MIA: Subject: Women and Marxism

Marlene Dixon 1977

Left-Wing Anti-Feminism: A Revisionist Disorder

Proletarian Anti-Feminism: The Material Basis for the Conflict of Interest Between Men and Women in the Proletariat

Historically, anti-feminism in the proletariat took the form of attempts to restrict female participation in the labor force. Proletarian anti-feminism was not the result of stubborn sexism alone; it was principally due to the lower wages paid women and the resulting competition between men and women in the labor market. The fundamental cause of the undervalued wages of women is the overall subjugation of women in society in which: 1) women’s share in poorly paid jobs is much greater than that of men (due to institutionalized discrimination) and 2) wages of married women (which are held to be no more than a contribution to their husbands’ earning power) are the most severely undervalued. The undervalued wages of married women put pressure on the wages of unmarried women as well. These factors mean that women’s wages come to have a depressing effect on men’s wages.

Consequently, the female proletariat is caught in a massive contradiction. Women are driven to work by economic necessity, by the operation of capital itself. However, one of the ways for proletarian women to escape the tutelage inherent in the nuclear family is by being drawn into waged labor. Yet, the more women are driven into the labor force, the more their depressed wages put pressure on male wages. The resulting antagonism from male workers manifests itself in demands for the restriction of female labor which replace the earlier demands for the abolition of female labor in the production process. It is basically the same mechanism of depressed wages and the same conflict of material interests which account for the antagonism between white workers and national minority workers.

Historically, then, proletarian women have been defeated by the contradictory nature of their position, by the twofold nature of women’s emancipation under capitalism. While women could emancipate themselves by going out to work, competition at the same time imposed limits on this, emancipation. The historical limits have meant that in!,,,’, periods of prosperity proletarian women’s movements have fought for higher wages and better jobs; in periods of economic crisis women have had to fight to retain the right to work.

The super-exploitation of female labor power by capital can only be countered, in terms of reform, by union organizing and protective legislation. However, historically, the principal opposition to basic reforms (equal pay for equal work and a f air wage f or a f air day’s work) has come from the trade unions themselves and from the bourgeois women’s movement.

While demands for the right to work, suffrage and other. democratic rights have been common to both the bourgeois, and proletarian women’s movements, protective legislation,,” is another story. Bourgeois women want completely free competition with men because their main enemy is patriarchalism, which must be negated before they can claim an equal share of their class privileges. Bourgeois women can.,” afford to oppose protective legislation because, on the one hand, they are usually provided with means of support beyond their own wages or salaries; while on the other hand, the best of existing women’s jobs go to the women of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie who have “care, cleanliness, taste, even art, and above all, initiative.” In short, they can afford depressed wages and have a competitive advantage because they are better educated. Bourgeois and proletarian women confront each other in the labor market, and bourgeois women are one of the instruments used to undercut the wages of proletarian women. This struggle, this basic class conflict, is repeated today (just as it was fought out in Clara Zetkin’s day) in the campaign for the pernicious “Equal Rights Amendment” carried on by the National Organization for Women and supported by the class collaborationist labor bureaucrats.

Where the bourgeois woman seeks only to establish juridical equality and to escape the confines of the home, the proletarian woman bears in addition all the burdens of her class exploitation and oppression. This is why, for the proletarian woman, there can be no genuine female emancipation under capitalism. It also makes clear why proletarian women have put aside their own emancipation for generations, to submerge it in class struggle. However, as we shall see, “submerging” (or liquidating) the women’s struggle into class struggle is not a requirement of revolutionary struggle-it is a product of left-wing sexism and the bourgeois morality in Marxism and, above all, a consequence of revisionism.

Whose class interests (excepting those of the bourgeoisie) are served by advocating the desirability of contractual marriage and the consequent perpetuation of the subjugation of women? If we look at its material basis, we find that proletarian anti-feminism is most characteristic of those strata of the proletariat whose wages are sufficient to maintain a family at an average working-class standard of living. In such strata, where wages are adequate, a woman whose labor power is privately appropriated is a real bargain, for the same services, if waged, would be totally out of reach of the men.

Proletarian anti-feminism represents the particular material interests of highly paid, unionized male workers vis--vis women. The subjugation of women serves as a “natural” restriction upon the employment of female labor, and thus partially controls competition in the labor force. It keeps women unorganized and powerless in labor organizations. It secures male workers the benefits that accrue to them through their right to privately appropriate female labor power as well as the psychological “benefit” of always having a woman inferior to serve as a waitress, lover and servant, securely dependent and, at least theoretically, humbly grateful. No matter how low a man might fall, his wife is lower yet; no matter how powerless a man may truly be, his home is his castle and his subjects his wife and children.

However, wage levels and employment patterns for the lower strata of the white working class and especially of racial and national minorities show that, for these strata, men’s wages are not sufficient to support a family. Wife and children are not a bargain, but a crushing economic liability. The disintegration of families, the rates of desertion, the rise of second- generation welfare families-all testify to the growing masses of men who cannot sell their labor power at a price which covers the expense of a family, much less of a non-working wife. Neither the bourgeois morality nor proletarian anti-feminism serves the interests of the lower paid strata of the proletariat, since the nuclear family does not materially benefit the husband, while depressed female wages enormously increase the suffering of families.

Furthermore, proletarian anti-feminism does not serve the overall interests of the proletariat. In its espousal of the joys of the nuclear family and the virtues of the bourgeois morality, it objectively supports the ideological foundation for the devalued wages of women by refusing to recognize the material basis for the conflict between men and women in the proletariat. The division between men and women is based upon competition for jobs, part of the mechanism for the super-exploitation of women. There will never be unity between men and women until the material basis of the competition and hostility are correctly understood and eventually abolished. No reformist program for “equal wages” or “democratic rights” has ever been or will ever be able to touch the roots of the subjugation of women; nor will women ever be mobilized to fight for “deferred” emancipation – women have learned that waiting until “after the revolution” means waiting “forever.” For women, as for all other oppressed people, the fight for their own emancipation begins today or it does not begin at all. So long as a rigid, dogmatic class analysis is the basis for strategy, so long as early Marxist formulations of revolutionary strategy remain dogma (even in the face of the fact that since 1917 it has been precisely the most oppressed peoples of the world who have successfully accomplished revolution), just so long will revisionism and the liquidation of the woman “question’’ into mate class struggle remain.

Left-Wing Sexism and Marxism

The absence of an adequate Marxian analysis of the position of women is the result of the unchallenged tenets of the bourgeois morality in Marxism itself,. In the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx wrote:

The standardization of the working day must include the restriction of female labor, insofar as it relates to the duration, intermissions, etc. of the working day; otherwise it could only mean the exclusion of female labor from branches of industry that are especially unhealthy for the female body or objectionable morally for the female sex. (Emphasis added.) [1]

About this passage Werner Thonnessen comments:

Both the concept of “morally detrimental” in the (original) Gotha Programme and of “objectionable morally” in Marx’s Critique show that the socialists were letting their standard of morality be prescribed by the ruling attitudes of the bourgeoisie. This is all the more amazing, as Marx had pointed out in the Communist Manifesto that all moral relations in the proletariat flew in the face of bourgeois morals. [2]

Female labor in general is incompatible with the bourgeois .ideal of the family and most particularly incompatible with bourgeois ideals of “femininity.” The attitudes were unchallenged by the socialists of Marx’s day. About “unfeminine labor” Bebel wrote:

It is truly not a lovely sight to see women, even with child, vying with men in wheeling heavily laden barrows on railway construction sites; or to observe them mixing lime and cement, or carrying heavy loads, or stones, as laborers on building sites, or to see them working at washing coal or ironstone. The women there are stripped of all that is feminine and their femininity is trampled under foot, just as our men, in many different types of employment, are bereft of anything manly. [3]

The loss of “femininity” in heavy or dirty labor provoked only mild indignation by contrast with the outrage and moral indignation aroused by female occupations which sinned against the bourgeois ideals of purity and chastity. Bebel again:

Finally, younger and especially prettier women are used more and more, with the greatest damage to their whole personality, in all manner of public haunts as service personnel, singers, dancers, and so on, for the enticement of the pleasure-hungry male world. This area is governed by the most loathsome abuses and the white slave-owners here celebrate their wildest orgies. [4]

It is very clear that the socialists thoroughly shared the repressive sexual morality of the bourgeoisie. Bebel’s zeal, in denouncing the “immorality” of the bourgeoisie resulted in a “proletarian” ideal of purity and chastity which was the very same morality to which bourgeois patriarchalism paid homage and under which lay the subjugation of women.

The liquidationist error (liquidating the superexploitation of women by submerging it into the class struggle) goes back to the earliest days of Marxism, to Marx himself, to the Second International; it was then carried through Lenin and reached a peak of backwardness under Stalin. In this instance, sexism and male supremacy hide themselves under “proletarian morality” and a concern for the precious “femininity” and “tender virtue” of the female sex. It was only when Marx was concerned with concrete analysis that he could glimpse over his own blinders:

However terrible and disgusting the dissolution under the capitalist system, of the old family ties may appear, nevertheless, modern industry, by assigning as it does an important part in the process of production, outside the domestic sphere, to women, to young persons, and to children of both sexes, creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of the relations between the sexes. It is, of course, just as absurd to hold the Teutonic-Christian form of the family to be absolute and final as it would be to apply that character to the ancient Roman, ancient Greek or Eastern forms, which, moreover, taken together form a series in historic development. Moreover, it is obvious that the fact of the collective working group being composed of individuals of both sexes and all ages, must necessarily, under suitable conditions, become a source of humane development; although in its spontaneously developed, brutal, capitalistic form, where the laborer exists for the process of production, and not the process of production for the laborer, that fact is a pestiferous source of corruption and slavery. [5]

The objective consequences of Marxists’ uncritical acceptance of the bourgeois morality concerning women and concerning sexuality have been to justify and perpetuate the subjugation of women in general and of women in the proletariat in particular and thus perpetuate the material bases for the real conflict of interest between husbands and wives, men workers and women workers. Early Marxism, as a consequence of its own sexist bias, left proletarian antifeminism, rooted in the customary division of labor between the sexes, the traditional ideals of the family, and “woman’s place” at home rearing children unchallenged. The workers’ anti-feminism was based upon capital’s super-exploitation of women and the resulting competition between men and women on the labor market. Marxists’ anti-feminism was based upon unquestioned male supremacy. It seemed to male workers that the problem of wages and competition could most easily be solved by keeping women out of the labor market. Proletarian anti-feminism was fundamentally a result of the working man’s lack of understanding that the utilization of female labor power by capital was an inevitable consequence of machine industry and the drive for cheap labor. Male socialists of the day did nothing to enlighten the working class or to challenge male workers’ prejudice against women. The objective consequence of proletarian anti-feminism was to play into the hands of capital by keeping men and women workers divided against each other instead of united against capital and keeping women’s wages undervalued. The sexist bias in Marxism, beginning with Marx, was to perpetuate the oppression of women within the socialist movement and to strengthen the forces of revisionism within the Second International.

Proletarian Anti-Feminism and Revisionism

In the history of German Social Democracy, workers who thought in trade union terms always strictly opposed female labor. In this they were hardly challenged by orthodox male Marxists. The beginning of revisionism was in the predominance of trade unionism in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), with its contempt for Marxist theory as “idealism” and its Lassallean concentration on reforms, to be gained through strikes and ballots, with the emphasis upon ballots. An indication of the reactionary turn in the SPD was evident in its attempts to neutralize the socialist women’s movement and destroy the SPD Women’s Association, because the real basis for genuine radicalism within the SPD was the women and their female Marxist leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin. Indeed, Lenin’s only real allies within the Second International were Luxemburg and Zetkin!

From the earliest days of German Social Democracy the bellwether of revisionism was the position of the two tendencies – Marxism vs. Lassalleanism – on the position of women, for it was to be the women who sided with Lenin in the great debates on revisionism within the Second International. It was the Lassalleans who, from the first, transformed the super-exploitation, oppression and subjugation of women into a “question.” It certainly was not a “question” to the 190,000 women who were members of trade unions, the 140,000 women who were members of the SPD and the 112,000 women who read its women’s newspaper. (This momentous task of organizing was achieved largely through the untiring efforts of Clara Zetkin, against the constant interference and hostile machinations of the Party’s revisionist leadership.) The subjugation of women was a “question” only to the male reactionaries in the leadership of the trade unions and the Party. We therefore conclude that it is no accident in 1977, even as in 1863, 1878, 1890, 1914 and 1920, that the subjugation of women remains, to certain men, a “question.”

As early as 1866 the Lassallean position was clear: before women can be emancipated, the (male) workers must be fully emancipated. Until then, it was “sufficient for the man to work” and “woman’s place” was to hold “domestic sway.” For example, take the discussion document from the German Section of the First International produced in 1866:

Bring about a situation in which every adult man can take a wife and start a family whose existence is assured through his work, and then there will be no more of those poor creatures who, in their isolation, become the victims of despair, sin against themselves and nature and put a blot on “civilization” by their prostitution and their trade in living human flesh .... The rightful work of women and mothers is in the home and family, caring for, supervising, and providing the first education of children .... Alongside the solemn duties of the man and the father in public life and the family, the woman and mother should stand for the cosiness and poetry of domestic life, bring grace and beauty to social relations, and be an ennobling influence in the increase of humanity’s enjoyment of life. [6]

France was not to be outdone:

The woman’s place is at the domestic hearth, in the midst of her children, watching over them and instilling into them their first principles. A woman’s vocation is great, if she is awarded her rightful place. [7]

The general triumph of revisionism, the transformation of Social Democracy into a state supportive reform party, was manifested in its treatment of women. It is worth quoting Thonnessen at length, for nothing has changed, and the treatment of women in the SPD will be cruelly familiar to all of us who have matriculated through the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, Students for a Democratic Society and the new Communist movement:

The great theoretical decisiveness and rhetorical sting employed by Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin in combatting the revisionist tendency in the Party frequently induced Party leaders who were attacked to discriminate against women by means of malicious witticisms (they would accuse the women of being organizationally weak – after all, what were 140,000 women worth) while stating, on the other hand, that things could not be too bad as regards the oppression of the female sex if it could find spokesmen of such quality.

Symptomatic of this inherently contradictory defensive ploy on the part of men were the comments of Ignaz Auer ... “The trouble is that there are too few women comrades in the Party. I wish there were many more. The few who have to do all the work are overloaded and thus prone to become bad-tempered. So it comes about that they sometimes make life miserable for us, even though we are not to blame.”

By the use of deliberate wit, which, as the minutes record, always evoked the sought-for “merriment” of the audience, the women were put in their place .... The discrimination which was deliberately practiced against women in the Party, and of which Mrs. Kahler gave examples at the Gotha Party Conference in 1896, was in this way glossed over, while the existing antagonisms concerning the theory and tactics of the Party as a whole were obscured by accusing the women of griping and not achieving anything .... Auer replied to Clara Zetkin’s strong attack on the Party executive in the same tone when, amidst laughter from the audience, he said: “If that is the oppressed sex, then what on earth will happen when they are free and enjoy equal rights.” The merriment which the Party executive aroused through its countercriticism served diversionary ends, by which dissatisfaction at the ruling state of affairs in the Party was ridiculed ... The fact that this criticism was made to look ridiculous also meant a break with revolutionary theory; the break with this theory, in turn, affected the leading representatives of the women’s movement ... (Mrs. Kahler asked). “Many comrades make such a joke of the woman question that we really have to ask ourselves: Are those really Party comrades who advocate equal rights?” Such joking proved an effective means for discriminating against women’s demands. It was an expansion of the patriarchism of the men and blunted the women’s criticism of the Party’s reformist practice ... [8]

It is not common knowledge that Rosa Luxemburg was not alone in combatting revisionism within the Second International and acting as the ally of Lenin – so also did Clara Zetkin and the whole Women’s Association:

... there is no doubt that the swing of women to the left, after their leadership, resulted from the discrepancy between the Party’s feminist theory and its discrimination against women in political practice. [9]

Thus women found themselves in the difficult position of being attacked on two fronts: that of revisionism and that of proletarian anti-feminism. The men of the Party had their revenge in the end. They stripped Clara Zetkin of all power, destroyed her Women’s Association and so slandered her reputation that her work is virtually unknown and her name remains a bad joke. Rosa Luxemburg had stayed clear of the Women’s Association in order to be able to work as a theoretician of the Party’s anti-revisionist left. During her life she was denied the benefits of Party leadership and served as the butt of “witticisms.” Yet, in the end, it was Rosa they feared. And it was Rosa they murdered. The ultimate beneficiary of German revisionism, Adolph Hitler, took the revisionist position on the woman “question” to its logical conclusion and established it as the State Policy of German National Socialism, proposing the final solution to the woman question: another thousand years of subjugation, another thousand years of “the woman and mother ... stand(ing) for the cosiness and poetry of domestic life, bring(ing) grace and beauty to social relations, and be(ing) an ennobling influence on the-increase of humanity’s enjoyment of life.” [10]

The long-term result of left-wing anti-feminism has been a century of struggle in which the fundamental position of women has improved as a result of overall improvements in the standard of living of the working class, but in which women’s super-exploitation and subjugation have remained exactly where they were in 1863.

Anti-Feminism in the New Communist Movement:
A Revisionist Disorder

The so-called analysis of the subjugation, oppression and super-exploitation of women, tagged with the insulting and sexist misnomer the “woman question,” and the resulting programs advocated by the majority of pre-party and party formations claiming to be Marxist-Leninist in North America today, can be described as versions of the German Social Democratic revisionist position. Indeed, their positions on the “woman question” have not progressed beyond August Bebel’s program of 1878, were they even its equal! Most, implicitly or explicitly, advocate marriage and the traditional female role while calling for “democratic rights” (usually not different from the reformist equal rights demands of the bourgeois feminist movement). Several are so opportunist as to support bourgeois campaigns that attack protective legislation for proletarian women. When they take notice of working women’s union struggles they do so opportunistically, without any consideration of the central issues affecting the general emancipation of the female proletariat. Of the known formations, most condemn homosexuality as “bourgeois decadence” by making appeals to bourgeois morality, which they are able to do only by hiding behind the bourgeois morality’s manifestations in the proletariat. Such carryings-on are more clearly exposed when, in complete obliviousness to the material bases of the conflict between men and women, they suggest individual solutions through individual struggle, struggle in the bedroom, as the answer to what is a massive contradiction of capitalism in the advanced countries.

The question must be asked: whose interests are served by revisionist, anti-feminist positions in Marxist-Leninist organizations? One answer is readily obvious: the interests of the bourgeoisie and the class-collaborationist labor bureaucrats. Proletarian anti-feminism has been historically linked to trade union consciousness in the proletariat and revisionism in the party. The major pre-party and party formations in the United States seem to be following the same path trod by the Lassalleans.

It is not possible to ignore another factor with respect to the party and pre-party formations in North America: the material and social bases within the formations themselves for the perpetuation of the subjugation of women. The advantages that accrue to the men of the labor aristocracy also accrue to the men who claim they are Communists (and who are, in most cases, men of the petty bourgeoisie where anti-feminism is supremely the order of the day). The hegemony of male leadership in the formation is safeguarded by practicing and advocating monogamous contractual marriage since it assures the continued control of party “wives,” and all is justified in terms of “proletarian morality.” In fact, as should be clear, what is being invoked is proletarian anti-feminism and all the narrow prejudices and repressive sexuality of bourgeois morality. From the time of Marx to the present, male hegemony and male supremacy in revolutionary organizations themselves have gone practically untouched, if not unchallenged. The brutality of the treatment of Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin; the sneers, snickers, jokes, aspersions; the accusations of being ugly, nasty, domineering and unfeminine; the hypocritical forms of discrimination -all are as prevalent today as they were in German Social Democracy. The so-called “woman question” is like a searchlight cast upon these movements, revealing that they preserve bourgeois ideology and bourgeois class interests within the proletariat, however much their revisionism is hidden behind quotations from Peking Review.

Any real strategy and program for the emancipation of women must attack the bourgeois institutions of contractual marriage, private appropriation of female labor power and female reproductive power, male tutelage over women and male hegemony over women in public and organizational life. Furthermore, the masses of women not employed for wages cannot be defined into invisibility because the institution of the nuclear family is held to be sacrosanct, or because trade union reformism is seen as the only mode of struggle in pre-revolutionary periods.

None of the requirements for the emancipation of women are reformist demands because none can be met by reforms. Women do require a new and revolutionary society – but it must be a revolution and a new society in which women have an equal hand.


1. Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme (Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1971), p. 29.

2. Werner Thonnessen, The Emancipation of Women: The Rise and Decline of the Women’s Movement in German Social Democracy 1863-1933 (London, Pluto Press, 1973), p. 33.

3. Ibid., p. 34.

4. Loc. cit.

5. Karl Marx, Ca ital, Volume 1, “A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production “ New York, International Publishers, 1972), pp. 489-90.

6. Thonnessen, p. 20.

7. Ibid., p. 22.

8. Ibid., pp. 66-68.

9. Ibid., p. 76.

10. Discussion Document of the International Workers’ Association, German Section, 1866, quoted in Thonnessen, p. 20.


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