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Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series, part 8

Capitalism shakes the branches

By Leslie Feinberg

As city life and capitalist industrialization were shaking up family and sexual relations for Russian male workers, women also felt their impact.

Historian Dan Healy wrote, "Same-sex relations between women in tsarist and early Soviet Russia reflected the general transformation of women's roles and opportunities. For increasing numbers of women, the ties of the patriarchal village were loosening and breaking, and as with migrant men in the city, links to family ... were not always sufficient to maintain traditional forms of surveillance, including the monitoring of sexual behavior." ("Homosexual Desire")

While capitalism shook the branches of this rooted patriarchal system, it left the trunk intact.

Russian women were still weighed down with the burden of patriarchal family relations that served the class interests of the semi-feudal, semi-imperialist state.

Laura Engelstein writes, "Imperial Russian law established a system of power within the family at least as autocratic as the one governing the operation of the state: the husband wielded absolute authority over the wife, and the father entirely dominated the children. Women could not leave their households or undertake paid employment without the formal permission of father or husband, who controlled their access to the necessary official papers. No law protected women against physical abuse short of severe bodily injury.

"No formal grounds existed for legal separation; divorce, for which adultery constituted one of the few legitimate reasons, could be obtained only after elaborate and humiliating (or duplicitous) procedures; annulment was a rare and arduous attainment. No one of any age, male or female, could marry without the permission of parents or other appropriate authorities. By ancient custom, women had the legal right to maintain their own property after marriage, but they suffered severe disadvantages when it came to inheriting family wealth." ("Fin-de-Siècle Russia")

Nadezhda Krupskaya, a Bolshevik leader and author of the pre-revolutionary pamphlet "The Woman Worker," described company housing at the Thornton Broadcloth Mill, which, like much of Russian industry, was foreign-owned. Workers lived in "a huge building with an endless number of rooms, the partitions not up to the ceiling. ... The din was ear-splitting. The walls were green with damp. There were two families in each of the rooms, which were not large. ... They dried their laundry in the room, and it was so stifling the oil-lamps sputtered. ... Dormitory rooms were terribly crowded. ... The working day was incredibly long (12-14 hours at the textile mills). We saw some of the women workers lying on the cots in exhaustion, their faces in their pillows." ("Soviet Women")

Urban living also left its mark on the lives of male workers. "The rapid expansion of Russia's industrial base was accomplished by large numbers of male workers living in cities where there was neither space nor money for the replication of peasant marriage and family patterns," Healey wrote. "In tsarist Moscow, working men in the sexually active younger age groups outnumbered women, and they were crowded together in accommodations precluding any possibility of starting families or of bringing a wife and children from the village to join them." ("Homosexual Desire")

As peasants were pulled towards the vortex of urbanization in search of jobs, "A significant proportion of these newcomers stayed only temporarily or seasonally; many left wives and families behind in the village," Healey notes. "Others settled and became the basis of an urban proletariat in St. Peters burg, Moscow, and a handful of other centers. Urban workers' hous ing was crow ded. A huge proportion lived in barracks, flophouses, or shared rooms and even shared beds; a significant percentage lived in employers' households and workshops.

"Men found opportunities for sexual expression with each other in Russia's industrializing centers. As they exploited these new possibilities, they transformed Russian masculinity's traditional patterns of mutual male eros." ("Homosexual Desire")

That same-sex Eros--including, in some instances, lesbian love--was expres sed eloquently in the literature and arts produced in the late 19th century by the radicalized intelligentsia that was funded and flourished in the battle of the rising bourgeoisie and their imperialist backers against feudalism.

This articulation of the love that was finally speaking out in its own name flowered after the easing of censorship of books and periodicals following the 1905 Revolution against Tsar Nicholas II.

Two currents in women's struggle

The emancipation of women and the overall struggle for sexual liberation are closely tied, in particular because sexual subjugation in general is historically a key weapon of patriarchal domination.

That connection was visible in the late 19th century as revolutionary activists established collective living spaces. These political revolutionaries, writes Mandel, "established communes in the largest cities that were, particularly for women, places of refuge for runaways from the patriarchalism of smaller towns or family estates."

Mandel describes this collective living and the gender expression that was its hallmark in his own words, perhaps limited by his own concepts: "The members of the communes shared money, food, and possessions. The women particularly expressed their contempt for existing society by violating its rules of dress. They wore their hair straight, their clothing severe and comfortable, glasses whenever they needed them, and particularly violated convention by smoking. A unisex effect was striven for, not in the wearing of trousers, which was unthinkable, but in the abandonment of everything that made for femininity and for regarding women as sex objects." ("Soviet Women")

Between 1905 and 1917, two clear currents emerged in Russia that vied for leadership in the women's movement. One was socialist, seeking nothing less than the complete liberation of all workers and peasants from class domination. The other was a feminist grouping that was more middle- and upper-class in its composition and political orientation. It focused its struggle on the right to vote--an important bourgeois democratic demand.

In December 1908, for example, the feminists organized a Russia-wide congress in which more than 1,000 delegates took part. Only 45 working women were present and not one single woman from the peasantry--the class that represented Russia's vast majority of laborers.

The revolutionary women's current looked very different. In 1913, the Bolsheviks organized an important first celebration in Russia of Inter national Women's Day. Their organizing was in sharp distinction to a January congress on women's education convened by liberal intellectuals to which only a few women workers had been invited.

The Bolsheviks knew that in the repressive political climate of that year, the police would not issue a permit for a demonstration. So they secured the Grain Exchange for a "learned symposium." On the day of the event, March 8, the federal police--who were present at all meetings and could end any gathering at a whim--filled the first two rows in the hall.

The speakers at the Bolshevik-organized event were all women--working women. One of the leading voices at the meeting was a 25-year-old weaver who had been a member of her union executive board for six years. The weaver described the class composition and mood of the event: "No matter how poor the working women were, on 'their day,' the first holiday of women in Russia, they put on the very best they had, and the packed hall looked like a meadow in May from the brightness of the colors. ... [The police] didn't succeed in spoiling our holiday, although every speaker had to get her most private thoughts across to the audience as though breaking through the alert silence of the first rows." ("Soviet Women")

The outbreak of the inter-imperialist World War I in 1914 illuminated the bourgeois political foundation of those who identified with the feminist current. According to Richard Stites, a researcher in Denmark, "The feminists were rhapsodic about the great possibilities of serving the [Russian] fatherland and, in return, gathering political dividends for themselves. They showed no subtlety in connecting their 'sacrifices' to eventual payment in the coin of women's suffrage." ("Soviet Women")

Stites notes it was not well-to-do movement women who did most of the sacrificing during WWI. It was the women and men of the laboring classes who sacrificed.

And women workers paid with their sweat in toil, too. The percentage of women workers in factories had reached 30 percent of the total when the war broke out.

By 1917, as the imperialist war brought hunger and want, death and disability, thousands of women in the St. Petersburg needle trade walked out on strike, marching through the streets demanding "peace, bread and land." Male workers joined them, swelling the ranks of protest to 90,000.

That strike broke out on March 8--International Women's Day--and it was the first shot of the anti-capitalist Russian Revolution.

Capitalism's historical task

Capitalism in Russia, like feudalism, relied on the patriarchal family structures as economic units. The rule of capital accumulation created its own super-structure of law, religion, politics and education to justify the inequality of its economic base. And it enforced this economic and social injustice with brutal state repression.

World War I--an outgrowth of capitalism's drive to expand its relentless search for profits beyond its own border--was also having a profound impact on patriarchal family relations. The war uprooted millions of peasants and workers in Russia and elsewhere, disrupting planting and harvesting, production and family reproduction.

This clash of imperialist titans over who would steal the land, labor and resources of colonized peoples only profited the imperial victors. The war was slaughtering tens of millions of laborers and oppressed peoples, and exacerbating the super-exploitation and suffering of peoples caught in the grip of colonialism.

Capitalism, in relation to feudalism, was a progressive force in that it was a superior economic system--a qualitative leap in human productivity. Capitalism eradicated much of the medievalism of feudal autocracy with its need for science and technological advance. Capitalism socialized the artisan's individual tools, forging them into massive means of production. It galvanized a working class.

But the social relationship of capital--of exploiter and exploited--is a brutal one for workers and oppressed peoples.

And capitalism in Russia was too weak and too subordinated to the existing imperialist countries to even fulfill its bourgeois democratic promises to the masses. The brief liberal capitalist regime ushered in by the February 1917 Revolution solved none of their problems. It couldn't get out of the war that was killing the workers and peasants because the ruling class had imperial ambitions. It couldn't distribute the land to the peasants. And it couldn't meet the most elementary demands of the workers. Thus, the Bolshevik slogan of "Bread, land and peace" won the masses over to the need for a second revolution.

And this revolution in October 1917 created a workers' state that began the work of uprooting the entire trunk of ruling-class economic structures. It was no accident that one of the first acts of the Bolshevik government was to abolish the tsarist anti-gay and anti-woman laws.

Next: Bolshevik Revolution advances women's and gay rights.


Laura Engelstein: "The Keys to Happiness: Sex and the Search for Modernity in Fin-de-Siècle Russia." Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Healey, Dan. "Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia: The Regulation of Sexual and Gender Dissent." Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Healey, Dan. "The Disappearance of the Russian Queen, or How the Soviet Closet Was Born." Russian Masculinities in History and Culture. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Mandel, William M. "Soviet Women." Garden City: Anchor Books, 1975.

Worobec, Christine D. "Masculinity in Late-Imperial Russian Peasant Society." Russian Masculinities in History and Culture. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Reprinted from the July 22, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper
This article is copyrighted under a Creative Commons License.
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