Women on the left: Alexandra Kollontai

The life and legacy of Bolshevik Revolutionary and feminist Alexandra Kollontai:
Kollontai was born in 1872 into a privileged although fairly liberal background, her father a Tsarist general and her mother’s family wealthy timber merchants. She first began to oppose the restricted position of women in the Russian empire of the time by arguing against her mother as a teenager for her need of an education. She won the battle of wills, being allowed to undertake a certificate of teacher training. In 1893 she married for love, but she would later admit this was also a protest against her family who opposed the match.
Initially Kollontai became aware of politics through contact with radical liberals, impressed by their statement of belief in the emancipation of women through education. However, during the women’s textile workers strikes of 1896 upon accompanying her husband on an inspection of a large textile factory, she was shocked to discover the body of a young boy and was appalled at the conditions of ordinary women workers. Kollontai became convinced of the need to overthrow capitalism and that the subjugation of women was tied not just to their subjugation to men, but ultimately to the capitalist mode of production.
As time passed Kollontai felt more and more trapped by her marriage, which left her little freedom to pursue her own interests. She increasingly spoke of the capture of women in domestic subjugation. In 1898 she left her husband to study political economy in Zurich. During this trip she undertook an in-depth study of the works of Marx and Lenin as well as those of Luxemburg and Kautsky. Before returning to Russia in 1899 she visited London and was introduced to Sidney and Beatrice Webb, but rejected their reformist ideas.
Following her return to Russia, Kollontai joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) and became an important revolutionary agitator and writer. She was neutral through the 1903 split into the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks although from 1904 she officially joined and worked for the Bolsheviks. She would subsequently leave again in 1908 due to the Bolshevik refusal to take part in the Duma, which she argued was undemocratic but a potential platform for left agitation. She participated in the 1905 workers procession to the Winter Palace which ended in the Bloody Sunday Massacre and was prominent throughout the 1905 revolution agitating and arguing alongside Trotsky for a positive attitude towards the emerging Soviets which she regarded as the bud of a true workers democracy.
Although history has remembered her primarily for her work on the women’s question, at this time she was a widely regarded political economist and expert on the Finnish question. In 1906, under a wave of Tsarist repression, Kollontai published a collection of articles on Finland and Socialism for which she was accused of calling on armed insurrection against the state and fled to Germany to avoid arrest.
It was during this period that Kollontai first began to systematically develop her understanding of the women question, in particular in her 1909 work ‘The social basis of the Woman question’. Along with other women she felt that the issue was denigrated by many on the left and seen as secondary to the ‘real’ class struggle or even dismissed as a bourgeois deflection. She agreed with the Marxist argument that women would not be emancipated solely by the legal and political equality demanded by the mainstream women’s movement. However, equally she argued that a revolutionary party must organise and relate to the particular needs of women as part of the working class and that this must be central to the work of all revolutionaries...

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