March 8th, 1917 (February 23rd according to the Julian calendar, in force in Russia at the time), in Petrograd, a great group of women went to the streets to demand, yelling, the end of the war. Alexandra Kollontai, one of the main leaders of the Bolshevik Party at the time, said:
“Afterwards came the great 1917. Hunger, cold, and sufferings of the war prevailed over the suffering of the Russian worker and peasant women. February 23rd, 1917, they bravely went out to the streets of Petrograd. These women, workers and wives of soldiers, demanded bread for their children and the return of their husbands from the trenches. […] That day, the Russian women brandished the torch of the proletarian revolution and begun the hostilities. The February revolution begun that day.” [Our translation]
By Laura Sguazzabia.
A Spark ready to explode
In Russia, the war and transfer of workers to the front lines notably increased the entry of women to the factories. At the beginning of the war, a third of all factory workers were women. By February 1917, this number had increased, just in Petrograd, to 47% of the work force. Working women were mainly in the textile, leather and rubber industries, and they were previously banned from many sectors, like transportation, typography and metal industries. They had to guarantee bread for their children and before going to the factories they had to make endless lines to get some food, many times staying outdoors overnight in the freezing Russian winter. Since 1916, working women and women in general had organized riots due shortage of bread and coal, and stroke for wages, reduction of work shifts and against harassment of employers and foremen. However, at the beginning of 1917, the situation was very tense: the patriotic wave of the beginning of the war had extinguished due to the magnitude of the military disaster and under the pressure of lack of food and coal. This led women to question the political power, gradually turning economic strikes into political ones. According to the police reports of the time, women “are inflammable material, they only need a sparkle to explode”.
Among women, Bolshevik women were recruiting in the poorest neighborhoods through specific propaganda. The Bolshevik party actually carried out a serious and methodic work to organize and win over the female workers. Since 1913, the Pravda, the Bolshevik journal, published a page dedicated to the issues of the working women. A year later, they issued a special journal directed to women, Rabotnitsa, which approached the specific issues of working women, linking them to the workers’ struggle against capitalism and closing the door to any collaboration with bourgeois Feminism. The Bolshevik Inessa Armand wrote, in 1915, in the Rabotnitsa journal: “Women must have an important role in the struggle for food. The struggle to increase wages and reduce the work shift is only possible through the participation of working women. The task is to raise these women’s class consciousness”. [Our translation]
At the same time, she encouraged workers: “You, comrades, must not forget that the cause of working women is also your cause; until masses of women do not enter your organizations, until they are not attracted by your movement, [this] will be an enormous obstacle in your path.” [Our translation]
Bolshevik propaganda in this regard was of vital importance due to the fact that women in Russia represented one of the most oppressed sectors of the working class. Beyond the most brutal violations by employers, they were culturally and intellectually hit, as well as oppressed within domestic environment. Thus, when they rebelled against this situation; when they were freed from this terrible burden represented in their social and economic role, they managed to go very far. They did not break their chains gradually but explosively, and not one at a time but all at once. They became the opposite of what they had been. They went from being the most moderate and fearful sector to the most radical and courageous one. Hatred against the old regime –which forced them to remain at the margin of life in all aspects– was enormous, and they were not willing to go back to the previous situation.
The Beginning of the Revolution
February 23rd, 1917, was chosen to commemorate Working Women’s Day, but nobody imagined the foreseen demonstrations would begin the revolutionary process that passed into history as the February Revolution. Trotsky himself, in The History of the Russian Revolution, speaks of the participation of working women in the events of February 1917: “The social-democratic circles had intended to mark this day in a general manner: by meetings, speeches, leaflets. It had not occurred to anyone that it might become the first day of the revolution.” The strike was not a foreseen mobilization measure, not even by the Bolshevik organizations: “Not a single organisation called for strikes on that day. What is more, even a Bolshevik organisation, and a most militant one – the Vyborg borough committee, all workers – was opposing strikes. The temper of the masses, according to Kayurov, one of the leaders in the workers’ district, was very tense; any strike would threaten to turn into an open fight.” The Vyborg workers’ committee thought “the time unripe for militant action – [and] the party [is] not strong enough”, and it did not have certainty about the soldiers supporting the revolt. Thus, it was decided not to allow the strike and instead prepare for revolutionary action in a vague future.
In the eve of February 23rd, textile workers of the Vyborg neighborhood summoned for an event against the war and against food and resources shortage. Even knowing that without female workers there could be no revolution, many revolutionaries thought female workers did not have the capacity to organize and be activists in their factories. Thus, it was Kajurov – a metal worker and one of the Bolsheviks who considered women emotive and undisciplined – that spoke on the meeting: in his speech, he acknowledged the value of their work, he focused in their specific demands as on those related to the war; and he asked women to work with the party and discipline to the party’s orientation. The intention, evidently, was to dissuade them from continuing the demonstrations in the squares. In this occasion, no women contradicted him. However, some hours later, the same working women organized a general strike that would lead to the fall of Czarism.
“A mass of women, not all of them workers, flocked to the municipal duma demanding bread. It was like demanding milk from a he-goat. Red banners appeared in different parts of the city, (…)”. They left work, divided into groups to get adherence from other factories, mainly of the metal workers that were considered the vanguard of the working class. At the same time, the leadership of the Politov metal workshops had answered with suspension of activities due to the workers’ demand for wage: over 20,000 workers joined female textile workers.
Women did not accept other workers’ negative answers: where they were not heard, they threw stones, snowballs and lit sticks against the doors and windows, and entered the facilities. While they moved around the district, police and troops arrived. The first revolt left dead and wounded people, but working women set up barricades while exhorting the soldiers not to shoot. Many soldiers knew them already from garrisons. Zhenya Egorova, member of the Bolshevik party in Vyborg, attempted to communicate with the Cossacks; ultimately, soldiers were just peasants in uniform. When Cossacks answered that men did not have to obey women, she answered stating their brothers were in the front. Suddenly, Cossacks’ riffles fell to the ground. Women had opened a breach among the Czar’s most faithful force.
Trotsky says: “A great role is played by women workers in relationship between workers and soldiers. They go up to the cordons more boldly than men, take hold of the rifles, beseech, almost command: “Put down your bayonets – join us.” The soldiers are excited, ashamed, exchange anxious glances, waver; someone makes up his mind first, and the bayonets rise guiltily above the shoulders of the advancing crowd. The barrier is opened, a joyous and grateful “Hurrah!” shakes the air. The soldiers are surrounded. Everywhere arguments, reproaches, appeals the revolution makes another forward step.”
From this moment on, mobilization continued to expand, winning other neighborhoods and uniting thousands of workers. By the end of the day, 20% of Petrograd and 30% of the textile workers were on strike.
The Role of Women in the Struggle for Socialism
Thus the fact is that the February revolution was begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organisations, the initiative being taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat – the women textile workers, among them no doubt many soldiers’ wives.”
Trotsky’s phrase illustrates well the several lessons that can be taken from the spark of February Revolution.
Unquestionably, most attention falls on the role of proletarian women in the revolutionary course of February 1917 first and October 1917 later. Generally, bourgeois history tends to diminish or hide the active role of women, even more if they are an active part of a revolutionary setting. The only testimonies of February 1917 come from Trotsky and Kollontai, two careful scholars of the Russian revolutionary process.
The bourgeois attitude regarding women is functional, aims to demoralize them, showing them the impossibility of the revolution in general, and specifically their active role on it. This allows to propose other solutions to women for their condition of oppressed, like those proposed by the bourgeois Feminism. However, these solutions are illusory, a never-ending hole.
It is the task of revolutionary Marxists to correctly rebuild the facts and analyze them from a class perspective, to help the proletariat understand that, beyond difficulties, it is possible to struggle and defeat capitalism, and that in this struggle women’s active participation is essential.
When Lenin said, “there are no specific women’s issues”, he certainly did not have the intention of underestimating or devaluating the matter of female emancipation. On the contrary, he wanted to affirm the revolutionary principle that all issues that worry women are, at the same time, a broader social matter, of vital interest for the revolutionary movement, for which men and women should struggle. The matter of oppression to women cannot be separated from the broader struggle for Socialism, and women must play the leading role of organizing, in coordination with the Communist vanguard of the proletariat, the conditions for their own emancipation.
Another aspect of Trotsky’s phrase to reflect on is related to the spontaneity of the movements and the need of a revolutionary party. There is no doubt the revolutionary spark was spontaneous and the leadership of the Bolshevik Party in Petrograd in February 1917 underestimated the outrage of textile workers, thinking that a simple speech would be enough to convince them to discipline. However, even when the women in action did not have a specific plan beyond the demand of bread and coal, the Bolshevik members understood they were facing the beginning of a revolutionary process, and managed to lead it with their slogans and program.
This is a highly current lesson. The social, economic and political system we live under (capitalism) is not capable of offering any more progress to society. There was a time when each generation could aspire to some social improvement regarding the previous generations; today, this is no longer so. The wages are always lower; work is each time more precarious; the number of unemployed rounds the two hundred millions; the social state (health, pensions, education, transportation), cut by pro-bosses governments of all orientations, often offers non-existing services. In this framework, violence against women, immigrants and homosexuals –victims of a double degree of exploitation and oppression in the society– grows. A hundred years ago, in 1917, in Russia, workers managed to overthrow capitalism through their struggles and the revolution itself, showing power is not eternal necessarily in the bosses’ hands. However, if Socialism is the only alternative –although hard to build– to this rotten social system, we must be aware it will not ‘just happen’. A workers’ party is necessary, another kind of party, guided by the project of bringing this society down. No victorious revolution in history was spontaneous and without an organization to fight, with members daily committed –in their work places and in society– to build a resistance to the bosses’ policies of bourgeois governments as for to win new comrades to the struggle.
Translation: Alejandra Ramírez.