Trotsky – the Revolution Betrayed Chapter 7 – Family, Youth and Culture – Part 1 Thermidor in the Family

(These are the notes for the presentation at this event, which can also be listened to as a podcast).

Notes from Marie Lynam

I try here to summarise Trotsky’s ideas in the above document. Trotsky looks back on the unfolding of the Soviet Thermidorian process with an emphasis on its impact on the Soviet family. Apart from more general considerations, he analyses in some detail the year 1935 and the first half of 1936. The document dwells on successive aspects of retreat in the condition of woman in the Soviet Union and the retreat of society back towards the family. In the evolution of Soviet society since the revolution, Trotsky notes that “the changes in the bureaucratic approaches to the problem of the family characterise most of all the actual nature of soviet society”.

One of the aims of the Revolution had been to “destroy the family hearthstone” that Trotsky describes as “an archaic, stuffy and stagnant institution”. 1917 had been honest, he says, in fulfilling its obligations in matters relating to woman. Woman had won not only all political and legal rights, but access to all forms of economic and cultural work.  However, and in spite of real efforts which Trotsky says “lifted the burden on woman in the family”, most of the 40 million Soviet families of 1936 were “still nests of medievalism”. And Trotsky to conclude that “you cannot ‘abolish’ the family; you have to replace it”.

The revolution tried to replace the family through the socialisation of the family economy.  The Soviet government implemented this with organisations specialising in “the collective care of children, social dining rooms in factories and the collectives, maternity houses, creches, kindergartens, schools, social dining rooms, social laundries, first-aid stations, hospitals, sanatoria, athletic organisations, moving-picture theatres, etc.”.  But when the food-card was abolished in 1935, all the better-placed workers began to return to the home dining table.  The ‘social feeding’ had been too poor, the social laundries had lost or torn the linen. Trotsky draws here another conclusion: “The actual liberation of women is unrealisable on the basis of generalised want”. The real resources of the state, in those days, did not correspond to the plans and the intentions of the Communist Party.

The creches and kindergartens had been appreciated however by the working women and even by the more advanced peasants. The collective care of children was an immeasurable advantage to the many who needed it, where it was provided. Unfortunately, “society proved too poor and little cultured” to implement this satisfactorily.  The intention had been “to bring to woman, and thereby to the loving couple, a real liberation [..] from the old fetters”. The intention had been “to unite all the generations in solidarity and mutual aid” around all the socialised forms of care.

Trotsky shows how in 1935-36, “this problem of problems” was not on its way to being resolved, and that instead, the Thermidorian counter revolution was driving the country back towards the family, and as part of the restoration of bourgeois morals.

In 1935, the Communist International had announced “the complete and irrevocable triumph of socialism in the Soviet Union”. According to this, woman had become equal to man thanks to socialism. But apart perhaps from the better off women who had servants, nurses and ‘working women’, the mass of the population had no reason to be impressed. The family was far from disappeared; and the leading bureaucracy was retrieving from the past, and from elements of religion, the moral precepts that commend the family again.

From 1932 to 1935-36, there was certainly an increase in the number of creches and kindergartens. There had been 600,000 steady creches in 1932, and 4 million seasonal such in the summer months. They numbered almost 6 million in 1935. But where you have 40 million families, this is still “a drop in the ocean of the Soviet families”. Something similar was happening with the kindergartens. An important Soviet paper reported that the creche is often no better than “a bad orphan asylum”. In the so-called ‘children homes’ of the capital, there were about 1,500 children with nowhere to go during the day, turned out into the streets. As for the kindergartens, they existed mostly around “the families of the administration, the technical personnel, the Stakhanovists, etc”.

Social dinning was established in towns and in big agrarian collectives, but it was limited where the collectives were small. In the countryside, the family as a social form was “infinitely more stable and conservative” than in the towns. The peasants tended to cover their basic needs through their employment in the agricultural commune and the produce of their individual plots. Trotsky says that “once the necessities of life are acquired by the isolated efforts of the family, there can no longer be any talk of social dining rooms”. Trotsky speaks of these small family enterprises in the countryside, that put a double burden upon woman instead of liberating her. This weighed heavily in the general retreat of the revolution back to the family form. Those midget farms, he says, helped in creating a new basis for the domestic ‘hearthstone’.

With the abolition of all direct rationing and the increase of what Trotsky calls “the educative role of the ruble” in 1935, there came a retreat throughout the country “inevitably bound to lead to a new growth of prostitution, as well as of homeless children”. Not seeing here any failure on their part, but only the sins of the defenceless, particularly the women and the children, the bureaucratic propagandists of state introduced repressive laws and adopted moral precepts. One of those was no adultery, marriage and respect for the family, no prostitution, no abortion and no abandoned children. Another new moral precept was respect for mother and father, i.e., a return to parental authority. The bureaucracy was probably keen on 40 million points of support for itself in the country, where disciplined workers would be made respectful of authority and the state.

With the new moral precepts that rehabilitated some biblical commandments, (but not yet God, not yet, says Trotsky), there came repressive laws to fine and jail prostitutes, penalise abortion, punish mothers not looking sufficiently after their children. 1000 women were arrested for selling themselves in the streets of the capital said Izvestia in late 1935. A young communist was disciplined who still maintained that the cause of prostitution and of abortion should be addressed. The judge Soltz declared that “in a socialist society, where there are no unemployed, a woman has no right to decline ‘the joys of motherhood’ “.

This is how the Soviet bureaucracy “celebrated this return of the workers’ wives to their pots and pans”, says Trotsky. The homeless children, he says, are the direct result of a great social crisis; the old family continues to dissolve but the new institutions are not able to replace it.

Trotsky says however that it would be incorrect to regard this retreat as a condemnation of the socialist system – which in general was never tried out. He did not wish to blame the new Soviet state for problems that needed superior levels of transformation to be overcome. But the bureaucratic leaders denied this simple truth. They forced people not only to glue back together the old shell of the broken family, but to consider this “the sacred nucleus of triumphant socialism” – and this under the threat of “extreme penalties”.

Trotsky does not incriminate the lack of success. What makes him indignant is “this aspect of socialist bankruptcy covering itself with hypocritical respectability”. He denounces as “crass hypocrisy” the bureaucratic suggestion that its measures against homeless children, for instance, were part of some socialist legislation in defence of women and children. He is indignant at observers of the Soviet Union who tell themselves that a further growth in the country’s material wealth “will gradually fill the socialist laws with flesh and blood”.  In leaving the socialist future respectfully in the hands of the bureaucracy, he says, this passive and indifferent optimism leaves to bureaucracy the opportunity to introduce new oppression in place of liberty.

The Stalinist bureaucracy had converted the equality of rights of men and women into an equality of deprivation of rights. Through the way it had pretended to resolve the problem of woman and of the family, Trotsky drew the conclusions – that we need today – regarding the character and the nature of bureaucracy.  This document is a warning about its anti-socialist character.

Supplementary remarks by SH

After [Marie’s] summary of the chapter this is the research I’ve looked at and want to add to [her] “Part one”

“…the legal status of women in the revolution, we can see that their civil, social, and political rights were far superior to those of the female masses in Europe’s most advanced capitalist democracies: they had the right to vote and run for office, divorce, have an abortion, have papers, and earn a wage without permission from a husband or father. The revolution decriminalized homosexuality and taught people to read on a large scale. Trotsky, however, believed that only with the growing incorporation of women into social life — not just production — could an accelerated fight be waged against the centuries of backwardness and obscurantism imposed by the patriarchal order, under the influence of the Orthodox Church.”

also this:

Trotsky also shared the maxim of Charles Fourier, paraphrased by Engels: “In any given society the degree of woman’s emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation.”17Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880). 

NB before the revolution illiteracy for women was 90% 

“And yet it is quite obvious that unless there is actual equality of husband and wife in the family, in a normal sense as well as in the conditions of life, we cannot speak seriously of their equality in social work or even in politics.” 

Problems of Everyday Life, 38.

and this….

“For an indefinitely long time and in constant internal struggle, all social relations undergo transformation. Society keeps on changing its skin. Each stage of transformation stems directly from the preceding. This process necessarily retains a political character, that is, it develops through collisions between various groups in the society which is in transformation. Outbreaks of civil war and foreign wars alternate with periods of “peaceful” reform. Revolutions in economy, technique, science, the family, morals and everyday life develop in complex reciprocal action and do not allow society to achieve equilibrium.

introduction to the first (Russian) edition, The Permanent Revolution (1930).

To sum up – the “women’s problem” is men, and it won’t be solved until we solve the problem of the way that men and women interact in the home, in their social lives, as well in the workplace and public life.