How do we get sexual liberation?
8 March is International Women’s Day. Alexandra Kollontai was one of its founders. She fought for socialism. This is her story
International Women’s Day began as a day to mark the struggles of working class women. Today the fight against sexism is far from over. If you pick up a newspaper you will find sexist pin-ups of women or articles about the supposed “male crisis”. The other side of this is the reality of millions of people leading unhappy lives in unfulfilling, often violent, relationships. What is the socialist answer to this sexual oppression?
The writings of the Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai are inspiring for anyone who wants to understand and fight oppression. She argued that the fight for sexual liberation went hand in hand with the struggle against capitalism and for a socialist society. Kollontai played a leading role in the attempt to build a socialist society after the 1917 Russian Revolution.
ALEXANDRA Kollontai was born into a prosperous family in Russia in 1872. She grew up in a world where wealthy women were supposed to be frivolous ornaments for their husbands. Kollontai rebelled. “From childhood I brought my mother a good deal of trouble and woe by my determination ‘not to live like others’,” she wrote later. “From early in life I had eyes for the social injustices prevailing in Russia.” She became a socialist after seeing workers’ conditions on a visit to a textile factory. She threw herself into support for a wave of strikes, involving many women workers, in 1896.
“At a time of unrest and strike action the proletarian woman, downtrodden, timid and without rights, suddenly grows and learns to stand tall and straight,” Kollontai wrote later. In 1905 a revolution shook the repressive regime in Russia and brought women to the forefront of political struggle. Kollontai enthused, “In 1905 there was no corner in which, in one way or another, the voice of a woman speaking about herself and demanding new rights was not heard.”
IN THE years following the defeat of the 1905 revolution Kollontai agitated for socialism among working class women. She organised hundreds of factory meetings, often disguised as “sewing circles” to avoid police harassment. Kollontai disagreed with upper class feminists who argued that all women share the same interests. For Kollontai, “The world of women is divided, just as is the world of men, into two camps.” Equal rights for working class women meant “only an equal share in inequality”. And once upper class woman had gained access to political power, “The recent defenders of the ‘rights of women’ become enthusiastic defenders of the privileges of their class, content to leave the younger sisters with no rights at all.”
Kollontai argued that the basis of women’s oppression lay in the role of the family under capitalism. The major responsibility for caring for children was left to individuals, mainly women, inside the family. Rulers and politicians preached family morality at workers, and yet at the same time the capitalist system wrecked people’s relationships and family lives: “What family life in which the man and wife work in the factory in different departments? What family life when father and mother, out of the home 24 hours of the day, most of which are spent at hard labour, cannot even spend a few minutes with their children?”
The development of capitalism drew more women into the workforce. This had the potential to be liberating, argued Kollontai, but instead put a “triple burden” on women. “The wife, the mother, who is a worker, sweats blood to fill three tasks at the same time: to give the necessary working hours as her husband does, then to devote herself as well as she can to her household, and then also to take care of her children. Capitalism has placed on the shoulders of the woman a burden which crushes her: it has made of her a wage worker without having lessened her cares as housekeeper and mother.” Kollontai argued that only socialism could provide the collective facilities that could lift the burden from women.
REVOLUTION IN Russia did more to tackle women’s oppression than any other event before or since. Women were given full equal rights in law. Marriage was made a civil rather than a religious affair and divorce was made easier to obtain. Many of the legislative gains of the revolution were well in advance of anything we have in Britain in 2000. Abortion was made free on demand. Creches were set up in many workplaces. Women were given 16 weeks paid maternity leave. Mothers were given funds to pay for a friend to take time off work to help them with the birth. Kollontai encouraged the setting up of nurseries and communal laundries and restaurants.
In 1920 Kollontai became the head of the women’s department, which tried to make the new laws more than just paper policy. She toured all parts of Russia, including backward rural areas, urging women’s fullest participation in education, and every part of social and political life. She was at the forefront of the debates about sexuality and relationships that flourished after the revolution.
Kollontai argued that our sexuality is bound up with wider social relations. Under capitalism, she wrote, “Bourgeois morality, with its introverted individualistic family based entirely on private property, has carefully cultivated the ideas that one partner should ‘possess’ the other. The personality of woman is judged almost exclusively in terms of her sexual life,” she wrote.
People try to escape the pressures of poverty and exploitation through their personal relationships. But capitalism distorts even those aspects of life which seem intimate and personal: “We are people living in the world of property relationships, a world of sharp class contradictions and of an individualistic morality. “Man experiences this ‘loneliness’ even in towns full of shouting noise and people, even in a crowd of close friends and workmates. Because of their loneliness men are apt to cling in a predatory and unhealthy way to illusions about finding a ‘soulmate’ from the opposite sex.” When women play an active and equal role in the running of society, argued Kollontai, it creates the basis for both men and women to re-evaluate their relationships. Under socialism, she wrote, “The individual has the opportunity to develop intellectually and emotionally as never before. In this collective, new forms of relationships are maturing and the concept of love is extended and expanded.”
TRAGICALLY, the Russian Revolution was too short- lived to see more than the beginnings of such changes. Foreign invasion, civil war and economic collapse decimated the workers’ regime. Kollontai herself became disillusioned and left Russia to take up a diplomatic post in Norway. Stalin’s counter-revolution in the late 1920s smashed every vestige of democracy and workers’ control, and overturned all the gains for women. In a grotesque reversal of liberation Stalin even bestowed “motherhood” medals on women who bred the most children. But for a few short years the Russian Revolution gave a glimpse of the potential for women’s liberation.
Kollontai’s writings about oppression, the family and sexual relationships are as relevant now as when she wrote them. Above all, she shows that socialism is about liberating all humanity and every part of our lives. As Kollontai put it, “These new relations will ensure for humanity all the joys of a love unknown in the commercial society of capitalism.”
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