Rebel Lives: Clara Zetkin

A federal election in Germany was held on 31 July 1932 in the depths of the Great Depression and a political crisis. The Nazis obtained the largest share of the vote and 230 seats in the 608-seat Reichstag. On 30 August the oldest member had the honour of opening the session of the newly-elected parliament. The 75 years old Clara Zetkin, the re-elected Communist member for Stuttgart, was whisked from her Moscow sickbed to Berlin. The frail “grandmother of German communism” was carried on a chair into the Reichstag by a back way while the Nazis staged a demonstration at the front. Zetkin addressed the Reichstag brilliantly. She attacked capitalism and proposed a strategy to fight the immediate danger of fascism:

The task of the hour is to establish the united front of all working people in order to repel Fascism, in order thereby to preserve the power and strength of the organisations of the enslaved and exploited, and even to save their very lives. All restrictive and divisive, trade-union, religious and ideological outlooks have to take a back seat before this urgent historical necessity. All of those who are threatened, who are suffering, who crave emancipation: all must join the united front against fascism and its representatives in the Government.

Although Zetkin had remained loyal to the German Communist Party (KPD) and the Communist International, despite Stalinist bureaucratisation, her Reichstag speech did not echo the Stalinist orthodoxy of the day, which was to underrate the fascist danger, denounce the Social-Democrats as “social-fascists” and make hollow calls for a united front “from below”: that is, not a united front at all, but a demand that social-democratic workers break from their party leaders and accept Communist leadership. The KPD and the Comintern did not adopt the united front policy urged by Zetkin (and, incidentally, urged by the exiled Trotsky). Five months later, on 30 January 1933, Hitler was made Chancellor without the Communist and Social-Democratic parties putting up resistance. Clara Zetkin died in June 1933 having had a long, unique, and mostly distinguished political career as a revolutionary Marxist.

Clara Eissner was born in 1857 in Saxony. In 1878 she joined the Socialist Workers Party, the fore-runner of the Social-Democratic Party (SDP). Due to the Anti-Socialist Laws (1878-1890) that made socialist activity illegal, Clara went into exile to Paris in 1882 where she took the surname of her partner Ossip Zetkin, a Jewish Russian socialist, with whom she had two sons. The Zetkins worked for an international socialist movement. Ossip died in January 1889, but Clara was able to take part in the founding of the Second International at its Paris Congress in July that year. She was one of only five women out of over 400 delegates. A report by William Morris described Zetkin’s impact:

[I] chiefly remember a speech of the delegate for the Waiters’ Association … and also a speech of Madame Zetkin, who represented the working women of Berlin. This last was in fact a very clear and closely reasoned essay on the relation between the industrial position of women and Socialism. When printed it will be valuable as clearly establishing the difference in view between the Socialist and the ‘Woman’s Rights’ women. It was received with as much applause as any other speech; more than any, I think, except Guesde’s.

This account hints at themes that would recur in Zetkin’s subsequent writings and speeches: a materialist foundation – the entry of women into waged work – for women’s liberation; the distinction from bourgeois feminism; and women’s joint struggle as equals with men for the socialist revolution as the only solution to women’s oppression.

Back in Germany, in Stuttgart, after the repeal of the Anti-Socialist Laws, Zetkin became the editor of the socialist women’s magazine Die Gleichheit (Equality). A speech by Zetkin to the 1896 congress of the SDP gives an indication to her approach to women’s liberation at that time. After explaining that capitalism’s need to exploit labour draws women into the labour market she said:

Her final aim is not the free competition with the man, but the achievement of the political rule of the proletariat. The proletarian woman fights hand in hand with the man of her class against capitalist society. To be sure, she also agrees with the demands of the bourgeois women’s movement, but she regards the fulfillment of these demands simply as a means to enable that movement to enter the battle, equipped with the same weapons, alongside the proletariat.

The nominally Marxist SDP was reformist in practice. Edouard Bernstein was a protagonist of reformism, who in 1899 published a book advocating an outright reformist programme for the SDP. Immediately, in April 1899, Zetkin published a critique of Bernstein’s reformism in Die Gleichheit. (In 1900 Zetkin’s friend Rosa Luxemburg published her famous pamphlet ‘Reform or Revolution’ in response to Bernstein’s book).

Clara Zetkin was central to the founding of the International Socialist Women’s Conferences movement. The first conference brought together 58 women delegates. It took place concurrently with the start of the International Socialist Congress in August 1907 in Stuttgart. The divide between reformists and revolutionaries was evident at the women’s conference where the reformists, represented in the Austrian and other delegations, were against taking a resolution to the main Congress to commit all affiliated parties to a policy of struggle for universal suffrage without distinction of sex. According to Alexandra Kollontai, a delegate from the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, Zetkin and the German delegation had a different view:

Those who supported this view demanded that the international congress confirm the proposition that the struggle for voting rights for women workers is not separate from the class struggle, and that any concession in this area, any deviation from principle, is a compromise that damages the whole cause of the working class.

Zetkin was elected to be the secretary of the International Socialist Women’s Bureau, a position she would hold until 1917. The next International Socialist Women’s Conference took place in Copenhagen in August 1910 with over 100 delegates from 17 countries. Clara Zetkin was the chairperson of the conference and she seconded the motion that launched International Women’s Day. The first International Women’s Day took place on 19 March 1911 under the slogan “All Out for Female Suffrage!” More than a million women took to the streets that day in Germany, Denmark, Austria and Switzerland. Subsequently, 8 March became International Women’s Day.

A third international socialist women’s conference was due to take place in conjunction with the Congress of the Socialist International in 1914, but it was cancelled due to the outbreak of war. While the vast majority of SDP leaders collapsed into supporting the War, Clara Zetkin was one of a handful, grouped around Rosa Luxemburg, to adhere to internationalism. Zetkin used her positions as secretary of the Women’s Secretariat of the Socialist International and editor of Die Gleichheit to agitate against the SDP leadership’s policy of class peace and to organise an international socialist women’s conference. This first anti-war conference of the War was held in Switzerland in March 1915. In July 1915 Zetkin was imprisoned for anti-war activity, an experience that had a lasting debilitating effect on her health.

The few internationalist socialists formed the Spartacus League within the SDP. When the pacifist left within the SDP was expelled in 1917 it formed the left-reformist Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). Zetkin and the Spartacists joined the new party.

In November 1918 revolution engulfed Germany, spreading from the sailors’ revolt in Kiel. Workers’ councils were formed everywhere. The SDP leaders joined the workers’ councils in order to hold them back from within. On 9 November the monarchy fell and the following day the premiership was handed to Ebert of the SDP. Ebert’s “socialist” parliamentary government was far from secure from challenge by the revolutionary workers’ council movement.

At the end of December 1918, in the throes of revolution, a Spartacus League conference in Berlin declared the founding of the Communist Party (KPD). Against the advice of older heads like Luxemburg Leo Jogiches and Paul Levi the conference passed ultraleft policies for leaving the unions and against participation parliamentary elections. Jogiches thought the founding of the new party premature. Zetkin thought so as well, but she was not present at the conference to exert a steadying influence. On 17 November Zetkin had written to Luxemburg against the immediate formation of a new party. Zetkin argued that they should break from the USPD,

in the circumstances in which our influence on the masses is most advantageous, which would create more or less larger organisations to the cause with greater proletarian masses … [In the case of immediate split] we would with our notorious weakness in leading people and means considerably impede our access to the masses … So I am of the opinion that for now we remain in the USPD with our inflexible fundamental criticism.

In early January 1919 a government provocation sparked confused revolutionary events in Berlin: general strike, seizures of buildings, newspaper presses, and railway stations, and armed detachments of workers. Actually, Rosa Luxemburg and the majority of the KPD leadership spoke against an attempt to seize power, but they did not desert the battle enjoined. The SDP government sent in the Freikorps to crush the revolt, which they accomplished within a few days. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were among the insurgents killed, as was Leo Jogiches a few weeks later during a counter-revolutionary reign of terror. Chris Harman has written:

The January fighting went down in history as the ‘Spartakist Uprising’. But the Spartakist leadership of the Communist Party were opposed to the project! Such is the fate of revolutionaries who have the right policy, but don’t have a powerful disciplined party to put it into effect. They get the blame for actions they do not initiate and cannot control.

In Bavaria a KPD-led soviet government was formed in April 1919, but it too was crushed within weeks and the communist leaders were executed.

Zetkin, in Stuttgart, did not immediately join the KPD, but delayed to be able to make an appeal to the USDP’s membership at its March 1919 congress.

It was a tragedy that Zetkin, Luxemburg and the internationalists did not split from the reformist SDP when the party betrayed internationalism at the beginning of the First World War, if not earlier. If there had been an existing mature revolutionary party in November 1918 it might have been able to give coherent direction to the revolution. As it was, the workers were politically confused with many still holding faith in the SDP or USPD.

In the June 1920 elections Zetkin was one of four KPD members elected to the Reichstag. She held the Stuttgart seat for the rest of her life. That election gives a snapshot of relative strength of the left parties. The SDP with 21.7 percent of the vote and USPD with 17.9 percent were the biggest parties. The KPD won only 2.1 percent. However, in December that year the left wing of the USPD split away to merge with the KPD to create a communist party with a mass membership.

As well as being a prominent figure in the KPD, Clara Zetkin made major contributions to the world revolutionary movement through her involvement in the Communist International as a member of its Executive Committee and participant in the Second, Third and Fourth world congresses; i.e., when the Comintern was a school of revolutionary socialism while Lenin was still involved. For the 1920 Second Congress Zetkin prepared ‘Guidelines for the Communist Women’s Movement’, a document which combines a clear exposition on women’s liberation with detailed practical guidelines for communist parties. Unfortunately, the Congress did not find time to debate the document, but the guidelines were circulated throughout the communist movement.

While Zetkin would remain the leader of the Comintern’s work towards women, her influence was not limited to this field. The 1921 Third Congress was dominated by the division within the communist movement over events that had just taken place in Germany. The March Action was an attempt, justified by a ‘theory of the offensive’, to force the pace of revolution through an insurrectionary general strike called by the KPD alone. The minority action was a failure that resulted in thousands of KPD members being gaoled and losing their jobs. Zetkin and Paul Levi criticised the March Action, and Levi was expelled from the KPD for publishing a pamphlet of criticism. Prior to the March Action, Zetkin and Levi had resigned from party’s central leadership when they failed to win a majority in support of the position that a split from the Comintern-affiliated Italian Socialist Party to form the Communist Party in January was premature. A further illustration of Zetkin and Levi’s distance from the KPD lefts is that while the KPD was under Levi’s leadership it had embarked on a tactic known as the Open Letter, which was a campaign for left unity to act on workers’ immediate concerns. On all these issues Levi and Zetkin were denounced as reformists by the ultralefts. Zetkin was subject to a campaign of vilification, aimed at turning Lenin against her, in advance of the Comintern Congress.

The March Action had been supported by emissaries to Germany from the Comintern headed by Zinoviev. Few would have anticipated that at the Third Congress a trio of Lenin, Trotsky and Zetkin would trounce the ‘theory of the offensive’ and turn the International to a new direction. John Riddell, a historian of the Comintern, put the outcome of the congress like this:

Zetkin did indeed present the congress with an indictment of the party leadership’s actions in a series of brilliant speeches, delivered in the teeth of aggressive heckling. She opposed confrontational assaults by a small vanguard and insisted on the need for Communists to win the broad masses of workers. That, in the end, became the dominant theme of the congress as a whole. Its decisions were a compromise, avoiding open condemnation of the German party leaders’ conduct. But the congress adopted the strategic outlook counterposed by Zetkin and Paul Levi to the errors of the March Action and championed at the Moscow gathering by Lenin and Trotsky, taking decisions that opened the road to adoption of the united front policy six months later.

In 1922 the fascists took power in Italy. The communist movement did not at first understand this phenomenon. Clara Zetkin was the first of communist leaders to home in on the nature of fascism. It was in the form of a brilliant report to a June 1923 meeting of the Comintern executive committee. A short quotation cannot do justice to this report. The truth of her examination is evident from its beginning where she distinguishes fascism from other reactionary regimes, such as the then vengeful terror of the Admiral Horthy regime in Hungary.

With fascism it is different. It is in no way the revenge of the bourgeoisie for the fighting upsurge of the proletariat. Considered historically and objectively, fascism arrives rather as a punishment, since the proletariat has not continued and extended the revolution which began in Russia. And the bearer of fascism is not a small caste but broad social strata, great masses, which even reach into the proletariat. We must be clear about these essential differences if we want to see off fascism.

Zetkin’s record on the Stalinist degeneration of the communist movement is chequered. She did not join Trotsky’s Left Opposition, nor later the United Left Opposition when Trotsky was allied with Zinoviev and Kamenev. On the face of it this failing seems strange. Zetkin’s attitude to the March Action, the united front and fascism align with Trotsky’s. At the same time as Trotsky was being manoeuvred against in Russia, Zetkin was dropped from the KPD’s top leadership under Moscow’s influence. She clearly has some sympathy for Trotsky. In a March 1924 letter to Yelena Starova Zetkin wrote:

Comrade Krupskaya is wholly free of this nonsense [manoeuvring against Trotsky]. She said to me recently that it is false what Kamenev and Zinoviev assert, that Lenin never trusted Trotsky. On the contrary: Lenin had to the end of his days been fond of Trotsky and held him in high regard.

The fact is that Zetkin supported the Stalin faction against the Left Opposition. Zetkin’s support of the exiling of the Trotskyists in 1928 prompted Trotsky to write:

A respectable old lady – she was formerly Klara Zetkin – said that no ideas emanating from Trotsky could be considered correct. She was merely carrying out a task given her behind the scenes. Assigning dishonorable tasks to people of unchallengeable reputation is the Stalin system.

However, by the end of 1928 the 71-year-old Zetkin had become an oppositionist herself. On the Comintern executive she defended the so-called ‘Right Opposition’ against expulsions. Her last fight was to urge a change of communist policy to fight the real fascists in Germany at a time when the Stalinists were denouncing social-democrats as social-fascists and Trotskyists as fascist collaborators.

Clara Zetkin joined the movement when Marx was still alive. Her record is unparalleled in the length and breadth of her activity. John Riddell wrote of her:

Clara Zetkin was the outstanding woman communist leader of the 1920s, and she is best known today as an apostle of women’s emancipation. However, she also helped shape the communist movement’s policy on unity in action. She favoured a broad and non-partisan approach, aiming for unity with non-revolutionary currents; action in the interests of the working class as a whole; and efforts to win social layers outside the industrial working class. She stressed the need for Communist policy to reach out to the less radical layers of working people and producers. She opposed a focus on the concerns of the revolutionary vanguard.

There are periods, however, when a focus on the vanguard is required. A correct set of political ideas is more important than mass influence. Zetkin, Luxemburg and their circle failed to break organisationally from reformism until it was too late. Even though it would have meant starting with a handful of members, they should have founded a revolutionary party in distinction from the hundreds-of-thousands-strong SDP following that party betrayal of internationalism in August 1914. Similarly, Zetkin was not prepared to make a sharp break from the Stalinist mainline and join the Trotskyists in the mid-1920s. Consequently, the battle that was needed within the KPD over a united front strategy to defeat fascism was not posed as sharply as it might have been with Zetkin animating a German Left Opposition.

Clara Zetkin lived and died a revolutionary, an internationalist, a Marxist. She made mistakes, but they must be set against her immense achievements. Whilst John Riddell is right to say she was the outstanding woman communist leader of the 1920s, it would be equally correct to say that she was the outstanding non-Russian communist of her times.