The Right to Divorce

"No matter how democratic the state may be, the woman remains a "domestic slave" under capitalism, a slave of the bedroom, nursery and kitchen."

(From A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism)

P. Kievsky has failed to understand the difference between slogans that "deny" or condemn political evils, and those that condemn economic evils. The difference is that certain economic evils are inherent in capitalism, no matter what the political superstructure may be; that it is economically impossible to abolish these evils without abolishing capitalism; and that not a single instance of such evils having been abolished can be cited. On the other hand, political evils are departures from democracy, which economically is quite possible "on the basis of the present system", i.e., under capitalism, and which, in exceptional cases, is carried out under capitalism in parts, as it were, one part in one state and one part in another. The author has again failed to understand the general conditions under which democracy in general is feasible.

The same holds true with regard to the question of divorce. We would remind the reader that this problem was first raised by Rosa Luxemburg in the discussion on the national question. Rosa Luxemburg rightly expressed the view that while advocating autonomy within a state (for a province, or a region, etc.), we Social-Democrats, as centralists, must insist that the most important questions of state, among which she included divorce legislation, be decided by the central state authority, the central parliament. This question of divorce is a striking illustration of the fact that one cannot be a democrat and a socialist without immediately demanding full freedom of divorce, for the absence of such freedom is an additional burden on the oppressed sex, woman--although it is not at all difficult to understand that the recognition of the right of women to leave their husbands is not an invitation to all wives to do so!

To this P. Kievsky "replies":

"What would be the use of this right (divorce) if in these cases (when the wife wants to leave her husband) the wife could not exercise it, or if the exercise of this right depended on the will of third persons, or, worse still, if it depended on the will of the pretenders to the 'hand' of that wife? Would we insist on the promulgation of such a right? Of course not!"

This argument reveals a complete failure to understand the relation between democracy in general and capitalism. Under capitalism it is usually the case, and not the exception, that the oppressed classes cannot "exercise" their democratic rights. In most cases the right to divorce is not exercised under capitalism, because the oppressed sex is crushed economically; because, no matter how democratic the state may be, the woman remains a "domestic slave" under capitalism, a slave of the bedroom, nursery and kitchen. The right to elect "our" judges, public officials, teachers, jurors, etc., cannot be exercised under capitalism, in the majority of cases, because the workers and peasants are economically downtrodden. The same is true of a democratic republic. Our programme "proclaims" the republic as "the sovereignty of the people" although every Social-Democrat knows perfectly well that under capitalism the most democratic republic leads merely to the bribery of the officials by the bourgeoisie and to an alliance between the Stock Exchange and the government.

Only those who are totally incapable of thinking, or those who are entirely unfamiliar with Marxism, will conclude that, therefore, a republic is of no use, that freedom of divorce is of no use, that democracy is of no use, that self-determination of nations is of no use! Marxists know that democracy does not abolish class oppression, but only makes the class struggle clearer, broader, more open and sharper; and this is what we want. The more complete freedom of divorce is, the clearer will it be to the woman that the source of her "domestic slavery" is not the lack of rights, but capitalism. The more democratic the system of government is, the clearer it will be to the workers that the root of the evil is not the lack of rights, but capitalism. The more complete national equality is (and it is not complete without freedom of secession), the clearer will it be to the workers of the oppressed nation that it is not a question of lack of rights, but of capitalism. And so on.

We say once again: it is unpleasant to repeat the ABC of Marxism over and over again, but what can we do if P. Kievsky does not know it?

P. Kievsky argues about divorce in the same way as, I recollect, Semkovsky, one of the foreign secretaries of the Organisation Committee, argued about it in the Paris Goles. It is true, he argued, that freedom of divorce is not an invitation to all wives to leave their husbands, but if we try to persuade a wife that all other husbands are better than her own, it amounts to the same thing!

In arguing in this way, Semkovsky forgot that being a crank is not in itself a breach of socialist and democratic duty. If Semovsky tried to persuade a wife that all other husbands were better than her own, nobody would regard this as a breach of democratic duty; the most that would be said would be that there are cranks in every big party! But if Semkovsky took it into his head to defend, and to describe as a democrat, a man who repudiates the right to divorce, who, for example, would go to court, or to the police, or to the church to prevent his wife from leaving him, we are sure that even the majority of Semkovsky's colleagues in the foreign secretariat would repudiate him, even though they are rather poor socialists.

Both Semovsky and P. Kievsky "talked" about divorce, revealed a lack of understanding, and evaded the essential point of the question, viz., that the right to divorce, like all democratic rights under capitalism without exception, is difficult to exercise, is conventional, restricted, formal and narrow. Nevertheless, no respectable Social-Democrat would consider any one who repudiated this right a democrat, let alone a socialist. This is the whole point. "Democracy" is nothing but the proclaiming and exercising of "rights" that are very little and very conventionally exercised under capitalism. But unless these rights are proclaimed, unless a struggle for immediate rights is waged, unless the masses are educated in the spirit of such a struggle, socialism is impossible.

Source: Marxist Internet Archive.