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Revolutionary Romance

Why should extravagant pleasures and intense feelings be reserved for the bourgeoisie?

Alexandra Kollontai

In the 1981 film Reds, Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty star as American left-wing journalists Louise Bryant and John Reed, whose respective books Six Red Months in Russia and Ten Days That Shook the World were compiled from articles about the October Revolution. The movie follows their fraught relationship through infidelities, separations, and reconciliations.

In a key sequence, the married couple’s rekindled love is shown unfolding against a backdrop of revolutionary events in Russia. Reed addresses a crowd that burst into a euphoric rendition of “The Internationale” as Bryant gazes up at him with tear-stained cheeks. The rousing song continues as a montage sequence unfolds: the couple are seen in bed (a mercifully brief missionary position sex scene, coyly rose-tinged), red-banner-waving crowds advance through the streets of Petrograd, Trotsky gives a speech, Reed and Bryant animatedly discuss the newspapers, the Winter Palace is stormed and Reed strides its gilt-edged corridors, the couple cheer Lenin and steal an affectionate glance at one another. As the song reaches its climax (wink wink), we see the kissing lovers in silhouette; arising from their slumbers though not, it seems, changing all old traditions.

Slavoj Žižek has interpreted the cutting in this sequence as ludicrously literal in its symbolic association of sexual and historical content, but I’d rather read Elizabeth Hardwick, who noted that Reds presents Bryant and Reed’s relationship as “classic film romantic comedy — fighting and making up, husband sent to the sofa, husband in the blazing kitchen.” Žižek argues that the Hollywood movie montage’s interweaving of revolution and romance minimizes the gravity of the historical event, but by coating everything in cloying vanilla icing and by implying that Reed is the dominant partner, the scene also presents a bland and conventional vision of love, even if, as Hardwick points out, the protagonists’ political heroes may have had little interest in combining the two themes: “There is revolution and then there is also love. With the leaders in Russia, love stories are not often in the advance guard of experience.”

Hardwick notes that Trotsky didn’t even mention Lenin’s mistress, Inessa Armand, in his major works on the revolution. Shortly before her death from cholera in 1920, just a few weeks before Reed’s, Armand had written in her diary in a self-castigating tone: “The meaning of love in comparison to a life dedicated to society is very small, not bearing any comparison with a social cause.” But what could a love combined with rather than cordoned off from a life dedicated to a social cause look like?

Laws and codes aimed at transforming marriage, family life, and gender relations were introduced soon after the Bolsheviks came to power signaling a commitment to the emancipation of women and the “withering away” of the family, but the status of love remained ambiguous. In her 1928 book The New Russia, American journalist Dorothy Thompson offered a damning assessment of the “volatility of sexual relationships” ushered in by the October Revolution:

Communism has attacked the sentimental and aesthetic associations of love. It has tried to reduce all bonds to a simple biological basis, in which the satisfaction of sexual desires is no more complicated, and hardly more interesting, than the satisfaction of hunger.

Thompson’s characterization of Soviet discourses on sexuality in the period of the New Economic Policy was not completely unfounded — various Soviet writers produced satirical works characterizing it in similar terms — but she glosses over contradictions and ignores shifts that occurred across the decade following the revolution.

In an oft-cited 1919 interview with Clara Zetkin, Lenin expressed his frustration with the so-called “glass of water theory,” “that in communist society satisfying sexual desire and the craving for love is as simple and trivial as ‘drinking a glass of water.’” This theory was commonly misattributed to the Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai, who by the time of Thompson’s sojourn in Moscow had already been sent off to work in diplomatic positions overseas, her theories about sexuality not only attacked and discredited but also widely misconstrued as advocating promiscuity. Yet although Kollontai may have condemned the compulsory permanent monogamy of bourgeois marriage, she still advocated a “sentimental and aesthetic” form of love.

In “Make Way for Winged Eros,” published in the Komsomol journal The Young Guard in 1923, Kollontai outlined two conflicting definitions of love: wingless and winged Eros. Due to the intensity of revolutionary struggle during the period of the civil war (1917–1922), she claims that “tender-winged Eros fled from the surface of life” as the working class’s “social and physiological energy” was urgently directed elsewhere. Under these historical conditions, sexual relationships were often necessarily perfunctory and fleeting. She describes this “purely biological” form of coarse sexuality “wingless Eros.”

But she observes that there was already evidence that this “unadorned sexual drive” was being replaced by love affairs among young Soviet people. Rather than seeing a renewed interest in the “mystery of love” as a return to bourgeois preoccupations, however, she insisted that proletarian love was distinctive and necessary for building communism:

Solidarity is not only an awareness of common interests; it depends also on the intellectual and emotional ties linking the members of the collective. For a social system to be built on solidarity and co-operation it is essential that people should be capable of love and warm emotions.

Under communism she envisages that an ideal form of “love-comradeship” founded in gender equality would eventually emerge without “formal limits.” Erotic relationships would no longer involve lovers locked in possessive, eternally preserved dyads, but would instead be based on “the recognition of the rights and integrity of the other’s personality, a steadfast mutual support and sensitive sympathy, and responsiveness to the other’s needs.” Love would no longer be a private affair but would radiate outwards, “multiplying human happiness.”

When I first read “Make Way for Winged Eros,” years ago I found Kollontai’s vision of love — “woven of delicate strands of every kind of emotion,” a “many-stringed lyre” — sentimental and overblown; her language florid, her metaphors mawkish. The essay was denounced in these terms in the Soviet press: “Comrade Kollontai was always wont to swim in a sea of hackneyed and banal phrases diluted merely with a sickly sweet sentimentality.” Rereading the essay now, I feel more well-disposed toward her lofty tone: should love be anything other than excessive and embarrassing? And why should extravagant pleasures and intense feelings be reserved for the bourgeoisie?

On November 24, 1917, a few weeks after the October Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg wrote to Sophie Liebknecht from prison in Breslau (present-day Wrocław, Poland). She describes going into the prison yard at dusk and observing the sky glimmering “with a sweet blue light, in which there floats a moon of clear silver.” Her letters to Liebknecht from prison often include references to animals and flowers; to blackbirds and birch catkins, butterflies, and buffaloes. In this letter she also talks about love:

Oh, how well I understand that for you every lovely melody, every flower, every spring day, every moonlit night represents a longing for, an allurement toward the greatest beauty the world has to offer. And how well I understand that you are “in love with love”! To me it would also be true that love in itself is always more important and holier than the circumstances that give rise to it. And that is so because it allows the world to be seen as a shimmering fairy tale, because it brings out the noblest and most beautiful qualities in each person, because it raises up the most ordinary and insignificant detail and sets it around with diamonds, and because love makes it possible to live in euphoria, in ecstasy.

Kollontai’s descriptions of love’s capacity to reveal “new facets of emotion which possess unprecedented beauty, strength and radiance” also summon the image of sparkling diamonds. It might seem counterintuitive for a historical materialist to invoke fairy tales, but Luxemburg frames love as a prefigurative experience, imbuing mundane material reality with wonder.

Love is not “very small,” as Armand tried to tell herself, but exceeds any individual object or attachment to infuse the world with the shimmer of possibility, gesturing toward another kind of world without prison walls.