Jenny Morrison discusses the life and legacy of Bolshevik Revolutionary and feminist Alexandra Kollontai.
Alexandra Kollontai was born in 1872 into a privileged although fairly liberal background, her father a Tsarist general and her mother’s family wealthy timber merchants. She first began to oppose the restricted position of women in the Russian empire of the time by arguing against her mother as a teenager for her need of an education. She won the battle of wills, being allowed to undertake a certificate of teacher training. In 1893 she married for love, but she would later admit this was also a protest against her family who opposed the match.
Initially Kollontai became aware of politics through contact with radical liberals, impressed by their statement of belief in the emancipation of women through education. However, during the women’s textile workers strikes of 1896 upon accompanying her husband on an inspection of a large textile factory, she was shocked to discover the body of a young boy and was appalled at the conditions of ordinary women workers. Kollontai became convinced of the need to overthrow capitalism and that the subjugation of women was tied not just to their subjugation to men, but ultimately to the capitalist mode of production.
As time passed Kollontai felt more and more trapped by her marriage, which left her little freedom to pursue her own interests. She increasingly spoke of the capture of women in domestic subjugation. In 1898 she left her husband to study political economy in Zurich. During this trip she undertook an in-depth study of the works of Marx and Lenin as well as those of Luxemburg and Kautsky. Before returning to Russia in 1899 she visited London and was introduced to Sidney and Beatrice Webb, but rejected their reformist ideas.
Following her return to Russia, Kollontai joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) and became an important revolutionary agitator and writer. She was neutral through the 1903 split into the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks although from 1904 she officially joined and worked for the Bolsheviks. She would subsequently leave again in 1908 due to the Bolshevik refusal to take part in the Duma, which she argued was undemocratic but a potential platform for left agitation. She participated in the 1905 workers procession to the Winter Palace which ended in the Bloody Sunday Massacre and was prominent throughout the 1905 revolution agitating and arguing alongside Trotsky for a positive attitude towards the emerging Soviets which she regarded as the bud of a true workers democracy.
Although history has remembered her primarily for her work on the women’s question, at this time she was a widely regarded political economist and expert on the Finnish question. In 1906, under a wave of Tsarist repression, Kollontai published a collection of articles on Finland and Socialism for which she was accused of calling on armed insurrection against the state and fled to Germany to avoid arrest.
It was during this period that Kollontai first began to systematically develop her understanding of the women question, in particular in her 1909 work ‘The social basis of the Woman question’. Along with other women she felt that the issue was denigrated by many on the left and seen as secondary to the ‘real’ class struggle or even dismissed as a bourgeois deflection. She agreed with the Marxist argument that women would not be emancipated solely by the legal and political equality demanded by the mainstream women’s movement. However, equally she argued that a revolutionary party must organise and relate to the particular needs of women as part of the working class and that this must be central to the work of all revolutionaries.
Kollontai argued for a women workers’ bureau to be established to look into women’s issues and the particular concerns of women workers, but faced opposition from inside the left. She reported having set up a women’s meeting only to arrive to find that male comrades had locked the doors and put up a sign advertising a men’s meeting. Additionally, Kollontai faced constant scrutiny of her home life and criticism for having a relationship with a much younger man. She fought to point out the double standards held by many men on the left in their expectations that their wives would take care of their children and the home so that they could take part in political activity and well as the space between rhetoric and the way in which men acted towards women in their lives.
In exile in Germany, Kollontai was a member of the German SPD but in 1914 she was devastated to watch the collapse of the second international into chauvinism with the outbreak of World War One. She was one of a small minority who remained consistently opposed to the war in the European left and rejoined the Bolsheviks. Having been in contact with Lenin since 1905, Kollontai began to assist him more closely and her revolutionary activities resulted in her imprisonment in Germany and Sweden. In the turmoil of early 1917, Kollontai returned to Russia and at the famous 4th of April meeting with the return of Lenin to Russia she was the only speaker to formally back him in calling for ‘All power to the Soviets’. She was also appointed as the only female member ever of a Bolshevik Central Committee.
Following the success of the 1917 revolution, Kollontai was appointed as Commissar for Welfare, the only female member of the Bolshevik government. Under her leadership married women were granted more rights along with children of single women, divorce was granted on request and abortion was legalised. Additionally homosexuality was legalised and free public child care was set up for working women. Most of these advances were later reversed, partially under the NEP and then fully following the rise of Stalin.
In 1917 Kollontai had begun to argue for a women’s section, to address the particular concerns of women workers. She pointed out that although the Bolsheviks claimed to represent the needs of all workers at this time, their claim for neutrality in fact obscured their focus on male workers. She also indicated that if the Bolsheviks did not begin to take the concerns of women on board, they would be drawn to bourgeois or even Menshevik feminism. This was a long argument, in which Kollontai often faced ridicule from her fellow Bolsheviks but eventually in 1920 various special sections were set up, including the Women’s Section or Zhenotdel.
The Zhenotdel was originally put under the command of Inessa Armand, however, on her death that same year, the far more controversial Kollontai took over the leadership. From the start the Zhenotdel faced problems, with the most active members frequently redeployed into other areas, resistance in rural areas to outside organisation and continued resistance from male Bolsheviks who thought it was unnecessary or at best removing attention and resources from more important work.
Nonetheless, the opening conference of the Zhenotdel surprised the Bolshevik leadership in gaining over 1000 delegates, many of whom were peasants who travelled for days on foot to attend. Even in the first year they began to make some inroads into dealing with female specific unemployment, abortion rights and awareness of services and work on prostitution. However, with the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1921, Zhenotdel activists faced increasing problems with cutbacks when the services advocated were required more than even.
In the years following 1917 Kollontai also attempted to develop a theory of sexual politics, writing both political articles and novels dealing with the theme. She has been variously denounced and extolled for this work and she certainly opposed traditional sexual morality, seeing the nuclear family as oppressive for women and based on property rights. However, whilst she was of the opinion, radical at the time, that ‘sexuality is an instinct as natural as hunger or thirst’, she also roundly condemned men who used a twisted ideology of free love to coerce women into sexual encounters and argued against such exploitation and the abandonment of women to raise any resultant children alone. Only with a change in social norms towards sexuality, equalising the responsibility for children between men and women and the rise of communal care could free love be fully realised.
In the same period as Kollontai was working full time with the Zhenotdel, she had also joined the Workers’ Opposition, an internal faction which argued for increased democracy in the Bolshevik party and more power to be put in the hands of workers and the unions. In 1922 she signed the Letter of 22 against the suppression of dissent in the party. Kollontai avoided expulsion from the party, but faced accusations of feminist ‘deviation’ and was removed from her position in the Zhenotdel. There began a slow retreat away from women’s issues, and in 1930, when there had been an almost complete reversal of all gains for women, the Zhenotdel was shut down with the claim that it had achieved its historical mission.
With the defeat of the Workers’ Opposition Kollontai appeared to give up her fight for reform and for women, retreating into relative obscurity. With the rise of Stalin her life became one of de facto exile, although formally she was USSR diplomat for Mexico and Norway before settling in Sweden. She was thus the first female diplomat in western history. Dying of natural causes in 1952, Kollontai was the only member of the Workers’ Opposition to survive the purges. She lived the last 20 years of her life in constant fear of assassination or imprisonment.
It would take around 50 years for the idea that sexual relations are political to re-emerge in the mainstream in the social movements of the 1960s. Moreover, Kollontai’s fight for a feminist socialism against both the chauvinism of male socialists on one hand and bourgeois feminism on the other still reverberates today. As she said, if in a new society women are still oppressed, we are nowhere near a true socialist society.
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