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Clara Zetkin: Years of stubborn resistance, 1928–33

April 20, 2019

Zetkin’s defense of the United Front, Part 2

See also Part 1, “Honored but Silenced,” 1924–28. Appended to this text is a portion of Zetkin’s historic speech to the German Reichstag on August 30, 1932, which presents a final summary of her views on workers’ unity against fascism. The text that follows first appeared in Clara Zetkin, Fighting Fascism: How to Struggle and How to Win, ed. Mike Taber and John Riddell, Haymarket Books, 2017.


Clara Zetkin

By John Riddell: Following Stalin’s expulsion of Zetkin’s co-thinkers in the German Communist Party (KPD) in 1928, the internal dispute in the Russian Communist leadership escalated toward Joseph Stalin’s open break with Nikolai Bukharin several months later. Bukharin’s faction was crushed; Bukharin and other leading “right oppositionists” capitulated, admitting their supposed errors. Expelled supporters of Bukharin in Germany organized a new movement, which took the name Communist Party of Germany (Opposition), or KPD(O).

Privately, Zetkin wrote bitterly of the Comintern’s transformation into a mechanism that “sucks in Russian-language directives on one side and shoots them out, translated into various languages, on the other.”[1] Yet she still believed that Communists must work to reform the International, as did her friends in the KPD(O) and also the now-exiled Leon Trotsky and his comrades in the International Left Opposition.

For Zetkin, loyalty to this perspective and to the Soviet Union demanded that she remain in the International, even at the cost of keeping silent on crucial issues. Stalin, for his part, although threatened by Zetkin’s continued defiance, evidently considered the risks flowing from her membership less than those that might follow if she were expelled.

Bukharin 2

Nikolai Bukharin, 1920

Between October 1929 and March 1930, Zetkin composed a comprehensive memorandum on the crisis in the KPD addressed to the ECCI.[2] Assessing the German party’s erroneous political line, she diagnosed it as a symptom of a more general crisis of the Comintern as a whole. As in the December 1928 ECCI plenum, she compared the party’s ultraleft stance with the notorious “theory of the offensive” that some central ECCI leaders had briefly and disastrously embraced in 1921.[3] Breaking the grip of that error had been the great achievement of the Comintern’s Third Congress (1921). Won through the efforts of Lenin, Trotsky, and Zetkin herself, this victory opened the door to the united-front policy adopted by the Comintern later that year.

Zetkin’s memorandum condemned the destructive role of the Soviet party, which no longer “leads” but merely “dictates” to the International. And for the first and only time, she challenged the Stalin leadership’s policies within the Soviet Union by demanding “extensive documentary material” on developments in the Soviet party and state. Comintern member parties, she said, had the “duty and right to consult on the problems of the Soviet Union in fraternal solidarity with the Russian party.”

Expressions of dissent

Zetkin complained to her son Maxim of the severe censorship and frequent suppression suffered by her writings. Even her name could no longer be mentioned, she said. And yet, by one means or another, her ideas managed to reach a wider audience.

In 1929, after many delays, her Reminiscences of Lenin was published in German. This pamphlet contained a detailed account of her collaboration with Lenin in the Third Congress over issues fundamental to united-front policy.[4]


Paul Frölich

Zetkin received visits from leaders of the KPD(O) such as Paul Frölich, with whom she agreed on the united front, trade-union unity, the need for internal party democracy, and the need to reform the Comintern. The KPD(O) published four of Zetkin’s private oppositional statements, without eliciting any protest from her.[5] She corresponded with old friends now hostile to the KPD, such as Georg Ledebour. She wrote an obituary of Margarete Wengels, a comrade from wartime revolutionary struggles who later returned to the SPD, which was published in a non-KPD workers’ paper.[6]

While praising the Soviet Union’s achievements, Zetkin did not join in the customary adulation of the Soviet dictator.[7] She expressed her contempt for the Soviet ruler in a private note intended for Bukharin in Moscow, advising him not to let himself be pushed around by Stalin, whom she referred to, using the gendered language of that era, as a “mentally deranged woman who wears men’s pants.”[8]

In 1929, the Russian émigré and SPD press published rumors regarding Zetkin’s supposed persecution by Communist authorities in Moscow. The KPD’s central newspaper, Die Rote Fahne, twice broke its silence regarding Zetkin by publishing her denials of these reports. Her second statement ended in a fashion surely disconcerting to her editors: “As is generally known, my outlook on both tactics and fundamentals stands opposed to the opinion of the ECCI’s majority.”[9]

Although aware of the Comintern’s degeneration, Zetkin maneuvered cautiously and skillfully to maintain her status as a tolerated dissident. In her 1929–30 memorandum, she pledged, “I will break party discipline three times, four times, if it serves the interests of revolution.” But when, in 1931, Stalin assailed the memory of Rosa Luxemburg, for example, Zetkin’s protests of this insult to her longtime friend and comrade circulated only in private letters.[10]

“My greatest affliction,” she told a friend at the time, “is to answer the question: Where does the truth lie? What are my responsibilities to the proletarian revolution? Should I speak out or remain silent?” She paid the price of maintaining her Communist Party membership, which was to speak only a fraction of what she believed.[11]

Seizing an opportunity

Zetkin continued to present aspects of her 1923 analysis of fascism publicly when possible—in a criticism of KPD policy sent to party leader Wilhelm Pieck in March 1932, for example, and in published greetings to an antifascist conference in June.[12] In greeting the KPD’s 1931 campaign for freedom of choice on abortion, she made a public appeal for unity with women in the SPD.[13]

In August 1932, Zetkin seized a chance to speak publicly to a national audience on the need for united action against fascism. To do so she had leave some things unsaid, such as spelling out the need to approach the SPD on the need for a united struggle against fascism. Passages from her text stressing the magnitude of the task the party faced in rousing the masses were deleted from her final text. Nonetheless, confident that she could express the essence of her thinking, she eagerly grasped the opportunity.

The circumstances of the speech were dramatic.

The global depression that broke out in 1929 had hit Germany hard. With its workers’ parties consumed by fratricidal struggle, Hitler’s National Socialists—in eclipse since 1923—quickly grew to be Germany’s largest party. The Nazi vote rose from 2.6% (1928) to 18.3% (1930) and 37.4% (1932). In the July 1932 vote, Zetkin was re-elected to the Reichstag, having been a member since 1920. Seventy-four years old, she was the oldest member of Germany’s parliament and as such had the right to formally open its first session.

The Nazi press bristled with vile threats against her as a “Communist Jew,” a “slut” (Goebbels), and a “traitor.” The KPD received a Nazi threat to assault her on the floor of the Reichstag. But when her party’s Central Committee asked whether she could open the Reichstag session, she responded with characteristic defiance, “I’ll get there, dead or alive.” Driven incognito into Berlin, she slipped into a safe house. Her biographer Gilbert Badia describes the ensuing drama at the Reichstag as follows:

“Clara Zetkin was very weak, subject to fainting fits, and almost blind. On August 30, before a Reichstag crammed with Nazi deputies in SA and SS uniforms, two Communist deputies helped the old woman to mount the speakers’ platform. She spoke at first with a barely audible voice, but little by little her voice strengthened and grew passionate.”[14]

The final part of her talk reasserted the essence of her long-suppressed opinion on the urgency to forge unity against fascism.

Zetkin’s August 30, 1932, speech in the German Reichstag (excerpt)

Zetkin’s courageous call for antifascist action, made in Germany’s parliament less than a year before her death, stands as a fitting tribute to her lifetime of revolutionary struggle and to her legacy as a beacon for future generations.—JR

Our most urgent task today is to form a united front of all working people in order to turn back fascism. All the differences that divide and shackle us—whether founded on political, trade-union, religious, or ideological outlooks—must give way before this imperious historical necessity.

All those who are menaced, all those who suffer, all those who desire freedom must join the united front against fascism and its representatives in government. Working people must assert themselves against fascism. That is the urgent and indispensable precondition for a united front against economic crisis, imperialist war and its causes, and the capitalist mode of production. The revolt of millions of laboring men and women in Germany against hunger, deprivation, fascist murder, and imperialist war expresses the imperishable destiny of producers the world over.

This destiny, shared among us around the world, must find expression through forging an iron-like community of struggle of all working people in every sphere ruled by capitalism. It must also unite them with their vanguard, the liberated brothers and sisters in the Soviet Union. Strikes and uprisings in various countries abroad are blazing fires showing those in struggle in Germany that they are not alone.

Everywhere the disinherited and the defeated are beginning to advance toward taking power. Millions of women in Germany are still subjected to the chains of sexual slavery and thereby also to the most oppressive form of class slavery. They must not be absent from the united front of working people now taking shape in Germany.

The youth who want to blossom and mature must fight in the very front ranks. Today they face only the prospect of corpse-like military obedience and exploitation in the ranks of obligatory labor service. All those who produce through intellectual labor, whose skill and will augment social well-being and culture but can find no expression in the existing bourgeois order—they too belong in the united front.

The united front must embrace all those who are dependent on wages or salaries or otherwise must pay tribute to capitalism, for it is they who both sustain capitalism and are its victims.

I am opening this session of the Reichstag in fulfillment of my duty as honorary chair and in the hope that despite my present infirmities I may yet have the good fortune to open, as honorary chair, the first congress of workers’ councils of a Soviet Germany.[15]

Other texts on Clara Zetkin on this website


[1]. Tânia Puschnerat, Clara Zetkin: Bürgerlichkeit und Marxismus (Essen: Klartext, 2003), p. 370.

[2]. Puschnerat, pp. 370–72, 377, 380.

[3]. The “theory of the offensive” was advanced by majority leaders in the KPD following the adventurist “March Action” of 1921 to justify their policies in launching that action and to propose that such policies continue. The theory called on Communists to radicalize their slogans and initiate minority actions that could sweep the hesitant workers into action.

[4]. Zetkin’s record of her discussions with Lenin on the Third Congress is included in To the Masses, pp. 1137–48. The entire text of Zetkin’s Reminiscences of Lenin can be found on Marxists Internet Archive.

[5]. Puschnerat, p. 381.

[6]. Puschnerat, p. 378.

[7]. One exception has been noted. In 1932 Zetkin assented to her editor’s insertion into a message of greetings she had written of a reference to Stalin as an “outstanding and brilliant leader.” See Puschnerat, p. 384.

[8]. Gilbert Badia, Clara Zetkin, féministe sans frontières (Paris: Les Éditions ouvrières, 1993), p. 288–89, Puschnerat p. 374.

[9]. Puschnerat, p. 376.

[10]. Zetkin had defended Luxemburg at the March 1926 ECCI plenum against similar attacks made in the German party. Her speech was published in the record of the plenum.

[11]. Puschnerat, p. 377; Badia, pp. 282, 290.

[12]. Badia, pp. 300–301.

[13]. Badia, p. 264.

[14]. Badia, pp. 302–3.

[15]. Translated from For the entire text of Zetkin’s Reichstag speech, see Mike Jones and Ben Lewis, ed., Clara Zetkin: Letters and Writings (London: Merlin Press, 2015), pp. 169–73, or Philip S. Foner, ed., Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings (New York: International Publishers, 1984), pp. 170–75.

  1. robertmcmaster0955 permalink

    In the 1930s Soviet intelligence officers serving in the west were in turn ordered to Moscow. Mostly, they went knowing thier fate. Amazing.

    Zetkin did not meet this standard. She waffled. Given her age and vulnerability accomodation with the regime is be understandable. At least she resisted. Think of the nameless Trotsyists in distant camps.

    There is one thing a disciplined comrade might do in such a cirumstance which is to SAY NOTHING. If you are obliged by the regime sign on to whatever do so.. But people will know. Assume you are infiltrated and monitored. Zetkin must have known this. Muddied the waters some.

    She should have used her resources to get out. And then raised her voice. That would have been a good thing.

    • Well said, Robert. It’s interesting to compare Zetkin’s statements with those by Trotsky. Until 1933, Trotsky believed it possible to reverse the degeneration of the Soviet CP within existing structures. Only in Zetkin’s last year did Trotsky call for a political revolution. Until 1933, they both shared a belief in the regenerative powers of the Soviet system at that time that is denied by a large segment of Anglo-American Marxists today.

      I think a case can be made that Zetkin never shared Trotsky’s conviction that the degeneration in the Soviet Union was systemic. (There’s an interesting essay on this by Marcel Bois, so far available in German only.)

      When you say “she should have used her resources to get out,” we must take note of her extreme isolation. Even so, she did make the painful and dangerous trip to Germany and succeeded in speaking out, just before her death. Other than that, regarding Stalin and the Stalin cult, she said nothing in public. In my opinion, in a context of universal compulsory adulation, hers was an eloquent silence.


      • robertmcmaster0955 permalink

        I believe Zetkin should best be remembered when she was at the height of her powers and influence. Even revolutionaries get old, infirm, lose their fire. And unfortunately, sympathizers of Trotsky and other oppositionists were very slow to understand the Stalinist coup. Bunny rabbits frozen in the road. Not realizing the danger they were in they talked too much and did little. But talking imperiled those spoken to. Still, few by then retained the discipline of the underground. Zetkin fought as long and as well as she could. Too bad she didn’t take the train to Geneva. Released from bondage, she would have been an inspiration.

  2. geoff1954 permalink

    John, as you know Trotsky followed events in Germany very closely. Yet I see no references by him to Zetkin in either “The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany” nor in his writings in 1932 (the year of the Zetkin speech you shared above). Do you have any thoughts on why that is the case?

    • I too tried without success to find a comment on Zetkin by Trotsky. The next step, I think, is to consider Trotsky’s attitude to the “Right Opposition” originally led in Russia by Bukharin with which Zetkin was loosely associated. There are several articles on Brandler in the Trotsky Writings series, which are easy to find on Google. Trotsky and Brandler had important areas of partial agreement, including on the relationship of united front policy to resistance to fascism. But Trotsky’s comments on Brandler do not suggest that this agreement was reflected in any practical collaboration on this issue in Germany.

  3. Marty Boyers permalink

    I think it is interesting that Trotsky, who wrote so much on German fascism, never cited Zetkin. Btw, I found the most eye-opening part of your new “Clara Zetkin: Fighting Fascism” book to be the March 1923 Frankfort Conference, held just a half year after the Fourth Congress of the Comintern, in which the CI had a very unsatisfactory discussion of Mussolini’s semi-coup. To be fair to the Comintern, the congress met a few weeks after the event, which was a very new development.

    Part of the reason that Trotsky did not praise Clara Zetkin is that she was (quietly) aligned with Bukharin and the right wing of the CPSU. After the defeat of the right wing, she kept whatever criticisms of Stalin she had secret. She did die in 1933, before the bloodthirst of Stalin reached the heights of the Moscow trials and mass murder of communists (and so many others).

    But there is another question. The united front was, of course, an extremely important tactic to develop in resisting the rise of fascism. But, as Zetkin related in her 1923 report to the CI Executive Committee, fascism rose as a movement in reaction to the failure of the Communist Party to lead the working masses to power. This was true both in Italy and in Germany. To use the example of Russia, it was not enough to shatter Kornilov’s army. If the Bolsheviks had not successfully led an insurrection, such as the one in October, a new Kornilov would have appeared, and perhaps won.

    Am I too sectarian in thinking Zetkin’s 1932 Reichstag speech presented well the first half of this approach — the united front, but did not present as well the second half — the path to workers’ and farmers’ power? Maybe, but maybe not.

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