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Reading Zetkin in context

February 6, 2014

Thanks to Lindsey German for her constructive comment, Clara Zetkin: oppression, class, and socialism. She has provided useful documentation of Zetkin’s views on socialism and feminism from the years before World War 1.

Reading these quotations, it seems to me that some of Zetkin’s opinions can be better understood as a description of conditions at the time of writing rather than as an instruction valid for all times.

Summarizing Zetkin’s view, German says, “[S]he surely is saying that the fate of women’s liberation is inextricably linked with that of socialism.” That is certainly a good distillation of Zetkin’s core beliefs and also the position of all Marxists.

Elsewhere, German says that Zetkin “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.” Certainly she is right that the question of class must not be ignored. As for her denial of a “common interest of women across all classes,” however, that is a more complex question.

Women’s universal oppression

German affirms the existence of women’s oppression. She will therefore also agree, I believe, that this oppression bears down on all women, and in this respect they have a “common interest.” Of course, this oppression weighs most heavily on working-class, poor, and racialized women, while for highly privileged women it is commonly outweighed by capitalist class privilege. But sexism is endemic in the ruling class as well as elsewhere in capitalist society, and highly privileged women are not exempt from its effects.

Zetkin believed that communists could find common ground with some privileged women in opposing women’s oppression. In my article, Clara Zetkin in the Lion’s Den (to which Lindsey was replying), I quoted two of her statements on this theme from 1921. “Women are doubly oppressed, by capitalism and by their dependency in family life,” she wrote. In a congress speech, she spoke of the dilemma facing privileged 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.”

Reaching out to middle layers

Zetkin’s writings of 1921 show a consistent emphasis toward reaching out to “middle layers” between the capitalist and working classes. If this concept is not so prominent in her pre-1914 writings, that may be because objective conditions were different then.

Before 1914, the majority of German working-class forces were united in a political party and allied trade unions that were committed to the goal of revolutionary socialism. Rightist forces in these movements pulled in a different direction, but Zetkin and her comrades still hoped this conservative tendency could be overcome. Efforts for women’s liberation, in that period, were sharply polarized between forces within the workers’ movement and those in the counterposed “bourgeois” world. Conditions for socialist revolution seemed ripe, and most women in the working-class movement sought liberation along that path.

After 1914, however, the main Social Democratic and trade union leaderships entered in alliance with the capitalists to block socialism. In Russia, women won a historic victory through socialist revolution, very much in the manner that Zetkin had advocated. Elsewhere, however, the working-class upsurge was defeated and capitalism regained its footing. Women won gains there too, although not on the same scale as in Russia. These included (in many countries) the right to vote, won largely through their own efforts.

Women and the united front

Revolutionary (Communist) forces were now supported by only a minority of workers. The majority were on a middle ground: even if privileged and highly skilled, they were still part of the working-class, but their political parties and unions were tied to capitalism. In 1921, Communists in Germany began to reach out to workers in these pro-capitalist movements, seeking to win them to a common struggle around immediate demands – what soon became known as the “united front policy.” Zetkin did the same in the arena of work among women, while also helping to drive forward the united-front process as a whole.

The statements by Zetkin in 1921 that I quoted reflect this effort to win forces in the middle layers between the communist vanguard and the capitalist class.

By the time that I became a Marxist, in the late 1950s, the situation was transformed once again. In the Stalin era, the official Communist movement had abandoned the goals of socialist revolution and women’s liberation alike. In the 1960s, here in Canada in many other countries, a militant and powerful women’s liberation movement took shape, but it could not count on the support of any powerful working-class or socialist forces.

In these conditions, very different from the pre-1914 period, the women’s movement had no alternative but to stand on its own. Its separateness signified, above all, independence in action from the ruling class and its servants. The movement won significant gains and dealt heavy blows to sexism.

Some Marxists at that time insisted that only a proletarian women’s movement was worthy of support. But this, in fact, was merely an excuse for abstention from the struggle.

Today, the shape of the women’s liberation movement has changed profoundly once again.

Throughout this entire varied evolution, some principles asserted by Zetkin hold true in all conditions. This is true of her commitment to the interlocked goals of women’s liberation and socialism, evident in everything she wrote. But when she writes about the dichotomy between working-class and bourgeois women’s struggles and of the futility of a separate struggle for women’s rights, this should be understood in the context of the time in which she wrote.

  1. John, I am unconvinced by your positions on both Zetkin’s views and the issue of “context”.

    On Zetkin’s views, it seems to me that while she shifted some of her specific views over time, what she did across her political life was to try to understand how different oppressions and injustices were shaped by the central dynamics of capitalist society using the same general approach.

    Take her celebrated 1896 speech, “Only in Conjunction With the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism Be Victorious” ( Here she doesn’t write off the oppression of ruling class or middle class women; rather, she tries to show how common oppression of women (as women) plays out differently for women of different classes. We may find her formulations a little blunt today, and we may not agree with her reliance on Engels and Morgan’s more problematic formulations, but she is grappling with a serious issue of how the totality of capitalist social relations affects legal, political and social aspects of oppression. As Marx made clear in “On The Jewish Question”, the issue for revolutionaries is always how to go beyond mere political emancipation to social emancipation, and in this speech Zetkin seems to me to be critical of upper and middle class feminist outlooks precisely because they cannot resolve the social question.

    The other delight on re-reading her speech is to discover how she historicises the emergence of “the woman question” as a separate question only under capitalism — not that oppression didn’t exist in pre-capitalist societies, but that the structure of capitalist society is the first place that a real (to use the modern term) “feminist” politics is able to emerge. Grasping both what a massive step forward this is and its limits within what Marx called “the narrow horizon of bourgeois right” strikes me as a central message of hers, one that is not at all undercut by her later (Comintern-era) concern with winning over “middle layers”. This is all consistent with the description of Lenin’s approach that Lise Vogel outlines in her Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Exploiting the tension between capitalism’s ability to deliver formal equality while denying substantive equality, a system that also fails to deliver on formal equality because of the substantive (social) injustice built into its functioning as a whole. That is, the social interests of “middle layers” cannot be fully addressed within the limits of formal bourgeois equality and so revolutionaries can win them over by creatively linking workers’ struggles for social emancipation with those of other subaltern sections of civil society. When she says, “We have no special tasks for the agitation among women,” she doesn’t invalidate her insights on oppression from earlier in her speech but, instead, recognises that the task for socialists is not simply to agree with basic political equality but to always and everywhere argue for a social solution to oppression. Part of that process is a struggle within the party and among women to win people to social emancipation.

    On the issue of context, I don’t think context shifts Zetkin’s overall approach but serves to provide concrete political issues to which she applies a generally consistent method. In 1896 she is concerned with specific debates on “the woman question” inside an SPD that is already much less revolutionary than you imply, while in the post-WWI era she is concerned to steer the KPD and Comintern in a sensible direction on issues like dealing with the pull of reformist institutions on radicalising layers of the working class and other oppressed groups. Even when she (famously) grapples with the thorny controversy of the “workers’ government” ( you can see her suspicion towards attempts to reduce social struggles to the level of the (merely) bourgeois-political.

    In terms of the context of the Second Wave movements of the 1960s and after, I think you are absolutely correct to point to the inconsistent or sometimes dire politics of the Stalinist movement on issues of oppression (although in countries like the USA one could argue that if Stalinism hadn’t been so smashed up by McCarthyism the situation on the radical Left would’ve been better, because at least the Communists maintained some residue of a better politics). However, while it may be true in some places that the women’s movement “had no alternative but to stand on its own”, this was not the case in most Western countries with Marxist currents. Rather, the tendency was more that the specific form of women’s movement that sprung up in that era (a product of and reaction to the specific historical changes in women’s lives during the long boom) was tailed by many Marxists who were not as clear as Zetkin on the issues I have broached, leading to later bust-ups and fragmentation under the pressure of politics that pointed away from forces that could deliver social emancipation. To argue this is not a matter of seeing “abstention” as the correct method, but of always fighting for social solutions to oppression within existing movements.

    You go on to write that the women’s movement possessed “independence in action from the ruling class and its servants”, a decidedly odd characterisation of a global movement that was generally dominated by currents that saw the limits of emancipation in legal and political terms, even if they framed those demands in a radical way. This is not to devalue the big gains these movements won, but they rarely went beyond that “narrow horizon” — stopping well short of overturning the oppressive social relations that underpin bourgeois inequalities. Even if there was formal separation from ruling class personages, there was dramatically less independence from the logic of capitalist politics, and this (in my view) helps to explain why many radical activists were so easily co-opted into much more limited feminist projects in the neoliberal era.

    I think that Zetkin’s consistent approach, clearly based in Marx’s own approach to politics, can be of great help in navigating the challenges posed by new struggles today — and assist us in posing anti-capitalist solutions to help those struggles go beyond what the system will allow.

    —Tad Tietze

  2. Anne McShane permalink

    I think this is a really interesting debate and like Tad I think that it is the emancipatory aspect of Marxism that influenced Zetkin rather a marrying of the strands of Marxism and feminism. However it must be said that the movement around women’s oppression found reflection in a number of ways within the socialist movement and the setting up of a separate women’s section in the SPD, campaigned for and won by Zetkin along wither editorship of the section’s paper Gleichheit. She was a profound influence on Alexandra Kollontai who fought for separate organisation and finally succeeded (sort of) with the creation of the Zhenotdel. I am studying the role of the Zhenotdel and Kollontai’s ideas at the moment for a PhD in that area and know a lot more about Kollontai than I do Zetkin but there is no doubt that the separate section formed in both the SPD and then the Russian party in 1919 were contradictory and deserve attention.

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