Essay: What is socialism? Socialism and Women’s Liberation

June 27, 2019

From the July-August 2019 issue of News & Letters

This is the third of four essays on the topic: What Is Socialism? “Socialism and a Philosophy of Revolution” by Gerry Emmett, can be found at and “Socialism, labor and the Black dimension” by Bob McGuire can be found at The last essay will take up “Socialism and Ecology.”

by Terry Moon

A group of supporters thanking abortion providers at the “Pink House,” the last abortion clinic in Mississippi.

The vicious attacks on women’s right to control our own bodies (see Editorial, “Freedom=control of our own bodies,” p. 2), on immigrants (see “Trump aims to bleach the census,” p. 8), people of color, LGBTQI+ people, and the poor makes a discussion of “Socialism and Women’s Liberation” more relevant than ever. That is because capitalism has failed women, in economic terms—what capitalism’s supporters brag is what it does best—and in every imaginable way. From unequal pay that is worse for women of color than white; to how the maternal mortality rate in the U.S. has more than doubled to 21.5 per 100,000 live births from 2000 to 2014—with women of color being those most likely to die; to the approximately three women in the U.S. who are murdered every day by men who claimed to love them, to the shameful politicization of healthcare: capitalism has been a cause, not solution.


How do women fare under socialism? To address that, we cannot look at Russia, China, Cuba, etc. These countries are not and never were socialist, they are not “state-socialist,” they are state-capitalist societies, mostly totalitarian, and the needs of capital rule them. Women in these countries do not do better than women in the U.S. and often fare worse. To see the promise of socialism, we must look at the few times where women have created the freedom to carve out their vision of a free society. Those moments occur during and after revolutions, before they become transformed into their opposite.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 revealed how ambitious women’s plans were for a new society. Women leaders like Alexandra Kollontai were so anxious to build an independent women’s liberation movement that they proposed the first All Russian Congress of Women to begin only five days after the Bolsheviks planned on taking power. The complexities of the Revolution postponed that meeting until the next year, when 1,000 women, mostly workers and peasants, jammed into the hall where only 300 had been expected. By 1919 women had formed the Zhenotdel (women’s section or department). While the Party men, except for Lenin, wanted to confine its role to bringing women into the Party, the women wanted it to do so much more and do it autonomously.

The hostility to Zhenotdel was not limited to men outside the party whose wives and daughters began demanding freedom. After Lenin’s death, Stalin moved as fast as he could to destroy it. The destruction of the Zhenotdel was not separated from the destruction of the revolution as a whole. By 1930 it was dissolved; that same year the official slogan for International Women’s Day became “100% Collectivization.”[1]

One of the greatest examples of what women created in the process of revolution is the 1871 Paris Commune. There women like Louise Michel completely transformed the education system, educating girls and boys together, taking classes outside so children could have fresh air, bringing nature, music and poetry into the classrooms, and throwing the clergy out of education so that children could learn the truth, not dogma. Men and women were paid the same, worked together, made decisions about what would be produced, how it would be produced and how it would be distributed. They met nightly to make these decisions and the entire time women were fighting to be equal to men in all endeavors, including on the barricades.

Egyptian women demonstrate against Mubarak in February 2011. Photo:

In our age women in the Arab Spring took part in all the struggles, and still are, as is seen in Sudan (see “All Power to the Sudanese revolutionaries!” p. 1) and Algeria (see “Algerians in revolt” p. 12) today. In Egypt, women in Tahrir Square in 2011 showed themselves as revolutionary fighters, and many said that for the first time they felt that the men in the Square treated them as human beings. The first move of the counter-revolution was to physically attack women in Tahrir Square in an attempt to divide the movement. (See “Arab Spring and women after revolution” July-Aug. 2011 N&L.)

What women were able to create in the brief spaces revolutions created show us what is possible. Is it “socialism”? It is the beginnings of a new society, full of potential, revealing what Marx called “the quest for universality,” and the joy of being “in the Absolute movement of becoming.”


In his 1844 Economic-Philosophic Manuscripts, Marx made it clear that to him the relationship of man to woman was the measure of how free a society had become, or how far it needed to go. He said that we would know when society has advanced to a new stage “when another human being is needed as a human being.” Raya Dunayevskaya deepened that by saying that what is involved as well is how deep and total revolution has to be.

What has muddied the waters on socialism and women’s liberation, is something Dunayevskaya pointed out in Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution (p. 104): “…the most serious errors of not only bourgeois but of socialist feminists are that they…above all, have helped those men who have tried to reduce Marx to a single discipline, be that as economist, philosopher, anthropologist, or ‘political strategist.’”

Most feminist theorists read Karl Marx, not to find what he worked out, but to see what he left out. He is attacked as not feminist, as only interested in workers—as if women haven’t always been workers—or they insist that he only took up capitalism and not patriarchy so Marxism must be supplemented. Often that supplementation mangles or misinterprets Marx’s categories.

Alison M. Jaggar is an example of a feminist theorist who interprets Marx in a narrow way. Even though her work Feminist Politics and Human Nature was written many years ago, it is one of the most serious feminist discussions of Marx and an example of the truncated view of Marx that is still being put forth today.

Jaggar critiques Marxists—and makes no distinction between post-Marx Marxists and Marx—for theorizing that, “once women are fully integrated into wage labor, there is no material basis for the sex specific oppression of women” (p. 223). But this was not Marx’s idea.

In a much-maligned paragraph, Marx writes: “modern industry, by assigning as it does an important part in the process of production outside the domestic sphere to women, to young persons, and to children of both sexes, creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of the relations between the sexes….”

Jaggar, like many others, interprets this to mean that Marx thinks that “participation of all in public production” will end “the oppression of any group by another” (p. 225). She rightly criticizes this, because she knows that women’s oppression is not linked only to the workplace, and that freedom for women “requires a far more total transformation of our society and of ourselves…” (p. 389).


What Jaggar misses is what Marx says in the very next paragraph—that “in its brutal capitalistic form,” women’s entry into the labor force can be nothing other than a “pestiferous source of corruption and slavery.” Obviously he wasn’t saying all women have to do is work. Rather, the entire society must be transformed so that the way we produce things would be done in a liberating manner.

Marx was not saying that working outside the home equaled either socialism or the end to women’s oppression. In every subject he touched, be it production, anthropology or history, Marx was always looking for how human relations were changed. That was his focus, because he was trying to work out the creation of a new society built on new, human, instead of alienated, relationships.[2]

A currently popular feminist theorist, Silvia Federici, tried to create an alternative theory of ”social reproduction,” contending that having children and raising them is labor akin to value-producing labor that Marx worked out as a hallmark of capitalism. She theorizes that women’s role in reproduction is more important than factory labor because the woman is creating and raising the next generation of workers, and is therefore producing the most important commodity, labor power.

This mangles Marx’s category of “reproduction” as how capitalism reproduces itself, where to Federici it means reproducing children.

In specifying how capitalism works and what types of labor it values, Marx is not making value judgments. He is not saying that what workers do is more important than what women do. What he is doing is showing how capitalism works and reproduces itself. Capital makes the reproduction of human beings subordinate to its own reproduction instead of the other way around.

The reproduction of capital is about production for production’s sake, the accumulation of capital, and at the same time reproducing the exploitative social relations that define capitalist society. To understand this, one has to comprehend how capitalism reproduces the alienation—the thingifying of human beings—rather than liberating people.

Capitalist relations turn the human being into a thing and make things—commodities—the center of life. While there is no question that women’s oppression preceded capitalism, the objectification of all those who labor and create value impacts women as well as people of color and others. Ending that kind of objectification will have significant ramifications in our task to create a new human world and fight the objectification of women and others that seems to permeate society.

One of capitalism’s hallmarks is the law of value, where value is determined by socially necessary labor time. One way it manifests itself is as a drive for maximum production from the worker and minimum pay for her.

It also engenders revolt. If we see the dialectic as self-development through contradiction, then we recognize that those women in Russia who participated in the Zhenotdel, the women in the Paris Commune and in the Arab Spring, were fighting not only for their rights as workers but also for the freedom of women. The “quest for universality” that Marx pointed out is revealed in how women and others struggle as whole human beings. A Black working woman fights for all her rights at the same time; she is not Black one day, a worker another, and a woman a third. This is another reason that revolution has to be total from the start. We fight as who we are and who we want to become.

This revolt—which living in a sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-immigrant society brings out—sheds a new light on all kinds of questions, including “reproductive labor,” and how deep the transformation has to be. Not only do all human relationships have to be transformed and actually become human, but work too has to be something entirely different. Instead of the kind of life-shortening drudgery work is now for so many the world over, Marx raised what it could be in a new society: “life’s prime want.”


In Capital, Marx was not expansive on what the new society was to be. He did find the subject that would overthrow it—workers, men and women—because they know it best, and are the ones who experience its brutality and alienation first hand, and they are in a key place, at the point of production. Not only is what they produce alienated from them, but the very way they produce it, what they are doing with their own bodies in the act of creating commodities, is also alienated from them. To overthrow capitalism, then, labor is vital, just as women are vital in ending sexism and people of color in ending racism. This is part of what Dunayevskaya meant when she said that women’s oppression shows us just how deep and total revolution has to become.

Clearly to Marx and to women’s liberation, socialism cannot be a simple change in who is leading a country or even who owns its resources. The goal of revolution cannot stop at getting rid of tyrants like Trump, Putin, Viktor Orbán, Rodrigo Duterte, or Xi Jinping—all of whom, by no coincidence, strive to suppress women’s struggles to break out of traditional roles and liberate ourselves. That is just the beginning.

That is why Marxist-Humanism has been stressing Marx’s concept of “revolution in permanence,” because history has shown the insufficiency of a revolution stopping at the mere overthrow of government. Revolution must become permanent so that all human relationships are transformed in the process. There cannot be a blueprint for socialism. It will be what we make it.

[1]“Women and the 1917 Russian Revolution,” News & Letters, by Terry Moon, Nov. 1987, p. 2.

[2]“Is Marx’s Capital about women’s freedom?” by Terry Moon, News & Letters, May 1999, p.

One thought on “Essay: What is socialism? Socialism and Women’s Liberation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *