In early June, the New York City Health Department issued a cheerfully sex-positive set of Covid-19 guidelines. Despite mask mandates, lockdown orders and the recommendation to stay six feet away from most people, the city government said it was okay to have sex, and recommended getting “a little kinky.” One gay publication read it, not implausibly, as an exhortation to use glory holes, while to me it seemed to encourage masked orgies in the park.
It was heartening to see an American government body respond with practicality and vision to the erotic needs of its constituents. Such moments are too rare, and that’s why we need the legacy of Alexandra Kollontai, a political thinker who imagined a communist state that would do this for us every day. Kollontai wasn’t perfect — her particular ideas about pleasure were, as we shall see, very heterosexual and inseparable from the Soviet agenda of birthing more communists (on the latter point, while considering abortion a “fundamental democratic right,” she never emphasized it). But as political theorist Jodi Dean said in a recent lecture, “Alexandra Kollontai teaches us to notice that the most intimate aspects of our lives are collective.”
Born in 1872 to an aristocratic family, Kollontai was radicalized in her youth and spent the years before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution organizing working women in factories serving the textile and tobacco industries. In her spare time she studied Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, August Bebel, Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, as well as many thinkers who are not as well known today, such as the Menshevik Georgi Plekhanov, Swedish feminist Ellen Key, poet and literary critic Nikolay Dubrolyubov, and German feminists Lily Braun and Clara Zetkin. Kollontai was best known for her politics, but like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose favorite lipstick sold out after she was elected to Congress in 2018, Kollontai was also appreciated for her style: She snuck into Europe on party business by persuading border guards that she needed to shop for the latest fashions. (Kollontai was known for her standout hats, but otherwise, her wonderfully thorough biographer, Cathy Porter, has characterized her aesthetic as one of “expensive simplicity”: form-fitting dresses, gray or brown hues, and a notable absence of whalebone corsets.) A renowned writer, she was also an orator, and wildly popular with working-class and peasant audiences.
As a minister in the Bolshevik government, she exhorted her male colleagues to support pregnant women and mothers at a time when orphanages and even streets were overrun with abandoned children. She advocated for free child care, paid maternity leave, an end to night shifts for mothers, equal pay for women, and the creation of special government agencies to oversee such policy changes. Although she would become the only member of the original Bolshevik cabinet to remain in government — and survive to old age — Stalin eventually tired of her dissenting opinions. In 1923 he sent her to Norway as the world’s first female ambassador, and she would later serve as the USSR’s ambassador to Mexico and to Sweden. She died of natural causes at the age of 80 with most of her revolutionary vision unfulfilled.
In spite of the wonderfully cheeky title of her 1926 Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman, Kollontai never felt as if she’d achieved the ideal of communist love she’d written about her whole life. (Don’t be fooled by the title: The memoir is disappointingly lacking in salacious content or even good communist gossip.) As she recalled in the Autobiography,
The question rises whether in the middle of all these manifold, exciting labors and Party-assignments I could still find time for intimate experiences, for the pangs and joys of love. Unfortunately, yes!
I say unfortunately because ordinarily these experiences entailed all too many cares, disappointments, and pain, and because all too many energies were pointlessly consumed through them.
After the October Revolution, Kollontai briefly went MIA from her job as a minister in the new government. Her Bolshevik comrades discovered that she’d run off with her lover, fellow revolutionary Pavel Dybenko. The situation was highly relatable: Lust, longing, and emotional “drama” as Kollontai put it, can easily distract from important work. But Kollontai tended to put Soviet communism before her love life, perhaps out of self-preservation. Stalin imprisoned Dybenko and eventually had him killed.
Kollontai is now the focus of a small public revival, alongside the political revival of socialist feminism itself. Her work features prominently in Jodi Dean’s 2019 book, Comrade: An Essay on Political Belonging, and her ideas inform Kristen Ghodshee’s hit 2018 book Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence. Kollontai was the subject of “Red Love,” a 2018 exhibition by artist Dora Garcia mounted at a gallery in suburban Stockholm, which itself spawned a lively anthology of writings by the same name.
In every job she held, Kollontai’s political enemies — communists in opposing factions, sexually conservative comrades, the Western capitalist press — deplored, misunderstood and mocked her ideas about sexual liberation and love. But those ideas are becoming more relevant than ever. “In striving to change fundamentally the conditions of life,” she wrote of communist women, “they know that they are also helping to reform relationships between the sexes.”
Kollontai was hardly the only Victorian thinker advocating sexual freedom for women and the end of conventional marriage. But she was one of the few to understand that such freedom must have a material basis.
For some feminists, she wrote in 1909, “The heroic struggle of individual young women of the bourgeois world, who fling down the gauntlet and demand of society the right to ‘dare to love’ without orders and without chains, ought to serve as an example for all women languishing in family chains…. The marriage question, in other words… is solved independently of changes in the economic structure of society. The isolated, heroic efforts of individuals is enough. Let a woman simply ‘dare’, and the problem of marriage is solved.” But, she said, free love should not be available only to the “heroic.” If introduced into society as it existed in 1909, she worried that rather than free women from the hardship of family life it would instead “shoulder her with a new burden — the task of caring, alone and unaided, for her children.”
Communism, she argued, could make “free love” possible for women by socializing housework and child care, as well as creating comfortable conditions for pregnant and nursing women. She envisioned — and even managed to implement during her time in government — maternity homes in which women were cared for during pregnancy and while nursing their babies. She also worked to ensure that all new mothers would be given time off. If women knew that the state would support them as mothers and provide for their children, Kollontai reasoned, they would be much freer to pursue and enjoy sex for its own sake (as well as to work and fully participate in building communism).
Kollontai wasn’t the only early socialist to imagine how sex could be improved by getting rid of capitalist individualism. In the early 19th century, utopian socialist Charles Fourier had delightfully absurd visions of democratized sexual arrangements, including a travelling “army of lovers” that would visit anyone in need. Even earlier, Welsh philanthropist and social reformer Robert Owen imagined communes organized around a form of group marriage. But of these thinkers, Kollontai was the most practical in considering how capitalism ruins sex for women — and how communism might make things better.
How did her ideas work out? Though she did realize some of her goals for maternity leave and maternity homes, Kollontai was derided for her theories of “free love” even by her fellow Bolsheviks. Kollontai noted with annoyance that the Bolshevik regime was no more sexually progressive than many liberal Western democracies in facilitating divorce, abolishing the concept of child “illegitimacy” and legalizing homosexuality (homophobic attitudes remained intact). And while the Bolsheviks legalized abortion in 1920, Stalin subsequently banned it in 1936 in order to keep birth rates up. Like many capitalist leaders, he faced future labor shortages and found Kollontai’s preferred approach — making motherhood easier and more joyful — expensive. Though Kollontai contributed to some important reforms, Soviet Russia in her lifetime was in some ways a libidinal failure.
Among her many problems with bourgeois sex, Kollontai indicts it for isolating “the loving pair from the collective.” She was concerned that couples would retreat into their own private life, away from the pursuit of a common good. Love under capitalism can be a private joy — or a private hell. Though Kollontai believed that communism would transform this experience, she could not say exactly how. “What will be the nature of this transformed Eros? Not even the boldest fantasy is capable of providing the answer to this question.”
She did suggest some principles. Communist sex, she thought, should be guided by gender equality and “an end to masculine egoism and the slavish suppression of the female personality.” Contrary to the teachings of “bourgeois culture,” human beings were not private property: “One does not own the heart and soul of the other.” Finally, she advocated for “comradely sensitivity, the ability to listen and understand the inner workings of the loved person (bourgeois culture demanded this only from the woman).” She did not mention consent, but it seems implied by her fury at rape and economic coercion. I think she would have regarded it as both an obvious precondition for sex, and a pathetically low bar.
In the context of a society built on “joyful unity and comradeship,” Kollontai argued that sex and love would be much better, and also matter less. She wrote,
The stronger the intellectual and emotional bonds of the new humanity, the less room for love in the present sense of the word…. However great the love between two members of the collective, the ties binding the two persons to the collective will always take precedence, will be firmer, more complex and organic. Bourgeois morality demanded all for the loved one. The morality of the proletariat demands all for the collective.
Kollontai observed that even though bourgeois love is by definition a private matter, it still advanced class interests. As any reader of nineteenth century novels knows, love and sex — and their regulation — ensure the orderly transfer of property and the consolidation of wealth. In earlier eras, the ideal of courtly love inspired knightly heroics. Kollontai argued that proletarians, too, should use love to further their own class interest. Rather than take comrades out of the public sphere, she believed that love should enable them to tap into a collective eros and more fully engage in working class struggle. If you’ve been part of a movement — or a protest or strike — you know this eros well.
The 1939 film Ninotchka, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, explores the tensions between love, collectivity, and comradeship with a screwball touch. It stars Greta Garbo in the title role as a Soviet operative in Paris, a character sometimes said to be based on Alexandra Kollontai — or more likely, as Aaron Schuster suggests in his essay for the Red Love collection, a parody of Kollontai’s communist sexual ideal. On the surface the film can be read as anti-communist propaganda: Ninotchka betrays her communist principles by falling in love with Leon, a European aristocrat, and discovers the sensuous joys of fine lingerie. She wins him over easily with her hilariously clinical approach to sex. “Chemically,” she tells her suitor, “we are already quite sympathetic.” As might be expected in a Hollywood movie, she is transformed by the relationship. In love with Leon, Ninotchka becomes prettier, happier, more feminine. She buys a ridiculously gaudy hat — perhaps a playful wink at Kollontai’s affinity for hats — which becomes a symbol of her seduction by capitalism. Before meeting Leon, Ninotchka had mocked that same item as a sign that Western capitalism was at death’s door.
But, as Schuster observes, there are ways to read this story other than as capitalist triumphalism. When Ninotchka gets drunk with her aristocratic lover — on champagne, which it turns out she loves — she makes speeches about the greatness of communist Russia and slinks off to the bathroom to organize the female attendants. As Schuster notes, the scene playfully upends the cliché about sexual desire being revealed through drink. Instead, he writes,
On the contrary, totally soused and out of control, it is comradeship-love that comes bubbling to the surface. This is Ninotchka’s deepest drive, her basest id, and her truest passion. The covert message of the film is, if you get drunk and let yourself go, if you overcome your inhibitions, if your id is allowed to run wild, you will be a communist.
The movie seems to place romance and communism in opposition. It’s clear that Lubitsch, like Kollontai, understands that exclusive, privatized bourgeois love is at odds with collective commitment. At one point Leon even starts babbling about exploitation, suggesting he could perhaps become a comrade. Ninotchka returns to Russia for a while, but longs for Leon. While at the end of the movie she seems to choose Leon over her commitment to Soviet Russia — a choice Kollontai would never have made — it’s worth noting that to lure Ninotchka back, Leon must conspire with her comrades to concoct a fake mission on her country’s behalf.
The movie leaves us wondering how Ninotchka can thrive without communism. Though she pined for Leon, might she not, in the long run, suffer the loss of collective eros even more? You might say we still don’t know. Or perhaps, hundreds of years into the capitalist experiment, we know all too well.
Liza Featherstone is a columnist for Jacobin and contributing writer to The Nation. She is also the editor of a forthcoming collection of Kollontai’s writings, which will be published by OR Books and International Publishers in 2021. This essay is adapted from her introduction to that volume.