Women’s liberation through class struggle

Celebrate International Working Women’s Day

SINCE the feminist movement ran out of steam, the marking of March 8 in bourgeois circles is left exclusively to columnists in The Guardian celebrating those courageous and superhuman women who manage to run their own advertising company, nurture two children and host dinner parties, of course with a little bit of help from their loyal ‘new man’. The columns have become increasingly cynical, it is true, since the shattering of the feminist movement has left the diehards arguing over what it is exactly they are fighting for.

As the sham of equal pay is yet again exposed in a report by the Equal Opportunities Commission (February 22) the reality for the vast mass of working class women is very different. Most are still caught in domestic slavery, but often have to take two or three low paid part-time jobs as well just to survive. It is beholden then on communists to reclaim International Working Women’s Day - torn from its revolutionary roots by the feminist movement - for the working class.

International Working Women’s Day was first celebrated on March 8 1911 at the initiative of the International Women’s Socialist Organisation, and its leader Clara Zetkin, a leading member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany who later played a prominent role in the formation of the Communist Party of Germany.

The day was to commemorate a demonstration three years earlier in which women machinists of New York’s Lower East Side marched, demanding better working conditions and the right to vote. They demonstrated against the bosses but also the bourgeois women’s movement, which refused to call for women workers’ votes.

Zetkin fought not only against bourgeois feminists of her day but also against the so called ‘socialist feminists’ who wanted a cross class alliance for the liberation of women. She argued there is “no such thing as a women’s movement”. Bourgeois women struggle for improved conditions within capitalism. Only by fighting in a revolutionary way can the demands of working class women be achieved. Ultimately, Zetkin said, we can only gain our liberation “through the political rule of the working class.”

The IWSO resolved that “socialist women must not ally themselves with bourgeois feminists, but lead the battle side by side with socialist men”. This was also the line of march taken by the Bolsheviks when International Working Women’s Day was first commemorated in Russia in 1913. In Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker), they argued - in opposition to the Mensheviks who wanted women-only demonstrations - against cross class collaboration with feminism and for a demonstration of both women and men workers to celebrate March 8.

In Russia, communist Alexandra Kollontai argued that “the women’s world is divided, just like the world of men, into two camps” - bourgeois and proletarian.

Women workers in Petrograd proved this beyond all doubt when on March 8 1917 the Bolshevik line shook the world. Strikes by women celebrating International Working Women’s Day acted as the catalyst for the February Revolution which toppled the Tsar and paved the way for the October Socialist Revolution.

International Working Women’s Day is therefore a communist celebration. Feminism only gained authority (and duly dropped the Working Women from the day) because the ‘official communists’ first vacated the field to them and then jumped on the feminist bandwagon.

The implosion of the feminist movement means their celebrations on March 8 no longer take place. But our forces are undeniably very weak. The lack of any strong independent working class organisation shows itself in the condition of women workers, as it does for all workers.

The increase in part-time work, far from being a liberation for women, has been responsible for dragging wages down and removing any rights to sickness and other benefits. Attacks on wages have seen the absolute pauperisation of many working class families. Not only have we seen the slashing of benefits for single mothers but the closing of crèche facilities and nurseries throughout the country.

Communists must take the lead in reversing this trend. The needs of capitalism dictate that it will continue to attack working class women. The reclaiming and rebuilding of International Working Women’s Day on the basis of class struggle is part of our fight to defend even very basic women’s rights under capitalism, but - more importantly - to end capitalism, so that women’s liberation can become real.

Helen Ellis