Rare look at a red feminist

Issue 

Inessa Armand: Revolutionary and feminist
By R.C. Elwood
Cambridge University Press, 1992. 304 pp. $99 hardback.
Reviewed by Claudine Holt

When Inessa Armand's name is mentioned, it is usually in connection with that of Vladimir Lenin — leader of the Bolshevik Party and of the Russian Revolution. She is known for an alleged affair with him rather than for her own activities and leadership of the Russian socialist movement.

R.C. Elwood's well-written biography challenges this popular but narrow view. He conveys a life distinguished by an intense commitment to women's emancipation and socialism, and the rumoured affair with Lenin is refuted.

There is a severe scarcity of material available on the lives of women and their contribution to the revolutionary movement, so this book is most welcome. Elwood informs the reader of aspects of Armand's public and private life that are not generally known.

Armand was born in France but brought up in Russia by an aunt who was employed as a nanny by a liberal bourgeois family of textile manufacturers. She was raised as one of the children of this wealthy family and thereby gained access to quality education.

She married the eldest son of her aunt's employer, Alexander Armand, and had four children. She later fell in love with his brother, with whom she lived and to whom she had her fifth child, outside of wedlock. Throughout her adult life Alexander supported Inessa financially, enabling her to carry on with political activity.

As a young married woman, she became involved with philanthropic work among prostitutes and lone mothers, as did many of Russia's early feminists. But her frustration at the slow pace of change led her to develop a political understanding, and she became involved with the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party and eventually joined the Bolsheviks.

She lectured in the Bolshevik Party school and represented the party at many international socialist conferences. She initiated the women's paper Rabotnitsa. She was among Lenin's close associates and very good friends with Krupskaya, fellow Bolshevik and Lenin's wife. After the revolution, she headed the women's department, the Zhenotdel, where she worked tirelessly until one month before her death in 1921.

The most annoying feature of this book is the recurring unsympathetic judgments on Lenin, the Bolshevik Party and the Russian Revolution. All are described in disparaging language which can't help but mar the glowing presentation of Armand and raise questions about her commitment to the socialist project.

For example, Lenin is constantly labelled with pejorative terms such as "opportunistic", "self-centred", "manipulative", "arrogant", "rude' and "patronising". Elwood says he wants to demythologise Lenin, but if Lenin was such a rogue one wonders why Armand was such good friends with him (she even went on holidays with him and Krupskaya), unless she was an idiot or sycophant.

The affair between Lenin and Armand, Elwood admits, is hard to prove or disprove, but he questions the evidence used to "prove" the liaison. Secret police records describe Armand as Lenin's mistress at a time when personal correspondence between the two suggests a cessation of personal relations.

Alexandra Kollantai's well-known short story, A Great Love, is said to be based on her comrades' love affair. But Elwood cites an unpublished note in which Kollantai says the novel was autobiographical. He has also studied all the published personal correspondence between Armand and Lenin and a number of the unpublished letters. From this he has concluded that none of them suggest anything other than a political and platonic relationship.

Elwood's interpretation of the Marxist understanding of women's oppression doesn't take into account the historical period in which early Marxists lived or the feudal society from which Russia was emerging. Whilst it is true that many early socialists and Bolsheviks held views which were sexist and backward by current standards, and that some individuals may have held women in contempt, the understanding among the Bolsheviks of women's place in society and the role women played in the family was ahead of its time. The gains women made with the Russian Revolution in 1917, in both their private and public lives, have to be acknowledged when making an assessment of women and socialism.

Despite the cynical anti-Bolshevik tone of this book, it is well worth reading. It provides detail on the life of a remarkable woman who, up to this point, has gained fame only by association with Lenin.

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