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Luxemburg, Zetkin, and Revolutionary Feminism against the War

This year, International Women’s Day takes place amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Here, we revisit some of the debates among Marxists and socialist feminists in the lead up to the First World War.

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When Annalena Baerbock of Germany’s Green Party became the country’s first woman foreign minister, she promised to pursue a “feminist foreign policy.” Today, Prime Minister Olaf Scholz is leading Germany’s biggest military rearmament since the postwar period. Feminism in imperialist boots? We have seen it before: during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Western powers justified their imperialist invasions by claiming they were “saving the women” of those regions.

Russia’s reactionary invasion has generated widespread indignation as over a million people, many of whom are women and children, seek refuge in the EU. But rejecting the invasion does not mean supporting the imperialist states who present themselves as saviors of the Ukrainian people. Strengthening the war machines of imperialist states and NATO is not a progressive solution to this conflict. We need only recall the history of the 20th century, with its two world wars, its genocides, and plundering of entire peoples. These militarist tendencies are inscribed in the very logic of capitalism and imperialism.

Faced with this new war in Eastern Europe, we return to some of the debates among Marxists and socialist feminists in the lead up to the First World War. This, in turn, will serve as an anchor to help us articulate an independent and revolutionary position toward the current conflict in Ukraine.

In August 1910, the International Socialist Women’s Conference, organized by Clara Zetkin, met in Copenhagen. There, more than 100 delegates from 17 countries enthusiastically approved the establishment of an international day of celebration of women’s struggles. The conference discussed various issues related to the rights of women workers, women’s education, and the struggle against the impending war. On March 19, 1911, in Berlin, over 30,000 participated in the first ever International Women’s Day demonstration. A few years later it would be changed to March 8, a date we commemorate to this day.

The next International Socialist Women’s Conference was scheduled for 1914, but could not take place because the war blew Europe to pieces. Clara Zetkin joined Rosa Luxemburg in the front ranks of the struggle against imperialist war. Both belonged to the left wing of German Social Democracy, and rejected the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) support for the patriotic crusade. When the SPD parliamentary bloc approved the war credits on August 4, 1914, Zetkin and Luxemburg helped form the Spartacus League and edited the journal Die Internationale. During the second vote in the German parliament in December of that year, Karl Liebknecht was the only Social Democratic deputy who refused to vote for the war machine.

As the war was raging, Zetkin organized the next International Socialist Women’s Conference together with Russian revolutionaries in March of 1915 in Berne, Switzerland. Twenty-nine delegates from the belligerent countries attended. This meeting has a special historical value since it was the first international meeting where socialist militants against the world war could meet. The Berne Conference adopted a manifesto that was printed by the thousands and circulated clandestinely in various countries. When she returned to Germany, Clara Zetkin was accused of treason and imprisoned.

In September of that year, 40 anti-war socialist delegates from 11 countries met in Switzerland at the Zimmerwald Conference. There was a pacifist right wing which refused to break with the chauvinist leaderships of their own parties, while the revolutionary sector, represented by Lenin, the Spartacists, and Trotsky (Luxemburg and Liebknecht were imprisoned in Germany and could not attend) had some differences in opinion. Trotsky would later recount that Lenin was on the “extreme left,” raising the slogan of “Turn Imperialist War into Civil War,” which the conference did not accept. Even so, the conference published a common manifesto, drafted by Trotsky, which was a step toward unifying the internationalists, and laid the foundations of the future International. The manifesto stated that “The war which has produced this chaos is the outcome of imperialism, of the attempt on the part of the capitalist classes of each nation, to foster their greed for profit by the exploitation of human labor and of the natural treasures of the entire globe.”

During the spring of 1916, anti-war unrest began to spread among working-class sectors. Large demonstrations were organized on May 1 in Berlin. Karl Liebknecht was one of the most eagerly anticipated speakers, and he gave one of his most famous speeches, declaring “The main enemy is at home.” He was arrested amid heavy repression, but the following day, more than 50,000 metalworkers demanded his release. A few months later, it was workers in Turin, Italy who rose up against the war. In December 1916, a general strike shook Spain. Times were changing.

The War and the International

In 1914, the world war crushed the illusion of a gradual and peaceful development of capitalism. The social-democratic parties had advocated at several conferences that, in the event of a war between the powers, workers should refuse to fight and call for a general strike.

As the Resolution of the VII International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart (1907) noted:

Wars between capitalist states are, as a rule, the outcome of their competition on the world market, for each state seeks not only to secure its existing markets, but also to conquer new ones. In this, the subjugation of foreign peoples and countries plays a prominent role. These wars result furthermore from the incessant race for armaments by militarism, one of the chief instruments of bourgeois class rule and of the economic and political subjugation of the working class.

The Congress pointed out that in the face of the threat of war, it was,

… the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved … to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the sharpening of the general political situation …. In case war should break out anyway, it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.

However, opportunist tendencies were growing within the social democratic parties. Rosa Luxemburg had pointed this out early on, first in her polemics with SPD member Eduard Bernstein’s revisionism and, later, in the debates over the general strike that led her to confront not only the right wing of social democracy, but also Karl Kautsky who led the “center” of the SPD.

A long period of economic growth and a low level of class struggle since the defeat of the Paris Commune had gradually led the SPD leadership to adapt to parliamentary and trade union tactics. The quest for electoral victories put increasing pressure on the party to moderate its discourse so as not to alienate middle-class voters. A strong bureaucratic apparatus had been consolidated in the party and in the unions, which Rosa Luxemburg was one of the first socialists to confront.

On the question of militarism, Luxemburg wrote two articles in May 1911 titled “Peace Utopias.” There, she not only polemicized against those who defended the European states’ militarist escalation, but also directed criticism against sectors of the Social-Democratic parliamentary bloc who had made ambiguous speeches in the Bundestag advocating of “partial limitation of armaments.” This notion of disarmament was closer to bourgeois pacifism than to revolutionary internationalism. Luxemburg emphasized that the question of militarism cannot be separated from the struggle against imperialism, because it is linked to the colonial question, nor can it be separated from the struggle against capitalism. In this sense, she argues, the idea of achieving, “’A little order and peace’ is, therefore, just as impossible, just as much a petty-bourgeois Utopia, with regard to the capitalist world market as to world politics, and with regard to the limitation of crises as to the limitation of armaments.”

In November 1912, the IX International Socialist Congress at Basel reaffirmed the principles of socialist internationalism and raised the slogan “war on war!” against the universal madness of the arms race. But at the decisive moment, in August 1914, social democracy chose to align itself with the interests of the capitalists of each country.

While Luxemburg warned early on against the emergence of an opportunist bureaucracy within the Second International, it was Lenin who drew the most radical conclusions in 1914 on the need to break organizationally with opportunism, and create independent revolutionary organizations. He points this out in his text “The War and the Russian Social-Democracy” in October 1914.

In the following years, Luxemburg focused on agitating against World War I, which led her to receive accusations of treason and several prison sentences. She spent almost all her time between January 1915 and November 1918 in German prisons. In 1916 she published the text “The Crisis of German Social Democracy,” known as the Junius Pamphlet because of the pseudonym she used to sign it. It was a piercing denunciation of the catastrophic war and the betrayals of the Second International:

Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth – there stands bourgeois society. This is it [in reality]. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretense to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law – but the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form. In the midst of this witches’ sabbath a catastrophe of world-historical proportions has happened: International Social Democracy has capitulated.

The question of “socialism or barbarism” became a reality in a war where millions of people were dying. For Luxemburg, socialism was not a destiny predetermined by history; rather, the only “inevitability” was the cataclysm that would accompany the historic crisis of capitalism if the working class could not create a way out: “If the proletariat fails to fulfill its duties as a class, if it fails to realize socialism, we shall crash down together to a common doom.”

Women Against the War

With the advent of the Great War, the suffragette movement — like the socialist movement — was divided between those who adopted the policies of their own imperialist states, and those who advocated an internationalist position. In England, the largest suffragette organizations adopted jingoistic positions and put aside the struggle for women’s suffrage. The trade unions and the Labour Party joined the nationalistic fervor, deciding to suspend workers’ struggles until after the war and decreeing a “labor truce.” This collaboration between workers’ organizations, the main organizations of the women’s movement, and imperialist governments was the “social peace” offered to the bourgeoisie itself. Two of the leaders of the suffragette movement, Christabel and Emmeline Pankhurst, led army recruitment campaigns and urged women to collaborate with their own imperialist governments. In fact, the Women’s Social and Political Union’s (WSPU) newspaper, The Suffragette, was even renamed Britannia.

However, not all militant socialists followed this path. Sylvia Pankhurst broke with her sister and mother and led the fight against the imperialist war. Her newspaper, the Workers’ Dreadnought, had a circulation of 20,000 copies. Its pages denounced poverty, prostitution, women’s health and housing problems, clandestine abortions, harassment, and labor exploitation in the midst of war.

The East London Federation of Suffragettes (ELFS) sought to organize women in one of the most populous working-class areas. Women workers were called on to accept jobs in industry and transport at lower wages than men, or were condemned to poverty and unable to feed their children. The ELFS opened affordable community restaurants, a toy factory, a maternity clinic, and day-care centers. But their activity became increasingly focused on the organization of anti-war demonstrations, about which they published numerous articles. Emmeline Pankhurst publicly repudiated her daughter for this “unpatriotic” attitude, and even regretted not forbidding her to use her surname.

One of the demands that took center stage among the women workers was “Equal pay for equal work.” The war had increased the number of women employed in industry and transportation. Sylvia and the ELFS proposed that all unions affiliate women in order to incorporate them into the labor struggle, and demanded emergency state food aid for families. On July 12, 1915, a demonstration was held against Parliament with the slogans, “Equal pay,” “Down with exploitation,” and “Votes for women.” The Federation repeated the action in August, but this time the women were joined by socialist groups (the Independent Labour Party, British Socialist Party, and Herald League), the dockers’ union, the engineers’ union, the electrical workers’ union, and the national railway workers’ union.

Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Silvia Pankhurst, Aleksandra Kollontai, and Inessa Armand were pioneers of an internationalist socialist feminism in struggle against the war. When in 1917 the revolution came to Russia, all of them were part of the revolutionary struggle in their respective countries and defended the Russian revolution as part of the international revolution.

On March 8, 1917, women textile workers in the Vyborg slum of Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) launched a strike. The workers took to the streets and toured the nearby factories. At the gates of the foundries, they called on the workers to join the movement, chanting “Down with the war!” and “Bread for the workers!” Days later, a general strike in the city would end with the fall of tsarism. The Bolshevik militants had helped to organize the women workers, forming committees and transmitting socialist ideas. The seeds of revolution were sown.

Recovering an Internationalist and Socialist Feminism

Today we are not in the same situation as Luxemburg and Zetkin at the dawn of World War I, but imperialism’s militarist tendencies have increased markedly. Russia’s reactionary invasion is having devastating consequences for the Ukrainian people, while President Vladimir Putin strengthens repression against Russian anti-war protesters. The war in Ukraine dispels any illusions that the EU’s existence can ensure harmonious development and forever remove the catastrophe of war from European territory. For this reason, the classic debates of Marxism and revolutionary feminism against war allow us today to situate ourselves before the complex scenarios that are opening up in the 21st century.

This March 8, it is time to recover that great tradition of internationalist feminists. In the imperialist countries that make up NATO, a feminist response to the war today means rejecting Putin’s reactionary invasion while denouncing NATO’s sabre-rattling and escalation. Because it is not a question of choosing between two reactionary sides, but of defending an independent position. This March 8, let many of us raise this banner.

Originally published in Spanish on March 5 in Ideas de la Izquierda.

Translation by Otto Fors

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Josefina L. Martínez

Josefina is a historian from Madrid and an editor of our sister site in the Spanish State, IzquierdaDiario.es.


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