Kollontai, the Bolsheviks and the war

Part 2 of Elaine Jones’ four-part history of women workers and socialist activists in the Russian Revolution.

The Social Democrats — as Marxist socialists used to be known — had a policy of organising working class women. Most Social Democratic parties stood for such things as maternity services as well as public housing and health. They argued that overthrowing capitalism would bring the liberation of women. But Alexandra Kollontai thought that the Russian Social Democrats were making little practical effort to draw in working women— who made up 20-30% of the working class and suffered the worst conditions.

In 1906 Kollontai travelled to Germany to attend meetings of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) who were organising impressive work amongst working class women. The SPD produced Die Gleichheit, a paper for women workers, which at its peak in 1913 had a circulation of 112,000. They sent out agitators to organise working class women.

The women’s section of the SPD had 190,000 members in the trade unions, and 82,000 in the party itself. The women’s section was necessary because joint organisations of men and women were illegal. But it was also built by determined political activists. Clara Zetkin’s approach was to fight for reforms for women— the vote, legal equality, maternity and health reform— as well as winning them over to socialism.

When Kollontai returned to St Petersburg she organised lectures and discussion groups amongst women. Her work was not hindered by the party but they did not help it either. In 1907 Zetkin called for the establishment of women’s bureaus in each national party. The International approved but the Russian Social Democratic Party thought the idea too close to “bourgeois feminism” — women would be freed by revolution and it was more important to win the whole working class to socialism.

Kollontai agreed with those priorities. She was in favour of a separate organisation to help involve working class women in struggle but one that would not make alliances with bourgeois feminists. She thought that if women’s issues were ignored, women would not join class struggle. She began to develop her political ideas. All socialists at the time used Frederick Engels’ The family, private property and the state and August Bebel’s Women and Socialism as their basis for thinking about “the Woman Question”.

Engels had said the destruction of private property would remove the basis for male supremacy and the economic foundations of the family. Women would work as equals and the care and education of children would become a public matter. Private relationships would be based on “sex love”. Women and Socialism sketched out a socialist society where there would be public provision of health, pregnancy and childbirth institutions, and public education. Under socialism the family would continue but parents, free of economic worries, would have leisure time to devote to their children. In The social basis of the woman question (1909) Kollontai argued that women must throw off the contemporary, obsolete, coercive form of family— the bourgeois family— in order to be free. But she attacked the idea of “free love”. That was, said Kollontai, a luxury that working class women could not obtain under capitalism.

For instance, poorly paid working class women could not deal with childcare responsibility if they had to bring up their children alone. First, the economic situation had to change— there needed to be public provision of health and education and an end to exploitation at work. Kollontai then introduced a radical and new idea about childrearing (one put into practice by socialist- Zionists in the kibbutz movement). Kollontai said bringing up children shouldn’t be the job of an amateur; children should be educated by trained people who had a collective socialist outlook.

Kollontai believed that only under socialism could any woman have truly free relationships. Until men and women were “re-educated” by new social conditions men would treat women as possessions and women would subordinate themselves.

Kollontai thought that marriage destroyed individuality, particularly for women; married couples thought they possessed each other— they gave up their privacy. But Kollontai also thought a new morality should develop before the revolution, particularly between socialists. Relations should be based on solidarity and equality. For Kollontai, developing this ideology was part of the class struggle. The “new woman” (a common feminist idea of the time) was constantly leaving men because she made demands they couldn’t meet— she demanded to be free. She saw this new woman as both as a sign of a new morality (a reflection of changing social conditions) and something that would be fully realised under socialism.


The mainstream feminist Women’s Mutual Society organised a congress in 1908. Kollontai organised delegate elections from the textile workers and the trade union bureau to attend the event. At the congress the workers’ group had 45 out of 1,000 delegates, the rest were middle class professionals. The group argued that only class struggle could free women, and put resolutions calling for legal and political equality and social reform. On the last day the workers’ group walked out. Despite such interventions Kollontai still believed the party as a whole (she was yet to join the left Bolshevik group) wasn’t doing enough work among working-class women. Why was this?

At the 1912 Bolshevik conference only 13 out of 394 present were women. From 1898-1912 only five out of 69 central committee members were women. Women’s work was not considered a priority and there was a tendency to brand any women’s work as feminism.

But many of the Bolshevik women also took a different tack to Kollontai. In many accounts Kollontai is depicted as gradually winning people over. I’m not sure that this is correct. There were often big disagreements between Kollontai and the Bolshevik women in which, in my opinion, Kollontai was wrong. Women in the Bolshevik party— Nadezhda Krupskaya, Inessa Armand— developed their own ways of work among women, often in opposition to Kollontai and Zetkin. And they too were able to organise and agitate effectively.

Konkordia Samoilova organised an illegal meeting on International Women’s Day in February 1913. Its subject was factory conditions, prostitution, peasant life and the 1905 revolution.
After the meeting several women were arrested. Samoilova suggested a special paper for proletarian women was produced in response to letters they had received following the meeting and the arrests. It was called Rabotnitsa.

Many Bolshevik women were against involving Kollontai in the project when she was still in the Menshevik group. They insisted that broad decisions on content should ultimately reside with the central committee.
The editorial board consisted of three groups of women. In St. Petersburg the group included Anna Elizarova (Lenin’s sister) and her associates; in Cracow, Krupskaya and Lilina Zinoviev; in Paris, Lyudmila Stal and Inessa Armand. Armand drew up the outline of contents— theoretical articles would be written by her and Stal. Krupskaya said some articles should be of a general nature and not just focused on women. There would be agitational articles and letters.

Rabotnitsa was largely driven by Inessa Armand. Amazingly, the authorities in St. Petersburg granted permission for publication of the paper. They hoped to publish in time for International Women’s Day 1914. However, the state raided the women’s organisations in the run-up to the day and key women were arrested. But Rabotnitsa came out, largely due to the efforts of Elizarova who had evaded arrest. She managed to produce seven issues of the paper (print run 20,000, each 16 pages long). It was sold in factories for four or five kopeks a copy. Armand wasn’t happy with Rabotnitsa. It wasn’t as theoretical as she wanted. It included letters and poetry. It had printed a Menshevik account of Women’s Day. These disagreements were a reflection of political tensions between the émigré leadership and comrades in Russia.

When Krupskaya proved unable to bring the editorial board under the control of the foreign editors she stopped contributing. However, Rabotnitsa won many women workers over to the Bolsheviks; it broke down stereotypes about the “backwardness” of women workers; and, despite a lack of enthusiasm among male Bolsheviks, it broke down the idea that “women’s work” was separatism or a feminist threat.


In most books Inessa Armand is treated in a derogatory way; she is called “Lenin’s book carrier and Girl Friday”. Yet she carried out important party work, and was one of the people who represented the party internationally.
Armand was nominated by the party central committee in late May/June 1914 to be the Bolshevik delegate to the International Women’s Secretariat.

She was the Bolshevik representative in European conferences. She was relied on to talk to wavering Bolsheviks. She translated and delivered party pronouncements.

On many occasions these assignments brought her into conflict with many of the leaders of European socialism. She was an organiser. She was entrusted with the reorganisation of the Paris emigré Bolshevik section. She intervened with the Ukrainian Social Democrats.

When the executive of the International Socialist Bureau (ISB) called a conference in Brussels on 16 July 1914 to bring together the two wings of Russian Social Democracy she was a key Bolshevik delegate.
Talk of unity— and considerable pressure to bring it about— was overtaken by events.
The First World War broke out at the beginning of August. Inessa Armand fled to Bern in Switzerland.
The Second International collapsed, as most socialists supported the defence of their “own” countries and got behind governments’ war efforts. Later, anti-war socialist conferences were held.
On 26 March 1915 a women’s conference was held in Bern. The Bolsheviks wanted the conference to put out a revolutionary call— “turn the imperialist war into a civil war”— and to condemn the leaders of the Second International.

Clara Zetkin wanted to involve centrists and pacifists and called the conference in the name of the International Women’s Secretariat so that it would be an official meeting. Armand tried to organise the election of Bolshevik sympathisers to the international delegations.
On the day, 27 delegates from eight countries met and just five were Bolsheviks.
Zetkin put a conciliatory motion; the Bolsheviks put a separate one saying the only way to guarantee peace is through revolution. Armand spoke for the Bolsheviks. Zetkin wanted her to withdraw the motion to present unity. Armand refused.

However, the Bolsheviks agreed to vote for Zetkin’s motion if the Bolsheviks’ motion was printed and recorded. Despite these efforts Clara Zetkin was dismissed from her post at Die Gleichheit. The German SPD leadership were supporting the war. Zetkin was arrested.
Despite its conciliatory tone, this was the first international conference of socialists to oppose the war. It was an important step towards building working class opposition to the war.
On 5 September 1915 the (anti-war) Zimmerwald Conference was held and the Bolsheviks’ tough antiwar stance was pushed forward further.

Meanwhile, Armand was doing what she did best: organising and agitating.
She was in France working in the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO) for the anti-war position.


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