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Sexual Morality and Communism from 1917 to 1940

Sexual Morality and Communism from 1917 to 1940

The Cahiers d’Histoire. Revue d’Histoire Critique, is a generalist journal which aims, through a wide variety of themes, to develop a history polarized around the functioning of social dominations in all their political, economic and cultural dimensions. This approach is accompanied by a reflexive approach to the forms of production and uses of historical knowledge in these processes of domination.

We hereby submit a call for papers for an issue of the journal Cahiers d’Histoire. Revue d’Histoire Critique to be published in 2021. The theme of this issue is Sexual morality and communism from 1917 to 1940.

The notion of morality presupposes, as the philosopher Yvon Quinioux notes, an idealistic device. Materialism, for whom life determines consciousness rather than the subject, analyzes social relations within the framework of social-economic functions.[1] Communism has often been accused of being amoral, even sexual depravity, with the phantasmagorical threat of the “sharing of women”.[2] But it is rather necessary to underline the persistent and repeated crossover of communist commitments with the different aspects of the norms of sexual morality and the entanglement of the stakes: those of the fight against exploitation and those of the fight against these norms. Socialism and feminist demands have worked together since the 19th century, in London with Flora Tristan (1803-1844), Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960) or Paris with Louise Michel.[3] The Bolshevik feminist and revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952) closely linked forms of union and sexual morality to forms of production. She called for free union, based on equality of the sexes. Lenin defines the Bolshevik as a man whose intellectual and moral qualities are the product of a pedagogy adapted to the objective of the revolution.[4] The communist movement, just as it wants to regenerate socialism, proposes a revolution of morals and a new sexual morality.

The seizure of power in 1917 in Russia and then the foundation of the Third International radically changed the status of these questions, which are now faced not only by a State, but also on a world scale due to the extension of the communist movement. From then on, sexual morality and related issues were raised within the more or less unified framework of the Third International.  The debates that take place within the communist parties are influenced in various ways by the pulsations of Soviet politics according to national situations.

The tensions between national particularities and the international movement are undoubtedly revealed most forcefully when it comes to questions related to sexual morality, first of all because of the very great diversity of national situations, in its multiple local, cultural and religious declinations. But also because of the extreme diversity of situations between parties in power and very minority communist parties, whose political positions only marginally influence national life, as in Great Britain or the United States.

It is not possible to separate the evolution of communism from that of societies as a whole. The issue of abortion, for example, illustrates these contradictory developments. In France, as in the USSR, the question of birth control has long been at the heart of these controversies. In 1920, French law condemned abortion as a crime (against those who perform it and those who use it). The same year in Soviet Russia, a decree of 18 November 1920 legalized it, as did freedom of union and divorce, while bourgeois values were pilloried and women’s work was valued.[5] The inter-war period saw a clash of contradictions between economic imperatives and social norms. The productive and reproductive stakes of women’s work cannot be dissociated from those of morality. This productivism also led to gendered stereotypes and virilized representations.

Our reflection calls for contributions both on the debates on abortion, prostitution, marriage, family, homosexuality, and more generally on what brings into play sexual morality and the issues of liberation from what are sometimes called morals. These proposed articles may concern the debates within communist circles around these issues, the positions of actors linked to this history, but also the legal dimension of sexual issues and the organization of social life.

The abstracts of the proposed articles will be between 300 and 500 words long and will be accompanied by a provisional title and 5 to 6 keywords as well as a short biographical note. They must be sent before 30 September 2020 to the coordinators of the project.

Abstracts of paper proposals will be between 300 and 500 words in length and will be accompanied by a provisional title and 5 to 6 keywords as well as a short biographical note. They must be sent before 30 September 2020 to the coordinators of this dossier, at the following e-mail address


Authors whose proposals have been selected must submit their complete article, which must not exceed 40,000 characters, by January 15, 2021.

Authors will be careful to respect the editorial standards of the journal Cahiers d’Histoire. Revue d’Histoire Critique : https://journals.openedition.org/chrhc/1296

The dossier’s coordinators, Bertrand Michel, Héloïse Morel, Olivier Mahéo, Thierry Pastorello.


Anton Lorena, « On n’en parlera jamais… ». Interroger la mémoire de l’avortement en Roumanie communiste », Ethnologie française, 2014/3 (Vol. 44), p. 421-428. DOI : 10.3917/ethn.143.0421. URL : https://www.cairn.info/revue-ethnologie-francaise-2014-3-page-421.htm

Brohm, Jean-Marie. Corps et politique. Paris : J.-P. Delarge, 1975.

Carleton, Gregory. Sexual Revolution in Bolshevik Russia. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005.

Claro Mona, « Avortement et norme procréative de la dernière génération soviétique en Russie », Cahiers du Genre, 2016/1 (n° 60), p. 15-37. DOI : 10.3917/cdge.060.0015. URL : https://www.cairn.info/revue-cahiers-du-genre-2016-1-page-15.htm

Clit, Radu. La sexualité collective : de la révolution bolchévique à nos jours. Paris: Éd. du Cygne, 2007.

Corber, Robert J. Homosexuality in Cold War America: Resistance and the Crisis of Masculinity. Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 1997.

Darabos, Enikő. « Revolution in Sexual Ethics: Communism and the “Sex Problem” » Dans: The Russian Revolution as Ideal and Practice. Critical political theory and radical practice. Cham : Springer, pp. 51-65, 2020.

Darmangeat, Christophe. Le communisme primitif n’est plus ce qu’il était : aux origines de l’oppression des femmes. Toulouse : Smolny, 2009.

Droz, Jacques, Histoire générale du socialisme, Paris, PUF, 1972.

Field, Deborah A. Private Life and Communist Morality in Khrushchev’s Russia. New York; Washington, DC/Baltimore; Bern; Frankfurt, M; Berlin; Brussels; Vienna; Oxford: Lang, 2007.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. « Sex and Revolution: An Examination of Literary and Statistical Data on the Mores of Soviet Students in the 1920s ». Journal of Modern History, 1978, 252‑78.

Forest, Philippe. Aragon. Paris : Gallimard, 2015.

Healey, Dan. « What Can We Learn from the History of Homosexuality in Russia? » History Compass 1, no 1 (2003).

Kollontaĭ, A, et Judith Stora-Sandor. Marxisme et révolution sexuelle. Paris : F. Maspero, 1979.

Kott, Sandrine et Françoise Thébaud. Le « socialisme réel » à l’épreuve du genre. Clio 41. Paris: belin, 2015.

Le Naour Jean-Yves, Valenti Catherine, Histoire de l’avortement : XIXe-XXe siècle, Paris : Seuil, 2003.

McLellan, Josie. Love in the Time of Communism: Intimacy and Sexuality in the GDR. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Mendès, Véronique, « Voyage en Icarie. Jeunesse et conflits de générations, 1848-1898 », Siècles. Cahiers du Centre d’histoire « Espaces et Cultures », no. 28, décembre 2008, pp. 37‑58.

Mole, Richard C. M. Soviet and Post-Soviet Sexualities. New York : Routledge, 2019.

Prochasson, Christophe, Les intellectuels et le socialisme : XIXe-XXe siècle, Paris, Plon, 1997.

Quiniou, Yvon, « La question morale dans le marxisme », Autres Temps, vol. 68, no. 1, 2000, pp. 10‑18.

Robrieux, Philippe. Histoire intérieure du Parti communiste. 1, 1, Paris: Fayard, 1980.

Studer, Brigitte, « Communisme et féminisme », Clio. Femmes, Genre, Histoire, 41 | 2015, 41 | 2015, 139-152, URL : https://journals.openedition.org/clio/12393

Thébaud, Françoise, Écrire l’histoire des femmes et du genre, Paris : ENS Éditions, 2007.

Trotsky, Léon. Leur morale et la nôtre.. Paris : Sagittaire, 1939.

Varga-Harris, Christine. Stories of House and Home: Soviet Apartment Life during the Khrushchev Years. Ithaca; Londres : Cornell University Press, 2015.

Yvert-Jalu, Hélène, « L’avortement en Union Soviétique », Annales de démographie historique, vol. 1990, no. 1, 1990, pp. 431‑437.

[1] Yvon Quiniou, « La question morale dans le marxisme », Autres Temps, vol. 68, no. 1, 2000, pp. 10‑18.

[2] On accusations of amorality, see in particular the writings of the philosopher Yvon Quiniou, which clearly demonstrate the place of moral standards and value judgments in Marx’s work. (Ibid.)

On the subject of the sharing of women, initiated as a farce by Aristophanes through the voice of Praxagora, who established integral communism in the city, his theme is taken up by Campanella, whose Icarians advocated chastity but also the sharing of women. Some of Etienne Cabet’s “Icarian” companions plead in favour of this sexual community in Icaria, in Corning, Iowa. See Véronique Mendès « Voyage en Icarie. Jeunesse et conflits de générations, 1848-1898 », Siècles. Cahiers du Centre d’histoire « Espaces et Cultures », n° 28, décembre 2008, pp. 37‑58. About Aristophanes see  Jacques Droz, Histoire générale du socialisme, Paris, PUF, 1972.

Christophe Prochasson quotes Campanella at length in: Christophe Prochasson, Les intellectuels et le socialisme: XIXe-XXe siècle, Paris, Plon, 1997.

[3] Joseph Fourier proposes to measure the level of emancipation of society in terms of the level of emancipation of women. Auguste Bebel (1840-1913) wrote in 1879 la Femme et le socialisme, which assigns the Second International the task of liberating women. On these issues see Françoise Thébaud, Écrire l’histoire des femmes et du genre, ENS Éditions, 2007.

[4] Annie Kriegel les Communistes 1920-1970, Paris : Ed. du Seuil, 1985 p. 66

 [5] In 1936, a decree put an end to this legalization in order to criminalize abortion. It was reauthorized in 1955. See Hélène Yvert-Jalu, « L’avortement en Union Soviétique », Annales de démographie historique, vol. 1990, no. 1, 1990, pp. 431437. https://www.persee.fr/doc/adh_0066-2062_1990_num_1990_1_1783