Editor’s note: The following is the second of a two-part article based on a talk the author gave at The People’s Forum in July 2020. This second part focuses on Kollontai’s writing on the family and love. Part one covers Kollontai’s struggle for proletarian feminism against bourgeois feminism as well as her struggle to center gender equality within the party’s platform.
Alexandra Kollontai’s approach to political struggle was grounded in historical materialism, the Marxist approach to history. She didn’t see the status of women, the structure of the family, or even love as somehow natural or given, as unchanging over time. On the contrary, they changed with the mode of production.
The structure of the family under capitalism was particularly oppressive to women as it made women economically dependent on their husbands and their husbands dependent on the wage.
Kollontai contrasts a time before capitalism had developed in Russia, “our grandmothers’ time,” with the change in family life brought about capitalism. During “our grandmothers’ time,” the husband was the breadwinner, earning wages outside the home. The wife supported the family by working within the home. Kollontai explains, “The woman did everything that the modern working and peasant woman has to do, but besides this cooking, washing, cleaning and mending, she spun wool and linen, wove cloth and garments, knitted stockings, made lace, prepared – as far as her resources permitted – all sorts of pickles, jams and other preserves for winter, and manufactured, her own candles” . Kollontai emphasizes that this domestic labor was necessary not just for the family but for the state as a whole. The “national economy” benefited from women’s domestic production because women were making commodities, items to be sold on the market. The labor of the wife and mother did more than satisfy the needs of her family. It wasn’t just reproductive labor; it was productive labor. Kollontai writes: “The interests of the whole nation were involved, for the more work the woman and the other members of the family put into making cloth, leather and wool (the surplus of which was sold in the neighboring market), the greater the economic prosperity of the country as a whole” .
The development of capitalist industry changes the economic role and thus also the social role of the family. Rather than primarily a unit of production, the family under capitalism is a unit of consumption. Because of the insufficiency of the husband’s wages, wives are forced to leave the home and search for waged work. The result is that they don’t have time to make all the items they used to make—they barely have time to see after their children, prepare meals, sleep. It would also be unproductive for women to spend their time making candles and weaving cloth because these items are now manufactured on a mass scale. As Kollontai puts it, “the machine has superseded the wife.” Rather than work that is productive for the national economy, housework is reduced to the repetitive and exhausting drudgery of cleaning, cooking, washing, and mending. These tasks are important for the family, but, Kollontai says, of no value to the state “because they do not create any new values or make any contribution to the prosperity of the country.” The housewife does this work over and over without directly creating any value, which for Kollontai means without making any commodity.
One might criticize Kollontai for failing to question the sexual division of labor in the household. She assumes women’s domestic responsibilities rather than considering that men might share in the work of cleaning, cooking, washing, and mending. One might also reject the view that reproductive labor does not produce value and argue instead that it produces value by producing labor power. To my mind, these lines of critique miss Kollontai’s essential point regarding the changed historical position of the family under capitalism. Once the capitalist mode of production compelled more women into the paid labor force, the family started to fall apart. The economic circumstances that had held it together—the combination of the family’s dependence on the wage of the father plus the domestic production of children as well as the wife—no longer held. More women entered the waged labor force, often with husband and wife working different shifts, and child-rearing constituted a real challenge, especially for working class parents. Increasingly, women workers were supporting their husbands as well as their children. The family structure under capitalism is a fetter on social relations, locking women in particular in misery. (It’s no wonder that conservatives defend the family; it continues relations of hierarchy and dependence).
Capitalism can’t solve the problem of the family—but communism can, by socializing all labor, collectivizing housekeeping, and making maternity and childcare social responsibilities. Kollontai writes:
“Communist society has this to say to the working woman and working man: “You are young, you love each other. Everyone has the right to happiness. Therefore live your life. Do not flee happiness. Do not fear marriage, even though under capitalism marriage was truly a chain of sorrow. Do not be afraid of having children. Society needs more workers and rejoices at the birth of every child. You do not have to worry about the future of your child; your child will know neither hunger nor cold” .
History is tending in the direction of the socialization of all labor, including reproductive labor. For Kollontai, this includes even breast-feeding. She says that, in the future communist society, refusing to breast-feed another’s baby will be viewed as being as bad as eating another’s baby is now . Once the family is no longer the site of productive work, it is no longer necessary—and this is liberating! Kollontai envisions that:
“In place of the old relationship between men and women, a new one is developing: a union of affection and comradeship, a union of two equal members of communist society, both of them free, both of them independent and both of them workers. 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 but on her work. It is not in her husband but in her capacity for work that she will find support. She need have no anxiety about her children. The workers’ state will assume responsibility for them. Marriage will lose all the elements of material calculation which cripple family life. Marriage will be a union of two persons who love and trust each other” .
Kollontai found evidence for her view that the family was outmoded and that society was already moving toward the socialization of reproductive labor in the behavior of the bourgeoisie. They turned childcare and domestic responsibilities such as cooking and cleaning over to the market; they paid people for that work, making it part of the national economy. Changes in the law around marriage and divorce as well as the institution of public schools were further indications that the family was no longer necessary. The new Soviet government legalized abortion, but for Kollontai that was not enough. What was really necessary was a change in the social conditions of maternity: “motherhood is not a private matter but a social obligation” . And that means it requires complete social support.
In sum, Kollontai’s historical materialist approach to the family grounded her efforts to transfer responsibilities for social reproduction from the outmoded and decaying institution of the family to society and the state.
In her autobiography, Kollontai says that love played too great a role in her life—it was an incredible squandering of her mental energy, a diminution of her labor power in barren emotional experiences. Her writings on communist morality suggest ways of reimagining social ties so that neither women nor men are burdened by love affairs. She writes: “Love is only one aspect of life, and must not be allowed to overshadow the other facets of the relationships between individual and collective” . Kollontai’s vision of a love beyond the confines of the couple provided an alternative, one that begins not from romance, marriage, and the family, but from the question of the forms of relations that best strengthen the workers’ collective. Love and sex are not private matters; they are social.
Writing in 1921, Kollontai diagnosed a widespread sexual crisis in the new Soviet society, a crisis resulting from the continuation of the distorting influences of the bourgeoisie, including the bourgeois ideology of extreme individuality, a possessive approach to love where one person owns another, and a belief in sexual inequality. This ideology produces the emotional intensity and the deep-seated problems plaguing love relations in capitalist society. Solving them requires a “radical re-education of the psyche” and the development of love relations anchored in comradeship and solidarity.
With regard to state regulations, Kollontai thought that there were two grounds for legislating sexual conduct: public health and population concerns. For the most part, though, she considered sexual behavior a matter for education, agitation, and morality; that is, a matter of the standards that communists apply to each other. For example, do they hold a double standard with regard to men’s and women’s conduct? Do they recognize that sex is a healthy and natural instinct that should neither be repressed nor excessive?
Kollontai lists several key changes in sexual relations between men and women that would strengthen the workers’ collective during the period of the transition to communism:
- All sexual relationships must be based on mutual inclination, love, infatuation, or passion –not financial or material interests: “All calculation in relationships must be subject to merciless condemnation.”
- The form and length of the relationship are not regulated, but should not be based exclusively on “the sexual act” and should not involve “excesses.”
- Those with heritable illnesses should not have children. (A reaction to the serious social reproduction problems facing the new workers’ state in Russia, this ableist view reflects not only the limited science of the time but also the eugenicist approach to public health prevalent in the US and Europe in the first half of the twentieth century and persisting among reactionaries today).
- Jealousy and possessiveness should be replaced by comradeship and acceptance of freedom.
- “The bonds between the members of the collective must be strengthened.” This is assisted by encouraging the younger generation’s intellectual and political interests .
I am not aware of Kollontai having ever writing about same sex romantic relationships. She does say that there are no reasons to think that public health dictates monogamy or polygamy (that is, forms of relationship beyond the bourgeois couple). And while she is concerned that sexual relationships with many people at one time can be detrimental to reproduction, she finds nothing wrong with the frequent change of sexual partners. Overall, her rejection of the bourgeois married couple leads to sexual positivity and inclusiveness. In this vein, she holds that communist morality demands that “the individual with his or her many interests has contact with a range of persons of both sexes. Community morality encourages the development of many and varied bonds of love and friendship among people” . More than sex, what matters is the social element, the breaking away from the egoism, possessiveness, and inequality characteristic of the bourgeois couple. The orientation is toward many, not just one other.
In “Make way for Winged Eros: A Letter to Working Class Youth” from 1923, Kollontai theorizes sex in terms of energy, wingless Eros and winged Eros. Wingless Eros is the natural and biological sex instinct. Kollontai associates it with a reproductive urge but also describes it as brief, simple, couplings (we might say hooking up). Wingless Eros doesn’t require emotional and psychological energy. And because it doesn’t require emotional and psychological energy, this kind of casual sex is compatible with intense work elsewhere, like revolutionary work, for example. At the same time, the absence of intensity that gives wingless Eros this compatibility makes it unsatisfying. People generally want something intensely satisfying and meaningful in their lives: “this extra energy seeks an outlet in the love-experience” . So when our revolutionary work is done, or, when the movement ebbs, we long for something intensely satisfying and winged Eros come back in. Kollontai’s goal is to find ways to transfer that energy to the collective, to make it the basis of our collective solidarity, what she calls love-comradeship.
In keeping with her historical materialist method, Kollontai places love-comradeship in historical context: it emerges as the proletarian ideal of love, the feeling of inner solidarity that derives from cooperative labor. It “involves the recognition of the rights and integrity of the other’s personality, a steadfast mutual support and sensitive sympathy, and responsiveness to the other’s needs” . Love solidarity becomes for the dictatorship of the proletariat what competition was for the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie: the primary social tie, supposition, and expectation. Collectivism defeats individualism. Love and duty toward the collective takes the place of the isolated two of the couple.
How might Kollontai guide us today? She reminds us of the unavoidability of struggle and division. There is not a natural unity of women (or anybody, for that matter). Capitalist society is class society, a society where some benefit from the exploitation and oppression of others. Capitalism is a concrete material barrier to liberation, so if we want liberation, we have to get rid of capitalism.
Kollontai also reminds us that institutions, forms, and practices have histories. They change. They are neither fixed nor inevitable but based on material conditions, economic conditions, and the relations of production and reproduction. Attunement to history enables us to identify tendencies toward change.
This change, of course, requires struggle, and this struggle requires class unity. As such, communism requires comradeship and solidarity, an intense regard for others and the collective.
 Alexandra Kollontai, “Communism and the Family,” https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1920/communism-family.htm.
 Alexandra Kollontai, “The Labor of Women in the Evolution of the Economy,” https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1921/evolution.htm.
 Alexandra Kollontai, “Communism and the Family.”
 Alexandra Kollontai, “The Labor of Women in the Evolution of the Economy.”
 Alexandra Kollontai, “Theses on Communist Morality in the Sphere of Marital Relations,” https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1921/theses-morality.htm.
 Alexandra Kollontai, “Make Way for Winged Eros: A Letter to Working Youth,” https://www.marxists.org/archive/kollonta/1923/winged-eros.htm.
 Alexandra Kollontai, “Theses on Communist Morality in the Sphere of Marital Relations.”