In this series I will discuss the career and political development of communist revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai. I will discuss many of the key events in Soviet history, especially early history, but I will not give a comprehensive presentation of the history of the Bolshevik Party or the Soviet Union. I will also not discuss every part of Kollontai’s life, but will mainly focus on ideological and political events.
Despite being a genuine Marxist, during her long career, rich in experience, Kollontai actually had quite a few disagreements with Lenin and quite a few erroneous views. However, they should not be exaggerated. Kollontai only ever belonged to one real opposition group against the party, the short-lived so-called “worker opposition”. I will explain the relative significance of that opposition group in detail, and what Kollontai’s involvement in it was.
Kollontai’s occasional mistakes, and sometimes even significant errors, stem from 1) an individualist or libertarian tendency, which sometimes manifests as its opposite: the total denial of individuality and an ultra-collectivism 2) a romanticized view of the masses and of the revolution as a spontaneous event 3) tendency to sometimes avoid splits to the extent that it leads to making compromises with opportunism, this sometimes appears in Kollontai’s career, but not as often as the previous two.
I believe all of these are the result of Kollontai’s intellectual gentry class background and her Menshevik past. However, it must be said, that while many orthodox Marxists, even great orthodox Marxists, such as Plekhanov and Kautsky, became opportunists and renegades, this never happened to Kollontai, instead she became a great Bolshevik. Some of her political flaws even eventually developed into almost positive traits – or rather, she was able to develop them to that direction.
Her somewhat romantic view of the masses, which derives from the fact that she never really was a worker herself, gave her an endless trust in the masses. Thus a potentially undemocratic trait actually turns into a democratic trait. At times it turned into an ultra-democratic, even libertarian positions, but she eventually corrected it. Her at times exaggerated collectivism, leading into ultra-leftist mistakes occasionally, eventually gave rise to a very developed sense of responsibility and loyalty to the collective, i.e. to the party and the Soviet Union, and to party discipline. One can hold any mistaken view personally, but if one still trusts in the masses, and trusts in the party, follows democratic centralism and collective decisions, one will still stay on the correct track, and all mistakes will be corrected.
Kollontai’s core principles were proletarian internationalism, women’s liberation, class struggle and communist revolution, loyalty to the party and party discipline. She was never an opportunist, she never betrayed the workers’ movement. Prolific writer, a creative and independent thinker, she was always loyal to the cause of communism and was a brave and dedicated fighter for revolution.
Alexandra Mikhailovna Kollontai (originally Domontovich) was born into a family of liberal gentry. Her mother was from a Finnish merchant family, while her father was an officer in the Russian army. Due to her relatively wealthy parents Kollontai did not have to suffer poverty as a child, but she soon noticed that the regular people of the Russian empire lived in misery. She spoke to Finnish laborers hired to work for her parents, and to working class children hired to clean their floors. Kollontai also wittnessed the bad treatment and lack of medical care of their house-servants.
As a child Kollontai always rebelled against her parents and considered the ossified conventions of the gentry rather irrational. Her mother tried to prevent Alexandra (or Shura as she was called in her youth) from getting access to revolutionary ideas, but without much success. Alexandra’s father was also quite liberal and was in favor of national liberation for Bulgaria, where a national liberation uprising had broken out in 1876, and Russia had decided to intervene in the war in 1877:
“I was about five years old when the Turkish-Bulgarian war and the Russian-Turkish war broke out. This great event in the life of our people also affected our family. My father took part in the war and at home they only talked about Bulgaria, about the atrocities of the Turks” (Kollontai, Die Jugendjahre)
The people hoped that Russia would liberate Bulgaria from the Ottoman yoke. In reality the Russian empire was an imperialist state, which did not care about the best interests of the Bulgarian people. Nonetheless, Alexandra became aware at this early stage in her life that there was oppression and struggle in the world.
Her mother was afraid that in school Alexandra might become exposed to revolutionary-democratic ideas, and thus she wasn’t allowed to go to school. She received schooling from a home tutor, a woman named Strakhova, who, however, like many intellectuals of her generation, had narodnik sympathies and supported the revolutionary democratic movement.
When Alexandra was 9 the narodniks of the Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will organization), a group of utopian socialist terrorists from the intelligentsia, assassinated Tsar Alexander II. The assassination was intended to help the Russian peasants establish socialism. This fundamentally flawed utopian theory failed to achieve its goal, and the narodniks were ruthlessly hunted down by the Russian imperial government. However, the revolutionary and democratic movement kept spreading despite the repressions:
“Tsar Alexander II was dead. The next day his son, Alexander III, was proclaimed Tsar of all Russia. The trial of the terrorists who dared to raise their hands against the tsar was drawing to a close. Russia had never seen acts like this before. While Russian tsars had been assassinated before, this usually happened in the palace itself. The assassins were always a group of conspirators belonging to the court and close to the tsar. The common people had “never dared” to raise their hand against the ruler… The verdict was passed: death by hanging for all those involved in the assassination. This judgment was approved at court, by the landowners and the priests. Anyone who was even a little bit progressive, was silent, although many were deeply indignant and unhappy. But what could anyone have done? Any protest could be grounds for a new trial, imprisonment, exile in Siberia… The tsarist government rampaged across the country, unleashing ferocious white terror on anyone suspected of revolutionary ideas. Magazines were banned and books confiscated…
It was an exciting day as the assassins were led to execution. They were escorted by gendarmes and mounted police. People flocked to Semyonovskaya Square.
[Alexandra’s sister] Schenya sat at the grand piano, but she didn’t sing, and she didn’t play either. I asked her: “Don’t you like to sing?” Schenya said: “I can’t sing today.”
We heard mounted police galloping past our windows and Schenya said, “You are in a hurry to get to the execution.”
She laid her head on the piano keys and I saw that she was crying silently…
Then the bell rang and I ran to the door. It was Maria Strakhova, pale, without glasses. All she could say was, “It’s over!” and then she fell unconscious to the ground.” (Kollontai, Die Jugendjahre)
Over the years Alexandra started to discover who the narodniks were. When she was in her early teens, Strakhova was not willing to discuss revolution with her, but instead gradually gave her some progressive and materialist books, told her to read about women’s rights, about socio-economics, and Darwin. Slowly Alexandra began to study these ideas, though she was impatient and only wanted to know about the romantic revolutionaries. Alexandra started studying, learned about the natural world, became an atheist.
“Maria Ivanovna [Strakhova] seemed to know everything… Probably it was her who smashed my faith in the biblical flood and opened up to me the frightfully fascinating laws of nature. Probably it was she who gave me the book by Timiryazev*, where I learned the basics of Darwin’s theory of evolution. And I believe it was her who convinced me that labor and thought are the foundations of life.” (Kollontai, Hetkiä elämästäni, p. 149)
*K. A. Timiryazev was Russia’s leading Darwinist and developed Darwinism further. He supported the October Revolution.
“Like many other fifteen-year-old Russian girls of her class, with relatively free access to the books and journals in her parents’ library, Shura read [revolutionary democrats] Dobrolyubov, Pisarev, and Chernyshevsky, whose writings had so inspired populists [narodniks] over the past twenty years. When Nikolai Dobrolyubov… wrote his first literary articles in the late 1850’s, he inspired a whole generation of socialist writers and activists to grasp the social criticisms contained in the works of Pushkin, Gogol, and Turgenev. The new… intelligentsia of the 1860’s to which both Chernyshevsky and Pisarev also belonged, were rationalists and materialists, more interested in literature for its social content than for its traditionally romantic values. Until his death in 1861 Dobrolyubov had urged that women should have the same educational opportunities as men; but it was his article “The Realm of Darkness” that particularly seized the imagination of hundreds of women in Russia. In reviewing the eighteenth-century playwright Ostrovsky, he exposed the whole sordid, loveless monotony of Russian family life among the merchant classes, a life in which tyrannical patriarchs beat their children and drove their wives to prostitution by keeping them in a state of perpetual economic dependence.” (Cathy Porter, Alexandra Kollontai: the lonely struggle of the woman who defied Lenin, p. 26)
“Shura was deeply impressed by the heroism of the terrorists, with their promises of glory and revolution; like many young people, she was inspired by the revolutionary self-sacrifice of the People’s Will.” (Porter, p. 20)
The narodniks had wanted to “go among the people”, to go to the peasants and tell them about socialism. When this failed and the peasants did not accept their ideas, they became a terrorist group instead, waging their own violent struggle against the tsarist government.
As a youth of 15 Kollontai studied the revolutionary democrats and narodniks. She “wanted not only to “go to the people” but to be a writer, and a writer not simply of stories but of ideas. The social critics Pisarev and Dobroliubov became her models.” (Beatrice Farnsworth, Aleksandra Kollontai: socialism, feminism, and the Bolshevik Revolution, pp. 6-7)
In the late 1880s narodism was among the most popular revolutionary ideologies in Russia. The narodniks took inspiration from the great revolutionary democrats, socialists Chernyshevsky, Pisarev, Dobroliubov and others, who also were the heroes of Russian Marxists. However, due to the influence of Bakunin, the narodniks did not become scientific socialists like the Marxists, and did not focus on organizing among the proletariat, but among the peasants instead. Also due to Bakunin’s influence, they deviated from their predecessors and embraced terrorism instead of organizing a mass revolution.
But Russian Marxists, led by Plekhanov and Lenin, were waging a relentless struggle against narodism, to replace narodnik utopianism with scientific socialism, and to replace terrorist tactics with organizing a mass revolution against tsarism.
The narodniks claimed that capitalism was not developing in Russia and that it was possible to turn back the clock, prevent the growth of industrial capitalism and return to the medieval village communes. The narodniks did not see capitalism as something progressive, which would create industry and the prerequisites for modern socialism, instead they saw it only as something negative, and considered that the medieval village, had already contained at least the kernel of the socialist ideal.
In his early economic works “New Economic Developments in Peasant Life”, “On the So-Called Market Question”, “What the “Friends of the People” Are” and The Development of Capitalism in Russia Lenin subjected narodnik economic claims to devastating criticism. He showed, that capitalism was already developing in Russia and had already developed to a considerable degree. Commodity relations had spread even to the rural villages, and even inside the communes where land was not yet fully privatized, life was ruled by market relations – and the market relations were growing. The narodniks claimed it was impossible for capitalism to develop in Russia, but Lenin proved this was not true.
Lenin showed how the peasants were being split up into two hostile classes, the rural rich, the exploiters, and the rural poor, the agrarian proletarians. This differentation was part of the process of the development of capitalism, it was happening before their very eyes.
Alexandra also began moving away from narodism, but still kept reading the great revolutionary democrats:
“Shura read [Pisarev’s] articles, in many of which he eloquently urged that the benefits of universal education should be accessible to women and that the purpose of this education must be to “develop a person’s physical, intellectual, and moral potential, and to allow for completely free and natural inclinations…” But it was Pisarev’s contemporary, Nikolay Chernyshevsky, who most eloquently connected the early populists’ struggle for socialist liberation with the liberation of women. It was when Shura was fifteen that she first read What Is To Be Done?, the novel Chernyshevsky wrote in 1864, during the twenty years he spent in prison and exile for his revolutionary activities. This novel had an immense influence on the men and women in Land and Liberty [Zemlya i volya, a revolutionary organization which held far better views than the narodnik Narodnaya volya], and was to be an abiding inspiration to the young people like Shura who later followed them in the socialist movement. She would return to the work again a few years later with an even deeper understanding of the dilemmas of Chernyshevsky’s central character, Vera Pavlovna, and her struggle to live an honest, happy, and independent life.” (Porter, p. 27)
Regarding the difference between Narodnaya volya and the Zemlya i volya, Lenin wrote:
“the magnificent organisation that the revolutionaries had in the seventies, and that should serve us as a model, was not established by the Narodnaya Volya, but by the Zemlya I Volya, which split up into the Chorny Peredel and the Narodnaya Volya.” (Lenin, What is to be done?)
Cathy Porter, Alexandra Kollontai: the lonely struggle of the woman who defied Lenin*
Beatrice Farnsworth, Aleksandra Kollontai: socialism, feminism, and the Bolshevik Revolution*
*Porter and Farnsworth are both hostile anti-communist writers