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Man as Comrade vs. Enemy: Is a Proletarian Feminist Superior to a Capitalist One?

sarahk's picture
Sarah Kaufman
Critical Feminist Studies Second Midterm

Man as Comrade vs. Enemy: Is a Proletarian Feminist Superior to a Capitalist One?

    Alexandra Kollantai, in her article, “The Social Basis of the Woman Question,” argues that the main difference in approach to the “difficult problem of the family” between bourgois women (women who are concerned with a capitalistic feminist agenda) and proletarian women (working-class women who are concerned with implementing a Communist system that will, in her opinion, derail the power structure of Russian society), is that, in opposing the marital contract, “feminists are fighting a fetish. The proletarian women, on the other hand, are waging war against the factors that are behind the modern form of marriage and family. In striving to change fundamentally the conditions of life, they know they are also helping to reform relationships between the sexes” (68). Proletarian women, from Kollantai’s Communist perspective, are vital to their own liberation because they do not see men as threatening, they see them as comrades in the productive work force. While bourgeois women fight for feminism in terms of explicit laws, Kollantai argues that if these bourgeois women actually obtained power, they would use it to the advantage of their own higher class and as a “weapon” against the proletariat. She also argues that from a higher class standing and a more capitalist viewpoint, women are not as invested in their own empowerment because they are not as invested in the whole system that will make it possible for women to be a productive part of the work force and mothers at the same time. To Kollantai, this is the ultimate goal of empowerment for a woman.
The communist theory that the proliteriate women workers were invested in a more empowering system than their “big sisters,” the bourgeois feminists, created a heirarchy of class sense of morality and importance. Kollantai’s writing reflects a sense of superiority within the proletariate that came from their dedication to a communist society that believed its fundamental values made women’s empowerment more possible than in a capitalistic society. And since the Soviet crumbled, there has still existed a competition between the Western capitalist feminists and the Russian post-Socialist feminists who are exposed to the remnants of the failed communist system. This heirarchy between Western and Russian feminists is vital to the oppressional system of the mail-order bride services, and perpetuates imperialistic attitudes between American men and Russian mail-order brides. This imperialism and oppression can be stopped only with the institutionalization within Russia of Kollantai’s Communist system, combined with the social awareness and protection of a woman’s body that exists in current American political discourses.
In order to analyze the correlation between the competition of Western and Russian feminisms, which has its roots in communist theory, and the imperialism of the mail-order bride services, I must first provide a review of Kollantai’s communist arguments about the duties of the superior proletarian woman. Kollantai writes about issues of women’s empowerment such as abortion, prostitution, marriage, motherhood, and the right to work. Her argument that pervades her essays is that proletarian women were the original feminists and paved the way for the bourgeois women to work for their “daily bread” under the impact of the “monstrous successes of capitalism.” She argues that a woman is truly liberated when she has gone from a “humiliated downtrodden slave with no rights, to an independent worker, an independent personality…” Women in the proletariate also work to benefit their entire class, and thus, Kollantai argues, the class will become entirely dependent on women’s work and will have to benefit them to keep working. The proletariat is so dependent on each of its members for productivity, and Kollantai argues this is why “[proletarian women] do not see men as the enemy and the oppressor; on the contrary, they think of men as their comrades… The woman and her male comrade are enslaved by the same social conditions; the same hated chains of capitalism oppress their will and deprive them of the joys and charms of life” (60). Kollantai argues further that for capitalist feminists, men are the “enemy,” who have “unjustly seized all rights and privileges for themselves, leaving women only chains and duties” (60). Her arguments are valid because her ultimate goal is to accomplish a communist system, governmentally and economically, in which women will have the support system to be able to work and raise a family at the same time, if she so wishes. However, Kollantai’s social motives are questionable when she gets into issues of marriage, abortion, and prostitution. Her legitimization of women’s governmental rights when it comes to these issues is always rooted in the productivity of the proletariat, and never in the well-being of the individual woman. This is why Kollantai’s governmental ideals should be combined with certain American social viewpoints that value the individual’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in order to create the ideal empowering society for women.
Arguments of ideal societies, however, will not be further made in order to delve into the issue of mail-order brides and what their presence says about the dichotomy of Western and Russian feminisms and the imperialism of the Western male. In her arguments concerning marriage, abortion, and prostitution, Kollantai is not concerned with the woman’s individual health; she is only concerned with the well-being of the proletariate class as a whole. In a marital relationship, Kollantai argues that the power heirarchy between a husband and wife in their private lives doesn’t matter as much in determining the “position of the woman in the family” as the duty of society does in “relieving women of all those petty household cares which are at present unavoidable (given the existence of individual scattered economies)” (68). Thus, her concern has little to do with the personal emotional fulfillment of the individual woman, usually accompanying a Western feminist idealist theory, in being able to find empowerment outside the private sphere of the home. It has everything to do, however, with the idea that the woman will not be able to be as productive as her class needs her to be if the system forces her to submit to household chores as well as working.
Naturally, Kollantai’s arguments concerning abortion and prostitution are similarly rooted. She argues against abortion because the proletariate needs every productive worker it can get. She describes the problems of abortion that are present in the bourgeois class as “the reluctance to ‘divide’ an inheritance, to suffer the slightest discomfort, to spoil one’s figure or miss a few months of the season…” (148). In other words, she does not care for the individual will or health of the woman, she only cares for the duty of the proletariate. She furthers her argument by stating that the ultimate goal concerning abortion is that it should no longer be necessary because the Soviet system has provided a “broad and developed network of institutions protecting motherhood and providing social education,” and a society in which women “understand that childbirth is a social obligation” (149).
Furthermore, Kollantai argues it is a social obligation for women of the proletariate not to perform acts of prostitution. A professional prostitute’s energy, she states, is not used for the “collective.” The prostitute lives off others, and takes their rations. This cannot be allowed because it “reduces the reserves of energy and the number of working hands that are creating the national wealth and the general welfare” (266). Kollantai even goes so far as to say that a prostitute is no different than a wife under a marital contract in terms of her use in life because “the worker’s collective condemns the prostitute not because she gives her body to many men but because, like the legal wife who stays at home, she does no useful work for the society” (267). It is not the illegality of prostitution or the dangers to the woman that is scorned upon, but rather her private business that is detached from the productive workforce. Kollantai does, however, manage to legitimize some humanity in the case of prostitution by stating that the act itself lowers the “class character of the proletariat and its new morality… Solidarity and comradeship is the basis of communism… A man who buys the favours of a woman does not see her as a comrade or as a person with equal rights. He sees the woman as dependent upon himself and as an unequal creature of a lower order who is of less worth to the workers’ state” (268).
This statement, paired with Kollantai’s assertion that “private property and the direct material dependence of the majority of women upon men” are the two major factors contributing to the existence of prostitution within the bourgeois, provide a transition to the issue of present mail-order bridal services between Russia and America. In a New York Times Article entitled, “American Lion Seeks Russian Lioness,” author John Varoli quotes Aleksandr Klyetsin, professor of sociology and gender studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg on the present misunderstandings between Western feminism and Russian feminism: “’The Russian media have… created the belief that American men are being tortured by feminists… This arouses in Russian girls both a feeling of sympathy for these men, as well as a feeling of empowerment that they are better, more womanly, than Western women” (3). This clash between feminisms is especially interesting when juxtaposed with Kollantai’s arguments about the superiority of proletariate feminism over a bourgeois capitalistic feminism. According to Klyetsin, Russian propoganda leads Russian women to believe themselves more understanding of men than the Western feminists who consider men to be enemies. This is a reflection of Kollantai’s argument that bourgeois feminists consider men to be their enemies while proletariate women consider men to be their comrades.
Even though present-day Russian women are not all proletariates by any means, they are arguably living in conditions as rough as those of proletariate women during the revolution. “The wish of Russian women to leave for foreign shores is fueled by their country’s poor standard of living, as well as by a Russian male population plagued by alcoholism, violent crime and a life expectancy of 59 years, and falling” (2). Yana Hickman, a director of Miss Russia Internet, a Dalls-based marriage agency, with her Russian husband, states, “The American man appears to be a knight in shining armor, who takes the girl away from this miserable reality” (2). These women are in bad economic situations within an autocratic government and not within a government backed up by Kollantai’s communist government. Kollantai’s government would be more supportive of a woman’s ability to work at an equal level to men, and it would certainly decrease the amount of these private companies soliciting women like products to men. Kollantai would argue against both parties of the transaction taking advantage of the other. The New York Times article states that many men end up domestically abusing their wives, and that many women end up using the men for their money and citizenship.
It is almost as if Kollantai predicts the occurance of these internet mail-order bride agencies when she writes about the ideas of property and possession inherent in marriage. “What about… that deeply-rooted sense of property that demands the possession not only of the body but also of the soul of another? And the inability to have the propert respect for the individuality of another? The habit of either subordinating oneself to the loved one, or of subordinating the loved one to oneself?” (69). Here, Kollantai makes a strong argument against her own case for marriage. She argues that maybe marriage has less to do with the production of children for the productivity of the proletariate and more to do with a state in which “a person wants to escape from his loneliness and naively imagines that being ‘in love’ gives him the right to the soul of the other person” (241). Kollantai’s talk of “rights” and “habits” and “suboordination” are reflective of the desires of Russian women in joining these marriage agencies.
This would be acceptable of the women did not end up becoming more often, the subordinated ones. A mail-order bride named Irina states, “Not many of us will ever marry. Most just keep coming to these socials and have to go through the humiliation of being gawked at, waiting for a man to come along and decide our fate” (3). This obviously inferior position of the women represents the imperialism innate in these agencies.
    Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak touches on this concept of imperialism further by including the philosopher Kant into her argument. She uses Kant’s concept of the “categorical imperative” to describe the immoral use of a third-world figure by an imperialist for the imperialist’s means. She also argues that philosophy has a “dangerous transformative power” in that “its formal subtlety can be travestied in the service of the state,” and “such a travesty in the case of the categorical imperative can justify the imperialist project by producing the following formula: make the heathen into a human so that he can be treated an an end in himself” (153). These Russian women are humanized by the American agencies in every way they can control, in order to justify their imperialist gestures. However, because of the nature of the capitalist system, Kollantai reminds us that women selling their bodies, whether for marriage or for prostitution (and in the case of mail-order brides, there is a fine line between the two), are submitting themselves to a system in which they are dependent upon men who do not see them as comrades but rather as “unequal creature[s] of a lower order who [are] of less worth to the workers’ state” (268).

Cited texts:
Kollantai, Alexandra. "The Social Basis of the Woman Question," 1909. "The Labour of Women in the Evolution of the Economy," 1923. "Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle," 1920. "Communism and the Family," 1920. "Prostitution and Ways of Fighting It," 1921. Selected Writings. Westport, Connecticut: Lawrence Hill, 1977.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. "Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism." Essays in Gender & The Politics of Literary Criticism. 2nd Edition. Edited by Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore.


Anne Dalke's picture

Solidarity and comradeship


this paper (like your last one!) is very complicated in structure and argumentation: you use the classic work of Alexandra Kollantai (introduce her, please? --for most of your readers won't know who she is) to define the ideals of proletarian feminism, and then use those ideals to critique the contemporary phenomenon of Russian mail-order brides. Fascinating topic, and a fascinating angle on it...I'm really convinced, by your work, that this business is enabled, even fueled by the complex intersection of proletarian and bourgeous understandings of the world, particularly of the intimate, male-female relations in it.

There's much here that we might go on talking about. One point is your claim, in the center of the paper, that "Kollantai's governmental ideals should be combined with certain American social values of the individual's right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." I wonder...are these two hugly different systems really compatible, do you think? How bring together a world view that valorizes the individual--and takes her happiness as the measure of well-being--w/ one that, like the socialism advocated by Kollantai, advocated a fundamental change in the conditions of life, one grounded in the collective? Solidarity and companionship come @ a price, a different one than the costs of capitalism that Kollantai (and, in your final gesture, Spivak) critique so incisively.