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:
“BREAD FOR THE WORKERS”
“DOWN WITH HIGH PRICES”
“DOWN WITH THE WAR”
“DOWN WITH THE MONARCHY”
“DOWN WITH HIGH PRICES”
“DOWN WITH THE WAR”
“DOWN WITH THE MONARCHY”
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.