“The state does not need the family, because the domestic economy is no longer profitable: the family distracts the worker from more useful and productive labour. The members of the family do not need the family either, because the task of bringing up the children which was formerly theirs is passing more and more into the hands of the collective.” — Alexandra Kollontai
So argued the leading female Bolshevik in a popular essay published in 1920. Kollontai was advancing a now-familiar argument: the family—father, mother, child—is an outdated social form at best and an exploitative one at worst.
Kollontai personified the Soviet approach to family life. Building on the writings of Marx and especially Engels, she publicly fought for the liberation of women from familial bonds and privately lived out her convictions, leaving her husband and young child to study under Marxist economist Heinrich Herkner. When the Soviet Union legalized unilateral divorce in 1918 (after centuries of essentially divorce-less Russian Orthodox marriage), Kollontai scolded the women who were frightened, because “they have not yet understood that a woman must accustom herself to seek and find support in the collective and in society, and not from the individual man.” She happily prophesied in the early twentieth century that all aspects of family life—from housework to marital fidelity and parental obligations—would soon wither away.
This essay addresses each part of Kollontai’s argument in turn, pointing out how her predictions were crippled by her faulty assumptions. Though Soviet family policy has mercifully ended, it is still worthwhile to examine its central ideas, because they live on today in Western family policy.
The Domestic Economy
First, Kollontai points out that the “domestic economy is no longer profitable.” It is certainly true that the continual expansion of the market and division of labor has brought the locus of market production beyond the small family farm or artisan shop. But Kollontai takes this a step further, questioning why the family would retain any place in the social division of labor. In her view, everything the family does could be (or already has been) outsourced to the state. She passionately narrates this process:
The communist economy does away with the family . . . the family economic unit should be recognised as being, from the point of view of the national economy, not only useless but harmful . . . Under the dictatorship of the proletariat then, the material and economic considerations in which the family was grounded cease to exist. The economic dependence of women on men and the role of the family in the care of the younger generation also disappear.
Setting aside her incorrect predictions, the real question is harder: Can communism actually replace the family? With a constrained vision of how perfect the world could be made, choices like family policy must be weighed against one another, not against some utopian ideal. Can the state plan family life better than the family itself?
Clearly not. Families, after all, are older than the oldest institution persisting today—the Catholic Church—and certainly the oldest government. To put it in economic terms, other producers (the state, firms in the market, etc.) have not been able to supply good enough substitutes for all the goods and services provided by the family. Jennifer Roback Morse gives the reason for this beautifully in her book Love and Economics:
Most parents cannot articulate the physiological and psychological significance of the activities they do with their children. Indeed, if you ask the mother of an infant what she did all day, she is unlikely to be able even to describe her activities except in the most general way . . . She might tell you she folded laundry or did dishes. But she probably will not remember that she rewarded every little noise her baby made, by smiling at the baby, or imitating the baby’s sound, or having an imaginary conversation with him.
The Hayekian point about each person’s unique “knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place” is usually made within the context of the market, but a parallel error can be located in the Soviet view of the family. Simply put, central planners simply do not and cannot access the intimate, hidden knowledge necessary to replicate the goods and services of family life. The advance of developmental psychology and our increasing understanding of the importance of children’s attachment to a consistent, loving caregiver have only underscored this point.
Kollontai’s mistake was assuming that the state can plan family life better than families themselves. For her, the only question was precisely how to plan the infamous communal kitchens and Soviet marriage ceremonies, not whether to plan them at all. Because she starts from this mistaken assumption, she fails to see that families serve the good of children and parents more effectively than the state ever could. More importantly, she assumes that financial profit and material efficiency are more important than human flourishing, which is nurtured in the foundational institution of society: the family.
The Relationship Between the Family and the State
Next, Kollontai declares that family life “distracts the worker” from activities that are “more useful and productive.” The key question here is: useful and productive to whom?
Under the guise of “efficiency” (a term that only has meaning with respect to a predefined end), Kollontai assumes that the value of the family derives from how well it supports the state, and not the other way around. This mistake has numerous parallels with the economic errors of the Soviet Union, so it merits a comparison with the economic understanding of value. The “economic law” of subjective value (first articulated by the Spanish scholastic theologians at the School of Salamanca) states that the economic value of good or service arises from how people deem it valuable in relation to each of their desired ends.
To reconstruct society according to its own image, the Soviet Union had to interfere with how family members value their relationships with each other. Adoption and inheritance were banned in 1918, and unregistered marriage and divorce were permitted in 1926. Kollontai would later joke about the crisis facing Soviet women:
According to statistics given by comrade Kurskii at the VTsIk session, out of seventy-eight cases only three are alimony orders concerning the welfare of children. This is evidence that the women themselves do not believe that the fathers of their children can be found. (Laughter.)
As the plight of women and children under these conditions became clear, the solution was to further discredit the role of fathers, and propaganda in the 1930s was “even more notable for being anti-men than for being anti-revolutionary.”
The Soviet state’s view that families were meant to serve the state’s purposes is exemplified by its vacillating abortion policy. Kollontai explains why the Soviet Union became the first government in the world to legalize it in 1920: “Soviet power realizes that the need for abortion will only disappear on the one hand when Russia has a broad and developed network of institutions protecting motherhood and providing social education, and on the other hand when women understand that childbirth is a social obligation.”
With many familial and religious activities prohibited, the replacement “network of institutions protecting motherhood” resulted in so low a population that the Party quickly re-criminalized abortion in 1936, and in 1944 tried to establish a class of single mothers. Kollontai, however, continued her campaign for women’s rights from a new angle: “There is one question to which I would like to turn your attention, and that is the question of birth control. Expressed very briefly, the essence of what I want to say is this: let there be fewer children born, but let them be of better ‘quality.’” Even when adopting seemingly “pro-family” legislation, the underlying goals of the Soviet state devalued individual persons, for their own sake, as persons. Even today, Russia faces a “peacetime demographic crisis,” with abortion (re-legalized in 1955) as the main method of birth control.
Though Kollontai held respected positions in the Soviet government—People’s Commissar of Propaganda and Agitation, for example—her views were not without their contemporary opponents. Lenin himself thought she went too far in advocating state-sponsored sexual promiscuity, and while he discussed her pamphlets seriously in public speeches, he also couldn’t resist joking that Comrade Kollontai and her former lover were “class united.” But it was a little-known figure, E.O. Kabo, another female Soviet scholar of the 1920s, who pointed out the fatal flaw in Kollontai’s perspective on the family.
Debating Kollontai’s Legacy
Is it true, as Kollontai argued, that “the members of the family do not need the family either”? Not all Soviets agreed. In fact, E.O. Kabo argued that the working-class family is “the most profitable and most efficient organization of workers’ consumption and the upbringing of a new generation,” and that “Marx, Engels, Bebel, and Zetkin” were to blame for overlooking the “important structures of gender dependency within the working-class family.” She pointed out that within this zero-sum framework, it was just as likely for the wife and children to be exploiting the wage-earning father, since they redistribute the fruits of his labor for familial consumption.
Kabo documented how Russian working-class families actually attained many of the ends coveted by Soviet socialist reformers: the distribution of resources according to need, care for the old and sick, and the rearing of the next generation. The decline of economic production in Russian households did not change much, nor did the brutal Soviet attempt to monopolize “the task of bringing up the children.” Rather, the family naturally remained the locus for the joint enjoyment of life’s basic goods, from meals and music to religious worship and friendship. As Soviet family scholar H. Kent Geiger puts it: “In the long view of history, this special mission—to afford to the individual some privacy and protection against totalitarian encroachment—may prove to have been the Soviet family’s most important function.”
Though Kabo was not the victor in the intellectual realm of Soviet debates over family policy, she was vindicated on the battleground of lived experience. By 1945, the Party had overturned almost all of their revolutionary-era family policies (save their ban on religious marriage), replacing them with their “pro-family” counterparts.
Kollontai fell silent for many years, as many of her similarly minded comrades were sent to the Gulag. Then, speaking a final time in 1946, she congratulated the government on helping so many women fulfill their “natural duty . . . to be a mother, educator of her children and the mistress of her home.” The Soviet editors of Kollontai’s biography in 1964 included this passage: “Fifty years have passed . . . and with every day the huge role played by the family becomes clearer, above all because it is a great factor in the formation of the soul and consciousness of the child.”
Today, Kollontai’s legacy has been rewritten. She is mainly remembered for her view that sex should be as easy and uncomplicated as “drinking a glass of water.”
Still, an honest engagement with Kollontai’s writing demonstrates that the Soviet misunderstandings of the market were replicated as misunderstandings of the family. The characteristic mistake was a blindness to the human person as both creative and fallen—which is to say, just the sort of being who thrives in a family. Thankfully, as a cigar-smoking English journalist once observed: “the love of man and woman is not an institution that can be abolished, or a construct that can be terminated. It is something older than all institutions or contracts, and something that is certain to outlast them all.”