Women eager to fight show up at many follow-up events, only to hear vapid lectures about how to run for office or how to network. In the meantime, Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders lecture the fighters for a $15 minimum wage, telling them last month that even after the Democrats regain control, they must not expect a $15 minimum wage for at least another seven years.
At the same time, state legislatures dream up ever more creative ways to tighten restrictions on birth control, dismantle education for children, roll back wages and benefits, and cut health care. Rape culture continues, and lesbian bashing is again in the news.
The global crisis of capitalism is throwing up rightist parties and regimes with the most reactionary gender politics at the center of their political programs. It is clear as day that this system is incapable of providing women’s full liberation or a real end to gender discrimination.
But a look at the experience of the Russian Revolution should help us think of an alternative way forward. It reminds us that there once was a state officially committed to women’s liberation. Their program was based on the idea that a socialist society could release women from the control of institutions like the Orthodox Church and the patriarchal family. They not only created conditions of full economic independence for women but provided alternative means of supplying food preparation, laundry, child care, and education.
In the effort to create these material conditions, they were working towards the goal of the withering away of the restrictive family—with the striving for romantic love and sexual expression freed from the repression and authoritarianism that came with the development of the compulsory family as an economic and social unit under capitalism.
In the end, the pressures of imperialist intervention and civil war and then of counter-revolution under the bureaucracy led by Joseph Stalin reversed and then buried their dreams. But they still left us with the most extraordinary record of a decade when working women deliberately set off on a new road with the support of a revolutionary state.
That decade was a time when hundreds of thousands of women workers, teenagers and mothers, from cities and nearly feudal rural villages gathered in conferences and meetings to debate the way forward and participate in some of the most audacious mass social experiments yet seen. Whatever the limitations of a century ago, they demonstrated that when the profit motive is suppressed and material conditions changed, extremely rapid changes can occur in social organization, attitudes, and goals.
As soon as the revolution occurred, the Tsarist criminal code was thrown out the door. While lesbians were never specifically mentioned in the code, gay men were criminalized through the anti-sodomy laws. When the anti-sodomy laws were repealed, Russia was only the second country to do so—the other being France, which at the time also was in the aftermath of its great revolution.
Family Code steadily becomes more radical
One of the first actions of the Russian Revolution was a new Family Code; the first version came out in 1918. In response to the lived experience of women over time, the code was revised and became more and more radical.
The first issue to be dealt with was an attempt to free women and children from the archaic morals and repressive family structure launched by Russian Orthodox marriage. The revolution also sought to end the misery of divorce. So, marriage and divorce became voluntary civil arrangements, marked legally only by registration. There is even a record of a same-sex marriage court case that ruled in favor of the couple. We do not know how common this was, but it shows just how dramatic was the change in thinking.
The Bolsheviks began their work in a situation in which the compulsory family structure had been weakened by the same kind of pressures women experience today when they are responsible for both waged work and domestic work. They recognized the vise in which women were squeezed, and implemented measure after measure to remedy the situation. For example, they ended the concept of the family wage and replaced it with equal wages for women.
This meant women could escape abusers without economic fear. They eliminated the shame and economic deprivation of illegitimacy, decriminalized sex work, and provided child-care centers for working mothers, communal dining for workers and children, and communal laundries. By 1920 free abortion was more or less available in hospitals.
These measures were in reality always partial, and the facilities were not always of the highest quality or enough to meet the demand. But think what they meant for those who experienced the sudden and amazing shift in their social organization and being involved in the continuing debate!
All of these legal changes resulted in an immediate upset to the sexual order. But sometimes, changes in behavior were far in advance of the economic advances that made women more secure. Under the circumstances of the war-torn economy, all women did not have genuine economic independence, and men abused the system, so the Family Code was altered again and again to provide more alimony to “divorced” women. There was little hesitation about taking remedial actions until the economy, wrecked by intervention and war, could be repaired.
These changes did not only impact urban women. Rural women made huge strides as well. The records show us that peasant women and men often had opposing views. They debated the Family Code and how it applied to peasant units in which land was owned collectively by more than one family. They participated in national conferences under the Women’s Department in which all sectors came together to debate and assess what was good in theory but not in practice.
The revolutionary government had to take measures to provide for workers in industry and the orphaned children in the midst of deprivation and civil war. Communal kitchens and other alternatives to domestic labor became mass affairs.
Women filled the workshops. Alexandra Kollantai was recorded as gloating that the family was dead. But in the midst of the civil war that threatened to roll back the revolution completely, those driving forward on the plans to emancipate women were premature in their conclusion that the old order—that of the compulsory family with its double burden and sexual repression—was over.
As soon as the war ended, the revolutionary government was forced to try to revive the war-torn economy through applying some market measures. Factories were forced to implement strict accounting related to productivity. There were mass layoffs, with women being chosen to be the first to be laid off by old-fashioned supervisors.
Under these measures, collectively known as the New Economic Policy, many child-care centers and other communal facilities were closed. But the ideal was not lost, and up through about 1925 there was still progress in consciousness and practice.
In short, while not always successful, and with the limitations imposed, the overall achievement of the Bolshevik revolution is diametrically opposed to that of global capitalism today. Even an underdeveloped country, torn by imperialist invasion and war—but under working class leadership—could make advances far beyond what the most sophisticated capitalist economies have been able to do in the last 100 years.
We should not only learn from the advances made in Russia but from the retreat. By 1925, the left forces around Trotsky were essentially defeated by a reactionary bureaucracy headed by Stalin. As the bureaucracy consolidated its power, it moved quickly to re-establish the compulsory family as a social and economic unit.
Stalin’s turn toward the strategy of enriching a section of the peasantry necessitated a tolerance for the social mores of the patriarchal peasant family. Motherhood became the object of awards. The Women’s Department was abolished. In 1930, abortion was made illegal. By 1936, the family was celebrated as a unit of social order and used to bolster the authoritarian regime.
And homosexuality was once again criminalized. Eventually, it was officially described as a “bourgeois deviation.” This was the position not only of the Soviet Union but of all the Communist Parties in the world, including in the United States. From the Russian experience, we have learned to expect these adaptations to the reactionary social past in any period of reaction or retreat. Women’s fate is inextricably tied to the fate of the whole working class.
What does this show activists today?
We must build a social feminism that seeks to strengthen the movement of women, immigrants, women of color, the working-class movement as a whole, and all those who are struggling independent of the bosses’ parties.
We must strive to win victories on many fronts against the forces that seek to limit and roll back the rights of women and other oppressed people. But history shows us that to achieve deep and lasting gains, the strategy for women’s and sexual liberation must chart a course towards a break with capitalism and toward the working-class seizure of power.
Of course, we are not on the verge of a revolution in any of the advanced capitalist countries. But activists, including those in the women’s movement, are at a moment of decision regarding which strategic road to take.
On this 100th anniversary of the bravery of the women of the Bolshevik Party and the millions of women in the Soviet Union who saw the future and fought like the devil for it, the road marked out by these revolutionaries provides important lessons for today.