Contemporary Marxism



SINCE THE REBIRTH of the women's movement in the mid-1960s there have been many arguments about the relationship between women's liberation and socialism. Socialists want to change the world, to get rid of the rotten society we live in and build a better one based on workers' power. Feminists also want to change the world, so that women can be free and equal. Are the two struggles the same, or separate? Can feminists unite with male socialists and trade unionists, or must their struggle always be against men?

 In practice, events during the miners' strike of 1984-5 showed how unity can be achieved in struggle. Through the strength of the women in the mining communities, who stood beside the miners on picket lines and took part in strike committees, as well as organising soup kitchens and food parcels, the unity of men and women became a fundamental fact of the strike.

 Socialists, who had often argued that women can fight only as workers, were reminded that wives, mothers and daughters are also part of the working class, whether they have jobs or not. Feminists, who often assume that being a wife means only conflict with the husband, had to face the fact that there can be solidarity in the working class family as well as conflict.

 The strike brought many women who thought of themselves as feminists into strike support work for the first time, on local miners' support committees, in their workplaces and in their communities. It also changed the lives of many miners' wives who had not thought of themselves as feminists but found themselves going to meetings and picket lines, or travelling to raise support in other parts of the country, while their men minded the kids or made the tea.

 In action, the politics of class struggle may cut through the knot of academic and sectarian argument about the relationship between socialism and women's liberation, but the problems remain. Many men in the labour movement are not convinced that women need to fight for themselves, though they reckon women fighting to support men is all right. Many feminists are not convinced that male workers can really be allies in their struggle: they point to sexist attitudes and male domination of the labour movement as proof that women's fight is still basically against all men. And some women who have been very active during the strike don't think that feminism has anything to do with them: they think of it as meaning women refusing to have anything to do with men--an image deliberately exaggerated by most of the press and television.

 These problems can be worked out only by looking seriously at the meaning of class struggle and the politics of revolutionary socialism. For Marxists like the Socialist Workers Party, class struggle is the only way to change the world for the better--to get rid of our present ruling class and have a society, run by and for working people, where everyone can be in control of their own lives and free from the threats of poverty, powerlessness or nuclear annihilation. Women must be part of that struggle, and women's liberation essential to its aims: a socialist society must be one where women are free and equal, sharing control with men in every way.

 We do not try to justify the situation in present-day Russia, China or Cuba, which claim to be socialist societies but where it is quite clear that women have not been liberated. None of these are societies where the working class is in control; they are ruled, and harshly ruled, by a class of bureaucrats whose aims are at the bottom the same as the aims of our own ruling class: to exploit working people, accumulate capital and compete with one another internationally. This point is fundamental to the politics of the Socialist Workers Party. To claim that socialism liberates women and at the same time to claim that these societies are socialist would be a fraud.

 Nor do we defend the way the labour movement is organised and controlled at present, for it is dominated by men to the almost total exclusion of women from any power of decision making or leadership, even where the majority of a union's members are women. Trade unions should not be run by professional 'leaders' on high salaries, often appointed for life, who haven't worked in the factory, office or mine for years and who see their job as being to perform a balancing act between employers and workers. They should be run by the rank and file members--women and men--from the bottom up instead of from the top down.

 Nor do we accept the idea that there are stages of struggle: women can't wait to be freed somehow after the socialist revolution; nor can the struggle for socialism be postponed until all workers have changed their old ideas about women's place. Ideas begin to change through struggle, but the changes cannot be completed until the world we live in is changed--until society is organised for human needs instead of for profits. That change can come only through a socialist revolution.

 These are the politics of revolutionary socialism: rank and file control in the struggle, the overthrow of our present capitalist society based on profit, and the establishment of workers' power for a new society of equality and freedom. Women's liberation can and must be part of the struggle to achieve these ends.

By Norath Carlin, Socialist Workers Party, UK

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