WORLD WAR I, which destroyed a generation, impelled Kollon-tai to become a Bolshevik. She had always believed that war in the era of capitalism would be a conflagration in which workers fell victim to the nationalistic hostilities of the ruling classes. Thus she participated with enthusiasm in the conference of the International which met at Basel in 1912 to reaffirm the socialist opposition to war. Shortly afterwards in a letter to her friend Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik, Kollontai wrote, “I have had to speak against the war, threaten revolution, the ‘red specter,’ if the powers risk war.” In addition to her ideological interpretation of capitalist warfare, she hated the atrocity of combat. Most socialists felt the same as she, but in their meetings and demonstrations there was also an aura of unreality, a touch of sloganeering and bravado that masked the fact that they lacked an effective program and the power to halt war should it begin. Kollontai too became caught up in the euphoria of making declarations which had no force. In the letter written to her friend after the Basel Conference, she confessed, “You know, it was grand, that protest of the peoples against the war. The marvelous voice of Jaurès, the gray head of Keir Hardie, the revolutionary songs, the processions, meetings, the enthusiastic youth. I lived it all fully.”1
When the war actually began, in July 1914, Kollontai was vacationing in the Bavarian resort town of Kohlgrub. There she read the newspapers avidly, hoping that the conflict between Austria and Serbia over the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand would be resolved peacefully. There had been crises before, in Morocco and the Balkans, and the Great Powers had somehow managed to find an accommodation. Yet this time many Europeans sensed that their rulers would not compromise. On July 26 Kollontai wrote in her diary:
No, something fearful is building. The newspapers write seriously of war. No one wants it. Everyone thinks it would be der grösste Ursinns [the greatest madness]. Resort life takes its normal course. The ladies dance, stout matrons gossip. It is strange to see how everyone tries to assure one another that war is impossible. But in his soul each is afraid and everyone seems to be waiting for something.2
When the news finally arrived that Austria had declared war on Serbia, Kollontai knew that there would be no peace. “And yet I don’t believe it, I don’t comprehend it, I don’t feel it.”3
She arrived back in Berlin on August 2, the day after Germany declared war on Russia, and she found the city in a rush toward combat. Newly mobilized soldiers filled the trains, the streets swarmed with preparations. In the bellicose mood that gripped the nation, Russians had become enemy aliens.
Kollontai worried first about her son Misha, who was in Berlin. He was now a young man of twenty, and sending him back to Russia meant almost certain conscription, unless he could get an educational deferment. Neither he nor the many other Russian émigrés could stay in Germany, given the hostility toward them there, and yet the government had closed the borders, so it was extremely difficult to leave.
Two days after she returned to Berlin, on August 4, Kollontai and Misha were called to police headquarters for questioning. The authorities soon released her, after an interrogation about her revolutionary activities. Misha remained in jail, however, probably because he was a prime prospect for military service, and his mother could not find out where he was being held. It was a sad, confusing time for her: the dreaded war had begun; her son was imprisoned; Germans had become enemies; and most awful of all, the people of Berlin were turning out to cheer the departing soldiers. Even her socialist comrades offered her no comfort. Only Karl Liebknecht helped Kollontai argue for Misha’s release, while the rest of the Social Democrats were deciding how to respond to the war.
On August 4 the German socialists had to choose whether to vote for or against military appropriations. If they approved the government’s request for emergency funds, they would, in effect, be voting to support the war effort. For years the Second International had vowed to oppose any war fought for the benefit of the capitalist rulers of Europe. Now, when the time came for the Germans to make a decisive choice, the majority approved the expenditures, justifying them as necessary “for national defense.” Kollontai sat in the gallery of the Reichstag that day and watched with disbelief as the illusion of an international socialist community died. “And over everything,” she wrote, “like lead, weighed the realization: they voted for war! There is no more international solidarity!”4 The “collective” in which she put so much faith dissolved before her eyes, leaving her betrayed. “I knew horror and despair,” she wrote. “It seemed to me that all was lost. The atmosphere was so stifling and hopeless that it was as if a wall had grown up before me and there was no way ahead.”5
On August 7 the police released Misha, and Kollontai, along with other Russian emigres, continued to search for a way out of Germany. One German Social Democrat asked them if they thought they could now organize a successful revolution at home. “I did not like the sudden interest with which he put such questions to us,” Kollontai wrote. “Is it possible that he supposes that Russian socialists intend to work at the Kaiser’s right hand?”6 She left Germany in early September, having decided to go to Scandinavia and attempt to contact other Social Democrats who opposed the war.7
Apparently she never hesitated in her attitude toward the fighting, was never caught up in the wave of patriotism that swept over Europe to engulf most socialists. In 1926 she wrote, “War seemed to me an abomination, madness, a crime; from the very first, more from impulse than reflection, I have rejected it inwardly and up to this very moment I cannot reconcile myself to it. The frenzy of patriotic feeling remains very strange to me.”8 Although a daughter of the military, she had grown up among various nationalities—Bulgarians, Finns, Russians—and was herself both Finnish and Russian. Her parents had taught her to be at home in several cultures, so she had taken easily to the internationalism of Marxist socialism. Furthermore, that aspect of the ideology spoke to her longing for a collectivist peace after the revolution. Despite all her rhetoric about class warfare, Kollontai felt a pacifist’s abhorrence of violence.
Many socialists, the majority, did not share Kollontai’s feelings. For years the International had preached that war only served the interests of the ruling classes, that it was the ultimate expression of capitalist competition. The proletarian had no country; his first loyalty should lie with all other workers, regardless of nationality, for they were his true brothers in misery. When the war began, however, the claims of homeland proved to be unexpectedly strong, and many socialists supported their nation’s participation in the conflict, arguing that they must defend themselves from an aggressive enemy. Others, not swept away by patriotism, went along with the war spirit because they doubted the political wisdom of flying in the face of public opinion. Only a few socialists applied the old arguments against capitalist war to this war, and they were a minority now within the Social Democratic parties of the combatant nations of Europe. They wanted to generate some sort of organized opposition to the war, but they were loath at first to renounce their colleagues who supported defensive combat. Thus confused and uncertain, the antiwar elements of the Second International began a vain search for unity in a futile effort to stop the slaughter.
After a brief stay in Denmark, Kollontai went with Misha to Stockholm, where the left wing of the Social Democratic Party, led by Zeth Höglund and Fredrik Strom, shared her opposition to the war. She gave vent to her feelings by writing a passionate declaration to women, which she circulated among the Russian community in Sweden and Denmark and then smuggled back into Russia. In it she called for women all over Europe to unite in demanding a just, democratic peace. “The war is not only booty, power, and devastation,” Kollontai wrote, “not only suffering, unemployment, and poverty; it is also the unleashing of all the wild passions among humanity, it is the triumph of raw force, it is the justification for all the cruelty, conquest, and degradation which militarism brings in its wake.” She concluded by calling for “a war on war.”9
That phrase, and the article as a whole, reflected the attitudes of many left Swedish Social Democrats. They and the other socialists throughout Europe who opposed the war were calling for peace and disarmament. The majority of the Swedish party, led by Hjalmar Branting, pursued a quieter policy. The moderate Swedish Social Democrats wanted to keep Sweden out of the fighting, and they felt that this goal, less lofty than Kollontai’s demand for an end to the war but also more attainable, could best be achieved by a national policy of strict neutrality. They therefore sought to avoid friction with the combatant nations at all cost, which meant avoiding contact with the radicals’ call for a campaign against the war. Thus they did not welcome Kollontai’s declarations any more than did the government.
Ström and Höglund were sympathetic to Kollontai, however, and in October 1914 they sponsored a tour of the country for her and another Russian Social Democrat who was in Stockholm, Aleksandr Shliapnikov. It was possibly on this trip that Kollontai and Shliapnikov became lovers.
Shliapnikov had been born in Murom, a town 150 miles east of Moscow, in the mid-1880s; he was not sure of the year because his parents were members of the Old Believer sect, which refused to register births with the government. His father, a sometime miller, laborer, carpenter, and salesman, died when Sasha was three, leaving his mother with four children to rear. They lived in poverty and everyone had to work. The boy learned to read and write, but his childhood was hard, and made more difficult because other children tormented him for being an Old Believer. “Religious persecution, street persecution, persecution in school, poverty and deprivation in the family—all this disposed my childhood dreams and attitudes to struggle and martyrdom,” Shliapnikov later wrote.10
He became a lathe operator, moving from factory to factory until he made his way to St. Petersburg in 1901. There he took part in the strikes sweeping the capital in the first years of the twentieth century and read revolutionary literature. He left the city because of its dreadful working conditions, but the seed had been sown, and when he got home he sought out local Social Democrats to learn more about Marxism. In 1903 he began to participate in illegal activities, and soon thereafter became a Bolshevik. In 1908 he went to Western Europe, where he combined party activity with factory work. He returned to Russia briefly in 1914, but in late September of that year he set out for Stockholm in order to work with the Bolsheviks abroad, particularly on establishing better communications between them and the party organization in St. Petersburg.11
Shliapnikov was dark-haired, mustached, solidly built and average in height. His comrades liked him for his calm disposition and his kindness.12 Lenin relied on his considerable organizational ability. He had qualities prized by all political organizations—reliability, sobriety, judgment, and dedication. He was, all in all, a respected Bolshevik.
Kollontai fell in love with him in the fall of 1914, and stayed attached to him until at least 1916, and probably longer. It seems an unlikely relationship, for not only were their class origins different, but he was very different from the intellectual Maslov. He was a genial politician rather than a thinker, somewhat like her first husband in his fundamentally nonintellectual approach to the world. She was in every sense his senior in revolutionary politics. He was more than ten years younger than she, proletarian, not highly educated, and without high status as a Social Democrat; but those qualities may have made him more attractive. Perhaps Kollontai felt that this man could not attempt to dominate her as the others had. Given his kindness, she could expect that he would not even try. In loving him, she would run no risk of raising her tendency to become dependent, and thus she could hope that the cycle of subordination and rebellion that had destroyed her earlier loves would not begin again.
It was Shliapnikov who first put Kollontai in touch with Lenin. After making her acquaintance, he informed Lenin that she opposed the war. Lenin responded on October 27: “I am glad from the bottom of my heart if Comrade Kollontai has taken our position.”13 He was referring to his theory that socialists should work to turn the imperialist war into revolutionary civil wars, wherein the proletariat would rise up and destroy the bourgeoisie. Kollontai had not accepted that idea, although she read several of Lenin’s articles in October and began corresponding with him. She was drawn instead to the pacifist demands for an end to all war and for disarmament, demands which most antiwar socialists supported. Kollontai believed that peace would allow the class struggle to dominate national life again, and she thought that peace would be achieved by uniting socialists into an effective international opposition that could mobilize the proletariat to end the conflict. Lenin’s theory would prevent unity, because it would alienate socialists who were torn between their hatred of war and their desire to see their country defended. They would only be offended by Lenin’s demands for civil war, which he coupled with defiant statements that socialists should work for the defeat of their nation’s armies. On November 28 Kollontai urged Lenin to accept the need for drawing all antiwar socialists together.
Now we must have a concrete slogan for everyone close to us, and this slogan can serve the struggle for peace. I think we need to put forward a slogan that will unite everyone, promote the revival of the spirit of solidar- ity. And what can better unite the proletariat of all countries right now than the demand, the call—war on war? In other words, war with those who lead us to war.14
Lenin denounced Kollontai’s position as pacifist. He was not interested either in socialist unity or in peace at any price; rather than an end to the fighting, he wanted the guns now in the hands of the poor to be turned against the rich. “War on war” was unproductive or worse, regressive, because its adherents did not see the war as a catalyst for revolution. When Kollontai supported that slogan, Lenin immediately rebuked her. In letters of December 1914 and January 1915 he continued to press his civil war theory. To one of those letters she replied in a conciliatory tone, “I am glad above all that we find points of contact and that therefore we can work together in this hard time. This is especially dear to me now, when there is such ruin and when one feels that at times one is talking a different language even with recently close friends.”15
If she had disagreements with Lenin, they were minor compared to the rift with her Menshevik colleagues, many of whom supported the combat as necessary to defend Russia from German aggression. Like the other socialist parties of Europe, the Russian was divided over the war, but among the Russians this new issue blurred factional lines and caused antiwar Bolsheviks and Mensheviks to move cautiously toward one another in an attempt to work together despite their differences. Kollontai was one such Menshevik. Thus she corresponded with Lenin and joined Shliapnikov’s efforts to communicate with St. Petersburg. She also talked daily with the left Swedish Social Democrats and published in Strom’s newspaper Storm klockan. So active was she that her rooms became a “staff apartment” for Russians and Swedes.16
All this work naturally made the Swedish government increasingly uneasy. In mid-November 1914 the police arrested Kollontai and charged her with meddling in Sweden’s internal affairs by receiving large amounts of correspondence, turning her apartment into a “revolutionary club,” and publishing inflammatory articles. In this last particular they cited “The War and Our Most Immediate Tasks,” an article in which she had described the war as having “surpassed anything that one could imagine even in one’s most savage fantasies up until now.” Kollontai admitted that socialists had underrated the pull of nationalism on the working class, and she called on socialists to oppose militarism.17 This could indeed be read as an oblique criticism of the Swedish policy of defense spending, but it was Kollontai’s whole pattern of activity that induced the government to use the article as a pretext. She was too vocal and too popular among Swedish Social Democrats.
The police took her first to a prison in Stockholm, then to another outside the city. They threatened to deport her to Finland, to which Kol- lontai replied that they might as well turn her over to the tsarist police directly. She persuaded a priest to take a message to her friends telling them where she was, but that stratagem proved unnecessary, since Hög- lund and Strom were already pressuring the government for her release. Branting, the leader of the Social Democrats, said in print that the authorities had arrested an innocent foreigner simply because she dared to criticize Sweden’s excessive defense spending.18 Privately he told his daughter Sonia that he thought the Russian embassy might have complained about Kollontai.19 Höglund angrily declared that the incident was a victory for militarism, and the Social Democratic Party Congress passed a resolution condemning the arrest. Although conservative newspapers accused Kollontai of being a Russian spy, the protest had its effect; the government declared her persona non grata and expelled her to Denmark instead of sending her back to Russia.20 In late November Kollontai left Malmö for Copenhagen.
Denmark proved no more hospitable than Sweden, for the police followed her constantly. Nor did Kollontai find any congenial comrades among the Danish Social Democrats. She stayed in Copenhagen through January to observe a conference of socialists of neutral nations, then accepted an invitation to move to Norway. There she finally felt at home; the Norwegian leftists were resolutely antiwar, there was a fairly large Russian colony around Christiania (renamed Oslo in 1924), police surveillance was minimal, and the country was beautiful.21
Throughout the late winter and spring Kollontai worked with the Scandinavians while trying at the same time to maintain her ties with all the various Russians, Bolshevik and Menshevik, who opposed the war. She became a correspondent to Golos, a shortlived newspaper printed in Paris by a Bolshevik-Menshevik coalition, including Akselrod and Angelica Balabanoff. The paper lasted only two months, but in its aftermath the same group organized Nashe slovo with Trotsky and Martov as joint editors, and Kollontai contributed to this venture as well. At the same time she acted as liaison in Scandinavia for Lenin and for Krupskaia and Inessa, who were then organizing a women’s conference for the spring.
Kollontai was still hoping for a general alliance of socialists, so she continued to call for a struggle for peace and for a new internationalism, without invoking Lenin’s civil war theory.22 That stance brought her into long-distance conflict with Krupskaia, who refused to distribute some antiwar propaganda she had received from Kollontai because it was not sufficiently Leninist.23 Despite her criticism, however, Krupskaia continued to request Kollontai’s help on the women’s conference, a rump convention of the meeting originally scheduled for August 1914. Inessa and Krupskaia were hoping to organize the delegates there in favor of Bolshevik resolutions against the war. Kollontai tried to find Norwegian support, but the results were not heartening. In her disappointment she wrote to Krupskaia: “I somehow believe more in the youth in present circumstances. But of course this is not going to make me change my beloved work among women, however thankless it is. It’s too difficult for them, for everywhere, everywhere, they are slaves. Even here, where they have the vote.”24
She managed to find three women who would sign a resolution to send to the women’s conference, and she dutifully mailed it to Switzerland. She herself could not get permission to cross France en route to Bern, the site of the meeting. In any event, only twenty-nine delegates came to it. Under Clara Zetkin’s guidance, they voted for just the kind of general antiwar resolution Kollontai favored.
Aware of Kollontai’s position, Lenin was still trying in the spring of 1915 to gain her as a supporter. In April she published a three-part series in Nashe slovo entitled “German Social Democracy in the First Days of the War,” in which she bitterly accused the SPD of collaborating with the government to mobilize the masses for combat. They should have used their “colossal, perfectly functioning apparatus” to organize against the war.25 Krupskaia wrote to her shortly after the series appeared: “Vladimir Il’ich was extraordinarily pleased by your article in Nashe slovo."26 Lenin may have been taken with Kollontai’s criticism of the German party because the Russians had always admired it as the leading Social Democratic organization in Europe. Its betrayal of socialist internationalism therefore seemed all the more perfidious. Or Lenin may simply have been flattering Kollontai. He did value her skills as a linguist and propagandist, and in the spring, soon after Krupskaia conveyed his compliments, he asked Kollontai to become a contributor to a newspaper he was founding, Kommunist. Her first and only article in the paper, “Why Did the Proletariat of Germany Remain Silent in the July Days?,” repeated the charge that the German workers supported the war because both their unions and their party favored collaboration with the bourgeoisie instead of encouraging the workers to think for themselves. The masses did what they were told, marching off to die.27
Almost in spite of herself, Kollontai was moving close to Lenin, while trying not to break with former comrades.28 Lenin’s gentle persuasion had less to do with her conversion than did the fact that within Russian Social Democracy she had very little choice between the Bolsheviks and those Mensheviks who supported the war effort as necessary for Russian survival. Martov was attempting to retain his affiliation with the pro-war members of his faction, but in so doing he found himself drifting into an ambiguous stand on the war which Kollontai could not tolerate. As the combat became more bloody, it came more and more to dominate her thinking, and the Russian leader who seemed most resolutely against it was Lenin. The indecision of the Mensheviks contrasted unpleasantly with his absolute conviction and with the relentlessness with which he argued his position. In June 1915 Kollontai finally made the decision to support Lenin and become a Bolshevik.29 In the face of the all-consuming war, she forgot her earlier doubts about Lenin’s vanguard theory, about his denigration of the spontaneous revolution, and about his stress on a highly centralized party. He was right about the war, and the war was her major concern.
Kollontai threw herself into backing Lenin as wholeheartedly as she had embraced former causes. Having made up her mind to follow Lenin, she declared now that he was totally right, that his civil war theory would allow socialists who opposed the war to draw a sharp line between themselves and those who were vacillating. Thus the theory had tactical value. It was a position around which people could gather, a prediction of the revolutionary potential in the war, which could also serve as a rallying point. Kollontai wrote in her diary on July 22: “This is not just ‘analysis.’ This is tactics. This is action. This is a political program. Above all, in all countries, a break with all social patriots. A decisive and ruthless break.”30 Lenin proposed a clear statement of principles, while other socialists fumbled for a new course and hesitated over disavowing their comrades, the “social patriots.” Kollontai had no more doubts. On August 2 she continued to praise her new leader: “For me it is completely clear now that no one is fighting the war as effectively as Lenin. . . . The war can be stopped only by means of an attack by the masses, only by the will of the proletariat.”31 She had come over to Lenin, therefore, because she had given up her earlier goal of generating a broad coalition under the umbrella of general and therefore relatively inoffensive slogans. Now she had decided that Lenin was correct in his insistence that “a decisive and ruthless break” with the “social patriots” was a necessary first step to unifying the left. What Kollontai disregarded in her euphoria was that Lenin’s certainty, which had won her admiration, would be a barrier to socialist cooperation, for he would fight repeatedly in the next two years, not just with “social patriots” but with anyone who did not agree with him completely. The antiwar socialists, that minority in which Kollontai put her faith, could not have ended the war by sparking an uprising of the working class in any case. Divided by conflicts caused in no small measure by Lenin’s dogmatism, they fell to fighting among themselves, while the war ground on.
Kollontai herself continued to debate with Lenin, even though she claimed to be his ardent supporter. Her first contribution to the Bolsheviks was a pamphlet, “Who Needs the War?,” written in the summer of 1915 and translated into several languages for distribution to the troops. In it Kollontai clearly adopted Lenin’s notion that the international war must be turned into a series of civil wars, wherein the workers overthrew the bourgeoisie; at the same time in her letters to him she refused to abandon the call for disarmament. That was a pacifist demand which Lenin considered silly. How could the workers overthrow the bourgeoisie without guns? Kollontai had adopted the civil war theory while still holding onto her earlier, and now contradictory, pronouncements against militarism.32
Lenin and Kollontai also disagreed about Lenin’s theory of imperialism. The development of colonial liberation movements in India and elsewhere had caught the attention of socialists, who were not entirely sure whether such movements were a truly emancipating force or a bourgeois plot. Lenin believed that the temporary alliance of native bourgeoisie, proletariat, and peasantry in a national campaign to expel an imperialist, European power from a colonial country was a positive step toward revolution, for it would weaken international capitalism. Socialists should therefore support aspirations toward “national self-determination.” On the other hand, G. L. Piatakov and N. I. Bukharin, borrowing arguments from Rosa Luxemburg, argued that collaboration with the bourgeoisie anywhere would harm the long-term interests of the oppressed classes and that socialists should not encourage nationalism in any form. Kollontai agreed. In an article in Nashe slovo in June 1915, almost a year before general debate over the issue produced Lenin’s and Bukharin’s most significant publications, she wrote that the cry of “Asia for Asians” was simply a slogan promoted by Asian capitalists to increase their control over their own people. Only a firm commitment to socialist internationalism could stem the tide of “yellow capitalism.”33 Kollontai thus rejected Lenin’s theory, which was to evolve into a rationale for the wars of national liberation that would later sweep the colonial world. She proved less tactically astute than Lenin, because she clung more stubbornly to orthodoxy. When she included references to her position in Who Needs the War? Lenin edited them out.34
Of course, Lenin lectured everyone who did not accept his notions completely, and despite their disagreements Kollontai had really joined the Bolsheviks, although she retained her contacts with the Nashe slovo group in Paris. She acted now as Lenin’s agent in Scandinavia, translating his writings and working with Swedish and Norwegian Social Democrats. In the summer of 1915 the most immediate task was the Zimmer- wald Conference, a meeting of socialists scheduled for late summer. Its very convocation sharply divided Social Democrats, for its sponsors, Od- dino Morgari of Italy, the Swiss Robert Grimm, Angelica Balabanoff, and especially Lenin and Trotsky, were attempting to organize antiwar socialists. Morgari had sought the support of the leaders of the Second International, but Emile Vandervelde, chairman of the International Socialist Bureau and a Belgian, refused to countenance even a convocation of socialists from neutral nations, “as long as German soldiers are billeted in the homes of Belgian workers.”35 Morgari, the Russians, and the Swiss decided to meet without permission and attempt to lay the basis for a new socialist unity by drafting a declaration of principle. Kollontai approved of that effort wholeheartedly, and in midsummer she and Shliapnikov met with Norwegian and Swedish Social Democrats in hopes of convincing them to go to Zimmerwald.36
Branting continued to support the leadership of the Second International, as did the majority of Scandinavian socialists; thus they avoided any movement toward separation. However, Zeth Höglund and the Norwegian Ture Nerman, head of the Social Democratic Youth Organization, were willing to join the Zimmerwald effort. Kollontai tried to line them up behind Lenin ahead of time by getting them to adopt as their own a draft resolution on peace which Lenin had sent her, but here the Scandinavians balked. Unlike her, they had not become Bolsheviks; they wanted to avoid a final split in their parties, and Höglund especially resented taking orders from abroad. They chose to prepare a resolution of their own, approved by the Central Committee of the youth organization with Kollontai’s collaboration, but they also voted with Lenin when the Zimmerwald meeting convened.37
While Kollontai was negotiating with Nerman and Höglund in early August, she received an invitation from the German Socialist Federation of the American Socialist Party to tour the United States and speak against the war. She wrote in her diary, “This is so incredibly good that I am gasping with joy and am afraid to believe it.” She accepted by return mail, then sent off a letter to Lenin telling him that she had just found a fine new opportunity to spread their views. Almost as enthusiastic as she, he sent back instructions that she was to translate his pamphlet “Socialism and the War” into English, and then attempt to have it published in the United States. She was also to use the tour to rally people there to the Zimmerwald movement and to raise money.38
Some of her friends, including Zoia Shadurskaia with whom Kollontai was in constant correspondence, worried about her crossing the Atlantic in wartime, but she dismissed their fears.39 Anxiously she waited until September 15 for the expense money to arrive from the United States; she lived off the proceeds of her writing, lecture fees, and the remnants of her inheritance, but money was always so short that she could not finance the trip herself. When the bank draft finally came, Kollontai had second thoughts. “Then I will be still farther from Russia. What if things start up ? There, on that side of the ocean, I won’t know anything,” she wrote in her diary.40 The idea of going off on an adventure soon renewed her spirits, however, and on September 26 she left Christiania on a Norwegian ship.
Kollontai knew very little about American socialism. Immediately after the outbreak of World War I the party leadership had taken an antiwar position that seemed to agree with the European left socialists, but in fact only disguised deep cleavages within the movement. Some U.S. socialists favored the Entente, some the Triple Alliance, but only a few condemned the war as capitalistic. The last faction, which included Louis Boudin, Louis Fraina, and S. J. Rutgers, was in turn divided on the real meaning of the war. Theodore Draper has written of the left wing of the American Socialist Party during World War I, “It is best to think of it as a haphazard collection of individuals rather than as anything resembling an organized group.”41
Complicating ideological confusion was the fragmentation of the party into autonomous nationality groups, which comprised one-third of the total membership in 1915.42 A few of these socialists were pro-Zim- merwald, like Ludwig Lore, the head of the German Federation and the man who invited Kollontai, but they did not represent the party majority. Nor were they in touch with the latest developments in the Second International. Lore wrote three years later, “At that time socialist America was intensely ignorant of the conditions and tendencies of European Socialism. The words Zimmerwald and Kienthal were only the vaguest of conceptions even to the more intelligent of American Socialists.”43 Kol- lontai’s task was to convince these people to support Lenin.
She spoke first in New York. At one meeting the Bolshevik resolution she proposed was not even brought to a vote because the party chairman, Morris Hillquit, declared that the session could not speak for the entire party. Nor did Kollontai make a good impression on pro-Zimmer- wald people. She was homesick, exhausted, and slightly ill, and she left New York convinced that the United States was full of chauvinists and poorly educated internationalists.44
In mid-October she started on a three-month tour that took her from the east to the west coast via Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Captivated by the country’s natural beauty, she filled her diary with descriptions of the scenery. On October 15 she wrote, “The train carries us past huge rivers (right now the Hudson), past unknown cities, places. Beautiful! Wonderful. And it is strange that this is America!” Traveling through Illinois on October 29 she wrote:
The sun shines dimly through gray haze. The wind whirls, chases clouds of dust, forces its way through the chinks in the train and at the station throws dried leaves at us. The harvested fields spread out desolate and dejected; the brown, dried, cracked land prays for rain. . . . What’s American here? These endless fields and these green groves above the ponds and these gray farmhouses—all this immediately reminds me of the central regions of Russia.
In early November she went from Colorado to Salt Lake City.
I never thought that I would fall in love with the desert. But what I saw today surpassed all expectations! What air and what colors and abundance of subtle, delicate watercolor tones. Today the desert is all sand colored, dry, but cut up by wild, uninhabited mountains. These are desert mountains, monochrome. As though covered with velvet, and velvet of subtle tones from cinnamon to vieux rose, from pale gold to delicate sand.
I am in love! I am in love with the desert!45
Nature pleased her much more than the people she met. Although she received ample publicity, including interviews in American newspapers, and although her audiences were large, Kollontai did not feel satisfied with her performance. She was badly overworked and always in a rush. In Chicago, the German Federation scheduled two or three speaking engagements a day, for five days, then put her on a night train to St. Louis. She arrived there at 7:00 a.m., to be greeted by a delegation that took her on a thirty-mile tour of the city. She found it “tidy, showy, and boring.”46 Afterward she had no time to go over her speech, and she felt that her talk was flat.
Neither did she care for most of her hosts. They worked her too hard on a skimpy allowance, and they were not staunch revolutionaries. Many wanted to hear her defend Germany rather than attack the war in general. On December 12 in Cincinnati she wrote indignantly in her diary:
I just came back from a typical meeting organized by the German comrades. The big hall was filled. Of course! The socialists had announced, “a German meeting,” not saying that a Russian was speaking, and besides that an international socialist! All kinds of people had gathered. Many petty-bourgeois German burghers. For several hundred men, ten or so women.
After the meeting it isn’t at all like meetings of Americans! There they come up, warmly say, “a splendid speach [sic]. It’s just what we want: more revolutionary spirit in the movement.”47
She found the Germans “petty-bourgeois revisionists” for the most part, which meant they would not embrace her call to Zimmerwald. The Russian colonies scattered throughout the United States were no more receptive, although they greeted Kollontai as a countrywoman. Their nationalism irritated her. Nor did it aid her persuasive abilities, for Russian audiences interpreted her calls for an end to the war as pro-German.48
Kollontai considered the native-born Americans most congenial and receptive to her message, and she particularly liked Eugene Debs, Bill Haywood, and the members of the Industrial Workers of the World whom she met. Apparently the strongly syndicalist cast of the Wobblies did not bother her in 1915, but she did become impatient with the American socialists’ reliance on legal means to power. “No,” she wrote, “The Social Democratic movement is getting too decent for me! If it is only going to count the voices in elections and preach pur [sic] and simple parliamentarianism, it will miss everything. I am suffocated with such things! A new International must be built!”49
The main theme of Kollontai’s speeches and articles was that true socialists must band together to form a new International, dedicated to worldwide worker solidarity and revolution.50 Those people who had been pro-Zimmerwald before she came responded favorably, while those who supported the war on one side or the other responded negatively. Kollontai changed few minds. Nor was she successful in raising much money or in publishing Lenin’s pamphlet in its entirety, although she did distribute Zimmerwald literature.51 Her greatest success lay in publicizing Lenin’s position among Americans who were not in close touch with events in the European socialist community.
Her feelings of being cut off from home and of missing Misha and Shliapnikov continued to plague her. In December 1915 she returned to New York, stayed there six weeks, and then sailed for Norway. In March she wrote to Krupskaia that the trip had been worthwhile. The United States was a great, powerful, young country where the advancement of capitalism surely meant a swift transition to socialism.52
Back in Norway, in 1916, Kollontai took up her work with Social Democratic youth organizations and with Russian émigrés. Shliapnikov had been in Stockholm with Bukharin and Piatakov, again forwarding Lenin’s messages to Russia, but the Swedish police made the process very difficult. In the spring the Bolsheviks moved to Christiania, where Shliapnikov found the Norwegians polite and interested but unwilling to help in an illegal operation. Chronically short of funding, he could not even print Bolshevik literature successfully there, so in midsummer he set off for the United States to solicit contributions from Jewish socialist groups.53
Although the Bolsheviks in Norway could not secure good communications with Petrograd, Kollontai took comfort in the widening rift developing between the left and right Scandinavian socialists throughout the winter of 1915—16.54 She was also pleased by the completion of one delayed project in the spring of 1916. The book she had finished just before the war, Society and Maternity, was finally published. She intended it “to bring the demands for broad maternity insurance into conformity with the basic tasks of the working class, to render a clear account of what place this part of the socialist program plays in the great building of social reconstruction.”55 She had stated the basic ideas in several articles between 1912 and 1914, and even as early as 1908 in The Social Bases of the Woman Question.56 The bourgeois family was decaying, she argued; some of its functions had already been assumed by the state with the establishment of public education. Society should now guarantee healthy childbirth and complete child care. Some governments had already begun to take steps in that direction by instituting maternity insurance, but much more needed to be done. Governments should follow the Social Democratic program for reform in working conditions and medical care. Kollontai documented her argument with extensive surveys of contemporary maternity protection in fifteen countries, including Bosnia- Herzgovina and Australia.
The book was almost six hundred pages long. Like The Life of the Finnish Workers and The Social Bases of the Woman Question, it was more a catalogue than an integrated analysis—a heaping up of data culled from government documents to support the program first formulated in the 1890s by the SPD. The book did provide some shocking statistics on infant mortality, spontaneous abortion, prostitution, and the other horrors of a factory woman’s life, and it did exhort the socialists to act on the issue immediately rather than waiting for the revolution. Its publication had limited impact, however, because the war had forced the postponement of all such projects for the duration.
In the late summer of 1916 Kollontai left her work in Norway to return to the United States. Although she planned to renew her contacts with American socialists and Russian émigrés in New York, she went not primarily in order to work, but to be with her son. When Misha had visited her the previous summer, he had been depressed. His mother wrote in her diary on July 11, 1915, “Life is hard for Mishunia now. Like an older person, he bears on his young shoulders many cares that his father and I should carry for him.”57 Probably a large part of his anxiety sprang from efforts to avoid the draft and remain in training to be an engineer. His officer father was fighting at the front, a general now, but the young man followed his mother in hating the war.58 In midsummer 1916 when he enrolled in a course in automotive engineering in Paterson, New Jersey, he wrote his mother that he needed her with him. For once in her life Kollontai abandoned her work to minister to her son.
She was not happy with the sacrifice. In the first September days in the United States she worried about whether she would see Shliapnikov, who was in New York, but he never contacted her. “It’s strange, it’s not painful, but an alarming feeling, that he’s somewhere near, in America. Let him go. It will be easier.”59 After she knew he had left, she became depressed at her isolation. Paterson was a dreary town where she found American life tedious. In a letter to her friend Tatiana Shchepkina- Kupernik she complained:
We are in the latitude of Naples, but it doesn’t feel like the south. . . . New York is completely surrounded by swamps. I am living with Misha on the edge of a city. Here the city is divided by straight little streets, lined with maples. A row of monochrome wooden cottages stretches along them, with the inevitable little porches, where rocking chairs are arranged and where in the evenings American women little occupied with their housework gossip or simply sit, bored.
At first glance the houses always look comfortable, but then one becomes annoyed with the lack of individuality in them and in their furnishings.
I don’t think you would like it here. California is a different story, and so is the Nevada desert. I fell in love with them, and my dream is to live there sometime.60
To relieve the boredom, Kollontai began to read about American women and was thrilled by the writings of Margaret Fuller, one of the guiding spirits of nineteenth-century transcendentalism. She moved on to American literature, especially “psychological studies.” In the evenings she tried to cheer up Misha. “I don’t know how successful this is. It’s difficult.”61 She also used the respite for stock-taking. On November 21 she wrote in her diary:
Recently I looked back over my life and I understood that with all the diversity in it there weren’t any long periods of satisfaction, quiet, bright, happy periods. All the same, the brightest was girlhood, an era of daydreams, hopes, and dreams. The most deadly period was life in Tavriches- kaia [her marriage], the turning point. Life is all little pieces, now bright, beautiful, captivating, then suddenly the brightness falls away and the phase of suffering, of searching begins, then the period of dead emptiness.
Work has always been the center, and in periods when I am working my soul is quiet, as if content; it doesn’t cry, it doesn’t rebel, it doesn’t demand.62
In December Kollontai made plans to return to Europe. Initially she wanted to join Lenin and Krupskaia in Switzerland, but her letter asking them to help her cross France never reached them.63 There was one last flurry of activity before she left the United States. On January 13, 1916, Trotsky arrived in New York. Bukharin had come in November, taking up the editorship of the Russian socialist newspaper Novyi mir, and in the process ousting the Mensheviks who had controlled it. Kollontai had not been working with them because of differences over the war question. When Bukharin staged his coup, she was delighted and she went into the city to confer with him about bolshevizing the paper. Much to the chagrin of the Mensheviks, Trotsky, although ostensibly a Menshevik himself, also cooperated with Bukharin and did not attempt to drive the Bolsheviks off. Kollontai wrote to Lenin and Krupskaia, “A week before my departure Trotsky came, and this raised the hopes of Ingerman and Co. [the Mensheviks] a little. But Trotsky clearly disassociated himself from them and probably will carry on his own line, which is by no means clear.”64
The Russians were not content with fighting factional battles in New York; they also wanted to help organize the confused American left socialists against the mounting war fever in the United States. Kollontai had already tried to get the German Federation and the other nationality groups to denounce Woodrow Wilson’s “preparedness” policy, but at the last minute Lore backed off. The Socialist Propaganda League, led by radicals in Massachusetts with whom she had been in touch since her prior trip, had seemed resolutely against the war, until Kollontai asked them to affiliate themselves formally with the Zimmerwald movement. Then she found that they and the IWW were influenced by “the chaos of anarcho-syndicalism.” That meant that they also were leery of announcing any adherence to Zimmerwald.65
The U.S. groups were proving less tractable than Kollontai had hoped. Nonetheless, she was willing to keep trying, and on January 14 she attended a unity meeting sponsored by Lore at his Brooklyn home. The most prominent socialists were there—Boudin, Rutgers, Fraina, Sen Katayama. To advise them, Lore invited Trotsky, Bukharin, and Kollontai, in addition to two other Russians, V. V. Volodarskii and G. I. Chud- novskii. The meeting to organize the American left turned into a debate between Bukharin and Trotsky, because the Americans soon gave up on any attempt to get together. “The Russians were in their element,” Lore wrote, “and long, drawn out, but intensely interesting theoretical discussions were always in order.”66 Trotsky argued that the antiwar Americans should remain within the socialist party and publicize their views there, while Bukharin advocated Lenin’s tactics of a full-fledged split with compromisers. Kollontai stood with Bukharin, but when the vote was finally taken, Trotsky won. Kollontai sourly described his victory as a triumph for “the right wing.”67
Kollontai left the United States disgusted with the hesitancy of the socialist party there and sure that Wilson would soon have the country at war. She did agree to put the Americans in touch with the Zimmer-wald people, but she despaired of their ideological confusion. She left satisfied, however, that she had helped her son. “My mission in relations with Mishunia is fulfilled. Misha is mentally stronger, his health is better. And now he no longer needs me.”68
When Kollontai returned to Norway, the conflict in the Swedish party had built to the split she had predicted the previous spring. At the party congress in February 1917 Branting’s majority demanded that the left faction stop its unauthorized protests against the war. The left refused and withdrew from the party. Just a few days before the crisis, Lenin wrote to Kollontai and asked her to keep him informed.69 Communications between them remained poor, however, for he learned of the split from the newspapers on March 5.
Lenin wrote to Kollontai again, this time giving her detailed instructions on working with the left. The uneasy alliance between antiwar socialists attempted at Zimmerwald had now disintegrated into open hostility between Lenin and his supporters, advocating civil war, and the more moderate antiwar socialists, whose prime goal was the broadest possible alliance, to be achieved through more conciliatory antiwar declarations. To insure that the Scandinavians not drift into the camp of the Zimmerwald center, Lenin ordered Kollontai to establish in Copenhagen, Christiania, and Stockholm a network of Bolsheviks who knew the languages and could steer the local left in the proper direction, toward his minority within a minority. “A new socialism” must be created now, at this decisive time, Lenin wrote; Bolsheviks must make every effort in that direction.70
Lenin was right; a new socialism was in genesis, but the first steps in its creation were not to be taken in Western Europe. On February 28 Kollontai finished her daily work with the Norwegians in Christiania and took the train home to her rooms in the suburb of Holmenkollen. She usually bought a newspaper to read en route, but that day the vendor had sold out. When she took her seat, she looked across at a fellow passenger who was reading an evening daily. The front page bore the headline, “Revolution in Russia.”
My heart began to pound. Immediately I was sure, somehow; this is not a newspaper bluff, this is serious. I leaned toward the newspaper, I tried to read it. It was already too late to buy one, the train had started. I asked my neighbor, “When you finish, could you lend it to me? I am a Russian, naturally I am interested in the news.”71
For the next two days she read every one of the often conflicting reports from Petrograd. She wrote out an article, “Who Needs the Tsar?,” calling on the Russian people to establish a constitutional monarchy responsive to the needs of the masses rather than the landlords and the factory owners.72 The next day, March 2, she learned from a Norwegian friend that Tsar Nikolai had abdicated. “I darted out into the hall; we hugged one another. I wanted to run somewhere. We had won! We had won! We had won! The end of the war! It wasn’t even joy, but some kind of giddy rejoicing.”73
Although she still had to arrange passage, Kollontai knew she would be going home, after nine years in exile. She was forty-four, and she had spent nineteen years pursuing a revolution which she thought might not come in her lifetime. She had listened intently to every echo of discontent, hoping to hear the first rumbling of the storm, always disappointed but clinging to the faith that it would happen. Now it seemed her faith had been justified. A new Russia was being born from the ashes of war, just as Lenin had predicted.
*In 1915 St. Petersburg was renamed Petrograd; in 1924 Petrograd was renamed Leningrad.