The will to liberate

Neglect of the woman question in the early Soviet republic was not the result of isolation and economic backwardness, argues Anne McShane

I have given a number of presentations at the CPGB’s summer school, Communist University, over the last few years on the woman question in the early Soviet Union. I have focused on my area of research, which is the Zhenotdel (women’s department of the central committee of the Communist Party), formed in 1919. I have traced the debates which took place in the Zhenotdel’s activist journal, Kommunistka (Communist Woman) over its 10-year existence.

In 2018 I focused at some length on conflicts between the Zhenotdel and the rest of the party, and in particular the antagonism exhibited by male party members towards conducting specific forms of work among women. I also discussed the failure of the central committee to effectively support the Zhenotdel’s work, and the eventual closure of the department by Stalin. I also dealt with the struggles of Zhenotdel activists to continue with their programme and the growth of a desire for autonomy from the party within its ranks. This culminated in proposals to organisationally separate women’s work from the party, and attempts to set up societies to do so in 1928 in the Soviet east. I discussed the background to a debate in Kommunistka in 1928 and the impact of the Hujum, a campaign launched by the central committee to destroy the hold of religion in the east, which demanded that the Zhenotdel lead the mass unveiling of women in the region.

In the debate which followed my talk at Communist University last August, it became apparent to me that some comrades believed I was going too far in my criticisms and had unrealistic expectations of the Bolsheviks. It was argued that an isolated revolution could never emancipate women. Thus it was utopian to demand that Soviet society provide a model. From the outset it had been a society in serious economic crisis, without the funds to set up socialised alternatives to domestic labour and childcare, or to bring women into the workforce on an equal basis with men. The best thing that could be said was that women were granted legal equality under the Soviet constitution - the first state in the world to do so. I was failing to see that this was simply a regime desperately trying to hold onto power. Meaningful progress could only be made, once revolution began to take hold throughout Europe. My criticisms of the CPSU therefore reflected a misunderstanding on my part of the real conditions in the 1920s.

One leading comrade claimed that I seemed to be determined to find the Bolsheviks guilty of some kind of “original sin”. Afterwards I checked the Cambridge English Dictionary and confirmed the definition of original sin as “the idea that all humans are born with a tendency to be evil”. I concluded that if I was accusing the Bolsheviks of “original sin” on the woman question it must follow that I considered them innately chauvinist. They were men - and thus inescapably antagonistic to women’s rights. A male-dominated leadership could not be anything but sexist.

It is true, of course, that this is a view expounded by some feminist academic historians. But it is not my view. I do not describe myself as a feminist. Yet I do consider that the relationship of women’s emancipation to socialism remains a profoundly neglected field of study. We only have to consider the fact that the woman question is largely missing from the historical account. There is also scarcely anything known about the Communist Women’s International, set up in 1920 and surviving for 10 years before its closure in 1930 - the same year that Stalin closed the Zhenotdel. Leading Bolsheviks, such as Nadezhda Krupskaya and Inessa Armand, are famous only because of their personal connections to Lenin - the former the wife and secretary, the latter the supposed lover. And, apart from Alexandra Kollontai, other Bolshevik women remain largely anonymous.

Today the majority of women on the left self-identify as socialist feminists or Marxist feminists. The Bolshevik women mentioned above are described in the same way, despite the fact that they repudiated feminism in their own lifetimes. It is argued that Bolshevik women were only antagonistic to bourgeois feminism, not the leftwing type. Kollontai and Armand, along with Klara Zetkin of the German Social Democratic Party, are described as part of first-wave feminism because of their advocacy of women’s rights within the Second International and Comintern.

For me this is a serious misrepresentation of their struggle. Kollontai and Zetkin opposed all forms of feminism. They believed that it represented a sectional and divisive threat to working class unity. They were committed to the development of Marxism, and rejected the argument that Marxism is fundamentally a male-dominated economic theory. And they fiercely opposed the introduction of feminism into the socialist movement.

Today we seem to have lost this understanding. For many it is a given that feminism is a necessary addition to Marxism. Because it is generally understood that only women can be feminists, men are sometimes excluded from campaign involvement and decision-making. But, while women-only campaigns are necessary within some cultures and situations, as a general rule they should be avoided. In my experience it leads to the woman question being entirely ignored by male-dominated leaderships of leftwing organisations and trade unions. Or to campaigns being led by self-appointed cliques of middle class feminists, who use notions like ‘safe spaces’ to bureaucratically silence criticism. Rather than leftwing and working class men being won over to the struggle, they remain on the edges, often too nervous to argue for their point of view for fear of being castigated for ‘mansplaining’, or intimidating women.

The methodology which depicts women’s emancipation as essentially the preserve of women is divisive and disempowering. Instead men have to be won to an appreciation of the dehumanising effect of the oppression of women on themselves and on the potential of society as a whole. And, when working class men do take up the struggle for women’s rights, it is a powerful and inspiring phenomenon. The recent Irish referendum on abortion is a case in point. Surveys of the views of Irish men immediately before the referendum showed that, contrary to expectations, the majority were actually in support of a ‘yes’ vote. Older men in particular were expected to be the bastion of Catholic misogyny, and ‘pro-life’ campaigners were confident of their support for the traditional myth of women at the heart of the family. Instead older men were often the most vociferous in arguing that abortion was and had to be a private matter for a woman. Younger men spoke out in defence of their wives, partners, mothers and sisters who had abortions. They were adamant that women should not be denied basic human rights and felt angry and frustrated that those they loved were so disempowered. The activity of younger men in challenging the ‘pro-life’ propaganda on social media was most certainly a crucial factor in winning the debate.

The fact that the majority for ‘yes’ was so overwhelming shows that the Irish working class - women and men - had become more democratic and progressive than at any time in the past. The question of abortion rights came to reflect an aspiration for a more secular society and was seen as part of a collective, rather than a women-only struggle. It was a powerful corrective to the idea that women’s rights are an issue for us alone.

Our own history

But it is not good enough to argue that feminism is the only thing that prevents working class unity around women’s emancipation. Crucially we need to examine our own tradition - including facing up to its weaknesses on the question. I used to believe that the criticisms made by academics of male chauvinism within the ranks of the Bolsheviks flowed from the anti-communism of the academics rather than historical reality. However, my own independent study has shown me that I was wrong. While the Bolsheviks were at the vanguard of women’s emancipation in programmatic terms, the party membership (including many leaders) was seriously lacking when it came to the practical implementation of that programme.

This problem was first addressed by Nadezhda Krupskaya in 1901, when she urged male comrades in the RSDLP to recognise that winning over the female proletariat was of strategic importance for the entire class. She demanded that comrades “help women workers to organise themselves, to awaken class-consciousness in them, as conscious and organised women will be less receptive to the employers’ demands and will not allow themselves to be twisted around the boss’s little finger”.1 Krupskaya then worked with Lenin to have a demand for women’s equality included in the RSDLP programme of 1903. She collaborated with him on this question again in 1914 when, along with Inessa Armand and a number of other Bolshevik women, they launched the journal Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker), which was circulated widely among women workers in Russia. The initiative was extremely successful for the six months it managed to survive before being suppressed by the tsarist authorities. Its popularity was evidenced by its relaunch after the February 1917 revolution, and its becoming central to the organisation of women workers in support of the revolution throughout that year.

Unfortunately these initiatives did not garner much support from men within the RSDLP or the Bolsheviks as a whole. Writing about her own experiences of struggle for women’s rights in Russia, Alexandra Kollontai expressed her disappointment at “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”.2 Kollontai and her supporters found themselves fighting a battle on two fronts - against the feminist movement, on the one hand, and for serious recognition of their work within the party, on the other. Despite the programmatic commitment to women’s equality inserted into the RSDLP programme in 1903, Kollontai argued that both wings of the party were in general apathetic or even antagonistic to specific organisational initiatives among women. Perversely, and despite their avowed anti-feminism, communist women were often denounced as splitters and feminists. Kollontai continued to try to make progress without support, setting up initiatives like the Society for Mutual Aid to Women in 1907, along with Klavdiia Nikolaeva, and organising a successful intervention at an all-Russian feminist unity conference in 1908. When forced to leave Russia in 1908, she joined forces with Klara Zetkin in the International Women’s Secretariat. Zetkin is, of course, renowned for her own work in winning the Second International to campaign for women’s votes and to establish International Working Women’s Day as part of the socialist calendar. She too was caught in a similar dilemma to Kollontai - of confronting feminism, while at the same time fighting for recognition within the SDP and Second International.

The gap between the formal position of the Bolsheviks and the reality was pointed to by Lenin in his 1920 interview with Klara Zetkin. In her account she writes of how proud he was of the advances that had been made since the revolution:

We are bringing women into the social economy, into legislation and government. All educational institutions are open to them, so that they can increase their professional and social capacities. We are establishing communal kitchens and public eating houses, laundries and repairing shops, nurseries, kindergartens, children’s homes, educational institutes of all kinds. In short, we are seriously carrying out the demand in our programme for the transfer of the economic and educational functions of the separate household to society.3

It is therefore evident that Lenin saw the socialisation programme and the full involvement of women as equals as an intrinsic part of the post-revolutionary agenda. This was not a technical issue, but an essential aspect of moving forward. His criticism was directed towards his own comrades who did not share his views. He complained that many comrades regarded the woman question as an issue for women alone:

Agitation and propaganda work among women, their awakening and revolutionisation, is regarded as an incidental matter, as an affair which only concerns women comrades. They alone are reproached because work in that direction does not proceed more quickly and more vigorously. That is wrong, quite wrong! Real separatism and, as the French say, le féminisme à la rebours - feminism upside-down!

What is at the basis of the incorrect attitude of our national sections? In the final analysis it is nothing but an underestimation of woman and her work. Yes, indeed! 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 women.

Lenin was evidently frustrated at the continuing difficulties that the Zhenotdel was experiencing in finding acceptance and support among male party members. He argued:

Our communist work among women, our political work, embraces a great deal of educational work among men. We must root out the old ‘master’ idea to its last and smallest root, in the party and among the masses. That is one of our political tasks, just as is the urgently necessary task of forming a staff of men and women comrades, well trained in theory and practice, to carry on party activity among working women.

For Lenin, therefore, the problem with implementation of the Bolshevik programme was not resources or even the impact of the civil war. The key obstacle lay in the disinterest and philistinism of male party members. It was this very problem that had led Kollontai to declare in 1918 that “the revolution has brought rights for [women] on paper, but in fact it has only made life hard for them”.4 There were reports of growing disillusionment among the ranks of urban working class women, who had been at the forefront of the revolution in Petrograd and Moscow. Kollontai and a number of other Bolshevik women agreed that action had to be taken to address this problem. She came together with Inessa Armand, Konkordiia Samoilova, Klavdiia Nikolaeva and Nadezhda Krupskaya to organise a congress of working class and peasant women in December 1918. This event spearheaded the creation of women’s commissions. These commissions began to set up canteens and crèches, and to campaign for women to be recruited to jobs and into education - the kind of work that Lenin was later able to describe with pride in his interview with Klara Zetkin. A decision was taken by the central committee in September 1919, no doubt under Lenin’s influence, to create the Zhenotdel as a department to carry out work among women. Its creation as a department of the central committee was meant to signal the importance of the question for the party as a whole.

Ideas of the Zhenotdel

One of my key criticisms in my talk at Communist University was the lack of theoretical education within the Bolsheviks on the relationship of the woman question to socialism. It appears to me that, with the exception of Alexandra Kollontai, there was no attempt to develop the theoretical propositions put forward by August Bebel in 1879 and Frederick Engels in 1884. Both of these writers had used anthropological findings on tribal cultures, along with materials on Greek and Roman societies, to delve into the communist and matriarchal origins of human society and provide some conception of how to approach the question in contemporary terms. They both considered that women’s role in communist production and reproduction had been accorded at least equal recognition to that of men, as all family ties were traced through the mother. It was not only “a general community of women and men, but also a community of children”.5 All society shared the collective benefit of, and responsibility for, children. Members of the commune shared in the produce of the labour of both men and women.

Engels contended that the emergence of private property through agriculture had destroyed the communal bonds and concentrated property in the hands of a minority, ultimately leading to state rule, the privatised family and the supremacy of men over women. It had brought about the “historical downfall of the female sex”.6 Women became marginalised from civil society and enslaved by childcare and domestic labour. The rise of the state as a force above society coincided with the destruction of the communal bonds. The monogamous family of the 19th century was just the most recent example of a repressive family form within which women were themselves treated as property. Both class society and the conventional family had therefore become an impediment to the progress of humanity. Bebel believed the bourgeois family to be “a place of darkness and superstition”.7

Engels asserted that not only was women’s entry into productive labour essential, but that involvement in “social production would transform sexuality” and challenge the hold of the family. Under the workers’ state women would attain economic freedom and equality with men. Freedom from the drudgery of domestic labour and childcare would allow them to enjoy a free social, political and sexual life.

It is these ideas that Zetkin, Kollontai and leading Bolshevik women identified as their core platform and why they considered themselves - and were - Marxists. And it is clear that Lenin also advocated the centrality of socialisation and the promotion of women into full and equal participation in society. Yet he himself had not written on this question with the exception of occasional articles and speeches. And, while he despaired of the chauvinism and philistinism of his own comrades, he had placed far too little emphasis on their education in these theories before the revolution. There does not appear to have been any attempt by the leadership to develop a rounded understanding of the role of family, or to explore and develop the ideas of Bebel and Engels.

Of course, Lenin was a busy man and perhaps I am being unfair to level this criticism. Yet the failure to convince male party members was a central flaw. Because Bolshevik men had not seen the woman question as a crucial issue before the revolution, they naturally saw it as a diversion from the enormous and intimidating tasks which confronted them in its aftermath. They did not understand that the ordeals they faced would be made so much easier by the inclusion of women at all levels of that battle.

Initiatives and struggles

Despite a level of antagonism, the period of civil war turned out to be the highpoint for the Zhenotdel. Under Inessa Armand’s leadership it recruited women to support the civil war effort, including joining the Red Army. She set up delegate meetings among women workers in factories and local communities. These were organised so that women were sent for training in various areas of industry and government, and then returned to train other women and allow another delegate to replace them. The meetings also organised childcare, canteen facilities and education. Many of the activities of the delegate meetings did not necessitate a great deal of funding. It was more a question of imaginative reorganisation.

But the end of the civil war and the introduction of the New Economic Policy had a major destructive effect on delegate meetings and on the morale of Zhenotdel activists. Women lost their jobs to men returning from the war, who demanded their entitlement to work. Female employees who had become trade union officials, public speakers and educators were now expected to return home to traditional roles. The Zhenotdel’s staffing was slashed as part of the NEP. It dealt with the situation by setting up cooperatives with support services around them, and campaigning for women’s employment. Kollontai had become head of the Zhenotdel in 1920, with Armand’s untimely death. She battled fiercely against the new political direction and joined the Workers’ Opposition faction, figuring prominently in the fierce battles against the NEP at the 10th Congress of the party.

Kollontai is best known for her radical approach to sexual relationships in the post-revolutionary period. Her view was that the promotion of new relationships between individuals was as worthy of initiative as the development of new economic forms. Writing in October 1920, she reasoned that “our job is to decide which aspects of our family system are outdated and to determine what relations between the men and women of the working and peasant classes and which rights and duties would best harmonise with the conditions of life in the new workers’ Russia”.8As far as she was concerned, there should be no retreat from this task and she argued in a lecture at Sverdlov University in 1921 that “the ideology of a social group, and consequently of sexual morality, is accomplished in the very process of the highly difficult struggle of given social groups with hostile social forces”.9

It was an interesting question, in spite of Kollontai’s rather dogmatic proposals for Soviet society to dictate the terms on which individuals lived their lives. But her attempt to continue a discussion on sexual relationships was closed down and she was removed from her position as head of the Zhenotdel. Her activities within the now defeated Workers’ Opposition had earned her the reputation of being a reckless troublemaker. In an increasingly tense and intolerant atmosphere, Kollontai was described as a threat to the stability of the Soviet republic. In 1922 she found herself dispatched abroad to the diplomatic service - permanently.


Losing Armand and Kollontai was serious for the Zhenotdel. Yet, under the leadership of Sofia Smidovich, it continued to take initiatives and to promote education and economic freedom for women. While Smidovich and her successors were not as radical as Kollontai, they all agreed that the individual family had to be superseded in order to bring women into society as equals. Aleksandra Artiukhina, who was to become the last leader of the Zhenotdel, made it clear in 1930 that this did not necessitate investment in new technology, but continued social organisation. In short it was a political approach that was needed.

My research into the work of the organisation in central Asia has revealed many imaginative and successful initiatives. This is particularly apparent in the cities of Uzbekistan, where the majority of women were veiled and lived in seclusion. Kollontai proposed to a meeting of activists in the Soviet east in 1921 that, instead of delegate meetings and the apprenticeship schemes, women-only clubs would be set up, so that women could travel in safety to an environment where they could unveil and feel at ease. Women’s clubs would afford a protected space for indigenous Muslim women to engage in social and economic activity and provide them with positive experiences of “how Soviet power can emancipate them in all aspects of their lives, once they engage with it”. Clubs were to be “schools where women are drawn to the Soviet project through their own self-activity and begin to cultivate the spirit of communism within themselves”.10 Clubs provided childcare, literacy and other educational classes, theatre clubs, medical consultations and cooperatives. The main aim of the cooperatives was to bring together women involved in the craft industry, who had previously been isolated within the home.

The ongoing problem for the first cooperatives was the difficulty in obtaining raw materials and accessing markets. Kommunistka writers pleaded with the general cooperative movement to recognise that women’s participation was an essential ingredient in a strong economy. Hence “drawing women into work and providing them with wages is of social and political importance, because they will then consider themselves equal members of society and put their efforts into developing the economy”.11 Without raw materials and the ability to sell their products this could not be achieved. Despite continuous requests for assistance, in September 1925 Seifi complained bitterly that “still practically nothing has been done to organise women handicraft workers. We have to put this work on a systematic footing or it will fail.”12

The situation changed for the better that year, with the influx of more indigenous women into the Zhenotdel in Uzbekistan. An Uzbek language journal, Yangi Y’ol, was launched and initiatives were taken to set up women-only shops. These shops overcame many of the problems which had existed previously. Cooperatives were set up around the shops and women could sell their produce in them. Also the shops were more readily accepted by indigenous men, as they saw them of benefit to themselves. Liubimova pointed to a notable increase in the numbers joining cooperatives since the creation of women-only shops, with the number of Uzbek women in cooperatives rising from 225 in October 1925 to 1,500 in October 1926. Clearly still a tiny figure, but notable in that indigenous women were responding positively and it was providing them with some economic freedom.

There were meetings held within the shops to discuss cooperative methods, with literature available to provide guidance to participants on this issue. Mother and baby corners were set up and there were readings and discussions on the content of Yangi Y’ol. Butusova described them as unique in “providing a means through which the party can influence women who are otherwise completely secluded”. Thus a form of organisation which was of practical use to indigenous women would also facilitate their recruitment to the Soviet project. By late 1926 there were a reported 34 women-only clubs in Uzbekistan and 90 ‘red corners’, where women met in temporary facilities. 71,000 women attended medical consultations over a period of six months that year. There were 43 women-only shops. These were most certainly important developments in facilitating indigenous women to enter the workforce and general society.

The Hujum and five-year plan

The events of 1927 were to completely obliterate the positive developments of the years preceding it. I have written about the Hujum in detail elsewhere. The motivation for the campaign demanding mass unveiling came from the central committee and was led by the Sredazburo - the party organisation in the east. A war was declared on the Islamic clerics of the east and on the religious and customary practices they upheld. The central committee decided that indigenous women who had joined the Zhenotdel should lead by example in mass unveiling protests on International Women’s Day 1927.

Unveiling had never been a Zhenotdel policy, and was seen as a secondary question - something where great care was needed. Clearly the women-only clubs, cooperatives and shops were aimed at protecting women. Mass unveiling would put them in direct confrontation with their families and communities. The leader of the central Asian Zhenotdel, Serafima Liubimova, expressed her opposition to the campaign in meetings before its launch. She was then removed from her position and replaced with a more amenable individual, Antonia Nukrat.

Many indigenous women did respond positively to the Hujum at first, believing that the campaign would bring about major change. On March 8 a reported 70,000 took part in the mass burning of their veils. But the backlash which followed was truly terrible. Women were physically attacked, even murdered - with many male party members involved in these attacks. Reports all confirm that women re-veiled almost overnight. Clubs and cooperatives fell into disuse, as women were either forbidden or too afraid to attend. The women-only shops were closed down by the general cooperative movement on the pretext that they were not needed any more. Another organised mass unveiling was declared for May 1. But it was met by wave of violence. In short Uzbek society was thrown into major conflict and indigenous women were the victims.

Coming as it did in the same year that the first five-year plan was announced, there is no doubt that the Hujum was a deliberate attempt to destroy the social fabric of Uzbek society. In the debate which was launched in its aftermath by Krupskaya as editor of Kommunistka, it was clear that the Zhenotdel was in deep crisis. Krupskaya herself bravely condemned the attacks on religious practices in her speech to a meeting of activists in the east in December 1928. However, she was opposed by Yemelyan Yaroslavsky, a close supporter of Stalin and leader of the anti-religion campaign. He demanded even more forceful action to prosecute those who objected to unveiling. He also announced a major cleansing of ‘alien elements’ from the party.

In 1929 the Kommunistka journal was reduced to stilted articles and reports. Supporters of the central committee like Antonia Nukrat tried to persuade members that the party leadership really did support their work. But even she was forced to complain about the way that indigenous women were being assigned the most dirty and derogatory tasks on collective farms and in factories. Stalin had clearly decided that he wanted no more criticism in any form from the Zhenotdel. It was announced in March 1930 that the department was going to be closed down, as it was ‘no longer necessary’. The question of women’s rights would be taken up by the party as a whole. Of course, the opposite was true. The next decade saw women’s rights stripped away, as abortion was banned and divorce made far more difficult. The concept of women as loyal mothers and workers replaced the Zhenotdel programme for self-active liberated women. They now had the double burden of work and family.


In writing this article, I wanted to restate the importance of Marxism on the woman question. I want to show comrades that we need to be critical of the Bolsheviks in order to learn from them. By providing some examples of what was achieved by the Zhenotdel I hope I have shown what is possible with the right approach. The success or failure of the women’s movement in early Soviet society was not down to economic resources, but to politics. The extent to which women enjoyed rights was down to the achievements of the Zhenotdel and the struggles of the 1920s.

Our movement must reclaim the Soviet women’s movement, and the Communist Women’s International. It is only by doing so and by learning from those experiences that we can make progress on the woman question today.


1. NK Krupskaya The woman worker Croydon 2017, p19.

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

3. www.marxists.org/archive/zetkin/1920/lenin/zetkin1.htm.

4. C Porter Alexandra Kollontai: a biography Brecon 2015 p300.

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

6. F Engels The origin of the family, private property and the state New York 1975, p94.

7. A Bebel Women under socialism p186.

8. A Kollontai, ‘Sem’ia i kommunizm’ Kommunistka No7 (1920), pp16-19.

9. A Kollontai, ‘The new morality and the working class’.

10. A Kollontai, ‘Rezoliutsii I vsepossiiskogo soveshchaniia organizatorov po rabote sredi zhenshchin narodov Vostoka’ Kommunistka Nos12-13 (1921), pp49-51.

11. V Kasparova, ‘Zadachi partii v rabote sredi zhenshchin norodov Vostoka’ Kommunistka No7 (1925), pp85-93.

12. M Seifi, ‘Pomoshch v proizvodstve zhenshchin v Vostoke’ Kommunistka No9 (1925), pp75-80.