On 9 October, when federal Labor leader Julia Gillard delivered her parliamentary broadside against Liberal Opposition leader Tony Abbott, lambasting his misogyny, the speech rapidly went global, making international headlines and becoming an overnight YouTube hit. At home, Gillard’s sagging approval rating bounced in the polls, her speech striking a chord with women of all ages across the country. Ever since replacing Kevin Rudd as prime minister in 2010, Gillard has faced a relentless anti-woman barrage from a reactionary cabal extending from redneck yahoos to the inner sanctums of the Tory Liberal/National Party coalition, and fuelled by elements in the bourgeois media. From shock-jock celebrity Alan Jones ranting that Gillard should be “put in a chaff bag and thrown into the sea,” to Abbott sneering at the PM “to, politically speaking, make an honest woman of herself,” the sleazy campaign of denigration directed against Gillard, the country’s first female prime minister (and moreover childless, an atheist and living in a de facto relationship), is par for the course in this deeply sexist society.
While Gillard’s speech was one of those rare occasions when some fragments of truth are heard from the pigsty of bourgeois parliament, her concern for “the role of women in public life and in Australian society” most certainly does not extend to poor and working women. On the same day Gillard delivered her speech, both major parties voted up legislation to throw single parents off support payments when the youngest child turns eight. Over 100,000 sole parents, overwhelmingly women, will be forced onto pitiful “Newstart” dole payments, driving their families further into poverty. Promoted as an “incentive” to work, it cuts the incomes of thousands already working casual and low-paid jobs.
Almost three weeks earlier, Gillard voted against a bill that would have overturned the discriminatory ban on gay marriage. And while she promises the ALP “will always support and protect access to publicly funded abortions” (Sydney Morning Herald, 26 August), Gillard heads a party that invariably allows its MPs a “conscience vote” on abortion (just as it did on gay marriage), pandering to the powerful Catholic right within the party machine. Abortion, a medical procedure, is the subject of criminal law in most states and territories. Where it is legal, restrictions apply particularly to late-term abortions. Access is further impacted, to a greater or lesser degree, by ethnic and class advantages.
ALP Enforces Capitalist Class Rule
The minority Labor Party government that Gillard leads, while fragile (dependant on Greens and “independents”), does not lack zeal in proving its fitness to legislate for the profit-driven Australian ruling class. Alongside union-busting attacks by its Fair Work Australia industrial courts, this government has presided over the increasing casualisation of the workforce, the increasing cost of scarce childcare services, and a crumbling public health-care system. The gap between women’s and men’s wages has widened as has the gap between rich and poor, with homelessness on the rise. Today, more than two million Australians (almost ten percent of the population) live below the poverty line, including one in six children.
Gillard’s speech has been described as a watershed moment for Australian women. In fact, it is about as hollow as Rudd’s duplicitous “apology” to the Aboriginal Stolen Generations. The ALP has extended the former Howard Liberal/National Coalition government’s Northern Territory “Intervention,” a repressive police occupation of Aboriginal communities carried out under the pretence of “child protection.” It includes paternalistic welfare “quarantining,” an insult not least to Aboriginal women. Alongside facing state terror, Aboriginal communities are starved of adequate housing, medical and school facilities, with the resulting heightened social disorders then used as “proof” that they can’t continue residing on lands that are potential future mining bonanzas.
Hand-in-hand with brutality against Aborigines is the government’s barbaric treatment of refugees, outbidding the Coalition to win the racist, xenophobic vote. Alongside this have been military ventures from East Timor to the Solomons, and participation in blood-stained U.S.-led imperialist occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan in which hundreds of thousands have died including women and children. Just a few days after her speech, Gillard visited the Australian troops in Afghanistan to cheer them on. Having overturned the ban on women in combat roles, Gillard now offers both men and women a “future” as cannon fodder for the imperialist military. We say: Not one person, not one cent for the bloody Australian military! Australian troops/cops get out of Afghanistan, North Africa, the South Pacific and Southeast Asia!
The ALP is what Marxists call a bourgeois workers party: while based on the trade-unions, it has a thoroughly pro-capitalist program and leadership. In government, the Labor Party always serves the interests of the bourgeoisie, maintaining capitalist order to ensure the continued exploitation of the working class. In this they work closely with the bureaucratic misleaders of the trade unions, who promote class-collaborationist nationalism, protectionist poison and arbitration in the service of strangling impulses for struggle among workers. While thousands of men and women are being thrown out of jobs, for example in the manufacturing and retail industries, these sell-outs bow to the bosses’ laws and courts, which serve to keep workers’ struggles within the bounds acceptable to the capitalist ruling class.
Working men and women need a revolutionary workers party that fights in their class interests against the bosses and stands as a tribune of the people. Building such a party will take a political fight in the unions to replace the Laborite social-democratic union misleaders with a new, class-struggle leadership. What’s needed is determined class struggle completely independent of the bosses’ state, and combining a fight against union busting and job casualisation with opposition to the all-sided attacks on women and ethnic minorities at home and the ravages of imperialism abroad.
A class-struggle leadership in the unions would mobilise workers behind the fight for women’s rights; for free abortion on demand, for freely available, safe contraception, linked to the call for free, quality health care for all; for fully paid maternity and paternity leave and free 24-hour childcare to address the deep class and race oppression of poor and minority women. It would take up the fight for decent hours at union pay and conditions and for equal pay for equal work, including for immigrants, minorities, women and youth. It would fight unemployment through a struggle to reduce the workweek with no loss in pay—make the bosses pay! An all-out struggle to organise the thousands of non-unionised women, immigrants, minorities and young workers would do much to revitalise the declining union movement. However, ultimately, providing all with even the basic necessities of life—decent jobs, free quality, secular education and health care, decent affordable housing and public transport—requires a workers state with a planned collectivised economy where production is organised for the needs of society not for capitalist profit.
Marxism Vs. Feminism
Gillard’s “misogyny” speech has helped put the wind in the sails of feminists, already buoyed by recent activity around women’s rights. For those like Labor-loyal arch-feminist Ann Summers, opposition to the anti-woman chauvinism aimed at Gillard is closely entwined with wanting to “restore some dignity and respect to the holder of our highest office” (“Her Rights at Work [R-rated version],” 31 August). When writer and feminist Sophie Cunningham lamented in a 2011 speech on women’s inequality that women “own one percent of the means of production,” she captured the feminist establishment’s chief quarrel with capitalist society: being denied full access to the boy’s club of ruling-class power.
Feminism holds that the main division in society is between men and women rather than classes, that is, the capitalist class versus the working class. Denying the primacy of class divisions in society, feminism is a bourgeois ideology that views women’s oppression as a set of bad ideas and policies stemming from the existing patriarchy. Rejecting the fight to overthrow the capitalist system, many feminists have secured careers in the Labor Party and the trade-union bureaucracy where they have helped to oversee cutbacks and union-busting by the ALP federally and in the states which have particularly hit their working-class “sisters.”
A case in point is the previous Queensland state Labor premier Anna Bligh, a “pro-choice” feminist. A former student campaigner for abortion rights, Bligh administered the capitalist state, upholding archaic anti-abortion clauses in its Criminal Code. Doubtless many feminists look to women in Gillard’s cabinet such as Jenny Macklin, Tanya Plibersek, Penny Wong and Nicola Roxon, who all play pernicious and very specific roles administering the system for the bosses, driving down the conditions of the proletariat and oppressed.
Functioning entirely within the framework of bourgeois society, feminism is incapable of resolving women’s oppression, which is rooted in the institution of the family, a fundamental prop of capitalist class rule along with religion. In Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), Friedrich Engels traced the origin of the institution of the family and the state to the division of society into classes, leading to the special oppression of women. Engels explained that with the rise of a social surplus beyond basic subsistence, a leisured ruling class developed based on private appropriation of that surplus. The centrality of the family, the main source of women’s oppression, flowed from its role in the raising of the next generation and in the inheritance of property, which required women’s sexual monogamy and social subordination. Engels termed this “the world-historic defeat of the female sex.”
While women’s oppression affects women of all classes in this society, it is a feminist myth that women can advance their interests together in “sisterhood.” Women workers have more in common with their male co-workers than with a female boss. The role of women in production as workers gives them the social power, along with their male co-workers, to destroy private property in the means of production and lay the material basis for women’s emancipation. Thus the liberation of women is the task of the working class as a whole. Alongside giving full legal equality, a workers state will replace the social functions of the family with communal methods. Women will no longer be tied to household drudgery, but free to participate fully in economic, political and social life.
Our proletarian revolutionary perspective is counterposed to the outlook peddled by reformist left groups such as the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP)/Radical Women (RW). Paying lip service to Marxism while reinforcing feminist illusions among women, these “revolutionary feminists” declare “women will liberate ourselves only by uprooting the profit system and replacing it with a socialist communal society” and “women’s liberation can only be won by a movement of radical women” (Freedom Socialist Bulletin, Summer/Autumn 2005).
Leading FSP/RW cadres, Alison Thorne and Debbie Brennan, are among those supporting the recently formed Melbourne Feminist Action (MFA). Fellow MFA supporters include veteran anti-communist feminist writer Eva Cox. MFA’s first public action was a 300-strong defence rally at the East Melbourne Fertility Control Clinic, which is picketed daily by anti-abortion bigots. Called around the slogan “Our Clinic, Our Bodies, Our Choice,” the rally included among its demands that nearby St Patrick’s Cathedral condemn and refuse support to the “anti-choice” harassment. The futility of appealing to the woman-hating established churches is shown by the horrific death in Ireland of Savita Halappanavar after being refused an abortion under the laws of that Catholic-dominated state.
The FSP/RW’s “feminist unity” mongering invariably leads them to embrace cross-class community campaigns, in which the need for an independent proletarian-centred class-struggle fight is buried. While it is a good thing that so many turned out to defend the clinic, we recognise the need for such defence to be allied to the working class, the social force with the power to lead all the oppressed in struggle and ultimately to sweep away the entire barbaric capitalist system. We call for a fight to defend and extend women’s rights, including the right to abortion, through the independent mass mobilisation of the oppressed backed by the social power of labour. This is the road to decisively routing the religious cranks and their potentially murderous and fascistic hangers-on.
Like the FSP, Socialist Alliance (SA) also identifies itself with feminism. At this year’s annual feminist “Reclaim the Night” rally on 20 October in Melbourne, SA cadre Margarita Windisch shared the platform with writer and feminist Clementine Ford, and Durkhanai Ayubi, a senior policy analyst with the Gillard government. Unsurprisingly, Windisch’s speech was bereft of any mention of socialism or even capitalism for that matter. As reported in Green Left Weekly (31 October), she offered “congratulations” to Gillard for acknowledging sexism while simply looking to “shame” her over cuts to welfare. Reporting on a new study on violence against women, Windisch enthused, “the mobilisation of feminist movements is more important for change than the wealth of nations, left-wing political parties or the number of women politicians. Clearly, the onus is on us to make change.”
In an open reformist appeal to the state, Windisch called for women to play “our gender card” including “until sexual assault and domestic violence is taken seriously by the courts and the police” and “until our[!] troops are not used to invade other countries and kill our sisters.” Dare we ask, are Julia Gillard and Hillary Clinton also playing their “gender cards” as they help oversee the bloody imperialist occupation of Afghanistan? Contrary to Windisch’s anti-Marxist feminist mush, the capitalist state—at its core, the military, courts, prisons and police—exists to uphold the interests of the capitalist class. As Russian revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin spelt out, it can’t be reformed or pressured to act on behalf of the oppressed; it must be smashed through workers revolution and replaced by a workers state.
While, around the country, the “Reclaim the Night” (RTN) marches protesting violence against women were mostly small events, the rally in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick attracted some 5-7,000 people, reportedly the largest gathering in over ten years. It tapped into the widespread and justified horror at the brutal abduction, rape and murder of a 29-year-old local woman and ABC worker, Jill Meagher, in late September. On 30 September, amidst a media campaign promoting unifying as one community, up to 30,000 Melburnians took part in a “peace” march in Meagher’s memory and opposing violence against women. The bourgeoisie seizes on the fear and uncertainty created by vicious crimes such as the murder of Jill Meagher to promote “law and order.” Thus, the Victorian Liberal state premier, Ted Baillieu, pledged $3 million to councils to improve “security” by expanding the number of invasive CCTV cameras.
“Reclaim the night” marches have a history of making not-so-thinly veiled calls to strengthen the state and its repressive apparatus, particularly the cops. While Melbourne’s RTN organisers trumpeted that they “refused to engage with any policies that would give further powers to police,” nevertheless speakers such as Windisch promoted a touching faith in the capitalist state and the organisers also thanked the Brunswick police who “supported the march from the very beginning and worked with us to make it safe” (www.facebook.com/ReclaimTheNightSydneyRd2012, 21 October).
Anti-Communist Opportunists in a Tangle
For their part, the anti-communist Socialist Alternative have caused a stir amongst the reformist left, including their own membership, with a 22 November article penned by Louise O’Shea entitled “Jill Meagher, Reclaim the Night and the political right.” Seeking to distance SAlt from bourgeois feminism, but lacking the necessary Marxist program to do so, O’Shea’s article is peppered with rhetoric against class collaboration. This takes some chutzpah given that SAlt is immersed in class-collaborationist politics, from entrenching itself in cross-class anti-war coalitions to calling for a vote to the capitalist Greens in numerous parliamentary elections.
According to O’Shea, “Socialist Alternative’s central criticism of the Jill Meagher phenomenon and mobilisations around it was that they were a vehicle through which the rich and powerful could push an agenda, and which it was impossible given the level of class struggle and class consciousness in Australia today for the tiny forces of the left to intervene to change, so inherent is the right wing logic of the issue.” While O’Shea/SAlt’s article makes some valid points, their argument that, because Meagher was a pretty, white petty-bourgeois woman, any mobilisation around her murder would inherently have a right-wing logic effectively dismisses all those who demonstrated as one reactionary mass.
No doubt those who joined the RTN rally protested for varied, and sometimes contradictory, reasons. Many would have protested in genuine anger and repulsion at physical brutality against women in this deeply sexist capitalist society (it is reported that in NSW alone one woman is killed in domestic violence on average each week). Many would have protested the daily grinding oppression faced by women and the misogynist piggery saturating official political debate. At the same time, lacking a class understanding of society, many would carry illusions in the capitalist state as an instrument to protect women. We Marxists look to intervene into protests such as RTN to change consciousness, winning those who are open to communist politics to the need to build a Leninist party, a tribune of the people, committed to overthrowing the capitalist state. Socialist Alternative is motivated by a different purpose. With any given movement, these Labor-loyal opponents of Marxism see only two choices: either stay away or, more commonly, capitulate to the current consciousness under cover of some militant-sounding rhetoric.
Concern about an issue’s “right wing logic” has seldom given SAlt pause in the past. For example, in 1999 they enthusiastically joined the reactionary marches for Australian troops to occupy East Timor and trumpeted chauvinist union bans that were designed to hasten this outcome (see “Social Chauvinists and Shameless Opportunists,” ASp No. 195, Winter 2006). The contradiction between O’Shea’s argument and SAlt’s modus operandi was not lost on its own members. SAlt cadre John Passant rebuked, “The same is true of some other campaigns we have been involved in…. Should the Revolutionary Socialists [RS] of Egypt have abstained from the struggle against Mubarak for the same reason Louise offers in this article?” (enpassant.com.au, 23 November). Passant is referring to SAlt’s support to their Cliffite co-thinkers in Egypt, who have treacherously fostered suicidal illusions in the reactionary, woman-hating Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. Earlier this year, RS caused some anguish amongst its own members when it formally endorsed Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in the second round of the presidential elections calling for “a national front that stands against the candidate of the counterrevolution.” In contrast to SAlt, we Trotskyists, fighting for a revolutionary perspective, stood for the independent mobilisation of the working class and warned against illusions in the blood-drenched military or reactionary Muslim Brotherhood. (See “Military Rulers Give Presidency to Muslim Brotherhood,” Workers Vanguard No. 1005, 6 July 2012.)
SAlt’s embrace of reactionary anti-woman forces is nothing new. During the 1980s SAlt cadre, then in the International Socialist Organisation, cheered on the bloody CIA-backed, woman-hating Afghan mujahedin cutthroats against the liberating forces of the Soviet Red Army. They rallied for the reactionary, priest-ridden, anti-woman, anti-Semitic Polish Solidarność. Not least, in 1991 they hailed Boris Yeltsin’s counterrevolutionary forces in the former USSR, which trampled on the rights of women. They crowed “‘Communism’ is dead…. It’s a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing” (The Socialist, September 1991).
For New October Revolutions!
We look to the model of the Russian Revolution of October 1917, led by the Bolshevik Party. Mobilising millions of working women in its cause, it gave flesh and blood to the Marxist program of workers rule. It freed women from the brutal peasant patriarchy and religious backwardness of the old Tsarist/capitalist regime. It gave women full legal equality; new marriage laws were based on individual rights and equality of the sexes; divorce was made easily available; the distinction between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” children was removed. The Bolsheviks also removed all laws against homosexuality and other consensual sexual activity. Abortion was legalised in 1920. Inheriting economic backwardness, the isolated and war-ravaged workers state did all it could to build the communal dining halls, laundries, childcare and other programs necessary to free women from the family confines. For a fuller discussion, see “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women,” Spartacist No. 59, Spring 2006.
The official glorification of family life and the retreat from Bolshevik policies on divorce and abortion were integral to the subsequent degeneration of the Russian Revolution, in which a bureaucratic caste headed by Stalin usurped political power from the Soviet working class beginning with a political counterrevolution in 1924. However despite this degeneration, the central gains of the Russian Revolution—embodied in the overthrow of capitalist property relations and the establishment of a planned economy—remained. These gains were apparent, for example, in the material position of women. Just over twenty years ago, prior to capitalist counterrevolution, Soviet women had access to state-supported childcare institutions, full abortion rights, access to a wide range of trades and professions, and a large degree of economic equality with their male co-workers.
Unlike the reformists, the Spartacist League/International Communist League stood for the unconditional military defence of the Soviet bureaucratically degenerated workers state and East European deformed workers states against imperialist attack and internal capitalist counterrevolution. At the same time we called for proletarian political revolutions to oust the bureaucracies and establish soviet workers democracy and an internationalist proletarian perspective. The capitalist counterrevolution that destroyed the Soviet Union in 1991-92 was a bitter defeat for the world’s working class, not least women, and conditions the current period of capitalist reaction. To the extent that left groups like SAlt and SA, who cheered on counterrevolution, had any influence, they share responsibility for the current regression in class struggle and class consciousness.
Opponents of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the reformists’ fundamental loyalty has always been to the racist, social-democratic, pro-imperialist ALP. In the 2010 federal elections SAlt called for a vote to the bourgeois Greens, Labor “or others who are genuinely left-wing”! For their part, Socialist Alliance called to “Vote Socialist and Greens” while directing preferences to the ALP. Their unprincipled call for a vote to the Greens was in the service of pressuring Labor, who they hoped above all to have in government as a “lesser evil.” Thus these reformist opponents of Marxism, who falsely claim to champion women’s rights, share responsibility for the continued exploitation and oppression of Aborigines, women, refugees and workers suffering under the Gillard Labor government. Noting that there was no party standing in the class interests of the proletariat, even in a minimal way, we of the Spartacist League called for no vote to the bourgeois Greens or to anti-working-class Labor. We said: Break with Laborism! Build a revolutionary workers party!
We note in our statement of program, “‘Little Australia’ social-democratic nationalism glories in the anti-intellectual oafishness of the Australian ‘ocker,’ and the anti-woman cult of ‘mateship.’ It is white racist, and proud of its brutally male chauvinist and self-indulgent parochial, ‘national character’ best described as a culture of white pigs” (For a Workers Republic of Australia, Part of a Socialist Asia!, October 1998). Utopian socialist Charles Fourier observed that the position of women in society is an index of its general advancement. In this remote, white imperialist enclave, anti-woman bigotry is historically entrenched. It goes back to when the British colonialists first arrived bringing with them private property relations and establishing a backward, viciously male-chauvinist penal colony built on the dispossession and slaughter of the local Aboriginal population.
The eradication of racism, women’s oppression and all forms of discrimination requires a revolutionary struggle, mobilising the power of the multiracial working class to uproot capitalism and liberate humanity from poverty and want. We strive to build the necessary instrument to achieve this: a multiracial vanguard party of the type built by the Bolshevik leaders Lenin and Trotsky, which led the victorious socialist revolution in October 1917. A proletarian, internationalist, revolutionary party would seek to lead the working class, men, women, of all ethnicities, on the streets and in the factories, to champion the rights of all the oppressed as part of the struggle to overthrow this racist, sexist and exploitative system through workers revolution.