March 8th has been the day to celebrate the struggles of working class women for well over a century. The idea started with a commemoration in New York in 1909 of the strike the previous year of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. It was taken up as a proposal at an International Women’s Conference preceding a meeting of the Second International in Copenhagen in 1910. March 8th was chosen to hold International Women’s Day marches in 1914 in Germany, England and elsewhere because it was a Sunday (as it is this year).
Now, in many countries the day has been taken over by the mass media and often by NGOs. It is important of course to highlight the often hidden contribution of women to the arts, music, science, medicine, architecture, literature etc. It is also good to see women turning out on demonstrations to point to the problems that afflict them - unequal opportunities in life and work, sexism and violence in society and the home. But the working class and socialist origins and content of the day has been all but erased from official channels.
As socialists, we see it as a day to emphasise the struggles of working class women against the oppression they face, which is rooted in the class system that has always utilised it as a way to maintain the domination of the wealthiest and most powerful 1% of the population over the remaining 99%.
socialistworld.net is marking International Women’s Day with articles from members of the Committee for Workers’ International in different countries, pointing to the particular problems women face under capitalism and a socialist approach to their resolution.
Video of TD Ruth Coppinger challenging Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton on women policy
Belgium: Time to fight against austerity and sexism
Anja Deschoemacker, PSL (CWI in Belgium)
After a long period in which ’post-feminism’ was dominant, women’s struggle appeared to be non-existent and sexism was supposed to be funny, we’ve recently seen the mood starting to change. This is definitely the case in countries like India and now Turkey, where we’ve seen mass movements against violence on women.
In Europe action has often been limited to small numbers, but the discussion in society has changed. The stories of sexual abuse by well-known public figures - in Britain, but also in Belgium following the horrible affair of abuse of children by priests or in Catholic institutions - and the fact that these stories have often been kept secret for many years, has led to a questioning of the real position of women in society.
This is happening against the background of a socio-economic situation in which women have been the hardest hit by the austerity measures of past and present governments. And this is after three decades of neoliberal politics which had already undermined many of women’s social rights.
Cuts in Belgium
In the 1980s, the 1990s and in this century, women were the main target of the witch-hunt against the unemployed in Belgium. They are the majority of the victims of successive limitations of the right to unemployment benefits. Women living with a partner who has an income only have the right to benefits after a period of unemployment. This can be as little as €125 a month. Of the people who saw their after-school benefits suspended - a measure taken by the former government led by the Socialist Party (PS) prime minister, Di Rupo - 65% were women.
A cynical person might say that there has been an improvement, as women made up more than 90% of suspensions of benefits in the 1990s. These figures however show the truth of what we’ve been saying for years: if one group of the working class is continually under attack, and has their living standards driven down, in time these attacks will spread to more and more layers of the class.
Measures which in the past touched almost exclusively women have now started to hit other groups as well. Temporary and part-time work and all sorts of precarious contracts, for instance, are now more and more imposed on young people and the unemployed older than 55 as the witch-hunt spreads.
Measures to cut benefits single out groups of unemployed who can be expected to live without benefits like women and young people totally dependent on their parents or partners. Austerity in the public services is leading to tragedy in many people’s lives as ’care’ in the broadest sense has been continually underfinanced.
Families have been driven to take the state to court because for months and sometimes years on end there have been no places available for disabled people. In the province of Antwerp, for instance, there are only 8 beds available for acute residential care for young people, whereas there are demands for 30 such places a week.
In the last few months a number of prisoners with mental illnesses - placed in prison because of the lack of secure care institutions - have asked to be allowed euthanasia because of their long-term psychological suffering with no prospect of improvement. Mentally or psychologically ill prisoners make up one tenth of the prison population - over a 1,000 people. This is a fact for which Belgium has been condemned many times by international institutions.
The lack of resources in these care sectors is only a reflection of the whole care sector. Waiting lists appear everywhere, also for urgent care.
The Flemish government calls for ’more solidarity’ in society, clearly not meaning that there should be good quality state-funded care. Instead they state explicitly that families and neighbours should care for each other. They have shamelessly stated that parents with children who have severe disabilities which make them dependent on care for the rest of their life, should invest in the setting up of private care.
Instead of shouldering the responsibility for care to be organised when and where it is necessary, the whole policy towards disabled people or those with long-term illness is individualised: they get a (meagre) benefit with which they can go ’shopping’ in the ’care market’.
This lack of organised care has pushed these tasks back into the family, making the double burden of women even heavier. At the same time, politicians of these same parties that push the responsibility of more and more care over to the families, tell women they have to work full time if they want to have a decent income and pension! But most women who work part time do not do so out of choice. In many sectors where there are a lot of female workers, such as social work, supermarkets or cleaning, only part time jobs are available. And those who do work part time ’voluntarily’ explain they do it to be able to combine work and care for their children.
No matter from which angle you look at the question, it is clear that women’s emancipation has suffered from the ’gradual’ austerity since the 1980s and the more rapid austerity since the onset of the economic crisis.
A post-feminism has no solutions. Now even the women’s organisation of the Christian workers’ movement - Femma in Flanders and Vie Féminine in French speaking Belgium – is forced to re-launch an old trade union demand which had been pushed into the background for the last three decades because of the defensive position the trade unions found themselves in: the 30 hour working week without loss of pay and with the creation of new jobs.
Contrary to a number of years ago, demonstrations and protests are not just attended by ’veteran’ feminists, but a whole new group of young women are looking for ways to fight austerity as well as sexism.
With PSL (CWI Belgium), we actively look out for those young women who want to get involved in struggle. We have noticed an increase in the number of women among our contacts and discussions on women’s issues attract a larger number than has been the case in the past. A lively discussion is starting up on the limits of gaining legal equality without a fundamental change in society, on how to start pushing the position of women forwards again and on who our allies and enemies are.
At the last meeting of our national women’s commission we discussed ’new feminism’ based on a critique of books like “How to be a woman” by Caitlin Moran - just one of the new appeals to women to become fighting feminists. We welcomed the fact that most of these new feminists don’t put the blame for women’s oppression simply on men, but on society and the establishment. At the same time however these new feminists are not so different from the old ones in their strategies. They don’t see the link between women’s struggle for a better position in society and workers’ struggle against austerity and for an improvement in living standards. They limit themselves mostly to individual solutions for individual women.
No to women only demonstrations
For International Women’s Day, we have refused to participate in a ’non-mixed’ women’s demonstration - that is a demonstration where only women are welcome. We have also discussed widely why we think such a non-mixed demonstration is counterproductive for the struggle for women’s rights.
In all activity on women’s issues, such as the struggle in the last five years against the attempts of the so-called ‘pro-life’ movement to establish roots in Belgium (as in other European countries), men have been present - trade unionists as well as young men. A number of gay groups have been involved in the organisation and mobilisation for these actions. But now we are told we should tell these people that their presence is not wanted. One of the ‘revolutionary’ groups in Belgium – the LCR - is proposing a slogan: “Don’t liberate me, I can do it myself!”. That is at a time when in India and Turkey men as well as women have protested massively against violence by men on women, one of the most sensitive issues there is.
We are holding a day of discussion and debate on 8 March, inviting female as well as male activists One ‘commission’ is discussing the fight against austerity - which hits the whole working class, but has a bigger impact on the weaker groups of the working class. It will deal with the struggle to get as many people as possible, particularly women, involved in trade union work. A second commision is on the struggle against sexism and all the forms of discrimination that are present in our crisis-ridden capitalist society. A final plenary debate will discuss how we take up and develop Femma’s demand for a 30-hour working week and other aspects of a socialist programme to end austerity, exploitation and discrimination of all kinds.
The inspirational life of Eleanor Marx
Eleanor Marx played a pivotal role in the mass strikes in the East End of London in the 19th century and campaigned for a mass workers’ party
By Christine Thomas (originally published in Socialism Today, magazine of the Socialist Party in England and Wales)
Eleanor Marx played a pivotal role in the mass strikes in the East End of London in the 19th century and campaigned for a mass workers’ party. She was to the forefront of the struggle for women’s rights and for international solidarity. CHRISTINE THOMAS looks at the life of this socialist pioneer.
The recent publication of Rachel Holmes’ lively and sympathetic biography of Eleanor Marx is another valuable contribution to raising awareness about this fascinating revolutionary woman. (Eleanor Marx: A Life, Bloomsbury Publishing) It is also an opportunity to explore further the interesting times in which she lived and struggled. For many people, Eleanor is known simply as the youngest daughter of the author of Capital, yet she was more than just her father’s daughter. Eleanor Marx was in her own right a leading political activist, writer, speaker, trade unionist, socialist feminist and internationalist in an important period of British history, rich in lessons for political and social struggles today.
From her birth on 16 January 1855 to her untimely death at the age of 43, Eleanor’s life was steeped in politics. By the age of 17 she was, according to her mother, Jenny von Westphalen, “political from top to toe”. Her political activism was first awakened by the struggle in Ireland against imperialist exploitation and oppression. In 1871, at the age of 16, she was not only inspired by the momentous revolutionary uprising of the Communards in Paris but actively involved in helping the many refugees who fled to England after the bloodbath in which 20,000 workers were massacred and thousands imprisoned and deported. One of those who escaped to England was Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray, with whom Eleanor had a relationship, helping him to write his seminal history of the Commune. As Holmes points out, for Eleanor, the personal and the political were intrinsically intertwined.
Eleanor was struck by the protagonism of women during the Paris Commune, and both socialist feminism and internationalism were to be defining features of her political life. She participated in the congress of the International Working Men’s Association (the First International), was involved in the founding of the Second, Socialist International in 1889, and played a prominent role in promoting international solidarity with workers in struggle. It was the nationalism and jingoism of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), the first political organisation she joined, which caused her to break with the party after one year (in 1885) and form the Socialist League, together with William Morris and her partner Edward Aveling.
Eleanor was politically active in a period in which women were still denied many basic rights and leading female militants constituted a rare minority in the labour movement. It was also a period of transition, culminating in an explosion of social and industrial struggles, and a transformation of working-class political consciousness. Thanks to the international hegemony of British capitalism and its ability to make economic concessions to a layer of skilled workers – and create a privileged union bureaucracy – the 1860s had been a decade of relative social peace, dominated ideologically by class collaboration. Politically, this found its expression in the Liberal Party which claimed to represent the interests of both workers and employers.
Competition from Europe and America, however, threatened British capitalism’s economic dominance. In 1885, Friedrich Engels, Eleanor’s ‘second father’ and an enormous political influence, wrote: “During the period of England’s industrial monopoly the English working class have to a certain extent shared in the benefits… These benefits were very unequally parcelled out… the privileged minority pocketed most, but even the great mass had at least a temporary share now and then… With the breakdown of that monopoly the English working class will lose that privileged position… And that is the reason why there will be socialism again in England”. (The Commonweal, paper of the Socialist League)
Eleanor was to the forefront in promoting the ideas of socialism among working-class people. She popularised Karl Marx’s economic theories, spoke about women’s oppression, trade unionism, internationalism and the importance of independent working-class political representation. Returning from an eye-opening three-month speaking tour of the USA, she and Aveling toured the Radical Clubs in London’s East End. They addressed working men about the social, industrial and political situation in America, and called for the creation of a new working-class party; in the words of Engels, an “English Labour Party with an independent class programme”, which would provide workers with a political alternative to the Liberals.
This was essentially propaganda work, sowing the seeds for future explosive events which would help transform the political situation. In the mid- to late-1880s the forces of socialism were still small and relatively divorced from the day-to-day struggles of working-class people. Those organisations which did exist were riven with ideological, tactical and personal divisions. “There are two main sources of dispute”, said William Morris: “We cannot agree as to what is likely to be the precise social system of the future and we cannot agree as to the best means of attaining it”. Eleanor was to break with Morris and the Socialist League in 1888, four years after its foundation, because of his opposition to standing candidates in parliamentary elections. Her Bloomsbury branch of the Socialist League then became the Bloomsbury Socialist Society through which she and Aveling continued to agitate for a workers’ party.
The ‘great depression’, which erupted in 1873 and lasted until 1896, with brief and weak periods of recovery, opened up a new stage of economic and social crisis for British capitalism and was to have an enormous effect on class consciousness and organisation. The economic depression reached its nadir in 1886/87 with especially devastating consequences for the poor of London: 35% of the population of the East End lived in conditions of abject misery.
Eleanor wrote of the thousands who in a normal winter could just keep going but were now starving in filthy hovels or in ditches in driving rain. She witnessed first-hand the terrible human suffering, writing to her sister Laura: “One room especially haunts me. Room! – cellar, dark underground – in it a woman lying on some sacking and a little straw, her breast half eaten away with cancer. She is naked but for an old red handkerchief over her breast and a bit of old sail over her legs. By her side a baby of three and other children – four of them… The husband tries to ‘pick up’ a few pence at the docks”.
Despite this awful destitution the unemployed began to organise. Their daily meetings and protests were subject to severe state repression which was being stepped up in an attempt to cower workers and stamp out growing social protest. “The State”, wrote Eleanor in 1885, “is now a force-organisation for the maintenance of the present conditions of property and social rule”. Bloody Sunday (13 November 1887) is the most infamous example from that time of the brutality meted out by the state against those who tried to rise up against oppression, exploitation and poverty. The police repeatedly charged a mass demonstration in Trafalgar Square. Demonstrators were trampled by horses and viciously beaten, 200 were hospitalised, 160 jailed, and three later died of their injuries. Eleanor was herself a victim of police brutality on that day, and on other free speech protests.
Fighting women’s oppression
It was through the unemployed protests that Eleanor really got to know the horrendous conditions suffered by working-class people in the East End of London. The industrial wave which later exploded there, with the most exploited and downtrodden sections of the class at its head, enabled her to link the theory of class struggle with the practice. The same was true regarding the question of women’s oppression. Her profound interest led her, in 1885, to co-write with Aveling ‘The Woman Question: From a Socialist Point of View’, the first pamphlet written by a socialist woman on this issue. Eleanor had studied August Bebel’s ‘Women and Socialism’, first published in England in 1885. She had also worked closely with Engels in the production of the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), based on the notes of the deceased Marx and the work of Lewis Henry Morgan.
“Marx and Morgan’s was the theory, Eleanor’s life was the practice”, writes Hughes, who believes that Engels drew on Eleanor’s own contradictory personal situation as a ‘New Woman’ in a still intensely patriarchal society. Eleanor understood that the capitalist system oppressed women of all classes, denying them, among other things, the right to vote and access to higher education and the professions. She recognised the value of cross-class alliances of women – for example, in the campaign for repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, under which women could be arbitrarily detained, confined in hospital and subject to intimate abuse merely on the suspicion of being a prostitute.
But she criticised the limited ‘bourgeois idea’ of ‘women’s rights’, declaring: “Those who attack the present treatment of women without seeking for the cause of this in the economics of our latter-day society are like doctors who treat a local infection without enquiring into the general bodily health”. Eleanor and Aveling emphasised the class character of women’s oppression, rooted not in the natures of individual women or men, but in the very structures of capitalist society. The poverty wages paid to women serve directly to increase profits for the capitalists, placing downward pressure on men’s wages, while inequality in the workplace divides workers and weakens the class struggle.
Therefore, the fight against low and unequal pay is a vital fight of all workers: “With the proletarian woman… it is a struggle of the woman with the man of her own class against the capitalist class”. Without economic autonomy women cannot be liberated from oppression: “We must understand that the real cause of women’s enslaved position is her economic dependence upon man and that her ‘emancipation’ means nothing but economic freedom”. However, while higher wages and equal pay were crucial demands to be fought for by women and men together in the labour movement, for Eleanor the ‘woman question’ was not merely economic but linked to “the organisation of society as a whole”. “Without that larger social change women will never be free”. And without the participation of working-class women in the struggle for their own emancipation and for an end to capitalism, a new, free and equal society would be impossible.
The double burden
Personal relationships and women’s opportunities in life are conditioned by wider social inequalities. “Our marriages, like our morals, are based on commercialism”, she wrote. Eleanor was particularly drawn to the Norwegian playwright, Henrik Ibsen, and his portrayal of the conflict felt by women trapped in unhappy and unfulfilling marriages. If both sexes are incomplete relationships suffer, she argued. Eleanor and Aveling laid great emphasis on the ‘sex instinct’: the need for women as well as men to enjoy sexual satisfaction and the damaging consequences for women’s mental, physical and emotional health when sexual desire is ungratified. They stressed the importance of sex education free from moral constraints. Only when men and women “discuss the sexual question in all its bearings, as free human beings… will there be any hope of its solution”.
Eleanor personally experienced society’s sexual double standards when she decided to defy social norms and live with Aveling without getting married (he falsely claimed to be already married to a woman who refused to grant him a divorce). While Eleanor as a woman felt the need to write to all her friends to explain her decision, expecting some to break off their friendship as a result of her actions, Aveling as a man felt no need to do the same. They both wrote about the double burden experienced by working-class women who were “still the childbearer, the housewarder”. “The man, worn out as he may be by labour, has the evening in which to do nothing. The woman is occupied until bedtime comes. Often with young children her toil goes far into, or all through the night”.
While she was in the USA, Eleanor called for working men to give women a helping hand with children and the home so that their wives could play a full role in the workers’ movement. And working women should demand that potential lovers show them their union card or, if not, show them the door. Eleanor had no children (she wanted them, Aveling procrastinated) and Aveling never tried to place restrictions on her political and leisure activities; on the contrary, he shared and encouraged them. Nonetheless, it was she who, according to the prevailing norms, was expected to run the household: “How I wish people didn’t live in houses and didn’t cook, and bake, and wash and clean”. “Who is the fiend that invented housekeeping? I hope his invention may plague him in another world”.
Eleanor had had an unconventional upbringing and education for a woman of her times. She was economically independent of Aveling (he leeched off her) and refused to accept Engels’ financial help (unlike her two older sisters, Jenny and Laura). Instead, she earned her own income, teaching, writing, translating and editing. At the same time, she was able to pursue her interests in the theatre and the arts, and to help bring these cultural pursuits to the working class, helping to broaden the horizons of workers who had been denied a formal education.
She was almost unique at the time in being both a leading female socialist and trade unionist. And yet, as a woman, she was not able to completely escape the conflicting pressures of family and society. In fact, her first attempt at personal and economic autonomy failed, resulting in anorexia and a breakdown, an example of the so-called ‘hysteria’ suffered by so many women of her class whose needs and expectations were frustrated or came into conflict with social reality. These contradictions were also evident in her relationship with Aveling with whom she stayed loyally for 14 years, despite his being a needy, selfish user, and despite his numerous affairs, deceptions and humiliations.
East End strikes
The women workers who went on strike at the Bryant and May match factory, in 1888, sparked the huge strike and unionisation wave which swept east London and dramatically changed both the industrial and political landscape. From these class struggles a new form of militant trade unionism was born, challenging the class collaboration of the craft unions. Class and socialist consciousness grew significantly and the idea of independent working-class representation, which socialists like Eleanor had been advocating without any concrete results, now had a mass, receptive audience. The East End was home to the ‘sweated industries’ and the growth in factories and workplaces where unorganised semi-skilled and unskilled workers toiled for long hours, in harmful conditions, for starvation wages.
Many of these were women – a third of the workforce in 1888 – often with children, earning around 50% of the already abysmally low male wage. Eleanor was involved in all the main struggles that took place in the East End in the crucial year of 1889, struggles which involved male and female workers: gas workers and dockers, workers in the industrial hellhole known as Silvertown. She was approached for help by female shop assistants, onion skinners at Crosse & Blackwell, and sweet makers at Barratts, as well as by rail workers. The gas workers, who were considered seasonal and unskilled, often worked for up to 18 hours a day in addition to travel (normally by foot) to and from work. In Silvertown, workers slaved for a minimum of 80 hours a week, inhaling poisonous fumes in the place where they both worked and ate. “To go to the docks”, wrote Eleanor, “is enough to drive one mad. The men fight and push and hustle like beasts – not men – and all to earn at best 3d or 4d an hour!”
Engels wrote: “That these poor famished broken down creatures… should organise for resistance, turn out 40-50,000 strong, draw after them into the strike all and every trade of the East End in any way connected with shipping, hold out above a week, and terrify the wealthy and powerful dock companies – that is a revival I am proud to see”. Here were the lowest of the low, the super-exploited workers deemed unorganisable by the existing trade union leaders, rising up against all the odds, striking and forming new combative unions, prepared to resist and actively take on the bosses’ assaults on their jobs, wages and working conditions. Within two weeks over 3,000 joined the gas workers’ union. “Never before had men responded like they did. For months London was ablaze”, declared union leader Will Thorne.
It was not, however, a completely straightforward process. There had been several failed attempts to form a union of gas workers. Critical to the change in consciousness, in Thorne’s eyes, were “the long years of socialist propaganda amongst the underpaid and oppressed workers”. The gas workers were victorious, securing a reduction in the working day to eight hours. The Silvertown workers, on the other hand, were starved back to work after twelve weeks of bitter struggle, mainly due to a lack of solidarity from the skilled engineers and carpenters. But even from defeats unions were formed and the old, more established organisations were not immune from these historic events. In one year, total union membership more than doubled.
“It was a time when one socialist, active and determined, giving assistance to the unskilled workers, was worth 20 discussing revolutionary tactics in their private clubrooms”, said William Morris. There is no doubt that socialist ‘agitators’ like Eleanor were giving invaluable backup and support to workers in struggle, and that interest in socialism was growing. “The other night I was up at the committee rooms talking to the men [gas workers], and one and all declared themselves Socialists”, wrote Eleanor to her sister, Laura. “The masses here are not yet socialist. But on the way towards it, and are already so far that they will not have any but socialist leaders”, commented Engels. These activists, however, were intervening primarily as individuals, not as members of a party striving to link the day-to-day struggles of workers with a revolutionary transformation of society.
Eleanor eventually re-joined the SDF because she considered it to be the socialist organisation with the most influence, but she was under no illusions about its real political character. New Unionism exposed the SDF’s sectarian approach to the trade unions. Its new programme, drawn up at the height of the struggle, did not even refer to them! The SDF, Engels argued, was a propaganda organisation, advocating a dogmatic distortion of Marxism which denied the importance of the class struggle in overthrowing capitalism and failed to “fasten on to the real needs of people”. Nonetheless, most of the new union organisers passed through its ranks and it was responsible for introducing tens of thousands to the general ideas of socialism. Eleanor’s own approach was very different. Another biographer, Yvonne Kapp, summed it up thus: “She was zealous to work for any and every practical aim; to agitate for the total overthrow of the system without brushing aside a single immediate demand for which the working class were prepared to fight”. (Eleanor Marx, Volume II, The Crowded Years)
Linking political and industrial action
Thorne and the dockworkers’ leader, Ben Tillet, described how Eleanor would work long hours in support of the gas workers, getting up early in the morning and walking home late at night. She addressed mass meetings and demonstrations of tens of thousands of workers, becoming one of the most talented and sought after speakers in the labour movement. In Silvertown she would get up on tables and chairs in pubs to speak to workers about the strike. But she was also hyperactive behind the scenes: raising money, drafting rules for the gas workers’ union, helping Thorne with the accounts, showing the same dynamism, dedication and tirelessness she employed in her work for the socialist organisations she belonged to. The strike wave of unskilled and semi-skilled workers turned Eleanor into a respected, national trade union leader. She was elected to the national executive of the gas workers’ union at its first conference in 1890 and became leader of the first women’s branch of the union which was formed from the Silvertown strike.
The central organising demand of the new union strike wave was the eight-hour day, around which workers were also mobilising internationally. This had a critical relevance for unskilled and semi-skilled workers who often had no contracted limit on the hours which they worked. Women workers were particularly affected. But the demand was opposed by the craft union leaders who argued against the government intervening when workers could ‘do it for themselves’. It was OK for ‘defenceless women and children’ (and miners) but not the rest of the working class. The unions must stay out of politics. Eleanor saw no artificial division between industrial and political action.
The demand for a legal eight-hour day served both to mobilise workers and to raise political consciousness. The gas workers had clearly shown that self-organisation, collective action and solidarity could result in victory against individual employers. But legislation was also needed to reinforce those victories, prevent backsliding and to defend the millions who remained unorganised. The founding Paris congress of the Second International declared May Day to be an annual day of international solidarity: 250,000 workers rallied in Hyde Park in 1890 to demand that the government establish the eight-hour working day as a legal limit.
Eleanor played a central role in organising the protest and was one of the main speakers. Her speech to the mass rally clearly showed the transitional approach which she adopted in her politics. “I am speaking this afternoon not only as a trade unionist but as a socialist”, she declared. “Socialists believe that the eight-hour day is the first and most immediate step to be taken, and we aim at a time when there will no longer be one class supporting two others, but the unemployed both at the top and at the bottom of society will be got rid of. This is not the end but the beginning of the struggle”.
The Eight Hours League was later established and discussed standing in elections. The political wind was finally turning. In 1892, in a very significant vote, the gas workers’ conference in Plymouth agreed to present candidates for all local and parliamentary elections. Keir Hardie had already founded the Scottish Labour Party in 1888 and, at the 1892 TUC congress, chaired a meeting of delegates who supported the idea of founding an independent labour party. Independent labour organisations were also springing up in the industrialised north of England as workers learnt from bitter strikes that they had politically nothing in common with the Liberal-supporting bosses. It was from here that the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was formed in 1893. Unlike the SDF, the ILP understood the importance of the trade unions in the struggle to change society. But while its programme was broadly anti-capitalist, it was ideologically confused, with a strong reformist element. This prompted the SDF to stand aside from the ILP in ‘benevolent neutrality’, criticising in sectarian fashion its failure to explicitly call itself a socialist party.
While clear about the political weaknesses of the ILP, Eleanor was critical of the SDF’s stance: “We are still not able to speak in the name of a British Labour Party. Such a party, in the sense of an absolute unity of programme and method, does not exist here… But it has also to be noted that a new organisation, the Independent Labour Party has been formed… and is evidence that the class-consciousness of the workers is passing from the dim to the clear stage”. Engels also considered the birth of the party, despite its inadequacies, an important advance for the working class. It was born out of class struggle and behind it “stand the masses”. The role of socialists was to “represent the movement of the future in the movement of the present”.
The ILP did not become a mass workers’ party, arising as the industrial movement was ebbing. But it did become a constituent part of the Labour Representation Committee formed in 1900 (becoming the Labour Party in 1906) which grew from the counter-offensive that the capitalist class launched against the workers’ movement. The capitalists ‘reorganised’ industry, introducing new mass production techniques while attacking the wages and conditions of skilled and unskilled workers.
Eleanor did not live to see those events, but she had played a crucial role in paving the way for the eventual creation of an independent workers’ party. Its leadership reflected Liberal pro-capitalist ideology but, at the same time, it had a mass base rooted in the working class. Had she not died so young, said Thorne, Eleanor “would have been a greater women’s leader than the greatest of contemporary women”.
Her death, in 1898, is still shrouded in mystery and controversy. The coroner presented a verdict of suicide as a consequence of drinking prussic acid. Her friends blamed Aveling, the main financial beneficiary of her death, for being indirectly or even directly responsible. It was a period of emotional turmoil in her life. She had recently found out that Aveling had secretly married a young actress. With Engels’ death in 1895 it was also revealed that Freddy Demuth was not, as she had always suspected, the illegitimate child of Engels but of Marx.
She had had previous bouts of depression. And yet ‘work’ had always pulled her back. We will probably never know what really happened. But her political legacy survives and is clearly invaluable for revolutionary socialists involved in the struggles being waged today. It can be seen in the fight of low-paid workers in the US for union organisation and a minimum wage of $15 an hour, the global struggles by women against discrimination and oppression, and the crucial campaigns to build new mass workers’ parties internationally, as steps towards the socialist transformation of society.
Sweden: Breakthrough for Feminist party.
Elin Gauffin, Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI in Sweden)
The Feminist Initiative (Fi) party, received a long sought-after boost during the election campaign in 2014 but not much has been heard from them since then. Now there are four years until the next election; is that why they are so quiet?
That the Fi are not like all the other politicians can be seen from two particular experiences. When Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna handed over 72,000 petition signatures, linking the fight against racism with class struggle and social issues, to the Red-Green-Pink ruling coalition on Stockholm City Council, only Sissela Nordling Blanco from Fi took the bait and came out and took them. When the local Tenants’ Association put forward a citizens’ proposal with demands for a significant investment in facilities for young people in Dalen (in Stockholm), it was only Victoria Kawesa from Fi who got in touch and took time to come and meet us. That gives the impression of them being more aware and open politicians. We were, however, a little bit disappointed later on that more of our proposal was not actually put forward by Kawesa at the politicians’ decision-making meeting as well as by the failure of the Red-Green-Pink coalition to implement our proposals.
One of the reasons why Fi had an impact in 2014 was that they managed to link feminism with anti-racism and as a result, link their party programme with grassroots movements. The party had its own large demonstrations, for example, on the first of May and participated in the many anti-racist demonstrations that took place against the Sweden Democrats.
In addition, the party structure was very local with hundreds of successful "political house parties" (something that is new in Sweden). Within the space of a year, Fi grew from 1,500 members to 22,000 members and from 11 local groups to 70 across the country.
In the elections to the European Parliament, Fi took 5.5% of the vote and won a seat. In the parliamentary elections, however, the party was squeezed between the growth in bloc politics and the question around who would form the next government and received 194,719 votes, which was 10,000 fewer than in the European elections. Their 3.1% was not enough to win any seats in parliament. On the other hand, they won seats on 13 councils (including in the major cities) and made a nationwide breakthrough winning seats as far north as Kiruna and as far south as Malmö.
Offensiv agrees with Fi’s own newly published election analysis that points out that an important reason for Fi’s breakthrough is that they managed to portray themselves as more ideological than the others in the political establishment. That says a lot more however about how homogenous the other establishment parties are. Fi have really emphasised their vision, something that has been perceived by many as fresh and new, in comparison to the current political situation. Over time though, you can’t just highlight what the party would like to do - it is necessary to give an account of what has actually been achieved.
In an article about Fi, Dagens Arena wrote that in Österlen, where they have four seats, the party has put forward eight motions, many of which have focused on gender-based statistics. Since then, however, it has been up in the air about what to actually do with these statistics.
As already mentioned, Fi sit on the Stockholm City Council. That means coming close to the real power in this country, economically and politically. Stockholm is a gigantic pyramid of class inequalities. Among other things, the housing and school markets are extremely segregated and elderly care is totally privatised. Challenging this means confronting capital. But it remains to be seen if last year’s grassroots movements were just temporary, or if they can be used as a tool to gain political power from below. In order to succeed with such an enormous task as to take elderly care back into the hands of the council - not just when the contract runs out, but as a way to take back those council funds that have been handed over to big business - it is necessary for workers in the care sector to organise strikes with support from the relatives of patients who are all too often forced to step in when the healthcare system fails. Both of those groups are made up of mainly low-paid women.
If the initiative for a mass campaign against sexist violence, for money for shelters, against sexist court rulings etc. was actually taken, there would be enormous potential to build something there. This is particularly the case when there is a mood for action amongst today’s young people, something that was shown by the big demonstrations on these issues that were organised from below last year.
Support for the right
Unfortunately, it is for other reasons that Fi have created headlines recently. It took only a few weeks after the party was elected to the European Parliament for Fi’s Soraya Post to vote for the Christian Democrat, Jean-Claude Juncker, as EU President, something which came as a shock to many. For Post, who is herself Romani and who has emphasised the rights of Roma in Europe in her work, it was very strange that she voted for Juncker, someone who has out-dated views on the family and gender equality, and defends the EU’s attacks on poor EU citizens and undocumented migrants whom he calls illegal immigrants.
When it came to the political crisis in Sweden, Fi had no position of its own. When the Social Democrat and Green Party-led government made a deal with the right-wing Alliance parties, FI wrote on their website that they welcomed the deal and thought that it should have been made earlier.
Their most recent statement is from the party’s congress a few weeks ago where they declared themselves to be a party for business people. "It is of great importance for society, the economy and the labour market that businesses are established and run in Sweden." The content is about how even small business owners should receive sick pay etc. But once again, we see Fi’s lack of a class perspective, where classes appear to be seen as some form of discrimination and not as exploitation in an economic system. Which side of the class struggle is Fi on? The party has, for example, not declared itself a "workers’ party".
Fi is, in any case, perceived as being left and they even have demands around a six-hour working day without loss of pay and an opposition to profiteering in the welfare system. What is necessary now is that those who are inspired by feminism do not back down but instead continue to build a real movement from below and explain how the issues are related. In the long run, it is impossible to achieve equality without abolishing capitalist relations and this cannot be done solely through parliamentarism.
Sri Lanka: Women face up to the challenges.
Dhammika Silva, United Socialist Party (CWI in Sri Lanka)
During the Rajapakse regime, defeated in January this year, not only the women of our country but female foreign tourists encountered very serious situations, including sexual assaults. During the thirty years of war Sri Lankan women had to face life under very stringent oppression. But even since the war ended things have not improved much. When the new Maithripala regime came into power there was of course a little space created for Sri Lankan society to breathe a bit more easily. The powerful oppressive grip of the former Rajapakse regime was relaxed somewhat.
One of the foremost challenges for Sri Lanka is to earn foreign exchange as it is still an underdeveloped country. The sectors spearheading this challenge are estate labour (on the tea plantations etc.), the garment industry and Middle East foreign employment. These are all sectors dominated by female labour. 52% of the population is women and they are considered to be the backbone of the Sri Lankan economy.
If we are to speak about Sri Lankan women, we must highlight the position of those employed in the tea industry in the Hill Country. Apart from the oppression faced by women as a whole they are subject to an additional disadvantage due to the fact that they are Tamils. The Tamil estate women labourers get the lowest income of women workers in the country. Wages are paid to them daily - less than Rs.500/= ($4). To qualify for this amount women must pluck and hand over a specified number of kilos of tender tea leaves daily.
Women labourers have to face a number of exceptional problems. The number of working days are cut if the weather is cold or rainy. When there is either drought or heavy rain, the number of hours of work gets reduced, resulting in a decrease in the output of plucked leaves, and consequently their pay.
When the number of tender tea leaves available is reduced, estate managers declare that the number of working days will be reduced. They have to work for 20 days to qualify for the full monthly wage. If they cannot get 20 days of work they cannot get full pay. Women estate labourers get only two weeks maternity leave. Neither the estates’ management nor the government provide sufficient facilities to look after children while the mother is working.
Estate management and the trade unions enter into annual wage negotiations but the traditional unions have so far been unable to negotiate a living wage for those workers.
Even their current wages were only won after strikes and demonstrations. Capitalist governments do not act against the needs of the estate owners but they have to admit that a large amount of foreign exchange is brought to the country through the estate sector.
The new Maithripala regime has failed to utter a single word about these people who have been subjected to severe exploitation. Even though a salary increase has been granted to public sector employees, the women labourers do not get even the minimum benefits enjoyed by women in other sectors. Hence the children who live on the estates encounter various difficulties. These children cannot go to school in the towns outside the estate limits due to poverty and discrimination. Even though they attend the schools on the estates they do not receive a comprehensive education. The estate schools are lacking in facilities when compared to other schools in the country. Less than 1% of the students in estate schools qualify for entry to university.
The unresolved problems of the women estate labourers have a history of more than 150 years since they were brought to Ceylon by British rulers. The estate labourers who have lived in a difficult environment since the era of British administration are still subjected to exploitation so that capitalism can gain more and more profits.
The women employed in the garment industry in the Free Trade Zones also lead a very difficult life. They start work in the early morning and they don’t know when they will finish. They have to work until management’s daily target is achieved. The short break for meals is the only free time these women workers get. There is a card system for the use of the toilets and the number of times they can be used is restricted. These women workers are subjected to an intensely difficult way at life.
Because of unemployment, even highly educated young women are employed in this sector. Women from very poor rural areas are boarded far away from home in tiny rooms like chicken coops. There is no proper security. Once the night shift is over, these young women have to go to their boarding houses. There have been a large number of incidents where young girls have been sexually assaulted on their way to their lodgings.
These women often cannot eat properly because of their low wages. So they are subject to ill-health. They have to pay rent and send money to sustain their families back home, so they are forced to eat food without any proper nourishment.
In this sector trade union membership is banned. If anyone does join a trade union she faces losing her job. When governments submit their annual budgets with increases in salaries, no attention is given to the workers in the garment industry. There is no legal framework for wage increases for private sector workers. Capitalist governments are not concerned about the welfare of the workers in the garment industry, even though it is a major avenue for the earning of foreign exchange.
Another very important and dangerous issue is that many women workers are employed in factories which use dangerous chemicals. There are frequent reports of young female workers afflicted with ill health as a result. There are more than enough labour laws in Sri Lanka but none are applied in the free trade zone. Most of the companies are owned by foreign multinational companies. Whenever they face a problem they quickly close the factory and the company management flees the country.
In the Middle East, Sri Lankan women workers face poor conditions. The former Rajapaksa regime introduced a special term: ’Rataviruwo’. This means you are a foreign hero. (They did same kind of thing for the soldiers after the war saying that they are ’Ranaviruwo’.
But as domestic servants they suffer from violent attacks and sexual harassment from the house owners. Many workers have been badly hurt due to brutal assaults but many keep secret how they have suffered at the hands of the rich.
Back home there have been reports such as small children falling into wells because their mothers are away working in the Middle East. Other young children have become victims of sexual abuse. Women have left their own family behind to work as a house-maid to relieve the family from dire poverty, but their families still suffer back home.
Rizana Nafeek was nororiously killed in Saudi Arabia. She was sent to the Middle East even though she was under age. That was due to the poverty of her family. Job agencies and the government do not value the lives of poor working class women who are sent to the Middle East. Capitalist governments do not wish to raise these problems internationally. They are more interested in their foreign relations.
Women in Sri Lanka in various sectors, undergo much oppression. But it is clear that under the capitalist system these problems cannot be entirely solved. We must organise amongst women around the ideas of changing the capitalist system. On this historically important women’s day we must adopt the slogan that with brave women like those above you we will be able to transform this corrupt system and establish a society based on socialist ideas including a programme for building widespread publicly-owned housing.
England and Wales: Women and new unionism: lessons for today
Heather Rawling, Socialist Party (CWI in England and Wales)
As women and men around the world celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March, it is women workers who are bearing the brunt of austerity. In