Spartacist South Africa No. 17
Women and Revolution
Feminism vs. Marxism: Origins of the Conflict
We publish below an article from Women and Revolution No. 5 (Spring 1974) with minor corrections. From 1973 through 1996, Women and Revolution was the Journal of the Women’s Commission of the Spartacist League/U.S. It has since been incorporated into Spartacist, the theoretical and documentary repository of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), which is published under the direction of the International Executive Committee in four languages.
Today, it is common to use “feminist” as a catch-all term for all who fight for women’s equality. But as the article below elaborates historically, feminism is a bourgeois ideology that represents the class interests of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois women who seek their own power and prestige in a society they view as essentially gender-based, not class-based. Far from offering a road toward women’s liberation, all branches of feminism, including the “radical” variant, support the capitalist system that is responsible for women’s oppression.
In South Africa, this was highlighted recently during the wave of protests that erupted last September following a spate of rapes and murders of young women. Exploiting the justified rage that many feel over the heinous and pervasive nature of anti-woman violence in this country, feminists and bourgeois politicians used these protests as a platform to promote the strengthening of the bourgeois state apparatus. Demands that were prominently raised included reactionary calls to reinstate the death penalty and to publicise the government’s National Register of Sexual Offenders, the latter a clear incitement to vigilante mob justice.
In counterposition to the dead end of feminism, we fight to link the struggles against every manifestation of women’s oppression—centrally of the triply-oppressed black women toilers—to a perspective of smashing the neo-apartheid capitalist system that rests on the superexploitation of black labour. For more on this, and how it relates to the Trotskyist programme of permanent revolution as applied to South Africa, readers are referred to “Women and Permanent Revolution in South Africa” (Spartacist, English edition No. 54, Spring 1998) and “Down With the Traditional Courts Bill!” (SSA No. 9, Winter 2013).
Explaining why the fight between the feminists and Marxists emerged as a significant political question in the American section of the First International, the article below goes into the reasons for the relative political backwardness of the American working class. The article points to its development through successive waves of immigration, which meant that bigotry against European Catholic immigrants was at that time (the 1870s) the chief weapon of the American capitalist rulers to divide and hold back the working class. However, with the mass migration of blacks from the American South to the industrial cities of the North, particularly during World Wars I and II, religious and ethnic hostilities in the proletariat came to be supplanted by anti-black racism as the central means for dividing the working class. The colour bar became the fundamental dividing line in American society, a key prop for obscuring the irreconcilable class divide between labour and capital.
The special oppression of the black minority, which has its historical roots in chattel slavery and the betrayal of Reconstruction in the 1870s, is what defines American capitalism. The fight against black oppression is strategic for communists in that country, as the Spartacist League/U.S. has held since its inception. For more, readers are referred to “Black Liberation Struggle: The Key to American Socialist Revolution”, in Workers Vanguard Nos. 1148 and 1149 (8 and 22 February 2019).
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Contrary to an opinion still subscribed to in certain circles, modern feminism did not emerge full-grown from the fertile womb of the New Left, but is in fact an ideological offspring of the utopian egalitarianism of the early nineteenth century, which was in turn a product of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. It is noteworthy that the most original theorist of utopian socialism, Charles Fourier, was also the first advocate of women’s liberation through the replacement of the nuclear family by collective child rearing. Since utopian socialism (including its solution to the problem of the oppression of women) represented the ideals of the bourgeois-democratic revolution breaking through the barriers of private property, it was historically progressive. However, with the genesis of Marxism and the recognition that an egalitarian society can emerge only out of the rule of the working class, feminism (like other forms of utopian egalitarianism) lost its progressive aspect and became an ideology of the left wing of liberal individualism, a position which it continues to occupy to this day.
Women in the Bourgeois-Democratic Vision
Without question, the most important bourgeois-democratic work on women’s liberation was Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman written in 1792. Wollstonecraft was part of a circle of English radical democrats which included William Blake, Tom Paine and William Godwin, whose political lives came to be dominated by the French Revolution. A year before she wrote her classic on sexual equality, Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Man, a polemic against Edmund Burke’s counterrevolutionary writings. A few years after, she was to attempt a history of the French Revolution.
While informed and imbued with moral outrage as a result of her own experiences as an unmarried, middle-class woman (she worked as a school teacher and governess), Vindication is essentially an extension of the principles of the Enlightenment and French Revolution to women. The first chapter, entitled “Rights and Duties of Mankind”, sets the theoretical framework. Vindication rests heavily on analogies between the basis for the equality of women and general social equality.
For a contemporary reader, Vindication seems a highly unbalanced work. While the description of the role of women continues to be relevant, Wollstonecraft’s solutions appear pallid. Her main programmatic demand, to which she devotes the concluding chapter, is uniform education for girls and boys. Even when she wrote Vindication this was only a moderately radical proposal. In fact in the very year that Vindication was written, a similar educational program was proposed in the French Assembly. Yet generations after the establishment of coeducation and the even more radical reform of women’s suffrage, Wollstonecraft’s depiction of women’s role in society continues to ring true.
Although Wollstonecraft was one of the most radical political activists of her day (shortly after writing her classic on women’s rights, she crossed the Channel to take part in the revolutionary French government), Vindication has an unexpectedly moralizing and personalist character. Like many feminists of our day, she appeals to men to recognize the full humanity of women and to women to stop being sex objects and develop themselves. And there is the same conviction that if only men and women would really believe in these ideals and behave accordingly, then women would achieve equality.
The emphasis on individual relationships is not peculiar to Wollstonecraft, but arises from the inherent contradiction within the bourgeois-democratic approach to women’s oppression. Wollstonecraft accepted the nuclear family as the central institution of society and argued for sexual equality within that framework.
By accepting the basic role of women as mothers, Wollstonecraft accepted a division of labor in which women were necessarily economically dependent on their husbands. Therefore, women’s equality was essentially dependent on how the marriage partners treated one another. In good part, Vindication is an argument that parents and particularly fathers should raise their daughters more like their sons in order to bring out their true potential. But if fathers reject education for their daughters, there is no other recourse. Here we have the limits both of bourgeois democracy and of Wollstonecraft’s vision.
Charles Fourier and the Abolition of the Family
The status of women in the nineteenth century represented the most acute and manifest expression of the contradiction between capitalist society and its own ideals. It was this contradiction that gave birth to utopian socialism. Early in the nineteenth century it became apparent to those still committed to the ideals of the French Revolution that liberty, equality and fraternity were not compatible with private property in a competitive market economy. As the most incisive of the pioneer socialists, Charles Fourier, put it:
“Philosophy was right to vaunt liberty; it is the foremost desire of all creatures. But philosophy forgot that in civilized society liberty is illusory if the common people lack wealth. When the wage-earning classes are poor, their independence is as fragile as a house without foundations. The free man who lacks wealth immediately sinks back under the yoke of the rich.”
—Beecher and Bienvenu (Eds.), The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier
And when Fourier applied the same critical concepts to the status of women, he reached equally radical, anti-bourgeois conclusions. The importance that Fourier attributed to the condition of women is well known:
“Social progress and changes of period are brought about by virtue of the progress of women toward liberty, and social retrogression occurs as a result of a diminution in the liberty of women... In summary, the extension of the privileges of women is the fundamental cause of all social progress.”
What is of decisive importance about Fourier’s concern for women’s oppression is that he put forth a program for the total reconstruction of society that would end the historic division of labor between men and women. In Fourier’s projected socialist community, children were raised collectively with no particular relation to their biological parents, men and women performed the same work and total sexual liberty was encouraged. (He regarded heterosexual monogamy as the extension of bourgeois property concepts to the sexual sphere.)
Fourier’s intense hostility to the patriarchal family in good part derived from his realization that it was inherently sexually repressive. In this he anticipated much of radical Freudianism. For example, he observed, “There are still many parents who allow their unmarried daughters to suffer and die for want of sexual satisfaction” (Ibid.).
Despite the fantastic nature of his projected socialist communities or “phalanxes”, Fourier’s program contained the rational core for the reorganization of society needed to liberate women. He was uniquely responsible for making the demand for the liberation of women through the abolition of the nuclear family an integral part of the socialist program which the young Marx and Engels inherited. Engels was more than willing (for example, in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific) to pay homage to the primary author of the socialist program for women’s liberation.
Utopian Egalitarianism and
While not giving the woman question the centrality it had in Fourierism, the two other major currents of early nineteenth-century socialism, Owenism and Saint-Simonism, were also unambiguously committed to sexual equality and opposed to legally enforced monogamy. The political life of the early nineteenth century was characterized by the complete interpenetration of the struggle for women’s liberation and the general struggle for an egalitarian society. Those women advocating women’s rights (no less than the men who did so) did not view this question as distinct from, much less counterposed to, the general movement for a rational social order. Those women who championed sexual equality were either socialists or radical democrats whose activity on behalf of women’s rights occupied only a fraction of their political lives. The most radical women advocates of sexual equality—the Americans Frances Wright and Margaret Fuller and the Frenchwoman Flora Tristan—all conform to this political profile.
Frances Wright began her political career as a liberal reformer with a tract in favor of the abolition of slavery. She was won to socialism by Robert Dale Owen, Robert Owen’s son, who immigrated to the U.S. to become its most important radical socialist in the 1820-30’s. Wright established an Owenite commune in Tennessee modeled on the famous one at New Harmony, Indiana. In 1828-29, she and Robert Dale Owen edited the Free Enquirer, a newspaper associated with the New York Workingman’s Party which championed universal suffrage, free public education, “free love” and birth control.
Margaret Fuller, whose Women in the Nineteenth Century was the most influential women’s rights work of her generation, was a product of New England Transcendentalism and had edited a journal with Ralph Waldo Emerson. Like Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller approached the woman question from the standpoint of religious radicalism (the equality of souls).
Fuller was associated with the Transcendentalist commune, Brook Farm, about the time it was transformed into a Fourierist community or “phalanx”, the year before she wrote her classic on women’s equality. Shortly after that she went to Europe and became involved in the democratic nationalist movements that were a mainspring in the revolutions of 1848. In that momentous year, she went to Italy to run a hospital for Guiseppe Mazzini’s Young Italy movement.
The most important woman socialist of the pre-1848 era was Flora Tristan. She began her revolutionary career with a tract in favor of legalized divorce, which had been outlawed in France following the reaction of 1815. (As a young woman Tristan had left her husband, an act which resulted in social ostracism and continual hardship throughout her life.) Her work on divorce led to a correspondence with the aging Fourier and a commitment to socialism. Among the most cosmopolitan of socialists, Tristan had crisscrossed the Channel playing an active role in both the Owenite and Chartist movements. Summing up her political situation in a letter to Victor Considerant, leader of the Fourierist movement after the master’s death, she wrote: “Almost the entire world is against me, men because I am demanding the emancipation of women, the propertied classes because I am demanding the emancipation of the wage earners” (Goldsmith, Seven Women Against the World).
In the 1840’s the ancient French craft unions, the compagnons, were transforming themselves into modern trade unions. This process produced an embryonic revolutionary socialist labor movement whose main leaders were Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Auguste Blanqui and Etienne Cabet. Flora Tristan was part of this nascent proletarian socialist movement. Her The Workers Union, written in 1843, was the most advanced statement of proletarian socialism up to its day. Its central theme was the need for an international workers’ organization. (Marx met Tristan while he was in Paris and was undoubtedly influenced by her work.) The concluding passage of The Workers Union affirms: “Union is power if we unite on the social and political field, on the ground of equal rights for both sexes, if we organize labor, we shall win welfare for all.”
The Workers Union devotes a section to the problems of women and its concluding passage indicates the integral role that sexual equality had in Tristan’s concept of socialism: “We have resolved to include in our Charter woman’s sacred and inalienable rights. We desire that men should give to their wives and mothers the liberty and absolute equality which they enjoy themselves.”
Flora Tristan died of typhoid in 1844 at the age of 41. Had she survived the catastrophe of 1848 and remained politically active, the history of European socialism might well have been different, for she was free of the residual Jacobinism of Blanqui and the artisan philistinism of Proudhon.
Contemporary feminists and bourgeois historians tend to label all early nineteenth-century female advocates of sexual equality feminists. This is a wholly illegitimate analysis—a projection of current categories back into a time when they are meaningless. As a delimited movement and distinctive ideology feminism did not exist in the early nineteenth century. Virtually all the advocates of full sexual equality considered this an integral part of the movement for a generally free and egalitarian society rooted in Enlightenment principles and carrying forward the American and particularly the French Revolutions. The American Owenite Frances Wright was no more a feminist than the English Owenite William Thompson, who wrote An appeal of one half the Human Race, Women, against the pretentions of the other Half, Men, to keep them in Civil and Domestic Slavery. Flora Tristan was no more a feminist than was Fourier.
In the 1840’s, a Transcendentalist radical like Margaret Fuller, a nationalist democrat like Guiseppe Mazzini and a socialist working-class organizer like Etienne Cabet could consider themselves part of a common political movement whose program was encapsulated in the slogan, “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”. In its most radical expression, this movement looked forward to a single, total revolution which would simultaneously establish democracy, eliminate classes, achieve equality for women and end national oppression.
This vision was defeated on the barricades in 1848. And with that defeat, the component elements of early nineteenth-century radicalism (liberal democracy and socialism, trade unionism, women’s equality and national liberation) separated and began to compete and conflict with one another. After 1848, it seemed that bourgeois society would continue for some time and that the interests of the oppressed, be they workers, women or nations, would have to be realized within its framework. Feminism (like trade unionism and national liberation) emerged as a delimited movement with its own constituency, ideology and organization only after the great catastrophe of 1848 had temporarily dispelled the vision of a fundamentally new social order.
Marx Against Utopian Egalitarianism
It is sometimes written that Fourier regarded socialism more as a means of overcoming women’s oppression than class oppression. This is a post-Marx way of looking at politics and not how Fourier would have viewed it. He would have said that he projected a society which would satisfy human needs and that the most striking thing about it was the radical change in the role of women. As opposed to the materialist view that different political movements represent the interests of different classes, utopian socialism shared the rational idealistic conception of political motivation characteristic of the Enlightenment—i.e., that different political movements reflect different conceptions of the best possible social organization. The idealism of early socialism was probably inevitable since it was produced by those revolutionary bourgeois democrats who maintained their principles after the actual bourgeoisie had abandoned revolutionary democracy. The social base of early socialism was those petty-bourgeois radicals who had gone beyond the interests and real historic possibilities of their class. This was most true of German “True Socialism” which, in a nation with virtually no industrial workers and a conservative, traditionalist petty bourgeoisie, was purely a literary movement. It was least true of English Owenism, which had intersected the embryonic labor movement while retaining a large element of liberal philanthropism.
By the 1840’s a working-class movement had arisen in France, Belgium and England which was attracted to socialist ideas and organization. However, the relationship of the new-fledged socialist workers’ organizations to the older socialist currents, as well as to liberal democracy and the political expressions of women’s rights and national liberation, remained confused in all existing socialist theories. It was Marx who cut the Gordian knot and provided a coherent, realistic analysis of the social basis for the socialist movement within bourgeois society.
Marx asserted that the working class was the social group which would play the primary and distinctive role in establishing socialism. This was so because the working class was that social group whose interests and condition were most in harmony with a collectivist economy or, conversely, which had the least stake in the capitalist mode of production.
Marx’s appreciation of the role of the proletariat was not deduced from German philosophy, but was the result of his experience in France in the 1840’s. Socialism had manifestly polarized French society along class lines, the main base for socialism being the industrial working class, the propertied classes being implacably hostile and the petty bourgeoisie vacillating, often seeking a utopian third road.
For Marx the predominance of intellectuals in the early socialist movement was not proof that the socialist movement could be based on universal reason. Rather it was necessarily a phenomenon partly reflecting the contradictions of the bourgeois-democratic revolution and partly anticipating the new alignment of class forces: “A portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat and in particular, a portion of bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole” (Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto).
The propertied, educated classes could not be won to socialism on the basis of rational and democratic ideals even though objectively those ideals could only be realized under socialism. Along the same lines, women of the privileged class and the ruling stratum of oppressed nationalities cannot in general be won to socialism even though objectively sexual equality and national liberation can only be realized under socialism.
Closely related to the question of the class basis of the socialist movement is the question of the material conditions under which socialism can be established. Reflecting on pre-Marxist socialism in his later years, Engels quipped that the utopians believed that the reason socialism hadn’t been established before was that nobody had ever thought of it. That Engels’ witticism was only a slight exaggeration is shown by the importance of communal experiments in the early socialist movement, indicating a belief that socialism could be established under any and all conditions if a group really wanted it. The primacy of voluntarism for the early socialists again reflected the fact that their thinking was rooted in eighteenth-century, individualistic idealism which, in turn, derived from Protestantism, an earlier bourgeois ideology.
In sharp and deliberate contrast to the utopians, Marx asserted that inequality and oppression were necessary consequences of economic scarcity and attempts to eliminate them through communal escapism or political coercion were bound to fail:
“…this development of productive forces (which itself implies the actual empirical existence of men in their world-historic, instead of local, being) is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced....” [emphasis in original]
—Karl Marx, The German Ideology
Marx’s assertion that inequality and oppression are historically necessary and can be overcome only through the total development of society, centering on the raising of the productive forces, represents his most fundamental break with progressive bourgeois ideology. Therefore, to this day, these concepts are the most unpalatable aspects of Marxism for those attracted to socialism from a liberal humanist outlook:
“...although at first the development of the capacities of the human species takes place at the cost of the majority of human individuals and even classes, in the end it breaks through this contradiction and coincides with the development of the individual; the higher level of individuality is thus only achieved by a historical process in which individuals are sacrificed....”
—Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus Value
“...it is only possible to achieve real liberation in the real world and by employing real means,...slavery cannot be abolished without the steam-engine and the mule and spinning-jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture, and...in general people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. ‘Liberation’ is an historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions, the development of industry, commerce, agriculture, the conditions of intercourse....”
—Karl Marx, The German Ideology
It is evident that “women” can replace “individuals” and “classes” in these passages without doing damage to their meaning, since Marx regarded women’s oppression as a necessary aspect of that stage in human development associated with class society.
Marx’s programmatic differences with the utopians were encapsulated in the concept of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” which he regarded as one of his few original, important contributions to socialist theory. The dictatorship of the proletariat is that period after the overthrow of the capitalist state when the working class administers society in order to create the economic and cultural conditions for socialism.
During the dictatorship of the proletariat, the restoration of capitalism remains a possibility. This is not primarily due to the machinations of die-hard reactionaries but arises rather out of the conflicts and tensions generated by the continuation of global economic scarcity.
This economic scarcity is caused not only by inadequate physical means of production. Even more importantly it derives from the inadequate and extremely uneven cultural level inherited from capitalism. Socialist superabundance presupposes an enormous raising of the cultural level of mankind. The “average” person under socialism would have the knowledge and capacity of several learned professions in contemporary society.
However, in the period immediately following the revolution, the administration of production will necessarily be largely limited to that elite trained in bourgeois society, since training their replacements will take time. Therefore, skilled specialists such as the director of an airport, chief of surgery in a hospital or head of a nuclear power station will have to be drawn from the educated, privileged classes of the old capitalist society. Although in a qualitatively diminished way, the dictatorship of the proletariat will continue to exhibit economic inequality, a hierarchic division of labor and those aspects of social oppression rooted in the cultural level inherited from bourgeois society (e.g., racist attitudes will not disappear the day after the revolution).
These general principles concerning the dictatorship of the proletariat likewise apply to the woman question. To the extent that it rests on the cultural level inherited from capitalism, certain aspects of sexual inequality and oppression will continue well into the dictatorship of the proletariat. The population cannot be totally re-educated nor can a psychological pattern instilled in men and women from infancy be fully eliminated or reversed.
The rejection of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessary transition period to socialism is the central justification for utopian egalitarianism (including radical or “socialist” feminism) in the era of Marxism.
The Battle over Protective Labour Legislation
Feminism was one of the three major extensions of utopian egalitarianism into the post-1848 era, the other two being anarchism and artisan cooperativism (Proudhonism). In fact, during the later nineteenth century radical feminism and anarchism heavily interpenetrated one another both as regards their position on the woman question and in personnel. The decisive element in common among feminism, anarchism and cooperativism was a commitment to a level of social equality and individual freedom impossible to attain not only under capitalism, but in the period following its overthrow. At a general ideological level, feminism was bourgeois individualism in conflict with the realities and limits of bourgeois society.
During their lifetimes, Marx and Engels had two notable conflicts with organized feminism—continual clashes in the context of the struggle for protective labor legislation and a short faction fight in the American section of the First International. While the question of protective labor legislation covered a great deal of ground at many levels of concreteness, the central difference between the Marxists and feminists over this issue was also the central difference between Marxism and utopian egalitarianism—i.e., the question of the primacy of the material well-being of the masses and the historical interests of the socialist movement vis-à-vis formal equality within bourgeois society.
The feminist opposition to protective labor legislation argued and continues to argue that it would mean legal inequality in the status of women and that it was partly motivated by paternalistic, male-chauvinist prejudices. Marx and Engels recognized these facts but maintained that the physical well-being of working women and the interests of the entire class in reducing the intensity of exploitation more than offset this formal and ideological inequality. Writing to Gertrud Guillaume-Schack, a German feminist who later became an anarchist, Engels stated his case:
“That the working woman needs special protection against capitalist exploitation because of her special physiological functions seems obvious to me. The English women who championed the formal right of members of their sex to permit themselves to be as thoroughly exploited by the capitalists as the men are mostly, directly or indirectly, interested in the capitalist exploitation of both sexes. I admit I am more interested in the health of the future generation than in the absolute formal equality of the sexes in the last years of the capitalist mode of production. It is my conviction that real equality of women and men can come true only when exploitation of either by capital has been abolished and private housework has been transformed into a public industry.”
—Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence,
Letter to Guillaume-Schack of 5 July 1885
Thus Engels recognized in feminism the false consciousness of the privileged classes of women who believe that since they themselves are oppressed only as women, sexual inequality is the only significant form of oppression.
Guillaume-Schack’s conversion to anarchism was not accidental, for the anarchists also opposed protective labor legislation for women as an inconsistent, inegalitarian reform. Writing a polemic against the Italian anarchists in the early 1870’s, Marx ridiculed the “logic” that one “must not take the trouble to obtain legal prohibition of the employment of girls under 10 in factories because a stop is not thereby put to the exploitation of boys under 10”—that this was a “compromise which damages the purity of eternal principles” (quoted in Hal Draper, International Socialism, July-August 1970).
Woodhull versus Sorge in the
Because of the catch-all nature of the First International, the Marxist tendency had to wage major internal factional struggles against the most characteristic left currents in the various countries (e.g., trade-union reformism in Britain, Proudhon’s cooperativism in France, Lasalle’s state socialism in Germany and anarchism in Eastern and Southern Europe). It is therefore highly symptomatic that the major factional struggle within the American section centered around feminism, a variant of petty-bourgeois radicalism. In the most general sense, the importance of the Woodhull tendency reflected the greater political weight of the American liberal middle class relative to the proletariat than in European class alignments. Historically petty-bourgeois moralism has been more influential in American socialism than in virtually any other country. This was particularly pronounced in the period after the Civil War when abolitionism served as the model for native American radicalism.
The relative political backwardness of the American working class is rooted primarily in the process of its development through successive waves of immigration from different countries. This created such intense ethnic divisions that it impeded even elementary trade-union organization. In addition, many of the immigrant workers who came from peasant backgrounds were imbued with strong religious, racial and sexual prejudices and a generally low cultural level which impeded class—much less socialist—consciousness. In general the discontent of American workers was channeled by the petty bourgeoisie of the various ethnic groups into the struggle for their own place in the parliamentary-state apparatus.
The American working class’s lack of strong organization, its ethnic electoral politics and relatively backward social attitudes created a political climate in which “enlightened middle-class socialism” was bound to flourish. Not least important in this respect was the fact that the liberal middle classes were Protestant while the industrial working class was heavily Roman Catholic. Indeed, an important aspect of the Woodhull/Sorge fight was over an orientation toward Irish Catholic workers.
Victoria Woodhull was the best-known (more accurately notorious) “free love” advocate of her day, ambitious and with a gift for political showmanship. Seeing that the First International was becoming fashionable, she organized her own section of it (Section 12) along with remnants of the New Democracy, a middle-class, electoral-reformist organization, led by Samuel Foot Andrews, a former abolitionist. The Woodhullites thus entered the First International as a radical liberal faction, with an emphasis on women’s rights and an electoralist strategy.
Section 12 rapidly retranslated the principles of the First International into the language of American liberal democracy. Needless to say, it came out for total organizational federalism with each section free to pursue its own activities and line within the general principles of the International. Section 12’s political line and organizational activities (its official paper, Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, preached spiritualism among other things) quickly brought it into conflict with the Marxist tendency, led by the German veteran of the 1848 Revolution, Friedrich Sorge. Section 12 was able to cause much factional trouble, not only in the U.S. but abroad, because its radical liberalism fed into the growing anarchist, electoral-reformist and federalist currents in the International. The Woodhullites were part of a rotten bloc which coalesced against the Marxist leadership of the First International in 1871-72. Woodhull enjoyed a short stay in the anarchist International in 1873 on her way to becoming a wealthy eccentric.
The immediate issue of the faction fight was the priority of women’s rights, notably suffrage, over labor issues particularly the eight-hour day. That for the Woodhullites what was involved was not a matter of programmatic emphasis, but a counterposition to proletarian socialism was made explicit after the split with Sorge: “The extension of equal citizenship to women, the world over, must precede any general change in the subsisting relation of capital and labor” [emphasis in original] (Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, 18 November 1871).
After splitting with the Sorge wing, while still claiming loyalty to the First International, Section 12 organized the Equal Rights Party in order to run Woodhull for president in 1872. The program was straight left-liberalism without any proletarian thrust. It called for “...a truly republican government which shall not only recognize but guarantee equal political and social rights to men and women, and which shall secure equal opportunities of education for all children” (Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, 20 April 1872).
The general political principles of the Woodhullites were clearly expressed in their appeal to the General Council of the First International against the Sorge wing:
“It [the object of the International] involves, first, the Political Equality and Social Freedom of men and women alike.... Social Freedom means absolute immunity from the impertinent intrusion in all affairs of exclusively personal concernment, such as religious belief, sexual relations, habits of dress, etc.” [emphasis in original]
—Documents of the First International,
The General Council; Minutes 1871-72
This appeal was answered by a resolution written by Marx, which suspended Section 12. After cataloguing the organizational abuses and rotten politics, Marx concluded by reasserting the central difference between democratic egalitarianism and proletarian socialism—namely, that the end to all forms of oppression must run through the victory of the working class over capitalism. Marx called attention to past International documents:
“…relating to ‘sectarian sections’ or ‘separatist bodies pretending to accomplish special missions’ distinct from the common aim of the Association [First International], viz. to emancipate the mass of labour from its ‘economical subjection to the monopolizer of the means of labour’ which lies at the bottom of servitude in all its forms, of social misery, mental degradation and political dependence.”
While the Marxist case against the Woodhullites centered on their electoralism, middle-class orientation and quackery, the role of “free love” in the socialist movement had a definite significance in the fight. While including personal sexual freedom in their program, the Marxists insisted on a cautious approach to this question when dealing with more backward sections of the working class. By flaunting a sexually “liberated” life-style, the Woodhullites would have created a nearly impenetrable barrier to winning over conventional and religious workers. One of the main charges that Sorge brought against Section 12 at the Hague Conference in 1872 was that its activities had made it much more difficult for the International to reach the strategically placed Irish Catholic workers.
The historic relevance of the Woodhull/Sorge faction fight is that it demonstrated, in a rather pure way, the basis of feminism in classic bourgeois-democratic principles, particularly individualism. It further demonstrated that feminist currents tend to be absorbed into liberal reformism or anarchistic petty-bourgeois radicalism, both of which invariably unite against revolutionary proletarian socialism.