Family abolition is, in the ordinary sense of the word, a utopian idea, one part of the claim that carefully considered and gradual reforms are insufficient, and that we can and must make a leap through revolution to a fundamentally different society. Fourier’s utopian proposals influenced the Russian author Chernyshevsky, whose novel What is to be Done? inspired the more hard-headed Lenin, to the point that he gave a work of his own the same title. But, while utopian socialists can provide inspiring visions of future societies, they lack an explanation of how we get to those societies from where we are now. Fourier himself explained in 1808 that once the new social arrangements were established in one area, “they will be imitated spontaneously in every country, simply by virtue of the vast profits and numberless pleasures this order will guarantee all individuals…” A comrade of the utopian socialist Robert Owen noted in his diary that “Mr Owen has this day assured me… that within six months the whole state and condition of society in Great Britain will be changed, and all his views carried into effect.” This was in 1835. Both Fourier and Owen believed that their plans would be seen to be simply better than the existing society and adopted as such, without recognising that capitalists had a crucial stake in the status quo. Indeed, Owen hoped that capitalists would invest in his schemes, and as such he became, as historian Barbara Taylor notes, “deeply fearful of independent working-class action.”
This highlights one of the most striking problems with utopian communities – that, though the term “utopian” suggests liberated social relations, they were often deeply undemocratic. For one thing, when the illustrious founder had described the new society in detail – and Fourier specified everything down to the appropriate numbers of dining tables, and included in his Theory of the Four Movements a chart detailing the next 75,000 years of human history – what exactly was left to discuss?6
Family abolition, as one element in a revolutionary project, thus has to be carried out democratically, as part of a social experiment in which the vast majority of people get to suggest and try out alternative ways of living. The most significant experiment of this kind took place in Russia in the years following the revolution of October 1917. Lewis comments on this society through her account of Alexandra Kollontai, one of the most important women Bolsheviks and of particular relevance to these issues as the People’s Commissar for Social Welfare. It’s worth, however, locating Kollontai in the context of Russian society a hundred years ago, and the development and eventual failure of the revolution, if we’re to make an accurate assessment of her life and ideas.
Early twentieth century Russia was a society in transformation. Islands of urban and industrial society were developing in a country where most people lived by subsistence farming in rural areas. Until 1861, half of the rural population were serfs, literally owned by their feudal masters. Around half of the children in rural areas would die before reaching adulthood, and people traditionally lived in extended family households, which were more resilient than single family ones. These households were dominated by older family members and men. Young women had low status, their essential role being to bear and raise children, and they suffered high levels of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
Most of the industrial workers in the huge new factories of cities like Moscow and St Petersburg would have grown up in rural areas – some of the men in these workplaces would have migrated to the cities, leaving wives in the villages, and returning to visit once a year. Industrialization could also mean change to families remaining in the countryside, since some factories were established in rural areas and employed local women. Even when a married couple both lived in the city, they might not live together. In St Petersburg, 43 percent of adult male workers were married, but only 8 percent lived with their family as head of the household. Where no public transport existed until after 1917, this could mean a married couple lived separately – and even where they lived together, they might not occupy all of a house or even all of a room, but rather a “corner,” part of a room marked off by a curtain.7
The family lives of the middle and upper classes in Russia were also rapidly changing in this period. Many middle-class women sought equality with their male counterparts, as in the US and Britain, so that by 1910 one in ten Russian doctors were women. Russian family lives were thus very different from those of most people in the global North today. And those of Bolshevik party members also differed from those of other Russians – to become a Bolshevik, which very likely would mean a prison sentence sooner or later, was to live outside the norms of Russian society. Some Bolshevik relationships were formed between Jews and Christians, couples who could not marry in Tsarist Russia. Some Bolshevik marriages were a matter of comradeship between members of an illegal organization, rather than love – a couple might marry so the wife could gain independence from her parents, or so that they could continue their political work together when one was sent into exile. Trotsky’s first marriage took place in this way, as he describes in his autobiography:
Alexandra Lvovna had one of the most important positions in the South Russian Workers’ Union… The work that we were doing bound us closely together, and so, to avoid being separated, we had been married in the transfer prison in Moscow.
If this seems cold, the revolutionary Inessa Armand, sent into exile in 1908, wrote to her husband, “I don’t know how I’ll live through two years without the children. It almost seems impossible to me.”8
In February 1917, after three years of world war, the Tsarist regime collapsed. Two centres of power emerged – the Provisional Government, which attempted to establish bourgeois democracy, and the soviets, councils of workers or soldiers, of which some 1,400 came into existence. In October, the Provisional Government in turn collapsed and the Bolsheviks took power at the head of a regime based on the soviets. The Soviet regime decreed dramatic changes in Russian laws – women were equal to men; divorce was available at request of either partner; legitimate and illegitimate children had the same rights; same-sex acts were no longer illegal; and women had the right to equal pay. These laws were meant as only a first step towards the abolition of the family. In the words of Inessa Armand, “as long as the old forms of the family, home life, childrearing are not abolished… it will be impossible to build socialism.”9
Revolutionary legislation did not include arrangements for adoption, for example, reflecting a desire for childcare to be provided collectively rather than by individual families or mothers, and initial steps were made in this direction – the number of factory creches increased from 14 in 1917 to 565 in 1920, and the number of children’s homes rose from 7 to 370. As the revolutionary regime fought wars for its survival, large numbers of people began to eat food cooked in communal dining halls, rather than by women at home – in 1919 80 percent of people in Petrograd province ate in dining halls, and 93 percent of people in Moscow did so, while many children also received free food. In the words of historian Wendy Goldman, “the disappearance of money, the organisation of large-scale, communal dining, the fluidity of personal relationships and high revolutionary morale all conspired to convince many that the withering away of the family and its supporting law was imminent.”10
These were advances without parallel in history. But, while we should draw inspiration from these events, words of warning are in order. We should remember that Russia in 1917 is not our world in 2022. This was a society without contraception, and with no antibiotics to treat sexually transmitted diseases, so that sex outside marriage had serious potential consequences, especially for women.
Lewis’s identification of Kollontai as a “libertine” doesn’t take account of these realities, and it’s simply inaccurate to identify Kollontai with the theory that in communism sex would be as insignificant as drinking a glass of water – indeed, far from embracing sexual pleasure for its own sake, Kollontai consistently linked sex to reproduction and argued that “childbirth is a social obligation” for women. That attitude is reflected, also, in the 1920 decree legalising abortion on demand – in which, as Lewis mentions, the Zhenotdel, the Bolshevik women’s section, played a key role. The decree states that, “the question of abortion should be decided not from the point of view of the rights of the individual, but from the point of view of the interests of the whole collective…” The Soviet regime wanted to prevent the deaths of women from illegal abortions, but the decree also committed the government to an anti-abortion propaganda campaign and to improving maternal care so that women did not feel the need to end their pregnancies. And, so as to discourage women from seeking abortions, the procedure was provided without anaesthetic, so that, while safe, it was excruciatingly painful.11
The constraints on the Soviet regime only increased over time. The country was invaded by sixteen foreign armies seeking to destroy the revolution, a goal shared by military forces supporting the former regime. From the start, revolutionary rule had been improvised and its hold on power shaky. In striking contrast to later Stalinist mythologising of October, for example, when Kollontai was appointed People’s Commissar for Social Welfare she made her way to the former Tsarist ministry only to be turned away by the security guard and told to come back tomorrow. By 1921 it had become necessary to reintroduce elements of capitalism under Soviet control – the New Economic Policy (NEP).
This forced retreat was a major step backwards for family policy and women in particular. A third of children’s homes closed between 1922 and 1923, and over half of the factory creches. A third of women in paid work lost their jobs as they were taken over by men returning from the Civil War, or because lack of childcare meant they couldn’t work: others moved to low-skilled, low-paid employment. Lack of resources was a major problem: with the Bolsheviks unable to replace domestic labour by collective or state provision, the family became for many workers the only place where they could get food, housing or emotional support. Indeed, the gap between people’s needs and the available support only increased in these years as a result of the destabilization of years of war and revolution.
By 1922, for example, there were an estimated 7 million homeless children in Russia, many of them living on the streets and getting what income they could from theft and prostitution. The revolution had given women formal equality and introduced easy divorce. But as high levels of divorce continued into the 1920s and lack of childcare meant divorced women were literally left holding the baby, formal equality combined uneasily with the reality of women’s continuing oppression. Proposals to make divorce even easier were rejected in the 1920s, as it became clear that, with the state unable to support them, divorced women would be left in poverty.12
It was in this context that Kollontai argued in 1920 in her book Communism and the Family that young couples should not be afraid of having children since the “child will be fed, it will be brought up, it will be educated by the care of the communist Fatherland”. The following year, as the NEP was implemented, she claimed that capitalism was in its death throes throughout the world. As one of Kollontai’s translators puts it,
Many of her writings… demonstrated a lack of awareness of the difficulties and obstacles facing socialist construction in the backward Soviet stronghold… because Kollontai was hostile to NEP, she continued to repeat the formulations of the period when short-cuts and forced marches to communism had seemed really possible.
This is the reason why Kollontai’s views were so strongly rejected – not because, as Lewis implies and other authors argue outright, because “the Bolshevik leaders were a philistine bunch and the party completely underestimated the importance of the sexual revolution and was, in fact, inherently hostile to it.”13
The response of revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky to the same issue in 1923 makes this clear. Trotsky pointed out that the “old traditional family” had been shattered by years of war. But the development of the new family did not happen automatically. “The change of political regime, the change even of the economic order of the state – the passing of the factories and mills into the hands of the workers – all this has certainly had some influence on family conditions, but only indirectly and externally.”
Part of what was necessary was an increased level of resources in a country as undeveloped as Russia. “The workers’ state must become wealthier in order that it may be possible seriously to tackle the public education of children and the releasing of the family from the burden of the kitchen and the laundry. Socialization of family housekeeping and public education of children are unthinkable without a marked improvement of our economics as a whole.” In the short term, “this does not mean that the more enterprising and progressive families cannot group themselves even now into collective housekeeping units.” But, in general, Trotsky argued that the traditional family was being destroyed without any reliable structures to provide love and care taking its place. In the resulting chaotic sexual free-for-all, “[t]he victims in all cases are the mother and children.”14
It can seem like the worst kind of socialist analysis to take sides in a debate between long-dead revolutionaries, when ten years later the gains of the Soviet state they were debating would be crushed by Stalinism. But the point is a crucial one. Lewis’s book reminds us that ideas about family abolition are part of those socialist tradition, and these ideas can help us understand the world and inspire us to change it. But these ideas must be put into practice in concrete situations, tested and debated by millions of people.