Chris Harman

How Marxism Works

Marxism and feminism

There are two different approaches to women’s liberation – feminism and revolutionary socialism. Feminism was the dominant influence on the women’s movements which sprung up in the advanced capitalist countries during the 1960s and 1970s. It started from the view that men always oppress women, that there was something in men’s biology or psychological make up which made them treat women as inferior. This led to the view that liberation was possible only by the separation of women from men – either the total separation of the feminists who sought ‘liberated lifestyles’ or the partial separation of women’s committees, women’s caucuses or women-only events.

Many of those who supported this partial separation called themselves socialist feminists. But later radical feminist ideas of total separation made the running inside the women’s movement. Separatist ideas ended time and again as a slightly radical wing of the social services, as with women’s refuges.

This failing led many feminists in another direction – towards the Labour Party. They believed that getting the right women in the right places, as MPs, trade union officials, local councillors, would somehow help all women to find equality.

The tradition of revolutionary socialism starts from a very different set of ideas. Marx and Engels, writing as far back as 1848, argued, first, that women’s oppression did not arise from the ideas in men’s heads, but from the development of private property and with it the emergence of a society based on classes. For them, the fight for women’s liberation was inseparable from the fight to end all class society – the struggle for socialism.

Marx and Engels also pointed out that the development of capitalism, based on the factory system, brought profound changes in people’s lives, and especially in the lives of women. Women were brought back into social production, from which they had been progressively excluded with the development of class society.

This gave women a potential power which they had never had before. Organised collectively, women as workers had greater independence and ability to fight for their rights. This was in great contrast to their lives previously, when their main role in production, through the family, made them completely dependent on the family head – the husband or father.

From this Marx and Engels concluded that the material basis of the family, and so of women’s oppression, no longer existed. What stopped women from benefiting from this was the fact that property remained in the hands of the few. What keeps women oppressed today is the way capitalism is organised – in particular the way capitalism uses a particular form of the family in order to make sure that its workers bring their children up to be the next generation of workers. It is a great advantage that while it pays men – and increasingly women – to work, women will devote their lives, unpaid, to making sure their men are fit to work in the factories and their children will grow up to do the same.

Socialism, by contrast, would see society taking on many of the family functions which weigh so heavily on women.

This didn’t mean that Marx, Engels and their successors went about preaching the ‘abolition of the family’. The family’s supporters have always been able to mobilise many of the most oppressed women in its support – they see the ‘abolition of the family’ as giving their husbands licence to abandon them with the responsibility for the children. Revolutionary socialists have always tried instead to show how in a better, socialist society, women would not be forced into the miserable, cramped life provided by the present day family.

Feminists have always rejected this sort of analysis. Far from approaching women where they have the power to change the world and end their oppression – where they are collectively strong at work – they approach women as sufferers. Campaigns of the 1980s, for example, focused on such issues as prostitution, rape or the threat to women and families from nuclear weapons. These all start from positions where women are weak.

Feminism starts with the assumption that oppression overrides class division. This leads to conclusions which leave class society intact while improving the position of some women – a minority. The women’s movement has tended to be dominated by women from the ‘new middle class’ – journalists, writers, lecturers, higher grade white collar workers. The typists, filing clerks, machinists have got left out.

It is only during periods of radical change and revolutionary upsurge that the question of women’s liberation becomes reality, not just for a minority, but for all working class women as well. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 produced a much greater equality for women than ever known in the world before. Divorce, abortion and contraception were made freely available. Childcare and housework became the responsibility of society. There were the beginnings of communal restaurants, laundries and nurseries which gave women far more choice and control over their lives.

Of course, the fate of these advances couldn’t be separated from the fate of the revolution itself. Famine, civil war, the decimation of the working class, and the failure of revolution internationally meant the eventual defeat of socialism in Russia itself. The moves towards equality were reversed.

But the early years of the soviet republic showed what socialist revolution could achieve, even in the most unfavourable conditions. Today, the prospects for women’s liberation are far better. In Britain – and much the same is true of other advanced capitalist countries – two workers in every five are women.

Women’s liberation can be achieved only through the collective power of the working class. This means rejecting the feminist idea of women’s separate organisations. Only women and men workers acting together as part of a united revolutionary movement can destroy class society, and with it the oppression of women.


Last updated on 26 January 2010