A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In the popular conception of Soviet culture, Kollontai equals sex. This is hardly surprising, because in her own lifetime this remarkable and complex woman – a Commissar and later a diplomat – was arguably most famous for the ways people understood, and misunderstood, her views on sexuality. As the historian Sheila Fitzpatrick demonstrates in her study of four sex surveys carried out among university students between 1922 and 1927, even in this period Kollontai was known for a distortion of her views: the famous “glass of water” misquote.* No wonder that this distortion has persisted. And yet our generation is one that, to some extent at least, lives the lifestyle Kollontai was advocating: it is now perfectly commonplace for women to live with their partners before marriage; to have short term relationships; to form those relationships and to marry out of love and desire rather than social or economic considerations, or not to marry at all. This is not to say that we’re living Alexandra Mikhailovna’s dream. If anything, Kollontai would be dismayed at the extent to which casual sex is accepted as the stuff of modern, liberated female life; she believed promiscuity to be emotionally and physically harmful to the individual and to society as a whole. I can only imagine how she might have felt about the fad for poledancing classes, extreme depilation practices and other manifestations of, let’s be frank, porn culture. (I would give a great deal, in that alternative universe, to be a fly on the wall when she picked up a copy of Cosmo.)
Counter-history aside, the principal aim of this short article is to shed some light on aspects of Kollontai’s thought that have nothing to do with personal sexual morality. For this reason I have chosen to consider Communism and the Family, an article published in Komunistka in 1920 (and in translation in The Worker). The focus of this article is one of Kollontai’s strongest convictions: the necessary obsolescence of the traditional family model.
Communist society has this to say to the working woman and working man: “You are young, you love each other. Everyone has the right to happiness. Therefore live your life. Do not flee happiness. Do not fear marriage, even though under capitalism marriage was truly a chain of sorrow. Do not be afraid of having children. Society needs more workers and rejoices at the birth of every child. You do not have to worry about the future of your child; your child will know neither hunger nor cold”… Communist society will take upon itself all the duties involved in the education of the child, but the joys of parenthood will not be taken away from those who are capable of appreciating them. Such are the plans of communist society and they can hardly be interpreted as the forcible destruction of the family and the forcible separation of child from mother.
This short citation encapsulates Kollontai’s perspective on the family. At no point does she deny the emotional bonds involved in parenthood; those, like romantic love, are never in question. To her, it is the traditional family structure that must be questioned, broken down, replaced with something better. Firstly, because the economic reasoning that once justified this structure no longer applies:
The circumstances that held the family together no longer exist. The family is ceasing to be necessary either to its members or to the nation as a whole. The old family structure is now merely a hindrance. What used to make the old family so strong? First, because the husband and father was the family’s breadwinner; secondly, because the family economy was necessary to all its members: and thirdly, because children were brought up by their parents. What is left of this former type of family? The husband, as we have just seen, has ceased to he the sole breadwinner. The wife who goes to work earns wages. She has learned to earn her own living, to support her children and not infrequently her husband. The family now only serves as the primary economic unit of society and the supporter and educator of young children.
With so many women working – and in 1920 this is not so much a lifestyle choice as a necessity – the division of labour has shifted. To Kollontai, the only sensible solution is to ensure that women would not continue to be burdened by default with the work of looking after the children and the house in addition to earning wages. (On paper this seems perfectly obvious and commonsensical, but in practice, almost ninety years later, this idea has still not fully sunk in.)
Secondly, because for Kollontai, as for other Marxist thinkers, the traditional family is founded on economic interest and the principle of ownership, which is inimical to family love in the same way that the practice of marriage as an economic exchange is inimical to romantic love. Love in all its incarnations is a central theme in Kollontai’s writing; to her it is something to be preserved and prioritised rather than treated as a commodity. This informs her writings on motherhood as strongly as it does her writings on sex and marriage.
How does Kollontai propose to solve the problem of the family? Simple: the job of the parents would be to love their child, and to care for his or her welfare. The work of raising and educating the child would be the job of the State (and ultimately, when the State is no longer necessary, of society). Kollontai had already been able to put this into practice to some extent in her capacity as People’s Commissar of Social Welfare:
Under capitalism children were frequently, too frequently, a heavy and unbearable burden on the proletarian family. Communist society will come to the aid of the parents. In Soviet Russia the Commissariats of Public Education and of Social Welfare are already doing much to assist the family. We already have homes for very small babies, creches, kindergartens, children’s colonies and homes, hospitals and health resorts for sick children. restaurants, free lunches at school and free distribution of text books, warm clothing and shoes to schoolchildren. All this goes to show that the responsibility for the child is passing from the family to the collective.
Even the parents would be looked after by the collective, with access to mass catering, central laundry facilities, cleaning services.
Essentially, Kollontai is not suggesting anything that has not traditionally been at the disposal of the comparatively wealthy. The simple but radical difference is that this would be administered centrally and accessible to all social and economic strata. Childcare would be a social responsibility rather than an individual one; in sheerly practical terms, while the bond between parents and children would be left intact, the nuclear family would be replaced by a collective family:
The woman who takes up the struggle for the liberation of the working class must learn to understand that there is no more room for the old proprietary attitude which says: “These are my children, I owe them all my maternal solicitude and affection; those are your children, they are no concern of mine and I don’t care if they go hungry and cold – I have no time for other children.” The worker-mother must learn not to differentiate between yours and mine; she must remember that there are only our children, the children of Russia’s communist workers.
Here Kollontai expresses an idea which, in Russia and abroad, has been instrumental in the creation of many things modern mothers take for granted (although they are increasingly being eroded): state childcare provision, public education, maternity leave. For this reason alone, Kollontai’s writings on the family ought not to languish on the shelves, filed under Political Theory or Soviet Cultural History. At a time when women’s writing so often addresses the questions of children or no children, work or home, single or married; at a time when student debts, unemployment or low wages make these questions academic for many women; at a time when the mass media inundates us with school dinners and how to be a domestic goddess and critiques of celebrity motherhood, the issues raised by Alexandra Kollontai, Bolshevik and feminist, are still very much current.
A comprehensive selection of Kollontai’s work in translation is available at the Marxists Internet Archive.
You can see VL’s review of Red Love here.
* Kollontai is often believed to have said that satisfying the sexual urge should be as easy as drinking a glass of water. She actually said – in her Theses on Communist Morality in the Sphere of Marital Relations – that “the sexual act must be seen not as something shameful and sinful but as something which is as natural as the other needs of healthy organism, such as hunger and thirst.” Quite a difference there.