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‘The status of women is a question for all socialists’

March 12, 2019

Interview on ‘The Communist Women’s Movement 1920-22’

8 March 2019: As we mark International Women’s Day (8 March), and the centenary of the establishment of the Communist International (March 1919), Estelle Cooch interviews Daria Dyakonova and Mike Taber about their project on the history of the Communist Women’s Movement (1920-22). The text is reprinted with permission from rs-21 (Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century). Subheadings have been added.

Estelle Cooch: The fund drive for your forthcoming book The Communist Women’s Movement, 1920-22 received an overwhelming response. Can you tell us a bit about the idea for the project came about and some of the challenges of undertaking such extensive archival research?

Zetkin-Kollontai

Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai at the 1921 conference of Communist women

Mike Taber: The original idea for the book was simply to continue the 36-year effort to publish the record of the Communist International (Comintern) under Lenin. Led by John Riddell – who remains an active collaborator on this book – the effort has already led to the publication of eight large volumes. With this ninth volume on the Communist Women’s Movement (CWM), we’ve begun to take up the Comintern’s auxiliary organizations. As we’ve worked on the book, however, we’ve come to see how valuable it is on a number of levels.

From the standpoint of the overall project, the early CWM is yet another example of the need to see the early Communist International as a living movement: taking initiatives, debating out perspectives, not afraid to tackle new issues or make adjustments.

But the record of the early CWM is also valuable through the lens of the whole tradition of the Marxist movement on what used to be called the ‘woman question’ – a legacy going back to August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism. Clara Zetkin, the CWM’s principal leader in most of its early years, was the living link, having been the founder in 1907 of the Second International’s Socialist Women’s Movement. This book shows the strengths – along with some of the weaknesses – of that generally proud tradition.

As to archival research, during a trip to the Comintern section of the Russian State Archive for Political and Social History in Moscow, Daria was able to obtain a full stenographic transcript of the important 1921 international conference of the Communist Women’s Movement. This transcript has never been published in any language. The only public record of that meeting up to now has been an abbreviated and incomplete summary of the proceedings published in Moscow newspapers at the time, but that’s all. A century later, this valuable document will finally see the light of day. It will be a centrepiece of the new book.

What was the Communist Women’s Movement?

EC: The book is based around the proceedings and resolutions of the Communist Women’s International. Many readers may know about the activities of Zhenotdel, but know less about the International under Zetkin. Can you say something about the aims of the International and the challenges it faced.

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Daria Dyakonova

DD: The Communist Women’s International or the Communist Women’s Movement, as it was often referred to by its members, was founded in 1920 by the international gathering of Communist women in Moscow. Its goal was to bring women into Communist parties so that they could, together with men, work to bring about socialist transformation and women’s emancipation as its integral component.

Although structures for women were to be integrated into communist parties, the first Communist Women’s Conference decided to establish special agitation institutions within parties for women. By 1922 almost all European countries as well as a number of countries outside Europe did indeed set up party structures for work among women.

Within the Comintern, an International Women’s Secretariat (IWS) associated with its Executive Committee was established in 1920. The CWM’s program summarised in the ‘Theses for the Communist Women’s Movement’ – drafted by Clara Zetkin for the 1920 international Communist Women’s conference – stated that the goal of the CWM was ‘to secure for all women complete and unrestricted social rights.’ The ‘Theses’ linked the oppression of women to the existence of the capitalist system and highlighted that their full social equality with men was to be achieved through the abolition of private property and the integration of the activity of women into the ‘social production of a new order free of exploitation and subjugation.’

The ‘Theses’ also defined the more specific tasks of the CWM. For capitalist countries they encouraged educational work among women; struggle for universal suffrage and participation in national and municipal governments; fight for the right of women to equal, unrestricted, and free education; fight for equal pay for equal work by men and women; fight for social aid for pregnant women and mothers; fight for a reform of housing and health care systems. The ‘Theses’ called also for doing away with the sexual double standard for men and women.

The program was quite ambitious for the time and, in trying to carry it through, Communist women had to face a number of challenges. In the early 1920s international ties within the CWM developed slowly due to the persecution of communists, organisational problems and difficulty of maintaining personal connections and correspondence, even in Europe. These difficulties were remedied, albeit partially, by holding regular conferences of specially appointed women correspondents and the creation of an auxiliary secretariat to supervise and direct the implementation of decisions taken by international conferences.

By the mid-1920s other difficulties emerged. The movement became weaker as the International Women’s Secretariat was downgraded in 1926 from an autonomous body to a department of the Comintern’s Executive Committee. By the 1930s the Soviet Communist party became a major (although not omnipotent) decision-maker within the Comintern. Simultaneously in the Soviet Union the old conservatism revived and brought about significant retreats as far as women’s rights were concerned. This Soviet retreat would affect Communist movement worldwide – although to varying degrees in different countries.

Finally, despite the Comintern’s equality discourse, the CWM had to face chauvinist pressures tending to exclude women from the revolutionary movement. Such attitudes were present both within the leadership and among the rank and file of the international communist movement.

Muslim women and the Women’s International

EC: One of the most interesting parts of this early revolutionary period for me is the attitude of the Bolsheviks to revolutionary nationalist movements in ‘the East’, e.g. the Congress of the Peoples of the East in 1920. What interaction was there between Muslim women involved in these movements and the Women’s International?

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Mike Taber

MT: There’s a wonderful and inspiring episode that takes place at the close of the CWM’s 1921 conference. A number of women from the East – some of whom are wearing veils – are brought up onto the stage, as the delegates cheer, and explain in their own words the true significance of the Communist Women’s Movement, what it means to them.

Earlier at the conference, one of the Eastern delegates had taken the floor to explain the degree of oppression faced by women there: confined to the home; excluded from education, employment, and social contact in general. And how in the areas under the control of Soviet Russia, attempts were being made to draw these women into social and political life, beginning with public education. Through these steps, an increasing number of them were voluntarily removing their veils.

The CWM gave a lot of attention to these questions, and organised an International Woman’s Secretariat for the Near East. In fact, the new book will contain material from a November 1921 conference that this secretariat organised in Tiflis (Tbilisi).

A received stereotype

EC: As Daria has written there is a stereotype that the women’s movement in socialist countries ‘mobilized their memberships primarily to serve Party goals rather than mobilize the Party to serve women.’ How has your research modified or nuanced this interpretation?

DD: Many authoritative feminist voices in western academia have indeed tended to dismiss communist policies toward women, pointing out that the women’s movement in socialist countries was instrumentalised by the parties to serve their goals rather than advance women’s demands. New and growing scholarship has, however, nuanced these interpretations. It pointed out that women’s emancipation has always been a fundamental element of the overall communist program, not only the consequence of socialist transformation. Alexandra Kollontai put it this way: ‘The women’s question must be a man’s question, a human question—a question of the entire Third International.’

Inessa_Armand-B

Inessa Armand

Our research demonstrates that the Comintern’s program from the very beginning insisted on the importance of women’s emancipation. The Comintern’s leaders, many of them women, such as Zetkin, Kollontai, Inessa Armand, and many others, became themselves preeminent political actresses and in this capacity, together with men, contributed to revolutionary struggle. Years before the Comintern was founded socialist women took an active role in anti-war efforts and revolutionary uprisings.

That said, the transnational network of Communist women also fought for a number of specific measures that concerned only women, such as equal pay for equal work for men and women; transformation of housework into a social industry; a new approach to motherhood and child rearing; access to education for women and many others. Communist women shared common demands and cooperated with a number of feminist currents on such issues as universal suffrage and reproductive rights. Communist women were also ready to collaborate with women belonging to the intelligentsia. Thus the application of emancipation policy devised by Communist women did not target female workers exclusively.

Socialists and bourgeois feminism

EC: There were clear ideological divisions between the socialist women’s movement and bourgeois feminism over a number of questions. Where did these disagreements manifest themselves most strongly in the Communist Women’s movement and were there instances of agreement or cooperation?

MT: To readers today, some of the language used in the Communist Women’s Movement can seem a bit jarring, as they constantly seek to differentiate themselves from ‘bourgeois feminism.’

But it’s important to recognise that the word bourgeois here was not meant as an insult, but as a descriptive adjective. And it was an accurate description of many – although definitely not all – feminists of the day. Some feminists at that time were conscious opponents of the working-class movement, and were simply trying to integrate themselves, with full rights, into upper-class society. These were the types of women, for example, who attended a 1923 conference on women’s suffrage held in Mussolini’s Italy.

At the same time, this also clearly shows one of the weaknesses of the early socialist and communist movement. Those like Zetkin, Kollontai, and Armand, who sought to advance the fight for women’s emancipation, were constantly accused by men in the movement of the crime of ‘feminism.’ That view, which was widespread in many sections of the revolutionary working-class movement at the time, reflected a general underestimation of the significance of the issue. At the 1921 conference, one of the delegates from France, in a very perceptive comment, referred to this problem, pointing to the need to simultaneously avoid both ‘feminism’ and ‘anti-feminism.’

At the 1921 conference, Zetkin gave a report on ‘political equality before the law and in actual practice.’ The thrust of this report was the need for Communists to jump into and take the lead in the fight for women’s suffrage, although not necessarily jointly with bourgeois feminists. In my view, Zetkin’s report, overall, was a very good statement of what I’d call the ‘revolutionary dynamics of women’s liberation.’ It’s interesting to note that this report generated opposition and debate at the conference.

The bottom line is the need to look at this question in historical context, and not try to squeeze it mechanically into contemporary terms.

A team of women communist leaders

EC: Many readers will know a little about the work of women such as Zetkin, Kollontai and Armand, but could you talk about the important role of other leading women (Sturm, Braunthal, Bigot, Colliard, Montefiore, etc.)?

MT: One section of the new book is devoted to the Communist Women’s Movement around the world, with reports from Germany, France, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, the Dutch East Indies, and Soviet Russia. One of the things that comes through clearly in all these reports is the emergence of a whole cadre of female Communist leaders.

This is a constant theme in the CWM, as well as the Communist International as a whole in the era of Lenin: the need to take special measures to draw women not just into the ranks of the Communist movement, but into its leadership too. For this, Comintern resolutions outlined what we would today call special ‘affirmative action’ measures, to encourage women to develop the abilities and self-confidence to take on leadership responsibilities.

This is a challenge that, as we know, remains a critical need of the revolutionary socialist movement today.

A Communist women’s journal

EC: The group published the Communist Women’s International, I think over 1,300 pages over its five years of existence. What kinds of topics did the journal cover? How was it used?

MT: The journal edited by Clara Zetkin from Berlin, Die Kommunistische Fraueninternationale(The Communist Women’s International or KFI), deserves to be recognized as a pioneer in the struggle for women’s emancipation. Yet few women’s liberation activists today are even aware of its existence.

There were articles that seem contemporary in the issues it dealt with, involving many aspects of women’s oppression: abortion, prostitution, housework, political rights, gender roles, women in the labor force, equal pay for equal work, and much more. Compared to other communist publications at the time, this journal was probably one of the most well-written, liveliest, independent-minded, and far-reaching ones.

It’s no wonder that as the Comintern began to degenerate under the growing impact of Stalinism, KFI was put on the chopping block, and it was shut down in 1925.

Reactions by male Communists

EC: It is my understanding that the women’s party commissions were open to all party members including men. Are there instances of men joining the commissions? Were there disagreements over priorities or examples of the women confronting chauvinist attitudes?

DD: Men indeed could belong to and were encouraged to join women’s agitation committees. It is difficult to indicate the ratio of men to women in such committees. It appears men were rather reluctant to join women’s party structures. However, at the International Conferences men delegates often spoke in the name of Communist Women’s organisations of their countries.

The overall predominance of men within parties and the Comintern’s central apparatus did not always facilitate the advancement of women’s agenda. Disagreements over priorities, sexism and prejudice against women on the part of male comrades, was in fact one of the questions that communist women discussed at their international conferences. The problem was inherited from pre-war socialist movements, where male workers were seen, as a French delegate at the 1920 conference said, to ‘manifest not only indifference but even hostility towards the matter of women workers’ organisation.’

All foreign delegates at the 1920 conference in Moscow pointed out the relatively low participation of women in overall party work. Clara Zetkin pointed out in 1921 that ‘leaders all too often underrated the importance’ of the CWM, because ‘they [saw] it as only “women’s business”.’ On the one hand, Communist men viewed gender-based claims as suspicious and in a way calling into question the Marxist class-based analysis. On the other hand, despite the Comintern’s official and public egalitarian discourse, many communist men found it challenging to reconcile it with traditional male sexism, in particular in the private sphere.

Reproductive rights and violence against women

EC: Much of the women’s movement in recent years has been focused around questions of reproductive rights and violence against women, with some socialists making the criticism that this prioritises ‘individual issues’ over ‘structural ones’ (I am not saying I believe this!) How were these issues talked about in the early Communist women’s movement?

DD: Communist Women in the ‘Theses’ of the 1920 conference stressed that it was only the ‘old petty-bourgeois, reactionary ideology’ that saw giving birth and taking care of children as the ‘only true natural calling’ of women thus attributing an inferior role to them. Although Communist women obviously wanted to dissociate themselves from this traditional vision of women’s role in procreation and upbringing of children, the ‘Theses’ did not elaborate the question of reproductive rights and the issue of abortion. This does not mean, however, that communist women did not pay attention to this question. As in 1920 the Soviet government legalised abortions, thus recognising the women’s right of choice in matters of reproduction, the IWS followed up by circulating Soviet literature on abortion among Communist women’s sections outside Russia.

A theoretical framework for Communists’ ideas on reproduction and motherhood was first defined by August Bebel. It was later developed by Alexandra Kollontai. Kollontai saw childbearing as a social responsibility, shared between the family and society. Her idea was that not only the mother but also the socialized institutions should take care of the children’s physical and psychological well-being. Communist women integrated this idea into the 1920 conference’s ‘Theses’: the state was to ‘facilitate a harmonious combination of motherhood with employment’ by setting up welfare institutions to protect maternity and children.

Given the post-WWI demographic context and the fact that birth control was then advocated by many as a means for population control and eugenics, Communist women resisted attempts to stigmatise women for having either too few or too many children. Communist women saw abortion as necessary so long as society was unable to guarantee the material means for a prosperous and happy childhood for all. This did not prevent them from protesting against anti-abortion laws, which they did in France and (even) in Italy of the early 1920s. In Germany Communist women led a campaign under the quite ahead-of-its-time slogan ‘Your Body Belongs to You.’ In Denmark they set up the Working Women’s Information Bureau, which made the information on birth control available to women. In Canada, where abortion was then illegal, Communists joined with non-Communist women to demand the decriminalisation of fertility control and establishment of clinics, which would provide information on contraception and free contraceptives.

As to violence against women (including the issue of rape and sexual harassment), the question was less discussed by Communist women than it is today. During the 1920 conference it came up in the discussion and in the ‘Theses’ concerning communist work in countries ‘still at a pre-capitalist level of development, meaning primarily the countries of the East. The ‘Theses’ called for a ‘fight to overcome the prejudices, morals, practices, and religious and legal rules that reduce women to men’s slaves at home, at work, and sexually.’ The ‘Theses’ underscored that this effort would require educating not only women but also men.

Communist women also promoted legal measures such as those adopted in the USSR – freedom to marry and divorce and work outside of home – seen as conducive to the liberation of women from abusive relationships and reducing domestic violence.

Lessons for today

EC: There has been a recent resurgence in feminist and women’s movement around the globe. What can the women of 2019 learn from the women of the early Communist movement?

MT: Compared to a century ago, there are obviously a number of issues we’re much more conscious of today: sexual harassment, domestic violence, gender norms, questions of fashion and dress, etc.

But one of the central things we can learn from the Communist Women’s Movement – and from the entire Marxist tradition in general – is how the oppression of women is rooted in the capitalist system, and how the struggle for women’s emancipation is integrally linked to the working-class struggle and to all fights for social justice. While every specific victory in the struggle is significant, these must be viewed as forward positions from which to advance the struggle further. To be ultimately victorious, it requires a revolutionary perspective.

Clara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai, Inessa Armand, and the other early leaders of the Communist Women’s Movement understood these links, and sought to generalise this understanding. Virtually unknown today, the CWM needs to be restored to its rightful place in the history of the Communist International, and in the even longer history of the struggle for women’s emancipation.


The Communist Women’s Movement, 1920-1922 will be published in the Historical Materialism Book Series by Brill in 2020, followed by a paperback by Haymarket.


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