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Spartacist South Africa No. 16

February 2019

Women and Revolution

Leon Trotsky on Women and the Family

We reprint below excerpts from Leon Trotsky’s essay, “From the Old Family to the New”, first published in the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda on 13 July 1923. This translation is taken from Leon Trotsky: Women and the Family (Pathfinder Press, 1970).

Together with V.I. Lenin, Trotsky was the principal leader of the 1917 October Revolution. That revolution had a profound impact on the status of women. Soviet legislation provided women with a level of equality and freedom far beyond what had been achieved in any of the advanced “democratic” capitalist countries at the time.

The Bolsheviks recognised that the liberation of women was impossible without qualitative economic development. While doing everything possible to implement the promise of women’s emancipation with the limited resources at hand, the efforts of the early Bolshevik regime were confronted with the grim poverty and social and economic backwardness of mainly peasant Russia. This was exacerbated by the economic devastation caused by World War I and the Civil War of 1918-1920, in which the Bolshevik regime fought against the armies of counterrevolution and imperialist intervention.

Trotsky’s essay was one of a series of contributions he wrote to a discussion that developed in 1923 within the Bolshevik Party on the question of how to improve the quality of byt (daily life) in this context. At the core of this discussion is the question of the emancipation of women, and the 1923 debates were thus centrally about how to deal with the excruciating contradiction between the communist programme for women’s liberation and the terrible material want in the country.

The Bolsheviks of Lenin and Trotsky understood clearly that the long-term survival of the Soviet state and the building of socialism demanded the spread of revolution to the advanced capitalist countries, especially Germany. The aborted revolution of 1923 in Germany, marking the end of the immediate post-World-War-I revolutionary wave, was deeply demoralising to the population of the Soviet workers state.

In these conditions of demoralisation and continuing economic scarcity, a bureaucratic caste headed by Stalin was able to usurp control of the Bolshevik Party, the workers state and the Communist International in a political counterrevolution beginning in 1923-24. Replacing the revolutionary internationalist programme of Lenin with the anti-revolutionary dogma of “socialism in one country”, the Stalinists also abandoned the communist fight for women’s liberation. The revised Family Code of 1936 rolled back important advances for women, such as abortion rights, while the bureaucracy glorified the family. Despite the political counterrevolution, gains for Soviet women based on the collectivised property forms persisted until the capitalist counterrevolution of 1991-92. For more, readers are referred to “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women”, (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 59, Spring 2006).

*   *   *

A radical reform of the family and, more generally, of the whole order of domestic life requires a great conscious effort on the part of the whole mass of the working class, and presumes the existence in the class itself of a powerful molecular force of inner desire for culture and progress. A deep-going plough is needed to turn up heavy clods of soil. To institute the political equality of men and women in the Soviet state was one problem and the simplest. A much more difficult one was the next—that of instituting the industrial equality of women and men in the factories, the mills, and the trade unions and of doing it in such a way that the men should not put the women to disadvantage. But to achieve the actual equality of man and woman within the family is an infinitely more arduous problem. All our domestic habits must be revolutionized before that can happen. And yet it is quite obvious that unless there is actual equality of husband and wife in the family, in a normal sense as well as in the conditions of life, we cannot speak seriously of their equality in social work or even in politics. As long as woman is chained to her housework, the care of the family, the cooking and sewing, all her chances of participation in social and political life are cut down in the extreme.

The easiest problem was that of assuming power. Yet just that problem alone absorbed all our forces in the early period of the revolution. It demanded endless sacrifices. The civil war necessitated measures of the utmost severity. Philistine vulgarians cried out about the barbarization of morality, about the proletariat becoming bloody and depraved, and so on. What was actually happening was that the proletariat, using the means of revolutionary violence forced into its hands, was conducting a struggle for a new culture, for genuine human values....

The institution of civil marriage was already a heavy blow to the traditional consecrated family which lived a great deal for appearances. The less personal attachment there was in the old marriage ties, the greater was the binding power of the external forces, social traditions, and more particularly religious rites. The blow to the power of the Church was also a blow to the family. Rites, deprived of binding significance and of state recognition, still remain in use through inertia, serving as one of the props to the tottering family. But when there is no inner bond within the family, when nothing but inertia keeps the family itself from complete collapse, then every push from outside is likely to shatter it to pieces, while, at the same time, it is a blow at the adherence to Church rites. And pushes from the outside are infinitely more likely to come now than ever before. That is the reason why the family totters and fails to recover and then tumbles again. Life sits in judgment on its conditions and does it by the cruel and painful condemnation of the family. History fells the old wood—and the chips fly in the wind.

But is life evolving any elements of a new type of family? Undoubtedly. We must only conceive clearly the nature of these elements and the process of their formation. As in other cases, we must separate the physical conditions from the psychological, the general from the individual. Psychologically the evolution of the new family, of new human relationships in general, for us means the advancement in culture of the working class, the development of the individual, a raising of the standard of his requirements and inner discipline. From this aspect, the revolution in itself has meant, of course, a big step forward, and the worst phenomena of the disintegrating family signify merely an expression, painful in form, of the awakening of the class and of the individual within the class. All our work relating to culture, the work we are doing and the work we ought to be doing, becomes, from this viewpoint, a preparation for new relationships and a new family. Without a raising of the standard of culture of the individual working man and woman, there cannot be a new, higher type of family, for in this domain we can only, of course, speak of inner discipline and not of external compulsion. The force then of the inner discipline of the individual in the family is conditioned by the tenor of the inner life, the scope and value of the ties that unite husband and wife.

The physical preparations for the conditions of the new life and the new family, again, cannot fundamentally be separated from the general work of socialist construction. The workers’ state must become wealthier in order that it may be possible seriously to tackle the public education of children and the releasing of the family from the burden of the kitchen and laundry. Socialization of family housekeeping and public education of children are unthinkable without a marked improvement in our economics as a whole. We need more socialist economic forms. Only under such conditions can we free the family from the functions and cares that now oppress and disintegrate it. Washing must be done by a public laundry, catering by a public restaurant, sewing by a public workshop. Children must be educated by good public teachers who have a real vocation for the work. Then the bond between husband and wife would be freed from everything external and accidental, and the one would cease to absorb the life of the other. Genuine equality would at last be established. The bond will depend on mutual attachment. And on that account particularly, it will acquire inner stability, not the same, of course, for everyone, but compulsory for no one.

Thus, the way to the new family is twofold: (a) the raising of the standard of culture and education of the working class and the individuals composing the class; (b) an improvement in the material conditions of the class organized by the state. The two processes are intimately connected with one another.

The above statements do not, of course, imply that at a given moment in material betterment the family of the future will instantly step into its rights. No. A certain advance towards the new family is possible even now. It is true that the state cannot as yet undertake either the education of children or the establishment of public kitchens that would be an improvement on the family kitchen, or the establishment of public laundries where the clothes would not be torn or stolen. But this does not mean that the more enterprising and progressive families cannot group themselves even now into collective housekeeping units. Experiments of this kind must, of course, be made carefully; the technical equipment of the collective unit must answer to the interests and requirements of the group itself, and should give manifest advantages to every one of its members, even though they be modest at first.

“This task”, Comrade Semashko recently wrote of the necessity of reconstructing our family life,

is best performed practically; decrees and moralizing alone will have little effect. But an example, an illustration of a new form, will do more than a thousand excellent pamphlets. This practical propaganda is best conducted by the method surgeons in their practice call transplantation. When a big surface is bare of skin either as the result of wound or burn, and there is no hope that the skin will grow sufficiently to cover it, pieces of skin are cut off from healthy places of the body and attached in islets on the bare surface; these islets adhere and grow until the whole surface is covered with skin.

The same thing happens in practical propaganda. When one factory or works adopts Communist forms, other factories will follow. [N. Semashko, “The Dead Holds on to the Living”, Izvestia, no. 81, April 14, 1923]

The experience of such collective family housekeeping units representing the first, still very incomplete approximations to a Communist way of life, should be carefully studied and given attentive thought. The combination of private initiative with support by the state power—above all, by the local Soviets and economic bodies—should have priority. The building of new houses—and, after all, we are going to build houses!—must be regulated by the requirements of the family group communities. The first apparent and indisputable success in this direction, however slight and limited in extent, will inevitably arouse a desire in more widespread groups to organize their life on similar lines. For a thought-out scheme, initiated from above, the time is not yet ripe, either from the point of view of the material resources of the state or from that of the preparation of the proletariat itself. We can escape the deadlock at present only by the creation of model communities. The ground beneath our feet must be strengthened step by step; there must be no rushing too far ahead or lapsing into bureaucratic fanciful experiments. At a given moment, the state will be able, with the help of local Soviets, cooperative units, and so on, to socialize the work done, to widen and deepen it. In this way the human family, in the words of Engels, will “jump from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom”.


Spartacist South Africa No. 16

SSA 16

February 2019


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Expropriate the Bourgeoisie! For a Black-Centred Workers Government!


Hands Off China!

Down With Imperialist Provocations!

Defend Gains of 1949 Chinese Revolution


Women and Revolution

Leon Trotsky on Women and the Family


Trotskyist League in Quebec and Canada

Raising the Banner of Leninism

For Quebec Independence and Socialism!


WASP on the Land Question:

“Colour-Blind” Social Democrats

Fake Trotskyists Spit on Permanent Revolution


Liberation of Dalits: Key to Indian Workers Revolution

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For a Leninist Party to Fight Caste Oppression!