Madeleine Johansson discusses the political thought and contribution of Russian feminist and revolutionary socialist, Alexandra Kollantai.
Alexandra Kollontai was a pioneer in terms of women in politics. She was one of the first female elected representatives, the first female Minister and member of Cabinet in Russia – before such a feat was achieved in any Western government – and subsequently became the first female Ambassador.
Born into a family of old Russian nobility, Kollontai was the youngest and, in her own words, ‘the most spoiled, the most coddled member of the family’. At the age of sixteen a young woman of her status was expected to begin the life of a ‘young society woman’.
Kollontai’s parents arranged a marriage for her to a well-to-do man who was nearly seventy. But she refused and married her cousin, a young love that lasted about three years. It was at this point that she began attending Marxist reading circles and joined the socialist movement.
Kollontai rebelled against the deep oppression of women in Russia at the time. Women, after their marriage (many of which were arranged), were regarded as the property of their husband, and there was no divorce and no abortion. Women didn’t have the right to vote in the limited Duma elections and there were no women elected representatives.
There was virtually no social welfare system and any woman who happened to have a child out of wedlock was likely to end up in the dreaded workhouses. At this time, many women were rebelling against their lack of freedoms. Middle class women fought to make their way into professions and gain employment, in hopes for the economic freedom and independence from men that would follow.
Working class women, on the other hand, were already in employment, many as domestic servants, but also in factories in the big cities like Petrograd. The problems faced by women workers were those of low wages, horrific working conditions, poverty, on top of the gender-specific oppression.
Her Socialist Feminism
Kollontai began her political life with a revolt against the societal norms which restricted the lives of women and many of her writings are related to the fight for women’s liberation and the relationship between women’s liberation and the workers’ movement.
She spent her time organising women workers into Working Women’s Clubs, and she organised interventions by women party members to conferences organised by the suffragette movement.
In 1909, Kollontai wrote the short but influential pamphlet The Social Basis of the Women’s Question. She argued in order to win liberation from oppression, women must join with the worker’s movement in the fight against a system of production from which women’s oppression stems.
The women’s world is divided, just as is the world of men, into two camps; the interests and aspirations of one group of women bring it close to the bourgeois class, while the other group has close connections with the proletariat, and its claims for liberation encompass a full solution to the woman question. Thus, although both camps follow the general slogan of the ‘liberation of women’, their aims and interests are different. Each of the groups unconsciously takes its starting point from the interests of its own class, which gives a specific class colouring to the targets and tasks it sets itself.
She argued that regardless of the intentions of bourgeois feminists their aims and interests are different from working class women, because they belong to a class whose interests lie in maintaining the status quo.
At times, the struggle of both groups may coincide, but in the long term the women of the ruling class will be satisfied with equality within their own class. In practice, women and men of the ruling class can then engage more equally in the exploitation of workers in the process of production.
Kollontai argued, however, that women’s oppression must be combatted head on, and not just as a by-product of the fight for socialism. To that end, she argued for specific agitation by the Party amongst women workers on the question of women’s rights.
Kollontai had begun her political journey by revolting against the lack of rights and choices for women and had quickly come to the conclusion that the only solution was a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system by the working class. Like many of her comrades, she dreamed of a different kind of society where men and women could live as equals.
In 1917 for the first time in history, there was an opportunity to realise that dream.
In February 1917, the women of Petrograd lived in hardship under the yoke of Tsarist dictatorship, war rations and extreme poverty. On International Women’s day, women workers poured onto the streets to protest with demands for ‘Land, Bread and Peace’. They marched to the factories where the men were working, threw snowballs on the windows and called on their husbands, fathers, brothers and friends to join them. These events unleashed a strike wave which forced the Tsar to abdicate from the throne and began the process of revolution.
Having lived in exile in Europe, when Kollontai received news of the outbreak of the February revolution she travelled from Norway to Russia through Northern Sweden. During the months of the revolution Kollontai worked tirelessly as an orator, a writer and an agitator. She was elected to the Soviet executive in April, she helped publish the weekly newspaper The Women Workers in May and took part in strikes by women laundry workers.
The Women Workers actively encouraged women to take part in the revolutionary activity, as seen in this article by Kollontai:
We, the women workers, were the first to raise the Red Banner in the days of the Russian revolution, the first to go out onto the streets on Women’s Day. Let us now hasten to join the leading ranks of the fighters for the workers’ cause, let us join trade unions, the Social-Democratic Party, the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies!
The work carried out by the women members of the Bolshevik party was certainly not in vain. Russian women were for the first time drawn into civic and political life in vast, historic numbers. Women workers attended the meetings of the Soviet in the cities while peasant women took part in the movement against the landlords in the countryside. We can only imagine the energy and enthusiasm that must have been flowing from the masses of women who were being transformed from women isolated within the family into activists, fighters and decision makers.
By October 1917 Kollontai had been elected to the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party.
With the formation of the Soviet government following the successful insurrection in October, Kollontai was appointed People’s Commissar of Social Welfare, the first woman in history to occupy a Ministerial post. She worked to put into practice the ideals of equality and fairness promoted in her writings and speeches.
There was an enormous amount of work to be done in order to transform Russia into a socialist country. There were decrees to improve care for disabled soldiers, abolish religious instruction in girl’s schools, set up homeless hostels, introduce maternity and infant care and a free public health care system.
However, Kollontai understood that ‘to attain legal rights is insufficient; women must be emancipated in practice. The emancipation of women means giving them the opportunity to bring up their children, combining motherhood with work for society.’
In November 1918, she helped organise the first Congress of Women Workers and Women Peasants which sought the formation of a programme of education and involvement of women into societal tasks. This included the establishment of communal kitchens, communal laundries and children’s day care with the aim of freeing women from isolated work in the home and bring them into working collectively for the good of society. In addition, there was an enormous effort made to educate working and peasant women, many of whom were illiterate.
Many reforms were made to the family and on questions of bodily autonomy. Marriage and divorce became civil matters, not religious, and were allowed by mutual consent. Children born out of wedlock received the same rights as children of married couples, and in 1919 abortion was legalised.
In 1920, Kollontai wrote Communism and the Family, which illustrated the vision Kollontai had for a new type of family in a new socialist society. This family would not be a unit of production or consumption, but rather a unit formed by love and equality between two partners. Kollontai wrote extensively about the concept of free-love for individuals, and collective childrearing for society as a whole.
By the end of the civil war Soviet Russia was all but destroyed. Millions of workers had perished in the fighting or from disease, factories had been closed down, large sections of the most fertile grain-producing land had been lost and productivity had plummeted.
In 1922, Kollontai accepted the appointment of Soviet Ambassador in Norway. She was the first woman ever to hold this position and she found herself overwhelmed by work on treaties and trade agreements. By the late 1920’s, Stalin and his loyal supporters had secured control of the Soviet government.
There was a noticeable lack of writings by Kollontai from 1929 onwards. Tragically, she never criticised the Stalinist regime, as many of the laws and decrees enacted by Kollontai herself were being eroded under the new ideal of the Stalinist “Soviet Family.”
Alexandra Kollontai deserves to be remembered as a pioneer of both socialist and feminist politics. Her political insights, and revolutionary practice, remain relevant to socialist activists today.