Published:To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921 (https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/897-to-the-masses) pp. 779-790.
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.
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 defence 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.
Even before the War, it was almost a truism in the socialist workers’ movement that the proletariat could not succeed in its economic and political struggles without the participation of masses of women. To be sure, the actions of the old Social Democratic parties and the trade unions lagged far behind this lip-service. Women’s activity was regarded more or less as that of a servant to the party or union, and its true significance as a meaningful factor in proletarian struggle for liberation was not recognised.
But consider, comrades, how different things are for the proletariat today. The economic struggles of the proletariat now take place under conditions of capitalism’s accelerating decay. What does that tell us? It means that these struggles are now more bitter and difficult than before, claiming more victims. And there is more: they ultimately strive for a higher goal. Not merely the alleviation of suffering by reducing the hours of work, increasing wages by a few pennies, or improving working conditions. No, all the economic struggles now ultimately point toward one goal: the assumption by the revolutionary proletariat of control over production and then of ownership of the means of production. The political struggles of the proletariat no longer lead to minor reforms and concessions, soup kitchens and formal political rights. In a word, these struggles head not toward the reform of bourgeois society but toward its destruction. They put in question the very existence of capitalism, the very existence of communism. These struggles take place in the white-hot atmosphere of capitalist economic collapse and civil war.
Given that proletarian struggles take on this character, there is no way that they can make do without the participation of women. The task is to throw broader masses of women than before into the revolutionary struggle to overthrow capitalism and the bourgeois state, mobilise and train them, and make them ready and competent to undertake the construction of communism. (Loud applause)
Even before the War, Europe had a surplus of five to six million women. This surplus is now estimated to be about fifteen million. Earlier, this surplus of women existed only in the large industrial states, while there was a surplus of men in the Balkan countries. Now the surplus of women has grown substantially in the larger industrial states, and even in the Balkan countries there is no longer a surplus of men; rather, the opposite phenomenon is more and more evident. How, then, is it possible to conceive of the struggle to win political power and the building of a communist society without the conscious, enthusiastic, and intelligent collaboration of women? The figures I cited make one thing clear: larger and larger masses of proletarian women are yoked to capitalist exploitation and are therefore driven by their immediate daily needs to struggle against the bourgeois order. But the figures show us something else: that the number of bourgeois and privileged women, who seem to live in an enchanted garden in their home and family, full of peace and joy, is decreasing. No, today even the privileged women can no longer remain passive and indifferent toward public life and the struggles of our time. They have taken jobs by the millions, where – so long as capitalism reigns – they will suffer the pain of competition between the sexes, in which men contend against them for the means and the pleasures of life. And the civil war, with all its consequences, cuts so deeply into even bourgeois family life that the surrounding walls of indifference and political mindlessness begin to crumble.
Comrades, I am the last one to overestimate the significance of this evolution in the world of bourgeois families. But we must also not underestimate it. To be sure, the masses of women in the bourgeoisie who are uprooted in the epoch of capitalist decay will hardly be readily transformed into the advancing troops of revolution. We must not expect such a development; to do so would be foolish. The masses of bourgeois women will never pour into the broad ranks of proletarian shock troops, who will fight the decisive battles to establish the dictatorship. We should however not overlook the services they can provide as skirmishers in a time of civil war. Moreover, they can carry unrest, ferment, and discord into the camp of the bourgeoisie, our deadly enemy, and thus weaken it.
That is why, in summary, it does immense damage to the revolution and to activating the masses for this revolution if the Communist parties of every country fail to commit the same energy to the revolutionary mobilisation and training of women for the battles of the proletariat as they do to mobilise the men. As for the comrades who do not gather and train women to be conscious partners in revolution, I call them conscious saboteurs of the revolution.
Comrades, the failings of almost every Communist Party in this regard have been less evident because the Executive has endeavoured in word and deed to promote efforts to assemble the broadest masses of women under the banner of the Third International. The Executive’s chair, Comrade Zinoviev, has displayed a full understanding of the fact that Communist work among women is nothing less than half the work of Communists as a whole. After the Second World Congress, the Executive provided moral, political, and financial resources to sustain the efforts in each country to gather the Communist women in the parties and lead them as a cohesive force into the struggle. In this manner, the Executive facilitated, promoted, and successfully structured the passionate struggle of the small vanguard of convinced and trained Communist women in different countries. What we have achieved has brought honour and joy to the small contingent of Communist women in each country that gathered around the banner of the Third International, often with no encouragement and, indeed, even against intense opposition.
So it is that, since last year, the systematic work of Communist women for the revolutionary mobilisation and education of the broadest masses of proletarian women has come into being. Our Russian Communist Party has carried out pioneer, exemplary work in this regard. In Germany, too, the Communist women – in the old Spartacus League and later in the United Communist Party [VKPD], from the moment of its foundation – have worked systematically and energetically to make women inside the organisation into partners in the struggle. In Bulgaria, as well, we have a powerful and purposeful Communist women’s movement, a women’s movement in the true Communist sense, which engages in common activity of men and women with the goal of winning the broad masses of proletarian and peasant women for the revolutionary struggle. But in other countries we have only made a beginning, and in some cases not even that, to develop such systematic work.
We hope that our international women’s conference and this congress here will remind all Communist parties of the duty that they have until now neglected or carried out only with gritted teeth, in order to keep up appearances.
Our Second International Women’s Conference stands as evidence of the vigour and success with which Communist women in different countries have collaborated with the Executive. The First International Conference of Communist Women in Moscow last year brought together only twenty delegates with decisive vote from sixteen countries, plus some consultative guests. However, this year, comrades, representatives came to the international conference from twenty-eight countries. Eighty-two delegates took part, of which sixty-one had decisive vote and twenty-one had consultative vote only.
Efforts to promote the international revolutionary advance of women in the framework of the Second International have never led to a conference with this measure of success. Surely, quite apart from the number of women delegates, when we consider the large number of countries that have gathered around the banner of the Third International, we can truly say that no international conference of bourgeois women has ever been more inclusive in representation or more far-reaching in its significance than the conference just held here in Moscow. And let us not omit a particularly prominent and historically significant feature of this conference: the participation of women from the Eastern peoples.
Comrades, it would perhaps be tempting and seductive for some to view the appearance of delegations from the Near and Far East simply from an aesthetic viewpoint. But the women delegates personified more than the exotic, unusual, and fairy-tale character of the Orient. The conference experienced a powerful historical moment, unforgettable and undying in its significance. For what was the significance of the appearance of women’s delegations from the East? It told us that the Eastern peoples have begun to awaken and enter into struggle. Even the most downtrodden of the downtrodden, women who have lived for centuries and millennia under the spell of age-old religious and social beliefs, rules, customs, and practices, are entering the revolutionary struggle. The appearance at the conference of women from the Near and Far East was an indication of how wide-ranging and profound is the advance of revolution in the East.
And that is exceptionally important for us in the West, for the proletarians in all the capitalist countries. Indeed, the battles to liberate the British and French proletariat will be fought not only on their native land but also in the torrid lands of India and Iran, on the variegated landscape of China, and throughout the Near and Far East. Comrades, the fact that women of the East came to us shows the exceptionally wide-reaching significance of the Third International’s revolutionary struggle. It is the first, and until now the only organisation that truly inspires the hopes and the trust of the Eastern peoples; it is the first International to embrace all humankind. ‘The International shall be the human race' – the entirety of humanity. That was the significance of the appearance of women of the East at the conference.
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 utilise 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 organisation. There is only a movement, an organisation 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 organisation 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 organisation and work was also acknowledged by the old Social Democratic parties. Nonetheless, it was carried out so narrow-mindedly, 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 recognise the impact that thousands of years of servitude has left in women’s soul and psychology. That is why, in addition to all that the organisation 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 semi-proletarian women. These women’s committees can and should work, of course, only in close organisational 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, organisational, 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 Internationals – will make every effort to keep women in the border area between revolution and counterrevolution, which is today the most secure defence 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.
As regards international connections among Communist women of each country and with the [women’s] secretariat in Moscow, we ask that Communist parties do the following:
First of all, elect an international women’s correspondent in each country. These correspondents will maintain communications with each other and with the Secretariat in Moscow. Second, establish an auxiliary body in Western Europe that can assist the International Women’s Secretariat in Moscow.
In acknowledging the work of our conference, I neglected to refer to a particularly important decision. We must direct the attention of Communist cells in the trade unions to the urgent task of encompassing women workers in their activity, both in the trade-union struggle against the exploiters and also in the struggle against the trade-union bureaucracy. Representing the interests of employed women provides the basis for a broad alliance through which the Communist comrades in the trade unions can contend with the trade-union bureaucracy.
This bureaucracy has triply betrayed the interests of employed women. First, it has abandoned, for the greater good of capitalism, the struggle for the slogan of equal pay for equal work, without distinction between men and women. Second, it has also betrayed by standing by without resistance – indeed even approving – that, when the War ended, the women were the first to be thrown out of the factories and other employment. Why was that? Because starving women are less feared than men, because of women’s political backwardness. In addition, they falsely claimed that women’s needs were taken care of by the fact that they could, of course, always take to the streets as a prostitute or contract an arranged marriage. The trade-union bureaucracy betrayed the interests of employed women a third time by failing to take up the struggle against the crying injustice that unemployed women are fobbed off with less compensation than unemployed men – if they receive anything at all.
These, in my opinion, are issues that must be taken up and utilised by our Communist trade-union cells, in order to educate women in the factories as revolutionary fighters. We must also recognise the great importance of vocational and trade-union training of women for communist construction after the proletariat has won political power.
Let me continue on what the conference decided – or more properly, what it decided to present to this congress – in order to improve international communications among Communist women in different countries. As I said earlier, the parties are to choose international women correspondents, who are to maintain regular, ongoing correspondence with each other and with the Communist Women’s Secretariat in Moscow. But this secretariat itself must be made more efficient. We want it to be more than a mere information bureau for Communist women’s work and struggle. It should be a leadership and management body that unifies, intensifies, and increases the activity of proletarian women in proletarian struggles. To this end, it needs an international auxiliary body abroad. The secretariat itself must stay in Moscow, and not merely in order to assure close organisational ties with the Executive, but because of the same objective and historical reasons for which the Executive itself must be based in Moscow. Moscow is the heart of the revolution and the capital of revolutionary Russia. It is here that the experiences of revolutionary struggle converge and can be utilised as the basis for theoretical insights and practical direction. Comrades, we are convinced that a modest auxiliary body in Western Europe will provide useful service to the Moscow Executive, and we ask you, therefore, to approve the relevant resolution.
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 labour, 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.
So, women in the soviet states: join the decision-making, administrative, supervisory, economic, political, and cultural bodies and organisations! And so, proletarian women, unfree and oppressed in the countries that still languish under capitalist rule, join in all the proletariat’s struggles and battles! Let us not forget what one of the best students of Russia’s earlier revolutionary movement wrote. In his famous book, Underground Russia, Stepniak said that the revolutionary movement in Russia owed the vigour of its high ideals, its almost religious enthusiasm and power, to the collaboration of women in work, in struggle, in life, and in death. That great tradition remains alive in Russia, and it must become the great tradition that leads the way for proletarian struggle in all the capitalist countries and all countries of the East.
Comrades, at this congress we have been told, ‘Caution, caution, caution. Do not lose touch with the broad proletarian masses, who will carry out the decisive struggles of the proletarian revolution.’ And we know how true and correct that is. But we have learned something else from the history of revolution: ‘Audacity, audacity, and yet again audacity’, in leading the revolutionary masses to drive forward. And let me assure you: we women, whose souls burn with desire for the land of communism, we who must surely harbour the strongest and most implacable hatred for capitalism, we must strive to combine sober assessment of the situation before us with a bold wager on the great goal of victory.
We are well aware of the dangers that beset us – not only where we are struggling to win power but also where power has already been won and is threatened by counterrevolution from within and without and by all the difficulties of building communism under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. However, we women are not discouraged by what lies behind us, nor are we afraid of what threatens us. Our eyes are fixed on the shining goal of communism, which will liberate humanity. We clearly perceive the path to this goal: civil war, revolutionary struggle with its terrors and dangers. And despite everything, we have only one slogan: ‘Onward!’ (Prolonged loud applause)
27. The Second International Conference of Communist Women was held in Moscow 9–15 June 1921, on the eve of the Third Comintern Congress.
28. This passage is worded differently in the Russian text, which reads: ‘They have taken jobs by the millions, where they are forced to withstand competition from men. So long as capitalism reigns, the stronger sex will threaten to deprive the weaker one of earnings and the means of subsistence.’
29. The First International Conference of Communist Women was held in Moscow 30 July–2 August 1920, during the Second Comintern Congress. The conference appeal, ‘To the Working Women of the World’, can be found in Riddell (ed.) Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, vol. 2, pp. 972–6. Detailed theses ‘for the Communist Women’s Movement’ were drawn up for presentation to the world congress but were considered instead by the ECCI, which published them later in 1920. See ibid., , pp. 977–1001.
30. A reference to a line from Franz Diederich’s 1908 German translation of ‘The Internationale’, the anthem of the world workers’ movement.
31. For a fuller presentation of demands of the Communist Women’s Movement, see Riddell (ed.) Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite!, vol. 2, pp. 988–92.
32. Following the Second Congress, the Secretariat as a whole moved to Berlin, leaving an auxiliary body in Moscow.
33. The quote is by the French Revolutionary leader, Georges Danton.
34. ‘Sober assessment .... bold wager’: The German text, ‘kühle Wägen ... kuhne Wagen’ is typical of Zetkin’s characteristic use of rhyming pairs, also found elsewhere in this speech : ‘lebt und webt’, ‘standen und stehen’, ‘Verarmung, Verpfuschung, Verflachung’, ‘Mitkämpfen, Mitleben, und Mitsterben.’