One hundred and five years ago today, on International Working Women’s Day (23 February old style/8 March today) 1917, women workers from both home and factory took to the streets of St Petersburg. Then, as now, Russia was involved in a disastrous war which had brought nothing but death, hunger and misery. Then, as now, Russia was governed by a ruthless authoritarian police state. The women workers who organised had been told by political organisations that it was too early to strike but they had had enough.
After two and half years of war the final straw for the women workers had come with the breakdown in the supply of bread, which began at the start of February when only half the food ordered for Petrograd arrived. The historian Burdzhalov tells that:
"Long lines stretched in front of shops and bakeries. A winter unprecedented in severity had set in, filling the streets with ice and piling snowdrifts on the roofs of homes, sidewalks and bridges of the city. Shivering from cold, poorly dressed young people, women and old men waited hours for bread and often went home empty-handed. Food shortages provoked an even greater ferment among the masses … the queues had the same force as revolutionary meetings and tens of thousands of revolutionary leaflets. The street had become a political club."
It was the women who initiated the action in most cases, primarily working women from the textile mills, and they did not confine their slogans to the food question. “Down with the War” and “Down with the Tsar” competed with the cry of “Bread”.
Since 1914 the First World War had brought 250,000 more women into the Petrograd workforce making the total about a million, or 40% of the factory proletariat. Conditions were particularly exacting for women. Many had to work long hours in war industries after their men were conscripted for the front, as well as look after children, and spend what little free time they had in long lines queuing for bread and kerosene. In the days before International Working Women’s Day, bakeries had been sacked and bread shops stoned but what now transformed these bread riots into something more was that women (plus some men) workers held “stormy” mass meetings which wanted to go beyond the traditional demonstration. Having decided to down tools in one factory they then went round others, sometimes throwing snowballs (sometimes nuts and bolts!) at windows to attract workers’ attention. Men and women poured out of factories to take part in demonstrations. All told that day somewhere between 80,000 and 120,000 workers, the vast majority of them women, went out on strike demanding bread, peace, and an end to Tsarism.
Five days of strikes, demonstrations and over 1,300 deaths later, Tsarism had crumbled. In these events, hundreds of thousands of men also took part, but women continued to play an important role in those five days. They knew from their experience of the 1905 revolution that the key task was to win over the garrison. The softening-up process began in earnest on 9 March. Although most of the mounted Cossacks initially followed orders, there were one or two places where there were some signs of sympathy for the workers. It was, again mainly, women who went up to groups of soldiers taking hold of their bayonets, telling them about their lack of bread, explaining that their men were at the front, etc. Their aim was to shame the troops over the role they were playing. It often worked and the bulk of the soldiers gradually came over to the revolution.
Today Russia is only two weeks into another imperialist war on its Western border. Its economic and social consequences have not yet been felt but at least 10,000 people (including very young children and the aged) have already been arrested for calling for “No War”. Back in 1917 the sentiment was stronger. Not just against war but against the social system which produced it. The demonstrations and strikes of February 1917 did not in fact end the war. The workers’ revolution was hijacked by those who now wanted to carry on fighting for Russia’s imperialist aims and this included some so-called socialists in the newly-reconstituted soviet in St Petersburg. But the working masses still wanted peace and increasingly flowed into the one socialist party that both called for an end to the war and for all power to the soviets. The October Revolution of 1917 not only finished off the process that started on 8 March but was the forerunner of a series of revolts which eventually brought the imperialist slaughter to an end. Unfortunately these revolts did not herald the overthrow of capitalism and wage slavery. The workers of Russia remained isolated and the revolution found itself fighting a new set of imperialist foes until 1921. In facing these foes the revolution became less working class and more statist until in the end it ceased to be a workers’ revolution at all.
Today in acknowledging a war of over a century ago we also look to the inspiration that the revolution of 1917 created. Today, in the middle of another imperialist conflict which has taken a decisive turn towards generalised warfare the same problems will arise. Inflation, food shortages, the decline of living standards and death are all that the system has to offer. The growing tensions are themselves brought about by the economic rivalry that is exacerbated in a capitalist crisis like this one. The war in Ukraine means that the response of the working class is now more critical than it has been for decades. And we can take our example from the workers of 105 years ago. These wars are wars of the propertied classes. As the Communist Manifesto stated, “Workers have no country, You cannot take from them what they do not have”. Against all chauvinism and nationalism the international working class, united in its shared condition of exploitation, is the only force that can bring an end to war – but only by organising politically to smash the capitalist state and reconstitute society on a new basis. As for us,
"… revolutionaries do not simply have the task of analysing how things are going, whether by a pre-determined destiny or by a whim of the gods, but of studying the economic and social situation as the capitalist crisis unfurled. Revolutionary communists have the task of creating the subjective conditions for the revolution, not in opposition to the balance of power between the classes, but in harmony with any sudden, unexpected changes in those same power relations which could signal a change of direction. Amongst the subjective goals that revolutionaries must aim for is the building of the international communist party without which any change of course in the relationship between classes, any resumption of the class struggle would end up with no day-to-day tactic or strategy for achieving an alternative to capitalism. The proletariat would still be stuck ploughing the same tragic capitalist furrow, that generator of all crises and wars. Here too the October revolution taught us a great lesson. Without the Bolshevik party, tens of millions of peasants and millions of workers would have turned away from any revolutionary solution and would have been re-absorbed into the mystical nationalistic climate. What followed is part of another aspect of history that we could call “revolution and counter-revolution”. Today we are faced with “war or revolution”, learning the lessons from the past which led to the victory of the Russian proletariat and identifying the adverse conditions and consequent errors that accelerated its defeat." (A Decade Since the Financial Crash, Fabio Damen, November 2018)
Communist Workers’ Organisation
For some of our previous articles about International Working Women's Day, see: 8 Historical Working Women Moments for 8 March, The Origins and Capture of International Working Women's Day, Celebrating International Women’s Day 100 Years On, March 8, International Day for Working Class Women, World March of Women - Reform or Revolution?