Soviet Women: A Stalinist Apology
[First Printed in Women & Revolution #10, Winter, 1975-76]
A careful look at the status of Soviet women sheds much light on the evolution of the Soviet state. The revolutionary Soviet government under Lenin took immediate steps to alleviate the oppression of women. Divorce was made free and easily accessible; discrimination agains, children born out of wedlock was eliminated; free communal daycare centers were established; equal pay for equal work was decreed; abortion was made legal, free and available, on demand; and thousands of schools were opened to women for the first time on the basis of preferential admissions.
One of the fundamental aims of the Bolsheviks was to increasingly supplant and transcend the nuclear family as an economic institution through the socialization of the housework traditionally done on a private basis by women. They understood that the family was a prison for women, condemning them to ignorance through isolation from society and limiting their horizons to endless years of housework drudgery. After the civil war, one of the very first major campaigns waged by the government was for the construction of adequate child care facilities.
After the consolidation of power by a bureaucratic caste headed by Stalin, women lost a great many of the advances which they had achieved through the Revolution. Stalin’s policies, aimed at extinguishing all traces of genuinely revolutionary sentiment which might pose a threat to the regime, decreed the restoration of a more traditional relationship between the sexes (i.e., women playing a subservient role), particularly within the family, which was then proclaimed to be the basic unit of Soviet society.
Soviet Women, a new book by William M. Mandel, is essentially an apology for these policies. While the existing sexual inequality in the USSR is admitted, it is ascribed to the legacy of tsarism or the inevitable errors of a peasant people. Mandel also subscribes to the official Stalinist line that the goal of communists is not to replace the oppressive nuclear family, as advocated by Marx and Lenin, but only to mitigate its worst abuses.
It is undeniable that Soviet women enjoy a great many opportunities and advantages unknown to women in other parts of the world. The USSR provides free child care facilities for 10,000,000, pre-school children and free medical care. Women are guaranteed 112 days pre- and post-natal maternity leave at.full pay and a year in which to return to their jobs without loss of seniority. Men and women are allowed sick leave to care for sick children. Women’s wages in the Soviet Union average 87 percent of men’s (as qpposed to 59 percent in the United States), and rent is set at five percent of a worker’s income. Nor are these advances limited to urban areas; among peasant women, where illiteracy was virtually universal until well after the Revolution, there are more college and high school educated women than men!
Moreover, Mandel demonstrates conclusively that Soviet women have been drawn out of the home and into productive work. They constitute 51 percent of the workforce, and, unlike their American counterparts, who are barred from a great many skilled and semi-skilled trades, Soviet women drive trains, fly planes; run massive hydroelectric power plants, plan the development of natural resources, unload ships, do theoretical work in mathematics and science and generally participate in every branch of industry and government. (“My pride in being an American was deeply hurt,” reports Mandel, “when I found that the share of U.S. women in the leading professions is just about the lowest in the entire world.”)
Those like the Maoists and “third-camp socialists”, who argue that the Soviet Union is a “social imperialist” or capitalist state would do well to reflect on these figures, for, while they certainly do not demonstrate full equality in the workforce, they do indicate advances which could only have been achieved in a society which has eliminated private, ownership of the means of production and instituted a planned economy. Full employment, the plowing back of social profits into the massive construction of day care and school facilities and the actual enforcement of equal pay for equal work cannot be achieved in a capitalist economy. Under capitalism surplus value is reinvested only where it returns a profit; a reserve army of the unemployed (historically composed largely of women) is required to drive down wages, and the cost of labor is minimized by shifting the entire burden of child rearing onto the worker’s family, specifically onto the mother. .
Latter-day Stalin devotees maintain that capitalism was restored in the Soviet Union after 1956 and that the gains of Soviet women pre-date this period. But it should be noted that there is a distinct upward curve in educational and occupational equality for Soviet women under 30 and that the greatest advances by women in the countryside haye been made in the past 10 years. (Mandel provides valuable, comparative statistics on Chinese development which debunk the Maoist myth that China has outstripped the Soviet Union in alleviating the oppression of women. While Chinese women are in a far better position than the women of capitalist countries of the region, such as India, China; lacking full employment, cannot begin to integrate women into the workforce on a level comparable to that of the USSR. Furthermore, maternity leaves are only half as long as in the Soviet Union when they are available at all, and abortions are not easily accessible.)
Mandel admits to the relative absence of Soviet women in high decision making positions in government, management and the Communist Party. His explanation for this is that the progress of Soviet women has been obstructed.by the cultural heritage of tsarism. ln a shorter essay, “Soviet Women in the Work Force,” which contains the fundamental theses set forth in Soviet Women, he put it most succinctly; “…women have advanced in the Soviet labor force and professions in approximately direct proportion to the elimination of handicaps inherited by the Soviet regime and …a principal basis for residual differences in the status of men and women is the time lag in this regard.”
While Marxists recognize that a fledgling workers state is built on foundations heavily marked by the traditions of the bourgeois society from which it has just emerged, they also recognize that human consciousness can intervene to lessen the effect of those traditions. Mandel’s objectivist formulation serves to obscure the fact that sexual inequalities in the Soviet Union are as much a legacy of Stalin as of Nicholas. It was Stalin’s policies which for 20 years decreed that woman’s primary role was that of childbearer.
Mandel is too knowledgeable to simply omit all reference to Stalinist policy, and his personal repugnance for some of the worst atrocities of the regime leads him to voice occasional criticisms of it. Nonetheless, an ex-Stalinist himself, he has never broken from Stalinism’s fundamental premises. He believes that the bureaucracy’s policies were, in fact, justified:
“Because of the frank hostility of every other government to the USSR in the 1930’s, and Hitler’s publicly announced intention long before the war, to seize great parts of the Soviet Union and make it a colony, the Soviet Union became like a city under siege. Every individual’s life was subject to control in what was believed to be the interests of the survival of the whole.”
Mandel’s real political sympathies come through most clearly in an earlier passage where he observes:
“…there is a peculiar myth, political rather than scholarly in origin, that holds that Lenin’s brief lifetime after 1917 was a period of progress, followed by reactlon under Stalin. The fact is that Lenin died in 1924; and Trotsky, who had been second in prominence, was thereafter in a powerless minority. It was the first decade of Stalin’s Ieadership (1924-34) that witnessed both the flourishing of films and literature, and the kinds of legislation and experiments in living that many young Western radicals and cultural figures look upon with nostalgia.”
While Communist Party leader Gus Hall or the Maoists of the October League may look upon this period with nostalgia, 1929-36 was the period of the most brutal repression. Virtually every sector of Soviet society was devastated by purges in which some 500,000 people were killed (including virtually the entire original leadership of the Bolshevik party) and 5,000,000 were put into forced labor camps. Most of those who had participated in the brief flowering of Soviet art were put to death, Forced collectivization was so brutal and destructive that its effects are still felt in Soviet agriculture, contributing to the continually low levels of production. Mandel’s book, which is so chockfull of statistics, conveniently omits mention of any of these atrocities!
This period of Stalinist reaction marked a decisive step backward for women. As the revolutionary tide ebbed in Europe, the Soviet Union was left isolated and poverty stricken. This was fertile ground for the growth of a bureaucracy bolstered by its authority as the defender of Soviet borders and by its control of the scarce commodities available to the Soviet people. Anxlous to protect its privileged position, this bureaucracy set out to destroy all vestiges of Soviet power which could challenge its authority. It appealed for support to the most conservative prejudices of the urban and peasant masses. The family, that purveyor of the traditional ideas of subservience and respect for authority, was one of its central instruments.
An all out offensive was undertaken to reconstitute the family structure based on female subordination. In 1934 the Women’s Section of the party was abolished and all mass women’s organizations were dissolved. Mandel claims that these organizations disappeared because “at that time, women had gained the confidene to stand up for themselves in mixed organizations and to function in them, and had in practice attained essential equality in employment and education, that is, outside the home.” In his haste to justify Stalinist policy, he forgets the resolution passed in 1930 by the Central Committee of the CP which he had quoted earlier, noting ”’extreme indecisiveness by local party bodies regarding the promotion of women to leading posts involving independent authority, and in some cases absolutely open bigotry on the part of certain party organizations and members.”
Hard on the heels of the dissolution of the Women’s Section and mass organizations came the illegalization of abortion and the virtual impossibility of obtaining a divorce, combined with a propaganda offensive which Mandel admits “resulted in a sanctification of ’till death do us part’ that any church would envy.” In 1941 a law was passed relieving men of any responsibility for children born out of wedlock. In 1944, co-education was abolished, ensuring that women would get second best in terms of available schools, teachers and facilities. This decree was similar to the “separate but equal” decisions of the U.S. courts which followed the period of reaction in the South after abandonment of Reconstruction. Mandel’s response to these defeats is: ” … to me, the marvel of that period is that despite the steps backward the mass-scale advance of women was not fundamentally affected, as the subsequent years have shown.”
Nothing could be further from the truth! The inequality existing today can be traced directly to the policies of this period. Twenty years of illegalized abortion, the sanctification of marriage and motherhood and the abolition of co-education could not but reinforce the traditional attitude that women are indeed inferior. More important, while women were never driven from the workforce, the emphasis on child rearing and the limitations placed on women’s education robbed them of the skills which would facilitate genuine equality of opportunity. Rather than advancing as old handicaps were overcome, women, were forced to retreat as old prejudices were deliberately rehabilitated.
Soviet Women in the Post-Stalin Period
The question must be posed of why barriers to abortion, divorce and co-education were lowered in 1955. While Mandel never deals with the question directly, his answer can be found in another of his essays, “Soviet Marxism and Social Science”; “The USSR can today claim to be the first major socialist state to have emerged from the stage of internal terror (dictatorship of the proletariat, plus the unneeded massacres in its name).” Essentially he believes that the bureaucracy is self-reforming and that ‘socialism’ has been attained through simple economic growth. (He ignores Lenin’s dictum that even in the lower stage of communism the state will begin to wither away as the masses assume more and more of the simple administrative duties of government.).
The real explanation for the restitution of women’s civil rights in 1955 is bureaucratic self-preservation. By 1955 the Soviet bureaucray was faced with a serious problem. Its economy was still staggering from the impact of the war. Attempts to rebuild the economy by simply abusing Eastern European allies had already led to the German uprising in 1953 to be followed by uprisings in Hungary and Poland in 1956. To head off the rising tide of internal dissent which began to boil with Stalin’s death, the domestic economy had to be rationalized.
Women were the major untapped source of skilled labor power. Ever since the war mobilization they had constituted a near majority of the workforce. The most productive generations of men had been severely decimated during and immediately after the war. To provide women with the skills necessary for them to hold responsible positions in industry, they had to be admitted to institutes with high standards; i.e:, coeducation had to be restored. To encourage them to leave the household and devote the time and energy necessary to acquire these new skills, childbearing had to be de-emphasized. Since Soviet contraceptives at that time were still notoriously poor, abortion was a necessary back up for birth control. The assertion of women’s right to control their bodies led naturally to the belief that it was also their right to contract and dissolve marriages at will, and since a higher divorce rate led to greater mobility in the labor force, divorce became more acceptable. So when faced with the need to rationalize economic production, the bureaucracy was compelled to draw heavily upon women to provide the skilled labor necessary to advance national interests.
But the very limited reforms undertaken in the post-Stalin era were not accompanied by a return to the Marxist position on the necessity of replacing the nuclear family. Mandel readily admits that while over 85 percent of Soviet women are engaged in productive work outside the home, they are still basically bound by the family and, continue to be responsible for housework and childcare. The bureaucacy meanwhile cotinues to gorify motherhood by awarding medals to women bearing large numbers of children.
Current Soviet policy aims explicitly at reforming, not replacing, the family. The emphasis is on developing part-time jobs for women so that they will have time to do housework. Secondarily, there is some effort to prevail upon men to help out in the home and some effort to expand the distribution of consumer products and services.
Prospects for laying the economic basis for the socialization of housework — assuming that the bureaucracy would permit its implementation — are crippled by bureaucratic mismanagement of the economy. Despite the benefits of centralized planning, soviet economic growth has for years been under 7.5 percent annually. This slow growth combined with the devastation of Soviet productive capacity by World War II has meant, for instance, that it was only five years ago that every rural Soviet cottage finally received electricity. Mandel estimates that it will be another 10. years before refrigerators, washing machines and vacuums will be standard items in worker and peasant homes.
Meanwhile; even Soviet sources admit that among the peasantry “conditions of household culture similar to those of the past and the economic need to preserve the personial garden farm are the basis for preservation in the family of elements of the old social inequality of the sexes and the traditional division of everyday kinds of work into male and female.” (Mandel’s emphasis).
In a country where 43 percent of the population is still rural and many workers are only one generation removed from the land, the impact of this should not be underestimated. Mandel himself notes that the level of abortion is very high among peasant women because most of them are still ignorant of modern birth control techniques. The vast social pressure from the old peasant families against any form of birth control contributes directly to this ignorance.
The Soviet bureaucracy continues to be the major obstacle to the emancipation of the Soviet woman, as it is for the emancipation of the Soviet working masses as a whole. Soviet foreign policy, by guaranteeing capitalist rule in the West through a strategy of class collaboration (recently exemplified by the treacherous popular fronts advanced in Chile and Portugal), sabotages the international proletarian revolution and subsequently defers the day when the workers of the advanced countries can provide the products needed by the Soviet Union and more backward countries for the mechanization and socialization of housework.
Politically disfranchised as is the entire Soviet working class; Soviet women are particularly vulnerable to reversals in government policy, which may lead again to the abolition of legal abortion, co-education or easily accessible divorce. While the use of terror in the Soviet Union has become less blatant, it should be remembered that many of the reforms of the Khrushchev era disappeared entirely for several year after the invasion of Czechoslovakia. In fact, the Czech events demonstrate clearly the bureaucracy’s continued willingness to use armed force if necessary to preserve itself.
For Soviet women, the Trotskyist road of political revolution in the degenerated Soviet workers state is the only guarantor of their real liberation. Only through the direct democratic control of government by the working class can women be fully assured of their rights; .particularly control over their own bodies. Through the liberation of the productive forces which would occur with the destruction of the bureaucracy, together with advances in the world revolution aided by a policy of genuine, internationalism, major steps could be taken toward the socialization of housework which would free women once and for all from the grip of the nuclear family. Only when the nuclear family has been replaced will the basis be laid for socialist relations between the sexes, Then:
“In place of the indissoluble marriage based on the servitude of women, we shall see the rise of the free union fortified by the love and the mutual respect of the two members of the Workers State; equal in their rights and In their obligations. In place of the individual and egotistic family there will arise a great universal family of workers… Such will be the relation between men and women in the communist society of tomorrow,”
Alexandra Kollontay, “Communism and the Family”