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John Passant

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February 2012



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My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

My interview Razor Sharp 11 February 2014
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp this morning. The Royal Commission, car industry and age of entitlement get a lot of the coverage. (0)

Razor Sharp 4 February 2014
Me on 4 February 2014 on Razor Sharp with Sharon Firebrace. (0)

Time for a House Un-Australian Activities Committee?
Tony Abbott thinks the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is Un-Australian. I am looking forward to his government setting up the House Un-Australian Activities Committee. (1)

Make Gina Rinehart work for her dole

Sick kids and paying upfront


Save Medicare

Demonstrate in defence of Medicare at Sydney Town Hall 1 pm Saturday 4 January (0)

Me on Razor Sharp this morning
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace this morning for Razor Sharp. It happens every Tuesday. (0)

I am not surprised
I think we are being unfair to this Abbott ‘no surprises’ Government. I am not surprised. (0)

Send Barnaby to Indonesia
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Women and revolution

One of the striking and inspiring features of the Egyptian revolution of 2011 was the involvement of women, writes Sandra Bloodworth in Socialist Alternative.

Defiance from Iran’s democracy movement.

Veiled and unveiled, old and young, women defied the patronising, sexist stereotypes attributed to them by both their own country and the West, where even feminists assume that women who wear Islamic dress are under the thumb of men and therefore incapable of political action. We saw them leading demonstrations, organising and speaking to the international media.

On the night of 2 February 2011, when Mubarak’s thugs attacked the demonstration in Tahrir Square in the centre of Cairo, the women played an important role. They helped organise the defence of the entrances, worked in the makeshift clinics tending the wounded, and some fought on the front lines.

Marxists are not surprised. This simply confirms one of our most fundamental propositions: that people change themselves when they stand up to their oppressors. The experience in Egypt is typical of the experience in revolutions in the modern era. Again and again, the question of women’s liberation has been raised when the oppressed have risen up, fighting for a better world. This is the answer to all those who wonder how women’s liberation will ever be won when they look around at our sexist society. So let’s look at why this is the case.

Once the passivity of ordinary life is broken by masses of people getting involved in protests, oppressed groups, especially women, can leap to the forefront of the struggle. The liberating experience is more intense for them than for others; they have less to lose and more to win than others, and so they can become the most enthusiastic, the most militant of the revolutionaries.

The women’s accounts give us a feel for the changes the revolution brought to their lives. Mona Seif said that, before the revolution, at demonstrations men told women to go to the back “and that used to anger me. But since January 25, people have begun to treat me as equal. We went through many ups and downs together. I felt it had become a different society – there was one Egypt inside Tahrir and another Egypt outside.”

The needs of the struggle challenge all the divisive ideas that dominate capitalist society. The need for solidarity and the involvement of broad layers of people are imperative if a revolutionary struggle is to grow and develop. And so the idea that women should not play a role, that they should not join the demonstrations, simply does not fit any longer.

Then the act of protesting, of defying the sexist stereotypes, changes women’s view of themselves. Their growing confidence confronts men’s attitudes towards them. Salma El Tarzi explained well why the men could begin treating women differently:

Something changed in the dynamic between men and women in Tahrir. When the men saw that women were fighting on the front line that changed their perception of us and we were all united.

As long ago as the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century, the relationship between revolution and women’s rights is clear. Then, the Ranters, the most radical of the organisations which emerged, championed women’s liberation.

In 1789 it was women from the Paris central markets who staged the second insurrection of the great French Revolution which shook feudal Europe to its foundations and ushered in modern society. They marched in their thousands, taking up arms, to Versailles to escort the royal family back to Paris to face the wrath of the revolutionaries. The working women’s clubs were some of the most radical of the radical clubs that were set up.

In the first workers’ revolution in Paris in 1871, women initiated and then played a vital role in the revolt which established the Paris Commune and showed that workers could create a more democratic society than the capitalists.

Some of the most inspiring scenes from the Russian Revolution of 1917 are of the downtrodden working women who began the February revolution in Petrograd. Their strikes and mobilisations on International Women’s Day drew the mass of workers into action. Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the revolution, paid tribute to the women in his History of the Russian Revolution. The women were the bravest and most determined in appealing to the soldiers to defy their officers, to put down their guns and join them. The women’s ability to win over the soldiers was critical in the downfall of the Tsar, one of the most brutal dictators in the whole of Europe.

In a little-known workers’ revolution in Hungary, a secret circular in the War Ministry, dated 3 May 1918 notes:

Women workers not only frequently attempt to disrupt factories by interrupting production, but even deliver inflammatory speeches, take part in demonstrations, marching in the foremost ranks with their babies in their arms, and behaving in an insulting manner towards the representatives of the law.

Again and again in revolutions we see the changes in women’s lives. They report that men learn to show more respect, but also that women are more prepared to stand up to any bad behaviour from men.

In a workers’ revolution in Spain in 1936–37, women reported that they drilled with the male militias and fought on the front lines against fascists, sleeping in camps surrounded by men. They never experienced sexual harassment. In Egypt, Gigi Ibrahim reported: “I slept in Tahrir with five men around me that I didn’t know and I was safe.”

In Russia during the 1917 revolution one of the memoirists tells of a soldier joking about whether he would be able to still beat his wife after the revolution and being almost lynched by women nearby standing in a bread queue. They let him know in no uncertain fashion that the old ways would no longer be tolerated.

Women are divided by class

However, as we celebrate the advances for women in the Egyptian revolution, we need to recognise that women are divided by class, because this is the fundamental cleavage in capitalist society. Upper class women can support demands for democracy, or want to win some reforms to make them more equal with the men in their class. But they always turn on the revolutionary working class women when they get the chance to restore capitalist order.

When the Paris Commune was suppressed, the women Communards were incarcerated in their thousands in filthy dungeons. Upper class women took tours of the dungeons for entertainment. Holding scented lace handkerchiefs to their noses against the stench, they poked the Communards with their delicate parasols as they gloated at their misery. They and the men of their class hoped such brutality and humiliation would discourage workers from ever rising up again.

In the first excitement of revolution, the class divisions can be obscured. In Egypt it seemed as if the whole nation except for a tiny ruling cabal was involved. This has been the experience in many revolutions. But once Mubarak fell and some degree of democracy seemed possible, the respectable capitalists and middle classes wanted no more of it. They wanted business as usual so they could get on with exploiting working class women and men.

But the mass of workers, peasants and the poor need a thoroughgoing social revolution to fundamentally change the way society is organised if they are to see an end to their misery. Voting once every few years for remote politicians will not gain workers’ rights or put food on their tables.

The same process unfolded from February to October in 1917 in Russia. At first, women of the capitalist class like the feminist Ariadna Tyrkova could write in their diaries of the joy on the faces of the masses in the streets, and the carnival atmosphere as they themselves celebrated the fall of the Tsar. But within days Tyrkova was referring with distaste to the “mobs” of women rioting and crying out for bread.

These feminists had made serious efforts to involve working class women in their organisations before the revolution, arguing that they were fighting for their rights too. But the revolution exposed this lie very quickly. Tyrkova and the other feminists of her class supported the new Provisional (capitalist) government in its efforts to continue the war, putting themselves in complete opposition to the working women for whom peace was one of their main demands. They wanted an end to the slaughter of their husbands, fathers, brothers and lovers in the trenches. What did the upper class women care? They wanted the war to continue to defend their imperialist interests.

By early 1918, after workers took power in October, all the upper and middle class feminists were supporting the White counter-revolution. Its forces were notorious for rape and other brutalities against working class and peasant women. The upper class women’s feminism counted for nothing in the class war to crush the workers’ government.

Today in Egypt, counter-revolution has been stalking the country for months. And some women who at first rallied in Tahrir Square now denigrate workers’ strikes and other ongoing protests for real social change as undermining the revolution. What they really mean is that the ongoing agitation by workers has the potential to undermine capitalists’ right to rule and to exploit the vast mass of the population.

And so if women’s liberation is to be won, workers, both women and men, need to unite to lead students and the poor in a revolution which completely overthrows capitalism. A new socialist society needs to be built. If the revolution stops halfway or is suppressed, allowing the capitalists to impose their rule again, everything will return to capitalist normality, and women’s oppression will continue.

Capitalism breeds women’s oppression

In the capitalist system, a tiny minority, the capitalists, live by employing the vast majority, half of whom are women, for less than the wealth they produce at work. That’s where their profits come from.

The capitalists have a constant interest in keeping down wages to maximise profits. They have a vested interest in keeping alive divisions among workers to make it harder to organise to win pay rises, to defend trade union rights, let alone to challenge their right to exploit us all.

And so the capitalist class has an interest in fomenting all kinds of oppression: migrants, refugees, religious minorities – all these are in many places oppressed. And everywhere, women’s oppression is of huge benefit to the capitalist system. For instance, if working class men act on the sexist ideas peddled day in and day out in the education system and the media and treat women disrespectfully, they weaken all of us in any struggle to unite against bosses.

But most fundamentally, the capitalists gain enormous extra wealth by employing half the workforce for lower wages than they would be able to if women were not oppressed. Whole industries like nursing, social welfare, some clerical work, to name just a few, suffer from low wages which save the bosses billions in taxes to fund them or bring increased profits directly into their pockets.

The capitalists, because of this vested interest in oppressing women, will always use their power, wealth and influence to ensure sexist and other divisive ideas are propagated throughout society. That’s why sexism, while it can be challenged, will never be eradicated in capitalist society.

On the other hand, the experience of revolutions gives us a glimpse of the solution. In the Russian Revolution, where workers actually took power away from the rulers for a brief few years, we see the real potential for women to win liberation.

After the February Revolution, but before they took power in October, workers strove to give women equality and dignity. It was taken for granted that they voted in the workers’ councils (soviets). In well-organised workplaces, if they couldn’t force employers to introduce equal pay, the best paid workers donated to a fund which was distributed to the lowest paid, usually women. They wanted to show that they stood for a decent, humane society.

The workers’ government set up by the soviets and headed by the Bolsheviks was able to build on that. Lenin’s first declaration when the workers’ and peasants’ soviets took power included the words “every cook will govern.” And he deliberately chose the female form of the Russian word for “cook”, reflecting the high hopes the revolutionaries had for women’s liberation. The government included two women, the Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai and Maria Spiridonova of the Socialist Revolutionary Party of the peasants, years ahead of other countries.

They set about passing decrees which gave women social and sexual freedom. They ended the authority of heads of families; illegitimacy was abolished as a legal concept; paid maternity leave before and after birth was enshrined in law; adultery, incest and homosexuality were removed from the criminal code. They granted same-sex marriage, something we’re still fighting for in Australia! After some debate, in 1920, the soviets introduced the right to abortion, in this country which had been dominated by the church for centuries. And there are no instances in which workers tried to overturn these reforms.

The tragedy was that, with the economy devastated by the world war, and then civil war with the Whites (who were backed by all the imperialist countries of the West), workers lost control. Stalin’s counter-revolution reversed all the gains of the revolution after the late 1920s as he established a brutal, state-run form of capitalism again. His systematic attack on every reform which had improved women’s lives shows that women’s oppression is part and parcel of a class society. It shows conclusively that to win women’s liberation we need a revolution which destroys capitalism root and branch.

Without a class which lives by exploitation ruling over the majority, there would be no class or social force with an interest in oppressing women (or anyone else). A new society could be built on the basis of collectivity and democracy like that which the Russian workers and peasants exercised for a short period before their defeat.

Women’s liberation is an integral and inevitable part of the class struggle and ultimately revolution. The words of two revolutionary women illustrate the point and link the struggles of the mass of workers, peasants and the poor in the Europe and Russia of a century ago with those unfolding in the Arab world today.

The first words are from Alexandra Kollontai, who was loved across Europe in the workers’ movement for her oratory, her dedication to the fight for working women’s rights and for workers’ revolution. She was writing about her experience from the early 1890s to about 1924:

At a time of unrest and strike action proletarian woman, downtrodden, timid and without rights, suddenly grows and learns to stand tall and straight. The self-centred, narrow-minded and politically backward ‘female’ becomes an equal, a fighter and a comrade.

The transformation…reveals the way in which participation in the workers’ movement brings the woman worker towards her liberation, not only as a seller of her labour power but also as a woman.

And Salma El Tarzi said of her experience in Egypt in 2011: “Before January 25 I didn’t have faith that my voice could be heard. I didn’t feel like I was in control of my future. The revolution woke us up – a collective consciousness has been awoken.”

The Arab world has put revolution firmly on the agenda for the twenty-first century. And so women’s liberation is posed as a real possibility. This is a marvellous time to be a revolutionary.



Comment from Terrance
Time March 1, 2012 at 12:13 pm

It’s hard to argue that capitalism breeds women’s oppression when we have seen female leaders in many capitalist countries – the UK, Ireland, Finland, India, New Zealand, Australia, Israel, the Philippines, Pakistan (3rd world but not socialist either), Liberia (ditto) and more.

By contrast women cannot even vote in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait or Palestine. China and the old USSR have never had women in senior government roles and the oppression of women is continuing in emerging fundamentalist Muslim countries.

Capitalism is many things, but the system worships money, investment and expansion and in that sense in gender neutral. Australia’s richest person is a woman! Hard to see how Gina is oppressed.

Comment from ng
Time March 2, 2012 at 12:43 pm

the picture is from the IRanian uprising of 2009 and not Egypt – please acknowledge !

the above comment – it really is silly to think of the measure of oppresssion or liberation in terms of occupying roles in state apparatuses – albetit a top one – it really is very silly…..and we do not use the term ‘third world’ as such any more, even when the eastern bloc existed…you in Australia seem to be perpetually the ‘third world’ of intellect…sorry I do not have time to comment or read your posts john ….cheers ng

Comment from John
Time March 2, 2012 at 2:20 pm

I agree ng that the idea that because women are prime ministers and therefore that oppression has finished is silly, but the level of comment on this site by trolls like Terrance is not of a high standard.

Comment from Terrance
Time March 3, 2012 at 3:07 pm

I am not a troll, I rarely post and my comments are genuine and designed to further discussion.

However, of one is talk about ‘silly’ it would be to conclude an article about oppression with an advert to buy a replica of the MHS Victory, a symbol of British invasion and colonisation!

I’m sure it is not intentional, but do you not see an irony in oppossing oppression and buying a figurine of the greatest oppressors of all – the British.

Comment from John
Time March 3, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Of course you are not a troll Terrance. You, Wendy, Leonora and whoever else you paraded as were just making intelligent comments no doubt; not harassing, bullying or intimidating me as the UC policy puts it. And definitely not threatening me and making me feel unsafe in my own then workplace. No, never. Keep hiding behind your fake name, troll.

Comment from John
Time March 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm

Hey Terrance. Where do you work? Study?

Comment from ng
Time March 4, 2012 at 6:41 pm

Pls just ignore him and he will get tired and go away – just imagine harassing you …he has nothing better to do….

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