Women’s Movement and Communist Party: Basics Revisited

(Continued from last issue)

In the progress from group marriage to pairing marriage it was women who took the lead because the former proved extremely oppressive and degrading for them. Ironically, with the development of productive forces (the iron plough for example), generation of surplus product (particularly in agriculture) and accumulation of private property (cattle, slaves, land etc.) the pairing family proved to be a transition to monogamous family, which institutionalised women’s bondage. Gender, class and then state oppression have always been closely connected, and so must be the struggle against the oppressive triad. Such in nutshell was what we learned in Part I. Now we should extend the discussion beyond Origin to cover the present – that is, capitalist – age, but not before taking a brief glance at conditions of women in India of old.

Broadly approximating the universal trend, women in our country journeyed from a position of relative freedom to progressively tightening bondage. This was true both within the Vedic period (which spanned some 17 or 18 centuries from the 12th century BC to the 5th century AD) and the periods that followed. During the pastoral nomadic life as described in the Rgveda (the earliest of the Vedas) women participated in productive labour outside home and enjoyed relative freedom. The Rgveda takes note of what is now called incest between father and daughter as well as brother and sister (e.g. Yama and Yami). After Aryans settled down to an agricultural life, with the introduction of plough on a very fertile soil and the resumption of maritime trade with the Middle East, Greece and Rome, considerable wealth accumulated in the hands of a minority. Women, those from the upper classes and varnas to begin with, came to be divorced from productive labour (this was facilitated by the use of slave labour) and made subservient to the male breadwinner -- father/brother/husband/son. By this time or simultaneously with this process, women had been deprived of the right to education and artistic/literary vocations. Their seclusion in the inner chambers of the wealthy families, where unrelated males had no access, ensured patrilineal inheritance to legitimate sons only.

At least since the 8th century BC or thereabouts, women had as a rule no right to property. And not even to her own body. “When a wife refuses to satisfy her husband’s sexual desire”, says Yagnavalkya, “he should first speak soft words, then try to purchase her with gifts, and if she still refuses he should thrash her with his hand or with a stick and force her into subjugation.” (Compare this to Verse 34 of an-Nisa, which says a husband should urge his reluctant wife to mend her ways, refuse to share beds with her, and admonish her by beating). Polygamy was widely practised: Manu was credited with ten wives. Prostitution, abduction of women, leniency towards men’s sexual lapses as contrasted against the severe punishments meted out to women for similar or lesser lapses, discrimination against the girl child and social ostracisation of mothers who begot only girls, dowry (which was generously sanctioned while kanyashulka, very rare by itself, was discouraged), sati -- you name it and the ancient texts have it.

As the stories of rsikas like Gargi and Maitreyi tell us, in the early Vedic period women from higher strata participated in religious practices as well as theological-philosophical studies and debates. But this freedom was circumscribed by male domination. Recall the well-known episode of Gargi- Yagnavalkya debate. When the former cornered the latter – a more renowned sage – in logical arguments, she was silenced by an unwarranted censure: “stop questioning any further, or else your head will fall down.”

However, Gargi at least had the right to participate in an open debate with a religious scholar. In our age, when at a public religious function held in Kolkata in 1993 Professor Sukumari Bhattacharji was about to recite from the Vedas as scheduled, the Shankaracharya of Puri rudely stopped her. Women are not allowed to read the Vedas, he ordered. But if this showed the negative trend – the continued and in some cases tightened grip of Brahmanical patriarchy – the positive aspect was also there. Gargi had no one to rise in her support; in the case of Smt. Bhattacharji (incidentally, it is from her excellent book “Women and Society in Ancient India” that we have gathered most of the information used in the section) the insult was strongly rebuffed by AIPWA comrades. The very next day they stormed the hotel where the Shankaracharya was staying and gave him a sound thrashing in the presence of mediapersons. The AIDWA was nowhere to be seen, but the incident sparked protests from all progressive and democratic quarters.

From Yagnavalkya through Manu to the Shankaracharyas (past and present, and Singhals and Togadias), Brahmanism-Hinduism-Hindutva have consistently served to legitimise and intensify gender oppression in this country. While this has been generally true for all religions all over the world, in certain periods class struggle in the ideological realm found expression, among other things, in the rise of relatively progressive faiths or sects. In our context mention may be made of Buddhism and Jainism – which gave women a place of honour including eligibility for admission to the religious order – and the bhakti movement which sought to weaken the grip of Brahmanism and thereby also to somewhat improve women’s status. Particularly notable was Sikhism, which in its initial period enjoyed the patronage of Emperor Akbar. Sikh Scriptures declared women to be men’s equal, with the right to lead religious congregations, to take part in the akhand path, to work as a granthi, to participate in social and secular activities, and so on. Female infanticide was prohibited, and use of the veil, sutak (the custom of keeping a woman in solitary confinement after childbirth) etc. discouraged. The precepts were, however, practised only partially. As time passed casteist and other influences from Hinduism infiltrated Sikhism in a large measure, making the positions of women as well as lower caste men more or less equal to their counterparts professing other religious faiths.

These and similar experiences in other faiths including Islam shows that women’s subordination was not created by religion nor can it be abolished by religious or humanitarian preaching. It originated from given socio-economic conditions of class societies and can be done away with only on the basis of revolutionary transformation of those conditions.

The universal as well as peculiarly Indian modes of oppression on women, which arose in ancient times, in most cases became more intensified during the mediaeval period and have continued to this day in what Engels called “embellished” forms. We cannot discuss the entire process here; it would be more pertinent to come straight to the basic socio-economic mechanism of exploitation of women in our era.

(Most of the information used here is from "Women and Society in Ancient India" by Professor Sukumari Bhattacharji)

Women under Capitalism: Advancement and Retrogression

“... the first premise for the emancipation of women”, wrote Engels in Origin, “is the re-introduction of the entire female sex into public industry, and this again demands that the quality possessed by the individual family of being the economic unit of society be abolished.” Compared to feudalism, capitalism opens up broader avenues for the “reintroduction” of women into industries and services, and here lies a progressive potential, an expanded scope for carrying forward the struggle for women’s liberation. But far from “abolishing” the character of family as “the economic unit of society”, the capitalist mode of production reinforces this as one of its prime economic requirements. Here is where capitalism obstructs/negates the potential it otherwise creates and acts as a retrogressive force. Let us see how.

Under capitalism, wage is determined not by the value of what the worker produces, but by the sum of the values of necessaries required to maintain the worker and his/her family (maintenance of the family is required to guarantee uninterrupted supply of labour power through generations). Now what are these necessaries? Not just food, cloth – but preparation of the food, stitching of the cloth, care of the dependent (children, the elderly and the sick), emotional sustenance and so on. When a woman provides the major part of these necessaries as an obligatory and unpaid function of her role as wife and mother, then the capitalist does not have to pay for these services (of cooking, childcare, nursing etc.). The domestic tasks performed by women is thus an invisible, unaccounted component of necessary labour, which remains unpaid, and helps keep the costs of the means of subsistence of the worker (with family) down. In other words, it helps keep the general wage level down.

For the capitalist the proletarian family is thus merely the site for low-cost reproduction of labour power. Even in the most advanced capitalist societies – and in the most ‘modern’ and wealthy families in countries like ours – women bear a disproportionate share of domestic work. This is perceived as a “private” matter, but objectively it is an essential part of capitalist exploitation. And this explains why in countries like the USA, as well as in semi-feudal ones like ours, “the family” is held in such high esteem.

In addition to such indirect exploitation of women in the family, capitalism also directly exploits women workers. Marx in Capital gives a graphic account of how this occurs/occurred in backdated as well as more mechanised methods of production:

“Before the labour of women and of children under 10 years of age was forbidden in mines, capitalists considered the employment of naked women and girls, often in company with men, so far sanctioned by their moral code, and especially by their ledgers, that it was only after the passing of the Act that they had recourse to machinery.... In England women are still occasionally used instead of horses for hauling canal boats, because the labour required to produce horses and machines is an accurately known quantity, while that required to maintain the women of the surplus-population is below all calculation. Hence nowhere do we find a more shameful squandering of human labour-power for the most despicable purposes than in England, the land of machinery. …

“In so far as machinery dispenses with muscular power, it becomes a means of employing labourers of slight muscular strength, and those whose bodily development is incomplete, but whose limbs are all the more supple. The labour of women and children was, therefore, the first thing sought for by capitalists who used machinery….

“The value of labour-power was determined, not only by the labour-time necessary to maintain the individual adult labourer, but also by that necessary to maintain his family. Machinery, by throwing every member of that family on to the labour-market, spreads the value of the man’s labour-power over his whole family. It thus depreciates his labour-power. To purchase the labour-power of a family of four workers may, perhaps, cost more than it formerly did to purchase the labour-power of the head of the family, but, in return, four days’ labour takes the place of one…. In order that the family may live, four people must now, not only labour, but expend surplus-labour for the capitalist. Thus we see, that machinery, while augmenting the human material that forms the principal object of capital’s exploiting power, at the same time raises the degree of exploitation….”

These changes, however, also lead to significant changes within familial relations:

“Previously, the workman sold his own labour-power, which he disposed of nominally as a free agent. Now he sells wife and child. He has become a slave-dealer....” [In a footnote Marx here adds that whereas the shortening of the hours of labour of women and children in English factories was exacted from capital by the male operatives, they often acted also in an opposite way – like slave-dealers – in relation to their children – A Sen]

Capitalism thus has an inherently contradictory approach towards women. On one hand it respects no social niceties, and seeks to draw women and even children into social production. On the other, it suppresses the wage level by having women’s unpaid domestic labour subsidise the reproduction of workers’ labour. Their being tied to domestic labour provides the pretext for them to be paid less at the workplace too. The male-female wage differential is a common feature to be observed in capitalistically more as well as less advanced countries. And lastly, women also add to the reserve army of the unemployed that keeps general wage levels down.

Capitalism produces enough surpluses in society to free women completely from domestic labour – society now has the material means for complete socialisation of such labour. But capitalism will never use that surplus for this broad, shared social purpose – it will keep it for the profit of a tiny minority of capitalists. Only with the progression from capitalism to socialism can the potential generated in the former be actualised, and the economic prerequisite, together with a conducive political and cultural atmosphere, be created for the emancipation of women as an integral part of the emancipation of all working people.

It is with this scientific understanding that socialists and communists started the work of organising women as a contingent of the working class.

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“Today in the great majority of cases, the man has to be the earner, the bread-winner of the family, at least among the propertied classes, and this gives him a dominating position which requires no special legal privileges. In the family, he is the bourgeois; the wife represents the proletariat.

… the peculiar character of man’s domination over woman in the modern family, and the necessity as well as the manner of establishing real social equality between the two, will be brought out into full relief only when both are completely equal before the law. It will become evident that the first presise for the emancipation of women is the reintroduction of the entire female sex into public industry; and that this again demands that the quality possessed by the individual family of being the economic unit of society be abolished.”

– Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property and State

Communist Organising and Women’s Question: the Beginnings

“Anybody who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without the feminine ferment”, wrote Marx in a letter to Dr Kugelmann in 1868. “Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex (the ugly ones included)”, he added.

One of the most notable instances of this “feminine ferment” was to be observed in the French revolution. It was the plebeian and semi-proletarian women of Paris who literally started the French Revolution in 1789. They rose up demanding bread, and the women’s question emerged in due course. They were joined by educated women from the upper strata who demanded votes for women and the right of women to hold the highest civilian and military posts in the Republic – that is, the right of women to full political equality with men, and the right to fight and die for the cause of the revolution.

Even with such a glorious backdrop, and the deep theoretical insights of Marx and Engels, it took a slow, long process – and also a fair amount of ideological struggle – for the women’s question to gain, in left politics and organisation, some of the importance it deserves.

Let us begin with the famous clarion call at the end of the Communist Manifesto: “Working Men of the World, Unite”. We are now accustomed to shout “workers of the world...”, but even the 1888 English edition prepared under Engels’ supervision addressed the “working men”. And this despite the fact that women already constituted a growing segment of the working class, and that Marx took careful note of the trend in Capital.

The First International, founded in 1864, was called “International Working Men’s Association”. In 1868 Marx had to assure a correspondent that ‘of course’ women could join the organisation just like men. In another letter he wrote, “In any case ladies cannot complain of the International, for it has elected a lady, Madame [Harriet] Law, to be a member of the General Council”. Marx later proposed a resolution to the General Council, and then also in the 1871 Conference of the International, calling for the “formation of working women’s branches”, or “female branches among the working class”, without however interfering “with the existing or formation of branches composed of both sexes”. The name, however, remained “... Men’s Association”.

At the unity congress at Gotha in 1875 between the Lassallean and the Marxist and semi-Marxist groups in Germany, August Bebel on behalf of the Marxist wing moved a proposal that the party go on record as favouring equal rights for women. This was rejected by the majority, on the traditional ground that women were ‘not prepared’ for the step. However, Bebel’s book Woman and Socialism (1879) proved to be very influential. At the Erfurt (1891) congress of Social-Democracy, which finally adopted a formally Marxist programme, the majority came out in support of women’s rights, particularly the demand for legal equality. Yet the same year, at the second congress of the Second International, the Marxist position was opposed by Emile Vandervelde and some others.

Germany, which was then at the forefront of the socialist workers’ movement, witnessed a bitter struggle between the two trends. While Die Gleichheit (Equality), a women’s paper published by Clara Zetkin eventually reached a circulation of 100,000, the Lassallean wing opposed socialist agitation for the emancipation of women and argued against the growing entrance of women into industry.

In Russia Bolsheviks organised the first International Women’s Day meeting in 1913. The same year, Pravda began regularly publishing a page devoted to questions facing women. A women’s newspaper, Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker), was launched in 1914, with the first issue appearing on International Women’s Day, when the party also organised demonstrations. It was supported financially by women factory workers and distributed by them in the workplaces. It reported on the conditions and struggles of women workers in Russia and abroad, and encouraged women to join in struggle with their male co-workers.

We all know about the eminent roles played by Alexandra Kollontai, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Sylvia and Emmeline Pankhurst and others in fighting for women’s rights including the right to vote, the observance of International Women’s Day and so on; perhaps it is not necessary to go into details here.

The tsar was overthrown by a revolution that began on International Women’s Day in 1917 (we know it as February revolution because by the old Russian calendar 8th March fell in February). On that day women workers of Petrograd decided to strike and demonstrate despite the advice of the local Bolsheviks who feared there would be a massacre. Guided by their proletarian class instincts, they swept aside all objections and began the offensive.
The beginnings thus made reached new heights in the course of and after the great Russian revolution.

Lenin and the Communist International

Under Lenin’s guidance, the Communist International (CI) formulated detailed guidelines for communist work among women and held a number of “international conference(s) of communist women”. The “Methods and Forms of Work among Communist Party Women: Theses” adopted by the third Congress of CI -- which comrade VM upheld as “the very programme of women’s liberation that determines your basic orientation even today” (The Question of Women’s Liberation in the Perspective of Marxism) -- combines a pair of complementary approaches: (a) special attention, special initiatives on the women’s front on behalf of the entire party and (b) a fight against the separatist approach which tends to segregate this work from the general party work.

[A] Special apparatus for conducting work among women

The CI emphasised the need for “departments or commissions” comprising comrades specialised and skilled in this field, including tasks like issuing leaflets, bringing out magazines, contributing to general party magazines etc. Such departments, to work under the guidance of and be attached to party committees at various levels, were charged with the following duties:

“1) to educate women in Communist ideas and draw them into the ranks of the Party;

“2) to fight the prejudices against women held by the mass of the male proletariat, and increase the awareness of working men and women that they have common interests;

“3) to strengthen the will of working women by drawing them into all forms and types of civil conflict, encouraging women in the bourgeois countries to participate in the struggle against capitalist exploitation, in mass action against the high cost of living, against the housing shortage, unemployment and around other social problems, and women in the Soviet republics to take part in the formation of the Communist personality and the Communist way of life;

“4) to put on the Party’s agenda and to include in legislative proposals questions directly concerning the emancipation of women, confirming their liberation, defending their interests as child-bearers;

“5) to conduct a well-planned struggle against the power of tradition, bourgeois customs and religious ideas, clearing the way for healthier and more harmonious relations between the sexes, guaranteeing the physical and moral vitality of working people.”

The theses also held:

“The commissions of working women must make sure not only that women join the Party, the trade unions and other class organisations and have equal rights and equal obligations (they must counter any attempts to isolate or separate off working women), but that women are brought into the leading bodies of the Parties, unions and co-operatives on equal terms with men.

“The commissions must enable Communist women to make the most effective use of all political and educational institutions of the Party.”

At the Fourth Congress of the CI a brief balance sheet was drawn up, which observed:
“The necessity and value of special organisations for Communist work among women is also proved by the activity of the Women’s Secretariat in the East, which has carried out important and successful work under new and unusual conditions. Unfortunately, the Fourth World Congress of the Communist International has to admit that some sections have either completely failed to fulfil, or have only partially fulfilled, their responsibility to give consistent support to Communist work among women. To this day, they have either failed to take measures to organise women Communists within the Party, or failed to set up the Party organisations vital for work among the masses of women and for establishing links with them.

“The Fourth Congress urgently insists that the Parties concerned make up for all these omissions as quickly as possible.

[B] Fight against the separatist approach:

The CI stressed the need to integrate the work of women in the general Party work, and not segregate it as something separate:

“The Third Congress of the Communist International is firmly opposed to any kind of separate women’s associations in the Parties and trade unions or special women’s organizations….

“The commissions must work to strengthen the class consciousness and militancy of the young Communist women, involving them in general Party courses and discussion evenings. Special evenings of reading and discussion or a series of talks especially for working women should be organised only where they are really necessary and expedient.

“In order to strengthen comradeship between working women and working men, it is desirable not to organise special courses and schools for Communist women, but all general Party schools must without fail include a course on the methods of work among women. The departments must have the right to delegate a certain number of their representatives to the general Party courses. [in all quotations from the Theses, emphases added by us – A Sen]
Now obviously we cannot literally and mechanically follow everything that is written here. We must grasp the holistic approach – which we learnt from Engels in the previous issue of Liberation – in matters of organisation too and dialectically combine the two aspects according to our conditions. In view of the giant strides made by the women’s movement over the decades, it was obligatory on our part to form a women’s association with revolutionary orientation, and we have done that. We have not only formed a Women’s Department in the party as advised by the CI, but also considered it necessary to organise a special party school for women comrades at the highest level. We should continue to move ahead along this line, but simultaneously it is time we paid more attention to the other aspect: e.g., saw to it that topics like methods of work among women are included in party discussions and party schools with greater prominence.

Lenin had to fight for this anti-separatist approach within the CI. As he told Clara, the national sections of the Communist International “... regard agitation and propaganda among the women and the task of rousing and revolutionizing them as of secondary importance, as the job of just the women Communists. None but the latter are rebuked because the matter does not move ahead more quickly and strongly. This is wrong, fundamentally wrong! It is outright separatism. It is equality of women ... reversed ... In the final analysis, it is an underestimation of women and of their accomplishments” – (Clara Zetkin, My Reflection of Lenin, p. 114)

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