Showing posts with label democratic rights. Show all posts
Showing posts with label democratic rights. Show all posts

Monday, February 27, 2023

"The Times Are Out Of Joint"- I Am Already Tired, Heartily Tired, Of The Obamiad


Well, never let it be said that this blogger doesn’t give everyone his or her “fifteen minutes of fame”, as the late Andy Warhol is said to have put it. That goes for the lowliest worker to the American imperial president. With the exception of the very pressing issue of the fight against the Obama Afghan war policy, both as to troop escalation and funding, this writer has held off from in-depth comment about the new regime. However, ever since the dust has settle on the last Inaugural ball, if not before then I have had this aching feeling that something is not right here. As the headline to this entry says- “the times are out of joint”.

Readers of this space are aware that the fundamental political axis that drives the commentary here is an oppositional anti-capitalist perspective. Thus, last fall, during the lead up to the November 2008 presidential elections I called for a NO vote for Obama, McCain, Nader (Independent) or McKinney (Green). However, Obama’s victory led me to a ‘feeling’ that a new wind was blowing in the American political universe that, sooner or later would, accrue to the benefit of leftist militants. I encapsulated that ‘feeling’ in the slogan, somewhat jokingly- "After Obama, Us". The truth of that slogan right now is neither here nor there for what concerns me is that right from the Inaugural Address this Obama ship has been listing, badly. I came of political age with John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address with its soaring rhetoric and call to the “better angels of our nature” in modern times. Although I long ago, as I have detailed elsewhere in this space over the past year or so, gave up on the Democratic Party as a vehicle for social change that speech still stands as a benchmark for bourgeois political rhetoric.

And this is not merely some nostalgia for the good old days (that did not exist, in any case). Nor is it a rebuke at the new technologies that have created the Obama aura or changed the nature of the way bourgeois electoral politics are practiced here. What bothers me is rather those continuing pictures from places like New Orleans, Detroit or other “Rust Belt” cities where formerly employed, mainly black, workers are lining up for charity, or in order to fight ‘pursue’ minimum wage careers as places like Wal-Mart. Or the continuing occupation of the black ghettos by hostile police forces prone to shoot first and ask questions later, as recent headlines have made apparent in places like Oakland, California . The outlines of that alleged “post-racial” society that was supposed to be ushered in by Obama are beginning to look very thin on the ground.

On another front we can all have a good laugh over the arrogance of the muffed Cabinet choices, grind our teeth at Obama’s emphasis of the forces that are to benefit form his stimulus package and rage at the misplaced mechanics of the financial bail-out plans that continue to reward those finance capitalists who got us into this fix in the first place. All of the above have given me a very different ‘feeling’ from that of last fall that Obama and his cohorts are in way over their heads. Only in comparison with the out-going Bush regime do they look good. That, my friends, is a very low bar to cross. All of this makes me think that we may not have the luxury of that “After Obama, Us” slogan. We had best get to that task of building a workers party that fights for a workers government. Pronto.

Friday, June 28, 2019

From The Archives On The 50th Anniversary-Honor The 40th Anniversary Of Stonewall- For Equal Democratic Rights For Gays And Lesbians- The Film "Milk"- A Guest Review

Click On Title To Link To An Article On Harvey Milk, "Revolutionary Road", By Hilton Als In "The New York Review Of Books". Needless to say it takes a very different view from the one presented by the article posted below.

This year marks the 40th Anniversary of the famous Stonewall uprising by gays and lesbians in New York City against their being harassed and victimized by the police, by the political establishment and by anyone who wanted to single out a seemingly easy target. Well, those days are over, at least the more egregious parts, although this struggle is far from over. This year, with the real advances on the gay and lesbian right to marriage front (despite that very important lose in California at the ballot box and in the courts) and the positive hoopla over Sean Penn’s well-deserved Oscar for his portrayal of bourgeois gay politician Harvey Milk of San Francisco, seems a fitting time to review some aspects of the gay liberation struggle as it has unfolded over the past forty years of American political and cultural history.

Originally I intended to review “Milk” (the Penn version) and a much less well-known 1980’s documentary on Harvey Milk. However, I was unable to find that earlier film to make the comparisons. In the meantime I came across a review by Amy Rath, editor of the “Women And Revolution” pages of “Workers Vanguard”, that hits many of the point that I wanted to make. I still intend to do that comparative review at a later date.

Guest Commentary

Workers Vanguard No. 932
13 March 2009

The Communist Program and the Fight Against Homosexual Oppression


A Review

By Amy Rath

(Women and Revolution pages)

Correction Appended

The San Francisco Democratic Party establishment learned decades ago how to manipulate the rhetoric of “gay power” to bolster its rule, and the story of Harvey Milk is front and center in that spin. At the time of the murders of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Milk in 1978, the Democratic Party machine seized on the issue for political capital and it hasn’t stopped since. Spouting “gay rights” rhetoric to round up votes, the city government flaunts “progressive” pretensions while it does the work of capitalism in oppressing the poor and exploited and attempting to tame the powerful Bay Area labor movement. It’s by no means a fluke of history that San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom rode the movement for gay marriage as part of his bid for national prominence as a Democratic Party politician.

Thus, when Milk, Gus Van Sant’s biopic about the first openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, had its world premiere last October in a special showing at the Castro Theatre (just down the block from Milk’s old camera store), Newsom joined the movie moguls and film stars strutting on the red carpet. Patrons paid $50 to see the film and as much as $15,000 to attend the post-premiere dinner and party at City Hall. With characteristic smugness, Newsom congratulated the city “progressives” on the changes of the last 30 years: “This story couldn’t have happened anywhere else” (San Francisco Chronicle, 29 October 2008). No doubt he hopes that this “for the people” veneer will prove useful as California sinks more deeply into economic crisis and layoffs engulf the working class. After all, Newsom got elected mayor based on his reactionary “Care Not Cash” initiative that sought to drive the homeless from the city. His championship of gay marriage helped bring his left-liberal opponents solidly into his camp.

Has any film been as good for the city’s political and business establishment as Milk? Newsom opened City Hall to on-site filming of Moscone’s murder, while various worthies of the San Francisco establishment appeared in person in the movie, including the openly gay politician Tom Ammiano (formerly president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and currently a member of the California State Assembly). The on-site filming poured money into the coffers of the city and its merchants. Now tourists are flocking to the Castro district to see the home base of Harvey Milk’s gay constituency.

Milk tells the story of how “gay power” became institutionalized in City Hall, and it’s fairly accurate within the limited scope of the movie’s storyline, which focuses on Milk as a gay politician to the exclusion of the larger political and social forces of the time. The movie is well-made, enjoyable entertainment. Hailed by fans and reviewers everywhere as brilliant in his portrayal of Harvey Milk, Sean Penn won an Oscar for best actor. He certainly deserves it. Not least of Milk’s gifts to the capitalist Democratic Party was his puckish charm and outspoken courage, and Penn shows it all.

Adding not a little to the interest sparked by the movie itself was the passage of California’s reactionary Proposition 8—which overturned the legalization of same-sex marriage—last November 4, only days before the film opened nationwide. Headlines read “Milk Recaptures Californian Intolerance at Exactly the Right Time” (Village Voice, 26 November 2008) and “Activists Seek to Tie ‘Milk’ to a Campaign for Gay Rights” (New York Times, 21 November 2008). But it’s not just some of the reviewers in the capitalist press that relish the connection: our reformist opponents on the left are salivating over the movie.

The International Socialist Organization (ISO) hails the movie’s opening “at a crucial teaching moment in the struggle” and comments that the “latest explosion of gay militancy” is “magnificent” (“Teamsters and Trannies, Unite!” International Socialist Review, January-February 2009). Certainly tens of thousands have protested in the streets against Prop 8, and we Spartacists have joined them, opposing all discrimination against gays with our own revolutionary program—while also pointing out that the demands of the “movement” are limited to lobbying the Democrats for a few token reforms. The main strategy of Prop 8’s opponents is to sue to overturn the law.

For the supposedly “socialist” ISO, over the moon over the ascension of mainstream bourgeois politician Barack Obama (who opposes gay marriage) to the imperial presidency, a “movement” which can more effectively pressure capitalist politicians for such reforms is the ultimate goal. Thus the ISO article enthused over “genuine rainbow power”—i.e., Teamsters, transvestites, former Republic Windows workers, Latinos and gays united—but united for what? Their “ultimate” demand is to overturn Bill Clinton’s reactionary “Defense of Marriage Act” and to “tell President Barack Obama and the Democratic Congress to end this federally sanctioned discrimination once and for all.” Who are they kidding? We support full democratic rights for gays, but as Marxists we understand that anti-gay bigotry will not be rooted out short of a socialist revolution which overturns capitalism.

For its part, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), creator of the “World Can’t Wait” outfit, says the film “resonates in what is at times an almost eerie way” with the current political assault on gay marriage and “the powerful resistance from the people, particularly the gay and lesbian community” (Revolution, 14 December 2008). At the time of the events depicted in the film, however, the RCP spouted the grotesque Stalinist/Maoist line that homosexuality was a “sickness” and barred gays from membership in their organization. Thus their enthusing over Milk today rings grossly hollow—though their tailing of petty-bourgeois reformist “movements” is consistent.

For such reformists, politicians like Harvey Milk are the stuff of their illusions in “fight the right” Democrats. George Moscone, the supposed “friend of labor” mayor, and Harvey Milk, the uncloseted gay supervisor, are cast as progressive martyrs cut down by hoary reaction in the person of the bigoted ex-cop Dan White (who was also a Democrat, although no one likes to admit it). This is just a means of tailing the Democratic Party establishment in San Francisco, where the votes of homosexuals are corralled to fuel a vicious anti-labor drive. Moscone came into office in 1976 with a tough-on-labor line, signaled by a series of anti-union propositions on the city ballot attacking the pay scales and benefits of city workers. In 1976—during the period covered by the movie, which restricts labor struggle to the Coors beer boycott that Milk assisted—Moscone’s anti-labor offensive led to a bitter, hard-fought strike by city craft workers backed up by Muni mass transit drivers.

Keeping social protest safely within the bounds of the capitalist courts and the ballot box is fully in keeping with the politics of Milk, which represents quite accurately the fulsome confidence in capitalist democracy that Harvey Milk pushed. With the election of the first black president, Barack Obama, the American ruling class is hoping for an extended honeymoon of race, class and social peace, while refurbishing illusions in American imperialist democracy. Milk is “the first openly Obama-iste movie,” quipped the Village Voice. Slate agreed: “Few reviewers will miss the opportunity to point out—the parallels are hard to ignore—that Harvey Milk was the Barack Obama of his day, a minority candidate who represented change, opposed the party machine, and preached the gospel of hope.” Not to be outdone, the New York Times reviewer wrote: “This is how change happens. This is what it looks like.”

Sure, that’s what they want the exploited and oppressed to believe. Milk himself said, “If a gay can win, it means there is hope that the system can work for all minorities if we fight. We’ve given them hope.” With such words Harvey Milk funneled the votes of the large homosexual community in San Francisco to the Democratic Party, which is no less a capitalist party of racism, war and “family values” than the Republicans.

Gay Oppression and “Coming Out”

With scenes of handsome, bare-chested men and exuberant parties and parades, Milk makes constituency politicking look like a lot of fun. It also represents Milk’s personal take on “gay liberation”: all the closeted gays should “come out” so that the bigots will see that homosexuals are “just folks” like them. But while this may seem to be true in the small bubbles that are San Francisco’s Castro district and New York’s Christopher Street, seeing politicized lifestylism and constituency politics as the answer to the oppression of gay people is a most dangerous illusion.

The oppression of homosexuals is not merely or even primarily the result of narrow-mindedness. Homosexuals continue to be repressed by capitalist law. Widespread bigotry on this issue is fundamentally conditioned by the institution of the monogamous family unit, the main social source of the oppression of women, youth and homosexuals in class society, and by the considerable power of organized religion. Such oppression does not make homosexuality in itself political. Sexuality is a complex and essentially personal and private matter; thus the Spartacist League most vehemently opposes any government intrusion into consensual sexual activity and private life—we say, “Government out of the bedrooms!”

A corollary is the SL’s political opposition to the program of “coming out” pushed by “lifestyle liberationists” such as Milk, which may defy but cannot eradicate class-rooted repressive institutions. We defend those who choose to “come out” against victimization by reactionaries. But living as an open homosexual or transvestite or whatever one’s individual choice—courageous as it is—can be deadly in this violent, backward, anti-sex society. Recall the brutal killing of Matthew Shepard in 1998—beaten and left hanging on a barbed-wire fence to die—and of Gwen Araujo, a transgender youth, in 2002. A 2006 survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network reported that violent attacks are a daily part of life for gay, lesbian and transgender youth: nearly two-thirds reported feeling unsafe at school, over a third experienced physical harassment, and nearly a fifth were assaulted because of their sexual orientation.

Young gays in the Castro today might note that the cross on Mt. Davidson still dominates the city’s southern skyline and bear in mind that the first big concentration of gays in the Bay Area was not the footloose youth of the late 1960s-’70s “sexual liberation” era. During World War II, with San Francisco as its West Coast embarkation point, U.S. imperialism threw tens of thousands of young men out of the military as homosexuals, giving them blue discharge papers marked with a capital H. The Department of Defense still refuses to say how many thousands were discharged. Not relishing the prospect of returning to their hometowns, many of these young men stayed in San Francisco. An excellent book by Allan Bérubé, Coming Out Under Fire, details the history of these gay men and women, many of whom first met others like themselves in the military in World War II. Today, gays still aren’t allowed to serve openly in the U.S. military. According to a 2004 report by the gay rights group Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, in the ten years after Democratic president Bill Clinton adopted the infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, around 10,000 service members were discharged for being gay or bisexual.

Who Was Harvey Milk?

As Randy Shilts recounts in his 1982 biography The Mayor of Castro Street, Harvey Milk was a latecomer to the politics of “gay power.” After his 1951 college graduation, Milk, a fervent anti-Communist who wanted to stop the Reds from taking over Asia, enlisted in the Navy during the Korean War, where he rose rapidly through the ranks to become an officer. After leaving the Navy, Milk worked as an insurance broker and a researcher at a Wall Street investment firm. A staunch conservative, he was a supporter of Republican Barry Goldwater, opposing any kind of government intervention in the capitalist economy. Milk was at this time entirely uninterested in his homosexuality as a political question. But as ’60s New Left radicalism swung into full sway, Harvey Milk got into hippie lifestylism, growing his hair long as he hung with the cast of the flower-power hit Hair. By the early ’70s, he and his lover Scott Smith had moved to San Francisco.

Harvey Milk’s transformation from New York stockbroker to San Francisco Democrat moved him from the conservative to the liberal wing of capitalist politics. He built his power base in the Castro as a small businessman, defender of his community and president of the gay-dominated Castro Village Association. The movie portrays Milk’s politics quite accurately. Sean Penn gives us pretty much word-for-word Milk’s speech at the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade in June 1978. Milk quoted patriotic passages from the verses engraved on the Statue of Liberty, phrases from the Declaration of Independence and the national anthem, and continued:

“No matter how hard you try, you cannot erase those words from the Declaration of Independence. No matter how hard you try, you cannot chip those words from off the base of the Statue of Liberty. And no matter how hard you try, you cannot sing the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ without those words. That’s what America is. Love it or leave it.”

Milk said in his inauguration speech as San Francisco supervisor: “I fully understand the debt and responsibility that major corporations owe the shareholders.... American business must realize that while the shareholders always come first, the care and feeding of their customer is a close second.” And gays, Milk insisted, were among their best customers—if not fellow players.

The Democratic Party Machine in San Francisco

Played by actor Josh Brolin, reactionary bigot Dan White is first shown in the movie spouting a sentence from his election campaign: “I’m not going to be forced out of San Francisco by splinter groups of radicals, social deviates and incorrigibles.” Ex-cop Dan White didn’t fit in with the clique of slick professional politicians who made up the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. For most of these well-off businessmen, realtors and lawyers, open contempt for the oppressed is considered bad taste. But there was no fundamental difference in the class loyalties of the three players, despite how White’s vengeance drama played out against Moscone and Milk. As we pointed out following the murders in “Reformists Weep for Strikebreaker Moscone” (WV No. 222, 5 January 1979): “Just who are these ‘elected officials’ anyway? Isn’t Moscone the same capitalist politician who crushed the 1976 San Francisco municipal craft workers strike? Isn’t Milk responsible for funneling votes of the large homosexual ‘community’ to the party of Anita Bryant, the Dixiecrats and the Vietnam War?”

In the ’60s and ’70s the Democratic Party machine in San Francisco was undergoing certain tactical shifts spurred by social and economic changes in the area. As the industrial base shrank and gentrification took over many old working-class neighborhoods like the Castro, San Francisco looked to tourism and to building up the downtown financial district as a corporate center. Old-time party bosses, with ties to the Catholic church and the white ethnic neighborhoods, were giving way to the new liberal-chic politicians who remain in power today. It is really these changes that are responsible for this huge falling out in the Democratic Party power structure, which exploded in Dan White’s murder of Moscone and Milk.

The movie ends with a candlelight march of tens of thousands in mourning for Harvey Milk. But the important aftermath is reduced to a couple of sentences on the screen: Dan White, who committed two coldblooded killings—of elected government officials, no less—that couldn’t have looked more like deliberate, premeditated murder in the first degree, was slapped on the wrist with two counts of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to less than seven years in prison (he served five). If some gay person had murdered ex-cop White and Moscone, you can bet that nothing less than the death penalty, on the spot, would have sufficed.

So naturally the “gay ghetto” exploded in rage. Well into the night, thousands battled with the cops. Nearly every window in City Hall was broken and the doors were smashed, while Mayor Dianne Feinstein (now a U.S. Senator) and other bigwigs were trapped inside. Cop cars and paddy wagons went up in flames. We wrote in “Behind S.F. Night of Gay Rage” (WV No. 234, 22 June 1979):

“Revolutionaries solidarize with the legitimate outrage of San Francisco’s homosexuals over the light sentence given to this bigoted, reactionary, killer ex-cop. And we fully support their defending themselves against the rampaging goons of the capitalist state. But the identification of many San Francisco gay people with Harvey Milk generally translates into political support for the liberal-chic wing of the Democratic Party, a ruling-class group whose policies toward workers and the poor are often harsher than their more traditional old-line ‘machine’ opponents.”

How did Dan White get off so easily? The infamous “Twinkie defense” claimed that sugary junk food contributed to a mood disturbance that resulted in “diminished capacity.” At the time, there were cries of collusion between the cops and the D.A. as well as charges of homophobia against the judge and jury. But the real point is that the jury wanted to believe Dan White’s defense. The jury, largely working-class and middle-class, was drawn from those areas of San Francisco that were seen as the last bastion of family life. WV commented:

“What the jury shared with White was not simply ‘homophobia’ but a fear, exploited by the reactionary White, that San Francisco has become unlivable for ‘just plain folks.’

“But this ex-cop turned Supervisor was not ‘just plain folks’; he was not some working-class guy driven into a crazy frenzy by some posh liberal snobs. Dan White was a dangerous reactionary politician. He exploited the fears, grievances and economic distress of San Francisco’s ethnic Catholic lower classes for the politics of racist, anti-gay bigotry, just as Harvey Milk exploited homosexual oppression for the liberal-sophisticate face of capitalist rule.”

After Dianne Feinstein was elected mayor in her own right in 1979, one of her first acts as she sought the support of gay voters was to mandate the recruitment of gay cops into the San Francisco police force. By 1980, one in seven new police recruits was either a lesbian or a gay man. Such “diversity” does not alter the cops’ role as agents of repression for the ruling class, which includes persecuting immigrants, black youth and striking workers.

Jimmy Carter, “Human Rights” and the Anti-Sex Witchhunt

Milk shows a 30-second cameo of then-president Jimmy Carter calling on Californians to vote against Prop 6, the John Briggs initiative on the 1978 state ballot that sought the firing of homosexual teachers and their supporters. Aside from this issue and the “Save Our Children” campaign promoted by homophobic “sunshine girl” and spokeswoman for Florida orange juice Anita Bryant, the crucial context of national and international politics is absent from the movie. But Anita Bryant and Briggs were not isolated nutcases out to wreck things for the progressive gays. They were the voices of larger political forces at work, directed from the White House. While Prop 6 was defeated, Carter’s formal opposition signified no commitment to gay rights (even supreme bigot Ronald Reagan opposed Prop 6 at the time).

Coming to office in 1977, the Democratic Carter administration kicked off an onslaught of domestic social reaction and the renewal of U.S. imperialism’s Cold War drive aimed at the destruction of the Soviet Union, garbed in the call for “human rights.” These policies reflected the attempt of the American ruling class to overcome widespread fear and loathing of the government following the explosive years of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the rise of the New Left, the women’s liberation movement and black radicalization, and finally the Watergate break-in that forced the resignation of Republican president Richard (“I am not a crook”) Nixon in 1974. For the American bourgeoisie, this all-sided social turmoil and defiance of authority was deeply disturbing, and the potential for an alliance of black militants and radicalized students with an increasingly restive labor movement was a threat that had to be stopped. Thus a major bourgeois ideological assault was launched to overcome the “Vietnam syndrome” and to instill an unquestioning acceptance of capitalism, God and family, including the desirability of dying for one’s country.

The Carter administration brought “born again” religious fundamentalism front and center into the White House. This was the national backdrop for Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign of hate and Briggs’s witchhunting of gay teachers. While the movie makes good fun of these bigots, showing Milk’s sharp wit in debate with Briggs, Milk is also shown promoting the deadly illusion that the bigots had actually done gays a favor by publicizing their oppression, forcing them to “unite” against it. In fact, the Bryant campaign, which rallied the forces of the aggressive hard core of virulent reaction, was a grave threat not only to homosexuals, but to all concerned with democratic rights. Indeed, paired with Briggs’s Prop 6 on the California ballot was a tougher death penalty initiative, Prop 7. Briggs insisted that the two issues were inexorably tied together. A fund-raising letter issued by his campaign raved against California’s “ineffective” death penalty law and listed homosexual teachers as an equally horrendous threat.

The Spartacist League intervened heavily into the nationwide demonstrations against anti-gay bigotry. The oppression of homosexuals, like the oppression of women, serves as an index of more general social and political attitudes. The SL has always recognized that democratic rights are indivisible—and indeed has stood out in opposing reactionary state repression of the most oppressed or marginalized, including Mormon polygamists and NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association), a group shunned by more “respectable” gays for simply advocating the decriminalization of consensual sex between men and boys. As we wrote in “Rightist Reaction Pushes Anti-Homosexual Hysteria: Stop Anita Bryant!” (WV No. 165, 8 July 1977):

“To struggle effectively against the persecution of homosexuals, ‘gay rights’ activists must begin by understanding that bourgeois democracy is partial, fragile and reversible…. The struggle fundamentally is not about sex but about all-sided democratic rights. The ‘Save Our Children’ mobilization is presently the most visible component of a much broader rightist offensive aimed at rolling back real and token gains of the last decade of liberalism. Recent targets include legal and safe abortions, especially for poor women; the Equal Rights Amendment; busing to combat school segregation; preferential minority-group college admissions. The ‘right-to-lifers’ screaming for the death penalty grasp the logic of the Bryant crusade far better than do some of its opponents.”

Today, over 30 years later, the bitter truth of that warning is all too apparent. In the 1980s, reactionaries seized on the deadly AIDS epidemic to demonize gays. Who even remembers the Equal Rights Amendment, a proposed amendment to the Constitution simply affirming formal equality for women? Busing and affirmative action are dead, the racist death penalty has claimed over a thousand lives since its reinstitution in 1976, legal and safe abortion is ever more out of reach for poor women. And the Soviet Union has been destroyed by counterrevolution, a world-historic defeat for the working class. In Milk you see the occasional picket sign demanding “human rights” for gays. This was a major demand of the anti-Bryant demonstrations, an implicit endorsement of Carter’s anti-Soviet “human rights” crusade to rearm U.S. imperialism, extending its buzzwords to homosexuals in the U.S.

We Marxists opposed the imperialist campaign against the USSR. We called for unconditional military defense of this bureaucratically degenerated workers state against imperialist assault and internal counterrevolution. We also called for political revolution by the working class to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy and restore soviet democracy and the proletarian internationalism of Lenin’s Bolsheviks.

Full Democratic Rights for Gays!

The alliance of lifestyle radicals, reformists and Democrats can promise only token reforms that enrage American backwardness and touch off new waves of backlash. Today, over 40 states have enacted laws banning same-sex marriage. In California, an unholy alliance of the Mormons, the Catholic church and evangelical Protestants went on a rampage to get Prop 8 passed. Recognizing that with Obama’s candidacy black voters would turn out at the polls in record numbers, a big push was made to find allies among conservative black Baptist preachers. A full-page ad in the Los Angeles Sentinel, the city’s major black newspaper, urged a yes vote on Prop 8 to restore “the sanctity of marriage.”

Perhaps the most effective campaign tool to boost Proposition 8 was the “robocalls” to people’s cell phones with recordings of Obama addressing a crowd with the declaration: “I believe marriage is a union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union.” While proclaiming that he did not support Proposition 8 because it was “unnecessary,” Obama’s opposition to gay marriage is a direct echo of Bush and other fundamentalist yahoos of both capitalist parties. After all, Bill Clinton signed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that pronounced, “The word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.” In the same year, he signed the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” part of his ending “welfare as we know it,” consigning millions of impoverished mothers and children to misery and hunger.

The Spartacist League and Spartacus Youth Clubs joined protests against Prop 8 with placards demanding: “Down With Prop 8! For the Right of Gay Marriage...and Divorce!”, “State, Church and Family: Holy Trinity of Women’s Oppression!” and “Don’t Crawl for the Democrats—Build a Workers Party!” As fighters for the socialist liberation of humanity, we are committed to full democratic rights for gays, lesbians and transgenders, and we support any legal advances that can be wrested from this cruelly bigoted society, including the right to marry. But we do not advocate or prettify the institution of marriage. We fight for a society in which no one needs to be forced into a legal straitjacket in order to get medical benefits, visitation rights, custody of children, immigration rights, or any of the many privileges this capitalist society grants to those, and only those, who are embedded in the traditional “one man on one woman for life” marital mold.

In the ’70s, politicians like Harvey Milk represented the wing of the gay rights movement at peace with capitalism. But there were others, disaffected with capitalism, who broke from sectoralism—the “left” version of plain old capitalist “constituency politics”—and found their way to communism. A dozen cadre of the Los Angeles-based “gay liberation/communist” Red Flag Union (RFU), formerly the Lavender & Red Union, fused with the Spartacist League in 1977.

In the course of their political journey, the RFU rejected the false programs of a number of our reformist opponents. Against both crude Maoists like the RCP and anti-Communist “state capitalists” like the Shachtmanite Revolutionary Socialist League (since deceased), they came to the Trotskyist position of defense of the degenerated and deformed workers states while calling for workers political revolution. Opportunist groups like the feminist Freedom Socialist Party sought to cater to the supposed “lifestylism” of the RFU by slandering the SL’s so-called “closet rule,” which simply states that in public our members seek to be known by their politics, not by their lifestyles. The RFU agreed with the SL’s position and sharply refuted the opportunists’ slanders.

The RFU wrote in Red Flag No. 3, a special fusion supplement to Workers Vanguard (WV No. 172, 9 September 1977): “There is no special revolutionary program for homosexuals. The communist program includes demands which address the special oppression of homosexuals. But unlike sectoralists, revolutionaries understand that the fate of homosexuals—like that of any other oppressed group—is determined by the course of the class struggle.” The RFU comrades came to understand that only the road of the Bolshevik October Revolution can open up a future of a socialist world where all forms of oppression and exploitation will be eradicated.

Only a socialist revolution can lay the basis for the replacement of the institution of the family with socialized childcare and housework. In the first five years of the Russian Revolution under Lenin and Trotsky, the Bolsheviks, insofar as they could in conditions of extreme poverty and international isolation, sought to liberate women through collectivized kitchens, childcare, dwellings and schools. As well, laws against all forms of consensual sex were abolished, establishing the noninterference of the state in all matters of private life. While a revolutionary government will always act to promote all measures to bring about freedom for all, bigotry cannot simply be abolished by decree. But the Bolsheviks understood that liberation is a material act, requiring resources far beyond those available to a backward peasant society like Russia. Nonetheless, the forces of proletarian state repression put the bigots and former oppressors on the run.

To finally arrive at classless communism requires the destruction of capitalist imperialism as a world system and the establishment of a world socialist division of labor, leading to a tremendous leap in the productive forces that can provide material plenty for all. The withering away of the family as the basic institution defining sexual relations will result in the eventual disappearance of patriarchal relations and of generalized anti-homosexual oppression. Our task is to build a revolutionary workers party like the Bolshevik Party that will act as a tribune of the people, a defender of all the oppressed, to lead the fight for world socialist revolution.



The article “Milk: A Review” (WV No. 932, 13 March) stated that Dan White, who killed Harvey Milk and San Francisco mayor George Moscone, was “sentenced to less than seven years in prison.” White was in fact sentenced to seven years and eight months. (From WV No. 933, 27 March 2009.)

Monday, June 04, 2018

On The 50th Anniversary Of The Death Of Robert F. Kennedy-November 22, 1963-Where Were You?

This is another one of those questions that I have been periodically answering from my Class of 1964 high school class committee.

Today's Question: How did you react to the John F. Kennedy assassination?

Well you knew this question was coming at some point. Some events form the signpost for every generation. For our parents it was the Great Depression and World War II. For today’s kids it is 9/11 and the ‘war against terrorism’. For us it was Sputnik and the Kennedy assassination.

Usually, when discussing these milestone events the question asked centers on where you were or what you were doing on that fateful day. I do not need to ask that question here. I know where you were, at least most of you. Unless you were sick, playing hooky or on a field trip you were sitting in some dank classroom as the Principal, Mr. Walsh, came over the P.A. system to announce the news of the shooting of President Kennedy. What I am interested in, if you want to answer this question, is not what your current take is on that event, whether you were a Kennedy partisan or not, but how you reacted at the time. Here is the story of my reaction.

In the fall of 1960, for most of us our first year at North, a new wind was blowing over the political landscape with the Kennedy nomination and later his election victory over Richard Nixon. If you want the feel of that same wind pay attention to the breezes that I sense coming from today’s youth. Maybe that wind grabbed you in 1960. It did me. Although some people that I have met and worked with over the years swear that I was born a ‘political junkie’ the truth is that 1960 marked my political coming of age.

One of my forms of ‘fun’ as a kid was to write little ‘essays’ on political questions. You know, like-Should Red China (remember that term) be admitted into the United Nations? Or, are computers going to replace workers and create high unemployment? (I swear that I wrote stuff like that. I do not have that good an imagination to make this up. It also might explain one part of a very troubled childhood)

In any case, I kept these little ‘pearls of wisdom’ in a little chapbook. Within a couple of days after the Kennedy assassination I threw them all away, swearing off politics forever. Well, I did not hold to that promise. I have also moved away from that youthful admiration for JFK (although I will always hold a little spot open for brother Robert-oh, what might have been?) but I can still hear the clang as I threw those papers in the trash barrel.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

*The Struggle For Gay Marriage Rights- A "Workers Vanguard" Guest Commentary

Click on the title to link the the Marx-Engels Internet Archive's copy of Engels' "Origin of The Family,Private Property and The State".

For the Right of Gay Marriage...and Divorce!

Marriage and the Capitalist State

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 824, 16 April 2004.

"Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists.

"On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution.
"The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital."
—Communist Manifesto (1848)

Until the welcome day capitalism does vanish, the monogamous family remains the legally enforced social model, at least in Western societies, for the organization of private life in its most intimate aspects: love, sex, bearing and raising children. It is the central social institution oppressing women; anti-gay bigotry flows from the need to punish any "deviations" from this patriarchal structure. Why anyone not under social pressure or economic duress would voluntarily enter the bonds of matrimony is, of course, one of life's mysteries. Nonetheless, it appears that these days the only people who actually want to get married are the only ones President Bush wants to stop: gays and lesbians.

Absolutely, they ought to have the right to marry. And just as absolutely, we socialists fight for a society in which no one needs to be forced into a legal straitjacket in order to get medical benefits, visitation rights, custody of children, immigration rights, or any of the many privileges this capitalist society grants to those, and only those, who are embedded in the traditional "one man on one woman for life" legal mold.

Controversy over "gay marriage" has roiled the U.S. since last November, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that permitting only "civil unions" for gay couples was unconstitutional, thus establishing the right to gay marriage in Massachusetts. In February the San Francisco mayor ordered same-sex marriage licenses issued, and 4,037 gay and lesbian couples from 46 states and eight countries got hitched before ceremonies were ordered halted on March 11. The Green Party mayor of New Paltz, New York, jumped into the fray, officiating at 25 same-sex marriages. When he was barred by court order from continuing, two local Unitarian ministers took over, only to have criminal charges filed against them by the Ulster County D.A. for solemnizing "unlicensed marriages" in March.

In 1996, Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act which pronounced, "the word ‘marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife." With unholy glee, Christian fundamentalists of all sorts are now pushing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning states from recognizing gay marriage (39 states already refuse to countenance it). Others warn direly that the floodgates of unspeakable immorality are now open. Polygamy is the least of it; Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, dissenting from last year's Supreme Court decision overturning Texas sodomy laws, claimed that decision could abolish bans not only on same-sex marriage, but also "adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity."

President Bush, supporting the anti-gay constitutional amendment, intoned: "The union of a man and a woman is the most enduring human institution, honored and encouraged in all cultures and by every religious faith," complaining that "After...millennia of human experience, a few judges and local authorities are presuming to change the most fundamental institution of civilization." Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal, beady profit-making eye on the bottom line, featured a piece on "Cashing In on Gay Marriage" (March 11), while vendors presented "Loveland," a "Same-Sex Wedding Expo" at New York's Jacob Javits convention center.

All this sudden churning of the crazed, hypocritical witches' brew that passes for American political discourse these days, especially on questions involving sex, certainly has its darkly humorous and bizarre side. Partly that's because the messy reality most people actually live in bears little resemblance to the rigid official portraits of Christian moral rectitude this government claims as models of social behavior. But the deeper social issues involved are deadly serious, ranging from the most intimate personal questions to broad areas of responsibility for raising new generations, and how to care for others, whether family, friends or lovers; in short, how "private life" in its entirety is defined and organized.

Workers Must Fight for Democratic Rights for Gays!

Apocalyptic predictions of the end of civilization if gays are allowed to marry are obviously hysterical fantasies; at the same time, gay marriage in itself will not end the often deadly prejudice and pain gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people encounter every day in this homophobic, anti-sex society. But that pain makes it even more important to fight for every possible democratic right, every form of social and political equality that can be wrested from this society.

It is a vital task of the workers revolutionary vanguard to fight for full democratic rights for gays—including, today, marriage rights—and to fight to win the working class to this cause. The Spartacist League has done this since its inception. As Lenin pointed out in his 1902 work What Is To Be Done?:

"Working class consciousness cannot be genuinely political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, no matter what class is affected....Why is it that the Russian workers as yet display so little revolutionary activity in connection with the brutal way in which the police maltreat the people, in connection with the persecution of the religious sects, with the flogging of the peasantry, with the outrageous censorship, with the torture of soldiers, with the persecution of the most innocent cultural enterprises, etc.?... We must blame ourselves for being unable as yet to organize a sufficiently wide, striking and rapid exposure of these despicable outrages. When we do that (and we must and can do it), the most backward worker will understand, or will feel, that the students and religious sects, the muzhiks and the authors are being abused and outraged by the very same dark forces that are oppressing and crushing him at every step of his life."

Here in the United States, one of the most politically backward "advanced" capitalist countries on earth, saddled with a huge burden of puritanism and religious fundamentalism to boot, there is a lot of backwardness on the gay question.

Even among black workers, historically among the most militant in the proletariat and in general those with the fewest illusions in the "good nature" of this rotten capitalist social order, there is a significant amount of anti-gay prejudice. Much of it is pushed by conservative forces in the black church, although even the black churches are deeply split on this question. As we wrote in our article, "For the Right to Gay Marriage!": "In its extreme, one gets the phenomenon of a black Baptist minister, the Rev. Gregory Daniels, who declared, ‘If the K.K.K. opposes gay marriage, I would ride with them' (New York Times, 1 March). He might saddle up, but it will be a short ride—the first target of this motley collection of nativist, anti-labor fascists is black people" (WV No. 821, 5 March).

In contrast to this myopic anti-gay prejudice is the compassion so many black people feel because they know firsthand the torment and danger of oppression and discrimination. A Massachusetts State Senator from Roxbury put it well: "I know the pain of being less than equal, and I cannot and will not impose that status on anyone else. I was but one generation removed from an existence in slavery. I could not in good conscience ever vote to send anyone to that place from which my family fled." Others can't see that an injury to one is an injury to all, and so in a backhanded way end up in the camp of the racist anti-gay bigots. Black columnist Adrian Walker, writing in the Boston Globe (12 February), quoted one clergyman: "Think about Emmett Till, the Scottsboro Boys, and those police dogs in Birmingham—and then tell me they've faced what we've faced. This has nothing to do with civil rights." This reflects in part the pernicious influence of Democratic Party "constituency" politics, where one sector of the oppressed is pitted against another in the scramble for aid from a state which defends capitalist rule.

Of course there are many, and qualitative, differences between black oppression and gay oppression in this society. Racism is the bedrock of American capitalism, the great fault line in American politics since the founding of the nation on the backs of black slaves. The ruling class consciously manipulates racism to weaken the proletariat. The fight for black freedom will be central to the proletarian revolution in the U.S. For that revolution to succeed, the working class, including its strategic black component, must understand its historic task is to abolish class society in order to open the road to human freedom for everyone. And that most certainly includes gays—and everyone else who, however self-defined, rebels against the straitjacket social roles imposed by the capitalist ruling class.

Further, violence against gays, lesbians and, increasingly, transgendered people is a deadly constant on America's mean streets and in the repressive holding pens known as public schools. The grisly 1998 murder in Laramie of Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old gay Wyoming student who was kidnapped, beaten, burnt and then left tied to a fence to die, shocked the nation. Though accurate statistics are almost impossible to come by, given that many victims don't come forward because they rightly fear more harassment from cops, school authorities or parents, and because official statistics don't always accurately list "hate crimes," there are still well over 1,000 reported cases a year of violence, sometimes fatal, against gays and lesbians and others deemed sexually "deviant."

A recent Internet search uncovered an article from the Arizona Tucson Citizen (23 February) titled "Gays, Jews Top Targets of Hate Crimes Here," which described the June 2002 beating to death of 24-year-old Philip Walsted, who was gay. It was a hate crime, according to police. In January of this year another gay man was found lying on the street, badly beaten, near a gay bar in Tucson, while a gay University of Arizona student was stabbed in 2000. That's just a few stories from one city. According to the Winter 2003 Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report, there were 27 murders of transgendered people in a 21-month period (2002-2003) in the United States. The point of these few examples is not to "prove" that any social group is more or less hurt than any other, but to indicate that moral regimentation is part of what keeps this unjust society running the way it does.

It was a good thing that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy statutes in its 2003 Lawrence v. Texas ruling, because it explicitly overturned the Court's infamously reactionary 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick that upheld states' anti-sodomy laws. That decision castigated gays with statements like "proscriptions against sodomy have ancient roots." Chief Justice Warren Burger practically called for a holy war against homosexuals, writing approvingly in his concurrence that "Blackstone described ‘the infamous crime against nature' as an offense of ‘deeper malignity' than rape, a heinous act ‘the very mention of which is a disgrace to human nature,' and ‘a crime not fit to be named'." This is the legal language that gives cover to gay-bashing.

Gays still don't have full civil rights: they aren't allowed to serve openly in the U.S. military, for example. According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a gay rights group, in the ten years since Democratic president Bill Clinton adopted the infamous "don't ask, don't tell" policy, around 10,000 service members have been discharged for being openly gay. As we stated when that policy was raised: "Open gays and lesbians have just as much right as anyone else to participate in the armed forces," while raising the classic Marxist slogan of "Not one man, not one penny" for the military ("Gays in the Military," WV No. 569, 12 February 1993). This is the tradition of militant Marxism in opposition to imperialist war. At the same time, the military is a microcosm of society as a whole, and so we fight against racist atrocities and discrimination in the armed forces just as we do in the rest of society. The fight to integrate black soldiers fully into the armed forces toward the end of World War II created a potentially powerful base for struggles for black emancipation—and in fact black civil rights activists also fought for homosexual rights in the armed forces then.

Government and Social Control of Women

Many people still would argue, gays should have democratic rights, but why marriage? The capitalist politicians running for president are all dancing around the pretty meaningless "civil union" cop-out, basically catering to religious reactionaries with votes. But isn't marriage in some sense "special," more private, more "sacred" somehow? Not at all. Monogamous marriage is a creation of society, not god (since there isn't one), and it has been used historically as a means of reactionary social control by the ruling class.

We advocate effective consent in all sexual relations and think that what any combination of individuals do in bed is nobody's business but the participants themselves, as long as it's consensual. While defending the right to gay marriage, we also argue that the "marriage mania" represents a fundamentally conservative thrust by the well-to-do petty-bourgeois gay milieu. It's a far cry from "free love" and the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 to today's marriage ceremonies, PTA meetings and Democratic and Republican Party fund-raisers. In the quest for bourgeois "respectability," gay pride day organizers have viciously banned NAMBLA (North American Man-Boy Love Association) from their marches (thereby fueling the "anti-pedophilia" hysteria which targets all gays) and welcomed contingents of gay cops who spend a good part of their time busting "sex offenders."

Nonetheless, by analogy to our position on the armed forces, we oppose excluding any category of people from access to the privileges and benefits such institutions offer in this society. At the same time, in the course of fighting for these rights, we seek to convince activists that to really resolve women's and gay oppression it is necessary to create a socialist society, in which the current functions of the bourgeois family are socialized: communal childcare; communal kitchens; free, quality health care; and in all ways freeing women from the burden of child rearing and household slavery.

A look at the history of monogamous marriage in the United States reveals its use as a tool of governmental control. A valuable book on this subject, Nancy F. Cott's Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (Harvard University Press, 2000), states: "The structure of marriage...facilitates the government's grasp on the populace.... In the form of the law and state enforcement, the public sets the terms of marriage, says who can and cannot marry, who can officiate, what obligations and rights the agreement involves, whether it can be ended and if so, why and how." The following history is largely drawn from that book; quotations from other sources are noted.

One of the book's central themes is how entire categories of people, especially those deemed "inferior," were denied the legal right to marry in many states. This included, most notoriously, black slaves, who of course had no rights whatsoever. And for decades after the Civil War, blacks and Asians were banned from marrying whites. Additionally, as Cott writes, "Prohibiting divergent marriages has been as important in public policy as sustaining the chosen model." Thus polygamous Mormons and Native Americans were forbidden to practice their own forms of "marriage," while attempts at utopian communes made in the years before the Civil War came under massive assault following the North's victory and the consolidation of the American nation under the strengthening grip of industrial capitalism.

In America from the beginning, marriage, though infused with Christian doctrine, was a matter of governmental control, not primarily a religious institution, because the U.S. was established on the formal basis of separation of church and state. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, marriage itself, based on older common law, was seen as "a form of governance.... A man's headship of a family, his taking the responsibility for dependent wife and children, qualified him to be a participating member of a state.... Under the common law, a woman was absorbed into her husband's legal and economic persona upon marrying, and her husband gained the civic presence she lost." This concept in fact continued right up through the 20th century, and was really only dealt a decisive blow, in terms of public civil rights at least, with women getting the right to vote nationally in 1920. However, Congress determined in 1922 that a wife would lose her citizenship if she married a foreigner and stayed in his country for two years; other grounds for female loss of citizenship included marriage to an Asian, a polygamist—or an anarchist!

Within the strict confines of the marriage relationship, male supremacy remained largely intact. Cott describes three U.S. Supreme Court cases, in 1904, 1908 and 1911, all of which essentially upheld the husband's right to control of his wife's body. The 1904 case determined a husband's right to collect "damages" from his wife's lover in a case of adultery, even asserting that the husband's right to "exclusive" sexual intercourse was "a right of the highest kind, upon...which the whole social order rests" (rhetorical excess, to be sure; were this literally true, civilization would have collapsed long ago). The 1908 case justified Congress's ban on bringing women to the U.S. for an "immoral purpose," thus keeping out a man and his mistress and upholding the government's authority to legislate monogamy and punish women who transgressed. The 1911 case involved a woman's attempt to sue her husband for assault and battery. The Supreme Court refused to interfere between man and wife, rejecting the "radical and far-reaching" belief that a wife could sue her husband for injuries "as though they were strangers," and that it was "better to draw the curtain, shut out the public gaze," as an earlier North Carolina court decision put it, on the prerogatives of male brutality within the family circle. It took massive social upheaval and a wave of New Left-derived feminist activism in the 1970s to finally breach what was in fact the husband's right to rape his wife; only in 1984 did a New York court finally overturn that state's marital rape exemption, then followed by others.

Native Americans, Blacks, Asians, Immigrants: Forced or Banned Marriages

The creation of the American nation rested on the backs of black slaves— and on the virtual obliteration of the native Indian population of tribal hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists—resulting in the creation of a bourgeois democracy for white, male property owners. How much more we could have learned about the early history of our species from these indigenous peoples, relentlessly slaughtered and driven onto "reservations," is a question American Marxists must feel keenly. Friedrich Engels' work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), was after all inspired by American anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan's pioneering research into the family patterns of North American tribes. It was this research, in good part, that led to the Marxist understanding that in fact human beings have lived "for millennia" in non-patriarchal relationships, in tribal, matrilineal societies in which women were not enslaved within the straitjacket of monogamous marriage, in which children were the responsibility of both men and women. Monogamous marriage is a social invention brought to North America by the colonizers, along with their diseases, their "sacred family" and their slaves.

So the Native American population, when not simply killed, was offered an "enlightened" choice by their overseers: rot on the reservation or give up your "heathen" ways. As Cott puts it, "Most groups—notably the Iroquois, who dominated the eastern part of North America—did not make the nuclear family so fundamental an economic and psychological unit as Protestants did, nor did they generally recognize private property as such.... The federal government consistently encouraged or forced Indians to adopt Christian-model monogamy as the sine qua non of civilization and morality." In some cases it was considered that Indians could be "civilized" by converting to Christianity, and marriage of an Indian woman to a white male was tolerated, though in some dozen states marriages between Indians and whites were declared non-valid. The 1887 Dawes Act stole Indians' communal land and undermined their tribal way of life, assigning male family "last names" to Indians (against native cultural tradition), and establishing "individual property-ownership, and further subverted native American women's roles as agriculturists by presuming the Indian male should be the landowner and farmer." Cott writes: "Like ex-slaves and ex-polygamists, Indians were required by the federal government to adopt monogamy as ‘the law of social life' to become citizens."

On the other hand, for black slaves in America, legal marriage was out of the question, though slaveholders did encourage childbearing to reproduce and expand the slave population, especially after 1808 when importation of slaves was banned. "Concubinage, which is voluntary on the part of the slaves, and permissive on that of the master…in reality, is the relation, to which these people have ever been practically restricted," wrote the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1838. Thus the fight for the right to marriage, as an assertion of the right to control one's own body and make a free contract with another human being, was seen as an important aspect of the fight for black freedom.

As it is with just about everything else in America, racism is deeply intertwined with marriage law. Attempts to keep the "white race" "unmixed" were a unique feature of the American colonies since their inception (with the peculiar result that people of all different skin tones and ancestral background are automatically considered "black" if there is even a hint of a black ancestor somewhere). Ever since the inception of monogamous marriage and the family, from ancient times on, laws against intermarriage between different classes aimed to preserve ruling-class privileges. Spain in 1776 had such laws, as did the British imperialists in Ireland in the 14th century, for example. But America uniquely developed the illogic of racism, due to its slaveholding history, to such an extent that even after the victorious Civil War that freed the slaves, many states still banned black-white marriage; in Mississippi the penalty was life imprisonment. The miscegenation law was not repealed in Alabama until 2000!

The relationship between slavery and women's subordinate position in marriage was widely noted and utilized by those on both sides of the issues. Southern evangelical Protestant ministers, who published more than half of pre-Civil War pro-slavery tracts, regularly quoted the Bible; a typical claim was that god "included slavery as an organizing element in that family order which lies at the very foundation of Church and State." On the other side, those among the anti- slavery abolitionists and early women's rights advocates who shared the liberal ideals of individual freedom and the view that "self-ownership" was a natural right, saw that both slaves and married women lacked this basic right. As Lucy Stone put it, "Marriage is to woman a state of slavery. It takes from her the right to her own property, and makes her submissive in all things to her husband."

Following the Civil War, successive stages of immigration fed the fires of growing industrialization in the U.S. Here too the government's marriage policies were aimed at social control. Chinese immigrants on the West Coast, who first came in the gold rush, were in demand for mining and railroad-building, but when the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, an explosion of anti-Chinese racism was unleashed. The first federal step to restrict immigration, the Page Act of 1875, was aimed at Asian women, who were supposedly all prostitutes, and required "the U.S. consul to make sure that any immigrant debarking from an Asian country was not under contract for ‘lewd and immoral purposes'." By 1913 eight states had laws against whites marrying Japanese or Chinese people.

"Free Love" Utopias and Polygamy

In the stormy years leading up to the great social explosion that was the American Civil War, the last progressive gasp of the bourgeoisie (like the 1848 Revolutions in Europe) in North America, many experimental utopian socialist alternatives to monogamous marriage flowered. There were many "free love" communities established in the U.S., inspired by such utopian visionaries as Robert Owen, Claude Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier, whose profound insight that the status of women is the decisive indicator of social progress inspired further Marxist theory on the subject. The New York Oneida community, founded in 1849 with a pamphlet called Slavery and Marriage: A Dialogue, did away with the exclusive pairing of couples, though within a rather formal structure. These groups, though ridiculed and condemned, were not by and large prosecuted before the Civil War, but afterward, when in the name of "consolidating" the nation, a crackdown on most forms of "social deviation" began.

One interesting—and still contemporary—group stands out in all this: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, one of whose founding tenets is the right of men to polygamy, or multiple marriage to many women at once. Right-wingers today throw up their hands in horror at gay marriage, breathlessly bemoaning that polygamy will be next. Well, guess what, it's already here, and has been for over a hundred years, out in Utah and other Western states, where an estimated 30,000 old-style Mormons still practice the sect's early preaching, though the "official" church formally renounced it a long time ago. We believe the Mormons have the right to be left alone, to practice their religion and live their private lives however they see fit. Our position for the right of gay marriage, like the right of Mormons to practice polygamy, stems from our opposition to government interference with the rights of individuals to effect whatever consensual arrangements they wish. We pointed out that American Mormons, including the women, essentially freely choose their practice, unlike in countries without bourgeois revolutions, where women are still little more than property of their patriarchal masters and where polygamous social systems must be relentlessly opposed. As we wrote in "Free Tom Green! Mormon Polygamists: Leave Them Alone!" (WV No. 764, 14 September 2001), defending a man convicted of felony bigamy charges:

"The family structure—whether monogamous or polygamous—necessarily oppresses women. However, not everybody understands the source of their oppression, and people do all sorts of things that are undoubtedly bad for them that the state still has no business throwing them in prison for. As Marxists we understand that the family serves a real social purpose and cannot simply be ‘abolished,' even in a workers state, but must be replaced with alternate social institutions."

Women's Liberation, Individual Freedoms and the Fight for Socialism

So, as radical columnist Alexander Cockburn put it, "Why rejoice when state and church extend their grip, which is what marriage is all about" ("Sidestep on Freedom's Path," CounterPunch, 20/21 March). Cockburn quotes early ACT UP activist Jim Eigo on the question: "Why are current mainstream gay organizations working to strike a bargain with straight society that will make some queers less equal than others?... Marriage has no more place in efforts to achieve equality than slavery or the divine right of kings. At this juncture in history, wouldn't it make more sense for us to try to figure out how to relieve heterosexuals of the outdated shackles of matrimony?"

It certainly would. And it is the modern Marxist movement which has figured out how to break those shackles, through abolishing the system of private property in the means of production, thus abolishing the need for the bourgeois family structure to pass on such private wealth. As Leon Trotsky, co-leader with Lenin of the 1917 Russian Revolution, wrote in response to the magazine Liberty (14 January 1933) which asked, "Is Bolshevism deliberately destroying the family?":

"If one understands by ‘family' a compulsory union based on the marriage contract, the blessing of the church, property rights, and the single passport, then Bolshevism has destroyed this policed family from the roots up.

"If one understands by ‘family' the unbounded domination of parents over children, and absence of legal rights for the wife, then Bolshevism has, unfortunately, not yet completely destroyed this carryover of society's old barbarism.

"If one understands by ‘family' ideal monogamy—not in the legal but in the actual sense—then the Bolsheviks could not destroy what never was nor is on earth, barring fortunate exceptions."

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Sunday, July 03, 2016

*From The Pages Of "Workers Vanguard"- The Suffragettes, The Russian Revolution And Women's Liberation"- A Guest Commentary

Click on the headline to link to the "Workers Vanguard" article, dated July 6, 2007, concerning the relationship between the early women's suffrage movement and the emergence of the Russian revolution as a pole of attraction for women.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

*From The Pages Of "Workers Vanguard"- Full Citizenship Rights For All Immigrants!- A Guest Commentary

Click on the headline to link to a "Workers Vanguard" article, dated April 27, 2007 in defense of full citizenship rights for all immigrants.

Markin comment:

In a country that has seen many successive waves of mass immigration from all corners of this earth the demand in the headline and as detailed in the article seems like the beginning of wisdom rather than the "red meat" issue that the right-wing yahoos have made it.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

*From The Archives Of "Women And Revolution"-Women And The French Revolution

Markin comment:

The following is an article from an archival issue of Women and Revolution, Spring 2001, that may have some historical interest for old "new leftists", perhaps, and well as for younger militants interested in various cultural and social questions that intersect the class struggle. Or for those just interested in a Marxist position on a series of social questions that are thrust upon us by the vagaries of bourgeois society. I will be posting more such articles from the back issues of Women and Revolution during Women's History Month and periodically throughout the year.


Women and The French Revolution-Spring 2001

We publish below an edited version of a presentation given by our comrade Susan Adams at a Spartacist League forum to celebrate International Women's Day 2000 in New York City, first published in Workers Vanguard No. 752, 16 February 2001. Susan, who died this February (see obituary, page 2), was a longtime leader of the ICL's French section and maintained an intense commitment to the study of history and culture throughout her years as a communist. These interests were put to particular use in her work as a member of the Editorial Board of Women and Revolution while that journal existed.

International Women's Day originated in March 1908, with a demonstration here in Manhattan by women needle trades workers. They marched to oppose child labor and in favor of the eight-hour day and women's suffrage. March 8 became an international day celebrating the struggle for women's rights. And then on International Women's Day in 1917, right in the middle of World War 190,000 textile workers, many of them women, went on strike in Petrograd (St. Petersburg), the capital of the Russian tsarist empire. They rose up from the very bottom rungs of society, and it was these most oppressed and downtrodden of the proletariat who opened the sluice gates of the revolutionary struggle leading to the October Revolution, where Marx's ideas first took on flesh and blood.

The Soviet state was the dictatorship of the proletariat. It immediately enacted laws making marriage and divorce simple civil procedures, abolishing the category of illegitimacy and all discrimination against homosexuals. It took steps toward replacing women's household drudgery by setting up cafeterias, laundries and childcare centers to allow women to enter productive employment. Under the conditions of extreme poverty and backwardness, those measures could be carried out only on a very limited scale. But they undermined the institution of the family and represented the first steps toward the liberation of women. The collectivized planned economy laid the basis for enormous economic and social progress. Fully integrated into the economy as wage earners, women achieved a degree of economic independence that became so much a matter of course that it was barely noticed by the third generation after the revolution. We fought for unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack and internal counterrevolution up until the very last barricade.

The great October Russian Revolution has now been undone and its gains destroyed. Surrounded and pounded by the imperialists for seven decades, the Soviet Union was destroyed by capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92. The responsibility for that lies primarily with the Stalinist bureaucracy which usurped political power from the working class in 1923-24 and betrayed the revolutionary purpose of Lenin and Trotsky's Bolshevik Party and the revolutionary Communist International that they founded. Not the least of the Stalinists' crimes was the glorification of the family and the reversal of many gains for women. We called for a proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy and return to the road of Lenin and Trotsky.

In celebrating International Women's Day, we reaffirm that the struggle for women's rights is inextricably linked to revolution and we honor the women fighters through the centuries whose courage and consciousness has often put them in the vanguard of struggles to advance the cause of the oppressed. The Russian Revolution was a proletarian socialist revolution; it overthrew the rule of the capitalists and landlords and placed the working class in power. The Great French Revolution of 1789-94was a bourgeois revolution, the most thorough and deep going of the bourgeois revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The French Revolution overthrew the rule of the monarchy, the nobility and the landed aristocracy and placed the bourgeoisie in power. It swept Europe with its liberating ideas and its revolutionary reorganization of society. It transformed the population from subjects of the crown to citizens with formal equality. Jews were freed from the ghettos and declared citizens with full rights; slavery was first abolished on the territory of the French nation. It inspired the first successful slave revolt in the colonies, the uprising led by Toussaint L'Ouverture in what became Haiti. And, within the limitations of bourgeois rule, it achieved gains for women that were unparalleled until the time of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Today's capitalist ruling class is unsurpassed in bloody terrorism against working people around the world in defense of its profits and property. As hard as it is to imagine, the ancestors of this bourgeoisie played a historically progressive role then, sweeping away the backwardness, irrationality and inefficiency of the previous feudal system. The leaders of the French Revolution, who represented the most radical sector of the French bourgeoisie, spoke with—and for the most part believed—the words of the Enlightenment, justifying its fight to destroy the nobility as a class and take political power itself as the advent of "liberty, equality and fraternity" for all. They could not, and the majority of them did not intend to, emancipate the lower classes. Nevertheless, something changed in the world.

Particularly since "death of communism" propaganda has filled the bourgeois press and media following the destruction of the Soviet Union, there's been a real attempt to demonize not just the Russian Revolution but any revolution, the French Revolution in particular. The push for retrograde social policies has been historically justified with a virtual flood of books and articles attacking the humanist values of the Enlightenment philosophy which laid the ideological basis for the French Revolution. Today, while the bourgeoisie in its decay disowns the rationalist and democratic values it once espoused, we Trotskyists stand out not only as the party of the Russian Revolution but the champions of the liberating goals of the French Revolution.

Bolshevik leader V. I. Lenin identified with the Jacobins, the radical wing of the French revolutionary bourgeoisie, whose most prominent leaders were Maximilien Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat and Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just. Lenin wrote that the "essence of Jacobinism" was "the transfer of power to the revolutionary, oppressed class" and that Jacobinism was "one of the highest peaks in the emancipation struggle of an oppressed class." You can better understand why Lenin was inspired by the Jacobins from the following words by Saint-Just: "Those who make a revolution, with half-measures are only digging their own grave."

Women's Oppression and Class Society

In the early 19th century, a French socialist named Charles Fourier carefully studied the French Revolution. He wrote biting, witty and humorous criticism of existing social relations, including working out a whole scheme—kind of nutty but fun and food for thought—for perpetually satisfying sexual relations. Needless to say, he thought sexual monogamy was a curse worse than death. In a famous statement quoted by Karl Marx in his 1845 book The Holy Family, Fourier said:

"The change in a historical epoch can always be determined by women's progress towards freedom, because here, in the relation of woman to man, of the weak to the strong, the victory of human nature over brutality is most evident. The degree of emancipation of woman is the natural measure of general emancipation."

And that quite profound observation guides us today in our understanding of society.

Women's oppression is rooted in the institution of the family and has been a feature of all class societies. At one point before recorded history, it didn't much matter who the father of a child was, since children were largely cared for communally. But then inventions such as agriculture made it possible to produce more than the producers could actually consume. This ability to produce a surplus meant that a leisure class could live off the labor of others and accumulate property. It became important to know who the father of a child was so that he could pass on his property to his own children. Monogamy appeared, making the man dominant and the woman subservient, enslaved.

The family is a key social unit for the maintenance of capitalism. For the capitalists, the family provides the basis for passing on accumulated wealth. And where there is no property to pass on, the family serves to rear the next generation of workers for the capitalists and to inculcate conservative social values. It is the family—and the necessity to control sexual access to the woman to ensure that the man knows who his real heir is—which generates the morality codified in and reinforced by religion. It is the family which throughout a woman's life gives definition to her oppressed state: as daughter, as wife, as mother.

We Marxists fight to rip the means of production out of the hands of the capitalists in order to put them at the service of the needs of the working people that create the wealth. Only then can household drudgery be replaced with socialized child-care, restaurants, laundries and so on. The program of communism is for a classless society in which the family is transcended by superior sexual and social relations which will be free of moral or economic coercion. Our slogan is: "For women's liberation through socialist revolution!"

Marx said that revolution is the locomotive of history. In the Great French Revolution, the women of Paris were often the engineers in that locomotive. I'm going to be talking about the role of thousands of women leaders, military commanders, propagandists and organizers whose role at key junctures of the French Revolution was quite simply decisive. Groups like the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women literally shaped history. Count Mirabeau, one of the major actors in the beginning of the revolution, was an extremely sleazy guy, firmly in favor of a constitutional monarchy, occasionally in the pay of the king. But even he said: "Without women, there is no revolution."

Most histories of the French Revolution concentrate their chief attention on the upper levels of society and the top layers of the plebeian masses. In recent years, a number of French and American women historians have done very interesting and important research into the dusty archives of the revolution in Paris—police reports, newspaper articles. Some of these historians are feminists; that is, they see the fundamental division in society as that between the sexes.

At the time of the revolution, a movement focused specifically on women's rights was in the minority. One person who was what you would call a feminist today, at least as far as I have been able to put together her history, was Olympe de Gouges. In her pamphlet, The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Female Citizen, written in the fall of 1791, she implicitly called for the vote for women, for a women's assembly and for equal rights with men. She also dedicated her pamphlet to the despised queen Marie Antoinette! De Gouges was not an aristocrat but a butcher's daughter from outside Paris, yet she remained a royalist throughout most of the revolution and was guillotined in November 1793.

Some of the recent analysis by feminist historians feeds right into today's reactionary climate. Taking aim at the French Revolution itself, they claim that the failure of women to secure the right to vote for national parliaments and the suppression of the exclusively women's political clubs during the most radical period of the revolution proves that misogyny triumphed. This view is also promoted in an article in the New York Times Magazine (16 May 1999) called "The Shadow Story of the Millennium: Women." The article states that the French Revolution's "new philosophy of rational natural rights placed all men on an equal footing in regard to citizenship and the law" but adds: "Men of the revolution said that women should stay home and rear their sons to be good citizens."

Let us allow a participant to refute this falsehood. Mere Duchesne was a domestic servant, a cook, who, unlike most domestic servants then, defied her aristocratic masters. She was described in a police report as "the satellite and missionary to all women under Robespierre's orders, a most ferocious woman." The Mere Duchesne newspaper wrote in September 1792:

"In the past, when we wanted to speak, our mouths were shut while we were told very politely, 'You reason like a woman'; almost like a goddamn beast. Oh! Damn! Everything is very different now; we have indeed grown since the Revolution."

"The Columns of French Liberty"

Now I want to go into some detail about the French Rev¬olution itself. A revolution is a monumental military and social battle between classes. The dominant class in any society controls the state—the police, courts, army—which protects its class interests. In modern society there are two fundamental classes: the big capitalists who own the means of production (the mines, factories, etc.) and the workers who own absolutely nothing except their personal effects and are compelled to sell their labor power to the capitalists. At the time of the French Revolution, there were essentially four
classes. The king and the nobility who owned nearly all of the land, the rising bourgeoisie, the peasants (who constituted over 80 percent of the population) and the urban sans culottes. The latter consisted of artisans, who worked either at home or in very small workshops, shopkeepers, day laborers, the poor and unemployed. Those who did manual labor wore loose trousers and were sans—without—the tight silk leggings worn by aristocrats and those imitating them.

A revolution happens when the ruling class can no longer rule as before, and the masses are no longer willing to be ruled in the same way. We're talking about a political crisis in which the rulers falter and which tears the people from the habitual conditions under which they labor and vegetate, awakening even the most backward elements, compelling the people to take stock of themselves and look around. That political crisis was provoked in France by the 1776 American Revolution.

France had taken the side of the American colonies against its perpetual enemy England and so had emerged on the side of the victors, but totally broke. In May 1789, King Louis XVI convened an Estates General—a meeting of representatives of the nobility, the clergy and the non-noble property owners and lawyers (the so-called Third Estate)— at Versailles, where his palace was located, about 12 miles from Paris. He hoped to convince some of them to pay more taxes. But they refused, while every village throughout the country wrote up its grievances to be presented at Versailles. The meeting of the three estates transformed itself into a National Assembly.

It was clear that the king was gathering troops to disperse the National Assembly. The negotiations out at Versailles might have gone on forever, except the Parisian masses took things into their own capable hands and organized to arm themselves, seizing 60,000muskets from armories like the Invalides and the Bastille prison fortress around the city on 14 July 1789. You know of this event as the storming of the Bastille. The freeing of the handful of prisoners was incidental; it was the arms that were the goal. The Paris garrisons had been deeply influenced by revolutionary propaganda following a massacre of rioters in the working-class quarters of Faubourg Saint-Antoine some months earlier. In June, the troops paraded through the streets to shouts of "Long live the Third Estate! We are the soldiers of the nation!"

The king backed down, but the monarchy still had its army and its throne. The bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, mutually hostile classes, were relying on essentially incompatible government institutions, the National Assembly and the royal throne. One or the other would have to go. Either the king (and his many royal cousins and relations by marriage ruling other countries of Europe) would crush the National Assembly or the king would meet up with what came to be known as "Madame la Guillotine."

The weeks following the July 14 events were known as the "Great Fear," the fear that the aristocrats were coming to take the land back and were organizing brigands and robbers and bands of pirates and so forth. So the peasants armed to protect themselves. Then it turned out to be a rumor, but there they were, armed and ready, and being practical sorts, they turned on the landlords' manor houses and made use of the arms that they'd gotten.

The people's representatives, who were deliberating out at Versailles, took note of the insurrection and on August 4 passed laws eliminating feudal privileges, which had been the original issue all summer. The problem was that you had to buy your way out of your feudal duties and pay 25 times your feudal taxes in order to free yourself from them. Most peasants simply ignored that and had been seizing the land all over the country since July 14. They also would burn down the lord's manor house, where the records and the deeds were kept. You know, straightforward and practical.

The next major event is crucial to our understanding of the women's role. It was October and the people of Paris were starving again. October is usually a cold and wet month in Paris. It was indeed raining at 8 a.m. on the morning of 5 October 1789. Thousands of women—eventually some 8,000—had already gathered in front of City Hall. They knew where to find the arms because it was they who had helped store them here after July 14.

The king had allowed the symbol of the revolution—the red-white-and-blue cockade (rosette)—to be trampled underfoot by some foreign troops brought in to protect him and his Austrian queen, Marie Antoinette. The women intended to stop this anti-revolutionary activity and they wanted bread. Huge stores of fine white flour waited at Versailles. They began to walk there. They couldn't get anyone to come with them, but later in the afternoon about 20,000 troops of the National Guard—which had been formed by the bourgeoisie—forced the very reluctant General Lafayette, whom you might know as a hero of the American Revolution, to lead them there. One of the women was Pauline Leon, a chocolate maker, who was later to lead the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women. That day she was armed with a pike, which was known as the people's weapon, because it was so easy to make. You could pull something off the top of a railing and attach it to a good hefty stick. It was said that "the pikes of the people are the columns of French liberty."

This was no protest march—it was a sea of muskets and pikes. The women were determined not to come back without the king and his family. There were still plenty of illusions in the king, but they wanted him under their watchful eye, in Paris. At one point the crowd apparently invaded the palace and was wandering through Marie Antoinette's chambers and some things were getting broken and stepped on and stomped and so forth. One very respectable woman in a velvet hat and cloak turned around and said very haughtily, "Don't do that, we're here to make a point, not to break things." And a woman from the artisan class turned around and said, "My husband was drawn and quartered for stealing a piece of meat." Finally the women demanded that the royal family get into their carriage. Lafayette's troops led the way and the women marched in front carrying on their pikes loaves of fresh, very white bread—the kind reserved for the upper classes—and the heads of two of the king's bodyguards.

The Revolutionary Jacobin Dictatorship

While pretending to be happy with the situation, the king was secretly corresponding with the other royal heads of state and nobles began to emigrate en masse, establishing counterrevolutionary centers outside the country. In June 1791, the king and queen disguised themselves and tried to escape, intending to return with the backing of the Austrian army. But an observant revolutionary recognized them in the town of Varennes, and they were brought back to Paris. This destroyed the people's remaining illusions in the monarchy and triggered an upsurge in revolutionary agitation. But the bourgeoisie, fearing things could get out of hand, sought to maintain the monarchy and clamp down on the mass turmoil. A month after the king's arrest, a petition to abolish the monarchy was being circulated among the crowd on the broad expanse of the Champs de Mars. The National Guard fired on the crowd and many were killed. Commanded by the aristocrat Lafayette, the National Guard had been organized as a force not only against the king but also against the threat that the bourgeoisie had already seen coming from the Parisian working people.

The Champs de Mars massacre marked a split within the bourgeois revolutionary forces. The two main factions that emerged—the Girondins and the Jacobins—represented the same social class, but they were deeply politically divided. The Prussian monarchy and the rest of royal Europe were mobilizing militarily and in April 1792 revolutionary France went to war. The Girondins sought a "negotiated solution" with the reactionary feudal armies combined with concessions to the nobility and the clergy. The Jacobins were ready to make temporary concessions to the hungry urban masses in order to thoroughly vanquish feudal reaction. You could say that the Girondins were the reformist wing and the Jacobins the revolutionary wing of the bourgeoisie.

In June 1792, thousands of armed marchers, including numerous women armed with sabers, paraded through the Assembly in the first of what became known as journees, or days of action. One official observed at the time, "The throne was still standing, but the people were seated on it, took the measure of it." The monarchy was finally overthrown by a second journee on 10 August 1792, when the masses invaded the king's residence at the Tuileries Palace in Paris and imprisoned the royal family.

The war was not going well. Most of the former officers, aristocrats, had emigrated. A government representative appealed for recruits by invoking "the heartbreaking thought that, after all the efforts that have already been made, we might be forced to return to the misery of our former slavery." While the best of the revolutionaries volunteered for the front, they were untrained and assumed to be undisciplined. Most of the new recruits were trades people, artisans and journeymen, not the sons of the bourgeoisie as before. The road to Paris seemed open to the Prussian royal armies.

The king of Prussia expected the French troops to scatter in disarray when his troops moved to drive them out of a strip of land near Valmy in eastern France. But not a man flinched as the French general waved his hat in the air on the point of his sword, shouting "Long live the nation!" The sans-culottes fired straight and repeatedly at the enemy. With a torrential rainstorm some hours later, the armies fell back. The German writer Goethe was present at Valmy, and as he looked out over the battlefield that night he said, "This day and this place open a new era in the history of the world."
He could not have been more prescient. On that day, the Assembly gave way to the Convention, which was elected by universal male suffrage and convoked expressly to give the nation a constitution which codified the overthrow of the king. Also, as we will see, the most progressive marriage and divorce laws until the Bolshevik Revolution were passed on exactly the same day as the victory at Valmy. Five months later, the king was beheaded.

In a third uprising in June 1793, the people of Paris and 80,000 National Guard troops surrounded the Convention and demanded the arrest of the Girondins and a comprehensive program of revolutionary defense of the country. This ushered in the Jacobin revolutionary dictatorship, which irremediably abolished seigneurial (feudal) rights, instituted the price controls (referred to as the "maximum") demanded by the sans-culottes and destroyed the resistance of the feudal order through a reign of revolutionary terror carried out by the Committee of Public Safety.

A month after the foreign troops were driven from France in mid-1794, on July 27 (9 Thermidor in the revolutionary calendar), the conservative wing of the bourgeoisie took the reins of power. The next day Robespierre followed the Grindings to the guillotine. The Thermidorians thought they could do without the alliance with the lower classes. That calculation was proved false, and they were themselves replaced in 1799 in the coup of the 18th Brumaire (November 9) by Napoleon Bonaparte, who subsequently declared himself emperor. But the Jacobin dictatorship had irreversibly consolidated the central achievement of the French Revolution, the rooting out of feudal relations in the countryside.

Marriage, Divorce and Inheritance

As materialists, we understand, as Marx put it, that "Law can never be higher than the economic structure and the cultural development of society conditioned by that structure." The rising capitalist class was firmly committed to the preservation of private property, as indeed it had to be. It was precisely this which staked out the limits of the revolutionary social changes that could be carried out, although the most radical years of the French Revolution went very far indeed.

The family was temporarily undermined in order to serve the needs of the revolution against its enemies, the feudal nobility and Catholic church. This is one demonstration of the fact that social institutions which seem to be immutable, to be "natural" and "eternal," are in fact nothing more than the codification of social relations dictated by the particular economic system that is in place. After the bourgeoisie consolidated its power as the new ruling class, it re-established the constraints of the family. But nothing would ever be the same again. The contradictory reality of the French Revolution—the breathtaking leap in securing individual rights and the strict limits imposed on those rights by the fact that this was a bourgeois and not a socialist revolution—was captured by Karl Marx in The German Ideology:

"The existence of the family is made necessary by its connection with the mode of production, which exists independently of the will of bourgeois society. That it was impossible to do without it was demonstrated in the most striking way during the French Revolution, when for a moment the family was as good as legally abolished."

The feminists who want to dismiss the bourgeois revolution as anti-woman end up echoing those who justify suttee (widow-burning) in India and the imposition of the chador in Iran and Afghanistan as "cultural differences." Where the bourgeois revolution did not triumph, the status of women is qualitatively inferior. It is enough to contrast the condition of women today in West Europe with Afghanistan, groaning under the rule of the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban.

I'll give you a very small example of what it meant to have a society in which a rising, vigorous, productive class—the bourgeoisie—was held in check by outmoded institutions. France was a Catholic country. In 1572, tens of thousands of French Protestants were killed in the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, and more fled the country. The 1598 Edict of Nantes assured them the free exercise of their religious beliefs, but this was revoked in 1685. Some of the richest merchants were Protestant, but marriages performed by their own pastors were not officially recognized. At the death of a spouse, you would have distant Catholic relatives claiming the inheritance, because legally there was no spouse and the children were illegitimate. Both Protestants and Jews accepted divorce. In 1769, according to James Traer in his Marriage and the Family in Eighteenth-Century France (1980), a respected author advocated permitting divorce on the grounds that "the Protestant nations of northern Europe were enjoying both population growth and prosperity while the Catholic states of southern Europe were suffering from declining population and poverty." But the conservatives always managed to get the law postponed.

Under the Old Regime, women had the right to exactly nothing. The monarchy consistently sought to reinforce, supplement and extend the father's control over the marriage of his children. Women found guilty of adultery were sentenced to public whipping or imprisonment. Women were also put into convents for life for adultery. Marriage was indissoluble—a life sentence. If you were a man, you couldn't marry until you were 30 without your parents' permission. If your family had property, your father could get the king to issue a lettre de cachet, something like an unlimited arrest warrant, and you could be locked up indefinitely. If you married a minor (under the age of 25 for women) without permission, the penalty was death for rape notwithstanding the woman's consent. By the way, actors and actresses couldn't marry either, because their profession was viewed by the church as immoral.

The aristocracy was hardly committed to the sanctity of marriage. It was said at the court of Louis XIV some decades before the revolution that the aristocracy frowned on marital fidelity as being in bad taste, and a German visitor noted, "I know of not a single case of mutual affection and loyalty." I introduce this to make the point that marriage for the upper classes was all about property. Many of the sans-culottes did not marry at all. But in the Paris of the French Revolution, women were still largely dependent on men for economic reasons (whether or not they were legally married).

Much debate and several pieces of draft legislation on marriage and divorce had already been considered by the National Assembly before September 1792. All proposed to make marriage d simple civil affair. However, what stood in the way of this was the Catholic church. Those clergy who refused to swear an oath of loyalty were threatened with deportation. But the Pope forbade it, and a lot did refuse. Though some were deists or free thinkers, the bourgeois deputies in the Assembly had no intention of suppressing religion; they nearly all agreed that some kind of religion was necessary to keep the people pacified. But now they had a big problem on their hands as the village priests became organizers for counterrevolution.

The local priests not only carried out marriage ceremonies, baptisms and funerals, but also recorded them. If these records were in the hands of hostile forces, how could you count the population? You wouldn't even know if you had enough draftees for the army. When in June 1792 the Minister of Justice wrote that the civil war launched by the aristocracy and the church in the Vendee region in southwest France had completely disrupted the keeping of records, one delegate rose to propose that the marriage ceremony be abolished with the cry, "Freedom or death!" So in some ways, the progressive marriage and divorce laws enacted in September the same day as the victory at Valmy were war measures.

The age of adulthood was lowered to 21 and marriage without parental consent was legalized. This was followed by a June 1793 decree that proclaimed the right of illegitimate children to inherit from both their mothers and their fathers. At a stroke, the institution of the family lost one of its main functions as the framework for the transfer of property from one generation to the next. While inheritance rights didn't mean much to those without property, the new laws also tended to legitimize "free unions." For example, soldiers' common-law wives could receive government pensions.

Divorce had not been high on the list of grievances before the revolution, but as the pamphlets flowered, so did the notion that divorce was a necessary right in society. Probably rarely in history had a simple law so delighted the female population. When a certain citizen Bellepaume came to the town hall intending to oppose the divorce demanded by his wife, he found that she had organized "a considerable number of citizens of both sexes, but chiefly women" who pursued him in the corridors, abused him and tore his clothes. In the first year after the divorce law was passed, women
initiated over 70 percent of all divorces. One woman wrote to the Convention:

"The female citizen Govot, a free woman, solemnly comes to give homage to this sacred law of divorce. Yesterday, groaning under the control of a despotic husband, liberty was only an empty word for her. Today, returned to the dignity of an independent woman, she idolizes this beneficial law that breaks ill-matched ties and returns hearts to themselves, to nature, and finally to divine liberty. I offer my country six francs for the expense of war. I add my marriage ring, which was until today the symbol of my slavery."

The Society of Revolutionary Republican Women

The question of women's status in society had been a subject of debate throughout the Enlightenment. The Encyclopedia, published just before the revolution and intended as a compendium of all knowledge, contained four contributions under the category "Women": one in favor of equality, one ambiguous and two against. Even in a very radical work like Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), woman's role as subordinate to man inside the family was not seriously called into question. Wollstonecraft was part of a circle of British radical-democratic revolutionaries who supported the French Revolution against English monarchical reaction, even participating in the French government.

Most of the Enlightenment thinkers and writers concentrated on education for women, and that was about it. Now, this is undeniably a very important question, and it refuted the prevalent idea that women were inferior to men and their brains worked in an inferior way. Only about a third of French women at the time were literate. You'd find them during the revolutionary years at the corner cafe with their glass of red wine, reading or listening to someone else read Robespierre's latest speech. The hunger for knowledge was totally linked to the desire to change society. Before 1777, France had no daily newspaper. Two years later, there were 35 papers and periodicals and by 1789 there were 169. Thousands of political pamphlets rolled off the printing presses.

One of the novels based on the new research published in the last few years has the Enlightenment philosopher Condorcet, who wrote very eloquently about women's rights, and his lovely young wife enjoying long mornings reading a bit of Voltaire or the equivalent of the Sunday New York Times in bed with their cafe au lait, making love, and then getting up in the afternoon to walk in the garden and do their very serious intellectual work. Not a bad life, right? But it wasn't available to most people, of course. Condorcet ended by opposing the execution of Louis XVI, ostensibly on the grounds of opposition to the death penalty.

The working women of Paris who were a motor force in the revolution lived very different lives. Perhaps 45,000 women in Paris, some 20 percent, were wage earners; a similar percentage of women in cities like Lyon and Rouen worked. Because of the war, women were able to break into traditionally male professions and they were also employed at sewing, as domestic servants. Some were proprietors of shops. Wives, legal or otherwise, of soldiers at the front were given subsidies. The Paris municipal government and the political clubs set up spinning workshops that at a certain point employed several thousand women, though the wages were miserable. They were centralized by the government office responsible for producing clothes for the troops.

It was from among these women of the sans-culottes that the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women was formed in the spring of 1793. One of the leaders of the society was the chocolate maker Pauline Leon, whom we last saw with her pike on the October 1789 march to Versailles. Another was the actress Claire Lacombe, who always followed her signature with "A Free Woman." A third was Anne Felicite' Colombe, who owned a print shop. Typography was generally a man's job, so she was already exceptional for this. In 1791, she had been one of the four women arrested when the National Guard shot down demonstrators at the Champs de Mars calling for the overthrow of the monarchy. Colombe printed the revolutionary newspapers of Jean-Paul Marat, L'Ami du Peuple (The Friend of the People) and L'Orateur du Peuple (The Orator of the People). She was dragged into a libel suit, which she eventually won, and distributed the 20,000-//vre settlement to the poor in her neighborhood.

While women did not win the right to vote for delegates to the Convention, especially after the establishment of the Jacobin dictatorship in 1793 they played a full role in the Parisian sectional assemblies, intervening, presenting positions, voting and being elected as delegates. They refused to be "servile women, domestic animals," as one put it in May 1793. Interestingly, the one widespread demand for formal equality was for the right to bear arms. In March 1792, Pauline Leon had led a delegation to present a petition to the Assembly declaring:

"You cannot refuse us and society cannot remove from us this right which nature gives us, unless it is alleged that the Declaration of Rights is not applicable to women and that they must allow their throats to be slit, like sheep, without having the right to defend themselves."

The women demanded the right to arm themselves with pikes, pistols, sabers and rifles, and to assemble for maneuvers on the Champs de Mars. After much debate, the Assembly moved to put the petition in the minutes with honorable mention. Dozens of women actually went to the front when the war began, a few as officers.

The Society of Revolutionary Republican Women solidly backed the Jacobins as the revolutionary government and politically supported the extreme left Enrages around Jacques Roux, who spoke for the popular masses. Just after the Revolutionary Republican Women was founded, they mobilized the support of the masses in the streets for the Jacobins, whose battle to oust the Girondins was then coming to a head. As the split deepened, there were many more women than men in the street gatherings, according to police reports. The Revolutionary Republican Women dressed in military clothes and carried sabers. One account has them waging a military battle in the Convention to get back the seats which had been taken from them by supporters of the right-wing Gironde.

Reversal of Gains Under Thermidor

In October 1793, the society became one of the first organizations to be banned by the Jacobin government. Those feminist historians I mentioned earlier claim that this proves that the French Revolution was essentially hostile to women. That's wrong. The society was banned not because it was composed of women, but because it was one of the most radical expressions of the sans-culottes.

Here's what happened. The Enrages and the Revolutionary Republican Women fought for strict price controls, especially on food, and an upper limit on the size of personal fortunes. In October, the Revolutionary Republican Women launched a campaign to force all women to wear the revolutionary cockade. They brought their campaign to Les Halles, the central marketplace in Paris. The market women were of course hostile to the price maximum on food that had just been imposed by the Jacobin government as a concession to the sans-culottes. The question of the cockade was just the pretext for the major-league brawl that ensued between the market women and the women revolutionaries. This fight represented an early split in the Jacobins' base, and the Jacobins sided with the market women, banning the Revolutionary Republicans.

The peasants wanted maximum food prices, the artisan-proletariat in the cities wanted minimum ones, pointing to the spectre of a civil war which the sans-cullotes could not win. The Jacobins could have tried to strike a deal, but ultimately they could not satisfy the conflicting demands of the urban poor and the peasantry. When revolutionary Russia in the early 1920s was confronted with the "scissors crisis," as the price of scarce manufactured goods rose and the price of agricultural products fell 3nd the peasants threatened to withhold their produce, Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky proposed a course of planned industrialization to make more manufactured goods available to the peasants and maintain their support for the proletarian dictatorship. Trotsky's proposal was rejected at the time (only to be implemented at forced-march pace a few years later by Stalin). But such an option was objectively unrealizable in the capitalist economic system of pre-industrial France.

By the fall of 1793, the Jacobins and revolutionary France were gasping for air. Mandatory conscription had provoked mass uprisings in the Vendee; there had been treachery at the front; the armies of the European monarchies had reinvaded France; and Girondin provinces were seceding; Marat, the "friend of the people," had been assassinated by the royalist Charlotte Corday. Against this backdrop, the Revolutionary Republican Women, in their revolutionary zeal against the market women, threatened to get in the way of prompt and regular deliveries of food to the city from the countryside, without which the Jacobins would have lost the allegiance of the urban masses.

Many of the revolutionary women continued to be active as individuals. Even after being arrested by the Jacobin government, Claire Lacombe stayed loyal to Robespierre. She never renounced her support, and after Robespierre's execution she always refused to point out that she had been arrested by his revolutionary government because she hated the idea of becoming a hero of the Thermidorians. Women played a vanguard role in the last uprising of the French Revolution in the spring of 1795, after Thermidor. The rallying cry was "Bread and the Constitution of 1793!"

The modern feminist historians believe that the role of women who rose up from the "cellars and catacombs" has been largely obscured because of prevailing patriarchal attitudes in society. Or they seek to show that women acted only on "women's issues," mainly food shortages. While there's some truth in both these observations, they fundamentally miss the point. The mass of active women in the French Revolution did not fight and organize as women but as revolutionaries. And, as the October 1789 march that brought the king back from Versailles showed, it wasn't simply the question of bread that motivated them.

Thermidor marked the end of the radical phase of the revolution, and women were among the first to feel this. This was especially true for divorced women, who would have trouble finding work and maintaining themselves under the conservative Thermidorians. Divorce became identified with the "ruin of society" and the "torrent of corruption that invaded the cities and especially Paris" during the Terror and the months that followed it. Proof of a legitimate marriage became a requirement for soldiers' wives seeking to receive aid. After May 1795, the Convention banned women from "attending political assemblies," urging them to withdraw to their homes and ordering "the arrest of those who would gather together in groups of more than five."

The Napoleonic Code saw a further reversal of the gains of women. It's reported that the only part of the deliberations on the Napoleonic Code that Bonaparte sat in on was the Family Code enacted in 1804. The Family Code again made women minors from the standpoint of the law, mandating that they had to have the approval of their husbands for all contracts and so forth. In 1816, a year after Napoleon was overthrown and the monarchy restored, divorce was abolished.

For Women's Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

I want to briefly trace the revolutionary continuity extending from the French Revolution through the 19th century. The French Revolution, refracted through Napoleon's armies, brought the first notions of women's equality to hideously backward tsarist Russia. Following Napoleon's defeat, Paris was occupied by Russian troops for a period of time. A number of young officers spent a lot of time in the cafes talking to people about what had been going on, and went back to St. Petersburg and led the Decembrist Uprising against the tsarist autocracy in 1825. They fought, among other things, for women's equality.

The very first communist ideas came out of the analysis developed by some of the radical Jacobins while in prison after the defeat of the Jacobin dictatorship. Revolutionaries like Gracchus Babeuf, who organized the Conspiracy of Equals, and Philippe Buonarroti came to believe that private property itself was the cause of oppression. They provided a living link to Marx and Engels, who issued the Communist Manifesto as the next revolutionary wave swept Europe in 1848, declaring: "The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course when its complement vanishes, and both will vanish with the vanishing of capital." In France, a program was advanced for women's emancipation that called for replacing domestic slavery with socially organized and financed services. I found this 1848 program reprinted in an early 1920s women's journal published by the French Communist Party, L'Ouvriere (The Woman Worker).

In the Paris Commune in 1871, women once again played an extremely important role. Marx described the Commune as the first realization of the dictatorship of the proletariat, though it lasted less than three months. The women of the Paris Commune were called the "incendiaries" by the reactionary press, and a correspondent for the London Times wrote, "If the French Nation were composed of nothing but women, what a terrible nation it would be." But Marx hailed them: "The women of Paris joyfully give up their lives on the barricades and execution grounds" (quoted in Edith Thomas, The Women Incendiaries [1967]). When the French capitalist rulers finally defeated the Commune after heroic resistance, they slaughtered at least 30,000 people in one week, and many thousands more were sent to penal colonies.

Today, bourgeois France is an imperialist power, where the July 14 storming of the Bastille is celebrated as a chauvinist glorification of the "grandeur of France"—much like July 4 here—while French colonial atrocities are carried out to the music of the once-revolutionary hymn, the Marseillaise.

We Trotskyists know that it will take world socialist revolution to do away with the institutions which are the root cause of women's oppression. In our fight to reforge Leon Trotsky's Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution, to lead new October Revolutions around the planet, we are guided by the words of the Fourth International's founding document, the 1938 Transitional Program: "The sections of the Fourth International should seek bases of support among the most exploited layers of the working class, consequently among the women workers. Here they will find inexhaustible stores of devotion, selflessness, and readiness to sacrifice." Join us!