By Cathy Porter
Dial Press - 1980
With the advent of electronic books, large bookstores that have hundreds of thousands of titles have become very rare. On a recent vacation, Judi and I discovered one of these used bookstores in the Kennet Square area of Pennsylvania. It was here that I found Cathy Porter’s biography of the Russian revolutionary Alexandra Mikhailovna Kollontai. A hard copy of this book is also available at Amazon.com.
I’ve read several books on the Russian Revolution that include Leon Trotsky’s invaluable work on the subject. However, I found Porter’s biography of Kollontai to be unique. While I don’t agree with all of Porter’s conclusions, I found her meticulous study of the life of Alexandra Kollontai to be, at times, inspiring.
So, before I give a summary of the life of Alexandra Kollontai, I feel the need to clarify some issues. First, I don’t like the title of this book. Yes, it is true that Vladimir Illyich Lenin had disagreements with Kollontai. However, this book also makes a clear argument that Lenin was an important influence on Kollontai. This book also shows how Lenin, at times, appreciated the contributions of Kollontai and encouraged her activities. So, arguing that she was the woman who defied Lenin, in my opinion, is a bit simplistic.
I believe that this distinction is important because the mainstream capitalist press rarely, if ever, has anything positive to say about the life of Vladimir Illyich Lenin. In my opinion, Lenin’s example was probably the most important of the twentieth century.
Another aspect of Kollontai’s life was the fact that she chose not to support Leon Trotsky’s opposition to the regime of Josef Stalin. Stalin betrayed the core values of the Russian Revolution and organized to murder its leaders.
However, Kollontai understood that had she joined with Trotsky, she, in all probability, would have been one of those who was murdered. Supporting Trotsky also might have also meant the murder of her son, her daughter-in-law, as well as her grandson.
So, understanding these facts, now we can take a look at the life of Alexandra Kollontai.
Alexandra Kollontai was born into an aristocratic landowning family in St. Petersburg. At that time, Finland was a province of tsarist Russia and is located in close proximity to St. Petersburg. Young Alexandra enjoyed her summers at the family home in the countryside of Finland. Her familiarity with that nation would become an important asset in her later life.
Alexandra had a tutor who gave her a foundation for the life she would lead. She learned to dedicate herself to working diligently to achieve a goal. At that time, women weren’t expected to pursue intellectual ideas. Kollontai clearly broke that mold.
Young Alexandra became conversant in several languages. She also developed a discipline for learning new languages.
Her tutor also taught Alexandra about the profound injustices of tsarist Russia. As a child, Alexandra had a friend who was born into a peasant family. One day she learned that her friend had died. One clear cause of his death was that in the frigid Russian winter, he had no shoes. Overcoats were also a luxury for most peasant families.
At the age of 22 Alexandra married Vladimir Kollontai who was an engineer and had a liberal political outlook. Her husband was awarded a contract to install a ventilation system in a factory and thought this was an important opportunity. Alexandra toured this factory and was horrified by what she saw.
The factory needed a ventilation system because there was dust everywhere. At that time Russian corporations had been replacing their male workers with women because women, at best, received salaries that were 50% of the wages of men.
Women were expected to work through their pregnancy and delivered their babies in the factory. Alexandra toured a stark room where infants were kept while their mothers might toil for 16 hours per day. In this room she saw a baby who had died, and was assured that the corpse would be taken away when there was an opportunity. Infants often died because their mothers were malnourished and there was insufficient breast milk.
Visiting this factory was a turning point in Alexandra’s life. She eventually decided to leave her husband and son, Misha, to study Marxism in Zurich, Switzerland.
Kollontai becomes a revolutionary
Between the years 1899 and 1908 Kollontai lived mostly in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg. Urban centers like St. Petersburg were becoming industrial centers financed largely with French capital. One way French capitalists dealt with the rising wages of French workers was to invest in Russia. This industrialization had a profound impact on the politics of the nation.
In the countryside the royal lords had the power to use the knout or whip to beat or murder peasants. As we’ve already seen, Russian peasants lived in perpetual poverty. In order to leave their homes and travel they needed written permission.
Perhaps millions of former peasants changed their lives to work in factories. Here they might toil for 12 to 16 hours per day under horrendous conditions. They might not have their own place to live, so many lived in dormitories.
Russian police had the right to viciously beat anyone. People could be arrested for any reason and police routinely raped women. In fact the tsar openly supported the Black Hundreds (similar to the Ku Klux Klan) who carried out pogroms against Jews where thousands were murdered.
During these years Kollontai gave Marxist classes to workers. In these classes, she needed to be careful of what she said. Spies working for the secret police (Okrana) regularly attended her classes, so she needed to speak in a kind of code language.
Peasant women also came to these industrial centers. There was a Russian word baba that meant peasant hag that was insulting to all women. These peasant women were used to being beaten by their husbands. They were mostly illiterate and lived difficult lives where the thoughts of women weren’t taken seriously. When they came to the cities, they were effectively forced to work in factories, or as maids, or prostitutes.
It was in this environment that Kollontai advanced her lifelong struggle in support of women’s rights. Initially she realized that the women’s organizations of those years were composed of affluent or middle class women. These organizations argued that women’s liberation could be achieved with reforms of the capitalist system. Kollontai countered that the goals of these organizations didn’t include the millions of working and peasant women of Russia. This is how Kollontai explained her views:
“Surely (the middle-class woman) cannot but see how little the general women’s movement has done for proletarian women, how incapable it is of improving the working-class living conditions. The future of humanity must seem bleak and uncertain indeed to those women fighting for equality who have not adopted the proletarian world outlook or developed any firm faith in the coming of a more perfect social system. While the capitalist world remains unchanged, liberation must seem incomplete and partial—what despair must grip the more thoughtful and sensitive of these women.”
In her studies of Marxism, she discovered that Frederick Engels argued that the family, private property, and the state were all invented to uphold the capitalist system. Women not only needed the right to vote, but they needed to be freed of routine discrimination, household drudgery, as well as the dictates of men. Kollontai argued that this would only happen when capitalism was pushed aside and workers took power in a socialist state.
These ideas appeared fantastic in a nation where working women were routinely illiterate and lacked the confidence to make political arguments in support of their interests. However, throughout her life Kollontai would gain support for these ideas and they continue to be relevant.
By the year 1905 the profound contradictions of tsarist Russia erupted. Workers organized a wave of strikes. A demonstration marched to the home of the tsar asking for relief. The ruling powers responded by ordering Cossacks to murder hundreds who participated in this demonstration.
The 1905 revolution was defeated and followed by a rein of repression. The Duma was the Russian parliament. The tsar ordered Social Democratic members of the Duma to be arrested. They were sentenced to long terms of hard labor.
During this period Kollontai also wrote about the horrendous working conditions in Finland. Her writings on this subject were published in a Bolshevik periodical. However, at this time Kollontai joined the Mensheviks because she felt they had a better perspective on women’s liberation.
Vladimir Illyich Lenin
At this point I should give a background to the life of Vladimir Lenin so people will have an idea of how he influenced Alexandra Kollontai’s life.
Lenin was very fond of his brother Alexander who joined a secret organization that attempted to assassinate the tsar. In this failed effort Alexander was arrested and refused to identify his co-conspirators. So, the Russian authorities executed Lenin’s brother Alexander Ulyanov.
My opinion is that this had a profound effect on Lenin. He understood that his brother was a decent person who gave his life in an attempt to free Russia from despotism. However, Lenin also understood that even if his brother had been effective, absolutely nothing would have changed. In fact, these kinds of isolated acts of terrorism always lead to increased repression.
So, Lenin dedicated his enormous talents into advancing a political orientation that had a real chance of liberating the Russian people. We see this dedication in Lenin’s pamphlet: What is to be done?
Before writing this pamphlet the social democrats of Russia all worked independently and did what they thought was appropriate to advance the movement. Lenin argued that given the extreme repression of Russia, this was counterproductive.
He felt that what was needed was a centralized political party where the leadership would have control of the basic party activities. There would be conferences where the membership would have a right to make counter-proposals. However, after the majority voted on a political line, the entire party would need to carry out that orientation.
Many social democrats, including Kollontai, did not support this point of view. Kollontai and Leon Trotsky joined the Mensheviks and Lenin became the leader of the Bolsheviks.
Years living outside Russia
By the year 1908 the repression in Russia caught up with Kollontai and a warrant was issued for her arrest. She left the country to live in Berlin and joined the German Social Democratic Party. From her base in Germany, Kollontai utilized her knowledge of languages and gave speeches throughout Europe. She continued her writing and attended conferences of women and social democrats.
During these years Kollontai wrote about sexual relations and how men and women had different ideas about this important aspect of our lives. This is what she had to say:
“The normal woman seeks in sexual intercourse completeness and harmony.” “whereas the man, reared on prostitution—which destroys all the complex vibrations of the sensations of love—follows only his pallid, monotonous physical inclinations, leaving sensations of spiritual hunger and incompleteness on both sides.”
Kollontai continued to write about her ideas of how the “new woman” was developing:
“asserting her individuality instead of naively attempting to absorb and reflect the alien nature of the ‘beloved,’ insisting on her right to earthly happiness instead of hypocritically donning the mask of virtue, and finally, putting the expression of love in a subordinate place in her life.” By moving in this direction the new woman would have a new appearance: “before us stands not a mate—the shadow of a man, before us stands a new personality—a whole and human woman.”
Also during this period Kollontai agreed to make a four-month speaking tour of the United States. During these exhausting months Kollontai spoke four languages in every region of this country. She spoke at a memorial for the songwriter Joe Hill who was framed-up and executed in the state of Utah. She spoke on the same platform as Eugene Debs, the most prominent socialist of those days.
She also viewed the extreme poverty and discrimination that Black people experienced. This reminded her of the discrimination of tsarist Russia. She was also taken aback by the racist sentiments of some of her sponsors who claimed to be socialists.
The First World War
As the First World War erupted, Alexandra’s world was dramatically changed again. At this time, her home was in Germany and her son Misha was visiting her from Russia. Both Alexandra and her son were a part of the Russian exile community and Germany was going to war against Russia. Alexandra, her son, as well as the Russian exile community were arrested and sent to prison.
We should consider that the German social democrats had real power in Germany in those years. Alexandra was a prominent member of their party. However, with the exception of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the large majority of the social democrats supported the war and refused to protest the arrest of Alexandra and her son.
Under these circumstances Kollontai gravitated to the politics of Lenin and the Bolsheviks who took a strident position against the war. Kollontai collaborated with Lenin at this time and found his writings to be extremely useful. She, however, questioned Lenin when he argued that soldiers needed to turn their guns away from each other and point them towards the ruling powers. Initially Alexandra found this idea to be unrealistic, but in dealing with this issue she developed an orientation that would serve her well in the future.
At this time, Alexandra wrote a popular pamphlet against the war. This is what she had to say:
“Comrade and worker of a foreign army. I know you are not my enemy; so give me your hand comrade. Both you and I are victims of lies and violence. Our main enemy is in the rear. So let us turn our guns on him, our real and common enemy. For my enemy is not one, like me, deprived in his own land of all rights, not one whose life like mine is crushed by capital and a struggle for bread. No, my enemy is at home, the enemy of the working class of all lands, and that enemy is capitalism! For it is that enemy that has made slaves of the working class.”
During this period Alexandra developed a relationship with Alexander Shlyapnikov. Shlyapnikov was a Bolshevik and an assistant to Lenin. He was charged with the difficult task in illegally transporting Lenin’s writings from Zurich, Switzerland to St. Petersburg, Russia. Alexandra’s relationship with Shlyapnikov also helped in transforming herself into a Bolshevik.
As the Russian Revolution erupted in February of 1917, Alexandra delayed her return to her homeland. She used this trip to transport Lenin’s pamphlet Letters from afar so it could be distributed in St. Petersburg. Upon arriving at the border of Russia, a guard ripped up her arrest warrant that had been issued by the government of the tsar.
The Russian Revolution
The revolution that erupted in February responded to the increasingly intolerable conditions the Russian people faced. Literally millions of soldiers would loose their lives in the war. The war bankrupted the country. In a country that was a breadbasket to the entire region, there was massive starvation.
Women replaced men in the factories. It was a strike by women that sparked the revolution. Unlike in the revolution of 1905, the Cossacks communicated with the workers and refused to disband their demonstrations.
However, while the workers were the ones who made the revolution, a parliamentary Duma took power. These were upper class bureaucrats who organized to depose the tsar and then run a new capitalist Russia.
The Bolsheviks initially weren’t opposed to this point of view. They thought that because of the relative backwardness of Russia that capitalism was a necessary stepping-stone to the emancipation of the working class.
Because of Alexandra’s collaboration with Lenin on this topic, she saw the weakness of this argument. Leon Trotsky also returned to Russia and became a Bolshevik.
By April, Lenin returned to St. Petersburg and called for giving all power to the workers organizations known as Soviets. We can see Lenin’s thinking at this time in his April Thesis. In order to advance this perspective he needed to reverse the orientation the Bolsheviks advanced before his return. The new orientation called for all power to the Soviets as well as peace, bread, and land.
Lenin also wrote two other pamphlets in 1917 that outline what he thought was happening in the world at that time. One was Imperialism—the highest stage of capitalism. In this pamphlet Lenin argued that imperialism as well as imperialist wars do not erupt merely because of mistakes by politicians. No, imperialism as well as world war are a necessary outgrowth of the natural functioning of capitalism.
While capitalist politicians imagined that the First World War was “The war to end all wars,” this war was followed by the Second World War. Both these wars decided which capitalist power would rule the world. According to the estimates I’ve seen, there were eleven million deaths due to the First World War and sixty-seven million deaths due to the Second World War.
The other pamphlet is titled The State and Revolution. In this pamphlet Lenin argued that the state or the capitalist government was invented in capitalism as a “repressive force.” This was to rob workers and farmers of the fruits of their labor. Clearly this is different from the idea that in the United States we have “liberty and justice for all.” Lenin went on to argue that after the revolution that created the United States, the government actively repressed the interests of the British. Lenin also argued that in a workers revolution the revolutionary government would need to actively repress the interests of capitalists.
The Duma viewed this orientation as an act of treason because it opposed the war. Kollontai and Trotsky were arrested and a warrant was issued for Lenin’s arrest. Alexandra spent two months in horrendous conditions in prison before she was released.
By this time the Bolsheviks understood that they needed to organize a second revolution that took place in October. Alexandra attended the meeting where the revolution was organized. At that meeting Lenin wore a wig in order to avoid arrest for his alleged crime of treason. By the end of the day Lenin didn’t need to wear a wig any more.
On the night when the Bolsheviks organized to give power to the Soviet, Lenin drafted his first proposal that would be adopted into law. This was to give land to the millions of peasants who worked that land. The Bolsheviks had promised peace, bread, and land. Lenin didn’t waste any time in delivering on his promise of land for the peasants.
The Bolsheviks in power
Alexandra Kollontai became the Commissariat of Social Welfare. We should consider that at this time millions of Russian soldiers had lost their lives in the First World War. Millions more died from disease and hunger.
One cause of these deaths Cathy Porter didn’t mention. This was what was known as the Spanish Flu. This was a bird flu that originated in Kansas and was spread by United States soldiers who were sent to Europe in the First World War. According to John M. Barry’s book The Great Influenza, about one out of every ten people in the world died of this horrendous disease around the time of the Russian Revolution.
Because of this immense loss of life, there were millions of children who roamed the streets and didn’t have parents. It was Alexandra’s job to begin to find homes for these orphaned children.
She finally found a place for an orphanage, but this was in need of repair. Alexandra worked tirelessly to get this building suitable for children.
After the completion of this building, Alexandra received a phone call informing her that the orphanage was lost to a fire. This was, no doubt, the result of arson. An enemy of the revolution blamed Kollontai for the fire and attempted to strangle her. She survived and continued her work in Social Welfare.
Lenin had promised that the Bolsheviks would bring peace to the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. However, Germany demanded a huge section of what was then Russia in order to end the hostilities.
Alexandra believed that the revolution could not survive on its own and needed support from other countries where workers would take power. For this reason she joined with those who opposed ending the war in hopes that this would spark revolutions in other countries.
Lenin was adamant in opposing this point of view. The Bolsheviks had promised peace, and he didn’t believe the revolution would survive if this war continued. This perspective won out and the Bolsheviks signed a peace treaty with Germany at Brest-Litovsk.
During these years Alexandra had a close relationship with Pavel Dybenko. Dybenko was a leader of the sailors in the armed forces who supported the revolution. Dybenko was about ten years younger than Alexandra and she helped to educate him about the Bolsheviks. Their relationship lasted for four years and they eventually married.
Dybenko was from the Ukraine and could not bear the thought that his homeland would be handed over to Germany in order to end the war. He tried to organize his own resistance to the German occupation and ended up in a German prisoner of war camp. The Bolsheviks negotiated for his release and Dybenko became a military leader defending the USSR in the civil war. Years later, agents of Josef Stalin murdered Dybenko as well as thousands of officers in the Red Army.
These were extremely difficult years for the revolutionary government. The infrastructure of the nation had been almost completely destroyed. There was famine and disease. Then, fourteen nations invaded the country determined to overthrow the revolutionary government.
We might consider that while Germany signed a peace treaty with Russia, this didn’t stop that nation from joining with other nations in an effort to overthrow the revolutionary government. Germany carried out a bloody war against it’s capitalist rivals and signed an insulting peace treaty at Versailles. This didn’t stop the German capitalist government from joining with it’s adversaries in an attempt to overthrow the Soviet government..
However, the Soviet Red Army surprised their adversaries and successfully defended itself against this invasion. However, the problems inside the nation continued.
At this time the government needed to recruit technicians in order to get the industries of the nation running. These technicians came from the middle classes and this situation led to inequality within the factories.
For this reason Alexandra supported a faction of the Bolsheviks known as the Workers’ Opposition. The goal of this faction was to give the trade unions more control over the organization of the factories.
I don’t agree with Kollontai’s point of view on this issue. First, trade unions are immensely important because they organize workers to resist the dictates of capitalists collectively. However, Lenin understood that the unions, on their own, were incapable of organizing a revolution that would place workers in power. For this Lenin believed that a revolutionary vanguard party is necessary.
So, after a revolution trade unions take on a different role. These unions now work in collaboration with the government to organize the workplace. If unions were given an independent role after the revolution, this would, in my opinion, place the unions at odds with the government and the revolution would be compromised. I believe this is why the majority of the Bolsheviks opposed the Workers’ Opposition.
Alexandra also worked with the Bolshevik women’s organization known as the Zhenotdel. Working with the leadership of the Bolsheviks this organization pioneered numerous advances for women.
The humiliating word baba (peasant hag) was officially removed from the Russian language.
The USSR became one of the first nations in the world where women won the right to vote.
The USSR became the first nation in the world that gave women the right to abortion. Therefore the USSR became the first nation where women had the power to decide if and when they would become mothers.
For the first time, women won maternity leave during and after pregnancy.
The USSR was a vast nation that included numerous nationalities with unique cultures. One thing these cultures had in common was the brutal repression of women. Women from all over the USSR came to the cities and worked with the Zhenotdel. This experience began to transform the way women looked at themselves, as well as the changing way they related to their communities.
A legitimate question to be asked at this point is: How could a revolution that had so much promise be betrayed by the ruthless tyrant Josef Stalin?
First I’ve attempted to show the immense difficulties experienced by the revolutionary government. In the midst of these difficulties Lenin passed away at a time when Stalin was organizing his ascendency.
One way Stalin did this was by recruiting members of the former middle classes into the Bolshevik Party. This was something Lenin was adamantly opposed to. By doing this, Stalin was able to allow the former middle class to maintain their relative material advantages, in return for their acquiescence to his dictatorial rule.
In order to consolidate his rule Stalin murdered the entire leadership of the Russian Revolution. Leon Trotsky made a principled stand against Stalin, but he was exiled from the country. Eventually Stalinist agents murdered Trotsky along with his son Leon Sedov.
It was in this atmosphere that Alexandra Kollontai refused to join with Trotsky’s opposition and worked as a diplomat for the regime of Josef Stalin. During those years Kollontai was continually concerned that she too, as well as her family, would become victims of Stalin’s rein of terror. As a diplomat Kollontai was clearly aware that she was no longer a part of an international revolutionary movement. She told her close associates that she was merely following orders.
I believe that we should keep in mind that with all revolutions, there are always counter-revolutionary movements. We can see this clearly in the history of the United States.
During the Civil War about 350,000 Union soldiers died in the effort to remove slave owners from their positions of power in the United States. As a result, slavery was formally abolished and the Constitution was amended so all men, including former slaves, would have full rights in this country.
Then, after little more than a decade the federal government made a deal that effectively gave power to segregationist forces organized by the Ku Klux Klan. This act, as well as the military defeat of the reconstruction governments, effectively eliminated all citizenship rights for Black people in this country. As a result, thousands of Black people and their supporters were lynched and the government did nothing to prosecute the murderers.
Some people might conclude from this amazing story that revolution is a thing that is destined to fail. I clearly do not agree with that point of view.
Leon Trotsky managed to recruit an international movement of people who chose to continue the initial traditions of the Russian Revolution. In the United States members of the Socialist Workers Party became leaders of both the labor movement, as well as the movement that demanded an end to the war against Vietnam.
This past May I was in Havana, Cuba and witnessed over one million Cubans giving their enthusiastic support to the revolutionary government. Before the revolution the masses of Cuban people lived in abject poverty, as well as vicious government repression. Today, while Cuba doesn’t have many of the conveniences of the developed nations, every Cuban has a lifetime right to health care and education.
I read a pro-capitalist newspaper every day. These newspapers attempt to ignore the basic realities of the world.
The United Nations estimates that 30,000 children in the world die every day due to easily preventable diseases. At the same time capitalists are investing $1.2 quadrillion in a paper fund called derivatives. This seeming madness will one day explode. When this happens, and it is happening now, we have a lot we can learn from those who dedicated their lives to making the Russian Revolution happen and in continuing it’s traditions.