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In 1898 Kollontai abandoned her conventional marriage to study political economy in Zurich. She had already read Marx and Lenin, but in Zurich she familiarized herself with the views of Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg. Before returning to St. Petersburg in 1899, she met in London Sidney and Beatrice Webb, whose reformist thoughts she rejected. Kollontai’s first article, dealing with the relationship between the development of children and their surroundings, was published in the Marxist journal Obrazovaniie in 1898. In her article dealing with Finland, published in Novoye vremia, she used the pseyudonym Elin Molin. Kollontai contributed … to the German journal Sociale Praxis.
Kollontai ardently believed in the natural and sacred function of motherhood and said so many times. Her largest book and much of her political effort after October was devoted to ensuring adequate medical care for working mothers. She … believed that society had an obligation to assist mothers by helping to raise their children. But her belief bore a qualification rarely mentioned in comments about it or about her: The state would not take children away from their parents, and all public child-rearing arrangements would be voluntary on the part of the parents. Her primary concern was that every woman would have the right and the genuine opportunity to have children and to be sure that they would be cared for. “Every mother must be convinced that once she fulfills her natural function and gives a new member to communist society, i.e. a new worker, the collective will love and attend to her and her child.” Marriage and sex were personal affairs; but motherhood, she said in words almost identical to Lenin’s, was a social concern.
Kollontai became the first woman elected to the Party Central Committee. After the October Revolution, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power, she was appointed People’s Commissar for Public Welfare. In the Ministry she was welcomed with a strike, as the other Commissars. “Immediately the poor of the great cities, the inmates of institutions, were plunged in miserable want: delegations of starving cripples, of orphans with blue, pinched faces, besieged the building. With tears streaming down her face, Kollontai arrested the strikers until they should deliver the keys of the office and the safe; when she got the keys… it was discovered that the former Minister, Countess Panina, had gone off with all the funds, which she refused to surrender except on the order of the Constituent Assembly.” (John Reed in Ten Days that Shook the World, 1919)
Kollontai was a member of the Social Democratic Labour Party. At its Second Congress in London in 1903, there was a dispute between two of its leaders, Vladimir Lenin and Julius Martov. Lenin argued for a small party of professional revolutionaries with a large fringe of non-party sympathizers and supporters. Martov disagreed believing it was better to have a large party of activists. Martov won the vote 28-23 but Lenin was unwilling to accept the result and formed a faction known as the Bolsheviks. Those who remained loyal to Martov became known as Mensheviks.
When the February revolution of 1917 broke out, Kollontai was in Norway. She delayed her return to Russia only long enough to receive Lenin’s “Letters from Afar” so she could carry them to the Russian organization. From the moment of her arrival, she joined Alexander Shlyapnikov and V. M. Molotov in the fight for a clear policy of no support to the provisional government, against the opposition of Kamenev and Stalin. She was elected a member of the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet (to which she had been elected as a delegate from an army unit). At a tumultuous meeting of social democrats on April 4, she was the only speaker other than Lenin to support the demand for “All Power to the Soviets.”
Throughout this period Kollontai had consistently stressed the need for working class women to organise independently from the bourgeois feminists. In this she was at odds with the majority of the Menshevik faction which consistently adapted to and compromised with the forces of bourgeois feminism. Her hostility to feminism placed her closer to the Bolsheviks who similarly waged a war against feminism. But at this stage she had not yet developed a coherent communist position on the organisation of working women which she was to develop alongside the Bolsheviks on the eve of the 1917 Revolution. Most importantly Kollontai, unlike Zetkin, failed to grasp the importance of ensuring Party leadership of the working class women’s movement. In this sense she remained closer to the positions of the Menshevik faction than to those of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.