Revolutionary Struggle for Women’s
Not (Capitalist) Welfare State Feminism
Italian Trotskyists on
International Women’s Day
Twenty thousand march in Rome starting at the Colosseum on International Women’s Day, March 8.
This article is translated from the upcoming issue of L’internazionalista, the newspaper of the Nucleo Internazionalista d’Italia, section of the League for the Fourth International.
International Women’s Day, March 8, was from its inception in 1909 a proletarian day of struggle, initiated by socialists and born of the bitter strike and unionization struggles waged by women garment workers in New York City. A century ago this year, an uprising that began on International Women’s Day brought down the Russian tsar and led to the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the founding of the first workers state in history. Red October led not only to a vast expansion of the rights of women but to a planned economy that began to lay the basis for overcoming the material basis of women’s oppression. It remains the beacon showing the way forward to achieve the emancipation of all the oppressed: For women’s liberation through socialist revolution!
The “global women’s strike” called by feminist groups this past March 8 had a very different character. This varied from country to country. In the United States, protests were marked above all by opposition to the Republican president and notorious sexist Donald Trump, as the Democratic Party hides behind the screen of women’s protests. Elsewhere in the world, there were marches and protests in more than 40 countries inspired by the Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) movement in Argentina, which organized mass protests in 2015 and 2016 following grisly gang rapes and murders of young women. This movement has been hailed by many on the left as the beginning of a new wave of radical feminism.
In Italy on March 8, the Casa delle Donne (House of Women) centers promoted demonstrations of over 20,000 marchers in Rome, 10,000 in Milano and thousands more in other major cities. In Rome, a number of leftist “rank-and-file” unions struck (USB, Cobas, SLAI-Cobas, etc.), as did the teachers union affiliated to the CGIL labor federation, and some mass transit shut down. Like the huge demonstration of over 100,000 protesters in the capital last November 26, the main focus was on individual “masculine violence against women,” and the appeal was to the capitalist state. Non Una di Meno, affiliated with the Argentine Ni Una Menos, called on the United Nations and the European Court of Human Rights to protect women, and organized meetings with bourgeois women politicians.
Naturally, bourgeois forces sought to make the most of this. The president of the Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini, had the Italian flags at Montecitorio (the seat of parliament) lowered to half-mast; the ex-Forza Italia1 president of the Republic, Sergio Matarella, uttered pious words against violence against women; and the Democratic Party mayor of Milano declared that “pink quotients [of women] are no longer enough.” The police in Bologna even got in on the “anti-violence” act, organizing an initiative called “This is not love.” Nondasola (12 March), a web site associated with Non Una di Meno, wrote: “1t is a serious responsibility of the state to put into play everything that is necessary to prevent, watch over and protect women from violence.”
Rather than putting forward a program for revolutionary struggle against the capitalist state – that machinery of the ruling class for the violent imposition of its rule on workers, women and all the oppressed – these feminists seek to work with the state. The platform of Non Una di Meno, “Eight Points for 8 March,” calls for a “self-determination income,” that is, a guaranteed income to enable women to escape from violent relationships, and “welfare for all, based on women’s needs, which frees them from the obligation to work more and more.”
When in the “Eight Points” they call for public schools to be “a crucial nexus to prevent and combat male violence against women,” and when they call to eradicate “misogynist, sexist, racist stereotypes” in the media, they spread the illusion that this could be realized under capitalism as a matter of education. How would that be done? Here is what they say: “We demand of the government immediate action to set up a Media Watchdog capable of intervening and preventing sexism in the media” (Non Una di Meno, “It’s Not (Just) the RAI,” 24 March). So they are calling on the government to exercise feminist censorship of the media! All of these calls look to the bourgeois state as a friend or ally, a partner of women rather than the main enemy.
In short, what the organizers seek is a kind of capitalist welfare-state feminism. While raising some correct and necessary demands, such as for free abortion on demand and an end to the “conscientious objector” clause in Law 194 (which allows doctors and hospitals to subvert the right to abortion), the platform places this in a purely bourgeois-democratic framework. Theirs is a utopian reformist and social-democratic program that would subordinate the struggle for women’s rights to the capitalist state, the biggest enemy of women. And it ignores basic economic demands which go beyond the limits of capitalism, including collectivization of housework, childcare and food service, which are crucial to liberating working women from all-sided social oppression.
Unsurprisingly, the welfare state feminists of Non Una di Meno are viscerally anti-communist, demanding that unions and parties not bring their symbols and banners on the marches (i.e., no red flags or hammers and sickles). But this hasn’t stopped opportunist left groups from hailing them. The Partito dell’Altemativa Comunista (PdAC, Communist Alternative Party, part of the international current of followers of the late Nahuel Moreno, the LIT) emphatically “welcomed” Non Una di Meno, although it called the leadership “feminist” and “reformist,” and considered the banner ban a “step backward.” But the Morenoites are themselves feminists and reformists, and class collaboration is their stock-in-trade.
The Partito Comunista dei Lavoratori (PCL – Worker Communist Party, until now linked to Jorge Altamira’s Argentine Partido Obrero) adopts a slightly more left posture in the feminist framework. On the eve of last year’s demonstration in Rome against male violence, the PCL put out a declaration (21 November 2016) calling “For the construction of a radical, anti-capita1ist and anti-clerical feminism.” Although their women comrades reportedly were undemocratically treated at a February 2-3 national meeting of Non Una di Meno, the PCL’s response was to issue a parallel “Eight Class Points for March 8,” trying to put a working-class veneer on feminism by adding calls for abolishing the Jobs Act (which has led to the spread of short-term employment contracts), restoring Article 18 (against mass layoffs) and the like.
In the media, the word “feminist” is often loosely used to refer to anyone who supports women’s rights – or who falsely claims to do so. But feminism is a political program, which by its very nature is bourgeois, as are all forms of “identity politics.” It is counterposed to the revolutionary working-class politics of Marxism. Posing gender as the fundamental dividing line in society – in some places underlining this by excluding males from March 8 protests, or ordering them to march at the back – it diverts the struggle from the source of women’s oppression, capitalism.
And this is true of all “feminisms.” Tacking a few “pro-worker” reform demands and the adjective “anti-capitalist” (or “proletarian” or “socialist”) onto a feminist program, even throwing in a reference to an eventual “radical transformation of society,” at most makes it a formula for reformist class collaboration. By focusing on demands to make capitalism more palatable, especially for certain layers of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois women, feminism is counterposed to the genuine liberation of women, and of poor and working women in particular.
The focus on what is being called “femicide” is not because women are murdered more often than men (the opposite is the case: the murder rate for men is more than twice as high as for women in Italy, five times as high in the U.S. and six times as high in Argentina). Nor has there been a sudden increase in murders of women (in Italy and the U.S. they have fallen in the last decade). On the other hand, one place where the murder rate – including notably of women – has gone up is in Mexico, where it more than doubled from 2005 to 2012. The reason is the deadly “war on drugs,” in which women have been wantonly mowed down by army, police and drug traffickers alike. Even so, men are ten times as likely as women to be murdered in Mexico.
The campaign about “femicide” is a feminist political choice. It focuses on one important aspect of women’s oppression where the direct oppressors are individual men, namely domestic violence. While far fewer women are murdered than men, women are more likely to be the victims of violent attacks, particularly in the home. But even at that level, the feminists have no real program to fight it. Calling the police against an abusive companion in Mexico could be suicidal, as police might well side with the perpetrator and have notoriously been implicated in sexual abuse, rapes and murders of women. For black people in the U.S., it often leads to police murder of the man, and sometimes of the female victim.
For similar reasons, women in anti-violence centers in Italy don’t want the police showing up there. The bourgeois courts that manage “family rights” can even take the children away from both mother and father to place them in foster care (as happened with a poor couple of Casale Monferrato, solely for being “too old”). The same “justice” system condemns the poor to life imprisonment and absolves the mega-thieves in coat and tie.
The locus and source of domestic violence is the institution of the family, the fundamental social unit of bourgeois society. But most feminists don’t want to call for replacing the family, and these days are even leery of challenging “family values.” For one thing, that means directly taking on the Catholic church, which is a prime perpetrator of women’s oppression, for centuries counseling women to submit to abusive relationships. Yet the first Ni Una Menos demonstration in Argentina was not only endorsed by bourgeois politicians but also by the Church, the same clerical hierarchy (including the current Pope Francis) which covered for the military junta’s theft of children of leftists it murdered. But most importantly the issue of domestic violence against women poses the need for a socialist revolution to provide the material basis for overcoming the economic dependence inherent in the family under capitalism.
Marxists fight for replacement of the family by socializing household tasks, child-rearing and food service. Feminists do not call for this. If they talk of a “patriarchal family” it is because they hold that “another family is possible,” so to speak, an equitable, non-patriarchal family, just as the anti-globalization protesters declared “another world is possible” under capitalism. These are fatal illusions. Even such palliatives as the “self-determination income” (a/k/a “citizenship income” or guaranteed income such as is being talked about in the European parliament) is no answer. Like reformist schemes of “wages for housework,” if implemented this would not only reinforce women’s traditional roles and subjugation to household labor, but likely further remove women from social labor, blocking emancipation from domestic confinement.
Capitalist Economic Crisis Takes Toll on Women
Thousands of low-paid, on-call cafeteria and cleaning workers, mostly women, struck across Italy on March 31. To defeat outsourcing and win a real national contract requires united action by all workers in hospitals and universities backed by industrial unions.
The world capitalist economic crisis has eroded the living conditions of working people in Italy and elsewhere, and increased the number of unemployed, poor and elderly people without economic resources, and the scarcity of health care. The bourgeoisie’s decades-long policies of “blood and tears,” of brutal “austerity” for the poor and working class and obscene enrichment for the bosses, has worsened since the onset of the depression in 2007-08. There have been cuts to pensions and welfare and increasing restrictions on the right to abortion. The progressive dismantling of the health-care system and social services means that most of the burden for the care of the infirm, elderly and children falls on the shoulders of women.
When there are setbacks for the working class, women are hit the hardest. Childcare facilities have been reduced and are increasingly unaffordable. Unemployment is massive, especially for youth, but it is even worse for women who are often the last hired and first fired. Wages have been lowered overall, and are even lower for women; pensions are increasingly hard to obtain, but this is even more difficult for women, especially given their greater family burdens; the Jobs Act together with other measures have made job insecurity almost universal, but it is worse for women. Women make up a disproportionate share of part-time workers, and are over half of those receiving “vouchers” (low-paying job “contracts” limited to a few hours).
Thus while female workers earn on average 17% less than their male counterparts for the same jobs, overall women make 42% less than men, because they make up a disproportionate share of involuntarily part-time workers who would like a full-time job. A significant number of them are single mothers, and many lost full-time jobs when they became pregnant: just in 2008-2009, some 800,000 mothers reported being fired after becoming pregnant. At the time of hiring, many are asked to sign resignations, to be activated in case of pregnancy. Or they are not hired at all. Meanwhile, divorce and litigations over alimony, child support or custody cause great tensions in families, especially the poorest. Moreover, domestic abuse increases sharply in times of economic distress. And then women pay the greatest price as victims of domestic violence.
How to resolve this is no mystery. In the 1930s Great Depression, Leon Trotsky put forward the demand for a sliding scale of wages and hours, to reduce the workweek with no loss in pay, to provide work for all. But this will not come through “enlightened” legislation in the bourgeois parliaments or amicable negotiation with employers. Even the modest reduction of the workweek in France from 39 to 35 hours (the Loi Aubry enacted in 2000) is now being undone as the profit-bloated bosses cry poverty. That law hardly made a dent in mass unemployment, but slashing the workweek to 25 hours with no pay cut would be quite different. Naturally, the bosses oppose it: they need what Marx called a “reserve army of the unemployed,” to keep wages down.
Trotskyists also fight for free, 24-hour childcare and laundries; for low-price, high-quality dining facilities serving the poor and working people; for massive programs of public works under workers control; for the right to public housing, with adequate bedrooms for children; for free, high-quality medical care (socialized medicine) and free mass transit. Such demands are key to genuine liberation of working women. They point to a centrally planned, collectivized, socialist economy in which production is determined by social need, not profitability in the capitalist market. That is why such demands can only be won by hard class struggle leading to socialist revolution. That was the point of Trotsky’s 1938 Transitional Program which we fight for today.
For Free Abortion on Demand – Eliminate the “Conscientious Objector” Clause
The question of abortion is a key issue for women, and a lightning rod for the forces of reaction who would keep them in thrall.
The grim reality for working-class and oppressed women in Italy has fueled widespread anger and indignation over how the “conscientious objector” clause reportedly caused the death of 32-year-old Valentina Miluzzo at the Cannizzaro hospital in Catania, Sicily. Pregnant with twins, Valentina was at the hospital last October 15 with a high fever, pain and low blood pressure and was suffering a spontaneous abortion. In two interviews Valentina’s husband said, “That doctor told me that he was an objector and couldn’t intervene as long as there was life in those fetuses, he told me this while my wife screamed in pain. He said this to me and other people….” She died some hours later.
Over 70% of gynecologists and almost half of anesthetists and non-medical personnel are “conscientious objectors.” These figures are much higher in the south of Italy, while less than two-thirds of hospitals with gynecology departments nationwide provide any abortion service at all. The capacity of these medical “conscientious objectors” to overcome their “moral scruples” to practice abortions in private clinics for large sums of money is well known. In the 1970s this capacity earned them the name of “cucchiai d’oro” (golden spoons).
Hospital directors and others in positions of power in the health system are often chosen on a political basis under the patronage system. A key criterion is willingness to wage anti-abortion crusades. A highly visible example of this is Roberto Formigoni, president of the Lombardia region from 1995 to 2013 and also a leader of Comunione e Liberazione (Communion and Liberation, a major clerical-reactionary lobby). Formigoni’s CL followers at the Mangiagalli hospital in Milano persecuted doctors who performed abortions. This led to a long trial with criminal charges being brought against six doctors. The message was very clear: doctors and medical staff who refuse to declare themselves to be “conscientious objectors” can seriously risk their career, maybe their job, and could even end up in prison.
The present Law 194 which regulates abortion was approved in May 1978 in a tumultuous period when the working class was demonstrating some real social power and large parts of society were in open revolt. The “conscientious objector” clause, along with other restrictions sharply limiting the right to abortion, were the result of the class-collaborationist betrayal of the Stalinists of the Communist Party (PCI). At the time, the PCI was supporting the government of Christian Democrat Giulio Andreotti. It also backed the “anti-terrorist” Reale Law that threw hundreds of leftist militants into prison, and called on PCI members to act as government spies. All of this was done in the name of its “Historic Compromise” with capitalism, which meant conciliation with the Christian Democrats, the Vatican and NATO. Women and many others are still paying the price of this betrayal.
Three years later, in 1981, the PCI opposed the referendum proposed by the bourgeois Radical Party that would have significantly extended access to abortion. Authentic Trotskyists called to vote “yes” but various feminists and the Lega Comunista Rivoluzionaria (present-day Sinistra Anti-Capitalista [Anti-Capitalist Left], Italian followers of the late Ernest Mandel), tailing after the PCI, opposed the referendum. In this country of the Vatican, the elementary principle of separation of the church and state, raised by the bourgeois-democratic revolutions, is rejected by the constitution. The PCI of long-time Stalinist leader Palmiro Togliatti insisted that the infamous Lateran Treaty agreed to by Mussolini and Pope Pius XI in 1929 be incorporated into the constitution, thereby guaranteeing widespread privileges for the state religion, which still very much exist today.
The reality is that getting an abortion in Italy today is very difficult or impossible for working-class and poorer women and most minors. Those who can afford it can travel to Britain, but many others have died as a result of clandestine abortions that put their very lives at risk. We demand: Church out of the hospitals, schools and bedrooms! For complete separation of church and state! Down with the Lateran Treaty and the Concordat with the Vatican! Abolish the “conscientious objector” clause! For free abortion on demand!
The Material Basis of Women’s Oppression … and Liberation
The utopian socialist Charles Fourier commented in the early 19th century that the level of progress of a society can be measured by the degree of freedom that women have in it. The struggle for women’s liberation is an integral and inseparable part of the struggle for socialist revolution. The defense of even basic democratic rights like abortion, childcare and maternity leave necessarily means a confrontation with the capitalist state and the entrenched power of the Vatican and requires a class-struggle mobilization. Only the overthrow of capitalism by workers revolution will guarantee these rights and lay the material basis for the full emancipation of women.
As Friedrich Engels wrote in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1883), the material roots of women’s oppression are inextricably linked to the early division of human society into classes. Women’s oppression began with the beginning of class society and private property, particularly with agriculture and the domestication of animals, when there was an accumulation of wealth for the first time. The new patriarchal families were economic units established in order to assure a certain line of descent to pass on wealth through inheritance. There was a division of labor in the family: men were the owners and women would do the childrearing and domestic chores and be the means of reproduction – hardly a free loving relationship.
Over the centuries, as the mode of production changed from slavery to serfdom to mercantile capitalism, the nature of the family changed. As a money economy spread, the formation of families became an economic transaction, with dowries and bride prices. Under industrial capitalism, the family ceased to be a unit of production and began to break down, especially among the proletarians. But it continues to be upheld as a standard today by reactionary forces seeking to foist stultifying bourgeois morality on the “lower orders.” Thus, even as women entered the workforce, engaging in social labor which represented an enormous step forward, they still bear the burden of domestic labor, the infamous “double shift” which drives many to distraction.
True emancipation of women is impossible in a society based on the oppressive institution of the family. The precondition for the liberation of women is replacing of the family as an economic unit with the socialization of domestic work. As Bolshevik leader Alexandra Kollontai wrote in “Communism and the Family” (1920):
“Instead of the working woman having to struggle with the cooking and spend her last free hours in the kitchen preparing dinner and supper, communist society will organize public restaurants and communal kitchens…. Communism liberates woman from her domestic slavery and makes her life richer and happier….
“The family is withering away not because it is being forcibly destroyed by the state, but because the family is ceasing to be a necessity…. In place of the old relationship between men and women, a new one is developing: a union of affection and comradeship, a union of two equal members of communist society, both of them free, both of them independent and both of them workers. No more domestic bondage for women. No more inequality within the family. No need for women to fear being left without support and with children to bring up.”
Today there is a widespread awareness that the oppression of women is not simply due to the individual attitudes of sexist men but is a social question that is deeply ingrained in society. Even so, a sectoralist view predominates in the Italian left that women must fight for women’s rights and minorities and gays and others for theirs. As a result of being marginalized in leftist organizations, many women feel it necessary to organize separately in order to fight against their oppression. This may be understandable, but it is inimical to genuine liberation for women, which requires the common struggle of all oppressed and working people.
In Italy, immigrant women are triply exploited and oppressed: as workers, as immigrants and as women. With the notable and honorable exception of the SI Cobas union, which has been fighting to organize brutally exploited logistics and agricultural workers, nobody else on the left talks much about this. The Nucleo Internazionalista is the Italian section of the League for the Fourth International, which has concentrated much of its work in immigrant and minority milieus. Last August, a transitional organization of immigrant workers linked to the Internationalist Group, Trabajadores Internacionales Clasistas (Class Struggle International Workers), was formed in New York which included a section of its program titled “Women’s Liberation: Duty of All Workers”:
“March 8 is International Women’s Day, commemorating the deaths of over 100 immigrant women workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York in 1911, which was the spark for the unionization of the garment industry. Women workers shoulder a double workday, on the job and both before and afterwards at home, where they are burdened with the responsibility for domestic labor in the family. They are constantly hounded by sexual harassment and unequal treatment. They are even denied control over their own bodies. Trabajadores Internacionales Clasistas fights for equal pay for equal work. Around the world, we fight for free abortion on demand, at the sole decision of the woman. We demand free, 24-hour child care. Along with machismo, homophobic prejudices are a weapon of the exploiting class: every class-conscious worker is duty-bound to defend the democratic rights of gays, lesbians, transgender people and all the oppressed.”
The fight for women’s liberation is an integral part of the class struggle. To lead this class struggle, a Leninist vanguard party of the proletariat must be built which can act as a “tribune of the people.” As Lenin wrote in What Is To Be Done? it must put itself at the head of and be the defender of all the oppressed and exploited. In a genuinely Leninist party the entire organization is mobilized to fight against women’s oppression. Only by fighting for the liberation of women, for genuine equal rights for gays and lesbians, for full citizenship rights for all immigrants with or without “papers,” can such a genuinely communist party lead the fight for workers power. ■
- 1. “Go Italy,” the party of rightist former prime minister, media mogul and owner of the A.C. Milan football (soccer) team Silvio Berlusconi.