Women spark the Russian Revolution
When 100,000 women textile workers went on strike in St Petersburg on March 8 (February 23rd Russian calendar) they sparked a general strike which led to the downfall of the Tsar, and 9 months later, the October Revolution. This was the highest point scaled by revolutionary women in history. Not only did some women play a leading role in the Bolshevik Party, the October revolution led to the biggest leap in women’s equality ever seen since the overthrow of women by the patriarchy 10,000 years ago. Women were no longer men’s property, the bourgeois family ceased to dictate their lives, unpaid domestic labour became paid social labour, and they began to play a equal part in public life. For example, prostitution was recognised as the failure to provide financial security for women. Attempts were made to rehabilitate and support women as a public health measure.
The revolution was immediately beset by the counter-revolution in 1918 as the imperialist powers invaded and fought a civil war to smash the revolution. Despite the victory of the Red Army by 1921 the price was the destruction of the economy and decimation of the leading ranks of the working class. These events saw the party captured by a bureaucracy under Stalin, denying women their place alongside men in the socialist transformation that promised so much to the world workers. Eisenstadt’s film ‘October’ made in 1928 documents the rapid retreat in the social position of women under Stalin as the revolutionary laws were reversed. For example Stalin punished prostitutes in labour camps as moral degenerates shaming ‘socialism’.
From the high point of 1917 world revolution retreated. The German revolution failed in 1923 but its threat remained hanging over capitalism so the first fascist movements sprang up to destroy any new revolutionary upsurge. Fast forward to the Great Depression and another imperialist war. Except for the Soviet Union where women participated in active service in the military, women were trapped in the oppressive gender relations of the bourgeois family, or served as a reserve army of labour for men away at war. On their return from war men pushed women back into the confines of domesticity and femininity.
Marxist vs Bourgeois feminism
The rise and fall of women in Russia is largely ignored in feminist histories. The Second wave of feminism in the early 1970s takes its cue from the First wave around the Suffragettes who won the vote for women. This signifies that bourgeois feminism marks its progress by equal rights reforms under capitalism, and not sexual liberation under socialism. Marxist feminists however, do not credit bourgeois reforms as capable of winning women’s liberation. For that, women have to take their place in the vanguard of the working class as the only revolutionary class capable of overthrowing capitalism and creating a genuine equality of the sexes.
For that reason Marxist feminists are not surprised by the failure of the reforms of the 1970’s, around equal pay and abortion rights in particular, to mark a qualitative gain for women. These were concessions that were easily revoked or circumvented. Nor is it a surprise that as capitalism has failed to restore a new period of accumulation after the end to the post-war boom, so it was in the interests of capital to increase the exploitation of women in the workforce, and the unpaid domestic labour in the home.
To account for the predictability of the ‘backlash’ against women by men in the period from the 1980s to the present, we need a more in depth account of the nature of women’s oppression and the revolutionary struggle to overcome it. Women were the first oppressed class in history, oppressed by men in a domestic mode of production. Some would say women are a sex-class oppressed by men in the patriarchy. All class societies since have relied on the patriarchal family for the reproduction of children, of labour power in the home, and social stability. By the time we get to capitalism, the patriarchal family became the bourgeois family, but serves the same purpose.
Patriarchy serves Capitalism
It follows that the progressive reforms won by women are contingent on the patriarchy surviving as a buttress for capitalist social relations. Women remain trapped in a division of labour where they perform wage-labour, unpaid domestic labour, and perform sexual services in marriage or prostitution. As is true of racism which serves to reproduce non-white workers as low paid wage slaves, sexism serves to justify the double oppression of women as domestic and wage slaves.
Marxists also recognise that capitalism in decline reaches the point where it begins to destroy more of the forces of production than it creates, threatening human existence. Capitalism can no longer survive without destroying the material base of its existence, namely non-renewable energy sources and human labour power. In desperation capitalism is driven into a self-destructive war with nature which includes women as reproducers of human life. There is a race to replace the human body with the AI reproduction of life in the laboratory, speeding up and cheapening biological reproduction, so that humans become hybrids or are displaced by machines.
The Trans war against Women
Capital’s war against women is no better expressed than in the attacks on women as a biological sex by trans ideology. The patriarchy becomes ‘progressive’ replacing women with men as transwomen or transmen. In the bizarre language games of trans ideology, transwomen are women and transmen are men. The object is to erase women as a sex-class in the cause of liberal gender identity. As women as a sex class are erased politically, so is their historic struggle for sex liberation, the oldest resistance movement in history. At a time when history is reaching the point of no return, where capitalism in extremis threatens human extinction, women as the biological core of human reproduction, as mothers who nurture within nature, and those with the longest history of fighting for nature against its destruction, are being eliminated from the struggle.
Except of course nature always fights back and wins. The question is which side are you on – capital or nature. So this International Women’s Day we should remember the history of women’s struggle, the highs and lows of the movement over millennia, and the existential threat to women and humanity we face in the next few decades. We need to rally for women against a latest trans counter-revolution which seeks to erase them from history, and build support to win, finally, the sexual revolution as part of the socialist revolution. We must organise and rally to the defence of those most likely to lead this revolution – working class lesbians who are threatened by male ‘lesbians’ – and are best prepared to confront the patriarchy in its attempts to reduce women to non-existence. As Marxists we make the cause of women’s liberation from oppression a matter of principle – settling accounts with the first class society in the struggle to end all class society and to bring about the conditions for human freedom.