In this extract from her new book, A Rebel’s Guide to Alexandra Kollontai, Emma Davis sets out the Russian revolutionary’s views on sexuality and relationships under capitalism and beyond.
Alexandra Kollontai described how women’s oppression resulted in unequal and often fraught relations between men and women.
While relationships occupied an important part of Kollontai’s life, they also frustrated her. She expressed this frustration in one of short stories: “I’ve read enough novels to know just how much time and energy it takes to fall in love and I just don’t have time.”
Kollontai was not alone in her desire to challenge the ideal of romantic love. Women entering the workplace, living in cities away from the restrictions of rural life, were changing relationships. In The New Woman (1918), Kollontai examined how this was reflected in literature. She quotes Agnes, a working class Russian heroine:
“Why all this for only one person?... If one must forget oneself, then I would rather do it not just for one person alone, by preparing a good noon meal and a restful slumber for him; if such be the case I will grant all that also to such-and-such other unhappy ones...”
Kollontai felt that romantic love occupied far too high a place in society: “You probably won’t find a time when the problems of sex have occupied such a central place in the life of society…sexual dramas have served as such a never-ending source of inspiration for every sort of art.”
Kollontai developed her ideas in an essay, “Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle”. Sexuality and sexual relationships were an essential part of what it means to be human. However, under capitalism, relationships were based on strict individualism and exclusiveness which is located in the institution of the private nuclear family. Women’s domestic work further structured inequality into relationships. Kollontai described how this created immense pressure on individuals and “unavoidable loneliness of spirit”.
“Man experiences this ‘loneliness’ even in towns full of shouting, noise and people, even in a crowd of close friends and work-mates. Because of their loneliness men are apt to cling in a predatory and unhealthy way to illusions about finding a ‘soul mate’ from among the members of the opposite sex.”
This can lead people to take out their feelings of insecurity and loneliness on their loved ones. “To be rid of the eternally present threat of loneliness, we ‘launch an attack’ on the emotions of the person we love with a cruelty and lack of delicacy that will not be understood by future generations.”
Further, the ideal of “one true love” encourages people to act as though they own their partners. “Bourgeois morality, with its introverted individualistic family based entirely on private property, has carefully cultivated the idea that one partner should completely ‘possess’ the other… We demand the right to know every secret of this person’s being…We are unable to follow the simplest rule of love — that another person should be treated with great consideration.”
Kollontai asked what the solution to bourgeois love might be. She pointed out that working class communities had always experimented with different types of relationships, whether through affairs, having children out of wedlock or same-sex relationships. Middle class people were also experimenting with living together without marrying — sometimes called “free marriage” — and with group relationships.
Even in experimental relationships, women were still subject to double standards. Men had a certain freedom to act without moral judgement from society; women did not. So Kollontai was scathing of those middle class proponents of “free marriage” or “free love” (having sexual relationships without the ties of marriage or partnership) in the here and now who didn’t recognise the inequalities of class and gender.
In a society based on exploitation and oppression, “free marriage” and “free love” could in practice simply mean women with children abandoned by men with no responsibility to support them.
This didn’t mean that new kinds of relationships couldn’t or shouldn’t be fought for, but that this struggle could not be separated from the wider fight for a world based on equality, cooperation and human needs — a communist society.
It was in being part of collective struggles that men and women could begin to break down the hypocritical and oppressive morals of capitalist society and strive to create new kinds of relations between people.
Only then, Kollontai argued, could you begin to talk about a genuine “free love”. Only when the material needs of all people were met socially could all individuals — and women in particular — freely choose whether to enter into or leave a relationship:
“No more domestic bondage for women. No more inequality within the family. No need for women to fear being left without support and with children to bring up. The woman in communist society no longer depends upon her husband.”