Women and Socialism


India 2017. Rampant gender discrimination and gender exploitation prevails. This is despite upsurges of struggles against violence on girls and children in recent years and even earlier sustained struggles of 1970s and ‘80s forcing changes in rape, dowry and custodial laws pertaining to women. This is over and above and in fact often a form of expression of class exploitation, rendering lives more miserable for peasant and working class women and poor women in general. In addition, women of the minorities especially Muslims, also face gender violence by the state, by lumpens of ruling parties and even the state forces as part of violence against minorities. And perhaps the oldest and most sustained is the gender violence and discrimination faced by Dalit women from the so called upper castes. The challenges before the women’s movement are severe indeed, not only for fighting the immediate issues, not only running the battle against patriarchal attitudes and state sponsored and defended gender violence (rapes in AFSPA areas) but also some thought to an alternative society. The challenges are all the more urgent in the current political milieu, where the rise of Hindutva forces to power in the Central Govt. and in many state Govts. has also led to aggressive upper caste patriarchal social norms being forcibly thrust down the throats of women. Thus today we fight bahu beti izzat chains in addition to khap and family diktats. Inter religion love stories, few as they are despite our multi religious society, have become ‘love jihads’; inter caste love stories stand almost in the category of sedition and their most likely culmination is in murder not marriage. And we continue to fight disrobing as a punitive measure of Dalit women by upper castes, killing of an aged Dalit woman in the episodes of ‘hair or plait cutting’ in a disconnected part of North India.Is there any visualized social alternative with its own narrative of how gender equality can be completely assured? If yes, is this some sort of paradise foretold in a religious text, some offer of a godman of life in a sect, or a concrete vision to be achieved by thorough going social change brought about by the exploited of the country in a planned manner and quite concretely? The change will begin by bringing new democratic revolution in India and move ahead in a systematic manner. Have there been any attempts earlier by flesh and blood men and women like ourselves to bring about such change? Could women achieve anything really different in it? The completion of 100 years since the first successful socialist revolution brought about by working men and women gives an opportunity to study the experience of women in constructing the first socialist society in their concrete conditions in the first half of the twentieth century. So read on—— on women and socialism and some glimpses of their experiences in the Soviet Union.

7th November 2017 will mark a hundred years since the October Revolution led by the working class which lead to forming of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in earlier Tzarist Russia. What followed were the exciting and tumultuous years of building the first socialist system under the leadership of the proletarian party headed first by Lenin and later by Stalin. In fact, the world’s first socialist society was constructed mainly under the guidance of the working class party led by Stalin for 30 years and also defended against fascism under his leadership. Following his death in 1953, the leadership of the working class party, the CPSU (B), passed into the hands of modern revisionists – capitalist elements inside the working class party, who continued lip service to the ideology of the working class while actually disarming the working class ideologically. This allowed reversal of the direction of society building. Changes in concrete policy were introduced which would change the direction  away from socialism, unravel the socialist system established till then and move  society in the direction of a bourgeois society. In the 1980s, when the working class was sufficiently ideologically disarmed, the CPSU under Gorbachov, in the name of the policies of Glasnost and Perestroika, ascribed all the problems of social imperialist USSR to the Stalin years of socialist construction. Reiterating the revisionist positions of Kruschev onwards as ‘’socialism’’, Gorbachov called for and took new major steps for advancing the reversal of socialist construction, of course in the name of improving ‘’socialism’’. What he advanced was market capitalism. In today’s Russia, the reality is crystal clear that the restoration of capitalism is complete in all aspects.

Did Socialism have any Impact on the Status of Women in Soviet Union?

Was the situation of the common people, the workers, the peasants, vulnerable sections like minorities and women any different under socialism? The common women of Tzarist Russia participated with vigour and shoulder to shoulder with men in the struggle for revolution because they wanted to build a ‘’new’’ society which would be free and equal for them in the context of the oppressions they faced. The old system was the existing condition in the context of which they set out to create history. This is documented vividly not only by historians but even in the literature of that period, including Maxim Gorky’s Mother. Oppressed and poor, she begins to participate in the struggle unfolding before her eyes in the hope of building a new world.

What would be the newness in the world as visualized by women workers and peasants? They, like the men, would have dreamt of a society freed from class oppression. But the issue of gender equality is much larger than class oppression and concrete demands have necessarily varied in different societies. Women have been part of the actual work of production on the family plot of land in all feudal societies, but their labour was part of their ‘’natural’’ domestic work. In society, they were a second(ary) sex. Capitalism brought common women into social production as separate entities. Women earned a separate identifiable wage and became countable members in social production. But women joined the workforce not out of this consciousness but mainly because of economic necessity so that the family could try to make two ends meet. They continued to be responsible for all the domestic chores including the bringing up of the children and theoretically still the secondary sex. Capitalism preferred the women workers because they worked for lower wages, there was less likelihood of unionization and they also brought down the general wage and thereby the cost of production.

In this background was the construction of the first socialist state. The communists, both men and women, already had the understanding that the real emancipation of women would actually be possible in a society without private property, i.e. under communism. However, in order to get to that stage socialization of the means of production would be the initial step. Along with, as Engels had outlined, society must make domestic chores into a public industry, so that in practice what was considered ‘’women’s domain’’ and not labour at all must be brought in the social domain. Attendant, of course were the changes in the social consciousness of both women and men to change the patriarchal ways of thinking inherited from capitalist society. Thus there was a considered plan with the communists on what should be built in the new society in order to create the infrastructure to support the proletarian women’s move in the direction of building a new society which would meet their expanding aspirations of real equality. The idea of what is equality of gender also evolves among women too, with the development of consciousness and with the concrete changes in society which upgrades their status.

Did the reversion of the direction of society have any negative effects on the status of such sections? Gorbachov, for instance, had very specific prescriptions for women in his Perestroika, which were exactly opposite to all that socialism upholds for women whereas it is similar to patriarchal prescriptions for women. Equally importantly, it is opposite to the current understanding of progressive women activists and democrats of what would constitute freedom and equality for women.

The advent of Gorbachov and his prescriptions for women in his book Perestroika gave an opportunity to study what had actually happened to women in the years of building socialism. In 1989, a paper titled “’Women Glasnost and Perestroika” was prepared and presented in a seminar on Stalin in Delhi. For this, material was gathered to assess what changes socialism brought in the status of ordinary women in the Soviet Union, whether the changes were mere propaganda by the communists or could they be documented from other sources too including the documents of the capitalist restorers, and could any negative effects be documented on the status of women when socialism as reversed.  Material was also gathered to study the status of women under socialism for participating in an International seminar of Marxist Leninist Women held in 1996.

On the occasion of 100 years of the October Revolution, this article tries to study what changes the years of socialism in Soviet Union from 1917 to 1953 brought to the status of its women and why it did so. It also tries to document what was the effect of the theoretical reversal away from socialism with the practical steps in its tow, on their status. To do so, the article has largely relied on the facts collected for the papers mentioned earlier, as what has followed is only further movement in the same bourgeois direction.

The Great October Socialist Revolution was led by the party of the proletariat. It was given effect by the thousands and thousands of working people, both men and women, who fought for the right to build their own future. The participation of women, including in the leadership of that revolution, was significant. This was recorded not only by historians but is reflected in the literary works of that period too. For instance, in Mother (Maxim Gorky) the mother herself, oppressed by the system though she is, participates in struggle unfolding before her eyes. Well known also is the strike by women since 8th March( new calendar) 1917 against the war and for bread and rights. It was part of the rising general struggle and the Tzar resigned on its 4th day. Thus since 1917 itself, the Soviet proletarian dictatorship visualized a society in which the equal role of women would be facilitated in all aspects. Propelled by the working women, it set about implementing the scientific blueprint based on historical materialism for the emancipation of women. It had been delineated in some detail by Fredrich Engels. Tracing the advent of patriarchy in his work ‘Origin of Family, Private Property and the State’, he wrote, ‘The same cause which has ensured to the women her previous supremacy in the house – that her activity was confined to domestic labour- the same cause now ensured the man’s supremacy in the house”. And then on, ‘we can already see from this that to emancipate woman and make her the equal of man remains an impossibility as long as woman is shut out from social productive labour and restricted to private domestic labour. The emancipation of women will only be possible when women can take part in production on a large social scale and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time.”

BUT, he wrote, ‘if she wants to take part in public production and earn independently, she cannot carry out her family duties. And the wife’s position in the factory is the position of women in all branches of industry and business, right upto medicine and law’. The way out he emphasized, was again through modern large scale industry which ‘tends towards ending domestic labour by changing it more and more into public industry”.

As the capitalist world sent arms, armies and  money to strangle and crush the first working class state, Lenin extorted the Soviet people ‘public dining rooms, crèches, kindergartens, these are examples of the shoots which can in fact emancipate women’ (1919). Soviet women took part in building a society where they had voting rights and equal pay with men, civil registration for marriages, paid maternity leave, right to abortion, right to divorce with state protection of interests of mother and child as far back as 1917, after the proletarian dictatorship took power. The suffragette movement fought for centuries in England and working women fought for universal vote in western countries. Finland gave a universal vote in 1907, Norway in 1913, Soviet Union in 1917 but the US in 1920, Britain in 1918 and France in 1944. In fact immediately after the downfall of the Tzar in 1917, the provisional Govt., having preponderance of communist forces, announced voting rights to women.  Despite all this, Lenin correctly pointed out the ‘far cry from equality in law to equality in life’ and extorted women workers to bring about their own emancipation.

The response of Soviet women has been widely documented and affirmed by Russia watchers of all shades. Freed of the exploitative social order, the stranglehold of landlords and factory owners, in a mileu which assisted and solicited their creativity, Soviet women plunged into the creation of a new society. The building of socialism took place under the leadership of CPSU led by Stalin.  Anna Louis Strong, a western journalist who was strongly critical of Stalin in the later years, recorded how in the villages women began to fight the traditions of centuries. In a Siberian village, after the collective farms gave women their own independent incomes, the wives ‘called a strike’ against wife beating. They smashed the time honoured custom within a week. Victory however was not always so easy. In a Tashkent village, in 1928, a woman refused the attentions of a landlord and married a communist peasant. A gang of 18 men stirred up by the landlord violated her in the 8th month of pregnancy and threw her baby into the river. Ms. Strong recorded that the toughest fight was in Central Asia where women were chattels and were killed for unveiling. The communists began discussions among the women, brought pressure on their own members to permit their wives to unveil and women leaders organized mass unveilings.

During the collectivization of agriculture, priests and Kulaks joined hands, and the fight for modern farming was sought to be shown as a fight against religion and against the interests of women. In fact the propaganda was explicitly sexual; many commentators recorded that rumours were spread of ‘the one great blanket’ under which all men and women of the collective farm would sleep and of ‘socialization’ of babies. Women were also the targets of specific propaganda that their domestic cows would be confiscated and all their poultry would be consigned to a common kitty, thus preying on common jealousies. Yet women participated in the collectivization of agriculture with zest and creativity as the examples given below show. They were continually extorted to do so. ‘’Not a single great movement of the oppressed in the history of mankind has been able to do so without the participation of working women’’ said Stalin in 1925. And this was a movement to smash the rule of the oppressor classes and build a society of the proletariat.

What changed for women under the socialist system? For a start they became masters of their own labour; it was so in the public sphere and there was tremendous practical back up along with propaganda to make this a reality for the domestic sphere. This helped towards challenging the gender based exploitation of women’s labour both by men and by society. From women world over, constituting slightly less than half the population, society extracts unpaid, socially unrecognized, economically unremunerated domestic labour. This labour has been labeled a ‘’private service for men’’ but in reality it is hardly ever recognized as anything other than the ‘natural’ work of women by both men and women too.  In this manner ruling classes extract a fat profit from this huge unrecognized labour of women, which they would otherwise have to substitute by creating infrastructure. By ruthlessly attacking this concept, the socialist society ‘’liberated’’ the common women more decisively than the ‘’liberation’’ offered to elite women under capitalism.  Lactating women were given work points and wages of 8 hours for less hours of work in a positive discrimination to help them look after small children. Socialist society did not impose sham equality over unequal responsibilities.

Secondly, women were given real opportunity to work according to their choice, breaking the mode of prescribed roles. For instance, women became tractor drivers, managers and account keepers in collective farms. Also, politics and participation in political decision making was accessible to every toiling woman. This was by way of taking politics and the task of running the socialist system down to the level of every factory committee and village committee. Every production unit became part of decision making. Journalist Anna Louis Strong has recorded the forming of the first Five Year plan of the Soviet Union using this method- first the Plan went down till the lowest committees for comments and suggestions; these then went up and were used to strengthen the document. The Soviet society also equipped the women to take their place in the management of socialist enterprises as leaders of communes, of tractor teams, of Red Army units and of committees of the party.

The socialist state enforced complete legal equality of gender with marriage registration and right to divorce as components. At the same time it took seriously the task of educating, propagating and drilling into women themselves a change in attitude so that they would internalize their changed status. ‘’Enlightenment, culture, education, liberty- in all capitalist, bourgeois republics of the world, all these fine words are combined with extremely infamous, disgustingly filthy and brutally coarse laws dealing with marriage rights and divorce, with the inferior status of a child born out of wedlock…..laws granting privileges to men, laws that are humiliating and insulting to women’’(Lenin-1919) And so, by becoming part of social labour women were freed of the pressures of remaining in empty marriages out of economic necessity or to save children from social stigma. Children were educated by the state. The holy cow of ‘family values’ which co exists with complete breakdown in relationships in bourgeois society was attacked and also women were materially and socially enabled to be free of oppressive relationships. However, along with free right of divorce, the Soviet society made effort to preserve marriages where the ties were genuine and also did propaganda to create a sense of answerability in the production of children even while it gave equal status to all children.

By continually calling on women to participate in the building of the new society, by involving their labour in it by freeing them of the yoke- both mental and real- of domestic chores, by helping women liberate their minds, “a radical remaking both of social technique and of customs’’ as Lenin stated, the socialist state struggled to ensure both women’s development as well as the development of gender equal attitude in the entire society. Thus it did not only lay material basis, but entered the realm of ideas in attempting to develop a new people, a ‘socialist people’’. The socialist state played a proactive role by promoting proletarian outlook and culture and siding with women in their battle against outmoded ideas and attitudes towards them.

How important the leadership of the CPSU under Stalin regarded the participation of peasant women in the building of socialism and how conscious it was of the task of emancipating women’s consciousness is borne out by the specific clarifications given by Stalin himself at the Joint All Union Conference of Collective Farm Stock Workers in 1933, “Now a few words about the women; the women collective farmers. The women question in the collective farms is a big question, comrades. I know that many of you underrate the women and even laugh at them. That is a mistake comrades, a serious mistake. The point is not only that women comprise half the population. Primarily the point is that the collective farm movement has advanced a number of remarkable and capable women to leading positions. Look as this Congress, at the delegates, and you will realize that women have long since advanced from the ranks of the backward to the ranks of the forward. The women in the collective farms are a great force. To keep this force down would be criminal …. Of course not so long ago the Soviet Govt. had a misunderstanding with women collective farmers. That was over the cow. But now this business of the cow has been settled and the misunderstanding removed ….’ He went on a point out the significance of the collective farms to peasants women, ‘They must remember that only in the collective farms do they have the opportunity of becoming equal with men.’

Some Documentation

And that it exactly what occurred. Women had an equal and often pioneering role to play in the building of the new society. The first need was for it to be viable.  It has already been mentioned how the collective farms gave women strength to fight domestic violence. The depowering of the Kulaks and the practical setback to religious oppression given by collectivization, played a role in the freeing of women. The authority of the priests who supported the tradition of killing wives for unveiling was undermined also by recognizing marriages by registration as legal. Women workers set new records; a woman rearing chickens in a collective farm won an incubator from Moscow for her commune; a women beet grower, Marie Demchenko, won accolades for her work on beets in a cottage laboratory with which work she planned to help “flood the land with sugar”. By 1934 these women, who had emerged from the mire of Tzarist Russia were chairpersons of 6000 collective farms, more that 60,000 were members of management boards of collective farms, 28,000 were group leaders; 1 lakh were branch organizers, 9000 managed collective farm dairies and 7000 were tractor drivers (Report to 17th party Congress – Stalin).

At the second All Russian Congress, which was held post revolution, Alexandra Kollontai, member of the proletarian party, became the Commissar of Social Welfare of the Soviet Govt. In 1918 the Zhenotdel was set up-it was the Women’s Department of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. It was established with women communists Alexandra Kollantai, Krupkskaya and Inessa Armand to take up ‘’agitation by deed’’ and branches were set up throughout the Soviet Union to take up concrete issues of the women with the women communist leaders involving themselves in the execution of its tasks. Inessa was its first Director and Alexandra took over after her death. The decree on Divorce was also issued in 1918. Under Inessa, the first National Conference of Working Women was held in 1918 and it was also addressed by Lenin. The first International conference of Communist Women was held in 1920.  Women communists led by Clara Zetkin and with the active co-operation of the CPSU leaders organized the Working Women’s Socialist International which, in 1910 in its second meeting, also chose 8th March as International Working Women’s Day.

Alexandra Kollontai’s book, Communism and the Family (1920) begins by taking up the experience of the women with the Divorce Law. It is written simply and graphically, almost addressed to working women and lays out the concept of a changed world. She began-‘Will the family continue to exist under communism? Will the family remain in the same form?’, writing that these are the questions assailing women in Soviet Union. In the text she wrote,’ Life is changing before our very eyes, old habits and customs are dying out and the whole life of the proletarian family is developing in a way that is new and unfamiliar and in the eyes of some, “bizarre”. Commenting that in the old  (Tzarist) world women were dependent on men for survival and now the new society was giving them the right to remain in marriage only if they so desired and was also relieving them of the responsibility of providing for the children by giving the latter social care, she wrote commenting on the confusion of the women, ’They have not yet understood that a woman must accustom herself to seek and find support in the collective and in society and not from the individual man.’ She pointed out, ’It is our ignorance that leads us to think that the things we are used to can never change’, she discussed how the family had changed through historical periods. She spoke about the marriage possible under Soviet society-‘..free and honest union of men and women who are lovers and comrades’ and of the new society that would evolve under communism and how marriage relationships would also relate to general society and of comradely social relations.  The quotation makes clear that while building the new society, the peasant and working women were also being urged to shed old ideas and grow accustomed to freedoms.

Soviet Year Books of the period of Krushchev and Breznev also document this grand transformation in the priorities of society. This record is important because, post Stalin, the CPSU leadership was out to decry everything done during the period of socialist construction. Tzarist, prerevolutionary Russia and the medievial status of its women is adequately described in literary classics like Maxim Gorky’s ‘Mother’. 83% women (9 – 49 yrs) were illiterate, 30,000 women died annually of childbirth, 5% women has access to obstetrical aid, there were 9 mother and child care centres, nurseries and KGs could cater to 11,500 children.

By 1935, the number of wage earning women had gone up 12 fold (6,36,000 in 1913 as against 7881,999 in 1935). In 1928, 39.6% women were receiving primary or secondary education; by 1936 the figure was 46.9%. By 1928, 15.6% students of workers’ high schools were women, in 1935 this had doubled to 36.6%. By 1940, 62% of doctors of all specialized branches were women as against 10% in 1913.

This participation of women to the social production process was AIDED and BACKED UP by enormous support services apart from the direction of thinking propagated by the socialist system that women were equal and society had to unchain them. On the eve of the first five year plan 247,000 children were accommodated in crèches. By 1935 the figure jumped to 5143400. By 1935, there were 42,871 delivery beds as against 6824 in 1914; the Year Book of 1963 (i.e. post socialist) acknowledges that by 1960 the death rate due to childbirth was a mere .07% in towns and .06% in the countryside. These figures are being quoted only to show the infrastructure which was created for freeing women from domestic chores and for positively providing health infrastructure for them in the socialist years. From being the most oppressed in an oppressed society, by 1940, 34% of total workers engaged in administration were women, i.e. even before the anti fascist war. It is necessary to state this because one of the arguments of the deriders of socialism’s role in enabling women, is that women took an important role in all aspects of society in SU only because the anti fascist war had killed the male population.

Thus, despite the war on the new state by capitalist countries, despite the antifascist war and Hitler, the Soviets built up a society in which the position of women was radically changed. Even Gorbachov in his book ‘Perestroika’ has been forced to acknowledge this history; every positive contribution by the Soviet State to women’s emancipation that he mentions were theorized and implemented by Lenin and Stalin-the latter for 30 years.

Visiting Russia in the post fascist-war period, Christine Holland, a visiting journalist, acknowledges that the women of Russia already had all those rights for which she herself had fought throughout her life. Anna Louis Strong, in her book ‘The Stalin Years’, records, “Soviet power used many weapons for the freeing of women. Education, propaganda, law, all had their place. Big public trials were held of husbands who murdered their wives; the pressure of new propaganda confirmed judges who gave the death sentence for what old custom had not considered a crime.’ A Director of a silk mill in Siberia told her ‘Our mill is the consciously applied force which broke the veiling of women; we demand that women unveil in the mills.’ She concludes her chapter on women in the Stalin Era thus, ‘In capitalist Britain the factory appeared as a weapon of exploitation for profit. In the USSR, it was not only a means to collective wealth, but a tool consciously used to break past shackles.’

Gorbachov reinforces and takes forward Restoration

But Gorbachov acknowledged this history only to work out how to negate it. In the book ‘Peresteroika’ a two page chapter is devoted to women. In this he reiterated the role of women as homemaker and mother, her indispensible role with regard to the education of children; he bemoaned that women no longer have time to perform their ‘everyday duties’ at home – house work, upbringing of children etc. Hence he outlined the task of Perestroika, ‘What we should do to make it possible for women to return to their purely womanly mission.’ His prescription of ‘’Glasnost’’ for women was restricted to, ‘The heated debates in the press and public organizations on how to achieve this end’ (and not on whether it is desirable).

For a start, let us contrast this self styled Leninist’s ‘mission’ with the writing of Lenin: ‘Petty house work crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and to the nursery, and wastes her labour on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve racking, stultifying and crushing drudgery.’

Secondly, and more dangerous, Gorbachov tried to portray that the problems of children, youth behavior and morals and problems in production are ‘the paradoxical result of our sincere and politically justified desire to make women equal with men in everything’. He represented them to the world as problems which arose in a socialist society and arose because women were being brought into their own. The issue is that these problems arose in the period when the CPSU leaders had already unraveled socialist construction along with abandoning socialist principles. Thus the problems were the problems of a bourgeois society. It is not to say that there were no issues in socialist society; but they would have been tackled with the communist perspective of women being equal inheritors of the earth and having equal rights, the expression of which society should enable. After thus mocking at the fundamentals of Marxism on this question, Gorbachov tried to theorize the shutting of women within four walls as the task of Socialism!

Gorbachov’s whole attempt was a deliberate, terrible and- for the women’s movement- a dangerous fabrication. The fact is that by slowly evolving from work points and payment for labour done to a wage slab, Soviet society under Stalin allowed the shorter working day and extra leave for women to actually become a protection of the needs of the mother and child. The wage slab, meaning one wage for a range of work points, allowed women with small children to work for less hours but without wage reduction. People’s own committees decided which women or sick or elderly could avail such supports.  By changing this to offering extra work points (i.e. a higher wage) as ‘material incentives’ based on the bourgeois understanding that people labored only for material self gain, CPSU led by Krushchev created conditions for putting women into a dilemma because to better their wages they would infringe into the time given them for their children, (as would the father). It must be remembered that this was only part of many other steps to break the collective spirit both practically and ideologically. The fall out for the child was that Gorbachov was able to say that a mother spent an average of 40 minutes per day with her child in USSR; the father, less than this. He must have been correct in the fact but not in the context- this was not the description of a socialist society but of one where the bourgeois system had been restored though in the garb of ‘socialism’. Gorbachov actually sought to remove even the fixed wage slab, yet pretended concern for the mother and child.  Secondly, there are so many testaments of the high morals of the youth and workers of the USSR in the period of Lenin and Stalin; of the confidence, labour, ideals and will which was transforming backward Tzarist Russia into a pioneering egalitarian society.

The 27th Congress of the CPSU under Gorbachov instituted steps in the direction prescribed by “Perestroika”. The 12th five year plan on the one hand extended the practice of letting women work a shorter day or week, or even work at home. However this was in the context of their programme that payment must be strictly in accordance with the amount of work done; No exception was made for women. The effect of this on women’s wages is self evident.

CPSU under Gorbachov openly broke up socialist infrastructure. The crux of the agricultural policy of Perestroika was lease of land to individuals and families, thus continuing the process of decollectivization as undertaken by Krushchev. The decision to encourage women to work at home should be read in this context.

A study in 1980s by Gun Kessle, an associate of Jan Myrdal, of the effect of the then newly allowed lease system in China on Chinese women is educative in this regard (At that time China, led by capitalist roaders, began steps for dismantling socialism). Equality, she wrote, is not longer viewed as profitable, day care centres are shutting down, established collective institutions are closing down, undermined by the slogan extorting individual households to get rich on their own. In the country side, “women are being shoved back again, reduced to mere members of a household and the family patriarch alone makes decisions.’ Female infanticide rose as land allotted was made inheritable and China had a one child policy. She also traced the effect of the agricultural policy on the institution of marriage, ‘it will not be the wishes of the young people that will be decisive in future. Instead, for the better number of households it will be factors such as whether the properties complement each other or whether the family needs a new tractor.’ In the case of the Soviet Union too, the experience of the Soviet women had amply borne out the truth of the liberating force of land collectivization coupled with the insistence on ensuring equal status. It is somewhat unnecessary to continue documenting what happened to the status of women since the 1980s as bourgeois patriarchal relations prevailed like in other parts of the world. In 1988 (Gorbachov period), Russia also chose its first “Beauty Queen” on 8th March- this was projected as democracy. Another kind of priority was advocated by the builders of socialism, with Stalin saying on the same day in 1925 that the day ‘must become a means for turning the worker and peasant women from a reserve of the working class into an active army in the liberation movement of the proletariat.’

Changes in attitudes are reflected in actual life only over a period. Yet if statistics related to women’s status are examined, they show a definite deceleration in USSR after the fifties. They are also remarkable for the tremendous pace of development from the backward women of Tzarist Russia to the 1950s. For instance, according to the book ‘Soviet Union, Facts and Figures’ compiled by K.G. Saur and printed in the Federal Republic of Germany, in 1928 151 thousand women were in higher education and specialized secondary education. The number increased by 5.5% by 1941. This rate decelerated to increase by 3% by 1955 (Kruschev took over in 1953), by 2% by 1965, and 1.2% by 1976. The same book records that in 1940, women were 39% of the total workers, 47% in 1950 and remained at 47% in 1960 (Kruschev years).

In 1913 the number of crèches catered to 11,500 children, to 5143,400 in 1935. These figures are from the Year book of 1967 i.e. Kruschev period. In absolute numbers the number of wage earning women increased 12 times from 1913 – 1935 (22 years) and only 4 ½ times from 1935 – 1966 (31 years) though due to the anti fascist war women had to play a much greater role in production in the 1940s. Of course, it is not just the numbers but the outlook which was decisive- under socialism, not only was there the understanding that women have equal stake in society and in its building and domestic work must come into public sphere, the understanding included that gender equality in all walks of life was a right.

Under Glasnost, Soviet publications like the New Times and Soviet Women carried articles by women protesting against their heavy workload, which they worked out to 12 hours and 40 minutes per day. The debates focused on whether the work load should be borne by men or women, excluding altogether the possibility of socialization of task.

Only one small comment needs to be added to outline the status of women in Russia today (the SU has since broken up and this is the major country).In the last quarter of 2016, the Govt. under Putin decriminalized certain moderate types of domestic violence and labeled them administrative issues. For inflicting bruises and causing only bleeding injuries on women and children but no broken bones, the penalty will be 15 days in prison or fine whereas earlier the penalty was jail for two years. This amendment sailed through both houses of Parliament. Maria Lipman, a political analyst, has been quoted in the online Guardian (9th Feb 2017) as saying that in the Soviet period gender equality was implemented from above so that some of the rights which women in the West had to fight for  were already granted ’or even imposed on’ the Russian women. She stated that Russian women ’’never had to fight for their rights’ implying the specific fight for gender equality. Women communists who fought for socialism also knew that it would give the framework for fighting for equality of gender in social consciousness though women workers fought as a class in the main. In the new society the framework of gender equality was ensured and women workers were extolled to develop their consciousness.

Maria Lipman has also given a graphic description of the status of women in Russia in current times: ’’Now we have huge problems with unequal pay, with no women in politics, with domestic abuse..”.But, she goes on, “on top there are female editors of leading media outlets, female bankers”… i.e. the lot of the ordinary women leaves much to fight for. It reflects clearly the creation of a new upper class of elite women.

Were There Only Positive Experiences for Women in the Socialist Period?

The institution on patriarchy dates back to the years of settlement of primitive society and changes form but continues to exist both under feudalism and under capitalism. Communists are born into the existing society and have to struggle against their own patriarchal understanding and values too apart from a theoretical commitment to equality. In the years of building of socialism, which anyway was built in the first half of the twentieth century, there may have been some steps which could be viewed critically today or be frowned upon as the logic may seem retrogressive today. For instance, post 1936, the right to abortion was done away with; in part due to the erroneous theorization that now building of socialism had been completed. Motherhood was glorified/women who became mothers were felicitated so that women would have many children post the anti fascist war as the CPSU under Stalin sought to raise the population which was substantially wiped out in that war. One can judge the merit or otherwise of each step separately. Lenin’s interview with Clara Zetkin is a detailed exposition in which he discusses many aspects of the communist understanding on the women’s question and gives his understanding on the divergent views on several concrete issues including free sex. Lenin also had earlier expressed an opinion against communist women organizing women working as prostitutes, saying that this was an exploitation which socialist construction would do away with anyway. Today many feminists are very critical of this position. Women communists like Kollantai had differences with peer communists on several issues concerning women also. These debates and evaluations are necessary and will continue. But overall, scarcely anyone can refute that the builders of socialism, both the communists and the proletarian men and women, had a conscious conviction that a socialist society must be anti patriarchal, that they ensured positive, thought out practical steps in many spheres by the state to enable women to break their chains and thus took practical steps to facilitate gender equality apart from attacking the old way of thinking by ideological propaganda and training. New unimagined vistas opened for millions of working class and peasant women in the years of building of socialism.  This social vision was reversed by the revisionists, apart from reversal of the practical steps subsequently.


Another oft asked question is why women did not battle against the reversals when these were going to snatch away hard won changes in women’ status. The answer lies in ideological derailing- the long period in which socialist concepts were derided in the name of attacking the ‘’wrongs’’ of the Stalin period. Equally importantly, while social transformation itself transformed people, the changes could only be consolidated within the framework of equality- both in ideas and in practical supports- which socialism gave. This is especially true of an oppression so old as gender inequality. What happened to the status of women post restoration not only in Soviet Union but also in China and the remarkable similarities in what restoration brought for either( these changes were also highlighted in the bourgeois press) only prove the tremendous importance of this framework. With restoration of a society in which the idea of individual benefit is promoted against a collective concept, when private property creeps in first in social production and eventually in social life, when collective ownership is undermined whether of land or of industry and the collective is gradually undermined in both life and thought, when an elite class re-merges (all of which happened in Soviet Union and was documented so by the CPC too in the  course of the Great Debate) the basis is laid for a backward count in gender equality too. ‘’Free Market’’ can give much space to women of elite classes, but can never give liberation for the world’s women who live outside the purview of the market, its priorities and freedoms. There was of course lack of consciousness in the workers, both men and women in the theoretical realm, that their ‘’new’’ society could be sabotaged from within and that hostile classes continued to exist in socialist society. It only reiterates Mao’s teaching that classes and class struggle continues under socialism and it is necessary to keep up the struggle against the old in the new society. Cultural Revolution was the form and it called for a continual attack on old ideas, oppressions and outlook and for class vigilance by the proletariat. The ‘’new people’’ of socialist society are still at the stage of ‘’each according to his work’’.  The struggle of the women’s movement for equality anyway has to continue for communism and the abolishing of private property in order to lay the basis to do away with patriarchy.


De jure changes can occur overnight as it were; de facto changes take a long time to manifest, particularly when one is dealing with whole nations, with social classes. But it is a fact of history that only a society which calls forth the reserve of all sections of its people including even the most oppressed of all oppressed, into the task of society building, allows the complete freedom and development of women as individuals on an equal footing with men.  Any changes which involve the privatization of the means of production inevitably push back the women into the home, as private domestic slaves.

In all great social transformations, the classes which take part themselves undergo radical changes in attitudes, behavior, norms and practices as transformative processes transform them too. Practical necessity also gives women a greater social role. But the revolutionary transformation of a society to one whose very goal was equality did more than just free Soviet women from the economic, moral and social shackles of the old. As builders of a new social system they participated in a revolutionary transformation of the superstructure, not only against the old but in a positive advocacy of what should be the form and content of the new. Their experience and achievements in the twentieth century have left an indelible mark on formulations and visualizations of what would be a society where women would enjoy full liberation.

Relevance to Women in India

Is this whole discussion just a theoretical exercise or does this discussion have any relevance to the status of women in India and the women’s movement for gender equality here? There is enough and more historical evidence to assert that societies and social relations have not remained frozen over centuries; neither, accordingly, has the status of its women. Even now, it is evident from existing societies that patriarchy is different in form in western capitalist societies and in feudal societies in Asia or Africa. In the course of history, to put the issue in a nutshell, it is traceable that when private property appears in social production either in land or in possession of animals, this coincides with the women themselves becoming private possessions in order to ensure purity of inheritance. Thus while the exploitation of women in our society has to be also fought issue to issue along with fighting the patriarchal mind set, the women’s movement must think beyond the immediate. The social basis has to change regarding sanctity of private property along with women entering all spheres of social life in practice and also fighting the patriarchal mindset. If we do not face and understand this, we will forever stew in the confusion that patriarchy has no social basis and men ‘think like that’ i.e. scientifically speaking, it is an attribute of the y chromosome. There is no genetic evidence of the same though most of the human genome stands decoded.

Therefore, is there any concrete blueprint on how to change society? It is communism which, by doing away with private property, can lay the concrete basis for full liberation of women. Every society has to begin from where it is and go by revolutions towards communism; this it can do only in the leadership of the working class which has nothing to lose in destroying exploitative societies. In India, our semi feudal semi colonial society is sustained by the big capitalists and landlords backed by imperialism. By defeating the rule of these forces, new democratic society will break the base which sustains feudal patriarchal relations in India. It will allow the struggle against these social norms to be carried out in the infrastructure of a society which stands by gender equality. Thus it will provide the infrastructure of equality within which the struggle for gender equality can be carried forward in milieu which upholds it. Also, only the forces which will tear down the present exploitative society by new democratic revolution will pave the way for building of socialism in India.

The experience of women in socialism in Soviet Union only underlines the necessity of the women’s movement developing solidarity with the revolutionary movement for new democratic revolution and the subsequent socialist (termed lower stage of communism by Lenin in the State and Revolution) transformation in India… onward to Communism which alone can fully lay the material basis for the full emancipation of women. It also shows how much women can change both social attitudes and themselves by participation in great social movements. It is to document how real this attempt was in the Soviet Union of 1917 to 1953 that this material has been prepared.

References :

  • ‘Perestroika’ by M. Gorbachov

  • Soviet Year Book 1963, 1964, 1966, 1977

  • Soviet Union, – Facts and Figures; K.G. Saur (Printed in the Federal Republic of Germany)

  • Socialism and family – S. Wolffson

  • Stalin Era – Anna Louis Strong* 17th Congress Document of CPSU (B)

  • 27th Congress of CPSU

  • Origin of Family, Private Property and State – Fredriek Engels.

  • Frontier – November 1988.

  • Guardian (online) 9th February, 2017

  • Communism and the Family – Alexandra Kollontai