The inferno erupts

The struggle for women’s liberation cannot be left to the feminists. The Russian Revolution shows that women’s liberation and the struggle for socialism are inseparable, argues Anne McShane

The centenary of International Women’s Day in Petrograd (St Petersburg) in February 1917 is an important moment to take a more critical approach to this history.

Most of us on the left are familiar with the events themselves. In his classic work, The Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky provides us with a dramatic and inspiring depiction of the uprising in Petrograd - he describes in detail the five glorious days of struggle. How the Petrograd working class rose up in grim determination against the tsarist state. How the strikes, which began on International Women’s Day, ostensibly in protest against the war, developed rapidly into a mass movement with the power to oust the imperial regime. How it advanced on the citadels of power, precipitating mutiny after mutiny among the armed forces, as soldiers and Cossacks refused to massacre the workers. In less than a week the centuries-long rule of the tsarist autocracy was routed by the Petrograd working class.

However, it must be admitted that the revolution was premature. There was no party leadership in place and the left, including the Bolsheviks, was caught unawares. The uprising was also confined almost entirely to Petrograd. It has often been described as a purely spontaneous movement - an angry working class letting off steam against the war, conscription and prohibition. But, as Trotsky makes very clear, to argue that the working class of Petrograd were just acting instinctively or in an unconscious way is absurd. Those (often in academic circles) who want to portray it as such are anxious to deny the depth of revolutionary ideas among workers, or their ability to analyse, decide and act on their own behalf. They want to separate off this movement from October and argue that the provisional government and ‘bourgeois democracy’ was the natural conclusion of February. The October revolution is presented as a putsch in contrast to the spontaneity of February. It is more concerning that some on the left also distinguish the two revolutions in the same way. As always, however, reality is a lot more complex.

Trotsky wrote his book in 1928, in the early days of his exile from the Soviet Union. It is clear that he wanted to safeguard the memory of mass working class democracy from the Stalinist, bureaucratic rewriting of history. He was adamant that February had not been a directionless impulse from below - “the mystic doctrine of spontaneity explains nothing” about February. Petrograd workers were deeply politicised, having gone through the experiences of the 1905 revolution. They had absorbed the ideas of the left, and the Bolsheviks in particular, despite the weakness of party organisation. They were a sophisticated political force - with erudite leaders, skilled in tactics and strategy. He describes in detail how the various strategies for taking on the Cossacks and the police were discussed in factory committees and meetings throughout the February days and how inventive the movement was in winning over or neutralising state forces. For Trotsky, February had been led by “conscious and tempered workers, educated for the most part by the party of Lenin”.1 They were Marxist in their views and actions. They were a class which believed in itself.

It is disappointing that Trotsky does not extend his profound insights to the crucial role of Petrograd women in that struggle and their struggle to link their demands as women to those of the working class. True, he mentions that the revolution began on International Women’s Day, and that the first to act were women textile workers, who called on the male metalworkers to join them in their strike. He also refers to the delegation of women strikers who went to the Bolshevik city committee to ask for support. It reluctantly supported the strike - after the initial opposition of the Vyborg district (the most important working class district). But he does not place any importance on the role of proletarian women as a distinct element and their own particular contribution. Indeed he expresses anger with those who tried to label it a “petticoat revolution”.2

February protests and women

The February days were in reality a central point in the coming into being of a mass working class women’s movement. It had seen a huge surge in numbers since the beginning of the war. Women made up almost half of the workforce, labouring in the lumber mills and textile factories, and sometimes whole towns were populated almost exclusively by women3. The worsening economic situation, horrific conditions within factories, the lack of facilities for pregnant and nursing mothers, lack of childcare, and the endless war all deeply affected women who had been left to cope with work and family on their own. One tsarist police officer reportedly remarked that such was the fury of Petrograd women that they had become “a store of combustible material” and just one spark would be enough to generate an inferno.4

This inferno erupted on February 23 1917 (March 8 in our calendar), when thousands of women streamed out of the factories on International Women’s Day and joined the male workers at the Putilov plant, who were striking against the war. Both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks argued that the class was not ready for a mass strike and urged a more limited action. However, at illegal meetings held that morning in textile factories on the situation for women, the war and the economic crisis, the anger spilled over. After voting to strike, the women took to the streets in their thousands and marched to nearby factories, calling on all workers - women and men - to join them. The flying picket was dramatically effective and 50,000 workers did so. This dynamic continued throughout the days which followed. When the police blocked the bridges, the women famously slid down the banks of the Neva and walked across the ice to the other side of the city. Trotsky reports how the women

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 ‘Hurrah!’ shakes the air. The soldiers are surrounded. Everywhere arguments, reproaches, appeals - the revolution makes another forward step.5

It was not a coincidence that the action took place on International Women’s Day. Like the Petrograd men, women were also politically aware, despite the weakness of leftwing organisation among them, including by the Bolsheviks (wartime repression exacted a terrible toll). They called for an end to autocracy, an immediate cessation of the war and the return of soldiers. They also, of course, demanded food, but this was a slogan common to all the demonstrations, as the working class of Petrograd was suffering extreme hunger because of the war.

This was not the first time the women of Petrograd had taken wildcat strike action. Since their entry into the proletariat in the 1890s they had worked mainly in separate factories from men. They were also largely non-unionised. And, while men lived in barrack-room accommodation provided by the factory owner and were contacted by the left in their drinking taverns, women workers remained detached both from men and from revolutionary groups. While they were often more militant than men in this period, the perennial problem was the lack of organisation. The 1905 revolution witnessed an enormous upsurge in female militancy - women took part in mass strikes and unrest that spread throughout the empire. Women workers demanded radical changes to their working conditions and many strike demands in 1905-07 reflected working women’s needs. Demands for paid maternity leave, time off for feeding infants and childcare provision at the factories were included in almost all strike documents.6

After the abdication of the tsar, the women’s movement again raised these questions. The fight for equality continued throughout the year. There were strikes and protests organised throughout those months by laundresses, by soldiers’ wives and by peasant women. Organisation improved with the intervention of the Bolsheviks and in particular through the efforts of a group of Bolshevik women. Kollontai, Samoilova and others threw themselves into that fight.

Organising working class women

By February 1917, despite the high numbers employed, very few were members of a union. The percentage involved in political groups was miniscule and their participation in the leadership of these groups less than impressive.

Despite formal adherence to women’s equality, the reality for the Russian left, including the Bolsheviks, was very different in practice. Women were perceived as backward, unpredictable and difficult to recruit. They were considered more likely to act as a fetter on the male working class rather than a part of its leadership. When women did act as they had in 1905 and in February, their actions were dismissed as a purely spontaneous and largely unconscious movement. Proletarian women might provide the spark and even number among the most radical, but because of their ‘backwardness’ they were unlikely to be at the core of the conscious movement. Their movement would flare up and die down like a barometer.

However, a number of the Bolshevik women saw things differently. They did not accept the arguments about the passivity of women and believed that they needed to be approached with politics that addressed their problems as women, as well as workers. Women like Konkordiia Samoilova and Klavdiia Nikolaeva, along with better known figures like Inessa Armand and Alexandra Kollontai, were ardent anti-feminists. They were always worried that they would be dismissed as feminists when they raised issues in relation to women’s rights and organisation within the party and movement. And often, despite their best efforts, they were denounced as such. While they had support from Lenin and some other party members, there was no real appetite for work among women and little acceptance of its importance.

Alexandra Kollontai was the best known of these women. In 1905, while still a member of the Menshevik wing, she became involved in activities in St Petersburg and attended the Bloody Sunday march on January 21 1905. She was impressed by the militancy of women workers and proposed to the city committee of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party that it set up a special bureau to work among working women. The RSDLP rejected this proposal out of hand. This rejection marked a long and persistent struggle on the part of Kollontai for the creation of a special section within the party to work among women. In her autobiography she records her disappointment at the lack of support. She states that she “realised for the first time how little our party concerned itself with the fate of the women of the working class and how meagre was its interest in women’s liberation”.7

Undaunted, she tried to pursue her project independently and, along with Klavdiia Nikolaeva, set up a club called the Society for the Mutual Help of Working Women in 1907. Although the organisation only lasted a few months, largely due to the attitude of the St Petersburg party, nevertheless it had an impact on the leadership in St Petersburg. In 1908 it agreed to send a contingent of women workers to the first All-Russian Congress of Women, organised by a number of feminist organisations.8 Kollontai wrote The social basis of the woman question, which was to be distributed at the event. In it, along with a blistering attack on feminism, she advanced her vision of women’s emancipation within the socialist vision.9

The 35 women delegates of the Kollontai-led Workers Group were well prepared. And, despite their nervousness, they made an impact massively out of proportion to their size in the conference of over 700. They were locked in fierce polemical combat from the outset. The group argued that the political basis of the conference was erroneous, as there could be no united women’s movement over and above class. They demanded support for universal suffrage for working class men and women, which was rejected by the conference leadership. Argument raged all day and finally some group members attempted to lead a walkout in protest. Chaos and confusion ensued - the police moved in to make arrests and the event collapsed in disarray. Nonetheless, despite organisational confusion, the Workers Group intervention had been a success. In Kollontai’s words it had drawn “a clear line of demarcation between the bourgeois suffragettes and the women’s liberation movement of the working class in Russia”.10 It had created the basis on which to go forward.

Unfortunately the repression in the next few years made it difficult to continue the work of creating a distinctive working class women’s movement. The next important event was not until March 1913, when Konkordiia Samoilova organised an illegal meeting to mark Women’s Day. Klara Zetkin, the German revolutionary, had won over the Second International in 1911 to support an annual day of action to organise working class women in a movement distinct from feminist groups.

However, despite the clear fact that it was not a feminist event, Samoilova faced opposition from the St Petersburg party committee. But, having managed to overcome objections and evade state infiltration, the meeting was packed out. On the back of this success, she won the right to a regular column in Pravda, entitled ‘The labour and life of women workers’, where she wrote on the conditions in various factories.11 Even more significantly, the meeting brought together a group of women who would launch the journal Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker) a year later. Samoilova, Anna Elizarova Ulianova (Lenin’s sister) worked with Nadia Krupskaya, Inessa Armand and Liudmila Stal - all in political exile - to produce the journal in February 1914. Despite the arrest of the majority of the St Petersburg editorial board and huge state repression, Anna Elizarova Ulianova - the only member of the editorial board to escape imprisonment - managed to get seven issues printed between February 23 and June 26, when the police finally closed it down.12

The journal, which was supported by Lenin, generated a widespread and keen readership despite its short-lived existence. It contained both theoretical and popular pieces - although Armand complained that Ulianova as editor was too populist in her approach.13 It discussed many programmatic questions that were to inform Soviet family legislation in 1917 - including divorce, abortion and illegitimacy. The proof of its popularity was in its relaunch after February 1917, following the mass upsurge of activity among women during the February revolution. In that period Rabotnitsa fought to generalise the slogans for equality and better conditions in the workplace. Its supporters set up groups which organised among women in Petrograd and Moscow. It set up a school to train women in political agitation, who were then sent back to their factories to “make speeches and new recruits, to teach others, to distribute Rabotnitsa and to report back to the centre”.14 It linked the demands of striking women and soldiers’ wives with the programme of the Bolsheviks and won tens of thousands of proletarian women over in the process.

Rabotnitsa hosted a working class women’s conference in December 1917. Five hundred delegates attended, representing 80,000 women from soviets, factories, trade unions and youth organisations. At that conference Kollontai called again for a women’s bureau within the party. However, she was opposed by the majority of Bolshevik women, who were worried that it would create divisions between comrades and be perceived as feminist. Rabotnitsa still existed at that time and it was believed that it would constitute the core of work among women. The 12-day event concluded with an agreement to continue to organise around Rabotnitsa and to hold an all-Russian women’s conference on International Women’s Day 1918.15

But because of the pressures of the civil war the conference was cancelled in 1918 and Rabotnitsa was closed down due to a lack of available newsprint. In the meantime, leading women party members had been dispatched to various parts of the former empire to build the war effort. Kollontai was asked to speak to women workers in the textile factories of Kineshma. These women impressed on Kollontai the continuing sexual and social oppression they were suffering and made clear that they expected far more from the new society. She contacted Samoilova, Inessa Armand and Nikolaeva and they organised an all-Russian Congress of Women Workers and Peasants in November 1918. The organisers expected to draw a relatively small number and the “prepared for only 300 delegates”. But “over a thousand appeared: a motley array of red-kerchiefed - mostly workers - wearing sheepskins, colourful local costumes or army greatcoats”. The event lasted several days and ended with an agreement to set up a permanent organisation to work among women. The programme of the new organisation, which was to go on to become the Zhenotdel (Women’s department of the central committee of the Russian Communist Party), included demands

  • to combat domestic slavery and the double standard of morality;
  • to establish centralised and collective living accommodation in order to release wives from domestic drudgery;
  • to protect women’s labour and maternity;
  • to end prostitution; and
  • to transform women and their lives within the new Soviet republic.16

Ideas of the women’s movement

The political ideas of the leaders of the Zhenotdel have been described as feminist by many academics and leftwing writers. I hear the words ‘socialist feminist’, ‘Marxist feminist’ to describe them and I wonder if those that claim them as feminists have ever read those leaders’ words. Kollontai was known as a thorn in the side of the feminist movement. She, Armand, Samoilova, Krupskaya and their supporters embarked on a two-pronged strategy in respect of women’s liberation.

They attacked the feminist movement in Russia for placing illusions in the capitalist system and using the grievances of proletarian women to divide the working class. They did not believe that feminism was an adjunct to socialism, but rather that women’s liberation was an essential component of that project. Indeed, there could not be real socialism without the end of the patriarchal family and the liberation of women from that institution. Therefore they argued within their own ranks for specific work among women to address the grievances that the feminists wanted to exploit. They wanted to put the formal commitment to equality for women into practice, rather than leave it for some future communist society. Their vision was of a socialised form of society, where women would have the freedom to take part in society on an equal basis with men. Political freedom had to be underpinned by economic and social freedoms. It was a project to develop and realise the visions of communism most famously outlined by August Bebel and Frederick Engels.

Both Bebel and Engels had written about women’s liberation and communism based on the research of anthropologist Charles Morgan. Engels argued that “the first humans had lived in stateless, communal and egalitarian harmony”.17 The rise of private property and the state had led to the downfall of matriarchal, communist society and the “historical downfall of the female sex”. The loss of a socialised approach to production and reproduction were the hallmark of this collapse. Bebel argued that primitive communism was not only “a general community of women and men, but also a community of children”.18 The family under capitalism, like the system itself, had become a fetter on the progress of human society. Both advocated a future communist society based on a collective approach to production and reproduction. Therefore this meant as a first step the socialisation of childcare and domestic labour and the ending of the patriarchal family.

The German revolutionary, Klara Zetkin, was a contemporary of Bebel and deeply influenced by his arguments. She lectured on ‘Women under socialism’ and had some success in persuading her organisation, the Social Democratic Party of Germany, and the Second International to adopt policies aimed at creating a proletarian women’s movement. The SDP set up special women’s commissions at the Erfurt conference in 1891.19 Zetkin was an advocate of a separate women’s section within the party, believing that this provided a mechanism for socialist women to organise both among the wider working class movement and within the party. Her continuing commitment to this strategy is evidenced in her resolution to the newly formed Third International in 1921, which called on all parties of the International to form their own Zhenotdels.20

Kollontai and other Russian women were deeply influenced by Zetkin and also read Bebel and Engels. Kollontai worked closely with Zetkin while in political exile from 1908 to 1917. She developed particularly strong views on the need for radical and immediate change in the structure of the family. In The social basis of the woman question, she argued that to “become really free, women had to throw off the heavy chains of the current forms of the family, which are outmoded and oppressive”.21 The patriarchal family was “not only useless, but harmful” to the development of the socialist project. Its existence had to be actively undermined. In a speech in 1921 she echoed Bebel when she said that sex “should be natural like the satisfying of hunger or thirst”. She believed that the future had to be made in the present:

the ideology of a social group, and consequently of the sexual morality, is accomplished in the very process of the highly difficult struggle of given social groups with hostile social forces.22

Other Bolshevik women had also developed arguments to challenge existing social relationships. One of them, Inessa Armand, is unfortunately far better known among the left for her alleged affair with Lenin than for her outstanding role as a leader of the Bolsheviks amongst émigrés and the Zhenotdel. She too was committed to the ending of the traditional family.

And like Kollontai - to the disapproval of Lenin - Armand was an advocate of what she described as ‘free love’. In 1914 she wrote a draft pamphlet, where she argued for sexual liberation for women. Lenin believed that the concept of ‘free love’ was a bourgeois one - too libertarian and potentially destructive. His view was that the women’s movement should not go too far in promoting alternative lifestyles and alienating the working class. Armand’s biographer, RC Ellwood, argues that, although Armand was forced to drop her writing project at the time, she did not abandon her beliefs. Indeed the Zhenotdel provided her with the opportunity to really test out those views in practice with the support of like-minded activists.23 This was the project of socialisation of domestic labour in the creation of collective laundries, canteens and childcare that she developed in 1918 and 1919.

The views of Kollontai and Armand are central to the Zhenotdel project because of their key roles in its creation. While other Bolshevik women like Samoilova and Nadia Krupskaya were perhaps not so radical or impatient for change, they too shared the central premise of those beliefs - the supersession of the outdated and oppressive institution of the family. Krupskaya was the first of the group to write on the woman question in her pamphlet The Woman Worker in 1900. In it Krupskaya argued that the “task of conscious men and women was to erase the ancient prejudices and to assist women in sharing the common struggle”. In the “socialist future, when exploitation and inequality will have vanished”, women would play a full and liberated part. She “criticised men who claimed that women could have no place in the movement”.24 Women had to be freed from domestic slavery and drawn into education, work and society at large on an equal basis with men. The granting of legal rights to women in 1917 was simply the opening shot of the battle for radical change.

The Bolsheviks and the women’s movement

My intention in this article has been both to salute the immense courage and talent of the February movement; and to criticise its limitations and those of the Bolsheviks in respect of the woman question. There is no point in recognising the talent, vigour and courage of the women of the February revolution, while at the same time not accepting that the movement was severely limited in terms of organisation and political ideas. The work conducted by the Bolshevik women and the party itself in 1917 addressed many of these shortcomings, and as a result the number of female party members increased dramatically. However, the forward strides in 1917 did not continue with the taking of state power. There is no doubt as to the difficulties that were faced in the depths of the civil war, but it has to be admitted that the rights of women and the question of collectivisation were seen as of lesser importance than fighting the Whites.

Providing women with the means and ability to play an equal role in society is liberating for the entire working class and society, as it moves forward. The work of the Zhenotdel in the 10 years of its existence provides countless examples of what can be done if the commitment exists, even during famine and war. The Zhenotdel organised not just canteens and nurseries - it educated women, it provided medical consultations, it promoted them into employment and fundamentally it gave them a sense of ownership of the socialist project. Unfortunately, with the rise of Stalin and the development of nationalism, this project was isolated and diminished to the point where Stalin was able to close it down. When he did so in 1930, he claimed that the struggle for women’s equality would now be carried out by the whole party and was no longer a sectional struggle. Of course, nothing was done and very many of the gains won on divorce, abortion rights, conditions in the workplace and position within the family were lost.

Lenin himself complained in an interview with Klara Zetkin in 1921:

Unfortunately it is still true to say of many of our comrades, ‘Scratch a communist and find a philistine’. Of course, you must scratch the sensitive spot, their mentality as regards woman. Could there be a more damning proof of this than the calm acquiescence of men, who see how women grow worn out in the petty, monotonous household work - their strength and time dissipated and wasted, their minds growing narrow and stale, their hearts beating slowly, their will weakened?25

Today we still face tremendous inequality despite the veneer of achievement. We need to revisit the experiences of the women’s movement of the Russian Revolution - not to laud its glories, but to criticise and build on it. In order to honour the past we must critique it and put the Marxist vision of women’s liberation firmly back on the agenda l


1. L.Trotsky The Russian Revolution London 1959, pp145-47.

2. Ibid.

3. R Stites The women’s liberation movement in Russia Princeton 1978.

4. B Evans Clements Bolshevik women New York 1997, p120.

5. Ibid.

6. RL Glickman Russian factory women Berkeley 1986.

7. A Kollontai Autobiography of a sexually emancipated woman (1926): www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1926/autobiography.htm.

8. L Edmondson, ‘Russian feminists and the first All-Russian Congress of Women’ Russian History Vol 3, No2 (1976).

9. Ibid.

10. www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1926/autobiography.htm.

11. See B Evans Clements Bolshevik women Cambridge 1997, p103.

12. See K Turton Forgotten lives: the role of Lenin’s sisters in the Russian Revolution 1864-1937 Basingstoke 2007, p154.

13. RC Elwood Inessa Armand: revolutionary and feminist Cambridge 1992.

14. R Stites The women’s liberation movement in Russia Princeton 1978, pp301-06.

15. See C Eubanks Hayden Feminism and Bolshevism: the Zhenotdel and the politics of women’s emancipation in Russia, 1917-1930 Berkeley 1979, p154.

16. R Stites op cit p330.

17. F Engels The origin of the family, private property and the state Peking 1971.

18. A Bebel Women under socialism New York 1971, p16.

19. See W Thonnesson The emancipation of women: the rise and decline of the women’s movement within German Social Democracy 1863-1933 London 1973, p48.

20. See C Zetkin, ‘Guidelines for the communist women’s movement’, translated by B Lewis from ‘Kunst und Proletariat’ Revolutionary History No1, 2015, pp42-61.

21. A Holt (ed) Alexandra Kollontai: selected writings London 1978, p64.

22. A Kollontai The new morality and the working class (1918).

23. RC Elwood Inessa Armand: revolutionary and feminist Cambridge 1992.

24. R Stites op cit p241.

25. www.marxists.org/archive/zetkin/1924/reminiscences-of-lenin.htm#h07.