Book Review: ‘Women & Socialism’
August Bebel, the pioneer German socialist, is almost forgotten today. The reason for this is, perhaps, that the party he helped to found has long since degenerated into an instrument of German capitalism, indistinguishable from any other capitalist party. Despite this, however, Bebel’s life and work arc still worth recalling, not least because as a key figure in the workers’ movement as it developed in the 19th century he contributed personally to popularizing the idea of socialism and the theories of Marx and Engels, most notably in his major written work, Women and Socialism, first published in 1879.
Bebel began researching Women and Socialism in 1877 while again in prison for allegedly writing defamatory articles against Bismarck. His summary critique of capitalism focuses on the commodity form of wealth in capitalist society and its role in the so-called crises of overproduction; only in a world where wealth takes the form of commodities – articles produced for sale with a view to profit – could poverty exist in the midst of plenty, and only in the profit-driven lunacy of commodity production could overproduction be regarded as a crisis, therefore, as Bebel points out, these problems can only be cured by abolishing the commodity form altogether: “In the future society this contradiction will no longer exist. It does not produce ‘commodities’ to be ‘bought ‘and ‘sold’, but produces the necessaries of life that are used up, consumed, and have no other purpose. In the new society the capacity to consume is not limited by the individual’s ability to buy, as it is in bourgeois society, but by the collective capacity to produce. If the instruments of labour and the labour force are available every need can be satisfied. The social capacity to consume is limited only by the consumer’s saturation point.”
The abolition of the commodity form entails the simultaneous abolition of the market, the law of value, the profit motive and money – in short, all the social relations which currently fetter the forces of production and prevent them from being used to meet all humanity’s needs: “There being no ‘commodities’ neither can there be any money. Money appears as the antithesis of the commodity, but it is a commodity itself. Yet money even though itself a commodity, is at the same time the social equivalent, the measure of value for all other commodities. The future society will not produce commodities but only articles for the satisfaction of needs.”
Women and Socialism also gives a clear analysis of the role of the state in capitalist society and its destiny in socialism. Capitalist society is based on private ownership, one social class has exclusive control over economic resources with the consequent dispossession of the other class. In order to maintain their privileged position the owning class needs to ensure that its private property is protected. This is the role of the agency known as “the state”: “Through laws it secures the owner in his ownership and confronts those who assail the established order as judge and avenger”. In a socialist society everyone will stand in equal relation to productive resources and have free access to the products of social labour; this is what is meant by common ownership. It goes without saying that in a society of common ownership the state will no longer have a role: “Since the state is the essential organisation of a social order based on class rule, its very existence becomes unnecessary and impossible as soon as class antagonisms disappear as the result of the abolition of private property. ”
And with the state disappear all its appendages and apparatchiks: “ministers, parliaments, regular armies, police and gendarmes, courts, lawyers and public prosecutors, prison wardens, tax and customs authorities, in a word- the whole political apparatus”.
Capitalism’s apologists often claim that without the state humanity will sink into a state of barbarism – a war of each against all – crime will soar, chaos will prevail and society will grind to a halt. This misses several key points, however. First, the state has never intended nor succeeded in eradicating acts of barbarism – on the contrary the worst acts of barbarism are perpetrated by the state, war and genocide being just two examples. Second, the “crime” which exists in capitalist society is a direct result of class antagonisms and deprivation – theft, rioting and looting, and picket line clashes, for example – and could not occur in socialist society; and third, absence of a state cannot be equated with absence of social organization, something which Bebel makes crystal clear when he points out that state bureaucracies will make way for: “Administrative collegiums and delegations, which will engage in organising production and distribution to ensure maximum efficiency, in establishing the volume of supplies needed, in introducing and applying rational innovations in art, public education, the communications system, the production process in industry and agriculture, etc. These are all practical, visible and tangible matters, which everyone approaches objectively, because he has no personal interests opposed to society. None is motivated by any other interest but that of the community which consists in arranging and producing everything in the most rational and most advantageous way.”
In summary, private property society gives rise to class antagonisms which the state attempts to suppress; in a society of common property, by contrast, the “antagonisms” which exist are not class antagonisms (as there are no classes) but differences of opinion on how best to serve society as a whole, in which case it is not in society’s interests to suppress these antagonisms but, on the contrary, to see that they arc thrashed out as freely and as publicly as possible.
The main focus of Women and Socialism is, of course, on the experience of women in private property society and how that experience will change with the establishment of a society based on common property. Bebel’s argument is simple: that the position of the vast majority of women in private property society is one of economic dependence, resulting in sexual slavery, which finds its expression in marriage and prostitution. According to Bebel, “marriage” – the union of a man and a woman – would ideally be inspired by mutual love and respect, and be accompanied by economic security for themselves and, if they have them, their children.
The institutionalized marriage found in private property society, however, is almost wholly concerned with ownership rights, the right of succession in particular, and originated, according to Bebel, as a means for begetting “legitimate” children as heirs. It then became a “social law” being imposed upon even those who have nothing to bequeath, and was further reinforced with the appearance of the wages system under capitalism, making women – especially women with children – even more economically dependent on men. Marriage then became “a kind of almshouse into which women must gain admittance at all costs”, the cost usually being a life of domestic servitude occasionally coupled with wage-slavery to supplement the earnings of the husband, “who is, more often than not, unable to support the family alone”. Consequently marriage is a social and economic necessity, more or less compulsory, which once entered into is difficult and sometimes impossible (economically of not legally) to get out of. And even in those marriages where economic compulsion is accompanied by such notions as “love”, “the stern reality of life introduces so many elements of disturbance and dissolution, that they rarely fulfil the hopes of youthful enthusiasm and passion”. The form of the social sanctions and legal devices used by capitalism to enforce the institutions of marriage and the family may have altered since Bebel was writing, but they nevertheless remain an essential part of the capitalist mode of production providing the capitalist with a source of labour power and a ready-made market for many consumer goods; the capitalist class arc also well aware that workers who have families to support make more “reliable” (i.e. docile) employees. Thus we see what lies behind the social institution which while condemning the majority of women to a life of relentless domestic labour, sexual slavery, child-rearing and economic dependence, is lauded by capitalism’s ideologists as society’s foundation stone and woman’s natural and rightful domain.
Needless to say, in a society base on common ownership no individual, man or woman, will be economically dependent on any other individual: “In the new community woman is entirely independent, no longer subjected even to the appearance of supremacy or exploitation; she is a free being, the equal of man”. Therefore relations between two individuals will be entered into or broken up freely, without any social or economic compulsion, and be subjected to no legal or political regulation: “The contract between two lovers is of a private nature as in primitive times, without the intervention of any functionary.”
Bebel regarded the emancipation of women as the ultimate goal of human development, “the achievement of which no power on earth can prevent”, but which is possible only on the basis of a transformation which abolishes all forms of domination and exploitation in society – in particular that of the worker by the capitalist.
This raises the practical problem of how such a transformation can be brought about. Despite the social-democratic reform programme, Bebel was well aware that socialism could not be brought into being through piecemeal legislation: “half-measures and minor concessions achieve nothing”. Nor was he naive enough to believe, as the “utopians” did, that the ruling class could be persuaded on grounds of “morals” or “reason” to implement such a change themselves: the ruling class consider their position “natural” and “just”, and will not be overthrown by force of reason unless “force of circumstance compels them to accept reality and submit” This “force of circumstance” is an understanding by the majority of the need for change: “As this understanding embraces ever broader circles, it finally conquers the vast majority of society most directly interested in this change. In the same measure in which the people’s understanding of the untenableness of existing conditions and the realisation of the need for radical change rises, so the ruling class’s capacity for resistance ebbs, since its power rests upon the ignorance and lack of understanding of the oppressed and exploited classes.”
When socialists emphasize the need for democratic revolution based on an understanding of socialism by the majority, it is not out of any superstitious reverence for an abstract political ideal, but for sound practical reasons. All of society’s productive, distributive and administrative processes arc carried out by people who by economic necessity are working for wages; it is the working class, the vast majority, who run society from top to bottom. If this majority decide to change the motive force driving society’s productive processes from one of making profits for the few to one of meeting the needs of all, there would be little, if anything, the capitalist minority could do about it. On the other hand, if only a minority were to attempt such a transformation the most likely result would be bloody repression. Even if an insurgent minority succeeded in dislodging the capitalist class politically, the end result would not be socialism but a new form of hierarchical society, directed by the insurgents reconstituted as a new ruling class. Furthermore, as socialism is a society run by and in the interests of all its members, it requires that all individuals are able to contribute their skills and knowledge, opinions and ideas, to society’s decision-making and productive processes fully and therefore freely, it is not possible on any other basis; common ownership and democratic control are inseparable. Socialism, therefore, is democracy completed; it is the abolition of the class monopoly on the means of living and the consequent extension of the freedom to live independently to all walks of life, liberating the whole of humanity from all forms of exploitation. To use Bebel’s words: “An end will be put to class domination once and for all, and with it man’s domination of women. ”
‘Women and Socialism’ is available from Pluto Press under the title: ‘Woman in the Past, Present and Future’ for £ 10.50, and in a greatly abridged version from Central Books entitled ‘Society of the Future’.