The Russian revolutionary, Alexandra Kollontai, is best known for her organisational work among Russian working class women prior to, and immediately after, the 1917 revolution and her writings on sexual morality and the family. She has become better known largely as the result of feminist interest in her life and career.
At the end of her life Kollontai made this comment: “Women and their fate occupied me all of my life, and concern for their lot brought me to socialism.”
Kollontai did see her special mission as fighting for the interests of working class wohien. However, when she wrote some of her best pieces concerning women’s oppression during the 1920s (e.g. Communism and the Family, Sexual Relations and Class Strug-gle) Kollontai had retreated from political involvement and struggle within the Russian Communist Party. She had found herself unable to cope with the terrifying realities of Soviet Russia: economic chaos, poverty, a growing bureaucracy in the party and state. She was writing in a vacuum and this weakens some of her speculations, analysis and political conclusions.
Eventually Kollontai “chose” a life of anonymity, exile and loneliness as a Soviet diplomat. She turned her back on the fight against the bureaucracy. By the 1930’s, continuing that fight would have meant certain death at the hands of Stalin. Kollontai capitulated but at what person and psychological cost we do not know. Nonetheless, her earlier work deserves a better write-up.
Alexandra Mikailovna Domon-tovich was born in 1872 in St. Petersburg. Her father was a Tsarist general, her mother the daughter of a wealthy timber merchant. She married Vladimir Kollontai against her parents wishes and for love in 1893.
As a young woman, Kollontai was impressed by the ideas of radical liberals. One of their goals was the emancipation of women. Through combatting prejudice and campaigning for better education for women, the injustice of women’s oppression could be destroyed.
Kollontai came towards a socialist understanding through her observation of the conditions of work for St Petersburg’s women textile workers, who came out on strike in 1896. Kollontai became involved in the young Russian socialist movement.
In 1898 Kollontai left her husband, turned her back on her family and privileged background and went to Zurich to study political economy. She continued her association with the Russian socialists, many of whom were then in exile. She returned to Russia in the following year, to full-time political activity.
During this period strong bourgeois women’s movements emerged, largely organising around the question of women’s suffrage. The international socialist movement was divided on the question.
Most, rightly, opposed votes for women on that narrow basis. But that stance spilled over into some, albeit variously intense, hostility to the “woman question” in the social democratic parties.
Against this background Kollontai began to develop her ideas.
In 1906 Kollontai was involved in trying to establish a Women Workers’ Bureau. In 1908 the first Women’s Congress of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party was held.
At that congress both Menshevik and Bolshevik wings of the Party argued that genuine social emancipation for women was impossible without working class revolution.
At that point it was still unclear what the Bolsheviks’ attitude to “women’s work” was. It evolved over a period of time, shaped not only by the efforts of Kollontai and other socialist women, but also through the involvement of working class women in the revolution.
Kollontai herself did not join the Bolsheviks until 1915. She was aloof from early factional battles between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. Her own political education was protracted. It also seems she was unable to accept herself as an equal in political activity. All this must at least be partly explained by her background and the position of women in society.
In 1909 The Social Basis of the Woman Question was published. Here Kollontai argues strongly that women must take up the struggle for their own interests within the social democratic parties. It is a polemic both against bourgeois feminism (at the time) and against a separate women’s movement.
Some critics have argued that Kollontai was too soft on social democracy and its ability to represent working class woment. But social-democracy — and in particular the German party — had not yet betrayed the working class through support for the First World War. To Kollontai things were clear cut:
“The women’s world is divided just as is the world of men, into two camps. The interests and aspirations of one group of women bring it close to the bourgeois class, while the other group of women has close connections with the proletariat, and its claims for liberation encompass a full solution to the woman question.”
In 1908 Kollontai escaped arrest by fleeing to Western Europe. She joined the German Social Democratic Party. There she gained valuable experience of the German women’s organisation and methods of work among working class women. When the SPD supported the war effort, Kollontai, like many other Russian socialists, was shocked, although she had first hand knowledge of the party.
Kollontai did not express or explain the betrayal of the party in political terms. She saw the betrayal as a degeneration of general culture: “During the first days of the war I was oppressed by the awareness that the German party was destroyed... (now) it seems to me things have worked out for the best. Social Democracy has found itself in a cul-de-sac. Its creativity has dried up. It had become set in its ways. There was no spirit, no enthusiasm. Tradition and routine held sway.”
In 1917 Kollontai took on a leading role. She was a talented and popular pamphleteer and agitator. She continued her organisational work among women and was centrally involved in the production of Rabotnitsa (Working Women), the Bolshevik Party paper for women.
After the October revolution she was named as Commissar of Social Welfare and in that position was responsible for the drafting of important legislation: the establishment of civil marriage, easy divorce, equal pay for women and labour protection for women. In November 1917 the first All-Russian Conference of Proletarian and Peasant Women was held. 1000 delegates attended — an indicator of how many women’s lives had been changed by the revolution, how far reaching the involvement of women had been.
In 1919 the Women’s Commission of the Bolshevik Party was replaced by women’s departments. Women’s work could now be much more integrated and influential in the work of the party. Kollontai had proposed just these arrangements in 1906.
In 1921 Kollontai joined a faction in the Bolshevik Party called the Workers’ Opposition. They accused the party and state of bureaucratisation. The soviets had become empty shells — what was needed was a reform programme promoting democracy and “freedom of opinion”.
The Workers’ Opposition’s descriptions of government and society were apt. Their principles were to do with the self-organisation of the working class. But after a long discussion in the party, the Workers’ Opposition platform was defeated.
Things did not get better in Russian society. Problems became more acute as time went on: could the Communist Party hold on to power; could the party be saved from bureaucratisation?
Kollontai seems to have lost faith. Her involvement in the Workers’ Opposition was remembered by that growing element in the Russian Communist Party who were intolerant of unorthodoxy — the unorthodoxy Kollontai displayed in Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle.
In Sexual Relations and other works, Kollontai argues that relationships between men and women are not unaffected by changes within society. Of course she was not the only writer to take up various themes about how cultural phenomena were being reflected in post-revolutionary society. But Kollontai was the only writer to forcefully take up this issue and argue that it was not a marginal concern. She was being polemical (indeed there is much bitterness here), but to her it is central.
“Throughout the long journey of human history you probably won’t find a time when the problems of sex have occupied such a central place in the life of society.”
Her sense of bitterness spills over into her view of human relationships as connections that only reinforce alienation and loneliness:
“People have perhaps never in any age felt spiritual loneliness as deeply and persistently as at the present time.”
She means: in the era of decaying capitalism, human relationships, especially relation-ships between men and women, are like this.
For her a “spiritual revolution” was one of the core problems of evolving socialist society. And she was right. But such changes are evolutionary.
By 1923 Kollontai had ceased to write and had been pushed into a diplomatic career. Kollontai’s strengths and weaknesses were shaped by the fact of her sex. Kollontai had a vision of a better way of living. They called her utopian and we could, too, yet for much of her life she was a determined practical socialist and a fighter for working class women.
Her attempts to uncover the moral straitjackets and material deprivation that are forced on women by society and the personal, individual anguish that accompanies this was, in her time, unique:
“The woman talked. Her eyes seemed to question life. You could catch in her look all the despair, all the horror of being a woman alone and faced with unemployment.
“Here was a woman trying to be independent and trying to fight her old way of life ... It demanded an answer ... it demanded action ... it demanded struggle.”
London Socialist Feminist Reading Group
Monthly meetings to read and discuss history + ideas - all welcome.
Next meeting: Alexandra Kollontai
Friday 2 November
Venue details: email@example.com or phone 07815 490 837