Friday, March 07, 2008

Musings on Presidential Campaign 2008


Recently I received a communication from a reader asking why, it seemed to her, that lately I have been offering less analysis of the bourgeois presidential elections and doing more book reviews, etc. on obscure subjects like the influence of Quakers, the Second Awakening and women in the rise of American capitalism. Or off the wall commentaries on such frivolous matter as the Iraq war budget, troops withdrawal and the economy.

Interestingly, that comment dovetailed with a trend that I also have observed as I have gone back and edited or reflected on some older material that I have written in this space. Starting shortly before the midterm Congressional campaigns I seriously ratcheted up my commentary in this space under the general theme of breaking with the Democrats, Republicans and Greens. That intensity, more or less, held up until a couple of months ago when I realized that spending time on what is essentially the technical aspects of presidential electoral campaigns, the reason for existence for my political opponents, was not worth the time. Moreover, it was getting repetitive and boring. The time since then has only confirmed that piece of personal wisdom on my part as the current Clinton/Obama smear campaigns against each other has clearly demonstrated.

Do not get me wrong. In my youth this kind of presidential contest would have been like catnip to me, complete with graphs and charts all over the place following the delegate curve. And as late as Hubert Humphrey’s ill-fated presidential of 1968 I would have been up to my elbows in the day-to-day whirlwind of the campaign itself as a participant. But, my friends, these technical trips, and that are what campaigns like this ultimately come down to, prevent one from seeing the forest for the trees. The fight against the Iraq War, the death penalty, saving abortion rights, the struggle against foreclosures and other economic harms are only palely, very palely reflected in these free-for-alls.

As I have repeatedly pointed out before in this space, I see the wind that Obama has stirred up among the youth of all races and others who had previously lost their political compasses as eventually a positive sign for those of us outside and to the left of the Democratic Party. That, however, is only of secondary benefit now to those of us who look through the prism of socialism. I made someone laugh one time when I said our perspective ultimately is - After Obama, Us. My friends, at that time, you will see me making commentaries on politics until the cows come home. Enough said.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

***What Made Capitalism Tick?


The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber, Unwin Paperbacks, London, 1985

In my youth I used to believe that Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was the very last word in understanding, sociologically, the driving force behind capitalism in its prime. His premise, at least his expressed narrowly- defined one, that out of the mishmash of feudalism a ‘new’ man and a ‘new’ woman were being created who could subordinate their temporal desires enough to begin the tedious process of primitive capitalist accumulation that got the whole mode started, hit home hard to my young mind. Of course, that was not my conscious take on it at the time, although parts of it certainly were. What interested me the most was that Weber was using some examples that were close to home, the Massachusetts Bay Colony experiment, and, being from Boston and steeped in Puritan history, that is why I was glad to get a copy of the work.

Strangely, in recently re-reading the work I found that I was drawn by those same examples. Additionally, I was drawn by the huge set of footnotes at the end that I did not remember going through in my youth but offer some very interesting insights into how Weber put his argument together and the sources that he had available at the time and that he used. The re-reading poses this question, though. How does the work itself hold up?

Of course today my class struggle perspective derived from a Marxist world view notes that Weber is clearly a political opponent. Not so much for his argument, which actually has a certain merit, but for his tenacious desire to use a quasi-Marxism materialist approach to sociology without drawing those requisite class struggle conclusions. I might add that the class struggle was fully raging in Germany at the time of the publication of this work as the Social Democratic Party was becoming the voice of the German working class. Weber, thus, really needed to keep his blinders on. Moreover, as a work of scholarship, which I will grant it certainly is, it is an early effort in the very long struggle to divorce sociological observations from any practical use. A militant today in order to benefit from reading this work has to do the equivalent of suspending disbelieve in the plot of a novel to realize that it is important to know what made capitalism tick in the old days and why we have to move on. Here, nevertheless is my very condensed take on the work today.

In some place in 16th and 17th century Europe, the scope of Weber’s study, individuals and small communities were breaking from the established churches, Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant and creating, in some cases 'hit or miss', a culture that we today describe as secular but in the nature of those times had a religious connotation. That breakout, not without opposition and oppression by the constituted authorities, formed the nucleus of an ethic that made accumulation of wealth through hard work and thrift the norm-in short that private accumulation mentioned above. This, dear reader, was a historically progressive series of actions. In the year 2007 those traits have long since failed to be progressive. What is necessary, as Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and even someone like Che Guevara recognized is in the interest of social solidarity we need to create ‘the new socialist man and woman’ out of the muck and mire of capitalism. Hell, we need our own version of the Protestant ethic-and if current worldwide economic conditions are any judge- we need it pronto. Read this one at your leisure.What Made Capitalism Tick?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

*From The Archives Of "Women And Revolution"-Black Freedom, Women's Rights and the Civil War

Click on the headline to link to a "Wikipedia" entry for black abolitionist Sojourner Truth.

Markin comment:

The following is an article from the Spring 1989 issue of "Women and Revolution" 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.


Black Freedom, Women's Rights
and the Civil War

This article is based on a talk given by W&R associate editor Amy Rath at a public forum held 5 April 1988 at Howard University. For additional historical material on women in the anti-slavery struggle, see "The Grimke Sisters: Pioneers for Abolition and Women's Rights" (W&R No. 29, Spring 1985) and "Harriet Tubman: Fighter for Black Freedom" (W&R No. 32, Winter 1986).

The talk discusses the movement for women's rights in the U.S. prior to the Civil War, its link through the radical abolition movement with the fight against black slavery, and the destruction of that link to produce the antecedents of the present "feminists." It centers on the ideology of the antebellum abolitionists, the most far-sighted of whom saw that all democratic struggles were vitally linked and that deeply revolutionary changes would be required to establish equality. These men and women were not Marxists but bourgeois radicals of their time; for many, the primary political motivation was religion.

Northern anti-slavery activists espoused "free labor" and accepted the idea that if legal barriers to equality were removed, the American dream would be possible for anyone, given talent and hard work. In antebellum America, in the context of steady immigration and an expanding frontier, a propertyless farmhand could perhaps acquire land of his own, while a (white) laborer might look to becoming a small-scale employer of labor in a generation. But if the "free labor" ideology imagined a democratic political system of economic equals based on a society of skilled artisans and yeoman farmers, this model rapidly became a fiction. A capitalist class of Northern industrial, finance and railroad capitalists had the ascendancy. Though still a predominantly agricultural country, America was the fastest-growing industrial power (with the second-highest industrial output, after Britain). America was already the world's technological leader, very much feared as a competitor by Britain, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution.

The slave society of the South existed in the framework of a powerful Northern industrial sector which purchased staple crops from the South, first of all cotton. The rich plantations which possessed the South's best land and dominated the region politically were built on a pre-capitalist class relationship of black chattel slavery; at the same time they were part of a money economy in the world's most dynamic capitalist country. The conflict of social systems between the ever more powerful North and the backward South was a profound contradiction heading for collision, exacerbated by America's undemocratic "states' rights" political system which had given the South disproportionate control of the national government (especially the presidency and Supreme Court) since Independence.

The Progressive Bourgeoisie and the Limits of Reconstruction

The "irrepressible conflict" exploded in the Civil War, in the course of which Lincoln, the Northern bourgeoisie's ablest political leader, found himself obliged to go much further than he had intended in the direction of adopting the emancipation program of the abolitionists. Fifteen years before, abolitionists had been viewed as an isolated, if noisy, crew of radical fanatics.
The Civil War smashed slavery and left behind in the South a chaotic situation and four million ex-slaves who had been promised "freedom." But the war and its aftermath underlined that a truly egalitarian radical vision of social reconstruction already could not be promoted by a capitalist ruling class.

In her talk, comrade Rath emphasized the birth of a "feminist" women's movement as a rightward split at a crucial moment in American history: the era of "Reconstruction." Reconstruction posed a possibility of socially revolutionary transformations in the South: the regional ruling class, based on the ownership of land and slaves, had been militarily defeated; under the occupying Northern power, political rights were exercised by the former slaves and those willing to be allied with them.

Reconstruction brought not only black enfranchisement but significant democratic reforms: the 1868 South Carolina constitutional convention drafted the state's first divorce law, while Reconstruction legislatures established the South's first public schools and went to work on liberalizing the South's draconian penal codes and reforming the planters' property tax system (which had taxed the farmer's mule and the workman's tools while all but exempting the real wealth—land). But the Northern capitalists betrayed the promise of Reconstruction, allowing it to be physically smashed by forces such as the Ku Klux Klan, even though that meant the destruction of the Republican Party in the South.

Replacing slavery, a new system of racial subordination took shape: a refurbished system of labor discipline through such measures as one-year labor contracts and "vagrancy" laws to bind ex-slaves to the plantations, and a rigid system of Jim Crow segregation. The defeat of Reconstruction shaped the postwar South into modern times: the sharecropping, the poll taxes, convict labor (the chain gang), the "separate but equal" unequal facilities.
While the woman suffrage leaders described in comrade Rath's talk took a stand against the great democratic gains that hung in the balance, many women mobilized by the anti-slavery movement served honorably in Reconstruction, for example as freedmen's schoolteachers who risked their lives to participate in freeing black people from the chains of bondage.

During Reconstruction, debate raged over the agrarian question: the radical demand raised by the freed-men and destitute white Unionist Southerners that the secessionists' estates be confiscated and distributed to them. Some abolitionists saw that racial democracy could not be achieved if a class of whites continued to own the land where a class of blacks were laborers. They argued for justice to those who had been slaves (who created the wealth of the plantations, beginning by clearing the wilderness).

But the tide had turned: the triumphant Northern rulers would not permit such an attack on "property rights" (especially as Northerners directly and Northern banks were coming to own a good deal of Southern property). Fundamentally, the federal power reinvested political power in the hands of the former "best people" of the old Confederacy. In the sequel, intensive exploitation of black agricultural labor, rather than industrial development or capital investment in the modernization of agriculture, remained the basis of the Southern economy.
What was the alternative? Working-class power was shown by the 1848 and 1871 upheavals in Europe to be the alternative to bourgeois rule, as Marx and Engels explained from the Communist Manifesto onward, but conditions were not mature even in Europe for the small proletariat to seize and wield state power. In mid-19th century America, the Northern bourgeoisie under the pressure of a revolutionary Civil War possessed a genuinely progressive side, the basis for the abolitionists' support for the Republican Party. The abolitionists' great debates revolved around how far out in front of the progressive bourgeoisie they should be. There were "radicals" and those with a more "realistic" appraisal of what the Republican Party would support. Today, more than a century after Reconstruction, that debate is transcended. The ruling class long since passed firmly over to the side of reaction; the federal government is no defender of the oppressed. Those who look to find support for an egalitarian program in any wing of the ruling class are doomed to disappointment. To complete the unfinished democratic tasks of the bourgeois revolution is a responsibility of the modern working class.

When the post-Civil War suffragettes chose to focus on the narrowest political rights for middle-class women and turn their backs on the rights and survival of the most desperately oppressed, they prefigured all of today's "constituency" and "reform" politics which refuse to attack the profound class inequalities ingrained in capitalist society. Sojourner Truth's classic "Ain't I a Woman" speech (see below) today stands as a powerful indictment of these ladies as much as of the outright sexists she was debating. Those who renounce the revolutionary content of the demand for women's liberation so as to advance their schemes for election of female politicians or advancement of women in academia are direct descendants of those first "feminists" who refused to challenge the power structure of their time on behalf of justice for two million of their sisters who were freed slaves.

But there is another women's movement: the women who have joined in the front ranks of every revolutionary struggle on this planet, from the 19th-century radical abolitionists to the women workers who sparked the Russian Revolution to the communist women of today. When the October Revolution of 1917 smashed the old tsarist society in Russia, militant women were among the first recruits to communism in dozens of countries where women were oppressed by semi-feudal conditions and "customs." Young women radicalized around questions like women's education, the veil, wife-beating, religious obscurantism, arranged marriages, etc., recognized a road forward to uprooting social reaction and building a society freed from sexual, racial and class inequality. Our heroes are the revolutionary women who have shared in making all of revolutionary history, from the first moment that slaves rose up against the Roman Empire to the great struggles of today.

It was 1863, and the bloodiest war ever fought by the U.S. was raging. Abraham Lincoln had finally realized he must pronounce the destruction of slavery as the North's goal in this civil war. On 22 September 1862, his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation declared that on the first of January, 1863, all slaves in the Confederacy "shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." Although the Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves in the border states loyal to the Union, it turned the tide of battle. The war was now indisputably a war to end slavery, not simply to repair the Union. Soon thereafter, the government began to enlist blacks into the army; these ex-slaves and sons of ex-slaves tipped the military balance in favor of the Union. It was a matter of time until black soldiers singing "John Brown's Body" marched into Charleston, South Carolina—the "soul of secession," as Karl Marx called it-after Sherman's march through Georgia to the sea.

In May of the revolutionary year 1863, the first convention of the Women's Loyal National League met in New York City. Its most eminent speaker was a woman whose name is little known today: Angelina Grimke" Weld. As part of her address she gave a keen analysis of the 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."

—Gerda Lerner, The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina

A resolution was presented: "There can never be a true peace in this Republic until the civil and political rights of all citizens of African descent and all women are practically established." Angelina Grimke' defended it against those who thought it too radical:
"I rejoice exceedingly that that resolution would combine us with the negro. I feel that we have been with him— True, we have not felt the slaveholder's lash; true, we have not had our hands manacled, but our hearts have been crushed I want to be identified with the negro; until he gets his rights, we shall never have ours."

It was only after the Civil War that an ideology arose which was later named "feminism": the idea that the main division in society is sex. In response to the debate over the role of the newly freed slaves in U.S. society, the leaders of the woman suffrage movement—Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony—sided with the counterrevolutionary assault on Reconstruction. The birth of bourgeois feminism was part of a right-wing process which shattered the vision of the left wing of the revolutionary democracy into separate, feeble bourgeois reform movements.

The Second American Revolution

The Civil War was one of the great social revolutions in the history of the world, destroying the slaveholding class in the South and freeing the black slaves. Not only Marxists saw that. The best fighters of the day—the Grimke sisters, the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens—knew that the war would have to become a revolution against slavery before the North could win. They hated the feudalistic society of the South, with its degraded slaves, its cruelty, its arrogant, leisurely gentlemen planters, its impoverished rural whites, its lack of education, industry and general culture. The radical abolitionists wanted to wipe away that society, and also saw much wrong in the North, such as the subservience of women, and legal and social discrimination against blacks. Their ideology was to create a new order based on free labor and "equality before the law," a concept brought to the U.S. by the Radical Republican Charles Sumner out of his study of the 1789 French Revolution.

In Europe after the French Revolution the status of women was the most visible expression of the contradiction between capitalist society and its own ideals. But in the U.S. that was not so true, because of chattel slavery. The United States—the first country to proclaim itself a democratic republic—was the largest slaveholding country in the world, a huge historical contradiction which had to be resolved.

The Industrial Revolution

It was the Industrial Revolution, fundamentally, that generated what William Seward called the "Irrepressible Conflict." In broad historical terms the Industrial Revolution had created the material conditions for the elimination of slavery in society. Technological and social advances made possible a much more productive capitalist agriculture and industry. In 1854 the abolitionist clergyman Theodore Parker described slavery as "the foe to Northern Industry—to our mines, our manufactures, and our our democratic politics in the State, our democratic culture in the school, our democratic work in the community" (quoted in James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom).

The Industrial Revolution had a contradictory effect on the condition of women. Production of goods had been primarily through cottage industry, but with the invention of the spinning jenny, the power loom and the steam engine, cottage industry was ended. The men left home to go to the factory, while women stayed home to do the housework, raise the children and to buy at the local store what once they had made at home.

Women's labor ceased to be productive labor in the strict Marxist sense. This is the material basis for the 19th-century ideology of the "women's sphere." While the material advances of the Industrial Revolution made life easier for women, it also locked them into the stifling confines of domesticity in the isolated nuclear family. Women also worked in factories, but even in the industries in which they were concentrated (in textile production they made up two-thirds of the labor force) generally they worked only for a few years before getting married.

The Fight for Women's Legal Rights

Slaves were a class, but women are a specially oppressed group dispersed through all social classes. Although all women were oppressed to some extent because of their position in the family, the class differences were fundamental between the black slave woman and the slave plantation mistress, or the Northern German-speaking laundress and the wife of the owner of the Pennsylvania iron mill. "Sisterhood" was as much a myth then as it is now. Women identified first with the class to which they belonged, determined by who their husbands or fathers were.

Before the Civil War, women were basically without any civil rights. They couldn't sue or be sued, they couldn't be on juries, all their property and earnings went to their husband or father. Although women did have the vote for a few years in New Jersey and Virginia after the American Revolution, this advance was quickly eliminated. (This was part of a general right-wing turn after the Revolution, when suffrage was restricted gradually through property qualifications. In New York State, for example, with some restrictions blacks could vote up to about 1821.) For the wealthy upper-class woman, this lack of legal rights loomed as a terrible injustice because it prevented her from functioning as a full member of the ruling class (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the mother of American feminism and the daughter of a judge, felt this keenly). For the working-class or slave woman, if her property legally belonged to her husband it didn't seem a problem— she didn't have any property.

Though the legal question was a small matter for poor and slave women, nevertheless legal injustice is not insignificant for Marxists, and it is bound up with multi-layered social oppression. This was true for the position of women in pre-Civil War society. Until the 1850s wife-beating was legal in most states. Divorce was almost impossible, and when it was obtained children went with the husband. The accepted attitude toward women was assumption of their "inferiority," and the Bible was considered an authority. When anesthesia was discovered in the 1840s, doctors opposed its use for childbirth, because that suffering was women's punishment for Eve's sin.

The Anti-Slavery Struggle and Democratic Rights

But how were women to fight for equal rights in this society divided between slave and free? Angelina Grimke' was precisely correct when she said, "until the negro gets his rights, we will never have ours." It was necessary to destroy chattel slavery, which was retarding the development of the whole society. The movement for women's rights developed in the North out of the struggle to abolish slavery. It could hardly have developed in the South. In the decades before the war, in response to the growing Northern anti-slavery agitation, the South was becoming more reactionary than ever: more fanatical in defense of the ideology of slavery and more openly repressive. There were wholesale assaults on basic democratic rights, from attacks on the rights of the small layer of free blacks, who were seen as a source of agitation and insurrection, to a ban on the distribution of abolitionist literature.

In the South, there were no public schools. It was illegal to teach slaves to read, and almost half of the entire Southern population was illiterate. But in the North over 90 percent of the residents could read and write. Girls and boys went to school in about the same proportions, the only country in the world where this was true. So while in the North women teachers were paid less than men, and women factory hands received one-quarter the wage of men, in the South there were few teachers at all, and few industrial workers.

As a young slave in Maryland, and later while he was trying to earn a living as a refugee in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Frederick Douglass came to understand the common interests of all working people in the South, slaves and free blacks and whites. He learned a trade on the docks, where he experienced racist treatment from white workmen, who saw black labor as a threat to their jobs. But Douglass realized that the position of the workmen, too, against their boss was eroded and weakened by slavery and racism. As Marx said, "Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded." And indeed, the working-class movement met with little success in the antebellum U.S., whereas after the war there was an upsurge in unionism and labor struggle.

The vanguard of the abolitionist movement—the radical insurrectionist wing—believed in the identity of the interests of all the oppressed. John Brown, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, the great activist of the Underground Railroad, and the Grimke sisters were all inspired by a vision of human equality based in revolutionary democracy. Although their egalitarian principle was based on a religious view and ours is based on a Marxist understanding of society, we honor their essential work in leading the anti-slavery struggle. The abolition of slavery did profoundly alter the United States, it did open the road to liberation by making possible the development of the proletariat and its revolutionary vanguard, which will establish justice by abolishing the exploitation of man by man.

The Grimke Sisters of South Carolina

Penetrating insights into the situation of women in pre-Civil War America came from women who were committed abolitionists. Sarah and Angelina Grimke are examples, as is Sojourner Truth who is better known today. The Grimke sisters were unusual members of the ruling class who defected to the other side. As daughters of one of South Carolina's most powerful slave-holding families, they had grown up in luxury, but left the South because of their revulsion for slavery. The Grimke sisters became famous in 1837-1838 as agents of the American Anti-Slavery Society. The power of their personal witness of the atrocities of the slave system drew huge audiences. The sisters were quick to point out that as upper-class white women, they had seen only the "better" treatment of the house and city slaves, and not the more brutal treatment of plantation hands in the fields. But one of the things they did know about was the sexual exploitation of women slaves and the brutal breakup of black families through the slave trade.

Because the sisters addressed the issues of sexual exploitation frankly and often, it was one of the issues the opposition used to try to shut them up. The clergy complained that the Grimke's brought up a subject "which ought not to be named"—how dare these delicate .blossoms of Southern womanhood talk about sex! The very idea of women speaking publicly represented an attack on the proper relationship between the sexes and would upset "women's place" in the home. Contemporary observers were shocked by the sight of women participating actively in the debates of the anti-slavery movement, as they did especially in New England, the birthplace of radical abolitionism. The Grimkes replied by pointing out that the same argument was used against abolition itself: it would upset the established order of social relations. They effectively linked up women's rights and emancipation of the slaves.

Sojourner Truth: "Ain't I a Woman?"

Black women got it from both sides, as the life of Sojourner Truth shows. She was born a slave around 1797 in New York State and was not freed until 1827, under the "gradual emancipation" provisions of the state law. As a slave she was prevented from marrying the man she loved, who was brutally beaten for daring to visit her (they were owned by different masters). They were both forcibly married to other slaves. Her son was sold South as a small child, away from her. After she was freed, she lived a backbreaking existence in New York City, one of the more racist cities in the North and a center for the slave trade.

Sojourner Truth went to all the women's rights conventions. The famous story about her dates from 1853. The usual crowd of male hecklers had almost shut down the proceedings. The women were unable to answer their sneers of how delicate and weak women were. Sojourner Truth asked for the floor and got it, despite the opposition of a lot of the delegates to the presence of a black abolitionist. You have to keep in mind what this woman looked like in this gathering of ladies: she was six feet tall, nearly 60 years old, very tough and work-worn. She said:

"The man over there says women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages or over puddles, or gives me the best place—and ain't I a woman?
"Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns, and no man could head me—and ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have born...children, and seen most of 'em sold into slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me—and ain't I a woman?"

—Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle

Sojourner Truth put her finger on the heart of the contradiction between the stifling idealization of women and their oppression as housewives and mothers and exploitation as slaves and workers.

Women's Rights and the Abolitionist Movement

Support for women's rights was tenuous within the politically diverse anti-slavery movement. Many free-soilers were not anti-racist; some opposed slavery because they didn't want blacks around. Even some of the most dedicated abolitionists argued that "women's rights" could harm the anti-slavery cause, and in 1840 a split in the American Anti-Slavery Society was precipitated by the election of a woman to the leading body.
That same year at an international anti-slavery meeting in London, women members of the American delegation were denied their seats. In the audience was the young Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Out of this experience she decided to begin organizing for women's rights. Eight years later, in 1848, at Seneca Falls, New York the first women's rights convention in the world was held. At first Stanton wasn't going to put forward the vote as a demand—she was afraid it was too extreme. She had to be argued into it by Frederick Douglass. It was the only demand that didn't get unanimous support at the meeting; it was considered too radical.

The role of Douglass was not an accident. The best fighters for women's rights were not the Elizabeth Cady Stantons and the Susan B. Anthonys—the ones who "put women first"—but the left-wing abolitionists. The most militant advocates of black equality, the insurrectionist wing, the prophets of the Civil War, were also the most consistent fighters for women's rights, because they saw no division of interest between blacks and women. Frederick Douglass not only attended all the women's meetings, arguing effectively for full equality for women, but he brought the message elsewhere. He put forward resolutions for women's rights at black conventions, and they were passed. He used to advertise the meetings in his paper and print reports on the proceedings. His paper's motto was, "Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color—God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren."

The Fight Over the 14th Amendment

Stanton and Anthony had suspended their woman suffrage campaign for the duration of the war. They circulated petitions for a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, which became the 13th Amendment. After the war Stanton and Anthony set up an Equal Rights Association to agitate for the vote for both blacks and women. They thought because of the broad social upheaval the time was ripe for woman suffrage. But this proved not to be the case.

The question here was citizenship rights under capitalist law, specifically voting. Compare it with how voting rights and citizenship were looked at in another revolution at the same time: the 1871 Paris Commune, the first proletarian revolution (whose example dramatically reinforced ideological conservatism among the American bourgeoisie). The Commune subsumed nationality and citizenship to class considerations. Anybody who got elected from the working class, whatever country they were born in, sat on the legislative body of the Commune, while the industrialists and the bourgeois parliamentarians fled the city and were "disenfranchised" as their property was expropriated.

This was not on the agenda in the United States in the 1860s. The historical tasks of the Civil War and Reconstruction were to complete the unfinished bourgeois revolution, to resolve questions like slave versus free, national sovereignty and democratic rights. In his novel Gore Vidal calls Lincoln the Bismarck of his country, and this is justified. For example, before the Civil War, each state printed its own money. Greenbacks were first made by the Union to finance the war. The Supreme Court regularly said, "the United States are." Only after the war did this country's name become a singular noun—one national government.

But the big question was what to do with the newly emancipated slaves, and this question focused on two things: land and the vote. The debate over the vote represented, in legal terms, a struggle to determine what "citizenship" meant in relation to the state. Many Northern states did not allow blacks to vote, either. The 14th Amendment, which was passed to answer this question, says that all persons born or naturalized in the U.S. are citizens of the nation and of the state in which they live, and that states can't abridge their "privileges and immunities" or deprive them of life, liberty, or property without "due process of law" or deny them "equal protection of the laws."

The Republican Party, which was founded as an anti-slavery party, contained within it many shades of political opinion. It has been argued that the only reason the Republicans gave the vote to blacks was to maintain political control over the states in the conquered Confederacy. This was true of some Republicans, but the men who politically dominated Congress during the period of Radical Reconstruction were committed revolutionary democrats, as observers of the time said of Thaddeus Stevens, who was called the "Robespierre, Danton, and Marat of America." There were good reasons for Douglass' loyalty to the Republicans, given after much early hesitation and sometimes combined with scathing criticism.

But there were a lot of contradictions. The party that was trying to implement black rights was also the party that was massacring the Indians in the West, breaking workers' strikes in the North, presiding over a new scale of graft and corruption, and trying to annex Santo Domingo. In the fight to replace slavery with something other than a peonage system which mimicked bondage, the land question was key. And the robber barons—the moneylords, the triumphant ruling class-rapidly got pretty nervous about the campaign to confiscate the plantations and give them to the blacks. It was an assault on property rights, in line with what those uppity workers in the North were demanding: the eight-hour day, unions, higher wages. The ruling class was quite conscious about this; an 1867 New York Times editorial stated:

"If Congress is to take cognizance of the claims of labor against capital...there can be no decent pretense for confining the task to the slave-holder of the South. It is a question, not of humanity, not of loyalty, but of the fundamental relation of industry to capital; and sooner or later, if begun at the South, it will find its way into the cities of the North.... An attempt to justify the confiscation of Southern land under the pretense of doing justice to the freedmen, strikes at the root of all property rights in both sections. It concerns Massachusetts quite as much as Mississippi."

—Eric Foner, Politics and Ideology in the Age of the Civil War

This question was not resolved quickly, but over a couple of decades. But to collapse a lot of complex history, the revolutionary tide receded under the weight of triumphant capitalism. In 1877 Union troops were withdrawn from Southern occupation as part of the compromise making Rutherford B. Hayes president. The Civil War did not establish black equality, and the 14th and 15th Amendments which codified in law the war's revolutionary gains were turned into virtual dead letters. Nor did the Civil War liberate women, not even in a limited, legalistic sense. They continued to be denied even the simple right to vote (although in some districts in South Carolina in 1870, under the encouragement of black election officials, black women exercised the franchise for a brief time).

From the defeat of Reconstruction was spawned the kind of society we have now. On top of the fundamental class divisions in the U.S. is pervasive and institutionalized racial oppression. The black slaves were liberated from bondage only to become an oppressed race/color caste, segregated at the bottom of society— although today, unlike the immediate aftermath of Reconstruction, blacks also constitute a key component of the American proletariat.

The Birth of American Feminism

Many Radical Republicans were critical of the 14th Amendment, which was a true child of compromise. Sumner called it "uncertain, loose, cracked, and rickety." Opposition centered on a loophole that allowed a state to opt for losing some representation in Congress if it chose to restrict black suffrage—and Southern states exploited this concession. But what Elizabeth Cady Stanton didn't like about it was that for the first time, the word "male" appeared in the Constitution. And this fight was the birth of American feminism.

Of course the 14th Amendment should have given women the vote, and the importance of suffrage for black women was not inconsiderable. But a Civil War had just been fought on the question of black freedom, and it was indeed the "Negro's Hour," as many abolitionists argued. The biggest benefit for women's rights would have been to struggle for the biggest expansion possible in black freedom—to campaign for the land, for black participation in government on the state and federal level, to crush racism in the North, to integrate blacks in housing, education, jobs—to push to the limit the revolutionary possibilities of the period. But Stanton and Anthony sided with the right-wing
assault on the revolutionary opening that existed. They wrote:

"Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Ung Tung who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence or Webster's spelling book, making laws for [white abolitionists] Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble."

Stanton and Anthony embraced race-hatred and anti-immigrant bigotry against the Irish, blacks, Germans and Asians, grounded in class hostility.
They took this position at a time when blacks in the South faced escalating race-terror. The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 to terrorize Southern blacks; hundreds were murdered. Republicans of both colors were targeted, and a special object of Klan hatred was the schoolhouse and the schoolteacher (many of them Northern women). In the North as well there was a struggle over the vote, over integrated schools. There was a fight to end Jim Crow in the Washington, D.C. trolley system (after the law desegregating streetcars was passed there in 1865, Sojourner Truth herself went around the capital boarding the cars of companies that were refusing to seat blacks). The freedmen's struggles for a fundamental transformation of race relations triggered in the North what some historians have called the first racist backlash. Frederick Douglass' home in Rochester, New York was burned to the ground; Republican and abolitionist leaders routinely received death threats.

So in this period of violent struggle over the race question, the feminists joined forces with the Democrats, the political party of the Klan and the Confederacy, who hoped to exploit the women's issue against blacks. Henry Blackwell (Lucy Stone's husband) argued that white women voting in the South would cancel out the black vote. Stanton and Anthony teamed up with George Train, a notorious racist, who financed their newspaper, Revolution. They adopted the slogan "educated suffrage"—that is, a literacy test for voters—which was deliberately formulated against non-English-speaking immigrants and ex-slaves.

Frederick Douglass made a valiant attempt to win the feminists over to support for the amendments at a meeting of the Equal Rights Association in 1869, where he argued for the urgency of the vote for blacks:

"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 to 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 an urgency to obtain the ballot."

—Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle

At this convention Douglass proposed a resolution which called the 15th Amendment the "culmination of one-half of our demands" while imploring a redoubling of "our energy to secure the further amendment guaranteeing the same sacred rights without limitation to sex." But by this point, a split was inevitable. The feminists blamed the Republican Party and the abolitionists for the defeat in Kansas of an 1867 referendum on woman suffrage. They decided that "men" could not be trusted, and for the first time argued that women must organize separately for their own rights. They even flirted with male exclusionism. The movement split in two, one maintaining a formally decent posture on the race question as a cover for doing nothing. The main wing led by Stanton and Anthony wanted to address broad issues, but their capitulation to racist reaction defined them.

They claimed the ballot would solve everything. Their paper was printed in a "rat" office (below union scale). Anthony urged women to be scabs to "better" their condition, then whined when the National Labor Congress refused to admit her as a delegate! Stanton said it proved the worst enemy of women's rights was the working man.

After Reconstruction went down to defeat, the first "feminists" dedicated themselves to the reactionary attempt to prove woman suffrage wouldn't rock the Jim Crow boat. But in the South, the restabilization of a system of overt racist injustice set the context for all social questions. In the South, any extension of the franchise was feared as a threat to "white supremacy" stability. By 1920, when woman suffrage was passed nationally— largely because of World War I which brought women into industry and social life—not a single Southern state had passed the vote for women, although almost every other state had some form of it.

Today, the bourgeois feminists like to hark back to the struggle over the 14th Amendment as proof there must be a separatist women's movement. They claim Stanton and Anthony as their political mothers. Let them have them! We stand in a different tradition: the heritage of Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Harriet Tubman, the Grimke sisters, of revolutionary insurrectionism against the class enemy. Today, to complete the unfinished tasks of the Civil War and emancipate women and blacks from social slavery requires a communist women's movement, part of a multiracial vanguard party fighting for workers power in the interests of all the oppressed.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

*Women's History Month- "Women, Culture and Class Society"- A Modern Communist Analysis

Click on title to link to "Women and Revolution" article ("Spartacist", Spring 2006) on "The Russian Revolution And The Emancipation Of Women".

March is Women's History Month

The following article was originally published in Women and Revolution, Summer 1974 and may be of more than historical interest to the radical public.

Women, Culture and Class Society, Helen Cantor

At first glance, it would appear that the problems of culture and women's contributions to it are somewhat removed from the immediate tasks of building a revolutionary party of the proletariat, and in a sense, these questions are. The struggle for women's creative and full participation in all aspects of society seems of concern only to the educated women of the middle class. Of what concern is this struggle to revolutionists?

The problem of culture and gaining access to it is a fundamental one for the proletariat. As Trotsky wrote: "The proletariat is forced to take power before it has appropriated the fundamental elements of bourgeois culture; it is forced to overthrow bourgeois society by revolutionary violence for the very reason that society does not allow it access to culture" (Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution).

Ever since the beginning of human development the iron necessity to survive has usually necessitated a division between hunting and child-rearing tasks. While this original division did not result in women's present oppression, the development of civilization, i.e., class society, did, by excluding women from many areas of social labor. Women have historically been kept pregnant most of their lives and, under advanced capitalism, isolated in individual households and thus impeded from attaining full expression of their creativity and social productivity. It is only comparatively recently (in the last 200 years) with the development of capitalism, that significant numbers of women (and at first only those of the upper classes) even learned to read or were allowed to attend school.

As Marxists, we are interested in human culture— our fundamental aim is to create a society in which all humanity, unimpeded by material scarcity, can develop its creative abilities freely and to the utmost.

There is a great deal of vulgar materialism and ignorance on the left regarding the relation of culture to the proletariat, due in part to the atrocities of "socialist realism" perpetrated by the Stalinists, including the Maoist variety. "Workerist" philistines glorify the lack of culture in the working class, justifying this by defining all standards of culture as inherently bourgeois. These currents are reflected within women's organizations, too, as shown recently by attempts to create a "women's culture" in opposition to "male-dominated" culture.

"Cultural feminism" has become a trend in what is left of the now largely dissipated outburst of feminist activity of the late 1960's. The women's movement left few organizations in its wake other than a string of women's studies departments on campuses across the country, and small clumps of women's schools or centers (like the Chicago Women's Liberation Union school), most of whose activities center around do-it-yourself gynecology, Volkswagen repair or some variant of "women's culture," such as women's rock and roll bands, poetry readings, paintings or displays of women's crafts. This strain of "cultural feminism" is also evident in recent publications of anthologies of women poets, journals (like Aphra or The Amazon Quarterly devoted to lesbian culture, or The Feminist Art Journal) and endless articles in almost all women's papers (and some liberal papers, like the
Village Voice and the New York Review of Books) on women artists, poets, etc.

The worldview of these cultural feminists is often shared by more political "socialist feminists" and even by many of the ex-New Left Maoists, and is tailed uncritically by groups like the SWP in precisely the same way that they tail black nationalism. To this worldview we counterpose a Marxist materialist understanding of the basis of woman's oppression and of culture in general. In order to seek to create a truly human culture, as Marx said, we must create the conditions in which humanity can, for the first time, make its own history.

Some Currents of Feminism Today

The "cultural feminists" propound several somewhat contradictory theories. First, there are the liberal academics, who argue that there really are great women artists, scientists, leaders, and so on, but that' they have been left out of history, so we don't know about them. This is the "herstory" liner-"write women back into history." As if wiping out centuries of oppression were merely a matter of altering a few textbooks.' "Teach the real contributions women have made in the past," they demand. This argument in effect denies the reality of women's oppression, because it denies that that oppression had any particular effect on women.

Another variant on the "herstory" concept is that the reason nobody noticed all this womanly creative activity was because all culture is male culture and thus the female aspects of creativity were ignored or neglected—like making quilts or weaving, for example (off our backs has had several culture pull-outs on quilt-making). Women's art must be judged by different standards than that of men, advocates of this position say. Women's crafts were not seen as great art simply because women did them—presumably if men had made the quilts they would be displayed in the museums along with the Rembrandts and Greek sculptures.

More radical feminists call for the creation of an entirely separate "women's culture" because, given male dominance, it is supposedly impossible for women to create anything except by withdrawing, creating "their own space." This position asserts that women are inherently different from men, that their sexual identity is the most important thing about them and will inevitably (or should inevitably) determine their social behavior, ideas, creative expression and so on. This argument is quite close to that of the fake anthropologists like Lionel Tiger, who argues in Men in Groups that because of the original biological functions of men as hunters and women as child-raisers,-they have inherent and instinctual responses to life, see the world differently, and are thus naturally assigned to their present social roles (women aren't good at politics, men are more aggressive).

Shulamith Firestone, in The Dialectic of Sex, goes somewhat further than the need for a separate women's culture. For her, culture, in the sense of aesthetics and art, is the expression of women's sexual nature. She writes:

"We have noted how those few women directly creating culture have gravitated to disciplines within the Aesthetic Mode. There is a good reason for this: the aesthetic response corresponds with 'female' behavior. The same terminology can be applied to either: subjective, intuitive, introverted, wishful, dreamy or fantastic, concerned with the subconscious.... Correspondingly, the technological response is the masculine response: objective, logical, extroverted, realistic, concerned with the conscious mind...."

—Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex

For Firestone, the sexual division of humanity is the basis from which class divisions grew and from which the division between science and art (objective vs. subjective) developed as well. This division seems. particularly artificial and false, however, when it is noted that men have had less trouble in assuming the "feminine aesthetic" mode—most of the great novelists, poets, artists, etc., have after all been men. Why cannot women therefore equally easily assume the "masculine technological" model?

The most developed expression of "women's culture" (at least in the visual arts) is probably the male-exclusionist Womanhouse arts center created by Judy Chicago in California. Judy Chicago, an artist, has developed the theory that women's art has historically shown a preoccupation with womb-like shapes; 'holes, rounded organic forms (for example Georgia O'Keefe's enlarged flower parts)—the "dark inner space" of woman. Off our backs reviewed a women's art show in New York last November in an article called "another cuntree [sic]—at last a mainstream women's art movement," which enthused over the proliferation of gigantic female organs, erotic art, fruit-flower fertility themes, etc., and projected from these the creation of "a mainstream female art movement," whose emphasis was on woman's sexuality. This vision of the liberated creative woman as a flower/fruit/fecund moon-goddess/earth mother would be funny (in an intimidating kind of way), were it not the very same image of woman that has arisen as a result of her oppression and been used to "keep her in her place," creating with her womb, not her mind—the intuitive, irrational instinctive mother to be kept out of the 'light of day" of men's politics, creativity, social labor.

"Her story"

Obviously, these two beliefs—that women have made contributions but been unrecognized and that women are fundamentally different from men—are somewhat contradictory. The first asserts that women can entirely transcend their oppression in class society and rise above its effects to create an art which is "just as good" as "men's" art, the other that women are deep down different from men and therefore must reject all previous human achievement as "male culture" and create their own exclusionary culture and society. We deny both these assertions.
The "herstory" question is dealt with in an interesting and thoughtful article by Linda Nochlin (an art historian) called "Why Are There No Great Women Artists?" (reprinted in Art News, January 1971). This article has created much controversy within the women's movement, not only because of its position on women, but also for its analysis of what art is.

Of course, one's immediate response to the question is a sharp reaction against the natural male chauvinist answer, "Women aren't great artists because they are incapable of it—all they can do is -make babies." But to say that women are potentially equally capable of true creativity is not the same thing as attempting to prove that they are in fact creative, as Nochlin points out. The truth is that women have not participated fully in the creation and development of human culture, because they have been excluded from social production and kept isolated in private occupations of child-rearing and housekeeping, tasks which were historically necessary and from which women could not escape until the development of modern capitalism which provided the technology and productive resources such that this primitive division of. labor was no longer necessary.

There have been exceptions to this general truth, of course, but they are almost exclusively from the middle and upper classes. To the extent that a few women have been able to be creative, it has been primarily in the arts, in writing novels, poetry and in painting, for instance. One could ask, "Why have there been no great women architects, bridge-builders, scientists, generals?" equally validly. The reason women have contributed in the arts is not due to some "feminine aesthetic" but because these occupations, being essentially individual and private, were more accessible.

But even within the arts, women have not been able to contribute as much as men. Why? As Nochlin puts it:

"... [conditions in the arts are] stultifying, oppressive, and discouraging to all who do not have the good fortune to be born white, preferably middle-class or above, males. The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education...."

The production of great art, as Nochlin points out, is not "the direct, personal expression of individual emotional experience. the language of art is neither a sob story or a hoarse, confidential whisper "but has rather involved a self-consistent language of form, teaching, building on the experience of past generations of artists, long apprenticeships and intense and lengthy periods of personal experimentation. Women have in most cases been denied access to these artistic necessities. For example, prior to the twentieth century, women were unable to study the live nude, which was absolutely necessary to an artist's education, and were then accused of being incapable of understanding the male form. Upper-class "ladies" were at most encouraged to paint flowers on velvet or China, and were then accused of being unable to develop large, heroic sculptural forms. Almost all women artists up to the end of the 19th century were either the daughters of artist fathers or fathers sympathetic to their intellectual development; or else were associated with a more dominant male artistic personality (for example, Rosa Bonheur, Victorian painter of animals; Maria Robusti, daughter of Tintoretto, Lavinia Fontana, Renaissance painter; Mary Cassatt, associated with Degas).

To face clearly the fact that only a tiny percentage of privileged women, in exceptional circumstances, have succeeded in becoming successful artists or scientists or whatever they wish is not to despair. Instead of denying the reality of women's oppression, we recognize how this oppression came about and we see a road to end it in the real world through action, instead of retreating to wishful dreaming and academic pursuit of the alleged unappreciated great women geniuses of the past.

Women's Studies and Idealism

The current proliferation of women's studies departments and women's schools implies an underlying philosophy of idealism, which ignores both the actuality and historic necessity of women's oppression and therefore refuses to understand how this oppression must be finally overcome.

Marx asserted that inequality and oppression are historically necessary and can be overcome only through the total development of society, centering on the raising of the productive forces. In Theories of Surplus Value he writes, "... at first the development of the capacities of the human species takes place at the cost of the majority of human individuals and even 'classes...." and in The German Ideology he insists that "in general people cannot ‘be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. 'Liberation' is an historical and not a mental act...."

But for the women's studies departments, liberation is "a mental act." This belief is characteristic of educated petty-bourgeois academics seeking" to rise above the. uncomfortable harsh realities of class society because they are caught in the middle. On the one hand, they sympathize with the sad plight of the poor, yet still admire the resourcefulness and cunning (and presumably superior intelligence) of the capitalist and hope that maybe they too will be like him someday. Knowledge is power for these dreamers, because to them it seems that ideas rule the world and that if women can only learn the truth about themselves, this will somehow automatically free them.

"Women's Culture"

Those who advocate the creation (or announce the existence) of a separate women's culture also share this idealism, in that they believe it is possible to withdraw from an oppressive society and thus escape its effects. They are either extremely naive, cynically selfish or simply opportunist in advocating this for the mass of women, because it is possible for only a few privileged women with a sufficient financial base to create a relatively pleasant and isolated personal milieu, in which they can concentrate on discovering what their "true sexual essence" may be.
What the "true nature" of men and women is-whether or not men and women have different social needs and expectations because of their biological differences-r-is a question which cannot be answered objectively under the hideously deforming pressures o»f class society.

Attempts to create a separate women's culture therefore tend to end up imitating or using the most extreme caricatures of womanhood—like the fruit/ flower/moon goddess. The attempt to discover a separate "woman's aesthetic" in art of the past, too, is rather difficult. It is obvious that the work of artists within a particular period or school (Baroque, Rococo, Impressionism, German Expressionism, Cubism, etc.)
resembles that of others in the same school far more that the work of individual men and women within each particular school differs.

Stalinism and Art

It's not accidental that some of the proponents of a women's culture reprint Stalinist works or admire Mao's "proletarian" art theories (see for example the paper Women and Art, Summer/Fall, 1972, and its supplement on "Art and Society" devoted entirely to works by Stalinist art historians). The caricatures of "womanhood" (either the eternally strong or eternally suffering woman) are necessary to their art in the same way that caricatures of the proletariat and bourgeoisie are necessary for Stalinist propaganda. They need very obvious symbols to mark their work as clearly identifying itself with a particular viewpoint, and also, in their condescending opinion, in order to be immediately understood by the masses. This "socialist" ^art which requires "realism" as its medium drags all art down to the- level of crude propaganda and clich├ęs of brawny-armed workers, factory chimneys, red flags, etc. Likewise, the cultural feminists need to show "female" symbolism—and in this society no other symbols are available which would be immediately understood by "the masses" except sexual imagery, traditional images of womanhood, round, organic, "warm-tender" qualities, etc.

Many feminist artists are quite hostile to abstract art because it doesn't fit their concept of art as propaganda. It's not immediately obvious what the ideological viewpoint is, or even in fact whether a man or woman painted it.' Thus such work must be under constant suspicion as not being "correct." This vulgarity has nothing in common with what art is, which is not propaganda (not the "hoarse whispered confession" or "sob story"), but rather an attempt to extend consciousness, to break new ground, and is therefore often difficult to understand at first.

Women artists have begged to be judged by the same standards as men, for there is one standard in art. Different standards in this case, as in all other areas, only mean disguised contempt. As Virginia Woolf wrote, "It is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance, to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman" (A Room of One's Own). The question of standards in art is important. As Trotsky said, "proletarian art must not be second-class art" (Literature and Revolution)—the proletarian revolution will lay the basis for creating a culture which must build on (and will eventually supersede the best of all past cultures.

Male Chauvinism

But isn't the concept of culture being used in too broad a sense? What about male chauvinism? Isn't there, after all, such a thing as "bourgeois culture" which can poison the minds of the workers? The uprooting of bourgeois ideology requires not a purge of bourgeois art, a la the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," but the elimination of the material conditions (the repressive nuclear family, social inequality, unequal access to education and jobs, absorption in child-raising and housework, etc.) which have given rise to male-chauvinist ideology. If these conditions are changed, reflections of this change will ultimately appear in literature and art. That is the only way to thoroughly and forever abolish false conceptions of reality. As Orwell said about Salvador Dali (and he loathed Dali, believing him to be a truly sick individual who spread fantasies of necrophilia), it is a dubious policy to ban much of anything, particularly in the fields of art or science. Lenin continually warned comrades not to become too self-assured, too self-righteous, because Marxism is a science of economic and political life which applies only indirectly to other disciplines. Essentially Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky all insisted on the autonomy of art.

Of course there is a dominant "bourgeois culture." But it is based on the entire accumulated experiences of all human societies since the beginning of man. Thus it would be more accurate to speak of "human culture in a bourgeois epoch," for it is this entire range of human culture which the bourgeoisie has taken as its exclusive possession and which the proletariat must conquer. Socialist society must and will base itself upon this entire accumulated experience.

Socialist Humanity

Since the beginning of class society the social roles of men and women have never been equal—that is the goal of communist society. Until such a society is achieved, it is almost impossible to untangle the results of social training and education, which reflect the inequalities of class society, from what may possibly be real differences among peoples, sexes, etc. We are justly suspicious of the uses to which research in "social sciences" is put in capitalist society. As Trotsky said in a speech to a scientific gathering in Russia in 1925:

". .the greater the trust of socialism devoted to direct study of nature, the greater is its initial distrust in approaching those sciences and pseudo-sciences which are linked closely to the structure of human society, its economic institutions, its state, laws, ethics, etc."

—"Dialectical Materialism and Science” in Problems of Everyday Life

Much of these "pseudo-sciences" end up simply justifying the status quo, i.e., capitalism with its attendant evils, because they begin with the assumption of some kind of "eternal human nature" which produces society, and thus that's the way it has to be, forever and ever." Further, all past alleged differences between races and sexes have at one time or another been used by reactionaries as an ideological excuse for the purpose of justifying the oppression of (or even seeking to destroy) the supposedly "inferior" grouping.

But suppose some real aptitudinal differences do exist between men and women and could be proven? Our response would be "so what?" A free society must require absolute equality of opportunity and access to all areas of human life and culture. A proletarian state developing toward communism (the classless society) will have no reason to fear investigation and exploration of all potential differences, because our society will be based upon the absolute equality and freedom of all humanity, regardless of any such differences.

As Isaac Deutscher said at a Socialist Scholars Conference on the subject of "socialist man":

"We do not maintain that socialism is going to solve all predicaments of the human race. We are struggling in the first instance with the predicaments that are of man's making and that man can resolve. May I remind you that Trotsky, for instance, speaks of three basic tragedies—hunger, sex, and death—besetting man. Hunger is the enemy that Marxism and the modern labor movement have taken on.

"Yes, socialist man will still be pursued by sex and death; but we are convinced that he will be better equipped than we are to cope even with these. And if his nature remains aggressive, his society will give him immeasurably greater and more varied opportunities than bourgeois man has for sublimating his instinctual drives and turning them to creative uses.... The average member of socialist society may yet rise, as Trotsky anticipated, to the stature of Aristotle, Goethe, Marx.... And we assume that 'above these heights new peaks will rise.' We do not see in socialist man evolution's last and perfect product, or the end of history, but in a sense only the beginning of history." •

Women's History Month-The Pankhursts-Suffrage and Socialism

March Is Women's History Month

The following is an article originally from Women and Revolution, Summer 1976 that may be of interest to the radical public. I have addressed the subject of the Pankhursts elsewhere in this space so google for my take on this fascinating and contradictory family.

The Pankhurst-Suffrage and Socialism

In 1894 Emmeline Pankhurst and her husband, Dr. Richard Marsden Pankhurst, who had been moving in the direction of socialism for some time, joined the tiny, newly formed Independent Labour Party (ILP) of Britain. Mrs. Pankhurst was initially too shy to speak in public, but, encouraged by her husband—a longtime radical who had founded the Women's Suffrage Society of Manchester when Emmeline was only a child of seven—she eventually began giving talks at socialist meetings. After his death in 1898 she continued to be an active member of the party and served as an ILP member of the Manchester School Board.

It was not until 1903 that a small group of ILP women met in Mrs. Pankhurst's home and formed the male-exclusionist Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) and not until 1907 that the WSPU initiated an independent election campaign, with Mrs. Pankhurst declaring that although she had, been "loyal to Socialism on every point," she would surrender her ILP card if forced to choose.

Sheila Rowbotham, a supporter of the British International Socialists, has concluded from this early history of Emmeline Pankhurst and the WSPU—a history which has recently been much popularized by the book and television series Shoulder to Shoulder— that "there was a close connection between feminism and socialism in the early years of this century and the divorce between the two was long, painful and protracted."

Nothing could be further from the truth. The counterposed ideologies of feminism and socialism came into conflict in England, as elsewhere, very early (see "Feminism vs. Marxism: Origins of the Conflict," Women and Revolution No. 5, Spring 1974). Only the relative social quiescence of turn-of-the-century England obscured for a brief time the contradiction between revolutionary socialism and reformist feminism and permitted the rise of the "socialist-feminist" illusion. But with the impending war and the sharpening of class antagonisms, women found that they were, indeed, forced to choose. As one "socialist-feminist" of the period, who had labored in vain to link the autonomous feminist movement to the socialist movement, complained: "...the women's branded by many as a middle class affair, possessing no fundamental connection with the Labour movement...."

By the outbreak of World War I, when the WSPU, in a paroxysm of chauvinist exuberance, changed the name of its newspaper from the Suffragette to Britannia, while at the same time the East London Federation of Suffragettes, headed by Mrs. Pankhurst's left-leaning daughter Sylvia, changed the name of its newspaper from The Women's Dreadnought to The Workers' Dreadnought, the implications of the choice had become inescapably clear. And when, a few years later, Mrs. Pankhurst journeyed to Russia in a last-ditch effort to save the crumbling Kerensky government from the Bolsheviks, while Sylvia made the same trip shortly thereafter in order to meet with the victorious Lenin and hammer out a revolutionary strategy for England, the consequences of this choice were carried to their logical conclusion.

The story of Mrs. Pankhurst and her daughters is the history of "socialist-feminism" split asunder in the face of social crises. Those who subscribe to this illusion in our own time would do well to study this history with great care. Contemporary socialists and feminists are already driven apart by the necessity of choosing between solidarity with women of all classes or solidarity with workers of both sexes; between "affirmative action" for women or defense of the hard-won union seniority system; between the autonomous organization of women or the leading participation of women as cadres of the vanguard party. The sharpening of the class struggle will demolish any remaining ambiguities and will expose the "socialist-feminist" fraud for what is is—an excuse for reformists to capitulate to backward social consciousness.

The Fork in the Road

Dr. Pankhurst had often said to his children, Christabel, Sylvia, Adela and Harry: "My children are the four pillars of my house!" Harry, frail from birth, died in 1910 at the age of 20, leaving only three, but it was not until 1914 that it became clear that the house could not stand at all.

The younger daughters, Sylvia and Adela (Adela emigrated to Australia in 1912), had always found it difficult to separate the fight for women's emancipation from the broader radical struggle of which their parents had been a part.

In 1912, despite the disapproval of her mother and her older sister Christabel, who were at the height of their power and notoriety as leaders of the militant suffrage movement, Sylvia took the struggle for' women's liberation to the poor East End section of London.

Although her East London Federation was still formally affiliated with the WSPU, it displayed an increasing sympathy toward the working-class movement, a sympathy which was openly confirmed when Sylvia appeared on a speakers' platform with ILP representative George Lansbury and Irish Marxist James Connolly, demanding the release from prison of Irish labor leader James Larkin. The Daily Herald commented;
"One great result of the militant Suffrage Movement has been to convince many people that the vote is not the best way of getting what one wants...every day the industrial rebels and the Suffrage rebels march nearer together."

The Daily Herald was wrong. Far from indicating closer collaboration between worker militants and feminists, Sylvia's Albert Hall appearance was the last straw which severed forever the links between the East London Federation and the WSPU.
Summoned to WSPU headquarters-in-exile in Paris, Sylvia was informed that the East London Federation must become a separate organization at once. The WSPU, Christabel explained, did not want to be mixed up with Lansbury, who was campaigning to extend suffrage not only to female "householders," as the WSPU was, but to all men and women. Furthermore, she said, "You have a democratic constitution for your Federation; we do not agree with that." (The WSPU was administered autocratically by Mrs. Pankhurst and her elder daughter, the members having no vote.) And finally, she said, campaigning among working women was a waste of time, since they were the least powerful of their sex. The WSPU had adopted a conscious policy since 1907 of recruiting upper-class women.

Although all parties to the split declared publicly that the new development was an "extension" of the women's movement, the Daily Sketch (7 February 1914)
raised the question:

"What are the views of Miss Sylvia Pankhurst which are 'not those of Miss Christabel Pankhurst'?"

and observed:

"It is said that Miss Sylvia Pankhurst has for a long time adopted a militant policy of her own without consulting headquarters. One point of difference is that Miss Christabel Pankhurst has issued instructions that the W.S.P.U. was to be kept independent of all political parties, while the movement led by her sister has assumed strongly Socialist sympathies. Most of Miss Sylvia Pankhurst's supporters are avowed Socialists, and Miss Pankhurst has been working in close alliance with Mr. George Lansbury and other leaders of Labour in Bow and Bromley and adjoining constituencies. "Miss Sylvia Pankhurst also established her 'People's Army' for repelling police brutality, a departure from the Union policy. A third point is that the 'Army' is open to both men and women, while the W.S.P.U. excludes men."

—quoted in Midge Mackenzie (ed.). Shoulder to Shoulder


Upon the outbreak of World War I, Mrs. Pankhurst immediately suspended all activities of the WSPU and called upon its members to serve "their" country in any
capacity they could. (Their "sister" feminists in other belligerent countries were receiving the same advice.) Despite its well-known history of militancy and anti-government terrorism, the WSPU, like all reformist organizations, was interested not in destroying the existing order but only in achieving a more privileged position within it. There was no sense in continuing to fight for the vote, said Mrs. Pankhurst, when there might no longer be a country to vote in.

In 1915, at the request of Lloyd George, then minister of munitions, and with a government grant of £3,000, the WSPU organized a huge and highly successful "Women's Right to Serve" demonstration in London for the purpose of overcoming the resistance of trade-union leaders to the mass influx of women into industry at lower wages than men. Throughout the war the feminist leaders continued to serve their government by carrying on a vigorous, often racist, pro-war campaign. Hun-hatred was whipped up in the pages of Britannia—now bearing the dedication "For King, For Country, For Freedom"—which ran detailed atrocity stories and scurrilous attacks on anyone in favor of peace and on the Foreign Office, which, according to Christabel, was riddled with pro-Germans. Suffragettes took to the streets not to fight for the vote but to bestow "white feathers of cowardice" on able-bodied men who were not in uniform.

In 1915, with the financial backing of several prominent industrialists, the WSPU initiated an "industrial peace" campaign. With the blessings of the government, veterans of the suffrage movement, including Mrs. Pankhurst, Christabel and other feminist luminaries such as Flora Drummond and Annie Kenney, toured the areas of the greatest industrial unrest—the north of England and the mining districts of south Wales, in particular—denouncing "Bolshevik" shop stewards for fomenting class war. They appealed to women workers and to the wives of workers, on the grounds that they were more practical and less vulnerable to foreign ideas than men were, to see to it that the men were not led astray by the dangerous ideas of socialists.

Sylvia, meanwhile, was becoming more radical. She had continued, although with Waning enthusiasm, to agitate for universal adult suffrage. In fact, many ex-WSPUers who were disappointed with the WSPU's abandonment of the struggle for suffrage, as well as those with socialist or pacifist sympathies, switched their allegiance to the East London Federation at this time. But as Sylvia's political consciousness developed, the suffrage issue seemed less all-consuming than it once had, and The Workers' Dreadnought began to concern itself with a much wider range of social problems—the inadequacy of government allowances to servicemen's wives, the plight of old-age pensioners, the wages and conditions of women workers, the starvation of the poor.

Sylvia not only denounced these evils and led deputations to government ministries to protest them, but, with the help of a handful of volunteers, pioneered
a number of neighborhood social services—maternity and infant clinics which provided free medical care and free milk, a day care center for working mothers, a toy
factory to provide jobs for those who objected to 'manufacturing weaponry and a Cost Price restaurant which provided cheap meals to the poor and free meals to the destitute.

At the same time/in the press and on the street, she relentlessly attacked the inter-imperialist war, demanded peace and openly denounced her mother's "bloodthirstiness." After one such anti-war demonstration on 8 April 1916, Mrs. Pankhurst, then touring the United States on behalf of the war effort, sent the WSPU a terse cable saying: "Strongly repudiate and condemn Sylvia's foolish and unpatriotic conduct. Regret I cannot prevent use of name. Make this public."

Revolution in Russia

The February revolution in Russia aroused deep concern in England that Russia might withdraw her troops from the war. On June 1, Mrs. Pankhurst requested the permission of Lloyd George, now prime minister, to visit Russia "to explain to the Russian people the opinions as to the war and the conditions of peace held by us as patriotic British women, loyal to the national and Allied cause." Permission was granted.

She met with Kerensky, the head of the Provisional Government, and advised him to take a firm line with the Bolsheviks. She reviewed the Women's Battalion of Death and pronounced it "the greatest thing in history since Joan of Arc." Created by Kerensky in a final, desperate attempt to provoke an outburst of patriotism and shame men into fighting, the battalion was to be the last defender of the Winter Palace against the Bolsheviks in October. She also intended to hold a series of mass outdoor meetings to inspire women and persuade them to fight to keep their wavering men in the war, but the government permitted her only to address small gatherings of upper-class women in private homes and to give press interviews. To one journalist from the newspaper Novoe Vremia she complained:

"".. From the very beginning of my public life I was in the ranks of Socialists, together with my husband. But I soon found how narrow were the interests with which I was concerned. I thus devoted myself to the cause of women. I consider that as a revolutionist, who has been sixteen times in prison, I deserve the sympathy of those people who have been at the head of the revolution in Russia." —quoted, Ibid.

She did, in fact, have the sympathy of many government officials. Statesmen and ambassadors called on her, prominent families welcomed her and the bourgeois press devoted considerable space to her visit. "Her patriotism," rhapsodized one journalist, "is impersonal and nationalistic, able to lift the soul to the highest summits of morality. She is a new woman."

At the series of meetings arranged for her, she spoke to the ladies of Petrograd about the Women's Battalion of Death. If these women were willing to risk their lives on the battlefield, she said, then the women remaining at home should be willing to risk their lives on the streets. Whenever a Bolshevik orator called for a separate peace or the cessation of fighting, an educated woman ought to oppose such sentiments. Furthermore, women ought to storm the Soviets all over Russia and force the men to support Kerensky and the Provisional Government in rallying the army to defeat the Germans (this despite her privately expressed opinion that Kerensky was a weakling and that only General Kornilov could save the situation).

She was in Moscow when the Bolsheviks took power, an event which she characterized as the disastrous madness of the illiterate masses deluded by the "machinations of German agents." Realizing that there was no further hope of Russia's assistance in the war, she returned to England where she demanded armed intervention into Russia to help "loyal" (to capitalism) elements there to restore order and resurrect the war effort. In 1918 and 1919, again with the backing of the British government, she toured the United States and Canada, then at the height of a hysterical red scare, lecturing on the evils of Bolshevism, which, she argued, was closely related to venereal disease, both being the results of a mistaken and promiscuous flouting of traditional decencies.

If Mrs. Pankhurst viewed Bolshevism as a debilitating disease, Sylvia saw it now as a "pure white flame," burning the old regime to the ground and clearing the way for a new society.

Since 1917, Sylvia had been admonishing the East End poor to follow the example of their Russian brothers— to rise up and smash the government, form themselves into Soviets and prepare for the real struggle which was just beginning. Invited to address the Irish Women's Franchise League in London, she startled her audience by advising them to forget about tinkering with parliamentary reforms and to propagandize instead for the seizure of farms and factories and for the establishment of workers Soviets. Although Irish nationalism like the suffrage movement might appear revolutionary, she warned, it was, in fact, riddled with reaction.

The stated aim of her East London Federation of Suffragettes—now renamed the Workers' Socialist Federation (WSF)—was international working-class revolution. "I am proud," she declared, "to call myself a Bolshevist."

Although sometimes pelted with garbage by hostile East Enders, she found a ready audience among the miners in south Wales, the midlands and the north of England and among the dockers and factory workers of "red" Clydeside.

In July 1919 Sylvia set out her political views in a long letter to Lenin: The Labour Party, which was full of Christian Socialists like Lansbury and pathetic office-seekers like Ramsey McDonald, had proven itself untrustworthy. There was no point in looking to Parliament even for significant reforms; the working class must form its own instruments of government. Only her own Workers' Socialist Federation, the Shop Stewards' Movement and the South Wales Socialist Society, she wrote, could be counted on not to compromise.

Lenin's reply, although tactfully phrased, was critical. While the Shop Stewards' Movement, which had direct contact with the workers and could stimulate and 'exploit strike actions, seemed promising, he was afraid that the other groups, including the WSF, were too small, too intellectual and too bourgeois. To undermine socialist solidarity and obstruct the formation of a unified Communist Party over the issue of whether or not to affiliate with the Labour Party and participate in
Parliament would be a mistake and a sign of political immaturity. "We Russians," he concluded, "who have lived through two great revolutions, know the importance of carrying on Soviet propaganda from inside the bourgeois parliaments."

Sylvia was not persuaded. She not only refused to take part in a communist unity conference scheduled for July 1920 but announced in The Workers Dreadnought one month beforehand that the WSF had changed its name to The Communist Party (British Section of the Third International), an act which was openly rebuked by Lenin.
Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, which appeared shortly thereafter, was an extension of Lenin's argument with Sylvia, although the "parliamentarian controversy" to which it addressed itself had important implications for the future of communism in Germany and Italy as well as Britain. Good intentions, he asserted, were not sufficient; politics was an art that had to be learned. British communists, he maintained, should apply for affiliation with the Labour Party. "Comrades Sylvia Pankhurst and William Gallacher [a Scottish shop steward] are mistaken if they think that this is the betrayal of communism, the abandonment of the struggle against social traitors. On the contrary, the communist revolution stands to gain a great deal by it."

Knowing that Lenin's position was certain to be discussed at the Second Congress of the Third International scheduled to begin in Moscow on July 15, Sylvia was determined to attend and argue her case. Denied visas by the embassies of the countries through which she had to travel, she crossed the Arctic Sea in a small fishing boat and arrived in Moscow only a few days before the conference was to end. Sylvia's biographer David Mitchell describes the confrontation:

"Lenin sent for her almost immediately to take part in the Commission on English Affairs then sitting in the Kremlin.... Lenin's charm worked powerfully upon her. He greeted her eagerly, and seemed 'more vividly vital and energetic, more wholly alive, than other people.'... The picture of an arrogant, bureaucratic bully which she had formed vanished in the presence of the original. The pathos and courage of the revolution, too, was pressing upon her, changing her perspective. Trotsky had just returned from the still active Polish front. The White invaders were still on Russian soil. Sylvia understood the need for discipline.... The great clash did not take place. For the moment, Sylvia was utterly disarmed. "Lenin gave her the place of honour on his right at the committee table. She and Gallacher restated their objections to his thesis. Lenin bantered them. Why so heated? It was only a question of tactics, of the most expedient way to put principles into practice.... If the decision to affiliate to the Labour Party and infiltrate Parliament proved wrong, it could always be changed. Left wingers like Sylvia would be needed to keen a close watch on the 'tacticians' and see that first principles were not swamped in a sea of expediency. "Sylvia could not quarrel with this. Lenin was able to announce to the conference, assembled in the Throne Room, that agreement was now complete: even the British, even Sylvia, had seen reason. Delegates sprang to their feet singing the Internationale, seized Lenin and hoisted him on their shoulders. 'He looked/ wrote Sylvia, 'like a happy father among his sons.'"

—David Mitchell, The Fighting Pankhursts

But unity did not last. In a Dreadnought editorial in August 1921 Sylvia again attacked the Communist Party of Great Britain for reformism and opportunism and ridiculed Zinoviev's optimistic estimate of the effectiveness of communist nuclei in the trade unions. "Let us hear from you, O communist nuclei," she taunted. Shortly afterward she received a letter from the party executive committee demanding that she cease using the Dreadnought to subvert party unity. She responded that controversies within the international communist movement were signs of healthy development and that by studying and participating in them members would grow in knowledge and political experience. But the Workers Dreadnought was not an internal bulletin, and the public airing of all controversies taking place within the fledgling Third International served only to increase its vulnerability.

Unable to come to terms with this elementary requirement of democratic centralism, Sylvia was expelled. Her failure to grasp the necessity for party discipline was, in reality, part of a larger failure to understand the essential role of the vanguard party, stemming from a deep-seated social-workerist fantasy that with sufficient energy, courage and sacrifice she could substitute herself for the party. "I do not regret my expulsion," she wrote."... I desire freedom to work for communism with the best that is in me. The party could not chain me."

King, Christ or Communism?

The Dreadnought ceased publication in 1924, and Sylvia and her companion, Silvio Corio, retired for a time to suburban Woodford Green where she wrote books and articles while earning her living as proprietor of a small cafe. But three years later, after Christabel had abandoned politics entirely to await the second coming of Christ and Mrs. Pankhurst, following a successful career as a paid anti-communist agitator, announced her intention to run for Parliament as a Tory, Sylvia was still able to say (in a letter to the editor of the socialist periodical Forward, January 1927):

"... For my part I rejoice in having enlisted for life in the socialist movement, in which the work of Owen, Marx, Kropotkin, William Morris and Keir Hardie, and such pioneering efforts as those of my father, Richard Marsden Pankhurst,...are an enduring memory.... I feel it is incumbent upon me, in view of this defection, to reaffirm my faith in the cause of social and international fraternity...."

Mrs. Pankhurst's "conversion" to Toryism was the subject of much controversy, but she saw no inconsistency whatever between conservatism and feminism. The general strike of 1926, she told reporters, had convinced her that anyone who had the true interests of women at heart must stand firmly behind Stanley Baldwin's Conservative government. The class war, "that foreign importation," must be replaced, she said, by unity and cooperation between labor and management; and women, in defense of the institutions in which they were now included and in defense of their families, would see to it that the Labour Party was never allowed to form another government. Speaking at the Ladies' Carlton Club, she proclaimed:

"I joined the Conservative Party because I believe that today there are only two parties—the Constitutional Party, represented by Mr. Baldwin and the Conservatives, and the Revolutionary Party. If you can only convince the ordinary woman that her home is threatened, her religion is threatened, and even her security in marriage is threatened, then we shall have her support...." —Mitchell, op. cit.

Indeed, in the absence of a revolutionary leadership struggling for women's freedom through proletarian revolution, women's atomization in the home and isolation from the productive process make women a backward section of the working masses. History offers numerous examples of the mobilization of women by the forces of reaction through the manipulation of their fears concerning the welfare of their homes and families. Mrs. Pankhurst's own "industrial peace" campaign had been a case in point.

Pillars of the British Empire

Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw, annoyed by Sylvia's incessant attacks on the Labour Party, had once advised her to stick to her welfare projects and forget politics, since she "could not even convert her mother and Christabel." Now these notorious "militants" (Mrs. Pankhurst had been fond of introducing herself to American audiences as "what you would call a 'hooligan'") had been "converted" into pillars of the British Empire.

Sylvia, it is true, went through a number of political transformations, as well, and ended her days as an esteemed supporter of the "Lion of Judah," Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, but these changes necessitated her breaking with Lenin, with the Communist International and with the ideology of international proletarian revolution, whereas her mother and elder sister were able to embrace king and Christ, respectively, without breaking from a single feminist position!

Feminism leads at best to some broader variant of reformism. In the case of the two best-known feminists in British history, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, it led in a logical and traceable line directly to right-wing imperialism and the church. •

Monday, March 03, 2008

Women's History Month-Witchcraft and Statecraft

March is Women's History Month

The following is an article from the journal Women and Revolution, Autumn 1974. This is a subject that has always interested me as a part of the question of the transformation from feudalism to early capitalism. Obviously the subject has received more updated coverage but the political points in the article are relevant to any such study. Also check the bibliography for a decent start to any scholarly interest on the subject.

Witchcraft and Statecraft: A Materialist Analysis of the European Witch Persecutions by D.L.Reissner, Women and Revolution, Autumn 1974

Several years have elapsed since the heyday of feminist organizations with names like W.I.T.C.H. (Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) and Red Witch, but many feminists have continued to identify themselves with witches, as is attested to by several recently published articles, including "Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women Healers" by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English and "What Were Those Witches Really Brewing?", by Andrea Dworkin which appeared in the April issue of Ms. This identification rests apparently on the feminists' view of witches as early prototypes of the liberated woman, although a little research of witch practices could seriously weaken this assumption. For example, each coven (local organization) of twelve witches was presided over by a man who played the role of the Devil, and it was standard practice at sabbats (witches' meetings) that each witch showed her respect to him by kissing his posterior and penis; this was known as the "kiss of shame." Furthermore, no sabbat was complete until the "Devil" had engaged in sexual intercourse with all 12 witches.

It is not surprising that the history of European witchcraft and witch persecutions (the New England witch trials, which occurred on a relatively small scale and in a different social context at the very end of the European witch craze, must be considered separately) should evoke great interest among people concerned with women's liberation, because it is a segment of the history of the oppression of women which is virtually unparalleled in its scope, duration and intensity. As Marxists, however, we approach this history in a way which is different both from the approach of feminists and from that of most other bourgeois historians whose analyses tend to be psychological, anthropological or merely romantic.

The European witch craze must be viewed as one component in the complex economic, social and political dynamic which transformed European civilization in the period between the 13th and 17th centuries and which included the rise of capitalism and the emergence of Protestantism. Of particular significance to an understanding of the witch craze was the consolidation of modern territorial nation-states during this period, for, as this article will seek to show, the witch craze was in the first instance an attempt to deal with the problem of socially inassimilable peoples in the face of this national consolidation.

Witches Have Not Always Been Persecuted

Ever since the 18th century there has been a tendency to regard European history from the Renaissance onward as inevitably progressive. Yet the same era which witnessed the flowering of Renaissance culture also produced the witch craze—a mania of terror and repression unknown in the so-called "Dark" Ages. Estimates vary, but the most conservative concede that at least 30,000 persons lost their lives as witches during this time—85 percent of them women.

Now that belief in the efficacy of witchcraft has become less, fashionable in this part of the world, there is a tendency to dismiss it as nothing more than a delusion of a few unbalanced minds, but witch practices have existed since ancient times and among all peoples. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of witchcraft is the uniformity of its practice in widely separated countries and civilizations. In India, just as in England, the cat is believed to be the witch's familiar, and in ancient Italy the evil eye was dreaded as it is in many parts of Africa today and was guarded against by the same symbol.

When religions establish themselves in new territories, the god or gods of the old religion become the devils (the word "devil," derived from the same root
as "divine," means "little god") of the new. Then fortune-telling, the special province of the witch or wise woman, which had been called prophecy when it
had been done in the name of the established religion, is designated as witchcraft. And so it was when Christianity superseded the older totemic cults of
Western Europe—cults which had honored female sexuality as the embodiment of the regenerative power of nature.

While the Church was formally opposed to these relics of paganism which continued to exist alongside Christianity, it found it politic, given their broad popular appeal, to accommodate itself to them in practice or even to co-opt them. In fact when in 1257 the Dominican Order, which had been established to combat the Albigensian and Vaudois heresies, uncovered witch practices in Southern France and requested that Pope Alexander DC grant it jurisdiction over witches as well as heretics, he refused. Not for another 200 years were the Dominicans to have their way unobstructed by the Catholic Church.

The Church based its position on the Canon Episcopi, a document dating back to the ninth century at least, which attempted to minimize the importance of witch practices not through persecution—Charlemagne had declared the burning of witches a capital crime as early as 785 AJD.—but through denying the very existence of witches and ridiculing belief in them:

"Some -wicked women, reverting to Satan, and seduced by the illusions and phantasms of demons, believe and profess that they ride at night with Diana on certain beasts, with an innumerable company of women, passing over immense distances, obeying her command as their mistress, and evoked by her on ‘certain nights.... Therefore priests everywhere should preach that they know this to be false, and that such phantasms are sent by the Evil Spirit, who deludes them in dreams. Who is there who is not led out of himself in dreams, seeing much in sleeping that he never saw in waking? And who is such a fool that he believes that to happen in the body which is done only in the spirit?"

As late as the 12th century, John of Salisbury continued to dismiss the idea of the witches' sabbat as a fabulous dream. Yet this skeptical toleration was soon to give way to the hysteria of the witch craze, and woe to the occasional skeptic then, for he too would rapidly fall under suspicion.

The horror of the persecutions—the carefully refined tortures, the sexual degradation, the unspeakable anguish which wrung from the victims accusations against their friends, spouses and children—these are well documented and need not be elaborated here. Suffice it to say that at the height of the witch craze the intensity of the persecutions was such that in at least two villages in Germany only one woman was left alive.

Pessimism 0f Protestantism?

Given the fact that witchcraft had existed more or less undisturbed since ancient times, an analysis of the witch persecutions turns upon the answer to the question of why they erupted at the particular moment which they did.

The historical context in which the craze reached its height was one of unprecedented social upheaval. This was the period of the Hundred Years' War, the
rise of capitalism, the consolidation of nation-states, the Black Death, the discovery of the' New World, the Protestant Reformation and a series of religious,
wars so devastating that some historians contend that the European economy has not yet recovered from them. Such periods of social disturbance always give
rise to increased superstitions and unorthodox beliefs, and several students of the witch craze, including Jules Michelet and Julio Caro Baroja, claim that it grew out of the catastrophes of the 14th century and the widespread pessimism which these
catastrophes engendered.

Michelet points, out that while witchcraft had been practiced for hundreds of years, certain of its aspects, including the pact with the devil, did not appear before the 14th century. The reason for this, he argues, is that before this times people had not been sufficiently desperate to conceive of such a thing, but with the coming of an age in which the peasant was for the first time' required to pay quit-rents (rents paid in lieu of obligatory feudal services) and taxes in money, the concept of a pact with the devil became extremely attractive. Says Michelet:

"The pact required an age in which Hell itself appeared as a shelter, an asylum, a relief, as contrasted with the Hell of this world."

But while belief in witchcraft within primitive and modern societies 'alike increases as a result of social catastrophe and pessimism, this is clearly inadequate as the sole explanation for 400 years of terror. As the historian H.R. Trevor-Roper points out, the craze gathered force before either the Black Death or the Hundred Years' War had begun and-continued for two centuries after they were over—centuries marked by general recovery and expansion.

Another explanation often put forward for the outbreak of witch persecutions in this period is that they were a peculiarly Protestant phenomenon and arose therefore as a result of the Protestant Reformation.

It is true that both Luther and Calvin professed belief in witches and declared that they should be burned, and it is also true that the pattern of the witch persecutions coincided closely with the course of the religious wars, both on the Continent and in Britain, but there is no more basis for linking the craze with Protestantism than with Catholicism. It was in fact a product of the conflict between them. The Protestants carried the witch craze to the countries which they conquered for the Reformation while the Catholic Jesuits introduced it equally into the countries which they reconquered for Rome, including Bavaria, the Rhineland, Flanders and Poland. Toulouse, the capital of the witch burners, was a great center of Catholic orthodoxy. It is also noteworthy that it was the Protestant rather than the Catholic countries which took the lead in bringing the witch craze to a halt. By 1700 England and Holland had long since abandoned the persecution of witches on a large scale while the Catholic prince-bishops of Germany were still 'burning them by the score.

Since Protestants supposedly rejected all doctrine which the corrupt papacy had added to the Bible and the writings of the early Church Fathers, they should have logically rejected the dendrology of the Inquisition as well. In fact, this point was raised repeatedly by isolated Protestant critics, but without effect. Although they frequently burned Catholics as witches, the Protestant witch hunters continued to refer approvingly to the Dominican handbook of the witch craze, the Malleus Malificarum, Catholic inquisitors returned the compliment by citing Protestant authorities on the subject such as Erastus and Daneau. In other words, although the witch persecutions waxed and waned in direct proportion to the degree of religious conflict in each area, they were not fundamentally the product of doctrinal differences, but rather, as Trevor-Roper convincingly argues, of social differences and specifically of the demand for social assimilation which became acute in this period.

In those instances where there wars no such demand, there were no witch persecutions. For example, at the height of the witch craze, the Swedish Lutherans discovered that the Lapps in the territory they governed were imbued with witch beliefs. The Lutheran Church took no action in this case. Since there was no desire to socially integrate the Lapp dissenters, there was likewise no compulsion to persecute them for their witch practices.

The link between the witch persecutions and the question of social assimilation is apparent from the very beginning. When the Dominicans made their discovery of witchcraft in 1257 in" the "dark corners" of Europe, i.e., the Alps and the Pyrenees, they were disturbed not by the old rural superstitions per se, which were considered harmless enough, but by the fact that they were practiced by the people of a mountain civilization which appeared quite alien to the civilization of the plains—socially, culturally, economically and probably racially. These were the people who had retreated to the hinterlands of Europe at an early period. Feudalism had never penetrated this area in more than a superficial way, and neither had Christianity. Unlike the civilization of the plains, which was based on the cultivation of the land and the institution of the manor, the civilization of the mountains was pastoral and individualistic. The discovery of Witchcraft among these people must have come as no surprise to the Dominicans, yet the same practices which had been tolerated in the feudal towns and villages appeared far more ominous when viewed across an unbridgeable social chasm. The Dominicans reacted in a novel and unexpected way: they attempted to persecute the witches as heretics.

As we have seen, the papacy refused to support such persecutions at this time, but as the demand for social homogeneity became more urgent, the Dominican crusade became the wave of the future.

Witchcraft and Statecraft

The medieval concept of society had been based on an ideal of universality embodied in the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire. Despite this ideal, however, medieval political, judicial and economic institutions, operating within the confines of an agrarian economy, were almost invariably local. During the 12th and 13th centuries, however, the economic conditions which had made such local autonomy inevitable began to disappear. The revival of commerce and the growth of cities increased the circulation of money and the expansion of trade to the point at which local autonomy became financially impractical. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the feudal suzerainties of local lords were gradually transformed into absolute monarchies. Behind this enormous change lay the power of; a new social class—the growing class of capitalist entrepreneurs whose business needs had outgrown feudal social institutions and who now demanded the larger sphere of operation which only a territorial state could provide.

The welding of a nation-state—the creation of a "people" with a sense of common identity—demanded social homogeneity, including religious homogeneity. To be Spanish meant to be Catholic; to be English, Anglican. Moreover, religious homogeneity was important to emerging rulers not only because it enabled them to bind their subjects more closely and to disguise territorial aggression as holy war, but also because it enabled them to control their subjects much more effectively. The established church was in each locality an arm of the state apparatus. To the extent that there were citizens beyond its reach, they represented a threat to the newly established order.

Thus the period of the witch craze is also the period in which the Jews and Moors were expelled from Spain, the Protestants were expelled from France, the Puritans were hounded out of England and the Inquisition was at the height of its power. The conjuncture of these persecutions is hardly coincidental. They are all, at least in part, attempts to deal with the problem of socially inassimilable peoples during the ‘period of the consolidation of European nation-states. The witch craze cannot be understood apart from this larger social movement of which it was an aspect. This understanding, incidentally, was not lost on the authorities of the time, who not infrequently launched campaigns of persecution against all the stereotypes of unassimilability in their particular areas; for instance, Protestants, Jews and witches in Trier.

"Most Women are Witches"

The one aspect of the witch persecutions which did distinguish them from all other persecutions of the period was that their victims were overwhelmingly women, particularly older women between 50 and 70 years of age and very often women who were unusually independent in one way or another—widows, spinsters, midwives. Not that men were exempt from persecution, but as Jacob Sprenger, co-author of the Malleus Malificahan, wrote: "We should speak of the Heresy of the Sorceresses, not of the Sorcerers, for the latter are of small account."

The Judaeo-Christian tradition had long rationalized the social oppression of women by designating them as weak and sinful and easily tempted by the devil. The Jewish Talmud makes this clear by its statement, "Women are naturally inclined to witchcraft," and "The more women there are, the more witchcraft there will be," and again, "Most women are witches."

Christianity postulated that men were protected from becoming witches not only by virtue of their superior intellect and faith, but also because Jesus Christ had died, as it said in the Malleus, "to preserve1 the male sex from so great a crime."
Women were regarded as particularly prone to diabolical temptation not merely because they were deemed intellectually and spiritually inferior to men, but also and especially because they were believed to be sexually insatiable. La the Malleus it is woman's carnality which is offered as the ultimate proof of her predisposition to witchcraft: "All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable."
It was only this view of women which made the endless confessions of seduction by the devil plausible, for they corroborated the popular conception of the nature of female sexuality.

But this long-standing attitude does not in itself explain the outbreak of bitter misogynism which has been observed in this period. Recently published demographic findings, as historian Erik Midlefort has noted, suggest the basis for a more substantial explanation.

The European Marriage Pattern

Demographer John Hajnal has demonstrated that one of the most profound changes that Europe has ever experienced dates roughly from the 15th or 16th centuries. This is the appearance of the "European marriage pattern"—a pattern characterized by relatively late marriage and by large proportions of people who never marry. The percentage of these single people rose in this period from about five percent of the population to 15 or 20 percent.

It was this shift toward later marriage which laid the basis for the nuclear family, since in societies where there is little control over conception the age of partners at marriage is one of the most important variables bearing upon the reproduction rate. It also facilitated the Industrial Revolution by raising the average income and making it possible for savings to be devoted to improving capital assets rather than supporting population growth. Of immediate importance was the fact that for the first time in European history there was a very large percentage of unmarried women, whose ranks were further augmented by widows created by the frequent wars, plagues and emigration. (With regard to the plague, it is noteworthy that in some areas it was fatal for up to ten times as many men as women in the population, possibly because women were more bound to the home and thus less exposed to contagion.) At the same time convents, once the sole refuge of spinsters, were being dismantled in Protestant countries, and even in Catholic countries they were on the. decline.
In a society which was totally patriarchal and family-centered and which provided no social role for women outside the family, the growing numbers of single women were regarded as at least peculiar and possibly seditious, especially after the death of
their fathers removed them from patriarchal control entirely. And in fact widows and spinsters were accused of witchcraft in numbers far out of proportion to their representation in society. Of course, the fact that these women were unprotected made them more vulnerable to attack, but the essential point to be made is that it was the unprecedented existence of large numbers of women outside the protection of the family which brought them under suspicion in the first place. Aside from spinsters and widows, the women who came under attack for witchcraft most often were lay medical practitioners of one sort or another, particularly midwives. As the Malleus says:

"... as penitent witches have often told to us and to others, saying: No one does more harm to the Catholic Faith than midwives. For when they do not kill children, as if for some other purpose they take them out of the room and, raising them up in the air, offer them to devils."

Country medicine, the medicine of the poor, was often, although by no means exclusively, practiced by women, and witches were often "accused" of having the power to heal. In fact, they-did develop herbal remedies, some of which are still in use. It has also been discovered that the ointment with which they anointed themselves before "flying" to the sabbats contained hallucinogenic properties such that the feeling of "flying might indeed ensue.

Feminists Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English have made the interesting point that the rising European medical profession played an active role in suppressing all lay competition during this period, including the medicine of the "white" (good) witches, although to consider this the fundamental basis of the European witch craze is superficial, and to assert, as they do, that male and female healers were on opposite sides of a class struggle because women served the "people" while men served the ruling class is crude and inaccurate.

The Witch Craze Burns Out

In his Dictionnalre Philosophise written in 1764, Voltaire quipped:

"It is a great pity that there are no longer any persons possessed by the Devil, or magicians, or astrologers, or genii. One cannot conceive how useful all these
mysteries were a hundred years ago. In those days, the nobility lived in castles. The winter evenings were long and everyone would have died of boredom if these
noble entertainments had not been available.... Every village had its own sorcerer and witch; every prince his astrologer; all the ladies had their fortunes told;
those possessed by the Devil wandered all over the place; everyone wanted to know who had seen the Devil or who was going to see him; and all this provided an
endless topic of conversation which kept everyone in suspense. Nowadays we play insipid card games and have lost a lot by losing our illusions."

Voltaire could afford to joke for he had the good fortune to live at a time, when such jokes no longer led inescapably to the Inquisition and the stake. The
witch craze, along with other mass-forms of fanatical religious persecution, began to dissolve in both Protestant and Catholic countries in Western Europe in the mid-17th century. By this time, the wars of religion were coming to an end, territorial nation-states were more securely consolidated and the "alien" social groups within them had been for the most part either assimilated, exterminated or expelled.

Furthermore, witch beliefs seemed far less credible, among certain groups at least, during the age of science and skepticism which the commercial revolution had ushered in. The assumption that a neighbor's malice could cause physical harm had seemed more likely in a subsistence-level village where social cooperation was a vital necessity than it did in the 17th century when increased economic individualism and greater social mobility were severing the older collective ties.

Although occasional witch persecutions continued until the 1850's, and although witchcraft long remained a criminal offense in many countries, including England where it was not removed from the statute books until 22 June 1951, by the beginning of the 18th century the witch craze was unmistakably dead. It would be some time, however, before cosmopolitan wits such as Voltaire began to consider the subject amusing.


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