She was born a member of the Russian nobility, but later became a communist activist. After the October Revolution in 1917, she became a commissar in the Bolshevik government. She was a diplomat in the 1920s and managed to survive the purges in Stalinist Russia in the 1930s.
Kollontai's great cause was women's liberation. She wanted women to remain, above all, independent of men. There's nothing surprising about this attitude: it fits "correctly" with the basic ideas underlying modernism.
According to modernism, our humanity is never secure. We can lose our human status if we are not self-determining - if we don't shape our own selves and our own lives according to our individual will.
This sounds nice, but the devil is in the detail. Kollontai's setting out of the logic of this theory is a warning to us of what it really involves.
In her autobiography Kollontai claims that she knew even as a girl what the struggle for women's liberation required:
That I ought not to shape my life according to the given model ... I could help my sisters shape their lives, in accordance not with the given traditions but with their own free choice ... I wanted to be free. I wanted to express desires on my own, to shape my own little life.
Similarly, Kollontai wrote approvingly of the "new woman" that "she is independent inwardly and self-reliant outwardly".
So the aim for moderns like Kollontai was to throw off whatever seemed to impede or restrict individual autonomy for women.
The first thing to go was the sex distinction. Kollontai saw the traditional male role as the autonomous human one, so she wanted to be defined not as a woman but, in more gender neutral terms, as a human.
In giving up the sex distinction, Kollontai readily abandoned the traditional feminine virtues. She wrote of women that:
it is not her specifically feminine virtue that gives her a place of honor in human society, but the worth of the useful mission accomplished by her, the worth of her personality as a human being.
In a similar vein, Kollontai described modern woman as having "broken the rusted fetter of her sex" in order to become "a personality," a "human being" (note how being female and being human are set in opposition here). She even gave public lectures in which she:
longs for the female body itself to become less soft and curvy and more muscular ... She argues that prehistoric women were physiologically less distinct from men ... Accordingly, sexual dimorphism may (and should) again become less visible in a communist society.
The abandonment of femininity is striking enough. Kollontai took the logic of modernism even further, though, by rejecting love.
For Kollontai, love between men and women was an expression of an older, oppressive order which women in modern social conditions would gradually be overcome. Love was oppressive because the instinct to be 'blended' with a man inevitably caged a woman's autonomy. It was a waste of a woman's energies which ought to be directed to the achievement of her life goal, namely her career.
Kollontai praised the "new women" whose "feelings and mental energies are directed upon all other things in life but sentimental love feelings." She herself, though, was still influenced by oppressive tradition and so had to struggle in life to overcome love:
this motive was a leading force in my life ... to shape my personal, intimate life as a woman according to my own will ... Above all, I never let my feelings, the joy or pain of love take the first place in my life ...
I still belong to the generation of women who grew up at a turning point in history. Love ... still played a very great role in my life. An all-too-great role! It was an expenditure of precious time and energy ... utterly worthless ... We, the women of the past generation, did not yet understand how to be free. The whole thing was an absolutely incredible squandering of our mental energy, a diminution of our labour power.
It is certainly true that we ... were able to understand that love was not the main goal of our life and that we knew how to place work at its center ... It was, in fact, an eternal defensive war against the intervention of the male into our ego ... Our mistake was that each time we succumbed to the belief that we had finally found the one and only in the man we loved, the person with whom we believed we could blend our soul, one who was ready fully to recognise us as a spiritual-physical force ... [Note how Kollontai can't help but use non-materialist terminology to describe the love experience: "blend our soul", "spiritual-physical force".]
But over and over again things turned out differently since the man tried to impose his ego upon us ... the inevitable inner rebellion ensued, over and over again since love became a fetter ... after the eternally recurring struggle with the beloved man, we finally tore ourselves away and rushed toward freedom. Thereupon we were again alone, unhappy, lonesome, but free - free to pursue our beloved, chosen ideal ... work.
When commenting on a novel by the French author Colette, Kollontai writes of the heroine that:
Freedom, independence, solitude are the substance of her personal desires. But when Rene, after a tiring long day's work, sits at the fireplace in her lovely flat, it is as though the hollow-eyed melancholy of loneliness creeps into her room and sets himself behind her chair.
"I am used to being alone," she writes in her diary, "but today I feel so forsaken. Am I then not independent, not free? And terribly lonely?" Does not this question have the ring of the woman of the past who is used to hearing familiar, beloved voices, to being the object of indispensable words and acts of tenderness?
For Kollontai it is the "woman of the past" who hears at home beloved voices and experiences acts of tenderness. Love is not an enduring quality or an important value for her, even if she sought it in her own life. She describes it as a fetter to individual autonomy, just like womanhood.
The experience of great love is an old quality for Kollontai, something not fit for modern conditions, a part of a woman's own self to be dramatically overcome:
The old and the new struggle in the souls of women ... Contemporary heroines, therefore, must wage a struggle ... with the inclinations of their grandmothers dwelling in the recesses of their beings ... The transformation of the feminine psyche, which is adjusted to the new conditions of its economic and social existence, will not be achieved without a strong, dramatic overcoming.
Marriage and motherhood
Kollontai wanted autonomy above all else, which makes it difficult to accept marriage. She states in her autobiography that although she loved her husband she thought of marriage as a "cage" (like "fetter" a word denoting restriction). And so she left her husband to become a political activist:
But as great as was my love for my husband, immediately it transgressed a certain limit in relation to my feminine proneness to make sacrifice, rebellion flared in me anew. I had to go away, I had to break with the man of my choice, otherwise (this was a subconscious feeling in me) I would have exposed myself to the danger of losing my selfhood.
In other words, if her love for her husband became too great, she began to give of herself in the marriage, which then left her panicking that she might lose autonomous selfhood.
And what of motherhood? Kollontai wanted motherhood to be free, in the sense that women could freely choose the father of their child (i.e. it could be any man, not necessarily one they were in a relationship with). Motherhood wasn't to be restricted by requiring a relationship to a man; fatherhood was to be optional, only practised in particular circumstances. Motherhood was also to be socialised, with childcare being provided by the state.
Kollontai thought well of the newer fictional heroines who had "freedom of feeling, freedom in the choice of the beloved, of the possible father of "her" child ... Contemporary heroines become mothers without being married." We are told in one source that Kollontai:
approvingly describes the possibility of maternity now becoming "an aim in itself," distinct from the mother's relations to the child's father. (In this essay and elsewhere, Kollontai only addresses fatherhood in passing as an option interested men could engage in for educational purposes.)
Finally, Kollontai's novel Red Love ends happily, with the heroine Vasya light-heartedly telling her friend that she has left her husband and that she doesn't need a man to raise her child:
“But I haven’t even told you the biggest news of all, Grusha. I saw the doctor. I’m expecting a baby.”
“A baby?” Grusha clapped her hands. “Really? Then how could you let your husband go? Will you let the baby be fatherless, or are you going to be fashionable, and have an abortion?”
“Why an abortion? Let the child grow. I don’t need a man. That’s all they can do – be fathers! Look at the Fedosseyev woman with her three children – they didn’t keep her husband from going to Dora.”
“That’s all very well; but how will you bring it up all by yourself?”
“All by myself? The organization will bring it up. We’ll fix up a nursery. And I’ll bring you over to work there. You like children, too. Then it’ll be our baby. We’ll have it in common.”
Again they laughed.
Alexandra Kollontai was brought to such positions by a modernism which is also orthodox in our own liberal societies. So it's no surprise that the West has moved toward the positions Kollontai took several generations ago.
This is especially true of the socialisation of child care; the attempt to make sex distinctions not matter; the "optionalisation" of fatherhood; the priority given to careers as a life aim; and the deferral of marriage in favour of a single, independent lifestyle.
There has not been such an explicit rejection of heterosexual love as that made by Kollontai, although at various times the emphasis has been, as Kollontai would have approved, on short-term casual relationships rather than on more serious commitments.
And if you don't like these trends? Then the response must be to question the principles which generate them. If freedom, understood to mean individual autonomy, is the sole overriding aim, then modern trends will continue. The alternative is not to damn autonomy, but to see it as one good amongst many, and not always superior.