Democratic Party: Faux Friends of Women
Through Socialist Revolution!
The fight against racist repression and anti-immigrant attacks is inextricably linked to the struggle for women’s liberation. Above: Internationalist contingent at 30 June 2018 protest against separation of immigrant families by I.C.E. Gestapo.
“The extension of women’s freedom is the general principle for all social progress.” Thus wrote Charles Fourier all the way back in 1808. “In any given society,” as we quote this pioneer of the early socialist movement in our pamphlet Marxism and Women’s Liberation (2017), “the degree of women’s emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation.” By that measure and so many others, today’s society is getting more unfree and more oppressive by the day, under both Democrats and Republicans. The fight for women’s liberation is inseparable from the fight for socialist revolution, here and around the world.
In the U.S. today, immigrant kids are ripped from the arms of their mothers and thrown in child prisons; migrant refugees desperately seeking asylum in the “land of the free” are met with tear gas grenades; black and Latino people are subject to racist police repression and murder nationwide; gay and transgender people are the targets of reactionary vitriol from the highest offices of government. All while Donald Trump and his cabinet of Reagan- and Bush-era war criminals and flunkeys openly plot a coup in Venezuela, try to provoke war with Iran, support and fund a brutal war on Yemen and ramp up imperialist sanctions against China and North Korea.
As we go to press, no less than five states (Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota and Ohio) have so-called fetal heartbeat laws on the books, which ban abortion once a cardiac pulse can be detected in a fetus. This can be as early as six weeks into pregnancy. In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp, who has aggressively worked to suppress African Americans’ voting rights, is expected to sign a similar bill into law in May. This is a frontal assault on women’s elementary democratic right to abortion. Emboldened by sexist pig Brett Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court last year, the woman-hating Right to Life group, which supports a full-on abortion ban, is banking on the court’s reactionary majority striking a death blow to what’s left of abortion rights in this country: “if [the heartbeat law] ends up being a good vehicle to overturn Roe v. Wade,” they declare, “we would be thrilled about that” (Vox, 19 April).
Meanwhile, the Democrats pretend to be friends of women’s rights, lauding the recent “blue wave” of women elected to Congress. This is supposed to be an exemplar of women’s empowerment. We are told that the halls of Congress, where imperialist wars are declared and funded, where laws criminalizing immigration are passed, where the systematic gutting of social welfare programs takes place, is what all “sisters” should aspire to. This cynical fraud was exposed in a recently-published presentation by comrade Yari of the Revolutionary Internationalist Youth (youth section of the Internationalist Group) at RIY’s Educational and Organizing Conference in January:
“An electoral victory for one of the two big parties of U.S. imperialism is no victory for working-class, black, Latina and other doubly and triply oppressed women. Capitalism and its parties and politicians, both men and women ones, are the enemies of women’s rights and women’s liberation.”
–“Democratic Party Feminism and the ‘#MeToo Movement’,” The Internationalist No. 55, Winter 2019
The CUNY Internationalist Clubs and Revolutionary Internationalist Youth, along with our comrades in the Internationalist Group and Class Struggle International Workers (TIC), call for free, safe abortion on demand and for mass mobilizations to defend abortion clinics. This includes upholding the right to self-defense against anti-abortion thugs, who in 2015 shot up a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. To wage an effective fight against the escalating attacks on women’s rights, Marxists look to mobilize the social power of the multiracial, multi-ethnic working class, which can bring the capitalist economy to a screeching halt in defense of the oppressed and the rights of us all.
One of the key insights that the early, “utopian” socialists like Fourier and Flora Tristan made, built on by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in particular, is how women’s oppression – the oldest form of social oppression – is an integral part of bourgeois class society as a whole. The nuclear family is the institution centrally responsible for maintaining and reproducing that oppression, tying women to the burdens of child rearing and housework. Even as younger women are working more hours and “millennial” households are reportedly more willing to split housework, the burden still falls mostly on women (CNN Business, 26 December 2018). As Marxists, we understand that women’s oppression is rooted in the material structure of society. To overcome that oppression, and the sexist ideology that reflects and reinforces it, a thorough-going social revolution is required to pull up those material roots. Crucial for this is the widescale establishment of collective, social institutions to replace daily servitude that imprisons women in the bourgeois family’s kitchen drudgery, housework, child-rearing, etc.
This issue of Revolution consists in large part of presentations made at RIY’s Educational and Organizing Conference and at the March 8 forum that the CUNY Internationalist Clubs organized at Hunter College, titled “International Women’s Day and Immigrant Rights: From the Origins to Today.” This is particularly appropriate given the breadth and depth of the presentations, and the enthusiasm this year’s Internationalist event on International Women’s Day aroused among our comrades and other participants, who brought their own experiences, observations and questions into the discussion highlighting the communist program for women’s liberation.
Internationalist Club and RIY members brought their creativity to bear to make the forum a vibrant, colorful and thought-provoking celebration of the real revolutionary content and history of International Women’s Day, as a working-class holiday of class struggle for women’s emancipation. This is a far cry from, and counterposed to, attempts to transform it into a festival of class collaboration celebrating feminist “sisterhood” between exploiters and exploited. Fighting for the real liberation of women – one of the most radical and revolutionary tasks of all – means forthrightly opposing such efforts to “unite” proletarian women with those of the ruling class whose system lives off their exploitation and oppression.
Prominent among such faux friends of women are leaders of bipartisan U.S. imperialism such as Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton, infamous for sponsoring Haitian sweatshops that pay women workers $5 a day and her role in designing the 1996 bill to “end welfare as we know it,” which threw millions of black, Latina and white poor women off AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children).1 Fighters for women’s liberation must fight against Democratic Party feminism’s drive to reinforce the chains binding us to the oldest capitalist party in the world, and those Democratic “socialists” working hard to refurbish, renew and rejuvenate it, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Speakers at the Hunter forum brought the audience into helping recite the poem “Good Morning Revolution” (1932) by Langston Hughes (one of the best-known “black, red and gay” leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, as he was described at the forum); they read speeches by abolitionist Sojourner Truth; Paris Commune leader Louise Michel and Clara Zetkin, a pioneer of Socialist and Communist work among women; gave presentations on heroic black women crusaders against slavery and racist lynching like Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells; recited original poems, discussed the working-class history of International Women’s Day and highlighted some of the earliest work on gay, lesbian and transgender rights, and its connection with the socialist movement and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. A particular highlight of the event was the moving talks by immigrant women workers from Trabajadores Internacionales Clasistas detailing the inhuman conditions imposed on them by capitalist society and exhorting youth to take up the banner of revolution.2
The overarching theme was that women’s liberation can only be won through socialist revolution, coloring the event with revolutionary optimism. We print below presentations, edited for publication, given by participants at the International Women’s Day event that highlight some of the main points of discussion.
International Women’s Day:
A Call to Working-Class Action
Kaitlan: The first working women’s day celebration, which became International Women’s Day, was celebrated in 1908 and initiated by immigrant needle trade workers right here in New York City on the Lower East Side. 15,000 garment workers crowded the streets, demanding the eight-hour day, the end of child labor and equal suffrage for women. I would like to emphasize that these were immigrant women workers, largely Jewish, Italian, Russian, German and Hungarian, who, like immigrants today, worked under the most abhorrent conditions and were doubly and triply oppressed. Immigrants have historically been among the most militant members of the working class, fighting for better working conditions and the rights of their class as a whole.
This action in 1908 sparked a movement throughout the garment district, where there was a series of strikes against the biggest garment companies at that time, like the Rosen Brothers and the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Although these struggles were prompted by different incidents, these women shared similar grievances over wages, hours, workplace safety, sexual harassment, threats and invasions of privacy by the bosses. The strikes culminated in what was known as the “Uprising of the 20,000” in 1909, the largest strike of working women to date in U.S. history.
The strikers were predominantly young women in their teens and early 20s who fought tenaciously and courageously for their demands. Although they only won a part of those demands, the 1909 strike and those that followed in the subsequent five years forced the needle-trade union leaders to revise their prejudices against organizing women. The strike wave was a major educational experience that shaped the strikers’ political consciousness, and influenced that of working-class women around the U.S. and in other parts of the world. In 1909, the Socialist Party of America officially declared the first National Women’s Day, to be observed on February 28. A year later, the holiday was taken up by the Second (Socialist) International, after German revolutionary Clara Zetkin proposed an International Women’s Day, the idea of which was for every worker in every country to celebrate on the same day and press for their demands.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was the largest manufacturer of blouses in 1909 and was one of the companies most stridently opposed to the strikers’ demands in the Uprising of the 20,000. The women who worked in this factory were crammed into small spaces, worked long hours and under incredibly hazardous conditions. They were surrounded by flammable materials with no water supply and only one working exit (the other was locked to “prevent theft”). This all created a perfect mixture for the tragedy that occurred on March 25, 1911, in which 129 women and 18 men were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Hundreds of pounds of cotton scraps, tissue, paper patterns and wooden tables helped spread the fire rapidly. With over 500 workers in the facility and only one exit, it was guaranteed that large numbers would die. As for the fire escape, it buckled under the weight of workers scrambling to escape, resulting in further deaths. Others simply jumped from the ninth and tenth floors.
In the weeks following, family members of workers had to come and identify the bodies of those who died. Most were burnt beyond recognition. As for the company, its owners were charged with manslaughter but were later acquitted. Go figure. And they were able to cushion themselves financially with insurance payouts. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was remembered throughout the following International Women’s Days, and in the 1912 strike of men and women textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts – known as the “Bread and Roses” strike. That strike, which broke out after the workers, many of them immigrants, had their hours cut, was carried out under the leadership of revolutionaries from the Industrial Workers of the World.
By 1914, on the eve of World War One, International Women’s Day was widely celebrated throughout Europe, including in tsarist Russia. I have spoken a lot about workers’ strikes and the historical context. Why? Because International Women’s Day was initiated by working-class women to put forth their demands, and eventually became a conduit for agitation by revolutionaries. For proletarian women in the process of their political development, International Women’s Day helped organize them in their industries and sharpen their class consciousness – to show how real gains can and must be made through class struggle.
Rather than exclude men, International Women’s Day was meant to build solidarity between working women and men, to demonstrate the strength of their class as a whole and further the fight for socialism. Its revolutionary character is demonstrated by the strike of women textile workers that took place in Russia in 1917, which sparked the February Revolution that overthrew the tsar and laid the groundwork for the October Revolution later that year. Women had gained the right to vote after the Tsar’s overthrow, and the October Revolution brought major gains for women like free abortion on demand, the abolition of all discriminatory laws, the beginning of building social institutions for childcare, public laundries and restaurants, etc.3
International Women’s Day began as a struggle for women’s political rights as well as their struggle for equality at work. As Clara Zetkin said, capitalism demanded the participation of women in the economy while at the same time denying them the vote. Women’s suffrage was an important step for strengthening the power of the whole working class, because, Zetkin said, women’s votes could be a weapon and tool for class struggle. So the struggle for political rights became part of the struggle for women’s liberation, a struggle we continue today and one that can only be won when the working class unites to smash the system that oppresses it.4
That means the goals of working-class women are counterposed to those of feminists. Women’s liberation is not the same thing as feminism, which is a specific bourgeois ideology of the supposed sisterhood of women of all social classes. Feminists then and now want to achieve the same advantages, the same power and the same privileges within capitalist society as bourgeois men, seeking this kind of equality within the existing social framework. Feminism does not conceive of women’s oppression on a material basis. It looks at the sexist ideas and attitudes held by many men and concludes that they are the cause of women’s oppression. In reality, sexist ideas come from and reflect the material, social oppression of women. Therefore, feminism draws a gender line and directs the fight for women’s equality against men. By doing so, feminists group different classes of women together as though they have common interests. This class collaboration ends up harming working-class women, as their bourgeois “sisters” will always betray them. Feminists believe that just having more women in congressional seats will make conditions better for proletarian women. But we know that’s not the case.
Let’s look at what more female representation of bourgeois parties in the halls of bourgeois power has achieved. The current director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is a woman. This is the agency that trained and funded death squads throughout Latin America, and whose current director oversaw a secret “black site” prison in Thailand where torture was routinely carried out. The women in those countries were not treated as sisters. Then there’s Hillary Clinton, who set up sweatshops in Haiti that pay women less than $5 a day. Most recently, we have “AOC,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, supposedly a “sister,” who voted funds for preparing the way for Trump’s coup in Venezuela. The reason for all this is that these women serve the interests of the ruling class and subordinate the question of women’s rights and equality to the framework of capitalist society.
But women’s oppression cannot be eradicated under capitalism, which relies on the nuclear family as the main institution through which wealth and property are transmitted from one generation to the next. While the institution of the family is older than capitalism, it plays an important role in maintaining bourgeois class rule. Because property is transferred through the familial line through men’s children, institutions and supposed ideals like bourgeois marriage and monogamy (for women) hold society in thrall, as part of the subjugation of women. Meanwhile the nuclear family is where the next generation of laborers are reproduced, brought up, trained to obey the existing society’s rules, etc. These are key aspects of the material basis of women’s oppression, and out of this arose the ideological reflections or justifications for that oppression, like male chauvinism, also called sexism.
Moreover, the eradication of women’s oppression cannot be achieved through the exclusion or without the active participation of working-class men. To achieve women’s emancipation, it must become the cause of the entire working class, in revolutionary struggle, which requires a revolutionary party. International Women’s Day was not intended to be a male-exclusionist day of empty ritual, where we glorify the traditional role of women and family or mobilize for more women CEOs. This is actually the image organizations like the U.N. and others paint to blur and distort the purpose of International Women’s Day. That is not what International Women’s Day was born to be. We refuse to let it be coopted by this bourgeois, feminist outlook; women like Alexandra Kollontai and Clara Zetkin used International Women’s Day and publications like Rabotnitsa (Russian for “woman worker”) to explain the material oppression of women and put forward the program of liberating women through socialist revolution.
Alexander Kollontai, in her article “International Women’s Day” (1920), said “the shackles of the family, of housework...still weigh heavily on the working woman.” Despite the gain of women’s suffrage and various reforms benefitting women, which we defend, these do nothing about the root of their oppression, which lies in the nuclear family and class society as a whole. Those shackles cannot be reformed away. Shackles do not wither. Shackles must be broken and will be broken with the smashing of capitalism, through a social revolution that will liberate women and all the oppressed. As Lenin stated in his article “On International Women’s Day (1920), “The working women’s movement has for its objective the fight for economic and social equality, not merely formal equality of women and men.” Our task is to organize women around the slogan and goal of women’s liberation through socialist revolution.
Immigrant Women Workers in the Fight for Revolution
March 8 International Women’s Day Forum at Hunter College, City University of New York.
The following presentations were given in Spanish and translated into English at the forum.
Beth: Good evening, some of you know me, I am a member of Trabajadores Internationalistas Clasistas (Class Struggle International Workers). March 8th, the International Day of Working Women: I think this is a great day, thanks to socialist women like Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Alexandra Kollontai and Nadezhda Krupskaya, who is my favorite. At home I have a photo of Krupskaya that shows her with a group of Red Army soldiers, giving them her message.
We are thankful to her and the others for their work and efforts in establishing International Women’s Day. We also owe a debt to the immigrant seamstresses of New York, who worked in garment factories, also known as sweatshops, and who launched the “Uprising of the 20,000” in 1909. These courageous women workers launched a bitter struggle to try and win a union.
Among them were the seamstresses of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, who died a couple of years later in the factory fire of March 25, 1911. I want to mention that men also died in that fire, a smaller number than the women, but men were also working in that sweatshop. I wanted to mention this because the feminists, including radical feminists, omit this important part of the story, that men also died in that fire.
The woman question is important for us as revolutionaries, because the woman worker is doubly oppressed. She is oppressed as a worker; and if she is a black woman worker, she is triply oppressed; and if she is a black immigrant woman worker, she is quadruply oppressed. What I want to say here is that I am not a feminist; I am fighting for equal rights and equal pay for equal work; I believe in the diversity of qualities of every individual; and we are fighting to emancipate the working class as a whole, so that we can in fact really emancipate women.
I believe it is also important that we remember this: in every struggle that has occurred, there have been martyrs. One of the most recent examples of that of Marielle Franco, a black woman activist in the favelas of Brazil. She was murdered last year by the bourgeois state.
There is also the situation of women agricultural workers in San Quintín, in Baja California, Mexico, who have fought together with the men workers, their compañeros, for improvements at work. These are women who have to work from very early in the morning until the sun goes down, bring their children with them and feeding them there in the countryside, in the fields. These women work and live in a place where they really have nothing – nothing at all – building their homes in places where the bosses own everything. They make starvation wages, there are no benefits, no hospitals, and in many cases they are physically abused by the foremen. It is not only the mothers who are exploited, but also the little children, who have to go into the fields to pick the fruits or vegetables as part of their work.
For these reasons and others, the struggle for women’s emancipation continues. Let’s also not forget the fact that Violeta, Lizette and I have several jobs in order to survive in this country and give our children a better life. I don’t want this to sound like a complaint, because we are working to make all of this better. I am not so old, but a little bit older, and it is very important for us to see young people like you, because in the future, in a revolution, we need students like you, who are well-educated, together with people like us.
What I am about to say has to do with the routine that we, and many other women like us, go through every day in this country. Usually we wake up at 6 in the morning. Our work ends at 2 or 3 in the afternoon. We work for minimum wage. Then we go home to clean the house, to take care of the kids, we have to feed them and take them to their medical appointments, to school, etc., and we are also the psychologists for our kids. We don’t have a degree, nor do we receive any pay for it, but at the end of the day they come to us. And after all that we need to have everything ready to go on and continue the next day. Our workday usually ends at 9 or 10 at night.
Since we don’t have immigration status, or in other words, are undocumented, a lot of the social programs the government might “offer” are either limited or denied to us. We are women who carry out many different jobs in one single day. So why not fight for childcare centers, restaurants or cafeterias, and laundries open 24 hours a day, seven days a week? For single mothers and married mothers, and for single and married fathers too. That way many more mothers could really work or study and participate in political life. And maybe also just have a little bit of fun on the weekends. As the immigrant women strikers in Lawrence, Massachusetts said in 1912, in a phrase you all know: “We want bread, but we want roses too.”
Our struggle must continue, internationally, demanding full citizenship rights for all immigrants, whether that be in Mexico, with the migrant caravan or here in the United States. To end, I would like to mention one more important thing: that everybody have full free medical insurance and also that every woman have the option to freely decide, without any religious or moral prejudice, whether or not she wants to be a mother. We want this right to decide, to decide about our own bodies. We want the right to safe, free abortion on demand. And as Nadezhda said:
“That which unites working women with working men is stronger than that which divides them. They are united by their common lack of rights, their common needs, their common condition, which is struggle and their common goal.... Solidarity between working men and working women, common activity, a common goal, a common path to this goal – such is the solution of the ‘woman’ question among workers.”5
Long live March 8, International Working Women’s Day! Full democratic rights for gays and lesbians! Free abortion on demand! For women’s liberation through workers revolution! Asian, Latin, black and white, women and men: Workers of the world, unite!
Lizette: Good evening, my name is Lizette; I’m a bit nervous because this is the first time I’ve done this. I’m going to tell you a little about my own life. I started working at the age of six. My mother took me to work for a lady and I never got a single cent from that work. Two years later, I went to the state of Sinaloa in Mexico to work there, cutting tomatoes and chiles.
On one occasion, my brother got sick on a Sunday when they were giving out the pay. He couldn’t go collect his pay, so I asked the person paying the workers if they could give me my brother’s pay. They said no, and I said that was not right.
I went back to our town, with my mother and my brothers, and life went on in the same way. When I was 12 I decided to leave home. I went to another town to work and later came here, to this country, so that I could send money back home to Mexico. And here too I found there were people who would have us work for them but when it came time for us to be paid, they would fire us.
Because of this sort of thing, I used to see a friend of mine always going someplace on Friday nights, and I used to ask him where he was going. He’d say he was going to some meetings. [Laughter.] I kept asking him about it, and one day he asked me, “Would you like to go?” I said yes, I do want to go; and from then on, I keep on going. It’s been about a year now that I’ve been participating in the study group. I like to go, because I free myself there; and when I go to protests I yell out the slogans and blow off some steam about everything I feel.
What I say now is that we have to keep fighting so that other women don’t have to keep suffering as we have. Like my comrade said here, we need communal kitchens and laundries to help women who can’t manage. Thank you.
Violeta: My name is Violeta, I’m a member of TIC: Trabajadores Internacionales Clasistas. What we’re commemorating and remembering tonight is March 8th, International Working Women’s Day. We are commemorating the women we see here [in the photos and posters] for their struggles against oppression, remembering their bravery, and continuing the struggle that they began, as they had no other option but to demand their rights. We continue to struggle because we continue to feel the oppression of capitalism, as men and as women. We proletarian women continue and will continue in this struggle for equality, for the same rights. We do this as domestic workers.
We feel this oppression every day, dropping our children off at school, and then running to make it to work on time. Then we spend the day worrying if we’ll be able to make it back in time to pick them up from school. On top of that, we need to make sure they get fed and do their homework.
To be a housewife, to be a proletarian woman is to be triply oppressed. Because of these burdens of work and responsibilities we have as mothers and as women workers, for these reasons and more, we demand equal rights.
This morning I was at work. I clean apartments. The woman I work for, the lady of the house, she was worried because she didn’t have a babysitter. We see the big difference between the women below and the capitalist women above. We have to clean their houses and take care of these things for them, while they look for a babysitter. This is our struggle, our work. We will always be here, and the moment will come when that change will come.
She Cried Liberation
When woman took her quick moving hands off spinning looms and textile machines, she picked up steel or aluminum and that was the day she cried liberation.
Naysayers in lily white or in protected chateaus or holding locks and keys to rusted chains centuries entangled and interlocked covered eyes and cried, “save the children!”
Woman, with her own child to her breast with her own chains hammer-smashed to negligible fragments opened eyes, drew new breath and knew she had done so.
Where it was dry, there was milk. Where there were crumbs, there was bread. Where there were thorns, there were roses. The day she cried liberation arms held apples, not fig leaves.
Woman, with her own body beneath her clothes, it was not the sway of her hips nor the curvature of her waist. It was her fist through the window and the mirror.
Where there was white, it was red. Where there were symbols, there were words. Where there was chaos, there was truth. The day she cried liberation bound hands became weapons.
One ought not to confuse the days she stood on two feet with this day, nor the days that she succeeded in her pleas for more milk or more bread.
One ought not to conflate the days she ate the flesh of another woman, or when her child suckled from the breast of another with this day.
The day she cried liberation was the day the river ran red with rose petals, was the day the blood pumped strong with sustenance, was the day that cold steel collarbones turned so many links to forgotten junk.
The day she cried liberation was the day we were all set free.
Magnus Hirschfeld: A Pioneer
Struggle for Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Rights
Jacob: Like most of the historical figures we have been discussing tonight, the story of Magnus Hirschfeld is not widely known. It is not because of people’s ignorance, it is not because of historical oblivion. It is because this history has been suppressed; and it has been suppressed because these were heroic figures in the struggle against all forms of oppression.
Magnus Hirschfeld was a German sex researcher, a medical doctor and a fearless proponent of the rights of women and of gay, lesbian and of transgender people. People might be surprised by the things he said and did, considering the historical context of his life. Hirschfeld was pulled into activist work when one of his patients committed suicide the day before his wedding. In the suicide note, Hirschfeld’s patient pleaded with him to publicize the struggle that gay people went through. To make that plight known to the public.
So Magnus Hirschfeld dedicated himself to this and in his words, he lived by the maxim “Through science to justice.” Through scientific education and research he sought to teach people that sexual and gender variance is common across all cultures. That homosexuality is a natural manifestation of human sexuality and that gender is intrinsically fluid. In 1897 Magnus Hirschfeld founded the first homosexual rights organization in history, the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. The main activity of the Committee was to petition for the removal of Paragraph 175 from the German penal code, which outlawed homosexual acts between men.
August Bebel, a founder of the socialist movement who had worked closely with Karl Marx, presented the petition of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee to the German parliament. In 1911 the Committee opposed an attempt to “reform” the penal code which would have made homosexual acts between women illegal. Although no laws formally persecuted transgender people, they were liable to be prosecuted under public nuisance and disorderly conduct laws.
Hirschfeld had limited legislative success. He also established a system providing a kind of documentary protection against police harassment for trans people in the city of Berlin. In 1919 he took up the objective of linking different forms of oppression and fighting for broader social reforms. He established the Institute for Sexual Research, which had the objective of pushing broad reforms in addition to academic research and education advocating gay rights and women’s rights to contraception. The institute provided counseling services, treatment for venereal diseases and sex reassignment operations.
Hirschfeld’s work was done in the context of the rise of the Nazis. He was frequently demonized for advocating gay rights and for being a Jew. He was once beaten so brutally that he had the surreal experience of reading his own obituary in the newspaper. In 1933, Hitler took power and the Institute for Sexual Research was plundered by Nazi students who were part of a physical education fraternity. The materials they stole were set alight in a book burning. Hirschfeld was out of the country at the time on a world tour. He never returned to Germany, dying in France in 1935.
Unlike many of the figures we spoke about tonight, Hirschfeld was not a political revolutionary. He was a member of the German Social Democratic Party, as was August Bebel. In fact, they went to college together. But Hirschfeld was not in the party’s radical wing. However, his work had an impact on policy and scientific study in the Soviet Union, and this is something that as Marxists we are quite proud of. The October Revolution of 1917 gave way to the decriminalization of homosexuality and extended the right of women to free abortion on demand, provided by the state. Women in Russia had gained the right to vote, which women did not have in the United States at the time. And women still don’t have the right to free abortion on demand here.
The October Revolution led by the Bolsheviks brought these gains and many others. (The Soviet Union later pioneered sex reassignment surgery.) In 1923, the director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene explained that “Homosexuality, sodomy and various other forms of sexual gratification set forth in European legislation as offences against public morality are treated by Soviet legislation exactly as is so-called ‘natural’ intercourse.”6
Some people have asserted that the Bolsheviks’ decriminalization of homosexuality in the Soviet Union was some kind of accident. But it is quite clear, when you read the policy statements, that it was intentional and part of the revolution itself. The same year the director of the Moscow Institute made that statement, the Soviet Commissar of Heath visited Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Research. In 1926, Hirschfeld reciprocated by accepting an invitation to visit Moscow and Leningrad, and in turn the Soviet Union sent delegates to Hirschfeld’s World League for Sexual Reform. There was fruitful collaboration between Hirschfeld and the Soviet government over the course of several years. And so, Magnus Hirschfeld is a figure to be remembered today. Though he himself was not a Marxist, he is very important to our movement and to us as Marxists, in the struggle against all forms of oppression. ■
- 1. See “Bourgeois Feminism vs. Women’s Liberation – Democratic Party: Faux Friends of Women,” Revolution No. 11, December 2014; and “Imperialist Feminism and the Democrats,” The Internationalist No. 55, Winter 2019.
- 2. For an extensive history of International Women’s Day, see “International Women’s Day Sparked the 1917 Russian Revolution,” The Internationalist No. 47, March-April 2017.
- 3. See materials on women and the Russian Revolution in Internationalist Group pamphlets, Bolsheviks and the Liberation of Women, March 2005, and Marxism and Women’s Liberation, May 2017.
- 4. See Clara Zetkin, “Only with the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism Be Victorious” (1896) and Rosa Luxemburg, “Women’s Suffrage and Class Struggle” (1912), in Marxism and Women’s Liberation.
- 5. Article by Nadezhda Krupskaya in the first issue of Rabotnitsa, published on International Women’s Day, 1914.
- 6. For more on this, and how the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet workers state was reflected regarding these and other issues, see “Gay Rights and Socialist Revolution,” Revolution No. 4, September 2007, reprinted in Marxism and Women’s Liberation.