views updated

Zetkin, Clara (1857–1933)

German feminist and Marxist whose political activities made an important contribution to the development of European socialism. Name variations: Klara Zetkin. Born Clara Eissner on July 5, 1857, at Niederlau, Saxony, Germany; died on June 20, 1933, in Moscow, Soviet Union; eldest daughter of Gottfried Eissner (a teacher) and Josephine (Vitale) Eissner (a teacher); attended Van Steyber Institute, Leipzig, Germany, graduated as teacher; married Ossip Zetkin, in 1891; children: Maxim (b. 1883) and Konstantin (b. 1885).

"Anti-socialist law" introduced in Germany (1878); delivered first speech on women's issues (1886); attended first congress of the 2nd International (1889); appointed editor of Die Gleichheit (1891); appointed to executive committee of the German Social Democratic Party (1895); attended first International Socialist Women's conference (1907); outbreak of WWI (1914); joined German Communist Party, founding of 3rd International (1919); Nazi seizure of power in Germany (1933).

Selected writings:

numerous contributions to newspapers and journals such as Der Sozialdemokrat, Die Neue Zeit, Die Gleichheit, Leipziger Volkzeitung; most significant writings and speeches reprinted in Clara Zetkin, Selected Writings (ed. by Philip S. Foner, New York, 1984).

Since the 1900s, many reformers and historians have recognized a close affinity between the social doctrine of feminism and the political theory of revolutionary socialism. The demand for sexual and economic equality, the breaking down of patriarchal belief systems and attitudes, and the treatment of women as autonomous individuals in their own right has been viewed as an integral part of a more inclusive call for the establishment of a fairer and more just society for all. Only if the capitalist system itself is abolished, some believe, will the demands of the feminist movement become a reality.

During the closing years of the 19th century, however, many male socialists refused to acknowledge either the special problems facing women or their relevance to the wider radical cause. It was only thanks to the efforts of a number of female activists that this attitude began to change. Nowhere was this effort more important than in Germany, home of the largest and most important socialist party of the period. In particular, it was due to the work of one woman, Clara Zetkin, that a concern for the rights of women became an integral part of the socialist agenda.

She was born in 1857 into a middle-class family in the small town of Niederlau, Germany. Both her parents were active in the field of local education. Her father Gottfried Eissner served as an elementary school teacher, while her mother Josephine Vitale Eissner founded and ran what was known as a Frauenverein or women's educational society. Such societies were common in Germany at this time, offering women an opportunity to learn a variety of basic domestic and office skills. Neither of her parents seem to have been particularly interested in politics. Zetkin later wrote, however, that it was her mother's involvement in the Frauenverein that first sparked her own interest in women's issues.

Practically nothing is known about Zetkin's early childhood or her relationship to her parents. She attended the same school in which her father taught and appears to have been a bright and enthusiastic pupil. Zetkin left school in 1872 when her father retired, the family then moving to the nearby major city of Leipzig. Gottfried received only a small pension and, as they had no other source of income at this time, the family often found themselves in financial difficulties.

Fortunately for Clara, her parents' belief in the importance of education led them to insist that, rather than taking a job, she should continue her studies. In 1874, she entered the Van Steyber Institute, a highly respected teachers' training college in Leipzig. There she specialized in literature and history as well as developing her natural facility in foreign languages (later she was able to converse in Italian, French, English and Russian). Zetkin also began to widen her circle of interests by attending meetings of the Leipzig Women's Educational Society and the National Association of German Women. Through the former of these associations, she began to acquire a fuller understanding of women's issues and, through the latter, was first introduced to socialist ideas.

The year 1878 was pivotal for Zetkin and Germany. First, she passed her Teaching Certificate Examination and graduated from the Van Steyber Institute with distinction. At the same time, she attended a number of lectures by Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel, co-founders, in 1869, of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). In its early years, the SPD regarded itself as a revolutionary organization that was inspired by the socialist doctrines of Karl Marx. It drew substantial support from among the working class and was looked on by the government, as well as many members of the middle-class, as a significant threat to the stability and wellbeing of capitalist society. Zetkin's parents were appalled at the thought of their daughter associating with such a dangerous body of radicals. She was insistent, however, and rather than stop attending these lectures chose to break off all relations with her family.

The labour movement will surely commit suicide if … it does not pay the same amount of attention to female workers as it does to male workers.

—Clara Zetkin

It was at one of these lectures that Clara first met Ossip Zetkin, a Russian émigré from Odessa in the Crimea. Ossip, a woodworker by trade, was a committed Marxist of several years' standing and he encouraged Clara to attend the political meetings organized by the Leipzig branch of the Workers' Educational Society. As a result, Zetkin soon began to openly identify herself as a Marxist even though, as a woman, she was legally prohibited by the German authorities from membership of the SPD.

In May and June 1878, two men called Hödel and Nobiling had each made an attempt to assassinate the German emperor, Wilhelm I. Although their attempts were unsuccessful, the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, used these incidents as a convenient pretext to introduce an "anti-socialist law." The SPD was proscribed and its leaders forced into foreign exile. This new political reality prompted Zetkin (who was then earning a precarious living as a private tutor) to become more actively involved in the revolutionary cause. She engaged in a variety of illegal activities, such as collecting donations for the SPD and distributing party propaganda.

During the next few years, government pressure on SPD activists steadily increased. In the fall of 1880, Ossip was expelled from Germany as an undesirable alien. He then went to Austria where shortly afterwards he was joined by Clara who again supported herself through a variety of temporary teaching assignments. Early in 1882, Ossip left for Paris and was not reunited with Clara for five months, she having spent the intervening period in Zurich, Switzerland. At that time, Zurich was the main center of SPD activity outside Germany, and there Zetkin had the opportunity of meeting many of the top party leaders as well as renewing her acquaintance with Liebknecht and Bebel.

After Clara met Ossip in Paris, they decided that she should assume his last name even though they were to remain unmarried for almost a decade. The decision not to marry was not due to any desire on their part to flaunt bourgeois values and norms. Rather, it was based on the need to ensure that Clara retain her German citizenship (which was essential if she were ever to return home). They had two sons, Maxim and Konstantin, and, according to her letters of the time, lived in a state of almost permanent poverty. Clara managed to find occasional work as a translator while she and Ossip contributed a number of largely undistinguished articles to SPD newspapers, principally Der Sozialdemokrat and Die Neue Zeit.

Their difficult economic circumstances soon began to seriously affect their health. By early 1886, both Clara and Ossip were diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis. Zetkin's parents were informed of their daughter's condition and insisted that she return to Leipzig for a few months (where, happily, they were reconciled). It was during this visit that Zetkin gave a series of clandestine speeches to SPD activists in which she began to formulate her position on the relationship between socialism and women's issues. Her talks were an immense success, and she began to acquire a reputation as one of the party's most forceful and dynamic speakers.

Although Zetkin's health gradually improved, she spent most of the next two years nursing Ossip who was in great pain with spinal tuberculosis. When he eventually died in January 1889, however, Clara found that she had little time to mourn. Her colleagues in the SPD had been so impressed with her abilities that they elected her to an important position on the organization committee for the founding congress of the 2nd International (a worldwide association of socialist and other radical parties). It was on the sixth day of this congress, which began in Paris on July 14, 1889, that Zetkin gave her famous speech on working women (known as "For the Liberation of Women").

She roundly condemned those socialists who had sought to exclude women from the workforce on the grounds that their entry served to lower the wages of their male colleagues. This was unacceptable, she suggested, because women have the same right to enjoy access to the means of economic security as anyone else. Rather, working men and women should actively co-operate in order to advance their common political and socio-economic aspirations through the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. In this way, individual women could eventually hope to develop, as she later put it, "into a harmonious personality" who can "live out life" in a "harmonious full nature … in a society of emancipated labour."

This speech was so moving and effective that the packed Congress was propelled to pass a resolution, radical for its time, calling for equal pay and equal rights for all working women. Zetkin was now the acknowledged leader of the international socialist women's movement.

In October 1890, the anti-socialist legislation in Germany lapsed, enabling Zetkin and her colleagues to return home and openly pursue their political activities. She went to Stuttgart (where she was to live almost continuously until the outbreak of war in 1914) and went to work as a translator and writer for the Dietz Publishing Company. The following year, Dietz began to produce Die Gleichheit (Equality), a bimonthly journal of women's issues. Zetkin was appointed editor, a position she was to hold for the next quarter of a century.

Zetkin's aim as editor and chief writer was, as she wrote in an early edition, to "provide an educational and promotional influence" for working women. The journal covered a full spectrum of women's issues and was thematically organized on lines similar to that laid out in her previous speech to the International. Thus, the principal problems facing women do not lie, in the first instance, in patriarchal attitudes and opinions but, rather, in the underlying economic structure of capitalism. These problems will only be resolved when women achieve full social and political emancipation and obtain unrestricted access to the labor market. In later years, the journal expanded to cover issues of children's education (in which Zetkin argued for a program to foster independent thinking in children as well as the need to treat them with respect) along with sections on science, natural history, and literature. Die Gleichheit rapidly became one of the most influential and widely read leftwing journals in Germany.

By 1895, Zetkin had been established as one of the top leaders in the SPD. She became the first woman to be elected to the executive committee and was given special responsibilities for the party's educational institutions. She helped develop the SPD's position on public education through a vigorous attack on the undue influence of the church in schools and by calling for a new system of universal, free education. Zetkin was also actively involved in the trade-union movement. Among other positions, she was a member of the executive committee of the Bookbinders' Union and served as the international secretary of the Tailors' and Seamstresses' Union.

In conjunction with the 1907 meeting of the 2nd International in Stuttgart, Zetkin organized the first International Socialist Women's Conference. This conference established a Women's Bureau which aimed to strengthen the links between women in all the member countries. Her election as secretary and the recognition of Die Gleichheit as the official journal of the Bureau was a formal acknowledgement of her undisputed position as leader of the socialist women's movement. Zetkin celebrated her position three years later, at the International's conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, by successfully calling for all socialists to annually recognize March 8 as International Women's Day.

In the years immediately prior to the outbreak of the first World War, the SPD began to distance itself from the militant Marxist position it had earlier embraced. The majority of leading theoreticians and party members abandoned the notion that socialism could best be attained through class-struggle and the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state. Rather, they now advocated a program of gradual reform through existing state institutions, particularly Parliament (where the SPD enjoyed increasing representation in these years). Such a strategy was unacceptable to Zetkin and the radical minority who, pointing to the experiences of the 1905 Russian Revolution, continued to believe in the viability of the revolutionary path.

The other major issue dividing radicals and reformists during this period was the growing threat posed by the possibility of war between the European nations. Although the SPD had a formal policy condemning militarism in general and the German variety in particular, Zetkin and her colleagues were not convinced that this went far enough. Their worst fears were confirmed following the declaration of war in August 1914 when the SPD parliamentary deputies voted their support for the coming conflict. This was a severe blow to all the radical elements within the party.

The outbreak of fighting also meant the inauguration of a system of state censorship which, as time went on, increasingly sought to silence all those opposed to the war. Although this severely curtailed Zetkin's journalistic activities, it did not prevent her from organizing an antiwar conference, early in 1915 in Berne, Switzerland, which drew together pacifist women from all the belligerent countries. This did little to impress the German authorities, however, and on her return she was arrested and charged with sedition. Zetkin was held in prison for almost a year and was only released in the middle of 1916 on the grounds of ill health.

Following the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Zetkin's position within the SPD became increasingly untenable. Her vocal support for the Bolshevik cause in the pages of Die Gleichheit was not in accord with the party's position, and she was subsequently removed by the executive from her post as editor. Along with a number of other radicals, she resigned from the SPD and joined the (short-lived) Independent German Social Democratic Party (USPD), a moderately pro-Bolshevik but militantly antiwar association.

At the end of the war, there were great hopes that Germany would experience the same kind of revolutionary outburst that had previously taken place in Russia. The newly formed German Communist Party (KPD) organized an uprising in Berlin in January 1919 which, although defeated, served to establish the party as a serious political force. Zetkin joined the KPD shortly afterwards in March and represented the party as a deputy in the Wurttemberg Provincial Constituent Assembly. In October 1919, she was elected to the party's central committee. The following June, she was one of two Communist deputies elected to the Reichstag (the supreme parliamentary body in Germany) where she continued to sit as a member until that assembly's final dissolution by Hitler's Nazis in 1933.

Later in 1920, Zetkin threw herself, with her usual enthusiasm, into a new Communist organization, the 3rd International. Like its predecessor, this organization ostensibly sought to expand and strengthen the links among the international revolutionary movement (although it later became clear that its principal purpose was to serve the foreign policy interests of the Soviet Communist Party). The following year, the executive committee of the 3rd International appointed Zetkin as secretary of the group of Communist Women. These new responsibilities, coupled with her growing ill-health, meant that she now spent the majority of her time in the Soviet Union.

During the 1920s, it became increasingly clear that the long-awaited revolutionary uprising in Western Europe was not going to materialize. In these circumstances, the Soviet authorities proclaimed a new doctrine, known as "socialism in one country," whereby the maintenance of the Soviet regime became the primary duty of all Communist revolutionaries. Like many other faithful party members, Zetkin was gradually led by this doctrine to abandon her commitment to the principles of socialist internationalism. More disturbingly, it also led her to acquiesce, through her silence, in the worst excesses of the Stalinist terror.

Despite her long absences in the Soviet Union, Zetkin continued to serve as a deputy in the Reichstag and was present in Berlin at the opening of the last session of that body in August 1932. It was a tradition of the Reichstag that the oldest deputy was accorded the honor of presiding over the opening meeting of the chamber, during which time the official president was elected. By then, the Nazis were firmly in the ascendent and enjoyed a substantial majority in the Reichstag. Yet Zetkin, now 75 and almost blind, was not intimidated. To the cheers of her fellow Communists, she took the opportunity to launch into a speech denouncing the Nazi party and everything it stood for. As she finished, she expressed a wish that she might "yet have the fortune to open as honourary president the first Soviet Congress of a Soviet Germany."

This was not to be. A few months later, in January 1933, Hitler seized absolute power and immediately arrested all members of the opposition, beginning with the Communists. Fortunately, Zetkin had already returned to the Soviet Union. Shortly afterwards, she had a seizure and died in a sanatorium in Moscow on June 20, 1933.


Pore, Renate. A Conflict of Interest. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Quataert, Jean. Reluctant Feminists in German Social Democracy, 1885–1917. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979.

Stachura, P.D. Political Leaders in Weimar Germany. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Zetkin, Clara. Clara Zetkin: Selected Works. Ed. by Philip S. Foner. NY: International, 1984.

suggested reading:

Evans, Richard. The Feminist Movement in Germany 1894–1933. London: Sage, 1976.

Dave Baxter , Department of Philosophy, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

Zetkin, Clara (1857–1933)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article