Sunday, April 20, 2008

Alexandra Kollontai: overcoming love

What does modernity mean for women? Last century a radical thinker named Alexandra Kollontai attempted to answer this question.

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.

Autonomy

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.


Love

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.


Comparison

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.

12 comments:

  1. 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.

    Would you seriously contend that there are some foundational 'basic ideas' common to different modernist strands of thought, or that any of these 'basic idea' have much to do with feminism?

    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.
    I can't think of too many modernist thinkers who would have affirmed the above. Many of the most influential thinkers of modernism - Freud, Nietzsche, Marx, Darwin, for instance, produced work that seriously undermines the above assumption. If anything, the above quote seems more pertinent to late Renaissance humanism than 'modernism'.

    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.
    I am surprised that you should seek to blame these social trends, to the extent that they actually exist, on feminism and 'freedom'. A recent Quarterly Essay argued convincingly that the majority of parents, including women, would prefer to raise their children at home, rather than use childcare, but are compelled to do the latter by financial necessity. It was Australia's conservative party that issued exhortations for mothers to return to the workforce.
    Radical feminism is a marginal influence in our times, whilst neo-liberal economic policy is not. It is this latter, I would argue, that is responsible for the decline of the 'traditional family'. If all aspects of life are objectified and commodified under a radically capitalist (and profoundly cynical) economic system, then it is hardly surprising that the most intimate of behaviours should become 'casual', consumer items, much like everything else.

    Finally, your last paragraph seems to suggest that those who disagree with the above trends ought to be opposing 'freedom'. Surely any freedom worthy of the name must allow for individuals to make decisions we do not like.

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  2. I was struck by this passage:

    "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."

    It seems obvious that neither sex is dominant in terms of broader biological and social function. But to claim grievance against the opposite sex, legitimately or not, to say that men are somehow the more "gender neutral humans" because of their status is to give up one's essential power as a female and as a human being.

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  3. "free to pursue our beloved, chosen ideal....work"
    How sad is that!

    the happy revolutionary,
    Interesting arguments.

    "radical feminism is a marginal influence"
    Don't know about that, but the selfishness that it stems from is certainly not a marginal influence.

    "responsible for the decline of the traditional family"

    I could argue that excess regulations on new building, and high immigration, keep housing prices high, thus forcing both people to work. There are probably many conservatives who do exhort mothers to work as soon as possible, but I'm not sure you'll find many of them under the traditionalist conservative banner.

    But I think the economic problems making traditional life more difficult, are a separate problem to this post, which is about the rejection of these ideals altogether.

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  4. Happy revolutionary,

    There is a very narrow orthodoxy dominant in the Western world today. Hardly anyone deviates from it. Is feminism an expression of this orthodoxy? Absolutely. Just read Millett or Friedan; it's autonomy theory applied to the lives of women.

    It's true that modernism does have a scientistic, deterministic strand which I don't often analyse. This strand is difficult to reconcile with autonomy theory; most moderns persist in believing in both whilst keeping autonomy theory as the basis of their moral world view.

    I don't believe that either the mainstream right or the mainstream left truly supports family life. The functions of the family are gradually being socialised, without much political opposition.

    You write as a left-liberal who blames capitalism and commodification for the ills of society. Left liberals, though, nearly always take participation in the market to be the centre-point of life, through which an individual gains identity, meaning, power and status. That's why it's the Scandinavian social democrats who have gone furthest in using the power of the state to force women into the labour force - because they assume that this is how a worthwhile human life is made.

    It's a pity that the left sacralises participation in the market to this degree. We need a more balanced view of the market, one which allows important aspects of identity and meaning to be found elsewhere.

    As for freedom, our forebears valued this quality in combination with other goods. If you had suggested to a nineteenth century Australian man that he would be more free if he gave up the "fetter" of manhood he would have been unimpressed.

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  5. You write as a left-liberal who blames capitalism and commodification for the ills of society. Left liberals, though, nearly always take participation in the market to be the centre-point of life, through which an individual gains identity, meaning, power and status.

    Thankyou for your considered response. I don't consider myself to be 'left-liberal', and I would draw a very clear distinction between liberalism and radicalism. To a Marxist, your comment about 'self-determination' looks like so much self-indulgent bourgeois individualism.

    Nonetheless, I will respond at greater length tomorrow. In any case, don't fear that there is any such thing as an 'orthodoxy', much less that it is 'narrow'. It isn't. Most young women most definitely do not define themselves as feminists. And, considering that which is 'mainstream' now, I'd be willing to believe that you'd consider most young women better off as feminists.

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  6. Mark, you wrote:

    "Left liberals, though, nearly always take participation in the market to be the centre-point of life, through which an individual gains identity, meaning, power and status. That's why it's the Scandinavian social democrats who have gone furthest in using the power of the state to force women into the labour force - because they assume that this is how a worthwhile human life is made.

    It's a pity that the left sacralises participation in the market to this degree. We need a more balanced view of the market, one which allows important aspects of identity and meaning to be found elsewhere."

    That's a great point, and one that I think many leftists struggle with. It makes me think about the difference between the hippie, who definitely did not see work in the market as a potential source of meaning, and today's average leftist, who has no real impulse to "drop out". I suppose as long as leftists are paid to do little more than promote their own ideology, they feel good about their work and can look down on those who do routine, non-intellectual work. In that sense maybe the world of work has changed in such a way as to accommodate the person who would have been a hippie 40 years ago.

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  7. Seems to me Kollontai was in hell before she died.

    Who, in God's name, would love work above all else?

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  8. Good to read you again, lyl. Your blog had somehow gone off my history list, but now you've written here, its back on.

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  9. Thanks, wpc! Well, I know how it is - so many blogs, so little time.

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  10. Happy Revolutionary, "Most young women most definitely do not define themselves as feminists."

    Whether they recognize it or not, their lifestyle and ideals are rooted in feminism. The idea that education should be pursued before family life, that historically men have oppressed women and that they are somehow independent and transcend the human need for close personal bonds all began with Freidan, Millet, etc.

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  11. Thank you very much for this article. I'm a German editor of wikimannia.org, a wiki for MRAs. When we'll write up an article about the Kollontai, I'll make sure to mention your text.

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