The Guardian • Issue #2093

‘A properly liberated socialist nation’

  • by Amelia
  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2093
CPA Canberra Branch marching.

8 March International Women’s Day was celebrated by the Communist Party of Australia. The Guardian is proud to present an excellent speech made on the occasion by Amelia of the Canberra Branch

It’s a pleasure and an honour to be speaking at this session alongside comrades who are an inspiration to me.

My warm thanks to the NSW women’s fraction for organising this event, and particular thanks to comrades Lilly, Alyssa, Skye, and Anna.

In her excellent Guardian article on International Women’s Day, Anna Pha notes how much further women need to advance “if they are to achieve economic equality with men, physical security, and empowerment.”

In this talk I want to suggest how these three things go together, and the advances being made in this area in countries with real existing socialism, with a particular focus on China.

Friedrich Engels, in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) describes how the economic subordination of working class women repeatedly physically endangers them: it means workplace injuries in factories, complications when giving birth, sexual violence from co-workers and employers, and the dangers and indignities that come with being in unsafe housing or homeless.

In his more theoretical, later work, Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), Engels analyses gender relations as social relations; shaped by division of labour between men and women, and divisions of property between men and women. The organisation of property forms the basis for the nature of the family (and gender relations) and the organisation of the state. Engels describes how “in most historical states the rights conceded to citizens are graded on a property basis, whereby it is directly admitted that the state is an organisation for the protection of the possessing class against the non-possessing class.”

We can see how this plays out in bourgeois states historically, and how it is inflected by gender. During Engels’ life, in Victorian Britain, laws restricted property ownership of women – and rendered what they owned, including their persons, the property of their husband. Centuries earlier in the West the legal idea of rape predates notions of consent, and emerges as a property violation – an injury or theft to a woman who was legally viewed as another man’s – usually her father’s property.

While, in Australia, broadly speaking, there have been advances in women’s legal standing in relation to men, our position relative to our stage of development is remarkably poor. We see the high rates of women killed by their partners or ex-partners, the growing outrage at inadequacy of the police in responding appropriately or taking physical danger to women seriously. Our bodies might be our own in the letter of the law but they aren’t when it comes to law enforcement.

I’ll turn to how in different systems, with different organisations of property and production, social relations have become or are becoming radically different, and so are relations between different genders. I’m going to suggest that this would also be the case if Australia was to be a properly liberated nation with a socialist system.

This is not magical thinking, but based on materialist understanding of how economics informs social relations.

I’ve spent much of my working life working in really existing socialism, specifically in China.

An unknown factor of socialist countries, usually completely ignored, is the emergence of new social relations. In socialist economic systems with different organisations of production, we have seen in concrete forms the emergence of new kinds of gender relations as well. In Cuba, the Family Code (2022) is an example of this. By contrast, Chile was unable to pass legislation of this kind in its referendum (also 2022). We can see here how the gap is widening between what socialist and non-socialist countries are able to do.

A lot the time we speak of socialist ‘systems’ in the abstract, but what we don’t talk about is how these systems produce socialist societies and new socialist social relations as well.

China’s advances in women’s economic empowerment cannot be separated from the CPC’s remarkable achievements in poverty alleviation. By lifting the lives of more than 800 million people out of extreme poverty, China has improved the safety and economic empowerment of women on a drastic scale, the largest global reduction of inequality in modern history, and recent years have seen a growing focus in poverty reduction schemes that specifically target women’s economic empowerment.

In October 2022, China’s National People’s Congress’ Standing Committee approved a major overhaul of the Women’s Rights and Interests Protection Law. The revised Law took effect on 1 January 2023. It was a sweeping law to afford women greater protections at work and against sexual harassment, ensuring for instance, that women who take maternity leave aren’t discriminated against in terms of promotions, and included provisions to allow access to maternity insurance for single women. The bill received a tremendous amount of public attention: over 166,000 people submitted more than 720,000 comments during the two rounds of public consultation. It got little to no attention in Western media despite being a major advance in Chinese socialist democracy and a major step towards building women’s economic empowerment.

When I lived in China for five years, in Shanghai and then Nanjing, I would often walk the streets alone, through parks, sometimes late at night, with a sense of safety and security supported by public infrastructure that made the streets safe, that I miss here in Australia. This was not just my lived experience, but reflected in China’s own statistics surrounding people’s sense of safety, which has increased from 87.55 per cent in 2012 to 98.62 per cent in 2021. China also has low rates of violent crime.

In Australia, we have a lot of discussion, but our system does not protect the safety of working class women, and it is easy to fall into despair, especially given how public debate in Australia is often a discussion that ends up with just more misunderstandings of the contradictions of capital. We have right-wing identity politics, misdirections of anger and distraction, with disaffected men blaming feminism for alienation and economic disempowerment under a Western capitalist system, militarised right-wing terror and incel movements reacting to feminist and anti-racist movements, and so on. In short, a lot of chaos, hate and anger, but no solutions.

We communists recognise that capitalist social relations in the bourgeois state fuel hate crimes and sexist violence.

Only by changing the underlying productive modes can we eliminate these superstructural calamities.

In conclusion: the physical safety of women is fundamentally an economic issue, and is inseparable from the socialism we are willing to pursue. Only a dictatorship of the proletariat of the kind we see in Cuba and China will be sufficient to bring forward sweeping changes to our legal system and across society, to introduce new order and security for working women.

We can’t change all this just on the level of cultural superstructure, we need to change it on the level of the base, through seizing and re-organising the means of production, bending production towards people, and opening up the possibility of a long-term dictatorship of the proletariat.

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