Women, Marriage and Sex

Clara Zetkin

From: Reminiscences of Lenin

Comrade Lenin frequently spoke to me about the women’s question. He attached very great importance to the women’s movement as an essential part, in certain circumstances, as a decisive part of the mass movement. Social equality for women was, of course, a principle needing no discussion for Communists. It was in Lenin’s large study in the Kremlin in the autumn of 1920 that we had our first long conversation on the subject. Lenin sat at his writing table which, covered with papers and books, spoke of study and work without displaying “the disorder of genius”.

“We must create a powerful international women’s movement, on a clear theoretical basis,” Lenin began the conversation after having greeted me. “There is no good practice without Marxist theory, that is clear. The greatest clarity of principle is necessary for us Communists in this question. There must be a sharp distinction between ourselves and all other Parties. Unfortunately, our Second World Congress did not deal with this question. It was brought forward, but no decision arrived at. The matter is still in commission, which should draw up a resolution, theses, directions. Up to the present, however, they haven’t got very far. You will have to help.”

I was already acquainted with what Lenin said and expressed my astonishment at the state of affairs. I was filled with enthusiasm about the work done by Russian women in the revolution and still being done by them in its defense and further development. And as for the position and activities of women comrades in the Bolshevik Party, that seemed to me a model Party. It alone formed an international Communist women’s movement of useful, trained and experienced forces and a historical example.

“That is right, that is all very true and fine,” said Lenin, with a quiet smile. “In Petrograd, here in Moscow, in other towns and industrial centers the women workers acted splendidly during the revolution. Without them we should not have been victorious. Or scarcely so. That is my opinion. How brave they were, how brave they still are! Think of all the suffering and deprivations they bore. And they are carrying on because they want freedom, want Communism. Yes, our proletarian women are excellent class fighters. They deserve admiration and love. Besides you must remember that even the ladies of the ‘constitutional democracy’ in Petrograd proved more courageous against us than did the Junkers. That is true. We have in the Party reliable, capable and untiringly active women comrades. We can assign them to many important posts in the Soviet and Executive Committees, in the People’s Commissariats and public services of every kind. Many of them work day and night in the Party or among the masses of the proletariat, the peasants, the Red Army. That is of very great value to us. It is also important for women all over the world. It shows the capacity of women, the great value their work has in society. The first proletarian dictatorship is a real pioneer in establishing social equality for women. It is clearing away more prejudices than could volumes of feminist literature. But even with all that we still have no international Communist women’s movement, and that we must have. We must start at once to create it. Without that the work of our International and of its Parties is not complete work, can never be complete. But our work for the revolution must be complete. Tell me, how Communist work is going on abroad.”

I told him, so far as I was then informed, since the contact at that time between the Parties included in the Communist International was very loose and irregular. Lenin listened attentively, his body inclined forward slightly, following, without a trace of boredom, impatience or weariness, even incidental matters. I have never known anybody who was a better listener and who so rapidly brought what he heard into order and realized its general connections. That was shown by the short, often very precise questions with which he now and again interrupted me, and by his return later to this or that detail of the conversation. He made a few short notes.

Of course, I spoke particularly thoroughly of affairs in Germany. I told Lenin what great importance Rosa Luxemburg had attached to bringing the women masses into the revolutionary struggle. After the foundation of the Communist Party she pressed for the publication of a women’s paper. In my last conversation with Leo Jogiches – two days before his assassination – we discussed the immediate tasks of the Party and he transferred various duties to me, including a plan for organized work among women workers. The Party dealt with this question at its first illegal conference. Almost without exception the trained and experienced women propagandists and leaders who had come into prominence before and during the war, remained with the Social Democrats, and were followed by the awakening and active women workers. But still a small nucleus of very energetic and very willing women comrades had rallied together, who took part in all the work and struggles of the Party. They had already organized regular work among women workers. Of course, everything was still at the beginning, but it was a very good beginning.

“Not bad, not at all bad,” said Lenin. “The energy, willingness and enthusiasm of women comrades, their courage and wisdom in times of illegality or semi-legality indicate good prospects for the development of our work. They are valuable factors in extending the Party and increasing its strength, in winning the masses and carrying on our activities. But what about the training and clarity of principle of these men and women comrades? It is of fundamental importance for work among the masses. It is of great influence on what closely concerns the masses, how they can be won, how made enthusiastic. I forget for the moment who said: ‘One must be enthusiastic to accomplish great things.’ We and the toilers of the whole world have really great things to accomplish. So what makes your comrades, the proletarian women of Germany, enthusiastic? What about their proletarian class consciousness; are their interests, their activities concentrated on immediate political demands? What is the mainspring of their ideas?

“I have heard some peculiar things on this matter from Russian and German comrades. I must tell you. I was told that a talented woman Communist in Hamburg, is publishing a paper for prostitutes and that she wants to organize them for the revolutionary fight. Rosa acted and felt as a Communist when in an article she championed the cause of the prostitutes who were imprisoned for any transgression of police regulations in carrying on their dreary trade. They are, unfortunately, doubly sacrificed by bourgeois society. First, by its accursed property system, and, secondly, by its accursed moral hypocrisy. That is obvious. Only he who is brutal or short-sighted can forget it. But still, that is not at all the same thing as considering prostitutes – how shall I put it? – to be a special revolutionary militant section, as organizing them and publishing a factory paper for them. Aren’t there really any other working women in Germany to organize, for whom a paper can be issued, who must be drawn into your struggles? The other is only a diseased excrescence. It reminds me of the literary fashion of painting every prostitute as a sweet Madonna. The origin of that was healthy, too: social sympathy, rebellion against the virtuous hypocrisy of the respectable bourgeois. But the healthy part became corrupted and degenerate.

“Besides, the question of prostitutes will give rise to many serious problems here. Take them back to productive work, bring them into the social economy. That is what we must do. But it is a difficult and a complicated task to carry out in the present conditions of our economic life and in all the prevailing circumstances. There you have one aspect of the women’s problem which after the seizure of power by the proletariat, looms large before us and demands a practical solution. It will give us a great deal of work here in Soviet Russia. But to go back to your position in Germany. The Party must not in any circumstances calmly stand by and watch such mischievous conduct on the part of its members. It creates confusion and divides the forces. And you yourself, what have you done against it?”

Before I could answer, Lenin continued: “Your list of sins, Clara, is still longer. I was told that questions of sex and marriage are the main subjects dealt with in the reading and discussion evenings of women comrades. They are the chief subject of interest, of political instruction and education. I could scarcely believe my ears when I heard it. The first country of proletarian dictatorship surrounded by the counter-revolutionaries of the whole world, the situation in Germany itself requires the greatest possible concentration of all proletarian, revolutionary forces to defeat the ever-growing and ever-increasing counter-revolution. But working women comrades discuss sexual problems and the question of forms of marriage in the past, present and future. They think it their most important duty to enlighten proletarian women on these subjects. The most widely read brochure is, I believe, the pamphlet of a young Viennese woman comrade on the sexual problem. What a waste! What truth there is in it the workers have already read in Bebel, long ago. Only not so boringly, not so heavily written as in the pamphlet, but written strongly, bitterly, aggressively, against bourgeois society.

“The extension on Freudian hypotheses seems ‘educated,’ even scientific, but it is ignorant, bungling. Freudian theory is the modern fashion. I mistrust the sexual theories of the articles, dissertations, pamphlets, etc., in short, of that particular kind of literature which flourishes luxuriantly in the dirty soil of bourgeois society. I mistrust those who are always contemplating the several questions, like the Indian saint his navel. It seems to me that these flourishing sexual theories which are mainly hypothetical, and often quite arbitrary hypotheses, arise from the personal need to justify personal abnormality or hypertrophy in sexual life before bourgeois morality, and to entreat its patience. This masked respect for bourgeois morality seems to me just as repulsive as poking about in sexual matters. However wild and revolutionary the behavior may be, it is still really quite bourgeois. It is, mainly, a hobby of the intellectuals and of the section nearest them. There is no place for it in the Party, in the class conscious, fighting proletariat.”

I interrupted here, saying that the questions of sex and marriage, in a bourgeois society of private property, involve many problems, conflicts and much suffering for women of all social classes and ranks. The war, and its consequences had greatly accentuated the conflicts and sufferings of women in sexual matters, had brought to light problems which were formerly hidden from them. To that were added the effects of the revolution. The old world of feeling and thought had begun to totter. Old social ties are entangling and breaking, there are the tendencies towards new ideological relationships between man and woman. The interest shown in these questions is an expression of the need for enlightenment and reorientation. It also indicates a reaction against the falseness and hypocrisy of bourgeois society. Forms of marriage and of the family, in their historical development and dependence upon economic life, are calculated to destroy the superstition existing in the minds of working women concerning the eternal character of bourgeois society. A critical, historical attitude to those problems must lead to a ruthless examination of bourgeois society, to a disclosure of its real nature and effects, including condemnation of its sexual morality and falseness. All roads lead to Rome. And every real Marxist analysis of any important section of the ideological superstructure of society, of a predominating social phenomenon, must lead to an analysis of bourgeois society and of its property basis, must end in the realization, “this must be destroyed.”

Lenin nodded laughingly. “There we have it! You are defending counsel for your women comrades and your Party. Of course, what you say is right. But it only excuses the mistakes made in Germany; it does not justify them. They are, and remain, mistakes. Can you really seriously assure me that the questions of sex and marriage were discussed from the standpoint of a mature, living, historical materialism? Deep and many-sided knowledge is necessary for that, the clearest Marxist mastery of a great amount of material. Where can you get the forces for that now? If they existed, then pamphlets like the one I mentioned would not be used as material for study in the reading and discussion circles. They are distributed and recommended, instead of being criticized. And what is the result of this futile, un-Marxist dealing with the question? That questions of sex and marriage are understood not as part of the large social question? No, worse! The great social question appears as an adjunct, a part, of sexual problems. The main thing becomes a subsidiary matter. That does not only endanger clarity on that question itself, it muddles the thoughts, the class consciousness of proletarian women generally.

Last and not least. Even the wise Solomon said that everything has its time. I ask you: Is now the time to amuse proletarian women with discussions on how one loves and is loved, how one marries and is married? Of course, in the past, present and future, and among different nations – what is proudly called historical materialism! Now all the thoughts of women comrades, of the women of the working people, must be directed towards the proletarian revolution. It creates the basis for a real renovation in marriage and sexual relations. At the moment other problems are more urgent than the marriage forms of Maoris or incest in olden times. The question of Soviets is still on the agenda for the German proletariat. The Versailles Treaty and its effect on the life of the working woman – unemployment, falling wages, taxes, and a great deal more. In short, I maintain that this kind of political, social education for proletarian women is false, quite, quite false. How could you be silent about it? You must use your authority against it.”

I have not failed to criticize and remonstrate with leading women comrades in the separate districts, I told my angry friend. He himself knew that a prophet is never recognized in his own country or family. By my criticism I had laid myself open to the charge of “strong survivals of social democratic ideology and old-fashioned Philistinism.” But at last the criticism had begun to take effect. Questions of sex and marriage were no longer the central feature of discussion. But Lenin continued the thread of thought further.

“I know, I know,” he said. “I have also been accused by many people of Philistinism in this matter, although that is repulsive to me. There is so much hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness in it. Well, I’m bearing it calmly! The little yellow-beaked birds who have just broken from the egg of bourgeois ideas are always frightfully clever. We shall have to let that go. The youth movement too, is attacked with the disease of modernity in its attitude towards sexual questions and in being exaggeratedly concerned with them.” Lenin gave an ironic emphasis to the word modernity and grimaced as he did so.

“I have been told that sexual questions are the favorite study of your youth organizations, too. There is supposed to be a lack of sufficient orators on the subject. Such misconceptions are particularly harmful, particularly dangerous in the youth movement. They can very easily contribute towards over-excitement and exaggeration in the sexual life of some of them, to a waste of youthful health and strength. You must fight against that, too. There are not a few points of contact between the women’s and youth movements. Our women comrades must work together systematically with the youth. That is a continuation, an extension and exaltation of motherliness from the individual to the social sphere. And all the awakening social life and activity of women must be encouraged, so that they can discard the limitations of their Philistine individualist home and family psychology. But we’ll come to that later.

“With us, too, a large part of the youth is keen on ‘revising bourgeois conceptions and morality’ concerning sexual questions. And, I must add, a large part of our best, our most promising young people. What you said before is true. In the conditions created by the war and the revolution the old ideological values disappeared or lost their binding force. The new values are crystallizing slowly, in struggle. In the relations between man and man, between man and woman, feelings and thoughts are becoming revolutionized. New boundaries are being set up between the rights of the individual and the rights of the whole, in the duties of individuals. The matter is still in a completely chaotic ferment. The direction, the forces of development in the various contradictory tendencies are not yet clearly defined. It is a slow and often a very painful process of decay and growth. And particularly in the sphere of sexual relationships, of marriage and the family. The decay, the corruption, the filth of bourgeois marriage, with its difficult divorce, its freedom for the man, its enslavement for the woman, the repulsive hypocrisy of sexual morality and relations fill the most active minded and best people with deep disgust.

“The constraint of bourgeois marriage and the family laws of bourgeois states accentuate these evils and conflicts. It is the force of ‘holy property.’ It sanctifies venality, degradation, filth. And the conventional hypocrisy of honest bourgeois society does the rest. People are beginning to protest against the prevailing rottenness and falseness, and the feelings of an individual change rapidly. The desire and urge to enjoyment easily attain unbridled force at a time when powerful empires are tottering, old forms of rule breaking down, when a whole social world is beginning to disappear. Sex and marriage forms, in their bourgeois sense, are unsatisfactory! A revolution in sex and marriage is approaching, corresponding to the proletarian revolution. It is easily comprehensible that the very involved complex of problems brought into existence should occupy the mind of the youth, as well as of women. They suffer particularly under present-day sexual grievances. They are rebelling with all the impetuosity of their years. We can understand that. Nothing could be more false than to preach monkish asceticism and the sanctity of dirty bourgeois morality to the youth. It is particularly serious if sex becomes the main mental concern during those years when it is physically most obvious. What fatal effects that has! Speak to Comrade Lilina* about it. She has had much experience in her work in educational institutions of various kinds, and you know that she is a thorough Communist and entirely unprejudiced.

* The wife of G. Zinoviev. – Ed.

“The changed attitude of the young people to questions of sexual life is of course based on a ‘principle’ and a theory. Many of them call their attitude ‘revolutionary’ and ‘Communistic.’ And they honestly believe that it is so. That does not impress us old people. Although I am nothing but a gloomy ascetic, the so-called ‘new sexual life’ of the youth – and sometimes of the old – often seems to me to be purely bourgeois, an extension of bourgeois brothels. That has nothing whatever in common with freedom of love as we Communists understand it You must be aware of the famous theory that in Communist society the satisfaction of sexual desires, of love, will be as simple and unimportant as drinking a glass of water. This glass of water theory has made our young people mad, quite mad. It has proved fatal to many young boys and girls. Its adherents maintain that it is Marxist. But thanks for such Marxism which directly and immediately attributes all phenomena and changes in the ideological superstructure of society to its economic basis! Matters aren’t quite as simple as that. A certain Frederick Engels pointed that out a long time ago with regard to historical materialism.

“I think this glass of water theory is completely un-Marxist, and moreover, anti-social. In sexual life there is not only simple nature to be considered, but also cultural characteristics, whether they are of a high or low order. In his Origin of the Family Engels showed how significant is the development and refinement of the general sex urge into individual sex love. The relations of the sexes to each other are not simply an expression of the play of forces between the economics of society and a physical need, isolated in thought, by study, from the physiological aspect. It is rationalism, and not Marxism, to want to trace changes in these relations directly, and dissociated from their connections with ideology as a whole, to the economic foundations of society. Of course, thirst must be satisfied. But will the normal man in normal circumstances lie down in the gutter and drink out of a puddle, or out of a glass with a rim greasy from many lips? But the social aspect is most important of all. Drinking water is of course an individual affair. But in love two lives are concerned, and a third, a new life, arises. It is that which gives it its social interest, which gives rise to a duty towards the community.

“As a communist I have not the least sympathy for the glass of water theory, although it bears the fine title ‘satisfaction of love.’ In any case, this liberation of love is neither new, nor Communist. You will remember that about the middle of the last century it was preached as the ‘emancipation of the heart’ in romantic literature. In bourgeois practice it became the emancipation of the flesh. At that time the preaching was more talented than it is to-day, and as for the practice, I cannot judge.

“I don’t mean to preach asceticism by my criticism. Not in the least. Communism will not bring asceticism, but joy of life, power of life, and a satisfied love life will help to do that. But in my opinion the present widespread hypertrophy in sexual matters does not give joy and force to life, but takes it away. In the age of revolution that is bad, very bad.

“Young people, particularly, need the joy and force of life. Healthy sport, swimming, racing, walking, bodily exercises of every kind, and many-sided intellectual interests. Learning, studying, inquiry, as far as possible in common. That will give young people more than eternal theories and discussions about sexual problems and the so-called ‘living to the full.’ Healthy bodies, healthy minds! Neither monk nor Don Juan, nor the intermediate attitude of the German Philistines. You know young comrade ___? A splendid boy, and highly talented. And yet I fear that nothing good will come out of him. He reels and staggers from one love affair to the next. That won’t do for the political struggle, for the revolution. And I wouldn’t bet on the reliability, the endurance in struggle of those women who confuse their personal romances with politics. Nor on the men who run after every petticoat and get entrapped by every young woman. No, no! that does not square with the revolution.”

Lenin sprang up, banged his hand on the table, and paced the room for a while.

“The revolution demands concentration, increase of forces. From the masses, from individuals. It cannot tolerate orgiastic conditions, such as are normal for the decadent heroes and heroines of D’Annunzio. Dissoluteness in sexual life is bourgeois, is a phenomenon of decay. The proletariat is a rising class. It doesn’t need intoxication as a narcotic or a stimulus. Intoxication as little by sexual exaggeration as by alcohol. It must not and shall not forget, forget the shame, the filth, the savagery of capitalism. It receives the strongest urge to fight from a class situation, from the Communist ideal. It needs clarity, clarity and again clarity. And so I repeat, no weakening, no waste, no destruction of forces. Self-control, self-discipline is not slavery, not even in love. But forgive me, Clara, I have wandered far from the starting point of our conversation. Why didn’t you call me to order? My tongue has run away with me. I am deeply concerned about the future of our youth. It is a part of the revolution. And if harmful tendencies are appearing, creeping over from bourgeois society into the world of revolution – as the roots of many weeds spread – it is better to combat them early. Such questions are part of the women question.”

Lenin had spoken with great animation and fervor. I felt that every word came from his heart, and the expression of his features reinforced that feeling. Sometimes a vigorous movement of the hand emphasized an idea. I marveled that Lenin, confronted by urgent and great political problems, devoted such attention to secondary matters and analyzed them. And not only as they appeared in Soviet Russia, but in the still-capitalist states. Like the excellent Marxist that he was, he comprehended the particular in whatever form it manifested itself, in its relation to the general, and in its significance for the whole. Undeviating, unshakable as an irresistible natural force, his life will, his life aim was directed to one thing: to hasten the work of the masses towards revolution. So he evaluated everything by its effects on the conscious driving forces of revolution. National as well as international, for, with a full regard for historically determined peculiarities in separate countries and the varied stages of development, there stood always before his eyes the one and indivisible world revolution.

“How I regret that there were not hundreds, thousands to hear your words, Comrade Lenin,” I cried. “You know you have no need to convert me. But it would be good for friends and foes to hear your views.”

Lenin smiled. “Perhaps one day I shall speak or write on these questions – but not now. Now all our time and energy must be devoted to other matters. There are greater and more serious troubles. The struggle to maintain and strengthen the Soviet power is far from ended. We must get over the results of the war with Poland, and try to make the best of them. Wrangel is still in the South. But I am quite confident that we shall soon finish with him. That will give the British and French imperialists and their petty vassals something to think about. But the most difficult part of our work still lies before us – construction. In that, questions of sexual relationship, of marriage and the family will become current problems. Meanwhile, you must take up the fight wherever and whenever it is necessary. You must see that these questions are not dealt with in an un-Marxist fashion, and that they do not serve as a basis for deviations and intrigues. And so at last I come to your work.”

Lenin glanced at the clock. “Half of the time I had set aside for you has already gone,” he said. “I have been chattering. You will draw up proposals for Communist work among women. I know your principles and practical experience in the matter. So there need not be much for us to discuss. Fire away. What sort of proposals have you in mind?”

I gave a concise account of them. Lenin nodded repeatedly in agreement without interrupting me. When I had finished, I looked at him questioningly.

“Agreed,” said he, “discuss it further with Zinoviev. It would also be good if you could report on and discuss the matter at a meeting of leading women comrades. It’s a pity, a great pity, that Comrade Inessa* is not here. She is ill, and has gone to the Caucasus. After discussion, write out the proposals. A Commission will examine them and finally the Executive will give its decision. I only want to speak on a few main points, in which I fully share your attitude. They seem to me to be important for our current agitation and propaganda work, if that work is to lead to action and successful struggles.

* Inessa Armand, a leading Bolshevik, active among women workers, now dead. – Ed.

“The thesis must clearly point out that real freedom for women is possible only through Communism. The inseparable connection between the social and human position of the woman, and private property in the means of production, must be strongly brought out. That will draw a clear and ineradicable line of distinction between our policy and feminism. And it will also supply the basis for regarding the woman question as a part of the social question, of the workers’ problem, and so bind it firmly to the proletarian class struggle and the revolution. The Communist women’s movement must itself be a mass movement, a part of the general mass movement. Not only of the proletariat, but of all the exploited and oppressed, all the victims of capitalism or any other mastery. In that lies its significance for the class struggles of the proletariat and for its historical creation – Communist society. We can rightly be proud of the fact that in the Party, in the Communist International, we have the flower of revolutionary womankind. But that is not enough. We must win over to our side the millions of toiling women in the towns and villages. Win them for our struggles and in particular for the Communist transformation of society. There can be no real mass movement without women.

“Our ideological conceptions give rise to principles of organization. No special organizations for women. A woman Communist is a member of the Party just as a man Communist, with equal rights and duties. There can be no difference of opinion on that score. Nevertheless, we must not close our eyes to the fact that the Party must have bodies, working groups, commissions, committees, bureaus or whatever you like, whose particular duty it is to arouse the masses of women workers, to bring them into contact with the Party, and to keep them under its influence. That, of course, involves systematic work among them. We must train those whom we arouse and win, and equip them for the proletarian class struggle under the leadership of the Communist Party. I am thinking not only of proletarian women, whether they work in the factory or at home. The poor peasant women, the petty bourgeois – they, too, are the prey of capitalism, and more so than ever since the war. The unpolitical, unsocial, backward psychology of these women, their isolated sphere of activity, the entire manner of their life – these are facts. It would be absurd to overlook them, absolutely absurd. We need appropriate bodies to carry on work amongst them, special methods of agitation and forms of organization. That is not feminism, that is practical, revolutionary expediency.”

I told Lenin that his words encouraged me greatly. Many comrades, and good comrades at that, strongly combatted the idea that the Party should have special bodies for systematic work among women. They “taboo” it as feminism, and a return to social democratic traditions. They contend that the Communist Parties, on principle affording equal rights to men and women, should work as a whole among the working masses as a whole, without differentiation. Women have to be included the same as men, and under the same conditions. Any attention, in agitation or organization, paid to the circumstances adduced by Lenin were characterized as opportunist, as surrender and treachery by the upholders of the other point of view.

“That is neither new nor proof,” said Lenin. “You must not be misled by that. Why have we never had as many women as men in the Party – not at any time in Soviet Russia? Why is the number of women workers organized in trade unions so small? Facts give food for thought. The rejection of the necessity for separate bodies for our work among the women masses is a conception allied to those of our highly principled and most radical friends of the Communist Labor Party. According to them there must be only one form of organization, workers’ unions. I know them. Many revolutionary but confused minds appeal to principle ‘whenever ideas are lacking.’ That is, when the mind is closed to the sober facts, which must be considered. How do such guardians of ‘pure principle’ square their ideas with the necessities of the revolutionary policy historically forced upon us? All that sort of talk breaks down before inexorable necessity. Unless millions of women are with us we cannot exercise the proletarian dictatorship, cannot construct on Communist lines. We must find our way to them, we must study and try to find that way.

“That is why it is right for us to put forward demands favorable to women. That is not a minimum, a reform program in the sense of the Social Democrats, of the Second International. It is not a recognition that we believe in the eternal character, or even in the long duration of the rule of the bourgeoisie and their state. It is not an attempt to appease women by reforms and to divert them from the path of revolutionary struggle. It is not that nor any other reformist swindle. Our demands are practical conclusions which we have drawn from the burning needs, the shameful humiliation of women, in bourgeois society, defenseless and without rights. We demonstrate thereby that we recognize these needs, and are sensible of the humiliation of the woman, the privileges of the man. That we hate, yes, hate everything, and will abolish everything which tortures and oppresses the woman worker, the housewife, the peasant woman, the wife of the petty trader, yes, and in many cases the women of the possessing classes. The rights and social regulations which we demand for women from bourgeois society show that we understand the position and interests of women, and will have consideration for them under the proletarian dictatorship. Not, of course, as the reformists do, lulling them to inaction and keeping them in leading strings. No, of course not; but as revolutionaries who call upon the women to work as equals in transforming the old economy and ideology.”

I assured Lenin that I shared his views, but that they would certainly meet with resistance. Uncertain and timorous minds would think them risky opportunism. Nor could it be denied that our immediate demands for women could be wrongly drawn up and expressed.

“Nonsense!” said Lenin, almost bad temperedly, “that danger is present in everything that we do and say. If we were to be deterred by fear of that from doing what is correct and necessary, we might as well become Indian Stylites. Don’t move, don’t move, we can contemplate our principles from a high pillar! Of course, we are concerned not only with the contents of our demands, but with the manner in which we present them. I thought I had made that clear enough. Of course we shan’t put forward our demands for women as though we were mechanically counting our beads. No, according to the prevailing circumstances, we must fight now for this, now for that. And, of course, always in connection with the general interests of the proletariat.

“Every such struggle brings us in opposition to respectable bourgeois relationships, and to their not less respectable reformist admirers whom it compels either to fight together with us under our leadership – which they don’t want to do – or to be shown up in their true colors. That is, the struggle clearly brings out the differences between us and other Parties, brings out our Communism. It wins us the confidence of the masses of women who feel themselves exploited, enslaved, suppressed, by the domination of the man, by the power of the employer, by the whole of bourgeois society. Betrayed and deserted by all, the working women will recognize that they must fight together with us.

“Must I again swear to you, or let you swear, that the struggles for our demands for women must be bound up with the object of seizing power, of establishing the proletarian dictatorship? That is our Alpha and Omega at the present time. That is clear, quite clear. But the women of the working people will not feel irresistibly driven into sharing our struggles for the state power if we only and always put forward that one demand, though it were with the trumpets of Jericho. No, no! The women must be made conscious of the political connection between our demands and their own suffering, needs, and wishes. They must realize what the proletarian dictatorship means for them: complete equality with man in law and practice, in the family, in the state, in society; an end to the power of the bourgeoisie.”

“Soviet Russia shows that,” I interrupted.

“That will be the great example in our teaching,” Lenin continued. “Soviet Russia puts our demands for women in a new light. Under the proletarian dictatorship those demands are not objects of struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. They are part of the structure of Communist society. That indicates to women in other countries the decisive importance of the winning of power by the proletariat. The difference must be sharply emphasized, so as to get the women into the revolutionary class struggle of the proletariat. It is essential for the Communist Parties, and for their triumph, to rally them on a clear understanding of principle and a firm organizational basis. But don’t let us deceive ourselves. Our national sections still lack a correct understanding of this matter. They are standing idly by while there is this task of creating a mass movement of working women under Communist leadership. They don’t understand that the development and management of such a mass movement is an important part of entire Party activity, indeed, a half of general Party work. Their occasional recognition of the necessity and value of a powerful, clear-headed Communist women’s movement is a platonic verbal recognition, not the constant care and obligation of the Party.

“Agitation and propaganda work among women, their awakening and revolutionization, is regarded as an incidental matter, as an affair which only concerns women comrades. They alone are reproached because work in that direction does not proceed more quickly and more vigorously. That is wrong, quite wrong! Real separatism and as the French say, feminism à la rebours, feminism upside down! What is at the basis of the incorrect attitude of our national sections? In the final analysis it is nothing but an under-estimation of woman and her work. Yes, indeed! Unfortunately it is still true to say of many of our comrades, ‘scratch a Communist and find a Philistine.’ Of course, you must scratch the sensitive spot, their mentality as regards woman. Could there be a more damning proof of this than the calm acquiescence of men who see how women grow worn out in the petty, monotonous household work, their strength and time dissipated and wasted, their minds growing narrow and stale, their hearts beating slowly, their will weakened? Of course, I am not speaking of the ladies of the bourgeoisie who shove on to servants the responsibility for all household work, including the care of children. What I am saying applies to the overwhelming majority of women, to the wives of workers and to those who stand all day in a factory.

“So few men – even among the proletariat – realize how much effort and trouble they could save women, even quite do away with, if they were to lend a hand in ‘woman’s work.’ But no, that is contrary to the ‘right and dignity of a man.’ They want their peace and comfort. The home life of the woman is a daily sacrifice to a thousand unimportant trivialities. The old master right of the man still lives in secret. His slave takes her revenge, also secretly. The backwardness of women, their lack of understanding for the revolutionary ideals of the man decrease his joy and determination in fighting. They are like little worms which, unseen, slowly but surely, rot and corrode. I know the life of the worker, and not only from books. Our Communist work among the women, our political work, embraces a great deal of educational work among men. We must root out the old ‘master’ idea to its last and smallest root, in the Party and among the masses. That is one of our political tasks, just as is the urgently necessary task of forming a staff of men and women comrades, well trained in theory and practice, to carry on Party activity among working women.”

To my question about the conditions in Soviet Russia on this point, Lenin replied:

“The Government of the proletarian dictatorship, together with the Communist Party and trade unions, is of course leaving no stone unturned in the effort to overcome the backward ideas of men and women, to destroy the old un-Communist psychology. In law there is naturally complete equality of rights for men and women. And everywhere there is evidence of a sincere wish to put this equality into practice. We are bringing the women into the social economy, into legislation and government. All educational institutions are open to them, so that they can increase their professional and social capacities. We are establishing communal kitchens and public eating-houses, laundries and repairing shops, infant asylums, kindergartens, children’s homes, educational institutes of all kinds. In short, we are seriously carrying out the demand in our program for the transference of the economic and educational functions of the separate household to society. That will mean freedom for the woman from the old household drudgery and dependence on man. That enables her to exercise to the full her talents and her inclinations. The children are brought up under more favorable conditions than at home. We have the most advanced protective laws for women workers in the world, and the officials of the organized workers carry them out. We are establishing maternity hospitals, homes for mothers and children, mothercraft clinics, organizing lecture courses on child care, exhibitions teaching mothers how to look after themselves and their children, and similar things. We are making the most serious efforts to maintain women who are unemployed and unprovided for.

“We realize clearly that that is not very much, in comparison with the needs of the working women, that it is far from being all that is required for their real freedom. But still it is tremendous progress, as against conditions in tsarist-capitalist Russia. It is even a great deal compared with conditions in countries where capitalism still has a free hand. It is a good beginning in the right direction, and we shall develop it further. With all our energy, you may believe that. For every day of the existence of the Soviet state proves more clearly that we cannot go forward without the women. Think what that means in a country where a good 80 per cent of the population are peasants! Small peasant economy means small separate households, with the women chained to them. In this respect it will be much easier and better for you than it is for us. Granted that your proletarian women will seize the objective historical moment for winning power, for the revolution. And we don’t despair of that.

“Our strength grows with our difficulties. The force of facts will drive us forward to seek new measures for liberating the women masses. In collaboration with the Soviet state, cooperation will do a great deal. Cooperation, of course, in the Communist and not the bourgeois sense, as preached by the reformists, whose unrevolutionary enthusiasm evaporated in cheap vinegar. Personal initiative must go hand in hand with cooperation, an initiative which grows into and becomes fused with communal activity. Under the proletarian dictatorship the liberation of the women will come about through the development of Communism, even in the villages. I base my highest hopes for that on the electrification of our industry and agriculture. A great work that! And the difficulties of putting it into execution are great, terribly great. The greatest forces of the masses must be awakened and applied to accomplish it. And the forces of the millions of women must help.”

There had been two knocks during the last ten minutes Lenin had continued speaking. Now he opened the door and called out, “I’m coming at once.” Then, turning to me, he added laughingly, “You know, Clara, I shall make use of the fact that I was with a woman. I’ll explain my lateness by reference to the well-known feminine volubility. Although this time it was the man, and not the woman, who spoke such a lot. For the rest, I shall bear witness that you can really listen seriously. Perhaps it was that which stimulated me to eloquence.”

So joking, Lenin helped me on with my coat. “You must dress more warmly,” he said thoughtfully. “Moscow is not Stuttgart. You must be looked after. Don’t catch cold. Auf wiedersehen!” He shook me heartily by the hand.

About two weeks later I had another conversation with Lenin on the women’s movement. Lenin was visiting me. As almost always, his visit was unexpected, a sudden break in the midst of the overwhelming burden of work which at last overcame the leader of the victorious revolution. Lenin looked very fatigued and worried. Wrangel’s defeat was still not certain, and the problem of provisioning the large towns with food faced the Soviet Government like an inexorable Sphinx.

Lenin asked me about the directives or theses. I told him that there had been a big commission attended by all the leading women comrades present in Moscow, who had stated their views. Proposals had been drawn up and were now to be considered by a smaller commission. Lenin said we must remember that the Third World Congress would deal with the question with all the necessary thorough care.

“That fact alone would overcome many of the comrades’ prejudices. For the rest, the women comrades must set to work, and that hard. Not lispingly, like kind aunties, but speaking out loudly as fighters, speaking clearly,” Lenin cried animatedly. “A Congress is not a salon, where women shine by their grace, as the romances put it. It is an arena where we struggle for knowledge or how to act in a revolutionary way. Prove that you can fight. First, of course, against the foe, but also in the Party if it is necessary. We are dealing with millions of women. Our Russian Party will be in favor of all proposals and measures which will help to win them. If they are not with us, the counter-revolution may succeed in leading them against us. We must always think of that–. The women masses, we must get them, whatever the difficulties we may encounter in doing so.”

Here, in the midst of the revolution, with its richly-flowing life, its strong, rapid pulsation, I had thought of a plan for international activity among the working women masses. “Your big non-party women’s conferences and congresses gave me the main idea. We are going to transfer that idea from the national to the international plane. It is a fact that the world war and its consequences deeply affected all women in the various social classes and ranks. They lived in ferment and activity. They are faced by questions in the form of the bitterest worries about maintaining and using life, which most of them never dreamed of, which only a few have clearly understood. Bourgeois society is not able to answer these questions satisfactorily. Only Communism can do that. We must make the masses of women in the capitalist countries conscious of that and for that purpose arrange a non-party International Women’s Congress.”

Lenin did not answer at once. With his glance as it were, turned inwards, mouth firmly pressed together, the under-lip protruding slightly, he considered my proposal. Then he said: “Yes, we must do it. It’s a good plan. But good plans, even the most excellent, don’t work unless they are well carried out. Have you considered how to carry it out? What are your views on the matter?”

I gave them to Lenin in detail. The first thing was to form a committee of women comrades from various countries in constant and close contact with our national sections, to prepare, arrange and call the congress. Whether that committee should begin to work at once officially and publicly was a question of expediency still to be considered. In any case the first task of its members would be to get in touch with women leaders of women workers organized in trade unions, of the political working-class women’s movement, of bourgeois women’s organizations of every sort, including women doctors, teachers, journalists, etc., and to set up in the various countries a national non-party Arrangements Committee. The International Committee was to be formed from members of the National Committees, which would arrange and convene the International Congress, and decide its agenda and time and place of meeting.

In my opinion the congress should first of all deal with women’s right to professional work. That will involve questions of unemployment, equal pay for equal work, the legal eight-hour day and protective legislation for women, trade union and professional organization, social provision for mother and child, social institutions to help the housewife and mother, etc. The agenda should also include: the position of the woman in marriage and family law, and in public-political law. I elaborated these proposals and then went on to suggest how the national committees could make thorough preparations for the congress by a systematic campaign in the Press and at meetings. The campaign would be of particular importance in appealing to the largest possible masses of women, in inducing them to deal seriously with the problems to be discussed and in directing their attention to Communism and the Parties of the Communist International. The campaign should take place among active and working women of all social ranks; it must insure the presence and cooperation at the congress of representatives of all organizations dealt with as well as delegates from open women’s meetings. The congress must be a “people’s representation” in quite another sense from that of bourgeois parliaments.

Of course, Communist women must be not only the driving, but also the leading force in the preparatory work. They must be accorded energetic support by our sections. All this, of course, applies also to the work of the International Committee, the work of the congress itself and the utilization of that work. Communist theses and resolutions on all items of the agenda must be submitted to the congress, unambiguous in principle and objectively and scientifically based on prevailing social conditions. These theses should be discussed and approved by the Executive of the International. Communist slogans and Communist proposals must be the center of the work of the congress, of public attention. After the congress they must be spread among the widest possible masses of women and help to determine international mass action on the part of women. An indispensable condition for good work is of course, for all the women Communists in the committees and at the congress, to be firmly and closely united, to work together systematically on clear and decided principles. No one must be permitted to slip out of the ranks.

While I had been talking, Lenin had often nodded his head in agreement, or made brief remarks of assent. “It seems to me, dear comrade,” he said, “that you have considered the political aspect of the matter very well, and also the chief points of organization. I firmly believe that in the present situation such a congress can do important work. It may make it possible for us to win over to our side large masses of women. Masses of professional women, industrial workers, housewives, teachers and others. That would be very good, very good! Think of the position during large scale industrial disputes or political strikes. What an increase in the power of the revolutionary proletariat by the addition of consciously rebelling women. That is, of course, if we understand how to win and to keep them. The gain would be great, tremendous. But there are a few questions. It is probable that the state authorities will look most unfavorably on the work of the congress, that they will try to prevent it. But I don’t think they will dare brutally to suppress it. What they do won’t frighten you. But do you fear that the Communists in the committees and the congress will be controlled by the numerical majority of bourgeois and reformist members, and by their undoubtedly strong routine? And, finally, and above all, have you really the confidence in the Marxist training of our women comrades to form, as it were, shock troops from among them, who will come through the struggle with honor?”

I answered that the authorities would be most unlikely to take any violent action against the congress. Tricks and brutal measures against the congress would only act as propaganda for it. The number and weight of non-Communist elements will be met by us Communists with the scientific superior strength of historical materialism in the understanding and elucidation of social problems, with the coherence of our demands and suggestions, and last, but not least, with the victory of the proletarian revolution in Russia and its pioneer work in the liberation of women. Weaknesses and deficiencies in the training and understanding of individual comrades can be made up for by systematic cooperation and preparation. I expect the best from our Russian comrades in this matter. They will be the iron center of our phalanx. With them I would confidently dare more than congress battles. Besides, even if we are out-voted, the very fact of our struggle will push Communism into the foreground, and will be of extremely good propaganda value in creating contacts for work later on.

Lenin laughed heartily. “The same enthusiast as ever about the Russian women revolutionists. Yes, yes, the old love hasn’t weakened. And I believe you are right. Even defeat after a good struggle would be an advantage, a preparation for future gains among working women. Taken all in all, it is an undertaking worth the risk. We can never lose altogether in it. Although, of course, I hope for victory, hope for it from the bottom of my heart. It would be an important addition to our strength, a great extension and reinforcement of our front, it would bring new life, movement, activity to our ranks. And that is always useful. Moreover, the congress would arouse and increase unrest, uncertainty, hostilities and conflicts in the camp of the bourgeoisie and their reformist friends. Just imagine those who will meet together with the ‘hyenas of the revolution’ and, if all goes well, under their leadership, – honest, tame Social Democratic women from the camp of Scheidemann, Dittmann and Legien; pious Christians, blessed by the Pope, or swearing by Luther, daughters of privy councilors – and freshly baked government councilors, lady-like English pacifists and passionate French feminists. What a picture of the chaos and decay of the bourgeois such a congress would give. What a reflection of its futility and hopelessness. Such a congress would accentuate the disintegration and so weaken the forces of the counter-revolution. Every weakening of the forces of the enemy is simultaneously a strengthening of our power. I agree to the congress – speak to Gregory* about it. He will quite understand the importance of the matter. We shall support it vigorously. So begin, and good luck in the fight.”

* Gregory Zinoviev. – Ed.

We went on to speak of the situation in Germany, particularly of the coming “Unity Congress” between the old “Spartacists”* and the left wing of the Independents.** Then Lenin hurried away, greeting a few comrades writing in a room through which he had to pass.

* Spartacus League, founded by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, the forerunner of the Communist Party. – Ed.

** Independent Social-Democratic Party. – Ed.

Comrade Zinoviev also approved of my plan. I set about the work of preparation hopefully.

Unfortunately the congress came to grief because of the attitude of German and Bulgarian women comrades, who at that time had the best Communist women’s movement outside Russia. They rejected the congress. When I told Lenin, he replied: “Pity, a great pity! The comrades have let slip a brilliant opportunity to open a way of hope to masses of women workers, and so to bring them into the revolutionary struggles of the working-class. Who knows whether such a favorable opportunity will occur again soon? The iron must be struck while it is hot. But the task itself still remains. You must find a way of reaching the women who have been thrust by capitalism into frightful misery. You must, must find it. That necessity cannot be evaded. Without organized mass activity under Communist leadership there can be no victory over capitalism, no building of Communism. That is why in the end the women will be compelled to rise in revolt.”

The first year of the revolutionary proletariat without Lenin. It has proved the strength of his achievements, the overwhelming genius of the leader. It has made us sensible of the great and irreparable loss we have suffered. The thunder of cannon announced mournfully that a year ago Lenin closed forever his far and deep-seeing eyes. I see the endless trail of grave men and women of the working people, filing past Lenin’s place of rest. Their grief is my grief, the grief of millions. But from the newly-awakened pain memory rises overwhelmingly strong, a reality effacing the sorrowful present. I hear every word which Lenin spoke to me. I see each change of his features…. Banners are lowered before Lenin’s grave, banners dyed with the blood of revolutionary fighters. Laurel wreaths are laid down. There is not one too many. To them I add these modest leaves.

Moscow. End of January, 1925.

Fuentes:

https://revolutionarydemocracy.org/archive/zetkinwomen.htm