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Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series, part 13

1930s USSR: Survival with setbacks

By Leslie Feinberg

Male same-sex love was re-criminalized in the Soviet Union in 1933. In 1936, measures were introduced banning abortion and making divorce more difficult to obtain. (Abortion for medical reasons was restored in 1955, and free abortion on demand was re-legalized in 1968.)

Upon seizing state power in October 1917, the Bolsheviks had struck down the tsarist laws against homosexuality and abortion and eased restrictions on divorce. Why, then, this political reversal after more than a decade and a half?

For diehard anti-communists, no explanation of why setbacks occurred in the Soviet Union will convince them that in its more than seven decades of development there was still much worth defending from the point of view of the working class.

But for those who study past revolutions in order to strengthen the modern movement to achieve socialism--a system that will flourish in a planned world economy--a much more thorough examination of this period is essential, and no glib answers should be accepted as good coin.

The seizure of state power by the numerically small Russian working class, allied with the vast peasantry, did not establish socialism. A revolution is not a single act. It is a process.

The state based on this workers' revolution liberated turf on which to build a planned economy which, to be socialist, had to build the economic base of the impoverished, war-torn country, in order to breathe life into the demands of the revolution: peace, bread and land.

Russia was still semi-feudal and semi-colonial--the weakest link in the capitalist chain. Technologically under-developed.

This was the material reality.

People "make their own history," Karl Marx wrote, "but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past." ("The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte")

Cleaning the Augean stable

If all the Bolsheviks had to do was get rid of the dominant ideas of the old exploiting class, ideas which had permeated the population of laborers in the fields and the factories--national chauvinism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, anti-gay and anti-trans attitudes, superstition--the task of cleaning this Augean stable would have been formidable.

But in order to change social ideas, it was necessary to change the material conditions--to raise the productive level in the workers' state. And world imperialism, howling like ravenous wolves at its borders, did everything possible to hamper that historic effort.

Lenin wrote concretely about this in 1919 in relation to women's liberation. "Not a single democratic party in the world, not even the most advanced bourgeois republic, had done in decades so much as a hundredth part of what we did in our very first year in power. We actually razed to the ground the infamous laws placing women in a position of inequality, restricting divorce and surrounding it with disgusting formalities, denying recognition to children born out of wedlock, enforcing a search for their fathers, etc., laws numerous survivals of which, to the shame of the bourgeoisie and of capitalism, are to be found in all civilized countries."

However, he concluded, "Notwith standing all the liberating laws that have been passed, woman continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and to the nursery, and wastes her labor on barbar ously unproductive, petty, nerve-wracking, stultifying and crushing drudgery. The real emancipation of women ... will begin only when a mass struggle is started against this petty domestic economy, or rather when it is transformed on a mass scale into large-scale socialist economy." ("A Great Beginning," Collected Works, vol. 29, pp. 408-34)

Herculean tasks

The "dead hand of the past" handed the Russian Revolution three enormous responsibilities. "The new, infant workers' state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Repub lics," wrote Workers World Party founder Sam Marcy, "had thrust upon it three Herculean tasks utterly unprecedented in the entire history of the class struggle.

"It had the duty and obligation to reorganize on a revolutionary basis the left wing of the social democratic movement, put it on a communist basis, and lay the foundation for a new and revolutionary international. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were thus obligated from the start not only to give revolutionary leadership at home but, in a way, to become the general staff of the world revolution which seemed visible on the horizon, especially in Western Europe and later in the East, in China.

"Its second task, no less urgent and intimately connected with it, was for the new workers' state to defend itself against the most barbaric assaults by the united front of the imperialists, from Vladivostok to Murmansk.

"And thirdly, it had to begin to lay socialist economic foundations and raise the living standards of the workers and peasants who had passed through a most horrible period of destruction, civil war and famine." ("The Signi fi cance of Euro-communism," WW, July 11, 1977)

Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik seizure of power, was no utopian. He had no illusions that the capitalist class in Russia, or the enraged imperialists who surrounded the young workers' state, would be won over by "moral suasion" to stop attacking the revolution. In fact, he and other revolutionary leaders did not think the workers' state could survive long without the support of workers and oppressed peoples' around the world rising up in a groundswell of revolution in order to provide material support--globalizing socialism.

In Lenin's report to the Eighth Congress of the Bolshevik Party on March 18, 1919, on behalf of the Central Committee, he said that "it is inconceivable for the Soviet Republic to exist alongside of the imperialist states for any length of time. One or the other must triumph in the end." (Collected Works, vol. 29, p. 153)

A year earlier, on April 23, 1918, Lenin had explained to the Moscow Soviet, "We are a revolutionary working-class contingent that has advanced to the forefront, not because we are better than other workers, not because the Russian proletariat is superior to the working class of other countries, but solely because we were one of the most backward countries in the world. We shall achieve final victory only when we succeed at last in conclusively smashing international imperialism, which relies on the tremendous strength of its equipment and discipline.

"But we shall achieve victory only together with all the workers of other countries of the whole world. ... Our backwardness has put us in the forefront, and we shall perish unless we are capable of holding out until we receive powerful support from workers who have risen in revolt in other countries." (Ibid, vol. 27, p. 233)

Something had to give, Marcy stressed. While the result was not the dismantling of the workers' state and its economy, as the imperialists had hoped, some of the social gains of the early revolution were set back. The most left-wing militants in the Bolshevik Party, if they had not died on the front lines defending the revolution, were being pushed back in an internal struggle. And the population was exhausted by imperialist war and intervention, famine and want.

Revolution bent, but did not break

Any study of how and why important political rights that had been won for same-sex love and women were reversed in the Soviet Union in the 1930s has to take into consideration the effects that encirclement, economic embargo and isolation, sabotage, civil war and other weapons of unrelenting attack by world capitalism had on this vast but economically underdeveloped country.

Stripping historical reality from these steps backward does historic injustice to the tens of millions of workers and peasants of many nationalities, sexes, genders and sexualities who built the revolution with their sweat and defended it against the onslaught of world imperialism with their blood.

And it merely fans the flames of anti-communism, serving to derail the forward motion of the planet's working class and oppressed peoples towards genuine liberation.

An honest look at the measures taken against male homosexuality and abortion in the 1930s Soviet Union must ask: What effect did the low level of the productive apparatus and the high level of scarcity and deprivation have on the political goals of the Bolshevik Party? How did this frustrate the early goals of achieving the liberation of women and greater freedom of sexuality from state regulation?

With the danger of a new and even more destructive imperialist war gathering like a storm against the workers' state, creating an imperative need to quickly build a military force capable of defending the Soviet population, how did the industrialization and rapid collectivization of the peasantry in the 1930s produce a sea change in the spheres of women's societal role, and official attitudes towards gender expression and sexuality?

And perhaps most importantly, did these political reversals mean, as some said, that the Soviet Union ceased to be a workers' state that deserved the support of laboring and oppressed peoples around the world as it fought for its very life against world imperialism?

Next: Political setbacks for gays and women, and the 'seismic gender shift'

Reprinted from the Aug. 26, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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