Monday, 9 March 2020

International Women's Day

You’re listening to Back in the USSR on CFRU 93.3 FM in Guelph.  I am Siegfried.  Just last week on the show I talked about the unprecedented level of solidarity being shown across Canada toward the Wet’suwet’en people and nation, and emphasized just how revolutionary this moment was for a society founded on indigenous genocide, settler-colonialism and capitalist resource extraction on stolen land.  I’m going to discuss that further later in the show.  I want to focus on another revolutionary moment that took place long ago, but whose echoes still resound around the world today and speak of new revolutions to come. 

Yesterday, Sunday March 8 2020, was International Women’s Day, originally founded as International Working Women’s Day by Clara Zetkin and other women in the international socialist movement in 1910.  International Women’s Day 2020 was ground-breaking and radical in its own right, particularly in Latin America, where millions upon millions of women to the streets in cities across the region to protest against growing inequality, rising rates of femicide and anti-women violence, as well as reactionary laws against abortion.  In Chile alone, two million women marched in the capital Santiago as part of ongoing protests against the right-wing neo-liberal regime of Sebastian Pinera, whose crackdown on dissent has involved numerous assaults and sexual crimes against women protesters.  Several Women’s Day demonstrations were the targets of police violence on Sunday, including in France and Turkey.  Women across the entire world are fighting back bravely against the patriarchal systems imposed upon them and are refusing to be silent; fighting for a world where their rights, their equality, their dignity are non-negotiable.  Just as is the case with the Wet’suwet’en solidarity protests, women are leading the way all over the world.

But it was March 8 1917, International Women’s Day 1917, when women mill workers in the Russian capital of St Petersburg truly shook the world to its foundations.  Russian women in the early 1900s were doubly-oppressed. They were mothers subject to the rule of their husband, providers for their children with all their various needs, and keepers of the house. They were workers subject to the rule of their bosses, forced to accept long work days, arduous conditions, and low pay. The war left millions of women responsible for families, homes and the injured with few resources. Literacy among women at this time was at about 13 percent.

Strikes in the Russian Empire increased in both frequency and intensity beginning in 1915. The food crisis, low wages, and inflation impacted women in numerous ways and inspired many to strike. In December 1916, women working in munitions plants protested the pay gap between men and women.
By 1917, women comprised at least 40 percent of employed workers. All their economic and social woes were heightened by World War I. Military defeats, economic collapse and soaring food prices brought out a large number of workers, including women, in sporadic strike actions against their miserable conditions.

On March 8, 1917 (February 23, 1917 under the old-style Julian Calendar that was still in use in Russia at the time), 7,000 women from the Vyborg District textile mill factory took to the streets of the Russian capital of Petrograd to protest against the food shortages and the high price of bread. An estimated 90,000 men and women joined together by the end of that first day to demand:


Vehement opposition to the slaughter of millions, and the mass starvation and deprivation caused by World War I were key factors driving the strike.

Throughout the next week, the strike spread among Petrograd’s workers. The vanguard women roused working-class men to join them by recognizing their shared opposition to the ruling class oppression. One significant victory was convincing 40,000 male engineering workers from the Putilov factory to join their cause.

As the crowds continued to swell and Petrograd came to a halt, thousands of soldiers, who were already stationed in Petrograd on account of the war, were ordered to quell the uprising. An estimated 1,300 people were injured or killed during this time. Yet even in the face of open fire, protestors stayed in the streets.  

Working women continued to take leadership in the struggle, approaching the barracks and engaging with soldiers directly. Through flyering, agitation, fraternization and organized meetings they attempted to persuade the soldiers to join the masses in their fight. It worked: soldiers refused to fire on the demonstrators, and many joined the Revolution.

The Tsar was forced to abdicate. In just 8 days, centuries of the Romanov dynastic rule–which kept millions of men, women, and children illiterate, impoverished, and exploited–came to an end. On March 2, the Provisional Government was established, which included representatives of the capitalist class as well as more moderate socialist parties. Alongside the Provisional Government, another form of government arose in the soviets, which were institutions representing workers, peasants, and rank-and-file soldiers.

But this was only the beginning.  The Provisional Government failed to address the needs of the working class or working women. The Provisional Government did not demand an end to the war which caused so much of the suffering for the working class, and which had been the central demand of the Feb 23 strike.

Mass protests, strikes, and demonstrations continued. During this time, socialist women, including many who were members of Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik party, played an important part locally and nationally. They distributed agitation leaflets, agitated throughout the East and among peasant women, and continued to spearhead strikes and demonstrations. Vera Slutskaya proposed the establishment of a bureau dedicated to agitating women and reviving the Rabotnitsa (The Woman Worker). The publication encouraged women to demand more, to participate in their local Soviets, and to join their fellow workers on strike.

In March 1917, laundry workers led by Bolshevik Sofia Goncharskya, struck for weeks; in April, 100,000 soldiers’ wives demanded better rations and an end to the war; in August, Bolshevik women organized armed defense. “Red Sisters” provided medical assistance and built barricades in Petrograd during General Lvar Kornilov’s reactionary coup attempt. Men and women in the Red Guards alike laid down their lives in defense of the revolution. Bolsheviks played a role locally and nationally, speaking at public meetings, distributing leaflets, transporting weapons, guaranteeing communications and providing care for the wounded.

In July 1917, women over the age of 20 were formally given the right to vote and hold public office. November 1917 was the first opportunity for women to exercise this right and that they did. In some sections, such as Yaroslavl, women turnout outnumbered that of men.

The October 1917 Revolution was the first successful socialist revolution in the world. The socialist revolution in what became the Soviet Union improved the material conditions of millions of people and gave impetus to worldwide struggles of national liberation and socialist revolution.

Recollections of this seismic event often revolve around images of powerful men – the ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and the political strategy of Lenin and Leon Trotsky. But women have always been key participants in the Communist movement, in terms of theory and practice, including in the October Revolution.

Leading Marxist historian Vijay Prashad recalls that in October 1917 women factory workers in St Petersburg marched to see Lenin in the Smolny, the compound in the city where he worked, and asked him to,

Take power, Comrade Lenin: that is what we working women want.

Lenin famously replied:

It is not I, but you - the workers - who must take power. Return to your factories and tell the workers that.

Women benefited greatly from and played critical roles in the new socialist society that was founded after the October Revolution.

Alexandra Kollontai played a leading role in the Bolshevik party. She organized amongst working women and helped articulate the conditions for women’s liberation. In 1914 she joined the Bolshevik Party. She was elected to the Central Committee in 1917 and was the first woman to take the minister’s position in the history of the country. She was a delegate to the First Congress of the Communist International, and an activist in the Zhenotdel, the Soviet women's association.

Nadezhda Krupskaya was party secretary in the years when Lenin was in exile and had the indispensable task of maintaining contact between the party’s exiled leadership and those active in Russia. Following the October Revolution, she was appointed as the first Soviet People’s Commissar for Education. Her campaign was dedicated to raising adult literacy rates. Krupskaya served as the Soviet Union’s Deputy Minister of Education for over ten years.

In addition to being one of the founders of the Zhenotdel, Inessa Armand organized the Bolshevik’s campaign to get its supporters elected to the Duma. She was also the first leader of Zhenotdel and organized and chaired the First International Conference of Communist Women.

Konkordiia Samoilova organized in prison prior to the February Revolution. Samoilova is probably best known as the editor of Pravda, the Bolshevik party newspaper. In this role, she gave voice to the hundreds of workers, strike leaders, and trade unionists who would pass through her office in any given week.

While we name and celebrate these leaders, we must not forget the heroic contributions and the sacrifices made by millions of nameless working and peasant women who dedicated both body and mind to the liberation of workers and oppressed peoples. They lived and died at factories, in fields, on the battlefield, and on hospital beds. They worked as political propagandists and organizers, as public health workers, as caretakers, and as Red Army soldiers and commanders.

Immediately upon assuming power, the Bolsheviks passed legislation which made Soviet Russia the most progressive nation in the world on issues of gender. The December 29, 1917, decree gave women the right to divorce their husbands without obtaining his or any other permission, and legally ensured alimony.

One of the most profound and immediate gains of the October Revolution was the new regulation of the workday. In 1918, The Code of Labor Laws limited the working day to eight hours for all adults, and to six to seven hours for people under 18 or those working in dangerous trades. Additionally, it guaranteed 42 hours of uninterrupted rest each week, and the elimination of child labor.

Within these laws were particular reforms for women workers, including maternity leave at full pay and additional allowances for breast-feeding mothers.

The regulation of the workday meant women were safer, had the opportunity to go to school, allowed more free time, and guaranteed a wage.

In November 1918 the First All-Russian Congress of Working and Peasant Women was held. The discussions laid the groundwork for what later became the Zhenotdel. Formed in 1919, The Zhenotdel was the arm of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the All-Russian Communist Party responsible for issues of women’s welfare and dedicated to organizing women politically and recognizing their unique struggles. The Zhendotdel mobilized to fight illiteracy, the biggest roadblock to participation in politics. It published magazines directed specifically at networks of working women and peasants on current issues and theoretical topics.

In 1918, the Bolsheviks introduced the Family Code, which guaranteed additional rights including: abortion without the consent of the father, divorce, consensual marriage and to conduct her marriage and personal life as a secular being. The Code also required parents to take equal responsibility for “the maintenance” of children.

The Bolsheviks understood that equality under the law was not true liberation – the Soviet Union would have to change the social relations of women, offer full protections for all workers, guarantee an education, a job, and a home, and allow for the complete physical autonomy of women.

The Bolsheviks made this clear in point four of the 1919 Political Program of the CPSU (Bolsheviks) adopted March 22, 1919 at the Eighth Congress of the Russian Communist Party: “Not satisfied with the formal equality of women, the Party strives to free women from the material burden of obsolete domestic economy, by replacing this with the house-communes, public dining-halls, central laundries, creches, etc.”

The question of organizing and fostering militant working women was a major topic of discussion at the 1921 Third Congress of the Communist Third International. Later codes, programs, and regulations more deeply reiterated or expanded on these rights, and covered more issues which primarily impact women including prostitution, freedom of movement, and abortion. Abortion became fully legalized in 1920.

All of this stood in stark opposition to the bourgeois feminist perspective which primarily concerned itself with winning the right to vote and the right to property. Bourgeois feminism did not focus on the liberation of factory or domestic workers.

Capitalism today oppresses women economically, legally, and socially. Women are not guaranteed a home, healthcare, or an education. Women are forced, coerced, or otherwise obligated to sell their labor for less than it’s worth. The state and the media perpetuate the oppression of women.

Socialism, however, lays the foundation for the true liberation of women. It ensures at its very core a dignified life in which the things that are owed to us — the fruits of our labor — are given to us. The February Revolution showed the world the revolutionary power of the working class and of working women. Despite many contradictions and challenges, the gains the Soviet Union did achieve during its tenure reveals the possibilities and potentialities of socialism in a very real way.

The following is an excerpt from Alexandra Kollontai’s 1920 article, “International Women’s Day”:
Women’s Day, or Working Women’s Day, is a day of international solidarity, and a day for reviewing the strength and organization of proletarian women.
But this is not a special day for women alone. The 8th of March is a historic and memorable day for the workers and peasants, for all the Russian workers and for the workers of the whole world. In 1917, on this day, the great February revolution broke out. It was the working women of Petersburg who began this revolution; it was they who first decided to raise the banner of opposition to the Tsar and his associates. And so, working women’s day is a double celebration for us.
[Women’s Day] turned out above all to be an excellent method of agitation among the less political of our proletarian sisters. They could not help but turn their attention to the meetings, demonstrations, posters, pamphlets and newspapers that were devoted to Women’s Day. Even the politically backward working woman thought to herself: “This is our day, the festival for working women,” and she hurried to the meetings and demonstrations. After each Working Women’s Day, more women joined the socialist parties and the trade unions grew. Organizations improved and political consciousness developed.
These are the results of working women’s day of militancy. The day of working women’s militancy helps increase the consciousness and organization of proletarian women. And this means that its contribution is essential to the success of those fighting for a better future for the working class.
“Working Women’s Day” was first organized ten years ago in the campaign for the political equality of women and the struggle for socialism. This aim has been achieved by the working-class women in Russia. In the Soviet Republic the working women and peasants don’t need to fight for the franchise and for civil rights.
But rights alone are not enough. We have to learn to make use of them. The right to vote is a weapon which we have to learn to master for our own benefit, and for the good of the workers’ republic. In the two years of Soviet power, life itself has not been absolutely changed. We are only in the process of struggling for communism and we are surrounded by the world we have inherited from the dark and repressive past. Working women and peasant women can only rid themselves of this situation and achieve equality in life itself, and not just in law, if they put all their energies into making Russia a truly communist society.
After the experience of the Russian October revolution, it is clear to every working woman in France, in England and in other countries that only the dictatorship of the working class, only the power of the soviets can guarantee complete and absolute equality, the ultimate victory of communism will tear down the century-old chains of repression and lack of rights.
Only the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of Soviet power will save them from the world of suffering, humiliations and inequality that makes the life of the working woman in the capitalist countries so hard. The Working Woman’s Day turns from a day of struggle for the franchise into an international day of struggle for the full and absolute liberation of women, which means a struggle for the victory of the soviets and for communism!

Revolutionary 1917 Yiddish Song – In Ale Gasn/Hey, Hey Daloy Politsey ("down with the police")

You’re listening to Back in the USSR.  To conclude this International Women’s Day episode of the show, I’d like to briefly go back to the Wet’suwet’en solidarity movement and look back upon a truly inspiring action that I was proud to be a part of last Wednesday, March 4.  On that day, between 150 and 200 students gathered in Branion Plaza at the University of Guelph to express their solidarity with Wet’suwet’en and their unyielding opposition to the capitalist settler-colonialism currently being imposed at gunpoint by the RCMP in BC.  That demonstration was overwhelmingly led by women, and it succeeded not only in shutting down a job fair in the University Center, where the RCMP was recruiting, but also in forcing the university’s vice-president of finances to give a firm commitment on divesting from companies associated with the Coastal Gas Link Pipeline after occupying the administration’s offices on the fourth floor.  I’ve been in Guelph for a long time, I’ve been an activist here for a long time, and I can honestly say that I’ve never seen an action like this happen before.  It was truly inspiring to be a part of.  I’m very, very proud of all those courageous people who made it happen.  And I hope that the momentum it created can carry forward and grow.  Because that’s what we need right now.  There are so many people who have become engaged politically and radicalized by the Wet’suwet’en solidarity movement and, as I said last week, I don’t think many of them realize just how radical this situation is. 

It’s amazing, seeing settlers stand in solidarity with indigenous land defenders on this scale.  And, as my friend and comrade Brendan Campisi recently pointed out, it is a movement of international solidarity.  Whether these students know it or not, they’re all internationalists.  They’re all fighting in solidarity with a colonized nation against the colonizer, which is this case happens to be their own government and society.  But the Wet’suwet’en are a sovereign people.  They’re not Canadian.  They never gave up their land.  Ever.  And to stand in solidarity with them means extending a hand of friendship, brotherhood and sisterhood, across cultures and frontiers – just as was the case when activists stood in solidarity with the Vietnamese people in their struggle against the American Empire, or the South African people in their struggle against Apartheid, or with the Palestinians today, who have expressed their own solidarity with the struggles of the Wet’suwet’en.  Capitalism, colonialism, and empire are worldwide threats to the working class and to oppressed peoples.  And the one thing that those people who seek to perpetuate these systems of oppression and exploitation fear the most is when working class and oppressed people join hands across borders, cultures, religions and languages to oppose them in a united front.  That’s what Karl Marx meant when he said “workers of the world unite”, and Wet’suwet’en and International Women’s Day prove just how strong the unity of the oppressed can be.  Canada will never be the same again after this.  Just as the world would never be the same after March 8, 1917.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Wet’suwet’en Strong: A Revolution Grows in Canada

You’re listening to Back in the USSR on 93.3 FM CFRU in Guelph, I am Siegfried. That song that you just heard is called "Monsters, Devils and Strangers", it was recorded by Irish Republican prisoners of war in a British jail outside Belfast on March 1 1991.  That day was the 10th anniversary of the hunger strike that began on March 1 `1981 in which ten members of the Irish resistance - Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Ray McCreesh, Patsy O'Hara, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Tom McElwee and Michael Devine - gave their lives for the cause of Irish liberation from British colonialism.  That song you just heard is all about that struggle for liberation, not just in Ireland, but all over the world, and that includes the very colonial society that is Canada.   

Comrades and friends, we’ve come to the end of February, but the epic struggle that gripped this country over the course of the past month has only just begun.  A revolution is growing in this country.  It began with the RCMP and Coastal Gas Link’s invasion of sovereign indigenous Wet’suwet’en territory in the province that goes by the colonial name of British Columbia, backed by snipers and armored vehicles.  It began with the arrest of indigenous land defenders, matriarchs and hereditary chiefs.  It began with the mass arrests of indigenous land defenders and their allies, who blockaded the port of Vancouver and closed down rail lines across the country in a show of solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en people and in staunch opposition to the settler-colonial state that is invading their lands and oppressing them in the name of extractive industry and fossil fuel expansion through pipelines built on stolen indigenous land. 

And the movement continues to grow.  Bridges, ports, railways, and the offices of prominent politicians and corporations have been occupied/shutdown.  Guelph is no exception, there have been some impressive actions here in this city as well.  There has also been strong international solidarity, notably from Palestinians, who are also facing genocide at the hands of a brutal settler-colonial regime.  And I want people to appreciate just how radical all this is.  The Mohawk scholar Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, a former professor of political science and indigenous governance at the University of Victoria, responding to the unprecedented solidarity that indigenous land defenders are receiving from wider Canadian society, said that Canada is experiencing a genuine revolutionary moment:

“I can remember saying 15, 20 years ago, that if we ever had a development in our movement where the power of Indigenous nationhood and Indigenous rights could be melded and brought together with the power of young Canadians who are committed to the environment and social justice, it would be revolutionary,” Alfred told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview Thursday (February 13).
And I think that that's what we're witnessing.”

According to Alfred, the protests are providing a “channel among Indigenous youth Canadian youth, non-Indigenous allies, who are just so angry and frustrated at the hypocrisy and the foot dragging and the corruption that they see in their own government”.

“I think that this movement here is reflective of their commitment to take action, to confront what they see in all aspects of their life,” he said. “Not only in politics, but within the culture, within the relationships that they have, a culture among people who have power that allows them to act with impunity and hypocrisy.

“When the RCMP invaded Wet’suwet’en territory, it’s the confluence of all of these things on an intellectual level, political level, on a visual sense because of social media, and also on an emotional level.

“It's driven by the consequence, I would say, of an intellectual understanding of the injustice in the society, of a political commitment to do something about it and the emotional energy recognizing that they are witnessing and living through the actual suppression and acts of violence against primarily Indigenous women who were defending that territory as they always have done.”

Alfred said that it has become “clear to everyone that what's happening in the woods and territories is a microcosm of all of that”.

“And it's provoking a response on all of those levels intellectually, politically and emotionally, and I think that's why you see such passion.”

What we’re seeing is a developing mass movement against the capitalist colonial state in Canada.  A state whose real economic priorities now stand revealed for what they are, exposing Justin Trudeau’s many, many, many lies about reconciliation and a “nation-to-nation” relationship with indigenous peoples, in addition to his two-faced positions on climate change and the environment.  And people are truly catching wise to the role of capitalism in all this and how capitalism is the driving force behind colonial policies that oppress indigenous people and destroy the environment.

To recap on the basic information, the Wet’suwet’en nation is resisting the construction of the $6.6-billion Coastal Gas Link Pipeline through their land.  At 670 KM, the pipeline will cut a massive swathe through indigenous lands in northern BC, with the goal of transporting fracked natural gas from the northeast to a coastal terminal near the town of Kitimat, where it would be processed for overseas exports.  The pipeline itself is only one part of a $40-billion fossil fuel infrastructure project by LNG Canada that has been described as a “carbon bomb” by Marc Lee, a senior economist with the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, that would result in an increase in carbon emissions equal to all the cars on the road in BC. 

The Canadian Federal Government and the NDP premier of BC, John Horgan, have thrown their weight behind the pipeline, but the real answer as to why so much money and resources are being put into this destructive and invasive project, and why court injunctions against its opponents are being enforced so rigorously and violently by the RCMP, are to be found in the current state of Canadian capitalism.

Canada has some of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world, and the investments in this industry are greater than any other sector in the Canadian economy.  The export of oil and gas to external markets, particularly the United States, has traditionally been a crucial pillar in the Canadian state’s efforts to offset problems of profitability in the broader economy, where stagnating wages, the gradual elimination of well-paid manufacturing jobs, runaway debt and a massive real estate bubble are threatening to plunge the system into crisis.  However, the United States, as a result of massive growth in the fracking industry, no longer imports nearly as much oil as it once did and is set to become a major oil exporter itself over the course of the next decade.  This has led to a decline in profitability for Canadian oil producers, who, since 2006, have been seeking to offset this decline by finding overseas markets for their oil, particularly in Asia.  Both the Harper and Trudeau governments have therefore invested considerable resources in facilitating profitable fossil fuel exports to potential Asian markets.  And explains why Trudeau has been so politically and financially dedicated to pipeline expansion through British Columbia to the West Coast, even when it overrides his statements on the existential threat of climate change, the need to cut carbon emissions, and on the rights of indigenous peoples.  All of that is secondary, at best, to the needs to the Canadian capitalist class: the businessmen and bankers who want to export their oil overseas and on whose behalf the state issues injunctions and sends in heavily-armed police to evict indigenous land defenders from their own sovereign, unceeded, territories.

None of this is accidental.  None of it is the result of some innocent misunderstanding.  Trudeau has given the fossil fuel industry more than $3-billion in tax subsidies, while spending $4.5-billion to buy the Trans Mountain Pipeline for Kinder Morgan to ensure that it gets built, and while using paramilitary violence to displace indigenous people who are “in the way”.  The sheer police presence outside the world’s largest mining convention, which began at the Toronto Metro Convention Center on March 1st, likewise speaks volumes, given that more than 60% of the world’s mining corporations are headquartered in Canada.

As Todd Gordon and Geoffrey McCormack point out: “The Canadian state has evolved to optimize the conditions for capital accumulation. This commitment to Canadian capitalism is at its core a colonialist project – predicated upon and reproducing it – and is utterly irreconcilable with ecological sustainability.”

Nor should we be surprised when the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) move in and violently arrest Mohawk land defenders blocking the rails in Tyendinaga near Belleville in support of Wet’suwet’en, or conduct mass arrests of people standing in solidarity with similar blockades in Vancouver, Hamilton or the GTA.  Or that the Canadian Far Right, including the Soldiers of Odin, would call in bomb threats against the Tyendinaga land defenders and threaten to attack the demonstrators occupying the provincial government buildings in Victoria, BC in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en.  The Wet’suwet’en people themselves have faced similar threats from settler vigilantes and other people brainwashed by the ideology of white supremacy, which has functioned as a useful tool of capitalist exploitation and resource extraction in colonial North America from the late 17th Century.  Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer’s demand that lethal force be used to clear the blockades and the demonization of the land defenders in the Canadian corporate press reveals just how entrenched racist settler-colonialism is in this country.

But I want to quote Ta’kaiya Blaney, one of the young indigenous land defenders occupying the steps of the BC legislature and what they said on February 29 when the Soldiers of Odin threatened them with violence:

“White supremacists feel threatened because they know their systems are dying and we [Indigenous people] are very much alive.”

The very survival of indigenous nations in the face of colonial genocide is a revolutionary act and now it’s clear just how empty the phrase “reconciliation” is.  How can a victim of genocide reconcile themselves to a genocidal system? Would you ask a Jew to reconcile with the government of Nazi Germany? Settler-colonialism cannot be reconciled with.  Like all forms of colonialism, it has to be broken down and ultimately overthrown entirely, along with the capitalist system that drives it and makes it possible.  The fact that so many non-indigenous people in this country understand this and are acting on that understanding is truly revolutionary and I have confidence that their internationalist solidarity with indigenous land defenders will sound the death knell for colonial rule in this land.

Willy Dunn - I Pity the Country
Willy Dunn - The Ballad of Crowfoot