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How did the Russian Revolution solve the big problem of domestic work and everything related to it? The answer leads us to question the very basis of all class divided societies, which have been the source of thousands of years of women’s oppression. Due to the meaning of domestic work in the capitalist system of production and its deep consequences for workers, just as with old and new arguments with feminist currents, it is important to analyze closely.

By Olga Lucía Peñaloza – Rosa Cecilia Lemus.

 

Women’s Oppression, a Social Historic Process

Marxism explains women’s oppression. Women’s subjugation has been based on the universal belief [ideology] in the intellectual, physical and biological inferiority of women, and, their role in society has been limited to reproduction, childcare, and care of the family. In ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State’, Engels demonstrated that oppression followed a social historic process related to the emergence of private property of the means of production and exploitation of one class over the other.

Since societies divided into classes, before capitalism in slavery and feudalism, domestic work has been central to women’s oppression and has been expressed in the different forms of family. Engels asserted, “the abolition of the mother right was the great defeat of the female sex”. Thus, affirming there was an extended period of human prehistory where women had immense social recognition and their reproductive tasks did not affect their position in the community. On the contrary, descendants were defined from the maternal line. With the development of the productive forces, the accumulation of surpluses and the emergence of private property, all social relations changed and the paternal right was imposed to guarantee inheritance through the masculine line as a fundament of private property.

The Russian workers’ revolution demonstrated that it was possible to settle this enormous historic debt with women. One of its main lessons was to begin the building of new family relations on a new social and economic basis. This was done by abolishing the material conditions of their oppression (private property), guaranteeing an important link to social production and cultural and political life, radically changing the laws granting equal rights, providing guarantees to free and voluntary maternity, socializing domestic work, and beginning the difficult battle to eradicate the prejudices, beliefs and customs that have been at the heart of society for centuries.

Domestic Work in the Capitalist System of Production

Domestic work, far from being a private issue exclusive to women in the intimacy of the home, is immersed in the capitalist relations of production. In ‘Gender and Class’ Cecilia Toledo states, “… domestic work is an issue of the capitalist system of production because it is related to the reproduction process of the labor force. This reproduction takes place in the home.[1] This means that a worker’s family and the women within it are oppressed due to factors that go beyond the relationship between the sexes. Women’s natural role in the reproduction of the human species with pregnancy, labor, and breastfeeding, which makes them different from men, imposes on them the role of providing new subjects of exploitation for the capitalist workforce market: their children, given the exploitative conditions of the entire working class. Meanwhile, in the bourgeois family, women give birth to the heirs of capital.

Secondly, all so-called domestic work or tasks are related to the reproduction of this workforce (upbringing, education, childcare) and to the renewal of energy (cooking, cleaning, healthcare) that her husband needs as a wage earner to go to the next work shift where the capitalist consumes their energies again (workforce). A miserable wage compensates all domestic work and the capitalist indirectly saves the cost of maintaining this commodity (workforce). Without it, they cannot turn commodities into other goods, thus obtaining their juicy profits (surplus value). Alexandra Kollantai summarized the situation of women before the revolution:

“Capitalism has burdened the working woman’s shoulders with a crushing weight. It has turned her into a worker without relieving her of her tasks as housewife and mother.

Thus, we find women are constantly exhausted due to this triple and unbearable load, which she often expresses with screams of pain and tears appear in her eyes… never has her life been such a disgrace, more desperate than now in the capitalist regime, precisely when industry is going through its maximum expansion.” [2]

This is the basis of the Marxist analysis of oppression. The October Revolution, with the Bolshevik Party in the lead, needed to change this radically. This was what was meant by the need to liberate women from these abhorrent existing conditions in order to liberate the working class from exploitation. Women’s emancipation is inextricably linked to the fate of the workers’ revolution and the building of socialism. The Bolsheviks were aware of this. Leon Trotsky verifies this,

The October revolution honestly fulfilled its obligations in relation to woman. The young government not only gave her all political and legal rights in equality with man, but, what is more important, did all that it could, and in any case incomparably more than any other government ever did, actually to secure her access to all forms of economic and cultural work. However, the boldest revolution, like the “all-powerful” British parliament, cannot convert a woman into a man – or rather, cannot divide equally between them the burden of pregnancy, birth, nursing and the rearing of children.” Thus, requiring the elimination of the social and economic burden of maternity so that the state and society assumes the necessary measures for their protection and freedom.

Socialism Will Only Be Possible with the Participation of the Female Masses

To build socialism the Bolshevik Revolution transformed the old capitalist society based in the private property of the means of production by, in Lenin’s word, “expropriating the expropriators”, and socializing production. The participation of workers, in the revolutionary struggle to seize power, was a heritage that favored their intervention in the building of the new state. Their experience of struggle against the Czarist regime and the concentration of the proletariat in the cities facilitated their participation and understanding of the purposes of the revolution. This was expressed in their ongoing relations with the women’s assemblies, the soviets, the Bolshevik Party and the administration of the State. Just as the socialization of the fields was imperative, so was the incorporation of women in the building of socialism.

In Czarist Russia, there was an enormous peasant population. According to Trotsky, four million factory workers led one hundred million peasants. Hence the need to socialize the fields and transform the archaic practices of production, with poor peasantry subjugated to very intense levels of exploitation and medieval servitude, and where the peasant women withstood a forced labor regime and the worst forms of oppression. Lenin and Trotsky studied Russian society and knew of the need to transform the fields with collectivization measures. Along with the collectivization of the land, the organization of the peasantry was promoted. In 1918, on the eve of the invasion of the imperialist armies to Soviet Russia, in his speech before the I Congress of the women workers of Russia, Lenin said,

“The status of women up to now has been compared to that of a slave; women have been tied to the home, and only socialism can save them from this. They will only be completely emancipated when we get rid of the small peasant farms to proceed to co-operative farming and use collective methods to work the land. That is a difficult task. But now the Poor Peasant Committees are being transformed, the time has come when the socialist revolution is being consolidated. …The experience of all liberation movements has shown that the success of a revolution depends on how much the women take part in it.” [3]

Socialization of Domestic Work: the Path Towards Emancipation

The newly born Soviet Russia adopted the most advanced legislation for women in the world and proclaimed equal rights between both sexes: the right to divorce, the right to open and free abortion, civil marriage, and the elimination of prostitution. Although the enactment of laws that freed women was a breaking point for the most advanced capitalist countries, with the laws that subjugated Russian women this was only a parting shot for the true liberation that would come with the building of socialism led by the proletarian masses. This process took time and was linked to advances in the productive forces, the development of the world revolution, efficiency in the distribution of food and the use of technology in terms of improving the living conditions of the proletariat and the peasantry, as was the case with electricity for workers’ and peasants’ homes.

The family, considered as a small, closed, archaic, mundane, asphyxiating enterprise that condemned women to forced labor throughout their lives, should be substituted with a system of social services: maternity houses, nurseries, kindergartens, hospitals, sanatoriums, restaurants, laundries, cinemas, theaters, and sports organizations. Socialist society absorbed the economic functions of the family and united the new society with bonds of solidarity and mutual assistance. This provided women and their partners with true emancipation.

The woman’s situation, and the protection of maternity and childhood, was the thermometer that demonstrated the progress of a socialist society. Consequently, the laws were translated in specific measures that liberated women from the domestic burden and summoned them to obligatory productive work and the building of community institutions managed by wage earners of both sexes. For their emancipation women were called to be the first line. Thus, seizing on their organizational capability and their wide experience of organization developed in the home, there was permanent propaganda for women workers and peasants to join the soviets, to the management of the State and the Party, and placing in their hands the administration of food and the newly created institutions in the service of women and the family. Women should lead their own emancipation, as they are directly affected. Trotsky, in a letter to a women workers’ meeting in Moscow 1923 wisely said, “…However those who set more energy and constancy in the struggle for the new are those who suffer the most for the old. In the current family situation, the women, wife and mother, suffers the most.”[4]

Everything Conspired Against the New Workers’ State

A series of factors combined at the heart of the proletarian State against the advance of the socialization of production and domestic work. The socialist revolution took place in one of the most backward countries, contrary what Marxism foresaw. The young soviet power had to face the dreadful consequences of the first imperialist world war, and afterwards an attack by the imperialist armies to suffocate the triumphant workers’ revolution. This forced thousands of workers and Bolshevik leaders to move in the defense of the Soviet State, and to concentrate most of the food, clothes and arms production for the survival of the Red Army. The chaos, desolation, and setback of many of the socialist measures adopted caused a delay in building. The rate of development even decreased to pre-revolution levels. As Trotsky said, the young, flourishing and determined Russian proletariat was willing to advance. The contradiction between the backwardness of the country and its relative strength regarding the working class of the most advanced countries, and the existence of the most revolutionary party known to history, forced this backward country to overcome the others.

The Struggle Between the New and the Old

Besides struggling against misery and the effects of war, soviet society had to concentrate its efforts on breaking with conservatism, pessimism and obstacles that interfered between the proletariat and the state. Lenin criticized the deficiency in initiatives by highlighting the “small sprouts of communism” and expressing their achievements which simply relieved women from domestic tasks, whereas the bourgeoisie could only see them as successful profit-making enterprises.

“Do we in practice pay sufficient attention to this question, which in theory every Communist considers indisputable? Of course not. …Public catering establishments, nurseries, kindergartens – here we have examples of these shoots, here we have the simple, everyday means, involving nothing pompous, grandiloquent, or ceremonial, which can really emancipate women, really lessen and abolish their inequality with men as regards their role in social production and public life”.

“… Our press does not take the trouble…to describe the best catering establishments or nurseries, in order, by their daily insistence, to get some of them turned into models of their kind. It does not give them enough publicity, does not describe in detail the saving in human labor, … the emancipation of women from domestic slavery, the improvement in sanitary conditions that can be achieved with exemplary communist work and extended to the whole of society, to all working people.”[5]

Promoting optimism and valuing the small successes of socialization that emerged as the result of the social effort and struggle against inertia and routine were required to improve their quality.

There was major agreement between Lenin and Trotsky in detecting and pointing out the obstacles towards the real emancipation of women and the struggle to overcome them. Trotsky said,

“… It is necessary to destroy the barriers of this suffocating prison of the current family structure for women, which transforms her into a slave or a beast of burden. This will only be achieved through the common organization of food and childcare. To walk this long path a great effort of will, material resources, wisdom and efforts are necessary.”[6]

The challenge of the soviet state besides ending poverty was overcoming patiently and in the long term, the backward consciousness of the workers, peasants and intellectuals. In society, the moral prejudices on family and women persisted. Trotsky used to say that the easiest problem was seizing power even though it absorbed all the strength in the first years. To change customs, to destroy old family relations and create new ones was infinitely harder. To institute in the Soviet State equality among men and women, was also one of the simplest problems, however, to achieve this reality was a tortuous and complicated process.

“The next one was much more difficult, ensuring equality among working men and women in the factories, workshops and unions, and doing it so men did not place women at a disadvantage. However, to achieve true equality between men and women in the heart of the family is an infinitely harder problem. Before this happens, all our domestic customs must be subverted.”[7]  

To Retake the Path of the Russian Revolution to Emancipate Women

Despite all the obstacles of the first years and the setbacks due to the Stalinist bureaucratization later, the October Revolution liberated the woman proletariat and peasant from the yoke of the house with the socialization of domestic work. It showed how this could be solved on a socialist basis, it granted women equal rights, and increased the capability of women to participate in science, culture and the social sphere as no other capitalist state has ever done.

Likewise, it showed women workers around the world the need to organize together with the male proletariat to struggle against the exploitation of the capitalist system as the path to achieve their definite emancipation: socialist society. The impact was so great that it served and still does as an example and reference for women’s struggle in the capitalist world. Many of the advances achieved in previous decades have been a response to the triumph of worker’s power in Soviet Russia. The restoration of capitalism in Russia and the other worker states reveals an alarming setback to the rights of women, in equal measure the whole of society is set back. To overcome the current crisis of the capitalist system forces us to raise again the systematic and daily struggle for socialism, collecting the teachings of this poignant revolution.

***

Translation: Alejandra Ramírez.

Notes:

 

[1] Cecilia Toledo. Género y Clase. [Gender and Class]. Ediciones Marxismo Vivo. Ed. Lorca. San Pablo. Pg. 74: For Marx, the work force is the commodity that the worker sells to the capitalist for the production of goods. [The working class generates wealth in the capitalist economy].

[2] A. Kollontai. Autobiografía de una mujer emancipada. [An Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman]. Editorial Fontamara S.A, 3° edición. 1978. Barcelona. Pg. 164. [Our translation].

[3] El marxismo y la cuestión de la mujer. [Marxism and the women’s issue] Lenin. Op. Cit. Pg.162 [Our translation].

[4] L. Trotsky. Escritos sobre la cuestión femenina. [Writings on the women’s issue]. Editorial Anagrama. 1977. Pg. 38 [Our translation].

[5] V. I. Lenin. On the Emancipation of Women. Collection of writings. Progress Publishers Moscow 1974. Pgs. 62 & 66. .

[6] L. Trotsky. Op. Cit. Pg. 36, 35 [Our translation].

[7] L. Trotski. Cuadernos de Pasado y Presente. [Notebooks of the Past and Present]. Pg. 198 [Our translation]