A new March 8th is approaching, already blatantly converted into a state celebration. And with it a new enlargement of the feminist collection of saints which is done at the expense of great figures of the workers’ movement who not only were not feminists but, because they were much more radical in their fight against discrimination, consistently confronted the feminists of their time. If in previous years, depending on the country, the counterfeiting had targeted Rosa Luxemburg or Sylvia Pankhurst, this year it appears that the counterfeiting onslaught has fallen on Alexandra Kollontai.
Unlike Rosa Luxemburg in whose work the “female question” occupies only a marginal place, Kollontai did address issues that are beloved of today’s feminists… although from the opposite perspective. Most of her works do not deal with what was known at the time as “the female question”, but in 1921 she gave a series of fourteen talks to the students of Sverdlov University, later collected as “Women, History and Society”. At the end of the twelfth lecture, she presented her main thesis on women’s liberation:
Women’s liberation can only be achieved by a radical transformation of everyday life, and everyday life itself will not be changed except by a profound modification of all production on the basis of the communist economy.
In other words, Kollontai stood in the same position as Zetkin or Luxemburg.
The guidelines must make it clear that the true emancipation of women will only be possible through communism. The relation to the means of production must be strongly emphasized. This will draw a firm and permanent line against the “women’s rights chatter” movement.
Clara Zetkin. “Reminiscences of Lenin”
As can be seen from the quote, the Zetkin and Luxemburg, speaking in German, routinely called feminism the “Frauenrechtelerei” (“women’s rights chatter”) movement instead of the “Frauenrechtlerinnen” (“women’s rights advocacy”) movement as the feminists called themselves.
Kollontai and the Marxist critique of love under capitalism
However, today Kollontai is cited as a precursor of the current concern of feminism for interpersonal and couple relationships. But nothing is father away from the truth than a half-truth. Kollontai was in the opposite position from the one defending that “the personal is political” and never accepted the field of “identities” within the Russian Social Democratic Party first and then the Communist Party.
But yes, he did write about relationships, albeit from a perspective that had nothing to do with feminism and everything to do with communist morality. Let’s go back to the talks at Sverlov University. The day after concluding that only communism will bring the complete liberation of women, Kollontai emphasized the changes that the dictatorship of the proletariat was already bringing about, not only through the power seized by the soviets, but through the change in the aspirations and outlook of the workers themselves.
The social changes that have taken place through the revolution are reflected above all in the mentality of the worker and his new way of approaching life. Talk to the workers! Were they like this before the revolution?
The Russian Revolution, like every movement of the workers as a class, was the product and process of a massive development of class consciousness. A period was opening up, which although later eroded by the civil war and the NEP -that is, by the consequences of the isolation of the revolution– gave way to a real burst of creativity and experimentation by broad sections of the proletariat.
What was happening was not a change in the defining relations of society: wage labor and capital. The NEP that was being implemented at that time, as Lenin insisted, was a particular form of state capitalism aimed at rebuilding the relationship with the peasant petty bourgeoisie. It was something else that was fueling all that outburst of which only its margins are remembered today in academic history: its reflection in the arts. What was happening in the midst of the class was not the changes leading to a new mode of production, but the development of class consciousness under the conditions of a budding dictatorship of the proletariat.
[The workers’] thoughts, their feelings, the content of their work have changed. In the Soviet Union there is a totally different atmosphere. When one of us returns to a bourgeois capitalist country, one has the impression of living in another century. We have been propelled abruptly into the future and from there we judge the reality of these countries, which are backward from a revolutionary point of view. Thanks to our experience we have learned to know the future in a concrete way.
Kollontai saw well that what was operating was that the workers were “gaining confidence” as a class. This was what allowed them to “feel the communist reality at their fingertips’ reach”. The creative explosion of the proletariat after the seizure of power by its soviets was actually the future glimmering into the present, an extension of communist morality made possible by the greatest upsurge in struggles that had occurred so far. So it is not surprising that Kollontai, a devoted reader of Chernishevsky’s “What is to be done”, went on later, in those same talks but also in her famous “Letter to the Communist Youth” of 1923, to discuss how the revolution was already advancing elements of that “revolution of everyday life” through the behavior of the more class-conscious, already massive, sections. And of course, among them, love relations.
She first offers a historical critique of the concept of “love” and its many dimensions. She goes on to outline how each system of exploitation has given it particular forms in accordance with its interests. And she is quite correct in pointing out that in the capitalist couple model the underlying logic is that of the couple/family as the nucleus of capital accumulation. That is why part of the individual sentiment, consolidated with certain formal and contractual arrangements, is ideally eternal and understood as an absorbing and far-reaching task in itself. But above all, the relationship of the couple with the collective is understood as an extension of the false opposition between the “individual” and the collective.
The only indisputable fact is that the more united Humanity is by the lasting bonds of solidarity, the more intimately united it will be in all aspects of life, of creation or of mutual relations. Consequently, the less room there will be for love in the contemporary sense of the word. In our times, love always sins from an excess of absorption of all thoughts, of all feelings between two “loving hearts”, and therefore isolates and separates the loving couple from the rest of the community. This separation, this moral isolation of the “loving couple”, will not only be completely useless, but will be psychologically impossible in a society where the interests, tasks and aspirations of all members of the community are intimately united. In this new world the recognized, normal and desirable form of relations between the sexes will be based purely on the healthy, free and natural attraction – without perversions or excesses – of the sexes. …] In this period of transition the moral idea that determines the relations between the sexes cannot be the sexual instinct, but rather the multiple sensations of love and comradeship experienced by men and women. For these sensations to correspond to the proletarian morality in formation they must be based on three things:
– Equality in mutual relations, with the disappearance of arrogance and servile submission;
– The mutual and reciprocal recognition of their rights without any of the beings united by loving relations claiming the absolute possession of the heart and spirit of the loved one, that is, the disappearance of the feeling of ownership fostered by bourgeois civilization;
– And fraternal sensitivity, the art of assimilating and understanding the psychic work done by the loved one, a sensitivity which in bourgeois society was only required of women. […]
Don’t forget, young colleague, that love changes its appearance and is inevitably transformed as the economic and cultural foundations of society change. If we succeed in making the blind, the demanding and absorbing feeling of passion disappear from love relationships; if we succeed in making the feeling of ownership disappear, as well as the selfish desire to “be united forever” with the loved one; if we succeed in making the fatuity of the man disappear and the woman not criminally renounce her “I” [self], there is no doubt that the disappearance of all these feelings will cause other precious elements to develop. In this way, respect for the personality of others will be developed and increased, as will the art of relying on the rights of others; mutual sensitivity will be educated and the tendency to manifest love will be greatly developed, not only with kisses and hugs, but also with a unity of action and will in the common creation.
Alexandra Kollontai, “Letter to Young Communists”, 1923
No, you don’t have to be a feminist to…
Kollontai’s forays into love from the perspective of communist morality are still awaiting the discussion and deepening they deserve. The positions we maintain today on prostitution and surrogacy can only be understood in continuity with the criticism of bourgeois sexuality that she initiated. No, it is not necessary to be a feminist either to fight against discrimination, or to fight for the emancipation of women, or to denounce the aberration of capitalism’s tendency to commodify each and every human activity, including sexuality. On the contrary, it can only be done consistently from the perspective of the only class fighting for universal interests. And for the same reason, we can only bring to the present the values of the future, those of a reunited and truly egalitarian human community, with a communist morality.