(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.