The story of Angelica Balabanova

Patriarchy ingrained in communists

Bhaskar Sur

Socialism has always stood for gender equality and all feminists since Olympe de Gouge, have been on the Left of the day. J.S Mill's Subjection of Women (1867) was a classic but Frederick Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) explored the question of subjection more comprehensively relating it to the origin of property. Socialists also called for equal wage with males, voting rights and maternity benefits. Revolutionary Russia gave voting rights to women earlier than England and France. Yet, the fact remains that the only woman they had in position of power, albeit for a relatively short time, was Angelica Balabanova, the first General Secretary of the Comintern. Now she has been completely deleted from communist history. MN Roy the Indian revolutionary has left an unforgettable picture of this remarkable woman in his " Memoirs".


Roy calls Balabanova 'The Matriarch of Bolshevism" and not for nothing. She was cosmopolitan in culture who had mostly lived in Italy before the Revolution and "was regarded as the Patron Saint of the Socialist Party of that country." Roy then adds,"She was so called by her Italian followers, whose love and adoration for her amounted to worship. "The Italian socialist Party was the first 'mass organisation of considerable political influence' to join the Comintern mainly owing to her influence. She was not a ravishing beauty like Alexandra Kollontai 'who walked through the history of Revolution leaving a succession of lacerated hearts' but short and squatty. She was a woman of great personal charm and 'had not identified her life with the party'. Radek who enjoyed the support of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany ousted her by 'staging a little coup d'etat in the headquarters of the Communist International, pushing gentle Balabanova in the background. She was one of the selfness and sensitive early Bolsheviks who could not square their conscience when experience revealed the ugly realities of the revolutionary utopia. Until Lenin's death she lived in Stockholm, still a loyal Bolshevik. Later she emigrated to the USA and 'reverted to the older faith of socialism'. Her autography, "My Life as a Rebel" tells the story of disillusionment with much honesty and objectivity.

Balabinova's removal forces some inescapable questions: Why was she forced out? A concerted male conspiracy? Why couldn't the communists elect a single woman anywhere either as the head of the party or as a head of the state? Such questions will lead us to the conclusion that the Marxist parties are perhaps the last refuge of embattled patriarchy. In Bengal they ruled uninterruptedly for thirty four years only to prove women cannot expect any important portfolio, not to speak of the post of the Chief Minister. Though Indian National Congress, a liberal democratic party, has so far elected no less than six women as General Secretaries - three of them of European origin, the CPI/CPIM/ML could not elect even one. If you ever ask the leaders any question about their patent inability, they will be thunderstruck: they are not even aware of it. You might as well ask them the question why their leadership is entirely comprised of upper caste, middle class, ageing males. They have a predictable answer - the democratic centralism - that wonderful creation of Lenin only lets in the talented, truly competent and dedicated. Women or Dalits unfortunately are woefully lacking in these sterling virtues. Now you know what they are - despicable reactionaries with pathological lust for power.

May 30, 2017

Bhaskar Sur may be contacted at [email protected]

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