An Introduction to Alexandra Kollontai on Sexual and Women’s Question
This is intended to be an introduction to Alexandra Kollontai’s works on the sexual and women’s question where these two interrelated aspects have, taken together and in their separateness, been analysed from a working-class perspective. Kollontai was a member of the workers’ opposition in the erstwhile Soviet Union. Most of her works in this compilation were written at a time when ideological struggles raged like a typhoon within the working-class movement in the aftermath of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Justice can, therefore, be done to them only if they are read in a critical and revolutionary fashion by refounding them in the current context and conjuncture, thereby reclaiming their originary impulse. Marx has spoken, in the Manifesto of the Communist Party as also elsewhere, of a community of women. To that extent, the sexual and women’s questions deserve a Marxian spirit of enquiry rather than adventurism.
Marxists have made the eleventh and last thesis of Marx’s ‘Theses on Feuerbach‘ – “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” – famous by transforming it into a shibboleth. The thesis has become, for many working-class activists on the ground, a justificatory dogma to carry on with their business-as-usual activism of ‘changing the world’ while shunning all serious and necessary endeavour of critical and self-reflexive inquiry. In that context, it would perhaps be pertinent to countenance Marx’s second thesis from the same work: “The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth[emphasis mine] i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality and non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.”
Mao Zedong expressed this idea of Marx in a simpler and more matter-of-fact manner when he proclaimed that “To investigate a problem is to solve it”. The works that have been constitutive of this article shall, therefore, serve their purpose only if they enable investigation and interpretation of the women and sexual questions as they currently exist in relation to class struggle, than if her formulations are dogmatically accepted. That would, among other things, simultaneously change the forms in which Kollontai grasped and posed those questions leading to a non-metaphysical, non-voluntaristic and materialist intervention on those questions.
In chapter six of Nalini Jameela’s Autobiography of a Sex Worker, the author has attempted to theorise certain aspects of sexuality in relation to and from her socio-occupational position. Her defence of prostitution, clearly an attempt to resist the condemnation of her occupation from within the framework of bourgeois morality, ultimately remains trapped within the totality of the capitalist system which is constitutive of that bourgeois morality too. To that extent, her theorisation can be said to be embodying a petty-bourgeois tendency. For, the occupational defence of prostitution by Jameela fails to take into account the fact that the existence of prostitution as a social and ideological phenomenon is inimical to her interests as a member of the working class.
The bourgeois ideal of sexual relations would, needless to say, have no place in the order of things that revolutionary working class politics envisages. If anything, such relations would have to be decimated and superseded by such politics. The working class should, therefore, be critical of such relations as their idealisation by it would rob its members of their class orientation and compel them as a class to deviate from their supreme mission. To begin at the beginning we would, however, need to grasp sexuality as a human essence, even as we seek to comprehend its manifestation through different historically given forms of sexual relations, in order to understand the two in their dialectical articulation and interplay. I attempt to do that by choosing to define sexuality by refracting it through the psychoanalytic conceptual prism of Eros, and subsequently show how this Eros is realised in bourgeois social formations through its formal manifestations among working class members of those formations. I would, in the same movement, also attempt to show how those formal manifestations, which are nothing but by-products of the Eros, play the role of capitalist ideological state apparatus (see the note below) both in a structural and functional sense.
The concept of ‘love’ is different from ‘Eros’. Eros can be said to be that part of the libidinal instinct that has undergone minimum repression due to cultural, psychological and social barriers of the mind. Freud’s work (my conclusions are primarily derived from my reading of Repression (1915), The Libido Theory (1923) andNegation (1925)) prove that love is less original, instinctually, than Eros; as in forms of love (other than Eros) a large part of the original instinct gets repressed and what remains is only a fraction of the original libidinal instinct. This repression is primarily due to cultural, psychological and social barriers. The psychological barrier is manifest by the cultural barrier, which in turn is manifest by the social. Society has as its base the economy and hence it will not be fallacious to state that repression is chiefly due to economic barriers. The economic sub-structure, therefore, decides the degree and direction of the libido’s repression. The Eros of the present society has also much of its original libidinal instinct repressed due to the persistence of its particular economy. The economic sub-structure of a society can then be said to have shaped the form Eros takes in it. The Eros of Shakespeare’s Romeo, for instance, is one that is famous because of its idealisation by capitalist modernity. (Though according to many, this was not the best portrayal of love by the playwright.) That Romeo is one of the most celebrated characters of popular literature is precisely due to the valorisation of this bourgeois Eros of which Shakespeare made him into an embodiment and symbol. Capitalist modernity idealises Romeo’s Eros because it expresses a property prejudice that is typical of the bourgeois social and ideological formation. An example from the First Scene of Act I of Romeo and Juliet itself is evidence of such prejudice.
Benevolio: What sadness lengthens Romeo’s hours?
Romeo: Not having that which having makes them short.
Benevolio: In love?
Benevolio: Of love?
Romeo: Out of her favor where I am in love.
Here Romeo’s grief is not that he is out of love but that his Eros is not satisfied, which could only be satisfied by ownership of the object of Eros.
This (private) ownership is a bourgeois prejudice and the striving for such ownership in sexual relations is not only idealised but also institutionally safeguarded by the structure of marriage in bourgeois society. Psychoanalysts are correct when they say there is a resistance offered by the object of Eros to the subject, but they are correct only insofar as things are within the bourgeois framework of thought. Eros existed in different forms under different socio-economic systems. Frederick Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State is one work from where such examples can be cited. During and after the November Revolution, Alexandra Kollontai did some seminal work on how Eros would be within a social formation constitutive of a socialist mode of production. Her work Make Way for Winged Eros was an attempt to theorise a form of Eros free from the property prejudice typical to capitalist modernity. She attempted to conceptualise a society where the resistance offered by the object of Eros is eliminated even as her analysis simultaneously transforms the object of Eros into subject. Her dialectical analysis of Eros can be said to be one of the earliest attempts to theorise a healthy sexual norm for society. Her concept of ‘winged Eros’ is necessarily an important contribution to the less-inquired-into aspects of the psychology of the working class.
Eros is a gift inherent in man’s nature. An understanding of this nature is the basic premise on which science develops in order to better the condition of the masses. There are several hurdles to be overcome by the working class in scientifically conceptualising a form of Eros that sublimates its repressive and, at times, coercive manifestations in the class struggle. The ruling classes here also come with their hypocritical solutions. On one hand, they preach chastity or brahmacharya with the help of religion, whose hegemony the working class accepts in its quest for some salve to alleviate the pain it suffers due to the oppression of the ruling class. On the other, they conjure up fantasies such as ‘free’ sexual relations and legalised prostitution and so on to create an unhealthy atmosphere among the working class. The working class has fallen victim to the ideological coercion of the capitalist system. At a time when unemployment, poverty and exploitation are to be fought by the working class, it is stuck in the confusion of bourgeois pigeonholes in the sexual moment. Capitalism offers pigeonholes to create sectarianism within the working class on this issue – chastity for the reactionary conservative, institutionalised marriage for the establishmentarian and a hypocritical ‘free’ love for the progressive elements among the embourgeoised working class. In any case, the working class is of help to the bourgeoisie. Individual members of the working class are bound to think within the framework of the bourgeois system right from the time when Eros starts surfacing in their minds.
Embourgeoisment of Eros:
The bourgeois ideologists, through the media, art and literature, have several times preached a form of Eros that is nothing but sexuality. Freud’s discoveries have been misrepresented and misused by the bourgeois propagandists to reduce something that could create compassion and camaraderie among the opposite sexes of the working class with which it could carry forward its struggle for liberation to a shameless use-and-throw relation based on sex that has given rise to antagonisms among the sexes. Male and female chauvinism are a result of economic inequality and in capitalist modernity, these antagonisms are successfully directed against each other to keep the bourgeoisie safe. Kollontai has critiqued such antagonisms, though in the concrete forms they appeared then, in her Social Basis of Women’s Question. The following statement of Rosa Luxemburg’s best captures Kollontai’s premise in this work: “For the property owning bourgeois woman, her home is her world; for the proletarian woman the whole world is her home.” Kollontai’s work in question expands the horizons of feminism to link it to class struggle.
At the same time, bourgeois ‘free’ love has reduced the woman to being a commodity of satisfying the distorted Eros of man and vice-versa. And then there is, of course, the property prejudice for the commodity and striving for private ownership of that commodity. This often results in aggression among the sexes, as this particular commodity is a living commodity and, more importantly, a human being. The bourgeoisie has taken full advantage of serious Freudian discoveries regarding the Eros. It has used the electronic media fully to divert the working class’s struggle for the liberation of mankind. Movies, songs, music, and so on are all being used as a means to confine the thoughts of the proletariat of this sexually suppressed society within the boundaries of the libido. The so-called romantic heroism of the movies is nothing but hooliganism of the sexually repressed masses coloured and replicated on screen. This ‘heroism’ is again reflected in the ideology of today’s working class. As Brecht said, “Art is not only a mirror that reflects reality but also a hammer with which to shape it.” Capitalist modernity is hammering into the working classes, at a time of economic and social crises, libidinal ego, which has, to an extent, robbed the working class of its more important and fundamental ideology with which it could triumph over all hurdles. It has stolen away from the masses, using Eros, the scientific outlook, that is the supreme weapon in the hands of the working class in its perilous journey towards freedom. The working class is confined to and confused by the several forms of Eros presented by capitalism. A scientific enquiry as to what form of Eros could be suitable for the masses is very much ideologically necessary for facilitating class struggle. Or else, Eros shall continue to act as an ideological state apparatus for the bourgeoisie. Kollontai had made such scientific inquiry and her works provide a deep insight into Eros and shall hopefully contribute to the shaping of something that shall stop Eros from acting as an ideological state apparatus.
Marxists have done much work on institutionalised marital relations from the perspective of reproduction of labour-power. The genetico-evolutionary psychological process that leads to the institutionalisation of relationship between the sexes is to be studied. Right from the time when Eros starts concretising in the mind, it is infused with bourgeois ideology that dilutes it so as to bring forth into consciousness its main economic motto – ownership of private property. The ‘Eros’ thus formed is full of property prejudice in that one’s ‘Eros’ can only be satisfied when one owns privately, the object of Eros, whether for a short time or for one’s entire life. Love, libido and imagination of Eros of the person is, therefore, ideologically centralised in and around the private ownership of the individual in which Eros manifests. This embourgeoisment of Eros has taken place at a particular historical epoch and exists today. Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the Statecan be referred to in order to figure out how this transition took place.
Here Eros (as it exists in the form today) acts as the ideological state apparatus, which furthers the cause of the state into the family. These act as the organs of the ruling class, to contain the working masses within horizons set by them that hamper class struggle. The form that Eros has taken today is bound to change in the process of evolution, either for worse under capitalist degradation or for better through the unfolding of the working class struggle.
What we see now, however, is its degradation, thanks to the operation of the bourgeois ideology. From arranged marriages – where sheer commodification of (wo)man takes place – to love marriages – where marriage overshadows love making rejuvenation of human relationships impossible. It is only the working class that can free itself and the larger society from the chains, both in this sphere and the rest. Kollontai in herTheses on Communist Morality in Sphere of Marital Relationship offers certain criticisms of the dominant bourgeois marriage that can be helpful for the working class to overcome one among the many, but an important, hurdle that capitalism has placed in its path of liberation.
The bourgeois family is the most acceptable institutionalised form sexual relations among denizens of bourgeois social formation, which includes individual members of the working class too, takes. This form serves the purpose of capitalism as a means of reproducing labour-power and as an ideological state apparatus for reproducing the condition and relation of production. Althusser in his essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ explains how the ‘school’ has replaced the ‘Church’ and the “School- Family couple constitutes the dominant part in the reproduction of the relations of production of a mode of production threatened in its existence by the world class struggle”. He has laid his emphasis primarily on the school. It is necessary to add that the bourgeois family plays an equally important role in reproducing the relation of production and it is embourgeoised Eros that gives rise to this family.
Apart from this purely economic function of the family acting as a hurdle in class struggle, the bourgeois family has other hazardous effects on the worker. The instincts suffer repression when Eros in institutionalised by marriage into the family, and libidinal instincts outside the boundaries of marriage and bourgeois family meet their fate in being repressed. The question, therefore, is what form sexual relations shall take once they supersede the various institutional forms of marriage in the process of unfolding of the working-class struggle. Post Soviet revolution, Kollontai, who was an active part of it, wrote Communism and the Family. It is necessary to study this work from three perspectives:
1. From the perspective of the individual worker. In which one has to take into account psychology.
2. From the perspective of the working class. In which one has to take into account the class struggle that shall lead to dictatorship of the working class and its liberation. Here, the role of the family as an ideological state apparatus has to be understood more specifically.
3. From the perspective of culture, where, at this point of time, how the structure of the bourgeois family can be transformed through an ideological struggle, which can, for the moment, be like a breeze and not a typhoon.
It is necessary to come back to the repression of instincts in marital family in order to expand our horizon of study into another ‘evil’, which is a by-product of the Eros, marriage and family, and which has evolved in the course of evolution of each of the above three and into which capitalist exploitation has consequently entered. Prostitution.
Prostitution can be said to be the selling of sex by masses of unemployed women who find their employment in concretising their expenditure of labour as sex so as to meet the needs of sexually repressed individuals. The cause of repression of individuals in the bourgeois society has been, to a considerable extent, cited above. Individuals, both married and unmarried whose Eros is not satisfied when they travel along the bourgeois path of satisfying Eros attempt to buy Eros. The centralisation of Eros around the private ownership of the subject of Eros primarily gives rise to such repression. There exists a dialectical relation between the repressed individuals and prostitution, in that each exists because of the other. The structure of bourgeois family has to be changed for prostitution to wither away and the embourgeoisment of Eros has to be stopped if the family is to wither away. And, in the final analysis, the bourgeois system has to be overthrown if embourgeoisment of Eros is to be eradicated. The root of prostitution lies in the bourgeois economic system. One might question the presence of prostitution is earlier historical epochs, where the bourgeois system of exploitation did not exist. In those times, the form and manifestation of prostitution were also different. That prostitution is a function of the economy prevailing in a society is no myth. In India, Kautilya in his Arthashastra made prostitution taxable (Arthashastra [2.27.27]). This historico-empirically substantiates the assertion that prostitution is a part of the prevailing economy. One standard, liberal-bourgeois argument in defence of prostitution is, if prostitution is made legal, the number of rapes will reduce!But will sexual repression and its effects vanish!? The instinctual impulses of rape shall rather implode or explode elsewhere creating an unhealthy environment.
The genetico-evolutionary study of prostitution in accordance with the economy and family ties that existed in each historical epoch shall clear all doubts regarding the relation of prostitution as a part and manifestation of the economy. Today, however, prostitution has emerged as an independent trade. Here sex work is the concrete form of labour that creates value in women and is sold. Women have been reduced to a commodity elsewhere but the climax of commodification is prostitution where the woman ceases to be a human being and serves only as a commodity whose value is determined by the degree to which it can satisfy the libido of its purchaser.
Capitalist appropriation and exploitation have entered into this trade also and studying the functional and status hierarchy that exists in the brothels bear that out. It is at this point that prostitution needs to be critiqued, targeting its specificity as a form of alienated labour in capitalism and not as a moral question of non-marital sex. Be it sex-work or any other form, work under capitalism is itself a means of exploitation, every worker under this mode is exploited, so is the sex worker. In Marx’s letter to Friedrich Bolte, Marx writes “sectarianism and working class movement increase in inverse proportion”. A form of sectarianism has developed among a large section of the working class because of the concrete form the work of the prostitute.
For the worker other than the sex-worker, sex work is ‘unethical’ and hence the sex-worker is condemned. On the part of the sex worker, she is someone who is denounced by the rest of the working class and hence her struggle is against other workers who suffer the vices of the same form of exploitation. This is one of the main manifestations of embourgeoisment of Eros in class struggle. The Eros, the family and prostitution in bourgeois society forms a vicious circle that together constitutes and acts as a strong ideological state apparatus for reproducing the conditions and relations of production.
Critique of Nalini Jameela’s Chapter six of Autobiography of a Sex-worker:
Jameela’s theorisation can be said to be based on a defense of capitalism. Initially in this chapter, she says ‘sex work and sexual exploitation are two different things’. That is true only insofar as one abstracts sexuality from sex work. But under capitalism work itself is exploitation in that surplus labour is exploited from the worker in the brothels as well as outside. As for Jameela, she is not in the lower stratum of any brothel but rather sells sex independently and hence her class position is not that of a worker but is an expression of a petty-bourgeois tendency. Something that is clearly reflected in her theorisation.
She defends selling of sex, comparing it to selling of any other commodity – education, entertainment and so on – not analysing or going against the process of commodification and commercialisation of each. Her fight is to legalise commodification and commercialisation of sex as other spheres have been commodified. She has, probably, not experienced the adversity such commodification and commercialisation regularly visit on the masses, and has not given a thought to the kind of adversity the commodification and commercialisation of sex has brought and would further bring in society. For this thought of her and for people sharing her position and yet sincerely want the liberation of working class in general and women in particular, Kollontai’s Sexual relations and Class Struggle can be the starting point of enquiry. A working-class critique of Jameela’s stand on prostitution can be extracted from Kollontai’s explanation of the adversity of prostitution in herProstitution and Ways of Fighting It. One point, which Jameela over emphasises in her theorisation, is that prostitutes are free from family ties, ‘they do not have to cook for their husbands’, etc. She forgets that in doing so, the prostitute does not liberate herself, economically or sexually. Instead, she reduces herself to the status of a tool to be played with and discarded.
Nothing is as small as it seems to be. Any aspect whose study is neglected falls victim to the ideology of the dominating class, having adverse effects on class struggle. A rereading of Kollontai’s writings shall, hopefully, throw some light on one of the questions that has been regarded as small, particularly by the Indian working-class movement, and hence has led it to side with the ruling class on the aspect of sexuality in its struggle for liberation.
The concept of Ideological State Apparatuses is an addition to the Marxist classical theory of State and was given by Louis Althusser in his essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ (1969-1970). According to Althusser, the ideological state apparatuses function relatively autonomous of the base. Whereas the repressive state apparatuses (police, army, etc) function chiefly by violence, the ideological state apparatuses (church, family, school, political parties, etc) function primarily through ideology (secondarily and occasionally by violence) and serve the same function as the State. Quoting Althusser,
“1. All State Apparatuses function both by repression and ideology, with the difference that the (repressive) State apparatus function massively and predominantly by repression, whereas the Ideological State Apparatuses function massively and predominantly by ideology.
2. Whereas the (repressive) State Apparatus constitutes an organised whole whose different parts are centralised beneath a commanding unity, that of the politics of class struggle applied by the political representatives of the ruling classes in possession of State power, the Ideological State Apparatuses are multiple, distinct, ‘relatively autonomous’ and capable of providing an objective field to contradictions which express, in forms which may be limited or extreme, the effects of clashes between the capitalist class struggle and the proletarian class struggle, as well as their subordinate forms.
3. Whereas the unity of the (Repressive) State Apparatus is secured by its unified and centralised organisation under the leadership of the representatives of the classes in power executing politics of class struggle of the classes in power, the unity of the different Ideological State Apparatuses is secured, usually in contradictory forms, by the ruling ideology, the ideology of the ruling class.”