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Spartacist English edition No. 59

Spring 2006

The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women

(Women and Revolution pages)

“‘Liberation’ is an historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions, the development of industry, commerce, agriculture, the conditions of intercourse.”

—Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels,
The German Ideology (1846)

Today, millions of women even in the advanced capitalist “democracies” endure nasty and brutish lives of misery and drudgery. In the United States, to name just two instances of anti-woman bigotry, abortion rights are under increasing attack and quality childcare is scarce and too costly for most working women. Conditions for women in the Third World are worse by orders of magnitude. But even 15 years ago women in the Soviet Union enjoyed many advantages, such as state-supported childcare institutions, full abortion rights, access to a wide range of trades and professions, and a large degree of economic equality with their male co-workers—in short, a status in some ways far in advance of capitalist societies today.

The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution made these gains possible. No mere cosmetic gloss on the surface, the Russian Revolution was, in the words of historian Richard Stites, a

“classical social revolution—a process not an event, a phenomenon that cannot be fused, triggered, or set off by a mere turnover of power which confines itself to the center and confines its efforts to decrees and laws enunciating the principles of equality. True social revolution in an underdeveloped society does not end with the reshuffling of property any more than it does with the reshuffling of portfolios; it is the result of social mobilization. Put in plain terms, it means bodies moving out among the people with well-laid plans, skills, and revolutionary euphoria; it means teaching, pushing, prodding, cajoling the stubborn, the ignorant, and the backward by means of the supreme component of all radical propaganda: the message and the conviction that revolution is relevant to everyday life.”

—Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860-1930 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978)

This thoroughgoing effort to remake society was made possible by the smashing of tsarist/capitalist rule and the Bolshevik-led seizure of power by the soviets—workers and peasants councils—in October 1917. The estates of the landed nobility were abolished and the land nationalized; industry was soon collectivized. The new workers state took the first steps toward planning the economy in the interests of the toilers. This brought enormous gains to working women. The Russian Revolution sought to bring women into full participation in economic, social and political life.

Since the counterrevolution that restored capitalism in 1991-92, women in the ex-Soviet Union face vastly worse conditions somewhat akin to the Third World. Massive unemployment, a plummeting life expectancy, and a resurgence of religious backwardness—both Russian Orthodox and Muslim—are just three examples. From 1991 to 1997 gross domestic product fell by over 80 percent; according to official (understated) statistics, capital investment dropped over 90 percent. By the middle of the decade, 40 percent of the population of the Russian Federation was living below the official poverty line and a further 36 percent only a little above it. Millions were starving.

Women’s Liberation and World Socialist Revolution

The Bolsheviks recognized that without qualitative economic development, the liberation of women was a utopian fantasy. Working to maximize the resources at hand, the early Bolshevik regime did all it could to implement the promise of women’s emancipation, including the formation of a party department that addressed women’s needs, the Zhenotdel. But at every step their efforts were confronted with the fact that short of a massive infusion of resources, the results were limited on all sides. Leon Trotsky, the leader together with V.I. Lenin of the Russian Revolution, explained that from the beginning the Bolsheviks recognized that

“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 unrealizable on a basis of ‘generalized want.’ Experience soon proved this austere truth which Marx had formulated eighty years before.”

The Revolution Betrayed (1936)

The grim poverty of the world’s first workers state began with the economic and social backwardness inherited from the old tsarist empire. Foreign investment had built modern factories in the major cities, creating a compact, powerful proletariat that was able to make the revolution in a majority-peasant country. The revolutionary workers were, in most cases, only one or two generations removed from the peasantry. The workers supported their cousins in the countryside when they seized the landed estates and divided up the land among those who worked it. The alliance (smychka) between the workers and peasants was key to the success of the revolution. But the mass of peasant smallholders was also a reservoir of social and economic backwardness. The devastation wrought by World War I was compounded by the bloody Civil War (1918-1920) that the Bolshevik government had to fight against the armies of counterrevolution and imperialist intervention, throwing the country’s economy back decades. The imperialists also instituted an economic blockade, isolating the Soviet Union from the world economy and world division of labor.

Marxists have always understood that the material abundance necessary to uproot class society and its attendant oppressions can only come from the highest level of technology and science based on an internationally planned economy. The economic devastation and isolation of the Soviet workers state led to strong material pressures toward bureaucratization. In the last years of his life, Lenin, often in alliance with Trotsky, waged a series of battles in the party against the political manifestations of the bureaucratic pressures. The Bolsheviks knew that socialism could only be built on a worldwide basis, and they fought to extend the revolution internationally, especially to the advanced capitalist economies of Europe; the idea that socialism could be built in a single country was a later perversion introduced as part of the justification for the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution.

In early 1924 a bureaucratic caste under Stalin came to dominate the Soviet Communist Party and state. Thus, the equality of women as envisioned by the Bolsheviks never fully came about. The Stalinist bureaucracy abandoned the fight for international revolution and so besmirched the great ideals of communism with bureaucratic distortions and lies that, in the end in 1991-92, the working class did not fight against the revolution’s undoing and the restoration of capitalism under Boris Yeltsin.

The Russian Revolution marked the beginning of a great wave of revolutionary struggle that swept the world in opposition to the carnage of WWI. The October Revolution was a powerful inspiration to the working class internationally. Germany, the most powerful and most advanced capitalist country in Europe, was thrown into a revolutionary situation in 1918-19; much of the rest of the continent was in turmoil. The Bolsheviks threw a good deal of the Soviet state’s resources into the fight for world socialist revolution, creating the Communist International (CI) for this purpose. But the young parties of the CI in Europe had only recently broken from the reformist leadership of the mass workers organizations that had supported their own bourgeois governments in WWI and were not able to act as revolutionary vanguard parties comparable to the Bolsheviks. The reformist, pro-capitalist and deeply chauvinist leadership of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) was able to suppress the proletarian revolutionary opportunity in Germany in 1918-19, with the active collaboration of the military/police forces.

Social-democratic parties like the German SPD and the British Labour Party bear central historical responsibility for the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. Yet they howl along with their capitalist masters that the early Bolshevik regime under Lenin inevitably led to Stalinist despotism, that communism has failed and that capitalist “democracy” is infinitely preferable to communism. They are echoed by many of today’s leftist-minded youth, who equate communism with the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet workers state. Anarchist-influenced youth hold that hierarchy is inherently oppressive, that small-scale production, decentralization and “living liberated” on an individual basis offer a way forward. This is a dead end.

Despite the triumph of the bureaucratic caste in 1924 and the consequent degeneration of the Russian Revolution, the central gains of the revolution—embodied in the overthrow of capitalist property relations and the establishment of a planned economy—remained. These gains were apparent, for example, in the material position of women. That is why we of the International Communist League, standing on the heritage of Trotsky’s Left Opposition, which fought against Stalin and the degeneration of the revolution, stood for the unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union against imperialist attack and an intransigent fight against all threats of capitalist counterrevolution, internal or external. At the same time we understood that the bureaucratic caste at the top was a mortal threat to the continued existence of the workers state. We called for a political revolution in the USSR to oust the bureaucracy, to restore soviet workers democracy and to pursue the fight for the international proletarian revolution necessary to build socialism.

Heritage of Bolshevik Work Among Women

A host of books published over the last decade and a half speak to the enormous gains made by women in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks immediately began to put into place civil law that swept away centuries of property law and male privilege. Wendy Goldman’s valuable Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993) focuses on the three Family Codes of 1918, 1926 and 1936 as turning points in Soviet policy, serving as markers for the party and state program on the woman question. The 1918 Code, the “most progressive family legislation the world had ever seen,” gave way to the 1926 Code, which came into effect in a period of intense political struggle between the Stalinist bureaucracy and oppositional currents arrayed against it, centrally Trotsky’s Left Opposition. The 1936 Family Code, which rehabilitated the family in official Stalinist ideology and made abortion illegal, codified the wholesale retreat under Stalin in the struggle for women’s equality.

Goldman’s book is only one among many publications since 1991 that have profited from the increased access to archives of the former Soviet Union. Another, Barbara Evans Clements’ Bolshevik Women (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) is a group biography, centering on selected longtime party members. Clements has assembled a database of several hundred Old Bolshevik (party members before 1917) women cadre, which she analyzes for trends in origins, education and party activity.

Bolshevik Women focuses on prominent party members such as Elena Stasova, a Central Committee member and the CC secretary in Petrograd in 1917. Another is Evgeniia Bosh, described by Victor Serge (a one-time member of the Left Opposition who later broke with Trotsky) as one of “the most capable military leaders to emerge at this early stage” of the Civil War (quoted in Clements, Bolshevik Women). Bosh committed suicide in January 1925 when the Stalin faction purged Trotsky as People’s Commissar for War. Yet another was Lenin’s close friend and collaborator, Inessa Armand, the first head of the Zhenotdel until her death in 1920.

Less well known are Konkordiia Samoilova, another longtime party cadre, whose work after 1917 focused on Zhenotdel field activities; Klavdiia Nikolaeva, removed as head of the Zhenotdel in 1925 due to her support to the anti-bureaucratic Opposition; Rozaliia Zemliachka, who became a stalwart bureaucrat and the only woman to sit on the Council of People’s Commissars under Stalin; and Alexandra Artiukhina, who headed the Zhenotdel from 1925 until its liquidation by Stalin in 1930.

The International Communist League’s work among women stands on the traditions established by Lenin’s Bolsheviks. Some of the earliest issues of Women and Revolution published original research on the Russian Revolution and Bolshevik work among women by Dale Ross, W&R’s first editor, based on her PhD dissertation, The Role of the Women of Petrograd in War, Revolution and Counter-Revolution, 1914-1921 (1973). The second and third issues of W&R (September-October 1971 and May 1972) published in two parts the Bolsheviks’ “Methods of Work Among the Women of the Communist Party” from the Third Congress of the Communist International (1921). The new information available has further confirmed and enriched our solidarity with the Bolshevik road to the emancipation of women.

Subsequent issues of W&R explored other aspects of the fight for women’s liberation in the USSR. Of special significance is “Early Bolshevik Work Among Women of the Soviet East” (W&R No. 12, Summer 1976). This article detailed the heroic efforts of the Bolshevik government to transform conditions for the hideously oppressed women of Muslim Central Asia, where Zhenotdel activists themselves took to the veil in order to reach these secluded women. It is beyond the scope of the present article to deal with this important subject.

Marxism vs. Feminism

For Marxists, the special oppression of women originates in class society itself and can only be rooted out through the destruction of private property in the means of production. The entry of women into the proletariat opens the way to liberation: their position at the point of production gives them the social power, along with their male co-workers, to change the capitalist system and lay the basis for women’s social independence from the confines of the institution of the family. Marxism differs from feminism centrally over the question of the main division in society: feminists hold that it is men vs. women; for Marxists, it is class, that is, exploiter vs. exploited. A working woman has more in common with her male co-workers than with a female boss, and the emancipation of women is the task of the working class as a whole.

The Marxist view of the family as the main source of the oppression of women dates from The German Ideology, where Marx and Engels first formulated the concept that the family was not an immutable, timeless institution, but a social relation subject to historical change. In the classic Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), Engels (working with the material available at the time) traced the origin of the institution of the family and the state to the division of society into classes. With the rise of a social surplus beyond basic subsistence, a leisured, ruling class could develop based on a private appropriation of that surplus, thus moving human society away from the primitive egalitarianism of the Stone Age. The centrality of the family flowed from its role in the inheritance of property, which required women’s sexual monogamy and social subordination. Engels termed this “the world historical defeat of the female sex.”

A collectivized, planned economy seeks to productively employ all adults with the goal of maximizing the wealth, including leisure time, available to all. In contrast, in the boom-bust cycle of a capitalist economy, each capitalist enterprise seeks to maximize its rate of profit. Inevitably, capitalist firms seek to reduce costs (and increase profits) by reducing both wages and jobs, leading to an impoverished working class, a pool of chronically unemployed workers and long hours for those who do work. Isolated in the family, women make up a large component of the reserve army of the unemployed, hired during economic booms and sent “back to the kitchen” during hard times. When women are drawn into the workforce in great numbers, the capitalists then try to reduce real wages for men, so that it takes the income of two working adults to raise a family.

The necessary role of the family—the function that must be replaced and cannot be abolished—is the rearing of the next generation. Under capitalism, the masses of youth are slated for wage slavery and service as cannon fodder in the bourgeois army, and the family plays an important role in training them to obey authority. It is also a major source for inculcating religious backwardness as an ideological brake on social consciousness.

While many aspects of the capitalist system serve to undermine and erode the family (the employment of women and public education are two examples), capitalism cannot provide a systematic solution to the double burden women shoulder, and must seek to bolster its weakened institution. Bourgeois feminists, whose quarrel with the capitalist system is their own subordinate status within it, address this by arguing for a redivision of household tasks within the family, increasing men’s share of domestic responsibilities. Marxists seek to transfer housework altogether to the public sphere. As the Bolshevik leader Evgeny Preobrazhensky (later allied with Trotsky) said, “Our task does not consist of striving for justice in the division of labor between the sexes. Our task is to free men and women from petty household labor” (quoted in Goldman, Women, the State and Revolution). Thus one of the tasks of the socialist revolution is the full replacement of the institution of the family with communal childcare, dining halls and laundries, and paid maternity leave, free health care, and special efforts to draw women fully into social and political life.

In Russia, the feminist movement was part of a broader bourgeois-democratic current that opposed tsarism and wanted to modernize Russia as an industrial capitalist society. For example, in 1906 amid the continuing ferment of the first Russian Revolution, the three main feminist organizations, the Women’s Equal Rights Union, the Women’s Progressive Party and the Women’s Mutual Philanthropic Society, directed their efforts toward the passage of equal rights and woman suffrage bills in the newly established Duma (parliament). When the predominantly liberal First and Second Dumas were dissolved by the autocracy, the Russian feminist movement went into decline.

In 1917 the main “women’s issue” in the eyes of the working woman was opposition to the bloody imperialist war that had been raging for three years. The war sparked the February revolt, which began with the mass outpouring of women on International Women’s Day. After the abdication of the Tsar and the establishment of the bourgeois-democratic Provisional Government, most of the ostensible parties of the left and of reform—including the Russian feminists—considered the main goals of the revolution to have been accomplished. Therefore, they abandoned their opposition to the war and supported the renewal of the imperialist slaughter in the name of “democracy.”

The Bolsheviks fought for the soviets of workers and peasants deputies to become organs of the rule of the exploited and oppressed, including women, and to end the war immediately without annexations of other countries. The best fighters for women’s liberation were the Bolsheviks, who understood that the liberation of women cannot be isolated from the liberation of the working class as a whole. Nor can it be fully achieved, least of all in a backward country—even one with a revolutionary government—in political, social and economic isolation from the rest of the world.

Early Bolshevik Work Among Women

Russian society was permeated with the grossest anti-woman bigotry. In 1917 peasants barely 50 years out of serfdom made up some 85 percent of the population. They lived under a village system with a rigid patriarchal hierarchy, without even a rudimentary modern infrastructure, lacking centralized sewage, electricity or paved roads. Ignorance and illiteracy were the norm and superstition was endemic. The ancient institutions of the household (dvor) and the communal village determined land ownership and livelihood and enforced the degradation of women. This extreme oppression was the inevitable corollary of the low productivity of Russian agriculture, which used centuries-old techniques. Peasant women were drudges; for example, a batrachka was a laborer hired for a season as a “wife” and then thrown out upon pregnancy. One peasant woman described her life: “In the countryside they look at a woman like a work horse. You work all your life for your husband and his entire family, endure beatings and every kind of humiliation, but it doesn’t matter, you have nowhere to go—you are bound in marriage” (quoted in ibid.).

However, by 1914 women made up one-third of Russia’s small but powerful industrial labor force. The Bolshevik program addressed their felt needs through such demands as equal pay for equal work, paid maternity leave and childcare facilities at factories, the lack of which had a severe impact on infant mortality. As many as two-thirds of the babies of women factory workers died in their first year. The party made efforts to defend working women from abuse and wife-beating, and opposed all instances of discrimination and oppression wherever they appeared, acting as the tribune of the people according to the Leninist concept put forward in What Is To Be Done? (1902). This included taking up a fight after the February Revolution within the trade unions against a proposal to address unemployment by first laying off married women whose husbands were working. Such a policy was applied in the Putilov munitions works and the Vyborg iron works, among other enterprises, and was opposed by the Bolsheviks as a threat to the political unity of the proletariat. Hundreds of women were members of the Bolshevik Party before the revolution, and they participated in all aspects of party work, both legal and underground, serving as officers in local party committees, couriers, agitators and writers.

Confined to the home and family, many women are isolated from social and political interaction and thus can be a reservoir of backward consciousness. But as Clara Zetkin said at the 1921 Congress of the Communist International, “Either the revolution will have the masses of women, or the counterrevolution will have them” (Protokoll des III. Weltkongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale [Minutes of the Third World Congress of the Communist International]) (our translation). Before World War I the Social Democrats in Germany pioneered in building a women’s “transitional organization”—a special body, linked to the party through its most conscious cadre, that took up the fight for women’s rights and other key political questions, conducted education, and published a newspaper. The Russian Bolsheviks stood on the shoulders of their German comrades, most importantly carrying party work among women into the factories. Building transitional organizations, founding the newspaper Rabotnitsa (The Woman Worker), and, after the October Revolution, the Zhenotdel, the Bolsheviks successfully mobilized masses of women in the working class as well as the peasantry whom the party could not have otherwise reached.

Rabotnitsa called mass meetings and demonstrations in Petrograd in opposition to the war and to rising prices, the two main issues galvanizing working women. The First All-City Conference of Petrograd Working Women, called by Rabotnitsa for October 1917, adjourned early so that the delegates could join the insurrection; it later reconvened. Among its achievements were resolutions for a standardized workday of eight hours and for banning labor for children under the age of 16. One of the aims of the conference was to mobilize non-party working women for the uprising and to win them to the goals that the Soviet government planned to pursue after the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The revolutionary beginnings in Russia took hold in no small measure due to the political awakening of the toiling women of the city and village to this historic mission. Even the most bitter political opponents of the October Revolution, such as the Russian Menshevik “socialist” proponents of a return to capitalist rule, grudgingly recognized the Bolsheviks’ success. The Menshevik leader Yuri Martov wrote to his comrade Pavel Axelrod, demonstrating as well his own contempt for the proletarian masses:

“It would be hard for you to imagine how in the recent past (just before my departure) there was a strong, genuine Bolshevik fanaticism, with an adoration of Lenin and Trotsky and a hysterical hatred of us, among a significant mass of Moscow women workers, in both the factories and workshops. This is to a notable degree explained by the fact that the Russian woman proletariat, due to its illiteracy and helplessness, in its mass could only have been drawn into ‘politics’ by means of the state mechanism (endless educational courses and ‘cultural’-agitational institutions, official celebrations and demonstrations, and—last not least [original in English]—by means of material privileges). Thus the words that one runs across in letters from women workers to Pravda, such as, ‘only after the October overthrow did we women workers see the sun,’ are not empty phrases.”

—“Letter to P. B. Axelrod, 5 April 1921,” Yu. O. Martov, Letters 1916-1922 (Benson, Vermont: Chalidze Publications, 1990) (our translation)

The Early Soviet Government and the 1918 Family Code

The revolution released a burst of optimism and expectations for a society built on socialist principles. Discussions raged among young people on sexual relations, child rearing and the nature of the family in the transition to socialism. Creative energy gripped cultural fields as well, where priorities and tasks changed to reflect the widely held view that the family would soon wither away (see “Planning for Collective Living in the Early Soviet Union: Architecture as a Tool of Social Transformation,” W&R No. 11, Spring 1976).

Soviet legislation at that time gave to women in Russia a level of equality and freedom that has yet to be attained by the most economically advanced “democratic” capitalist countries today. But there was a problem, succinctly addressed by A. T. Stelmakhovich, chairman of the Moscow provincial courts: “The liberation of women...without an economic base guaranteeing every worker full material independence, is a myth” (quoted in Goldman, Women, the State and Revolution).

Just over a month after the revolution, two decrees established civil marriage and allowed for divorce at the request of either partner, accomplishing far more than the pre-revolutionary Ministry of Justice, progressive journalists, feminists and the Duma had ever even attempted. Divorces soared in the following period. A complete Code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship, ratified in October 1918 by the state governing body, the Central Executive Committee (CEC), swept away centuries of patriarchal and ecclesiastical power, and established a new doctrine based on individual rights and the equality of the sexes.

The Bolsheviks also abolished all laws against homosexual acts and other consensual sexual activity. The Bolshevik position was explained in a pamphlet by Grigorii Batkis, director of the Moscow Institute of Social Hygiene, The Sexual Revolution in Russia (1923):

“Soviet legislation bases itself on the following principle:

It declares the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, so long as nobody is injured, and no one’s interests are encroached upon.

—quoted in John Lauritsen and David Thorstad, The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935) (New York: Times Change Press, 1974)

To draft the new Family Code a committee was established in August 1918, headed by A. G. Goikhbarg, a former Menshevik law professor. Jurists described the Code as “not socialist legislation, but legislation of the transitional time,” just as the Soviet state itself, as the dictatorship of the proletariat, was a preparatory regime transitional from capitalism to socialism (quoted in Goldman, op. cit.)

The Bolsheviks anticipated the ability to “eliminate the need for certain registrations, for example, marriage registration, for the family will soon be replaced by a more reasonable, more rational differentiation based on separate individuals,” as Goikhbarg said, rather too optimistically. He added, “Proletarian power constructs its codes and all of its laws dialectically, so that every day of their existence undermines the need for their existence.” When “the fetters of husband and wife” have become “obsolete,” the family will wither away, replaced by revolutionary social relations based on women’s equality. Not until then, in the words of Soviet sociologist S. Ia. Volfson, would the duration of marriage “be defined exclusively by the mutual inclination of the spouses” (quoted in ibid.). Divorce would be accomplished by the locking of a door, as Soviet architect L. Sabsovich envisaged it.

The new marriage and divorce laws were very popular. However, given women’s traditional responsibilities for children and their greater difficulties in finding and maintaining employment, for them divorce often proved more problematic than for men. For this reason the alimony provision was established for the disabled poor of both sexes, necessary due to the inability of the state at that time to guarantee jobs for all. The 1918 Code eliminated the distinction between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” children, using instead the carefully considered wording “children of parents who are not in a registered marriage.” Thus, women could claim child support from men to whom they were not married.

The Code also established the right of all children to parental support until age 18 and the right of each spouse to his or her own property. In implementing the Code’s measures, judges were biased in favor of women and children, on the grounds that establishing support for the child took priority over protecting the financial interests of the male defendant. In one case, a judge split child support three ways, because the mother had been sleeping with three different men.

During the debate on the draft, Goikhbarg had to defend it against critics who wanted to abolish marriage altogether. For example, N. A. Roslavets, a Ukrainian woman delegate, recommended that the CEC reject the marriage section of the Code, arguing that it would represent a step away “from the freedom of marriage relations as one of the conditions of individual freedom.” “I cannot understand why this Code establishes compulsory monogamy,” she said; she also opposed the (very limited) alimony provision as “nothing other than a payment for love” (quoted in ibid.).

Goikhbarg later recounted, “They screamed at us: ‘Registration of marriage, formal marriage, what kind of socialism is this?’” His main argument was that civil marriage registration was crucial to the struggle against the medieval grip of the Russian Orthodox church. Without civil marriage, the population would resort to religious ceremonies and the church would flourish. He characterized Roslavets’ criticisms as “radical in words” but “reactionary in deed.” Goikhbarg pointed out that alimony was limited to the disabled poor, and that it was impossible to abolish everything at once. He argued, “We must accept this [code] knowing that it is not a socialist measure, because socialist legislation will hardly exist. Only limited norms will remain” (quoted in ibid.).

Uneven and Combined Development

The October Revolution put power in the hands of a working class that was numerically small in a country that was relatively backward. The Bolsheviks thus faced problems that Marx and Engels, who had projected that the proletarian revolution would occur first in more industrialized countries, could not have anticipated. It was envisioned by the Bolsheviks that the Russian Revolution would inspire workers in the economically advanced European countries to overthrow their bourgeoisies, and these new revolutions would in turn come to the aid of the Russian proletariat. These workers states would not usher in socialist societies but would be transitional regimes that would lay the foundations for socialism based on an internationally planned economy in which there would be no more class distinctions and the state itself would wither away.

The seizure of power in Russia followed three years of world war, which had disrupted the food supply, causing widespread hunger in the cities. By the end of the Civil War, the country lay in ruins. The transport system collapsed, and oil and coal no longer reached the urban areas. Homeless and starving children, the besprizorniki, roamed the countryside and cities in gangs. In the brutal Russian winter, the writer Viktor Shklovsky wrote that, because of the lack of fuel, “People who lived in housing with central heating died in droves. They froze to death—whole apartments of them” (quoted in ibid.).

The collapse of the productive forces surpassed anything of the kind that history had ever seen. The country and its government were at the very edge of the abyss. Although the Bolsheviks won the Civil War, Russia’s national income had dropped to only one-third and industrial output to less than one-fifth of the prewar levels. By 1921 Moscow had lost half its population; Petrograd, two-thirds. Then the country was hit with two straight years of drought, and a sandstorm and locust invasion that brought famine to the southern and western regions. In those areas, 90 to 95 percent of the children under three years old died; surviving children were abandoned as one or both parents died, leaving them starving and homeless. There were incidents of cannibalism.

The toll on all layers of society was terrible. Of the Bolshevik women cadre in Clements’ study, 13 percent died between 1917 and 1921, most of infectious disease. Among them were Inessa Armand, head of the Zhenotdel, and Samoilova, both of whom died of cholera. Samoilova contracted the disease as a party activist on the Volga River. Horrified by the conditions on the delta, she spent her last days rousing the local party committee to take action.

As Marx put it, “Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural level which this determines” (“Critique of the Gotha Program,” 1875). The Bolsheviks knew that, given centuries of oppression and the devastation of the country, even the most democratic laws could not protect the most vulnerable, the working-class and especially peasant women, who continued to suffer misery and degradation. Until the family was fully replaced by communal living and childcare, laws addressing the actual social conditions were a necessary part of the political struggle for a new society.

The Protection of Motherhood

Immediately after the revolution the government launched a drive to provide social and cultural facilities and communal services for women workers and to draw them into training and educational programs. The 1918 Labor Code provided a paid 30-minute break at least every three hours to feed a baby. For their protection, pregnant women and nursing mothers were banned from night work and overtime. This entailed a constant struggle with some state managers, who viewed these measures as an extra financial burden.

The crowning legislative achievement for women workers was the 1918 maternity insurance program designed and pushed by Alexandra Kollontai, the first People’s Commissar for Social Welfare and head of the Zhenotdel from 1920 to 1922. The law provided for a fully paid maternity leave of eight weeks, nursing breaks and factory rest facilities, free pre- and post-natal care, and cash allowances. It was administered through a Commission for the Protection of Mothers and Infants—attached to the Health Commissariat—and headed by a Bolshevik doctor, Vera Lebedeva. With its networks of maternity clinics, consultation offices, feeding stations, nurseries, and mother and infant homes, this program was perhaps the single most popular innovation of the Soviet regime among Russian women.

In the 1920s and 1930s women were commonly allowed a few days’ release from paid labor in the form of menstrual leave. In the history of protection of women workers, the USSR was probably unique in this. Specialists also conducted research on the effects of heavy labor on women. One scholar wrote, “The maintenance of the health of workers appears to have been a central concern in the research into labour protection in this period” (Melanie Ilic, Women Workers in the Soviet Interwar Economy: From “Protection” to “Equality” [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999]). Strenuous labor could lead to disruption or delay of menstrual cycles among peasant women especially. The resolution of this problem—machine technology that limits to the greatest possible extent the stress and potential danger of industrial and agricultural labor for all workers, men and women—was beyond the capability of the Soviet economy at that time.

Abortion: Free and on Demand

In 1920 the Soviet government issued a decree overturning criminal penalties for abortion—the first government in the world to do so:

“As long as the remnants of the past and the difficult economic conditions of the present compel some women to undergo an abortion, the People’s Commissariat of Health and Social Welfare and the People’s Commissariat of Justice regard the use of penal measures as inappropriate and therefore, to preserve women’s health and protect the race against ignorant or self-seeking profiteers, it is resolved:

“I. Free abortion, interrupting pregnancy by artificial means, shall be performed in state hospitals, where women are assured maximum safety in the operation.”

—“Decree of the People’s Commissariat of Health and Social Welfare and the People’s Commissariat of Justice in Soviet Russia,” translated from Die Kommunistische Fraueninternationale (Communist Women’s International, April 1921), in W&R No. 34, Spring 1988

In carrying out this decree, again inadequate resources clashed with the huge demand, and because of the shortage of anesthetic, abortions, horribly enough, were generally performed without it. The law required that all abortions be performed by a doctor in a hospital, but the country lacked adequate facilities. Working women received first priority. In the countryside, many women had no access to state facilities. As a result, unsafe abortions continued to be performed, especially by midwives, and thousands were treated in the hospitals for the effects of these dangerous procedures.

Doctors and public health officials argued that there was an urgent need for quality contraception, which in backward Russia was generally unavailable. In the mid 1920s, the Commission for the Protection of Mothers and Infants officially proclaimed that birth control information should be dispensed in all consultation offices and gynecological stations. The shortage of contraception was in part due to the lack of access to raw materials like rubber—a direct result of the imperialist blockade against Soviet Russia.

While acknowledging that the Soviet Union was the first country in the world to grant women legal, free abortion, Goldman claims that the Bolsheviks never recognized abortion as a woman’s right, but only as a public health necessity. Certainly the reference elsewhere in the decree to abortion as “this evil” sounds strange to 21st-century ears, accustomed to hearing such language only from religious bigots. However, abortion was much more dangerous in the 1920s, before the development of antibiotics and in a country where basic hygiene remained a serious problem. The Bolsheviks were concerned about improving the protection of mothers and children, which they viewed as the responsibility of the proletarian state and a central purpose of the replacement of the family with communal methods.

Goldman’s claim is undermined by Trotsky’s statement that, on the contrary, abortion is one of woman’s “most important civil, political and cultural rights.” He blasted the vile Stalinist bureaucracy for its 1936 criminalization of abortion, which showed “the philosophy of a priest endowed also with the powers of a gendarme”:

“These gentlemen have, it seems, completely forgotten that socialism was to remove the cause which impels woman to abortion, and not force her into the ‘joys of motherhood’ with the help of a foul police interference in what is to every woman the most intimate sphere of life.”

The Revolution Betrayed

The Zhenotdel Mobilizes the Masses of Women

The Zhenotdel, founded in 1919, infused energy into the party’s frail and disparate women’s commissions. It played a major part in the mobilization of women behind the struggle for socialism in Russia. In 1920 Samoilova reported that people were describing a “second October Revolution” among women (quoted in Carol Eubanks Hayden, Feminism and Bolshevism: The Zhenotdel and the Politics of Women’s Emancipation in Russia, 1917-1930, unpublished PhD dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1979). The Zhenotdel’s fundamental organizing precept was “agitation by the deed.” Historian Richard Stites described it as “the deliberate, painstaking effort of hundreds of already ‘released’ women injecting their beliefs and programs and their self-confidence into the bloodstream of rural and proletarian Russia” (Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia). That so many women became members of the Soviet government and of the party illustrates the extraordinary social mobility the party was encouraging.

A major vehicle for this work was the system of “delegate meetings” developed by the Zhenotdel and designed as a school in politics and liberation. Elections would be held in a factory for women workers to choose one of their ranks as delegate to the Zhenotdel for a period of three to six months. The election itself was a step forward in consciousness. The delegatka, wearing a red scarf as her badge of office, served as an observer-apprentice in various branches of public activity such as the factory, soviet, trade union, schools, hospital or catering center. After her sojourn in the world of practical politics, she would report back to the Zhenotdel and to her co-workers about what she had learned in the process of acting as an elected politician, administrator, propagandist and critic. One observer described the delegatki as “a menace to bureaucrats, drunkards, kulaks, sub-kulaks, and all who opposed Soviet laws” (quoted in ibid.).

In addition to the journal Kommunistka, which carried articles on major theoretical and practical aspects of the woman question, the Zhenotdel published women’s pages (stranichki) in many national and local party newspapers. Working-class women were encouraged to become correspondents, sending reports and letters to the press. Conferences and congresses brought women of different regions together in great number and variety. The last important meeting was the 1927 Congress of Women Deputies to the Soviets, a massive witness to the work that had been done in the preceding ten years where women displayed “a sense of power and achievement” (ibid.).

Communal Living: Replacing the Household Pot

Early measures to institute communal living in Soviet Russia were heavily influenced by the Civil War. In the effort to mobilize the population to fight the war, the Bolsheviks instituted “war communism,” which included state rationing, public dining halls, free food for children and wages in kind. By January 1920 Petrograd was serving one million people in public cafeterias; in Moscow, 93 percent of the population was served in this way. Meals were of poor quality, but in the revolutionary optimism of the time this was seen as a temporary problem. In later years, many expressed nostalgia for the idealistic future promised by communal living under “war communism” as opposed to the harsh reality that was to come. Party leader I. Stepanov captured it:

“All we adults were insanely and dreadfully hungry, but we could justly say to the whole world: The children are the first privileged citizens of our republic. We could say that we were moving toward the realization of freeing love…from economics and women from household slavery.”

—quoted in Goldman, op. cit.

A key component of freeing women from the household prison was the socialization of child rearing. The Bolshevik program rested on a concept that all individuals should have full access to all the cultural and social benefits of society, as opposed to restrictions dictated by social and economic status. An All-Russian Congress for the Protection of Childhood was convened in 1919. The delegates debated theories of childcare and the degree of state vs. parental involvement with the upbringing of the very young. The words of one of the members of the Presidium of the Congress, Anna Elizarova, captured the general understanding of the majority: “There must be no wretched children who don’t belong to anyone. All children are the children of the state” (quoted in ibid.).

A provision of the Family Code put forward the year before had banned adoption altogether in favor of the state’s assuming care for orphans. This measure was especially important because adoption in Russia was notoriously used by peasants as a source of cheap labor. Instead, the government would take on the task of a quality upbringing for all children.

But the enormous contradiction between aspiration and reality remained. The state was unable to care for the millions of homeless orphans in Russia, the besprizorniki. This problem predated the revolution, and seven years of war followed by famine brought the numbers up to an estimated 7.5 million by 1922. The government authorized free food for all children under 16; kitchens and homes were set up, and the estates of the ex-nobility were turned into homes for orphans, with partial success. Goldman caught the vicious circle caused by the lack of resources to meet the need: “Without daycare, many single mothers were unable to search for work, and without work, they were unable to support their children, who in turn ran away from impoverished homes to join the besprizorniki on the streets” (ibid.). Although the numbers shrank in the decade after the famine of 1921, the besprizorniki remained a problem for the Soviet government well into the 1930s.

Temporary Retreat: the New Economic Policy

As the Civil War drew to a close in late 1920, the limits of the policy of “war communism” became clear. Industry had virtually collapsed. The most politically advanced workers had been killed in the Civil War or drawn into state and party administration; many of the remaining workers had gone back to the countryside to eke out a living from the land. Peasants in the south began rebelling against forcible requisitioning of grain (see “Kronstadt 1921: Bolshevism vs. Counterrevolution,” page 6).

To revive production and maintain the alliance with the peasantry, in early 1921 Lenin proposed the New Economic Policy (NEP), in which the forcible requisitioning of grain was replaced by a tax on agricultural products, with the peasantry now allowed to sell much of their grain on the open market. The government sought to stabilize the currency; rationing of food and scarce consumer goods was ended and small-scale production and distribution of consumer goods for profit was allowed. While these concessions to market forces revived the economy to a great extent, they also tended to exacerbate the existing imbalances, with heavy industry getting little or no investment, and the pre-existing layer of better-off peasants (kulaks) becoming richer at the expense of the poorer layers in the villages. A tier of newly rich small producers and traders (NEPmen) flourished.

As would be expected, the NEP had a negative impact on conditions for women and children. Women suffered a general rise in unemployment through 1927, and were pushed back into “traditional” sectors such as textiles and light industry. “Free market” practices meant discrimination against women in hiring and firing—especially given the expenses of paid maternity leave and on-the-job protection for pregnant and nursing mothers. Charges were instituted for previously free public services, such as communal meals. Half the childcare centers and homes for single mothers were forced to close, undermining any attempt to liberate women: mothers had little opportunity to study, get skills or participate in social and political life.

Perhaps the most tragic consequence of the NEP for women was the re-emergence of prostitution. Prostitution was not illegal in Soviet Russia. Rather, the government sought to “return the prostitute to productive work, find her a place in the social economy,” in the words of Lenin as reported by Zetkin (“My Recollections of Lenin,” in The Emancipation of Women [1934]). A 1921 government commission reaffirmed opposition to state interference in private matters:

“In fighting against prostitution, the government by no means intends to intrude into the sphere of sexual relations, for in that area all forced, regulated influence will lead only to distortion of the sexual self-determination of free and independent economic citizens.”

—quoted in Elizabeth A. Wood, The Baba and the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997)

Unemployed women and besprizorniki were the largest groups of urban prostitutes during the years of the NEP.

Goldman notes that delegates to a 1922 meeting on female labor angrily called attention to “the catastrophic position of services designed to protect mothers and infants due to state budgeting pressures under NEP” (Goldman, Women, the State and Revolution). Delegates stressed that women’s problems were “closely connected to the overall position of the working class and under no condition should be considered apart from the proletarian state.” The government tried to replace the lost resources through voluntary contributions and labor, and the commissariats issued decrees aimed at stopping anti-woman discrimination.

But these measures had little effect. In early 1923 a debate over whether further measures should be taken to address these problems broke out among leading women cadre, including Vera Golubeva and Alexandra Kollontai, who argued that the scope of the party’s work among women should be widened. Golubeva, the deputy director of the Zhenotdel, argued that with the increasing unemployment among women, the party had to extend its reach into sectors of the population beyond the working class, drawing unemployed and peasant women into special (“transitional”) bodies of work linked to the party. The question was discussed at the April 1923 party congress.

In the end the Soviet government had no other choice but to resort to the NEP. The alternative, to maintain the policies of war communism in the conditions of social collapse, would have led to massive peasant revolt and counterrevolution. But the NEP brought its own dangers of that kind. As Trotsky said, “With the transfer to the NEP bourgeois tendencies received a more copious field of action” (The Revolution Betrayed). Even within the constraints imposed by national isolation and economic weakness, however, the degradation of women’s status was not preordained but was rather determined by a political struggle over changeable government policies.

In fact, the broader policies advocated by the Left Opposition could have opened the road to a real improvement in the situation of women even within the framework of the existing material conditions. The implementation of a systematic plan of industrialization as laid out by the Opposition in 1923 would have undercut the bourgeois tendencies fueled by the NEP, while greatly increasing the employment of women in industry and changing the functioning of factory managers. Discrimination against women workers in wages and employment was a manifestation of bureaucratic degeneration within the industrial managerial apparatus that could have been fought and reversed.

The “Sea of Peasant Stagnation”

The most intense conflicts between the goals of the Bolshevik Revolution for the liberation of women and the actual conditions of Russian society occurred in the countryside. The 1922 Land Code abolished private ownership of land, water, forests and minerals and placed all land in the hands of the state. By law all citizens regardless of sex, religion, or nationality had rights to the land, and each adult was to have a voice in the skhod or village assembly. The Family Code granted individuals the right to live apart from a spouse, to divorce, and to receive alimony and child support. Extreme poverty exacerbated the gap between law and life, making it almost impossible for many peasant households to pay women their legal due. As long as the family remained the basic unit of production, as long as patriarchy determined the institutions of village life, neither peasant women nor men could realize the individual freedom promised by Soviet civil law.

The contradictions could not be resolved by law; the problem was inherent in the very nature of the Russian Revolution. The relatively small proletariat was able to carry out its revolutionary dictatorship because it embraced the fight of the peasantry against feudal barbarism. But once in power the proletariat had to go beyond the bourgeois-democratic tasks posed by the abolition of tsarist absolutism. As Trotsky predicted even before the outbreak of the 1905 Revolution, in addressing such questions as the length of the working day, unemployment, and protection of the agricultural proletariat, “the antagonism between the component sections will grow in proportion as the policy of the workers’ government defines itself, ceasing to be a general-democratic and becoming a class policy” (Results and Prospects [1906]). The deepgoing process of uprooting feudalistic social relations in the countryside required a huge investment of resources to build the necessary infrastructure of schools, roads and hospitals, as well as the mechanization of agriculture. The Bolsheviks looked to workers revolution in the advanced European countries, which could provide the technological resources to enable the Russian proletariat to prove the benefits of collectivized agriculture to the peasant masses.

The Commissariat of Justice set up several commissions to investigate the tangled problems facing women and children in the countryside. The jurists upheld their commitment to equal rights in the face of powerful peasant opposition. For example, land ownership was based on the male-dominated family unit (dvor), and alimony was awarded based on family assets. Faced with a demand for alimony, peasants developed ruses for avoiding payments by creating a fictitious division of the family unit, thus reducing the extent of property that the court could award a divorced woman. Officials in the Commissariats of Land and Justice repeatedly refused to accede to peasant demands to abolish divorce and alimony, and continued to support the rights of the vulnerable, the weak, and the landless peasant woman. The Land and Family Codes established rights for women that could result in smaller farm plots and decreased production, at a time when increasing grain production was a state priority. The Moscow commission declared: “To agree that the dvor should bear no responsibility for alimony means to flood our Soviet law in a sea of peasant stagnation” (quoted in Goldman, op. cit.).

Despite the difficulties, the laws, enforced by the Soviet state, did have an impact. Melnikova, an impoverished batrachka thrown out of her husband’s dvor, came to the judge saying, “I heard in the village that now there was this law that they could no longer insult women in this way” (quoted in ibid.). While there was often much resistance based on fear, ignorance and the inertia of tradition, once they were functioning, the institutions and changes in daily life throughout the early and middle 1920s gained the increasing support of the peasantry, especially the women.

A small but significant minority of peasant women found their lives transformed by the party’s educational efforts, the activities of the Zhenotdel and their new legal rights. Delegates at one women’s congress spoke proudly of their struggle as single women to retain their share of the land, to attend meetings of the skhod, and to organize agricultural cooperatives for women. Mothers of illegitimate children and divorced peasant women defied centuries of patriarchal tradition to fight the household in court for the right to child support and alimony.

Problems of Everyday Life

In 1923, a discussion developed within the Bolshevik Party on the question of how to improve the quality of byt (daily life). This seemingly mundane issue cuts to the heart of the struggle to create wholly new economic and social relations. At its core is the question of the emancipation of women, which is the political prism for “everyday relations” in a broader social sense. No other question reaches so far into the daily life of the masses, weighed down by centuries of custom, habits of social deference and religious reaction, especially in a backward, impoverished country as was Russia in the early 20th century—comparable to Iran or India today. As Trotsky said two years later, “The most accurate way of measuring our advance is by the practical measures which are being carried out for the improvement of the position of mother and child…. The depth of the question of the mother is expressed in the fact that she is, in essence, a living point where all the decisive strands of economic and cultural work intersect” (“To Build Socialism Means to Emancipate Women and Protect Mothers,” December 1925, Women and the Family).

Even party members, shamefully, sometimes derided the Zhenotdel as “bab-kom” or “tsentro-baba” (baba is a derogatory term for woman). Zetkin recalls Lenin saying:

“Our communist work among the masses of women, and our political work in general, involves considerable educational work among the men. We must root out the old slave-owner’s point of view, both in the Party and among the masses. That is one of our political tasks, a task just as urgently necessary as the formation of a staff composed of comrades, men and women, with thorough theoretical and practical training for Party work among working women.”

—Zetkin, “My Recollections of Lenin”

Neither the social reorganization nor the material conditions yet existed to inaugurate a new and higher order of family life, which in any case would require some generations to evolve. Indeed, the equality of women, in a social sense, may well be the last emancipation to be fully achieved in a classless society, just as women’s oppression was the first non-class social subordination in history.

Trotsky began to write a series of essays on the question of byt, such as “From the Old Family to the New” and “Vodka, the Church, and the Cinema” (both dated July 1923), later collected in one volume as Problems of Everyday Life. Of course, he emphasized the importance of material abundance in the achievement of “culture,” which he defined not in the narrow sense of literature and art, but as all fields of human endeavor. Only in an advanced communist society can one truly speak of “choice” and “freedom.” Meanwhile, however, Trotsky advocated the encouragement of voluntary initiatives in daily life.

Trotsky’s writings provoked a sharp rebuttal from Polina Vinogradskaia, a member of the Zhenotdel, who argued that the problem could be reduced to lack of initiative from the government and opposed opening a wider discussion on byt. But Trotsky insisted that such a discussion was a necessary part of social development:

“The material foundations inherited from the past are part of our way of life, but so is a new psychological attitude. The culinary-domestic aspect of things is part of the concept of the family, but so are the mutual relationships between husband, wife, and child as they are taking shape in the circumstances of Soviet society—with new tasks, goals, rights, and obligations for the husbands and children….

“The object of acquiring conscious knowledge of everyday life is precisely so as to be able to disclose graphically, concretely, and cogently before the eyes of the working masses themselves the contradictions between the outgrown material shell of the way of life and the new relationships and needs which have arisen.”

—“Against Bureaucracy, Progressive and Unprogressive,” August 1923, Problems of Everyday Life

In the revolutionary process the working masses were not simply passive objects, but necessary actors. Trotsky suggested, for example, that more forward-looking people “group themselves even now into collective housekeeping units,” posing this as “the first, still very incomplete approximations to a communist way of life” (“From the Old Family to the New”). While such pro-socialist initiatives were not central in the political struggle against the Stalinist degeneration of the party and state, they were entirely possible within the difficult reality of Soviet Russia in the 1920s.

The Degeneration of the Revolution

These 1923 debates on how to deal with the excruciating contradiction between the communist program for women’s liberation and the terrible material want in the country took place on the cusp of the decisive battle over the degeneration of the revolution. The poverty of the country created strong pressures toward bureaucratic deformations. Social inequalities under the NEP only exacerbated the pressures. As Trotsky later explained in his seminal work on the Stalinist degeneration:

“The basis of bureaucratic rule is the poverty of society in objects of consumption, with the resulting struggle of each against all. When there is enough goods in a store, the purchasers can come whenever they want to. When there is little goods, the purchasers are compelled to stand in line. When the lines are very long, it is necessary to appoint a policeman to keep order. Such is the starting point of the power of the Soviet bureaucracy. It ‘knows’ who is to get something and who has to wait.”

The Revolution Betrayed

Eventually and inevitably, these material pressures found expression within the Bolshevik Party itself. Stalin, who was appointed General Secretary of the party in March 1922, substantially increased the wages, benefits and material privileges of party officials, and became the exponent of the interests of the new bureaucratic layer. Soon after Stalin’s appointment, Lenin suffered a major stroke; he returned to work for only a few months in late 1922, when he urged Trotsky to wage a resolute struggle against the influence of the growing bureaucratic layer within the party (see “A Critical Balance Sheet: Trotsky and the Russian Left Opposition,” Spartacist No. 56, Spring 2001). A series of strokes beginning in December left Lenin incapacitated until his death in January 1924.

Stalin joined with fellow Political Bureau members Leon Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev in a secret “triumvirate” within the Soviet leadership, working assiduously to block the ascension of Trotsky. Trotsky understood that the alliance between the workers and peasants would remain fragile as long as the Soviet regime could not provide industrial and consumer goods to the peasants at low cost. Thus he advocated increased investment in heavy industry and centralized government planning. The bureaucracy resisted this, preferring to let the NEP run its course, and increasingly bending to the economic pressures of the kulaks and NEPmen.

In the summer of 1923 growing economic discontent erupted in strikes in Moscow and Petrograd. In a series of letters to the Central Committee, Trotsky demanded that the party open an immediate campaign against bureaucratism, and that it develop a plan for industrial investment. Forty-six leading party members (including the woman military leader Evgeniia Bosh) signed a declaration along similar lines. There was an outpouring of support for the loose, anti-bureaucratic opposition and the proposed “New Course” in the pages of the party newspaper, Pravda.

At the same time a revolutionary crisis in Germany held out the possibility of a workers revolution there, giving hope that the isolation of the Soviet workers state would soon end. When Zinoviev’s Communist International leadership and the German Communist Party failed to seize the revolutionary opportunity that opened up in the summer of 1923 and ignominiously called off a planned insurrection in late October, demoralization swept Russia (see “A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern,” Spartacist No. 56, Spring 2001).

In the ensuing party discussion, the triumvirate pulled out every stop to destroy the Opposition. The elections to the 13th Party Conference, held in January 1924, were so rigged that, despite strong support from party organizations in Petrograd, Moscow and some smaller towns, Trotsky and his supporters won just three out of 124 delegates. The triumvirate’s victory at this conference marked the decisive point in the degeneration of the revolution. After Lenin’s death that same month, the triumvirate opened a mass membership campaign (the “Lenin levy”), allowing politically backward workers, assorted careerists, NEPmen and other unsuitable elements into the party. This began the process that would transform the party from a conscious proletarian vanguard into a capricious bureaucratic apparatus at the top of the Soviet state.

At the end of 1924, the bureaucratic victory took programmatic shape as Stalin promulgated the absurd idea that the USSR could build socialism on its own, without revolutions in other countries. Over the next decade and a half, the Soviet bureaucracy zigzagged between outright conciliation of the various imperialist powers and heedless adventurism bound for defeat, but the theory of “socialism in one country” was the mainstay of evolving Stalinist dogma. The Communist International was transformed from a party seeking international workers revolution into one acting as a tool of Kremlin diplomacy.

Within the USSR itself, the bureaucracy began to relax the original NEP legislation which, while allowing free trade in agricultural produce, had severely restricted the hiring of labor and acquisition of land. Socialism was to be built in the USSR “at a snail’s pace,” in the words of Nikolai Bukharin, now allied with Stalin. The conciliation of the NEP petty traders and backward peasant dvor had serious and detrimental consequences for Soviet women and children. In April 1924 an order to place teenagers in agriculture was promulgated. The provision against adoption was reversed in practice. In 1926, some 19,000 homeless children were expelled from state-funded children’s homes and placed in extended peasant households to plow with a centuries-old wooden plow, and to reap with a sickle and scythe.

From mid 1926 to late 1927, Trotsky joined with Zinoviev and Kamenev, who, responding to their proletarian bases in Leningrad (formerly Petrograd) and Moscow, had broken with Stalin. The United Opposition (UO) fought against the policies of “socialism in one country” and for a perspective of international revolution. Along with a tax on the kulaks to fund investment in heavy industry, the UO fought for a policy of voluntary collectivization of the peasantry and “the systematic and gradual introduction of this most numerous peasant group [the middle peasants] to the benefits of large-scale, mechanized, collective agriculture” (“The Platform of the Opposition,” September 1927, in Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition [1926-27] [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1980]).

From 1924 on, the Zhenotdel was directly involved in party factional struggles; many prominent activists supported the Opposition, including Zhenotdel head Klavdiia Nikolaeva. She was replaced in 1925 by Stalin supporter Alexandra Artiukhina. During the fight against Zinoviev and his Leningrad organization, Artiukhina mobilized Zhenotdel workers for the Stalin faction in order to keep a “united, solid, disciplined Leninist Party” (quoted in Hayden, op. cit.). Artiukhina asserted that from the slogan “equality” women workers might get the idea that they should receive the same wages as more highly skilled male workers, and argued that the Zhenotdel should undertake to explain to them why wage differentials were necessary. In sharp contrast, the United Opposition’s platform called for women workers to receive “equal pay for equal work” and for “provision to be made for women workers to learn skilled trades” (“The Platform of the Opposition”).

Stalin’s firm control of the party and state apparatus allowed him to vilify and then crush the UO, most of whose leading members were expelled from the party in late 1927. While Zinoviev and Kamenev capitulated to Stalin, Trotsky and many other leading UO members were sent into internal exile. The bureaucratization of internal party life had a demoralizing effect on the Zhenotdel. As of 1927, attendance at delegate meetings dropped off sharply—as low as 40 to 60 percent of potential attendees compared to 80 to 95 percent previously.

The Family Code of 1926

The bureaucratization of the Soviet party and state was not a swift, unitary process. It took years for the bureaucracy to fully stifle revolutionary consciousness, which also weakened in the face of the devastation of the country. The passionate debate over the Family Code of 1926 is just one example of the intensive public discussion that was still taking place in some sectors of Soviet political life. The Bolsheviks recognized that social relations would continue to evolve after the revolution. Drafted deliberately as a transitional set of laws, the 1918 Family Code was never considered to be definitive. Debate and discussion on family policy continued to simmer throughout the period of the Civil War and NEP. In 1923 a committee was formed to draft a new code. In October 1925, after a number of drafts and intense public debate, a draft was presented to the CEC. There followed another year of nationwide discussion.

The 1926 Family Code marks a midpoint in the degeneration of Soviet family policy from the liberating ferment of the early revolutionary years to the Stalinist rehabilitation of the institution of the family in 1936. By 1925-26, arguments for the abolition of all marriage codes had ebbed. Instead, proponents of looser policies such as recognizing “de facto” (common law) marriage clashed with more conservative forces. Predominantly from the peasantry, the advocates of a stricter civil code also included some working-class women who spoke for the vulnerability of women and children in a society where the full replacement of the family with socialized methods was not yet possible.

Changes from the 1918 law in the 1926 Family Code included extending alimony payments to the able-bodied unemployed, as opposed to the disabled only, and adding joint rights for property acquired in the course of marriage, as opposed to the earlier stipulation that spouses retain only their own property. The 1926 Code also made divorce even easier: the “postcard divorce” was the simple filing of the wish to dissolve the marriage on the part of one of the parties; the requirement of an appearance in court was dropped. The greatest controversy was provoked over government recognition of de facto marriage, that is, to grant the same legal status to people living together in unregistered relationships as to officially married couples.

The juridical difficulty centered on the problem of defining marriage, outside of the civil registration of same, because, naturally, once you got into the courtroom, a man and a woman could well disagree on whether a marriage existed. Forty-five percent of alimony suits were brought by unmarried women abandoned at pregnancy.

For many women, less skilled, less educated, and less able to command a decent wage or even a job, easy divorce too often meant abandonment to poverty and misery for themselves and their children by a husband exercising his right to “free union.” Their condition of dependency could not be resolved by easy divorce laws in the absence of jobs, education and decent, state-supported childcare facilities. As one explained in a Rabotnitsa article, “Women, in the majority of cases, are more backward, less qualified, and therefore less independent than men.... To marry, to bear children, to be enslaved by the kitchen, and then to be thrown aside by your husband—this is very painful for women. This is why I am against easy divorce.” Another noted, “We need to struggle for the preservation of the family. Alimony is necessary as long as the state cannot take all children under its protection” (quoted in Wendy Z. Goldman, “Working-Class Women and the ‘Withering Away’ of the Family,” in Russia in the Era of NEP, ed. Fitzpatrick, Rabinowitch and Stites [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991]). These excruciating contradictions underline the stark truth that the family must be replaced and cannot be simply abolished.

While the differences over the proposed Code were not clearly between the Right and Left, the discussion paralleled the general debates in the party and similarly reflected the pressures of class forces. Those opposed to the draft Code tended to reflect the influence of the peasantry, which adamantly opposed recognition of de facto marriage and easy divorce as a threat to the stability and economic unity of the household and a product of “conniving females,” “social and moral chaos,” and “debauchery” (Goldman, Women, the State and Revolution).

The United Opposition did not have a formal position on the Code, as far as we know; but Oppositionists took part in the debate. Alexander Beloborodov, who was expelled from the party with Trotsky in 1927, had many reservations about the Code; he was particularly concerned about the effect of family instability on children “in so far as we are unable to arrange for community education for children and demand that the children be brought up in the family” (quoted in Rudolph Schlesinger, Changing Attitudes in Soviet Russia: The Family in the U.S.S.R. [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1949]). Trotsky himself denounced opposition to the recognition of de facto marriage in a 7 December 1925 speech to the Third All-Union Conference on Protection of Mothers and Children:

“Comrades, this [opposition] is so monstrous that it makes you wonder: Are we really in a society transforming itself in a socialist manner…? Here the attitude to woman is not only not communist, but reactionary and philistine in the worst sense of the word. Who could think that the rights of woman, who has to bear the consequences of every marital union, however transitory, could be too zealously guarded in our country?... It is symptomatic and bears witness to the fact that, in our traditional views, concepts and customs, there is much that is truly thick-headed and that needs to be smashed with a battering ram.”

—Trotsky, “The Protection of Motherhood and the Struggle for Culture,” Women and the Family

Forced Collectivization and the Five Year Plan

By 1928, the bureaucracy’s policies of encouraging the kulaks to “enrich” themselves had brought the disaster predicted by the Opposition: the wealthy peasants had begun hoarding grain, having no incentive to sell to the state since there was nothing much they could buy with the proceeds. Unable to feed the cities, Stalin did an about-face. He turned on his ally Bukharin and forcibly collectivized half the peasants in the country in the space of four months. The peasants responded by sabotage, killing farm animals, including more than 50 percent of the horses in the country. During the ensuing social upheaval through the early 1930s more than three million people died.

At the same time, Stalin abandoned the policy of building socialism “at a snail’s pace” and adopted a desperately needed plan for industrialization, albeit accelerated to a reckless and murderous pace. The resulting economic development brought about a qualitative change in the conditions of working women. To enable them to work, childcare centers and cafeterias sprang up overnight in neighborhoods and factories. “Down with the kitchen!” cried one propagandist:

“We shall destroy this little penitentiary! We shall free millions of women from house-keeping. They want to work like the rest of us. In a factory-kitchen, one person can prepare from fifty to one hundred dinners a day. We shall force machines to peel potatoes, wash the dishes, cut the bread, stir the soup, make ice cream.”

“The saucepan is the enemy of the party cell” and “Away with pots and pans” became party watchwords (quoted in Stites, Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia).

However, economic planning in the USSR was not based on the democratic input of the workers, but on bureaucratic fiat. While the gains of industrialization were enormous, they were at the cost of quality of goods and with great bureaucratic inefficiency. Despite these problems, the Soviet Union was the only country in the 20th century to develop from a backward, overwhelmingly peasant country to an advanced industrial power. This is confirmation of the tremendous impetus to human well-being—not least the status of women—that results from the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of a collectivized, planned economy, even in a single country. It was only because of this industrial development that the USSR was able to beat back the assault of Hitler’s armies in World War II, though at the cost of 27 million Soviet lives. At the same time the bureaucracy clogged society’s every pore, leading to waste, repression and caprice, while working to prevent the international extension of the revolution, which could be the only real, long-term defense of the gains of October.

Despite the real strides forward made by women through industrialization, the bureaucracy had abandoned the communist commitment to fight for women’s liberation. It used the rhetorical adventurism of the period to cover its retreat. Grotesquely, the government announced in 1930 that the woman question had been officially resolved. At the same time the Zhenotdel was liquidated; the prelude to this had been the abolition in 1926 of the International Women’s Secretariat, which was downgraded to the women’s department of the Comintern Executive Committee. The Zhenotdel’s liquidation was put forward in the guise of a party “reorganization” in 1929, with the claim that work among women would become the work of the party as a whole. But these words, borrowed from the revolutionary years, were now only a cover for inaction and retreat.

1936 and the Triumph of the “Socialist Family”

In 1929 the Communist Party was still calling for the withering away of the family. By 1936-37, when the Russian CP’s degeneration was complete, Stalinist doctrine pronounced this a “crude mistake” and called for a “reconstruction of the family on a new socialist basis.” The third Family Code, which became law in 1936, also made divorce more difficult, requiring an appearance in court, increased fees and the registration of the divorce on the divorcees’ internal passports, to prevent “a criminally irresponsible use of this right, which disorganizes socialist community life” (Schlesinger, The Family in the U.S.S.R.).

The official glorification of family life and the retreat from Bolshevik policies on divorce and abortion were an integral part of the political counterrevolution that usurped political power from the working class. Trotsky addressed this at length:

“The triumphal rehabilitation of the family, taking place simultaneously—what a providential coincidence!—with the rehabilitation of the ruble, 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 realize 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.”

The Revolution Betrayed

Repudiating the Bolshevik commitment to noninterference in people’s personal lives, the theory of the “extinction of family” was declared as leading to sexual debauchery, while praise of “good housewives” began to appear in the Soviet press by the mid 1930s. A 1936 Pravda editorial denounced a housing plan without individual kitchens as a “left deviation” and an attempt to “artificially introduce communal living.” As Trotsky said, “The retreat not only assumes forms of disgusting hypocrisy, but also is going infinitely farther than the iron economic necessity demands.”

To the great hardship of Soviet women, the 1936 Family Code criminalized abortion, and the death rate from abortions soared. At the same time, the government began to issue “heroine awards” to women with large numbers of children, while officials decreed that in the Soviet Union “life is happy” and only selfishness impels women to abortion. The 1944 Family Code withdrew the recognition of de facto marriage, restored the humiliating concept of “legitimacy,” abolished coeducation in the schools and banned paternity suits. Only in 1955 did abortion again become legal in the USSR.

1991-92: Capitalist Counterrevolution Tramples on Women

In the 1930s Trotsky predicted that the Kremlin bureaucracy would reach an impasse on the economic front when it became necessary to shift from crude quantitative increases to improvement in quality, from extensive to intensive growth. He called for “a revision of planned economy from top to bottom in the interests of producers and consumers” (Transitional Program, 1938). Reflecting in large part the unrelenting pressure of world imperialism on the Soviet workers state, these economic problems came to a head in the 1970s and 1980s.

Taking over where the moderate Mikhail Gorbachev shrank from the necessarily harsh measures of restoring a fully capitalist economy, Boris Yeltsin seized power in August 1991. Over the next year, in the absence of working-class resistance, capitalist counterrevolution triumphed in Russia, a world-historic defeat for the proletarian revolution. The USSR was broken up into mutually hostile nationalist regimes. Since then things have gotten far worse for everyone except a tiny minority at the top—but for women and children most of all. The vast majority of the population has been driven into dire poverty and chronic unemployment. The extensive system of childcare and help for mothers is gone, the besprizorniki are back, prostitution flourishes, and women in Central Asia have been thrown back centuries.

The International Communist League recognizes the harsh reality that political consciousness has retreated in the face of these unprecedented defeats. One of our key tasks is to struggle to explain and clarify the Marxist program, freeing it from the filth of Stalinist betrayals and the lies of capitalist ideologues. This study of the Bolshevik fight for the emancipation of women, showing how much could be achieved in spite of the poverty, imperialist strangulation and later Stalinist degeneration of the USSR, is a testimony to the promise that a world collective planned economy, born of new October Revolutions, holds out to the exploited and oppressed of the world. The breadth of our long-term historical view of the socialist future, a new way of life that can evolve only after ripping out the entrenched inequality and oppression bred by capitalist exploitation, was addressed by Trotsky:

“Marxism sets out from the development of technique as the fundamental spring of progress, and constructs the communist program upon the dynamic of the productive forces. If you conceive that some cosmic catastrophe is going to destroy our planet in the fairly near future, then you must, of course, reject the communist perspective along with much else. Except for this as yet problematic danger, however, there is not the slightest scientific ground for setting any limit in advance to our technical productive and cultural possibilities. Marxism is saturated with the optimism of progress, and that alone, by the way, makes it irreconcilably opposed to religion.

“The material premise of communism should be so high a development of the economic powers of man that productive labor, having ceased to be a burden, will not require any goad, and the distribution of life’s goods, existing in continual abundance, will not demand—as it does not now in any well-off family or ‘decent’ boardinghouse—any control except that of education, habit and social opinion.”

The Revolution Betrayed

English Spartacist No. 59

ESp 59

Spring 2006


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