Women’s Movement and Communist Party: Basics Revisited

(The following is Part-I of a three-part paper written in preparation for a Party School soon to be organised for leading women cadres of the party. We will carry the rest of the paper in subsequent issues of Liberation. – Ed/-)

“Woman, wake up; the tocsin of reason is being heard throughout the whole universe; discover your rights. … Enslaved man has multiplied his strength and needs recourse to yours to break his chains. Having become free, he has become unjust to his companion. Oh, women, women! When will you cease to be blind?”

This was Olympe de Gouges speaking at the height of the French Revolution. The quotation is from her Declaration of the Rights of Woman (1791), a rejoinder to the Constituent Assembly’s Declaration of the Rights of Man adopted earlier. The very next year would see the publication of the epoch-making A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. de Gouges and Wollstonecraft were certainly not the first in fighting for the women’s cause -- early figures like Mary Astell (authoress of A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694)) easily come to mind – and certainly not the last. Many of them were magnificent visionaries. Wollstonecraft for example argued convincingly for equal suffrage for women and criticised the male prejudices of stalwarts like J J Rousseau who was against this. What these valiant fighters lacked was a scientific understanding of the actual causes of woman’s bondage and the real conditions for her emancipation. But this was no fault of theirs. Such an understanding could evolve only in the middle of the 19th century when, thanks to developments like the advent of the modern proletariat, great breakthroughs in natural and social sciences and so on, dialectical materialism, materialist interpretation of history and scientific socialism emerged. Marxism and its organisational embodiment, the communist party, now began to add a new revolutionary dimension to the centuries-old struggle for women’s enlightenment and emancipation -- not by supplying a novel and special ‘theory’ or floating a new banner, but by connecting it, more closely than ever before and both on the planes of consciousness and organisation, with the united movement of all the downtrodden for revolutionary transformation of the entire oppressive social order. Parallel to this communist movement, the autonomous women’s movement also forged ahead, both streams benefiting from a cordial relation of unity and struggle.

The Holistic Approach

Questions of man- woman relationship, of women’s bondage and liberation, have been an integral part, a central component, of the Marxist worldview right from its formative stage. “The direct, natural, and necessary relation of person to person” -- writes the young Marx in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 -- “is the relation of man to woman. In this natural relationship of the sexes man’s relation to nature is immediately his relation to man ... In this relationship, therefore, is sensuously manifested, reduced to an observable fact, the extent to which the human essence has become nature to man ... From this relationship one can therefore judge man’s whole level of development ... the extent to which he in his individual existence is at the same time a social being.” One can cite many instances to show that Marx retained and developed this viewpoint in later years. But we shall avoid that and come straight to Marxism’s magnum opus on the subject: Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State by Frederick Engels (henceforth Origin). To an extent it was a joint work of Engels and Marx, for the former drew liberally on the latter’s extensive notes on Lewis H. Morgan’s Ancient Society (1877), on which Origin is mainly based.

Published in 1884, Origin analyses the oppression of women in terms of (a) the relationship between the modes of subsistence/ production and procreation and (b) the connection between forms of the family on one hand and systems of property ownership and the state on the other. This is clearly spelt out in the preface to the first edition:

“According to the materialist conception the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life. This again is of a two-fold character. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, articles of food and clothing, dwellings and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organisation under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular community live is determined by both kinds of production, by the stage of development of labour on the one hand and of the family on the other.”

In this perspective, let us now take a short tour across Engels’ basic teachings on the subject. Save the subheadings, a few obvious insertions on our part and the last paragraph which seeks to summarise the relevant observations of Marx, Engels and Lenin, what follows in this instalment are excerpted entirely from Origin, with very nominal editing.

Stages in the Evolution of Family

“The Consanguine Family developed from the primitive state of promiscuous intercourse. Here only ancestors and progeny, and parents and children, are excluded from the rights and duties (as we should say) of marriage with one another. Brothers and sisters, male and female cousins of the first, second, and more remote degrees, are all brothers and sisters of one another, and precisely for that reason they are all husbands and wives of one another.

“The Punaluan Family (Punalua = companion, partner; with the husbands as a group addressing each other as Punalua and the wives also doing the same). If the first advance in organization consisted in the exclusion of parents and children from sexual intercourse with one another, the second was the exclusion of sister and brother. On account of the greater nearness in age, this second advance was infinitely more important, but also more difficult, than the first. It was effected gradually, beginning probably with the exclusion from sexual intercourse of own brothers and sisters (children of the same mother) first in isolated cases and then by degrees as a general rule …and ending with the prohibition of marriage even between … first, second, and third cousins. Thus emerged group marriage.

“In all forms of group family it is uncertain who the father of a child is; but it is certain who its mother is. Though she calls all the children of the whole family her children and has a mother’s duties towards them, she nevertheless knows her own children from the others. Therefore, in so far as group marriage prevails, descent can only be proved on the mother’s side and that therefore only the female line is recognized. This is called mother right.

“The Pairing Family emerged because gradually the gens developed and the classes of “brothers” and “sisters” between whom marriage was impossible became more numerous. At this stage, one man lives with one woman, but the relationship is such that polygamy and occasional infidelity remain the right of the men, even though for economic reasons polygamy is rare, while from the woman the strictest fidelity is generally demanded throughout the time she lives with the man, and adultery on her part is cruelly punished. The marriage tie can, however, be easily dissolved by either partner; after separation, the children still belong, as before, to the mother alone.

“Thus the evolution of the family in prehistoric times consists in the progressive narrowing of the circle, originally embracing the whole tribe, within which the two sexes have a common conjugal relation. The continuous exclusion, first of nearer, then of more and more remote relatives, and at last even of relatives by marriage, ends by making any kind of group marriage practically impossible. Finally, there remains only the single, still loosely linked pair.

“The pairing family, itself too weak and unstable to make an independent household necessary or even desirable, in no wise destroys the communistic household inherited from earlier times. Communistic housekeeping, however, means the supremacy of women in the house; just as the exclusive recognition of the female parent, owing to the impossibility of recognizing the male parent with certainty, means that the women -- the mothers -- are held in high respect. Among all savages and all barbarians of the lower and middle stages, and to a certain extent of the upper stage also, the position of women is not only free, but honourable.

“Gradually with the domestication of animals, introduction of cattle breeding, working up of metals, weaving and field cultivation, sources of wealth increased. The iron plough made it possible to cultivate larger tracts of land; for this and for other work slaves (taken from the vanquished foes, for example) came to be used more and more. In proportion as wealth (including the slaves) increased, it made the man’s position in the family more important than the woman’s, and on the other hand created an impulse to exploit this strengthened position in order to overthrow, in favour of his children, the traditional order of inheritance. This, however, was impossible so long as descent was reckoned according to mother-right. Mother-right, therefore, had to be overthrown, and overthrown it was. And this was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. This degraded position of the woman has gradually been embellished and glozed over, and sometimes clothed in a milder form; in no sense has it been abolished. Thus arose the patriarchal family based on paternal power.

Such a form of the family shows the transition of the pairing family to monogamy. In order to guarantee the fidelity of the wife, that is the paternity of the children, the woman is placed in the men’s absolute power; if he kills her, he is but exercising his right.

“The Monogamous Family

It is based on the supremacy of the man, the express purpose being to produce children of undisputed paternity; such paternity is demanded because these children are later to come into their father’s property as his natural heirs. It is distinguished from pairing marriage by the much greater strength of the marriage tie, which can no longer be dissolved at either partner’s wish. As a rule, it is now only the man who can dissolve it, and cast off his wife. The right of conjugal infidelity remains his even now.

“As we learn from, for example, Greek history, it was the existence of slavery side-by-side with monogamy, the existence of beautiful young slaves who belonged to the man, that from the very beginning stamped on monogamy its specific character as monogamy only for the woman, but not for the man. And it retains this character to this day.

    • (Box:

“… monogamous marriage first makes its appearance in history not as the reconciliation of man and woman but as the subjugation of the one sex by the other. It announces a struggle between the sexes unknown throughout the whole previous prehistoric period. In an old unpublished manuscript, written by Marx and myself in 1846, [The reference here is to German Ideology – A Sen] I find the words: “The first division of labour is that between man and woman for the propagation of children.” And today I can add: The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male. Monogamous marriage was a great historical step forward; nevertheless, together with slavery and private wealth, it opens the period that has lasted until today in which every step forward is also relatively a step backward, in which prosperity and development for some is won through the misery and frustration of others. It is the cellular form of civilized society, in which the nature of the oppositions and contradictions fully active in that society can be already studied.”

- Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State)

“Monogamy was not in any way the fruit of individual sex-love; marriages remained as before marriages of convenience. It was the first form of the family to be based, not on natural, but on economic conditions – on the victory of private property over primitive, natural communal property. The Greeks themselves put the matter quite frankly: the sole aim of monogamous marriage was to make the man supreme in the family, and to propagate, as the future heirs to his wealth, children indisputably his own….”

However, it is just not possible to retain a whole apple in one’s hand after eating half. “But that seems to have been the husbands’ notion, until their wives taught them better. With monogamous marriage, two constant social types, unknown hitherto, make their appearance on the scene – the wife’s attendant lover and the cuckold (a man whose wife has committed adultery) husband. The husbands had won the victory over the wives, but the act of crowning the victor was magnanimously undertaken by the vanquished. Together with monogamous marriage and hetaerism (extramarital sexual intercourse by men), adultery became an unavoidable social institution – denounced, severely penalized, but impossible to suppress.”

What Next?

Both Marx and Engels were acutely aware of the family as a site of gender oppression. But their views on the future of family as a socio-economic institution evolved over time. The Communist Manifesto (1848) flatly announced that “The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course” with the disappearance of capitalism. Probably this referred to the existing bourgeois form of family. In Principles of Communism (1847) Engels had been a bit more elaborate:

“It [communist society] will transform the relations between the sexes into a purely private matter which concerns only the persons involved and into which society has no occasion to intervene. It can do this since it does away with private property and educates children on a communal basis, and in this way removes the two bases of traditional marriage, the dependence, rooted in private property, of the woman on the man and of the children on the parents.”

It was, however, only in Origin that one gets a deep, thoroughgoing discussion of the question:

“We thus have three principal forms of marriage which correspond broadly to the three principal stages of human development. For the period of savagery, group marriage; for barbarism, pairing marriage; for civilization, monogamy, supplemented by adultery and prostitution. Between pairing marriage and monogamy intervenes a period in the upper stage of barbarism when men have female slaves at their command and polygamy is practiced.

“As our whole presentation has shown, the progress which manifests itself in these successive forms is connected with the peculiarity that women, but not men, are increasingly deprived of the sexual freedom of group marriage. In fact, for men group marriage actually still exists even to this day. Paradoxically, however, it demoralizes men far more than women. Among women, prostitution degrades only the unfortunate ones who become its victims, and even these by no means to the extent commonly believed. But it degrades the character of the whole male world.

“We are now approaching a social revolution in which the economic foundations of monogamy as they have existed hitherto will disappear just as surely as those of its complement -- prostitution. Monogamy arose from the concentration of considerable wealth in the hands of a single individual -- and a man at that -- and from the need to bequeath this wealth to the children of that man and of no other. But by transforming by far the greater portion of permanent, heritable wealth – the means of production – into social property, the coming social revolution will reduce to a minimum all this anxiety about bequeathing and inheriting. Since monogamy arose from economic causes, will it disappear when these causes disappear?

“One might answer, not without reason: far from disappearing, it will, on the contrary, be realized completely. For with the transformation of the means of production into social property will also disappear wage-labour, the proletariat, and therefore the necessity for a certain number of women to surrender themselves for money. Prostitution disappears; monogamy, instead of collapsing, at last becomes a reality –for men as well.”

And it is not only the position of men that will be radically altered. “...the position of women, of all women, also undergoes significant change. With the transfer of the means of production into common ownership, the single family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of the children becomes a public affair; society looks after all children alike, whether they are legitimate or not. This removes all the anxiety about the ‘consequences,’ which today is the most essential social – moral as well as economic – factor that prevents a girl from giving herself completely to the man she loves. Will not that suffice to bring about the gradual growth of unconstrained sexual intercourse and with it a more tolerant public opinion in regard to a maiden’s honour and a woman’s shame? And, finally, have we not seen that in the modern world monogamy and prostitution are indeed contradictions, but inseparable contradictions, poles of the same state of society? Can prostitution disappear without dragging monogamy with it into the abyss?”

Abolition of monogamy -- of marriage as such -- is thus a real possibility. We may remember that the Communist Manifesto had flatly announced this. But in Origin Engels, while emphasising that there is bound to be a radical change in the nature of the man-woman relationship, refuses to be very definitive about the future. He weighs another possibility:
“Here a new element comes into play, an element which, at the time when monogamy was developing, existed at most in embryo: individual sex-love.

Our sex love differs essentially from the simple sexual desire, the Eros, of the ancients. In the first place, it assumes that the person loved returns the love; to this extent the woman is on an equal footing with the man, whereas in the Eros of antiquity she was often not even asked. Secondly, our sexual love has a degree of intensity and duration which makes both lovers feel that non-possession and separation are a great, if not the greatest, calamity; to possess one another, they risk high stakes, even life itself. In the ancient world this happened only, if at all, in adultery. And, finally, there arises a new moral standard in the judgment of a sexual relationship. We do not only ask, was it within or outside marriage? But also, did it spring from love and reciprocated love or not? Seldom practised though, the moral standard is at least recognized in theory, on paper. And for the present more than this cannot be expected.”

In future, of course, conditions can change:

“…full freedom of marriage can …be generally established when the abolition of capitalist production and of the property relations created by it has removed all the accompanying economic considerations which still exert such a powerful influence on the choice of a marriage partner. For then there is no other motive left except mutual affection.

“And as sex love is by its nature exclusive – although at present this exclusiveness is fully realized only in the woman – the marriage based on sex love is by its nature monogamy. If now the economic considerations also disappear which made women put up with the habitual infidelity of their husbands – concern for their own means of existence and still more for their children’s future – then, according to all previous experience, the equality of woman thereby achieved will tend infinitely more to make men really monogamous than to make women polyandrous.

“What will most definitely disappear from monogamy, however, is all the characteristics stamped on it in consequence of its having arisen out of property relationships. These are, first, the dominance of the man, and secondly, the indissolubility of marriage. The predominance of the man in marriage is simply a consequence of his economic predominance and will vanish with it automatically. The indissolubility of marriage is partly the result of the economic conditions under which monogamy arose, and partly a tradition from the time when the connection between these economic conditions and monogamy was not yet correctly understood and was exaggerated by religion. Today it has been breached a thousand-fold. If only marriages that are based on love are moral, then also only those are moral in which love continues. The duration of the urge of individual sex love differs very much according to the individual, particularly among men; and a definite cessation of affection, or its displacement by a new passionate love, makes separation a blessing for both parties as well as for society. People will only be spared the experience of wading through the useless mire of divorce proceedings.”

For the rest, however, Engels leaves the question open to solution by those more qualified than himself, viz. the men and women to come:

“Thus, what we can conjecture at present about the regulation of sex relationships after the impending effacement of capitalist production is, in the main, of a negative character, limited mostly to what will vanish. But what will be added? That will be settled after a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in all their lives have had occasion to purchase a woman’s surrender either with money or with any other means of social power, and of women who have never been obliged to surrender to any man out of any consideration other than that of real love, or to refrain from giving themselves to their beloved for fear of the economic consequences. Once such people appear, they will not care a rap about what we today think they should do. They will establish their own practice and their own public opinion, conformable therewith, on the practice of each individual – and that’s the end of it.”

Family, Private Property and State - The Triad of Oppression

Above we have seen how gender oppression gets institutionalised in the family with the accumulation of private property and emergence of classes. This world-historic process of transition from primitive communal/communist society to class society naturally assumes different particular forms in different parts of the earth. In our country for example, class was intermingled with the Varna order and later the caste system, making oppression on women especially cruel and stubborn. But in addition to class (and in our country, caste) we must take a look at another product of the selfsame social evolution: the state. As Engels shows in Origin,

“... in order that these antagonisms and classes with conflicting economic interests might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power seemingly standing above society that would alleviate the conflict, and keep it within the bounds of “order”; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.”

An instrument in the hands of the exploiting and ruling classes to hold in subjugation the numerically much stronger toiling classes, the state too, like the family and forms of private property, passed through successive stages of evolution. From city states to kingdoms (queen’s rule was an exception because mother right had long been abolished and all inheritance was from the father to the son) to modern parliamentary democracy, the form has been changing a lot, but the content has remained essentially the same. As before, the state pretends neutrality but serves the rich and the powerful. It protects and promotes the male domination prevalent in society: the laws, the courts, the police, the military and the entire system of governance are biased against women. Women along with all oppressed sections and classes naturally find themselves engaged in a bitter struggle against the state and, led by the communist party, smash it to pieces. Its place is then taken by the revolutionary proletarian state which exercises dictatorship over the overthrown but not-yet-annihilated bourgeoisie and ensures genuine equality and democracy for all working people including, of course, the women. As post-revolutionary society advances from the lower to the higher stage of socialism/communism, as remnants of classes and class struggle gradually die out, the state as an instrument of class rule also loses its raison d’etre and withers away; just as the family as we know it today gets dissolved or transformed beyond recognition. Society reorganises production on the basis of a free and equal association of producers and the human race is ultimately freed from all kinds of exploitation and oppression. 

(To be continued)

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