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Workers Vanguard No. 1110

21 April 2017

From the Archives of Spartacist

The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women

Part Three

Continuing our commemoration of the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, we reprint below the third part of an article that originally appeared in the Women and Revolution pages of Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 59, Spring 2006. Parts One and Two (see WV Nos. 1108 and 1109 [24 March and 7 April]) explained how the early Russian workers state attempted to implement the promise of women’s emancipation, which is intrinsic to the fight for liberation of the working class as a whole. As part of this struggle, the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) established the Zhenotdel, a party department to address women’s needs.

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 [Konkordiia] 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Eubanks Hayden, Feminism and Bolshevism: The Zhenotdel and the Politics of Women’s Emancipation in Russia, 1917-1930, unpublished PhD dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1979).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 [rich peasants], 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 [Wendy] Goldman, Women, the State and Revolution

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,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 59, Spring 2006).

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 [Clara] 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 [Bolshevik leader Leon] 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 [led by Trotsky] 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 [a laborer hired for a season as a “wife” and discarded when pregnant] 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.



Workers Vanguard No. 1110

WV 1110

21 April 2017


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