Women and socialism: Bebel’s forgotten legacy

Ben Lewis reviews: Anne Lopes and Gary Roth, 'Men’s feminism: August Bebel and the German socialist movement', Amherst, 2000, pp261, £28

What role did men - particularly those involved in the early days of the workers’ movement - play in the development of the politics of women’s liberation? How does Marxism, as the independent outlook of the working class, fit into those perspectives?

These are some of the questions that arise when reading this book, which presents the basic yet provocative argument that the key figure “between and within Marxism and feminism” (p47) was the Marxist workers’ leader and Social Democratic Reichstag deputy, August Bebel, who acted as a “useful mediator for the commonalities and contrasts” between these approaches. The account follows Bebel’s political life and activity in and around both the Leipzig Workers’ Education League and several women’s campaigning groups before he rose to international prominence as a Social Democratic leader in the late 1860s. All the while it notes the intellectual and emotional influence of little-known women’s rights activists such as Moritz Müller, Hope Adams, Gertrud Guillame Schack, Julius Motteler and Bebel’s wife, Julie.

The book’s argument can be broadly summarised as follows: the development of Marxism’s ‘feminism’ is “unintelligible” without the role played by Bebel and the experience he gained by coming into contact with, and even helping to set up, the German middle class women’s movement, as well as his later work in the then groundbreaking ‘dual-gender’ union, the International Association of Textile, Factory and Handicraft Workers (1869-71).

Over time, his “men’s feminism” gradually became more radical and far-sighted than that of some of his peers, many of whom argued for women’s political education, but not for women to be allowed to hold political office, as this would jeopardise their domestic functions. The authors then go on to conclude that Bebel’s approach to women’s liberation was also in many ways more radical than the later efforts of Clara Zetkin, whose advocacy of “protective legislation” for women reflected a kind of “return to men’s feminism”, with its stress on protecting and entrenching women’s domestic role.


This is no biography of Bebel, but it does manage to illuminate the life of a quite remarkable man who suffered enormous hardship and poverty as a child, but who taught himself politics and proceeded to embody the kind of purposeful worker leader that the Marxist movement sought to create.

Nonetheless, the authors’ core thesis is that historiography has tended to marginalise Bebel’s contribution to women’s liberation - this despite the fact that his Woman and socialism (1879) was one of the socialist movement’s best-selling books. It defied the censorship of the anti-socialist laws (1878-90) and was reprinted 22 times (Bebel revising and updating the various editions throughout). It was translated into a number of languages, thus laying the basis for women’s liberation movements in all countries where social democracy existed, or was in the process of coming into existence.

Indeed, so the authors argue, Bebel helped to create the “exceptional” situation where the German Social Democratic Workers Party, of which he was a founding member in 1869, took such pride in fighting for gender equality, despite the vast majority of its members being men. Interestingly, the authors argue that, in Germany “feminism was as much a men’s as it was a women’s movement” and that “in general, socialist men proved to be more consistent feminists than bourgeois women” (p31).

However, so the authors argue, ask anybody about Marxism’s attitude to women’s liberation, and most will mention Friedrich Engels or Clara Zetkin, not August Bebel. For Lopes and Roth, a caricatured Bebel emerges in both pro- and anti-Marxist accounts. Both stress Bebel’s limited theoretical abilities, the fact that his text was more of an “event” (Zetkin) than serious analysis, that Bebel was simply a “man of his time”, that the text contained many pre-Marxist ideas or that the “classic text” was Engels’ Origin of the family, private property and the state, despite the latter’s readership paling in comparison to Woman and socialism. The authors do a solid job of refuting a lot of these accusations. They also cogently rebut the idea - held, for example, by Lise Vogel - that Origin was written as a kind of “silent polemic” against Bebel: a correction to his anthropological shortcomings. They show just how much Engels adored Bebel and his work (which is not to say that Engels’ text is not a far better piece of scientific anthropological investigation).

Leipzig influences

Bebel’s early activism revolved around the young German workers’ movement’s self-help associations and cooperatives, where he came into contact with three main groups: the League of German Worker Associations, the General Association of German Women and the (Lassallean) General German Workers’ Association. Their similar names reflected the commonalities between some of the different political outlooks.

It was in this period that he came across figures such as Louise Otto-Peters, who “did for middle class women what Bebel did for working class women” (p89) and Moritz Müller, a very wealthy member of the League, who financed cooperatives and published several pamphlets on both workers’ issues and the question of women’s liberation (p95). The authors make a compelling case that Bebel’s Marxism was hugely influenced by these two thinkers, particularly by Müller’s particular brand of “men’s feminism” that advocated female “domesticity not as the antithesis of equality, but its result” (p95).

Yet, while the authors caution against making a “schematic division” of Bebel’s life into liberal and Marxist “phases” (p47), I do think they tend to minimise the actual break that resulted between him and those like Müller and Otto-Peters. By the late 1860s, these two had left the workers’ movement altogether, Müller because the League had decided to adopt a programme based on the statutes of the International Workingmen’s Association, drafted by Marx (p99). The fact remains that Bebel went a different way to Otto-Peters and Müller - towards partyist class organisation in the IWMA and beyond. He was followed on this path by another of his Leipzig contemporaries, Julius Motteler, who was also instrumental to the “dual-gender union” and who was doubtless an influence on the dual-gender “trade union statutes” drafted by Bebel in the late 1860s, a time when women were still largely viewed as strike-breakers and potential enemies who could drive down wages and working conditions.

Motteler is also reported as having fought for gender equality in the IWMA: “Our union embraces both sexes, and the representatives of the central office, in its recommendations to the party organisation, must represent this point of view” (p115).

As the authors’ discussions of his draft of the German party’s first programme make clear, Bebel’s gender politics developed in fits and starts. They note his omission of female suffrage in 1869, but also how he was absolutely insisting on it by the 1875 Gotha conference of unification between the Eisenachers (Bebel’s group) and the Lassalleans.

The book’s argument comes to a conclusion in the final chapter on the role of Clara Zetkin and what the authors allege signifies some sort of weakening in the Marxist approach to women’s liberation. Their point of reference is the rather controversial matter of “protective legislation for women” (Zetkin was in favour). For the authors this revealed a kind of regression in Marxist thinking, a return to a pre-Bebel approach as a way of enforcing female domesticity. A quote from a single Zetkin speech that talks of protecting women’s role as mothers is offered as proof of this.

I must say that I do not find this argument particularly convincing. The portrayal of Bebel’s unfolding gender politics through the concepts of men’s feminism, equality and domesticity may make for a good read and allow the argument to be developed clearly, but railroading Zetkin into this schema does not work.

Moreover, doing so also fails to address some of the later divisions and discussions within the workers’ movement on domesticity and the household (Kollontai), and fails to take seriously Zetkin’s gender politics as a whole. Instead, on the basis of not very much at all it grasps at the simplistic conclusion that “the Marxian legacy, as it has come to be known in the subsequent historiography, is largely a fiction created by Zetkin herself” (p222). The implication here is that there is some kind of “break” between Bebel and Zetkin on women’s liberation, also evidenced in the former’s alleged more conciliatory attitude towards the mainstream women’s movement and the latter’s more hostile, more simplistic outlook.


The authors’ portrayal of Bebel as the key man when it comes to Marxism and gender also appears to downplay the role of Marx and Engels in their writing on the relationship between men and women. Yet there can be no denying that the uncovering of Bebel’s forgotten legacy is a real service, and our movement would benefit greatly from looking at this aspect of his work - positive and negative - in greater detail.

The two major issues I have with the argument offered in this book both relate to methodology. The first is the authors’ conscious eschewal of a socio-historical narrative in favour of a “Foucauldian sense of genealogy” (p46) in history. Although space and time do not permit a proper discussion of this approach’s limits, the second problem I have is closely related to it.

The book’s investigation into the historical relationship between Marxism and feminism is rendered far less effective by its insufficient contextualisation of feminism as a concept. Introducing the book, the authors recognise the problem involved here: ie, the evolution and changing meaning of ‘feminism’ over the last 150 years, but they do not really address it. As they put it, “‘Feminism’ and ‘feminist’ had not yet taken on their current meanings, but we use them because of their suitability to the issues at hand” (p23).

It is fairly well known, for example, that under the leadership of Zetkin from the 1890s onwards, at least, Social Democracy had an extremely hostile attitude towards the actually existing feminism of its time. For Zetkin, it was not ‘bourgeois feminism’ that was the problem. The problem was that feminism was bourgeois. As the historian Gisela Notz explains, “She was neither a feminist nor a ‘left feminist’ - the latter were unknown in her time. For her, feminists were the ‘bourgeois’. She criticised groups like the Association of Proletarian Women and Girls, founded in Berlin in 1873, because it only accepted women as members. She hated such a ‘segregation of women and men’ and saw it as ineffective. She regretted the ‘feminist tendencies … of many outstanding supporters of the Berlin movement’, who were quite obviously influenced by feminist [frauenrechtlerisch] trains of thought.”1

Despite explaining that the term ‘feminism’ is used in the modern-day sense, Lopes and Roth side-step a genuine problem for any historical enquiry into its meaning: ie, what it is both in history and in the language of today.2 After all, in the early 1900s, the Marxist activist, Alexandra Kollontai, dismissed feminism and the feminist movement as “poison”, while around 80 years later, that recently deceased figurehead of British conservatism, Margaret Thatcher, could do the same using more or less exactly the same language.3

This also presents a methodical problem when we wind the clock back to the 1860s, seeing how the gulf between feminism on the one hand and the workers’ women’s movement on the other came about by 1890. This is especially complicated by Bebel’s role: although he was initially part of helping to set it up, following the split with those like Otto-Peters, the German women’s movement then appears to have largely fallen under the hegemony of those very ‘feminists’ that would later come into conflict with the Social Democratic women’s movement.

Feminist insult?

Slightly oddly, Lopes and Roth even begin their presentation by noting that in 1860s Germany the word ‘feminist’ was actually some kind of insult directed at men who were “not manly enough” or “too compromising” in their politics (p19). Indeed, such terminology was also formalised and codified. The authors draw on German dictionary definitions that describe feminism as originally meaning “feminine characteristics in a man” and ‘feminist’ as “originally a feminine man” (p24). This leads them to concede that the very title of their book, the concept of a ‘men’s feminism’, “would have been redundant” (p19) in the period they are discussing.

As such, I think it is far more analytically useful to have talked about “men on women’s liberation”, “the workers’ movement on women’s liberation” or “Marxism and women’s liberation”, etc. Lopes’s and Roth’s failure to do so leads to a rather jarring disjuncture between their explanation of the origins of ‘feminism’ as an insult and their ensuing portrayal of various constructive and pioneering men’s ‘feminisms’ that grappled, in various forms, with the question of female equality. And this is the point: where the text should be interrogating whether Bebel’s commitment to women’s liberation was non-Marxist/pre-Marxist in origin and how this did or did not change, it actually subsumes a lot of conflicted and conflicting concepts, both within and between Marxism and the women’s movement, into one ideologically loaded concept. The context is lost as a result.

Nevertheless, however Bebel’s politics were formed, and however their origins may have manifested itself in the movement to which he was so instrumental, one thing is worth noting. In contrast to what many anti-Marxist feminists would claim, the authors note that “gender equality was first a working class phenomenon”, raising “many questions about the often-assumed modernising influence of the middle classes (p31). As with all democratic questions, our class took the lead on women’s liberation too.

Looking through the enormous amount of references in this book, it is nigh on criminal just how much of the rich, diverse Marxist material on the so-called ‘women’s question’ remains to be translated and made available to wider audiences - a situation that can only provide further sustenance to the erroneous view that Marxism has little or nothing to say on the question of women’s oppression.

Marxism constantly needs to be expanded upon and developed. This is doubly true with regards the women’s question. It is not that all the answers can be found in the Bebel of 1867 or 1891 - or in the collected speeches and writings of Clara Zetkin, for that matter.

Yet understanding our own history and the fate of women’s liberation in a historical context allow us to recast thinking about women’s empowerment and liberation in new terms: beyond the academy and ‘beyond the fragments’, as it were, of the bewildering number of ‘broad fronts’ and single-issue campaigns, into a united class party of men and women. As August Bebel shows, women’s liberation is a matter for the organised working class: the two phenomena are inseparable.




1. G Notz, ‘Clara Zetkin und die international sozialistische Frauenbewegung’, in U Plener (ed) Clara Zetkin in ihrer Zeit p12. This essay is one of many excellent contributions that precisely try to draw out Clara Zetkin “in her time”, not as the “socialist feminist” she is deemed to be ex post facto.

2. Moreover, as Mike Macnair has recently argued in these pages, the various ‘feminist’ discourses themselves have been through their own particularly complex 20th century history - originating, for example, in the politics of Maoism and in many respects being absorbed into mainstream thought since then. See M Macnair, ‘A useless product of 1970s radicalism’ Weekly Worker April 11.

3. As Thatcher reportedly told her adviser, Paul Johnson. See www.newstatesman.com/archive/2013/04/margaret-thatcher-feminist-icon.