Spartacist South Africa No. 5
V.I. Lenin Address on International Womens Day, 1921
Womens Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
The Russian Revolution of October 1917 was a beacon of liberation for the oppressed masses worldwide, not least for women, who suffered lives of extreme degradation. Bought and sold like chattel in marriage, subjugated as household slaves, women were bound to the stultifying confines of the family. The Revolution brought the promise of a fundamental transformation of society, the possibility of unprecedented advances to women and all the oppressed.
We publish below an address by Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin on International Women’s Day 1921. As Lenin describes, immediately upon leading the working class to power, drawing behind them the peasant masses, the Bolsheviks enacted the most far-reaching measures for the legal emancipation of women that the world had ever seen. But, as he explains, this was only the first step. Even in the advanced capitalist countries, where women have achieved a measure of formal equality, the oppression of women cannot be simply legislated out of existence. Women’s oppression originates in class society itself, and can be rooted out only through the destruction of private property in the means of production.
The institution of the family, the main source of the oppression of women in class society, flows from its role in the inheritance of property, which requires women’s sexual monogamy and social subordination. The family plays the critical role of rearing the next generation to work on the land, in the factories and mines and to serve as cannon fodder in the bourgeois army. It also serves to train youth to obey authority and inculcates religious backwardness as an ideological brake on social consciousness. The family cannot be abolished; it must be replaced with communal childcare, housework, dining halls and laundries, freeing women to take part fully in social, political and economic life.
The material abundance necessary to fulfill this task can come only from the highest level of technology and science, based on an internationally planned socialist society. Recognising this, the Bolsheviks fought to extend the revolution internationally, especially to the advanced capitalist economies of Europe. The Third (Communist) International (Comintern—CI) was founded as a vehicle for the international extension of the revolution.
From the earliest days of the Revolution, the Bolshevik Party, limited by scarce resources, took heroic measures to extend its liberating influence, to even the most backward and benighted Far Eastern regions. Special commissions traveled throughout the country, mobilising women and men to implement the new laws that established individual rights and the equality of the sexes. Abortion was legalised and made free in 1920 and all laws against homosexual acts and other consensual sexual activity were abolished. The party made efforts to defend women from abuse and wife-beating, and opposed all instances of discrimination and oppression, wherever they appeared, acting as the tribune of the people according to the concept put forward in Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? (See “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 59, Spring 2006.)
But the early Soviet workers state faced economic devastation, famine and disease wrought by the ravages of the First World War and the Civil War that followed when the imperialists invaded the country with armies from 14 capitalist countries. The failure of the 1923 German Revolution was a tremendous blow, leaving the struggling Soviet workers state isolated. A conservative bureaucratic caste led by Stalin began to consolidate control over the Bolshevik Party and the CI. This was to take on programmatic expression in late 1924, as the Stalinist bureaucracy propounded the anti-Marxist dogma of building “socialism in one country.” Through its futile pursuit of accommodation with imperialism and its opposition to international revolution, the bureaucracy undermined the gains of the revolution, reversing, for example, many of the gains women had achieved. The Trotskyists organised a new, Fourth International, founded in 1938, on the programme of authentic Marxism that had animated the Bolshevik Revolution.
Despite the triumph of the Stalinist bureaucratic caste and the consequent degeneration of the Russian Revolution, the central gains of the revolution—embodied in the overthrow of capitalist property relations and the establishment of a planned economy—remained. These gains were apparent, for example, in the material position of women. That is why we of the International Communist League, based on the heritage of Trotsky’s Fourth International, which fought against Stalin and the degeneration of the revolution, stood for the unconditional military defence of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack and all threats of internal and external capitalist counterrevolution. We called for a political revolution in the USSR to oust the bureaucracy, to restore soviet workers democracy and to pursue the fight for the international proletarian revolution necessary to lay the material basis for constructing a genuine socialist society in which poverty and want is eliminated and classes cease to exist. The Stalinist bureaucracy sold out to capitalist counterrevolution in 1991-92, bringing untold poverty and desperation to the former Soviet Union.
In countries of belated capitalist development, the struggle for women’s emancipation is a particularly powerful motor force of social revolution. In these societies, such as South Africa, the acute oppression of women is deeply rooted in pre-capitalist “tradition,” tribalism and religious obscurantism. The bourgeois nationalists who now rule in capitalist South Africa have always been hostile to the struggle for women’s liberation, which would threaten to undermine their own class rule. Women in southern Africa are still largely deemed minors with few enforceable rights of ownership or inheritance. Widows are still inherited by their husband’s brothers. Practices such as polygamy, based on the social and economic subordination of women, as well as lobola, arranged marriages and the brutal practice of female genital mutilation still occur. The catastrophic impact of the AIDS pandemic has been accelerated by superstition and bigotry as well as poverty and capitalist greed. The AIDS crisis is a product of the government’s criminal neglect and stands as a powerful indictment of neo-apartheid capitalism.
The experience of the Russian Revolution and, later, the lessons of the aborted Chinese Revolution of 1925-27, which was driven to defeat by the disastrous policies of Stalin’s Comintern, verified Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, which rejects the nationalist bloc between the proletariat and its capitalist class enemy. In countries of belated capitalist development, only the dictatorship of the proletariat, leaning on the peasant masses and fighting to extend proletarian rule to the imperialist centres, can realise the historic tasks of the European bourgeois-democratic revolutions—e.g., agrarian revolution and political democracy—and address the tasks of socialist construction. To achieve this goal and unleash the revolutionary potential of the struggle for women’s emancipation requires the leadership of a proletarian vanguard party, a tribune of the people, armed with a broad new vision of a socialist order of equality and freedom. Spartacist South Africa seeks to build that party as part of a proletarian, revolutionary international.
V.I. Lenin: “International Working Women’s Day”
The gist of Bolshevism and the Russian October Revolution is getting into politics the very people who were most oppressed under capitalism. They were downtrodden, cheated and robbed by the capitalists, both under the monarchy and in the bourgeois-democratic republics. So long as the land and the factories were privately owned this oppression and deceit and the plunder of the people’s labour by the capitalists were inevitable.
The essence of Bolshevism and the Soviet power is to expose the falsehood and mummery of bourgeois democracy, to abolish the private ownership of land and the factories and concentrate all state power in the hands of the working and exploited masses. They, these masses, get hold of politics, that is, of the business of building the new society. This is no easy task: the masses are downtrodden and oppressed by capitalism, but there is no other way—and there can be no other way—out of the wage-slavery and bondage of capitalism.
But you cannot draw the masses into politics without drawing in the women as well. For under capitalism the female half of the human race is doubly oppressed. The working woman and the peasant woman are oppressed by capital, but over and above that, even in the most democratic of the bourgeois republics, they remain, firstly, deprived of some rights because the law does not give them equality with men; and secondly—and this is the main thing—they remain in “household bondage”, they continue to be “household slaves”, for they are overburdened with the drudgery of the most squalid, backbreaking and stultifying toil in the kitchen and the family household.
No party or revolution in the world has ever dreamed of striking so deep at the roots of the oppression and inequality of women as the Soviet, Bolshevik revolution is doing. Over here, in Soviet Russia, no trace is left of any inequality between men and women under the law. The Soviet power has eliminated all there was of the especially disgusting, base and hypocritical inequality in the laws on marriage and the family and inequality in respect of children.
This is only the first step in the liberation of woman. But none of the bourgeois republics, including the most democratic, has dared to take even this first step. The reason is awe of “sacrosanct private property”.
The second and most important step is the abolition of the private ownership of land and the factories. This and this alone opens up the way towards a complete and actual emancipation of woman, her liberation from “household bondage” through transition from petty individual housekeeping to large-scale socialised domestic services.
This transition is a difficult one, because it involves the remoulding of the most deep-rooted, inveterate, hidebound and rigid “order” (indecency and barbarity would be nearer the truth). But the transition has been started, the thing has been set in motion, we have taken the new path.
And so on this international working women’s day countless meetings of working women in all countries of the world will send greetings to Soviet Russia, which has been the first to tackle this unparalleled and incredibly hard but great task, a task that is universally great and truly liberatory. There will be bracing calls not to lose heart in face of the fierce and frequently savage bourgeois reaction. The “freer” or “more democratic” a bourgeois country is, the wilder the rampage of its gang of capitalists against the workers’ revolution, an example of this being the democratic republic of the United States of North America. But the mass of workers have already awakened. The dormant, somnolent and inert masses in America, Europe and even in backward Asia were finally roused by the imperialist war.
The ice has been broken in every corner of the world.
Nothing can stop the tide of the peoples’ liberation from the imperialist yoke and the liberation of working men and women from the yoke of capital. This cause is being carried forward by tens and hundreds of millions of working men and women in town and countryside. That is why this cause of labour’s freedom from the yoke of capital will triumph all over the world.
—March 4, 1921