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Workers Vanguard No. 1069

29 May 2015

The Marxist Approach to Women’s Liberation

Communism and the Family

(Women and Revolution pages)

(Part Two)

Part One of the article that concludes here appeared in WV No. 1068 (15 May).

In 2005, Sharon Smith, a leading figure in the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and a self-styled theorist, produced a book, Women and Socialism: Essays on Women’s Liberation (Haymarket Books), which is slated for a revised, expanded edition to appear later this year. An excerpt from this new edition, “Theorizing Women’s Oppression: Domestic Labor and Women’s Oppression,” which appeared in International Socialist Review (March 2013), outlines what the ISO says is its new approach to feminism. Smith’s “theorizing” draws heavily on the concept of unpaid domestic labor as the basis of women’s oppression, as put forth in Lise Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (Haymarket Books, 2013).

Smith begins by criticizing Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, a veritable requirement for entrée into the petty-bourgeois feminist milieu: “Marx’s and Engels’s articulations of women’s oppression often contain contradictory components—in some respects fundamentally challenging the gender status quo while in other respects merely reflecting it.” Smith makes an even stronger criticism of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, an event that liberals, feminist and otherwise, consider as at best a utopian experiment that failed and at worst the birth of a totalitarian police state.

Playing to anti-Communist prejudices, Smith contends that the Bolsheviks supported the traditional role of women by elevating motherhood to the highest social duty: “Despite the enormous achievements of the 1917 Russian Revolution—including the legalization of abortion and divorce, the rights to vote and run for political office, and an end to laws criminalizing both prostitution and gay sexuality—it did not produce a theory that challenged either natural heterosexual norms or the primacy of women’s maternal destinies.” Smith then quotes a statement by John Riddell, a leftist historian who is frequently published in the ISO’s International Socialist Review: “Communist women in that period viewed childbearing as a social responsibility and sought to assist ‘poor women who would like to experience motherhood as the highest joy’.”

By leaning on a quote taken out of context, Smith and Riddell falsify Bolshevik doctrine and practice. The Bolsheviks viewed the replacement of the family by collective means of raising children not as a distant goal in a future communist society but as a program that they were beginning to carry out in the existing Soviet Russian workers state. Alexandra Kollontai, a leader of Bolshevik work among women, advocated that socialized institutions take full responsibility for children, their physical and psychological well-being, from infancy. Speaking at the First All-Russian Congress of Women in 1918, she stated:

“Society is taking upon itself little by little all concerns which previously were parental....

“Homes for infants, crèches, nurseries, kindergartens, children’s colonies and homes, hospitals and sanitoria for curing and healing sick children, as well as children’s cafeterias, school lunches, the distribution of free books to children, the outfitting of schoolchildren with warm clothing, boots—doesn’t this show that caring for children is moving beyond the boundaries of the family, is being taken away from parents and transferred to the collective, to society?”

—“The Family and the Communist State.” Bolshevik Visions: First Phase of the Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia. Ed. William G. Rosenberg. University of Michigan Press, 1990.

In a socialist society, the nursing and teaching staff in crèches, preschools and kindergartens will consist of both males and females. In this way—and only in this way—will the age-old division of labor between men and women in raising young children be eliminated.

Kollontai’s views on the future of the family were not unusual among leading Bolsheviks. In Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936 (Cambridge University Press, 1993), Wendy Goldman, an American academic of liberal feminist sympathies, writes that Alexander Goikhbarg, the primary author of the first (1918) legal Code on Marriage, the Family, and Guardianship, “encouraged parents to reject ‘their narrow and irrational love for their children.’ In his view, state upbringing would ‘provide vastly better results than the private, individual, unscientific, and irrational approach of individually “loving” but ignorant parents’.” The Bolsheviks sought not only to liberate women from household drudgery and patriarchal domination but also to free children from the often malign effects of parental authority.

The Bolsheviks and Collective Childcare

Echoing Vogel, Smith writes:

“If the economic function of the working-class family, so crucial in reproducing labor power for the capitalist system—and at the same time forming the social root of all women’s oppression—were to be eliminated, the material basis for women’s liberation could be created. This outcome can only begin to materialize with the elimination of the capitalist system, replaced by a socialist society that socializes the domestic labor formerly assigned to women.”

Here Smith’s use of the term “domestic labor” is ambiguous. Does she mean only housework and the physical care of young children? What about the “domestic labor” involved in what is considered parenting in the U.S. today? Smith does not say. She simply ignores the question of the interpersonal relations between a mother and her children: listening to and talking to them about their problems, desires and fears; teaching them early language skills and basic hygiene, safety and other practical tasks; playing games with them; helping with their schoolwork. But without viewing such interactions as the province of the collective, Smith’s idea of socialism is entirely compatible with the preservation of the family sans housework.

Why the ambiguity on a question of such central importance? The ISO appeals to young left-liberal idealists by peddling a version of “Marxism” tailored to their views and prejudices. This organization almost never takes a position on any question that is really unpopular in the American radical-liberal milieu. Young feminist-minded women would find the idea of family life without having to do housework quite attractive. But to give up their proprietary family home and their concern for only their “own” children? The petty-bourgeois audience that Smith is addressing would be appalled at the Bolshevik program for the transformation of daily life through collective modes of living. As Kollontai wrote:

“The working woman, becoming a social fighter for the great cause of the freedom of workers, must learn to understand that old divisions need not exist. These are my children, and all my maternal concern, all my love, is for them. And these are your children, the neighbor’s, and I have no concern with them. Let them be hungrier than mine, colder than mine, I have no concern for another’s children! Now the worker-mother who is aware must learn not to make a distinction between yours and mine, but to remember that they are only our children, children of working, communist Russia.” [emphasis in original]

In 1929, the Russian Communist Party (CP) was still calling for the withering away of the family, despite the rise to political power of a conservative bureaucratic caste led by J.V. Stalin five years earlier. But as we wrote in “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 59, Spring 2006), “By 1936-37, when the Russian CP’s degeneration was complete, Stalinist doctrine pronounced this a ‘crude mistake’ and called for a ‘reconstruction of the family on a new socialist basis’.”

The Family as a Social Construct

Whereas Smith and Riddell falsely claim that the early Bolshevik regime supported the traditional role of women as primary caregivers for their young children, Goldman criticizes them for not doing so:

“The Bolsheviks attached little importance to the powerful emotional bonds between parents and their children. They assumed that most of the necessary care for children, even infants, could be relegated to paid, public employees. They tended to slight the role of the mother-child bond in infant survival and early childhood development, although even a rudimentary acquaintance with the work of the prerevolutionary foundling homes would have revealed the shockingly low survival rates for infants in institutional settings and the obstacles to healthy child development.”

This analogy is entirely invalid. The treatment and fate of young children in the impoverished foundling homes of tsarist Russia can by no means be compared to collective childcare in a revolutionary society. A workers state, especially in an economically advanced country, would have the human and material resources to provide far better care for young children in all respects than a mother in the setting of a private, family household.

Furthermore, the Bolsheviks put great emphasis on the health and well-being of mother and child. The 1918 Labor Code provided at least one paid 30-minute break every three hours to feed a baby. The maternity insurance program implemented the same year provided for a fully paid maternity leave of eight weeks, nursing breaks and factory rest facilities for women on the job, free pre- and post-natal care and cash allowances. With its networks of maternity clinics, consultation offices, feeding stations, nurseries and mother and infant homes, this program was perhaps the single most popular innovation of the Soviet regime among women.

Feminists in the U.S. and elsewhere usually denounce the proposition that “biology equals destiny” as an expression of male chauvinism. Yet Goldman makes the assumption that women, or for that matter men, who are not biologically related to infants and young children cannot develop the same protective feelings toward them as their birth mother. Parents of adopted children may well argue with this idea. But modern adoption practices in the U.S. are also based on the concept that only in a “family”—be it biological mother and father, adoptive parents or gay or transgender parents—can a child get the proper care and love. Far from being a fact of nature, the idea that raising children can succeed only in a family setting is a social construct.

When people lived as hunter-gatherers (the vast majority of the 200,000 years our species has been around), the band or tribe, not the “pair bond,” was the basic unit of human existence. One example from the not-too-distant past comes from the testimony of 17th-century Jesuit missionaries among the Naskapi hunting people of Labrador. As related by Eleanor Burke Leacock in her fine introduction to Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (International Publishers, 1972), Jesuits complained about the sexual freedom of Naskapi women, pointing out to one man that “he himself was not sure that his son, who was there present, was his son.” The Naskapi’s reply is telling: “Thou hast no sense. You French people love only your own children; but we love all the children of our tribe.”

The disappearance of classes and private property under communism would lead inevitably to the full freedom of sexual relations and to the disappearance of any concept of legitimacy or illegitimacy. Everyone would have access to the fullest benefits of society by virtue of being a citizen of the international Soviet.

The Family as Carrier of Bourgeois Ideology

Vogel and Smith implicitly limit the concept of domestic labor to physical activities. Thus Smith writes: “The day-to-day responsibilities of family still center around feeding, clothing, cleaning, and otherwise caring for its members, and that responsibility still falls mainly on women.” But raising children for their future entry into the labor market is not like raising calves and lambs for the livestock market. The reproduction of human labor power has not only a biological but also a social, i.e., ideological character. Taking a child to church or religious instruction is also a form of domestic labor, in its own way important for the maintenance of the capitalist system; likewise, taking a child to a movie that glorifies “family values,” patriotism, etc. The family is the primary institution through which bourgeois ideology in its various forms is transmitted from one generation to the next.

The ABC of Communism (1919), written by two leading Bolsheviks, Nikolai Bukharin and Evgeny Preobrazhensky, explained that the tiny minority of capitalists cannot dominate the working class solely through the use of physical force and coercion carried out by the police and military. The maintenance of the capitalist system also involves the force of ideas:

“The bourgeoisie is well aware that it cannot control the working masses by the use of force alone. It is necessary that the workers’ brains should be completely enmeshed as if in a spider’s web.... The capitalist State maintains specialists to stupefy and subdue the proletariat; it maintains bourgeois teachers and professors, the clergy, bourgeois authors and journalists.”

Bukharin and Preobrazhensky pointed to three main institutions by which bourgeois ideological domination is maintained: the educational system, the church and the press, with the mass media today also including films, television and the Internet.

In the advanced capitalist countries, where children are widely viewed as the property of their parents, the family has a different relationship to each of those institutions. From the age of five or six, children are legally required to attend school (public or private), and younger children often go to preschool. From the time that they’re toddlers, children watch television, with some parents, usually mothers, controlling which programs they watch. Unlike school teachers and TV producers, clergymen have no such automatic direct access to young children—in the U.S. and elsewhere, the parents decide whether or not their children are subjected to religious indoctrination. At least initially, such indoctrination is imposed upon children against their subjective desires. There probably isn’t a four- or five-year-old on the planet who would not rather play games with other children than attend religious services.

Consider a ten-year-old boy whose parents are practicing Catholics. He has been taken to church for as long as he can remember. He has attended Catholic school either in place of public school or supplementary to it. He has heard prayers said before meals at home and experienced multiple expressions of religious belief in everyday domestic life. Such a child may well adhere to Catholic beliefs and doctrines at least until a later stage in life when free of parental authority.

Conversely, consider a ten-year-old whose parents are irreligious. His knowledge of religion is limited to what he has learned in public school, occasional information gleaned from TV programs and movies and discussions with other children who are religious-minded. Such a child will almost certainly be irreligious. But being irreligious does not immunize a child from other, likely “progressive” forms of bourgeois ideology. A child raised by parents who subscribe to “secular humanism” will likely adhere to political liberalism in the U.S. or social democracy in West Europe and possibly intellectual elitism. There is also a current of atheistic libertarianism (associated with Ayn Rand) that glorifies self-centered individualism and “free market” capitalism. Religion is not the only form of reactionary bourgeois ideology.

The family oppresses children as well as women, and it is plenty deforming to men’s consciousness as well. This basic social truth is ignored if not denied by both liberal and “socialist” feminists. For them to recognize that the oppression of children is intrinsic to the family would mean (horror of horrors!) criticizing the socially conditioned behavior of women in their role as mothers. Professed Marxists like Vogel and Smith, who propagate the thesis that domestic labor is the basis of women’s oppression, implicitly treat mothers as only doing good for their children.

Against the Sexual Repression of Children

While most feminists would condemn the physical abuse of children, they are effectively indifferent to psychological abuse. To take one example, the children of fundamentalist Christian parents (whether Catholic or Protestant) suffer mental torture in believing that they will go to hell if they behave badly.

Far more widespread and psychologically damaging is the sexual repression of children extending well into adolescence. Capitalist society is geared to penalize the expression of sexuality in children from birth. Even the most enlightened parents cannot shield children from the anti-sex, moralistic ideology that pervades American society—everywhere from the pink- and blue-themed aisles at Toys “R” Us and the ban on public nudity to the demonization of any sexual activity by children, including masturbation. As infants’ and toddlers’ primary caregivers, mothers more than fathers begin the process of that sexual repression, teaching children to feel shame about their bodies and to suppress their natural curiosity.

August Bebel, a principal leader of German Social Democracy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, comes off as a radical sexual libertarian compared to today’s “socialist feminists.” In Woman Under Socialism (1879), he insisted:

The satisfaction of the sexual instinct is as much a private concern as the satisfaction of any other natural instinct. None is therefor accountable to others, and no unsolicited judge may interfere.... The simple circumstance that all bashful prudery and affectation of secrecy regarding natural matters will have vanished is a guarantee of a more natural intercourse of the sexes than that which prevails to-day.” [emphasis in original]

One can read hundreds of pages written by today’s “socialist feminists” without finding any argument that a socialist society will enable everyone to better fulfill their sexual needs and desires.

The Communist Future

Under communism, people will be genuinely and truly free to shape and reshape their interpersonal relations. Of course, this freedom is not absolute. Humanity cannot transcend its biological makeup and relation to the natural environment. Communist man and woman, too, will grow old and die. Neither can mankind sweep the slate totally clean and build society anew. Communist humanity will inherit for good and ill the accumulated cultural heritage of our species. We cannot know the sexual practices of communist society because these will be determined in the future. Any projection, much less prescription, would carry the imprint of attitudes, values and prejudices shaped by a repressive class society.

A fundamental difference between Marxists and feminists, whether liberal or professed socialist, is that our ultimate goal is not gender equality as such but rather the progressive development of the human species as a whole. The communal raising of children under conditions of material abundance and cultural richness will produce human beings whose mental capacities as well as psychological well-being will be vastly superior to people in this impoverished, oppressive and class-divided society. In a 1932 speech on the Russian Revolution, “In Defence of October” (Fourth International, July-August 1947), Leon Trotsky said:

“It is true that humanity has more than once brought forth giants of thought and action, who tower over their contemporaries like summits in a chain of mountains. The human race has a right to be proud of its Aristotle, Shakespeare, Darwin, Beethoven, Goethe, Marx, Edison, and Lenin. But why are they so rare? Above all, because almost without exception, they came out of the upper and middle classes. Apart from rare exceptions, the sparks of genius in the suppressed depths of the people are choked before they can burst into flame. But also because the processes of creating, developing and educating a human being have been and remain essentially a matter of chance, not illuminated by theory and practice, not subjected to consciousness and will....

“Once he has done with the anarchic forces of his own society man will set to work on himself, in the pestle and the retort of the chemist. For the first time mankind will regard itself as raw material, or at best as a physical and psychic semi-finished product. Socialism will mean a leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom in this sense also, that the man of today, with all his contradictions and lack of harmony, will open the road for a new and happier race.”


Workers Vanguard No. 1069

WV 1069

29 May 2015


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