Sam Feldman

Love in the Time of Communism: A Case Study in Revolutionary Overreach


Gustav Klutsis, Gustav Klutsis and Valentina Kulagina, 1922

In the wake of a revolution that overturns everything, revolutionaries can only gradually recalibrate their sense of the possible. What was immutable has been swept away, and who knows what will be left standing when the riptides abate? Only time will tell which post-revolutionary measures will come to seem like final blows struck against dying institutions and which will be remembered, if at all, as tilting at windmills. The former leads to what, in retrospect, we call progress; the latter is revolutionary overreach.

Revolutionary overreach occurs when the revolutionaries have stormed the palace but have yet to realize the limits of the palace’s power. The institutions they most hate may prove resilient, and those they most want to introduce may fail to take root. It is no more possible to predict in advance which innovations will succeed than it is to predict what sort of state a revolution will leave in its wake.

The attempts at de-Christianization that have followed the more ambitious left-wing revolutions of the past three centuries are common examples of revolutionary overreach. The first great de-Christianization was undertaken in the wake of the French Revolution; in the same spirit with which they abolished aristocratic privilege, the feudal organization of the ancien régime, and as many royals as they could get their hands on, the revolutionaries declared an end to the religion that had shaped France for over a millennium and a half. Yet even before the Bourbon Restoration, the revolution’s innovations in the field of religion—the Civil Constitution of the Clergy that had made priests employees of the state, the rechristening of cities named after saints, the cults of Reason and of the Supreme Being set up to replace Christianity, and the revolutionary calendar cleansed of the Gregorian calendar’s Catholic associations—had largely failed to gain purchase and been swept away with few lasting effects. It could not have been otherwise, but the revolutionaries of the 1790s could not have known that.

If the French Revolution provides the first examples of revolutionary overreach, the Russian Revolution may provide the greatest number. The Russia of Yeltsin and Putin, with its widespread Orthodoxy1, its massive inequalities of wealth and status, its vicious, oligarchic brand of capitalism, and its venal materialism, is a bitter refutation of the Bolshevik project. But it didn’t take 1991 to brush the ideological debris off the impassive face of the Russian populace. Even within the Soviet state’s lifetime, many of its remakings were unmade. Economically, this began before the revolution’s fourth birthday, when the fully state-controlled economy of War Communism gave way to the market-based New Economic Policy; private enterprise, it turned out, couldn’t simply be abolished by sudden fiat. In the military, the election of officers and the abolition of ranks were ended by 1935; the USSR had concluded that the sort of professional army necessary for its defense couldn’t function on an egalitarian basis after all. In foreign policy, the fervent internationalism and communist solidarity of the early Bolsheviks descended through Stalin’s theory of Socialism in One Country, the schisms and splits that nearly brought about a Sino-Soviet War, and the Russification of ethnic minorities and constituent republics, leaving an official ideology of Russian nationalism different only in degree from that promulgated by the tsarist regime.

These examples are drawn from the realm of statecraft, but equally striking Bolshevik overreaches are to be found elsewhere. Perhaps more than any successful revolution before it, the October Revolution aimed at a fundamental remaking of everyday private life. This included marriages and family life, which the early Soviets expected to be completely transformed as an inevitable byproduct of economic and political development towards communism.

Prerevolutionary theorists of communism had various visions of the future of marriage and families in a communist society, but few devoted much attention to the subject. The Communist Manifesto (1848) brings up opponents’ claims that communism means “abolition of the family” and “community of women [i.e., the holding of women in common]” in order to mock them and highlight failings of bourgeois society, but its own position is left somewhat ambiguous. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), Engels holds that marriage will not fall along with capitalism, but instead will become truly free and equal for the first time. “What will quite certainly disappear from monogamy are all the features stamped upon it through its origin in property relations,” he writes. “These are, in the first place, supremacy of the man, and, secondly, indissolubility.” Our ability to predict the nature of post-revolutionary marriage is limited, but “as sexual love is by its nature exclusive […] the marriage based on sexual love is by its nature individual marriage.” On the other hand, August Bebel, one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, wrote in “Woman and Socialism” (1879) that in the socialist society of the future, a woman will be “as free and unhampered as a man,” which Bebel believed would lead to the end of formal marriage and an idyllic state of free love.

One of the first Russian Marxists to devote close attention to the post-revolutionary status of marriage was Alexandra Kollontai, a prominent member of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party who organized female workers before her exile in 1908. In “The Social Basis of the Woman Question” (1909), she predicted that “the present compulsory form of marriage will be replaced by the free union of loving individuals,” though she added that it was “impossible to foretell what the relationships of the future, when the whole system has fundamentally been changed, will be like.” She clearly anticipated a drastic change, though, since she also wrote that “with the transfer of educative functions from the family to society, the last tie holding together the modern isolated family will be loosened.”

Engels and Kollontai rightly felt that predicting the fate of marriage and families in a distant post-revolutionary utopia was next to impossible, and this must have been part of what kept other writers from speculating on the topic. But after the Bolshevik coup of November 1917, when for the first time Marxists found themselves at least nominally in control of a sovereign state, it was time to begin the work of imagining the communist republic.

In 1920, Kollontai, now rising through the upper echelons of the Soviet government, published “Communism and the Family” in Kommunistka, the monthly newspaper of the Women’s Section of the party organization. This article begins with two questions which Kollontai takes to be on everyone’s lips:

Will the family continue to exist under communism? Will the family remain in the same form? These questions are troubling many women of the working class and worrying their menfolk as well. Life is changing before our very eyes: old habits and customs are dying out, and the whole life of the proletarian family is developing in a way that is new and unfamiliar and, in the eyes of some, ‘bizarre.’

The reasoning Kollontai presents here is quite transparent: “life is changing before our very eyes” in all sorts of ways, and naturally men and women wonder if the family will undergo the same radical changes as the state and the economy. Unsurprisingly, Kollontai’s answer is yes. In this article, as in much of her other writing, she outlines her dissatisfactions with the place of women in the Russia of her time. When the revolution upended the entire semifeudal world of tsarist Russia, Kollontai expected that the substantial social changes she’d long hoped for could now come to pass.

These expected changes included:

  1. Socialization of child-rearing. No longer would women be oppressed by their duties as mothers—not because men would help out, but because “society will feed and bring up the child.” The state will establish maternity homes and day nurseries for infants, and communal “playgrounds, gardens, homes, and other amenities where the child will spend the greater part of the day under the supervision of qualified educators.” Not only would this free up women to work outside the home, it will also ensure that the child will grow up “a conscious communist who recognizes the need for solidarity, comradeship, mutual help, and loyalty to the collective.”
  2. Socialization of education. This includes free public schools, but also free lunches, free textbooks, and free warm clothing and shoes for schoolchildren.
  3. Socialization of housework. “Instead of the working woman cleaning her flat, the communist society can arrange for men and women whose job it is to go round in the morning cleaning rooms.” In addition to these social housekeepers, society will provide communal kitchens, central laundries, clothes-mending centers, and public restaurants—in fact, Kollontai cites the increasing number of restaurants in the great cities of Europe as proof that society is already moving towards socializing women’s work.

So what, in Kollontai’s view, will be the effects of these state interventions in the traditional domain of women’s work? The family will be relieved of its remaining roles—as “the primary economic unit of society and the supporter and educator of young children”—and as a result will “wither away” like the state. As for marriage, as Kollontai writes in “Theses on Communist Morality in the Sphere of Marital Relations” (1921), “once relations between the sexes cease to perform the economic and social function of the former family, they are no longer the concern of the workers’ collective.” The state will extend no legal recognition to interpersonal relationships, even when it comes to establishing paternity: “Fatherhood should not be established through marriage or a relationship of a material nature. The man should be able to choose whether or not to accept the role of fatherhood (i.e. the right which he shares equally with the mother to decide on a social system of education for the child, and the right, where this does not conflict with the interests of the collective, of intellectual contact with the child and the opportunity to influence its development).” This is all that will remain of the parent-child relationship.

But what will the world look like without families? Kollontai described her vision of this future in “Soon (In 48 Years’ Time)” (1922), a sketch of a utopian commune set in 1970: “Life is organized so that people do not live in families but in groups, according to their ages. Children have their ‘palaces,’ the young people their smaller homes; adults live together communally in the various ways that suit them, and the old people together in their ‘houses.’” Here at last is the end of the path the October Revolution leads to, according to Kollontai, in which families are made obsolete by the state and marriage subsides into various sorts of unrecognized interpersonal relationships.

This was the revolutionary vision of post-revolutionary marriages and families, but what was the reality? At first the state did its part to facilitate the end of the old familial structures. Decrees and legal reforms between 1917 and 1926 removed many government restrictions on sex and relationships. Divorce became as simple as filling out a form and waiting three days. Couples were allowed to cohabitate and marry without informing the state. Abortion, although frowned upon, became freely available and free. The law recognized women’s right to retain their surnames after marriage.

In the next decade, however, a reaction materialized at the highest levels of the party. The devastations of World War I, the Russian Civil War, and the famine of the early ‘30s had prevented the population expansion required for massive industrialization, and the birth rate was actually declining. Meanwhile, the rate of abortions was increasing. The state felt increasing pressure to pursue natalist policies to combat the ongoing demographic disaster. Between 1936 and 1944, abortion was once again outlawed and criminalized, while childbearing was encouraged through subsidies. Divorce became significantly more difficult and expensive. Marriages were re-regulated and no longer legally recognized unless registered with the state. At the same time, medals and honorary orders were established to recognize mothers of five or more children, and pregnant women were allotted more maternity leave and supplementary food. Adult men and women with few or no children were subject to an extra tax.

Throughout both periods, of liberalization and of reaction, families and marriage relations changed much less than the early Soviets had hoped, as historical records of women’s daily lives demonstrate. For example, the diary of Galina Shtange, a housewife and organizer in the Stalinist era, shows the economic burdens of marriage that still prevented wives from achieving the independence Kollontai had predicted. In 1936, speaking of her married daughter Irina, Shtange writes, “My poor little girl has to cook, clean, mend and fix things, wash dishes, and do all the other little things that have to be done around the house, earn enough to live on, and, most importantly, to develop as an artist, which is everything to her. She’s exhausted and her nerves are worn ragged.” Compare this to Kollontai’s assertion that “communism liberates woman from her domestic slavery and makes her life richer and happier.” The housekeepers society was to have sent have not found their way to Irina’s house, and she is as restricted by household labor as ever.

But that was 1936, less than 20 years after the revolution; perhaps the far-reaching changes brought about by the advent of communism had not yet had the chance to radically alter the ancient if fading institution of marriage. On the contrary! In 1967, the New York Times sent a team of reporters and experts to the USSR to report on every facet of life in that country on the fiftieth anniversary of its revolution. In the resulting book, The Soviet Union: The Fifty Years, the chapter on “The Way People Live,” written by women’s news editor Charlotte Curtis, consistently argues that, after an interval of relative equality, Soviet wives have happily returned to an earlier mode of separation and dependence: “Now that she has had a chance to think about it, she wants the man she loves to pursue her, marry her, and give her security, rather than to live with her in the old, casual, free way… [S]he is coming more and more to the view that maybe her place is in the home—for at least part of the time during her children’s formative years—and that maybe part-time jobs are the answer.” (Needless to say, Curtis’s understanding of Soviet women’s motivations is less important here than the facts she observed and recorded.)

Within the home, wives were still very much occupied with household tasks, as they had been since before the revolution. The promised housekeepers were available, but only to a select few, much like in pre-revolutionary society: “If the Soviet woman has the money, and not many women do, she can afford household help.” In the wake of a divorce, the mother was always granted custody of children unless “she’s a drunk or insane,” according to a divorce court magistrate quoted in The Soviet Union. The divorced father contributed a quarter to a half of his salary to child support.

Raising children had in fact become less burdensome. Soviet children could go to preschool at the age of three or even younger, although attendance was not compulsory and there was a monthly fee based on the parents’ salaries. If the parents worked late or simply had evening plans, the children could spend the night at the preschool’s dormitory. The state provided a child-raising subsidy to parents, and higher education was free. Children, however, still lived with their families, not in age-based cohorts as Kollontai predicted, and the family—parents, child, and aged babushka helping out around the house—continued to be the basic unit of society.

As for marriage itself, Soviet society was still very much involved in it, despite Kollontai’s predictions. Not only did the state recognize marriages, in 1959 “solemn ceremonies” were introduced in Leningrad and soon expanded throughout the country to serve the function of weddings, a religious event that had been largely discouraged since the revolution. These “solemn ceremonies” (so called in the USSR) were meant to seem more permanent (“a far cry from the free love the state sanctioned during the 1920’s,” according to Curtis); they were only available to couples who had never been married before and, together with harsher divorce laws, were meant to encourage longer-lasting marriages. The couple was required to sign a certificate a month in advance at the Palace of Weddings and was granted access to special wedding shops.

Kollontai’s vision had correctly anticipated the state’s interest in regulating (specifically increasing) the rate of childbirth, but she believed this could be done without recognizing or privileging monogamous committed relationships. In fact, the state came to the conclusion that the age-old institution of marriage was an effective instrument for the production and care of children. Far from having outlived its usefulness, the family attained a heightened importance under a regime powerful enough to bend it to its own ends. And as an integral piece of the family structure, state-recognized marriage could not be jettisoned, regardless of Kollontai’s argument that interpersonal relationships are “no longer the concern of the workers’ collective.”

Kollontai was wrong to think that fully collectivized society would have no use for marriage or families, but this was only part of her argument. Not only did she believe the family and marriage should wither away, she also believed they inevitably would when Soviet society eventually matured. It could be argued that had the Soviet Union followed a different socialist path—had one of the intraparty opposition groups, such as the Workers’ Opposition of which Kollontai was a part, triumphed over Stalin in the 1920s, for example—Kollontai’s predictions might have been borne out. But in fact many of the economic and political factors she foresaw did come to pass: according to The Soviet Union, “ninety percent of the city women are believed to have jobs outside their homes.” State childrearing subsidies and dormitories were provided, if not in age-sorted residential palaces, then at least to an extent that eased the family’s role in supporting children. At least from 1944, any mother could choose to have her child brought up in a state-run institution and withdraw him or her whenever she wanted.  And yet the family and relatively traditional marriages endured in Russia, and have endured to this day.

Why was Kollontai so mistaken about the fragility of marriage and families? A better question would be how she could have expected the disintegration of two of her society’s oldest institutions to be so quick and easy that in 48 years no sign of them would remain. Only in the aftermath of the revolutionary year of 1917 would predictions of such extreme change have seemed not only achievable but even inevitable. One of the world’s oldest dynasties, at the head of the world’s largest state, had been overthrown by the world’s most radical regime. The end of bourgeois marriage and the withering-away of the family were simply two more items on the Bolshevik to-do list, next to the rapid industrialization of Russia, the creation of a “New Soviet man,” the death of religion and superstition, the international spread of communism, and the transition to the first classless society in human history. Only later would it become clear which of these goals lay in the realm of the possible, and which were the products of revolutionary overreach. 

1 In 2010, according to the Russian polling firm VTsIOM, 75% of Russians identified as Orthodox, while only 8% identified as nonbelievers. For comparison, a 2009 Gallup poll found that 78% of Americans identified as some sort of Christian, while 13% identified as nonbelievers.

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