Difficult Women: The Silencing of Alexandra Kollontai

Communists often hail the work of Alexandra Kollontai, holding her up as a decorated Marxist feminist and member of the Soviet Central Committee. In reality, Kollontai’s favour with the majority male leadership of the Soviet Union was highly dependent upon her compliance, and she spent much of her political career combatting the Communist Party’s disregard for women’s politics.

In 1879, August Bebel of the German SDP wrote Woman and Socialism which, despite being penned by a man, constituted the first serious attempt at Marxist analysis of the woman question. Whilst Clara Zetkin suggested that a woman’s liberation is dependent on her economic emancipation from her husband through waged work, Bebel’s analysis was much closer to Engels’ Origin of the Family. He attacked the family as the root of women’s oppression and advocated abolishing the institution of marriage altogether. As a result, Bebel was attacked by other communist men, notably James Connolly who fiercely opposed criticism of the family and expressed his belief in monogamic marriage. He described free sexual desire beyond monogamy as ‘brutal animalism’ and felt that discussion of sex outside of what is scientifically necessary was ‘indecency’.

Connolly’s animosity is typical of the attitude of many communist men towards the sex and the woman question, and is indicative of the hostile environment in which Kollontai was attempting to promote Marxist feminist thought. Like Engels and Bebel before her, Kollontai also saw the marriage and the traditional family as the root cause of female oppression. She saw that even if women achieved economic independence from their husband through waged work, they were still responsible for vast amounts of unpaid labour through the family — caring, cooking and cleaning for fathers, husbands, brothers and children. Kollontai understood that even if a communist state were to offer equal opportunities for women in the workplace and in education, she is still tethered to the domestic sphere as long as the traditional family continues to exist. In light of these conclusions, she promoted the socialisation of cooking and cleaning, and championed collective childrearing. These measures, she argued, would liberate women from the home, enabling them to pursue education, work and leisure opportunities — thus gaining full autonomy over their own lives, comparable to men.

In her 1909 pamphlet, The Social Basis of the Woman Question, Kollontai says:

In the family of today woman is oppressed not only as a person but as a wife and mother, in most of the countries of the civilised world the civil code places women in a greater or lesser dependence on her husband and awards the husband not only the right to dispose of her property but also the right of moral and physical dominance over her.

Kollontai, The Social Basis of the Woman Question

Unlike previous attempts to answer the woman question, which assumed that capitalism was the only oppressive force acting upon women, Kollontai acknowledged that the positioning of women as the property of men brings with it a social hierarchy — a ‘moral and physical dominance’ which is bequeathed to all men through the organisation of society into traditional, patriarchal, nuclear families. The working class man, despite his economically disadvantaged position under capitalism, finds himself in a superior position over the female sex under patriarchy. This is true in both the domestic sphere — where he gains a domestic servant (wife, mother, sisters) and sexual, reproductive access (girlfriend, wife) — and in the public sphere, in which women are treated as sexual objects and commodities, whilst he is not.

In the early days following the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks shared Kollontai’s appetite for the abolition of the family. Just one year after the Bolsheviks took power, they introduced the 1918 Code on Marriage, the Family and Guardianship which closely echoed the revolutionary sentiment of Marx and Engels. This piece of legislation envisaged the imminent ‘withering away’ of the family and was intended to provide a temporary legal support to protect women and children until the transition to communal childrearing, cleaning and cooking was complete.

However, as a result of declining birth rates, many of the gains that Kollontai and the early Bolshevik state had made for women were reversed under Stalin. The Zhenotdel — the women’s department of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the All-Russian Communist Party — was disbanded by 1930. Stalin’s administration moved away from the revolutionary approach to the family and abandoned the Marxist feminist notion that the traditional family must be abolished. Instead, the state strengthened the sovereignty of the family — both in law and culture. The Family Code of 1936 criminalised abortion and made it impossible for women to divorce their husbands without his consent. Pro-family and pro-natalist propaganda was introduced to encourage women to take up the mantel of motherhood, invariably through the traditional family. Sadly, throughout the entire history of the USSR, women made up only 3-4% of the Central Committee.

Kollontai was forced to suppress her analysis of the woman question and could no longer advocate for the abolition of the family. Her criticism of the Communist Party’s indifference to women’s oppression was stifled under the pretence of party discipline. Kollontai also expressed concerns that bourgeois and bureaucratic influences over the Communist Party and Soviet government were preventing control of economic activity by unionised workers. Kollontai became extremely critical of Bolshevik leadership and in her 1921 essay The Worker’s Opposition said:

Decisions are arrived at either by one person or by an extremely limited collective, wherein the interested people are quite often entirely absent. Fear of criticism and of freedom of thought, by combining together with bureaucracy, often produce ridiculous results…We give no freedom to class activity, we are afraid of criticism, we have ceased to rely on the masses…That is why the Workers’ Opposition considers that bureaucracy is our enemy, our scourge, and the greatest danger to the future existence of the Communist Party itself.

Kollontai Worker’s Opposition

As a result of her internal criticism of party leadership, Kollontai’s expulsion was discussed at the Eleventh Congress. In her defence, arguing that a healthy Communist Party should withstand debate and discussion of leadership, she said: ‘If there is no place for this in our party, then exclude me. But even outside the ranks of our party, I will live, work and fight for the Communist party.’

Congress passed a resolution allowing Kollontai to remain in the Party, albeit in a neutered position. Fearing that her days were numbered as an active member of the Party, she came to mutual agreement with Stalin to take a role in international ambassadorship. This arrangement was mutually beneficial: the Party was able to rid themselves of a difficult woman without the mess of formally expelling an esteemed female member; and Kollontai was able to retain membership whilst also escaping relentless attacks from male leadership.

The tragic end to Kollontai’s political career saw her completed defeated by male bureaucracy in her beloved Communist Party. Having spent over twenty years in international ambassador roles, she finally gave up her fight for women’s liberation and resigned herself to the new patriarchal political climate. In response to legal reform which reversed many gains Soviet women had made in preceding years, she said:

Everything’s changed so much. What can I do about this? One cannot go against the ‘apparatus’. For my part, I have put my principles aside in a corner of my conscience and I pursue as best I can the policies they dictate to me.

For women currently involved in communist and labour movements, Kollontai’s story will be sadly familiar. Decades on, men still dominate the apparatus of these left wing movements and wield their incumbent power to suppress and devalue women’s politics. Ironically, in this way, their role is comparable to that of the bourgeois state — using their position of power to crush dissenters.

In light of this, Kollontai’s eventual submission and resignation to defeat seems a tempting response to the misogyny within our movement. Similarly, the separatist approach — not to engage with existing male-dominated structures at all — can also seem an attractive prospect when male bureaucracy leaves us brow-beaten.

However, we must resist attempts to force us out of left wing politics altogether. Anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, feminist women cannot bow to the egos of weak men who seek to expunge difficult women. The advent of a new wave of vicious, porn-fuelled misogyny and the prevalence of liberal feminism (which frames our oppression as empowerment) poses new and increasingly dangerous threats to women. Now, possibly more than ever, we must commit to and promote the self-organisation of women. It is vital that we complement our practical organising with the development and advancement of feminist theory. Only through Marxist structural analysis — which unflinchingly names all benefactors and enforcers of female oppression — can we achieve women’s liberation. Like Engels, Bebel and Kollontai before us, we must not stray from the revolutionary position. We must continue to demand the abolition of the traditional family — regardless of how many left wing men balk at the prospect of relinquishing their domestic servants as a result.

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