Not long ago I attended a lefty event where one of the speakers, an excellent socialist blogger, did not know who Alexandra Kollontai was. I was quite, quite shocked. However, other than demonstrating exactly how weird I am to be surprised by someone not knowing an obscure revolutionary it probably doesn't say very much.
But it did put me in mind of the contribution of various revolutionary women throughout history and how often this can get over looked. It certainly would be a shame if Kollontai's name was forgotten, or worse her contribution to the left was ignored.
Alexandra Kollontai was born in the late 19th century the daughter of a general and from an old aristocratic family so she certainly had a privileged upbringing. But they say travel broadens the mind and after trips abroad coming into contact with revolutionary literature and active socialists she became a committed communist, determined to overthrow the corrupt and murderous Tsarist regime.
In 1905 there was an extraordinary upheaval in Russia. Kollentai took part in that revolutionary rehearsal and was one of the leading figures in left circles from that moment, although for many years she remained an independent minded figure. During the 1917 revolution she was a central committee member of the Bolshevik Party and, after October, became the Minister for Social Welfare under conditions that were, frankly, not ideal for the task. She went on to found the women's department and would try to deal with some the specific problems that women faced in post-Tsarist Russia.
Increasingly concerned with the direction of the revolution Kollontai helped found the Workers Opposition - a critical faction of the Communist Party. As I understand it (and I'm no expert on the ins and outs of Russian policy at this time) they argued that the economy should be run directly by the workers rather than directed from above by the increasingly powerful bureaucracy. Seems fair enough to me but Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky all disagreed and the faction was forcibly disbanded.
Alexandra remained a committed socialist but was politically emasculated. During this period she wrote some beautiful fiction like Love of the worker bees set, if I remember rightly, on a collective farm. She continued to advocate free love and was denounced by the regime as a pornographer (which seems genuinely unfair considering the high quality and seriousness of her writing).
Never-the-less she became the Soviet Union's official ambassador to Norway (and later Mexico, the League of Nations then Sweden) where she continually scandalised high society not just through being an outspoken woman in such an important and high profile role, but also through her polyamorous lifestyle and a reputation for bluntness.
Her early contributions to the movement for liberation are to be admired and her attempts to push the left into a more humanistic and less centralised form should not be forgotten. The fact that such independent minded revolutionaries existed at all would be easy to forget in the broader sweep of events and so her contribution, and that of those like her, is doubly important.
However, like many of her generation, she faced a choice: accommodate the bloody hand of Stalinism or be crushed by it - and she choose the former. Of the old guard of revolutionaries from 1917 she is almost alone in living to a grand old age dying a peaceful death in 1952 having enjoyed a substantial diplomatic career in the service of Stalin's Russia.
Kollontai, who in many respects represented the very best of the revolutionary movement in Russia could not withstand the tide as the days of revolution faded into darkness. Unlike many of her contemporaries she avoided the show trials, purges and assassination through silencing her own voice and accepting the effective exile of a diplomatic career. I'd like to think that in some ways she can speak for a better world through us today.