Rosa Luxemburg

Women’s Suffrage
and Class Struggle

The following article by Rosa Luxemburg was published in 1912 in a collection on women’s suffrage issued by her friend Clara Zetkin, on the occasion of the Second Social-Democratic Women’s Day in May of that year. As the circumstances indicate, it was a question of a general propaganda article only. But the brief essay is of special interest to us for more than one reason.

It is one of the myths of socialist history that Rosa Luxemburg had no interest in the women’s question. The kernel of truth is that Luxemburg certainly rejected the idea that, simply because of her sex, she ‘belonged’ in the socialist women’s movement, rather than in the general leadership. In rejecting this sexist view of women in the movement, she performed an important service. Yet – without adducing a line of evidence despite the detailed nature of his two-volume biography – J.P. Nettl writes: ‘Rosa Luxemburg was not interested in any high-principled campaign for women’s rights – unlike her friend Clara Zetkin. Like anti-Semitism, the inferior status of women was a social feature which would be eliminated only by the advent of Socialism; in the meantime there was no point in making any special issue of it.’ This statement about Luxemburg’s views is quite false. The fact is that Luxemburg herself made a ‘special issue of it’ on at least a couple of occasions when she wrote propaganda pieces for the socialist women; but it is not her own degree of personal participation that speaks of her point of view. Her friend Zetkin and others were taking care of the women’s movement; it did not need her, and women were not required by their sex to confine their activities to it. We may also anticipate a side-point: it is true that ‘Rosa never wanted either to claim women’s privileges or to accept any of their disabilities’ (Nettl) but in this she was no different from other revolutionary women of the time or today.

Another reason for the special interest of this piece is that it handles a question which, still in our own day, bedevils would-be socialist feminists sometimes, especially some who try to work out a Marxist analysis while under the impression that no one had ever contributed to it before. This is the question of the class position of women, particularly working women. Luxemburg’s remarks on the ‘unproductive’ character of housework should be especially noted. Of course, attempts to put a separate-class label on women as a sex will not thereby be impeded, since most such efforts do not try to work with a rational definition of class, but we hope it will be harder to present such theorising as Marxist. There is a nuance of difference between Luxemburg and (say) Zetkin which is directly traceable to Luxemburg’s lack of personal participation in the women’s movement and her lack of direct experience with its conditions and problems. This suggests another kernel of truth in Nettl’s sweeping statement, particularly his comparison with the mechanical-Marxist attitude toward political issues (anti-Semitism in his example). Luxemburg, looking at the bourgeois women’s movement from a great distance, grossly underestimated the appeals of abstract feminism. While this tinges the 1912 article given below, it is stated most plainly in a very short piece which Luxemburg wrote for International Women’s Day in March 1914, published as The Proletarian Woman.

In this 1914 piece, which has a mainly exhortatory tone, analyses are naturally not featured. Here Luxemburg’s summary of the class situation of women is telegraphic: ‘As bourgeois wives, women are parasites on society, their function consisting solely in sharing the fruits of exploitation. As petty-bourgeois, they are beasts of burden for the family. It is as modern proletarians that women fist become human beings; for it is struggle that produces the human being – participation in their process of culture, in the history of humanity.’ The thought which is telescoped here assumes that by the ‘modern proletarian women’, it is the woman militant that is understood, not simply any woman of the working class in any social situation. In any case, from this analysis Luxemburg goes on to assert: ‘The bourgeois woman has no real interest in political rights because she exercises no economic function in society, because she enjoys the ready-made fruits of class domination. The demand for women’s rights, as raised by bourgeois women, is pure ideology held by a few weak groups, without material roots, a phantom of the antagonism between man and woman, a fad.’ This is an example of the abstract deduction of political analyses to which Luxemburg was sometimes prone; her greatest mistake of this sort was a similar dismissal of nationalism as a political issue. Zetkin did not make Luxemburg’s mistake.

The article that follows (as well as the excerpts cited above from the 1914 piece) are translated from Luxemburg’s Gesammelte Werke (Berlin, Dietz, 1973) Volume 3.

‘Why are there no organisations of women workers in Germany? Why is so little heard of the women workers’ movement?’ – These were the words with which Emma Ihrer, one of the founders of the proletarian women’s movement in Germany, in 1898 introduced her book on Women Workers in the Class Struggle [Die Arbeiterinnen im Klassenkampf]. Hardly fourteen years have passed since ithen, and today the proletarian women’s movement in Germany has developed mightily. More than 150,000 women workers organised in trade unions help to form the shock troops of the militant proletariat on the economic field. Many tens of thousands of politically organised women are assembled under the banner of the Social-Democracy. The Social-Democratic women’s magazine has over a hundred thousand subscribers. The demand for women’s suffrage is on the order of the day in the political life of the Social-Democracy.

There are many who, precisely on the basis of these facts, may underestimate the significance of the struggle for women’s suffrage. They may reason: even without political equality for the female sex, we have achieved brilliant advances in the enlightenment and organisation of women, so it appears that women’s suffrage is not a pressing necessity from here on in. But anyone who thinks so is suffering from a delusion. The splendid political and trade-union ferment among the masses of the female proletariat in the last decade and a half has been possible only because the women of the workingpeople, despite their disenfranchisement, have taken a most lively part in political life and in the parliamentary struggle of their class. Proletarian women have up to now benefited from men’s suffrage – in which they actually participated, if only indirectly. For large masses of women, the struggle for the suffrage is now a common struggle together with the men of the working class. In all Social-Democratic voters’ meetings, the women form a large part of the audience, sometimes the preponderant part, and always an alert and passionately concerned audience. In every election district where a solid Social-Democratic organisation exists, the women help carry on the election work. They also do much in the way of distributing leaflets and soliciting subscriptions to the Social-Democratic press, this being the heaviest weapon in the electoral battle.

The capitalist state has not been able to keep the women of the people from undertaking these burdens and duties of political life. It itself was, step by step, forced to ensure and facilitate this possibility by granting the rights of association and assembly. Only the final political right – the right to cast a ballot, to directly decide on popular representatives in the legislative and executive bodies, and to be elected a member of these bodies – only this right does the state refuse to grant to women. Here only do they cry ‘Don’t let it get started!’ as in all other spheres of social life.

The contemporary state gave ground before the proletarian yomen when it allowed them into public assemblies and political organisations. To be sure, it did this not of its own free will but in response to bitter necessity, under the irresistible pressure of an aggressive working class. The stormy thrust forward by workingwomen themselves was not the least factor in forcing the Prussian-German police-state to give up that wonderful ‘women’s section’ at political meetings [1*], and to throw the doors of political organisations wide open to women. With this concession the rolling stone began to gather speed. The unstoppable advance of the proletarian class struggle pulled workingwomen into the vortex of political life. Thanks to the utilisation of the rights of association and assembly, proletarian women have won for themselves active participation in parliamentary life, in the electoral struggle. And now it is merely an inescapable consequence and logical outcome of the movement that today millions of workingwomen cry with class-conscious defiance: Give us women’s suffrage!

Once upon a time, in the good old days of pre-1848 absolutism, it was commonly said of the whole working class that.it was ‘not yet mature enough’ to exercise political rights. Today this cannot be said of proletarian women, for they have demonstrated they are mature enough for political rights. Indeed, everyone knows that without them, without the enthusiastic aid of the proletarian women, the German Social-Democracy would never have achieved the brilliant victory of 12th January [1912] when it got four and a quarter million votes. But all the same, the workingpeople had to prove they were mature enough for political freedom every time through a victorious revolutionary mass movement. Only when God’s Anointed on the throne together the noblest Cream of the Nation felt the calloused fist of the proletariat on their eye and its knee on their breast, only then did belief in the political maturity of the people suddenly dawn on them. Today it is the turn of the women of the proletariat to make the capitalist state conscious of their maturity. This is taking place through a patient, powerful mass movement in which all the resources of proletarian struggle and pressure will have to be brought to bear.

It is women’s suffrage that is in question as the goal, but the mass movement for this goal is not a women’s affair only, but the common class concern of the men and women of the proletariat. For in Germany today women’s disenfranchisement is only a link in the chain of reaction that fetters the life of the people, and it is very closely bound up with the other pillar of this reaction-the monarchy. In the contemporary twentiethcentury Germany of large-scale capitalism and advanced industry, in the era of electricity and airplanes, women’s disenfranchisement is just as reactionary a relic of an older and outlived state of affairs as the rule of God’s Anointed on the throne. Both phenomena – the Instrument of Heaven as the dominant power in political life, and the woman sitting demurely at the domestic hearth, unconcerned with the storms of political life, with politics and the class struggle – both have their roots in the decaying social relations of the past, in the era of serfdom on the land and the guild system in the cities. In those days they were understandable and necessary. Both of them, the monarchy and women’s disenfranchisement, have been uprooted today by modern capitalist development, and have become ridiculous caricatures of humanity. If they will nevertheless remain in modern society today, it is not because we have forgotten to get rid of them or simply because of inertia and the persistence of old conditions. No, they are still around because both of them – the monarchy and women’s disenfranchisement – have become powerful tools of anti-popular interests. Behind the throne and the altar, as behind the political enslavement of the female sex, lurk today the most brutal and evil representatives of the exploitation and enserfment of the proletariat. The monarchy and the disenfranchisement of women have taken their place among the most important tools of capitalist class domination.

For the contemporary state, it is really a question of denying the suffrage to workingwomen and to them alone. It fearfully sees in them, rightly, a threat to all the institutions of class domination inherited from the past – such as militarism, whose deadly enemy every thinking proletarian women must be; the monarchy; the organised robbery of tariffs and taxes on foodstuffs, and so on. Women’s suffrage is an abomination and a bogey for the capitalist state today because behind it stand the millions of women who will strengthen the internal enemy, the revolutionary Social-Democracy.

If it were a matter of the ladies of the bourgeois, then the capitalist state could expect only a real prop for reaction from them. Most of the bourgeois women who play the lioness in a fight against ‘male privileges’ would, once in possession of the suffrage, follow like meek little lambs in the wake of the conservative and clerical reaction. Indeed, they would surely be far more reactionary than the masculine portion of their class. Apart from the small number of professional women among them, the women of the bourgeoisie have no part in social production; they are simply joint consumers of the surplus value which their men squeeze out of the proletariat; they are parasites on the parasites of the people. And such joint-consumers are commonly more rabid and cruel in defence of their ‘right’ to a parasitic existence than those who directly carry on class domination and the exploitation of the working class. The history of all great revolutionary struggles has borne this out in a horrible way. After the fall of Jacobin domination in the Great French Revolution, when the cart carried Robespierre in fetters to the guillotine, naked prostitutes of the victory-besotted bourgeoisie shamelessly danced with joy in the streets around the fallen revolutionary hero. And when in Paris in 1871 the heroic Commune of the workers was crushed by machine-guns, the wild-raving women of the bourgeoisie exceeded even their bestial men in their bloody vengeance on the stricken proletariat. The women of the possessing classes will always be rabid supporters of the exploitation and oppression of working people, from which they receive at second hand the wherewithal for their socially useless existence.

Economically and socially, the women of the exploiting classes do not make up an independent stratum of the population. They perform a social function merely as instruments of natural reproduction for the ruling classes. The women of the proletariat, on the contrary, are independent economically; they are engaged in productive work for society just as the men are. Not in the sense that they help the men by their housework, scraping out a daily living and raising children for meagre compensation. This work is not productive within the meaning of the present economic system of capitalism, even though it entails an immense expenditure of energy and self-sacrifice in a thousand little tasks. This is only the private concern of the proletarians, their blessing and felicity, and precisely for this reason nothing but empty air as far as modem society is concerned. Only that work is productive which produces surplus value and yields capitalist profit – as long as the rule of capital and the wage system still exists. From this standpoint the dancer in a cafe, who makes a profit for her employer with her legs, is a productive working-woman, while all the toil of the woman and mothers of the proletariat within the four walls of the home is considered unproductive work. This sounds crude and crazy but it is an accurate expression of the crudeness and craziness of today’s capitalist economic order; and to understand this crude reality clearly and sharply is the first necessity for the proletarian woman.

For it is precisely from this standpoint that the working-women’s claim to political equality is now firmly anchored to a solid economic base. Millions of proletarian women today produce capitalist profit just like men – in factories, workshops, agriculture, homework industries, offices and stores. They are productive, therefore, in the strictest economic sense of society today. Every day, the multitude of women exploited by capitalism grows; every new advance in industry and technology makes more room for women in the machinery of capitalist profit-making. And thus every day and every industrial advance lays another stone in the solid foundation on which the political ‘equality of women rests. The education and intellectual development of women has now become necessary for the economic machine itself. Today the narrowly circumscribed and unwordly woman of the old patriarchal ‘domestic hearth’ is as useless for the demands of large-scale industry and trade as for the requirements of political life. In this respect too, certainly, the capitalist state has neglected its duties. Up to now it is the trade-union and Social-Democratic organisations that have done most and done best for the intellectual and moral awakening and education of women. Just as for decades now the Social-Democrats have been known as the most capable and intelligent workers, so today it is by Social-Democracy and the trade unions that the women of the proletariat have been raised out of the stifling atmosphere of their circumscribed existence, out of the miserable vapidness and pettiness of household management. The proletarian class struggle has widened their horizons, expanded their intellectual life, developed their mental capacities, and given them great goals to strive for. Socialism has brought about the spiritual rebirth of the mass of proletarian women, and in the process has also doubtless made them competent as productive workers for capital.

After all this, the political disenfranchisement of proletarian women is all the baser an injustice because it has already become partly false. Women already take part in political life anyway, actively and in large numbers. Nevertheless, the Social-Democracy does not carry on the fight with the argument of ‘injustice’. The basic difference between us and the sentimental Utopian socialism of earlier times lies in the fact that we base ourselves not on the justice of the ruling classes but solely on the revolutionary power of the working masses and on the process of economic development which is the foundation of that power. Thus, injustice in itself is certainly not an argument for overthrowing reactionary institutions. When wide circles of society are seized by a sense of injustice – says Friedrich Engels, the co-founder of scientific socialism – it is always a sure sign that far-reaching shifts have taken place in the economic basis of society, and that the existing order of things has already come into contradiction with the ongoing process of development. The present powerful movement of millions of proletarian women who feel their political disenfranchisement to be a crying injustice is just such an unmistakable sign that the social foundations of the existing state are already rotten and that its days are numbered.

One of the first great heralds of the socialist ideal, the Frenchman Charles Fourier, wrote these thought-provoking words a hundred years ago:

In every society the degree of female emancipation (freedom) is the natural measure of emancipation in general.

This applies perfectly to society today. The contemporary mass struggle for the political equality of women is only one expression and one part of the general liberation struggle of the proletariat, and therein lies its strength and its future. General, equal and direct suffrage for women will – thanks to the female proletariat – immeasurably advance and sharpen the proletarian class struggle. That is why bourgeois society detests and fears women’s suffrage, and that is why we want to win it and will win it. And through the struggle for women’s suffrage we will hasten the hour when the society of today will be smashed to bits under the hammer blows of the revolutionary proletariat.


1*. In 1902 the Prussian Minister of the Interior had issued an ordinance requiring women at political meetings to sit only in one special section of the meeting hall, the ‘women’s section’.

Last updated on 16.9.2007