Kollontai (bottom-most right) featured in a display of Soviet Leadership, 1920s. Hulton Archive.
Alexandra Kollontai was, as scholar Teresa Ebert puts it, often overlooked as a pioneering feminist and theorist. Her work added and expanded to considerations of women in the political theory of Marxism-Leninism used by the Russian Communist Party during the creation of the Soviet Union. This piece will attempt to, as simply as possible, explain Kollontai’s work in the context of Marxism in the early 20th century. To this end, we will work to define Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, Communism, and armed with those definitions look at how Kollontai’s work is clearly centered and indivisible from these ideas.
Kollontai theorized on how material relations and class affected the social conceptions of sexuality and “love”. She conceived of these things as a base/superstructure relationship, and in exploring the historical trend of “love”, proposed not only how communist sexuality and love would function, but how the Soviet State would conform and support this burgeoning social structure. As Ebert points out, modern feminist interpretations of Kollontai mistakenly associate her writings with regards to their own theoretical understandings. Her work, Alexandra Kollontai and “Red Love”, very precisely defines Kollontai’s theory of class and sexuality and then corrects and clarifies Kollontai’s work within a precise academic understanding of marxism and feminist theory.
Understanding Kollontai requires having some helpful definitions of Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, and Communism.
Marxism, as created by Karl Marx’s writings in the late 19th century, was a way of understanding the function of Capitalism as an artificial social structure that, through the relationship between money, wage labor, and private property, forced people into different and unequal social positions due to their material possessions. He expanded this understanding to be a product of the historical pattern of which people owned what things, proposing that all of history was defined by a conflict between the proletariat, the people who worked, and the bourgeoisie, the people who owned the results of that work.
In exploring this idea, Marx extrapolated these old conflicts between workers and owners and proposed that new stages of civilization would occur after capitalism, namely socialism and communism would come to be the primary organizations of government and society over time as a result of revolutions of the working class.
Marx was not very clear about how Communism, the final stage of his theory of history, would be realized as a physical government. He merely, in famous works like The Communist Manifesto, asserted that it was an inevitable byproduct of capitalist life. It was Vladimir Lenin who expanded Marxism to include a theory of revolution and government-building. Marxism-Leninism, as it is referred to, proposed that a capitalist society could be transformed into a communist society not in the due course of time, like Marx proposed, but through the governance of a state, the “vanguard of the revolution”. Lenin’s theory of revolution revolved around the removal of all old elements of civilization, as they were contaminated from their origins in capitalist society, and replacing them with new elements derived from socialism. As a result, Marxism-Leninism required the intellectual work extrapolating Marx to suggest how all elements of society would be formed in a communist future.
Alexandra Kollontai’s work fit precisely into meeting the requirements of Marxism-Leninism, and used Marxist theory to interpret how relationships between men and women were also informed by the historical circumstances in which they lived. She also extrapolated an idea of how men and women of the communist future could live, and proposed specific policies and programs that could be enacted by the government to guide the development of what she called “Red Love”.
The core result of Kollontai’s work is the suggestion that, much like Marx’s view that a communist society must not have property, communist society must also not have the family as a social unit. In Theses on Communist Morality in the Sphere of Marital Relations, Kollontai lays out a brief outline of her theory which is expanded in her other works:
“the form of marriage and the form of family is determined by the economic system of the given epoch, and it changes as the economic base of society changes. The family, in the same way as government, religion, science, morals, law and customs, is part of the superstructure which derives from the economic system of society.” 1
Kollontai argues that the duties of the family in capitalist society revolve around “(a) material and financial considerations, (b) economic dependence of the female sex on the family breadwinner – the husband.. and (c) the need to care for the rising generation.”2 She then theorizes that under communism the family will be removed. The material and financial considerations of the family “cease to exist” as a result of the communist government providing for those needs. The economic dependence of women will also simply cease to exist in Kollontai’s opinion; as women will “have value in the national economy independent of family and marital status” as a result of their participation in the workforce. Kollontai’s third extrapolation is that the care of children and the “rising generation” will be done not by individual families (which would instill a toxic ‘egoism’ and independence in the child) but by all of society. The social collective as a whole would raise all children instead.3 There are two directions to explore then in understanding Kollontai’s argument for removing the family; the historical idea of the family and marriage as being based upon economic relationships, and the extrapolation of the new structure that will come into being in a communist society.
Kollontai expands on both of these directions in her piece, Make way for Winged Eros (1923). The main argument of the pieces is that throughout a series of broad historical stages; the ancient world, feudalism, and then capitalism arose forms of love and friendship that reflected the economic attributes of those historical stages. Kollontai observes that “From the very early stages of its social being, humanity has sought to regulate not only sexual relations but love itself.” Indeed what Kollontai means by this is that the concepts of ‘marriage’ and ‘love’ were independent concepts through the history of humanity, that early marriages were ones of ‘convenience’ made to politically unite tribes and to later strategically unite kingdoms. Kollontai also notes that, in contrast to marriage, concepts like ‘friendship’ in the ancient world and the ideology of chivalry during feudalism were also heavily emphasized, organized emotional forms that were not included under the modern ideas of love and marriage. Kollontai goes through these points to historically illustrate the inconsistency of the current form of ‘love and marriage’ found in capitalist society. Namely, bourgeois society defined love to be the basis of marriage, and that only within those confines should sexual activity and emotional relations occur. Kollontai also observes that this system of emotional organization strengthens the family as the principal unit of social organization and as a “vehicle for the accumulation of capital.” In this way does Kollontai suggest that the modern family is used to ease the experience of living within capitalism, and that it is unfit for a future communist society.4
Kollontai then theorizes on the future of relationships and emotions in communist society. By her logic, since marriage and the family are no longer needed to ease the process of capital accumulation, she suggests that mental relationships and physical relationships should once again slowly be unlinked. From what she defined in ancient times as “love-friendship”, Kollontai now suggests a new form of “love-comradeship” that asks for all members of the working collective (every member of a communist society) to share an all-abounding love and relationship with each other. Kollontai offers this idea of ‘love-comradeship’ so to replace the relationships marked by simple sexual attraction (what she terms ‘wingless Eros’) commonly exhibited by Russian revolutionaries. This is based on the observation that all previous forms of historical relationships offered outlets for both mental relationships (‘winged Eros’) and for physical ones.
Three Generations, another text by Kollontai, contextualizes this theory through examples. In this, Kollontai tells the stories of three generations of women, a grandmother, mother, and daughter who exhibit different styles of relationships that trend towards Kollontai’s theories of developing “love-comradeship” instead of simple bourgeois love. 5
In using trends of historical patterns and blending ideas of sexual relationships and marriage with practices of economic subsistence, Kollontai grafted her arguments to the core tenets of Marxism. She contributed to Marxist-Leninist questions of how the state could help women by suggesting the nationalization of healthcare and childcare. She demanded that the state remove the burden of ‘reproduction’ from women by providing the services of childcare professionals like wet nurses and governesses (long utilized by the bourgeois) to the entire population.
The Soviet government did attempt to follow Kollontai’s suggestions. Kollontai herself was elected Commissar of Social Welfare in 1917, and as head of the Women’s Section of the Communist Party in 1919. However, it was with the Bolshevik takeover of Soviet leadership, and the introduction of the NEP and the subsequent introduction of Stalinism that greatly inhibited the participation of the Soviet State in the realization of Kollontai’s theories.
- Kollontai, p. 225 Theses on Communist Morality in the Sphere of Marital Relations
- Ibid. p. 277
- Ibid p.182
Condit, Tim. Alexandra Kollontai. 20th December 2016.
Ebert, Teresa. Alexandra Kollontai and Red Love. 20th December 2016.
Kollontai, Alexandra. Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai. Ed. & Trans. Alix Holt. New York: Norton, 1977.