Clara Zetkin

Red Youth salutes the revolutionary women of the world! Our young cadre will be publishing short pieces all this week to celebrate our revolutionary heroines in the run up to International Womens Day. Today Birmingham comrade Phil, aged 22, discusses Clara Zetkin.

Red Youth will be meeting to celebrate International Women’s Day on 9 March, at 1.00pm, at the CPGB-ML party centre 274 Moseley Road, Highgate, Birmingham.

Women’s propaganda must touch upon all those questions which are of great importance to the general proletarian movement. The main task is, indeed, to awaken the women’s class consciousness and to incorporate them into the class struggle.

Clara Zetkin

Born as Clara Eißner, the eldest of three children in Saxony, Germany in 1857, Clara Zetkin lived a life of struggle – for socialism, for women’s rights and against fascism.

Her mother already had contacts with the emerging bourgeois women’s movement at the time and Clara herself became politically active from 1874, joining the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in 1878. However, Bismarck’s draconian ‘Socialist Law’, which banned extra-parliamentary political activities, forced her into exile in 1882, first to Zurich and then to Paris.

During her time in the French capital, she adopted the name of her life partner, the Russian Marxist Ossip Zetkin, with whom she had two children. There she also played a significant role in the founding of the Second International in 1889, which would two-and-a-half decades later so disgracefully collapse over the question of the first world war – splitting the socialist movement and for the first time clearly showing the reactionary and chauvinist nature of what we now know as social democracy.

Clara Zetkin

From early on in their time with the SPD, Clara Zetkin and comrade Rosa Luxemburg were part of the inner-party opposition, which came to be known as the Spartacus League (Spartakusbund) and consisted of fierce critics of Eduard Bernstein’s reformist views. She was among those consistently arguing against Bernstein and his followers in the revisionism debate.

Having returned to Germany in 1890, Zetkin worked as editor and publisher of The Equality (Die Gleichheit), a proletarian women’s magazine. She proved to be a brilliant journalist, increasing the paper’s circulation from 11,000 to 67,000 between 1903 and 1906.

When she joined the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) in 1917, she was ‘relieved’ of her duties at the publication for petty political reasons. In 1919, she finally joined the newly-formed Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and started to publish a new magazine, called Die Kommunistin, meaning ‘the female communist’.

In addition to her publications work, Clara Zetkin was one of the first few women deputies at both regional and national parliaments, taking advantage of the small concessions made by the bourgeoisie to advance women’s rights in practice and push towards their representation in public life.

Nevertheless, she also was a staunch critic of the bourgeois women’s movement. In a speech in 1899 at the founding congress of the Second International, Comrade Zetkin criticised demands for formal political rights such as that of access to the professions and equal education for women (while perfectly legitimate and important) as not going far enough, and argued that full social and economic emancipation would only be possible under socialism.

In 1911, Comrade Zetkin was also heavily involved in the birth of International Women’s Day – the day we will soon be celebrating. After an encouraging start in central Europe, especially in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, Women’s Day spread around the world. Indeed, demonstrations marking Women’s Day were instrumental in sparking the February Revolution in Russia in 1917.

In 1932, after being re-elected to the German parliament (Reichstag) at the age of 75, Comrade Clara used her speech at the opening of parliament to passionately denounce the policies of Hitler and his thugs. After the National Socialists came to power in 1933 and banned the KPD (having blamed the Reichstag fire on them), Comrade Zetkin was forced into exile once again – this time choosing to live in the Soviet Union.

Comrade Clara died soon after, on 20 July 1933, at the age of 76, and the urn containing her ashes was personally carried to the Kremlin Wall Necropolis by Josef Stalin.

Clara Zetkin

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