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The Communist Women’s Movement in Retrospect

Mike Taber and Daria Dyakanova, eds., The Communist Women’s Movement 1920–1922: Proceedings, Resolution, and Reports (Chicago: Haymarket, 2023), 587 pages, $50.

A recent, highly curious book of more than a hundred short essays, Lenin: the Heritage That We (Don’t) Renounce, has an extended note by an activist in Kyrgyzstan, a distant section of the former USSR nearly bordering on China. The feminist author on the scene comments on the annual Women’s Day march, conducted annually there since the 1920s. She is glad that it continues, but is troubled that the globally sponsored, that is, “outside,” groups seem to aim their efforts away from contemporary class conflict, and more specifically, to ignore what her grandmothers and her mother (named Clara, for Clara Zetkin) had actually gained under the old system. Abortion, right to work and a vision of a classless society, however the dream was violated by the state: these made generations of women’s lives more worthwhile.

A vast history of women’s involvement in the expunged “socialist states” and in the Communist movements elsewhere seems to be disappearing with the passing of generations. A history evidently much too complicated, much too undesirable, to be taken altogether seriously in the mainstream; the needed research efforts remain to be done.

The Communist Women’s Movement, a contribution to the very first years, is almost as impressive as it is physically massive. The editors have put together the documents of what one could call a foreshortened global women’s communist movement. Foreshortened, that is, mainly because the early spirit of the Bolshevik Revolution as the spark for world revolution faded before the eyes of observers.

Much here has never been seen in print, or is in English here for the first time, after decades of being available only in German or Russian. In its entirety, the volume constitutes only a portion of a much larger documentary effort begun in the early 1980s, with multiple volumes on the early period of the Comintern already published.

The vast mobilization of revolutionaries for this new movement, across the early 1920s, had a delayed and lesser organizational impact among left-wing women.

Called into being by the Comintern’s Second Congress, the Communist women’s movement seems indeed small in its number of delegates—only fifty or so. Its aspirations, by contrast, could easily be described as limitless. The editors’ introduction of some seventy pages offers a rich view of the movement’s aspirations.

By 1922, as the editors say, nearly all European countries with Communist movements had women’s sections and women’s activities. The immediate focus of these activities centered—and would return again to this point during the Second World War—upon the mobilization of relief measures for Russia. A wider slate of ongoing or at least beginning activities included support for abortion and for women’s rights to participate as equals in various parts of society. In certain respects, these steps marked a decisive advance over some national sections of the Second International socialist women’s movement.

The more backward socialist parties had never advanced women’s issues beyond the urging of “protective legislation” against women’s workforce participation, i.e., to prevent competition with male workers. The more advanced sections had bubbled with contradictions. The editors do not say so explicitly, but the very appearance of communist movements in much of the colonialized world marked a particular advance because women’s rights had been so few, and the advance of efforts on their behalf had often been limited to (important) literacy and medical assistance, still a great distance from gender equality. Only a few voices of the “Women of the East” are heard in these pages, and it clear that the Comintern, the Russian party in particular, had to push hard to advance an unfamiliar agenda in these zones.

The original Communist women’s movement of this volume, embracing women from many countries but mainly Europe including Russia, set out a grand vision of itself and its work. Organizing proletarian women would demand a far-flung effort including gaining proper respect and resources from male-dominated Communist movements, working collectively toward equality in all spheres, full reproductive rights, and a fresh understanding of women in the revolutionary movement. The less convincing feature of this book is undoubtedly the rhetoric in the pages, women from various places using the same phrases of solidarity for the victory ahead, and so on.

Even by 1922, however, the reality that world revolution had at best receded, posed issues so difficult to face, so painful, as to be almost debilitating. Many women delegates could not accept the reality that Lenin himself had already reached: capitalism, far from being swept away, seemed to be stabilizing. What would a tactical retreat mean? The re-entry of Communists into the mainstream labor movements, however conservative, not to mention anti-communist current leaderships might be and often were, symptomized the problem.

And there were other difficulties, first of all the relation of Communists to pre-existing women’s non-socialist movements. Organized movements, large and small, in Europe or distant sections of some empire, had heretofore mainly focused on getting the vote, to a lesser extent upon access to education and the status of women workers usually last of all. In a few places, the vote had actually been won. But the women of the upper and middle classes, even those who marched militantly, showed little interest in proletarian revolution.

No less daunting, the break of Communists with the socialist movement in each country prompted confusion and disorientation, sometimes among the previously best organized women on the left. In much of Europe, the socialist parties had gone along with the warring governments and faced the opprobrium of the breakaway communists. In the US and a few other places, the socialist movement had been sturdily antiwar, suffering severe repression. In the light of the Russian Revolution, all this history seemed, for at least a moment, likely to be swept away. The Third International would replace the Second International heroically. These expectations proved premature at best.

From still another angle, especially in the US, the UK and parts of Europe, something called “feminism” had actually appeared on the scene, creating a uniquely new form of radicalism, thought and practice, not necessarily political in any way. Searching for and demanding expression of themselves as women, whether erotic or motherly, feminists presented something baffling to the doggedly loyal socialist women who had placed education and the advance of women workers, along with advancement of the movement at large, at the center of their work.

Feminism, as coeditor Mike Taber warns, but with inadequate emphasis, became a particular bone in the throat of the emerging communist women’s left. The Germans, who along with the Russians can be regarded as the real movers of a global communist women’s movement, had ferociously broken with the ideologies as well as the practices of the SPD. They expected other Communists everywhere to do the same. In much of the world and especially the zones where feminism had scarcely appeared, this detail amounted to little. In the US, UK, France, Germany and a few other places, feminist movements, whether they took on the title or not (“feminism” here and there meant something more definite than support of women’s rights, rather more like identification with “the feminine”), the impulse of the Communists very often proved blundering.

The socialist left, variegated by ideology, ethnicity and other factors, had actually embraced hundreds of thousands of lower-middle class women and even higher social classes, women who identified with every revolutionary cause and threw their lives into the struggle, from Scandinavia to Britain and Germany, Hungary, Eastern Europe and Russia, not to mention China and Japan. Vigorous debates about the value of woman suffrage versus (or related more closely to) the class struggle had filled the pages of various publications, likewise property rights, divorce and other issues long since familiar. Women also organized in most of the militant unions in the great wave of struggles of the unskilled workers before the outbreak of the First World War, and the best of socialist movements embraced their efforts (the craft unions, socialist or otherwise, were not mostly so supportive). The collapse of resistance to war, in much of Europe, left the  women’s movement like so much else at odds with itself. The Communists, very much led by the Russians, evidently offered the only way forward.

Communists had crucially added to socialist and socialist women’s agenda the “National Question.” Emphasizing the value and the necessity of work in the Global South, aka Europe’s colonies, and across wide stretches of what had been peasant societies of Asia and the Indian subcontinent, they set out a veritable agenda, with only a scattering of women from these regions actually managing to attend and speak.  The pages of The Communist Women’s Movement reflect this work mainly as aspiration, with fascinating promise.

Seeking to differentiate themselves from previous movements, the Communist women in these pages inclined to over-claim their advances in women’s rights. Contrary to claims here, for instance, the first International Women’s Day dated to a year or so before 1910, in Germany and the US. That it was originally known as International Woman Suffrage Day no doubt prejudiced leading Communist women from acknowledging their precursors, with the altering of the day of the year several times offering rationale for dubious assertions. Thus,  the rigid and reductive formulation that “Communism, the great emancipator of the female sex, cannot however emerge from a common struggle of women of all classes to reform the Bourgeois demands against the privileged social position of the male sex” (155).

Much useful contention can be found in these pages, real disagreements about how to move ahead. If Lenin signaled that the revolution was off the horizon, others disagreed, Henriette Roland-Holst of Holland in the lead. Such was the democracy of Bolshevism, at this early stage, that disagreement did not mean disloyalty, no matter how strident the polemics of the leading faction. All this ended so quickly: the drive for an international, Communist women’s movement operating under its own auspices ended almost before it had begun.

One should note that the complex, contradictory and little-understood role of Communist women’s movements around the world, continuing until at least the 1990s, poses problems that place this volume in a larger context. The editors insist that the usefulness of the early beginnings had been virtually exhausted by a preliminary “Stalinization” or constrained democracy, and by the formal closure of the communist women’s congress, in 1923. A more generous reading of this beginning would be that communist women’s activities actually continued and spread dramatically, but within the sharp limitations of an undemocratic leadership from Moscow.

Communist women had their own networks, among various ethnic and national groups their own political, cultural and fraternal movements and publications led and edited by outstanding figures in their own fashion and among their followers, in and around thousands of left formations. These networks, in broad strokes, very much in relation to the world Communist movement and to the USSR in particular, deserve a vast documentation that is barely beginning.

In the US alone (this reviewer’s  own special interest or realm of scholarship), the avowed “proletarian” communist women’s movement of the 1920s and early 1930s shifted to the Popular Front, with especially great effect among ethnic groups already well organized, summer camps, and cultural expressions such as community drama. The mobilization of these ethnic groups, in turn, proved vital to the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations’s community support. Intensified interracial political and cultural/political movements grew rapidly, spreading among union support, peace and liberation causes. That a new interest in Black women Communists within the US has prompted a rise of scholarship, mainly in the framework of individual biographies, would alone defy stereotypes repeated by unfriendly critics of  Communist history. Likewise, a growing scholarly interest of the left in popular culture, novels to theater and film and the ways in which Communists and near-communists successfully framed the left-liberal treatment of race among other subjects,  offers yet another potential stereotype-breaker. And so on. We have a lot more to learn!