SUPPLEMENT: Reclaim the festival
It is not enough to bemoan the corporate feminists for usurping International Women’s Day, writes Anne McShane. We must show that socialism is a real alternative
International Women’s Day, celebrated each year on March 8, needs to be reclaimed by the socialist and working class movement. It belongs to our history, established by the Socialist International in 1910 to advance women’s emancipation as part of the struggle to overthrow capitalism, created to emancipate working women from the very forces which today falsely claim it as their own.
This year’s official bourgeois festival has the theme, #ChooseToChallenge. Supporters of women’s equality are called on to share a photo on social media with a raised hand - “striking a Choose to Challenge pose”. Role models for the campaign are the famous ‘challengers’, Kamala Harris and Amal Clooney. The event is ‘partnered’ by the transnationals, HCL Technologies and Medtronic, and supported by McDonalds, Diageo, DHL and a list of other such companies and banks. Online meetings will be held on IWD to promote women’s “achievements and visibility”, when female executives from Google, Forbes and IBM will tell us their individual success stories.
The campaign of course does not pretend to have any hope of success for the majority of women. No, what it holds out is ‘parity’, in other words the equality of bourgeois women with bourgeois men. Even then, the signs are not hopeful:
According to the World Economic Forum, sadly none of us will see gender parity in our lifetimes, and nor likely will many of our children. Gender parity will not be attained for almost a century.1
However, what it does successfully do is provide endorsement for its corporate partners and supporters, with female executives extolling the virtues of their respective company, and a list of vacant positions that women seeking equality are encouraged to apply for. The path to self-liberation is through obtaining work with a “progressive employer”. The event is a glossy online opportunity for transnationals to promote themselves and recruit.
Of course, there is no mention of the oppression suffered by the vast majority of women today, of working class struggles against poverty and exploitation. That the bourgeoisie has managed to lay hold of IWD and use it for its own purposes should fill us full of indignation - and a determination to build a movement capable of defeating it and securing genuine emancipation.
The struggle against feminism is in essence little different today from that fought by those who launched IWD in 1911. As Alexandra Kollontai put it,
What is the aim of the feminists? Their aim is to achieve the same advantages, the same power, the same rights within capitalist society as those possessed now by their husbands, fathers and brothers. What is the aim of the women workers? Their aim is to abolish all privileges deriving from birth or wealth. For the woman worker it is a matter of indifference who is the ‘master’: a man or a woman. Together with the whole of her class, she can ease her position as a worker.2
Today the likes of Kamala Harris, Angela Merkel and Christine Lagarde run the political system which oppresses the vast majority of the world’s population and threatens our very existence. They are not representatives of working class women, but sworn enemies. They are the very people that IWD must assert itself against, with no illusions in feminism.
As can be seen from the report of the conference in 1910, which launched the annual event, there were cautious hopes for the success of IWD.
Clara Zetkin and her comrades were surprised by the powerful response. Alexandra Kollontai, who was part of the International Socialist Secretariat and based in Germany at the time, wrote:
Its success succeeded all expectation. Germany and Austria on Working Women’s Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. Meetings were organised everywhere - in the small towns and even in the villages halls were packed so full that they had to ask male workers to give up their places for the women.3
There were reports of mass demonstrations in 1911 and the years that followed, with IWD becoming a focal point in the struggle for universal suffrage and against the militarism of World War I. After the Russian Revolution, IWD was declared a public holiday and the event was fixed to take place in every country on March 8.
The Zhenotdel (Women’s Department of the Russian Communist Party), established in 1919, and the Communist Women’s Movement (1920) pledged that March 8 would be utilised to give concrete meaning to formal and legal commitments to women’s emancipation. It would provide an annual launch pad for initiatives on education, employment, the socialisation of domestic labour and childcare, the recruitment and promotion of women by communist parties, and the winning of communist and working class men to the cause of women’s emancipation. It would also be an opportunity for the movement to review and discuss gains and difficulties in what was truly unchartered and challenging territory.
Everyone knows about the extraordinary militancy and courage of the women of Petrograd, who rose up against the tsar on IWD 1917, thus sparking the February revolution. But up until recently the communist women’s movement - the inheritor of the best of the Socialist International’s tradition and its continuation at a higher level - has been little discussed among the left. Proper research and study - both of women in the Soviet Union and in the international communist movement - has largely been confined to academia. Perversely it has been described as part of ‘first-wave feminism’ - despite the fact that communist women were vehement opponents of the ‘equal righters’ of such feminism. They were consistent and forceful in that opposition.
Kollontai made clear in an article for IWD 1913 that:
For bourgeois women, political rights are simply a means allowing them to make their way more conveniently and more securely in a world founded on the exploitation of the working people. For women workers, political rights are a step along the rocky and difficult path that leads to the desired kingdom of labour.4
In other words, the projects of feminism and that of socialism were counterposed to each other.
In fact Kollontai was viewed with horror by the feminist movement in Russia - she was despised for turning up to feminist meetings and conferences to demolish their claims to represent the interests of working class women, and in doing so ‘splitting the women’s movement’. Indeed she and other comrades had some success in doing just that in 1908.
Yet, despite their declared anti-feminism, communist women of the time are almost always described in academic literature as ‘feminists’ or (worse) ‘socialist feminists’. Unfortunately most women socialists and communists today also describe them as socialist feminist and argue that if these women were alive today they would do the same.
This claim is totally false and betrays a misunderstanding of the ideas of communist women. They believed that the struggle for women’s emancipation was part of the universal struggle for socialism and was one which concerned men as well as women.
The manner in which the Zhenotdel built March 8 in the early 1920s illustrates its determination to build a movement of men and women in Soviet Russia. Its leaders argued there could be no socialism without a universal commitment to the emancipation of all. March 8 was to be a “proletarian festival” like May Day, involving women and men working together in common cause.
March 8 also provided an opportunity to launch an offensive within the party and soviets and to make practical progress. A key slogan was ‘Agitatsiya delom’ or ‘Agitation in practice’ - showing working women that the communists were really on their side. Childcare and women’s health were important issues, with the opening of nurseries and kindergartens, along with health amenities for pregnant and nursing mothers, coinciding with March 8.
The campaign for the education of women would also receive a boost with the opening of schools, colleges and courses aimed at women, and the specific allocation of places to women in mixed educational establishments. There were initiatives to promote women to leading positions within the party and soviets, introduce safety measures at work, unionise women workers, provide cheap nutrition and other amenities, set up cooperatives - all aimed at integrating women to the project and socialising ‘women’s work’. March 8 was used as an opportunity to argue for the importance of women’s full involvement as equals in Soviet society. Articles were published in Pravda, Izvestia and other journals, along with meetings and debates aimed at educating and informing men as well as women.
In the eastern parts of the Soviet Union, March 8 was focused on bringing the broadest masses into political activity. Writing in Kommunistka, the Zhenotdel journal, in 1923, Serafima Liubimova, the head of the Central Asian department, demanded that “the woman question be put on the agenda of every cell and made a normal part of the work of the party”.5 In June of the same year she claimed some success had been achieved already, with March 8 having “a distinctively proletarian atmosphere, involving both men and women in all events”.6 She declared proudly that “thousands of women wearing veils took part in the celebrations, including in a public march through Tashkent”. Photographs in Kommunistka show groups of veiled and unveiled women marching together with their banners.
In 1924 Liubimova announced a further victory, with the Sredazburo (Central Asian Bureau) agreeing to “include the women question on the agendas of cells, training courses and party schools”.7 In February 1925 the central committee called on all party organisations in the east to implement measures aimed at “the maximum recruitment of indigenous women, the creation of crèches, canteens and other supports, and the education of women.” Also, “all party cells” were called on “to assist and facilitate indigenous women in becoming active in social production outside the home”.8 Kommunistka writers applauded these initiatives and claimed that support from the party leadership had encouraged indigenous women to participate in larger numbers in March 8 events that year.
This clearly provides evidence that the Zhenotdel considered itself to be a fundamental part of the overall Soviet project - not some kind of feminist lobby group. Being accepted as such was another matter. Despite declarations of intent of the type mentioned above, there was little actually done by the party leadership to support the Zhenotdel’s work. The isolation of the revolution, hardships of the civil war, the New Economic Policy, etc no doubt hindered progress - and, of course, there was a very definite limit to what could be achieved. However, the opposition of male party members to the Zhenotdel’s very existence - which they saw as a nuisance and/or a feminist enclave - along with a lack of real support from the leadership, seriously undermined its position. The pages of Kommunistka are full of complaints about unfulfilled promises and arguments for the validity and importance of its work. Local communist men were sometimes described as more arrogant, dismissive and chauvinist than their non-party counterparts.
If this was a problem confined to the Soviet Union then those who argue that the issue was just the limitation of resources would have a point. But the Communist Women’s Movement set up in 1920 faced similar problems. In her report to Comintern on CWM’s second conference in 1921, Zetkin spoke of the success of the movement:
Beyond any doubt, we have registered gratifying progress during the last year. This is evident in the development of the Communist Women’s Movement in individual countries, where increasing masses of women comrades are resolutely joining the Communist Party. There has also been progress in international coordination of efforts to place the broadest masses of women at the service of proletarian revolution.
However, she then went on to point to the problems:
But mixed into our pleasure regarding these steps forward is a measure of bitterness. In most countries, the gains of the Communist Women’s Movement have been achieved without support from the Communist Party, indeed in some instances against its open or hidden opposition. There is still insufficient understanding of the fact that without the participation in revolutionary struggles of women who are conscious, clear on their goal, certain regarding the path and prepared to make sacrifices, the proletariat will be able neither to seize power in civil war nor, after establishing its dictatorship, to begin constructing a communist society.9
She then argues that feminism cannot be defeated as an opponent unless the Comintern takes a lead:
… it does immense damage to the revolution and to activating the masses for this revolution if the communist parties of every country fail to commit the same energy to the revolutionary mobilisation and training of women for the battles of the proletariat as they do to mobilise the men. As for the comrades who do not gather and train women to be conscious partners in revolution, I call them conscious saboteurs of the revolution.
In her 1922 report to the Comintern she spoke of the importance of March 8 and stated:
It took place this year to a much greater extent, with more unity, and including much broader masses of proletarian women than had been the case in the previous two years. And this celebration highlighted the fact that it is not a separate women’s event, not a women’s issue, but an issue for the party, a party campaign; a declaration of war by communism against capitalism; a beginning of the struggle for which an army of millions of exploited and oppressed must be gathered, armed and made ready. Almost everywhere - more in some areas and less in others - it was carried out as a campaign of the Communist Party as a whole.
However, there remained major problems with the setting up within parties of commissions for work among women - theses on which had been agreed by the Comintern in 1921. In Britain there was none and in France it had been closed down. Bulgaria and Germany were far more successful and steps forward had been taken in the Netherlands, Italy and Poland.10
Comrade Zetkin raised the question of education and organisation;
I therefore give you all an urgent warning: take care that the women in your ranks are assigned to the party’s practical tasks in what I would like to call an individual fashion, bringing them in and assigning them personally. Take care that all possibilities for education and that all existing institutions for the theoretical and practical education of the membership are open to them. Take care that, where a common rounded education is not possible, the necessary educational vehicles for women are created in the form of courses, lectures, and appropriate publications and literature for women.
Comrades, part of your own educational work is to assure the thorough and practical education of women as communist colleagues in struggle. This is beyond any doubt an important and essential precondition for your success.
I have quoted from Zetkin at length to illustrate the approach of the communist women’s movement, its enormous potential to build the Comintern, and the continuing problems it faced from within its own ranks. I believe that today, in order to reclaim our movement, we must examine its experiences in a critical manner and take seriously the problems it faced from within.
I am glad that there are now serious efforts underway to do so. A book on the CWM 1920-22, which provides for the first time a complete translation of its conferences and meetings, edited by Mike Taber and Daria Dyanokova will hopefully be published this year. This will be an enormously valuable contribution and I hope it will stimulate debate.11 Other comrades are working on the question, both in terms of the legacy of the Women’s Secretariat of the Second International and of individual sections of the Comintern. We have a great deal to learn from our own movement.
Theory and education
There are obviously material reasons for women’s oppression, which are reflected in relationships between men and women - and communist organisations are no exception. And for women the question is of far more immediate importance than for men. But we as communists need to consciously overcome these issues in order to recruit the mass of working class women to the cause of revolution.
Working class women will not join organisations which have little practical interest in the issues which affect them and within which women do not play a leading role. An annual article to coincide with March 8 is not good enough. Education is key for us now, just as it was for previous generations.
Looking back, it seems to me that communist women took the ideas of Friedrich Engels and August Bebel on women’s liberation far more seriously than their male comrades. Certainly Nadia Krupskaya bemoaned the lack of education for men on the woman question. But it is vital for both men and women to understand the theoretical basis of women’s oppression and its practical reflection in today’s world.
Bebel made clear his view that socialism and women’s emancipation are intrinsically linked:
The complete emancipation of woman, and her equality with man, is the final goal of our cultural development, the achievement of which no power on earth can prevent.12
Engels wrote that, under socialism,
... the position of men will be very much altered. But 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.13
Of course, this will create major changes in personal and social relationships. We have seen numerous examples of how the entering of women into struggle has such a deep effect on them that they do not want to return to their old lives as housewives and carers. We do not want to end up in a situation again where communist organisations see women’s self-organisation as a hindrance or where communist and working class men resent and impede it.
We therefore must integrate women’s emancipation into all aspects of our party work. We must research and understand the question in a far more profound way. There is an enormous level of untranslated and undiscussed material setting out our history and there are, of course, many interesting debates today - debates for which we as Marxists can provide answers.
Comrades, it is not enough to condemn the feminists for usurping March 8. We must show that socialism is a real alternative and that we as communists reflect our commitment to that goal in our work today.
S Liubimova, ‘Rabota na Vostoke’ Kommunistka Nos1-2, 1923.↩︎
S Liubimova, ‘Eshche shag na puti k raskreposhcheniiu’ Kommunistka No6, 1923.↩︎
S Liubimova, ‘Na Vostoke’ Kommunistka No3, 1924.↩︎
V Kasparova, ‘Novye rezervy na Vostoke’ Kommunistka No2, 1925.↩︎