The following essay is adapted from Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.
The masses do not believe in the Opposition. They greet its every statement with laughter. Does the Opposition think that the masses have such a short memory? If there are shortcomings in the Party and its political line, who else besides these prominent members of the Opposition were responsible for them?
—Alexandra Kollontai, “The Opposition and the Party Rank and File,” Selected Writings
Alexandra Mikhaylovna Kollontai (1872–1952) was born and raised in comfortable circumstances in old St. Petersburg; rebelled against her privileges on behalf of women and the poor; and was exiled to Germany in 1908. During World War I she traveled in the United States, preaching socialism rather in the manner that an American feminist like Naomi Klein would nowadays preach against globalization when traveling in Europe. Upon the outbreak of revolution in Russia in 1917, Kollontai returned home, where she served the Soviet government first as a commissar for public welfare, then in a succession of foreign ministerial and ambassadorial posts. She was the regime’s recognized expert on women’s rights: special rights, that is, in a state where there were no general ones. She was thus the 20th century’s clearest early case of the fundamental incompatibility between feminism and ideology. Feminism is a claim for impartial justice, and all ideologies deny that such a term has meaning.
Kollontai managed to live with the contradiction, but only because she was unusually adroit when it came to aligning herself with the prevailing power. Her dogged service to a regime that condemned large numbers of innocent women to grim death has rarely resulted in her being criticized by left-wing feminists in the West. The pattern, alas, continues today, especially when it comes to the spurious alliance between feminism and multiculturalism, an ideology which necessarily contains within itself a claimed right to confine women to their traditional subservience. Against the mountain of historical evidence that left-wing ideology has been no friend of feminism, there is some comfort to be drawn from the fact that fascism was even less friendly: Hitlerite Germany, in particular, did little to release women from their traditional typecasting. But it remains sad that women who seek a release for their sisters from the crushing definition of a biological role have always found so many bad friends among those theoretically wedded to the betterment of the working class. The yellowing pages of Cuba’s Bohemia magazine in 1959 are full of stories about the heroic women who fought and suffered beside all those famous beards for the liberation of their island from tyranny and backwardness. How many of those women ever became part of the government? At least Kollontai got a job, and perhaps she and the Soviet Union she so loyally served merit a small salute for that.
A famous figure among the Old Bolsheviks, Kollontai was a sad case, and sadder still because it is so hard to weep for her. Her career is a harsh reminder that feminism is, or should be, a demand for justice, not an ideology. It should not consider itself an ideology and it should be very slow to ally itself with any other ideology, no matter how progressive that other ideology might claim to be. Kollontai was an acute and lastingly valuable analyst of the restrictions and frustrations imposed on women by the conventional morality of bourgeois society. Fifty years later, Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer did not say much that Kollontai had not said first, even if they said it better—as they were bound to do, because they were proposing feasible modifications to a society already developed, whereas she was trying to make herself heard over the roar of chaos.
Armed with her hard-won awareness of how injustice for women had been institutionalized in the bourgeois civil order, she thought that the Russian Revolution, the universal solvent of all institutions, would give feminism its chance. She spent the next 35 years finding out just how wrong she was. From the viewpoint of the slain, the best that can be said for her is that she backed the regime for a good reason. Unfortunately, she backed the regime no matter how murderous it became. The outburst quoted above, from 1927, is really a declaration of faith in Stalin, making an appearance under his other name, “the masses.” “The Opposition” were those brave few among the Old Bolsheviks who still dared to question him, starting with Trotsky. As always, it is advisable to note that Trotsky, the butcher of the sailors at Kronstadt, was no humanitarian. Only a few years further up the line, he actually thought that Stalin’s treatment of the peasants sinned through leniency. But it was obvious at the time that any conflict among the leaders had nothing to do with principle: It was a power struggle, with absolute power as the prize. Kollontai was weighing in unequivocally on the side of an infallible party with an unchallengeable leader. The terrible truth was that the only real equality made available to women in the Soviet Union of her time was the equal opportunity to be a slave laborer.
A textual scholar might say that she was taking a conscious risk when she wrote: “If there are shortcomings in the Party and its political line … ” It is quite easy to imagine a Lubyanka interrogator asking her: “Oh yes, and what shortcomings are those?” But the interrogation never came. Kollontai managed to stay alive, partly by spending as much time as possible on diplomatic duties in Norway, Sweden, and Finland. (Talleyrand said, “He who is absent is wrong.” In the Soviet Union, however, being absent was often the key to survival.) Her dreamed-of principle was “winged Eros,” love set free. The Soviet actuality of love set free was a one-size-fits-all contraceptive diaphragm, with the overspill taken care of by serial abortions. In her early writings—just as charmless as the later ones but a touch more personal—she was already exploiting the standard langue de bois technique of speaking as if she herself were the incarnation of the proletariat. She probably hoped that if she sounded like the party line, the party line might be persuaded to incorporate her views. A sample:
The proletariat is not filled with horror and moral indignation at the many forms and facets of “winged Eros” in the way that the hypocritical bourgeoisie is. … The complexity of love is not in conflict with the interest of the proletariat.
In the event, she found winged Eros a hard taskmaster. In a touching forecast of the policy declared by Germaine Greer 40 years later, Kollontai favored the notion that a nonacademic but suitably vigorous proletarian might be a fitting partner for a female highbrow. But either the muscular young lovers she chose for herself did not understand that in offering them freedom she required their respect, or else she found parting from them hurt more than it was supposed to. It would be cruel not to sympathize, and patronizing too: Even while she was earning her decorations she was in fear for her life, and during the Yezhov terror in the late 1930s she thought every trip back to Moscow might be her last. She died in 1952, shortly before her 80th birthday, with two Orders of the Red Banner to her credit, if credit that was.
Our real sympathy, however, we should reserve for those who were not spared. An impressive proportion of them were women, even within the party itself, where they were seldom given high office, but certainly had unhampered access to the status of victim. If Kollontai had been sent to the Gulag and somehow survived it, she might conceivably have written a book along the lines of Evgenia Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind, although it is hard to believe that any amount of deprivation and disillusionment would have given her Ginzburg’s gift for narrative. Kollontai wrote boilerplate even on the few occasions when she felt free to speak. Besides, she already had the disillusion: She didn’t have to be locked up to have that. A single week in the company of the regime’s high-ranking thugs and boors would have been enough to tell her that there was no hope. We should not go so far as to greet her every statement with laughter, but we should try to rein in our pity. Pity belongs to the countless thousands of her sisters who were sent to the unisex hell that lay beyond Vorkuta, where they aged 30 years in the first three months unless they were granted the release of a quicker death. Did she know about all that? Of course she did. Women always know.