Mary Davis spoke this morning at the 12th International Meeting of CP's and Workers' Parties conference in Johannesburg, South Africa.
 
Mary spoke on, "The deepening systemic crisis of capitalism. The tasks of Communists in defence of sovereignty, deepening social alliances, strengthening the anti-imperialist front in the struggle for peace, progress and Socialism."
 
In Britain the Comprehensive Spending Review constitutes the most vicious assault on public services and the Welfare State in British history.
The public finance deficit, such as it is, is being used as the cover for a programme of tax cuts and privatisation—to benefit the rich and big business.
The mass media and the City have colluded with the ConDem government to launch an ideologically-driven offensive against the public sector, in the interests of monopoly capitalism. They are pursuing an agenda designed by the European Commission and European Central Bank.
 
For women these changes represent the biggest reversal in opportunities since the end of the First World War. Women’s jobs will be hardest hit by public sector cuts. Of the £8.5bn being raised by cutting direct contributions to individuals, £5.7bn – two thirds – is coming from women, while £2.7bn is being raised from men. 300,000 women's jobs in the public sector will go, with 65% of public sector jobs done by women. Women will also be more heavily affected by increases in public sector pension contributions.
 
Given the theme of this conference it is appropriate to remind ourselves of the relevance of the crisis of capitalism to half the human race: notably women. This was something that was recognised by communists in the early 20th century. A very advanced position was advocated by the Third Congress of the Communist International. Writing in July 1921 the theses could be describing our own era: 
 
‘The capitalist economic system has entered a blind alley; there is no scope for the development of the productive forces within the framework of capitalism. The sharp decline in living standards of the working people, the inability of the bourgeoisie to restore production, the rise of speculation, the disintegration of production, unemployment, price fluctuations and the gap between prices and wages, lead everywhere to the inevitable sharpening of the class struggle. 
 
In the present period particularly, it is in the interests of the working class that women are drawn into the organised ranks of the proletariat ...’
Much more was said on women workers at this Congress: it repays careful reading. It is my view that in our day we, as communists have neglected this issue, but we simply cannot afford to both at the level of theory and practice.
 
Our foundation is an acceptance of a Marxist definition of class, but a gender and colour blind misapplication of Marxist theory has resulted in a partial understanding of class which has had profound repercussions in labour historiography and labour movement practice. It is particularly important that we acknowledge this given that this year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. We need a definition of class which is predicated upon an understanding of the relationship between class exploitation and oppression. We also need to sharpen our ability, already developed by our socialist feminist foremothers, in theory and practice to connect the hitherto separate spheres of class, race and gender in a manner that comprehends both their distinctiveness and inter-relationships. This is long overdue. However, it is only through an understanding the primacy of class as an economic relationship to the dominant mode of production that the connections between class race and gender can be correctly understood. 
 
The renegotiation of the gender division of labour was central to the process of industrialisation in Britain- the first industrial nation- and to the formation of a working class. Since women were amongst the first factory workers, women led early industrial action, whether on an informal or formal basis and were amongst the first trade unionists. Gender remains central to the continual restructuring and renegotiation of capitalist relations over the past two centuries. This is true of Britain as it was many other capitalist countries.
 
A more fully worked out conception of historical materialism based on a clearer understanding of the nature of the working class and the relationship between exploitation and oppression, would have had (and can still have) significant implications for the way our theory has developed in a non colour or gender blind fashion.  
 
The subjugation of women and black people has been historically connected with class society for so long that it has become the accepted natural order of things. The oppressive ideologies sustaining subservience is so culturally rooted that it has passed beyond naked statements of class rule and entered into the very fabric of our lives including language itself. As such these ideologies have become universalised and hence disembodied from their class origins. They have thus fulfilled the ultimate goal of ideology - namely to represent the interests of the dominant class as the interests of society as a whole. How else are we to explain the permeation of racist and sexist ideas within the working class and even within the socialist movement? And that the history of the working class /labour movement has airbrushed women out of existence despite its conspicuous presence
 
There is an important connection between Marxist theory and practice; whether such practice involves historical scholarship or labour movement activism. The consequences of an inability to appreciate the role of women in the making and re-making of the working class have resulted in, until recently, the exclusion of oppressed groups from the mainstream of the labour movement. In this respect labour historians who ignore women are reflecting the innate sexism and patriarchy that has been the hallmark of the mainstream of many Labour Movements for much of their histories. But women have played a part in working class politics or trade union activity and certainly their role in the labour process itself was and continues to be vitally important. The exclusion of women from working class and labour history compounds the misunderstanding of class and class formation and has reinforced the theoretical confusion over such invented ideological constructs of the ‘family wage’ and the ‘male breadwinner’ which has insinuated itself into labour movement thinking since the mid 19th century. Such confusion explains the persistence even today of women’s unequal pay and the fact that many trade unions either opposed equal pay or failed to accord it a priority in their campaigning. 
 
This is not to write off the entire labour movement over its entire history as a misogynistic backwater. Working class organisations do not proceed in a linear onward and upward fashion. They are always marked by peaks and troughs in activity, effectiveness, membership and ideological clarity. These ups and downs are not always crudely determined by economic circumstances but have a great deal to do with the prevailing level of political class consciousness – this is why it’s so vital for communists to take the lead as did Clara Zetkin in her day. In our day, of course we must learn the lessons of those countries which have already started on this path- that’s why a conference of this nature is so important. 
 
However, if class consciousness does not explicitly embrace the female half of the working class, such consciousness is but a chimera and we stand little chance of developing a strong, enduring and united movement of resistance to neo-liberalism, big business and imperialism. 
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