People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Vol. XXXIV

No. 10

March 07, 2010

100 Years of March 8: Recalling Its Socialist Origins

 

Brinda Karat

 

ONE hundred years ago, on August 27 1910, the revolutionary leader Clara Zetkin along with her comrades Alexandra Kollantai and others, moved a resolution at the International Socialist Women’s Conference in Copenhagen to observe an “ International Women’s Day.” 

 

THE HISTORIC

RESOLUTION

The resolution read “ In agreement with the class conscious, political and trade union organisations of the proletariat of their respective countries, the Socialist women of all countries will hold each year a Women’s Day, whose foremost purpose it must be to aid the attainment of women’s suffrage. This demand must be held in conjunction with the entire women’s question according to socialist precepts. The Women’s Day must have an international character and is to be prepared carefully.”  The slogan accepted was ‘The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for Socialism.’ At that time no specific date for the observance was decided.

The hundred women delegates from 17 countries representing trade unions, socialist parties, working women’s clubs and including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament, unanimously adopted the resolution. The following year, 1911, as a result of the Copenhagen initiative a million men and women marched in Germany, Austria, Denmark, Switzerland and some other European countries. The date chosen was March 19 to commemorate the 1848 revolution when there was an armed uprising against the Prussian king. Describing the demonstrations Alexandra Kollantai later elected the first woman member of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party wrote “...(the demonstrations) exceeded all expectations. Germany and Austria... was one seething trembling sea of women. Meetings were organised everywhere... In the small towns and even in the villages, halls were packed so full that they had to ask male workers to give up their places for women….During the largest demonstration in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of Socialist deputies...”

In Tsarist Russia, women observed the day on the last Sunday of February (according to the Julian calendar but according to the Gregorian calendar used in the rest of the world the date was March 8. ) In America, Socialist women had already observed a National Women’s Day in 1908, the first of its kind in the world, when large demonstrations took place calling for the vote and for economic rights of women. Women workers in garment factories were staging militant strikes facing police repression and their cause was taken up as part of Women’s day celebrations. The imperialist preparations for war added a new dimension to an international day cutting across national boundaries. Women across countries called for peace against war. It was in 1913 that International Women’s day was transferred to March 8.

But the following year the world war broke out. In 1915 and 1916 although efforts were made to observe the day, the warmongers in all countries hounded those who dared to call for peace and public demonstrations were banned. According to Kollantai, the only open demonstration for March 8 that could be held in that period was in Norway when some women delegates could assemble and courageously adopt a resolution for peace.

 

WOMEN’S

DAY, 1917

Then came the great year of 1917. In Russia, the storm against the hated Tsarist rule started from the workers quarters in Petrograd when women workers started mobilising for March 8. Women workers, wives of soldiers, working class housewives, victims of hunger and the trials of war poured out on to the streets of Petrograd. They denounced the war, they demanded an end to their humiliation, they called for peace and bread. Gathering strength and passion they swept through the streets joined by workers and soldiers. It was those women demonstrations on March 8 that triggered the historic peoples upsurge heralding the beginning of the tumultuous and revolutionary events which led to the establishment of the first Socialist State in the world. The women of Petrograd and elsewhere in Tsarist Russia through their actions substantiated the comments made by Karl Marx in a 12 December 1868  letter to Ludwig Kudelmann “Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment.”

 

SUBSEQUENT

DEVELOPMENTS

In 1922, the first Workers State declared a holiday on March 8 to mark Women’s Day. That was also the year when it was first celebrated in China. The observance of the day gained momentum. In India the first time it was observed was in 1931 on the occasion of the Lahore Conference of Asian Women for Equality. A resolution demanding women’s equality and linking women’s equality to the freedom of nations was adopted.

Whereas left wing women’s organisations along with women in Socialist countries continued the tradition of observing women’s day, from the sixties onwards as the “feminist wave” hit the United States and much of Europe, the observance of the day became more widespread and finally led the United Nations to adopt a resolution in 1975, suggested by the President of  Women’s International Democratic federation (WIDF), officially declaring March 8 as International Women’s day. Today countries across the world observe March 8. While this is welcome, it also provides the ground for a dilution of the socialist origins of March 8, of its history as the symbol of struggles of women particularly working women in challenging exploitative capitalist structures. It is important to recall the socialist origins of March 8 and to prevent its cooption into a market driven celebration of frivolous femininity.

 

TWO

ASPECTS

 There are two aspects to the history of March 8 both relevant for us today. The first and most important is the early understanding of the importance of organising women workers in particular and women belonging to the working classes in general against capitalist exploitation and to fight for the Socialist alternative. The recognition of the key role that proletarian women must play in the development of women’s movements for emancipation was based on the militant actions of working class women across Europe, in Russia and in the United States. Drawn into industry in the worst possible conditions, women and children’s labour was used to make super profits. In the first volume of Capital Marx writes “The labour of women and children was therefore the first thing sought for by capitalists who used machinery. That mighty substitute for labour and labourers was forthwith changed into a means for increasing the number of wage-labourers by enrolling under the direct sway of capital, every member of the workman’s family without distinction of age or sex.” Socialist women activists were closely linked with efforts to build up organised resistance among working women against their exploitation. The first International under the leadership of Marx and Engels gave specific directions to all its branches to fight for workers rights including women workers and issued a detailed questionnaire to gain proper information to formulate the demands. These included an eight hour day for reforms in the slave like working conditions of women and children. Marx’s daughter Eleanor played an active role in building organisations of working women in the factories of East London. In 1888 London match girls who made up the entire workforce in the industry from young teenagers to grandmothers struck work. Trade unions supported them and they won major concessions giving a big boost to women workers organisations and movements. In the United States garment and textile workers similarly were organising themselves with the support of Socialist women winning several struggles. These struggles intensified at the beginning of the century and provided the backdrop to the March 8 observance. The core of the observance was to highlight the fight against capitalism and the crucial role of working women in that fight.

Writings of Socialist women at the time also point to the Herculean efforts that they had to make to convince their male comrades of the importance of a separate observance for women which was often termed as a move which would divide the working class. In the event they succeeded. Later in 1920, Lenin in his famous conversations with Zetkin scathingly criticised those within the socialist organisations and trade unions who did not recognise the importance of approaching women as women within the working classes. Those lessons are equally relevant today.

In the neo-liberal framework we know that women of the working classes and the working poor, including in rural India, are the worst affected. The core ideology of retreat of the State and reliance on the market has led to high inflation rates, unemployment, retrenchments and low wages, all of which have hurt women badly reflected in high levels of malnutrition among women and girl children. Where women are organising themselves, resistance is growing and indeed women make up a substantial number of the mobilisations of the poor for their rights in various struggles. This requires focused and specific efforts. 

A second equally significant development was taking place. Under the leadership of liberal bourgeois women’s organisations and groups a militant women’s movement for the political vote for women was sweeping Britain and the United States and some European countries. Known as the suffragette movement, educated women from the bourgeoisie took to the streets in militant actions for the vote. What should be the Socialist women’s approach to the movement?  A hundred years later the answer seems obvious. But at that time, Socialist women led by Clara Zetkin had to wage a strong battle within the ranks of the Socialists to have a resolution adopted to support women’s right to vote on equal terms as men. Voices at that time within the second International opposed the demand saying it would lead to a strong backlash from the Church and would unnecessarily hinder the movements of the workers who were also fighting for the right to vote which was granted in most countries only to the propertied classes. Others questioned the timing of the demand saying it would divide the workers who would take time to recognise the legitimacy of the demand. Still others felt it would be diversionary and falling into the trap of the ruling classes who wanted to deflect attention from class struggle. All these differing opinions came out in the open at the time of the first meeting in 1907 of Socialist women in Stuttgart preceding the 1910 meeting in Copenhagen where the March 8 resolution was adopted. The 1907 Stuttgart meeting was attended by 58 women. They were expected to adopt a resolution and then place it in the wider meeting of the Second International which was being held at the same time attended by over 900 delegates. It was in this respect that the intervention of women leaders like Clara Zetkin who clearly spelt out the links between class struggle and taking that struggle forward through the exercise of the vote and the direct participation of the masses of women in democratic processes was so significant. Just because women of elite classes raise a demand does not mean that the demand has no relevance to the working classes, on the contrary women with socialist consciousness must intervene in the struggle and make the democratic right to vote an instrument to turn against the ruling classes. This argument won the day and the resolution for socialist support to the universal right to vote without distinction  was passed by 47 votes against 11. The main conference also accepted the resolution and henceforth all Socialists were bound to support women’s struggles for the vote. It was in this background that we understand the significance of the slogan given at the time of the adoption of the historic resolution for the observance of March 8 in 1910 “the vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for Socialism.’  Just ten years later, one of the first steps taken by the Constituent Assembly which took power after the overthrow of the tsar was to grant women in Russia the unconditional right to vote, becoming the first country to do so. At the present time when there is much discussion on the Women’s reservation Bill and the increase of reservation from 33 per cent to 50 per cent in panchayats and local bodies, the relevance of being able to use these opportunities to highlight the utter bankruptcy of the capitalist system in so many respects needs to be emphasised.

These two aspects of the March 8 observance, namely the economic and the political intertwined to form a solid platform for action which influenced large masses of women which went beyond the times in which the call was given. The 100 women assembled in Copenhagen could hardly have imagined that their call for an international women’s day would resonate through the world even 100 years later. The relevance of the nature of the initiative remains as significant as it was then.

 

CONTEMPORARY

SIGNIFICANCE

The struggle against capitalism and in particular its relentless drive for super profits in the neo-liberal framework is more urgent than ever. The drive for militarisation, the violence of war and aggression of the imperialist powers recall the need for the kind of heroic mobilisations of women across national boundaries against the first world war. Unfortunately and deeply regrettably, the de-ideologisation of contemporary women’s movements led by “feminist” groups in different countries have played into capitalist driven cultures which denigrate organised resistance and women’s collective action as outdated and unnecessary. An earlier initiative taken by some Canadian women’s groups who had organised a platform of over 100 women’s organisations in many countries called the World March of Women focussed against imperialism and the impact of globalisation on the lives of women. But it weakened with the focus shifting to issues connected with female sexuality mainly on the rights of homosexual and lesbian groups. The right of a woman over her own body and expression of her sexual preferences has become the key issue, interpreted in a narrow way for a substantial section of women activists including in India. They do not see these issues as part of a wider social problem. Conversely, they present all other problems as appendages to the issues concerning women’s sexuality which to them is the main social contradiction through which all others are affected. They refuse to see the class forces which subordinate women in new ways. Under imperialist globalisation we are seeing new forms of women’s subordination and sexual oppression and exploitation. The exponential increase in trafficking, in the sale of children for sex, in the increasing number of women being forced into prostitution due to war, displacement, poverty. This requires a concerted and united movement against imperialist aggression, against the international powerful drug and mafia lobbies which operate with political patronage. In India the most medieval forms of honour killings flourish within a continuing caste system. Certainly Indian women’s movements will have to confront the caste system in any strategy for women’s emancipation. In other words if we have to fight against the most blatant and brutal forms of control over a woman’s body as shown in the reactionary fatwas of caste panchayats against women (and men) who dare to challenge caste boundaries in questions of personal relations, we have to take into account the socio-economic conditions, such as the caste system. Unfortunately those who see themselves as champions of women’s autonomy are unable to see these crucial links and in their hostility to organised leftwing women’s mobilisations prove themselves to be on the side of the establishment. 

 

CONCLUSION

International Women’s day is a symbol of the struggle for women’s emancipation against the shackles of capitalism and the patriarchal cultures it strengthens. We know that in India at the stage of democratic demands and struggles we need to mobilize the widest sections of women on a platform for equality. At the same time we also know that such mobilizations can be successful only if they have as their core the voices and demands of the oppressed and exploited working women, the dalits, tribals, the crores of women in the rural and urban unorganized sector who make up the mass of the Indian women and who have the highest stakes in changing the present system of inequalities. On this March 8, celebrating 100 years of its observance we must pledge to take that struggle forward.

 

Long Live March 8

Long Live Clara Zetkin