Workers Vanguard No. 910

14 March 2008


“The Fight for Women’s Liberation”

Revolutionary Marxists at December 1969 SDS Conference

(Young Spartacus pages)

In honor of International Women’s Day (March 8), we reprint below a position paper first presented at the December 1969 New Haven conference of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) by the Revolutionary Marxist Caucus (RMC), forerunner of today’s Spartacus Youth Clubs. This is a historic document of the Spartacist League, part of our struggle to bring the materialist, Marxist analysis of the nature of women’s oppression to the New Left in the period of the early growth of the radical women’s liberation movement. We put forward the understanding that the core institution of women’s oppression, the family, arose with private property (see The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State by Friedrich Engels). While women’s oppression is distinct from and predates the oppression of the working class, it can only be ended through socialist revolution. This analysis stands against both “lifestyle liberationist” feminists who view gender as the main division in society and Stalinists (Maoist and otherwise) who hold the position that the family can be “a unit for fighting the ruling class” (as the Worker-Student Alliance [WSA] caucus in SDS argued).

SDS was originally the youth group of the Cold War, anti-Soviet “socialists” of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID). SDS moved leftward under the impact of events, particularly the struggle of the civil rights movement against Jim Crow segregation in the South and, later, the struggles against the Vietnam War. In 1962, SDS’s Port Huron Statement toned down the overt anti-Communism that was the stock in trade of the LID social democrats, and in retribution SDS leaders were locked out of their offices. By the end of 1965, SDS had dropped its anti-Communist exclusion clause and split from the LID entirely. It grew rapidly, drawing in tens of thousands of young activists at its peak.

In the summer of 1969, SDS underwent a split. As part of an orientation toward revolutionary regroupment, the RMC, supporters of the Trotskyist program of the Spartacist League, critically supported the wing led by Progressive Labor (PL) and its WSA caucus, which put forward a crudely pro-working-class orientation as against the generally Maoist National Collective. PL itself had been formed from a left split from the extremely reformist Communist Party in the direction of Maoism.

The context of widespread leftward movement, fueled not least by opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft, and the politically open character of SDS provided an arena for revolutionary Marxists to struggle for our program. The RMC sought to take full advantage of this necessarily time-limited situation in winning young would-be revolutionaries to Marxism. To this end, we put forward position papers and resolutions arguing for the program of revolutionary proletarian internationalism. We fought for Marxism as a program for the liberation of all of humanity, especially highlighting the need for a materialist program to confront the oppression of women and blacks (see also “Racial Oppression and Working-Class Politics,” WV No. 897, 31 August 2007).

This position paper also mentions in passing the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) and Independent Socialist Clubs (ISC). The former was the youth organization of the Socialist Workers Party, a once Trotskyist organization by then degenerated into reformism—as exemplified by its leading role in the class-collaborationist National Peace Action Coalition. The Coalition’s purpose was to appeal to liberal Democratic Party politicians who sought to extricate American imperialism from the losing colonial war in Vietnam and to head off a challenge to the capitalist order at home. The ISC were a left split from the Cold Warriors of the Socialist Party who purveyed the same anti-Sovietism with different trappings. Today, readers will recognize them as the still rabidly anti-Communist and helplessly liberal International Socialist Organization.

* * *

I. SDS and Women’s Liberation

SDS needs a clear, accurate class analysis of the special oppression of women and a Marxist program for women’s liberation. No other radical youth group has yet undertaken this task. The YSA substitutes enthusiastic tail-ending for program; the ISC in their Statement of Principles patronizingly caters to the separatist mood by telling women that socialist revolution won’t solve their problems automatically—as if other sorts of oppression would disappear without the intervention of consciousness!

The existing women’s liberation movement, both liberal and radical, seems to see sex as the basic “class division” in society. This low level of theoretical development means an opportunity for Marxists to intervene with a working-class line. However, we will render our intervention useless if we cling to an oversimplified analysis that the only form of oppression is class oppression and confine our interest to the economic superexploitation of women workers.

The class question is the decisive issue in class society. However, other additional types of oppression do exist as well
—e.g., racial oppression, national oppression, women’s oppression. To deny that Marxist revolutionaries must concern themselves with these issues is sectarian and blatantly anti-Leninist. It is vital that revolutionaries participate in these struggles. The basis of such participation must be the realization that the class question is decisive and thus any movement which fails to identify itself with the struggle of the working class against the capitalist class is doomed to be beset by utopianism, crackpotism, liberal illusions and—ultimately—irrelevance.

The SDS resolution (which was sponsored by the WSA caucus and opposed by us) passed by our June convention (after the walk-out of the RYM [Revolutionary Youth Movement] splitters) did not provide a correct analysis or program. This failure was primarily due to an anti-historical, unMarxist method which resulted in an entirely incorrect position on the family.

II. Oppression and the Family

The June WSA resolution included the following statement: “The family does not have to be primarily reactionary. We should attempt to attack the bourgeois aspect and make the family a unit for fighting the ruling class.”

This statement is flatly wrong. It ignores, in a crude anti-theoretical manner, the entire thrust of the Marxian critique of the family in order to accept as potentially revolutionary an institution which is inherently reactionary. The family can no more become a unit for fighting capitalism than can racial segregation, which is also a bourgeois institution. Both of these socio-economic institutions are oppressive and help maintain the capitalist system. Both are tools by which the ruling class maintains and strengthens false consciousness in the working class.

As a pro-working-class student organization, SDS must provide a Marxian class analysis of the social oppression of women. The primary source document for this analysis is The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, in which Frederick Engels traces the history of the increasing oppression of women through the various stages of economic development of society, showing that the appearance of private property brought with it the necessity of transferring this property through inheritance. From this flows the need to trace descent; and since the male, in the primitive division of labor, had come to be the property-owner, he is therefore given the right to exclusive sexual access to the bearer of his children. Hence, the institution of marriage emerges.

Following the method of Engels, examining the oppression of women in class society and the nature of class society itself, we must seek its roots in the primitive division of labor, which resulted in the social division of man and woman, placing the latter in a subordinate position, as class society was born. Subsequently the class divisions transcended the sexual division, and class became the dominant reality of society. To put it another way, Mrs. Rockefeller and her maid both suffer in varying degree from the pervasive oppression of females and have some issues in common, but the maid has more in common with her own husband than with Mrs. Rockefeller.

Sexual divisions continue to be socially enforced, since they bolster the capitalist system. The social inferiority of women is maintained by the entire structure of class society, including its ideologies. Many women internalize and come to believe the false ideas of class culture, and actually feel themselves to be inferior. Women today tend to be “under-achievers”; feeling rightly that there is not much future for them, they waste their talents and energies on trivialities, decide to live through their families or succumb to despair. It is our task to offer to these women a worthwhile goal: their own liberation, which cannot be a personal “self-liberation” but requires a socialist revolution and the withering away of the family. As communist revolutionaries, further, these women will lead incomparably richer lives. They will come to understand their own oppression and the origins, the nature and the future of the family. As stated by Engels:

“We are now approaching a social revolution in which the economic foundations of monogamy as they have existed will disappear just as surely as those of its complement, prostitution. Monogamy arose from the concentration of considerable wealth in the hands of a single individual, a man, and from the need to bequeath this wealth to the children of that man and no other.

“For this purpose the monogamy of the woman was required, not that of the man. But by transforming by far the greater portion, at any rate, of permanent, inheritable wealth, the means of production, into social property, the coming social revolution will reduce to a minimum all this anxiety about bequeathing and inheriting.... The position of men will be very much altered, but the position of women, of all women, also undergoes significant change. With the transfer of the means of production into common ownership, the single family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of the children becomes a public affair; society looks after all children alike whether or not they are, in bourgeois legal jargon, legitimate.”

This is far from advocating that straw man of the bosses’ press, that under communism men and women will live in separate barracks and all children will be brought up in a state orphanage. We are rather advocating the replacement of marriage as a compulsory economic unit with voluntary forms better suited to people’s physical and emotional needs. Since the institution of the family is an integral part of the capitalist system, the struggle for women’s liberation is inseparable from the struggle for a socialist revolution.

III. The Family and the Class

The WSA resolution states: “With the rise of capitalism and modern industry, the economic foundation on which the traditional family was based was destroyed. Women were taken out of the home and put into the factory. But the special exploitation of women, who became a cheap reserve labor force, continued. To justify the double exploitation of women workers, the ruling class fostered the ideology of male chauvinism.”

To set the record straight, at the very beginning of the industrial revolution women and children formed the bulk of the industrial proletariat. The reasons for this are well established. Women and children were cheap, unskilled, docile labor used by the rising capitalists to batter down the wages of men (usually more highly paid) and to destroy the craft industries employing (relatively) highly paid male artisans. To quote Marx in Capital:

“The value of labor power was determined not only by the labor-time necessary to maintain the individual adult laborer, but also by that necessary to maintain his family. Machinery, by throwing every member of the family into the labor market, spreads the value of man’s labor-power over his whole family. It thus depreciates his labor power.”

Consequently, workers with large families were often given preference by the early capitalists who, as a matter of fact, often compelled the worker to require his entire family to work in his factory or lose his job.

The bourgeoisie of this period actually devised ideological apologia for female and child labor (see Jurgen Kuczynski, The Rise of the Working Class, Chapter 2, “The Working Class Emerges”). The limitation of female and child labor (by, e.g., the Factory Acts in Britain) represented concessions wrested by the working class from capital. The progressive withdrawal of this super-exploited labor from the factory system compelled the capitalists to employ machinery in their stead if they wished to remain in business.

The destruction of the traditional family by employing women and children in production creates the possibility of founding the relationship between the sexes on a new economic basis. But, the spontaneous way this employment developed with the rise of capital was, to quote Marx, “a pestiferous source of corruption and slavery” which the advanced sections of the working class fought. The kernel of this contradiction is that under capitalism the family remains—because there is no other socio-economic institution to replace it.

An Institution of Indoctrination

The bourgeoisie and its theorists tinkered with the old institutions in order to fit them better into the new industrial capitalism. In the age of disintegrating feudalism, before the capitalists had accumulated much experience in running their own system, some of them even toyed with very radical ideas regarding the state, family and religion. They soon learned, however, that whether they themselves liked conventional family life or not, or whether they believed in God or not, the institutions of religion and the family were indispensable for inculcating the required docility, submissiveness, respect for authority and superstition in the working class. Without religion and the family the workers would be far more likely to become troublesome. For this reason the bourgeoisie learned to pay public obeisance to the ideals of religion and the family whether they personally believed in them or not. When economically necessary, the capitalist class will tolerate and even encourage female and child labor—but without allowing the development of institutions to replace the family. The working woman is not really freed from her role as household slave by obtaining work outside the home; she merely has one responsibility added to another.

Although individual families were destroyed—and are being destroyed—by capitalism, the family as an institution was not hurt, as it rises or falls with the existence of private property. When economic considerations permitted, the ruling class periodically initiated campaigns, through the media and the churches, to get women back into the home. This tendency reached a peak of brutal chauvinism and cynical barbarism with the Nazi slogan, “Kinder, Küche, Kirche,” which portrays the woman deluded by religion and as breeder, babysitter and cook. “The family that prays together stays together”: both religion and the family are bourgeois institutions of false consciousness.

Functions of the Family

Women and children left the process of production, not chiefly because the capitalists feared for the nuclear family and forced them out but in large part because under capitalism no substitute for the family is available. The domestic labor performed by the housewife has no exchange value, and the family is socially necessary to maintain the working class. The necessity of the bourgeoisie to concentrate and transfer its wealth via inheritance makes the family an ideological necessity for capitalism. Also, the struggle by the working class to limit the exploitation of women and children necessarily caused production to become more capital-intensive, hence ultimately raising the standard of living of the entire working class while in the long run diminishing the amount of labor needed in production.

In the present period, a period of capitalism in decay, there simply are not enough jobs to go around. Women, because of the domestic role they of necessity (under capitalism) must more or less fulfill, are on the fringes of the reserve army of the working class. When they are needed in production (such as World War II) the capitalists have no compunctions about the sanctity of hearth and home, and will gladly hire them to do “men’s” work and will just as gladly drop them from production when they are no longer needed. (An unemployed male ex-soldiery would be a far greater threat to the bourgeois order than the more docile women unemployed workers.)

The hollow satisfactions of male supremacy within the home oppress both the men and the women and encourage false consciousness (male chauvinism). By way of comparison, segregation is similarly a tool of oppression (the hollow satisfactions of white supremacy in the U.S. encourage whites to oppress blacks) and false consciousness (racism). The working man learns to direct his anger and frustrations against his wife, rather than against the bosses. He is told that he is the boss in his own home (“a man’s home is his castle”). Thus, the family as an economic and social institution is a shackle on the consciousness of the men workers as well as that of women.

The Family in Non-Capitalist States

The family serves its reactionary function not only in capitalist societies but also in the bureaucratically-deformed workers’ states—i.e., Russia, China, and those other nations which have abolished the material basis of the family—private property—but which still require the family as a socio-cultural institution in order to suppress the consciousness of the masses, rendering them subservient to the parasitic bureaucracies headed by Brezhnev & Co., Mao, etc.

For example, the initial effect of the Chinese revolution—which in its need to fight imperialism found itself completing the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution and establishing the property relations of a workers’ state—was the unleashing of an immensely progressive social force. The feudal oppression of women was abolished. But in the absence of workers’ democracy in China, policy is determined by the whim of the Maoist bureaucracy. Hence, the ambivalent attitude toward the family: thus the bureaucracy opposed birth control during the Great Leap Forward; today they encourage long periods of celibacy for the Chinese youth.

The survival of most features of bourgeois family life within the non-capitalist world simultaneously reveals something about both the family and the nature of these societies. The bourgeois family is still the family, similar in decisive respects to the family in non-capitalist but not classless (e.g., feudal and slave) societies. The family unit represents a division of social labor far older than capitalism, dating back to the first “class” division of labor, that between man and woman. As such, the family will require more than the abolition of capitalism (in and of itself) before it is superseded entirely by a freer system of relations between men and women, parents and children. Needless to say, the overthrow of the capitalists and their state by the regime of workers’ power is absolutely essential to the liberation of individuals from the narrowness, authoritarianism and sexual inequality inherent in family life. But we should recognize that this task will not be fully accomplished until the dictatorship of the proletariat has fulfilled its historic mission: until class distinctions and their vestiges have been eradicated from society, i.e., mankind has reached the stage of classless society, communism. The same holds true for other features of class societies in general—aspects not simply peculiar to capitalism, such as the need for a state power over society, the existence of a certain amount of religious superstition, what Marx called “the idiocy of rural life,” etc.

No society could today be entirely free of the dark heritage of the family with its sexual oppression and shut-in, stultifying life for the children. What is most repugnant to any revolutionist about family life in the deformed workers’ states, however, is the fact that the political elite ruling these societies presents the survival of an archaic and reactionary institution as a great achievement in building socialism! The Bolsheviks in Lenin’s time never glorified the family as an instrument—real or potential—for revolutionary socialist struggle and development. As far as the miserably insufficient level of Russian economy and culture permitted, they passed laws and created institutions designed to free Soviet citizens, particularly the women and children, from the oppressive and stultifying influence of the family. All this was of course reversed with the advent of Stalin’s bureaucratic regime, which continues on to this day. After wiping out the left wing of the Communist Party and stripping the Soviets of power, the Stalinized regime proceeded to make divorce more difficult, illegalized abortion, enhanced parental authority, and worst of all called this adaptation to brutal barefoot Russian medievalism—socialism! For reasons which Stalinists find difficult to explain, the Soviet Great Leap Backward in policy regarding women and the family was led by the same parasitic gang who murdered the Old Bolsheviks of all viewpoints, throttled the Spanish revolution and let Hitler take power without firing a shot. Just as Stalin was willing to use Great Russian chauvinism against national minorities, praise the Orthodox Church and foster anti-Semitism, so he found that the backward Russian family created a base for his bureaucratic and authoritarian aims. Even where private property no longer exists, the institution of the family serves—at best—to hinder the development of a socialist society. At worst it provides a base of support in the culture for the parasitic bureaucrats who barter away the gains of the revolution. SDS cannot wish away the social and cultural significance of the family by words about making it “a unit for fighting the ruling class.” Reactionary institutions serve reactionary ends.

IV. The Working Woman

The economic aspects of the inferior position of women in our society provide the most immediate benefits to capitalism. Whenever capital needs to draw women out into the labor force, it has been able to use the ideology of male superiority to justify the super-exploitation of women workers—that is, women being paid less for doing the same work as the men. After all, “a woman’s place is in the home,” “a man has the responsibility of supporting a family, a woman only works because she wants to.”

The assumption is that the woman’s main role is that of the tender mother; hence, she is forced to take care of her children, even if they are unwanted, even when she is divorced. Any woman who wants more out of life is termed “unnatural” or “unfit.” The lie is pushed that women are fit only for domestic chores and that therefore their labor is not worth as much as the labor of men.

Women make up one third of the American labor force, but the wages of the full-time working woman average only 60% of those of the average male working full-time. The non-white working woman, suffering under a double load of exploitation and oppression, must indeed be the most victimized category in American capitalist society. In itself, the lower average income of women workers roughly indicates the degree of their oppression, not their super-exploitation relative to working men. (They might—and do—take home less money because they are concentrated in less productive jobs.) But women, even more than other oppressed groups such as Black male workers, frequently receive less for work identical to that performed by more highly paid men. In addition to suffering oppression and discrimination, working women are super-exploited in the literal and technical sense of the term.

Militancy or Passivity?

In the months ahead, many SDS members expect to have jobs, either full-time or temporary, in factories, on campus, in offices and hospitals, wherever labor struggles are going on. Those of us involved in assisting striking unions will be able to establish contacts with workers on the picket lines. As socialists, we must support the working class in its struggles and seek to raise consciousness, pointing out that male chauvinism divides the workers, that lower wages for women means lower wages for everyone. In Britain, where unions have calculated that wages would increase 11% if women received the same pay as men, equal pay for equal work has become a major union demand. In the U.S., a related process of awakening is going on.

Male chauvinism has made many women workers passive in accepting their lower wages and generally poorer working conditions. Many women are convinced that it isn’t “ladylike” or “feminine” to be really militant, that political activity is only for men, that the picket line is too dangerous a place for women. These attitudes serve the bosses and must be fought. Radicals should encourage militancy among women workers and relate women’s oppression to the oppression and alienation that all workers experience under capitalism. Thus, women’s liberation has an important role to play in the struggles of the working class. Further, situations sometimes arise where the women—because they are more oppressed by poor working conditions, low wages and speed-up—are more militant than the men. Women are not pale, fragile, helpless creatures; as workers engaged in industrial production, they can wield workers’ power!

V. Male Chauvinism in the Student Movement

The student movement is infected with male chauvinism, a bourgeois ideology, as is the rest of society under capitalism. Long ago most of us faced up to our own deeply imbedded racist attitudes and began to conquer them. Now we must root out our male chauvinism as carefully. Here we are dealing with the social and psychological forms of discrimination rather than the economic aspects of male chauvinism. We must recognize also that no one—including our women members—is automatically exempt from male chauvinist attitudes. We must, by scrupulous attention to the content of a pro-women’s liberation position, prevent the subject from becoming a bandwagon which intimidates free political debate in SDS the way that some Black hustlers have sought to racist-bait other radicals into accepting their positions as gospel.

Male chauvinism—perhaps a misleading term since it tends to obscure the fact that women’s male chauvinist attitudes can oppress them or other women—has hurt the radical movement. Many potentially radical women are unwilling to join an organization which they believe is indifferent to women’s oppression. It is a fact that a good number of the ersatz, crackpot and separatist tendencies in the existing women’s liberation groups are a reaction to the male chauvinism in the student movement. These groups blur over class lines and stress “individual liberation” and other utopian schemes.

Many of the women who do enter radical politics tend to play supportive roles and are not encouraged to develop politically or exercise leadership. SDS must rid itself of male chauvinism and utilize the full talents of all its members.

VI. SDS and Special Groups

It is not enough to fight individual aspects of women’s oppression within the labor movement and in SDS. Separate women’s liberation groups offer an opportunity to tie together all aspects of women’s oppression in the minds of their members, and hence to suggest a single solution—which is socialism. As Marxists, we recognize that special oppression calls for special defensive and combative organizations of the oppressed. For this reason, SDS should give critical support (determined by program) to Black groups which fight the special oppression of Black people; similarly SDS should support women’s groups which fight on the basis of a Marxist program for the special needs of women.

Armed with a more developed political and economic analysis of society, SDS members should be able to win the more serious groups away from petty-bourgeois amateur therapy sessions, liberalism, female separatism and vicarious anti-male terrorism, to a working-class perspective. Women’s liberation groups are a good arena for winning militant women over to SDS and to socialism.

VII. Program for Women’s Liberation

When SDS members make a political entry into a special group such as a women’s liberation group, they should be armed with a program that raises consciousness by relating specific felt needs to the broader struggle for socialism. We carry through this program by raising a series of transitional demands—that is, demands which flow from the specific struggle but which lead the struggle to a higher level of militancy and political sophistication.

We move that SDS accept the following program for struggle and agitate around the following demands:

For the abolition of family restrictions:

1. Abolition of abortion laws; each woman must be free to make her own decisions.

2. Free abortions, as part of demand for free quality medical care for everybody, so poor women will have the same freedom of choice as middle-class women.

3. Freely available birth control devices and information.

4. Free full-time child-care facilities for all children, the expenses to be borne by the employer or the state. Free pre-natal, maternity and post-natal care with no loss in pay for time off.

5. Establishment of free voluntary cafeterias in the factories and other places of work.

6. Divorce at the request of either partner. Abolition of alimony. Expenses for children to be paid by the state.

7. Lower the legal age of adulthood to 16. State stipend for schooling or training for any child who wishes to leave home. Free education for all children, with housing, food and stipend. No loco parentis. Student-teacher-worker control of all schools and colleges.

To fight the super-exploitation of women workers:

8. Full and equal pay for equal work.

9. Equal work: equal access to all job categories. Shorter work week with no loss in pay (“30 for 40”) to eliminate unemployment at the capitalists’ expense.

To fight male chauvinism:

10. An end to all forms of discrimination—legal, political, social and cultural.

SDS should seek the creation of a non-exclusionist class-conscious women’s liberation organization in which SDS members can participate and struggle on the basis of the above program. Toward this end, we should direct interested SDS members to seek to initiate, along with other radical women, a nationally-oriented women’s liberation publication.