International Women’s Day Is a Socialist Holiday

In much of the world, International Women’s Day has become a bland and largely apolitical event. But it has its origins in working women’s struggles — including those that gave rise to a mass socialist women’s movement.

Communist women leaders at the Third Congress of the Comintern, including Clara Zetkin (second from left).

International Women’s Day 2023 is unrecognizable from the event launched by the Socialist Women’s Conference of the Second International in 1910. Its roots in that movement have been buried under an avalanche of advertising aimed at convincing women that capitalism provides the key to their personal happiness.

Indeed, its bourgeois version is determined to deny its historical antecedents in the communist and socialist movement — and its legacy as a day when working-class women came onto the streets of towns and cities around the world to call for the overthrow of capitalism. If we are to reclaim and build on that history, then we first need to familiarize ourselves with it. In their book The Communist Women’s Movement, 1920–22: Proceedings, Resolutions, and Reports, Michael Taber and Daria Dyakonova give us an unprecedented opportunity to do just that, as they bring to life the history of a remarkable movement.

This is in fact the ninth book in a series documenting the early Communist International (Comintern), initiated by John Riddell in 1983 when he set out, in Taber’s words, to “chronicle the development of this dynamic revolutionary undertaking in its own words and to show it as a living movement.” Taber and Dyakonova renew this commitment with an ambitious project detailing the early years of the Communist Women’s Movement (CWM), one of the most significant organizations established by the Comintern. They have brought together the entire set of proceedings, reports, and resolutions of the 1920 and 1921 conferences of the CWM in Moscow. This is paired with similar documents from the conference of the women of the Near East in Tiflis (today’s Tbilisi, Georgia) in December 1921, and reports from the conferences of women’s correspondents and the constituent parts of the CWM.

Much of the material is archival and has never been published before, with more than 80 percent of it translated into English for the first time. The transcripts of the 1920 and 1921 conferences bring to light crucial debates not only over the direction of CWM but that of the Comintern itself. And they show how delegates developed methods to ensure that the programmatic commitment to women’s liberation found real expression in all aspects of the Comintern and its constituent parties.

High Point

As Taber and Dyakonova point out in their introductions, the documents in this volume reflect the high point of the CWM. Up to 1923, it had a prominent role in the Comintern, as an organization that inspired hundreds of thousands of working-class women to join communist parties, so-called “Red” trade unions, and the communist youth sections. Then, reflecting a general clampdown on political autonomy within Comintern itself, the CWM’s role was downgraded, and its leadership directed that its sole task was to recruit women to the International.

In narrowing its ability to act autonomously, the CWM lost much of its élan and its sense of purpose as a project for women’s self-emancipation within the communist movement. Its leadership was moved from Berlin to Moscow in 1924 and its international journal, Die Kommunistische Fraueninternationale, closed down in 1925. In 1926, all remaining freedom of action was eradicated and its leadership placed directly under the control of the Comintern executive, with its status changed to a department of that body.

But although the CWM experience was short-lived, it was a richly interesting one. This book allows us access for the first time to the ideas it debated and developed in order to fuse the struggle for women’s liberation with the communist project. Like the Zhenotdel (Women’s Department of the Russian Communist Party), it sought to develop in practice proposals for the socialization of domestic labor and childcare first argued for by Friedrich Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, and by August Bebel in his Woman and Socialism.

Its leaders saw experiment and flexibility as a key aspect of making the kind of changes that would lay the basis for an egalitarian socialism. Far from the revolution being the ultimate objective, the CWM saw it as simply the first step in a conscious process of radical change, and argued that there could be no genuine socialism without the full involvement of women as equals. The differences expressed and debated by delegates at conferences concerned the best way to succeed in that endeavor.

The decision to launch CWM came as a result of a resolution presented by Alexandra Kollontai and adopted by the Comintern’s founding congress in March 1919. Its first conference opened on July 30, 1920, in Moscow, while the deliberations of the International’s Second Congress were still in progress. With Clara Zetkin and Kollontai unable to attend, Inessa Armand opened the first debate on a proposed Manifesto to the Working Women of the World. This document was critiqued by a number of delegates for its negative attitude to Eastern women and Evelyn Roy, an influential Indian communist, then a delegate for the Mexican Communist Party, argued, “If the women of the East are reminded of their backwardness, then the reasons for this backwardness should also be stated. Western imperialism is terribly oppressive and makes them objects of exploitation while hindering their development.” Her intervention was important in challenging chauvinist attitudes and ensuring that the CWM’s finalized manifesto connected its anti-imperialism with the repression of women in countries that had experienced colonialism.

The delegate reports from this conference provide a picture of radicalism and militancy among large sections of working-class women, and a sense of optimism despite numerous difficulties. The Bulgarian party appears to have been the best developed outside of Russia, and its delegate, Nikolai Maksimov explained that this was because its party had begun to organize women at an earlier stage than other parties. In 1914, a conference of socialist women was held that set up a commission to work among women. It worked under the direction of the party leadership, with a newspaper, Ravenstvo [Equality], with ten thousand subscribers. Its creation had reportedly led to a “steady stream of women workers into unions and political organisations.”

The German delegate, Rosi Wolfstein, described how women played an inspirational and courageous role in the revolutionary movement of 1918–19 and the continuing worker-upsurges, with the number of women in the party increasing to 10 percent of an overall 100,000-strong membership. Anna Ströhmer, the German-Austria delegate, reported that while women also made up 10 percent of the party, there had been no specific work done to educate and organize women because of a crisis within the party sparked by the collapse of the Soviet government in Hungary in 1919.

The Hungarian delegate, Ilona Kovács, portrayed a situation where working-class women there, like their male comrades, had been stymied by political naivety and inexperience during the short period of revolutionary government. And now they were paying a heavy price, as “the white terror is raging and has already brought about such monstrous devastation of the working class.” The editors inform us that in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Hungarian soviet government in 1919, an “estimated 5,000 were executed, 75,000 jailed, and 100,000 forced to flee the country.” Other delegates reported a similar picture of large sections of working women keen to be organized but party leaderships yet to be convinced of the necessity of this work.

Armand reported on the creation of the Zhenotdel in Russia, as a department of the party with the mandate to carry out specific work among women, to organize them and represent their interests. She explained how it had set up workplace and district delegate meetings that brought women together to advance their involvement in Soviet society, develop their education, work experience, and influence over decision-making, along with taking initiatives to socialize domestic labor and childcare, with the opening of public canteens, nurseries, and kindergartens.

Then she presented a theses on behalf of the Russian delegation which proposed a form of organization for the CWM which mirrored the Zhenotdel. This was met with general approval by the Comintern, which was referred to in the theses as having “decided that the Communist parties of all countries should follow the example of the Russian Communist Party (RCP) and organize bodies for work among women (women workers’ departments). The latter are to lead their own work under the direct leadership and responsibility of party committees.”

The discussion that followed focused mostly on the theses’ description of the Second International as an opponent of the liberation of working-class women, which did nothing to advance the campaign for universal suffrage. Wolfstein argued that by adopting this approach “we negate the work of Clara Zetkin, who has brought together the left wing and who has led the whole organization.” Zetkin had launched the women’s conferences of the Second International in 1907 and 1910, won a commitment to fight for universal suffrage, and initiated International Women’s Day.

After an exchange of views in which Russian delegates stubbornly dismissed any achievements of the socialist women’s movement, the situation was resolved with an agreement that a committee would be set up to draft final theses on the question. This committee would in fact be led by Zetkin and the final document, “Guidelines of the CWM,” was to provide the framework for its efforts, with a direction to all communist parties that they set up a department to carry out work among women and launch a special journal to assist with that task. It also corrected Armand’s position on the Second International — stating that while it had begun this work, the conferences had been unable to put its ideas into practice because of the growth of opportunism within the movement.

The second conference of the CWM was a far more significant event than the first. Above all there was a greater representation from international parties, with a total of eighty-two delegates, more than triple the number at the first conference. A leadership, the International Women’s Secretariat (IWS), had been formed in November 1920, with Zetkin appointed general secretary and Kollontai assistant general secretary.

Reporting to conference on the work of the IWS, Kollontai was critical of the fact that, despite formal commitments, “far from all communist parties have set up women’s sections,” meaning that the secretariat “will consequently remain ineffective” and unable to “unite together the sections and direct their activity.” She complained that very few country reports had been sent to the IWS prior to conference, with organizers frantically trying to obtain them from delegates as they arrived. Despite all of this, however, progress had been made. The IWS had set up an organizational bureau, which it proposed be further developed to bring about greater coherence and assist with the creation of women’s sections.

The bureau had translated and distributed various pamphlets and provided support to women’s sections where they were formed. In the discussion that followed Kollontai’s report, a German delegate, Bertha Braunthal, criticized the fact that the IWS was based in Russia, a problem that she claimed made it insufficiently aware of the circumstances of the struggle in Europe. There were also differences among the Russian delegation, with Konkordiia Nikolaeva, a former supporter of Kollontai, subjecting her report to withering criticism for lack of specificity.

Another Russian delegate, Zlata Lilina, placed the responsibility for lack of progress firmly on the shoulders of the Comintern executive, because “for six months we have neither seen nor felt any support whatsoever from the Communist International. In spite of the fact that the Communist International has accepted the principle of carrying out work in common, this acceptance was only verbal, for as a matter of fact the Communist International did nothing at all for us.” A French delegate, Lucie Colliard, also complained that her comrades found it extremely difficult to make progress and had “not received much encouragement from the [communist] men in this task. They offer us no help. So long as they do not hamper us in our task, we are satisfied.”

A debate arose over events in Germany, and in particular the “March Action” in 1921, where the Communist Party had attempted to organize an uprising in deeply inauspicious conditions. Zetkin condemned the attempted uprising and deemed it to be a reckless move. But she objected to the topic being discussed at conference, insisting that it was not on the agenda and was a matter for the Comintern congress that would follow the CWM conference. Yet despite her protestations, the debate on this hotly contested issue continued, with Zetkin facing intense criticism from German and some Russian delegates for her stance.

Another interesting debate concerned the struggle for women’s suffrage. Many countries had not yet passed laws allowing all women to vote, and a significant number of delegates argued that there was no point in fighting for this demand. They argued that the Russian Revolution had shown that parliament was a fraud and thus any call for electoral rights would simply create illusions in it as an answer to women’s problems.

There was also a concern expressed that many women would vote for right-wing parties and undermine the revolutionary cause. Zetkin, who had presented the report on political equality, again found herself under fire from delegates who were completely opposed to any struggle for such rights under bourgeois society and accused her of creating confusion over the question. Strongly denying this, she was adamant that she had “affirmed quite definitely that the struggle for the equality of rights for women and the utilisation of political suffrage for women, the utilisation of democracy and parliament, should never be our aim, but only a means for the attainment of our aim.”

Fierce Arguments, Unity in Action

I hope this brief review of the materials from the first two conferences of the CWM gives readers a sense of the depth and range of the debates. My impression is of politically experienced communist women coming together in a way that allowed them to express sharp differences, even with Zetkin, by then a titan of the movement, or the Russian delegates, who must have seemed unassailable. And I find it particularly inspiring that, after these lengthy and fierce arguments, delegates were able to unite around resolutions and a course of action.

In the aftermath of the 1921 conference, it was agreed that women correspondents from each country would work together to make the CWM more effective. Two correspondents’ conferences took place in 1922, and the reports and resolutions show that its work focused on the United Front tactic adopted by the Comintern in 1921. The conference in Tiflis in December 1921 reflects the adoption of methods of work very similar to that of the Zhenotdel in the Soviet East; the main organizational form being women-only clubs, which would serve as a community hub where women could come for work, education, and cultural activities and be provided with childcare and other services.

The final section of the book includes reports of conferences and resolutions from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, France, the Dutch East Indies, and Russia. This is very useful as a way of seeing how the CWM impacted national parties, what the national issues were, and how they influenced debates at an international level.

In the preface and introduction, the editors point out important questions that come to light in these documents, some of which I have referred to above. However there is a great deal more to be noted and analyzed from the debates that form the center of this collection. Not only is it a vital read for all those who want to understand the universal nature of the communist movement, but it has great relevance for those of us who place ourselves within that tradition and are finally able to access the materials of our women’s movement.