3. The Women’s Question Today
The Utopia of Interclass Feminism
We wrote that the women’s question in its modern sense precisely coincides with the ending of the family as an economic unit, and that its persistence as a “political” framework for the sole aim of social conservation, able to hold together what capitalism has torn apart: the so-called alleged “family unit”, is in fact a nonsense from the moment social production and organization becomes responsible for all of the functions which were previously the prerogative of the family.
It was precisely at the time when millions of women were forced to look for work outside of the family, when an objective transformation of the structure of the family was taking place, that the first claims of women emerged, claims which involved women of all strata and all social classes.
Clara Zetkin, in her speech at the German Social Democratic Party’s congress at Gotha on 16th October 1896, referring to the research of Bachofen, Morgan and others, would declare:
«Nonetheless, a women’s question in the modern sense of the term couldn’t be said to exist. It was only the capitalist mode of production which created the societal transformation which brought forth the modern women’s question by destroying the old family economic system which provided both livelihood and life’s meaning for the great majority of women during the pre-capitalist period. We must, however, not transfer to the ancient economic activities of women those concepts (the concepts of futility and pettiness), that we connect with the activities of women in our times. As long as the old type of family still existed, a woman found a meaningful life by productive activity. Thus she was not conscious of her lack of social rights even though the development of her potentials as an individual was strictly limited (...)».
«Machines, the modern mode of production, slowly undermined domestic production and not just for thousands but for millions of women the question arose: Where do we now find our livelihood? Where do we find a meaningful life as well as a, job that gives us mental satisfaction? Millions of women were now forced to find their livelihood and their meaningful lives outside of their families and within society as a whole. They then became conscious that their lack of rights made it difficult to protect their interests and from this moment emerges the real, modern women’s question (...)».
«The women’s question, however, is only present within those classes of society who are themselves the products of the capitalist mode of production. Thus it is that we find no women’s question in peasant circles that possess a natural (although severely curtailed and punctured) economy. But we certainly find a women’s question within those classes of society which are the most direct creations of the modern mode of production. There is a women’s question for the women of the proletariat, the bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia and the big bourgeoisie. It assumes a different form according to the class situation of each one of these strata».
The modern women’s question is born at this point. From this time on, all women, ranging from bourgeois to proletarian, get drawn in to the struggle because none of them have the political and civil rights that are granted to men: they aren’t allowed to vote, they aren’t allowed to organize, they are excluded from universities and the professions, marriages are deemed indissoluble and in cases of adultery the female is punished but not the male, they are without rights over their children, property is held solely by the husband, etc. Even proletarian women had to fight to defend their right to work in industry, against proletarian men who saw working women as competitors who would lower their wages, an attitude which only softened when the proletariat gave rise to the economic association.
To sum up, women had been left out of the democratic revolution and had yet to fight for their democratic rights, for equality with men. And it was from this that the feminist movements derived the justification for their existence, most famously the suffragettes. There is a description by Clara Zetkin which testifies to the bravery and fighting spirit of many bourgeois “heroines”, as genuine as many of those who fought in the bourgeois revolution.
And yet, while recognising the merits of this movement and the need for women, for all women, to win democratic rights, the party adopted as regards this issue the same analytical method and the same practice as it had towards the bourgeois revolution: no revolution by stages, that is, no submission by the proletarian woman to the bourgeois woman, not even during the fight for democratic rights; a clear separation between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat from the very beginning.
What we want to make clear is that the communist party has never accepted the thesis of “female people” versus “male people”; instead it has revealed the bourgeois aims that propel the women of the bourgeoisie into the struggle and the aims of proletarian women, clearly opposed even if some of them momentarily converge. Proletarian women beware! warned the party: while for the bourgeoisie, democracy is an end in itself, for you it must be a means that will allow you to enter the class struggle, alongside proletarian men, for the conquest of political power.
«How does the women’s question shape up as far as the women of the big bourgeoisie are concerned? – Zetkin continues – These women, thanks to their property, may freely develop their individuality and live as they please. In their role as wives, however, they are still dependent upon their husbands. The legacy of sexual wardship from ancient times has survived in family law, where it is still stated: And he shall be your master. Under what aspect is the wife in the big bourgeois family legally subjugated by her husband? At its very founding, such a family lacks moral prerequisites. The union has been decided on the basis of money, not the person. Its motto is: What capital joins, sentimental morality must not part. Thus in this marriage, two prostitutions are taken for one virtue. The style of family life develops accordingly. Wherever a woman is no longer forced to fulfil her duties, she devolves her duties as spouse, mother and housewife upon paid servants. If the women of these circles have the desire to give their lives a serious purpose, they must, first of all, raise the demand to dispose of their property in an independent and free manner.
«This demand, therefore, represents the core of the demands raised by the bourgeois women’s movement. These women, in their fight for the realization of their demand vis-a-vis the masculine world of their class, fight exactly the same battle that the bourgeoisie fought against all of the privileged estates; i.e., a battle to remove all social differences based upon the possession of property».
So, a struggle between bourgeois factions. Separation of the assets! What bourgeois women aspire to, in other words, is the same right to extort surplus value from the proletariat as the men of their own class.
«The more right-wing feminists – Zetkin continues – those who because of their social situation are part of the upper bourgeoisie, concentrate on two main problems: 1) Replacing religious with civil matrimony, which at the same time would make divorce easier; 2) the possibility of the separation of the possessions of the couple in countries where this isn’t yet done. These two claims without any doubt have a very great importance for women of the middle and upper bourgeoisie for the representatives of capital in any of its forms: this for them would be the best way of defending their own economic interests — on the one hand protecting the common possessions of the father and mother by way of the civil marriage for the children; on the other maintaining their complete economic independence from their husband (…) As representatives of the upper bourgeoisie it is evidently in this spirit that our progressive women compelled us to elaborate their own claims as regards the question of the family. The programme of the progressive women’s party states: “As far as family Law is concerned it is necessary to institute marriage as a legal act, obligatory for all. The religious consecration of marriage must remain the free choice of each individual. Divorce will be made easier and the formalities simplified. Parents will need to exercise equal power over their children. Women will be equal to men in everything: she will have rights to the family possessions, and legislation will need to make her economically independent of her husband if, for domestic reasons, she is unable to earn a living. In the same way legislation must install a wide-reaching protection of the children, in particular those who born outside the marriage (...)”»
«Setting out from the consideration that the economic and social structure is unchangeable, the progressive woman only wants to bring about some modifications to the present family relationships, modifications which nonetheless do not in any way strike at the roots of the bourgeois family. The modification introduced in this way has not only the aim of improving the reciprocal relationships between the people united by the mutual ties of marriage, but also that of solidifying the present form and making it more vital.
«And how does the women’s question manifest itself in the ranks of the small and middle bourgeoisie, and in the bourgeois intelligentsia? Here it is not a matter of property dissolving the family, but mainly the phenomena accompanying capitalist production. As the latter completes its triumphal progress, the middle and small bourgeoisie are more and more driven to ruin. In the bourgeois intelligentsia there is a further circumstance that makes for the worsening of the conditions of life: Capital needs an intelligent and scientifically trained labour force; it therefore favoured overproduction in proletarian brain-workers, and contributed to the fact that the previously respectable and remunerative social position of members of the liberal professions is increasingly disappearing.
«To the same degree, however, the number of marriages is continually decreasing; for while the material conditions are worsening on the one hand, on the other the individual’s demands on life are increasing, and therefore the men of these circles naturally think twice and thrice before they decide to marry. The age limits for starting one’s own family are getting jacked up higher and higher, and men are pushed into marriage to a lesser degree as social arrangements make a comfortable bachelor existence possible even without a legal wife. Capitalist exploitation of proletarian labour power ensures, through starvation wages, that a large supply of prostitutes answers the demand from this same aspect of the male population. Thus the number of unmarried women in middle-class circles is continually increasing.
«The women and daughters of these circles are thrust out into society to establish a life for themselves, not only one that provides bread but also one that can satisfy the spirit. In these circles the woman does not enjoy equality with the man as owner of private property, as obtains in the higher circles. Nor does she enjoy equality as a working-woman, as obtains in proletarian circles. The women of these circles must, rather, first fight for their economic equality with the men, and they can do this only through two demands; through the demand for equality in occupational education and through the demand for sex equality in carrying on an occupation. Economically speaking, this means nothing else than the realisation of free trade and free competition between men and women.
«The realisation of this demand awakens a conflict of interest between the women and men of the middle class and the intelligentsia. The competition of women in the liberal professions is the driving force behind the resistance of the men against the demands of the bourgeois feminists».
It is from the lack of property to share out, therefore, that a different attitude on the part of feminist petty bourgeois intellectuals on the question of the family ensues; whereas the right-wing feminists, the upper bourgeoisie, concern themselves with changing family legislation in their favour (as we have seen), the intellectuals are for absolute independence without any institution: men and women as equals on the labour market and “free love” as far as sexual relations are concerned.
Alexandra Kollantai: «Therefore the feminists of the left, concerning the question of the family, don’t want a reform of marriage legislation but rather the triumph of the principle of “free union”, and “free love”. These ideas, introduced for the first time by socialists in the nineteenth century, are still today the preferred slogan of the most emancipated feminists: many even make “free love” the centre of the women’s question. Openly declaring war on the hypocrisy of double standards, they have bravely fought the bourgeois philistines, who bristling with rage, spit poison (…) Naively believing in the possibility of creating new forms of family and new types of marital relations against the dismal background of the contemporary class society, the feminists and the social reformers from the camp of the bourgeoisie, tie themselves in knots in their search for these new forms.
«If life itself has not yet produced these forms, it is necessary, they seem to imagine, to think them up whatever the cost. There must, they believe, be modern forms of sexual relationship which are capable of solving the complex family problem under the present social system»(Ibid).
As we can see, not revolutionary destruction of the capitalist system as uniquely responsible for, and creator of, every oppression, but rather a super-imposition of new forms over the old. The feminists of the left, while clearly separating themselves from those of the right who declare themselves preservers of the traditional family, find themselves objectively alongside them in conserving existing society. They fight the effects of their oppression and not its causes, forgetting that although PRIVATE PROPERTY – the real, rotten, surviving phenomenon to destroy – is best contained within the traditional family it doesn’t spare “free unions”, because it interposes itself into all relationships that people establish between themselves in this society.
«How utopian these marriage formulas sound – Alexandra Kollantai continues – How feeble these palliatives, when considered in the light of the gloomy reality of our modern family structure. Before these formulas of “free relationships” and “free love” can become practice, it is above all necessary that a fundamental reform [this is clearly meant in a revolutionary sense. ed.,] of all social relationships between people take place; furthermore, the moral and sexual norms and the whole psychology of mankind would have to undergo a thorough evolution, is the contemporary person psychologically able to cope with “free love"? What about the jealousy that eats into even the best human souls? And that deeply-rooted sense of property that demands the possession not only of the body but also of the soul of another? And the inability to have the proper respect for the individuality of another? The habit of either subordinating oneself to the loved one, or of subordinating the loved one to oneself? And the bitter and desperate feeling of desertion, of limitless loneliness, which is experienced when the loved ceases to love and leaves? Where can the lonely person, who is an individualist to the very core of his being, find solace? The collective, with its joys and disappointments and aspirations, is the best outlet for the emotional and intellectual energies of the individual. But is modern man capable of working with this collective in such a way as to feel the mutually interacting influences? Is the life of the collective really capable, at present, of replacing the individual’s petty personal joys? Without the “unique,” “one-and-only” twin soul, even the socialist, the collectivist, is quite alone in the present antagonistic world; only in the working class do we catch the pale glimpse of the future, of more harmonious and more social relations between people. The family problem is as complex and many-faceted as life itself. Our social system is incapable of solving it».
We need to emphasize however that in criticizing this petty-bourgeois deviation we are not seeking to prompt greater sympathy for the traditional family, not even, in a hypocritical way, “…while waiting to take power”. As we have already shown, legal wife and prostitute are in many cases two sad sides of the same coin.
We are opposed to the ideology of “free love” only inasmuch as it tries to replace revolution as a way of solving once and for all the problem of the relationship between the sexes. On the contrary, we want to make it very clear that it is feminism itself – as an ideology – that wishes to distort into a self-sufficient political finality the positive tendency of millions of women in search for their own inner and outer independence, and affirmation of their own individuality as they seek to remove themselves from the wardship of men in order to try and re-establish a relationship that is equal rather than antagonistic.
The search for free love, if purged of all radical-bourgeois ideologies and from the anathema of conservatives and reactionaries, is an aspect of the affirmation of themselves as people for which millions of women feel the need. New forms of relationships between the sexes cannot assert themselves without entirely shattering the existing social order, but the process leading to this finality is already recognizable in the independent path being followed, despite the difficulties, by so many women and which in fact derives from the increasing decomposition of current institutions.
Under the influence of capitalist production, millions of women have been forced to enter the collectivity that exists outside the family, and therefore, at the same time to contradict their own recently held image of themselves as man’s “accessory” on the economic, social and sexual levels.
It is even more indispensible to reject the anxiety and separatism which feminism expresses in order to forcefully re-affirm the class route, which includes the women’s army marching for their liberation.
The Condition of the Proletarian Woman
Clara Zetkin:: «As far as the proletarian woman is concerned, it is capitalism’s need to exploit and to search incessantly for a cheap labor force that has created the women’s question. It is for this reason, too, that the proletarian woman has become enmeshed in the mechanism of the economic life of our period and has been driven into the workshop and to the machines. She went out into the economic life in order to aid her husband in making a living, but the capitalist mode of production transformed her into on unfair competitor. She wanted to bring prosperity to her family, but instead misery descended upon it. The proletarian woman obtained her own employment because she wanted to create a more sunny and pleasant life for her children, but instead she became almost entirely separated from them. She became an equal of the man as a worker; the machine rendered muscular force superfluous and everywhere women’s work showed the same results in production as men’s work.
«And since women constitute a cheap labor force and above all a submissive one that only in the rarest of cases dares to kick against the thorns of capitalist exploitation, the capitalists multiply the possibilities of women’s work in industry. As a result of all this, the proletarian woman has achieved her economic independence [economic independence, that is, understood to mean the possibility of earning a personal wage. ed.,].. But verily, the price was very high and for the moment they have gained very little. If during the Age of the Family, a man had the right (just think of the law of Electoral Bavaria!) to tame his wife occasionally with a whip, capitalism is now taming her with scorpions. In former times, the rule of a man over his wife was ameliorated by their personal relationship. Between an employer and his worker, however, exists only a cash nexus. The proletarian woman has gained her economic independence, but neither as a human being nor as a woman or wife has she had the possibility to develop her individuality. For her task as a wife and a mother, there remain only the breadcrumbs which the capitalist production drops from the table.
«Therefore the liberation struggle of the proletarian woman cannot be similar to the struggle that the bourgeois woman wages against the male of her class. (…) She, the proletarian woman, does not need to fight against the men of her class in order to tear down the barriers which have been raised against her participation in the free competition of the market place. Capitalism’s need to exploit and the development of the modern mode of production totally relieves her of having to fight such a struggle. On the contrary, new barriers need to be erected against the exploitation of the proletarian woman. Her rights as wife and mother need to be restored and permanently secured. Her final aim is not the free competition with the man, but the achievement of the political rule of the proletariat. The proletarian woman fights hand in hand with the man of her class against capitalist society» (Ibid).
«The workers – writes LaFargue – were the first to draw out the logical consequences of the participation of women in social labour: the artisan’s ideal of the woman at home was replaced with a new ideal of the woman as a comrade in the struggle for higher wages and liberation from work; only the bourgeoisie has not yet understood that its ideal became outdated a long time ago and that it is necessary to change it to bring it into line with the present social conditions».
«To be sure – Clara Zetkin continues – she also agrees with the demands of the bourgeois women’s movement, but she regards the fulfillment of these demands simply as a means to enable that movement to enter the battle, equipped with the same weapons, alongside the proletariat (…) The granting of political equality to women does not change the actual balance of power. The proletarian woman ends up in the proletarian, the bourgeois woman in the bourgeois camp. We must not let ourselves be fooled by Socialist trends in the bourgeois women’s movement which last only as long as bourgeois women feel oppressed» (ibid).
«The proletarian women – Kollantai specifies – are waging war against the factors that are behind the modern form of family and marriage (…) Here we have the main difference between the bourgeois and proletarian approach to the difficult problem of the family».
From this analysis the assumption seems clear: that women, all women, must deal with the problem of their “democratic” emancipation, where by democratic we mean equality with men, a goal not incompatible in itself with bourgeois society, but they cannot and should not group themselves together in an undifferentiated manner under a single “feminist” banner because the various class positions present amongst woman result in a corresponding divergence as to the final ends and means to be used in this struggle.
But it proletarian women who have the most difficult task: to tackle, along with the men of their own class, any democratic demand using the methods of direct action and class struggle – methods typical of the working class in general – not against men but against the entire society represented by the bourgeois State.
This banner and this alone is the one that must fly over the head-on attack on all bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideologies, with a view to creating a battle front on which all women who sincerely and passionately feel the need to free themselves from their condition of slavery can come together.