Profile of a Communist women's movement

Excerpts from the Communist International's Third Congress

Introductory note

Among supporters of women’s rights today, the Communist Women’s Movement (CWM) of the 1920s remains virtually unknown. Yet it is a legitimate precursor of the modern women’s liberation movement and bears serious study by supporters of revolutionary socialism.

Comparatively little source material concerning the CWM exists in English. An important new source is To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, as well as other volumes of the series edited by John Riddell.1 One of the goals of these books is precisely to enable a new generation of revolutionary activists to reclaim their history and continuity. The excerpts published here are taken from the Third Congress discussion of Communist work among women.

Organized through an International Women’s Secretariat headed by the German revolutionary Clara Zetkin, the Communist Women’s Movement sought to draw women into the Communist movement while

encouraging the involvement of Communist parties in the fight for women’s full participation. In doing so, it sought to impart a Marxist understanding of the roots of women’s subordinate status and what was needed to change it.2

The CWM’s predecessor, the pre-World War I socialist women’s movement, dates back to the First International Conference of Socialist Women held in Stuttgart, Germany in August 1907. That meeting was organized on the initiative of leading female cadres of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Foremost among these was Clara Zetkin, who became chairperson of the International Socialist Women’s Bureau. 

While it held several important international conferences, the socialist women’s movement was largely ignored by the Second International’s leading bodies. Nevertheless, one of the movement’s decisions had a worldwide impact that continues to this day: Its 1910 conference voted to establish an annual International Women’s Day that came to be held on March 8.

During World War I, the International Socialist Women’s Bureau played a vanguard role within the world socialist movement as a whole. In August 1914 the Second International collapsed as most of its parties supported their governments’ respective participation in the war. The very first serious attempt to revive socialist internationalism was taken by the socialist women’s movement. In March 1915 under Zetkin’s leadership, a conference of socialist women was held in Bern, Switzerland, to discuss the fight against the war and the effort to rebuild the international socialist movement. That conference foreshadowed the Zimmerwald socialist antiwar conference held a few months later. 

In the wake of the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, many of the central leaders and cadres of the socialist women’s movement became part of the Third International. From its beginnings, the Communist International (Comintern) inscribed the emancipation and incorporation of women as one of its central goals. Each of the first four world congresses—those held while Lenin was alive—addressed women’s issues.

The founding congress in March 1919 adopted a resolution submitted by Alexandra Kollontai entitled “Resolution on the Need to Draw Women Workers into the Struggle for Socialism.” The very first sentence set the stage for the more detailed discussions that were to come: “The congress of the Communist International holds that the successful achievement of all the tasks it has set itself, as well as the final victory of the world proletariat and the complete abolition of the capitalist system, can be assured only through the common, united struggle of working-class men and women.”3

The Comintern’s Second Congress a year later was held alongside an International Conference of Communist Women, which founded the CWM. This conference issued a set of theses drafted by Clara Zetkin that were subsequently adopted by the Comintern’s Executive Committee, outlining the CWM’s tasks and purposes.4

The Third Congress of the Comintern in June–July 1921 was held immediately following another conference of the Communist Women’s Movement. The Comintern congress adopted three resolutions: “Theses on Methods and Forms of Work of the Communist Parties among Women,” “Resolution on International Ties between Communist Women and the International Communist Women’s Secretariat,” and “Resolution on Forms and Methods of Communist Work among Women.” Among other things, the resolutions discussed the creation of special work commissions within Communist parties, and their relationship to Communist parties as a whole.5 

The Fourth Comintern Congress in 1922 discussed and adopted a resolution entitled “Work of the International Communist Women’s Secretariat.”6 A central theme of this resolution was the need for Communist parties to adopt what today would be called “affirmative action” measures toward women within the Communist movement, to develop their abilities and leadership capacities. 

Taken as a whole, the resolutions of the first four Comintern congresses on what was then called the “woman question” provide important initial steps in elaborating a Marxist approach to the question of women’s incorporation in the revolutionary working-class movement and the fight for women’s emancipation.

But beginning with the Communist International’s Fifth Congress in 1924—the congress marking the onset of the Comintern’s Stalinist degeneration—and continuing with the Sixth and Seventh congresses, there was no organized discussion on this question. The silence on this question at Comintern congresses went hand-in-hand with the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union itself, where the early gains of the Russian Revolution on the question of women and the family were either entirely reversed or greatly curtailed. During this time the CWM was formally dissolved.

Below are excerpts from the Third Congress discussion on the Communist Women’s Movement agenda point, from To the Masses. The three speakers included here all had long and distinguished histories in the working-class struggle and Communist movement of their respective countries.

Clara Zetkin joined the German socialist movement in 1878. A leader of its Marxist wing, she was closely associated with Rosa Luxemburg. A long-time campaigner for women’s emancipation, she edited the SPD women’s newspaper Die Gleichheit from 1891 to 1917. She also headed the International Socialist Women’s Bureau from its founding in 1907. During World War I she was a member of the Spartacus League, which became the German Comminist Party (CP) in 1918. She headed the International Communist Women’s Secretariat and edited its journal, Die Kommunistische Fraueninternationale. An opponent of Stalin’s policies during the 1920s, she remained a prominent member of the German CP and Comintern until her death in 1933.

Lucie Colliard, a French schoolteacher and unionist, joined the French Socialist Party in 1912, and supported its affiliation to the Comintern in 1920. She was elected to the international secretariat of the CWM in 1921. She was expelled from the French Communist Party in 1929 for her support of the anti-Stalinist opposition led by Leon Trotsky. 

Alexandra Kollontai joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in 1899, specializing in work among proletarian women. Living abroad, she joined the Bolsheviks in 1915. Returning to Russia in 1917, she became a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee and editor of its women’s journal. After the October Revolution she became commissar of social welfare and head of the Women’s Section of the Communist Party Central Committee. A supporter of the Workers Opposition current within the Soviet Communist Party in the early 1920s, she survived the Stalin purges, working in the Soviet diplomatic service. 

Mike Taber and John Riddell

Clara Zetkin:7

Comrades, on behalf of the International Secretariat of the Executive for Communist Work among Women, I am going to give a short overview of the Communist Women’s Movement and the Communist women’s conference.8

Beyond any doubt, we have registered gratifying progress during the last year. This is evident in the development of the Communist Women’s Movement in individual countries, where increasing masses of women comrades are resolutely joining the Communist Party. There has also been progress in international coordination of efforts to place the broadest masses of women at the service of proletarian revolution. This applies to the struggles to win political power and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, and also to defense of these achievements and Communist construction in countries like Russia, where the proletariat has already taken power.

But mixed into our pleasure regarding these steps forward is a measure of bitterness. In most countries, the gains of the Communist Women’s Movement have been achieved without support from the Communist Party, indeed in some instances against its open or hidden opposition. There is still insufficient understanding of the fact that without the participation in revolutionary struggles of women who are conscious, clear on their goal, certain regarding the path, and prepared to make sacrifices, the proletariat will be able neither to seize power in civil war nor, after establishing its dictatorship, to begin constructing a communist society.

Let us take a quick look at the International Conference of Communist Women itself. The goals and tasks of what we call the Communist Women’s Movement are identical with the goals, tasks, principles, and policies of the Third International, to which we are proud to belong. The task of the conference was to create the weapons needed to defend these principles and these policies in struggle against the capitalist world and all its supporters. For this reason, the conference devoted a large part of its deliberations to two questions: the forms and the methods that Communist parties will utilize for Communist work among women; and the close and firm international ties that can be established between Communist women of each country and their parties, with the Communist Women’s International in Moscow, and through its intermediary with the common unified leadership: the Executive of the Third International.

Comrades, in discussing and making decisions on these questions the conference was guided by an overriding principle: There is no special Communist women’s organization. There is only a movement, an organization of Communist women inside the Communist Party, together with the Communist men. The tasks and goals of Communists are our tasks and goals. Here there is no spirit of faction or of particularism that would tend in any way to divide and divert the revolutionary forces from their great goals of winning proletarian political power and building a communist society. The Communist Women’s Movement signifies simply the systematic deployment and systematic organization of our forces, both women and men, in the Communist Party in order to win the broadest masses of women for the proletariat’s revolutionary class struggle, for the struggle to vanquish capitalism and achieve the construction of communism.

However, comrades, this principle of common organization and work was also acknowledged by the old Social Democratic parties. Nonetheless, it was carried out so narrowmindedly, so pettily, with such a mechanical application of the principle of equality, that it did not unleash and fully engage women’s energies in the service of the revolution. We Communists are revolutionaries of the deed, of action. We do not in the slightest lose sight of the common interests and struggle of proletarian men and women. However, we are alert to the given, specific conditions that Communist work among women must deal with. We do not forget the social conditions that still hinder women’s activity, political awakening, and political struggle in many ways—acting through social institutions, family life, and existing social prejudices. We recognize the impact that thousands of years of servitude have left in women’s soul and psychology. That is why, in addition to all that the organization has in common, it needs special structures, special measures, to link up with the masses of women, bring them together, and educate them as Communists.

We propose that such bodies be created by the leading and governing party committees: committees or commissions for agitation among women, or whatever the parties want to call them. These committees should exist from the leadership of a small local group right up to the top central leadership.

We call these bodies women’s committees, because they carry out work among women, but not because we consider it important that they consist only of women. On the contrary, we welcome it when the women’s committees include men, with their greater political experience and knowledge.

What concerns us is that these committees be systematically and continually active among the masses of women, that they take a stand on all the needs and interests that bear on women’s lives, and that they intervene in every field of social life, with practical knowledge and energy, for the welfare of millions and millions of proletarian and semiproletarian women. These women’s committees can and should work, of course, only in close organizational and ideological partnership with the bodies of the party as a whole. But for them to carry out their tasks, it is also obvious that they must enjoy freedom to take initiatives and have some scope for their activity. The Communist parties of Russia, Germany, and Bulgaria have acted in this spirit, to the best of my knowledge, or are striving to do so. And they certainly have not had a bad experience.

The party bodies for work among women should carry out systematic agitational, organizational, and educational work, speaking, writing, and using all means at their disposal. One thing they must not forget: It is not the spoken and written word, but above all work and struggle that is the most important and indispensible method of gathering and educating the broadest masses. For this reason, the women’s committees must direct their efforts to drawing women as an independent and active force into all the Communist Party’s actions and all the struggles of the proletarian masses.

Women, who are now often obstacles to revolutionary struggle, must become its driving force. For let us not be deceived, comrades: either the revolution will win the women or the counterrevolution will do it! Do not count on the fact that, as the civil war takes ever more intense forms, this will force women to decide where they stand and what they are fighting for. If you Communists do not see to it that the broadest masses of women are present in the revolutionary camp, the bourgeois parties will make sure they are in the camp of the counterrevolution. The Scheidemanns and Dittmanns—all the half and quarter Internationals9—will make every effort to keep women in the border area between revolution and counterrevolution, which is today the most secure defense of counterrevolution and bourgeois society.

In view of this fact, comrades, the Communist parties must strive through the women’s committees to draw women workers and women Communists into not only the legal work but also underground activity. That goes without saying. There are underground tasks, beginning with courier duties, which women are particularly well fitted to carry out ably and loyally. It is equally obvious that the Communist parties must strive to integrate the broadest masses of women as an active force into all the struggles of the proletariat: from a strike against lengthening the workday, to a street demonstration, to an uprising, to armed struggle. There is no aspect or form of revolutionary struggle and civil war that is not the business of women seeking their liberation through communism. The resolution we are submitting to you presents in detailed form the principles I have outlined to you here.

The conference also considered the duties and capacities of women in the struggle to establish and maintain the proletarian dictatorship, the Soviet order. We addressed this question first and above all in terms of its general, fundamental meaning for the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat and thus for the complete liberation of all women. As a result, we examined this in terms of the world economic and political situation, which leaves the proletariat with only the choice between a revolutionary conquest of power or acceptance of intensified exploitation and servitude. Freedom or descent into barbarism: that is the decision history has placed before the proletariat and also the broad masses of women.

We then discussed the question in terms of women’s participation in efforts and struggles to defend the [workers’] dictatorship, including their collaboration in reconstruction of economic and social life after the dictatorship has been established. Finally, we took up the question of the proletarian class struggle to win and maintain political power with regard to the struggle for political equality of the female sex before the law and in life.

The conference was unanimous in its conviction that all roads lead to Rome. In other words, all demands that women raise in their employment, as mothers, and as human beings; all demands they must raise in order to become, on the basis of their social labor, members of society fully equal in rights and responsibilities; all the pain and hardship of their lives; all their longing and striving—all this converges in a single call: for active, bold, and devoted participation in revolutionary struggle to win the dictatorship of the proletariat and establish the Soviet order. And after achieving this goal: working with self-sacrifice and to the last ounce of energy to defend the Soviet order, with not only weapons but shovels in hand, to construct a new social life, which not only justifies the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Soviet order, but provides the surest foundation to maintain it.

Comrades, in discussing these questions, we made clear, beyond any doubt, that the Communist Women’s Movement does not live and strive in a cloud of political neutrality. True, our conference did not take up all the principled and tactical questions posed for decision by the Third International now and in the past. But it is self-evident that every Communist woman has formed her general principled and tactical convictions along these lines and taken a stand on the problems whose impact on the women’s movement concerns us. And something else is obvious: your struggles for these principles and tactics, within every Communist Party, will and must be our struggles as well.

Comrades, as delegates to the International Conference of Communist Women, we want to go out to every country and show women there that Russia is a great historical example. It teaches that without winning political power and establishing a council dictatorship, there is no way to build communism and achieve liberation and women’s equality. But it also tells the Communist parties of every country that unless women join in collaboration and struggle, communism cannot be built. In its battles both to surmount capitalism and to achieve communism, the proletariat needs the collaboration of women, and not merely because of the quantitative factors I referred to earlier. No, we tell proletarians who long for freedom and who have achieved it that our collaboration is also indispensable because of the qualities contributed by our achievements. Thank heavens; we are not your ape-like imitators, not failed, inferior copies of yourselves. We inject our distinctive intellectual and moral values, in both revolutionary struggle and revolutionary construction. And that signifies not a threat or a lessening of the revolutionary struggle but rather its intensification and sharpening. It signifies not that life in the new society will be impoverished, or deformed, or superficial, but that it will be richer, more diverse, more profound, and more sophisticated.

Lucie Colliard:10

Comrades, although I have been chosen by the Communist women to give a report here, I must first concede that I am a delegate from a party that has never done anything to involve women in party work. Nonetheless, there are some female members in France. But we are scattered across the entire country and hardly know each other. Recently, we have recognized that special propaganda is needed for women. But when we asked for party support in this, we received the response that it was enough to appoint a woman for this work, who was, moreover, not only to agitate among women but to organize propaganda as a whole. Nonetheless, we obtained a Central Committee decision to set up a special section for organizing women, just as there is a special section for propaganda among peasants.

Women have the same interests as men, and when they join the party, they must carry out the same responsibilities. However, it would be better to first develop their abilities, for example, through the establishment of nurseries that need to be set up in every factory. I will be told that this is the specific task of the trade unions, but I do not believe that the unions should be the only ones to take up this question. The Communist Party, just like the trade unions, must undertake to organize everything related to the interests of women and children.

So far, this has not been recognized in our party. We have been shoved aside. No one believed that women were capable of conducting the struggle shoulder to shoulder with men.

During the May movement last year,11 the trade unions had to recognize that the strike was carried out much longer, more energetically, and with more vigor in the places where women workers took part, even if it was only the housewives who supported the Communists and syndicalists. Now the party understands that drawing women into the Communist Party and the trade unions benefits these organizations, not just women and the women’s movement as a whole.

Alexandra Kollontai:12

How can we reach the broad masses of women? The Communist Party, like the Social Democratic Party before it, has always told us that the doors of the Communist Party stand open for women. So women should come to us, to our party. Unfortunately, we must recognize that we have not yet won women for our goals. That raises the question whether we must not use other means to win over these broad layers of women—methods that take into account women’s distinctive role in society. This is true not only in bourgeois society but to a certain degree in the Soviet republic, where women still have a special social situation, including within the family, a situation different from that of men. In order to take this into account, we too have to build a new apparatus. As a result, we also saw how essential it is that every party has such an apparatus, such an organization. This is not a new decision, comrades. The decision was made last year at our previous International Conference of Communist Women.

But as Comrade Zetkin said, so far only in a few countries have the parties carried out this decision, because it was taken only at our conference and not at the International congress. In our view, if the decision is now successfully adopted here, it will perhaps spur comrades to establish this structure in their own countries, where this is possible. I believe we are now in a position to create this structure, which must be simply a special party organization. We should minimize as much as possible giving the impression that it represents only women’s special interests and that only women will be active there. Its work should not have that character. These are special structures with defined powers to carry out defined tasks. These structures must work not only among women. I would like to point out that here in Russia, for example, it is quite evident that the women we have already reached, the broad masses of working women and peasants, are already sympathetic to us. Unfortunately, however, our own comrades in the party still resist drawing women into active work and into posts where they are chosen by the broad masses and in which they are to carry out important work.

So in my opinion, comrades, you must adopt the goal of creating this structure. It is not intended only for work among women; it must also serve for work among male comrades. We name this structure not a women’s committee but a committee for work among our comrades, so that we can finally overcome the previously existing situation. Women are party members. In Soviet Russia they undertake the entire and enormous burden of construction. But when a woman is placed in a responsible post, people always think, ‘Well, really a man would be more suitable.’ In capitalist countries the task is still posed of drawing women into the organization itself….

In Soviet Russia, where everyone has the obligation to work, we already face a large, new problem—not just in drawing women into the organization, but in employing the energies of proletarian and peasant women to create a new system of production and a new social order. All workers are now utilized and registered, and as a result the position of women in society changes. The Soviet republic and the October Revolution have thus launched a revolution perhaps much greater than the winning of equal rights for women. On the other hand, the party faces the question of educating women to be active as a creative force.

In Russia we have our special structure for work among women. Please bear in mind that it is not a separate organization, it is a structure in which our male and female comrades work together—although unfortunately the men are too few in number.

It was our committees that introduced initiatives in a large number of questions, such as the abolition of the old law banning abortion, the struggle against prostitution, the protection of mothers, the universal people’s militia, and other questions. Did any of this weaken our work in Soviet construction? Not at all, we have enriched it, and that is the initiative of which Comrade Zetkin spoke. That is why we believe that these structures, intended to involve the broad masses, require special methods, tactics, and organizational forms. Women receive thereby a certain flexibility for action while remaining integrated into the struggle as a whole. At the same time, in the struggle in bourgeois countries, these structures will enable us to be prepared, at the most difficult moments, to make backward women into Communists and convince them that the deliverance of women can be achieved only through the dictatorship of the proletariat. In the soviet countries, where our structures assist the party in the colossal, difficult, and necessary task of construction of a new social system and socialist order, we must encourage male and female workers to continue the great struggle for communism on a world scale. (Loud applause)


  1. To the Masses paperback edition was published by Haymarket Books in February 2016. Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International 1922 was published by Haymarket Books in 2013. The proceedings and resolutions of the first two congress, also edited by John Riddell, are Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings of the Second Congress (Pathfinder Press, 1991) and Founding the Communist International: Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress (Pathfinder Press, 1987).
  2. For more on the CWM’s background and accomplishments, see John Riddell’s article in International Socialist Review issue #87 (“The Communist Women’s Movement 1921–26”), http://isreview.org/issue/87/communist-w....
  3. Founding the Communist International, 250.
  4. Two documents of the first International Conference of Communist Women can be found in Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! The conference appeal, “To the Working Women of the World” is on pp. 972–76; “Theses for the Communist Women’s Movement” is on pp. 977–98.
  5. These can be found in To the Masses, 1009–25, 1026–27, and 1028–29, respectively.
  6. In Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (Haymarket Books, 2013). The report and discussion on this resolution can be found on pp. 837–71. The resolution itself is on 871.
  7. From To the Masses, 779–90.
  8. The Second International Conference of Communist Women was held in Moscow June 9–15, 1921, on the eve of the Third Comintern Congress.
  9. Philipp Scheidemann was a leader of the German Social Democratic Party, affiliated to the Second International. Wilhelm Dittmann was a leader of the Independent Social Democratic Party, affiliated to the centrist International Union of Socialist Parties, known derisively by Communists as the “Two-and-a-Half International.”
  10. From To the Masses, 790–91.
  11. A one-day general strike in France on 1 May 1920 opened a broad strike movement of CGT unions led by the railroad workers, eventually involving nearly 1.5 million workers. In face of severe repression, the railroad strike ended a month later in defeat, with 22,000 workers losing their jobs.
  12. From To the Masses, 791–94.

Issue #67

September 2009

Iran: rebellion and reaction

Issue contents

Top story

Editorials

Features

Interviews

Critical Thinking

Reviews

  • Humanitarian imperialism and its apologists

    Ashley Smith reviews The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War by Conor Foley; Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror by Mahmood Mamdani; Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War by Jean Bricmont; Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law by China Miéville; and The Liberal Defense of Murder by Richard Seymour
  • Debating how to change the world

    Eric Kerl reviews Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism, and Radical History by Staughton Lynd and Andrej Grubacic
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