Workers Vanguard No. 1108

24 March 2017


From the Archives of Spartacist

The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women

Part One

The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 was the greatest victory for the world’s working people and for all of the oppressed. The spark for the revolutionary upsurge was a mass outpouring of women in Petrograd on International Women’s Day (IWD), March 8 (February 23 by the old Julian calendar). While in recent years bourgeois feminists have usurped IWD, in fact it is a workers’ celebration that originated in 1908 among female needle trades workers in Manhattan.

As part of our celebration of the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, we reprint below the first part of an article that initially appeared in the Women and Revolution pages of Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 59, Spring 2006. Various reformist outfits, including the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Socialist Alternative (SAlt), have been issuing their own articles on the Russian Revolution, to which they occasionally pay homage. But this is nothing more than whitewash of their record of spitting on the heritage of the world’s first and only successful proletarian socialist revolution.

When capitalist counterrevolution triumphed in the former Soviet Union in 1991-92, following decades of Stalinist misrule, these organizations reveled in the final undoing of the workers state. The virulently anti-Soviet ISO echoed its British cothinkers, whose paper cheered, “Communism Has Collapsed” and declared that this was “a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing” (Socialist Worker [Britain], 31 August 1991). For its part, SAlt’s cothinkers headlined in their Russian newspaper, Rabochaya Demokratiya (October 1991), that “Where We Were” was “On the Barricades in Moscow,” i.e., on the side of Boris Yeltsin’s imperialist-backed counterrevolution.

In stark contrast, the International Communist League fought in defense of the Soviet Union and its social gains, calling for proletarian political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy. Today, we uniquely uphold the program for new October Revolutions, the only program that will lay the basis for the full emancipation of women and the liberation of all humanity in a world communist society.

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“‘Liberation’ is an historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions, the development of industry, commerce, agriculture, the conditions of intercourse.”

—Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (1846)

Today, millions of women even in the advanced capitalist “democracies” endure nasty and brutish lives of misery and drudgery. In the United States, to name just two instances of anti-woman bigotry, abortion rights are under increasing attack and quality childcare is scarce and too costly for most working women. Conditions for women in the Third World are worse by orders of magnitude. But even 15 years ago women in the Soviet Union enjoyed many advantages, such as state-supported childcare institutions, full abortion rights, access to a wide range of trades and professions, and a large degree of economic equality with their male co-workers—in short, a status in some ways far in advance of capitalist societies today.

The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution made these gains possible. No mere cosmetic gloss on the surface, the Russian Revolution was, in the words of historian Richard Stites, a

“classical social revolution—a process not an event, a phenomenon that cannot be fused, triggered, or set off by a mere turnover of power which confines itself to the center and confines its efforts to decrees and laws enunciating the principles of equality. True social revolution in an underdeveloped society does not end with the reshuffling of property any more than it does with the reshuffling of portfolios; it is the result of social mobilization. Put in plain terms, it means bodies moving out among the people with well-laid plans, skills, and revolutionary euphoria; it means teaching, pushing, prodding, cajoling the stubborn, the ignorant, and the backward by means of the supreme component of all radical propaganda: the message and the conviction that revolution is relevant to everyday life.”

—Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860-1930 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978)

This thoroughgoing effort to remake society was made possible by the smashing of tsarist/capitalist rule and the Bolshevik-led seizure of power by the soviets—workers and peasants councils—in October 1917. The estates of the landed nobility were abolished and the land nationalized; industry was soon collectivized. The new workers state took the first steps toward planning the economy in the interests of the toilers. This brought enormous gains to working women. The Russian Revolution sought to bring women into full participation in economic, social and political life.

Since the counterrevolution that restored capitalism in 1991-92, women in the ex-Soviet Union face vastly worse conditions somewhat akin to the Third World. Massive unemployment, a plummeting life expectancy, and a resurgence of religious backwardness—both Russian Orthodox and Muslim—are just three examples. From 1991 to 1997 gross domestic product fell by over 80 percent; according to official (understated) statistics, capital investment dropped over 90 percent. By the middle of the decade, 40 percent of the population of the Russian Federation was living below the official poverty line and a further 36 percent only a little above it. Millions were starving.

Women’s Liberation and World Socialist Revolution

The Bolsheviks recognized that without qualitative economic development, the liberation of women was a utopian fantasy. Working to maximize the resources at hand, the early Bolshevik regime did all it could to implement the promise of women’s emancipation, including the formation of a party department that addressed women’s needs, the Zhenotdel. But at every step their efforts were confronted with the fact that short of a massive infusion of resources, the results were limited on all sides. Leon Trotsky, the leader together with V.I. Lenin of the Russian Revolution, explained that from the beginning the Bolsheviks recognized that

“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.”

The Revolution Betrayed (1936)

The grim poverty of the world’s first workers state began with the economic and social backwardness inherited from the old tsarist empire. Foreign investment had built modern factories in the major cities, creating a compact, powerful proletariat that was able to make the revolution in a majority-peasant country. The revolutionary workers were, in most cases, only one or two generations removed from the peasantry. The workers supported their cousins in the countryside when they seized the landed estates and divided up the land among those who worked it. The alliance (smychka) between the workers and peasants was key to the success of the revolution. But the mass of peasant smallholders was also a reservoir of social and economic backwardness. The devastation wrought by World War I was compounded by the bloody Civil War (1918-1920) that the Bolshevik government had to fight against the armies of counterrevolution and imperialist intervention, throwing the country’s economy back decades. The imperialists also instituted an economic blockade, isolating the Soviet Union from the world economy and world division of labor.

Marxists have always understood that the material abundance necessary to uproot class society and its attendant oppressions can only come from the highest level of technology and science based on an internationally planned economy. The economic devastation and isolation of the Soviet workers state led to strong material pressures toward bureaucratization. In the last years of his life, Lenin, often in alliance with Trotsky, waged a series of battles in the party against the political manifestations of the bureaucratic pressures. The Bolsheviks knew that socialism could only be built on a worldwide basis, and they fought to extend the revolution internationally, especially to the advanced capitalist economies of Europe; the idea that socialism could be built in a single country was a later perversion introduced as part of the justification for the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution.

In early 1924 a bureaucratic caste under Stalin came to dominate the Soviet Communist Party and state. Thus, the equality of women as envisioned by the Bolsheviks never fully came about. The Stalinist bureaucracy abandoned the fight for international revolution and so besmirched the great ideals of communism with bureaucratic distortions and lies that, in the end in 1991-92, the working class did not fight against the revolution’s undoing and the restoration of capitalism under Boris Yeltsin.

The Russian Revolution marked the beginning of a great wave of revolutionary struggle that swept the world in opposition to the carnage of WWI. The October Revolution was a powerful inspiration to the working class internationally. Germany, the most powerful and most advanced capitalist country in Europe, was thrown into a revolutionary situation in 1918-19; much of the rest of the continent was in turmoil. The Bolsheviks threw a good deal of the Soviet state’s resources into the fight for world socialist revolution, creating the Communist International (CI) for this purpose. But the young parties of the CI in Europe had only recently broken from the reformist leadership of the mass workers organizations that had supported their own bourgeois governments in WWI and were not able to act as revolutionary vanguard parties comparable to the Bolsheviks. The reformist, pro-capitalist and deeply chauvinist leadership of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was able to suppress the proletarian revolutionary opportunity in Germany in 1918-19, with the active collaboration of the military/police forces.

Social-democratic parties like the German SPD and the British Labour Party bear central historical responsibility for the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. Yet they howl along with their capitalist masters that the early Bolshevik regime under Lenin inevitably led to Stalinist despotism, that communism has failed and that capitalist “democracy” is infinitely preferable to communism. They are echoed by many of today’s leftist-minded youth, who equate communism with the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet workers state. Anarchist-influenced youth hold that hierarchy is inherently oppressive, that small-scale production, decentralization and “living liberated” on an individual basis offer a way forward. This is a dead end.

Despite the triumph of the bureaucratic caste in 1924 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, standing on the heritage of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, which fought against Stalin and the degeneration of the revolution, stood for the unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack and an intransigent fight against all threats of capitalist counterrevolution, internal or external. At the same time we understood that the bureaucratic caste at the top was a mortal threat to the continued existence of the workers state. 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 build socialism.

Heritage of Bolshevik Work Among Women

A host of books published over the last decade and a half speak to the enormous gains made by women in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks immediately began to put into place civil law that swept away centuries of property law and male privilege. Wendy Goldman’s valuable Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) focuses on the three Family Codes of 1918, 1926 and 1936 as turning points in Soviet policy, serving as markers for the party and state program on the woman question. The 1918 Code, the “most progressive family legislation the world had ever seen,” gave way to the 1926 Code, which came into effect in a period of intense political struggle between the Stalinist bureaucracy and oppositional currents arrayed against it, centrally Trotsky’s Left Opposition. The 1936 Family Code, which rehabilitated the family in official Stalinist ideology and made abortion illegal, codified the wholesale retreat under Stalin in the struggle for women’s equality.

Goldman’s book is only one among many publications since 1991 that have profited from the increased access to archives of the former Soviet Union. Another, Barbara Evans Clements’ Bolshevik Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) is a group biography, centering on selected longtime party members. Clements has assembled a database of several hundred Old Bolshevik (party members before 1917) women cadre, which she analyzes for trends in origins, education and party activity.

Bolshevik Women focuses on prominent party members such as Elena Stasova, a Central Committee member and the CC secretary in Petrograd in 1917. Another is Evgeniia Bosh, described by Victor Serge (a one-time member of the Left Opposition who later broke with Trotsky) as one of “the most capable military leaders to emerge at this early stage” of the Civil War (quoted in Clements, Bolshevik Women). Bosh committed suicide in January 1925 when the Stalin faction purged Trotsky as People’s Commissar for War. Yet another was Lenin’s close friend and collaborator, Inessa Armand, the first head of the Zhenotdel until her death in 1920.

Less well known are Konkordiia Samoilova, another longtime party cadre, whose work after 1917 focused on Zhenotdel field activities; Klavdiia Nikolaeva, removed as head of the Zhenotdel in 1925 due to her support to the anti-bureaucratic Opposition; Rozaliia Zemliachka, who became a stalwart bureaucrat and the only woman to sit on the Council of People’s Commissars under Stalin; and Alexandra Artiukhina, who headed the Zhenotdel from 1925 until its liquidation by Stalin in 1930.

The International Communist League’s work among women stands on the traditions established by Lenin’s Bolsheviks. Some of the earliest issues of Women and Revolution published original research on the Russian Revolution and Bolshevik work among women by Dale Ross, W&R’s first editor, based on her PhD dissertation, The Role of the Women of Petrograd in War, Revolution and Counter-Revolution, 1914-1921 (1973). The second and third issues of W&R (September-October 1971 and May 1972) published in two parts the Bolsheviks’ “Methods of Work Among the Women of the Communist Party” from the Third Congress of the Communist International (1921). [A new English translation of this document, “Theses on Methods and Forms of Work of the Communist Parties Among Women,” was published in Spartacist No. 62, Spring 2011.]The new information available has further confirmed and enriched our solidarity with the Bolshevik road to the emancipation of women.

Subsequent issues of W&R explored other aspects of the fight for women’s liberation in the USSR. Of special significance is “Early Bolshevik Work Among Women of the Soviet East” (W&R No. 12, Summer 1976). This article detailed the heroic efforts of the Bolshevik government to transform conditions for the hideously oppressed women of Muslim Central Asia, where Zhenotdel activists themselves took to the veil in order to reach these secluded women. It is beyond the scope of the present article to deal with this important subject.

Marxism vs. Feminism

For Marxists, the special oppression of women originates in class society itself and can only be rooted out through the destruction of private property in the means of production. The entry of women into the proletariat opens the way to liberation: their position at the point of production gives them the social power, along with their male co-workers, to change the capitalist system and lay the basis for women’s social independence from the confines of the institution of the family. Marxism differs from feminism centrally over the question of the main division in society: feminists hold that it is men vs. women; for Marxists, it is class, that is, exploiter vs. exploited. A working woman has more in common with her male co-workers than with a female boss, and the emancipation of women is the task of the working class as a whole.

The Marxist view of the family as the main source of the oppression of women dates from The German Ideology, where Marx and Engels first formulated the concept that the family was not an immutable, timeless institution, but a social relation subject to historical change. In the classic Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), Engels (working with the material available at the time) traced the origin of the institution of the family and the state to the division of society into classes. With the rise of a social surplus beyond basic subsistence, a leisured, ruling class could develop based on a private appropriation of that surplus, thus moving human society away from the primitive egalitarianism of the Stone Age. The centrality of the family flowed from its role in the inheritance of property, which required women’s sexual monogamy and social subordination. Engels termed this “the world historical defeat of the female sex.”

A collectivized, planned economy seeks to productively employ all adults with the goal of maximizing the wealth, including leisure time, available to all. In contrast, in the boom-bust cycle of a capitalist economy, each capitalist enterprise seeks to maximize its rate of profit. Inevitably, capitalist firms seek to reduce costs (and increase profits) by reducing both wages and jobs, leading to an impoverished working class, a pool of chronically unemployed workers and long hours for those who do work. Isolated in the family, women make up a large component of the reserve army of the unemployed, hired during economic booms and sent “back to the kitchen” during hard times. When women are drawn into the workforce in great numbers, the capitalists then try to reduce real wages for men, so that it takes the income of two working adults to raise a family.

The necessary role of the family—the function that must be replaced and cannot be abolished—is the rearing of the next generation. Under capitalism, the masses of youth are slated for wage slavery and service as cannon fodder in the bourgeois army, and the family plays an important role in training them to obey authority. It is also a major source for inculcating religious backwardness as an ideological brake on social consciousness.

While many aspects of the capitalist system serve to undermine and erode the family (the employment of women and public education are two examples), capitalism cannot provide a systematic solution to the double burden women shoulder, and must seek to bolster its weakened institution. Bourgeois feminists, whose quarrel with the capitalist system is their own subordinate status within it, address this by arguing for a redivision of household tasks within the family, increasing men’s share of domestic responsibilities. Marxists seek to transfer housework altogether to the public sphere. As the Bolshevik leader Evgeny Preobrazhensky (later allied with Trotsky) said, “Our task does not consist of striving for justice in the division of labor between the sexes. Our task is to free men and women from petty household labor” (quoted in Goldman, Women, the State and Revolution). Thus one of the tasks of the socialist revolution is the full replacement of the institution of the family with communal childcare, dining halls and laundries, and paid maternity leave, free health care, and special efforts to draw women fully into social and political life.

In Russia, the feminist movement was part of a broader bourgeois-democratic current that opposed tsarism and wanted to modernize Russia as an industrial capitalist society. For example, in 1906 amid the continuing ferment of the first Russian Revolution, the three main feminist organizations, the Women’s Equal Rights Union, the Women’s Progressive Party and the Women’s Mutual Philanthropic Society, directed their efforts toward the passage of equal rights and woman suffrage bills in the newly established Duma (parliament). When the predominantly liberal First and Second Dumas were dissolved by the autocracy, the Russian feminist movement went into decline.

In 1917 the main “women’s issue” in the eyes of the working woman was opposition to the bloody imperialist war that had been raging for three years. The war sparked the February revolt, which began with the mass outpouring of women on International Women’s Day. After the abdication of the Tsar and the establishment of the bourgeois-democratic Provisional Government, most of the ostensible parties of the left and of reform—including the Russian feminists—considered the main goals of the revolution to have been accomplished. Therefore, they abandoned their opposition to the war and supported the renewal of the imperialist slaughter in the name of “democracy.”

The Bolsheviks fought for the soviets of workers and peasants deputies to become organs of the rule of the exploited and oppressed, including women, and to end the war immediately without annexations of other countries. The best fighters for women’s liberation were the Bolsheviks, who understood that the liberation of women cannot be isolated from the liberation of the working class as a whole. Nor can it be fully achieved, least of all in a backward country—even one with a revolutionary government—in political, social and economic isolation from the rest of the world.