Alexandra Kollontai made three decisive contributions to revolutionary socialism: she argued for special forms of party work among working class women, and fought for the creation of a women’s section of the Bolshevik Party during the Russian Revolution.
Unlike many Bolsheviks, who agreed with special work, she argued that women needed to be organised within the party to ensure that the party took up correct positions on women, not simply that special work needed to be done because women workers were “backward”. Finally Kollontai never flinched from fighting to win working class women away from the bourgeois feminists.
Kollontai, born in 1872, joined the Russian social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP) in 1899. She first recognised the need for the socialists to carry out special work with working women in 1905.
Factory women were prominent in the demonstrations and strikes at the time of the revolution, but many were illiterate and few were organised in the party. She began organising factory gate meetings and special lectures.
In 1906 she met Clara Zetkin, leader of the German socialist Women’s Movement, and discovered that they too were organising special work and producing literature specifically addressed to women. After this meeting Kollontai was more determined that the party itself should be carrying out such work, but found little support from either the Bolsheviks or Mensheviks.
Bourgeois feminists were trying to organise working class women in support of their own campaigns. In 1905 the Union for Political equality organised a petition on equal property rights which got signatures from 40,000 factory women.
Socialists in general dismissed feminism as a bourgeois deviation, and it was left to Kollontai and a few other socialist women to challenge the feminists.
In 1908 feminists organised an all-Russian Women’s Congress and Kollontai argued that the Social Democrats must intervene. Both the trade unions and the Petersburg Committees of the social Democrats eventually agreed to organise delegations.
Kollontai organised the delegation of 45 women who attended the feminists’ conference and made a determined intervention.
They produced resolutions on universal suffrage, labour legislation, maternity protection and finally on the need for working women to organise separately from bourgeois women in order to “overthrow the capitalist system that exploits and oppresses them.”
After this final statement the working class women walked out. Kollontai later wrote about the conference:
“For the broad mass of working women the conference and the intervention of the working women’s group was of great educational significance, for a sharp and distinct line had been drawn between bourgeois feminism and the proletarian women’s movement.”
Kollontai joined the Bolshevik faction in 1915 after being convinced of Lenin’s position on the war. She continued her work on women, completing a pamphlet, “The Social Bases of the Woman Question”, in 1909.
Other Bolshevik women in exile, particularly Inessa Armand and Krupskaya, took up the question of special work among women, convincing the Bolsheviks to launch in 1914 a special paper for women, Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker). In the editorial of the first edition Krupskaya explained the significance the new paper:
“The woman question, for working men and women, is a question of how to organise the backward masses of working women, how best to explain them their interests, how to make them comrades sooner in the common struggle.”
Kollontai argued that there was more to special work.
She wrote about the need, as well as propaganda, for a special form of organisation – separate, but led by the party:
“Separation has a double aim; on the one hand these intra-party collectives (commissions, women workers’ bureaux and so on) must carry out special agitational work adapted to the reality of the questions women want to have answered; their task is to recruit members among the mass of women who have a low level of consciousness, raise it to the level of the rest of the party members, to move women into the arena of revolutionary struggle.
“On the other hand these collectives give women workers the possibility of putting forward and defending in practical ways those interests which touch women most of all: motherhood, protection of children, the rate set for children’s and women’s labour, the struggle against prostitution, reforms of housekeeping, and so on.” (“Women Workers struggle for their Rights”, 1914)
Unlike most of the Bolsheviks, Kollontai recognised that special work among women, including women’s commissions of the party, special meetings and structures, not only overcome the difficulties some women had, it also encouraged women to press for the party to take up women’s issues.
“Joining together in special collectives gives women workers an opportunity to influence their comrades within the party, to inspire and urge them on to the struggle for political rights for working class women, gaining for women those rights which they themselves possess.”
After the 1917 revolution Kollontai argued for a Women’s section of the party. The party was won to the position and the Women’s section, “Zhenotdel”, was established in 1919 at all levels of the party.
The Zhenotdel created a mass communist women’s organisation which played a key role in defending the revolution and tackling sexism in the Bolshevik Party. Kollontai became the director of the Zhenotdel after Inessa Armand died in 1921.
Kollontai was the only woman commissar, and was able to put into practice some of the programme she had helped develop. Later in life Kollontai strayed from Bolshevism, leading the “Workers’ opposition” against Lenin before finally becoming a loyal, if exiled, part of the Stalinist bureaucracy as a Soviet ambassador.
But the contribution Kollontai made to revolutionary work amongst working class women remains valid today. Alexandra Kollontai has been an inspiration to generations of revolutionary women.