Workers Vanguard No. 956

9 April 2010


Pioneer Trotskyist and Fighter for Women’s Rights

Honor Antoinette Konikow

(From the Archives of Marxism)

We reprint below a 1938 speech given by Antoinette Konikow, originally published in Socialist Appeal (5 November 1938), at a meeting celebrating her 50 years as a revolutionary Marxist. Konikow was born in 1869 in tsarist Russia and at the age of 19 joined Plekhanov’s Emancipation of Labor Group. As a result of tsarist repression, she emigrated to the United States in 1893. In her 50 years as a communist fighter, Antoinette Konikow not only stayed the course but also, with Marxist compass in hand, fought for the correct program in the major fights of the socialist movement.

Konikow joined the Socialist Labor Party in 1893; she was expelled in 1897 for her opposition to its bureaucratic practices. Already speaking five languages, she learned Yiddish in the mid 1890s in order to become a more effective organizer among immigrant Jewish workers. In 1901, Konikow was a founding member of the Socialist Party of America. In opposition to World War I, she toured the U.S., inspired by German Marxist leader Karl Liebknecht’s courageous opposition to social patriotism. She threw her support to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and became a founder of the Communist movement in the U.S. in 1919 (she was associated with Ludwig Lore, a founding member of the Communist Labor Party). Against the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union, which began in 1923-24, she took up the fight alongside Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky and the founders of American Trotskyism in the Communist League of America, which was later to become the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). At the time of her death in 1946, she was an honorary member of the SWP National Committee.

Konikow was not a supporter of James P. Cannon’s faction within the Communist Party (CP). But she was one of the first within the American party to support the views of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, and she won a group of five Boston-area party members to her views. After the 1928 expulsion of Cannon, Martin Abern and Max Shachtman for their support to the Left Opposition, Konikow was summoned to appear before the CP’s Political Committee. She wrote a defiant protest letter to CP Secretary Jay Lovestone. As the Prometheus Research Library, the central reference archive of the Spartacist League/U.S., noted in the introduction to James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism (1992):

“After reading Konikow’s letter to the November 2 meeting of the Committee, Lovestone commented that ‘it is obvious from her letter that she is the worst kind of a Trotskyite, biologically as well as politically. The sooner that we throw her out the better for the party.’ Konikow, a medical doctor and a pioneer of birth control, was unanimously expelled by the Political Committee. She founded the Independent Communist League, which published her letter in its first Bulletin, dated December 1928. Konikow’s League merged forces with the expelled Cannon faction to found the Communist League of America in May 1929.”

In The History of American Trotskyism, Cannon recalls a Boston meeting threatened by a gang of Stalinist hoodlums. The meeting was a success. As Cannon recalled, “Needless to say, my chairman on this historic occasion was Antoinette Konikow.”

Konikow was always a stalwart fighter for women’s rights. In 1923, she published her handbook, Voluntary Motherhood, the first birth control manual by an American physician, written to educate her primarily female immigrant patients. It sold more than 10,000 copies in its first three editions. She was repeatedly hounded by Boston authorities for her work on birth control, and in 1928 she was arrested for exhibiting contraceptives in public (the case was dismissed). On her own initiative, Konikow traveled to the Soviet Union in 1926 to introduce an inexpensive contraceptive jelly she developed with John G. Wright, a chemist who was also her son-in-law and comrade and later one of Trotsky’s translators. In 1931, she published Physicians’ Manual of Birth Control to address the widespread ignorance in the medical profession itself.

One of Konikow’s prized possessions was a photograph of Trotsky dedicated to her in Trotsky’s own hand: “We are proud, my dear Antoinette, to have you in our ranks. You are a beautiful example of energy and devotion for our youth. I embrace you with the wish: Long Live Antoinette Konikow. Yours fraternally, Leon Trotsky, Oct. 28, 1938, Coyoacán.”

* * *

The comrades have received me with warmth and friendship. It gives me tremendous happiness. The kind words written by Comrade Trotsky on his picture presented to me remind me of the greatest honor—the honor that was—given to comrades in Russia, the Order of Lenin pinned upon their breasts. I feel as if Comrade Trotsky has pinned the Order of Trotsky on my breast! Not that I am a hero-worshipper—for I have helped to pull down too many heroes from their pedestals. But in the last ten years of darkness of despair, the words of Leon Trotsky have been like a bell for a ship in distress, leading it to safe harbor.

Joined in 1888

In 1888, fifty years ago, I joined the Social Democratic Party of Russia. Life was as dark and hopeless as it may seem to many today. I was delighted to hear the words of Plekhanov at the first congress of the Second International: “Only the working class will lead the Russian revolution!” But the working class of Russia was spiritually even further away from us than the workers of the United States today. If anyone had told us at that time that 15 years later a strike of one and a half million workers would almost overthrow Czarism, and that 15 years after that the Russian soldier would turn his gun not only against Czarism but against the Russian bourgeoisie, we would not have believed it. We would have laughed. But it happened—and it will happen again. Only this time it will not take 30 years.

At Many Cradlesides

I have had to sponsor so many new organizations that I have often jokingly told my comrades that I feel like a mother always rocking a new cradle—and that is all wrong for me, for I am known as an advocate of birth control.

But I did rock the cradle of the Russian Social Democracy and out of it came a great giant, the Russian Bolshevik Party. After being expelled in the United States from the Socialist Labor Party, I soon began to rock the cradle of the Debs party, later the Socialist Party. It seemed to contain a healthy baby, but the war and the Russian revolution proved that there was a weak spot in its spine.

I then helped to rock another cradle, the cradle of the young vigorous Communist Party. The glory of those days of the great Russian Revolution shall never be forgotten—the tremendous enthusiasm for Lenin and Trotsky—the ten days that shook the world! But again things went wrong. “Socialism in one country” became the slogan. This meant not only socialism in no other country, but no socialism in any country.

I began to rock another cradle and today the baby is ten years old. Who can deny that it is a sturdy, strong young fellow? The Socialist Workers Party is the only bright ray that today penetrates the horror of present-day nightmares.

I saw the beginning of the Second International and its fall. I saw the beginning of the Third International and its fall. Now together we launch the Fourth International which will accomplish the tasks betrayed by the Second and the Third.

A Magic Word

We live now in the atmosphere of impending war. My war memories remind me of many encounters. I was sent on tour by the German-language federation of the S.P. to speak in German at anti-war meetings. That was no easy task at the height of the war frenzy. Many times comrades would approach me, pale and trembling, begging that I speak on another subject. They pointed to German detectives and the sheriff sitting in the crowd. Often I felt like weakening—but there was one magic word that gave me strength to do my duty. I tell it to you comrades—it may again help you. The magic word was Liebknecht.

Before I conclude, let me say a few words to the youth. No sermons or admonitions, for you do not need them! I am proud of you. I want to tell you that I envy you, your youth and vigor. I would like to be 50 years younger to work with you, for your task in the coming years will be the most important in human history. You have great monsters to fight, Fascism, Stalinism. It was easier to work under the Russian Czar than under Stalin, easier under the German Kaiser than under Hitler.

An Unsoiled Banner

But you have better weapons than we had, more knowledge, the experience of 50 years of the leadership of the greatest living genius of the revolution, Leon Trotsky.

We place in your hands a banner unsoiled. Many times it was dragged into the mud. We lifted it up and lovingly cleansed it to give it to you. Under the red banner of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, you will conquer.

And when that great moment arrives, pause for a moment and think of us, who will not be with you at that glorious time, and say: “Comrades, sleep in peace. The work has been done.”