Alexandra Kollontai and the Bolsheviks

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(pic: Steven Ellis)

In London, a group of gay activists protest against the treatment of LGBT youth in Russia. One demonstrator, looking for the perfect image to illustrate how Russia was once a light to the world, picks up a placard showing only the face of Alexandra Kollontai the Bolshevik Commissar for Social Welfare in Lenin’s first government. Was he right to do so? Arguably, not. Kollontai wrote very little about homosexuality. Cathy Porter, her biographer, suggests that among the Bolsheviks the issue had little interest because legalisation was treated as a foregone conclusion. The Bolsheviks decriminalised homosexuality within a month of taking power.

But there is a deeper sense in which the placard-maker was right, for Kollontai wrote repeatedly about how the socialist revolution would transform men’s and women’s lives, including the ways in which people loved each other, and she had no assumption that the nuclear family, so dominant in her life time, would prove more than a passing phase. In a 1921 article, ‘Theses on Communist Morality in the Sphere of Marital Relations’, Kollontai set out a different relationship between sex, love, society and the state, appropriate to the new Communist order.

The state had an interest, she argued, in how children developed; it had little or no interest in what forms relationships took: “It is not the relationships between the sexes but the result – the child – that concerns the collective.”

The family of the past was based on private responsibility for childcare, once the state had taken on the obligation to feed, clothe and educate the young, the economic base of the old family would wither away: “The family unit shrinks to a union of two people based on mutual agreement.”

Inevitably, the way people had sex would also be changed: “The sexual act must be seen not as something shameful and sinful but as something which is as natural as the other needs of healthy organism such as hunger and thirst. Such phenomena cannot be judged as moral or immoral.”

Communism could only exist as a society of free people, in control of their lives. As part of this process, men and women alike needed to take back control of their own bodies, including from old ideas that sex was somehow bad: “As communist morality is concerned for the health of the population, it also criticises sexual restraint.”

Socialists should not be afraid of family relationships changing: “Each historical (and therefore economic) epoch in the development of society has its own ideal of marriage and its own sexual morality.”

The piece ends by contrasting the morality of the old with the morality appropriate to a new, classless, society “Communist morality demands … that the younger generation be educated in such a way that the personality of the individual is developed to the full and the individual with his or her many interests has contact with a range of persons of both sexes. Communist morality encourages the development of many and varied bonds of love and friendship among people.”

Were Kollontai’s ideas ever fully accepted by the Bolsheviks? The party was a member of the Socialist International, and as such both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks were bound by the International’s positive reception of the “new ideas” of the 1870s, including Bebel’s Women and Socialism, one of the two widest-read books within the International, alongside Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. Bebel had explained, more than a decade before Kollontai or Lenin had become activists, that women were victims of capitalism as women and that one of the achievements of a socialist society would be to abolish private property and women’s housework, enabling women of all classes to develop more fulfilling, equal relationships. These ideas were deep in the Marxist tradition, and could not be rejected altogether.

That said, there was a heavy dose of class myopia within Bolshevism, so that consistently from the 1890s to the 1920s, cadres could be found who complained that to talk specifically and concretely about women’s oppression and to seek solutions to it was to engage in distraction from the “real” struggle between classes.

Kollontai had to struggle against this way of thinking after 1905, when she wanted other socialists to intervene in (and against) right-wing feminist campaigns for votes for women, and when she wanted socialists to campaign independently for women’s suffrage (and neither wing of the RSDLP would support her). It was the same story immediately after the October revolution, when the support of the Bolsheviks for women’s campaigns was tepid, and in the middle of the 1920s, when members of her party, including Lenin, wanted to defeat Kollontai, as one of the leaders of the first Bolshevik’s reform factions, the Workers Opposition. Kollontai’s suggestion that the repression of sexual desires was as destructive as the repression of the need to drink water was suddenly remembered, and used to present her ideas for the democratisation of her party as not just wrong but laughable.

Nor were the Bolsheviks the only instance of unreconstituted Marxist man that Kollontai had to deal with. Speaking to a pre-war meeting in Grossenhain, on behalf of the German SPD, Kollontai encountered class-conscious workers who told her that they would not let women work. “The house becomes a pigsty” when women worked, she was told, “the children starve. And what does a woman look like when she works in a factory? You expect love to survive when a woman looks like a witch?”

Alongside these moments when solidarity was refused, there is something else though which the Bolsheviks (and the left) got so right that a historian can forgive the errors. Starting during the Civil War, Lenin authorised Kollontai to establish a women’s section for the Bolshevik Party, Zhenotdel. The movement’s first conference was attended by 1200 people, including Lenin. It ran communal flats, canteens and schools. By 1927, a quarter of the Party’s members were women. It is episodes like these that the left recalls with pride; not the arrogance or the errors, not the germs of its later defeat that were within the revolution from its start.

In a world where socialist activists can still be found who will tell you with a straight face that the Paris Communards were killed not the French Army but by “women”, or that feminism is a “bourgeois ideology” which always calls upon women to “emancipate themselves from working class men”, or that the role of the left on the campuses is not to found or support women’s societies but to call for their closure … Kollontai is a valuable reminder of the obvious truth that the left champions even working-class liberation only as a step towards the liberation of all humanity.

Far from there being a contradiction between “Marxism” and “feminism”, the politics are much simpler. If you, as a self-declared socialist, are blind to the oppression of women (or of any other oppressed group), then you’re not much of a socialist at all.

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5 responses »

  1. Hang on. As a follower of Klara Zetkin one would expect Kollontai to feminism as a bourgeois ideology. Kollontai went on to support Stalin and Soviet socialism.

  2. Vijay. Kollontai was an admirer but not a follower of Zetkin; she had independent knowledge of the German, as the Russian, women’s movement, which were in any event very different. Even Russian (non-socialist) feminism itself went through dramatic lurches in this period. At one time, its main trends worked with the revolutionaries (after 1905), at another it provided the last guards of the Winter Palace in 1917. Early on (before 1905) its composition was predominantly aristocratic, later it was mainly bourgeois and at other times still (1906-7) there was a space in it for workers. Neither Kollontai nor Zetkin sat there for 15 years doing nothing more than repeating the mantra “feminism is bourgeois”, it would have been no way to relate to a living movement.

    As for Kollontai supporting Stalin – she had been one of the three main figures in the Workers’ Opposition of 1920-2 – and the regime’s main attacks on it were typically directed at her personally. After 1922, it is true that Kollontai was politically silent and took a relatively minor position as a diplomat in Finland. But she as not a Stalin supporter. She barely wrote in the press; her few articles were invariably criticised within the CP, and for long periods she expected arrest daily. It is true that she didn’t support the Trotskyist or United Oppositions – but to support them would have given them no kudos and simply guaranteed her imprisonment. She was on borrowed time, she knew, and it was remarkable how long she made it last.

    • I do not think that it can be said that Kollontai barely wrote for the Soviet press. She was regularly writing for the Soviet press right through to 1948. One can see this from the bibliography of Kollontai’s writings in M.I Trush ‘Ot politiki revolyutsionnoi borb”y k pobedam na diplomaticheskom fronte’, (IRSS, Moscow, 2013, pp.474-486). Nor was she politically silent. Like Krupskaya, and Zetkin, Kollontai was critical of the Trotskyist opposition in her articles. Kollontai as Krupskaya took positive stands on Stalin in their writings. Kollontai wrote warmly and admiringly of her meetings with Stalin. (Ibid., pp. 437-454).

  3. really interesting.. lots of things came to mind but I was struck by how familiar the complaints of some of the men in Grossenheim were to the complaints in the industrial revolution in the UK and how it relates to material circumstances and the cultural level of our class (I mean by that the extent to which ideas of liberation and equality have advanced).

    The key and the power of the Bolsheviks was of course the leadership of revolution and the creation of the material possibility of liberation–collective housework, laundries, cooking & a shorter working day and all the stuff that could make life bearable if all the adults were out at work in a period when meeting the daily necessities of reproduction of life needed a huge amount of work. In Britain the failure of the Chartists to win a shorter working day, eventually ended in the compromise of the family wage—equality, let along liberation proved impossible within the structures of capitalism and the family has since shaped our oppression.

    But that said, I think a big mistake of many socialists has been to misrepresent the Marxist understanding of the material base of society being paramount as meaning that only the struggle on the material/economic counts–when in reality, to win liberation we need an intertwined struggle to raise our class consciousness and to change our material conditions. One without the other will never succeed because the working class is indeed, as Marx argued, a universal class and can seize power only when conscious of all that entails.

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