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International Socialism, January 1978


Jean McNair

Feminism and Communism


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 104104, January 1978, p. 28.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Love of Worker Bees
by Alexandra Kollontai; tr. Cathy Porter
Virago £2.50

This is a collection of three stories, Kollontai’s first attempts at fiction – Vasilisa Malygina, Three Generations and Sisters. They are very clearly and simply written and were intended for a mass audience. In a way no purely political writing could do, these make us understand exactly what life felt like in the tense and troubled time of NEP – the New Economic Policy of concessions to the peasants forced on the Bolsheviks in 1921.

In 1923, when Love of Worker Bees first came out, it was denounced as pornography and ‘a model of petit-bourgeois debauchery’. It was not just that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were frightful prudes – Kollontai makes use of her feminism to write a violent attack on NEP, in her eyes ‘the New Exploitation of the Proletariat.’ She (the organiser of women’s trades unions), with Shlyapnikov (the organiser of the metal-workers), had been the leaders of the Workers Opposition. These were extreme left and slightly syndicalist supporters of the helter-skelter path to socialism, and determined opponents of NEP with its concessions to capitalism and the peasantry. Kollontai wrote their manifesto On the Workers Opposition. Love of Worker Bees is a fictional accompaniment to this. Through the eyes of Vasya, a pure communist girl, Kollontai watches with horror how capitalism creeps back, tainting the state and even the Party: ‘the GPU man had a natty moustache and was dressed foppishly in yellow knee-length boots’ ... ‘Could this man really be a communist?’ Vasya’s husband, director in one of the great trusts, newly freed from state control, knows that ‘the main priority was at all costs that business flourished and profits shot up’. He has a house with carpets and servants, a mistress and a car. To her dismay Vasya finds herself defending the workers against her husband.

There is no particular exaggeration in all this. E.H. Carr tells how ‘once buying and selling began in earnest’ the revolutionaries were at a loss and ‘the gap was filled by the more ambitious and more successful grade of Nepmen’. Mikoyan told the 13th Party Congress of a Red Industrialist ‘who on being offered a position in a factory in Kuban, had demanded, in addition to various financial bonuses in excess of the maximum salary, an apartment of four rooms, fully furnished, with heating, lighting and a bath; a horse and a carriage for himself and his family; two months’ leave a year and a two-roomed summer lodging on the Black Sea for his family; and permission to keep a cow in the factory grounds. The co-operative running the factory agreed, but too late – he’d meanwhile received a more attractive offer from Moscow.’

What is significant in Kollontai’s book is that in the whole 200 pages, there is not one mention of the peasantry. What she does not say is that the working class in Russia were, after the Civil War, a rapidly disintegrating minority. The peasants, by withholding supplies of grain, were holding the Revolution to ransom. The Bolshevik leaders had either to conciliate them, or give up altogether. The extreme communistic program of the Workers Opposition was a hopeless utopian dream. Trotsky wrote (also in 1923):

’Is the NEP prosaic? Of course! ... The NEP came. Came and will go away ... the artist for whom the Revolution loses its meaning because it does not remove the smells of the Sucharevka market [the black market in Moscow] is empty-headed and small ... Because of its peasant foundation ... the Russian Revolution is the most chaotic and formless of all revolutions.’

NEP may have been necessary, but Kollontai was unable to tolerate it above all because she saw it undoing the new-found freedom of women, the freedom she had spent her whole life working for. Her heroines are independent women – factory girls and party workers with busy lives of their own. NEP drags them back to the boredom and oppression of the family. In the idleness of her beautiful home, Vasya ‘felt tied hand and foot – like the jackdaw her brother Kolka had caught in the forest when they were children. He’d tied its wings with thread to prevent it flying away, and it would strut around the floor, opening its beak wide, looking at the windows with its intelligent black eyes, and trying to flap its wings. After a few desperate attempts, it would pick its way across the floor, resigned never to fly away again.’ To her disgust, she even catches herself thinking of God. The return of the housewife is linked to that of the prostitute. In Sisters, the cause of the renewed degradation of both is the same – the mass unemployment that followed the famine of 1921. The difference is just that one has and one lacks a husband to ‘protect’ her.

In all these stories, Kollontai’s championship of women is passionate and personal. This makes them powerful fiction, narrow politics. There is constant tension between love and politics. Women are identified with communism men with NEP. Women must brace themselves to abandon the men they love in order to remain true to their convictions and continue their work for the party. For love they must substitute either the purely physical sleeping-around practised by the youngest daughter in Three Generations or, better, the female solidarity so poignantly depicted in Sisters – the wife and the prostitute walk out together on the Nepman who has been supporting them both.

But Kollontai does not see love between women as the alternative. If a free and equal relationship between the sexes is nowhere realised in her stories, this is merely due to the corrupting influence of NEP on the men. She believes that if communist men untainted by NEP could be found to match her heroines, the relationship between them would automatically be ideal. This is a strange and utopian idea. We know only too well now that male chauvinism is a problem not just among capitalists and Nepmen, but among revolutionaries too. Kollontai gives no guidance on the need to struggle against male chauvinism within a revolutionary party. Her book thus combines an acute analysis of contemporary conditions with idealist fantasising. It is an exciting and terribly readable mixture.

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