Communist Women Activists’ Camp: An Account

The CPI(ML) held a party education camp for leading women activists of the party on 26-27 July 2008 at Bardhaman, W Bengal. Around 60 leading women activists of the party – working on various fronts ranging from the peasants, agricultural labour, student and trade union fronts; editing various party journals; and working on the women’s front participated in the camp.

In his introductory remarks at the camp, CPI(ML) General Secretary said that women are beginning to enter the workforce in very large numbers, and are also on the threshold of entry into male bastions including the political arena. The ruling class, in response to changing material conditions and emergence of assertive social groups, often takes initiatives to accommodate the agendas raised by these groups. The communist party must not just keep pace with these initiatives, adjustments and accommodations by the ruling class – it must anticipate and keep ahead of them. Comrade Dipankar said that patriarchal patterns and structures in society tend to be reproduced within the communist party too. The fight against patriarchal tendencies within and without the party must not be considered ‘women’s work’; men comrades must be just as involved in this fight.

The first session of the education camp was devoted to reading and discussing Comrade Arindam Sen’s paper on ‘Women’s Movement and Communist Party’. “In the title”, said comrade Arindam Sen introducing his paper, "you will notice that women's movement comes before the communist movement." The former, like workers' and peasants' movements, started long before the communist movement and the paper itself begins with the words not of Marx Lenin but of a pre-Marxian fighter for women's enlightenment and emancipation. The movement was already there, and Marxism added a new revolutionary dimension by linking it up -- both in theory and practice -- with the movements of all oppressed classes and strata for overall social transformation. As we have stated in the first paragraphs, there is no reason why we should adopt a 'holier-than-thou' attitude towards feminists. True, there is a very fundamental theoretical debate between Marxism and feminism, but that is a friendly debate. The communist women's movement and the autonomous women's movement forge ahead side-by-side and both benefit from "a cordial relation of unity and struggle" -- this defines our basic approach to the whole question of relation between feminists and communists, a question that is likely to come up in our discussions during the next two days."

In the discussion that followed the paper, even those who had read Engels before said that while they were more or less familiar with Engels’ ideas about the origin of women and women’s emancipation, they had seldom considered the implications of Engels’ analysis for the way we look at the institution of family/marriage etc… today, while for many who were introduced to the Origin of Family, Private Property and the State for the first time through the paper, Engels’ views on family/marriage were a revelation. Many comrades were struck by the fact that Engels did not consider monogamous marriage to be any more ‘moral’ an institution than prostitution (since both institutions were marked by women being forced by economic dependence to surrender to men). Engels’ observations on the moral double standard whereby monogamy was effectively enforced only for women and not for men; and the idea that socialization of all the work that women today perform as a ‘private’ service within the home was the first condition for women’s emancipation, struck a chord with all.

Next, PB member Comrade Ramji Rai presented a note on Communist Party Programme and Women’s Liberation Movement, discussing the Communist Party’s programme for revolution and its implication for the women’s liberation movement. He stressed that each phrase used by Engels to describe women’s oppression – a defeat of world historic significance; first division of labour; first class opposition; first class oppression; family as cellular form of society – serves to underline how women’s liberation is a key and inseparable component of the revolutionary agenda. In particular he discussed the CPI(ML) programme for Indian revolution, and in that context underlined the strongly feudal character and colouring of Indian capitalism and democracy – most visible where women were concerned. Communal, casteist and obscurantist anti-woman attitudes are “very much part and parcel of 'modern' India,” (General Programme of the CPI(ML), adopted at the 8th Party Congress) and resisting these are a very crucial agenda of the democratic revolution in our country.

In the discussion that followed this paper, there was a lively debate over socialist regimes in the erstwhile Soviet Union and in China. Addressing the questions, Comrade Dipankar noted that after the Soviet collapse, women in East European countries are paying the highest costs for the capitalist revival. All the setbacks and failures of the Soviet Union to fully realize the radical potential in areas like women’s emancipation or environment, should not be taken as proof of ‘communism’s insensitivity’ to these questions; rather they are linked to the collapse of socialism and revival of capitalism within the Soviet Union: a phenomenon that did not happen overnight, and for which we are yet to arrive at a full explanation. Also, the quality of socialism also depends on the character of capitalism from which it is born: it bears the birthmarks of the society which it has overthrown to be born. Socialisms in the Soviet Union and China have been socialisms born in backward capitalist countries, where feudal remnants were very strong. A socialism built on the foundation of a ripe, fully developed capitalism, would accordingly be that much more evolved in its social character. That is why the communist party struggles so hard to lead and shape the democratic revolution in countries like ours; because workers, peasants and women have a stake in bringing into being a capitalism which has shed all remnants of feudalism and which can provide that much firmer a foundation for a socialist revolution.

In the third session, Kavita Krishnan, member of the party CC and Women’s Department, presented a note on Policies, Positions and Orientation of Work for the Women's Organization for discussion. This note took up a variety of policy questions and ideological issues for discussion. A spirited debate was sparked off, with activists airing their reservations, posing questions based on their own practice, and sharing experiences.

One comrade expressed view that ‘Marxist feminism’ was an oxymoron, since feminism was inimical to Marxism and the communist agenda. Others pointed out that in the 80s ‘autonomous’ groups aimed at being autonomous from political parties as well as from funding and government patronage: for the most part, they are no longer so. Dr. Rati Rao, scientist and women’s movement activist from Samata Vedike, discussed the different phases of the autonomous women’s movement and felt that the growing trend of NGOisation had resulted in an ideological shallowness in the movement. Many others, observing the situation in Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan etc.., said that more often than not the ‘NGOs’ have corporate funding and also Government patronage and approval!

Comrade Dipankar, in the course of discussions on this question, said that as an ideological phenomenon, feminism – even liberal, non-Marxist feminism – is a progressive trend in society. As for Marxist and socialist feminists, it is true that they may not necessarily be communists – but communists can surely learn much from Marxist and socialist feminists and their efforts to apply Marxist analysis to a range of issues concerning gender and class.

Many comrades – Shashi Yadav and Anita, AIPWA leaders from Bihar, Meena Tiwary, CCM and AIPWA leader based in Bihar, Sunita, AIPWA leader from Jharkhand, Kanaklata, AIPWA leader from Assam (and all members of their respective party State Committees), discussed their experience of taking up domestic violence cases. The discussion ended on the understanding that when conservative women’s groups deal with divorce or domestic violence cases (for instance, in the crime against women cells or family courts), they usually seek to save the marriage, to persuade and pressurise women to remain in abusive, violent and unhappy marriages. In sharp contrast, our concern is neither to save the marriage or to break it: our purpose is primarily to raise the consciousness and confidence of the woman. We recognise that women, if free from economic and social compulsions, would seek to be free of abusive marriages, and encourage the woman to stand on her own feet. Even in cases where the women are not able to leave an abusive marriage, we do our best to ensure, through our active solidarity with the woman and social pressure created by us, that the power balance in that marriage does not remain the same.

In response to the note, Uma Gupta, a student at Delhi University, wondered – “In an ideal situation, in a revolutionised world, no doubt, there will be far greater sexual freedom. But in today’s world, to what extent do we approve of such freedoms – how do we view such freedoms?” In answer to Uma’s question, Kavita responded: it is because it’s a far-from-ideal, highly patriarchal world that we must be all the more sympathetic and supportive to women whose attempts to seek freedom will not conform to a ‘perfect’ blueprint. As capitalism painfully and slowly develops in our society without making a clean break with rotting yet stubborn feudal survivals, several tentative expressions of freedom (sexual, economic, in dress and behaviour, etc...) which usually accompany capitalism will make an appearance – and be met with deep disapproval, disgust and even violence by feudal culture. When women reach out for those freedoms, in defiance of existing norms, in such hostile circumstances, we must make sure we do not echo that hostile response of moralistic disapproval; we must not preach against the ‘irresponsibility’ of such women – rather we must stand boldly in their support.

Since there was a broad agreement that communist activists would have to make various tactical adjustments with social mores, there were lively discussions/responses on the nature of those adjustments. As they exchanged experiences, many felt that tactical adjustments are not rigid ‘rules’ for communist women – they will change constantly, and women activists will work out those adjustments on their own according to their own experience and needs and levels of comfort. Sangeeta from Patna Grameen (Rural Patna district) spirited rendering of her own experience reminded all of how it should not be automatically assumed that women from rural backgrounds would always cherish conservative attitudes; impulses of rebellion against such feminine codes are found everywhere – and they seek our party as their natural home.

In response to a question about our policy towards same-sex relations, Comrade Dipankar said that same-sex relationships have existed in every society, and as Marxists we can easily understand how society which enforced monogamous marriage for women to ensure ‘legitimate’ paternity and transfer of property along the male line, also punished same-sex relations for much the same reason: to uphold monogamous marriage as the only moral norm. We are opposed to criminalising any consensual adult sexual choices and orientation.

The camp generated very animated discussions and debates and comrades went back to their respective states with an urge to organise similar camps there – for both men and women, and with renewed energy to move on towards AIPWA’s Fifth National Conference at Ranchi on 5-6 September.

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