Women and Socialism

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Joana El-Jaick Andrade*

August Bebel's analyses, the principle that “there can be no human emancipation without social independence and equality between the sexes”, guided not only the Marxist debate on feminism but also the organized feminist movement.

The numerous demonstrations of women's capacity for militancy and mobilization, throughout the 1840th century, did not go unnoticed by August Bebel (1913-1826), leader and founder of the German Social Democratic Party. Contrary to the position of party leaders such as Wilhelm Liebknecht (1900-XNUMX) – for whom the female vote, being inclined towards conservatism and clericalism, would harm the electoral advances of social democracy –, Bebel persisted in his mission to emphasize the importance of recruiting women workers for the success of the struggle against the bourgeoisie. In this sense, he dedicated his main work, Women and Socialism (1879), to the theme of women's emancipation.

Despite the concern directed by Marx and Engels in relation to the double exploitation of women in capitalist society – found in passages from Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts, The Communist Manifesto, Capital, among other works –, Bebel's book represented the first theoretical production of particular importance for a Marxist approach to the female question, precisely because of its wide dissemination and specific approach to the problem.

Bebel's aim was not only to attract women to the movement, but also to spread the fundamental principles of socialism to the broad working masses. The author divided his work into three parts, contemplating the situation of women in the past (before and after Christianity), the conditions of women in the present and the projection of the transformations operated within a future socialist society.

The influence of the studies carried out by Engels – initially published in articles and later gathered in the book The origin of the family, private property and the state, in 1884 – about Bebel is evident, so that he also resorts to the ideas propagated by Morgan[I] and Bachofen[ii] to trace an evolutionary historical line of the family institution. It identifies the origin of the subordination and sexual oppression of women in the passage from societies organized on the basis of maternal right – “gyneocracy” –, to societies founded on paternal right.

The enslavement of women would go back to a stage of historical development marked by transformations in the modes of production and distribution that would produce changes in relations between the sexes. By pointing out the historical and changeable character of institutions, Bebel intends to attack the static and naturalized conceptions of the family, so widespread by the Church. He states that “nothing is eternal, neither in nature nor in human life” (Bebel, 1923: 10), since each stage of human development has its own conditions of production and its own moral code (Bebel, 1923: 16) .

Simultaneously, the author aims to underline the fact that the source of all oppression and social dependence would have its roots in the economic dependence of the oppressed on the oppressor (Bebel, 1923: 9). To the extent that moral rules are conceived as a reflection of material conditions, Bebel distances himself from the perspective of progressive liberal thinkers, such as John Stuart Mill, who attribute female domination to the permanence of characteristic traits of backward societies – the “law of the most strong” – in modern institutions and customs.

According to Stuart Mill, “this present dependency is not an original institution, won from considerations of justice and social expediency. It is the continuation of the primitive state of slavery, through successive mitigations and modifications brought about by the same causes which have softened custom generally, and brought all human intercourse under the control of justice and the influence of mankind” (Mill, 1923: 20).

Still according to Stuart Mill, in his book The subjection of women (1869), the oppression and subordination of women would be solved through a reform of institutions, driven by the principle of “perfect equality”. The elimination of the traditional remnants that sustain female domination present in modern legislation would be guaranteed thanks to the inevitable tendency of “humanity's moral improvement” (Mill, 2006: 66).

Differing from this position and assuming a Marxist discourse, Bebel rejects the analysis of women's domination as an isolated fact of the systemic totality. For him, the female question could only be truly understood by taking it as one more aspect of the general social question. In his view, only the abolition of the contradictions and evils of the capitalist system could bring about the end of wage and sexual slavery.

Any specific achievement within the scope of capitalist society, however relevant it may be, would not be extended to all female members, since, as members of an exploited class, a significant part of women would continue to occupy a subordinate social position and not enjoy a real equality of opportunities that allow him to fully develop his faculties and potential. Their complete liberation would therefore require the achievement of their physical, intellectual and economic emancipation.

The solution pointed out by Bebel for the female issue, with a view to the “redemption and emancipation” of all women, would lie in understanding their true place in the socialist movement and their participation in the class struggle. Just as socialist ideas were to penetrate all layers of society, including conservative circles, women, generally imbued with a traditional morality supported by religiosity and “superstitions”, should also perceive the linkage of their economic dependence, political subordination and low social status to class exploitation promoted within the capitalist mode of production.

Only in communion of effort with the proletariat would women achieve their full liberation and independence. Conversely, under existing conditions, women would find themselves trapped in a subordinate social role, being educated to cultivate frivolous and superfluous qualities, such as sentimentality, religiosity, docility, obedience and chastity. From a young age, they would be taught to orient their lives towards marriage, in order to guarantee their future economic security.

The free exercise of sexuality

The monogamous marriage typical of capitalist society would then be formed by ties of interest, dependence and need, to the detriment of affective, solidary and volitional ties. In this way, although it constitutes one of the fundamental bases of the bourgeois social order, it would not be able to satisfy the real needs for a healthy development of human society. Men and women forced into conjugal coexistence would live discouraging and monotonous lives, being more likely to present physical and mental illnesses. Resorting to prostitution then becomes the complement of monogamy.

By emphasizing the social causes of prostitution, not viewing it as a mere moral or criminal issue, Bebel elevates it to the category of social institution necessary for the capitalist mode of production, considering it “the reverse of the coin of marriage”[iii]. The author speaks out against the hypocrisy with which society views this issue, as well as against the actions promoted by governments that would imply the criminalization of women – morally condemned, subjected to compulsory health inspection and assaulted by the police – and the victimization of men, whose “indiscretions” would be tolerated.

Bebel also criticizes the concepts announced by Lombroso and Ferrero in the book The woman as criminal and prostitute, who attributed female participation in illegal activities to their natural physiological and anatomical inferiority. They disregarded the social conditions that led women to resort to the practice of prostitution, as well as the influence of the lucrative and organized trade in women, covered up by the authorities (Bebel, 1923: 157).

Prostitution would be distinguished from free sexual intercourse, as it would convert women into mere merchandise, objects of male pleasure. This form of female exploitation would tend to intensify as the economic crises worsened, throwing more and more female workers into poverty. Only in the context of the new socialist society would it be possible to free relations between the sexes from the sphere of compulsion, dictated by marriage or prostitution, and make the free exercise of sexuality possible for everyone.

According to Bebel, sexuality is an essential part of human nature, contributing to the development of individuals' mental and physical health. To the extent that abstinence and total repression of sexual instincts could cause disorders, illnesses, insanity and even lead to suicide, it would be imperative to encourage men and women to adopt a healthy sexual practice, combined with self-control. Bebel, then, emphasizes the importance of implementing sexual education for both sexes, through the transmission of knowledge of the physiology and anatomy of the sexual organs and their functions (Bebel, 1923: 81).

Despite presenting sexuality as part of human nature, giving a historical sense to moral judgments, the author qualifies homosexual relationships as “unnatural” (Bebel, 1923: 37). Despite this, in 1898, Bebel was one of the few members of the Reichstag to grant support to the petition of Magnus Hirschfeld and the Scientific Humanitarian Committee (Wissenschaftlichhumanitare Komitée) to remove paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code (the so-called “sodomy statute”), so that sexual practice between two adult men over 16 years of age would not be considered a crime.

In his speech to Parliament, on January 13, 1898, Bebel went further, claiming that the decriminalization of homosexual practice should also apply to women: “what is valid for one sex must be valid for the other” (Bebel, 1898). It should be noted that three years earlier, on the occasion of Oscar Wilde's trial, Eduard Bernstein, one of the exponents of the revisionist wing of German social democracy, made a similar defense of homosexual practice, through articles in the official periodical of the Social Democratic Party Die Neue Zeit, in which he criticizes its characterization as “unnatural” (Bernstein, 2007).

Equality between the sexes

Based on statistical data, Bebel seeks to confirm the diagnosis of Marx and Engels who point to the tendency towards the dissolution of the family, as conceived by bourgeois society. The increasing entry of women into the labor market, the decrease in the number of marriages and their dissolution through divorce or de facto separation, and the decrease in the number of births would be indicators that the family structure was deteriorating. The end of “domestic enslavement” through marriage, however, would only be realized in the future society. In this, the legally indissoluble marriage would be replaced by the free and solidary union between equals. Monogamous marriage would not disappear, but its existence would depend exclusively on the will of the parties.

Likewise, the position of women in the social organism as mother and wife would gain new contours from their liberation in relation to domestic tasks, converted into public services provided by professionals of both sexes. Thus, day care centers, kindergartens, schools, collective kitchens (which rely on the use of scientific principles in determining the nutritional quality of food and hygiene in the way of preparation), laundries, cleaning services, infirmaries and hospitals would be established.

The social protection of children does not exclude the participation of parents in their children's education, and their presence on school boards and other educational institutions is encouraged. Furthermore, to the extent that society is responsible for providing all the necessary conditions for the mental, physical and psychological development of children – including housing, health, education, art, leisure – parents and children would enjoy more free time for socializing and establishment of a relationship of affection and respect.

The education, advocated by Bebel, of children and adults should be implemented equally for men and women, preferably in mixed establishments. Since “both sexes are fully qualified to exercise all the rights and duties that society demands of its adult members” (Bebel, 1923: 329), enjoying the same opportunities everyone could be free to follow their inclinations and personal abilities.

As a consequence, provision would be made for opening all occupations to men and women. Contrary to what is verified under the capitalist mode of production – in which the admission of women in the various branches of industry results in greater competition between workers and the intensification of general misery –, in socialist society, female participation in social work would have as a consequence, the progressive collective release of the hardest work and the advance in terms of creation, inventiveness and human skills.

Bebel's efforts to bring the issue of female emancipation to the forefront and overcome existing prejudices within the labor movement itself produced results. Her book played a large role in shaping the Erfurt Program of the German Social Democratic Party, approved in October 1891, which began to establish as a principle the end of inequalities between sexes.

Furthermore, the program includes among the party's immediate objectives the "equal, direct and secret universal suffrage for all members of the Empire over twenty years of age, without distinction of sex", and the "abolition of all laws which, from the point of view of public and private law, place women in a state of inferiority in relation to men” (Marx; Engels; Lenin, 1971: 95-6).

In the preface to the book The socialist program, published in 1892, Karl Kaustky, one of those responsible for formulating the new program[iv], recognizes the influence of Bebel's book for the programmatic reorientation of social democracy. The book Women and Socialism is placed on the same level of importance as works such as the Communist Manifesto, Capital, The Condition of the Working Class in England, Utopian Socialism and Scientific Socialism, and The Origin of the Family, Property and the State (Kautsky, 1983: IV).

Bebel's analysis of the dissolution of the bourgeois family and the emergence of a new family model based on equality between men and women, in which "ideal love" becomes "the basis of every union", had special repercussions among women. (Kautsky, 1983: 39). However, the idea that the woman would assume the role of a free companion, emancipated not only from domestic service, but also from subjection to capital, being able to autonomously dispose of herself and pursue her personal happiness, was received with distrust by several groups. within social democracy.

Some, like Daniel De Leon (1852-1914), founder of the Socialist Labor Party (Socialist Labor Party), saw Bebel's work as an attack on the institution of monogamous marriage. In the preface to the American edition of 1903, De Leon warns of the dangers that rejection of such an institution leads to promiscuity. Although he is a defender of the extension of the right to divorce (De Leon, 1912), the author advocates the rehabilitation of monogamous marriage through the slow “acquisition of moral forces of paternal affection” (De Leon apoud Bebel, 1923: V).

The actuality of Bebel's ideas

Bebel's analyzes transcended discussions within the party and became part of the theoretical arsenal of numerous feminist tendencies. Despite the recognition of its relevance, several criticisms have been raised over time about its exposure.

Some contemporary Marxist feminists, such as Zuleika Alambert, argue that “women's liberation is described by him in a static way, within the socialist society, which, according to him, will be born after the revolution” (Alambert, 1986: 94). For the author, Bebel would have insinuated that “once class society is liquidated, the proletariat will offer women their liberation on a platter” (Alambert, 1986: 42).

Other authors, such as Andréa Nye, defend the idea that he would have reinforced the role of women as mothers and housewives, since “there will always be guardians, teachers, companions and girls who would help them” (Nye, 1995: 64 ).

I consider that such criticisms may be the result of a superficial or inattentive reading of Bebel's writings. Although one must recognize the mistakes caused mainly by the incorporation of an evolutionist anthropological vision, one cannot deny that Bebel's main intention was to encourage the empowerment of working women and encourage their political participation.

By openly announcing that “it is absurd to direct women to domestic life” (Bebel, 1923: 176) and prescribing the need for complete equality of opportunities between men and women, Bebel highlights the importance of women starting to share life public and political and social issues, removing oneself from the confines of the home. Likewise, she encourages them to seek to occupy their places in unions and parties, since “women should expect as much help from men as workers from capitalists” in relation to their emancipation (Bebel, 1923: 121).

In this light, one should not underestimate the value represented by Bebel's theoretical legacy. Her emphasis on the principle that "there can be no human emancipation without social independence and equality between the sexes" (Bebel, 1923: 6) undeniably contributed to the strengthening of women's political activity within the scope of the labor movement and to the recognition of your importance.

The relevance of Bebel's contributions to the formation of an organized women's movement within social democracy was expressed by Klara Zetkin, one of the most prominent feminist leaders in German social democracy, when she concluded regarding Bebel's book: "This book should not be judged according to its positive aspects or its flaws. Rather, it must be examined within the context of the time in which it was written. It was more than a book, it was an event – ​​a great achievement. The book showed for the first time the connection between the women's question and historical development. For the first time, the call rang out of this book: We will only conquer the future if we persuade women to become our co-fighters. In recognizing this, I do not speak as a woman, but as a party comrade” (Zetkin, 1896).

Although the “women's question” was the subject of much controversy, its incorporation into social democratic parties became generalized around the beginning of the XNUMXth century, driven by numerous advances obtained through the construction of a women's movement within social democracy. The relevant performance of women themselves, within social democracy, stands out in the formulation of forms of organization and action in the sense of defending the radical redefinition of power in public and private spaces as part of a project of refounding society on new bases, of in order to eliminate all forms of oppression and overcome historically constructed hierarchical social relations, typical of capitalist patriarchal society.

*Joana El-Jaick Andrade is a professor of sociology at the Federal Institute of Triângulo Mineiro.

Article originally published in the magazine social struggles


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[I] Lewis Henry Morgan, in Ancient Society, divides human history into three fundamental stages of social development: savagery, barbarism, and civilization, each characterized by distinct material forms.

[ii] Bachofen, “Das Mutterrecht”, 1861.

[iii] According to Bebel, in Germany, the number of women prostituted would reach 180.000. Among these, suicide rates would be around 30% and their life expectancy would be 22 to 25 years (Bebel, 1923: 159).

[iv] The Program was carried out jointly with Eduard Bernstein.

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