Socialist Revolution, Women’s Liberation, and the Withering Away of the Family

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Some say that Marxism is only interested in economic problems and ignores oppression. But the Russian Revolution showed how Marxists tried to end women’s oppression by socializing reproductive work. They believed relationships should be based exclusively on love, not social coercion.

In college, I read a lot of theorists who called Marxism “class reductionist.” They claimed that socialism only attacks economic problems and ignores oppression. But, as I began to study Marxism, I found these oft-repeated tropes about Marx only addressing class are far from the truth. 

From the very beginning, Marxists have taken up the question of gender oppression — sometimes with more clarity, sometimes with less, but always discussing it. A brief overview: In 1879, August Bebel wrote Woman and Socialism. In 1884, Friedrich Engels wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in which he traces the roots of gender oppression to the creation of private property. He argues that there is nothing biological about patriarchy, monogamy, or the two-parent family unit. Later, Clara Zetkin was the editor of the German Social Democratic Party’s women’s newspaper Equality. She fought for women to become subjects of the struggle against capitalism and patriarchy. 

But for me, it is the Russian Revolution that best illustrates Marxist ideas made reality in relation to the fight against sexism and for women’s rights. It demonstrates that for leading Marxist thinkers such as Lenin and Trotsky, revolution alone was insufficient to rid society of patriarchy. Rather, revolution was just the beginning of a profound social transformation of women’s role in society, as well as a transformation of all social values and culture. This is demonstrated by the laws enacted by the Bolshevik Party that led the revolution, as well as the broad debates about women’s rights within the party. 

Yet, as Lenin put it, equality in law does not mean equality in life. As a result of the civil war that followed the revolution, and the international isolation of the first workers’ state, the economic conditions for women’s equality did not exist. Under these dire circumstances, Stalinism took hold, erasing workers’ victories and especially women’s victories won in the Russian Revolution. The emergence of Stalinism created the false idea that Marxism, and socialism more broadly, are unconcerned with sexism and patriarchy. 

Women as the Spark for the Russian Revolution

The context of the Russian Revolution of 1917 is one of complete misery for the country and its people. Russia had gone through a series of wars: with Japan in 1904-05, a failed revolution in 1905, and World War I in 1914. During the World War, prices went up 131% in Moscow and women spent hours waiting in the biting cold for basic necessities like wheat and sugar. 

Marx believed that the socialist revolution would begin in advanced industrialized nations. Russia, however, lagged far behind the economic and productive power of countries such as Germany. Peasants made up 80% of the population — mostly illiterate and isolated from the political debates in the cities. Peasant life was based on a strict division of labor and women were taught to be obedient to their father and later their husband. It was only after 1914 that women were allowed to separate from their husband, but only with a man’s permission; likewise, women could only get a passport or a job with a man’s permission. 

There was a small but strong proletariat in Russia’s cities. World War I played an important role in increasing the weight of women workers in the Russian proletariat: as men went off to war, more and more women joined the workforce. Women made up 26.6 percent of the workforce in 1914, but nearly half (43.4 percent) by 1917. On top of the miserable working conditions, women industrial workers also faced gendered inequality. They earned lower wages and were not allowed to organize in the same unions as their male colleagues.

However, women were the spark that ignited the Russian Revolution which would topple the Tsar and create the conditions for the Bolsheviks to take power. In late February 1917, the women in Petrograd factories left their workplaces, going to neighboring factories calling on the men to also leave their jobs and join the strike. The Bolshevik newspaper Pravda stated, “The first day of the revolution — that is the Women’s Day, the day of the Women’s Workers International! All honor to the International! The women were the first to tread the streets of Petrograd on that day!”

After the February Revolution, workers organized delegate assemblies, called soviets, to make decisions about the burgeoning movement. Women participated in the soviets, although to a lesser degree than men. The Bolshevik paper Rabotnitsa (The Woman Worker) was relaunched in May 1917 and discussed equality of the sexes, as well as the need for the state to provide communal facilities for taking care of household chores, traditionally imposed on women. 

The stage for the October Revolution, which ended the provisional government and brought about the world’s first workers’ state, was prepared by women’s radical activism. It was the tireless organizing work of Bolshevik women such as Alexandra Kollontai that allowed the Bolsheviks to win over the majority in the soviets and take power in the October Revolution. Women also participated in the October Revolution by providing medical help and even joining the Red Guard. 

What Did the Bolsheviks Think About Women’s Issues? 

The Bolsheviks saw women’s role in a given society as a measure of the society as a whole; it wouldn’t be until women had achieved full equality that they could consider the socialist revolution ultimately successful. After the revolution, immediate measures for women’s liberation were taken. The Bolsheviks put forward four primary means to support women’s equality: free love, women’s participation in the workforce, the socialization of domestic work, and the withering away of the family.

The Bolsheviks believed that women should not be coerced to marry or to remain in a marriage as a result of family obligations or economic pressures. Relationships should be based exclusively on love, not social coercion. The Bolsheviks did not believe that they could immediately take up the task of building new types of relationships, recognizing that the revolution alone would not do away with centuries of patriarchal traditions, beliefs, and morals. Rather, they sought to destroy the  social basis of the bourgeois family and the inherited beliefs that keep women oppressed. Furthermore, they believed that women should have complete equality with men in the workplace and encouraged women to organize, vote, and run for positions of leadership in unions and soviets. 

Long before the Wages for Housework campaign, a global feminist movement that grew out of the International Feminist Collective in Italy in 1972, the Bolsheviks argued that there was nothing natural or biological about women doing domestic work or even raising children. This was an ideology perpetuated by capitalism that had no place in a socialist society. Liberating women from “domestic slavery” was a central discussion within the party. Trotsky writes,

The revolution made a heroic effort to destroy the so-called “family hearth” — that archaic, stuffy and stagnant institution in which the woman of the toiling classes performs galley labor from childhood to death. The place of the family as a shut-in petty enterprise was to be occupied, according to the plans, by a finished system of social care and accommodation: maternity houses, creches, kindergartens, schools, social dining rooms, social laundries, first-aid stations, hospitals, sanatoria, athletic organizations, moving-picture theaters, etc. The complete absorption of the housekeeping functions of the family by institutions of the socialist society, uniting all generations in solidarity and mutual aid, was to bring to woman, and thereby to the loving couple, a real liberation from the thousand-year-old fetters. 

Unlike the Wages for Housework campaign, the Bolsheviks sought to take housework out of the hands of individuals and put it in the hands of the workers state. The Bolsheviks did not want to maintain domestic work in the realm of the household, equally dividing those banal tasks between men and women. Rather, they wanted to divorce these tasks from the family unit and socialize domestic labor. In this way, the family and women in particular would shed much of their “reproductive” role. 

Equality in Law

The Bolsheviks put ideas into practice. In 1918, less than a year after the revolution, the Family Code was passed, which historian Wendy Goldman calls the “most progressive family legislation ever seen in the world.” It took the church out of the business of marriage and made matrimony a civil affair. It not only legalized divorce, but made it accessible to every married person without requiring a reason. The code ended centuries-old laws that assigned all property to men and provided equal rights to children born outside of a registered marriage. If a woman did not know who the father of her child was, all of her sexual partners would share responsibilities for child support. Importantly, it made women equal to men in law. A law as progressive as this has not been won to this day in the United States, as the Equal Rights Amendment was not confirmed by enough states. The author of the family code, Alexander Goikhbarg saw this law as transitory —it was not meant to strengthen either the state or the family, but to be a step towards the extinction of the family. 

In 1920, abortion was legalized, making the Soviet Union the first country in the world to do so. Prostitution and homosexuality were no longer banned in the USSR either. Additionally, the Bolsheviks opened public cafeterias, laundromats, schools, and day care centers as a step towards the abolition of women’s double shift at the workplace and at home. It was a step towards socializing domestic work, liberating individual women from the responsibility. 

Furthermore, the Bolsheviks saw women’s political participation as central to the advancement of the Soviet Union. They organized Zhenotdel, the women’s section of the party, made up of workers, peasants, and housewives who organized women at the local level. Delegates from Zhenotdel were elected for internships in the government as well. As Wendy Goldman argues, it was an important way for thousands of women to get involved in the party, as well as in politics more broadly. 

Equality in Life

Although the Bolsheviks made major advances by passing laws, they were very conscious that this was insufficient to guarantee true equality. Lenin says,

Where there are no landlords, capitalists and merchants, where the government of the toilers is building a new life without these exploiters, there equality between women and men exists in law. But that is not enough. It is a far cry from equality in law to equality in life. We want women workers to achieve equality with men workers not only in law, but in life as well. For this, it is essential that women workers take an ever increasing part in the administration of public enterprises and in the administration of the state… The proletariat cannot achieve complete freedom, unless it achieves complete freedom for women.

Although the Bolsheviks stressed the material basis for inequality, they also knew that a profound personal change would have to occur in members of the new Soviet society. However, this change in people’s ideas was not divorced from the changes in the organization of society — a social reorganization won by proletarian revolution. In this sense, it is a reminder to us that simply changing people’s ideas is insufficient to create true equality. Sexism does not only exist in people’s minds, but in institutions and the organization of society. 

The Struggles of a Young Worker’s State

The young workers’ state faced considerable challenges in its first years. It was attacked by 14 imperialist armies and survived because of sacrifices made by workers and peasants in the Red Army. After a world war and then a civil war, the people of the Soviet Union faced starvation and high unemployment. 

Women suffered the most under these conditions. Although under explicit orders not to do so, women were laid off before their male colleagues. The 13th Congress of the Bolshevik Party discussed this problem explicitly, making new regulations to protect women’s employment. They said, “that the preservation of women workers in production has political significance.” 

A tenet of communism — to each according to his need and from each according to his ability — can only work in a society of plenty. Advanced capitalist mass production provides such a basis. However, when there isn’t enough, a select group will decide who has and who does not — a bureaucracy. This is why Lenin and so many other Bolsheviks placed their hopes in a German revolution, which would ensure that the USSR would not remain isolated. It would put German industry and the goods it produced under the control of the working class. However, the German revolution was squashed, leaving the Soviet Union to fend for itself. It is from the conditions of scarcity that the counter revolutionary Stalinist bureaucracy emerged, reversing the advances made during the early years after the Russian Revolution. Stalinism went on to play a counterrevolutionary role around the world, based on the theory of “socialism in one country.”

Stalinist Counterrevolution and Women’s Rights

The Stalinist bureaucracy staged a counterrevolution which murdered the Left Opposition inside the Bolshevik Party, locking up, exiling, or killing those who attempted to carry on the legacy of the 1917 revolution. Theorists who wrote about the withering away of the family such as Nikolai Krylenko were arrested and murdered, while the author of the 1918 Family Code was imprisoned in an asylum. 

At the same time that Stalin began to put forth the idea of socialism in one country, he also re-criminalized homosexuality and prostitution. In 1936, Stalin ended women’s right to an abortion, with Stalinist leaders arguing that women had the “honorable duty” to be mothers.

In order to put forward such reactionary ideas about gender, Stalin squashed the women’s department within the Central Committee of the Communist Party, as well as all women’s organizing on the local level. His government campaigned to bring back traditional gender roles, the very gender roles that the Bolsheviks had worked to break with. By 1944, Stalin had organized awards for women based on how many children they had. The “Order of Maternal Glory” was created for women with seven to nine children, and the title “Mother Heroine” for those with ten or more. 

The Left Opposition and the Bolshevik Legacy

As Stalin continued to play a counterrevolutionary role around the world, Trotsky created the Fourth International, a grouping of communists dedicated to the legacy of the Bolsheviks. The Fourth International was against the Soviet bureaucracy and for power to the working class, not just in one country — as Stalin wanted — but around the world. 

The Transitional Program, which laid out the tasks for the Fourth International, argues that women’s rights are central for the socialist revolution. Trotsky says, 

Opportunist organizations by their very nature concentrate their chief attention on the top layers of the working class and therefore ignore both the youth and the women workers. The decay of capitalism, however, deals its heaviest blows to the woman as a wage earner and as a housewife. The sections of the Fourth International should seek bases of support among the most exploited layers of the working class; consequently, among the women workers.

Far from any class reductionism, Trotsky sees the organization of women in a revolutionary party as a central task for communists.

What Can We Learn?

One hundred years have passed since the Russian Revolution and it has been decades since a revolution has been able to shake capitalism. Some believe that revolution is impossible. Others believe that a workers’ revolution will create laws based on the racist, sexist, or homophobic attitudes that some workers hold today. Many equate Marxism with the struggle against exploitation, not the struggle against oppression. 

Yet when the Bolsheviks took power and immediately made laws supporting women’s rights, they knew the revolution did not and should not stop there. They had no illusions about even the most progressive gender legislation in the history of the world, on its own, ending patriarchy. The Bolsheviks knew that these laws created the foundation for liberation, but were not liberation in itself. Instead, they had lively debates about how to organize the material conditions of the new society to root out oppression against women. They wanted to make sure women had full participation in work, education and politics— but not by taking on a double or triple burden of housework, childcare and paid work. They discussed socialized childcare and domestic work, as well as the withering away of the family as an organizing unit of society. Even the young workers’ state did not yet have the material conditions to realize this dream, but they took real and substantive steps in that direction. Stalinism put an end to all these dreams, reverting the Soviet Union to patriarchal norms. 

It’s been a long time since the Russian Revolution. There are a lot of thinkers who have made key contributions to socialist feminist thought since then, especially in the realm of sex, sexuality and queer theory. Social reproduction theory builds on key Marxist ideas, and there have been huge developments in a discussion of desire, sexuality and queer theory. These are all important to thinking about a socialist revolution in the 21st century, which would create the material foundations for the liberation of gender and sexuality. 

But we cannot leave the legacy of Marxism to those who pervert its meaning to crude class reductionism. We cannot allow Marx’s legacy to be mired by Stalinism and the patriarchal, counterrevolutionary view of gender and society that it upheld. We should draw lessons from the Bolshevik’s revolutionary tradition for women’s liberation. 

About author

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.