Join the Socialist Party Join us today!

Printable version Printable version

Facebook   Twitter

Link to this page: https://secure.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/938/24806

From The Socialist newspaper, 1 March 2017

Lessons of the Russian revolution for women's struggle today

1920s Russian International Women's Day poster

1920s Russian International Women's Day poster   (Click to enlarge)

Corinthia Ward, Birmingham Socialist Party

The 1917 Russian revolution was a momentous moment in working class history, in which women played a pivotal and active role. It started with a strike by women textile workers on 8 March (International Women's Day - 23 February according to the calendar in use in Russia at the time).

Not able to take their impoverished conditions and food shortages anymore, they took spontaneous strike action using the slogan "bread and herrings". The women called on the metal workers to join them on their strike, to demand not only food but peace - an end to Russia's part in the devastatingly bloody World War One.

The Bolsheviks (the party which led the movement of workers and peasants to overthrow capitalism and landlordism in 1917) recognised the need to address issues that specifically affected women and to free them from the burden of work in the home. This was made a key feature in the Bolsheviks' political programme.

After the revolution, women experienced life like never before. Within a short time of the fall of the Tsar - under whose rule they had been severely oppressed and subject to a life of drudgery - women were able to access freedoms their counterparts in capitalist countries like Britain and Germany were years away from achieving.

Communal laundries and restaurants began to be established. They provided women with time each day that they had previously been robbed of, opening the possibility of families being able to spend quality time together, and for women to have more independence.

What may seem most surprising to modern audiences is that one of the benefits to come out of the revolution was free and legal abortions. Having control over their own bodies is still an issue many women are fighting for, even in what are regarded as 'advanced' capitalist countries, such as the US and Ireland.

Under Tsarism it wasn't unusual for women to give birth on the factory floor. The fact that a relatively short time later they had access to safe abortion illustrates what progress can be achieved when workers have democratic control over the running of their society.

Other important gains for women included the right to vote, equal pay for equal work, and the start of free childcare nurseries. Marriage became merely a legal proceeding and either partner could file for a divorce.

The Bolsheviks understood it wouldn't just be about giving women the same opportunities and rights as men but also about changing the sexist attitudes deeply embedded in society. In the cities and large towns, where many women had jobs in factories, the idea of women having lives outside of the family and of breaking from their 'traditional' roles gained support more easily, especially among younger women.

But in the countryside, the still largely feudal structure of society made it much harder to improve the lot of women. The Bolsheviks were determined to solve this by conscious campaigning to engage with women in the countryside, encouraging them to be active participants in creating a new society.

Zhenotdel

In 1919 the Zhenotdel, a special women's department, was set up to concentrate on these issues with women's 'commissions' to ensure women were involved at every level of both the Bolshevik party and society. The Zhenotdel addressed issues such as childcare, housing, public health and prostitution.

The department held conferences made up of working class and peasant women delegates. Young working class women were part of an outreach project with women in remote areas. Women were also seconded to other government departments and party work.

As most women during this period were illiterate, the Zhenotdel had to think up innovative ways to connect with them such as exhibitions, discussions and visual posters - as well as producing newspapers and journals for those who could read.

The efforts of the revolution meant every aspect of Russian life was being transformed, including sex and relationships. Young people began questioning expected personal arrangements and searching for new and meaningful ways to engage in living and relating to one another.

So what went wrong? Why is it that a country where women made important steps towards liberation in 1917, a hundred years later has recently passed legislation decriminalising domestic abuse?

photo Paul Mattsson

photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge)

The leaders of the Russian revolution from the beginning saw it as the first step in the struggle for socialism worldwide. They understood that the Soviet Union would not survive if it was left isolated.

If advanced capitalist countries like Britain and Germany had successful revolutions of their own, the huge resources of these countries could have been planned to meet the needs of all and to aid the development of socialism in the Soviet Union. But despite many big movements of workers inspired by events in Russia, this did not happen, due to the failings of workers' and socialist leaders internationally.

The capitalist classes around the world quarantined Russia in order to starve socialism to death. By 1920 Russia's output of manufactured goods was 12.9% of what it had been in 1913.

The post-revolution civil war and military attacks from capitalist, imperialist countries had ravished most of Russia's wealth and killed millions of workers and peasants. Food shortages meant millions also died from famine - in 1919-1920 alone the figure was seven and a half million.

These conditions started to unravel the hard work done by the Bolsheviks and the working class, including through the Zhenotdel. In the city of Petrograd (St Petersburg) by 1923 58% of those who were unemployed were women.

Even though women were legally able to divorce, many could not afford to leave the 'security' of the family and were therefore forced to stay in unhappy marriages.

Communal restaurants were never opened as widely in the countryside and so remained non-existent for many peasants. And even the ones in the cities were losing support. Food shortages meant the food being provided was of poor quality, making many turn away from it.

The Zhenotdel, which had taken good initiatives in raising women's consciousness and ensuring their needs were addressed by the party and the government, had started to disintegrate. Staff shortages and the effects of civil war meant the women who worked in the department themselves were exhausted and overburdened with work and family responsibilities.

In this situation it was inevitable that a bureaucratic caste would develop and take control, despite the heroic opposition of countless Russian workers, led by Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders of the revolution.

In Feruary (March in the new calendar) 1917 in Petrograd, Russia, a protest on International Women's Day against the unbearable social conditions caused by World War One, triggered the start of the Russian Revolution

In Feruary (March in the new calendar) 1917 in Petrograd, Russia, a protest on International Women's Day against the unbearable social conditions caused by World War One, triggered the start of the Russian Revolution   (Click to enlarge)

Stalinism

A small layer of the government, centred around Stalin, argued that rather than arguing for a socialist world, Russia should focus on developing itself alone. This bureaucratic elite was more concerned with maintaining its own position than working towards the democratic working class control of society.

Horrifically, any socialists who fought against this came to be witch-hunted by Stalin and his supporters.

The bureaucracy still presided over a planned economy, but did so in a top-down way instead of soviets (democratic workers' councils) being in control. The economy grew stronger, but the bureaucratic elite creamed off huge wealth at the expense of the majority; and without democracy, the quality of goods and services deteriorated.

The Stalinist regime consciously worked to reintroduce the institution of the home with defined gender roles, in part to condition people into 'knowing their place' and not questioning authority.

The communal facilities and nurseries were deliberately starved of investment and support. Abortion clinics were underfunded to the detriment of women's safety, which was then used as an excuse by the government to make abortion illegal once again.

Where posters had once been made to connect with illiterate women about liberating themselves, and artwork had depicted strong women for International Women's Day, Stalin used propaganda which could be compared to advertisements in the US.

Women were portrayed as beauties holding flowers and International Women's Day was turned into a day to buy the women in your life presents, not to remember the struggles women faced in shaping their society.

But in the early years of the revolution, a glimpse had been seen of what socialism could achieve, including for women. That has important lessons for today.

The recent 'women's marches' against Trump in various countries showed an angry mood against sexism, and also a big sense of internationalism and solidarity among those fighting against oppression. This movement and all struggles against inequality and reactionary ideas must be linked to the fight for international socialism.

We need to criticise the current system and how it effectively places women as second class citizens in order to exploit them.

But what is also needed is to offer an alternative. It is within the very nature of a system divided by class to divide people in other ways and have some groups more privileged than others - women will always be among those who pay a price for this.

Socialist society

A socialist society would involve all people having a say in how their workplace, their town, and their world is run. Through democratic collective ownership of the biggest sections of the economy, we would be able to meet the needs of the majority rather than only the profits of the tiny few. These factors could begin to end all oppression and exploitation.

In order to win socialist change, we need the participation of the mass of the working class. The way forward for all those determined to fight for genuine equality for women must therefore include linking with the workers' movement and fighting to end capitalism once and for all and to replace it with democratic, international socialism.

Further reading

Add 20% postage

Cheques to 'Socialist Books'

Available from leftbooks.co.uk

bookshop@socialistparty.org.uk

PO Box 24697, E11 1YD

020 8988 8789

Donate to the Socialist Party

Coronavirus crisis - Finance appeal

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

  • The Socialist Party's material is more vital than ever, so we can continue to report from workers who are fighting for better health and safety measures, against layoffs, for adequate staffing levels, etc.
  • Our 'fighting coronavirus workers' charter', outlines a programme to combat the virus and protect workers' living conditions.
  • When the health crisis subsides, we must be ready for the stormy events ahead and the need to arm workers' movements with a socialist programme - one which puts the health and needs of humanity before the profits of a few.
Inevitably, during the crisis we have not been able to sell the Socialist and raise funds in the ways we normally would.
We therefore urgently appeal to all our viewers to donate to our special coronavirus appeal.

Please donate here.

All payments are made through a secure server.

My donation

 

Your message: 

 


In The Socialist 1 March 2017:


Save #OurNHS

Build a movement to save our NHS

Reinstate the bursaries for student nurses now!

Grantham: 1,000 march for reopening of A&E

NHS England missing paperwork scandal

Heart centre closure consultation 'farce'

NHS v RBS


Socialist Party women

International Women's Day

Women's protests and walkouts around the world

Lessons of Russia 1917 for women's struggle today

Why I joined the Socialist Party

How black women fought racism and sexism at Nasa

Fight like Poplar's women councillors to change the lives of family carers


What we think

Byelections: Break with Labour Blairism wasn't on offer


Socialist Party feature

Debates on building the anti-Trump movement


Workplace news and analysis

"I worked from 9am to 11.30pm with only one break"

Warehouse workers walk out over pay and pensions

Derby teaching assistants continue fight against 6,000 a year pay cut

Picturehouse strikers blockade Leicester Square

Ford workers demand answers to Bridgend plant sourcing questions

Hearing into alleged rule-breaking by Unison ends

Leeds: Protest against tip stealing

Mixed Fleet cabin crew announce more strike days

RMT plans protest against 'driver only' Merseyrail trains

Southern Rail strike continues

May Day greetings in the Socialist


Socialist Party reports and campaigns

Unions demand that Corbyn-supporting mayor protects services

Bristol cuts: the fight goes on

Tower Hamlets: There is an alternative, Mr Biggs

Spelthorne: we need socialist councillors

York University: socialists prevent far-right hate speech

Socialist Party Wales conference report

Northern region Socialist Party conference


Socialist readers' comments and reviews

The Socialist Inbox

What we saw


 

Home   |   The Socialist 1 March 2017   |   Join the Socialist Party

Subscribe   |   Donate   |   Audio  |   PDF  |   ebook






Related links:

Russian revolution:

triangle100 years since the foundation of the Communist Party of Great Britain

triangleHackney & Islington Socialist Party: The Russian Revolution's 'July Days'

triangleEast London Socialist Party: Russian Revolution 1917

triangleCardiff West Socialist Party: Anniversary of the Russian Revolution

triangleChinese revolution of 1944-49: 'The second greatest event in human history'

Women:

triangleDoncaster: Vigil for murdered women

triangleSexist dismissal of women's health: NHS needs democratic control

triangle20 days. One town. Four domestic violence murders.

triangleDomestic violence murder

Russian:

triangleTV Review: Chernobyl - Workers' heroism vs sclerotic Stalinism

triangleInternational round-up

triangleSupport for Putin's regime dips over major attacks on state pensions

Revolution:

triangleCuba: Covid-19 and the 60-year-old embargo

triangleReform or revolt? How was the slave trade abolished?

Workers:

triangleSocialist Party & Unison NEC member Hugo Pierre (centre), alongside others, taking part in the 8 August health workers' protests for a 15% pay increase. Photo Sarah SE

Socialism:

triangleCaerphilly and RCT Socialist Party: Socialism in the 21st century

Russia:

triangleBooks that inspired me: The Mother

Bolsheviks:

triangleLeon Trotsky's struggle against Stalinism

Trotsky:

triangleCWI rally: 80 years since the murder of Leon Trotsky

Stalin:

triangleBirmingham Socialist Party: The struggle against Stalin

Lenin:

triangleThe Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it "fanned the flames of revolt"

Abortion:

triangleCardiff East Socialist Party: Abortion rights

Pay:

triangleCampaign stalls on jobs, pay, NHS and racism

Soviet Union:

triangleAnniversary of nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Oppression:

triangleInternational Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

Nurseries:

triangleWhat will we do if they cut Camden nurseries?

Sexism:

triangleInternational Women's Day: Fighting sexism and austerity

Stalinism:

triangleBirmingham Socialist Party: The collapse of stalinism

Prostitution:

triangleUniversal Credit forces women into prostitution

Housing:

triangleA-level results day 2020: Fight for our future!

Equal pay:

triangleHomerton hospital workers deserve equal pay and conditions

Marriage:

triangleRoyal wedding opulence... during longest pay squeeze in 200 years

Historic events

Historic events

22/7/20

Britain

100 years since the foundation of the Communist Party of Great Britain

15/7/20

Bosnia

How capitalist restoration led to war and 'ethnic cleansing' in the Balkans

1/7/20

Labour

75th anniversary of the Attlee Labour government

24/6/20

Civil rights

Lessons from the Black Panthers

17/6/20

Slave trade

Reform or revolt? How was the slave trade abolished?

10/6/20

US

Roosevelt's New Deal programme - reforms to save capitalism

27/5/20

Britain

1920s Britain: A "country nearer Bolshevism than at any time since"

27/5/20

Lucas Aerospace

The 'Lucas Plan'

13/5/20

War

A new world order - global reconstruction after World War Two

13/5/20

War

The Spanish Flu of 1918 and how it "fanned the flames of revolt"

13/5/20

Europe

'Victory in Europe' 75th anniversary: A resurgent workers' movement and the fight for socialism

6/5/20

Obituary

Peter Hadden remembered

6/5/20

Tyneside

The Tyneside apprentices' strike during WW2

29/4/20

May Day

130 Years of May Day in Britain: Fight for workers' rights more relevant than ever

29/4/20

War

No return to the 1930s: World War Two and 'a land fit for heroes'

triangleMore Historic events articles...


Join the Socialist Party
Subscribe to Socialist Party publications
Donate to the Socialist Party
Socialist Party Facebook page
Socialist Party on Twitter
Visit us on Youtube

LATEST POSTS

CONTACT US

Phone our national office on 020 8988 8777

Email: info@socialistparty.org.uk

Locate your nearest Socialist Party branch Text your name and postcode to 07761 818 206

Regional Socialist Party organisers:

Eastern: 079 8202 1969

East Mids: 077 3797 8057

London: 075 4018 9052

North East: 078 4114 4890

North West 079 5437 6096

South West: 077 5979 6478

Southern: 078 3368 1910

Wales: 079 3539 1947

West Mids: 024 7655 5620

Yorkshire: 077 0671 0041

ABOUT US

ARCHIVE

Alphabetical listing


August 2020

July 2020

June 2020

May 2020

April 2020

March 2020

February 2020

January 2020

2019

2018

2017

2016

2015

2014

2013

2012

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

2006

2005

2004

2003

2002

2001

2000

1999