Alexandra Kollontai was a Russian revolutionary who wrote about the liberation of women and the need for any kind of socialist revolution to deal with the inequalities existing between men and women before it could be truly
Love of worker bees is her novel which expands on some of these ideas, being built on the conflict between a (common-law) husband and wife when the husband, Volodya, is still tied to bourgeois notions of marriage while his wife, Vasya, is convinced that the new politics of post-revolutionary Russia must be reflected in new social and personal relations. Volodya becomes a director of a large factory, and starts to expect Vasya to take on the bourgeois role of ‘director’s wife’ – to stay at home and keep the house nice (with the help of a servant), leaving behind her previous work in the Party, and the communal house she has devoted herself to organsing. She finds this constricting, and when her husband’s workers come to the house to complain about working conditions enthusiastically throws herself back into the role of Bolshevik trade unionist, helping them find ways to fight the boss.
Volodya sees this as a betrayal; but betrays Vasya in turn by keeping up an affair with a beautiful, non-political woman, Nina. Vasya, sincerely committed to a new politics of sexual engagement, is less troubled by the affair than by Volodya’s failure to tell her the truth about it. The psychological reality of the novel is in Vasya’s inability to make a clean break with Volodya: she is sensible enough to realise that the life he offers is not for her, but her passionate sexual desire for him makes her dither and delay, breaking things off only to be overwhelmed by his declarations of love; convincing herself again and again that he is not lying to her, that he has truly broken off his affair. But in the end her redemption is to walk away from her marriage to Volodya and return alone but pregnant to her communal house. Here she intends to make a life more in keeping with her communalist, progressive ideas:
‘But how are you going to raise a child all on your own?’ [asks her friend Grusha]
‘What do you mean, all on my own? Everything will be arranged perfectly, and we’ll set up a crêche. In fact I thought of asking you to help run the crêche. I know how you love children. And soon there’ll be a new baby, for all of us!’
‘A communist baby!’
‘Precisely so!’ They both laughed.
Sheila Rowbotham, who writes the afterword to my copy, suggests in Women, resistance and revolution that Love of worker bees fails to solve the problem it expresses so beautifully:
‘…Vasilisa’s choice simply ignores the basic causes of tension. She goes away and is able to rid herself of her jealousy of Nina and the traditional feminine […] She finds her identity thus only by denying the existence of the man and her own sexuality. The only solution possible is no real solution.’
But this is a misreading of the source of conflict: Vasya’s problem in Love of worker bees is not one of sexual jealousy of the other woman, but of separating her own desires and needs as an individual (for freedom, independence, her work, the ability to live how she likes) from her sexual desire for Volodya. Furthermore, Vasya doesn’t rule out sexuality forever: all she decides is that her passion for Volodya is spent, since they no longer share the friendship and trust she needs in a relationship.
Nonetheless it’s true that the ending with its sunny communist optimism is not as psychologically subtle as the depiction of Vasya’s struggle to detach herself from Volodya. But Kollontai’s ideas about the need for new forms of personal life to follow new political structures are important, and Love of worker bees expresses them beautifully.