Remembering International Women’s Day 1917 - The gains made for women by the Russian Revolution

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Today is International Working Women’s Day – originally instituted not as a day to celebrate, but as a day for militancy and action. Now many liberal institutions and feminist organizations recognize International Women’s Day, but few acknowledge its roots or its historical significance. They have in fact attempted to remove the class content of this day of struggle.

Today is International Working Women's Day – originally instituted not as a day to celebrate, but as a day for militancy and action. Now many liberal institutions and feminist organizations recognize International Women's Day, but few acknowledge its roots or its historical significance. They have in fact attempted to remove the class content of this day of struggle.

It was in fact comrade Clara Zetkin at the second International Conference of Women Socialists in 1910 in Copenhagen who suggested that March 8 become International Working Women's Day and it was intended as a day to mobilize working class women against capitalism.

This is exactly the purpose it served ninety years ago today, when a mass demonstration of Petrograd women, led by a group of striking women textile workers, marched on the municipal Duma demanding bread. They called on their husbands and brothers to join them, and on International Women's Day (February 23rd by the old Russian calendar) 90,000 workers were on strike, demanding bread, an end to war, and down with the tsar and police. The great Russian revolution had begun. (For a detailed account of these events read Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution.) The most important event in history, from a socialist point of view, was sparked off by Russian women workers.

The question of the position of women is of fundamental importance to Marxists. As the French utopian socialist Fourier asserted, the position of women in any social regime is a graphic indicator of the health of that regime.

On that criterion today's society on a world level is in a very bad state of health. In every part of the world without exception, women remain at least doubly burdened by unpaid domestic work and child-rearing as well as the need to go out and earn a living.

In much of the world, superstition and poverty deprive women of basic education and healthcare. Even in the supposedly advanced western world, the entry of women into the workforce has simply left us with this work in addition to our work in the home. It has meant that the bosses now pay each worker half as much, with the expectation that there will be two wage earners in each household.

Furthermore, without socialized domestic work and childcare, the right to divorce has meant that many women are now alone in supporting and raising their children – on these half-size earnings. All of the legal rights and "progressive" terminology gained by western women have had little practical impact on the lives of working class women in most countries in the world.

The historical connection between International Women's Day and the Russian revolution makes this an appropriate time to discuss some of the incredible gains made for women in the early days before Stalinist degeneration set in. It is all too easy (and convenient for the bourgeoisie) to write off the entire experience of the Soviets as a complete failure in which nothing positive was gained and certainly, there is nothing to learn. On the contrary! There is more to learn from the Russian revolution than from any other failed revolution, because it marks the first time in history that the working class successfully seized power and began organizing the running of society democratically for themselves.

Despite its later degeneration into Stalinism, many important gains were made in the Soviet Union. The efficiency and incredible productivity of the planned economy astonished everyone. The improvements for women in particular cannot be denied, and the rate at which the situation has regressed since the fall of the Soviet Union is equally telling.

"In a period of 50 years, the USSR increased its gross domestic product nine times over [...] The USSR had a balanced budget and even a small surplus every year [...] not a single Western government has succeeded in achieving this result" (Alan Woods' Introduction to Ted Grant's Russia: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution).

In tsarist times, laws permitted and encouraged a man to beat his wife; a women was legally an appendage of the household and "in some rural areas women were forced to wear veils and were prevented from learning to read and write". The soviets immediately passed a series of laws giving women formal equality (including the rights to live separately from one's husband and to be head of household; the right to divorce, to abortion, to paid maternity leave, and equal pay; the concept of illegitimate children was abolished).

Amazingly advanced as these were, again and again in his speeches and writing, Lenin asserted that this was not enough. The 1919 Programme of the Communist Party proclaimed: "Not confining itself to formal equality of women, the party strives to liberate them from the material burdens of obsolete household work by replacing it by communal houses, public eating places, central laundries, nurseries, etc" (Marxism and the emancipation of women, by Ana Muñoz and Alan Woods).

The early Soviet government provided "free school meals, milk for children, special food and cloth allowances for children in need" (Alan Woods' Introduction to Russia: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution). Pregnancy consultation centres and maternity homes replaced the dangerous potions and superstition of the babushkas - old women who had been widowed one too many times, had no place in tsarist society, and were forced to live as witches on the border of town.

Unbelievably, the life expectancy for women more than doubled from 30 years in tsarist times to 74 years by the 1970s, because of tremendous improvements in healthcare. By 1971, there were pre-school places for over five million children and 49% of students in higher education were women. "The only other countries in the world where women constituted over 40% of the total in higher education were Finland, France, and the United States". These figures alone confirm what the American socialist John Reed so eloquently put it in Ten Days that Shook the World:

"No matter what one thinks of Bolshevism, it is undeniable that the Russian Revolution is one of the greatest events in human history, and the rule of the Bolsheviki a phenomenon of worldwide importance."

The progressive reforms in the Soviet Union went hand in hand with the nationalized planned economy - in spite of the bureaucratic mismanagement. This is confirmed by the fact that all of the gains made by women in the Soviet Union have been clawed back since its collapse in 1991. "Not since the Dark Ages after the collapse of the Roman Empire has Europe seen such an economic catastrophe in peacetime" (Alan Woods' Introduction to Russia: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution).

Production plummeted by around 60% between 1990 and 1997. Unemployment for able-bodied people (something that capitalism depends on) was illegal in the Soviet Union and literally did not exist. Homelessness was unknown. Now both are skyrocketing. Unpaid wages and pensions, increasing prices, and devastating poverty have led to a rise in alcoholism. Incredibly, "the Russian population of 150 million now consumes substantially more vodka each year than the 280 million of the USSR in the late 1980s".

This generalized social decay has led to a drastic increase in domestic violence. "In 1993, 14,000 Russian women were murdered by their husbands or boyfriends - a figure 20 times higher than in the USA". For many Russian women, the only way out is some form of prostitution. The "lucky" ones are purchased as brides by rich westerners who, for reasons we can easily imagine, are unable to find themselves wives in the usual way.

We have no desire to make any apologies for Stalinism. It was a terrible distortion of socialism. It carried within it social differentiation, a bureaucracy that became more and more alien to the very system that the revolution had brought into being, and eventually created the conditions for a return to capitalism. However, it would be counter to the cause of international socialism to ignore the remarkable and unprecedented gains made possible by the nationalized and planned economy in Russia. To quote Alan Woods again:

"From a backward, semi-feudal, mainly illiterate country in 1917, the USSR became a modern, developed economy, with a quarter of the word's scientists, a health and educational system equal or superior to anything found in the West, able to launch the first space satellite and put the first man into space."

If this is what can be gained by a nationalized and planned economy under such poor conditions, imagine what would be possible today, with all the billions of dollars currently going into military spending and rich families' personal bank accounts. A nationalized economy under democratic workers' control would certainly prioritize an end to domestic slavery, making domestic work and child rearing paid work - not just for women of their own children, but as a fully funded, top-quality, public social service. This would free up time for women to be educated and participate fully in the running of society. Only under these conditions will we see sexism and inequality begin to whither away.

The women's question cannot be separated from the class question. The demands of those Russian women on International Working Women's Day in 1917 were finally met when the working class as a whole, women and men, came together to overthrow the hated Tsarist regime , and with it both capitalism and feudalism. It was the joint struggle of working women and men that led to the socialist revolution, which in turn laid the material basis for all those progressive reforms.

We can do this again today in the 21st century, but on a much higher level. There has been huge progress in technology and an amazing development of the productive forces since 1917. The only problem is that all this is controlled by a tiny minority of capitalists, who use their ownership of the means of production to generate profit for themselves to detriment of the overwhelming majority of the world population.

Our task is to rip the productive forces out of the hands of this decrepit and historically obsolete class and use them in a rational manner. In this way all the material conditions will be finally laid for the true emancipation of women, and they will stand equal to men in every sense of that word.


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History & Theory » Topics » Women & Marxism