First Published: In Struggle! No. 239, Febuary 24, 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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Most of our readers are probably not acquainted with the history of IN STRUGGLE!’s work on the question of women. Yet it is worth knowing, because it has been an eventful history indeed. It has always given rise to much debate, both within our ranks and outside the Organization. Our basic point of view on women’s liberation and socialism has remained the same for seven years now, although we have recently put into question some of our positions on this issue.
Just how far does this questioning go? How and why did it begin? How do we think this work should be pursued? In this article, the member of the Organization’s Political Bureau in charge of our work among women tries to answer these questions.
In 1973, the women’s committee of the group putting out the newspaper EN LUTTE! (IN STRUGGLE!) worked out the group’s initial orientation on the women’s liberation struggle. Our basic point of view could be summed up in the phrase, “The emancipation of women is the struggle of the entire working class.” Women’s oppression is rooted in class society. Today, it is capitalism that perpetuates the oppression of half the population – in the context of the patriarchal family; on the labour market, where women are superexploited; and through the dominant ideology which promotes submission to authority and men’s superiority. We also said that male workers should and can give up the privileges that set them apart from women, for it was impossible to overthrow capitalism without struggling against women’s oppression.
We publicized this point of view extensively in Quebec (which was the only region where IN STRUGGLE! did regular work at that time). One especially important aspect of this work was the experience of the “Collectif Changai” (Shanghai Collective), which brought together women activists from various groups in the Montreal area, including ours. The collective organized debates around “Shanghai, Day by Day”, a film about women’s liberation in China. Hundreds of working-class women active in then unions, community organizations and rural groups came to these sessions and discussed the question of socialism and the possibilities it, offered for women’s liberation.
At the time, we considered that the focus of our tasks as communists was the building of a mass organization of working-class women to fight against oppression and for democratic rights, and to involve the entire working class in this struggle. But this conception of our work with women raised some unanswered questions for us. A mass women’s organization and the struggle for democratic rights are fine and good but they do not lead automatically to socialism, nor even to a revolutionary party. Yet, for at least two years, many men and women active in various struggles had seen a party with a systematic revolutionary strategy as the only way to overcome the “treadmill” limitations of the day-by-day struggles that always had to be begun all over again from square one and the same battles refought. If the solution was a revolutionary party, why make a mass organization the focus of our work with women? These kinds of questions led us to revise some of our positions in I975.
From 1975 on. the goal of our work was to get women involved in revolutionary political work on all questions, including the question of women’s oppression. Women would free themselves by participating in the struggle for socialism on an equal footing with men: the solution was not to restrict themselves to specifically women’s issues and struggles, for women were directly concerned by all issues and all struggles. As well, this was a period when many, many women in Quebec were organizing and getting involved in important working-class and popular movements. For instance, working class women were prominent in the strikes in the public sector and the welfare recipients’ fight against being forced to pay the water tax. We argued that the way to take account of women’s oppression was not to offer them a special, specific orientation as to what they as women should be involved in. Rather it was to use special methods of work with them to help them become actively involved in any and all types of work (by taking into account their double workload, problems of child care, timidity, isolation, etc.).
This general outlook, and especially the call to work directly on the task of building the party corresponded to real political necessities. For this reason many activists in the women’s movement joined our Organization during this period. International Women’s Day celebrations from 1975 to 1977 were great successes in the Montreal area Thousands of people attended activities organized by coalitions of Marxist-Leninist groups. In terms of our own group, we recruited almost equal numbers of women and men, and close to half the leadership jobs were filled by women.
Some real progress was made. Nevertheless, we must admit that there were some important errors. For one thing, by setting up the struggle for socialism and the party in opposition to immediate demands and democratic rights, we were excluding ourselves from real involvement with mass movements including the women’s movement. Furthermore, on the specific question of women, our point of view caused us to underestimate and subordinate the essential role of the struggle against women’s oppression in capitalist society. We thus ignored the importance of organizing this struggle so as to strike some real blows against the system. We set aside the fact that the struggle against women’s oppression had to be waged first and foremost by women themselves, because they are its victims. We gave priority to the unity of men and women against capitalism, forgetting that this very necessary unity is built by struggling against chauvinism and by working to make the working class aware of the oppression of women. “Special methods” to involve women on all fronts of struggle is not a substitute for organizing the struggle in society against the many specific forms of oppression of women – the economic exploitation of women, the job ghettos for women, violence against women, rape, etc.
We began to realize these errors gradually – often by applying what we learned in our work in other areas to our work with women. For example, when we subjected our general dogmatism to self-criticism and discarded sectarian points of view on progressive movements, this allowed us to work more correctly with the women’s movement. The negative side of this same coin is that many of the changes in our work on the women’s question were not based on a specific rethinking of concrete problems arising from that work but rather on more general considerations (fighting dogmatism, etc.). Thus in 1978, although we began to pay considerable attention to the women’s struggle, in practice, we continued to downplay the struggle against chauvinism. Instead, we gave priority to criticizing feminism, which we defined as a trend in the women’s movement that divided working-class men and women by making men the main enemy of women.
It was only with the Central Committee’s decisions on women in 1980 that we identified more precisely the basic causes of our mistakes and problems in working with women. These decisions were themselves the result of two years of more sustained work in the women’s movement and women’s struggles, as well as significant debate within the ranks of the Organization. We explicitly recognized how the women’s movement was becoming both more diverse and broad in its activities and was playing an important role. We also emphasized the importance of the struggle against chauvinism, which is by far the most important obstacle to the participation of women in the revolutionary struggle and the unity of working-class men and women. Lastly, we said that it was legitimate for women to organize as women to fight oppression. Autonomous organization of women is not divisive in itself; the line guiding their struggles may or may not be.
Hence, we will in future be giving more and more importance to the women’s question in our work. But our experience also demonstrates the importance of improving our theoretical and concrete analysis of women’s oppression, for many fundamental questions have been raised but not satisfactorily answered for a long time now. This is what we have to work on in the next months.
We are not starting from scratch, and we have developed a series of new mechanisms to push the work forward. Women cadre in our Organization have been meeting in the past few months to help work out our political line on this issue more thoroughly. We will soon be setting up a special research and study collective, in which we hope women outside the Organization will participate, to speed up the process of clarifying questions that have been examined in depth by others. To progress in this work, open debate and many, varied kinds of joint work with others are key. I invite you to join us in this work.