Kollontai: Leaving behind Menshevik pacifism

She may have been best known for her work on the women question, writes Anne McShane, but Alexandra Kollontai was at the heart of the revolutionary fight against the imperialist war

Alexandra Kollontai is mostly known for her work and writings on women’s oppression. Indeed she is often described - wrongly in my view - as a feminist.

However, Kollontai understood herself very much as an orthodox Marxist. Her writings on the women question were for her simply an elaboration of those of Frederick Engels and August Bebel. Engels’ The family, private property and the state affected her profoundly, because of his exposition of the existence of a matrilineal form of family under primitive communism, as well as the role of the capitalist family in the oppression of women “being based on class division and private property”.1

From a wealthy liberal family, Kollontai was shocked when she saw the conditions of the working class in St Petersburg in the 1890s. She met revolutionaries during her consequent search for ideas, including Elena Stasova, later a prominent Bolshevik, who drew her into work with the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. Kollontai was so inspired by this experience and the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1890s that she decided to jettison her comfortable marital existence for the life of a revolutionary.

She joined the RSDLP and travelled to Zurich in 1898 to study political economy, returning to political activism in St Petersburg the following year, where she became involved in supporting the strikes of women textile workers. This was in the years leading up the 1905 revolution, when new layers of non-unionised women were entering into struggle. Her forceful demands that the RSDLP do something to organise this movement led to conflict with the leadership time and time again. She was often disappointed in the lack of support and opposition she faced, particularly in view of the party’s formal support for women’s emancipation. However, she did win supporters both in Russia and in Germany, where the most notable and influential of all was Clara Zetkin.2

Kollontai was committed to mass activity and this was something that was apparent in all her work, including her experience as a revolutionary in Europe from 1908 to 1917, and as a Bolshevik from June 1915. Like many other female revolutionaries, Kollontai is often portrayed as simply an acolyte of Lenin, having undergone some kind of Damascene conversion. Her own contribution and experience are ignored, not least her message of revolutionary defeatism in the years 1914-17. This article attempts to redress this one-sidedness and show how Kollontai’s interest in women’s emancipation was part of an overall commitment to the self-activity of the working class and the struggle for democracy.


In 1908 as a result of her revolutionary activities there was a warrant out for Kollontai’s arrest and she was forced to escape Russia. She went to Germany, where she had previously made contact with Clara Zetkin through the first International Socialist Conference in Stuttgart in 1907. In her 1926 autobiography Kollontai describes how she joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and became close to Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky and Zetkin herself - “I put myself at the disposal of the party press as a writer on social and political questions, and I was also frequently called upon as an orator by the German party”.3

Although she did not take up any leadership position, she was appointed as an agitator for the party - Kollontai was fluent in German and a good communicator, and her work involved speaking at meetings all over the country. She was based in Germany until 1914, apart from short periods spent researching in Paris and London for her book, Society and maternity.

By 1911 she had become conscious of a rightward drift in the SPD, evidenced by the increasingly conciliatory stances of Die Zeit under the editorship of Karl Kautsky. In January 1912 Zetkin “travelled the country addressing countless meetings on the threat of war and the need for resistance. Die Gleichheit, the journal of the Frauenbewegung (women’s movement), edited by Zetkin, was stubbornly revolutionary and anti-nationalist, but she was sidelined, as leadership positions were passed to the reformists.”4

Meanwhile Kollontai was experiencing SPD conservatism on the ground. In ‘Around workers’ Europe’,5published in 1912, she exposed the reality within the most powerful party of the Second International. Her examples of political passivity included the dogged refusal to recruit and develop working class women. One party member’s wife at a local meeting explained to Kollontai that she had not joined because “my husband didn’t want it … we’ve got a family, and then there’s the house to look after. He doesn’t like it if I go out.”6 There were also problems with the recruitment of women who worked - including, for example, the demand that “after being away from home for 10 hours they should at our bidding leave their homes untidy, their children untended, their crockery unwashed and rush off to a meeting”.

When Kollontai was critical of the small number of women present at a meeting in a village near Leipzig, the local chairman responded mockingly: “… surely you’re not one of those campaigners for equal rights?” For him, as for many other party members, it was fine for individual educated women to be free, but “for the majority of women, equality is harmful and impermissible. It is a reckless idea. Naive utopianism and foolishness and nothing more”. Another party member from Landau justified his refusal to allow his daughter to come to meetings in this way: “A woman must know her place. The struggle - that’s for men. If she had the makings of a political agitator like you”, he said to Kollontai, “I’d drag her along to meetings. But as it is I have myself to pay for, so how do I pay for her too?”

For Kollontai this was indicative not simply of backwardness on this issue, but a fundamental inability to view socialism as an emancipatory project for the whole of society. The revolutionary rhetoric of the leadership in Berlin did not filter down into practice in the regions, although the bureaucracy certainly travelled. She encountered many committee men on her travels and despaired of the officialdom and refusal to discuss matters ideologically. She hoped for debate, but instead encountered an immense lack of understanding and independent thinking among party members. They were merely cogs in the wheel of a vast party machine. They saw socialism as a series of a bread and butter issues rather than revolutionary political change.

Also a problem within the party was the existence of narrow, nationalistic attitudes towards migrants. This was illustrated by the resentment towards Russian Jewish migrants who had arrived in Offenbach following a lock-out in Vilnius in 1907. Kollontai wrote that these migrants were described by party members in Offenbach as “primitive creatures, shameless wage-squeezers”. On arrival in 1908 the Vilnius leather-workers had applied to the unions and to the party committee, but were refused membership and consequently “went alone to the factory offices to accept whatever conditions were laid down”. Following their recruitment as low paid labour, many party members then called for their expulsion from the town. This, according to Kollontai, was just one example of a trade union approach to politics, with its inherent emphasis on sectionalism and compromise.

With such nationalism and passivity among the membership, linked with the determined reformism of the leadership, it is perhaps no surprise that Zetkin’s campaign was unsuccessful. The decision of an extraordinary congress of the Socialist International in Basle in 1912 to oppose the war had little concrete impact. Meetings and demonstrations were not inspired by any sense of confidence or real intent.

Kollontai arrived in Berlin on August 2 1914, the day after Germany declared war on Serbia. She was filled with disbelief at the intensification of social patriotism. Suddenly she was an enemy alien, and she and her son were briefly arrested. Many in the SDP were arguing that the way to win the liberation of the Russian working class was through the defeat of the tsar at the hands of the German army. She was surrounded by a surging nationalism, which she abhorred - “the intoxication of patriotic feelings has always been something alien to me; on the contrary, I felt an aversion for everything that smacked of super-patriotism”. She also felt an intense repulsion towards war, which she regarded as “an abomination, a madness, a crime and from the first moment onwards - more out of impulse than reflection - I inwardly rejected it and could never reconcile myself with it”.7

Kollontai sat in the public gallery at the Reichstag on August 4 1914, when the SDP voted for the war budget. She “watched with disbelief”. And “over everything”, she wrote, “like lead, weighed the realisation: they voted for war! There is no more international solidarity.” It “seemed to me that all was lost. The atmosphere was so stifling and hopeless that it was as if a wall had grown up before me and there was no way forward.”8

How to fight

She and her son managed to escape Germany and she went first to Copenhagen and then on to Sweden, where the left wing of the Social Democratic Party, led by Zeth Höglund and Fredrik Ström, shared her position on the war. This view, common to many oppositionists in the International, was that there should be a “war on war” and an immediate end to hostilities. Kollontai wrote that war brought “not only suffering, unemployment and poverty”, but also “the unleashing of all the wild passions of humanity”, activated by the “cruelty, conquest and degradation which militarism brings in its wake”. It undermined solidarity amongst the working class and needed to be stopped through strikes, demonstrations and political action.

While in Sweden she was invited to go on a speaking tour and met Aleksandr Shliapnikov. Shliapnikov was also a member of the RSDLP and an active Bolshevik. He had just been given the task by Lenin of creating links between the party and the scattered émigrés abroad. He was also to arrange the smuggling of correspondence in and out of Russia, as well as working to win supporters to Lenin’s call for revolutionary defeatism. Lenin wrote frequently with questions, views and instructions. His letters are full of passionate and angry denunciations of campaigns for unity around slogans of peace or efforts to resurrect the Second International.

In a letter of October 17 1914 to Shliapnikov, he warned strongly against unity with the conciliatory elements of the Second International - it is “wrong to put forward the slogan of the ‘simple’ restoration of the international (for the danger of a rotten, conciliatory resolution on the Kautsky-Vandervelde line is very, very great!). The slogan of ‘peace’ is wrong; the slogan should be ‘the transformation of the national war into a civil war’.”9

She, however, was not convinced at that time on the undesirability of a united campaign for peace, and in November 1914 published an article where she argued that the “immediate task is to unite all our forces in order to achieve the quickest possible peace and our task for the future is to wage a relentless struggle against militarism and strengthen the spirit of international solidarity among the workers”. The slogans to be advanced were “‘Down with war! Down with militarism! Down with blind chauvinism!”10

After becoming aware of Kollontai’s actual views, Lenin wrote to her in December 1914, arguing that it “is useless to advocate a well-meaning programme of noble wishes for peace, if we do not at the same time and in the first place advocate the preaching of illegal organisation and civil war of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie.”11

In further correspondence with her in mid-1915 he insisted on the necessity for the arming of the proletariat - another issue Kollontai found difficult, given her sensitivity to the bloodshed of the war. He also reiterated his position on the slogan of peace - we “cannot stand for the watchword of peace because we consider it supremely muddled, pacifist, petty bourgeois, helping the governments (they now want to be with one hand ‘for peace’ in order to climb out of their difficulties) and obstructing the revolutionary struggle”.12

However, Kollontai had begun to move on from her early pacifistic illusions. She joined the Bolsheviks in June 1915 and threw herself into the work of the party. The Bolsheviks stood uncompromisingly against the war, as opposed to her Menshevik comrades, who either called for peace without annexations (the centrist majority) or were actually supportive of the Russian state (George Plekhanov and the social-chauvinists).

Kollontai had seen first hand the inadequacy of the peace line first in Sweden and then Norway (having been deported from Sweden for anti-war activities). It blurred the differences between the supporters and opponents of the war, and excused socialists from the vital task of overthrowing their own state.

Kollontai wrote an article on the German SPD and the war in the first, and only, issue of Kommunist - a journal set up by Lenin in 1915. This was part of a unity project with Karl Radek in the run-up to the conference of the anti-militarist socialist left in Zimmerwald in September 1915. Lenin refused to participate in the journal afterwards because of the fundamental differences with Radek and his supporters over the slogans for the socialist left. Radek’s successful motion, which defeated Lenin’s position, in effect appeased the right.


Kollontai’s 1915 article, ‘Why was the German proletariat silent in the July days?’, was anything but conciliatory. In discussing the reasons behind the failure of the German working class to oppose the war in July 1914, she was damning: the “blame lies entirely with those who, in their deference to peaceful means, to legal means of struggle, in their hatred of all that was revolutionary, principled and uncompromising, had for years brought up workers in the spirit of ‘peaceful growth’, had for years soothed the energetic, creative upsurges of class rebelliousness”.13

She argued that the masses had been waiting patiently for the signal from above. But there was no call for militant action and no vote conducted among the membership on whether the war budget should be supported. The leadership then used the passivity of the base as an excuse to support the war. It “left the masses to their own fate. Without resistance or struggle they surrendered the revolutionary banner.”14

Kollontai’s familiarity with the grassroots of the SPD gave her a unique appreciation of the deadening effects of the bureaucracy and how it sapped class-consciousness. She demonstrated how the German proletariat had been the victim of officialdom and legalism and was not the real impediment to revolution. The politics of the leadership was completely to blame. The lesson must be learned that “the theory of ‘adaptation’ by the workers’ movement to the capitalist system of its own county, the theory of ‘peaceful struggle’ for class supremacy, is one of the greatest dangers facing the international revolutionary-class liberation movement of the workers”.

Kollontai wrote a popular pamphlet, Who needs the war?,in summer 1915, which was translated into a number of languages and circulated widely to troops. She and Shliapnikov continued to coordinate contact between the émigré circles and Lenin, who was unable to leave Switzerland. He was assiduous in his determination to win out against both the social-imperialists and the compromising elements. Detailed instructions were dispatched to both Shliapnikov and Kollontai about his views, especially when it came to making alliances - or in general avoiding them - and answering doubts which she continued to raise on the civil war slogan.

Promoting war of any kind for Kollontai was a very difficult concept, especially now in the midst of the carnage. However, she continued to campaign for what she recognised as the only strategy which had any chance of successfully liberating the working class from the darkness.

She and other Russian comrades had some success in winning over the left wing of the Norwegian and Swedish social democratic parties, which subsequently supported Lenin. The aim of winning forces to a new international was key, and Lenin played an active role through his correspondence. It was in fact a tightly knit team effort, overseen by Lenin, who even micro-managed his comrades to the extent that his resources and the postal system allowed.

In 1915 Kollontai was invited to America for a speaking tour by the German section of the Socialist Party of America. She arrived in New York in October 1915, having translated Socialism and war,written by Lenin and his closest lieutenant, Grigory Zinoviev. Her instructions were to find a publisher and raise funds for the Bolshevik cause. She was not successful with either and found the four-month tour difficult and exhausting. The left in the USA was very badly informed about the situation in Europe. The word ‘Zimmerwald’ had only the vaguest of meanings and she struggled to explain the differences and to win people to support Lenin. There was also the problem of division of the Socialist Party into autonomous national groups, with the inherent nationalism that involved.

However, the tour was certainly successful, at least in terms of the packed meetings she addressed. In her 1926 biography Kollontai says she “visited 81 cities in the United States and delivered lectures in German, French and Russian”. Reports describe her as a “lively and engaging personality”,15

Kollontai writes that when she arrived back in Norway she continued to “work with the aim of welding together all the forces of the internationalists in opposition to the world war”. She “shared Lenin’s view, which aimed at spreading the conviction that the war could be defeated only by the revolution, by the uprising of the workers. I was in substantial agreement with Lenin and stood much closer to him and his older followers and friends.”

Kollontai returned to America in late 1916 to be with her son and to work with Nicholai Bukharin, who had taken over editing the Russian socialist paper, Novy Mir (New World). The Mensheviks, who had been in control, were ousted. Trotsky, who arrived in New York in January 1917, cooperated with Bukharin and Kollontai on the journal. As well as fighting to win Russian comrades, Novy Mir tried to bring together the confused American socialists into an opposition movement against the pro-war fervour. Kollontai struggled to get the German federation of the Socialist Party of America to condemn Woodrow Wilson’s intervention in the war, but could not overcome the wavering. A meeting was held on January 14 1917 at the home of Ludwig Lore, head of the German federation and perhaps the most pro-Bolshevik of the US left. Kollontai, Bukharin and Trotsky were present to advise and the meeting turned into a marathon debate between Trotsky and Bukharin over the question of revolutionary defeatism. Kollontai supported Bukharin. Trotsky, however, won the vote and Kollontai “sourly described his victory as a triumph for the right wing”.16

When she returned once again to Norway in February 1917, she received detailed instructions from Lenin on working with the fall-out from the disintegration of the Zimmerwald project. To make sure that the Scandinavians were not lost to them, he directed her to set up a network of Bolshevik supporters in Christiania (now Oslo), Copenhagen and Stockholm. These pro-Bolsheviks must try and steer the left towards revolutionary defeatism. A “new socialism must be created now, at this decisive time”, and “Bolsheviks must make every effort in that direction”.17


On February 28 1917 she was on her way home when she saw the headline, ‘Revolution in Russia’, in a local paper. A few days later the news came that the tsar had abdicated. Now she and other comrades began to get ready to head home. Her excitement reflected that of other Russian émigrés - “we had won, we had won! The end of the war! It was not even joy, but some kind of giddy rejoicing!”18

Lenin wrote to warn her to be cool-headed on her return - “I am afraid that there will now be an epidemic in Petersburg ‘simply’ of excitement, without systematic work on a party of a new type. It must not be à la ‘Second International’. Wider! Rise up, new elements! Awaken, a new initiative, new organisations in all sections and prove to them that peace will only be brought by an armed soviet of workers’ deputies.”19

These and other letters - along with Lenin’s telegram to all returning Bolsheviks, directing them not to support the Kerensky government and to fight for the arming of the proletariat - became the basis of her work in the coming weeks. Having arrived back in St Petersburg at the end of March, Kollontai threw herself into the struggle. She was elected to the soviet executive committee and began a new political struggle to win the RSDLP away from critical support for the provisional government.

This was the most exciting and rewarding of times. With Lenin’s return in April, the majority of the party were won over. It was a moment of triumph for Kollontai too. Now the tide had turned in favour of revolution. Lenin had been right and the future was there to win.

She remarked in her biography that she had not lived one, but many lives. My description of her activities and ideas in the lead-up to and duration of World War I excludes many other projects she was developing at the time, most particularly on the women question. Much of her research and proposals developed in Women and maternity (1916) found their way into the first decrees of the Soviet Union. She had also worked with Clara Zetkin up to and during the war.

In focusing almost solely on her anti-war activities, I hope I have shown how her view of the liberatory potential of socialism was not confined to the women question. I have tried to give a glimpse into how Kollontai was won to Lenin’s perspectives and how she contributed her own distinctive experiences and talents to the Bolshevik project.



1. C Porter Alexandra Kollontai - a biography London 2013.

2. www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1926/autobiography.htm.

3. www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1926/autobiography.htm.

4. C Porter Alexandra Kollontai - a biography London 2013, pp178-80.

5. A Holt Selected writings of Alexandra Kollontai London 1977.

6. Ibid.

7. www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1926/autobiography.htm

8. B Clements Evans Bolshevik feminist - the life of Aleksandra Kollontai Bloomington 1979, p84.

9. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/oct/17ags.htm.

10. A Kollontai, ‘The war and our immediate tasks’ (November 1914): www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1914/wartime.htm.

11. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/dec/00ak.htm.

12. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/jul/00ak.htm.

13. www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1915/july.htm.

14. A Kollontai, ‘Why was the German proletariat silent during the July days?’ (1915) in A Holt op cit.

15. www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1926/autobiography.htm.

16. B Evans Clements Bolshevik feminist - the life of Aleksandra Kollontai Bloomington 1979, p100; T Draper Roots of American communism New York 1959, pp80-81.

17. B Evans Clements Bolshevik feminist - the life of Aleksandra Kollontai Bloomington 1979, p101, paraphrasing Lenin in correspondence to Kollontai.

18. B Evans Clements Bolshevik feminist - the life of Aleksandra Kollontai Bloomington 1979, p102, quoting Kollontai from Iz moei zhizni i raboty (From my life and works) Moscow 1974.

19. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/mar/17ak.htm.