As a new generation of women in the anti-war and anti-capitalist movements celebrate International Women’s Day (8th March), Chrisitine Thomas looks back at the life and ideas of the Russian revolutionary, Alexandra Kollontai, a pioneer of the struggle for socialism and women’s liberation.
To pursue the path of a revolutionary, she broke not just with her privileged class background but with the norms and expectations associated with the role of women in capitalist society. She would never be content just to be somebody’s wife or mother. As she wrote to her second husband, the Bolshevik sailor Dybenko, when ending their relationship: “I’m not the wife for you, for I’m a person first and a woman second… and that’s all there is to it”.
While participating in general political activity, including both the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, her main concern was how to involve working-class women in the struggle to change society and how both the revolutionary party and the new society could address their specific oppression.
Her ideas, especially those regarding personal relations and sexuality, have proven controversial and been open to distortion over the years. But the themes which she pursued in her many writings and political activities have a contemporary resonance and relevance that make a study of her life and ideas a useful exercise for anyone fighting for the transformation of society and for women’s liberation.
Women’s double oppression
Kollantai’s political consciousness matured gradually but she describes a trip to a textile factory in 1895 as having a decisive effect on her outlook. The mostly women workers toiled for between 12 and 18 hours a day, virtually imprisoned, sleeping in factory dormitories. Their working and living environment was so polluted that most didn’t live much beyond the age of 30.
While she was visiting the factory, a worker’s baby died in the care of the young girl – a not unusual occurrence. Today in the neo-colonial world, many young women workers, especially in the Economic Action Zones, experience similar conditions.
Yet, despite having to endure such oppressive working conditions, the 1890s saw the first stirrings of militancy amongst women workers.
The same year that Kollantai visited the textile factory, over a thousand women came out on strike at a cigarette factory in St Petersburg. Their many grievances included opposition to sexual harassment and ’coarse’ behaviour by the bosses. The St Petersburg police chief said that a cut in the women’s wages could be made up by ’picking up some extra money on the street’. This was just one of many strikes by women workers that took place in that period.
Kollantai became involved with the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP – which in 1903 divided into two factions, the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, and in 1912 became two separate parties). But it was not really until after the 1905 revolution that she first took an active interest in campaigning amongst women workers.
By 1905 women comprised almost 40% of the Russian workforce but were generally considered, including by revolutionaries, to be ’backward’ in terms of their industrial and political consciousness. Women, however, took part in the revolutionary strike wave and began to make their voices heard. For example, 11,000 textile workers were involved in one of the longest ever strikes.
In her pamphlet ’Towards a History of the Working Women’s Movement’, Kollantai wrote : “As the working woman gradually came to understand the world she was living in and the injustice of the capitalist system, she began to feel all the more bitter at the sufferings and difficulties women experience. The voices of the working-class began to ring out even more forcefully… for the specific needs of working women to be recognised”. Strike literature demanded paid maternity leave, time off to breast-feed babies, and workplace nurseries.
The 1905-07 revolution also gave an impetus to the feminist movement in Russia. Middle-class women were demanding their political rights alongside the emerging bourgeois parties. They campaigned for easy divorce, equality in legal and property rights and, of course, for the vote.
Bourgeois feminist organisations, such as the Union for Women’s Equality, claimed that they were fighting for the rights of all women regardless of class and that equality and women’s concerns could be met within the capitalist system. This contrasted with the position of the RSDLP, which maintained that women could only be liberated through a fundamental economic and social transformation, involving the abolition of private property and the establishment of a socialist society.
However, bourgeois feminist ideas began to obtain a certain echo amongst working-class women. The feminists established political clubs and petitioned amongst working women for the vote. They also set up social and charitable projects aimed at improving the lot of working-class women.
Kollantai became aware at an early stage of the dangers posed for Marxism by feminist ideology, which defined women’s emancipation in terms of legal and civil rights while ignoring or downplaying social and economic rights. Working-class women could potentially be won to organisations which appeared to be addressing their special concerns and the idea of a cross-class, united ’sisterhood’ could, superficially, have a certain attraction.
This was especially the case as the Marxists of the time did not appear to be giving the same consideration to women’s issues. Kollantai wrote: “The working women began to sense their inferior political status in terms of their sex, and were not yet able to connect this with the general struggle of their class. They had yet to find the path that would lead proletarian women to their liberation; they still clung to the skirts of the bourgeois feminists. And feminists tried every means of establishing contact with the working women and winning them to their side”. (Towards a History of the Working Women’s Movement)
Kollantai argued that it was not sufficient to state that women’s liberation would be achieved through socialism and that, therefore, working-class women’s interests were the same as men’s. It was true that it would only be by struggling alongside of working-class men to change society that women would be able to be truly liberated. However, women had issues that were of specific concern to them because of their gender as well as their class – they were doubly oppressed.
Women were employed in the least skilled jobs, were paid significantly less than men, experienced pregnancy and childbirth, and had the main responsibility for bringing up children and carrying out household chores. They were also subject to sexual harassment in the workforce, violence and abuse in the home, and were discriminated against and oppressed in society generally.
Marxists, Kollantai argued, had to address the specific problems that women faced if they were to win them to the ideas of socialism and away from the false promises of bourgeois feminism.
It was clear that women were not joining the Marxist movement in numbers commensurate with their participation in the workforce. Kollantai urged the RSDLP to develop specific propaganda aimed at working-class women and to campaign for reforms which would directly benefit them. She also advocated the establishment of a women’s bureau, under the general direction and programme of the party, that could organise and supervise work amongst women and facilitate the recruitment and integration of working-class women within the party.
Kollantai explained her ideas, writing that: “The separation of the struggle of the female proletariat for its emancipation into a special sphere of the general class struggle, independent to a certain degree, not only does not contradict the interests of the working [class] cause but is of immeasurable benefit to the general struggle of the proletariat, as the practice has shown in those countries where such a separation has already been carried out”. This was something that Kollantai was to continue to argue for and promote for over a decade.
She felt that the party had to be seen to be responding to women’s special problems. It could not ignore the fact that women’s ’triple burden’ of work, childcare and housework made it much more difficult for them to be involved politically. They were exhausted and had little energy or time to devote to attending political meetings or engaging in political activity.
Women were also conditioned by society to believe that political activism was not a role for them. They lacked confidence in themselves and their own abilities, which was compounded by the attitudes of men, including many in the workers’ movement, who had been influenced by the prejudices of the society in which they lived.
Marxists had to overcome these obstacles, Kollantai argued, and involve working-class women in the party; and this meant the deployment of special measures and the conscious organisation of work amongst women.
A cross-class road to liberation?
In terms of theory concerning women’s oppression, the RSDLP based itself primarily on Frederick Engels’ ’The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the Stat’e and August Bebel’s ’Woman Under Socialism’. But there were no Marxist writings which discussed the strategy that the workers’ movement should employ to involve working-class women in the struggle to change society. The RSDLP itself had hardly any literature aimed specifically at women, with the exception of a 24-page pamphlet ’The Women Worker’, written in 1900 by Krupskaya, one of the first women members of the RSDLP.
In 1903, the RSDLP incorporated equality of the sexes into its political programme. Its demands included ten weeks maternity leave, pre- and postnatal care, and nursery facilities. But there was little systematic work being carried out to connect those demands with women in the workplace.
Many party members were not just hostile to the idea of a women’s bureau but opposed the idea of specific propaganda or campaigns particularly aimed at working women. Many equated special measures with ’feminism’ or ’separatism’, which they argued would divide the movement; the struggle to transform society had to be a united struggle between working-class men and women.
Kollantai agreed that unity of the working-class was essential but argued that it could not be realised without addressing the specific oppression that women faced. She campaigned vigorously against those who maintained that women didn’t need ’special treatment’ and would automatically join the general movement. She also took issue with those (including many women members) who considered work amongst women as unimportant, secondary, a waste of resources or a distraction from the general class struggle.
Only through systematic, conscious, organised campaigning, she argued, could working-class women’s participation in the party match that of their participation in the workforce and therefore strengthen the struggle to transform society.
Feminism today is a very broad term embracing diverse ideological strands, and a direct comparison cannot really be made with the movement in Russia in the early 20th-century. Nevertheless, how to relate to women’s organisations which profess to represent women across class lines has been an issue that socialists and workers’ organisations have tried to grapple with throughout the history of the workers’ movement – and continues to be a relevant question today.
There have always been, and still are, issues which concern women of all classes because of their gender. In previous centuries these have included lack of political, civil and legal rights. Domestic violence, rape and abuse, sexual harassment, sexism and reproductive rights issues are all experienced by women regardless of their class, although class background can influence the strategies that women deploy to deal with these problems.
Gender oppression means that there is always the potential for movements to emerge which embrace women of different classes and different ideologies. By involving themselves in and initiating movements and campaigns around the special concerns of women, Marxists can, while fighting to defend and extend the rights of women under the current system, explain that capitalism is ultimately incapable of delivering equality or solving the gender specific problems which women face.
This opens up the possibility of convincing women of the need to become involved, alongside of working-class men, in the wider struggle to change society. Although women of all classes can experience oppression on the basis of their gender, the struggle for women’s liberation is a ’class question’ in the sense that women’s oppression arose with the division of society into classes and has been perpetuated by the different forms of class society, including capitalism. Only by eliminating class society and establishing socialism can the basis for ending women’s oppression be laid.
The attitude of most Marxists in Russia was to completely eschew bourgeois feminist organisations fearing that female members would be ’infected’ by feminist ideology and separatist ideas. Kollantai took a different approach. Although extremely hostile to the feminists, and at times rather crude in her argumentation, she understood that Marxists could not just ignore them and leave unchallenged their influence over a section of working-class women.
The tactics that she and a group of women around her used (activities carried out without party support) were not exactly subtle – attending feminist meetings and ’heckling’. Not surprisingly, they would often be met with outright hostility. When Kollantai attended the first meeting of the Union for Women’s Equality in April 1905 and spoke out against the idea of a women’s movement that could speak for all women regardless of class, she was met with the reply that strangling was too good for her.
During the revolution, informal workers’ clubs were being spontaneously formed. In the spring of 1906 Kollantai, together with a small group of working-class women, campaigned for the groups to be opened up to hold women’s meetings. After a visit to Germany – where the Social Democratic Party (SPD), a mass workers’ party which then based itself on Marxism, had a functioning women’s bureau – Kollantai argued for a bureau to be established within the St Petersburg party committee. She managed to get party approval for holding a meeting of women to discuss the question but, as Kollantai relates in her autobiography, at the first meeting the hall was locked with a notice saying: ’The meeting for women only has been called off; tomorrow there will be a meeting for men only’.
Battling against hostility, indifference and even prejudice, she did eventually get party agreement to intervene in feminist meetings and to carry out legal women’s work. The feminists planned to organise an All-Russian Women’s Congress in December 1908. The theme of the congress was to be: ’The women’s movement must be neither bourgeois nor proletarian but one movement for all women’.
Kollantai was involved in a campaign to hold meetings of women workers to elect delegates to the congress where they could argue against the feminists and promote the needs and demands of working-class women. Thousands attended meetings, including cardboard, rubber, tobacco and footwear workers, although most delegates were from the textile factories.
Kollantai spoke at 52 meetings in St Petersburg between October and December 1908. Many were held, because of government repression, under the name of sewing circles or discussions about hygiene. Kollantai wrote her book ’The Social Basis of the Woman Question’ to politically prepare working women delegates to intervene in the congress, although unfortunately it was published too late to play that role.
The congress, which Kollantai had to leave to avoid arrest, marked the demise of the feminist movement in this period. It collapsed because of state repression but also due to its own internal contradictions, including the impossibility of reconciling the interests of working-class women with those of women from other classes. A movement which tried to organise together, for example, maids and their employers and pretend that their interests coincided, was inevitably one in which tension and conflict were inherent. This has been the experience of many women’s movements throughout history.
Exile, war, and revolution
Because of the period of reaction which set in after the defeat of the 1905 revolution, Kollantai was forced to flee into exile to avoid arrest and did not return to Russia until the beginning of the 1917 revolution. She spent most of her time abroad in Germany, where she involved herself in the political work of the SPD, in particular speaking at workers’ meetings. She also continued to write about issues of concern to women and began to develop some of her ideas on sexuality and personal relationships. She was associating with the Mensheviks until 1915 when the attitude of the now separate parties to the first world war convinced her to join the Bolsheviks.
An important change took place in the objective situation in Russia in 1912 with renewed strike activity by many groups of workers. This included women who were heavily involved in strikes and demonstrations at that time. The main edition of ’Pravda’, the Bolshevik newspaper, ran a series of articles about the exploitation of women in the workforce. The number of letters from working women to the paper was increasing enormously.
In 1913 the Bolshevik central committee agreed that a ’special effort’ was needed to organise amongst women workers. The 1913 edition of ’Pravda’ for International Women’s Day had so many letters from working-class women that it couldn’t print them all. This influenced the decision to begin publication of a newspaper for women. The editorial board involved Konkordia Samoilova and Inessa Armand, who were both to play an important role in party work amongst women.
The first edition of ’Rabotnista’ (woman worker) sold over 12,000 copies. Seven issues appeared from February to June 1914 and they included general articles on women’s oppression, reports of factory conditions, and features on maternity insurance, childcare centres, electoral rights and ’family problems’. Other Bolshevik journals such as ’The Textile Worker’ and ’The Metal Worker’ brought out special issues for International Women’s Day.
The outbreak of war in 1914 cut across these developments but by 1917 the conditions for revolution were once again maturing. An influx of women into the workforce during the war meant that they once again made up 40% of all workers. Bread rationing meant that women were queuing in bread lines after working 12-hour shifts in the factories. A police report at the time stated that “mothers of families, exhausted by endless standing in line at stores and distraught over their half starving and sick children, are today perhaps closer to revolution than [the liberal opposition leaders] and of course they are a great deal more dangerous because they are the combustible material for which only a single spark is needed to burst into flames”.
And women demonstrating on International Women’s Day (8 March) were indeed the spark which ignited the 1917 revolution. Ten thousand marched, calling on workers from the factories to join them and demanding ’Peace and bread’ and ’Down with autocracy’.
As the revolution unfolded, Leon Trotsky commented on the women’s fearlessness in the face of the forces of the state: “The women go up to the officers more boldly than the men. Taking hold of their rifles, they besiege and almost command ’put down your bayonets and join us’.” (’History of the Russian Revolution’)
Returning to Russia, Kollantai threw herself into the maelstrom of political meetings and activities which the revolution unleashed. Alongside Trotsky and Zinoviev, she was one of the most popular speakers. She was also one of the few Bolsheviks to initially support Lenin’s ’April Theses’ which called for no support for the provisional government, which he argued could not bring about bread, peace or land, and for power to be transferred to the soviets, which were the democratic organisations of workers, soldiers and peasants.
The revolution also revived the feminists who demonstrated for the vote and were beginning to get a response from soldiers wives (soldatki) who were desperate and unable to feed their children. Kollantai was instrumental in organising a demonstration of 15,000 soldatki who demanded higher support payments, bread and peace. Thousands of the most oppressed workers began to fight for their rights. Maids and restaurant workers, for example, formed their own unions and elected delegates to the soviets.
Kollantai was involved on a daily basis in supporting a strike of 4,000 laundresses in St Petersburg. They were expected to work a 14-hour day for poverty wages in horrendous working conditions. ’Pravda’ reported on the strike, appealed for finance and published a list of strike-breakers’ names. Eventually the strikers won a partial victory and Kollantai wrote in ’Pravda’ that women could no longer be described as the “backward and unaware section” of the working-class.
At the Bolshevik conference in April 1917, Kollantai argued that the party needed more systematic work amongst women and once again called for special party structures to organise this. In many areas groups were already being unofficially set up. Instead the party decided to revive ’Rabotnista’ and use the paper as a vehicle for organising amongst working-class women. The first edition sold out immediately of its 40,000 copies and mass ’Rabotnista rallies’ were held around the country. These were important in convincing working-class women to support the Bolsheviks in the revolution which established a workers’ government in October that year.
The new soviet government then set about the enormous task of building a new society. Kollantai was to make an important contribution to that process in the initial period after the revolution, particularly in relation to involving working-class women and attempting to address their needs, both as women and as workers.
The promise of revolution
Kollantai’s autobiography gives a glimpse of the enormous difficulties that the new workers’ government confronted in beginning the tasks of constructing a new society in an economically backward and war-ravaged country.
At the end of October 1917 she was elected Commissar of Social Welfare. Of what exactly Social Welfare comprised was not very clear at first; it appeared to be a kind of mega social services incorporating the homeless, war victims, the elderly, children, etc in one catch-all department. Immediately her Commissariat was besieged by desperate people demanding immediate relief from their terrible problems. She was somehow expected to deal with these, with no proper funding for her department’s work, and in the face of active sabotage and obstruction by the former tsarist employees.
Kollantai was also involved in drawing up government legislation and decrees aimed at improving the situation of women. They were granted full civil, legal and electoral equality. The principle of equal pay for equal work was established and legislation was passed to protect women in the workplace, including exemption from jobs which would be harmful to their health and limits on the hours and shifts that they could work.
The soviet government also introduced a Marriage Law in December 1917, which replaced church marriage with civil, registered marriage. Divorce was made easier, women could choose which surname they wanted to use, and the legal concept of illegitimacy was abolished.
Kollantai was particularly concerned with the issue of maternity and protection for working mothers. Conditions in the factories were so atrocious that it was not uncommon for pregnant women to work right up until the birth of their child – some actually giving birth on the factory floor – and then return to work almost immediately because they could not afford to take any time off.
In the nine years that she was in European exile prior to the 1917 revolution, Kollantai carried out a huge survey of maternity insurance in European countries which she produced in a 600-page book entitled Society and Motherhood. She argued that childbirth and child-rearing should not be viewed as the sole burden of individual women; it was a social function which benefited the entire society and should therefore be funded by society as a whole.
Her ideas influenced soviet social policy. The government introduced 16 weeks paid maternity leave. Nursing mothers were to work no more than four days a week, have regular time off for breast-feeding, and workplace nurseries were to be established. All women, regardless of whether they were married, would be paid so that a friend could take time off work to help them with the birth of a child. These benefits were well in advance of those of every other European country. Kollantai also set about establishing (not without great difficulty) model mother and baby homes.
Socialism and the family
In her many writings Kollantai deepened and extended Marxist ideas regarding women’s oppression, the family and personal relations. With capitalism and landlordism overthrown in Russia, these issues were no longer theoretical but demanded concrete attention by the new soviet government.
If women were to be truly liberated, Kollantai argued, they had to be freed from the constraints of the family as an institution in class society. In ’The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State’, Frederick Engels pointed to early, pre-class societies which had existed where there was no systematic oppression of women and the basic social unit was not the family but the ’gens’ (communal group). Social arrangements were not fixed for all time, but became transformed as the economic basis of society changed, by means of a complex and interrelated process.
The institutionalised oppression of women, he argued, arose with the emergence of class-based societies (such as slavery) in which the family replaced the communal group as the primary social unit. Economic relations were reflected within the family, where women became effectively the private property of men. In particular, men controlled women’s sexuality in order to guarantee the legitimacy of children when bequeathing property.
Capitalism adopted and shaped the institution of the family and women’s oppression to suit its economic and social needs. Women’s socially inferior position historically, for example, allowed capitalism to justify and profit from paying working-class women lower wages and employing them on worse conditions than men.
In her writings Kollantai explained how capitalist economic processes had drawn working-class women in growing numbers into the workforce, thereby weakening their economic dependence on men. This was a positive advance, increasing women’s confidence and consciousness of the need to struggle collectively. But Kollantai was under no illusions about the problems which working-class women still faced. “Labour leads women on the straight road to her economic independence, but current capitalist relations make the conditions of labour unbearable, disastrous to her; these conditions plunge her into the most abysmal poverty; they acquaint her with all the horrors of capitalist exploitation and force her everyday to know the cup of suffering, created by conditions of production that are destructive to health and life”. (’The Social Basis of the Woman Question’)
At the same time as exploiting the labour of women in the workforce, capitalism continues to depend on the unpaid labour of women in the home. If caring for young children and household tasks were not carried out for free within the family, then capitalism would either have to provide these as public services or increase wages so that they could be bought privately – both of which would eat into the profits of the capitalist class and would therefore be resisted. Why, asked Kollantai in ’Communism and the Family’, should only the rich be relieved of the burden of household labour such as cleaning, cooking, washing and mending?
For working-class and especially for peasant women in Russia, housework was little more than ’domestic slavery’; they should have the time to engage in work outside the home, the time for leisure activities, and to participate in the running of society. However, for that to happen, housework and childcare could not just be the individual, private responsibility of women within the family but had to be socialised and provided publicly by the state.
The 1919 Programme of the Communist Party (as the Bolsheviks renamed themselves), stated: “Not confining itself to formal equality of women, the party strives to liberate them from the material burdens of obsolete household work by replacing it by communal houses, public eating places, central laundries, nurseries etc”. Women were involved at a local level in campaigning for, setting up, and running communal services. By 1920, 90% of the population of Petrograd were eating communally but the number and quality of facilities varied greatly around the country.
Kollantai acknowledged that the socialisation of ’women’s work’ could not be easily implemented in an underdeveloped economy that was devastated by war and civil war. In 1920 production of manufactured goods was just 12.9% of its 1913 level. Between 1919 and 1920 seven-and-a-half million Russians died from famine and epidemics alone.
This extreme situation placed severe constraints on the ability of the revolutionary government to provide decent public services. The food served in public dining rooms was often of poor quality and sometimes nonexistent. Often ’communal houses’ were little more than overcrowded dwellings with several families forced to share inadequate cooking and toilet facilities.
Despite heroic attempts to overcome these constraints, and efforts by women themselves to establish decent services, many women understandably turned their backs on communal facilities and returned to their traditional role within the family. “The revolution has brought rights for women on paper, but in fact has only made life more burdensome for them”, wrote Kollantai in her autobiography. Nevertheless, she recognised the symbolic importance of the reforms that the soviet government was introducing. “It was, in the end, a wonderful time. We were hungry and had many sleepless nights. There were many difficulties, misfortunes and chances of defeat. The feeling that helped us was that all we produced, even if it was no more than a decree, would come to be a historic example and help others move ahead. We worked for that time and for the future”.
Organising for liberation
The Bolsheviks had always believed that it would not be possible to build socialism in an isolated and economically and culturally backward country like Russia. They were internationalists and looked to revolution in the advanced capitalist countries to come to their aid. Any reforms that they introduced were not just in the interests of workers and peasants in Russia but set an example to the working-class internationally. “Even if we are conquered”, wrote Kollantai, “we have done great things – we are breaking the way, abolishing old ideas”.
The workers’ government also had to take account of the existing consciousness of both women and men, especially those in the countryside (the vast majority). The peasant family was still structured on a patriarchal basis – with the male head of the family having power and control over his wife, including the right of physical chastisement. Social attitudes were extremely backward. A popular Russian saying was that ’a hen’s not a bird and a woman’s not a person’.
Many peasant women opposed the idea of communal nurseries, terrified that the soviet government wanted to take their children away from them. Kollantai explained that to lay the basis for women’s liberation there had to be not just an economic transformation but a cultural and psychological revolution too. A conscious campaign had to be waged to transform the attitudes of both men and women.
Women, Kollantai argued, had to be active participants in their own liberation. In November 1918 she was involved in organising a national women’s congress, attended by 1,147 delegates, including 100 peasant representatives, way surpassing expectations. The congress discussed a whole series of issues of concern to women, including the issue of sexist language, with the congress voting to ban the word ’baba’ (roughly translated as ’peasant woman hag’), which was commonly used as a term of abuse.
The congress also voted for party women’s ’commissions’ to be established at every level in order to involve women in the party and the building of the new society. Eventually in 1919 a special women’s department was established – the Zhenotdel – to conduct work amongst women. This was something that Kollantai had been campaigning for since 1906, although she did not become the director until after Inessa Armand’s death in 1920.
The Zhenotdel was established as civil war raged across the country. One of its first tasks therefore, was to mobilise women to defend the revolution and its gains against the forces of reaction and counter-revolution. Kollantai saw that, despite the sufferings, deprivation and horror, the civil war nonetheless provided an opportunity for women to play an active part in society, laying the basis for their future emancipation.
During the civil war women were engaged in all fields of activity, including fighting on the front line with the Red Army. Kollantai was anxious that once the war was over, women should not just go back into the isolation of the family unit. For her the Zhenotdel had a crucial role to play in raising consciousness and drawing women into the running of society, as well as representing their interests within the party and the government.
The work of the Zhenotdel was extremely diverse covering issues such as childcare, housing and public health. As a result of the pressure that it was able to exert, the soviet government in 1920 legalised abortion in state hospitals. It was also involved in fighting prostitution, a social problem that had begun to disappear immediately after the 1917 revolution but was growing due to desperate economic conditions exacerbated by the civil war.
Kollantai had written a series of articles on this issue in 1910 while in exile. Prostitution, she wrote, reduced women to “a simple instrument of pleasure”. However, she opposed any legal sanctions. Prostitutes were victims of economic and social conditions, she argued. The revolutionary government had to concentrate on providing alternatives for women, encouraging them to train for jobs and develop their self-esteem as well as providing health care for those who required it.
The Zhenotdel used various measures to involve women in the party and in the running of society. These included delegate conferences of working-class and peasant women. Women were seconded to government departments and party work. Some would get permanent jobs while others would go back to use their experiences to raise the consciousness of other women. Young, literate, working-class women who had enthusiasm and energy were employed as volunteers to do ’outreach work’ with other women in the countryside and remote parts of the country.
Although the Zhenotdel produced publications such as the newspaper ’Rabotnista’ (woman worker) and the theoretical journal ’Kommunista’, most women were illiterate, so discussions, exhibitions, slide shows, etc, were more effective in reaching women, especially peasants. Agit-trains, agit-boats and even agit-tents in the desert were used to spread the word.
There were particular problems with regard to reaching Muslim women in Central Asia. Volunteers were attacked by men with wild dogs and boiling water and some were even hacked to death. Zhenotdel workers had to adapt to this dangerous situation by meeting women secretly in bathhouses.
The Zhenotdel encountered many obstacles. Women were exhausted, burdened down by work and family responsibilities, and often ignored Zhenotdel initiatives. The women’s departments were desperately short of staff at every level and still had to contend with prejudice and hostility from party members, especially in the regions. As a consequence, liaison with other departments was weakened, posing the danger of separatism as well as undermining efficiency.
Nevertheless, much of the Zhenotdel’s work was extremely effective in involving women, raising their consciousness and ensuring their concerns were addressed by the party and the government.
’A revolution in the human psyche’
Economically and culturally post-revolution Russia was an extremely underdeveloped country. But a conscious campaign to change attitudes and to involve women in the running of society would also be necessary in the transitional period after a social revolution in an advanced capitalist country. Prejudice, sexism and discrimination are deeply embedded within class society. Both men and women would bring to the new society social attitudes that had been shaped by capitalism. An ideological and cultural struggle would therefore have to be waged to transform attitudes and ideas.
In several of her writings Kollantai explored the connection between social change and personal relationships. One of the slogans of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s was the ’personal is political’. But this was an idea that Kollantai was already grappling with at the beginning of the 20th century.
She recognised how the most intimate of personal relations are shaped by economic and social structures. Social inequality is reflected in sexual relations. Women were socialised under capitalism into believing that their identity depended on their role as a wife and mother. The ’norms’ of capitalist society required women to be submissive and subordinate. These were ideas that women themselves internalised throughout their lives. Men on the other hand were conditioned to believe that their role was to be dominant and in control in personal relationships.
These attitudes in turn impacted on sexual relations. Kollantai drew on her own experiences to develop her ideas. “Over and over again the man always tries to impose his ego upon us and adapt us fully to his purpose”, she wrote in her autobiography. In every relationship she struggled to maintain her own individuality and independence and this is reflected in her writings, including her novels.
It was important, she argued, that men should be interested in women as intellectual equals and not just as sexual objects. “A man would only see in me the feminine element, which he tried to mould into a willing sounding board to his ego”. She also attacked the double standard which society attached to men and women with regard to personal and sexual relationships. She had personal experience of this during her relationship with the Bolshevik sailor Dybenko, who was 17 years younger than her and from a different social class – provoking a minor scandal even within revolutionary circles.
Like Engels, Kollantai did not try to be prescriptive about what form personal relationships would take in the new society. Engels personally appeared to favour heterosexual monogamy, but in ’The Origin of the Family’ he left open what shape the family would take under socialism. “That will be settled after a new generation has grown up, a generation of men who never in all their lives have had occasion to purchase a woman’s surrender either with money or with any other means of social power; and a race of women who has never been obliged to surrender to any man out of any consideration other than that of real love, or to refrain from giving themselves to their lovers for fear of the economic consequences. Once such people appear, they will not care a rap about what we today think they should do. They will establish their own practice and their own public opinion… and that’s the end of it”.
Kollantai’s detractors accused her of advocating unrestricted promiscuity. In fact she was critical of the fleeting, superficial and sometimes brutal relationships that many resorted to during the dislocation and dangers of the civil war period. She maintained that a ’new morality’ would emerge in the process of building the new society; relationships would not necessarily be monogamous or long-lasting. Men and women (she made no reference to same-sex relationships) would stay together as long as love lasted and separate when it ended. As women would not be economically dependent on men and children would be the responsibility of society as a whole, this would not entail the same complications that occur under capitalism when relationships break down.
People would have a free choice in sexual relationships based on mutual sexual attraction. Kollantai wrote about ’erotic love’ which she referred to as ’winged Eros’ – non-possessive love based on emotional compatibility, spiritual closeness, equality and respect; a love freed from the constraints of bourgeois society.
Changing property relations would lay the basis for free relationships to develop but they would have to be accompanied by a “revolution in the human psyche”. “Without fundamental re-education of our psyche the problems of the sexes will not be solved”.
The deep roots of oppression
Kollantai was not advocating that men and women should merely wait for the new society. “When one speaks of sexual morality and the working-class, one often meets with a shallow argument that ’there’s no place for this until the economic base has been transformed’. As though the ideology of the class were built only after the completion of a sudden about-turn in social and economic relations…”, she wrote. The emergence of a new morality would be a complex social process which could take generations. But the basis for its development was already being laid within capitalism and the changes that were taking place to the family unit.
This can be seen today in the more developed capitalist countries where personal relations and women’s subordinate position in the family and in society generally have undoubtedly changed. Yet it is still the case that most women, even those with full-time jobs, have the main responsibility for the care of children, which places restrictions and burdens on their personal as well as their working lives.
Despite increased economic independence for women, advances in birth control, the development historically of the welfare state and access to easier divorce, the unequal, exploitative and hierarchical nature of capitalism is still reflected in personal relations. The fact that one in four women still suffer from domestic violence at some time in their lives, that sexism and the cultural oppression of women is still rife in the form of pornography and representation in advertisements etc, shows how deeply rooted women’s oppression still is and how, despite the advances that have been made, women cannot be truly liberated in any aspect of their lives under capitalism.
Kollantai’s ideas on the family and personal relations gained a certain echo amongst a layer of youth in the post-revolutionary period. Many experimented with new and alternative forms of relationships and households. But in a situation of economic catastrophe, an armed blockade and a civil war in which the very survival of the new society was at stake, her ideas appeared to many to be peripheral to the central task of rebuilding a war-torn and devastated country.
Kollantai herself could be faulted for not sufficiently connecting her theories on sexual and personal relations with the wider political and theoretical questions under discussion in soviet society. In those wider debates Kollantai also failed to take account of existing economic and social conditions. This was the case in 1922 when she supported the demand of the Workers’ Opposition for economic management to be transferred to the unions. Under a developed socialist economy this would be a correct demand, but in the concrete reality of the backward, dislocated and isolated soviet economy it would have spelt disaster.
A combination of economic backwardness and the failure of revolutionary movements to overthrow capitalism in the advanced capitalist countries led to a degeneration of the new society and the rise of a bureaucratic elite under Stalin. Kollantai escaped the horrific purges and excesses of the 1930s by ’keeping her head down’ as a diplomat for the Soviet Union abroad. She maintained her silence as her comrades were murdered and many of the gains which women had secured in the post-revolutionary period were rolled back by the Stalinist regime in order to defend the bureaucracy’s own interests.
Exactly what she was thinking or experiencing at the time is unknown, although her biographers point to a feeling of impotence on her part; the feeling that nothing could be done to fight the bureaucracy; a demoralisation and lack of confidence in the ability of the Left Opposition gathered around Trotsky to stem the political counter-revolution which was taking place.
The Stalinist regime went on to distort many of Kollantai’s ideas which conflicted with the bureaucracy’s aim of suppressing critical thought and reinforcing and moulding the individual family unit to maintain discipline and stability and to suit its economic and social needs.
Kollantai eventually died of old age in 1952, having accommodated herself to the Stalinist regime. However, her capitulation to Stalinism in no way detracts from the importance of her ideas on women’s oppression and the struggles which she waged to involve working-class women in the fight to change society. Those of us today who are fighting for an end to women’s oppression still have much to gain from a study of Kollantai’s writings and activities.
Alexandra Kollantai selected writings, Alix Holt (Allison & Busby, 1977)
The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Woman, Alexandra Kollantai
Alexandra Kollantai, Cathy Porter (Virago, 1980)
Bolshevik feminist – The life of Aleksandra Kollantai, Barbara Evans Clements
The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Frederick Engels
Fighting for women’s rights and socialism – Women after the Wall, Socialist Party (from Socialism Today No.43, November 1999)