In a socialist society the means of producing wealth would be transferred from the hands of an unelected corporate elite, concerned only with making a profit, to the democratic control of ordinary working people. Society could then be planned to meet the needs of the majority, not just a privileged few, and we could lay the basis for eliminating poverty, inequality, violence, oppression, and environmental destruction. Already existing technology and wealth could be used for the benefit of the whole of society in an environmentally sustainable way and new wealth and resources could be generated by eliminating the duplication and waste which exist under capitalism and through rational planning.
Despite the trappings of democracy, under capitalism, real decision-making about most of the main issues which affect our lives resides ultimately with the small minority who have economic and social control. Socialism, based on democratic public ownership of the main businesses and financial institutions, would enable working-class people to have genuine control over every aspect of their lives. Through democratically-elected committees in the workplaces and communities it would be possible to participate in the running of society at every level.
Socialism would dramatically transform the lives of all women and those of working-class women in particular. The ending of production for profit and its replacement with democratic collective planning would enable the freeing-up of resources to ensure that everybody had access to well-paid work, guaranteed health care, a pension and cheap, quality housing. This would guarantee economic independence for women, bringing an end to poverty and allowing women real choice in personal relationships.
A planned economy would invest in the provision of public services such as childcare, eldercare, and facilities for the disabled, relieving many of the burdens which individual families, and women in particular, shoulder today. Under capitalism, women are constantly made to feel guilty – guilty if they want to stay at home and look after their children and are claiming state benefits, guilty if they leave their children in order to go out to work. The provision of good quality, flexible,childcare and jobs with flexible hours and a combination of part time work and parental benefit – all of which benefits children as well as parents – would remove that guilt and offer parents real choice.
Together with a drastic reduction in the number of hours that people work, women’s lives would be transformed. More free time would be available for relationships, for enjoyment, and for training and education, allowing women to reach their full potential in a way that is impossible for the majority under capitalism. It would also enable women to participate in the democratic decision-making and running of society, whether in their workplace, local community, or on a broader level.
In capitalist society, housing is a huge problem for so many working-class and young people. When relationships break down, working-class women can face homelessness or a life in precarious housing. Working-class men’s relationships with their children also often suffer because of the way in which the social welfare system is geared around the “nuclear” family. Good quality, publicly-provided housing, flexibly responsive to the needs of ordinary people, would relieve the financial and other stresses which expensive or inadequate housing place on individuals and personal relationships. It would mean that when relationships come to an end, for whatever reason, neither women, children, nor men would be disadvantaged. And once the nuclear family was divested of its economic and social functions, people would be free to form relationships and households however they choose.
Under socialism, service recipients would be able to participate democratically in the running of all public services. A democratically-planned and integrated transport system, for example, would take into account the needs of all users as well as the environment. Other services, which are currently in the hands of private businesses and often only accessible to the rich, could be publicly provided and available to everyone. High-quality public restaurants would enable everyone to eat out rather than prepare meals at home, if that was what they wanted. Similarly, many household chores could be mechanized or provided collectively. This would have nothing in common with “domestic service” in the past. This already happens to a certain extent under capitalism, but it is mainly the wealthy who can afford cleaners, gardeners, interior decorators, etc. New technological developments could relieve the monotony and grind of many jobs, not just in the workplace but also in the home.
A Real Right to Choose
A socialist health service would also have sufficient resources to harness scientific and technological developments for the benefit of everyone, as well as massively increasing investment in preventative care. While this would benefit women’s health in general, it would also give real choice over when and whether to have children.
Although increased accessibility to contraception and abortion has contributed to enormous changes in women’s lives in many countries, a “woman’s right to choose” does not truly exist today. Contraception is not always 100% safe, is not always accessible, and often brings risks to women’s health.
In a socialist society, the companies which produce contraceptives would be taken into public ownership and integrated into the health system. By withdrawing the profit motive, it would be possible to carry out research into safer contraception, both in terms of its ability to prevent pregnancy and its effect on women’s health. Similarly, it would be possible to carry out proper research into other issues associated with reproduction, such as menstrual and menopausal problems, and consequently develop safe remedies. The same goes for the pharmaceutical and medical industry as a whole.. Whereas now these industries are run in the interest of profit, oftentimes focusing on symptom-based treatment rather than cures, a socialist health system would be freed up from these restraints, allowing scientists and doctors to advance their research and treatment in new directions.
Today, even in countries which have relatively liberal abortion laws on paper, a woman’s right to abortion is threatened by economic cuts and by moral and religious objections. While abortion is legal in the U.S., access is another question, with many states in the South having only a handful of providers. Restrictive laws at the state and local levels combined with often high costs of reproductive care often make real “choice” impossible for poor and working-class women.
In a socialist society, access to abortion as safe and early as possible would be available as a backup for any woman who needed it. However, with better contraception, with sex education removed from the moral and social constraints which still surround it under capitalism, and with the economic changes in women’s and men’s lives, unwanted pregnancies would undoubtedly diminish significantly. The number one reason women cite for having an abortion today are financial constraints. A socialist society would remove this constraint, allowing women the freedom not just to have an abortion, but the freedom to have a child should they want one.
At the same time, women and men with fertility problems would no longer be denied the right to have children because of insufficient resources or moral objections. A planned economy would enable resources to be allocated toward developing technology to aid fertility and massively increasing spending on research into environmental and other causes of infertility.
The Beauty Industry
The beauty industry is a constantly evolving behemoth that has had a tremendously negative impact on young women – and men. In 2017, the market for beauty and personal care products reached $86 billion in the U.S. By developing a constantly changing standard of what is considered beautiful, there are seemingly endless avenues for this industry to make a profit. In the early 20th century, both skin-bleaching products and self-tanning products soared in sales. The same major corporations will sell products to make your straight hair curly and your curly hair straight. In order for this industry to continue to make a profit, it has to constantly update the general standard for what is beautiful in order to sell new products. This has tragic effects on women in particular who struggle with body image issues. At least 30 million Americans struggle with an eating disorder.
While there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to look and feel good, a for-profit beauty industry makes money by insisting you do not look good and the only way you can is by buying their product. Under a democratically planned economy, where our looks are not commodified and compared with the same intensity and vitriol, people of all genders will be able to determine for themselves what makes them feel and look good.
It is clear, even from such a brief outline, that from an economic point of view, moving from the anarchy of the profit system to a democratically-planned socialist system would drastically improve the lives of all working-class people and women in particular. However, as Engels explained, changing the economic basis of society also impacts on social relations. Capitalism is organized around the private ownership of the means of production and motivated by profit and competition. It is a system based on exploitation and inequality. This is in turn reflected in social structures, in the values and culture of society, and in personal relations.
Socialism, in contrast, would be based on collective ownership and democratic control of the economy. Exploitation, inequality, and hierarchy would be replaced by cooperation and negotiation. This would inevitably impact on how people relate to each other and influence social attitudes, as we have seen from the experience of early hunter-gatherer societies. In a society which did not rest on private property and hierarchies of wealth and power and where the family was no longer a social and ideological institution, the basis would be laid for the total elimination of violence against women. When women have real economic independence and the profit motive no longer reigns supreme, women’s bodies will cease being reduced to commodities to buy and sell. How we look and how we behave, how we express our sexuality will no longer be constrained by capitalist double standards and moralizing. The material changes brought about by socialism would lay the foundation stones for the complete elimination of all forms of oppression. However, attitudes which have been shaped by class society over thousands of years will not disappear overnight merely because property relations have changed. Those born and raised under capitalism will have internalized images, ideas, and norms of behavior from birth. Ideas and attitudes which have become deeply embedded can endure long after the material basis for them has been removed. A conscious campaign would therefore have to be waged under socialism, through a democratically-controlled education system and media, etc., to challenge and change “hangover” attitudes from capitalist society such as sexism, racism, transphobia, and homophobia.
The Russian revolutionary, Alexandra Kollontai, explored the link between economic and social change and sexuality and personal relations in her writings at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. For Kollontai, the “personal was political” long before the second wave women’s movement made the slogan famous. She wrote about the need for a “revolution in the human psyche.” Transforming the economic basis of society alone would not be sufficient to eliminate women’s oppression, she argued; a cultural and psychological revolution was also necessary. This was particularly true in Russia, an economically and socially underdeveloped and predominantly rural country. However, even in advanced industrialized countries where social attitudes have undergone a transformation over a relatively short period of time, a “cultural revolution” would also be required.