Explanations of the sources of intimate partner violence usually revolve around the psychologization of the abuser and the victim, i.e. they operate on the individual level. In our previous blog post, we have stressed that combating any kind of violence, including intimate partner violence, must involve an analysis and understanding of the structural institutional and societal conditions that contribute to its reproduction. For that reason we would like to turn the Russian communist revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai (1872 – 1952) and her analysis of sexual relationships in the context of the class struggle. Even though she does not explicitly speak of violence, the nature of sexual relationship under capitalism and patriarchy that she describes, contains in itself many of the explanations for the reproduction of domestic violence offered by sociologists and psychologists later on in the 20th century. We will start by explaining the political relevance of the question of ‘private’ sexual relationship, then proceed in underlining the aspects of her analysis that are relevant for the problem of intimate partner violence, and finally, present some false solutions offered by the intelligentsia of her time.
Kollontai’s crucial text for her theory of sexual relations, Sexual Relations and the Class Struggle (1921), has appeared in the context of what she calls a ‘sexual crisis’ – a time when sexuality has suddenly become the subject of public debate and of all sorts of artistic expressions. However, it is exactly at times when norms of sexual morality appear to be changing, that one must be particularly careful not to rush into forms of relationships that are even more oppressive than the older ones, warns Kollontai.
Her theoretical work is relevant because she was one of the first to develop and explain the notion that the private is political (unlike the belief in the western-centric views that this idea appeared only with the so called ‘second wave’ feminism). For her, ‘sexual problems’ are not relegated to the realm of ‘private matters’ but are one of the most crucial tasks of the ideologists of the working class. And that is however not a new problem, because throughout history one of the constant features of social struggle has been the attempt to change ‘personal’ relationships, and the type of moral codes that determine these relationships. Finally, the way personal relationships are organised in a certain social group has had a vital influence on the outcome of the struggle between hostile social classes, since, for instance, the worker’s and partisan movements would not be successful without a grate support from women whose participation in the struggle was from the beginning conceived as essential for the movement. In short, as a Marxist, she sees the sexual crisis as three quarters the result of socio-economic relationships, and one quarter the result of the bourgeois ideology. For that reason, the sexual crisis cannot be solved unless there is a radical reform of the human psyche and unless the people’s potential for loving is increased. Importantly, a basic transformation of the socio-economic relationships along communist lines is essential if the psyche is to be re-formed.
Beside the ‘crude individualism’ of the bourgeois and gender inequality, one of the main psychological characteristics of the modern person that, in Kollontai’s view, contributes to the sexual crisis is the idea of ‘possessing’ the partner. Since under capitalism persons are alienated from their labour and each other, they seek relief in another person.
“A person wants to escape from his loneliness and naively imagines that being “in love” gives him the right to the soul of the other person – the right to warm himself in the rays of that rare blessing of emotional closeness and understanding.”
“Men and women seek each other in the hope of finding for themselves, through another person, a means to a larger share of spiritual and physical pleasure. It makes no difference whether they are married to the partner or not they give little thought to what’s going on in the other person, to what’s happening to their emotions and psychological processes.”
Here we can recognise many aspects of what had been defined as psychological abuse and possessive behaviour by contemporary psychologists, only that Kollontai explains these behaviours as the result of the general condition of alienation of the human kind and not of one’s individual psychology. She proceeds with providing a historical materialistic contextualization: namely, unlike the tribal and feudal times when women belonged to men only physically, the bourgeoisie extended the concept of property rights to include the right to the other person’s whole spiritual and emotional world. Kollontai does not explain the role of this change, but later socialist feminists like Silvia Federici and others, emphasised the role of emotional labour for the reproduction of the working force and/or consumers (reproduction not only in the sense of childbearing but also housework, emotional support and sexual labour without which one could not reproduce his/her/their daily life). The role of the partner as the emotional “shock absorber” in the neo-liberal phase of capitalism also extends to same-gender partners and it is therefore also relevant for our discussion. Being dependent (or mutually dependent) on someone’s emotional labour creates the preconditions for the reproduction of abusive and possessive relationships.
“To be rid of the eternally present threat of loneliness, we “launch an attack” on the emotions of the person we love with a cruelty and lack of delicacy that will not he understood by future generations. We demand the right to know every secret of this person’s being. The modern lover would forgive physical unfaithfulness sooner than “spiritual” unfaithfulness.”
“We have all no doubt observed this strange situation two people who love each other are in a hurry, before they have got to know each other properly to exercise their rights over all the relationships that the other person has formed up till that time, to look into the innermost corners of their partner’s life.”
The problem with the existing concept of romantic love is that it necessary includes some forms of possessiveness, as for instance, jealousy is seen as a sign of love and it is not always recognised as problematic. For that reason, it is often hard for an abused partner to distinguish between a ‘healthy jealousy’ and abuse. According to revolutionaries such as Kollontai and Emma Goldman, jealousy is never a sign of love, but indicates the extending of the principle of private property to another person. The role of the partner as a ‘shock absorber’ was also unconsciously recognised by one of the respondents in our research who stated that, given all the stress that both partners experience in their lives, it is understandable that violence sometimes occurs. Instead of demanding better working and life conditions, persons accept intimate partner violence as an, not necessary justifiable, but surely understandable stress release.
Already in Kollontai’s times, new concepts of relationships based on ideas of complete freedom, equality and genuine friendship had been outlined. She, however, warned about two possible false solutions: the individualist one and the socialist one:
“The champions of bourgeois individualism say that we ought to destroy all the hypocritical restrictions of the obsolete code of sexual behaviour. These unnecessary and repressive “rags” ought to be relegated to the archives – only the individual conscience the individual will of each person can decide such intimate questions. Socialists, on the other hand, assure us that sexual problems will only be settled when the basic reorganisation of the social and economic structure of society has been tackled.”
But the task of developing new sexual norms which reflect the interests of the working class cannot wait for the economic base of the society to change because the ideology of a certain class is formed at the same time with the restructuration of the socio-economic relationships. In other words, the new sexual norms is to be worked out in the process of struggle with other hostile social forces, and it needs to be done on a collective and not an individual level.
The perspective of communist theorists, as Alexandra Kollontai reminds us, is that the problem of intimate partner violence, as many other problems that are defined as private, are actually collective problems connected to socio-economic relations that need to be tackled on an all-inclusive structural level. Namely, violence among partners is never only an inter-subjective issue, but a result of multiple oppressions and alienation that all persons experience. The existing concept of romantic love tells us that, in order to escape a sexist homo/trans/biphobic exploitative society, we should find shelter in a sexual relationship with another person. But if this relationship proves to be reproducing some of the societal oppressions that we attempted to escape, then it becomes clear that, in order to eliminate intimate violence, we should not only try to cure the individual and the relationship, but strive to eliminate all other forms of oppression.