A celebration of International Women’s Day in February 1917 was the spark that ignited the Russian Revolution.
A group of women textile workers in St Petersburg had asked the Bolshevik central committee what they were to do on the day. They were told not to strike and to await instructions.
But no instructions came—so the women took matters into their own hands and went out onto the streets.
Soon thousands were leaving the factories and bread queues, filling the city with their banners demanding “Bread—our children are starving!”.
They were joined over the next few days by housewives, women workers and soldiers’ wives.
Women threw stones at the police and demanded the end of the First World War. They went into barracks to encourage soldiers to join them.
Only a week later the Tsar, Russia’s absolute monarch, abdicated. This was the start of the Russian Revolution. Workers rose up and took power in October that year.
The Socialist International had officially adopted International Women’s Day in 1910, deciding it should be celebrated with strikes and demonstrations.
It made this day official because it had a number of militant Marxists in its women’s bureau—including the Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai.
Born into an aristocratic family, Kollontai became a revolutionary after a horrific visit to a vast textile mill in 1896.
The air was thick with cotton fibres. Women worked 18 hour days. With no maternity leave, they often gave birth at their machines. Women’s pay was a third or half that of men’s. Few expected to live beyond 30.
This experience changed her life. She read Karl Marx, joined Marxist groups in St Petersburg and supported the strikes that were sweeping Russia.
There was an influx of women from the villages into the urban workforce in the 1890s. Factory owners regarded women as more docile workers. They thought that women wouldn’t drink and would be less likely to strike.
The 1890s proved them wrong. Women were extremely militant. Revolutionaries found them hard to reach politically—some 90 percent were illiterate.
Yet women made an extraordinary intervention in the strike movement, often in the face of intense opposition. Many started going to meetings and making speeches.
Socialists like Kollontai stood at factory gates talking to workers, much as socialists do now. But Marxists were not the only ones looking to organise these women.
Philanthropic feminist organisations campaigning for the vote tried to steer working women away from strikes and towards sewing classes and religious groups.
During the years around the 1905 revolution, socialist women encouraged serious party work among women workers and intervened in the feminist movement. They argued that a movement for women of all classes was nonsense.
Kollontai won over many factory workers who had been pulled by feminism. As with the suffragettes in Britain, the feminist campaign did not call for universal suffrage. Instead it aimed at winning the vote for propertied women, arguing that other women might benefit in years to come.
But the feminist movement collapsed because rich women’s allies in their class had nothing but utmost contempt for the women and their proposals.
Kollontai argued that women’s needs were different and specific. But she insisted that such differences need not be divisive.
Personally Kollontai experienced severe isolation. She was isolated from her class as an aristocrat who was a Marxist. And she was isolated from her sex because she was one of a very small number of intellectual women in the Bolshevik underground.
In exile after the defeat of the 1905 revolution she wrote about how social relations changed in revolution—and how Marxists had to bring these issues into an analysis of class relations.
She was utopian about morality and believed a new self-sufficient and independent woman could be born of class struggle. She had read Frederick Engels, Karl Marx and August Bebel. But she wanted to go further to write about a new sexual morality.
She talked about free love and free unions—and showed how the working class was already freeing itself from the shackles of bourgeois marriage.
Change was only going to be possible if women received support from the state for the responsibilities of motherhood and other domestic functions.
When Kollontai’s work was reprinted after the 1917 revolution it had a new resonance and became concrete. It formed the basis of her work as the only woman member of the Bolshevik government after the revolution.
Reading Kollontai today, her writings seem timeless and modern. But a lot of her early writings were grossly misunderstood and misrepresented.
The revolution was followed by civil war—although I prefer to call it foreign intervention as so many imperialist countries, including Britain, invaded Russia to crush the revolution.
Kollontai travelled around Russia asking women what they needed. For the first time there was the possibility of making specific changes that would have an impact on women’s lives.
But in the midst of this war, solutions were rudimentary. It was a rough and ready model of how a socialist state could provide for women—laundries, canteens and childcare.
Revolutionaries had to carry out extremely practical tasks. But while the Bolsheviks were leading a full mobilisation against the enemies of the revolution, they immediately passed some very progressive legislation.
Marriage simply became a question of registering a relationship. The stigma and trauma attached to divorce and illegitimacy were removed.
The experience of revolution saw enormous changes in relationships and the family. People got married for a day, then married someone else. There were all sorts of different relationships.
But Kollontai realised that the new laws were useless without women on the ground to make them effective.
A new department, the Zhenotdel, was set up to involve women in every part of the revolution. Kollontai was appointed director in 1920.
Bolshevik women went into villages wearing red headscarves encouraging women peasants and workers to become delegates in the government.
They organised everything from exhibitions and poster displays to healthcare and literacy projects for prostitutes.
The Bolsheviks drove the foreign invaders out and saved the revolution. But the years of war led to a collapse of industry and Russia’s revolution did not spread to other countries.
The bold and imaginative schemes and hopes of the revolution could not flourish in this devastation.
Today there is a hunger for ideas for people whose lives are changing in unforeseen and unpredictable ways—as in Egypt and elsewhere.
The Bolsheviks showed us that practice and theory are inseparable. Revolutionary times throw everything into question—even the way we behave and organise our lives.
And it’s always been Marxists who had the great ideas on how women can win liberation. We have the ideas, the theory—and the hope.
The life of Alexandra Kollontai
Alexandra Kollontai was born to an aristocratic family in St Petersburg in 1872. She became a Marxist in 1896.
She was an active revolutionary, whose pamphlets and books particularly focused on women’s role in society and in revolution.
After the 1917 revolution she became the world’s first female government minister. In 1923, she was appointed ambassador to Norway.
Sadly, she later made her peace with Stalinism. She died in 1952.
The pamphlet Alexandra Kollontai on Women’s Liberation reprints “The Social Basis of the Woman Question, Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle” and “Communism and the Family”. It is available from Bookmarks—go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk
The first edition of Cathy Porter’s Alexandra Kollontai: a biography is now out of print, but look out for it in second hand shops.
Read Chris Harman’s 1984 essay Women’s Liberation and Revolutionary Socialism and Tony Cliff’s 1981 article Alexandra Kollontai: Russian Marxists and Women Workers are both available online at Marxists.org
Cathy Porter is working on a new edition of her biography of Alexandra Kollontai. It will be published later this year by Merlin Press