Revolutionary sex and free love
Review by Phil Shannon
Love of Worker Bees and A Great Love
By Alexandra Kollontai
Translated and introduced by Cathy Porter
378 pp., $17.95 (pb)
In their crusade against socialism, conservatives love to whip up a scare about how communism will destroy marriage and the family. "Free love" and sexual depravity will plunge society into moral and sexual chaos, they bluster. An occasional target for the bourgeois moralists has been Alexandra Kollontai, the first woman in the revolutionary government of Soviet Russia (she was commissar for public welfare in 1917-18), a popular and controversial advocate for a radical sexual politics and a writer who explored the politics of love and sex in her stories.
Kollontai's fiction, with a new translation, has been re-issued by Virago. A Great Love is a trilogy, the title story about a love affair between the communist Natasha and Semyon. It is an "authority" in the revolutionary movement, which is said to be based on the extra-marital love affair between Lenin and the French-born Bolshevik (and Kollontai's friend) Inessa Armand.
In the other trilogy, Love of Worker Bees, the longest of the stories, "Vasilisa Malygina", concerns a Bolshevik militant who agonises over her relationship with her husband Volodya, a Bolshevik sliding into bourgeois politics and personal habits as a "red merchant" under the New Economic Policy of limited capitalism. "Sisters" explores the economic causes of prostitution. "Three Generations" looks at the conflicts between grandmother, mother and daughter, all left-wing progressives, over the sexual revolution that followed the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the challenge that the sexual promiscuity of the daughter, Zhenya, poses to the more conventional views of the older women on domestic life and sex.
On the left, "Three Generations" is the story that has caused the most fuss, becoming the focus for an apparent rift between Kollontai and Lenin over the "glass of water" (or vodka, depending on the translation) theory of sex under socialism. In the story, Zhenya, the eighteen-year-old Komsomol (Young Communist) cadre and model of the thoroughly emancipated "New Woman", does not think love is in anyway connected with sex. She loves Lenin, she loves her mother, she loves the two men she lives with, she gets pregnant by one of them, doesn't know which one and doesn't care. Casual physical sex, she says, "is as meaningless as drinking a glass of vodka to quench one's thirst".
Unfettered promiscuity was not, in fact, Kollontai's ideal, although she was frequently blamed for the outbreak of casual sex that went on in revolutionary Russia because, in stories like "Three Generations", she gave a not unsympathetic hearing to those who wanted to be radical and free in all things, including sex. Kollontai advocated "free love", by which she meant sexual relations liberated from bourgeois possessiveness, freed from the private property market in people which trapped so many women in the prison of "loveless marriages". Kollontai saw the outbreak of casual sexual encounters as often exploitative (of women by men for their private sexual benefit) and irresponsible (women left to care for the children of these liaisons in a Russia unable to spare the social resources for collective raising of children).
Lenin was reputedly aghast at Kollontai and her "famous theory" that "in communist society the satisfaction of sexual desires will be as simple and unimportant as drinking a glass of water". This "new sexual life", he was reported as saying, "is an extension of bourgeois brothels", has nothing in common with free love, is "driving our young people mad, quite mad" and is "un-Marxist". "What normal man would want to lie down in the gutter and drink out of a puddle, or out of a glass with a rim greasy from many lips?", he is said to have asked rhetorically.
These views, however, have been passed on at second or third hand and their authenticity is uncertain. Kollontai and Lenin actually had quite similar views on free love and casual sex. Neither saw them as one and the same thing — freedom in sex and love demanded equality, which meant responsibility to the other sexual partner and a shared obligation to any children of a relationship.
Socialism, they agreed, would liberate women by providing economic equality and a collective approach to child-raising. Free love, based on mutual attraction in freely chosen relationships, would then be feasible. Not that socialism, according to Kollontai, would solve all the downsides of love and sex — jealousy, unrequited love, rejection, the break-up of lovers who grow and develop away from each other.
Kollontai's stories explore the passionate heights of love which can snare even the New Woman and "hold her soul prisoner, when her mind, her heart, and thereby all other interests are eclipsed and thrust into the background". But love can wilt, too and, whilst painful, the free and independent woman of Kollontai's stories must learn when to end a relationship for the sake of her public life in ideas, politics, science, work.
Kollontai's story-writing ended in the early 1920s after a series of political hammerings she suffered as bureaucratisation, born of economic hardship and international isolation, infested the Bolshevik party. Accused alike of ultra-leftism (for supporting the Workers' Opposition which opposed the lack of democracy in the party and the soviets) and "petit-bourgeois debauchery" (for the widespread support, especially amongst youth, for sexual promiscuity), Kollontai spent her last thirty years in diplomatic seclusion until her death in 1954.
During her most politically radical and culturally creative years, however, Kollontai explored the possible contours of a socialist landscape for sexual relations between men and women, and the psychology of women in their struggle for personal and social liberation.
Kollontai's stories are remarkably chaste, heightening the earnestness about ideas but appearing somewhat archaic for a feminist free love advocate. Despite passages of narrative fluency, Kollontai's style is also often stilted. Literary colour rarely enlivens her canvas. Patience will prove a virtue in the reader. None of this is helped by the publisher's apparent decision to dispense with proof-readers, as entire words go missing with great frequency.
Kollontai cannot be blamed for derelict publishers, nor was she a full-time writer. She was a leading Bolshevik activist whose brave efforts to make sense, as a socialist and a feminist, of sex and love in story form deserve approval as much as critical appraisal.