communist russia

The Russian Revolution: A reflection on the role of women revolutionaries

When women are remembered as part of the Communist or any other political tradition, it’s often as an afterthought.

This year marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution – in fact it’s two revolutions. The one in February 1917 overthrew the Russian monarchy. The second one, in October 1917, came about after a nearly bloodless coup put the Bolsheviks in charge under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin.

Creating the world’s first communist country, it was a central event of the 20th century. It’s an event experienced as an electric shock throughout much of the colonialised world.

Recollections of this seismic event often revolve around images of powerful men – the ideas of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and the political strategy of Lenin and Leon Trotsky. But women have always been key participants in the Communist movement, in terms of theory and practice, including in the October Revolution.

Leading Marxist historian Vijay Prashad recalls that in October 1917 women factory workers in St Petersburg marched to see Lenin in the Smolny, the compound in the city where he worked, and asked him to, “Take power, Comrade Lenin: that is what we working women want.”

Lenin famously replied: “It is not I, but you – the workers – who must take power. Return to your factories and tell the workers that.”

Before the Russian Revolution

But women played decisive and revolutionary roles even before the Russian Revolution.

In 17th-century England, women were a powerful presence in what was known as the Midland Revolt. The more than thousand-strong crowd that gathered at Newton in 1607 to protest against the land enclosures by the Tresham family, who were aggressively enclosing the lands of East Midlands, included women and children.

The Women’s March on the Palace of Versailles in October 1789 was a decisive moment in the struggles that brought down the power of the French Monarchy. Nearly 7,000 women, chanting “bread! bread!”, marched from Paris to the palace. The uprising contributed to the fall of Louis XVI and the much-hated Marie Antoinette.

The women who initiated the march were called “Mothers of the Nation”. Importantly, the march wasn’t only a turning point for Republicans, but also crucial for gender equality.

In 1802 Edward Despard, an Irish soldier who served in the British army but who became involved in revolutionary politics, and his African-American wife, Catherine Despard, led a plot to seize the Bank of England and the Tower of London, and to assassinate King George III. He was arrested for the failed Despard plot.

Catherine publicly defended her husband against charges of terrorism and sedition, and also lobbied and campaigned on his behalf. She petitioned the Home Secretary and enlisted the help of an independent MP who raised the plight of the men incarcerated at the Coldbath Fields prison, where Edward was detained. Catherine also worked with the wives of other political prisoners.

Despite Catherine taking the fight to the highest authorities, Edward was found guilty on charges of high treason. He was hanged, drawn and quartered. Catherine was one of 20,000 people who witnessed his execution.

As capitalism consolidated its hold over land and labour through the industrial revolution the Luddite movement attacked factories and destroyed machine. It was not to halt the development of technology but to subject it to the interests of the workers.

Ned Ludd, a fictional character, based on an amalgam of various apprentices came to provide the name and face of the movement. But women often led the attacks on the factories. On 24 April 1812, a particularly successful attack was launched against a mill outside Bolton in North West England under the leadership of sisters Mary and Lydia Molyneux. The mill was destroyed.

In 1871, just over a hundred years after the Women’s March on Versailles, French women took to the streets with the same militant vigour, during the Paris Commune. Leftwingers took over the French capital, but the radical experiment in socialist self-government only lasted 72 days.

In stark contrast to the supposed fragility of women, the militant anarchist and feminist, Nathalie Lemel called women to militant action during the Commune: “We have come to the supreme moment, when we must be able to die for our Nation. No more weakness! No more uncertainty! All women to arms! All women to duty! Versailles must be wiped out!”

On Sunday, January 22, 1905, women once again were at the forefront the march on the Winter Palace in St Petersburg that came to be known at Bloody Sunday. Many paid with their lives for the transformation of Tsarist autocratic rule.

Women and Communist thought

Before and during the Russian Revolution, the Polish-born German philosopher Rosa Luxemburg was a leading Communist theorist. Thereafter women like the American Marxist, Raya Dunayevskaya, Trinidad-born journalist, political activist and feminist, Claudia Jones – also known as the “mother” of London’s Notting Hill Carnival, South African academic and journalist, Ruth First, and longstanding American activist and feminist, Angela Davis, played key roles in the development of Communist thought.

Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg in January 1910. Photo credit: Luxemburg, Rosa - Bio/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY web.stanford.edu]
Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg in January 1910. Photo credit: Luxemburg, Rosa - Bio/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY web.stanford.edu]

A closer look at the great male figures in the Communist tradition often shows that they worked closely with and relied heavily on radical women. Engels could not have written “The Condition of the Working Class in England” without the guidance of his working class Irish partner, Mary Burns.

Marx’s daughters Laura and Eleanor, were leading communists and significant activists in their own right. Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s lifelong partner and comrade was a leading educational theorist and radical communist. Cecilia Sanchez, one of Fidel Castro’s closest and most trusted comrades, is hardly known outside of Cuba.

When women are remembered as part of the Communist or any other political tradition it is often as an afterthought, or as part of the support system of the revolution, taking care of the home and the family. These are important tasks in any struggle but by focusing only on this precludes women from inhabiting the identity of a revolutionary or a theorist. This is in marked contrast to one of the most significant of the achievements of the Russian Revolution in its early phase – it’s radical action in support of full equality between men and women.

Lenin, often invoked by very masculinist forms of politics was crystal clear on this score. He insisted that:

“The female half of the human race is doubly oppressed under capitalism. The working woman and the peasant woman are oppressed by capital, but over and above that, even in the most democratic of the bourgeois republics, they remain, firstly, deprived of some rights because the law does not give them equality with men; and secondly – and this is the main thing – they remain in ‘household bondage’, they continue to be ‘household slaves’, for they are overburdened with the drudgery of the most squalid and backbreaking and stultifying toil in the kitchen and the individual family household.”

Vashna Jagarnath, Senior Lecturer, History Department, Rhodes University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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