Socialist Alternative

The relevance of the Russian revolution today for women’s liberation and public health – part one

Socialist Alternative celebrated the 103rd Anniversary of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 by demonstrating in practice how the new workers state set about achieving hugely important gains for the working class in the fields of health and women’s rights. As capitalism today finds itself overwhelmed by the COVID disease, early Soviet Russia, faced the onslaught of the Spanish Flu, as well as typhus and lice infestation.  

Yet the new workers state was able to bring in the first comprehensive, free national health service to fight off the diseases and prioritise workers’ health. It also ushered in unprecedented rights for women, who played a central role in detonating the February Revolution and, latterly, led the pioneering work of Zhenotdel, an organisation that understood the absolute necessity of women’s self-emancipation. The isolation of the Russian revolution and the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy ended many of the social gains that had been won, however the record of the early years of the revolution stand the test of time.

Part one is published below. Part two will focus on the Russian revolution and the gains for public health. Both articles were published together in issue 10 of Socialist Alternative newspaper.

Part one – How the Russian Revolution changed the lives of women

by Jackie Grunsell

Russia was a deeply patriarchal society prior to the 1917 revolution. Under Tsarism women’s legal status made them little more than the slaves of men. In rural areas women faced the cultural backwardness of oppressive traditions and the stranglehold of the Church. An 1897 survey showed that 87% of all Russian women were illiterate.

As industry and capitalism in Russia developed towards the end of the 1800s, a transformation began to take place for women. More and more they moved to urban areas working up to 18-hour days in factories, particularly in the textile industry. This process was accelerated in 1914 during World War One, when women were mobilised to fill the jobs vacated by men.

The Bolshevik Party and the fight for women’s liberation

Early in the 1900s, Lenin began developing ideas around the need for the emancipation of women and at the 1903 Bolshevik Party Congress, called for the demand of complete equality of rights for men and women to be part of the programme.

What made the Bolsheviks different to other parties claiming to support this same aim was that, after the October 1917 revolution, they immediately set about taking steps to achieve this.

In the years prior to the revolution, they had been consciously and consistently working to build support amongst women workers. This work was led by Bolshevik women like Inessa Armand, Alexandra Kollantai, and Nadezhda Krupskaya and many others.

The 1905 revolution had given women workers a taste of what was possible with large numbers of women being elected to the Soviets formed at that time, incredible in a country where women were not entitled to vote.

In the years between the defeat of 1905 and the successful 1917 revolution, women began to take more militant action. Women were radicalised by the experience of 1905: industrial work and collectively fighting for a shorter working day and better conditions, as well as their involvement in anti-war campaigning. Women also faced the reality of their double oppression. Being tasked as primarily responsible for feeding their families they would spend an average of 40 hours a week queuing for bread as well as work. They had also been armed with the Bolshevik’s programme and understanding that women’s liberation was key to the success of the revolution. Unsurprising then that they played a crucial role in igniting the February revolution which laid the ground for victory in October.

Far reaching gains of the revolution

Within a few weeks of coming to power, the Bolsheviks began making changes to the law to put men and women on an equal footing. Whereas women had previously been legally bound to stay with their husbands if the latter moved, restrictions of free movement were abolished. Women were given the right to higher education, equal pay for equal work was introduced as well as universal suffrage. The Soviet Union was one of the first major countries where women could vote.

In 1920, it became one of the first countries in Europe to legalise abortion up to 3 months of pregnancy. This was the first time working-class and peasant women had had access to safe abortions. Children born in and out of marriage had equal legal status, removing the idea of illegitimacy. Marriage itself became non-religious and required a simple ceremony, with mutual consent and no need for registration. Divorce was made automatic at the request of either person and didn’t need the consent of the other partner. Paid maternity leave was introduced and special maternity units developed. Pregnant women or those who had just given birth were exempt from night working.

Changes to laws around property rights meant women could own land and could function as the head of a household. Far reaching changes to the status of the family as an economic unit were made. 

In sum, the Soviet Union during its first years  became far more progressive than the whole of the capitalist world in terms of the legal position of women and their rights. 

There was also a rapid growth of communes in the cities with complete equality of rights and tasks. Estates were based around communal canteens, childcare, libraries, and study areas.

Reversing illiteracy in the countryside and informing women there about their new status, as well as involving them in every part of organising and running society, was a huge task.

The work of the Zhenotdel

Leading Bolshevik women took up this work by setting up Zhenotdel – an organisation founded on the idea that legal change alone was insufficient. It understood that the emancipation of women was only possible through self-emancipation and it was necessary to organise a movement of women across the entire Soviet Union to achieve this. 

Zhenotdel set about the task of bringing women into the struggle, involving them in public life and winning them to socialist ideas. They held education events and organised conferences across the country. They taught women to read and write and promoted political education and training with ‘internships’ in the state, the party, trade unions and cooperatives. The aim was to give women confidence and experience to take on public roles. They hoped the most oppressed women of Central Asia would see the benefits of Soviet organisation in improving their living conditions and become the agents of change.

Zhenotdel became a rank and file organisation and brought hundreds of thousands of women delegates together at conferences, to discuss and debate the issues affecting women and the entire working-class movement. Between 1922 and 1932, the proportion of women in the Bolshevik Party doubled from 8% to 16%, which Zhenotdel must surely take part of the credit for.

The Bolsheviks had a vision of changing society so that they could do away with domestic labour. They built an organisation on the basis that it is possible to ‘socialise’ these tasks. They hoped to build more creches, schools, communal laundries, social dining rooms etcetera, in order to free women from these tasks and liberate men and women from traditional roles.

Stalinism reverses the gains of the revolution

Unfortunately, the devastation caused by WWI followed by the Civil War and the economic isolation of Russia made this practically impossible. Stalinism reversed and betrayed many of the social gains made in the early years of the revolution alongside the reactionary theory of ‘socialism in one country’, which was counterposed to the genuine internationalism of Lenin and Trotsky. 

As Trotsky put it, “The real resources of the state did not correspond to the plans and intentions of the Communist Party. You cannot ‘abolish’ the family; you have to replace it. The actual liberation of women is unrealisable on a basis of ‘generalised want’.”

Potential for socialist change

In spite of this, the tremendous gains made by the revolution show what is possible when working class people take control of running society. The Bolsheviks showed the need to patiently build a female ‘cadre’ – independently minded, disciplined and trained socialist activists, capable of putting women’s liberation central on the agenda of the revolutionary movement and were able to inspire women to get involved and become the leaders of that revolution.

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