A WORLD TO WIN    #24   (1998)

Break the Chains
Unleash the Fury of Women as a Mighty Force for Revolution!

Once again the development of the People’s War in Nepal is proving what has already been shown in Peru and other revolutionary movements as well — the tremendous unleashing of the revolutionary potential of women as a mighty force for revolution. In both of these countries the masses of the poor women, especially the poor peasantry which in both societies make up the main revolutionary force led by the proletariat, have astounded many observers by their massive outpouring of support for the revolutionary cause. In example after example, the downtrodden of yesterday are becoming the gravediggers of the reactionaries and the builders of the future as women join the revolution in every sphere of activity, taking part in guerrilla units or as leaders of mass organisations and members and leaders of the vanguard party itself.

There can be no doubt that this awakening of the women is a great accomplishment of the proletarian revolutionary struggle. Both the absolute numbers and the quality of the participation of women is much greater in the proletarian revolution than in other revolutionary and popular movements.

In today’s world all classes and political forces seek to mobilise women behind their banner. This is another expression of Lenin’s observation that in our era nothing is possible without the masses. Indeed, the involvement of women in all people’s and democratic movements is a striking feature of recent decades.

For example, in Sri Lanka the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) have succeeded in bringing forward a large number of women who have fought with remarkable valour in the battle against the reactionary regime there. In Vietnam, Eritrea and Palestine women played a strong role in the national liberation movements. All of this goes to illustrate Marx’s point that how rooted the revolutionary movement is among the people can be measured by the degree of participation of women.

But there remains a difference, and a fundamental one at that, between the kind of participation of women the LTTE or the Palestinian resistance organisations have brought forward and that found in revolutionary struggles which are led by a proletarian party guided by proletarian ideology. The essential difference is whether the movement itself is able to go beyond the threshold of bourgeois democracy, whether it seeks only to bring about a capitalist system based on the “free and equal” exchange of commodities, and especially that most important commodity, labour power itself, or whether the movement contains within it the seeds of a society that puts an end to labour as a commodity and goes beyond the very division into classes.

The communist revolutionaries do not see women as simply more soldiers for the people’s army or as a vast reservoir of labour. For communists, the participation of women has everything to do with what kind of a revolution they are waging. Frederick Engels in his famous work Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State demonstrated how the oppression of women arose with the division of primitive society into classes and how the total emancipation of women is completely inseparable from the aim of building a communist society without class distinctions.

The storm centres of the world proletarian revolution have been in the ­oppressed countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America in the five decades since the end of World War II. This has also meant that, in most countries, the revolution must necessarily pass through a first, new democratic stage before advancing to the socialist revolution.

As we know, the new democratic revolution is itself bourgeois democratic in so far as it has as its immediate goal the overthrow of imperialism, feudalism and the domestic capital associated with the former, rather than the overthrow of bourgeois relations. At the same time the new democratic revolution led by the proletariat helps to pave the way for a second, or socialist, stage once the basic bourgeois democratic tasks have been accomplished.

The participation of women in the democratic revolution needs to be ­examined in this light as well.

Women and Democracy

It has long been established that communists fight for all democratic rights. And the equality of women is one of those important democratic rights. But communists are also clear that democracy has not and cannot resolve the problems of inequality and oppression. Furthermore, the democracy of even the “freest” republic is always limited and subordinated to the most important bourgeois freedom: the freedom to exploit labour power, to make a profit. As long as society remains divided into classes women will retain the overwhelming responsibility for the upbringing of children and for household work. As long as a social division exists between men and women this will inevitably mean that women are unequal and subordinated to men in many ways.

We have seen that even in bourgeois-democratic countries such as the United States, France or the United Kingdom, the equality of women has not been achieved. A quick glance at the parliaments, the lists of the heads of states, or at corporate boardrooms in these countries shows that men overwhelmingly dominate them. Despite a general tendency for the equality of wages to be declared by law, it is a well-established fact that wages for women are considerably lower than for men with comparative levels of training and skill.

Furthermore, even in the imperialist countries there is a marked tendency for the desperately poor to be made up of an increasingly higher percentage of women. Late twentieth-century capitalism continues along with its “two-tier” system in which a sizeable minority of the population is ground down into shocking conditions of immiseration. In so many cases this means families are headed by single mothers, women are locked into very low-paying work or out of the job market altogether and completely shackled to the drudgery of domestic work, while faced with the task of bringing up children in desperate conditions. Some Western sociologists have coined the term “feminisa­tion of poverty” to describe this ­phenomenon.

But the oppression of women cuts across class lines; in other words, in class society women are oppressed generally, giving rise to resistance and important movements among the women of various social classes and strata in both the imperialist and oppressed countries. Throughout the world women are confronted with variants of patriarchy and male chauvinism, as well as the backward ideas and practices that accompany them, rarely censured by and often enshrined in bourgeois-democratic social institutions and laws.

Rebellious women who refuse the role that bourgeois society has allotted them constitute an important stream of the mass resistance against the ruling classes of these countries. The struggle against the oppression of women thus brings new and powerful forces into play which the proletarian vanguard needs to learn how to lead as part of the overall struggle for revolution.

Oppressed Countries

In the oppressed countries women are also among the biggest victims of the intensification of exploitation that can be seen throughout the world. In many countries the very conditions of impoverishment are fuelling new rounds of industrialisation as imperialist capital is drawn like a magnet to those countries where the desperation of the people can be turned into a tidy profit. In Indonesia, China, Bangladesh and Zaire reactionary regimes compete in a ghastly auction, each offering the imperialists yet a lower price for access to new pools of blood to suck dry in their factories and sweatshops. And in country after country women are becoming a massive part of these new armies of proletarians.

China itself, whose capitalist rulers have conducted probably the most extreme, unrestricted and radical process of capitalist development ever seen on earth, has provided literally millions of young women and girls from the villages as fodder for the vast “free trade zone” near Hong Kong. In Bangladesh, whole new legions of proletarians, mainly women, have emerged in the last two decades as the workforce in the garment industry has grown to over one million.

In the oppressed countries women are a particularly sharp victim of the backwardness of feudalism, which has been maintained and incorporated in the “modern world”. In the carpet industries of Iran, India and other countries modern imperialism has found a cosy reciprocal relationship using traditional forms of oppression as women and children stay chained to their household looms to produce for the world market. This is in part why a great many countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America can best be described as “semi-feudal”.

There is thus a strong material basis for the outpouring of women. Yet the attraction of women to the revolutionary struggle cannot be explained by, or reduced to, only the immediate exploitation of women at the hands of the reactionary classes as workers or peasants. In addition to this, the masses of labouring women also bear the burden of male domination and stifling social and religious practices and institutions, which falls on women of the more privileged sections as well.

Thousands of years of traditions’ chains weigh on women in countless forms. In Afghanistan, the Islamic rulers have returned to the medieval practice of literally locking women inside the house and controlling their every movement, as one example of what has come to be known as “gender apartheid”, an extreme case of the feudal form of women’s oppression still so prevalent around the globe, alongside mountains of religious superstition. The absolute tyranny and control over women by male family members along with reactionary practices woven into the fabric of the society are still a major feature of life for a huge section of the world’s women. Take just a few examples: the hated chador, female circumcision and forced sterilisation, arranged marriages of children and men’s “ownership” of children, dowry blackmail, wife-beating, men’s “right” to divorce and to adultery, either of which is punishable by banishment or death for millions of women.... Yet these conditions of oppression are also giving rise to new waves of resistance.

In addition to these and other feudal or semi-feudal “traditions”, women in the oppressed countries suffer alongside women in the “advanced” countries from more “modern” forms of degradation, such as constant sexual harassment of different types, plus pornography, prostitution, and multiple forms of violence, including rape and physical abuse. In many instances feudal and modern forms of oppression co-exist or intermingle, keeping women in an inferior position. (Nor should we forget that even some forms of the most backward ideological expressions of subordinating women exist in the “advanced” countries too — witness the growth of religious obscurantism in the US, where fundamentalist Christians oppose abortion rights and demand a return to traditional reactionary values in the home and in general.)

So women’s participation in the revolutionary struggle is a vehicle for striking at the whole underpinning of women’s oppression — the social relations which have developed since the emergence of classes themselves — not just at the immediate capitalist or landlord, or the state representing such class enemies.

Different Approaches

Whether in the West or in the oppressed countries, women cannot be considered a “marginalised” or incidental factor in the class struggle. More and more it is clear that they are very much concentrated at the centre of the process of exploitation and oppression. And the inevitable corollary of this is that women are and will increasingly be at the centre of the opposition to the system of imperialism and reaction.

The class enemy has understood very clearly the revolutionary potential of women and has taken significant steps not only to try to crush it but also to try to channel it in such a way as to preserve and protect the world imperialist system. For example, the imperialists, who back the most evil and barbaric reactionaries, now shed crocodile tears for the plight of women. They wage wars to preserve the sheikhs of the Gulf (and their right to restore their harems, like in Kuwait after the Gulf War) and aid regimes like El Salvador whose death squads brutally raped and murdered Catholic nuns in 1980 (recently revealed to have been known to top US officials in that country) and the Taliban of Afghanistan, while they also direct their legions of NGOs (so-called non-governmental organisations) to carry out projects among women, including the rural and poor women in third world countries. However laudable the motivation of some of the fieldworkers in such projects might be, these programmes fit into an overall plan of the imperialists themselves to harness the discontent of women away from revolutionary struggle and into reformist schemes and illusions of greater equality for them. But the fact that the imperialists have directed so much of the attention of the NGOs towards these strata is another indication of the important task of fighting for the allegiance of women.

One of the great differences between the proletarian revolutionary approach to the woman question and that of even the most radical of bourgeois democrats is whether to consciously fan this stream of rebellion or whether to constantly seek to restrict and narrow the scope of the outpouring of women, to see them as a valuable battering ram against the enemies but to fear their revolutionary yearnings for a completely different society.

How many times have we heard the nationalists and bourgeois-democratic revolutionaries claim that raising the woman question is “divisive” to the struggle? But this is only true if the goal of the “struggle” is itself seen as setting up a national structure complete with exploiters and exploited, male chauvinism, patriarchy and a whole host of other reactionary practices and thinking. And this policy of fear of going “too far” inevitably also puts limits on how thoroughly and effectively women will take part in even those revolutionary activities which are “permitted”.

On the contrary, the proletarian revolutionaries welcome and nourish the rebellion of women. For the proletarian revolutionaries, the contradictions engendered by the active participation of women (that is, resistance by men) are a necessary feature of the revolutionary movement. Handling this correctly through education, criticism and self-criticism, as well as promoting conscious struggle, including the rebellion of women, against backward ideas and practices within the revolutionary movement can lead to the advance of the whole movement, both men and women. The contradiction between men and women will not disappear by wishing it away or trying to dissolve it into the general “struggle”, as the bourgeois forces and male chauvinists would have it. Such an approach will only mean that the participation of women is throttled and that sooner or later their resistance will emerge in a way that may be less favourable for the revolution.

Communists have been criticised by some feminists and others for having an “ulterior motive” for involving women in the revolutionary struggle. Communist revolutionaries recognise the vast potential that exists among women, especially among the poor. Their fury is indeed a mighty force for revolution, to be unleashed as part of the unleashing of all of the masses against the reactionary system. The “ulterior motive” to which we plead guilty is that communists recognise that thorough-going participation of women in the revolutionary movement today is one of the very important elements that will enable the movement of today, where it has already reached the stage of people’s war, such as in Peru or Nepal or where the all-out struggle for power is still in preparation, to flower into the movement of tomorrow, the socialist revolution, which will attack step by step all old property relations and ideas and institutions based on them, including, as an important focus of this, the oppression of women.

Socialism in China

In analysing the new democratic revolution, a necessary stage through which the proletarian revolution must pass in the oppressed countries that make up the bulk of the population on earth, Mao Tse-tung stressed the existence of “socialist elements”. Indeed, he insisted that the existence of these elements was one of the key features that made this revolution new as opposed to old democratic, which made it part of the world proletarian socialist revolution.

China itself illustrates very clearly the “two roads” that are open for women. After the completion of the new democratic revolution in 1949 the proletariat undertook the socialist revolution, waging repeated battles against the remnants of the old society and fighting off recurrent efforts by the those in the party who wanted to call a halt to the revolution and set about building a capitalist society. Throughout those decades of building socialism enormous strides were made in mobilising women in all aspects of the struggle, in fighting the old practices and ideas and bringing forth the new. In the Cultural Revolution this process reached its high point when hundreds of millions of people were involved in a life-and-death battle to keep the revolution moving ahead toward communism. It is well known that this great movement involved women in a way never before seen. This was true among all sections of the people — revolutionary intellectuals making up the Red Guard movement, workers and peasants. It was reflected in the Party itself, including at the highest levels where Comrade Chiang Ching played an historic role as one of the principal leaders of the revolutionary headquarters inside the CCP. And in the important arena of battle against old ideas, under her leadership powerful works were created setting whole new standards in reflecting the image and mission of the proletariat in the sphere of art and culture. One of the very prominent features of these works was the portrayal of strong revolutionary heroines.

As we know, the Cultural Revolution was eventually defeated by the reactionary onslaught of Deng Xiao-ping and the treachery of Hua Kuo-feng. Chiang Ching herself was singled out by the coup-makers as the principal villain for her tireless struggle for the proletariat and for the proletarian revolutionary line of Mao Tse-tung and accused of using her power for purely personal ambitions. Put on trial in 1980, she courageously defended the red flag, admitting only to the crime of making revolution and transformed the courtroom into a trial of her accusers, Deng and Hua.

Old vs. New

And what is the situation for women in today’s China of restored capitalism? Of course, some women, like some men, have benefited from the pillage of the previous collective property of the people or from the newly acquired freedom to exploit the workers and labouring masses. But for the majority of women, restored capitalism has meant re-enslavement, not just economically but both physically and socially in the clutches of male domination, whether in the free trade zone of Canton, in the villages which have again become a place of horror and destitution for the great majority of rural dwellers, or in the glittering cities of the new capitalist China. Ancient forms of women’s oppression are reappearing like a sore all over the country. Feudal and Confucian ideas about the inferiority of women have re-emerged with a vengeance. Prostitution, which was eradicated in Mao’s China, is the inevitable accompaniment to a society in which human labour has again become a commodity to be bought and sold, where “to get rich is glorious” as the Chinese rulers boast so shamelessly. Female infanticide is so widespread that its cruel reality appears even in population statistics. China has again become a hellish place for the majority of women.

Thus we can see that for the masses of women as for society as a whole, the question of “old democracy” versus “new democracy” is no minor matter. It has everything to do with whether the common feature of all hitherto existing class societies, exploitation and with it the oppression of women, will continue or whether the long and difficult road of creating entirely different relations between men and women will be embarked upon. From Nepal today, just as from Peru and other countries in revolutionary struggle, stories abound of new fighters and leaders emerging from among the most oppressed women, of those who yesterday were the scorned and ridiculed rising to the requirements of being revolutionary heroines. Such women will never be satisfied with a revolution that goes only part way, and they will set powerful examples to others, testing the revolutionary movement and its objectives.

With an eye to the future as well as to the present necessities of the movement, proletarian revolutionaries wholeheartedly strive to fulfil the slogan “Unleash the fury of women as a mighty force for revolution!” As in any great revolutionary undertaking, the proletarian vanguard will learn in the process as it obtains rich new experience and overcomes new problems. As Mao said in his 1927 “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan”, it is impossible to correct a wrong without exceeding “proper limits”. This is strikingly true of the situation today when the cause of revolution demands that millions of women break all the chains, including those of tradition and male supremacy, hampering their revolutionary initiative.

Correct and vigorous implementation of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism on this question by any communist party and organisation is bound to bring many women forward as revolutionary leaders and fighters. Guided by Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, the stand and practice of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement and the parties and organisations that make it up have opened the door wide for such development. Yet we cannot be complacent, as there is a great deal more to be done to fully mobilise women in the revolutionary struggle. Today’s progress is just a beginning, just the first act in the unfolding of a great drama that will surely astound the sceptics as women are aroused and unleashed to destroy that which is putrid in this world and start building brick by brick the new one.