Clara Zetkin, 1897 Clara Zetkin, 1897. Photo: Public Domain

German socialist Clara Zetkin founded International Women’s Day to acknowledge working women’s contribution to the struggle against capitalism. It’s no wonder that German socialist, Clara Zetkin’s legacy has been erased by the corporate sponsorship of #IWD – it’s all too relevant, as Katherine Connelly explains

There are many reasons to draw inspiration from Clara Zetkin (1857-1933). She dedicated her whole life to fighting for socialism no matter what the considerable personal costs. Shortly after joining the Social Democratic Party in the 1870s, which was swiftly banned by the German authorities, she was forced into an exile that lasted ten years. Whilst in exile, her husband died leaving her with two young children.

Zetkin’s own life ended in exile after she was forced to flee Germany again, this time from the Nazis. She broke that exile briefly in August 1932 when she claimed her right to open the Reichstag, as its oldest elected member. Seventy-five years old, nearly blind and in very poor health, she had to be helped to the tribune past uniformed Nazi thugs who had threatened to attack her.

Literally facing down the Nazis, she called for working-class unity against fascism. She ended her speech by voicing her wish that she would soon open the first government of German workers’ councils. It was an extraordinary final act of courage and defiance. Zetkin died less than a year later.

Revolutionary Zetkin

Born in 1857, Zetkin belonged to a generation of German socialists who had known Friedrich Engels in the last years of his life and been able to interpret the work of Marx and Engels for an emerging younger generation.

There were sharp debates between these socialists about how to apply Marxism to the problems of the early twentieth century. Leading figures in the SPD, Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein argued that the changing nature of capitalism and imperialism made redundant Marx and Engels’ revolutionary conclusions – perhaps the contradictions of old could be overcome piecemeal and peacefully? 

Zetkin, along with her close friend Rosa Luxemburg, was among those who understood that the development of capitalism had not made either the task of social reform or international relations more peaceful. Instead, the contradictions of competitive capitalism were deepening, making the world a more dangerous place, and could only be positively overcome through the revolutionary action of the expanding and increasingly international working class.

Their revolutionary perspective was, tragically, vindicated in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War, driven by the competition of rival, imperialist nations. The SDP leadership, which had rejected revolutionary socialism in favour of changing the system from the inside, capitulated into supporting that system and voting for war credits.

Zetkin and Luxemburg, however, campaigned against the war, for which both were taken into custody. They also began to create new organisations, independent of the SPD, which resulted in the German Communist Party.

In 1919, after a failed communist uprising in Berlin, Rosa Luxemburg was murdered by the proto-fascist Freikorps. Against the repression of the counter-revolution and rising antisemitism, Zetkin defended the memory of Luxemburg, who was Jewish, and the importance of her ideas.

Zetkin on women’s liberation  

Alongside Zetkin’s commitment to building an effective revolutionary left that was anti-imperialist, anti-militarist and anti-fascist, she was one of the most important socialist theorists of women’s liberation. International Women’s Day originated from the 1910 International Socialist Women’s Conference, which met in Copenhagen ahead of the left’s Second International. The Day was proposed by Luise Zietz, a member of the Unskilled Factory Workers’ Union and the SPD, and seconded by Zetkin. 

What happened in Copenhagen in 1910 was the result of years of thinking, writing and organising by Zetkin on the questions of women’s oppression and liberation. Zetkin was challenging assumptions on the left that questions about women’s rights were somehow subordinate to the struggle for socialism, as well as the dominant view among contemporary feminists that women’s emancipation was separate from socialism.

Once again, Zetkin drew on the legacy of Marx and Engels who in their last years had become increasingly interested in questions about the historical origins of women’s oppression at a time when women were becoming more central, as workers, to capitalist production. Like Marx and Engels, Zetkin explored how the economic organisation of society affected women. She understood that in a class-divided society, women were going to be affected differently.

The rise of capitalist society had excluded women who belonged to the capitalist and upper classes from the public sphere. Confined to an idealised domestic sphere, with a profitable marriage and continuation of the family line (in property) upheld as their ultimate aims in life, these women wanted to expand their horizons and compete with men in the professional world. Their male counterparts were, in the majority, excluding them from that world, and so it made sense to these women to organise separately, as women against men.

Zetkin did not dispute that their aims were ‘completely justified’. But she did not accept that this minority of women represented the interests of all women, nor that their narrow aims for equal inclusion within a class-divided society could realise emancipation. Once they achieved their own inclusion, Zetkin predicted, wealthy women’s language of egalitarianism would swiftly be replaced as they fulfilled the functions of the offices they had so longed to join. Today’s female CEOs and Tory ministers surely prove Zetkin right.

By contrast with wealthy women, for working-class and poor women, the rise of capitalist society had not resulted in confinement to the private sphere. On the contrary, the old patriarchal system of production, where families laboured together in ‘cottage industries’ under the control of the father, were replaced with individual family members having to compete with each other in the labour market.

And women’s subordinate social status meant that working women could be subject to greater levels of exploitation through even lower pay than male workers. Therefore, for working women, the problem was not that their male peers were excluding them from ‘free competition’. The problem was the entire economic organisation of society which pitted workers against each other in a race to the bottom.

It was therefore in the interests of working-class women and men to reject those divisions by uniting in resistance to exploitation and oppression. For revolutionaries, this meant overthrowing women’s oppression had to be seen in this context: not as an abstract ‘principle, but in the interests of the proletarian [working] class.’

Anything less was to concede the ground to those who believed that women’s oppression could be solved by a bit of tinkering with, or greater ‘inclusion’, into an inherently exploitative system. Consistent with her approach to capitalism and imperialism, Zetkin’s approach to women’s emancipation was informed by the need for revolutionary change.

Zetkin today

Today, almost all big, globalised corporations manage to genuflect annually before #IWD and utter some unintelligible slogan that commits them to change precisely nothing. And none of these slogans will be ones that, as Lindsey German pointed out, working-class women are today raising in an urgent fight against inequality through widespread strike action. But these strikers are the women who stand in the real tradition of International Women’s Day.

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Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.

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