Gender & Sexuality

The Challenges of the Russian Revolution and Women’s Rights

This is the second of two articles in a series that explores the advances in the realm of women’s rights opened by the Russian Revolution, as well as the difficulties in implementing these advances due to the material conditions of post 1917 Russia.

July 23, 2018

By 1921, the economy of the young Soviet state was devastated. “We are not civilized enough for socialism,” Lenin claimed in reference to the backwardness of industry, the relatively small urban population, and the dominance of agriculture in the economy. He proposed the New Economic Policy (NEP), under which private ownership of the means of production was restored in some agricultural sectors and restrictions on foreign trade were loosened. Through the controlled introduction of certain market mechanisms, the USSR sought to revitalize an economy that had fallen into ruins. Meanwhile, the German government was brutally repressing the workers’ uprising led by the Communist Party, weakening the revolutionary forces in Europe and further isolating the USSR.

The NEP led to the emergence of a burgeoning middle class that took advantage of the situation for its own benefit. In 1922, agricultural production reached three-fourths of pre-war levels. But while the peasants recipients of the NEP gained greater social and economic power, the industrial working class — the main protagonist of the revolution — was decimated: Much of the vanguard had died in the civil war; others had acquired responsibilities as functionaries of the new Soviet state, assimilating to the bureaucratic environment; and thousands of workers abandoned the cities during the famines and returned to the countryside. Industry was not recuperating at the same pace as agriculture. Heavy industry was paralyzed, while light industry was producing at a quarter of pre-war levels.

It is not hard to imagine that under these circumstances the social composition of the Bolshevik Party also changed. “Early in 1917 it had no more than 23,000 members in the whole of Russia. During the revolution the membership trebled [sic] and quadrupled. In 1919, at the height of the civil war, a quarter of a million people had joined its ranks. This growth reflected the party’s genuine pull on the working class. Between 1919 and 1922, the membership trebled [sic] once again, rising from 250,000 to 700,000. Most of this growth, however, was already spurious. By now the rush to the victor’s bandwagon was in full progress. . . . the authentic Bolsheviks were reduced to a small minority.”

All this happened before Lenin suffered his first stroke in May 1922 — an event that temporarily removed him from the leadership of the Bolshevik Party until his second stroke in December, after which he had to withdraw from public party activity completely. That same year, Stalin was named general secretary of the party. Later, after a third stroke, Lenin lost the ability to speak, remained bedridden, and died on January 21, 1924. But in these last months of life, with his forces decimated by illness, Lenin carried out his last fight for the restriction of the monopoly on foreign trade, which had been abolished in 1922; against the oppression of nationalities; and against the bureaucracy which had started to gnaw at the organization of the Bolshevik Party and the Soviet state.

“Colossal forces had been put in motion: Those of the imperialist siege, those of the agrarian bourgeoisie which resurged again and again, those of the capillary bureaucracy that insinuated itself in all the gears of the administrative apparatus. Nonetheless, Lenin, until his last breath, continues to bet on the conscience of the vanguard. . . . He directed himself to the vanguard of the vanguard, to that which is still healthy in the party leadership. . . . The year 1923 certifies the end of the revolutionary crisis which, over the course of five years, had shaken all of Europe. Until then, the young Russian revolution had resisted, clinging to the hope of a victorious revolution in Germany, without which its own future was theoretically inconceivable. The failure of the German October clears the way for the future rise of Nazism and is the prelude to the defeat of the Left Opposition in Russia. The bureaucracy theorizes this long-term isolation and prepares to limit the revolution to the borders of ‘socialism in one country.’ . . . Faced with the runaway forces of history, Lenin, from his deathbed, proposes a pact to Trotsky to play a final trick against the bureaucracy.” (2) But the bureaucracy had its roots in the defeat of the international revolution and Russia’s social, economic and cultural backwardness.

For women, this period led to an increase in the unemployment rate and a visibly greater number of female urban workers in prostitution. As Wendy Z. Goldman points out, 86 percent of the women in this situation by the 1920s were workers or self-employed (as dressmakers, artesans, etc.). They were workers who had been expelled from production, had seen the reduction of free services of childcare centers and homes for single mothers, and had been pushed into prostitution by the prevailing hunger and miserable conditions.

However, the difficulties were no obstacle to bold thinking by the Bolshevik leaders. “The successes that we gain in this direction are dependent on our success in the sphere of economics. But even in our present economic situation we could introduce much more criticism, initiative, and reason into our morals than we actually do. This is one of the tasks of our time. It is of course obvious that the complete change of morals – the emancipation of wom­en from household slavery, the social education of children, the emancipation of marriage from all economic compulsion, etc. — will only be able to follow on a long period of development, and will come about in proportion to the extent to which the economic forces of socialism win the upper hand over the forces of capitalism,” Trotsky explained in 1923. Later, he insisted on the revolutionary role of collective creativity in the transformation of customs: “Every new form . . . must be recorded in the press and brought to the knowledge of the general public, in order to stimulate imagination and in­terest, and give the impulse to further collective creation of new customs. . . . As a result life will be richer, broader, more full of color and harmony. This is the essence of the problem.” (3)

Private life was an object of the ongoing revolution’s responsibility, as if the slogan “the personal is political,” raised by feminists in the 1970s, had been anticipated by the Bolshevik’s ideas about the emancipation of women: “The primary task, the one that is most acute and urgent, is to break the silence surrounding the problems relating to daily life”(4). These words are so distant from the glorifications that the ruling bureaucracy, a short time later, made of its own concessions to petty bourgeois, patriarchal ideology and the brutal setbacks that took place in the name of socialism!

Counter-Revolution and Women’s Rights

Perhaps more than anyone else, Trotsky had to respond on numerous occasions to the question of why he had lost “power,” since he, alongside Lenin, had been the most prominent leader of the Russian Revolution: “But . . . when the revolutionaries who directed the seizure of power begin at a certain stage to lose it, whether peacefully or through catastrophe, the fact in itself signifies either a decline in the influence of certain ideas and moods in the governing revolutionary circles, or the decline of revolutionary mood in the masses themselves. Or it may be both at the same time” (5). The bureaucratization of the party and the state was becoming more accentuated, and Trotsky masterfully synthesized this, saying, “In the eyes of many, the temporary situation began to seem the ultimate goal. A new type was being evolved”(6).

The resistance to the demands of revolution was slowly transforming itself into a campaign against Trotsky, who headed the opposition to the course favored by the ruling caste. But he was forced to resign his positions in the workers’ state; later abandoned the leading bodies of the Bolshevik Party; and finally, was definitively expelled from the party. Even so, Trotsky represented the continuity of Leninism and the living experience of the triumphant revolution. For this reason he was deported to Alma Ata in 1928, where he wrote “The Permanent Revolution,” debating Stalin’s nationalist theory about the possibility of constructing socialism in a single country, gradually and in an evolutionary way. Paradoxically, in the name of socialism, the Soviet Union limited the development of the socialization of services like child care, laundries and canteens. The bureaucracy, in order to assert itself at the head of state, unearthed the old cult of the family, since the new regime had the need “for a stable hierarchy of relations, and for the disciplining of youth by means of 40,000,000 points of support for authority and power”(7).

Before the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, Stalin’s regime reintroduced civil marriage as the only legal union in the eyes of the state. Later, it suppressed the women’s section of the party’s Central Committee, penalized homosexuality, and criminalized prostitution. Wendy Z. Goldman explains, “The prohibition on abortion in June 1936 was accompanied by a campaign to discredit the libertarian ideas that shaped social policy throughout the 1920s”(8). She added: “The ‘withering-away’ doctrine, once central to the socialist understanding of the family, law, and the state, was anathemized” (9). The Stalinist bureaucracy, which seized power from the working class, extolled the figures of the ‘Great Father Stalin’ and the heroic Russian working-class mother who made sacrifices for patriotic progress; it permitted the wives of officials to take a car with a chauffeur to the supermarkets, while the female workers had to wait in endless lines due to scarcity and rationing.

But the counterrevolution imposed by the Stalinist regime was not the inevitable continuity of Bolshevism (as many enemies of the socialist revolution try to present it) but rather its negation. It needed to liquidate an entire generation via exile, condemnation to forced labor camps, forged trials and summary executions. The Thermidor, which swept away the conquests of the revolution, installed the death penalty for people as young as 12 and authorized torture and massive and arbitrary executions — known as the Moscow Trials — that eliminated the generation of old Bolsheviks who dared to voice their opposition to the regime.

This does not indicate a continuity between the first bold decrees of the newborn workers’ state of 1917 and the solemn commands of the order established by the bureaucracy for the progress of the nation. The revolution was stopped by a counterrevolution.

Lessons for Today

The Bolsheviks believed that instituting political equality between men and women was the solution to the most basic of problems. But the achievement of equality in daily life was an infinitely more complicated task, since it did not depend on revolutionary decrees. For this, a great conscious effort by the whole proletariat was necessary, a plan which presupposed a powerful desire for culture and progress. How then could it be said that socialism had almost been accomplished at the same time that abortion was prohibited and propaganda was made for women to return to the home and reduce themselves again to domestic tasks? Trotsky denounced this without ambiguity: “The October Revolution inscribed on its banner the emancipation of womankind and created the most progressive legislation in history on marriage and the family. This does not mean, of course, that a ‘happy life’ was immediately in store for the Soviet woman. Genuine emancipation of women is inconceivable without a general rise of economy and culture, without the destruction of the petty-bourgeois economic family unit, without the introduction of socialized food preparation, and education. Meanwhile, guided by its conservative instinct, the bureaucracy has taken alarm at the ‘disintegration’ of the family. It began singing panegyrics to the family supper and the family laundry, that is the household slavery of woman” (10).

In this same sense, Wendy Z. Goldman argues that “although material conditions played a crucial role in undermining the vision of the twenties, they were not ultimately responsible for its demise. . . . The ideological reversal of the 1930s was essentially political, not economic or material in nature, bearing all the marks of Stalinist policy in other areas. The 1936 law had roots in the popular and official critiques of the 1920s, but its means and ends constituted a sharp break with earlier patterns of thought, indeed with a centuries-long tradition of revolutionary ideas and practices” (11).

Millions of people were born and grew up under the idea that Stalinism was synonymous with socialism. The revolutionary banner was stained, for a bit more than half a century, by the monstrous crimes of the bureaucracy. Against this backdrop, the ideas of revolution and freedom seemed to part ways or even be in contradiction to each other. .

At the same time, in the 20th century, women won access to all levels of public education, the right to exercise all professions and to some degree, to control our own sexuality and our lives. Yet, these rights are still accessed and live to the fullest by the wealthiest in society. These victories sharply contrast with the daily lives of millions of women condemned to precarious jobs, to unemployment and overexploitation, to illness and death as a result of clandestine abortions, to be sold and traded as mere commodities by international trafficking networks of sexual exploitation, and to live without drinking water or electricity on just two dollars per day.

The reforms achieved today by a handful of women slip like water between our fingers, and will continue to do so. Reforms allow a few to exercise rights that are denied to millions, or they only allow these rights to be enjoyed for a short time before the next capitalist offensive imposes cuts and restrictions. For this reason, we consider this book by Wendy Z. Goldman to be no mere exercise in historical memory, but rather a spring from which to drink in order to prepare for present and future battles for our emancipation. After all, as the Belgian Marxist Marcel Liebman points out, and as evidenced throughout his masterful work, “It was not the fight for reforms that led up to and prepared the way for revolution, but the revolution that opened the way to the most thorough-going reforms” (12)

Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed: Trotsky, 1921-1929 (London: Verso, 2003), 14.
Daniel Bensaïd, preface to Le dernier combat de Lénine, by Moshe Lewin (Paris: éditions de Minuit, 1978), our translation
Leon Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life (New York: Monad Press, 1973), 30.
Ibid, 72.
Leon Trotsky, My Life (New York: Charles Schribner’s Sons, 1930), Chapter 41.
Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, trans. Max Eastman (1937), Chapter 7.
Goldman, Women, the State and Revolution, 296.
Goldman, Women, the State and Revolution, 297.
Leon Trotsky, “Twenty Years of Stalinist Degeneration,” Fourth International 6, no. 3 (March 1945): 87–89. First published in Russian in The Bulletin of the Russian Opposition no. 66-67 (May–June 1938): 19–21.
Goldman, Women, the State and Revolution, 342.
Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 325.