Skip to content

Clara Zetkin’s struggle for the united front

May 3, 2011

Genossinnen und Genossen!  That is how Clara Zetkin began her speeches. It is German for “women comrades and men comrades.” Few socialists used that salutation in her time, and there were few women at their meetings. But that was beginning to change, and Zetkin was part of those changes.
Clara Zetkin was a revolutionary leader, who over her long life took part in many struggles, on many issues. This article will consider only a small slice of her activity, one that was central to the tragedy of German communism in the 1920s.

Our topic today is the united front policy – a crucial part of our political inheritance from the era of the Russian revolution. This policy, adopted by the world communist movement in December 1921, proposed that revolutionary socialists should press for unity with other political forces in action for demands benefiting working people. The character of such a united front was a topic of dispute among socialists then, and remains so today.

Let us examine this policy through Zetkin’s eyes.

Clara Zetkin was the outstanding woman communist leader of the 1920s, and she is best known today as an apostle of women’s emancipation. However, she also helped shape the communist movement’s policy on unity in action. She favoured a broad and non-partisan approach, aiming for unity with non-revolutionary currents; action in the interests of the working class as a whole; and efforts to win social layers outside the industrial working class. She stressed the need for Communist policy to reach out to the less radical layers of working people and producers. She opposed a focus on the concerns of the revolutionary vanguard.

Zetkin – a pioneer Marxist

When the Communist International (Comintern) adopted the united front policy in 1921, Zetkin, at 64, was more than a dozen years older than any other of its main leaders.[1] She had joined the German Social Democratic party in its early, heroic days. A friend of Engels, she later formed a close partnership with Rosa Luxemburg to defend this party’s revolutionary heritage and oppose its right-wing current, which sought to make peace with Germany’s capitalist state.

In this period, women were almost completely excluded from political life. Zetkin and Luxemburg were the first women to fight their way into the central leadership of socialist parties. To this day, few women have been able to follow them down this path.

Zetkin led the Socialist International’s work among women, and in this capacity she called the first international socialist conference in opposition to the First World War.[2] This war was ended by revolutions in Russia and Germany in 1917 and 1918. In 1919, Zetkin joined the newly formed German Communist Party, the KPD. That same year, most of the party’s central leaders, including Rosa Luxemburg, fell victim to a wave of government terror.

Zetkin was an influential figure in the party’s new leadership and, from 1921, in the Communist International – the world union of revolutionary organizations formed two years earlier in Moscow.

Origin of the united front policy

After the German revolution of 1918, Social Democratic leaders had led and organized the restoration of capitalist power in the country, and had been notoriously complicit in the terror against revolutionary workers. Nonetheless, they had retained the support of most workers, while Communists led a small minority.

In March 1920, when extreme rightists staged a military takeover, the Social Democrats played a major role in the massive general strike that defeated the coup. How could the momentum of this victory be maintained?

A fruitful initiative to break the stalemate came later that year from revolutionary metalworkers in Clara Zetkin’s home base, Stuttgart. It was here that worker activists, six years earlier, had convinced Karl Liebknecht to launch open socialist opposition in Germany to the imperialist world war.[3]

In December, an assembly of Stuttgart’s metalworkers, acting on the initiative of Communist Party activists, adopted a resolution calling on the leadership of their union, and of all unions, to launch a joint struggle for tangible improvements in workers’ conditions. This campaign, the resolution stated, should call for the following five demands “shared by all workers”:

  • Reduced prices for food and essentials of life.
  • Opening of the capitalists’ financial records and higher jobless benefits.
  • Lower taxes on workers and higher taxes on the rich.
  • Workers’ control of raw material and food production and distribution.
  • Disarming of reactionary gangs and arming of the workers.[4]

Strikingly, the Stuttgart demands embraced not only issues of bread and pay but to initial steps toward workers’ power. This was an early example of the communist concept of transitional demands, which are rooted in immediate needs but point toward workers’ rule.

The Social Democrats, then organized in two parties, first ignored, then rejected this appeal, some saying the demands were too aggressive, others that they did not go far enough. But the Communists campaigned to rally support for the Stuttgart appeal, and a great many union councils voted their support.[5]

The Open Letter

A month later, in January 1921, the German Communist Party central bureau made a more comprehensive appeal to all workers’ organizations, including the Social Democrats, for united action. Zetkin was a leading member of this body, but the appeal’s main author was party co-chairman Paul Levi.

Known as the “Open Letter,” this call included the Stuttgart five points, in more detailed form, plus demands for the release of political prisoners and resumption of Germany’s trade and diplomatic relations with the Russian Soviet republic.

The Open Letter, too, was rejected by Social Democratic and union national leaderships. Union officials began expelling the appeal’s supporters. But this time, the campaign to rally rank-and-file support was broader and more successful – to the point where the national union confederation felt compelled to issue counterproposals. Subsequent exchanges, while they did not achieve agreement, showed that fruitful negotiations between Social Democrats and Communists were possible.[6]

Reparations crisis

The month of January 1921 also saw Britain, France, and other victors of the world war levy their demands for reparations. They demanded that Germany pay a sum equivalent to a dozen times the entire yearly revenue of the near-bankrupt German state, and threatened military occupation in case of non-payment. All shades of German opinion held the reparations to be unpayable, and a wave of indignation swept the country.[7]

The Communists responded by elaborating the final point of their Open Letter and calling for Germany to conclude an alliance with Soviet Russia. Clara Zetkin had already raised this call in her first speech in the German Reichstag, or parliament, on July 2, 1920.[8] As the reparations crisis came to a head, she raised this demand again in the Reichstag, on January 24, 1921, as “the only way to achieve a revision of the Versailles Treaty and ultimately to tear it up.”

By promoting united action on this demand, Zetkin sought to point the indignation of the German masses against the Versailles Treaty in a socialist direction. The establishment of workers’ power, she said, will be “the hour when the German nation will be born, the birth of a unified German people, no longer divided into lords and servants.”[9]

A storm of controversy

The Stuttgart and Open Letter initiative marked a sharp change in direction for the Communist Party. Instead of merely denouncing the Social Democrats’ pro-capitalist course, Communists were now proposing a test in action of Social Democrats’ capacity to struggle for demands consistent with the Social Democrats’ formal program.

This shift alarmed many German Communists, who felt their party was playing down the goal of overthrowing the government and concentrating on moderate demands more acceptable to Social Democrats. They feared that Zetkin’s invocation of a workers’ Germany as a new nation gave ground to reactionary nationalism.

The initiatives of Levi, Zetkin, and their allies also encountered objections abroad. A current led by Hungarian Communists such as Béla Kun called on Communists to sharpen their slogans and initiate minority actions that could sweep the hesitant workers into action – the so-called “theory of the offensive.” Although criticized by Lenin, this concept found some support in the Moscow-based Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI), including from Nikolai Bukharin and Gregory Zinoviev.[10]

The ECCI initially criticized the Open Letter. Lenin supported it, however, and the matter was referred to the next world congress.[11]

Divided working class

The dispute on the united front policy was rooted in a dilemma facing the German working class. It had been defeated, with heavy casualties, in the civil war organized against it by the Social Democratic leaders in 1919. In the following years, hunger and destitution spread: average grain consumption was now little more than half pre-war levels; meat consumption was reduced by two-thirds. Capitalist attacks rained down, and the workers’ movement was in retreat.

By the end of 1920, the Communists grown into a mass party, with more than 400,000 members, but they held the support of fewer than 20 percent of workers voting socialist.[12]

This produced a division among German workers. A Communist vanguard was frustrated and impatient to act, while the majority of workers were pessimistic and passive. In Zetkin’s words, the workers were “almost desperate” yet “unwilling to struggle.”[13]

Zetkin and her colleagues urged efforts to unite workers in a defensive struggle, in which they could regain the confidence needed for a renewed and concerted offensive for workers’ power. However, her left-wing opponents within the party urged minority action to provoke a crisis. As one of them later commented, “A stagnant swamp was everywhere. A wall of passivity was rising. We had to break through it at any cost.”[14]

Leadership was needed to rein in impatience and pursue consistent work for unity in action – but this was lacking, both in Berlin and in Moscow.

The ‘March Action’

The tensions in the KPD exploded over an issue not directly related to the united front issue. At the January 1921 congress of the Italian Socialist Party, until then affiliated to the Communist International, a wing of the Comintern supporters walked out to form a Communist party – with strong backing from the ECCI representatives, the Hungarian Mátyás Rákosi and the Bulgarian Kristo Kabakchiev. A larger and less radical grouping, who claimed to support of the Comintern but opposed an immediate break with the party’s right-wing, reformist minority, stayed in the Socialist party.

In a subsequent discussion among KPD leaders, Levi and Zetkin argued that the split, while inevitable, had been driven through by representatives of the Comintern Executive Committee (ECCI) in an aggressively inflexible manner that unnecessarily divided the pro-Comintern forces. Karl Radek, then representing the ECCI in Germany, defended its actions in Italy, winning the support of the KPD leadership’s radical wing. The dispute became heated, touching off tensions in the KPD regarding united front policy, the theory of the offensive, and the ECCI’s role.

The party’s Central Bureau adopted a motion by Zetkin that smoothed over the difference, but it soon flared up again.

At a KPD Central Committee meeting on February 22, Rákosi, representing the ECCI, reopened the debate, going so far as to suggest that a split of the type that had occurred in Italy might be needed in Germany as well. By 28 votes to 23, the Central Committee backed Rákosi and rejected Levi’s position. In protest, Levi, Zetkin, and three others resigned from the Central Bureau, the day-to-day leadership body. They were replaced by new, more radical leaders, who had been critical of the party’s united front initiatives. Zinoviev, addressing a Russian party congress, greeted the overturn.[15]

There were precedents in Communist history for Zetkin’s demonstrative resignation. Zinoviev himself had quit the Bolshevik Central Committee in this manner only a few days before the October 1917 insurrection that established Soviet power. However, the resignation of Zetkin and her allies from the German leadership had disastrous results. The new leadership viewed it as disloyal – an act of desertion. Moreover, it placed Zetkin outside the day-to-day leadership discussions during the decisive events that soon followed.

In March, the KPD, with strong encouragement from ECCI envoys, put the “offensive” concept into action, attempting to launch an insurrectional general strike based on the party’s forces alone. The so-called “March Action” was a costly failure, but party leaders held to their course. Paul Levi publicly denounced the party’s conduct as a “putsch,” an action for which he was expelled.

Correction at World Congress

This left Zetkin as the most prominent advocate of a united front course in the KPD and the International. At the April 7-8 meeting of the KPD’s Central Committee, she condemned the party’s Bureau for having abandoned the Open Letter and the alliance with Soviet Russia and for launching the party on a confrontation course that excluded the masses. “Party campaigns can prepare the road for mass action, can provide goals and leadership for them, but cannot replace them,” her proposed resolution stated.[16]

Yet Zetkin stood almost alone, surrounded by “a frigid wall of rejection, mistrust, and hostility” and branded as an “opportunist” and “renegade,” writes biographer Louise Dornemann. Zetkin “felt herself dreadfully alone, as never before in her life.”[17]

When the International met in congress in Moscow, in June, Zetkin found support. Lenin and Leon Trotsky launched a campaign to overturn the ultraleft “Theory of the Offensive” and won the International to a course similar to what Zetkin had advocated.

Meanwhile, the dispute among German Communists raged at the congress, with Zetkin leading the critics of the March Action. In her view, the party leaders had shown no sense of reality. “They treated … trends as already-existing facts,” she said. “Concentrating on what was conceivably possible, they overlooked what was real. They believed that a resolution concocted in a test tube … could master the situation and instantly reorient the party rank and file,” who were entirely unprepared.[18]

In a compromise decision, the congress adopted the essence of the political course that Zetkin had advocated. This outcome opened the door to the International’s adoption of the united front policy in December 1921. It enabled Zetkin to carry out two years of fruitful work as the International’s best-known non-Russian leader.

United front in practice

As the head of the Communist International’s work among women, Zetkin sought to imbue it with united front concepts. This work was never a high priority for party leaders, and women made up at best 10 per cent of the total membership. Still, the Communist Women’s International had its own publications and conferences both internationally and nationally, which reached far beyond the party membership. Zetkin “wanted to win not only women [industrial] workers, but women who were office employees, peasants, civil servants, intellectuals,” writes biographer Gilbert Badia. “She favoured appealing to Social Democratic women, setting aside invective in order to win a hearing.”[19]

In the mid-1920s, as the International was bureaucratized under Stalin, the Communist Women’s International was among the first victims. In 1925, Zetkin’s international women’s magazine was shut down as “too costly”; the next year, over strenuous objections by Zetkin and her colleagues, the women’s secretariat was dissolved and formation of further women’s organizations prohibited, amid warnings regarding “feminism” and “Social Democratic methods.”[20]

Zetkin also was among the central leaders of two organizations established to coordinate solidarity across borders: International Workers Aid, which provided humanitarian relief, and International Red Aid, which defended victims of political persecution. Established to help counter the famine in Russia in 1921, the Workers’ Aid soon had 200,000 people fully under its care; it then provided funds for industrial development equal to half what the Soviet government summoned up from its own resources. This vast effort rested on worker donations and also contributions from more affluent friends of Soviet Russia; even some banks were induced to provide loans.[21]

These efforts were organized on a non-partisan basis; sponsors included Anatole France and Albert Einstein.[22] But later, in the Stalin era, the non-partisan principle could not survive. Despite Zetkin’s vehement protests, these organizations were purged in the late 1920s, eliminating all critics of Stalin, including her closest collaborators.[23]

Zetkin was an exponent of the concept of a workers’ government, that is, a government based on the mass movement of working people and acting in their interests. This was an application of the united front that originated in Germany and became part of the political tool-chest of communists in Lenin’s time. I leave this topic for separate discussion.[24]

Unity with the peasants

The Bolsheviks’ agrarian policies, aimed at forging an alliance with small-scale, exploited farmers, had aroused objections from many Marxists elsewhere in Europe, including Rosa Luxemburg. Zetkin, however, in a November 1922 speech on the fifth anniversary of Soviet power, emphasized the Bolsheviks’ achievements in reaching out to the peasantry. In the following passage, she expresses a thought that I have not found elsewhere in world communist literature of the time.

“Among the Russian poor peasants,” Zetkin said, “there are old and deeply felt traditions of indigenous village communism that have not entirely died away. They have been sustained and reinforced by primitive religious feelings that view all property as ultimately from God, as God’s property.… And these beginning of communist understanding are systematically encouraged and promoted by the measures of the proletarian state.”[25]

This conception reaches back to ideas of Marx that were unknown in Zetkin’s time, and reaches forward to the positions of José Carlos Mariátegui of Peru and Marxists today regarding survivals of original communism among indigenous peoples.

Uniting creative producers

The dominant event in European politics in the 1920s was the rise of fascism, which triumphed in Italy in 1922, and was then gaining strength in Germany. Zetkin made an important contribution to Marxism’s understanding of this unprecedented phenomenon.

Zetkin believed that in these conditions of generalized social crisis, the workers’ united front must be extended far beyond the industrial proletariat. Her distinctive approach is indicated by a word used by her, and only by her, with reference to the forces that must be united: die Schaffenden, a German word combining the meaning of “producers” and “creators.” The Schaffenden, Zetkin says, are “all those whose labour, be it with hand or brain, increases the material and cultural heritage of humankind, without exploiting the labour of others.”[26] They include many who are not exploited wage labourers – whether fishers, artists, or physicians – but are nonetheless victims of capitalism whom the proletariat must strive to win.

Commenting on a strike by German civil servants working on the railways, she viewed it as symptomatic of disintegration in the German state. Communists should “develop their ties among all public employees – not just railwaymen and postal workers but teachers, judicial clerks, etc.”[27]

Addressing a united-front anti-fascist conference in 1923, Zetkin explained that “broad layers of petty bourgeois and intellectuals have lost the conditions of life of the pre-war period. They are not proletarianized but pauperized.” Their hopes in capitalist democracy have been betrayed; it no longer produces reforms. But the proletariat offers them a road forward, because “only revolutionary class struggle wins reforms.”[28]

The struggle against fascism

Zetkin’s concept of creative producers gives depth to her analysis of fascism. Unlike other forms of right-wing dictatorship, fascism is sustained “not by a narrow caste but by broad social layers, large masses that reach even into the proletariat,” she told a Comintern conference in 1923. “We cannot defeat them through military means alone.”[29]

She regarded fascism as “an expression of the decay and disintegration of the capitalist economy and a symptom of collapse of the bourgeois state.” In these social conditions, Zetkin continued, not only is the proletariat driven into poverty, but petty-bourgeois layers, peasants, and intellectuals are proletarianized.[30]

These layers “have lost faith not only in reformist [Social Democratic] leaders but in socialism itself.”

Fascism offers a “refuge for the politically homeless and socially uprooted, who are disillusioned and deprived of the basis for living.” Yet “the vital interests of these layers is in growing contradiction to the capitalist order,” as is also their “longing to rise to a higher cultural level.” Such “despairing layers need hope, a new world outlook,” which the proletariat can provide.[31]

These ideas were taken up by the International Provisional Committee Against Fascism, formed in 1923 with Zetkin and the French author Henri Barbusse as co-chairs.[32]

Zetkin in Stalin’s Comintern

This promising beginning was undone the following year when the Communist International and its KPD reverted to a more extreme version of the ultraleftism of the “Theory of the Offensive” period. Social Democracy was now seen as a “wing of German fascism,” or, in Stalin’s word, its “twin.” The term “united front” was still used, but it was now to be a “united front from below,” that is, no appeals to leaders of other political currents; instead, attempts to win rank-and-file workers to communist-led movements.

This reversal was dictated by the tactical needs of a bureaucratic faction that ruled in Moscow, in the first stage of a process that quickly led to the Communist International’s degeneration.

Except for a partial respite in 1926-27, Zetkin now became an oppositionist, expressing her most deeply held views only in private letters, closed meetings, and confidential memos.

The then-dominant left faction of the KPD was aligned with Comintern President Gregory Zinoviev, and in 1926 they followed him into the United Opposition, led by Zinoviev and Trotsky. Zetkin allowed her animosity to the German ultralefts to colour her assessment of this new opposition. She lined up with Nikolai Bukharin, then allied with Stalin, in a combination that was promoting bureaucratization of the International. Tragically, in 1927 she vocally supported measures to expel the United Opposition’s supporters.

Only two years later, Zetkin supported the current led by Bukharin, the so-called “Right Opposition,” in its rebellion against an ultraleft turn in Stalin’s policies. Bukharin’s tendency was defeated, and its supporters expelled or forced to recant. Zetkin alone remained at her post, never recanting her views, and proclaiming them when she could in letters, memos, and personal discussions. She made no secret of her scorn for Stalin, once writing of him, in the chauvinist idiom of the era, as “a schizophrenic woman wearing men’s pants.”[33]

During these tormented years, her health, never good, gave way. Circulatory problems increasingly impeded her walking. She suffered the after-effects of malaria, and in her last years she was almost blind.

She held to the hope that the Communist International could be reformed – as did Bukharin, Trotsky, and almost all Communist oppositionists at that time. She did not quit the official Communist movement. But she could not prevent Stalin from utilizing her enormous prestige for his own purposes.

On one occasion she managed to assert in print that she disagreed with the International’s line. Two of her closely argued critiques of Stalinist policy somehow reached independent socialist periodicals, which published them.

Zetkin’s greatest concern was the rise of German fascism. Faced with this threat, the Communist International retreated into sectarianism, branding the Social Democrats as fascist, rejecting a broad alliance against Hitlerism, and making no attempt to prepare concerted resistance. Zetkin favoured a united-front response, a position similar to that championed by Trotsky and the Left Opposition.

When the German parliament reconvened in 1932, it was Zetkin’s right, as its oldest member, to officially open the session. When she heard this, she exclaimed, “I’ll do it, dead or alive.” The Nazis vowed to kill her if she appeared. Now near death, she was carried in a chair to the speakers platform, to face an arrogant throng of uniformed Nazi deputies. Her voice, weak at first, grew in volume and passion,[34] expressing both her defiance and her insight into how the fascist menace could be defeated:

“The most important immediate task is the formation of a United Front of all workers in order to turn back fascism…. Before this compelling historical necessity, all inhibiting and dividing political, trade union, religious and ideological opinions must take a back seat.”[35]

Nonetheless, the German workers’ movement went down without making a stand. In the early months of 1933, the Nazis took power and crushed the Communist Party and the workers’ movement.

Clara Zetkin died in July that year. It was a time of defeat and demoralization. Had she lived a few years longer, she would have witnessed the Communist International turn sharply to the right, embracing alliance with bourgeois forces in defence of capitalism, while Stalin organized the murder of almost all her friends and colleagues then living in the Soviet Union.

What does Clara Zetkin say to us today? Let me suggest three points:

  1. Political conditions and class relations have changed enormously since Zetkin’s time. But her insistence on the need for unity in action on the road toward workers’ power remains valid.
  2. As a communist leader, Zetkin was distinguished by her attention and sensitivity to the moods of more backward and more privileged working people. A revolutionary party leadership should not consist solely of such leaders. On the other hand, such a leadership needs to encompass this outlook. Zetkin’s example illustrates the need for inclusivity and breadth in the leadership of a revolutionary party.
  3. Clara Zetkin was often wrong, sometimes tragically so. Yet she succeeded in contributing enormously to the struggle for human liberation in her time. She provides an example of what we, working together, can achieve in the coming decades.

Biographical Note:
Zetkin: A Life of Struggle for Socialism

Clara Zetkin was one of the most prominent leaders of the world movement for socialism from 1890 until her death in 1933.

Zetkin was born in 1859 in Saxony, when it was still one of several dozen German feudal principalities then in the earliest stages of industrialization. Trained as a teacher, in 1878 she joined the German socialist movement, later known as the SPD. The repressive policies of the newly established German empire forced her into exile in 1882. She returned in 1890 and joined her party’s publishing apparatus as editor of a woman’s rights magazine, Die Gleichheit (Equality).

Ten years later, Zetkin joined her close friend Rosa Luxemburg in opposing the “revisionist” policies of Eduard Bernstein, who had abandoned the goal of socialist revolution. She also led the struggle to win the Socialist International to a campaign for women’s personal freedom, political rights, and to equality on the job.

During the first years of the new century, Zetkin resisted the SPD leadership’s drift to the right and took part in the initial steps towards creation of a revolutionary opposition current. When war broke out in 1914, the SPD leaders betrayed socialist principles by committing the party to support of German government’s war effort. Zetkin was among the first party leaders to protest. In 1915, she convened a socialist women’s conference that was the first international gathering to reassert the principle of unity of working people across the battle lines.

Zetkin joined Luxemburg during the war in launching the Spartacus League, the revolutionary current that founded the German Communist Party in January 1919. Gleichheit was reborn under her editorship as Kommunistin (Communist Woman). She served as an elected deputy in Germany’s parliament from 1920 until her death. From 1921, she supported the wing of the German party most committed to the united front policy. She was a prominent leader of resistance to international fascism.

Zetkin headed the Communist Women’s International from 1921 until its dissolution in 1926. During this period, and until her death, she worked primarily in Moscow as part of the Communist International’s apparatus. She carried out major responsibilities in international efforts to defend workers from political repression.

In 1928, Joseph Stalin imposed an ultraleft policy on the International, rejecting the united front approach. Zetkin strongly opposed this turn. Defeated but unrepentant, she continued her work in the International until her death near Moscow in 1933.

This article is based on a talk presented by John Riddell in June 2009 in Chicago. It was first published in the November-December 2009 issue of International Socialist Review.



[1] Lenin, whom Russian communists often called “the old man,” was born 13 years after Zetkin.

[2]. See John Riddell, ed., Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International (New York: Monad Press, 1984) 276-79.

[3] Riddell, Lenin’s Struggle 172.

[4] Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917-1923 (London: Merlin Press, 2006) 468-69; Arnold Reisberg, An den Quellen der Einheitsfrontpolitik (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1971) 50-51.

[5] Reisberg 51-53.

[6] Reisberg 53-62, 65-67.

[7] Sigrid Koch-Baumgarten, Aufstand der Avantgarde: Die Märzaktion der KPD 1921(Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 1986) 99-101.

[8] The winning of women’s suffrage had been one of the gains of the German revolution of 1918; only then was Zetkin eligible to stand for election.

[9] Reisberg 71. Zetkin’s statement recalls a passage in the “Communist Manifesto”: “The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1984) 502-503.

[10] Koch-Baumgarten 81. Lenin, “ ‘Kommunismus,’ ” in Collected Works vol. 31 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1960-71) 165-67.

[11] Broué 473.

[12] Reisberg, 97; Koch-Baumgarten, 87.

[13] Zetkin, “Die Lehren des deutschen Eisenbahnerstriks,” in Kommunistische Internationale 20 (1922), 1.

[14] Quoted by Trotsky in Protokoll des III Weltkongresses der Kommuinistischen Internationale (Hamburg: Verlag der Kommunistischen Internationale, 1921) 274.

[15] The complex story of the Italian split and its impact on German Communists is well told by Broué 474-90.

[16] Reisberg 125.

[17] Luise Dornemann, Clara Zetkin: Leben und Wirken (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1973) 423.

[18] Protokoll des III Weltkongresses 601.

[19] Gilbert Badia, Clara Zetkin, féministe sans frontières (Paris: Les Éditions Ouvrières, 1993) 256.

[20] Badia 257; Bernhard Beyerlein, “Zwischen Internationale und Gulag. Präliminarien zur Geschichte der internationalen kommunistischen Frauenbewegung(1919-1945). Teil 1.” in The International Newsletter of Communist Studies Online, vol. 12 (2006), no. 19, 38-42.

[21] Protokoll des Vierten Kongresses der Kommuinistischen Internationale (Hamburg: Verlag der Kommunistischen Internationale, 1923) 550, 555

[22] Badia 265

[23] Badia 267.

[24] See Zetkin, “Die Arbeiterregierung,” Die Kommunistische Fraueninternationale 9-10 (1922): 651-57; English translation at

[25] Protokoll des Vierten Kongresses 250.

[26] From a speech to the German Reichstag (parliament), March 7, 1923, published that year by the KPD and quoted in Tânia Puschnerat, Clara Zetkin: Bürgerlichkeit und Marxismus (Essen: Klartext Verlag, 2003) 346.

[27] Zetkin, “Die Lehren des deutschen Eisenbahnerstriks,” in Kommunistische Internationale 20 (1920) 8.

[28] Zetkin, “Kampf gegen den internationalen Faschismus,” in Internationale Presse-Korrespondenz 52 (1923) 418.

[29] Protokoll der Konferenz der erweiterten Executive der Kommunistischen Internationale Moscau 12-23. Juni 1923 (Hamburg: Verlag Carl Hoym, 1923) 205.

[30] Protokoll der Konferenz 205-209.

[31] Protokoll der Konferenz 222.

[32] Puschnerat 283

[33] Puschnerat 374.

[34] Badia 302-303.

[35] Philip S. Foner, ed., Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings (New York: International Publishers, 1984) 174.

  1. Bruce Robinson permalink

    My translation of Zetkin’s article on the workers’ government (note 24) can be found at:

    • Thank you, Bruce, for this very helpful reference to the English text of Zetkin’s workers’ government article, which I have integrated into the article. John Riddell

    • Thanks for posting this. It clarified a lot of the ambiguous formulations presented in the resolution, at least for me.

  2. I enjoy reading things by and about lesser-known leaders of the socialist movement. Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg are important but often we neglect studying the ideas and actions of the Paul Levis, Karl Radeks, Nikolai Bukharins, John Reeds, and many other “lesser” leaders who were independent-minded and made significant contributions to the movement.

    An interesting thing to note is that the Russian Bolshevik party had a roughly similar proportion of women members (according to Rabinowitch in his book, “Bolsheviks In Power”) as did the German communist party, roughly 10% or so.

    One thing I noticed was what appears to be a gap of some sort in the closing paragraphs: “Had she lived five years longer [paragraph ends abruptly here] That would make it 1938. Didn’t the right turn occur a bit earlier, in 1934-35? , she would have witnessed the Communist International turn sharply to the right, embracing alliance with bourgeois forces in defence of capitalism, while Stalin organized the murder of almost all her friends and colleagues then living in the Soviet Union.” Maybe I’m just reading it wrong? It seems like something is missing.

    Zetkin’s role in the German party was outstanding. This comes through both in Broue’s account of her role in the German revolution and just by reading her conversation with Lenin about work among women ( She holds her own in her exchange with him and it’s clear he views her as his equal. It seems she was the go-between between Lenin and freshly expelled Levi. That exchange also gives us a sense of how warm and comradely Lenin was on a personal level.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: