An ideology defending the existence of an interclassist historical and political subject, “women”, which transcends social classes with its own, differentiated interests and located well above the class struggle.
Origins and history
Feminism was born as an organized political current from the evolution of British abolitionist circles, heirs of Cromwellian puritanism. Its first political expression, “Suffragism”, defended the extension of the right to vote to women from the property-owning classes, a demand that it finally obtained from the British government after its enthusiastic participation in the recruitment and war effort during the First Imperialist World War.
Made irrelevant by the world revolutionary wave, feminism will return in the midst of the counter-revolution in the United States. Far from breaking its ties to imperialism, it will base its story on the incorporation of women into the war effort and their participation in the U.S. military industry during the slaughter. Its most widely used icon even today is a war propaganda poster aimed at recruiting women workers into the war industry.
At the same time that the wave of workers’ struggles is subsiding and marks the end of the war reconstruction (1962-89), feminism mutates. Its new evolution (self-styled “third wave”) is fed by the power struggles of the petty bourgeoisie within American universities. There, already in the eighties, postmodernism and relativism had begun to become hegemonic, converted into a tool for generational change in the university power groups. The rise to the university elite and the corporate bourgeoisie of elements from the black petty bourgeoisie threatens to relegate feminism to a single, necessarily shared niche. The theory mutates again, gathering the most relativistic and subjectivist elements of postmodernism, to promote a fractalization (the discourse of the “transversalities”) that turns feminism into an ideology of classification and affirmation of “identities”… each one with its academic and bureaucratic market share ensured by the existence of its own “perspective” and equally opposed to the perspective of the “white heterosexual male”. The result becomes even more aggressively divisive in relation to a working class that to many seems already “dead” or ” missing”. The working class is identified with the “uneducated white male” and routinely denigrated as an archetype of “privilege” and “feminicidal” and “patriarchal” reaction.
On its arrival in Europe and extension throughout America, the discourse of “identities” linked to feminism will become, slightly softened, a state ideology generating a bureaucracy and a technical body specialized in “gender equality” and feeding divisive strategies organized by the state itself, such as the Spanish “feminist strike” of 2018 or the proposal of differentiated labor agreements and contracts for each sex.
Marxism against feminism
Tied from its first manifestations to the petty bourgeoisie, feminism will apply to the political subject it defines, “women”, the interclassist and nationalist political logic of the concept of “people”. In its battle to make room in the leaderships of companies and the government for women from the petty bourgeoisie and the upper classes, the suffragettes soon tried to win over the working women’s organizations, which were much larger in number and above all much more organized. The feminists proposed an interclassist “women’s” front whose goal would be to get bourgeois women deputies into the censitary voting system. They promised to represent the “common interest as women” that supposedly bound working women to those bourgeois of radical British liberalism.
The left wing of the Second International, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin, radically opposed them, offering a powerful ideological battle between 1887 and 1917. A year before the formation of the first suffragette group in England, Zetkin had presented a report on “The Women’s Question and the Tasks of Social Democracy”, unanimously approved, at Gotha, the actual founding congress of the German socialist party. Since then, the German socialists had dedicated themselves to organizing and training thousands of working class women, promoting mobilizations for universal suffrage for both sexes. Following the Stuttgart Congress of the International, the left, led by Zetkin and Luxemburg, is fighting the battle on a global level. Not against an alleged machismo of the leadership, but against the yielding to feminism of some parties like the Belgian one, which had approved in its congress to support the extension of suffrage only to upper class women.
The Congress of the Second International held in Stuttgart committed the social democratic parties of all countries to begin the struggle for universal female suffrage as an essential and unavoidable part of the general struggle of the proletariat for the right to vote and for power, in clear contrast to feminist aspirations.
The ideological battle will become more and more intense over the years. Rosa Luxemburg shares in her correspondence her intimate rejection of the “moral and spiritual” argument of feminism and the appeals to the “development of one’s own personality” when what the feminists were really claiming was equality between men and women of the powerful strata within that power structure. It is clear that “women” are not a historical subject above or on the margins of social classes, and that is why the vindication of a supposed “women’s right” that would benefit women workers outside of the progress of the workers’ movement in general and the struggle against capitalism is deeply rejected. For Luxembourg, the feminists are trying to turn the proletariat’s rejection of women’s oppression into a way of diverting the struggle and consolidating a system that was then ending its historically progressive phase, in the same way that nationalism was manipulating resistance to cultural-national oppression:
The duty to protest against and combat national oppression, which is the duty of the class party of the proletariat, is not based on any particular “right of nations”, just as political and social equality of the sexes does not emanate from any “women’s right” referred to by the bourgeois movement for the emancipation of women. These duties can only be deduced from a generalized opposition to the class system, to all forms of social inequality and to all powers of domination. In a word, they can be deduced from the fundamental principle of socialism.
Rosa Luxemburg. The National Question and Autonomy, 1908
Unlike what feminist propaganda tells us today, Rosa Luxemburg was not only no feminist but she fought all her life against feminism. She even doubted the usefulness of the specific organizations of working women within the socialist movement that her friend Clara Zetkin had begun to organize. She did so for the same reasons that she had fought against the formation of specific organizations of Jewish workers within the Polish socialism that she herself had founded: a rejection of the very basis of that which they now call “identity” and which defines, from a very individualistic viewpoint, each one as an “intersection” of identities. For Luxembourg, it is not conflicting “identities” that define the political struggle, but a historical framework in which a universal class, indivisible in its interests, can free the whole of society from all exploitation and, consequently, from all oppression.
Female defenders of bourgeois women’s rights want to acquire political rights to participate in political life. Proletarian women can only follow the path of workers’ struggles, the opposite of setting foot in real power by means of basically legal statutes.
“Die Gleichheit,” the newspaper led by Zetkin, makes it clear that the power of women who benefited from censitary suffrage was born of their social position in the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie and that the legal reform of voting rights they proposed would entrench that power; however, working women could only assert themselves through labor struggles hand in hand with their class colleagues.
It could be thought that the entire female sex, deprived of political rights, should fight like a phalanx for the achievement of universal female suffrage. But this is not the case. (…) Also the battle for universal female suffrage is dominated by contrast and by the class struggle; a unitary struggle of the entire female sex cannot take place, and even less so when it is not an empty principle but a concrete, vital content, such as that of universal female suffrage. We cannot demand that bourgeois women go beyond their own nature. The proletarians must therefore not count on the support of bourgeois women in the struggle for their civil rights; class contradictions prevent the proletarians from being able to ally themselves with the feminist movement (…) The proletarians must be perfectly aware that the right to vote cannot be won by a struggle of the female sex without class discrimination against the male sex, but only by the class struggle of all the exploited, without discrimination of sex, against all the exploiters, also without any discrimination of sex.
Clara Zetkin. Speech explaining the resolution of the International Congress of Sttutgart, August 22, 1907
The creation of March 8 as a day of struggle, of strike, in 1910 under the name of “International Day of Solidarity among Proletarian Women” at Zetkin’s proposal is part of the same thing. It is a matter of affirming the socialist and working class character of the movement for truly universal suffrage, that is, including the achievement of the vote for women. In other words, the creation of 8 March was part of the struggle of the women of the Left of the Second International for the democratic rights of all workers and against the feminist idea of the “women’s union”, “against which I have fought all my life” as Rosa Luxemburg would write.
Feminism and the Imperialist War
This was a moment of truth that would demonstrate the background and reason for the battle of the left wing of the Second International against feminism. The suffragettes “demanded”, literally, of governments the incorporation of women into the war effort and the carnage of war. In 1918, the British government gave the vote to 8 million women from the wealthiest families, still far from universal suffrage. This is what the press now celebrates as the “conquest of the vote for women”, neglecting to say that there were only a few of all women.
Instead Zetkin and the groups of working women will convene the first international conference against the war in the midst of the most savage repression of the internationalists by all the governments. It would be the first political event organized by a group of the II International against the war at a time when Luxembourg, Rühle or Liebcknecht were already in prison.
To lead the proletarians to free themselves from nationalism and the socialist parties to regain their full freedom for the class struggle. The end of the war cannot be achieved except by the clear and unbreakable will of the masses of the people in the belligerent countries. For action, the Conference calls on socialist women and socialist parties in all countries: War on war!
Declaration of the International Conference of Socialist Women against War
On March 8, 1917, the March 8 demonstration in Petrograd, traditionally organized by socialist women’s groups, calling on all workers regardless of gender and asserting demands for the class as a whole, became the trigger for the Russian Revolution.
Should there be separate organizations of women workers?
Rosa Luxemburg denounced any “women’s” organization and any “front of women’s organizations”, because she realized that organizing in a deceitful interclassist space only served to swell the power of the petty bourgeois (and, as we will see, patriotic) layers that supported feminism and divided the class movement.
Luxembourg is so aware that the organization of exclusive women’s groups cannot open the door to either interclassism or class separation that when Clara Zetkin invites her to the first congress of socialist women she mocks it in a letter to Louise Kautsky: “Are we feminists now? -she writes. Of course, there was no trace of feminism in what Luxembourg and Zetkin would do. The “women’s organizations”, like the youth organization created by Karl Liebcknecht, another of the party’s left-wing pillars, had the same function that Lenin proposed to the Bund – the organization of Jewish workers – in the Russian party: to serve socialist education and the dissemination of the party’s program in a specific environment of women, most of whom were still in paid domestic work, in small workshops or dedicated exclusively to caring for the family.
This approach will be taken further by the III International at its I and II Congress. The logic was the same as that applied to linguistic minorities, youth and cooperatives. In a document of guidelines drawn up for the International to clarify its position by Zetkin herself, she made it clear that there would be no “separate organisations” or differentiated programmes, but rather “specific bodies” of the International at all levels – from the factory to the Secretariat – dedicated to promoting the formation, participation and training of women cadres given the “historical backwardness and the particular position often assumed by women workers at the time due to their domestic activity”.
There is only one movement, only one organization of communist women -formerly socialist- within the communist party together with communist men. The aims of communist men are our aims, our tasks […] The women members of the communist party in a given country must not meet in particular associations, but must be registered as members with equal rights and duties in the local party organizations, and they must be called upon to collaborate in all party bodies and instances. The communist party, however, adopts special regulations and creates special bodies that are responsible for the agitation, organisation and education of women
Clara Zetkin. Guidelines for the Women’s Communist Movement, 1920.
The Second and Third Internationals will not create ethnic, gender or generational organizations, but will promote full real equality of all members within the party. The universal character of the proletariat is translated in organisational terms into centralism.
Oppressions and “identities”
Throughout the work of Luxemburg or Zetkin there is one idea that is clear in every moment and every era: there is no such thing as “oppression in the abstract”, nor are “the nation”, “youth” or “women” historical subjects. They all exist within the framework of a certain mode of production and are therefore crossed, broken by class conflict. Rosa Luxemburg is very clear when she lays the foundations from which to discuss the national question and what she says about “the nation” and “the people” applies literally to “women” as well.
She uses the concept of nation as a whole, as a homogeneous social and political unit. But this concept of “nation” is precisely one of the categories of bourgeois ideology that Marxist theory has subjected to a radical revision, showing that behind the mysterious veil of the concepts of “bourgeois freedom”, “equality before the law”, etc., there is always a concrete historical content.
In class society the nation does not exist as a homogeneous socio-political entity, but in every nation there are classes with antagonistic interests and “rights”.
There is absolutely no social terrain, from the most primary material conditions to the most subtle moral conditions, in which the owning classes and the conscious proletariat adopt the same attitude and appear as an undifferentiated “people”. In the realm of economic conditions, the bourgeois classes defend the interests of exploitation, and the proletariat those of labor. In the realm of legal conditions, private property is the cornerstone of bourgeois society; the interests of the proletariat demand that those who have nothing be emancipated from the domination of property. In the realm of the administration of justice, bourgeois society represents “class justice,” the justice of the rulers and their leaders; the proletariat upholds humanity and the principle of taking into account the social influences on the individual. In international relations, the bourgeoisie carries out a policy of war and annexations, that is, in the present phase of the system, a policy of restrictive customs and commercial war; the proletariat, on the other hand, carries out a policy of generalized peace and freedom of exchange. In the field of sociology and philosophy, the bourgeois schools and the school represented by the proletariat are in open contradiction (…) Even in the field of supposed human relations, of ethics, of opinions on art, building, etc., the interests, the world view and the ideals of the bourgeoisie, on the one hand, and those of the conscious proletariat, on the other, constitute two fields separated from each other by a deep abyss. Where the formal aspirations and interests of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie as a whole, or its progressive section, appear to be identical or common, as for example in democratic aspirations, the identity of forms and slogans masks a complete rupture in content and practical policy.
In such a society there can be no collective and unitary will, no self-determination of the “nation”. When “national” struggles and movements have developed in the history of modern societies, these have generally been class movements of the leading bourgeois layer, which can at best represent to some extent the interests of other strata of the people insofar as they uphold, as “national interests”, progressive forms of historical development, in which the working class has not yet separated itself from the mass of the bourgeois-led “people” to constitute itself into a politically conscious and independent class. (…) For social democracy, the question of nationalities is, above all, like all other social and political questions, a question of class interests.
Rosa Luxemburg. The National Question and Autonomy, 1908
For Marxism, there is no “identity” outside the class struggle. There are no historical subjects other than the main classes in which bourgeois society is polarized, and therefore no revolutionary possibility other than that of the universal class. This “universality” is not only geographical, it is above all a matter of interests: the abolition of capital and wage labor has been, for more than a century, the only progressive future to which humanity as a whole can aspire. It is also the end of all exploitation… and by destroying its material foundations and giving rise to a new morality, of all discrimination. Something that is being advanced as a trend in the very forms of workers’ struggle (centralism).