Women Workers Struggle For Their Rights: Introduction (1971)

Alexan­dra Kol­lon­tai, left, as People’s Com­mis­sar of Social Wel­fare in the first Sovi­et gov­ern­ment (1917-18).

The fol­low­ing intro­duc­tion to Alexan­dra Kollontai’s Women Work­ers Strug­gle For Their Rights, first pub­lished in 1918, was writ­ten by Sheila Row­both­am for a 1971 edi­tion of the text from Falling Wall Press. The trans­la­tion was pre­pared by Celia Brit­ton with notes by Suzie Watkins. We are proud to re-pub­lish it along­side Kollontai’s own intro­duc­to­ry com­ments to the text, “In Place of a Fore­word.”

Early Years

Alexan­dra Kol­lon­tai was born in St. Peters­burg in 1872, the daugh­ter of a Russ­ian gen­er­al. She mar­ried an engi­neer, Vladimir Kol­lon­tai, but found her­self mov­ing away from him as she became increas­ing­ly inter­est­ed in rev­o­lu­tion­ary ideas. Her ear­ly intel­lec­tu­al impe­tus towards rad­i­cal­ism was through the study of child psy­chol­o­gy and edu­ca­tion­al the­o­ry – an inter­est which remained with her lat­er. In this peri­od, many young women from landown­ing and mid­dle class fam­i­lies sought their eman­ci­pa­tion through teach­ing, and Froebel’s edu­ca­tion­al meth­ods and kinder­gartens became close­ly allied with rad­i­cal­ism. It seemed a nat­ur­al and use­ful way to ‘go to the peo­ple’.

Ter­ror­ism as a strat­e­gy was prov­ing increas­ing­ly inef­fec­tive. The 1896 tex­tile strikes in St. Peters­burg marked an impor­tant turn­ing point. Organ­ised labour was a more effec­tive force for change than vil­lage com­munes. The Russ­ian Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty tried to recruit work­ers. The Social Democ­rats, who were at their strongest in Ger­many, believed that real democ­ra­cy could not be ful­ly realised with­out eco­nom­ic equal­i­ty, and that this would only be pos­si­ble when the means of pro­duc­tion were con­trolled by soci­ety as a whole and not be pri­vate employ­ers. Fol­low­ing Marx, they believed that the work­ing class was the cru­cial agent of social­ism. Their atti­tude to organ­is­ing was marked by eth­i­cal human­i­tar­i­an ideas which resem­bled the ear­ly Utopi­an social­ists’.

In St. Peters­burg, a group of young Social Democ­rats, includ­ing Lenin, was study­ing Marx. Some work­ing women, like the tai­loress Grig­orge­va, were involved in the Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty already, and women work­ers were com­ing into the rev­o­lu­tion­ary strug­gle through indus­tri­al action. In 1896 women tex­tile work­ers downed tools with the men, and women cig­ar-mak­ers destroyed machin­ery and resist­ed the police.

Kol­lon­tai was obvi­ous­ly affect­ed by all these devel­op­ments, for when she went to Zurich in 1898 it was to study polit­i­cal econ­o­my, and in her His­to­ry of the Women’s Labour Move­ment, she describes the mil­i­tan­cy of the women in St. Peters­burg in the mid 1890s.

Abroad, she began to learn about the social­ist move­ment inter­na­tion­al­ly. In Zurich she met Kaut­sky and Rosa Lux­em­burg, promi­nent in the Ger­man Social Demo­c­ra­t­ic Move­ment, and in 1899 vis­it­ed Eng­land and took a dim view of the Webbs. With­in the Russ­ian Par­ty she was aligned to the group who were known as Men­she­viks, round the old marx­ist thinker Plekhanov. She remained with the Men­she­viks after Lenin and the Bol­she­viks split in 1903, want­i­ng a much tighter and more pro­fes­sion­al­ly orga­nized par­ty. After the first split, new con­flicts kept the groups apart. The Men­she­viks said Lenin was foist­ing a harsh bar­rack room dis­ci­pline onto social­ism, the Bol­she­viks saw Plekhanov as a ‘soft’ aca­d­e­m­ic ready only for Pro­pa­gan­da work. How­ev­er, indi­vid­u­als main­tained con­tact with one anoth­er and as events moved faster and faster in Rus­sia, some of the Men­she­viks began to drift towards work­ing with the Bol­she­viks because the lat­ter appeared to be more deci­sive.

Pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with these inter­nal splits meant that when in ear­ly 1905 a huge crowd of work­ers car­ry­ing reli­gious icons, led by a priest called father Gapon and full of faith in the Czar, tried to present a peti­tion to the Czar and were fired upon, nei­ther Men­she­viks nor Bol­she­viks could inter­vene. Strikes in protest fol­lowed ‘Bloody Sun­day’, and were fol­lowed by peas­ant revolt and a mutiny on the Bat­tle­ship Potemkin. The Czar com­pro­mised and agreed to call a Con­sul­ta­tive Assem­bly (Duma). Although the work­ers were not rep­re­sent­ed, this was an impor­tant break with absolute rule. At the end of the year there was a gen­er­al ris­ing in Moscow which was defeat­ed, and from then on the rev­o­lu­tion­ary impe­tus began to sub­side. The les­son was not lost. It seemed clear to the Bol­she­viks that spon­ta­neous revolt led to defeat. The rev­o­lu­tion required their con­scious direc­tion. By 1907 the Czar’s pol­i­cy of com­pro­mise had been replaced by one of severe repres­sion, and the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment was once more forced under­ground.

In 1905, the new­ly formed Russ­ian fem­i­nist move­ment planned a large meet­ing. The fem­i­nists want­ed to bring all women togeth­er, but on a basis which obscured the class exploita­tion of work­ing women. Though the Men­she­viks sup­port­ed this move, Kol­lon­tai was suf­fi­cient­ly close to the Bol­she­viks to be in oppo­si­tion. And in 1906, with some oth­er women com­rades, she start­ed to orga­nize a club for women work­ers. The women stud­ied par­tic­u­lar ques­tions which would help them secure the reforms they want­ed, and prac­ticed speak­ing until a group could speak on var­i­ous top­ics. In an account which appeared in the Woman Work­er in 1908 Kol­lon­tai wrote:

Dur­ing our prepa­ra­tions for these Con­gress speech­es, and at the Women’s Coun­cil meet­ings, our dread of the police was very great We always had to find some qui­et lit­tle room, and it an alarm was giv­en, the women would throw a hand­ker­chief over the face of the speak­er and get her away quick­ly.1

As a result of this orga­ni­za­tion, 45 of the 700 women who assem­bled at the All-Russ­ian Women’s Con­gress in 1908 were social­ists. 30 of these 45 fac­to­ry work­ers, some still scarce­ly able to read.

‘They were all very fright­ened, yet did well, hold­ing the field in all cas­es for at least fif­teen to twen­ty min­utes and aston­ish­ing the Con­gress…’ – in 1907 she had to flee from Rus­sia. Abroad she con­tin­ued to take part in the women’s move­ment, attend­ing the Con­gress at Stuttgart men­tioned in this pam­phlet. The reg­u­lar ses­sions of the Con­gress were pre­ced­ed by a con­ven­tion of women from var­i­ous coun­tries to debate ques­tions which relat­ed par­tic­u­lar­ly to work­ing class women. The most heat­ed debate arose between the Aus­tri­an social­ists and the rest over women’s suf­frage. In Aus­tria male work­ers were still dis­en­fran­chised and the Aus­tri­an women sug­gest­ed wait­ing until the men could vote before press­ing for women’s suf­frage. Clara Zetkin and most of the oth­er women were com­plete­ly against this com­pro­mise. In the gen­er­al Con­gress the main debate was over mil­i­tarism and the war – the issue which was final­ly to crack the Sec­ond Inter­na­tion­al.

In exile Kol­lon­tai became friend­ly with the ‘left’ social demo­c­rat Liebknecht and Rosa Lux­em­burg. It is pos­si­ble that some of their ideas influ­enced her and brought her to a ‘left’ posi­tion with­in the Com­mu­nist Par­ty lat­er. She lec­tured at a Russ­ian marx­ist school in Italy – a kind of rev­o­lu­tion­ary free uni­ver­si­ty, and start­ed to study pro­tec­tive mater­ni­ty pro­vi­sion because she had been asked to send a draft for a law by young social democ­rats in Rus­sia to present to the Duma. This was final­ly pub­lished in 1915 as Soci­ety and Mater­ni­ty.

In March 1911 she helped to orga­nize the first Inter­na­tion­al Women’s Day which is still cel­e­brat­ed. She was active in orga­niz­ing strikes in Paris and in the north of France in 1911, includ­ing one of house­wives over high prices. Mean­while, she was becom­ing increas­ing­ly crit­i­cal of the cau­tious, bureau­crat­ic old guard in Ger­man social democ­ra­cy, who were more inclined to empha­size the long term inevitabil­i­ty of com­mu­nism, than the short term need to do some­thing about bring­ing it about. Her crit­i­cisms brought her still clos­er to the Bol­she­viks. In 1913 she went to Eng­land again, and learned about women in the trade union move­ment. In 1916 she was in New York, and at Lenin’s request was col­lect­ing infor­ma­tion about the Amer­i­can Social­ist Par­ty and the Social­ist Labour Par­ty, in the course of which she intro­duced Lenin to the writ­ings of the social­ist-syn­di­cal­ist Daniel de Leon, who believed in indus­tri­al union­ism – the work­ing class orga­nized into one big union to take over and run pro­duc­tion.

The Revolution

When a gen­er­al upris­ing and the over­throw of the Czarist regime were fol­lowed by the for­ma­tion of the ‘Pro­vi­sion­al Gov­ern­ment’ in Rus­sia, in Feb­ru­ary 1917, Kol­lon­tai returned home and became involved in rev­o­lu­tion­ary activ­i­ty. She was amongst the peo­ple who greet­ed Lenin when he arrived back in Rus­sia at the Fin­land Sta­tion. Lenin spoke to a meet­ing of the Bol­she­viks the fol­low­ing day, denounc­ing the Men­she­viks because they thought it was too ear­ly to speak of a social­ist rev­o­lu­tion in Rus­sia. (They believed that after the ‘bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion’ of Feb­ru­ary 1917 Rus­sia would have to pass through a cap­i­tal­ist phase under bour­geois rule before there could be a social­ist rev­o­lu­tion.) Lenin praised the anti-mil­i­tarism of Liebknecht, and announced that the ‘major­i­ty of the offi­cial Social Democ­rats have betrayed social­ism,’ so that the Bol­she­viks should hence­forth dis­tin­guish them­selves by the name of Com­mu­nists.2 Most of the Bol­she­viks were shocked and stunned: only Alexan­dra Kol­lon­tai vot­ed for Lenin’s unortho­dox ‘April The­ses’. Some Bol­she­viks left the par­ty alto­geth­er, oth­ers came round to Lenin’s posi­tion slow­ly. It was the rad­i­cals, those who want­ed to car­ry through direct­ly social­ist mea­sures, who very quick­ly sup­port­ed Lenin. Kol­lon­tai was on the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee of the Bol­she­vik Par­ty at the time of the Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion of Novem­ber 1917, and became Min­is­ter for Social Wel­fare; short­ly after­wards she became respon­si­ble for edu­ca­tion.

Kollontai’s life reflect­ed the polit­i­cal turns of the rev­o­lu­tion, just as her fame since her death has fluc­tu­at­ed. Now hon­oured, now dis­graced, now smoth­ered in silence, now respect­ed as a fig­ure­head. Louise Bryant, an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist who wrote of a vis­it to Rus­sia soon after the rev­o­lu­tion in Six Red Months in Rus­sia, praised Kollontai’s work­ers’ con­trol meth­ods in her Min­istry. Kol­lon­tai her­self moved grad­u­al­ly towards the posi­tion of the ‘Work­ers’ Oppo­si­tion’ group. Her per­son­al life as well as her polit­i­cal life was stormy. In her for­ties she fell in love with Dubenko, a man much younger than her­self who had been with the Kro­n­stadt sailors when they mutinied against the rev­o­lu­tion­ary gov­ern­ment – a revolt which was harsh­ly repressed by Trot­sky. With oth­ers she for­mu­lat­ed the crit­i­cisms of the Bol­she­vik Par­ty which appeared in the ‘Work­ers’ Oppo­si­tion’ pam­phlet.3 The ‘Work­ers’ Oppo­si­tion’ group crit­i­cised cen­tral­i­sa­tion and bureau­cra­cy in gen­er­al, but crit­i­cised par­tic­u­lar­ly Trotsky’s scheme for con­trol over the Trade unions. The ‘Work­ers’ Oppo­si­tion’ want­ed the trade unions to con­trol indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion, where Trot­sky felt that the state should have con­trol. The crux of the issue was the degree of auton­o­my which could be allowed to spe­cif­ic groups with­out frag­ment­ing the already shaky rev­o­lu­tion­ary gov­ern­ment, and lead­ing to counter-rev­o­lu­tion. In 1922 the sup­port­ers of the ‘Work­ers’ Oppo­si­tion’ were con­demned as a fac­tion but not expelled from the Par­ty. The ques­tion raised by the ‘Work­ers’ Oppo­si­tion’ of autonomous organ­i­sa­tion was nev­er resolved. By a ter­ri­ble irony Stal­in was able to use Trotsky’s own argu­ments against him lat­er.

Kollontai’s influ­ence in domes­tic pol­i­tics was neg­li­gi­ble from this point. She joined the Min­istry of For­eign Affairs in 1923, and between 1923 and 1925 was in Nor­way, then in Mex­i­co, Nor­way again from 1927 to 1930 and in Swe­den from 1930 to 1945. In 1943 she was made an ambas­sador, and the fol­low­ing year was respon­si­ble for nego­ti­at­ing the Sovi­et-Finnish armistice. Although her pho­to­graph was issued by the Trot­sky­ist Fourth Inter­na­tion­al in Amer­i­ca, along with the oth­er mem­bers of the ear­ly Cen­tral Com­mit­tee who had died in Stalin’s purges, over the cap­tion ‘miss­ing’, and it is pos­si­ble that she was restrained in var­i­ous ways, her sur­vival was almost cer­tain­ly due to the fact that she raised no more awk­ward ques­tions, and because she was safe­ly out of the way in a pres­ti­gious diplo­mat­ic posi­tion. She died at the age of eighty in 1952, two decades before inter­est in her ideas revived again in Europe.

The Relevance of Her Ideas in the Russian Revolution and Now

The for­tunes of her writ­ings have been most curi­ous. The vast major­i­ty have not been trans­lat­ed from the orig­i­nal Russ­ian. Many of them sit dusti­ly in the British Muse­um. Sylvia Pankhurst pro­duced the ‘Work­ers’ Oppo­si­tion’ pam­phlet, no doubt to Lenin’s intense irri­ta­tion. (She was one of the peo­ple he labelled as ‘infan­tile’ left­ists.) This pam­phlet has recent­ly been reis­sued by ‘Sol­i­dar­i­ty’. Com­mu­nism and the Fam­i­ly has long been out of print. But it was among the texts rec­om­mend­ed by the Czech marx­ist rebels in 1968, and was repub­lished recent­ly by the some­what hereti­cal Aus­tralian Com­mu­nist Par­ty and in Britain is being repub­lished by Plu­to Press.

Inter­est in Kol­lon­tai has been slow­ly grow­ing in Women’s Lib­er­a­tion in France and Ger­many as well as Britain, because her argu­ments with the left on the need for the sep­a­rate organ­i­sa­tion of women, her stress not only on polit­i­cal eman­ci­pa­tion, and work, but also on the fam­i­ly and the psy­cho­log­i­cal effect of cen­turies of oppres­sion on women’s con­scious­ness, are very much our con­cerns as well. Her empha­sis on con­trol from below, her dis­trust of the absolute Par­ty, her under­stand­ing of the com­plex­i­ties of the cre­ation of a new cul­ture and the con­nec­tion between per­son­al expe­ri­ence and polit­i­cal con­scious­ness, are par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant with­in the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment as a whole, where we con­front these ques­tions now. Kol­lon­tai rep­re­sents a cur­rent with­in marx­ism in rela­tion to the lib­er­a­tion of women which has been sub­merged and which we need to redis­cov­er and devel­op.

Kollontai’s influ­ence on the ear­ly years of the rev­o­lu­tion was cru­cial. As soon as they were in pow­er, the Bol­she­viks intro­duced very impor­tant changes in the posi­tion of women, not only at work but in every area of life. The Decree on Insur­ance in Case of Sick­ness, of Decem­ber 1917, meant that an insur­ance fund was set up with­out deduc­tions from wages. In Jan­u­ary 1918 the Depart­ment for the Pro­tec­tion of Moth­er­hood and Infan­cy was set up as the result of Kollontai’s ear­li­er work. With­in six months of the rev­o­lu­tion, the church’s con­trol of mar­riage was end­ed and with­in a year com­plete legal equal­i­ty of rights was estab­lished. Mar­riage was sim­ply a mutu­al agree­ment between two part­ners and was eas­i­ly dis­solved. These were very basic reforms, but they were extra­or­di­nary in the Russ­ian con­text of severe oppres­sion.

The First Con­gress of Peas­ant and Work­ing Women was held on Novem­ber 19th, 1918. A spe­cial com­mit­tee was set up to help women under­stand what their new rights were and how to use them. This for Kol­lon­tai was a real advance, and a vin­di­ca­tion of her agi­ta­tion for a sep­a­rate women’s sec­tion with­in the Par­ty which she had been advo­cat­ing since 1906. A year after this pam­phlet was pub­lished, it became evi­dent that some­thing more was need­ed because the oppres­sion of women went so deep. The Work­ing and Peas­ant Women’s Depart­ment (Genot­del) thus replaced the com­mit­tee. This new depart­ment was not just to edu­cate women in marx­ism, but to mobilise them for prac­ti­cal polit­i­cal activ­i­ty. Even this did not mean that mas­cu­line atti­tudes of supe­ri­or­i­ty dis­solved eas­i­ly. Jes­si­ca Smith in Women in Sovi­et Rus­sia (1928) describes con­flict between men and women work­ers in fac­to­ries, and R. Schlesinger in Chang­ing Atti­tudes in Sovi­et Rus­sia records debates in which peas­ant women accuse the men in the Par­ty of con­de­scen­sion and patron­age. The ‘Genot­del’ became some­thing of an embar­rass­ment, and it was dis­solved in 1929 with the offi­cial expla­na­tion that an inde­pen­dent women’s move­ment was no longer nec­es­sary.

It is evi­dent that in 1918, it was hard to envis­age Stal­in­ism and the con­se­quences of social­ism in one coun­try, and that Kol­lon­tai, full of the enthu­si­asm of the rev­o­lu­tion under-esti­mat­ed the resilience of the old atti­tudes and cul­ture both with­in the Par­ty and with­out. She imag­ined that the old fam­i­ly and house­work were on the point of with­er­ing away, because of the dra­mat­ic changes in the ear­ly years of the rev­o­lu­tion. But the old fam­i­ly, which she describes in Com­mu­nism and the Fam­i­ly as the fam­i­ly in which ‘the man was every­thing and the woman noth­ing’, showed a capac­i­ty to sur­vive the upheavals of rev­o­lu­tion, civ­il war and famine. The fam­i­ly emerged after the cri­sis and iso­la­tion of the Sovi­et Union and the hor­rors of the Sec­ond World War with a new strength as the sym­bol of secu­ri­ty and retreat. Though women have achieved much greater equal­i­ty at work and in edu­ca­tion, at home the old divi­sion of labour con­tin­ues and with it some of the old sub­or­di­na­tion.

For us now, the lim­i­ta­tions on how far it was pos­si­ble for Kol­lon­tai to go are as clear as the rel­e­vance of her ideas for our dilem­mas. Many of her attempts to go beyond the ideas of Engels and Bebel were of neces­si­ty the­o­ret­i­cal rather than prac­ti­cal. For exam­ple, fac­to­ry women crit­i­cised her when she want­ed the state to pay a third of the cost of alimo­ny, say­ing it would encour­age men to seduce women and leave. This was a nat­ur­al enough fear when con­tra­cep­tion was still not reli­able or wide­spread. Kollontai’s belief in free rela­tion­ships was inevitably prob­lem­at­ic when it was still impos­si­ble for most women to con­trol their fam­i­lies. The peas­ant women knew all too well that, as they put it, if you like tobog­gan­ing you have to be ready to pull your sledge up hill. This can still be true, of course, but it’s no longer inevitable.

Because ideas in women’s lib­er­a­tion come from our own lives, it forces us not to gloss over the com­pli­cat­ed ques­tions. It would be incon­ceiv­able for any­one now in women’s lib­er­a­tion to be as dis­mis­sive of the rights of chil­dren as Kol­lon­tai is in Com­mu­nism and the Fam­i­ly, or to be so con­fi­dent that ‘the state’, social­ist or not, is a reli­able par­ent. We are much more involved in the intri­ca­cy of par­tic­u­lar fam­i­lies, and the spe­cif­ic way in which they con­tain us. Obvi­ous­ly too, her dis­cus­sion about the fam­i­ly is in a post rev­o­lu­tion­ary sit­u­a­tion. Our prob­lem is how to organ­ise round the oppres­sion of women in the fam­i­ly in cap­i­tal­ism. Kol­lon­tai saw the mod­ern fam­i­ly as a place of con­sump­tion and con­di­tion­ing, as a means of main­tain­ing the old cul­ture with­in a new soci­ety. Fol­low­ing Mar­garet Benston’s The Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my of Women’s Lib­er­a­tion some peo­ple in women s lib­er­a­tion have seen the fam­i­ly also as a form of pro­duc­tion.4

Kollontai’s argu­ment for the sep­a­rate organ­i­sa­tion of women is based on the fact that women as moth­ers have spe­cial demands aris­ing from their bio­log­i­cal­ly dis­tinct mate­r­i­al sit­u­a­tion. She stress­es that the strat­e­gy we make has to be based on the actu­al cir­cum­stances, bio­log­i­cal and social, of women in par­tic­u­lar soci­eties. She sees this as the cru­cial dis­tinc­tion between women who are social­ists and the fem­i­nists. Fem­i­nism she defines not only in the straight­for­ward sense of defend­ing the posi­tion of women and seek­ing to improve it, but as the insis­tence on abstract equal rights with­out regard for the actu­al predica­ment of women. She thus iden­ti­fies a char­ac­ter­is­tic of ‘equal rights’ fem­i­nism in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. She appears not to know about the fem­i­nism which had appeared ear­li­er in the Utopi­an Social­ist move­ment – though she men­tions indi­vid­ual women who took part in the First Inter­na­tion­al. Iron­i­cal­ly her crit­i­cism of the fem­i­nists was to be used against her lat­er in the Sovi­et Union, because women in the east and peas­ant women were so remote from her ideas of lib­er­a­tion. It’s impor­tant to under­stand that fem­i­nism in women’s lib­er­a­tion now has assumed a dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal form and whether we are crit­i­cal of this or not it is wrong to sub­sti­tute fem­i­nism of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry which Kol­lon­tai talks about for fem­i­nism in the 1970s.

How­ev­er, Kollontai’s crit­i­cism of an abstract approach is still use­ful. For exam­ple, we have to be care­ful when think­ing about pro­tec­tive leg­is­la­tion or about anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion bills to take exist­ing class and sex inter­ests into account for these are the con­text in which leg­is­la­tion oper­ates. The idea of abstract equal­i­ty when put into prac­tice can often mean that the women in the weak­est posi­tions lose out.

Kollontai’s implaca­ble hos­til­i­ty to fem­i­nism was becom­ing gen­er­al among women who were social­ists imme­di­ate­ly before and after the First World War. Rather ear­li­er there had been a much more open and con­nect­ed rela­tion­ship between fem­i­nism and the left. Undoubt­ed­ly it was the recog­ni­tion of the lim­i­ta­tions of the suf­frage move­ment, and the move right­wards of the suf­fragette lead­er­ship towards patri­o­tism and impe­ri­al­ism in Britain, which pro­duced the hos­til­i­ty. Almost cer­tain­ly now as peo­ple dig below the sur­face they will find that the women who nev­er became promi­nent had dif­fer­ent sym­pa­thies, and an under­stand­ing of the need for change which went much wider than the vote. Kol­lon­tai reluc­tant­ly acknowl­edges the strength of the suf­fragettes, and the removal of women who were social­ists from the mass of work­ing women. Iron­i­cal­ly she shows that it was the suf­frage move­ment, and the pos­si­bil­i­ty that women could vote, which led the men in the social­ist move­ment to see the impor­tance of recruit­ing and involv­ing women! The par­al­lel with the effect of women’s lib­er­a­tion on the left groups is appar­ent. It is curi­ous that at this stage Kol­lon­tai seems not to have known about the East Lon­don Fed­er­a­tion of Suf­fragettes in which Sylvia Pankhurst was work­ing. Their co-oper­a­tive toy fac­to­ry, the creche in the pub – ‘The Moth­ers Arms’ – and their agi­ta­tion on a wide range of issues, from equal pay, to pre­vent­ing the arrest of girls walk­ing alone as pros­ti­tutes, would have inter­est­ed her. It looks as though even with the Inter­na­tion­al, and the impres­sive num­bers of women organ­ised, they had our dif­fi­cul­ty in cir­cu­lat­ing infor­ma­tion.

When Kol­lon­tai was writ­ing this pam­phlet the sep­a­rate women’s groups were becom­ing absorbed with­in social­ist organ­i­sa­tions, as sep­a­rate sec­tions of polit­i­cal par­ties. She sees this as an advance tak­ing them beyond pro­pa­gan­da work, and does not recog­nise that with­out an explic­it social­ist-fem­i­nist the­o­ry, and with­out the bar­gain­ing, pow­er of an autonomous organ­i­sa­tion, the spe­cif­ic oppres­sion of women would be over­laid by the marx­ist analy­sis of the exploita­tion of the work­er, and thus the auton­o­my of the women’s organ­i­sa­tion trans­formed first into token inde­pen­dence and then closed down alto­geth­er.

Women’s lib­er­a­tion as a move­ment has raised again the whole ques­tion of the rela­tion­ship of sub­or­di­nate groups to dom­i­nant groups with­in rev­o­lu­tion­ary orga­ni­za­tions. But our orga­ni­za­tion­al real­i­ty is not hers. For the Bol­she­viks, ‘the Par­ty’ rep­re­sent­ed the high­est orga­ni­za­tion­al cre­ation of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment. It embraced the most devel­oped the­o­ry and prac­tice exist­ing at the time, it gen­er­al­ized and extend­ed the par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence not only of the work­ing class but of every oppressed sec­tion of soci­ety. The lega­cy of Stal­in, the dis­solv­ing of the mono­lith­ic Com­mu­nist Par­ty as the sole arbiter of cor­rect strat­e­gy, the growth of numer­ous small rev­o­lu­tion­ary nuclei, has meant that events have turned full cir­cle. While Kol­lon­tai was writ­ing the intro­duc­tion to this pam­phlet, nego­ti­a­tions were going on in Britain between var­i­ous small Marx­ist groups and the Rus­sians to form the Com­mu­nist Par­ty. It seemed to Kol­lon­tai that there was a gen­er­al move­ment towards a com­mon posi­tion.

For us the sit­u­a­tion is much less clear. There are no com­mon­ly held organ­i­sa­tion­al ideas which can act as a means of estab­lish­ing a uni­fied strat­e­gy – not only between women’s lib­er­a­tion and the social­ist groups, but with­in the left in gen­er­al. Thus for instance Kol­lon­tai was able to assume that her state­ment that the women’s clubs were under the ide­o­log­i­cal influ­ence of the Par­ty would be gen­er­al­ly accept­able. Now in women’s lib­er­a­tion it would have sin­is­ter and manip­u­la­tive impli­ca­tions. How­ev­er, we face the same impor­tant prob­lem – how to organ­ise effec­tive­ly, and how to relate our move­ment to the spe­cif­ic oppres­sion and exploita­tion of work­ing class women. Kol­lon­tai describes the ‘geo­log­i­cal shift’ which sep­a­rat­ed the ideas of organ­is­ing in the Sec­ond Inter­na­tion­al from the expe­ri­ence of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion. We are sep­a­rat­ed from the Com­mu­nist Third Inter­na­tion­al by a whole series of shifts and tremors, as well as a few earth­quakes, and it is absurd to lift the ideas of 1918 in a fun­da­men­tal­ist way onto the dilem­mas of 1971.

Nev­er­the­less it is still appro­pri­ate that Kollontai’s pam­phlet on the organ­i­sa­tion of women work­ers should be trans­lat­ed for the Sec­ond Women’s Lib­er­a­tion Con­fer­ence in Britain. We have grown and devel­oped in the one and a half years since the Oxford Con­fer­ence, not only here in Britain, but inter­na­tion­al­ly. If we are to go fur­ther, an essen­tial task will be the redis­cov­ery of our own his­to­ry – the his­to­ry which has been obscured and neglect­ed, just as the spe­cif­ic inter­ests of women have been obscured and neglect­ed, with­in the dom­i­nant ide­ol­o­gy of cap­i­tal­ism, but also, sad­ly, with­in the male dom­i­nat­ed rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment.5

This arti­cle is part of a dossier enti­tled “Com­rades, Ral­ly Around Your Sovi­ets!”: The Cen­te­nary of the Octo­ber Rev­o­lu­tion.

  1. I am refer­ring here to an arti­cle by Geor­gia Pearce enti­tled, ‘A Russ­ian Exile, Alexan­dra Kol­lon­tai and the Russ­ian Woman Work­er’, which appeared in the Eng­lish news­pa­per, The Woman Work­er, of May 1909. This news­pa­per is not to be con­fused with the Bol­she­vik paper of the same name. 

  2. Lenin, quot­ed in Isaac Deutsch­er, Stal­in: a Polit­i­cal Biog­ra­phy (New York: Vin­tage Books, 1960), 139. 

  3. Repub­lished recent­ly as a Sol­i­dar­i­ty pam­phlet. 

  4. Mar­garet Lowe Ben­ston, The Polit­i­cal Econ­o­my of Women’s Lib­er­a­tion (Somerville, Mass.: New Eng­land Free Press, 1975). 

  5. If you want to find out more about Alexan­dra Kol­lon­tai, you could read an arti­cle by me in The Spokesman of June and July 1970, which was actu­al­ly writ­ten in autumn 1969. It’s called ‘Women’s Lib­er­a­tion and Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Love’ and has a list of most of the mate­r­i­al pub­lished in Eng­lish by Kol­lon­tai, as well as books which con­tain infor­ma­tion about her. See also the pam­phlet, The Work­ers’ Oppo­si­tion, pub­lished by Sol­i­dar­i­ty, and Com­mu­nism and the Fam­i­ly, which has just been reis­sued in Britain by Plu­to Press with an intro­duc­tion by Di Hatch­ett. (It is also avail­able in Aus­tralia, pub­lished by the Com­mu­nist Par­ty with an intro­duc­tion by Mavis Robert­son.) A trans­la­tion of Kollontai’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy is due out soon. The fol­low­ing books were use­ful as a back­ground for this intro­duc­tion: Angela Bal­a­banov, My Life as a Rebel (New York: Harp­er, 1938); Milo­rad Drachkovitch, ed., The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Inter­na­tion­als (Stan­ford, Calif.: Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1966); Deutsch­er, Stal­in; Wal­ter Kendall, The Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Move­ment in Britain (Lon­don: Wei­den­feld & Nicol­son, 1969); Nadezh­da Krup­skaya, Mem­o­ries of Lenin (New York: Inter­na­tion­al Pub­lish­ers, 1930) – plus work I did for the chap­ter on Rus­sia in my book, Women: Resis­tance and Rev­o­lu­tion (New York: Ver­so, 2014 [1972]), which is to be pub­lished in spring 1972. 

Author of the article

is a historian and writer. She was involved in organizing the first national UK Women’s Liberation Movement conference in 1970, and is the author of Women's Liberation and the New Politics (1969); Women, Resistance, and Revolution (1972); and Women's Consciousness, Man's World (1973). Recent publications include Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (2008) and Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century (2010).