Workers Vanguard No. 1057

28 November 2014


Honoring Antoinette Konikow, Pioneer Trotskyist

BOSTON—On November 15, four days before the 145th anniversary of the birth of revolutionary Marxist Antoinette Konikow, supporters of the International Communist League gathered to celebrate her life and fighting spirit at her grave in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. With decades of experience in the international workers movement, Konikow helped found what would become the Communist Party (CP) in the U.S. Later, she was expelled from the CP for supporting Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky’s fight against the degeneration of the Comintern that accompanied the rise in the Soviet Union of the parasitic bureaucracy headed by Stalin. As part of her role in building American Trotskyism, Konikow, a physician, championed women’s rights, notably by promoting birth control in a nation mired in reaction. The graveside tribute below, edited for publication, was followed by some additional comments from those assembled and the singing of the “Internationale.”

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We are here today to honor the life of Antoinette Konikow during the anniversary month of both her birth and the Russian Revolution, which so inspired her and millions around the world. The International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) sees Konikow as both a pioneer Trotskyist and a fighter for women’s rights.

Born in tsarist Russia, she joined Plekhanov’s Emancipation of Labor group as a teenage student in Switzerland. She later emigrated to the United States in 1893. For nearly 60 years, with Marxist compass in hand, Konikow stood for the correct program in the major fights of the socialist movement.

She joined the Socialist Labor Party in 1893, and was expelled in 1897 for her opposition to its bureaucratic practices. Already speaking five languages, she learned Yiddish to become a more effective organizer among immigrant Jewish workers. In 1901, she was a founding member of the Socialist Party of America. During World War I, she toured the U.S., inspired by German Marxist leader Karl Liebknecht’s courageous opposition to social patriotism.

She threw her support to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and became a founding member of the American Communist movement in 1919. Against the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union, she was one of the first in the American CP to support Trotsky’s Left Opposition and recruited five other Boston party members to its views.

After James P. Cannon’s faction in the CP was expelled in 1928 for supporting the Left Opposition, Konikow was summoned to appear before the CP’s Political Committee. She wrote a defiant letter to CP secretary Jay Lovestone, stating: “I did work for Trotsky’s ideals and tried to arouse sentiment for the Opposition in our party, and I consider I have the full right to do so according to the party’s stand on inner party democracy. But it is useless to expect your committee to accept this viewpoint, for your leadership would not last long under rules of real democracy in our party. I consider that the party has taken an outrageously wrong standing on the Trotsky situation in Soviet Russia. This stand is a result of the servile submission to the Stalin faction.”

Lovestone in his uniquely nasty manner said after reading Konikow’s letter to the November 2 meeting of the Committee: “It is obvious from her letter that she is the worst kind of a Trotskyite, biologically as well as politically. The sooner we throw her out the better for the party.” Konikow, a medical doctor and a pioneer of birth control, was unanimously expelled by the Political Committee. Upon her expulsion, she formed the Independent Communist League here in Boston in 1928. That organization later merged with the expelled Cannon faction to found the Communist League of America, which was later to become the Socialist Workers Party.

Konikow was always a stalwart fighter for women’s rights. In 1923, she published the handbook Voluntary Motherhood, the first birth control manual by an American physician, written to educate her primarily female immigrant patients. It sold more than 10,000 copies in its first three editions. She was repeatedly hounded by Boston authorities for her work on birth control, and in 1928 she was arrested for exhibiting contraceptives in public. On her own initiative, Konikow traveled to the Soviet Union in 1926 to introduce an inexpensive contraceptive jelly she had developed with John G. Wright, a chemist who was also her son-in-law and comrade and later one of Trotsky’s translators. In 1931, she published Physicians’ Manual of Birth Control to address the widespread ignorance in the medical profession itself.

In November 1938, there was a celebration of Konikow’s 50 years as a revolutionary Marxist. She was presented with a signed picture of Trotsky, who wrote: “We are proud, my dear Antoinette, to have you in our ranks. You are a beautiful example of energy and devotion for our youth. I embrace you with the wish: Long Live Antoinette Konikow. Yours fraternally, Leon Trotsky, Oct. 28, 1938, Coyoacán.”

I will end with two quotes from her speech at that meeting; the words still jump off the page today.

“In 1888, fifty years ago, I joined the Social Democratic Party of Russia. Life was as dark and hopeless as it may seem to many today. I was delighted to hear the words of Plekhanov at the first congress of the Second International: ‘Only the working class will lead the Russian revolution!’ But the working class of Russia was spiritually even further away from us than the workers of the United States today. If anyone had told us at that time that 15 years later a strike of one and a half million workers would almost overthrow Czarism, and that 15 years after that the Russian soldier would turn his gun not only against Czarism but against the Russian bourgeoisie, we would not have believed it. We would have laughed. But it happened—and it will happen again. Only this time it will not take 30 years.”

To the youth in the room that day, she said: “We place in your hands a banner unsoiled. Many times it was dragged into the mud. We lifted it up and lovingly cleansed it to give it to you. Under the red banner of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, you will conquer.”

On this day, at her grave, we honor the memory of Antoinette Konikow.