MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Organisations



Women’s Liberation Unions

Between 1969 and 1975 upwards of twenty women’s unions were founded across the U.S. to express a radical vision of women’s liberation. As the term gained currency in the early 1970s, most of these women’s unions became explicitly “socialist-feminist” organizations and constituted one of the major institutional vehicles for socialist-feminist politics during the decade.

Unlike many Left organizations, the women’s unions were not located only on the east and west coasts; midwestern and industrial heartland cities had them as well. Although the membership was concentrated among women in their twenties, it included working women as well as students. The first wave of founders frequently came out of organizing experience in the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, community organizing, and Students for a Democratic Society. Within a few years, however, membership expanded beyond this base, drawing in women for whom the women’s union and women’s liberation was their first political experience. A substantial portion of women’s union members were lesbian or bisexual, and the women’s unions prided themselves on good relations between lesbian and straight members.

The organizational structure of the women’s unions varied. The San Francisco Women’s Union adopted perhaps the most democratic-centralist structure; the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union (CWLU) typified the umbrella structure of most of the unions, with project work-groups, a steering committee, and membership meetings. True to their roots in the women’s movement, the women’s unions took issues of process and internal democracy very seriously.

Most women’s unions tried to select projects that expressed their vision of socialist-feminist politics, which meant an emphasis on anti-Vietnam War agitation, working and working-class women, sexuality/abortion/ women’s health, prisoner support work, and coalition work with Third World solidarity groups or people of color. Many sponsored successful International Women’s Day celebrations. Some unions, notably the Berkeley/Oakland Women’s Union, took the development of socialist-feminist theory as a serious task; others such as the CWLU were more project-oriented. The women’s unions, in collaboration with the New American Movement, organized a national conference on socialist-feminism held in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in the summer of 1975 and attended by more than 1,600 women.

The women’s unions could not sustain themselves following the collapse of the Left in the mid-1970s. The national conference, which appeared to mark the takeoff point for socialist-feminism, actually revealed the cleavages within it. The women’s unions’ actual base was almost exclusively white and heavily middle-class, despite calls for outreach to women of color and working-class women. Some unions collapsed under the pressure from long-term members and from Maoist groups to suspend what they perceived as mindless activity in favor of study and the development of theory. These critics did not see in socialist-feminist theory an adequate strategy for socialist revolution. Other members, now more rooted in their workplaces and communities, wanted to become more involved in mainstream political activity. They felt the call for more study to be a drain in the direction of more mindless theorizing. Almost all of the women’s unions had dissolved by 1977.

As concrete achievements, the women’s unions provided a generation of women activists with organizing and speaking skills that many have gone on to put to other uses – personal, professional, and political. Former women’s union members are found in significant numbers in trade unions, the women’s health movement, local and state government, community organizations, and educational institutions. As autonomous but not separatist women’s organizations, they made visible the politics of women’s liberation and forced the Left to take those politics seriously.


Woman’s National Committee

The WNC represented women and their concerns within the Socialist Party. At the 1907 meeting of the Second International in Stuttgart, Germany, delegates adopted a resolution calling upon Socialists to campaign for woman suffrage but only within their own organizations. The American party responded immediately by appointing its first national lecturer on women’s issues. In May 1909 the party’s national convention created a special committee “to care for and manage the work of organization among women” and provided funds to maintain a woman organizer in the field.

The establishment of the WNC marked an important event in the history of socialist women because its clear position within the SP signaled the end of autonomous women’s organizations. Although women continued to organize separately, they did so as committees within the regularly constituted Socialist locals.

The WNC coordinated several aspects of women’s affairs. Two outstanding organizers, Anna A. Maley and Caroline Lowe, chaired the committee during its most active years and made the WNC a valuable educational service to rank-and-file women. They produced and distributed scores of leaflets focused on women’s issues and drew up a more extensive curriculum for study. The WNC endorsed the campaign for woman suffrage and sponsored lectures by the party’s most popular speakers. The WNC advised local women’s committees on conducting strike-support work and on reaching out to immigrant women. Through its work, the role of women within the Socialist movement gained recognition along the lines established by the Second International.

As the party endured a bout of intense factionalism around 1912, the national executive committee of the SP ceased its financial support and the leadership of the WNC fell into disarray. By this time, local women’s committees had been established in at least fifteen states, and women’s membership remained steady. The final chairperson of the WNC, Winnie Branstetter, nevertheless orchestrated its demise, and in June 1915 the national executive committee, after polling its members, officially abolished the WNC. Although most women accepted this decision without formal protest, a few interpreted the event as an affirmation of their own suspicion that the WNC had been little more than an attempt by the party leadership to bring women under their control. After 1915 Socialist women lacked coordination at the national level as well as a distinctive voice within the larger movement.

Mari Jo Buhle


Woman’s National Socialist Union

Organized independently of the Socialist Party, the WNSU formed in 1901 to rally women to the cause of Socialism. Initiated primarily by California women with roots in Bellamy Nationalism and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the WNSU agreed upon a distinct strategy for women’s emancipation while allying with the struggle to overthrow capitalism. Although the SP at its founding convention included in its platform a commitment to “equal civil and political rights for men and women,” the WNSU acted on the belief that women could achieve only second-class status in locals officiated by men. For both practical and theoretical reasons, they insisted on autonomy.

Although the WNSU failed to make organizational headway outside California and Kansas, its leaders managed to hold a special meeting prior to the SP’s national convention in 1904. Delegates to this first national meeting of socialist women discussed the role of women within the larger movement and the wisdom of separate organizations. Several delegates from the New York area criticized the WNSU for its potential role in discouraging women from joining regular party locals and thereby weakening the movement. The party press echoed this opinion, and the WNSU lingered for a few years as a regional network of California clubs. See also: Socialist Party, Woman’s National Committee

Mari Jo Buhle


Workers' Group

The Workers' Group, also known as the Social-Democratic Labour Group or the Labour Group, an organisation of German centrists formed in March 1916, by breakaway members of the official Social-Democratic party. Eventually, in 1917, it formed the core of the Centrist Independent Social-Democratic Party of Germany. For a short time the party united with the Spartacists.


Workers Opposition

A group within the Russian Communist Party that struggled to achieve workers rights and trade union control over industry – by 1922, the Communist Party had condemned their ideas and forced the group to disburse.

The Workers Opposition began to form in 1919, as a result of the policies of War Communism, which had set a precedence for the domination of the Communist Party over local party affiliates and trade unions. Near the end of the Civil War, the Workers Opposition began agitating against the control of the party, seeking to restore more power to local party affiliates and trade unions.

A sharp controversy, of which accusations of factionalism abound, began over this issue beginning at the Ninth All-Russia Conference of the Communist Party in September, 1920. While all sides recognized the growing Soviet bureaucracy, all sides claimed to offer the only path that would defeat this bureaucracy.

Trotsky with the support of Bukharin, supported transforming trade unions into government organs, and in this way giving unions some control over industrial administration. Lenin and the right wing of the party, including Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, and Stalin, stated that unions should not be a part of industrial administration, but that it was the role of the party to teach unionized workers how to administer the whole national economy. They explained that with workers control, the needs of the community and the rest of society could not be controlled; that factories were the property of the community as a whole, and not only the workers who worked in them. Lenin explained: "Why have a Party, if industrial management is to be appointed by the trade unions, 9/10 of whose members are nonparty workers?" (Collected Works, V. 32, Page 50)

The Workers' Opposition represented the left wing of the party, composed almost exclusively of unionized workers, and was led by A.G. Shlyapnikov, S.P. Medvedev, and later Alexandre Kollontai. The group demanded that industrial administration be made the responsibility of unions, which would not only mean that workers of a particular factory would have control over that factory, but also that unions would control the national economy as a whole. Kollontai explained that only workers could decide what was best for workers – that it was not for party bureaucrats to decide what was needed for the whole society, but it was for workers themselves, the producers of the wealth of society. The Workers Opposition had substantial support among the members of the Communist Party, however the major leaders of the party refused its platform.

The basis of the controversy is namely this: whether we shall realize communism through workers or over their heads by the hands of soviet officials..... The solution of this problem as it is proposed by the industrial unions, consists in giving complete freedom to the workers as regards experimenting, class training, adjusting and feeling out the new forms of production, as well as expression and development of their creative abilities, that is, to that class which alone can be the creator of communism.

There can be no self-activity without freedom of thought and opinion, for self-activity manifests itself not only in initiative, action, and work, but in independent thought as well. We are afraid of mass-activity. We are afraid to give freedom to the class activity, we are afraid of criticism, we have ceased to rely on the masses, hence, we have bureaucracy with us. That is why the Workers' Opposition considers that bureaucracy is our enemy, our scourge, and the greatest danger for the future existence of the Communist Party itself.

In order to do away with the bureaucracy that is finding its shelter in the soviet institutions, we must first of all get rid of all bureaucracy in the party itself....

Wide publicity, freedom of opinion and discussion, right to criticize within the party and among the members of the trade unions -- such is the decisive step that can put an end to the prevailing system of bureaucracy. Freedom of criticism, right of different factions to freely present their views at party meetings, freedom of discussion -- are no longer the demands of the Workers' Opposition alone.

Alexandra Kollantai, Worker's Opposition

In addition to the dispute on union control over industrial administration, the Workers Opposition strongly opposed the separation of the Soviet state from the workers it claimed to represent, i.e. the growth of the Soviet bureaucracy. The Workers Opposition put forward four points to free the Soviet state from the death grip of bureaucratization:

1. Democracy at all times, even in an internal and external tension.
2. Expelling all nonproletarians from the Communist Party.
3. Expelling all nonproletarians from administrative positions in government.
4. Appointments only as exceptions, otherwise people should be elected (appointments, Kollontai explained, "disrupt the relationship of equality among the members by rewarding friends and punishing enemies")

At the 10th Party Congress (March 1921) the positions of the Workers Opposition were rejected, its ideas condemned, and it was ordered to disburse. Its members refuse to be deterred, and continued to agitate for their beliefs, focusing more and more on the growing bureaucracy and the lack of democracy in the Soviet state, the separation of Soviet bureaucrats (including the central leadership) from workers and local autonomy, and the growing Soviet suppression of dissident ideas.

At the 11th Party Congress (March-April 1922), the Workers Opposition would essentially be crushed. The Communist Party, recognizing that their former order to disburse was not adhered to, made a motion to expel the leaders of the Workers Opposition from the party – however the Workers Opposition still had too much support from the rank-and-file membership of the party, and the motion failed. To silence their dissent, the Congress was able to censure the group and forced them to curtail their activities.

In 1926, the remaining members of the Workers' Opposition briefly joined the Left Opposition led by Trotsky, who had by now began to struggle against the growing Soviet bureaucracy and the lack of Soviet democracy. Only Kollontai would survive, in virtual exile, from Stalin's mass trials and executions of dissidents.

Further Reading: Alexandra Kollontai on The Workers Opposition; Russia in 1919 by Arthur Ransome; Alexander Shliapnikov Archive


World Trade Organization (WTO)

An International organisation that extends and enforces capitalist trade arrangements on the world with supreme authority to govern all international trade agreements.

Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, with massive new markets open for exploitation (and no one to oppose/compete with), the WTO was created in January 1, 1995 with 128 members. Created from what had been the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which was established primarily to govern capitalism in the West, the task of the WTO is governing capitalism throughout the world. While GATT limited its regulations to trade in merchandise goods, the WTO also regulates services, including all international transportation, communication systems, etc. By the end of 2000, the WTO controlled over 150 different regional trade agreements (from NAFTA to ASEAN).

Capitalism must constantly expand in order to survive. Since about 1900, the entire globe had been divided up among the Great Powers, and further expansion of one power could only be achieved at the expense of another, thus opening the period which Lenin defined as Imperialism - a global order marked by inter-imperialist wars and the exploitation of colonies for raw materials and cheap labour. The period after the Second World War saw the growth of Neo-colonialism in which the U.S. was now the dominate capitalist power, using its dominance to squeeze out the old European powers while leaving the exploited countries with the illusion of self-government. The collapse of the Bretton Woods arrangements in the late-60s and early-1970s, saw the IMF take on a new role intervening in the economic management of debtor countries and enforcing the monetarist measures of the Reagan-Thatcher period. The failure of these measures following the rapid expansion of the financial markets, the growth of new competing centres of capitalism in some former colonies, and the intensification of the process of commodification, combined with the collapse of the former Soviet bloc to create an urgent need for a global restructure, which could not be carried out without the cooperation of all the "major trading nations". Not least among the blockages to the necessary global restructure are the bourgeois-democratic governments in the imperialist countries themselves; not only is it necessary to crush the efforts of newly-industrialised countries to get a fair share of world trade, the economic small-fry in the U.S., Japan and Europe also have to be persuaded of the need for their own destruction. This is the kind of job the WTO was created to do: to persuade poorer countries to open their markets to imports which will wipe out whole industries, while accepting the fact that they will be locked out of markets in Europe, Japan and the U.S. which they need in order to survive, and on the other hand, persuading the "little-people" in Europe, Japan and the U.S. to open themselves to competition with cheap labour "for the good of the economy". This is a complex game of economic diplomacy, but one in which the players exercise power in proportion to their share of world trade. In other words, the WTO is a vehicle for the promotion of the interests of capital, where guns and dollars alone are not sufficient to do what has to be done.

Free trade means the removal of all barriers to the exchange of commodities; this can only mean the rule of capital. Trade can be "free" but never "fair". Socialism counters free trade with collaboration.

Organisational Structure: The daily buisness of the WTO is carried out by the general council, made up of member nations. A presiding ministerial conference occurs every two years to elect the director-general and review the work of the general council.

The first director-general of the WTO was Renato Ruggiero, an Italian trade minister, placed into power in May 1995. In September 1999, in an event that was remembered for the 30,000 workers who put a halt to the proceedings through street fighting and civil disobedience, Mike Moore became the new director-general for a three year term. At the same time Moore was put into power, the ministerial conference appointed his successor as Thai Commerce Minister Supachai Panitchpakdi for a three year term starting in September of 2002.

Mass movements against the WTO: The WTO argues that it is democratic because "most" of the governments who put it into power are "democratic". They explain the WTO doesn't need to have democratic elections to be a "democractic" institution; instead it needs only be appointed by leaders, "most" of whom were elected by "democratic" systems.

The Battle of Seattle: Mass demonstrations against the WTO began in late 1999, when more than 30,000 protesters put a stop to a WTO summit in Seattle, Washington. The protesters made up an extremely diverse array of progressive leftist groups, with main stream unions, environmentalists, socialists, communists, and anarchists (most of whom were committed to non-violent methods of struggle). Many protestors were anti-capitalist, while some asked for the disbanding of the WTO or extensive reforms within it. As a result of the fighting, the WTO summit failed in its one goal: to set an agenda for a new round of global trade talks.