EARLY ADULTHOOD AND MARRIAGE
In the 1890s Kollontai first got access to Marxist literature, on a family vacation in Germany:
“Shortly after her twentieth birthday, Shura and her parents left for Berlin, where she headed straight off to the bookshops. The first thing that caught her eye was the Communist Manifesto, which spoke to her with such resounding good sense that she escaped her parents for long periods and sought out meetings of the German Socialist Party. From Berlin they moved to Paris, where she read Engels’s Origin of the Family for the first time, as well as the literature of the early French Utopian Socialists — Fourier, Cabet, Saint Simon.” (Porter, p. 21)
Alexandra’s parents tried to force her into a marriage with a general, but she successfully resisted this. Instead she married a poor officer named Vladimir Kollontai. Alexandra took Kollontai’s surname and kept using it for the rest of her life. The couple had a son named Misha.
THE INCIDENT AT THE KRENHOLM FACTORY
Vladimir Kollontai worked as an engineer and offered to Alexandra and her friend Zoya, that they could come visit a “model factory” with him and his colleagues. The factory was the Krenholm factory in Estonia. Vladimir had expected that this factory would impress the women, but instead they were horrified at the absolutely terrible working conditions – despite this factory being one with far superior conditions to most others in the Russian empire. This episode also played a part in making Alekxandra Kollontai into a revolutionary.
She wrote in her memoirs:
“the Krenholm factory was considered one of the most progressive in terms of its technique, working conditions and hygiene. It was interesting to see a real model factory. An office worker took us to a small “first aid laboratory”, which did not have a doctor or even a nurse. Their work was carried out by an old retired worker.
—I have seen so many accidents of all kinds that I can operate better than surgeons, he explained.
After that we were shown to a small library… which had no technical or newer literature. According to the register the library had very few visitors. The librarian said it was because 90% of the workers were illiterate. Adjacent to the library there was a small room for evening classes… The teacher said that many hundreds sign up for the classes but their number decreases gradually, because the workers do not have the energy for study after the exhausting 12 hour work day. The school books were dirty and ragged… The school and laboritory existed only on paper.” (Kollontai, Hetkiä elämästäni, p. 247)
“The hot moist air that was filled with fiber dust gave Zoya such a painful headache she had to return to the hotel… the work certainly resembled forced labor. The workers lived in the factory area, like in a prison. They were allowed to go outside to the town only once a week on Sundays… The hygienic conditions were terrible. Usually the workers contracted tuberculosis already in their youth and died before age thirty. “When you’ve been here for three to four years, your will to live is completely gone. Everything feels meaningless and you only await for them to take you to the hospital to die.”
Only few workers had their own apartment. Most lived in large barracks, where single persons and families lived mixed together. I saw one such barracks: the rooms were totally full of wooden board-beds, covered with all kinds of rags. Some beds had a thin mattress. Families and unmarried people lay right next to each other. The air was saturated by tobacco smoke and human excretions. The windows were sealed shut so that absolutely no fresh air entered the room.
Between the beds there played, cried and slept small children, looked after by a six year old. My attention was fixed on a certain boy the age of Misha [Kollontai’s child], who layed motionless. When I looked more carefully, I noticed to my horror that he was dead: a dead boy among the playing children” (Kollontai, Hetkiä elämästäni, p. 248)
Descriptions like this reveal the horror of everyday life of the working class in tsarist Russia.
According to a bourgeois historian, visiting the Krenholm factory made Alexandra and Zoay “speechless with horror… Alexandra wandered on her own through the workshops trying to talk to the workers. The older men would not acknowledge her questions, and the women only answered reluctantly, but the younger people were eager to tell her about themselves. They told her how they worked anything from twelve to eighteen hours a day. Imprisoned within the factory walls, they were allowed out only once a week, on Sundays; few workers had their own living quarters, and most lived in vast dormitory barracks — families, babies, single people and children all stacked one above the other on narrow bunk beds or on the floor. Some women ventured to tell Alexandra that it suited them better to live in the factory, since it meant that their husbands could not drink away all their wages; but the young people complained bitterly that the long working day sapped all their vital energy. Most of them earnestly wished to study, to better themselves, even to become engineers, and they were angrily aware that they had not the freedom to learn anything or read. But the great anxiety which preyed on them all was the air pollution. Most of them were stricken with tuberculosis after three or four years working in air thick with textile fibers, and they quickly tended to become listless and nauseous. Few of them expected to live to be thirty…
Leaving the factory floor, Alexandra wandered over to the dormitory. She found it empty except for some subdued children playing on the floor and a baby boy of Misha’s age watched over by a careworn little girl. As she stooped over the baby to hold him, it was horribly obvious that he was dead. “It does sometimes happen to them that they die during the day,” explained the little nanny with a terrible premature seriousness. “Auntie will come at six and take him away.”” (Porter, pp. 48-49)
Immediately after the trip to the factory “Alexandra began at once to beg her friends at the Museum [mobile museum, a charitable organization for educating poor people, which revolutionaries used as a cover] for all the revolutionary books and leaflets they could give her. The first she read was Lenin’s recent leaflet to workers at the English-managed Thornton factory in St. Petersburg. In the Union of Struggle paper Workers’ Thought, and in discussion with her friends she learned of the 1500 women involved in the violent strike at the Laferme cigarette factory in the capital, the previous November… Their demands were partly met, but not before they had all been advised to balance their family budgets by taking to the streets as prostitutes, and not before the thirty ringleaders had been banished from the city.” (Porter, p. 50)
She writes in her memoirs that “After returning to St. Petersburg [from Estonia] I delved into the workers’ question and marxism even more eagerly. I also acquired illegal publications. Lenin’s article “What are the “friends of the people”?” had an exceptional influence on me… I no longer wrote stories, but instead arduously studied the Marxist theory of surplus value.” (Kollontai, Hetkiä elämästäni, p. 250)
Alexandra had initially wanted to write political fiction that would inspire people to revolution. However, she soon became dissatisfied with this project and decided it was necessary to write non-fiction instead. She decided to write about pedagogy from a materialist point of view, attended lectures and studied:
“I delved into the works of Pirogov, Pestalozzi and Ushinski.” (Kollontai, Hetkiä elämästäni, p. 245)
“Alexandra decided that her next writing project would be carefully researched and based on her personal experiences of Misha’s first two years… She read Pirogov, the great liberal educational theorist of the 1860’s, as well as Pestalozzi and Ushinsky, whose ideas on child development were equally popular in Russia. And through them she came to read the socialist educational theories of Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky, both of them former teachers who had attacked the tsarist educational system and encouraged people to educate themselves and their children independently…
Her first long article matured in her head as she sat up nursing Misha through his first agonizing sickness. “Is it really possible,” she wrote, “to instil in children the ideals of altruism and real love for other people, when in practice it is never possible for them to achieve their own desires?” The article, published in three parts in 1898 in the journal Education (republished later that year as a booklet and recently reprinted in the 1972 edition of the Soviet journal National Education), was called “The Educational Principles of Dobrolyubov.”” (Porter, p. 40)
“Although she did concede that different brain structures might be susceptible to different experiences of life, she explicitly rejected the views made fashionable by many pedagogues that it was people’s nervous systems that fundamentally affected their development. Guiding the whole article, however, was the idea (central also to Dobrolyubov) that the form of the family, where the child’s temperament itself was formed, was in all societies dictated by the social structure and institutions which contained it.” (Porter, p. 41)
“In December 1898 the legal marxist monthly Obrazovanije published my first article. It dealt with pedagogical questions. The main idea was the influence of the environment on the formation of the child’s character. I based my self on Dobroljubov and demonstrated how wrong idealism was in claiming that people’s characteristics were inborn.” (Hetkiä elämästäni, p. 264)
Alexandra Kollontai’s parents had eventually accepted her marriage with someone from a poorer class, because they hoped marriage would deter her from political activity. The very opposite happened. After a couple of years she agreed with her husband that she would go to Germany to study Marxism and economics. This was actually a defacto divorce and the couple separated.
STUDIES ABROAD AND BECOMING A MENSHEVIK
In 1898 Kollontai began studying in Zürich under Marxist economist professor Herkner. However, Kollontai began arguing against Herkner who became a bernsteinian revisionist, opposing revolution and supporting reformism. Kollontai sided with Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg against revisionism, and cited particularly Luxemburg’s book “Social Reform or Revolution?” (source: Энциклопедический словарь Гранат Деятели СССР и революционного движения России [Encyclopedic Dictionary Pomegranate. Figures of the USSR and the revolutionary movement of Russia])
Despite her respect for Lenin, Kollontai became a Menshevik. This was due to her sympathies with the idea of revolutionary spontaneity and due to her immense respect for the founder of Russian Marxism, Georgi Plekhanov, who also eventually became a Menshevik.
“Kollontai became a Menshevik, in part because the leaders she admired — Plekhanov, Akselrod, and Martov — were Mensheviks, but also because she found the Menshevik position more convincing… she could not accept a theory which diminished the spontaneous, inevitable quality of social change… Kollontai would have spontaneity, democracy, and revolution the central images of nineteenth-century socialism and of Menshevism.” (Barbara Evans Clements, Bolshevik feminist: the life of Aleksandra Kollontai, p. 29)
Kollontai accepted the Menshevik view, which did not consider developing class consciousness or conscious study by the workers very important. Instead it saw the revolution as something much more automatic, and class consciousness something inherent in workers, rather than a product of organizing, experience and study. While the Mensheviks did not articulate their views so clearly and explicitly, nor did they have full agreement among themselves, their views were basically dogmatic, stereotyped and one-sided simplifications of Marxism, undermining the role of theory, consciousness and organization, instead considering everything would happen almost automatically according to ‘historical necessity’ and material causes.
Menshevik worshiping of spontaneity eventually led to economism, i.e. their minimizing of a political role for the workers. The Mensheviks claimed that since the Russian revolution was a bourgeois-democratic revolution, it should be led and carried out by the bourgeoisie, like in the French revolution of 1789. This showed their dogmatism, since they did not analyze Russian conditions and only imported a ready-made schema from history and imposed it on Russia.
Lenin’s position was that the Russian bourgeoisie was much weaker than the French bourgeoisie, and as a result the Russian bourgeoisie could not challenge tsarism, in fact it was reliant on the Tsar and the feudal landowners to protect them from the masses, whom it saw as a worse threat than tsarism. This view of Lenin was based on the actual analysis of Russian conditions, an actual application of Marxism. Based on this understanding Lenin argued that the Russian bourgeoisie is not revolutionary and that the revolution must be carried out by the masses under the leadership of the workers.
In some ways the Menshevik behavior was understandable, because they wanted to separate themselves as much as possible from the individualistic actions of the narodniks, and their idealist views. They stressed material causes and historical necessity, and rejected the actions of revolutionaries, but they went too far in the opposite extreme. They minimized conscious action by revolutionaries, and denied the need for a really revolutionary organization. Instead of a highly united, organized and committed revolutionary party of a Leninist type, the Mensheviks wanted a loose mass party which anyone could join without having to take much responsibility. However, as Lenin said, the problem with narodism was not that they had a centralized underground organization, but that they didn’t organize the masses and that they saw the peasant village as their ideal, instead of seeing the rising modern proletariat as the most consistently revolutionary class.
“to regard a militant revolutionary organisation as something specifically Narodnaya Volya in character is absurd both historically and logically; for no revolutionary trend, if it seriously thinks of struggle, can dispense with such an organisation. The mistake the Narodnaya Volya committed was not in striving to enlist all the discontented in the organisation and to direct this organisation to resolute struggle against the autocracy; on the contrary, that was its great historical merit. The mistake was in relying on a theory which in substance was not a revolutionary theory at all, and the Narodnaya Volya members either did not know how, or were unable, to link their movement inseparably with the class struggle in the developing capitalist society. Only a gross failure to understand Marxism… could prompt the opinion that the rise of a mass, spontaneous working-class movement relieves us of the duty of creating as good an organisation of revolutionaries as the Zemlya i Volya had, or, indeed, an incomparably better one. On the contrary, this movement imposes the duty upon us; for the spontaneous struggle of the proletariat will not become its genuine “class struggle” until this struggle is led by a strong organisation of revolutionaries.” (Lenin, What is to be done?)
However, at this early point in her revolutionary career “denying Lenin’s vanguard theory, Kollontai wrote that the untutored “class psychology” of the workers was “the greatest weapon in the historical process.”” (Clements, p. 32)
However, Kollontai was not hostile to the Bolsheviks. In fact, she kept in touch with both party groups and did not entirely accept all Menshevik views. Like many others, she did not fully realize the necessity of choosing a side between Menshevism and Bolshevism:
“Alexandra had shared Lenin’s views on the need for members’ total commitment to the Party, rather than the “minority” Mensheviks’ faith that every individual member could decide the extent of his or her commitment; but like many other revolutionaries working in Russia, she regarded the split as an emigre affair [leaders of both groups were in emigration]… Added to this was the “charm of Plekhanov’s personality,” which kept her from breaking with [menshevism]. On her return to Russia that autumn she wrote: “I did not join either of the Party groups, offering my services to both factions for agitation, writing proclamations and other urgent tasks.” [Kollontai, From my life and work]” (Porter, p. 89)
Even during her Menshevik years, Kollontai opposed Bernsteinian revisionism and opportunism. For example at the 1907 Stuttgart congress of the 2nd international:
“Though she was mainly considered part of the mensheviks at that time, she spoke at the congress against Bernstein’s revisionism… she appeared with Liebknecht, who was delighted by her attack against the opportunists… Her tendency to lean towards the Mensheviks in those times, probably has to do, partially with the influence of German social-democracy, and partially her fear that close ties with the Bolshevik organization, which worked deeply underground in small circles, would make it impossible for her to carry out agitation with such broad masses, that she was conducting among women.” (Carsten Halvorsen, Vallankumouksen suurlähettiläs: Alexsandra Kollontayn elämä ja toiminta (vuosina 1872-1917), p. 143*)
*This is one of the best books on Kollontai, though unfortunately it covers only her career up to 1917. The book is available at least in Finnish and in Swedish as Revolutionens ambassadör.
THE 1905 REVOLUTION
During the 1905 revolution Kollontai worked closely with the Bolsheviks. She also created the Women’s Mutual Aid Society to organize women for revolution.
“Among those who were arrested in those days was also Aleksandra Kollontay. The first prison visit was short, only a couple days. The police had arrested far too many people and was constantly arresting more, and room had to be made for them. There was no time for proper questioning. In the next months there were more similar short prison stays.
Meanwhile Aleksandra Kollontai had risen to be the treasurer of the party’s Leningrad [of course at the time it was St. Petersburg] comittee… She participated in editing the party newspaper. The paper had been legalized during the high-tide of the revolution. She also wrote declarations and pamphlets, out of which the declaration against the zemstvo council became the most significant. She also participated in facilitating collaboration between the Finnish and Russian parties in the struggle against the common enemy, tsarism.” (Halvorsen, pp. 126-128)
During the 1905 revolution the menshevik women merged with bourgeois feminists under a liberal program. Despite her menshevik leanings Kollontai opposed this, and sided with the class conscious bolsheviks:
“Then I threw myself into the debate against the [bourgeois] feminists. ‘The place of the workers is not in the ranks of the bourgeois feminists but in the bolshevik party’.” (Halvorsen, p. 128)
“The revolutionary wave rose ceaselessly all year in 1905. The strike movement grew and during the may day demonstrations there were armed clashes between workers and tsarist forces in many places. As the pressure from the mass movement grew the legal possibilities increased for the revolutionaries. The influence of the party grew. In the countryside the peasants burnt estates and castles of the landlords and distributed their grain stores among the starving. The spirit of revolution spread also into the army and navy. In june a mutiny broke out on the battleship Potemkin during the general strike in Odessa. A revolt also broke out in the Sveaborg castle. During the strikes of the Ivanov-Vosnessensk factories, which lasted from may to august, the first worker soviets were formed in Russia… The St. Petersburg soviet played an influential role in the general strike, but it opposed armed revolution. Trotsky and other mensheviks were in the leadership of it.” (Halvorsen, p. 129)
In 1907 she was forced to escape abroad, due to the victory of counter-revolution. Kollontai was abroad for many years traveling around Europe speaking at socialist meetings. She wanted to collaborate with Bolshevik women leaders to organize working class women, and once there appeared a growing threat of war, she became increasingly dissatisfied with Menshevism:
In 1911 Kollontai wrote “an article on Belgian working women’s lives for the legal Bolshevik paper Factory Life, published in St. Petersburg. She also had some tentative discussions with Inessa Armand and Nadezhda Krupskaya about the possibility of launching in Paris a Bolshevik paper for women. In those ten months in Paris she had started to move closer to the Bolsheviks, and when she returned to Berlin in January, she began to find Bolshevik militancy increasingly attractive, for she could no longer fully share the Mensheviks’ confidence in the SPD. In the months she was away, the Party had failed lamentably to deal with the first threat of war.” (Porter, p. 191)
TRYING TO ORGANIZE AMONG WOMEN (1912-1914)
“In 1912 and 1913 Kollontai studied in depth the question of maternity insurance, in order to advise the Social Democratic Duma delegation on drafting a bill and to prepare a book of her own on the subject… Kollontai found that Konkordiia Samoilova, Inessa Armand, and Nadezhda Krupskaia had become interested in women workers… these women were all Bolsheviks” (Clements, p. 75)
In 1913 “Alexandra’s thoughts were also turning to International Women’s Day, and in letters to the women textile workers of St. Petersburg she was urging them to organize demonstrations to mark the occasion. Learning from them of a club which had opened in Moscow under the auspices of both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and which already boasted some 900 members, she felt this would be an ideal place for their propaganda to be centered, and her hopes were rewarded when thousands of women poured out on the streets on March 8 to protest against the hardships of their working lives. A huge women’s meeting in St. Petersburg at the Kalashnikov Stock Exchange was soon swarming with police, who made numerous arrests, and similar meetings in Tiflis, Samara, and Kiev ensured that the Moscow women’s club was soon closed. But the occasion had been fully covered by the socialist press. The Bolshevik newspaper, Pravda (Truth), launched the previous year, carried pictures of women fighters, greetings from women abroad, and an article by Alexandra celebrating Women’s Day in Russia as a “welcome sign that the Tsar’s prisons and gallows are powerless to kill the workers’ spirit.”…
By the end of 1913 she had joined the [Second] International’s Women’s Bureau, and the head of the St. Petersburg secret police was writing to the tsarist police chief in Berlin to warn him of her renewed activities in the German Party.
In the new year Inessa Armand joined the women’s bureau as Bolshevik representative. Earlier tentative discussions about a Bolshevik women’s paper were now showing positive results, for the Pravda Women’s Day issue had prompted more letters than it could possibly print. Plans were swiftly made to bring out in St. Petersburg the first number of Rabotnitsa (Working Woman) on Women’s Day” (Porter, pp. 198-199)
Cathy Porter, Alexandra Kollontai: A biography*
Barbara Evans Clements, Bolshevik feminist: the life of Aleksandra Kollontai*
Энциклопедический словарь Гранат Деятели СССР и революционного движения России [Encyclopedic Dictionary Pomegranate. Figures of the USSR and the revolutionary movement of Russia]
Beatrice Farnsworth, Aleksandra Kollontai: socialism, feminism, and the Bolshevik Revolution*
*Porter, Clements, Farnsworth are both hostile anti-communist writers