Marxism, Socialist Feminism and the Place of Class Struggle for Women’s Liberation Today: Examples from Brazil and Australia

By Ana Cavalcante

This talk was part of a panel planned as a way to provoke debate on the question of women’s and workers’ organisations which took place at Red Ant’s founding conference in Sydney, August, 2022.

Many socialist (or Marxist) women historically (Angela Davis is notable among them) have engaged in debates about the shortcomings of feminism without class struggle (and an anti-racist stand), of the feminism we came to know as white, liberal or bourgeois feminism. The lack of class analysis and engagement with the broad workers’ movement (and with Marxist theory) often generated a women’s movement that was exclusive and misguided.

Even the appropriateness of the use of the term feminism has been in debate with ‘women’s liberation movement’ being offered as an alternative, and historical figures in the struggle for women’s rights refusing the term ‘feminism’ all together. This is not a talk in defence of the term feminism, but it will be used as a short form for ‘women organised around specific concerns.’

However, many women activists, embracing the term feminism or not, observed the damage to women’s participation in the workers’ movements and to the movements themselves when women were not organised inside these spaces. When this was the case, discussions on issues that particularly affect women and the actual women would be sidelined.

Alexandra Kollontai in her 1919 pamphlet ‘Women workers struggle for their rights’ describes the state of the discussion regarding women’s organisations at the time and the varied forms of organising around women’s concerns that were then taking place. She explains the importance of women’s organisations within socialist parties, trade unions and workers’ movements, comparing the development of women’s organizing in different European states.

Kollontai writes:

One might think that there could be no clearer or more well-defined notion than that of a ‘women’s socialist movement’. But meanwhile it arouses so much indignation and we hear so often the exclamations and questions:- What is a women workers’ movement? What are its tasks, its aims? Why can’t it merge with the general movement of the working class, why can’t it be dissolved in the general movement, since the Social Democrats deny the existence of an independent women’s question? Isn’t it a hangover from bourgeois feminism?

Alexandra Kollontai 1919 – Women Workers Struggle for Their Rights, p. 2

I want us to keep reflecting on these questions that often are reiterated in political spaces: What is a women workers’ movement? Why can’t it merge with the general movement of the working class? Isn’t it a hangover from bourgeois feminism? I hope we feel more confident to answer these questions by the end of this panel.

In her writing, Kollontai reaffirms the existence of a women’s question and the need for specific forms of organisation for women inside the general worker’s movement as a way to strengthen women’s participation in the movement and the movement itself. She would actually say:

The women workers’ movement literally grew out of the womb of capitalist reality. But for a long time, it advanced tentatively, seeking its way, hesitating in its choice of methods. The women workers’ movement takes extremely motley and varied forms. These forms vary from country to country, they are adapted to the conditions of the particular place, and to the character of the workers’ movement. But gradually, especially in countries where social democracy has been strong, definite party machines have arisen to serve the women’s socialist movement.

… However, in all countries the vital victory in this argument goes to the defenders of the German way of working – the fusion of the male and female halves of the working class in the party organisation, while retaining the separation and autonomy of agitation among the women of the working class.

Now I want to outline three contemporary examples of social movements I am familiar with, to help us examine Kollontai’s understanding more concretely. Two of the examples are from Brazil and one from Australia. These are useful ways of thinking through the question of women’s organising, its possibilities and limitations inside and outside political organisations, particularly workers’ organisations and socialist groups. This is also an opportunity to observe how Kollontai’s words remain relevant in the 21st century.

Brazil: #nothim (#Elenao)

In 2018, Brazil was going through national elections and the leading candidate that eventually won, Jair Bolsonaro, was already known as a right-wing extremist.  He had praised the military dictatorship Brazil endured for 20 years and evoked the name of a torturer when voting for the impeachment of Brazil’s first female president. He had publicly defended the killing of left-wing people, torture, easy access to guns (that he actioned when he became president) and the dispossession of indigenous land. He had made fun of anti-racist movements and the only “workers’” groups he defended in parliament were the military and the police (with privileges focused on the top tiers). On top of it all, Bolsonaro was a well-known misogynist, convicted for the crime of ‘rape apology’, which is a criminal offence in Brazil. That conviction almost made him ineligible for election. There were many reasons to fear his election and organise around an alternative candidate. The movement most ready to respond to this threat was the broad feminist movement.

As a response to his escalation in misogyny and lead in the polls came the #Elenao movement (a free translation would be #Nothim). The movement took to the streets during the elections and it has been credited with bringing considerable visibility and votes to feminist candidates. The movement had just one battle cry, ‘vote as you want, for anyone, but him’. This was not the result of an inability to see difference between candidates, but an attempt to draw a line on what would be political positions worth dialoguing with in a democratic context. It was also an attempt to operate across party lines and unify large segments of society and particularly women, around a project. However, once Bolsonaro was elected, the liberal media and several left leaning organisations and individuals blamed the broad women’s movement as the one responsible for ‘perverting the political discourse’, ‘not dialoguing with the poor’, and ‘deviating from the serious agenda at hand’.

When left singer and community leader Mano Brown gave a now famous speech in the last weeks of that election denouncing the distance between the organised left and the real concerns in poor communities, the response from large segments of the left was to say ‘yes, I guess #nothim was bourgeois’, even though it was organised mainly by women workers and students in political parties and trade unions. For these left groups it was impossible to accept the women’s question would be at the front and centre of the movement at that time and for them to support and contribute to making this movement more attentive to the needs of poor women – rather than criticising it from the sidelines.

The #nothim movement, while blamed for the left’s election loss, brought considerable return to the left electorally. Further, women, and broadly the women’s agenda was so attacked throughout Bolsonaro’s government that this original organisation of women across party lines was fundamental for resistance to the attacks that came throughout the following four years.

Australia: Neoliberalism’s Handmaiden

In Australia, a country historically successful in generating laws and policies promoting gender equality, the experience of the women’s movement has been very close to the state for years, often completely divorced from a class analysis and acting as an arm of the state or, as Nancy Fraser would describe, Neoliberalism’s handmaiden.

Australia has considerable representation of organised white feminism. This can be easily observed when considering domestic and family violence and its institutional responses through state-based laws such as AVOs (apprehension orders) and the new proposed criminalisation of coercive control. While these laws try to tackle violence against women (and often fail), they do nothing to materially support women and acknowledge the connection between capitalism and violence.

While some women feel safer with these laws and bourgeois feminists strongly support such initiatives, their result tends to include the criminalisation of working-class victims (that do not look like ‘real victims’), increased incarceration of First Nation peoples and poor men and increased children in care. No wonder such initiatives are so strongly associated to bourgeois feminism and such movements do nothing to bring women to the actual anti-capitalist struggles even if some women become more politically active. Also, anti-capitalist agitation is not an aim of bourgeois feminist groups nor there is a guarantee they would support it.

Responses to violence that are less invested in the oppressive arm of the state and more in material support are rarely utilised, but they are commonly proposed by socialist feminists. For instance, in the Soviet Union, there was an early move away from child support being demanded from fathers, to a government pension paid to all children, moving away from family units and admitting government responsibility for children. Access to abortion, material stability and investing in the identity of women as workers instead of just as mothers were all strategies that also challenged gender stereotypes and the subjugation of women – dynamics that only feed violence. These were also some of the first social strategies removed in the Stalinist period.

Australia is so blind to class in family violence and family law that it separates divorce, property settlement and child custody in its law and it calculates child support based almost solely on time spent with the child and earnings, assuming that men and women will have the same bargaining power in court, the same capacity of future earnings and leaving abuse survivors in contact with perpetrators of violence for years. Working mothers are overwhelmingly disadvantaged by this process due to the costs of all these procedures and an emphasis on individual responsibility instead of state action.

In Australia, socialist responses to violence against women are rarely presented in public forums, with socialist groups often operating in a reactive way, potentially as a result of not having prioritised women organising inside the socialist group.

Brazil: Marcha das Margaridas (Daisies’ March)

Finally, the last example is the Marcha das Margaridas (Daisies’ March) in Brazil, that may be a movement worth studying to reflect on new perspectives on women’s movements, particularly in workers’ movements and trade union spaces.

The Marcha das Margaridas follows the legacy of Margarida Alves, a rural trade union organiser killed for her political work in early 1990s. The movement is led by women and aims to build alliances among women in various organisations for the defence of common projects. The low inclusion of women in spaces of political participation within the trade union movement was one of the main motivations to organize the first edition of the Marcha in 2000.

The three main goals of the Marcha are internal democracy in the politics of the rural union movement, through the equality between men and women; public policies and laws that benefit the working classes in general and rural working women in particular; and societal changes that establish egalitarian relations between men and women.

The Marcha das Margaridas more than doubled in size every year since 2000, with over one hundred thousand women marching in its last edition in 2019. They have also contributed important political figures to the general trade union movement and increased women’s representation in trade unions in general. The Marcha has also engaged with indigenous women’s organising that was unknown to social movements before this initiative. Its political work has resulted in a number of legal wins for the working class. I would highlight the maintenance of the retirement age of 55 for women rural workers, when all other workers in the country had their retirement age readjusted.

A women’s movement focused on organising rural women workers, building solidarity among women’s movements and operating inside trade unions to promote women’s specific needs is an ambitious movement. The amount of organising and political content created and proposed as policy in the movement is astounding.

The women actually march in that national capital Brasilia. They prepare for a year before the street action engaging in a number of political formation activities including preparing the Cadernos de Textos. This is a political document that consolidates the Marcha‘s understanding of the struggle’s structural context. It is discussed as a way to build the final demands of the march. This process brings women to the women’s spaces inside the trade union movement and generates new leadership.

The Marcha places itself as a process of political formation for feminist movements and trade union participation. It organises the movement’s political workon broad anti-patriarchal and anti-capitalist lines. From this first stand starts a process of radicalisation. One example is how the discussion about abortion appeared in Marcha’s demands first as a public health measure (a non-feminist formulation). Only in the last years of the march it started appearing as an issue of women’s bodily autonomy.

Quoting from their webpage:

The Margaridas fight for economic autonomy and income for women in the countryside, for the recognition of their work as rural producers and for access to income from their work. To transform society, they advocate for non-sexist education and the sexual and reproductive rights of women. (Through the years) The Marcha das Margaridas has incorporated themes such as access to water and common goods, the promotion of agroecology, food sovereignty, and energy sovereignty… The Marcha defends an alternative model of rural development, based on social and environmental justice.

A strategy like this centres the women in the movement and keeps women, and rural women at that, mobilised through time. It questions capitalism and the specific ways capitalism hurts women. It also addresses organisational practices of trade unions and left parties that may exclude women. Finally, this is a strategy that finds its strength in having women organising as women and leaders inside their political organisations. It brings the women’s debate inside political organisations and the anti-capitalist debate to feminist alliances, transforming and advancing both spaces.

Kollontai over a 100 years ago identified how magnifying women’s organising inside left and socialist spaces was important and from Engels analysis of women’s oppression, she reached the conclusion that it may even be fundamental in the process to fully overcome capitalism. To the ones resisting this approach, Kollontai had one reflection:

… it is where the women workers’ movement is least developed, where organised women workers are least numerous in the Party and in the unions, that one hears loudest and most assured the voices of those who deny the necessity of technically separated work among the women proletariat… And in their simplistic way they cut through the whole tangled knot of the women’s problem and the general social question.

Some of us may share her observation in 2022… and hopefully now we have more understanding on how to tackle this issue without simplistic answers.

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