Clara Zetkin was a leading Marxist thinker and organizer in the late 19th and early 20th century. Her ideas and activism remain relevant to all those who want to take on the far-right and build a working class movement to challenge oppression and dismantle capitalism.
An organized socialist
Clara Zetkin, was born on July 5, 1857 in Wiederau (Saxony) Germany. Zetkin was born into a middle-class family. Her father was a local schoolteacher and her mother, Josephine Vitale, was involved in the bourgeois women’s movement. Zetkin, however, diverged from her mothers’ bourgeois feminist leanings. She became a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party (Sozialistischen Arbeiterpartei) after engaging with a circle of Russian socialists in Leipzig, which was a German epicentre of socialist organizing.
Zetkin held a membership in both the bookbinders union in Stuttgart and in the tailors and seamstresses’ union. Zetkin was active in organizing women in trade unions. Her divergence from her family’s bourgeois feminism started after her 1879 visit to Russia, and her work for the banned socialist movement in Leipzig, Germany. During her time with the Socialist Workers’ Party, Zetkin developed a relationship with one of the leaders of the local Social Democratic Party (SPD), Ossip Zetkin. In 1878, an Anti-Socialist Law was introduced and Ossip Zetkin was banned from Wiederau (Saxony) and Clara met him in Zürich, Switzerland, where they proceeded to reside with a community of exiled socialists.
After meeting several Social Democrats in this community, Clara began working for the clandestine Social Democratic Press. Ossip and Clara Zetkin moved to Paris together in 1882. Ossip Zetkin passed away in 1889. While Ossip and Clara could never legally marry, primarily due to Clara’s fear of losing her German citizenship and facing expulsion, Clara took on Ossip’s surname. Because of this, Clara Zetkin was charged in 1884 for organizing public meetings with a fake name. Despite the repeal of the Anti-Socialist law in Germany in 1890, harassment from the police was still a common occurrence for socialist organizers. Zetkin was one of the founding organizers of the congress of the Second Socialist International in Paris and took on the role of a translator during sessions.
War and revolution
Zetkin held the position of the leader of the Women’s Office for the SPD in 1910. The same year, there was a second International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen. A German delegate, Luise Zietz, proposed an “International Women’s Day,” which was seconded by Clara Zetkin. The Women’s Day resolution highlighted the necessity of the women’s movement’s collaboration with trade unions and socialist organizations. It stated:
In agreement with the class-conscious political trade union organizations of the proletariat of their respective countries, socialist women of all nations have to organize a special Women’s Day (Frauentag), which must, above all, promote the propaganda of female suffrage. This demand must be discussed in connection with the whole woman’s question, according to the socialist conception.
In 1914, Zetkin had publicly stood with a minority of the SPD who opposed the First World War. Zetkin had called an international women’s peace conference in Switzerland where revolutionary socialists argued that the only profiteers from the war would be tiny minorities in each nation—the manufacturers of weapons of war. She argued that manufacturers have promoted hatred to add fuel to the war’s outbreak. Zetkin closed with, “The workers have nothing to gain from this war, but they stand to lose everything that is dear to them.”
Zetkin, along with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, laid the grounds for the formation of the German Communist Party (KPD) after forming the Spartacus League in 1915. The German Communist Party was formed in 1918. In January 1919, in the aftermath of a failed KPD, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht – the two most prominent leaders of the KPD – were captured and executed by right wing army officers with Friekorps, who were acting at the direction of the SPD government.
Zetkin represented the party in Reichstag from 1920 to 1933. She played a prominent role in the Third International, helping to craft positions on women’s liberation and the fight against fascism. By the early 1930s the Nazi Party was a rising force. They were capturing more votes and becoming more organized in the streets. While the KPD was able to increase its share of the vote, its sectarianism hamstrung its ability to build an effective united front to confront the rising tide of fascism. The SPD which had been the largest party throughout the 1920s was equally as ineffective in combating the rise of fascism.
In the summer of 1932, despite her failing health and facing Nazi threats of assassination, Zetkin made the opening speech at what would be the last session of the Reichstag before the Nazi’s took power. In her speech Zetkin outlined the grave Nazi threat, how the ruling class in Germany was making the advance of fascism possible. She also called for a united front of the working class to oppose the Nazis and that women workers were a key component in the fight against fascism.
As Zetkin noted:
“The important immediate task is the formation of a United Front of all workers in order to turn back fascism (Communist shouts of “very true”) in order to preserve for the enslaved and exploited, the force and power of their organization as well as to maintain their own physical existence.”
The Nazi rise to power just months later would lead to the death of tens of millions. Zetkin was forced to flee to Moscow after Hitler came to power. She died there on June 20, 1933 at age 75.
Women’s liberation and class
Clara Zetkin, August Bebel, Eleanor Marx and Alexandra Kollontai are the most prominent early figures in the development of Marxist women’s liberation theory. Zetkin’s ideas did not emerge simply from a rigid framework of orthodox Marxism (though heavily influenced by it), but rather in combination with quotidian politics in the quickly expanding Social Democratic Women’s movement.
Zetkin was a notable voice within the SPD, offering a clear stance on the approach to women’s liberation. She asserted that capitalism was the source of women’s oppression, and that the route to the liberation of women required the “self-emancipation of the working class.”
The “women’s question” was approached by Zetkin by how it affected women of every class; the working class, the bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia and the “Upper Ten Thousand.” Zetkin asserts her distinction between the ruling-class and the middle-class class woman:
The woman of the Upper Ten Thousand, thanks to her property, may freely develop her individuality and live as she pleases. In her role as a wife, however, she is still dependent upon her husband. The guardianship of the weaker sex has survived in the family law which still states: And he shall be your master.
Zetkin looked at how oppression of middle-class, ruling class, bourgeois and intelligentsia women operates. She acknowledged the burden the capitalist family places on the ruling-class woman; her husband’s ownership of property may allow her economic freedom and thus freedom to explore her creative and intellectual desires, but she is still dependent on, and the property of, her husband. She asserts that this material reality for middle-class women means their demands centre on equal employment with middle-class men and the extension of political rights in line with middle-class men.
For Zetkin, the oppression faced by working-class women is not just that of lack of rights and the daily oppression women face in the family unit, but intense exploitation in the workplace. Women under capitalism work worse jobs, make less pay and face the most exploitative conditions. As Zetkin put it:
“Does not capitalism stick to the heels of the working woman from the gray dawn of morning until late at night, in order to squeeze out of her flesh and blood – and from her often with doubled cruelty and unscrupulousness – the riches with which it wishes to pay for its ravages in the world war and for its future destructive existence.”
Zetkin argued that socialist women should oppose a strategy where women of “all classes must gather into an unpolitical, neutral movement striving exclusively for women’s rights.” She was keenly aware that middle-class and bourgeois women would never support the emancipation of working class women.
“Working women must not hope for the slightest assistance in their struggle for political emancipation from the middle-class women, and they cannot expect them to take their side in the struggle. No; we must bear in mind that in order to see this matter through, in order to obtain full social emancipation, we must rely on our own power, exercised through our own class.”
Zetkin saw that it is in the interest of proletariat women to cooperate with proletariat men to overturn the capitalist system that exploits them both. Because working-class women had a connection to the means of production through their entry into factory work, working-class women held the most promising position for winning women’s liberation.
The fight for suffrage, the fight against exploitation and the struggle for women’s emancipation required a “class-war of all the exploited.” Her ideas about fighting oppression and fascism and about building a strong working class movement remain as relevant as ever in the fight for a better world.
Did you like this article? Help us produce more like it by donating $1, $2, or $5. Donate