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Nadezhda Krupskaya, a revolutionary fighter, feminist and pioneer of socialist education
By Graham Milner
March 7, 2010 -- Born into a family of radical Russian gentry in 1869, Nedezhda (which from Russian translates as "Hope") Konstantinovna Krupskaya became, with her partner V.I. Lenin, a founder and central leader of the organisation of revolutionaries that led the Russian working class to power in October 1917 -- the Bolshevik Party (majority faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party).
Following the 1917 October Revolution, Krupskaya played an important role in developing public education and cultural life in the Soviet state. A prolific writer and speaker, her collected works in the field of education alone fill a dozen large volumes. After Lenin's death in 1924, Krupskaya was one of the first prominent communists in the Soviet Union to raise her voice against the usurpation of power by the conservative, bureaucratic forces around Joseph Stalin. Although she withdrew her support from the United Opposition to Stalin (led by Leon Trotsky, Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev) in 1926, Krupskaya never reconciled herself to the gangster regime established by the Stalinists. Soon after her death in 1939, Stalin ordered Krupskaya's name never again to be mentioned in the public media, and indeed it rarely was until after Stalin died in 1953.
Krupskaya came early to radical beliefs. She recalled in a brief personal memoir written in later life how the experiences of her parents in resisting the autocratic regime of the tsars had brought her to an appreciation of different aspects of national and social oppression. At one time her father worked as a factory inspector, until he was sacked for giving too accurate an account of abuses by the factory management. Krupskaya recalls that she used to play with the factory workers' children, and that they always tried hard to ambush the factory manager and hit him with snowballs.
She had a lifelong love of the great populist poet Nekrasov, and her first political article, entitled "The Woman Worker", began with a quote from one of his poems:
Thy lot is hard, a woman's lot. A harder lot can scarce be found.
Like Lenin, Krupskaya was a brilliant student, and won a gold medal at secondary school. Kept out of higher education by reactionary laws that excluded women, after graduating from secondary school she became a teacher. This was to be the beginning of a lifelong interest in the theory and practice of education. She was strongly influenced by Tolstoy's libertarian ideas in the field.
In 1889, Krupskaya first came into contact with Marxist ideas, through a St. Petersburg radical discussion circle, one of several meeting in the city at that time. She read the first volume of Karl Marx's Capital, and was captivated by its imaginative and profound analysis of modern society. She devoured all the Marxist literature she could get her hands on, reading among other books Friedrich Engels' Anti-Duhring and The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
Krupskaya spent five years in all teaching at an adult education institution for industrial workers in St. Petersburg. This school operated before any organised socialist movement in Russia had come into being. The Marxist teachers at the school organised themselves into an underground circle in order to recruit and educate workers, and to distribute pamphlets and leaflets in factories around St. Petersburg, a major centre of Russia's burgeoning industrial development. Krupskaya became a member of this circle, and it was at one of its meetings, in 1894, that she met Lenin for the first time.
In 1895, the St. Petersburg Marxists organised themselves into a League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class and extended their propaganda work among the proletariat of the city. Police repression escalated and both Lenin and Krupskaya were arrested that year. Lenin was detained in jail and eventually sent into exile in Siberia. Krupskaya was released, only to be arrested a year later and sent in her turn to Siberia, to join Lenin, whom she had decided to marry.
Life in Siberian exile for Krupskaya and Lenin was not all hard. As Krupskaya recalled later, ``we were young then, [and] were deeply in love with one another''. They shared a passion for the classics of Russian literature -- Lermontov, Chernyshevsky, Turgenev, as well as their mutual devotion to the cause of socialism. While in Siberia they both worked on Lenin's major treatise, The Development of Capitalism in Russia, and jointly translated Sidney and Beatrice Webbs' History of Trade Unionism.
At the end of their terms of exile, in 1900 and 1901 respectively, Lenin and Krupskaya agreed to go to Western Europe to join the Russian Marxist movement in exile abroad. Once in Western Europe they both became deeply involved in the production and distribution of the newspaper Iskra -- "The Spark" -- the major project then being undertaken by Russian Marxists.
Krupskaya became the secretary of the Iskra group, handling the correspondence that formed the tenuous but vital link between the revolutionary underground in Russia and the team of emigres producing the newspaper. She received and answered something like 300 letters a month, many containing articles or messages that had to be decoded. The tsarist secret police paid Krupskaya a back-handed compliment when its Paris office filed a memo from the St. Petersburg police chief that identified her as one who "occupies a central position in the organisation of Iskra abroad [and conducts] a lively conspiratorial correspondence with all the active committees of the RSDLP [Russian Social Democratic Labour Party] in Russia". The tedious, painstaking work done by Krupskaya as Iskra's secretary contributed enormously towards the development of those links across the Russian underground that formed the organisational basis for a united Russian socialist movement -- a party in fact.
The second congress of the RSDLP met in 1903. Krupskaya wrote a full organisational report to be delivered by Julius Martov, but this was never presented due to the sharp disagreements over political and organisational questions that rent the congress and split the party. Following the congress the opportunist "Menshevik" tendency, defeated on the congress floor, managed to seize control of the editorial board of Iskra. Lenin resigned in protest, and the Mensheviks took steps to remove Krupskaya, who supported Lenin and the Bolshevik tendency, from her position as secretary.
This split in the Russian socialist movement was to have wide-reaching ramifications. It effectively divided the movement into two opposed camps: a revolutionary wing on the one hand -- the Bolsheviks -- and a compromisist, opportunist wing on the other -- the Mensheviks. From the time of the second congress onwards there were effectively two parties differing more or less fundamentally over questions of program and tactics. In 1917, these divisions came to a head when the development of the revolution posed the question of working-class power.
Krupskaya continued to play her central organisational role in the separate Bolshevik apparatus established after the split in 1903. She and Lenin returned to Russia during the revolution of 1905-06, although at that time no tendency in the labour movement was sufficiently strong to decisively affect the outcome of what was regarded later by revolutionaries as a great "dress rehearsal" for the events of 1917. The period of reaction that followed the 1905-06 events was a bleak age for Russian revolutionaries. Krupskaya and Lenin once again went into Western European exile, and fought hard to preserve the precious apparatus of the Bolshevik organisation from attempts to "liquidate" it, or move it from the course of revolutionary Marxism. Krupskaya continued at the centre of organisational work.
The radical movement began to pick up again in Russia in the years before the onset of World War I. In early 1914 a plan for a legal socialist newspaper for women, called The Working Woman, was drawn up by leading women members of the Bolshevik Party, including Krupskaya, Inessa Armand and Lilina Zinoviev. The paper ran through only two issues however, before police repression compelled abandoning the project.
The war, which broke out in August 1914, forced Lenin and Krupskaya to move to the neutral country of Switzerland, where they lived until their return to Russia, after the February Revolution in 1917. During this period Krupskaya was secretary of, and the leading force in, a Commission for the Aid of Russian Prisoners of War. The commission was established under Bolshevik auspices, with the aim of reaching Russian POWs interned in Germany and Austria. She was also involved in aiding Russian political emigres caught in Switzerland by the war.
Krupskaya continued to study and write on educational questions. She published a book in 1915 on Public Education and Democracy. She was on the verge of beginning work on a bigger project -- a Pedagogical Dictionary for Russian readers -- when the February revolution broke out.
Russian Revolution and socialist education
Once back in Russia, Krupskaya became closely involved in the work of the Bolshevik Party organisation in the Vyborg district of Petrograd -- one of the major centres of working-class power in the city, where the All-Russian Soviet convened. She was a member of a Vyborg Bolshevik committee delegation that met with and urged the central committee to speed the insurrection, shortly before October 1917.
After the October Revolution had transferred power to the workers' and peasants' councils, Krupskaya was appointed to a central administrative position in the People's Commissariat of Enlightenment -- the body entrusted with developing education in the period of transition towards socialism in Russia. "Education" included not only schools, but also adult education, overcoming illiteracy, the emancipation of women, the development of libraries, the communist youth movement and the coordination of political education. In this capacity Krupskaya travelled around the country speaking to gatherings of workers and peasants. During the dangerous days of the civil war, when the young Soviet Republic was threatened by a host of internal and external enemies, she addressed Red Army units on the matters covered by her portfolio.
Krupskaya believed in the maximum possible degree of local autonomy and control over education, with strong representation for groups involved, such as teachers and unions. She hadn't forgotten the libertarian precepts of Tolstoy absorbed in her youth. As she wrote to a co-worker: "It is such a pity that Leo Nikolaevich [Tolstoy] is not alive." Such a program, however, was almost impossible to achieve in the conditions prevailing in the young Soviet state, where an already backward economic and social life was further devastated by years of war and civil war. The material preconditions for building a socialist education system did not exist.
Given these conditions of extreme material scarcity, and a decline in the immediate prospects for revolutionary victories outside Russia, as the initial post-war revolutionary wave in Europe subsided, a strong conservative current manifested itself in the Communist Party and the Soviet state apparatus. This current found its material base in the burgeoning party and state bureaucracy, and its chief spokesperson in Joseph Stalin, general secretary of the Communist Party. Stalin and his supporters steadily increased their influence and control over the party apparatus. They succeeded, among many other things, in hampering the activities of Krupskaya's commissariat and reducing its effectiveness.
For the last two years of his life, Lenin sought ways and means of reducing the power of Stalin and his secretariat, and the bureaucratic forces that threatened to wreck the achievements of the Soviet Republic since 1917. Finally, Lenin called for the removal of Stalin from his post as party secretary, and approached Trotsky with a view to fighting the bureaucratic forces that Stalin represented. However, Lenin died before such an alliance could be cemented and his testament, which recommended the removal of Stalin, was suppressed.
Soon after Lenin's death in early 1924, Krupskaya learned of a decision by the ascendant group in the party leadership to embalm Lenin's body and place it on permanent display in a Moscow mausoleum. She wrote an open letter to the Russian people, published in the party daily Pravda:
I have a great request of you. Do not permit your grief for Ilyich [Lenin] to take the form of external reverence for his person. Do not raise memorials to him, palaces named after him, splenderous festivals in commemoration of him. To all this he attached so little importance in his life, all this was so burdensome to him.
In line with Lenin's express wishes, Krupskaya attempted to have his testament read out at the 13th party congress in May 1924. But her attempt was quashed by the ruling group on the central committee around Stalin. She was, however, able to take the floor at the congress to defend Trotsky, who faced a demand from the Stalinists for the recantation of his anti-bureaucratic views. Krupskaya again defended Trotsky's contributions to the socialist revolution in Russia, during the so-called "literary debate" over Trotsky's booklet The Lessons of October. In 1925 the ruling group began to suppress articles Krupskaya wrote for the party press, attacking the party leadership's conciliationist attitude towards the new class of rich capitalist farmers (kulaks) which had developed since the early 1920s, under a shift in orientation known as the New Economic Policy.
In the same year Krupskaya signed a manifesto protesting against the party leadership's policies. At the December 1925 14th congress, Krupskaya opened the attack on Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin (the other central leader of the rightist course) on behalf of the so-called Leningrad Opposition, which also included Grigorii Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev -- both of whom had only recently broken with Stalin -- and Grigorii Sokolnikov. As well as taking issue with the leadership's policies, she attacked the restrictions placed on the full discussion of dissenting views in party publications under Stalin's apparatus, and defended Lenin's traditional position on the rights of dissenting minorites within the party.
Krupskaya remained with the United Opposition until October 1926. She signed, along with Trotsky and Zinoviev, the "Declaration of the Thirteen", a document that sought to draw the party's attention to the deepening bureaucratic deformations ravaging the foundations of the workers' state. She also endorsed a protest against the Communist International's disastrous policy in the British general strike of 1926. Illness kept her out of much of the political struggle, although she continued to write and speak. It was Krupskaya who arranged for publication in the West of Lenin's testament, in 1926. She is said to have told Kamenev at this time: "If Lenin were alive today, he would be in jail."
Stalin and his acolytes were not slow to recognise the threat that Krupskaya represented to them, and they began a smear campaign against her similar to the one launched some years earlier against Trotsky. Trotsky himself recalled this campaign of innuendo in an article written on Krupskaya's death in 1939:
...within the ranks of the apparatus they systematically compromised her, blackened her, degraded her, and in the ranks of the Komsomol [Communist Youth] spread the crudest and most ridiculous scandals'
In May 1927 Krupskaya, in a letter to Pravda, announced that she no longer supported the Opposition. But unlike most other former Oppositionists in the same situation, she did not recant or repent -- nor did she have a single word of support for Stalin. Nevertheless, even without going back on her previously held positions, she too, up to a point joined the chorus against the only forces opposing in a principled way Stalin's increasingly disastrous policies.
Although nominally reconciled to the ascendancy of Stalin, Krupskaya spent a good deal of her later years attempting to disseminate through the means available to her the legacy of Lenin. Thus she wrote and published her famous Reminiscences of Lenin. These memoirs present a realistic and politically well-informed portrait of a figure so often, before and since, distorted by hagiography or venom. Krupskaya's record of the disputes in the Russian socialist movement is presented fairly, and without that acrimony typical of Stalinist-inspired accounts. Stalin himself rarely appears in the narrative.
Krupskaya's work in the sphere of education continued until her death, but it declined in importance as the causes and organisations that she supported were discarded by the Stalinist bureaucracy. However, even as late as 1937, during the height of the purges, Krupskaya protested against the destruction of polytechnical education, invoking the authority of Karl Marx. Although denied access to Soviet educational journals when she sought to publicise her views, she was heard to comment, after being shown over one of Stalin's educational establishments: "A typical old school, in which there is nothing at all apart from the most boring studies... Dead studies, with which we fought from the first, installed anew in full measure".
While essentially powerless to affect the course of Stalin's terror, Krupskaya attempted to save the lives of the Old Bolsheviks facing the execution squads. Thus, according to evidence held by the former dissident Soviet historian Roy Medvedev, she pleaded for the life of Osip Piatnitsky, in vain, and begged Nikolai Yezhov and Stalin to spare the lives of others, in at least one case successfully.
Thus Krupskaya spent her last years miserably, in the knowledge that many of her generation of revolutionaries had been physically or morally destroyed by the Stalin regime, and uncertain that a restoration of Soviet democracy was a near prospect. From exile in Mexico, Trotsky, who was himself to outlive Krupskaya by only a year, wrote her epitaph:
With profound sorrow we bid farewell to the loyal companion of Lenin, to an irreproachable revolutionist and one of the most tragic figures in revolutionary history.