A brief history of ‘marriage,’ part 26

Marriage and the struggle for socialism

“Revolution is necessary … not only because the ‘ruling’ class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class ‘overthrowing’ it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” A critically important formulation by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in “The German Ideology.” (New York: International Publishers, 1970, p. 95)

In the concluding section of “Feminism and Marxism,” Dorothy Ballan notes the advances in social/sexual relations brought about by the Bolshevik revolution: “Its rich experience in the initial stages of the revolution still offers some of the most illuminating insights on what the starting point of the sexual revolution is, and how it was conceived by its leaders as part of the great socialist transformation of humanity.” (New York: World View Publishers, 1971, p. 60)

“The Bolsheviks began a new world historic process of dissolving the millennia of patriarchal society founded on private property, and began to construct a socialist cooperative society, free from patriarchal domination. It actually began to dismantle the patriarchy. What could be more significant for women?” (p. 62)

Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952) was a Bolshevik Party member and a leader in the revolutionary Soviet government. In her contribution to a collection of essays eulogizing V.I. Lenin, she wrote: “Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin] was the one who initiated the involvement of broad masses of women from the cities and villages in the building of a socialist state. … Not only the women of the Soviet Union, but women throughout the world should know that Vladimir Ilyich laid the foundations of female emancipation. … Nowhere in the world, nowhere in history is there such a thinker and statesman who has done so much for the emancipation of women as Vladimir Ilyich.” (tinyurl.com/lllyrur)

V.I. Lenin’s views on dismantling the patriarchy

In “The Emancipation of Women,” a book-length collection of the writings of Lenin on this crucial issue, we find the words: “In the course of two years of Soviet power in one of the most backward countries of Europe more has been done to emancipate woman, to make her the equal of the ‘strong’ sex, than has been done during the past 130 years by all the advanced, enlightened, ‘democratic’ republics of the world taken together.

“Education, culture, civilization, freedom — all these high-sounding words are accompanied in all the capitalist, bourgeois republics of the world by incredibly foul, disgustingly vile, bestially crude laws that make women unequal in marriage and divorce, that make the child born out of wedlock and the ‘legally born’ child unequal, and that give privileges to the male and humiliate and degrade womankind.” (New York: International Publishers, 1966, p. 75)

But Lenin tempered his approval of the progress that had been so far achieved by the Soviets in the early days of the revolution by pointing out what still needed to be done: “Public catering establishments, nurseries, kindergartens — here we have examples of … the simple, everyday means, involving nothing pompous, grandiloquent or ceremonial, which can ‘really emancipate women,’ really lessen and abolish their inequality with men as regards their role in social production and public life.

“These means are not new, they (like all the material prerequisites for socialism) were created by large-scale capitalism. But under capitalism they remained, first, a rarity, and secondly — which is particularly important — either ‘profit-making’ enterprises, with all the worst features of speculation, profiteering, cheating and fraud, or ‘acrobatics of bourgeois charity,’ which the best workers rightly hated and despised.” (p. 64)

Lenin’s discussions with Clara Zetkin

Starting in the autumn of 1920, Lenin held a series of discussions with Clara Zetkin, a founder and leader of the German Communist Party. Zetkin’s notes on those discussions are reprinted in “The Emancipation of Women.” Lenin raised his concerns with Zetkin about the need for the full liberation of all women from the tyranny of patriarchy. As the great internationalist he was, the global struggle against capitalism was always on his mind: “We do not yet have an international Communist women’s movement and we must have one without fail. We must immediately set about starting it. Without such a movement, the work of our International and of its parties is incomplete and never will be complete.” (p. 98)

In the matter of social/sexual relations, Lenin queried Zetkin at length on what he considered an overemphasis on personal sexuality and marriage problems at meetings of German working-class women and among the youth. Zetkin responded eloquently to Lenin’s concern, emphasizing the use of historical materialist analysis in these discussions: “Where private property and the bourgeois social order prevail [e.g., in Germany], questions of sex and marriage gave rise to manifold problems, conflicts and suffering for women of all social classes and strata. …

“Knowledge of the modifications of the forms of marriage and family that took place in the course of history, and of their dependence on economics, would serve to rid the minds of working women of their preconceived idea of the eternity of bourgeois society. The critically historical attitude to this had to lead to an unrelenting analysis of bourgeois society, an exposure of its essence and its consequences, including the branding of false sex morality. … Every truly Marxist analysis of an important part of the ideological superstructure of society, of an outstanding social phenomenon, had to lead to an analysis of bourgeois society and its foundation, private property.” (p. 102)

But Lenin needed more convincing: “Can you assure me in all sincerity that during those reading and discussion evenings, questions of sex and marriage are dealt with from the point of view of mature, vital historical materialism? This presupposes wide-ranging, profound knowledge, and the fullest Marxist mastery of a vast amount of material.” (p. 102)

This back and forth between Lenin and Zetkin continued, broaching a number of related issues. Lenin sought to clarify his position with the following words: “Not that I want my criticism to breed asceticism. That is farthest from my thoughts. Communism should not bring asceticism, but joy and strength, stemming, among other things, from a consummate love life. Whereas today, in my opinion, the obtaining plethora of sex life yields neither joy nor strength. On the contrary, it impairs them.” (p. 107)

Leon Trotsky on the backtracking ­following Lenin’s death

Leon Trotsky, who stood with Lenin in the front ranks of the Bolshevik revolution, expressed concerns similar to those of Lenin with regard to freeing women from domestic drudgery: “Washing must be done by a public laundry, catering by a public restaurant, sewing by a public workshop. Children must be educated by good public teachers who have a real vocation for the work. Then the bond between husband and wife would be freed from everything external and accidental, and the one would cease to absorb the life of the other. Genuine equality would at last be established.” (“Problems of Everyday Life,” New York: Monad Press, 1973, p. 42)

Defeating the capitalists and feudalists through proletarian revolution in one of the world’s poorest countries, and then struggling through civil war and imperialist invasion, the Soviets were hard pressed to provide all that was materially required. Gradually though, through rational, socialist planning and the revolutionary dedication of the workers and peasantry, great strides forward that would have been impossible under capitalist rule were made. Politically, however, after the death of Lenin in January 1924, much was lost, as documented in great detail in Trotsky’s later writings.

Having been forced into exile, Trotsky wrote disparagingly of the backtracking of the privileged Stalinist bureaucracy on social/sexual matters as on other issues in 1936: “The marriage and family laws established by the October Revolution, once the object of its legitimate pride, are being made over and mutilated by vast borrowings from the law treasuries of the bourgeois countries. And as though on purpose to stamp treachery with ridicule, the same arguments which were earlier advanced in favor of unconditional freedom of divorce and abortion — ‘the liberation of women,’ ‘defense of the rights of personality,’ ‘protection of motherhood’ — are repeated now in favor of their limitation and complete prohibition.” (pp. 86-87)

Nonetheless, the Soviet Union, having come into existence bearing a millstone of millions of illiterate and desperately poor people, was, within a short period of time, able to produce several generations of socially secure, educated women, including many women in positions of authority and leadership. And the socialist goal to free women from patriarchal slavery has continued and grown in the century since the birth of the Soviet Union. Socialist and communist leaders like Rosa Luxemburg in Germany, Nguyen Thi Binh (Madam Binh) in Vietnam, Jiang Qing (Chiang Ching) in China, Lolita Lebrón in Puerto Rico, Leila Khaled in Palestine, Nidia Díaz in El Salvador, Haydée Santamaría in Cuba, Titina Silla in Guinea Bissau, the Black Panther women in the U.S. and countless other revolutionary women have been an inspiration to millions, women and men alike, all around the world.

The next installment in this series will cite the gains in social/sexual relations made by the Cuban revolution.