Hundred Years of the First Revolution to Annihilate Patriarchy, Oppression and Exploitation

Chirashree Das Gupta 

Hundred years since the Bolshevik
Revolution, we live in a world in which patriarchy directly continues to constitute
class. The patriarchal family remains the foundational unit of organization of
both the class basis of property and propriety and is constituted by all other
graded inequalities – be it caste, race or religion. The edifice of bourgeois
constitutionalism and law stands on the sanctimony of private property defined
by ‘family law’ – the ultimate sanctum-sanctorum of the ‘private’. And in the
propagation of this uncontested domain of rarefied knowledge, there is erasure
of memory and history of the significance of the Bolshevik Revolution in the
chronicling of the myriad struggles against patriarchy, oppression and
exploitation in and since the 20th century.

Muravyeva in her chronicle of the long
history of law and morality in 19th Century Russia concludes:

In the nineteenth century women
experienced a backlash in the protection from sexual and domestic violence
which was connected to new attitudes towards femininity and masculinity.
Associating normative sexual behaviour (chastity) with the notion of honour and
moving to the protection of honour rather than staying with the protection of a
person, excluded many women from the distribution of justice. Only those women
who conformed to the prescribed standards of femininity could find justice.
Domestic abuse, although it became a marker of ’low-class’ behaviour, and was
disapproved by official and public discourses, continued to serve as a means of
control. Yet it became invisible and withdrawn into the sphere of intimate
spousal relations among upper classes, making it extremely difficult for women
to ask for legal protection

The transformative aspects of Bolshevik efforts did not lie only in the
attempted change in the institutional zone of production and appropriation of
surplus and by extension the potential and limits of ‘growth of productive
forces’ which has been the focus of debates on socialist production and
transformation. It lay in the re-conceptualisation of the radical
transformation needed in the sphere of social reproduction to annihilate
patriarchy, oppression and exploitation.
That collectivisation of production and
abolition of private property rights played an important role in the Soviet
Union, in raising new standards in food, health-care, housing, education and
clothing and providing women visibility and better remuneration as workers is
acknowledged. However, the other foundational transformation in the formulation
of socialist family codes in the ‘conceptualisation of revolution within the
revolution’ is hardly dwelt upon in accounts of the Bolshevik Revolution.  This article focuses on the developments
between 1917 and 1923 in its attempt to put the question of social reproduction
as central to the revolutionary project of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Smidovitch in 1926 wrote in an issue of
the Kommunitska that Innessa Armand,
in the conference of Women Workers in 1918 as a leader of the Zhenodtel held that ‘separate households
are harmful survivals [of the bourgeois order] that only delay and hinder new
forms of distribution’. She was not alone. The period of war communism was seen
by P I Stuchka, the first People’s Commissar of Justice as a plan for ‘the free
family of the future when the family’s role as a cell of production and
consumption, as a juridical entity, as a social insurer, as a bastion of
inequality, and as a unit for feeding and bringing up children would all

The Decree on Land on 26th
October 1917 was followed by the first decree on marriage and divorce in
December 1917. The law on ‘Land Socialization’ followed in February 1918 and
then came the first Family Code in October 1918. These were the precursors to
the 1922 Land Code. The sequence, pace and formulations of these legislations
show that the abolition of semi-feudal and semi-capitalist private property
rights was hinged on the question of reorganising social reproduction and its
relationship to reorganization of production. It became the key question in
terms of not only the quest for emancipation but also the survival of the
peoples of the Soviet Union right after the revolution in the face of hostile
imperial geopolitics.
The Bolshevik effort
to reorganise social reproduction in the time of ‘War Communism’ way beyond the
insipid tenets of welfarism had been the greatest promise of
revolutionary emancipation from patriarchy and social oppression – i.e. from
the tyranny of family, private property and the state. This conscious political
attempt was informed by collectivism rather than individualism forming the
basis of what Marx had conceived as new ‘individualities’[3].

Alexandra Kollontai wrote in the Kommunitska in 1921:
In view of the need to encourage the
development and growth of feelings of solidarity and to strengthen the bonds of
the work collective, it should above all be established that the isolation of the
“couple” as a special unit does not answer the interests of communism.
Communist morality requires the education of the working class in comradeship
and the fusion of the hearts and minds of the separate members of this
collective. The needs and interests of the individual must be subordinated to
the interests and aims of the collective. On the one hand, therefore, the bonds
of family and marriage must be weakened, and on the other, men and women need
to be educated in solidarity and the subordination of the will of the
individual to the will of the collective…it does not recognise the couple as a
self-sufficient unit and does not therefore approve of wives deserting work for
the sake of this unit.

She went on to argue that:
The stronger the collective, the more
firmly established becomes the communist way of life. The closer the emotional
ties between the members of the community, the less the need to seek a refuge
from loneliness in marriage. Under communism the blind strength of matter is
subjugated to the will of the strongly welded and thus unprecedentedly powerful
workers’ collective. The individual has the opportunity to develop
intellectually and emotionally as never before. In this collective, new forms
of relationships are maturing and the concept of love is extended and expanded.

In October 1918, the attempts at reorganizing social reproduction were formalized in the Code on Marriage, the
Family and Guardianship. The code according to Goldman was an attempt to
‘capture in law a revolutionary vision of social relations based on women’s
equality and the ‘withering away’ of the…family’.  The authors of the Code saw it as preparation
for a time when the ‘fetters’ of ‘husband and wife’ would become ‘obsolete’.
The code was formulated with the idea that the progress of the revolution would
make the code redundant i.e. the aim of law was to make ‘law superfluous’[4].

The attempts in the USSR in its early
phase started with the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1918 and the
conscious cultural attempt to create conditions for breaking the structures of
the sexual division of labour through the Family Code of 1918 to break away
from the unit of organisation of society in terms of the reproduction of the
patriarchal monogamous family.  The Code
established legalized abortion, facilitated divorce at the request of either
spouse without requiring any ground. It abolished ‘illegitimacy’ and entitled
all children to parental support. It gave legal credence to ‘collective
fatherhood’. Children and women were the locus of the legislation. The most
important feature of the code was that marriage did not create joint property
between spouses: a woman retained full control of her earnings after marriage,
and neither spouse had any claim on the property of the other[5].
This code became more and more difficult to operate and by 1926, the new
family code did away with ‘collective paternity’, recognized the need for
protection of women after divorce and legalised adoption into the family[6]

The material contradictions
which led to the changes to the code in 1926 were evident by the early 1920s.
This was indeed the most difficult of
the difficulties the revolution faced in its attempt of envisioning of the new
socialist  society. Trotsky in July 1923
in an article in the Pravda captured the material contradictions of this
radical reform of the family and, more generally, of the whole order of
domestic life requires a great conscious effort on the part of the whole mass
of the working class, and presumes the existence in the class itself of a
powerful molecular force of inner desire for culture and progress. A deep-going
plough is needed to turn up heavy clods of soil. To institute the political
equality of men and women in the Soviet state was one problem and the simplest.
A much more difficult one was the next – that of instituting the industrial
equality of men and women workers in the factories, the mills, and the trade
unions, and of doing it in such a way that the men should not put the women to
disadvantage. But to achieve the actual equality of man and woman within the
family is an infinitely more arduous problem. All our domestic habits must be
revolutionized before that can happen. And yet it is quite obvious that unless
there is actual equality of husband and wife in the family, in a normal sense
as well as in the conditions of life, we cannot speak seriously of their
equality in social work or even in politics. As long as woman is chained to her
housework, the care of the family, the cooking and sewing, all her chances of
participation in social and political life are cut down in the extreme.

Trotsky constructed four typologies of
the contradictions within the family that emerged in the realm of the ‘private’
domain of the family as the old structures of production-reproduction started
breaking down. Kollontai’s extensive writings and especially her serialized
essays in the Kommunitska dwell in
great detail on this contested and conflictual relationship between the new
social organization of production and the family as the site of social
reproduction. But it is in her fiction ‘Red Love’ in 1921 and  ‘Great Love’ in 1923 that she underscores the
contradiction of this material dialectic of the Revolution pointing to the
emergence of a hierarchical technocracy with the adoption of the ‘New Economic
Policy’ in 1921 and the way  in which it
was reconstituting the social basis of patriarchy.

Significant questions have since then
been raised about socialist experiments in terms of the creation of a
hierarchical technocracy that had its inherent class logic that ‘assumes people
on the top are the only real subjects of creating new society and the
capitalist objectification of the worker continues to remain in the process of
carrying out commands down the line’[8].
But even more fundamental to the process of social restructuring was the
problem that while the old appropriators of the surplus had been done away with
in the course of the revolution, the producers of the surplus were not the
owners of the surplus[9].
This production of the surplus while geared towards the end of a better
material life for all, had to fundamentally address the question of not only
the wage-surplus relationship but also the sexual division of productive and
reproductive labour in the determination of this relationship[10].

The relationship between the collective
enterprise system and the family that the 
New Economic Policy entailed,  has
been the twin locus of determination of the wage-surplus relationship in the
organisation of societies attempting social transformation in which the sexual
division of both productive and reproductive labour has paid a pivotal role in
a. the determination of the wage-surplus relationship itself b. making the
social basis of patriarchy mutable in progressive ways but reversal of that
mutability in the face of crises of production and/or reproduction by creating
the possibility of shifting the burden of social reproduction at least cost by
mobilizing coercive unpaid labour through patriarchy and other modes of social
oppression in the realm of the ‘hidden abode of reproduction’.

A century later, as we commemorate hundred years of
the Bolshevik Revolution, it is important to recognize that the shift in
priority to the growth of productive forces as the focus of extensive
transformation (irrespective of whether it was historical compulsion or
historical choice) rather than egalitarian institutionalization of social
reproduction was the biggest challenge that the revolution faced after its
first five years since it embarked on the most radical attempt in world history
to annihilate patriarchy, oppression and exploitation. 

Chirashree Dasgupta is Associate Professor at  Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

[2] W Goldman, Women, The State and Revolution: Soviet
Family Policy, 1917-1936
, Cambridge University Press 1993
[3] K Marx, 1944
manuscripts; A Bebel Woman and Socialism; A Kollontai The Social Basis of the
Women’s Question; L Trotsky, Family Relations under the Soviets; H Brown, Marx
on Gender and the Family; A Davis, Women, Race and Class; H Bannerji (ed) Of
Property and Propriety: The Role of Gender and Class in Imperialism and
[4]Goldman op.cit.
[5] Ibid
[6] Ibid
[8] Roy, Mazumdar and Das
Gupta, Mimeo, 2015.
[9] Ibid.

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