As we celebrate 98 years of International Women’s Day, Catriona Grant, the SSP Women and Equality Policy Coordinator, explains what feminism is and how it fits into socialist practice and ideology

The suffragette movement was a bourgeois movement

I’m a Marxist not a feminist, I stand for the liberation of all workers

The socialist movement played no significant role in the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s, which proves the Marxists really do not care about women

Historically, Marxism hasn’t recognised the oppression of women as a sex. It is only concerned with the oppression of women as workers.

I’m a socialist, I believe in equality for all workers. Positive discrimination is just discrimination against men

What is feminism?

Many of the above statements have been made in discussions and debates around socialism, feminism and Marxism. The SSP has been a microcosm of many of these discussions since its conception. There has been a battle regarding ideology around feminism, women’s liberation and oppression but at times the debate appears to lack praxis, the praxis of theory into practice.

No doubt women are changing. We need an appropriate word which will register this fact. The term feminism has been foisted upon us. It will do as well as any other word….It mean’s women’s struggle for freedom.

(New Review, 1914, paper of American Socialist Party)

What do we mean when we call someone a feminist or refer to feminism? Why does it have so many different meanings? And why can it be seen as a positive expression of liberation politics or a term of abuse? And more importantly what is socialism’s relationship to feminism?

Feminism, means many things to many people but perhaps the best way to explain feminism is to see it not as a theory, a practice or ideology but almost as part of anthropology regarding women’s position in society. Feminism is the naming of women’s oppression, women’s rights, the women’s question etc. This was first posed by Mary Wollstonecraft in 1790 in her book The Vindication On the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft named the problem, she described women’s relationship to men and to society as oppression, that women are infantilised, sexualised and ignored, they are denied their full human potential by lack of economic power, the vote or say in their own or anyone’s else’s lives. Many of Wollstonecraft’s ideas and questions were taken up and raised in the French Revolution and many women and men discussed her ideas. Indeed Wollstonecraft moved to Paris during the revolution.She was hailed by many liberals and revolutionaries as a true visionary.

Wollstonecraft brought the vindication of women’s rights into the liberal and utopian socialist movement and since then women’s rights have been discussed and debated as a moral, political, ideological, scientific and social problem.

Feminism is best explained (crudely) as a spectrum between radical and reformist. Feminists of all kinds oscillate on the spectrum between radical and reformist.

Feminists who describe themselves as radical feminists are the feminists who wish to change the system, have a radical approach to the world. However radical feminists rarely agree with one another. They are often diametrically opposed to one another. The two main spectrums are materialist feminists (usually Marxist but may be anarchistic) and the political feminists, who see patriarchy (men) as the problem.

Radical feminists share an understanding that society and even the class system need to be overthrown, however they may differ (greatly) on how to solve the problem. Political feminists are often wrongly described as bourgeois feminists (e.g. Andrea Dworkin etc). Materialist feminists want to defeat the class system with the working class; political feminists want to defeat the domination of men or the patriarchy by feminist action and may see little role for men.

Reformist feminists want to reform society to make it better for women, They can be liberal feminist (sometimes known as bourgeois feminists) who want to compete with men and have what men have within class society. On the other side, are economist feminists (socialist feminists fit into this categorically when calling for reforms), who want economic and legislative reforms to address women’s oppression.

The problem is that rarely does any feminist fit into any one category all of the time but the key issue is how we are influenced by the ideas and solutions in addressing women’s oppression.

A materialist feminist may be involved in an economistic demand for equal pay or a woman managing director (liberal feminist) in supporting a campaign against men’s violence against women (political feminism).

Many comrades dismiss feminism on the basis of coming across feminist ideas and/or practice they disagree with. Instead, the methodology should be – if you have identified that women are oppressed and something has to change that is identifying with feminism. The real dilemma is how do we address this oppression and bring about women’s liberation? Some people, usually men feel more comfortable describing themselves as pro-feminist.

Marxism & Feminism

However to understand politically the ideas of feminism i.e. the acknowledgement of women’s oppression and the need for women’s liberation, we must first understand it historically and materially. Revolutionary Marxists in the past (though not always consistently) have waged an unremitting struggle within the broad working-class movement in order to struggle for women’s liberation. Marxists were not only involved in raising the consciousness of women to recognise their oppression and to demand their liberation but to educate the advanced working class to an understanding of the significance of the struggles by women for full equality, emancipation and for the liberation from the centuries-old degradation of domestic slavery. Throughout the past 160 years the struggle has been more intense than at other times.

At the time of Marx, debates were held about women’s liberation and oppression. In Marx’s Communist Manifesto of 1848 he stated:

On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family based? On capital, on private gain……The bourgeois sees in his wife, a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to the women.

Marx identified that women’s oppression was based on her relationship to production but also her relationship to men and to the family. There were many debates with the utopian socialists about this subject before the Communist Manifesto. Fourier and Owen were fervent champions of the emancipation of women but they saw it as a moral question rather than a materialist question. Marx explained that the oppression of women lay in its relationship to their role in the family and the system of production, based on private property and a society divided between a class that owned the wealth and a class that produced it. Marx (and Engels later in The Family, Private Property and the State) identified the role of the family in perpetuating the oppression of women.

Marx and Engels explained how the abolition of private property would provide a material basis from transferring to society, as a whole, all those social responsibilities borne by the individual family – the care of the old and sick, feeding, clothing and educating the young. Relieved of these burdens, Marx pointed out, the masses of women would be able to break the bonds of domestic servitude, and they would exercise their full human potential as creative and productive – not just reproductive – members of society.

Marx gave a solution. Just like Dorothy’s red shoes, the solution was there all the time, the solution being the working class, created by the capitalist system, which could become the force to overcome class society. However the wish wasn’t just for a better society but to begin to organise how to bring it about. In bringing about a communist transformation of society, women would be liberated. However women would only be liberated if they were organised and involved in their own liberation, as part of the liberation of the class.

In the First International there was a debate whether women should be allowed to join. Marx himself presented a motion in 1864 to the General Council that special women’s branches be organised in factories, industries and cities where there were a large concentration of women workers. He made it clear that this should not cut across building mixed branches as well.

However the next year a massive row broke out in the German section of the First International between the Marxists and the non-Marxists. In 1865, and for twenty years following, the German SDP was divided between the followers of Lassalle (the reformists) on one side and the Marxists under Bebel and Liebknecht on the other. There were sharp differences on organisation and ideology but one of the major debates was on women. The Lassalleans were opposed to demanding equal rights for women. Their demand was women should not be forced to work for a wage, that their rightful role was in the home with the family and that a man should have a family wage to support his wife and children. Liebknecht and Bebel argued ferociously that women had the right to be economically independent from men and to be liberated from the family. The SDP’s original demand was for full political rights for adults which left the demand open as to whether women were indeed considered adults or not.

The decisive arguments that won the victory for the demands were published in 1883 in Bebel’s Woman and Socialism and Engels’ The Family, Private Property and State published 1884. In 1891 the SDP demanded political rights for all, regardless of sex, and the abolition of every law which discriminates against women in any way.

The SDP in 1896 organised women into autonomous groups in order women could be educated and organised to concentrate on specific campaigns particularly political equality, insurance for childbirth, protective legislation for women workers, education and security for children. Until 1908 women were banned from joining political organisations in Germany but women could join societies. Women within the SDP had proportional representation from their societies and committees to the National Committee of the SDP.

Whilst the German SDP were debating whether women were adults or not or had the right to be independent both economically and sexually – the debate echoed around the world, particularly in the demand for the vote, the right for women’s franchise. (This article cannot properly address the suffragette movement)

The year before women won the vote (well those with property and over 30) in Britain in 1918, women in Russia went on strike under the demands of Bread for our children, bring home our husbands and sons from the trenches. Indeed it was International Women’s Day of 1917 that was the first day of the Russian Revolution. Women had organised themselves as women, despite being workers and Bolsheviks. Before the revolution, demands such as contraception, the right to abortion and to divorce were not common demands, however by 1918 they had become part of Soviet legislation.

Alexandra Kollontai, the only women on the Bolshevik Central Committee toured throughout the Soviet Union with her comrades Inessa Armand, Emma Goldman, Clara Zetkin and many others, in arguing women were central to the revolution and their own emancipation. Previously in 1913, Kollontai had organised a day long lecture in St Petersburg on the Women’s Question and all the organisers and speakers were arrested for immorality. In Britain, the British Communist Party organised a Kollontai lecture where working class women queued up in their hundreds to hear of the reforms of the Russian Revolution, though many believed they would be told how to practice birth control and be given Russian contraceptives.

In 1921 the Communist International made it obligatory for membership, that communist parties throughout the world had set up women’s bureaus and there had to be at least one full time member of staff to co-ordinate the work. There was an International Women’s Secretariat to oversee the work with six monthly conferences with representation from all sections to discuss the work with women and demands to put forward to support women’s liberation. Unfortunately the rise of Stalinism put an end to the progressive nature of this communist tradition and women were not to organise themselves so radically for another 50 years.


This article is in response to the confusion of whether, as socialists or Marxists, we can identify with feminism. To suggest that we do not is ahistorical. It does not fit the praxis of our theories about class society and human liberation.

Surely it cannot be argued that women, currently, are fully equal to men and even if they were, are they so liberated they can reach their full human potential? No sane socialist or Marxist would suggest such a thing. The debate to reject feminism in the socialist and Marxist movement is a false one, denying uncomfortable truths and realities. Many male socialists do not enjoy the accusation that they may wittingly or unwittingly benefit from women’s oppression and many female socialists do not want special treatment or to be victimised because of their gender, all of which can be addressed in a vibrant socialist organisation with debate, discussion and trying very hard to solve problems when they arise. The debate now needs to be about how do we address the specific issues of women’s oppression and exploitation and more importantly how does a party like the Scottish Socialist Party deal with feminist action and identification as part of the working class movement to change the world.

1 Comment