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8 March 2017
International Women's Day (8th March) is being celebrated with special enthusiasm this year by members of the parties and organisations affiliated to the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI). It is a hundred years since women workers of Petrograd chose this day to take the action which sparked the historic Russian revolution. It is also the day on which millions world-wide will be on the streets to denounce the reactionary views of the newly elected president of the United States, especially towards women.
Exactly 100 years ago - on February 23 according to the old (Julian) calendar - the women textile workers of Petrograd walked out of their factories demanding 'bread and peace' and appealing to other workers to do the same. Within five days of mass demonstrations, general strike action, street battles and appeals to the troops, the Tsarist state machine crumbled and the rule of the hated Romanov autocracy was over.
Power was in the streets for the workers to take hold of and organise. It began to seem as if their dreams could come true: an end to war and starvation, a new life for working men and women and for the millions of poverty-stricken peasants across the vast disintegrating Russian Empire.
Workers in the factories of the Vyborg district of Petrograd had long been discussing revolutionary action; the women simply opened the sluice gate! They were desperate for an end to the slaughter of millions at the war front and for food to feed their families.
All the main conditions for revolution, understood by Marxists, had matured - the crisis at the top of society, the turmoil and disaffection in the middle layers, the workers on the move and ready for a fight to the finish and the readiness of the forces of the state to come over to the side of the workers. The missing, vital element was mass support for a revolutionary party that could point a clear line towards workers taking power into their own hands and achieving their objectives.
Many revolutionary leaders – including Lenin and Trotsky – were still in exile and striving to get back to Russia. They rejoiced at the flood of human energy released on the streets of Petrograd but recognized that it needed to be channeled into further struggles to finish with capitalism and landlordism and spread the revolution to other stronger economies in Europe or the USA.
But in these early days of 1917, the Bolsheviks were relatively weak with limited support in the councils of workers' and soldiers' deputies (soviets). The other parties – the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks who held sway - were not prepared to put forward a programme to end the war and oust the capitalists and landlords from their positions in society. While the workers and peasants wanted nothing more than an end to the war, further experience would show the need to carry the revolution through to completion. For now, the war dragged on and more and more peasants and workers in uniform were slaughtered.
It would be another eight months before, with majority support for the Bolshevik Party in the soviets, they could complete the process of revolution - this time with hardly a drop of blood being spilt. In October (by the old calendar) a workers' socialist government was established.
Its first declarations were on the vital issues of peace, land, the 8-hour day and women's rights. Women would thenceforth have the full right to vote, equality of pay and hours, the right to civil marriage and divorce, as well as free family planning and abortion, if necessary. Big plans were drawn up for the provision of nurseries and child care, communal eating arrangements, laundries, libraries, sports and entertainment facilities. A famous revolutionary poster shows a young Bolshevik woman opening a window with the slogan: 'Down with kitchen slavery! Give us the new life! '.
Tragically, with civil war, imperialist intervention and the failure of revolutionary movements elsewhere, the already weak economy was crippled. Huge efforts were continued to improve the lives of women in town and country, but dire shortages frustrated plans for the 'New Life'. The rise to power of Stalin and his clique saw the reversal of many of the gains that had been made for women. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s has seen capitalist, even feudal, 'values' restored in all their ugliest manifestations.
In the year of remembering the Russian Revolution, the propaganda of President Putin is to accept that getting rid of the Tsar was probably worth it but that everything went wrong when the capitalists and land-owners were swept aside! And this from a former member of the 'Communist Party' and member of the state security forces (KGB)! What worse indication could there be of the reactionary nature of Vladimir Putin's rule in Russia today than the virtual lifting of legal sanctions against domestic violence? How cruelly does this contrast with the sensitive approach of the original Bolsheviks to the problems that afflict women in class society?
The idea for a special day to honour working women and their struggles was actually born in the US. In 1908, 15,000 women marched in New York demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. The next year, the Socialist Party of America called for women to observe a 'National Women's Day' across the country and, by 1910, the German socialist, Clara Zetkin, was successfully proposing to an international socialist women's conference in Copenhagen to make it a world-wide event.
Less than a week after the women's marches of 1911, 140 female workers died in a New York factory fire. In the following years, the numbers of women workers marching to demand decent working conditions and labour legislation swelled. On International Women's Day, 1914, across Europe there were marches against the impending imperialist war and for a woman's right to vote.
Much has changed for the better in the century since the Russian Revolution. Huge advances have been made in the daily lives of women, often through strikes, struggles and campaigns that they have been involved in. But even in the context of vastly more developed technology and resources, around the world, women are still laboring long hours for lower pay than male workers. The austerity policies of recent years have reversed some of the advances, and the services that women and their families depend on are being savagely cut. In addition, as research confirms, they are also doing far more unpaid work in and outside the home than men, even in 'advanced' cultures!
Capitalist society continues to foster attitudes and practices which deny women equality of opportunity and free choice in relation to when and whether to have children.
In many parts of the world, little if anything has improved. Women and girls are still seen literally as the property, if not the slaves, of men. Millions are deprived even of elementary education and have no time for themselves. While in some neo-colonial countries considerable progress has been made on issues like contraception, female genital mutilation and deaths in childbirth, many aspects of life – even the availability of food and clean water – have worsened.
Wars and famine mean that tens of millions of women are on the move and homeless as refugees. Across the world, they suffer sexual exploitation, rape, violence and murder, from people they know. as well from strangers.
A book newly re-published by the Socialist Party in England and Wales, 'It Doesn't Have to Be Like This', by Christine Thomas, explains in detail the problems to which women have been subjected throughout the existence of class societies, especially capitalism. It points to successful campaigns on housing, on health facilities and on the nightmare of domestic violence that have made a difference and won reforms. But the book concludes with the words of Friedrich Engels, the friend and collaborator of Karl Marx, which are as valid today as they were when he wrote them in the 19th century. He says that the basis for solving the problems that women face remains, "The transfer of the means of production into common ownership".
As socialists, we see capitalism as a rotten system that inflicts untold misery, wars and starvation on humanity. Eight people own more than half the world's population! One per cent lives from the exploitation of the other 99%.
It really doesn't have to be like this! The coinciding of the anniversary of the Russian revolution and the mounting anger against Trump and his billionaire rule, offers an ideal opportunity to shout from the roof-tops about a socialist approach to women's rights and transforming the society in which we live.
It is no exaggeration to say that, in reaction to the election of Donald Trump last November, a kind of 'revolution' has been happening around the world. Even the word itself, along with 'socialism', has become popular in the US! This is partly due to the earlier campaign of Bernie Sanders to become the Democratic nominee for the presidential elections and his "Political Revolution".
But the election of the misogynist and sexist Donald Trump, to the position of president of the United States, saw an immediate explosion of anger, particularly amongst women - young and old. In the US, just the day after the result was announced, more than 40,000 people were on the streets in protest, largely on the initiative of Socialist Alternative, the co-thinkers of the CWI in the US. This undoubtedly helped spark the huge protests that followed. On 21 January, the day after Trump's inauguration, nearly 600 'Women's marches' took place across the US with more than four million participants - not only women. On the same day, a hundred similar protests took place around the world. The idea that action internationally can change the course of history is a powerful one whose time is coming!
Millions of women and men have been taking to the streets for the first time in their lives to protest against Trump's racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-environmentalist stances. There is also a feeling that a 'coming out' into the streets can change the course of history. It is a revolutionary step taken by people who may never have had a revolutionary or socialist thought in their heads!
Around the world, millions of people will be coming out on 8th March in what may be the biggest ever celebration of International Women's Day. The real history that links this day with working women's struggles against the bosses and their system has faded. Only in a few countries – Pakistan and Turkey among them - have demonstrations regularly taken place on International Women's Day.
But this year, thanks in part to Donald Trump, March 8th is being revived as a day for genuinely expressing international solidarity on issues affecting women and not merely offering them sweets or flowers! It is a day for condemning all the injustices, insults and discrimination that women have to suffer embodied in the attitude of the incumbent of the White House in Washington. His threats to health provision and abortion rights alone are enough to bring a mass of angry men and women onto the streets.
Of course, there is a world of difference between the Russian Revolution and what is happening this year. In today's very disturbed world, in which the capitalists have no long term solutions for their crisis-ridden system, there is a huge political vacuum. Demagogues of the right attempt to fill it. What is needed is the building of an independent movement that can fight for real solutions to the numerous daily problems which blight the lives of the 99% in society and particularly those of women.
Those who argue only for reforming capitalism do not have the answer. The bosses' system has not recovered from the crisis of 2008 and is heading for further disaster. The mass international 'coming out' onto the streets of the US and across the world marks a new stage in world politics.
In the hothouse of struggle, workers' parties can grow very rapidly.
The idea of some kind of 'strike' action on March 8th has been brewing since the autumn of last year. On October 19, a million women in Argentina responded to a call for action from the movement called 'Ni una menos' ('Not one fewer'). It has branches all over Latin America and campaigns on the horrific levels of violence against women. In Poland, action called a 'strike' by women and other workers, forced the government to back down on its reactionary proposal for a complete ban on abortion. (There will be demonstrations in no less than fifty Polish towns and cities this March 8th.) At the end of October last year, there was also a form of women's 'strike' in Iceland - against wage discrimination and in honour of an important women's strike there in 1975.
In Italy, where last November 200,000 marched in protests against violence against women in Rome, the movement of 'Not one Less' ('Non una di meno') appealed to unions to organise strike action. March 8th is called a "women's strike" but it would not be only women participating (in the same way that it has not just been women participating on the anti-Trump marches worldwide). Also there will not only be strikes. Male workers are being asked to down tools and go to go to demonstrations, to take some kind of action that brings attention to the huge problems for working women that persist. A call has been made on-line in France for work stoppages at 15.40 on March 8th, in this way depriving employers of the unpaid labour time they usually get because of the wage difference between men and women!
In Trump's own country, Socialist Alternative writes: "In the face of record-breaking, historic resistance, Trump is not stepping back. He is actually speeding up the attacks. We cannot wait until the next election. We need to step up our protests now!" They call for everybody to support the idea of action, including stopping work, "where it is possible to do so without risking your job or other retaliation". They also call for women's organisations and trade unions to use the day as a springboard for bigger action on May Day, the day of international workers' solidarity.
The school students' union in Spain, 'Sindicato de Estudiantes' (led predominantly by young women members of Izquierda Revolucionaria) has made a call for students to walk out of their classes from 12pm to 1pm on March 8th. They suggest gathering in the grounds of the schools and campuses. Their message is: "We've had enough of sexist violence! We fight to defend women's rights! Down with Donald Trump and any government that fosters sexism and oppression!"
In Brazil, protests on International Women's Day are being organised around two main slogans: 'No to pension reform!' which hits women hardest and 'No to femicide!' a slogan of the 'Not one Less' movement that is fighting the escalating violence against women. Strike action is expected amongst teachers in Sao Paulo and nationally .
A call has been made in Ireland to 'Strike 4 Repeal'. School and college students, as well as some workers, will walk out to demand an immediate referendum on lifting the country's ban on abortion. A march on parliament is planned for the evening. Socialist Party members, many of whom are active in ROSA - the socialist feminist campaign - will join in these events. ROSA is also organising a "Bus 4 Repeal" – touring the main towns and cities of the country, providing information and access to safe early abortion with pills through the doctor-led Dutch organisation, WomenOnWeb.org. In Sweden the Socialist Justice Party (RS) is planning a strike at one school in Stockholm and a few other protests at workplaces and intervening in demonstrations.
The CWI welcomes all the calls for action around the globe on 8 March. A 'global strike' or even action will not happen in every major country, but where the idea of action is being put forward, we encourage the maximum possible participation of men, as well as women, rejecting the idea that only women should be fighting on 'women's issues'. We need to highlight the importance of a programme of women's rights to be taken up by the whole movement in the course of the broader struggle for socialism.
Internationally, the CWI has been to the fore in many struggles that directly affect and involve women. Not least is the campaign of our co-thinkers in the US, headed by the Socialist Alternative Seattle City Councillor, Kshama Sawant, for the $15 minimum wage. Our approach in every campaign is to link immediate demands to the struggle to change society along socialist lines, but never to say that no rights can be won before the transformation of society!
We have never had the approach of saying that women should wait and not fight for changes in the world they live in. Also, everyone involved in a movement like ours needs to be sensitive and aware of the needs of others.
In the CWI we support initiatives to conduct campaigns and struggles on issues that particularly affect women. At the same time we argue for linking them up with the broader workers' movement and for the maximum unity between men and women workers. This is aimed at strengthening these struggles and pointing towards the need for a broader political force to struggle for a socialist society.
We welcome the widespread attention presently being given to the particular challenges which women face in capitalist society and the protests that are being organised around the world. We want to see the maximum unity and solidarity on the 8th March amongst all those internationally who are fighting sexism and the inequality, exploitation and hardship that are rife under capitalism. Join us in the struggle for socialism!