Wed Jul 24, 2024
July 24, 2024

The Matter of Family in the Russian Revolution

When we talk or think about family, the model that comes to mind is a house with father, mother and children, each with specific roles considered as natural. For women, that means domestic work, monogamy and a situation of inferiority in relation to their husbands. This is a model allowed by the State and blessed by religions. In addition to this initial observation, we see that monogamy is only valid for women, because while they are socially judged and strongly punished (even nowadays in several cultures) for their infidelities, men can easily find public prostitution, and their infidelities are permitted and even applauded as a sign of masculinity.
By Ana Minutti.
“[…] The legal inequality of the two partners, bequeathed to us from earlier social conditions, is not the cause but the effect of the economic oppression of the woman. In the old communistic household, which comprised many couples and their children, the task entrusted to the women of managing the household was as much a public and socially necessary industry as the procuring of food by the men. With the patriarchal family, and still more with the single monogamous family, a change came. Household management lost its public character. It no longer concerned society. It became a private service; the wife became the head servant, excluded from all participation in social production. Not until the coming of modern large-scale industry was the road to social production opened to her again – and then only to the proletarian wife. But it was opened in such a manner that, if she carries out her duties in the private service of her family, she remains excluded from public production and unable to earn; and if she wants to take part in public production and earn independently, she cannot carry out family duties. And the wife’s position in the factory is the position of women in all branches of business, right up to medicine and the law. The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.” (Engels, F. Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State)[1].
In Russia, before the Revolution of 1917, women from peasant families were fully submissive, being the kitchen a natural prison. In some of the most backward regions, men had the right to decide over their wives and daughters’ life and death.
Women in cities were forced to work long shifts in the factories. After they returned home, work continued: washing, cooking, cleaning. Like Aleksandra Kollontai said:
The vast majority of these women were married; it is easy to imagine the family life they had. What family life can exist when the wife and mother is away from home for eight hours a day, or ten hours (if we consider the round trip)? The home is, necessarily, neglected; children grow up without any maternal care, left to themselves to face the dangers on the streets, where they spend most of their time.
Married women, mothers which are working women, [leave] their blood to accomplish three tasks at the same time that depend on them: to have the enough time for work, just as her husband, in any industry or commercial establishment; to dedicate, as much as they can, to domestic work; and finally, to take care of children.[2]
At the beginning of the 20th century, only 12.4% of Russian women could read and write.
Patriarchy or Capitalism: Which One of these Systems were Women Subjected to in Russia?
There is a debate among feminist organizations, and/or the ones that struggle for women’s rights, about the reasons of women’s oppression.
The so-called Radical Feminists claim that the origins of female subjection would be in the reproductive process. In “The roles played by men and women in the reproduction of species” (2002), Adriana Piscitelli[3] talks about this view: “[these] are fundamental factors that give origin to features that make possible the domination that men exert over women.[4]
When posed like this, it can be said that all men dominate, oppress and exploit all women. This concept is known as Patriarchy.
In Russia, before the Revolution of 1917, women were not in equal conditions before to the general situation of the country. According to Pierre Broué: “[Russia] was an immense country, populated by primitive peasants –mujiks were so similar to the villains of our Middle Age–, but it was also the field of expansion of a modern and Americanized capitalism, which used a proletariat highly concentrated in large factories. In Russian territory, nobility’s large properties and peasant communities coexisted with industrial and financial monopolies.[5]
In other words, peasants women were, along with their families, subjugated by nobility. Their living conditions were terrible, with precarious houses, without any resources to pay for the land that they could get, with precarious agricultural instruments. Very different from women whose husbands owned large properties with modern technology. Those women did not have to work their land and they had domestic workers.
Even though both peasants women and the wives whose husbands were great landowners were oppressed, what determined their oppression was not the fact that they could reproduce other human beings, but the social class they belonged to, as bourgeois woman lived out of peasant women’s work.
The same thing happened with those women who lived in the cities and worked in factories, for example. The only difference was the social class they were part of, and not their capacity to have children.
To Marxism, cultural issues come from the dominant mode of production, and the differences between women and men, which became an oppression with the emergence of private property, are used to overexploit women in Capitalism.
In the countryside, women were submitted to backward family relationships, of strong patriarchal tradition. In the cities, women who entered the factories created the conditions to struggle for their emancipation, as women and as a proletarian class, but it did not mean to get rid of domestic work.
Major contradictions regarding family subsisted between their backwardness in the countryside and the strong industrial development in big cities in the Russia of back then.
While the peasant family kept deep patriarchal lines inherited from pre-capitalist societies, the working class was marked by the contradictions of modern capitalism, caused by the massive entry of women into factories and their duty to remain slaves to the household.
Trotsky pointed out that the Russian bourgeoisie was a cowardly class that did not dare to confront the power of nobility. Yet, this particular development of Russia was also reflected in the state government. While the bourgeoisie saw its economic power grow, the state was still ran by the Tsar, an institution that belonged to a recent past.
The Bolsheviks understood that these contradictions could only be solved by one class: the working class, with its own power organisms, the Soviets, and under the leadership of its revolutionary and internationalist party. They quickly adopted a revolutionary program that did not attempt to develop stages but to overcome a combined and uneven development, by skipping stages and solving the fundamental contradiction between the possessing and the dispossessed classes; between old and new traditions; between the old and the new family; ending with the economic and social bases that caused oppression and enslaved women.
Today, this lesson of the Russian Revolution becomes more relevant than ever before, because unfortunately many feminist organizations confuse Patriarchy –a form of family with economic and social features, whose function was to be a productive unit in pre-capitalist societies– with modern bourgeois monogamy. The family form adopted by capitalism does preserve monogamy, and with it men’s privilege of not being responsible for domestic work derived from reproduction, besides all ideologies about the intellectual inferiority of women, as well as the reinforcement of gender roles in private and public life. However, it is no longer a patriarchal family in terms of its reproductive function as it was in the pre-capitalist past.
This error leads these organizations to consider “the domination of men over women” as the main contradiction of capitalist society, proposing as a strategy a sorority of women of different classes against men of different classes.
The Revolution was the Path
The Russian Revolution showed the path to end women’s oppression and to free them from the family model that considered them slaves. With laws that gave them legal equality, in the very first months of the Revolution of 1917, a process of change began for family relationships, which continued to deepen as it gave real conditions to free women from domestic work.
However, to establish the conditions to free women from domestic work within families was not an easy task. They took the first steps through the construction of laundries, soup kitchens and day-care centers. In fact, these were the first steps to establish equality within the family, between men and women.
According to Leon Trotsky, “And yet it is quite obvious that unless there is actual equality of husband and wife in the family, in a normal sense as well as in the conditions of life, we cannot speak seriously of their equality in social work or even in politics. As long as woman is chained to her housework, the care of the family, the cooking and sewing, all her chances of participation in social and political life are cut down in the extreme.[6]
To Destroy the Old and To Build the New
The revolution destroyed the old, and the new had to be built. It did not happen without any conflicts, discussions and theories of how this new family should be like, under Socialism.
Trotsky described these conflicts in his text Problems of Everyday Life. When the husband becomes a revolutionary, his horizon expands and becomes more complex. When he returns to the family, he confronts himself. He senses that nothing has changed. Both woman and man are surprised, and this conflict leads to separation. In another situation where the two are actively involved in the revolutionary process, the family collapses, the conflict deepens and divorce becomes inevitable. In a situation in which women know what militancy is, the conflict with the husbands is already posed, as well as the divorce.
Trotsky pointed out that these conflicts take place first in the vanguard, but they are not limited to it. They are inevitable for the whole class.
In her book Woman, State and Revolution, Wendy Goldman described some of these debates, that were intense and involved not only women who cared about this issue but also jurists, members of the Bolshevik Party, and others. Aleksandra Kollontai stated that the family was already obsolete, once the State had already assumed the tasks of raising children, and explained that “once the domestic work was transferred to the domain of paid work, there would be nothing left of the family but a ‘psychological tie’.”[7]
Domestic work was seen, by all who were concerned about this matter, as the main obstacle to women’s emancipation and to build new family relationships. Modern feminists already defended the redistribution of domestic work within the family, increasing the domestic responsibilities of men.
Goldman also posed that Soviet theorists acknowledged that union between partners required women and men to become equal, and she quoted M. Shishkevichque. In front of an audience of workers and peasants, he commented: “The disputes and fights caused by the estrangement between husbands and wives are very frequent. A husband reads, goes to a lecture, looks how others see life. But the wife has the pots on the fire all the time, gossiping with the neighbors.[8]On those who stand up for relationships based on “free union” or “free love,” which Lenin dislikes because of the association with bourgeois promiscuity, he argued that without love there were no bases for a relationship, and he defended full freedom to divorce.
The role of parents raising their children was also a matter of discussion and divergence. Ultimately, if the State was responsible for care, food and education of children, what role did the parents have? They all agreed that, with the help of the State, women would remain within the sphere of production and public life.
Summarizing, the Bolshevik point of view about the family was based on free union, the emancipation of women by paid work, the socialization of domestic work, and the [progressive] fading of the family. They also gave a hard battle to end prostitution, considered one of the most humiliating forms of oppression.
Despite all the conquests that women achieved with the Revolution of 1917, and the possibility of their emancipation and freedom after the transformation of the family, there was a brutal retreat under the Stalinism. However, this is another chapter to be told.
Translation: Misty M.
[2] There were translation differences on the Spanish and English versions. Our translation from Spanish. Original quotation used by the author:
[3]Adriana Piscitelli, Feminist Anthropologist, graduated from the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) in 1979. She is a Professor and researcher at the Pagu Center for Gender Studies at the State University of Campinas [UEC], São Paulo, Brazil [N. de T.]
[4] Source not available in English – our translation.
[5] Source not digitally available in English – our translation from Spanish. Original quotation by author taken from:, Chapter 1: Russia Before the Revolution.
[7] Source not available in English – our translation.
[8] Source not available in English – our translation.
El Origen de la Familia, la Propiedad Privada y el Estado [The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State] – F. Engels, 1964.
Problemas de la vida cotidiana [Problems of Everyday Life] – L. Trotsky, 1979.
Mujer, Estado y Revolución – Wendy Goldman, 2014.
La mujer en el desarrollo social – Alexandra Kollontai, 1976.
Género y Clase – Cecília Toledo, 2016.
El Partido Bolchevique [The History of the Bolshevik Party] – Pierre Broué, 1960.

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