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Maoism and the Family



[First printed in Women & Revolution #7, Autumn 1974]


Although the "socialist"-feminists, who constitute most of what remains of the women's liberation movement today, cannot bring themselves to support the elementary Leninist concept of a vanguard party to lead an international proletarian revolution, they have found less difficulty in flaunting their "socialism" by supporting Maoism -- generally unserious or "marshmallow Maoism. But recently some of the "harder" Maoist groupings are finding it easier to make organizational gains among feminists as well. Most successful of all is the right-Maoist October League (OL), which has shown the greatest capacity for opportunist adaptation, a capacity which has assisted it in outstripping the equally right wing but somewhat less flexible Revolutionary Union (RU) in this arena.


What is the appeal of Maoism for feminists? Above all, it reflects the continuation of a current in the New Left from which the radical women's liberation movement emerged, a current of liberalism and idealism which sought to effect social change not through class struggle but through moral persuasion. Thus, the RYM faction of SDS, from which both the OL and the' RU are descended, appealed to whites to give up their "white skin privilege" and to men to give up male supremacy. Correct consciousness, according to this view, was sufficient to end the historic sexual and racial divisions fostered by capitalism within the working class.


New Left Maoism' initially featured a "Third Worldist" outlook, which downplayed the role of the working class and looked instead to various oppressed groups such as the peasantry of underdeveloped countries as the key to revolutionary leadership. While Maoism continues to reject the centrality of the working class to this day, workerism -- the glorification of existing working-class consciousness -- is becoming increasingly popular, and the more farsighted of the Maoist organizations have been quick to discern this trend and adapt to it. Thus the "socialist"- feminists, who are only now turning to workerism in large numbers, can look for Ieadership to the OL and the RU which made this turn earlier.


Reinforcing the new popularity of Maoism among feminists is also the appeal of China itself, where women who were surely among the most oppressed on earth have been afforded many new opportunities as a result of scial revolution.


But despite this attempt at peaceful coexistence between Maoists and feminists, there are serious unresolved differences between them. That these differences have often remained suppressed is due largely to the dishonest approach of the Maoists, who take pains to conceal their politics. The most outstanding of these differences centers on the question of the family, a question on which Maoists hold a position which is at odds both with feminism and with socialism.


Maoists Defend the Family


While most feminists recognize that the family, which isolates women from society and confines them to a lifetime of what Lenin described as "the most stultifying, the most difficult work which women could do… utterly inconsequential, containing no .elements that can aid in women's development" is the principal institution for the oppression of women, Maoists of all tendencies defend the family as "the fighting unit for socialism .. " This reactionary position, which originated with Stalin, has nothing whatsoever in common with Marxism-Leninism, which seeks to free women from the endless drudgery and isolation imposed upon them by the family structure by creating alternative institutions which would perform collectively the work now performed privately by women in the family.


Despite their supposedly sharp differences on the woman question, both the OL and the RU engage the glorification of the bourgeois family unit. The OL asserts that "for the working class and other progressive forces in society today, children are not a 'burden'... " The RU concurs and adds that in spite of all its admittedly negative features, the nuclear family, should not be criticized because:


“ … for many working people, the family provides one of life's few bright spots. Despite the many difficulties of raising children under capitalism, including financial hardships and real fears for their health and safety, the proletariat loves its children and does all it can to enable them to ‘have a better life than I did.'”


Revolution, March 1974


These sentimental portraits are clearly at variance with the reality of most family relationships in capitalist society where, as the Russian Bolshevik Party correctly pointed out, "it is the street which brings up the children of the proletariat." Furthermore, the focus on, "'my" children and "my" children's future which the RU applauds, denotes not class consciousness but a proprietary relationship which is a barrier to class consciousness. It is precisely this exclusive concern with protecting the interests of one's own immediate family which persuades workers to avoid the risks of class struggle and which makes housewives especially vulnerable to reactionary ideologies.


Marx and Engels had harsh words for those who peddled “bourgeois claptrap about the family, and education, about the hallowed co-relation of parent and child”, and the 'Soviet Republic under Lenin struggled to expand the very definition of the word “family” to embrace the whole of society so that one would speak ,no longer of "my" children” or "your" children, but only "our" children -- all the children of the workers state. As Bolshevik Commisar Alexandra Kollontai wrote:


“The narrow and exclusive affection of the mother for her own children must expand until it embraces all the children of the great proletarian family. In place of the indissoluble marriage based on the servitude of women, we shall see the rise of the free union, fortified by the love and the mutual respect of the two members of the Workers' State, equal in their rights and in their obligations. In place of the individual and egotistic family, there will arise a great universal family of workers, in which all the workers, men and women, will be above all workers, comrades. Such will be the relation between men and women in the communist society of tomorrow.”


Alexandra Kollontai, "Communism and the Family"


The Communist Manifesto makes it clear that the family must be replaced as the economic and legal unit of society if women are to be free to develop their full social potential, and this is as strikingly correct today as it was over a hundred years ago. Surely the OL and the RU are aware or the Marxist-Leninist position on this question. How then can these groups, which claim to be Marxist-Leninist, continue to peddle this "bourgeois claptrap"?


Why Maoists Must Deviate From Marxism


There are two fundamental reasons why Maoists must deviate from Marxism. First as Stalinists and in particular as defenders of the Chinese bureaucracy, they are forced to defend a society in which the family unit remains the basic economic unit. The Chinese Revolution was led not by a Leninist party at the head of the Chinese working class but by a Stalinist, petty bourgeois party at the head of a peasant based army. Because of exceptional historical circumstances, this petty-bourgeois leadership was able to overturn capitalism in China and to establish a deformed workers state, i.e. a state not qualitatively different from that which issued out of the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union. Trotskyists therefore call for the unconditional military defense of the gains of the Chinese Revolution --  particularly nationalized property -- against imperialist attack. At the same time, however, we call for a political revolution led by the Chinese working class to overthrow the ruling caste which undermines those gains and seeks to sell them out.


As in all degenerated and deformed workers states (including the Soviet Union, Cuba, North, Vietnam and Yugoslavia) women have been granted formal equality in many areas but have remained enslaved by domestic labor within the family. The key to any understanding of the interrelationship between the deformed workers state and the family lies precisely in the fact that the bourgeoisie has been smashed and the means of production nationalized, the working class has been politically expropriated.  The state is administered by a bureaucratic caste which, in order to maintain its undemocratic rule, must, among other things, rely upon and foster the nuclear family as one more, point for reinforcing respect for authority.


The maintenance of the family also represents a capitulation to the peasantry. Unlike the working class, for whom the family plays no necessary economic role, the class interests of the peasantry are essentially limited to consolidating the private ownership of small plots of land and this requires the maintenance of the family structure. It is precisely for this reason that the working class and only the working class will lead the struggle for women's emancipation.


The second and equally significant reason why Maoists must deviate from Marxism on the question of the family is that Maoists, despite all their rhetoric about revolution being the main trend in the world today, the future being bright and so on, have absolutely no confidence in the revolutionary capacity of the working class. And lacking this confidence, they have no real interest in raising the consciousness of the working class, but only in tailing its existing backward consciousness. Why put forward revolutionary ideas such as the replacement of the family when such ideas may "turn people off"? Someday it may be possible to slowly introduce these ideas -- but not now.


The Trotskyist alternative is not, of course, to raise the slogan "Smash the family!" This would be absurd for, as Trotsky, pointed out, "the family cannot be abolished, it has to be replaced" and there is nothing to replace it under capitalism. But without a correct analysis of the role of the family in class society, we cannot even begin to understand the dynamic of women's oppression. It Is precisely this analysis, however, which Maoists cannot undertake, for its conclusions would expose their revolutionary pretensions as a sham.


The OL therefore avoids all discussion of the family as a source of women’s oppression and insists instead that it is "wage slavery' which lies' at the basis of women's oppression," but since women's oppression predates capitalism by several thousand years, this cannot be a very convincing explanation, even to the members of the OL.


The RU is more orthodox in a way, first presenting its version of Engels analysis of the family as an oppressive institution which originated with class society, and only then going on to revise it on the grounds of the greater importance of the family unit to the working class today and the coziness, warmth and love, supposedly abounding in the contemporary proletarian home.


Even more orthodox in its approach is the Communist Labor Party (CLP), a Maoist organization which descends from the Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute the Marxist- Leninist Vanguard Party in the USA (POC), the first pro-Stalin opposition within the Communist Party. The CLP presents Engels' analysis in a more or less recognizable form, but draws from it no programmatic conclusions. While the CLP would like to avoid revising Engels, it cannot put forward the revolutionary implications of its book learning without threatening the very ground on which it stands. Thus in "Proletarian' Morality" (Proletariat, Spring 1974) we find:


"The heart of the question that the comrades are asking is this. Is it anti-communist to have sexual relations with other than husband or wife, is it anticommunist to have sexual relations before marriage?"


To which CLP leader Nelson Perry discreetly replies “These questions are too personal for us to comment on." The odor of puritanism, which Perry himself describes as "Catholic morality smeared over with Marxist phrases," is very' strong.


"Homosexual Relationships Require so Much Time”


As defenders of the bourgeois family, Stalinists generally feel called upon to denounce all those whose sexual preferences are other than monogamous and heterosexual. The OL tends to ignore the subject of sexual repression altogether. Michael Klonsky, leader of the OL, explained at a panel discussion in San Diego this summer why this question had not been taken up by his organization, saying that he didn't see why so much fuss was being made about something that only took a few minutes a day.  The October League did not, however, draw back from assisting in the exclusion of a group of lesbian members of the Chicago Women’s Union from a trip to China.


The RU has been more outspoken in defense of “stable monogamous relationships between men and women.” A recent internal position paper on the subject, in which the RU attempts to soften its line, it is explained that while gays can be anti-imperialist (i.e. members of RU, front groups); 'they cannot be communists', (i.e., members of the RU):


“To be a Communist, we must accept and welcome struggle in all facets of our lives, personal as well as political. We cannot struggle with male supremacy in the factory and not struggle at home. We feel that the best way to struggle out such contradictions in our personal lives is in stable monogamous relationships between men and women based on mutual love and respect. Because homosexuals do not carry the struggle between men and women into their most intimate relationships they are not prepared, in principle, for the arduous task of class transformation. "


It would have been more honest (although equally disgusting) of the RU to simply admit, as the Workers League does, that it takes this reactionary position because, it conforms to backward attitudes prevalent in the working class. On the question of homosexuality as on the question of the family, the opportunist RU is guided above all by its determination not to "turn people off”.


Certainly there are reactionary currents in the “gay liberation movement," but the RU's condemnation of homosexuality as a disease to which people are driven by the "mire and muck of bourgeois decadence" (as if homosexuality had come into existence only with the decay of capitalism), is so backward and untenable that even the bourgeois American Psychiatric Association last year abandoned this position. The RU caps its garbled arguments by the assertion that homosexuality is incompatible with communism because "homosexual relationships require so much time.” One can only speculate upon the RU's ideal of a meaningful heterosexual relationship. Presumably, as the OL's Klonsky suggests, it should optimally take up "only a few minutes a day.”


This puritanical morality on the part of American Maoists is entirely consistent with the attitudes encouraged and even legislated by the Chinese bureaucracy. Visitors to China, who often differ on many questions of social life there, uniformly report that the Chinese suppress all premarital sex. Helen Snow, who as Nym Wales earned a reputation as an uncritical publicist for the Maoist regime, reports that:


“Any romantic attachment that goes the distance, outside the marriage bed, is actually a statutory offense, worth six months  in jail for the overeager young man…”


Helen Snow, Women in Modern China


This one report alone should stick in the throats of those American apologists for New China who never tire of crying: “Chinese Women Liberated!”


Chinese Women Unliberated!


The new opportunities afforded Chinese women are not insignificant. While we put forward our critical analysis of the Maoist regime, the Spartacist League firmly rejects the view advanced by some social democrats and feminists that the Chinese Revolution offered women little worth defending. The revolution has, among other things, given women legal equality, freedom of choice in marriage, greater access to contraception and abortion, a greater role in social production and political life and, for some, child care centers, dining halls and schools. It is indisputable that the lives of Chinese women, who in prerevolutionary were barely recognized as human beings,  have been radically transformed and that Chinese women are less oppressed in many ways than are women in bourgeois democracies.


But while we note such gains and therefore call for the unconditional military, defense of China against imperialist attack, we are also aware that China has not achieved socialism -- a historical stage marked, among other things, by the withering away of the state -- and that the Chinese bureaucracy sabotages those measures leading toward the emancipation of women which could be undertaken by the dictatorship of the proletariat in even a poor and underdeveloped healthy workers state. Chinese women, therefore, continue to be specially oppressed. Some indications of this oppression are the following:


1. The family continues to be the primary economic unit of society, and women continue to be primarily responsible for housework and child care. As the OL’s Eileen Klehr writes in "Women Hold Up Half the Sky":


"I remember a woman factory worker who told me that all her housework was done by her children because both parents worked. This is good education for the future generation when household work will no longer be considered ‘women’s department’ but will be shared more equally between men and women."


Instead of socializing the drudgery performed by women in the family, as the Bolsheviks attempted to do, the Chinese bureaucrats content themselves with appealing to the husbands of a future generation to share it "more equally." (They are no doubt gratified to learn that President Ford makes his own breakfast.)


2. Swings in public policy since 1949 have resulted in sharp changes regarding contraception and abortion. Access to contraception and abortion is, not viewed as the right of all women, but as a privilege to be proffered or rescinded according to the political requirements of the bureaucracy at any given time.


3. Divorce may be granted only if both parties request it, and even then the court still attempts reconciliation and has the power to deny the divorce if it is deemed not to be in the best interests of the People's Republic.


4. Puritanical attitudes toward sex prevail, and pre-marital sex is classified as a crime. There exists, as Trotsky put it when describing the Soviet Union under Stalin, "the philosophy of a priest endowed also with the powers of a gendarme."


5. Jobs are still noticeably sex-typed; and there is unequal pay for equal work, especially in the rural communes. Also, the shortage of capital mean that there are not enough industrial jobs for all who would like them, and this especially affects women's participation in' production.


6. Women's participation in politics is still limited to the lower echelons of the government and the Chinese Communist Party, with few exceptions. Women comprise about 10 percent of the party and about the same percentage of its Central Committee. In 1969  two women were named to the Political Bureau although not to the Standing Committee; which is the real power. The two women were Yeh Chun, wife of Liu Shao-Chi and Chiang Ching, wife of Mao. When Lin. Piao was disposed of in September 197;, Yeh Chun was removed.


7. The facilities to socialize housework are still lacking. Child care in the countryside is inadequate, communal dining facilities are unattractive and collectivization of household tasks is not encouraged. It is, of course, true that the productive forces in China are not adequate to accomplish all this even if it were governmental policy, but, as Trotsky noted about the Soviet Union: .


“Instead of openly saying, ‘We have proven still too poor and ignorant for the creation of socialist relations among men, our children and grandchildren will realize this aim,’ the leaders are forcing people to glue together again the shell of the broken family, and not only that, but to consider it, under threat of extreme penalties, the sacred nucleus of triumphant socialism.”


Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed


Maoists are willing enough to acknowledge that Soviet women are not liberated, despite the enormous gains of the October Revolution, many of which were subsequently reversed. But because of the Maoist position that the Soviet Union became capitalist and “social imperialist” sometime after the death of Stalin in 1953, any Maoist account of how this reversal occurred must be a masterpiece of distortion and omission.


Thus the Revolutionary Union, in “Soviet Women--  Their Victory and Temporary Defeat" (Red Papers 3) explains that "a small band of traitors" managed to take over the Soviet Union within 10 years of the death of Joseph Stalin and at that point "the tremendous gains made by women, and by the whole working class, began to crumble." Can the RU explain why, then, abortion, which was legalized under Lenin, was abolished in 1936, despite popular opinion to the contrary (and reinstituted after the death of Stalin)? Why co-education was abolished by the Stalinist bureaucracy? Why women's section of the Communist Party was liquidated? Why divorces were made increasingly difficult and expensive throughout the 1930's, until in July 1944, the fee for a divorce was set at a level which placed it out of the reach economically, of the average worker?


Of course, since these dates are embarrassing to Stalinists, they are often ignored. The entire Maoist/Stalinist worldview would be threatened by recognizing that the degeneration of the Russian Revolution began not in the 1950's but in the 1920's. Yet the facts are indisputable.


What Is the "Maoist” Position, Chairman Mao?


We have concerned ourselves so far with what the Maoists have in common, but it should not be assumed that there is general agreement among these groups on the Woman question. There is not. In fact, it was on the woman question that the Guardian's unity–mongering forums of 1973 fell apart.


The OL, which has capitulated to petty-bourgeois feminism, insists that the RU does not see the radical women's movement as a "positive progressive thing.” The RU denies this charge which is potentially devastating to the satisfaction of its opportunist appetites, and calls for a class analysis of the women’s movement. But despite the RU's leftist rhetoric, its workerism and its refusal to fight for revolutionary leadership in the working class expose it as a liberal rather than a revolutionary organization.


A serious difference among Maoist groups centers on support for the Equal Rights AineildmEmt (ERA). (For a discussion of why the Spartacist League supports the ERA, see Women and Revolution No. 4, Fall 1973.)  The RU militantly opposes the ERA on the grounds that it would abolish protective legislation, but its arguments are contradictory. To be consistent, the RU would have to demand repeal of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 since this has been much more responsible for the repeal of protective legislation for women than the ERA would be. The point, of course, is to fight for the extension of protective legislation, not to seek defensively to maintain the status quo which is, in any event, under attack. The weakness of the RU on this question may have been behind its vicious physical attack on members, the Militant Action Caucus of the Communication Workers of America who were carrying signs in support of the ERA at a San Francisco demonstration this June. But while the RU does not hesitate to attack proponents of the ERA, it raised quite a hypocritical hue and cry about the refusal of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, including members of the OL, to allow the RU to criticize the ERA in a leaflet at an international Women's Day march.


Like the RU, the Communist Labor Party initially opposed the ERA, declaring it to be a "fascist plot." But recently the CLP has done "self-criticism" and following a short announcement of its "mistake, "an about-face of sorts was executed in the August issue of Peoples Tribune. In an exceptional display of political cowardice, the CLP refused to take a position for or against the ERA, stating only that it would engage in work “around the ERA”. But whether this work will support the ERA or attack it is anyone's guess.


Regarding the question of orientation to the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), differences similar to the ones above also emerge. The OL went whole-hog into CLUW, taking up many bureaucratic posts and submerging any independent presence. Their sharpest criticisms have been leveled at the Spartacist League for raising a class-struggle program in CLUW, with milder criticisms of the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party, which stand slightly to the right of the OL in this arena.


Having fought for the bureaucrats and against the communists in CLUW, the OL is now slowly "discovering" that CLUW is dominated by the trade-union bureaucracy, a fact pointed out by the Spartacist League more than six months ago. The recent disaffection of many of these bureaucrats has put the OL in a temporarily stronger position within CLUW, temporary because CLUW is not likely to be a viable organization. (See' "CLUW: Dead End for Working Women”, W&R No. 6, Summer 1974.) .


The RU has for the most part ignored CLUW and criticized the OL for trying to push the unions to the left. The RU's recent turn is away from trade unions altogether because while the RU is reluctant to capitulate to the trade-union bureaucrats, it is even more reluctant to fight them. However, when RU supporters came to the first Los Angeles CLUW meeting in July, they voted with the OL (and the SWP, IS and CP) to prevent political discussion ,by voting down a motion raised by a member of the Militant Caucus of AFSCME 2070 in favor of democratic debate and resolutions.


The OL, the RU and the CLP have all amply demonstrated their fundamental reformism. The polemics among them may be sharp, but none is fighting for revolutionary principles. All, too, would be quick to subordinate any struggle to the interests of the Chinese bureaucracy if it would gain them the coveted status of "official" Maoist party in the U.S. So while the Spartacist League carries forward the struggle for women's liberation through socialist revolution, the Maoists persist in their attempts to make the family the fighting unit for reformism and puritanism.