On Love, Sex and Gender: Lenin’s “Own Words”
Sex and Love
Absorption in the Problem of Sex
“The mention of Freud’s hypothesis is designed to give the pamphlet a scientific veneer, but it is so much bungling by an amateur. Freud’s theory has now become a fad. I mistrust sex theories expounded in articles, treatises, pamphlets, etc. — in short, the theories dealt with in that specific literature which sprouts so luxuriantly on the dung heap of bourgeois society. I mistrust those who are always absorbed in the sex problems, the way an Indian saint is absorbed in the contemplation of his navel. It seems to me that this superabundance of sex theories, which for the most part are mere hypotheses, and often quite arbitrary ones, stems from a personal need. It springs from the desire to justify one’s own abnormal or excessive sex life before bourgeois morality and to plead for tolerance towards oneself. This veiled respect for bourgeois morality is as repugnant to me as rooting about in all that bears on sex. No matter how rebellious and revolutionary it may be made to appear, it is in the final analysis thoroughly bourgeois.”(Clara Zetkin,Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 101)
Lenin was not interested in the approach of the method whereby Freud’s “theory” was used to explain everything, as well as “rooting about in all that bears on sex.” This was based simply on a hypothesis — and moreover a nonsensical one. Lenin ridiculed people “who are always absorbed in the sex problems” and the “superabundance of sex theories.”
In bourgeois society the question of sex is one-dimensionally exaggerated in the name of “sexual liberation,” meaning that instead of sex being dealt with in a truly healthy manner, it becomes increasingly mystified and aggrandized, and what is worse, by sex being turned into a business and treated vulgarly, this especially distorts and eats away at the healthy spirit of youth, turning it into something abnormal and lopsided — and this is something that we can see occurring every day. Lenin recognized that a one-dimensional exaggeration of sex in this distorted form is connected to the rule of the bourgeoisie and serves the interests of bourgeois society. Therefore, Lenin took an attitude of extreme cautious towards attempts to place the psychological concern with sex at the center of things.
“You must be aware of the famous theory that in communist society the satisfaction of sexual desire, of love, will be as simple and unimportant as drinking a glass of water. The glass of water theory has made our young people mad, quite mad…I think this glass of water theory is completely un-Marxist, and moreover, anti-social. In sexual life there is not only simple nature to be considered, but also cultural characteristics, whether they are of a high or low order…Of course, thirst must be satisfied. But will the normal man in normal circumstances lie down in the gutter and drink out of a puddle, or out of a glass with a rim greasy from many lips? But the social aspect is the most important of all. Drinking water is of course an individual affair. But in love two lives are concerned, and a third, a new life, arises. It is that which gives it its social interest, which gives rise to a duty towards the community.”(Clara Zetkin, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 49)
In periods of turmoil, it is easy for sexual relations to be overturned. The French Revolution is a classic example of this. During the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the subsequent civil war, the past order, authority, and morality were completely rejected, collapsed, and were overturned, and a new order and morality emerged. In such an age, it was inevitable that sexual relations among young people would also be very confused and tend towards being impulsive.
A “communist” theory that encouraged this also emerged, and the “glass-of-water theory” criticized here is one example. There was much talk at the time of a new sexual lifestyle, and Kollontai’s history of women sang the praises of absolute free love.
Lenin opposed this tendency, and sought “self-control and self-discipline” even in affairs of love, warning that “dissoluteness in sexual life is bourgeois [and] a phenomenon of decay” and that this should not be imitated. He asked how this “glass-of-water theory” was any different from bourgeois decadent thought.
Lenin, in particular, pointed out that the “glass-of-water theory” completely ignored the social aspect of love. Certainly the drinking of a cup of water is merely an individual thing. But love, although seen as something “private,” in fact has another aspect. Love is first of all a relationship and connection between two people. Therefore, it is already a social relation. Moreover, through the connection of two people, a “third new life” can be born. Seen from the perspective of humanity, the birth of a child through the relationship between a man and a woman is of decisive social importance. Thus, the social significance of love must be noted, rather than viewing it as purely individual problem. Young people tend to view this as a purely individual problem, and there is no lack of theories that appeal to this tendency. However, according to Lenin this is a mistake and he says that, “as a communist I have not the least sympathy for the glass of water theory, although it bears the fine title ‘satisfaction of love.’”
On “Free Love”
“I feel bound to make one point right away. I suggest you delete altogether paragraph 3 dealing with ‘the demand (on the part of women) for free love.’ This is, in fact, a bourgeois, not a proletarian demand. What do you really mean by it?” (Jan. 17, 1915 letter to Inessa Armand, Collected Works vol. 34)
This is one part of Lenin’s reply to Inessa Armand’s plan to publish a pamphlet for women workers. Lenin says that the section on women’s’ “demand for free love” should be eliminated because it is a “bourgeois, not a proletarian demand.” In other words, “what matters is the objective logic of class relations in affairs of love,” not subjective hopes.
Does the term “free love” really express the interests of the proletarian in “freedom from material (financial) considerations in love,” and freedom “from material cares”? The answer is no. What, then, does this term express? Lenin points out that “in modern society the most talkative and noisy ‘top strata’ mean by ‘free love’” such things as “freedom from earnestness in love,” “freedom from childbirth,” and “freedom to commit adultery.” Therefore, he finds the slogan of “free love” to be a demand of bourgeois women.
Pure and Impure Kisses
“Even fleeting passion, a passion liaison” is ‘more poetic and pure’ than the ‘loveless kisses’ exchanged as a matter of habit between husband and wife. That is what you write. And you propose writing this in your pamphlet. Excellent. Is this counterposing logical? Loveless kisses which a husband and wife exchange as a matter of habit are impure. Agreed. What do you want to make the contrary? A loving kiss, it would appear. No. You make the contrary a ‘passing’ (why passing?) ‘passion’ (why not love?). It follows logically that these loveless kisses (since they are passing) are the contrary of loveless kisses exchanged between husband and wife… strange!” (Jan. 24, 1915 letter to Inessa Armand, Collected Works vol. 34)
Inessa Armand raised the idea of “free love,” or “even a short-lived passion and love affair,” in opposition to a vulgar, loveless marriage. But Lenin found this a strange opposition. He felt that a loveless connection between a man and a woman should be contrasted instead with a loving relationship. And so Armand was being inconsistent by contrasting a loveless relationship with another unloving relationship of fleeting passion. For this reason, Lenin gave her the following advice: “Would it not be better in a popular pamphlet to contrast the petty-bourgeois, intellectual or peasant vulgar and dirty marriage without love to the proletarian civic marriage with love (and add, if you must have it in, that a short-lived passionate affair can be pure and can be dirty).” (Ibid.)
The Woman Question
Sexual Discrimination and the Subjection and Oppression of Women
“The female half of the human race is doubly oppressed under capitalism. The working woman and the peasant woman are oppressed by capital, but over and above that, even in the most democratic of the bourgeois republics, they remain, firstly, deprived of some rights because the law does not give them equality with men; and secondly — and this is the main thing — they remain in ‘household bondage,’ they continue to be ‘household slaves,’ for they are overburdened with the drudgery of the most squalid and backbreaking and stultifying toil in the kitchen and the individual family household.” (“Speech on International Women’s Day”Collected Works vol. 32)
For the past century, the leaders of the emancipation movement in Europe and the North America have called for legal equality for women. But under capitalism it has even been impossible to consistently sustain the formal equality represented by equality under the law. Real equality has remained elusive. This is because women have been trapped in the position of “household slave.” Fourier once made the profound statement that one can judge the true nature of a society by looking at the position of women within it, and to know the historical limitations of capitalism, it is enough to see how half-baked, hypocritical, and deceptive “women’s emancipation” has been under capitalism. Not only has capitalism been unable to free women from “household bondage,” but in fact offers up fraudulent arguments to justify and prettify this situation, endlessly reproducing paens on the superiority of housewives and their devotion. The situation in which the energy of housewives is needlessly wasted needs to be negated, and sublated. How, then, can this be done?
Conditions for the Emancipation of Women
“Owing to her work in the house, the woman is still in a difficult position. To effect her complete emancipation and make her the equal of the man it is necessary for housework to be socialized and for women to participate in common productive labor. Then women will occupy the same position as men.” (“The Tasks of the Working Women’s Movement in the Soviet Republic” Collected Works vol. 30)
In order for women to be liberated Lenin says that two things are necessary: first of all individual housework and housekeeping must be eliminated (are at least reduced to being on the level of a supplemental pastime), and secondly women must participate in common productive labor along with men.
However, have these two things been achieved in bourgeois society, and if so to what extent and in what form have they been achieved?
In bourgeois society, women’s participation in productive labor has been realized to a certain extent. Already one big part of production, and a significant part of such social labor as the textile industry, electrical appliance production, retail labor, service industries, management, agriculture, etc. is performed by women. Needless to say, this participation in the labor force is defended from the stingy bourgeois individualists who say “a woman’s place is in the home.” The issue here is that since, in bourgeois society, this necessary participation is not accompanied by other conditions women are forced to bear an increasingly heavy burden. The issue is not the participation of women in the workforce itself, since this participation is historically inevitable. Without such participation any talk of improving women’s position in society or emancipation would be meaningless.
However, in bourgeois society do the conditions exist for women to participate equally in production alongside men? Has the creation of such conditions actually been seriously considered in bourgeois society? And could this actually be achieved in such a society?
Socialism and the Emancipation of Women
“The real emancipation of women, real communism will begin only where and when a mass struggle begins (led by the proletariat wielding the power of the state) against this petty household economy, or rather when its wholesale transformation into large-scale socialist economy begins.
“Public dining rooms, creches, kindergartens — here we have examples of these shoots, here we have the simple, everyday means, involving nothing pompous, grandiloquent or ceremonial, which can in actual fact emancipate women, which can in actual fact lessen and abolish their inequality with men as regards their role in social production and public life. These means are not new, they (like all the material prerequisites for socialism) were created by large-scale capitalism; but under capitalism they remained, first, a rarity, and secondly, which is particularly important, either profit-making enterprises, with all the worst features of speculation, profiteering, cheating and fraud, or “acrobatics of bourgeois philanthropy,” which the best workers rightly detested and despised.” (“A Great Beginning” Collected Works vol. 29, p. 429)
Here I basically have little to add to what Lenin has already said here. Just think of how many women would like to work but cannot because daycare is unavailable, or those who are reluctant to leave their children at the hands of daycare profits run for the sole purpose of profit! The bourgeoisie not aware that to improve this situation even slightly would require a fundamental change; and even if they were the defense of their own interests would prevent them from doing anything about this. Lenin’s view here that the true liberation of women could only come through the efforts of a proletarian government is filled with very profound truth.
On the Freedom of Divorce
“This example clearly demonstrates that one cannot be a democrat and socialist without demanding full freedom of divorce now, because the lack of such freedom is additional oppression of the oppressed sex — though it should not be difficult to realize that recognition of the freedom to leave one’s husband is not an invitation to all wives to do so!” (“A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism”Collected Works vol. 23, p. 72)
Of course, even if the complete freedom of divorce is ensured by law, the true liberation of women is still far away. This is because divorce is first of all an individual solution, and therefore an incomplete one. Secondly, in bourgeois society, owing to women’s economic dependence this right cannot always be exercised. Nevertheless, Lenin defended this right and recognized its significance because “the fuller the freedom of divorce, the clearer will women see that the source of their ‘domestic slavery’ is capitalism, not lack of rights” (Ibid. p. 73). Just as Lenin was opposed to bourgeois liberals who felt that protecting the right of divorce was sufficient in itself, he also opposed “extreme leftists” who said that it was problematic to give unconditional support to this demand since it does not represent the fundamental solution to the problem or signify the true liberation of women.
Workers and the Value of the Birth Control Movement
“And to fight not singly as did the best of our fathers and not for deceitful bourgeois slogans, but for our own slogans, the slogans of our class. We fight better than our fathers. Our children will fight still better and they will win. The working class is not dying. It is growing, becoming strong, grown up, united; it is learning and becoming tempered in struggle. We are pessimists as regards serfdom, capitalism and small-scale production, but ardent optimists about the workers’ movement and its aims. We are already laying the foundations of the new building and our children will finish its construction.
“That is why — and that is the only reason — we are unconditional enemies of neo-Malthusianism, which is a trend proper to the petty-bourgeois couple, hardened and egoistical, who mutter fearfully: ‘Only let us hang on somehow. As for children, we’d better not have any.’ It stands to reason that such an approach does not in any way prevent us from demanding the unconditional repeal of all laws persecuting abortion or laws against the distribution of medical works on contraceptive measures and so on. Such laws are simply the hypocrisy of the ruling classes. These laws do not cure the ills of capitalism, but simply turn them into especially malignant and cruel diseases for the oppressed masses.” (“The Working Class and Neo-Malthusianism” Collected Works vol. 19, p. 236)
Lenin was opposed to the Neo-Malthusian birth control movement. This was because this movement was based on egotistical thinking and adopted a hopeless, demoralized view of the future. This is connected to the feeling of fearful petty bourgeois who want to decrease the number of children who they feel only increase the amount of hardship and unhappiness. Workers, however, are different, and have nothing to do with the cries of those who tell people to avoid bearing children since they will only “be maimed” by society. Lenin instead looks to children of the future to “fight better, more unitedly, consciously and resolutely than we are fighting against the present-day conditions of life that are maiming and ruining our generation?” (Ibid. p. 237)
This isn’t in contradiction, however, with the position of opposing laws against abortion, since “such laws are nothing but the hypocrisy of the ruling classes” which “do not heal the ulcers of capitalism [but] merely turn them into malignant ulcers that are especially painful for the oppressed masses.” (Ibid.) The problem lies with efforts that seek to tie a cowardly petty bourgeois dogma to the movement of workers struggling for socialism.
The Woman Question and Social Problems
“And what is the result of this futile, un-Marxist dealing with the question? That questions of sex and marriage are understood not as part of the large social question? No, worse! The great social question appears as an adjunct, a part, of sexual problems. The main thing becomes a subsidiary matter. That does not only endanger clarity on that question itself, it muddles the thoughts, the class consciousness of proletarian women generally.” (Clara Zetkin, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 54)
Lenin says that he could “scarcely believe [his] ears” when he hared that the chief subjects of interest at “reading and discussion evenings” of German women comrades was sex and marriage. As we have already seen, Lenin was not fond of the bourgeois tendency to speak of sex exaggeratedly. Here as well, Lenin was opposed to women devoting themselves solely to questions of sex and marriage. For him, the most fundamental question is the “great social question” — in other words, the question of the revolutionary overturn of the capitalist system — and the women’s question is one part of this. Lenin emphasized that these women comrades should always bear in mind this and position the women’s question clearly within this overall question.