The last few years have seen a revival of the fight against the oppression of women on an international scale. Movements for the right to abortion in Ireland, Argentina and Poland; the global women’s march against Trump; and the feminist strike in Spain: a new generation is entering the political arena to fight against the inequalities and violence women still face. These young people want to profoundly change society, and are looking for ideas to make it happen. With this in mind, the Marxist writings of Eleanor Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, and Alexandra Kollontaï, among others, retain their relevance today. As we will see, these great socialist leaders always fought to link the struggle of women to the struggle for socialism. For them, there can be no emancipation of women without the emancipation of the working class, and vice versa. We propose here to revisit their ideas.

Marxists and the suffragettes

The liberation of women has always been at the core of the socialist movement. Even before Karl Marx, the utopian socialist Charles Fourier argued that “human progress can be measured in the woman’s progress towards freedom.” Marx’s closest collaborator, Friedrich Engels, published in 1884 the quintessential materialist analysis describing the origins of the oppression of women in his celebrated book Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.

There were, however, other approaches to this struggle. In the early days of the Marxist movement, all sorts of petty-bourgeois and bourgeois women’s groups were formed to fight for women’s rights, in particular the right to vote. While Marxists supported and struggled for democratic rights and against oppression in general, there was a world of difference between the Marxist approach and those who sought to unite all women in a common struggle—as we will see.

Great Marxist women like Kollontai and Zetkin did not spare the suffragettes from criticism, describing them as a “bourgeois women’s movement.” Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, who was active in the labour movement in Britain at the time, explained the Marxist position: “Women workers can well understand the demands of the bourgeois women’s movement; they can and should even take a sympathetic attitude toward these demands; only, the goals of the women-workers and the bourgeois women are very different.” Clara Zetkin, for her part, said that: “We demand political rights equal to those of men so that together with them we can liberate ourselves from the chains that hold us back, and we can overthrow and destroy this society.” This was completely different from the petty-bourgeois and bourgeois women at the time who saw the fight for voting rights as separate from the class struggle, and as an end in and of itself.

Rosa Luxemburg was particularly sharp in her criticisms of bourgeois women:

“If it were a matter of bourgeois ladies voting, the capitalist state could expect nothing but effective support for the reaction. Most of those bourgeois women who act like lionesses in the struggle against ‘male prerogatives’ would trot like docile lambs in the camp of conservative and clerical reaction if they had suffrage.” This reminds us of the loyal support for imperialist wars and reactionary policies from politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright.

We see why the class-based approach of Marxist women had nothing to do with the idea that all women have common interests. In fact, these Marxist women had the exact same position and approach as the Marxist men. They defended a united class struggle against the capitalist system and all of the forms of oppression rooted in it.

Probably the best historical example of the difference in approach was in the British suffragette movement. In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) as an organ of struggle for women’s rights. Her daughters Christabel, Sylvia, and Adela were also active in this organization which at times led very radical actions ending in arrests and imprisonment. But right from the beginning tensions appeared in the organization, which fundamentally stemmed from different class outlooks.

Sylvia in particular tried to broaden the movement out to the general struggle of the working class and became a convinced socialist. She combined actions of civil disobedience with a mobilisation of the WSPU into workers struggles. She understood the need for a mass mobilization and a class approach to this struggle. She wanted: “not more serious militancy by the few but a stronger appeal to the great masses to join in the struggle.” However, this approach was not shared by her mother and her sister Christabel who opposed uniting with workers’ organizations. Arguing that this was a simple woman’s struggle, they wanted to maintain the WSPU’s independence from the workers’ movement.  

Sylvia wanted the WSPU to be a specifically socialist organization and traveled across the United Kingdom to spread socialist ideas. These efforts eventually saw her expelled in 1914 by her own sister and mother after speaking at a meeting of socialists and trade unionists in support of Irish revolutionary Jim Larkin. Here we see clearly the difference in approach. The petty-bourgeois women wanted the movement to be simply about “women’s issues”, while Sylvia sought a united struggle against capitalism as the path towards women’s liberation.

The complete bankruptcy of the suffragette movement was demonstrated with the outbreak of the First World War. The WSPU ended all protests and became the most firm supporter of the British government and the war effort. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George personally solicited the aid of the WSPU and financed pro-war demonstrations organized by them with the slogan “We demand the right to serve.” Emmeline even used a feminist argument to justify this, claiming that Germany was a “masculine nation.”

After the war, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst adopted reactionary anti-union positions and were among the first women to run in elections, which they did under the banner of the Conservative Party. Conversely, Sylvia went on to found the Communist Party of Great Britain.

We see here why socialists are opposed to attempts to create a separate women’s movement. Arguing that “women all have the same interests” and trying to create women’s-only organizations simply places the struggle on a purely liberal basis and hands the leadership of the movement to bourgeois and petty-bourgeois women who cannot and will not lead the struggle in the best interest of women workers. This was clearly explained at the time by Alexandra Kollontai, who became People’s Commissar for Social Welfare In the USSR: “Where, then, is that general ‘woman question’?” Kollontai asked. “Where is that unity of tasks and aspirations about which the feminists have so much to say? A sober glance at reality shows that such unity does not and cannot exist.” These words stand out in stark contrast to the image we are presented of Kollontai today by many on the left, particularly in academia, who try to portray Kollontai as a feminist.

Clara Zetkin defended the same ideas as Kollontai. A German socialist activist, she denounced the hypocrisy of women’s organizations in Germany that supported all kinds of reactionary positions. Zetkin harshly criticized the Union of Radical Women, a petty-bourgeois women’s organization which in 1903 supported a candidate in Hamburg who was only in favor of the right to vote for some women against the socialist August Bebel. Bebel at the time was “one of the first and most strenuous fighters in the cause of the complete emancipation of woman”, in the words of Zetkin. In particular, Bebel was well-known for writing the first Marxist book on the subject, Women and Socialism in 1879. The Union of Radical Women showed clearly why class was ultimately more important, as they were incapable of supporting Bebel. There was even one women’s organization which even went so far as to support a liberal candidate in Bavaria in 1905, even though this party was opposed to universal suffrage for all women.

The Marxist approach of Kollontaï and Zetkin to this question was demonstrated clearly in none other than the founding of International Women’s Day, or as it was first called, International Working Women’s Day. In response to the growing bourgeois women’s movement, which sought to divorce the struggle from the class struggle of the proletariat against capitalism, 99 socialist women from 17 countries held a socialist women’s conference in August 1910 and founded this day as a day of protest. The day was first organized under the slogan “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism.” The resolution presented by Zetkin explained: “In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade union organisations of the proletariat in each country, the socialist women in all countries shall organise a Women’s Day every year. […] This claim shall be in line with the socialist understanding of the entire women’s rights issue […].” The entire point of this day of protest was a break with what Zetkin described as “feminists of the bourgeoisie” and to fight for a united proletarian struggle against oppression and against capitalism. While today this day has largely become disconnected from its roots, it is important to struggle to revive these traditions in the movement.

The struggle against oppression today

More than a hundred years since the creation of this International Women’s Day, the fight against oppression has become a major issue that mobilizes important layers of the working class. In addition to gender oppression, a multitude of groups suffer brutal oppression because of differences in nationality, sexual orientation, skin color, and so on. These differences are exploited by the ruling class to justify the particular exploitation of certain groups and to sow division within the working class. But how can we fight these oppressions?

Unfortunately, today, many on the left speak of “privileges” of certain groups to describe the oppressive relations which exist in society. In intersectional terminology, privilege signifies that “one person or group benefits at the expense of another”. Thus, men are privileged compared to women, for example. The problem with the notion of “privilege” is that it implies that those who do not suffer from a particular oppression have an interest in maintaining it.

However, nothing could be further from the truth. Low wages for oppressed groups put a downward pressure on the wages of all workers, including the so-called “privileged” layers. Workers who perpetuate discriminatory or oppressive behavior directly undermine the unity of the working class as a whole since they contribute in creating a climate of division. For example, a worker who perpetuates sexist ideas necessarily alienates his or her colleagues and makes common actions against the bosses difficult. This undermines the ability of all workers to fight the bosses. Conversely, when both “privileged” and oppressed layers strike in common against the bosses, all workers benefit from this. What some feminists call “privileges” (not being discriminated against in the hiring process or not being subjected to sexual violence, for example) are for us only fundamental rights that everyone should benefit from.

The emancipation of women is therefore not a question which concerns only women, and this is the case with any form of oppression. An attack on any layer of the working class, and every attempt to sow division in any way, harms the interests of the class as a whole. Marxists stress the need for the labour movement as a whole to fight against each and every form of oppression. Our slogan is: An injury to one is an injury to all!

Patricia Hill Collins, a famous intersectional feminist, goes further with the notion of privilege, arguing that “depending on the context, an individual may be an oppressor, a member of an oppressed group, or simultaneously oppressor and oppressed”. The only result from this perspective can be the further atomisation of the working class, with each and every one of us being oppressed by another or oppressing another, or both! The notion of “privilege” put forward by feminists of all sorts today can lead to truly ridiculous conclusions. For example, a criminologist scholar even wrote about the privileges that homeless men enjoy!

When addressing the issue of oppression, it is particularly interesting to turn to the figure of Rosa Luxemburg. As a Pole, a Jew, and a handicapped woman, Luxemburg was profoundly oppressed on multiple levels. She, however, did not approach these questions from an identity standpoint, blaming the  “privileged” sectors of the working class for her oppression. For her, Marxism represented the only comprehensive theory and effective method for combating all oppression and exploitation. In spite of the fact that many today consider her a feminist, she specifically did not write very much on the women’s question because she refused to be tokenized for her identity.

In the days of Kollontai and Zetkin, it was also a common argument from feminists to describe the oppression of women as the result of “privileges” or “benefits” which men had over women. But this masked the fact that the majority of men were poor workers and peasants who had no privileges and did not benefit in any way from the oppression of women. Just because the male workers were not as oppressed certainly did not make them privileged! Kollontai explained the differences at the time when she said:

“The feminists see men as the main enemy, for men have unjustly seized all rights and privileges for themselves, leaving women only chains and duties. For them a victory is won when a prerogative previously enjoyed exclusively by the male sex is conceded to the ‘fair sex’. Proletarian women have a different attitude. They do not see men as the enemy and the oppressor; on the contrary, they think of men as their comrades, who share with them the drudgery of the daily round and fight with them for a better future. The woman and her male comrade are enslaved by the same social conditions; the same hated chains of capitalism oppress their will and deprive them of the joys and charms of life. It is true that several specific aspects of the contemporary system lie with double weight upon women, as it is also true that the conditions of hired labour sometimes turn working women into competitors and rivals to men. But in these unfavourable situations, the working class knows who is guilty.”

Kollontai maintains a class position and points to what is common to all workers: their economic exploitation by the capitalist class. This is because class is not simply a form of oppression (“classism” as intersectionalists call it), but an economic exploitation which all layers of the working class suffer. The fundamental importance of basing ourselves on this perspective is all the more clear today when the concentration of capital is such that the richest eight individuals possess more than the world’s poorest 50 per cent. In this time of crisis of capitalism, no worker is immune from unemployment, stagnant wages, and austerity measures implemented by capitalist governments. The only privileged people are the bourgeoisie and the caste of politicians who represent them. Money does not grow on trees: their profits come from the stolen labour of the workers.

The Marxist method allows us to understand the real roots of oppression which cannot be understood with identity politics. The ideas of intersectionality cling to an idealist view of oppression which is reflected in counter-productive methods of struggle. They place the responsibility for systemic oppression on individuals and ideas rather than seeking the material root. Even when some people speak of oppression being “systemic,” what they refer to is a system of ideas, divorcing this from the economic base. For example, bell hooks, an intersectional feminist, when talking about the various forms of oppression says that “for me it’s like a house, they share the foundation, but the foundation is the ideological beliefs around which notions of domination are constructed.” The idealist conception of hooks is plain for all to see.

For Marxists, “ideological beliefs” are part of what we call “the superstructure”. The superstructure is the entirety of the ideas (religious, philosophical, etc.) and the political and legal institutions of a given society. This superstructure is rooted in the economic base of society which includes the class relations of any given economic system. As Marx explained, “the dominant ideas are the ideas of the ruling class”, which are part of the superstructure. These “ideological beliefs” therefore do not simply float out of thin air, but find their origins in and are conditioned by the economic base of society.

The struggle against oppression must therefore aim for a complete social revolution by the overthrow of the current economic base of society: capitalism. This is how we can eliminate scarcity, unemployment, and economic inequalities which fuel the “ideological beliefs” and individual behaviors that reinforce oppression.

The need for class unity

For Marxist women, and all Marxists for that matter, the fight was and is principally a class struggle. As Zetkin explained: ”The granting of political equality to women does not change the actual balance of power.” The same could be said for any small victory under capitalism. She continued: “The proletarian woman ends up in the proletarian, the bourgeois woman in the bourgeois camp.” Kollontai said: “However apparently radical the demands of the feminists, one must not lose sight of the fact that the feminists cannot, on account of their class position, fight for that fundamental transformation of the contemporary economic and social structure of society without which the liberation of women cannot be complete.” As Zetkin argued, women workers needed to be organized “not as ‘women’ but as proletarians; not as female rivals of our working men but as their comrades in struggle.” It is not clear why anyone today would consider these ideas, which Marxist women defended at the time, as “feminist.” This was a Marxist perspective, the same one defended by Marxist men at the time, and was generally argued against the feminist perspective of uniting women in a separate struggle for women’s rights.

Kollontaï noted the powerful role of the working class in the emancipation of women: “We find it difficult to point to even one fact in the history of the struggle of the proletarian women to improve their material conditions to which the general feminist movement has contributed significantly. Whatever the proletarian women have achieved in the sphere of raising their own living standards is the result of the efforts of the working class in general and of themselves in particular. The history of the struggle of the working women for better conditions of labour and for a more decent life is the history of the struggle of the proletariat for its liberation.” It is through the struggle of all oppressed groups, united on a class basis, that we can truly fight against oppression and the attacks of the ruling class.

Does this mean that we “prioritize” class struggle to the detriment of the fight against oppression? Not in the least bit. We agree with Zetkin, Kollontai and others that it is only through the unity of the workers that we can effectively fight against oppression. Conversely, it is only by fighting against oppression and all attempts to divide the workers that we can unify the working class.

In contrast, intersectional and feminist ideas are compatible with capitalism because they fail to target the material basis of oppression, which is the existence of class society itself. Because of this, the ruling class is able to adopt feminist and intersectional ideas or discourse in order to seem progressive. The right-wing Quebec premier François Legault recently made half of his cabinet women and used that to argue that he was a feminist. He has also used a feminist argument to justify his racist policies. Under the pretext that the veil is a sexist symbol, the government of the CAQ is attacking the rights of Muslim women. Some of these measures have even been defended by left-wing feminists like Françoise David, who is now having her reactionary stance defended by right-wing commentators from the Journal de Montréal. Such examples illustrate the minefield of identity politics which leads to all sorts of contradictions and reactionary positions. Another ridiculous example showing how easily the right wing can take up feminist arguments was seen in Britain last year. Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing leader of the British Labour Party, criticized Prime Minister Theresa May for meeting with the misogynist prince of Saudi Arabia on the eve of International Women’s Day. In response, May criticized Corbyn, claiming that he was “mansplaining”!

The fight for socialism is a struggle to emancipate women

Alexandra Kollontai, Eleanor Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and Clara Zetkin are a few among numerous women who played leading roles in the Marxist movement. Today these revolutionaries are often depicted as feminist, “socialist feminist”, or “Marxist feminist” figures. Recently, Telesur described Eleanor Marx as the “mother of socialist feminism.” Le Figaro describes Clara Zetkin as “communist and feminist”, while Kollontai is described as a “communist and militant soviet feminist”. We think that attaching the “feminist” label to these figures only adds confusion. It suggests that Marxism in and of itself is not in favor of the emancipation of women.

At the same time, however, the term “feminism” is used by millions of men and women entering politics for the first time, looking to fight against the oppression of women. We saw this with the “feminist strike” in Spain and with mass movements in Latin America for abortion rights. Feminism has also been a banner that many have rallied behind to fight for equal pay for equal work and against sexism, sexual harassment, and abuse in many countries. All of these struggles are in and of themselves extremely progressive, and Marxists participate actively in these movements.

However, in order to win the fight against oppression, we need clear ideas and a clear conception of what we are fighting for and how. As we have seen, Eleanor Marx, Luxemburg, Zetkin, and Kollontai were very clear in what they argued for: a united struggle of the entire working class for economic and political demands, against oppression as an integral part of the struggle for socialism. Their general conception of the struggle cannot be separated from that of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, or Leon Trotsky. These women were Marxists. It is not particularly useful to attach the label “feminist” to them unless you are trying to attribute ideas to them which are diametrically opposed to what they fought for.

Marxism offers a clear conception of how to achieve the genuine emancipation of women. As Krupskaya, a Bolshevik activist who was also Lenin’s wife, said, “Only the complete victory of the workers striving to replace the current order by a socialist one can make women completely free.” These words marvelously sum up the Marxist position.

This of course does not mean that the day after the socialist revolution, all traces of sexism and oppression will disappear. However, through a common struggle against the bosses and for socialism, the different layers of the working class tend to unite and see each other as comrades. Krupskaya also explained this: “The meaning of the words ‘All for one and one for all’ become ever clearer to the woman worker. When there are confrontations with management she sees that her comrades are always ready to back her up and she is to support them. The same conflicts show her that while she is weak when alone she ceases to be weak when she acts together with her comrades. She comes more and more to appreciate that ‘Unity is strength.’” We would add that the same is true for men, who will see in practice that any form of sexism, misogyny or oppressive behavior is harmful to the class struggle.

Socialism offers concrete possibilities for the emancipation of women. A planned economy under democratic workers’ control would allow us to put an end to scarcity, poverty, and unemployment. We would be able to use all of the immense resources and productive capacity of our society to satisfy the needs of all, including free daycare, health care, services for sexual assault survivors, etc. Freed from the barbaric economic system that enslaves us, we could finally free ourselves from the prevailing barbarism in social relations.