First Published: October, Vol. 1, No. 2, October 1982.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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It was agreed at the RCL history conference of April 1980 that:
The question of women’s emancipation has been neglected. The incorrect over-concentration on industrial work negated the importance of women’s struggles other than at the workplace, and putting this right has not been an aspect of the rectification campaign. It is vital to strengthen both the line and our practice on this issue.
The Commission on Women’s Oppression was set up to start this work and its first task was to sum up our past lines, and learn from both their positive and negative features. The article which follows does this in some detail.
In the process of summing up and criticising past errors in line the Women’s Commission was able to identify areas where work was needed in order to begin developing a better line. At the RCL Second Congress, a short resolution was passed which served to indicate the direction of future work on the nature of women’s oppression:
Within the capitalist system women are doubly oppressed, as women and as workers. They are particularly hard hit at home and at work by today’s economic crisis. They are also bearing the brunt of cuts within the welfare state.
At the basis of women’s oppression lies the economic unit of the family. The family and women’s role of privatised labour within it is necessary and essential for capitalism, which leaves the maintenance and reproduction of the workforce in women’s hands and also uses women as a reserve army of labour.
Women’s unequal position in society is the basis of divisions between men and women within the working class. The fight for women’s equality is an essential part of the struggle of the class for socialism. Without women’s participation it cannot be won. Only socialism can lay the material basis for the full liberation of women. However, we should also struggle now for reforms around women’s demands.
Clearly locating the basis of women’s oppression in the economic unit of the family marks an advance over the previous line. The old line did correctly state this point, but as is shown in the following article it then virtually negated it, by the idealistic call to “build the proletarian family”. With the emphasis on an abstract notion of the revolutionary unity of men and women, there was no serious analysis of domestic labour, its relationship to capitalist production and its relationship to women’s wage labour.
We specifically refer to the economic unit of the family, recognising that the family has a dual nature, both as an economic unit which oppresses women and as a place of warmth, support and affection. Working and oppressed people fight for a better life for themselves and their families, fight for a family life free from the distortions of capitalism and imperialism.
British imperialism pays lip service to the sanctity of the family and then ruthlessly attacks national minority families through state racism, it promotes the image, of the ideal mother at home with the children and then forces working class and national minority women on to the labour market in order that their families might survive. We fully support the struggles of working and oppressed peoples for a better family life, but simply to concentrate on this aspect as we did in the past is to lose sight of the way in which women are oppressed and how women’s struggles are linked to the struggles of working and oppressed peoples against imperialism.
The following criticism marks a starting point in an attempt to develop a more dialectical analysis of women’s oppression. Future issues of October will have further articles on the subject.
The policy on women cannot be separated from general developments in the CFB and later in the RCL. Prior to uniting with the Communist Unity Association (CUA) and founding the RCL, the CFB launched an ideological struggle centred around five main errors, in order to get to a higher level on the road to building a democratic-centralist organisation. In any struggle there is a tendency to overstress the negative and leave aside and often forget the positive aspect of any contradiction. Launching an ideological struggle was right at the time, what was wrong was to forget about political line and believe that if we waged the campaign successfully; the development of political lines would automatically follow.
The CFB tended to concentrate too much on ’pure’ ideology divorced from questions of political lines and actual practice. The withdrew from our areas of mass work –TOM and Working Women’s Charter, in order to concentrate on industrial work. We thought that any question could be resolved, mainly on an ideological basis. The line on Women’s Oppression, (CFB Policy of 1976) which was in its infancy was prevented from developing, mainly due to the dogmatism of the kind of struggle we were involved in. Instead of using our reading well, instead of summing up our experience in the women’s movement, (quickly labelled ’bourgeois feminist’) instead of learning from our mistakes and using criticism and self-criticism to serve the development of line, we fell from one extreme to another, from intellectualism to employee mentality which contributed to the weakness and one-sidedness of the line on women’s oppression endorsed in the Manifesto of 1977.
In August 1976, the Executive Committee of the CFB brought out the policy, “Combat women’s Oppression. Mobilise women for the socialist revolution”, which was published in Revolution No.4 April 1977. Overall it took a generally correct theoretical position, but it was abstract in that it did not apply theory to the actual situation faced by women in the UK today. First it summarised the origins of women’s oppression, rooted in the same social development as the division of society into exploiting and exploited classes–the private ownership of the means of production, as first analysed by Engels in “Origins of the Family, Private Property and State”.
It then went on to give a basic analysis of the oppression of women in capitalist society, making the correct point that “under capitalism, women’s main tasks are still those of the domestic slave, isolated from social production, to reproduce and maintain the labouring power of waged workers in the family”, and went on to point out that women’s role in the labour force stems from this. It pointed out that it is in the bourgeoisie’s interest that cares and maintenance of the workforce is provided in the home, and the “social facilities, female employment and legal reforms are provided only as far as they are in the bourgeoisie’s best interests”.
Engels called for the “abolition of the family as the basic economic unit of the society”. Communists have understood from this the need to put an end to women’s privatised labour in the home, the need to socialise child care and domestic labour. In the women’s movement, an analysis of the role of the family and women’s part in it, which included many correct points, had led some elements to regard the family as always and necessarily reactionary, and to call for its abolition. Rather than take the correct point from, this analysis, the CFB seized on the fact that the family is for many, an oasis of warmth in a desert of drudgery, and attacking also petty bourgeois sexual radicalism, raised the slogan “build the proletarian family”. On the, one hand the policy recognised the root of women’s oppression as being her role in the family; which in bourgeois society is to maintain and reproduce the labour force for capitalism, whilst on the other hand it adjured communists to overcome this by making efforts to improve individual relationships within the family.
This was a notion of what was achievable in the superstructure which completely ignored the material base. It is a prime example of idealism, in that it grossly overestimated the power of ideas alone to change reality. In a letter to branches which accompanied the publication of the line, it was put thus “The revolutionary unity of men and women is essential for the success of the proletarian revolution. This is a basic truth that we must grasp firmly. The most important concrete expression of this unity is the proletarian family.”!
The line also contained economist errors, which became full blown in the Manifesto. The introduction to the policies said, “We will struggle for policies that enable women to take part in social production. It is at work that the working class is exploited, and where it organises collectively to defend itself. Working class women in industry will more easily be persuaded of their class interests and the contribution they must make to the class struggle, than will women isolated in the home”. Though the point about the effect of being brought into social production is historically true, it is superficial to leave it at that. Without communist influence, struggles at work are mainly confined to the economic, and the part that women play in them are largely determined by their responsibilities in the home. This general outlook also overlooked the many struggles outside the workplace that women take part in, often leading them e.g. tenants’ organisations, struggles against the state relating to social security, fights against hospital and school closures, the struggle of national minority women against deportations and split families. It labelled all women who were not workers as politically backward. This just does not match up to reality.
In the section “Socialist revolution clears the path for women’s emancipation”, the line correctly pointed out that, “only socialist revolution can lay the basis for the complete emancipation of women” and explained that this was by a) providing full employment, b) the socialisation of domestic labour. It avoided idealism to some degree by pointing out that “Under socialism women will not be oppressed although they will be unequal”. By this was meant that there will be no legal or political discrimination against women, but that the heritage of thousands of years of oppression could not be overturned overnight. However, if a socialist economy is not able to provide full socialisation of childcare and domestic labour, doesn’t this mean that women continue to be oppressed? We do not have any answers to this, though sharing the conviction that as class contradictions are resolved in the development towards communism, so the inequalities of women’s position will be eradicated.
Under the section, “who are our enemies?” these are listed as i) the capitalist system, ii) opportunism and iii) bourgeois feminism. At that time, the CFB had a bee in its bonnet about bourgeois feminism: to the extent that bourgeois feminism gets a listing among “the enemies”, while the bourgeois ideology of male supremacism is dealt with under the heading of “contradictions among the people”. The CFB quickly labelled the women’s movement as “bourgeois feminist”–not because we made a thorough analysis of its lines, (which were many and various), its social composition, the class it served, but because our dogmatism prevented us from looking at the lines and policies of the movement, taking the positive and building on it, rejecting the negative and criticising it in theory and practice.
What we did not see and indeed could not see because of our lack of practice, is for the class struggle to be successful it has to unite all those who can be united against the main enemy, the British imperialist bourgeoisie. For such an alliance to come about it has to overcome the many weapons used by the bourgeoisie to divide the working class and its allies, i.e. racism and sexism. It’s no good talking about the class struggle if we don’t recognise the contradictions amongst the people and don’t try to resolve them, the women’s movement of the 1970’s was mainly feminist is something we would probably agree on. That the movement as a whole was bourgeois is something that would have to be argued for.
This sectarianism towards the women’s movement was part of the general development in the CFB which at the time was, moving to a policy of concentrating its mass work amongst the working class. This is reflected in the line of both the CFB and RCL, in that they dismissed any work with non-working class women. It was correct, and still is, at a time when ML forces are few, to focus communist political work among the working class, but not exclusively. Our sectarianism towards the women’s movement meant that we missed anything that was positive. If we were to continue in this manner, we would be in danger, of ignoring the growing anti-imperialist trend within the women’s movement – a positive trend with which we must unite with.
The publication of the above line in Revolution was accompanied by a truly remarkable article, which though purportedly introducing, it as “the correct” in fact concentrates on magnifying all the erroneous elements in it, and in this foreshadows the line eventually encapsulated in the Manifesto published only three months later.
This article asserts that “Women’s emancipation is a vitally important question for the working class” – not because women are oppressed under capitalism, nor because struggle against their oppression brings them smack up against capitalism as the obstacle: but because “the militant unity of all sections of the working class is essential to the success of the proletarian revolution”.
A pretty odd idea of the relationship of the part to the whole, where the interests of the part do not even figure! It carries straight on to say “Bourgeois propaganda on women is spread far and wide; it seeks to undermine and destroy the unity of men and women. Bourgeois feminist propaganda claims that men are the reason for women being oppressed; it consciously seeks to divide men and women...” i.e. bourgeois propaganda equals bourgeois feminism!
It does not even mention male supremacism: even when dealing with its effects on women: “Their particular oppression as women, which is inevitable under capitalism, can have a crippling and demoralising effect... Communists...can learn to give leadership to women in ridding themselves of the passive attitude instilled in them by bourgeois society.”
Backing for the “women can only struggle at work” attitude is found in a quote from Mao: “Unite and take part in production and political activity to improve the economic and political status of women”, an inscription for the magazine Women of New China, July 1949, on the eve of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China.
The following issue of Revolution No.5 May 1977 included a reprint of a Chinese article of 1962 on “Transform the family into a fighting unit of the proletariat”. The editorial pointed out “The line stated that revolutionary communist should begin the struggle now to transform the family into a fighting unit of the proletariat. This article contains some valuable lessons for revolutionary communists in capitalist countries also. It is necessary to struggle now to mobilise women for the socialist revolution and the struggle to transform the family is a valuable part of this task.” The article may indeed have given some guidance to communists as to how to handle relationships within their own family. But a homily on individual relationships in a youthful socialist country, very recently emerged from feudalism and colonialism, was hardly likely to help communists arrive at a correct analysis of the family in Britain.
The CUA’s line on women’s oppression as put forward in Women in Class Society 1974 was in contrast to the CFB’s position, based on analysis of at least, some of the features of women’s position in contemporary Britain.
It located women’s inferior position as beginning “on the basis of the existence of private property, in the family, for her central role in capitalist society is that of wife and mother. (Page 5).
It also deals with the bourgeois ideology inoculated into women to fit them for their role as domestic slaves–as evidenced by the subjects studied by girls at school, and the small proportion of women university students and apprentices, and criticises briefly the idea of “maternal devotion” idealised by the bourgeoisie.
At work it documents women’s role in, the work force as an army of cheap labour–called on in times of crisis to replace or undercut men. Dealing with the unions, it supports the need of oppressed sections of the working class to have separate organisation within unions (although what form this should take is vague) while being against separate unions as such. It also recognises the problems that narrow craft attitudes and male chauvinism pose for women workers, in unions.
Although recognising both the material basis of women’s oppression and its ideological aspects, the CUA documents went further than the CFB policy in its view of women as politically backward due to isolation in the home: forgetting that oppression breeds resistance. The only form of women’s struggle that gets recognition is the economic struggle for equal pay.
The CUA also shared the sectarianism of the CFB towards the women’s movement. Their document sketched the recent history of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and criticised it as being totally anti-working class since 1971, (the point at which the women’s national co-ordinating committee foundered). Its characterisation of feminism was crude.
Feminists see women as being condemned by their sex to their secondary position, rather than by the structure of society. Therefore they continually seek ways of overcoming their sex, through abortion, lesbianism or the reversal of the traditional male and female roles by suggesting that men stay at home to look after the children whilst the women go out to work”. (Page 15)
But the Women’s Liberation Movement’s class basis and outlook was more realistically analysed (in the author’s opinion) as petty bourgeois, rather than bourgeois. Strong and correct criticism was made of the blind emphasis by the WLM on free abortion and contraception and their total neglect of the defence of the right of working class, and especially black women, to have children. This stand of the WLM was not corrected until recently.
Analysis of the lack of provision of nurseries was accompanied by strong argument for the need for women to fight for them, specifically at the place of work or education. Finally, the document analysed why only socialism can lay the basis for women to be equal in society; but did not defer to that great day, the struggle against women’s oppression.
The positive aspects of the lines of both the CFB and the CUA sunk without trace. The eight short paragraphs devoted to the question of women in the Manifesto, itself showed the lack of importance attached to the question.
The understanding of the root cause of the oppression of women found in the CFB’s and CUA’s old line has flown out of the window; out of the window goes materialism, in comes idealism, and vulgar economism.
“Women have been oppressed since the beginning of class society because the exploiting class has continually forced them to accept an inferior position in social production and society.” How nasty of the exploiting class! The question of women’s role as reproducer and maintainer of the labour force doesn’t get a look in.
“Working class women are mainly oppressed economically. Women in social production are often super exploited.” Women’s oppression is thus reduced to a struggle against low pay. But “women also suffer political and economic inequality”. If the relationship between economic base and super-structure was somewhat crude in the old CFB line, here it is non-existent!
In the section on the struggle against bourgeois ideology and opportunism, there are further paragraphs on the divisions between men and women. Here bourgeois feminism is treated as an equal danger to attitudes of male superiority. Again there is no understanding of the need for communists to build a principled unity based on the demands of the most oppressed.
Discrimination against women forces them to accept lower wages and this keeps wages for the whole class down. We must boldly call on men workers to see that the oppression of women is an attack on the class as a whole.
Having reduced the struggle against women’s oppression to one of equal pay, the old RCL proceeded to pay no further attention to the question. The articles in Class Struggle that dealt with women (being half the population it would be hard to exclude them completely) dealt with women as workers, women as members of national minorities, but never drew out the specific oppression that they, faced as women, and the resistance that they put up to that oppression. Even in industrial work, little if any work has been done in taking up specific questions relating to women in factories.
The CWM, with whom the RCL united in June 1980, did not have a thorough analysis of women’s oppression, but it did in their demands for reforms include “rape to be treated as a serious crime, the banning of pornography and indecent advertisements which exploit and degrade women and act as an incitement to rape”, and also had a positive attitude towards women’s liberation movement, whilst paying attention to the need to point out that the main contradiction in society is not between the two sexes.
Our future line on women’s emancipation must take into account and deepen our understanding of the following points.
We must reassert that women’s oppression in capitalist society is located in the economic base, not because she is a low paid worker – that is vulgar economism – but because capitalism demands that the labour force is reproduced, reared and maintained within the private unit of the family – within which unit, women play the main role. The political economy of women’s labour in the home must be analysed more deeply, because it provides the key to understanding why women can never be free under capitalism – just as the law of the falling rate of profit explains why capitalism can never satisfy the needs of the working class as a whole.
We need to build on the down to earth analysis shown in the CUA document of the facts, both economic and ideological of women’s oppression in British society today and avoid in future the dogmatism of thinking that a suitable quotation would do, in place of analysis of concrete conditions. We need to go further than we have done yet in analysing the effect of imperialism on women’s position in the imperialist countries: what has been the main factor in raising the living standards of working class families? Why were national minority immigrants preferred (as a source of cheap labour) to women after the 2nd World War? What has the effect of the welfare state been in policing and controlling working class families? What effect has imperialism had on the kind of jobs women do? eg by creating large numbers of clerical jobs.
If we can understand in a materialist way the basis of women’s oppression we can overcome the idealism of putting women’s oppression down to a conspiracy theory on the part of the bourgeoisie, and of trying to overcome it by raising slogans like “Transform the family into a fighting unit”. We will be able to arrive at a more dialectical understanding of the relationship between that base and its superstructure, the ideology of male supremacism, the conflicting bourgeois attitudes of sexual morality from porn to Mary Whitehouse, etc. We should also overcome the divorce between theory and practice which has characterised the past: the old CFB line remained a paper policy, for all its good points, while the line of the Manifesto was such as to stifle any practice.
Finally, we should overcome sectarianism, and look with unblinkered eyes at the struggles of women which do take place, both at workplaces and outside waged by working class women and-non-working class women, and assess their contribution objectively, and seek their help build positive movements.