On Friday, 8th March, women across the globe are striking, marching, protesting and celebrating International Women's Day in unprecedented numbers. In a welcome development, they will be accompanied by more men than in the past who see the need to fight the special oppression of women.
Not all those who mark this special day will know its historical origin in the strikes, struggles and conferences of working and socialist women at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. It is also the day to honour the lives of women pioneers and socialists. We remember Eleanor Marx - daughter of the great socialist theoretician and fighter, Karl Marx – who worked tirelessly to build the strength of the workers' movement - male and female. We honour the heroic revolutionary, Rosa Luxembourg, brutally murdered a century ago this year.
Chosen by socialists in 1910, International Women's Day has been a day for women workers to strike and demand a better deal. It was this day in Petrograd, 1917, that women textile workers left their machines to march to the Tsar's palace demanding food for their children and an end to the devastating war. When workers from the neighbouring factories downed tools in response to their appeal, the revolution became unstoppable. When the Bolsheviks took power nine months later, among their first decrees were sweeping reforms to change the lives of women.
The promise of 'A New Life' for working women in the cities and in the countryside - on the basis of state ownership of land and industry, along with truly democratic planning - was broken by Stalin's counter-revolution. They toiled in the factories and the fields and toiled in the home, bringing up the next generation of workers.
Women and revolution
The oppression of women has been an endemic feature of all class societies. It will not be ended until the prerequisites for a classless society are firmly established through the elimination of capitalism.
Now, in the 21st century, international movements have shown that the conditions exist for a workers' revolution to leap from country to country in the industrialised world as well as in the still developing ex-colonial countries. To achieve this, a party is vitally needed that stands for workers' democracy and socialism on the basis of state ownership of land, industry and finance and one that can harness the might of the working class internationally.
More than ten years after the financial crisis of 2007-8, there has been no real recovery in the world economy. In most countries growth is sluggish at best and new generations of workers are on the scrap heap before they can begin to make a life for themselves. Personal debt and government debts have never been higher. Living standards plummet, or at best stagnate, even in the most prosperous of countries.
In Europe and the US, policies of austerity have hit women hardest. Many of the hard-won steps forward in the lives of working women are being reversed. The welfare services on which they depend and in which they work are being cut to the bone, with the care of the young, the sick and the aged falling mainly on their shoulders. They are forced to take low-paid, insecure jobs or claim state assistance which is also being cut to the bone through austerity. Women’s oppression bears down the heaviest on working class and poor women. They find themselves less able to leave an unhappy or a violent relationship for lack of an independent income or available alternative housing.
While the rich get richer, the overwhelming majority of the world’s population live in what seems like unending poverty. A handful of billionaires own as much wealth as the 3.6 billion poorest half the world’s population. Even the capitalist class and its advisers are wary of the tsunami of revolt that could be already in the making.
In France, there has been an eruption of anger against the government of the one-time banker, Emmanuel Macron. A 'middle layer' in society including professionals and small business people along with workers who live in ‘peripheral’ small towns and villages have seen their living standards plummet.
The Gilets Jaunes protests are marked by the substantial participation of women – probably about 50%. The entry of the organised working class, with sustained strike action, into this very determined ‘uprising’ would give it the necessary strength to overthrow not just the government but the bosses' rule in one of the major capitalist powers in the world, and the transformation of society along socialist lines, if led by a mass party of the working class with a Marxist leadership. This would indeed set the prairie fire ablaze!
In the absence of major struggles on the political or industrial plane internationally, movements have nevertheless taken place on important issues like the environment, abortion rights, violence against women, anti-racism, caste discrimination, LGBTQ rights etc. which for the most part are currently not linked to the broader labour movement.
These movements reflect an important radicalisation by a new generation of young people in particular, and the potential for the development of an anti-capitalist consciousness. However, it is necessary for socialist feminists to politically challenge those pro-capitalist feminist ideas present in women’s movements globally which believe that the oppression of women can be resolved within capitalist society. To the ideas which prioritise sectional struggles by oppressed groups, we counterpose the vital importance of the centrality of a united struggle by the working class and poor to end oppression.
Universities are ideology factories that churn out obfuscation and hostility to socialism on behalf of capitalism. A tendency to prioritise “identity” over class abounds and serves to divide rather than unite the forces ranged against the system.
As socialist feminists, we recognise that the real liberation of women is entirely linked to the need to get rid of capitalism - which, based on inequalities of power and wealth sustains and perpetuates women’s oppression. We base ourselves on the working class as the key force in society to bring about real and lasting change
Feminism and class struggle
The new wave of mass movements against women’s oppression is to be welcomed by all socialists. However, we must fight for these movements to really enhance women’s struggle against the specific oppression they face in capitalist society. With the spread of the #MeToo phenomenon world-wide - from the US through Europe and recently to China - there has never been more awareness of and opposition to the horrors for women of sexual harassment and rape. There has been an upturn in mass protests by women (and men) on this issue and some of the myriad of other issues that blight the lives of half the world's population.
There is no end to the horrific revelations about sexual harassment at the ‘top’ of society, particularly in the worlds of entertainment and politics These resonated powerfully throughout the world because of how endemic sexual harassment and violence also is amongst working and poor women. Comparatively, there is still little or no publicity for the millions upon millions of women who daily face sexual abuse and rape - at work in the fields, in the markets and in the factories across the world.
Seventy one per cent of the 40.3 million people living in some form of modern slavery are women and girls. An additional 15.4 million people are estimated to be living in forced marriages. The overwhelming majority of the world’s refugees and of the world’s homeless are also women and children. In many countries around the globe abortion is illegal and rape within marriage is not recognised as a crime.
On the other hand, in many countries a working-class fight back of one kind or another is gaining momentum. In Scotland we saw 8,000 council workers who were mostly women strike for equal pay and win, with the support of other male colleagues taking illegal strike action. There have been protests at Walmart, McDonalds and Amazon issues of women’s rights. The Google workers’ global walkout showed how the potential anger on this issue to be channelled into workers’ action.
There have been mass strikes of women garment-workers in Bangladesh for a living wage and walkouts of women on the tea plantations in Sri Lanka for 1,000 rupees a day (just US$ 5.5). There have been mass protests against discrimination in India, against femicide in Argentina, Brazil and Italy. We have seen women across the world involved in numerous protests on housing, abortion rights and against austerity. In Ireland, nurses and midwives have been on strike in a struggle over pay and conditions.
There is a myriad of ways in which women are denied freedom of choice in their daily lives. It is incumbent on socialists to explain their origin and to be fully involved in campaigns to achieve real advances for working women.
We unstintingly fight for a society which is free of all forms of oppression and exploitation on the grounds of gender, race or sexual orientation. This means conducting a tireless struggle for a socialist society where private property is replaced by public ownership and control over a planned economy is in the hands of democratically elected representatives of working and poor people.
It should be the right of all women to be able to choose when and if to have children. However, in societies dominated by landlordism and capitalism, they are prevented by totally inadequate resources as well as all kinds of religious and ‘cultural’ prejudices.
While education, up-bringing and religion can play a big role in perpetuating stereotypes and encouraging the oppression and harassment of women, socialists see the roots of these attitudes in the division of society into classes. For slave-owners, feudal lords and capitalists the family has been a vital construct for transmitting their property and wealth from one generation to another. Under their rule the male slaves, vassals and workers are a useful ‘transition belt’, as the revolutionary Leon Trotsky described it, for the idea of discipline. Obedience to the male in the household trains women and children to comply with orders from above.
The role of women, as far as the owners of industry and land are concerned, apart from providing cheap labour in the factories or on the land, has been to provide unpaid labour in the production and care of the next generation of workers. Within the family, they are also expected to look after those who can no longer work through illness or old age. Over the years, reforms that alleviate the burdens on women have been won but not without a fight and sometimes the threat of a fight.
After the Second World War, education, health and welfare provisions in the US and Europe – especially France and Britain - were the product of a huge radicalisation, especially amongst returning soldiers, and the refusal to go back to how life had been before. The reforms were aimed at preventing revolution that threatened the very survival of the bosses’ rotten capitalist system. In former colonial countries like Sri Lanka and Malaysia it was the fear of revolt from those who had fought for independence and wanted to go further in attacking the new comprodore capitalist class. Reforms were introduced in order to stave off revolution and socialism.
National health services and public education systems are not just a nice measure implemented by enlightened governments. They are a way of ensuring that the bosses in industry have a constant supply of labour which is healthy and also skilled in order to maintain their profit-driven system.
However, in many ex-colonial countries, only a minimal health service exists. Across the world millions of women and children die of preventable illnesses and during pregnancy and childbirth.
Over the years in many developed capitalist economies, public services which have eased the burden of working class women in relation to child care and other ‘domestic’ responsibilities. Now, the clock is being turned back. Even the basic provisions of state health and education systems are under threat in both developed and underdeveloped economies.
In Europe and the US, especially since the 2008 crisis of the bosses’ system, these services have been undermined by austerity policies. Not only are working class women being made to pay for the crisis which is not of their making in terms of reverses in social services and health provision; but it is predominantly women who work in these sectors and they are the ones whose jobs – part-time and full-time – are cut, forcing them back into the home on much reduced incomes.
Working class and poor women are, as always, to the fore in movements against these reverses. It is they who suffer most from the lack of decent homes to raise their families. It is also women who are often the most vociferous against cuts to the health service, old people's homes and nurseries. They demand shelter for those who seek refuge from violence in the home. It is literally a matter of life and death.
Socialists who are fighting for a different, class-free world cannot say “Hold on!”. In the North of England, a campaign against cuts to domestic violence services called 'Women's Lives Matter' quite rightly has the slogan: ‘Women cannot wait!’ and demands “No cuts!”. Socialists are fighting against austerity as well as violence against women and the sexist attitudes and behaviour that capitalism perpetuates throughout society.
But, to achieve lasting reforms, all of these issues require the active involvement of workers and their organisations – above all the trade unions. We saw how, in the past, socialists fought for and won the support of trade unions for campaigns against domestic violence and for shelter and assistance for all those affected by it. Today, drastic cuts in services, dictated by bosses’ governments, have been carried out by local authorities of all colours. A trade union socialist fight-back is vital!
Action on International Women's Day
Members of our International - the CWI - have succeeded in reviving the tradition of striking on 8 March. In the Spanish state last year, at the initiative of the Sindicato de Estudiantes and Libras y Combativas, the socialist feminist platform of the CWI in Spain, over two million students and workers walked out to protest against the horrific levels of violence against women accepted by both church and (Francoist) state. (Again, on 14 November last year, more than 1.5 million students participated in strikes and demonstrations against sexism in schools and in the legal system.) This year, with even more determination, they will be striking and demonstrating on March 8th.
In Belgium also there will be walkouts from work and tens of thousands of women in Argentina and Italy will be stopping work and demonstrating under the slogan 'Non Una di Meno'. Tens of thousands of women in Argentina and Italy, will be stopping work and demonstrating under the slogan 'Non Una di Meno'. Likewise in Brazil against the newly elected, openly sexist Bolsonaro, who turns his back on the vile murders of women, gay and trans campaigners and aims to reverse hard-won and vitally needed abortion rights.
In the US, International Women’s Day marches will no doubt be fuelled by Donald Trump’s world-renowned misogyny. The appointment of Brett Kavanaugh as a supreme court judge created outrage not only because of his notorious sexual predatory but because of his attacks on workers and his known intention of reversing advances in abortion rights made through hard-fought campaigns.
There will be walkouts in Southern Ireland where one year ago the campaign to repeal the law forbidding abortion was nearing its historic victory which led to the legal right of all women to a termination during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The pressure is now on for that same right to be available in the North. In Poland the struggle continues to reverse swingeing cuts in abortion rights and in Norway, where they are also now threatened, protests will no doubt take place this Friday.
In the coming days, socialistworld will carry reports of this year’s action and demonstrations around the world, celebrating the International women’s day and stepping up the fight for international socialism.
For an in-depth Marxist analysis of women in today’s world, and how to fight for lasting change, read the book ‘It doesn’t have to be like this’ written by Christine Thomas. Order from leftbooks.co.uk