Women Workers Struggle For Their Rights: Introduction (1971)

Alexandra Kollontai, left, as People’s Commissar of Social Welfare in the first Soviet government (1917-18).

The following introduction to Alexandra Kollontai’s Women Workers Struggle For Their Rights, first published in 1918, was written by Sheila Rowbotham for a 1971 edition of the text from Falling Wall Press. The translation was prepared by Celia Britton with notes by Suzie Watkins. We are proud to re-publish it alongside Kollontai’s own introductory comments to the text, “In Place of a Foreword.”

Early Years

Alexandra Kollontai was born in St. Petersburg in 1872, the daughter of a Russian general. She married an engineer, Vladimir Kollontai, but found herself moving away from him as she became increasingly interested in revolutionary ideas. Her early intellectual impetus towards radicalism was through the study of child psychology and educational theory – an interest which remained with her later. In this period, many young women from landowning and middle class families sought their emancipation through teaching, and Froebel’s educational methods and kindergartens became closely allied with radicalism. It seemed a natural and useful way to ‘go to the people’.

Terrorism as a strategy was proving increasingly ineffective. The 1896 textile strikes in St. Petersburg marked an important turning point. Organised labour was a more effective force for change than village communes. The Russian Social Democratic Party tried to recruit workers. The Social Democrats, who were at their strongest in Germany, believed that real democracy could not be fully realised without economic equality, and that this would only be possible when the means of production were controlled by society as a whole and not be private employers. Following Marx, they believed that the working class was the crucial agent of socialism. Their attitude to organising was marked by ethical humanitarian ideas which resembled the early Utopian socialists’.

In St. Petersburg, a group of young Social Democrats, including Lenin, was studying Marx. Some working women, like the tailoress Grigorgeva, were involved in the Social Democratic Party already, and women workers were coming into the revolutionary struggle through industrial action. In 1896 women textile workers downed tools with the men, and women cigar-makers destroyed machinery and resisted the police.

Kollontai was obviously affected by all these developments, for when she went to Zurich in 1898 it was to study political economy, and in her History of the Women’s Labour Movement, she describes the militancy of the women in St. Petersburg in the mid 1890s.

Abroad, she began to learn about the socialist movement internationally. In Zurich she met Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg, prominent in the German Social Democratic Movement, and in 1899 visited England and took a dim view of the Webbs. Within the Russian Party she was aligned to the group who were known as Mensheviks, round the old marxist thinker Plekhanov. She remained with the Mensheviks after Lenin and the Bolsheviks split in 1903, wanting a much tighter and more professionally organized party. After the first split, new conflicts kept the groups apart. The Mensheviks said Lenin was foisting a harsh barrack room discipline onto socialism, the Bolsheviks saw Plekhanov as a ‘soft’ academic ready only for Propaganda work. However, individuals maintained contact with one another and as events moved faster and faster in Russia, some of the Mensheviks began to drift towards working with the Bolsheviks because the latter appeared to be more decisive.

Preoccupation with these internal splits meant that when in early 1905 a huge crowd of workers carrying religious icons, led by a priest called father Gapon and full of faith in the Czar, tried to present a petition to the Czar and were fired upon, neither Mensheviks nor Bolsheviks could intervene. Strikes in protest followed ‘Bloody Sunday’, and were followed by peasant revolt and a mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin. The Czar compromised and agreed to call a Consultative Assembly (Duma). Although the workers were not represented, this was an important break with absolute rule. At the end of the year there was a general rising in Moscow which was defeated, and from then on the revolutionary impetus began to subside. The lesson was not lost. It seemed clear to the Bolsheviks that spontaneous revolt led to defeat. The revolution required their conscious direction. By 1907 the Czar’s policy of compromise had been replaced by one of severe repression, and the revolutionary movement was once more forced underground.

In 1905, the newly formed Russian feminist movement planned a large meeting. The feminists wanted to bring all women together, but on a basis which obscured the class exploitation of working women. Though the Mensheviks supported this move, Kollontai was sufficiently close to the Bolsheviks to be in opposition. And in 1906, with some other women comrades, she started to organize a club for women workers. The women studied particular questions which would help them secure the reforms they wanted, and practiced speaking until a group could speak on various topics. In an account which appeared in the Woman Worker in 1908 Kollontai wrote:

During our preparations for these Congress speeches, and at the Women’s Council meetings, our dread of the police was very great We always had to find some quiet little room, and it an alarm was given, the women would throw a handkerchief over the face of the speaker and get her away quickly. 1

As a result of this organization, 45 of the 700 women who assembled at the All-Russian Women’s Congress in 1908 were socialists. 30 of these 45 factory workers, some still scarcely able to read.

‘They were all very frightened, yet did well, holding the field in all cases for at least fifteen to twenty minutes and astonishing the Congress…’ – in 1907 she had to flee from Russia. Abroad she continued to take part in the women’s movement, attending the Congress at Stuttgart mentioned in this pamphlet. The regular sessions of the Congress were preceded by a convention of women from various countries to debate questions which related particularly to working class women. The most heated debate arose between the Austrian socialists and the rest over women’s suffrage. In Austria male workers were still disenfranchised and the Austrian women suggested waiting until the men could vote before pressing for women’s suffrage. Clara Zetkin and most of the other women were completely against this compromise. In the general Congress the main debate was over militarism and the war – the issue which was finally to crack the Second International.

In exile Kollontai became friendly with the ‘left’ social democrat Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. It is possible that some of their ideas influenced her and brought her to a ‘left’ position within the Communist Party later. She lectured at a Russian marxist school in Italy – a kind of revolutionary free university, and started to study protective maternity provision because she had been asked to send a draft for a law by young social democrats in Russia to present to the Duma. This was finally published in 1915 as Society and Maternity.

In March 1911 she helped to organize the first International Women’s Day which is still celebrated. She was active in organizing strikes in Paris and in the north of France in 1911, including one of housewives over high prices. Meanwhile, she was becoming increasingly critical of the cautious, bureaucratic old guard in German social democracy, who were more inclined to emphasize the long term inevitability of communism, than the short term need to do something about bringing it about. Her criticisms brought her still closer to the Bolsheviks. In 1913 she went to England again, and learned about women in the trade union movement. In 1916 she was in New York, and at Lenin’s request was collecting information about the American Socialist Party and the Socialist Labour Party, in the course of which she introduced Lenin to the writings of the socialist-syndicalist Daniel de Leon, who believed in industrial unionism – the working class organized into one big union to take over and run production.

The Revolution

When a general uprising and the overthrow of the Czarist regime were followed by the formation of the ‘Provisional Government’ in Russia, in February 1917, Kollontai returned home and became involved in revolutionary activity. She was amongst the people who greeted Lenin when he arrived back in Russia at the Finland Station. Lenin spoke to a meeting of the Bolsheviks the following day, denouncing the Mensheviks because they thought it was too early to speak of a socialist revolution in Russia. (They believed that after the ‘bourgeois revolution’ of February 1917 Russia would have to pass through a capitalist phase under bourgeois rule before there could be a socialist revolution.) Lenin praised the anti-militarism of Liebknecht, and announced that the ‘majority of the official Social Democrats have betrayed socialism,’ so that the Bolsheviks should henceforth distinguish themselves by the name of Communists. 2 Most of the Bolsheviks were shocked and stunned: only Alexandra Kollontai voted for Lenin’s unorthodox ‘April Theses’. Some Bolsheviks left the party altogether, others came round to Lenin’s position slowly. It was the radicals, those who wanted to carry through directly socialist measures, who very quickly supported Lenin. Kollontai was on the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party at the time of the Bolshevik revolution of November 1917, and became Minister for Social Welfare; shortly afterwards she became responsible for education.

Kollontai’s life reflected the political turns of the revolution, just as her fame since her death has fluctuated. Now honoured, now disgraced, now smothered in silence, now respected as a figurehead. Louise Bryant, an American journalist who wrote of a visit to Russia soon after the revolution in Six Red Months in Russia, praised Kollontai’s workers’ control methods in her Ministry. Kollontai herself moved gradually towards the position of the ‘Workers’ Opposition’ group. Her personal life as well as her political life was stormy. In her forties she fell in love with Dubenko, a man much younger than herself who had been with the Kronstadt sailors when they mutinied against the revolutionary government – a revolt which was harshly repressed by Trotsky. With others she formulated the criticisms of the Bolshevik Party which appeared in the ‘Workers’ Opposition’ pamphlet. 3 The ‘Workers’ Opposition’ group criticised centralisation and bureaucracy in general, but criticised particularly Trotsky’s scheme for control over the Trade unions. The ‘Workers’ Opposition’ wanted the trade unions to control industrial production, where Trotsky felt that the state should have control. The crux of the issue was the degree of autonomy which could be allowed to specific groups without fragmenting the already shaky revolutionary government, and leading to counter-revolution. In 1922 the supporters of the ‘Workers’ Opposition’ were condemned as a faction but not expelled from the Party. The question raised by the ‘Workers’ Opposition’ of autonomous organisation was never resolved. By a terrible irony Stalin was able to use Trotsky’s own arguments against him later.

Kollontai’s influence in domestic politics was negligible from this point. She joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1923, and between 1923 and 1925 was in Norway, then in Mexico, Norway again from 1927 to 1930 and in Sweden from 1930 to 1945. In 1943 she was made an ambassador, and the following year was responsible for negotiating the Soviet-Finnish armistice. Although her photograph was issued by the Trotskyist Fourth International in America, along with the other members of the early Central Committee who had died in Stalin’s purges, over the caption ‘missing’, and it is possible that she was restrained in various ways, her survival was almost certainly due to the fact that she raised no more awkward questions, and because she was safely out of the way in a prestigious diplomatic position. She died at the age of eighty in 1952, two decades before interest in her ideas revived again in Europe.

The Relevance of Her Ideas in the Russian Revolution and Now

The fortunes of her writings have been most curious. The vast majority have not been translated from the original Russian. Many of them sit dustily in the British Museum. Sylvia Pankhurst produced the ‘Workers’ Opposition’ pamphlet, no doubt to Lenin’s intense irritation. (She was one of the people he labelled as ‘infantile’ leftists.) This pamphlet has recently been reissued by ‘Solidarity’. Communism and the Family has long been out of print. But it was among the texts recommended by the Czech marxist rebels in 1968, and was republished recently by the somewhat heretical Australian Communist Party and in Britain is being republished by Pluto Press.

Interest in Kollontai has been slowly growing in Women’s Liberation in France and Germany as well as Britain, because her arguments with the left on the need for the separate organisation of women, her stress not only on political emancipation, and work, but also on the family and the psychological effect of centuries of oppression on women’s consciousness, are very much our concerns as well. Her emphasis on control from below, her distrust of the absolute Party, her understanding of the complexities of the creation of a new culture and the connection between personal experience and political consciousness, are particularly relevant within the revolutionary movement as a whole, where we confront these questions now. Kollontai represents a current within marxism in relation to the liberation of women which has been submerged and which we need to rediscover and develop.

Kollontai’s influence on the early years of the revolution was crucial. As soon as they were in power, the Bolsheviks introduced very important changes in the position of women, not only at work but in every area of life. The Decree on Insurance in Case of Sickness, of December 1917, meant that an insurance fund was set up without deductions from wages. In January 1918 the Department for the Protection of Motherhood and Infancy was set up as the result of Kollontai’s earlier work. Within six months of the revolution, the church’s control of marriage was ended and within a year complete legal equality of rights was established. Marriage was simply a mutual agreement between two partners and was easily dissolved. These were very basic reforms, but they were extraordinary in the Russian context of severe oppression.

The First Congress of Peasant and Working Women was held on November 19th, 1918. A special committee was set up to help women understand what their new rights were and how to use them. This for Kollontai was a real advance, and a vindication of her agitation for a separate women’s section within the Party which she had been advocating since 1906. A year after this pamphlet was published, it became evident that something more was needed because the oppression of women went so deep. The Working and Peasant Women’s Department (Genotdel) thus replaced the committee. This new department was not just to educate women in marxism, but to mobilise them for practical political activity. Even this did not mean that masculine attitudes of superiority dissolved easily. Jessica Smith in Women in Soviet Russia (1928) describes conflict between men and women workers in factories, and R. Schlesinger in Changing Attitudes in Soviet Russia records debates in which peasant women accuse the men in the Party of condescension and patronage. The ‘Genotdel’ became something of an embarrassment, and it was dissolved in 1929 with the official explanation that an independent women’s movement was no longer necessary.

It is evident that in 1918, it was hard to envisage Stalinism and the consequences of socialism in one country, and that Kollontai, full of the enthusiasm of the revolution under-estimated the resilience of the old attitudes and culture both within the Party and without. She imagined that the old family and housework were on the point of withering away, because of the dramatic changes in the early years of the revolution. But the old family, which she describes in Communism and the Family as the family in which ‘the man was everything and the woman nothing’, showed a capacity to survive the upheavals of revolution, civil war and famine. The family emerged after the crisis and isolation of the Soviet Union and the horrors of the Second World War with a new strength as the symbol of security and retreat. Though women have achieved much greater equality at work and in education, at home the old division of labour continues and with it some of the old subordination.

For us now, the limitations on how far it was possible for Kollontai to go are as clear as the relevance of her ideas for our dilemmas. Many of her attempts to go beyond the ideas of Engels and Bebel were of necessity theoretical rather than practical. For example, factory women criticised her when she wanted the state to pay a third of the cost of alimony, saying it would encourage men to seduce women and leave. This was a natural enough fear when contraception was still not reliable or widespread. Kollontai’s belief in free relationships was inevitably problematic when it was still impossible for most women to control their families. The peasant women knew all too well that, as they put it, if you like tobogganing you have to be ready to pull your sledge up hill. This can still be true, of course, but it’s no longer inevitable.

Because ideas in women’s liberation come from our own lives, it forces us not to gloss over the complicated questions. It would be inconceivable for anyone now in women’s liberation to be as dismissive of the rights of children as Kollontai is in Communism and the Family, or to be so confident that ‘the state’, socialist or not, is a reliable parent. We are much more involved in the intricacy of particular families, and the specific way in which they contain us. Obviously too, her discussion about the family is in a post revolutionary situation. Our problem is how to organise round the oppression of women in the family in capitalism. Kollontai saw the modern family as a place of consumption and conditioning, as a means of maintaining the old culture within a new society. Following Margaret Benston’s The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation some people in women s liberation have seen the family also as a form of production. 4

Kollontai’s argument for the separate organisation of women is based on the fact that women as mothers have special demands arising from their biologically distinct material situation. She stresses that the strategy we make has to be based on the actual circumstances, biological and social, of women in particular societies. She sees this as the crucial distinction between women who are socialists and the feminists. Feminism she defines not only in the straightforward sense of defending the position of women and seeking to improve it, but as the insistence on abstract equal rights without regard for the actual predicament of women. She thus identifies a characteristic of ‘equal rights’ feminism in the early twentieth century. She appears not to know about the feminism which had appeared earlier in the Utopian Socialist movement – though she mentions individual women who took part in the First International. Ironically her criticism of the feminists was to be used against her later in the Soviet Union, because women in the east and peasant women were so remote from her ideas of liberation. It’s important to understand that feminism in women’s liberation now has assumed a different historical form and whether we are critical of this or not it is wrong to substitute feminism of the early twentieth century which Kollontai talks about for feminism in the 1970s.

However, Kollontai’s criticism of an abstract approach is still useful. For example, we have to be careful when thinking about protective legislation or about anti-discrimination bills to take existing class and sex interests into account for these are the context in which legislation operates. The idea of abstract equality when put into practice can often mean that the women in the weakest positions lose out.

Kollontai’s implacable hostility to feminism was becoming general among women who were socialists immediately before and after the First World War. Rather earlier there had been a much more open and connected relationship between feminism and the left. Undoubtedly it was the recognition of the limitations of the suffrage movement, and the move rightwards of the suffragette leadership towards patriotism and imperialism in Britain, which produced the hostility. Almost certainly now as people dig below the surface they will find that the women who never became prominent had different sympathies, and an understanding of the need for change which went much wider than the vote. Kollontai reluctantly acknowledges the strength of the suffragettes, and the removal of women who were socialists from the mass of working women. Ironically she shows that it was the suffrage movement, and the possibility that women could vote, which led the men in the socialist movement to see the importance of recruiting and involving women! The parallel with the effect of women’s liberation on the left groups is apparent. It is curious that at this stage Kollontai seems not to have known about the East London Federation of Suffragettes in which Sylvia Pankhurst was working. Their co-operative toy factory, the creche in the pub – ‘The Mothers Arms’ – and their agitation on a wide range of issues, from equal pay, to preventing the arrest of girls walking alone as prostitutes, would have interested her. It looks as though even with the International, and the impressive numbers of women organised, they had our difficulty in circulating information.

When Kollontai was writing this pamphlet the separate women’s groups were becoming absorbed within socialist organisations, as separate sections of political parties. She sees this as an advance taking them beyond propaganda work, and does not recognise that without an explicit socialist-feminist theory, and without the bargaining, power of an autonomous organisation, the specific oppression of women would be overlaid by the marxist analysis of the exploitation of the worker, and thus the autonomy of the women’s organisation transformed first into token independence and then closed down altogether.

Women’s liberation as a movement has raised again the whole question of the relationship of subordinate groups to dominant groups within revolutionary organizations. But our organizational reality is not hers. For the Bolsheviks, ‘the Party’ represented the highest organizational creation of the revolutionary movement. It embraced the most developed theory and practice existing at the time, it generalized and extended the particular experience not only of the working class but of every oppressed section of society. The legacy of Stalin, the dissolving of the monolithic Communist Party as the sole arbiter of correct strategy, the growth of numerous small revolutionary nuclei, has meant that events have turned full circle. While Kollontai was writing the introduction to this pamphlet, negotiations were going on in Britain between various small Marxist groups and the Russians to form the Communist Party. It seemed to Kollontai that there was a general movement towards a common position.

For us the situation is much less clear. There are no commonly held organisational ideas which can act as a means of establishing a unified strategy – not only between women’s liberation and the socialist groups, but within the left in general. Thus for instance Kollontai was able to assume that her statement that the women’s clubs were under the ideological influence of the Party would be generally acceptable. Now in women’s liberation it would have sinister and manipulative implications. However, we face the same important problem – how to organise effectively, and how to relate our movement to the specific oppression and exploitation of working class women. Kollontai describes the ‘geological shift’ which separated the ideas of organising in the Second International from the experience of the Russian Revolution. We are separated from the Communist Third International by a whole series of shifts and tremors, as well as a few earthquakes, and it is absurd to lift the ideas of 1918 in a fundamentalist way onto the dilemmas of 1971.

Nevertheless it is still appropriate that Kollontai’s pamphlet on the organisation of women workers should be translated for the Second Women’s Liberation Conference in Britain. We have grown and developed in the one and a half years since the Oxford Conference, not only here in Britain, but internationally. If we are to go further, an essential task will be the rediscovery of our own history – the history which has been obscured and neglected, just as the specific interests of women have been obscured and neglected, within the dominant ideology of capitalism, but also, sadly, within the male dominated revolutionary movement. 5

This article is part of a dossier entitled “Comrades, Rally Around Your Soviets!”: The Centenary of the October Revolution.


1 I am referring here to an article by Georgia Pearce entitled, ‘A Russian Exile, Alexandra Kollontai and the Russian Woman Worker’, which appeared in the English newspaper, The Woman Worker, of May 1909. This newspaper is not to be confused with the Bolshevik paper of the same name.
2 Lenin, quoted in Isaac Deutscher, Stalin: a Political Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 1960), 139.
3 Republished recently as a Solidarity pamphlet.
4 Margaret Lowe Benston, The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation (Somerville, Mass.: New England Free Press, 1975).
5 If you want to find out more about Alexandra Kollontai, you could read an article by me in The Spokesman of June and July 1970, which was actually written in autumn 1969. It’s called ‘Women’s Liberation and Revolutionary Love’ and has a list of most of the material published in English by Kollontai, as well as books which contain information about her. See also the pamphlet, The Workers’ Opposition, published by Solidarity, and Communism and the Family, which has just been reissued in Britain by Pluto Press with an introduction by Di Hatchett. (It is also available in Australia, published by the Communist Party with an introduction by Mavis Robertson.) A translation of Kollontai’s autobiography is due out soon. The following books were useful as a background for this introduction: Angela Balabanov, My Life as a Rebel (New York: Harper, 1938); Milorad Drachkovitch, ed., The Revolutionary Internationals (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966); Deutscher, Stalin; Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969); Nadezhda Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin (New York: International Publishers, 1930) – plus work I did for the chapter on Russia in my book, Women: Resistance and Revolution (New York: Verso, 2014 [1972]), which is to be published in spring 1972.

Author of the article

is a historian and writer. She was involved in organizing the first national UK Women’s Liberation Movement conference in 1970, and is the author of Women's Liberation and the New Politics (1969); Women, Resistance, and Revolution (1972); and Women's Consciousness, Man's World (1973). Recent publications include Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (2008) and Dreamers of a New Day: Women Who Invented the Twentieth Century (2010).