Communists and the emancipation of women: a debate with bourgeois and petty-bourgeois feminism currents

Commission for the Women’s Emancipation of the Communist Party of Mexico’s Central Committee

What communism will give women, in no case the bourgeois women's movement can give them. As long as the domination of capital and private ownership exists, women´s liberation is impossible.

III Congress of the Communist International

The Great Socialist Revolution of October shook the world, as the American communist John Reed writes, because while inaugurating the era of transition from capitalism to socialism, it also gave way to a qualitative rise of the international struggle of the revolutionaries and the working class, expressed in the formation of the Communist International, which contributed, among other tasks, to the creation of communist parties in Latin America: the one in Argentina in January 1918, and the one in Mexico in November 1919, first of several parties that organized thru the continent.

The creation of the Mexican section of the International Communist, the Communist Party of Mexico (CPM), enriched class struggle in our country, first among working class and peasantry, but also distinctively among intellectuals, students, women and youth.

Communists pioneered the struggle for women’s emancipation in Mexico. CPM’s vanguard positions had a dual source: one was the consequent struggle of Marxism around this question, enriched by the International Women Conference organized by Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg outside the II International, whose resolution was adopted by the III International; the second one was the decisive example of the socialist construction in the USSR, that had taken giant steps towards a new society where it was clear that workers, women and men, were in power, and its progress in working conditions, family, education and health facilitated that women broke up their chains and achieved true emancipation. To the eyes of international proletariat, socialist construction meant a solution to their needs.

In Mexico, a society where the bourgeoisie took hold on Catholic religion and its false morality as a model for women and family, as an ideological and cultural pillar supporting exploitative class domination, was procreated resembling this family model where women had a secondary place. In those years, communist ideas had a liberating role because of its vanguard position in the struggle for political and social rights for women, such as those raised by the Communist International’s lead, for example, women’s right to protection during pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding, to equal wages with male workers, to participation in unions and in unions’ and guilds’ leadership, as well as in political life.

With the involvement of communists, women’s right to vote was won in Mexico in 1953 and the right to divorce and to distinctive spaces in political and union struggle thereafter. The phenomenon of “machismo” (male chauvinism) received a strong containment stemming from the political, ideological and cultural action of the communists.

This specialized work, starting with the creation of Women Section in the CC of the CPM in 1931, brought important achievements for working women, and in general for the whole population of Mexican women.

Communists’ work among women, its advances or setbacks, were of course associated to the development of the CPM. Under the III International's guidance, Mexican communists’ intervention had a classist orientation and its organizing work took an ascending course; but several years later, influenced by Browderism first, and then by the direction set forth by the 20th Congress of the CPSU, the now Mexican Communist Party started changing its classist nature and its political objectives, turning by 1967 into a party of eminent petty bourgeois social composition, which opened the way to its liquidation in 1981. These years were marked, at the forefront of the struggle for women’s emancipation, by the permeating of liberal and petty bourgeois ideas of sexual freedom and the gender antagonism approach. When Eurocommunist ideas definitely succeed within the communist party and it gets liquidated, its activity of working among women also ceases, which meant a serious regression not only for communists’ work for women emancipation, but also for the entire struggle of working women and Mexican women.

Due to this reason, the bourgeois and petty bourgeois ideas of feminism become hegemonic and women's movement enters a stage of confusion, dispersion and false banners that objectively take such an important question to a dead-end for a period that already has lasted almost 30 years.

With the reorganization of the Communist Party of Mexico (CPM) in 1994, and especially since its Fourth Congress (2010-2011), Mexican communists have reinstated organizing of working women as an indispensable objective, further pinpointed by the Conference for Women’s Emancipation held on March 8th of 2015.

In its First Congress on 1996, the CPM had discussed this question, but under the wrong prism, that caused some problems. In those years of confusion, it was proposed that the CPM should adopt feminism as one of its elements of identity, which in organizational terms had correspondence with the notion of sections, especially with a representation quota in the Central Committee and other governing structures. The majority of the delegates voted against it, under the correct reasoning that this opened the way for the fragmentation of party, but without going into a thorough discussion about the communists' struggle to organize working women and the imperative tasks for the communists to expand the participation of female comrades in the Party’s governing structure, the increase of female cadres which is obviously hampered by the very obstacles of daily life in capitalism, especially domestic slavery, and also -it has to be said self-critically-, due to the lack of understanding from male comrades, something that the Party started tackling on recently. Such was the decision of the Fifth Congress held on September 2014 that, among other resolutions, it approved a resolution to carry out the First Conference for the Emancipation of Working Women, which presented the following conclusions:

  • Being our objectives the overthrow of the capitalist system and the construction of socialism-communism, it is necessary that all of our strength and organizing capacities are concentrated in such a titanic task; all communists, male and female, must work on these task and goals, regardless of our line or front of action.
  • For the attainment of capitalism’s overthrow and the establishment of socialism-communism, we must work side by side with all forces that see in capitalism our common enemy and in communism the only alternative.
  • One of these forces is constituted by the working women’s movement. The struggle of women for their emancipation and their participation in the process of peoples’ liberation from tyranny and oppression is historical.
  • Currently, women represent slightly more than half of the Mexican population in productive age, which implies that they are now subjected to the process of capitalist exploitation more than ever.
  • We as communists know that the struggle for working women’s liberation is imperative, thus under no circumstances fighting for women’s emancipation should be postponed. The emancipation of women and the emancipation of working class is a conjoint and complementary struggle.
  • For this reason, the Communist Party of Mexico must focus its efforts on this area on the organizing problems that have prevented working women from fighting for and conquering their complete liberation and the full exercise of their rights. There, where women have not been able to organize, CPM must act and organize; on the other hand, where they have managed to build an organizing structure, the Party must support its continued growth and the consolidation of class consciousness.
  • In this way the CPM has two fundamental tasks in its work among women: the first is to attract more women to communist militancy, placing special emphasis on factory workers, through awareness and ideological education; the second one is to promote women organizing to constitute a broad working women’s front where proletarian women of all ages converge, whether they are workers, housewives, peasants, young women, etc., to fight for their specific demands, keeping always in mind that the struggle of women for their liberation should not be isolated, and that it is part of the emancipation struggle of the entire proletariat and the process of abolition of the capitalist logic of exploitation of men by men.
  • The Communist Party has a duty to work and strengthen organizing ties with all working women. Working women’s struggle is not against men; the battle of working women is against capital and against the ideological constructs that limit their full development as a human being in society.

General features of the situation of working women in Mexico

Capitalism in Mexico intensifies exploitation against the working class, and this is, as shown by statistics, even more acute against working women; working the same jobs as men, wages are lower for women; in terms of outsourced labor, its workforce is composed mainly by women; a pregnant woman is a fired woman; and yet, on top of the generalized aggressions against workers’ movement, in the case of working women have increased such phenomena as sexual abuse, risk of rape and death in their commute to workplaces at night or dawn: feminicides are now counted by the thousands, with such emblematic cases as Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, a proletarian city where maquiladoras -assembly factories- predominate and their workforce is essentially female workers.

In workplaces where women have managed to organize themselves in unions, they face the same problems that hinder their participation in leadership structures and that in many cases have to do with the "machista" (male chauvinistic) and sexist character of their own work colleagues. And this is given the case of gaining access to trade unions, while on the other hand most female workers are not even able to join any union (only 3.8% of all working women in Mexico belong to unions).

On the other side, there are certain sectors of mechanized production and services that have increased feminization of their workforce, where women are reserved the most monotonous jobs that are a continuation of domestic slavery; in a capitalist society like Mexico’s, women perform the lesser socially valued and more alienating tasks. In the sectors of mechanized production that do not require a high degree of specialization, such as textile and food industry, female workers are subjected to severe exploitative conditions, with only temporary hiring, extremely low wages, being paid by the hour instead of by day, and in the choking hands of outsourcing companies.

As for women working for public or state services, they are relegated to secondary activities, prevailingly as secretaries, cashiers, assistants, janitors, etc.; only a few women manage to gain access to management positions and those who achieve it, have to respond to certain political or economic interests and suffer innumerable vexations and all kinds of harassment.

Thousands of women working in the private sector, banking companies, health care and stores, are not only prevented by long working days from organizing and creating unions that protect their job security; they receive very low salaries that become increasingly insufficient, since they are forced also to meet the requirements that companies demand of them, requirements that have nothing to do with their physical or mental capacities to perform their activities, such as personal image or special attires which imply extra expenses for clothes purchasing, cosmetics, shoes, etc.

There are about 2 million Mexican women employed in domestic service, also called domestic workers, one of the less socially recognized occupations, but more racialized and discriminated: they are mostly young female workers of indigenous origin, with very little formal education.

Although more and more women are joining the productive process, a large part of them is still confined to the household.

In addition, labor rights and conquests such as paid maternity leave, public nurseries and daycares, provision of powdered milk for breastfeeding, number of pre and postpartum days off, have drastically decreased in the last 30 years, as a result of the attacks of capital against labor, of the de-valorization of labor within capitalist restructuring, which seeks maximum profit at the expense of intensifying exploitation by lowering labor conditions that were conquered during the period of socialist construction in the 20th century, which greatly benefited working class across the world, and thereof working women.

This succinct diagnosis highlights the urgency for communists to resume work among working women; however, there is one subject that was mentioned above, that, because of its severity, places the woman question as a critical matter within class struggle in Mexico, and it requires having clear ideological coordinates of intervention of the Communist Party; this is the issue of violence against women and feminicides, that have reignited the participation of women's movement. Between 2000 and 2015, with an average of five feminicides per day, the number of women murdered reached 28,710. Emerging from this tragic situation, the debate and action of the women's movement revitalizes the communists’ intervention, in the midst of a dispute with the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie positions.

Necessity of the ideological front against bourgeois and petty bourgeois feminism

The bourgeoisie, through the State and all of its instruments, establishes a formal criteria of equality, of legal recognition, that are altogether dead letter, in a similar manner to other social issues. These formalisms, concealed behind the "gender equity" slogan, must be outed as incomplete because they have the same obscurantist limits that some of their ideological pillars propose, such as religion and the defense of family, and above all the defense of private property and private appropriation of socially produced wealth; this is how the ideas of the ruling class are reproduced daily to place working women in a secondary role, reinforcing the chains that bind her to domestic slavery.

Another essential element of the bourgeoisie is the institutionalization of women’s rights and struggles, circumscribed to an issue of human rights and to the mechanisms and regulations of the bourgeois state. For example, the date of March 8th, the emblematic day of struggle for working women, is appropriated as an “all women’s day”, presenting it as an accolade to femininity, to the "weak sex": a pink day; and by painting everything pink, they try to show that some steps are taken to improve the conditions of women; in the subway train, for example, they pretend to solve the issue of violence with the pink wagons exclusive for women. To paint the state in pink is the solution for the bourgeoisie attempting to hide that it is capitalism, and the bourgeois state itself, the direct culprits for the situation of exploitation of working class, working women, and for women oppression in general.

It should not be dismissed that, even though it has been reduced to its minimal expression in comparison to the past century or even to the last four or five decades, the conservative and reactionary forces of religious origin still play a disastrous role for the situation of women.

The major issue in which we communists in Mexico are placing attention is the one related to the concealing of the class character in the woman question, as if the situation of working women was the same as that of bourgeois women. Working women’s struggle opened the way to great conquests for the whole of women that have the limit of not conquering emancipation unless and until socialism-communism is won.

While the bourgeoisie using the state directs its efforts to the sphere of institutions and of dominant ideology, there are the petty bourgeois ideas that seek nesting on the women's movement to control it and to orient it towards building a wall to keep out the general working class and the working class movement.

The Third Congress of the Communist International, in two resolutions adopted around the woman question, had already warned against the negative effects of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois feminism in so far as they constituted real obstacles to the task of socialist revolution, the only road to emancipation for working class and women.

With this same objective, at the present time, several petty-bourgeois feminisms coined in academia fragment the women’s emancipation movement and attack the communists’ classist positions.

While it's not the case of enumerating them all, naming a few of them allows us to appreciate the complexity of the phenomenon and the tasks ahead for communists: antipatriarchal feminism, ecofeminism, black feminism, decolonized feminism, queer feminism, postfeminism, "Marxist" feminism, radical feminism, Zapatist feminism, etc. etc.

Beyond their varied denominations they share some essential features, and although their ideological bases are diverse, they converge in terms of political action. Their ideological matrix can be eclecticism, postmodernism, Trotskyism, anarchism, Maoism, the theories of subalternity and otherness -extracted from a deformed reading of Gramsci-. Most of these positions originate in universities, in centers of "critical theory" studies (which are functional to the social democracy and to opportunistic parties), in social democratic parties and centers of opportunism such as the Party of the European Left (specially through the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, which has lots of activity and funds in Latin America), and its main vehicle of inoculation are NGOs, foundations, Trotskyist organizations and the so-called "movementism".

One of the main positions sustained across the broad spectrum of petty-bourgeois feminism is that the woman question is a women’s only affair, where women have to empower themselves. It is not a new argument, although it is taking new strength. From a classist perspective, this is an argument that hinders the objective path to the emancipation of women, whose viability lies in the unity of working class of both sexes in the struggle for socialist revolution. This argument, of course, is based on concealing, aside from the class character, that class struggle traverses women, as if there were no proletarian women and bourgeois women.

Another position reduces emancipation to cultural, legal, epistemological, semiotic reforms, but always within the framework of capitalism. Reforms to the superstructure, without radical transformation of the economic base of private property -contemporary responsible of the inequality for women and of the exploitation of hundreds of millions of female workers around the world-. Feminizing language, fighting "micromachismos" (subtle expressions of male chauvinism), retaking the notion of citizenship as a panacea, reforming habits, cultures, laws, interrelationships, all within the same system of exploitation, barbarism and feminicides that capitalism means is to exempt it from its responsibility for the inequality of women, is to slip a hoax and to direct the fight to the swamp.

One more argument has to do with the patriarchy category, the patriarchal system, an essential part of petty-bourgeois discourse to justify living conditions of women in general, that evades explaining the conditions of material life, since it hides two important questions: a) that the conditions of exploitation would not change even if those men who represent monopolies or State leadership were removed and replaced by women, and b) that within the capitalist system there are many women who benefit from their class position, and their living conditions are sustained on the injustice of exploitation of the wage labor. This orientation leads to a false enemy.

Just as in ideological expression of contemporary class struggle, just as it happens within the labor and union movement and in people’s struggles, in the women's movement there exists de-ideologization, movementism, sectorialization/partialization, apoliticism, reformism, and also manifestations of anti-communism.

The need for immediate action of the Communists to continue the task we pioneered before, shall only be effective while binding it to the class criterion, highlighting the issue of working women and the material conditions that determine the objective inequalities. Fighting at all times the inter-classism of petty-bourgeois feminism, and within the coordinates of the project resolution presented by Clara Zetkin to the Communist International:

"So that women can achieve full social equation with men -in fact and not only in the texts of laws and on paper-, so that they can conquer as men have freedom of movement and action for the whole human race, there are two indispensable conditions: the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and its replacement by social property, and the insertion of the activity of women into the production of social goods within a system in which there is no exploitation or oppression."