Tariq Ali is a renowned writer, activist and filmmaker who has published more than two dozen books on politics and history, including Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads and Modernity (2002), The Obama Syndrome (2010) and The Extreme Centre: A Warning (2015). The Calvert Journal is delighted to publish here an extract from his new book, The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution, out now from Verso Books.
Written in honour of the centenary of the revolution in which Lenin played such a crucial role, Ali’s new work explores the formation of the Bolshevik leader’s political thought and the dilemmas which he and his comrades confronted as they made history. The following extract is drawn from the chapter The Octobrist Women, detailing the central and often overlooked role played by women in both the uprisings that led to the fall of the tsar, and the communist government that was formed in its wake.
Women played a major part in both of the revolutions of 1917, and to a much greater extent than they had in 1905. The February uprising was, in fact, triggered by the strike of women in the textile industry in their dual roles as workers and, in many cases, the wives of soldiers at the front. They sent appeals to the metal workers to join them and, by the end of the day, over 50,000 workers were marching in the streets of the capital. They were joined by housewives marching to the Duma demanding bread. It was International Women’s Day (8 March by the Gregorian calendar), that the Bolshevik activist Konkordia Samoilova had made known to Russians in 1913 and that had been celebrated, observed and marked from that year onwards. It was usually a smallish public event in a few cities. Celebrating it with a mass strike led by women workers was unprecedented. There was a special irony involved: Russia’s capitalists had assumed that since women were the most oppressed, docile and socially backward (in the sense that unlike the terrorist women of previous decades, a large majority were illiterate) group in Russian society, they would, according to capitalist logic, make the most obedient and trouble-free members of the workforce. This was a miscalculation. As the First World War continued, so did the need for more labour. The percentage of women in the factories doubled and trebled. The Putilov arms industry was also producing the most militant workers and Bolshevik organisers, female and male.
In Moscow, too, women workers were becoming radicalised. One of them, Anna Litveiko, eighteen years old in 1917, later described the process in a brief memoir. She and two friends roughly the same age were working in the Elektrolampa factory in Moscow’s industrial belt. She recalled her father returning home in 1905 from the last barricade left in the city ‘all beaten up, his clothes torn and his pockets full of cartridges’. This time it was different. Many soldiers and Cossacks were on their side. In October, choices had to be made. Which side were they on? Menshevik or Bolshevik? Anna admired the two Bolshevik organisers who worked with her. In this factory the Mensheviks sent intellectuals to address them from the outside, ‘but then I was told that it was often the other way round – Mensheviks were the workers and Bolsheviks the intellectuals. How could I figure it out?’
One day she waited for one of the Bolsheviks and asked: ‘What is the difference between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks?’ He replied:
You see, the tsar has been kicked out, but the burzhuis [bourgeois] have stayed and grabbed all the power. The Bolsheviks are the ones who want to fight the burzhuis to the end. The Mensheviks are neither one thing nor the other.
Anna decided that ‘if it was to the end, then I was going to sign up with the Bolsheviks.’ Her two friends soon followed suit.
None of the participants or the leaders of the clandestine political parties embedded in the capital had any idea that it was the first day of a revolution, except for the women office workers overheard by Sukhanov soon after he arrived at work that morning. The women came out the next day as well and this time, so did the men. And the parties of the left were now wide awake, writing, printing and distributing leaflets, most of which were similar in tone except for those of the Bolsheviks, who also demanded peace and an immediate end to the imperialist war. By that weekend the soft breeze had turned into a storm. Sukhanov, now out on the streets taking notes and savouring the situation, overheard two unsympathetic bystanders. ‘What do they want?’ said one grim-looking fellow. Back came the reply from his lookalike: ‘They want bread, peace with the Germans, and equality for the Yids.’ Bull’s-eye, thought the future historian, expressing his delight at this ‘brilliant formulation of the programme of the great revolution’.
There were only two women members of the Bolshevik Central Committee in 1917: Alexandra Kollontai and Elena Stasova. Varvara Yakovleva joined a year later and was minister for education in 1922, later becoming minister for finance. The Mensheviks were not much better. The numerical contrast with the terrorist People’s Will could not have been more striking, but even their successor, the Social Revolutionary (SR) Party, showed how much had changed in the new century. The proportion of women in their leading bodies, too, had registered a very sharp decline, though marginally less so in their secret terrorist wing, the Combat organisation.
The reasons for this were varied. Women workers were being recruited in huge numbers to the industrial combines. A political comparison is equally revealing. Those men and women from the old groups who wanted to maintain their allegiances in different times might have joined the SRs. The majority of them now appeared in public without the mask of terrorism.
Alexandra Kollontai was not the only woman to play an important role in the early Soviet Union, but she was undoubtedly one of the more gifted, and possessed a fiercely independent mind and spirit. It is in her work that we can see the synthesis of revolutionary (socialist, not radical) feminism. She understood better than most the social, political and sexual needs of women’s liberation. She could be harsh sometimes in her estimates of women from different class backgrounds, but these views were not shared by many of her comrades, male or female. She was deliberately misinterpreted and painted as a defender of permanent libertinage; in the countryside small landlords used her name to warn poor peasants that if they went along with the plan for collective farming they would have to share the younger women of their families with all other men, while the older women would be reduced to soap.
Alexandre Kollantai (1872–1952): Veteran Bolshevik, only supporter of the April Theses; first woman to be appointed ambassador (to Norway).
Kollontai was only too aware of the absurd nature of most of the propaganda and became especially irritated when accused of prioritising sex above love. In her short autobiographical essay ‘The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman’, she explained that love had always played a large part in her life, but that it was a transient experience. More important was the need to ‘understand that love was not the main goal of our life and that we knew how to place work at its centre’. She could have added, ‘. . . like men do’. She wanted love to be harmoniously combined with work, but ‘over and over again, things turned out differently, since the man always tried to impose his ego on us and adapt us fully to his purposes.’ The choice was either to accept this position for the sake of life or, by opposing, end it. She explained that since ‘love had become a fetter’, the only way out was through ‘an inevitable inner rebellion . . . We felt enslaved and tried to loosen the love-bond.’ She claimed not that there was an absence of contradictions in the rush ‘toward freedom’, but the contrary: ‘We were again alone, unhappy, lonesome, but free – free to pursue our beloved chosen ideal work.’ It was one of the early core statements of modern feminist values, and one from which the twenty-first century has retreated, despite endless hosannas honouring ‘gay marriage’.
Lenin wrote in 1918 that ‘from the experience of all liberation movements, it can be noted that the success of a revolution can be measured by the extent of the involvement of women in it.’ Virtually all Russian revolutionaries, regardless of faction or party, had always agreed on this.
Elena Stasova (1873–1966): Another veteran Bolshevik and very close to Lenin. She was the party secretary in Petrograd in 1917 and later a Comintern functionary.
More from Literature
Victoria Lomasko combines art and reportage in this powerful national portrait
Yuri Slezkine’s epic history of the revolution, from 1917 to Trump
Maria Alyokhina’s memoir is a call to arms against corruption and injustice
An essay on the ‘Russian cottage’ and its place in the country’s imagination