Women and October: women’s lives mirrored the arc of the revolution

Alexandra Kollontai, People's Commissar for Social Welfare, founded the Zhenotdel (Women's Department) in 1919

By Mary McGregor

The inequality of the two before the law, which is a legacy of previous social conditions, is not the cause but the effect of the economic oppression of women.’ Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

Such was the significance of the October Revolution for women’s lives – most directly in Russia but also internationally (think, for example, of Sylvia Pankhurst – invited to Russia by Lenin in 1918 – and the inspiration the Bolshevik victory lent to her work with working class women in London’s east end, her involvement in the early Communist Party and in the anti-colonial struggle) that it cannot be entirely obliterated from officially permitted history. Hence an exhibition at the British Library records something of the role of women in Russian progressive politics and directly in the Bolshevik struggle. Most importantly, it hints at how women’s social, political and economic position improved or declined along with the arc of the revolutionary process itself.

One thing that is somewhat misrepresented in this record is the critique that, it is said, the Bolsheviks had of bourgeois women’s groups. This is, of course, true – but another way of making the point could be to describe the vibrant and long-standing argument running through the late 19th century into the early decades of the 20th century over strategy, tactics and alliances that could improve the position of women in fundamental ways. Could this be done through political rights alone was the key question posed?

In an age when women were denied basic political equality such as the right to vote, access to higher education and professions, divorce and so on, of course there was a focus on these rights. Socialist women argued – over decades and in diverse ways – that, however essential, these political rights were not sufficient for working class women experiencing both dire economic exploitation and oppression in the family.

Linked to this was the issue of where the roots of women’s oppression lay. Political debates on these issues shaped the currents in Britain’s suffrage movement (with Emmeline Pankhurst, who ultimately supported the first world war and joined the Conservative Party on one side, and, on the other, women like Sylvia Pankhurst, who responded to the sharpening national and international class struggles in the early part of the 20th century by moving further to the left). Differences over whether political rights alone were sufficient – leaving the essential economic and social system intact – also ran through Germany’s huge women’s movements (represented by women like Clara Zetkin) and in Russia (led by Alexandra Kollontai and others).

The socialist currents responded to the feminist movements by their own divisions and errors. In the period before World War One many men in Britain, for example, were disenfranchised as the vote was based on ownership of property. All women were disenfranchised, regardless of class position. The labour movement, and growing Labour Party, was divided in response to the mass movement demanding votes for women. The right argued against supporting women’s suffrage in favour of adult suffrage, a position that Sylvia Pankhurst summed up perfectly: ‘Adult Suffrage was the main refuge of those who did not care for Votes for Women and disliked the militant tactics. The active and advanced minority of the Party, which did the main share of the Party’s work throughout the country, was virtually united behind Kier Hardie for Votes for Women at any price’ (The Suffragette Movement, Virago, 1988). Similar errors occurred in all the socialist movement. Those such as Hardie, Pankhurst, Zetkin, Kollontai and many others were engaged, over many years, in struggles to win an alliance between the women’s and socialist movements by establishing the understanding that only by a fundamental change in society could women’s oppression be fully addressed, and, equally, only by supporting women’s demands in reality could the socialist movements have a hope of winning that social change. It was in this context that the Irish marxist revolutionary James Connolly, in 1915, would write of the position of women that: ‘The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave.’ (Selected Writings, Penguin, 1973)

The Russian revolution was the most advanced point of the mass revolutionary wave which peaked towards the end of World War One. The actions taken by the Bolsheviks followed these years of debate and struggle in the socialist international and international women’s movements. Lenin’s ‘State and Revolution’ reflected – as did most of Lenin’s writings – an intervention into these international debates over analysis and strategy. Its vision of the ‘withering away’ of the state – as its role in upholding the position of a minority over a majority would no longer be necessary – encompassed the withering away of the family. The family, as had been argued by Engels in the 1880s, was understood as a crucial part of the state apparatus in class, and specifically capitalist, society: ‘The modern individual family is based on the open or disguised domestic enslavement of the woman…In the family, he is the bourgeois; the wife represents the proletariat.’ (The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Pathfinder, 1979).

The contradiction created by capitalism was that women were drawn into mass, industrialised paid employment through the demands of capitalism but were still required to play a traditional caring role in the family. Capitalism, argued the Bolsheviks, relied on this contradiction and would not resolve it. Today we see the sense of this in, for example, the ebbs and flows in support for and attacks on the post-world war two welfare state: these involving less or more intensification of women’s domestic labour. The expectation – and the pressure – is that, when care services are cut, hospital services reduced, nurseries closed, after school classes cancelled, women (in the main) will somehow be able to cover the gap.

It was in this framework of viewing women’s oppression as rooted in the family system that the Bolsheviks not only introduced revolutionary changes in women’s rights but set their sights strategically on the replacement of the family as a location of the reproduction of the sexual division of labour and the oppression of women. The tasks fulfilled by women in the family were to be socialised. As Wendy Goldman writes in ‘Women, the State and Revolution’, unlike (one should say some – Goldman suggests all) ‘modern feminists, who argue for a re-division of household tasks within the family, increasing men’s share of domestic responsibilities, Bolshevik theorists sought to transfer housework to the public sphere.’ (Cambridge University Press, 1993) The success of the former approach can be assessed in the finding by the Office for National Statistics in 2016 that women (in male-female couple households) were doing almost 40 per cent more unpaid chores in the household than men on average: that is to say, the strategy of reliance on a gender re-division of domestic labour alone continues to be a failure.

The Bolsheviks’ vision – all the more astonishing given the scale of the oppression, isolation and drudgery of women’s lives in pre-revolutionary Russia, where women were virtual slaves in a patriarchal family system – was therefore for the economic independence of women and ending of extreme isolation in the family through integrating women into all layers of the labour force and for the socialisation of domestic labour.

The first legal actions in this area, in December 1917, substituted civil for religious marriage and established divorce at the request of either spouse: prior to this, under state law a wife owed complete obedience to her husband, was compelled to live with him, take his name and social status. Divorce was extremely difficult to obtain. By comparison with the Bolsheviks’ action, only in 1969 did divorce law in Britain begin to move towards divorce by consent rather than having to prove grounds such as cruelty. At the time the Bolshevik’s were making these radical changes no woman in Britain, for example, even had the right to vote.

A more developed Code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship was ratified in October 1918. This incorporated the two earlier decrees and also abolished the juridical concept of ‘illegitimacy’ and entitled all children to parental support. It forbade adoption of orphans by individual families in favour of state guardianship: the fear was that, in a largely agrarian society, individual adoption would allow peasants to exploit children as unpaid labour. The Code also sharply restricted the duties and obligations of the marital bond. Women retained full control of their earnings after marriage, and neither spouse had any claim on the property of the other. These changes radically improved the political rights of both women and children in relation to the family and constituted the most progressive family legislation then in existence.

The First Four Congresses of the Third International – that is, the international congresses that took place in the Lenin-era of the international – saw attempts to entrench this understanding within all sections of the Communist Party and parties affiliated internationally. Thus, Alexandra Kollontai – the commissar for social welfare and veteran socialist and feminist – submitted a resolution stating that the international recognised that its success could only be ensured by a struggle equally involving women and noting that ‘at least half of all the wealth in the world is produced by female labour’.

Theses on women at the Third Congress in 1921 argued for the centrality of work on women’s equality and involvement of women by parties and movements affiliated to the Third International. While there is no doubt the Bolsheviks supported equal political rights – as demonstrated in the 1918 Code – the theses declared ‘the most radical feminist demand – the extension of the suffrage to women in the framework of bourgeois parliamentarianism – does not solve the question of real equality for women’.

Special structures were to be established in all parties and at all levels to develop work among women, raise awareness and develop activity on specific issues. A resolution at the Fourth Congress in 1922 strongly criticised those parties in the International that had failed to implement the priority agreed to political work among women. Again, such resolutions reflected the Bolshevik understanding that the support of women was essential for the success of the communist movements, and that support would only grow from the communists’ active support for women’s demands for equality.

The fate of this vision was inexorably tied to the success or retreat of the revolutionary process – an awareness of which runs through the resolutions and policies adopted by the socialist movement in the years up to and immediately after 1917. The defeat of revolutionary movements outside of Russia and in more powerful capitalist economies – in Germany in particular – isolated the Russian revolution. Taking power in a mainly agrarian economy, and beset by the impact of war, the dislocation of millions of people, blockade by the imperialist powers, civil war, famine and mass epidemics of influenza, cholera and typhus, the survival of the revolution was in question. The focus and investment required in the new policies of socialised domestic labour and political emancipation of women were weakened under such conditions; at the same time necessary economic concessions such as the New Economic Policy stimulated political forces, particularly among the better off peasantry, most hostile to women’s equality. Contradictions between women’s independence and demands of peasant households for control of women’s labour deepened, for example.

Trotsky subsequently put it thus: ‘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.” Experience soon proved this austere truth which Marx had formulated eighty years before.’ This material reality placed great pressures on the Bolshevik commitment to ending the oppression of women, but the rise of Stalin resulted in concessions and retreats that were greater than necessary – such as on abortion, divorce and domestic labour – and moreover these were presented as desirable rather than regrettable.

Thus, by 1930 the Zhenotdel – established in 1919, supported by Kollontai and Inessa Armand, as a department of government in 1919 to promote women’s interests – was abolished in 1930. In 1936 abortion was outlawed (reversing the legalisation of abortion – the first country to do so – in 1920) and monetary incentives were offered for childbearing. The Family Code of 1936 also made divorce more difficult and made changes on alimony and child support that were consistent with a campaign to promote ‘family responsibility’. The ideas that had inspired social policy after the revolution were discredited and the earlier laws condemned as ‘legal nihilism’. Legal theorists associated with these views of the 1920s were arrested and shot. The author of the 1918 Code was committed to a mental institution. These reversals of rights took place alongside radical reductions in real wages in these years. The Family Edict of 1944 reversed the remnants of the early legislation: recognition of de facto marriage was withdrawn; paternity suits were banned; the category of illegitimacy was reintroduced; divorce was transferred back to the courts. Further, limited, liberalisation only took place following the Stalin era.

Despite the isolation of the Soviet Union and restrictions in women’s lives as a result, plus the defeats imposed by Stalin, the position of women remained in advance of that of the masses of working class women in the western capitalist countries in key economic respects. Even at time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 women’s employment, pensions, literacy and childcare were more advanced than in the west. What the Soviet Union, even with a conservative and limited programme compared to the ideals of the revolution, represented for women can be seen in the contrast with what happened after 1991. The impact of capitalism, rise of unemployment – hitherto unknown – and lengthy delays in wage payments together with the disappearance of a social safety net hit women much harder than men. The rise of global human trafficking involved the sexual and other forms of enslavement of untold numbers of Russian women. One 2011 analysis of research estimates that ‘no less than 500,000 have been trafficked from the country since the collapse of the Soviet Union’ and that ‘Russia has become one of the largest exporters of women for the sex industry’. That last sentence says so much: the writer of the article – who is hostile to what has happened to women in Russia – still cannot avoid using the notion of ‘exports’ to refer to the enforced movement of (at least) hundreds of thousands of not products but human beings – women – into the sex trade and other forms of virtual or actual slavery, post-1991.

The Russian Revolution was a beacon of an alternative possibility for women. The position that women leaders such as Kollontai and Armand occupied at the centre of revolutionary change reverberated across decades as an example to generations of feminists and socialist. The Bolshevik insistence that the liberation of women was inexorably tied to the creation of a new society and vice versa is demonstrated in what happened around 1917, in Soviet society and in Russia after 1991.