The philosophies of socialism and feminism have made several collaborative efforts throughout history, to the extent that feminism has become accepted generally as a left-of-centre doctrine, despite being embraced by individuals on all sides of the political spectrum. It seems that the plight of women has consistently rested hand-in-hand with the plight of the working class, as both groups have struggled for equality, economic or otherwise. This is why, to mark International Women’s Day this year (the occasion that sparked Russia’s February Revolution), I thought I’d write about how and where feminism ties into the Marxist movement.
As early as the late 1800s, Friedrich Engels laid down several key arguments as to why the societal oppression of women existed, ultimately arguing that such oppression was rooted not in a woman’s biological disadvantages, but the possessive nature of modern economic systems. The significance of such a proposition was not that it simply drew parallels between the struggle of women and that of workers, but that, in identifying the cause of such oppression to be economic, it unites the feminist and socialist struggle against a common enemy.
When communism was first attempted, in the early twentieth century, this theoretical marriage between the two groups can be exemplified by the incredibly progressive policies and ideas of the Soviet government. In Lenin on the Women’s Question, German Marxist theorist Clara Zetkin recalls ‘Comrade Lenin frequently spoke to me about the women’s question. Social equality for women was, of course, a principle needing no discussion for communists.’ She proceeds to talk about Lenin’s ideas as to how social equality could be achieved, and his intention to ‘build a powerful international women’s movement, on a clear theoretical basis’. From this, we can see that the feminist motives of VI Lenin and the government he represented were not simply leftist ideals, but were rooted in Marxist ideas and doctrine, which is brought to light by his insistence that a theoretical grounding to this proposed international movement is essential.
Over the following years, in a range of different socialist countries, the issues of equality were highlighted and resolved through multiple means. In the early Soviet Union, the crèche system – a dominant feature of War Communism – helped to relieve women of traditional family duties. The same can be said for the principles behind the Soviet Kolkhozes (collective farms), on which, as Alexander Vucinich writes in Soviet Economic Institutions: The Social Structure of Production Units, Issue 1, granted female worker on the farm ‘the full rights as a kolkhoz member’, meaning that ‘The peasant woman, according to the official theory, has ceased to work for her father or mother’, but rather works for a collective benefit.
Of course, the practical reality did not always live up to the hypothetical ideal, but it’s examples like these that demonstrate the eagerness of the communist world to advance gender equality, both at home and abroad. True, attitudes of individual communists did vary from person to person, but the trend is clear; from the theoretical ideas of the original Marxist thinkers to the concrete achievements of the socialist world, we can clearly see that the historic ties between feminism and Marxism are not simply coincidental. Rather, the interests of women and workers worldwide have the same interests, and it is the same oppressive system that is thwarting the goals of both.