Red Letter
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Women in the Future (from Woman and Socialism)
by August Bebel
Estimated Reading Time: 9 min

As we examine the writing of the Second International (1889–1916), its failures and legacies, we have begun with several writings offering a Marxist socialist analysis of gender and almost a proto-feminism. The two writers, both men, that ushered in this analysis were Frederick Engels with The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) and August Bebel's Woman and Socialism (1879; sometimes translated as Woman under Socialism). Bebel's book would go through many updates and editions for the rest of Bebel's life. In the canon of socialist books, it was incredibly popular. Yesterday's introduction to the book by Rida Vaquas paints a vivid portrait of how impactful it was on readers, especially women unsurprisingly.

We'll return to Engels's Origin later in the year, but today's reading is one of Bebel's final chapters. Before we read that, let's begin with Bebel's conclusion and what it leads to. There are clear shortcoming in the analysis of the plight of women written by men of the Victorian-era. Their prejudices and assumptions are still with some of us today, but also note the grand pronouncement of who the future belongs to:

Woman, too, and especially the proletarian woman, has been called upon, not to lag behind in this struggle that is being fought for her liberation and redemption also. It is up to her to prove that she has recognized her true position in the movement, and in the struggle of the present for a better future, and that she is determined to participate. It is the duty of the men to help her to cast aside all prejudices and to take part in the great struggle. Let no one underestimate his strength, and think that his help is of no consequence. In the struggle for the progress of mankind, no power, not even the weakest, can be spared. The steady fall of drops will finally hollow the hardest stone. Many drops make a brook, the brooks make a river, and the rivers make a stream. Finally, no obstacle is strong enough to hem the stream’s majestic course. It is the same with the development of man. If all who feel called upon devote their whole strength to this struggle, the ultimate victory will be certain. This victory will be all the greater, the more eagerly and unselfishly each one pursues the mapped out path. Doubts, whether the individual for all his sacrifices, toils and efforts, may still live to see the dawn of a new, more beautiful period of civilization, must not effect us, nor must they prevent us from pursuing the chosen path. We can neither determine the length, nor the nature of the phases of development, that this struggle for the highest aims must still pass thru; we can do this as little as we have any certainty in regard to the duration of our lives. But as we are dominated by the joy of living, so may we also cherish the hope that we may five to see this victory. We are living in an age that rushes forward “with seven league boots,” and that makes all enemies of a new, higher order of society tremble.

Every day furnishes new proof of the rapid growth, and the tremendous spread of Socialist thought. Everywhere there is motion and progress. The dawn of a better day is drawing nigh. So let us struggle and strive onward, regardless of “where” and “when” the boundary-posts of a new and better age for mankind will be raised. If we should fall in the course of this great struggle for liberation, others will take our place. We will fall with the consciousness of having done our duty as human beings, and with the conviction that the goal will be attained, no matter how the powers hostile to humanity may oppose and resist the triumphal march of progress.

“The future belongs to Socialism, that is, primarily, to the worker and to woman.”

This chapter may be brief. It merely contains the conclusions that may be drawn in regard to the position of woman in future society, from all that has been said so far; conclusions that every reader can easily draw for himself.

In the new society woman will be entirely independent, both socially and economically. She will not be subjected to even a trace of domination and exploitation, but will be free and man’s equal, and mistress of her own lot. Her education will be the same as man’s, with the exception of those deviations that are necessitated by the differences of sex and sexual functions. Living under normal conditions of life, she may fully develop and employ her physical and mental faculties. She chooses an occupation suited to her wishes, inclinations and abilities, and works under the same conditions as man. Engaged as a practical working woman in some field of industrial activity, she may, during a second part of the day, be educator, teacher or nurse, during a third she may practice a science or an art, and during a fourth she may perform some administrative function. She studies, works, enjoys pleasures and recreation with other women or with men, as she may choose or as occasions may present themselves.

In the choice of love she is as free and unhampered as man. She woos or is wooed, and enters into a union prompted by no other considerations but her own feelings. This union is a private agreement, without the interference of a functionary, just as marriage has been a private agreement until far into the middle ages. Here Socialism will create nothing new, it will merely reinstate, on a higher level of civilization and under a different social form, what generally prevailed before private property dominated society.

Man shall dispose of his own person, provided that the gratification of his impulses is not harmful or detrimental to others. The satisfaction of the sexual impulse is as much the private concern of each individual, as the satisfaction of any other natural impulse. No one is accountable to any one else, and no third person has a right to interfere. What I eat and drink, how I sleep and dress is my private affair, and my private affair also is my intercourse with a person of the opposite sex. Intelligence and culture, personal independence, – qualities that will become natural, owing to the education and conditions prevailing in the new society, – will prevent persons from committing actions that will prove detrimental to themselves. Men and women of future society will possess far more self-control and a better knowledge of their own natures, than men and women of to-day. The one fact alone, that the foolish prudery and secrecy connected with sexual matters will disappear, will make the relation of the sexes a far more natural and healthful one. If between a man and woman who have entered into a union, incompatibility, disappointment or revulsion should appear, morality commands a dissolution of the union which has become unnatural, and therefore immoral. As all those circumstances will have vanished that have so far compelled a great many women either to chose celibacy or prostitution, men can no longer dominate over women. On the other hand, the completely changed social conditions will have removed the many hindrances and harmful influences that affect married life to-day and frequently prevent its full development or make it quite impossible.

The impediments, contradictions and unnatural features in the present position of woman are being recognized by ever wider circles, and find expression in our modern literature on social questions, as well as in modern fiction; only the form in which it is expressed sometimes fails to answer the purpose. That present day marriage is not suited to its purpose, is no longer denied by any thinking person. So it is not surprising that even such persons favor a free choice of love and a free dissolution of the marriage relation, who are not inclined to draw the resulting conclusions that point to a change of the entire social system. They believe that freedom in sexual intercourse is justifiable among members of the privileged classes only. 1. “Rights of Women and Duties of Women.” A Reply to Fanny Lewald’s Epistles: “For and against Women.” In a controversy,1 in which she opposes the emancipation of women as set forth by the writer, Fanny Lewald, Matilde Reichhardt-Stromberg says the following:

“If you (F. L.), demand complete equality for women in social and political life, George Sand must also be justified in her struggles for emancipation, that strove for nothing else but to possess what has long since been man’s undisputed possession. For no good reason is to be found why only woman’s head, and not also her heart, shall participate in this equality, why she shall not give and take as freely as man. On the contrary: if nature gives woman the right, and thereby also the duty, – for we shall not bury a talent bestowed upon us, – to exert her brain to the utmost in competition with the intellectual Titans of the opposite sex, it must also give her the light to preserve her equilibrium, just as they do, by quickening the circulation of her heart in whatever manner she may see fit. We all read without being shocked in the least how, for instance, Goethe, – to choose the greatest as an example, – again and again wasted the warmth of his heart and the enthusiasm of his great soul upon some other woman. Intelligent people consider this perfectly natural, and only narrow-minded moralists condemn it. Why, then, deride the “great souls” among women? Let us assume that the entire female sex consisted of great souls like George Sand; let us assume that every woman were a Lucretia Florini, whose children are all children of love, but who brings up these children with true motherly love and devotion, as well as in a rational and intelligent manner. How would the world fare? There is no doubt that the world could continue to exist and develop as to-day, and might even fare exceptionally well.”

But why should only “great souls” lay claim to this right, and not also the others who are no great souls? If a Goethe and a George Sand, – to select only these two from among the many who have done and are doing likewise, – could follow the inclinations of their hearts, if on Goethe’s love affairs, especially, entire libraries are published that are devoured in a sort of reverend ecstasy by his admirers, why should we condemn in others what becomes an object of admiration in the case of a Goethe, or a George Sand?

Of course, it is impossible to assert the free choice of love in bourgeois society, as we have shown by our entire line of argument, but if the community were placed under similar social conditions as are enjoyed today only by the few who are materially and intellectually favored, all would have the possibility of a similar freedom. In “Jacques,” George Sand depicts a husband who judges the illicit relation of his wife with another man in the following manner: “no human being can command love, and none is guilty, if he feels or goes without it. What degrades the woman is the lie; what constitutes the adultery is not the hour she grants to her lover, but the night that she thereupon spends with her husband.” As a result of this conception, Jacques feels it to be his duty to make way for his rival (Borel), and philosophizes accordingly: “Borel, in my place, would have calmly beaten his wife, and would not have blushed to receive her into his arms afterwards, degraded by his blows and his kisses. There are men who would not hesitate, according to oriental custom, to kill their faithless wife, because they regard her as their lawful property. Others fight a duel with their rival, kill or remove him, and then beg the woman, whom they claim to love, for kisses or caresses, while she either withdraws full of horror or yields in despair. These, in cases of conjugal love, are the most common ways of acting, and it seems to me that the love of hogs is less vile and debasing, than the love of such men.” To these sentences, Brandes observes: George Brandes: “The literature of the Nineteenth Century,” Leipsic, 1883. 2 These truths, that are elemental ones to educated persons to-day, were atrocious sophisms fifty years ago.” But the propertied and cultured classes do not venture even to-day, openly to avow the principles of George Sand, altho they actually live in accordance with them. They are hypocrites in marriage, as they are hypocrites in morals and religion.

What was done by Goethe and George Sand, is being done by thousands of others to-day, who cannot bear comparison with Goethe or Sand, without suffering a loss of social esteem. Everything can be done if people hold a respected position. Nevertheless the liberties of a Goethe and a George Sand are immoral from the standpoint of bourgeois morality, for they are in opposition to the moral laws laid down by society, and are in contradiction to the nature of our social system. Compulsory marriage is the normal marriage to bourgeois society. It is the only “moral” union of the sexes; any other sexual union is “immoral.” Bourgeois marriage is, – this we have irrefutably proved, – the result of bourgeois relations. Closely connected with private property and the right of inheritance, it is contracted to obtain “legitimate” children. Under the pressure of social conditions it is forced also upon those who have nothing to bequeath. It becomes a social law, the violation of which is punished by the state, by imprisonment of the men or women who have committed adultery and have become divorced.

But in Socialistic society there will be nothing to bequeath, unless house furnishings and personal belongings should be regarded as hereditary portions; so the modern form of marriage becomes untenable from this point of view also. This also settles the question of inheritance, which Socialism will not need to abolish. Where there is no private property, there can be no right of inheritance. So woman will be free, and the children she may have will not impair her freedom, they will only increase her pleasure in life. Nurses, teachers, women friends, the rising female generation, all these will stand by her when she is in need of assistance.

It is possible that there will be some men, even in the future, who will say, like A. Humboldt: “I am not built to become the father of a family. Moreover, I consider marriage a sin, the begetting of children a crime.” What does it matter? The force of the natural impulse will establish the equilibrium with others. We are not alarmed either by Humboldt’s hostility to marriage, or by the philosophic pessimism of Schopenhauer, Mainlander or v. Hartmann, who hold out to man the prospect of self-destruction in the “ideal state.” We are fully agreed with Dr. Ratzel, who writes on this subject:

Man should no longer regard himself an exception to natural laws. He should finally strive to recognize the laws underlying his own thoughts and actions, and should endeavor to live in accordance with these laws. He will eventually learn to arrange his life with his fellow-beings, that is, the family and the state, not according to the precepts laid down in centuries gone by, but according to the rational principles derived from an understanding of nature. Politics, morals, laws, that are at present drawn from various sources, will be shaped according to natural laws. An existence worthy of human beings, that mankind has been dreaming of for thousands of years, will become a reality at last. Quoted by Ernst Haeckel in his “Natural Story of Creation.” 3

This time is rapidly approaching. For thousands of years human society has passed thru all phases of development, only to return to its starting point: communistic property and complete liberty and fraternity: but no longer only for the members of the gens, but for all human beings. That is what the great progress consists of. What bourgeois society has striven for in vain, in what it failed and was bound to fail, – to establish liberty, equality and fraternity for all, – will be realized by Socialism. Bourgeois society could merely advance the theory, but here, as in many other things, practice was contrary to the theories. Socialism will unite theory and practice.

But as mankind returns to the starting point of its development, it will do so on an infinitely higher level of civilization. If primitive society had common ownership in the gens and the clan, it was but in a coarse form and an undeveloped stage. The course of development that man has since undergone, has reduced common property to small and insignificant remnants, has shattered the gens and has finally atomized society; but in its various phases it has also greatly heightened the productive forces of society and the extensiveness of its demands; it has transformed the gentes and the tribes into nations, and has thereby again created a condition that is in glaring contradiction to the requirements of society. It is the task of the future to remove this contradiction by reestablishing the common ownership of property and the means of production on the broadest basis.

Society takes back what it has at one time possessed and has itself created, but it enables all to live in accordance with the newly created conditions of life on the highest level of civilization. In other words, it grants to all what under more primitive conditions has been the privilege of single individuals or classes. Now woman, too, is restored to the active position maintained by her in primitive society; only she no longer is mistress, but man’s equal.

“The end of the development of the state resembles the beginnings of human existence. Primitive equality is reinstated. The maternal material existence opens and closes the cycle of human affairs.” Thus Backofen, in his book on “The Matriarchate;” and Morgan says: “Since the advent of civilization, the increase of wealth has been so enormous, its forms so varied, its application so extensive, and its administration so skillful in the interest of the owners, that this wealth has become an invincible power against the people. The human mind is helpless and bewildered in the face of its own creation. And yet the time will come, when human intelligence will be sufficiently strong to master wealth, when it will determine both the relation of the state to the property that it protects, and the limit of the rights of individual owners. The interests of society are absolutely paramount to individual interests, and both must be placed into a just and harmonious relation. Pursuit of wealth is not the ultimate aim of man, if progress is to remain the law of the future as it has been the law of the past. The time that has elapsed since the advent of civilization is only a small fraction of the past existence of humanity; it is only a small fraction of its coming existence. We are threatened by the dissolution of society as the termination of a historic career, whose sole aim is wealth; for a career of this sort contains the elements of its own destruction. Democracy in administration, fraternity in social relations, general education, – these will initiate the next, higher stage of society, toward which experience, reason and science are constantly leading us. It will. be a resurrection, only in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the old gens. Quoted by Ernst Haeckel in his “Natural Story of Creation.” 4

So men, proceeding from the most varied standpoints, arrive at the same conclusions, as a result of their scientific investigations. The complete emancipation of woman, and her establishment of equal rights with man is one of the aims of our cultured development, whose realization no power on earth can prevent. But it can be accomplished only by means of a transformation that will abolish the rule of man over man, including the rule of the capitalist over the laborer. Then only can humanity attain its fullest development. The “golden age” of which men have been dreaming, and for which they have been yearning for thousands of years, will come at last. Class rule will forever be at an end, and with it the rule of man over woman.

Women in the Future
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