Toward a Communist Women’s Movement!
[First printed in Women and Revolution #4, Fall 1973]
It has been more than a year since the last issue of Women and Revolution was published. Beginning with this present issue, W&R resumes publication, at a projected initial frequency of three issues a year, under the direction of the Commission for Work Among Women of the Central Committee of the Spartacist League. This transformation ofW&R into an organ of the Spartacist League is the product of several factors: the consolidation of W&R supporters around the Trotskyist program of the SL, the stagnation of the, feminist-dominated petty-bourgeois women’s liberation milieu and the continuing transformation of the SL itself into the nucleus of the vanguard party.
Over the course of the past few years, the Spartacist League has been engaged in an internal discussion over the perspectives and scope of our intervention around the woman question, a discussion which culminated in the adoption of several documents at our Third National Conference held in November 1972. This discussion focussed on a reassment of the mechanisms for continued SL action on this question in the light of a critical review of the origins and evolution of our work.
The Fight Against Feminism
The radical women’s movement– as distinct from purely liberal, petty-bourgeois feminist organizations, such as the National Organization of Women (N.O. W.)– emerged as an outgrowth of 1960’s New Leftism. The reality of women’s oppression under capitalism predictably produced an elemental resentment and sporadic outbursts of resistance, but in the absence of a strong, proletarian pole of attraction and a principled revolutionary leadership, this partial consciousness could not generate a revolutionary program for women’s emancipation. Inevitably it was channelled by bourgeois ideology into utopian and reformist dead ends and made prey to isolation and demoralization.
As revolutionists, we were compelled to intervene in the women’s liberation movement both because we sought to honor our obligation to be what Lenin termed “a tribune of the people”– an organization responsive to the real needs of all the oppressed– and because this work was strategically important both in order to develop revolutionary class consciousness, among the mass of oppressed women and in order to raise the general level of consciousness in the class itself on this issue.
The SL’s earliest systematic involvement in this arena took place in the San Francisco Bay Area, where SL supporters along with others initiated the formation of the Socialist Workshop, a socialist women’s liberation group which intervened, in the amorphous women’s movement to struggle for explicitly political, anti-personalist perspective based on the recognition of the working class as the central force for socialist revolution. On the basis of this involvement, as well as other more fragmentary work taking place on the initiative of other SL branches, the 1969 Central Committee Plenum established work around the woman question as a real although subordinate priority for the organization as a whole.
Spartacist members and others drawn around SL program initiated local groups in several cities, and the first issue of the national newspaper Women and Revolution appeared in early 1971. Its “Manifesto” stated: “Our liberation and the liberation of the working class go hand in hand. We shall not separate ourselves from the mainstream of the revolutionary movement but shall make our struggle an integral part of it.” W&R activists intervened to fight for the transitional program in such organizations as Bread and Roses and Oakland Women’s Liberation. In New York, participation in the “Working Women’s Organizing Committee” (initiated by the International Socialists) was discontinued after the WWOC (which in its patronizing desire to avoid “alienating” anyone consistly shirked any discussion of program) codified its irrelevance to the struggles of working women by refusing to take any position on the union organizing taking place in the WWOC’s chosen target of activity, the telephone company.
W&R supporters also intervened in conferences and demonstrations of the SWP-initiated movement to legalize abortion; W&R demanded “Free Abortion on Demand,” an end to support for capitalist politicians like Chisholm and Abzug, a break from “single-issue” campaigns and the adoption of a full working-class program and an end to the exclusion of men from the movement.
W&R fully expected an “unsisterly” response to its explicit anti-feminism from the bulk of the petty bourgeois women’s movement. Yet at the same time we found that many of the more serious women’s liberation activists were drawn toward W&R on the basis of its uncompromising programmatic perspective. From out of the amorphous women’s movement came individual recruits and, in addition, W&R intersected several local study groups and feminist collectives which polarized and split along the lines of the fundamental political alternatives posed by W&R supporters. Through their study of the woman question, and often through reassessing their own experiences in attempting to organize working-class women, these groupings began to take sides on basic questions: feminism vs. Marxism, Maoism vs. Trotskyism, “serve-the-people” spontaneity vs. the vanguard party.
Comintern Positions Rediscovered
It was at this point that the Spartacist League found itself compelled to rediscover concretely the work of the Leninist Communist International on the woman question, which centered on the building of transitional organizations– women’s sections affiliated with the revolutionary proletarian parties.
The question of special communist work among women had been a controversial one in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) as early as 1896. Klara Zetkin’s position in favor of such work was adopted by the party, and a party section for work among women was established to direct it. Within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) there was, beginning around 1905, a similar debate, in which Alexandra Kollontai was one of the leading proponents of special work among women on the German model. Special work among women was carried out by the Bolshevik party which published the journal Rabotnitsa (The Working Woman) under the direction of its Central Committee and which established Genotdel (The Department for Work Among Women) after the seizure of state power in 1917.
Within the Second International no special section responsible for directing work among women had ever been established. Lenin found the lack of such an international body intolerable:
“The first proletarian dictatorship is truly paving the way for the complete social equality of women. It eradicates more prejudice than volumes- of feminist literature. However, in spite of all this, we do not yet have an international Communist women’s movement and we must have one without fail. We must immediately set about starting it. Without such a movement, the work of our International and of its parties is incomplete and never will be complete….”
-Klara Zetkin, Recollections of Lenin, 1920
The Third International set itself the task of extending internationally and codifying the work begun by the German and Russian parties. On its initiative, the First Conference of Communist Women was held in 1920. This conference established an International Secretariat for Work Among Women with permanent representation on the Executive Committee of the International. The Comintern also made mandatory the establishment of special administrative and organizational bodies for work among women within all party committees. Thus, while decisively rejecting the notion of an autonomous women’s movement, the Comintern in its first four congresses specifically demanded a special division of labor within the communist parties for the direction of work among women.
Comintern work among women degenerated qualitatively as part of the general process of Stalinization, and the positions on the woman question which the first four congresses had clarified were virtually forgotten. Thus these crucial struggles became inaccessible to the working class for decades. It was only in the course of the SL’s extended internal discussion on work among women that we were compelled to rediscover many of these positions.
Women and Revolution Affiliates With the SL
While the first W&R groups which the Spartacist League initiated were based on the SL’s program for women’s emancipation as an integral part of the struggle of the working class for socialist revolution and were linked to the SL through their most conscious cadre, they were not yet functioning as a disciplined part of the common Spartacist tendency. Predictably, many of the militants they recruited recognized the need to become full communists and to become involved in the work of the Spartacist League as disciplined supporters. In the course of this common work the SL realized the need to make the W&R groups a part of the common Spartacist tendency and enable disciplined W&R supporters to participate in the work and internal life of the SL. It was proposed therefore that local W&R groups organizationally affiliate with the SL. The impetus for this step came from the SL, but mainly as the formalization of an accomplished fact.
By the time of the opening of the SL’s pre-conference discussion period in preparation, for the Third National Conference, the New York and Boston W&R groups had voted to become supporters of the SL on the local level and were participating in the discussion process. Elements from the Oakland and New Orleans women’s groups had already joined the SL or its youth group, the Revolutionary Communist Youth (RCY), and many had been implanted in industrial work, under the direction of the SL Trade Union Commission. The work around W&R, demonstrating the SL’s principled approach on the woman question, had been instrumental in the fusion between the RCY and the Buffalo Marxist Caucus, a component of which had been heavily involved in the women’s movement, Earlier, the woman question had been one of the focal points of the SL’s oppositional intervention into Progressive Labor-dominated SDS, which had won to the SL dozens of ex-New Lefters and individuals from PL’s periphery and had laid the basis for the formathe RCY.
The virtual disintegration of the petty-bourgeois women’s movement in the early 1970’s played a crucial role in convincing serious militant women that Trotskyism was the only way forward. It also precipitated a reassessment of perspectives for W&R. The women’s movement was virtually ceasing to exist as an arena for intervention, but a diffuse conscious of the reality of female oppression had trickled down to broad social layers, and its effects were becoming more apparent, especially within the labor movement itself.
In a document drafted for the SL Political Bureau and adopted by the Third National Conference, tactical guidelines for our work among women were set forth. While keeping in mind the current priorities and resources of the SL, we adopted as our goal a general strategy based on that of the Communist International in its revolutionary period, the creation of a transitional women’s organization affiliated with the proletarian vanguard party ;
“The organizational experience of the SL in this work has tended strongly toward the conclusion that the women’s’ circles must be brought under the discipline of the party so that the non-SL comrades involved can participate fully in the debates and decisions!of the movement and be represented on its leading bodies. In our experience in the women’s arena we were forced pragmatically to rediscover the position of the Communist International, which strongly opposed the initiation of women’s organizations not organizationally linked to the proletarian vanguard, not only when the revolutionary organization is a mass party in which case ‘independence’ would in fact constitute counterposition to the revolutionary party-but also when the vanguard is weak and struggling to increase its contact with and influence among the masses. Our strategic perspective should be the development of a women’s section of the SL….”
The National Conference decided to establish a Commission for Work Among Women responsible to the SL Central Committee. This commission will oversee SL work among women, centering on the regular publication of W&R. It will also work in close coordination with the other leading bodies of the SL, especially with the Trade Union Commission, since the struggle for the fullest possible integration of women into the organized labor force and against the divisive effects of male chauvinism in the working class occupies a central place in the work of both bodies.
W&R will feature articles on the women’s movement in the U.S. and abroad, the history of the communist women’s movement, the role of the family and women in the work force, as well as articles on topical issues and book reviews. The aim of the journal is the crystallization of a readership committed to the establishment of a communist women’s movement, looking toward the creation of a Spartacist League section for work among women dedicated to the struggle for the emancipation of women through international proletarian revolution.
Dale Reissner: 1942-1994
International Bolshevik Tendency’s biographical obituary for the original editor of Women and Revolution.