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Clara Zetkin: A Great Organizer of Socialists, Women Workers

A brief history of the life of socialist revolutionary, Clara Zetkin.

Andrea D'Atri

July 12, 2017
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On July 5, 1857, a woman was born who would become one of the greatest organizers of women workers and socialists of her time.

Organizing Women, Despite the Government’s Prohibition

Under the imperial regime in Germany, women, students and trade apprentices were forbidden to join political organizations or attend meetings in which politics were discussed. It was only in 1902 that this law was reformed: from then on, women had the right to organize politically, but always separately from men.

The German Social Democratic Party created a female section which, with Clara Zetkin at its head, organized the International Conference of Women Socialists, bringing together hundreds of delegates from all around Europe. However, the legal prohibition does not seem to have been the only reason for the organization of the women socialists: the Ministry of the Interior, which spied on the revolutionaries, noted in one of its secret reports that socialist men engaged in a “passive resistance” to the participation of women in the party.

The rights of women workers

Clara Zetkin denounced the oppression of women workers in capitalism and she fought for all the rights of women workers beginning with the right to equal pay for equal work. She also fought against the restrictions that impeded women’s participation in politics; she denounced the hypocrisy of bourgeois marriage and advocated for the right of a woman to “own herself”. She supported the right to an abortion and to contraception, which was opposed by some leaders of the German Social Democratic Party. She also supported secular and mixed gender education.

Zetkin fought for the right to vote, like many feminist bourgeois women of her time. However, she did not compromise her principles in the fight; she always argued that socialists must “fight together, march separate” from the bourgeoise women who also supported the right to vote. Her leadership helped make German social democracy the first European political party that included this right in its program. It was Clara Zetkin who proposed that March 8 commemorate the International Women’s Day.

Together with Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky against the betrayal of social democracy

In 1914 when representatives of the social democratic party of Germany approved war credits to support the Germany in World War I, rather than organizing a workers revolution against the capitalists. Clara Zetkin, together with her friend and comrade, Rosa Luxemburg and other leaders of the left wing within the party faught against and denounded this betrayal of the party leadership.

During the war, both Clara Zetkin and Luxemburg suffered imprisonment and exile for spreading anti-World War I positions. This led them to unite with Lenin, Trotsky and other social democratic leaders of different countries who shared the rejection of this course taken by the majority in social democratic party. They advocated for the formation of a new international organization, the Communist International, due to the bankrupt character of the Second International who broke with one of the basis of Marxism- workers should fight against the capitalists of their own nation, not against other workers in a capitalist war.

The Thesis for political wor among women

Zetkin developed a friendship with Lenin, who charged her with the preparation of a document about political work among women. The document was then endorsed in the Third Congress of the Communist International.

Zetkin “calls upon the Communist Parties everywhere to carry out the resolution and the decision of the III International, take seriously the organisation of the broad masses of working women for revolutionary struggle and revolutionary construction, engage in propaganda and agitation among the female proletariat to spread Communist ideas, and draw these women into the Communist Party, thereby deepening and developing their will and ability to be active and to fight”

Zetkin urged Communists to see women as revolutionary militants, and not simply engage in propanda with women. She says, “Departments for work among women must remember that their job involves more than just verbal and written agitation and propaganda. Their main concern is to carry out agitation through action – the most effective method at their disposal – and, in all the capitalist countries, to encourage working women to take an active part in all the actions and struggles of the revolutionary proletariat, in strikes, street demonstrations and armed uprisings.”

Clara Zetkin died in Russia in 1933. But she remained immortalized in the history of the global working class as the revolutionary who always fought for the rights and organization of women workers and socialists.

Translated by Mira Craig-Morse

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Andrea D'Atri

Andy is a leader of the Socialist Workers' Party (PTS) and the founder of the women's group Pan y Rosas (Bread and Roses) in Argentina. She is author of the book Bread and Roses: Gender and Class Under Capitalism, which has been published in Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, Italy, France, and Germany. An English edition is now available from Pluto Press.

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