Women and the Russian Revolution: `Our task is to make politics available to every working woman'

By Lisa Macdonald

The following is the Introduction to On the Emancipation of Women, a collection of the key articles and speeches on women’s liberation by Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin, published by Resistance Books. On the Emancipation of Women is available online at http://www.resistancebooks.com.

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The persistence of gender inequality in the most advanced capitalist societies, with the most complete bourgeois democracy in which women have full formal equality, has put paid to the idea that women's liberation is possible within the framework of capitalism, even in its "healthiest" periods of expansion. Today, in a period of global capitalist stagnation and crisis, as the "gender gap" widens and women, especially in the Third World, bear the brunt of the capitalist class's neo-liberal offensive against the working class as a whole, the correctness of the Marxist analysis of women's oppression as a cornerstone of class society and its revolutionary approach to achieving women's liberation is clearer than ever before.

Since Karl Marx and Frederick Engels first developed their materialist conception of history in the 1840s, Marxism has sought to understand and combat the specific oppression of women. Engels' explanation of the roots of women's oppression in the main institutions of class society - private property and the family - rather than in the realm of the natural or biological, was an enormous advance, laying the foundations for a scientific approach to women's plight which posed, for the first time, liberation as possible.

In his 1884 work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State1, Engels identified the source of the oppression of women as their exclusion from social production and the conversion of household tasks into a private service. Both resulted from the replacement of collective production and communal property ownership with private male ownership of the basic means of production during the emergence of class society.

In pre-class societies, there was no material basis for exploitative relations between the sexes. Males and females participated in social production, the labour of both sexes being necessary to ensure the survival of the human group as a whole. The social status of men and women reflected the indispensable roles that each played.

The change in women's status occurred alongside the growing productivity of human labour as a result of developments in productive technologies, and the private appropriation of the resulting economic surplus. With the possibility for some humans to prosper from the exploitation of the labour of others, women, because of their role in production (both social production to maintain the existing generation and the biological production of the next generation), became valuable property. Like slaves and cattle, they were a source of wealth: they alone could produce new human beings whose labour power could be exploited.

Thus the purchase of women by men, along with all rights to their future offspring, arose as one of the economic and social institutions of the new order based on private property. Women's primary social role was increasingly defined as domestic servant and child-bearer; their independent role in social production became secondary.

The oppression of women was thus institutionalised through the family system. Women's role in production came to be determined by the family to which they belonged, by the man to whom they were subordinate. They were rendered economically dependent. In the words of Engels:

"The modern individual family is based on the open or disguised domestic enslavement of the woman; and modern society is a mass composed solely of individual families as its molecules. Today, in the great majority of cases, the man has to be the earner, the breadwinner of the family, at least among the propertied classes, and this gives him a dominating position which requires no special legal privileges. In the family, he is the bourgeois; the wife represents the proletariat."

The class divisions of society - between those who possessed property and those who, owning no property, had to work for others to live - were perpetuated through the legal institution of monogamous marriage, which enabled private property ownership to be passed from one generation to the next. The consolidation of the sexual division of labour in the family also enabled the propertied class to abrogate responsibility for the upkeep of members of society they could not immediately exploit (children, the elderly and sick).

In so far as the family, founded on the oppression of women, arose as a indispensable pillar of class society, it follows that women cannot be liberated without dismantling class society itself. While the development of industrial capitalism created the material conditions that made gender equality possible by incorporating women into waged work and giving them a degree of economic independence from men, and while advanced capitalism granted women full legal rights, women have and will remain the "second sex" for so long as private property, and the economic and social shackles of the family which prop it up, remain intact. In Engels' words:

"The democratic republic does not abolish the antagonism between the two classes; on the contrary, it provides the field on which it is fought out. And, similarly, the peculiar character of man's domination over woman in the modern family, and the necessity, as well as the manner, of establishing real social equality between the two, will be brought out in full relief only when both are completely equal before the law.  It will then become evident that the first premise for the emancipation of women is the reintroduction of the entire female sex into public industry; and that this again demands that the quality possessed by the individual family of being the economic unit of society be abolished."

 That is, for gender inequality to be abolished, not only must women be brought fully into production, but private domestic labour must be replaced by socialised services. "With the passage of the means of production into common property, the individual family ceases to be the economic unit of society. Private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry. The care and education of children becomes a public matter."

It was this understanding of the origins of women's oppression, and therefore the path to women's full liberation, that informed the most thoroughgoing and successful program yet implemented for the emancipation of women - in the early years of the Russian Revolution.

Deconstructing the family

The Bolshevik-led revolution in Russia indicated the potential for the liberation of women that comes from a successful struggle against capitalist rule. The measures enacted by the new Marxist government under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky demonstrated that a proletarian revolution meant immediate and substantial steps forward for women.

Between 1917 and 1927, the Soviet government passed a series of laws giving women legal equality with men for the first time. Striking at the heart of women's oppression, the 1918 Code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship was the most progressive family legislation the world has yet seen. It recognised only civil marriage which, by 1927 was a simple registration process based on mutual consent, and enabled divorce at the request of either partner. In 1926, de facto relationships were given legal equality.

The code abolished illegitimacy and endeavoured to make familial relations independent of the marriage contract. It also abolished adoption as the first step in transferring child‑care from the family to the state, and separated property ownership and inheritance from marriage.

All children were entitled to financial support when their parents separated, and women with children consistently won significant payments through the courts. For single mothers, where individual paternity could not be established, often all the men named by the woman as possible fathers were ordered to pay support.

Abortion was made free and legal at any stage in pregnancy and laws giving the foetus human rights were abolished. Anti-homosexual laws were eliminated in 1918. Gender discrimination in hiring and firing workers was forbidden, prostitution was decriminalised and legislation gave women workers special maternity benefits.

Even given this enormous progress, the Bolsheviks understood the limitations of formal gender equality. They recognised that only when the household tasks performed by millions of individual unpaid women are transferred to the public sphere, taken over by paid workers, would women be free to enter the public sphere on an equal basis with men - equally educated, waged and able to pursue their own individual goals and development. Under such circumstances, free union would gradually replace marriage as relationships were constructed and deconstructed unrestrained by the deforming pressure of economic dependency. The family, stripped of its previous social functions, would gradually wither away, leaving in its place fully autonomous, equal individuals living in relationships based on love and mutual respect.

In his speech "A Great Beginning"2, first published as a pamphlet in Moscow in July 1919, Lenin emphasised the centrality to women's emancipation of socialising domestic labour:

"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 state power) against this petty housekeeping, or rather when its wholesale transformation into a large‑scale socialist economy begins."

The limitations of backwardness

While considerable resources were allocated to establishing public child‑care, kitchen and laundry facilities, especially during the period of war communism, the Bolsheviks were acutely aware that the facilities were insufficient and not nearly of high enough quality. Many of the speeches by Lenin and Trotsky reflect the Bolsheviks' frustration at the material limitations on their ability to implement their program for dismantling the family and freeing women.

The catastrophic decline of the productive forces in Russia as a result of the civil war and the imperialist military intervention and economic blockade that followed the revolution had created terrible conditions of scarcity in the country. At the end of the civil war in 1920, national income was less than one-third of the 1913 figure and industrial production less than one-fifth of the pre-war level. And as the civil war ended, Russia's chief agricultural regions were hit by drought; the resulting famine claimed 2 million lives.

At the time of the revolution, the overwhelming bulk of Russia's population were peasants (consequently the family was still the main unit of production). Only 30% were literate, and far fewer had the knowledge and skills needed to rebuild an industrial economy. While a certain economic revival began with the introduction of the New Economic Policy in 1921, the situation in post-revolutionary Russia can only be described, to use Marx's term, as one of "generalised want".

In his chapter "Thermidor in the Family" in The Revolution Betrayed3, Trotsky remarked:

"It proved impossible to take the old family by storm, not because the will was lacking, and not because the family was so firmly rooted in men's hearts. On the contrary, after a short period of distrust of the government and its child-care facilities, kindergartens, and like institutions, the working women, and after them the more advanced peasants, appreciated the innumerable advantages of the collective care of children as well as the socialisation of the whole family economy. Unfortunately, society proved too poor and too little cultured. 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 unrealisable on a basis of `generalised want’."

In her book Women, the State and Revolution4, Wendy Z. Goldman documents in some detail the huge barriers that the economic underdevelopment of the country presented to implementing the Bolsheviks' program for women's liberation. In every sphere - from divorce and alimony arrangements, to abortion access, to affirmative action in the workplace - the ability of Soviet women to make full use of their new rights was undermined by the inability of the government to rapidly solve the larger social problems of extensive poverty, unemployment and lack of social services.

The limitations imposed by economic underdevelopment were exacerbated by the backward social relations and attitudes that prevailed at the time. Feudal traditions and customs still imbued society, not only in the peasantry but also in significant sections of the unskilled workers who had only recently been drawn into industrial production.

The program of the Russian Communist Party5, adopted by the eighth party congress in March, 1919, stated:

"The party's task at the present moment is primarily work in the realm of ideas and education so as to destroy utterly all traces of the former inequality and prejudices, particularly among backward strata of the proletariat and peasantry."

At the centre of this battle against backward ideas about women and men's roles in society was the Bolsheviks' tireless struggle to involve more women directly in politics. In his speech "The Tasks of the Working Women's Movement in the SovietRepublic"6, presented to the Fourth Moscow City Conference of Nonparty Working Women on September 23, 1919, Lenin said:

"In order to be active in politics under the old, capitalist regime special training was required, so that women played an insignificant part in politics, even in the most advanced and free capitalist countries. Our task is to make politics available to every working woman ...  The participation of working women is essential - not only of Party members and politically conscious women, but of the non‑party women and those who are least politically conscious. ... The work that Soviet power has begun can only make progress when, instead of a few hundreds, millions and millions of women throughout Russia take part in it. We are sure that the cause of socialist development will then become sound."

 Despite the massive economic and social difficulties the Bolsheviks confronted after the revolution, the advances for women of the Soviet Union between 1917-1930 were remarkable. Just how remarkable is made clear when the situation of Soviet women in the 1920s is compared to the state of women's rights in the far more technologically and economically advanced capitalist societies almost a century later - where women in parts of the United States may soon be charged with infanticide for having an abortion, where employed men get rewarded with tax discounts if their wife stays at home full‑time, where single mothers are being increasingly penalised for not being economically dependent on the fathers of their children, and where almost all public policy extends rather than ameliorates women's unpaid familial tasks.

Indeed, in the advanced capitalist countries, it was not until the "second wave" of feminism in the late 1960s and 1970s, after the "first wave" had won for western women the basic democratic rights, that many elements of the Bolsheviks' program for women's liberation became core demands of the movement.

A question of consciousness

The Bolsheviks did not conceive of and implement such a thoroughgoing program for women's liberation because they themselves were all or mostly women. In fact, while around 10% of party members in 1917 were women, and while the October revolution mobilised millions more women, the prevailing social conditions, which made participation in politics very difficult for women, meant that the new government was comprised largely of men.

Nor were the advances for women forced out of the Bolsheviks by mass pressure. On the contrary, to the extent that there was any feminist movement in Russia at the time, it was largely comprised of and led by bourgeois women, whose demands for rights only for women of property reflected their lack of concern for the conditions of life for the majority of peasant and working-class women. The Bolsheviks therefore had to lead strongly from the front, against both the limits of liberal reformism and the generally backward attitudes on gender relations, not least among the mass of exploited women.

Rather, such progress towards the emancipation of women was made because the Bolshevik revolution was a profoundly conscious revolution led by Marxists who had a thorough understanding of the foundations and character of class oppression in all its forms, and how to dismantle it by mobilising all the oppressed for their own interests. At the heart of Marxists' singularly consistent championing of women's rights is their understanding that the struggle for women's liberation is central to the struggle for socialism - both before and after the socialist revolution. It is not just that, as Lenin put it, "The proletariat cannot achieve complete liberty until it has won complete liberty for women". It is also that the process of constructing that complete liberty is a thoroughly conscious one and requires the active involvement of the majority of society. Freeing and encouraging women to organise in every sphere against their specific oppression as women provides the best conditions within which they can develop class consciousness and join the struggle to overthrow capitalism and then to build a socialist society.

Women and the revolutionary party

In the course of the many debates and experiments undertaken in carrying out this perspective in the new Soviet Union, the basic elements of a Marxist party's approach to women's liberation work were worked out. Reviewing these reveals that most of the questions we confront today regarding the relationship between a revolutionary party and an independent feminist movement, and its leadership, are not new.

The Bolshevik's point of departure was that socialist women should be in the socialist party, not organised separately. The “Methods and Forms of Work among Communist Party Women: Theses”7, adopted by the Third Congress of the Communist International in July 1921, noted:

"All women who fight for the emancipation of woman and the recognition of her rights must have as their aim the creation of a Communist society. But Communism is also the final aim of the proletariat as a whole and therefore, in the interests of both sides, the two struggles must be fought as `a single and indivisible struggle'."

 In this framework, the Bolsheviks campaigned tirelessly to recruit women activists to their organisation and leadership.

The correctness of this emphasis on integrating women and the struggle for women's liberation fully into the socialist project and therefore the party is revealed most clearly in the consequences of later Communist parties' departure from this approach under the influence of the bourgeois feminist movements. In the Communist Party of Australia, for example, but also in many other Communist parties, the separate organisation of women members - in women-only party caucuses and committees - resulted in the marginalisation and ghettoisation of both many women activists and "women's issues".

The Bolsheviks were adamant that the winning of women's emancipation must be the work of the whole party, not just the women in the party. As Lenin constantly pointed out, Marxists' approach to organisational questions must flow from their political analyses, and there is no "women's issue" that is not also of vital importance to the entire revolutionary movement and struggle.

Lenin had to fight for this anti‑separatist approach within the Third International. As he told Clara Zetkin (reprinted in Zetkin's "My Recollections of Lenin"8), the national sections "regard agitation and propaganda among women and the task of rousing and revolutionising them as of secondary importance, as the job of just the women Communists. None but the latter are rebuked because the matter does not move ahead more quickly and strongly. This is wrong, fundamentally wrong! It is outright separatism. It is equality of women ... reversed ... In the final analysis, it is an underestimation of women and of their accomplishments."

At the same time as insisting on an anti-separatist approach to party members, the Bolsheviks' stressed the need for special sections in all socialist parties to organise women from all social layers into a mass movement, win its leadership and convince women that building socialism is the only path to meeting their special needs. As Lenin noted in a discussion with Zetkin before the third congress of the International (in Zetkin's "My Recollections of Lenin"):

"The communist women's movement itself must be a mass movement, a part of the general mass movements ... She who is a communist belongs as a member of the party, just as he who is a communist ... However, we must not shut our eyes to the facts. The Party must have organs - working groups, commissions, committees, sections or whatever else they may be called - with the specific purpose of rousing the broad masses of women, bringing them into contact with the party and keeping them under its influence. This naturally requires that we carry out systematic work among the women. We must teach the awakening women, win them over for the proletarian class struggle under the leadership of he Communist Party, and equip them for it. When I say this I have in mind not only proletarian women, whether they work in mills or cook the family meal. I also have in mind the peasant women and the women of the various sections of the lower middle class. They too are victims of capitalism ... 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."

 To achieve this, the 1921 congress resolution, reaffirmed in 1922, directed every member party to organise "special apparatuses" at every level of their party to: "strengthen the will" of working women by drawing them into all forms and types of struggle; fight the prejudices against women held by the mass of proletarian men and increase the awareness of working men and women that they have common interests; educate women in Communist ideas and recruit them to the party; put on the party's agenda questions directly concerning the emancipation of women; and conduct a well‑planned struggle against the power of tradition, bourgeois customs and religious ideas.

The Communist parties were directed to make available whatever resources the departments needed to do this work, which they characterised as "agitation and propaganda through action". This meant: "... above all encouraging working women to self‑activity, dispelling the doubts they have about their own abilities and drawing them into practical work ... teaching them through experience to know that every action ... directed against the exploitation of capital, is a step towards improving the position of women."

Concretely, this involved ensuring that women were represented in all organisations which strengthened revolutionary activity. It also involved intervening in all public meetings and debates on women's issues; doing house‑to‑house agitation to reach unemployed women; having special supplements and regular articles in the party and trade union press on the question; distributing leaflets and pamphlets on women's liberation; and making effective of use of all educational institutions in the party.

The Comintern discouraged special courses and schools for women only, but stressed that all general party schools must "... without fail include a course on the methods of work among women" and should be attended by representatives chosen by the women's department.

Of course, these approaches to doing women's liberation work were carried out unevenly by the Communist parties, reflecting the unevenness of their Marxist understanding and development. But the leadership of the International always led, striving to educate and convince the member parties through discussion and example. In every case where their orientation was carried out it was proven correct.

The Stalinist counter-revolution

Tragically, the Russian revolutionaries' vision, program, policies and methods of work for women's liberation were never fully developed; indeed they were substantially reversed under the bureaucratic leadership that had, by the late 1920s, wrested power from the original Bolshevik leadership of the revolution.

Establishing and maintaining working-class political power in a backward, peasant-based economy through the vicissitudes of civil war, foreign intervention and economic blockade exacted a huge toll on the revolutionaries in Soviet Russia. The decimation of this layer and the crushing of post-war revolutionary upsurges in more industrialised countries in Western Europe weakened and demoralised the Soviet working class, and laid the basis for the usurpation of political power by a bureaucratic caste, headed by Joseph Stalin.

While the economic foundations of the new workers' state were not destroyed, a privileged social layer that appointed for itself many of the benefits of the new economic order grew rapidly in the fertile soil of generalised poverty. To protect and extend its new privileges, the bureaucracy reversed the policies of the Bolsheviks in virtually every sphere and murdered, exiled or imprisoned almost the entire surviving Bolshevik leadership. For women, this political counter-revolution led to a policy of reviving and fortifying the family.

Under Stalin's policies of forced collectivisation and industrialisation, women poured into the labour force and by the end of the first five-year plan, the falling birthrate and growing number of "unsupervised" children provided the ammunition the new bureaucratic leadership needed to move against the idea that the state should assume the functions of the family. Official propaganda began instead to glorify the family system, and measures which bound families together through legal restrictions and economic compulsion were introduced.

In 1936, the year before the principal author of the Bolsheviks' 1918 family code was imprisoned in a mental institution, a new law was drafted and passed with virtually no opportunity for public discussion that made divorce more difficult, increased penalties for non‑payment of alimony, criminalised abortion, instituted a wide range of pro‑natalist measures, and re‑criminalised prostitution and homosexuality.

In 1944, the Family Edict eradicated the last vestiges of the 1926 code, withdrawing recognition of de facto relationships, banning paternity suits and reintroducing the category of illegitimacy.

These legal changes were accompanied by a reneging on the provision of socialised alternatives to domestic labour and a propaganda campaign which simultaneously exhorted women to participate fully in the effort to increase industrial productivity and appealed to the need for "social stability", emphasised the importance of individual family responsibility, and lectured on the joys of motherhood and the happiness of the worker-mother.

Trotsky explained the process in The Revolution Betrayed:

"The triumphal rehabilitation of the family, taking place simultaneously ... with the rehabilitation of the rouble, 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 realise 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."

 By the 1940s, while Soviet women made up more than half of the waged work force, the cooking, cleaning, child-care, laundry - all aspects of the maintenance and reproduction of labour power - fell almost exclusively on their shoulders. The result was that the overwhelming majority of women became less able to participate in social, economic and political life, let alone on an equal basis with men.

The Stalinist bureaucracy reinforced the family system for the same reasons it is maintained by capitalist society - as a means of inculcating attitudes of submission to authority, perpetuating the division within the working class between man as head of the household and woman as domestic servant, encouraging the attitude of "each family for itself", and minimising the costs of social service provision. All these outcomes served to reinforce the bureaucracy and maintain its privileges.

In its drive to shore up the family system, the Soviet bureaucracy laid part of the groundwork for the eventual restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union from the 1990s. Having entrenched and extended (rather than whittled away) the bourgeois norms of distribution that are unavoidable in the transition period between capitalism and socialism, the next step for a self-serving bureaucratic elite was to restore bourgeois economic relations and thereby transform themselves into a new capitalist class.

Even given the huge step backward that Stalin's defeat of the Bolsheviks represented for Soviet women, it was not until the process of restoring capitalism was well under way that the gains women had made as a by‑product of the 1917 revolution's socialisation of production became starkly evident.

UNICEF's Women in Transition report, released in October 1999, surveyed a wide range of social indicators among women and children in 27 former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries. It found that considerably more than half of the 26 million jobs lost to privatisation between 1989 and 1997 were women's jobs. In Russia alone, between 1990 and 1995, women lost 7 million jobs while men lost 1-2 million. The report shows that the rate of decline in women's employment between 1989‑97 was greatest in those countries furthermost along the path of capitalist "reform". It also reveals that women's unemployment rate was directly proportional to the number of children they had. With a rapidly rising rate of single motherhood and declining economic security, it is not surprising that maternal and infant mortality rates began to increase and the number of women in prostitution skyrocketed.


There are enormous lessons to be learnt about the path towards women's liberation from both the positive and negative experiences in Soviet history. The progress achieved by the Bolsheviks, as well as the defeats inflicted on women in terms of their life conditions and choices during the subsequent counter-revolution, demonstrate the absolute correctness of Engels' analysis that because women's oppression is rooted in the family as the basic unit of class society, the liberation of women will require not only their complete re-integration into social production, but also the socialisation of all of the functions of the family.

Having overthrown capitalist property relations, granted women full legal equality, begun the process of socialising domestic labour (albeit with major limitations), and consciously striven to eradicate the backward social attitudes and ideological justifications for women's second-class status, the Bolsheviks' program for women's liberation remains the most radical, thorough and successful yet seen. On the Emancipation of Women, a collection of writing that document the main ideas, debates and experiences in the Bolsheviks' struggle for the emancipation of women, is therefore essential reading for all socialists and feminists.


1. Engels, Frederick. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 3. Progress Publishers: Moscow. 1970.

2. Lenin, Vladimir. A Great Beginning. Collected Works, Vol. 29. Progress Publishers: Moscow. 1965.

3. Trotsky, Leon. The Revolution Betrayed: What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going? Pathfinder Press: New York. 1937.

4. Goldman, Wendy Z. Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life. CambridgeUniversity Press: UK. 1993.

5. The Program of the Communist Party of Russia. Included as an appendix to Bukharin & Preobrazhensky’s The ABC of Communism. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor. 1966.

6. Lenin, Vladimir. The Tasks of the Working Women's Movement in the SovietRepublic. Collected Works, Vol. 30. Progress Publishers: Moscow. 1965.

7. Methods and Forms of Work among Communist Party Women: Theses. In Adler et al, Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International. Ink Links: London, 1980.

8. Zetkin, Clara. My Recollections of Lenin. In an appendix to V.I. Lenin, On the Emancipation of Women. Progress Publishers: Moscow, 1965.

[Lisa Macdonald is a national executive member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective in Australia, a Marxist tendency affiliated to the Socialist Alliance.]