Centrality of involvement

In light of the mass upsurge in Iran sparked by protests against the hijab, Yassamine Mather asked Anne McShane to speak about the lessons of history, in particular the fight against bourgeois feminism in the Second International and the role of Bolshevik women in Russia

YM: There has been a lot of debate about whether what is going on in Iran is just a women’s struggle or a class-based revolution. No doubt the protests were originally caused by women being forced to cover their heads in public, with the slogan, “Women, life, freedom!” However, the protests have evolved considerably since those early days: the working class, opposing corruption, poverty and dictatorship, is now the main force behind the movement.

Of course, the right wing will insist that this is just about women and the headscarf, but their understanding of women’s rights is so pathetic, it is an insult to the courageous struggles being conducted by Iranian men and women over the last few months. So, contrary to what Reza Pahlavi (the son of the ex Shah, living in American exile) says, current protests in Iran are not just about “young girls being able to go to the park to hold hands with their boyfriend”. They are not just about the religious state’s interference in the private lives of its citizens. Around 500 people have died at the hands of the armed forces and at least four protestors have been executed so far, with thousands in jail. Thousands of others have suffered terrible injuries, including the loss of an eye or even a limb, because the security forces use metal baton rounds that cause severe damage.

It is stupid therefore to claim that this is just about holding hands in a park. The current protests are about poverty - the gap between the rich and poor, the non-payment of wages at a time of high inflation and spiralling prices - as well as women’s rights. Unfortunately the Iranian left, and the former left which now considers itself feminist, is very weak on these issues: at best it repeats the superficial arguments of bourgeois feminists and, as always, is simply tailing the movement.

In fact sections of the left do not have a very good record, when it comes to defending women’s protests - in particular in the early years of the Islamic Republic. And in recent years the left in exile has become conservative, repeating almost endlessly neoliberal, bourgeois-feminist slogans. There is hardly any mention of the historical role played internationally by Marxists in the struggle for gender equality from the 19th century, or references to important basic writings such as Engels’ book, The origin of the family, private property and the state.

That is why it is important to revisit the struggles of Russian women before the October Revolution and immediately afterwards, so it would be great if you could give us an insight into the principles, organisation and planning of the Zhenotdel.

Anne, as chair of Hands Off the People of Iran (Hopi) in Ireland, I know you have organised meetings and other activities in Dublin, Cork, etc. Your own research and PhD is specifically on this subject - the history and the ideas of women who struggled for socialism and for women’s rights in Russia.

AM: I hope I can contribute in some way to the discussions and struggles that are going on in Iran.

For me the motivation to study this question came from an understanding that the woman question - the struggle for women’s emancipation - needed to be part of the struggle for socialism. I wanted to know what exactly had happened in Russia, because up to when I began to study the subject I did not really appreciate what progress had been made and what this movement was all about. When you look at the academic literature on this question, you will see that the main women involved are described variously as Bolshevik feminists, Marxist feminists, socialist feminists … It almost makes it appear as though they were first and foremost feminists and secondly Marxists or socialists. To me that did not appear satisfactory, so I began to look at the role of these women and how the movement came about.

Firstly, I think in order to understand the role of the Women’s Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (from now on I will just refer to Zhenotdel or the women’s section) you need to look at the experiences and writings of key players, in particular following the formation of the Second International in 1889. August Bebel, a leading member of the German Social Democratic Party, had written a book called Women and socialism, while Friedrich Engels had written the Origin of the family, private property and the state. They were very important texts for the women who formed the Zhenotdel.

Both Engels and Bebel had looked at the research done by Lewis Henry Morgan - an anthropologist who studied the remaining forms of what he described as ‘primitive communism’ or early communism. He looked at the ways in which women and men had related to each other within a society that was not dominated by private property - a society which worked as a collective and had no ownership either of persons or things. The Zhenotdel attempted to develop those ideas and to put them into practice. Not in terms of trying to recreate that kind of society, but to learn and adapt the lessons about early human society.

Bebel and Engels had both proposed that one of the first things that should happen in a socialist society was that childcare, housework and domestic labour should be removed from the private sphere of the family and be socialised. This remains extremely important, and is relevant to the situation in Iran now. Basically it means that there must be some sort of collective responsibility for these tasks, so that women can participate fully in society. This was an immediate demand, not something for the far future. It would ensure that women became fused with the movement for socialism, so it was in reality a universal project, not one led by men, with women at its edges. It was not the same as the feminist calls for equality within the current society, but one that had a vision of a future, communistic society. In other words, the answer to women’s liberation lay in socialism and communism.


The main comrades I want to discuss will be known to many readers. First, there was Alexandra Kollontai, who was renowned for her role in the Russian Revolution, for her writings and for her very radical views on personal relationships. Other women who were pivotal in the Russian struggle were Inessa Armand, Nadia Krupskaya and Konkordiia Samoilova, while the main person outside Russia was Clara Zetkin. She was extremely important as a link between the experience of the German SPD and the writings of Bebel and Engels, and the international movement, including Russia.

In the Second International there was a struggle between the reformists and the revolutionaries and this was reflected on the woman question. There were those in Britain who wanted equality under the existing system, and an incremental approach - for instance, on votes for women (in the early 1900s that was a major question - a time when large numbers of working class men did not have the vote). The struggle within the Socialist Women’s International, which was itself set up in 1907 by Zetkin and Kollontai, was with those who thought that bourgeois women should get the vote first and that would lead the way for working class women. They argued that the right to vote, based on a property qualification, would be a step forward.

There was a fierce argument which Zetkin and her supporters won. They were adamant that there was no way they would agree to some kind of phased approach: for them this was a question for the entire working class movement and the fight had to be for universal suffrage. There were arguments made by the reformists that many working class women did not really understand politics and their sisters in the suffragette movement were educated and informed. In fact in Britain the vote for all women was attained later than in Russia and other parts of Europe, precisely because they took this incremental approach.

Out of the experience of the Second International a group of Russian women came together around a journal called Rabotnitsa (‘Woman Worker’). They published this journal for a number of months in 1914 before it was closed down by the police. The women were all members of the Bolsheviks, with the editorial board split between those in exile and those operating underground. The journal was a step towards creating a working class women’s movement with the Bolsheviks acting as the leadership.

I would have to say that Bolshevik men were not always great on the question. Lenin and some others are known to have been supportive, but there was generally a conservative attitude towards women and I think many men were not used to them being involved in politics in large numbers. They believed that women’s issues could be dealt with after the revolution, and did not welcome them getting organised and making demands to be included in the movement. Very likely they also thought that many of the issues that concerned women were trivial, that their specific demands were cosmetic and not something that really mattered to the movement. But Bolshevik women raised the money themselves to publish the journal.

Rabotnitsa popularised Marxist ideas and agitated for the right to vote, as well as key issues for women workers. Writers pointed to the real needs of women; why it was even more important that they were properly paid and worked a maximum of eight hours a day because of all their additional responsibilities in the home. They used a discussion of Bebel’s Women and socialism to argue that women had not always been oppressed, and that there was nothing innate about the position they held in society - that conclusion applies to places like Iran as well. Women are not some kind of inert force that has to remain tied to tradition.

Rabotnitsa was a very successful journal and was distributed in factories, particularly in Petrograd (St Petersburg) where a lot of women worked in the textile industry. There were meetings and discussions around articles and you can see in the journal that collections were taken up at these meetings to fund it. There were also messages of solidarity, expressing the feeling that finally Russian working women had their own journal, which expressed their specific issues and revolutionism.

An anti-war women’s conference was organised by Zetkin in 1915. I think it would be fair to say that many in the women’s section of the Second International continued to support Zetkin and took a principled position on the war.


The next part of the story begins in February 1917, when working women came out onto the streets of Petrograd in mass protests. That they did so on International Women’s Day was no coincidence - IWD had been initiated by a conference of socialist women in 1910: it was put forward as a day in which to promote women’s liberation as part of the working class movement. Because of conditions in Russia activists really only started to organise IWD events in 1913, when meetings were held illegally. However, Bolshevik women kept up the work and the symbolism of that day penetrated into the movement.

International Women’s Day in 1917 was actually in February under the old Russian calendar. Meetings were held to discuss the situation with the war, the lack of food and soaring prices. Women in a number of factories decided to strike, calling men out as they marched through the streets. There are descriptions of very dramatic scenes, as they slid down the banks of the Neva River, when soldiers blocked the bridges.

These working women were a tremendous force within the revolution which toppled the tsarist regime - the first act of the Russian Revolution. It is often claimed that they were simply an elemental force with little real grasp about politics. It is true that they were not organised in the same way as men within the factories and there were also literacy issues. Nevertheless, what they were discussing on International Women’s Day was their self-liberation and they decided to act on it - calling out working men who they considered their comrades and allies. After the February revolution, Rabotnitsa was relaunched and its readers began to organise various committees in the cities of Moscow and St Petersburg. There were a number of strikes - laundresses, soldier’s wives and peasant women. The Bolsheviks were extremely popular among working class women because of the work carried out before the revolution.

Then we have the October revolution, after which the women’s movement took a new form. The most progressive and unprecedented legislation was passed: women were declared equal under the law; they had the right to vote, to obtain a divorce freely on demand and many other rights that were often absent in other parts of the world. Kollontai became commissar for welfare - the first woman minister ever in a government. Activists began to organise around various matters. Workers’ canteens were set up throughout Moscow and Petrograd, along with childcare facilities.

With the civil war, which broke out in 1918, women were needed in large numbers within the workforce in the absence of men. They complained that the rights that they had been formally given were not amounting to much in reality - in particular in terms of childcare. Many were not able to cope with the pressures they were under. However, unlike before, when they had no voice, now they could make their views heard - in particular at a congress of working class and peasant women in November 1918.

This was an important turning point. The event, held in Moscow, was expected to be quite small, but more than a thousand delegates from right across the new Soviet Republic travelled there to take part. Delegates decided that they could not wait any longer for the party or the soviets to do something. They decided to organise themselves and set up commissions, which were, if possible, to be connected to party organisations. The aim at the heart of the project was to allow women to be involved in the development of Soviet society as equals. Memoirs of people who were involved show the commissions to have been extremely popular and pointed to the fact that this was a constituency that was not going to go away. The central committee of the party agreed in August 1919 to set up the Zhenotdel. It was launched that September.

Question 1

YM: I need to ask a few questions if possible. You give a whole set of events that inevitably lead to other events. I am very interested in the Second International and the divisions over the women’s question. If I remember correctly, in Britain women of a certain income were granted the vote a decade before all woman were given the franchise. Perhaps you could also say a bit more about the situation in Russia before the 1917 revolution. How successful were they and what practical steps were taken in terms of getting more women involved?

AM: Firstly, in relation to the votes for women in Britain, There was an act passed in 1918 stipulating that all women over the age of 21 who could meet a minimum property qualification would be entitled to vote, but it was not until 1928 that all women over 21 got that right. I would say that the reformists and Fabians allowed the movement to split.

It is interesting when you look back at the first debates within the Second International, and see the involvement of individuals like Eleanor Marx - daughter of Karl - who was very prominent in the trade union movement in Britain, and a strong supporter of Zetkin. She was present at the 1893 Zurich congress as a delegate of the Union of Gas Workers and General Labourers. Eleanor Marx was withering in her criticism of feminist elements who in the name of equality refused to support demands for the special protection for women workers.

At the first Socialist Women’s Conference in 1907, the Fabians again refused to support rights for working class women, and along with the Independent Labour Party, opposed the resolution calling for universal suffrage. Instead they supported the suffragettes’ campaign for extending the franchise so that it was the same as men. Then at the next Socialist Women’s conference in 1910 they opposed a resolution which criticised them and pleaded that Britain was unique and they knew the conditions far better than others in the International.

As history shows, they wasted years campaigning for women of property to get the vote before working class women. Fighting for equality of opportunity for these women meant working class women came second. Indeed equality of opportunity for bourgeois women often means supporting their right to exploit working class women (and men).

Next, the involvement of women in Russia just before and immediately after the revolution and what practical steps they made. They were not able to do much in practice before 1917, except to write about the need to socialise domestic labour and childcare. They also fought to organise women in trade unions and recruit them to the Bolsheviks. Indeed in that period many women who worked in the textile industry, or as servants, became involved because of the organisational efforts of Bolshevik women.

After October there were a lot of articles in the press aimed at winning over men. Nadia Krupskaya spoke about this a number of years later, when she was critical of the fact that there had been a shift towards placing all the responsibility on women themselves to lead the struggle for change. Men needed to be alongside women in the struggle, and not to inhibit women’s involvement by not agreeing to let them go to meetings, etc.

This propaganda was important practically, and Trotsky, along with some other male leaders, also wrote in those terms, and I understand that Pravda had a number of articles and debates on this question. Women became involved practically in the civil war, usually in medical care and other support services. When the Zhenotdel was launched in September 1919, its first director, Inessa Armand, prioritised the involvement of women in the war effort, to be integrated as equals. But in order to make progress there needed to be effective national organisation. That is why the Zhenotdel was needed to start to really make an impact. Before it was formed the initiatives were just city-wide or even more local.

Question 2

YM: You mentioned the idea that the struggle to involve women could be left until after the revolution. This continues even now and has in my opinion increased the separation of women from the socialist struggle, meaning that many become separatists and join bourgeois feminist organisations. From what you are saying, clearly, unless this issue is raised before the revolution, there is no way it will happen of its own accord.

AM: Yes you have to make a positive effort to organise among women. Kollontai and all these people have been described as feminists, but they were not. Sometimes they were called feminists by their own comrades, but they argued that they believed in women’s emancipation as a central part of the struggle for universal emancipation. This needed to be fought for consciously.

Krupskaya once wrote that men had to be educated, as they did not go through women’s experiences of what it is like to be denied a voice - that is why the Zhenotdel was very keen on education for both men and women. I agree that, unless you actually bring together women and men in the struggle for revolution, you will end up with a distorted form of society, which will not be really socialism.

We now have the time to discuss these questions, so as to organise women within a revolutionary party. While in Russia there were all sorts of limitations because of isolation and economic backwardness, it would have made a difference if there had been support from male party members. It would have been so much easier than, as was the case, spending time fighting with their own comrades for recognition of the importance of women as equals in the struggle.

Lenin gave an interview to Clara Zetkin, in which he strongly criticised many of his male comrades for their chauvinism and resistance to change. Today it is still the case that, unless you take this question seriously, then you are not going to win, because women need to be part of the universal struggle of the working class. We would all be so much stronger if there were organisations that could properly represent women as part of the working class movement.

Full discussion can be viewed on this link: www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhhhsisyrbA