Tony Cliff

Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation


Two different movements have sought to achieve women’s liberation over the past hundred or more years, Marxism and feminism. [1] Both wish to eradicate women’s unequal and oppressed position in present-day society, and to replace it with the full and genuine equality of men and women. However, they explain women’s oppression in very different ways, and pursue strategies which are quite opposed to one another.

Feminism sees the basic division in the world as that between men and women. The cause of women’s oppression is men’s urge to dominate and control them. History is the story of the unchanging patriarchal structures through which men have subjugated women. The only way to abolish these structures is for women, of whatever social class, to unite against men, of whatever class.

For Marxism, however, the fundamental antagonism in society is that between classes, not sexes. For thousands of years a minority of men and women have co-operated to live off the labour of the overwhelming majority of working men and women. The class struggle between exploiter and exploited, whatever their sex, is the driving force of historical change. Women’s oppression can only be understood in the context of the wider relations of class exploitation.

There can be no compromise between these two views, even though some “socialist feminists” have in recent years tried to bridge the gap between them. Since the time of the great Utopian thinkers of the early nineteenth century, Saint-Simon, Fourier and Robert Owen, socialists have seen their goal as the total liberation of the human race – the abolition of class exploitation and sexual oppression and all other forms of oppression.

Marx and Engels were able to show, by developing the materialist concept of history, that only the class struggle can achieve socialism and women’s liberation. The exploitation which men and women workers alike experience in their work leads them to organise collectively against capitalism. It is the struggle of this united working class which will sweep away oppression and exploitation alike.

The aim of this book is to show how women’s liberation depends on the class struggle. Its background is the feminist movement of the past fifteen years. To grapple with this movement’s ideas, which are often hazy, one has to deal with a number of the issues it raises.

First, the movement’s concept of women’s place in history.

The women’s movement rightly complains that women are “hidden from history”. But it does not connect this invisibility with the class nature of the way history is written and taught in our society. For this concentrates on the activities of ruling elites – kings, generals, prime ministers, Popes, bankers, factory owners, great artists, scientists and philosophers. All – with the exception of a few queens, empresses and Joan of Arc – were men. Hence history is written as a male story. But only a tiny minority of men gained the privilege of being included. So the complaint that women are excluded from history, without noticing that practically all men suffer the same fate, accepts the basic elitist tenets of “official” history. The only consistent opponents of this prevailing set of ideas are Marxists, who declare that “the history of society is the history of class struggle”, and hence that the exploited and oppressed classes – men and women – are as much the subject of history as the ruling classes.

Of course bourgeois historians do include the mass of the people as objects of history, affected by the actions of the rulers. In similar vein the women’s movement mostly see women as objects of history, as victims of male oppression. Feminists tell us what society, or individuals, have done to women. By and large women appear passive, or at best, reacting to male pressures. The foremost advocate in recent years of the “victim” concept of women’s place in history has been Simone de Beauvoir. For her, women were perpetually passive, and the exceptions – the “great” women such as Joan of Arc or Elizabeth I of England – earned their greatness by somehow managing to appropriate the properties of masculinity.

An added notion to that of women being “victims” is that they are unchanged by history, that women perpetually embody feminine qualities which are more decisive that anything else. The values advocated by the women’s liberation movement are always contrasted with those of the oppressors – “the way men do things”. Men represent “hierarchy”, “patriarchy”, “power”; women represent sisterhood, solidarity, community. Political parties and trade union organisations are described as “masculine structures”, “male type organisations”. Offenders among feminists are often described as being “like men”.

In this the women’s movement mirrors the values and standards established by the most reactionary men in the past. It was people most hostile to women who always invoked women’s eternal, unaltering nature: the eternal feminine was used as an excuse to justify various forms of social and legal restrictions on women.

The tendency to regard practically all women as basically alike leads many in the women’s movement to present practically all men as the same. See, for instance, one of the most influential books in the women’s liberation movement, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics [2]: all men are described as callous patriarchs, contemptuous of women, with arrogant strength which they use to oppress women. How untrue the description is when one looks at the male slave of the past, or at today’s harassed, alienated male worker, seen as an individual – even the machismo of many is far more an expression of lack of strength than of its presence.

The traditional view of women, by giving women certain inherent and unchangeable qualities, explains social and cultural patterns as the result, not of outside forces, forces in the society in which we live, but as the result of the very nature of women themselves. This is broadly accepted by the women’s movement, if in inverted form. The most extreme wing of the women’s liberation movement – the Radical Lesbians – by defining woman-to-woman relationships as a political statement, do nothing but reverse the traditional definition of women in terms of their relationships with men.

Throughout this book we shall try to demonstrate that there is no more a coherent group called “women” than there is one called “men”, except on the biological level. The gulf between slave-owner and slave, or king and peasant, makes the concept “men” meaningless – likewise, the gulf between the slave-owner’s wife and the female slave makes the concept “women” also meaningless.

Because of its prevailing views, the women’s movement falls into using the terms “women” and “women’s oppression” in a vague, undifferentiated and a-historical way. For female slaves oppression meant physical cruelty, sexual exploitation, forced separation from their children. For the leisured, financially comfortable plantation mistress it meant social and legal restrictions, and repressive sexuality. For working-class women the industrial revolution meant brutal capitalist exploitation plus the horrors of childbearing in terrible conditions (the vast majority of children dying in infancy). For the capitalist’s wife it meant an oppressive leisured life. To lump all women together in one word is to miss the specific historical conditions and to sidestep the role of the rich ladies in the enslavement and exploitation of working women and men.

It is common for people in the women’s movement to liken women’s position to that of slaves, oppressed racial minorities and economically repressed groups. But the similarities are few. Women are not a separate group; they are dispersed throughout the population. If women are the most exploited of workers, they are also among the exploiters. Women’s relations with men in the family are radically different from relations between workers and capitalists, or between black and white people: profound and complex economic, sexual and psychological relationships drive women to participate in the family. Blacks are trapped in ghettoes, away from whites. Affection between wives and husbands, mothers and sons, cuts across relationships of domination and submission. Blacks arouse revulsion in white racists; women are desired by men – even though on unequal terms.

Women are part of the society in which they live, and hence their situation cannot be studied in a vacuum. How to relate the concept of women’s oppression to class exploitation is a central theme of this work.

When it comes to present-day women’s oppression, the many proponents of the women’s movement talk of that oppression as a product of “patriarchy”. Male domination is thus interpreted as a supra-historical factor, existing independently of class society or capitalism. In opposition to this view we take as our theoretical cornerstone Frederick Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884). [3] Engels argues that it was the rise of private property and the division of society into classes which led to the subjugation of women. Under capitalism the production of the necessities of life is a social process, while reproduction – the rearing of children – is a private process, taking place largely in the enclosed family. The oppression of women is rooted in the dichotomy between the two. Hence the fight for women’s liberation cannot be separated from the fight against capitalism.

Oppression in itself does not necessarily lead to a struggle for liberation. The oppression of women, by dividing them and imprisoning them in the four walls of the home, leads most often to powerlessness and submission. Only where women, as workers, have collective power do they gain confidence to fight exploitation, and are then also able to fight their oppression as women. The other side of the coin is that women workers, like other oppressed groups, are in a period of social crisis often more spontaneously revolutionary than men. [4] The struggle of workers against exploitation is the key to their successful struggle against all oppression. Hence the first step for working-class women in entering the arena of struggle for their liberation as women is to leave the isolation of the home and enter the social area of production.

But this is not “liberation through work”. Engels describes graphically in his The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) [5] how working-class life was brutalised and dehumanised by the drawing of women to work in factories. For bourgeois sociologists, economists and historians, exploitation is mere exploitation; for Marxists it is the axis of class struggle, the springboard for human liberation. The brutalisation described by Engels led to a struggle, by women and men, for social changes to the benefit of the working class as a whole, as we shall see.

Throughout this book the emphasis is on working-class women as the subjects of history, as history makers.

The history of working women’s struggles is so broad and rich that I found it difficult to select the chapters to include in one volume. I have chosen to deal with the struggles as they reach their peaks. On a mountain peak one can get a much clearer general view of the lie of the land than in the valley. In human history, including women’s history, revolutions are the peaks. I have therefore chosen to show the role of women in four revolutions. I start with the English revolution of the seventeenth century, when for the first time modern ideas of women’ s liberation and a new sexual morality blossomed. The French revolution of the eighteenth century and the Paris Commune of the nineteenth century follow, demonstrating the indomitable struggles of working-class women.

Finally comes the story of the Russian revolution of 1917. This was a milestone in the emancipation of women: the first occasion on which the complete economic, political and sexual equality of women was put on the historical agenda. New political, civic, economic and family codes were promulgated, aiming to wipe away at one stroke centuries-old inequalities. The new government granted women the vote, passed divorce and civil laws which made marriage a voluntary relationship, eliminated the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children.

However, because of the failure of the revolution to spread into the advanced capitalist countries, above all Germany, the isolated Russian Revolution degenerated and the counter-revolution under Stalin took over. Everything was subordinated to the building up of industry. The regime therefore neglected precisely those economic sectors which might have lightened the burden on working women. The regime under Stalin also meant extreme social stratification: the family structure was found useful by the authorities as a conservative influence on society.

The history of efforts to organise working-class women into socialist organisations, like the general history of the working-class movement, is a long story of ebbs and flows, of great achievement and heart-rending disappointments. Yet the struggles go on, even though time and again they have to start as from the beginning.

In the struggle for liberation, of men and women alike, a crucial role must be played by the revolutionary workers’ party. Its task is to lead in the class struggle, to fight the prevailing bourgeois ideas, to strive to overcome the unevenness between sections of the working class – including that between women and men – and finally to lead the class in the revolutionary changing of society. History cruelly shows again and again how difficult it has been to build mass socialist parties. These difficulties could not but affect the efforts to win women workers.

Five chapters of this book are devoted to the successes and failures of organising working women into the socialist movement between 1860 and 1920: in the United States, Germany, Russia, France and Britain.

The growth of these different movements was varied and uneven. Firstly, economic development varied considerably from country to country. The connections between the position of women in economic and social life, which therefore also varied, and the ideas developed by socialist women, from which grew the political and organisational pattern of the socialist women’s movement, were tenuous and complicated. Hence there is a striking variety of working women’s movements, greater even than the variety between working classes in different countries, and far greater than the variation in economic development between countries.

But after the 1920s the question of women’s liberation was swept aside under the hammer blows of economic crisis, Nazism, Stalinism and the resurgence of right-wing Social Democracy. Only half a century later did a new women’s movement reappear in the deepening crisis of world capitalism in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In the later chapters of this book, we look at the contemporary women’s liberation movements in the United States and Britain. We consider their social composition and their mode of action. We show how these movements have focussed consistently on areas where men and women are at odds – rape, battered women, wages for housework – while ignoring or playing down the important struggles in which women are more likely to win the support of men: strikes, opposition to welfare cuts, equal pay, unionisation, abortion. The contemporary movements idealise women as victims of male supremacy, and not as fighting members of the working class. Instead of concentrating on where women are strongest – in the unions and workplaces – they concentrate on those areas where they are weakest. Hence these women’s movements have been pushed to the margins. They have been caught in a process of disintegration, although their ideas still hold a tremendous sway.

Behind these movements a new middle class has imprinted special characteristics on the concepts of women’s oppression and women’s liberation. Both men and women of this class suffer from a sense of alienation – and women feel doubly alienated as they are consistently discriminated against in promotion to higher positions at work. The rebellion of these people leads to what Marx called petty- bourgeois socialism’: they expose the iniquities of capitalism, but being still individualists, are unable to identify with the working class – the only class able to overcome the source of these iniquities.

Finally we will look directly at women’s oppression today. At the family and historical processes that shaped the working-class family: why did the working-class family, which was disintegrating in the period of early capitalism, survive? How and why did men and women workers struggle to defend the family, and what price did women have to pay for the partial victory over the harshness of capitalism? Is the family today supportive or oppressive, or both? What is its role as a focus of women’s alienation? Can the family be a sanctuary of love and decency in a society that distorts all personal relationships? How does class affect the family? In what way are working-class families different from middle-class families?

The last chapter focuses on the relationship between the exploitation of women workers and their oppression as women. How does oppression affect women, both in society at large and in the family? What is the relationship between the class struggle against exploitation and capitalism on the one hand, and against women’s oppression on the other? What organisations are necessary to lead both struggles? We try to place the Marxist concepts of the interrelationships of exploitation, oppression and liberation in their historical context. We argue that women’s liberation cannot be achieved without the victory of socialism, and that socialism is impossible without women’s liberation.


1. In this book I avoid using the words “feminism” or “feminists” without the addition of adjectives. These words have gone through several meanings. For the great Utopian socialist Charles Fourier feminism was a crucial aspect of socialism. For Alexandra Kollontai (as well as Clara Zetkin, Inessa Armand, Rosa Luxemburg and others of the same generation) it was a word of abuse for the bourgeois women’s movement. A similar transformation of meaning has occurred with other words, such as “radical”. Radical was used to describe the popular movement in Britain in the period between the French revolution and the end of Chartism, but later it became associated with the Radical Whigs and Radical Tories, or members of the Radical wing of the Liberal Party, and as such became anathema for socialists. Then, once the idea of an independent Labour Party took hold, radicalism appeared vague and regressive.

2. Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (London 1977).

3. Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (New York 1979).

4. For example, in the revolutionary wave which swept Europe in the years 1915-20 working women often played a leading role, despite being the least organised section of the working class. They were also the worst paid. Yet in the First World War they were expected to feed their families from dwindling food stocks, as well as labour long hours in the munitions industries. On a number of occasions women provided the spark that detonated mass outbursts of militancy. In the Glasgow rent strike women, backed by threats of strike action in the shipyards, won a limitation of rent rises. Hunger riots led by working women in Leipzig in 1917 generated the first German workers’ council, while women both as protestors and strikers created the Turin insurrection of the same year. Probably the most dramatic example of their activity was the February 1917 revolution in Russia.

5. Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (London 1973).


Last updated on 31.7.2002