Gender & sexuality: Capitalism in Russia too weak to fulfill its bourgeois-democratic promises

Between 1905 and 1917, two clear currents emerged in Russia that vied for leadership in the women’s movement. One was socialist, seeking nothing less than the complete liberation of all workers and peasants from class domination. The other was a feminist grouping that was more middle- and upper-class in its composition and political orientation. It focused its struggle on the right to vote–an important bourgeois democratic demand.

In December 1908, for example, the feminists organized a Russia-wide congress in which more than 1,000 delegates took part. Only 45 working women were present and not one single woman from the peasantry–the class that represented Russia’s vast majority of laborers.

The revolutionary women’s current looked very different. In 1913, the Bolsheviks organized an important first celebration in Russia of Inter national Women’s Day. Their organizing was in sharp distinction to a January congress on women’s education convened by liberal intellectuals to which only a few women workers had been invited.

The Bolsheviks knew that in the repressive political climate of that year, the police would not issue a permit for a demonstration. So they secured the Grain Exchange for a “learned symposium.” On the day of the event, March 8, the federal police–who were present at all meetings and could end any gathering at a whim–filled the first two rows in the hall.

The speakers at the Bolshevik-organized event were all women–working women. One of the leading voices at the meeting was a 25-year-old weaver who had been a member of her union executive board for six years. The weaver described the class composition and mood of the event: “No matter how poor the working women were, on ‘their day,’ the first holiday of women in Russia, they put on the very best they had, and the packed hall looked like a meadow in May from the brightness of the colors. … [The police] didn’t succeed in spoiling our holiday, although every speaker had to get her most private thoughts across to the audience as though breaking through the alert silence of the first rows.” (“Soviet Women”)

The outbreak of the inter-imperialist World War I in 1914 illuminated the bourgeois political foundation of those who identified with the feminist current. According to Richard Stites, a researcher in Denmark, “The feminists were rhapsodic about the great possibilities of serving the [Russian] fatherland and, in return, gathering political dividends for themselves. They showed no subtlety in connecting their ‘sacrifices’ to eventual payment in the coin of women’s suffrage.” (“Soviet Women”)

Stites notes it was not well-to-do movement women who did most of the sacrificing during WWI. It was the women and men of the laboring classes who sacrificed.

And women workers paid with their sweat in toil, too. The percentage of women workers in factories had reached 30 percent of the total when the war broke out.

By 1917, as the imperialist war brought hunger and want, death and disability, thousands of women in the St. Petersburg needle trade walked out on strike, marching through the streets demanding “peace, bread and land.” Male workers joined them, swelling the ranks of protest to 90,000.

That strike broke out on March 8–International Women’s Day–and it was the first shot of the anti-capitalist Russian Revolution.

Capitalism’s historical task

Capitalism in Russia, like feudalism, relied on the patriarchal family structures as economic units. The rule of capital accumulation created its own super-structure of law, religion, politics and education to justify the inequality of its economic base. And it enforced this economic and social injustice with brutal state repression.

World War I–an outgrowth of capitalism’s drive to expand its relentless search for profits beyond its own border–was also having a profound impact on patriarchal family relations. The war uprooted millions of peasants and workers in Russia and elsewhere, disrupting planting and harvesting, production and family reproduction.

This clash of imperialist titans over who would steal the land, labor and resources of colonized peoples only profited the imperial victors. The war was slaughtering tens of millions of laborers and oppressed peoples, and exacerbating the super-exploitation and suffering of peoples caught in the grip of colonialism.

Capitalism, in relation to feudalism, was a progressive force in that it was a superior economic system–a qualitative leap in human productivity. Capitalism eradicated much of the medievalism of feudal autocracy with its need for science and technological advance. Capitalism socialized the artisan’s individual tools, forging them into massive means of production. It galvanized a working class.

But the social relationship of capital–of exploiter and exploited–is a brutal one for workers and oppressed peoples.

And capitalism in Russia was too weak and too subordinated to the existing imperialist countries to even fulfill its bourgeois democratic promises to the masses. The brief liberal capitalist regime ushered in by the February 1917 Revolution solved none of their problems. It couldn’t get out of the war that was killing the workers and peasants because the ruling class had imperial ambitions. It couldn’t distribute the land to the peasants. And it couldn’t meet the most elementary demands of the workers. Thus, the Bolshevik slogan of “Bread, land and peace” won the masses over to the need for a second revolution.

And this revolution in October 1917 created a workers’ state that began the work of uprooting the entire trunk of ruling-class economic structures. It was no accident that one of the first acts of the Bolshevik government was to abolish the tsarist anti-gay and anti-woman laws.

Leslie Feinberg, “Capitalism shakes the branches,” Lavender & Red (2004)


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