Women’s Movement and Communist Party: Basics Revisited

(Continued from last issue)

In this last part of the article we propose to elaborate on the two important and interrelated areas of our concern, already touched in Part II: (a) grasping the proletarian approach to women's movement and (b) promoting communist attitude to women in the party and society. The first we will discuss in light of the words and deeds of some prominent women leaders of the international communist movement; the second in the light of Lenin's teachings. To round off the whole discussion, we will then conclude with a few words on the connection between socialism and women's liberation.

Class and Gender in the Works of Marx, Zetkin and Luxembourg

As we saw earlier, the theses of the Third Congress of CI put the whole stress on "drawing them into all forms and types of civil conflict...encouraging women to participate in the struggle against capitalist exploitation, in mass action against the high cost of living,...unemployment…" -- in short, on mobilising women in the general stream of class struggle. And this was precisely what veterans like Eleanor Marx, Zetkin and Luxembourg had long been doing and advocating. In the process they had to wage a relentless battle against bourgeois feminists, whom they called ‘women’s-rightsers’ because the latter regarded women’s juridical rights (under the existing social order) to be the be-all and end-all of their agitation and programme.

Eleanor worked by preference among the most exploited workers of London’s East End, and was one of the founders the new-type Gas Workers’ and General Labourers Union– ‘by far the best union’ in Engels’ opinion -- which organised the unskilled workers into a militant mass organisation. In Working-Women vs. Bourgeois Feminism she discussed in detail “…the difference between the party of the ‘women’s rightsers’ on the one side, who recognised no class struggle but only a struggle of sexes, who belong to the possessing class, and who want rights that would be an injustice against their working class sisters, and, on the other side, the real women’s party, the socialist party, which has a basic understanding of the economic causes of the present adverse position of workingwomen and which calls on the workingwomen to wage a common fight hand-in-hand with the men of their class against the common enemy, viz. the men and women of the capitalist class.”

Similarly, Zetkin observed: "... we have no special women's agitation to carry on... rather socialist agitation among women. It is not women's petty interests of the moment that we should put in the foreground; our task must be to enrol the modern proletarian women in the class struggle. ... just as the proletariat can achieve its emancipation only if it fights together without distinction of nationality or distinction of occupation, so also it can achieve its emancipation, only if it holds together without distinction of sex. Insofar as there are reforms to be accomplished on behalf of women within present-day society, they are already demanded in the Minimum Programme of our party.” [“Only with the proletarian woman will socialism be victorious"! (Speech to the Gotha Congress)]

Now, does not all these smack of left sectarianism, if not an ultra-left deviation? That indeed would appear to be the case if we miss the historical context. In those initial years, the socialist or proletarian women's movement had to demarcate itself most demonstratively from bourgeois feminism, to counter the influence the latter would have on working class women, and to strongly highlight the indivisibility of interests between proletarian men and women. This was the accepted line that the whole party unitedly implemented, with women comrades taking the lead from the forefront. Thus the " First Socialist Women's Conference" held in 1907 in Stuttgart elected Clara Zetkin as its secretary and passed a resolution calling upon socialist parties to fight actively for the "introduction of general women's suffrage". Thanks largely to the efforts of Luxembourg, Zetkin and others, the German Social Democratic party (SPD) became the first party to incorporate equal rights for women in its political agenda. We all know about the contributions of leaders like Alexandra Kollontai and Clara Zetkin in launching the International Women's Day.

The apparently exclusive stress on class, however, meant no negation of gender, no unconcern for problems women encountered as women and as citizens. Eleanor Marx for example was acutely aware of the bitter fact that, in a certain sense, "Women are the creatures of an organised tyranny of men, as the workers are the creatures of an organised tyranny of idlers...”. Lenin acknowledged that it was Rosa who first posed the question of full freedom of divorce, the lack of which was an added oppression of the already oppressed sex. On another occasion he remarked, “Rosa acted and felt as a communist when in an article she championed the cause of the prostitutes who were imprisoned for any transgression of police regulations in carrying on their dreary trade.”

Luxemburg was among the first to draw attention to unpaid domestic labour put in by women. In the wage system under capitalist rule, she pointed out, "only that kind of work is considered productive which... creates capitalist profit or surplus value." From this standpoint, the "music-hall dancer whose legs sweep profit into her employer’s pocket is a productive worker, whereas all the toil of the proletarian women and mothers in the four walls of their homes is considered unproductive. This sounds brutal and insane, but corresponds exactly to the brutality and insanity of our present capitalist economy. And seeing this brutal reality clearly and sharply is the proletarian woman's first task. For, exactly from this point of view, the proletarian women's claim to equal political rights is anchored in firm economic ground.”

Thus, women communists always considered the gender question from a strictly scientific class viewpoint and as an inseparable part of the general proletarian movement. As Luxembourg observed, "proletarian consciousness transcended national and racial differences, so did it transcend sexual ones as well". Zetkin had friendly relations with a number of bourgeois women’s rightsers and was quite willing to unite forces with the bourgeois women for common objectives, but not to subordinate the working women’s movement to the aims and style of the latter.

How do we interpret and learn from these principles and practices today?

The world has moved a long way since the formative decades of the communist movement when the latter was identified almost exclusively with workers' (and in underdeveloped countries, peasants') movements. Thanks to continual socio-economic and political changes, a whole range of other movements by different strata/sections -- students, women, oppressed nations/nationalities, dalits, racial, religious or other minorities and so on -- have grown powerful enough to carve out a distinct, autonomous political space for themselves. In all these areas the proletariat has to fight relentlessly for hegemony against both the spontaneous tendency of these movements to come under bourgeois influence and clever manipulations by bourgeois parties to influence and utilise these in their narrow interests. To this end a communist party steadfastly pursues the key thread of class struggle within these movements and this is what we mean by proletarian class approach. Thus Rosa Luxemburg and her party fought for women's suffrage not because that would improve women's conditions but in the interests of "the proletariat's general struggle for liberation" (see box) and therefore presented this struggle as the responsibility of the whole party. (Broadly speaking, similar is our position today on the campaign for women's reservation in legislative assemblies, as we will see in the third paper of this school).

In our context, the proletarian or communist approach to women's movement would mean, first and foremost, that the women’s association should not be seen as the sole medium of the party's work among women. No less vital in this regard are mass organisations of workers, students, cultural activists and, most importantly in our conditions, agrarian labourers. Here male organisers also should always -- and especially during initial periods when, or in areas where, women organisers are not immediately available -- take it as their responsibility to spread the work among women members of the respective class/strata. But this is possible only when and only to the extent they are educated to overcome the feudal values prevalent in our society, to fight and to repudiate what Lenin called "the separatist approach"( see end of Part II).

Secondly, majority of cadres in the women's organisation should as a rule work directly and on a regular basis (not just during membership campaigns) in one particular class organisation or among unorganised/semi-organised working women like bidi workers, anganwadi and ASHA workers, domestic helps, etc.. Holding offices in say the TU centre or the agrarian labourers’ organisation is not the main thing, direct and responsible work is. It is necessary to naturalise this relation or working arrangement between the women's organisation and class organisations; this the party committees must ensure at their respective levels, failing which higher committees should intervene. In this process alone can our women's organisation acquire a good mass base and membership strength. This is not to deny, of course, the need to develop sustained work in selected slum areas and other localities in towns and cities, among school and college teachers in creative non-conventional ways and so on.

Thirdly, on the strength of the mass base thus developed, the women's organisation should pursue a vigorous UF policy, which is very much a class policy of the proletariat. This means (a) mobilising progressive women and men from other strata in support of our movement and (b) wide interaction and joint initiatives with other women's organisations on issues of common concern.

Combining the three elements noted above, we can develop a distinct stream of revolutionary democratic women's movement in India and that is our task in the stage of democratic revolution.

A Women’s Question for the Communist Party?

Ideally, there should be no such thing as women's question inside the party, which transcends all differences in class, caste, creed and sex. In reality, this is more or less true in the other cases but not quite in the case of gender. As the Fifth All India Congress (1992) observed, “Within the Party, we still face the problem of downgrading the importance of women cadres. There have also been recurring incidents of violation of the dignity of our women members and supporters. Several of our promising women cadres, especially in rural areas, failed to advance beyond a point and got embroiled in various complications. Feudal and male chauvinist tendencies continue to prevail among a good section of members and cadres. To say the least, the environment in the Party is still not conducive to the emergence of large number of women cadres and their taking up responsible party positions.”

How do matters stand now? Generally speaking, comrades everywhere recognize the special obstacles and hardships women comrades have to overcome in joining and working in the party and they are eager to help the latter. Especially since the Diphu conference we are paying much attention to recruiting women party members and promoting women cadres to leading party positions. While affirming all this as the principal aspect, we must concede that despite best intentions our actual efforts in this regard often remain rather formalistic and superficial. Party committees find it easy, for example, to nominate more women comrades to party conferences and schools and to award (and renew) party memberships to women activists on a more considerate basis. But do they make any special arrangements for their education and training? It is of course wrong to say that recruitment of women members should be put on hold till such arrangements are in place, but it is equally incorrect to leave these to spontaneity. Recruit, train and organise in party branches large number of women; take special care to develop women cadres; boldly promote them to responsible party positions -- such should be our motto and much remains to be done in this respect.

Moreover, we often fail to take concrete steps for solving the typical problems faced by women comrades. Think of a situation when a woman cadre finds herself politically/organisationally/emotionally in a tight corner and perhaps commits some mistakes too, inviting further criticism from others. What is needed at such moments -- and not only at such moments -- is not just sympathy and certainly not 'protection' offered by benevolent patriarchy, but comradely discussion that is sensitive, accommodative, yet firm on principles; constructive criticism to help the comrade see and overcome her own mistakes /gaps, if any; and prompt organisational steps, whenever required, to sort out the practical problems. How often do we find party committees coming forward with such care and support?

In our semi-feudal society there is a deep discomfort with the idea of women having an affair, marrying in disregard of parental advice, divorcing, remarrying, etc; and such retrograde values tend to penetrate the party. The worst insensitivity and outright gender-prejudice manifest themselves when women comrades happen to violate the prevalent feudal/ petit-bourgeois notions of sexual morality. The principle of non-interference in personal life including choice of partners is crudely violated and this is justified by saying that communists must not cause a scandal in society, that they should sacrifice their personal likings because they have a larger responsibility to society and so on. There have been cases where we have managed to isolate a forward-looking comrade with patriarchal sermonising and restrictions -- so much so that the party ends up losing her, especially if she is not yet that much integrated with the party.

Similar problems were -- and are -- to be found in other communist parties too. Historically, gender sensitiveness has grown in socialist/communist parties only gradually and slowly, and the struggle for that continues to this day. At the end of Part II of this article we saw Lenin frowning on what he called "equality of women reversed" (or "feminism upside down" --according to another version of translation from the original German) and an "underestimation of women and of their accomplishments”. He also remarked, “Scratch a Communist (male) and find a Philistine. Of course, you must scratch the sensitive spot, their mentality as regards women." In other words, even hardcore communists often cherish highly retrograde, male chauvinist notions about women and their role in society and in the party. Lenin further says, "Could there be a more damning proof of this than the callous acquiescence of men who see how women grow worn-out in the petty, monotonous household work, their strength and time dissipated and wasted, their minds growing narrow and stale, their hearts beating slowly, their will weakened?"

"Our Communist work among women, our political work", Lenin goes uninterruptedly on, "embraces a great deal of educational work among men. We must root out the old 'master' idea to its last and smallest root, in the party and among the masses. That is one of our political tasks, just like the urgent and necessary task of forming a staff of men and women comrades, well- trained in theory and practice, to carry on party activity among working women."

Here, as well as in the accompanying box, we have italicized the words and phrases that deserve special attention.

Firstly, "educational work among men" -- and "a great deal" of that -- constitutes a part and parcel (note the word "embraces") of the party's work among women. It is not sufficient to recognize that in addition to women comrades, male comrades also need education; it is the latter who stand in greater need for education and remoulding.

Secondly, "the old 'master' idea " resides not only in the upper strata of society but also among the proletarian masses, and in the proletarian party. The ideological struggle to eradicate it constitutes one of our major tasks.

Thirdly, the party's leading bodies -- district and state committees in particular -- should distinguish between what Lenin called "verbal recognition" and "constant care and obligation of the Party"; they should consistently try and proceed from the former to the latter.

Fourthly, to help the party carry forward such tasks and advance our work in all its dimensions, it is necessary to form specialised party groups (departments/commissions, as the CI would call them), with male as well as female comrades. Unable to grasp this communist approach and often infected with notions of gender equality that are extremely hollow and mechanical, some intellectuals discover 'signs of male domination in the communist party' when we follow this guideline in running our women's department. Much wiser, our women comrades however see this as a most realistic and beneficial arrangement.

To promote communist moral values within the party and a modern democratic attitude in our mass base -- don't forget that the two are organically integrated -- we must fight against certain erroneous ideas and feudal practices. We must oppose dowry, child-marriage, forced arranged marriage, the purdah etc. and uphold women's right to choose their partners cutting across caste/ religious/ financial divides even in the face of familial/ social opposition and their right to be fully consulted in all family matters. We must oppose confinement of women within four walls and encourage their participation in productive activities as well as social and political affairs.

Inside the party, which in its internal relations anticipates and abides by mature communist values, there must be no "second sex"; absolute equality of the sexes and not just dignity but full democratic rights of women in personal affairs must be demanded and fought for. In both cases -- in society and in the party -- the struggle has to be firm, patient and long-drawn out.

Women's Liberation and Socialism

At the end of the first part of this article, we presented in barest outline the Marxist notion that gender, class and state oppression emerged almost simultaneously, as three dimensions of a single process, and so will they end together in course of the transition from capitalism to socialism to communism. This is a scientific abstraction, which constitutes a key element of the Marxist method that unfolds through the constant emergence and resolution of the contradiction between the abstract and the concrete. In the actual conditions of real-life socialism, of course, things were not expected to be, nor did they prove to be, so simple. In both the Soviet Union and China, initial gains on the women's front were truly remarkable but they suffered partial -- and in some instances severe -- setbacks later. That however should not be seen in isolation as something especially anti- women. These were parts of the many shortcomings or mistakes of the primary phase of socialism that emerged in a few backward countries -- mistakes or limitations which often militated against the immediate interests of workers and/or peasants too. Moreover, it is but natural that just as classes and class struggle continue under socialism and the state cannot be abolished in one stroke, more or less complete elimination of the remnants of male domination also would require a very protracted, very painstaking struggle spanning perhaps centuries.

So what do we mean when we say women can free themselves from bondage only under socialism? That with radical transformation of material and cultural conditions of life including transformation of family from an economic to an emotional unit of free partnership, the situation will arise for the first time in history to carry the struggle for women's liberation through to the end. Nothing more, but nothing less. Comrade VM put this very eloquently at the end of the article "The Question of Women's Liberation in the Perspective of Marxism" and we find no better words for concluding our whole discussion:

“Save the natural division between man and woman, all other divisions are artificial. A specific phase of historical development had institutionalised these divisions, and another phase of historical development, which has already been ushered in, will put an end to them, and only when the relationship between man and woman, the two forms of human species will grow frank, spontaneous and fraternal the humankind shall be able to regain its lost oneness. The path towards this destiny will route through a revolution bearing the banner with inscriptions "socialism and women’s liberation" on it.” [concluded] 


Women's suffrage is the goal. But the mass movement to bring it about is not a job for women alone, but is a common class concern for women and men of the proletariat.…A hundred years ago, the Frenchman Charles Fourier, one of the first great prophets of socialist ideals, wrote these memorable words: In any society, the degree of female emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation. This is completely true for our present society. The current mass struggle for women's political rights is only an expression and a part of the proletariat's general struggle for liberation. In this lies its strength and its future. ... Fighting for women's suffrage, we will also hasten the coming of the hour when the present society falls in ruins under the hammer strokes of the revolutionary proletariat.” -- Luxembourg (Women's Suffrage and Class Struggle -- speech at the Second Social Democratic Women's Rally, Stuttgart, Germany, May 12, 1912)


“… don’t let us deceive ourselves. Our national sections … don’t understand that the development and management of such a mass movement is an important part of entire Party activity, indeed, a half of general Party work. Their occasional recognition of the necessity and value of a powerful, clear-headed communist women’s movement is a platonic verbal recognition, not the constant care and obligation of the Party.” -- Clara Zetkin, [Lenin on the Women’s Question]

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