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Mainstream, VOL LV No 46 New Delhi November 4, 2017

October Revolution and Women

Monday 6 November 2017, by Gargi Chakravartty


‘Ten days that shook the world’—the tremor of the October Revolution was felt throughout the world with its cascading effects on society, polity and economy at large, its far-reaching impact on the national liberation struggles of Asia and Africa, while giving specific direction to the working class movements across the globe. What Rosa Luxemburg, a stalwart in the communist move-ment, wrote in her article entitled ‘The Russian Revolution’ in September 1918 while she was languishing in prison for opposing the First World War, brought out some of the limitations of the Revolution and explains in large measure the reasons behind the actual dissolution of the USSR that took place much later. She was extremely unhappy over the “destruction of one of the most important guarantees of a healthy public life and of the political activity of the labouring masses: freedom of the press, the rights of association and assembly, which have been outlawed for all opponents of the Soviet regime”. She further continued: “.... it is a well-known and indisputable fact that without a free and untrammelled press, without the unlimited right of association and assemblage, the rule of the broad mass of the people is entirely unthinkable.”1

In spite of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the quintessential legacy of the Revolution, the product of Marxist ideology, cannot be brushed aside as is often being sarcastically ridiculed in various circles as an endangered species. Notwith- standing its shortcomings, the huge impact of the Revolution on the exploited classes of the proletariat and peasantry in the building of movements and struggles and the emergence of a new nation with the vision to change the world are of utmost significance from a historical perspective.

And in this category this Revolution unveiled a new dimension to women’s movement for emancipation from age-old subjugation. The relationship between socialism and the women’s movement opened a new era which not only acted as an inspiration to the working class across the world but also as a beacon light for all marginalised sections of women who have been suffering from manifold oppression and exploitation.

The most striking aspect of the new scenario that emerged during industrialisation was the growing number of working class women, who were terribly exploited as cheap labour, being drawn into class struggles alongwith the menfolk. Communists realised the essential role that women could play in the struggle to end capitalism and bring in socialism. “This is the road to women’s emancipation, to their playing an equal part in all fields of social life and activity.”2 The Revolution, with its slogans of peace, bread and land, also dealt with women’s issues. Marxism, the ideological basis of the Revolution, gave an instrument to the women to fight for their rights.

The exploitation of the labour of women and children in the capitalist system was intensely exposed by Marx in his Capital in various sections such as death from rework, cheap labour, exploitation of women and children in mills. In order to understand the changes brought about by the Bolshevik Revolution, Harry Pollitt, the former General Secretary of the erstwhile Communist Party of Great Britain, wrote on October 3, 1950: “... it is necessary to read what Marx said about women under capitalism, or to read what Engels said in the Origin of the Family and both of them in the Communist Manifesto, to get clear the changes in society which have taken place, and changes in the position of women which have accompanied them, as mankind has moved from savagery through barbarism to the class society which we call civilisation, and on to the classless society of socialism.”3 With the disintegration of the international communist movement following the dissolution of the Soviet Union his observation of a ‘classless society of socialism’ today seems to be an utopia, but still the changes brought about in the lives of women and the shaping of a worldwide women’s move-ment for equal rights cannot possibly be overlooked.

Engels’ analysis of women taking part in public production paved the way to the concept of their economic independence. Engels wrote: “....the peculiar character of the supremacy of the husbannd over the wife in the modern family, the necessity of creating real social equality between them, and the way to do it, will only be seen in the clear life of the day when both possess legally complete equality of rights. Then it will be plain that the first condition for the libeation of the wife is to bring the whole female sex back into public industry, and that this in turn demands the abolition of the monogamous family as the economic unit of society.”4 The followers of the Marx had enough theoretical depth of under-standing of the crux of private property and also how women were degraded and reduced to servitude. In the words of Engels, “the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.” Engels’ writings drew a large number of women towards the Marxist ideology. Engels’ Origin of the Family still remains a Bible for the protagonists of the women’s movement.

Lenin was vociferous in his perception of the urgency of women’s participation in socialist revolution. Lenin wrote: “If we do not draw women into public activity, into the militia into political life; if we do not tear women away from the deadening atmosphere of household and kitchen; then it is impossible to secure real freedom, it is impossible even to build democracy, let alone socialism”5 Lenin’s letters, writings and speeches throw light on various issues of women’s questions—from church marriage, religious feelings, domestic drudgery, exploitation of women’s labour force to the tasks of the Soviet women’s movement. Lenin was pragmatic to visualise the predominance of Church marriage. While addressing the First All-Russian Congress of Women Workers on November 19, 1918, he said: “This is due to the influence of the priests, and it is more difficult to fight this evil than the old laws.” He even said: “Religious prejudices must be fought very cautiously; a lot of harm is caused by those who carry on this struggle in such a way as to offend religious feelings. The struggle must be carried on by means of propaganda, by means of enlightenment. By introducing acrimony into the struggle we may antagonise the masses..... the deepest source of religious prejudice is poverty and ignorance; it is with these evils that we must contend.” Women developed faith in the revolution, in what Lenin said and felt an accord with the new ideas which, they thought, might lead them to an emancipated world. Lenin knew that the road to women’s freedom was a difficult one. But the very realisation of the deplorable position of women and bringing them out from that ordeal was itself a new vision for the millions of those marginalised women. Lenin continued: “Up to the present the position of women has been such that it is called a position of slavery. Women are crushed by their domestic drudgery, and only socialism can relieve them from this drudgery, when we shall pass on from small household economy to social economy and to social tilling of the soil. Only then will women be fully free and emancipated. It is a difficult task...”

On the International Women’s Day in 1918 Lenin said: “The main and fundamental thing in Bolshevism and in the Russian October Revolution is the drawing into politics of precisely those who were most oppressed under capitalism..... And it is impossible to draw the masses into politics without also drawing in the women; for under capitalism, the female half of the human race suffers under a double yoke.” In the same article he mentioned about women’s oppression, that “they are, firstly, in an inferior position because the law denies them equality with men, and this is most important, they are ‘in domestic slavery’, they are ‘domestic slaves’, crushed by the most petty, most menial, most arduous and most stultifying work of the kitchen, and by isolated domestic, family economy in general.” He also asserted: “The Bolshevik Soviet Revolution cuts at the root of the oppression and inferiority of women more deeply than any party or any revolution in the world has dared to do. Not a trace of inequality between men and women before the law has been left in Soviet Russia. The parti-cularly base, despicable and hypocritical inequality of marital and family rights, inequality in relation to the child, has been completely abolished by the Soviet Government.”

Lenin repeatedly harped on the issue of emancipation of women from “petty housework” and “domestic drudgery”, or the role of women in social production, with slogans of freedom and equality. In fact he was clear of the reality that existed: even after introducing laws, he knew that equality between women and men existed in law. “But,” as Lenin said, “that is not enough. It is a far cry from equality in law to equality in life.” (February 21, 1920) His emphasis was on increasing participation of women “in the administration of public enterprises and in the administration of the state”. He differen-tiated between formal and real equality. For him, the main task of the working women’s movement “is to draw the women into socially productive labour, extricate them from ‘domestic slavery’, free them of their stultifying and humiliating resignation to the perpetual and exclusive atmosphere of the kitchen and nursery”. (Lenin, March 4, 1920)

One can get a glimpse of the immediate impact of the October Revolution on women through Clara Zetkin’s experience with Muslim women at the Muslim Women’s Club of Tiflis, founded in 1923 by the Communist Party. The first thing which struck her in 1926, when she visited the club, was the sight of a large number of Muslim women, “all of whom had discarded the veil”. Clara Zetkin narrated the outburst of joy of one of those women in the club. She spoke: “How was our life before the revolution, Our fathers sold us like young lambs when we were hardly ten or twelve years old—sometimes even younger. Our husbands demanded our affection and love, even when they seemed to us revolting. When our husbands were in the mood for it, they beat us with clubs or whips. We had to serve them day and night like slaves. When they grew tired of us, they told us to go to hell. They rented us out as mistresses to their friends.....No Mullah came to our aid when we were in need..” Then she continued: “But now, my dear sisters, how everything has changed! The revolution arrived like a mighty thunderstorm. It has smashed injustice and slavery.... The Soviets brought us salvation. Eternal gratitude to them.” Clara Zetkin, while narrating this incident, commented: “The economic basis of the old patriarchal family has shattered... In the literal sense of the word, the Revolution came as a redeemer to the Muslim women of Tiflis.”6

The first long conversation Clara Zetkin had with Lenin was in the autumn of 1920 on various aspects of the women’s question. Certain polemical issues, such as Freudian hypotheses, issues of marriage and sex, approach towards prostitutes surfaced during this long dialogue. Clara had arguments with Lenin, who considered the glass of water theory as “completely un-Marxist and moreover anti-social”. She contested that “the questions of sex and marriage, in a bourgeois society of private property, involve many problems, conflicts and much suffering for women of all social classes and ranks. The war and its consequences had greatly accen-tuated the conflicts and sufferings of women in sexual matters, had brought to light problems which were formerly hidden from them. To that were added the effects of the revolution. The old world of feeling and thought had begun to totter. Old social ties are entangling and breaking, there are the tendencies towards new ideological relationships between man and woman......“7 Even if Lenin had differed on such issues, he enthusiastically acknowledged the tremendous work done by the Russian women in the Revolution. He told Clara Zetkin: “Without them we should not have been victorious.” He also said: “It is also important for women all over the world. It shows the capacity of women, the great value their work has in society. The first proletarian dictatorship is a real pioneer in establishing social equality for women.”8

But Lenin was equally anxious of the hard reality, being aware of the male chauvinistic psyche of the communist men. In 1920 he could foresee the problem, as told to Clara Zetkin: “Unfortunately it is still true to say of many of our comrades, ‘scratch a communist and find a philistine’.” He went on further: “Could there be a more damning proof of this than the calm acquiescence of men who see how women grow worn out in petty, monotonous household work, their strength and time dissipated and wanted, their minds growing narrow and stale, their hearts beating slowly, their will weakened?”9 These words are indeed prophetic.

For the women of the world, the October Revolution was a beginning in their struggle for


equality, not just formal. That struggle still continues.....


1. Rosa Luxemburg Reader, edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson, Monthly Review Press, New York, p. 304.

2. Women and Communism, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1950, p. 27.

3. Ibid.

4. Engels, Origin of the Family, Chapter II.

5. Lenin, Letters from Afar, Letter III.

6. For details, see Clara Zetkin:Selected Writings, edited by Philip S. Foner, Aakar Books Classics, Delhi, 2012.

7. Women and Communism,op.cit., Appendix, pp. 89-104.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

The author is the Vice-President, National Federation of Indian Women.

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