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Socialist Education: Socialism and Feminism

Socialism and feminism have had a long association. The struggle for women’s rights has always been an integral part of the socialist movement and its ideology. This can be traced from the period of Marx and Engels, through the Russian revolution and up to the civil rights movements that emerged in the 1960’s & 70’s. However, that association is a lot weaker today. 

Socialism is no longer the dominant ideology within feminist and most feminists don’t look to the socialist movement or working class struggles to advance their cause. This diminishing of the socialist position in the struggle for women’s rights, as with almost every other struggle, has been the consequence of the defeats suffered by the working class since the 1980s and the collapse of the states held up to be “socialist”. In a period when the cause of labour has been on retreat ideas that reject class struggle and look for advances within capitalism have made ground. This has been obvious in movements of the oppressed, such as feminism, where identity politics are now to the fore. What is central to such politics is the notion that each oppressed group is subject to a unique form of oppression that can only be overcome by addressing the specific needs of that group. It also denies that oppression is related to class. The consequence of such notions has been the emergence of separatist movements that propose individualistic solutions to oppression. In this they are completely compatible with the structure and ideology of capitalism. 


The foundation of identity politics within feminism has been the theory of patriarchy. This holds that there is a system of control and dominance – separate from the class structure of society – in which all men collude to oppress all women. In some versions of the theory of patriarchy this system of control is determined by biology – that men by their nature oppress women. In this schema there can be no common struggle between men and woman even if they belong to the same class. Going hand in hand with the theory of patriarchy has been the promotion of individualistic solutions to women’s oppression that have the narrow focus of getting more women into the structures of government and business. This is a type of feminism that runs completely counter to socialism. The problem is that many socialist groups, in face of working class retreat, have adapted to identity politics to some degree or other. In some countries the socialist left is little more than a collection of liberal causes. The other extreme is a bread and butter type socialism that is dismissive of oppression - seeing it either as divisive or something that will be solved in a socialist future. 

Class society 

The authentic revolutionary socialist position on women’s oppression is quite different from these distortions. Its basic proposition is that women’s oppression originates in the division of society into different classes and that it continues as a consequence of the current class divisions within capitalism. Marxists do not believe that women’s oppression is something that has always existed. Neither do we believe that it is the result of biological differences between the sexes or some psychological impulse within men. 

It was Fredrich Engels who laid the foundation of the revolutionary approach to women’s oppression. His analysis, most fully expounded in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), provides a materialist explanation for the oppression of women. For Engels it was the transition from a primitive communism to the earliest class societies that marked the onset of women’s oppression. He described the changes that took in this period as the “world historic defeat of the female sex”. Central to this defeat was the emergence of a family structure in which women took on responsibility for the reproduction of the next generation while men became dominant in economic production. 

The family 

The family has been the most resilient social structure throughout class society. And while it has changed to suit the particular needs of each class society – whether that is slavery, feudalism or capitalism – its basic function of reproducing labour has remained intact. The only time the family has come under sustained attack was in the early period of industrial capitalism as families were broken up and men, woman and children forced into mills and mines. This was barbaric but also highly inefficient as people’s health and life expectancy dramatically declined and labour become short. The response of the capitalist class was to revive the family on the basis of the woman working in the home and raising children while the man laboured in the economy. This is what became known as the “nuclear family”. While it was certainly an improvement on what went before it was still an environment in which women were oppressed. They were subject to what Lenin described as “domestic slavery”. 

Though the nuclear family has come under strain in the recent period it is still the capitalist ideal. We see how the state has taken measures, particularly in the area of welfare, to support it. For a system based on the private production of labour the maintenance of the family is essential. It is therefore impossible for capitalism to lift the burdens associated with the family. 


This is not to say that improvements cannot be won within capitalism. There have been enormous positive changes to women’s personal lives thanks to gains such as the contraceptive pill, abortion rights and access to divorce (though in Ireland some of these were long delayed or have still to be achieved). The working lives of women have also changed dramatically with a large proportion now in the formal workforce and many active in the organised labour movement. These are all advances, many of them won through struggles, which socialists support. But we also recognise that under capitalism such gains are always temporary and incomplete. We can see this during the current long recession in which women have borne the brunt of austerity and there have been efforts to push back many of the social gains (particularly in relation to reproduction) that had been previously won. 


The oppression of women will only end with the overthrow of capitalism and the socialisation of the burdens associated with the family. This can only be achieved through the conscious revolutionary activity of working class men and women. Yet Marxists also recognise that the working class cannot be revolutionary unless it is able to respond all forms of oppression. Therefore the class struggle and struggles against oppression must go hand in hand. The struggle for women’s rights and the struggle for socialism go hand in hand and bringing the struggle of women into the labour and socialist movements can only raise the political conscious-ness of workers. The strength of the Marxist position is that it highlights the long period in human history when women’s oppression did not exist and points the way to a socialist future free from oppression.


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