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Socialist Feminism: Off the shelf

Abbie Bakan

February 13, 2012

As a new generation of activists expresses the anger of the 99%, questions of feminism and socialism are often at the top of the agenda. Feminism, like socialism, bears many different forms and meanings. But a particularly important wing of both currents, socialist feminism, has offered important contributions to the radical tradition.

Where does this radical tradition originate?

Origins are contested, particularly in light of the contributions of indigenous women’s voices silenced and buried by colonial settlement and racism. But it is often maintained that in the socialist movement, the centrality of women’s liberation was first described in August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism, published in Germany in 1879 (see

Bebel was a leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). The party at the time was, as author Lise Vogel puts it in Marxism and the Oppression of Women, the “presumed heir to the mantle of Marx and Engels.”

Though a substantive and lengthy tome, among militants in the German SPD and trade unions, Woman and Socialism was one of the most popular of socialist texts. Between the year of its first release and 1895, it had gone through 25 editions; by 1910 this figure reached 50, including numerous translations.

An 1886 review of the first English-language translation of Bebel’s classic, by socialists Eleanor Marx (Karl Marx’s daughter) and Edward Aveling, praised the text, and assailed those who criticized it:

“The truth, not fully recognized even by those anxious to do good to woman, is that she, like the labour-classes, is in an oppressed condition; that her position, like theirs, is one of merciless degradation. Women are the creatures of an organized tyranny of men, as the workers are the creatures of an organized tyranny of idlers.

“Even where this much is grasped, we must never be weary of insisting on the non-understanding that for women, as for the labouring classes, no solution of the difficulties and problems that present themselves is really possible in the present condition of society. … Both the oppressed classes, women and the immediate producers, must understand that their emancipation will come from themselves.”

Bebel’s work was remarkable for its time. The oppressed condition of women was largely unnamed. And if women’s condition of organized subordination was made visible, it was considered to be ‘natural,’ even within the socialist movement.

Woman and Socialism offered a vision of an emancipated society where women would be freed of these conditions. And it inspired mass opposition to the devastating conditions of the working class as a whole in capitalist society.


Clara Zetkin, also a leader in the German and international socialist movements, observed in 1896 that despite limitations, Bebel’s contribution indicated the essential role of women workers in the socialist movement. In this, the publication was “more than book, it was an event, a deed.”

But the early socialist tradition regarding women’s liberation needs to be placed in the context of what it challenged. Industrial capitalism imposed harsh divisions deep in working-class life, many elements of which continue to the present day. The exclusion of married women from public waged work, the virtual absence of social and civil rights, and the powerful impact of sexist stereotypes, limited women’s participation in the workers’ movement and the left. August Bebel himself, who advanced his reputation through the popularity of his claims for women’s emancipation, was hardly free of such sexist attitudes.

An example of the context is indicated by the experiences of Rosa Luxemburg. She arrived in Germany in 1898 and immediately encountered the type of resistance to her immense and original contributions commonly faced by women intellectuals. An important study by Raya Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, addresses this by considering Bebel’s correspondence to fellow socialist leader Victor Adler.

Their exchanges indicate their reaction to Luxemburg’s effective arguments with certain leading figures in the SPD, as she challenged what she rightly perceived as reformist and conservative approaches to capitalist transformation. Dunayevskaya notes the appalling context:

“Just as [Luxemburg] had learned to live with an underlying anti-Semitism in the party, so she learned to live with what in our era has been challenged by name – specifically, male chauvinism…. Here, for example, is a sample of the letters that passed between Bebel and Adler: ‘The poisonous bitch will yet do a lot of damage, all the more because she is as clever as a monkey (blitzgescheit) while on the other hand her sense of responsibility is totally lacking and her only motive is an almost pervasive desire for self-justification’…[Victor Adler to August Bebel, 5 August 1910]. ‘With all the wretched female’s squirts of poison I wouldn’t have the party without her’ [Bebel’s reply to Adler, 16 August 1910].”


Among the readers of Bebel’s Woman and Socialism was Frederick Engels, Karl Marx’s lifelong collaborator. On January 18, 1884, Engels thanked Bebel for sending him a copy of the second edition, and indicated “it contains much valuable material.” He promised to send Bebel in turn his forthcoming book, Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. There is little else mentioned, but Vogel suggests an “impression remains of a silent polemic between differing views.” Origins was certainly to make its mark as a significant advance in both Marxism and the movements for women’s emancipation.

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