Russia 1917: gender, class and the Bolsheviks

by Sandra Bloodworth • Published 12 July 2017

If future historians look for the group that began the Russian Revolution, let them not create any involved theory. The Russian Revolution was begun by hungry women and children demanding bread and herrings. They started by wrecking tram cars and looting a few small shops. Only later did they, together with workmen and politicians, become ambitious to wreck that mighty edifice the Russian autocracy.”[1]

“By providing, almost by accident, a large-scale instance of unpunished civil disorder, they [the working class women of Petrograd] demonstrated the hopeless inability of the government to preserve law and order at the centre of its power.”[2]

On 23 February (8 March by the Western calendar) 1917, many thousands of angry working class women in the Vyborg district of Petrograd, the centre of working class radicalism and militancy, celebrated International Working Women’s Day (IWD) by walking out on strike and flooding into the streets. The tsarina, wife of Tsar Nicholas II, dismissed their protest as “a hooligan movement”, informing Nicholas that “if the weather was cold they would probably stay at home”.[3] The women marched to nearby workplaces where better-organised and experienced male workers might be expected to come out in solidarity. A worker in the Nobel engineering plant recalled a typical scene:

We could hear women’s voices in the lane… “Down with high prices!” “Down with hunger!” “Bread for the workers!” I and several comrades rushed at once to the windows… The gates of No 1 Bol’shaia Sampsonievskaia mill were flung open. Masses of women workers in a militant frame of mind filled the lane. Those who caught sight of us began to wave their arms, shouting: “Come out!” “Stop work!” Snowballs flew through the windows. We decided to join the demonstration.[4]

By the end of the day over 100,000, a third of the city’s industrial workforce, were on strike.[5] The next day, meetings, proclamations, marches continued, the numbers on strike swelling to 200,000.

In other circumstances, this would be a not unusual narrative of the Russian workers’ movement: strikers march around factories “calling out” other workers, who almost invariably join the protest in solidarity. But what followed has turned a spotlight on these events.

Five days later the Romanov autocracy of over 300 years had been trampled under the feet of these “hooligans” who had won the sympathy of the soldiers. They were backed up by virtually the entire workforce of Petrograd followed by Moscow. Their rebellion spread like wildfire to other urban centres, across the fertile plains, the frozen tundras, the mountainous Caucasus of the Russian empire. Nicholas, in a humiliating scene in a stranded railway car 300 kilometres south of Petrograd, was forced to abdicate by his own generals. They were frightened out of their wits, because their armed forces had stripped them and the tsar of their power.

The February revolution: the question of spontaneity

There are several themes and interpretations entwined around the IWD strikes which deserve a critical eye. The women’s actions are often portrayed as elemental, unorganised and apolitical. And so it was quite accidental that they sparked the revolution. This theme strengthens the myth that this was a genuine, supportable revolution of the people, whereas October was nothing but a Bolshevik coup. As the feminist historians Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar comment in their very useful book Midwives of the Revolution, “it is the image of an elemental force of women workers and their contribution to the social chaos of 1917 that underwrites the mirror image of the Bolsheviks as arch manipulators and usurpers of the popular movement”.[6]

Students are asked, was the February revolution “spontaneous”, or was it “organised”? And if the latter, who led it? The question is based on the assumption that “spontaneity” and “organisation” are counterposed. But this does not help clarify the issue, it only confuses it. What is meant by organisation? Preparations and planning, or the existence of political organisations? Many discussions only consider the latter; and the political organisations were not the initiators of the February revolution, taking some time to catch up with events.

I think there is generally too much emphasis on the aspect of spontaneity in February, and this is linked to attitudes to women. Accounts which emphasise women’s unplanned spontaneity downplay the role of leadership, foresight and planning by the women themselves. After all, it was organised textile workers who began it all. Tony Cliff, the Marxist biographer of Lenin, says “[t]he revolution was completely spontaneous and unplanned”.[7] At the end of his discussion of this spontaneous revolution, Cliff says that actually the Bolshevik cadre provided the necessary leadership. But this is unhelpful. It sidesteps the question of the leading role of wider layers of women.

Every revolution begins with an unexpected turn of events. But they usually don’t provoke a flurry of historical analysis of this phenomenon of spontaneity. For example, the Marxist Chris Harman, writing about the Hungarian revolution of 1956, describes very clearly how a peaceful demonstration spontaneously became a revolution when fired on by armed forces, with not one mention of spontaneity.[8]

The fact is, the events of February 1917 are far from just an outburst of spontaneous anger. The IWD demonstrations took place in an atmosphere of tension, class conflict and preparations based on the expectation that a revolution was virtually inevitable at some stage soon.

The year had begun with a mass strike on 9 January, the anniversary of the massacre of Petrograd workers on Bloody Sunday 1905. Around 40 percent of the Petrograd industrial workers, including many women, went out. On 26 January, 700 weavers struck in protest at the sacking of a woman. A strike by women textile workers in the Vyborg district, where IWD would begin, lasted a full month and another in January lasted five days. As early as December 1916, almost a thousand women had walked off their shift in a munitions store where they worked beside better-paid men, demanding a pay rise.[9] On 14 February, another major strike of 84,000 closed down more than 52 factories in the midst of fears by the middle class that there would be “clashes” at the re-opening of the Duma (parliament). Rex Wade paints a picture of the “growing turmoil” of strikes and demonstrations spreading to other cities in his book The Russian Revolution, 1917. On 22 February, the day before IWD, the presence of 30,000 workers, locked out by management at the giant Putilov works, “inflamed tensions”. Women from the plant demonstrated at food warehouses over food prices and a protest march to the city’s political centre was prevented by police. Workers who met with Duma delegates warned that this might be the beginning of a big political movement and that “something very serious might happen”.[10]

The narrative of the February revolution could just as well begin with the strike the day before IWD. But it did not offer the mystique of women leading vast masses, an image which cuts against sexist stereotypes and therefore intrinsically more interesting than the preceding rash of mass strikes. However we view the chronology of events, it is not credible to think that in this context the IWD strikes were some elemental, apolitical outburst.

Women had been involved since mid-1915 in bread riots which were probably more classically spontaneous: expressions of sheer anger and frustration at the lack of food to feed hungry families. During the war large numbers of women were drawn into the workforce to replace men sent to the front. By 1917 women made up over half the labour force in Petrograd.[11] The metal factories were the most strategically important, producing for the war, and politically the most advanced, with traditions of militancy and radicalism which had not been seriously undermined by conscription because the workers’ skills were in such demand. Women grew from 2.7 percent of the metal industry workforce in 1913 to 20.3 percent by 1917, though they remained predominantly unskilled.[12] During 1916, both female and male workers were increasingly restive. In the six months before the revolution, over a million worker-days were spent on strike in Petrograd, 75 percent of which were political.[13] At least some women were preparing for months before IWD in 1917, weighing up the odds, assessing their actions and options. By January 1917 the spies (who spent their time recording every sign of opposition) recognised women’s readiness for action:

[M]others of families, exhausted from the endless queues at the shops, suffering at the sight of their sick and half-famished children, at this moment are much closer indeed to revolution than are Mssrs Milyukov, Rodichev, and Co. [liberal politicians]; and of course are more dangerous because they constitute a mass of inflammable matter for which only a spark is sufficient to cause it to burst into flames.[14]

On 23 February, a police agent reported “the idea that an uprising is the only means to escape from the food crisis is becoming more and more popular among the masses”.[15] And many of the political arguments, the initiative and foresight came from workers who had already experienced the revolution of 1905 and the aftermath when it was crushed. They knew that certain things had to be prepared, such as winning the soldiers over. For instance, the factory worker Anastasia Deviatkina, who organised and led a demonstration on IWD, had been a Bolshevik member for 13 years.[16] Textile workers were in the habit of approaching the soldiers to persuade them not to attack protests. And a few days before IWD the largely female staff at the Vasilevsky Island trolley-car park sent a woman to the nearby regiment to ask the soldiers if they would fire on them if they came out. The soldiers’ answer was no, ensuring that on IWD the trolley-car workers joined the demonstration. Women were participating in the preparations for the anticipated uprising, cognisant of the issues they faced.

On the 25th, 240,000 were now on strike and thousands of students joined their demonstrations. The soldiers were increasingly insubordinate. Their officers tried to use the age-old tactic of sexist put-downs, referring to the women approaching the troops as “old hags” and the like. But the women’s heartfelt appeals to their common experience of suffering because of the war ate at the soldiers’ hearts. Trotsky, in his magnificent book The History of the Russian Revolution, pays due tribute to the women and their role in winning over the soldiers:

[W]omen…go up to the cordons more boldly than men, take hold of the rifles, beseech, almost command: “Put down your bayonets – join us”. The soldiers are excited, ashamed, exchange anxious glances, waver…the bayonets rise guiltily above the shoulders of the advancing crowd. The barrier is opened, a joyous and grateful “Hurrah!” shakes the air…the revolution makes another forward step.[17]

On the question of spontaneity Trotsky sums up:

The mystic doctrine of spontaneousness explains nothing. In order correctly to appraise the situation and determine the moment for a blow at the enemy…[i]t was necessary that throughout this mass should be scattered workers who had thought over the experience of 1905, criticised the constitutional illusions of the liberals and Mensheviks…meditated hundreds of times about the question of the army…workers capable of making revolutionary inferences from what they observed and communicating them to others…

Elements of experience, criticism, initiative, self-sacrifice, seeped down through the mass and created, invisibly to a superficial glance but no less decisively, an inner mechanics of the revolutionary movement as a conscious process. To the smug politicians… everything that happens among the masses is customarily represented as an instinctive process.[18]

And I think we can add that when women are involved this is even more pronounced. Rex Wade makes a perceptive observation:

[T]he disintegration of the discipline of the soldiers, reflecting the large number of new recruits and the antiwar sentiments of veterans and recruits alike, was one of the most important of the many unplanned, even spontaneous, aspects of the February revolution.[19]

Could it be that others have not noticed this because the dominant image of spontaneous outbursts doesn’t fit with the image of men in general and soldiers in particular?

There are not two counterposed phenomena: either leaderless spontaneity or organised workers leading the backward. There can be a mixture of conscious organising, conscious considerations and then somewhat unexpected, unpredictable, or “spontaneous” actions. While the IWD manifestation was not “planned” by the Bolsheviks, the largest of the socialist organisations – and the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries had no interest in IWD, only responding once the uprising was well underway – it was really not the spontaneous outburst many like to portray. Spontaneity and the drive to self-activity and organisation were really more a feature of the rest of 1917, reflected in the plethora of organisations, such as the soviets (workers’ councils), factory committees, Red Guards[20] and the like, which flourished after the uprising destroyed the monarchy.

Gender and class[21]

Social historian David Mandel has dealt with the issue of the place of women in the workforce in a detailed study of the Petrograd working class.[22] Women workers were very similar to unskilled male workers, with high levels of illiteracy, less secure employment and extremely low wages. But women had the added burden of their special oppression: family responsibilities, the difficulties of childbirth, lack of contraception, sexual harassment by foremen and bosses, plus society’s and the church’s promotion of the idea of the patriarchal household which encouraged their enslavement to the men in their lives. Mandel argues that:

[T]he woman worker’s life was a closed one, an almost unbroken passage between home and mill that kept her isolated from the larger society, outside the dynamic of the labour movement.

The unskilled workers were the least active element of Petrograd’s working class. In labour circles they were often referred to as the malosoznatel’nye massy (literally – masses with low consciousness) and sometimes merely boloto (the swamp).

By far the largest single group in this category were the women. V. Perazich, a Petrograd union activist, wrote of the textile workers: “Our masses in general at that time [early 1917] were still totally benighted… Only very few had managed to become conscious proletarians.[23]

Women were mostly employed at menial unskilled and semi-skilled work in textiles, food-processing, chemicals and shoemaking, or unskilled production jobs. However, Perazich comments on the increased number of women who replaced class conscious male workers in the war-related manufacturing workplaces: “[i]t reached a point where women appeared even on the mules where they had never worked before, and among the women at this time there were still too few conscious workers”. [24] So while not ignoring the specific oppression women suffered, Mandel makes an important point: “it must be emphasised that it was not sex but the level of skill and the social characteristics associated with it in Russia that were the primary determinants of political culture”.[25]

And the needle trades illustrate the point. A significant proportion of women did two to three years of training at schools or in apprenticeships; their overall literacy rate was 68.2 percent compared with 37.9 percent in cotton. Some seamstresses were urban-bred, daughters of workers. These skilled workers were quite unlike their unskilled sisters. Seven of eight textile workers interviewed in one study were raised in the village in peasant families. Interviewers described them as “downtrodden”, “uncultured”, “underdeveloped”, “uninterested in public life”; while the seamstresses were perceived as “energetic”, “intelligent”, and “capable”, noting that two of them were actively involved in public affairs. Mandel says:

[I]ndeed, the relatively few skilled women workers bore a far greater resemblance to their skilled male counterparts than to the unskilled women. And the converse is also true: the unskilled men…were very similar to the unskilled women in both social background and political culture. And like the women, they were referred to by Mensheviks and Bolsheviks alike as “undeveloped”, “backward”, “of low consciousness”. [26]

So women workers entered the fray of revolution on a different footing from male skilled metal workers, regarded as the vanguard, but on a very similar basis to unskilled male workers. McDermid and Hillyar confuse the issues surrounding political culture, leadership and sexism. And so they see the solidarity shown by male workers which turned a protest into a revolution in a negative light: “the traditional hierarchy of the labour movement reasserted itself, and reimposed the distinction between economic and political questions”. But the issues of food scarcity, wages and the like were highly political issues in the context of the war. The Bolshevik slogan, “Land, Bread and Peace!”, taken up by masses of people, is hardly evidence that “bread and butter issues were pushed aside” as they claim. [27]

More importantly, it was natural for the most experienced to lead. Mandel shows that in the early February days, a meeting of the workers of the main workshops of the N.W. Railroad, mostly male, decided to send a delegation to the most politically advanced, the Putilov workers, to see what they were doing before taking action themselves. In the Vyborg district, the workers of the James Beck Textile Mill traditionally sought aid and advice on economic and political matters from the nearby New Lessner Machine-construction Factory.

The fact that the women marched to the metal factories in the Vyborg shows how integrated into the traditions of the working class their activity was. For decades it had been common practice to call out other workplaces, even forcing workers out by picketing and more violent means when necessary. The Treugol’nik Rubber Factory in the Narva District, for example, with an overwhelmingly female and unskilled work force, had never struck during its entire pre-1917 history except when “taken out” by the more active workers from the relatively nearby Putilov works. And this tradition ensured the women escalated their action without much trouble. Wade says of the events after 23 February:

[E]specially important were the factory activists… Drawing on lengthy strike experience they quickly moved to the fore and provided the organizational skills and leadership for the demonstrations of the next few days. They organized the columns of workers as they marched from the factories and exhorted workers to demonstrate rather than simply going home. They gave impassioned speeches articulating worker grievances and demanding the overthrow of the regime. These activists helped organize the strike committees and other revolutionary organizations.[28]

These leaders, mostly male, but including Bolshevik women, brought to the movement important political steadiness born of years of experience. Many workers wanted to keep increasing the militancy in the streets. But Alexander Shlyapnikov, the most prominent Bolshevik leader in Petrograd at the time, urged workers to instead put their efforts towards drawing the soldiers into the struggle, a more political task which required more patience, but a critical one and one in which women played a vital role.[29] The question wasn’t whether women would continue in the leadership, but whether the most advanced could convince the masses who had responded to the women’s call to rise to new heights of rebellion and organisation.

Because class is the root cause of all oppression, in a revolution all oppressed groups find some of their number on either side of the class line. This seems such a basic question, but it is consistently ignored by historians, as they search for a classless identity of “women” and “feminism”. An incident on 1 April illustrates how raw these class divisions among women were. Mainly female textile workers were demonstrating against the Provisional Government. According to Perazich, pro-government demonstrators – well-dressed women and men – jeered at them, calling them “Bezulochnitsy!” (trollops), “Illiterate rabble! Filthy scum!”, “stockingless!”, “uneducated riff raff!”, “ignoble sluts!”. Pelageia Romanovna retorted from the workers’ side: “the hats you’re wearing are made from our blood!” In an ensuing fight, the workers’ banners were torn down and used to hit them, but the workers managed to tear the hats and hat pins from the ladies’ heads, leaving them with scratched faces.[30]

When historians write about “feminism” and “women’s issues” they often seem to lose a grip on reality. Rex Wade, who writes eloquently about the institutions workers established, and of women’s involvement in the organisational creativity which erupted after February, resorts to homilies and ill-informed comments when he turns to these issues. The activities of the bourgeois feminists, he writes, “were the purest expression of specifically women’s aspirations and activism in 1917”. These included, as well as the vote, pressuring the government for the right to be lawyers – when working class and peasant women needed education in basic literacy! He comments that “socialist leaders were concerned with women as low-paid workers rather than as people with special gender concerns”. [31] As though low pay was not a gender issue. It’s as though working class women’s demands for an end to sexual harassment by foremen and bosses, for equal pay, for maternity leave, for provision for the sick and elderly, are not about “women’s aspirations”. But in fact they weren’t just women’s demands; working class men fought for them beside the women with great vigour, unlike bourgeois feminists.

Opposition to the war drove women workers’ revolt. But liberal, upper class feminists supported it, agitating to fight on after the revolution. The state they hoped their class would rule over needed to prove its credentials on the war front if it were to play a role as an imperialist power which the Allies would take seriously. And there was the question of defending the territories of the old empire which would contribute to their wealth and power.

On 20 March, the feminists held a 40,000-strong demonstration in Petrograd which marched with banners demanding universal suffrage in the anticipated Constituent Assembly – but, crucially, carrying banners which read “War until Victory!”. When the rally reached the headquarters of the Provisional Government, the Bolshevik leader Alexandra Kollontai tried to disrupt the speakers’ platform by storming the stage and denouncing the feminists’ support for the bloody horrors of the war and the uselessness of their demands. The outraged feminists pushed her off the platform, and some soldiers menaced her with their bayonets. But as might be expected, the crowd started to divide; some of the soldiers who had been in the trenches were sympathetic to Kollontai, as well as some of the women, and they formed a group and marched off.[32] The feminists could not in any serious, ongoing way appeal to support among working class women and soldiers’ wives. They entertained the British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst from June to September. Rabidly pro-war, she addressed private meetings in their mansions because the government worried that public forums by her would be met by protests. She helped raise money for a women’s battalion to go to the front to replace the soldiers leaving in droves. It was these battalions who tried to defend the Winter Palace against the soviet insurrection in October. Workers didn’t trust the government, so women workers could turn up to a rally demanding universal suffrage in any constituent assembly it might convene, but there was no genuine class unity even in this situation. Let’s remember that women workers were voting and being elected in the factory committees, trade unions and soviets.

The role of the Bolsheviks

McDermid and Hillyar document the important role the Bolsheviks played in educating and involving women.[33] Yet they throw doubt in one way or another on their attitudes. There is always a qualification, a “but” or “although” which indicates a reluctance to accept the fact that there was no “pure” women’s struggle, as Rex Wade puts it. They exhibit a squeamishness about admitting that it was only by class struggle with an orientation to uniting male and female workers that the rights of working class women could seriously be put on the agenda.

Midwives of the Revolution is excellent in many respects. But throughout the book, the authors reveal a serious lack of understanding of the Bolsheviks’ history, politics and methods. Unlike many of Alexandra Kollontai’s biographers, they find it “interesting” that Lenin was one of the Bolsheviks who backed her attempts to organise working class women against opposition from women leaders – presumably because it contradicts the mythology that Kollontai had to battle the male leadership to get support for organising among women. Richard Stites, the historian of women’s liberation in Russia, says that Lenin “revealed an uncompromising adherence to political equality for women”.[34] Lenin was often the one to initiate work among women. The first material the Social Democrats had for women, a pamphlet written in the 1890s by Krupskaya, Lenin’s close collaborator (and wife), was his idea. And he put considerable effort into helping Krupskaya write it, providing her with information he had accumulated in his research for his work on the development of capitalism in Russia. In 1910 Lenin supported the idea of doing work among women émigrés. Then in 1913 he was instrumental in organising an editorial board for a working class women’s journal, Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker).

McDermid and Hillyar think it is “ironic” that while propagandising for working class women’s struggles, Kollontai was “the party’s leading theoretical and political opponent of the feminist movement”.[35] There was nothing ironic or contradictory about this. The feminist movement of the time was a class force based among liberal capitalist women and therefore opposed to most of the demands of the mass of women. So revolutionaries identified as Marxists, not feminists. The terminology of today, when “feminism” simply denotes for most people support for women’s rights, confuses the issues when applied to this period.

Of course, there were debates and arguments among Bolsheviks. But this was not “feminists” vs male Bolsheviks as it’s often portrayed. Kollontai and other women spoke at party meetings about women’s right to work and the need to organise women into the unions. This is no different from any other question. There are always disagreements in revolutionary organisations, especially until an orthodoxy is established, and even then, new members have to be educated in it. Questions of the role of the intelligentsia, imperialism, war, were all subjects of debate. The question is, what did the leading members argue and what position was established? All of the women involved in organising working class women were close collaborators of Lenin, indicating that he was part of a circle of leading Bolsheviks who took this work seriously.[36]

Because of inconsistencies it’s not clear whether McDermid and Hillyar reject or just misunderstand the arguments about class, or whether they feel the need to make concessions to the identity politics so popular in the last few decades. However it is clear they do not grasp the dynamic of how struggles over economic demands can develop, or how the Bolsheviks related to them. For instance, they acknowledge that the Bolshevik Alexander Shlyapnikov was clear about the impact on women of the food shortages, high prices and having the men away fighting and dying. But they say “yet [he] still saw their actions and motivation as essentially apolitical, more a domestic reflection of war weariness than a sign of rising political awareness”.[37] But Shlyapnikov, a long term leading member, would have been imbued with the Bolshevik approach, which was that immediate concrete demands over workers’ conditions were the most likely catalyst for workers’ struggle. And the experience of this struggle would develop political consciousness.[38]

However, the page reference in Shlyapnikov’s memoirs they give covers his time in New York. Actually, when writing about the food crisis, he says: “All around revolutionary work was seething. All circles of the population were being drawn into politics because of the high cost of living and the food queues…the atmosphere was laden with struggle”. And he says the Bolsheviks put a lot of work into explaining the causes of the crisis and agitation around the issue. So they were hardly dismissive of it as unimportant. Further, he reports that they recruited people to help with their work, because they thought the struggle around food prices was politicising the women.[39]

Somewhat contradicting their negative account of Shlyapnikov, McDermid and Hillyar comment that the Bolsheviks recognised that the increasing number of women in the metal trades, and their growing militancy, provided “some potential for agitation and organisation”. They write: “[s]ince at least 1915 Bolsheviks had been…addressing leaflets to both female and male workers”. On IWD in 1915, the Bolsheviks had distributed a leaflet arguing “the struggle to increase wages and shorten the working day is possible only with the full participation of women workers. The task of the day is to assist in raising their class consciousness”. And in one in February 1917, they note that “the appeals were gender neutral”. However, they add a qualifying “although” to these observations: “revolutionaries saw [the women’s rising militancy] as part of the general class struggle”.[40] The women’s militancy was part of the general class struggle, fuelled by it and adding to it. The tentative “although” reflects their hesitation in accepting this key dynamic.

McDermid and Hillyar assert that the “opponents [of the tsar] ignored the evidence of female disaffection…[not] believing that it could result in more than a riot over ‘bread and herrings’”.[41] And they begin the chapter on women in the 1917 revolution by asserting that it was “generally accepted by revolutionaries that women workers were incapable of sustaining either organization or industrial action, and that the cause of any female protest would be material rather than ideological, concerned with problems of everyday life rather than the wider political picture”.[42] They reference the patronising attitude of Nikolai Sukhanov, a left Menshevik and not a revolutionary, towards women clerical workers whose assessment of the coming revolution he ridiculed.[43]

The Bolsheviks based their practice on the understanding that revolutions begin, whether initiated by women or men, in much the same way as did the February revolution. Political consciousness determined their attitude to workers, not gender; and they assumed the backward, whether male or female, could be lifted to the level of the advanced if drawn into the struggle.

McDermid and Hillyar assert that the Bolsheviks did not support the women going on strike on IWD because they “feared the assumed spontaneity and indiscipline of the women”, only reluctantly accepting that they could not ignore the mood among them.[44] But the Bolsheviks’ attitude was informed by strategic concerns about how to ensure any uprising happened when workers were ready to follow through with an assault on the regime. The small and quite passive response to the call for demonstrations on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday worried the socialists. The Bolsheviks’ leading committees feared that workers were not ready for a general offensive against the regime. So they thought it better to plan for May Day, giving time to build for it. However, some of their members in the factories were for it, as was Trotsky’s small group.

This would not be the last time the Bolshevik leadership would be more cautious than many of their members. On 21 June, in response to increasing agitation by many Petersburg workers and the soldiers in particular to overthrow the government, Lenin addressed them in Pravda. “We understand your bitterness, we understand the excitement of the Petersburg workers, but we say to them: ‘Comrades, an immediate attack would be inexpedient’.” And leadership bodies repeated these sentiments.[45] It is not unusual for experienced leaders of struggle to resist pressure by the less experienced for what they fear is premature action. Their rationale might well be based on an assessment of the levels of political consciousness and discipline among those pushing for action, as well as expectations of insufficient wider support or the state’s response. These considerations in February were not based on gender, as McDermid and Hillyar’s reference to the stereotypes about women implies, any more than they were in June.

In any case, as soon as the striking women called for support they got it, with Bolsheviks like Kayurov and other militants leading male workers out on strike, as was the tradition. But McDermid and Hillyar belittle Kayurov and other Bolsheviks’ call for solidarity as motivated only by a desire to “retrieve the situation”. But Kayurov wrote later, “once there is a mass strike, one must call everybody into the streets and take the lead”. And this tradition which underpinned Bolshevism applied irrespective of gender, whether skilled or unskilled made the call. Looking for explanations of the Bolsheviks’ caution in their assumed attitudes to women simply obscures vital lessons about the process of struggle.

Defying the sexist stereotypes

Revolution makes it clear that class solidarity is essential to both sides in the conflict. So among workers and the oppressed, the need for solidarity can overcome sexist divisions. Women were often able to organise and lead men, carrying out roles which challenged the sexist stereotypes.

Stites and McDermid and Hillyar have documented this process. They show the concerted and successful efforts by the Bolsheviks to involve and politically educate women. From often having to learn to read and write, these women became activists with serious responsibilities, from leading strikes and demonstrations, writing for and coordinating distribution of Bolshevik publications, to organising arms, overseeing communications and the whole tram system to ensure the insurrection in October went smoothly. The Bolshevik leadership had confidence that women, once politicised and active, could perform non-stereotypical roles.[46]

In February, two Bolshevik women organised many mass meetings and strikes including metal and tram workers, as well as helping soldiers free political prisoners. Nina Agadzhanova was on Bolshevik leadership bodies, and was elected to the Petrograd soviet by the Vyborg district. Elena Giliarova, aged 18, served as a nurse on the Russian-Turkish war front in 1915, and as a propagandist for the Bolsheviks among the troops. After the February revolution, she was elected by the soldiers to represent them in the Petrograd soviet! She later played a role preparing women to fight in the Red Guards. Petronelia Zinchenko, from a poor peasant family in the Lithuania-Polish area of the empire, was working at the naval base on Kronstadt in February 1917, making sailors’ uniforms. She was elected to the Kronstadt soviet and joined the Bolsheviks in August. In October she organised the sailors to go to the capital and was responsible for keeping order in the fortress and for communications between Kronstadt and Petrograd.

Arishina Kruglova helped free political prisoners in February, organised Red Guards in her area and was a delegate to two district soviets. During October, she led raids on wealthy areas, searching for arms for the Red Guards and to disarm the enemy. Serafima Zaitseva had joined the Bolsheviks aged 20 in 1915, working in metal works. She joined the Red Guards in her factory, and was in a contingent which stormed the post office in October and fought counter-revolutionaries on the outskirts of Petrograd.

Nevertheless, assertions and hesitations sprinkled throughout Midwives imply the Bolsheviks were inadequate in some way, because they regarded gender issues as an integral aspect of the class struggle. But there is no other way to see the women’s struggles. Take the issues workers agitated around: low and unequal pay, maternity leave, sick leave, sexual harassment at work, all issues which highlight gender oppression – and which only workers would campaign around. Bourgeois women relied on many of these conditions to ensure profits in their husband’s businesses and cheap domestic labour. It was all-out class war – and only those who fought on the workers’ side could seriously organise among working class women.

Indeed Richard Stites argues that the Bolsheviks could relate to women workers much more easily than the Mensheviks because they were more radical. In their support for the government, and especially once they joined it, the Mensheviks were always compromised, wanting to send demands off to some committee to investigate, prevaricating and delaying reforms such as the eight-hour day. The Bolsheviks unequivocally supported strikes and their demands by everyone. They identified completely with the workers because they were convinced that only a second revolution in which workers took power could ensure workers’ aspirations would be realised.

An important aspect of the Bolsheviks’ work among women was the revival of the paper Rabotnitsa, banned since 1914. On its editorial board were K.I. Nikolaeva, P.F. Kudelli, K.N. Samoilova, Elizarova, Bonch-Bruevich, Kollontai, and Ludmilla Stahl – stalwarts of women’s liberation, and leading Bolsheviks for many years. An editorial board which included factory representatives met weekly to review the reports received from the different areas. Published twice monthly, it reached a circulation of about 50,000. It dealt with political questions of the war, critiquing the Provisional Government, and with economic grievances, as well as explaining the Bolshevik position on women’s oppression.

The Bolsheviks used Rabotnitsa to agitate among and organise women workers and soldiers’ wives. As women’s strikes, like one by 8,000 laundresses in May, grew in number and militancy, they mobilised support. They staged huge political meetings that often spilled out of the hall into the street. On 11 June 10,000 turned up at the Cinzinelli Circus to hear speeches on the topic of “The War and High Prices”. The paper also addressed male workers, arguing for them to see women as an integral part of the workers’ movement. McDermid and Hillyar give a good outline of the approach:

[O]n the one hand this entailed challenging the stereotype of the passive, conservative woman and insisting on the principle of sexual equality. On the other hand, it focused on “women’s” issues (such as crèches, nurseries, maternity benefits and protective labour legislation), as well as those “domestic” problems associated with the war.[47]

They document that the Bolshevik Party fought to have women represented on factory committees in industries where they constituted a significant portion of the workforce (notably textiles), which involved persuading men to vote for them.[48] And they fought the prevalent idea that with growing unemployment, men should get priority over women, especially using their influence in the metalworkers’ union.

And yet, in their conclusion McDermid and Hillyar express the classic putdown of women in their effort to limit the achievements of the Bolsheviks: “These ‘midwives of the revolution’ were poorly educated and drawn to simple explanations for their plight”. It was hardly a “simple” matter to come to understand that only a new revolution would realise their demands and that the only organisation committed to those demands was the Bolsheviks. However, as if they realise, mid-sentence, how insulting that is towards women who played a role in a revolution, they conclude “but they were not simply blank pages on which the Bolsheviks could write. Rather, they eventually turned to the Bolshevik Party because it alone seemed to articulate their concerns as women and as workers, and to appreciate that they wanted these addressed as a matter of urgency”.[49]

McDermid and Hillyar refer to the “narrowness” and “limited in practice” features of Bolshevik work – without ever suggesting what wider or less limited practices would have consisted of. But on the other hand, they say that the Bolsheviks “seem to have been influenced more by class than gender”, and so “the women didn’t challenge their gender roles but tended to justify their activities with reference to their traditional domestic responsibilities”.[50] So in the contradictory world of identity politics and suspicion of class as a basis on which to analyse women’s oppression, at one minute they erroneously assert that the Bolsheviks didn’t campaign around specific gender issues. But when forced to admit they did, it is another negative as it reinforced the sexist stereotypes.

Much has been written about the role of the prominent leading Bolshevik women, such as Krupskaya, Inessa Armand, Alexandra Kollontai and many others, not always accurately, reducing them to Lenin’s wife or lover, or inappropriately labelled a “feminist” rather than a Marxist revolutionary. These women were in the main from the educated middle and upper classes, as were most leading male socialists. Their privileged position made it possible to be involved when working class women were quiescent, held down by poverty and appalling oppression. But there can be no doubt about the serious attitude of the Bolsheviks towards working class women once they moved out of the shadows.

Women were about 10 percent of the Bolshevik membership in 1917, and in the party and among workers, women often had responsibilities regarded as more appropriate for women, things like secretarial and organisational roles, rather than theoretical writing, etc. But we need to think of the context: high levels of illiteracy and little education for women generally. Many of the women who became Bolsheviks first had to learn to read and write. Contraception was difficult and unreliable, maternal support virtually non-existent, and limited legal rights hardly encouraged women to live independently from men. The historian Ralph Carter Elwood, writing about women revolutionaries in the Ukraine, makes some insightful points. He insists on the importance of what is often just dismissed as unimportant, “humdrum” (in the words of one historian) secretarial jobs, and argues that these were vital roles, involving political judgement. Women were often responsible for coding of messages, arranging secret addresses, serving as liaison between illegal and legal outlets. And he concludes:

We need to stop condescending to these “daughters” and “brides” [we could add “midwives”] of the revolution, who possessed courage as well as dedication, initiative as well as selflessness. The achievements of Marxist women in Russia have to be set within the context of a very limited range of options open to women in such a patriarchal society.[51]


The issues at stake are not just historical. They are alive in the struggles of today. Clearly women played less of a leading role because of the structural oppression they suffered. But talk of political leadership as a “male hierarchy” of the movement is drastically disorienting. In mass struggle, the most advanced, class conscious and organised need to lead if any gains are to be won. Opposition to them taking the lead on the basis of their gender or any other identity would be nothing but counterproductive.

Wade argues that socialists “rejected a separate feminist agenda as a distraction from the main struggle”.[52] This is argued today about Marxists. Then and now it misstates the issue. How could there have been a “separate feminist agenda” to which working women were committed? The Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries and the feminist movement to which they subscribed, like the Bolsheviks, had a class agenda, not a “separate feminist” one. But theirs was that of the capitalist class, whose rule could only maintain women’s oppression.

The Bolsheviks argued that the economic, social and structural changes necessary to achieve women’s liberation would only be possible after a further, workers’ revolution. But it is absolutely clear from the histories written by Wade, McDermid and Hillyar and Stites, that the Bolsheviks did not ignore women’s rights before that revolution. Like all revolutionary Marxists, they understood that for successful workers’ struggles of any magnitude, workers need to be involved in fighting for the rights of the oppressed in their ranks. And the oppressed need to be drawn into that struggle.

The October revolution created a workers’ state. Tragically it was destroyed. The defeat of the workers’ revolutions which swept Europe, and counter-revolution backed up by imperialist invasions by the supposedly enlightened Allied powers, destroyed the workers’ democracy along with the economy. This laid the basis for Stalin’s rule, under which all the gains of women, workers and peasants, were rolled back.[53] Nevertheless, the workers’ state in Russia took humanity the closest we have ever been to socialism, and therefore to women’s liberation.

It was only after the October insurrection that the Bolsheviks could begin to lay the basis for a society with different attitudes to gender. It involved trying to establish a whole different framework, both ideologically and in terms of infrastructure – things like communal eating and state-run childcare, challenging the age-old patriarchal structures of the family.[54]

Any revolution will rupture society along class lines. So defensiveness about the centrality of class and concessions to identity politics can only be a distraction from the struggle for a workers’ movement which can lead a revolution again.

The class divisions among women have not been eliminated by improvements in women’s lives. Ruling class women now have their own businesses and so directly benefit from the oppressive conditions of working class women in the form of profits. And their exploitative position is strengthened by the divisions caused by sexism which undermine a united workers’ struggle. So they will no more support our demands than they did one hundred years ago. Hillary Clinton, Julia Gillard, Theresa May, Angela Merkel and Gina Rinehart are only some of the better known, but they graphically illustrate the point.

Stites concludes: “it is clear that the Bolsheviks never had any real competition as organizers and propagandists among women of the urban lower classes in 1917”.[55] This testimony confirms that the revolutionary, class orientation of the Bolsheviks made them the most effective organisers in the fight for women’s liberation. It matters that we draw the correct lessons from their experience, the better to understand how to lead such a fight for human liberation again.

Arnove, Anthony, Peter Binns, Tony Cliff, Chris Harman, Ahmed Shawki 2003, Russia: From Workers’ State to State Capitalism, Haymarket Books.

Barker, Colin (ed.) 2002 [1987], Revolutionary Rehearsals, Haymarket Books.

Bloodworth, Sandra 2010, “Marx and Engels on Women’s and Sexual Oppression and their Legacy”, Marxist Left Review, 1, Spring,

Bloodworth, Sandra 2013, “Lenin vs Leninism”, Marxist Left Review, 5, Summer,

Cliff, Tony 2004 [1976], All Power to the Soviets. Lenin 1914-1917, Haymarket Books.

Donald, Moira 1982, “Bolshevik activity amongst the working women of Petrograd in 1917”, International Review of Social History, 27 (2).

Elwood, Ralph Carter 1974, Russian Social Democracy in the Underground: A Study of the RSDLP in the Ukraine, 1907-1914, Assen.

Harman, Chris 1988, Class Struggles in Eastern Europe 1945-83, Bookmarks.

Harris, Carolyn 2017, “Russia’s February Revolution Was Led by Women on the March”,,

Mandel, David 1983, The Petrograd Workers and the Fall of the Old Regime. From the February Revolution to the July Days 1917, St Martin’s Press.

McDermid, Jane and Anna Hillyar 1999, Midwives of the Revolution: Female Bolsheviks and Women Workers in 1917, UCL Press.

Shlyapnikov, Alexander 1982, On the eve of 1917. Reminiscences from the Revolutionary Underground, Allison and Busby.

Smith, Steve A. 1983, Red Petrograd. Revolution in the factories 1917-1918, Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Steve A. 1987, “Petrograd in 1917: the view from below”, in Daniel Kaiser (ed.), The Workers’ Revolution in Russia, 1917. The View from Below, Cambridge University Press.

Sorokin, Pitirim 1950, Leaves from a Russian Diary, The Beacon Press.

Stites, Richard 1990, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia. Feminism, Nihilism and Bolshevism, 1860-1930, Princeton University Press.

Trotsky, Leon 1977 [1930], The History of the Russian Revolution, Pluto Press.

Wade, Rex A. 2000, The Russian Revolution, 1917, Cambridge University Press.

[1] Sorokin 1950, p3.

[2] Stites 1990, p290.

[3] Harris 2017.

[4] Smith 1987, p61.

[5] Wade 2000, p31.

[6] McDermid and Hillyar 1999, p7.

[7] Cliff 2004, p89.

[8] Harman 1988, pp124-130; the accounts of revolutions in Barker 2002 similarly do not theorise spontaneity when there is clearly an element of it.

[9] McDermid and Hillyar 1999, pp140-141.

[10] Wade 2000, p29.

[11] McDermid and Hillyar 1999, p128.

[12] Smith 1983, p24.

[13] Mandel 1983, p63.

[14] Stites 1990, p290.

[15] Wade 2000, p32.

[16] McDermid and Hillyar 1999, p151.

[17] Trotsky 1977, p129.

[18] ibid., pp169-71.

[19] Wade 2000, p34.

[20] Armed workers’ militias organised in the factories and districts.

[21] There is a large body of work on the revolution, in which there is much information about the role of women and how their situation influenced their participation. Right wing historians usually ignore them. Here, my purpose isn’t to give a detailed account of their activities so much as to raise theoretical and political issues arising from some of the best feminist and social histories.

[22] Mandel 1983, pp23-33.

[23] ibid., p25.

[24] ibid., p23.

[25] ibid., p40.

[26] ibid., p28.

[27] McDermid and Hillyar 1999, p157.

[28] Wade 2000, p32.

[29] ibid., p37.

[30] Mandel 1983, p115.

[31] Wade 2000, p116-117.

[32] Donald 1982; Stites 1990, p293.

[33] McDermid and Hillyar 1999, pp143-154.

[34] Stites 1990, p237.

[35] McDermid and Hillyar 1999, p8. For a full assessment of Kollontai’s role and the attitudes to her in the Bolsheviks, see my Note of March 2017, “Who Was Alexandra Kollontai?”,

[36] Bloodworth 2010 for a fuller account of the Bolsheviks’ attitudes.

[37] McDermid and Hillyar 1999, p138.

[38] Bloodworth 2013 for details of the Bolsheviks’ approach.

[39] Shlyapnikov 1982, pp140, 144, 203. (McDermid and Hillyar, on p220 in footnote 53, cite p118.)

[40] McDermid and Hillyar 1999, pp139-141.

[41] ibid., p140.

[42] ibid., p143.

[43] ibid., pp140-141.

[44] ibid., p147.

[45] Trotsky 1977, p521.

[46] Stites 1990 and McDermid and Hillyar 1999. To trace these and other women’s biographies, check the index in these works.

[47] McDermid and Hillyar 1999, pp165-66.

[48] ibid., p166.

[49] ibid., p200.

[50] ibid., pp200-201.

[51] Elwood 1974, pp67-68.

[52] Wade 2000, pp117-118.

[53] For an explanation of this process of counter-revolution see Arnove et al. 2003.

[54] A discussion of those achievements is beyond the scope of this article. See Bloodworth 2010.

[55] Stites 1990, p300.

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