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Gendering the Revolutionary Party

Published on Tuesday
13 October 2009  05:52
Written by Radical Socialist
Gendering the Revolutionary Party: The Bolshevik Practice and the Challenge before Marxists in the 21st Century

This paper intends to do three things. First, there will be a brief discussion on what constitutes the Bolshevik heritage of building a revolutionary working class party. Second, there will be a discussion on the role of women in the Bolshevik party, and the focus will be on how far class, class vanguard and party cadre were considered in gendered terms by the Bolsheviks. This discussion will be mostly confined to the period up to the October revolution, because the third purpose is to deal with the implications of the lessons of Bolshevism for the revolutionary strategies of the 21st century.

1.    Bolshevism and the Revolutionary Party:

This discussion is necessary for two linked reasons. The first is the caricature Bolshevism presented in rightwing academic and journalistic articles, which claim that Bolshevism meant monolithism, that democratic centralism meant the negation of democracy, and above all that the Bolshevik party building strategy was one which sought to ensure the grip of a small group of people over the broad masses. This interpretation asserts that Bolshevism was in fact an elite discourse absorbing/ co-opting real militant workers and that it was a pre-planned Bolshevism of this type that was primarily, or even wholly responsible for the bureaucratisation and authoritarian turn of the Soviet state after its early years. Exponents of this view range from old Cold War ideologues like Leonard Schapiro and Richard Pipes, to leftists converted to part or the whole of the above mentioned thesis, like Paresh Chattopadhyay, Eric Hobsbawm or Robin Blackburn.
The second view is almost the mirror image of the first. Based on a selective reading of What Is To Be Done? and certain other writings of Lenin, and on specific facts like the 1921 ban on factions in the party, instead of a study of Lenin and Bolshevism’s evolution, this is the stock picture of Bolshevism projected by much of the left.  When this is portrayed as the authentic Bolshevism, the debates over democratisation of party always hover between the Scylla of bureaucratic centralism and the Charybdis of Social Democratic reformism. Nobody then refers back to a democratic, revolutionary Bolshevik tradition. Instead, it is assumed that to be a Bolshevik is to be centralist, while democratisation of the party means more power to elected members of Parliament, and inner-party democracy is assumed to mean a purely federal set-up, with more power to MPs, than to Party leaderships elected by Party Congresses. It is assumed that either there must be a bureaucratic authority, or the party members cannot be asked to be disciplined. The idea that members who voluntarily accept its discipline in order to achieve a common goal can build a revolutionary party is forgotten.
Let us begin by looking at the key text that is selected time and again when Bolshevism is lambasted, caricatured by the right or falsified in the interests of authoritarian party or state bureaucracies. This is Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? In a celebrated passage in this book, Lenin wrote:
“We have said that there could not have been social-Democratic consciousness among the workers. It would have to be brought to them from without. The history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own efforts, is able to develop only trade union consciousness…. The theory of socialism, however, grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals…. The theoretical doctrine of Social-Democracy arose altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working-class movement….”
This elitist notion of the development of revolutionary consciousness was buttressed, a few pages down the line, with a reference to the authority of Kautsky, who wrote concerning the draft programme of the Austrian Social Democratic Party, that:
“Modern socialist consciousness can arise only on the basis of profound scientific knowledge…. The vehicle of science is not the proletariat, but the bourgeois intelligentsia….the task of Social Democracy is to imbue the proletariat with the consciousness of its position and the consciousness of its tasks. There would be no need for this if consciousness arose out of itself from the class struggle.”
If this were really the essence of Bolshevism, one would have to argue that this stood poles apart from Marx’s own conception of the proletariat and its historic tasks, as well as of what the proletarian party should be like. These conceptions were spelt out in a number of key texts. In the Preamble to the rules of the first International, Marx wrote that the emancipation of the working classes was to be achieved by the working classes themselves.  If it is argued that the rules of the International represented a compromise, (such an argument could be made, based on a letter from Marx to Engels)  I would submit that this is not true at least of this fundamental principle of working class self-emancipation. Marx also felt very strongly about the need for pluralism in the working class movement and in organisations. In 1888, looking back to the period of the International, Engels wrote that Marx had “entirely trusted to the intellectual development of the working class which was sure to result from combined action and mutual discussion.”  How strongly Marx and Engels felt about the principle of working class self-emancipation is shown by a famous “circular letter” which they wrote in 1879 to a number of German Social Democratic Party leaders. Shortly after the banning of the SPD by Bismarck, three members of the party, Schramm, Hochberg and Bernstein tried to bring out a party journal from Switzerland. An article in the first issue put forward their view, which was that the German Social Democratic movement was too one-sidedly a working class movement, whereas the party really needed an influx of educated supporters.  Criticising these authors as petty bourgeois democrats, Marx and Engels wrote that they had no place in a workers’ party and concluded:
“At the founding of the International we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself. Hence we cannot co-operate with men who say openly that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves, and must first be emancipated from above by philanthropic members of the upper and lower middle classes.”
I have dwelt a little on this point, because latter day communism of the orthodox varieties, whether pro-Moscow, or pro-Beijing, or independent Stalinist, has based its theory of party on three notions: the need to inject socialist consciousness into the proletariat from outside, the party as the class vanguard led primarily by the professional revolutionary, and democratic centralism as no public debates, no right of members to organise within the party to persuade the party as a whole to adopt some new strategy or to abandon an older one, etc.
Neither the whole of Lenin’s thought nor the history of Bolshevism however support such views. On the first issue, being discussed above, Lenin himself was to admit only a year later, at the 2nd party Congress of the RSDRP in 1903, that he had “bent the stick” consciously, out of polemical considerations.  Both Tony Cliff and Paul Le Blanc have therefore argued, correctly, that this should not be held up as the eternal essence of Bolshevism.  In later years, he was to distance himself from these elements of the book even more. During the revolution of 1905, some Bolsheviks who took the above-cited passages as key texts confronted Lenin with being unLeninist. They criticised him for having advocated mass recruitment of militant workers into the party and for opposing the call of the Bolshevik St. Petersburg Committee to boycott the Soviet because it was a non-party body, hence non-proletarian.  Once more returning to the book, Lenin wrote in an article that it was “a controversial correction of ‘economist’ distortions and it would be wrong to regard the pamphlet in any other light”.
By this I do not mean to say that What is To Be Done? has no value. Rather, my point is that its lasting contribution lies in other areas than the one discussed above and constantly cited by parties that seek to act as substitutionist organisations over the working class. The central thrust of Lenin’s work was a positive elaboration of the view that the party had to act as a political centraliser of fragmentary struggles, sectional experiences and partial viewpoints of different parts of the working class, since the class was in practice mostly fragmented. This was another meaning of the inside/outside dichotomy portrayed by Lenin. He was arguing that economic struggles did not automatically lead to socialist consciousness. The political organisation had to be built, so that the working class could gather consciousness about the entire range of politics and develop a revolutionary strategy.  Failing this, the revolutionaries were doomed to tail end the masses. Another important theme of the book was the development of the “professional revolutionary”. This call came from two factors, one conjunctural, the other basic to his conception. The conjunctural factor was the absence of democracy in Russia. Only if party activists were full-time revolutionaries could the stability of the party be guaranteed. Moreover, the elective principle and publicity for party decisions, essential preconditions for real inner party democracy, were impossible in Russia. The more basic reason was that a party of professional revolutionaries would make it possible to release workers from tiring and tedious jobs, enable them to develop theoretically, and to ensure mass participation in the broad movements.  The Leninist concept of a professional revolutionary was therefore not one of a full-time party bureaucrat, but rather, militant workers who could be given more time for political work by turning them into party full-timers, and who would become the working class leadership. This was aimed at strengthening the proletarian character of the party, and also at building the party through the maintenance of organisational continuity in a country where to be a socialist meant to be arrested. Once again, the concept underwent subsequent modifications. First, in 1905, as we have already noted Lenin was fighting to broaden party membership and arguing that non-party organisations, like the Soviets, would play an important role. Then, during the period of reaction after Stolypin’s coup of 1907, Lenin again tilted to the core “professionals”, the committeemen. Against the liquidators he maintained that the revolutionary programme of the party could be upheld only by the dominance of the underground structure. In course of the controversy over legal work and liquidationism, however, trade unionist Bolsheviks like Rykov, Tomsky, Dubrovinsky, Kanatchikov, and others convinced Lenin that they were not advocating a compromise with liquidators, but a form of organisation where the activist in the mass movement, the factory worker-organiser, would get equality with the full time activist.  The Bolshevik Party that entered the year of revolution was thus marked by these vital changes in outlook since 1902. In that year, the size of the party expanded to over 240,000, from 23600 at the beginning of the year. No idea of a small core leading the party as a whole, thinking on its behalf, could survive such a transformation.
Turning to Democratic Centralism, we find that the term and the first specific proposals were contributions of the Mensheviks at the Fourth (Unity) Congress of the RSDRP.  Lenin’s own understanding of the principle can be seen in the appeal to the party by the Bolsheviks that he drafted. He asserted that in a revolutionary epoch, experience corrected the party, and this necessitated that members had to fight for open, wide and free debates on theory and tactics, without disturbing unity of action.  While upholding party unity, he asserted the need for “wide and free discussion of party questions, free comradely criticism and assessment of events in party life.”  He explained that in his view democratic centralism meant:
“guarantees for the rights of all minorities and for all loyal opposition…all party functionaries must be elected, accountable… and subject to recall…a guarantee that the ideological struggle in the party can and must prove fully consistent with strict organisational unity.”  His view was further clarified on one occasion, when the Central Committee sent a circular laying down the limits of public criticism. Lenin argued that even after a decision had been taken, there could be criticism, but no obstruction to the carrying out of the decision. Subsequently, he wrote that in a real mass party there had to exist differences of opinion, and the mass of workers had a right to know about these differences.
I will not go into the experience of 1917 in this paper, for the time will not permit me, except to observe that none of the so-called rules of democratic centralism as applied by Stalinist parties were honoured in that year. Factions were formed. Members appealed outside the Central Committee. Decisions were taken in broad fora which however did not have proper sanction n the organisational hierarchy, like a Central Committee decision to boycott the Council of the Republic being overturned by a meeting of the party group at the Democratic Conference (the Conference which was creating the said Council). During the debates over whether to call for an insurrection, on one side Lenin threatened to appeal to lower party committees over the head of the Central Committee, and on the other hand his opponents, Zinoviev and Kamenev, opposed the decision in public, in Maxim Gorky’s anti-Bolshevik paper Novaya Zhizn.  
In course of the 1970s and 1980s, a number of Western scholars, who bucked the cold War orthodoxy, carried out important studies of the social dimensions of the Russian revolution. For my purpose, the most important thing about their findings is that Soviet democracy was the only real democracy in 1917, and that Bolshevism could play a leading role in the revolution because the Bolsheviks accepted soviet democracy, and therewith, the active and independent role of the working people. It would be well to remember that the Bolshevik land programme was abandoned in favour of the resolutions adopted by the First Congress of Peasants’ Deputies, which became the basis for the Decree on Land proposed by Lenin; that the idea and practice of workers’ control came up from below, from the factory committees themselves; and that multiparty democracy was abolished not by Bolshevik design, but because the moderate socialist parties, locked in a deadly embrace with the bourgeois liberals, refused to part company with them even after October, choosing armed counter-revolution in company with White Generals and imperialist interventions to coexistence with workers and peasants led for the moment by Bolsheviks.
My argument so far can be summed by saying, therefore, that the Bolshevik experience had many things. It had those passages in What Is To Be Done?, and it had certain periods of intolerance. It had the ban on factions in 1921, at a particularly dangerous moment of the revolution. These alone have been highlighted in the past. But Bolshevism also had real inner-party democracy, a history of tolerating factions because in large parties smaller groupings of like-minded people do form with the aim of pushing the party in one or other direction. It had a different concept of the professional revolutionary than a simple party full timer. Its concept of democratic centralism would have made many of those who today talk about democratic centralism desire to expel Lenin from the party as an undisciplined blackguard. And this aspect of the Bolshevik tradition, mostly forgotten, is what needs to be revived if we are going to talk about building revolutionary parties of the working class in the 21st century. The model of democratic party being pressed upon us, for e.g., by the bourgeois media in connection with the recent inner party debates in the CPI(M), is that of a bourgeois democratic party. The elected representatives, we are told, should be more authoritative than the back-room fixers should. This is a false counterposition if a really revolutionary party is to be built. The members of the party are together in a party because of its programme, and it is up to them to decide collectively the line of action of the party. For this to be effective, though, parties where all members have a minimum political awareness and activism, i.e., where the party is actually formed by large parts of the class vanguard, have to be formed.But mass parties where a large section of the membership is a dues paying, inactive membership, as in the German Social Democratic Party from the period when it was legalised, did often lead to bureaucratisation and succumbing to bourgeois blandishments far more surely than Bolshevism runs the risk of being transformed into Stalinism. To stop at this point is however not enough. While my argument so far has been that the Bolshevik style party was far mote democratic than other parties, and simultaneously revolutionary, I will now argue that even the Bolsheviks did not go far enough, in as much as they did not succeed in examining the hidden gender biases in their concepts of class, class struggle, class demands, and consequently of class vanguard, professional revolutionary, etc, with serious consequences which we must overcome in rebuilding new revolutionary parties.  The Bolsheviks, who were democratic, and flexible, when it came to reacting to peasants, soldiers, and male workers, were far less flexible in the face of women workers. Their demands and aspirations were often treated as backward views. If adopting the viewpoint of the class was the strength of Bolshevism, was this as applicable for women as for men workers?

2. The Programme and the Perspectives on Women’s Liberation:

In a paper presented at a seminar on Women in History, some years back, I showed that within the German social Democratic Party there had been a strong force fighting for gendering the party programme and tactics. From the 1890s, Clara Zetkin and her co-thinkers were trying to explain to the trade union leaderships that patriarchal influence caused male workers to look down on female workers, to treat them not as colleagues but as objects of sexual gratification. “The male workers must stop viewing the female worker primarily as a woman to be courted if she is young, beautiful, pleasant and cheerful (or not). They must stop (depending on their degree of culture or lack of it) molesting them with crude and fresh sexual advances. The workers must rather get accustomed to treat female labourers primarily as female proletarians, as working-class comrades fighting class slavery and as equal and indispensable co-fighters in the class struggle.”  This ordering of things requires a brief comment. Zetkin is saying here, that class unity can be achieved in a genuine and lasting manner, provided gender bias within the class is fought out. No question, here, of first fighting for so-called general class goals and then looking after the “woman question”. Zetkin pointed out the growth of the female proletariat, its specially oppressed situation both in the factory and at home. She stressed that  “where female labour plays an important role any movement advocating better wages, shorter working hours, etc., would be doomed from the start because of the attitude of these women workers who are not organised”.  Thus, it was not the backwardness of the women workers because of their sex, but because of their unorganised character, that was important. At the same time, she and her cothinkers were arguing that real class demands could not be demands formulated solely from the point of view of men. Rather, by incorporating gender issues, she showed how they affected both men and women, and why therefore the concept of general class demands had to be thoroughly reworked. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, even a decade later, showed much less sensitivity to these issues. When the 2nd RSDRP Congress adopted the programme of the party, it displayed a lack of awareness of patriarchy. Even so simple a demand as equal pay for equal work was missing.  The demands that were raised concerning women workers included stopping all forms of work harmful to women’s health, opening crèches in factories where women worked, paid maternity leave, etc.  In fairness to the Russian Marxists, though, it should be said that if there programme was more limited, in their case the whole party fought to achieve the demands. During the strike waves of 1905-7, the overwhelming majority of charters of demand showed the recurrence of those demands concerning women workers. So while protecting the weak rather than fighting for equality was the perspective, within that limitation there was no compromise on struggles.
The first theoretical consideration specifically of women workers came from the pen of Nadezhda Krupskaya, who wrote a pamphlet entitled Zhenshchina Rabotnitsa (The Woman Worker) This was the first time that the party was urged to turn to women workers as a group and to look at their demands.  The pamphlet has more a symbolic value, as the author was subsequently to be a prominent Bolshevik, than any intrinsic value comparable to the works of Zetkin. Rather, it was Lenin who took a definite step in the programmatic field. Reviewing the first Marxist programme of Russian revolutionaries, the Ozvobozhdenii Truda group’s programme of 1885 in 1899, Lenin stressed that there was a need to add a demand for complete equal rights for men and women when the programme talked about reforms of the laws. 
This was however, a limited kind of review, since the law reform under consideration was the change from Tsarist autocracy to bourgeois democracy. Yet Lenin of all persons was certainly aware that the working class had a fragmented character. The whole argument in What Is To Be Done? In favour of centralising the vanguard workers stemmed from the prior analysis that the working class was split into several layers. Those militant, class conscious workers who were capable of generalising on the experiences of struggles, and of leading struggles as well as organising them, were the vanguard workers. Below them came those whom Lenin called the average workers. This was a misnomer, for these too were workers who fought the class enemy, but they did not play such a central role in party building. It was because the working class had a fragmented existence that Lenin emphasised the need to unite and centralise the experience of the vanguard workers.
However, the apparently gender neutral picture of the working class hid certain unexamined biases. The Marxist concept of the proletariat incorporated from the beginning the idea of alienation as a consequence of capitalist exploitation. Only at home, said Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, was the worker free.  Thus, right from the beginning, it seems to have been assumed that the typical worker was an adult male. The woman workers’ domestic burden remained invisible in this account. In this I am hardly saying anything new, since a number of Marxist-feminist works have made the same point.   What does require emphasis in the context of my paper and today’s discussion in general is how far this gender-blind approach caused a problem with the Bolshevik strategy of party building. Though Marxists had been aware that there was a “woman question” at least from the time when August Bebel published his celebrated book on the topic, despite Bebel, despite Engels, and despite Zetkin, women continued to be marginalised in the party. However, it tended to be assumed, in that relatively liberal age, that the “backwardness” of women was due to the pressure of bourgeois society and ideology, rather than because of women’s innate backwardness. Since Lenin’s analysis, too, did not take into account the specific forms of oppression faced by women workers, the general class goals, general class demands, and hence general definition of what constituted the advanced worker, were too easily placed in the mould of the male workers’ goals, demands and political consciousness. This is why, even such a fundamental act as drawing up the party programme in 1903 saw women’s issues remaining marginal. General class demands were supposedly common to all, while the demands of women were specific, and at the margins. With such ideas rooted in the understanding of most party members, there were few attempts to draw in women workers into the party prior to the revolution of 1905.
Since the professional revolutionaries were to hail, in large measure, from the ranks of the advanced workers, it is necessary to look at the social composition of the Bolsheviks. On the eve of the February revolution, the Bolshevik Party had 24,000 members. They were subsequently known as the Bolshevik Old Guard, together with pre-revolution members of two small non-Bolsheviks groups, a section of the Menshevik Internationalists, and the Inter District Group or Mezhraiontsii, who both fused with the party at the time of its Sixth Congress. Among these little more than 25000 to 28000 members (the exact number of members of the other two groups being uncertain) were almost 2500 women. The research of Barbara Evans Clements has brought to light information about the social origins, educational qualifications, professions, etc of 318 women and 254 men at comparable levels. This constitutes an adequate sample on the basis of which some conclusions can be drawn. 62.1% of the men had come from worker or peasant families. Among women members, only 36.8% had come from these two classes. 37.4% of male party members had come from the aristocracy, the intelligentsia, the petty bourgeoisie and the lower rungs of the bureaucracy. 37.1% of women are recorded as having come from these layers. However, a further 24.5% of the women did not give data on social origins, the most likely cause being a desire to erase out an upper or middle class background. Among all women members, 8.5% were professional revolutionaries, while only 0.8% of the men were professional revolutionaries. At first glance it may seem that my previous criticisms were false. But in fact, the 8.5% represented a percentage of a much smaller total, since as late as 1917, less than 10% of the total membership were women members. There were many worker Bolsheviks, mostly men, who held on to a job and still did regular party work. In addition, it should not be forgotten that most of the women professional revolutionaries were non-proletarian.  To become a professional revolutionary always means to take certain difficult decisions. But in the case of women there were dimensions that the men did not face up to. Cecelia Bobrovskaia in her memoirs wrote that she had seen innumerable wives of revolutionaries who had all the qualifications of being a revolutionary, but who were compelled to remain housewives because of the responsibilities about children and the family.  The point should be clear. Women had to decide on what to do with their children when they became professional revolutionaries. Some 20% chose not to have children.. Or, if they had well-to-do families, like those of Inessa Armand and Alexandra Kollontai, they could manage by relying on their families. In Armand’s case, of course, she had the rare and generous support of her first husband even after their separation and the death of her second husband.  For women workers, married off by the end of their teens or slightly later at the most, and having children soon after, free choice in these matters occurred seldom. In addition, there exists data that in some cases, party member husbands were opposed to wives becoming party members, possibly because this would involve doubling the contribution to the party funds and having to accept that the wife might get party assignments at times inconvenient for the husband.  Such a problem was not unique to the RSDRP, because Clara Zetkin also had to make compromises in these directions. But given the premise of vanguard worker based party, the matter stands out more sharply in the case of the Bolsheviks. The women who went on to take leading positions in the party, in whichever faction, were seldom workers. This, if anything, tended to reinforce notions concerning backwardness. Women workers were held to be basically backward. And by a tautological statement, it was argued that neither could backward elements be recruited into the vanguard party, nor could the ideas of the backward elements be allowed to dilute “real” class demands. As a result, unlike the considerable number of male worker-Bolshevik leaders, we can think of only two women in comparable positions: Klavdiia Nikolaeva, and Alexandra Artiukhina.
But then why did the 2500 odd women join the party? Certainly, like the men, they felt that the Marxist programme offered a way out of the exploitative society and the autocratic, despotic Tsarist order. The liberal feminist analysis and the limited reforms proposed only in the field of law and judicial relations seemed poor by the side of the Marxist analysis, which linked the real emancipation of millions of working class and peasant women with the social revolution. And as women they often brought their own concerns into the party. Consequently, even if the Bolshevik women could not get rid of all the stereotypes at one go, their efforts began to undermine previous conceptions. But this was to occur only gradually. In the earlier drafts, women often took on the stereotype about rationality, hardness, etc being typical masculine virtues and tried to cast themselves into such a “masculine” mould. Hardness was a quality chosen as their own symbols by many of the early women recruits. Rozalia Zemlyachka was known in the party by the pseudonym Tverdo Kamenaia (hard as a rock). Elena Stasova’s name in the underground was Absolute (she chose it over another alternative she had mulled over — Categorical Imperative). In the Stalin era, there was a great deal of stress on the family, women’s natural role in it, etc. This also led to a reassessment, or one could say official portrayal, of the revolutionary women, both worker and non-worker. But after de-Stalinisation, Bolshevichki (Old Bolshevik women) who had survived wrote up their memoirs, highlighting their Tverdost.  This is where the problem resides. It consists of forcing a lot of extra burden on the women. To become equals, they had to be more than actual equals, as reports on Stasova, Konkordia Samoilova, Zemlyachka, Evgeniia Bosh and others show.

3. Women in the Party Structure and Party work:

Prior to 1905, the party was small and the number of women even smaller. The revolution of 1905 resulted in relatively larger numbers of women coming towards the party. At the same time, with an increase in women’s recruitment into industry, the party had to pay more attention to work among women. If we look at the members of the post-1905 period, they fall into three groups: those  (a significant part of the ordinary members) who had a paid occupation along with their party work; the underground full-timer activists; and finally the émigrés. Prior to 1917, the City Committee was the most important, after the Central Committee, since provincial committees could not function effectively for long nor provide sustained leadership. Members and especially Secretaries of the city committees were professional revolutionaries. The usual structure was to have three secretaries– one for the basic political decisions, one for publication of pamphlets and leaflets, and one for the technical work of the committee. From Evans Clements’ sample, we find that where women became secretaries, they tended to get the post of the technical secretary. This reflected an internalisation within the party structure of a typical gender division of labour. Thus, the most effective technical secretary of the Petersburg Committee was Elena Stasova. Yet, though she filled this post very efficiently for close to four years, the major political decisions were taken by male secretaries. For example, when we find Lenin debating Bolshevik policy towards the newly formed St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers Deputies, the man he is opposing is Knuniants-Radin. And in the same period, Stasova’s correspondence with the émigré leadership deals with every day organisational work. It is not that she was a bad secretary, for everyone agreed that her presence toned up organisational work.  The picture among the émigrés was even clearer. No woman other than Alexandra Kollontai ever got recognition as theoretician. It could be argued that they simply were not theoreticians. This is the sort of argument put forward by Barbara Evans Clements, who argues that women found it more worthwhile to be grass-roots activists than to be in the Central Committee.  This is not an acceptable proposition. Actually we find the same picture in a number of countries. Rosa Luxemburg had to establish herself as a theoretician by refusing to do women’s movement work. No other woman was recognised as a theoretician, primarily because they were usually engaged in other kind of work, for e.g., working in the underground, working as couriers, working as assistants, working to earn money so that theoretician husbands need not work, and so on. And as Elwood’s biography of Armand shows, it could be because the party leadership (in this case Lenin) exerted considerable pressure on them, telling them bluntly that as theoreticians they were not serious and that they should do more useful work.  From the Second 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. Krupskaya had been the real techincal secretary of the Iskra, and then of the Bolshevik faction, for many years. Yet people like Bogdanov, Zinoviev or Kamenev, or practicals like Shlyapnikov, or till his exposure as a Tsarist agent, Roman Malinovsky, had become far more famous. Neither in theory development, nor in the making of strategy did many women play a very significant role. Evans Clements provides a non-explanation by saying that women did not want leadership positions as they were interested only in sacrifice in the cause of the revolution and wanted to stay away from power struggles.  How does one accept this saintly picture of women who projected themselves as hard as rock, and who joined a party that was engaged in one of histories greatest mass struggles for power? Even if true, it would only indicate that the women had internalised a patriarchal assumption about the higher positions in the party automatically falling to the men. And in fact some women did aspire to other type of work, recognition as theoretically alert people or people capable of making contributions to the development of party strategy. Both Rozalia Zemlyachka and Evgeniia Bosh fall in this category. The case of Bosh is perhaps exemplary. During the war, Bosh was in alliance with Pyatakov and Bukharin. The three of them differed on a number of issues with Lenin. Lenin tended to present the differences as at least in part caused by machinations of Bosh.  In other words, women who aspire to be independent theoreticians or strategists are of dubious character. It is therefore necessary to make the point that the Bolshevik assumptions about the backwardness of women led them to conclude that not too many women should be in the leading positions. Indeed, unlike 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. One could mention certain specific experiences. Prior to the revolution of 1905, there had been few workers who were in the leadership of either faction. But during the Revolution of 1905, Lenin fought to open the doors of the party, and its leadership, to workers. During the liquidationism controversy, Bolshevik trade unionists resisted Lenin at one point and insisted that underground committees and party workers in trade unions should have the same status. But women workers were ignored. The one group of Bolsheviks who did turn to working class women, we will see later, were the Bolshevichki themselves, and their experience does have positive lessons for the present. But if we look at the Bolshevik “general line”, we would have to conclude that inadequate conceptualisation of class, inadequate gendering of the concept of class, led them to not merely underestimate the potentials of women workers, but to stand at times as an obstacle to the development of women leading cadres. 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.  This has a resonance even now. No major communist party in India tries to bring up significantly more women into its leading structures. Backwardness of women is the standard plea. The reality was neatly exposed during the last party congress of the CPI(M), not only in Brinda Karat’s celebrated refusal to join the Central Committee unless more women were taken in, but earlier, at the Burdwan District Conference of the Party, when AIDWA activists protested that the sixty-plus member Committee should have more than the three token women allotted, and Nikhilananda Sar replied that women were just not qualified. Evidently, being active in the AIDWA etc does not count as qualifications.  For the same reason, while verbally championing the 81st Constitution Amendment Bill (for the reservation of seats for women in Parliament and in State Assemblies) the left is incapable in practice of putting up even 20% women candidates, let alone 33%. (In the 1998 Parliamentary elections, the CPI(M) put up 72 candidates, of whom only 8 were women – i.e., around 11%).  In this context it is worth looking at how a leading activist of the AIDWA, who is also a CPI(M) leader, approaches this issue. Shyamali Gupta in her book Nari Andolaner Bikash, has an article where she argues that the demand for reservation is in the interests of the oppressed working people,because it will work in the direction of eradicating discrimination against women. In two other articles in the same collection, she argues that the Left Front cannot be accused of being unconcerned about the oppression of women. Yet, she says, the Left has few women candidates. Ms. Gupta blames this on the failure of the left to take up the issue of “social reform” sufficiently seriously.  This failure of the left women activists is significant. To treat the question of women’s oppression as something disconnected from the domain of politics, requiring a political struggle, and to assume that social reformism is adequate, is to argue that the domain of politics will continue to be structured through a male discourse.
But if the perspective shifts from getting seats in Assemblies and Parliament to overthrowing the rule of capital, the whole of the working class would have to be united and militant elements from all sectors of the working class drawn continuously into the party. Despite all shortcomings, bolshevism also had many positive things to its credit. If it was a child of its own age, and therefore having some amount of patriarchal values, at the same time, compared to all other proletarian social and political institutions, including soviets and factory councils, women had better representation in the party hierarchy. Of the sample group handled by Evans Clements, data on 159 Bolshevichki show where they were located in the year 1917. 50.9% worked directly for the party, 2.5% were in the trade unions, and 31.4% in the local soviets. Another set of information, covering 182 women, shows that whereas 2.8% of them were members of raion or city Duma (municipal organisation), and 6.5% of raion, city or guberniia soviet executive committees, 37.3% of them were in raion, city or uezd party commitees.  Constructing a revolutionary proletarian party would therefore have to learn both from the successes and the failures of the Bolsheviks, including in connection with gendering the party. For this we must now turn to Bolshevik work among women and draw a balance sheet.

4. Work Among Women and the Necessity of Autonomy:

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. During the revolution of 1905, on one hand there was a fair amount of participation by women in strikes, and on the other hand the Equal Rights Union and other liberal feminist organisations began to make some headway in organising women. From 1910, women began to take part in increasingly militant struggles in course of the revival of the labour movement. As a result of these two factors, social democrats began to feel that organising women workers was an important task. At this stage, Alexandra Kollontai was the only member of the party who had proposed separate meetings for women in order to recruit women. But in this work she faced resistance from within the party. Even the most respected woman member of the party, the veteran Vera Zasulich, opposed any attempt to organise women separately. When despite all this Kollontai called an all-women meeting, she found that a notice had been put up cancelling the women’s meeting and announcing an all-men meeting instead. How important such all-women meetings were are brought out by Glickman. She shows that the social conditions made women workers diffident, and in mixed meetings, often unwilling even to speak.
In 1908, liberal feminists called the first All Russia Women’s Congress. The feminists who had called the Congress were opposed to the idea of class struggle. But many women workers wanted to take part in the Congress. The official party line, as laid out by the city committee of St. Petersburg, was to boycott the Congress, and when later participation became inevitable, to purely rhetorically “expose” the liberal feminists. Kollontai and a group of women worker-Social Democrats tried to turn the participation of women workers in this Congress into a political education for them. Secret meetings were organised and a 45-strong working class women delegation prepared. Volkova, speaking on behalf of them, told the assembled women that there was a basic difference between the bourgeois and the proletarian approaches to women’s liberation, with the proletarian approach stressing fundamental social revolution. She also proposed a very radical set of demands for the immediate future.  Apart from mobilising the women for the purpose of the Congress, Kollontai attempted a theoretical intervention through a book, which however could not come out before the Congress. The book has a curious history. Entitled The Social Basis of the Woman Question (in Russian), this book was never reprinted after the Russian revolution, and even in her Russian language selected works, only the preface is reproduced. A general impression has been created that it was directed only against feminism as such. Kollontai’s own assessment was different. Along with liberal feminism she had also criticised the lack of gender consciousness in the Social Democratic party. Rare among Marxist works on women of that period, the book also made questions of sexuality a political issue, to be discussed seriously. By taking up the question of marriage not merely from a legal point, but as a matter of male control over women’s sexuality, she placed the discussion on women’s liberation in terms where it was not possible to simply repeat a set of demands addressed to government and employer, but to force the class to look inwards. In Russian Marxism this was the first effort. Indeed, even today, this is almost a forbidden domain. It has been the experience of the present author, in course of work in the women’s movement, that left parties, notably (but not solely) those on the extreme fringe, assert that all talk of sexuality is a petty-bourgeois naughtiness, or worse, petty bourgeois individualism seeking to divert and ruin the revolutionary struggle. Against this it is necessary to emphasise that a woman’s right to control her body is a right even today rarely fully understood and accepted by parties, and even less made a key issue in their political struggles. According to her analysis, at the same time, the contemporary class-state was the defender of legal marriage and the family. So any talk of women’s liberation within the existing state structure would be false. Real women’s liberation would be possible in a society where motherhood and the duties of child rearing would fall on society collectively, not on individual women or families. Hence, in her eyes, socialism could not be a discourse framed only by male experiences. A sharp ideological struggle must be carried out in order to redefine class struggle and socialism.  But even Kollontai could not come out of the ideological pressure of patriarchy fully. While she envisaged that in the society of the future, the family set-up and childcare would not burden the individual woman, various essays by Kollontai indicate that women, collectively, would carry out those tasks.  In this connection we need to look at how International Working Women’s Day came to be observed in Russia. Klara Zetkin and other socialist women had called for the observance of such a day to highlight the struggle for the rights of proletarian women. This day was being observed in other countries since 1911. But in Russia, not only was there the problem of police control, but also the deep suspicion in many quarters within the party about such a programme. Many members thought it was a kind of separatism aiming to split the class. Kollontai wrote an article, Zhenskii Dyen, targeting the impact of patriarchy on the working class movement. She rejected the accusation that observing women’s day was a kind of surrender to bourgeois feminism. She highlighted the insensitivity of the male comrades to explain why there was low membership of women in party and mass organisations. She wrote that the prospects of revolution would be more the more conscious fighters grew in numbers. Those women who merely carried out the instructions of their fathers or husbands, or who sat by the chimney the whole day, could not possess consciousness.  This was a clear exposition of gender divisions within the class, and an argument that class unity could not be brought about by the dominant gender imposing their will on the dominated.

Kollontai at this stage belonged to the Menshevik faction, though on its left wing. Women Bolsheviks, like Konkordia Samoilova, were also pushing the party to organise women. Between 1901 and 1910, the number of women employed in the workforce went up by 18% at a time when male employment rose by only 1.3%.  From 1905, women began participating in a large number of struggles. Women were elected to the Soviets of Workers Deputies of St. Petersburg and Ivanovo-Voznesensk.  As a result of the initial lack of socialist attention to the struggles by women workers the strikes and other forms of agitation launched by them often remained unorganised when one looks at the typical models of organisation. And yet the women in fact frequently displayed exemplary organisation and clarity of purpose. As long as the rational choices in the name of class goals were made exclusively by male workers and from the standpoint of the male workers, the women appear irrational. In fact, the violence and elemental spontaneity displayed in many women’s strikes stemmed from an attempt by the women to put their stamp on the struggles. It also reflected an attempt to break away from the tight constraints of patriarchal control. Thus, as late as 1917, women textile workers, sisters of those who had set off the revolution, could display sudden violence and force concessions out of their director in ways trade union organisers would oppose as spontaneous violence.  A study of strike demands reveal that as the working class movement became more and more organised, the union and party leaderships tended to impose a uniform demand pattern. There were several reasons for this. On one hand, the growth of local struggles into a more broadly comprehended class struggle meant negotiation and incorporation of the aspirations of different groups. On the other hand, along with the demands forming a discourse shaping the specific nature of the working class, they also constituted a discourse that reasserted male bias. As a result, “general demands” seldom talked about equal wages for men and or women. When the demand for minimum wages was first made in 1905, the demand was for 90 kopecks daily for men and 75 for women.  When women themselves took a leading role, the demands could change. In 1912 alone, in 22 strikes in which women were present in a significant or dominant number, an end to sexual harassment in the name of searching workers as they left the factory premises, was a major demand. In 1913, this was even the main reason for the strike at the Grisov factory. Centralised charters of demand, though, still did not reflect this The demands raised by the women workers displayed a growing awareness that standardised “class demands” did not take their specific oppression into account. Sexual harassment by supervisory staff was one of the prominent demands in a large number of struggles. Equal pay was a very infrequent demand, but it too began to be raised.  In 1917 too, we see similar patterns. Even in that year, when factory committees won a minimum wage clause from the owners in Petrograd, the rates were 5 roubles for men and 4 roubles for women. Likewise, in Moscow, while 220,478 strikers (92.3% of all strikers) in 185 strikes (68.8% of all strikes) demanded wage rises, only 550 workers participating in two strikes demanded equal pay for equal work, regardless of gender.  Women workers were aware of problems posed by male bias in the unions. At the Petrograd Cartridge Works, after demanding an 8-hour working day, men also demanded overtime payment for work on Saturdays, while women workers resisted this, saying they needed time for domestic work, for standing in queue, or for looking after their children.  As long as society had not yet been refashioned so that domestic burden was solely a woman’s burden, the overtime would come as a punishment to the women. Tsvetkova, a woman worker in the leather industry, described the situation she faced at her workplace:
“Instead of supporting women workers, organising them, going hand in hand with them, many male comrades regard them not as full and equal members of the workers, family, and sometimes do not even take them into consideration. When the issue of unemployment and lay-offs arises, they try to ensure that they remain in work and that the women are dismissed, relying on the fact that women will not be able to resist because of their weak organisation and helplessness. When we women try to speak and prove to the men that they are not behaving properly, and that we should try to find a way out of the situation together, we are not allowed to speak and the men will not listen.”
The consequence of struggles by women workers was the recognition by a number of Bolshevik women that some kind of special effort should be directed specifically toward the women. The first result was a page in Pravda, the legal paper brought out by the Bolsheviks from 1912. Out of this experience there developed the journal Rabotnitsa. From emigration Inessa Armand and Nadezhda Krupskaya, and inside Russia Samoilova and Elizarova played a major role. Samoilova had been running Pravda’s page on women, and she was the first to take an initiative. At this point Inessa Armand had returned to Russia, and she was also keen to organise work among women workers. The presence of several women close to Lenin has led mythmakers to claim it as chiefly Lenin’s initiative, but there is no evidence to that effect. The Central Committee provided no funds. And Krupskaya’s memoirs highlight the role of Armand, not that of Lenin. One letter by Krupskaya saying “we” have discussed a paper for women is taken to mean Lenin’s active interest. In fact, another copy of that letter, kept at the Okhrana archives, is signed by Krupskaya and Armand. In recent years, over-zealous defence of bolshevism by some Trotskyists like Tony Cliff or Alan Wood have led to a repetition of such Lenin cults. Wood claims that “Lenin constantly emphasised the revolutionary potential of these women proletarians and insisted that the party take special measures to win them to the revolutionary cause.”  It is a case, here, of ascribing all positive work by Bolsheviks to Lenin.  The paper saw two lines being pushed. The draft editorial written by Krupskaya for the first issue talked about bringing backward women into the socialist struggle. According to her, “The “woman” question for working men and working women is a question of how to organise the backward masses of working women”, and therefore the sole task of Rabotnitsa was to explain to the insufficiently conscious working women what their interests were, indicating the “communality of their interests with the interests of the entire working class.”  Similar attitudes were expressed by many other Bolsheviks. Thus, during World War I, the Kiev Committee of the party issued a leaflet entitled To the Working Women of Kiev. It was a bland call to women workers to join in the struggle already being waged by their male comrades. While acknowledging that women suffered due to family and social oppression, the leaflet had nothing to say about these oppressions, arguing instead that simply joining the struggle, which the men had already discovered, would be enough.  Armand’s article, by contrast, stressed that without more encouragement to women’s struggles the struggle for socialism could not go forward. The underground activists were not too keen to write theoretical essays, but in article after article they highlighted the dual oppression faced by women workers.  And this experience of bringing out a paper for women also influenced the main party paper, Pravda, which began to pay more attention to women workers. There remained however a difference in perception. The Pravda reports, often by male worker-correspondents, contained a patronising thrust at times missing in Rabotnitsa. Thus a 1913 report on the struggle in the James Beck Cotton Mill said: “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.”  It is important to question this picture of utter disunity and to ask whether it was not substantially serving a negative ideological function – that of obscuring the potential for solidarity and militancy existing among women workers. Rabotnitsa, consciously acting as their voice, did highlight precisely those elements.

Rabotnitsa consistently said that it was opposed to “separatism”. But experience led those women who were working with women workers to feel that some kind of autonomy was essential to enable women to think out things for themselves, to talk freely, and to express their political concerns while at the same time being part of the party and the class movement. As a result, in 1917, even formerly anti-autonomy activists, like Vera Slutskaya, began advocating a separate organisational space for women. Throughout 1917, efforts were made. The first attempts to organise women separately, in some way or the other, went back to the revolution of 1905, as we have seen. But war had further changed the picture. By 1917 women formed 43% of the workforce. They had to be organised if the revolutionary movement was to proceed. The first weeks after February saw an unprecedented increase in the number of women organising themselves to make political and economic demands. Bolsheviks were active among them. In Petrograd, the best documented city, Bolshevik women were active in two kinds of work among militant women. One was the formation of the Union of Soldatki (Soldiers’ wives). Bolshevik influence over the army was to grow significantly as a result of the Bolshevik women’s struggle to organise the Soldatki and to champion their demands. The other work was that of organising women workers for their demands. The social peace established by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries after February was broken for the first time by several thousand women workers in the city laundries. They fought for an 8-hour working day, and for minimum wages. Bolshevik women like Goncharskaya, Novikondratieva and Sakharova led these struggles. Under the influence of Kollontai, the party press, primarily Pravda regularly reported about the strike. After a month’s strike, there was a partial victory of the strike.
But the Bolsheviks were not alone in the field. Pro-war bourgeois feminists were also organising some working class women. A meeting of the Executive Committee of the Petersburg Committee of the Bolsheviks gave Slutskaya the task of organising work among the women.  She suggested the necessity of setting up a bureau of working women under the city committee. But at the meeting of the Petrograd Committee itself, despite assurances that this would carry out purely agitational tasks, and that all tasks would be in accordance with the decisions of the Petrograd Committee, there was considerable opposition. The meeting resolved to resume publication of Rabotnitsa, but left examination of Slutskaya’s proposals for a later date.  Eventually very few raion committees set up women’s bureaux. The reasons for the non-functioning character of the bureaux can be found in the party’s hostility to any kind of feminism.  The journal Rabotnitsa was revived, and it became the centre of agitational and organisational work among women workers. The fact that it was a paper meant it could avoid the charge “feminist deviation”. Rabotnitsa enabled the two types of women activists – those like Armand and Kollontai on one hand, and those like Samoilova or others, to coexist. As Kollontai wrote later:
“As late as the spring of 1917 Konkordiya Nikolaevna found superfluous the formation of an apparatus in the party for work amongst women. On the other hand she warmly welcomed the rebirth of Rabotnitsa as an ideological centre … Comrade Samoilova would not tolerate anything that smacked of feminism and she regarded with great caution any organisational scheme which in her opinion might introduce “division according to sex” into the proletariat.”  Kollontai’s return put power behind the work of agitating among women, but she too failed to get the party to agree to the creation of a special apparatus for work among women. After prolonged attempts, Kollontai, Samoilova and others eventually got the party to agree to a women workers’ conference, held on 12th and 18th November, in Petrograd and attended by 500 elected delegates representing over 80,000 women workers.  The aim of this conference was to mobilise the working class women for the coming elections to the Constituent Assembly, and to prepare the grounds for an all-Russia women’s conference. This obviously stemmed from a feeling among some of the women activists that propaganda among women must be organised separately. The paper used bold language, as when an activist, Prokhorova, wrote, ” Many women comrades say that everything will be done without us. But comrades, whatever is done without us will be dangerous for us.”  Many female factory workers sent in short pieces criticising sexist behaviour of male colleagues, not merely overseers. The editors of the paper were no less committed Bolsheviks than their male counterparts. But within their writings and activities it is possible to find the stirrings of a Bolshevik-feminist discourse that went beyond Bolshevik orthodoxy and has positive lessons for the present. It is to this that we must now turn.

5. Party Building and Positive Action: Developing the Bolshevik Tradition Today

The first section of this paper should have made it clear that I do not stand for a rejection of the Bolshevik tradition in favour of a Stalinist, pseudo-Bolshevik one or a social democratic one. But the subsequent sections should also have made it clear that I do not share a belief that revival of a pristine Bolshevik tradition, uncorrupted by Stalinism, will be adequate for the 21st Century. This is due to a number of reasons. In the first place, in course of this paper, I have tried to present a critique of the Bolshevik theory and practice. Secondly, beyond that critique, there is a fact of considerable importance, not touched upon in detail in this paper for lack of space. But in the first section an attempt was made to show that at different times, there were in fact different theoretical and practical standpoints which were called Bolshevism. So Bolshevism contained within itself various tendencies. And as long as these tendencies agreed to a revolutionary orientation, Bolshevism displayed great flexibility in keeping the different trends together. Thus, there were currents that under different circumstances contributed to bureaucratization as well as currents that fought against substitutionism; tendencies that flattened out gender dimensions of he class struggle as well as those that were gender sensitive. All of them cannot, today, be simply lumped together as the Bolshevik tendency.

From the point of view of the class struggle, the general political struggle of the exploited, it really becomes general when all sections of the class are integrated.  Contradictions exist within the oppressed under patriarchal capitalist domination, resulting from women’s oppression and subordination. Second, women’s effective presence and participation in the revolutionary organisation is vital to its development as a revolutionary organisation. As long as the number of women in the revolutionary organisation are few, as long as the concept of what is revolutionary is created fundamentally by a male discourse, even if the male party members are assumed to be free of overt patriarchal bias, the party cannot become totally free of sexism and gender imbalance.  So on one hand party construction must go beyond creating a “space” for women to ensuring that daily practice is transformed, and on the other hand the idea of socialism as developed and presented to toiling people must cease to assume that even then women will retain the same division of labour. It is not unusual to hear women speakers at even 8th March meetings referring to their listeners as mayera, bonera, thereby turning the whole idea of women’s liberation into a travesty and showing that for them, even under socialism that is all the identity women can expect.
What are the obstacles to women’s political participation in the revolutionary party? In the first place, the division between the public and the private continues to pervade present day left parties and the left political vision. The social role attributed to women within the family and in private reproduction prevents women from participating in political movements on the basis of equality. If the real social situation is not considered, male comrades can have difficulties in relating to women comrades as political beings. Even now, in most parts of the world, women are permanently allocated the domestic duties. For most male radical activists, too, this bourgeois ideology which forms the family structures remains intact, essentially because through it men get certain privileges in their political relations. This aspect of the sexual division of labour results in women activists getting less time to do serious political work. Cecilia Bobrovskaya’s observation is as true today as it was at the beginning of the 20th century.  In addition, within parties this is often reproduced, as when men dominate the political work while to women’s share fall mostly the tedious technical work. Finally, patriarchal power is represented by the fact that women’s discourse is treated as of less value unless backed up by male voices.

The Bolshevik women had a number of ideas, like setting up women’s cells, all the way to the central leadership of the Zhenotdel, after the revolution. But when we are considering a revolutionary party that aims to struggle for revolution, not a party engaged in socialist construction, somewhat different issues stand out, and the solution has to be different. The leadership selection process, to start with, still suffers from masculine model-linked assumptions. As a result, women are often eliminated from leadership positions on grounds, which would not apply to men. Once again, the negative lessons of bolshevism should be kept in mind. The woman who has a child would often be considered handicapped because of that. No male comrade with a child was ever considered handicapped. And the higher up the party structure one goes the fewer the women who would be left.
Secondly, in real life, there tends to remain a competitive element in elections to the leading bodies. Women, especially when few in number, often suffer from a lack of self-confidence. Even when in responsible positions, they are often viewed, and they often view themselves, as being adjuncts. Women in the leading bodies therefore often end up siding with a male mentor. To this should be added the style of inner-party debates. On this count, the Russian Social Democratic heritage, with its violent tone and acrimonious attitudes (not only a Bolshevik speciality, contrary to anti-Communist myths, but perhaps stemming from the underground conditions in which maintaining organisational coherence and ideological purity tended to be more acute problems), often considered even now in India as the ideal style, actually creates battlegrounds, rather than leading to positive solutions where a large part or even all can agree about the conclusions. When debates are all about smashing your opponent, indeed, in the Indian case at least, sexist politics are often brought into play. It is the experience of several inner-party clashes in various Indian left organisations that charges are traded about whether leading male comrades, now on opposite sides, have transgressed codes of sexual behaviour, etc. One can mention the case of the split in the PCC CPI(ML) in the 1980s, for example. Women are often brought in as mere adjuncts. One split leaflet mentioned three male members who were being “expelled” (in most cases, no one honestly announces a split. They go through the motions of expelling each other, usually without proper charge sheeting and discussion. Charge sheets, when at all presented, are often mere preliminaries to disciplinary action, so called, already decided upon. But all this has to do with the Stalinist heritage of the Indian left.”) The wives of two of them were also party members. They did not even need to be separately expelled, it seems. And it is not that the wives were retained as members, because the leaflet claimed that in the name of feminism, three male members and their wives were dominating the organisation. This was in fact a copybook case, because feminism was one of the key issues in the split. Positive action directed to women was seen, not as action directed to women, but as action benefiting the wives of certain members.

Why is positive action necessary? It is necessary because given the starting point, a heavy male tilt, the revolutionary organisation will not “naturally” or automatically recruit both men and women equally. Positive action means taking concrete steps to overcome the hurdles to women’s regular and systematic participation in the party. Usually, they are opposed because they are “artificial”. But the “natural” trend is the result of thousands of years of women’s oppression bearing down hard on the revolutionary party. Even the formation of a revolutionary party of the working class is not “natural”. If artificiality is tolerated, indeed encouraged in this context, then why should it be eschewed in the other case? What are the criteria for developing leaderships? If this is turned into a competitive process, as it often is without the fact being admitted, skills of individuals count for the most. Those in the women’s sphere are devalued. Another problem is the different criteria for political evaluation. As commented earlier, women, before being assigned to a leading position, are often tested to check whether they have family duties. Obviously, this assumes that women alone have these private duties, and that the party cannot or will not intervene there.  Thus it is vital that the revolutionary organisation must collectively develop a challenge to the reproduction of the sexual division of labour. Another side of this same process should be a strict insistence that party members who have committed any act, which constitutes violation of the rights of women, should not be elected to leading positions. I have in mind two cases. One is the CPI(M) constitution, which calls for suspension and expulsion of drunkards, strike breakers, degenerate persons,  traitors to the party,  and so on, but where violation of women’s rights are not considered a serious enough crime.   The second case is an individual one. One of the top-most leaders of an organisation was accused by his former wife of having kidnapped their child and of not having allowed her to see the child for years. The said leader at one stage informed a women’s rights organisation which had intervened that the woman could take recourse to law if she wanted, because she would lose. So the bourgeois law which is abused at every turn comes in handy at such moments. These are not personal maters, because parties which go on electing such people as leaders show in what low esteem they hold women’s rights.
Another problem is the undervaluing of feminist work. Even women activists committed to working for women’s liberation spend a good part of their time assuring their parties that they are not mere feminists. No revolutionary party is going to be built that is non-feminist, or anti-feminist. A non-feminist outlook will lead to political analyses that place women at the margins, and that therefore will lead to bad strategies. Party programmes and the concept of socialism that is projected must clearly reflect this. Simple reaffirmation of Engels, Bebel or even Zetkin will not be adequate. To build a true unity of all the oppressed does not mean the suppression of contradictions within them. Rather, it is necessary to bring the contradictions out into the open, not to proclaim that some, being non-principal contradictions, should be ignored but rather in order to resolve them as the only way to build a lasting unity of all sections of the working class. In other words, any future revolutionary party must acknowledge that the theoretical claim to the effect that capitalism exploits male and female workers equally is false, and that condemning women workers for raising issues highlighting their double oppression as bourgeois separatism is detrimental to class unity and to women workers.  The present day Indian reality is just the opposite.  The autonomous women’s movement that had developed from the 1970s had a strong socialist component, because many of the activists were women formerly belonging to left parties who were angry and disappointed at the gap between the promise and reality of women’s liberation in the left. But when these women formed organisations or networks, when they raised demands beyond those endorsed by the parties, they found themselves being branded as bourgeois feminists and/or ultraleft splitters of the proletarian united struggles. We can refer to one concrete instance. The Nari Nirjatan Pratirodh Mancha was formed in the early 1980s as a co-ordination of feminist groups and women’s rights activists. But, as a result of taking an independent stand, without regard for who was in the government, the Mancha found internal conflicts growing. Sachetana, one of the groups, having a number of cardholding CPI(M) members as well as sympathisers, pulled out. Despite professing an autonomous feminist identity, Sachetana in fact did a great deal to tar the Mancha with the identity of “Naxalite”. Even recently, an ‘academic’ study repeats those accusations without ever checking with Mancha. Yet, it was NNPM which consistently fought not only on issues like police violence against women, including the case of Archana Guha, tortured because her brother was an underground Maoist, but also on issues of violence against all kinds of women, where no political disputes existed. Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), the left, party controlled women’s groups hardly took up Archana Guha’s case. For this trend, the idea of autonomous women’s movement is supposedly tantamount to a surrender to the bourgeoisie. Thus, Shyamali Gupta writes that from the beginning of the women’s movement, there have existed two currents, one belonging to the toiling people, the other inspired by bourgeois ideology.  Since Ms. Gupta obviously claims the mantle of proletarian women’s movement for her organisation, it transpires that to talk about autonomous women’s movement is to be guided by bourgeois ideology. So what should the truly proletarian women’s movement do? Obviously, it must not talk about state violence, especially if it is located in West Bengal, Kerala or Tripura, because it will thereby implicate the left front governments. It must not doubt the good will of the Left Front government.  Thus, activists like Gupta are caught in a bind. All their explanations tend to become totally objectivist and fatalist. Brinda Karat’s celebrated protest ultimately falls in the same category. Karat could only register a personal protest. She could neither challenge the Stalinist orthodoxy about the illegitimacy of factions, nor call on women to mobilise behind the demand for more representation in party leaderships at all levels. By contrast, there does seem to be a shift in the CPI and in a few mass organisations. Vidya Munshi of the NFIW (and CPI) had a much more self-critical article about the Left Front, and she argued that there was a need for a mass movement involving all progressive forces including the Left Front, an admission that forces existed outside the left front which were progressive.  And at least one trade union, the All India Bank Employees Association, and its affiliated bank unions, have been forming women’s cells since 1992, because they feel that without the recruitment and training of women cadres and leaders, the union’s masculine bias cannot be overcome.
A discussion of these problems lead to concrete proposals about how revolutionary parties should adopt positive action programmes. This must begin with a clear commitment to recruiting more women into the party and in trying to place them in leadership positions. This in turn can be done when the party has a certain credibility, through the development of a public profile which says it is not a misogynist party — for example by developing many women spokespersons, propagandists, writers, and candidates. The hypocrisy of the Indian left on this point is now quite evident. Formally the left parties are all for reservation of seats in Assemblies and Parliament for women. Yet the parties put up few women candidates, and elect few women into leading bodies of the party. Solving this problem calls for evolving new criteria for leadership. Also, new organisational structure need to be evolved which will draw militant women into the revolutionary party, or which will provide women with the opportunity to speak about their experiences, to learn from other women, and to come closer to the party. At this point, we are going beyond anything that a seminar can decide. But if the seminar is meant as a real contribution to renewing revolutionary Marxist strategy, it must pose this kind of question before all activists engaged in what they believe to be rebuilding/building Leninist parties.
Turning to texts, party programmes and analyses and tactical line documents tend to devote a short paragraph on women. When it comes to the overall analysis there is no gendering. As a result, we read party documents with lengthy sections on liberalisation which ignore the fact that women workers are super-exploited in the Export Processing Zones, and that party lines must therefore be geared to them.  Programmes and party education must also realise that sexual harassment, rape and so on are not marginal issues, or issues related only to Maryyada. The Supreme Court judgement of 1997 has driven home the point that at workplace the average woman faces regular, silent sexual harassment. That is why every institution needs a Grievance Committee. Clara Zetkin had urged male workers to think of female workers as comrades, not as sex objects, back in the 1890s. Today, trade unions, and above all parties claiming to be revolutionary must make this an integral part of their style of work and cadre training.
To this we can add a few related points. First, it is West Bengal that is one of the states least complying with the SC guidelines, particularly in educational institutions. Even this University has set up a committee only very recently. Secondly, it should be a major task of parties calling themselves revolutionary, to raise the demand that rape or aggravated sexual harassment of women in the unorganised sectors should be treated at par with custodial rape. These, if any, are working women being exposed to extreme oppression in course of their work. Yet, as many in the brick-kilns admit, they have to put up with this regularly for fear of losing their jobs. The hypocrisy involved in all this comes out clearly in connection with the struggle of the sex workers. I know that one can quote Lenin in support of the position I am criticizing, since in his conversation with Zetkin he is reported to have doubted the usefulness of organising prostitutes. But the point remains that sex workers have organised themselves, and are demanding recognition as trade unions. When we are incapable of abolishing this utterly exploitative trade, we should at least realise that recognising a union is better than letting these women remain under the thumbs of pimps and policemen. Though the Left Front Government allowed the sex workers to hold an all-India conference in the Yuba Bharati stadium, the government is also deeply embarrassed by this demand, and no left party has clearly come out in support of them.
Let me end with a proposal and a story, which is extremely revealing. The story is about Geeta Mukherjee. No one has become so identified with at least one aspect of the struggle for women’s equality in recent times as much as she has been. Yet, when in the CPI West Bengal State Conference of August 1998, she devoted the bulk of her speech as chairperson to the question of women’s emancipation, a male comrade in a responsible position said, “Geetadi is a leader of our party, yet she talked only about women, not about politics. Was this proper on her part?”
The matter should be self-evident. In the left discourse, even today, women’s liberation is not about politics. Either this changes, or the left will be left behind.


The right to choose. Socialism and women’s rights in Ireland

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