Clara Zetkin Was a Marxist Champion of the Struggle Against Women’s Oppression

Clara Zetkin was one of the leading figures in German Marxism during the early 20th century, yet her political legacy is largely forgotten today. Zetkin deserves to be remembered, especially for her advocacy of the revolutionary emancipation of women.

Clara Zetkin in 1924. (ullstein bild / Getty Images)

Clara Zetkin was renowned for not pulling punches in her polemics and thus was no stranger to controversy in her time. Kaiser Wilhelm II referred to her as “the most dangerous witch” of the second German empire. In similar vein, Joseph Stalin later branded Zetkin as an “old witch.” More recently, the German weekly Die Zeit suggested that she was a “museum figure who is hardly of interest to anybody.”

But who was Clara Zetkin, and why is her largely forgotten political legacy worth revisiting today 

Born in Saxony in 1857, she lived in exile for several years in Paris thanks to Otto von Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Law, an attempt to repress the Social Democratic Party (SPD) that was in effect from 1878 to 1890. She spent most of her later life in the Soviet Union, where she eventually died in 1933, just months after the Nazis had taken power in Germany.

Zetkin was a journalist, theoretician, and editor of several significant Marxist women’s publications, from the SPD’s Die Gleichheit to the Communist Party of Germany’s Die Kommunistin and the Communist International’s Die Kommunistische Fraueninternationale. She was a leading member of the SPD’s radical wing and chaired the first meeting of socialist women antiwar activists in 1915.

In 1917, after the SPD experienced a bitter split over its support for German militarism in World War I, Zetkin became a member of the antiwar Independent Social Democrats (USPD) and a communist parliamentarian in the Reichstag from 1920 to 1933. She was a pedagogue, historian, critic of art and literature, and translator, not to mention a member of the Communist International’s executive committee, having previously served as secretary of the Socialist Women’s International between 1907 and 1917.

Zetkin’s wide-ranging activities earned her something akin to celebrity status within the international movement of her time. Yet today, many of the militant, committed activists who gather on International Women’s Day every March 8th probably do not even know who Clara Zetkin was. How is it that somebody so admired by her contemporaries has largely been ignored by history?

A Common Struggle

Zetkin consistently argued that the only solution to the historically conditioned oppression of women was the overthrow of capitalism. Crucially, this required the working class as a whole — women alongside men — to unite in internationally coordinated revolutionary parties with the aim of overthrowing the political rule of the bourgeoisie and ushering in a new social order.

As she put it:

We must not place the interests of male and female workers in hostile opposition to each other, but must unite them both into a unified mass that represents workers’ interests in general, in opposition to the interests of capital.

This belief of Zetkin’s explains her emphasis on the need to establish a distinct Social Democratic women’s movement that would be independent of pro-capitalist women’s associations and clubs.

It also guided her struggle to uphold the erstwhile revolutionary spirit of the SPD and the Second International in the face of their collapse following the outbreak of war in 1914.

The fate of Zetkin’s legacy during the twentieth century mirrors the decline of Marxist thought in the workers’ movement and in society more generally. While formal equality between men and women is a significant established fact in various countries across the world, the radical Marxist driving force and inspiration behind such key gains as female suffrage, reproductive rights, or social and welfare provisions has largely been expunged from popular consciousness. Well-heeled representatives of the establishment in politics, media, and academia now pass off such hard-earned freedoms as somehow intrinsic to the capitalist mode of production.

What is more, Zetkin’s project of achieving the full sociopolitical equality of men and women is far from being realized even in countries where the struggle for women’s emancipation has made the greatest inroads. Ongoing bigotry and prejudice, the gender pay gap, exploding childcare costs, attacks on women’s reproductive rights, domestic, sexual, and anti-trans violence — these are just some of the various ugly manifestations of sexual oppression today.

Revisiting the life and work of Zetkin can shed light on the nature of the exploitation of women and women’s labor under capitalism. It can also help challenge the cozy, pro-capitalist consensus that predominates in today’s mainstream women’s movement and provide fresh impetus for the Left in approaching a question that it has either misconstrued, underappreciated, or simply ignored.

Although Zetkin’s life suggests itself as an obvious point of reference for the Left in seeking to reformulate a socialist politics of women’s emancipation, it is only recently that we have witnessed a modest revival of interest in her legacy. However, recent scholarship and translation efforts are only beginning to scratch the surface of her vast theoretical and journalistic output, which was highly controversial during her time and remains so to this day.

Under Western Eyes

During the Cold War, it was Zetkin’s proximity to Bolshevism that made her persona non grata in the West. Florence Hervé notes that in the young Federal Republic of Germany after World War II, the March 8th demonstration — one of Zetkin’s major achievements — was seen as “an event of the devil” marked only by the revived Communist Party of Germany (which was banned in 1956) and a small number of women’s groups that “evoked the name of its founder.”

In the 1960s, in a slightly more relaxed political environment and with the rise of new social movements, there was a certain kind of feminist rediscovery of Zetkin in West Germany — albeit one that was not exactly flattering to her. Zetkin was, quite correctly, viewed as somebody who rejected notions of a cross-class “universal sisterhood” of all women. As such, she was posthumously held responsible for splitting the women’s movement along class-political lines.

The subsequent fate of International Women’s Day in Germany is telling. Having once ignored it as a marginal event of the “loony left,” the powers that be have since taken it over in an attempt to reinvent themselves as consistent advocates of women’s rights, thereby tearing March 8th from its roots within the revolutionary workers’ movement. This went hand-in-hand with attempts to erase Zetkin from history altogether.

In 1994, for instance, the Christian Democrat Chancellor Helmut Kohl intervened to ensure that a street near the Reichstag in Berlin would not bear Zetkin’s name. He claimed that Zetkin had played a part in the “destruction of the first German democracy, the Weimar Republic.” Instead, the street bore the name of a supposed democrat and pioneer of women’s liberation, the fourteenth-century Hohenzollern princess Dorothea von Brandenburg.

The Line Destroys Everything

A rather different picture of Zetkin emerged in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where she appeared on medals, stamps, and banknotes. In the early 1950s, Luise Dornemann wrote a biography of Zetkin under the watchful eye of the GDR’s leaders, who were seeking to forge their own path of development following the turmoil of World War II. This work set the tone for the reception and dissemination of Zetkin’s ideas in East Germany.

The fact that a study of this kind was produced so soon after the founding of the GDR in October 1949 underscores Zetkin’s centrality to that state, which presented a carefully cultivated image of her life as a model to be dutifully emulated by its citizens. There was praise for Zetkin’s outstanding achievements as a revolutionary and as a woman who was — in the title of another GDR study — “an epoch ahead” of many of her contemporaries. There was also a recognition of the fact that her life spanned several key stages of the German workers’ movement.

For the GDR historian and pedagogue Gerd Hohendorf, Zetkin’s life was “like a bridge that reaches from the founders of scientific socialism — she knew Friedrich Engels personally — to Lenin and those who began to build a new, human system in the Soviet Union.” Such an attempt to establish a lineage linking the leading lights of the pantheon is similar to the foundation myths of many states, religions, and political organizations. But none of the GDR historians writing about Zetkin’s life and work could entertain the notion that this “bridge” was at best wobbly, and at worst replete with faults and gaps.

At first sight, this portrayal of her life as a shining example to be emulated by younger socialists appears to be quite innocent, not least when it is accompanied by Dornemann’s and Hohendorf’s twee descriptions of her as a talented young girl roaming the local countryside around her hometown of Wiederau. However, there is a much darker side to this instrumentalization of her legacy, given what we know about the GDR’s practices of indoctrination and the significance it attached to the notion that “the party is always right.” Zetkin’s political life revolved around demonstrating that the exact opposite was the case.

Researchers in the east, where most of her private papers and correspondence were held under lock and key, also buried the controversies during the twilight years of her life. These overlooked topics included her fallings out with the KPD leadership (not least over the ultraleft “third period” disaster and the condemnation of the Social Democrats as “social fascists”), her annoyance at having her correspondence monitored, and her frosty relationship with Stalin.

Zetkin was forthright when it came to the consequences of Stalin’s policies for the KPD and for Germany. As she put it in a letter to Ossip Piatnitsky:

Developments are catastrophic. The “line” destroys everything that Marx’s theory has taught us and what Lenin’s practice has shown to be historically correct.

That said, it cannot be denied that some of Zetkin’s weakest writings revolve around a rather desperate defense of “Soviet democracy.” And while she was no fan of Stalin, she certainly threw her weight behind the campaign to marginalize sections of the Bolshevik opposition, including figures such as Leon Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, and Grigory Zinoviev. In a private letter, she likened their political approach to that of “lunatics or criminals.”

There is unquestionably a tragic aspect to Zetkin’s powerlessness in the face of the Stalinist bureaucracy. But even as late as 1932, she wrote a letter to Maria Reese in Germany which was scathing about the distortion by Stalinist ideologues of the history of the Second International’s left wing. For Zetkin, such historical fables reflected the nature of a bureaucratized, authoritarian regime that was replacing historical inquiry with “obsequious cowardice” before Stalin and his acolytes.

A Clean Break

Along with the distortions to which her legacy was subjected in Cold War historiography, another significant factor in Zetkin’s marginalization was the fact that her ideas were largely unpalatable to the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Zetkin was a trenchant and outspoken critic of what she called bourgeois “women’s rightism” or “feminism” and upheld the need for independent working-class politics throughout her life.

Writing in 1894, Zetkin called for a clear line of political demarcation — a “clean break” — between the bourgeois movement of the “women’s rightists” [Frauenrechtlerinnen] and the Marxist women’s movement that she helped to establish and then lead as a movement of millions. In a later article, published in 1928, she warned with some prescience of the futility of seeking equality without striving to transcend the capitalist mode of production:

The bourgeois women’s movement raises the principal demand for the full legal and social equality of women and men. Its leaders claim that the realization of this demand would have, indiscriminately, the same emancipatory significance for all women. This is wrong. The [bourgeois] women’s rightists do not see, or do not wish to see, the fact — the decisive one when it comes to achieving a society based on full social human freedom or slavery — that an irreconcilable class antagonism splits bourgeois society, which is based on the capitalist mode of production, into the exploiters and rulers, on the one hand, and the exploited and ruled, on the other.

She continued:

Formal equality with the male sex in legal documents thus brings women of the exploited and oppressed class just as little actual social and human freedom as that enjoyed by the men of her class, despite the fact that these men share the same sex as the men of the bourgeoisie.

For Zetkin, women and men thus had to join forces within the framework of the workers’ movement, and crucially within the revolutionary party, the duty of which 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.”

Anachronizing Zetkin

Some modern-day authors have still sought to present Zetkin as a feminist, with some even attempting to unite the two interpretative strands by referring to her as a “socialist feminist” or “Marxist feminist.” Yet such approaches are completely misleading. To begin with, Zetkin could not have been a “socialist feminist” because the term sozialistischer Feminismus did not exist as a political category in her time.

Projecting today’s language back onto Zetkin’s times, contemporary writers often misleadingly translate the terms Frauenrechtlerin or Frauenrechtlerinnen as “feminists” or “feminism.” The literature of the German proletarian women’s movement referred to the bourgeois women’s movement in derogatory terms as “Frauenrechtlerei” in order to create a political distance from its aims and activities.

In fact, Zetkin had to argue for such organizational and political distance not only in the face of the SPD’s opponents and enemies, but also against some on the “revisionist” right wing of the party and the Second International. Responding to revisionist critics in 1894, she was adamant:

The class-conscious proletariat cannot and must not tolerate the emergence of “women’s-rightist” views within its ranks that cloud and overrun the socialist point of view, nor can it tolerate the struggle between the sexes replacing the struggle between classes.

These fundamental points must be kept in mind if we are to approach Zetkin’s legacy with fresh eyes today, in her own words and free from some of the distortions to which it has been subjected.

For example, left-wing feminists such as Florence Hervé and Jean Quataert not only use the term Feminismus in an ahistorical fashion but compound the confusion by painting Zetkin and her comrades as “reluctant feminists,” whose political work nonetheless appears to them “decidedly feminist.” Once again, they distort historically established categories by claiming that the term “feminist” should apply “to all those in the nineteenth century who supported express efforts to ameliorate the conditions of women through public organized activity, be it for educational, legal, political, economic or social purposes.”

This ahistorical, homogenizing approach effectively erases the key class and political divisions between the two women’s movements and what was distinct about Zetkin’s revolutionary, working-class approach to women’s liberation. While he correctly points out that Zetkin’s Die Gleichheit was no “women’s magazine” in the “bourgeois sense,” Nathaniel Flakin nonetheless describes Zetkin as “The Grande Dame of Feminism” and a “legendary socialist feminist.” Here too, her real contribution is drowned out.

Although Zetkin was active in a different social and political context, at a time when the Left was a real force to be reckoned with, many of the controversies that surround her name feed into the burning questions of our movement today. If we look past the distortions to which her legacy has been subjected at the hands of twentieth-century historiographies, whether feminist, social democratic, or Stalinist, then she can serve as a critical source of inspiration for the formulation of a Marxist politics of women’s liberation in the twenty-first century.