On Abortion and the Left
August 11, 2022
With its latest ruling to repeal the contested landmark decision of Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court has instigated one of the biggest attacks on women’s rights in recent US history. Following former US president Trump’s appointment of three ultra-conservative Supreme Court Justices, the court majority came for the last scraps of abortion rights.
Notwithstanding the fact that they had been on the chopping block for decades, the latest attack on abortion rights marks a shift in US politics. For a long time there was a bipartisan consensus to leave things unchanged, neither advancing nor repealing Roe. Today, leftists in the US have to face the uncomfortable reality that the legal right to abortion is a partisan issue, with the Democratic Party positioning itself for and the Republican Party against it. This poses a different political problem for the Left post-Roe. How should leftists — who are currently a marginal political phenomenon globally — position themselves vis-à-vis this issue? Are there any historical lessons to be learned?
Sublation Magazine has published several different interpretations of this issue. The focus of this essay will be a response to Ethan Linehan’s piece “Wrong Life and Abortion“ and only indirectly touch upon Conrad Hamilton’s response to Linehan.
Pseudo-Materialism and Liberalism
Reading both Linehan and Hamilton, the question arises whether abortion rights are a liberal right on their own or if they need to be bundled up with “materialist” concerns such as demographics. I will argue for abortion as a liberal right on its own. Linehan’s piece dances around this issue but ultimately fails to articulate a clear position and therefore provides a false assessment of the political question at hand.
Rather, in a self-contradictory way, Linehan both criticizes the reduction of the abortion question to a moral issue detached from politics and simultaneously falls back on such a position himself. By judging that “[c]apitalism makes abortion necessary but regrettable,” that socialists supported reproductive freedom without “endors[ing] abortion as a positive good,” and regarding abortion to be an “index of our unfreedom,” Linehan takes a moral standpoint against it. According to him, abortion is a necessary evil of capitalist society.
This is both factually incorrect as well as morally questionable: Historically, abortions were practiced well before the era of capitalism. In fact, they were freely exercised without state interventions during the time of the American Revolution. It was only in 1821 that the first American abortion statute was passed (in Connecticut).
Supposing the truth of Linehan’s assumption — that predominantly poorer women are seeking abortions due to their poverty — this is nonetheless secondary to the question of whether or not one defends the right of women to free choice. The right to an abortion is a negative demand seeking to limit the state’s interference into the private lives of its citizens. Other medical procedures are regulated by the state out of concerns for the patient’s safety and the legitimacy of consent. The banning of abortion is not motivated by the same concern for a woman’s health and it’s not genuinely motivated by concern for consent, but is motivated by the supposed rights of fetuses who are being “murdered.” If abortion is recognized as a right, whether or not it’s in the Constitution or is perceived to be in the Constitution by the present state of bourgeois jurisprudence, is irrelevant for Marxists fighting for it.
What is at stake here is a liberal right. Abortion per se is not a socialist issue. It is evident that today many capitalist countries allow legal abortions up to a certain point in a woman’s pregnancy, proving that abortion rights are not per se a socialist demand but rather a liberal or feminist one that is partially fulfilled under capitalism. The anti-abortion backlash has nothing to do with “materialist” concerns such as demographics but is purely ideological. It is also no coincidence that anti-abortion activists frequently base their hostility towards abortions on religious beliefs. The Trotskyist International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) correctly reckoned that the notorious “Operation Rescue” group, one of the most vocal American anti-abortion organizations in the 80s and 90s, not only “wants to outlaw abortion, it also opposes equal rights for women, gay rights, sex education, birth control for teenagers, and publication of sexually-explicit materials (‘pornography’).” The same can easily be said about many anti-abortion groups of today — both in and out of the US. Of course, anti-abortion forces do not necessarily view themselves this way. In fact, some of them even claim to follow the legacy of the “Civil Rights movement and 19th and early 20th century suffragists. […] [O]verwhelmingly, young anti-abortion women view themselves as human rights activists — happy warriors on the right side of history.” In contrast to this gross historical distortion the IBT holds that:
For the twisted moralists of the religious right, all sexual activity is sinful unless it occurs between married adults, and is intended to beget children. Marxists, by contrast, believe that people have the right to do what they want in their personal/sexual lives and oppose all attempts by the state to regulate sexual morality. The right to the “pursuit of happiness” must include the individual’s right to engage in the sexual activities of his/her choice, subject only to the informed consent of the other party(ies).
The subjective consciousness of anti-abortion activists, however, does not really matter politically, because what is at stake here is the defense of a liberal right. Similarly, the question of whether Roe was a correct interpretation of the Constitution is irrelevant for Marxists: Our rights do not come from the Constitution but from political struggles. In this regard Roe was good because it expanded liberal rights and the repeal of Roe is bad because it attacks a liberal right. Incidentally, one good consequence of the current repeal of Roe has been the demystification of the idea that the Supreme Court is above politics.
Unfortunately, this is not clear to all leftists. In the current issue of The Militant, organ of the Socialist Workers Party (United States), one reads that: “The recent decision did not make abortion illegal, but instead turned it over to the states and the people. ‘The permissibility of abortion, and the limitations upon it, are to be resolved like most important questions in our democracy: by citizens trying to persuade one another and then voting,’ said the majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito.” With approximately 50% of US women (in reproductive age) soon to be stripped of the right to abortions, the SWP’s interpretation seems cynical. Marxists are not primarily concerned with the formal character of bourgeois law but rather with its consequences for working-class people. The realm of bourgeois jurisprudence is therefore not directly relevant to Marxists but liberals. Whether the nine judges deciding Roe discovered a right in the Constitution or invented one, is not relevant to Marxists. The upshot of what they did is that they extended rights that we defend. If state legislators, even democratically elected ones, take away those rights, we oppose this as Marxists. Marxists deem all rights in the Constitution a result of political struggles. It is therefore a grave error that the SWP (USA) rests its claim about further possible ramifications of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization on the subjective character of bourgeois jurisprudence and quotes the Supreme Court justices’ arguments on the matter.
Neoliberalism and its Crisis
In terms of where we stand today, Linehan’s view on the decline of living standards under neoliberalism, whilst true, is still problematic in its one-sidedness: He fails to consider neoliberalism as a political regime which — in the most conservative way — took up the relatively radical demands of the 1960s New Left. Similar to other rights of women, LGBTQI, blacks, etc., which are now summed up under the category of identity politics, abortion rights were a product of the era of activism and political organization which preceded the 1973 Supreme Court decision on Roe.
From its start capitalism has been shaped and driven by its own crisis and discontent — the Left is a self-conscious symptom of this crisis. With the crisis of neoliberalism politically culminating in the Brexit referendum (2015) and Trump’s election as president (2016), old capitalist recipes are being cooked up once more. In fact, it was not just Trump but also Sanders that was part of this phenomenon in 2016. However, with the failure of the Bernie campaign which channeled discontent with the status quo into the Democratic Party, the Left once more served as a useful tool in a capitalist crisis — the result of which still exists today in the form of the DSA, i.e. the left wing of the Democratic Party.
Meanwhile, it is others who have taken the opportunity to shape the political crisis of neoliberalism — Trump’s leadership in the Republican Party and Brexit might be the most successful examples, but the AfD (Germany), La Front National (France), FPÖ (Austria), EPP (Poland) and many more conservative right-wing parties could be listed here.
Conrad Hamilton rightly points out the connection to the European Right in terms of anti-abortion and anti-immigration positions which are similar to the ones held by Trump. However, these “populist” figures who claim to directly speak for and to the masses only say what the progressive, neoliberal technocrats in the EU and the US don’t dare to say but in fact do anyway. Progressives on both sides of the Atlantic for example frequently portray themselves as pro-immigrant, but this is truly a sham. Perhaps this is why progressives dislike the so-called populists so much, because they actually show them their undisguised mirror image.
Regarding the conservative view about immigration, demographics, and birth control as outlined by Hamilton and Linehan: This is not new and is objectively a right-wing reaction to the crisis of capitalism regardless of its subjective character. It is purely ideological and secondary to capital’s objective needs. Capitalism only needs workers to exploit. Because, however, the actual organization of global capitalism is politically based on the nation-state, there is a distinction between domestic and foreign workers who are used as a cheap source of labor undermining already established labor rights of the domestic working class. The contradiction between foreign workers and domestic workers is ultimately a manifestation of the contradiction of the political and the economic organization of capitalism. Since capital operates in this contradictory way — simultaneously transcending the nation-state as well as reaffirming the need for it — capital reproduces certain ideologies: At times, it is deglobalization à la Brexit or Trump’s “America First,” and at others, it is the globalization of the (passing) era of neoliberalism — or both at once.
Marxism and Social Democracy
The liberal principles that Marxists defend are not made of thin air, i.e. from without society, but through the immanent critique of existing bourgeois society — and the potential to move beyond it. When the IBT thus says that “The high-sounding talk about the ‘sanctity of life’ spouted by the anti-choice bigots is only a religious/ideological disguise for what is really at issue: the erosion of the nuclear family over the past several decades,” this entails a critique of the nuclear family and the need for socialism to socialize the specific functions within the family that fall on women’s shoulders (raising children, cooking, cleaning etc.).
However, one needs to distinguish the liberal demand for the legal right to abortions and the social-democratic demand towards the state to offer funding for abortions and for those women who do not want abortions paid maternity leaves, 24-hour child-care facilities, free education, etc.
Linehan’s position is characterized by its abstentionism towards state reforms because there is no revolutionary socialist movement at the moment. It is true that this is exactly what distinguishes Marxism from social democracy — the political mediation between reforms and revolution and an understanding of the self-contradictory and self-undermining character of reforms heightening the inner contradictions of capitalism that require a revolution. In the absence of a mass socialist party, however, it is still the duty for Marxists to, first of all, defend the liberal right under attack and second of all to at least raise the demand for publicly-funded abortion. This is, of course, merely a reformist social-democratic demand on the bourgeois state. But this is not a contradiction to Marxism. One needs to consider the dual character of reformist demands: On the one hand, insofar as they cannot be realized under capitalism, they raise consciousness of the need for revolution; on the other hand, insofar they are partly realizable, they can strengthen the position of the working class in terms of its struggle against capital. While, for example, the welfare state plays a fundamentally conservative role in disciplining the working class, Marxists do not call for dismantling the welfare state or cheer on the bourgeois reactionary forces who are trying to do that. The absence of a mass socialist party does not preclude one from being aware of reformist demands that need to be raised (even if the relation of forces is not on our side at the moment) and would in fact be raised by a socialist party.
What distinguishes Marxism from social democracy is its political goal: the dictatorship of the proletariat. Without concrete reform proposals, however, it is hard to imagine how socialists can win over the masses for this cause.
On the State
To raise this point from a slightly different angle, one could ask why the freedom to control one’s own body is not deemed a political right by Linehan rather than an unwanted byproduct of capitalism? If anything, the state’s interference into the most private sphere(s) of our lives is itself highly symptomatic of capitalism.
Interestingly enough, Linehan mentions the “Covid regime” in the context of statism being prevalent among today’s Left. He strangely likens the state’s authoritarian health measures, and part of the Left’s call for a Zero Covid policy, to the Left’s liberal demand for abortion rights and its reformist demands for state resources for abortion clinics, etc.
The mistaken notion that these two things are equally unjustified seems to stem rather from a libertarian viewpoint on the state, not a Marxist one. In fact, Marxist socialists of the Second International frequently called on the state to do things, such as the call for the limitation on the length of the working day, the prohibition of night work, the abolition of all laws limiting the freedom of speech, the abolition of laws discriminating against women and free medical assistance, among other things. At the same time these Marxists — unlike many leftists today — held no illusions that the capitalist state could fulfill these demands and manage society in a better way than they envisioned could be possible once matters were taken into the working class’ own hands.
The law according to Marxism is a “reflection of the relation of class forces.” With the global decline of the Left during the last century, it is evident that the bourgeoisie is winning more ground. The problem today is the absence of an international working class party willing and able to take on the political struggle for state power. Linehan is correct to criticize today’s Left’s Democratic Party orientation, but we need to avoid an inversion of this logic (i.e. replacing the Democrats with Trump and the Republicans) in order to rebuild a socialist Left.
We ought indeed to be reminded of the Marxist tradition following Eugene Debs and James P. Cannon, who held that both major US parties serve the interests of the ruling class. Or as Gore Vidal famously put it: “[T]here is only one party in the United States, the Property Party […] and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat.”
However, the situation is complicated because there is a noticeable division between the two major ruling class parties today which Marxists — who rightly do not want to depend on either party — have to acknowledge nonetheless. Today there is one party that is for the governmental control of women’s bodies and another which is half-heartedly against that. There is a tendency among leftists to misjudge reality, because they do not want to fall prey to the position of being nothing but Democrats. The truth, however, is that the Democrats today have a different position on the issue of abortion from the Republicans, one that is much closer to what socialists would in fact support, namely the legal right to abortion.
One has to understand people’s rational response to this fact while at the same time discouraging them from falling for the Democrats and the argument of lesser evilism. In order to achieve that Marxists have historically maintained their organizational independence and the freedom to denounce other parties, while at the same time working together with progressive elements on certain issues in a united-front action. In this case the issue is not so much a political alliance with the Democrats in office, but rather feminists and progressive organizations which unfortunately function as civil society pressure groups on the Democrats. The language of the united front is admittedly imperfect, because it presupposes a political situation (i.e. the existence of a socialist movement and a socialist party) that does not exist today. However, it is useful in thinking about how to avoid abstentionism, on the one hand, and capitulation to the Democrats, on the other hand. Clearly, a central part of this struggle has to be the attempt to build a socialist party.
Marxists should be part of this process without sharing any illusions in any reforms granted by the state, whether by the legislature or judiciary. Marxists do not fetishize the Constitution but rather use bourgeois democracy as the stage on which they try to win over the masses for socialism.
Likewise, Marxists should reserve the right to denounce (liberal) feminism for its class collaborationist logic and for sowing illusions in the electoral system. Abortion rights were never fully realized for the masses of women in over forty years in the US regardless of which party was in office. The Democrats have long been criticized by some on the Left for signing into law the Hyde Amendment, which effectively meant cutting Medicaid funding for abortions — predominantly burdening poorer women. It should be crystal clear to any leftist today that the Democrats, too, are not going to fight for women’s rights in a principled manner guaranteeing the actual rights of women to have access to abortions. This means that the differences between Democrats and Republicans are not principled but rather tactical.
Nevertheless, in the absence of a mass socialist movement Marxists fighting for liberal rights or social democratic reforms regarding this issue today are inevitably just going to sound like progressive Democrats. This unfortunately does indicate a lowered political horizon, but it is simply a true reflection of where the Left stands today.
Lastly, to illustrate my point of contention with Linehan’s piece I would like to counterpose the approaches of the American SWP and the politically unrelated British SWP to the principled Marxist approach of the Spartacist League (Spartacists) and the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT).
Linehan is worried about excluding workers with anti-abortion attitudes who would be considered anti-woke by today’s Democrats. Similarly, there are many workers who have racist, homophobic and sexist attitudes. There is a common temptation among Marxists who want to appeal to the broad masses to capitulate to these backward attitudes in the working class itself: The British Socialist Workers Party (Cliffites), unrelated to the American SWP, was rightly criticized two decades ago by different parts of the Left, for example by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and by the IBT, for its opportunist position on abortion rights. At the time the SWP paid lip service to abortion rights, but when push came to shove they avoided the issue altogether failing to adopt it politically. The CPGB’s judgment about the (British) SWP’s tailism reads as follows: “Will the SWP remain silent and once again sacrifice its principle in order to maintain an alliance with anti-abortionists? Is a woman’s right to choose merely a ‘shibboleth’ or is it a central aspect of our fight for general human freedom?” While it is undoubtedly true that socialists do not exclude anyone based on their necessarily backward beliefs, they also do not tail after current trends within the masses, compromising in the process their own positions.
One can also observe this kind of opportunism in the statement of the American SWP about the current striking down of abortion rights: By appealing to the defense of “our families” whilst relativizing the significance of the right-wing decision to repeal Roe, they end up capitulating to anti-abortion elements within the working class. What is more, they end up fetishizing the nuclear family.
Contrary to that, the IBT, a political group close to the Spartacists, rightly points out that:
While the bourgeois state attempts to promote the family both ideologically and through state interventions, the workings of the market tend to undermine it by driving down the family wage to the level of an individual subsistence wage. When survival requires two wage-earners, the working-class family faces a host of problems to which those of the professional pretty-bourgeoisie are largely immune. Meals are not prepared, domestic chores are left undone, and children cannot be cared for after school. Juvenile crime and family tensions increase. Right-wing demagogues seek to tap this anxiety by preaching a return to traditional “family values” and directing this inchoate anger against “women’s liberation” in general, and abortion clinics in particular.
Furthermore, the IBT says,
The oppression of women cannot be combated by pragmatic adaptations to the current political mood. Marxists, guided by a historical materialist understanding, have always argued that the question of the family stands at the heart of women’s oppression in capitalist society. The sexual division of labor within the family, which confines the woman to a subordinate role, is undeniably much older than capitalist society. But the modern nuclear family (which replaces the older extended family with the rise of the bourgeoisie), preserved the essential male and female roles upon which all family forms are based. While the economic changes of the last decades have seriously eroded the nuclear family, capitalism has not and cannot create the conditions for its replacement. The family can only be transcended through socialization of the functions now carried on within the domestic orbit — principally housework and child-raising. Only on a secure material foundation can decisions about sexual partners and/or child-bearing become a matter of choice for all, not just for a privileged minority. But an economic system driven by the necessity to maximize private profit is organically incapable of allocating sufficient material resources to provide these services for everyone.
To sum up: Abortion rights are a liberal demand while the demand for access to abortions is social democratic. Socialists supported the liberal right to legal abortions while at the same time fighting for a society where women were truly liberated beyond the mere choice on abortions. This includes the socialization of functions women fulfill within the family and the simultaneous abolition of the division of labor between men and women, freeing women from the shackles imposed by patriarchal class society. While it is true that the opposition to abortion is for the most part fueled by anti-sex and patriarchal attitudes, the question of religious beliefs underlying the anti-abortion position is a question of moral philosophy and should not be confused with the political question of whether or not abortions should be legal. The language of necessary evils in capitalism is shifting the discussion to a different realm, that of individual and cultural attitudes. For Marxists, the question is political: for abortions to be legal and for them to be accessible.
Because abortion has become an issue dividing both parties today— which was not the case when Roe was decided in 1973 — the support for abortion rights seems to be equated to support for the Democrats. In order to avoid the obvious truth that the Democrats today have a more progressive — actually just less reactionary — stance on this issue than the Republicans, one has to dance around the issue without facing its political implications for socialists in America. While, of course, socialists must oppose the Democrats, the truth of the matter is that on abortion rights one is not going to have a position all that different from a liberal. On this specific issue, beyond the defense of legal abortion, one can only raise social democratic demands for unlimited access to abortion.
Marxists, of course, should further relate reformist demands to a revolutionary praxis in order to change the whole political framework. In today’s reactionary climate Marxists have to defend abortion rights both at a legal and a practical level, but, at the same time, recognize that the true liberation of women and the rest of humanity requires a socialist revolution.
 Cf. Vladimir I. Lenin, A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economics (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), 28-76, also available online: But Marxists know that democracy does not abolish class oppression. It only makes the class struggle more direct, wider, more open and pronounced, and that is what we need. The fuller the freedom of divorce, the clearer will women see that the source of their “domestic slavery” is capitalism, not lack of rights. The more democratic the system of government, the clearer will the workers see that the root evil is capitalism, not lack of rights. The fuller national equality (and it is not complete without freedom of secession), the clearer will the workers of the oppressed nations see that the cause of their oppression is capitalism, not lack of rights, etc.
 International Bolshevik Tendency, Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution! Smash Anti-Abortion Reaction! (Online: 1917 No. 7, Winter 1990), http://www.bolshevik.org/1917/no7/no07abor.html: “To paper over the contradiction between Galloway’s position and their own, the SWP avoided having Respect take an official position on abortion, leaving Galloway free to do as he wished.”