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Revolutionary Women

Marx’s Daughters: Eleanor Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, Angelica Balabanoff

by Ronald Florence
Dial, 258 pp., $10.00

Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar

edited and translated by Barbara Alpern Engel, by Clifford N. Rosenthal
Knopf, 254 pp., $8.95

The titles of both books under review have the ring of contributions to a fashionable cult: an impression confirmed in the case of the first by the anxious propitiation of the cult’s priestesses on page 10: “I have referred to the heroines of this book throughout by their first names or nicknames, not through any measure of condescension or disrespect….” The author’s sincerity is not to be doubted; he treats his subjects in the characteristic style of those eager to be counted in the ranks of the unprejudiced: self-conscious respect verging on sentimentality (page 190: “Angelica was determined to remain loyal—but to whom, to what?”).

The introduction raises portentous issues: “Almost unique among the great ideological movements of the nineteenth century, socialism numbered women among its leadership. Were they to be treated as ‘men’?…And could a movement as patriarchal in its origins…as Marxism ever adapt itself to the real, rather than the rhetorical, equality of women?” But little enlightenment on these questions is to be gained from the ensuing chaotic jumble of reflections on women and on Marxism.

The first study in Mr. Florence’s book is of a woman of middle-class background and education, whose position as Marx’s daughter encouraged her to dabble in advanced ideas, feminist and socialist, crowning her rebellion by an adulterous and unhappy union with a disreputable member of the socialist fringe. Marx’s bourgeois attitudes with regard to his own family are too well known to surprise many people, and this study is of interest only to those who want Victorian scandal and anecdote.

The other two studies in Marx’s Daughters center on the political careers of Angelica Balabanoff and Rosa Luxemburg, both daughters of well-to-do assimilated Jewish families, one Russian, the other Polish, who both devoted their lives to Marxist socialism. We are taken on a breathless tour around the monuments of Marxism—the Second International, Bernstein, Plekhanov, Lenin, Zimmerwald, Spartacus, the Comintern, with a commentary geared to journalistic cliché (“Already nationalism was rearing its ugly head.” “Nowhere was treason a popular cause in the summer of 1914”). The essay on Balabanoff has the merit of attempting to rescue from obscurity a thinker about whom too little has been written, in spite of her role in the forefront of the international socialist antiwar movement inaugurated at Zimmerwald in 1915, and her curious relationship as teacher and confidante with the young Mussolini, whom she helped in 1902 to rescue from destitution and to educate in socialism, later editing with him the Italian socialist organ Avanti.

However, there is no such justification for the essay on Rosa Luxemburg, whose importance as a theorist and opponent of Lenin’s centralism has earned her, quite apart from J.P. Nettl’s monumental biography (which makes no apology for calling her Rosa), a plethora of studies, large and small, to which this adds nothing.

Ironically, the book’s epigraph, Turgenev’s prose poem on a Russian woman revolutionary preparing to sacrifice everything in total commitment to the cause, suggests a question which, if pursued, might have made a contribution to examining the issues raised in the introduction and given the book a raison d’être and a thematic coherence. The question is why, while middle-class radical women in England, and elsewhere in Western Europe, devoted greater energy to feminism than to socialist revolution, their counterparts in Russia and Russian Poland tended to be passionately committed to the second at the expense of the first. The author notes in passing that Rosa Luxemburg believed that to invest energy in the women’s movement was to settle for petty politics instead of revolutionary struggle, and that Angelica Balabanoff believed that women’s rights could not be separated from the general revolutionary movement. But he does not comment on these views, thus eschewing a subject of genuine historical and sociological importance, to which a contribution is made by Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar.

Here the rather coy title introduces material of considerable interest: extracts, mostly translated for the first time, from the memoirs of five prominent Russian women revolutionaries: Vera Figner, Vera Zasulich, Praskovya Ivanovskaya, Olga Lyubatovich, and Elizaveta Kovalskaya, members of the populist movement which dominated Russian radicalism of the nineteenth century. As is pointed out in the foreword, women in the Russian revolutionary movement have been almost universally neglected in studies of the period (although an important exception should be mentioned—J.M. Meijer’s monograph on the Russian student colony in Zurich, Knowledge and Revolution). This neglect is unfortunate; their role deserves to be seen as far more than an episode in the history of women’s liberation.

In March 1877, Ivan Turgenev, commenting in a letter to his publisher on criticism of the heroine of Virgin Soil, the dedicated young woman revolutionary Marianna, refers to the mass trial then taking place in Russia of young propagandists who three years previously had gone to the villages to preach socialism to the peasants:

It’s an odd thing: one Aristarch, for instance, has claimed that there are no Mariannas, that I invented them—and suddenly here we have a trial, where out of 52 revolutionaries 18 are women—a thing…unheard of in Europe at any time!1

In the following year this peculiarity of the Russian revolutionary movement was brought to the attention of the European public in an even more sensational way, by the trial of Vera Zasulich, a young woman revolutionary who had shot the governor of St. Petersburg, General Trepov, for having ordered the flogging of a political prisoner. Contrary to the government’s expectations, she was acquitted by the jury and widely acclaimed in Russia as symbolizing by her act the protest of Russian society against the brutalities of arbitrary rule.

The trial intrigued the European press, which had hitherto attributed what was known of the participation of women in radical movements in Russia to “nihilism,” a vague and sinister concept, used freely to denote a sort of Pandora’s box of violent, depraved, and anarchic tendencies, emanating from wholesale negation of all civilized values and traditions. The London Times‘s first report of the trial was in line with such conceptions: the accused was reported to be a nihilist woman avenging an assault on her lover; and the jury’s extraordinary verdict was explained by a rumor that they were religious fanatics who refused to pass a death sentence during Lent. When more facts became available, most of the European press concurred in representing Zasulich as a female Nemesis, one of the Charlotte Cordays of history, whose rare appearances gave emphasis to its dramatic moments.

The second version was as wide of the mark as the first. That combination in Zasulich’s act of nihilistic contempt for conventions and moral fervor, which so confused Western commentators, was not a freak accident of personality, but the expression of the two fundamental and inseparable characteristics of Russian populism—nihilism and moralism. Moreover, the dramatic initiative of her act symbolized the complex process of effect and cause whereby women, drawn into the movement by the specific character of Russian nihilism, intensified its moral impetus.

Nihilism was a response to the predicament of the intelligentsia, the product of Russia’s developing role as a European power in the early nineteenth century, whose contact with advanced European ideas and values sharply alienated them from their backward society. They felt themselves to be, in the words of Peter Chaadayev’s famous Philosophical Letter, in “a state of chaotic fermentation of the things of the moral world, similar to the revolutions of the earth which preceded the present state of our planet.” Before they could hope to function coherently as moral beings, and to assume a useful role in their society, they had to interpret the gap between their intellectual development and their country’s backwardness, by answering such fundamental metaphysical questions as the significance and destiny of Russia in the scheme of human progress. Hence that religious attachment to ideas as means of salvation characteristic of the intelligentsia: an “integral world view”—an all-embracing system reconciling fact and value, was the essential precondition of an “integral personality,” to which all generations of the intelligentsia aspired, a personality in whom will and intellect, moral conviction and act were harmonized.

Those most frustrated by the oppression of the autocracy seized on Western socialist doctrines as the path to this ideal, and found that their alienation gave them an advantage over their Western mentors, for even the most radical of these remained too attached to past traditions to carry the liberating implications of socialism to their logical extreme. The Russian whose past was unrelieved barbarism and slavery was in this sense freer than Western man. The first classic statement of what would later be known as nihilism is made by Alexander Herzen in his article of 1851, Le Peuple Russe et le Socialisme, where he defiantly addresses the West in the person of Michelet:

Vos doutes, nous les acceptons; votre foi ne nous émeut pas. Vous êtes pour nous trop réligieux. Vos haines, nous les partageons; votre attachement pour l’héritage de vos ancêtres, nous ne le comprenons pas; nous sommes trop opprimés, trop malheureux pour nous contenter d’une demi-liberté. Vous avez des ménagements à garder; des scrupules vous retiennent; nous autres, nous n’avons ni ménagements, ni scrupules…. Qu’avons-nous donc a démêler avec vos devoirs traditionnels, nous, les mineurs, les déshérités? Et comment pourrions-nous franchement accepter une morale fanée, une morale ni chrétienne ni humaine, existant seulement dans les exercises de rhétorique, et dans les réquisitoires des procureurs?… Nous voyons clairement que la distinction entre vos lois et les oukases gît principalement dans la légende du préambule…. Le code-Nicolas est dirigé exclusivement contre les hommes et en faveur de l’autorité. Le code-Napoleon ne nous paraît pas avoir d’autre caractère. Nous traînons assez de chaînes que la force nous a imposés pour les alourdir encore d’autres, dues a notre propre choix…. Nous sommes esclaves parce que nous n’avons pas le moyen de nous affranchir; toutefois, du camp ennemi nous n’accepterons rien.

Here is the essence of Russian nihilism—a ruthless negation of traditionally sacred values and institutions, impelled by a moral need for a faith more total and liberating than any offered by the West. This faith found its ideal in millenarian populism, in the belief that Russia possessed in the peasant commune a relic of a primitive state of harmony existing before man enslaved himself to such abstract products of his alienated reason as the state, and which, if developed into conscious socialism, would inaugurate a new age in which men would fulfill themselves as integral beings.

In the wholesale negation of oppressive institutions, religious, political, and moral, whereby the intelligentsia sought to prepare the ground for this ideal, the social and political subjugation of women was a central target. There was no entrenched tradition of male political hegemony in the way: the mass of educated men being as deprived of civil and political rights as women, political discussion took place in the home and women became accustomed to participate in it. The legal and moral subordination of the woman in the family was hotly criticized and women’s emancipation seen as an integral part of that all-round fulfillment of the personality to which the intelligentsia aspired.

  1. 1

    Turgenev was slightly mistaken; the numbers were 50 and 16.

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