A life of socialist struggle

Cathy Porter’s biography of Alexandra Kollontai was first published in the 1970s when the Equal Pay and Sex Discrimination Acts had only just become law – issues that had concerned Kollontai and were of interest to a new generation of women. This updated version is timely. Austerity has forced many women back into the home due to job losses, public-sector cuts and a deteriorating health service.

It is an important contribution to the understanding of what would be possible under socialism, how to organise women in the struggle against austerity and the task of overthrowing capitalism. But it is much more than that. Kollontai’s political career spans illegal, underground work in tsarist Russia, the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, the civil war to defend the Russian revolution and the rise of Stalinism, as well as two world wars. Revolutionaries, especially women, can draw inspiration from the life of Alexandra Kollontai. Born in St Petersburg in 1872, she became a leading participant in the Russian revolution and helped shape the Bolshevik programme on women and the family.

Despite a weak heart, hers was a life lived to the full, working incredibly hard, at times going for days without eating or sleeping. She was the only female full member on the Bolshevik Central Committee. Kollontai wrote extensively, contributing to many socialist journals and even penned novels. It took Stalin’s secret agent, Vladimir Petrov, three days and nights working flat out to photocopy just her private diaries and notes in 1943. Kollontai was also a great orator and travelled to trouble spots in the Russian civil war to agitate among women, workers and peasants. Despite the danger, she sailed up and down the Volga on the Red Star agit-steamer and travelled on an agit-train equipped with films and literature.

Kollontai developed her revolutionary spirit and socialist outlook from a very young age. Born of a wealthy family, she was appalled at the death of her friend from a poor serf family. A visit to a factory in 1895 with appalling conditions also had a decisive effect on her consciousness. She broke with her privileged class background and the expectations of a woman in Russia and left her young son with her husband to travel abroad to become a revolutionary.

In March 1902, Lenin’s ‘What Is To Be Done?’ had been smuggled into Russia. Kollontai wrote: "Two antagonistic forces were now coming into even more bitter conflict… underground Russia marching towards the revolution and the autocracy stubbornly clinging to power. Struve’s group took a middle position. Many of my former close friends joined them, believing that pure socialism in Russia then was a utopia, and I had to make a clean break with many recent comrades-in-arms and associates". (Struve was a founder member of the Social Democratic Labour Party who later joined the Constitutional Democratic Party.)

Kollontai made a valuable contribution to the understanding of women’s oppression in class society. She argued that working-class women could not rely on bourgeois feminists to fight their cause and persuaded the Bolsheviks to organise working women and win them to socialism. Not all Bolsheviks were convinced although she was supported by Lenin and Trotsky.

The plight of women and the family can indicate the development of productive forces and class relations. Under tsarist Russia, women’s lives were unbearable. Working long hours, not earning enough to feed themselves let alone their children, many did not live much beyond their thirtieth birthday. After the revolution, Kollontai was elected commissar of social welfare in early November 1917. By 19 November she was outlining the Bolsheviks’ new legislation on maternity protection at the first conference of Petrograd Working Women.

She was instrumental in drawing up the new marriage law which introduced civil marriage, simplified divorce and promoted free childcare. She had a vision of developing communal kitchens, laundries and crèches which would signal the decline and withering away of the bourgeois family based on economic power and hierarchy.

However, Kollontai knew that passing laws and decrees was easy but that implementing them in a starving land fighting for its survival against twenty-one different armies of intervention was a herculean task. In addition, the Bolsheviks faced problems of building socialism in a country that had only recently been based on feudal relations and whose productive forces were limited by the backwardness of the economy under tsarism and the ravages of the first world war and civil war. Without the spread of the revolution internationally, the ability of the Soviet government to radically improve the lives of women and all workers was compromised.

Development of Stalinism

The development of Stalinism reversed many of the limited gains made in the aftermath of the revolution. Indeed, Kollontai’s experiences and efforts in attempting to build a better life for women and children graphically show the problems faced in Russia after the revolution and demonstrate how a privileged bureaucracy was able to usurp the soviets.

In 1917, when Kollontai arrived at the building where she was to take up her post as commissar, the entrance was barred by the commissionaire. Generously funded by the major banks and supported by the Junkers, the Committee to Save the Country had paid a month’s salary to civil servants in all the new commissariats, confident that they would come out on strike and cripple the Bolshevik government and all municipal services in the capital and Moscow. (Petrograd was the capital then.) Kollontai organised some workers who elected a soviet and marched with her to storm the building. They found piles of shredded documents and smashed typewriters. The keys to the safe were missing.

In the coming weeks, she and her small but determined soviet struggled without money, equipment or files to cope with waiting rooms crowded with people they were completely unable to help: nurses demanding food for the overflowing orphanages, starving children off the streets, peasants demanding compensation for floods and fires, and hordes of desperate, injured veterans.

The urgent task of the Bolsheviks after the revolution was to end Russia’s involvement in the first world war. Peace came at a heavy price. Russia sacrificed the Baltic States, the Caucasus and recognised the independence of Ukraine in signing the Brest-Litovsk treaty, which Kollontai opposed. The civil war was taking its toll on the revolution. Food and supplies were desperately short. The Workers’ Opposition demanded more democracy and shorter hours in a period when the infant workers’ state was only just clinging to life. Kollontai joined it.

After Stalin came to power, Kollontai was exiled to Norway as a member of the Soviet trade delegation. She became the world’s first female ambassador. Although she was never fully trusted by Stalin, she was able to survive the purges by mostly keeping quiet and accommodating herself to the new regime. She remained optimistic until her death in 1952 that socialism would triumph in the future: "The world never stagnates, it’s always stirring, new forms of life are always appearing, and I love to look back at the past, or forward to the beautiful future humanity will inhabit".

Porter’s book is valuable in its detailed research of life in Russia before and after the revolution, with an extensive bibliography. However, she only consulted one piece of Lenin’s writings and this is a weakness of the book. It lacks understanding of the tactics of the Bolsheviks adapting to changing circumstances. It is unsympathetic to the actions of the Bolsheviks in relation to the Kronstadt rebellion and the Workers’ Opposition. Nevertheless, the book is informative and interesting, with a wealth of information on the material conditions that contributed to the rise of a privileged bureaucracy and the degeneration of the planned economy.

Review: Alexandra Kollontai: a biography, By Cathy Porter • Published by Merlin Books, 2014, £20

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