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Not Just a Soviet Feminist

I'm now half past dying to get a hold of Clive James' Cultural Amnesia. Judging by the sample essays that have been appearing daily in Slate, the book is like Eminent Victorians for the 20th century, except that James' subjects … Read More

By / February 27, 2007

I'm now half past dying to get a hold of Clive James' Cultural Amnesia. Judging by the sample essays that have been appearing daily in Slate, the book is like Eminent Victorians for the 20th century, except that James' subjects were not always so eminent, yet his treatments of them are far more illuminating than anything in Strachey's slender, supposedly epoch-defining volume, which managed to go from one cover to the next without mentioning Benjamin Disraeli or Oscar Wilde.

My only problem with James' latest installment on the Soviet feminist Alexandra Kollontai is that a feminist is not all she was, and the Opposition cited in the epigraph of this essay is not the Opposition she was best known for.

Together with Alexander Shylapnikov, Kollontai was a leading member of the Workers' Opposition, which pitched itself against the more ossifying elements of the Bolshevik regime in the years following the 1917 Revolution and Civil War. The Workers' Opposition represented one of three major factions in the dispute over trade unions. At one extreme were Trotsky and Bukharin, two brilliant and brilliantly flawed Marxist intellectuals who thought the unions — really the only bona fide sodalities of organized proletarians in all of Russia — should be incorporated into the machinery of state now that the successful bourgeois revolution was fast accelerating toward the establishment of a socialist political economy. At the other extreme were Shylapnikov and Kollontai who, as Isaac Deutscher wrote in Prophet Armed, the first volume of his magisterial three-part biography of Trotsky:

"denounced Trotky and Lenin as militarizers of labour and promoters of inequality. In quasi-syndicalist fashion they demanded that trade unions, factory committees, and a National Producers' Congress should assume control over the entire economy. While Trotsky argued that the trade unions could not in logic defend the workers against the workers' state, Shlyapnikov and Kollontai already branded the Soviet state as the rampart of a new privileged bureaucracy."

Lenin, as conciliator — he thought trade unions were acceptable as independent organizations under the close scrutiny and, let's face it, control of the state — represented the third faction.

This rather puts Kollontai's degeneration into a servant of unblinking Stalinism in more tragic perspective. It also gleams another, more notorious tragedy of a Cassandra of totalitarianism with blood on his hands who later paid for it in kind.

In 1922, Kollontai and Shylapnikov protested at the 11th Party Congress to the Communist International, at which Trotsky acted as prosecutor, upholding the Party's decision to expel the Workers' Opposition. He derided its plaint that Bolshevism was now a handmaiden of bourgeois capitalism and the kulaks, acting in contravention of the interests of the working-class. The founder of the Red Army won the day there, too, but as Deutscher points out with that special Shakespearean irony he made a regular occurrence in his biographical writing, nearly all the anti-Leninists who ranged themselves on the side of the Workers' Opposition would later become members of that other famed Soviet Opposition, the one cited by James and named for that marginalized prophet, now unarmed, who had formerly caused them such grief. Trotsky, too, would appeal to the Communist International when it was once again past the hour of possible victory.

The dialectic is about paradigms containing seeds of their own eventual destruction, and the many failures of Marxist history represent the ultimate tribute to this historical method invented by Marx. But, alas, gnomic observations like these are cold comfort to the betrayed worker and reviled peasant, no less to the brilliant theorist with an ice-pick in his skull.

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