The Marxists on oppression

Submitted by Matthew on 10 April, 2013 - 10:30

The fourth part of a review article looking at the themes of John Riddell’s new book of documents from the early communist movement.

The week Paul Hampton looks at how they debated women’s liberation and other issues of oppression.


The early Communist International’s focus was on working class self-liberation and this was reflected in the time spent on discussions on party building, work to transform the labour movement and on the specifics of class struggle strategy.

But the Bolsheviks had made their reputation as tribunes of the people, taking up any and every matter of injustice and oppression against the tsar. While seeking to win hegemony in the working class, they also sought to gain hegemony for the working class among the exploited and oppressed as a whole. The Comintern debated matters of women’s liberation, anti-racism, peasant struggles and anti-imperialism.

The early Comintern took time to discuss women’s emancipation.

At the Second Congress in 1920, the German revolutionary Clara Zetkin produced the Theses for the Communist Women’s Movement, which took a clear stand for women’s “full social liberation and full equal rights,” but warned of a “gulf between theory and practice”. The Comintern established a women’s secretariat, which published a monthly magazine, The Communist Women’s International, and worked with women’s committees organised within individual parties. The Comintern was highly critical of “bourgeois feminists” and sought to win women to the working-class movement.

The resolution at the Third Congress in 1921 stated that “there is no special women’s question, nor should there be a special women’s movement”. Communism would be won “not by the united efforts of women of different classes, but by the united struggle of all the exploited”.

The Fourth Congress discussion on women was brief and did not raise any significant new theoretical questions. However the speeches explained how the women section’s work was to be developed and integrated with other party work. Zetkin spoke of the need for autonomous organisation, reflecting that “however much Communist work among women must be firmly linked ideologically and organically to the life of each party, we nonetheless need special bodies to carry out this work”. She argued that “every man is welcome to take part in the special Communist work carried out among women. That applies to our committees as well as to our entire activity in its various expressions and arenas”.

Zetkin approved of the work of women comrades in Italy, who she lauded for having founded groups for “sympathising women”. And she argued that it was vital that Communist parties in colonial and semi-colonial countries had to carry out this vital work. Zetkin was refreshingly candid about the challenges faced. She argued: “In the countries of the East, women live and work overwhelmingly under patriarchal and precapitalist forms of social life, bending under prejudices grey with age, oppressed by social institutions, by religion, customs and habits”.

The German Communist Hertha Sturm gave a sober assessment of the state of the international’s women’s work. She told the congress, “we have a certain gauge in the number of women members in the Communist Parties... perhaps ten per cent”. She advocated small party schools for women comrades and pointed to an extensive women’s press in the International, mentioning Communist Women’s International; the Dutch De Voorbode [The Herald]; ?ena [Woman] in Czechoslovakia; L’Ouvrière [Women Worker] in France; and Compagna [Woman Comrade] in Italy. Sturm urged delegates to carry out “the decisions of the women’s conference last year and the World Congress, women’s supplements must be added to all party publications”.

Other speakers explained what women’s organisations had done in Russia. Sofia Smidovich recalled that in 1917, the Woman Worker was published in Petrograd, while a review appeared in Moscow, called Working Women’s Life. The Russian Communist Party central committee was in 1922 publishing two magazines for women workers. Varsenika Kasparova reminded delegates that women across the globe suffered from “particularly oppressive subjugation”. She said the Comintern was about creating an “an intelligentsia of revolutionary women” to fight for women’s liberation and socialism.

The Comintern continued the policy of earlier socialists (with Zetkin the most prominent living link), where mass parties included all kinds of sections and sub-organisations, and saw the women’s movement as existing with limited organisational autonomy within the party. The Comintern perspective was for mass Communist Parties to built mass Communist women’s movements, in competition with bourgeois feminist movements.

Today, in the absence of mass revolutionary parties and with very different women’s movements, to proclaim abstractly the need for a communist women’s movement would be meaningless. Equally to argue that there are “no special women questions” is also wrong — specific oppression outside of the capital-labour relationship is incontestable.

A Marxist approach to the women’s movement today is very different compared to the 1920s. Today small Marxist propaganda groups support and intervene in the existing amorphous feminist/women’s movement, arguing for Marxist politics in women’s movement campaigns and to show the class nature of “the women question”. We fight for a women’s movement that is led by class-conscious Marxists, but such a movement would have organisational autonomy from Marxist organisation.

Alongside specific political demands, the main transitional demand for this conception is to fight for a mass working class-based women’s movement, focusing on the need for the women’s movement to orientate to working class women. However the Comintern emphasis on separate women’s committees and fractions within the party (and by extension within labour movement organisations), women’s papers, women’s schools and other measures to create a cadre of Marxist women, retain their full force.

The Fourth Congress held a discussion on black liberation.

A US delegate Otto Huiswoud remarked in the ‘Report on the Black Question’ that “the Second International is an International of white workers and the Communist International is an International of the workers of the world”. The verdict appears a little harsh: after all it was the Amsterdam conference in 1904 that one prominent Comintern delegate Katayama Sen from Japan had embraced Georgi Plekhanov from Russia, just as the Russian and Japanese states went to war. The same conference applauded Dadhabhai Naoroji, founder and president of the Indian National Congress and condemned English rule of India.

But Huiswoud was not indulging in exaggeration. In fact Comintern discussions in the early 1920s completely transformed conceptions of anti-racism and black liberation.

James P Cannon recalled how American Communists broke with the socialist and radical tradition, which had no special programme on the black question.

It was considered simply as an economic problem, part of the struggle between the workers and the capitalists. As Eugene Debs, the best of the earlier socialists, put it in the language of the time, “We have nothing special to offer the Negro”.

Cannon wrote: “The American communists in the early days, under the influence and pressure of the Russians in the Comintern, were slowly and painfully learning to change their attitude; to assimilate the new theory of the Negro question as a special question of doubly-exploited second-class citizens, requiring a programme of special demands as part of the overall programme—and to start doing something about it” (The Russian Revolution and the Black Struggle in the United States, 1959).

During the Second Congress discussion of the colonial question in 1920, US delegate John Reed passed a note to Lenin, asking if this would be an appropriate occasion to speak on blacks in the US Lenin’s written reply was, “Yes, absolutely necessary.” Reed delivered a powerful indictment of racist oppression in the United States.

At the Fourth Congress, a commission chaired by Huiswoud drafted theses on the black question. Another American, the poet Claude McKay who was not a party member was nevertheless seated as a guest, invited to commission meetings, and asked, along with Huiswoud, to address a plenary session of the congress. The resolution did not break great theoretical ground, but did include the demand for an international conference of black people.

The final draft dropped a clause saying that “work among blacks should be carried out primarily by blacks” and was replaced by a pledge to struggle for full equality and equal political and social rights for black people.

There were other issues of racism discussed. William Earsman from Australia said “the main difficulty we must overcome is the prejudices aroused among white workers by the fear of cheap coloured labour”.

Tahar Boudengha from Tunisia denounced the chauvinism of the French party’s members in Algeria. He read a resolution adopted by a settler-dominated Communist conference in North Africa, which stated: “The native population of North Africa can only be liberated by the revolution in France. The native masses have been subjugated for centuries in a status of half-slavery. They are fanatical and fatalistic, patient and resigned, oppressed and imbued with religious prejudices. At this time, they still cannot imagine their liberation… It is entirely unnecessary to publish calls to rebellion in our press or distribute Arabic-language leaflets”.

The attitude of the Comintern was unequivocally against racist and colonialist attitudes among workers in general and Communists in particular. Trotsky addressed Boudengha’s point in his speech on France. He said: “Not for a single hour, not for a single minute, should we tolerate the presence in the party of comrades who think like slave-owners and want [French President] Poincaré to hold the indigenous people under the benevolent rule of capitalist civilisation”.

Cannon registered the change of attitude. He wrote: “The influence of Lenin and the Russian Revolution... and then filtered through the activities of the Communist Party in the United States, contributed more than any other influence from any source to the recognition, and more or less general acceptance, of the Negro question as a special problem of American society — a problem which cannot be simply subsumed under the general heading of the conflict between capital and labour, as it was in the pre-communist radical movement”.