It was no accident that on International Women’s Day 1917, the women textile workers of Petrograd, Russia started the world’s first socialist revolution. Murry Weiss, a lifelong Marxist feminist until his death in 1981, tells why. Written in 1978 and originally published in the Freedom Socialist newspaper, Permanent Revolution and Women’s Emancipation is a cornerstone document of the Freedom Socialist Party. It explains how women’s struggle for liberation inspires and drives the unstoppable struggle of all workers to break from the chains of capitalism. Women, says Weiss, are the unacknowledged leadership of the revolutionary working class.
The gist of the theory of Permanent Revolution is that the unfinished, bourgeois-democratic tasks of humanity can only be carried through by the proletarian, socialist revolution. First advanced by Marx, this theory has been verified and tested since 1848.
Trotsky fought to extend world revolution under this banner. He undertook to advance the continuity of Marxism and Leninism, to apply theory in an ever new and changing way to each fresh turn in the mutations and vicissitudes of the struggle for democracy.
And is there a more profound or wider-ranging democratic struggle than that of women? An inextricable bond links Permanent Revolution and women’s liberation.
Just as Permanent Revolution was repressed and slandered, bursting into clear view only at the highest point of revolution, so the women’s movement is suddenly recognised today. It has always existed but all too often slipped below the surface of even the highest Marxist consciousness.
Women everywhere are embroiled in uninterrupted, permanent struggle for equality. More than half the human race is striving to throw off the shackles of universal humiliation, super-exploitation, and exclusion from leadership.
Women continuously arise to attack the huge crime of male supremacy. And this battle of the sexes is the battle of the centuries.
Uneven and combined development. Women led the earliest revolution: the leap in productivity caused by agriculture, domestication of animals, and discovery of tools and arts, all encompassed in a social system of communism, freedom and equality. But women’s leadership was overthrown by the encroachments of wealth and private property, and woman’s oppression has since been intertwined with class society — ancient slavery, Asian despotism, feudalism and capitalism.
Since World War II, however, the composition of the world proletariat has changed. The staggering fact that women now compose 45-50% of the working class in all imperialist countries has still to be grasped as a major feature of the laws of uneven and combined development as spelled out in the theory of Permanent Revolution.
The explosive formula for the women’s movement is lodged in all the democratic struggles against the vast, unresolved oppressions perpetrated through the ages like an historic bookkeeping of old unpaid bills.
And all of the oppressed turn eventually toward proletarian leadership and socialist revolution. The problem of problems is the crisis of leadership of the leading class, the working class. Women, in the epoch of imperialist decline, not only seek democratic rights but are a radical catalyst within all other oppressed groups and form indissoluble links among them. Women are the unacknowledged leadership of the revolutionary proletariat. Today the solution to the leadership crisis is inseparable from women’s liberation, and the great changes among revolutionary women are changing women’s status in revolutionary parties — as always.
Russian revolutionaries. Mensheviks, social democrats and Stalinists oppose to Permanent Revolution the schema that unchanging, ineluctable stages must be passed through before socialism can emerge. First the bourgeois revolution, they said, in advance capitalist countries; backward, agrarian Tsarist Russia would come last.
But life defied this lifeless recipe. The permanent revolution emerged in February 1917, in Petrograd. And who led this revolution?
Read the chapter, “Five Days,” in Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution.
The 23rd of February was International Women’s Day [in the old Tsarist Calendar – ed.]. Not a single organisation called strikes on that day. What is more, even a Bolshevik organisation, and a most militant one — the Vyborg borough committee, all workers — was opposing strikes. The temper of the masses…was very tense; any strike would threaten to turn into an open fight. But since the committee thought the time unripe for militant action — the party was not strong enough and the workers having too few contacts with the soldiers — they decided not to call for strikes but to prepare for revolutionary action at some indefinite time in the future.
History’s revolutionary party, the Bolsheviks, lagged behind events, providing no leadership. (Lenin and Trotsky were in exile.)
On the following morning, however, in spite of all directives, the women textile workers in several factories went on strike, and sent delegates to the metal workers with appeals for support…With reluctance,” writes Kayurov, “the Bolsheviks agreed to this, and they were followed by the workers…
The women textile workers were the conscious factor of the highest order needed to spark the revolt. Undeterred by any hesitancy, they won over the rest of the workers, and women from every strata. They gauged the moment and acted; they exercised revolutionary statesmanship.
… A great role is played by women workers in the relation between workers and soldiers. They go up to the cordons more boldly than men, take hold of the rifles, beseech, almost command: “Put down your bayonets, join us!” The soldiers are excited, ashamed, exchange glances, waver; someone makes up his mind first and the bayonets rise guiltily above the shoulders of the advancing crowd. The barrier is opened, a joyous and grateful “Hurrah!” shakes the air. The soldiers are surrounded. Everywhere arguments, reproaches, appeals — the revolution makes a forward step.
The role of the women workers of Petrograd is universal, but usually ignored. The refraction of fact through entrenched modes of male superiority is a pestilential scourge of all revolutionary parties and workers’ organisations.
Lenin returned to find the Bolsheviks supporting the bourgeois Provisional Government. He unleashed an astounding fusillade against party leaders, and urged the proletariat to seize power in its own name, through the Soviets.
Alexandra Kollontai writes: When in April Lenin delivered his programmatic speech within the frame of the Soviets, I was the only one of his party comrades who took the floor to support his thesis. What hatred this particular act kindled against me.
The women textile workers and the worker-Bolsheviks also supported him against the party. Without them, the October revolution would not have happened.
Twilight of the gods. The women textile workers of 1917 live in the Vyborgs of today. At the other pole stands the union bureaucracy, the main bulwark of imperialism. According to Lenin, in his preface to Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism:
…it is quite possible to bribe the labour leaders and the upper stratum of the labour aristocracy…This stratum of bourgeoisified workers, of the labour aristocracy, who are quite philistine in their mode of life, in the size of their earnings and in their outlook, serve as…the principle social…prop of the bourgeoisie…the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the labour movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class, real channels of reformism and chauvinism…they inevitably…stand side by side with the bourgeoisie against the “Communards.”
These white, male workers and officials are parasites on the lower paid workers. But the dynamic of women will shatter them, neutralising some and winning over the many who are fast losing their privileges.
Women spur the proletariat. They exhibit unmatched audacity, more audacity and still more audacity. They will unleash an incalculable revolutionary power, which, raised to the highest power of the working class, will pulverise the union bureaucrats and the imperialist butchers.
Revolutionaries of both sexes with the sense and sensibility to link up with the most bitterly oppressed will be forged into a mighty, Marxist, socialist feminist party. Such is the promise and burning reality of the pivotal role in permanent revolution of women who dare.