A dynamic double act

Issue 

Bolshevik Women
By Barbara Evans Clements
Cambridge University Press, 1997. 338 pp., $39.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

To jittery reactionaries in revolutionary Russia, one of the most upsetting sights was the female Bolshevik. Proud and independent, the Bolsheviki challenged not only the class power of the rich but the traditional dominance of the male in society and in the family.

Barbara Clements cites one counter-revolutionary colonel fighting against the Red Army during the Civil War deriding "the imbecile element" leading armies and demanding rights for women when by destiny they "belong to the pots and the kitchen, not in politics which is absolutely alien to their understanding".

The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, renounced sexism, welcomed women into politics and were decades ahead of their time with their revolutionary program for liberating women from domestic slavery and civic and economic inequality.

Clements studies the women who committed themselves to the Bolshevik party prior to the revolution and during the Civil War. She includes case studies of prominent Bolshevik women: including Nadezhda Krupskaia (underground and exile organiser, and Lenin's wife), Alexandra Kollontai (commissar of social welfare in the Soviet government and popular spokeswoman on women's issues and sexuality), Inessa Armand (organiser of women workers and reputedly Lenin's lover), Elena Stasova (who survived into the Brezhnev era as an icon of Leninist heritage to be trotted out by the Stalinists on ceremonial occasions), and other women who rose to prominence in the theatres of war, politics and the Zhenotdel, the Soviet government's women's department.

Russian women joined the revolutionary struggle as rebels against a future as a dutiful wife of an authoritarian husband or a life of poverty and toil in a factory. They became Marxists because of the Marxist critique of women's oppression being rooted in private property and the family. The middle-class feminists offered independence only for women of wealth.

Risking death, prison and exile, the women revolutionaries entered an egalitarian world. They ran printing presses and workers' study circles alongside their male comrades. Rejecting the indecisiveness and self-defeating caution of the moderate socialists, most went on to accept Lenin's leadership during and after the revolution.

They worked to make women's liberation a high priority, to win over women to the Bolsheviks and the Bolsheviks to women's emancipation.

They met some resistance. Some men, and women, within the Bolshevik party suspected them of the "feminist" deviation of putting gender before class, or of absorbing resources that were needed for more important arenas of struggle.

Not all party members were free from old cultural stereotypes of women. This baggage was even heavier amongst the rank and file Red Army soldiers who "tested" their new women commanders for their resolve and strength. The peasantry, being the most culturally backward, were the most hostile, disrupting meetings and shouting down Zhenotdel speakers, even (under the influence of feudalist peasant leaders) killing them.

Clements makes rather much of this opposition, but few Bolsheviks expected their job to be easy. Lenin, who "described marriage as female slavery and had been known to sew on his own buttons", railed against the new, post-revolutionary party members' less advanced attitudes to women. Revolutions do not make new people out of the old overnight.

The Bolshevik women persevered, however, and overcame much of the opposition. The Red Army woman leader "helped to energise demoralised men, hotly contended with inept, corrupt officers, worked for days without sleep and endured the hardships of life at the front and the terror of combat".

Zhenotdel workers were able to convince growing numbers of peasant women that their personal unhappiness was the result of social injustice; as one peasant recruit put it, they "treated us with sincere attention, respectfully listened to us, delicately pointed out our errors, little by little taught us wisdom and reason".

The Bolshevik women's influence in the new Russia was significant. Their women's newspapers had a large readership and they could mobilise more than 600,000 delegates to women's conferences, advancing the Zhenotdel's aim of bringing women into active roles in political life.

The Zhenotdel attacked the roots of women's oppression by socialising housework and establishing restaurants, nurseries, laundries, maternity homes, child-care centres and sewing centres, to free women from their domestic burdens. Kollontai, not without pockets of resistance, made sexual freedom Bolshevik orthodoxy.

The Bolshevik women were able to counter their opponents in the party by appealing for, and receiving, strong political support from the Bolshevik leadership (all male once Kollontai had resigned from the central committee over the concessions to private enterprise after the Civil War).

The Bolshevik women's achievements should be an inspiring example of how women's liberation and socialism can be a dynamic double act. Unfortunately, this vision is distorted and dulled through the ideological glare screen of Clements' patriarchy theory.

Clements believes that men, by the fact of their gender, have different interests from women. In this view, no amount of political education can overcome even the most politically enlightened men clubbing together against women's full equality.

Clements argues that the Bolsheviks' proclamations on women's equality were in advance of their practice, not only because of the material and human exhaustion of an economically ravaged country, but because of "long-standing limitations in the party's commitment to women's emancipation" and a male leadership which was committed to patriarchal, "masculinist" values.

Despite a (grudging) acknowledgment of the Bolsheviks' reforms, the "widespread consensus" among Bolshevik leaders that women's equality was an important goal and Lenin's worthy attitudes on the domestic roots of women's oppression, Clements' makes sweeping generalisations about the discrimination that all women have always suffered in all socialist parties, the "subordination of gender liberation" to class struggle and the role of women revolutionaries as auxiliaries, not equals or leaders, in socialist parties.

Politics is seen as "an alien male game", something that women take part in only at the risk of becoming as "hard" as men by worshipping discipline and power and, like the Bolshevik women, "always bowing to the pressure to conform".

The pessimistic dead end of Clements' patriarchy theory is, however, at odds with much of the material in her book. While quite a lot of her square peg will go into the round hole (women were a minority, around 15%, in the Bolshevik party and an even smaller minority in the leadership, and they did have to contend with backward attitudes in their own party), a lot of the peg just won't fit, no matter how hard the hammer of patriarchy theory is wielded.

Lenin and Stalin were both men. Yet it was Lenin who often amended party policy to emphasise women's issues, who supported the allocation of scarce resources to the Zhenotdel and who proposed a women's newspaper. And it was Stalin who turned it all around by organising a cult of domesticity and restoring women to their traditional domestic role, thus doubly exploiting them as workers in production and reproduction.

Some Bolshevik men worked for the Zhenotdel. Some Bolshevik women refused to. Some Bolshevik women acquiesced during the Stalinist ascendancy which whittled away their rights. Others, like Armand, Krupskaia and Kollontai, opposed it.

Just as women, and men, in society were split along class lines, so women, and men, within the Bolshevik party split along political lines in relation to democratic working-class power. Their resulting attitude to women's rights was determined by their politics, not their gender.

The women and men revolutionaries in Russia who stood for the widest social democracy and the fullest personal liberation did so through the Bolshevik party. If their achievements were brief, and not without flaw, this was due to a lack of resources to root out backwardness, not an inevitable case of Bolshevik men behaving badly.

If it is read without the patriarchy-coloured spectacles, the women of the Bolshevik party shine through Clements' book as the strong, liberated, fully human people that they were, and the models that they can be for today's women in movements for progressive social change.