Alexandra Kollontai: Women and Family in the Early Soviet State
The Soviet revolution sought to radically remake society according to the ideology of Marxism-Leninism. This included the family, which Marx had claimed was the “first division of labor” in society, and hence, was a legitimate target of “socialist transformation.”Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952) was Lenin’s first Minister of Welfare, and she trained her intellectual guns at the patriarchal family that the USSR inherited from Tsarist times.
Alexandra Kollontai lived a substantial part of her life in exile under the Tsarist system, and was to live in “diplomatic exile” in the USSR as ambassador to Norway in 1923. She left the Bolshevik party shortly afterwards, believing it inimical to female interests (Farnsworth, 302). Her short but very interesting career as the Minister of Welfare under Lenin’s regime in 1922 earned her worldwide fame, but also, due to her “deviation” in other fields, such as the advocacy of legal labor unions, cost her dearly, as she lost her position and (Soviet) reputation (Jones, 234).
Kollontai was born to upper class parents and joined the party in the late 19th century as a means to further the revolution for women and feminism (Fanrsworth, 293). For her, to be “truly free,” women must be economically independent. She had established a “women’s bureau” as a part of the Communist party system in 1917, and she became a force to bring more and more women into the party, since, even by Lenin’s estimation, there were few female revolutionaries in 1918 (Farnsworth, 296).
Clements (1973) routinely claims that Kollontai became a party advocate not merely because she believed in the emancipation of women from the family, but that party work provided her with the satisfaction that intimate relationships had failed to provide (Clements, 1973 325). In other words, her advocacy in party matters was, among other things, a means of working through her own personal problems with intimacy and commitment.
Kollontai held that human instincts, freed from traditional morality–which was itself a projection of bourgeois economic relations–would lead to a natural harmony of interests. Such an idea had little affect on her party comrades in the early 1920s (Clements, 1973, 325). This, of course is what permitted her to demand trade union independence, under the idea that simple freedom of organization will permit real collectivization, since proletarians would “naturally” organize for their own personal and economic benefit. This idea got her into much trouble (Clements, 1973 326). Hence, she developed the reputation of a more or less “libertarian” Marxist, who believed, not in party centered revolution, but spontaneous revolution. She even went to far as to call herself an “individualist,” something heretical to Marxists at any level (Clements, 1973 328)
Kollontai was a rather prolific writer on sexual themes, using fiction as a means of broadening the popularity of a “Marxist sexual revolution.” Her Communism and the Family (1921) and The Social Basis of the Woman Question (1909) all published during the most violent days of the revolution, showed a revolutionary future of communal child rearing and the abandonment of traditional morality as it related to sex and family matters (Jones, 235). “Free love” was to become her slogan, to be picked up in later incarnations by revolutionary groups around the world. She held that under a money-based economy, women became the property of men. As soon as trade replaced family based subsistence farming, women were shunted to the background. In other words, mercantile relations were deadly to the position of women in society (Clements, 1973, 327). Kollontai herself writes,
class=WordSection2>Bourgeois morality, with its introverted individualistic family based entirely on private property, has carefully cultivated the idea that one partner should completely “possess” the other. It has been very successful. The idea of “possession” is more pervasive now than under the patrimonial system of marriage relationships. During tile long historical period that developed under the aegis of the “tribe”. the idea of a man possessing his wife (there has never been any thought of a wife having undisputed possession of her husband) did not go further than a purely physical possession. (Kollontai, Communism, 5).
Nevertheless, given this, the capitalist revolution created opportunities.
class=WordSection4>The woman question assumed importance for woman of the bourgeois classes approximately in the middle of the nineteenth century – a considerable time after the proletarian women had arrived in the labor arena. Under the impact of the monstrous successes of capitalism, the middle classes of the population were hit by waves of need. The economic changes had rendered the financial situation of the petty and middle bourgeoisie unstable, and the bourgeois women were faced with a dilemma of menacing proportions, either accept poverty, or achieve the right to work. Wives and daughters of these social groups began to knock at the doors of the universities, the art salons, the editorial houses, the offices, flooding to the professions that were open to them. The desire of bourgeois women to gain access to science and the higher benefits of culture was not the result of a sudden, maturing need but stemmed from that same question of “daily bread.” (Kollontai, Social 10).
Hence, the conditions of capitalism that had first “enslaved” women were now to help them to achieve equality, first in the bourgeois system, and from that, the socialist system that was to guarantee their equality.
In the above writings, published in 1922-3, she explicated the idea of sex with multiple partners, without any kind of possessiveness. Free divorce and a morality to be “whatever the collective deemed it to be” (Jones, quoting Kollontai, 327). Abortion was to become legalized, since children interfered with the mother becoming part of the “revolutionary future.” Children were to be raised by the state. Relationships were really to be ephemeral, since it is unnatural for one man to be wedded to one woman in perpetuity. Multiple partners, the full play of natural sexual instinct among (truly) free and equal persons, was to be the revolutionary future for relations between the sexes.
As the state was to wither away once economic relations have become equalized and classes eliminated, so would the family and all kindred institutions which Kollontai considered authoritarian. She drafted extremely liberal divorce laws in 1917 that eventually became part of the Leninist legacy, only to be repealed later in the early 1930s (Jones, 236).
Lenin himself was ambivalent on Kollontai and free love. He wrote: “You must be aware of our famous theory that in communist society the satisfaction of sexual desires, of love, will be as simple and unimportant as drinking a glass of water. This glass-of-water-theory has made our young people quite mad. It has proven fatal to many young boys and girls. Its adherents maintain its is Marxist, but it is wholly un-Marxist.” (Quoted in Jones, 230).
In the early 1920s, venereal diseases skyrocketed in Russia (Jones, 238). The state saw large numbers of debilitated workers unable to “take their part in socialist reconstruction” due to the scourge of syphilis. Kollontai biographer Clements wrote “her writings were nevertheless the chief cause of young people’s promiscuity in Russia.” Clearly giving Kollontai a substantial amount of influence in Russian social life in the early revolutionary period. (Clements, 1979 446). In other words, the young, for better or worse, followed Kollontai’s lead in terms of sexual relations.
Jones writes, “The marriage debate of 1926 brought the conflict of interest to the heart of the revolution out into the open. The revolution was waged by bohemian intellectuals who lived lives based on bohemian morals but who justified what they were doing by saying it was in the interests of workers and peasants (Jones, 239). The main thrust of Jones’s argument is that Kollontai’s arguments were radically out of touch with the ordinary Russian. Only the rich can afford the bohemian lifestyle of Kollontai, while the poor were left with broken marriages and orphaned children. The upper class intellectuals and the poor workers did not live–or think–on the same plane. This, above all else, is what led to Kollontai’s resignation from the party in the mid-1920s.
As Clemens was to later write, Kollontai’s legislation actually “increased women’s burdens,” because the liberal divorce laws made it very easy for men to walk out on their wives, take multiple partners and generally behave in a destructive and irresponsible manner (Clements, 1979, 236) Men, as it turns out, in Clemens account, got away with not paying any alimony simply by not registering the marriage in the first place, with was something pioneered by Kollontai’s marriage legislation, or, at the very least, the mentality behind it (Jones, 240). Jones argues what is missing from all feminist approaches to sexual revolution is that male instinct, unrestrained by moral custom, is often destructive to female interest. If women can puruse their own sexual instinct and experimentation, so can men. But in the latter case, revolution means abandoned and broken women. Sexual revolution for men often leads to the well known situation of men viewing women only as sexual objects, to be used and thrown away once the novelty wears off. Kollontai writes: “Consider all those gentlemen owning and administering industrial enterprises who force women among their workforce and clerical staff to satisfy their sexual whims, using the threat of dismissal to achieve their ends. Are they not, in their own way, practicing “free love”? All those “masters of the house” who rape their servants and throw them out pregnant on to the street, are they not adhering to the formula of “free love”? (Kollontai, Social 15). She was herself conversant with the problem of free love, and its possible consequences for women. She remained optimistic, however, that the revolution will eliminate the opportunities of men to abuse their position relative to emancipated women.
Kollontai’s defense to the barrage of charges laid at her doorstep in the waning years of Lenin’s life was to say that these dislocations, while real, were only part of the revolution’s “transitory stages” and will soon pass (Jones, 241). She had proposed that alimony as a system should be done away with, and a General Insurance Fund should be put in its place, controlled by the state, that would make the state, rather than former husbands, responsible for the maintenance of women without work, or who were raising children (Farnsworth, 303). She even went so far as to advocate a tax for this purpose, to be levied solely on men (Farnsworth, 305).
What made Kollontai unpopular with the party, with the exception of two ill-fated figures Bukharin and Trotsky, is that she saw the revolution as a feminist window of opportunity, while other female Bolsheviks considered the women question as “one issue out of many.” (Farnsworth, 306). It was her single mindedness that angered other Bolsheviks, male and female. By 1926, long after Lenin was no longer alive, the party turned officially against Kollontai, and reemphasized the family as a unit of socialist society, not something that will or should, wither away (Farnsworth, 309). Bolshevism always maintained female equality, though in Stalin’s mind this existed solely to make sure women were available to work in the factories, the family was never officially rejected as a useful institution. Hence, in the long run (at least in the USSR), Kollontai’s mission failed. Both Lenin and Stalin commented on th social chaos such ideas engendered, even to the point of endangering the revolution itself into anarchist chaos.
Kollontai’s response to her critics held that women could not take their part in socialist agitation, or in rebuilding society due to their marginal class status. Hence, without intense attention to the woman question, women will be relegated to second class status even in a revolutionary society (Kollontai, Social 3). She writes:
class=WordSection6>For the majority of women of the proletariat, equal rights with men would mean only an equal share in inequality, but for the “chosen few”, for the bourgeois women, it would indeed open doors to new and unprecedented rights and privileges that until now have been enjoyed by men of the bourgeois class alone. (Kollontai, Social 5)
For better or for worse, Kollontai’s views were considered un-Marxist and eventually eliminated from socialist planning in the latter days of Lenin and most certainly under Stalin. The party was convinced that her ideas had undermined social stability and were leading to the destruction of the revolutionary movement. Nevertheless, they were taken up by later generations of revolutionaries in America and the western world, and have become part and parcel of the social demands and the social reality of western Leftist parties and movements. Whether this is a good or bad thing is for time to tell.
Clements, Barbra Evans. Bolshevik Feminist: The Life of Alexandra Kollontai. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1979
Clements, Barbra Evans. “Emancipation thought Communism: The Ideology of A.M. Kollontai” Slavic Review. 32.2 1973. 323-338
Farnsworth, Beatrice Brodsky. “Bolshevism, the Women Question and Alexandra Kollontai.” The American Historical Review. 81.2 1976. 292-316
Jones, Eugene Michael. Libido Dominandi: Sexual Liberation and Political Control. St. Augustine’s Press. 2000.
Kollontai, Alexandra. The Social Basis of the Woman Question. Trans. Alex Holt. Allison and Busby, 1927.
Kollontai, Alexandra. Communism and the Family. Trans. Alex Holt. Allison and Busby, 1927.