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A Historical Alternative to Pink Pussy Cat Hats: Alexandra Kollontai as a Model for Socialist Feminism

by

Where are the strong women socialists feminists of today?

Today, in the midst of the pink pussy hat women joining “The Resistance” by denouncing Trump while blaming those who didn’t vote for Hillary, I keep searching for strong women socialist feminists to follow and emulate. There are some, but they’re not very visible in the mainstream media. Kshama Sawant the Seattle City Council member is one. María de Jesús Patricio Martínez, a Nahua indigenous healer, The Zapatistas and National Indigenous Congress’ (CNI) selection of as their spokesperson and presidential candidate for the 2018 elections in Mexico, is another. Gloria La Riva, presidential candidate for the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) is a third. All of these women are, and have been, fighting for social and economic equality, including the rights of women. But their primary focus has always been to see capitalism as the problem and the reason for inequality. In my mind, feminism can’t be separated from socialism.

What are the differences between radical feminists in history and those today?

What does it mean to be a feminist in a declining capitalist system in 2017?

Liberals today think it means the integration of middle and upper middle class women’s rights within the capitalist system. In the past this meant the right to vote for women of wealth. Today it means the right to equal pay, voting more women into public office, freedom from sexual harassment and discrimination, among other things. While worthy, all of these things are efforts towards reform within the existing economic system.

Historical radical women thought the struggle for equality meant dissolving women’s rights into the class struggle for socialism. This was the belief of women revolutionaries like Rosa Luxembourg who thought it was a mistake to focus solely on the rights of women.

For historical radical feminist women it was critical to integrate women’s rights into the struggle for socialism. Women like Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai believed that until working and poor women’s needs were met, socialism was not possible and that this struggle needed to co-exist with the fight for all workers’ rights.

I think Kollontai’s position makes the most sense. I will describe the events of Kollontai’s life and how she came to her belief and the differences and similarities between those beliefs and the women’s struggles today. Primarily, the understanding of class differences should always be the guiding principal.

Lack of economic framework

I have been disappointed by the lack of any type of framework within which to place the demands of today’s women. Instead, political alliances are being formed on a very narrowly focused basis. The lack of understanding of class differences and the emphasis on race, religion, gender, sexuality without the connection being made between oppression and capitalism will not result in any serious revolutionary change. Unless and until feminists understand the needs of working class women, they can’t understand the need to change the capitalist economic system and move towards a socialist society. Until then, any reforms will be simply that – reforms – and undone by conservatives as soon as possible.

The pink pussy hats marchers were marching against Trump in January through April, not against the system that has fostered Trump, nor – even more importantly – all the “democratically elected” presidents and entire social and economic system that has led to the social and economic disaster we are facing in the U.S. today. It would be hard to find many working class women in that march – or in the follow-up “Resistance” movement. Virtually all of those women were from the upper middle class, some from the middle class. The needs and inequalities of working class women have been largely ignored.

The “Resistance” is based on individualist ideology – interests of the individual take precedence over the state or social group – organized by upper middle class women. Working class women have no support for health care, housing, childcare, transportation, a living wage – many of them are single mothers. Many of the upper middle class women marching against Trump have nannies, housekeepers and often don’t even have to work. It’s one thing to carry a sign at a demonstration. It’s another to put time, money and effort into a campaign to set up support centers to give practical help to working class women. Upper middle class women are not at all interested in changing the structure of society itself, starting with changing the economic system.

Where were all the identity politics people during the Obama administration’s failure to secure a minimum wage above poverty level, build low cost housing or deal with the worst police force in the entire industrial capitalist world? Under Obama’s reign the U.S. continued the illegal wars begun under Bush, pushed for the Dakota Access Pipeline, did close to nothing to punish the banks and Wall Street or demand a cap on emissions to slow global warming. All of these policies, or lack of them, have created even more harsh conditions for working class women. These women, in particular, have born the brunt of the fallout since they struggle to earn a living on low wages, live in areas like Flint Michigan where their families are forced to drink the tainted water, live in decaying housing and lose their husbands to war, police brutality and incarceration.

From reform to revolution

I’ve recently finished a biography of Alexandra Kollontai by Cathy Porter. Kollontai was a major revolutionary figure during and after the Russian Revolution of 1917.  Born into privilege, she recognized inequality between men and women very early in her life, insisting on being allowed to get a teaching certificate even though her mother refused to allow her to go to a university. She married a career military officer when she was 21 and had her only child, a son, Mikhail, when she was 23. While she felt trapped in her marriage, she tried to be the type of “good wife” that was the norm.

A women’s movement was taking shape internationally during this time that gave expression to women’s newfound sense of confidence. But the feminist movement of the time, led by upper-class women who focused primarily on philanthropy and suffrage for propertied women, proved insufficient to meet the growing demands of working-class and peasant women who shared little in common with these women.

From a book review of Cathy Porter’s biography, Alexandra Kollontai, by Leia Petty in SocialistWorker.org

The above-described feminist movement has much in common with the pink pussy hat contingent and Resistance women of today, who are primarily focused on getting women elected to public office. The assumption appears to be that if we had women in offices of power everything would be just fine. Remember the bumper stickers “I’m With Her” – with the arrow tellingly (if unconsciously) pointing to the right?

In the winter of 1896 Kollontai accompanied her husband on an inspection of a large textile factory and was horrified by the shockingly inhumane factory conditions. Strike waves had been growing throughout the 1870’s and 1890’s because of these conditions. She was deeply inspired by a strike in Petrograd of female textile workers in 1986 where she learned of the misery of their working conditions. Seeing a lifeless infant in the nursery of a rooming house to care for the children of the working mothers changed her life forever. The baby was being watched over by a young girl, about the age of 7, who told Kollontai that this kind of thing happened all the time and someone would be by soon to collect the body.

While we may think nothing like that could go on today, consider this. According to the National Farmworker Ministry there are over 500,000 farmworkers under the age of 18 in the U.S. today, and likely many more since the numbers are difficult to track. Many of these children are undocumented. According to Project Censored, child labor today in the US is worse today than in the 1930’s. In many cases, young children are left to care for their even younger siblings while their mothers work – often at minimum wage jobs.

Within 2 years of witnessing these conditions Kollontai had left her husband and was determined to change the system that produced such horror. This was the beginning of her move away from privileged reformer to dedicated revolutionary. Kollontai became convinced of the need to overthrow capitalism and that the subjugation of women was tied, not just to their subjugation to men, but ultimately to the capitalist mode of production.

How Kollontai was different from liberal feminists engaged in class war

I was inspired by Kollontai’s indefatigable struggle to gain support and recognition for the needs of women – as well as equal representation in the infamous Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party.  There were many women revolutionaries during that time: Rosa Luxemburg, Emma Goldman, Clara Zetkin – all of whom I admire, who were in the struggle with her.

While there was an international feminist movement at that time, it was organized and led by upper-class women whose focus was on suffrage for women of property and philanthropy. Kollontai recognized that this movement did not address at all the needs of working class and peasant women.  She worked passionately to organize a movement to address these needs. She worked in conjunction with the fight for socialism, but believed that the specific needs of women’s lives must be addressed.

In this context, Kollontai fought two battles: one against “bourgeois” feminists who opposed the revolutionary movement because it threatened their position within Russian society, and another within the Russian revolutionary movement to take up the specific demands of women. Her successes on both fronts provide revolutionaries today with a method for understanding the class nature of women’s oppression and why struggles against all forms of oppression must be integrated within the larger working-class fight for self-emancipation.

Written by Leia Petty – from her review of Alexandra Kollontai: A biography

She was originally a member of the Menshevik Party, moving from that to the Bolshevik Party, and finally to the Workers’ Opposition. Throughout her life, Kollontai wrote articles, pamphlets and speeches aimed at supporting the revolution and fighting for the rights of the working class. Working class women flooded to her talks. I was so moved and inspired by her life-long struggles and courage to fight for what she knew was necessary in order to make the new Russian society fair and just for all. Kollontai believed that until women were given the same status, rights and benefits as men, true socialism could never come to be. With that core belief she was put in charge of the Social Welfare Department within the new Soviet government after the revolution, which tried to meet the needs of workers, particularly those of women workers. With enormous societal needs and scarce resources Kollontai was fighting a losing battle to bring about equality for the most needy of women.

Kollontai faced blatant sexism and hostility for proposing that “women’s work” in the home needed to be compensated and supported through social acceptance of communal living and shared child rearing. Yet she continued her struggle – eventually splitting with Lenin as she watched the rise of the Bolshevik Central Committee, which had little to no representation from the working class – the very class that Lenin said would create a new society. She watched in dismay as unionized workers and women were shoved to the background of decision-making in creating this new society. Because she believed that feminism is about breaking down hierarchies, she firmly believed that Bolsheviks should be doing the same thing.

With this goal in mind, she joined with Alexander Shlyapnikov, to form a left-wing faction of the Bolshevik Party called the Workers’ Opposition. This cemented her split with Lenin and as the Workers’ Opposition lost power and was dissolved, she was banished to the sidelines and isolation of ambassadorships for the Soviet Government. She told a friend, “What can you do? How can you fight the apparatus? How can you defend yourself against attack? As for myself, I’ve put my principles into a corner of my conscience and will carry out the policies dictated to me as best I can.”

What are the shortcomings of revolutionary feminists like Kollontai?

Kollontai, like many feminists of the time as well as today, believed in gender equality. She believed that the family unit and monogamy made women sexual slaves. She fought for the acceptance of free love, but was concerned that women would be left to raise their resulting children on their own. Therefore, she advocated for children to be raised by the state in group-homes, which parents were free to visit at any time for as long as they wished.

What she underestimated is how resistant women might be to relinquishing their children to a larger social body – whether a commune or a state. As for eradicating sexual jealously, this is on a collision course with evolutionary psychology. While both men and women wish to perpetuate their genes, their mating practices are different. In part, because sperm is cheap and men cannot be sure an offspring is theirs, their mating strategy is to spread their genes through as many sexual alliances as possible. According to evolutionary psychology, because eggs are expensive to produce and women are assured that whoever they mate with 50% of the genes are theirs, their mating strategy is for serial monogamy. This difference played out in Kollontai’s relationships with men.

She experienced jealousy and heartbreak when her second husband, Mikhail Alekseevich Domontovich, had affairs with other women. While this theory can be – and is – hotly debated, the actual behaviors of men and women tend to bear it out.

What makes Kollontai different from liberal feminists today?

Many of you have never heard of her. The question is – why not? Since I believe it’s important for us to have other women socialists to look up to, I wonder why the list is so small – and drawn from history, rather than from today.

Kollontai wrote:

The world of women is divided, just as is the world of men, into two camps; one is in its ideas, aims and interests close to the bourgeoisie, the other to the proletariat, whose aspirations for freedom incorporate the complete solution of the woman question. Thus the two groups, even though they share the general slogan “women’s liberation” have different aims, different interests, and different methods of struggle.

She understood that the battle for equality could not be separated from class struggle. She knew that until the economic system was changed there could be no equality – of gender or class. The bourgeois feminists she took issue with were focused primarily on single issues, such as voting, while ignoring the larger issue of the structure of society itself.

What do we need?

Imagine an institution today like Kollontai’s Social Welfare Department, or The Zhenotdel, established by Kollontai and Inessa Armand, in 1919. The work of the Zhenotdel was to improve the conditions of women’s lives throughout the Soviet Union, fighting illiteracy, and educating women about the new marriage, education, and working laws put in place by the Bolsheviks after the revolution.

Gender equality, just like racial equality, cannot exist under capitalism. It’s not in the capitalists’ interest to recognize and compensate all the unpaid labor performed by women – domestic, reproductive and emotional. Radical feminists today are focused on abolishing patriarchy by exposing unfair social norms and institution’s acceptance of traditional gender roles, acceptance of sexual objectification and violence against women by way of marches, petitions, demonstrations, lawsuits and celebrity support. My claim is that until we change the economic system of capitalism, this worthy goal cannot be met.

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Barbara MacLean has worked as an academic and career counselor at California State University, East Bay and as a career counselor and manager of the downtown Oakland One Stop Career Center, a public career and jobs center in partnership with EDD. She is a socialist feminist. She is a founder and organizer for Planning Beyond Capitalism. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter Email her at mailto:barbaramaclean8@gmail.com  

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