Clara Zetkin: Letters and Writings

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Clara Zetkin’s life saw some of the most momentous events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

She was a leading member of the German Socialist Party until the outbreak of the First World War.

She fought politically alongside Rosa Luxemburg — a close friend — and Karl Liebknecht, breaking with the German Socialist Party to found the Spartakus League and then the German Communist Party.

She fully supported the Russian Revolution of 1917 and became friends with Lenin, Lenin’s wife Krupskaya, Alexandra Kollontai and other leading women in Russia. Zetkin’s life was inextricably tied to the revolutionary movement.

Often this is not how Zetkin is portrayed. Memories of her role in establishing International Women’s Day to fight for women’s suffrage and working women’s rights have faded.

Some claim her as a feminist while others argue that she was a divisive figure in the women’s movement with her insistence that working class women had more in common with male workers than with the bourgeois women’s movement.

She was hailed as an icon in Stalinist East Germany and certain of her views were suppressed. After reunification of East and West Germany, Chancellor Helmut Kohl insisted her name be removed from a Berlin street.

This volume of letters and writings by and about Zetkin, some translated into English for the first time, successfully establishes her as a leader in her own right in the revolutionary socialist movement.

An article entitled “The Servant Girls’ Movement” not only shows the class divide among women but also Zetkin’s sensitivity to the rape and sexual exploitation of women servants by their masters. She argues that class conscious workers had a responsibility to support their struggles.

There were constant pressures on the German Socialist Party to adapt to parliamentary conditions and abandon Marx’s key principle that the emancipation of the working class had to come through workers’ own struggles.

A key debate occurred in the late 1890s with Edward Bernstein. Zetkin, through her editorship of the party’s women’s paper, Gleichheit (Equality), provided her readers with key arguments about why Bernstein’s reformist ideas were wrong, emphasising his abandonment of class struggle.

One of the most important contributions in this volume is the “Guidelines for the Communist Women’s Movement”, drafted by Zetkin for the Communist International. She stresses that the Communist movement must do mass work among women to win them to the overthrow of capitalism.

She writes that women’s oppression is the most deep-rooted of all oppressions in society and that the bourgeois women’s movement is incapable of realising the demands for full equality of women. Work in the home has to be socialised and capitalism cannot be overthrown without the fullest participation of working class women.

Another impressive piece is “The Struggle against Fascism”, a report Zetkin presented to the executive committee of the Communist International in 1923.

She argues that fascism takes root among the peasants, small shopkeepers and middle classes financially ruined by the upheavals of the First World War. Reformism can no longer deal with the working class, so the bourgeoisie needs “an extra-legal, unofficial source of power”.

Zetkin argues that the communist movement has to unite all workers against the fascists, regardless of religion or party affiliation, and fight for a vision of a revolutionary transformation of society by workers to counter the fascist vision of an authoritarian state. There could be no reliance on the bourgeois order as a bulwark against fascism.

Zetkin was enormously courageous. In 1932 she addressed the opening of the Reichstag, the German parliament.

She was smuggled in through a back entrance because of the danger she faced from the Nazis. She calmly analysed the situation and called for an open united front against fascism.

The authors claim that Zetkin has “wrongly been seen as a loyal Stalinist”, arguing that Stalin was part of defeating Zetkin.

Unfortunately, Zetkin had publicly sided with Stalin over the exiling of Trotsky in 1928, a catastrophic development for the international workers’ movement and the fight against fascism.

Had she thrown her prestige behind Trotsky’s struggle, who knows what kind of impact that might have had. Unlike Trotsky, Zetkin was able to die peacefully in Russia.

However, we can learn much from Zetkin’s contribution to the revolutionary movement and this collection is an excellent place to start.