Sunday, December 13, 2009

Alexandra Kollontai (1872-1952)

Modern European Intellectual History - 6
Red Love - a novel
Selected Writings - Alix Holt, tr. & ed.

Alexandra Mikhailovna Domontovich was born in St. Petersburg on April 1, 1872. Her father was a tsarist general, her mother the daughter of a wealthy timber merchant. In 1893 she married Vladimir Kollontai, for love, and spent five years as an engineer’s wife, raising their son. In 1898 she went to Zurich to study political economy. In 1917 she met Pavel Dybenko, the Bolshevik leader of the sailors of the Baltic fleet. In 1918 they registered their marriage under the new marriage act. In 1922 the relationship ended. As she put it in her letter to him: “I am not the wife you need, I am a person before I am a woman” (Selected Writings, p. 19). She was a diplomat, an activist, and a crusader for women’s rights, but she was not a bourgeois feminist. She believed that women would become equal only in a socialist world in which communism thrived over capitalism, and she did not separate women’s rights from worker’s rights.

She saw marriage and the family, as practiced in the capitalist society, as outmoded. In earlier societies the family was a unit of production, but in the capitalist society it had become a unit of consumption. Where in the past, women had performed valuable, productive, tasks in their home, now they were reduced to unproductive drudge work. By entering the work force women were becoming productive members of society once more, but they still had all the housework and childcare to deal with. Kollontai believed that the communist society should lift that burden from women’s shoulders and play a greater role in raising the children. She advocated such things as maternity leave before and after the birth, on site child care so that the mother would not have to be separated from the child during its infancy, and the creation of kindergartens and creches to help raise and educate the child. Without such social institutions, children of working mothers grew up with inadequate supervision, perhaps roaming the streets and getting into trouble, and certainly did not grow up to be good communists.

As far as the relations between the sexes went, she advocated equality and the mutual recognition of the rights of the other. It has been said that she advocated “free love,” but this is true only in the sense that she was against the possessive idea of love and the jealousy that went along with it. With the rise of communism, the traditional family as defined in the capitalist system would naturally wither away (because it was a consuming unit, not a producing one) and with its demise a new morality would arise to replace it. This new morality would not be based on the idea of an exclusive, inwardly directed love that separated the couple from society, but would be a comradely love that included the society. Above all, women should not have to sell their bodies, either in the form of prostitution or in the form of marriages of convenience for material security. She saw both of these as instances of women not being productive members of society, which is what made them wrong in a communist society. She abhorred the double standard and the moral hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie.

She explores some of her ideas concerning the relationship between the sexes in her novel Red Love, published in 1927. The main character is Vassilisssa (Vasya), a twenty-eight year old working girl (a knitter), who is a communist and a Bolshevik. She is not pretty, although she has beautiful, observant, thoughtful eyes. Thin, and with short hair, she is androgynous. Like Kollontai, she is an activist and an advocate of women’s rights, but again in the context of worker’s rights. She falls in love with Volodya, who is nicknamed “the American” because he spent time working in America. He is an anarchist. He doesn’t like to follow directions. He likes to do things his way. While they work together as comrades they have a happy relationship, but their work for the party keeps them apart. While he is managing a factory in another province he falls in love with another woman, Nina (the relationship has not been a monogamous one on his part from the beginning). Where Vasya is of the new world, Nina is of the old. As a manager, Volodya lives a more comfortable life, a bourgeois life. When Vasya comes to visit him he wants her to play the role of “manager’s wife,” a role that she is not at all suited for.

She discovers that he is maintaining two households and ends up leaving him to return to her work, and to freedom. Although the idea that he no longer loves her bothers her, the fact that Volodya is no longer her comrade bothers her more. She does not like the way he is living his life, or the sorts of friends that he has. After she leaves him she discovers that she is pregnant, but when a friend asks her how she will raise the child on her own, she replies that she will not be raising the child on her own, at her new job (in the textile industry) she will institute a nursery, the society will help her raise her child. She writes a letter to Nina, forgiving her and giving her permission to marry Volodya. Nina needs a husband, Vasya does not.

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