvenience that users experience in the event of unrest, but it is still an indispensable and certainly possible step in the light of the difficulties that the end users of proletarian and petty bourgeois extraction are themselves experiencing with progressive cuts in welfare. Solidarising with fragments of politicised or politicising users would ruin the plan of blaming and isolating strikers that the bourgeois media stage in these situations. But all this would still not be enough.

The fight for demands and the political struggle are qualitatively, and not quantitatively, different precisely because the fight for demands remains tied to contingent circumstances and to the need to resist employers' attacks against proletarian living conditions and / or to mitigate the rate of exploitation. The organ through which the proletariat exercises its political power during and after the revolution is the soviet, or council, sharing with the strike committees only the democracy and revocability of the positions that distinguish both forms. For the economic demand to go further and become a political struggle, the intervention of the party as a vanguard rooted in the class and able to support the spontaneous action of the class is fundamental, with its heritage of lessons learned from past episodes of the class struggle and warning the class of the strategies implemented by the ruling class to preserve its privileges. A striking example of the vital importance of the party is the experience of the German revolution of 1918-19: because of the absence of a strong party built in time, the ruling class managed to get the Soviet congress to vote or advise the transfer of powers to the constituent assembly! The German example shows how the birth of the soviets is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to pose the problem of political power and challenge the bourgeoisie on its own ground. In the event that the soviets are politically dominated by left bourgeois parties that link the interests of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, convincing them of the peaceful and parliamentary way to socialism, perhaps through an impossible – unless the councils are emptied and reduced to mere trade-union organisations – coexistence between soviets and parliament.10

8. The communist alternative

Despite the seriousness of the crisis and of the imperialist winds of war which are now becoming more and more insistent, a proletarian reaction that is equal to the enormous crisis of capitalism and the incessant attacks of the bourgeoisie remains absent. The female proletariat must escape the trap of feminism and fight alongside their class brothers in defence of their living conditions, beyond particularism, adhering with the rest of the proletariat to the communist revolutionary programme, to that of the class party located on the political level as the alternative to this system. Unless this happens, there cannot be a truly egalitarian society, where the exploitation of wage labour, wars and gender oppression, together with other forms of oppression imposed on social classes by the bourgeoisie in its strategy of divide and rule, become only a distant memory to study in the history books. Let us make it clear: the communism we invoke is communism in the Marxist sense of a real movement that abolishes the existing state of affairs, and has nothing in common with the mystification erected by the USSR following the Stalinist counter-revolution and the countries of Eastern Europe, as well as all the other so-called real socialisms - including the Chinese and Cuban cases – which pass off state capitalism as socialism.

Communism as a social system presupposes the abolition of the law of value. By abolishing the law of value and transforming indirectly social and alienated labour inherent in capitalism into work that is directly social and responsive to human needs, the very basis of the organisation of domestic service will be transformed and the care and upbringing of children will be socialised. This of course doesn’t mean separating them from parents and loved ones; rather it means educating them in places integrated into the social fabric, giving them an education adequate to meet all their social and individual needs for their growth and development. In this way, women will finally be emancipated from the oppression of private domestic service. In today’s capitalist society, the domestic work of the working woman as part of the family is atomised and disregarded as part of her social role in the private organisation of the family. Despite the enormous services rendered to capitalist society in the contribution to the reproduction of the labour force and to the education of new generations of proletarians, domestic work appears, in fact, unproductive of value and moreover not waged and not even susceptible to appropriation by capital to the extent that it is carried out in the family. The new organisation of the family and of the education of the new generations will be taken over by society, without having to come up against limits of compatibility with the capitalist system that have revealed time and again, with the incessant cuts in welfare, the absolute falsity of a social "democratisation" within capitalism.

The Russian Revolution itself, although it could not bypass the capitalist social horizon in an isolated and capitalistically backward country, had foreshadowed the future resolution of the gender issue by experimenting with collectivisation and free supply of domestic services, introducing, as its first interventions and often for the first time in the world: equal pay, kindergartens and free health care, the right to abortion and divorce. Minimal interventions, if you like, but ones that capitalism itself cannot manage to guarantee. The Russian Revolution, before its degeneration, tried to break the capitalist organisation of the family in a society that still remained capitalist. There, the instrument of bourgeois domination and exploitation, the state, was broken, thus opening the only possible way for an effective emancipation of women, and the liberation of humanity from wage labour and capital, through the conquest by part of the proletariat and related classes of the means of production and distribution. In short, we cannot talk about proletarian and communist revolution if it does not express both the emancipation of the proletariat from class exploitation, and, on the same basis, the emancipation of women from gender oppression.

We are convinced that every other political proposal for the emancipation of women, proposals which may seem realistic because of their compatibility with the system are, in reality, utopian and bankrupt.

The Internationalists of Battaglia Comunista

Affiliate in Italy of the Internationalist Communist Tendency

Thursday, March 7, 2019

  • 1Studies reported by the BBC in: bbc.co.uk
  • 2qz.com
  • 3d.repubblica.it
  • 4ourworldindata.org
  • 5lanotiziagiornale.it
  • 6fanpage.it
  • 7We will give a more detailed and contextualised critical analysis of the main radical-feminist approaches and their fundamental political limits in future works already in the pipeline.
  • 8For more on this see leftcom.org
  • 9The theory of intersectionality is a popular theory among the academics of American universities and embraced by the most radical feminists, inclined to adopt the language of class that is apparently attentive to the class struggle. As a theory it fits perfectly with the identity politics that have been so successful among the reformist and radical-reformist left of the Western world as it postulates the coexistence and intersection of different forms of oppression related to the identity of the oppressed person: the emphasis is on the subjective identity of the oppressed person and their vulnerabilities, often identified according to the criteria of the social sciences taught in the universities, without any formal reference to Marxism. The central element of oppression for us, on the contrary, is capitalism and, in opposition to it, the revolutionary potential of the proletariat as a social class. For intersectional feminism what they call patriarchy (social discrimination against women of all social classes) and capitalism are two interdependent variables and the former is not a dependent variable of the latter and of the other societies divided into classes.
  • 10For more on the German Revolution see leftcom.org