Women’s history as a guide for activists

By CHRISTINE MARIE

Wendy Z. Goldman, Women, The State & Revolution: Soviet Family Policy & Social Life, 1917-1936 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); La mujer, el estado y la Revolución (Buenos Aires: Pan y rosas and Ediciones IPS, 2012).

On Oct. 10, the Marxist scholar Wendy Z. Goldman published a piece in Counterpunch entitled “The Takeover of the R.R. Donelly Factory: Behind Every Worker is a Family.” The article was about her recent visit to Buenos Aires, Argentina. She had been invited to speak about her book, “Women, the State, and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936.” It is an academic book, published by Cambridge University Press, but Goldman was not in Argentina on a publisher’s academic book tour.

She was there because the book had been translated and recently distributed by Pan y Rosas, an Argentinean socialist women’s organization that is affiliated with one of the revolutionary socialist political parties there. The book—first written in 1993—is a detailed accounting of the effort of the Bolshevik party in the first years of the Russian revolution to socialize household work, as well as a look at two moments of dramatic retreat from that revolutionary perspective, once under the NEP in the 1920s and again in the 1930s, when Stalinism’s hold on the nation was complete.

The audience of 700 people had students and faculty, but also workers from many factories in the area who were influenced by the Bread and Roses group.

Goldman tells the story of one of the women who spoke in the discussion period. She was an older domestic worker who had spent her life cleaning the houses of the rich. She said, “The Bolsheviks talked about the socialization of household labor. Today only women do this work. And if a woman is wealthy enough, she pays another woman like me to do it.”

This woman was one of many who were studying the Bolsheviks’ approach to the liberation of women by reading the translation of this weighty book. A Pan y Rosas organizer told Wendy Goldman that some of the women workers who were in the audience had broken into tears when they first heard about the revolutionary socialist vision for transforming daily life and human relationships that the Russians had tried to carry out just after World War I.

Donnelley Women’s Commission

The centerpiece of Goldman’s trip was a visit to a factory, the R. R. Donnelley plant, which had recently been taken over by a democratically elected body called the Workers Assembly and Women’s Commission. The workers and their families had been studying her book and formal discussions about its lessons were being carried out in the Women’s Commission.

From afar, the work of the Women’s Commission sounds a lot like the Daughters of Mother Jones, who were active in the Pittston Coal Strike, or the women’s support group of the Austin, Minn., P-9 strike at Hormel, two historic labor strikes in the United States in the 1980s. That is, they do solidarity work and take care of the families of those in need due to the struggle.

To enable themselves to take on this political role, the R. R. Donnelley Women’s Commission built a child-care center in the worker-occupied plant. Unlike their North American counterparts, however, they are studying the Bolsheviks and the most dramatic and serious attempt to liberate women that the working class has ever undertaken.

Russian Revolution opened new possibilities

 So what’s in this book that has the women of the vanguard of the Argentinian working class breaking into tears at the very thought? What was the Bolshevik strategy for women’s liberation? In a nutshell, the Bolsheviks widely believed that under socialism, the family, like the state, would “wither away.”

In Wendy Goldman’s words, they believed that “the state, an institution needed only for one minority class to suppress another more numerous class, would lose its function in inverse proportion to the development of a fully democratic and egalitarian society built on an abundance of use values that meet the most basic human needs. The family economic unit, an institution that relieved the capitalists of any responsibility for the care and maintenance of children and the working class, would become the choice of fewer and fewer as socialized alternatives to its functions replaced dog eat dog ethos of capitalist society.”

Socialists have long pointed out that capitalism throws each individual working-class household into competition with the other for jobs, scarce resources, education, and health care. In this setup, the capitalist class is rewarded with millions of individual wasteful units of consumption, and women and children are left dangerously isolated and prey to violence and coercion. The fact that women may live in a home with a male breadwinner is used to justify denying them a livable wage.

Capitalism, the Bolsheviks understood, has zero incentive to provide alternatives to the private family household as an economic unit.

The Bolshevik vision

The Bolsheviks envisioned, instead, a society in which communal dining halls, day care centers, and public laundries would replace the unpaid labor of women in the home. They hoped that freed up from isolation in the home or double duty, women could achieve equality with men and that romantic love and respect could replace legal and economic dependence as the basis for relations between the sexes.

The tasks of the household, the Bolsheviks believed, could be shifted to the public sphere and performed by well-paid workers. Parents, regardless of their marital status, could call on help from the state for the care for children. Goldman places their views in the context of hundreds of years of utopian hopes and experimentation.

Lenin was deeply involved in the discussions of how to go forward to socialize housework, which he described as the most savage and arduous work a woman can do, that degrades a woman, “forcing upon her … stultifying drudgery.”

Bolshevik leader Alexandra Kollantai spoke of the family’s horrible waste of resources and said that the people’s economy would have branches in which cleaning and washing would sit alongside metallurgy and machine production. Trotsky said that as soon as “washing was done by a public laundry, catering by a public restaurant, and sewing by a public workshop, the bond between husband and wife would be freed from everything external. Affection and attraction would be the sole criteria for relationships and marriage.”

There were differences among these leaders, and they had no access to today’s science on child-parent bonding, sexuality, and so forth, but they were united in their willingness to try to free women from all social relations based on private capitalist production.

Unlike small utopian communities dependent on producing for the capitalist market in exchange for just being left alone, the Russian revolutionary government, the Bolsheviks understood, had the potential to use all the powers of the state to make alternatives quickly available to millions.

When the Russian capitalists, aided by world imperialism, went to war against the revolution, the Bolsheviks were forced to move quickly and they began to organize production and society on a war footing. In this period, there was a crash program to build communal dining halls, childcare centers, public laundries, and so on.

For a brief moment, many Bolshevik women thought that they could see the future unfolding in an uncomplicated manner. In 1918, Inessa Armand, who was the head of Zhenotdel, the Women’s Department of the Bolshevik party, said to a conference of women workers in a burst of revolutionary optimism, “The bourgeois order is being abolished. Separate households are harmful survivals that only delay and hinder new forms of distribution!”

Armand’s dream that the oppression of women in Russia was soon to be completely eradicated was crushed by the imperialist assault.

New Economic Policy and bureaucratization

Although the Bolsheviks won the civil war, the legacy of that brutal conflict and of World War I left the country in dire economic straits. The economic crisis forced the revolutionary government to pull back from war communism measures and to institute the New Economic Policy. In addition to bringing massive layoffs and a return to discrimination against female workers in industry, there was also an immediate drop in the allocation of resources to women and children’s institutions and to day care.

In this context, revolutionary measures designed to facilitate easy divorce, once a means to women’s freedom, contributed to the abandonment of women and children on a massive scale.

The economic disaster also contributed to the rise of a counterrevolutionary bureaucratic caste (led by Joseph Stalin) that did not have the commitment of the old Bolsheviks to women’s liberation and that, over time, attempted to reinforce the traditional family unit as a bulwark of their undemocratic rule.

Lessons for revolutionary socialists today

The lessons that the Women’s Commission of R. R. Donnelley, and all revolutionary socialists since the time of the Russian Revolution have drawn is that while only a socialist revolution can free up the resources necessary for working women’s emancipation, the revolution can only be a prerequisite and not a guarantee. Women’s liberation will only be fully won when our revolution is shielded from imperialist intervention, buttressed by international solidarity and cooperation, embraced as the arena of struggle by independent women’s organizations, and led by leaderships who accept the centrality of those organizations.

Wendy Z. Goldman’s book, which lays out in incredible detail the victories and defeats experienced by Soviet women, will contribute to educating and creating that kind of leadership for the working class worldwide.

Photo: Rally outside the Donnelley printing plant in Buenos Aires. Women’s Commission banner is in the background. Workers took over the plant after the U.S. owners had shut it down.