Wednesday, 8 March 2017

The Day Women Changed The World

The Women's Day March that brought down an Empire. Petrograd 8 March 1917 (photo- WikiCommons)
Today, 8 March is International Women’s Day, when we highlight the call for greater equality for women of both chance and outcome in our still highly misogynistic world. First established in 1909 by American Socialists to commemorate a women garment workers' strike the year before, it was adopted a year later by the Second International of Socialists to advocate for women's suffrage. This year's IWD is a particularly poignant one, not only because the recent rise of Trump brings into ever sharper focus the lack of progress towards gender equality, but also because it marks a full century since an International Women’s Day that literally shook the world and changed the course of history.

One century ago this morning, crowds of women downed tools and left the textile factories of Vyborg in Petrograd, then the capital of the Russian Empire, to march on the city centre. In what, by the Old Calendar, was still an fairly cold February morning, they protested loudly for bread and peace. This came as Russia faced another long year of the war that the Czar had initiated in August 1914 and which had claimed the lives of over a million Russian soldiers – nearly all of them peasant conscripts – with a similar number captured and twice as many seriously injured or disabled.

Of all the warring nations, Russia was perhaps the least equipped for a protracted modern war. Its society was still essentially one ruled by noble landowners and worked by often impoverished peasants. Such industry as had been developed, largely by the Czarist Government itself, was concentrated in the two key cities of Petrograd and Moscow, with lesser development in the Ukrainian city of Kiev far to the south. There was a small middle class, much of it the clerks and notaries hired to run the imperial bureaucracy or managers in the small industrialised sector. Represented by liberal parties like the Kadets and Decembrists, they were in truth little but a mild irritant to the imperial government, which sponsored its own nationalist, often anti-Semitic groupings, backed up with the violent “muscle” of the extremist Black Hundreds movement, a street force that would have put Hitler to shame.

Conditions in Petrograd were appalling for the urban working class, and the Vyborg district along the side of the River Neva was in many respects the worst of all. Essentially a dormitory for the workers who produced all the material goods for the army and for the wealthy classes who lived directly opposite on the far side of the river, site of the Imperial Palace, the living standards of the masses were beyond cruel. In Vyborg, an average six people lived per room, almost three times that of their English contemporaries, and only one in four had access to running water. Nearly all, including women and children, worked exceedingly long hours and it was common for workers to sleep in slings in their actual workplaces, the better to start their next shift on time.

Sooty pollution rose like tall dark dervishes from the factory roofs, while safety arrangements barely existed. Trade unions were mostly banned or ignored, and where they survived they were usually taken over by Czarist agents – one chapter of a union folded when gradually the entire committee realised they were all secret policemen. In response, the workers looked to socialist parties to speak for them though the Duma, a semi-parliamentary body grudgingly conceded by the Czar after the failed 1905 revolution, was toothless and elected on a franchise skewed in favour of the rich – and of course completely excluded all women from voting. It had barely met since the war began and some of its own members urged the Imperial Father to abolish it.

Many supported the Social Revolutionaries, a party based on the peasant class in the countryside, from where many had migrated to seek work in the cities. But the SRs were a party without a clear cause. Mildly syndicalist in outlook, it was often more certain about what it opposed than what it supported. The SRs often collaborated with the Menshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Both held to Marxist theory that a bourgeois liberal phase of economic development, where a parliament of shopkeepers and factory owners would rule, was prerequisite to a subsequent transition to further revolutionary social change.

Little ideologically separated the Mensheviks from the harder-line Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP. Tactics were more the issue – while Mensheviks like Dan and Martov contemplated a reformist phase which they might embrace, the Bolsheviks’ exiled leader Lenin, while accepting such a phase was likely, preferred to emphasise the development of a party with revolutionary aims made clear from the outset.

For the workers toiling in the imperial sweatshops, there was little respite from the daily grind. The Church was firmly rooted in the Imperial Establishment, propagating the mythology of a Divinely appointed Czar, his very title appropriated from the Caesars of Rome and Byzantium to lend a Holy Essence to the Slavic throne. Some priests did work for the poor, even organising unions and protests, but, perhaps most notoriously of all, when Father Gapon led crowds of praying workers to the palace bearing aloft icons of Jesus and the Czar to protest their loyalty and ask for their Imperial Father’s succour, the reply was in the form of bullets and bayonets.

But all this was to change on the morning of 8 March 1917.

The winter of 1916 to 1917 was even colder than normal and with reverses on the battlefield adding to the sense of impending disaster, the inhabitants of Petrograd plumbed new depths of misery. Bread, a staple of the workers’ diet, rose rapidly in price and in many cases was simply not available. Hunger stalked the masses while, just across the frozen river, the nobles, landowners, factory bosses and generals continued to indulge in their usual rounds of balls, ballets and bacchanalian revelry.

Alexandra Kollontai, Bolshevik
(photo - WikiCommons)
While the socialist hierarchy did include a significant number of prominent women leaders, including Alexandra Kollontai, Inessa Armand and Konkordia Samoilova (later founding editor of Pravda), local leaderships often as not were exclusively male, reflecting the patriarchy at the heart of the existing society rather than presaging the change of any future socialist world.

Yet because of the contingencies of feeding the imperial war machine, more and more women were working in trained roles, including as supervisors and organisers, and alongside that they became involved in the unions and in politics. While men might continue to run the committees of political parties, women’s voices were starting to be heard as never before.

And so, with their conditions ever more desperately subordinated to the endless war, women’s committees in textile factories planned for strikes and marches to mark 8 March to voice their demands to the city authorities in Petrograd. As they prepared, it became clear that their male comrades, including the Bolsheviks, didn’t want them to go. The Menshevik activist Sukhanov dismissed the optimism of some young women workers that a demonstration might start the long-awaited revolution as the immature fantasies of "silly girls." It was, the socialist officials argued, too much too soon. Support for the war was declining but had not evaporated and political strikes could be seen as unpatriotic and, hence, counter-productive. The sisters were asked to stay at work.

But the sisters didn’t listen and at dawn they left their homes and workplaces and marched round factory after factory in the Vyborg district calling on other women - and men - to strike and march with them. One Bolshevik described how the factory committee had refused to join them until women started throwing bricks through the windows to compel them to come out in a rather forced show of comradeship.

On the other side of the river, along the Nevsky Prospekt into the city centre, a smaller Women’s Day march had already started and had drawn in a cross section of bourgeois women, peasants and students. It was by all accounts good natured while loudly demanding equal voting rights for women with men.

The strikers from Vyborg tried to join this march by crossing the Liteny Bridge from Vyborg to the city centre. They were stopped by the police, who forced them back and dispersed many. But the core group of several thousand women textile workers turned down the steps from the river bank and defiantly, and bravely, marched across the ice on the frozen Neva to then climb the far side and join the women on the Nevsky Prospekt. From there, they marched together on the city Duma reiterating their chants for “bread, equality and peace.” And, emboldened, a new slogan erupted ominously from the crowds.

"Down with the Czar!"

The police continued to try to stop the marchers, but the Government made the mistake of sending some of the Cossack soldiers billeted in the capital to reinforce them. Unlike the police, who had volunteered as professional agents of the repressive Empire, most soldiers were peasant conscripts. While some clung to conservative notions of the Czar as Father of the Nation, many more were at least mildly sympathetic to the strikers.

When the police and troops moved on the crowds, women were often to be seen on the front line urging them to change sides, even dragging them across physically while berating them for not defecting sooner. The Cossacks would charge up to the women on their horses, but stop short of touching them and soon the protesters were aware that the military were wavering. By dusk, tens of thousands of women and men had occupied swathes of the city centre and the Czarist authorities had lost control of the streets. They were never to regain them.

Emboldened by the women’s initiative, the socialist parties hurried to bring more strikers out the next morning and by the following day all the capital’s factories had ceased to operate. As many as a quarter of a million men, women and children moved on the city centre, again clashing with the police while the army’s ambivalence became more and more evident.

That afternoon, again on the Nevsky Prospekt perhaps the single most crucial moment of these insurrectionary days occurred when the crowd encountered a large squadron of Cossack soldiers blocking their path. Unlike other troops, this force was drawn up ready to charge and a tense stand off followed.

It was then that a young girl moved forward on her own from the crowd towards the soldiers, who readied to shoot. But she boldly walked up to their commander and from under her cloak lifted out a bunch of red roses, a joint symbol of peace and revolution. The commander leaned forward, grinned and accepted the gift and the cheering crowd rushed forward to embrace their new soldier comrades.

By the end of the week, after the entire military garrison switched sides and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people occupied the streets, power had slipped decisively from the centuries old Imperial Order. On 15th March, the Czar abdicated and his Ministers fled or were arrested.

Faced with the demands of the crowds, a rather bewildered group of liberal members of the near-moribund national Duma rather reluctantly established a Provisional Government working out of the right-wing of the Tauride Palace. In the left-wing of the same building, a group of socialist parties established a very fluid body of elected workers’ representatives, soon joined by soldiers as well, to speak for the masses. They sought to hold the new liberal regime to account for the three main demands of bread, land and peace. The first soviet of 1917 had been established.

Soviet Women: a challenge to the world
So International Women’s Day, one hundred years ago today, shook the world and set in train a series of events that turned the old order on its head. In time, women were to see a huge change in their position –revolutionary Russia brought equal rights in the workplace, education and in the home. The USSR pioneered paid maternity leave, workplace creches and family planning. When Trotsky was asked by some incredulous westerners if it was true Soviet women could get divorced just by asking, he responded by asking them, with mock incredulity, if it was true that in western countries women could ask for a divorce but not get one.

The Soviet Union of course was in many ways to have a poisoned history. Stalin was to rise and crush the freedoms briefly brought about by the revolutions of 1917 and he embodied in his “Red Court” the epitome of patriarchy. Lenin's strong advocacy of equal rights for women was in many ways undermined, and of course centuries of sexist thinking under the Czars had a very long reach still to be found in post-Soviet Russia, which recently decriminalised some forms of domestic abuse of women. But without the challenge to the world of Soviet Communism, there is little doubt that women and all humanity would be the worse for the lack of it.

So as we celebrate International Women’s Day, remember it as a day for socialist values; and remember the courageous women who a century ago braved the ice of the Neva to forge a new way of life for all of us, sisters and brothers together.

And remember, men - socialist men - told them not to go…

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