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International Socialism, March 1977


Lindsey German & Anna Paczuska

Women And Socialism


From International Socialism (1st series), No.96, March 1977, pp.25-27.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Experiences from Eastern Europe

Women And Socialism: Experiences from Eastern Europe
by Hilda Scott
Alison and Busy, £2.95

WILL socialist revolution bring womens liberation or not? This question has been vigorously debated within the womens movement. The argument includes criticism of the male dominance within left-wing organisations which some claim stems directly from the teachings of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The situation of women in Russia and Eastern Europe is part of the debate. If these countries are socialist – why then are women there unequal?

Women and Socialism by Hilda Scott is a contribution to this debate. Hilda Scott is an American journalist who lived in Czechoslovakia from 1948-1973. [1] She is clearly a supporter of the regime which came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, and appears not to doubt that Czechoslovakia is socialist. Yet she has written a book on the position of women in Czechoslovakia detailing numberous inequalities and injustices suffered by Czech women.


Hilda Scott describes the position of women in Czechoslovakia: how women are forced into certain low-paid jobs; how more men than women are encouraged into higher education; how despite equal pay legislation women in 1968 earned an average of 27.9 per cent less than men. She describes a situation not dissimilar from that of many Western countries, and indeed one which exists in other East European countries too:

‘There is a persistent masculinisation of technical jobs together with a predominance of men in managerial posts in industry and state administration. This state of affairs is due mainly to the lack of appropriate policy at school level.’ [2]

Hilda Scott is critical of the way women are treated in Czechoslovakia, but her belief that socialism exists and must be defended forced her into statements that would horrify any self-respecting western feminist.

She describes the process of rebuilding and glorifying the nuclear family which took place in Russia in the 1930s. But this barbarity which abolished legal abortion and tightened the divorce laws is treated favourably.

‘The regulations strengthening the family did not appear to most communists outside the Soviet Union as a betrayal of the brave new world. On the contrary the publicity surrounding the abolition of the family, presented as the forcible breaking up of homes and the collectivisation of women – proof of the new Bolshevik terror, had made the task of recruiting new adherents to communism in capitalistic countries more difficult.’

That defence of cruel attacks on womens rights in the name of socialism is a theme throughout the book. [3] Yet there are many important and interesting facts in the book. Unfortunately they are misinterpreted. Impressive social reforms accompanied the entry of women into the labour force, but these are looked at in isolation. In fact many such reforms were also introduced in the west during the postwar boom. They are not exclusive to ‘socialism’.

Worse still, attacks on social services in later years, such as the introduction of charges for the use of ‘communal’ laundries and dining rooms, are accepted. Apparently these services are not ‘priorities’, and because the socialist state cannot afford to maintain nurseries and old people’s homes at the same time.

Hilda Scott accepts that the cut backs in services as regrettable but necessary. She therefore does not accept that a woman should be entitled to a nursery place for her child as a basic right. For her it is an optional extra. From this it is but one step to question the benefits of nurseries and to accept various pop psychologies about maternal deprivation and a lack of women’s fulfilment at work as a rationale for closing nurseries.

She supports financial incentives for women to stay at home, the restriction of abortion facilities, and the reduction of social services. She accepts the normality of the nuclear family and wants men to share the housework.

She sees no contradiction in a socialist country which cannot provide efficient socialised laundries yet spends a good proportion of its GNP on arms. She locates accurately the problems facing women. But her conclusion is not that a radical social upheaval is necessary to establish a society in which the social needs of women are priorities. On the contrary, for her it is just a matter of consciousness. Parents must educate their children away from sexual stereotypes. Men must be made to understand women’s problems.

She places herself firmly in the camp of those feminists who say that you can have socialism without women’s liberation.

To defend the case for socialism we have to address ourselves to two problems: first whether Russia and eastern Europe are socialist, and, second how is it possible for ‘socialism’ and women’s liberation not to coexist?

Is there socialism in Eastern Europe

THE basic assumption of Women and Socialism is that the eastern European countries are socialist. Scott uses the term freely, but clearly does not understand the concept. Socialist revolution – the self-emancipation of the working-class is the act of the working class alone. Yet Hilda Scott writes confidently:

‘Socialism did not come to the countries of Eastern Europe as it did in Russia, as the result of revolutionary struggle against an entrenched government. It was brought to them at the end of the Second World War by the Soviet Army, whose troops in most cases remained on their soil’.

That the boots of the Red Army could be the agency of revolutionary socialist change is a contradictory assertion. Certainly the troops brought change to eastern Europe. But the change was not to establish socialism:

‘The Communists were not making a revolution of the sort talked about by Marx and Lenin ... the old state machine was not destroyed but handed over wholesale to those Communist leaders whom Stalin trusted.’ [4]

And the regime which exists in Russia is not socialist either. In 1917 there was a working-class revolution in Russia. But it was faced with enormous difficulties and ultimately it failed. Isolation, the ravages of civil war, the decimation of the working class, mass starvation and the demoralisation of the peasantry all contributed to the process. After attempting to institute changes in every sphere of life the Russian working class was defeated. [5]

In the struggle to build socialism many changes were brought in by the Bolsheviks in 1917. Among them were a mass affecting women. In a country where modern contraception was unknown, where millions of women were still wearing the veil, where wives were regarded as household chattels to be bought and sold like furniture, sweeping changes were introduced: legal abortion, civil marriage, total equality before the law.

They were the first ever attempt to provide the conditions under which women could be truly liberated. And many women responded enthusiastically to the new conditions. Alexandra Kollontai wrote optimistically:

‘The work of destroying the social slavery of women was carried through by the great workers’ revolution. Women workers and peasants participated in the liberating struggle on an equal footing with men. The former specialisation of the female sex collapsed as the social structure rocked on its twin pillars, private property and class government. The fire of the uprising of the proletariat called women from their baking tins ... the revolution in Russia won full political equality and equality of citizen ship for women ... the revolution made it impossible for women ever again to be tied to their families.’ [6]

But the new workers’ state was isolated and defeated as European capitalism regained its hold. As a result the attempts to free women from oppression failed. The nurseries that were set up became Mike second rate orphan asylums’. The communal dining facilities were dreadful. Rather than use such second rate services women opted for housework.

Some feminists have pointed to these failures and used them to justify their belief that socialist revolution is a male-dominated affair which ignores the needs of women.

Shulamith Firestone categorically states that,

‘... the failure of the Russian Revolution to achieve the classless society is traceable to its half hearted attempts to eliminate the family and sexual repression.’ [7]

This misses the point. Women could not achieve liberation in Russia because the revolution itself was defeated not because the Bolsheviks were unwilling to lay the basis for it.

In spite of the failures, the terminology of women’s liberation remained. Outside of Russia, Communist Party members pointed proudly to the higher number of women who worked in factories. Pictures of smiling women in boiler suits told the world that in Russia women had won equality. Western propagandists sniggered at the masculinity of such Russian heroines, and Western women rejected the Russian image of womanhood. Even in the East European countries the myth is falling apart.

‘By 1972 the image of the beautiful tractor driver had receded so far into the distant past that a top official of the Czechoslovak Communist Party on a visit to a co-operative farm at harvest time was captured on the TV screen expressing astonishment when he was introduced to two young husband and wife combine operator teams. “And do you let them drive?” he inquired of the husbands.’ [8]

Is there Women’s Liberation in Russia?

This was not women’s liberation. It was in fact a vast recruitment of women into the labour force. In Russia, after the revolution had failed and later in Eastern Europe, labour laws were changed to allow women to do traditionally male jobs. It was called ‘liberation’ to make it more palatable.

Women had to be used as workers because there weren’t enough men. Two world wars, civil war, the purges of the 1930s all left a surplus of women over men in the population. Many women were forced to go out to work to support their families. But what really got them out into the factories in large numbers were the five year plans and the emphasis on economic growth.

‘The most important circumstances underlying the high level of participation by women in the labour force has been the forced-draft industrialisation of the Soviet Union.’ [9]

Similar high rates of expansion forced women in the East European states into the factories too.

This expansion of the economy was governed by the need to compete with the West, not the desire to relieve womens’ domestic burdens. The Russian regime had determined its priorities.

‘This determination also explains the ambivalence of the regime towards the provision of more adequate childcare facilities, cafeterias and household durables. These would have been provided even at the expense of investment in producers’ goods if the regime had been less preoccupied with growth and more with human welfare. The regime chose however to provide only the minimum necessary to keep a large proportion of women in the labour force. As a result most soviet women continue to carry heavy domestic duties.’ [10]

Investment in the social sector was kept to the minimum. Thus the number of nursery places always lagged behind demand. In Russia in the 1960s only 12 per cent of the children of nursery age and 20 per cent of the children of kindergarten age found places in nurseries. [11] In Czechoslovakia 10 per cent of children of nursery age get places and 50 per cent of kindergarten age. [12]

In Poland 15 per cent of children find a place in a creche. [13]

‘The last resource of the working women remains the ‘babcia’ (granny) who has become a real institution in Peoples’ Poland, nanny and charwoman." [14]

Typically a Czech sportswoman explained the situation:

‘I’m married, I’m employed, and I nave a daughter. And a granny. If I couldn’t say "Granny keep an eye on her" my sporting career would be at an end.’ [15]

Women were doing two jobs and carrying the consequent strains. A woman official from the Czech Ministry of Health summed it all up when she said at a conference in 1963:

‘If there are more neurotic women than men, it is not because they have won equality, but because they have not yet won equality. So far they have only won the right to work.’ [16]

And the system could not even guarantee that gain. In 1966 economic changes were introduced in Czechoslovakia. A newspaper editorial explained the implications:

‘Many people in management make no secret of the fact that in connection with the introduction of the new economic system the blow will fall where necessary on the women first.’ [17]

Conveniently this coincided with the recognition of another problem. A serious decline in the birthrate was taking place. Women had to be persuaded back into their homes – to produce the workers of tomorrow. [18] Childcare allowances were brought in. But on its own that wasn’t enough. A better argument had to be found to drive women back into the home.

Until then ideas about childcare in Eastern Europe had centred around The Book For Parents by Makarenko. This fully backed nursery care, collective child care, and the influence of adults other than the biological parents on the child’s development.

In the mid 1960s an adapted Freudian psychology and a barrage of propaganda about ‘maternal deprivation’ was launched to force women to stay at home with young children – or risk damaging them irreparably.

Nurseries and day care centres were re-examined, and found to be harming the children. In 1969 Freud was rehabilitated and a bust in his honour was unveiled. Round-the-clock nurseries which had provided 20 per cent of all places at the beginning of the 1960s, by 1968 had been reduced to 3.8 per cent of the total. Hilda Scott views Eastern Europe as important because it was an attempt to introduce a comprehensive programme of workers equality. Her book proves it was a failure. She uses this failure to point how ‘the marxist model, in spite of some notable achievements, has fallen short of expectations.’

Socialism and Feminism

BUT the marxist model is not the problem. The problem is the idea that somehow the equal right to work can be equated with liberation. We always stressed the need for women to gain the equal right to work as a vital pre-condition for liberation. But this is not enough. The need to socialise all housework and abolish patriachy and the monogamous family is also crucial. As Lenin asserted:

‘As long as women are engaged in housework, their position is still a restricted one. In order to achieve the real emancipation of women and make them really equal with men we must have social economy and the participation of women in general productive labour.’ [19]

The changes necessary to achieve the liberation of women, can only occur within the context of a total economic and political overthrow of the present system by working-class women and men.

The need to struggle for a woman’s right to work, for the socialisation of housework and for the abolition of the traditional family as part of the fight for revolutionary change, distinguishes socialist feminists from other trends in the labour and feminist movements.

The discussions within the women’s movement have clarified many of the problems forced on women.

But many feminists, like Hilda Scott, believe that solutions are possible through piece meal changes in life style and changes in individual consciousness. However only workers’ control of all aspects of society can provide the conditions in which human beings can develop free of oppression.

The struggle for sexual rights like the struggle for women’s equality is one that all socialists should be taking up and supporting. But we should not live with the illusion that such struggles can be successful under capitalist morality or that indeed on their own they can be achieved.

‘A purely sexual counter-strategy or even a counter-strategy whose main bias is in this direction is not by itself sufficient to wipe out exploitation. The proper place for action with this emphasis is within the total structure of political opposition and anti-capitalist offensive. It should not be something imposed on the structure from without but something that grows up with it’ [20]

Separatist feminist ideas developed outside of revolutionary socialist politics because for over 40 years there was no debate around women’s questions and sexual politics on the left. Such is the legacy of Stalinism. Since the 1920’s the Communist Party leadership’s determination to become respectable made them come down heavily on all debate relating to personal issues. Discussion about individual freedom and love were discouraged. Stella Browne a CP member who argued for the right of women to contraception and abortion on demand finally left the Party in 1923 probably over its refusal to support such demands. [21]

‘The defeat of sexual politics within the revolutionary movement in the twenties and thirties was the cumulative effect of unnumerable tiny and apparetnly obscure battles in which the prevailing dogmatic orthodoxy dismissed sexual and personal questions and ignored the political significance of the manner in which human beings experienced and expressed their lives in sexual relations. Because sexual pleasure was seen as a diversion ... it was easy to dismiss the demand for the control over the reproduction of self through sexuality as well as through economic production.

‘This reduction of the terms of the argument was not only a tragedy which restricted the development of socialist feminism: it was part of and contributed towards the theoretical and political stunting of revolutionary politics.’ [22]

For some years now the women’s movement has been raising the issues so long forgotten.

Feminists have brought alive the debate about women and have revived a vital discussion within the marxist movement. But many feminists remain largely outside revolutionary socialist politics, in the Labour party, in the Communist party, or in no party at all. It is true that there will be no socialism without women’s liberation. But equally while capitalism persists there can be no women’s liberation. That’s why we fight for the right of women to work, for the social services that can begin to take the burden of housework off individual women’s shoulders and why we are critical of the family and stress the need to replace it. But while we struggle for these things we realise they must be fought for in the context of the need to destroy the whole capitalist economic system and establish a new morality.

‘Hope cannot aim at making the mutilated social character of women identical to the mutilated social character of men; rather its goal must be a state in which the face of the grieving woman dissappears simultaneously with that of the bustling capable man, a state in which all that survives the disgrace of the difference between the sexes is the happiness that difference makes possible." [23]

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1. She does not say why she left in 1973 to live in Vienna. So, we don’t know whether she was politically opposed to the regime which took over from Dubcek. There is no mention of the events of 1968-69 in the book.

2. B. Koski, The Situation of Women in Poland (to be published in Critique journal).

3. Such a viewpoint appears to be not uncommon among journalists in Eastern Europe. One Polish journalist took the view to its logical conclusion when he wrote in the Polish journal Kultura: ‘I consider that equal rights for women as implemented in our society have proved to be a luxury which we can no longer afford.’ quoted in B. Koski, op. cit.

4. C. Harman, Revolution and Bureaucracy in Eastern Europe, p.35.

5. For a detailed explanation of this process see C. Harman, Russia How the Revolution was Lost.

6. Alexandra Kollontai, Women Workers Struggle For Their Rights, p.11.

7. Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex, p.198.

8. Quoted in Hilda Scott, p.1.

9. Norton T. Dodge, Women in the Soviet Economy, p.2.

10. Norton T. Dodge, op. cit., p.3.

11. Norton T. Dodge, op. cit., p.98.

12. Quoted in Hilda Scott, p.127.

13. Quoted in B. Koski, op. cit.

14. B. Koski, op. cit.

15. Quoted in Hilda Scott, p.164.

16. Quoted in Hilda Scott, p.105.

17. Quoted in Hilda Scott, p.123.

18. In Hungary you can jump the housing waiting list by promising to have 2 babies within 5 years (quoted in a recent BBC documentary on Hungary).

19. Lenin, Women and Society.

20. Reimut Reiche, Sexuality and class struggle.

21. Stella Browne continued to agitate for abortion on demand outside the Communist party. She, was involved in the founding of the Abortion Law Reform Association in 1936. For a full description of the struggle to keep alive the agitation for ‘Abortion on Demand’ see Dave Widgery, Abortion – The Pioneers, International Socialism 80.

22. Sheila Rowbotham, Hidden From History, p.155.

23. Quoted in Werner Thönnessen, The Emancipation of Women.

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