Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) – Founder of International Women’s Day

As part of the build up to International Women’s Day Celebrations on the 8th of March the YCL will be publishing articles highlighting and remembering the remarkable and exemplary role play by women in the international communist & working class movement. YCLers are encouraged to support and participate in celebrations locally to bring the message of International Women’s Day into our workplaces, colleges and schools, and communities.

CLARA ZETKIN (1857-1933) was a German communist, anti fascist and founder of International Women’s Day. Here CP general secretary Robert Griffiths outlines her remarkable and exemplary life.

Clara Zetkin, who first proposed International Women’s Day 100 years ago, was an outstanding figure in the socialist, Communist and women’s movements. Her own commitment, vision and courage have left a legacy which deserves to be celebrated on March 8 every year.

Before the formation of Communist parties, she rose to prominence in the German Social-Democratic Party from a middle-class home in the local peasant community of Wiederau in Saxony, Germany. Her father Gottfried Eissner was a school teacher and Protestant, her mother Josephine the daughter of a bourgeois family in Leipzig. Inspired by the German Women’s Association, Josephine was involved in educational activities.

The family moved to nearby Leipzig where Clara studied at a local teacher training institute founded by German feminist Auguste Schmidt. There she came into contact with socialist ideas and women’s organisations. In 1878, at the age of 21, she met members of the German Socialist Workers Party (later renamed the Social-Democratic Party of Germany, SPD) and exiled Russian revolutionaries including Ossip Zetkin. A visit to Russia quickly followed.

When Chancellor Bismarck’s new Anti-Socialist Law prompted Ossip to leave Germany, Clara also left soon afterwards. She went to Linz, Austria, where she became tutor to a group of factory workers. Then it was on to Zurich in 1882, writing clandestine propaganda for circulation in Germany, before travelling to Paris to be reunited with Ossip Zetkin. They had two sons but did not marry because Clara would lose her German citizenship. Instead, she took his surname.

First Public Speech

Reconciled with her family, she delivered her first public speech in Leipzig calling for the liberation of women as an essential and integral part of the liberation of all workers through socialist revolution. For a period afterwards, she opposed separate measures for women, fearing that they would divide working class unity.

Ossip died of spinal tuberculosis in 1889. Clara Zetkin buried her grief in her work for the Socialist International, a new organisation of left-wing and workers’ parties. At its founding congress in Paris in July, her arguments against special measures for women – for equal pay for equal work and the exclusion of women from hazardous occupations – were rejected, but she was given special responsibilities for SPD work in Berlin. From there she edited the party’s paper for women Die Gleichheit (Equality), fulfilling that task for 25 years until 1917.

Her first editorial explained her standpoint that ‘the final cause for the thousand-year-old inferior social position of the female sex is not to be sought in the statutory legislation “made by men”, but rather in the property relations determined by economic conditions’. Accordingly, women’s liberation could only be fully achieved once private ownership of economic property was abolished.

Capitalism – the Enemy

She therefore had no time for ‘bourgeois’ feminists who wanted equal property rights, or those who regarded men as the ‘enemy’ rather than the capitalist class. At the same time, she insisted that the socialist movement and the trade unions should recruit women into their ranks and fight for their economic, social and political interests as for those of male workers.

With women banned from membership of political parties, Zetkin carried out her open political activities among women workers and the trade unions. Experience modified her ‘anti-separatist’ stance to the extent that, at the SPD congress in 1896, she backed women-only policies to extend the electoral franchise and protect working mothers. At the end of the decade, she married artist Georg Zundel, their relationship coming under increasing strain until divorce in 1927.

As the circulation of Die Gleichheit more than quadrupled to 67,000, the SPD placed Zetkin in charge of a women’s bureau to prepare for the repeal of the membership ban which took place in 1908. With her close friend and comrade Rosa Luxemburg, she also helped organise the first International Socialist Women’s Conference  in 1907, becoming secretary of the International Women’s Bureau which adopted Die Gleichheit as its official organ.

Clara Proposes International Women’s Day

At the second conference, in Copenhagen in 1910, Clara Zetkin proposed that March 8 become International Women’s Day in the way that the Socialist International had made May 1 International Workers Day. She had been inspired, at least in part, by militant demonstrations organised by working class women across the USA.

Within the socialist movement, she joined Rosa Luxemburg in refuting attempts by Eduard Bernstein to dilute Marxism, attacking his view that state power would be achieved by the working class through collaboration with bourgeois politicians and gradual reforms in parliament.

From the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, she stood with Luxemburg and the SPD minority to uphold the policy of the Socialist International, namely, that a war between rival imperialisms should be stopped by working class action against its own country’s ruling class. Zetkin wrote to the left-wing press in Britain explaining how this principled approach had been abandoned by the majority leadership of her party, who had thereby contributed to the collapse of the Socialist International.

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She organised an international anti-war conference of socialist women in Berne in 1915. The following year she helped found the Spartacus League which then went into the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD), a breakaway from the SPD in 1917. Like her counterparts in Britain, she was harassed and arrested by state authorities as the result of her anti-war agitation.

In November 1918, beginning with a naval mutiny, revolution broke out across Germany against the monarchy, the militarist landowners and their warmongering government. The Spartacus League and shop stewards committees urged workers to revolt as armed workers and soldiers councils began to form in many towns and cities. A provisional council of workers, soldiers and peasants proclaimed the Bavarian Socialist Republic. In Berlin, the SPD and USPD announced the formation of a new national government based upon a Council of People’s Deputies.

Anti-War and for the Workers

But the SPD leaders had placed themselves at the head of the revolutionary movement in order to limit it and divert it into a new National Assembly. Zetkin, Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht warned that ‘bourgeois democracy is false democracy’. At the turn of the year, in the midst of the storm, the Spartacus League helped found the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).;

In January, the SPD-led government used the armed forces, police and irregular forces backed by monopolists and monarchists to crush the revolutionaries in Berlin, killing Luxemburg and Liebknecht in cold blood. Months of strikes, pitched battles and assassinations of KPD leaders ensued, with Zetkin emphasising the central importance of the working class exercising power through its own councils, and using it to ‘socialise’ capitalist economic property.;

However, she acknowledged that the defeat of the Bavarian Soviet Republic in April 1919 represented the culmination of the fight for state power between the working class and the bourgeoisie, at least for the time being.;

In 1920, she was elected to the German Reichstag (‘Parliament’). Her maiden speech comprised an appeal to German workers to act in solidarity with a Soviet Russia ‘building socialism in the greatest difficulties’, urging them to block arms supplies to the Polish invaders. Dockers and railway workers responded to her call, sparking a general strike movement against imperialist intervention in Soviet Russia.;

Yet Zetkin did not over-react to Social-Democratic treachery by turning too far to the left. She supported the ‘Open Letter’ appeal for a united front of working class and left organisations to defend the immediate interests of the working class. Forced to resign temporarily from the KPD leadership, she opposed the ultra-left ‘theory of the offensive’ which sought to justify ill-advised Communist-led insurrections.

Working with Lenin

She shared this standpoint with Lenin, with whom she worked closely in the Communist International established in 1919. Zetkin was elected to its ruling Presidium in 1921.
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It was in Moscow that she had several long conversations with Lenin about marriage, sexual freedom and promiscuity (the ’emancipation of love’), organising women within the Communist Party, the relationship between women’s liberation and the struggle for communism and related issues. They did not always agree completely, and ‘My Recollections of Lenin’ from Clara’s ‘Memorandum Book’ stands as a lucid, fascinating insight into the Soviet leader’s thoughts and ideas.

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In the KPD and the international Communist movement she opposed all kinds of ultra-leftism: whether the Trotskyist thesis that the Soviet Union did not contain all necessary and sufficient means to construct a socialist society; or, in 1926, that part of the Communist International’s ‘Third Period’ thesis which characterised social-democracy as ‘social fascism’.

Acts Against Fascism

Although Clara was heavily involved in International Red Aid, the Comintern’s agency to help victims of political repression, her health was failing. Towards the end of the 1920s, she spent long periods receiving treatment and care in the Soviet Union.
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In July 1932, the Nazis emerged from elections as Germany’s largest parliamentary party. During the month-long election campaign, 38 Nazis and 30 Communists had died in street clashes between the two parties.
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When the new Reichstag convened on August 30, it fell to its oldest member to open the session. Arriving in Berlin from Moscow, Clara told the press she had returned to ‘do my duty in strict accordance with the rules of antiquated parliamentarianism, because it is my duty to the proletariat’.

Fearless Till the End

Nearly blind, she was stretchered by her Communist bodyguards into a Reichstag surrounded by thousands of baying Stormtroopers.
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Carried to the chair by two of her women comrades as Communist deputies chanted ‘Red Front!’, Zetkin rang the hand-bell and commenced a 45-minute denunciation of President von Hindenberg.
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He had allowed power to pass from parliament to his appointed Cabinet which was ‘the servant of trust and monopoly capital and of the agrarians [landowners] and whose motive force is represented by Reichswehr Generals’. He should be impeached or overthrown.
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She called for a ‘united front to turn back fascism’ and declared that the best means to overcome the economic crisis and Germany’s domestic and foreign problems was by proletarian revolution.
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‘I hope to live to see the day when, as senior member, I can open the first workers’ and peasants’ congress of Soviet Germany’, she concluded.
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According to Time magazine, ‘pain and fatigue made perspiration pour down the sunken cheeks of Clara Zetkin but her old eyes flashed’.
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The Reichstag then went on to elect the Nazi Hermann Goering as Speaker and, five months later to the day, the power concentrated in the Cabinet fell into the hands of the next appointed Chancellor, Adolf Hitler.

A Medal of Honour

On June 20, 1933, Clara Zetkin died in exile in Archangelskoye near Moscow, just short of 76 years old. She was buried next to the Kremlin Wall with full state and political honours.
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Only when the Nazi regime had been smashed by the Soviet Red Army and its allies did she receive the recognition she deserved in her homeland. The German Democratic Republic instituted the Clara Zetkin Medal to honour outstanding champions of women’s rights.

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