ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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International Women's Day

We read with considerable interest the letter on the centenary year of women’s day by the centenary committee (EPW, 21 March 2009). It is a fine piece offering a synopsis of the history of women’s “militant struggles to improve their working conditions and to end exploitation”. The committee should be praised. How ever, there is an outstanding – perhaps the most important – absentee in this account, which is rather surprising if not somewhat disappointing – the role of women as the initiators of the great social revolution in Russia precisely on the International Women’s Day in 1917 spontaneously on their own, independently of any party. On this, a great witness, Leon Trotsky wrote in his justly famous History of the Russian Revolution: “It had not occurred to anyone that it might become the first day of the revolution. Not a single organisation called for strikes on that day…The fact is that the February revolution was begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organisations, the initiative being taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat – the women textile workers”. From an emancipatory perspective the revolution, starting in February 1917, was of far greater historical importance than the “October revolution”. The beginning “moment” of the Russian revolution of 1917 was really February 1917. Initiated by working women and led and dominated entirely by Russia’s toilers without any party guidance, it had all the basic features of the great popular revolutions of the past such as those of 1789-93 and 1871 in France. Targeting mainly the pre-capitalist social order, this revolution started out as an immense democratic mass movement in an openended, plural revolutionary process.

This was indeed Marx’s stuff – toilers’ selfactivity (Selbstbetätigung), so alien to the rulers of Russia beginning with October 1917. Content-wise, a bourgeois democratic revolution in process, the February uprising, given its spontaneous mass character, marked by open-ended plurality, had, it appears, the potential to go over, at a later stage – given appropriate material conditions – to an a uthentic socialist revolution (in Marx’s emancipatory sense, completely subverted later) if the involved labouring people had been allowed unfettered freedom to continue – through their (own) self-governing organs (soviets) – their march forward. The Bolshevik pre-emptive strike by the seizure of power, not from Kerensky or the “Provisional Government” but from the soviets, putting a brake on the process, destroyed this immense revolutionary potential.

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