Women in the workers states: Liberation betrayed

The Bolshevik revolution in Russia indicated the potential gains for the exploited, the dispossessed and the oppressed that come from a successful united struggle against capitalist rule. 

The Russian Revolution and each subsequent socialist revolution brought sig- nificant gains for women, including democratic rights and integration into social production. The measures enacted by the Bolsheviks under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky demonstratively showed that the proletarian revolution meant immediate steps forward for women. Comparisons with the struggles of women in the most advanced capitalist countries of the same period demonstrate just how fundamental these immediate steps were. 

Between 1917 and 1927 the Soviet government passed a series of laws giving women legal equality with men for the first time. Marriage became a simple registration process that had to be based on mutual consent. By 1927, marriages did not have to be registered and divorce was granted on the request of either partner. The concept of illegitimacy was abolished. Free, legal abortion was made every woman's right. Anti-homosexual laws were eliminated in 1918. 

Free, compulsory education to the age of 16 was established for all children of both sexes. Legislation gave women workers special maternity benefits. 

The 1919 program of the Russian Communist Party stated: ``The party's task at the present moment is primarily work in the realm of ideas and education so as to destroy utterly all traces of the former inequality or prejudices, particularly among backward strata of the proletariat and the peasantry. Not confining itself to formal equality of women, the party strives to liberate them from the burdens of obsolete household work by replacing it with communal houses, public eating places, central laundries, nurseries, etc.'' 

This program was implemented to the extent possible given the economic backwardness and poverty of the new Soviet Republic, and the devastation caused by almost a decade of war and civil war. 

A conscious attempt was made to begin combating the reactionary social norms and attitudes toward women, which reflected the reality of a country whose population was still overwhelmingly peasant, where women were a relatively small percentage of the workforce, and in which the dead weight of feudal traditions and customs hung over all social relations. 

As would be expected under such conditions, backward attitudes toward women were reflected in the Bolshevik Party as well, not excepting its leadership. The party was by no means homogeneous in its understanding of the importance of carrying through the concrete and deep-going measures necessary to fulfill its 1919 program. 

Political counter-revolution

Establishing and maintaining working-class political power in a backward and predominantly peasant-based economy through the vicissitudes of a civil war, foreign intervention and economic blockade exacted a huge toll on the most conscious activists and revolutionary fighters in Soviet Russia. The decimation of this layer and the crushing of the postwar revolutionary upsurges in Western Europe in countries like Germany where industrialisation was much more developed, weakened and demoralised the Soviet working class, and laid the basis for the usurpation of political power in the first workers' state by a bureaucratic caste, headed by Stalin, in the 1920s. 

While the economic foundations of the new workers' state were not destroyed, a privileged social layer that appropriated for itself many of the benefits of the new economic order, grew rapidly in the fertile soil of Russia's poverty. To protect and extend its new privileges, the bureaucracy reversed the policies of the Bolsheviks in virtually every sphere, from government based on soviet democracy, to control by the workers over all social and economic planning, to the right of oppressed nationalities to self-determination, to a revolutionary internationalist foreign policy. 

By the late 1930s the political counter-revolution carried out by the Stalinist bureaucracy had physically annihilated the entire surviving Bolshevik leadership and established a dictatorship that kept hundreds of thousands in prison camps, psychiatric hospitals, and exile and ruthlessly crushed every murmur of opposition. 

For women, the Stalinist counter-revolution led to a policy of reviving and fortifying the family system. Trotsky described this process as follows: 

"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 socialised 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 women. To cap it all, the bureaucracy has restored criminal punishment for abortions, officially returning women to the status of pack animals. In complete contradiction with the ABC of communism the ruling caste has thus restored the most reactionary and benighted nucleus of the class regime, i.e., the petty-bourgeois family." (Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1937-38 [New York, 1976], p. 129). 

The most important factor facilitating this retrogression was the cultural and material backwardness of Russian society, which did not have the resources necessary to construct adequate child-care centres, sufficient housing, public laundries and dining facilities to eliminate the material basis for women's oppression. This backwardness also helped perpetuate the general social division of labor between men and women inherited from the tsarist period. 

But beyond these objective limitations, the reactionary Stalinist bureaucracy consciously gave up the perspective of moving in a systematic way to socialise the burdens carried by women, and instead began to glorify the family system, attempting to bind families together through legal restrictions and economic compulsion. 

The bureaucracy reinforced the family system for one of the same reasons it is maintained by capitalist society-as a means of inculcating attitudes of submission to authority and for maintaining the privileges of a minority. As Trotsky explained, ``the most compelling motive of the present cult of the family is undoubtedly the need of the bureaucracy for a stable hierarchy of relations, and for the disciplining of youth by means of forty millions points of support for authority and power.'' (The Revolution Betrayed [New York, 1972], p. 153) 

As part of this political counter-revolution, the old tsarist laws against homosexuality were dusted off and reintroduced. 

Reinforcement of the family enabled the bureaucracy to perpetuate an important division inside the working class: the division between man, as ``head of the family and breadwinner'' and woman, as responsible for tasks inside the home and shopping-in addition to whatever else she might do. On a more general level, it meant maintaining the division between private life and public life, with the resulting isolation that affects both men and women. Bolstering the nuclear family also reinforced the bureaucracy through encouraging the attitude of ``each family for itself,'' and within the framework of a policy of overall planning that had little to do with satisfying the needs of the workers, it allowed the bureaucracy to minimise the costs of social services. 

The conditions created by the proletarian revolution and the Stalinist counter-revolution in the Soviet Union have not been mechanically reproduced in all the countries in which Stalinist regimes came to power in the post-World War II period. Important differences exist, reflecting historical, cultural, economic, and social variations from one country to another, even one region to another. However, despite differences of degree in the participation of women in the process of production or the extent of child-care centres and similar social services, maintenance of the economic and social inequality of women and policies aimed at reinforcing and justifying the domestic labor of women remained official policy in all of the ``socialist countries'' of Eastern Europe, China, Mongolia and North Korea. 

Contradictory situation

The situation of women in the USSR and Eastern Europe under Stalinist rule demonstrated that the material basis for the liberation of women doesn't simply lie in the removal of formal inequalities of access to employment, education, etc. 

Soviet women undoubtedly made considerable gains in these areas. For example, by 1986 92% of Soviet women were in the paid workforce or studying outside the home. Soviet women constituted 51% of the paid workforce, with their percentage of the population standing at 53%. Forty per cent of Soviet scientists and technicians were women. By the late 1970s the proportion of Soviet female students gaining college degrees was 82% that of male students, while in the US it was 62%. By the mid 1970s 40% of Soviet engineering graduates were women, compared with only 4.5% in the US. 

Stalinist ideologues claimed that by opening up the way for masses of women to enter paid employment, real equality for men and women had been established in the USSR and Eastern Europe. But while women were formally equal under the law and made up more than half of the paid work force, the maintenance and reproduction of labor power continued to fall heavily and almost exclusively on their shoulders. 

By maintaining the individual family as the basic economic unit of society, Stalinism maintained the economic oppression of women and concealed real social inequality between men and women. And by reneging on providing socialised alternatives to domestic labor, and reinforcing backward attitudes to the sexual division of labor, Stalinism encouraged barriers that held back women from full participation in social, economic and political life. 

Perpetuation of the responsibility of women for the domestic chores associated with child-raising, cooking, cleaning, laundry, and caring for the personal needs of other members of the family unit is the economic and social basis for the disadvantages and prejudices faced by women and the resulting discrimination in jobs and wages. This deeply affects the way women view themselves, their role in society, and the goals they seek to attain. 

While 53% of the wage earners in the Soviet Union were women, they were concentrated disproportionately in less skilled, lower paying, less responsible jobs and in traditional female sectors of production and services. According to the 1987 USSR Yearbook women made up 87% of the workforce in retail trade and public catering. Eighty per cent of all primary and secondary school teachers, and 100% of all preschool teachers, were women. 

Soviet women were conspicuously absent from the higher managerial and top bureaucratic positions. In 1983, women made up more than 40% of elected officials (compared with only 8% for the US). However, they were concentrated overwhelmingly in local govern- ment bodies. In 1983, only 6% of the members of the CPSU Central Committee were women. In 1976, while more than 40% of all scientists were women, only three out of 243 full members of the USSR Academy of Sciences were women. Only 6.6% of all industrial enterprises were headed by women. This concentration of women in lower paid jobs, of course, had its reflection in gender wage differentials. In 1991, average women's wages in the Soviet Union were between 60-65% of men's-in comparison to 64.4% in 1924! 

In the 1970s in the East European countries as a whole, the salary differential between men and women ranged from 27-30%, despite the laws on equal pay that have been in effect for decades in these countries. This reflected the fact that women do not work in the same jobs as men. Not only did they continue to be pushed toward the lower paid ``women's occupations,'' and not only were women often overqualified for the jobs they held, but very few of those who completed apprenticeship programs for better-paying, more highly skilled jobs (notably in heavy industry) continued working in these sectors. Domestic responsibilities made it difficult to keep up with new developments in one's speciality. Also, protective laws establishing special conditions under which women could work often had dis- criminatory effects that prevented them from holding the same job as men. 

Women's reproductive control and sexuality

Stalinism didn't just distort women's equality in the economic and social sphere, it distorted women's reproductive role as well. The social division of labor between men and women was reinforced through government policies in these countries aimed at increasing the birth rate to alleviate labor shortages. The Stalinist bureaucracies placed humiliating conditions as well as economic penalties on women seeking abortions such as denial of paid sick leave time to obtain an abortion or refusal to cover abortions as a free medical procedure. 

In fact, the Stalinist bureaucracies repudiated the view of Lenin and other leaders of the Russian Revolution that unrestricted access to abortion is a woman's elementary democratic right. 

While legal abortion was generally available in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe from the '50s and '60s onward, sex education and widespread information on contraceptive methods were explicitly rejected in most East European countries until very recently. Even by the 1980s contraceptive devices and methods like the pill and sterilisation were strictly limited in their availability and very unreliable when they were available. Family planning centres were nonexistent so abortion remained the method of contraception by default. 

In China, on the other hand, the Stalinist bureaucracy introduced special economic penalties for couples with more than two children, in order to try to limit population growth. But the principle is the same. The right of women to choose was subordinated to the economic decisions made by the bureaucracy. 

In all the Eastern European countries, and in China, the bureaucracy promoted policies aimed at reinforcing sexual repression. The extreme housing shortage, the kind of education given to children from earliest infancy, the frequent refusal to rent hotel rooms to non-married couples, pressure to postpone marriage, all reflected the bureaucracy's oppos- ition to any form of sexual liberation. Exploration of sexuality was viewed with suspicion and labeled deviant. Given their place within the family, women bore the brunt of these repressive norms and policies. 

In 1988, as the political situation began to open up in the USSR, one of the first public opinion polls noted that marital and sexual morals were beginning to loosen-that there was ``a narrowing of the possible types of behavior being roundly condemned.'' The previously condemned behavior included activities such as premarital sex, cohabitation with refusal to register as man and wife, and increased rates of divorce. 

Collapse of the Soviet bloc

The reactionary social norms and attitudes promoted by the Stalinist bureaucracy, combined with its reinforcement of the family system, weakened the ability of the working class in Eastern Europe and the USSR to resist the bureaucracy's solution to the social and economic crisis that resulted from decades of bureaucratic overcentralisation and mismanagement-the restoration of capitalism, with significant sections of the bureaucracy attempting to convert itself into the new bourgeoisie. 

Prior to the collapse of their bureaucratically centralised planned economies in 1989-90, most of the Soviet bloc countries had full employment. Today unemployment is skyrocketing and women's jobs are disappearing faster than men's. Women make up the bulk of factory workers across Eastern Europe and the push to privatisation combined with the end of Soviet energy subsidies means factories are closing at an alarming rate. In Moscow in November 1991 77% of the unemployed were women. Eighty per cent of the job cutbacks in the Moscow city administration were borne by women. 

At the same time, social services like child care, public laundries, access of married women to unemployment benefits-limited though they may have been under the Stalinist regimes-are now under attack. 

The bureaucratic elite has sought to block the development of a unified resistance by workers to the massive loss of jobs and free social services that its ``free market'' policies have imposed by reinforcing the reactionary idea that women's ``natural'' role is inside the home, as mother-wife-housekeeper. As part of this offensive, significant sections of the bureaucratic elite, particularly in Poland, have accommodated to the demands of the Catholic hierarchy to have abortion banned. Similar moves have taken place in the re-unified Germany to get rid of accessible abortion in the former German Democratic Republic and to impose West Germany's criminalisation of abortion. 

Future directions for ex-Soviet bloc women

The collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and the former USSR opens up a very contradictory period for women in these countries. On the one hand, the attacks on the rights they have taken for granted for decades (the right to employment, to social services and to access to limited reproductive choices) open up the potential for the independent mobilisation of women to develop. On the other hand, there is the legacy of conservative social attitudes maintained by Stalinism and the heritage of its hostility to feminism, to the independent mobilisation of women for their own specific interests. 

There are specific historical reasons for the long delay in the development of a mass feminist consciousness in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe: 

  • a. In the advanced capitalist countries, a mass feminist movement grew out of the contradiction between, on the one hand, the material possibilities for women's liberation opened up by the technological, economic and social changes that occurred in the 1950s and '60s, and, on the other, the legal and ideological obstacles capitalism placed in the way of women fully utilising these possibilities. As a result of the emergence and growth of the feminist movement, women in the advanced capitalist countries were able to achieve a level of formal equality comparable to that enjoyed by women in the post-capitalist countries. In the West these gains were a product of, and helped generalise, a massive shift in public attitudes about women's status and role in society. By contrast, the comparable gains made by women under Stalinism were a combined product of the legacy of the October Revolution and of the labor policies that flowed from the bureaucracy's emphasis on extensive industrialisation. 
  • b. In the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as in the advanced capitalist countries, sufficient material wealth and technology existed by the 1960s to significantly alleviate the double burden of women. Yet the distortions introduced in economic planning and the productive process because of the absence of democratic control over production by the workers and the domination of the privileged bureaucracy were the source of resentment. Women felt the dead weight of the bureaucracy in this respect even more than men because they were forced to compensate for the distortions in the economy through the double day's labor they performed. 
  • c. From the mid-1960s on, these potentially explosive resentments forced the various Stalinist regimes to plan expanded production in consumer goods and increased social services. While this shift was inadequate to meet women's growing expectations, it led to an expectation that these would eventually be met. These expectations, and the continued suppression of independent social organisation and activity by the bureaucracy, blocked the development of a feminist movement even among dissident intellectuals. 
  • d. Moreover, in the historical evolution of women's struggles leading up to the Russian Revolution, those who identified themselves as feminists did not champion the interests of the majority of women-women workers and peasant women. They were bourgeois and urban middle-class women who fought for civil equality on a class basis, i.e., for the rights enjoyed by the men of the propertied classes to be extended to the women of those classes. In pre-revolutionary Russia the struggle for the rights of women as a whole was part of the revolutionary-democratic struggle against autocracy and the vestiges of serfdom. It was led by Marxists. There was no independent women's movement. As a result, feminism was seen as a divisive and essentially bourgeois movement. This view was maintained and reinforced by the Stalinist bureaucracies. 
However, the conscious struggle of women for their liberation will be a significant component of the political process now unfolding in these countries. The collapse of Stalinist totalitarianism with its rigid restrictions on travel and access to information and ideas from the West has created greater possibilities for women in the ex-USSR and Eastern Europe to make contact with women in the West. As they begin to organise to resist the attacks on their rights by the pro-capitalist regimes that have come to power with the collapse of Stalinism, the women of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union will inevitably be affected by ideas generated by the radicalisation of women in the capitalist countries over the last two and a half decades. 

Already some very limited organisation is taking place in Moscow. In March 1991 a women's congress was organised by feminists which was attended by 200 women from all over Russia. The most pressing questions of interest were economic and political rights of women in the ``new democracy''. 

Lessons for the women's movement

The Stalinist counter-revolution in respect to women and the family, and the vast inequality of women in the Soviet Union more than 70 years after the October Revolution, constituted one of the key obstacles to winning radicalised women elsewhere to revolutionary Marxism. As with all other questions, the policies of Stalinism were equated with Leninism rather than recognised for what they were-the negation of Leninism. 

Women fighting for their liberation elsewhere often looked to the USSR and Eastern Europe and concluded that if this was what ``socialism'' did for women, they didn't need it. And of course many anti-Marxists pointed to the situation of women in these countries as ``proof'' that the road to women's liberation is not through class struggle. This led to enormous political and ideological confusion in the women's movement -- a confusion heightened by the post-1985 revelations of the state of social, economic and political disorder in these countries. 

But there are enormous lessons to be learnt from these experiences-negative as well as positive. 

The Bolshevik Revolution demonstrated how the conscious struggles for women's liberation and socialism are interlinked-that the struggle for women's liberation is not one of women against men but a united struggle in which women, as both a major component of the working class and of its allies, actively combined to improve the situation of all while, at the same time, championing their own specific demands. But Soviet history also strikingly confirms the fact that the family institution is the cornerstone of the oppression of women. 

As long as women's domestic servitude is sustained and nurtured by economic and political policy, as long as the functions of the family are not fully taken over by superior social institutions, the truly equal integration of women in productive life and all social affairs is impossible. The responsibility of women for domestic labor is the source of the inequalities they face in daily life, in education, in work and in politics. 

Because the oppression of women is historically intertwined with the division of society into classes and with the role of the family as the basic unit of class society, this oppression can only be eradicated with the abolition of private ownership of the means of production. Today it is these class relations of production-not the productive capacities of humanity-which constitute the obstacle to transferring to society as a whole the social and economic foundations borne under capitalism by the individual family. 

However, the liberation of women cannot be achieved simply by abolishing the capitalist economic system. This is necessary, but by itself it is not sufficient. What is also required is a dynamic transformation and eradication of all the social attitudes and ideological justifications which prop up and justify the economic, social and political inequalities faced by women. That can only be achieved by the conscious self- mobilisation of the victims of such oppression-of women themselves. 

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