Alexandra Kollontai was a leading Russian revolutionary, who tirelessly fought for socialism and women’s liberation during the only successful working class revolution in history.
In a new book Writings from the Struggle, author Cathy Porter compiles a vital selection of Kollontai’s literature. All are new translations, and all but three pieces are translated into English for the first time.
Porter told Socialist Worker, “What struck me was how she wrote about the war, class and struggle—for her women’s liberation was part of a bigger struggle.
“I wanted to give people hope in these hard and bleak times.”
She was a leader in newly socialist Russia, a pioneering thinker and someone who fought for transformative changes in the lives of ordinary people.
Kollontai worked to build a mass movement of workers, which centrally involved women, arguing a revolution was impossible without a united working class.
For years, she fought for a socialist society and believed this was the only way to truly liberate women from exploitation and oppression.
The book describes how “Kollontai joined the Bolsheviks and became a full-time party activist” in December 1904.
She smuggled leaflets into factories, organised women’s meetings and was inspired to write literature for the Bolsheviks after strikes and riots spread across Russia in 1905.
In the spring 1906 edition of the Workers’ Annual, she laid out the problems caused by capitalism, and the solution of workers’ power.
“Economic crises are inevitable so long as the present capitalist system exists,” she said.
“Crises will end only when the economy is run by society to respond to the needs of all its members.”
Some of Kollontai’s most powerful work centred around the arguments she had with middle class feminists, who abandoned the interests of working women in their pursuit of equality with men.
At the same time, Kollontai was battling to raise the importance of women’s liberation within the Bolshevik Party.
Porter writes, “She was one of only a small number of women activists in the party, fighting on two fronts, against the feminists and her comrades’ chauvinism.”
These arguments can be seen most clearly in The Social Basis of the Woman Question, which raised socialist demands for the feminist All-Russian Conference of Women in 1908.
She passionately insists that working women can only win liberation by fighting for socialism alongside their male comrades.
“A united women’s organisation reflecting the interests of the two antagonistic classes is a fantasy,” Kollontai wrote.
“For the feminists, political equality means equality under the present capitalist system. Working women’s struggle for their rights is part of the struggle of their class.The idea that women are men’s most dangerous rivals in the workplace is one we must tackle head on.”
Kollontai was fighting for maximum unity between working men and women, and said the smooth running of the capitalist system benefited from a “rivalry” between them.
Sexual relationships, the capitalist family and the importance of personal sexual freedom were also major elements of her writings.
She believed that fulfilling sexual relationships could only be realised when people were free from the limitations imposed on human relations within a capitalist system.
“She wrote of ‘free love’ not as loveless promiscuity, but as an ideal to be aspired to,” Porter explains.
Kollontai partly took her inspiration from the young peasant woman newly arrived in the city to work in a factory “who does not hesitate to follow the first call of love, the first heartbeat”.
In her 1916 book Society and Motherhood, Kollontai developed her ideas that a socialist society must take full responsibility for all women and their children.
By the outbreak of the First World War Kollontai had read Lenin’s September Theses, which argued workers and soldiers could turn it into a revolutionary movement.
“She had finally found an anti-war programme she could support, committed to internationalism and the class struggle,” Porter explains.
Kollontai used her pamphlet Who Needs the War? to explain the causes of the war and appeal to soldiers to fight their class enemies at home.
“The evils for which governments have declared war against each other are introduced in their own countries,” she wrote.
“Capital clashes with capital, each seeking to destroy the other and establish its monopoly, robbing the workers who produce the goods, and the consumers who purchase them.
“The task now facing the working class of every country is to destroy the capitalist clique that is destroying millions of lives to increase its profits.”
Meanwhile in Russia, revolution was coming.
By 10 March 1917, the whole of the capital Petrograd was on strike.
When the revolt forced the ruling Tsar to abdicate, Kollontai said it was “impossible to describe the joy” of hearing the news.
She returned to Russia from exile and defended Lenin’s position of appealing to workers and peasants to seize the state through the workers’ councils, known as the soviets.
Kollontai was “the only Bolshevik to speak in support of Lenin’s first speech to the Petrograd Soviet in April,” Porter writes.
Following the July Days—an attack on a mass demonstration by the Provisional Government—Kollontai was jailed for three months.
While still in jail, she was elected to the central committee of the Bolshevik Party. She was the first woman in history to be a member of a governing cabinet.
When the Bolsheviks took control of Russia on 25 October, Kollontai was elected as Commissar of Social Welfare.
“We were hungry, we rarely got a night’s sleep. But we all worked passionately, for we were in a hurry to build the new Soviet life,” Kollontai wrote in her diaries. She threw herself into making the changes to women’s lives that she had spent so long arguing for.
Kollontai set up new canteens, nurseries, maternity hospitals, orphanages, and homes for war veterans and the elderly.
“Communal living was at the heart of her vision of the new socialist family,” Porter explains.
Kollontai drafted the first law of the revolution, which introduced equal pay for women.
She also drafted the Marriage Code, which criminalised domestic violence and gave women access to divorce.
Her time in government was far from harmonious.
She resigned in April 1918, after voting against the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty, which withdrew Russian forces from the First World War.
But her resignation didn’t last long. As civil war gripped Russia, Kollontai was drawn to the front and “put aside her differences with the party” in order to tour as a speaker defending the revolution.
“We are fighting not to occupy new lands, not to enslave other nations, but to defend ourselves against the capitalists,” Kollontai said in Ukraine.
Kollontai’s other major work can be found in the Zhenotdel, the women’s department of government.
From November 1920 she headed the department, which encouraged women’s political development and enforced existing legislation for women’s equality.
“Women’s liberation is fundamental to the entire world socialist revolution,” she wrote in Communist Woman, the Zhenotdel’s official newspaper.
But the new society was struggling to establish itself after the civil war had ripped apart the country.
By 1920, starvation swept the new socialist society, and Russia was politically isolated and surrounded by hostile imperialist states.
Arguments raged in the government about the best way forward.
Kollontai was a key figure in the Workers’ Opposition faction within the government. This argued that trade union and factory committees should run the economy, not the central state. But the future of the socialist society was hanging on a knife edge.
If the central government had relinquished control, it would leave the burgeoning new world extremely vulnerable to the counter-revolution.
Following her involvement in the Workers’ Opposition, Kollontai was removed from the Zhenotdel and censured within the Bolsheviks.
The degeneration of socialist Russia into the Stalinist state was mirrored in Kollontai’s own life. From 1922, Kollontai was drawn into political exile and was an overseas ambassador for the brutal Stalinist regime, until she died in 1952.
But her writings, many accessible for the first time in Porter’s new book, contain vital teachings for revolutionaries today.
She understood the power of the working class, pushed for working women to lead in struggle and fought for the socialist world that revolution could create.