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Australasian Spartacist No. 194

Autumn 2006

Free, Quality Health Care For All! Full Access to RU486 Now!

Free Abortion on Demand!

For Women's Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

In February, federal parliament voted to remove veto power over the abortion drug, RU486, from the reactionary Catholic federal health minister, Tony Abbott, transferring control to the state-appointed Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). This overturns a 1996 deal, brokered between the Howard government and anti-abortion campaigner and former senator, Brian Harradine, whereby access to RU486 required direct written permission from the health minister, effectively a ban on the drug.

It is a good thing that control over RU486 no longer rests in the hands of the anti-abortion bigot Abbott. Australian women now at least have the possibility of accessing a drug that two million users in more than 30 different countries have found to be safe and effective for more than a decade. The RU486 “abortion pill” can be administered much earlier than invasive surgical abortion and only requires supervision by a trained GP. It thus has the potential to be a much more private procedure and to give women, particularly those in remote areas, more equitable access to terminations. However, while the TGA is expected to approve the drug within the year, access is likely to be severely restricted, as is the case in New Zealand, and there is also no guarantee that it will be affordable for working and poor women. Of course, the TGA could bury RU486 for years. For access to RU486, free of charge, now!

The push to overturn the 1996 deal gained ground last year when leading obstetricians called for access to medical abortion. With Harradine’s retirement from parliament, “pro-choice” politicians took the opportunity to put the issue back on the table. Australian Democrats senator, Natasha Stott Despoja, reflected a widespread sentiment, not just within her liberal and petty-bourgeois constituency, when she demanded, “it is time...our country caught up” (“RU486,” Australian Democrats website, 16 November 2005). Some women have flown to New Zealand and even Britain in order to obtain access to a non-surgical abortion.

The demand by bourgeois women for access to RU486 illustrates that the special oppression of women—the first and oldest oppression in history—affects women of all classes. The demand for abortion rights is the demand for a simple, basic democratic right to a medical or surgical procedure among the safest in the world. Even in today’s reactionary climate, more than 80 percent of the population supports a woman’s right to abortion. Access to RU486, like the legalisation of abortion itself, is in and of itself compatible with a liberal bourgeois political system and worldview, and does not challenge the capitalist social order. However while such reforms are possible under capitalism, they are also not permanent, as the escalating attacks in the U.S. on the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which overturned state anti-abortion laws, show (see “Free Abortion on Demand!”, Workers Vanguard No. 866, 17 March).

As revolutionary Marxists we defend abortion rights and every gain won for women, no matter how partial. What is needed is a fight to defend and extend women’s rights. We look to the working class, not its mortal enemies in the capitalist state, as the motor force for social progress. We fight for free abortion and contraception on demand and for free, quality health care for all linked to the need for women’s liberation through socialist revolution. In contrast to some feminists and leftists who raise the slogan for a woman’s “right to choose” abortion, we recognise that only when society provides such services free and without restriction will they truly be available to all women who need them including workers, immigrants, youth, the poor, both in cities and remote areas. Along with paid maternity leave and free 24-hour childcare, they are vital necessities for women and the working class as a whole.

There are an estimated 70-90,000 abortions every year in Australia, with a third of women likely to have one during their lifetime. However abortion remains in the criminal codes of most states and territories and is often only “lawful” if a threat exists to the woman’s life, physical or mental health. Under Western Australian law, amended in 1998 and then considered to be the most liberal, women under 16 still face bureaucratic hurdles while access to a late-term abortion requires approval from a government-appointed panel of doctors. Even in the ACT, where it was removed from the criminal code in 2002, obtaining an abortion after the first 12 weeks requires approval from a hospital “ethics” committee.

It is an outrage that the capitalist state and its bourgeois parliamentarians should have the life-and-death power to interfere in people’s most intimate, private decisions. We say: State out of the bedroom! Abolish laws against “crimes without victims” such as prostitution, homosexuality and reactionary age of consent laws, which target youth. We oppose laws that deny teenagers the right to consent to an abortion or restrict their access to contraception.

The patchwork of abortion laws across the country, combined with the lack of medical services particularly in country areas, acts as a severe deterrent to women seeking an abortion. As Melbourne University-based obstetrician, Lachlan de Crespigny, recently stated “The status quo is dangerous for women and the doctors.” Doctors who perform abortions increasingly face court actions and state-initiated investigations. For example, under the Victorian Bracks ALP government in 2000, the Royal Women’s Hospital suspended a senior medical staff member who was, along with others, subjected to an inquiry for performing a life-saving late-term abortion.

Meanwhile the federal Howard government has been massively funding anti-abortion “counselling” services. In the wake of their defeat on RU486, Howard and Abbott launched a new $51 million government “pregnancy support” program designed to further intimidate and stymie women seeking abortion. It offers funding to religious and other anti-abortion outfits pushing the same anti-woman bigotry as the crazed “pro-life” reactionaries who regularly harass and threaten doctors, staff and patients at clinics. Recently one rural doctor described how he and the three other obstetricians in the northern Victorian town of Wodonga no longer perform elective terminations because of pressure, including a death threat, from conservative elements within the city (Age, 16 September 2005). In July 2001 a fanatic stormed the East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic, shooting dead a security guard. Further fatalities were prevented when two men in the waiting room heroically disarmed him. The power of the unions should be mobilised in support of women and their allies to defend the clinics!

Alongside seeking to prevent any generalised access to abortion, the federal government administers a capitalist system in which almost 200,000 women are unable to work because of the lack of accessible, affordable childcare places and the bulk of working women have no access to paid maternity leave. The gap between rich and poor in this country is now the widest it has been for 50 years. Among the poorest are single mothers who are forced by a lack of childcare and decent jobs to stay at home and are subjected to the prying eye of Social Security. After June this year, single mothers will confront the Howard government’s sadistic “welfare to work” scheme which requires single parents with children over six years of age to seek work of at least 15 hours a week and dramatically cuts their welface payments. In this racist society, cuts to social services and measures against welfare recipients hit Aboriginal people hardest. Their grinding oppression is reflected in Third World infant mortality rates and dramatically lower life expectancy. Blamed by their oppressors for their own oppression, Aborigines are being locked into paternalistic and punitive “shared responsibility” agreements.

The intersection of White Australia racism and the view that women belong in the home as child bearers and child rearers for the “white nation” was graphically expressed during the recent debate over RU486. Outdoing racist demagogue Pauline Hanson, the anti-abortion Liberal MP, Danna Vale, raved that Australia could become a Muslim nation within 50 years because Australians are “aborting themselves out of existence”! It’s not surprising that Vale’s federal electorate includes the beachside suburb of Cronulla where last December white racist mobs carried out murderous pogromist attacks on anyone of “Middle-Eastern” appearance.

The Liberal government’s “anti-terror” laws, supported by federal Labor and enforced by state Labor governments, are designed to intimidate and foment divisive racism within the working class at a time when the bosses are pushing through their biggest attack on unions and working conditions for decades. “Anti-terror” hysteria fueled the racist anti-Arab riot in Cronulla last December and countless other incidents of violence and discrimination against people of immigrant backgrounds. Muslim women wearing headscarves have particularly been targeted. Police armed with new powers target non-white, poor and Aboriginal people and these laws are held in reserve for use against the workers in struggle and anyone who opposes the government. The anti-union attacks and “anti-terror” laws must be fought with determined class struggle including broad-based strike actions.

Break with Laborism! Build a Revolutionary Workers Party!

There is no lack of will to fight on the part of the working masses. Over 600,000 workers took to the streets in angry protest against the federal government’s anti-union laws on 15 November last year. Many walked off the job in defiance of the ACTU’s refusal to call a strike. Loyal to the Australian capitalist profit system, the Laborite union tops are the chief obstacle to unleashing independent working-class struggle. Together with the ALP, they seek to divert workers’ struggles into parliamentary or legalistic channels. The Labor Party is a bourgeois workers party, thoroughly pro-capitalist in its program and leadership while based on the trade unions.

In the face of the current vicious anti-working-class offensive, the trade-union tops derail workers’ anger into impotent community campaigns in defence of “family values” and the “Australian way of life,” and the dead end of voting Labor at the next election. They peddle the lie that the bosses’ industrial system of Arbitration courts is the cornerstone of defence and equality of wages and jobs. Established in the early 1900s, compulsory arbitration was in fact based on an historic racist pact between the Laborite trade-union bureaucracy and the ruling class that institutionalised tariff-protected industries and a “whites only” labour force. Arbitration also enshrined anti-woman chauvinism, providing the legal basis for lower wages for women, declaring in 1912 that “a man was paid to support a family and a woman only to support herself.”

In 2004, while the ACTU talked about supporting the fight for the introduction of paid maternity leave for all Australian women, it derailed workers’ anger into a case in the Industrial Relations Commission focusing on the demand for unpaid maternity leave! ACTU president, Sharan Burrow stated: “We don’t seek to impose additional burdens on business” (ABC-FM news bulletin, 1 September 2004). Burrow was also ready to hail ALP party policy as a “fabulous foundation stone” for more family-friendly workplaces, despite the fact that it omitted any mention of guaranteed paid maternity leave (Australian Financial Review, 1 April 2004).

From voting for the effective ban on RU486 in 1996 to supporting the outrageous ban on gay marriage in 2004, the Labor Party leaders are clearly no friend of women and the oppressed. The Victorian ALP party tops have flouted last December’s state Labor conference decision calling to decriminalise abortion. When Labor MP, Carolyn Hirsh, recently signalled her intention to move a private members bill on the question, she was quickly made to back down. Labor premier, Steve Bracks, asserted “We have no plans to have that on the legislative agenda this [election] year” (Age, 4 March).

The federal government’s vicious anti-union laws, which attack leave and other entitlements, eliminate unfair dismissal provisions and aim to shred minimum wages, are designed to help the bosses maximise profits by reducing wages and conditions across the board. Today fulltime women workers earn on average only 84 percent of average male fulltime wages. When comparing all workers the gap widens, as women, along with youth, are increasingly relegated to part-time and casual work without union coverage. Short of a class-struggle fight, that gap is sure to further widen. The bosses use this growing pool of impoverished workers as a wedge to further drive down the conditions of all, leading to expanding numbers of working poor. Women have a real stake in the fight to defend and extend union power. Indeed, women have been at the centre of many union struggles over the past few years, from strikes and bans by nurses, hospital workers, cleaners and teachers, to pickets at struck manufacturing plants.

To defeat the bosses’ anti-working-class attacks requires unleashing union power in a class-struggle fight to defend and extend the gains of all workers, mobilising the hundreds of thousands of as yet unorganised women, immigrant, disabled and young workers barely managing to exist under capitalism. It is necessary for the working class to fight for jobs for all at union conditions; share the available work around with no loss in pay! Organise the unorganised! Permanency and full entitlements for casual workers! For free 24-hour childcare! For universal paid maternity and paternity leave! This perspective requires a political struggle against Laborism within the unions—a fight to replace the social-democratic union misleaders with a class-struggle leadership, linked to an internationalist revolutionary workers party. Such a party will be built by splitting the working-class base of the ALP away from the pro-capitalist leadership and will stand as a tribune of all the people as it fights for socialist revolution to sweep away oppressive and exploitative capitalist rule.

Institution of the Family and Women’s Oppression

The main source of women’s special oppression under capitalism is the institution of the family, “that archaic, stuffy and stagnant institution in which the woman of the toiling classes performs galley labour from childhood to death” (L.D. Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, 1937). Friedrich Engels explained in his work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) the roots of women’s subjugation in the rise of private property. With the development of agriculture bringing a social surplus beyond basic subsistence, a leisured, ruling class was able to develop based on a private appropriation of that surplus, thus moving human society away from the primitive egalitarianism of the Stone Age. The centrality of the family as a repressive, patriarchal institution flowed from its role in ensuring the inheritance of private property from father to son, which required women’s sexual monogamy and social subordination.

Along with religion and the state apparatus, the institution of the family serves as a fundamental prop for the capitalist system of oppression and exploitation. The family serves in general as the mechanism for rearing the next generation. Under capitalism, it is also important for instilling obedience and respect for authority in youth, the majority of whom face a future as wage slaves, or cannon fodder for the capitalist military. It serves as an ideological transmission belt for the “values” of the capitalist rulers, inculcating religious backwardness as a brake on social consciousness. Liberal and Labor parties vie to be the best upholders of “family values,” bolstering the bourgeois order and its stultifying family institution. Those who don’t conform to the “ideal” family, from single mothers to gays and lesbians, are likely to find themselves in the state’s crosshairs. From state Labor governments granting control of AIDS care programs to the Anglican Church, to massive state funding of religious schools and anti-abortion pregnancy “counselling” services the bourgeois rulers foster forces that are anti-science, anti-sex and anti-woman.

Of course bourgeois “family values” is vicious in its hypocrisy. Countless Aboriginal families have been torn apart by the racist Australian capitalist state. From the witchhunt of Lindy Chamberlain in the 1980s to the 2001 deportation of disabled Philippines-born mother and Australian citizen, Vivian Alvarez Solon, there have been many others. Refugees and their children are held for years in inhuman detention while callous deportations have divided family members by thousands of miles. No deportations! Close the hellhole detention camps! Full citizenship rights for all immigrants! For a class-struggle fight for immigrant and Aboriginal rights!

The overthrow of the capitalist system of private property through socialist revolutions internationally will result in a vast expansion in productive capacity providing material abundance for all and the basis for the disappearance of class-divided society. Only with the social ownership of the means of production will it be possible to replace the institution of the family by collectivising its social functions, thus laying the basis for the liberation of women. We look to the example of the 1917 Russian Revolution. The Bolshevik government immediately gave women full political and legal equality with men. In 1920, they were the first government in the world to overturn criminal penalties for abortion (health concerns prevented earlier legalisation in those days before antibiotics).

While inheriting a backward, largely peasant society devastated by World War I and bloody civil war, the Bolsheviks made heroic efforts to replace the family with social alternatives. They sought to establish free childcare centres and communal laundries and canteens, thus beginning to lay the basis for the full integration of women into social and political life. Despite the rise of a conservative, bureaucratic caste, which under Stalin usurped political power in 1924, the collectivised economic foundations of the Soviet Union remained which meant that women continued to be drawn into social production. As we wrote in “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women” (Spartacist No. 59, Spring 2006), “even 15 years ago women in the Soviet Union enjoyed many advantages, such as state-supported childcare institutions, full abortion rights, access to a wide range of trades and professions, and a large degree of economic equality with their male co-workers—in short, a status in some ways far in advance of capitalist societies today.”

Capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union in 1991-92 was an historic defeat for the world’s working people, not least Soviet women, and it conditions today’s reactionary climate. The International Communist League fought to mobilise the working class to defeat capitalist restoration. Today we stand for the unconditional military defence of the remaining deformed workers states—China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba—against imperialist attack and internal capitalist counterrevolution. We call for proletarian political revolutions to oust the Stalinist bureaucracies and to establish workers soviet democracy based on a proletarian internationalist program.

Feminism and Laborite Reformism

The Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP) was among the many left organisations which cheered the 1991-92 capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union. Ten years earlier, virtually the entire left—including the DSP’s forebears in the Socialist Workers Party and the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP)/Radical Women—were making common cause with the Catholic pope in championing the reactionary clerical-nationalist, anti-abortion, anti-Semitic, CIA-funded counterrevolutionary Solidarność in Poland.

The FSP/Radical Women describe themselves as “socialist feminists” attempting to square the circle between Marxism and feminism, although the two are fundamentally counterposed. Feminism is a bourgeois ideology that asserts that the main division in society is between men and women, rather than class versus class. Its logic is that all women have more in common with each other than they do with men, regardless of class. Women’s oppression is viewed as a set of bad ideas and policies stemming from the existing patriarchy. As Bolshevik party leader Alexandra Kollontai wrote, the feminists aim “to achieve the same advantages, the same power, the same rights within capitalist society as those possessed now by their husbands, fathers and brothers” (“Women’s Day,” February 1913). For bourgeois feminists, equal rights means the equal “right” for women to hire and fire workers and to run the capitalist state.

On the other hand, Marxism recognises that the class question is decisive and thus rests on a fundamentally different, proletarian, class axis. Contrary to the logic of feminism, working women have more in common with their male comrades than they do with bourgeois women; it doesn’t matter whether the boss is male or female. The road to the liberation of all women lies through socialist revolution; this is the task of the entire proletariat. Like the Bolsheviks, we recognise the need for special transitional organisations to draw women into the revolutionary struggle. Led and organised by the party, they would take up the fight for working women’s needs and broader issues of the class struggle and the fight against capitalism as a whole. In contrast, the FSP pay lip service to Marxism while embracing feminism, declaring that “women will liberate ourselves only by uprooting the profit system and replacing it with a socialist communal society” and “women’s liberation can only be won by a movement of radical women” (Freedom Socialist Bulletin, Summer/Autumn 2005).

Like the FSP, the DSP also identify themselves with feminism. Over RU486, the DSP shared the excitement of the bourgeois politicians at the outcome of the “democratic parliamentary process.” Natalie Zirngast enthused in the pages of Green Left Weekly, “supporters of choice should push our advantage and put pressure on state MPs to introduce such bills and remove, once and for all the criminalisation of this fundamental right” (22 February). Such embrace of parliamentary pressure tactics is typical of the DSP’s whole reformist political strategy.

The DSP co-exist with the FSP and an assortment of other left groups in Socialist Alliance (SA), an increasingly riven electoral vehicle aimed at keeping workers corralled in the Laborite stable at election time. Thus in the 2004 federal elections, they supported an ALP victory through the preferential voting system. Alongside support to their own candidates, they also shamelessly promoted electoral support to the capitalist Greens. In supporting this bourgeois party committed to the capitalist order, SA and its constituent elements, such as the FSP, trample on the elementary Marxist principle of maintaining the political independence of the working class. It is no surprise then that SA’s current lengthy document addressing women’s oppression, Our Gender Agenda, does not even mention working-class action! Instead of posing the need for socialist revolution to obtain women’s liberation they demand “immediate government action” on a broad range of social issues as “essential steps towards complete gender equality.”

In all capitalist “democracies,” government officials, elected and unelected, are bought and paid for by the banks and large corporations. The capitalist politicians, whether Liberal or Labor, male or female, serve the interests of the bosses including when they grant reforms. As Russian revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin pointed out in a polemic against German social democrat Karl Kautsky in 1918:

“Even in the most democratic bourgeois state the oppressed people at every step encounter the crying contradiction between the formal equality proclaimed by the ‘democracy’ of the capitalists and the thousands of real limitations and subterfuges which turn the proletarians into wage-slaves....

“[T]he workers know and feel, see and realise perfectly well that the bourgeois parliaments are institutions alien to them, instruments for the oppression of the workers by the bourgeoisie, institutions of a hostile class, of the exploiting minority” [emphasis in original].

The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, 1918

Every substantial gain won by working people and the oppressed has been the result of hard class and social struggle, not appeals to bourgeois politicians and the courts. The massive social and labour struggles of the 1960s and early 1970s occurred at a time of broad radicalisation around the U.S. and Australian imperialists’ dirty losing war against the Vietnamese workers and peasants. Mass workers strikes and protests, such as in defence of jailed tramways union leader, Clarrie O’Shea, beat back anti-union laws. These social upheavals also shook loose other reforms such as the 1969 Menhennit ruling in Victoria, which allowed for limited legal access to abortions and formed the basis of subsequent similar rulings in other states. The situation allowed courageous fighters for abortion rights, such as the late Dr. Bertram Wainer, to pioneer abortion clinics in Australia.

However the radicalisation of this period was dissipated as the ALP and trade-union misleaders, aided by fake socialists, kept struggles within boundaries acceptable to capitalism. Many of the reforms wrested from the bourgeois state administered by the Whitlam ALP federal government have since been taken back. Reforms won under capitalism are always partial and can be reversed when the bourgeoisie considers the balance of class and social forces favourable. Whatever their intention, those who peddle the false idea that socialism is obtainable by a gradual process of reform—an ever-deepening historical progress under capitalism—act to prop up a system marked by brutal exploitation and the carnage of imperialist war. They are obstacles to workers revolution. Only in a genuine socialist society, based on the collectivised means of production and an internationally planned economy, can gains for workers, women and all the oppressed be consolidated, maintained and extended.

Capitulating to bourgeois liberals and petty-bourgeois democrats, reformists obscure the Leninist understanding that bourgeois democracy is a façade that covers the brutal reality of the capitalist state. Under capitalism, no matter whether Liberal or Labor is in government, the state—the parliament, army, cops, courts and prisons—is committed to the defence of private property and enforcing the subjugation of the working class, women and minorities.

Anti-woman bigotry and hatred is profound in this remote, white imperialist enclave, going right back to the moment the British first stepped foot on these shores, bringing with them private property relations. As we wrote in our statement of program: “‘Little Australia’ social-democratic nationalism glories in the anti-intellectual oafishness of the Australian ‘ocker,’ and the anti-woman cult of ‘mateship.’ It is white racist, and proud of its brutally male chauvinist and self-indulgent, parochial, ‘national character,’ best described as the culture of white pigs” (For a Workers Republic of Australia, Part of a Socialist Asia!, October 1998).

Australasian Spartacist No. 194

ASP 194

Autumn 2006


Free, Quality Health Care For All! Full Access to RU486 Now!

Free Abortion on Demand!

For Women's Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!


For Class Struggle Against Capitalist Rulers at Home!

U.S./Australian Imperialists Out of Iraq, Afghanistan Now!


Venezuela: Populist Nationalism vs. Proletarian Revolution

White House Vendetta Against Chávez


On the IWW and Capitalist Exploitation



Marx: Wage Labour and Capital

(Lenin/Trotsky box)


French Trotskyists Say

Down With Racist "First Employment" Law! Defend Ghetto Youth!


British SWP: Reformists Who Hailed Counterrevolution

They Fought for the Post-Soviet World, Now Theyíve Got It

(Young Spartacus pages)