On the Centrality of Feminism to the Liberation of the Working Class

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When Jill Meagher was brutally kidnapped, raped and murdered just blocks from her Brunswick home late last year, the outrage was immense. A spontaneous “peace march” on September 30 attracted between 70,000 and 100,000 people, closing three kilometres of Sydney Road for hours. In the aftermath of this event, capitalist politicians fell over themselves, promising a law-and-order campaign and millions for CCTV surveillance.

In the light of this, a group of feminists came together to organise a Reclaim the Night (RTN) event. RTN is an annual protest targeting anti-woman violence. It has drawn modest attendance in recent years. But last year, on October 20, 7,000 men and women turned out. No one there raised demands or carried placards calling for more cops or CCTV. The focus was on systemic sexism as the root cause of such anti-woman hatred.

Seven thousand working people demanding an end to women’s oppression! That would be a good thing, wouldn’t it? Not according to some.

In the face of the welcome upsurge in the struggle for women’s liberation, two groups with very different political traditions, Socialist Alternative (SAlt) and the Spartacist League (SL), still view class through the same narrow, mid-20th century lens. That was a time when capitalism defined woman’s place to be in the kitchen, the union movement was dominated by straight, white men in blue overalls and the socialist movement was led by other straight white men for whom the question of systemic sexism barely merited a thought.

Socialist Alternative found itself under sustained criticism after it actively chose to stay away from the RTN rally and then sought to excuse this abstention in an article written by Louise O’Shea. (Google Jill Meagher, Reclaim the Night and the political right.)

The article begins by correctly criticising the State’s law-and-order agenda, promoted through its usual agents—the media, local and state governments and police. That is in the first sentence. After that, logic is abandoned, and a quite dishonest and vicious smear of the RTN organisers begins. In paragraph after paragraph, O’Shea manages to insinuate that the organisers are racist, because they protested brutality against a white woman. They are divisive of the working class, because they mobilised around the killing of, according to O’Shea, a “middle class” woman. They are supporters of the State, because the State announced repressive measures in response to the murder. Between RTN speakers and the sea of placards, the connection of racism, sexism and class exploitation was made crystal clear. If SAlt had been there, they would have known this. But SAlt’s leadership chose to abstain, and O’Shea’s article was an attempt to justify that abstention.

A young woman, Fox Smoulder, responded in an open letter. She eloquently took apart SAlt’s positions and called it out on what was effectively an apology for rape and murder. As Fox says, “The notion that an outpouring of community grief and anger at this event is hysterical is disgusting. WE SHOULD ALWAYS BE THIS UPSET WHEN SOMEONE IS MURDERED OR RAPED.”

How could a self-styled socialist group end up wallowing in misogyny? We’ll get to that.

The Spartacist League (SL) lumbered into the debate with a typically inaccessible wordy piece full of internal Left language and hyper-revolutionary phrases, which disguise its near-complete abstention from “proletarian revolutionary” struggle. SL grudgingly concedes that defending the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne is a good thing, but then implies that the working class does not lead the defence—organised at various time by Radical Women and Campaign for Women’s Reproductive Rights and supported by the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP). SL could not know anything about the clinic defence, because they have been conspicuously absent at the monthly action since it began nearly eight years ago. SL rightly points out the illogic of SAlt’s insinuation that everybody attending an action such as RTN has the same political motivation: “Their argument that because Meagher was a pretty, white petty bourgeois woman, any mobilisation around her murder would inherently have a rightwing logic effectively dismisses all those who demonstrated as one reactionary mass.”

For the SL to describe Jill Meagher as “pretty” is sexist objectification. As for Jill Meagher being “petty bourgeois” (SAlt calls her “middle class”), she was an employee of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She had no ownership of the means of production. She was a worker. The tendency of some socialist writers to view public servants as inherently middle class is part of the same erroneous political philosophy that leads them to characterise all feminists as “bourgeois.” For all their other disagreements, these two groups are united in their abstention from the struggle for women’s liberation. That’s why they both fail to comprehend the depth of outrage over rape and murder and target the organisers of the RTN protest, rather than the prevailing sexist bourgeois culture that condones such violence.

Earlier in its piece, the SL had already declared its basic agreement with SAlt’s main line: “Feminism holds that the main division in society is between men and women rather than classes, that is, the capitalist class versus the working class. Denying the primacy of class divisions in society, feminism is a bourgeois ideology that views women’s oppression as a set of bad ideas and policies stemming from the existing patriarchy.”

SL then falls into the same logical hole as SAlt: just because some feminists are pro-capitalist (“bourgeois”) does not make feminism pro-capitalist. Similarly, if there were a few pro-capitalist people at RTN (neither can give evidence of this), this doesn’t make RTN a mouthpiece for the State.

Revolutionary feminism. To dismiss all feminists as bourgeois, as SAlt, SL and some other socialists do, is a nonsensical position based on a failure to understand the dual nature of sexism.

Women from all classes—even ruling class women—experience discrimination based on their sex. As evidence we only need look to the treatment of Kate Middleton as a breeding machine, whose only role in life is to produce heirs for the monarchy, or to ANZ chief, Gail Kelly, the only woman to head up one of Australia’s big four banks who, not coincidently, is the lowest paid. It is the cross-class nature of sexism that gives women’s struggle its character independent of the class struggle.

However, for most women—those not part of the tiny ruling class—sexism interlocks with class exploitation, sharply intensifying the way inequality is experienced. That’s where its dual nature comes from. The class nature of sexism means that women from the ruling class enjoy the benefits of a materially different world, thanks to the dispossession and oppression of the majority, especially women. For the majority of women, sex and class are indivisible parts of their struggle for equality. The fight to win liberation goes head-to-head with a patriarchal class-divided profit system. This is the revolutionary dialectics of sexism and its nemesis, feminism.

The founders of the FSP applied Marxism to develop the theory of revolutionary socialist feminism. This groundbreaking work flowed from a longstanding concern with the “Woman Question” among female members of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP). FSP leaders, Clara Fraser and Susan Williams, describe this in the 1978 essay, “Socialist Feminism: Where the Battle of the Sexes Resolves Itself,” published by Red Letter Press in Revolution, She Wrote: “Throughout the late 1940s and the ’50s, when women were herded back to kinder, kirche and küche, the woman question was kept alive by a handful of Trotskyist women in the SWP. … These are the women who coined the term ‘socialist feminism’ to distinguish their advanced politics from single-issue, civil rights feminism, and from the anti-communist sector of the ‘radical feminists.’ ”

In the same essay, Fraser and Williams explain: “Feminism, like the struggle against racism, is at once independent of and dialectically interwoven with the class struggle. For this reason, feminism unites the class struggle. This makes it revolutionary.”

The FSP’s appreciation of the dual nature of sexism led it to characterise those with a narrow view of class struggle, who fail to relate to the diversity of oppression experienced by the working class, as radical labourite. “Labourite” because they hold that only the workplace (and the issues surrounding it) is the correct focus for working class struggle. “Radical” because they come from the tradition of revolutionary socialism and bring this militancy to the union movement.

Radical Labourism is based on the outdated and sexist—as well as homophobic and racist—view of the working class that never really coincided with the reality of the global working class. That is, that it is primarily male, white, straight and is concentrated in heavy industry.

A woman is not liberated from sexism when she walks through the door of her unionised workplace. It would be great if that were so, but we all know the reality. Neither is she liberated from the problems of a low-paid job when she walks through her own front door. In fact, there she faces a double burden. This is all obvious if one does not face the issues through the prism of a male-centred view of the working class.

The majority of people who work on this planet, either as waged workers, contractors, subsistence farmers or other toilers is female. That is why the struggle for a feminist viewpoint is so important.

Feminism—an unbroken chain. At the core of the issue is a fundamental difference concerning the nature of the working class, going back to the early part of last century, when the first wave of a mass feminist movement blasted onto scene. Women workers toiled in appalling conditions and were on the front lines of militancy, organising unions and striking. This inspired socialist women to found International Women’s Day in 1910 (see page 14). In the centres of capitalism, women still did not have the right to vote, and they fought for this democratic right as a weapon in their battle for equality and freedom.

Then came two world wars, the Great Depression, revolutions, the Cold War and many national liberation struggles. While the feminist upsurge slowed, a few communist women in Europe, the United States and Australia kept the struggle alive, keeping the vision clear.

And then came the social explosions of the 1960s in the capitalist heartlands, including the Civil Rights movement, the Women’s Liberation movement and the Gay Liberation movement.

These movements arose because the nature of the workforce had changed. Women workers, needed by capitalism, were suffocating under the racist, sexist, anti-homosexual capitalist establishment. These were not anti-capitalist movements, although there were strong anti-capitalist currents in all of them.

As Gloria Martin, organiser of FSP’s Seattle branch in that period, explained in Socialist Feminism: The First Decade 1966 – 76: “The major distinction between us and other SWP women was that we did not consider our feminist anger, resentment and strong sense of injustice to be atypical or exceptional among women in general. We knew our advanced consciousness and knowledge of super-exploitation were not far ahead of the mass, and in 1950 we were already urging the SWP to gear up programmatically and strategically for the coming massive eruption of women into the arena of social protest.”

The SWP majority did not listen to Fraser and other socialist feminists in their ranks. They, along with the other straight, white leaders of the socialist movement—still with their view that the working class was straight, white, male and worked in heavy industry—were caught by surprise when women’s liberation exploded. They cast around for theoretical explanations. Rather than applying the ideas of those Marxist thinkers such as Engels, Bebel and Marx, whose theory underpins socialist feminism, they found answers that suited their radical labourite world view in the writings of other early socialist leaders, whose ideas reflected the sexism of their time.

But they used these arguments anyway. That’s why they reappear in the Socialist Alternative article and in the Spartacist piece. Now that there is a rejuvenation of the feminist movement, we still hear positions that are 100 years old applied to a working class that has utterly changed in its composition, education and attitudes.

That is how supposedly socialist groups end up wallowing in misogyny. They point blank refuse to acknowledge that the labour force is more and more feminised, not only in its composition but also in its psychology. Capitalism remains capitalism, but there is nothing in the socialist literature that suggests that the working class has to remain frozen in time—except in the anachronistic point of view of certain male-centred groups.

Socialist feminism—a unifying idea. People outside the established socialist movement often think that sectarianism is defined by debates over theory and interpretation. It’s not. These debates are healthy and build working class leadership.

Sectarianism, in the views of most Marxist writers, is the separation of yourself and your group from the working class itself. This may or may not be accompanied by a tendency to lecture on the correctness of one’s isolated position versus the “non-revolutionary” positions adopted by those still involved in the everyday struggle.

And so ultimately, the position of both SAlt and the SL is the same sectarian attitude to the struggle for women’s liberation that they and their predecessors held when the movement was erupting in the 1960s.

They didn’t understand it then, and they don’t understand it now. Socialist feminism, which sprang from the interaction of the old Left and the newly radicalised working class feminist activists of the 1960s, has nothing in common with any bourgeois ideology. Rather than dividing the working class along gender lines, socialist feminism unites it along class lines, because the majority of the working class is female. As Gloria Martin put it: capitalism is what divides the working class—“not my poor enslaved sex that to this day gets blamed for everything from original sin to robbing men of their manhood! And we uppity women, who will no longer take this chauvinist shit from workers and radicals, are showing both how to seal the fissure, not deepen it.”

What is divisive is male-centred, old Left thinking that sidelines women’s demands and pretends that the social upheavals of the last 50 years didn’t happen.

The Freedom Socialist Party welcomes the upsurge in feminist organising in Melbourne and we intend to be active participants. We recognise, and seek to build, women’s leadership. We want to recruit people to our Marxist feminism and we want to put woman’s liberation at the centre of the struggle for revolutionary change. If you’re interested in this project, contact us!

Contact Debbie and Peter at freedom.socialist.party@ozemail.com.au

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