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 Is the abortion struggle reformist?

The author, Lis Angus, was Executive Director of the Toronto Women’s Caucus, one of the first Canadian feminist groups, in 1971-72. In 1973 she was elected as an alternate member of the Central Committee of the League for Socialist Action/Ligue Socialiste Ouvričre.

Labor Challenge, May 28, 1973

Strategy for Women’s Liberation
Is Abortion Struggle Reformist?

by Lis Angus

Should socialists refuse to fight for legal reforms within capitalist society? Does struggling for such reforms compromise revolutionary principles? .

Should socialists orient to building mass struggles, or should they confine themselves to propaganda from the sidelines?

There are a number groups on the left today who denounce struggles for reforms "reformist" and non-revolutionary. The only legitimate role they see for socialists in such struggles that of advancing revolutionary ideas.

An example of this Is provided in an article entitled "Strategy and Tactics of Women’s Liberation" by Margot Henderson in the Jan. 15 issue of Old Mole (a newspaper published by the group of the same name based on the University of Toronto campus).

This article attacks the League for Socialist Action (LSA) for its approach to building the women’s liberation movement. The attack centers particularly on the LSA’s active support of the growing struggle to repeal Canada’s abortion laws.

Henderson writes:

"… the demand ‘Repeal All Abortion Laws’ is reformist in that it addresses itself only to the legal aspects of the question of abortion. It fosters the Illusion that governmental reforms can actually solve the problems of women’s oppression;" and "The consistent isolation of the demands of the abortion campaign from the class struggle ... serves to attract only liberal elements, whose interests rest solely in a single reform. As a result, a coalition with such a ‘low common denominator’ becomes increasingly less able to provide a platform from which revolutionaries can elaborate a total analysis of women’s oppression."

Abortion activists might be justifiably surprised at Old Mole’s readiness to make pronouncements on the abortion campaign and the LSA’s relationship to it—since the Old Mole has consistently refused to get any first-hand experience in this struggle. At the recent cross-Canada abortion conference held in Toronto, for example, they showed up only after the conference had ended—and only to sell their newspaper outside the conference hall!

But the ideas expressed by Henderson In this article have a certain currency on the left and should be dealt with in that light.

The main substance of Henderson’s attack is that the demand for repeal of the abortion laws is "reformist", and that revolutionaries should not support this demand or the growing struggle around It.

What Is Reformism?

Henderson appears to be confused on exactly what reformism is, equating It wrongly with the struggle for reforms.

What demarks reformism from revolutionary politics and program is not simply demands but an entire perspective of struggle.

Reformism is a strategy; broadly speaking, it is the perspective that capitalist society can be transformed gradually, through a series of reforms, to meet people’s real needs.

Revolutionary Marxists, on the other hand, deny that reforms alone can eliminate the injustices of our society. Those injustices stem from the fundamental character of capitalism—so the system as a whole must be changed. In particular, working people must abolish capitalism’s repressive apparatus—the state, police, armed forces and bureaucracy—replacing them with democratic structures which are truly reflective of the needs and desires of the vast majority.

Marxists have carried on an unrelenting struggle against reformism in working class politics, attempting to break the working and its allies from reformist Illusions. .

The most effective way of fighting these illusions is not by preaching at the masses, or by refusing to work with people who hold such views—but by participating in and building the real everyday struggles of the masses, attempting to lead them in a direction which will win real victories and will build people’s confidence in their own power: the power of mass action.

Many such struggles are struggles for reforms. Short of a revolutionary upsurge, few struggles directly challenge the continued existence of capitalism. But it would be incorrect for revolutionaries to stand aside from such struggles, waiting for an insurrection.

Mass Movements

In relation to the rapidly growing radicalization of women, revolutionaries have further responsibilities than simply looking for a "platform" for their ideas.

Marxists must look for ways to build the ongoing struggles of women, of ways to convince women of the effectiveness of collective action, and to lead them toward building a mass, independent feminist movement which can carry united struggles of women against their oppression.

It is this perspective which will bring women into alliance with the struggles of the working class and other oppressed groups against the capitalist class.

It is quite true that "repeal the abortion laws" is a demand for a legal reform. It is a demand which has risen out of the feminist radicalization, and which already has mass support among Canadian women. The struggle for this demand has, at this time, greater potential than any other feminist struggle to help women learn the importance of mass united action. For this reason, it is crucial that revolutionaries help lead this struggle—rather than abandon it to the reformists; as Henderson proposes.

This struggle leads women directly into confrontation with the capitalist state: it is part of the class struggle in Canada at this time—not artificially "isolated" from it, as Henderson would have us think.

Revolutionaries can’t choose how the struggles of the masses will unfold what terrain they will. be fought on—that is decided by the masses themselves, arising out of their reel needs. The task for revolutionary socialists is to participate to these-struggles, with a correct program—a program which can lead the struggle forward and can aid the masses in drawing lessons for further struggles.

What underlies the Old Mole’s opposition to struggles for reforms? Basically the Old Mole rejects the real struggles of the masses today. Henderson opposes the struggle for repeal of the abortion laws because she opposes the reality of the feminist radicalization as it is unfolding in Canada.


Henderson thinks it is "quite likely" that the repeal demand will be won—and she thinks this would be a bad thing, leading to

"confusion, demoralization and resulting demobilization..... And further, to the extent that women involved in this coalition become aware of the fact that those in the LSA are revolutionaries, they are bound to be confused and to mistrust what they see as ‘revolutionary politics’."

But the confusion lies not in the minds of abortion activists, but in the political conceptions of Old Mole. Henderson says, in effect, that victories in the class struggle won within capitalism only serve to reinforce the masses’ confidence in capitalism. In other words, the only victory worth fighting for is the socialist revolution itself.

But the foundation of that revolution is the masses’ confidence in their own ability to struggle together effectively, and in a leadership which has shown it can best help them win victories from capitalism. That confidence can only be built through ongoing struggles to win real gains.

It is when self-styled revolutionaries tike the Old Mole argue against winning victories that the masses are "confused" and learn to "mistrust what they see as ‘revolutionary politics’." The attitude of the Old Mole can only teach the masses that revolutionary politics have no connection with their real needs.


Henderson charges that the abortion campaign draws "only liberal elements"—presumably feminists who do not yet consider themselves revolutionaries—and that they "would not necessarily draw socialist conclusions" from this struggle.

There are no automatic, "guaranteed" routes to class consciousness. The task of revolutionaries is to try to lead people towards an understanding of what is necessary to change capitalist society—but no struggle "necessarily" leads to socialist conclusions.

The Old Mole appears to want such guarantees, however, and to want to associate only with those who have already proven that they have a socialist consciousness. The only value they see to participating in struggles together with non-revolutionaries is for "political debate," for a platform for revolutionary politics.

When Henderson accuses the League for Socialist Action of "muting its politics in order to attract as many women as possible around a reformist demand", she means in fact that the LSA actually builds the abortion campaign rather than just standing on the edges to preach to the participants.

In contrast to the Old Mole, the LSA does not stand in opposition to the Canadian Women’s Coalition to Repeal the Abortion Laws, but rather fights to win it to a perspective of mass, independent, united action.

What alternative does the Old Mole offer to the approach of the LSA? Talk is cheap - and that is about all we get.

The only proposal Henderson puts forward is the construction of "socialist women’s groups": in fact a haven for Old Mole to operate in, safe from contamination from "liberal elements".

Nowhere does Henderson mention building or leading the feminist movement. In fact, she seems to be afraid of the full strength of the movement - afraid to get right into it for fear it might tarnish Old Mole’s "purity."

She projects standing on the sidelines, waiting for the movement to prove itself, waiting for women in the feminist movement to be "evaluated and tested in practice"—i.e. to come to socialist conclusions so that the Old Mole can associate with them.

It is no wonder that Old Mole spends so much energy attacking the LSA in articles such as this: the LSA’s approach stands in sharp contrast to the Old Mole’s abstentionist policies.

The LSA participates in the struggles of the feminist movement as they develop—to grasp opportunities to advance, and win women to, a mass action strategy for women’s liberation. In the process of these struggles many women will be able to gain an understanding of the broader struggle. of the working class—and its allies in the independent movements of other oppressed groups—for a socialist revolution.

It is through helping to build such struggles, that revolutionaries can best help women become disillusioned with reformism and develop confidence in the power of the masses united in struggle.

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