The massive demonstrations on January 21st Women’s March- which put more than 3 million in the streets- revealed a huge contradiction. On the one hand, the unforeseen overflowing of the streets showed for the first time in decades that there is the possibility of a massive fight-back against one of the most reactionary governments we’ve had.
By Florence Oppen.
On the other hand, the absence of a clear independent leadership to do so is an obstacle to stop the government’s attacks. On J21, the main organizers of the march that were linked to the Democratic Party tried very hard to depoliticize the protest. They did so by not wanting to allow anti-Trump slogans, imposing an empty rhetoric of “human rights” and the false divide between “good” and “bad” corporations, and the neoliberal framework of “empowerment”. Fortunately, the vast majority of participants did not follow that leadership, but that is not enough for our movement to advance.
In the weeks following his inauguration, Trump launched a large number of attacks on the different oppressed communities, in particular Muslims, immigrants, women and LGBTQI folks. In response, we have seen a wave of popular mobilizations of resistance: from the flooding of the airports, to numerous protests in the streets, and the Day Without Immigrants on February 17th. This continuous mobilization and action have posed the need of uniting our struggles, and building an independent and democratic movement to stand up against Trump’s attack to working people.
This year’s March 8th International Working Women’s Day is an important step forward in that direction: we need to regroup all of our political forces, including committed socialist and radical activists, union organizers and student leaders, in order to build a unified movement that targets the core of the problem which goes beyond Trump: the neoliberal and corporate essence of our society. We need to organize to build for a real general strike to kick Trump out of office through working class means. This is why we need to intervene to point out a way forward for all working women (and men, and non-gender conforming workers) that will take action on March 8th: it is necessary to build a general strike, a strike organized democratically by the rank-and-file, union and nonunion workers, to build power and show who makes this country work.
The Strike We Need: March 8th and Beyond
The call for a women’s strike has been attacked in the mainstream media with vicious arguments. As socialists, we defend this call for action and recognize that much more is needed to have a real strike of all working women, but the limitations of our present capacities are by no means ground to dismiss our end goals.
The patronizing attitude of the Elle magazine or the more recent Los Angeles Times deserves a response, as it is quite ironical for middle class elements writing in the corporate press to be calling out the “privilege” of those who call for action. The Elle magazine argued that “Without a specific, labor-related point, after all, a “strike” is just a particularly righteous personal day” and added “A woman with a comfortable office job may be able to “strike” simply by taking paid time off and feel confident that her job will be there when the strike is over. But for women in lower-wage positions with few or no protections, leaving for even a day might mean going without necessary wages, or incurring the wrath of an abusive boss, or even losing her job entirely…True, part of the point of a strike is for middle- and upper-class women to stand in solidarity with working-class and poor ones, protecting them from reprisal by joining in the action—but it’s still worth noting that protest itself can be a luxury.”
Meghan Daum from the Los Angeles Times made a similar argument: “Make no mistake, March 8 will mostly be a day without women who can afford to skip work and shuffle childcare and household duties to someone else,” “it’s really going to be A Day Without a Privileged Woman.”
What is appalling is that an editorialist of the corporate press wants to preach the “privilege” and “working class” line to its readers. Their end goal is to discourage women who were thinking of taking action by guilt-tricking them and demoralize the majority of working class women that indeed will not be able to go on strike. And for that reason alone, this reactionary line of argument needs to be called out.
It may be a fact that most women will not be able to strike. However, it is also a fact that in order to organize a real strike of all working class women, we need to develop a strategy to appeal to local unions, and put national pressure on the AFL-CIO leadership to step-up its game and organize the 10.7% of the workforce that it represents. There is no doubt about that. Yet, all general strikes are the result of an accumulation of small strikes from the most militant and organized sectors (not necessarily the most privileged) that give increasing confidence to the rest of the class that it is possible and necessary to fight back. A general strike, that is to say a strike of a significant sector of the working class that stops the whole country, has never occurred out of a first call, but is actually the result of a series of mobilizations (including small strikes) that build for it. The deep ignorance of the meaning of a strike in the first place, and labor history in the second, should be truly embarrassing for those righteous Democratic Party columnists. Daum, for example, argues that “the idea that women should take a day off en masse to make a political point is both self-defeating and vaguely insulting. It’s meant to highlight how crucial we are, but its very premise also suggest the opposite: Women are expendable.” Obviously, the journalist herself never participated in a strike! The strike action is the most effective way to show the role workers play in production, for it disrupts the regular functioning of the profit making machine. The idea that all women going on strike will show that their work is expendable is delirious: this country cannot function without the massive participation of women in the wage workforce. If a general strike of all working women were to occur, many sectors of the economy would be totally paralyzed (in particular key sectors of the service industry), and others will be partially affected and disrupted.
Of course, it is very likely that all of these news commentators invisibilized the key role women play in the productive sectors of our economy, and instead of reasoning on the effect of a strike based on the reality of women’s labor (which is so puzzling for them), they simply generalize their individual subjective existence of being opinion editorial writers to entertain the mass media machine. And yes, this country could survive without their silly editorials, not doubt about it. If they were to go on strike, their labor will be felt as completely “expendable”. What is clear for us who make this country work and are aware of our class position, is that their opinions are expendable to us.
We argue that the March 8th call for a strike is a step in the right direction. It is a step that needs to be amplified and strategically oriented to the most exploited and oppressed sectors of our class. It is a step in the direction to a stronger work action or strike on May 1st and beyond. Let’s not be discouraged- let’s organize the rank and file to fight back!
The Strike Call for March 8
In early February, a new platform began to emerge to the left of the liberal and corporate feminism put forward by the Washington D.C. “Women’s March”: WomenStrikeUS.org. Issued by radical intellectuals of the U.S. academy like Angela Davis and Nancy Fraser, this call for a strike has taken a progressive stance: it splits from and calls-out corporate feminism, it integrates the different struggles that working women face (from labor, immigrant rights, all forms of violence and harassment including police brutality, abortion and reproductive rights, and environmental justice), but most important, it calls for a multi-faceted strike. For us, the call for mass action is fundamental. The Democratic and Republican Party are afraid of strikes and working class militancy in the streets, and were hoping to keep the J21 mass protests as a one-time thing. The escalation from demonstration to strike, that is to say of withholding of labor, is a correct one. Only such an action could stop the current attacks.
In a first statement published in The Guardian on February 6th 2017, the new platform argued for “a feminism for the 99%”. It was inspired by the “Ni Una Menos” movement in Argentina, & argues for “a grassroots, anti-capitalist feminism – a feminism in solidarity with working women, their families and their allies throughout the world.” It aims at combating “Violence against women” in all its material dimensions: “it is domestic violence, but also the violence of the market, of debt, of capitalist property relations, and of the state; the violence of discriminatory policies against lesbian, trans and queer women; the violence of state criminalization of migratory movements; the violence of mass incarceration; and the institutional violence against women’s bodies through abortion bans and lack of access to free healthcare and free abortion.”
The most progressive element of this call is the action it proposes to do independently from the leadership of the Democratic Party: a call for a women’s strike to connect with an international call now involving more than 30 countries. Doing so, it is reclaiming the most militant mobilizations of women, especially labor actions, like the one in Poland in October 2016 to stop the ban on abortion or the massive protests in South Korea and Ireland for reproductive rights.
The Working Class and Socialist Origins of March 8th
Some of the signatories of the call who are closer to the socialist tradition, like Cinzia Arruza and Tithi Bhattacharya, later published an article in The Guardian reclaiming the socialist and working class origins of March 8th: “By striking together, we will be returning to the historical roots of this holiday – a history that we should familiarize ourselves with once again.
On this day in 1908, 15,000 women garment workers, the majority of them immigrants, marched through the heart of Manhattan to demand better pay, shorter work hours and suffrage. A year later women immigrant textile workers were on strike against the terrible sweatshops where they were forced to work, facing down police violence and repression by the owners.
Inspired by the struggle of the women workers, German socialist, Clara Zetkin, called on attendees at the International Conference of Working Women in 1910 to organize an International Working Women’s Day. Women delegates from over 17 countries voted unanimously to pass the motion.
A few years later, in 1917, thousands of Russian women, workers and wives of soldiers, took to the streets on 8 March to demand peace and bread and started the uprising that would overturn the Tsarist regime: this year’s International Women’s Day will also be the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the February Revolution.”
It is really stunning that for the first time in decades in the U.S., the word strike and the working class and socialist tradition of struggle for women’s liberation is debated in the mass media. In fact, March 8th saw a similar fate to May 1st in the U.S. Both holidays emerged in the U.S. labor movement and became an example for the rest of the world working class, but they got quickly erased from history in our country. In the case of March 8th, it has been expropriated from working women by the liberal elites and transformed into a commercial holiday. We can only celebrate a return to an International Working Women’s Day as a day of struggle.
In fact, in a very important text from 1920, Alexandra Kollontai, a revolutionary socialist militant and member of the Bolshevik party recalled these very proletarian origins of March 8th and showed that the emergence of such a day of action was a step forward in the class struggle and class consciousness of working women: “The working women understood that it wasn’t enough to break up the stalls at the market or threaten the odd merchant: They understood that such action doesn’t bring down the cost of living. You have to change the politics of the government. And to achieve this, the working class has to see that the franchise is widened. It was decided to have a Woman’s Day in every country as a form of struggle in getting working women to vote. This day was to be a day of international solidarity in the fight for common objectives and a day for reviewing the organized strength of working women under the banner of socialism.”
We believe that in the United States we are living a similar moment of political awakening. Many working class women are starting to realise that corporate feminism and the liberal elites have failed them: job and pay inequalities persist, and the fundamental rights that they fought for and thought they won forever (like abortion and reproductive rights) are now on the verge of disappearance after more than a decade of silent erosion.
For Zetkin and Kollontai, women’s liberation went beyond the rights to vote and other democratic rights. It had to do with achieving the total liberation and emancipation of all working class women from all forms of oppression and exploitation- it was linked to the fight for socialism: “Only the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of soviet power will save them from the world of suffering, humiliations and inequality that makes the life of the working woman in the capitalist countries so hard. The “Working Woman’s Day” turns from a day of struggle for the franchise into an international day of struggle for the full and absolute liberation of women, which means a struggle for the victory of the soviets and for communism!”
The Socialist Strategy For Women’s Liberation
Our support for the March 8th strike call is rooted in this working class and socialist tradition of fighting for women’s liberation as a fundamental part of our program. Furthermore, it is a core political principle and it is the belief in the importance of collective independent mobilization and action to accomplish these goals.
Marxism understands the relations of oppression (of women, of LGBTQI folks and other sectors) as linked to exploitation. In a recent article, our comrades from Costa Rica argued: “How do capitalism and patriarchy relate to each other? To us, the answer is as complex as simple; it is not about reducing women’s oppression to economic exploitation or vice-versa, but about understanding a living dynamic: under capitalism, relations of oppression have a dynamic and effect on their own and act over social beings shaping them, but ultimately they are put at the service of exploitation and the extraction of surplus value.” What today many call “intersectionality” in academic circles is a revisiting of the complicated dynamic of superposition and contradiction between different relations of oppression and exploitation. For Marxists, it is not enough to say that these relations “intersect”, it is important to explain how they are connected beyond their empirical manifestation. This is why we argue that they are connected to each other in a dialectical way: the positionality of class modifies the living experience of gender (it is not the same to be Hillary Clinton or a McDonald’s employee), and the positionality of gender modifies the experience of class (clearly Bill Clinton did not face the same obstacles in his professional career as Hillary Clinton did). But these relations not only alter each other, for as in every dialectical dynamic, there is a dominant one. Under capitalism, all pre-existing relations of oppression are kept and reinforced to increase the exploitation of labor; and they are eliminated and shifted around if they become an obstacle to the production of profits. This is why Marxists argue that relations of oppression have an inherent class nature. It is enough to take a look at the current situation of immigrants, Black people, etc., besides working class women, to understand in fact how precise this affirmation is.
The importance of such an analysis is key for women’s liberation. To understand the class nature of women’s oppression is not to minimize the reality of sexual/gender oppression and domination but, on the contrary, it is to better explain how it functions socially. It has roots in class society and in the State. And in regard to women’s issues, it relies on the imposition of reproductive unpaid work on working class women, which is an imposed surplus-work indirectly appropriated by capitalism.
The capitalist system was born through the imposition upon women of a form of exploitation: unpaid domestic/reproductive labor. This material base of women’s oppression, which translates today in the double-shift, cannot be properly and globally resolved by capitalism. The best a most “progressive” government can do is to socialize it partially through exploited wage labor imposed upon an even more oppressed and exploited sector: immigrant and indigenous women. This is what the women of the ruling class have managed to do everywhere in the world to “free” themselves of that chore. It is also what the middle layers of professionals do in imperialist countries (and also developing countries). They pay immigrant and indigenous women to take on those roles, and they can do it because domestic work is paid at extremely lower wages. The only solution offered by capitalism to this problem is increased exploitation. Therefore, it cannot eliminate the material base of oppression, it can only shift the problem around, or hide it further.
Only a socialist revolution that will expropriate the bourgeoisie and nationalize the economy under workers control can socialize domestic labor through the elimination (and not the reinforcement) of exploitation. This is actually what the 1917 Russian Revolution began to achieve. They did so with the creation of public restaurants, public laundry rooms, public and universal childcare and education, and a real socialized healthcare system.
If we agree that we need to get rid of capitalism to ensure our ultimate liberation, then we need to discuss our strategy to do so. For a working class women’s movement to turn “anti-capitalist” and have a chance at toppling this government (among other things), we need more than a radical program of demands as the most left-leaning proponents of the “feminism of the 99%” are arguing for. As we recently argued, “a women’s movement will not be “objectively anti-capitalist”; it will not make the bourgeoisie tremble just because its program says so. It can even achieve some memorable conquests and victories, but it does not mean it can lead to socialism.” Beyond the program put forward, it is key to analyze the underlying dynamic of the class struggle: who is fighting to push forward this program and how. For us, the social subject that can implement it and build the necessary social power to defeat the bourgeoisie is the working class.
As we argued: “The determinant element for a struggle’s movement to actually become anti-capitalist is that it poses the seize of power by the working class organized in dual-power organisms with a revolutionary leadership. We will not achieve this spontaneously; it does not happen naturally just because many people go out to the streets with a very radical program. Millions went out on the streets against the Vietnam War, and for women’s and Black’s rights in the U.S., and those movements were not able to overthrow the government and make the bourgeoisie tremble. Why? Because they did not have the strategy of developing the independent mobilization of the working class, and they did not pose the seizing of power through class’ dual-power organisms.”
This is why we believe that the Marxist understanding of women’s liberation has important strategic consequences: the social subject of women’s liberation cannot be working class women alone, but the working class as a whole, with women, men, and gender nonconforming people organized as a social class, independently from bourgeois or liberal leadership. All working class organizations and movements need to have special bodies (committees, caucuses, etc.) of the oppressed sectors to organize and push for their demands and educate their classmates, with the goal of mobilizing them for joint action. The mobilization of working class women is a fundamental and very necessary step, but it is not enough to achieve our end goal: “The problem we face is much bigger and goes beyond the right of abortion or the end of domestic violence: it has to do with the socialization of domestic work under a planned economy, whose condition is the abolition of private property of the means of production, the material base of exploitation, all oppressions and social inequality. Because until we destroy the source that feeds material inequality, we will not eliminate once for all the other forms of inequality (judicial, political, reproductive, etc.) that come from it. This giant task can only be achieved by the working class as a whole, obviously with women in the front line but always educating, appealing to the solidarity and common interests of their class partners, and aiming to mobilize independently from, and against, men and women of the bourgeoisie.”
Against “Lean-In” Feminism
“Lean-In” or “empowerment” feminism is the result of the appropriation of the mass women’s movement in the 1970 by the leading liberal corporate powers (the United Nations, the World Bank, the Democratic Party and lately the Clinton Foundation) to co-opt women’s struggles. According to the U.N. “Empowering women to participate fully in economic life across all sectors is essential to build stronger economies, achieve internationally agreed goals for development and sustainability, and improve the quality of life for women, men, families and communities”. The ideology of empowerment or “third wave feminism”, a neo-liberal one, is based on individual self-promotion and advancement only available to petty-bourgeois sectors (small business owners and small investors) and professionals (upper middle class layers).
This ideology calls for more female presidents, CEO company leaders, actresses and scientists, arguing that training and promoting women to the top positions of the existing power structure will “build stronger economies”. The most clear proof of that is that the last New York Summit, organized by the UN and big multinationals, on March 2016 titled “Equality means business.” So where are working class women’s interests in all of this…? It seems pretty obvious the “empowering women” speech emerged to stall, captivate and deviate the collective struggles of women and trade-union organizations, in the upsurge during the 70’s, to improve female workers’ rights.
The problem of that ideology of corporate feminism is not only that it is “reformist,” meaning that it won’t completely or partially solve the oppression of women and other sectors. It actually instrumentalizes women’s oppression to gather support for neo-liberal corporate candidates and governments, as it happened with Merkel in Germany, Bachelet in Chile or Clinton in the last election campaign. It has allowed to attack all workers with the fake pretense of advancing women’s interests – while no concrete steps are achieved in that direction either.
The March 8th mobilization called by the Washington D.C. J21 march reproduces this movement of co-optation. It initially called for a boycott of the “bad corporations” on March 8th and the support of local business: “At a time when our foundational principles of freedom and equality are under threat, The Women’s March is committed to engaging in actions that affirmatively build community, strengthen relationships and support local, women- and minority-owned businesses.” The liberal rhetoric was asking us again to think of ourselves and act as consumers, instead of doing so as workers, as the producers of all value and wealth.
Then later, the Democratic Party-led platform issued a “Day Without a Woman” call as a reaction to the more radical and militant call issued by the International Women Strike Call and the WomenStrikeUS.org platform, which has been gathering enormous popularity, and became the most prefered framework for organizing for March 8th. The statement calls for the recognition “the enormous value that women of all backgrounds add to our socio-economic system” – a system that is geared towards the production of profit, not the securing of people’s needs. It demands an end to “inequities”, “discrimination” and the promise of “gender justice”. The ultimate goal of the Women’s March platform is to “create a society in which women…are free and able to care for and nurture their families, however they are formed, in safe and healthy environments free from structural impediments.” It never questions the material base of oppression, it never brings up class, it never mentions exploitation, and even less dares to question capitalism, the system that has failed the vast majority of women, working class women. Furthermore, the statement calls for women to “take the day off, from paid and unpaid labor” and to “avoid shopping for one day (with exceptions for small, women- and minority-owned businesses)”. To “take a day off” is an individual action only some privileged sectors can afford. To organize a real strike for all workers, is a collective action that would allow all workers (regardless of union status and material privileges) to exercise their most powerful tactic: that of consciously withholding their labor and stopping the machine from working.
The new Women’s March call continues to pretend all women could benefit from the existing capitalist economy, it continues to erase the working class, labor and socialist origin of the March 8th day, as a day of struggle for working class women. Instead, it attempts to re-appropriate March 8th with a toothless platform that does not call for an independent movement of working class with the orientation to unite all struggles of working people against the government. We cannot afford to repeat the history of cooptation and regression that we already saw in the past decades in terms of women’s rights. This is why it is key that any mobilization of working women establishes its clear independence and even opposition to the leadership of corporate feminism and the Democratic Party.