Rosa Luxemburg and the women’s question – “Marxism in her Bloodstream”

Lis Mandl looks at how Rosa Luxemburg considered the women’s question as inseparable from the struggle of the working class as a whole. She also looks at how the struggle for women’s rights was also a struggle against the reformists within the movement who constantly tried to limit demands for full women’s emancipation.


“She had mastered the Marxist method like the organs of her body. One could say that Marxism ran in her bloodstream” These words written by Leon Trotsky are probably the best characterisation of Rosa Luxemburg to date. Rosa Luxemburg was one of the outstanding fighters of the working class movement in Germany as well as internationally. She was solid as a rock in theory and practice. When it came to revolution, and the trust in the working class, she was deeply devoted to her one and only goal: socialism. She was also known for her fine sense of criticism and her bitter struggle against war and imperialism.

In her lifetime she was a representative of minorities: She was Jewish (although not religious), she came from Poland (she had German citizenship, but still was always regarded as “the Pole”), she was never married (but lived her relationships openly) and she was a political female leader of the Proletarian International Movement!

This article mainly deals with the women’s question and some readers may ask why we should refer to Rosa Luxemburg in dealing with this question, since she never was connected to the women’s question in the same way, as for example Alexandra Kollontai or Clara Zetkin. She wrote only a few articles about the women’s question, especially on women’s right to vote. But that doesn’t necessarily mean she wasn’t interested or she was thinking about the women’s question only as a secondary contradiction. The opposite is true. In November 1918 she wrote a letter to Zetkin saying: “Maybe I should write on the women’s question. It’s so important right now, and we don’t have any comrades here who understand something about it.”

Rosa’s political life coincided with the theoretical struggle within the social democratic parties on which way the movement should go? It was the period of the rise of the bureaucratic apparatus and privileges within the movement and its functionaries. It was the period of the rise of imperialism and the need to tie the revolutionary working class, especially of the so called first world countries, to the capitalist system. One of her most famous books on “Reform or Revolution” deals with the latest development with the German Social Democrats, who were trying to abandon the socialist revolution and, as a matter of fact, socialism itself.

The leaders of the Party – Bernstein and later Kautsky argued that because of the development of capitalism a slow linear process towards socialism was possible. By taking gradual control over political and economical life, the working class would find itself in control of the state and would thus, almost “by accident” achieve socialism. These strange ideas are still repeated today by some so-called leaders of the international working class movement (although most of them now speak of a “social market economy”).

This discussion exactly and simultaneously mirrored and still mirrors the basic question facing the women’s movement: is the liberation of women within capitalism possible or not? The split between the bourgeois and the proletarian women’s movement was caused basically by this question. Rosa Luxemburg was deeply convinced that the full emancipation of women is only possible under socialism and therefore her struggle against the degeneration of the party and for a correct politically line within the party must also be seen as her fight for women’s liberation!

Bourgeois Women’s Movement

The first women's movements were bourgeois and limited their liberation struggle to their own class.
The first women's movements were bourgeois and limited their liberation struggle to their own class.

We have dealt in other articles about the origin of women’s oppression. The most famous book about this subject is Engels’ “The origin of the family, private property and the state”, where he argues that class societies and women’s oppression are a product of the rise of private propriety. Marxism explains that the root of women's oppression lies not in biology, but in social conditions. The first division of labour was between men and women, but this doesn’t mean that it coincided with the oppression of women. As long as the reproduction was organised in a collective way men and women had equal rights and the same status.

This changed with the ability of society to produce a surplus and the development of “the haves and have-nots”. The need to know the legitimate inheritor to pass the property on to forced women into a state of monogamy and bound them to the household. In contrast to all feminist currents which declare patriarchy as the origin of women’s oppression, Marxist theory explains that capitalism uses patriarchal structures for its own interests – to maintain the cheap and/or free labour of women by dividing the working class according to sex or race etc…

Although there has always been some kind of resistance against women’s oppression the mass movement was a child of capitalist society. For the first time in human history the material basis for complete social and economic equality of opportunity for men and women was brought into being. In previous class societies, like slavery and feudalism, women were a part of men’s household, but the development of capitalism shook this divine order. In the bourgeois revolution women played a very active role. The slogans of freedom, human rights and equality expressed exactly the thoughts and wishes of millions of women.

The so-called first women’s movement was basically a movement of bourgeois women. At the beginning they fought for complete social and economic emancipation through direct access to education. A famous representative in the French Revolution was Olympe de Gouges. In her famous “Declaration of Rights of Women and Female Citizens” De Gouges never questioned the bourgeois order but nevertheless her demands were still too radical and she was executed in 1793. Another activist was Rose Lacombe, who in contrast to De Gouges, tried to link up the struggles of female worker with a revolutionary perspective. She founded the “Association of revolutionary citizens” with the aim to organize working-class women.

In Germany and Austria in 1848 the bourgeoisie never played such a progressive as in France. Terrified by the awakening of the young working-class they moved back to the old ruling order and forgot very quickly everything about human rights, fraternity and equality. The same was true with the bourgeois women’s movement. With the exception of Louise Otto Peters   the Grande Dame of the German women’s movement   they capitulated and their revolutionary spirit was gone. Their criticisms of the common traditional gender roles, violence within the family and the horrible situation of women in the workplace became silent. The bourgeois women’s movement objected to the class struggle in principle. They fought for social and economic reforms within the capitalist system. With World War I and the Russian Revolution they were forced to show their true colours and most of them jumped (with their bourgeois men) into the bed of reaction.

There were exceptions, such as Sylvia Pankhurst of the Suffragettes (the British bourgeois women’s movement which also attracted working class women), a founder of the British Communist Party, who, while her sister Christabel Pankhurst (Suffragette and MP for the conservatives) was waging a fight against working class rights, was imprisoned for anti-war actions.

The Proletarian Women’s Movement

Clara Zetkin (on the picture) and Rosa Luxemburg argued for a general strike to achieve the right to vote for women and men but they were blocked by the reformists.
Clara Zetkin (on the picture) and Rosa Luxemburg argued for a general strike to achieve the right to vote for women and men but they were blocked by the reformists.

At the beginning the demands for the right to work and to vote, as well as decent working conditions, were shared by the whole of the women’s movement and thus many female workers were attracted to the different women’s associations. But with the rise of reaction after 1848 all these demands were put aside by the bourgeois women’s movement causing a necessary split and the birth of the proletarian women’s movement.

Clara Zektin paid tribute to the brave fighters of the first women’s movement but criticised their inability to break their links with the bourgeois system. This was clearly shown during the great uprising of the servants in 1899 when the bourgeois women, who felt threatened in their own privileges, cooperated with the police to pacify the movement. The bourgeois women often referred to their “poor sisters” in the factories and organised some charity keeping them dependent on arbitrary moral acts, as Zektin rightly stated: “to condemn the masses to the forces of reaction.”

The working class in the 19th century included not just men but also women. To reduce their wage costs many capitalist used the labour of women and children. The working day of women was one of long hours, dirty and loud workplaces, dangerous working conditions, sexual harassment and rape. After a day of work they also had to take care of the children and the whole household. Abortion was forbidden and many women died of the consequences of illegal abortion or birth complications. They had no rights, no access to education and the crushing burden of the clerical ideology made any attempt to flee this hell almost impossible. The young working class movement was the first that made the fate of these women public and fought for better conditions.

Among the first demands of the Social Democrats was the reduction of working hours for women. However, the social democratic movement was not free of bourgeois influence and sexist ideas. In 1866 the First International voted (under the influence of Proudhon) in favour of a resolution to abolish all kinds of female wage labour, however, Marx and Engels argued firmly against the resolution. The followers of Lassalle tried to push women out of the production process arguing about the “natural role of women”, in effect expressing their fear of extra competition from women in the labour market. In 1871 Marx succeeded in inserting into the statutes of the First International a clause allowing for the establishment of special women’s branches, which soon attracted thousands of female workers.

As we can see, the attempt to organize female workers was not welcomed by everybody. Just as the movement came under the pressure of alien bourgeois ideas in the form of a reformist wing, this same layer expressed backward sexist ideas, arguing for example that most of the women tended towards reactionary ideas and thus their right to vote would strengthen the conservatives. For example, when the idea was raised of organising married women, the Austrian party secretary Schuhmeier cried out: “My better half doesn’t need to be organized, I have organized her already at home.”

Engels once said: “Within the family the man is the bourgeois and the woman represents the proletariat”. The Marxists within the Party like Bebel, Zetkin, Luxemburg and Liebknecht advocated the theory of the emancipating force of wage labour, which brings out women from their isolation of domestic work and gives them some kind of independence. Debates on sexism, traditional gender roles and domestic violence etc., were subordinated to the economic discussion and class struggle.

The Marxists fought for social and political rights for women, but at the same time they were absolutely convinced that full emancipation could only be achieved in a socialist system, where the whole of reproduction (such as childcare, care for the elderly, housework etc…) would not be done free of charge.

The debate on how to organise women and for what was characteristic for the actual situation of the social democracy at the time. At the German party congress finally in 1891 most delegates voted in favour of the following demand: women’s right to vote, the creation of free schools for all sexes, public free medical health care, especially for childbirth. The ensuing debate on how to win the right to vote for women marked the split within the party between the reformists and the revolutionaries. Under the influence of the 1905 Russian revolution Zetkin and Luxemburg argued for a general strike to achieve the political aims of the movement, but the leaders of the reformist wing warned against “Russian conditions” (that meant they were warning against a revolutionary development) and argued that the masses would go out of control(!). By giving up the general strike as a mean of class struggle, the leaders were abandoning revolution, which was the only way of achieve socialism, and thus they were saying goodbye to the real emancipation of women.

The Austrian Social Democrats were considered as a model within the Second International. But here we see how far the reformist degeneration had already gone. In 1905 they decided to struggle only for the right to vote for men. The leader of the party, expressing an extreme gradualist approach, said at the women’s congress: “You have to ask yourself, whether the political situation is mature enough to fight for women’s right to vote… We must take the last step after the first. And the first step is the right to vote for men.” Thus, with the help of the women activists – these reformist leaders achieved their “first” goal   for men   and then stood still, until revolution forced them to move on.

The First International Women’s Congress was organised in 1907 in Stuttgart. Zetkin put forward the socialist position to fight for the full and equal right to vote for men and women. Against the resistance of the British and Austrian sections the resolution was passed and put forward to the Congress of the Second International. Under the influence of Luxemburg the Second Women’s Congress in 1910 called for a day of action against war. It condemned imperialist war and appealed to the international working class to show solidarity. An appeal that was ignored by most of the leaders of the Social Democratic parties… These examples show that often women played a more progressive and advanced role within the movement.

In 1915 Clara Zetkin once again organized – against the orders of the party leaders   another International Women’s Congress, to show a sign of international solidarity. The Austrians didn’t show up – strongly influenced by the official party line. Nevertheless the congress was a big success. The result of this congress was a huge campaign against the war. Zetkin was then arrested and the right wing within the Social Democracy had her removed from the editorial board of the largest proletarian newspaper for women “Die Gleichheit”. – a paper founded by Zetkin herself! The Russian Revolution, the founding of the Communist International and the complete political bankruptcy of the German Social Democracy led to the formation of the USPD, the Spartakusbund and later the German Communist Party. Apart from Zetkin and Luxemburg many other women played a leading role in this process.

World War I was a heavy defeat, especially for the international working class movement, whose leaders capitulated to national chauvinism and imperialist war. The Russian Revolution gave a new impetus and hope to the cause of the working class and women. Masses of women workers surged towards the party to use it as their instrument to fight for peace and socialism. In Austria and Germany (and elsewhere) the women workers in the factories were in the vanguard of the revolutionary movement which forced the bourgeois to introduce some reforms in order to prevent a socialist revolution. The right to vote, the shortening of the working day, a healthcare system, holidays and unemployment benefits were a big step forward for the (women) workers. But because these reforms were part of a move by the bourgeoisie, aided and abetted by the reformist leaders of the working class to derail the revolution, they marked a big step away from the struggle for a classless society without any kind of oppression and the full emancipation of women.

Rosa Luxemburg (and Karl Liebknecht) were murdered with the connivance of the right-wing Social Democratic leaders and thus the fascists began to raise their heads. Within a few years the working class had lost everything they had fought for and women were once again bound to the household and brutally oppressed by fascist ideology.

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