On the 150th Birth Anniversary of Clara Zetkin

Clara Zetkin Remembered

Vijay Singh

Clara Zetkin was born on July 5, 1857 in the village of Wiederau, near Chemnitz, in the German province of Saxony into the family of H. Eissner, a country schoolmaster. At the age of seventeen years she entered the Leipzig Teachers’ College for Women, a private teachers’ training college, where she studied for four years. At this institution Clara Zetkin received her education under Auguste Schmidt who was the leader of the feminist movement in Germany until the turn of the century. In Leipzig she came into contact with a circle of revolutionary socialist students and émigrés from Russian Poland, one of whom, Osip Zetkin, subsequently became her husband. Through this circle she received her initial training in Marxism and became conversant with the intellectual fights of the Russian labour movement.

From the 1870s Clara Zetkin became active in the German socialist movement and in 1881, a year when the Exceptional Law Against the Socialists imposed by Bismarck was in force, she joined the German social democratic party and participated in its illegal work. When her husband was expelled from Germany as an ‘undesirable alien’ the Zetkins were compelled to take the path of political emigration. Thereupon Zetkin participated in the socialist movements of France, Austria and Italy. During her sojourn in Switzerland she edited the illegal newspaper Der Sozial Demokrat from Zurich and helped to organise its distribution in Germany. In Paris she drew close to Laura Lafargue, the daughter of Karl Marx, as well as prominent leaders of the French socialist movement such as Paul Lafargue and Jules Guesde.

Clara Zetkin was one of the organisers of the founding congress of the Second International held in Paris in 1889. At the congress she spoke on the role of women in the revolutionary struggle for socialism, stressing the need for a programme for the proletarian women’s movement. Clara Zetkin stated : ‘While women fight side by side with the socialist workers, they are ready to share all sacrifices and hardships, but they are also firmly resolved to take as their due after victory all the rights that belong to them’. It was the first time that a woman had defended female equality at an international assembly. Indeed it was a result of the intervention of Clara Zetkin that the Second International set the pace for socialists of various countries to draw women into the struggle for revolutionary socialism. As its response to the resolution of the Second International on the women’s question, the Erfurt Programme of the social democratic party of 1890 demanded full economic, political and legal equality for women. Subsequently Clara Zetkin participated in all the congresses of the Second International. The American socialist de Leon declared that when Clara Zetkin translated the speeches of the German delegates, including those of Bebel, the translations were better and more revolutionary than the original. Friedrich Engels, who was acquainted with Clara Zetkin and her work, evaluated it highly.

Upon the death of her husband Clara Zetkin returned to Germany in 1890 where the Exceptional Law Against the Socialists had been repealed. There she headed the women’s movement of the social democratic party and from 1892 served as the editor-in-chief of the newspaper of the German working women Die Gleichheit (Equality). Zetkin considered that it was her principal aim to awaken working class women to an understanding of their own true class interest and to save them from the snare of the bourgeois women’s movement. As a result of her endeavours the German proletarian women’s movement developed from the very beginning as an integral part of the general labour movement, completely independent of the bourgeois suffragette movement. The work of Clara Zetkin and other women socialists such as Louise Zietz and Ottilie Baader in organising women into the socialist trade unions was central to the task of winning over working class women to the labour movement. Clara Zetkin was herself a member of the Stuttgart Bookbinders’ Union for over 25 years and was active in the Tailors’ and Seamstresses’ Union at whose second International Congress in London in 1896 she was elected as the provisional International Secretary.

The feminist movement restricted itself to the demand for a restricted women’s suffrage which would, if successful, have left intact the exploitative relationships of bourgeois society. As a result, the socialist women’s movement was from its inception compelled to demarcate itself from feminist perspectives. In her remarkable speech entitled ‘Only with the Proletarian Women Will Socialism be Victorious’ delivered to the social democratic party congress at Gotha in 1896 Clara Zetkin forcefully adumbrated her views: ‘There is no such thing as a ‘women’s movement’ in and of itself’, for in a society divided into classes ‘there is only a bourgeois and a working class women’s movement, which have nothing more in common than does social democracy with bourgeois society’. She continued : ‘The woman of the working class has achieved her economic independence but neither as a person nor as a woman or wife does she have the possibility of living a full life as an individual … For her work as wife and mother she gets only the crumbs that are dropped from the table by capitalist production. Consequently, the liberation struggle of the working class woman cannot be – as it is for the bourgeois woman – a struggle against the men of her class… The end goal of her struggle is not free competition against men, but bringing about the political rule of the working class. Hand in hand with the men of her own class, the working class woman fights against capitalist society’. Only through the ending of capitalist exploitation and the construction of a socialist society could the emancipation of women take place. In consonance with this evaluation, the minutes of the Gotha social democratic party congress recorded: ‘… In spite of the many points of contact in legal and political demands for reform, the working-class woman has no common ground with the women of other classes, regarding the decisive economic interests. The emancipation of the working class can therefore not be brought about by the women of all classes, but is solely the task of the working class irrespective of difference in sex.’

It was through Die Gleichheit, subtitled ‘For the Interest of the Woman Worker’, that the working women of Germany were won for the revolutionary socialist movement. Clara Zetkin’s own assessment of the role and orientation of the journal may be gleaned from the annual editorial which appeared in the 1890s: ‘Die Gleichheit is directed especially to the most progressive members of the working class, whether they are slaves to capital with their hands or with their brains. It strives to school these theoretically, to make possible for them a clear understanding of the historical course of development and an ability not only to work consciously in the battle for the liberation of the working class, but also to be effective in enlightening and teaching their class comrades and training them as fighters with a clear goal’. The journal was primarily addressed to the activists of the socialist women’s movement rather than the mass of women workers. It exposed the condition of work in those branches of industry where women predominated, giving details of factory legislation which could be utilised to the benefit of working women; it covered the activities of women workers in other countries. The paper urged its readers to bring up their children in such a manner that girls break out of traditional gender roles and boys also participate in housework. But in this matter Clara Zetkin was in a tiny minority in the party.

The circulation of the journal in its early years was limited, rising from 2000 in 1891 to 11,000 in 1903-4. Only after 1904 when Die Gleichheit came to be distributed free to women members of the social democratic party did the circulation of the journal jump from 75,000 in 1907 to 125,000 in 1914. From 1905 the leadership of the social democratic party pressurised Clara Zetkin to initiate a series of changes in the content and form of the journal as a result of which regular supplements were issued for housewives, mothers and children. This had some positive effect, as reading materials of revolutionary writers and writers of fiction reached the working class and so redressed the distorted viewpoints which were prevalent in the official school system. From 1908 when women were permitted to become members of political parties, the increasingly reformist social democratic party leadership exercised a mounting negative impact on the paper. As a result, Clara Zetkin’s editorial control was weakened. Within two years Die Gleichheit was carrying dress designs, recipes and articles on fashion and cooking. The social democratic party removed Clara Zetkin from the leadership of the socialist women’s movement and replaced her with the reformist, Luise Zietz.

As one of the leading figures amongst the left-wing of the German social democratic party, Clara Zetkin consistently carried out the struggle against the revisionism of that epoch. Already in 1894 at the Frankfurt congress of the social democratic party she had spoken out against the opportunist draft agrarian programme advanced by David and Vollmar. Clara Zetkin jointly with Rosa Luxemburg – with whom she was tied by strong ties of friendship – led the struggle against Bernstein’s attempts to divest Marxism of its revolutionary essence in order to induce the working class to renounce the fight for socialist revolution. When Kautsky attempted to blunt the debate by maintaining that nothing concrete could be said about the problem of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and David rejected altogether the slogan of proletarian dictatorship, Zetkin exposed the reformists’ point of view as ‘slave morality’. In 1906, with reference to these leaders, she wrote that they wished ‘to convert social democracy into a tame lap-dog of a national social or social-liberal character, into a dog which offers its paw to every bourgeois scoundrel.’

During the Russian Revolution of 1905-07 Clara Zetkin came to the conclusion that the German working class had to draw on the experiences of the Russian proletariat. Writing in Die Gleichheit in 1905 she stated that the Russian working class had ‘become the fighting vanguard of the entire proletarian revolutionary movement and especially of the European proletariat’. The journal explained the developments occurring in Russia and underlined the importance of the new modes of struggle which had emerged in the uprising. Both Luxemburg and Zetkin stressed the importance of the mass political strike in the revolutionary struggle.

Clara Zetkin played a leading role in the international women’s movement. From 1900 she had been instrumental in arranging for a regular women’s conference to take place every two years in association with the congresses of the social democratic party of Germany. On Zetkin’s initiative the first international women’s conference, in effect a Socialist Women’s International, was organised in 1907 in conjunction with the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International at which 59 women from 15 countries participated. Differences emerged in the conference on the attitude to be adopted towards universal suffrage and the issue of feminism. The delegations from France, Austria, Belgium and Britain argued that it was more practical to fight for a limited suffrage restricted by property and income qualifications than to demand universal suffrage. The British and French delegations further criticised the ‘sectarian’ attitude of Clara Zetkin and her supporters in relation to the feminist movement. The consistent Marxist views of Clara Zetkin supported by Alexandra Kollontai and others won the day in part due to the preponderant dominance of the German delegation. The resolutions noted that ‘socialist parties of all countries have a duty to struggle energetically for the introduction of universal suffrage for women’ and that ‘socialist women must not ally themselves with the bourgeois feminists, but lead the battle side by side with the socialist men’. Three years later the second international conference held at Copenhagen in 1910 reiterated the demand for universal suffrage and adopted the resolution prepared by Clara Zetkin to establish 8th March as International Women’s Day. In this way the demonstration of American socialist women in New York on 8th March 1908 in opposition to the local bourgeois suffrage movement became an annual world-wide event of the socialist movement. As early as March 1911 a million men and women in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Denmark participated in mass activities on International Women’s Day

In conjunction with left socialists such as Karl Liebknecht, Zetkin actively campaigned against militarism, imperialism and colonialism. In 1912 at the Basle Congress of the Second International she called upon the international workers’ movement to actively struggle against the threat of imperialist war. With the onset of the First World War Zetkin condemned the chauvinist and imperialist policies of the social democratic party. When, in blatant opposition to the resolutions of the Second International which had called for mass action against imperialist war, the German social democratic party disgraced itself by voting for military credits to the Kaiser’s government in the Reichstag in August 1914, Zetkin, in an article written in 1915 commented: ‘With its support of the war credits and with its liberal-bourgeois dogma of the defence of the fatherland the German social democracy is proclaiming the bankruptcy of the Second International. Karl Kautsky countersigns the bankruptcy declaration with his childish and cowardly theory that the proletarian international is a weapon in times of peace only and not during a war. It will not last long and prominent leaders of the Second International will be sitting in the war cabinets as the marionettes of plutocratic or monarchist powers. There is no longer any political, economic or financial scoundrelism of the bourgeoisie which the leaders of the Second International are not prepared to tolerate, support and cooperate in’.

In an article entitled ‘Working-Class Women, Be Prepared’, published in Die Gleichheit on 5th August 1914, Clara Zetkin argued that the war was in the interests of the Junker big landlords and big capital. She ended with an oblique call to revolutionary struggle: ‘For the working class, brotherhood between people is not a hollow dream, world peace is not just a pretty word… What must be done? There is a single moment in the life of the people when they can win all if only everyone is set. Such a moment is here. Working Women, Be Prepared’. In the brief period between the beginning of the war and the removal by the social democratic party leadership of Clara Zetkin from the editorial board of Die Gleichheit the journal became the key organ opposed to the war. Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin helped to organise the International Women’s Socialist Conference in Berne, Switzerland, against the war. For her pains Clara Zetkin was imprisoned for ‘attempted treason’ by the Kaiser’s government and removed from the editorial board of Die Gleichheit by the socialist party. After her release Clara Zetkin returned to Leipzig where she edited the women’s supplement of the Leipziger Volkszeitung. The bulk of the women socialists of the social democratic party effected a rapprochement with the feminist movement in support of the war just as the party itself established a ‘civil truce’ with the German government during the course of the war. With Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Franz Mehring and others Clara Zetkin became a founder-member of the internationalist Spartacus League. After the war, together with the revolutionary Marxists, she joined the Independent social democratic party and, finally, joined the Communist Party of Germany and its Central Committee.

In common with the left-wing of the social democratic party Clara Zetkin enthusiastically welcomed the Russian revolution and helped to set up a solidarity movement with the new workers’ government. She participated in the activities of the Communist International from the Second Congress, 1920, and in the following year became a member of its Executive Committee and Presidium. Zetkin headed the International Women’s Secretariat of the Communist International and the International Organisation for Aid to Revolutionaries, more popularly known as ‘Red Aid’.

One of her last major speeches in the international arena was delivered in 1932 at the Anti-War Congress held in Amsterdam. After 1920 Zetkin had been regularly elected to the German parliament, the Reichstag, and on 30th August 1932, being the senior most deputy, she was invited to give the inaugural speech at its opening. Despite infirmity she journeyed from Moscow to Berlin for this function and in spite of the warnings of the fascist press – which threatened that it would settle accounts with her if she dared to appear in the Reichstag – she delivered a magnificent revolutionary speech against the fascists, exposed the compromising role of the social democratic party and called for the forming of an anti-fascist united front. ‘I hope’, she declared in the Reichstag, ‘to have the pleasure of opening as its oldest deputy the first Soviet Congress of Soviet Germany’. Zetkin considered that the victory of fascism in Germany was rooted in the capitulation of German social democracy before the bourgeoisie. In her last unfinished article, which she wrote with trembling hands, the final sentences read: ‘When Francis I of France lost the battle of Pavia, he wrote : ‘All is lost save honour’. Against this proud word the Second International must declare: ‘Everything is lost, and first of all the honour of having fought for the emancipation of the proletariat, the toiling masses of the capitalist world’. The fate of the Second International is again fulfilling itself, as it has always done since the German social democracy betrayed revolutionary Marxism’.

The death of Clara Zetkin took place just a few months after Hitler’s accession to power at Arkhangelskoe near Moscow on June 20, 1933. Six lakh working people attended her funeral procession in Moscow from the Hall of the Columns of the House of Trade Unions to Red Square. Among the pall-bearers were Stalin, Molotov, Voroshilov, Ordzhonikidze, Kalinin, Kuibyshev and the members of the Presidium of the Communist International. The funeral orations were delivered by veteran Communists such as Sen Katayama, V.M. Molotov and Nadezhda Krupskaya. The ashes of Clara Zetkin were interred in the Red Wall of the Kremlin by the side of Lenin and other great revolutionaries of the world proletariat.

This biographical note is reproduced from: Clara Zetkin, ‘Movements for the Emancipation of Women’, Three Essays, Kamgar Prakashan, 1988.

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