Alexandra Kollontai: the Brutal Bolshevik‘s Legacy to Feminism

Born to a wealthy Russian military family at the height of the Victorian era, Alexandra Kollontai rejected the upper-class life.

Alexandra1

What? You wanna go??

Opinionated and intelligent, she dove into politics young. Driven by the conviction that “bourgeois feminists” could never really understand the plight of The People, at 21 she ran away from her army officer husband and married a poor cousin. But it was the dangerous conditions in a local factory that caused her to snap. Devoting herself to Marxism, Alexandra left her second husband and made the acquaintance of the important men in the revolutionary Bolshevik party.

She helped organize the textile workers, their Women’s Day protest snowballing into the Revolution of 1917. In 1920 she was appointed Head of Public Welfare. Alexandra’s blueprint for women’s rights was adopted by Communist governments around the world in the following decades, bringing advancements in autonomy to millions of women.

It's an inspiring, sympathetic backstory. But Alexandra’s philosophy was no less militant than her revolutionary peers. Go big or go home, I guess.

Authoritarian Feminism

 In a fawning biographic article, NBC News tells us, “In her 1909 pamphlet, "The Social Basis of the Woman Question," Kollontai wrote: "In the family of today, the structure of which is confirmed by custom and law, woman is oppressed not only as a person but as a wife and mother, in most of the countries of the civilized 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.” Obviously, this is a system ripe for abuse.

But in addition to making it much easier to get a divorce, contraceptives or an abortion, Alexandra declared that all childcare would be nationalized. “Only collective childrearing and the socialization of cooking and cleaning would liberate women to pursue their own goals in the formal economy, which would provide them the economic independence to exercise full autonomy over their own lives,” NBC continues.

Girl, Two Kids And Basket

I told you, Jimmy, the Social Worker is gonna feed you from now on!

Look at that again: Economic independence: Freedom to work. Autonomy over your own life, so long as you didn’t want to spend that life as a wife or mother. Or a gardener. Or a writer.

Nationalize the cooking and cleaning, too! Don’t worry about getting your bedroom just how you like it. (Who’s going to work for those State cleaning services, anyway?) That ketogenic diet is just gonna have to wait. You have Real Work to do!

Freeing women from domestic work so that we can become workers in the economy doesn’t make us any more free.

A visionary bordering on madness in the grand tradition of Russian leaders, Alexandra should be well-known in her home country. I had never heard of her, and Dr. Foreman pulling Alexandra’s dusty file from a cabinet in a disused academic building leads me to think many others haven’t, either.

But her ideas are very familiar. There’s the national childcare that modern leftists have been trying to implement in the US for years. Easy access to divorce and contraception have been pillars of Women’s Liberation for over 100 years. But closest to our hearts is the idea that a woman’s independence is directly tied to her ability to earn. 

A Bank Account of One’s Own

Just A Domestic

Goddam it Gary, I told you to just keep the friggin’ remote control!

Many of us received the same piece of advice from older women in our lives when we decided to take the plunge of getting married or moving in with a partner: Keep your own money, they whisper. Stash cash somewhere he doesn’t know about. It could make all the difference if things go bad.

Because, as everyone knows, it can get very, very bad. Private savings can be a lifeline out of an abusive or dangerous situation. And the guy who eventually escalates to hitting you when he’s mad doesn’t put that in the prenup.

But we’re talking about Communists! Communism was supposed to liberate humanity from the tyranny of kings, distributing the fruits of civilization “from each according to [her] ability, to each according to [her] needs.”

But who determines ability? Who determines need?

Alexandra Kollontai determined that every woman was like herself. She found life at home dreadful drudgery, preferring picket lines and political meetings. Personally, I could definitely go for more local activism but I also enjoy my kids and my garden. Even my husband has his moments.

Dr. Foreman explains, “It’s easy to see why a woman like Alexandra Kollontai …. would have been drawn to the philosophies of Marx and Engels. Writing about the origins of the family, Engels theorized that the emergence of patriarchy was driven by the desire for ownership – Ownership of property, ownership of women’s bodies.

“And, therefore, only a complete workers’ revolution, one that abolished all rights of ownership in favor of the collective, would lead to a complete reordering of the relationship between the sexes.

Let’s unpack that a little. Patriarchy being fueled by greed is obvious enough, but why is the answer to eradicate that most visceral of impulses, the first thing children learn – Mine! – as if the concept of possession is a Capitalist mirage?

What if we built a culture that discouraged and punished greed? What if we nurtured empathy and insisted on compassion? Redistribution of wealth by force is authoritarianism, not utopia.

Alexandra2

Don’t even try – I’m as hard-edged as my haircut!

Dr. Foreman describes the opposition Alexandra inevitably faced, “She wanted to abolish domestic life as a matter of principle. But the Soviets wanted women out of the kitchen for a practical purpose – The State had to modernize quickly, and they could only do that by doubling the workforce. This was the real purpose behind the rise of the new Soviet woman.

Lenin predicted in 1919 that, “the real emancipation of women, real communism, will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins against petty housekeeping.” Oh yes, our salvation lies in finally eliminating dust, once and for all! How did I not see it before??

In order for women to be equal to men,” Dr. Foreman sums up, “they needed to work outside the home.” We have to come to them, to assist in their greed. The argument for women’s participation in work and politics is the tired, impersonal specter of Economic Productivity.

Women Are Not Men

One historian interviewed describes how Alexandra wanted to make women “exactly the same as men.” I can’t say this is a goal I share.  Dr. Foreman tells us the revolutionary declared marriage unnatural, and promoted the abolition of domestic life in general. The family was a cage to be demolished. In her vision, children would be raised by the State, “because only then could women be free to be themselves.

Alexandra4

If you don’t come to the party with us, I’ll put you on a list!

I’m reminded of the stranger corners of Twitter, declarations like, “only pansexuals are truly enlightened.” Your humble writer is not as straight or as narrow as my husband and four kids might imply, but it shouldn’t matter. I don’t have the right to dictate the lifestyle choices of everyone else.

Being forced to hand your kids over to the State is certainly no less horrific than being trapped at home with them. If we had a system that actually met everyone’s basic needs, women would not have to work for anyone. But we live in a system that commodifies everything, everyone trading chunks of our lives for the privilege of eating next week.

Pair bonding is another visceral impulse, so deep it’s supposedly the source of even our venerated greed. Humans don’t just pair off to reproduce, we form complex relationships that can last the rest of our lives.

But that shouldn’t be mandatory, either. Why is it so difficult to agree to disagree? If 1,000 lesbians want to buy 1,000 acres and found the first man-free city, I wish them all the best. Aside from being inspiring and cool as all hell, it wouldn’t have much effect on how I live my life.

Dr. Foreman characterizes Alexandra’s extreme platform as, “Kollontai's own desperate reaction to historic oppression.” Acknowledging that free love and demolition of the family were not part of Soviet ideology, a tinge of sadness enters her narration, “In essence, what she was saying is that women can only be Real Women when they stop being wives and mothers.” I still run into this mentality all over the place, women are still terrified to admit we’re not actually men.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

Before long, Alexandra’s perspective alienated her from her comrades. She was ousted from Public Welfare after only two years, accepting an ambassadorship to Sweden in 1924. Kept out of the way like the Troublesome Woman she was.

20 years later, Stalin had taken away the contraceptives, abortion access and divorce. The push to modernize was over, and women were sent home again. Soviet Russia never escaped its conservative tendencies, easily sliding from one flavor of authoritarianism to another.

Girl And Wheat

If my time isn’t my own, what difference does it make??

If capitalism is a patriarchal creation, the most women are going to get under this system is owning our own little piece of patriarchy. Giving up our children so we can be free to work in the factory (or cubicle) is merely a leap from the frying pan into the consumerist fire.

A slave to your husband, a slave to your boss. By washing our hands of Women’s Work, we attempt to become equal citizens on the same level of capitalist hierarchy as our male counterparts. But the capitalist hierarchy is fatally flawed. By fitting ourselves to that system, we accept their framing of things and undermine our own credibility.

Not only was Alexandra’s dream doomed by human nature, women are trying to fit into a role that wasn’t made for us. In doing so, we concede that what we are isn’t important.

Not as important as that bottom line, as getting our piece of the pie.

Alexandra Kollontai’s revolutionary career was a bureaucratic primal scream that reverberates to this day. She is a case study in the marginalization of women and our concerns, even when we throw down for every party. She is a cautionary tale against extremes. Forcing women to live our lives a certain way is wrong, and no hierarchy built by men will set us free.

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