Clara Zetkin (1857 – 1933) is known to many as the founder of international women’s day, but she was not just a women’s rights activist. Clara was also an important Marxist thinker and as such, her aim was not simply to free women in order for them to compete as equals alongside men, but to free all workers from the capitalist system.
Her legacy is clearly marked to this day in the streets and squares named after her. By 1949, most major cities in west Germany had streets or squares named after her, and multiple monuments in her honour. She was also memorialised on a GDR banknote.
While she lived, her influence reached beyond Germany, too: in 1889, she served on the organising committee of the Second International and in 1907 she founded and became Secretary-General of its first women’s section.
The political diligence and influence of Clara Zetkin is unquestionable – a cursory glance at some of her achievements will make this clear. She was a leading figure and thinker in the most powerful socialist group at the turn of the last century – the German SPD – and she also worked as an organiser and editor.
Alongside the eminent Rosa Lumexburg, Clara belonged to the Sparticus opposition group within the SPD, and in 1917 she joined the USPD – the independent SPD – a party which was critical of the SPD’s support of the first World War.
She would later become a founding member of the German Communist Party (KPD) in 1919, and was elected to represent the party at the Reichstag, remaining in position for almost the entire existence of the Weimar Republic (1918 – 1933).
Clara attended every congress of the Second International and worked as a translator at each one. From 1921 – 1933 she sat on the executive committee of the Third International. She founded the Socialist Women’s International, and organised the first International Socialist Women’s Conference in Stuttgart in 1907.
1910 brought the moment she is best remembered for: at an International Women’s Conference in Copenhagen she mooted the idea of having an International Women’s Day. The next year on March 19th over a million people in Europe participated in IWD demonstrations.
In her lifetime, she proved capable of taking a step back and learning from others. For instance, she noted that the American sobriety groups were producing shorter pamphlets and she encouraged European socialists to learn from this and make their propaganda more accessible.
She became au fait with the organising methods of socialists in different countries and analysed which achieved the best results.
Clara’s opposition to World War I was based on a sharp understanding of the implications of war; not just the devastation it causes to masses of people but also the economic benefits for certain sectors, such as weapons manufacturers.
She saw how hatred was whipped up in a populace to justify the war, and she organised an international women’s conference in opposition, in Bern in 1915. She was arrested several times for her anti-war activism.
Historian Richard Evans noted that more focus is given to other female political figures such as Alexandra Kollontai or Rosa Luxemburg, than Clara Zetkin, yet her ideology was the basis of Kollontai’s approach to feminist socialism – and indeed of the european socialist approach to the connection between socialism and women’s liberation.
She recognised a distinction between bourgeois women’s movements and socialist feminist activism. She built on Engels’ analysis of the subjugation of women through the yoke of monogamous marriage but progressed this by understanding that there could be no liberation from capitalism without the involvement of working class women in mass movements. Engels’ focus was on prehistoric times whereas Zetkin modernised the analysis into her own time. Like Engels, she was also prone to romanticising social relations of primitive communism.
She credits much of her thinking to her comrade August Bebel and his 1879 book “Die Frau und der Sozialismus” (Women and Socialism) where he calls for equal rights for women and maintains that there can be no real equality until a socialist society is achieved.
At the 1896 Gotha congress of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Clara Zetkin delivered a speech that boldly asserted:
‘Only in conjunction with the Proletarian Woman will socialism be victorious’.
She explained that working class women did not need to fight against working class men; they shared a struggle against the ideas of the ruling class because both genders were exploited for their labour and expected to live in appalling conditions.
She noted that the invention of machines meant that more occupations were made available to women, ones that previously had been the sole domain of men due to the gruelling demands they placed on the workers’ body.
Though she did not reject the maternal role placed on women, but idealised it and described the woman’s role in a socialist society as that of a caring educator in the home, and equal partner to her husband. For this fanciful image she later received much criticism, and not without good cause.
In her 1899 pamphlet “Der Student und das Weib” (The Student and the Woman), she called for greater educational opportunities for women, including university level access. Here again she brings in a maternal role for women, arguing that educational opportunities would improve a woman’s ability to raise children.
Zetkin did sympathise with middle class women, who depended on successful marriage ties to support themselves and were denied the right to earn their own living. Despite this, she was savvy enough to know that the bourgeois movement for women’s rights such as the suffragette movement would not represent a real threat to the capitalist system.
She was a committed Marxist, and placed socialism in prime position over bourgeois feminism; but recognised that it was impossible to achieve that goal without women in the movement.
Although critical of the stalinist theory of Social Fascism, Clara, like many revolutionary socialist of the time, felt the pull of the rise of Stalism, and was far too uncritical of a regime which became increasingly totalitarian, and which looked nothing like the kind of socialism she had fought for, for so long, even praising the head of the secret police – Felix Dsershinsky – on his death in 1926.
Her stance towards bourgeois movements aside, Clara’s own background was very middle class. The daughter of a teacher, she trained to be a language teacher and governess.
Her mother – Josephine Vitale – was involved in the bourgeois women’s movement. This brought Clara into contact with women’s rights thinkers such as Auguste Schmidt. Like her mother, she enjoyed the advantage of a good education. She attended the prestigious Von Steyber Institut in Leipzig. In 1878, however, her joining of the Sozialistischen Arbeiterpartei (Socialist Workers’ Party) led to a break with her family.
Laws banning socialist organising began to be introduced to Germany from 1878 and this forced her to move to Zurich and then Paris in 1882. In Paris she met the Russian-Jewish revolutionary Ossip Zetkin, with whom she would have two children which she moved to Stuttgart when he died in 1889. She married again – Georg Friedrich Zundel, an artist 18 years her junior – but they divorced in 1927.
In 1907 she met and began a lifelong friendship with Vladimir I. Lenin. Some of their debates are transcribed and the affable nature of their verbal sparring affirms the strength of this friendship.
The rise of Hitler and the attacks on the KPD meant that in 1933 she had to go into exile in Russia. It was here she died after a long illness on June 20th 1933, aged 75.
From her writings and speeches it is clear she was a vibrant, witty and indomitable fighter. Well read, she often referenced international works of literature. She called out leading figures in the establishment, including a Bavarian minister of police. Her multiple arrests and brief incarceration did not deter her and she worked doggedly despite ill health. She frequently mentioned the writings and actions of others – which gives the impression of a person who had no need for limelight. A skilled writer, her obituary to Rosa Luxemburg is a beautiful and touching tribute to her comrade.
Clara Zetkin was a committed revolutionary who was never lured towards the centre by the appeal of reformism. She was a tireless activist and used her role as an elected representative as a platform to warn of the dangers of fascism. Some of her ideas on how socialists should relate to women workers and women’s movements are still relevant to this day.