Documents in: Bahasa Indonesia Deutsch Español Français Italiano Japanese Polski Português Russian Chinese Tagalog
International Communist League
Home Spartacist, theoretical and documentary repository of the ICL, incorporating Women & Revolution Workers Vanguard, biweekly organ of the Spartacist League/U.S. Periodicals and directory of the sections of the ICL ICL Declaration of Principles in multiple languages Other literature of the ICL ICL events

Subscribe to Workers Vanguard

View archives

Printable version of this article

Workers Vanguard No. 1003

25 May 2012

Presentation by a Veteran Communist

Marxism and the Fight for Women’s Liberation

(Young Spartacus pages)

We are pleased to publish a Spartacus Youth Club class given by comrade Marianne Clemens in San Francisco, California, on 26 October 2011. It has been edited for publication and slightly expanded by Young Spartacus in collaboration with comrade Clemens.

We are the party of the Russian Revolution. October 1917 is unique in human history, and we study it intensively: it shows that the conditions for the true liberation of women only exist when the working class takes and consolidates state power under a proletarian, revolutionary, internationalist leadership. In this huge leap for humanity we also see that because women’s oppression is so thoroughly bound up with the state and private property, there can be no all-sided liberation without the liberation of women.

The Bolsheviks didn’t invent this part of the communist program. For the great utopian socialists of the early 19th century women’s liberation was integral to socialism. Clara Zetkin, a veteran socialist and hugely influential among Russian socialists, saw the heroic role women played in the French Revolution of 1789-94 as the midwife of the socialist women’s movement. This, the greatest of 17th and 18th century bourgeois revolutions, swept away the garbage of ancient, entrenched practices cementing women’s oppression that went along with feudal property relations, bringing significant gains for women. But the utopian socialists also saw that women’s complete liberation was only possible in a collectivized society, not in the capitalist social order based on private property (private ownership of the means of production—not your personal effects) that the bourgeois revolutions secured.

Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

Women’s oppression is rooted in the institution of the family. And as Trotsky wrote, you can’t just abolish the family, you have to replace it. Friedrich Engels, Marx’s lifelong friend and collaborator, was the first to put the woman question on a scientific basis and show how the family, private property and the state arose, linked in early civilization as basic institutions of class society.

Engels was not entirely free of the moralistic assumption that women (chaste things that we are) do not enjoy variety in sexual relations. Also, over 125 years later, we know much more about the prehistory of our species, including beyond Europe. But research has only confirmed Engels’ analysis, including that the first oppression of classes coincides with the oppression of the feminine sex by the masculine, namely in monogamous marriage.

In the earliest human groups in the period termed the Paleolithic (old stone age) in Europe, “primitive communist,” matrilineal societies, there was no separation of rights and duties. There was no prohibition on whom you could play around with or have children with. The children were the children of all; all adult women were their mothers and all adult men were their fathers. This was the earliest form of the family, known as “group marriage.” All that was hunted, gathered or grown belonged to all. Biology determined the division of labor: the women performed tasks that didn’t interfere with bearing, carrying around and nursing the children. That didn’t give them a subordinate social status: women were revered as the bearers of the species. It is generally accepted today that women invented three technologies crucial to the spread and development of human society: spinning fibers and making string, later weaving; pottery making and horticulture.

Gradually tribes settle down on a common territory. The division of labor becomes more complicated—in the beginning scattering seeds and harvesting the food crop, and then plowing up the earth and planting seeds; manufacturing implements; domesticating and caring for animals.

When the plow is developed, e.g., in Sumer, productivity eventually rises massively over simple horticulture, creating a surplus. As surplus production rises, wealth and consequently social power accrue to the landowners—who strive to bequeath their wealth and power to their biological children. Women, biologically tied to childbearing and nursing, aren’t available to work long hours plowing, and do not have the physical strength needed for the task. Thus, in this phase of social development, women come to be excluded from productive work (i.e., the production of the surplus). A ruling class was consolidated early on in Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Sumerian ruling class was the tribally based priesthood.

Mother right and the large matrilineal and matrilocal “gens” are supplanted. The patriarchal “monogamian family” becomes society’s basic unit. Women lose the equal rights they had in primitive communistic society. The man as master of the house subjugates woman and charges her with a host of duties, above all monogamy, in order to ensure the inheritance of wealth and power, and a lower social status is attached to women’s biological role. This is the “world-historic defeat of the female sex” Engels talks about, and the subject of the classical Greek myths: the clash of the customs and freedoms of the older society with the new—as human tragedy.

So that’s the family and private property. This is also the point the state is born. Now, who was to become the ruling class and run the state wasn’t decided by cunning or wickedness or brute force or male chauvinism, but by economics. Protecting and expanding a territory and the accumulated surplus takes military might—an armed body of men that defends the interests of the propertied. That is the core of the state. In the endless wars over territory that humanity is then subjected to, there is a reason to enslave the soldiers of the vanquished army instead of killing them: they can be pressed into producing the surplus. Labor is branded as base and worthy only of slaves.

Today all school kids get it pounded into their heads that ancient Greece is the fount of “pure” democracy. But that democracy was based on slavery and the subjugation of women. And it was only for the owners of slaves—the “paterfamilias.” In The Republic Plato justifies deep social inequality: “souls” were made of gold (the slave owners, being closest to the gods), silver (the soldiers) or bronze and iron—who are forbidden to own property.

In the intervening thousands of years of class societies, the family has had many forms. But in a nutshell, that’s why the family, private property and the state are organically linked—and are crucial to understand. And that’s why the capitalist ruling class has always hysterically defended all three. If they perceive the family to be under attack, they and their “leftist” water boys fly into a fearful rage.

October Revolution of 1917

Karl Marx’s most important original contribution to socialist theory was to show that the victorious workers revolution must smash the bourgeois state and create its own, a state of a new kind—the dictatorship of the proletariat. The October Revolution led by the Bolsheviks established a workers state power that laid the basis for socialist construction: they nationalized the means of production and distribution, established a monopoly of foreign trade and banking, and began organizing a collectivized planned economy. Some of their first measures decreed equal rights for women and men. They made marriage and divorce simple matters of civil registration. They abolished all laws criminalizing consensual sexual relations, including homosexuality. We fight for equal rights for gay women and men and against all forms of bigotry—which will disappear for good only with the family and its straitjacket values. The hard work came after the 1917 Revolution—the “material act” or process of women’s liberation—beginning to collectivize family housework and childcare.

A corps of impressive women in the Bolshevik Party was doing work among women well before World War I. Most already had many years of experience in the underground, in nihilist or social-revolutionary groups when they became Bolsheviks. Not a few had done some hard time. Most were highly educated, from privileged layers of society. Through years of political struggle against the opponents of the Communists, they became highly trained, steeled Marxists. An index of their high political level is that most either sympathized politically with Leon Trotsky and opposed the ham-fisted, nationalist bureaucracy that was consolidated around Stalin in 1923-24, or openly joined Trotsky’s Left Opposition in the next few years. The best, if they lived that long, shared the fate of the entire leadership of the October Revolution whom Stalin destroyed by 1940.

In 1917 the Russian working class was a tiny minority in a few urban centers, in a sea of peasant backwardness—less urbanized than India today. Women in the priest-ridden countryside were illiterate, superstitious, and were treated like beasts of burden. So winning over and mobilizing the masses of toiling women for the revolution was daunting. In 1919, the year the Communist International (Comintern) was founded, the Bolshevik Party created the Department of the Central Committee for Work Among Women, known as Zhenotdel. In 1920 the Comintern Executive formed the International Women’s Secretariat to coordinate the work and publish a journal in German and one in Russian. Zhenotdel party organizers were in charge of work in Soviet Russia and made great contributions to the work internationally.

Inessa Armand was one of the most talented among the layer of high-level women cadre who led the Bolsheviks’ early work among women. She was Zhenotdel’s first head until tragically she died of cholera in 1920. Armand introduced two extremely effective methods that became the Bolsheviks’ primary tools to win over to the side of the revolution and mobilize the doubly and triply oppressed female masses in the actual work of constructing and administering the new society on a socialist basis.

In delegate assemblies and non-party women’s conferences, Zhenotdel speakers asked the women to explain what they wanted and needed most. Then with party assistance, they went out and began building their own childcare centers, communal kitchens, laundries, literacy centers and schools. A couple of million women workers and poor peasants were mobilized in this work. They were the vanguard in these tasks, but they knew that if Soviet Russia could survive, the entire working population would be drawn into this work more and more: it was the future infrastructure of society as a whole.

But 1920-21 was the high point of this work. Replacing the family requires truly massive resources. With famine and even cannibalism in the countryside, the cities decimated and in rubble after almost four years of civil war and the savage incursions of 14 capitalist armies, in mid 1921 scarce resources had to be diverted to get the factories running and feed the urban workforce. By late 1923 it had become clear that there would be no revolution in Germany, and thus, no aid from Europe. The Soviet Union had to retrench.

Making a virtue out of necessity, in 1924 Stalin put forward the anti-revolutionary dogma of “socialism in one country” (see Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed). Under Stalin the revolution degenerated bureaucratically, although the economic basis of the workers state remained. As Trotsky wrote, Stalin glued the broken shell of the family back together. Many gains for women were reversed—abortion was banned in 1936. The bureaucracy simply declared socialism, instead of telling the truth—that socialism requires huge resources and an international division of labor and thus is impossible under conditions of generalized want.

Despite the bureaucratic degeneration, the vision of future society that issued out of the Russian Revolution was so inspiring that the lively debate on collective forms of living continued into the 1930s. We defended the Soviet Union unconditionally from internal counterrevolution and imperialist attack, until the last. For 70 years the imperialists had sought a way to destroy the Soviet Union. Finally, Stalinist bureaucrat Boris Yeltsin, supported by his patrons in the U.S. government, presided over the counterrevolution that opened up one-sixth of the earth’s land surface to capitalist exploitation.

As we wrote in 1993: “Capitalist counterrevolution tramples on women.” A comrade who worked there described capitalist Russia as “the valley of the shadow of death”—promising a nightmare future. Public health care died with the Soviet Union. Life expectancy and the birth rate plummeted; alcoholism, drug addiction, malnutrition, debilitating diseases (including AIDS and Multidrug-Resistant Tuberculosis), homelessness, prostitution and mental retardation in children soared. Armies of hungry children live on the streets, as in the ruins of WWI and the Civil War.

DDR: East German Deformed Workers State

The Soviet degenerated workers state and the East and Central European workers states that were bureaucratically deformed from birth were “transitional” societies, stuck halfway between capitalism and socialism. For 24 years I was a member of our German section, including during the 1989 budding proletarian political revolution in East Germany (DDR), where our international intervened with all forces we could muster. We called for workers and soldiers councils (soviets) that would defend the proletarian gains and return to the road of Lenin and Trotsky, for unconditional defense of the DDR against counterrevolution, and for a Red Republic of Workers Councils in all of Germany through proletarian political revolution in the East and socialist revolution in the West.

The DDR was founded in 1949 on the model of the degenerated USSR, “on the bayonets of the Red Army” after it had smashed the Hitler regime. It was a pretty drab place, but everybody was guaranteed a job and a place to live. Women there probably had the highest social status in the world. Over 95 percent worked. They were crane operators, engineers, economists, judges, lawyers, doctors. Mothers got a full year off work with pay after the birth of each child, and their jobs were safe during that time. You got prenatal visits at home from medical personnel, and the ambulance was on call when it was time to go to the hospital. At the plant and factories, there were day-care centers, nurseries, canteens, laundries and libraries.

But there was still the “second shift” in the family—millions of mommies shopped, cleaned, fed and took care of everybody. Like Stalin, the Honecker regime in the DDR glorified the “socialist family” as the germ cell of the state in society. Discrimination against women outside the workplace was especially obvious in political life. There were almost no women in the upper echelons of the East German Stalinist party (Socialist Unity Party)—except Margot Honecker, the feared Minister of Education, and a few more.

It was a society of enormous contradictions. The workers told this joke: “What would happen if the Sahara went socialist?”—“For 10 years, nothing. Then sand would become scarce.” The economy was secretly bankrupt. To get hard currency they exported high-quality heavy equipment and machine tools, but they couldn’t make women’s underwear that fit, or condoms that didn’t leak or were more sensitive than safety gloves. But AIDS cases were practically unknown: Travel restrictions isolated the population. There was no drug scene—the currency wasn’t convertible. A DDR scientist we knew had invented their own ELISA test, and they tested every last liter of blood that was used.

The bureaucracy constantly lied to the population and spied on them for 40 years. Many workers were terribly cynical in the end, but many young workers and soldiers wanted real socialism—not what the bureaucrats told them it was.

When we had an internal class on the woman question and passed around graphics showing early Soviet plans for collective living centers (see “Architecture as a Tool of Social Transformation,” Women and Revolution No. 11, Spring 1976) our East German comrades were thunderstruck. One woman comrade said “Now I see how far we were from socialism!” She had always wondered why there were the huge long avenues of gigantic high-rise apartment projects for miles like the famous Stalin Boulevard, devoid of any social infrastructure, that atomized the working class. The DDR couldn’t afford to replace the family, so they lied. The population had never heard that real socialism by definition means redesigning society, with collectivized housework and child rearing!

Recently I was excited to find a 1975 Russian edition of Inessa Armand’s selected works. But at the beginning of one wonderful article the editors had actually deleted two sentences that read: “Private, separate domestic economies have become harmful anachronisms which only hold up and make more difficult the carrying out of new forms of distribution. They must be abolished” (emphasis added). Obviously, no self-respecting Stalinist would admit that the tiny domestic economic unit was an anachronism.

Assault on Women’s Rights

Let’s talk about the U.S. today, where abortion rights have been whittled away for almost 40 years, hitting working and poor women hardest. The defense of women’s right to abortion is absolutely crucial. It’s about women’s equality, women’s independence. If working women do not have that right, they have no say in their own future and that of their families. But, crucially, it is very hard to participate in social struggle—as the rulers know.

The state and their attack dogs are viciously sworn to keeping women bound up in the family, because the family is vitally necessary to maintain the capitalist order. Ensuring inheritance, as in the past, only matters to the propertied class. The ruling class needs the working-class family to reproduce the next generation of wage slaves and cannon fodder. But also, the family is hugely useful because it inculcates and reinforces bourgeois ideology and morals and, above all, obedience to authority.

We support every possible defense of the right to abortion, just as we defend every gain for working people, however partial. Leninists struggle to be the tribune of the people, able to react to every instance of tyranny and oppression, no matter what layer or class of the people it affects. That is the way we set forth our socialist convictions and our democratic demands publicly and make clear for everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat. Because it is in the historic interests of the proletariat as a whole, we call for free abortion on demand as part of free, quality health care for all, and free, quality 24-hour childcare.

In the early 19th century Charles Fourier wrote, “Social progress is brought about by the progress of women towards liberty.” Yes! In regions of the Third World where women are excluded from the political economy, the economy is characteristically stagnant. Society is correspondingly backward. In the “advanced” U.S. anti-woman bigotry is especially handy in recurring periods of economic decline, when the capitalists throw women and minorities out of the workforce first and then blame them for being poor. To go after their hot and cold wars abroad, the imperialists always need to whip up fervor at home for “free enterprise,” God and country, and “family values,” the code word for trashing women’s rights, as we have seen since the late 1970s.

From Feminism to Marxism

Now, since the “Occupy” movement has caught everybody’s attention as the way to right society’s wrongs, let me tell you a story about my student days. After growing up in Jim Crow East Texas, I got into left politics at Cornell University during the Vietnam War over two things: black liberation and women’s liberation. The New Left pushed all this wretched literature that the most oppressed were the most revolutionary. Lenin and Marx? Oh, that’s old hat! In the women’s movement, it was “self-determination”—like your body or uterus is a little country that can declare its independence. We were spinning our wheels going nowhere.

The women’s movement splintered between the straights and the gays; between those who took their nice Ivy League degrees and formed their own women’s health or dental or legal clinics and the ones that were for forming a women’s army. To fight whom, you ask? Well, we witnessed a gang of frat rats with baseball bats marching into a women’s concert intending to clean it out. Luckily the concert was already over, but after that the women decided a women’s army wasn’t such a good idea. You need men and women to fight shoulder to shoulder against the bigots.

Meanwhile everything polarized along racial lines. In April 1969 the black students at Cornell occupied the student union building to protest the administration’s racist policies and to demand a black studies center. After right-wing frat rats attacked (these guys were real activists), amid rumors of a second attack with guns, the black students armed themselves. SDS set up a protective cordon around the building; thousands of black and white students mobilized. It was tense, but ultimately everything stayed quiet. On the second day, the administration met the black students’ demands. Still armed, they marched with great dignity out of the building and across the arts quad. The following year the new black studies center was torched by racist vigilantes.

The Black Panthers were really the best of that generation, as black militants were increasingly sinking into the dead end of black nationalism. Their strategy was to “pick up the gun” and “electrify” the ghetto masses into revolutionary action. The Feds reacted with COINTELPRO, blowing away 38 Panthers. The Panthers taught me that a revolution is necessary to achieve liberation. If you are dead or in prison you’re not going to electrify anybody. What was left—blacks, Latinos, Native people, whites, female and male, gays and straights—all went off by themselves to “liberate” their own “sector.”

Except there was one serious group on campus. Through a friend, an anarchist of sorts, I had gotten to know a very nice couple who were around the Spartacist League. But we thought: anybody but the Sparts! The Spartacist guy and I used to have dreadful fights over the degeneration of the Soviet Union. He was Carl Lichtenstein, our very dear comrade who recently died unexpectedly. I thought I really had the number of those Russians, those patriarchal, male chauvinist pigs—why else could the revolution have degenerated? So I wasn’t listening.

Another friend who had been in the Canadian section of Ernest Mandel’s United Secretariat recommended I read Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution on the party. Oh, yes, and J.P. Nettl’s biography of Rosa Luxemburg. Both excellent suggestions, but the trouble was, I couldn’t understand a word. First I was depressed, but I got angry when I realized that all this “Marx and Lenin are old hat” was crap. It had kept me ignorant of some 150 years of working-class struggle!

In a somewhat chastened frame of mind, I moved to Boston, where I again met Carl and Alice, who by then were members of the SL. My first discussion with Carl was again about the Russian Revolution. To his surprise, I was ready to listen. What galled me most about my years at Cornell was that in that time a whole generation of young militants on the campuses and in the ghettos and barrios were wasted in the dead-end activism of all kinds I had seen over the past five years. I began to read, and to discuss what I read, and I began to understand that the key, missing from all those dead ends, was a party: The working class is the only force in society that has the social power to change history, but to win it needs the leadership of a revolutionary party.

The first youth class I was invited to was on the woman question, like this one. The first thing on the reading list was Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, chapters 2 and 9. I couldn’t put it down and read it cover to cover. The second thing was the Comintern’s “Theses on Work among Women.” When the comrades asked, I couldn’t say I disagreed with anything in the Theses, because the down-to-earth realistic approach to liberation answered questions that I had never gotten answers to.

All the talk about “liberation” and “self-determination” and “empowerment” in capitalism—we heard it then and you hear it today from “leftist” organizations—is just hot air. It’s not hard for them to defend the right to abortion, or rather, “the right to choose,” which doesn’t offend the Democrats. Their real perspective is to remain unobjectionable to petty-bourgeois public opinion. But one thing you are not likely to hear from such fake socialists is that the road to women’s emancipation leads through a real workers revolution. Such outfits are obstacles on that path.

So becoming a Marxist means learning to study history and how to analyze every new situation that arises from the point of view of the historic interests of the working class. So you study. You follow events around the world. When we can, we build actions that show by example what is needed on a large scale. For years, it seems like nothing happens, and then class battles break over our heads. Then, as in the DDR, everything happens in the space of hours and days. In 1989 we were all keenly aware that everything we had read and studied was for that moment. When the working class begins to move in the U.S., and it will, we will be there fighting for the program of communist revolution. We are fighting to build a multiracial vanguard party of the type that led the October Revolution to victory. And true to their vision, in a socialist future, women will be fully and equally integrated into society. Everyone will be able to develop to their full capacity. Society will be free of the barbaric garbage of the past—violence and bigotry against women, free of the reactionary straitjacket of the family and religion and capitalist state repression. If you want to fight for that future, join us. 


Workers Vanguard No. 1003

WV 1003

25 May 2012


For the Right of Gay Marriage...and Divorce!

Gay Rights and the Capitalist Electoral Circus

Defend the Separation of Church and State!


Student Strike Shakes Quebec

Mobilize the Power of the Working Class!

(Young Spartacus pages)


Defend Anti-NATO Protesters!



U.S. Muslim Imprisoned for Translating

Free Tarek Mehanna!


Winning the Vast Majority Through Proletarian State Power

(Quote of the Week)


Vote No on EU Austerity Referendum!

Irish Rulers Push Attacks on Working People


Lessons of Longview: An Exchange



Solidarity with Longview ILWU and Its Supporters


Presentation by a Veteran Communist

Marxism and the Fight for Women’s Liberation

(Young Spartacus pages)