‘Comrade Klara Zetkin and Her Life Work’ by Käte Duncker from International Press Correspondence. Vol. 7 No. 37. June 30, 1927.

Zetkin in 1930.
‘Comrade Klara Zetkin and Her Life Work’ by Käte Duncker from International Press Correspondence. Vol. 7 No. 37. June 30, 1927.

Comrade Klara Zetkin whose 70th birthday we shall celebrate on the 5th July, is one of the old guard of the international working class movement. She is one of those who have passed through the “heroic age”, through that time when it required much greater courage and heroism to champion the cause of Socialism than it does to-day, for then there was nothing but persecution and personal sacrifices for the upholders of socialism.

Clara Zetkin (3rd from left) and Engels at the Second International congress in Zurich in 1893 in the beirgarden of the Gasthof zum Löwen.

Klara Zetkin was one of that small group of personalities including Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht, which set its stamp upon the Social Democratic Party or at any international congress and who represented a part of the tradition of the international working class movement. And, most important of all, she was one of those few who, when the German Social Democratic Party developed into a petty bourgeois party of reformism, never sacrificed her revolutionary principles. In this respect her, name is bracketed with the names of Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and Franz Mehring. When in these days we honour the life work of Klara Zetkin therefore, it is a considerable part of the history of the international working class movement which passes before our eyes.

Clara Zetkin during the International’s congress in Zurich 1897

The work of Klara Zetkin in the proletarian women’s movement shows us more clearly than anything else, the great possibilities of a leading personality inside a mass movement. Mass movements do not grow from thin air: they develop more or less quickly under the direct influence of economic transformations. But the task of a leading personality is to assist that which lies in the subconsciousness of a mass movement to give itself conscious expression and thus to ensure that the movement itself, which might otherwise expend its forces in a disorganised and wasteful manner, expresses itself in a united and consolidated form. Assuming, as was the case with Klara Zetkin, that the leader is perfectly clear with regard to the idea expressed in the mass movement and with this clarity combines passionate devotion and a prodigious will.

The work of women in industry in Germany had already taken on a very considerable extent in the ‘eighties of the last century. In 1882 there were four and a quarter millions of women apart from female servants, earning their own living. There were at this time, it is true, only a million and a half directly engaged in industry and commerce. But in the textile industry alone, over 300,000 women were working, and great numbers in the tailoring, dressmaking, tobacco and paper industries.

Munich, 1910.

The objective conditions for a growth of class consciousness amongst women were therefore present. The subjective circumstances were not favourable to this growth. The majority of the women workers was petty-bourgeois in its ideas and still bound to the churches. The women who were compelled to go out into the world, clung nevertheless to the ideas of the past, and above all to the principle that the women belonged in the home. They regarded women’s work as a temporary phenomenon both for the individual and for society as a whole. No wonder! The men who had become class-conscious, were nevertheless still backward and reactionary in this respect. Added to this, it was very difficult to approach the women with socialist agitation. Many of them worked in small-scale workshops or at home and further, the application of the laws relating to coalition and organisation as kaleidoscopic as the map of the German Federal States made it difficult to organise the women in trade unions and rendered their political organisation impossible almost everywhere.

All these circumstances together prevented the speedy growth of a conscious proletarian women’s movement. Small groups which might act as collecting points for the rest of the country formed themselves only in a few industrial districts, such as Berlin, the textile districts of Saxony, in Mannheim etc. On the other hand the bourgeois women’s movement had already attained a very considerable growth and did not lack intelligent leaders and eloquent speakers. In its first flush this movement even felt itself to be the representative of all women irrespective of class distinctions. It commenced to make propaganda for its ideas and its organisations amongst the petty bourgeois-proletarian sections, amongst the women working at home, amongst the tailoresses, washerwomen etc. It was therefore of very great importance that the proletarian women had a leader in Klara Zetkin, marxistically schooled, many-sided, eloquent in speech and writings, to organise the isolated small groups of proletarian women under the banner of the international working class movement.

Käte Duncker in 1905.

In the eighties of the last century Klara Zetkin lived abroad, first in Switzerland and then in Paris. She was active in the working class movement both in speech and in writing, together with her husband, Ossip Zetkin, a Russian refugee expelled from Germany. After her husband’s death and the abolition of the Anti-Socialist Laws. Klara Zetkin returned to Germany where she found employment in the publishing house of Dietz in Stuttgart. In 1902 she took over the Social Democratic women’s newspaper “Gleichheit” (“Equality”) which had been founded a year previously by Emma Ihrer under the name “Arbeiterin” (“Woman Worker”).

Klara Zetkin devoted her chief activity as editor and speaker in numerous meetings, to making the proletarian women class conscious. She taught them to realise that women’s work in industry and commerce was an economic necessity which, despite the dangers for health and the family which it brought with it, was nevertheless calculated to free the women from their economic and spiritual subordination. The women should fight not the necessity for them to take part in industry and commerce, she taught, but the accompanying evils. Comrade Zetkin did everything possible to save the proletarian women from falling into the tow of the bourgeois women’s movement. It was of very great assistance to her that she was exactly acquainted with the bourgeois movement for the rights of women, for she had been as a student a follower of Auguste Schmidt, one of the leading pioneers of this movement. She was exactly acquainted with the whole complex of phrases with which the bourgeois women’s movement habitually transformed the economic and class conditions into a struggle for “Freedom, Equality and Fraternity!”

With her sons, 1895.

With great clearness, Klara Zetkin defined that which separated the proletarian women from the bourgeois women’s movement. This is shown in many articles which appeared in “Gleichheit”, and in her speech upon the “Agitation amongst the Women” held at the Congress of the Social Democratic Party in Gotha in 1896, and also her speech upon “Women’s Suffrage” made before the Women’s Conference in Mannheim in 1906. She showed how the bourgeois women were being condemned by the economic circumstances ever more and more to spinsterhood and thus, being faced with the question of existence, became ever more and more involved in contradictions to the men of their class. They were fighting for the right to take an equal part in public life, commercial activity and training, and their struggle was opposed by those who feared the competition of female labour in their own field. The proletarian women on the other hand, did not need to fight this fight for the right to take part in industrial and commercial life the needs of capitalism to exploit had removed the necessity. They were in the same front with the men, and their conditions were still more oppressive. For equal work they received less pay and were then forced to work at home when their day’s work outside was at an end to fulfil their wifely and motherly duties.

Clara Zetkin and SPD activists from Wuerttemberg in on a meeting in Stuttgart in 1910.

The struggle of the proletarian women for freedom would therefore have to take a different direction to that taken by the bourgeois women’s movement. There should be no competition with the men of their class, but a fight with the men of their class against capitalist exploitation. The proletarian women would also struggle for political rights, but not for reasons based upon the natural position of women, but solely as a means to better their situation. The slogan of the proletarian women’s movement was not a struggle of the sexes, but a struggle of the classes.

Walking with comrades in Berlin in 1920 to the Reichstag where she will represent the Communist Party.

That was what Klara Zetkin made clear to the proletarian women. It is thanks to Klara Zetkin that the proletarian women’s movement in Germany has kept itself free from the bourgeois suffrage agitation and acted from the very beginning as part and parcel of the general working class movement.

Whilst pointing out the general line to be followed, she also took pains to ensure that this ideology should spread widely and deeply. As editor of “Gleichheit” she worked to create a school of capable agitators to work amongst the proletarian women armed with good material and fully conscious of their aims. Therefore, “Gleichheit” dealt with every political question which arose and attempted to rouse the interest and understanding of the proletarian women for these questions. Klara Zetkin also sought to win capable collaborators for “Gleichheit”, and she fulfilled her pedagogical tasks conscientiously. Very often she worked through and thoroughly altered the contributions which arrived for “Gleichheit” and when the authors protested, she never failed to explain the reasons for the alterations in long and detailed letters. Finally the authors were compelled to admit that she was right, and thus they learnt very much.

This was the work of Klara Zetkin amongst the women. She edited “Gleichheit” until 1916 when the war enthusiasts of the Central Committee of the Party took it out of her hands. She led the women’s conferences which from 1900 on biannually preceded the Congress of the Social Democratic Party. The pamphlets which she wrote during this period, have mostly had their origin from speeches made at such women’s conferences.

Arthur Holitscher, Clara Zetkin, and Claude McKay in Moscow 1923.

But with all this, we have only touched upon a part of her work. Klara Zetkin was not only the leader of the proletarian women’s movement, but she took a prominent part in the general Party struggle. From 1892 onwards she attended the Party congresses first as a delegate and then from 1895 on as a member of the highest Party body, the Control Commission. And, as has already been mentioned, she belonged from the beginning to the revolutionary Marxist wing of the Party.

Delegates to the Copenhagen Congress, Alexandra Kollontai and Clara Zetkin in front holding hands.

In the nineties of the last century the development began in the Social Democratic Party which was completed by the world war. The party of the proletarian revolution became a petty-bourgeois party of reformism: the ideology of the class struggle was pressed to one side by the ideology of industrial peace, coalition and industrial democracy. The international Social Democracy exposed itself as the national party for the defence of the Fatherland. But this radical change of front took place slowly and at first imperceptibly. The right wing, Vollmar, Bernstein, David, Heine, Schippel, attempted to alter the attitude of the Party to the bourgeois State. Thus the criticism of militarism was weakened, the colonial policy was ratified, the ratification of the budget justified etc. In short, the way was being prepared for the coalition policy to follow later.

With Young Pioneers, 1925.

Unfortunately the Party did not realise how dangerous these beginnings were. At the end of the nineties, Bernstein was still opposed by the whole Party. At that time even Kautsky fought against the man who was trying to undermine revolutionary Marxism. But ten years later the reformist wing of the Party had grown tremendously in power. The worst thing of all was, that the previous critics under the leadership of Kautsky took up a mediatory, “centrist”, policy. During the whole period Klara Zetkin fought tirelessly upon the extreme left wing of the Party. She opposed Bernstein in 1898, she condemned the deviation in the debate upon militarism, she attacked those who had voted for the budget, and declared herself in favour of the mass strike as a revolutionary weapon. When Kautsky became “tame”, Klara Zetkin belonged together with Rosa Luxemburg and Mehring to the little group of “incorrigible” lefts who did not even hesitate on the 4th August 1914.

In 1921 at a KPD rally in Berlin’s Lustgarten after Matthias Erzberger’s murder by fascists.

After the outbreak of the world war Comrade Klara Zetkin was the first to attempt to restore the broken connections with the comrades in other countries. In March 1915 she convened the Women’s Conference in Berne, at which she unfortunately could not be present as she was given no passport and was watched closely in her home in Stuttgart. The distribution of the manifesto of Berne cost her several months of preventative detention. Together with Rosa Luxemburg and Franz Mehring she issued the first and only number of the “International” which was able to appear in Germany during the war. Logically her way went over the Spartacus Bund to the Communist Party and the Third International.

We are glad that the brave old fighter has had the good fortune to be a witness and a collaborator in the work of building up Socialism in the Soviet Union. May she be a witness of the victory of Communism in Germany!

Clara Zetkin during her opening speech of the Reichstag on Aug. 30, 1932 as senior member to denounce fascism.

International Press Correspondence, widely known as”Inprecor” was published by the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) regularly in German and English, occasionally in many other languages, beginning in 1921 and lasting in English until 1938. Inprecor’s role was to supply translated articles to the English-speaking press of the International from the Comintern’s different sections, as well as news and statements from the ECCI. Many ‘Daily Worker’ and ‘Communist’ articles originated in Inprecorr, and it also published articles by American comrades for use in other countries. It was published at least weekly, and often thrice weekly. The ECCI also published the glossy magazine ‘Communist International’ edited by Zinoviev and Karl Radek from 1919 until 1926 monthly in German, French, Russian, and English. Unlike, Inprecor, CI contained long-form articles by the leading figures of the International as well as proceedings, statements, and notices of the Comintern. No complete run of Communist International is available in English. Both were largely published outside of Soviet territory, with Communist International printed in London, to facilitate distribution and both were major contributors to the Communist press in the U.S. Communist International and Inprecor are an invaluable English-language source on the history of the Communist International and its sections.

PDF of issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/inprecor/1927/v07n37-jun-30-1927-inprecor-op.pdf

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