Recently, the NPS [New Socialist Party – Costa Rica] issued an article debating with the PSTU-Argentina and the IWL-FI, accusing our international and our brother party of being part of a political regression on the struggle for women’s liberation. In this article, we want to reaffirm and clarify our position and debate with the political proposal of the New Mas and Las Rojas [Argentina], who claim to be “Socialist Feminists”.
By PT-Costa Rica.
It is true, as the NPS points out, that there are several Feminist currents. Furthermore, the feminist movement is broad and full of nuances that express different class interests. This was confirmed during the first wave of struggle for women rights at the beginning of the XX century, as much as in the second wave, during the 70s. It is confirming again nowadays, in the new rise all over the world. And this is because oppression reaches women of all social classes, although its impact changes according to which class women belong to.
To keep it simple, we could say there is a bourgeois or liberal Feminism (now updated by the theories of empowerment), where we see figures like Hilary Clinton or Christina Kirchner; a radical Feminism, which emerged in mid 70s and made popular the concept of “patriarchy”; and there is also the “Socialist Feminism”, the “Marxist Feminism” and the “Materialistic Feminism” (there are several branches), which were also born during the second wave of struggles.
We think these Feminist currents of struggle of the second wave, although with different elements of analysis, have 2 common points that define them as Feminism: a very progressive stand regarding class struggle, which is the open struggle against male-chauvinism and in favor of women’s liberation; and a strategy that we consider incorrect. Thus, is is very important to debate honestly and openly.
The strategy these Feminist tendencies share is that the struggle for women’s liberation will be victorious if led by a women’s movement, as we would all share the same goal of destructing patriarchy.
Many programs and ideologies have been –and still are- part of women’s movement, disputing leadership. All of them agree that women’s oppression needs to end; but then there are differences regarding how, what path to follow.
Socialists have defended, from Clara Zetkin to Lenin and Trotsky, that the total freedom of working women is not possible without ending capitalist exploitation, and specifically without a planned economy to socialize domestic work –unpaid work for women-, which is the material base of their oppression. This can only be achieved by the working class with a revolutionary program, able to fight male-chauvinism within its ranks, integrating the slogans and the task of women’s (and other sectors’) liberation and developing female political leaders to mobilize this segment of the majority of the working class.
What Is the Proposal of the “Socialist Feminism” of the NPS/New MAS?
The NPS and the New Mas defend “Socialist Feminism”. There are many different elaborations on Socialist Feminism: from intellectuals that are not part of socialist tradition, such as Hartmann or Eisenstein, who claim there is a “dual system” –this is, an explanation of social reality based on two structures, patriarchy and capitalism-, which, however, were never able to explain how both structures relate; to internal Trotskyist currents, like the Freedom Socialist Party, in the U.S., that radicalized the stands first developed by the main SWP leader, Mary Alice Waters. We think the NPS and the New Mas agree with this second definition (which, by the way, they fought against when they were part of the IWL, in the 80s). So this is the stand we want to debate with.
Our main difference with comrades of the mentioned current is not the use of the word “feminist” but the political, strategic content they give to feminism: “Socialist feminists fight, then, to build an anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchy women’s movement, independent of the state and all bosses’ sectors, capable of standing and struggling on the streets for their rights and to revolutionize all social relations.” [Emphasis added]
Their goal to end women’s oppression is a women’s movement. Instead, we propose a working class movement of women and other sectors: also with an anti-capitalist, independent program, but with a struggle of the working class as a whole against women’s oppression and class exploitation.
This poses the hard task of beginning the struggle inside the working class itself: to confront male-chauvinism in work places; to struggle for democratic demands of women like kindergartens, equal salary, end of sexual harassment, end of maternity layoffs, right to abortion, end of femicides and violence against women, etc.; and bringing men into this fight too. We want the Federations to take women’s struggle for liberation seriously, fighting against male-chauvinism inside the organizations, and that are concerned about promoting women inside the organizations as leaders. We know an important step towards it is for the unions and other workers’ popular organizations to create Women’s Secretariats and Working Women Encounters to strengthen the internal struggle and to confront oppression also on the inside of their organizations.
We are the first ones to participate in unity of action –as in March 8– with all feminist organizations and sectors aiming to defend women’s rights, and we specifically call the working class to be part of this. We are glad with, and celebrate, every women’s victory on the struggle for their rights. But we do not mix things: we think each advance achieved first on this field does not affect all women equally, and will suffer setbacks if the working class does not take the destiny of the society as a whole in its hands, building a new society, a socialist society. Such is our strategy, and we do not confuse this with “parallel struggles against two systems that feedback one another, capitalism on one side and patriarchy on the other”.
As a consequence of this divergence with the NPS and New Mas position, we believe 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. And there is a divergence here on how we conceive the revolutionary processes, the different moments of it and the combination between democratic and socialist tasks that Trotsky explained in the Theory of the Permanent Revolution. The determinant element for a struggle 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 posed the seizing of power through class’ dual-power organisms.
Our third difference comes out of this: it is about the social subject of women’s liberation. If all women’s struggles are objectively anti-capitalists, as proposed by the NPS and the New Mas, the organization of all women (independently of what class they belong to) becomes a central aspect to make the revolution. Thus, the NPS states that “fighting oppression against women implies necessarily –this is one of the greatest elaborations of Socialist Feminism- to struggle against capitalism, in alliance with the working class and other oppressed segments”.
We defend that the social subject of women’s liberation is the working class as a whole, with women and men organized as a social class. In times of the Second International, Clara Zetkin pointed out this difference when the SDP [Social-Democratic Party] organized women separated from the working class: “The integral human emancipation of all women depends in consequence on the social emancipation of labour; that can only be realized by the class-war of the exploited majority. Therefore, our Socialist women oppose strongly the bourgeois women righters’ credo that the women of all classes must gather into an unpolitical, neutral movement striving exclusively for women’s rights”. [Clara Zetkin, German Socialist Women’s Movement].
Despite our strategic differences, in concrete struggles we fight to achieve the broadest unity of action with all currents and activists that are part of the struggles for women’s emancipation. Furthermore, we believe such unity is necessary and essential to add forces to the mobilization in defense of women’s rights, although we will probably face programatic divergences along the way.
Patriarchy or Bourgeois Family?
The term “patriarchy” or “patriarchal” has been used to make reference to everything that symbolizes this specific oppression. It is commonly used as a synonym of “male-chauvinist” or “sexist”, and to define a social order in which men are in a power position regarding women.
For socialist tendencies –like both parties we debate with in this article call themselves–, patriarchy is explained as a “sexual labor division”, or “a system of exploitation of reproductive labor”, as well as “the enemy that materialized the social relations of control”. So socialist feminism has actually redefined key concepts of the Marxist theory.
In these attempts of Marxist -or Socialist- Feminism to combine both theories (Marxism and Feminism), they end up vindicating feminism and the theory of patriarchy as a base; aiming to “combine” capitalist social relationships (class relationships) with “patriarchal” relationships (gender/sex relationships), to these tendencies the dominant theory is the patriarchal theory.
We believe the Marxist theory is still current to explain the historical development of humanity (historical materialism) and the contradictions between the social structure (social classes and relationships) and the superstructure (State, institutions, laws, traditions and ideologies), which includes the relationship between sexes/genders.
Marx and Engels analyzed the deep change the rise of capitalism meant for the patriarchal family institution. They stated the patriarchal family stopped being a unity in which productive work was effective under the absolute power of the father. After the appearance of machinery and great industry, all members of the working family became salaried work force, like this moving the productive work from the family into the factory and, consequently, transferring the absolute power of the father (patriarchy) to the market and great industry (leaving a major part of slave, exploited work –not paid- to women in the private sphere of the family). Therefore, the family became subjected to a role of reinforcement of labor of the capitalist social relationships of production: material labor (plus-work of women at home), as much as political (inequality of rights) and ideological (male-chauvinism, inequality).
This family form faced an even deeper crisis after WWII, with the massive incorporation of women to the salaried masses, and with their consequent new financial independence. This does not mean that the oppression is automatically lower in those families, but the relationships of oppression with no –or decreased material base– can be more openly questioned. It is not by chance that the second wave of massive struggle for women’s rights took place in the post-war period in imperialist countries; it is a logical social consequence of the great change it meant the massive “feminization” of the salaried proletariat.
The NPS affirms in its article that “the enemy of patriarchy materializes in social relationships of control”, and that they “understand women’s oppression based on the social relationships produced by patriarchy”. The Argentinian New Mas states capitalism and patriarchy are “sympathetic about each other”. Our question is: what is the nature of those “social relationships of control”? 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 and vice-versa, but about understanding an alive dynamic: under capitalism, oppression relationships that have dynamic and effect on their own, act over social beings shaping them but still serve exploitation and the extraction of surplus value. Therefore, it is not enough to say they are “sympathetic about each other”, or “in combination”, but we need to precise that oppression relationships are subjected to exploitation relationships.
Capitalism uses oppressions that emerged before it, and creates new ones, to over-exploit the oppressed and divide the working class. It is enough to take a look at the current situation of immigrants, Black, etc., besides women’s, to understand in fact how precise this affirmation is. Being simplistic, we could put it like this: given a non-escape confrontation, bourgeois women would prevail of proletarian men.
To understand it does not mean to minimize the reality of sexual oppression and domination but, on the contrary, is to better explain how it functions socially, and to see where its roots are to act on them: it has roots in the classes’ society, in the State, and regarding women’s matter, it relies on the imposition of domestic unpaid work to working class women, an imposed plus-work indirectly appropriated by capitalism.
Capitalism benefited of the existent relationships of oppression and generated new ones (like the racism that came with the colonial expansion) to achieve a higher level of exploitation and ideological control of the working class as a whole. Serving that, it gave a new content to oppressions, a class content, [different in the previously existent oppressions than in the new ones], and thus it changed the content of patriarchal relationships in the family. This is why, under capitalism, not all women suffer the oppression equally, nor this oppression causes the same consequences to all women. Bourgeois or middle class women oppressed as such do not suffer a key element of this oppression, which is unpaid domestic work, as they can hire a female worker to clean their houses (often an immigrant, which accumulates, as we can see, several oppressions).
Thus, we state that to end working women’s oppression once for all, and therefore all women’s oppression, it is not enough to mobilize women. 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, which 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; fighting on a daily basis, to the inside of the workers’ movement, all bourgeois ideologies and practices like male-chauvinism, xenophobia, racism, homophobia and the nefarious stand of all tendencies that propose classes’ conciliation policies and the construction of poly-classist movements in the name of the struggle of the exploited and oppressed ones.
This is the program that socialists defend and elaborate regarding women’s matter. It is not an elaboration of the Socialist Feminism. Our elaboration is not new nor invented by us; it is previous and comes from the elaborations of Marxism. If any comrade supports this program and calls him/herself feminist socialist, we have no problem in accepting him/her in our ranks. What we aim for is a programatic agreement to encourage the struggle of the working class as a whole for the full emancipation of women, which can only exist if we destroy capitalism.
Translation: Sofia Ballack.