Revolution #193, February 21, 2010



[Editors' note: The following is the tenth in a series of excerpts from the text of a talk by Bob Avakian in Fall 2009, which is being serialized in Revolution. The first nine excerpts appeared in Revolution #184-192. The entire talk can be found online at]

III. The New Synthesis and the Woman Question: The Emancipation of Women and the Communist Revolution—Further Leaps and Radical Ruptures

Here again, I want to emphasize the point with which I began this talk as a whole: Much of this I am still working on and grappling with myself, and much of what follows will be more in the nature of a scaffolding than a fully elaborated discussion. So while what follows will include points of basic orientation and analysis, which I feel are important to be firmly taking hold of and acting on, to a significant degree the purpose and aim here is to offer some food for thought and sense of direction, while at the same time promoting, and provoking, further wrangling with these decisive questions.

The question of the status—the oppression and the struggle for the liberation—of women is objectively coming to the forefront in today's world and posing itself ever more profoundly and acutely. This fact is being recognized and spoken to by a number of people representing very different class viewpoints, but who remain within the framework of a world of imperialist domination, class division, ruthless exploitation and oppressive social divisions and relations. We see this, for example, in the book which I referred to earlier by Michelle Goldberg (The Means of Reproduction) as well as in a major article in the New York Times Magazine and a new book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (see "The Women's Crusade," in the New York Times Magazine, August 23, 2009, an essay adapted from the book by Kristof and WuDunn, Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

Here is a point worth reflecting on, which has been raised by another leading comrade in our party: This focus on the status of women, particularly in the Third World, is being raised by these various bourgeois-democratic forces, both out of a genuine belief that this is an outrage which must be addressed—while approaching this entirely from within the framework of bourgeois and imperialist-dominated relations—and out of a sense that this is one key way to go after, undermine and eventually defeat radical Islam. In other words, an aspect of this is how it is part of a strategic approach on behalf of one historically "outmoded"—imperialist ruling strata—in opposition to another historically "outmoded"—reactionary Islamic fundamentalism.

So in this context, as well as in the larger, world-historic context of the communist revolution, there is a profound and pressing need for those representing the emancipatory goals of the communist revolution, with its final aim of the abolition of all class divisions and all relations of exploitation and oppression, to make further leaps and ruptures in our understanding of and approach to the woman question, in theory and in practice—in the realm of ideological and political line, and mobilizing mass struggle based on that line—in accordance with the pivotal and decisive role this question objectively occupies, not only in terms of ending the millennia of subjugation and degradation of half of humanity, but also the way in which this is integrally and indispensably bound up with the emancipation of humanity as a whole and the advance to a whole new era in human history with the achievement of communism throughout the world.

In this light and from this perspective, I want to offer some thinking on key aspects of how this challenge is presenting itself and on the necessary work and struggle to achieve the leaps and ruptures that are objectively and indeed urgently called for.

The Oppression of Women and the "Two Outmodeds"

To begin with, the oppression of women is a decisive dimension of what Marx referred to as the enslaving subordination of people to the division of labor, which has been a phenomenon ever since class divisions—and, along with them, the oppression of women—emerged in human society, and which must be overcome in order to advance to communism.

Now, as far back as Red Papers 3,1 published by the Revolutionary Union (the forerunner of our party) about 40 years ago now, this point—how the oppression of women is a decisive dimension of the enslaving division of labor in society—was made. But Red Papers 3, and our thinking at that time overall, was not only undeveloped in general and specifically on the woman question, but it was also significantly influenced by economism (and by related trends which also ultimately amounted to seeking reforms within the existing system and ran counter to a truly revolutionary communism), and this had its effects, as I will discuss through the course of the remaining part of this talk.

In today's world, with regard to the woman question we see again the relevance of the "two historically outmodeds." In A Declaration: For Women's Liberation and the Emancipation of All Humanity, published by our party earlier this year (2009), the following is cited:

What we see in contention here with Jihad on the one hand and McWorld/McCrusade on the other hand, are historically outmoded strata among colonized and oppressed humanity up against historically outmoded ruling strata of the imperialist system. These two reactionary poles reinforce each other, even while opposing each other. If you side with either of these "outmodeds," you end up strengthening both.2

That Declaration immediately goes on to emphasize the point that:

Between these two "outmodeds" it is the imperialist ruling classes, and that of the U.S. in particular, which have, by far, done the most harm to humanity and pose the greatest threats. In fact, imperialist domination itself in the Middle East, Indonesia, and elsewhere—along with the massive disruption and dislocation that this domination causes, and the corruption, venality and vicious repression characteristic of the local governments that are dependent on and serve imperialism—gives great fuel to the fire of Islamic fundamentalism as a response to all this, although a reactionary one.

This brings into relief the way in which the other "outmoded"—that is, medieval forms of the oppression of women by Islamic fundamentalists and others in parts of the Third World—is being utilized by those who, at least objectively, side with the imperialist "outmoded" and attempt to prettify—and in some aspects even to promote—the "modern" forms of the oppression of women that are more common in the imperialist countries, and to divert attention and struggle around the oppression of women into a framework that reinforces the imperialist system, which is in reality the main and most fundamental force perpetuating oppression, including of the most horrific kinds, in all parts of the world.

This puts into the appropriate perspective the role being played, at least objectively, by people like Goldberg and Kristof and WuDunn, with the analysis they are propagating, and the programs they are promoting, as supposed answers to the oppression of women. Even if we allow that they are genuinely outraged by many manifestations of this oppression, they are still leading everything back into the very framework of the system which is fundamentally the cause of all this.

The following, also from A Declaration: For Women's Liberation and the Emancipation of All Humanity, powerfully refutes the attempt to portray the imperialist "outmoded"—or, more specifically, the "modern" and "liberal" variations of this "outmoded"—as the standard bearer of the liberation of women:

In sum: "Modern" capitalist society—or in reality the global system of capitalist imperialism—has inherited the oppression of women from past societies out of which capitalism has emerged, and while changing some of the forms in which this takes place, it has not eliminated, and cannot eliminate, this oppression; it has incorporated pre-capitalist forms of this oppression, in various parts of the world, particularly the Third World, into its overall, worldwide system of exploitation and oppression, and it perpetuates all this through the fundamental relations, the ongoing process of accumulation and the overall functioning of this capitalist-imperialist system itself. (emphasis in original)

The burkha and the thong—hideous embodiments of the degradation of women

To cite another important passage from this Declaration:

While they may appear very different, the burkha enforced by fanatical Islamic fundamentalism, on the one hand, and the "thong," widely advertised and promoted as "sexy underwear" for women, in "modern" capitalist society, on the other hand, are both hideous symbols and embodiments of the degradation of women. The fundamental thing they have in common is that they are both manifestations of a world marked by horrendous forms of oppression, both "traditional" and "modern"—a world dominated overall by capitalist imperialism—a world that needs to be turned upside down and radically transformed.

Now, in addition to the obvious and egregious manifestations of the oppression of women, not only in the Third World, but also in the U.S. itself—the widespread rape and brutality and degradation that are part of the social relations and the prevailing culture which are promoted in this society and all over the world—it is important to focus on some particular aspects of how the woman question is actually posed in the U.S. today, while situating this in the context of significant changes that have taken place over a few decades.

As we know, women have entered in very large numbers into the work force in the U.S. in this period. In fact, recently it has been pointed out that, if present trends continue, it will very soon be the case that women will actually outnumber men in the work force in the U.S., which is obviously a very significant development. This is a result of changes in the economy (the U.S. economy, in the context of the overall world economy) which have both made possible and necessary this drawing of women into employment in large numbers; and this also plays a part in "stabilizing" U.S. society through the development and furthering of a certain middle class standard of living and "lifestyle" which is only possible to maintain, for significant numbers of people in the U.S. today, through women as well as men working. This involves a very great change from the era of the Mad Men on TV, for example (the early 1960s), where the women were in the home and one man working in a middle class position was able to supply this kind of standard of living and lifestyle for the family as a whole. But changes that have taken place have resulted in a situation where it is only possible to maintain this status and this standard of living and lifestyle through the women working as well as the men. This is a very significant development.

And, of course, this did not happen automatically as a result of developments and changes in the economy, but also occurred as a result of concessions wrung and changes brought about through the whole upsurge of the '60s and, in particular, the movement for women's liberation which developed through the 1960s and into the 1970s. These two factors together—changes in the economy and struggle brought forth through the movement of the 1960s, and in particular the women's liberation movement—have led to significant changes in the status of women in many different dimensions, including in the sphere of work, even while women continue to be discriminated against systematically in work, including in pay and opportunities for advancement and so on—the "glass ceiling" still exists.3

But, as we emphasized, even while there is a need, on the part of the ruling class, to promote and foster a significant "middle class" as a force of stability and, in very important ways, of conservatism, there is also a pressing need of this system to maintain traditional relations—particularly as these are concentrated in the patriarchal family and the position and role of women in society overall. And, in this situation, the changes to which I have referred here are clashing sharply against the extremely aggressive attempts of the Christian Fascists and other openly reactionary forces to more firmly assert and enforce tradition's chains, particularly as applied to women—to openly, overtly chain women in a subordinate and oppressed condition, relying heavily on biblical tradition as the ideological basis for this (as is discussed, for example, in Away With All Gods!).

What I pointed out, speaking over 20 years ago now to the situation in the U.S., remains profoundly true and of pivotal importance in terms of the fundamental direction of society and, indeed, the world overall. I wrote then: "The whole question of the position and role of women in society is more and more acutely posing itself in today's extreme circumstances." This was in the context, back in the 1980s, where there was in reality a growing danger of world war—those are the particular extreme circumstances that were being referred to in this statement—but today there are different particular extreme circumstances and real crisis that exists, and this statement, concerning the acute terms in which the position and role of women is posing itself, continues to have profound meaning now. As that statement goes on to emphasize:

It is not conceivable that all this will find any resolution other than in the most radical terms.... The question yet to be determined is: will it be a radical reactionary or a radical revolutionary resolution, will it mean the reinforcing of the chains of enslavement or the shattering of the most decisive links in those chains and the opening up of the possibility of realizing the complete elimination of all forms of such enslavement?

1. The Red Papers 3, Women Fight for Liberation, was published in 1970 by the Bay Area Revolutionary Union. It is currently out of print. [back]

2. Here the Declaration is quoting a statement that originally appeared in Bob Avakian's talk "Why We're in the Situation We're In Today... And What to Do About It: A Thoroughly Rotten System and the Need for Revolution." This talk is available online at [back]

3. While, to a significant degree, the dramatic rise in female employment in the U.S. in the last several decades has involved women in the professions and families of "middle class status," broadly defined, there has also been a marked increase in the number of working class and poor women who are employed outside the home—and all this has been accompanied by a major influx of immigrant women working in low-wage jobs, as well as those trapped in illicit enterprises, such as prostitution. Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, edited with an introduction by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild (Holt Paperbacks, 2002), examines the phenomenon of the feminization of migrant labor, "legal" and "illegal," on a global scale in the last few decades—especially that involving the typical pattern of migration from poor to rich countries—and shines a light on important aspects of how this serves to perpetuate the imperialist system and the "lifestyles" of those in more privileged positions within the imperialist citadels, such as the U.S., a parasitism which, to no small degree, requires the hardships and often brutal exploitation—including outright slavery, particularly in the case of many trapped in the "sex industry"—endured by millions and millions of these women migrant workers. [back]

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