Editor’s note: The following is the first of a two-part article based on a talk the author gave at the People’s Forum in July 2020. This first part focuses on Kollontai’s struggle for proletarian feminism against bourgeois feminism as well as her struggle to center gender equality within the party’s platform. Part two focuses on her writings on the family, love, and communism.
The Russian communist revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai lived from 1872 to 1952. Prior to the 1917 revolution, she was an active speaker, writer, and organizer in the socialist women workers’ movement in Russia and Europe. Kollontai was the first woman to be a cabinet official: she was people’s commissar for welfare in the first Bolshevik government after the October revolution. She also founded the new government’s “women’s department” (Zhenotdel), and was one of the first women to hold an official diplomatic post. More exciting than these official responsibilities were Kollontai’s revolutionary work and writing, which focused not only on the relation between the struggle for gender equality and socialism, but also the general role of love and solidarity in struggle. Attention to these can help us clarify our analyses and sharpen our politics today.
A Marxist committed to organizing women workers, Kollontai argued that women’s subordination was anchored in economic conditions; that is, in the conditions of “the production and reproduction of immediate life,” to use Frederick Engels’ formulation . These conditions involve how both human existence is produced and reproduced and how the means of existence—food, clothing, shelter, tools, and so on—are secured and arranged. Women’s position in the economy—which includes the sexual division of labor in the family—determines women’s position in society. The repercussion is that women’s liberation depends on the elimination of capitalism, of class society and exploitation, and the communist rearrangement of production and life.
Although theorized over 100 years ago, the emphasis on material conditions, economic conditions, and relations of production and reproduction continues to be of crucial importance to struggles for the liberation of women workers. Some contemporary feminists often ignore the economy, highlighting instead attitudes, language, images, and subjective feelings without attending to their economic basis. Too much attention is placed on individuals and their feelings, comfort, preferences, and desires, as if these were not themselves collective social effects. In contrast, Kollontai teaches us to recognize that the most intimate aspects of our lives are collective.
Three themes in Kollontai’s life and work demonstrate her relevance for contemporary organizers: struggle, history, and love–the first of which is explored in this article. Kollontai’s attention to women’s position in the economy enabled a powerful and nuanced approach to the liberation of women workers. Her understanding of history produced keen insight into changes in the family. In part two, we explore how her longing for communism—including her concrete work toward building a proletarian dictatorship—led her to view intimate relationships as inextricable from solidarity. Organizing love is part of organizing production, of creating the space and support necessary for fulfilling, cooperative, work.
The struggle for proletarian feminism
Kollontai was a fierce advocate for women workers. She says in her autobiography that she put her “whole heart and soul” into the struggle for “the abolition of the slavery of working women” . This meant winning women workers over to socialism and fighting for equal rights, for women’s liberation. Kollontai thus engaged in a two-front struggle: against bourgeois feminists on the one side and for the socialist party’s attention to women workers on the other.
Kollontai did not identify as a feminist. She understood “feminism” as a bourgeois politics, the politics of a particular class of women. That feminism was the politics of bourgeois women appeared in the way that feminists failed to challenge the basic structure of society: they accepted it and wanted to move up in it. Kollontai writes:
“The feminists seek equality in the framework of existing class society, in no way do they attack the basis of this society. They fight for prerogatives for themselves, without challenging the existing prerogatives and privileges” .
Rather than unified on the basis of sex, women are divided by class. Class struggle divides women just as it does men. Sex unity “does not and cannot exist.” Even though they speak of all women or women as such, bourgeois feminists pose the question of women’s liberation from their specific class position, their specific desires for education, property, suffrage, and access to the professions.
Kollontai recounts how feminism emerges as a political movement in the middle of the 19th century in the context of capitalist development. As capitalism became the dominant mode of production, the position of the middle classes—the petty bourgeoisie—grew unstable and precarious. While working-class women had already been absorbed into factory labor (primarily because they could be paid less than men), bourgeois women started to face the need for income and meaningful work. They thus demanded rights to go to university and to enter into a broader array of jobs. Bourgeois women’s struggle against the men denying them access is what gets called “feminism.” Feminists want the same privileges that the men of their class have. They treat men as the enemy and try to enlist all women in their struggle for equal rights, all without changing the basic structure of class society.
Proletarian women have fundamentally different interests, interests that coincide with those of proletarian men. “They think of men as their comrades,” as those oppressed by the same social conditions, enchained under capitalist exploitation and domination . Kollontai has in mind the massive numbers of working-class women thrown into the capitalist labor force—over 60 million in Europe and the US prior to the outbreak of World War I. “The working woman is first and foremost a member of the working class,” she says . Feminism does nothing for her—she doesn’t have anything to gain from an alliance with bourgeois feminists. In her history of the movement of women workers in Russia, Kollontai explains this point concretely. Women workers had demands that arose from their specific conditions: they wanted a shorter working day, higher pay, more humane treatment in the factories, and less police surveillance . The bourgeois feminists had no interest in any of this.
Kollontai also attended to the concerns of domestic workers. Throughout 1905, the year of the first Russian revolution, laundresses, cooks, and maids carried out strike actions and street demonstrations. They demanded polite treatment from employers, an eight-hour work day, a minimum wage, and separate living quarters. Bourgeois feminists organizing as the Alliance for Female Equality made efforts to organize with domestic workers and called a meeting. Large numbers of servants turned out, but they were turned off by the “mixed alliance between lady employers and domestic employees “. (Kollontai’s attention to domestic labor here resonates with the work of Black Communist women like Claudia Jones, Louise Thompson Patterson, Esther Cooper Jackson, and Alice Childress in the middle of the twentieth century. They, too, emphasized the importance of organizing household workers.
Women workers played a major role in the 1905 revolution. Describing Bloody Sunday, Kollontai says that “the woman worker, young girl, working wife, is a common figure among the mass victims of that January day” . Women circulated the slogan of the general strike throughout the factories and were some of the first to walk out. Kollontai emphasizes the courage and agency of proletarian women throughout the 1905 revolution:
“In the October days, exhausted by work and their harsh existence on the edge of starvation, women leave the factories and, in the name of the common cause, courageously deprive their children of their last piece of bread… With simple, moving words the woman worker appeals to her male comrades, suggesting that they too leave their work; she keeps up the spirits of those on strike, breathing energy into those who waver… The woman worker struggled tirelessly, protested courageously, sacrificed herself heroically for the common cause, and the more active she became, the more rapidly was the process of her mental awakening achieved. The woman worker began to take note of the world around her, of the injustices stemming from the capitalist system. She became more painfully and acutely aware of the bitterness of all her sufferings and sorrows” .
Some feminist critics of Kollontai charge her with failing to criticize masculinity, with embracing a view of the worker as masculine . This charge is not correct. It overlays gender onto class struggle, erasing the strength and courage of women workers. It’s a criticism that uses binary gender to paint over the power and agency of proletarian comrades on the same side of political struggle. Kollontai praises courage, endurance, dedication, and the awakening of political consciousness that organized struggle brings about in proletarian of all genders.
Peasant women in the countryside were also deeply involved in the 1905 revolution, in what was referred to as the “petticoat rebellions:”
“Filled with anger and with a boldness surprising for women, the peasant women attacked military and police headquarters where the army recruits were stationed, seized their menfolk and took them home. Armed with rakes, pitchforks and brooms, peasant women drove the armed guards from the villages . . . In this protest, defense of peasant interests and of purely ‘female’ interests are so closely interwoven that there are no grounds for dividing them and classing the ‘petticoat rebellions’ as part of the ‘feminist movement’” .
To describe the fierce actions of the peasant women as primarily women’s interests would detract from their class context even as it was this context that was driving their actions. To be sure, peasant women’s eruption on the political stage led them to demand political equality, but this was an effect of the awareness that resulted from their fight for the “economic and political interests of the peasantry as a whole”—that is, the expropriation of land and the end of conditions of agricultural bondage.
To sum up this first side of her struggle on behalf of women workers, Kollontai argues that the goal of bourgeois feminists is political equality within class society, not the dismantlement of that society. Working class women realize that so long as they are forced to sell their labor power, so long as they “bear the yoke of capitalism,” they will not be free. All their choices—including who and whether to marry, whether to bear children and how to care for them, the sorts of work they can do if they choose to marry, if they choose to bear children—are constrained by the market. So Kollontai was not a feminist. She rejects the idea there is some “universal ‘women’s question’ as “feminist reassuring self-delusion.” Women’s liberation requires socialism, the end of class society and capitalist exploitation.
The struggle for women and the party
What, then, about the second side of her struggle, the struggle for the socialist inclusion of women workers’ concerns in the party’s work and platform? In her autobiography, Kollontai says that persuading members of the party to address issues facing women workers was difficult. Even after women workers’ courage in the 1905 revolution, many socialists continued to associate women’s concerns with bourgeois feminism. This started to change when the First World War broke out, as both factions of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (Bolsheviks and Mensheviks) took up women’s issues in a practical fashion. Nevertheless, Kollontai and other women in the party had to continue to fight to keep women’s concerns on the party’s radar. In classic Leninist fashion, they established a newspaper, Rabotnitsa (“Working Women”).
As she sought to expand the party’s engagement with women workers, Kollontai continued to write, lecture, and organize. She participated in the strike of women laundry workers, calling for the “municipalization” of laundries (the strike lasted six weeks and did not succeed). She pressured trade unions for equal pay for women and for maternity protection. Kollontai herself attributes the real improvement in the party’s stance toward proletarian women to the dire situation of the country during the First World War, when there was a dramatic decline in living conditions with high prices and shortages of vital goods. The society faced an undeniable crisis of social reproduction that the party could not ignore. After the October revolution and her appointment as People’s Commissar of Social Welfare, Kollontai took numerous initiatives to improve the conditions of social reproduction, with measures around disabled war veterans, the education of young girls, the reorganization of orphanages as children’s homes, the elaboration of a free public health system, and more. She was most proud of her work creating the legal foundation of a Central Office for Maternity and Infant Welfare. This included plans for a “pre-natal care palace” and modern nurseries, or for the nationalization of maternity and infant care.
Kollontai sketched out her vision of pregnant women welcomed into “a special home with a garden and flowers:”
“It will be so designed that every pregnant woman has just given birth can live there joyfully in health and comfort. The doctors in this society-family are concerned not just about preserving the health of the mother and child but about relieving the woman of the pain of childbirth. Science is making progress in this field and can help the doctor here. When the child is strong enough, the mother returns to her normal life and takes up again the work that she does for the benefit of the large family-society. She does not have to worry about her child. Society is there to help her. Children will grow up in the kindergarten, the children’s colony, the creche and the school under the care of experienced nurses . . . Maternity is no longer a cross. Only its joyful aspects remain …” .
Kollontai’s work in the new Soviet government, both as Commissar for Social Welfare and later with the Women’s Department, involved socializing maternity, infant care, childcare, and reproductive labor. Her writing sought to imagine new socialist love relations, the new morality of free and equal comrades. The civil war, economic devastation, and factional struggles within the party meant that she did not get to see her work fully realized.
 Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (Penguin Classics, 2010), 35.
 Alexandra Kollontai, The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Woman, https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1926/autobiography.htm.
 Alexandra Kollontai, The Social Basis of the Woman Question, https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1909/social-basis.htm.
 Alexandra Kollontai, “History of the movement of women workers in Russia,” https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1919/history.htm.
 Alexandra Kollontai, Red Love, https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/red-love/index.htm.
 Alexandra Kollontai, “History of the movement of women workers in Russia.”
 Alexandra Kollontai, “Working Woman and Mother,” https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1916/working-mother.htm