1. Women’s emancipation in the revolutionary thought of the classics of scientific socialism
According to the classics of scientific socialism, the condition of women in human society, after the end of primitive polygamy and polyandry and the formation of the monogamous family, has been dominated for many centuries by a fundamental law: the domination of men over women.
In the modern epoch this condition of male domination and female oppression has been partially changed, but remains fundamentally intact connected with the existence of private property, and it is still in effect in all areas of human existence: the sexual and family area, the economic, social and political one.
Therefore, the masterful analysis made by Friedrich Engels in his work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) remains relevant. Already in its title it shows the profound link among these three aspects:
“In the old communistic household, which comprised many couples and their children, the task entrusted to the women of managing the household was as much a public and socially necessary industry as the procuring of food by the men. With the patriarchal family, and still more with the single monogamous family, a change came. Household management lost its public character. It no longer concerned society. It became a private service; the wife became the head servant, excluded from all participation in social production. Not until the coming of modern large-scale industry was the road to social production opened to her again – and then only to the proletarian wife. But it was opened in such a manner that, if she carries out her duties in the private service of her family, she remains excluded from public production and unable to earn; and if she wants to take part in public production and earn independently, she cannot carry out family duties. And the wife’s position in the factory is the position of women in all branches of business, right up to medicine and the law. The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules. In the great majority of cases today, at least in the possessing classes, the husband is obliged to earn a living and support his family, and that in itself gives him a position of supremacy, without any need for special legal titles and privileges. Within the family he is the bourgeois and the wife represents the proletariat’.
Already in the Principles of Communism (1847) Engels showed, from a revolutionary point of view, how the problem of the relation between the two sexes is put in communist society:
“What will be the influence of communist society on the family? It will transform the relations between the sexes into a purely private matter which concerns only the persons involved and into which society has no occasion to intervene. It can do this since it does away with private property and educates children on a communal basis, and in this way removes the two bases of traditional marriage – the dependence rooted in private property, of the women on the man, and of the children on the parents”.
The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) vigorously confirmed the revolutionary proletarian position on the family and the woman:
“On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. [...] by the action of Modern Industry, all the family ties among the proletarians are torn asunder, and their children transformed into simple articles of commerce and instruments of labour [.] The bourgeois sees his wife a mere instrument of production [...] He has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production”.
In the first volume of Capital Marx showed that capitalism, in its development, shakes the foundations of the old family economy and modifies not only the relations between husband and wife, but also those between parents and children:
“It was not, however, the misuse of parental authority that created the capitalistic exploitation, whether direct or indirect, of children s labour; but, on the contrary, it was the capitalistic mode of exploitation which, by sweeping away the economical basis of parental authority, made its exercise degenerate into a mischievous misuse of power. However terrible and disgusting the dissolution, under the capitalist system, of the old family ties may appear, nevertheless modern industry, by assigning as it does an important part in the process of production, outside the domestic sphere, to women, to young persons, and to children of both sexes, creates a new economical foundation for a higher form of the family and of the relations between the sexes. [.] Moreover, it is obvious that the fact of the collective working group being composed of individuals of both sexes and all ages, must necessarily, under suitable conditions, become a source of human development” (Capital, Vol. I, Chap. XIII).
Lenin denounced in the most vigorous way the condition of double oppression suffered by women in the capitalist system:
“Under capitalism the female half of the human race is doubly oppressed. The working woman and the peasant woman are oppressed by capital, but over and above that, even in the most democratic of the bourgeois republics, they remain, firstly, deprived of some rights because the law does not give them equality with men; and secondly – and this is the main thing – they remain in ‘household bondage’, they continue to be ‘household slaves’, for they are overburdened with the drudgery of the most squalid, backbreaking and stultifying toil in the kitchen and the family household” (International Working Woman’s Day).
In the present world population, which is over 7 billion inhabitants, almost half (about 49%) are women. In their very large majority they are exploited and oppressed women workers. At present women represent about 40% of the world’s labour force, but the quantity of work really performed by them is much greater, if one considers the household work in which women are engaged (about 30 hours a week).
Generally, women’s participation in the productive process has increased at a world level in the last decades, although the difference in employment in comparison with men is still remarkable. The highest percentages of female employed labour force are in the countries of Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, Central and Southern Africa, South America and the Caribbean.
In the advanced capitalism countries the feminization of the labour force has been led by the service sector (public services, cleaning, food, etc.) and by manufacturing (textiles, micro-electronics, etc.), which widely use parttime work, flexibility, precariousness, etc., according to the interests of exploitation of the capitalist enterprises and monopolies. In the great majority of cases women have a wage decidedly lower than that of men with equal conditions of work, education and training. In the developed countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the difference is 16% on average.
The increase in the female labour force is remarkable, caused by the migration of women from the rural areas to the cities and from the dependent countries to the imperialist countries. It is thought that 49% of migrants are women, who perform precarious jobs at low income.
However, in periods of economic crises women are dismissed from their jobs at still higher percentages. In recent years in Europe, 51.8% of dismissals were of women workers; in other countries such as Mexico and Honduras the percentage was 70%.
Side by side with this process of violent loss of jobs, the inclusion of children and teenagers in the labour force is increasing, working under real conditions of slavery.
Women today make up 70% of the world’s poor people. Many indicators show women’s backwardness and poverty, their difficult access to basic services: of the 774 million illiterate people in the world, 515 million are women; 72 million children do not go to school, 54 million of them are girls. 70% of the households headed by women have no access to water for drinking, to sewerage or to sanitary services; 75% of these families do not own their own home. As for health care, women, especially those who are pregnant, are exposed to serious risks, particularly in the most backward dependent countries.
The consequences of the capitalist crisis that broke out in 2008 and the brutal offensive led by the financial oligarchy have brought about a step back of the living and working conditions of women, who suffer a broad attack on the achievements and rights they had previously won.
The women workers and those of the popular strata are the victims of the austerity policies, they are deprived of public services (advisors, women’s shelters, nursery schools, etc.), of social security, of the rights linked to motherhood. In some European countries, the governments and parties of the right and extreme right, with the active support of the Catholic Church, have launched an offensive against the right to abortion.
Legal equality with men is also becoming more and more uncertain. When it is applied, it is only downwards, as in the case of directives of the European Union about hours of night work and raising the retirement age, which strikes women workers particularly hard and produces further inequalities.
One of the more horrible aspects of capitalist exploitation is the violence against women: a violence that manifests itself in the family circle, in social life and on the job. It assumes various forms (economic, social, political, sexual, psychological, health), it strikes a high percentage of women and is based on the double oppression of women.
At the present period of neo-liberal hegemony, violence against women is becoming more intense: murders of women, sexual abuse, intense exploitation in prostitution and the trafficking of children, spreading of pornography, the use of the female body in advertisement, etc., are the symptoms of a society in decomposition, of ever more aggressive social relations, the disdainfulness of the life, freedom and dignity of women.
Although equality with men is proclaimed in the Constitutions, treaties, laws and labour contracts, a real and effective equality at work and in life is not put into practice in the capitalist and imperialist countries. On the contrary, there is discrimination, segregation and oppression – in particular against proletarian women – unceasingly fostered by the capitalists, who reproduce the old inequalities in new forms.
In Italy, for example, there is a strong disparity between men and women in the unemployment rate (a difference of 23 points), and a wide pay differential, particularly in the private sector: 16.7 %, compared to 7.5 % in the public sector).
A trade union enquiry concerning the Italian metal-working and mechanical sector states: “Women are always – more than men – concentrated in the lowest skill levels, and even with the same educational qualifications and work seniority they earn, on the average, 200 euros less of their male colleagues.... In fact, women earn less than men, under conditions of equality on any other kind, even when they have the same work hours, the same seniority, the same educational qualifications, and even the same kind of labour contract” (The voice of 100,000 workers, Federation of Metal-Working Employees (FIOM), 2008).
The question of the wage disparity and job segregation of the working women in sectors characterized by low wages and lesser protection, and in the lowest levels of the job categories, cannot be explained by the bourgeois theories according to which this depends on women’s choices or on the utilisation of sex as an indicator of productivity. In reality the choices for the women are neither casual nor “natural”, but are conditioned by the present market for labour power, while the mechanisation and automation of work in many sectors assure the same productive results.
In order to deal with the problem of the discrimination and segregation of working women it is necessary to adopt a class point of view and acknowledge that this is due to the present social relations of production and to the particular social condition of women, subject to a double oppression.
Historically, it was the capitalist use of machines, the automation of the operations that require particular physical efforts and skill, the reduction of work to few repetitive acts, which allowed the large-scale utilization in production of the labour power of women and teenagers, extending exploitation to all sexes and ages.
Since the value of labour power is determined by the value of the means of subsistence necessary to maintain and reproduce the labour power of the worker and his family, when the worker’s wife and children enter into capitalist production the wage decreases, both devaluating the labour of the women and teenagers, and devaluating that of the male worker as well. Consequently, even if the total of the wages paid by the capitalist increases, the degree of exploitation and the mass of surplus value extracted increases even more.
Marx wrote: “To purchase the labour-power of a family of four workers may, perhaps, cost more than it formerly did, but, in return, four days ‘ labour takes the place of one, and their price falls in proportion to the excess of the surplus-labour of four over the surplus-labour of one” (Capital, vol. I, Chap. XIII).
Under the present relations of production, the proletarian woman not only contributes to the reproduction of the labour power with her unrecognized domestic labour, but, in her workplace she produces as much surplus-value as the man; however, the price of her labour power is cheaper.
This is the reality that still takes place today in the most “civilized” countries. What can we conclude?
In the first place, women’s low wages, as those of children and migrant workers, serve to reduce the total wages, and so increase the rate of exploitation of the working class as a whole. The working women’s wages are reduced as a means to compress and reduce all wages.
In the determination of the average national wage we should also take into account the role of the work of women and children. What appears from time to time as a “contribution to family support” or an “additional remuneration” is in reality an indispensable income for many working families, and it conceals a brutal relation of exploitation, derived from the capitalist logic of minimizing the costs of production of labour power in order to maximize profits.
In the second place, in the capitalist system the quantity and structure of wages, the organization of the productive process, the market for labour power itself, foment the divisions and competition among the workers, since workers who are identical from the productive point of view are treated differently.
It is in the interest of the capitalist class to discriminate and divide the workers by sex, age, nationality, etc. This interest gives rise to discriminatory practices based on characteristics extraneous to the contribution of the workers to the productive process, in order to stir up a race to the bottom among the workers, to utilize the weaker sectors among them as a lever to break the resistance and unity of the proletariat, and to increase the possibility of extracting surplus-value.
Without a doubt, the problems of wage discrimination and the segregation of women are connected to the conflict between labour and capital, inherent to the present barbarous mode of production.
The subordinate position of the female gender, its condition of social submission and deprivation of rights, the differences in wages, pensions, etc., the specific role of woman in the industrial division of labour, all reflect the gender oppression existing in capitalist society and are fundamentally determined by the system of private ownership of the means of production and its inherent necessity of low-cost reproduction of labour-power.
Private ownership is the ultimate and most profound cause of the condition of oppression, discrimination and subordination of women and of the privilege of men.
Only through the abolition of the bourgeois system of private ownership of the means of production and exchange, as well as of the pre-capitalistic residues, only through the radical transformation of the economic base and the change of ideas and cultural practices will it be possible to abolish the woman’s double oppression, the existing discriminations and injustices. Only in this way will it be possible to radically affect the woman’s position in society, providing her real equality both in law and in social life, to free her from every form of exploitation and oppression.
A very important aspect of socialist society is the transfer to the collective as a whole of the many responsibilities that today weigh down on the individual family, and particularly on the women, such as cooking, cleaning, looking after children and elderly persons, etc.
Engels pointed out that “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. “ (The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.)
We communists (Marxist-Leninists), contrary to feminist movements, are not under the illusion that is possible to obtain a radical solution of the question of women’s emancipation in the framework of capitalist-imperialist society. Only with socialism will the economic predominance of the man disappear, and so his predominance within the couple; the social management of production and consumption will be affirmed, with the full and conscious role of women in it; these are the conditions for her full equality with man. Consequently, the position of the latter will also experience a remarkable change. Under the new mode of production the relations between the sexes can develop on a basis of real equality, solidarity and cooperation, in a non-conflicting way, in order to attain a complete emancipation of the proletariat.
The radical measures introduced in the Soviet Union from the first years after the October Revolution give testimony to all that. Lenin wrote:
“We see that equality is proclaimed in all democratic republics but in the civil laws and in laws on the rights of women – those that concern their position in the family and divorce – we see inequality and the humiliation of women at every step, and we say that this is a violation of democracy specifically in respect of the oppressed.
Soviet power has implemented democracy to a greater degree than any of the other, most advanced countries because it has not left in its laws any trace of the inequality of women. Again I say that no other state and no other legislation has ever done for women a half of what Soviet power did in the first months of its existence.
Laws alone, of course, are not enough, and we are by no means content with mere decrees. In the sphere of legislation, however, we have done everything required of us to put women in a position of equality and we have every right to be proud of it. The position of women in Soviet Russia is now ideal as compared with their position in the most advanced states. We tell ourselves, however, that this is, of course, only the beginning.
Owing to her work in the house, the woman is still in a difficult position. To effect her complete emancipation and make her the equal of the man it is necessary for the national economy to be socialised and for women to participate in common productive labour. Then women will occupy the same position as men [...]
You all know that even when women have full rights, they still remain factually downtrodden because all housework is left to them. In most cases housework is the most unproductive, the most barbarous and the most arduous work a woman can do […]
We are setting up model institutions, dining-rooms and nurseries, that will emancipate women from housework.
And the work of organizing all these institutions will fall mainly to women […]
We say that the emancipation of the workers must be effected by the workers themselves, and in exactly the same way the emancipation of working women is a matter for the working women themselves.” (The Tasks of the Working Women’s Movement.)
The Constitution of the USSR, adopted in 1936, did not limit itself to proclaiming the formal rights and equality of women workers, who were already free from capitalist exploitation, but also guaranteed those rights by law through a series of material means:
“Art. 122. Women in the U.S.S.R. are accorded equal rights with men in all spheres of economic, state, cultural, social and political life.
The possibility of exercising these rights is ensured to women by granting them an equal right with men to work, payment for work, rest and leisure, social insurance and education, and by state protection of the interests of mother and child, pre-maternity and maternity leave with full pay, and the provision of a wide network of maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens”.
What socialism gave and will give to women can never be given by the bourgeois feminist movement.
Although women are generally oppressed, the female question has different features for bourgeois women and proletarian women, who put it in different and opposed ways.
For women of the bourgeoisie the problem is essentially put on the legal plane, of access to property and profits, to the institutions of the ruling class. Their emancipation often takes the form of “free competition” with men belonging to the same class. The bourgeois feminists never attack the present society’s foundations, never question the exploitation of wage labour. When they enter into the elites of economic and political life, into the organizations of capitalist power, they are transformed from “supporters of the rights of women” into enthusiastic advocates of the privileges of the ruling class. Their personal “emancipation” is paid for by the growing subordination of millions of other women. And when they speak of women liberation they often do that in order to justify imperialist wars.
For proletarian women the question of their oppression is presented in a totally different manner, because is connected to the demands of exploitation and the reproduction of capital. In order to put an end to this slavery the passage to a new and superior social organization is indispensable.
The women of the proletariat and the popular masses cannot lead the struggle for their own economic and social emancipation, as the fundamental aspect of the struggle for liberation from all forms of alienation, exploitation and slavery in the same way and with the same objectives as bourgeois women.
They must necessarily lead it together with the men of their same class against the capitalist class, for the fulfilment of certain economic, political, social and cultural demands in order to enter into the struggle and lead the battle in person and on equal terms, not remaining behind. In the same way, the working men have a profound interest in supporting the struggles of the women proletarians and fighting together with the working women to form a united front of struggle against the capitalist class and to defeat it.
The struggle for the abolition of women’s oppression, for the full equality of rights of both sexes in all spheres of social life, is an integral part of the struggle for the abolition of all forms of exploitation in human relations, for a real alternative to bourgeois social relations. It is therefore a question that concerns the whole proletariat and has to be included in the context of the struggle for communism.
Moreover, since the historical relation of the subordination of the female sex to the male is also due to the power of traditions, to the persistence of bourgeois customs and to the influence of religions, which have always justified the subjection of women, spreading ideologies of resignation and attacking women’s rights (right to divorce, abortion, etc.), the most resolute struggle must be conducted against these reactionary positions, for the education of the working women and women of the popular strata in the spirit of communism, for the defence of progressive and revolutionary values, for a true liberation of the whole of humanity.
The mass movement to support and satisfy some specific economic and political interests of women cannot be a movement limited only to women. It has to be a movement common to men and women of the proletariat. The aim of this struggle is not “free competition” of women with men, but the final conquest of political power by the proletariat in order to overthrow capitalism and build the new society in which exploitation and oppression of class and gender will be abolished. The proletarian women have a fundamental and irreplaceable role in this struggle. A decisive contribution to this anti-capitalist battle can be provided by the creation, at an international level and in the various countries, of a broad mass women’s movement that is democratic, anti-imperialist and revolutionary.
The work of building and strengthening the communist Parties in every country of the world cannot do without the contribution of the most advanced and conscious proletarian women, who have to be members with equal rights and duties, fully integrated into the communist parties and in the organizations of the proletarian class struggle.
Therefore we must develop and intensify the work of propaganda and agitation among the women workers, in order to win the best daughters of proletariat to the class struggle and to the communist Parties and organizations.<> Clearly, this very important work has to be developed with particular methods and forms of activity, with specific tasks of struggle according to the specific situation, in order to extend our influence, to bring women workers nearer to the cause of socialist revolution and develop their class consciousness.
To the millions of women who are exploited, dissatisfied, full of resentment against the double oppression imposed on them, worsened by the anti-popular policies, by the prejudices of the bourgeois system, we Marxist-Leninist must intensify our work among these masses, to find the way of arousing this enormous force, of organizing and educating them, of bringing the most advanced and combative proletarian women into our organizations and to take an active part in all areas of the class struggle.
The victory of the socialist revolution, the dictatorship of proletariat and the construction of socialist and communist society are unthinkable without the conscious and resolute participation of women workers and other working women, protagonists of their own future.
As Clara Zetkin, a great communist fighter for the emancipation and liberation of women, wrote with passion and intelligence: “The collaboration of the broad female masses does not only mean an increased quantity of forces, but also a much greater quality. Women are not only a bad copy of men: as women they have their own characteristics and particular values for the struggle and the building of socialism” (Critical Observations on the Draft Program of the Communist International, 1928).
March 8, 2014