Sunday, March 30, 2014

Revisiting Alexandra Kollontai





Freedom, Free Love and Equality: Revisiting Alexandra Kollontai - Ashmita Sharma


The Life and Times of Kollontai


Born in 1872 in an old Russian nobility, Alexandra Kollontai emerged as a fervent revolutionary in the turning point of Russia’s historical epoch.

She was the youngest and the most pampered in the family. Although her parents were well to do yet there was no luxury in the house but despite that she did not know the meaning of privation. This, in fact, became the root cause that shaped the revolutionary bent of her mind and further emboldened her radical fervor towards critical inclinations. The blatant contradiction between her life and that of her peasant playmates created a rift in her thoughts instilling in her the realization that while her life was so complete, her playmates were reeling under the vagaries of deprivation. She was never sent to school by her parents for they were fearful and anxious of her encounter with revolutionary ideas but nevertheless was tutored at home by a proficient and zealous tutoress who was connected with the revolutionary circles in Russia. Though married for three years it was only after her separation from her husband that she was able to completely devote herself to the accomplishment of her aims; the revolutionary movement of Russia and the working class movement of the world. She was not only acclaimed as a brilliant orator, a proficient writer and a powerful political propagandist but she is also simultaneously ridiculed and denounced for her controversial ideas and anti – establishment paranoia in Soviet Russia. She was the only woman in the Central Committee in August 1917 and became the commissar of social welfare in the first Soviet government and later went on to head the central women’s department of Soviet Russia as the foremost leader of the Russian Socialist Democratic Women’s Movement.

Though revered for her revolutionary fervour, Kollontai also encountered widespread criticism for her forthright opposition to participation in the war, the Brest – Litovsk Treaty and the workers’ opposition but it was her political position on the ‘Woman’s Question’ that earned her the maximum criticism (Lokaneeta 2001). She raised that the struggle for women’s rights should be waged both within the party and also outside it. Despite her deep involvement and emotional attachment with the party she was well aware of the androcentric nature of the party officials and their trivializing attitude towards the crucial issue of women’s liberation. Addressing the ‘woman’s question’ was regarded as less political by the party members than what in their eyes appeared as the larger issues of serious political concern. Issues like imperialism, feudalism, czarism, democratic centralism seemed to have plagued the Russian society and the party so much so that they became the agenda that the party manifesto sought to deal with as the utmost priority. In doing so, the party officials were silently appropriating and subsuming the large gamut of women’s issues and concerns within the larger umbrella of ‘patronizing party politics’. These were some of the immediate concerns that Kollontai raised which gained illuminating clarity when in 1905 the first revolution in Russia broke and the party paid little attention to the fate of the working class women. Kollontai through her writings and speeches intrinsically explored the ‘Woman’s Question’ primarily in the context of the working class women’s movement in Russia linking women’s oppression to the larger structures of class oppression and the need to revolutionize the existing social order in order to bring about a new and a more egalitarian economic system. Her writings are a path – breaking contribution to Marxist Feminist Theory and Praxis.

I review two short stories, “Sisters” and “The Loves of Three Generations” authored by Alexandra Kollontai. I briefly narrate the two stories and then capture some of the emerging themes and link them with the larger understanding of Kollontai’s arguments on the pertinent issues of free love, sexual relations, comradeship and class struggle.

Brief Narration of the Stories

1. Sisters

The short story “Sisters” is set against the backdrop of the Russian revolution. A helpless and  homeless woman, the protagonist of the story, seeks assistance because she has been fired from her job due to the new policy of expense retrenchment that was adopted in Russia when thousands of workers lost their jobs and were out on the streets. Her husband was still employed but because of a broken relationship she dreaded going back to him. She narrates the story of her painful journey that had ripped her life apart despite the initial golden days in the revolution. It so happened that when she was working for the party and the whole of Russia was gearing up for the much needed revolution against the feudal aristocracy she met her husband. Both of them spent happy days working together for the revolution and eventually got married after they learnt that she was pregnant. She hoped that the birth of the new one would bring joy and happiness in their lives bringing them closer to each other more than ever. After the child’s birth her husband got employed with the Combinat and she was also newly recruited in the Rayon Congress. Being completely aware of the burden of household responsibilities she was determined to establish the child care center so that she did not have to compromise on her job despite family pressure. Now that her husband was also employed and was in a good position he did not want his wife to toil because he knew he could provide for her instead wanted her to focus her attention completely on family responsibilities which she dismissed. Though there were frequent scuffles between the two because of her unconventional non – conformist attitude yet things were not as bad until her husband was sent with a few NEPmen (businessmen in the young Soviet Union who took advantage of the opportunities for private trade and small-scale manufacturing created by the New Economic Policy in USSR) on a business trip. This was the beginning of new problems in her life which gradually snowballed into bigger issues finally resulting in the shattering of the once ‘love filled bond’ that sparkled in the midst of the revolution. Her husband would come home drunk every day. Although she hoped for things to better with time, it only got worse. Problems aggravated when her daughter fell sick and she was discharged from job shortly after her baby’s death.

However, the trigger that finally put an end to their relationship was when her husband brought a woman to the house taking advantage of her helpless situation. The woman stranger told her that she had met her husband only the previous night and that she did not know that he had a wife. She came with him only because she was in dire need of money and he promised to pay her well. This gave birth to feelings of hatred for her husband. She could not believe that a man who claims to be so committed to the cause of the working class took advantage of a woman who came to him for help by buying her body. She felt sorry for the woman and that day she decided to leave her husband and was determined to never return back to him. Since her condition was no different from that of the helpless woman, she felt a strong bond of sisterhood with her.

2. Loves of Three Generations

This story opens with the protagonist reading out a letter from Olga Sergejewna Wasselowskaya, a woman and organiser, holding a responsible position in the Soviet Republic. This story, as the name suggests, traces the trajectory of love across three generations; beginning from the times of Olga’s mother, to herself and to her daughter. It so happens that Olga’s mother, against the wishes of her parents, gets married to a commander whom she is deeply in love with. However, eventually she falls for a physician in whom she finds her ideal partner. She decides to leave her husband for the sake of her lover after fighting with her conscience as she is caught between her maternal responsibility and safeguarding family honour in the society. However, asserting her expressions on “free love”, she leaves her husband and starts her life anew with her lover. Olga in her lifetime also has a live-in relationship with a prominent Soviet revolutionary but do not marry because they defy the institution of marriage itself. Meanwhile she gets acquainted with a bourgeoisie household where she is employed as a private instructress. Complications arise when the woman falls for the wealthy engineer. The fact that she feels for the bourgeoisie man does not mean that she no longer feels for her partner; she loves them both. Her mother persuades her to decide for herself and choose between the two men she feels for. However, she was of the opinion that it was possible for such kinds of passion to exist side by side and that what she felt for both was more than just desire; it was love in the true sense of the term. She believed that the rights of love are more important than the institution of marriage. Later differences arose between herself and her mother not because of political reasons but because of their differing ideas on the notion of love and permissiveness in relationships.

Talking about her own daughter, she says that she did not understand the predicaments of her daughter just like the way her mother refused to understand hers. It so happened that her daughter, Genia, became pregnant and came to her for help. She said that she was not ready for a child yet and would want to go for an abortion. When Olga Sergejewna learnt that she has had sexual relations in the front and was unaware of the father of the child, she was deeply hurt. According to her, it was immoral for her daughter to enter into physical relations with people without feeling a sense of love for them. Genia, on the other hand, felt that it was perfectly fine for such feelings to exist without the element of love. She felt that some relationships remain undefined yet become important for one’s existence. Genia never felt love for any of the persons she has been intimate with; the only person she loved in her life was her mother.     

Love, Sexuality and Class Struggle: Continued Relevance of Kollontai       

It is interesting to note how in the writings of Kollontai the recurring themes centered around the indispensable and undisputed issues of love, marriage, sexual relations, sexual morality, family, comradeship, solidarity and communism point to Kollontai’s understanding of these very issues as closely interspersed with each other. Her writings are instrumental in the sense that they have an important bearing on the issues and facets of her life that are lesser known to the world outside. It is through her writings that she attempts to meticulously spell out that part of the history of revolutionary Russia that for most part has remained oblivious to women especially working class women. She believed that it was not history per se that excluded and invisibilised women but it was the play of patriarchal forces and structures within certain historical contexts that hindered women’s participation in the larger social and political processes (Lokaneeta 2001). The need to address the “woman’s question” within the larger patriarchal capitalist structure of development brought Kollontai close to Marxism (Farnsworth 1976).

For Kollontai as is also evident in her writings, the working class women formed the indispensable core of the revolutionary struggle. She was of the belief that it was only under the ideals of socialism that women could be truly free with the achievement of economic independence. The “woman’s question” was not based on the premise of fighting for political liberation alone but it was also seen as a battle for economic independence for women, symbolically as “a piece of bread” (Farnsworth 1976: 294). Moreover, the characters in her writings, as is also true from the above mentioned stories, are always defined by the determinants of their socio – economic conditions, placing them in a typical class milieu of the “haves” and the “have nots” (Ingemanson 1989).  This also comes from her own location as a Marxist feminist where she was understanding and comprehending the plight of the working class women as an integral part of the larger class struggle.

She was an ardent advocate of “free love”, love that knows no boundaries and restrictions but love that is based on mutual recognition, understanding and respect. Despite her overt emphasis on “free love”, she was very clear about the fact that love should not be the ultimate goal in a woman’s life though since childhood women are socialized into believing and accepting the same. She believed, preached, practiced and propagated that “love” is only one aspect of an individual’s life and that the longing for love and work can be harmoniously combined making work the centre of one’s existence. This was also well founded in the short story “Sisters” where although the woman holds it as her moral right to discharge her responsibilities towards her family yet at the same time she also does not turn a blind eye to the allegiance that she has towards her ‘self’. She considers herself as an individual in her own right capable of asserting her economic agency which according to Kollontai becomes the necessary pre – requisite to bring about a political revolution for working class women in the country and across the world. What also sparks from “The Loves of Three Generations” is Kollontai’s understanding of the importance of relationships in the life of every individual. The emotional thread that connects and unites people might not necessarily be ‘love’ itself but just an ‘incomprehensible feeling’; a feeling that has transcended the concrete walls of definitions to make space for a more fluid sense of belonging.

The nuclear family which is the product of capitalistic relations of production becomes the harbinger of bourgeois love which creates oppressive conditions for women within the family. The family under capitalism is the basis of exploitation where women’s unpaid labour also addressed as unproductive labour, because of the absence of exchange value in the market, is constituted within the larger framework of marriage what is termed as domestic slavery. Marx’s framework did not consider domestic labour as contributing to the realm of production as it believed that the family under capitalism ceases to be productive. However, despite limitations what must be appreciated of Kollontai is her attempt to address the question of ‘domestic labour’ not so much by critiquing the nature of ‘work’ or ‘tasks’ but more so by devaluing women’s labour. Her conception of a communist society brings with it the idea of a workers’ collective whereby the working class seeks to unburden the women from the drudgeries of housework by establishing public laundries, communal kitchens, crèches or day care centers etc. This was well explicated in the light of the short story “Sisters”, where although the woman on taking up a job becomes successful in establishing the day care center to look into the matters of her child yet later complications arising out of domestic responsibilities forced her to quit her job.

Hence, Kollontai makes child rearing a choice for women but the conception of maternity leaves no choice for motherhood which she regards as a social obligation that every woman must fulfill in order to increase and strengthen the workforce of the nation. Thus, compulsory motherhood brings with it its own set of unavoidable responsibilities and obligations that invariably forces women to a life of drudgery within the narrow confines of the domestic world.

Kollontai explains how women’s oppressive condition are based on the ideology of “love” which is used to justify various forms of marriage and kinship ties. Under capitalism the concept of monogamous love flourished which forms the basis of marriage. Thus, bourgeois love demanded women’s undivided love and loyalty towards their husbands and families whereas giving equal opportunity for men to exploit women in the parallel institution of prostitution. Kollontai believed that the ideology of love in a capitalist society was both patriarchal as well as individualistic in nature (Lokaneeta 2001).

Kollontai in her essay, “Sexual Relations and Class Struggle” goes on to further explain the two very important characteristics of a bourgeois man which creates oppressive and exploitative conditions for the existence of women. Firstly, the idea of possessing the partner in marriage and secondly inequality between the sexes in every sphere including sexual sphere. In a capitalist society the sense of ‘crude individualism’ creates a deep sense of loneliness in a man while facing the external world. He seeks to overcome this spiritual loneliness by means of deriving a larger share of spiritual and physical pleasure from his ‘contracted partner’ through absolute possessiveness of the other’s soul. The yearning to overcome loneliness is so strong that it becomes oppressive for the other. Bourgeois ideology of inequality between the sexes in the spheres of emotional and physical experience highlights the case in point that the same action will be judged by different social and moral standards depending on whether the action is performed by a man or a woman. Kollontai emphasizes that such a situation further aggravates the already existing “sexual crisis” that characterizes the bourgeois society and criticizes the double standards of morality that creates favorable and enabling conditions for the bourgeois man at the expense of the ‘bourgeois’ or the ‘working class woman’.

Thus, Kollontai argued that the transition from capitalism to socialism/communism would usher in a new phase of communist morality where relationships would be based on freedom, equality, mutual understanding and respect. The concept of solidarity and comradeship would be the new elements in a socialist society. Unlike the capitalist society which propagated “wingless Eros” (sexual attraction) outside the confines of marriage, socialist society according to Kollontai while supporting the idea of Eros would be confined to “winged Eros” where sexual attraction would be based on love, equality, comradely sensitivity and mutual respect. However, the underlying notion was that such kinds of personal relationships or sexual unions would remain subordinate to the solidarity and the comradeship of the workers’ collective.

Kollontai is wrongly credited or rather denounced for her ‘glass of water theory’ where she is said to have considered sex as natural as drinking a glass of water to quench one’s thirst (Lokaneeta 2001). This suggests that repression of one’s sexual desires is as devastating as suppressing one’s need for water. Thus, “she is accused of propagating free sex and perpetuating sexual anarchy” (Lokaneeta 2001: 1411). All she believed in was a working class ideology that would define the new morality of the socialist society that would arise in response to the “sexual crisis” that plagued the bourgeois society. She believed that socialism would transform the lives of men and women revolutionizing the idea of ‘love’ and ‘sexual relations’ thus making possible new ways in which men and women would love each other and indulge in intimate relationships. However, although she clearly expressed the idea of a new kind of morality in a communist society yet she did not clearly define the forms that this conception of morality would endorse or how would this be different rather more egalitarian as opposed to the notion of bourgeois morality.

It was Kollontai’s radical ideas on sexual relations that became the major source of criticism within the Soviet party. Though there are some writings on this subject by others yet their analysis is not radically different from that of Marx, Engels and Bebel. In fact, Bebel more than a decade before Kollontai had suggested that the women as victims of capitalism would be truly free only under socialism with the eradication of private property enabling all classes of women to enter into more egalitarian and equal relationships. These ideas are deeply rooted in Marxist traditions.  One of the remarkable contributions of Kollontai to the Marxist feminist framework was that she raised the issue of the “personal” and connected it to the larger “political” structures of class struggle and the socio – economic reconstruction of the society. No serious attempt was made by other party officials to understand and analyse the intrinsic relationship between the ‘personal realm’ and ‘women’s oppression’ which remains one of the most telling contributions of Kollontai in her times. For instance with regards to women’s domestic labour though she was able to analyse it in the context of women’s oppression and link it to the larger economic structures yet nevertheless she failed to delve deeper into the issue and go beyond what the Marxists theorists have already conceptualized about the same. Moreover, her over-emphasis on the needs and the requirements of the workers’ collective and the interests of the socialist state and the economy results in the deflection from the interests of individual women per se. She also fails to clearly define the actual composition of the workers’ collective and the relationship between the sexes in the same. Definitions of productive / unproductive labour were uncritically accepted and women were merely regarded as the agents of reproduction for the welfare of the soviet economy thereby stifling the element of choice in defining their own existence. The soviet state undertook various steps towards the liberation of women but failed to identify the multifaceted dimension of patriarchy governing women’s lives. Thus, Kollontai’s attempts to unravel some of the unexplored areas of women’s lives remain one of her remarkable contributions and radical developments in the Marxist paradigm of social and political change.

What is also interesting to note is that Kollontai’s radical ideas of love and relationships have emboldened people worldwide even in the contemporary times. A recent article on ‘Lives; running’ articulated how in a protest in London by a group of gay activists against the treatment of LGBT youth in Russia, a demonstrator searching for the perfect image held out a placard showing the face of Alexandra Kollontai. Though Kollontai, at a personal level, engaged very little with the issue of homosexuality yet the demonstrator was right in a deeper sense because she has written extensively on how a socialist society would bring about a revolution in the hearts and minds of the people on the subject of ‘love’; making relationships more equal, free and acceptable. These ideas that emerged from Kollontai holds true and is quite radical even for the contemporary times. The marriage between ‘Marxism’ and ‘Feminism’ which plays out quite deep in her writings interweaves a kind of politics that champions working – class liberation as a revolutionizing step towards the liberation and emancipation of women across the world.


References 

Lokaneeta Jinee. (2001). “Alexandra Kollontai and Marxist Feminism”. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 36, No. 17, pp. 1405-1412. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4410544.



Ingemanson Birgitta. (1989). “The Political Function of Domestic Objects in the Fiction of Aleksandra Kollontai”. Slavic Review, Vol. 48, No. 1, pp. 71-82. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2498686.



Farnsworth Brodsky Beatrice. (1976).“Bolshevism, Women Question and Aleksandra Kollontai.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 81, No. 2, pp. 292-316. Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association.  Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1851172.



Online Sources 

Available at (https://www.marxists.org/‎), accessed on 28th September, 2013




The author is a research scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

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