Sexism is a pillar of class society and poison for the international working class. It describes the special oppression and exploitation of women; violence and coercion, from rape to sexual slavery; and the systematic cultural degradation of over half the world’s population. Like racism and nationalism, sexism keeps the capitalist bosses in power by dividing workers—in this case, by driving a wedge between working-class women and men.
Though sexism long predates our current profit system nightmare, the treatment of women under capitalism, as commodities to be owned and exchanged, has intensified sexist exploitation to historic levels. Only a movement to smash capitalism – a communist movement – can destroy sexism. And only a movement committed to smashing sexism can unite the working class and lead a communist revolution to destroy class society. Progressive Labor Party is working to organize and lead that revolution.
Capitalist ideology reinforces the special oppression and exploitation of women. Capitalism teaches us that society is naturally unequal. Men are treated as superior, while women are treated as objects whose main purpose is to reproduce and prepare the next generation of workers for capitalist exploitation. Like racism, sexism generates huge profits for the bosses. The pornography industry, which objectifies and degrades women, generates more than $10 billion a year in sales in the United States alone and nearly $100 billion worldwide. Prostitution returns close to $200 billion in annual profits by coercing more than 40 million workers, 80 percent of whom are women and 75 percent between the ages of 13 and 25, to make their living in sex work.
In the broader scheme of sexist exploitation, however, these are drops in the bucket. The value of women’s unpaid work has been estimated at $11 trillion a year, or 14 percent of the $80 trillion global economy. The precise value of women's exploitation is difficult to measure, because the capitalist bosses have no interest in quantifying the surplus value created by hundreds of millions of domestic and childcare workers, many of them also mothers who work without pay at home.
Under capitalism, no worker is spared from exploitation. But because of sexist ideas and practices, women shoulder a heavier burden than men. Across the globe, millions of girls are prevented from going to school, forced to marry when they are still children, and subjected to repeated physical violence. From Pakistan to South Africa to Cambodia to Brazil, capitalist labor divisions confine women to poorly paid jobs so that capitalist bosses can reap even greater profits. Over the centuries, the imperialist rulers have learned to use sexism to their advantage, drawing women into the formal economy in periods of labor shortages, such as wartime, and forcing them out again when the next economic crisis demands reductions in the wage labor force. Today, women are working longer hours outside the home and pursuing education in greater numbers than ever, yet they are still paid less than men. In the U.S, in comparable work, a woman makes only 84 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Because of racism, Black, Latin, and immigrant women earn even less.
Sexist propaganda—in religion, politics, and popular culture—is so deeply embedded in capitalist society that sexist gender roles and inequalities are viewed as natural throughout the world. This reality has significant implications for our base building. In the struggle against sexism, communists are waging a two-front war. On the one hand, we must be alert and tireless in fighting back against the bosses’ attacks on women workers. On the other, we must confront the dangers of feminism. The capitalist women’s movement both divides the working class by gender and promotes a false unity with the liberal wing of the U.S. ruling class, basically the Democratic Party. Like all identity politics, the women’s movement is a dead—and deadly—end for workers. It obscures the fact that capitalist society is driven by a fundamental conflict between the class that owns the means of productions and the class that creates everything of value--between bosses and workers. Feminism misleads women workers, in particular, by recruiting sell-out stooges like Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, and the late (and unlamented!) Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
It is PLP’s obligation to expose and explain that women's liberation doesn’t come from voting, or electing women politicians to oppress us, or expanding the ranks of women CEOs to exploit us. We cannot shy away from this disagreement with potential comrades, though our position will often be unpopular. We must remind them that both men and women senators and mayors and police chiefs have supported the most vicious and brutal sexist policies. And we must remind men, in particular, of the importance of recognizing and championing women workers’ humanity and of their equal contributions on the job, in political movements, in the community, in our families, and in romantic relationships.
Capitalist objectification of women is a primary obstacle to this understanding. It’s also a daily disaster for women and girls. According to recent research, the media's obsession with warped ideals of women's beauty drives girls to begin dieting as young as nine years old. A leak by a U.S. whistleblower noted that Facebook and Instagram are well aware of their destructive impact on teenage girls' self-esteem. But banning sexist media under capitalism won't by itself be enough to create a better life for women and girls. Only a communist world—where money and profit are banned—can do that.
Since they blame men rather than capitalism for the special oppression of women, feminists are incapable of leading the fight against sexism, and, by extension, the fight against capitalism. Feminism undermines the unity of the working class by questioning the possibility of women and men working together as comrades. Its aim is to invert gender identities and roles to enable a select group of women to benefit from capitalism. Just ask the home health aides and caregivers in New York City about the pushback from wealthy women employers as the workers have attempted to organize a union for a livable wage.
The bourgeois feminist movement in the U.S. suffers from a long history of ignoring the issues of working-class women, and especially Black and Latin women, in favor of gaining the "equal right" to exploit all workers. PLP recognizes that Black workers are super-exploited under capitalism. We also recognize that Black, Latin, and immigrant working-class women are specially oppressed under capitalism. These racist, sexist, and class-based exploitations work together to tie these women to the bottom of the economic and social ladder. Capitalism should always be seen as the root of all evil. Smashing the profit system must always be the end goal.
Only working-class solidarity can build a movement against sexism. To achieve it, we must integrate our lives with our fellow workers. While capitalism affords to individuals different experiences and varying levels of creature comforts, we must recognize that all of our experiences are tied to capitalist exploitation. Our superficial differences exist to separate and divide the working class and to impede it from taking state power. Our task is to find the common ground that unites us: the fight for a world free of capitalism and all of its rotten ideas and sexist, racist inequalities.
Progressive Labor Party has always maintained that the liberation of women depends on the fundamental economic organization of society and the ideology that props it up. In Road to Revolution IV (RRIV), PLP shows that only a mass working-class revolution can eliminate sexist exploitation. RRIV’s great theoretical advance--to abolish wages and move directly to communist distribution--is directly opposed to a system that perpetuates sexist inequality through labor divisions. As the document argues, the wage system promotes individualism. It forces men and women to consider their own well-being over the needs of our class. Reformist solutions, such as closing the gender wage gap, will not suffice to end sexism. Under capitalism, they will only create more incentives for individuals to strive in their own self-interest. Only by eliminating the wage system can we bring an end to sexism. Only then will the profit system’s dogma--“Every man or woman for themselves”—be replaced by the communist principle, “To each according to need.” Only then will collective behavior overcome the selfish me-first thinking enshrined by capitalism.
From the beginning, communists have understood the importance of fighting against sexism. Although flawed in many ways, Engel’s The Family, Private Property and the State provides an eloquent explanation of how class societies rely on sexism to shore up the oppressive domination of small ruling groups. This essential work needs to be studied as part of PL’s internal struggle to deepen our understanding and practice in fighting sexism.
We can look find lessons from the two great communist revolutions. The Soviet revolution was rooted in a firm rejection of sexism, from an early pamphlet by Lenin to struggles for more collective living experiments and job opportunities for women workers. Thirty years later, the Chinese revolution also began with an aggressive struggle to free women workers, most of them in agriculture, from the feudal oppression that had enslaved them. After both of these revolutions, important social and economic roles-- including positions as doctors, teachers, and engineers--were opened to women workers as sexist notions of their “natural inferiority” were attacked. Divorce and abortion were made freely available. Relics of feudalism, such as the cruel binding of young women’s feet in China, were enthusiastically abolished.
In both revolutions, however, the struggle against sexism was mostly limited to the expansion of job opportunities. The grassroots commune movement in China, led in part by millions of women, was especially helpful in allowing tens of millions of men and women to share in necessary domestic work. Many communes even organized work for no monetary cost, proving that money could be eliminated. Unfortunately, the predominantly male communist leadership put these gains aside in both the Soviet Union and China, focusing instead on an economist drive to out-produce the capitalist West and show that “socialism” was superior. The communes were shelved. The nuclear family unit, which Engels described as a microcosm of capitalism, was preserved. So was the sexism built into it.
Even more important, while class struggles led by women sparked the Paris Commune and the March 1917 Russian Revolution, women workers had almost no formal leadership positions in the subsequent Soviet or Chinese revolutions. (One notable exception was Madame Mao, who was not coincidentally the wife of the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party.) This sexism extended beyond the communist parties’ formal leadership bodies to regional and local government positions. While the Soviet Union was the first modern military to have women serving in combat roles, a practice that spread to communist armies in China and later in Vietnam, this practice never went far enough. Despite dramatic and inspiring movies like The Red Detachment of Women, the tale of an all-women’s fighting unit in China, the communist struggle against sexism never promoted full gender integration of the armed forces leadership. Photographs of men in full military regalia, overseeing the tanks rolling by in the Moscow May Day parade, were a shameful misrepresentation of the true nature of the workers’ army, and a disservice to working women and men, then and now.
PLP emphasizes that the preserved wage system and socialist material incentives were among the biggest reasons that the two great communist revolutions failed to hold workers’ power. They also help to explain why women workers were often excluded from formal positions of revolutionary leadership. As long as men and women buy into the idea that one group deserves more, women and the working class as a whole will continue to lose out.
Just as Marx said that white workers could never be free as long as Black workers were enslaved, male workers can never be free of capitalist exploitation until they fight sexism and build working-class unity with women. All workers, men and women, suffer when sexism isn’t fought and defeated. Worsening conditions for men reflect women’s super-exploitation in the labor force, and the devaluation of work they perform in the home. As capitalists seek out ever greater profits, the larger pool of exploited workers drives wages lower for all. Since capitalism looks down on "women's work," and many manual labor jobs are gender-segregated across the world, capitalism teaches male workers to fight for higher wages for male work. All workers must fight against this sexism in the workplace if we are to unite our class for revolution. When male workers fight for reforms like paid child care leave for all, it can be a school for communist ideas while paving the way for more women leadership in the class struggle. Most important, communists – men and women alike – must lead struggles on the job where women workers are consistently under attack.
PLP has come a long way in the fight against sexism. Beyond continuing to lead day-to-day struggles on the job and in the streets, women workers are [JC1] leading Party clubs, city concentrations, the production of our political propaganda, and our central leadership. PL’s practice of encouraging—if not requiring—all comrades to express their views at meetings has given women comrades more confidence to become leaders. PL’s leadership was always committed to developing Black, Latin, women and immigrant workers to lead the Party. Capitalism makes it much harder for these comrades to make the time, find the support, and step up fully into leadership. While women are often the fiercest fighters in class struggles, sexist ideas about who can be the public face and voice of our class discourage many of them from asserting leadership. We must continue this anti-sexist struggle in both theory and practice.
One lesson we’ve learned is that deep personal ties are paramount. We need to get to know women comrades’ families and partners, and the particular obstacles they face. In Pakistan, where it can be difficult for women to travel without the presence or permission of a close male relative, women have become PL club leaders, organizing class struggles of both women and men! These deeply committed young women, along with Black, Latin, and immigrant working-class leaders of PL, represent an enormous advance for the working class and the international fight for a communist society.
The Party’s anti-sexist development has advanced most sharply through our role in class and reform struggles. Anti-sexism was at the heart of the Stella D’oro struggle, a strike at a Bronx bakery company where the mostly higher-paid men refused a pay raise until the majority of workers, mostly lesser-paid women, got one as well. This showed the importance of anti-sexist solidarity as we build for communist revolution. Today, in the fight against racist police murders, Black, Latin, and immigrant women are displaying the leadership that’s necessary to smash sexism and the capitalist world order. They are prominent at May Day and at many protests, leading workers with spirited chants and moving speeches against “this racist, sexist system” that we know as capitalism. Progressive Labor Party has worked actively with these bold fighters, learning from them every step of the way.
In our everyday lives, all of us need to do a better job of fighting sexism. A vital part of destroying capitalism is to identify and eliminate all manifestations of sexism. That means challenging the objectification of women in the media, on the streets, and on our jobs. It means recognizing that the institution of marriage and the nuclear family were developed to serve the needs of capitalism. Women are expected to join the labor force, and then go home to bear and raise children who will produce future profits for the capitalist bosses. One great place for us to begin our practice of anti-sexism is for men and women to share equally in the work of the home. As Road to Revolution IV points out, only an egalitarian society that ends the wage system’s exploitation and special oppression of women can end sexism for all time.
Our commitment to the struggle against sexism must be front and center in our newspaper CHALLENGE. Decades ago, the CHALLENGE collective developed a tradition to analyze every struggle article by asking about how racism factored into the struggle. We must now ask the same question regarding sexism. We need to make the sexist attacks on women workers worldwide—extreme exploitation, sex slavery, rape and violence and cultural degradation—a priority in every aspect of our work.
The crux of our fight for communist revolution is to build the working-class unity among women and men, Black, white, Latin, and immigrant fighters for the egalitarian society we all deserve. We have a world to win—but we can only win it if women and men are united.