Clara Zetkin - Revolutionary Fighter for Women's Liberation

Share with your friends


This talk was presented at a meeting of Melbourne Radical Women held on 6 April 1988.

Clara Zetkin was one of the most influential women in the socialist and women’s movements in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. Zetkin believed that the first step for the liberation of women was to move them out of the isolating, unpaid labor of the home and into the workforce. Within the workforce she pushed women to organise.

Zetkin was an orthodox Marxist supporting scientific rather than utopian socialism. She was influenced strongly by important dialectical materialist  works such as Engel’s The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. She supported the struggle for women’s suffrage, but not as a solution for all of women’s problems, since it left private property intact. She saw suffrage as a weapon that could be used in the class struggle. Zetkin was unyielding in her support of women’s autonomous organisations within the umbrella of a socialist party. This position lead to many disagreements with the male leadership of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Zetkin was also implacably opposed to bourgeois feminism which she insisted lead women away from the crucial class identification.

Perhaps the contribution that Zetkin is most well remembered for today is her role in establishing March 8, International Women’s Day, as a working class women’s day of celebration and struggle. At a meeting of the Socialist Women’s International in 1910, Zetkin joined forces with Russian communist feminist leader, Alexandra Kollontai, to move for the establishment of the day. The actual date was inspired by the militant struggle of women textile and needle workers in the New York for fair working conditions.

Clara Zetkin is an important figure of the past who should be honoured by genuine Marxist feminists. Yet despite her contributions to the struggle for women’s emancipation through socialist revolution it is difficult for the non academic reader to find much of her work or a lot of material about her life accessible and published in English. This talk is based largely on three sources: an article by Di Zetlin called “Clara Zetkin – Inadequate Feminist?” that appeared in Hecate Volume 7 # 1 1981, an essay by Jean Quataert called “Unequal Partners and Uneasy Alliance: Women and The Working Class in Imperial Germany” that appeared in a book called Socialist Women: European Socialist Feminism in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries  edited by Marilyn Boxer and Jean Quataert, and the chapter called “The Socialist Women’s Movement in Germany” in Tony Cliff’s book, Class Struggle and Women’s Liberation, 1640 to the Present.

Biographical overview

Clara Zetkin was born in Germany in 1857. Her mother was involved in the first wave of the German women’s movement which was inspired by the broad democratic struggles of 1848. During her schooling she came into contact with several of the key leaders of this movement; by the time she left school she was familiar with the Russian Revolutionary movement and was a supporter of the German worker’s movement. She had made contact through her association with Ossip Zetkin whom she latter married. In 1881 the young Clara accompanied Ossip to Paris after he was expelled from Germany because of his political connections.

This period was a difficult one for the German workers’ movement and its party, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). For twelve years the SPD survived illegally despite an anti-socialist law which was finally repealed in 1890. For socialist women there were even more legal hurdles to be overcome. Until 1908 there was a law throughout most of Germany that forbade women from joining political parties! It was also a difficult period for Clara and Ossip. Neither were able to gain permanent employment. They lived in dire poverty with their two children and in 1889 Ossip died in exile from spinal tuberculosis. 

During her time in Paris, Zetkin had been writing articles for the socialist press about the struggle for women’s rights. Her articles obviously made a significant contribution because in 1889 Zetkin was invited to address the Founding Congress of the Second International on the woman question. She accepted the invitation and rapidly became the Second International’s leading spokesperson on women.

In 1891 Zetkin returned to Germany and took on the task of founding and  editing the journal Die Gleichheit, which translates to mean “Equality”. The publication was subtitled “For the Interests of the Woman Worker”. Zetkin held this post for twenty five years.

The years from the 1890s up until the outbreak of the First World War saw Zetkin dedicate her energies to successfully building the German Socialist Women’s Movement. In 1907 it was estimated that the socialist women’s movement encompassed over 75,000 women. This was also reflected in the circulation of Die Gleichheit. Thousands of women were organised into trade unions, education committees and, after 1908 when the law against women’s association was repealed, in the SPD itself. By 1914 there were 174,474 women members of the SPD. However, only one woman was included on the executive committee of the party and it was not Zetkin, but the less radical Luise Zietz.

The outbreak of World War One saw Zetkin further marginalised in the SPD. That the Parliamentary group of the SPD voted to support the German war effort was a crushing blow to the internationalist Zetkin. 

She eventually left the SPD and joined the German Communist Party (KDP) in 1918. She became a member of the KDP Central Committee and a Reichstag deputy. During the twenties her health deteriorated and she spent much of her time convalescing in Russia. In her later years she became disappointed and disoriented. Her views lacked the early clarity. By 1926 she had become one of Stalin’s front runners in attacking the left wing of the KPD. 

During this entire period she continued her work for women’s liberation through the Women’s Secretariat of the Comintern. Work amongst women was not, however, a priority of the Comintern and the weary Zetkin did not pursue the Comintern’s failure in this area with the same strength as she had challenged the SPD’s weakness many years earlier.

Zetkin’s greatest contribution in her last years was her characterisation of fascism and her analysis of the threats posed to the working class by its development. Zetkin returned to Germany just as the fascists were taking over. In 1933 the Nazis had gained a numerical majority in the Reichstag but before they could elect their speaker, Zetkin, as the oldest member of the Reichstag, had the role of acting as chair. From this position she opened the session by delivering a thundering denunciation of fascism. She died later that year in the Soviet Union.

The German Social Democratic Party

It is not possible to understand Zetkin’s position within the SPD without understanding the nature of the SPD itself. The German Social Democratic Party was the pride of the Second International. It was by far it biggest and best organised section and was hailed as the model for all other sections to follow.

However the SPD soon evolved into three clear factions: the left, led by Rosa Luxemburg, the centre, led by Karl Kautsky and August Bebel and the revisionist right, led by Eduard Bernstein. Rosa Luxemburg’s famous polemic Reform Or Revolution was a biting answer to the ideas of Bernstein. Bernstein’s theories, first published in 1898, argued that socialism could be achieved through the reforming of capitalism.

The Socialist Women’s Movement contained all of the same factions. Zetkin took a clear position. She  was firmly aligned with Luxemburg and the SPD left. Throughout the 1890s she and her views often carried the day within the Socialist Women’s Movement.

Die Gleichheit

The nature of Die Gleichheit  is a good barometer of the strength of Zetkin and the left in the Socialist Women’s Movement. Zetkin published an editorial annually throughout the 1890s which explained her conception of Die Gleichheit. In these editorials she made it clear that the journal was intended to be a sharp theoretical tool. It was not intended for the masses but for the most advanced women.

“Gleichheit” is directed especially to the most progressive members of the working class, whether they are slaves to capital with their hands or with their heads. It strives to school these theoretically, to make possible for them a clear understanding of the historical course of development,  and an ability not only to work consciously in the battle for the liberation of the working class, but also to be effective in enlightening and teaching their class comrades and training them as fighters with a clear goal.

As Zetkin came into conflict more frequently with the majority of the SPD leadership her editorial control of Die Gleichheit loosened. By 1904 she was made to change the nature of the paper to try and give it mass appeal. In January 1905 Zetkin was forced to include a supplement to ‘serve the education and interests of women as housewives and mothers’. By 1910 the ultimate was demanded, with Zetkin required to include features on fashion, dress making and cooking!

At the 1913 congress she was required to agree that henceforth greater heed would be paid to ‘the entirely unschooled’ and to those women ‘who do not yet know the ABC of our views’.

When the war broke out in 1914 Zetkin used the pages of Die Gleichheit to polemicise against imperialist war. On 5 August 1914 she published an article entitled “Working Class Women, Be Prepared!” which attacked the war sharply. This was the very day after the Parliamentary group had voted war credits to the Kaiser! Zetkin told her readers that the war was being fought in the interests of the reactionary Hapsburg dynasty, the great landed property owners and big capital. She concluded the article with a call for working class women to be ready for revolution. For the working class, brotherhood (sic) between people is not a hollow dream, world peace not just a pretty word…What must be done? There is a single moment in the life of the people when they can win all if only everyone is set. Such a moment is here. Working-class women, be prepared. 

Zetkin was frequently the victim of censorship because of her fierce opposition to the war. As a form of protest, Die Gleichheit  was published with many blank spaces where censored articles should have been.

During the war years Zetkin was forced out of the editorship of Die Gleichheit. The publication got a new sub-title, “Magazine for the Interests of Worker’s Wives and Women Workers”. The magazine was describe by its editors as providing ‘simple teaching and valuable entertainment’. In 1922 the subtitle changed again. This time to “Magazine for the Women and Girls of the Working People: Official Organ of the SPD”. Not long after, the SPD closed Die Gleichheit  down.

Debates in the German Women’s Movement

Jean Quataert’s essay, “Unequal Partners and Uneasy Alliance: Women and the Working Class in Imperial Germany” examines some of the debates and issue facing German working class women at the turn of the century. One of the first questions to be resolved was the question of which movement to join. Quataert describes it this way. “In her political awakening during the 1880s, the German working-class woman faced an identity question. Would she join forces with her sisters in a broad feminist struggle against patriarchy; or would she unite with her male counterpart and fight the class struggle for socialism? In short would she be loyal to her sex or her class?”  She then tells us that “the working-class woman’s solution to her quest for political identity was seemingly simple yet fraught with difficulty. She chose loyalty to class and to sex by allying feminism and socialism”.

We in Radical Women also state firmly that you cannot chose between class and sex but, unlike our German sisters one hundred years ago, we do not find this stand to be “fraught with difficulty”. It is not theoretically difficult because we insist that all people who want revolutionary change must raise the demands of the most oppressed within the working class to the highest priority. To fail to do this is divisive and leaves out whole layers of the working class, in fact it leaves out the majority! To take the demands of the most oppressed seriously means that the demands of working class women are key to struggle, not some extra frill to include as part of the struggle when convenient.

A bourgeois women’s movement existed in Germany but Zetkin was scathing about this movement’s priorities. At the Gotha conference of the SPD in 1896 Zetkin delivered a speech called “Only With the Proletarian Women Will Socialism Be Victorious” which polemicised against both the bourgeois women’s movement and those in the SPD who saw the question of women’s liberation as peripheral to the struggle.

In this speech Zetkin said “the woman of the working class has achieved her economic independence but neither as a person nor as a woman or wife does she have the possibility of living a full life as an individual…For her work as a wife and mother she gets only the crumbs that are dropped from the table of capitalist production. Consequently, the liberation struggle of the working-class woman cannot be – as it is for the bourgeois woman – a struggle against the men of her own class…The end goal of her struggle, is not free competition against men, but bringing about political rule of the working class. Hand in hand with the men of her own class the working-class woman fights capitalist society.”

Zetkin hailed participation in the paid workforce as an essential prerequisite for for women’s liberation as it was crucial to free woman from economic dependency on husbands and fathers. However, she noted that, unlike their upper-class sisters, working class women joining the paid workforce exchanged one evil dependency for another: the husband for the capitalist employer.

Zetkin’s political positions stand out clearly if we examine some of the debates that took place within the German Socialist Women’s Movement. Zetkin stood on the left; her ideological foe within the movement was revisionist supporter of Eduard Bernstein, Lily Braun.

Bruan started her political career in the bourgeois women’s movement but was won over to social democracy. At a public meeting in 1896 Lily Bruan declared that middle -class goals profited small numbers of women only and left the mass of women completely untouched. Quataert says of Lily Bruan, “Bruan’s socialism reflected humanitarian concerns, and she emotionally rejected the class basis of the socialist world view. Similarly, she distrusted historical materialism with its claim to scientific objectivity.”

In 1901 Lily Bruan published a pamphlet called “Female Labor and Household Co-operatives” in which she argued that women could ease the burden of household labor by organising household co-operatives. Bruan saw the construction of co-operatives as an important building block in the future construction of socialist society. Quataert says, “According to Bruan, capitalism would not suddenly disappear; she envisioned gradual disintegration of the capitalist order concomitant with the slow ripening of the socialist system”.

Clara Zetkin raged against Bruan’s proposal for household co-operatives and called it ‘bourgeois reform work’. Zetkin said the idea was utopian and opportunist as only middle -class women with a secure and regular income could benefit. She explained that insecure employment was characteristic of life for most working-class people, and the unemployed could not maintain a smoothly functioning co-operative. Zetkin saw Bruan’s co-operatives proposal as a form of personal solution. However, if you change your head the world does not necessarily change with you. Jean Quataert explains the problem with the proposed co-operatives clearly “Zetkin refused to accept the proposition that co-operatives within capitalist society could transform the members’ basis of existence, presumably because the visualised communes would be solely consumption entities and leave work relations unaltered.”  While Zetkin correctly rejected the household co-operatives proposal as a solution to the exploitation and oppression suffered under capitalism she displayed an overly strong unwillingness to experiment with alternative lifestyles. Such arrangements should have simply been accepted as a matter of personal choice.

Zetkin’s Political Weaknesses

While Zetkin is an important pioneer marxist feminist for us to acknowledge and honour, it is necessary that we also analyse the weakness of some her political positions.

The women within the German Socialist Women’s Movement, regardless of their factional alliances, all saw motherhood as an essential ingredient in every woman’s life. Zetkin was no exception. 

Zetkin described women who are workers and mothers as ‘full human beings of the female sex’. Quataert says, “for Zetkin, the fact the men did not bear children did not make them half human; rather, women were true human beings when they worked as hard and as well as men did while succouring and mothering”. Zetkin conjured up the following ideal that is a mishmash of ideas. “Rooted and active in the world at large and in the family she can make the man in the home comfortable. From her own rich expansive sphere of activity grows clear understanding for his strivings, struggles, creation. She doesn’t stand next to him as an obedient maid…but as a companion in his struggle, as a comrade in his troubles…supportive and receptive”.  Zetkin and her fellow fighters for women’s liberation were unable to create a vision that promoted genuine equality between the women and men in the working class, rather than a male centred view.

The contradictions between words and practice are clearly reflected in comments made by leaders of the SPD about Jenny Bebel. August Bebel was the chairperson of the SPD, a staunch supporter of the struggle for women’s rights and the author of the important pioneering work Women Under Socialism. He described his marriage in the following way. “To the man who fights in public life against a world of enemies it is not unimportant what kind of spirit lives in the wife who stands at his side…I could not have found a more loving, a more dedicated, a more self-sacrificing woman. If I achieved what I accomplished it was primarily possible through her untiring care and assistance.” Karl Kautsky described the same marriage in these terms. “All that Bebel did as a pioneer and leader we thank him…but also the strong support her found in his wife, the intelligence, untiring dedication with which she kept the small daily worries away from him…Her ambition was to rule over an area which was cut out for her.”   These were some of the most advanced men of the time. Those who acknowledged that they couldn’t do what they did without the support of their wives. Yet despite the acknowledgement of their wives contributions home duties are still seen unquestioningly as women’s responsibility.

In the years immediate prior to World War One the German Government sought to improve the falling birth rate by preventing the sale and use of contraceptives. Although their attempt was unsuccessful it started a debate in the SPD which was also indicative of the strangle hold the idea that motherhood  was the central role for women had.

The official past SPD position had been that the limitation of births was a private matter to be discussed between a couple or with a doctor. A small minority in the SPD began arguing for a birth strike as a form of revolutionary action. They argued that fewer children would ease the burden on working-class families, improve the welfare and educational opportunities of each working-class child and assure more freedom for individual women. Birth control would also deprive the German imperialist war machine of future soldiers. Zetkin was strongly opposed this line of argument and correctly pointed out that population growth was not responsible for working-class poverty. The culprit she said was an unequal distribution of goods and services. Zetkin also saw birth control as an illusionary personal solution to the political issue of poverty. But in her rush to argue against the dangerous notion of blaming the working class for its poverty because of large families, Zetkin took a very wrong position. She was correct in arguing that we have to fight for childcare, improved education and other services but incorrect in her conclusion that ‘birth control might be liberating for individuals, but its inclusion in the party program would be inimical to the collective interests of labor’.  Zetkin’s inability to see motherhood as a choice rather than a duty meant she failed to fight for a fundamental feminist demand vital to working-class women: the right to control our own reproduction.


Zetkin was a pioneer who paved the way for many fighters for women’s liberation who followed. She was a great leader of working class women. One of her greatest contributions was to successfully challenge the dangerous and incorrect notion that socialism and feminism and incompatible ideologies. Another key contribution was her internationalism and steadfast opposition to the bloody imperialist World War One. Zetkin was, however, a product of her times and was unable to develop an adequate challenge to the crushing limitations of the nuclear family.  Around the world Marxist feminists, such as Radical Women in the US and Australia, have taken Zetkin’s ideas and built upon them. International Women’s Day is a lasting reminder of Zetkin’s contribution and we should make sure that International Women’s Day celebrations are militant, multi-issue and working class, making them a fitting tribute to Zetkin’s work.

Share with your friends