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Pamphlet: Comrades in arms: Women in the Russian Revolution

To mark International Women's Day, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal is publishing an excerpt from Resistance Books' Comrades in arms: Women in the Russian Revolution, by Kathy Fairfax, and making available the entire pamphlet to download in PDF format (see below).

By Kathy Fairfax

The popular image of the Russian Revolution is of a revolution made by men. Ask the person in the street to name a figure from the Russian Revolution and most could come up with Lenin, Stalin, maybe Trotsky. A few might have heard of Zinoviev, Kamenev or Bukharin. But how many would name Kollontai, Armand or Krupskaya? How many know of the women who helped make revolution in Russia? How many know about the thousands of female Bolsheviks who marched through the streets of Petrograd in 1917 or shouted revolutionary speeches to cheering crowds or wrote and distributed pamphlets calling for revolution? In fact, women revolutionaries inspired the working class the world over and inaugurated a new era in world history.

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For more Marxist analysis of struggle for women's liberation, click HERE.

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These women worked alongside men in all the campaigns that ultimately brought state power. For twenty years before the revolution in 1917 they sustained the underground Bolshevik party organisation and agitated for revolution by writing and distributing leaflets and newspapers. After the fall of the tsar they became stump speakers, agitators and party recruiters. During the civil war they fought alongside men to defend their revolution and after the war was over they worked with men to build the institutions of the new society. This, at a time when women in the rest of Europe were still asking for the vote.

Who were these women? Like the male Bolsheviks, they were mostly Russian, from the cities and in early adulthood. Unlike the men though, most women Bolsheviks came from the middle and upper classes. It is not hard to work out why this should be so. Working-class and peasant women had a daily struggle to survive that left time for little else, while more-affluent women had the leisure to read and think and discuss ideas. As well, Russian society discouraged all women from participating in the male business of politics, and this prohibition was enforced particularly strongly within the working class and the peasantry.

Nevertheless in the first decades of this century so many thousands of women made the dangerous decision to become revolutionaries that Russia ended up with more radical women than any other country. Not all joined the Bolsheviks; some joined the Socialist Revolutionaries, others joined the Mensheviks. There were anarchist women as well. But a majority of women activists chose to join the Bolsheviks. For many of these women the decision to join the revolutionary movement before 1917 came about because of the political situation in Russia and because the revolutionary movement had always welcomed women into its ranks. For decades the oppression of women had been considered by social critics to be one of Russia's great injustices. Upper- and middle-class women had access to very limited education and employment while most peasant girls never went to school. Women could not separate from their husbands, change their residence, leave the country, take a job or execute a bill of exchange without the permission of a male guardian. Divorce was practically impossible and women had significantly less property and inheritance rights than men.

Underlying these legal restrictions was a patriarchal value system that granted all men power over the women in their families. Whatever her class a woman was expected to marry a man of her parents' choice and live her life as the dutiful wife of an authoritarian, if sometimes benevolent, husband. She owed her husband complete obedience and was compelled by the state to live with him, take his name and assume his social status. Social reformers and novelists such as Chernyshevsky and Turgenev deplored the situation and the small revolutionary organisations of the 1870s welcomed so many women into their ranks that by some estimates one third of their membership was female.

The position of women in Russia was complicated by the political situation. Although reformers from many different quarters were calling for fundamental change in many areas, among them the position of women, the recalcitrant tsarist government refused all possibilities of change. Not for them a constitutional monarchy with an independent parliament as in Western Europe. The tsar maintained a strong autocratic government whose liberal opposition was weak. And if the liberal opposition was weak, the feminists in the liberal intelligentsia were equally weak.

Here we must make a distinction between what we think of as feminism today and how it was viewed at the turn of the century. Feminism is one of the main tenets of our party. I consider myself a feminist. Probably most of you do as well. But early this century there was a real dividing line between feminism and socialism. In Russia, liberal feminists called for the government to reform the laws relating to women on the Western European model, so that women would have a few more rights within marriage, could own property and perhaps vote. They had no wish to challenge the capitalist system and the reforms they worked for benefited middle-class and aristocratic women, who were concerned with inheritance and property rights, far more than working-class or peasant women. Like their Western European counterparts, the women's organisations they built urged the opposition liberal parties to include these reforms in their platforms.

The women who joined the Bolsheviks did so because they rejected liberal feminism, condemning it as a bourgeois ideology that overrated the significance of legal gender inequality and ignored the fundamental roots of the oppression of women that sprang from the private ownership of the means of production. For women Bolsheviks, liberation could not be given by governments: it had to be seized by women and men acting together to create a new society of equals.

As Lenin put it in a 1920 discussion with Clara Zetkin:

The theses [on communist work among women] must emphasise strongly that true emancipation of women is not possible except through communism. You must lay stress on the unbreakable connection between woman's human and social position and the private ownership of the means of production. This will draw a strong, ineradicable line against the bourgeois movement for the "emancipation of women". This will also give us a basis for examining the woman question as a part of the social, working-class question, and to bind it firmly with the proletarian class struggle and the revolution. Although discontent with the government was widespread, very few people, and far fewer women than men, chose a perilous life on the run in pursuit of a popular upheaval that might never come. Those who were willing to live that way were, by definition, exceptional.

Why did they join the Bolsheviks? What was it about this section of the international socialist movement that attracted so many women? To understand what the Bolsheviks offered women activists we have to look at the history of the Marxist movement and its attitudes to women.

Marxism and women's liberation

The first Marxist work to consider the subject of women and the family was Engels' The Condition of the Working Class of England written in 1844. The book dealt at length with the effects of capitalism on the family as women and children were increasingly substituted for male workers at a fraction of men's wages. Capitalism, Engels noted at length, was destroying the traditional division of family labour, where woman was homemaker and man was breadwinner.

Within a year Marx and Engels had made a great advance in their thinking on women and the division of labour in The German Ideology. They suggested that the family was not a set of natural or biological relations but a social institution that corresponded to the mode of production. Further, they argued that a communal domestic economy was a necessary prerequisite for women's liberation and that this would lead to the abolition or "supercession" of the family itself. This was an enormous advance on the prevailing attitude that the family was a natural entity and that women's inferior position was biologically determined. In The German Ideology Marx and Engels also contrasted the loveless matches of the bourgeoisie with the affectionate matches of the proletariat and decided that property was the main obstacle to relations based on love, equality and mutual respect.

In Engels' catechism of late 1847, "The Principles of Communism", he asks "What influence will the communistic order of society have upon the family?":

It will make the relations between the sexes a purely private affair which concerns only the persons involved, and calls for no interference by society. It is able to do this because it abolishes private property and educates children communally, destroying thereby the two foundation stones of hitherto existing marriage -- the dependence of the wife upon her husband and of the children upon the parents conditioned by private property.

This commitment to the liberation of women and children and to the personal and sexual freedom of the individual was a strong current in late 19th century socialism and was part of the deeply felt heritage of the Bolsheviks as well. Thus, by 1850, Marx and Engels had formulated many of the ideas that would shape the Bolshevik vision. Unlike earlier utopian social theorists -- such as Henri Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen -- their vision of the future was based on their understanding of past modes of production and reproduction and their evolution. Recognising the family as a social and not a natural construct, they began to challenge the gender division of labour.

In Volume I of Capital, Marx spends a lot of time discussing the factory system, the extensive employment of women and children and the effect this was having on the family system. But even in the hellish crucible of capitalist industry he saw the germ of something better:

However terrible and disgusting the dissolution of the old family ties within the capitalist system may appear, large-scale industry, by assigning an important part in socially organised processes of production, outside the sphere of the domestic economy, to women, young persons and children of both sexes, does nevertheless create a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of relations between the sexes … It is also obvious that the fact that the collective working group is composed of individuals of both sexes and all ages must under the appropriate conditions turn into a source of humane development, although in its spontaneously developed, brutal capitalist form, the system works in the opposite direction …

The reality of massive female employment in industry meant that it was imperative that women be incorporated as active participants in political work. Furthermore, as Marx wrote to his friend Ludwig Kugelmann in late 1868: "Everyone who knows anything of history, knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment."

In 1871, Marx was instrumental in having the International -- the International Working Men's Association or First International -- adopt a new rule recommending the establishment of female branches, without excluding the possibility of branches composed of both sexes. The prospects for such a commitment were poor and in any case the International was nearing the end of its life, but Marx's recommendation did leave an important legacy by establishing in principle the legitimacy of autonomous women's organisations within the mass movement.

However this did not mean that the socialist workers' movement in Europe accepted either female labour or equality of women and many early unions excluded women on the grounds that their presence lowered male wages and worsened the material condition of the working class as a whole. Unions demanded a family wage that would enable women to return to their "proper" places in the home.

August Bebel's famous work Women and Socialism, first published in 1879, began the move away from "proletarian anti-feminism" and towards a more unifying strategy within the workers' movement. The book, which by 1910 had gone through 50 editions in Germany as well as numerous translations abroad, became the basis for subsequent social-democratic organising efforts among women. Bebel's thesis that only through the destruction of bourgeois society would all women be emancipated struck a chord with many women, as did his argument that women's entry into industry and organisation into unions was a necessary step in the historical process which would terminate in socialism.

For decades Bebel's work was the official line on the role of the socialist movement in women's emancipation. Later criticism of the book revealed its limitations but the central thesis remained valid: "There can be no emancipation of humanity without the social independence and equality of the sexes" (emphasis in original).

It had an enormous effect on many of the future women leaders of the international socialist movement. As Clara Zetkin, a leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) noted:

The book must not be judged according to its positive aspects or its shortcomings. Rather, it must be judged within the context of the times in which it was written. It was more than a book, it was an event - a great deed. The book pointed out for the first time the connection between the woman's question and historical development. For the first time, there sounded from this book the appeal: We will only conquer the future if we persuade the women to become our co-fighters.

If the work of Bebel was crucial in combating proletarian anti-feminism in the workers' movement, so were the practical efforts to implement those ideas by women socialists such as Clara Zetkin. She was a tireless proponent of the rights of working women and her organisational work, speeches, writing, and lifelong commitment to women workers helped to chart a new direction within the European socialist movement. Zetkin repeatedly clashed with the more conservative members of the labour movement who wanted women out of the workforce. If employers insisted on female labour because it was cheaper, her answer was to fight for equal pay for equal work. In a speech to the founding congress of the Second International in 1889 she argued, according to a report, that:

… it is not women's work per se which in competition with men's work lowers wages, but rather the exploitation of female labour by the capitalists who appropriate it.

Zetkin not only defended women's right to work, but said that women's participation in the workforce was a prerequisite for women's independence. "The slave of the husband became the slave of the employer" but women still gained from this transformation.

While Marx and Engels made no distinction between the oppression suffered by women of different classes, Zetkin was the first social theorist to place women's oppression within the different classes of society. In essence she proposed a different "woman question" for every class in capitalist society. Upper-class women wanted freedom to manage and inherit money and property; middle-class women wanted education and job opportunities while proletarian women, compelled to work in the least paid jobs to supplement their families' income, wanted better working conditions for all.

Zetkin's efforts on behalf of women workers received international recognition in 1907 at the first International Conference of Socialist Women where she was elected secretary of the International Women's Bureau. It was at this conference that Zetkin, together with Rosa Luxemburg, proposed to the international socialist movement that March 8 be celebrated annually in all countries as International Working Women's Day.

Attending the Socialist Women's Conference were many Russian women, among them Alexandra Kollontai, who left convinced of the need to begin organising women at home.

In the same year the congress of the Second International endorsed the principle of women's right to work, the creation of special women's organisations within all socialist parties and a position on active organising for women's suffrage. An active strategy for women's full enfranchisement -- political, social and economic -- was finally in place.

[Kathy Fairfax is a longtime feminist and a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective. This is an excerpt from the pamphlet, Comrades in arms: Women in the Russian Revolution, which is based on a talk given at the 18th Congress of the DSP in January 1999. You can read the entire pamphlet, or download it in PDF format, below. You can purchase the hard copy edition of the pamphlet from Resistance Books.]

Download `Comrades in Arms: Women in the Russian Revolution'

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