Clara Zetkin: Preached principle, promoted unity

Marilyn J Boxer and John S Partington (eds) Clara Zetkin: national and international contexts Socialist History Society occasional publications, series No31, pp118, £7

It would appear that in historical research we are beginning to witness something of a revival of interest in a figure who must surely count as one of the most outstanding Marxists in the history of our movement: Clara Zetkin.

Many things to many people, Zetkin has left behind an ambivalent legacy, the complex roots of which are difficult to detail, let alone analyse, within the framework of a single review. She has been described as “the most dangerous witch” of the second German empire (kaiser Wilhelm II); “an anti-feminist and dogmatic communist”, the “best friend of the Soviet Union and babushka kommunizma (grandmother of communism)”, a woman who “sowed division and preached division” both in the women’s movement and the socialist movement, a “marionette” of the Bolshevik leaders (Angelica Balabanova); a “museum figure who hardly interests anybody” (the German weekly, Die Zeit) and as the embodiment of a ‘new woman’ in Louis Aragon’s Bells of Basle. Florence Hervé notes: “There are in Germany few personalities of the women’s movement who are looked at so differently” (p45).

This offering from the Socialist History Society, originally published in 2012, is but one of several recent and/or planned essays and works attempting to grapple with Zetkin’s activity and ideas. The Canadian socialist historian, John Riddell, has written on several aspects of Zetkin’s activity,1 Haymarket Books are planning a January 2015 reprint of Philip S Foner’s Clara Zetkin: selected writings, originally published in 1984, and I have been working with Mike Jones and others from the Revolutionary History editorial board to put together our next journal, which will be devoted to Zetkin’s life and work and will comprise a whole series of previously untranslated writings and speeches.2 In the recent past we have also seen the publication of several items in German, such as the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s excellent Clara Zetkin in her time (some of the material from which will also be translated for the forthcoming Revolutionary History volume).

Bolshevism itself

Zetkin was an internationalist by nature: born in Saxony in 1857, she married a Russian, Ossip Zetkin (who tragically died young), spent a long time in Parisian exile during the period of Otto von Bismarck’s anti-socialist laws and was for much of her later life in the Soviet Union, where she eventually died in 1933, just months after the National Socialists had taken power in Germany. Helpfully, the SHS publication is arranged so as to take into account these “national and international contexts” mentioned in the title by providing chapters on Zetkin’s impact in France (Marilyn J Boxer), Britain (John S Partington), Russia (Natalia Novikova), her conflicted legacy in Germany (Florence Hervé) and a closer look at her role in the Socialist Women’s International (Susan Zimmerman). In addition, Boxer and Partington provide an introduction and an afterword respectively, as well as a glossary of some of the many people Zetkin encountered in her rich life.

While she may not be the first name that springs to mind when we are asked to name influential Marxist women (Rosa Luxemburg’s sheer brilliance and ultimate tragic martyrdom seem to quite rightly place her at the forefront of most people’s minds), there can be no doubt that Zetkin was perhaps one of the most popular and well-known figures in the international workers’ movement of her time. Her career was remarkable: she was a journalist, theoretician, leading member of German Social Democracy (SPD) and the oppositional Independent Social Democracy (USPD), Reichstag parliamentarian for the Communist Party of Germany (1920-33), pedagogue, historian of art and literature, translator, anti-imperialist, member of the Communist International’s executive committee, president of the proletarian solidarity group, Rote Hilfe (Red Aid), secretary of the Socialist Women’s International (1907-17), co-organiser of the first international women’s day … and much more besides.

As Boxer notes in her introduction (p5), Rosa Luxemburg’s biographer, JP Nettl, perhaps speaks for many when he describes Zetkin as an “intellectually lesser figure” than Luxemburg - primarily busying herself with (so-called) ‘women’s issues’. One of the welcome features of the greater attention currently being paid to Zetkin’s ideas is that both of Nettl’s assertions are shown to be at increasing odds with reality. When listing her various tasks and accomplishments above, I deliberately left until last her sterling and principled work in the International Socialist Women’s Movement - not because I want to imply that it ranks any lower than the numerous other things she achieved, but simply to make the point that many other aspects of her multi-faceted career have receded into the background, with many thinking that Zetkin did nothing else but focus on her campaigning against gender discrimination and prejudice. Throughout her life, Zetkin wrote a lot on a wide range of issues - in Parisian exile, Boxer claims that she and her husband, Ossip, published “more than 300 articles between 1886 and 1890” (p11). In terms of international prestige and fame, she was at least on a par with contemporaries like Luxemburg, Liebknecht … maybe even Lenin.

Those in any doubt as to such an outré assertion should consider the following event at the December 1920 Tours congress of the French section of the International, which saw the party split over whether to affiliate to the Communist International or not (p 16):

Congress of Tours, Tuesday December 28 1920. Marcel Sembat presides. Since early afternoon, LO Frossard speaks. Suddenly an interruption. The lights dim. A shiver runs through the assembly. A few seconds later, when the lights go up, a woman with almost white hair stands at the dais. A woman whom the congress, which rises as one, acclaims: it is Clara Zetkin, the delegate of the Third International, saluted by the session leader with these words: “This great, noble and glorious woman who, with her glorious friends, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, was the ardent and magnificent soul of the German Revolution.”

Rather like the intervention of Grigory Zinoviev in the German equivalent of Tours - namely the Halle Congress of the Independent Social Democrats, which took place two months earlier in October 1920 - Zetkin’s speech (she only spoke for 20 minutes; Zinoviev for four hours!) stirred the delegates and was met with great acclaim from those reporting on it. Le Populaire described her intervention, which culminated with “Long live the proletarian revolution, which will destroy the capitalist world and give free access to the coming of our communism”, as a coup de théâtre, which swayed many undecided delegates.

The headline of the following day’s L’Humanité read: “Mocking the police, Clara Zetkin arrives at Tours”. Even the New York Times had something to say on the matter, running with a piece entitled ‘German woman fires French reds’. It discussed the clandestine nature of her appearance (when she entered the assembly hall, apparently, all telegraph wires were severed and the doors were locked - and when she left the doors were once again locked so as to prevent spies from following her trail). A rather embarrassed French government was forced to apologise because this high-profile, white-haired Bolshevik had escaped their clutches. Le Populaire loudly proclaimed: “It is Bolshevism itself which stands there” (p17).

East and west

So how is it that somebody so admired by her contemporaries has largely been ignored by subsequent history? How does it come to pass that even many of those militant and committed activists for women’s rights gathering on International Women’s Day every March 8 may not even know who Clara Zetkin was? There are a number of ways of looking at this question. Of course, like all revolutionary Marxists, Zetkin’s legacy has been all but swept away by the tides of time. The defeats and marginalisation suffered by our movement in the recent past have invoked a certain collective memory loss amongst our class.

Moreover, the fate of revolutionary ideas in the previous century is inexorably bound up with the differing approaches towards their translation, dissemination and interpretation in both the ‘official communist’ east and the cold war west. Zetkin is no exception to this, and this is the subject of Florence Hervé’s useful contribution to the volume, entitled ‘Defamed in the west, idealised in the east?’ Hervé reminds us that in the post-World War II Federal Republic of Germany, one of Zetkin’s major achievements, the March 8 demonstration, was considered to be “an event of the devil” and Zetkin herself was persona non grata. Only the Communist Party of Germany (KPD, banned in 1952) and a small number of women’s groups, one of which had also been outlawed in 1957, commemorated March 8 and “evoked its initiator”. In the 1960s, in a slightly more relaxed political environment and with “the rise of new social movements”, there was a kind of feminist rediscovery of Zetkin in West Germany, albeit one that was not exactly flattering to her. Why? Zetkin was (quite correctly, as it happens) seen as somebody who rejected notions of a “universal sisterhood” of oppressed women and who deployed much of her political acumen in the struggle against feminism and feminist ideas.

As Marie-Louise Janssen-Jurreit put it in 1976, “Clara Zetkin refused the struggle of the sexes and fought after 1889 [the foundation of the Second International in Paris, where Zetkin gave a keynote speech] against feminism and the feminists” (quoted on p46). As such Zetkin was posthumously held responsible for splitting the women’s movement, since she argued that women workers should be won to Marxist social democracy. For feminist thinkers, such an approach stunted and weakened the struggle for women’s rights.

According to Hervé, the first German “socialist-feminist” groups of the 1960s did take a closer look at the (then barely available) writings of Zetkin, as well as of August Bebel, Friedrich Engels and others, but what they mainly drew from these was not the need for working class party-political organisation of men and women as a whole, but arguments in favour of women’s work (the importance of which Zetkin always stressed) at a time when women were portrayed as housewives. In the 1980s, following two conferences, the German Communist Party (DKP) published a pamphlet with some of Zetkin’s texts along similar lines.

Hardly surprisingly, social democracy in cold-war West Germany to all intents and purposes ignored Zetkin. And in 1980 the weighty German Federation of Trade Unions decided not to take part in International Women’s Day “for the sake of trade union unity” - after all, March 8 is “inspired by the resolution of the second International Women’s Congress in Copenhagen in 1910” and is a “political party day”(!). Yet this line did not hold: more and more resolutions demanded that March 8 be celebrated and eventually it was.

The fate of March 8 in such a core state of the capitalist west underlines the transformation in establishment thinking regarding international women’s day: whereas it was once ignored as a marginal event of the loony left, now the powers-that-be have reinvented themselves as always having been consistent advocates of women’s rights, thereby tearing March 8 from its roots within the workers’ movement. It was this attempt to erase Zetkin from history that in 1994 saw Helmut Kohl, then German chancellor, intervene to ensure that a street in Berlin near the Reichstag would not bear Zetkin’s name: you see, Zetkin apparently played a part in the “destruction of the first German democracy, the Weimar Republic” (p51). Instead the street name was awarded to that well-known democrat, princess Dorothea von Brandenburg … A sign of the times, indeed.

A rather different picture of Zetkin emerges in the German Democratic Republic, where she was idolised in typical ‘official communist’ fashion: appearing on medals, stamps and banknotes in a state where March 8 was annually celebrated (along with her) in an almost ritualistic fashion. The concomitant of such Stalinist deification, however, is that the latter Russian years of her life - her fallings out with the KPD (not least over the leftist ‘third period’ disaster), her annoyance at having her correspondence monitored, her frosty relationship with Uncle Joe and so forth - were largely glossed over by researchers in the east.

Interestingly, Natalia Novikova points out that in the Soviet Union too Zetkin was idolised, but not for her role as a leader of the women’s movement, which is perhaps the only thing she might just be known for in the west: “In the 1930s,” states Novikova, “the Russian proponents of women’s issues had already been removed from the political scene and this aspect of Zetkin’s activity was doomed to oblivion” (p44). Nobody stood above the ideological imperatives of the Soviet Union, not even a woman who had been awarded the Red Banner Order and the Lenin Order.

Socialist, not feminist

Another major factor in Zetkin’s marginalisation is that her ideas were largely unpalatable to the feminist movement of the 1960s-70s, briefly alluded to above. Throughout her life, Zetkin was a trenchant and outspoken critic of “feminism” or “bourgeois feminism” from the standpoint of Marxist politics. This has led to a certain ambiguity: both Marxist and feminist thinkers alike are divided on whether to call Zetkin a feminist and to what extent her legacy can or should be appropriated today for either movement. I have written elsewhere on the origins of the ‘women’s question’ within the German workers’ movement and its complex links with the “bourgeois women’s movement”,3 but, given the importance of the subject, a few comments on Zetkin and feminism are called for.

Boxer (pp12-13) recalls a rather telling event regarding Zetkin’s attitude to the feminism of her time. At the Fifth Congress of the Second International in Paris in 1900, Marie Bonnevial - “a syndicalist teacher active in socialist and feminist circles” - presented Zetkin with a bouquet of flowers to thank her for her feminist work. Zetkin responded: “I’m not a feminist: I’m a socialist.” Apparently, these words were omitted from the official congress records, and today we are only aware of this statement from the recollections of Charles Vérecque, a congress delegate who applauded Zetkin’s actions at time.

Zetkin’s anti-feminism notwithstanding, the volume contains many references to “Zetkin’s feminism” (p52), and even “women’s, indeed feminist issues, such as the rights of mothers and children paternity claims” (p18) (as if such matters were “feminist issues”). From a historical perspective, it seems to me misplaced to see Zetkin as a feminist. She fought for a “clean break” between the socialist and bourgeois women’s movements, for the trade union organisation of women workers and - surely, most importantly - for women to unite alongside men in Marxist parties, whose duty it was to “awaken the class-consciousness of the broad mass of proletarian women, to suffuse them with communist ideas and to rally them as fighters and collaborators for communism, who are determined for action, willing to make sacrifices and clear about their aims.”4

This required taking clear and principled stands when it came to all sorts of political matters. As such, Boxer’s claim that “by emphasising what divides women of differing backgrounds or politics, and eclipsing what may serve to unite them, Zetkin served women of all classes poorly” (p21) simply repeats the standard “bourgeois feminist” narrative against Marxism in general and Zetkin in particular, implying that all women everywhere have the same interests. Boxer even seems to infer that ‘bourgeois feminism’ is a label aimed at the particular class backgrounds of individual feminists (Zetkin herself broke with her ‘bourgeois feminist’ mother not over lifestyle, but politics). To take one example later on in her career, Zetkin fought tooth and nail for the principle that suffrage should be extended to women as a whole, not just propertied women. Many of the great Marxist thinkers were bourgeois in sociological origin, but in their political life proved to be good class traitors and proletarian fighters.

Zetkin’s project constantly foregrounded the idea that women’s liberation required the defeat of capitalism and had to be informed by these perspectives (hence her clash with representatives of the revisionist wing of the SPD, such as Lily Braun and Eduard Bernstein). So, where Boxer claims that Zetkin “preached division” and “sowed division”, I would, on the contrary, assert that Zetkin preached principle and promoted unity amongst the working class - in her “war against war” approach to imperialism from the Boer War on, in her understanding of the opportunist collapse of the Second International and the need for a new, Third, International cleansed of such opportunism, and much more besides. Indeed, if we substitute Zetkin’s term, “bourgeois feminism”, for what comrade Yassamine Mather calls today’s “dominant mode” of feminism - ie, “neoliberal feminism”5 - then it becomes immediately obvious that neither in Zetkin’s times nor today are we dealing with what Novikova labels “rhetorical opposition” or what Boxer dubs a “straw woman”, but with real concrete political choices that have their origins not in the heads of Marxists, but in life itself.

What is more, these questions are not all that different from those which Zetkin herself was trying to theorise. Is women’s liberation compatible with capitalism? What about the question not only of the growing inequality between men and women, but between women? How to organise men and women into a political party? On the basis of what ideas?

Zetkin today

In terms of organisation and self-organisation, Hervé makes the very interesting point that some feminist thinkers from the 1960s-70s rejected Zetkin because they did not take account of the context of the early women’s movement - the different social situations, problems and conflicts - nor of “the evolution of Clara Zetkin’s position towards the organisation of women” (p46, emphasis added). Unfortunately, this latter question is not explored further: matters of women’s self-organisation, caucusing and their relationship to political parties is of burning historical and contemporary interest and it would be interesting to trace Zetkin’s supposed “evolution” on this question. I am not in much of a position to comment on this matter, but I thought that it might be worthwhile to cite Zetkin’s 1920 Guidelines for the communist women’s movement - a text of around 8,000 words, which she was commissioned to write following Comintern’s second Congress:6

In the Communist Party of a given country, women must not be combined in special associations, but must be incorporated into the local party organisations as members with equal rights and duties, and must be drawn into participation in all party organs and authorities … However, the Communist Party will take medal measures and create special institutions in order to recruit women with its agitation, to keep them organised in its ranks and to educate them.

It does all of this in an assessment of the particular spiritual and moral nature of women, their historically conditioned backwardness and the special position that they often assume as a result of their domestic work … There must be a committee for agitation amongst women in every local party organisation, to which male comrades can also belong.7

This committee, Zetkin further states,

shall consist of five to seven members, to be nominated by organised female comrades and endorsed by the local party leadership. It shall work in closest connection with the local party leadership, requiring this leadership’s agreement for the policies and decisions it makes They shall have a permanent representative in the party leadership who participates in all meetings and work with an advisory vote in all general party affairs, with a decisive vote in all affairs of the women’s movement.8

I might be wrong, but this certainly strikes me as fairly consistent with Zetkin’s approach in the Second International. At any rate, the quote certainly provides food for thought, and hopefully an incentive for further discussion.

It is undeniable that in the absence of direct access to Zetkin’s work in English, those of us seeking to interrogate her ideas are not in a position to assess her life as a whole - ie, grasp the evolution of her ideas on the party, imperialism, women’s organisation, oppression, etc across her entire career. Yet acquiring a fuller picture of the life of such a towering figure is essential. Although she was active in quite a different social and political context - certainly when it comes to the status of women in terms of formal equality, employment, etc (in Europe at least) - many of the controversies that surround her name feed into the burning questions of our movement today (and vice versa, of course).

It is vital that her voluminous literary output be translated and made available to the Anglophone world. This task is daunting enough, yet vital for those of us still committed to the idea that the overwhelming majority of women and men must organise unitedly to transcend capitalism. Zetkin doubtless did much more for the rights of both women and men than many of her detractors. It will require persistence and dedication to ensure that her consistent Marxist partyism can enrich revolutionary perspectives and bring their vibrancy to a wider audience, as part of the revival of Marxist principles and practice. However, this also means confronting the anti-Marxist ‘common sense’ that abounds in the discussion of Zetkin’s life and times.

Despite my criticisms of this series of essays, I must make it clear that the SHS has provided a real service by publishing it. It should be required reading for all Marxists today: the more we know about Zetkin, the better. This review has by no means discussed all the useful material contained in the volume. And I can certainly agree with Hervé that the “debate about Zetkin is not yet over” and that “she has still to be rediscovered … away from hagiography and detraction”.

Yet I think Hervé’s hopes that this can occur “beyond political disputes” are misplaced. Controversial figures always leave behind controversial ideas that can endure and remain provocative and contentious long after they die. Zetkin is such a figure. And if there is one dogged characteristic that emerges from my reading of Zetkin, it is that she certainly did not shy away from “political disputes”.

Ben Lewis



1. See, for example, http://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2014/01/12/clara-zetkin-in-the-lions-den. This article also prompted a response from Lindsey German: http://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2014/01/18/clara-zetkin-oppression-class-and-socialism-by-lindsey-german. I take issue with both comrades on a number of points, but will have to leave these to one side for now.

2. Not least her article against Eduard Bernstein’s revisionism and in defence of her then close friend in Stuttgart, Karl Kautsky, in the women’s journal she edited, Die Gleichheit; her 1932 speech calling for united working class struggle against fascism in a Reichstag dominated by Nazi deputies; and some of her little-known speeches at the executive committee of the Communist International, which shed new light on her relationship with Moscow and the ruling Communist Party. For more information, check the Revolutionary History website: http://revolutionaryhistory.co.uk.

3. See B Lewis, ‘Bebel’s forgotten legacyWeekly Worker April 25 2013. Perhaps the most extensive account of this early period of the workers’ movement is provided by Zetkin herself in her ‘Zur Geschichte der proletarischen Frauenbewegung Deutschlands’ (‘On the history of the proletarian women’s movement in Germany’) - sadly, this 200-page work is yet to be translated into English.

4. C Zetkin Richtlinien für die kommunistische Frauenbewegung Berlin 1920, p1.

5. ‘Out of the-mainstream, into the revolution’ Weekly Worker April 18 2013.

6. This is also due to be published in full in the forthcoming Revolutionary History volume.

7. C Zetkin Richtlinien für die kommunistische Frauenbewegung Berlin 1920, p23.

8. Ibid p25.