Brian Pearce 1993

Review: RC Elwood, Inessa Armand

Source: Revolutionary History, Volume 4, no 4, 1993.

RC Elwood, Inessa Armand: Revolutionary and Feminist, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1992, pp 304, £29.95

The Canadian historian Ralph Carter Elwood, already the author of the life of Roman Malinovsky, the worker-Bolshevik, Central Committee member and Duma deputy who turned out to be a police agent, now presents a study of another prominent Bolshevik who, although also ‘close to Lenin’, was of a quite different stamp. It is based on Tsarist police reports, its subject’s own letters to her family, and Lenin’s 118 published letters to her.

Since the only thing that all too many people known about Inessa Armand (1874-1920) is that she was rumoured to be Lenin’s mistress, let it be mentioned at once that Elwood, after careful examination of the evidence, finds this story not proven.

The orphaned niece of a French governess working in Russia, Inessa was brought up in the family of her aunt’s employer, and married one of his sons. The family were themselves of French extraction, hence the name Armand. Her husband was a rich textile manufacturer. Even after Inessa had left him, Alexander Armand continued to give her generous financial support, which enabled her to devote her time and energy to work for the causes she embraced — eventually Bolshevism. (Moneyed sympathisers like Armand, NA Shmidt and Savva Morozov supplemented ‘expropriations’ as a major source of funds for Lenin’s party.)

Inessa spent the first years of her marriage on an estate near Moscow in the early 1890s as a country lady doing good works among the local peasantry, while bringing up her children. She interested herself in a philanthropic Society for Improving the Lot of Women, which was active in ‘rehabilitating’ prostitutes in Moscow, and this helped her to gain knowledge of the life of the urban poor, as well as the Tsar’s authorities’ suspicion and obstruction of any independent social reform activity. Through her brother-in-law (who became her second husband), a radically-minded university student, she was introduced to Marxism, and in her thirtieth year became a Bolshevik.

Being well off, she was able to help Lenin’s faction in many ways. When travelling around to organise illegal study groups, for instance, ‘a well-dressed lady was less likely to arouse suspicions’. But her access to Alexander’s purse would have been far less important historically had it not meant giving Inessa greater opportunities to put into action her superior intelligence and dedication. Besides the ever-available money, there was also the internalised benefit of her privileged upbringing. Contemporaries who commented on her success as an organiser and propagandist often refer to her tact, good manners and easy way of dealing with all sorts of people. (She was also very good looking.)

Lenin appreciated Inessa’s qualities, and he made the most of them. She was given the task of organising the Bolsheviks’ party school at Longjumeau in 1911, and was the only woman lecturer there. Fluent in French and English, she functioned often as interpreter and negotiator with non-Russian socialists. The Bolshevik leader came to rely on her help in many situations:

Even more than Trotsky during the Iskra period, she became Lenin’s ‘cudgel’ — someone to beat wavering Bolsheviks back into line, to convey uncompromising messages to his political opponents, to carry out uncomfortable missions which Lenin himself preferred to avoid.

In July 1914 she read on Lenin’s behalf his address to the conference which the International Socialist Bureau arranged with a view to reuniting Russia’s Social Democrats. Elwood describes her as having served for some years as ‘Lenin’s “Girl Friday"’.

As a well-educated and independently-minded woman, Inessa was, however, no stooge, and from time to time she would argue with the party leader on questions about which she felt strongly. A pamphlet she proposed to bring out on problems of marriage and the family provoked a sharp disagreement with him in 1915 on ‘free love’. In 1916, she sided with Bukharin and Piatakov against Lenin in the debate on the national question. It was wrong and dangerous, she considered, to say that ‘defence of the fatherland’ might be correct proletarian policy in certain circumstances, even under capitalism. If Engels was right in 1891 to say that the German workers ought to support their country’s war effort in a clash with Russia, why should that not apply in the 1914 war? (Lenin answered that in 1891 ‘there was no imperialism’, and the imperialist epoch began only in 1898 — by which year, of course, Engels was conveniently dead...)

Inessa’s independence showed itself again after the October Revolution, when she took the ‘Left Communist’ line on Brest-Litovsk and other issues. But she accepted whatever tasks the party, now in power, assigned to her. Heading the Moscow Province Economic Council was not a job she would have chosen, but she did the work conscientiously and well. More to her taste was participation in the ‘Red Cross’ mission to France in 1919, nominally for the purpose of repatriating Russian soldiers who had served on the Western Front in the war, even though this attempt to make contact with revolutionary elements in the French labour movement came to nothing.

It was on her return home, though, that there began the year, her last, that Elwood describes as ‘the most productive and perhaps rewarding of her life’. Inessa had been specially interested from early on in the need for political activity among working women, and for the workers’ party to pay attention to ‘the woman question’ generally. Like others who held this view, she came up against not merely indifference but actual opposition from comrades who thought they spotted the cloven hoof of ‘bourgeois feminism’ in any particular concern with women’s problems distinct from the common problems of the working class. Inessa was largely responsible for getting the party to consent to the publication in 1914 of a newspaper, Rabotnitsa, devoted to the interests and demands of women workers. In Elwood’s opinion, ‘the loyalties won and the contacts made among women factory workers in 1914’, through this paper, ‘were to stand the Bolsheviks in good stead in 1917’.

After October she pressed for a national congress of working women, and, thanks to support from Sverdlov against opposition from Zinoviev, succeeded in getting such a congress held towards the end of 1918, with Lenin and Bukharin among the opening speakers. From this congress there emerged in 1919 the Zhenotdel, a special ‘women’s department’ of the party’s Central Committee (to be abolished in 1930). The need created by the Civil War for drawing women into factory work, to replace their mobilised menfolk (as well as for enlisting some of them for auxiliary tasks in the Red Army), made the party leadership more ready to back up Inessa’s agitation through the Zhenotdel for communal facilities — laundries, canteens, crèches, etc — to be provided that would release women for such roles by relieving them from household drudgery.

The spring of 1920 saw the appearance, again on Inessa’s initiative, of the journal Kommunistka, which dealt with ‘the broader aspects of female emancipation and the need to alter the relationship between the sexes if lasting change was to be effected’. But the fifth number of this journal carried its founder’s obituary. Worn out by overwork and weakened by lack of food and warmth, she had died of cholera.