German political activist Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) was a prominent member of socialist and communist organizations in Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a longtime supporter of the German Social Democratic Party, she argued that equality of women could only be accomplished through a class revolution that overthrew the capitalist system. She later was a founder of the German Communist Party and became a respected political ally of Vladimir Lenin in the Soviet Union.
Clara Zetkin was a distinguished member of Socialist and Communist organizations in Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Throughout her political career, she focused on the liberation of women in society through Marxist reforms of the capitalist system. For many years she promoted her radical thought as the editor of Die Gleichheit, the women's journal of the German Social Democratic Party. In her later years, Zetkin served as both a representative of the German Communist Party in the Reichstag legislative body and as an associate of Vladimir Ilich Lenin in the Soviet Union.
Zetkin was born Clara Eissner on July 5, 1857, in Wiederau, near Leipzig, Germany. She was the oldest of the three children of Gottfried Eissner, a schoolteacher and church organist, and Josephine Vitale Eissner, Gottfried's second wife, who was the widow of a local doctor. Josephine Eissner was active in women's education societies and a believer in equal rights and economic power for women. Her work was inspired by feminist organizations, including the German Women's Association and the Federation of German Women's Associations, led by women's rights activists such as Auguste Schmidt and Luise Otto. When Eissner was 15, her father retired and the family moved to Leipzig, where she was enrolled at Schmidt and Otto's Van Steyber Institute in 1875. She studied there until 1878, and her activities during these years included reading socialist newspapers and books and attending meetings of the Leipzig Women's Education Society and the National Association of German Women. These areas of feminist and socialist thought became the focus of her lifelong political activities.
Joined German Social Democrats
In 1878, Zetkin befriended some students from Russia, who introduced her to the political ideals of the German Social Democratic Party, or SPD. One of her new associates was Ossip Zetkin, a native of Odessa, Russia. Ossip Zetkin acted as a political mentor, teaching her about the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and the ideas of scientific socialism. At his suggestion, she began to attend meetings of the Leipzig Workers' Education Society and reject her bourgeois lifestyle, which ultimately led to a split with her family and her feminist mentor, Auguste Schmidt. In 1879, Zetkin traveled to Russia to observe the activities of Marxist groups there.
These experiences gave Zetkin a strong sympathy for the proletariat struggle and she decided to devote her life to the Marxist reform of society. Due to a German law forbidding women to join political parties, she could not become an official member of the SPD, but she spent all her energies supporting its cause. After the passage of the 1878 Anti-Socialist Law in Germany, Ossip Zetkin was forced to leave the country, and Zetkin decided to leave as well. She first traveled to Linz, Austria, where she worked as a tutor of factory workers. She joined a group of SPD members in Zurich in 1882 to write propaganda to sneak into Germany. In November of that year, she was reunited with Ossip Zetkin in Paris. The two lived together and eventually had two sons, Maxim and Konstantine, but were never officially married because Zetkin did not want to give up her German citizenship. She did, however, adopt his surname, and remained Ossip's companion until the end of his life.
Linked Women's Rights to Social Revolution
In Paris, Zetkin began to concentrate on combining her interests in socialism and feminism in an attempt to accomplish equality for working women in the proletariat movement. Her return to feminist issues also led her to reestablish ties with her family, who came to her assistance after Zetkin contracted tuberculosis due to her impoverished conditions in Paris. Her family took her into their home at Leipzig while she recovered, and it was in Leipzig that she gave her first public speech on the liberation of women and all workers through a class revolution. She believed that once class equality was established in a Marxist society, the economic and social oppression of women would naturally come to an end. Because of this line of thought, for many years she fought against special provisions and laws to protect women in the workplace; her thought was that becoming satisfied with such measures would detract from the focus on a total restructuring of the class system. After her convalescence, Zetkin returned to Paris to nurse Ossip, who was suffering from spinal tuberculosis. He never recovered and died in January of 1889.
Zetkin overcame her grief at her partner's death by immersing herself in her political work. Her preoccupation with the socialist cause was so great, in fact, that rearing her two sons constituted her only personal considerations for many years. She would later be married to the painter Georg Friedrich Zundel, a man 18 years her junior. The marriage, which began in 1899, began to disintegrate during World War I and ended in divorce in 1927, primarily due to Zetkin's overwhelming commitment to her work. She became one of the leading women in the socialist movement and in July of 1889 served as one of the eight women delegates who attended the Second International Congress in Paris. She was there as a representative of the working class women of Berlin, Germany, and in a speech before the Congress, she clearly outlined the ideas in support of women's equality that she had been developing. Her speech, later published as Working Women and the Contemporary Women Question, reiterated her belief that she and her comrades should not focus on winning specific rights for women, such as education or economic equality, but should instead concentrate on ending the capitalist system that oppressed women and all workers. In a move that foreshadowed her growing differences with her fellow socialists, the Congress did not support her extremism, voting in favor of equal pay for equal work by women and voicing opposition to hazardous labor by women. This stance did not undermine Zetkin's role in the party, however. She was selected during the Congress to help lead recruiting and education efforts for the SPD in Berlin; she and six other women returned to Germany to found the Berlin Agitation Committee.
Edited Socialist Journal for Women
With the expiration of the Anti-Socialist Law in 1890, SPD members were allowed to return to Germany. Zetkin received another assignment from the party at this time, editing an SPD journal for women. The first issue of Die Gleichheit appeared in January of 1892, and under Zetkin's guidance, the journal set an agenda reflecting her beliefs in spreading socialist and Marxist thought among women and fighting the kind of feminist legal reforms supported by bourgeois women's groups. Still forbidden by law from direct membership in the SPD, Zetkin became active in a less direct method of advocating socialism and recruiting women—trade unionism. She helped to link unions in Germany with international organizations and organized strike funds in addition to giving hundreds of speeches. Her involvement with working people helped to moderate some of her views. At an 1896 SPD conference, she gave her support to measures protecting working mothers and advocating women's right to vote.
In general though, Zetkin refused to compromise her rigid adherence to Marxist ideology. After 1900, other members of the SPD were increasingly drawn to a revisionist interpretation of Marx's thought that proposed working within the legal system to accomplish reform. Revisionists saw Zetkin as too theoretical in her journal, and she was instructed to modify Die Gleichheit to reach a more general audience, including housewives and children. But although many complained about Zetkin, she was well established in the party and was in no danger of being removed. In 1895 she had become the first woman in the SPD governing body and in 1906 she was named to the central committee on education.
In 1908, women in Germany were given the right to join political parties. Zetkin felt that bringing women into the SPD would result in them being voiceless in an organization run by men, so she worked to form a separate women's group within the party. To this end, she participated in the first International Women's Conferences in 1907 and 1910 and became secretary of the International Women's Bureau, a group which adopted Die Gleichheit as its official publication. But her work in this area did not erase the tensions between her and the revisionists. World War I brought the conflict to the forefront. Zetkin, along with other radicals in the party, such as Rosa Luxemburg, wanted the SPD to condemn the imperialist stance of Germany and its military activities. When the party voted to support the government, Zetkin opposed the move in a series of writings in Die Gleichheit, resulting in her removal from the post of editor in 1917. Zetkin left the party to join antiwar socialists in the Independent Social-Democratic Party. Later she and three other radical socialists formed the Gruppe Internationale, also known as the Sparticus League, which became the German Communist Party, or KPD, in November of 1918.
Active in Communist Party
Although her political affiliation had changed, Zetkin's goals remained the same. At the 1919 Third International Congress, she gave a speech emphasizing the importance of having educated women as an active force in the international Communist struggle. In 1920 she was elected the international secretary for Communist women, a post in which she continued to argue that women's issues could only be addressed through reforms for all workers. In the years after World War I, her active role in Communist politics took her to the Soviet Union frequently. There she was an important ally of Soviet Communist leader Vladimir Lenin. She also held a post in the German Reichstag as a member of the KPD. As its oldest member, she was given the honor of convening the legislative body in 1932, and she used to occasion to speak out against Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and his Fascist policies.
Zetkin suffered from poor health in her later years, and she died outside of Moscow in the Soviet Union on June 20, 1933. She was honored with an elaborate funeral and buried in the Kremlin wall. The services were attended by leading Communists from across Europe, including Joseph Stalin and Nadezhda Krupskaya, the widow of Lenin. The presence of such luminaries demonstrated the importance of the life and work of Zetkin to supporters of Communism throughout the world.
Further Reading on Clara Zetkin
Boxer, Marilyn J., and Jean H. Quataert, editors, Socialist Women: European Socialist Feminism in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries, Elsevier, 1978.
Evans, Richard J., "Theory and Practice in German Social Democracy, 1880-1914: Clara Zetkin and the Socialist Theory of Women's Emancipation," History of Political Thought, summer, 1982, pp. 285-304.
Pore, Renate, A Conflict of Interest: Women in German Social Democracy, 1919-1933, Greenwood Press, 1981.
Zetkin, Clara, Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings, edited by Philip S. Foner, translated by Kai Schoenhals and Angela Y. Davis, International Publishers, 1984.