Workers Vanguard No. 1111
5 May 2017
From the Archives of Spartacist
The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women
We reprint below the conclusion of an article that originally appeared in the Women and Revolution pages of Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 59, Spring 2006. The first three parts appeared in WV Nos. 1108, 1109 and 1110 (24 March, 7 April and 21 April). This final part details the effects on women of the Stalinist bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) and the Soviet workers state, as well as the ultimate destruction of that workers state through capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92.
These 1923 debates on how to deal with the excruciating contradiction between the communist program for women’s liberation and the terrible material want in the country took place on the cusp of the decisive battle over the degeneration of the revolution. The poverty of the country created strong pressures toward bureaucratic deformations. Social inequalities under the NEP [New Economic Policy] only exacerbated the pressures. As Trotsky later explained in his seminal work on the Stalinist degeneration:
“The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It ‘knows’ who is to get something and who has to wait.”
—The Revolution Betrayed 
Eventually and inevitably, these material pressures found expression within the Bolshevik Party itself. Stalin, who was appointed General Secretary of the party in March 1922, substantially increased the wages, benefits and material privileges of party officials, and became the exponent of the interests of the new bureaucratic layer. Soon after Stalin’s appointment, Lenin suffered a major stroke; he returned to work for only a few months in late 1922, when he urged Trotsky to wage a resolute struggle against the influence of the growing bureaucratic layer within the party (see “A Critical Balance Sheet: Trotsky and the Russian Left Opposition,” Spartacist No. 56, Spring 2001). A series of strokes beginning in December left Lenin incapacitated until his death in January 1924.
Stalin joined with fellow Political Bureau members Leon Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev in a secret “triumvirate” within the Soviet leadership, working assiduously to block the ascension of Trotsky. Trotsky understood that the alliance between the workers and peasants would remain fragile as long as the Soviet regime could not provide industrial and consumer goods to the peasants at low cost. Thus he advocated increased investment in heavy industry and centralized government planning. The bureaucracy resisted this, preferring to let the NEP run its course, and increasingly bending to the economic pressures of the kulaks [better-off peasants] and NEPmen.
In the summer of 1923 growing economic discontent erupted in strikes in Moscow and Petrograd. In a series of letters to the Central Committee, Trotsky demanded that the party open an immediate campaign against bureaucratism, and that it develop a plan for industrial investment. Forty-six leading party members (including the woman military leader Evgeniia Bosh) signed a declaration along similar lines. There was an outpouring of support for the loose, anti-bureaucratic opposition and the proposed “New Course” in the pages of the party newspaper, Pravda.
At the same time a revolutionary crisis in Germany held out the possibility of a workers revolution there, giving hope that the isolation of the Soviet workers state would soon end. When Zinoviev’s Communist International [Comintern] leadership and the German Communist Party failed to seize the revolutionary opportunity that opened up in the summer of 1923 and ignominiously called off a planned insurrection in late October, demoralization swept Russia (see “A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern,” Spartacist No. 56, Spring 2001).
In the ensuing party discussion, the triumvirate pulled out every stop to destroy the Opposition. The elections to the 13th Party Conference, held in January 1924, were so rigged that, despite strong support from party organizations in Petrograd, Moscow and some smaller towns, Trotsky and his supporters won just three out of 124 delegates. The triumvirate’s victory at this conference marked the decisive point in the degeneration of the revolution. After Lenin’s death that same month, the triumvirate opened a mass membership campaign (the “Lenin levy”), allowing politically backward workers, assorted careerists, NEPmen and other unsuitable elements into the party. This began the process that would transform the party from a conscious proletarian vanguard into a capricious bureaucratic apparatus at the top of the Soviet state.
At the end of 1924, the bureaucratic victory took programmatic shape as Stalin promulgated the absurd idea that the USSR could build socialism on its own, without revolutions in other countries. Over the next decade and a half, the Soviet bureaucracy zigzagged between outright conciliation of the various imperialist powers and heedless adventurism bound for defeat, but the theory of “socialism in one country” was the mainstay of evolving Stalinist dogma. The Communist International was transformed from a party seeking international workers revolution into one acting as a tool of Kremlin diplomacy.
Within the USSR itself, the bureaucracy began to relax the original NEP legislation which, while allowing free trade in agricultural produce, had severely restricted the hiring of labor and acquisition of land. Socialism was to be built in the USSR “at a snail’s pace,” in the words of Nikolai Bukharin, now allied with Stalin. The conciliation of the NEP petty traders and backward peasant dvor [male-dominated family unit] had serious and detrimental consequences for Soviet women and children. In April 1924 an order to place teenagers in agriculture was promulgated. The provision against adoption was reversed in practice. In 1926, some 19,000 homeless children were expelled from state-funded children’s homes and placed in extended peasant households to plow with a centuries-old wooden plow, and to reap with a sickle and scythe.
From mid 1926 to late 1927, Trotsky joined with Zinoviev and Kamenev, who, responding to their proletarian bases in Leningrad (formerly Petrograd) and Moscow, had broken with Stalin. The United Opposition (UO) fought against the policies of “socialism in one country” and for a perspective of international revolution. Along with a tax on the kulaks to fund investment in heavy industry, the UO fought for a policy of voluntary collectivization of the peasantry and “the systematic and gradual introduction of this most numerous peasant group [the middle peasants] to the benefits of large-scale, mechanized, collective agriculture” (“The Platform of the Opposition,” September 1927, in Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition [1926-27] [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1980]).
From 1924 on, the Zhenotdel [Communist Party department that addressed women’s needs, formed in 1919] was directly involved in party factional struggles; many prominent activists supported the Opposition, including Zhenotdel head Klavdiia Nikolaeva. She was replaced in 1925 by Stalin supporter Alexandra Artiukhina. During the fight against Zinoviev and his Leningrad organization, Artiukhina mobilized Zhenotdel workers for the Stalin faction in order to keep a “united, solid, disciplined Leninist Party” (quoted in [Carol Eubanks] Hayden, [Feminism and Bolshevism: The Zhenotdel and the Politics of Women’s Emancipation in Russia, 1917-1930]). Artiukhina asserted that from the slogan “equality” women workers might get the idea that they should receive the same wages as more highly skilled male workers, and argued that the Zhenotdel should undertake to explain to them why wage differentials were necessary. In sharp contrast, the United Opposition’s platform called for women workers to receive “equal pay for equal work” and for “provision to be made for women workers to learn skilled trades” (“The Platform of the Opposition”).
Stalin’s firm control of the party and state apparatus allowed him to vilify and then crush the UO, most of whose leading members were expelled from the party in late 1927. While Zinoviev and Kamenev capitulated to Stalin, Trotsky and many other leading UO members were sent into internal exile. The bureaucratization of internal party life had a demoralizing effect on the Zhenotdel. As of 1927, attendance at delegate meetings dropped off sharply—as low as 40 to 60 percent of potential attendees compared to 80 to 95 percent previously.
The Family Code of 1926
The bureaucratization of the Soviet party and state was not a swift, unitary process. It took years for the bureaucracy to fully stifle revolutionary consciousness, which also weakened in the face of the devastation of the country. The passionate debate over the Family Code of 1926 is just one example of the intensive public discussion that was still taking place in some sectors of Soviet political life. The Bolsheviks recognized that social relations would continue to evolve after the revolution. Drafted deliberately as a transitional set of laws, the 1918 Family Code was never considered to be definitive. Debate and discussion on family policy continued to simmer throughout the period of the Civil War and NEP. In 1923 a committee was formed to draft a new code. In October 1925, after a number of drafts and intense public debate, a draft was presented to the CEC [Central Executive Committee, state governing body]. There followed another year of nationwide discussion.
The 1926 Family Code marks a midpoint in the degeneration of Soviet family policy from the liberating ferment of the early revolutionary years to the Stalinist rehabilitation of the institution of the family in 1936. By 1925-26, arguments for the abolition of all marriage codes had ebbed. Instead, proponents of looser policies such as recognizing “de facto” (common law) marriage clashed with more conservative forces. Predominantly from the peasantry, the advocates of a stricter civil code also included some working-class women who spoke for the vulnerability of women and children in a society where the full replacement of the family with socialized methods was not yet possible.
Changes from the 1918 law in the 1926 Family Code included extending alimony payments to the able-bodied unemployed, as opposed to the disabled only, and adding joint rights for property acquired in the course of marriage, as opposed to the earlier stipulation that spouses retain only their own property. The 1926 Code also made divorce even easier: the “postcard divorce” was the simple filing of the wish to dissolve the marriage on the part of one of the parties; the requirement of an appearance in court was dropped. The greatest controversy was provoked over government recognition of de facto marriage, that is, to grant the same legal status to people living together in unregistered relationships as to officially married couples.
The juridical difficulty centered on the problem of defining marriage, outside of the civil registration of same, because, naturally, once you got into the courtroom, a man and a woman could well disagree on whether a marriage existed. Forty-five percent of alimony suits were brought by unmarried women abandoned at pregnancy.
For many women, less skilled, less educated, and less able to command a decent wage or even a job, easy divorce too often meant abandonment to poverty and misery for themselves and their children by a husband exercising his right to “free union.” Their condition of dependency could not be resolved by easy divorce laws in the absence of jobs, education and decent, state-supported childcare facilities. As one explained in a Rabotnitsa article, “Women, in the majority of cases, are more backward, less qualified, and therefore less independent than men.... To marry, to bear children, to be enslaved by the kitchen, and then to be thrown aside by your husband—this is very painful for women. This is why I am against easy divorce.” Another noted, “We need to struggle for the preservation of the family. Alimony is necessary as long as the state cannot take all children under its protection” (quoted in Wendy Z. Goldman, “Working-Class Women and the ‘Withering Away’ of the Family,” in Russia in the Era of NEP, ed. Fitzpatrick, Rabinowitch and Stites [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991]). These excruciating contradictions underline the stark truth that the family must be replaced and cannot be simply abolished.
While the differences over the proposed Code were not clearly between the Right and Left, the discussion paralleled the general debates in the party and similarly reflected the pressures of class forces. Those opposed to the draft Code tended to reflect the influence of the peasantry, which adamantly opposed recognition of de facto marriage and easy divorce as a threat to the stability and economic unity of the household and a product of “conniving females,” “social and moral chaos,” and “debauchery” (Goldman, Women, the State and Revolution).
The United Opposition did not have a formal position on the Code, as far as we know; but Oppositionists took part in the debate. Alexander Beloborodov, who was expelled from the party with Trotsky in 1927, had many reservations about the Code; he was particularly concerned about the effect of family instability on children “in so far as we are unable to arrange for community education for children and demand that the children be brought up in the family” (quoted in Rudolph Schlesinger, Changing Attitudes in Soviet Russia: The Family in the U.S.S.R. [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949]). Trotsky himself denounced opposition to the recognition of de facto marriage in a 7 December 1925 speech to the Third All-Union Conference on Protection of Mothers and Children:
“Comrades, this [opposition] is so monstrous that it makes you wonder: Are we really in a society transforming itself in a socialist manner...? Here the attitude to woman is not only not communist, but reactionary and philistine in the worst sense of the word. Who could think that the rights of woman, who has to bear the consequences of every marital union, however transitory, could be too zealously guarded in our country?... It is symptomatic and bears witness to the fact that, in our traditional views, concepts and customs, there is much that is truly thick-headed and that needs to be smashed with a battering ram.”
—Trotsky, “The Protection of Motherhood and the Struggle for Culture,” Women and the Family
and the Five Year Plan
By 1928, the bureaucracy’s policies of encouraging the kulaks to “enrich” themselves had brought the disaster predicted by the Opposition: the wealthy peasants had begun hoarding grain, having no incentive to sell to the state since there was nothing much they could buy with the proceeds. Unable to feed the cities, Stalin did an about-face. He turned on his ally Bukharin and forcibly collectivized half the peasants in the country in the space of four months. The peasants responded by sabotage, killing farm animals, including more than 50 percent of the horses in the country. During the ensuing social upheaval through the early 1930s more than three million people died.
At the same time, Stalin abandoned the policy of building socialism “at a snail’s pace” and adopted a desperately needed plan for industrialization, albeit accelerated to a reckless and murderous pace. The resulting economic development brought about a qualitative change in the conditions of working women. To enable them to work, childcare centers and cafeterias sprang up overnight in neighborhoods and factories. “Down with the kitchen!” cried one propagandist:
“We shall destroy this little penitentiary! We shall free millions of women from house-keeping. They want to work like the rest of us. In a factory-kitchen, one person can prepare from fifty to one hundred dinners a day. We shall force machines to peel potatoes, wash the dishes, cut the bread, stir the soup, make ice cream.”
“The saucepan is the enemy of the party cell” and “Away with pots and pans” became party watchwords (quoted in Stites, Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia).
However, economic planning in the USSR was not based on the democratic input of the workers, but on bureaucratic fiat. While the gains of industrialization were enormous, they were at the cost of quality of goods and with great bureaucratic inefficiency. Despite these problems, the Soviet Union was the only country in the 20th century to develop from a backward, overwhelmingly peasant country to an advanced industrial power. This is confirmation of the tremendous impetus to human well-being—not least the status of women—that results from the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a collectivized, planned economy, even in a single country. It was only because of this industrial development that the USSR was able to beat back the assault of Hitler’s armies in World War II, though at the cost of 27 million Soviet lives. At the same time the bureaucracy clogged society’s every pore, leading to waste, repression and caprice, while working to prevent the international extension of the revolution, which could be the only real, long-term defense of the gains of October.
Despite the real strides forward made by women through industrialization, the bureaucracy had abandoned the communist commitment to fight for women’s liberation. It used the rhetorical adventurism of the period to cover its retreat. Grotesquely, the government announced in 1930 that the woman question had been officially resolved. At the same time the Zhenotdel was liquidated; the prelude to this had been the abolition in 1926 of the International Women’s Secretariat, which was downgraded to the women’s department of the Comintern Executive Committee. The Zhenotdel’s liquidation was put forward in the guise of a party “reorganization” in 1929, with the claim that work among women would become the work of the party as a whole. But these words, borrowed from the revolutionary years, were now only a cover for inaction and retreat.
1936 and the Triumph
of the “Socialist Family”
In 1929 the Communist Party was still calling for the withering away of the family. By 1936-37, when the Russian CP’s degeneration was complete, Stalinist doctrine pronounced this a “crude mistake” and called for a “reconstruction of the family on a new socialist basis.” The third Family Code, which became law in 1936, also made divorce more difficult, requiring an appearance in court, increased fees and the registration of the divorce on the divorcees’ internal passports, to prevent “a criminally irresponsible use of this right, which disorganizes socialist community life” (Schlesinger, The Family in the U.S.S.R.).
The official glorification of family life and the retreat from Bolshevik policies on divorce and abortion were an integral part of the political counterrevolution that usurped political power from the working class. Trotsky addressed this at length:
“The triumphal rehabilitation of the family, taking place simultaneously—what a providential coincidence!—with the rehabilitation of the ruble, is caused by the material and cultural bankruptcy of the state. Instead of openly saying, ‘We have proven still too poor and ignorant for the creation of socialist relations among men, our children and grandchildren will realize this aim,’ the leaders are forcing people to glue together again the shell of the broken family, and not only that, but to consider it, under threat of extreme penalties, the sacred nucleus of triumphant socialism. It is hard to measure with the eye the scope of this retreat.”
—The Revolution Betrayed
Repudiating the Bolshevik commitment to noninterference in people’s personal lives, the theory of the “extinction of family” was declared as leading to sexual debauchery, while praise of “good housewives” began to appear in the Soviet press by the mid 1930s. A 1936 Pravda editorial denounced a housing plan without individual kitchens as a “left deviation” and an attempt to “artificially introduce communal living.” As Trotsky said, “The retreat not only assumes forms of disgusting hypocrisy, but also is going infinitely farther than the iron economic necessity demands.”
To the great hardship of Soviet women, the 1936 Family Code criminalized abortion, and the death rate from abortions soared. At the same time, the government began to issue “heroine awards” to women with large numbers of children, while officials decreed that in the Soviet Union “life is happy” and only selfishness impels women to abortion. The 1944 Family Code withdrew the recognition of de facto marriage, restored the humiliating concept of “legitimacy,” abolished coeducation in the schools and banned paternity suits. Only in 1955 did abortion again become legal in the USSR.
1991-92: Counterrevolution Tramples on Women
In the 1930s Trotsky predicted that the Kremlin bureaucracy would reach an impasse on the economic front when it became necessary to shift from crude quantitative increases to improvement in quality, from extensive to intensive growth. He called for “a revision of planned economy from top to bottom in the interests of producers and consumers” (Transitional Program, 1938). Reflecting in large part the unrelenting pressure of world imperialism on the Soviet workers state, these economic problems came to a head in the 1970s and 1980s.
Taking over where the moderate [Soviet leader] Mikhail Gorbachev shrank from the necessarily harsh measures of restoring a fully capitalist economy, Boris Yeltsin seized power in August 1991. Over the next year, in the absence of working-class resistance, capitalist counterrevolution triumphed in Russia, a world-historic defeat for the proletarian revolution. The USSR was broken up into mutually hostile nationalist regimes. Since then things have gotten far worse for everyone except a tiny minority at the top—but for women and children most of all. The vast majority of the population has been driven into dire poverty and chronic unemployment. The extensive system of childcare and help for mothers is gone, the besprizorniki [homeless children] are back, prostitution flourishes, and women in Central Asia have been thrown back centuries.
The International Communist League recognizes the harsh reality that political consciousness has retreated in the face of these unprecedented defeats. One of our key tasks is to struggle to explain and clarify the Marxist program, freeing it from the filth of Stalinist betrayals and the lies of capitalist ideologues. This study of the Bolshevik fight for the emancipation of women, showing how much could be achieved in spite of the poverty, imperialist strangulation and later Stalinist degeneration of the USSR, is a testimony to the promise that a world collective planned economy, born of new October Revolutions, holds out to the exploited and oppressed of the world. The breadth of our long-term historical view of the socialist future, a new way of life that can evolve only after ripping out the entrenched inequality and oppression bred by capitalist exploitation, was addressed by Trotsky:
“Marxism sets out from the development of technique as the fundamental spring of progress, and constructs the communist program upon the dynamic of the productive forces. If you conceive that some cosmic catastrophe is going to destroy our planet in the fairly near future, then you must, of course, reject the communist perspective along with much else. Except for this as yet problematic danger, however, there is not the slightest scientific ground for setting any limit in advance to our technical productive and cultural possibilities. Marxism is saturated with the optimism of progress, and that alone, by the way, makes it irreconcilably opposed to religion.
“The material premise of communism should be so high a development of the economic powers of man that productive labor, having ceased to be a burden, will not require any goad, and the distribution of life’s goods, existing in continual abundance, will not demand—as it does not now in any well-off family or ‘decent’ boardinghouse—any control except that of education, habit and social opinion.”
—The Revolution Betrayed