The title of this piece is taken from an old Dead Kennedy’s song of the same title.
It includes the following lyrics:
“Seems like the more I think I know
The more I find I don’t.Every answer opens up so many questions.
Anarchy sounds good to me,
Then someone asks, “Who’d fix the sewers?”
“Would the rednecks just play king
Of the neighborhood?”
How many liberators
Really want to be dictators?
Every theory has its holes
When real life steps in…”
This is probably the biggest reason I refuse to give myself a hard label–whether that concerns my feminism or my Socialism. The questions about liberators vs. dictators also hangs heavy on my mind. The question becomes for me how to judge movements that have attempted to make things “better”, revolutionary movements that have taken power with the best of intentions, only to quickly devolve into the Next Big Dictator. Specifically, what of those movements that have sought to radically change the way society is constituted, only to fall back on the oppression and exploitation of women. What causes this to happen? Is it that these society’s are not far enough removed from the most barbaric practices of patriarchal misogyny, so they quickly fall back on what they know best? Or is it that they were flawed from their very conception? The most important of these movements to me are the Communist revolutions of the 20th century.
The first country to discuss when one discusses Communism always has to be Russia. It was an integral belief of Russian Communism that men and women must have the same freedoms and rights for Communism to work.* Women and men from all over the world returned to this concept over and over. In her book Six Months in Russia, Louise Bryant wrote about how the leaders of the Revolution spoke, wrote and took action to actively engage women in the political life and future of Russia. Of Maria Spirodonova, she wrote:
No other woman in Russia has quite the worship from the masses of the people that Spirodonova has. Soldiers and sailors address her as “dear comrade” instead of just ordinary “tavarish.” She was elected president of the first two Ah-Russian Peasant Congresses held in Petrograd and she swayed those congresses largely to her will. Later she was chairman of the executive committee of the Peasants’ Soviets and she is an extremely influential leader in the Left Socialist Revolutionist party.
Bryant praised Alexandra Kollontai for “being a feminist” and “exalt[ing] women”:
As champion of her sex, she cries to the women of Russia: “Cast off your chains! Do not be slaves to religion, to marriage, to children. Break these old ties, the state is your home, the world is your country!”
Lenin also wrote about the importance of women to the future of Russia. And they were not to be important as mother’s and wives; they were to be important as leaders and active participants in the future of the world.
“[T]he building of socialism will begin only when we have achieved the complete equality of women and undertake the new work together with women who have been emancipated from that petty, stultifying, unproductive work…
“We say that the emancipation of workers must be effected by the workers themselves, and in exactly the same way the emancipation of working women is a matter for the working women themselves.”
Women were not supposed to be “beneficiaries” of male ideas for their emancipation. Under the model Lenin proposed, women were to decide their own futures within the Communist society. Even in today’s so-called “liberal” feminist view, women often look to male leaders to “free” them. For all of Lenin’s faults (and they were considerable), he argued that women must be the goddesses of their own fates. That is far closer to modern radical feminist concepts than it is to modern liberal feminist concepts.
It’s all well and good to talk about the great Russians and their commitment to women’s active participation in public life. If that’s all we look at, we could praise most of the leaders of the Revolution and the U.S.S.R. But there’s the rub: how do we turn a blind eye to so many of the things that did not go right in Russia? Can we take a morally supportable stand that it’s acceptable to do that? To ignore the banning of dissent? To ignore the “temporary” ban on journalistic freedom that eventually became a permanent ban?
Many people–women and men–who had supported the Revolution eventually said, “No, I cannot turn a blind eye to this.” Emma Goldman was one of them. Her disillusionment was tied to the Kronstadt rebellion and the subsequent arrests of Anarchists, but many of her underlying criticisms of the U.S.S.R. were absolutely valid without any of those of-the-times political conflicts. But, although valid, are they complete? I would argue that they are not.
Some people have compared Kollontai’s actions in Russia and Goldman’s actions in Russia to Kollontai’s detriment. Do we reject Kollontai,who fought for women and took the pragmatic approach by joining with the Bolsheviks when they finally gained the upper hand? Or for accepting a diplomatic post under Stalin–a post some believe was Stalin’s way of excluding her from the day-to-day governance of the U.S.S.R.? (While exclusionary it may have been, it also helped her live longer than most of her contemporaries.) Some have said that Kollontai never formally allied with either the Bolsheviks or the Mensheviks, but simply moved back and forth as it suited her. Others have said that she had formal alliances with both, but broke them at various times. In fact, some of her early demands for a focus on women in the new Russia appeared in Menshevik publications.
In the end, I don’t think Kollontai cared which male faction “won”; her focus was on women. In many, many scenarios, that is exactly the view women should take. In most scenarios, men are not going to look out for women’s interests; women must do the work themselves. Men are all too willing to look out for the interests of other men, while trampling the very lives of women underfoot. When a woman looks out for other women–while also keeping a wider view of what she believes to be a more just world for everyone–why is she the unassailable evil? I would argue that Kollontai did care about a just world for both women and men, but she was unwilling to leave women completely at the mercy of a male-dominated government.
Do we understand that, unlike Goldman, Kollontai was a Russian woman with concerns for a Russian future for Russian women? Goldman was, at heart, an American ex-patriate living in Russia. (Yes, she was Lithuanian-born, but the U.S. was her home and most of her friends were Americans.) It’s easier to leave a country if your only ties to it are theoretical and practical, like Goldman’s were; Kollontai’s were historical and familial. Standing and fighting for those women had more meaning to Kollontai than it did for Goldman, who had taken some rather harsh stances against women at various times in her past, anyway. (For example, I don’t see Kollontai ever calling another woman an “economic parasite” for providing unpaid domestic services for her husband.) Do we stand at our point in history and condemn Kollontai? Just as I can’t condemn Goldman for some of the arguments she made, I can’t do that to Kollontai, either. She stood and fought for the women of her country. Far too often, we are willing to allow women to suffer in the name of “the people”. Unlike many women, Kollontai didn’t turn her back on her sisters. Whatever one has to say about the larger political landscape of the U.S.S.R. under its male leaders, I refuse to hold Kollontai guilty for her struggle and her commitment to the lives of women.
On the other hand, we have another Revolution to speak of, and I can’t be so generous to that one. What to make of China? Many American feminists and radical women have praised Mao as an inspiration. In 1996, Carol Hanisch presented a speech entitled, “Impact of the Chinese Cultural Revolution on the Women’s Liberation Movement.” In it, she praises the writings of Mao as instrumental to the development of consciousness-raising. She praises Mao as more “accessible” than Marx, Engels or Lenin. Hanisch–she of “the personal is political” feminist motto–was a founding member of New York Radical Women. She has fought the good fight. However, in the year 1996, would you honestly be able to say a feminist figure should or would be praising China? The country that has aborted and murdered its daughters to the point that it now faces a “woman shortage”? Do we hold up a country as a beacon when a fact of life is that those women who do make it to adulthood are forced to have abortions or risk running afoul of the “one child per couple” law. Forced abortion is no better than prohibition of abortion; both deny women the autonomy over their own bodies and reproduction. China may have called itself Communist, and it may have had women’s emancipation as part of its principles, but it has quickly engaged itself into controlling the lives and bodies of women. Same as it ever was.
I can appreciate the words of Hanisch, as they pertain to Women’s Liberation. I can look back historically and see where she came by her ideas. I can read Mao’s words, and see that he, too, argued for women’s freedom under Communism. I can even praise the Chinese women who fought to bring about that hoped-for Communism, believing that it would better their lives. After all, these women had grown up with grandmothers who suffered footbinding. They knew the horrors of women’s lives under the old ways. The problem, for Hanisch or any other woman who would today praise China, is that China did not march too far from patriarchy in its move to Revolution. Russia may not have come close to meeting its goals, but Russian females haven’t been annihilated under the watchful eye of the Party for the explicit reason that they are females.
China kept the attitudes of the superiority of the male firmly ingrained, despite their flavor of socialistic totalitarianism. (This is a prime example of how capitalism and patriarchy are not one-and-the same; China was never a capitalist country, but it was patriarchal is the most oppressive, obscene ways.) When it tried to get a hold of the overpopulation issues, the “fix” was to eradicate generations of girls and women. Today, their “fix” for economic issues is to turn towards capitalism, and its peculiar ways of exploiting women. Part and parcel of that is the “mail order bride” phenomenon, which is growing in China. Why? Because China did not remove patriarchy effectively; it merely grafted socialism atop it. As it stands, the courage of Chinese women touches me. The result of the Chinese Revolution disgusts me.
When we discuss the women of yesterday, we have to determine where each of us draws her or his line. To do so, it is important to judge them on several criteria:
- Did they fight for justice, safety and freedom for their sisters?
- Did they do this–while doing the best they could within male-defined movements and governments–with an eye towards the greater good for all of society?
- How much power did they have to change the more unjust elements of their society without leaving women in ever deeper suffering?
*I will not discuss whether Russia was ever actually “Communist” in this piece. I do not believe it was, but addressing that in this piece is superfluous to the issues being discussed.