Kollontai rediscovered

August 27, 2014

Leia Petty reviews a new biography of Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai.

MOST PROGRESSIVES and radicals today have never heard of Alexandra Kollontai. She is one of many underappreciated female revolutionaries who contributed practically and theoretically to the early 20th century socialist and feminist movement whose life and writings deserve to be more widely read, discussed and debated.

Cathy Porter, in her biography Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography, recently republished by Haymarket Books, will hopefully make her life more widely known and appreciated. Porter's biography is a product of tremendous archival research, only recently made available, that gives incredible detail to the life of Alexandra Kollontai, and the interaction between the early 20th century feminist and socialist movements.

For those who want to learn more about her life, this biography is must-read. But it's also notable for providing a detailed, accessible and lively account of the Russian revolutionary movement, both its rise and fall, via the vantage point of one of its most prominent revolutionaries.

Alexandra Kollontai in 1910
Alexandra Kollontai in 1910

Alexandra Mikhailova Domontovich was born in 1872 to wealthy and conservative parents. Known as a shy but defiant child, she was impacted profoundly by the disparity between her upbringing and what she witnessed around her. At age 20, she snuck away from her family during a vacation in Berlin, and this is where she first discovered the Communist Manifesto. She developed an early thirst for reading and history and began devouring political literature wherever she could find it.

She married young, and against her parents' wishes (where her name Kollontai was taken) to an engineer who worked on ventilation systems in factories. It was here that Kollontai witnessed first-hand the deplorable factory conditions that produced subsequent strike waves in the 1890s, including a strike in Petrograd of female textile workers that inspired her deeply.

She joined other women at the St. Petersburg Mobile Museum of Teaching Aids, an underground grouping of radicals and revolutionaries who sought to use the gathering space for discussion circles, classes for factory workers and fundraising for strike support. Under the guise of botany classes, they smuggled revolutionary literature alongside the botanical specimens and expanded slide shows into discussions of the latest socialist periodicals.

From these classes, a direct relationship between revolutionaries and factory women was established. Factory strikes increased dramatically in the 1890s and put revolutionaries, organizing secretly, into more open contact with militant workers, many of them women. And from this period onward, Kollontai remained a committed and organized revolutionary for the rest of her life.

In 1905, a strike wave movement swept Russia and women workers entered the realm of class struggle alongside men in mass numbers. Such a newfound sense of power profoundly impacted women's views of themselves, translating into a new thirst for political equality. Kollontai wrote later in Towards a History of the Working Women's Movement in Russia:

In the revolutionary years of 1905 and 1906, the woman worker also became aware of the world around her. She was everywhere. If we wanted to give a record of how women participated in that movement, to list of the instances of their active protest and struggle, to give full justice of the self-sacrifice of the proletarian women and their loyalty to the ideals of socialism, we would have to describe the events of the revolution scene by scene.

KOLLONTAI WAS an integral part of the early revolutionary movement and argued that the injustices specific to women and the larger working-class movement were directly linked. Her writings specific to the relationship between sexual oppression and class are what she is most known for, although they were only one of many contributions she made to the Marxist movement of the time.

A women's movement was taking shape internationally during this time that gave expression to women's newfound sense of confidence. But the feminist movement of the time, led by upper-class women who focused primarily on philanthropy and suffrage for propertied women, proved insufficient to meet the growing demands of working-class and peasant women who shared little in common with these women.

In this context, Kollontai fought two battles: one against "bourgeois" feminists who opposed the revolutionary movement because it threatened their position within Russian society, and another within the Russian revolutionary movement to take up the specific demands of women. Her successes on both fronts provide revolutionaries today with a method for understanding the class nature of women's oppression and why struggles against all forms of oppression must be integrated within the larger working-class fight for self-emancipation.

Kollontai wrote:

The world of women is divided, just as is the world of men, into two camps; one is in its ideas, aims and interests close to the bourgeoisie, the other to the proletariat, whose aspirations for freedom incorporate the complete solution of the woman question. Thus the two groups, even though they share the general slogan "women's liberation" have different aims, different interests, and different methods of struggle.

Kollontai embarked on an ambitious initiative to organize around working women's demands. While she believed that the fight for socialism incorporated "the complete solution to the women's question," she also believed that work specifically among women was necessary to combat the immediate discrimination and conditions of women's lives.

These initiatives were often met with hostility within the socialist movement, among those who feared that independent organizing among women inherently threatened working-class unity. In the context of bourgeois feminism posing a real threat to the existing class struggle, this is understandable. Yet the revolutionary movement was also not immune from the sexism that was rampant in Russian society, and separate "women's work" had to be constantly fought for theoretically and practically by Kollontai throughout her life.

The first major initiative was a club established in 1907 by the recently merged Bolshevik and Menshevik Parties called the "Society of Working Women's Mutual Aid," which was intentionally located near the textile workers union headquarters. The response was overwhelming, with hundreds of women attending meetings, lectures, countryside retreats and cultural events.

This provided an important model of what type of separate political work among women workers was possible. Supported by the socialist parties but met with hostility by the bourgeois feminists, Kollontai began preparation for a political confrontation between the groups in the lead-up to a national women's conference.

Kollontai wrote The Social Basis of the Woman Question as a polemic to be published and distributed beforehand, hoping to use the book and the delegation of female workers and peasants to argue for Marxist positions within a national forum. Unfortunately, the book wasn't published in time. Today this body of work remains a crucial foundation in the Marxist understanding of the origins of women's oppression and ways of fighting it.

Amidst this organizing, the Russian police issued a warrant calling for Kollontai's arrest based on a prior pamphlet she'd written calling for revolutionary independence in Finland, forcing her to go underground. She spent the next nine years in exile in Germany.

MOST RECOGNIZED historically for her contribution to the socialist movement on the issue of women's oppression, Kollontai's contribution to the revolutionary movement on the opposition to the First World War is far less known. In Germany, at the time of the outbreak of the war, Kollontai witnessed the devastating vote taken by the German Social Democratic Party, or SPD (of which she became a member), in support of the war. Shock, outrage and confusion swept the revolutionary movement around this question internationally.

The vote for war by the German SPD marked a turning point in the revolutionary movement, raising far-reaching questions around the nature of imperialism, internationalism, socialism and what type of revolutionary organization could be built. It was Kollontai's immediate and uncompromising objection to support of the war that put her in direct contact with Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin. They began a written correspondence over the nature of the war and how Russian revolutionaries should respond.

In response, along with German revolutionary Clara Zetkin, Kollontai helped organize a women's conference where they succeeded in winning a women's vote against the drive to war. Lenin, who shared her opposition to the war, requested she write an agitational pamphlet that could be translated and distributed internationally. They hoped such a pamphlet, accompanied by an international speaking tour, could garner support for a Zimmerwald Peace Conference in place of the collapsed Second International.

This pamphlet, Who Needs the War, was translated into several languages and distributed to troops. It earned her international recognition and an invitation by the American Socialist Party to tour. In addition to traveling throughout Europe, Kollontai toured the U.S. on an antiwar platform, speaking alongside Eugene Debs and "Big Bill" Haywood in Chicago.

She described Debs as "bold as a lion, his eyes blazing...I was happy to be treated with such warmth by such a great and generous heart." She said of Haywood, he "hugged me afterward like an old comrade. He's a tower of strength, a storyteller and a romantic, and what a brave, sincere fighter too."

Kollontai was becoming an increasingly skilled writer and orator, which was uncommon at the time given that women internationally didn't even have the right to vote. She would become a leading orator for the Bolshevik Party in the years ahead, often dispatched to the front lines to agitate for revolution among soldiers. A journalist for a Swedish socialist paper wrote after hearing Kollontai:

Slender and dressed in all black, her eyes blazed with revolutionary ardor as she summoned up all her inspiration, her indefatigable energy and her infinite passion. And when she fell silent, such storms of applause were heard that it seemed they would topple the Tsar's throne itself.

WHEN THE outbreak of the 1917 revolution began, Kollontai returned immediately to Russia to take part. She re-joined the Bolsheviks and was elected to its central committee, its first woman. She was also the first woman voted into the Soviet Executive by revolutionary soldiers.

Much has been written about the 1917 revolution and the role women played. Porter's biography, without going into detail here, brings to life this monumental year with great detail that provides readers with a unique vantage point not found in other accounts.

Kollontai was elected as the Commissar of Social Welfare and went to work immediately to address the direct requests made by women. The new revolutionary government immediately issued decrees, including the abolition of titles and distinctions based on class and sex, the legal sanctioning of secular marriage and the recognition in law the rights of all children. But more than decrees were needed, and Kollontai was empowered to organize a women's conference to gather and generate the demands and needs of women in a new society.

The Social Welfare Department began work organizing tours of the countryside in the lead-up to the conference. It's an inspiring imitative, yet the conference also provides a glimpse of what obstacles the Russian Revolution faced in carrying out the needs of women. For example, when women began arriving for the conference, there was not enough food to feed or homes to house them. While planning for a 12-day conference for 80 delegates, the organizers were astonishment when more than 500 delegates showed up, many with children, representing 80,000 women from factories, trade unions and various political parties!

Calls for maternity protection, shorter working days, equal pay and the liberalization of marriage and divorce were widely supported. The resolutions passed were then turned into law. Kollontai and her partner were one of the first couples to register their relationship under the new marriage laws in celebration of this victory.

Despite the scramble to make the it successful, the conference was an incredible boost to women's organizing in Russia and had an impact internally within the Bolshevik Party on the importance of this work. In addition to the new laws, a resolution for a Women's Department, the Zhenotdol, was passed. Independent organizing among women had a new mandate, and the establishment of the Zhenotdol provided much needed resources for this organizing.

Porter writes:

Soon every province in European Russia had its Zhenotdel, and the delegate in the red head scarf became a popular figure, visiting women in their homes, adopting orphaned children to live with her, and picking up a rifle when necessary to fight at the front.

A debate continued within the conference regarding whether a separate organization within the Bolshevik Party was needed to ensure women's specific demands were met. Kollontai believed this was necessary, but most of her collaborators disagreed. Most believed that the establishment of the Zhenotdol, within the revolutionary government led by the Bolsheviks, was sufficient. This debate would continue, although remain unresolved for the remainder of her time in the Bolsheviks, and become one of many political disagreements that led to her leaving the government by 1922.

WHILE HER disagreements were many, and she joined and eventually played a leading role within the Left and Workers' Oppositions, they all centered around a widely recognized conflict between the promises and potential the revolution held and the material basis for implementation in the face of coordinated invasion by those seeking to destroy the revolutionary government and legacy. She was impatient with the resources devoted to the Zhenotdel in particular.

Porter's biography gives new depictions of these debates and provides a glimpse into the incredibly difficult position of the revolutionary government, the civil war and its impact on the ability to continue the revolutionary policies and the eventual successful counterrevolution led by Joseph Stalin.

Kollontai's life was spared, unlike most of her revolutionary comrades, and after leaving the government she was assigned a role as Ambassador for the Soviet Government, a tragic end to her political life that left her in a state of isolation. She was one of only a few Bolsheviks who survived Stalin's purges, and her distance and isolation from the realities of the Stalinist regime allowed for her to continue work for this new government with a combination of resignation, denial and a desire to survive.

She told a friend, "What can you do? How can you fight the apparatus? How can you defend yourself against attack? As for myself, I've put my principles into a corner of my conscience and will carry out the policies dictated to me as best I can."

It was a world in flux and, ironically, this is a period where she writes some of her best work. Going beyond her previous writing on the social basis of women's oppression, Kollontai begins to further explore theoretically the relationship between psychology and modes of production, the way social and sexual relationships have changed historically, and the potential for a new morality based on socialist principals. These were largely written in response to letters she received from young workers who were trying to make sense of the new possibilities the revolution provided socially and how it related to their personal relationships.

This work, largely within the three pieces Theses on Communist Morality in the Sphere of Marital Relations, Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle and Make Way for Winged Eros: A Letter to Working Youth, Kollontai expands upon several topics, from the Marxist understanding of the relationship between women's oppression and the nuclear family to the impact of material conditions on sexuality and intimate relationships. Through this writing, Kollontai unbelievably still held out revolutionary hope that revolutionaries today can learn a lot from.

As Porter concludes in her introduction:

At the end of her life, we see both the bewildered pessimist, facing the collapse of all of her beliefs, and the incorrigible optimist, convinced that there was an alternative to capitalism...As austerity throws millions now into poverty, and women face a disproportionate burden of the cuts, her vision of a better social system and the collective struggle against injustice remains true and powerful to this day, and I had a sense it was time to rediscover her.

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