Bolshevism, Gender & 21st Century Revolution

— Ron Lare

Reinterrogating the Classical Marxist Discourses of Revolutionary Democracy
By Soma Marik
Delhi, India: Aakar Books, 2008, 496 pages plus bibliography and index.
To order:

2017 WILL MARK the Russian Revolution’s 100th anniversary. Socialists will again ask how the revolution was made and why it degenerated.

Soma Marik is an Indian Marxist-feminist and activist against the plague of intercommunal violence in her country, as well as a scholar in Russian history. She teaches in Kolkata at a college, Ramakrishna Sarada Mission Vivekananda Vidya Bhavan, and is guest faculty at the School of Women’s Studies at Jadavpur University. As she notes in her Introduction:

“#8220;Revolutionary socialists are today consistently confronted with the challenge that Marxism is a failed doctrine, a despotic Utopia that has been finally superseded by the coming of an eternal market-driven democracy.” (1)

The consequence is the crippling of leftwing alternatives: “#8220;Today, the arguments about economic consensus under the aegis of the WTO-IMF-World Bank mean that even if radical political forces use the electoral process to partially capture political power, they are told that they cannot use this power in order to move towards a break with neoliberalism.

“#8220;In country after country in Latin America, for example, this has been the argument used when leftist parties win elections. In India, too, this has been the logic behind the transformation of the politics of the mainstream left. The consequence is a loss of historical memory…Forgetting the real history of Classical Marxism and democracy is not accidental, but a pressure of the ruling classes globally.”

Marik’s exploration of the Russian Revolution, then, aims at “#8220;(r)estoring its real picture, not idealised but with all lessons duly drawn,” to refute the conventions of bourgeois scholarship but also “#8220;leftist intellectuals in retreat who do not merely express legitimate criticisms of the shortcomings of the socialist project, but try to integrate themselves with capitalism.” (9)

Marik’s book divides into two parts. Chapters 2-5 — “#8220;From Radical Democracy to Proletarian Democracy,” “#8220;Class, Party and Forms of Self-Organization,” Revolutionary Strategy and Democracy,” and “#8220;Democracy in the Proletarian Dictature” (i.e. the “#8220;dictatorship of the proletariat”) — deal with Marx, Engels and classical Marxism.

Marik in these chapters follows arguments already developed by Michael Löwy, Hal Draper, and among more recent writers August Nimtz. She stresses that classical Marxism was revolutionary democratic socialism, not a model for a new society to be imposed from above.

She goes beyond the previous writers in consistently examining the gender components in classical Marxism and its immediate heirs, and in linking this study to the second part, where she examines the relationship between classical Marxism and Bolshevism.

I will focus here on the second half of the book, chapters 6-9 —“#8220;Vanguard Party and Revolutionary Strategy: Bolshevism Before February Revolution,” “#8220;Bolshevism in 1917,” “#8220;Bolshevism and the Experience of Soviet Power,” and “#8220;Bureaucratisation and Bolshevism” — with particular attention to Marik’s detailed discussion of gender politics within the party.

Marik agrees with the original Bolsheviks that without further international revolutions, degeneration of the Russian Revolution was inevitable regardless of party policy, composition or leadership. However, she identifies a particular weakness in women’s leadership that affected workers’ and party democracy:

“#8220;From the Second [Bolshevik] Party Congress of 1903 to February 1917, women theoreticians, Central Committee Members, and members of any other émigré committee, whether Bolshevik or Menshevik, all added up to not over a dozen. It was only in the domain of organisation that women were found more acceptable.” (272)

Marik stands shoulder to shoulder, yet also goes toe to toe with the revolution’s leading figure, Vladimir Lenin. The book might in part be termed “#8220;tough love for Lenin.” Marik is taking a risk. Non-Leninist Marxists may dismiss the book for defending Lenin. “#8220;Leninists” may dismiss it as too critical of him.

Gender Contradictions in Party Building

In a section on “#8220;Integrating Gender in Party Building,” Marik defends “#8220;the Bolshevik-style party” as more democratic and revolutionary than other parties. But she explores the Bolsheviks’ “#8220;hidden gender biases in their concepts of class and…consequently of class vanguard, professional revolutionary, etc. “#8220; Their “#8220;apparent gender-neutrality caused a problem with the Bolshevik strategy of party building.” (269)

More professional revolutionaries meant greater gender imbalance in the party. Male revolutionaries seldom had to make decisions about children. Working-class leadership composition also suffered. Leading women “#8220;…were seldom workers. …Women workers were held to be basically backward.”

The Bolsheviks increased attention to women as more entered industry. But problems persisted. In 1912, 22 largely women’s strikes demanded an end to sexual harassment by guards searching women leaving the factories. Yet such demands were ignored because they did not fit union and party leaderships’ model demands.

On the eve of the February Revolution, there were only some 2500 women members among the roughly 28,000 so-called “#8220;Old Bolsheviks.” (270) Marik looks at the roles of the best known Bolshevik women:

“#8220;(T)he most effective technical secretary of the Petersburg Committee was Elena Stasova. Yet...the major political decisions were made by male secretaries, and “#8220;her correspondence with Lenin dealt with every day organizational work. …The picture among [Russian] émigrés was even clearer. No woman other than Alexandra Kollontai ever got recognition as a theoretician.”

Marik remarks that in fact “#8220;we find the same picture in other countries. Rosa Luxemburg had to establish herself as a theoretician by refusing to do women’s movement work.” (272)

What’s more, “#8220;unlike [German revolutionary Clara] Zetkin and her comrades, the Bolsheviks seldom, before the revolution, made conscious attempts to bring more women into the party and into the leading positions of the party….As late as the 6th Party Congress in 1917, out of 171 delegates, only ten were women, even though a large number of well-known women activists had been early supporters of Lenin’s line at the time of the April Theses.”

Marik sums up that the Bolsheviks’ “#8220;inadequate gendering of the concept of class led them to often underestimate the potentials of women workers.” (273)

A Bolshevik Women’s Journal

Alexandra Kollontai wrote that “#8220;The Bolsheviks, including the Bolshevik women, began as critics of any autonomous women’s movement, even an autonomous proletarian women’s movement on the German model.”

However, Inessa Armand, Nadezhda Krupskaya and other Bolshevik women initiated the journal Rabotnitsa. (Marik throws an elbow at some recent international Trotskyist leaders as “#8220;mythmakers” ascribing all such positive initiatives to Lenin.)

Rabotnitsa counteracted male Bolsheviks’ reporting on women’s actions — such as this 1913 account from Pravda on cotton mill women workers: “#8220;They all tell tales on one another and try to hurt one another in every way. Gossip and toadying have built a firm nest for themselves.” (Quoted, 295-6)

Rabotnitsa became the center of work among women workers. “#8220;The fact that it was a paper meant it could avoid the charge of ‘feminist deviation’. … Armand and Kollontai were feminist, even if they did not apply the term to themselves.”

Women’s pressure had an effect. Pravda reported on a laundry strike, led by Bolshevik women, that first broke the post-February 1905 class peace.

One editorial line within Rabotnitsa was Krupskaya’s — that “#8220;the backward masses of working women” should be organized into the struggle started by the men. But Armand “#8220;…stressed that without more encouragement to women’s struggles, the struggle for socialism could not go forward.” (295)

“#8220;The women’s textile mill strike on International Women’s Day of 1917 was supported by male metal workers and the Bolshevik ranks. But sometimes the genders disagreed. When male cartridge workers demanded Saturday overtime, women objected that they needed time for housework, standing in line or minding children. Without social change, overtime would punish women.”

Kollontai would write later that conservative women party leaders “#8220;…would not tolerate anything that smacked of feminism and …regarded with great caution any organizational scheme which…might introduce ‘division according to sex’ into the proletariat.”

A “#8220;Bolshevik-Feminist Discourse”

While still a left Menshevik, Kollontai wrote, “#8220;A sharp ideological struggle must be carried out to redefine class struggle and socialism.”

Kollontai was the only party member promoting separate meetings for women. The most respected woman party member, Vera Zasulich, opposed such meetings. Kollontai called a women’s meeting but “#8220;found that a notice had been put up cancelling the women’s meeting and announcing an all-men meeting instead.”

In 1908, the Bolsheviks boycotted a congress organized by liberal feminists opposed to class struggle. Kollontai secretly organized 45 working-class women to intervene demanding social revolution rather than bourgeois feminism.

Her book intended for the Congress, The Social Basis of the Woman Question, never reprinted in Russia, criticized lack of party gender consciousness. She made sexuality a political issue “#8220;to be discussed…not merely from a legal point, but as a matter of male control over women’s sexuality.” She wanted not just demands on employer and government, “#8220;but to force the class to look inwards. In Russian Marxism, this was the first effort.” (291-2)

Inessa Armand’s writings on sexuality and prostitution were spurred by working women’s real lives. To Armand’s draft on the family question, Lenin replied that “#8220;’freedom of love’ had no place in a Marxist pamphlet” and ignored her other points.

Lenin wrote that “#8220;bourgeois women meant, by freedom of love,” one of three things: “#8220;freedom from seriousness in love, freedom from childbirth, and freedom of adultery.” Marik observes that Lenin groups freedom from childbirth with freedom of adultery, and objects to his “#8220;‘class line’ that it is proletarian to desire many childbirths.” (292)

Kollontai proposed an apparatus for party work among women modeled on Zetkin’s former German section. Krupskaya and others opposed this, but Kollontai and Konkordia Samoilova eventually got agreement on a women workers’ conference, held on November 12 and 18, 1917. One activist wrote: “#8220;Many women comrades say that everything will be done without us. But comrades, whatever is done without us will be dangerous for us.”

Marik sees here “#8220;the stirrings of a Bolshevik-feminist discourse that went beyond the Bolshevik orthodoxy.” (332) The struggle for such a discourse and practice presents an intriguing lens through which to view the strengths and weaknesses of the Russian Revolution and its ultimate fate.

Defending Revolution “#8220;From Below”

Kollontai was Lenin’s ally as well as critic. “#8220;Kollontai’s return to Russia from exile and enthusiastic support for Lenin’s April Theses put power behind the work of agitating among women.” Initially upon Lenin’s return, “#8220;…within the leadership (broadly defined) Lenin had only a few supporters. Alexandra Kollontai was his firmest supporter…” (332, 333)

With power handed to the Soviets, “#8220;…came a permanent split in the world socialist movement. The Bolsheviks claimed that the new regime represented a higher form of democracy….. The legitimacy of the October Revolution has ever since been a central issue in the debate over workers’ democracy.” (345-6)

Generally Marik depicts Lenin in 1917 as returning to Marx’s positions, not as distorting them. She refutes the notion that the Bolsheviks were a power-hungry party maneuvering for a coup, hated press freedom, overthrew a democratic regime, led the revolution through the party rather than through the soviets, and were led by the dictators Lenin and Trotsky. She rejects what she calls the post-1991 “#8220;bandwagon” claiming that Bolshevism necessarily led to Stalinism.

Marik defends the Bolsheviks as revolutionaries “#8220;from below.” Lenin adopted the demands of the peasants. The soviets moved the party toward economic solutions based on workers’ control from both above and below. The vanguard party was not elitist as long as there was input from below. The collapse of Soviet democracy was due to something Lenin and Trotsky did not foresee: most non-Bolshevik socialist parties joined “#8220;a bourgeois-aristocratic counter-revolution.”
Women After the Revolution

Marik says Bolshevism was a child of its own age with some patriarchal values, but “#8220;compared to all other proletarian social and political institutions, including soviets and factory councils, women had better representation in the party hierarchy….”

In November 1918, Bolshevik women organized the First All-Russian Congress of Worker and Peasant Women. They discussed domestic slavery, double moral standards, women’s labor, maternity, prostitution, and drawing women into party and state activities.

This initiative became the Women’s Department of the Central Committee or “#8220;Zhenotdel.” The Zhenotdel became a movement including non-party women. It was heroic in the Civil War. But although Kollontai denounced use of a derogatory term for women, “#8220;baba,” many male party members referred to the Zhenotdel headquarters as “#8220;The Baba Center.”

Zhenotdel Work in Central Asia “#8220;involved campaigns against the Sharia and the veil.” Christian and Islamic control of women was a serious obstacle to women’s mobilization and equality.

However, the 12th Party Congress of 1923 lamented the growth of feminism. Stalin eventually eliminated the Zhenotdel. As Marik observes: “#8220;The crisis of Zhenotdel cannot be delinked from the crisis of Workers’ Democracy in all spheres. But it had a different rhythm.” (419)

As Soviet government Commissar of Social Welfare, Kollontai had influence. But there was an overarching theoretical problem:

“#8220;The Bolsheviks, following Engels and Bebel, argued that when a marriage was freed from economic dependence, it would be based on mutual attachment and be a superior marriage.” But Kollontai argued that marriages might be even less stable when freed from economic and family responsibility. “#8220;…a marriage might be based on emotional affinity, or on transient attraction.” And “#8220;Too strong a marriage bond could compete with work for class solidarity and women’s liberation.“#8220; “#8220;Kollontai was unique in building a theory” on such thinking. (421)

It seems that such thinking felt threatening to some male comrades. Kollontai’s theories of sexuality led her to write Make Way for Winged Eros and Love of Worker Bees. “#8220;What Kollontai was emphasizing was that women should create self-definitions that put work at the centre, not their male partners. The [party leadership’s] rejection of this went hand in hand with reinforcing a relatively conservative model of Marxist thought on women, especially women’s sexuality.” (424)

As Stalinism developed, Kollontai along with Trotsky would be attacked as wasting time on culture and ideology.

In his 1920 correspondence with Clara Zetkin, Lenin revealed what Marik calls “#8220;very prudish conceptions of sexuality.” He objected to German Communists’ organizing prostitutes. For him there was no place for Freudian theory in the Party or vanguard, which has no “#8220;abnormal sexuality.” Since there existed no authoritative Marxist text, Lenin thought impossible the “#8220;serious study” of sex and marriage proposed by Zetkin. (424, 425)

Kollontai’s opposition to the treaty of Brest-Litovsk led to her ouster from the party Central Committee.

Kollontai and the Workers’ Opposition

The Workers’ Opposition formed in 1919 over questions of the trade unions and workers’ control of production. Kollontai contributed her “#8220;distinct gendered outlook.” While in Marik’s view some Workers’ Opposition demands “#8220;were clearly impractical,” Kollontai was right that if demands were not based on factory-level organizations, then “#8220;…large sections of organised workers, including many novice women workers …would then merely delegate to their Party the immense task of building a new society.”

Family and sexual relationships, in Kollontai’s opinion, would not change until workers’ demands were located firmly at the point of production. Bukharin replied on behalf of the party leadership, linking the Opposition’s policies on unions and democracy to Kollontai’s views on gender roles in order to discredit the former. (422)

At the Ninth Party Congress, Kollontai was able to oppose Zinoviev’s attempt to sideline Angelica Balabanova. Marik contrasts the Tenth Party Congress in 1921, when “#8220;…both Lenin and Bukharin…shifted from political to personal attacks…” Lenin’s snide comment about her past relationship with the Workers’ Opposition leader Alexander Shlyapnikov was “#8220;totally unwarranted in a debate over policy in a Party congress.”

Kollontai opposed the New Economic Policy (NEP) as funds for communal socialization of family duties were cut and “#8220;women were being pushed back into economic slavery.”

Marik criticizes Kollontai, Shlyapnikov and the Workers’ Opposition for lacking a clear program. Their proposed Producers’ Congress would not have worked. But their program, she says, “#8220;made a valid, though incomplete, analysis of bureaucratization.” Trotsky replied “#8220;that the Workers’ Opposition had come forward with dangerous slogans, having put workers’ democracy above the historic birthright of the party.” (452)

Lenin branded the Workers’ Opposition as an “#8220;anarcho-syndicalist deviation” incompatible with membership in the party. Oppositions were dissolved. One clause in the resolution, “#8220;…kept hidden from the party, empowered the CC [Central Committee] to expel even CC members from the party, thereby violating utterly the sovereignty of the Party Congress.” (453)

Marik says open bureaucratization sprang from this, but also describes the material changes in the working class and the party that impelled bureaucratization. Decisions taken in haste under the real threat of counterrevolution created a fatal slide to substituting the party for working class power.

The leading Bolsheviks lacked awareness of “#8220;bureaucracy as a specific social force.” In 1921, Lenin publically said that references to bureaucracy were demagogy. The problem was not Bolsheviks’ undemocratic practical measures, but putting these forward as theories “#8220;in the name of Marxism.”

Looking Forward

For Marik, Rosa Luxemburg combined women’s leadership with a critique of party democracy. Luxemburg supported Bolsheviks’ revolutionary struggle but wrote that “#8220;the Bolsheviks’ actions should not be regarded as a shining example of socialist policy ‘toward which only uncritical administration and zealous imitation are in order.’

“#8220;For Luxemburg, the dictatorship of the proletariat was identical with socialist democracy…She warned that without a full public life, without freedom of press and assembly, elections, and the open clash of ideas, democracy would die out, and a group of energetic leaders would replace revolutionary democracy, leading to a bureaucratization of society and polity.” (486)

Marik comments on Stalinist measures including the re-criminalization of homosexuality in 1936; tightening of divorce laws; campaigns against promiscuity and adultery; the cult of motherhood; discrimination against illegitimate children; and gender segregation in schools.

In short, Marik writes: “#8220;(T)wo opposed trends came into existence in the name of socialism. One upheld modified patriarchy in the name of class struggle and real, existing socialism, and harnessed the more Victorian comments of Lenin into service while overturning all real achievements of the Lenin era.” (488)

Marik, then, sees rival strands in Bolshevik history, which can be viewed from the perspective of women’s emancipation as well as through the issues of workers’ democracy and bureaucratism. Lenin’s position was not Stalin’s, which ultimately reduced working class and peasant women to “#8220;mothers who bring up our youth — the future of our country” (426-7) — but did leave an opening for it.

Marik links Lenin’s final efforts against Stalin to Trotsky’s Left Opposition, but notes: “#8220;It was, however, only in the 1930s, that even Trotsky was able not merely to demand a return to workers’ democracy, but acknowledge that the 1921 actions of banning opposition parties and inner-party factions had facilitated the rise of the bureaucracy, and that a regeneration of socialism necessitated the legalization of soviet parties chosen by the workers themselves.” (492)

Marik faults Kollontai for not seeing the importance of overcoming the gender division of labor from the very onset of the Bolsheviks’ assumption of power. Marik criticizes her ultimate accommodation with Stalin: “#8220;That individuals like Kollontai gave up the battle at a certain stage does not mean that the battle had not been waged by them, nor that they and Stalinism were one and the same. “#8220; (426)

Marik approvingly quotes Trotsky’s 1936 The Revolution Betrayed against the Stalinist cult of the family, which was rooted as Trotsky put it in “#8220;the need of the bureaucracy for a stable hierarchy of relations.” (487)

Marik concludes that it is necessary today “#8220;…to go beyond asking just how the Soviet Revolution failed, and also to ask how workers’ democracy is to survive and be transformed into what form, if a classless society is created.” Her final sentence promotes this theme with a positive reference to Trotsky’s book Literature and Revolution. (492, 493)

Anyone seeking to build socialist parties, make revolutions, avoid their degeneration, and promote women’s leadership in the 21st Century needs to consider the lessons drawn in this book.

September/October 2011, ATC 154

reading guide for Marik's book

Submitted by Nick on January 27, 2013 - 4:53pm.

Thanks to Ron for a thoughtful review that highlights the gender dimension of Marik’s defense and critique of the Bolsheviks. I highly recommend this book, which greatly influenced my understanding of the relationship of socialism to democracy and the role of working-class democracy in the revolutionary struggle. Unfortunately it’s not published in the United States, but you can order it direct from the publisher:

I’ve put together some notes from a reading group I participated in on this book. Hopefully they can be useful as a reading guide to others studying this book. You can read them online at this unwieldy URL: