A good beginning

Reader’s letter to the Weekly Worker, May 02 2013

Claire Lacombe

I read with interest Anne McShane’s and Ben Lewis’s accounts of Alexandra Kollontai and August Bebel, and their relationship to feminism. It is remarkable how many different understandings of the term have been making the rounds in the pages of the Weekly Worker recently, and I am confident that we are now moving beyond merely mirroring the left’s lower-case feminism – often a pastiche of post-Stalinist ideologemes, coupled with an aggressive voluntarism – towards a better informed evaluation of the various currents. In an atmosphere where left feminists and their often dubious allies shout down any critical investigation of feminism, it is incumbent on Marxists to insist that it is not the will, but cognition that will lead us to the truth.

With this in mind, more ground needs to be covered, seeing as there is an underdocumented history of feminist intervention on the left, going all the way back to Olympe de Gouges, who defended her text,The rights of women, before the Paris Commune, but especially Claire ‘Rose’ Lacombe, who, as a member of the radical-left Enragés during the French Revolution, advocated a feminism that specifically voiced the social concerns of working class women and pushed beyond mere equality before the law. Both women are cited in Bebel’s Woman and socialism, as are some of their pioneering demands.

As Ben Lewis reports in his review, Clara Zetkin had a hostile attitude to the bourgeois feminism of her time and opposed the idea of women comrades organising separately from the workers’ movement.

Yet it cannot be denied that her women’s groups in the German Social Democratic Party were at least partly inspired by bourgeois feminist groupings such as the German Women’s Association, and that the very concept of organising along gender lines was not uncontroversial among women communists. In Rosa Luxemburg’s view, these groups ultimately served to keep women away from leadership positions. While there was no formal requirement for female comrades to join such a group, there arguably permeated an internal culture in which they were expected to ‘stay in their group’ and worry only about ‘their issues’.

Hal Draper writes in his introduction to the Luxemburg piece, ‘Women’s suffrage and class struggle’: “It is one of the myths of socialist history that Rosa Luxemburg had no interest in the women’s question. The kernel of truth is that Luxemburg certainly rejected the idea that, simply because of her sex, she ‘belonged’ in the socialist women’s movement, rather than in the general leadership. In rejecting this sexist view of women in the movement, she performed an important service.”

In light of this, Kollontai’s campaigning for women-only caucuses surely deserves a more critical evaluation. As has also been the experience of the 1970s new left, permanent women’s caucuses bring with them the danger of confining female comrades almost exclusively to ‘women’s issues’, while at the same time shielding male comrades from these debates. Personally, I am far more sympathetic to the idea of positive action as regards questions of confidence and potential leadership – even if, according to my humble observations, these issues are not as gendered as is commonly believed on the left.

To conclude, it is safe to say that ‘feminist’ intervention of one sort or another has been a permanent feature since the very dawn of what we would consider the left. These dialectical responses – whether they come in the shape of second-wave feminism, which began as a critique of the existing left, the writings of Raya Dunayeskaya, or the activism of the self-described ‘socialist feminist’, Clara Fraser, a positively heroic working class militant – point back to real contradictions. But that does not mean that any such response automatically points the correct way forward or can be considered above criticism.

CPGB comrades have made a good start documenting some of this history, and I hope we will be able to gain more insights, arm ourselves with more knowledge and develop our own analyses on contemporary gender relations in the future.

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