Communism and Marxism

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Communism and Marxism

Karl Marx's (1818–1883) writings are most closely associated with the economic and social domination associated with class, with little attention to the inequalities associated with gender. Marx had little to say directly about the system of gender domination prevalent in his own time, and he was not publicly associated with the contemporary movement for the emancipation of women—contrast his silence with the writings of John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) in The Subjection of Women (1869), for example. Nonetheless, the foundations of Marx's critique of bourgeois society provide a foundation for a socialist feminism, and these themes had great influence on communist political programs and societies in the twentieth century.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Frederick Engels (1820–1895) offered scathing polemical criticisms of the bourgeois family and the exploitation of women: "[The bourgeois] has not even a suspicion that the real point aimed at is to do away with the status of women as mere instruments of production" (Marx and Engels 1848, pp. 57). However, the critique displays little insight into the ways that gender relations and the social institutions of the family affect the life situations of women, and it fails to identify the structural ways in which women were denied access to political positions, economic opportunity, or basic components of health assurance. Engels devoted more extensive attention to issues surrounding sex, gender, and the family in his anthropological book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884). Based largely on the work of the early ethnographer Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881), Engels argues that there is great historical variety in the sexual and reproductive practices of primates and human groups. And he offers a historical hypothesis for the emergence of the paired-couple family: the emergence of private property and slavery. Neither Marx nor Engels offered a coherent statement of socialist feminism, and neither offered specific commentary or criticism of the political, social, and economic disadvantages experienced by women in nineteenth-century Europe.

However, the fundamental themes of social criticism that Marx puts forward—alienation, domination, inequality, and exploitation and a critique of the social relations that give rise to these conditions—have clear implications for a theory of gender equality and emancipation. First, Marx's theory of alienation is premised on assumptions about the nature of the human being, involving the ideas of freedom, self-expression, creativity, and sociality (Marx [1844]). The situations of everyday life in which patriarchy and sexism obtain—the situations in which existing social relations of power, authority, and dominance are assigned on the basis of gender and sex, including marriage, the family, and the workplace—create a situation of alienation and domination for women. Second, Marx's theory of exploitation (expressed primarily in Capital [1867]) extends very naturally to the social relations of patriarchy. Patriarchy and the bourgeois family system embody exploitation of women, within the household and within the workplace. Finally, Marx's strong moral commitment to the overriding importance of social equality is directly relevant to a socialist feminist critique of contemporary society. The unequal status and treatment of women is an affront to the value of human equality. Thus Marx's principles lay the ground for a formulation of a socialist feminism.

Socialist and communist theorists of the decades between the death of Marx and World War I (1914–1918) gave specific prominence to issues of women's equality. Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) gave attention to the problem of sexual inequality in bourgeois society in his journalism and in a widely read interview with the German feminist Clara Zetkin (1857–1953). Other leading communist thinkers of the decades between 1880 and 1920 also placed issues of female emancipation and women's equality at the center of the socialist agenda (e.g., Rosa Luxemburg [1870–1919], Nikolai Bukharin [1888–1938], Zetkin, Leon Trotsky [1879–1940], and Alexandra Kollontai [1872–1952]). These developments had important consequences for the policy priorities of communist governments once they seized power in Russia, China, and Cuba.

The communisms of the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba placed sexual equality at the top of the agenda for social transformation. Bolshevik political rhetoric emphasized the equality of women as a central communist goal before and during the revolution. In the 1920s the government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) undertook to establish a legal framework guaranteeing legal equality for women, including full citizenship, equal pay, and the right of divorce. A particularly important figure in Soviet efforts to create sexual equality in the new communist society was Kollontai, author of The Social Bases of the Woman Question (1908). A crucial legal document with the goal of establishing gender equality was the Code on Marriage, the Family, and Guardianship (1918). The USSR demonstrated a higher level of equality in employment and education opportunities for women than most European countries during the period (Jancar-Webster 1978).

The most militant advocacy for women's rights occurred in the early years of Soviet power. Joseph Stalin's (1879–1953) conquest of state power in 1924 brought a primary focus on the power of the Communist Party and a retreat from the leftist values of prerevolu-tionary communism—including the earlier communist advocacy for radical emancipation of women. Kollontai's strong advocacy for women's issues and her advocacy for sexual freedom for women led to her removal as a significant government voice in the 1920s. Based on a pronatalist national economic policy, Soviet policy discouraged contraception, resulting in very high rates of abortion in the 1950s through the 1970s (12 to 16 per 100 women between the ages 15 to 49 compared with U.S. rates in the range of 2 to 3 per 100 women in that same age group), and these rates only began to fall significantly in the 1990s. One should not overstate the degree of women's equality regarding politics in the USSR and China; though female participation in political organizations and offices generally exceeded that of most European and North American democracies at any given time, it fell far short of parity at any level of political activity.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) likewise placed the emancipation of women as one of its leading revolutionary goals, and CCP commanders made specific efforts to mobilize women in the base areas in the 1930s and 1940s (Chen 1986). Profeminist themes found resonance among Chinese women because there was a tradition of feminist thought in Chinese politics extending back to the May Fourth Movement (a revolutionary movement that began with student demonstrations in Beijing on May 4, 1919). A central target of Chinese efforts for establishing women's equality was the traditional family and marriage system. Arranged marriage, domination by the mother-in-law, and subordination of the wife to the authority of the husband were long-established features of Chinese society, and Chinese communists were determined to end these practices (Hinton 1966). After seizing power in 1949 the communist state undertook a series of fundamental legal reforms to establish the equality of women, including the areas of family and marriage (the Marriage Law of the People's Republic of China [PRC] was instituted in 1950), literacy and female education, electoral rights (the Electoral Law of the PRC went into effect in 1952), equality of treatment during the period of land reform, and guarantee of the right to labor outside of the household. There was also a specific and long-term effort within the CCP to develop and advance women into positions of leadership within the party, both before and after the revolution. It is generally agreed that the status of women in China has improved markedly since 1949 in terms of education, political participation, marital freedom, and economic independence (Tao, Zheng, and Mow 2004).

The Cuban revolution likewise brought systemic change for the situation of Cuban women, and Cuba became a model for the developing world in its success in ending the oppression of women. More fully even than the USSR or the PRC, Cuba succeeded both in incorporating legal equality for women into its constitution and fundamental legal system and in changing the actual outcomes for the broad population of Cuban women in virtually all segments of society. The percentages of female legislators, lawyers, doctors, scientists, and managers are among the highest in any country. Women represent a majority of Cubans in higher education—often a large majority. Female health indicators likewise show an internationally distinctive high level of attainment, with high female life expectancy and low infant mortality. Nicola Murray provides a detailed accounting of the role and status of women in postrevolution Cuba (1979).

Socialist and communist ideas thus had a large effect on progress toward greater gender equality in the twentieth century. For a mix of reasons, both ideological and political, women leaders and the issue of the equal treatment of women have had substantial influence on policies and outcomes in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba. This progress has occurred in multiple spheres in the areas of legal and constitutional declarations of equality of treatment; in the transformation of some of the basic institutions governing family, marriage, and childrearing; and in the successful provisioning of basic social goods (education, healthcare, access to economic opportunities) in a way that comes closer to establishing equality of outcomes for men and women.


Chen, Yung-fa. 1986. Making Revolution: The Communist Movement in Eastern and Central China, 1937–1945. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Engels, Frederick. 1977 [1884]. The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State: In the Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan, ed. E. B. Leacock. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Hinton, William. 1966. Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village. New York: Vintage.

Jancar-Webster, Barbara. 1978. Women under Communism. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1964 [1844]. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, ed. D. J. Struik. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1977 [1867]. Capital, Vol. 1. New York: Vintage.

Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. 1998 [1848]. The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition, ed. E. J. Hobsbawm. London: Verso.

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Murray, Nicola. 1979. "Socialism and Feminism: Women and the Cuban Revolution, Part One." Feminist Review 2: 57-73.

Murray, Nicola. 1979. "Socialism and Feminism: Women and the Cuban Revolution, Part Two." Feminist Review 3: 99-108.

Tao, Jie; Bijun Zheng; and Shirley L. Mow, eds. 2004. Holding up Half the Sky: Chinese Women Past, Present, and Future. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York.

Zetkin, Clara. 1920. "Interview with Lenin on 'The Women's Question.'" In The Lenin Anthology, ed. R. C. Tucker. New York: Norton.

                                              Daniel Little

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Communism and Marxism

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