The article we publish today was written by Alexandra Kollontai in 1911. It was written as a book review for “The Sexual Crisis”, by the German writer Meisel-Hess.
Kollontai elaborates here on some of her ideas on sexual relations and women’s liberation, as part of a discussion which was held in some circles in Western Europe at that time. Obviously, some of the aspects of the discussion on feminist issues Kollontai touches upon are very diferent today. But still, the method of analysis she uses is valid and illuminating even today.
In her review, Kollontai takes the opportunity to discuss the different kinds of sexual/love relationships and how in none of them can people feel accomplished and happy. The reason for that is that they all are subject to the standard moral principles that prevail within society.
Moral principles might be very different today than what they were more than 100 years ago. Yet, today’s society “is also expecting” people to fit in specific stereotypes, behaviours and choices. People are taught what a correct “life course” and love life is, since they are very young, at home and at school. In case they do not fit in this path, society rejects them in various ways. On the other hand, as Kollontai rightly argues that those who manage to fit in the stereotype and tick all the boxes, are not happy either. As she explains in detail in some of her other works, as long as human relationships are subject to economic dependence, people will never be able to find happiness in love and will never be free.
Specific reference is also made to prostitution, which is an important subject on which Kollontai has made a lot of research and written several works at her time.
Kollontai was a prominent Bolshevik at the time of the October Revolution. She was the first woman in history to become an official member of a governing cabinet in any country. She served as the People’s Commissar on Welfare in the first government after the revolution, and was one of the key persons to establish the Zhenotdel (“Womens department”) of the Bolshevik Party, which played a very important role in pushing for progress on womens’ issues. She was a critical thinker, and expressed disagreements in a number of issues inside the Bolshevik Party.
In view of the International Women’s day, celebrated on 8th March, we publish this work as part of a collection of articles, because it is rather enlightening in relation to a topic which is not tackled very often in political debates, yet is central to the lives of all.
In the period from 1910-1911 onward there was less talk in Russia about the problems of sex. But in Germany a psycho-sociological study of the sexual crisis was written by Grete Meisel-Hess. The book wasn’t a success with the general public. Whereas the novel, Karin Michaelis, published not long before and not daring to say anything more than is proper in writing of “good taste”, created a great stir (although it is of little artistic value). The main criticism of Meisel-Hess was that her work was interesting but not scientific. The book only made an impression amongst the intelligentsia, the so-called “cream” of German society, who greeted her ideas either with sympathy and agreement or with hissing disapproval. This generally happens when someone sets out to find the truth.
Even though Meisel-Hess’s book lacks a whole number of scholarly qualities–her method of research is at fault, she is unsystematic, her argument jumps and twists and often repeats some point already made–this doesn’t affect the importance of her work.
The book has a freshness of approach. Its arguments are set down in the strong vigorous way of someone trying to get at the truth. You sense that this woman has seen and experienced much in life. Her thoughts are not new in the sense that these ideas are in the air, they are implied in the whole climate of attitudes towards morality.
Every person has secretly been living out and thinking about these problems. In trying to come to grips with them every thinking person has come by one path or another to the conclusions printed on the pages of The Sexual Crisis. But hypocrisy still persuades us to bow down in public before the old and dead idol of bourgeois morality. Meisel-Hess is like the child in Anderson’s fairytale: she has had the courage to cry out in a fearless and composed voice that the Emperor has no clothes on; that contemporary sexual morality is a piece of empty fiction.
Moral norms regulating sexual life can in fact have only two aims:
- Contemporary morality fulfils neither of these aims; it only serves the interests of Mammon, the interests of property. The whole complicated code of present-day sexual morality–indissoluble monogamous marriage, based only in rare cases on “Eros”, the widespread institution of commercial prostitution–far from leading humanity to health and to improvement creates the situation where “sexual selection” is turned upside-down. Contemporary morality leads mankind in the path of degeneration.
- People who marry have to practise “self-control” during those years most suitable for child-bearing. Prostitution, which has no result as far as the perpetuation of the race is concerned, flourishes. There is no “ecstasy of love” in marriages of convenience and this has an effect on the physical health of the children of such families. With the acceptance of indissoluble, legal marriage as the norm, the most “magnificent examples of womanhood”, those women most capable of bringing out the erotic in men, are filtered off into prostitution and remain without children. We pronounce the “sentence of death” on the illegitimate “children of love” who are often the more healthy, flourishing and valuable representatives of the race. These are the indirect results of the current morality. This morality leads to deformity and physical deterioration, to the physical and moral degeneration of the human race.
Meisel-Hess’s attempts to square sexual morality with the demands of race hygiene deserve our full attention. Her arguments are of special interest to those who accept the materialist interpretation of history. The demands of the socialist programme, the defence of the young working population, the protection of maternity and childhood, the struggle against prostitution etc., also have “race hygiene” in the widest sense as their object. To dislodge the halo that sexual morality possesses of being an unchanging and “categorical imperative”, to bring sexual morality in line with the practical demands of living people and the demands of the progressive sections of humanity: these are the tasks which, without a doubt, are standing in the queue and waiting for a serious and inspired response from socialists.
Although Meisel-Hess has valuable ideas on these questions, an analysis of this special part of her work would mean leaving the bounds of a brief essay. Therefore we are limiting ourselves to a review of the other side of the sexual problem. We shall deal with the no less interesting and valuable answers that Meisel-Hess gives to the question of whether present day personal relationships serve to enrich the human psyche with feelings of solidarity and friendship.
Subjecting to analysis all three basic forms of relationships between the sexes–legal marriage, prostitution and the “free union”–Meisel-Hess comes to the pessimistic conclusion that in a capitalist system all three forms equally block up and distort the human soul; they smash every hope of continuous and real happiness, and of genuinely human relationships between people. While there is no change, while the human psyche remains in its present state, there is no way out of this continuing sexual crisis.
We can fling open the locked door leading out into the fresh air, and on to the path to closer, more loving and consequently happier relationships between the sexes only if the human psyche is changed radically and man’s “potential for loving” is increased. Such a change inevitably demands the basic transformation of socio-economic relations: in other words it demands the transition to communism.
What are the chief inadequacies, what are the dark sides of legal marriage? Legal marriage is based on two equally false principles: that marriage should be forever and that the partners belong to each other and are each other’s property.
The idea of marriage-for-ever is in contradiction to all that psychological scientists know about how the psyche changes during the long course of a human’s life. The demand made by contemporary morality deserves to be laughed at: each person must at all costs “find their happiness”. People are obliged to select straight away and without making a mistake the one person from among the millions of their contemporaries with whom their soul is in harmony. Only by discovering their “second self” will they be guaranteed a successful marriage. If a person–especially if that person is a woman–in groping for the ideal, tears the heart on the sharp thorns of life’s disappointments, society, perverted by current morality, instead of coming forward to help a fellow human being in distress starts victimising that person. “Society must coerce people into their “happiness” –this is the fine flower of our sexual morality.” Modern society doesn’t care about individual happiness or even about “appearances”. Society has the interests of property at heart and for this reason is prepared to look at an open change of relationship as a great personal insult. Meisel-Hess drily points out that “marriage is like a flat: you become aware of its dark corners only when you’ve lived in it a while. It’s hard luck, of course, if you have to change flats all the time because they turn out to be uncomfortable and inadequate. But that’s better than being forced by circumstances to stay in an unsuitable place. It must be completely accepted by society that a person, in the course of his long life and in the process of the development of his personality, will change sexual partners.”
It seems even more absurd that marriages should be indissoluble when you bear in mind that most legal marriages are contracted “in the dark”; the marriage partners have only the vaguest idea of each other. They know little about the personality of the other and more than that they have absolutely no idea if they are suited physically–and happiness in marriage is not possible unless there is this physical harmony. “Trial nights” which according to Meisel-Hess were common practice in the Middle Ages, are far from being “absurdly lacking in decency”. In a different social environment people might, in the interest of the human race and in order to ensure the happiness of individuals, exercise this right.
The idea of property and the “undisputed rights of possession” that one partner has over the other is the second factor poisoning legal marriage. In fact you get this ridiculous situation. The complicated, many-sided personalities of two people who are close to each other only in a few ways are “obliged” to suit each other in every way. “Undisputed possession” leads to the partners being always and inconveniently with each other. You no longer have your own time, your own will, and because of the economic dependence involved, you often don’t even have your “own separate corner”. The continual presence of the other person and the inevitably unreasonable demands made on one, as on a piece of property, turn even a passionate love into indifference and lead to an insufferable nagging over little things. You really have to agree with Meisel-Hess that when two people live on top of each other all the time the tender spring flower of even the most loving attachment will be killed. You need to have so much consideration for the other person, such a great supply of “warmth”, if you are to develop out of the first rush of passion the rich fruits of a deep irrevocable emotional attachment, formed in the sun of mutual warmth.
The sense of “property” and of the “foreverness” of legal marriage has a harmful effect on the psyche; a man has to make only the smallest emotional effort to preserve the external trappings of an attachment since the partner is in any case riveted to him for life. The modern form of legal marriage impoverishes the soul and in no way helps mankind to gather the store of “great love” which the Russian genius Tolstoy talked of and longed for.
But the other form of sexual contact–mercenary prostitution–distorts the human psyche even more. “What could be more monstrous than the act of love reduced to the level of a profession?” Leaving aside all the social poverty connected with prostitution–all the physical suffering, illness, deformity and degeneration –let us stop to consider the question of the influence of prostitution on the human psyche. Nothing so empties the human soul as the buying of physical love from a stranger or the selling of love in this way. Prostitution extinguishes the love in people’s hearts. Eros flies away in terror fearing to soil his golden wings in a bed so bespattered with dirt.
Prostitution deforms a normal attitude towards sex. It cripples and impoverishes the spirit, it cuts out and takes away what is most valuable –the ability to feel the passion and love that extend and enrich the individual by giving him a store of emotional experience. Prostitution distorts our understanding. It makes us see something shameful, low and coarsely animal in one of the most serious moments of human life–in the act of love, in the final harmony of complicated emotional experience.
When men purchase their pleasure they don’t achieve psychological fulfilment, and this has a particularly pernicious effect on the male psyche. With a prostitute a man finds no moments of deeply-felt, truly erotic ecstasy that are somehow transforming. He learns to come to a woman with “lowered” needs, with a psyche oversimplified and faded. Used to submissive “obliging” caresses he no longer watches the complicated emotional process working itself out in the woman, his partner. He ceases to “hear” and catch the subtle shade of her emotions. How many of the scenes that women make are sparked off by this “simplification” of the male psyche, a simplification that takes place in the brothel! Prostitution inevitably spreads dark shadows even over the heads of the “independent” lover, and over the woman who loves naively and is thus expecting a lot. Prostitution ruthlessly poisons the joy of loving for those women who see the sexual act as the “final harmony” of mutual all-absorbing passion ⦍1⦎.
A woman normally looks to personal relationships for fulfilment and harmony. But a man educated in prostitution has lost sight of the intricate vibrations of feeling. He follows only the pale monotony of physical attraction and ends up with a feeling of unfulfillment and emotional hunger. The mutual “misunderstanding” of the sexes grows. The greater the individuality of the woman, the more complicated her emotional needs and the more acute the sexual crisis becomes. Prostitution is dangerous just because it has an influence far beyond the confines of the brothel.
Meisel-Hess talks of venereal disease and the physical weakening of the race. We shall leave this question aside and consider the other psychological moment that casts a shadow on the emotional impulses, that blocks and distorts the erotic consciousness, and leads to a situation where the mutual understanding of the man and woman disappears, and they are unable to enjoy each other without misusing each other. On the boundary between physical and psychological emotions is the feeling which determines the activity of man that involves the continuation of the race. And it is this feeling, on which all hangs, on which both the individual and the society depend, that is ruthlessly distorted.
The third form of personal relationship, the “free relationship” also has its dark sides. A “free relationship” does not succeed because it is a reflection of the total situation. The man of today begins a “free” relationship with his psyche already deformed by false and unhealthy ideas about morality. He has already been educated on the one hand by legal marriage and on the other, by prostitution. The “free union” inevitably comes up against two obstacles: our inability to love (an inability that is the essence of our atomised individualistic world) and the absence of the necessary leisure time for truly emotional experience. Modern man has no time to “love”. In a society based on competition, in a society where the battle for existence is fierce and everyone is involved in a race for profit, for a career, or for just a crust of bread, there is no room left for the cult of the demanding and fragile Eros. Poor Aspasia ⦍2⦎ would wait in vain these days for the feast of love and joy and for friendship decorated with roses. She could not bring herself to be with a man of coarse and unworthy emotions and the man of “noble spirit” would not have the time to spend his evenings with her. Meisel-Hess rightly points out how widespread this attitude is: modern man looks upon love and passion as the “greatest misfortune”, as something that can only be a burden and prevent him attending to the proper and really important things–the conquest of position, capital, the acquisition of a secure job, of praise etc. Man avoids the poisoned arrows of Eros, he avoids being caught up in a “great love” that might divert him from the “main things” in life. And a “free union” in the whole context of modern life demands a much greater amount of time and emotional energy than either registered marriage or momentary and purchased pleasure. “Free” lovers are usually more attached to each other than legal partners and spend more time with each other.
How many valuable “business” hours are lost over one “rendez-vous”. There are thousands of other demons lying in wait for the pair that are bound by the tie of love alone –there are misunderstandings, there is temporary estrangement and conflict. A “union of love” in the conditions that exist today ends either by breaking up or by taking on the form of legal marriage. The strong and complete man who could include love without risk in the complex of his living has not yet, in Meisel-Hess’s opinion, emerged. That is why we see the men of today, absorbed by the cares of business, preferring to open their wallets and acquire for themselves a “kept woman”, or pay a woman with their “name” and shoulder the burden of a legal family, rather than waste their “precious” time and energy on experiencing love.
The same dilemma faces women, particularly those women who support themselves (and in developed countries that means 30-40%). Love or a profession? The problem of maternity further complicates the position of the working woman. It is in fact worth looking through the biographies of all outstanding women to be convinced of the inevitable conflict between on the one side love and having children and on the other a career and a vocation. Perhaps it is just because the independent “spinster” woman, in giving her love to someone, throws on the scales of happiness not only her emotions but also work that is dear to her that she expects from the man in return a generous payment, “the richest gift”. She demands his soul.
The “free union” suffers because there is no sense of moral responsibility, no consciousness of an inner duty. While the complicated structure of social inter-relations remains unchanged there is no ground for thinking, as the supporters of “free love” do, that this type of personal relationship will lead humanity out of the sexual crisis.
It could be an answer only if the psyche had been radically re-educated. This re-education would demand as a necessary precondition that the basis of social life, which determines ideas about morality, be also changed.
There is nothing fundamentally new in the suggestions brought forward by Meisel-Hess concerning social politics, legislation and reform. They are already implied in the relevant demands of the socialists’ programmes. The demands made by socialists –the economic independence of women, protection in every possible way for mothers and children, the struggle against prostitution at its economic base, the end of the concept of “legitimate” and “illegitimate” children, the replacement of church marriage by easily altered civil marriage, and a radical reconstruction of society along communist lines– cover all the points she makes. Meisel-Hess’s merit is not that she has taken all her socio-political demands from the socialists. Much more important is the fact that although not an “active socialist” she has, in her sincere desire for truth in sexual matters, unconsciously found the only way to settle the sexual question. However, if all social reforms had been passed and all the essential pre-requisites for new personal relationships existed, the sexual crisis would still not be settled unless the great creative force that can increase humanity’s “potential for loving” had been developed.
Meisel-Hess has reached this conclusion through intuition and the sincerity of her approach. She sees that all the energies that society spends in the education and moulding of human emotions to cope with personal relationships must be directed to this end.
According to Meisel-Hess, a marriage relationship based on deep feeling and emotional and physical harmony will continue to be the ideal in the future. But one should not forget that “great love” is a gift that destiny rarely gives, it falls only to a few chosen ones. The magician “great love” doesn’t often touch our hearts with his enchanting rod, painting our grey life with sunny colours. Millions of people never know these all-powerful charms. What are we to do with these unfortunate people? Are they to be left to the cold embraces of marriage without Eros? Or to prostitution? Will people always be faced with the same cruel dilemma that confronts us in contemporary society: either “great love” or erotic hunger?
Meisel-Hess seeks and finds an alternative. Where there is no “great love”, “game-love” should take its place. To be capable of “great love” humanity must pass through the difficult “school of love” where the emotions are refined. “Game-love” is this school; it is the way for the human psyche to develop its “potential for loving”.
In different forms you come across “game-love” at all stages of the long history of humanity. It is not difficult to trace the basic elements of this relationship in the behaviour of the haetaera ⦍3⦎ of Ancient Greece and her “friend”; in the “gallant love” between the courtesan and her “patron” lover at the time of the Renaissance; in the erotic friendship of the “grizetka” ⦍4⦎, free and carefree as a bird, and her “comrade-student”.
You don’t find here the all-absorbing Eros with a tragic face demanding full and undivided possession, or a crude sexualism that confines itself to the physical act. Sanis with his over-simplified psycho-physiological make-up would be a poor partner in the “game-love” that Meisel-Hess describes. Because human emotions are being educated and formed in the process, “game-love” demands a great delicacy, psychological awareness and genuine and responsive sensitivity. “Game-love” is very demanding. “People coming together on the grounds of mutual attraction alone expect the smiles of life from each other. They won’t allow someone to play with their emotions and go unpunished; they are not prepared to adopt a casual attitude toward someone’s psyche, an attitude that ignores the internal world. “Game-love” demands a far more careful, considerate and thoughtful relationship between people: one that will gradually break them from that fathomless egoism which accompanies all contemporary emotional experience.” “A close relationship with someone that encourages mutual feeling develops sensitivity, consideration and delicacy in a person…”
Thirdly, “game-love” does not derive from the principle of “undisputed”possession, and teaches people to give only that part of their “self” which is not a burden to the other, and which helps the other person to lead a brighter life. This would teach people, in Meisel-Hess’s opinion, a “great wisdom” in that they can only give the whole self when there exists feelings that are irrevocable and of “solemn” depth. At the moment we are too inclined, after “the first kiss”, to encroach on the whole personality of the other person, to bind absolutely the other’s heart before there is any call for this. We have to remember that only a “great love” gives these “rights”.
“Game-love” or “erotic friendship” has yet another advantage –it is an armour against the murderous arrows of Eros. It teaches people to withstand the burden of love and passion that enslaves and crushes the individual. According to Meisel-Hess, it encourages, in the way that no other form of love does, the self-preservation of the individual.
There is no room in such a relationship for that awful kind of development which could be called “the violent assault” on another person’s “self”. “Game-love” does not involve the great “fall”, the loss of one’s personality in the waves of passion. Contemporary humanity lives under “the sinister sign” of passion that always tries to overwhelm the other “I”, the other person. In the novel Lassvitsa the girl from Mars makes this reply to the man who professes love for her: “If I were inspired to play the game of feelings I would fall under the violent power of passion, I would lose my freedom and would have to go with you to earth. Your earth is perhaps bigger and more luxurious, but I would rather die in this harsh atmosphere. Your hearts are like your air: they are heavy…”
Our time is exceptional in that it has no “art of love”. People are absolutely unable to develop light and carefree relationships. People do not recognise the value of “erotic friendships”. Love is either a tragedy that tears the soul apart or it is a vulgar vaudeville. We have to lead mankind from this blind-alley. We have to teach people to experience bright and beautiful emotions that burden no one. Only by passing through the school of erotic friendship is man’s psyche capable of feeling a “great love” that is completely free of any dark aspect. Any emotional experience (that is not just the coarse physical act) enriches rather than impoverishes the soul. “A rich and healthy human heart, capable of experiencing love is not”, says Meisel-Hess, “a sandwich to be gradually eaten.” Love is a force which multiplies as you use it up. “To love the more intensely, the more often and the more self-assuredly is the passionate way of every great heart.” Love is in itself a great creative force: it develops and enriches the psyche of the person who experiences love and of the person to whom love is given.
“Without love humanity feels itself fobbed, unfortunate and beggarly. There is no doubt that love will become the cult of mankind in the future. And even now in order to struggle to live, to work, and to create, man needs to feel “sure” of himself, he needs to feel “accepted”. The man who feels loved also feels himself to be accepted and this makes him more joyful at being alive.”
But the recognition of the “I”, the self, is not achieved, and the desire to escape the ever-present spiritual loneliness is not fulfilled by simply satisfying physical hunger. “Only the feeling of being in complete harmony with the loved one will satisfy a person. Only “great love” gives full satisfaction. The crisis is more acute when social barriers restrict the potential for loving that is in the human soul–when the human psyche has had few experiences of friendship and togetherness.”
The task of “erotic friendship” is to prepare and educate this potential for loving so that man is ready for “great love”.
“Game-love” is of course only a substitute for “great love”. Some people will say it is not enough. If that’s what they think, replies Meisel-Hess, let them look at what passes for love at the present time, at the prostitution “dressed up” as great feeling. What incredible falsehood, what a stack of lies are accumulating on this subject! One example that springs to mind–a man and his fiancée are in each other’s arms but the strict morality cries: “You must wait”. The fiance visits a prostitute, who doesn’t want to sleep with him, but has to. The girl friend wants the man but has to wait until the priest gives the word. It would be much more natural and more moral if two people who wanted each other were to seek fulfilment in each other instead of condemning a third person to the service of their flesh.
Apart from its roots in the socio-economic structure, prostitution is determined by something psychological that is deeply rooted in the human soul–the desire to overflow with “erotic inspiration” without having to lose freedom and give the future as payment, without having to place the entire “I”, the entire self, at the feet of the partner who is really a stranger. You have to accommodate such a natural drive. You can’t cast the marriage bridle over every unguarded lover. “Game-love” is the answer that people have been looking for. “If we are sincere, if we dispense with the sexual lie and the hypocrisy of our morality, there is no reason to doubt that mankind at a higher level of cultural development might find this kind of answer, if certain social reforms had been achieved.” (Meisel-Hess emphasises that these reforms are a necessary pre-condition for all her suggestions about a different morality) “… there would be nothing wrong in “erotic ecstasy” throwing two people into each other’s arms… “heaven! and “hell” have got nothing to do with it.”
Finally, the exact limits of “erotic friendship” are very vague and undefined. It is quite possible that people coming together on the grounds of slight contact and attraction will find each other, and from the “game” will grow the treasure of “great love”. The question remains of creating the objective conditions for this to happen. What are Meisel-Hess’s conclusions and practical demands?
Society must above all learn to accept all forms of personal relationships however unusual they may seem, provided they comply with two conditions. Provided that they do not affect the physical health of the human race and provided they are not determined by the economic factor. The monogamous union based on “great love” still remains the ideal. But this is not a permanent or set relationship. The more complicated the individual psyche the more inevitable are the changes. “A succession of monogamous relationships” is the basic structure of personal relationships. But side by side there are a whole range of possible forms of “erotic friendship” between the sexes.
The second demand is the acceptance in practice and not only in words that maternity is “sacred”. Society must arrange all forms and kinds of “aid-stations” for women, that will give them moral and material support during this very important period of their lives.
Lastly, it is essential to take a look at the moral equipment which a girl setting out on life’s journey is given, otherwise women will be afraid of and crushed by freer relationships.
The entire present-day education of a woman is directed to confining her life to emotions of love. And so we get these “broken hearts”, these images of women drooping from the first strong wind. We must open up the wide gates to a many-sided life. We must steal a woman’s heart and armour her will. It is time to teach women to treat love as a step, as a way of finding her true “I”, her true self, and not as her whole existence. Let her learn to come through an emotional conflict as a man does, with a stronger spirit and not with broken wings. Goethe’s motto was “Be able at any moment to do away with the past and accept life as if it began today.” There is already hope, the new type of woman is emerging–the “bachelor woman” for whom love is not the only thing in life. She doesn’t let the waves of life have absolute control over her emotional experience, a seasoned helmswoman is at the wheel of the boat. Her spirit has been forged in the battle of life. The “bachelor woman” re-paraphrases the philistine exclamation “She has a past!”. “She has a past… How cruel can fate be!
There may not be many of these women for a long time yet, and a new sexual order, the child of a more perfect social structure, won’t begin immediately. The long sexual crisis won’t end and give way tomorrow to the morality of the future. But the path has been found and the forbidden door is wide open and beckoning in the distance. Meisel-Hess’s book gives us “Ariadne’s thread” to the complicated labyrinth of sexual relationships and involved psychological dramas. We should use the valuable points that she makes, throw out some of her suggestions, rid others of irrelevancies and of slight inaccuracies. We should bring her conclusions in line with the basic tasks of the rising class. We should try to find in the problems of, and the attitudes to, sexual relationships, and in the psychology of love, the embryo of a new, developing and inevitably victorious “proletarian culture”.