Women as thinkers and revolutionaries

March 18, 2012

Editor’s Note: For International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we print below brief excerpts from Raya Dunayevskaya’s 1975-76 lectures on “Women as Thinkers and as Revolutionaries,” which were also excerpted in Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution: Reaching for the Future.

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I. Mass Creativity and the Black Dimension

What today we call Women’s Liberation, as an Idea whose time has come, are movements from practice, from below, that have been accumulating through the ages.

Take the so-called Aba “riots” in Eastern Nigeria in 1929, some 30 years before anyone thought seriously of Africa, much less African women, as a new development of world freedom. It was in that inauspicious year that the market women in Eastern Nigeria were suddenly taxed by the occupying British Empire….

The self-organization of the women established a totally new form of struggle which transcended all tribal divisions–Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa, as well as the smaller tribes. So united, powerful, and violent was the opposition of the women to the edicts, to their own chiefs, as well as to the British imperial rule, that it became impossible to contain the revolt….

Has any historian, or even revolutionary, seen that historic act as ground from which a great leap into freedom as well as leadership was achieved in the 1960s? Nor can the neglect be explained only by the fact that the event occurred in far-off Africa, back at the outbreak of the Great Depression.

Take the Women’s Rights Convention in this country in 1848, at Seneca Falls, N.Y., a fact often enough recorded by women historians of today. All underestimate the Black dimension which inspired the white, middle-class, educated women to strike out on their own. Sojourner Truth and sometimes also Harriet Tubman are dutifully mentioned, condescendingly admitting their bravery–and of course their suffering as slaves–but never as Reason which drove the educated to face reality: that the Black women were the orators, generals, and, yes, thinkers, whereas they, the middle-class intellectuals, were but subordinates….

Have we even today, as we inveigh against “male domination,” compared that to Sojourner Truth’s separation from Frederick Douglass after the Civil War for being “short-minded” because he did not wish to burden the struggle for passage of the 14th Amendment by demanding also the right of women to vote? And have today’s women theorists built on that movement from below, not only as force, but as Reason? Nor have any analyzed it within the context of that year of revolutions, 1848….

Other than Marx’s genius, what was in the air that led to Marx’s discovery of a whole new continent of thought? Can we today afford to let the ruling ideology keep us hemmed into American pragmatism? Shouldn’t we, as women, at least be aware of the fact that the year Marx first broke with bourgeois society and worked out a philosophy of liberation which he called “a new Humanism”–1843–was also the year when a woman, Flora Tristan, proclaimed the need for an International of men and women that would put an end to the division of mental and manual labor?…

II. Russia, February 1917; Germany, January 1919; and Rosa Luxemburg

Now let’s turn to the 20th century and see, firstly, what we can learn from women as masses in motion, initiating nothing short of the overthrow of that reactionary Russian colossus, Tsarism–the dramatic, creative, empire-shaking five days in February 1917; and, secondly, let’s turn to the 1919 German Revolution, and its greatest theoretician, Rosa Luxemburg.

That first day, Feb. 23, in Russia, appeared simple enough as a celebration of International Women’s Day by the textile workers in Petrograd. But was it that simple when they insisted it become a strike, despite a raging world war in which their country was doing very badly? Was it that simple when all revolutionary parties–Bolsheviks, Left Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, Anarchists–were telling them that they were courting a massacre, and they shouldn’t go out on strike? Was that first day of the revolution, when 50,000 women marched despite all advice against it, a “male-defined” revolution? Was the letter they addressed to the metal workers, which the metal workers honored by joining the strike–and 50,000 grew to 90,000: men and women, housewives as well as factory workers–a proof of the fact that they didn’t really “know” what they were doing?…

What had happened in action, what had happened in thought, what had happened in consciousness of the mass participants–all this is ground on which we build today. Or should be. But even if some still insist on playing down women both as masses in motion and as leadership, let them consider the German Revolution, January 1919, led by Rosa Luxemburg. None questioned that she was the leader.

From 1898 when she fought the first appearance of reformism in the Marxist movement, through the 1905 Revolution in which she was both a participant and out of which she drew her famous theory of the Mass Strike; from 1910-13 when she broke with Karl Kautsky–four years in advance of Lenin’s designation of Kautsky as not only opportunist but betrayer of the proletariat–and when she first developed her anti-imperialist struggles and writings, not only as political militant but carving out her greatest and most original theoretical work, Accumulation of Capital, to the 1919 Revolution, she made no division between her theory and her practice….

Luxemburg was not only involved in lecturing and developing an anti-imperialist struggle over the 1911 Morocco crisis which would, in turn, lead to her greatest theoretical work, Accumulation of Capital, but she also turned to work on the “Woman Question,” which heretofore she had left entirely to Clara Zetkin, who was editing the greatest German women’s magazine, Die Gleichheit, from 1891 to 1917.

The magazine’s circulation rose from 9,500 in 1903 to 112,000 in 1913. Indeed, by the outbreak of the war, the female membership in the German Social Democracy was no less than 170,000. It is clear that, as great a theoretician as Rosa Luxemburg was, and as great an organizer as Clara Zetkin was, they were not exceptions to the alleged apathy of German women. On the contrary, it would be more correct to say that there wouldn’t have been as massive and important a revolution in Germany were there not that many women involved in the revolution.…

Has the Women’s Liberation Movement nothing to learn from Rosa Luxemburg just because she hadn’t written “directly” on the “Woman Question”? Outside the fact that the latter doesn’t happen to be true, should not the corpus of her works become the real test of woman as revolutionary and as thinker and as someone who has a great deal to tell us as Women’s Liberationists of today? Are we to throw all that into the dustbin of history because she had not written on the “Woman Question”?

III. An Ongoing Revolution and Today’s Women Theorists

The plunge into revolutions is being undertaken because they not only are exciting events of the early 20th century, but will also illuminate the problems of our day. We need to examine, if only briefly, today’s ongoing Portuguese Revolution to see the historic continuity of working-class women in motion as shapers of history. As far back as two decades ago, when the totally new movement from below began with the outbreak of the East European revolt against Russian totalitarianism, signaling a new world stage of struggle for freedom from under totalitarianism, and no one was paying attention to the fascist regime in Portugal, there were struggles of workers, of women, of peasants….

Women became especially important in 1973 when a labor shortage sent them into textiles and electronics, and directly into the fight against multinationals. It is in textiles and electronics and shipyards where the grassroots workers’ movement first erupted, and where none questioned the militancy of women workers. But they were asking not only for a fundamental change in labor conditions, but for different relations at home, as well as raising totally new questions of revolution and new human relations….

Women’s participation became critical as three movements–the rebellion within the army, and the wildcats of industrial workers covering the length and breadth of the country, as well as the peasant occupation of the land–coalesced. It was no accident that one of the revolutionary political movements that arose, PRP/BR, was headed by a woman, Isabel do Carmo….

Working class women have a very special reason for their passionate interest in revolutions, not simply because they’re exciting events, but because they show working-class women in motion as shapers of history. The dialectical relationship of spontaneity to organization is of the essence to all of us as we face today’s crises. It is not only Portugal which is under the whip of counter-revolution that began Nov. 25, 1975. The global struggle for power between capitalist imperialism and state-capitalist societies calling themselves Communist, all nuclear-armed, has put a question mark over the very survival of humanity.

Creativity that can really tear things up at their roots and genuinely start something new, humanly new, can only come from mass creativity. It is only then when it is totally revolutionary, is not hemmed in by the concept and practice of the “Party to lead,” and it is only then it can once and for all end aborted and unfinished revolutions….

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Celebrate International Women’s Day

“No doubt we will not fully overcome male chauvinism so long as class society exists. But we can and will break up its monolithism. We can and will witness the development of women themselves not only as force but as reason. We can and will be a catalyst not only for our development as all-round human beings, but also for that of men. The first step in that direction is to meet the challenge as it appears, everywhere it appears, any time it rears its head, under no matter what disguises. The first act of liberation is to demand back our own heads.”

–Raya Dunayevskaya
From: Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of Revolution

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