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Spartacist South Africa No. 13

Spring 2015

Women and Revolution

Thermidor in the Family

The following article is excerpted from Revolution Betrayed (1936), Leon Trotsky’s brilliant analysis of the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet workers state. Trotsky, together with Lenin, was the central leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution—the first and to date only successful workers revolution in history. The 1917 February Revolution, which led to the downfall of the Russian czarist autocracy, was sparked by protests of Russian women on International Women’s Day. This opened a revolutionary period of “dual power” in which the working class and the capitalists openly contended for power and which was resolved by the Bolshevik-led October revolution that overthrew capitalism.

The living conditions of women were greatly improved by the revolution, with the Soviet workers state passing a series of laws that for the first time established full legal equality between men and women. Marriage was made a simple process of registration based on mutual consent and divorce was easily possible on the request of one partner, with or without the knowledge of the other. Either partner could take the surname of the other or both could keep their own surnames—for example, Trotsky’s son adopted his mother Natalia Sedova’s surname. Free, legal abortion was made every woman’s right. The concept of “illegitimate” children was abolished and children born both in and out of the wedlock were treated equally, etc. The family as it had existed was shaken to the core.

But the Bolsheviks were keenly aware that legal measures alone were incapable of achieving women’s liberation, which they understood was a central aim of communism. The liberation of women can be achieved only through replacing the social functions of the family—the main institution oppressing women and children—through the socialisation of tasks like child care, cooking, laundry, cleaning and other household drudgery. Taking over these functions by the workers state would create conditions for women to play an equal role with men in all the economic, political and social life of the country. Toward this end, the early Soviet workers state began to build exemplary dining halls, public laundries and child care centres, etc. But they understood that the full implementation of these measures required qualitative economic development of Russia’s backward economy, and that this relied crucially on the international extension of the revolution.

After the death of Lenin in 1924, Trotsky became the chief leader of the opposition to the privileged bureaucratic caste that—with Stalin as its main representative—usurped political power in the Soviet Union and increasingly abandoned the Marxist programme of international revolution in favour of “socialism in one country”. Trotsky continued to uphold and fight for the revolutionary internationalist outlook and continuity of Leninism until he was murdered by a Stalinist agent in 1940, in Mexico. The triumph of the conservative Stalinist bureaucracy was accompanied by a reversal of many of the gains the revolution had brought to women. Abortions were made illegal, divorce was made a difficult and expensive court process, prostitutes were arrested and the bureaucracy started to glorify the family as a “socialist” institution.

In the following piece, Trotsky dealt with these reactionary trends in the context of analysing the more general process of bureaucratic degeneration and putting forward a programme of proletarian political revolution to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy. This programme was premised on defence of the collectivised economy and the workers state against imperialism and capitalist counterrevolution. Since the counterrevolution that restored capitalism in 1991-92, the conditions of women in the ex-Soviet Union have deteriorated enormously—massive unemployment, a plummeting life expectancy, resurgence of religious backwardness (both Russian Orthodox and Muslim), etc. This underlines, in the negative, the basic truth that the condition of women in society is a very precise means of evaluating to what degree a society has been purged of social oppression in general.

The October revolution honestly fulfilled its obligations in relation to woman. The young government not only gave her all political and legal rights in equality with man, but, what is more important, did all that it could, and in any case incomparably more than any other government ever did, actually to secure her access to all forms of economic and cultural work. However, the boldest revolution, like the “all-powerful” British parliament, cannot convert a woman into a man – or rather, cannot divide equally between them the burden of pregnancy, birth, nursing and the rearing of children. The revolution made a heroic effort to destroy the so-called “family hearth” – that archaic, stuffy and stagnant institution in which the woman of the toiling classes performs galley labor from childhood to death. The place of the family as a shut-in petty enterprise was to be occupied, according to the plans, by a finished system of social care and accommodation: maternity houses, crèches, kindergartens, schools, social dining rooms, social laundries, first-aid stations, hospitals, sanatoria, athletic organizations, moving-picture theaters, etc. The complete absorption of the housekeeping functions of the family by institutions of the socialist society, uniting all generations in solidarity and mutual aid, was to bring to woman, and thereby to the loving couple, a real liberation from the thousand-year-old fetters. Up to now this problem of problems has not been solved. The forty million Soviet families remain in their overwhelming majority nests of medievalism, female slavery and hysteria, daily humiliation of children, feminine and childish superstition. We must permit ourselves no illusions on this account. For that very reason, the consecutive changes in the approach to the problem of the family in the Soviet Union best of all characterize the actual nature of Soviet society and the evolution of its ruling stratum.

It proved impossible to take the old family by storm – not because the will was lacking, and not because the family was so firmly rooted in men’s hearts. On the contrary, after a short period of distrust of the government and its crèches, kindergartens and like institutions, the working women, and after them the more advanced peasants, appreciated the immeasurable advantages of the collective care of children as well as the socialization of the whole family economy. Unfortunately society proved too poor and little cultured. The real resources of the state did not correspond to the plans and intentions of the Communist Party. You cannot “abolish” the family? you have to replace it. The actual liberation of women is unrealizable on a basis of “generalized want”. Experience soon proved this austere truth which Marx had formulated eighty years before.

During the lean years, the workers wherever possible, and in part their families, ate in the factory and other social dining rooms, and this fact was officially regarded as a transition to a socialist form of life. There is no need of pausing again upon the peculiarities of the different periods: military communism, the NEP (New Economic Policy) and the first five-year plan. The fact is that from the moment of the abolition of the food-card system in 1935, all the better-placed workers began to return to the home dining table. It would be incorrect to regard this retreat as a condemnation of the socialist system, which in general was never tried out. But so much the more withering was the judgment of the workers and their wives upon the “social feeding” organized by the bureaucracy. The same conclusion must be extended to the social laundries, where they tear and steal linen more than they wash it. Back to the family hearth! But home cooking and the home washtub, which are now half shamefacedly celebrated by orators and journalists, mean the return of the workers’ wives to their pots and pans – that is, to the old slavery. It is doubtful if the resolution of the Communist International on the “complete and irrevocable triumph of socialism in the Soviet Union” sounds very convincing to the women of the factory districts!

The rural family, bound up not only with home industry but with agriculture, is infinitely more stable and conservative than that of the town. Only a few, and as a general rule, anaemic agricultural communes introduced social dining rooms and crèches in the first period. Collectivization, according to the first announcements, was to initiate a decisive change in the sphere of the family. Not for nothing did they expropriate the peasant’s chickens as well as his cows. There was no lack, at any rate, of announcements about the triumphal march of social dining rooms throughout the country. But when the retreat began, reality suddenly emerged from the shadow of this bragging. The peasant gets from the collective farm, as a general rule, only bread for himself and fodder for his stock. Meat, dairy products and vegetables, he gets almost entirely from the adjoining private lots. And once the most important necessities of life are acquired by the isolated efforts of the family, there can no longer be any talk of social dining rooms. Thus the midget farms, creating a new basis for the domestic hearthstone, lay a double burden upon woman.

The total number of steady accommodations in the crèches amounted, in 1932, to 600,000, and of seasonal accommodations solely during work in the fields to only about 4,000,000. In 1935 the cots numbered 5,600,000, but the steady ones were still only an insignificant part of the total. Moreover, the existing crèches, even in Moscow, Leningrad and other centers, are not satisfactory as a general rule to the least fastidious demands. “A crèche in which the child feels worse than he does at home is not a crèche but a bad orphan asylum,” complains a leading Soviet newspaper. It is no wonder if the better-placed workers’ families avoid crèches. But for the fundamental mass of the toilers, the number even of these “bad orphan asylums” is insignificant. Just recently the Central Executive Committee introduced a resolution that foundlings and orphans should be placed in private hands for bringing up. Through its highest organ, the bureaucratic government thus acknowledged its bankruptcy in relation to the most important socialist function. The number of children in kindergartens rose during the five years 1930-1935 from 370,000 to 1,181,000. The lowness of the figure for 1930 is striking, but the figure for 1935 also seems only a drop in the ocean of Soviet families. A further investigation would undoubtedly show that the principal, and in any case the better part of these kindergartens, appertain to the families of the administration, the technical personnel, the Stakhanovists, etc.

The same Central Executive Committee was not long ago compelled to testify openly that the “resolution on the liquidation of homeless and uncared-for children is being weakly carried out.” What is concealed behind this dispassionate confession? Only by accident, from newspaper remarks printed in small type, do we know that in Moscow more than a thousand children are living in “extraordinarily difficult family conditions”? that in the so-called children’s homes of the capital there are about 1,500 children who have nowhere to go and are turned out into the streets? That during the two autumn months of 1935 in Moscow and Leningrad “7,500 parents were brought to court for leaving their children without supervision.” What good did it do to bring them to court? How many thousand parents have avoided going to court? How many children in “extraordinarily difficult conditions” remained unrecorded? In what do extraordinarily difficult conditions differ from simply difficult ones? Those are the questions which remain unanswered. A vast amount of the homelessness of children, obvious and open as well as disguised, is a direct result of the great social crisis in the course of which the old family continues to dissolve far faster than the new institutions are capable of replacing it.

From these same accidental newspaper remarks and from episodes in the criminal records, the reader may find out about the existence in the Soviet Union of prostitution – that is, the extreme degradation of woman in the interests of men who can pay for it. In the autumn of the past year Izvestia suddenly informed its readers, for example, of the arrest in Moscow of “as many as a thousand women who were secretly selling themselves on the streets of the proletarian capital.” Among those arrested were 177 working women, 92 clerks, 5 university students, etc. What drove them to the sidewalks? Inadequate wages, want, the necessity to “get a little something for a dress, for shoes.” We should vainly seek the approximate dimensions of this social evil. The modest bureaucracy orders the statistician to remain silent. But that enforced silence itself testifies unmistakably to the numerousness of the “class” of Soviet prostitutes. Here there can be essentially no question of “relics of the past”? Prostitutes are recruited from the younger generation. No reasonable person, of course, would think of placing special blame for this sore, as old as civilization, upon the Soviet regime. But it is unforgivable in the presence of prostitution to talk about the triumph of socialism. The newspapers assert, to be sure – insofar as they are permitted to touch upon this ticklish theme – that “prostitution is decreasing.” It is possible that this is really true by comparison with the years of hunger and decline (1931-1933). But the restoration of money relations which has taken place since then, abolishing all direct rationing, will inevitably lead to a new growth of prostitution as well as of homeless children. Wherever there are privileged there are pariahs!

The mass homelessness of children is undoubtedly the most unmistakable and most tragic symptom of the difficult situation of the mother. On this subject even the optimistic Pravda is sometimes compelled to make a bitter confession: “The birth of a child is for many women a serious menace to their position.” It is just for this reason that the revolutionary power gave women the right to abortion, which in conditions of want and family distress, whatever may be said upon this subject by the eunuchs and old maids of both sexes, is one of her most important civil, political and cultural rights. However, this right of women too, gloomy enough in itself, is under the existing social inequality being converted into a privilege. Bits of information trickling into the press about the practice of abortion are literally shocking. Thus through only one village hospital in one district of the Urals, there passed in 1935 “195 women mutilated by midwives” – among them 33 working women, 28 clerical workers, 65 collective farm women, 58 housewives, etc. This Ural district differs from the majority of other districts only in that information about it happened to get into the press. How many women are mutilated every day throughout the extent of the Soviet Union?

Having revealed its inability to serve women who are compelled to resort to abortion with the necessary medical aid and sanitation, the state makes a sharp change of course, and takes the road of prohibition. And just as in other situations, the bureaucracy makes a virtue of necessity. One of the members of the highest Soviet court, Soltz, a specialist on matrimonial questions, bases the forthcoming prohibition of abortion on the fact that in a socialist society where there are no unemployed, etc., etc., a woman has no right to decline “the joys of motherhood.” The philosophy of a priest endowed also with the powers of a gendarme. We just heard from the central organ of the ruling party that the birth of a child is for many women, and it would be truer to say for the overwhelming majority, “a menace to their position.” We just heard from the highest Soviet institution that “the liquidation of homeless and uncared-for children is being weakly carried out,” which undoubtedly means a new increase of homelessness. But here the highest Soviet judge informs us that in a country where “life is happy” abortion should be punished with imprisonment - just exactly as in capitalist countries where life is grievous. It is clear in advance that in the Soviet Union as in the West those who will fall into the claws of the jailer will be chiefly working women, servants, peasant wives, who find it hard to conceal their troubles. As far as concerns “our women”, who furnish the demand for fine perfumes and other pleasant things, they will, as formerly, do what they find necessary under the very nose of an indulgent justiciary. “We have need of people,” concludes Soltz, closing his eyes to the homeless. “Then have the kindness to bear them yourselves,” might be the answer to the high judge of millions of toiling women, if the bureaucracy had not sealed their lips with the seal of silence. These gentlemen have, it seems, completely forgotten that socialism was to remove the cause which impels woman to abortion, and not force her into the “joys of motherhood” with the help of a foul police interference in what is to every woman the most intimate sphere of life.

The draft of the law forbidding abortion was submitted to so-called universal popular discussion, and even through the fine sieve of the Soviet press many bitter complaints and stifled protests broke out. The discussion was cut off as suddenly as it had been announced, and on June 27th the Central Executive Committee converted the shameful draft into a thrice shameful law. Even some of the official apologists of the bureaucracy were embarrassed. Louis Fischer declared this piece of legislation something in the nature of a deplorable misunderstanding. In reality the new law against women – with an exception in favor of ladies – is the natural and logical fruit of a Thermidorian reaction.

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.

Everybody and everything is dragged into the new course: lawgiver and litterateur, court and militia, newspaper and schoolroom. When a naive and honest communist youth makes bold to write in his paper: “You would do better to occupy yourself with solving the problem how woman can get out of the clutches of the family,” he receives in answer a couple of good smacks and – is silent. The ABCs of communism are declared a “leftist excess.” The stupid and stale prejudices of uncultured philistines are resurrected in the name of a new morale. And what is happening in daily life in all the nooks and corners of this measureless country? The press reflects only in a faint degree the depth of the Thermidorian reaction in the sphere of the family.

Since the noble passion of evangelism grows with the growth of sin, the seventh commandment is acquiring great popularity in the ruling stratum. The Soviet moralists have only to change the phraseology slightly. A campaign is opened against too frequent and easy divorces. The creative thought of the lawgivers had already invented such a “socialistic” measure as the taking of money payment upon registration of divorces, and increasing it when divorces were repeated. Not for nothing we remarked above that the resurrection of the family goes hand in hand with the increase of the educative role of the ruble. A tax indubitably makes registration difficult for those for whom it is difficult to pay. For the upper circles, the payment, we may hope, will not offer any difficulty. Moreover, people possessing nice apartments, automobiles and other good things arrange their personal affairs without unnecessary publicity and consequently without registration. It is only on the bottom of society that prostitution has a heavy and humiliating character. On the heights of the Soviet society, where power is combined with comfort, prostitution takes the elegant form of small mutual services, and even assumes the aspect of the “socialist family.” We have already heard from Sosnovsky about the importance of the “automobile-harem factor” in the degeneration of the ruling stratum.

The lyric, academical and other “friends of the Soviet Union” have eyes in order to see nothing. The marriage and family laws established by the October revolution, once the object of its legitimate pride, are being made over and mutilated by vast borrowings from the law treasuries of the bourgeois countries. And as though on purpose to stamp treachery with ridicule, the same arguments which were earlier advanced in favor of unconditional freedom of divorce and abortion – “the liberation of women,” “defense of the rights of personality,” “protection of motherhood” – are repeated now in favor of their limitation and complete prohibition.

The retreat not only assumes forms of disgusting hypocrisy, but also is going infinitely farther than the iron economic necessity demands. To the objective causes producing this return to such bourgeois forms as the payment of alimony, there is added the social interest of the ruling stratum in the deepening of bourgeois law. The most compelling motive of the present cult of the family is undoubtedly the need of the bureaucracy for a stable hierarchy of relations, and for the disciplining of youth by means of 40,000,000 points of support for authority and power.

While the hope still lived of concentrating the education of the new generations in the hands of the state, the government was not only unconcerned about supporting the authority of the “elders”, and, in particular of the mother and father, but on the contrary tried its best to separate the children from the family, in order thus to protect them from the traditions of a stagnant mode of life. Only a little while ago, in the course of the first five-year plan, the schools and the Communist Youth were using children for the exposure, shaming and in general “reeducating” of their drunken fathers or religious mothers – with what success is another question. At any rate, this method meant a shaking of parental authority to its very foundations. In this not unimportant sphere too, a sharp turn has now been made. Along with the seventh, the fifth commandment is also fully restored to its rights as yet, to be sure, without any references to God. But the French schools also get along without this supplement, and that does not prevent them from successfully inculcating conservatism and routine.

Concern for the authority of the older generation, by the way, has already led to a change of policy in the matter of religion. The denial of God, his assistance and his miracles, was the sharpest wedge of all those which the revolutionary power drove between children and parents. Outstripping the development of culture, serious propaganda and scientific education, the struggle with the churches, under the leadership of people of the type of Yaroslavsky, often degenerated into buffoonery and mischief. The storming of heaven, like the storming of the family, is now brought to a stop. The bureaucracy, concerned about their reputation for respectability, have ordered the young “godless” to surrender their fighting armor and sit down to their books. In relation to religion, there is gradually being established a regime of ironical neutrality. But that is only the first stage. It would not be difficult to predict the second and third, if the course of events depended only upon those in authority.

The hypocrisy of prevailing opinion develops everywhere and always as the square, or cube, of the social contradictions. Such approximately is the historic law of ideology translated into the language of mathematics. Socialism, if it is worthy of the name, means human relations without greed, friendship without envy and intrigue, love without base calculation. The official doctrine declares these ideal norms already realized – and with more insistence the louder the reality protests against such declarations. “On a basis of real equality between men and women,” says, for example, the new program of the Communist Youth, adopted in April 1936, “a new family is coming into being, the flourishing of which will be a concern of the Soviet state.” An official commentary supplements the program: “Our youth in the choice of a life-friend – wife or husband – know only one motive, one impulse: love. The bourgeois marriage of pecuniary convenience does not exist for our growing generation.” (Pravda, April 4, 1936.) So far as concerns the rank-and-file workingman and woman, this is more or less true. But “marriage for money” is comparatively little known also to the workers of capitalist countries. Things are quite different in the middle and upper strata. New social groupings automatically place their stamp upon personal relations. The vices which power and money create in sex relations are flourishing as luxuriously in the ranks of the Soviet bureaucracy as though it had set itself the goal of outdoing in this respect the Western bourgeoisie.

In complete contradiction to the just quoted assertion of Pravda, “marriage for convenience,” as the Soviet press itself in moments of accidental or unavoidable frankness confesses, is now fully resurrected. Qualifications, wages, employment, number of chevrons on the military uniform, are acquiring more and more significance, for with them are bound up questions of shoes, and fur coats, and apartments, and bathrooms, and – the ultimate dream – automobiles. The mere struggle for a room unites and divorces no small number of couples every year in Moscow. The question of relatives has acquired exceptional significance. It is useful to have as a father-in-law a military commander or an influential communist, as a mother-in-law the sister of a high dignitary. Can we wonder at this? Could it be otherwise?

One of the very dramatic chapters in the great book of the Soviets will be the tale of the disintegration and breaking up of those Soviet families where the husband as a party member, trade unionist, military commander or administrator, grew and developed and acquired new tastes in life, and the wife, crushed by the family, remained on the old level. The road of the two generations of the Soviet bureaucracy is sown thick with the tragedies of wives rejected and left behind. The same phenomenon is now to be observed in the new generation. The greatest of all crudities and cruelties are to be met perhaps in the very heights of the bureaucracy, where a very large percentage are parvenus of little culture, who consider that everything is permitted to them. Archives and memoirs will some day expose downright crimes in relation to wives and to women in general, on the part of those evangelists of family morals and the compulsory “joys of motherhood,” who are, owing to their position, immune from prosecution.

No, the Soviet woman is not yet free. Complete equality before the law has so far given infinitely more to the women of the upper strata, representatives of bureaucratic, technical, pedagogical and, in general, intellectual work, than to the working women and yet more the peasant women. So long as society is incapable of taking upon itself the material concern for the family, the mother can successfully fulfill a social function only on condition that she has in her service a white slave: nurse, servant, cook, etc. Out of the 40,000,000 families which constitute the population of the Soviet Union, 5 per cent, or maybe 10, build their “hearthstone” directly or indirectly upon the labor of domestic slaves. An accurate census of Soviet servants would have as much significance for the socialistic appraisal of the position of women in the Soviet Union as the whole Soviet law code, no matter how progressive it might be. But for this very reason the Soviet statistics hide servants under the name of “working woman” or “and others”! The situation of the mother of the family who is an esteemed communist, has a cook, a telephone for giving orders to the stores, an automobile for errands, etc., has little in common with the situation of the working woman who is compelled to run to the shops, prepare dinner herself, and carry her children on foot from the kindergarten – if, indeed, a kindergarten is available. No socialist labels can conceal this social contrast, which is no less striking than the contrast between the bourgeois lady and the proletarian woman in any country of the West.

The genuinely socialist family, from which society will remove the daily vexation of unbearable and humiliating cares, will have no need of any regimentation, and the very idea of laws about abortion and divorce will sound no better within its walls than the recollection of houses of prostitution or human sacrifices. The October legislation took a bold step in the direction of such a family. Economic and cultural backwardness has produced a cruel reaction. The Thermidorian legislation is beating a retreat to the bourgeois models, covering its retreat with false speeches about the sacredness of the “new” family. On this question, too, socialist bankruptcy covers itself with hypocritical respectability.

There are sincere observers who are, especially upon the question of children, shaken by the contrast here between high principles and ugly reality. The mere fact of the furious criminal measures that have been adopted against homeless children is enough to suggest that the socialist legislation in defense of women and children is nothing but crass hypocrisy. There are observers of an opposite kind who are deceived by the broadness and magnanimity of those ideas that have been dressed up in the form of laws and administrative institutions. When they see destitute mothers, prostitutes and homeless children, these optimists tell themselves that a further growth of material wealth will gradually fill the socialist laws with flesh and blood. It is not easy to decide which of these two modes of approach is more mistaken and more harmful. Only people stricken with historical blindness can fail to see the broadness and boldness of the social plan, the significance of the first stages of its development, and the immense possibilities opened by it. But on the other hand, it is impossible not to be indignant at the passive and essentially indifferent optimism of those who shut their eyes to the growth of social contradictions, and comfort themselves with gazing into a future, the key to which they respectfully propose to leave in the hands of the bureaucracy. As though the equality of rights of women and men were not already converted into an equality of deprivation of rights by that same bureaucracy! And as though in some book of wisdom it were firmly promised that the Soviet bureaucracy will not introduce a new oppression in place of liberty.

How man enslaved woman, how the exploiter subjected them both, how the toilers have attempted at the price of blood to free themselves from slavery and have only exchanged one chain for another – history tells us much about all this. In essence, it tells us nothing else. But how in reality to free the child, the woman and the human being? For that we have as yet no reliable models. All past historical experience, wholly negative, demands of the toilers at least and first of all an implacable distrust of all privileged and uncontrolled guardians.

Spartacist South Africa No. 12

SSA 13

Spring 2015


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Thermidor in the Family


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