Tony Cliff on the revolutionary roots of International Women's Day
This year marks the centenary of International Women's Day, now celebrated across the world on 8 March - and still of critical importance today given the continuing reality of women's oppression. Tony Cliff, author of among other things a 1984 work on Class Struggle and Women's Liberation, once described how International Women's Day originated with the German revolutionary Marxist Clara Zetkin at a 1910 international conference of socialist women in Copenhagen.
'Zetkin proposed the adoption of 8 March as International Women’s Day. (Both the date and the idea were taken from a demonstration of American socialist women in New York on 8 March 1908 in opposition to the bourgeois suffrage movement there.) The proposal was approved with enthusiasm by the conference. Beginning in 1911 and continuing until the outbreak of the war, International Women’s Day demonstrations were organised in practically all the main cities of Europe. (Of course the most important one was the single one which took place during the War – in February 1917 – and launched the first Russian revolution of that date.)'
In a 1981 article on 'Alexandra Kollontai: Russian Marxists and Women Workers' from International Socialism, 14 (Autumn 1981) (not yet online but see here), Cliff described how the day took roots in Russia before the 1917 February Revolution:
An International Women's Day was held on 8 March every year since 1911 in a number of countries. The first time the event was observed in Russia was in 1913. It was not held on 8 March but a little earlier, on 17 February, because of fear of police interference. To commemorate the day a special six-page issue of Pravda was published. It contained articles about women workers, the significance of International Women's Day for the socialist movement, and pictures of leading revolutionary women like Clara Zetkin, Eleanor Marx, and Vera Zasulich.
Celebrations took place in five cities: St Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev, Samara and Tblisi. The largest celebration was in St. Petersburg. It was organised by a group of women textile workers and Bolshevik activists such as KN Samoilova and PF Kudelli, who were part of a special holiday committee set up by the Bolshevik-controlled Petersburg Committee of the RSDLP. The main meeting of the day was held in the great Hall of the Kalashnikov Exchange. The Police were there in full force. At the entrance both mounted and regular patrols were stationed. Inside, police occupied the first two rows. Exactly at one o'clock, they closed the doors of the hall and would not allow even those with tickets to enter. Despite this, over one thousand people managed to crowd into the hall. One of the main speakers, a textile worker, Ianchevskaia, summed up the meaning of the assembly thus: 'the women workers' movement is a tributary flowing in the great river of the proletarian movement and giving it strength.'
These words and the general spirit of International Women's Day grated on the nerves of the bourgeois feminist Dr Pokrovskaia. She wrote: 'As we expected, the women workers' day did not protest at all against the subordinate position of wives in relation to their husbands. They spoke primarily of the enslavement of the proletarian woman by capital, and only in passing mentioned domestic subservience... Does personal freedom really have such paltry significance in the eyes of proletarian women that it is not even worth talking about? That is inconceivable! When that same proletarian woman sets up her own women's day, she will give voice to protest against such laws, her resentment of them, and demand t abolition. At the meeting Mme Kudelii was wrong in asserting economic interests are the most important for the woman worker. Personal freedom stands higher. The pet rooster is always full, and the wild eagle is often hungry. All the same, we prefer eagles.'
Her conclusion was simple: all men benefitted from male privilege; women must join together to fight it.
In 1914 it was decided to celebrate International Women's Day with large open meetings in the larger workers' quarters of St. Petersburg. Unfortunately these plans were blocked by the authorities. Ten meetings were requested, but the Government granted only one.
On the 23 February extra detachments of police were on the streets; there a large crowd at the one legal meeting; instead of five speakers there were only two. The others had been arrested on that day, and the police had forbidden substitutes. Many of those present, disappointed and angry, spilled out into the streets, singing revolutionary songs, but they were eventually dispersed by the police, who carried out mass arrests.
Both in 1913 and 1914 deep differences manifested themselves between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks regarding the celebration of International Women's Day. The Mensheviks wanted only women to participate in the celebrations, while the Bolsheviks insisted that International Women's Day should be celebrated not only by working women but the entire working class.
During the war it was far more difficult to celebrate International Women's Day. In 1915 and 1916, despite a government ban, the day was commemorated by small meetings and celebrations.'
However, it was to be International Women's Day in Russia in 1917 that remains the high point, as Cliff noted:
In January 1917 a police report noted that
'the mothers of families, exhausted from endless standing in line at the stores, tormented by the look of their half-starving and sick children, are very likely closer now to revolution than Messrs Miliukov, Rodichev and Company, and of course, they are more dangerous because they represent that store of inflammable material for which one spark will set off a fire.'
It was the women workers of Petrograd who started the revolution of 1917. On 22 February (7 March) a group of women workers met to discuss the organisation of International Women’s Day the following day. V. Kaiurov, the worker-leader of the St Petersburg district committee of the Bolshevik Party, advised them to refrain from hasty action:
'But to my surprise and indignation, on 23 February, at an emergency conference of five persons in the corridor of the Erikson works, we learned from comrade Nikifer Ilyin of the strike in some textile factories and of the arrival of a number of delegates from the women workers, who announced that they were supporting the metal workers. I was extremely indignant about the behaviour of the strikers, both because they had blatantly ignored the decision of the District Committee of the party, and also because they had gone on strike after I had appealed to them only the night before to keep cool and disciplined. With reluctance the Bolsheviks agreed to [spreading the strike] and they were followed by other workers – Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. But once there is a mass strike one must call everybody into the streets and take the lead.'
Not until 25 February did the Bolsheviks come out with their first leaflet calling for a general strike – after 200,000 workers had already downed tools!
The massive wave of strikes and demonstrations was the culmination of years of accumulated anger. As one witness later recounted:
'The working women, driven to desperation by starvation and war, came along like a hurricane that destroys everything in its path with the violence of an elemental force. This revolutionary march of working women, full of the hatred of centuries of oppression, was the spark that set light to the great flame of the February revolution, that revolution which was to shatter Tsarism.'
It was the women workers in the textile industry who elected delegates and sent them round to neighbouring factories with appeals for support. Thus was the revolution detonated. It was, as Trotsky said,
'... a revolution begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organisation, the initiative being taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the working class – the women textile workers.'
It was these same women who fraternised with the soldiers, persuading them to disobey the orders of the officers, and to hold fire:
'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 anxious 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 another forward step.'
The newly resurrected Pravda acknowledged the revolution’s debt to women in an editorial:
'Hail the women!
Hail the International!
The women were the first to come out on the streets of Petrograd on their Women’s Day.
The women in Moscow in many cases determined the need of the military; they went to the barracks, and convinced the soldiers to come over to the side of the Revolution.
Hail the women!'
Edited to add: Alexandra Kollantai on International Women's Day