M. Taber u.a. (Hgg.): The Communist Women’s Movement, 1920-1922

The Communist Women’s Movement, 1920-1922. Proceedings, Resolutions, and Reports

Taber, Michael; Dyakonova, Daria
Historical Materialism Book Series
565 S.
€ 199,02
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Francisca de Haan, Central European University Vienna / International Institute of Social History Amsterdam

Until very recently, hardly any scholarly literature was available about the history of the Communist Women’s Movement (CWM), with Elizabeth Waters’s 1989 chapter “In the Shadow of the Comintern: The Communist Women’s Movement, 1920–43”1 as a rare exception and what appears to have been the last substantive publication in English on this topic in over 30 years. There are several reasons for this gap, some having to do with feminist scholars’ choices and perspectives regarding the history of the women’s movement 2, others with the lack of availability and accessibility of sources. The historical literature on the global women’s movement has advanced considerably but without any serious consideration or inclusion of the CWM.3 The book under review here, edited by Michael Taber and Daria Dyakonova, makes a huge step towards addressing the latter issue. This source publication – based on hundreds of pages from the archives of the Communist International (Comintern) that were never published before, as well as on other items previously only available in German or Russian – will make it much harder for feminist historians to “overlook” this part of the history of the transnational struggle for women’s emancipation. Historians of communism as a global political movement generally have not done much better in including communist women and their organizations in their publications. This book should also make it easier for them to reconsider the role of communist women, their organizations, and fundamental contributions to this revolutionary movement.

The editor Mike Taber’s preface starts with a quote from the German socialist and communist women’s leader Clara Zetkin containing the essence of communist women’s struggle for women’s emancipation: for them, these two struggles, for communism and for women’s emancipation, were fully intertwined – if not one and the same. Feminist historians have often reproached communist women or the communist movement for prioritizing class; what Zetkin’s words show is that these women (or at least a part of their leadership) understood gender to be an integral building block of the “bourgeois class state” so that the struggle for women’s equality was “much more than sweeping away male privilege” but “merge[d] with the onward drive of the proletariat to win state power” (Taber, p. xi, quoting from Zetkin’s speech at the Second International Conference of Communist Women in 1921). And because these two struggles were merged, Alexandra Kollontai, the other titan of the early CWM, felt that communism was the only way towards women’s liberation.4 CWM was not the formal name, but the movement led by the Comintern’s International Women’s Secretariat and organized in communist parties around the world was generally known as such.

The First International Conference of Communist Women took place during the period 30 July–2 August 1920, and the second was held on 9–15 June 1921, both in Moscow. The translated proceedings and resolutions of these two conferences make up the bulk of this volume, which also contains an excellent editorial introduction by Dyakonova (with historiography, biographies of the main women, and an insightful discussion of their main political ideas and activities). The volume also includes a 1919 text by V. I. Lenin on “The Tasks of the Working Women’s Movement in the Soviet Republic”; the “Resolution on the Need to Draw Women Workers into the Struggle for Socialism”, drafted by Kollontai and adopted by the founding congress of the Comintern on 6 March 1919; and very useful lists of delegates of both CWM’s conferences in 1920 and 1921. There are also a number of texts that were published earlier (in German) in Die Kommunistische Fraueninternationale (The Communist Women’s International), the movement’s main journal that existed from June 1921 until early 1925.5 These texts include the reports from the two Conferences of International Women’s Correspondents (both held in 1922), the report and resolutions from the Communist Women’s Conference for the Near East in Tiflis (12 December 1921), and reports from CWM’s member organizations around the world. Finally, the book includes a chronology for the period 1917–1935 and a 25-page glossary of individuals, magazines, and organizations.

The book remains critical of the failures of the communist movement. It discusses the CWM’s decline from 1924 onwards. The Women’s Conference Proceedings include discussions about the difficulties in getting the male comrades to take seriously women’s emancipation and their roles in communism, and to really follow up on the resolution adopted at the Comintern’s founding congress. The book’s preface and editorial introduction also comment on these difficulties at some length, including the key issue that male socialists and communists often failed to see the centrality of the fight for women’s emancipation for socialism and instead labelled it (bourgeois) “feminism” (a deadly sin) and a “diversion” from the broader working-class struggle.

Generally, the book has been carefully edited and annotated. The contradictory information about the location of the International Women’s Secretariat on p. xiv (the text, versus note 9 there), for example, is really an exception. What I missed are pictures of some of the speakers and the meetings; these would have contributed to further bringing these women and their political activism to life.

In the concluding words of Taber, the women “of the early Communist Women’s Movement deserve to receive recognition for what they in fact were: a key component of the world Communist movement under Lenin, as well as pioneers in the centuries-long struggle for women’s emancipation”.6 Indeed, and as the example of Zetkin’s words mentioned above illustrates, it is highly instructive to read these women in their own words. In addition, this rich volume, which only focuses on the early years of the CWM, can serve as a building block in piecing together the longer history of communist women’s international activism and organizing across the twentieth century.

1 Elizabeth Waters, In the Shadow of the Comintern. The Communist Women’s Movement, 1920–43, in: S. Kruks/ R. Rapp / M.B. Young (eds.), Promissory Notes. Women in the Transition to Socialism, New York 1989. N.B. Editor Sonya Kruks’ name is misspelled in the Bibliography of Taber and Dyakonova’s book, p. 569.
2 An example that comes to mind are the words of the prominent Polish feminist scholar Agnieszka Graff: „Mnie to ciekawi jako kawałek historii Polski, kawałek historii kobiet, ale zupełnie nie przekonuje jako opowieść tożsamościowa współczesnego feminizmu, a tym bardziej moja własna. To nie są moje korzenie. […] Mnie zupełnie, ale to zupełnie nie przekonuje hasło, że osoby, które tworzyły reżimowe, kobiece przybudówki do PZPR, są moimi przodkiniami. Nie są!”
"It is interesting to me as a piece of Polish history, a piece of women's history, but it is completely unconvincing as an identity tale of contemporary feminism, let alone my own. These are not my roots. [...] I am completely unconvinced by the slogan that the people who created the regime, women’s annexes to the Polish United Workers' Party, are my ancestors. They are not!"
Agnieszka Graff, „Jestem stad. Rozmowa z Michałem Sutowskim” [I am from here. Conversation with Michał Sutowski], Warsaw 2014, pp. 189-190.
3 Francisca de Haan, New Histories of Global Feminisms, Book Review Essay, Journal of Women’s History (to appear in Summer 2024).
4 As expressed in her autobiographical writings; for more, see “Alexandra Kollontai (1872–1952): Communism as the Only Way Toward Women’s Liberation”, in: Francisca de Haan (ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Communist Women Activists around the World, Cham 2023, pp. 59–95.
5 For more on this journal, see Liberty P. Sproat, The Soviet Solution for Women in Clara Zetkin's Journal 'Die Kommunistische Fraueninternationale', 1921-1925, in: Aspasia 6 (2012), pp. 60–78.
6 Taber, Preface, pp. xxiv-xxv.

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