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How Bolshevik women fought for liberation

In celebration of International Women’s Day and as part of an ongoing debate about the principles of women’s organisation and the revolutionary movement, Joy Macready looks at the history of early Soviet Russia and its lessons for today

The Marxist position on women’s liberation owes a great debt to a remarkable group of women in the pre-1914 Second International, particularly in the German and Russian Social Democratic parties (the SPD and RSDLP).

First amongst these, and the real pioneer of the socialist women’s movement, was Clara Zetkin. She launched the socialist women’s paper Die Gleicheit (Equality) in 1891 and founded the women’s bureau of the SPD in 1907. She also pioneered the calling of the first International Socialist Women’s congress in Stuttgart in 1907 and thereafter the adoption of 8 March as International Women’s Day in 1910.

In Tsarist Russia, Alexandra Kollontai, at first a member of the Menshevik faction of the RSDLP, alongside Inessa Armand and Nadezhda Krupskaya, both members of the Bolshevik faction, took up the task of organising working women. Kollontai wrote a series of articles on the nature of women’s oppression and the sort of movement that was needed to combat it. In The Social Basis of the Women Question she argued:

“The struggle for political rights, for the right to receive doctorates and other academic degrees, and for equal pay for equal work, is not the full sum of the fight for equality. To become really free, woman has to throw off the heavy chains of the current forms of the family, which are outmoded and oppressive. For women, the solution of the family question is no less important than the achievement of political equality and economic independence.”

She went on:

“Where the official and legal servitude of women ends, the force we call ‘public opinion’ begins. This public opinion is created and supported by the bourgeoisie with the aim of preserving ‘the sacred institution of property’. The hypocrisy of ‘double morality’ is another weapon. Bourgeois society crushes woman with its savage economic vice, paying for her labour at a very low rate. The woman is deprived of the citizen’s right to raise her voice in defence of her interests: instead, she is given only the gracious alternative of the bondage of marriage or the embraces of prostitution – a trade despised and persecuted in public but encouraged and supported in secret.”

Kollontai also criticised radical feminists, who posed the question of liberation from the family as a matter that daring individuals could achieve if they banded together under slogans such as “free love”. She points out that only a limited number from the more privileged classes could break free of the family and organise new free forms of family life. For women of the lower classes this was materially impossible.

“Only a whole number of fundamental reforms in the sphere of social relations – reforms transposing obligations from the family to society and the state – could create a situation where the principle of ‘free love’ might to some extent be fulfilled… Only the fundamental transformation of all productive relations could create the social prerequisites to protect women from the negative aspects of the ‘free love’ formula… the task of caring, alone and unaided, for her children.

“The feminists and the social reformers from the camp of the bourgeoisie naïvely believing in the possibility of creating new forms of family… tie themselves in knots in their search for these new forms. If life itself has not yet produced these forms, it is necessary, they seem to imagine, to think them up whatever the cost.”

In short, she used the arguments Marx and Engels used against the utopian socialists against the feminists: that is, dreaming up “recipes for the cookshops of the future”, rather than starting from the potential within modern capitalist production and transforming it into the basis for socialising domestic life.

Kollontai accused the feminists of covering up class differences and seeking to divide the working class, holding out a false unity of women workers with their “enemy sisters”, bourgeois women.

Even today, Kollontai’s critique goes to the very heart of Marxism’s differences with feminism.

Early Soviet Russia

In the years just before the First World War, women in the Bolshevik party launched a women’s paper, Rabotnitsa (the Woman Worker). It first appeared in 1913, but had to cease publication when the war broke out.

In early 1917, Kollontai joined the Bolsheviks, and after the October revolution was appointed People’s Commissar for Welfare. In November 1918, Kollontai, along with Armand, Krupskaya, Konkordia Samoilova and others, organised the First National Congress of Women Workers and Peasants.

Kollontai fought for a women workers’ bureau to be established to look into women’s issues and the particular concerns of women workers, but faced opposition from inside the party. She was accused of capitulating to bourgeois feminism – an argument that has ironically been taken up by Alex Callinicos against the SWP oppositionists recently. But Kollontai had a strong supporter in Lenin, who said:

“The Party must have organs, working groups… with the specific purpose of rousing the broad masses of women, bringing them into contact with the Party and keeping them under its influence… We must have our own groups to work among them, special methods of agitation, and special forms of organisation. This is not bourgeois ‘feminism’, it is a practical revolutionary expediency.”

In 1920, the Women’s Section or Zhenotdel was set up. Its opening conference attracted over 1,000 delegates, many of whom were peasants who travelled for days on foot to attend. In the first year they made inroads into dealing with female specific unemployment, abortion rights and work on prostitution.

Up until 1923, Zhenotdel created a series of institutions to liberate women from the oppressive family – maternity units, nurseries and communal kitchens – as well as educating and involving women in political life. Rabotnitsa was re-launched and women’s pages were introduced in the regular mass papers.

But Zhenotdel could not escape the general problems of the Russian revolution: bureaucratisation and the purging of the leading activists of the revolution. Kollontai was an early victim and found herself removed from the leadership of Zhenotdel and then effectively exiled to Norway. Zhenotdel was eventually dissolved in 1930. But its legacy remains.

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