USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

Introduction: Alexandra Kollontai

Like Lenin, Alexandra Kollontai returned to Russia from abroad after the abdication of the tsar and the formation of the Provisional Government. During and before the war, Kollontai had lived in Germany, Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Also like Lenin, she had been an outspoken critic of the war. In Germany, Kollontai had met Rosa Luxemburg and shared Luxemburg’s critique of the culpability of the socialist parties in what she viewed as the catastrophe of the First World War. It was in this climate that Kollontai decided for the more radical version of Russian socialism and joined the Bolshevik Party in 1915.

Three important historical issues (among many others) are on display in the two essays we are reading by Kollontai. 1) Kollontai, like many Bolsheviks, viewed the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution not simply as a political revolution but rather as a total social transformation. 2) Despite the extremely difficult circumstances facing the new Bolshevik government as it emerged from the Russian Civil War, Bolshevik leaders had an almost faith-based optimism about the dawning of a better functioning, more just, more equitable society. 3) The social and political status of women was undergoing rapid change due to the growth of the industrial (and consumer) economy, the war, and movements for women’s emancipation. The 1920s would witness the emergence of women as a mass political, economic and cultural force in the Western world. In Kollontai’s view, Bolshevik Russia was positioned to blaze this trail by going several steps beyond the type of liberal reforms undertaken in the West.

The issues of sex and family planning were two pieces of a much bigger intellectual debate happening in the first decades of the twentieth century that we now call progressivism. Progressivism was a movement for social reform that grew out of the enormous dislocations caused by industrialization and its sibling, urbanization. The industrializing and urbanizing processes brought issues of health, sanitation, poverty, labor conditions (including child labor), food safety, drunkenness, education and literacy, crime, contraception and many others into the political debate. Two things are prevalent in the progressive movement. The first is that most progressives, whether men or women, came from the middle and upper classes. We see this in the West with figures like the leader of the British suffrage movement Emmeline Pankhurst. Progressivism was a reform-oriented movement or set of movements, not a revolutionary force. As we are reading the following pieces, we can think about how Kollontai’s ideas might fit into this context. Second, progressivism harnessed the new “scientific” perspective that came with the rise in the social sciences like sociology and economics. These social sciences, in turn, draw from natural sciences and philosophies that glorified more materialist methodologies, like positivism. Consider how Kollontai makes her arguments for different types of marriage and family arrangements.

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