A review of The Communist Women’s Movement 1920-1922: Proceedings, Resolutions and Reports, Mike Taber and Daria Dyakonova (eds) (Brill, 2023), £164
The Communist Women’s Movement (CWM) is little known today, but it became a significant force in the international campaign to spread socialist revolution from Soviet Russia across the globe. Established in 1920, the CWM drew inspiration from the victories of Russian women following the October Revolution of 1917, seeking to replicate and develop the methods employed by the Bolsheviks to recruit among women workers. This volume brings together previously unpublished documents produced by the CWM. It is a very welcome addition to an all too limited body of work exploring how socialist women developed bold and innovative strategies based on the indivisibility of revolutionary socialism and women’s emancipation.
The introductions by Mike Taber and Daria Dyakonova give important background information on the international Communist movement and the political conditions in different countries, as well as short biographies of leading Communist women. The women’s reports and speeches give an inspiring sense of how they found creative ways to overcome obstacles placed in their way by capitalist society and, occasionally, by members of Communist organisations. Women who are usually confined to the margins of history take centre stage in this volume. Moreover, their experiences, debates and aspirations are strikingly relevant for socialists today.
The CWM had its roots in the pre-1914 socialist women’s movement. The Second International collapsed in a wave of nationalism in 1914, but a minority of its female supporters opposed the First World War. They revived their international networks to build resistance to the bloodshed. This movement was given an enormous boost by the Russian Revolution. The new workers’ state was locked in a desperate struggle to survive, but despite intense hardships the revolutionary regime devoted significant resources to create the basis for women’s liberation. The Bolsheviks and their international co-thinkers launched the Communist International (also known as the Comintern or Third International) in 1919. Its founding congress, held in March 1919, adopted a programme that included total equality of legal rights for women, free education and medical care, integration of women into political life, and easing of the burdens of housework and childcare.
The Comintern’s founding congress also adopted Alexandra Kollontai’s “Resolution on the Need to Draw Women Workers into the Struggle for Socialism”. Kollontai was one of the founders of the Zhenotdel, the women’s organisation set up by the Bolsheviks to improve the living conditions of Soviet women. Her resolution advocated a strategic orientation of winning women to socialism:
It is the urgent task of every member party of the Communist International to work forcefully and energetically to win proletarian women to its ranks. The dictatorship of the proletariat can be won and maintained only with the energetic and active participation of working-class women.1
The CWM was the independent, dynamic organisational form given to this strategy.
The First Congress (July and August 1920): “hidden revolutionary energy”
A passage from this new volume captures how women celebrated the opening of the First Congress of the CWM, which took place from 30 July to 2 August 1920:
On the evening of 30 July 1920, orderly columns of women workers clad in red kerchiefs and Red Sisters wearing white scarves make their way to the Bolshoi Theatre from remote districts and the outskirts of Moscow. They are holding banners adorned with slogans: “Long Live Clara Zetkin—Leader of the World Army of Proletarian Women!” and “Through the Dictatorship of the Proletariat in All Countries, Onward to the Complete Emancipation of Women!” A chorus of women’s voices singing The Internationale fills the streets of Moscow. Women proletarians, in an orderly and elated procession, celebrate the opening of the International Conference of Communist Women at the Bolshoi Theatre. At about 8 o’clock that evening, the hall is filled from top to bottom. The stage is occupied by women delegates from Germany, France, Britain, the United States, Mexico, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, Finland, Norway, Latvia, Bulgaria, India, Georgia, the Caucasus and Turkestan, as well as representatives of various organisations and institutions welcoming the First International Conference of Communist Women.2
Over 50 delegates from 19 countries gathered in Moscow, despite the dangers posed by the White Armies attempting to overthrow Russia’s socialist revolution. Local reports presented to the congress give a vivid sense of how the counter-revolutionary White Terror overshadowed the lives of women across the old Russian Empire. They also show how courageously Communist women continued to fight for the revolution and find new ways to reach out to women workers.
The section featuring country reports contains many fascinating accounts of the changing conditions for working women and how Communist women initiated campaigns engaging working-class women, creating their own organisations with independent publications. Reports by Rosi Wolfstein from Germany and Angelica Balabanoff from Italy detail how women organised within unfolding revolutionary situations. Impressive reports outlining the experiences of women in Russia were delivered by Inessa Armand and Klavdiya Nikolayeva. Armand argued that women were not a conservative break on the socialist movement but rather a potential source of strength:
The age-old oppression; women’s political, economic and family enslavement; all the horrors; the toughest legacy of imperialist war; and, of course, a class instinct—all of this affected the proletarian women’s character, just as it did proletarian men. This is why the masses of proletarian women hold within themselves so much potential revolutionary energy. Communists must know how to utilise this huge source of hidden revolutionary energy.3
Action, Armand insisted, was the best means of involving women in the struggle. Nikolayeva’s report, “Liberation from Domestic Bondage”, detailed the practical measures to emancipate women taken by the beleaguered Soviet Union:
Soviet power, besides dealing with destruction and being under a blockade, is now constantly under attack by the White Guards and suffering untold difficulties. Nevertheless, children are maintained socially (food products are given freely with children’s cards, free children’s dining rooms are being set up, as well as school dining halls)… The aspect of social provisions is being expanded endlessly, as is protection of motherhood and childhood: building maternity homes, orphanages, kindergartens and nurseries. Pregnant women have been freed from work obligations for eight weeks before childbirth and eight weeks following it. A nursing mother receives material and financial benefits during the nine months of breastfeeding…
I repeat—now, despite unforeseen difficulties, one can confidently state that Soviet Russia provides better care for mothers and children than anywhere else. Yet, these are only the first steps. Churches and individual homes, out of which the bourgeoisie has been driven, have been converted into recreation centres for tired working women. Besides this, thanks to the creation of social dining halls and kitchens, the need for domestic work has slowly decreased, and the old cooking pot, which is much lauded by the bourgeoisie, has become impractical. For peasant women, and especially for working women, the old cooking pot is only the source of additional back-breaking work, which takes away every last moment of leisure, depriving women of the ability to go to meetings, read books and take part in the class struggle.4
The conditions in Russia were incredibly difficult, but the intention of the workers’ state was unequivocally to uproot women’s oppression. Kollontai told the CWM congress how domestic labour was being socialised:
The individual household is dying. It is giving way in our society to collective housekeeping. Instead of the working woman cleaning her flat, the communist society can arrange for men and women whose job it is to go round in the morning to clean rooms.5
The idea of creating alternatives to the private family unit was not new in socialist politics. It had been widely discussed by early socialists and Marxists such as Friedrich Engels and August Bebel.6 This was, however, the first time that the issue of housekeeping appeared as a crucial point in a socialist programme for women’s liberation.
The CWM’s First Congress adopted the “Guidelines for the Communist Women’s Movement”, a bold and comprehensive statement of the need to mobilise and win over working-class women and the potential of “communism, the great emancipator of the female sex”, to achieve not just legal equality for women but also “the full development of their full human personality”.7
On 20 November 1920, the International Women’s Secretariat (IWS) was established to lead the CWM. Clara Zetkin, a leading figure in the German Communist movement and a seasoned fighter for women’s liberation, was elected as general secretary, and Kollontai became assistant secretary. The aims of the IWS, as described by Kollontai, were to adopt special methods of work among women, to awaken the activity and independence of women workers, and to participate in the work of the Comintern. The IWS’s activities were regulated by the Comintern’s executive but it also enjoyed considerable freedom of action.8 The IWS’s close association with the leadership of the Comintern did not prevent CWM delegates feeling free to criticise how it prioritised issues and to hold it to account for communication failures. The IWS moved from Moscow to Berlin in early 1922 in order to make it easier to create transnational networks and hold regular international conferences.
The Second Congress (June 1921): “the sweetness of liberty”
The CWM’s Second Congress was larger and more representative than the first. Heated debates on all aspects of women’s activities went on until late into the night. The Second Congress attracted more delegates from outside the Western world, who urged the development of strategies to address the specific challenges they faced. Gaiane Areshian from Armenia was critical of the Congress of the Peoples of the East, which had been organised by the Comintern a year earlier in Baku, where “the peoples of the East” were, in her words, “represented by the men”.9 Areshian also criticised the IWS for failing to do enough to encourage Communist work among women in what they termed “the East”.
When considering such criticisms, the CWM could draw on the experience of the Russian Communist Party women’s organisation, the Zhenotdel. This was launched in September 1919 under the leadership of Armand and Kollontai. The organisation established nurseries, kindergartens, public canteens and laundries to replace the private family. It also ensured the recruitment of women into workplaces, oversaw the enforcement of laws protecting women workers, and encouraged them to become active within the soviets and Communist Party structures. The Zhenotdel established a department dedicated to working with women in the Soviet state’s “East”, which pioneered creative and culturally sensitive ways to approach women, and the CWM adopted these strategies. At the First Congress of the CWM, Lida Dvorkina reported that women in Turkestan, who were universally illiterate and had been confined within their homes, were joining the Communist Party because of its work in women’s schools and clubs and its advocacy among Muslims.10 Iranian Communists held women’s meetings under the appearance of concerts and opened schools where, “camouflaged by tailoring and sewing, women learn political literacy and get ready to be future political activists”.11
Such tactics created a reservoir of support for socialism among women in the so-called East. In late April 1920, the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic was established. One Azerbaijani, Arifa Musabekova, told the CWM’s Second Congress about the transformations experienced by women in the region:
With the advent of the revolution in Azerbaijan, from the moment when the victorious Red Army liberated Red Azerbaijan…a possibility was opened to share in and know the sweetness of liberty. Now women throughout Azerbaijan are already removing their veils, having entered upon the struggle for emancipation.12
The CWM established its own Women’s Secretariat for the Near East in 1921. On 12 December 1921, this secretariat held a women’s conference in Tiflis (today Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia) with delegates from Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Kabardia, Dagestan and the so-called Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus, as well as Turkey and Iran. The CWM linked the emancipation of women in the East to both the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggles. As Kollontai declared: “No great imperialist power can be destroyed without proper action being taken in the colonies of this power. Consequently, it is among the women of the East that we have to accomplish minutely detailed work, which is most important”.13 The CWM made work among such women a high priority, giving these women a platform and developing creative ways to make socialism accessible to them.14
Achievements and obstacles
The CWM had some notable successes in its first three years. Its central organ was the journal The Communist Women’s International, published in Berlin under the editorship of Zetkin from April 1921. This journal was one of the most well written, lively, independent-minded and far-reaching publications produced by the global Communist movement. Women’s sections, committees or departments, which were sometimes referred to as “agitation commissions”, were organised in almost all European countries where Communists could work legally.
Large numbers of women were recruited to parties affiliated to the Comintern. The proportion of women among party members ranged from a high of 20 percent in Czechoslovakia and Norway down to about 2 percent in France and Italy. In Germany and Russia, it rose gradually in the 1920s to 17 percent and 14 percent, respectively. More than 100,000 women were members of the Communist International. These women, Zetkin wrote, were awakened by socialism and were seized by “new longings, desires, impulses and needs that before were hidden”.15
The CWM initiated important international campaigns. It raised relief for the victims of the famine in the Soviet Russia and initiated campaigns on issues such as abortion rights, childcare, equal pay for equal work and women’s suffrage. The promotion of International Women’s Day was one of the most successful international initiatives launched by the early Communist movement.16
These achievements are even more impressive given the degree of hostility CWM activists faced from within the Communist movement. Some comrades were convinced that “feminism” posed a danger to Communist unity. A delegate from France, Lucie Colliard, told the CWM’s Second Congress that French Communist leaders met “every suggestion to organise the women with the taunt, “Feminists!’.”17 Other Communists paid only lip service to such work. Gerda Linderot from Sweden described how, “Our work is especially affected by the attitude of many comrades who recognise theoretically the value of our organisation but in practice remain quite indifferent to us”.18 Kollontai also pointed out that women were not equally represented within official structures: “Go to the Communist International’s executive committee. Last time I counted, there were four women there. This is abnormal”.19 Moreover, the burden of domestic labour fell disproportionately on women. One female member of the French Communist Party suggested, “The man could occasionally do a little housework, so as to give the woman time to engage in public life”.20 Socialisation of housework remained an aspiration for many women, whose lives continued to be shaped by domestic labour.
Uprooting sexist ideas was painstaking work, but the women received enthusiastic support from the central Comintern leadership. Russian Communist Party leaders such as Lenin, Nikolai Bukharin and Leon Trotsky were all vocal advocates for the CWM and addressed its congresses. In autumn 1920, Lenin held discussions with Zetkin. He stressed the CWM’s importance:
The first proletarian dictatorship is a real pioneer in establishing social equality for women. It is clearing away more prejudices than could volumes of feminist literature. Yet, even with all that we still have no international Communist women’s movement, and that is what we must have.21
Debate, dissent and strategy
During its early years, the CWM was a vibrant, living movement, and its congresses were the scene of lively exchanges. Delegates often expressed sharply dissenting views on a range of issues, from what time delegates should arrive at the conference to how to create alternatives to sex work. One debate focused on the campaign for the female franchise. Zetkin argued passionately that Communist women must not only organise and lead but also initiate the fight for equal political rights. Some delegates, including Nora Smyth from Britain, attacked Zetkin’s position, arguing that campaigning for votes for women would lead women to focus on parliamentary change and would thus “not help Communism”.22 Zetkin countered that demands for equality fed into, not away from, revolutionary politics:
The demand for women’s equality signifies much more than sweeping away received prejudices, customs and practices—much more than sweeping away male privilege. It becomes a struggle against bourgeois class rule and the bourgeois class state, and it merges with the onward drive of the proletariat to win state power.23
Zetkin’s position won with the support of Kollontai. Another debate focused on reproductive rights. The theses produced by the First Congress of the CWM stressed that it was the “old, petty bourgeois, reactionary ideology” that saw giving birth and taking care of children as women’s true calling.24 Communist women obviously wanted to dissociate themselves from this view, but some were initially cautious about supporting abortion rights. They were anxious to distance themselves from eugenicists, who advocated birth control to stop poor people breeding and justified the lack of social care for mothers and children. However, the Soviet government legalised abortions performed in state hospitals and banned abortions carried out for profit in 1920 in the interests of women’s health. The CWM developed this approach to public health, including by promoting ideas of women’s bodily autonomy. Communist women in Germany presented a report to the CWM giving an account of their campaign against anti-abortion laws. Abortion, they argued, was not an ideal solution for women, but “the Communist Party must demand for women the right to determine their own fate and to decide by themselves whether they are in a position to bring up and educate a child, as long as society fails to care for mothers and for the nourishment and upbringing of children”.25 They campaigned under the progressive slogan “Dein Körper gehört Dir!” (“Your Body Belongs to You!”). The campaign was successful, and the restrictions on abortion were eased in 1926.26
Although Zetkin was the acknowledged leader of the CWM, she was not above criticism. In March 1921, the Communist Party of Germany (KPD; Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands) launched what became known as the March Action, an attempt to spark a revolutionary uprising through the efforts of a determined minority. The adventure failed and the German working class and Communist movement suffered a major defeat, but most members of the KPD defended the “revolutionary offensive” tactic. At the CWM’s 1921 conference, German delegate Gerten Sturm demanded that Zetkin publicly disassociate herself from opponents of the offensive.27 Zetkin not only refused, but she also protested against a conference paper that supported the March Action, which read:
Do you not see that workers’ Soviet Russia is now stronger and firmer than ever? Do you not hear the thunderous roll of the revolution, audible from Britain, where workers are striking without interruption? Do you not see that the proletariat of Germany has come out of the difficult March battles more steeled?28
Zetkin and Kollontai argued that discussions of the ultra-left March Action must be delayed until the Third Congress of Comintern, which voted to oppose the “revolutionary offensive”. Instead, conference advocated a united front strategy, calling for common action with reformist organisations and trade unions around specific demands—a position supported by Zetkin, Trotsky and Lenin.
Demise and legacy
The CWM was led by a group of talented, courageous and determined socialist women. Alongside Kollontai, Amand and Zetkin were Hertha Sturm and Bertha Braunthal of Germany, Marthe Bigot and Lucie Colliard of France, Henriette Roland Holst of the Netherlands, Dora Montefiore of Britain, and many others. Almost all were to become opponents or victims of Stalinism. As leading figures in the early CWM, these women deserve recognition for what they were: significant contributors to the international Communist movement and pioneers in the centuries-long history of the struggle for women’s emancipation.29
By 1923, the international socialist movement was dealing with new realities as the German Revolution failed and the Soviet Union was left isolated. The situation inside the CWM paralleled developments within the Comintern, which began to reflect the shifting needs and priorities of Soviet foreign policy under Stalin.30 The IWS became the Women’s Section of the Executive Committee of the Comintern and was transferred back from Berlin to Moscow in early 1924. The CWM’s international journal ended publication in early 1925. The Zhenotdel was wound down and dissolved in 1930. Most of the Communist women leaders joined the anti-Stalinist oppositions led by Trotsky, Bukharin and Grigori Zinoviev.
The reports and debates recorded in this volume are of huge interest to socialists. At times, the speeches can feel formulaic and overly optimistic. At their best, however, the documents give an inspiring vision of how socialist women overcame their differences to seize the chance to create new ways of organising women. There can be no blueprints for any future socialist society, but the achievements of women 100 years ago provide a powerful vision of the potential of socialist revolution to begin the process that leads to the liberation of women and of all humanity.
Judy Cox lives in West London. She has recently completed a PhD in women and the Chartist movement at the University of Leeds. She is the author of The Women’s Revolution: Russia 1905-1917 (Haymarket, 2019) and Rebellious Daughters of History (Redwords, 2020).
1 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p80.
2 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p83. The Red Sisters were members of Red Army medical units.
3 Taber and Daykonova, 2023, p144.
4 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p136.
5 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p25.
6 The early socialists, such as Charles Fourier, Henri de Saint-Simon and Flora Tristan, developed a critique of how the family shaped women’s lives. This was elaborated upon by Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State and by August Bebel in Women Under Socialism.
7 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p153.
8 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, pxiv.
9 The Baku Congress had only 55 women delegates out of 2,050. At the beginning of the event, women were unanimously elected to the congress presidium and formulated their key demands: complete equality of rights; unconditional access to educational and vocational training institutions established for men; equality in marriage and the abolition of polygamy; access to employment in legislative and administrative institutions; and the establishment of local committees for the protection of women and their rights.
10 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p123.
11 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p129.
12 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p198. The relationship between the wearing of veils and women’s liberation in the Soviet Union is complex. Stalin launched a campaign against the veil in 1927, but this was decried by many Bolsheviks, who argued that forced unveiling would do nothing to liberate women, instead building up hostility towards the Communist Party among national groups long oppressed by Russian rulers in Moscow—see Crouch, 2006.
13 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p248.
14 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p92.
15 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p66.
16 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p42.
17 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, pxx.
18 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, pxv.
19 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p271.
20 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p511.
21 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, pxvii.
22 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p366.
23 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, pxi.
24 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p53.
25 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p495.
26 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p496.
27 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p342.
28 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, p402.
29 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, pxxv.
30 Taber and Dyakonova, 2023, pxxiv.