Workers Hammer No. 240
For new October Revolutions!
The Russian Revolution and the liberation of women
We print below the first part of a public talk given by Spartacist Editorial Board member Amy Rath in London on 11 November. It has been edited for publication.
We’re here today to mark the 100th anniversary of the Russian October Revolution, the defining event of modern history and the greatest victory yet for working people. As the founder of American Trotskyism, James P Cannon, put it:
“The Russian Bolsheviks on November 7, 1917, once and for all, took the question of the workers’ revolution out of the realm of abstraction and gave it flesh and blood reality....
“The Russian revolution showed in practice, by example, how the workers’ revolution is to be made. It revealed in life the role of the party. It showed in life what kind of a party the workers must have.”
—“Speech on the Russian Question” (October 1939), published in The Struggle for a Proletarian Party (1943)
The proletariat, drawing behind it the peasantry and the oppressed nationalities, forged new organs of class power, the soviets or workers councils. With the smashing of the old capitalist government, these soviets, under the leadership of VI Lenin’s Bolshevik party, became the new workers state. The Soviet government expropriated the capitalists, repudiated the tsar’s massive debt to foreign bankers and proclaimed the right of working people to jobs, healthcare, housing and education, as the first steps to building a socialist society. The new workers state gave land to the peasants and self-determination to the many oppressed nations in the prison-house of peoples that had been tsarist Russia. The advanced layer of workers understood that they were not just taking power in Russia, they were opening the first chapter of international proletarian revolution. The revolution inspired workers uprisings throughout Europe and rebellions in the colonial countries dominated by imperialism.
Today I’m going to focus on the emancipation of women. The revolution indeed took that question “out of the realm of abstraction and gave it flesh and blood reality”. That means, alas, that I will neglect many other vital questions. After all, Leon Trotsky, co-leader of the revolution with Lenin, needed about 1200 pages in his History of the Russian Revolution. But if this talk encourages you to read or reread Trotsky’s History, then I will have accomplished something.
The woman question is an excellent prism through which to view the revolution and understand how thoroughly the Bolsheviks intended to remake society. Replacing the institution of the family, the main source of the oppression of women, with socialised means of raising children and feeding and clothing the population is the most radical aspect of the communist programme. It will make the most thoroughgoing changes in everyday life for men, women and children, including the fullest freedom in sexual relations.
In its own way, the bourgeoisie understands this, as was shown in a series of articles that the New York Times recently published called “Red Century”. Most of the pieces drip with lies, loathing and gloating. A case in point is one written recently by an eminent British man of letters, Martin Amis — he doesn’t mention women at all. Another article gives you a hint as to why that might be. It was called “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism”! I’m going to be returning to this interesting subject later.
Today we in the International Communist League are the only ones who stand on the heritage of the Bolsheviks. The rest of the left has, in one way or another, entirely rejected the lessons of the October Revolution. There is a sharp counterposition between the ICL’s perspective — of constructing revolutionary, internationalist and proletarian parties to achieve workers power with the ultimate goal of a worldwide classless society — and the revisionist programme which is limited to reforms and deals within the confines of the capitalist order, that is, social democracy. Throughout the course of the Russian Revolution and beyond, the Bolsheviks had to fight against and expose the politics of conciliation to the capitalist class, politics which were embodied by the Mensheviks of various stripes.
The liberation of women is a material act, possible only through the conditions of proletarian state power. I’m going to talk about how the Bolsheviks sought to carry out this task and what obstacles they faced. I’m also going to talk about the many ways that the Marxist understanding of the woman question has been trampled on and betrayed by putative leftists over the years. You can see this not just in the Stalinist rehabilitation of the family as a so-called “basic unit of socialism”, but also in the reformist way the woman question was dealt with by many Social Democrats, even in the days when Friedrich Engels was still alive. Before 1914, the Social-Democratic Second International included not only opportunists, but also revolutionary Marxists. Just as the Bolsheviks returned to the teachings of Karl Marx on the state as a special coercive apparatus defending the ruling-class order with armed bodies of men, so they also returned to Marx’s understanding of the family as the basis of the oppression of women.
Social-democratic opportunism flows from the quest for an alliance with the bourgeoisie based on the temporary, parochial interests of a particular section of the working class at a particular time and place. Leninism is based on the world-historic tasks of the proletariat as the revolutionary class that can seize state power and expropriate private property. But even this is only a step to our ultimate goal: the creation of a global communist society of truly liberated human beings.
Workers revolution is the first step: sweeping away the bankrupt capitalist order which is holding back the advance of the productive forces. Once the system of exploitation of labour for profit is destroyed, planned industrial production based on workers democracy will free up vast resources for the advance of industry, employing the highest levels of science and technology. The material basis for the realisation of the Marxist programme is overcoming economic scarcity through the progressive increase in the productivity of labour. Fully overcoming scarcity will take several generations of socialist development, based on a worldwide collectivised economy. The replacement of the family with new and free relations among people, including collective child-rearing, will come into being and evolve alongside this economic order.
In July 1919, Lenin addressed the situation of women in the Soviet workers state in the following words:
“Not a single democratic party in the world, not even in the most advanced bourgeois republic, has done in decades so much as a hundredth part of what we did in our very first year in power. We really razed to the ground the infamous laws placing women in a position of inequality, restricting divorce and surrounding it with disgusting formalities, denying recognition to children born out of wedlock, enforcing a search for their fathers, etc., laws numerous survivals of which, to the shame of the bourgeoisie and of capitalism, are to be found in all civilised countries. We have a thousand times the right to be proud of what we have done in this field.”
— “A Great Beginning” (July 1919)
The Soviet government established civil marriage and allowed for divorce at the request of either partner. All laws against homosexual acts and other consensual sexual activity were abolished. The Bolshevik position was based on the following principle: “the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured, and no one’s interests are encroached upon” — as explained by Grigorii Batkis, director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene, in a 1923 pamphlet called The Sexual Revolution in Russia (quoted in John Lauritsen and David Thorstad, The Early Homosexual Rights Movement, 1974).
The Bolshevik goals, however, were far more than this. Lenin in “A Great Beginning” goes on to say:
“But the more thoroughly we have cleared the ground of the lumber of the old, bourgeois laws and institutions, the clearer it is to us that we have only cleared the ground to build on but are not yet building.
“Notwithstanding all the laws emancipating woman, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and the nursery, and she wastes her labour on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-racking, stultifying and crushing drudgery. The real emancipation of women, real communism, will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins (led by the proletariat wielding the state power) against this petty housekeeping, or rather when its wholesale transformation into a large-scale socialist economy begins.”
In the same article, Lenin took up the question of the productivity of labour as the key to the advance of human civilisation out of the barbarism of exploitation and oppression to the final goal: worldwide communism. As Marx defined it: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.
The Bolsheviks had achieved the necessary first steps towards that goal: the seizure of power by the revolutionary proletariat under the leadership of the communist vanguard, the expropriation of private property and the reorganisation of production under the control of the working class. In 1919 they made the crucial next step: the foundation of the Third, Communist, International (Comintern) to build Bolshevik parties to lead workers revolutions throughout the world, especially in advanced capitalist countries like Germany. International revolution was necessary to establish the material basis to actually begin the construction of a socialist society. (No Marxist conceived of socialism as possible within a single state, especially one as backward and impoverished as Russia, a largely peasant country.) A key part of the international organisation was the Women’s Secretariat, which oversaw the party’s special work among women in all sections of the Comintern.
The power of the workers state was mobilised behind socialised means of housework and childcare: public laundries, dining rooms, housing, centres for the care of children and infants, and services for mothers and children. The Bolsheviks viewed the replacement of the family by collective means of raising children not simply as a distant goal for a future communist society. Rather it was a programme that, within the limits of the scarce resources available, they were beginning to carry out in the existing Soviet workers state.
In their efforts to replace the family, the Bolsheviks put great emphasis on the health and well-being of mother and child. The 1918 Labour Code provided at least one paid 30-minute break every three hours to feed a baby. The maternity insurance programme implemented the same year provided for fully paid maternity leave of eight weeks, nursing breaks and factory rest facilities for women on the job, free pre- and post-natal care and cash allowances. With its networks of maternity clinics, consultation offices, feeding stations, nurseries, and mother and infant homes, this programme was perhaps the single most popular innovation of the Soviet regime among women.
One premise of the replacement of the family is that a workers state, especially in an economically advanced country, would have the human and material resources to provide far better care for young children in all respects than a mother in the setting of a private family household, especially relative to the conditions of the working people and the poor. Indeed, an important goal is freeing children from the domination of their backward parents. The raising of the next generation becomes the task of society as a whole. Alexandra Kollontai, one of the leaders of the Bolshevik work among women, explained in “Communism and the Family” (1918):
“The woman who takes up the struggle for the liberation of the working class must learn to understand that there is no more room for the old proprietary attitude which says: ‘These are my children, I owe them all my maternal solicitude and affection; those are your children, they are no concern of mine and I don’t care if they go hungry and cold — I have no time for other children.’ The worker-mother must learn not to differentiate between yours and mine; she must remember that there are only our children, the children of Russia’s communist workers.”
— published in Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai, translated by Alix Holt (1977)
However, there were huge limits to the realisation of the liberating policies of the Communist government under Lenin and Trotsky: the objective conditions — the impoverishment and backwardness of Russia. In 1917, when the Bolsheviks came to power, the peasantry barely 50 years out of serfdom made up some 85 per cent of the population. They lived under a village system with a rigid patriarchal hierarchy, without even rudimentary modern infrastructure, lacking a sewage system, electricity or paved roads. The extreme degradation of peasant women was the inevitable corollary of the low productivity of Russian agriculture, which used centuries-old techniques.
On the other hand, by 1914 women made up one-third of Russia’s small but powerful industrial labour force. The Bolshevik programme had addressed their felt needs through such demands as equal pay for equal work, paid maternity leave and childcare facilities at factories — the lack of which contributed to a high level of infant mortality in tsarist Russia. Hundreds of women were members of the Bolshevik party before the revolution, and they participated in all aspects of party work, both legal and underground, serving as officers in local party committees, couriers, agitators and writers.
The party built a special apparatus dedicated to work among women, founding the newspaper Rabotnitsa (The Woman Worker) in 1914. Thus the Bolsheviks successfully mobilised masses of working women whom the party could not have otherwise reached. Rabotnitsa called mass meetings and demonstrations in Petrograd in opposition to the imperialist war and rising prices, the two main issues galvanising working women. The revolutionary beginnings in Russia took hold in no small measure due to the political awakening of the toiling women of the city and village.
Degeneration of the revolution
Without the necessary international extension of the revolution, as Trotsky later wrote in The Revolution Betrayed (1936), “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’.” The plans of the Soviet regime, for example, to increase job and skills training for working women continually ran into the problem of how to care for their children while the women were in school or on the job. The Soviet workers state did not have the resources to meet the need.
In 1923 Trotsky put it this way:
“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 the 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.”
—“From the Old Family to the New”, published in Problems of Everyday Life (1973)
Today, communism is commonly seen as a plan for economic levelling (equality at a low level of income and consumption) under state ownership of economic resources within the boundaries of one nation. This is dead wrong. Marx understood communism, a classless society, to be possible only through overcoming economic scarcity on a worldwide basis.
The distortion of communism into some sort of “equality of poverty” has been reinforced by the myth of the “death of communism” since capitalist counterrevolution destroyed the Soviet workers state in 1991-92, a world-historic defeat. But the roots of this distortion lay in the dogma of building “socialism in one country” — a perversion of Marxism that Stalin promulgated in 1924. Beginning in 1923-24, a privileged bureaucracy, personified by Stalin and his henchmen, seized political power from the working class. The bureaucracy sought in vain to pacify imperialism through the betrayal of revolutionary opportunities in the rest of the world.
The bureaucracy clogged society’s every pore, leading to waste, repression and caprice, while working to prevent the international extension of the revolution which could be the only real, long-term defence of the gains of October. The ICL understood that the rule of this bureaucratic caste 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 revolutions necessary to build socialism.
For the Stalinists, the anti-Marxist dogma of “socialism in one country” meant the abandonment of the understanding that a global socialist society was necessary to achieve full human liberation, including of women. One corollary was the 1936 Stalinist rehabilitation of the oppressive institution of the family as a “socialist” mainstay. The official glorification of family life and the retreat from Bolshevik policies to liberate women were an integral part of the consolidation of the political counterrevolution. Trotsky addressed this at length:
“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.”
— The Revolution Betrayed
Repudiating the Bolshevik commitment to non-interference in people’s private lives, the bureaucracy declared that the theory of the “extinction of the family” led to sexual debauchery, while praise of “good housewives” began to appear in the Soviet press by the mid-1930s. A 1936 Pravda editorial denounced a housing plan without individual kitchens as a “left deviation” and an attempt to “artificially introduce communal living”. As Trotsky said, “The retreat not only assumes forms of disgusting hypocrisy, but also is going infinitely farther than the iron economic necessity demands.”
Despite the Stalinist betrayals, lies and capitulations, the gains of the Russian Revolution were first and foremost material gains based on the overthrow of the capitalist order, which remained until 1991-92. The planned economy turned Russia into an industrial and military powerhouse and allowed a huge leap forward in the conditions of daily life. Thirty years ago, Soviet women 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 — a status in some ways far in advance of capitalist societies today.
Here’s where I'm going to get back to the question you’ve been waiting for: “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism”. This New York Times (12 August 2017) article is mostly about Eastern and Central European countries which became bureaucratically deformed workers states after World War II. For example:
“A comparative sociological study of East and West Germans conducted after reunification in 1990 found that Eastern women had twice as many orgasms as Western women
. Consider Ana Durcheva from Bulgaria
. Having lived her first 43 years under Communism, she often complained that the new free market hindered Bulgarians’ ability to develop healthy amorous relationships.
“‘Sure, some things were bad during that time, but my life was full of romance,’ she said. ‘After my divorce, I had my job and my salary, and I didn’t need a man to support me. I could do as I pleased.’”
From a 30-something working woman in Germany today, speaking of her mother’s desire for grandchildren: “She doesn’t understand how much harder it is now — it was so easy for women before the Wall fell”, referring to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “They had kindergartens and crèches, and they could take maternity leave and have their jobs held for them. I work contract to contract, and don’t have time to get pregnant.”
The article describes the findings of researchers in Poland when it was still a workers state: “Even the best stimulation
will not help to achieve pleasure if a woman is stressed or overworked, worried about her future and financial stability.” I would say that’s a common-sense observation — the only surprising thing is that the New York Times published it!
The woman question illuminates, in a sharp light, the reasons why we Trotskyists insisted on the unconditional military defence of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack and internal counterrevolution, and insist today on the same for the remaining deformed workers states like Cuba, China, North Korea and Vietnam. The restoration of capitalism in Eastern and Central Europe and in the USSR transformed the political landscape of the planet and threw proletarian consciousness backwards. We actively fought counterrevolution from East Germany to the Soviet Union itself.
In contrast, the bulk of the reformist left took the side of capitalist counterrevolution. The late Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers Party was just the bluntest of them when they triumphantly proclaimed: “Communism has collapsed.... It is a fact that should have every socialist rejoicing” (Socialist Worker, 31 August 1991). Capitalist counterrevolution triggered an unparalleled economic collapse throughout the former Soviet Union, while poverty and disease skyrocketed. Internationally, after the destruction of the Soviet Union as a counterweight, the imperialists felt they had a free hand to bully the world with their military might.
During World War I, Rosa Luxemburg posited that the choices facing humanity were socialism or barbarism. True now, too. We are a small, international revolutionary Marxist propaganda group and we know we have a long row to hoe. We also know that the tide will again turn and that future workers revolutions will need the Bolshevik political arsenal. Their cadres must be educated in the experiences of the October Revolution. So that’s our job and no one else’s. We stand in revolutionary continuity with Lenin, Trotsky and Cannon and, in the latter’s words, affirm: “We are, in fact, the party of the Russian revolution. We have been the people, and the only people, who have had the Russian revolution in their program and in their blood.”
[TO BE CONTINUED]