Saturday, March 24, 2007




On Friday March 23, 2007 the United States House of Representatives by a narrow vote of 218 to 212 voted for a 124 billion dollar war budget for funding the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, among other things. That is more than the Bush Administration requested. However, attached to this budget was a binding (finally, something other than smoke and mirrors)resolution for withdrawal of troops from Iraq no later than August 31, 2008. President Bush in response stated unequivocally that he would veto this budget due to the withdrawal resolution and the fact the war budget was more than he wanted. Who would have thought?

Militants call for a straight no vote to any capitalist war budget. That is a given. However, some comment is required here. Clearly a war budget that was patched together with little goodies by the Democratic House leadership in order to get a majority vote is not supportable. Nor is a budget that is passed on the basis that the President is going to veto it anyway but everyone gets to look good for the folks back home. That is cynical but hardly unusual in bourgeois politics. What I find important out of this jumble is the amount of pressure that the House leadership felt was on it to carry out its mandate from the mid-term elections about doing something to get the hell out of Iraq. Unfortunately this is not the road out of Iraq. Increasing the war budget and then leaving it up to Bush to veto the damn thing smacks of parliamentary cretinism. Forget the Democrats (on this one the Republicans are not even on the radar).

A semi-kudo to Democratic presidential candidate Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich for voting against this charade. At least he had the forthrightness to state that if you wanted to end the war you needed to vote against the measure. That he is a voice in the wilderness and is in the wrong party is a fact of life. That his candidacy is thus not politically supportable by militants does not negate the fact that he is right on this one. NOT ONE PENNY, NOT ONE SOLDIER FOR THE WAR! UNITED STATES OUT OF IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN! BUILD A WORKERS PARTY THAT FIGHTS FOR SOCIALISM!




As I have recently written in a blog entitled Double No to the Veil the fight against religious obscurantism, in this case Islamic fundamentalism, has a long and honorable history in the communist movement. Here is historical documentation of the Bolshevik struggle against the veil and all it meant at the time of the revolution and shortly thereafter. We can learn a few lessons from that experience today.

Early Bolshevik Work Among Women of the Soviet East
From Women and Revolution issue No. 12, Summer 1976.

The triumph of the October Revolution in 1917, which dramatically, transformed the lives of Russian women, wrought even greater transformations in the lives of the women inhabiting the Central Asian regions which had been colonized by tsarist Russia. But in these feudal or pre-feudal generally Islamic cultures, where the lot of women was frequently inferior to that of the livestock, change came more slowly.

The status of women varied, of course, from culture to culture and within cultures, depending on social class and the nature of the, productive process. But from the mouth of the Volga through the Caucasus and Turkestan, from Iran and Afghanistan to Mongolia and northward to Siberia virtual enslavement was the rule, although restrictions were of necessity less strictly applied to women of the poorer classes—nomads and peasant women—whose labor was essential. A certain level of trade and industry and a settled way of life in the cities was a prerequisite for the luxury of strict enforcement of Islamic law.

It was not only the formal prescriptions of the Koran, but also local customs codified in the religious common law (the Shariaf) and the civil law (the Adats), which determined the situation of Islamic women. The few partial reforms expressed in the Koran-the forbidding of female infanticide, the restriction of polygamy, the recognition of limited property and inheritance rights for women-were generally nullified by local Shariats and Adats.

The practically universal institution of kalym or bride price in itself illustrates the Muslim conception of marriage as a purely commercial contract having nothing to do with emotional bonds or personal commitments. In some areas the bride's presence was not even required at the wedding. The purchase price of the female commodity had already been negotiated between the families of the bride and groom, and the wedding was merely a ceremony at which the transaction was notarized. The marriage contract was subject to dissolution by the husband at any time, and polygamy and child marriage were quite common. Children too physically immature for marital relations were subjected to the "horrible operation"—they were ripped open by a midwife to make consummation possible.

Kalym bound a woman, often from childhood, to the husband who satisfied her father's price. If she ran away, she could be pursued as a criminal and punished by her husband or his clan. A runaway wife might be punished by having her legs broken or by other barbaric tortures. For a woman so much as suspected of infidelity, the appropriate punishment was branding on the genitals with a hot iron.

For the poor, marriage by capture often replaced payment of kalym. Once she was seized, carried off and raped, the woman had no choice but to remain with her abductor, since she had been disgraced and no other man would have her. Even widowhood brought no freedom, because a wife for whom kalym had been paid was the property of the husband's family or clan and was bequeathed to his brother. Suicide by fire was the only alternative according to the laws of Islam. However, access to heaven was dependent on the will of the husband, and if cheated out of kalym by a wife's suicide, he was unlikely to invite her to enter into paradise.

Rules demanding the veiling and seclusion of women had been introduced into Islamic law with the conversion of the Persian aristocracy in 641 A.D. In many parts of Central Asia the veil required was not simply the yashmuk, covering the mouth, but the paranja, which covers the whole face and body without openings for sight or breath. For centuries many women have lived thus shrouded and imprisoned in their ichkaris (segregated living quarters). A Yakutsk legend depicts a model daughter of Islam. Her living body is set before guests who proceed to cutoff pieces to eat. The girl not only bears this torment in silence but tries to smile pleasingly.

The triumph of Russian imperialism in the 1880's brought few advances in social organization or technology in the Muslim East. The wretched Russian peasantry lived like royalty in comparison with the primitive peoples of this area.

The tsarist government forced the agricultural villages to switch at this time from food crops to cotton, and railroads were built to transport this product to Russian textile plants. Following the railroad workers were women who did not wear veils—Russian prostitutes. For a long time they were the only models available to the Muslim nomads and peasants of the "liberation" which Russian capitalism had bestowed upon women.

The October Revolution Transforms Central Asia

With the victory of the October Revolution the Bolsheviks turned toward Central Asia in the hope of developing its vast and desperately needed natural resources. The flow of these resources to the West was threatened, however, by the fact that Central Asia was from the beginning a haven for every sort of counterrevolutionary tendency and for the retreating White armies. Bourgeois consolidation anywhere in this area would have provided a base for the imperialist powers to launch an anti-Soviet attack.

The extension of the proletarian revolution to Central Asia, moreover, could become the example of socialist development in an economically backward area which would undermine the resistance of burgeoning nationalism in the East and inspire the toilers of other underdeveloped regions the world over.

But immense economic and cultural leaps were required to integrate Soviet Central Asia into a society revolutionized by the Bolsheviks in power. Trotsky called the area "the most backward of the backward," still living a "prehistoric existence." Indeed, the journey eastward from Moscow across Central Asia was a trip backward through the centuries of human development.

The Bolsheviks viewed the extreme oppression of women as an indicator of the primitive level of the whole society, but their approach was based on materialism, not moralism. They understood that the fact that women were veiled and caged, bought and sold, was but the surface of the problem. Kalym was not some sinister plot against womankind, but an institution which was central to the organization of production, integrally connected to land and water rights. Payment of kalyin, often by the whole clan over a long period of time, committed those involved to an elaborate system of debts, duties and loyalties which ultimately led to participation in the private army of the local beys (landowners and wholesale merchants). All commitments were thus backed up with the threat of feuds and blood vengeance.

These kinship and tribal loyalties were obstacles to social progress because they obscured class relations and held back the expropriation and redistribution of land and other property. Poor peasants who stood to gain by the equalization of wealth, hid the property of their rich relatives threatened with expropriation. Blood vengeance enforced vows of silence, and Soviet authority was undermined by conspiracies that served only the old oppressors.

Civil War

The Bolsheviks hoped that women, having the most to gain, would be the link that broke the feudal chain, but this necessitated a great deal of preparation, for the Muslim institutions, oppressive as they were, served real social functions and could not be simply abolished. Like the bourgeois family, they had to be replaced.
Lenin warned against prematurely confronting respected native institutions, even when these clearly violated communist principle and Soviet law. Instead, he proposed to use Soviet state power to carefully and systematically undermine them while simultaneously demonstrating the superiority of Soviet institutions, a policy which had worked well against the powerful Russian Orthodox Church.

Extending this practice to Central Asia, the Soviet government waged a campaign to build the authority, of the Soviet legal system and civil courts as an alternative to the traditional Muslim kadi courts and legal codes. Although the kadi courts were permitted to function, their powers were circumscribed in that they were forbidden to handle political cases or any cases in which both parties to the dispute had not agreed to use the kadi rather than the parallel Soviet court system. As the Soviet courts became more accepted, criminal cases were eliminated from the kadis' sphere. Next, the government invited dissatisfied parties to appeal the kadis' decisions to a Soviet court. In this manner the Soviets earned the reputation of being partisans of the oppressed, while the kadis were exposed as defenders of the status quo. Eventually the kadis were forbidden to enforce any Muslim law which contradicted Soviet law. Two Soviet representatives, including one member of Zhenotdel—the Department of Working Women and Peasant Women—were assigned to witness all kadi proceedings and to approve their decisions. Finally, when the wafks (endowment properties), which had supported the kadis, were expropriated and redistributed among the peasantry, the kadis disappeared completely.

This non-confrontationist policy in no way implied capitulation to backward, repressive institutions. It was made clear that there could be no reconciliation between communism and the Koran. Although "Red Mullahs," attracted by the Bolshevik program of self-determination and land to the tiller, suggested to their followers that Islam was socialism and vice versa, the Bolsheviks insisted that Soviet and Muslim law could never be reconciled precisely on the grounds that the most basic rights of women would be sacrificed.

The bloody civil war that pitted the Bolshevik state against imperialist-supported counterrevolutionary forces devastated the young workers state and threatened its very survival. During this period, when the Bolsheviks' capacity to intervene in Central Asia was crippled, the crude tactics employed by their ostensibly socialist opponents fueled anti-Soviet sentiment.

In Tashkent, the railroad center of Central Asia, the governing Soviet was made up of Russian emigres, many of them railroad workers, led by Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks. In an orgy of Russian chauvinism and self-indulgence foreshadowing the policies of Stalinism to come, they expropriated the holdings of the most respected Islamic institutions and stood the slogan "self-determination of the toiling masses" on its head to justify the exclusion from the soviet of native intellectuals and sympathetic mullahs, whom they labeled "non-proletarian elements." At the same time, they collaborated with former White officers. When the Tashkent Soviet began arbitrarily requisitioning food from the peasants during the worst grain shortages of the civil war, Lenin intervened to stop this. But the seeds of anti-Soviet rebellion had been sown.

The Basmachis, tribal and traditionalist elements (mainly Uzbek and Tadzhik), who were avowed enemies of the Bolsheviks, served as a pole of attraction for the most sordid conglomeration of forces dedicated to the preservation of the status quo. When Enver Pasha of Turkey, who came to the region as an emissary from Moscow, deserted to the Basmachis, supplying the leadership and authority necessary to unify the warring beys into a viable army of fanatical Muslim terrorists, civil war in Central Asia began in earnest. Soon thousands of Muslims joined these forces in the hills.

Few Central Asian women took the side of the Bolsheviks during the civil war and few of these survived. The heroism of those few who dared defy family, law and the word of the prophet was unsurpassed. One such woman was Tsainet Khesmitova, who ran away from her aged husband while still a child and served as a spy for the Red Army. Her husband's hired assassins eventually caught her, cut out her tongue and left her beaten body buried neck deep in the desert to die. She was rescued by a Red Army unit but was so mutilated that she was forced to live out her life in a Moscow institution for Bolsheviks incapable of work.

Another was Umu Kussum Amerkhanova, the first woman activist of Daghestan, who repeatedly escaped from the death sentences which the White Army and her own countrymen sought to impose on her. Wearing men's clothes, she led Red troops at the Daghestan front until the end of the war and survived to continue the work of transforming the role of women in Central Asia.

Lifting the Veil of Oppression

Bolshevik ability to intervene effectively in Central Asia began with the end of the civil war and the transition from the emergency policies of war communism to the stabilization carried out with the institution of the NEP (New Economic Policy). The Turkestan Commission was set up under the leadership of M. Frunze, a talented military commander, and G. Safarov, a leading Bolshevik of Central Asian origins.
The detested emigres were recalled to Russia, and the land they had confiscated was distributed to the Muslim toilers. With food requisitions replaced by the tax-in-kind, and government allocations of seed and food reserves, the Basmachi revolt came to an end. But the peasants' experience with chauvinist Menshevik policies was not forgotten. Resistance would continue to flare up in the future when agricultural tensions were again exacerbated.

The end of the war signaled the initiation of systematic Bolshevik work among Muslim women. In the absence of native activists, it was the most dedicated and courageous members of Zhenotdel who donned the paranja in order to meet with Muslim women and explain the new Soviet laws and programs which were to change their lives. This was an extremely dangerous assignment, as any violation of a local taboo enraged husbands, fathers and brothers to murder. In fact, the discovery of numerous dismembered bodies of Zhenotdel organizers finally compelled the Soviet government to reinstate the death penalty for explicitly "anti-feminist" murder as a counterrevolutionary crime, although non-political murder (even murder committed in vengeance against wives) received a standard sentence of five to ten years' imprisonment.

Zhenotdel activists organized "Red Yertas" (tents), "Red Boats" and "Red Corners," depending on the terrain. They attracted local women by offering instruction in hygiene and crafts, by providing entertainment and a place to socialize and by distributing scarce consumer goods. Although the clubs were at first concerned primarily with publicizing and explaining the new laws, they later became centers for culture and education and waged a remarkably successful campaign to liquidate illiteracy.

At the 13th Party Congress in 1924 an offensive was launched in Central Asia which was designed to bring women into production and political life. Funds were allocated from central and local budgets for assemblies of women's delegates and for associations to combat kalym and polygamy. Plans were also made to form producers' and consumers' cooperatives and to establish literary and hygiene circles and medical dispensaries.

The implementation of these measures continued to depend on the initiative of a handful of Zhenotdel activists, for so deeply ingrained were the old values that often even Central Asian Communists could not conceive of substantial changes in the status of women, and the women themselves often failed to report crimes against them to the courts. The response of local party branches to the new measures ranged from open hostility and sabotage to passive incomprehension.

The party locals in Daghestan, for instance, interpreted the law abolishing kalym as an instruction to lower bride prices. In some areas the party instituted fair price regulations: a young, pretty girl from a well-to-do family might cost 300 rubles while a pockmarked widow was to be priced the same as a hornless cow.

By 1924 Zhenotdel organizations had entrenched themselves in many areas, and because of their influence and the changes in material conditions, Central Asian women began for the first time to vote. This advance was facilitated by the fact that the official summons each of them received from the party to appear at the polls was regarded as a valid reason for them to go out in public, thereby saving their husbands from ridicule.

Once at meetings, women were persuaded to run for office on the party platform. At the same time, legal reforms and land redistribution gave them rights under the law, and through producers' and consumers' cooperatives they were able to acquire seed, tools and training, making it possible for them to support themselves. These alternatives to economic dependency in marriage in conjunction with the publicizing of divorce laws resulted in a marked increase in divorce, initiated especially by child brides and second and third wives.


Had a balanced approach of training and education complemented this liberalizing agitation, these new divorcees could well have become enthusiastic pioneers of agricultural collectives and proletarian reinforcements for industrialization. Their example would have been followed by married women as well, with the incentive of increased family income working to neutralize the hostility of their husbands. But at the January 1924 Party Conference, which preceded the 13th Party Congress, the leadership, program and methods of the party changed decisively.

The degeneration of the revolution after 1923 expressed through the theory of "socialism in one country" and implemented through the strangling of workers democracy in the Soviet Union, permeated and deformed all sectors of the government.

In an ominous prelude to the policies of the "third period," such as the forced collectivization of agriculture, the legal offensive against traditional practices in Central Asia was stepped up until the divorce rate assumed epidemic proportions. Although local party branches protested the pace of the offensive and warned that it had become "demoralizing to all concerned and a threat to continued Soviet rule," Zhenotdel continued its one-sided agitation for women to initiate divorce, until the Red Yertas, clubs and hospitals were filled with far more divorcees than they could possibly handle. Under the impact of masses of women whom they could not support, these organizations in desperation simply dissolved. In some cases, they were transformed into brothels.

In 1927 the offensive was narrowed still further to a single-issue campaign against seclusion and the veil known as Khudshum. First, party meetings were held at which husbands unveiled their wives. Then on 8 March 1927, in celebration of International Woman's Day, mass meetings were held at which thousands of frenzied participants, chanting "Down with the paranja!" tore off their veils, which were drenched in paraffin and burned. Poems were recited and plays with names such as "Away with the Veil," and "Never Again Kalym" were performed. Zhenotdel agitators led marches of unveiled women through the streets, instigating the forced desegregation of public quarters and sanctified religious sites. Protected by soldiers, bands of poor women roamed the streets, tearing veils off wealthier women, hunting for hidden food and pointing out those who still clung to traditional practices which had now been declared crimes (such as conspiring to arrange a marriage for exchange of kalym).

The Khudshum appeared to be a success on March 8, but on March 9 hundreds of unveiled women were massacred by their kinsmen, and this reaction, fanned by Muslim clergy, who interpreted recent earthquakes as Allah's punishment for the unveilings, grew in strength. Remnants of the Basmachi rebels reorganized themselves into Tash Kuran (secret, counterrevolutionary organizations) which flourished as a result of their pledge to preserve Narkh (local customs and values).

Women suing for divorce became the targets of murderous vigilante squads, and lynchings of party cadre annihilated the ranks of the Zhenotdel. The massive terror unleashed against the recently unveiled women—which ranged from spitting and laughing at them to gang rape and murder—forced most of them to take up the veil again soon after repudiating it.

The party was forced to mobilize the militia, then the Komsomols and finally the general party membership and the Red Army to protect the women, but it refused to alter its suicidal policies. The debacle of international Woman's Day was repeated in 1928 and 1929 with the same disastrous consequences, exacting an extremely high toll on party cadre. Lacking Zhenotdel leadership those clubs which had survived the legal offensive now disappeared.

By 1929 Central Asia was caught up in the general resistance of peasant peoples throughout the Soviet Union to the forced collectivization of agriculture dictated by Moscow. Significant social advancement for most Muslim women in Central Asia was deferred. Not for another decade, when the productive capacity of the planned economy had developed sufficiently to provide jobs, education, medical care and social services on a scale wide enough to undercut primitive Islamic traditions, did they begin to make substantial gains.

The Russian Revolution created the objective preconditions for the liberation of women. But the consolidation of the Stalinist bureaucracy was accompanied by a general reversal of significant gains for women throughout Soviet society. Thus the oppressive family structure which the Bolsheviks under Lenin had struggled to replace with the socialization of household labor was now renovated as an economic institution by the increasingly isolated regime which realized that the family provided services which the degenerated workers state could not. In defense of the family, abortions were illegalized, divorces were made much less accessible and women were encouraged through government subsidies and "Mother Heroine" medals to bear as many children as possible. In 1934, as if to sanction its physical liquidation in Central Asia at the hands of Tash Kuran terror, the Soviet government liquidated Zhenotdel organizationally as well.

Friday, March 23, 2007






I have recently read a news article coming out of England where the Ministry of Education there is recommending that schools prohibit the wearing of the Islamic veil, obviously directed at Moslem women, if it distracts from the educational objective. This is the British version of the actions taken in France and elsewhere in order to prohibit the wearing of the veil in public places and governmental buildings. Of course it is no accident that this new policy has been effected at what is the height of the anti-Moslem backlash by the average non-Moslem British citizen and goes all the way up to the heights of the British Labor Party’s leadership, particularly Jack Straw. He has argued that the old class war of his youth has been replaced by the 'war of civilizations' and thus prohibition is a critical part of that fight. Naturally this is all argued in the name of better acculturation into the norms of British culture, a serious problem among second generation Moslem immigrants, especially the young, who rightly see no future in such a process as defined by the pro-capitalist British Labor Party.

The question of the Islamic veil is, however, one of those frequent two-edged swords that socialist militants run up against in daily political life. Let us be clear; militants do not support giving the capitalist state, in this case the British imperial state, the power to determine who wears what and where. However, once that issue is addressed and settled there is still the pressing issue of what the veil means in the fight for women’s liberation. No one, I hope, needs to be reminded that Islamic fundamentalists see the veil as an important physical symbol for the subjugation of women. One need only remember, for example, that the Taliban in Afghanistan had (and has)among its 'charms' the beating (and worse) of unveiled women.

This is only the tip of the iceberg of the kind of world the Islamic fundamentalists want their women to live in. And it is not pretty. Seclusion in the home, the veil and other torturous dress in public, the bride price, no education for young women and the occasional 'honor' killing, to name a few. To draw a sharp contrast one need only look at pictures from the 1950’s in Iran, for example, with unveiled women defending the Mossadegh secular government and a recent 2006 picture of heavily veiled and bundled women demonstrating in front of a nuclear facility in defense of Iran’s nuclear power policy(a surreal sight to be sure, given that in their social and political program for Iran except, apparently, nuclear technology those fundamentalists have not seen any need to progress pass the 8th century).

It is hardly news that all types of religious fundamentalism, including Islamic fundamentalism, have grown exponentially over the last few decades. While the causes for such increases are varied they point, disturbingly, away from the general historically progressive trend of secularization that has occurred over the past few centuries. Thus the fight against religious obscurantism plays a more central role in the fight for the socialist program in the West and elsewhere than it has had to in the last 100 years or so. Marx once, correctly , remarked that religion was the ‘opium of the people’. That is the part of the quote (sound bite, if you will) that everyone, friend and foe, seems to have remembered. However, a look at the full content of the paragraph the quote derives from points out that Marx also recognized that religion was solace for those beaten down by the arbitrariness and unfairness of the world.

The task of socialism for him, and for us, was thus not to close the churches on day one after taking power (although that is not a bad idea) and be done with it but to eliminate the conditions that have led masses of people to need the solace of religion. Obviously, that is a long term process that would probably take a few generations to complete under conditions of socialist cooperation after millennia of religious indoctrination. Nonetheless, the fight against the prohibition of the veil by the state and the imposed veil by religious obscurantists is part of our fight today. It is too important an issue in the fight for women's liberation to be left to the whims of capitalist governments or their agents.

Thursday, March 22, 2007





I have written previously about Sylvia Pankhurst in reviewing a biography of her life by Patricia Romero. For those not familiar with her life this autobiography, although written in 1931, only takes us through her fight for the vote for women in England and her pacifist opposition to Britain’s participation in World War I. Thus, the reader is deprived of her take on her experiences as she moved leftward with Lenin and the Communist International after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and her descent in the 1920’s into radical mysticism that ultimately led to her becoming, in essence, a publicity flak for Halie Selassie in Ethiopia. A rather sad ending for someone who in the pre-World War I period stood for votes for women, including working class women, and at least a formal opposition to British imperialist war designs.

The case of Sylvia Pankhurst, and her conflict with her mother Emmeline and older sister Christabel at various stages in the women’s suffrage fight, is almost a chemically pure case of the limits of bourgeois feminism. There is very little overlap between those politics and the socialist fight for women’s rights and social equality. It is hard to believe now what all the fuss was about but at the turn of the 20th century the fight for women’s suffrage in England, as in the United States, was a key issue that especially agitated middle and upper class women. The Pankhursts, mother and daughters, were in the forefront of the struggle with their Women’s Social and Political Union.

Although, for the most part, Sylvia was a cog in her mother and older sister’s machine, when the issue rose to the level of parliamentary action Sylvia proved far more radical, at least in form, than they were. While Emmeline and Christabel were ultimately concerned about votes for middle and upper class women of property, leaving the vast bulk of women disenfranchised, Sylvia in 1912 went on her own in order to fight for the vote in the working class districts of London’s East End. Thus, on even an entirely supportable democratic demand like the right to vote the class line, if somewhat blunted in this case, rather than the sex line proved decisive. The treacherous subordination of their movement by the elder Pankhursts on behalf of British participation in World War I and continued participation by the faltering Provisional Government in Russia further drew that line between socialism and bourgeois feminism.

The Pankhurst-led fight for the vote also brings up a couple of other issues around tactics and program. At one point the Pankhursts, including Sylvia, were involved in a campaign of private and governmental property smashing, civil disobedience and hunger strikes in order to publicize the fight for the vote. These are tactics associated with more militant types of politics. Nevertheless their campaigns, whether fruitful or not, while courageous and in Victorian England bound to stir trouble do not necessarily lead to radical conclusions. The case of Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the United States demonstrate that militant tactics absent any overriding strategy for fundamental social change are not enough.

On program two items stick out. First, the male-exclusionist nature of the Women’s Political and Social Union not only further demonstrates the limits of bourgeois feminism but also made no sense around the fight on a democratic issue by limiting the appeal that the organization made to men (some 20 per cent who were also excluded from the vote). Secondly, Sylvia made real progress in program by having her East End organization support universal suffrage and linking it to war- related issues. It is that move by her to the left and toward some form of socialist solution to women’s issues and the war question that militants can honor today. That she could not move forward politically says something about the British left milieu of the time as well as about her own limitations. Understanding those limitations going in one can nevertheless profit from reading this book.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

*Those Who Fought For Our Communist Future Are Kindred Spirits- The Grimke Sisters- Fighters For Slavery Abolition And Women's Rights

Click on the title to link to a "Wikipedia" entry for the 19th century American radicals, Sarah And Angelina Grimke.

February Is Black History Month

March Is Women's History Month

Every January, as readers of this blog are now, hopefully, familiar with the international communist movement honors the 3 Ls-Lenin, Luxemburg and Liebknecht, fallen leaders of the early 20th century communist movement who died in this month (and whose untimely deaths left a huge, irreplaceable gap in the international leadership of that time). January is thus a time for us to reflect on the roots of our movement and those who brought us along this far. In order to give a fuller measure of honor to our fallen forbears this January, and in future Januarys, this space will honor others who have contributed in some way to the struggle for our communist future. That future classless society, however, will be the true memorial to their sacrifices.

Note on inclusion: As in other series on this site (“Labor’s Untold Story”, “Leaders Of The Bolshevik Revolution”, etc.) this year’s honorees do not exhaust the list of every possible communist worthy of the name. Nor, in fact, is the list limited to Bolshevik-style communists. There will be names included from other traditions (like anarchism, social democracy, the Diggers, Levellers, Jacobins, etc.) whose efforts contributed to the international struggle. Also, as was true of previous series this year’s efforts are no more than an introduction to these heroes of the class struggle. Future years will see more detailed information on each entry, particularly about many of the lesser known figures. Better yet, the reader can pick up the ball and run with it if he or she has more knowledge about the particular exploits of some communist militant, or to include a missing one.

Women And Revolution, Volume 29, Spring 1985

The Grimke Sisters:
Pioneers for Abolition and Women's Rights

By Amy Rath

"I want to be identified with the negro; until he gets his rights, we shall never have ours." —Angelina Grimke', address to Women's Loyal League, May 1863

Angelina and Sarah Grimke' were two of the earliest fighters for black and women's rights in America. Although far from being socialists or revolutionaries, the Grimke' sisters of South Carolina were among the foremost fighters for human equality of their time, the 1830s and the tumultuous era which saw the birth of the abolitionist movement, foreshadowing the great Civil War which freed the slaves. They were also among the the first women to speak publicly on political issues. "Genteel society" objected to the fact of their public appearances—and even more to the content of their speeches. Thus the first serious, widespread discussion of women's rights in the United States was directly linked to the black question and the liberation of the slaves, questions which 25 years later would tear the nation apart in civil war.

Further, the Grimke' sisters' almost visionary commitment to the fight for the liberation of all, exemplified in Angelina's famous statement to the Women's Loyal League, stands in stark contrast not only to early abolitionist anti-women prejudices, but also to the later, shameful betrayal of black rights by feminists during the Reconstruction era. "The discussion of the rights of the slave has opened the way for the discussion of other rights," wrote Angelina to Catherine E.Beecher in 1837, "and the ultimate result will most certainly be the breaking of every yoke, the letting the oppressed of every grade and description go free,—an emancipation far more glorious than any the world has ever yet seen."

The sisters and Theodore Weld published American Slavery As It Is (1840), the most influential anti-slavery document until Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Though they had essentially retired from active politics by the time of John Brown's courageous raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, the actual opening shot of the Civil War, they deeply believed in his cause. Angelina's stirring "Address to the Soldiers of our Second Revolution" (given at the May 1863 Women's Loyal League convention) advocated massive arming of the former slaves as part of the Union Army, and remains today a remarkably radical and prescient analysis of the implications of the Civil War:

"This war is not, as the South falsely pretends, a war of races, nor of sections, nor of political parties, but a war of Principles; a war upon the working classes, whether white or black; a war against Man, the world over. In this war, the black man was the first victim, the workingman of whatever color the next; and now all who contend for the rights of labor, for free speech, free schools, free suffrage, and a free government... are driven to do battle in defense of these or to fall with them, victims of the same violence that for two centuries has held the black man a prisoner of war— The nation is in a death-struggle. It must either become one vast slaveocracy of petty tyrants, or wholly the land of the free."

Pioneers for Abolition and Women's Rights

On February 21,1838, hundreds of people swarmed to the great hall of the Massachusetts State Legislature. Angelina Grimke", the first woman ever to address an American legislative body, would argue for the most controversial subject of the day: the immediate abolition of slavery.

This speech—which continued over three days, despite efforts by pro-slavery forces to stop it—was the culmination of a nine months' tour by Sarah and Angelina Grimke', the first women agents of the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), founded in 1833. While their speeches began as "parlor meetings" in private homes or church halls for women only, such was the power and growing fame of Angelina's oratory that men began to slip into the back to listen, and the Grimke' sisters became the first American women to address what were then called "promiscuous" audiences.

Uproar swept genteel society across the nation. The Grimke' sisters were breaking the rules of ladylike decorum by their "unwomanly" displays. Angelina was popularly called "Devilina"; "Fanny Wrightists!" screamed the pro-slavery press. (Fanny Wright was a Scots Utopian socialist who toured the U.S. in 1828 for abolition, public education, women's rights, the ten-hour day and "free love"; she set up an anti-slavery commune and edited a newspaper. When these projects failed, she left the country, having made little impact.) "Why are all the old hens abolitionists?" sneered the New Hampshire Patriot: "Because not being able to obtain husbands they think they may stand some chance for a negro, if they can only make amalgamation [interracial sex] fashionable."

The Congregationalist church, the descendant of the New England Puritans, issued a "Pastoral Letter" condemning the Grimke's for leaving "woman's sphere" and going against the biblical injunction, of Paul: "I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence." Sarah answered this, and other attacks, in the brilliant Letters on the Equality of the Sexes, the first American book on the rights of women, predating Margaret Fuller's more famous work by six years.

In her arguments Sarah relied extensively on biblical sources, for to her it was important to prove that the equality of the sexes should be a Christian belief, and she wanted to show that women had the right and duty to work for the emancipation of the slave. Her concrete solutions to women's oppression were naive: for example, she suggested that husbands should content themselves with baked potatoes and milk for dinner, to give their wives time to educate themselves. She never understood that the institution of the family itself necessarily stands in the way of women's freedom. Indeed, she could not reconcile herself to the idea that divorce should be legalized. But for all these limita¬tions, Sarah's book is the pioneer American work on the subject. She was deeply interested in women workers, and polemicized against unequal wages; she attacked with great bitterness the lack of educational opportunities for women and their total lack of legal rights. "I ask no favors for my sex," she wrote, "All I ask our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy."

Many fellow abolitionists demanded that the sisters give up their arguments on women's rights, fearing that it would detract from the more important question of the hour: freedom for the slave. But Angelina pointed out that the outcry against women's public lecturing was a tool of the slaveholders: "We cannot push Abolitionism forward with all our might until we take up the stumbling block out of the road.... Can you not see the deep laid scheme of the clergy against us as lecturers?... If we surrender the right to speak in public this year, we must surrender the right to petition next year, and the right to write the year after, and so on. What then can woman do for the slave, when she herself is under the feet of man and shamed into silence?" (emphasis in original; letter to Theodore Weld and John Greenleaf Whittier, 20 August 1837).

The Making of a Southern Abolitionist

The sisters' effectiveness as abolitionist agents had to do not only with the power and sweep of their arguments, but with the fact that they were native-born eyewitnesses to Southern slavery. Yet precisely because they were gently bred daughters of one of South Carolina's most prominent slaveholding families, they had not seen the worst of it, as they themselves were quick to point out. They did not see the slave gangs on the plantations, the brutal whippings, but the "better" treatment of the house and city slaves.

Sarah was born in 1792. The invention of the cotton gin in her infancy led her father, like many others, to expand his plantation holdings and build up his slave force. He was one of the wealthiest men in Charleston, the political capital of the South, and a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a former Speaker in the state House, a judge and author. Sarah grew up with every advantage that wealth and position could offer a woman of her time. But instead of satisfying herself with embroidery, piano and a little French, she studied her brother's lessons in mathematics, history and botany, and declared her wish to become a lawyer. Her family mocked her; her father forbade her to study Latin. Perhaps influenced by her own educational frustrations as well as her childhood revulsion for the slave system, she started to teach her personal maid to read. "I took an almost malicious satisfaction in teaching my little waiting-maid at night, when she was supposed to be occupied in combing and brushing my long locks. The light was put out, the keyhold screened, and flat on our-stomachs, before the fire, with the spelling-book under our eyes, we defied the laws of South Carolina."

As an adult Sarah's aspirations to make something of her life turned in the one direction open to "respectable" women of her day and class: religion. She became a Quaker. Later she converted Angelina, 12 years her junior. Before joining her sister in Philadel¬phia, the Quakers' center, Angelina undertook a personal conversion crusade against slavery among her family and friends. In her gray Quaker dress, she started arguments at tea against the sin of holding slaves, becoming quite unpopular with Charleston's ruling elite. Inquiries were made about her sanity.

Convinced at last that there was no future in this, Angelina went north. But she could not be satisfied with the orthodox Quaker doctrine, which at that time included colonization as a "solution" to slavery. Black "Friends" were made to sit on a separate bench. In the early 1830s Angelina became interested in the growing abolitionist movement, and was horrified at the violence the free North turned against anti-slavery spokesmen. William Lloyd Garrison was barely saved from lynching at the hands of a Boston mob in 1835. Theodore Weld was repeatedly mobbed as he toured the Midwest, as were many others. Early in the decade Prudence Crandall was forced to close her school for black girls in Connecticut when the well was poisoned, doctors refused to treat the students, and finally a mob torched the school building. In 1838 a pro-slavery mob, egged on by the mayor himself, burned down Philadelphia Hall, which had been built by the abolitionists as a partial answer to their difficulty in finding places to meet. An interracial- meeting of abolitionists was in progress there at the time; two days earlier, Angelina and Weld had married, and the attendance of both blacks and whites at their wedding fueled the fury of the race-terrorists.

The abolitionists were part of a broader bourgeois radical movement, the 19th century herrs of the 18th century Enlightenment, Protestant religious ideals, and the American Revolution so dramatically unfulfilled in the "Land of the Free" where four million suffered in slavery. Although opposition to slavery was by no means as widespread in the 1830s as it was to become immediately before the Civil War, nonetheless many prominent men, such as the wealthy Tappan brothers of New York and Gerrit Smith, the biggest landowner in the North, had joined the movement by the middle of the decade. Many of the abolitionists had been part of the religious and intellectual upsurge which swept the United States after 1820. Ralph Waldo Emerson and other Transcendentalists were formulating their philos¬ophy. Religious revivalists such as Charles G. Finney, who converted Weld, preached temperance and that slavery was a sin against god.
Angelina became convinced that god had called her to work actively for the emancipation of the slaves. Defying the Quakers (who later expelled the sisters when Angelina and Weld married in a non-Quaker ceremony), the sisters went to New York where they participated in a conference for the training of abolitionist agents. Thus began the famous speaking tour of 1837-38.

The politics of the Grimke sisters was radical bourgeois egalitarianism profoundly rooted in religion. They believed that slavery was a sin, that as "immortal, moral beings" women and blacks were the equals of white men. They argued that slavery was contrary to the laws of god (the Bible) and of man, as put forth in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence; they disagreed with Garrison's view of the Constitution as a "pro-slavery" document. Again unlike Garrison, they wrote and spoke for rights of education and property for free blacks as well, and bitterly denounced racism within the abolitionist movement. They were the integrationists of their time.

For many years, however, the sisters agreed with Garrison that slavery could be done away with peacefully by moral persuasion. They preached a boycott of slave-made goods (Angelina's wedding cake was made of "free" sugar by a free black baker). One of Angelina's first writings was "An Appeal to the Christian Women of the Southern States," widely circulated by the AASS, in which she urged Southern women to begin a petition campaign for immediate emancipation, to free their own slaves and to educate them. When copies of this pamphlet reached Charleston, the postmaster publicly burned them and the police informed the Grimke' family that if their daughter ever attempted to set foot in the city, she would be jailed and then sent back on the next ship.

The sisters were also for many years staunch pacifists, as would be expected from their Quaker background. Sarah took this to such an extreme that she denied that abolitionists had the right to arm themselves in defense against pro-slavery mobs. This became a subject of controversy in the abolitionist movement in 1837 when publisher Elijah Lovejoy was murdered in Alton, Illinois by a mob. True to her pacifist idealism, Sarah ques¬tioned his right to bear the gun with which he tried to save his life.

Splits and the Coming Storm

By the 1840s the Grimke'sisters had largely withdrawn from public activity. In part this was due to ill health Angelina suffered as a result of her pregnancies, as well as family financial problems. But much of it was probably political demoralization. In 1840the abolitionist movement split over the issues of women's rights and political action. The Garrisonian wing wanted to include women in the organization, but was opposed to abolitionists voting or running for political office, since Garrison believed the "pro-slavery" U.S. Con¬stitution should be abolished and that the North should expel the South. The other wing, represented by eminent men like the Tappan brothers, excluded women from office within the organization, was against women's rights, and wanted to orient to political work in Congress. Since they agreed with neither side in this split, the Grimke's and Weld retired to private life. In later years Angelina spoke bitterly against "organizations."

Meanwhile, however, on the left wing of the abolitionist movement there were gathering forces which saw the irrepressible and inevitable necessity for a violent assault on the slave system, to end it forever by force of arms. The brilliant black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and John Brown spearheaded this growing conviction. As we noted in our SL pamphlet, "Black History and the Class Struggle," "Douglass' political evolution was not merely from 'non-resistance' to self-defense. Contained in the 'moral suasion' line was a refusal to fight slavery politically and to the wall, by all methods. That is the importance of the Douglass-Brown relationship: together they were planning the Civil War." And it was John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859 which galvanized the nation; abolitionists who the day before were pacifists took the pulpit to proclaim the necessity of a violent end to the slave system.

The Grimke' sisters and especially Theodore Weld had earlier become convinced that only war could end slavery. Sarah believed she had communed with John Brown's spirit the night before his martyrdom at the hands of Colonel Robert E. Lee, acting under command of President Buchanan. "The John Huss of the United States now stands ready... to seal his testimony with his life's blood," she wrote in her diary. Two of the executed men from the Harpers Ferry raid were buried in the commune at Raritan Bay, New Jersey, where the sisters and Weld were living at the time. The graves had to be guarded against a pro-slavery mob.

When the Civil War officially began the Grimke's did emerge briefly from private life. They were staunch Unionists, supported the draft and were critical of Lincoln for not freeing the slaves sooner. They were founding members of the Women's Loyal League. It was at a meeting of this group that Angelina made her famous statement: "I want to be identified with the negro; until he gets his rights, we shall never have ours."

Reconstruction Betrayed: Finish the Civil War!

Following the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, the most democratic period for blacks in U.S. history, the former abolitionist movement split again. During that period, women suffrage leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony—formerly avowed abolitionists—turned their movement for women's rights into a tool of racist reaction. They organized against passage of the Fifteenth Amendment because it gave votes to blacks and not to women (the Grin-ike sisters were silent on this question, even though this disgusting racism was foreign to everything they had fought for). Stanton and Anthony worked closely with such racist Southern Democrats as James Brooks, because he purported to support women's suffrage. In a letter to the editor of the New York Standard (1865), Stanton wrote,

", as the celestial gate to civil rights is slowly moving on its hinges, it becomes a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see 'Sambo' walk
into the kingdom first In fact, it is better to be the slave
of an educated white man, then of a degraded, ignorant black one."

It was Frederick Douglass who fought this racist assault. Douglass had been a fervent supporter of the infant women's rights movement, which began largely as a result of the chauvinism which women anti-slavery activists encountered from many abolitionists. At the 1869 convention of the Equal Rights Association, Douglass made a final attempt to win the suffragists from their reactionary policy:

"When women, because they are women, are dragged from their homes and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms and their brains dashed upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have [the same] urgency to obtain the ballot."
At this convention Douglass proposed a resolution which called the 15th Amendment the "culmination of one-half of our demands," while imploring a redou¬bling "of our energy to secure the further amendment guaranteeing the same sacred rights without limitation to sex." And for the rest of his life Douglass remained a staunch champion of women's rights.

Though the Civil War freed the slaves, it was not the fulfillment of Angelina's vision of a great, all-encompassing human emancipation. The betrayal of Reconstruction by the counterrevolutionary and triumphant capitalist reaction of the 1870s, in which the bourgeois feminists played their small and dirty part, left unfulfilled those liberating goals to which the Grimke sisters were committed. Yet Angelina's statement—"I want to be identified with the negro; until he gets his rights, we shall never have ours"—was and is true in a way the Grimke's could not understand. Their social perspective was limited to the bourgeois order: they never identified property as the source of the oppression of both women and blacks. Indeed, as bourgeois egalitarians, the basis of their arguments was that women and blacks should have the same right to acquire property as the white man and that this would liberate them completely. As Marx noted:

"The present struggle between the South and North is, therefore, nothing but a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labour. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side by side on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other."

—"The Civil War in the United States," Collected Works, Volume 19, 1861-64

The system of "free labor," capitalism, won out. Radical Reconstruction, enforced by military occupation, sought to impose equality of bourgeois democratic rights in the South. It was defeated by.compromise between the Northern bourgeoisie and the Southern land-owning aristocracy, thus revealing the ultimate incapacity of bourgeois radicalism to finally liberate any sector of the oppressed. This failure and betrayal of Reconstruction perpetuated the oppression of blacks as a color caste at the bottom of American capitalist society. This racial division, with whites on top of blacks, has been and continues to be the main historical obstacle to the development of political class con¬sciousness among the American proletariat. It will take a third American Revolution, led by a multiracial workers party against capitalism itself, to break the fetters of blacks, women and all the oppressed.


Click on the title to link to an "Under The Hood" (Fort Hood G.I. Coffeehouse)Web site online article about the "Oleo Strut" Coffeehouse, an important development in the anti-Vietnam War struggle. Hats off to those bygone anti-war fighters.



This will be short and sweet for four years of war without an effective extra-parliamentary (or for that matter, parliamentary) opposition in an unpopular war led by an unpopular President speaks for itself. That said, the slogan Immediate Unconditional Withdrawal from Iraq by the United States and its rapidly dwindling coalition forces retains its validity. As does the fight for a straight no vote on the war budget. And, finally, as does the validity of the desperately necessary fight to form anti-war soldiers and sailors solidarity committees. Otherwise this time next year we will be writing about the fifth year of the war. Forward.

Monday, March 19, 2007


Click on the headline to link to a "Wikipedia" entry for revolutionary abolitionist, Harriet Tubman.



The story of the ex-slave, Civil War ‘general’ and black liberation fighter Harriet Tubman is the stuff of legends. Although in recent decades she has received more of the proper attention due her the fight for the real freedom for blacks still is the wave of the future. Her early story, in any case, is the all to familiar slavery story of arbitrary beatings, random acts of senseless brutalization, separation from family and friends and the dreaded ‘sale’ further South that those like Ms. Tubman from border state slave society in Maryland feared above all. It was as a result of one such beating, leaving Ms. Tubman permanently injured, that she determined to in the late 1840’s to seek the “Northern Star” and escape.

If that was all to her story then she would not be different from the average one thousand or so slaves who escaped each year. But here is a woman with a difference agenda. After her escape she became a 'conductor' on the then bustling Underground Railroad, the route used by escaped slaves to head North to freedom. She repeatedly led, at great personal risk to her life, many slave freedom expeditions from the South. As she was able to brag later she did not lose one of her charges to the hands of the slave owners.

Another interesting part of her story is her relationship with the legendary revolutionary abolitionist John Brown. Apparently she was slated to join Brown at Harpers Ferry but illness forced her to fore go that fight. Given her talents in leading slaves from bondage, her authority among plantation blacks and her knowledge of the terrain and travel routes in the South she could have made Brown’s seemingly utopian plan for a slave insurrection and guerrilla warfare much more plausible. Needless to say she held the highest regard for this white man ready to lay down his head for black liberation. Toward the end of her life she named an indigent rest home she sponsored with her hard fought for government pension in his memory.

During the Civil War Ms. Tubman sought to aid the Union Armies as they made a beachhead in the South by acting as a scout and helping create a scouting unit made up of blacks that knew the area. She witnessed the brave fight of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment made up of Northern freeman at Fort Wagner and spent time under the command of the famous Kansas free state fighter Colonel James Montgomery, another intimate of John Brown’s. Although she was recognized for her services she had to endure many hassles in order to obtain the full pension that her service to the Union cause entitled her. She nevertheless spent most of her life in poverty and maintained herself with odd jobs and projects. The real honors that Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, the men of the Massachusetts 54th and those countless black slaves and freedman who fought in the Union ranks still await them in a more just and honest society of the future.