Women and revolution: Alexandra Kollontai, a leading fighter for women’s liberation
In the first of two articles, Anne McShane looks at the Bolsheviks most famous writer on the womens question
Alexandra Kollontai has been referred to a number of times in the current debate over feminism and women’s rights. She has been described both as a trenchant anti-feminist and an outstanding fighter for women’s rights. The quotation used to demonstrate her view of feminism is taken from her 1909 pamphlet, The social basis of the woman question. In this pamphlet Kollontai famously asserted that the “women’s world is divided, just as is the world of men, into two camps; the interests and aspirations of one group bring it close to the bourgeois class, while the other camp has close connections with the proletariat, and its claims for liberation encompass a full solution to the woman question.”1 An image is conjured up of loyal Bolshevik women standing alongside their male comrades united for female emancipation and against feminism. The truth, however, is a lot more complex, interesting and challenging.
In this first part of a two-part discussion of Kollontai’s ideas, I will look at the period from 1905 to 1917. This is the period of struggle for women’s liberation against capitalism. In the years after 1917 the context of that struggle changed and became, as Kollontai saw, an opportunity to implement women’s emancipation in the new society.
Alexandra Kollontai joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1899 at the age of 27. Born Alexandra Mikhailovna Domontovich to an army officer and the daughter of a wealthy Finnish peasant, her upbringing as part of the liberal intelligentsia replicated that of many other revolutionary women of the time. She was strongly influenced in her teens by her governess, Maria Strakhova, a revolutionary and nihilist, whom her mother inadvertently employed in an effort to prevent her daughter from attending the radical Bestuzhev courses for women.
In an attempt to break free of the constraints of her family, Alexandra married Vladimir Kollontai, an army engineer, at 21. Having achieved some independence through marriage, she then began a programme of serious self-education, becoming more and more drawn to Marxism in the process. She also became involved in politics in St Petersburg and was a party contact of Elena Stasova, later also to become a leading Bolshevik. Kollontai’s ideas and political activities created increasing strains in her marriage - “the happy life of housewife and spouse became for me a ‘cage’”.2 After five years of marriage she left her husband and young son and travelled to Zurich to study political economy among fellow revolutionaries.
She went on to investigate the living conditions of the proletariat in Finland, still then part of the Russian empire, and published a number of articles and two books, including Finland and socialism. Like many other RSDLP members, she did not become particularly involved in the party split in 1903, but later allied herself to the Mensheviks because of her connections with Martov and, according to her autobiography, because she disagreed with the Bolsheviks’ boycott of the elections to the tsarist Duma in 1908.
In early 1905 when the revolution broke out, Kollontai was struck by the militancy and dynamism of working class women when they became involved in struggle. They formed the unskilled labour force concentrated in the textile and service industry. There had been a history of general strikes, especially in textiles, since the 1890s, which had raised political as well as economic demands - including for the right to strike, freedom of assembly and maternity rights. In fact there had apparently been more strikes in these industries than in the male-dominated metal industries in the same period. But industrial struggle had not in general led to women joining leftwing groups. There were barriers of culture, illiteracy and physical inaccessibility for the left to overcome. But also there was little attempt to recruit them. Women were perceived of as backward and their militancy thought of as simply an elemental and transient expression of hostility to the system.
Kollontai set out to challenge these views and to win women to the influence of the RSDLP. In doing so she came into conflict with feminist organisations like the Russian Women’s Mutual Philanthropic Society, which was actively recruiting among textile and service workers. Seeing these groups as a major threat to working class unity, she wrote polemical articles and consistently turned up at their meetings and demonstrations to denounce and expose them. She passionately fought their efforts to “construct an idyllic, mixed union of grand-lady employers and domestic servants” and to present themselves as the supporters of factory women, when in reality they remained loyal critics of the capitalist system. Kollontai warned that, no matter how “‘radical’ the equal-righters may be, they are still loyal to their own bourgeois class”.3 She became known as “the scourge of the bourgeois feminists, whom she attacked in a torrent of polemical speeches, articles” including the Social basis.4
However, she was also fighting a battle within the party. In Autobiography of a sexually emancipated woman, written in 1926, Kollontai described her disappointment at the attitude of the St Petersburg leadership to her efforts to win over women workers. She was angry that her attempt to set up a women’s bureau in 1906 was blocked. She blamed male prejudice and said: “I realised for the first time how little our party concerned itself with the fate of women of the working class and how meagre was its interest in women’s liberation”. She was especially disheartened that “my party comrades accused me and those women comrades who shared my views of being ‘feminists’ and of placing too much emphasis on matters of concern to women only”.5
She set up the Society for the Mutual Help of Working Women with Klavdiia Nikolaeva and other supporters in 1907 as a counterweight to the many feminist clubs of the same period. But the club had a short-lived existence, not least because of the opposition of the RSDLP leadership, including women leaders like Vera Zasulich, who condemned the initiative as divisive. Kollontai later argued that the party during this time not only failed to win over new layers of militant working class women, but actually lost “women from the ranks of the students and intelligentsia to the impressively organised bourgeois feminists”.6
When various feminist groups, including the Union for Equal Rights and the Russian Women’s Mutual Philanthropic Society organisations, announced an all-Russian women’s congress in December 1908, Kollontai fought for the party to send a contingent. Having convinced it to do so, it was agreed that it would be a group of delegates elected from various factories. This Workers’ Group was “fully armed to destroy the fond illusion that working women were the ‘younger sisters’ of the feminists and needed their protection”.7 Kollontai wrote the Social basis to coincide with the congress - but owing to printing problems it was not published until after the event.
Even so, the 35 women of the Workers’ Group were to make a disproportionate impact on the event. Their demand for legal protection for all women workers was carried by an overwhelming majority. On marriage they divided the feminists, with the majority supporting the existing constitution, but radicals siding with the Workers’ Group. The conference leadership, however, together with the majority of delegates, refused to support an immediate demand for universal suffrage, whereupon the Workers’ Group denounced them as exploiters, not sisters.
There were stormy and chaotic scenes and even the planned walkout of the Workers’ Group descended into disarray, as some delegates were so involved in the arguments that they refused to leave. As the congress organisers struggled to maintain control, the police, who had been watching proceedings from the back of the hall (by agreement with the organisers), moved in to arrest members of the Workers’ Group. Despite the arrests and the consequent state clampdown, the intervention had been a success. In Kollontai’s words, “it drew a clear line of demarcation between the bourgeois suffragettes and the women’s liberation movement of the working class in Russia”.8
A point made throughout the Social basis is the need for profound social change in order to create equality. Kollontai argued that to “become really free woman has to throw off the heavy chains of the current forms of the family, which are outmoded and oppressive”.9
She recognised that “the modern family structure, to a greater or lesser extent, oppresses women of all classes and all layers of the population”. However, while bourgeois women had the economic ability to rebel as individuals and achieve some degree of freedom, this possibility was not open to working class women. They needed a revolution to bring about the type of change that would allow them to determine their own lives. Kollontai argued for the socialisation of childcare, domestic labour and food provision to allow working women to become involved in political and social life. Women should not be dependent on men for maintenance, as that simply accentuated their dependence. Instead the state should provide. Only then “can the principle of ‘free love’ be implemented without bringing new grief for women in its wake”.
Kollontai was to write extensively and controversially on the question of ‘free love’ after the revolution. She had studied Friedrich Engels’ book, Origin of the family, private property and the state, and August Bebel’s Woman and socialism, and considered that she was developing their ideas on the supersession of the old family by new forms.
In the aftermath of the 1908 congress Kollontai was forced to leave Russia. She went to Germany, where she joined the Social Democratic Party. Here she worked with Clara Zetkin, who held a pivotal position in the Second International. Zetkin had by this time built a mass socialist women’s movement in Germany. She transformed the journal Die Gleichheit into the “central organ of the socialist movement in Europe” in 1889 and won the right to organise separate work among women with conferences of socialist women in the 1890s. In 1907 she had spearheaded the first international conference of socialist women and a permanent International Women’s Secretariat, with Zetkin herself as secretary. She built this base despite opposition from some in the movement, who saw these organisations as a potential feminist enclave.
Zetkin was an extremely important influence on Kollontai’s thinking. She had been at the forefront of the creation of the Frauenbewegung (Women’s Movement), which had almost 175,000 members by the outbreak of World War I. Its programme included setting up women’s commissions within unions and all organisations of the working class. She also succeeded in winning the Second International to a commitment to female suffrage in 1910. Zetkin had to deal with arguments that women were so politically backward, given their lack of education and confinement to the home, that they could not yet be trusted with the vote. They were likely to vote for rightwing parties, which would undermine the socialist movement. Against this Zetkin argued that advocacy of political rights for women was an important way to win them to the side of socialism. The question of formal equality could not wait until after women were deemed suitably educated.
There were important differences in practice, if not in theory, between Kollontai and many in the party leadership. Although Lenin had succeeded in including a demand for women’s liberation in the programme of the RSDLP, the party, particularly in Russia, was apathetic and even hostile to advancing that programme through action. Of course, there were women party members, but mass work among women was resisted and even seen as divisive.
Secondly Kollontai advocated the setting up of a special section in the party devoted to work among women. This existed within the German SPD under Zetkin, but many in the RSDLP saw it as feminist and harmful to the movement.
There was also the issue of the family. Many men in the party had a problem with the idea of changes in their domestic arrangements and certainly with the concept of ‘free love’. Lenin himself expressed an antipathy towards the term even before the revolution. His exchanges with Inessa Armand (another leading party member, unfortunately known mostly for an alleged affair with Lenin) illustrate that he saw it as a bourgeois demand. I think it is fair to say that Lenin was a traditionalist in this respect and had strong reservations about what he saw as an obsession with personal relationships on the part of Kollontai and her supporters.
However, he was also the most important male supporter of the woman question within the party. He helped to set up Rabotnitsa, a party journal for women, in 1914 and after the revolution promoted measures to socialise domestic labour and collectivise childcare. He also recognised what he described as the boorish attitude of many male members of the party toward women’s equality - “Scratch the communist and a philistine appears. To be sure, you have to scratch the sensitive spots, such as their mentality regarding women.”10
Kollontai was unable to return to Russia until 1917. By that time she had joined the Bolsheviks, won over because of their opposition to the war. She found the situation very much changed. The feminist groups had supported the war effort, resulting in a plummeting of support for them among working class women. They were therefore no longer the threat they had been.
But there were new challenges. Mass conscription had meant that women had flooded into the workplace. On Women’s Day 1917 they had shown their resolve by coming out onto the streets in their thousands and sparking the revolution. They were now asserting themselves not just economically, but politically.
The journal Rabotnitsa was relaunched and it became the centre for much controversial debate on the position of women. It was an exciting time for Kollontai, Armand, Klavdiia Nikolaeva, Konkordiia Samiolova and the many other women who were already the nucleus of a mass women’s movement. But there were immense tasks facing them in the months and years ahead.
3. A Bobroff, ‘The Bolsheviks and working women 1905-1920’ in Soviet Studies Vol 26, No4, October 1974, p543.
4. B Farnsworth, ‘The woman question and Aleksandra Kollontai’ in MJ Boxer and JH Quataert (eds) Socialist women New York 1978.
6. B Farnsworth, ‘The woman question and Aleksandra Kollontai’ in MJ Boxer and JH Quataert (eds) Socialist women New York 1978, p185.
7. L Edmondson, ‘Russian feminists and the first All-Russian Congress of Women’ Russian History Vol 3, No2, 1976, pp123-49.