You are on page 1of 9
Alexandra Kollontai and Marxist Feminism Author(s): Jinee Lokaneeta Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 36, No.Economic and Political Weekly Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4410544 Accessed: 10 -07-2015 21:34 UTC Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/ info/about/policies/terms.jsp JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org. Economic and Political Weekly is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Economic and Political Weekly. http://www.jstor.org This content downloaded from 192.107.39.19 on Fri, 10 Jul 2015 21:34:49 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions " id="pdf-obj-0-3" src="pdf-obj-0-3.jpg">

Alexandra Kollontai and Marxist Feminism Author(s): Jinee Lokaneeta Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 36, No. 17 (Apr. 28 - May 4, 2001), pp. 1405-1412 Published by: Economic and Political Weekly Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4410544 Accessed: 10-07-2015 21:34 UTC

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/ info/about/policies/terms.jsp

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

Economic and Political Weekly is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Economichttp://www.jstor.org This content downloaded from 192.107.39.19 on Fri, 10 Jul 2015 21:34:49 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions " id="pdf-obj-0-24" src="pdf-obj-0-24.jpg">

Economic and Political Weekly is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Economic and Political

Weekly.

This content downloaded from 192.107.39.19 on Fri, 10 Jul 2015 21:34:49 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Alexandra Kollontai

and

Marxist

Feminism

To record the contradictions within the life and writings of Alexandra Kollontai is to reclaim a largely unidentified part of Marxist feminist history that attempted to extend

Engel's

and Bebel's analysis of women's

oppression but eventually went further to

expose the the woman's
expose the
the woman's

inadequacy of prevalent Marxist feminist history and practice in analysing

question. This essay

is not an effort to reclaim that history uncritically,

but to give recognition to Kollontai's efforts and understand her perspective.

JINEE LOKANEETA

I

Politicsof Memory

T

he 150th year

of the Communist

Manifesto saw many initiatives all over the world to critically re- examine the basic tenets of Marxism. There are also efforts on to review the socialist

experiments in Soviet Union and other countries. Simultaneous is a need felt to

recover the voices of those who professed

Marxist ideology but were marginalised in history, theory and practice, for their

critical questioning and dissenting inter- ventions. It is important also because these life experiences lay bare not only the nature

of official historics

and history-makers but

the possibilities which existed or did not exist for experimentation within a parti- cular ideology/history/practice. Acclaimed either as the first woman ambassadorof the Soviet state in the 1920s- 1930s or denounced as the proponent of

'free love' in post-revolutionary Russia, AlexandraKollontai (I 872-1952) has been usually subjected to a monolithic charac-

terisation. The list of

prominent women of

the socialist revolutionary tradition has included names of Clara Zetkin, Nadhezda

Krupskaya

and

Rosa

Luxembourg.

Alexandra Kollontai, who was described reportedly as a 'brilliant oratorand power-

ful propagandist' by Lenin during the revolution, was the only woman in the central committee in August 1917 and became the commissar of social welfare in the first soviet government, is conspicu- ous by her absence in these accounts. Kollontai later went on to head the central

women's department ('Zhenotdel') of Soviet Russia as a foremost leader of the

Russian Social Democratic women's movement. For such a person to be remem-

beredfor the post of an ambassador, which

actually

indicatedher

political downfall,

memory of

requires a little explanation:

It reaffirmsthe selective

official histories, which retain only those

aspects

of

history

that fit within the

dominantversion recorded. Two illustra-

tions to indicate how Kollontaiwas

nored by the

ig-

Socialist revolutionary tradi-

specificallyby

Soviet his-

point.

tion and more

tory

shouldbe sufficientas cases in

Lenin's writings on womentitled On the

Emancipationof Women (1965) seem to

be oblivious to the very existence of

AlexandraKollontai let alone

to the

questions raised by

responding

her.The life and

writings of Kollontaiare restricted to a thin

volumeof Selected Speeches andArticles

of Kollontai publishedby Progress Pub-

lishers, Moscow (1984). The publishers

are indeed 'selective' as they attempt to

present

a

completely abridged

picture

and un-

controversial

of Kollontai that

overlooksall issuesof dissensionfrom the

official partyhistory. Hercontributions as

a close comrade-in-armsof Lenin and a

successfulcommissar are lauded. But what

are carefully concealedare the moments

of

opposition

and resistance against the

'dominant' partypositions andthe struggles

thatshe waged insidethe party. Itis accord-

ing

to the latterthat the

politicalgraph of

finally

Kollontai'slife rose and fell and

led to her removalfrom the mainstream

of Soviet politics, to beremembered merely

as an ambassadorof Soviet Russiaor for

a distortedversion of her

writings.

The

presentessay attempts to retrievethe lesser-

knownfacets of Kollontai's life. This would

not only expose the politics of official

historywritings butwould also raise certain

questions

about Marxist feminism in

earliertimes and today. "It is clearly not

the absenceof informationabout women,

but the sense that such informationwas

not relevantto the concernsof

led to the

history that

in the

invisibility of women

formalaccounts of the

past"[Scott 1988].

Kollontai'scase indicatesthat it is not

irrelevanceof informationbut ratherthe

criticalnature of her speeches andarticles

thatled to

for official

attempts

her invisibility and irrelevance

history.

If one looks at the

democratise written

made to

history, one finds that, since the 1970s, the

women'smovement and women's studies

have attempted to recordwomen's

history

in contrastto theandro-centric history that

existedearlier. The exclusionof women's

lives and their perspectives from a patri-

archal recording

sought

techniques

of 'male'

history was

to be rectified.New methodsand

were

developed

to write a

early

at-

feminist history. Much of the

tempts were in termsof a 'compensatory

history'

thatis

placing the 'great women'

their

alongside the 'great men' and study

contributionto the social concerns of

patriarchalhistory. Although this attempt

to 'retrieve'women from

history

was a

majorcontribution, the limitationsof this

methodwere also

tory history

recognised.Compensa-

inadequate

history

was considered

due to its inability to

of the privileged. In

transcendthe

otherwords, it could

only locate 'exceptional' women who

had been able to contributetowards the

major events in 'male' history, which

excluded the majority of women, their

perspectives and experiencesalong

other subalternsections of

with

society. The

excep-

documentary evidenceabout these

tional women

their

was also a consequence of

'privileged'position.

Hence women's

alternativeforms of

history focused on

evidence especially

Economic and Political Weekly

April 28, 2001

1405

This content downloaded from 192.107.39.19 on Fri, 10 Jul 2015 21:34:49 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

oralhistories, customs, photographs, relics,

iconography in order

to rewrite

history

from a feminist as well as a subaltern

viewpoint. It was "the attempt to demo-

cratiseaccess to

history, its production and

itscontent" [Davin1988]. The periodisation

of

earlier historywriting

was also

ques-

tioned since it had failed to account for

-the transformationsin women's lives

in her

writings. Further, her practical

people's

commissar

considerationsas a,

couldseem at variancewith her vision and

the

ideological questions raised by

her

withinthe party. This also leads to a dif-

ficulty

in

systematically

analysing

Kollontai's writings. Yet it is withinthese

levels that one senses the contradictions

in herand the alternativetradition that she

say, for instance,in termsof reproductive

rights

or

other issues concerning

recognising

their

everyday lives.

While

the limitations of

'compensatoryhistory', I would still like

to

place

the

presentattempt within this

qualificationsespecially

trendwith some

because through such a history one can

lay

bare the

history

of

marginalisation

question

of

even in recent times. The

periodisation on the basis of changes in

women's lives is important but these

changes have to be also relatedto periods

of large-scale transformationsin

that it is not a

society

so

partialrepresentation of

societal history.Further, it was not history

itselfthat excluded the

majority of women

but the patriarchal forces and structures

of

society

thatexcluded women's

parti-

cipation in several large-scale social pro-

cesses,

for

instance,say

the renaissance

whichJoan Kelly drewattention to, in her

path

breaking article 'Did Women Have

pertinent,

a

Renaissance?'It would be

however,to clarify thatone is nottrivialis-

ing

the need to recordthe contributionof

history.

theinvisible majority of womenin

Ratherit is to drawattention alongside to

the

strugglewaged by many exceptional

the specifically

'male'domains

These women's

womenin

of a

patriarchalsociety.

liveshave often been obliterated from social

memories. Official versions sought to

either destroy or concealthe

'documentary

evidence' of their contribution.

To reclaima

part of pasthistory becomes

piece

all themore difficult when one hasto

togetherfragments of theory fromselected

speeches, articlesand fiction, theselections

and interpretationsbeing

different in

Being

a

western and Soviet literature.

theorist,agitator, party memberand govern-

ment official at different moments, or

simultaneously, Kollontai responded

to

differentsituations and audiences. Within

the partystructure, with the masses (men

and

women), with

the rankand file mem-

bers (men and women), Kollontaientered

into debates

according

to the levels of

consciousness perceived, andthe extent of

'democraticdiscussion'

permitted which

could partiallyexplain the inconsistency

tried to

Soviet

represent.

history is replete with symbols of

is what was it that

to be

dissent; the question

made Kollontai

'important'enough

entirely

obliteratedalmost

tionary Soviet

opposed

from revolu-

Kollontai had

history?

the official

partypositions most

forthrightly on variousoccasions whether

it was on

participation in the first world

war,2 BrestLitovsk Treaty,3 andWorkers

Opposition.4 Iteven led to her being ousted

from

prominentgovernment posts

in the

lattertwo cases. But it was on her ideas

on the 'woman's question' thatshe faced

maximumcriticism.

Although

Kollontai stated that the

waged

struggle forwomen's rights hadto be

bothinside the party andoutside it, it was

the latter that had been theorised and

directed

against

the

bourgeois women's

explained at great

bourgeois

movement.Kollontai

length

the class natureof the

women's movementand its,limitation in

takingup

issues of working class women.

But she failedto extendeven a semblance.

oftheorisationto the'male attitudes' within

the party and government. The criticism

and hostility thatshe facedfor her attempts

to build an autonomouswomen's

group

withinthe party and for her views on the

communist morality hasnever been referred

to, letalone analysed,except in verygeneral

terms. The

womenhad to

struggles

that she and other

wage withinthe party to gain

question

due recognition of the woman's

has to be readfrom her mild criticismof

male attitudesin her

writing

as well as

from other accountsof that

contradictionsin herroles as

period. The

party/govern-

mentofficial anda Marxistfeminist theo-

rist is-perhaps mostevident in her inability

to criticisethe

party/governments

under-

standing of the woman's

question. Yet to

recordthe contradictionswithin the life

and writings,of AlexandraKollontai is to

reclaim a

largely

unidentified

part

of

Marxistfeminist history that attempted to

extend Engel's and Bebel's

women's

furtherto

analysis

of

oppression but eventually went

expose

the

inadequacy of preva-

practice

question.

lent Marxistfeminist theory and

in analysing the woman's

This

essay

is not an effortto uncritically

history

but to

recognise the

Kollontaito raise the

in a Marxistframe-

perspective. The

reclaimthat

attempts made by

'woman's

question'

workand understand her

obvious limitationsof her work arise not

only fromthe fact thatshe was writing in

the

early part

of the

century

when the

revolutionarieswere engaged in a variety

of

campaigns butalso

in the contextof the

'struggle withina struggle'5 thatshe was

a part of. The BolshevikParty as a whole

hadto fight first against theczarist system,

and then

continuingforeign intervention

partyfought a

and the women withinthe

dual struggle.They

not

only foughtalong-

had to

side theirmale comradesbut also

fight against

the

patriarchal values and

practicesprevailing in society,party andthe

state, even though in varyingmagnitudes.

II

Zhenotdel:AnInvisible Quest for Autonomy

Zhenotdel, thewomen's department was

createdto

provide

an autonomous space

for women within the Russian Socialist

Democratic movement. 'Rabonitsa' or

'woman worker' existed as a

separate

women's paper whilethe other partypapers

had

special

pages relatedto women. It is

these spaces

for

raising

not due to a

little known that

the women's

question came

mechanical implementation of the Rus-

sian SocialistDemocratic Party's(RSDP)

commitmenttowards equality for women

but were a result of a continuous and

arduous struggleby revolutionary women

like AlexandraKollontai.

Russian history had experienced a tra-

ditionof women's movement long before

the torchbearersof the Bolshevikrevolu-

tion even realised the necessity of mass

mobilisationof women for the socialist

cause. Right from the onset of the early

revolutionary movement, women

participated in

had

the peasant revoltsthat led

to the abolitionof serfdomin 1861 and

Bakunin's

campaign of 'going to the

people'. The prominent leaders among

womencame mainly fromthe aristocratic

background

like Vera

Figner and the

Turgenev

Leshern sisters on which

[Kollontai1984:41] wrotehis famous poem

'Onthe Threshold' describing womenwho

hadleft theirhomes to

injustice.

In the latter

fight against social

part

of the 19th

factory strikes

century therewere a seriesof

andunrest which not only involved many

proletarian women but were also often

1406

Economic and Political Weekly

April 28, 2001

This content downloaded from 192.107.39.19 on Fri, 10 Jul 2015 21:34:49 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

initiated by them.Strikes in the 1870s and

80s in factoriesof

Moscowand Petersburg

werehistoric struggles wherewomen played

a

very significant role. Very

few however

Party.

were attractedto the Socialist

Two factors in that period forced the

SocialDemocratic Party to take up thetask

of mobilising women. Firstly, the 1905-06

struggle

had revealed the

revolutionary

potential of women as a section. Women

bore the bruntof the czar's soldiers for

demanding their rights,

their

which reflected

growing consciousness. Secondly,

the party could observe

influence

the increasing

bourgeois

of the so-called

women's organisations whichwere mobi-

lising

womenon variousfronts. Kollontai,

distinguished

the

like most Marxists

socialists from the so-called bourgeois

women's

organisations. While the bour-

geois women's organisations were said to

restricttheir demands for civil and politi-

cal rights

the

within a

capitalistframework,

joint struggle

socialistsbelieved in a

of womenand oppressed massesfor socio-

economic

equality

in a socialist

society.

Although Kollontaiin her writingssug-

gested

that the bourgeois

women's

organisations were to die a naturaldeath

due to their-owninternal contradictions,

they actuallyposed

thesocialists. The

a

women was

by

Women's MutualAid

majorchallenge to

first attempt to organise

clubs like the Russian

society,

meant to

provide conditionsfor recreationto bour-

geois

women. But

gradually

other

organisationsarticulating the demandsof

women as a whole emerged. Accounts6

[Cliff] of that period

gence nists
gence
nists

write of the emer-

and growth of some militantfemi-

organisations which tried to raise

themselves 'above their class interests'

andinclude the rights of

workingwomen,

Equality,

Union, Women's

like the Union for Women's

Women's EqualRights

Progressive Pairty. Some of them not

only

demanded

suffrage right

but also

a set of radical, socialand labourreforms.

For a brief period, feministand socialists

worked together and attractedwomen to

the UnitedWomen's Platform until the

socialists felt the need to dissociate

entirely fromthe bourgeoisorganisations.

Kollontai's apprehensions

of

apparent in her

difference between the

aboutthe growth

bourgeois women's organisations are

extensive writing on the

working

class

perspective andthe 'feminist' perspective.

On the whole the

bourgeois

women's

organisations were restrictedto fighting

for limited

rights without demanding

restructuring of society. However, they

were able to attract

working

women to

their fronts, which was a

for the socialists.

disturbing fact

Hence, it becamea

politicalcompulsion

for the RSDP to attractwomen towards a

class view of

politics that integrated the

proletarian revo-

women's question with

lution. The weaknessof the party in this

sphere is exposedby

the FirstAll Russian

Women'sconference in 1905 where only

two

women spoke of the working

emancipation as being

class

women's

relatedto

overthrowof

too was

capitalism and this motion

defeated.At

this junc-

decisively

ture AlexandraKollontai was one of the

few who even while

criticising the notion

of sisterhoodof all womenthat the bour-

geois

women's

organisationspropagated,

sensed the need to create autonomous

channels to approach women. Compre-

hending the triple burden that women

had to bear as a worker,housewife and

mothershe recognised the need to estab-

lish separate channelsof communication

to bring womeninto a struggle fora socialist

society. The everydayoppression of peas-

ant and working class women were seen

as specific

alongwith

and required to be articulated

the otherdemands of the strug-

gling

The

masses.

struggle for a separateorganisation

for womenstarted from 1906 onwards and

got

1906

actualised only afterthe revolution.In

Kollontaitried to set

up

a women

workersbureau but failed in the face of

the

opposition withinthe party.Any

purpose

effort

towards this

were thwarted by

party membersas 'divisive'of the working

class

and smacking of the very bourgeois

'feminism'that Kollontaiand othershad

spokenagainst so ardently. In her writings

Kollontaimentions instances of

party men

deliberatelycreating obstaclesin their initial

efforts to

organise women. Buildings for

holdingmeetings wereoften found locked

andnotices attached, declaring those spaces

as unavailable for women's

meetings.

Kollontai herself mentions the hostility

they faced. "Theygave no encouragement

and even went as far as trying to hinder

the group"[Kollontai 1984:55].

Yet in the very next paragraph, Kollontai

seemsto defendthe hostileattitudes of the

various meanings of feminism that were

perceived

within the

Marxist parties. On

recognised the

question

the one hand, Kollontai

need to articulatethe women's

but preferred to dissociateherself from the

term 'feminism'.Feminism wvas equated

with

bourgeoisfeminism, which believed

in a united struggle for women's rights

across all classes;

thereby denying

the

possibility of a struggle of the entire

working class (both men and women)

against

the

propertied

classes which

Marxists propagated. On the other hand,

within the

party

it was almost as if any

attempt to organise women separately was

seen as a divisive

to hinderclass

attemptby

'feminists'

struggle. It

seems ironical

thatKollontai who demolishedthe views

of bourgeois feministswas accordedsuch

criticismfrom the veryparty comradesshe

sought

to

represent and defend; and that

she herselfwas unableto transcendthese

criticisms and redefine feminism within

Marxism.

It was in 1907 that

first able to establisha

party

women were

club, the Society

for Working Women's MutualAid clari-

fying beforehand that"generallyspeaking

the

society

did not bear the

stamp

of a

specifically women'sclub" indicating the

suspiciousness towardsthe

specific

issue of

any

women's mobilisation.In these

unfavourable circumstances, eventhis club

was a hardearned victory and this forum

wasutilised to mobilise and agitateamongst

working

women.

The next phase of massivemobilisation

came in the wake of the

February revo-

working

lution in 1917. The numberof

womenhad rapidly increased.The war and

the

subsequentshortage of bread brought

thousandsof menand women on thestreets

on February 23 (March 8). And it was

again

the

militancy of the working class

womenin braving the wrathof the Czar's

soldiersthat led to the RSDP to directits

attention towards mobilising women.

Despite the history

of

joint strugglesby

working class men andwomen, the hosti-

lity towards anyspecifically women-related

activity

continued. AlexandraKolfontai

country to

had been forced to leave the

avoid arrest

by

the Czar for her 'anti

establishment' activities from 1908 onwards

party comradesalmost as if any criticism

would he interpretedwrongly.

attitddewas based on an

standablefear that the

easily

"Suchan

under-

working class might

get

en-

leave their class movementand

tangled inthe snare of feminism" [Kollontai

1984:55]. It is interesting to observe the

till 1917 andit is no merecoincidence that

the issue of women's

taken up

organisation was

afterher

again in a'big way only

return.Vera

Slutskaya, a party member,

plan for the

a bureau

who hadbeen askedto drawa

partysuggested the formationof

to coordinate agitational work among

Economicand Political Weekly

April 28, 20011407

This content downloaded from 192.107.39.19 on Fri, 10 Jul 2015 21:34:49 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

women and to restart the newspaper

Rabonitsa.Hence bureaus were set

were poor substitutesfor

up

but

separate women's

organisations that Kollontai and others

were

demanding.Further, most of these

only

on

paper.

separate

the

bureausexisted

Theextent of fearon theidea of

women's organisation was suchthat in

Seventh Party Conferencewhen a

special

commissionraised this issue, they were

askedto withdrawalmost entirely without

discussion.The minutes reveal the bureau-

craticand patriarchalhigh-handedness

with

which the issue was tackled. When the

issue of women's

organisation was raised

following

con-

the minutesrecorded the

versation:"The chairman suggests thatthe

question be withdrawnsince none of the

women attending

...

Sergei

suggests

have

that it is

voting rights

necessary to

create a technical organ for the direction

of agitation among women

...

man

suggests

that the

question

Thechair-

be with-

drawn.The question is withdrawn" (em-

phasis added).

It was

women's

only

in

September

1919 that

the

departments coordinated by

CentralWomen's Department, Zhenotdel

were finally formed.This was a

consequence

of the All RussianWomen's Conference

on 1918 where over a thousandwomen

passed a resolutionfor "a special commis-

sionforpropaganda and agitation among

women" [Holt 1977:120]

(emphasis

added).Extremely interesting and reveal-

ing

is the cautious wording of the func-

performedby

the women's

Vera Slutskaya inher proposal

particular in

differ-

organis-

tions to be

departments.

for a bureauhad been

entiating betweenthe functionof

ing

and

role as the latter.

agitatingclarifying the bureaus'

Organising seemed to

smack inherently of 'divisiveness'and in

the 1918 conferenceof women, a further

clause was addedto ensurethe

ofjurisdiction. sion was to be the
ofjurisdiction.
sion was to be the

boundary

Itwas stated that the commis-

apparatus "for carrying

outthe decrees of the CentralCommittee"

[Holt1977:12]. Hencean attempt to create

an autonomous space was subvertedeven

before the establishmentof the commis-

sion. Therewere also instancesof women

issues

being

underminedin party confer-

ences which made the need of the com-

mission more

significant.

In the

eighth

partyconference, theresolution of women's

workwas

sought to be passed without any

disagree-

discussion since there were no

mentsor

objections.Despite protests from

Kollontaithe issues were relegated to some

futuresession which never took

place.

Given the level of

against the women's

patriarchal

bias

organisations, it was

that the

created.

only outside the partycongress

women's

department was finally

It was the central committee, which rati-

fiedthe decision to establishthe Zhenotdel,

and accordedsome freedom of

activity

compared to the earlierbureaus. In this

respect

the establishmentof the Inter-

national Socialist Women's Conference

and InternationalWomen's Secretariat

also had its influenceon Soviet Party and

government.

Kollontai's persistence for the creation

of Zhenotdelreflects the

recognition of the

the Bolshe-

patriarchal biases prevalent in

vik Party, which required an autonomous

space

for women. The women's

only

depart-

mentscould not

increasethe scale of

earlier agitational activitiesbut could take

up organisational activitiesas well. Meet-

ings and conferenceswere held for non-

party women.The

was

and

elected their

most important of these

the delegatemeetings where 'working

peasant

women

and housewives

representatives who for a

period of several monthsmet to discuss

local

problems,

attend

political

lectures

andwere attracted to sectionsof

the Soviets,

participating in its administrativework.'

Efforts to make women

politically

and

made

economicallyindependent werealso

and in some areaswomen's

set

up

departments

canteensand creches to unburden

the working women.The Zhenotdeldeve-

loped

into a

space

where

the everyday

womencould

agenda

and

dif-

formsof oppression faced by

be

brought

to the socialist

became subjects for discussion.The

ficulty in bringing womeninto the-political

process as long

as

they

continuedto be

burdenedwith houseworkand childcare

was felt

by party

women.

The situation grew worseunder the New

EconomicPolicies7 (1921) whenthe

withdrew funds from most of

party

the

socialisationactivities. Problems such as

unemployment and prostitution confronted

manyworking class and peasant women.

Zhenotdelbecame a forumfor criticismof

the New EconomicPolicies at that time.

Evenearlier Sofia Smidovich, a

prominent

leaderof Zhenotdelhad given a choice to

the

party to either give

trainedworkers or

partyhelp forth-

juncture,

close Zhenotdel.With no

coming

even at that critical

Zhenotdelfound their hands tied.

Zhenotdel

represented

a

symbol of

struggle for autonomy,

failed to

develop

which however

into a women's move-

mentfor their rights in a socialist society.

That there existed a difference in the

conception of an autonomous space be- tween the party and Kollontai is obvious by the struggle that she and others con-

stantly waged for a separate women's

organisation as also by the questions that she raised on the various psycho sexual

aspects of the women's question. Her

exploration into the realm of the 'personal' took her beyond the traditional Marxist

analysis. She recognised the need to theorise the

specificity of the women's question within a Marxistframework. Kollontai represented a tradition whose demand for autonomy

emerged out of a realisation that it would

provide a space for women oppressed

for centuries to articulate, analyse and

struggle against patriarchal oppression in relation to other forms of oppression in

society. This perspective also underlies

Kollontai's

endeavour

to theorise

the

sexual and ideological aspects of women's

oppression (along with the economic) in greater depth. She recognised the need to analyse and

develop theories of family, love, sexuality and morality, which had been a source of

women's subordination for centuries. The relation between the different forms of

'personal'

institutions

and

ideology

under different

stages of history was

studied and the need to challenge those

was regarded as a simultaneous but sepa-

rate part of socialist

struggle. Practice

required not only an analysis of the preva-

lent forms and ideology

of oppression but

an alternative vision of the future, which

Kollontai envisioned and put forward in

her writings.

Ill PersonalIs Political:

Kollontai'sViews

The family had been located as the site of economic and sexual oppression of

women by Engels

and Bebel. By providing

an analysis of the social bases of women's

oppression, Engels questioned the 'nor- mality' of a biological basis. Emergence of the monogamous family was to ensure inheritance for the 'legitimate heirs' for men in a capitalist society. Some feminists

have critiqued the anthropological evidence

given by Engelson the,emergence of family

and other institutions.

Engels is also

criticised for assuming a natural sexual division of labour, which weakens the force of his arguments. Yet his treatise continues to remain a point of reference

1408

Economic and Political Weekly

April 28, 2001

This content downloaded from 192.107.39.19 on Fri, 10 Jul 2015 21:34:49 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

for all

streams of feminists analysing

oppression.

woman's

Relating woman's oppression withother

formsof social

oppression and identifying

exploitation has

the determining factorsof

been a significant contributionof Marx-

ists. But the

analysis of the sexual, psy-

chological and ideological dimensionsof

the oppression as translatedinto the lives

of womenis

everyday

largely absent. Theorising the

realitiesof women's lives has

been the contribution primarily of the

radicalfeminist tradition. That the

theory

of patriarchy cannotbe determinedfrom

a predominantly economic analysis of

society

but had to

provide

a theoretical

frameworkfor

facetednature of

understanding the multi-

women's oppression, has

been pointed out.

Issues

family

relating

to

sexuality, marriage,

have often been considered as

after

secondary issuesto be addressed only

the transformationof economicstructures

in early Marxist theory. In case of Soviet

Russia,

even after

the revolution, such

issues were

largelyignored in face of the

reconstructionof stateand

primary taskof

economy. The few mentions made by

Engels,

and

and

Marxand

Bebel on family, love

monogamy within capitalistsociety

their future forms were treated as

'gospels

of truth'.8The fact that the so-

called private domainsare often the pri-

mary sitesof women's oppression remained

unaddressed by such a

perspective.

Kollontai attempted to fill the void to

a certainextent. Her

writings,especially

which they were

contribution

considering the period in

written, werea path-breaking

to Marxistfeminist theory.Underlying her

writings

on

psychosexual

aspects

of

women's lives are the variousroles that

she assumedin Soviet

history and society

other.

dialecticallyinteracting witheach

-

As a memberof

the government,people's

commissar, director -

Zhenotdel, party

memberand a Marxistfeminist she faced

several conflicting

situationswhich she

attempted to addressboth theoretically and

practically.

As a Marxist, she believedthat worker's

oppression was relatedto women's op-

pression.

struggle

There was a need to jointly

for the socialist revolution.

Kollontai,however, understood the need

addressthe complexitiesunderlying this

to

general formulation.There was an

attempt

analysegender as a separate butrelated

to

category of oppression. Two themesdefine

her theory of understanding and resolving

the woman's question.Firstly, she applies

the

Marxist concept

of labour.Kollontai

starts with the Marxist notion that the

essence of a

city to

any

basic

human being

is her/his capa-

creatively interactwith nature. Hence

role which deprives woman of her

right

to labouris

oppressive.Any-

right to labourhad to

thing hindering her

be

opposed.

used to

This

faced by

etc, that society

generalcritique is then

analyse the specific oppression

the mother,housewife, prostitute,

has

imposed

on women

emancipation in

andto evolve methodsof

a socialist

society.

Secondly, it is the collective, which gains

primacy in

socialist society. The brutish,

and

possessive individual

capitalistsociety

is

the socialised

short, egoistic

who is the basis of

sought

to be

replacedby

collective/the Soviet state in this case.

Equality,solidarity, love and comradeship

are to be the

determining features

in a

socialist society. This would be the basis

of

in

the social relationships andinstitutions

futuresocieties. Her

writings on ques-

tions of communist morality and sexual

relations have to be understoodin this

perspective.

The

right

to labour of an

individualwas integrally relatedto the life

of the collective or the state.In the case

of Russia, it was the Russian state,society

and

economy

which was of

paramount

contribute

importance. All labourhad to

towardsthe

rapiddevelopment of Soviet

economy.

Maternity and Housework

As a commissar of social welfare,

Kollontai attempted to put her theory on

motherhoodinto

practice. There was an

understanding that childbearing andrear-

ing were not just private

state had to

concerns.The

perform an important role in

the entire process. The Soviet statewas to

emancipate the

womanfrom the 'burdens

passed and

of motherhood'.Decrees were

an elaborate system of institutionswere

sought

to be developed to 'take over the

childbirth'

by

state and

difficulties of

society. Forthe first time in historycreches,

milk

kitchens, maternity provisions at

preg-

by

workplace, consultationcentres for

nant women, etc, were established

the

Soviet state. The state was to ensure

the health of the mother and bear the

child-rearing functions.The motherwas

'expected'

give

birthto a

to take care of herself and

'healthybaby' withinfavou-

provided by

the state.

were available

rable conditions

The maternityprovisions

for both single

and married women

demolishing

wards single

the

hypocritical attitudeto-

pre-revolutionary

mothersin

society. Childbearing was separated from

child-rearing as Kollontaithe commissar

of social welfare, claimedthat

does

not involve the

with the child

"maternity

mother alwaysbeing

or devoting herself entirely

and moral education"

to its physical

[Kollontai1984:145]. The

responsibility

to educatethe childrenas the memberof

the collective also lay with the state not

the

parents.

It is however essential to

analyse

the

perspectiveunderlying these efforts.The

point

of referencefor

Kollontai,the com-

missar, is the welfareof the socialiststate

and economy and ensuringadequate labour

power for the Soviet state.Motherhood is

not a

privatematter, ratherit is a 'social

obligation'. Thereforethe unburdening of

the motherhas to be located within this.

The state

may

take over the functionsin

healthy

membersof the

order to ensure

statebut the

reproductiverights of women

of childbearing or contraception do not

seem to figure

present

in this

understanding or if

have to be fitted within social

requirements. Even as far as abortionis

concerned,

principle

was

Kollontai while

to

legalise

agreeing

in

abortionfelt that it'

forthe labour-short

counterproductive

Soviet Union. In other words, Kollontai

keeps

the state interests as

paramount

without adequatelydeveloping a theory of

rights

for women.

Furthermore, while seeking to emanci-

patewomen from the burdensof mother-

hood, she herself glorifies the relationship

between the mother and the child and

asserts the necessity of breastfeeding.

The

woman's (second)obligation is to

baby, only

when she has

right to say

breastfeedher

donethis the womanhas the

thatshe has

fulfilledher obligations. The

caring

for the

other tasks involved in

youngergenerations canbe carriedout by

the collective. Of course the maternal

instinctis strong andthere is no need to

stifle it. But

why

shouldthis instinctbe

narrowly limitedto the love and careof

one's own child? Why not allow this

instinct, which for the labour republic has

valuable

potential,

the

opportunity to

developvigorously andto reachits highest

stage, wherethe woman not only caresfor

herown children but has a tenderaffection

forall children (emphasisadded) [Kollontai

1984:144].

This

paragraph sums up

the dilemmaof

a Marxistfeminist visionaryofficiating in

a transition period. The socialist society

Economic and Political Weekly

April 28, 2001

1409

This content downloaded from 192.107.39.19 on Fri, 10 Jul 2015 21:34:49 UTC All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

wouldcreate conditions where all women

would avail themselvesof the maternity

benefits,consciously considerthemselves

a

part

of the collective and raise them-

selves above the individualaffection for

one's own child to extend it to other

children.But

given

the fact thatKollontai

was addressing the Soviet woman in a

phaseof transitionwhere the Soviet state

was unableto provide all maternal provi-

sions and women were

suspicious

of the

new ideas, she seems to addressthe issue

only the
only
the

as a practical administrator.That in

process she glorifies the obligation of

motherhoodand breastfeeding does not

seem to occur to her.

Furtherher notionof

maternity has no

concept of choice regarding motherhood

itself,

or says about

contraception for

to

perform the

order

women. It is

social

'necessary'

obligation of reproduction in

to increasethe workforcefor the

nation,

sincethe health of thecollective is themost

important. While child-rearing is separated

from childbearing, on occasionswhen the

state was unableto fulfil its

obligations,

only

the women were burdenedwith not

factory labourbut also withthe household

work.A notionof sharing houseworkwith

men in the transition

wanting. Hervision of

period is found

state beingrespon-

sible for the childbearing functionsthen

becortes

oppressive for the very women

that it seeks to liberate.

With

regard

to

housework

too,

Kollontai's theory of labour is

Although she

applied.

rendershousehold labour as

unproductive, she refersto it in thecontext

of

capitalistsociety. Ina peasanteconomy,

the

'well-being' of the

family depended,

to

produce not

the family

things that

cloth,

on the women's

capacity

only: the immediateneeds of

(cooking, washing)

but also

could be sold on the marketlike

thread,butter. And

every

man whether

peasant or workertried to find a wife who

had 'handsof gold', for he

family

could not get along

'domesticlabour'

knew that a

without this

[Kollontai 1977:155].

In fact Kollontaifeels that this labour

was not only beneficialfor the

family

but

also forthe prosperity ofthe nation.Under

capitalism however the

production

of

commoditiesshifted to the public sphere

and hence

family according to Kollontai

consuming unit where

cleaning,

was reducedto a

houseworkbecomes restricted to

cooking,

clothing of

feels are not

washing and care of linen and

the family. Thesefour tasks she

only exhausting, strenuous

and time-consuming but are of no value

to the state and

again

the

national economy.

Here

emphasis is on

the creationof

values for the

Soviet economy through

productive labour.

Feminists (for a discussionon domestic

laboursee Delphy 1984, Barrett1980 and

Oakley

1974)

have

rightly for
rightly
for

criticised

defining

Marxists [Marx 1969:152]

productive labour only asthat labour which

has

exchange value (not use value), creates

surplus value and has a directrelation to

capital, since this