Women's Emancipation and Permanent Revolution

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This paper was prepared for a conference of US Trotskyists in San Francisco, held from November 30 to December 1 1985. Monica Hill works as a legal secretary and is Los Angeles organiser of the Freedom Socialist Party.

“Women are the unacknowledged leadership of the proletariat today.” I like to think these conclusive words are my own, but they’re not. They are Murry Weiss’, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party on its best years, who was National Co-Chair of the Committee for a Revolutionary Socialist Party (CRSP) and my comrade in the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) until his death in 1981. Murry taught me and other comrades the meaning of the theory of Permanent Revolution. He learned the theory from Trotsky. Trotsky learned it from Marx. Each successive generation has expanded and enriched its meaning. The continuity of this theory, a cornerstone of Trotskyism, is reassuring to us as internationalists, and as U.S. Trotskyists. For it is our task to deepen and solidify world revolution by leading the US revolution. And if we don’t understand the theory of Permanent Revolution, and apply it with wide open vision, we simply won’t be able to do our job.

Back To Basics

Murry Weiss, and Comrade Robert Crisman who is with us today at this conference, succinctly define the theory in a Freedom Socialist Newspaper article published in 1982: “Permanent Revolution is the process of world wide, uninterrupted, and uninterruptible struggle of all oppressed people, led by the proletariat, for economic, social and political liberation.”

“It’s main tenets are: 1) The unfinished bourgeois-democratic tasks of humanity can only be carried through by proletarian socialist revolution. This is the gist of the theory. 2) Revolution does not stop at the proletarian dictatorship but continues as political clashes in the cultural, social and economic spheres throughout each successive stage on the way to a classless society. 3) Permanent Revolution is international in character and scope. Permanent Revolution today takes aim at the capitalist state, its institutions and the vast interlocking system of human social relations that form the matrix of world bourgeois oppression…It bases itself on the mutual interdependence of proletarian and all other liberation struggles.”

The theory of Permanent Revolution not only defies the character of a particular revolution; it identifies the leadership necessary to carry out that revolution. In pre-revolutionary Tsarist Russia, the great debate revolved around what role the peasantry and workers would play in the revolution. History decided, verifying Trotsky’s prognosis; the Russian Revolution proved that the workers would and must lead.

Here in the U.S., the debate around leadership of the revolution is not around worker vs. peasant; it is rather, which sector of the working class must lead the revolution.

Lenin anticipated polarized sectors within the working class in his Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism: “…it is quite possible to bribe the labour leaders and the upper stratum of the labour aristocracy. And the capitalists of the ‘advanced’ countries are bribing them; they bribe them in a thousand different ways, direct and indirect, overt and covert.”

“This stratum of ‘bourgeoisified’ workers, or the “labour aristocracy,” who are quite philistine in their mode of life, in the size of their earnings and in their outlook, serve as the principal prop of the Second International, and, in our days, the principal social (not military) prop of the bourgeoisie. They are the agents of the bourgeoisie in the labour movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class, real channels of reformism and chauvinism”

Lenin’s description anticipated what we clearly face today. An enormous capitalist bureaucracy proliferates in the U.S. But even that vast organism is not the main strength of the capitalist class. The pervasive power of American imperialism lies in its labour bureaucracy. And this bureaucracy is not merely a layer of misleaders, traitors, and gangsters, with links to the FBI, CIA and the Mafia. It is certainly all of that, but it is sustained by a huge, sociologically entrenched stratum of privileged straight white males (the labour aristocracy) who provide and engender enormous social support to the bourgeoisie

Clara Fraser, a founder of the FSP, defines this sociological phenomenon more specifically than Lenin could in 1920: “Given the class collaboration politics of the U.S. worker, the culture of bigotry and misogyny lock the privileged white males into a prison of conservative or slow reformism. White skin privilege, male chauvinism and heterosexism have turned millions of workers into lackeys of the boss, shorn of class consciousness and permeated with elitism. This is the social base of the labour bureaucracy.”

And Now To The Heart Of The Matter

True Trotskyists adhere to the Theory of Permanent Revolution. The “Back-to-the-Peasant” tendencies exemplified by Stalinists and former Trotskyists like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is indeed ‘back’–backward! This is crystal clear in the U.S. which has no peasantry.

What does it have? A new working class. As Fraser puts it: “The aristocrats of labour, the labor lieutenants of the capitalist class, are the ‘ebb tide’ sector in the labour movement, being swiftly replaced and ignored by the army of new worker militants from the ranks of women, youth, minorities, and lesbians and gays. These low-paid powerless strata are the majority and leading edge of the new American working class, and their consciousness is light years ahead of the moribund chauvinists.”

At one pole, then, stands this sinister union bureaucracy. At the other pole are the future leaders of the U.S. revolution–the most oppressed workers. And who are they? Women, people of color, the youth, lesbians and gays, elders, differently abled–all the oppressed who don’t have economic privileges to lose. They have nothing to lose but their chains!

As Weiss and Crisman say: “Women’s massive entry into the modern proletariat, their continuing existence as the most oppressed within each repressed sector–and their demonstrated will to fight it–have conjoined today to make female fighters the radicalising, unifying leaders of world anti-capitalist struggle.”

Herein lies the solution to the current crisis in leadership on the left. And herein lies the verification and life blood of Permanent Revolution.

The FSP has been saying this for 20 years—not because we are particularly visionary or predominantly women, but because we reject blindfolds and apply Marxist theory as it was meant to be applied: to ever changing realities.

Once upon a time, the vast majority of the U.S. working class were white male, blue-collar workers engaged in heavy industrial production. This is no longer true. The majority of work produced in this country is not in heavy industry, but in light industry–banking, communication, transportation, high-tech and services. And it is performed in the majority by women and people of colour in both the private and public sectors.

The FSP has said this over and over again to various Marxist tendencies. They reply that non industrial workers are not really workers, but just ‘kind-of’ workers. This redefinition of working class would astound Marx. But it explains how such Marxists relegate women workers to a peripheral rather than a central role in the revolution. In their myopic, schematic and deadbeat application of Marxist theory, women are not workers at all, so how could they possibly be leaders of a workers revolution!

Practically speaking, are we really to hope that our revolution rests in the shaky hands of a shrinking, conservatised sector of the U.S. proletariat, or in the hands of expanding, militant and radicalised women workers?

Take Off The Blindfolds, Gentlemen…

Women are 50% of the U.S. working class and together with their commonly oppressed people of colour and lesbian and gay co-workers, make up 75% of the entire work force. Women average 56% of men’s wages, people of colour average 70% of white wages.

This strength of numbers, combined with the heavy degree of shared exploitation, make the recognition of their leadership a matter of revolutionary expediency that cannot be ignored. It shows in the union movement.

In this Reaganesque era of concerted union-busting, predominantly male unions are losing and predominantly women’s and people of colour unions are winning, or at least holding fast. PATCO [the air traffic controllers’ union] went under, Greyhound drivers made deep compromises. Grocery industry Teamsters and Meatcutters are headed in the same direction. In Southern California, the union bureaucrats are negotiating two-tier contracts which will discriminate against women, minorities, and young workers. The Teamsters and Meatcutters have refused to call on Retail Clerks to strike with them, and are not picketing the majority of the struck stores because they don’t want to pressure the mostly women clerks to honour the picket line. Such sexist condescension to the rank and file Clerks, whose own bureaucrats equal the Teamsters’ underestimation of the women workers, is an outrage. It will also lose the strike.

On the winning side of labour struggles are the union women and people of colour. Hospital and hotel workers in New York City won their strikes. Clerical and technical workers on campus are winning union contracts for the first time. The backbone of the phone workers strike last year were the women–operators and clericals. Comparable Worth is gaining ground in union contracts. These are the workers who look to the future and who will push organised labour into the 21st century. The organised left, especially Trotskyists, who haven’t abandoned revolution to centuries hence, belong with this vanguard sector of our class.

…And Join The Whole Class

Most leftists at least pay lip service to the goal of equality for women, and many genuinely believe in it–at least personally. But when it comes to building and practicing women’s leadership in the revolutionary process, none but the FSP, as far as I know, does it. This is not only a pity but a counter-revolutionary travesty, intentional or not.

A case in point is the flaming struggle around abortion rights. Just as male Marxist try to banish women to the sidelines of the working class, so too do they sidestep around the critical issues of the women’s movement. Right her and now, feminists are fighting a heavy rightwing attack on abortion rights. But where is the support from our leftist allies? Token at best.

They are not to be seen on the front line, defending clinics from goonish demonstrators. They are not even supporting abortion defence in multi-issue coalitions such as last Spring’s April 20 coalition. In Los Angeles, every Trotskyist tendency except for the FSP and International Workers Party (4th International) (IWP), tail-ended the Stalinists and voted against including defence of abortion rights in the coalition’s rally slogans. These backstabbers included Socialist Action, Socialist Unity, Workers power and Fourth International Tendency (FIT). Several days later, these same leftists, who assured us that they  ‘personally’ support abortion rights, were nowhere to be seen as 15 of us found ourselves facing a rally of 5,000 Americans Against Abortion.

Such lack of solidarity frankly, stinks. Not to mention that it is thoroughly anti-Marxist. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to recognise that women’s right to abortion is a fundamental challenge to the nuclear family which is the socio-economic basis of capitalism. And it doesn’t take a genius to recognise that the anti-abortion assault is a ruling-class rightwing attack against the working class. As Trotskyist socialist feminists, we demand that other Trotskyists stop selling us out and join the struggle for abortion rights. Give some meaning to the ringing slogan of class solidarity–an injury to one is an injury to all!

The abortion struggle is just one example of how Permanent Revolution has struck deeply and boldly inside the imperialist heartland in new and unexpected ways, and in advance of the long-delayed proletarian overthrow itself. Fierce liberation struggles on issues of sex, race, sexuality and human relations have exploded in industrial countries. The attendant social, familial, and moral upheavals, which even Trotsky tended to regard as matters for post-capitalist society, batter again and again at the rotten hulk of bourgeois society. And all of these fights have infiltrated and integrated themselves into the proletarian struggle becoming in fact, its motor force.

Toward an American Revolution In Our Time

Revolutionary feminism is the only program and method that can truly unite the class and the Trotskyist movement, for it is a unity based on equality and mutual respect and not on a lower caste sacrificing itself for an upper caste. Women, people of colour, lesbians, youth, elders and differently abled just happen to be the most exploited sectors of the proletariat. We as Trotskyists are obliged to hoist our banner with them. As Murry Weiss wrote: “The vanguard revolutionaries–those who are linked to the most oppressed strata of people–will draw the masses after them and forge a mighty Marxist-Leninist Trotskyist-Socialist Feminist party that will be more than a match for the imperialists.”

“Such is the promise and the burning reality of the pivotal place of women contending for their own, and for everybody’s emancipation from a society they never made. Such is the reality of Permanent Revolution in our time.”

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