What is now known as International Women’s Day was initially called International Working Women’s Day and was a key date in the communist calendar. Unfortunately over the years the connection between this day, on which we mark the fight for women’s liberation, and the struggle for communism has weakened. We need to forge this bond anew and reassert the fact that the struggles for women’s liberation and communism are intimately connected. To mark this years International Working Women’s Day we are republishing two articles from the Weekly Worker from back in 1996.
International Working Women’s Day celebrates the fight for women’s liberation, the fight for communism
International Working Women’s Day is one of the most important dates in the communist calendar. It was first celebrated on
March 8 1911, at the initiative of Clara Zetkin, head of the International Women’s Socialist Organisation and a leading member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Clara Zetkin later played a prominent role in the formation of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and the Third (Communist) International.
The date marked a demonstration three years earlier in which women machinists of New York’s Lower East Side marched demanding better working conditions and the right to vote.
The significance of this demonstration was that it was directed both against the bosses and against the bourgeois women’s suffrage movement, which refused to call for women workers’ votes. It was because this was an independent, explicitly working class action that the IWSO chose to commemorate it.
The IWSO resolved that “Socialist women must not ally themselves with bourgeois feminists, but lead the battle side by side with socialist men.” Clara Zetkin and other revolutionary fighters carried this stance, through a revolutionary defeatist position in World War I, into the Communist International, established in 1919.
This was also the line of march chosen by the Bolsheviks when International Working Women’s Day was first celebrated in Russia in 1913. Through their women’s paper Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker), they argued – in opposition to the Mensheviks – against cross-class collaboration with feminism and for a demonstration of both women and men workers to celebrate March 8.
In debating the plans for the demonstration in Rabotnitsa Nadezhda Krupskaya attacked the Mensheviks for wanting to cooperate with “bourgeois women” who “always oppose themselves to men and demand their rights from men”. For working class women the question is “quite different”. They are united with working class men because of “their common struggle and their common goals”.
German communists like Zetkin and Russian communists like Alexandra Kollontai fought a dual struggle for women’s liberation and against feminism, which advocated an alliance of working women with their bourgeois ‘sisters’.
Zetkin fought tenaciously against the ‘socialist feminists’ of her day. Against them she declared that there is “no such thing as a women’s movement”. Bourgeois women will struggle for improved conditions from men of their own class but, Zetkin argued, working class women can only achieve their liberation “through the political rule of the working class”.
Kollontai correctly stressed that “the women’s world is divided, just like the world of men, into two camps”, bourgeois and proletarian.
The Bolshevik line shook the world. On March 8 1917 (February 23 in the old Russian calendar) strikes by women celebrating IWWD acted as the catalyst for the February Revolution. Women workers in Petrograd delivered the initial blow which shattered the Tsarist autocracy and paved the way for the Great October Revolution.
“Hail the women! Hail the International! The women were the first to come out on the streets of Petrograd on their Women’s Day. The women in Moscow in many cases determined the need of the military; they went to the barracks, and convinced the soldiers to come over to the side of the revolution. Hail the women!” (Pravda editorial after the February revolution)
The international aspect of this celebration is one which militants should take to heart. Capitalism is international, thus so is women’s oppression; from the struggle of women for abortion rights to women’s enslavement by Islamic reaction.
IWWD is a day to reconfirm our unity across national frontiers and rededicate ourselves to the liberation of women. It is a day to remember the heroic women of past class struggles and to call forth a new generation to the cause of communism.
Women’s rights are not negotiable. IWWD was initiated to make this loud and clear. History gives many, many examples of working class women leaders of the class war for socialism. Today we remember Clara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollantai, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Inessa Armand and countless other women communists and call upon working class women to follow their example.
To mark IWWD, Linda Addison spoke to Siobhan McLoughlin, a leading comrade in the CPGB, about the chasm which divides the Labour Party’s attitude to women in the Party and the Communist Party’s attitude. In this divide we can see the way forward for women’s liberation against the vicious attacks the Labour Party has made on the working class in the past and its future plans
The Labour Party has made much of its Emily’s list and has trouble over women-only short lists. Would you advocate such a group or policy in the Communist Party?
The Labour Party is just cynically using women to say that they are representing women’s interests but with no intention of doing anything real, particularly for working class women.
A good example of the Labour hypocrisy was the situation in Brent a few years ago when two black women candidates – Nkechi Amalu Johnson and Pauline Ngaya – were put up in constituencies in black areas in Brent simply because they were black women. These women knew little of and had no interest in the actual ideas of the Labour Party. Within six months of being elected they defected to the Tories.
They had been put there simply as puppets to gain votes. The Labour Party was well and truly exposed but these women did nothing at all for black women in Brent.
We can see what Labour actually does when it confronts women fighting for their rights. In the Grunwick strike in the 1970s women sacked by their employers fought a long hard battle on the picket line on issues of women’s equality, low paid work and entitlement to decent pay. Labour’s answer was to send the police in to smash the picket line.
Do you think Emily’s list has developed the role of women in politics?
Clearly not. The election of the likes of Harriet Harman and Clare Short has done nothing for the struggle of working class women throughout Britain. They want to do what is in capitalism’s best interests, just like their male counterparts. They are not our representatives.
We’ve already seen a woman prime minister – Margaret Thatcher – who was viciously anti-working class and anti-working women. There is no way that working class women should identify with the representatives of capitalism.
Alexandra Kollantai, one of the great women revolutionaries of Russia, made a distinction that still applies today. There is a massive gap between the interests of bourgeois women and working class women. Bourgeois women want to get the best deal for themselves within capitalism; our interests lie with working class men in order to overthrow the system and really achieve our liberation.
The Labour Party wants to maintain the system that oppresses women. We want to get rid of it. Women haven’t always been oppressed. Engels talked about primitive communism and how the role of women was integral: he talked about the historic defeat of the female sex after this time. In every class society since, women have been the underdog. However, we don’t want to go back but go forward to a society based on the needs of humanity, where women’s questions are questions for the whole of society.
There is a river of blood between the Labour Party’s Emily’s list, which uses women to promote Labour’s reactionary politics, and the Communist Party. Under a Labour government working women would be kicked in the face by Tony Blair along with the rest of the working class.
Does there need to be a policy for promoting women in the Communist Party?
I do think it is important that the Communist Party recognises the particular role of women and the difficulties that women face in getting involved in politics, with childcare responsibilities, work in the home and a whole range of resulting cultural questions, particularly the lack of experience in politics.
But work in the Party must be on the basis of who is the best person for the job. To simply put a woman in a post only because she is a woman does nothing for the women’s question as a whole. It makes a mockery of women’s rights to use women in such an opportunist way.
Militant Labour has also pushed this policy of women-only positions within the party. It is also wrong.
Women should be promoted in politics, but they should be trained in the process and not used simply because they are women.
Do you think nevertheless that special attention needs to be paid to the development of women in the Party?
I do, yes. There is a distinct lack of women in politics. Often it is the men who are the most vocal. Women have special difficulties to overcome so that firstly they can actually come to meetings and then have to overcome lack of confidence in speaking, leading and challenging. Politics at the moment is a male-dominated culture.
The Party needs to recognise both the particular difficulties women have but also our particular skills and experience – not in the kitchen, or doing the organising work – but our contribution to political debates and work.
Male comrades can start at home here in involving their partners in the Party and the struggle for communism. We have a duty to raise that fight in our relationships. Some men are content to leave their partners at home with their own reactionary beliefs. We are not talking about liberating the class for them, but them doing it themselves.
However none of these things can be done in isolation from the struggle of the class. If we are talking about reforging the mass working class Party that we need, then it must include millions of working class women taking a political lead.
We have to start to address the particular questions of women today and win hegemony over that struggle. This goes hand in hand with winning women to taking a lead in our common struggle. Communists have to represent the interests of all sections of the working class and all democratic demands. We have to become the champions of women’s liberation, today and tomorrow.
During the Miners’ Great Strike in 1984 we saw the potential in women’s organisation for a working class women’s movement. Do you see the need or potential for such a movement today. Would it be exclusively female?
There is a great gap in society for a movement that fights for working class women’s rights. I don’t think that should be just a women’s question though. But it should have at the forefront the fight for women’s rights. The women’s movement should decide the role men play in the organisation. We of course would fight for communist leadership, and the integration of men into the struggle.
Given the history of working class women in struggle in Britain, I do not think they will want to exclude their male comrades. Feminism does that, not working class women’s movements. During the Timex strike a women and children’s day was organised. The Labour Party, not the strikers, decided that men should not be on the picket line that day. The men were left on the sidelines watching. The women strikers told them that they did not want to exclude them – it had been imposed on them. Everyone should have been involved in this celebration of women in struggle.
In 1992 during the anti-pit closure movement, women from Greenham Common came to the pit camps and tried to insist that men should be excluded, saying that men were the enemy and this should be a movement against men, the oppressors. They got short shrift because those arguments didn’t bear any resemblance to the experience of the women struggling against pit closures.
In the end it was the Greenham women who were kicked out.
Why do you think women are still so under-represented in politics, despite their increased integration in the workplace. How do we address this as communists?
With more women in the workplace their role has increased in industrial struggles, such as the 1993 Timex dispute in Dundee and the struggles of the nurses, but still society continues to treat women as a source of unpaid labour in the home. Women still predominantly shoulder the burden of work in the home. Capitalism gets child rearing, its new labour force, carried out for free.
Though women have become more integrated into society as a whole and less isolated in the home, it isn’t without a cost. Women are often coming into the workplace as low paid part-time workers. In a general sense our status in society hasn’t improved a great deal.
In the Timex strike the 300 mainly women workers ran the strike, but these women did not have the confidence to give the speeches and to do the media interviews. Neither were they encouraged to do so. This role was again taken by the men.
Women still don’t feel confident about getting involved in politics. They don’t think they’ve got the time or the voice to do so. Communists need to make a special effort. By seeing women actually leading in political questions, being whole human beings, active politicians, not simply an Emily’s list puppet, we can give confidence and inspiration.
You have talked about the role of the feminist movement. Now it has to all intents and purposes collapsed, and certainly its radical edge has more and more disappeared. Why do you think that is?
All that is left really is academics. However in the 1970s it was a significant movement in that it addressed issues that the Communist Party of that period wasn’t addressing – real concerns of women, like the right to abortion. The CP’s attitude was wait until communism, or until the ‘British road’ achieves socialism, and sidelined the needs and struggles of women in the here and now.
The feminist movement was able to come in and fill that vacuum. Now however it is not such a movement and has become just part of the mainstream bourgeoisie. Edwina Currie considers herself a feminist. These are the representatives of feminism in Britain today.
It never really had an agenda that challenged the capitalist system and therefore it was easy for the system itself to absorb.
It was an ideology that considered men to be the problem and did not see the working class as its ally. Women were only encouraged to fight as individuals to gain individual power. Therefore it had no possibility in itself of being able to change society. In fact it actually played a reactionary role, diverting the attention of working class women in struggle away from the main enemy and onto men.
Middle class women have been able to gain advantage through the new mainstream acceptance of feminism, but working class women in essence have not. We have certainly not made any permanent gains. Part-time working was promoted as a tremendous advantage for women, but the actual reality of working women in part-time work is meagre wages, with all the responsibilities of the home still and no childcare facilities provided. Often they are the only wage earners in the household and have to take several part-time jobs. Rights have been taken away in conditions at work – holiday, sickness and retirement pay.
A number of women joined our organisation from the feminist movement and the role of feminism was debated. What do you think came out of those debates?
The first question our organisation had to face was the role of feminism in the disintegration of the Party itself. The opportunist leadership of the Party absorbed feminism. During the Miners’ Great Strike they went out and blamed miners, rather than Margaret Thatcher.
We had a big battle with these elements who were hijacking the Party and attacking the working class as a whole under the guise of rights for women. They attacked working class women for setting up Women Against Pit Closures and for going on the picket lines. Women are against violence, we were told, and men are violent. Their men who were facing the police on the picket line every day were made into the problem.
We also later had a debate within our own ranks. A number of women, including myself at that time – the late 1980s – believed that feminism could be a liberating force. Though we were Communist Party members and supporters, and supporters of the Leninist tendency, we found little of worth in the communist movement and Marxism itself for women specifically.
There was a debate at the first summer school of the PCC of the CPGB. We had a number of women from the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) and the Organisation of Revolutionary Workers of Iran (Orwi). We had a week-long group on the women’s question. The debates were very heated, because women’s individual experience of oppression naturally creates a tremendous amount of anger. Also I think at this time that some male comrades felt defensive.
I think the comrades from the TKP took a far more mature approach than we ourselves were taking at the time. Despite the difficulties that they were facing as women within the Turkish community where the culture of course is far more chauvinist and the state far more directly oppressive, they had arrived at conclusions that were far more advanced than ours.
They pointed both male and female comrades to the real problems that we were facing. Not to the comrade sitting next you that happened to be a man, but to capitalism and how to fight the problems that women might face with individual male comrades in a politically progressive way. Trying to take them with you, trying to convince them, rather than dismissing them as simple being men, which I think was a tendency at the time.
The debate taught me a lot about how to fight for women’s rights and that women’s liberation can only truly come under communism and the liberation of humanity as a whole. Also that this fight needs to be begun now and women have a clear obligation to engage in that fight for their own immediate needs as well as those of the future.
It differentiated women in the organisation at the time. Some of us saw this as the real answer and not the male comrades as the problem. It isn’t sexist language that is the problem; it is the society that we live in and the need to rid ourselves of that society together. Male comrades have just as much a duty to engage in that struggle.
Other female comrades weren’t won by those debates: they decided to go with feminism and left the Party.
What were the main arguments based around?
One of the important arguments was about the progressive potential of feminism. The comrade from Orwi believed that in the particular conditions of Iran, the feminist movement could play a progressive role. I began to see that, despite the low status of women in Iran, this was not the way to approach the question. This allows feminism to highjack the movement of women in struggle.
You talked about the need to challenge sexist culture by struggling against the society that creates it. Do you think we need to challenge such attitudes in the Party itself?
Oh yes. Male comrades must fight to overcome any backwardness that they have. Equally women have to fight their own backwardness. It is not always the case that women are hammering on the door to be in the forefront of struggle. We often collude in our own subjection, accepting the back seat and not pushing ourselves forward. Engels talked about the special oppression that women suffer. Simply by being members of the Party does not make that go away. There has to be a struggle within the Party.
I don’t think however that it can be challenged simply by looking inwardly to the particular personalities within the Party. It must be turned outwards in the class struggle for liberation.
Do you think there is a place for women-only groups in the Party?
No. I think we should be organised together as communists within the Party. Women’s issues aren’t simply the domain of women. You are never going to challenge women’s particular oppression if we separate off. We have to take responsibility for all questions collectively. Women can be in the forefront, not just of women’s issues but all universal questions. We need to be communists in a fully rounded sense.
As communists we are able to enter male dominated environments – such as miners’ welfare clubs, or political meetings – and talk to people politically. We are equally able to do that as our male comrades. It’s in this way that we can challenge stereotypes of women in politics.
We have found that once they have been won to communism women can become amongst the most effective, well rounded, hardest, courageous and committed fighters within the Party. They give their heart and soul. I think that is because it is harder to win women at the moment, as they have so much to break with and overcome. But once you’ve won them, they have become a different person. They have started the process of their own liberation, started to become human, rather than simply a wage or domestic slave. If we can win more women, we have a tremendous source of dynamism – and we must, because we can’t have a revolution without the full participation of women.