Antoinette Konikow: a revolutionary for reproductive freedoms

 By Micheál MacEoin

Antoinette Konikow (1869-1946) was a feminist activist and founding member of both the Communist Party USA and the American Trotskyist movement.

Born in the Russian Empire, Konikow attended school in Odessa in the Ukraine before emigrating to Zurich where she attended university. It was in Switzerland that she became politically active, joining Georgii Plekhanov’s Emancipation of Labour group, the first Russian Marxist group and a forerunner of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party.

In 1893, Konikow came to America and studied as a physician. Almost immediately she joined the Socialist Labor Party of America (SLP), attending the 1896 conference that founded the revolutionary trade union, the Socialist Trade and Labour Alliance, which later became the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Increasingly disillusioned with the dogmatic politics of the SLP as it came to be dominated by Daniel De Leon, Konikow followed Eugene V Debs and become a founding member of the Socialist Party of America. She involved herself in the socialist educational movement, helping to run Socialist Sunday Schools, aiming to provide an alternative to religious instruction for children.

The Socialist Party split at an emergency convention in 1919 over the question of affiliation to the Communist International. Konikow sided with those who supported affiliation, and thus became a founding member of the Communist Party of America, later the Communist Party USA.

The nascent Communist Party was soon driven underground by the “red scare” in the US which followed the Russian Revolution in 1917. In addition to its underground networks, however, it used a legal party organisation, the Workers’ Party of America, to promote “above ground” activities such as elections. Konikow was involved in this work, and stood as the Workers’ Party candidate for the US Senate in Massachusetts in 1924.

As a physician and a feminist, Konikow was committed to the then-taboo cause of birth control.

She was a member of the Society of Sanitary and Moral Prophylaxis and, along with her son-in-law and fellow Communist, Joseph Vanzler, she developed an inexpensive contraceptive which she shared with Soviet officials on a visit to Russia as a birth control specialist in 1926.

It was while she was in Russia that Konikow was won over to the ideas of the Leon Trotsky against Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin — the leadership of the Russian Communist Party and the Communist International.

She became an outspoken supporter of the platform of the United Opposition of Trotsky, Gregory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev, and as a consequence she lost her position as an instructor in her local CPUSA party training school.

In November 1928, Konikow was expelled as a Trotskyist by the Executive Secretary of the CPUSA, Jay Lovestone. Lovestone was soon expelled himself as part of the Bukharanite Right Opposition, and later became a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent.

Upon being summoned before the party’s Political Committee, she wrote a defiant letter to Lovestone which stated: “I did work for Trotsky’s ideals and tried to arouse sentiment for the Opposition in our party, and I consider I have the full right to do so according to the party’s stand on inner party democracy.

“But it is useless to expect your committee to accept this viewpoint, for your leadership would not last long under rules of real democracy in our party. I consider that the party has taken an outrageously wrong standing on the Trotsky situation in Soviet Russia. This stand is a result of the servile submission to the Stalin faction.”

Konikow then formed a small group in Boston called the Independent Communist League, which merged with the Communist League of America at the time of its foundation by James P. Cannon, Max Shachtman, and Martin Abern in May 1929.

She remained active in the American Trotskyist movement until the end of her life. In 1938 she was named an honorary member of the national committee at the founding conference of the American Socialist Workers Party.

***

Originally published in Solidarity 26 October 2012.

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