K is for Kollontai

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The success of the Russian Revolution of 1917 enabled the radical ideas on women's liberation that had been germinating in pre-revolutionary times to develop, and be widely discussed and materially embodied in the real world.

A revolution turns all preconceived notions upside down. When profit held sway in the old society, it suppressed the needs and desires of the masses from whom it was extracted. These very needs and desires were to become the motive force of production in the new socialist society, both satisfying material requirements and, even more fundamentally, nourishing the human personality.

As the leading Russian revolutionary Trotsky proclaimed: the crowning achievement of the revolution was the "awakening of human personality in the masses - who were supposed to possess no personality".

It follows naturally that in every revolution there has been a monumental upsurge of working women's struggles and consciousness. Women have fought both with and in support of their comrades in arms, revolutionary working men, and also for their own liberation from their double burden as workers and mothers.

These inspired revolutionary leaders to recognise that great social changes are impossible without a rising of working women. In fact, as Lenin remarked, the yardstick to measure the success of a revolution is how much the women take part in it.

The most important and boldest fighter for women's liberation was Alexandra Kollontai. Born in 1872 to an aristocratic family, she became an active Marxist in 1896, and joined the Bolsheviks in 1915.

With a number of other Bolshevik women she became a leading fighter for the liberation of working class women from their double burden. She rejected in the strongest terms any alliance with bourgeois feminists, who shadow-boxed with what they considered their common enemy, "men".

Kollontai argued for the organisation of working women along "strict class lines" in the trade union and socialist movement. Her attitude was based on a materialist view of the outcome of the class struggle.

She argued that the class struggle of women and men together both extracts reforms on behalf of women and also brings closer the ultimate liberation of women through the socialist revolution. The same class struggle pushes bourgeois feminists who fight for "equal rights" to differentiate themselves more and more from working class women to preserve their privileged position. This argument is brilliantly developed in The Social Basis of the Woman Question, which she wrote in 1909.

She approached whatever cause she espoused with passion, energy and a determination to further it to the limit of its possibilities. This was very much in tune with the rising revolutionary struggle during the First World War, the revolution in February 1917 and the subsequent socialist revolution in October.

Kollontai was at that time one of the most popular Bolshevik leaders and was made Commissar of Social Welfare. This enabled her to oversee some of the most advanced social legislation in the world: equality of rights in marriage; simplicity of divorce; contraception and abortion on demand; the setting up of nurseries, well-appointed communal living quarters and dining rooms, laundries, mending centres, and so on.

"Separation of kitchen from marriage" and collective care of children as a social obligation were the guiding principles of the revolution - a remarkable achievement for the most backward country in Europe.

The new ideas and practices were spread via Delegate Conferences of Worker and Peasant Women modelled on the soviets and under the aegis of a special Women's Department of the Bolshevik Party, which Kollontai headed in 1920-21.

She also wrote extensively on working women and the new morality, marriage, the family, personal relations and prostitution with constant detailed advice and encouragement to working women to throw off their chains. Besides this she produced a flow of writings on other current political subjects, as well as two novels. But what she became most noted for was her attitude to sexual relations, which she dealt with in greater detail, depth and feeling than anyone had ever done before.

But the other revolutions, and above all the German Revolution, failed, and Soviet Russia was submerged under civil war and foreign invasion. Industry was devastated, the working class decimated and the cities depopulated through war and famine - the high hopes for the construction of socialism and liberation of women could not be sustained.

But compromise was not part of Kollontai's code. Just as she had been borne aloft with the rising revolutionary tide, so she was deflated and abased by the failure of the other revolutions.

Her uncompromising opposition to political and economic retreat meant she was sidelined and ended up in a diplomatic post in Norway. She spent the rest of her life in ambassadorial posts abroad almost entirely silent on the horrors of Stalinism and what they meant for women.

Kollontai's high ideals were dashed by the failure of the revolution abroad and the extreme backwardness of the bulk of the Soviet economy and society. As a result, like many earlier Communists, her time had not yet come.

Kollontai strove to liberate women from the shackles of capitalism, so that they would grow and flower spiritually, refashioning themselves in a new morality of total freedom and equality. Her efforts, both theoretical and practical, put down a marker for the future.


Further reading

The Social Basis of the Woman Question, Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle and a speech entitled Communism and the Family are brought together in Alexandra Kollontai on Women's Liberation published by Bookmarks £2