Clara Zetkin, socialism and women’s liberation

March 7, 2014

Elizabeth Schulte looks at the legacy of Clara Zetkin--the German socialist at the turn of the 20th century--and her vital contributions to the Marxist tradition.

MARCH 8 is International Working Women's Day, and though its revolutionary history is typically overlooked, it was inspired by the struggles of working-class women--and declared by socialist women as part of the fight for working-class self-emancipation.

Also often overlooked is the German socialist who proposed International Working Women's Day. Clara Zetkin called for the holiday at the second International Conference of Working Women in 1910, in response to mass strikes and protests by women workers in the U.S.

In 1907, women workers in New York City organized demonstrations demanding better pay, shorter working hours and the right to join a union. In 1909, garment workers in New York went on strike for 13 weeks in what was called "The Rising of the 20,000." These struggles inspired Zetkin to propose the day--to honor working-class women's struggles and to draw connections between the fight for workers' power and the struggle against women's oppression.

Socialists began organizing International Women's Day marches the next year, which gathered together tens of thousands throughout Europe. During the 1917 celebrations in Russia, women's marches calling for bread amid the starvation caused by the First World War helped spark the Russian Revolution.

Clara Zetkin (left) alongside Rosa Luxemburg
Clara Zetkin (left) alongside Rosa Luxemburg

THE ISSUE of women's oppression was one among many where Zetkin, a prolific writer and tireless organizer and speaker, made an important political contribution. Born in 1857, she was a contemporary of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Franz Mehring--all socialists active in Germany.

She became part of the socialist movement in large part through meeting Ossip Zetkin, a Russian émigré and Marxist. Within six months after she began attending socialist meetings, however, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck passed far-reaching anti-socialist laws. In 1880, Zetkin went into exile in Switzerland and France.

Over a decade later, she returned to Germany and became editor of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) newspaper for women Die Gleichheit (Equality), a job she held for 25 years. Zetkin also edited the women's supplement in the left-wing Leipziger Volkszeitung (Leipzig People's Daily).

Zetkin was a member of the bookbinders union in Stuttgart, and also active in the tailors and seamstresses union. She threw herself into the thick of organizing women into trade unions and into the SPD. In 1895, she became a member of the party's national executive.

During numerous struggles within the SPD against the pull of reformism, Zetkin fought for left-wing ideas and policies, alongside Luxemburg and Liebknecht, among others. She joined Luxemburg to argue against the revisionist policies of Eduard Bernstein, who had rejected the need for revolutionary change in favor of "evolutionary socialism."

In 1914, Zetkin stood with the minority in the party who struggled for a position of opposition against the First World War. In 1915, she called an international women's peace conference in Switzerland, where revolutionaries made the case for unity among workers across the battle lines. There, she argued:

Who profits from this war? Only a tiny minority in each nation: The manufacturers of rifles and cannons, of armor-plate and torpedo boats, the shipyard owners and the suppliers of the armed forces' needs. In the interests of their profits, they have fanned the hatred among the people, this contributing to the outbreak of the war. The workers have nothing to gain from this war, but they stand to lose everything that is dear to them.

In 1915, Zetkin along with Luxemburg, Liebknecht and others, formed the Spartacus League, which would lay the foundations for the creation of the German Communist Party (KPD) in December 1918.

Only weeks later, after a workers' uprising in Berlin in January 1919, Germany's chancellor, a member of the SPD, ordered the German Army and the Freikorps--forerunners of the Nazis to come--to crush the rebellion and arrest its leaders. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were captured and executed.

DURING HER early years as a socialist, Clara Zetkin was a clear voice within the SPD for a Marxist approach to the question of women's liberation. She took an uncompromising view that the source of women's immiseration and oppression was in capitalism, and the possibility of women's liberation lay with the self-emancipation of the working class.

The backdrop to her struggle on this question was the long history of the often contentious relationship between the German women's movement and the socialist movement.

In the 1860s, early Marxists presented a fundamentally different approach to women workers than their socialist predecessors, followers of Ferdinand Lassalle. While the Lassalleans opposed women being employed in industry because it would undercut men's employment and wages, German Marxists like August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht argued that employment was a step toward economic independence for women, and therefore toward possible equality with men.

The Lassalleans used moralistic arguments to further their case, arguing that they opposed women in the workplace in the name of preserving the family and female morality. "To the Lassalleans, the integration of women into industry was a scandalous abuse; to the Marxists, it was the first condition for progress," wrote socialists Hal Draper and Ann Lipow. "Here was the first right-left split on the women's question in the socialist movement."

Likewise, the Lassalleans opposed suffrage and political rights, while Marxists favored women's full participation in the political and economic struggle.

In 1875, the two socialist tendencies came together to form one group, the German Socialist Labor Party, the precursor to the Social Democratic Party (SPD). Their differences remained, however.

The influence of the Lasalleans was gradually lessened, and the development of the Marxist approach to women's liberation continued, with the publication of Bebel's Women and Socialism in 1879 and of Frederick Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884.

At their congress in Erfurt in 1891, German Social Democracy endorsed women's equality, demanding the "abolition of all laws that place women at a disadvantage compared with men in matters of public or private law." Socialist women began organizing to take up the concerns of women. Zetkin helped found the newspaper Gleichheit, and its circulation grew from a few thousand in the beginning to 23,000 in 1905 and 112,000 by 1913.

Germany's rapid industrialization in Germany meant that women were quickly joining the workforce in new factories and workshops. Until 1892, women were banned by law from joining trade unions--laws barring them from political activity existed until 1908.

German women made up for lost time and joined trade unions in droves--in fact, at a greater pace than men. From 1892 to 1913, total union membership grew from 237,092 to 2,573,718, while women's union membership grew from 4,355 to 230,347--from 1.8 percent of the total to 8.9 percent. Women's membership in the SPD grew as well. By 1914, women made up 16 percent of the SPD membership--the greatest proportion of women in any socialist party in the world at that time.

THE GROWTH of a vibrant working-class women's movement coincided with the growth of a separate bourgeois women's movement, which the socialist women referred to as "Frauenrechtlerinnen," or "women's rightsers." As Draper and Lipow explain:

The common translation "suffragettes" is misleading and often downright wrong; "bourgeois feminists" is usually better, but misses the point. The significance of "women's-rightsers," as the Marxist women used it, is that such feminists make women's juridical rights (under the existing social order) the be-all and end-all of their movement and program, by detaching the question of women's rights from the basic social issues, by making it a separate question.

Within German Social Democracy, disagreement continued on many issues, including the attitude to take toward the bourgeois feminist movement and how to debate these questions. A reformist section of the party favored accommodating to the feminists, while a left-wing section, which included Zetkin, argued for maintaining a distinct working-class women's movement.

On several important questions--such as laws protecting women in the workplace or demands for shorter workdays--the interests of working-class women and those bourgeois women came into conflict. Instead of supporting demands that would make a difference in the lives of working-class women, bourgeois women steered clear of these issues and concentrated solely on questions like suffrage (which was limited to bourgeois men and women anyway).

It's sometimes argued that Marxists like Zetkin discounted the instances of oppression experienced by middle-class women. But that's not the case.

Zetkin recognized the plight faced by middle-class, and even ruling-class, women of her time. She, for example, voiced her opposition to family laws that put the woman under the thumb of the man. In her famous speech delivered at the Gotha conference in 1896 and later published as a pamphlet titled Only in Conjunction With the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism Be Victorious, she said:

We would, however, perform an injustice to the bourgeois women's rights movement if we would regard it as solely motivated by economics. No, this movement also contains a more profound spiritual and moral aspect. The bourgeois woman not only demands her own bread, but she also requests spiritual nourishment and wants to develop her individuality.

It is exactly among these strata that we find these tragic, yet psychologically interesting Nora figures [a reference to Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll House], women who are tired of living like dolls in doll houses and who want to share in the development of modern culture. The economic as well as the intellectual and moral endeavors of bourgeois women's rights advocates are completely justified.

ZETKIN LOOKED at the women's question as it affected women in every strata of society: the working class, the bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia and what she called the Upper Ten Thousand. Zetkin described the distinction between ruling-class and middle-class women:

The woman of the Upper Ten Thousand, thanks to her property, may freely develop her individuality and live as she pleases. In her role as wife, however, she is still dependent upon her husband. The guardianship of the weaker sex has survived in the family law which still states: And he shall be your master.

In order for a ruling-class woman to achieve independence, she must wage a fight with the men of her class for free control over their own wealth.

For the middle-class woman and the bourgeois intelligentsia, the relationship is different. Among these women, the question centers on establishing equal employment with the men of their class. To this end, they demand equal education and the right to employment in all professions open to men. Zetkin also recognized that middle-class demands went beyond the economic, embracing "spiritual nourishment," as described in the quote above--these demands are "completely justified."

While Zetkin acknowledged the obstacles faced by middle-class women and supported some of their movement's demands, her main emphasis, as for other Marxists of her time, was the conditions of working-class women.

Proletarian women, Zetkin argued, experienced an "equality" of sorts with their men counterparts because capitalism, in its endless search for a cheaper labor force, drove working-class women into the factory. As she wrote:

As a result of all this, the proletarian woman has achieved her independence. But verily, the price was very high and for the moment, they have gained very little. If during the Age of the Family, a man had the right (just think of the law of Electoral Bavaria!) to tame his wife occasionally with a whip, capitalism is now taming her with scorpions.

Zetkin concluded that it is in working-class women's interest to join forces with working-class men to overturn a system that exploits them both. Zetkin also pointed out that, because of their class and their relationship to production, working-class women were in the best position to win women's liberation.

A workers' revolution that succeeds in overthrowing capitalism--and the capitalist family, whose double-burden on women ensures their inferior status in society--is the only hope for genuine women's liberation. The emancipation of all women--bourgeois and working class--thus depends on working-class women's collective power as workers.

IN HER book Marxism and the Oppression of Women, Lise Vogel draws the connection between Zetkin's fight to put forward a Marxist understanding of the women's question and her fight against reformism in the SPD:

Refusing to consider the woman question as a classless abstraction to be resolved in the future, she suggests a comprehensive program of organized activity. At the practical level, Zetkin's opposition to reformism took the form of a commitment to developing socialist work among women of all classes--work that would support reform without falling into reformism, and simultaneously keep the revolutionary goal firmly in view.

In contrast to many of her contemporaries in the socialist movement, she saw the fight for changes in the relations between women and men as a task for the present, not for some indefinite socialist future.

With her 1896 speech, Zetkin sought to challenge the German party and the Second International to begin to take practical steps in the way of organizing women workers and encourage women's role in the socialist movement.

The last section of Zetkin's speech identified some concrete steps for the SPD to take up the demands of women and integrate this organizing into the life of the party. Identifying the difficulties of working women who faced a "double obligation to be active in both the factory and the home," she called for the demand of a legally fixed workday.

She proposed newspapers and other written propaganda to take up these issues, which she argued was especially important for women who could not make meetings. She discussed how the party could be organized to encourage women's full participation at every level of the party, something she would expand on later as a leader in the Communist Women's Movement of the 1920s.

In 1907, Zetkin reported on the strides being made within the German socialist women's movement, concluding:

The socialist women's movement in Germany is inspired with the monumental dictum of Karl Marx: "The philosophers hitherto have only interpreted the world in different ways; what has yet to be done is to change the world." It strives to help change the world by awakening the consciousness and the will of working-class women to join in performing the most Titanic deed that history will know: the emancipation of labor by the laboring class themselves.

There are, of course, drawbacks in some of the arguments made by Marxists at the time, and it would be up to future Marxists to further develop these theories to incorporate and account for other aspects of capitalism and women's oppression, such as the role of the working-class family.

But at the core of the contributions of Marxists like Zetkin are absolutely vital and lasting insights--into the forms that women's oppression took, its roots in capitalism and the family, and the necessity of a united revolutionary working-class struggle to end that oppression. As Zetkin said in her 1896 speech:

The proletariat will be able to attain its liberation only if it fights together without the difference of nationality and profession. In the same way, it can attain its liberation only if it stands together without the distinction of sex. The incorporation of the great masses of proletarian women in the liberation struggle of the proletariat is one of the prerequisites for the victory of the socialist idea and for the construction of a socialist society.

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