“The future belongs to Socialism, that is, primarily, to the worker and to women.”
A book titled Women and Socialism written by a man may not seem promising to us in 2019. Yet August Bebel, one of the founders of the German Social Democratic Party and its chairman until his death, wrote this book in 1879 – and it soon became one of the most widely bought, borrowed, read and translated books in the German socialist movement and further afield. By 1895, it was on its 25th print run in Germany. By 1909, it was on its 50th. Records from workers’ libraries in this period demonstrate that Women and Socialism was one of the most frequently borrowed books.
Bebel built his book’s argument in encounter with other attempts at developing an analysis of gender according to Marxist principles, most notably work by Friedrich Engels, whose own analysis The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State was published five years later. He traced the position of women in class societies from primeval society to contemporary industrial society and made the case that the root of oppression is the economic dependence of women upon men. The conclusion, groundbreaking at the time, was that women must participate in the class struggle, which was a struggle for their own liberation. The socialist revolution will mean that “class rule will forever be at an end, and with it the rule of man over woman.”
If the book’s contents scandalised German elites, its readers further startled them. Women and Socialism is a unique look into the intellectual life of a radical working class movement and its international orientation. Luise Zietz, the daughter of a weaver, described her first experience reading it at the end of the 1880s: “When I, as a youthful woman, took Bebel’s book Women and Socialism into my hands, I felt the same way so many proletarian women did: as if the scales had fallen from our eyes”. She later became one of the leading organisers of the women’s section of Social Democracy. In 1908, the party’s newspaper Vorwärts reported the decision of women in the Tegel association to set up a fortnightly discussion circle for women members with Women and Socialism as its basis. The public meetings on the theme are too numerous to be outlined. For working class women, Bebel’s book was an invitation into the movement, an assertion of their place within it, and a powerful means by which to understand their social conditions.
The book’s subversive impact did not stop at German borders. Vorwärts informed its readers with pride in 1895 that the Italian translation of ‘Women and Socialism’ had been outlawed in Austrian Trieste. It took a similar tone when the Czech translation was confiscated by Prague authorities in 1909. The first English translations appeared in 1885 in London and in 1886 in New York. In 1904, excerpts were translated into Japanese by Toshihiko Sakai and Shusui Kotoku. The story of Women and Socialism is not the story of one man and his ideas: its enduring impact was made possible by a collective movement that crossed borders and decades. Its circulation is the work of hundreds of translators, agitators and comrades, many of whom we will never know.
140 years later, what remains of Bebel’s future in an era of climate collapse and widening inequality? In the last half of the twentieth century, endeavours to synthesise Marxist and feminist thought blossomed, leading to lively and ongoing debates ranging from whether capitalism requires women’s oppression to the role of domestic life in reproducing capitalist relations. Yet simultaneously, it is hard to imagine an organised working class women’s movement to match the scale of the Social Democratic women’s movement in Germany, which counted 174,574 members by 1914. To believe in the future that belongs to workers and to women is not a promise of a future utopia, it is a framework by which to resolve this fatal discrepancy. Liberation is not ultimately the struggle by which we ameliorate one or two conditions or attain this or that individual right: it is a total transformation of every facet of how our society works. This transformation is the work of a working class party, the kind of party which Bebel dedicated his life to build.
Women and Socialism is a radical book precisely because the working class, a truly international class of all races and genders, made it their own. It is a testament to a labour movement exhilarated by the possibility of changing the world and one which thought seriously about what a good life could be. This question of a good life has been taken up by many successive generations of socialist feminists, including recently Lynne Segal in Radical Happiness. Perhaps the future can belong to us when this question is taken up at party meetings.