Women: International Women’s Day – Women fight the system

The committee for a workers’ international commemorates International Women’s Day 1999 – Monday 8th of March – by calling on all socialists and class fighters to help restore the true significance of this day in the calendar of the workers’ movement.

International Women’s Day.

International women’s day
Women fight the system

It is a day for remembering that women constitute half the world’s population but carry much more than half the burdens of everyday life. Now, as the world economy enters recession, it is working women of town and country who suffer disproportionately. Women’s labour – paid or unpaid – becomes the shock absorber for falling incomes, growing unemployment and shrinking or non-existent welfare provision. Where they organise and fight back – be it at RTFC Ceramics in Manila, Hillingdon Hospital, West London or Johnson’s Textiles in Santiago – women show a legendary determination and tenacity. Why should they pay for the problems the bosses have created in their scramble for profits?

For March 8th, we extend our greetings to all women involved in struggling against the system and pledge whatever support we can give in building their fighting capacity and organising international solidarity. We will work for the maximum participation of working and young women in the struggle for socialism and in the building of our International.

Women and struggle

This year we have commissioned and made available for publication articles written by comrades of the CWI in ten different countries. They give a glimpse of what life is like for working class and young women around the world in the run-up to a new millenium. They cover their involvement in struggles ranging from land occupations in Brazil, campaigns for union organisation and against low pay in the US, Britain, Sri Lanka and Chile. There are harrowing accounts of the plight of women in Portugal and India and a tribute from Germany to the heroic life of Rosa Luxembourg. They all bring home the need to revive the real spirit of International Women’s Day – a day to celebrate the triumphs as well as remember the huge sacrifices made by women in their struggle to change the world around them.

The first March 8th protest demonstration was in 1857, when thousands of women left their factories to demonstrate on the streets of New York against hunger and low pay. Later in the century, working women in America took their place in the courageous mass struggles for an 8-hour day. Along with the martyrs of the Haymarket, Chicago, they challenged the bosses and their system in the teeth of vicious state repression against trade unions and against socialist and revolutionary organisations.

The apalling wages and conditions in the mills and sweat-shops of a rapidly industrialising USA in the 19th century were not far different from those of women workers in early 20th century Russia or, for that matter, in late 20th century Asia and elsewhere.

Russia – February, 1917

In the war-torn Russia of 1917, it was the action of women in the textile industry that set off a revolution. Desperate to feed their children and amongst the most most down-trodden and oppressed, they could wait no longer. Worker-leaders in Petrograd – many of them revolutionary Bolsheviks eager to see the end of Czarism -had nevertheless decided not to call for strike action on International Women’s Day (February 23rd by the old calendar). But, as the day dawned, thousands of women walked out of the textile factories. They sent delegations to the giant manufacturing plants of the Vyborg district and rapidly persuaded the workers’ committees to change their minds. 90,000 were on strike before the end of the day.

Trotsky in his History writes, "A mass of women, not all of them workers, flocked to the municipal duma (local assembly) demanding bread. It was like demanding milk from a he-goat". The following day, half the industrial workers of Petrograd held work-place meetings and walked out, making their way in numerous demonstrations to the centre of the city. The slogan "Bread!" was replaced by "Down with autocracy!" and "Down with the War!". The February revolution was underway.

Rosa Luxembourg

On International Women’s Day this year, the name of one of the greatest revolutionary women in history cannot be forgotten. 80 years ago this January, Rosa Luxembourg, along with her comrade in arms, Karl Liebnecht, was murdered on the orders of the German Social Democrat minister for military affairs, Gustav Noske. The power of her ideas and her influence amongst the German masses, were a direct challenge to the abject defenders of the rule of capital within the mass workers’ party that was the SDP.

At the time of the 1905 revolution in the Russian empire, Rosa had striven might and main to get from Germany to her native Poland in order to participate – "To feel the wind of revolution about my ears" which was for her the greatest joy in life. At the time of the February revolution, this ’eagle’, as Lenin and Trotsky called her, was a caged bird – locked up in a German prison for railing against the imperialist war. Unable to see clearly all the processes, she nevertheless greeted with great enthusiasm the October 1917 uprising in Petrograd. It was, as she wrote, "Not only the actual salvation of the Russian Revolution; it was also the salvation of the honour of international socialism".

Amongst Rosa’s many writings are her comments on events at the turn of the last century in France. She saw the scandal of a totally rigged trial of a jewish officer – Dreyfus – as offering an invaluable opportunity for exposing all that was rotten in capitalist France and for gaining mass support for its overthrow. Like the Russian revolutionary leader Lenin (with whom she did not always agree), she berated France’s socialist leaders – Millerand, Jaures and co. – not only for not "directing all spears against the body" of the class enemy but for even coming to its defence (Millerand took a ministerial position and Jaures, after two years, dropped his campaign against amnesty for the scandal’s perpetrators!).

Capitalism rotten to the core

This example is not unimportant for today. The dismissal in 1996 of a judge in the de Trou paedophilia affair in Belgium provoked an outburst of anger, not least amongst women, and provoked a movement reaching general strike proportions. The skilful intervention of a revolutionary party can win recruits to the struggle for socialism and, with sufficient backing, turn such crises into a movement to transform society. Our task is to build parties of the working class that can fight battles on these issues, and fight them to the finish.

Capitalism is heading into deeper crises. If, in many countries, it is enjoying a short respite from major class battles, it can nevertheless be engulfed by scandals which totally discredit national governments. Appearing out of an otherwise clear blue sky, they turn rapidly into a pre-revolutionary situation where the question of who runs society is posed. They reveal the seamier side of a system based on the exploitation of the overwhelming majority by the privileged and indifferent few and the total absence of justice for those without wealth and property.

"There must be something wrong"

In the words of a popular poem published in the American "Factory Girls’ Album" of 1847, "There must be something wrong". As it says: "When earth produces free and fair / The golden waving corn /….Whilst thousands move with aching head, / And sing the ceaseless song – / ’We starve, we die; oh give us bread’ / There must be something wrong…"

We can say today that when, as the United Nations Human Development Report estimates, the 225 richest people in the world have a combined wealth of $1 trillion, while this is the same as the annual income of nearly half the world’s population – 2.5 billion people and while just 4% of that – $40 billion a year – would provide "universal access to basic education for all, basic health care for all, reproductive health care for all women, adequate food for all and safe water and sanitation for all"… THERE MUST BE SOMETHING WRONG!

When, as statistics show, women produce half the world’s food while they constitute 62% of the world’s starving, when they they do two thirds of the world’s work and constitute 70% of the world’s poor, when, in countries where equal pay laws exist, the gap between women’s and men’s pay is still 30 – 40%, when 1 in 13 women die in pregnancy or childbirth in Sub Saharan Africa while only 1 in 7,300 in Canada, then indeed, THERE MUST BE SOMETHING WRONG!

When women, who form half the population receive 10% of the world’s income, when wars and civil conflicts leave tens of millions of women as single parents and refugees, when 66% of the world’s women are illiterate and 34 million women are ’missing’ because of selective abortion…THERE MUST BE SOMETHING WRONG!

Indeed there is! It is capitalism that is wrong – it robs and maims and kills to keep a pampered few in untold luxury!

This is what makes us angry and what also means that international socialist revolution is not a fantasy but a necessity. Ending capitalism is, as Marxists have long insisted, the only way to eliminate all that is wrong in the world. In the process of preparing for the revolutionary upheavals to come, the parties of the CWI must support and champion the daily struggles of working class women for a better deal.

Fighting Demands

As we outlined in last year’s CWI Women’s Day pamphlet, inscribed on our banner must be the basic rights that would dramatically ease the burden of women:-

  • Free education, free health facilities and decent housing
  • Free good quality child care
  • Maternity and child benefits to cover the cost of bringing up children
  • Free contraception and abortion for those who want it.

Such gains would at last give women the freedom to choose whether or not to have children and what to do with their lives.

Included in the programmes of our parties as we go into elections – in Europe in Asia or any other part of the globe must be those for:

  • equal pay for work of equal value
  • an end to discrimination, harassment and violence against women
  • a reversal of all cuts in welfare spending
  • the sharing of work to provide real jobs for all on decent living wages

International Socialism

Throughout last year, the ’Asian Crisis’ of capitalism wreaked havoc with the lives of millions of working women – in Korea, in Indonesia, in the Philippines, Malaysia and China – indeed throughout the region. In all these countries women have been amongst the first to move into action against the bosses and the dictators. Women were to the fore amongst the students and the workers who brought down Suharto in the revolutionary events in Jakarta of April and May.

We salute all those women, through history and in our time, who have given their lives in struggle, who have been imprisoned or simply, through sheer determination, have overcome all obstacles to participate in the workers’ and socialist movement. The best tribute we can pay to them is to redouble our efforts in the fight for international socialism as the way to eliminate the scourge of capitalism from the lives of all.

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March 1999