Marxism and Feminism

Amna Hafeez

Is Marxism a theory of Feminism? Is Feminism a part of the Marxist-Leninist movement? Strange, as it may sound, I will argue against this notion.

Marx, Engels, Lenin or Stalin never used the term ‘Feminism’. On the contrary, they used the term ‘Women’s Question’ to refer to the Marxist-Leninist standpoint on the question. Lenin says, ‘the thesis must clearly point out that real freedom for women is possible only through communism. The inseparable connection between the social and human position of the woman, and private property in the means of production, must be strongly brought out. That will draw a clear and ineradicable line of distinction between Marxist policy and feminism. And it will also supply the basis for regarding the women’s question as a part of the social question, of the workers’ problem, and so bind it firmly to the proletarian class struggle and the revolution. The communist women’s movement must itself be a mass movement, a part of the general mass movement. That movement will be not only of the proletariat, but of all the exploited and oppressed, all the victims of capitalism or any other mastery. In that lies its significance for the class struggles of the proletariat and for its historical creation of communist society. We can rightly be proud of the fact that in the Party, in the Communist International, we have the flower of revolutionary womankind. But that is not enough. We must win over to our side the millions of working women in the towns and villages. Win them for our struggles and in particular for the communist transformation of society. There can be no real mass movement without women’.1

Marxist analysis of any important section of the ideological superstructure of society, of a predominating social phenomenon, must lead to an analysis of bourgeois society and of its property basis, must end in the realisation, ‘this must be destroyed’. Therefore, Lenin says that the struggle for the emancipation of women is intricately connected to the proletarian movement. An elementary reading of ‘The Origin of the Family’ shows that the roots of women’s oppression lie in the emergence of private property, the defeat of matriarchy and the onslaught of patriarchal rule and the corresponding rise of classes and the state. This must be seen in contradistinction with feminism (not bearing in mind the various schools within feminist thought ranging from liberal feminism to radical feminism).

Within the Marxist thought the fight for women’s emancipation is not the fight against the other sex but against the sociological gender construction which provides a structure for the hegemony of one sex over the other. All those centring on the argument of patriarchy and the ‘feminists’ do not challenge the focal point of women’s dual oppression. instead they struggle to induce reforms in the existing structural framework.

The first two historical waves of feminism in the early and mid 20th century championed the ideas of suffrage and granting women equal sexual and marital rights to men. These movements were led by American ideologues such as Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) who was an advocate of birth control in the 1920s,2 Lucy Stone (1818-1893) a well known women’s rights activist and suffragist and anarcho-feminists like Voltaire de Cleyre (1866-1912). It was more about the individualistic bourgeois class elements that were the focus of those feminists as Cleyre said, ‘the freedom to control her own person’.3 Whereas, the third wave of feminism or post feminism in the 21st century denoted female sexual liberation as the tool for ultimate freedom of womankind.

In contrast the Marxist standpoint of women’s liberation looks at the macro perspective of the symbolic annihilation of the ‘other’ sex in the social, economic and political spheres. According to Marxists the soft reformism under the feminist waves are not the answer to the liberation of women. In a conversation with Clara Zetkin, Lenin said, ‘I was told that questions of sex and marriage are the main subjects dealt with in the reading and discussion evenings of women comrades. They are the chief subject of interest, of political instruction…. .What a waste! The great social question appears as an adjunct, a part, of sexual problems. The main thing becomes a subsidiary matter. That not only endangers clarity on that question itself, it muddles the thoughts, the class-consciousness of proletarian women generally’.4

Thus, Lenin believed that even within its first wave, feminism did not address issues pertaining to the general emancipation of the proletariat from the rule of capital. Lenin’s statement that feminism ‘muddles the thoughts of the class conscious proletarian women’5 stands true even for the second and third wave of feminism. The second and third wave of feminist thought, continued on their mission for the emancipation of bourgeois women through their struggle for sexual and marital freedoms. While some within them also fought for women’s suffrage, their primary mode of analysis remained that the emancipation of women could be the result of political and legal reforms. While this may be true to an extent as far as the emancipation of bourgeois women was concerned, it certainly did not address the socio-economic problems of working class women. As Engels rightly says, ‘to emancipate woman and make her the equal of the man is and remains an impossibility so long as the woman is shut out from social productive labour and restricted to private domestic labour. The emancipation of woman will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time’.

On the contrary even the most ardent critics of communism could not conceal the extent to which women were liberated in the Soviet Russia under the communist regime. From 1917 to 1954 women were given equal status in society in the economic, political and social spheres. They were given equal rights to work, offered equal wages, granted equal rights for marriage and divorce. They were allowed equal status as the head of the family and had the liberty to participate fully as socio-economic agents (as factory workers, political workers) because the domestic chores and the traditional duties of women were assumed by the state with the provisioning of services like maternity homes and nurseries to take care of the children while the women worked. These state institutions and programmes helped the women to rise beyond the traditional roles assigned to women and serve the society and lead equal lives as men in the society. Study groups and education was made available to all women so they were excluded from the institutionalised pedagogy. The socialist collectivism and the role of state to help women to get rid of the conventional roles actually made women’s liberation a dream come true. The communal domestic economy supported by the state was a necessary prerequisite for women’s liberation and that lead to the gradual abolition of the patriarchal family structure. This was an enormous advance on the prevailing attitude that the family was a natural entity and that women’s inferior position was biologically determined.

Since the 1980’s, the wave of post-modernist thought swept within bourgeois feminism and invented fancy theories about feminism. These theories were surrounded around the primary notion of ‘feminist sex wars’ which had an unrelenting fascination with sexual liberty and oppression. By now, as Lenin had foreseen, sexual freedoms had become the primary mode of analysis for feminists. Casting aside the Marxist-Leninist conception on the woman’s question as a struggle connected with the proletarian movement, feminism had by now successfully amputated the relationship. ‘All men are our enemies’ and ‘All sex is rape’ replaced the scientific slogans pushed forward by the Leninists and a seemingly radical but by its class essence bourgeois version of the woman’s question came to the fore. Feminism regressed further into the realm of decadence, and its proponents such as Robin Morgan (1941-present) a radical feminist, writer and poet argued that heterosexual pornography was a central cause of women’s oppression. Anarcho-feminists while paying lip-service to revolution claimed that patriarchal relations were intricately connected with hierarchical structures, and sought to fight against patriarchy by fighting against hierarchy in general. The decadence of anarchism crept into the movement for the emancipation of women; anarchist thought while paying lip-service to revolution remains a thought representative of the petty bourgeois proprietor. All notions of class struggle and historical materialist analysis were cast aside and in its place arose a bourgeois, unscientific and ‘moral’ theory on the woman’s question. The imaginative feminists linked women’s emancipation with everything from pornography to ecology and from language to reproduction. They were however, cautious and careful in avoiding the word class from their analysis. These feminists do not wish to challenge the capitalist system and the reforms they worked for benefited middle-class and aristocratic women, who were concerned with inheritance and property rights, far more than working-class or peasant women.

I therefore believe that we must not use the term ‘feminism’ to refer to our position on the question. Just as we have a stand on the national question, without labelling ourselves ‘nationalists’, we must refer to our position as the women’s question for that is how Marxist-Leninists have referred to it. We reject all bourgeois conceptions of the question, and must reject their incorrect and unscientific theses in order to build a genuine working class women’s movement built not in isolation from, but in connection with the general movement for the emancipation of the proletariat from the rule of capital and private property. We reject the liberal ideologues who claim that women’s emancipation can be achieved through legal reforms. We reject post-modernist feminists who bring to the fore idealistic and moral conceptions of the question. We reject anarcho-feminists who claim that women’s emancipation can be achieved as a result of a struggle against hierarchy in general while paying lip-service to revolution.

We uphold the Marxist-Leninist conception on the women’s question: Women’s emancipation cannot be achieved without the general emancipation of the proletariat from private property and the rule of capital. Women’s emancipation can and will only be achieved through communism. We uphold the Communist Party, a democratic-centralist organisation of the proletariat.

‘I am deeply concerned about the future of our youth. It is a part of the revolution. And if harmful tendencies are appearing, creeping over from bourgeois society into the world of revolution – as the roots of many weeds spread – it is better to combat them early. Such questions are part of the women question’6 (Lenin).

The author is a student of Gender and Media at the University of Sussex, UK, and is doing research on media representation and the politics of burqa in Pakistan.


5 Ibid
6 Ibid

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