1979 World Congress: Socialist Revolution and the Struggle for Women’s Liberation
4. The family system is the fundamental institution of class society that determines and maintains the specific character of the oppression of the female sex.
Throughout the history of class society, the family system has proved its value as an institution of class rule. The form of the family has evolved and adapted itself to the changing needs of the ruling classes as the modes of production and forms of private property have gone through different stages of development. The family system under classical slavery was different from the family system during feudalism (there was no real slave family). Both were quite different from what is often called the urban "nuclear family" of today.
Moreover, the family system simultaneously fulfil1s different social and economic requirements in reference to classes with different productive roles and property rights whose interests are diametrically opposed. For example, the "family" of the serf and the "family" of the nobleman were quite different socioeconomic formations. However, they were both part of the family system, an institution of class rule that has played an indispensable role at each stage in the history of class society.
In class society the family is the only place most people can turn to try to satisfy some basic human needs, such as love and companionship. However poorly the family may meet these needs for many, there is no real altemative as long as private property exists. The disintegration of the family under capitalism brings with it much misery and suffering precisely because no superior framework for human relations can yet emerge.
But providing for affection and companionship is not what defines the nature of the family system. It is an economic and social institution whose functions can be summarized as follows:
a. The family is the basic mechanism through which the ruling classes abrogate social responsibility for the economic well-being of those whose labor power they exploit - the masses of humanity. The ruling class tries, to the degree possible, to force each family to be responsible for its own, thus institutionalizing the unequal distribution of income, status and wealth.
b. The family system provides the means for passing on property ownership from one generation to the next. It is the basic social mechanism for perpetuating the division of society into classes.
c. For the ruling class, the family system provides the most inexpensive and ideologically acceptable mechanism for reproducing human labor. Making the family responsible for care of the young means that the portion of society’s accumulated wealth - appropriated as private property- that is utilized to assure reproduction of the laboring classes is minimized. Furthermore, the fact that each family is an atomized unit, fighting to assure the survival of its own, hinders the most exploited and oppressed from uniting in common action.
d. The family system enforces a social division of labor in which women are fundamentally defined by their childbearing role and assigned tasks immediately associated with this reproductive function: care of the other family members. Thus the family institution rests on and reinforces a social division of labor involving the domestic subjugation and economic dependence of women.
e. The family system is a repressive and conservatizing institution that reproduces within itself the hierarchical, authoritarian relationships necessary to the maintenance of class society as a whole. It fosters the possessive, competitive, and aggressive attitudes necessary to the perpetuation of class divisions.
It molds the behavior and character structure of children from infancy through adolescence. It trains, disciplines, and polices them, teaching submission to established authority. It then curbs rebellious, nonconformist impulses. It represses and distorts all sexuality, forcing it into socially acceptable channe1s of male and female sexual activity for reproductive purposes and socioeconomic roles. It inculcates all the social values and behaviora1 norms that individuals must acquire in order to survive in class society and submit to its domination. It distorts all human relationships by imposing on them the framework of economic compulsion, persona1 dependence, and sexual repression.
2. The perspective of the Fourth International stands in the long tradition of revolutionary Marxism. It is based on the following considerations:
a. The oppression of women emerged with the transition from preclass to class society. It is indispensable to the maintenance of class society in general and capita1ism in particular. Therefore, struggle by masses of women against their oppression is a form of the struggle against capitalist rule.
b. Women are both a significant component of the working class, and a potentially powerful ally of the working class in the struggle to overthrow capitalism. Without the socialist revolution, women cannot establish the preconditions for their liberation. Without the mobilization of masses of women in struggle for their own liberation, the working class cannot accomplish its historic tasks. The destruction of the bourgeois state, the eradication of capitalist property, the transformation of the economic bases and priorities of society, the consolidation of a new state power based on the democratic organization of the working class and its allies, and the continuing struggle to eliminate all forms of oppressive social relations inherited from class society - all this can ultimately be accomplished only with the conscious participation and leadership of an independent women’s liberation movement.
Thus our support for building an independent women’s liberation movement is part of the strategy of the revolutionary working-class party. It stems from the very character of women’s oppression, the social divisions created by capitalism itself and the way these are used to divide and weaken the working class and its allies in the struggle to abolish class society.
c. All women are oppressed as women. Struggles around specific aspects of women’s oppression necessarily involve women from different classes and social layers. Even some bourgeois women, revolting against their oppression as women, can break with their class and be won to the side of the revolutionary workers movement as the road to liberation.
As Lenin pointed out in his discussions with Clara Zetkin, action around aspects of women’s oppression has the potential to reach into the heart of the enemy class, to "foment and increase unrest, uncertainty and contradictions and conflicts in the camp of the bourgeoisie and its reformist friends. … “Every weakening of the enemy is tantamount to a strengthening of our forces."
Even more important from the point of view of the revolutionary Marxist party is the fact that resentment against their oppression as women can often be the starting point in the radicalization of decisive layers of petty-bourgeois women, whose support the working class must win.
d. While all women are oppressed, the effects of that oppression are different for women of different classes. Those who suffer the greatest economic exploitation are generally those who also suffer the most from their oppression as women. Thus the women’s liberation movement provides an avenue to reach and mobilize many of the most oppressed and exploited women who might not otherwise be touched so rapidly by the struggles of the working class.
e. While all women are affected by their oppression as women, the mass women’s liberation movement we strive to build must be basically working-class in composition, orientation, and leadership. Only such a movement, with roots in the most exploited layers of working-class women, will be able to carry the struggle for women’s liberation through to the end in an uncompromising way, allying itself with the social forces whose class interests parallel and intersect those of women. Only such a movement will be able to play a progressive role under conditions of sharpening class polarization.
f. In this long-term perspective, struggles by women in the unions and on the job have a special importance, reflecting the vital interrelationship of the women’s movement and the workers movement and their impact on each other.
This is testified to by the deepening radicalization of working-class women today, the growing understanding of forces in the women’s liberation movement that they must orient to the struggles of working women, and the willingness of sections of the trade-union bureaucracy in some countries to begin to take a few initiatives around women’s demands. All these developments point to the future character and composition of the women’s liberation movement and the kind of class forces who will come forward to provide leadership.
g. Struggles by women against their oppression as a sex are interrelated with, but not totally dependent on or identical with, struggles by workers as a class. Women cannot win their liberation except in alliance with the organized power of the working class. But this historical necessity in no way means that women should postpone any of their struggles until the current labor officialdom is replaced by a revolutionary leadership that picks up the banner of women’s liberation. Nor should women wait until the socialist revolution has created the material basis for ending their oppression. On the contrary, women fighting for their liberation must wait for no one to show them the way. They should take the lead in opening the fight and carrying it forward. In doing so, they will play a leadership role within the workers movement as a whole, and can help create the kind of class struggle leadership necessary to advance on all fronts.
h. Sexism is one of the most powerful weapons utilized by the ruling class to divide and weaken the workers movement. But it does not simply divide men against women. Its conservatizing weight cuts across sex lines, affecting both men and women.
Its hold is rooted in the class character of society itself, and the manifold ways in which bourgeois ideology is inculcated in every individual from birth. The bosses pit each section of the working class against all others. They promote the belief that women’s equality can be achieved only at the expense of men-by taking men’s jobs away from them, by lowering their wages, and by depriving them of domestic comforts. The reformist bureaucracy of the labor movement, of course, also plays upon these divisions to maintain its control.
Educating the masses of workers, male and female, through propaganda, agitation, and action around the needs of women is an essential part of the struggle to break the stranglehold of reactionary bourgeois ideology within the working class. It is an indispensable part of the politicalization and revolutionary education of the workers movement.
i. The full power and united strength of the working class can only be realized as the workers movement begins to overcome its deep internal divisions. This will only be achieved as the workers come to understand that those at the top of the wage-scale do not owe their relative material advantages to the fact that others are discriminated against and specially oppressed. Rather it is the bosses who profit from such stratification and division. The class interests of all workers are identical with the demands and needs of the most oppressed and exploited layers of the class - the women, the oppressed nationalities, the immigrant workers, the youth, the unorganized, the unemployed. The women’s movement has a particularly important role to play in helping the working class to understand this truth.
j. Winning the organized labor movement to fight for the demands of women is part of educating the working class to think socially and act politically. It is a central axis of the fight to transform the trade unions into instruments of revolutionary struggle in the interests of the entire working class.
In countering the efforts of the employers to keep the working class divided, we strive to win the ranks of the unions, and especia1ly the young, combative rebels. The more successful we are in winning this battle, the more we will see the labor bureaucracy divide. Those who refuse to defend the interests of the great majority of the most oppressed and exploited will be progressively pushed aside.
The struggle by the revolutionary party to win hegemony and leadership in the working class is inseparable from the battle to convince the working class and its organizations to recognize and champion struggles by women as their own.
k. The struggle against the oppression of women is not a secondary or peripheral issue. It is a life-and-death matter for the workers movement, especially in a period of sharpening class polarization.
Because women’s place in class society generates many deep-seated insecurities and fears, and because the ideology that buttresses women’s inferior status still retains a powerful hold, especially outside the working class, women are a particular target for all clerical, reactionary, and fascist organizations. Whether it is the Christian Democrats, the Falange, or the opponents of abortion rights, reaction makes a special appeal to women for support, claiming to address women’s particular needs, taking advantage of their economic dependence under capitalism, and promising to relieve the inordinate burden women bear during any period of social crisis.
From the “kinder-kirche-kueche" propaganda of the Nazi movement to the Christian Democrats’ mobilization of middle- class women in Chile for the march of the empty pots in 1971, history has demonstrated time and again that the reactionary mystique of motherhood-and-family is one of the most powerful conservatizing weapons wielded by the ruling class.
Chile once again tragically showed that if the workers movement fails to put forward and fight for a program and revolutionary perspective answering the needs of the masses of women, many petty- bourgeois and even working-class women will either be mobilized on the side of reaction, or neutralized as potential supporters of the proletariat.
The objective changes in women’s economic and social role, the new radicalization of women and the changes in consciousness and attitudes this has brought about, make it more difficult for reaction to prevail. This is a new source of revolutionary optimism for the working class. The mass explosion of feminist consciousness in Spain as one of the most significant components of the rising class struggle in the post-Franco era also demonstrates the speed with which the ideological hold of the church and state can begin to crumble in a period of revolutionary ferment, even in sectors of the population where it has been very strong.
l. While the victorious proletarian revolution can create the material foundations for the socialization of dornestic labor and lay the basis for the complete economic and social equality of women, this socialist reconstruction of society, placing all human relations on a new foundation, will not be accomplished immediately or automatically. During the period of transition to socialism the fight to eradicate all forms of oppression inherited from class society will continue. For example, the social division of labor into feminine and masculine tasks must be eliminated in all spheres of activity from daily life to the factories. Decisions will have to be made concerning the allocation of scarce resources. An economic plan that reflects the social needs of women, and provides for the most rapid possible socialization of domestic tasks, will have to be developed. The continuing autonomous organization of women will be a precondition for democratically arriving at the correct economic and social decisions. Thus even after the revolution the independent women’s liberation movement will play an indispensable role in assuring the ability of the working class as a whole, male and female, to carry this process through to a successful conclusion.
Our class-struggle strategy for the fight against women’s oppression, our answer to the question of how to mobilize the working class on the side of women, and the masses of women on the side of the working class, has three facets: our political demands, our methods of struggle, and our class independence.