Between April and June 1921, on the eve of the Third Congress of the Communist International, Alexandra Kollontai delivered fourteen lectures at Sverdlov University on Women’s Labour in the Evolution of the Economy.footnote1 These were intended for women workers and peasants who were either members or close sympathizers of the Bolshevik Party. Their substantive importance is evident, in comparison with most texts of that period on the question of women’s liberation: for they systematically tackled all the problems debated by revolutionaries concerning the specific oppression and exploitation of women, demonstrating the richness of Kollontai’s thought and her then unrivalled historical and anthropological knowledge. But they are also of interest in so far as they clearly show the limitations of a figure who, among Bolshevik leaders, went furthest in studying the origins of women’s oppression and in calling into question the family and traditional sexuality. Perhaps more than all the rest of her political works, her novels and her autobiography, this course of lectures reveals the contradictions from which she struggles to free herself. These remain incomprehensible unless they are situated in their context: not only political and social upheaval and the shaking of all bourgeois values in the aftermath of revolution, but also the immense economic difficulties which affected the backward country of Russia, particularly after the Civil War, and which imposed the recourse to nep and a marked retreat in measures of collectivization and socialization.

How did Kollontai face this situation in 1921, as a leader of the Workers’ Opposition, who had been removed from the Bolshevik leadership after a short period as People’s Commissar of Public Health? In discussing the steps taken by the young workers’ state to hasten women’s emancipation, Kollontai stressed above all the economic measures which were alone capable of laying the basis for a real liberation. There was nothing that was not highly orthodox in the priority she gave to the socialization of domestic tasks and to the various reforms needed to inaugurate genuine women’s autonomy at the economic and political level. Relatively little can be found in these pages about the struggle to be waged against traditional morality. In this respect her discourse falls short of what might have been expected from a feminist militant who, both at a theoretical level and in her private life, had challenged a number of the assertions made by Marx and by Engels on marriage and sexuality.

For to Engels’s conviction that ‘instead of declining’ after the socialist revolution, monogamy ‘finally becomes a reality—for the men as well’,footnote2 Kollontai had opposed the theory of free love and of different types of love-relation, basing herself on her own experience as a woman in quest of her freedom. And whereas Engels was convinced that the communist order ‘will make the relation between the sexes a purely private relation which concerns only the persons involved, and in which society has no call to interfere’,footnote3 Kollontai argued in a 1918 pamphlet The New Morality and the Working Class: ‘But what is the origin of our unforgiveable indifference to one of the essential tasks of the working class? How can we explain the hypocritical relegation of sexual problems to the pigeon-hole of “family affairs” not requiring a collective effort? As if relations between the sexes and the elaboration of a suitable moral code had not appeared throughout history as a constant factor of social struggle! As if relations between the sexes, within the limits of a determinate social group, had not fundamentally influenced the outcome of the struggle between opposed social classes!’footnote4

It was therefore legitimate to expect that, in a course given to women Party militants, Kollontai would give an account of her positions and of her differences with a leader like Riazanov. (Riazanov had argued that ‘all polygamy demonstrates the inferior cultural level of its “subjects” and “objects” ’,footnote5 and had even defended the persistence of marriage-registration in future society: ‘Such regulation will become a duty to society as natural as labour itself. Communism is inconceivable without the registration of all the productive forces and all the needs of society; in communist society too, man is the most precious productive force.’footnote6 It might also have been hoped that she would polemicize against Lenin’s positions on the question of sexuality. She certainly knew of the concern he had expressed shortly before to Clara Zetkin, about the meetings organized by the German Communist Party in which women worker-militants came together to discuss problems of marriage and sexuality, and about the dangers which such discussions supposedly held for the youth circles too. In this context, Lenin had stressed the energy thereby diverted from the political tasks of the hour.footnote7 But Kollontai does not say a word about these points, emphasizing instead the need for the Russian proletariat as a whole, and the women in particular, to devote all their strength to increasing productivity.

However, her silence should not surprise us unduly if we remember that, in this period of scarcity and catastrophic post-war decline of the productive forces in Russia, everyone’s attention was focused on the measures that would allow the life of the first workers’ state to be saved. As all oppositional tendencies were here in agreement with the rest of the Party, ‘ideological’ debates tended to be pushed into the background. A clear indication of this is the fact that the texts of the Workers’ Opposition, of which Kollontai was a major leader, pay little notice to women’s oppression or the political orientation required to combat it. We should also remember that, up until then, Kollontai had been almost completely isolated in the positions which she took on the question of sexual liberation, her Pravda articles having been attacked on several occasions, especially by members of the Bolshevik leadership. This compelled a certain prudence in her propaganda and educational work conducted in the name of the Party—above all since these lectures were given at Sverdlov University just after the Tenth Congress of the Bolshevik Party, which had adopted a resolution ordering ‘the immediate dissolution of all groups without exception formed on the basis of a platform’ and stressing ‘the inadmissible character of any kind of factional activity’. This resolution was aimed in particular against the Workers’ Opposition. In a period marked by the first political insurrection—the Tenth Congress was held a few days after Kronstadt—the Bolshevik leaders feared that the group to which Kollontai belonged might call into question internal Party discipline, and thus weaken the fighting capacity of the Party in face of the dangerous economic crisis. And even though her ideas on women’s liberation (unfortunately) had little to do with the indicted platform of the Workers’ Opposition, Kollontai certainly felt bound to remain very close to official positions in her lectures on the question.