Saturday, 25 May 2013

Alexandra Kollontai - the lady in red

Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952) was a Russian revolutionary and radical feminist.  After 1917, she became the People's Commissar for Social Welfare, but she fell out with Lenin and spent most of the rest of her career working in Stalin's diplomatic corps.  Despite a revival of interest in her work in the 1970s, she is a largely forgotten figure today.


Kollontai's brand of politics was distinct from the liberal bourgeois feminism of her day.  She expressly rejected the likes of the English suffragettes - she refused even to form tactical alliances with them.  Men, she believed, were not the real enemy - class, not sex, was the defining social category.  True, women were particularly badly treated under capitalism, but there were no separate "women's issues".  Votes for women and the like were all very well, but looming over everything was the brutal reality of the class struggle.  Working-class solidarity came above sisterhood because only socialism could truly emancipate women.

Kollontai accepted that sex differences were real, but she traced the subjection of women to social and economic causes.  She denounced the idea that the sexes are inherently unequal, the "bourgeois" idea that the male partner "possesses" the female, and the double standard prevalent in contemporary sexual morality.  In words that could still be written today, she observed:
Even the most "progressive" member of the bourgeoisie, who has long ago rejected the whole code of current morality, easily catches himself out at this point since he too in judging a man and a woman for the same behaviour will pass different sentences.
Overall, capitalism had been a disaster for women, and the traditional family was a bourgeois instrument of class warfare.  Fortunately, the times were changing.  Capitalism itself had weakened the family.  The family unit had started to break down as capitalism forced women to go out to work, placed children in public schools and made available on the market products which had previously been produced within the home.  The Great War had accelerated the entry of women into the workplace and expanded the role of the state into the domestic sphere.  Bourgeois ideas about marriage were being widely flouted, and women were developing a more relaxed attitude towards monogamy.  A "new woman" was in the course of emerging:
Dominance of feeling was the most typical trait peculiar to the woman of the past, and this predominance of feeling at once signified woman's ornament and defect.  The sharpening of the economic contradictions in the present, which has drawn woman into the active struggle for existence, makes it imperative that she conquer her feelings, requires that she not only learn to take the protean, social obstacles, but that she also strengthen, through the exercise of her will, her eminently passive, easily yielding spirit, inclined to slackness....
Present-day conditions demand from every woman who exercises a trade, a profession, a work of any kind outside the home, so much self-discipline, so much will power, in order to combat her feelings, as was to be found only as an exception to the rule with the woman of the past.
In the period after the Bolshevik Revolution, Kollontai's objective was nothing less than a complete reconfiguration of gender relations and the family:
In place of the old relationship between men and women, a new one is developing: a union of affection and comradeship, a union of two equal members of communist society, both of them free, both of them independent and both of them workers.... The woman in communist society no longer depends upon her husband but on her work.... She need have no anxiety about her children.  The workers’ state will assume responsibility for them.  Marriage will lose all the elements of material calculation which cripple family life.  Marriage will be a union of two persons who love and trust each other.
In fact, Kollontai did not ultimately believe in marriage at all.  She held that men and women should be free to form and dissolve sexual unions by mutual agreement, and that these unions would have no legal significance impinging on the "workers' collective".  The sexual life of society would be completely reconstructed.  The "terrible curse" of prostitution would disappear.  The state would get involved in sexual matters only where sex became a health or demographic issue - though this still allowed for a lot of state interference, because Kollontai believed that the parents' state at conception impacted on the health of the child.  She therefore expressly prescribed that people should not have sex purely out of physical attraction or "intellectual affinity" - there must be some form of deeper emotion.  In any event, people would become less hung up on the purely physical side of sex in a communist society.  They would also become less sexually jealous.

There is a notable streak of totalitarianism in Kollontai's exaltation of the collective over the couple:
In view of the need to encourage the development and growth of feelings of solidarity and to strengthen the bonds of the work collective, it should above all be established that the isolation of the “couple” as a special unit does not answer the interests of communism.  Communist morality requires the education of the working class in comradeship and the fusion of the hearts and minds of the separate members of this collective.  The needs and interests of the individual must be subordinated to the interests and aims of the collective.  On the one hand, therefore, the bonds of family and marriage must be weakened, and on the other, men and women need to be educated in solidarity and the subordination of the will of the individual to the will of the collective.  Even at this present, early stage [Kollontai was writing in 1921], the workers’ republic demands that mothers, learn to be the mothers not only of their own child but of all workers’ children; it does not recognise the couple as a self-sufficient unit. and does not therefore approve of wives deserting work for the sake of this unit.
To be fair, Kollontai wasn't yet aware that she was talking dangerous nonsense.  In 1921, she could still perhaps be forgiven for dreaming.  And dream she did.  Soviet society would collectivise domestic life.  Activities such as housework and eating would be carried out on a communal basis.  The state would take over responsibility for childraising.  The material support of relatives would be replaced by the collective support of socialist society.  The family would fade into history, and with it old loyalties and allegiances:
The woman who takes up the struggle for the liberation of the working class must learn to understand that there is no more room for the old proprietary attitude which says: “These are my children, I owe them all my maternal solicitude and affection; those are your children, they are no concern of mine and I don’t care if they go hungry and cold – I have no time for other children.” The worker-mother must learn not to differentiate between yours and mine; she must remember that there are only our children, the children of Russia’s communist workers.
Again, in hindsight, this seems creepily totalitarian, as well as absurdly utopian - but then, like a good Marxist, Kollontai believed that "no customs, political organisations or moral principles are fixed and inviolable".  And she was careful to stress that she was not advocating anything violent or inhuman, "the forcible destruction of the family and the forcible separation of child from mother".  Yet she was still advocating for collectivism over ordinary family life, and trumpeting the gains won for women by Bolshevism, well into her old age - by which time she knew damn well what the Soviet Union had turned out to be and what Stalinism was really like.  And that is not easy to forgive.