National Sections of the L5I:

Chapter 4 - Stalinism and women's oppression

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The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 had, as a key part of its programme, a commitment to the full liberation of women. Immediately after taking power legal changes were brought about which went further than any bourgeois “democracy” had done before, or since, in abolishing the inequalities of women at the level of political, legal or civil rights.By December 1917 civil registration of marriage and easy free divorce was granted, abortion was legalised in 1920 and made available free in Soviet hospitals. In addition the Bolsheviks attempted to remove the fundamental features of women’s oppression in the home.Plans were made for the socialisation of childcare, communal dining facilities, laundries etc, plus encouragements for communal living arrangements.

In addition a large and active Women’s Department (Zhenotdel) was built which drew millions of working class and peasant women into the discussions, decisions and practical work of trying to carry out the programme for liberation.But these plans were never realised on any serious scale since the ravages of civil war and famine placed the young regime under enormous economic pressure. Communal canteens were established in the Civil War, not through any great plans to socialise and improve living, but rather to more efficiently distribute the scarce food supplies.After the war the period of New Economic Policy was introduced which had the effect of creating mass unemployment, with women suffering most of this.

By the mid 1930s the regime had abandoned any vestige of the Bolshevik programme for the socialisation of housework. With the growth of the bureaucracy amid general scarcities-intensified by the first Five Year plans-the poorly equipped and staffed facilities for childcare, catering and laundry were even further restricted and the empahasis once more placed on private domestic methods.For the bureaucratic stratum too domestic servants became common. An intensive hypocritical campaign for the building of the “new family” sought to legitimise the return to domestic slavery as a programmatic goal. Claims that the “socialist family” was based on love alone were dragged through the mud with the introduction of restrictions on love and divorce.

In fact, as Trotsky pointed out the whole logic of Stalinism was to increase the frequency of “marriages of convenience” as a means of gaining access to privilege or scant resources. The failures of Stalinism to meet the contraception and abortion needs of the mass of women led to the growth of backstreet abortions and loss of life through septic abortion.The response was to illegalise abortion altogehter in 1936 rahter than provide adequate facilities. Only in 1955 amid an epidemic of septic abortion casualties was the law reformed.

The dire nature of the Soviet economy has meant that many of the domestic appliances which have reduced the time needed for housework and food preparation for women in many imperialist countries are not available to Soviet women.This, combined with frequent food shortages, can make the experience of the double shift even more oppressive for Soviet women than for many women in the imperialist countries. The effect of this betrayal of the Bolshevik Revolution has been to discredit socialism in the eyes of the working classes of the world, and particularly women workers who see this “communist” society meaning more of the same for them.

The recent “reforms” under Gorbachev, far from involving a renewed attempt to socialise housework and liberate women from domestic drudgery, have been argued for in part, on the basis of strengthening still further the role of the family as a social unit, and pressure is increasingly being put on Soviet women to give up work.The bureaucracy have argued that it is the “de-feminisation” of women through their extensive role in factory work etc, that has been at least in part responsible for many of the ills of society.This reactionary ideology is being pumped out alongside reports of the appalling condition women workers face, thereby pretending to be acting in the interests of women by encouraging them to stay at home.

Even if the ruling bureaucracies of the degenerate workers’ states of the world have shown, and continue to show, a lively interest in preventing the actual emancipation of the woman and have proved their own reactionary character in the protection of the family and the maintenance of a sex-specific division of labour, the huge steps forward which have been made in these countries in comparison with their pre-revolutionary periods and the present imperialist world cannot be denied.In China and Cuba, for example, women were granted legal rights, and provided with improved health care and social services. Extreme forms of barbaric oppression, such as the sale of women and girls in China, were outlawed by the state.

Notwithstanding this the leading social positions in the party, trade union etc, remain a domain for men. Precisely this shows that the involvement of women in public production although it is a precondition for their liberation, this measure alone is not sufficient and that, in the face of the bureaucracy’s mishandling of the economy, all the achievements of women are put in danger.In these countries women’s role has remained that of serving the state and society through domestic toil combined with other work as necessary for the regime. The role of the church in Poland for example has never been effectively challenged by the Stalinist bureaucracies and continues to dominate the ideological and sexual oppression of women.