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Workers Vanguard No. 1109

7 April 2017

From the Archives of Spartacist

The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women

Part Two

We reprint below the second part of an article that originally appeared in the Women and Revolution pages of Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 59, Spring 2006. Part One appeared in WV No. 1108 (24 March). Since the publication of the article in 2006, we have conducted further research on Bolshevik work among women that led us to correct our previous understanding that there had been a direct line between the work of the Second and Third Internationals. See footnote below.

Russian society was permeated with the grossest anti-woman bigotry. In 1917 peasants barely 50 years out of serfdom made up some 85 percent of the population. They lived under a village system with a rigid patriarchal hierarchy, without even a rudimentary modern infrastructure, lacking centralized sewage, electricity or paved roads. Ignorance and illiteracy were the norm and superstition was endemic. The ancient institutions of the household (dvor) and the communal village determined land ownership and livelihood and enforced the degradation of women. This extreme oppression was the inevitable corollary of the low productivity of Russian agriculture, which used centuries-old techniques. Peasant women were drudges; for example, a batrachka was a laborer hired for a season as a “wife” and then thrown out upon pregnancy. One peasant woman described her life: “In the countryside they look at a woman like a work horse. You work all your life for your husband and his entire family, endure beatings and every kind of humiliation, but it doesn’t matter, you have nowhere to go—you are bound in marriage” (quoted in ibid. [Wendy Goldman, Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936]).

However, by 1914 women made up one-third of Russia’s small but powerful industrial labor force. The Bolshevik program 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 had a severe impact on infant mortality. As many as two-thirds of the babies of women factory workers died in their first year. The party made efforts to defend working 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 Leninist concept put forward in What Is To Be Done? (1902). This included taking up a fight after the February Revolution within the trade unions against a proposal to address unemployment by first laying off married women whose husbands were working. Such a policy was applied in the Putilov munitions works and the Vyborg iron works, among other enterprises, and was opposed by the Bolsheviks as a threat to the political unity of the proletariat. 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.

Confined to the home and family, many women are isolated from social and political interaction and thus can be a reservoir of backward consciousness. But as Clara Zetkin said at the 1921 Congress of the Communist International, “Either the revolution will have the masses of women, or the counterrevolution will have them” (Protokoll des III. Weltkongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale [Minutes of the Third World Congress of the Communist International]) (our translation). Before World War I the Social Democrats in Germany pioneered in building a women’s “transitional organization”—a special body, linked to the party through its most conscious cadre, that took up the fight for women’s rights and other key political questions, conducted education, and published a newspaper. The Russian Bolsheviks stood on the shoulders of their German comrades, most importantly carrying party work among women into the factories. Building transitional organizations, founding the newspaper Rabotnitsa (The Woman Worker), and, after the October Revolution, the Zhenotdel [Bolshevik Party department that addressed women’s needs], the Bolsheviks successfully mobilized masses of women in the working class as well as the peasantry whom the party could not have otherwise reached.*

Rabotnitsa called mass meetings and demonstrations in Petrograd in opposition to the war and to rising prices, the two main issues galvanizing working women. The First All-City Conference of Petrograd Working Women, called by Rabotnitsa for October 1917, adjourned early so that the delegates could join the insurrection; it later reconvened. Among its achievements were resolutions for a standardized workday of eight hours and for banning labor for children under the age of 16. One of the aims of the conference was to mobilize non-party working women for the uprising and to win them to the goals that the Soviet government planned to pursue after the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

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 to this historic mission. Even the most bitter political opponents of the October Revolution, such as the Russian Menshevik “socialist” proponents of a return to capitalist rule, grudgingly recognized the Bolsheviks’ success. The Menshevik leader Yuri Martov wrote to his comrade Pavel Axelrod, demonstrating as well his own contempt for the proletarian masses:

“It would be hard for you to imagine how in the recent past (just before my departure) there was a strong, genuine Bolshevik fanaticism, with an adoration of Lenin and Trotsky and a hysterical hatred of us, among a significant mass of Moscow women workers, in both the factories and workshops. This is to a notable degree explained by the fact that the Russian woman proletariat, due to its illiteracy and helplessness, in its mass could only have been drawn into ‘politics’ by means of the state mechanism (endless educational courses and ‘cultural’-agitational institutions, official celebrations and demonstrations, and—last not least [original in English]—by means of material privileges). Thus the words that one runs across in letters from women workers to Pravda, such as, ‘only after the October overthrow did we women workers see the sun,’ are not empty phrases.”

—“Letter to P. B. Axelrod, 5 April 1921,” Yu. O. Martov, Letters 1916-1922 (Benson, Vermont: Chalidze Publications, 1990) (our translation)

The Early Soviet Government and the 1918 Family Code

The revolution released a burst of optimism and expectations for a society built on socialist principles. Discussions raged among young people on sexual relations, child rearing and the nature of the family in the transition to socialism. Creative energy gripped cultural fields as well, where priorities and tasks changed to reflect the widely held view that the family would soon wither away (see “Planning for Collective Living in the Early Soviet Union: Architecture as a Tool of Social Transformation,” W&R No. 11, Spring 1976).

Soviet legislation at that time gave to women in Russia a level of equality and freedom that has yet to be attained by the most economically advanced “democratic” capitalist countries today. But there was a problem, succinctly addressed by A.T. Stelmakhovich, chairman of the Moscow provincial courts: “The liberation of women...without an economic base guaranteeing every worker full material independence, is a myth” (quoted in Goldman, Women, the State and Revolution).

Just over a month after the revolution, two decrees established civil marriage and allowed for divorce at the request of either partner, accomplishing far more than the pre-revolutionary Ministry of Justice, progressive journalists, feminists and the Duma had ever even attempted. Divorces soared in the following period. A complete Code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship, ratified in October 1918 by the state governing body, the Central Executive Committee (CEC), swept away centuries of patriarchal and ecclesiastical power, and established a new doctrine based on individual rights and the equality of the sexes.

The Bolsheviks also abolished all laws against homosexual acts and other consensual sexual activity. The Bolshevik position was explained in a pamphlet by Grigorii Batkis, director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene, The Sexual Revolution in Russia (1923):

“Soviet legislation bases itself on the following principle:

It declares 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.

—quoted in John Lauritsen and David Thorstad, The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935) (New York: Times Change Press, 1974)

To draft the new Family Code a committee was established in August 1918, headed by A.G. Goikhbarg, a former Menshevik law professor. Jurists described the Code as “not socialist legislation, but legislation of the transitional time,” just as the Soviet state itself, as the dictatorship of the proletariat, was a preparatory regime transitional from capitalism to socialism (quoted in Goldman, op. cit.).

The Bolsheviks anticipated the ability to “eliminate the need for certain registrations, for example, marriage registration, for the family will soon be replaced by a more reasonable, more rational differentiation based on separate individuals,” as Goikhbarg said, rather too optimistically. He added, “Proletarian power constructs its codes and all of its laws dialectically, so that every day of their existence undermines the need for their existence.” When “the fetters of husband and wife” have become “obsolete,” the family will wither away, replaced by revolutionary social relations based on women’s equality. Not until then, in the words of Soviet sociologist S.Ia. Volfson, would the duration of marriage “be defined exclusively by the mutual inclination of the spouses” (quoted in ibid.). Divorce would be accomplished by the locking of a door, as Soviet architect L. Sabsovich envisaged it.

The new marriage and divorce laws were very popular. However, given women’s traditional responsibilities for children and their greater difficulties in finding and maintaining employment, for them divorce often proved more problematic than for men. For this reason the alimony provision was established for the disabled poor of both sexes, necessary due to the inability of the state at that time to guarantee jobs for all. The 1918 Code eliminated the distinction between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” children, using instead the carefully considered wording “children of parents who are not in a registered marriage.” Thus, women could claim child support from men to whom they were not married.

The Code also established the right of all children to parental support until age 18 and the right of each spouse to his or her own property. In implementing the Code’s measures, judges were biased in favor of women and children, on the grounds that establishing support for the child took priority over protecting the financial interests of the male defendant. In one case, a judge split child support three ways, because the mother had been sleeping with three different men.

During the debate on the draft, Goikhbarg had to defend it against critics who wanted to abolish marriage altogether. For example, N.A. Roslavets, a Ukrainian woman delegate, recommended that the CEC reject the marriage section of the Code, arguing that it would represent a step away “from the freedom of marriage relations as one of the conditions of individual freedom.” “I cannot understand why this Code establishes compulsory monogamy,” she said; she also opposed the (very limited) alimony provision as “nothing other than a payment for love” (quoted in ibid.).

Goikhbarg later recounted, “They screamed at us: ‘Registration of marriage, formal marriage, what kind of socialism is this?’” His main argument was that civil marriage registration was crucial to the struggle against the medieval grip of the Russian Orthodox church. Without civil marriage, the population would resort to religious ceremonies and the church would flourish. He characterized Roslavets’ criticisms as “radical in words” but “reactionary in deed.” Goikhbarg pointed out that alimony was limited to the disabled poor, and that it was impossible to abolish everything at once. He argued, “We must accept this [code] knowing that it is not a socialist measure, because socialist legislation will hardly exist. Only limited norms will remain” (quoted in ibid.).

Uneven and Combined Development

The October Revolution put power in the hands of a working class that was numerically small in a country that was relatively backward. The Bolsheviks thus faced problems that Marx and Engels, who had projected that the proletarian revolution would occur first in more industrialized countries, could not have anticipated. It was envisioned by the Bolsheviks that the Russian Revolution would inspire workers in the economically advanced European countries to overthrow their bourgeoisies, and these new revolutions would in turn come to the aid of the Russian proletariat. These workers states would not usher in socialist societies but would be transitional regimes that would lay the foundations for socialism based on an internationally planned economy in which there would be no more class distinctions and the state itself would wither away.

The seizure of power in Russia followed three years of world war, which had disrupted the food supply, causing widespread hunger in the cities. By the end of the Civil War, the country lay in ruins. The transport system collapsed, and oil and coal no longer reached the urban areas. Homeless and starving children, the besprizorniki, roamed the countryside and cities in gangs. In the brutal Russian winter, the writer Viktor Shklovsky wrote that, because of the lack of fuel, “People who lived in housing with central heating died in droves. They froze to death—whole apartments of them” (quoted in ibid.).

The collapse of the productive forces surpassed anything of the kind that history had ever seen. The country and its government were at the very edge of the abyss. Although the Bolsheviks won the Civil War, Russia’s national income had dropped to only one-third and industrial output to less than one-fifth of the prewar levels. By 1921 Moscow had lost half its population; Petrograd, two-thirds. Then the country was hit with two straight years of drought, and a sandstorm and locust invasion that brought famine to the southern and western regions. In those areas, 90 to 95 percent of the children under three years old died; surviving children were abandoned as one or both parents died, leaving them starving and homeless. There were incidents of cannibalism.

The toll on all layers of society was terrible. Of the Bolshevik women cadre in [Barbara Evans] Clements’ study [Bolshevik Women], 13 percent died between 1917 and 1921, most of infectious disease. Among them were Inessa Armand, head of the Zhenotdel, and [Konkordiia] Samoilova, both of whom died of cholera. Samoilova contracted the disease as a party activist on the Volga River. Horrified by the conditions on the delta, she spent her last days rousing the local party committee to take action.

As Marx put it, “Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural level which this determines” (“Critique of the Gotha Program,” 1875). The Bolsheviks knew that, given centuries of oppression and the devastation of the country, even the most democratic laws could not protect the most vulnerable, the working-class and especially peasant women, who continued to suffer misery and degradation. Until the family was fully replaced by communal living and childcare, laws addressing the actual social conditions were a necessary part of the political struggle for a new society.

The Protection of Motherhood

Immediately after the revolution the government launched a drive to provide social and cultural facilities and communal services for women workers and to draw them into training and educational programs. The 1918 Labor Code provided a paid 30-minute break at least every three hours to feed a baby. For their protection, pregnant women and nursing mothers were banned from night work and overtime. This entailed a constant struggle with some state managers, who viewed these measures as an extra financial burden.

The crowning legislative achievement for women workers was the 1918 maternity insurance program designed and pushed by Alexandra Kollontai, the first People’s Commissar for Social Welfare and head of the Zhenotdel from 1920 to 1922. The law provided for a fully paid maternity leave of eight weeks, nursing breaks and factory rest facilities, free pre- and post-natal care, and cash allowances. It was administered through a Commission for the Protection of Mothers and Infants—attached to the Health Commissariat—and headed by a Bolshevik doctor, Vera Lebedeva. With its networks of maternity clinics, consultation offices, feeding stations, nurseries, and mother and infant homes, this program was perhaps the single most popular innovation of the Soviet regime among Russian women.

In the 1920s and 1930s women were commonly allowed a few days’ release from paid labor in the form of menstrual leave. In the history of protection of women workers, the USSR was probably unique in this. Specialists also conducted research on the effects of heavy labor on women. One scholar wrote, “The maintenance of the health of workers appears to have been a central concern in the research into labour protection in this period” (Melanie Ilic, Women Workers in the Soviet Interwar Economy: From “Protection” to “Equality” [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999]). Strenuous labor could lead to disruption or delay of menstrual cycles among peasant women especially. The resolution of this problem—machine technology that limits to the greatest possible extent the stress and potential danger of industrial and agricultural labor for all workers, men and women—was beyond the capability of the Soviet economy at that time.

Abortion: Free and on Demand

In 1920 the Soviet government issued a decree overturning criminal penalties for abortion—the first government in the world to do so:

“As long as the remnants of the past and the difficult economic conditions of the present compel some women to undergo an abortion, the People’s Commissariat of Health and Social Welfare and the People’s Commissariat of Justice regard the use of penal measures as inappropriate and therefore, to preserve women’s health and protect the race against ignorant or self-seeking profiteers, it is resolved:

“I. Free abortion, interrupting pregnancy by artificial means, shall be performed in state hospitals, where women are assured maximum safety in the operation.”

—“Decree of the People’s Commissariat of Health and Social Welfare and the People’s Commissariat of Justice in Soviet Russia,” translated from Die Kommunistische Fraueninternationale (Communist Women’s International, April 1921), in W&R No. 34, Spring 1988

In carrying out this decree, again inadequate resources clashed with the huge demand, and because of the shortage of anesthetic, abortions, horribly enough, were generally performed without it. The law required that all abortions be performed by a doctor in a hospital, but the country lacked adequate facilities. Working women received first priority. In the countryside, many women had no access to state facilities. As a result, unsafe abortions continued to be performed, especially by midwives, and thousands were treated in the hospitals for the effects of these dangerous procedures.

Doctors and public health officials argued that there was an urgent need for quality contraception, which in backward Russia was generally unavailable. In the mid 1920s, the Commission for the Protection of Mothers and Infants officially proclaimed that birth control information should be dispensed in all consultation offices and gynecological stations. The shortage of contraception was in part due to the lack of access to raw materials like rubber—a direct result of the imperialist blockade against Soviet Russia.

While acknowledging that the Soviet Union was the first country in the world to grant women legal, free abortion, Goldman claims that the Bolsheviks never recognized abortion as a woman’s right, but only as a public health necessity. Certainly the reference elsewhere in the decree to abortion as “this evil” sounds strange to 21st-century ears, accustomed to hearing such language only from religious bigots. However, abortion was much more dangerous in the 1920s, before the development of antibiotics and in a country where basic hygiene remained a serious problem. The Bolsheviks were concerned about improving the protection of mothers and children, which they viewed as the responsibility of the proletarian state and a central purpose of the replacement of the family with communal methods.

Goldman’s claim is undermined by Trotsky’s statement that, on the contrary, abortion is one of woman’s “most important civil, political and cultural rights.” He blasted the vile Stalinist bureaucracy for its 1936 criminalization of abortion, which showed “the philosophy of a priest endowed also with the powers of a gendarme”:

“These gentlemen have, it seems, completely forgotten that socialism was to remove the cause which impels woman to abortion, and not force her into the ‘joys of motherhood’ with the help of a foul police interference in what is to every woman the most intimate sphere of life.”

The Revolution Betrayed

*While the German Social Democracy’s work on the woman question was an important first step in the development of the model of communist work among women, it was marred by the overall opportunist framework of the party leadership. In fact, the idea of a special apparatus to conduct such work was pioneered by the Bolsheviks in their endeavor to draw the masses of toiling women to the side of the vanguard party. In the parties of the Third International, this apparatus was to be built as an integral part of all principal party bodies—from the women’s department of the central committee to the leading bodies of local committees. For more information, see “Clara Zetkin and the Struggle for the Third International” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 64, Summer 2014).



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