Revolution Through a Woman’s Eyes: A History and Manifesto of Marxist Feminism

By Camila Bustamente

Art by Maanasi Shyno


“Oh, wild herb, purest perfume,

I beg that on this path with me you’ll bloom.

You’ll be my balm in my tragedy,

You’ll be my breath in my glory!”


- Edith Lagos Sáez


“Woman, eternally, shows us the way.”


- J. W. von Goethe

It is an undeniable fact of history that women, for as long as exploiting and exploited classes have existed, have found ourselves in a constant, unending state of humiliation, dehumanization, and exploitation. In response to this historical injustice stands the feminist movement, with all of its different, oftentimes competing, ideological strands.


In essence, these all represent the collective effort made by millions of women across the world to understand and fight back against our oppression. Nevertheless, as with all things, while the primary impulse contained therein might be genuine and truly revolutionary, not all feminisms are truly revolutionary in themselves. Many lack a proletarian class stamp, instead relying on idealist, myopic fantasy. For example, Liberal feminism, arguably the most mainstream of the feminist tendencies, towers for its pragmatic, sanchopanzist impulse that ultimately serves reaction. So-called “radical” feminism, the moldering home of the trans-exclusionary “radical” feminist (TERF) movement, is its close relative. Casting these anachronisms into the dustbin of history, I will explore the feminism that is actually radical and truly revolutionary — Marxist feminism, which is the liberatory ideology of the female global proletariat.


A specter is haunting the world — the specter of communism. However, this specter does not travel alone, for another specter trails behind it — the specter of women’s liberation. We shall now examine said specter.


1. What is Marxist Feminism?

Many within the Marxist left have offered hypotheses on both how the oppression of women came to be and how this state of affairs is maintained. For example, Friedrich Engels argues that, “the overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.”[1] Catalina Adrianzen, a Peruvian communist now living in exile in Sweden, argues that “sustaining themselves in idealist concepts[, the ruling classes] have reiterated the existence of a ‘feminine nature’ independent of social conditions… to show that the condition of women and their oppression and patronage is the result of their ‘natural inferiority compared to man.’”[2] It is an objective observation that class society, from its very genesis, has associated the masculine with the good and the feminine with the bad. The economic base fed into the superstructure over several centuries.


Virtually all people alive, whether male or female, were and continue to be intellectually and materially affected. For example, the illustrious Pythagoras, a figure of vitality and creativity, remained convinced that “there is a good principle which created order, light, and man, and an evil principle which created chaos, darkness, and woman.” The creation myth believed by millions in the world posits that woman came from the rib of man, and was thereby responsible for his fall due to her disobedient, sexual, and deviant nature. Pauline Christianity reinforces this impulse, blabbering over the holy pages: “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence,” the justification going back to Eve’s deception by Satan. For Aristotle, “The female is like a deformity of the male,” mutilated, repulsive, and incapable of achieving the perfection which men are supposedly naturally blessed with. Cato the Elder, orating before the Roman senate, calls us “violent and uncontrolled animals.” Centuries later, a chauvinistic Napoleon, exposing the true beliefs of many men, proudly proclaims: “Nature wanted for women to be our slaves. They are our property.”


To my fellow female reader, I must ask: does all of this make you feel profoundly upset? Does it fill you with rage? It should. Hold on to that feeling.


In our current society, women are the proletariat of the proletariat, a super-exploited subsect of the working class. Female oppression is everywhere; it is heavily coded into our social norms, our laws, and our culture; it is what Raquel Gutíerrez calls, “the labyrinth of male domination.”[3] For every valiant Emily Brontë, writing futuristic matinal women who break through the dark heavens of the provincially backward, fundamentally Victorian moorlands, there is a misogynistic Hegel, throwing aside his philosophical clairvoyance to raise an arrogant finger in the air, thereby vomiting: “The difference between man and woman is the difference between animal and plant.”[4] Fine, I say! If women are plants, then let us be the most gorgeous of Neriums, dripping our poison into the tongue of class society — for Hegel forgets, a plant can be just as determined as the fiercest of beasts.

~

So, concretely, what do Marxist Feminists believe?


Firstly, we absolutely reject the notion of an intrinsic “feminine nature” or “feminine soul” that compels a woman to act a certain way, or to perform a set of traditional tasks. To be a woman, beyond identity-in-itself and observable physical factors tied to certain roles, is merely a malleable, always-changing set of social relations derived from the current hegemonic socioeconomic order.[5] In short, woman is a social relation. As such, the emancipation of women strictly depends on the changing of said order. Demanding that people are more conscious of behaviors that reinforce patriarchy, while good for the short-term, is completely ineffective in genuinely ending the oppression of women.


In other words, it is not minds that need to change first, but rather, our socioeconomic system. As per Marx, “the mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”[6]


Marxist Feminists have also traditionally been opponents of prostitution, arguing that it is inherently exploitative. Taking from Marx’s notion of the commodity-form, a commodity is an object which has a use-value and an exchange-value. Use-value refers to the object’s utility. Exchange value is a superficial measure of the commodity’s worth when contrasted to other commodities — i.e, price. It is, however, merely the manifestation of a deeper component: Value, which can be calculated by measuring the average, socially necessary labor time that it takes to produce a commodity.[7] Finally, a commodity is always produced to be sold in a market. Socialism does away with the commodity-form, meaning things are produced for their use-value only — made to be used, not to be sold. To imply that sex work will exist under socialism is to imply the following:


1. A woman’s body has a use-value: Under capitalism, prostitution makes the

female body into a mere object that is sold in a market and thereby used by he

who pays for it. If that currency is equivalent to, for example, x pieces of chicken,

then the logical conclusion is that a woman’s body — her personhood — becomes

equivalent to x pieces of chicken in terms of exchange value. This is not only

degrading, it is insulting and dehumanizing. How can a social system that seeks to

abolish classes and all oppressions accept such a proposition?


2. Women’s bodies will be held in common by society as a whole: Because

private property and production are done away with under socialism, replaced

with collective production and ownership, then sex workers — and by extension,

the female body — logically become common property as well.


Marx and Engels state the communist position with absolute clarity: “The real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production… Our bourgeois, not content with having wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other’s wives… it is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of the community of women springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.”[8] This, however, in no way means that sex workers should be excluded from radical practice. On the contrary, being arguably some of the most exploited laborers in the world, their participation in overthrowing the present state of things is invaluable.[9] Furthermore, while sex work may exclusively be a product of class society, that does not make current sex workers any less worthy of protection, safety, and a steady source of income. The bulk of the millions of women and girls who partake in sex work throughout the world often have no other choice, be it due to discrimination, poverty, or sex trafficking. There is no justice under capitalism — to resort to sex work is never a woman’s fault.[10]

This all ultimately ties to one of Marxism’s most controversial positions: the abolition of the nuclear family. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels make their case: “On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form, this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution. The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital.”[11] Under this vision, women will finally be liberated from the burden of housework and childcare, matters which will largely pass on to be the collective’s burden. Organized in the Communist Party, the brain of the socialist society,[12] each neighborhood, district, town, and city will care for the young, educate them with strong values, culture, and tolerance, and provide for their physical and emotional needs.[13] Even the making of food, once a private task forced upon the proletarian woman, will mostly pass on to be collective.


The goal? Kollontai explains: “The indissoluble marriage based on the servitude of women is replaced by a free union of two equal members of the workers’ state who are united by love and mutual respect. In place of the individual and egoistic family, a great universal family of workers will develop, in which all the workers, men and women, will above all be comrades.”[14] This means true, mature private relationships, free of financial constraints, where both partners may develop and support each other to reach their highest potential, together. In many ways, we can see that bourgeois society has already moved us away from the old, conservative nuclear family and towards new, freer family structures — once more, proving that the Marxist thesis is correct.


2. Marxist Feminism in Practice


In practice, such movements and transformations have been attempted in the past and in the present. In “The Labor of Women in the Evolution of the Economy,” Soviet minister of welfare Alexandra Kollontai — the first woman in history to hold a cabinet post — posits that, “the emancipation of women can only be completed when a fundamental transformation of living is effected; and life-styles will change only with the fundamental transformation of all production and the establishment of a communist economy.”[15] To that end, the early governments of the Soviet Union adopted a policy of social care from the top to the bottom, which, in conjunction with the full legalization of abortion, created “a labor state [that] establishes a completely new principle: care of the younger generation is not a private family affair, but a social-state concern.”[16] These policies were adopted so that women could become full participants of society, using their energy to work and create alongside their fellow men as opposed to being forced into the position of housewives and mere servants to their husbands. Soviet women were also taught to read and write for the first time, given full and equal access to schools and libraries — that is, access to their full innate capacity for reason and thought, denied for centuries by their horrific oppression in the old society.


Similarly, in popular China, before its eventual fall to revisionism and reaction after the loss of proletarian state power in 1976, transformations of this nature were also undertaken — albeit under drastically different circumstances. Guided by the maxim “women hold up half of the sky,” the Communist Party passed laws that legalized divorce, encouraged marriage by love as opposed to by arrangement, and banned prostitution, child marriage, and concubinage.[17] Throughout the decades of Maoist rule, characterized both by spectacular victories and disastrous failures, one thing remained constant: the increased rights of women across a society that previously had little.[18] Of course, both in China and the Soviet Union, severe challenges remained — and today, with these countries having reverted to bourgeois rule, many of these gains have been erased. Nevertheless, it is important to note that both societies, once feudal backwaters where women barely held a status above animals, were able to transform themselves into some of the most progressive on earth in terms of female emancipation. The fact that the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, was the daughter of a Belarusian cotton mill worker, is entirely due to the socialist transformation carried out by the Communist Party.[19]


It must be underlined that this is not a trend that belongs exclusively to the past. For instance, in India, where Maoist people’s war has raged continually since the 1960s, communist forces have also committed themselves to the material and spiritual liberation of women. One of the female members of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army, Comrade Sumitra, explains her reasons for joining the Maoist insurgency: “In our village, girls were not allowed to climb trees, if they did, they would have to pay a fine of Rs 500 or a hen. If a man hits a woman and she hits him back she has to give the village a goat. Men go off to the hills for months together to hunt. Women are not allowed to go near the kill, the best part of the meat goes to men. Women are not allowed to eat eggs.”[20] Sumitra was originally a member of the Krantikari Adivasi Mahila Sangathan (KAMS), described as “the largest women’s organization in the country,” clocking at around 90,000 members. First set up as a front organization for the Communist Party by the Maoists, they campaign against oppressive traditions of forced marriage, abduction, exile of menstruating women from villages, bigamy, and domestic violence. What this all shows is that, even if currently in an era of strategic retreat, the remaining, genuinely revolutionary proletarian organizations of the world continue to work for the complete emancipation of women.


3. Marxist Feminism To The Stars!


Before any exercise in futurity, something of utmost importance must be noted: running counter to mainstream liberal feminist practice, not all women can be included in the movement for female emancipation to the same degree. In our class society, all women have a position: they are either reactionaries — primarily wealthy, bourgeois women — centrists, or revolutionaries. As such, we cannot all fight side-by-side, because class differentiates us far more than gender ever will.[21] A bourgeois woman can find unity with revolutionary women in struggling for reproductive rights or equal pay, but she will always be, above all, an enemy of genuine women’s liberation, as she is part of the exploitative class that rules the very system that originates patriarchal oppression. She may struggle for herself to be liberated of patriarchal social impositions, yet her very lifestyle will nevertheless remain dependent on exploited third world women slaving away in mines and factories — women who then go home to abusive husbands, who live with constant insecurity and fear of assault, and who are oppressed by their US-backed governments and their misogynistic laws.


The same goes for any bourgeois tendencies within feminism — be it liberal, quote-unquote radical, or any other strain that does not center class. This is a position that has been articulated since the early days of Marxism. For example, in 1895, German Marxist Feminist Clara Zetkin published a piece in the paper Vorwärts critiquing a petition by a bourgeois women’s collective. Said petition argued for the repeal of a misogynistic law from a liberal perspective that did not center class and sought to present itself in a so-called respectable manner. Zetkin replies: “The lackey-like tone favored in the petition was worthily complemented by its socio-political ignorance, redolent of a beggar’s plea, and by the presumptuousness with which the organizations ‘dared’ to beg… [this] petition stems from bourgeois circles, it breathes a bourgeois spirit throughout.”[22] Friedrich Engels himself replied: “Clara is right… Bravo Clara!”[23]


The only way in which bourgeois women can become revolutionaries, and thus, become allies to a truly radical feminist movement, is by committing themselves to the struggle for the abolition of their own class — that is, to socialism. This means letting go of privilege. Letting go of the expectation of comfort. Fundamentally, it means accepting the necessity of destroying the current world — and all the advantages it bestows upon her — in order to begin the construction of a new one. This Quixotic task must be fully internalized with vehement, passionate faith and dauntless will, ripping up the prairies in a raging fire alongside her sisters in struggle — the female world proletariat, united under the direction of the Communist Party.


So, what does this new society look like?



Assuming that bourgeois rule has been swept aside — first in a small number of countries, and eventually, throughout the entire world — the Communist Party will begin its programme of social transformation immediately. The full legalization and state coverage of abortion, the end of prostitution, and the closing of socioeconomic gaps between the sexes should be amongst its first goals — and eventually, with the introduction of labor vouchers and the full collectivization of the workplace, the assurance that all women have the same opportunities as men, both on paper and in practice. Furthermore, in organizational terms, approximately half of the members of all political organs, going from the party’s central committee all the way to the local and state assemblies elected by workers’ councils and neighborhood organizations, should be female — thus ensuring the protection and advancement of our interests in the building of the new society.[24] The final goal? That every single female scientist, artist, or thinker who would have been lost to hunger, arranged marriage, and illiteracy had she been born today has the chance to reach the life she was always meant to have. The absence of oppression opens up the path to a truly complete human life — and that is what we struggle for.


And how will women look once the last remnants of the bourgeois empire collapse to the ground, revealing the aurora of higher-stage communism? The new socialist woman will be the result of centuries of class struggle, tempered steel, and cosmic dreams. She will no longer be what Mariátegui terms “a luxurious mammal” — the inferior, passive, and restrained half of the male sex — but rather, a full and complete human being in her own terms, in her condition of being a woman. In Cervantes’ Quixote, Marcela proudly proclaims: “I have wealth of my own and do not desire anyone else’s; I am free and do not care to submit to another.” Revolutionary women are fundamentally Marcelian in this sense, asserting their agency, adulthood, and freedom at every turn. Above all, however, it is our female will that will guide us in this process. Our will to build a more just society, not just for ourselves, but for the benefit of all of humanity. A will that is selfless, fearless, and profoundly disciplined. A will that refuses to bow down to failure, always rising up from the lowest of defeats. Pessimism of the intellect, yet optimism of the will[25] — that is the slogan of all the revolutionary feminists of the world. We hear a William Blake, who even in his condition of the universal poet is unable to escape his misogynistic impulse, cry out: “O Albion, why wilt thou Create a Female Will?”[26] We respond: Keep on whining, for we have our female will, and now, we will use it!

~


“How long until the rivers overflow? / How long until they sweep away this cruel reality in violent storms?” asks Peruvian poet and guerrilla Edith Lagos in her poem “The Hurricane Breaks Tranquility,” written shortly before her death at the hands of the Peruvian state. Breaking the government curfew, her casket was paraded through the streets of Ayacucho, a crowd of about 30,000 people congregating amidst songs, flowers thrown from balconies, and slogans echoing throughout the Andean city. In a similar vein, Arlen Siu, a Nicaraguan guerrilla and member of the Sandinista National Liberation Front — an organization now sadly fallen to social-democratic revisionism — wrote to her mother before leaving for the mountains: “One day, we will achieve what to some is prohibited or impossible.”[27]


When the rivers will overflow to achieve the impossible, that cannot be told. However, we must have an unshakable faith in this process as representing women’s final destiny — a society where we are finally free, joyful, and fully human. Only then will the gulf between femaleness and humanity be closed, luminous stars adorning the cosmos as we reach to it with our fingertips. To give ourselves to this task is heavier than earth’s most monumental mountain — to fight against it is lighter than a feather. So let us move mountains.




__________________________________________________________________________________


[1] Friedrich Engels, “The Family” in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/ch02c.htm.

[2] Catalina Adrianzen, Marxism, Mariategui and the Women's Movement (1974), https://www.marxists.org/subject/women/authors/adrianzen/1974.htm.

[3] Raquel Gutierrez, Desandar el Laberinto (Tinta Limón, 2015), https://tintalimon.com.ar/public/chtyo8tijjjmcq3s9k1jbu4z3i99/pdf_978-987-3687-17-4.pdf.

[4] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, ed. Allen Wood and H.B. Nisbet, (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[5] That which generates a female gender identity is not currently well-understood, and most likely, will not be anytime in the near future. Nevertheless, it is interesting to consider that gender identity appears to be mostly set in stone. Take the tragic case of David Reimer — who was born biologically male and forced to perform a female role after a botched circumcision. Dr. John Money, who encouraged Reimer’s parents to do this, was guided by the notion that gender identity was entirely socially constructed and could thus be altered by conditioning. However, Reimer always insisted he was male, and eventually reverted to a male social role as a teenager. In a similar way, transgender people insist that they are a certain gender, that their brains were either masculinized or feminized in-utero while their bodies incorrectly developed in the opposite sex, and that this intrinsic sense of self cannot be changed. These cases show the rigidity and solidity of gender identity across most of the human race. It is important to also note that identity, in the case of women, is not the same as the “feminine essence” that Marxist Feminists oppose — being women does not intrinsically compel us to be dainty, delicate, and submissive. I personally speculate that being a woman is primarily due to biological and neurochemical factors, and, secondly, due to social conditioning. However, existing as women, that is, taking up the roles dictated upon us by class society based on our condition of being women, is exclusively a social matter — hence the statement that woman is a social relation.

[6] Karl Marx, Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm.

[7] As per Marx, “when commodities are exchanged, their exchange value manifests itself as something totally independent of their use value. But if we abstract from their use value, there remains their Value as defined above. Therefore, the common substance that manifests itself in the exchange value of commodities, whenever they are exchanged, is their value… The magnitude of the value of any article is the amount of labor socially necessary, or the labor time socially necessary for its production. Each individual commodity, in this connection, is to be considered as an average sample of its class. Commodities, therefore, in which equal quantities of labor are embodied, or which can be produced in the same time, have the same value.” See Capital, Vol I, Section I: “The Two Factors of a Commodity.”

[8] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engel, The Communist Manifesto (1848), https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm.

[9] Marx once more: “Prostitution is only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the labourer, and since it is a relationship in which falls not the prostitute alone, but also the one who prostitutes – and the latter’s abomination is still greater – the capitalist, etc., also comes under this head.” See The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, “Private Property and Communism.”

[10] To learn more, see “A Socialist, Feminist, and Transgender Analysis of Sex Work” by comrade Esperanza, an orgnizer with the excellent AF3IRM, one of the best Marxist Feminist collectives currently operating in North America. It may be found here: https://proletarianfeminist.medium.com/a-socialist-feminist-and-transgender-analysis-of-sex-work-b08aaf1ee4ab.

[11] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

[12] As per Bordiga: “When the international class war has been won and when states have died out, the party, which is born with the proletarian class and its doctrine, will not die out. In this distant time perhaps it will no longer be called a party, but it will live as the single organ, the ‘brain’ of a society freed from class forces.

[13] Of course, it is important to recognize the strong, biological impulse towards the care of one’s own young — to say that this sentiment will vanish under socialism is to fall prey to idealism. The mother of today finds her heart strings tugged when reading Constance’s sorrowful, desperate monologue to her absent child in Shakespeare’s King John just as much as the mother of yesterday. When we argue for the collective care of children, we do so in a manner that respects the principle that a child's strongest relationship will always be that which they have with their parents. However, the power of said parents over their children, on a practical level, will be drastically reduced and transferred to the community — thus forever eliminating abuse, neglect, or child homelessness, as well as largely liberating woman from the unpaid task of raising children, to the extent which she desires.

[14] Alexandra Kollontai, “Women’s Role in Production: Its Effect Upon the Family” in Communism and The Family, (1920), https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1920/communism-family.htm.

[15] Alexandra Kollontai, The Labor of Women in the Evolution of the Economy (1921), https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1921/evolution.htm.

[16] Kollontai, The Labor of Women.

[17] Yuhui Li, “Women’s Movement and Change of Women’s Status in China,” Journal of International Women's Studies 1, no. 1 (2000): 30-40, http://vc.bridgew.edu/jiws/vol1/iss1/3.

[18] Li, “Women’s Movement.”

[19] The fact that this event took place during the era of revisionism and reaction in the Soviet Union is irrelevant. The point still stands.

[20] Arundhati Roy, “Gandhi, but with guns: Part Four,” The Guardian, March 27, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/mar/27/arundhati-roy-india-tribal-maoists-4.

[21] José Carlos Mariategui, Feminist Demands (1924), https://www.marxists.org/espanol/mariateg/1924/dic/19.htm.

[22] Clara Zetkin, On a Bourgeois Feminist Petition (1895), https://www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1976/women/3-zetkin.html.

[23] Zetkin, On a Bourgeois Feminist Petition.

[24] Of course, these are relatively vague proposals. More concrete paths will form once the conditions of revolution appear before us, for I do not pretend to be a visionary of the future. Furthermore, these are tasks responding to what the situation in the developed world, particularly in the United States, currently demands of us — in other countries, different priorities exist according to local conditions.

[25] In one of his prison letters, Antonio Gramsci proclaims this famous formulation: “my mind is pessimistic, but my will is optimistic. Whatever the situation, I imagine the worst that could happen in order to summon up all my reserves and will power to overcome every obstacle.”

[26] William Blake, “Chapter II” in Jerusalem, Plate 34A, line 31.

[27] Arlen Siu, “Ya no tengas miedo, Mamarrú,” NIÚ, August 27, 2019, https://niu.com.ni/ya-no-tengas-miedo-mamarru/.