Skip to content

Clara Zetkin in the lion’s den

January 12, 2014

Workers’ unity and feminism at a Comintern congress

By John Riddell. In 1921, when the Communist International (Comintern) held its Third World Congress, Clara Zetkin was the most widely respected Communist outside Russia. Yet she was the victim of vigorous efforts on the eve of the congress to vilify her and drive her out of the Comintern leadership, if not from the movement. Nonetheless, she ranks, together with Lenin and Trotsky, among the dominant intellectual figures at the congress.

Let us survey Zetkin’s role in the great ideological struggle at the Third Congress and then link it to her involvement in the movement for women’s emancipation.

Clara Zetkin

Clara Zetkin

Zetkin had won a wide reputation as the main leader of the international socialist women’s movement before 1914. She then became one of the most effective advocates of socialist internationalism during the war. She had helped to form the German Communist party and was among its most prominent leaders.

In early 1921, however, Zetkin’s party had taken a sharp turn to ultraleftism. This was expressed above all in a failed attempt at general strike – the “March Action” – which the party conducted alone, without significant support outside its ranks. The most outspoken opponent of this adventure, Paul Levi, was expelled from the party in April, with the agreement of the Comintern leadership. Zetkin strongly opposed the party’s ultraleft course and defended Levi. For this she was censured and would have been expelled, party leader Paul Frölich later told Lenin, except for objections from Moscow.1

A wall of rejection

Zetkin was isolated in her party, surrounded by what her biographer Louise Dornemann calls “a frigid wall of rejection, mistrust, and hostility,” branded as an “opportunist” and “renegade.” Zetkin “felt herself dreadfully alone, as never before in her life.”2

Zetkin’s opponents organized to prevent her from influencing the World Congress, which was to convene in Moscow in June. Béla Kun, leader of the Comintern’s ultraleft wing, whom the Comintern had sent to Germany to help reorient the party there, wrote Lenin on May 6, 1921, warning him against Zetkin. “Levi and Zetkin are utter hysterics, and what they are saying in the German party right now consists of nothing but lying gossip,” he stated. Hysteria was then considered a chiefly female mental disorder, marked by faking symptoms of illness to achieve personal advantage. Kun continued: “As for the statements of the aged comrade Zetkin … Despite all my sentimental feelings toward the old fighter … the old woman is suffering from senile dementia. She provides a living proof that Lafargue and his wife acted entirely correctly.” Kun was referring to Marx’s daughter, the socialist leader Laura Lafargue and her husband, Paul. On reaching Zetkin’s age, Laura Lafargue had taken her life, convinced she had nothing further to offer the movement.3

Three weeks later, the German delegation to the World Congress sent Lenin a collective warning:

“There is absolutely no objective foundation for the consideration that is being given here to the person of Clara Zetkin in deciding the tactical and organisational issues linked to the March Action.”

“Any concession to the person of Comrade Clara Zetkin would severely damage the capacity for action and discipline of the Communist movement in Germany.” The Executive and the Russian delegation must “not show any sentimental consideration for the person of Clara Zetkin.”4

Sneak attack

The German party leaders delivered another attack on Zetkin at the Comintern women’s conference held just before the world congress, mobilizing Alexandra Kollontai and some other women leaders, with the aim of ousting Zetkin from her post as head of the Communist Women’s Movement. We have an account from Lenin, as related by Zetkin:

“Yesterday, at the women’s conference, you [Zetkin] were subjected to nothing less than a well-organised attack on you as the embodiment of the worst type of opportunism. And this was led by our good [Ernst] Reuter, who thus participated, for the first time as far as I know, in Communist work among women. That was simply stupid, quite stupid. Imagine: he thought he could rescue the theory of the offensive by launching a sneak attack on you at the women’s conference.”

Lenin then recounted how the “sneak attack” was prepared, Zetkin reported, making sarcastic remarks about “…great men busying themselves with backdoor and petty female politics.”5

“Petty female politics”: The belittlement of women through such turns of phrase was then deeply embedded in language. Thus Zetkin, in an article honouring Lenin, did not hesitate to attribute these words to him. In a similar vein, when Kollontai spoke out against Bolshevik policies in Russia, Leon Trotsky sarcastically called her an “Amazon”; Karl Radek termed her a “Valkyrie.” Elsewhere, Radek told the delegates, “[W]e are not hysterical women but men.” One of Zetkin’s supporters, the Polish Communist Adolf Warszawski, protesting the persistent attacks on her, caused an uproar by saying, “[Y]oung men sometimes behave like old women, and the only man in the German delegation is Comrade Zetkin.”6

Zetkin was not swayed by such talk. Later in the congress, she told her male comrades, “Thank heavens, we are not your ape-like imitators, not failed, inferior copies of you. We inject our distinctive intellectual and moral values, in both revolutionary struggle and revolutionary construction.”7

Zetkin’s discussion with Lenin helped win the leading Russian Communists to support her critique of the disastrous “March Action” launched by Béla Kun and her party.

Leaders of the German delegation reacted strongly. Reuter, later the Cold War mayor of West Berlin, called for Zetkin to be expelled unless she recanted. Fritz Heckert blamed her for mobilizing the congress against the German party. Reuter’s biographer tells us that the the German delegation was embittered by Russian comrades’ rejection, adding:

“They placed the blame for this above all on the influence of Clara Zetkin over Lenin. She had reported to Lenin in detail about every aspect of the [March Action].”8


But the congress rejected Reuter’s and Heckert’s arguments. In the end, Heckert was prevailed upon to deliver a glowing tribute to Zetkin, along with a bouquet of roses, in a an extraordinary celebration by the congress of her sixty-fourth birthday.

Zetkin did indeed present the congress with an indictment of the party leadership’s actions in a series of brilliant speeches, delivered in the teeth of aggressive heckling. She opposed confrontational assaults by a small vanguard and insisted on the need for Communists to win the broad masses of workers. That, in the end, became the dominant theme of the congress as a whole. Its decisions were a compromise, avoiding open condemnation of the German party leaders’ conduct. But the congress adopted the strategic outlook counterposed by Zetkin and Paul Levi to the errors of the March Action and championed at the Moscow gathering by Lenin and Trotsky, taking decisions that opened the road to adoption of the united front policy six months later. (See “Clara Zetkin’s Struggle for the United Front”)

Winning ‘middle layers’

But Zetkin’s views on winning the masses to revolution went further than the congress decisions. Indeed, a close look at her statements suggest that she may well have been influenced by her experiences in the Communist Women’s Movement.

Take her proposed resolution on the March Action to her party’s Central Committee meeting on April 7, 1921. It stated:

“The Communist Party needs to maintain very close contact with the broad masses of proletarians and … integrate into the struggle the most advanced forces from the middle layers between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Decaying capitalism deprives these layers of security in the essentials and purpose of life. As a result, they come into increasing conflict with the bourgeois state.”9

This notion, distinctive in Zetkin’s strategic thinking, is rarely seen in other Communist statements of the time. She insists on the need to win middle layers outside the proletariat and pinpoints their grievances as lying not just in a lack of economic security but in a loss of ‘the purpose of life’. Could this concept be related to Zetkin’s experiences in work among women?

In 1921 Zetkin was head of the Comintern’s newly formed secretariat for work among women, which had been asked to organize an international structure of committees on the national, regional, and local level. This structure was called, informally, the Communist Women’s Movement; its journal bore the proud title, Communist Women’s International. (See, “The Communist Women’s Movement [1921–26]”)

The early Communist International’s work among women was directed by an outstanding array of women leaders, the Comintern’s most resilient international team, most of whom later opposed the rise of Stalinism. These women have now been almost forgotten – “absented,” as some say – except for Clara Zetkin, who is remembered mainly for her work in an earlier period. Zetkin’s role in the Comintern is well documented in its Fourth Congress, which is now published,10 as well as the Third Congress, which will go to the printer later this year.

Zetkin’s ideas on the importance of women’s role were far from universally accepted in the Communist movement. Even in the Comintern, Zetkin wrote in 1921, “leaders all too often underrate the importance” of the Communist women’s movement, because “they see it as only ‘women’s business.’”11

Is there a special ‘women’s question’?

In addressing the Comintern, she tries to get around the prejudices of a sceptical milieu. Thus her Third Congress resolution on women states:

“It is a basic postulate of revolutionary Marxism that there is no ‘special women’s question’. For working women to join together with capitalist feminism weakens the struggle of the proletariat.”12

Zetkin, like other Marxists of her time, used the word “feminism” only for the bourgeois wing of the movement. In this talk, I will use it with its current meaning: feminism is the struggle for women’s liberation and against sexism. And if the word is understood in that sense, the Communist Women’s Movement was indeed a large and effective international component of feminism, until it was sidelined by the rise of Stalinism.

Is there really, as Zetkin’s resolution suggests, “no special women’s question”? In the resolution just quoted, five sentences further down, she writes: “Women are doubly oppressed, by capitalism and by their dependency in family life.” In a congress speech, she spoke of the dilemma facing bourgeois women who enter the job market. They must compete for the jobs with men. And, “as long as capitalism rules, the stronger sex will threaten to deprive the weaker of livelihood and the means of life.”13 That is unmistakably a reference to women’s special oppression.

Indeed, Zetkin wrote about three different forms of capitalist servitude – exploitation, alienation, and oppression – an approach far from universal among Marxists even today. Consistent with this view, she held that Communists should appeal to all women of all classes. 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.”14 Zetkin spoke in this vein to the Fourth Comintern congress in 1922:

“Thus female employees, especially intellectuals such as teachers and office workers of various types, are growing rebellious….  [M]ore and more housewives, including bourgeois housewives, are awakening to a recognition that present conditions – the continued existence of capitalism – are incompatible with their most basic interests in life. Comrades, brothers and sisters, we have to utilise the ferment.”15

In this spirit, when Zetkin assessed non-proletarian women’s rights gatherings, she highlighted points of agreement that could be utilized for common action.

Working class: an inclusive approach

Zetkin’s inclusive approach is reflected in her descriptions of the working class. Here is a short passage – a found poem – in an article from Communist Women’s International, which she edited:

“Those who reap the crops and bake the bread are hungry.

Those who weave and sew cannot clothe their bodies.

Those who create the nourishing foundation of all culture waste away, deprived of knowledge and beauty.”16

To my ear, what she says is influenced by a feminist vantage point. In the same spirit, Zetkin and others of her team often use a distinctive term to describe working people: die Schaffenden – a word whose German meaning combines “produce” and “create.”17

Zetkin applied this approach to the task of building broad unity against fascism, for which she was the reporter at a 1923 Comintern conference. Addressing a united-front anti-fascist conference that year, 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.”18

Marxism and feminism

There is a common theme in these statements: Zetkin is charting a path along which the revolutionary proletariat can win social hegemony, leading a broad coalition of workers, farmers, women, and all victims of capitalist alienation, exploitation, and oppression. In German Communist movement at that time, she is the figure who argues for this approach most clearly and strongly – in a more rounded way than Paul Levi, for example.

It seems likely that her vision on this point was related to her combined engagement with Marxism and what we today call feminism. For Zetkin, support of women’s emancipation is inherent in Marxism. But her texts suggest that her engagement with feminism informs and expands her Marxism, leading to an inclusive approach, a deep understanding of oppression and alienation and of alliances with the oppressed.

Despite Zetkin’s rejection of “feminism” as a bourgeois notion, an analysis of her work suggests no support for the notion of Marxism as the stern father and feminism the wayward daughter. Some feminist thought is wrong-headed and retrograde, to be sure, but that is true of Marxism as well. However much one may prioritize Marxism as the principle framework for revolutionary thought, one must approach feminism in learning mode.

Marxism will be tested by its ability to link up with and learn from feminism. Moreover, this relationship is not unique. The goal of Marxism must be to join with and learn from every school of non-Marxist revolutionary thought and action. This, it seems to me, is the deeper lesson of Zetkin’s thought during the Comintern’s early years.

This working paper was presented to the Historical Materialism conference in London, November 8, 2013. All the Third-Congress related quotations in this article will be included in the first English-language edition of its proceedings, To the Masses, edited by John Riddell, to be published in 2014 by Brill for Historical Materialism Book Series. The 1,300-page edition will include 35 appendices publishing related source material, mostly previously unavailable unpublished in English.

Related articles on this website:


1. Ruth Stoljarowa and Peter Schmalfuss, eds. 1990, Briefe Deutscher an Lenin 1917–1923, pp. 236–7.

2. Louise Dornemann, Clara Zetkin: Lebin und Wirken, Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1973, p. 423.

3. Babichenko, L.G., Ia.S. Drabkin, and K.K. Shirinia 1998, Komintern i ideia mirovoi revoliutsii, Moscow: Nauka, pp. 266–9.

4. Stoljarova and Schmalfuss 1990, pp. 264–6.

5. Zetkin 1985, Erinnerungen an Lenin, Berlin: Dietz Verlag, pp. 39-40. An English translation exists (Reminiscences of Lenin, New York: International Publishers, 1934), but it omits this passage.

6. Comintern 1921, Protokoll des III. Kongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale, Hamburg: Verlag der Kommunistischen Internationale, pp. 785, 520, and 220.

7. Ibid., p. 922.

8. Comintern 1921, pp. 306, 542; Brandt, Willi and Richard Lowenthal 1957, Ernst Reuter, ein Leben für die Freiheit, Munich: Kindler, p. 169.

9. Sowjet: Kommunistische Zeitschrift, 3, no. 1, pp. 4–9.

10. John Riddell, ed. 2012, Toward the United Front, Chicago: Haymarket.

11. Kommunistische Fraueninternationale (KFI), 1, no. 2–3 (1921), p. 55.

12. Alan Adler, ed. 1980, Theses, Resolutions, and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, London: Ink Links, p. 152

13. Comintern 1922, III Vsemirnyy congress Kommunistischeskogo Internationala, Petersburg, 1922, p. 912.

14. Gilbert Badia 1993, Clara Zetkin, féministe sans frontières, Paris : Éditions ouvrières, p. 256.

15. Riddell 2012, p. 847.

16. KFI, vol. 2 (1922), no. 5–6, p. 519.

17. Zetkin stated the meaning of die Schaffenden to be: “All those whose labour, be it with hand or brain, increase the material and cultural heritage of humankind, without exploiting the labour of others.” (From a speech to the German Reichstag (parliament), March 7, 1923, published that year by the KPD and quoted in Tânia Puschnerat 2003, Clara Zetkin: Bürgerlichkeit und Marxismus, Essen: Klartext Verlag, p. 346.) It should be noted that the concept of the Schaffenden was also used, for a different purpose, by some reformist opponents of Communism.

18. Clara Zetkin, “Kampf gegen den internationalen Faschismus,” in Internationale Presse-Korrespondenz, no. 52 (1923), p. 418.

  1. Jara Handala permalink

    “[. . .] the old woman is suffering from senile dementia. She provides a living proof that Lafargue and his wife acted entirely correctly [in committing suicide].” (Kun in Lugosi mode in letter to Lenin, my additions in square brackets; he was 35 at the time, she was 63)

    “J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI went after Martin Luther King, tried to discredit him – indeed, even sent him a note suggesting that because of his activities with other women besides his wife, he now had no option but to commit suicide.” (John Raines, co-burglar of Philly FBI office that revealed COINTELPRO – just over halfway down the transcript)

    As the wit has it, you couldn’t make it up.

    Another pair of remarks:

    Kun championed a disastrous ultra-leftism at the time, but didn’t simply survive politically he flourished, remaining at the top of the Comintern for almost 20 years, even as it twisted & turned.

    “The problem was, J. Edgar Hoover was untouchable.” (John Raines)–outlawsdiary00tormuoft.png

  2. Peter Rachleff permalink

    I’m pleased to see Clara Zetkin being rescued from the dustbin of history, but I think a more complete engagement with the Third Congress is necessary to understand her treatment: the context of the suppression (led by both Lenin and Trotsky) of the Kronstadt uprising; the expulsion of Pannekoek and Gorter and the publication of Lenin’s screed, LEFT WING COMMUNISM: AN INFANTILE DISORDER; Gorter’s thorough-going respoinse, RESPONSE TO LENIN; and Claude McKay’s request (denied) that the Comintern make the struggle against racism central to its agenda. These events, struggles, documents, all contributed to the political climate in which Zetkin was marginalized.

    • Thanks for your response, Peter. You suggest that we pay more attention to the ideas of Pannekoek, Gorter, and the Left Communists. These are familiar issues, but you will be glad to know that their views are presented cogently and at great length — and responded to — in the course of the Third Congress itself, whose proceedings I am publishing later this year. Perhaps you will review the book?

      I am not sure what you are referring to regarding Claude McKay. I assume you mean his participation in the Fourth Congress in 1922. This is documented in my book on the congress, Toward the United Front. If that is the case, could you explain your point with reference to the record?

  3. Lindsey German permalink

    Your article is, as ever, informative and fascinating about the treatment of Clara Zetkin at the Third Congress of the Comintern, and about her determination to fight against the ultra left folly of the March Action. Zetkin was a principled Marxist all her life, courageous enough to be one of a handful from German Social Democracy who opposed imperialist war in 1914, and a committed campaigner against women’s oppression. I agree too that her work over decades in organising women would clearly have informed her general politics. She understood that there had to be special ways of organising women, whether they were part of the SPD and later KPD, or whether they were more distant from organised socialist politics, but who nonetheless faced issues of oppression of exploitation which they could organise round.

    However, I felt that the concluding part of your piece ignored Zetkin’s important contribution to debate on socialism and feminism. You quote her as saying ‘for working women to join together with capitalist feminism weakens the struggle of the proletariat’, but say she only used this word to describe the bourgeois wing of the movement. Her term Frauenrechtlerinnen wasn’t just applied to bourgeois feminists, however; she engaged in polemics with a wide range of what today would be called feminists, and was extremely critical of any strategy which ignored the question of class and which claimed there was a common interest of women across all classes.

    That is why she wrote ‘What the Women Owe to Karl Marx’ in Die Gleichheit in 1903 to mark the 20th anniversary of his death, when she described historical materialism as bursting ‘like so many scintillating soap bubbles’ the idea of sisterhood between women of all classes. Or, a few years later, ‘Therefore, our Socialist women oppose strongly the bourgeois women righters’ credo that the women of all classes must gather into an unpolitical, neutral movement striving exclusively for women’s rights. In theory and practice they maintain the conviction that the class antagonisms are much more powerful, effective and decisive than the social antagonisms between the sexes, and that thus the working-class women will never win their full emancipation in a struggle of all women without difference of class against the social monopolies of the male sex, but only in the class-war of all the exploited, without difference of sex, against all who exploit, without difference of sex. That does not mean at all that they undervalue the importance of the political emancipation of the female sex. On the contrary, they employ much more energy than the German women-righters to conquer the suffrage. But the vote is, according to their views, not the last word and term of their aspirations, but only a weapon—a means in struggle for a revolutionary aim—the Socialistic order.’
    Clara Zetkin, Justice, 9th October 1909, p. 7.

    The term feminist has very different connotations today, and many feminists are opposed to many aspects of capitalism and some to capitalism per se. It would be wrong both theoretically and practically for socialists to create barriers to working with feminists, or to pretend that they somehow have the interests of the bourgeoisie at heart, or to say that we can’t learn from them. There is no doubt that 1960s feminism put major issues on the political agenda which have still not been resolved and with which socialists and feminists still grapple.

    But there are many different feminisms. Can we deny that bourgeois feminism still exists, and that its spokeswomen have been, as Hester Eisenstein says, seduced by capitalism and imperialism, and that it is bitterly opposed to socialism and genuine women’s liberation? What about the women who talk about glass ceilings but ignore their sisters (and brothers) who are seeing the floor give way beneath them? There are plenty of women in finance, media, the legal system and politics whose commitment to feminism is about more people like them in high places. Isn’t the relationship between class and oppression is central, even if we don’t always agree on definitions or solutions? I agree that when Zetkin says that there is ‘no special women’s question’ she isn’t denying oppression but she surely is saying that the fate of women’s liberation is inextricably linked with that of socialism.

  4. Hi John,

    Thanks for writing this concise piece. I read you material regularly.

    A group of us read this article with great interest last weekend. I searched in vain to find the quote attributed to Lenin by Zetkin. I could not find it in the English translation on the MIA or Google books, however I could not locate the 1985 Deitz Verlag edition online.

    Would it be possible to direct me to it?



    • The only English translation I know is “Reminiscences of Lenin”, New York: International Publishers, 1934. It follows the German text very closely but omits the quotation you are asking about. (In the hardcopy edition, see pp. 25-26.)

      In the German text that I referenced, see pp. 39-40. I can scan that for you if you wish.

      Thanks for bringing this anomaly to my attention. I edited the footnote accordingly.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: