‘Reminiscences of Clara Zetkin at the Cradle of the Second International’ by Boris Reisnstein from The Communist. Vol. 15 No. 6. June, 1936.

An 70-year-old Boris Reisnstein remembers back to his youth and Clara Zetkin doing battle over women’s place in the workers movement against the vestiges of Prodhoundism at the founding congress of the Second (Socialist) International in 1889. Includes a stenographic report of her speech, which was translated during the Congress into French and English by Eleanor Marx. Resinstein was a Russian-born Marxists active in Europe before becoming a leader of the Socialist Labor Party in Buffalo, N.Y. through World War One. He would later join the Communist Party

‘Reminiscences of Clara Zetkin at the Cradle of the Second International’ by Boris Reisnstein from The Communist. Vol. 15 No. 6. June, 1936.

ON June 20 of this year it will be three years since our unforgettable and universally beloved Clara left us forever. Three weeks later, on July 14—the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, a date which the French bourgeoisie has usurped and turned into a national holiday—47 years will have passed since the centenary of the storming of the Bastille, this also being the anniversary of the opening of the First Congress of the Second International in Paris in 1889.

Reisnstein at the time of the Copenhagen congress.

Thinking of the anniversary of the death of Clara, my thoughts and memories are involuntarily associated with the anniversary of the Second International Congress, and various scenes and episodes of the historic Congress come up again in my mind. I should like to give to the readers my reminiscences of one of these memorable episodes in which Clara played her characteristic role.

In 1889, Clara (who had not long before lost her husband, Comrade Zetkin), lived in Paris with her two orphaned boys Kostya and Maxim. At that time she was thirty-two years old, and not only did she possess that outstanding spiritual and mental strength which, as we all know, she was able to preserve to the last day of her life, but she also enjoyed good health. In connection with the world exhibition in Paris and with the celebration of the centenary of the Great French Revolution, the leaders of the international Socialist and labor movement who had had no International for nearly 17 years, convened in Paris, on July 14, the International Socialist Congress, or, more correctly, two congresses. The one, which was more Marxist and revolutionary, carried on its work under the leadership of the German Social-Democratic Labor Party and the French Marxists (Guesdists) and Blanquists. The other was under the leadership of the French reformists (Possibilists) and the English trade unionists. All attempts to unite the two Congresses which were simultaneously in session led to nothing.

Clara Zetkin, of course, participated in the revolutionary, Marxist Congress as a member of the big delegation (81 persons) of the German Social-Democratic Labor Party, the German trade unions, and other workers’ organizations. This delegation was headed by old Wilhelm Liebknecht, August Bebel, Eduard Bernstein, G. von Volmar, Molkenbuhr, and others.

The keynotes of the whole Congress were international proletarian solidarity and the struggle for the eight-hour working day and factory laws. In discussing the question of labor protection and factory legislation, the Congress found it necessary, of course, to discuss also the question of women’s labor in industry. Here an episode connected with Clara took place which burned itself deeply into my mind. At that time I was still a young revolutionary of hardly more than Young Communist League age, and this episode helped me and my nearest comrades in the Zurich “Circle of the Young People’s Will Party Adherents”, which at that time was at the crossroads between the principles of Marxism and the People’s Will Party, to find the path towards a more consistent Marxist position and tactic.

Naturally, the predominating number of those attending the Congress were French—delegates from the various Socialist, trade union, cooperative, and other workers’ organizations. There were 130 of them. From the ideological point of view they represented a very variegated crowd with great revolutionary temperament, most of them, however, being big blunderers, politically underdeveloped, often combining this revolutionary temperament with a petty-bourgeois ideology and an attitude almost reaching that of the “respectable” middle class. Many of them were still adherents of the petty bourgeois teachings of Proudhon and were under the influence of the Proudhonist and other “revolutionary” traditions in the French movement. Especially in the sphere of woman labor in industry, like many of his predecessors in the labor movement of France, who reflected the petty-bourgeois conditions of the middle of the last century, the period when industry in France was at an immature stage of development, Proudhon took an extreme “Left”, i.e., a Right opportunist, position. He and his followers came out, without the least hesitation, against women working in the factories and other industrial enterprises, arguing that this would “deprive the worker even of the home and the family”.

This traditional “revolutionary” position of the French petty- bourgeois minded workers with a revolutionary temperament found expression, many years after the death of Proudhon, at the First Congress of the Second International.

When the Congress was discussing the question of the demands for factory legislation which all the proletarian parties and organizations in this newly-born International were to present to the governments in their respective countries, a certain French delegate, whose name I cannot now recollect, made a speech in which, basing himself on the petty-bourgeois position of Proudhon on the women’s question, he declared himself sharply against the use of woman labor in industry.

With her children in 1895.

In essence his speech was as follows:

“The international proletariat has not had an international association for 17 years, and we were obliged to speak in every country with our bourgeoisie and our governments in our own particular and not always uniform language. The happy and long awaited day has come at last when we are raising once again the banner of the Socialist International under which, guided by the spirit of international proletarian solidarity, we unite for a joint struggle against the common enemy, so that now we can speak once again to our governments in our various countries in a common language and present our common demands. Thus, I propose that on the question of our general demands for factory legislation, and in particular on the question of woman labor in industry, we most decisively and categorically, with- out any compromise, demand that woman labor in industry be absolutely prohibited. Not to mention the fact that women are not adapted by nature to work in factories, the work being too hard and prolonged for women, and not to mention the fact that work in the factory inevitably tells on the health of the women herself and her children, we must not forget the fact that the woman’s first duty is her household work and the care and education of her children. It is enough that the base, greedy bourgeois mercilessly exploit us working men in their factories, chaining us to their machines with the fetters of wage slavery! Now they are stretching out their greedy claws towards our proletarian women, threatening to deprive us, proletarian men, of the last that has been left us, namely, the home and the family. No, we will not allow this! We must demand the complete prohibition of woman labor in industry!”

I remember that this delegate stepped down the platform highly satisfied with his “extreme Left” speech and with an expression on his face which seemed to say: “Now, let anyone else try to be more revolutionary on this question than I.”

I often think of this speech. Is it not characteristic of the position taken by the whole Second International on the question of woman labor? The arguments against woman labor which the French delegate gave at that time could be heard later, and we hear them ever more frequently at the present day from the mouths of the Social-Democratic leaders. Their slogans, “Down with women in industry!” “Woman’s place is in the home!” were ever more loudly proclaimed especially as the crisis became more acute and when un- employment increased. They did not limit themselves to demands, but in practice the reformist members of the factory committees always voted at the time of general dismissals for the dismissal of women first.

The terrible inequality of women existing in Germany at present was systematically prepared for by the Social-Democratic leaders. The fascists seized on the Social-Democratic arguments. Some of their expressions coincide almost word for word with what this French delegate said at the First Congress of the Second Inter- national.

For example, Goebbels expressed himself as follows regarding the fundamental position of the fascists on the question of woman labor:

“The woman’s primary and best place is in the family, and the most wonderful task that she can fulfill is to present her country and her people with children.”

He thus brutally reduced the woman worker to the level of a birth-machine. In Germany at the present time, at the orders of the fascists, those proletarian women who do not give birth to children, since they do not want to doom them to death by starvation, are even publicly branded.

Another fascist argument which does not at all sound new is the following: “We will take the women away from the factories be- cause work in industry is injurious to their health and damages their organisms.”

At the same time, in spite of dismissals, thousands of women workers are forced to work in some industries, the very ones which are most injurious to their health, namely, the infernal chemical works, so as to produce poisonous gases for the coming war.

The fascists try to assure the workers that with the return of women to the home, the family life of the workers will be restored and that owing to the dismissal of women from the factories the wages of the workers can be raised. Both these arguments were advanced by Social-Democracy before the fascists advanced them.

Let us remember in this connection how consistently Clara Zetkin always exposed the lies of the Right-wing leaders of Social-Democracy, how mercilessly she fought against them. Even when she was on her death-bed, she began to write a pamphlet on the question of the treachery of those Social-Democratic leaders.

Let us remember how decisively Clara Zetkin always came out in defense of the exploited women workers.

Today it is important to point out the clear speech of Clara Zetkin, full of sound principles, which she delivered at the First Congress of the Second International as the representative of the Berlin women workers. In this speech she took up a definite position on the question of the prohibition of woman labor.

But let us return to the discussions at the Paris Congress.


In the discussion on this question, Clara Zetkin, as delegate of the women workers of Berlin, delivered a lengthy speech which was in reality a report. Forty-seven years have passed since then, but I still remember clearly the overwhelming impression of that historic speech. There is no doubt that the address made a stunning and unforgettable impression on me and on many others who listened to it, not only because of its eloquence, not only because of its volcanic passion, so characteristic of Clara, but also owing to the in- flexible Marxist dialectic logic and the clearness of the analysis and arguments. The Communists of the present generation who have gone through various Marxist-Leninist classes, courses, universities, academies, etc., and who have at their disposal a gigantic amount of rich Marxist-Leninist literature, will not “discover America” in this speech of Clara Zetkin. All the ideas which she expressed in that speech of long ago, all her arguments and her attitude on the question of woman labor, seem to us now to be absolutely self-evident, simple, clear and indisputable. But 47 years ago the political level was by no means as high even in the ranks of the Socialist Parties. And even at the Congress, where an important role was played by such leaders of the Socialist movement as Wilhelm Liebknecht, August Bebel, Jules Guesde, Paul Lafargue, and G. V. Plekhanov, the speech of Clara Zetkin stood out prominently, owing to the soundness of the Marxian dialectics in it. I think that the reader will not reproach me if I take that memorable speech from the dust of the archives and reproduce it here as material for a historic portrait of our unforgettable Clara.

I give below the speech from the detailed notes (evidently an incomplete stenogram) published in the German edition of the minutes of the First Congress of the Second International, issued under the editorship of Wilhelm Liebknecht and with a preface by him.

Comrade Zetkin, delegate from the working women of Berlin, spoke amid loud applause on the question of woman labor. She stated that she had no intention of presenting a report on the situation of working women, because it did not differ much from that of working men. But, on behalf of the working women whom she represented, she would deal with the question of woman labor from the point of view of principles. As there is no clarity on this question, it is very necessary for the international labor congress to make a clear and plain decision on the question, getting clear on the principles involved. Her speech:

“We need not be surprised that in the camp of the reactionaries we meet with reactionary ideas on the question of woman labor. But it is highly astonishing that in the camp of the Socialists we meet with wrong ideas, inasmuch as a demand is advanced here for the prohibition of woman labor. The question of woman labor is an economic question, and we have reason to expect Socialists to show a higher understanding of economic questions than that brought forward in the demands which have been advanced here.

“Socialists must know that woman labor is a necessity under mod- ern economic development. The natural tendency of woman labor is to lead either to a reduction of the labor time which every individual must devote to society or to an increase in the total wealth of society. It is true the competition with the labor power of men causes wages to fall, but it is not due to woman labor as such, but to the fact that the capitalist, when purchasing woman labor, exploits it.

“The Socialists must realize above all that social slavery or social freedom rests on economic dependence or independence. Those who have written on their banner—‘“the liberation of all mankind”— have not the right to condemn half the human race to political and social slavery as the result of economic dependence. Just as the worker is in subjection to the capitalist, so the woman is in subjection to the man, and she will remain subjected until she becomes economically independent. An inevitable condition for this economic independence is labor. If we want to make women free people, make them equal members of society with men, then we should neither abolish nor restrict woman labor in industry, except in definite, isolated, exceptional cases.

“The women workers who are striving for social equality do not expect to obtain for their liberation anything at all from the women’s movement of the 4ourgeoisie, the feminist movement, which professes to struggle for women’s rights. This is a house built on sand and has no real foundation. Working women are thoroughly convinced that the question of the liberation of women is not a question standing separately by itself but is part of the great social question. They fully realize in modern society this question will only be solved after the complete reconstruction of society.

“The question of the liberation of women is a child of our epoch and arose from the machine. In the epoch of the renaissance, women were on a level with men in intellectual and social respects, but it never entered anyone’s mind to raise the question of their liberation. The emancipation of women signifies a complete change in their social position from top to bottom, signifies a revolution in their role in economic life.

“The old form of production with its crude instruments of labor tied woman down to the family, and her circle of activities did not extend beyond her home. Within the family, the woman represented an extremely productive kind of labor power. She produced practically all articles of consumption for the family. “Under the old form of production and trade, it would have been very difficult, if not impossible, to produce these articles outside the family. As long as these older production relations were in force, women were economically productive. As production relations changed, no longer permitting women to engage in production, women became mere consumers. This revolution had much to do with the reduction of the number of marriages.

“Machine production put an end to the, economic activity of women in the family. Big industry produced all articles more cheaply, more quickly, and on a larger mass scale than was possible under individual production, when the work was performed with the help of crude tools and production was small-scale. Women often had to pay more for the material which they bought in small quantities, than they would have had to pay for the finished product of big machine industry. Besides expenses for the purchase of raw material, they also had to spend their time and their labor. Owing to this it became a useless and unnecessary expenditure of time and energy to carry on production within the family. Although it is true that it may be useful to certain individuals to have women producing within the family, nevertheless, from the point of view of benefit to society, such activity is a loss.

“This explains the fact that the good housewife of the good old time has almost entirely disappeared. Big industry has made useless the home production of articles necessary to satisfy the needs of the family. It has cut the ground from under the activity of women is the home; but simultaneously it has also created the prerequisites for the activity of women in society. Mechanical production, which does not require much muscular strength and skilled labor, made it possible to put women to work on a broad productive scale. Women entered industry, trying to increase the income of the family. The labor of women became a necessity in proportion to the development of modern industry. In this way, with every mechanical improvement introduced in our times, the labor of men is becoming superfluous and thousands of workers are being thrown into the streets, a reserve army of the poor is being formed, while wages have continually fallen lower and lower.

“In the past, the wages of the husband, along with the simultaneous productive work of the wife at home, were sufficient to provide for the existence of the family. Nowadays these wages are hardly enough to keep an unmarried worker. The married worker is compelled, whether he like it or not, to figure also on the paid labor of his wife.

“Thus, woman was liberated from economic dependence on man. The woman engaged in industry, and not having any possibility of being occupied only in the family, as an economic appendage of her husband, learned to satisfy her own needs as an economic force independent of her husband. But when women are no longer economically dependent on their husbands, then there is no reasonable basis for their social dependence on them. It is true that at the present moment this economic independence is beneficial not to the woman but to the capitalist. Owing to his monopoly on the means of production, the capitalist has got possession of this new economic factor, the woman labor, and he has allowed it to start to work only for his own benefits. The women liberated from economic dependence on their husbands have become subordinated to the economic rule of the capitalists. From slaves of thew husbands they have become slaves of the manufacturer. They have only changed one master for another Nevertheless, they have gained on the change. They are no longer economically of low value compared with their husbands and subject to them but are equal to them. However, the capitalist is not satisfied with exploiting the woman herself. In addition, he uses the labor of women workers in order still more thoroughly to exploit the men workers.

“From the very beginning woman labor was cheaper than man labor. At first men’s wages were expected to provide the necessities for the existence of the entire family. The wages of woman were expected from the very beginning to provide only for the support of one person, and even that only partly, because the woman was expected to continue working at home, in addition to working in the factory. Furthermore, the products produced by a woman at home with the help of crude tools, incorporated, as compared with the products turned out by big industry, only a small portion of the average socially necessary labor. Hence, the conclusion is drawn that women are less capable of work. On this basis women receive lower wages for their labor power. To this motive for the low payment for the labor of women should be added the further circumstance that as a rule women have fewer demands than men.

“But for the capitalist, woman labor power was extremely valuable, not only because its price was low, but also because of the greater submissiveness of women. The capitalist put his stake on both these factors and tried to pay the working women as low wages as possible, and, by means of this competition, to lower the wages of men as much as possible.

“In the same way the capitalist used the labor of children, in order to lower the wages of women, and the work of machines in order to lower the wages of people in general. Only in the capitalist system of society can we find the cause and explanation of the fact that woman labor gives results absolutely contrary to its natural tendency, that it leads to the lengthening of the working day instead of helping to considerably shorten it, that it does not signify an increase in the wealth of society, the the greater prosperity of each individual member of society, but on the contrary only means an increase in the profits of a handful of capitalists and simultaneously the ever greater impoverishment of the masses. The terrible results of woman labor which can be felt so badly now will disappear only when the capitalist system of production is abolished.

“In order to avoid being defeated in competition, the capitalist must try as far as possible to increase the difference between the cost of production of an article and its selling price. Therefore, he tries to produce as cheaply as possible and to sell as dearly as possible. Consequently, the capitalist is fully interested in making the working day ever longer without limit and in paying as ridiculously low wages for labor as he can. This tendency is in direct opposition to the interests of the working woman as well as to those of the working man. It is clear from this that there are no real contradictions between the interests of the working men and the working women. But without doubt there is an irreconcilable contradiction between the interests of capital and labor.

“Considerations of an economic nature are against the demand for the prohibition of woman labor. The present-day economic situation is such that neither the capitalist nor the husband can give up woman labor. The capitalist must keep to woman labor if he wishes to be able to stand competition, and the husband must reckon on woman labor if he wants to form a family. Suppose even that woman labor were prohibited by law, the wages of the men would not rise as the result. In this case the capitalist would very rapidly compensate himself for the loss of cheap woman labor power by the wider use of more perfect machines, and soon everything would go on as before.

“After big strikes which have ended in the victory of the workers, it can be observed how the capitalists, with the help of better machines, wipe out the gains of the workers and obtain the possibility of exploiting the workers as before.

“If the prohibition or restriction of woman labor is demanded on the grounds that woman labor gives rise to competition, then by the same logic one could demand the abolition of machines and the restoration of the rights of the guilds of the middle ages, which determined the number of workers who would be permitted to work in each handicraft.

“However, not to mention the economic arguments against the prohibition of woman labor, arguments of principle make themselves primarily felt. It is precisely on the basis of principles that the women must understand the necessity of protesting with all their force against any such attempt. They must offer determined, and at the same time the most just, resistance, because they know that their social and political equality with men depends entirely on their economic independence which they obtain from their work outside the family, in society.

“From the point of view of principles we women categorically protest against the restrictions of woman labor. In no case do we wish to separate our cause from the cause of the workers in general. Therefore we do not formulate any separate demands. We do not demand any legal protection except that which labor in general demands against capital.

“We recognize only one exception—for pregnant women whose conditions demands special measures of protection in the interests of the women themselves and of their offspring. We do not recognize any special woman question. We do not recognize any special question of the working women! We do not expect our complete emancipation either from the recognition of political rights or from the admission of women to the so-called liberal professions, or to equal education with men, although the demand for all these rights is only natural and just! The countries in which there exists so-called direct and free suffrage have shown us that in reality it is worth very little. The right to vote without economic freedom is neither more nor less than a promissory note which has the appearance of value but which cannot be cashed. If social liberation depended on _ political rights, there would be no social question in the countries where universal suffrage has been introduced. The liberation of women, like the liberation of all mankind, will come about only as the result of the liberation of labor from capital. Only in a socialist society will women and workers in general obtain their full rights.

“In view of these facts nothing remains for women who are really seriously striving towards their liberation, except to join the Social- Democratic Labor Party, the only party which is striving towards the emancipation of the workers.

“Without the assistance of the men and to some extent even against their wishes, the women have taken their place under the Socialist banner. It must even be recognized that in certain cases women have been irresistibly drawn to it even against their own intentions— simply because of a clear understanding of their economic situation.

“But, however this may be, they are standing under our banner and they will remain there! Under this banner they will fight for their “emancipation”, for the recognition of, their rights.

“Hand in hand with the Social-Democratic Labor Party, they are prepared to take on themselves their part of the burden and sacrifices of the struggle, but they are also unswervingly determined, in justice, to demand after the victory all the rights belonging to them. In respect to sacrifices and duties, as in respect to rights, they want to be neither more nor less than comrades-in-arms accepted into the ranks of the fighters on equal terms!”

The loud applause of the Congress rewarded Clara for this brilliant speech. The applause was repeated when Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor Marx-Aveling, also a brilliant and talented orator, translated Clara’s speech into English and French.

I do not know whether this brilliant report of Clara’s was of any benefit to the French delegate whom I mentioned above. I only remember that this speech very much helped me and my closest comrades, who occupied a more Marxist position among the young followers of the “People’s Will Party” doctrines, to strengthen ourselves in our Marxist positions, and very soon to cut the navel cord of the “People’s Will” and to come out onto the broad road of the Marxian mass proletarian struggle.

There were a number of journals with this name in the history of the movement. This ‘The Communist’ was the main theoretical journal of the Communist Party from 1927 until 1944. Its origins lie with the folding of The Liberator, Soviet Russia Pictorial, and Labor Herald together into Workers Monthly as the new unified Communist Party’s official cultural and discussion magazine in November, 1924. Workers Monthly became The Communist in March ,1927 and was also published monthly. The Communist contains the most thorough archive of the Communist Party’s positions and thinking during its run. The New Masses became the main cultural vehicle for the CP and the Communist, though it began with with more vibrancy and discussion, became increasingly an organ of Comintern and CP program. Over its run the tagline went from “A Theoretical Magazine for the Discussion of Revolutionary Problems” to “A Magazine of the Theory and Practice of Marxism-Leninism” to “A Marxist Magazine Devoted to Advancement of Democratic Thought and Action.” The aesthetic of the journal also changed dramatically over its years. Editors included Earl Browder, Alex Bittelman, Max Bedacht, and Bertram D. Wolfe.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/communist/v15n06-jun-1936-communist.pdf

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