Alexandra Kollontai’s Many Lives | by Michele Masucci

Tacita Dean, GAETA, 2015

 

In Alexandra Kollontai’s own words, she lived many lives.1 Her life, brimming with events, relationships and disillusionment, is fascinating in itself. Reading Kollontai means tracing the life of a revolutionary through the numerous books, pamphlets, articles, speeches and actions that she took part in organising. We may differ with Kollontai on many of her choices, yet it is critical to contemplate the difficulties one always faces in being part of a movement with the passionate goal of forming a better world. Kollontai lived many lives surrounded by many loves, the greatest one perhaps being the 1917 October Revolution, which she fought to realise and stayed loyal to until her death.

 

WORKING WOMEN ON STRIKE

Alexandra Kollontai became a central figure in the international socialist woman’s movement at the turn of the last century. Having been raised in an upper-class family, Kollontai had turned to socialism and the revolution in her quest for women’s liberation. Her political commitments began in 1894 when she as a young mother worked with an organisation set up to help political prisoners. During the so-called years of the flowering of Marxism in Russia, Kollontai read radical journals and August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism,2 which became a life-changing book that provided a fierce materialist critique of woman’s conditions under capitalism. Bebel brought convincing arguments to show the inherent need of gender inequality for the reproduction of capitalist society.3

The year after, in 1886, Kollontai visits with her thenhusband assigned to rework the ventilation system in a textile factory in St Petersburg. During the visit, she was deeply affected by the miserable conditions women textile workers were enduring. The same year she helped organise a strike at the textile factory. With her increasing political engagement, Kollontai felt gradually more conflicted and alienated by the safe haven of bourgeois family life. She began transforming herself into a well-informed and fierce activist participating in the organisation of women strikes, protests and rebellions and travelling the world establishing political alliances.

In her home country, she fought to put women’s conditions on the agenda. For many Russian Marxists, the so-called woman question was a subordinated problem that would resolve itself with the overcoming of capitalist social relations. During the times of the revolution of 1905, Kollontai reminded the Social Democratic party that was losing support from women to the well-organised bourgeoisie feminists about the difficult conditions many women workers in the cities lived and what many had endured as peasants’ wifes, mothers, and daughters in the countryside.

In the decades that preceded the revolution, women workers often showed more determination and capacity to organise resilience of the strike actions over time. The increased consciousness among working women of the widespread sexual exploitation by factory management strengthened the female strike movement articulating their own needs as women. Strike demands would be put forth relating to their particular needs, such as improved reproductive conditions like maternity leave.4

Many successful actions brought about by women’s organisation formed the basis for the revolutionary strength that would come in 1917. Despite the fact that the strong signs from an increased women’s mobilisation and the central role of women’s strikes had played in the years before the revolution, the party leadership remained sceptical towards women’s abilities to contribute in political affairs after 1917. Women’s concerns were deemed to be special interests and were overall a deviation from the greater and more urgent goals.

 

YEARS OF RADICAL STUDIES

In 1898 Kollontai left her home, her husband and her child, to become a student of political economy with Professor Heinrich Herkner at the University of Zürich. It was not uncommon among middle and upper-class women in Russia at the time to study abroad since Russian institutions did not admit women. During these years, Kollontai studied zealously; in her autobiography,5 she states that among many influences was George Plechanov who foresaw that centralisation of power would result in a gradual imposition of a system of patriarchal authoritarian communism.6 Kollontai embodied like many other Russian radicals at the time also the famous call in Nikolay Chernyshevsky, What Is to Be Done?,7 demanding the full dedication of one’s life without remorse to the revolution, subordinating everything with dedication until death.

Another significant influence for socialists working for the women’s cause was Engels 1884 book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.8 Engels showed that there is a connection between the production of the means of existence and the family’s function in all societies to reproduce new human beings. The violent process of primitive accumulation of land meant the effective exclusion for women from access to their means of subsistence. Private ownership entailed the formation of a public and private sphere, where men and woman were forced to work for private owners of the land; however, women were disadvantaged through this mediation. Similarly to Bebel, Engels describes how the family under capitalism had ceased to be an economic unit of society, depicting the role of the bourgeois family as preserving and transmitting capital. The bourgeois family served to ensure men’s property was passed down to children who were biologically theirs, while that of the proletarian family was to reproduce the labour force, which was the principal component of this capital.

Like many other women socialists, Kollontai’s thoughts on love and gender relations drew first of all from experience matched with these fundamental Marxist positions. Throughout history, women have been subordinated through a sexual division of labour.9 Marital relationship not only dispossessed women but also made them objects of possession. This subordination through a division of tasks, where women were forced to care for reproductive tasks, while men participate in political life, was made possible by the introduction of private property.

 

MY HEART BELONGS TO THE POOR OF FINLAND10

Alexandra Kollontai was born into an aristocratic family, her mother the daughter of a Finnish public official and trader. As a youth Alexandra spent her summers at the family property in Kuusa, Finland. In her autobiography, Kollontai mentions the summers in Finland playing with the children of farmers as a decisive moment when she became conscious of her class privileges.11 She learned some Finnish at an early age and also married her second cousin, the engineer Vladimir Kollontai against her parent’s wishes in 1893, also from Finnish descent.

Back in Russia in 1899, after her studies in Zurich, she started her research on the Finnish working class by writing several articles.12 She became recognised as the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party’s expert on the ‘Finnish question’. Her first article, ’Die Arbeitsfrage in Finnland’,13 was partly written while in Finland. Three years later, she completed the major socio-economic research The Lives of Finnish Workers.14 Kollontai liaised with Finnish revolutionaries and workers in the organisation of trade unions and worked for Finland to seek independence from Russia.15

In 1899 Kollontai witnessed and supported the first strikes organised by working women in Åbo. At this time the Finnish working class started to become more organised. Learning that the failure of several strikes had been due to lack of strike funds and union organisation, Kollontai in the act of solidarity donated the money from an article to support union organisation in Finland. The general understanding is that this was why Kollontai was called the mother of union organisation in Finland.16

In 1906 the pamphlet Finland and Socialism was published.17 It is partly due to this publication that the Tsarist regime targeted Kollontai, forcing Kollontai to go into political exile in Europe. This period proved, however, very productive for Kollontai, primarily through her engage- ment with the growing international women’s movement. She never left her interests and will to engage with Finland and especially the conditions of women workers. Like with so many others, the fact that women had gained already the right to vote in Finland in 1906 interested Kollontai. Neither Russian women nor women in the west had any rights during this time. Women gained the right to vote after the revolution.

 

COMMISSAR KOLLONTAI AND THE WORKERS OPPOSITION

Kollontai’s monumental political work and legal research on health policy and women’s rights entitled Society and Motherhood18 from 1916 was a foundational piece for informing the policies she started to implement as the commissioned People’s Commissar for Social Welfare of the Soviet Republic. In 1920 as the head of the Women’s Section, the Zjenotdel, she did outstanding work for women’s emancipation, which included raising the consciousness of the public to these issues as well as drafting extensive legal reforms.19 Kollontai’s early engagement and experience with workers’ struggles had formed her into a fierce agitator for workers’ rights. Soviets and workers’ unions did have a fundamental role in the division of power during the first years after the revolution and kept advocating for a participatory organisation of production.20

As commissar for social welfare, Kollontai managed to transform the social health infrastructure in Russia, introducing progressive social reforms such as secularised orphanages. Before the revolution, orphanages were part of the Orthodox Church and religious morality. Health insurance and paid leave for women after child birth and the legalisation of abortion were but other fundamental reforms. Many of these reforms that today are taken for granted, or even lost under austerity reforms in liberal democracies were pioneered in the post-revolutionary Soviet government under Kollontai’s lead.

The newly liberated Russians grew increasingly dissatisfied by the authoritarian tendency of the Bolshevik government, pushing workers to ever more openly political actions. As a former union activist, Kollontai was weary of the increasing centralisation of power, believing strongly in workers’ democratic influence in production. During her time as Commissar, Kollontai increasingly became an internal critic of the Communist Party. With her friend, Alexander Shlyapnikov, a left-wing faction of the party was formed, known as the Workers’ Opposition. The faction fought for workers’ rights and control, voicing clear demands against increased bureaucratisation and centralisation of power. The pamphlet The Workers’ Opposition, published in 1921, called for members of the communist party to be allowed to discuss policy issues.21 In this text, Kollontai advocated for more political freedom for trade unionists.

During the Tenth Party Congress of 1921, using as an excuse the Kronstadt uprising, Lenin made the argument that factions within the party were ‘harmful’ and counter-revolutionary. The Party Congress agreed with Lenin, and the Workers’ Opposition was dissolved. After this, Kollontai lost all her political assignments, and she was sent to Norway for diplomatic duties.

 

WORDS FOR COMMUNIST LOVE

In Communism and the Family, a famous speech held during the first national congress for female workers and farmers in 1918, Kollontai seeks a solution to solve the problem of combining work and family.22 In a communist economy with the abolition of private property, planned production, the family would lose its role as an economic unit and power structure. This ‘proletarian sexual politics’ could not wait for a change in property relations, as the capitalist social relations constituted an essential weapon in the class struggle.23 Making family life a collective responsibility and concern meant sharing the economic and social responsibility with the movement, making women’s liberation possible.24 The dissolution of the nuclear family would liberate women, bringing a collective responsibility and care of housework, that would be cared for by workers through common canteens, laundry houses, schools, and daycare centres for children.

Thus for Kollontai the transformation into socialism also had to include a revolution in the private sphere based on the principles of distributed comradely love in opposition to the enclosures of the bourgeois family. However, Kollontai did not advocate the complete abolition of marriage, merely a significant transformation, and a form of co-existence with many types of relationships. Charles Fourier had brought the vision of a society organised through communes with collectivised housework that could provide a more sustainable relation among people and to nature. In Le Nouveau Monde Amoureux Fourier poses a fundamental critique of monogamous marriage that he describes as a form of enslavement of women.25 In Fourier’s theoretical and political model of society, harmony is achieved through the disappearance of monogamous marriage and the systematic multiplication of love relationships of all kinds, establishing absolute equality between the sexes. Fourier’s work is often cited as a precursor to the ‘sexual liberation’ at both the turn of the twentieth century and in the 1960s.

In a famous essay ‘Make Way for Winged Eros: A Letter to Working Youth’ Kollontai critiques civilisation and questions the individualism of her time.26 She envisions a form of love not tied to property nor people, rather this love should belong to all and would with the advancement of socialist revolution appear in a form that is unknown to us, only able to develop from the working class. Kollontai’s view on love regards the essence of socialism, namely, solidarity. Love for Kollontai is not a relationship of close couples; it is not a private matter, but a fundamentally social issue. That is why the working class will develop ‘comradely love’. Kollontai calls for a transformation of the human mind. Without solidarity, there is no communism, society, or unity.

Kollontai’s writing evidences the quest to identify the conditions for communist comradely love. How our ability to love, to express and embody affectivity can transform into political engagement and collective political practices that can form some permanence or continuity.

 

LETTERS TO DEAR COMRADES — MADAME KOLLONTAI
AND THE SWEDISH FEMINISTS

Kollontai held a series of diplomatic posts, including am- bassadorships, in Norway, Sweden, and Mexico. Although this was a first for a woman, her diplomatic career was the manoeuvre by the party leadership to marginalise Kollontai from power.

One of Kollontai’s closest friends during her years as a Soviet diplomat was Emy Lorentsson who worked as Kollontai’s personal secretary at the Soviet embassy in Stockholm. After the war, when Kollontai’s service at the embassy was terminated, she followed her to Moscow and became a Soviet citizen. During Kollontai’s years as ambassador in Sweden she came together with the progressive liberal feminist Fogelstad group.26 This group consisted of some of the most prominent feminists from Sweden at the time. Kollontai came to lecture at the women’s citizens’ school at Fogelstad and was frequently interviewed and wrote in the group’s paper, Tidevarvet (The epoch). Kollontai wrote on the women’s question in the Soviet Union and on Russia in general.

One of the members, Ada Nilsson, an established specialist on women’s health, contributed under the influence of Kollontai to the radicalisation of the Women’s citizens’ school.28 Although their correspondence became frequent and dear, it never contained any details that could be politically sensitive.29 They discussed abortion rights in the two countries; Kollontai accounted for her work in the League of Nations and provided Ada with material for her planned autobiography. Their correspondence continued up until Kollontai’s death.

In one article over the basic rights to motherhood, Ada Nilsson quoted a note that a neighbour of hers had found: “Never will I forget the difficult night I lived through when my son was born, that I then strangled, laid in a sack and threw in the pond. Never will I forget that moment, but I could not have acted differently. Whoever might find this note I ask to pray for me and perhaps I might be forgiven for my terrible crime. However, do not denounce me to the police. I will not be found as I have changed my name.”30

With this note, Ada Nilsson starts one of her articles in Tidevarved from May 1934. The article: ‘The Right to Motherhood’ is a discussion defending not only the material condition of parenting but also the psychological factors given the social attitudes towards mothers at the time. While acknowledging that child mortality in Soviet Russia was higher than in Sweden. With the legal health and social insurance reforms partly introduced by Kollontai straight after the revolution, that strengthened women’s rights in many respects, Sweden was lacking behind. Working women who got pregnant had virtually no rights and were often fired, leading to a tragic situation like the one that framed this short article.

 

KNITTING THE SOCIAL FABRIC —
KOLLONTAI IN CONTEMPORARY STRUGGLES

The social, emotional and sexual capabilities that were considered crucial for the formation of an emancipated democratic and progressive communist society for Kollontai, are today the very same capacities that have been appropriated within service work, teamwork, and other kinds of work where the enactment of the shared, social and collaborative has been made into a fundamental component of productivity.

Silvia Federici, along with other feminists in Italy during the 1970s who were coming out of the Wages for Housework movement pointed to the role of reproduction in the general formation of the working class and the dominant productive forces of society.31 As Kollontai and her comrades had identified in a capitalist society, large parts of the necessary social reproduction, is displaced in the private sphere where women traditionally have had to do much of the work to maintain the household. Women’s unpaid labour is essential for the productive capacities of a society for the reproduction of the working class.

In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici develops strong arguments for the need to recognise the production and reproduction of the worker as a social and economic activity.32 According to Federici, the failure to recognise this results in a mystification of reproduction as a natural resource or as a personal service done out of love or duty or by the enactment of a specific gender role while profiting off the wageless conditions of the labourer involved. These forms of exploitation and oppression are based on a social system of production that does not recognise housework as a source of capital accumulation. In the centre of care work is the question of the wage. In Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James’s The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community,33 there is a critical anti-work dimension: ‘When men refuse work, they consider themselves militant and when we reject our work these same men consider us nagging wifes.’34 This tension between the demand of the end to work and the unwaged work to be recognised and valued is essential to recognise. Wages against housework does not mean make everyone into paid housemaids, it means the opposite, the collective refusal of work altogether.

In moments of crisis such as the gradual withdrawal of mechanisms of welfare, or the spaces of perpetual marginalisation, the problem of reproduction and the urgent need for self-organised forms of sustaining lives becomes concrete. Social reproduction thus becomes a field for building social power that opens for new cycles of struggle that intersect social relations of care, with spaces, habitation and the production and redistribution of resources. Today this is explored through the transnational Social Strikes35 and International Women’s Strike Movement.36 These socialised strike actions are opposing not only sexual violence on women, queer, lesbian and transgender but also the generalised and accelerated conditions of precarity spreading across sectors and regions around the world, connecting as Kollontai did, the question of class and working conditions with gender equality and emancipation. Asking how radical solidarity and anti-capitalist feminism is made possible.37

Federici’s proposal to form communalities of care that through practices of care and autonomous social reproduction embody the commons is powerful. If communal, comradely love is the method and goal, what might be the conditions for us to come to this practice? Alternatively, in other words, ‘how can ‘solidarity’ be possible in and against the objective conditions that divide us?’38

 


1 Alexandra Kollontai, Jag har levt många liv (Stavsnäs: Sjösala förlag, 2014).

2 August Bebel, Woman under Socialism, trans. by Daniel De Leon (New York: Labor News Company, [1879] 1904).

3 Anna Rotkirch, ‘Rakare, friare, friskare: Kollontais vision för kvinnokroppen’, in Revolutsjon, Kjærlighet, diplomati: Aleksandra Kollontaj og Norden, ed. by Yngvild Sørbye (Oslo: Unipub, 2018), p. 96.

4 Anne Bobroff, ‘The Bolsheviks and Working Women, 1905–20’, Soviet Studies, vol 26, no. 4, 1974, pp. 540–67. JSTOR, http://www.jstor. org/stable/150677.

5 Alexandra Kollontai, The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman (New York: Prism Key Press, 2011).

6 G. V. Plechanov, Socialism and the Political Struggle (Moscow: Progress Publishers, [1883], 1974).

7 Nikolay Chernyshevsky, What Is to Be Done?: A Romance (Boston: Benj. R. Tucker Publisher, 1886).

8 Friedrich Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (London: Penguin Classics, [1884], 2010).

9 Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2004), p. 97.

10 Alexandra Kollontai, ‘My Heart Belongs to the Poor of Finland’, published in a union’s yearbook Työn Juhla, 1911, in Elina Katainen, ‘Arbeid, fred, fri kjærlighet: Kollontaj sett med finske øyne’. In ed. by Yngvild Sørbye, ‘Revolutsjon, Kjærlighet, diplomati: Aleksandra Kollontaj og Norden’ (Oslo: Unipub, 2018), p. 220.

11 Ibid., p. 211.

12 Ibid., p. 217.

13 Alexandra Kollontai, Die Arbeiterfrage in Finnland (Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1900).

14 Alexandra Kollontai, Zhizn’ finliandskikh rabochikh (The Lives of Finnish Workers) (St Peterburg: T-vo Khudozhestvennoi pechati, 1903).

15 Elina Katainen, ‘Arbeid, fred, fri kjærlighet: Kollontaj sett med finske øyne’, in Revolutsjon, Kjærlighet, diplomati: Aleksandra Kollontaj og Norden, ed. by Yngvild Sørbye (Oslo: Unipub, 2018), p. 218.

16 Ibid., p. 218.

17 Alexandra Kollontai, Finliandiia i sotsializm (Finland and Socialism), 1906.

18 Alexandra Kollontai, ‘Society and Motherhood’, in Selected Articles and Speeches (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1984).

19 Cathy Porter, Alexandra Kollontai: A Biography (London: Virago, 1980), p. 271.

20 Elizabeth Wood, The Baba And the Comrade: Gender and Politics in Revolutionary Russia (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997), p. 72.

21 Alexandra Kollontai, The Workers Opposition in the Russian Communist Party (St Petersburg, FL: Red and Black Publishers, [1921], 2009).

22 Alexandra Kollontai, ‘Communism and the Family’, in Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai, trans. by Alix Holt (Westport, CN: Laurence Hill Co., 1977).

23 Jinee Lokaneeta, ‘Alexandra Kollontai and Marxist Feminism’, Economic and Political Weekly, 36, no. 17 (April 28–May 4, 2001), pp. 1405–12.

24 Richard Stites, The Women’s Liberation Movement in Russia: Feminism, Nihilism, and Bolshevism, 1860–1930 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 260.

25 Charles Fourier, Le Nouveau Monde Amoureux (Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, [1818], 2015).

26 Alexandra Kan, ‘Aleksandra Kollontajs private vänkrets under
de diplomatiska tjänsteåren i Norge och Sverige’, in Revolutsjon, Kjærlighet, diplomati: Aleksandra Kollontaj og Norden ed. by Yngvild Sørbye (Oslo: Unipub, 2018), p. 277.

28 Ibid., p. 278.

29 Gothenburg Public Library online at: http://www.alvin -portal.org/alvin/home.jsf?dswid=6852 (2019-05-21).

30 Ibid.

31 Silvia Federici, Wages Against Housework (Bristol: Power of Wom- en Collective and the Falling Wall Press, 1975), p. 11.

32 Federici, Caliban and the Witch.

33 Mariarosa Costa Dalla and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (Bristol, UK: Falling Wall Press, 1975).

34 Ibid.

35 Transnational Social Strike Platform (www.transnational-strike .info).

36 The International Women’s Strike Movement started in 2016 and reaches out globally with coordinated feminist social strike actions on 8 March.

37 Nancy Fraser, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Cinzia Arruzza, Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto (London: Verso, 2019).

38 Federici, Caliban and the Witch.

 

FROM
RED LOVE: A READER ON ALEXANDRA KOLLONTAI
STERNBERG PRESS, 2020

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