Tony Cliff


Clara Zetkin and the German
Socialist Feminist Movement

(Summer 1981)

From International Socialism 2:13, Summer 1981, pp. 29–72. [1]
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Alienation is the core of capitalism. Under this system people treat each other not as ends in themselves, but as mere means; not as people, but as objects. This also applies to sexual relations both in the bourgeois and in the proletarian family. But from the fact that women of all classes are alienated one should not draw the conclusion that they all react in the same way to this alienation. On the contrary, in the final analysis the proletarian woman is spurred on by it to revolution, the bourgeois to reaction. As Marx put it in The Holy Family (1845):

The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-alienation. But the former class finds in this self-alienation its confirmation and its good, its own power ... The class of the proletariat feels annihilated in its self-alienation; it sees in it its own powerlessness and the reality of an inhuman existence ... Within this antithesis the private owner is therefore the conservative side, the proletarian, the destructive side. From the former arises the reaction of preserving the antithesis, from the latter side that of annihilating it. [2]

Newspapers, pamphlets and books usually speak about the women’s movement, using the singular. Three centuries of history, however, show that at no time has there been one movement. There always coexisted two separate movements with a more or less sharp struggle between them, quite often a deadly one: the movement of the leisured ladies of the bourgeoisie, and the movement of working class women. Again and again history shows us that the working women’s movement grew and developed through a struggle against bourgeois feminists. The sharpness of the clashes depended on the general development of the class struggle.

In the French Revolution of 1789–1794 we have a group of bourgeois feminists led by the Girondine Théroigne de Mericourt, the royalist Olympe de Gouges, and Etta Palm, another Girondine who glamorised her name by declaring herself the ‘Baronne’ D’Aelde. [3] On the other hand we have the women sans culottes’ club – the Citoyennes Républicaines Révolutionnaires led by the chocolate worker Pauline Leon and the actress Claire Lacomb. The plebeian women played a crucial role in forcing the king on 5 and 6 October to move from Versailles to Paris, in overthrowing the Gironde, and in the persecution and exposure of counted revolutionaries during the Red Terror. Their club was of great significance, and it was on the extreme wing of the revolutionaries – the Enragé.

Between the two camps of women a river of blood flowed. Olympe de Gouges, being a Royalist, perished at the guillotine. Théroigne de Mérincourt, who was a Girondine, was beaten savagely by a group of working women in the spring of 1793, and this seems to have made her permanently insane. Etta Palm, the ‘Barrone’ who was a right wing Girondine, had the good sense to leave France before the government could arrest her.

The same cleavage, widened even more, separated working class and bourgeois women at the time of the Paris Commune. Working class women played a crucial and heroic role in the Commune. ‘If the French nation were composed only of French women, what a terrible nation it would be!’ wrote the correspondent of The Times on 19 May 1871. [4]

But as Rosa Luxemburg stated: ‘When the heroic Commune of workers was crushed by machine guns, the wild-raving women of the bourgeoisie exceeded even their bestial men in their bloody vengeance on the stricken proletariat.’ [5] ‘One sees,’ said the liberal-conservative newspaper Siècle of 30 May 1871, ‘elegant ladies insult the prisoners on their passage, and even strike them with their sunshades.’ And at the centenary of the Commune a historian could generalise: ‘According to reports the elegantly dressed ladies were the most violent, especially against their own sex.’ [6]

But despite all the heroism of the working class women, when it came to establishing and sustaining a socialist women’s movement the French were bankrupt. In 1914, when the French Socialist Party (SFIO) had over 90,000 members, its female membership stood at less than 1,000. There were a number of reasons for this. First, trade union organisation, which has always been the foundation for recruiting working women into the political, socialist movement, was extremely weak: ‘In France, where union membership was weak among men and women only 2 per cent of all working women belonged to a union in 1906. (About 7 per cent of the entire labour force was unionised in 1911).’ [7] Secondly, the French unions continued to hold an extreme anti-feminist stance (‘Women should not take men’s jobs, they should stay at home’); and this was long after the German unions had decisively overturned this stand and even the British had knocked it back. Thirdly, the strong Republican tradition that dominated all radical parties in France, including the Socialist party (or parties), saw women as malleable clay in the hands of the Catholic priests, hence opposed feminism, including women’s suffrage. [8]

The story of the British working class women’s movement is different to that of France, but its successes were also very limited indeed.

In Britain the number of trade unionists was larger than Germany (the figures for 1914 were 3,708,5000 and 2,904,750), and the number of women in the unions was practically twice as large (400,000 in Britain, 210,314 in the German Free Trade Unions). With this mass base there was a good opening for recruiting women to the socialist cause.

However in Britain, like France in reverse, workers were very well organised economically, but the political, socialist organisations were extremely weak.

The ‘Marxists’ were organised overwhelmingly in the sectarian Social Democratic Federation. This party, and especially its leaders, were extreme anti-feminists (and racists). Thus, for instance, Belfort Bax opposed women’s suffrage on the ground that this would open the door to Negro suffrage!

The socialists who were pro-feminist were by and large the ILP, a party that was very soft, was for co-operation with the Liberals, and hence was even more for co-operation between working women and Liberal women. And, where working women rub shoulders with grand ladies, it is obvious who will influence whom.

The result was that while some of the feminist working women, led by Sylvia Pankhurst, Charlotte Despard, etc., collaborated for a long time with bourgeois feminists, the larger section of working class women in the trade unions simply had no truck with the socialist women’s organisations.

It was as late as January 1914 that Sylvia Pankhurst broke completely with the mass bourgeois feminist organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union. Other women’s leaders in the trade unions (notably Emma Paterson and Mary MacArthur), if indifferent to bourgeois feminists in the WSPU, did collaborate with the lady philanthropists who played a big role in establishing the Women’s Provident Trade Union League, later renamed Women’s Trade Union League. The result was that the strongest socialist women’s organisation – that of Sylvia Pankhurst – had no more than a couple of hundred members. [9] And this was the outcome of the magnificent suffrage movement which in 1896 had 90,000 women members in the cotton unions in Lancashire!

Because Sylvia Pankhurst and her associates were so tardy in cutting the cords tying them to the general feminist movement, they missed the most important chapter in working women’s struggle – that of the period of syndicalism, 1910–14: 160,000 textile workers, women and men, were locked out. Thousands upon thousands of women in the confectionery industry in Bermondsey went on strike, 15,000 women turned up to a demonstration, and 4,000 of them joined the National Federation of Women Workers in one week. The result: out of 20 employers in confectionery, 18 capitulated. How little did Sylvia Pankhurst make out of these grand events! [10]

Despite the radical differences between the socialist women’s leaderships in France and England, they had a couple of common characteristics. Firstly in both cases the socialist women had very weak links with male socialists. And secondly they collaborated with bourgeois feminists, and were quite often completely assimilated into them.

The German socialist women’s movement, however, was of a completely different mould. While in Britain it was the trade unions that finally, after existing for generations, established the Labour Party, in Germany the Socialist Party preceded the unions and was central in building them. Surviving twelve years of illegality, or semi-illegality under the Anti-Socialist Law (1878–1890), and then working under the most restrictive constitutional conditions of Wilhelmine Germany, the German Social Democratic Party, the SPD, was in quite sharp opposition to the economic, social and political order. The women workers’ movement was completely integrated into the general socialist movement. It carried out both trade union tasks – organised women into trade unions – and political tasks. It was also involved in a very wide area of cultural and educational activity. It was completely inimical to bourgeois feminism. As a result the SPD did not shirk the woman question. It grasped it enthusiastically both on the theoretical plane and in practice.

Clara Zetkin

Clara Eissner was born on 15 July 1857 in a small village in Saxony, the eldest child of a local schoolteacher. At the time Saxony was the most highly industrialised part of Germany – less than a third of the population of the state was engaged in agriculture. Saxony was in the van of the socialist movement. It was at its capital Leipzig, that Ferdinand Lassalle in 1863 founded his party – the General German Workers’ Association. It was also in Leipzig that August Bebel in the same year founded his Workers’ Educational Society, which was joined a couple of years later by Wilhelm Liebknecht. In the 1870s the Party achieved greater successes in this state than in other states of the Reich. When the Lassalleans and Eisenachers (followers of Bebel and Liebknecht) were united in 1875 into the German Socialist Workers’ Party, the new party chose Leipzig as the city where its central organ Vorwärts was to be published.

Saxony served as a cradle not only of the organised German workers’ movement, but of the organised feminist movement as well. It was also the most suitable region for organising women in the trade unions, and in the socialist movement. The predominant industry was textiles, and this employed many women.

From the late 1860s on women were drawn increasingly into the ranks of the working class movement. In 1869 the Federation of (Saxon) Textile Workers was founded on the basis of membership open to both sexes and within two years one-sixth of its nearly 7,000 members were women. Not only were women given an equal vote with men on all issues, but they were eligible for election to every official position in the union. [11]

At the age of 21 Clara Eissner turned socialist after being influenced for a time by the headmistress of her school Auguste Schmidt, a prominent bourgeois feminist. Clara started being active with the German Socialist Workers’ Party. Decisive for her development as a socialist was her acquaintance with Ossip Zetkin, a Russian émigré Marxist. On 21 October 1878, less than six months after she had first started attending socialist meetings, these meetings as well as the party press were banned under Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Law. Clara then became involved in the illegal activities of the party.

In September 1880 Ossip Zetkin and a number of his closest associates were arrested. He was expelled from Germany as an undesirable alien. Since Clara and Ossip had by this time become attached to each other, she decided several months later to leave Germany also. Thus began for her ten years of exile.

She spent the first year and a half of exile in Austria where she was employed as a private tutor in the home of a wealthy factory owner. Then, in the spring of 1882 she moved to Zurich. Many prominent Party leaders lived in this city, and the Party’s central organ Sozialdemokrat was edited there. The city served as the centre of operations for the smuggling of illegal literature into Germany, and Clara gave a hand to this work.

In November 1882 she moved to Paris to join Ossip Zetkin. She lived with him, and for convenience began using the name Clara Zetkin although not legally married to him. She bore two sons, Maxim and Konstantin in 1883 and 1885.

Both Clara and Ossip Zetkin were deeply involved in the activities of the French, German and Russian socialist movements. In addition they belonged to an international socialist group, Cercle Internationale, which met weekly to discuss questions of Marxist theory and to plan action. Here the Zetkins came into contact not only with Russian, German and French socialists, but with socialists from Spain, Italy, Austria and Britain as well. It was in this period that Clara Zetkin gained her vast knowledge of the international labour movement, as well as her proficiency in a number of languages.

In January 1889 Ossip Zetkin died, a blow which struck Clara very heavily.

In the same year, in September 1889, she spoke to the founding congress of the Second International on the organisation of working women. From then onwards, for a period of 25 years, she held the most prominent position in the German and international socialist women’s movement.

Zetkin on the need to fight bourgeois feminism

In 1898 Clara Zetkin published a pamphlet called The Question of Women’s Work and Women at the Present Time. It was a most important publication, laying down the guidelines for the future policy of Social Democracy. The same ideas, in even more developed form, were advanced by Zetkin in 1896, in a speech to the Gotha Congress of the SPD. A motion was then passed that her speech be printed by the party as a pamphlet. It was called Only With the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism be Victorious.

In very clear terms Zetkin defines the class nature of the working class women’s movement and the abyss separating it from bourgeois feminism:

There is no such thing as a ‘woman’s movement’ in and of itself ... (A) women’s movement only exists within the context of historical development and ... there is therefore only a bourgeois and a proletarian women’s movement, which have nothing more in common than does Social Democracy with bourgeois society.

By working for wages outside her home, the working woman advances her independence, but this is the condition for freedom, not the achievement of it:

The woman of the proletariat has achieved her economic independence but neither as a person nor as a woman or wife does she have the possibility of living a full life as an individual. For her work as wife and mother she gets only the crumbs that are dropped from the table by capitalist production.

Consequently, the liberation struggle of the proletarian woman cannot be – as it is for the bourgeois woman, a struggle against the men of their own class. She does not need to struggle, as against the men of her own class, to tear down the barriers erected to limit her free competition ... The end goal of her struggle is not free competition with men, but bringing about the political rule of the proletariat. Hand in hand with the men of her own class, the proletarian woman fights against capitalist society.

Bourgeois feminism concentrated on the demand for ‘women’s suffrage’ (or for restricted women’s suffrage). But even if women were granted political equality, nothing would be changed in the actual relations of power. The proletarian woman would go into the camp of the proletariat, the bourgeois woman into the camp of the bourgeoisie.

Zetkin argued that, unlike the bourgeois feminists, socialist women should not confine themselves to the demand for the vote, but should fight for the right to work, equal pay, paid maternity leave, free child-care facilities, and education for women.

She was contemptuous of the bourgeois feminists, and repeatedly, in hundreds of speeches and articles, she scorned the label ‘feminist’. She translated it into ‘Frauenrechtlerinnen’ – in a clumsy English translation, ‘women’s rightists’. [12]

Socialist women, Zetkin goes on to say, are members of the larger socialist camp.

We have no special women’s agitation to carry on, but rather socialist agitation among women. It is not women’s petty interests of the moment that we should put in the foreground; our task must be to enrol the modern proletarian woman in the class struggle. We have no separate tasks for agitation among women. Insofar as there are reforms to be accomplished on behalf of women within present-day society, they are already demanded in the Minimum Programme of our Party ... Women’s activity must link up with all the questions that are of pressing importance for the general movement of the proletariat. The main task, surely is to arouse class consciousness among women and involve them in the class struggle.

Zetkin ended her speech with the following words:

Women’s activity is difficult. It is laborious, it demands great devotion and great sacrifice. But this sacrifice will be rewarded and must be made. For, just as the proletariat can achieve its emancipation only if it fights together without distinction of nationality or distinction of occupation, so also it can achieve its emancipation, only if it holds together without distinction of sex. [13]

The same theme is repeated again and again by Zetkin in the following years and decades. ‘Gleichheit proceeds from the conviction that the final cause for the thousand year old inferior social position of the female sex is not to be sought in the statutory legislation (made by men) but rather in the property relations determined by economic conditions.’ [14] And again, ‘For Social Democracy there is no “woman question”, no struggle of comrade against comrade, rather only the struggle of class against class’. [15]

Capitalism unites and divides workers

The development of capitalism leads increasingly to the unity and cohesion of the working class. Alas, the same development creates divisions – between workers of ruling nations and those of oppressed nations, between men workers and women workers.

The oppression of women under capitalism, especially through the present structure of the family, which reproduces labour power for the system, means that women are in low-paid, unskilled jobs less well organised, more peripheral to the system.

The task of a revolutionary socialist party is to locate those points where working women are righting collectively against the double burden of exploitation and oppression, and generalise those struggles. This demands the overcoming of the divisions capitalism creates between men and women of the proletariat.

A revolutionary party which has to lead must be deeply rooted in the vanguard section of the proletariat, and therefore certainly cannot afford to have its women members separated from the strongest sections of the class, isolated in the weaker part of the class.

This argument applies today to black workers as much as women. This is the same argument that Lenin developed against the Jewish socialist organisation, the Bund. He argued that the oppression of the Russian Jews produced an ‘estrangement’ encouraging Jewish workers to organise separately against Russian racialism. Should Marxists support separate organisation, so that Jewish workers could play their own separate role in the revolution?

‘This estrangement is a very great evil,’ Lenin writes, ‘and a very great obstacle in the struggle against Tsarism, and we must not legalise this evil or sanctify this shameful state of affairs by establishing the “principle” of the separateness of parties or a “federation” of parties.’ [16]

For the Bund, race took priority over class – even though its leadership claimed to be Marxist. Jewish workers were the exclusive property of the Bund. The perfectly reasonable demand of Jews to defend themselves had passed over into a demand for a separate Jewish revolutionary organisation, which would then enter into a revolutionary federation with non-Jewish workers as a separate entity – as if Jewish workers were a separate class from Russian workers. Lenin replied:

We must act as a single and centralised fighting organisation, we must have behind us the whole of the proletariat, without distinction of language or nationality ... we must not set up organisations that would march separately, each along its own track, we must not weaken our offensive by breaking up into a number of independent political parties, we must not breed estrangement and isolation, and then have to cure, with the aid of these famous ‘federation’ plasters, an artificially injected disease. [17]

If Jewish workers needed a separate political organisation to that of gentiles, and if women workers needed a separate political organisation to that of men, what organisation should a Jewish woman worker have joined? Or should the proletarian party be so fragmented into multi-coloured and separate entities as to make it completely ineffectual? [18]

What was clear to Zetkin (as to Luxemburg, Lenin and others), was that it was necessary to break the Chinese wall between oppression and exploitation by fighting against both. Working women are not working men in drag, but workers who have two sets of chains to break. Their success depends on the unity of all workers, who have to break their chains together if they are to break them for good.

The ‘sister-enemies’

To understand the development of the German socialist women workers’ movement under Zetkin’s leadership, one must understand on the one side its adversary – the bourgeois feminists – and on the other, the challenge of the Socialist Party of Germany. The SPD very much shaped the German women’s movement.

The non-socialist women’s movement in Germany straddled a wide spectrum – from extreme right to radical left, the latter practically bordering on the Revisionist wing of the German Social Democratic Party.

Thus in 1904 a League for the Protection of Motherhood and Sexual Reforms (‘Bund fur Mutterschutz und Sexualreform’) was founded. It was very radical. ‘As far as the Civil Code was concerned, the New Moralists wanted the legal equality of man and wife within marriage and also in their legal relations to the children of the marriage. They wanted easier divorce. They wanted the legal recognition of “free marriages” to the extent that police interference – not unusual in such cases – would not take place, and that the children of such “free marriages” should be subject to the same legal conditions with regard to their parents’ power over then, and given the same legal rights as the children of legal marriages.’ [19]

They campaigned to encourage people to use contraceptives. They also campaigned for the repeal of Section 218 of the Criminal Code which stipulated that a pregnant woman who deliberately aborted her child was to be imprisoned for a period of between 6 months and 5 years (applied even in the case of rape). It was on this subject that the League made its influence most strongly felt within the women’s movement:

... for a time at least the Female Suffrage Union, pushed to the left by the logic of the German political situation was, in its support for universal suffrage and in its political stance on other issues, more radical than women’s suffrage organisations in other countries, including Britain and America. The New Moralists also represented something more radical than the feminism of the Anglo-Saxon world. They extended the feminist demand for individual self-determination to the personal sphere. They rejected the sexually repressive aspects of liberal individualism ... What Helene Stocker was saying and doing in her campaign was not of course unique; Victoria Woodhull and Annie Besant, Margaret Sanger and Marie Slopes campaigned for similar aims. What was unique was the fact that Stocker’s programme enjoyed the broad support of the radical feminist movement. The exponents of free love and of contraception were generally ostracised by the feminist movement in England and America; even Josephine Butler had been treated by them with obloquy and distrust. Helene Stocker and the movement she led were by contrast part of the feminist movement in Germany. [20]

The militant non-socialist feminists were also engaged in trade union activities, competing with the SPD women. They organised sales clerks and domestic servants. In 1889 they founded the ‘Kaufmännischer Hilfsverein fur weibliche Angestellte’, whose membership over the next ten years rose to 11,000. (The Free Unions Organisation for sales clerks as late as 1908 had only 3,807 men and 4,997 women.) [21]

These radical feminists published a special paper for working women, Deutsche Arbeiterinnenzeitung (The German Working Women’s Paper).

The social base of this trend of feminism was the petty bourgeoisie – teachers and white collar workers who at that time were very distant from the manual working class. In these classic petty bourgeois occupations the sex war – economic competition – mixed in with anti-semitism raged; as exemplified in the Alliance of German (male) Clerks (‘Verband Deutscher Handlungsgehilfen’). Similar sex conflicts among teachers led to the existence of separate and hostile unions for men and women, with the men doing their best to prevent women entering the profession, and even more strenuously trying to prevent them gaining higher status. The 32,000 female teachers organised in the women’s union were the backbone of Cauer’s group, its leadership being made up almost entirely of teachers.

They also held conferences for the interests of working women in 1904 and 1907. (They invited the SPD and the Free Trade Unions to send delegates.) The German radical feminists showed a much more serious attitude to working women than, say, Spare Rib exhibits at the present time. Their language was often almost indistinguishable from that of the socialists. Thus, for instance Minna Cauer wrote on 15 November 1913: ‘Only with the mass of working women can we some day fight the battle, only together with them, with the masses of employed and working women will women receive the vote ...’ However, lacking a base in the working class, the class united as a collective by its economic-social situation, the radical feminists split again and again.

Between 1910 and 1914 a series of disastrous quarrels wrecked the League. One leading member accused another of sleeping with one of her main supporters on the League’s Committee; the accused retaliated by accusing the accuser of doing the same. ‘The seven lawsuits that resulted from these accusations brought the whole affair out into the open and kept it there for four years, during which time the German public was treated to the unsavoury spectacle of the leading members of the Mutterschutz League accusing each other in court and in print of sexual promiscuity. This was not only extremely damaging to the League; it also made it clear that the League’s leaders had not been able to free themselves from the conventional sexual morality which they spent so much of their time in denouncing. This above all else made it impossible any longer to take the League seriously.’ [22]

Lacking a working class axis the petty bourgeois women’s movement fragmented into tiny pieces. It never managed to build a real organisation. All its roots were extremely unstable. Its structurelessness led to arbitrariness, tyranny and extreme tensions in personal relations in the groups. These in their turn led to apathy and demoralisation.

To keep clear of the most radical feminists like Minna Cauer – and Zetkin was most anxious to oppose her – was not an easy task, as these radicals spoke quite persuasive ‘social’ language and even initiated campaigns that in themselves really were radical.

Take the 1895 campaign for the abolition of the Law of Association that banned women from joining political organisations in the majority of Germany. A petition was drafted by the radical feminists Minna Cauer and Lily von Gizycki, together with a member of the SPD, Adele Gerhard, calling for an end to the Law of Association. The SPD central organ, Vorwärts, published the Petition together with a statement of support, recommending Party Members to sign. Zetkin for her part also reprinted the petition in Gleichheit but accompanied it with a warning in bold type: ‘We decidedly advise every class conscious member of the proletariat against this petition in any manner.’ [23]

A very sharp exchange took place in the columns of Vorwärts between Zetkin and the old veteran Wilhelm Liebknecht, who in his gallantry towards women exhibited weakness towards the radical feminists. Zetkin turned to Engels to ask his opinion. Engels came out in complete agreement with her. He wrote to Victor Adler: ‘Clara is right, and, despite everything, has forced the acceptance of the long and vigorously fought article. Bravo Clara!’ [24]

Time after time the radical feminists called on the socialist women to join their demonstrations, but the invitations were always rejected by Zetkin. The pattern of non-cooperation with bourgeois women to obtain goals for which both formally strove was never altered. [25]

It was with the greatest difficulty that Zetkin managed to separate the working class women from the radical feminists. Again and again she had to explain that ‘whenever working women meet together with bourgeois [or petty bourgeois – TC] it is the former who come under the influence of the latter,’ as Eleanor Marx put it. Zetkin had to fight not only many leading women in the Socialist Women’s Movement (see below on the struggle with Lily Braun and Co.) but also with leading men in the SPD.

With complete justification Zetkin could write on 19 November 1901: ‘our women’s movement up to the time of my return [1890 – TC] was internally infested throughout with really vulgar bourgeois feminism and also threatened internally at any moment to form an alliance with the bourgeois feminist movement and had by no means cut all ties between itself and the later.’ [26]

Organising women into the unions

For Zetkin a crucial role in organising working class women, giving them self-confidence and power, was to get them to join the trade unions. Rosa Luxemburg, in an article for International Women’s Day in March 1914, entitled The Proletarian Woman, said: ‘As bourgeois wives women are parasites on society, their function consisting solely in sharing the fruits of exploitation. As petit bourgeois, they are beasts of burden of the family. It is as modern proletarians that women first become human beings, for it is struggle that produces the human being ...’ [27] Working class housewives are also powerless ‘beasts of burden of the family’. But as members of a collective working in factories, large offices, hospitals, etc., they are potentially powerful. To turn working women’s potential power into actual power, they first have to be organised into the unions.

To this task Zetkin devoted a very large part of her time and energy over many years. For a long time the task was very hard and the results very meagre.

The repressive policies of the German States in the wake of the 1848 revolution made trade union organisation virtually impossible, except in certain parts of the more liberal south, where small Catholic workers’ associations came into being. Between 1854 and 1862 mutual aid and friendly societies were formed among the skilled craft sections of the German labour force. Among masons and hatmakers there were even some attempts to establish nationwide contacts. There was also some strike activity, although few workers were involved and stoppages rarely lasted more than a few hours. [28] Among the first groups to organise were the highly skilled and well paid printers and tobacco workers who were determined to preserve their status in relation to the unskilled.

The organisation of workers did not take only a trade union form. In 1863 there were 104 workers’ educational associations, 368 evangelical youth clubs, and 188 Catholic apprentices’ clubs. In addition a constantly growing number of groups affiliated to the Lassallean Workers’ Association. [29]

It was not until the late 1860s that a mass labour movement began to develop as Germany underwent rapid industrialisation. It took some three decades to organise any substantial portion of the working class into the unions. By 1892 the total membership of the Free Trade Unions – under the influence of the Social Democratic Party – was 237,094. The number of workers in Germany, according to the 1895 census, was 18,912,423, so that only 1.5% of workers were in unions after thirty years of effort. [30]

The organisation of women workers met with even greater obstacles. There were the usual difficulties of organising women – their being mainly unskilled, often breaking service to bring up children, the ideology about women’s work accepted by women as well as men, etc. In addition there existed legal impediments.

The risk associated with admitting women into the unions was especially great during the period of the Anti-Socialist Law (1878–1890). Hence organizing women was a history of halting efforts that again and again led to practically nothing.

In the 1860s in Saxony, women were brought into the textile unions with men, women being the majority of workers in the industry. They were given equal rights and duties in the organisation, the principle of equal pay being upheld. [31]

In the early 1870s educational and trade associations for working women were founded in cities such as Munich and Frankfurt/Main to promote the intellectual and material interests of their members. Each of these associations was shut down by the police shortly after its foundation as being a threat to the ‘moral and social basis of the nation’. [32]

In 1885 in Berlin in the garment industry an Association for Working Women was founded, which initially attracted 325 members. Affiliates sprang up throughout the country. This organisation sought to foster the intellectual and moral interests of the members, and granted monetary support during wage disputes. A few months after it was established, the police found that the Association gave money to the SPD, so it was dissolved. [33]

The women-only trade unions were small and unstable – hardly any of them survived for more than a few months.

In 1892 the total number of women in the Free Trade Unions was only 4,355 (or some 1.8% of the membership of the unions.) This proportion was far below the proportion of women in the labour force – 34.9%, according to the 1895 census. [34]

In 1892 the Halberstadt Congress of Free Trade Unions directed the craft unions to transform themselves into ‘mixed craft’ organisations, admitting unskilled women’s labour into the same unions as the skilled men.

But even with the legalisation of common trade unionism for men and women, legal impediments for organising women into the unions were not lifted. Women were not allowed into political organisations involving men. The border between politics and economic organisation could not be clearly drawn, especially as the SPD was the motive force behind union building. Until 1908 women were forbidden by law in most of the Federal States – in Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony and other States – to take part in political associations or those which dealt with any political issues:

According to the interpretation placed upon this legislation by the authorities, any discussion of social questions, such as the general improvement of the position of the workers and wage questions, regarded as a political matter. In 1886 a women’s association engaged in trade union work was dissolved by the police because it had discussed the institution by the state of a normal working day, a Bill on the protection of workers which had been submitted to the Reichstag, and a proposal for the introduction of government supervision of factory premises. Another association was dissolved because it had addressed a petition to the local authorities of the town for the appointment of women as assessors in the industrial courts.

The consequence was that a trade union admitting women as members ran greater danger than ever of being dissolved by the authorities. [35]

Still once the Anti-Socialist Law was rescinded in 1890, success in organizing women into the unions was quite considerable, and that despite the continuous harassment of socialist women banned from political organisations (and the unions were very closely tied to the SPD).

After 1890 both the political and trade union wings of the socialist movement incorporated into their structures committees dealing with women’s issues. All committees were very much in touch with each other, and often had common membership.

The results were impressive. Total membership of trade unions grew from 237,094 in 1892 to a high of 2,573,718 in 1913; but women’s membership grew even more rapidly from a mere 4,355 to 230,347 in the same period (from 1.8% to 8.9% of the workforce). [36]

It was true however that by and large unionisation of women was far less successful in traditional women’s jobs than in industries where women worked with men. Thus in 1914 over 44% of women in engineering were in the union, while in tailoring only 1% of women were organised. [37]

Zetkin played a vital role in organising women into the unions. She worked very closely with the unions, often touring Germany on their behalf. She herself was a member of the Bookbinders’ Union in Stuttgart for 25 years. She also played an active part in the Tailors’ and Seamstresses’ Union, attending many of its congresses. In 1896 she was one of the representatives of the German Tailors’ and Seamstresses’ Union at its Second International Congress in London, and was elected the Union’s provisional International Secretary.

Other socialist women leaders also played an important role in organising women into unions. Thus Louise Zietz (1865–1916) was for many years a member of the Unskilled Factory Workers’ Union and was often chosen as secretary of the Unions’ Congresses.

Ottilie Baader (1847–1925) played a leadership role in both the Socialist Women’s Movement and the Tailors’ and Seamstresses’ Union.

Members of the Women’s Socialist Movement served on the Kartels (a more influential version of trades councils). From 1905 the Kartels appointed their own women organisers in cities like Hamburg and Nuremberg. The Kartels generally controlled strike funds, and therefore affected strike policy. [38]

The need for trade union unity between men and women

The need for trade union unity between women and men was central to Zetkin’s thinking and action. Historical experience shows again and again that the fate of working women is integrally bound up with that of working men. In Russia the unions included men and women from the beginning; in Germany it took a generation to open the doors of the male dominated unions to women: in Britain it by and large took two to three generations. Thus, for instance, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, established in 1852, did not allow women into its ranks even during the first world war when hundreds of thousands of women streamed into engineering. It was only in 1943, i.e. after 91 years (!) that women were admitted, and only then into the lowest section, Section 5.

In no case was it women’s desire to build a separate union. If they did this it was under duress. All their unions were weak, unstable and dissolved into the male unions at the first opportunity open to them.

All experience shows that the level of success of women workers in the industrial field is intimately connected with the fate of the class as a whole. In 1888 the organisation of the match girls was part and parcel of the arrival of the New Unions – in gas and on the docks. In the slump that followed and the employers’ offensive that opened in 1892, both the gas workers and the dockers were forced to retreat, and their organisations shrank considerably; meanwhile the match girls’ organisation collapsed completely.

The next leap forward of the industrial struggle was the syndicalist offensive of 1910–14, when both men and women moved forward. One million miners went on strike, tens of thousands of dockers, railwaymen and seamen, confronting the police and army, who shot a number of workers dead; it was then, as has been mentioned before that 160,000 textile workers – the majority women – and thousands of women in the confectionery industry in Bermondsey were involved in industrial disputes.

The relations between different sections of the proletariat are such that the weaker sections are helped very much by the stronger when there is a general upturn, while they are badly damaged during a downturn.

In the years 1971–4 it was the UCS occupation of 1971, the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974 and the dockers’ strike of 1972 (the Pentonville 5 strike) that dominated the scene. All these were male only strikes. The confidence that they gave the working class as a whole explained the massive hospital workers’ strikes and the London teachers’ strike of 1974, etc. In these strikes women made up the majority of the strikers. There were also significant strikes of women in the private sector. For instance at Brannans, a small thermometer factory in Cumberland women struck to defend their shop floor organisation. In Fakenham near Norwich women carried out a work-in at a leather factory. At Goodmans, Thorn Electrical Industries, women struck for equal pay and won. 200 women at GEC, Spon St., Coventry, struck for 8 weeks over piece rates. In Leicester Asian women at Mansfield Hosiery Mill took the lead in fighting racial discrimination.

During the downturn of recent years workers have found the going much harder: disputes have been far more bitter and lengthy, the employers have been more aggressive and unwilling to concede anything except after a long battle, lockouts have been undertaken with a vengeance, and the proportion of disputes ending with workers’ defeats or partial defeats has been much greater than in previous years.

If the going is hard for workers in general, it is harder still for women, who are in a more disadvantaged position. Chix strike ended in defeat after 8 months of bitter battle. So did King Henry’s. So did Grunwick’s. So did all the hotel strikes. And while the Trico strike in 1976 ended in victory it took 19 long weeks to achieve it.

A weak group of the working class is not inclined to sectionalism. That is why women workers have never been the initiators of women-only trade unions. When these existed, it was either the result of the capitalist law imposing separation, or of liberal bourgeois feminist influence (the Women’s Trade Union Leagues in Britain and the United States) and/or of craftism and bureaucracy in men’s unions.

The political Socialist Women’s Organisation in Germany

If Zetkin opposed the ghettoisation of women workers both industrially and politically, why then did she build a separate socialist women’s organisation? The reason was quite simple. The law did not allow women to join any political party in the greater part of the Reich until 1908. To circumvent the law Zetkin and her friends had to adopt very awkward measures.

In 1889 the Agitation Commission was set up in Berlin, composed of several women, whose task was to provide a centre for trade union and Socialist Party activity. This was the most important of several Agitation Commissions set up in different cities. The Düsseldorf one set up at the end of 1892 directed activities in the very vital Rhineland region. [39] In other cities they were formed when the police closed down working women’s organisations. They arranged lectures, meetings and other activities and maintained contact with regular local party organisations. All the Agitation Commissions were independent of each other so as not to break the law. But the state still took measures against them. In 1895 they were all banned.

In 1894 the SPD conference decided to adopt a system of ‘Vertrauenpersonen’ (spokespeople) because the police had been consistently dissolving the propaganda committees involving women. This new system allowed women to engage in politics

without forming clubs or associations. Responsibility for Propaganda was put into the hands of one person, and the Law of Association did not apply to individuals. The Vertrauenperson, therefore, the individual spokesperson, could take any political initiative on her own. The number of Vertrauenpersonen rose from 25 in 1901 to 407 in 1907. [40]

In November 1895 a ‘Zentralvertrauensperson’ was appointed to serve as a connecting link for the organised working women of the whole of Germany. At the same time Zetkin was elected to the national executive of the SPD.

Women also found other ways to circumvent the law. ‘A gap in the Prussian coalition law permitted women to form electoral clubs during the period set aside for active campaigning. Women made use of this right; ... Members helped campaign for socialist candidates, arranged meetings, joined demonstrations, and sought to mobilise the economic power of the working class.’ [41]

Louise Zietz recounted how she circumvented the law of Thuringia that did not allow women to be speakers at public meetings: ‘I was prevented from speaking. A male comrade spoke for ten minutes, and then I participated in the discussion from the floor, by speaking for 1½ hours.’ [42]

When the Law of Association was abolished in 1908 the need for ‘Vertrauenpersonen’ disappeared.

For many years socialist women had played a big role in recruiting women into the trade unions. Now the growth of female membership of the trade unions gave a fillip to building the female membership of the SPD. The law made for a time lag between the two, but the female membership of the SPD caught up very quickly. In 1906 the number of women in the SPD was only 6,460 while the number of women in the free trade unions was 118,908. The percentage of the former compared with the latter was 0.6%. In 1907 the ratio was 8.0%; in 1908, 21.3%; 1909, 46.5%; 1910, 51.2%; 1911, 56.3%; 1912, 58.5%; 1913, 61.3%; 1914, 83%. [43]

Large public meetings provided opportunities for recruitment of women to the party. Thus in Hamburg on 6 November 1905, at a meeting attended by 280 people, 26 women joined the party afterwards. On 20 February 1907, at another meeting in the same town 700 attended and 45 joined. On 18 March 110 turned up and 13 joined. On 7 September the audience was 1,200 and 50 joined. Again, on 11 February 1908 500 turned up and 39 joined. [44]

Only when one looks at the socialist movement in Germany as a whole, with its two separate but interrelated wings, the political and industrial, can one understand the massive and swift growth of the women’s organisation. The women’s movement straddled political and union activities. Its close ties with party and unions were its source of strength. (And also, as we shall see, a cause of internal conflict.)


One of the most important weapons of education and organisation for women was the women’s fortnightly Gleichheit (Equality). Its sub-title was For the Interest of the Woman Worker. It was founded in 1891 and edited by Zetkin for 25 years.

Zetkin, while always emphasizing the need for complete political and organisational unity of the socialist movement, believed that propaganda should be made to fit the specific audiences it aimed at. As she said in a letter to her Dutch colleague Heleen Ankersmit on 7 September 1913:

If the women of the people are to be won for socialism then we need in part special ways, means and methods. If those who are awakened are to be schooled for work and struggle in the service of socialism theoretically and practically, then we must have special organisations and arrangements for it. This is explained by the historical milieu of proletarian women, by the specific psychological character of women, which has become historical, and finally by the multitude of duties which burden the proletarian woman, in a word by all the actual living conditions which economically, politically, socially and spiritually create a certain special position for women. Certainly many proletarian women will awake even without special social women’s agitation in spite of all these conditions. Certainly also many awakened women will be drawn into the general movement through joint work without special organisations for theoretical and practical schooling. But we must not forget that these are an elite who are above the average. What is important however is to seize and hold the broadest masses of proletarian women. Therefore we must tailor our measures for agitation and education not for the elite but for the average. But – as stated – we will not manage without special measures whose driving and executive forces are predominantly women who are dedicated to the awakening and education of women. [45]

Gleichheit was a journal very well tailored to the needs and interests of working women.

It was a serious magazine. Zetkin set forth her conception of it and its role in an editorial addressed To the Readers which was published with few changes at the beginning of each year throughout the 1890s.

Gleichheit is directed especially to the most progressive proletarians, whether they are slaves to capital with their hands or with their heads. It strives to school these theoretically, to make possible for them a clear understanding of the historical course of development, and an ability not only to work consciously in the battle for the liberation of the proletariat, but also to be effective in enlightening and teaching their class comrades and training them as fighters with a clear goal. [46]

According to Zetkin Gleichheit was ‘written for the women who are spokespersons; it was not meant for the masses, but rather for the advanced’. [47] Much space was devoted to a description of working conditions in the textile, garment, food processing industries, in the bookbinding trade, in home industries and in all other branches of the economy in which women were particularly active. Detailed information on factory legislation was provided to help women take full advantage of its protection, however minimal. Strikes and labour unrest among working women in Germany and in other countries was always given prominent coverage.

In the earliest years of Gleichheit’s existence, Zetkin not only edited the paper but also wrote most of the articles that appeared in it.

At almost every Party Congress complaints were raised and resolutions moved by women and men concerning the ‘doctrinaire’, ‘difficult to understand’ nature of the articles in Gleichheit. But most of these were really pretexts of right wingers for rejecting Zetkin’s radical left-wing views.

During the first 14 years of its existence, the circulation of Gleichheit was quite small, although it rose constantly from 2,000 in 1891 to 11,000 in 1903–4. [48]

The nature of the journal changed very much when the socialist women’s movement exploded in numbers (reaching 75,000 in 1907), and qualitatively changed later on when the right wing of the SPD largely took control of the movement and shunted Zetkin aside.

In 1904 Zetkin was obliged to make the first in a series of changes in the format and character of Gleichheit designed to give the journal wider appeal. At the 1904 SPD Women’s Conference Zetkin announced that beginning the following year a supplement would accompany Gleichheit intended to ‘serve the education and interests of woman as housewife and mother,’ as well as providing good reading material for her children. She explained this change to her readers several months later as follows:

‘Up until now [Gleichheit] was before all the guiding and instructional organ of the fighting female comrades ... Without in any way changing its character and restricting its tasks as battle organ of the female comrades, in the future the general interests of the female proletariat will also receive their due. The proletarian woman shall find in the periodical not only her faithful advisor for her participation in the emancipation fight of her class but also her all-around self-education for the better fulfilment of her duties as housewife and mother.’ [49]

Beginning in January 1905 every issue of Gleichheit was accompanied alternatingly by a supplement, either For Our Housewives and Mothers or For Our Children. Zetkin made the best of a situation which had to a certain degree been forced upon her by developing these supplements into literature of the type she favoured as an aid to parental education in the home. The supplement For Our Children was devoted to articles on science, technology, wildlife, and cultural anthropology. Here Zetkin stressed in particular those viewpoints neglected in the schools attended by working class children, such as the crucial importance and social implications of technological change, the dignity of labour, the material base of the evolution of society, and the economic causal factors underlying existing political and social conditions. The supplement designed for housewives and mothers concerned itself with practical problems involved in child-rearing, questions relating to health, care of plants, cooking, and sewing.

Above all, this supplement reflected Zetkin’s views on education within the home, on the duty of the socialist mother to instill in her offspring unselfishness and feelings of class solidarity, as well as the importance of treating children with respect and developing in them powers of independent thinking. A sample of the titles published in the supplement for mothers and housewives provides a notion of the ideas Zetkin sought to convey:

  • Be Friendly With Your Children!
  • Converse With Your Children!
  • Listen!
  • Reprimand Gently!
  • Don’t Deliver Long Sermons!
  • Keep Quiet at the Right Times!
  • Be Helpful!
  • Go For Walks With Your Children!
  • Respect the School Vacation!
  • Tell Your Children the Truth About Sexual Matters!
  • Don’t Teach Jingoism!
  • Let Your Child Help!
  • Respect the Work of Your Children!
  • Raise Your Children to Think Independently For Themselves!

Both of the Gleichheit supplements contained carefully chosen selections from the works of outstanding European writers, like Goethe, Schiller, Heine, Balzac, Stendhal, Shelley, Ibsen, and Tolstoy, as well as from lesser known figures associated with the German revolutionary tradition, like Freiligrath, Herwegh, Uhrland, and Gutzkow, or authors who dealt with the life and problems of the lower classes, like Dickens, Zola, Hauptmann, Gogol, and Gorki.

In October 1908 the size of Gleichheit was doubled from 12 to 24 pages, and every issue was henceforth accompanied by both a children’s and a mothers’ and housewives’ supplement.

In 1910 the ultimate was requested of Zetkin in regard to the paper, that she publish a fashion supplement. It was indicative of the loss of Zetkin’s power after 1908 that she to some extent complied with this demand in that she regularly published articles on fashion and cooking as well as recipes and dress patterns. At the 1913 Party Congress Zetkin even promised that henceforth greater heed would be paid to ‘the entirely unschooled’, to those who ‘do not yet know the ABC of our views’. [50]

The changed nature of Gleichheit paralleled with the mass growth of the SPD women’s movement led to a very impressive rise in the paper’s circulation from 11,000 in 1903–4 to 125,000 in 1914. [51] Thus in 1914 the number of copies of Gleichheit distributed was equal to 71.6% of women in the SPD, or 59.4% of women in the free trade unions.

A crucial factor in the mass circulation was that the unions officially took bulk orders for the paper. In 1914 as much as three-fifths of the total circulation was taken in this way, the copies then being distributed to the female members and wives of male members of the unions. When the unions decided to cut their support to Gleichheit the circulation dropped dramatically. While in 1914 it was 125,000, in December 1915 it dropped to 40,000; in December 1916 to 35,500; in December 1917 to 19,000. [52]

In trying to assess the real significance of the wide circulation of Gleichheit – especially necessary when one sees how isolated Zetkin was a few years later – one has to look at the paper in the context of the general publishing effort of the SPD and the working of this mass party.

The SPD acted as ‘a state within a state’. Workers from birth to death, except for working for the capitalists, were almost completely enclosed by Party institutions. The Party member could eat food bought in a Social Democratic Co-operative, read nothing but Social Democratic papers and magazines, spend leisure time in Social Democratic cycling or gymnastic clubs, sing in a Social Democratic choir, drink in a Social Democratic pub, and be buried with the aid of a Social Democratic Burial Society.

The SPD had papers covering practically every aspect of life. The journalistic output of the Party was enormous. In 1914 it had 90 daily papers (of which 78 were different from one another only in the masthead), two twice-weeklies, and two weeklies. The total circulation of these averaged 1,488,346. [53]

In addition the SPD had a variety of other journals:

Another important field of activity of the women’s socialist movement was education. Socialist women had to circumvent the Law of Association by establishing clubs engaged in purely educational (non-political) pursuits. In reality they were part of the SPD net. These clubs continued to exist even after 1908 as experience showed they were effective in educating future propagandists for the party.

Most leaders of the socialist women’s movement were engaged in educational work. Thus Zetkin gave lectures on cultural history at the Stuttgart Women’s Education Club. Zietz ran the education club in Hamburg and Baader was active in the work in Berlin. In 1905 3,000 women were organised in such clubs. [55]

From 1908 onwards the party sponsored reading and discussion sessions – ‘Leseabende’ – all over Germany. The number of women involved was very large. Thus in Berlin in 1910 about 4,000 participated, or a third of the women members of the party. It was estimated that throughout Germany 150 localities instituted similar women’s education sessions. [56]

The ‘Leseabende’ were mainly devoted to teaching Marxism. ‘The literature studied included the Communist Manifesto and the Party’s Erfurt Program of 1891. Among the subjects analyzed in some detail were the history of industrial development as well as Social Democracy’s position on suffrage and particularly on the women’s vote. The discussions also included health care and insurance laws.’ [57]

One course of lectures in Teltow Beeskow (in Berlin) in late 1913 ‘centred on one theme: the scientific foundation of the modern working-class movement. Participants were introduced into such topics as the relationship between social reform, democracy, and socialism; idealism and materialism; and utopian and scientific socialism. These materials were followed by analyses of precapitalist economic development, the origins of the capitalist mode of production, the formation of the proletariat, and the nature of capitalist exploitation. After eleven weeks, the class ended with a discussion of the method and the goals of the class struggle.’ [58]

A central theme of the movement was organising women in unions together with men. (There was not one union belonging to the free federation that consisted entirely of women. It was the bourgeois feminists who organised in the 1860s and 1870s women-only trade unions, but they all collapsed.) Another strand of activity of the socialist women’s movement was participating in the electoral campaigns of the SPD, even though women had no vote – by collecting money for the campaign, distributing leaflets on the housing estates, at the factory gates and in the shopping centres, organising speaking tours throughout the country and so on. Their slogan was: ‘If we can’t vote, we can still stir’. [59]

Again the education work among women was not done by women alone: about a third of the lecturers at the ‘Leseabende’, it is estimated, were men. Women together with men spoke at public meetings, even if often, as described above, women had to circumvent the law in order to do it. Men were encouraged to come to the women’s meetings. Thus on International Women’s Day in 1913, at the meeting in Hamburg, out of 550 people present, 420 were men; in Eppel there were 130 men out of 350; in Barmbeck 150 out of 650; in Hamm and Horn 100 out of 300 and in Einsbuttel, 150 out of 350. [60]

Right wing opposition to Zetkin

Throughout the history of the Socialist Women’s Movement there was, inside the movement, as well as inside the SPD, a right wing opposition to Zetkin. The SPD was split into three tendencies: on the extreme right the revisionists, followers of Eduard Bernstein; on the extreme left the followers of Rosa Luxemburg, and in the centre the followers of Bebel and Kautsky. The same three tendencies appeared also in the Socialist Women’s Movement. Here the right was ready to move forwards to class collaboration with the Liberals, even further than the revisionists in the SPD.

The most prominent woman spokesperson for this tendency was Lily Braun (1865–1916). She came from a noble family and never lost her roots in the bourgeois milieu. In the feminist movement, she argued against the class struggle. (She declared she never understood Marx’s phrase, ‘Standing on the ground of the class struggle’.) She rejected historical materialism, declaring that socialism would be achieved not as the result of revolution, and not as the result of the activities of the working class alone, but as a result of the activity of a whole number of progressive forces including feminists as well as socialist workers. All feminists were by definition progressive, because they were against sex inequality just as socialists were against class inequality.

In 1895 she collaborated with bourgeois feminists in drawing up a petition for the reform of the Law of Association. Together with Minna Cauer, the radical bourgeois feminist, she edited a paper Die Frauenbewegung (The Women’s Movement). The first issue summarized its principles: support for all women regardless of political persuasion, and fight for the common goal of full equality of the sexes. ‘We want to be as fair to the struggle for equal education as for equal wages.’

Lily Braun was full of complaint about men’s attitude to women in the labour movement, and argued that it was an illusion to believe that the class struggle would overcome the conflict between the sexes.

In 1901 Lily Braun published a pamphlet entitled Frauenarbeit und Hauswirtschaft (Female labour and household cooperatives). This was a plea to free women from household burdens by organising household cooperatives. Zetkin raged against this idea for being completely utopian and opportunist, as only middle class women with secure and regular incomes could benefit from such an undertaking. She called the suggested cooperatives ‘bourgeois reform work’.

All the same a whole number of prominent people in the German Socialist Women’s Movement supported Lily Braun. Among them was Emma Ihrer (1857–1911), the original publisher of Gleichheit, Helma Steinbach, one of the leading agitators in Hamburg and one of the main spokespeople at Party congresses in the 1890s. She, together with another leading revisionist woman, Gertrud David were active in the cooperative movement. Another was Henriette Fürth who participated in the bourgeois ‘Bund für Mutterschutz und Sexualreform’ while active in the party and regularly contributing to the revisionist monthly Sozialistische Monatshefte. Anne Lindemann, whose husband was the future Minister of the Interior of Württemberg, was the chairperson of the bourgeois ‘Verband für Frauenstimmrecht’ (League for Women’s Suffrage). [61] The Sozialistische Monatshefte regularly criticised Zetkin for her ‘dogmatic Marxism’ and intransigence, and especially her hatred of the bourgeois feminists.

Lily Braun was also supported by a whole number of leading men in the Party. Among them were the Reichstag deputies Heinrich Braun and Eduard David. Georg von Vollmar, the revisionist leader in Bavaria, was a member of a bourgeois feminist organisation in Munich. So too was Ignatz Auer, another of the leading revisionists.

One of the sharpest attacks on the whole concept of Zetkin (also an attack on Marx, Engels and Bebel), of women’s liberation through her struggle and organisation at the workplace, was made by the revisionist Reichstag deputy, Edmund Fischer, in an article entitled, The Woman Question, published in the Sozialistische Monatshefte in 1905. Fischer argued that women’s place was in the home:

The real heart of the woman question is undoubtedly this: Is the unchangeable course of development leading to a situation where women generally will go out to work, and is this to be welcomed as a step forward because it will, in conjunction with the ensuing reorganization of the whole of social life, finally make woman free and economically independent of the male, thus making her emancipation a reality? Or is it unnatural, socially unhealthy, and harmful for women generally to work, a capitalist evil which will and must disappear with the abolition of capitalism?

The alternatives, Fischer argues, are either a Marxist approach, or that of Proudhon. Fischer left no doubt as to which of these two tendencies he supported:

In my opinion, the old attitude to emancipation, which still lurks in the minds of many people, is no longer tenable today. Developments in female labour have not followed the direction assumed up till now, and state kitchens and household co-operatives are still utopian dreams that will always founder on the psychological nature of the human species, of women as well as of men. The so-called emancipation of women goes against the nature of women and of mankind as a whole. It is unnatural, and hence impossible to achieve. [62]

Fischer wrote:

The first and highest good in life for the woman, buried deep in her nature, was to be mother and live to educate her children.

Lily Braun and her supporters were not without some successes. Thus between 1898 and 1902 in Hamburg as well as in Berlin, a number of common meetings of proletarian women and bourgeois feminists took place in which the possibilities of collaboration were considered. It was only with a great and consistent effort that Zetkin managed to overcome Lily Braun’s influence, and finally, in 1903, push her to all intents and purposes out of the Socialist Women’s Movement.

Zetkin and the International Socialist Women’s Movement

Zetkin did a lot to influence and direct socialist women beyond the borders of Germany.

It was thanks to her initiative that in 1907 the first International inference of Socialist Women took place in Stuttgart. 59 women from 15 countries participated. They discussed reports on the activities of socialist women in different countries, and the attitude to women’s suffrage. They also decided to create an international organisation of all socialist women’s organisations. [63]

The conference was far from homogeneous. On the key issue of the suffrage the Austrian, Belgian, British and French delegates argued that restricted suffrage, ie, one based on property or income qualifications, was more ‘realistic’ than universal suffrage. Similarly the British and French argued against the ‘sectarianism’ of Zetkin and her supporters towards the bourgeois feminist movement.

But Zetkin was completely unyielding on the two issues. She was supported by the Russian delegate, Alexandra Kollontai and others. A delegate from Chicago insisted that it was necessary to make ‘a clear class distinction between the bourgeois and proletarian women’s movement’, and Kollontai declared, ‘We must cross swords with all the bourgeois women’. [64]

Zetkin won the day. Conference passed a strong resolution stating that ‘socialist parties of all countries have a duty to struggle energetically for the introduction of universal suffrage for women’. ‘Socialist women must not ally themselves with the bourgeois feminists, but lead the battle side by side with the socialist males.’

Zetkin was elected secretary of the International Women’s Socialist Organisation, and Gleichheit was designated as the central organ of the movement. Kollontai was elected to the secretariat.

A second international conference of socialist women was held in 1910 in Copenhagen. This time the conference reaffirmed the line of ‘universal suffrage’ put by Zetkin with a resolution condemning any kind of limited suffrage campaign ‘as a falsification and a humiliation of the very women who fight for political equality.’

Zetkin then proposed the adoption of 8 March as International Women’s Day. (Both the date and the idea were taken from a demonstration of American socialist women in New York on 8 March 1908 in opposition to the bourgeois suffrage movement there.) The proposal was approved with enthusiasm by the conference. Beginning in 1911 and continuing until the outbreak of the war, International Women’s Day demonstrations were organised in practically all the main cities of Europe. (Of course the most important one was the single one which took place during the War – in February 1917 – and launched the first Russian revolution of that date.)

Coup from the Centre

When it came to the crunch Rosa Luxemburg and her group in the Party were beaten not by the revisionists, but by the ‘swamp’, as she called it, the Kautskian and Bebel centre.

The occasion was the aftermath of the Russian revolution of 1905. On the wave of enthusiasm generated by Russia, the general strike tactic was endorsed by the SPD Congress in Jena in 1905. [65] This rang the alarm bells for the leaders of the trade unions and they came out solidly against the idea of a general strike. They revealed themselves as the most aggressive and powerful of the reformist forces. Eventually the question was resolved at the 1906 congress of the SPD in Mannheim. The Party leaders, above all Bebel and Kautsky, accepted that the unions were independent of the Party, and should never cease to be so. The congress decided:

The trade unions are indispensable for raising the class position of the worker within bourgeois society. They are not less important than the Social Democratic Party, which must fight for the raising of the working class ... on the political level, but must also strive beyond this for the emancipation of the working class from all oppression and exploitation through ... socialist society ...

In those matters which concern the interests of the unions and the party equally, and in order to achieve a united policy, the central leaderships of both organizations should seek to reach agreement. [66]

As Schorske put it:

The Mannheim resolution was a landmark in the history of German Social Democracy. It represented a kind of counter-revolution in the party, a reversal of the radical victory at the battle of Jena in the previous year. The trade-unions had demonstrated their power in bringing the party back to the traditional reformist tactic. But Mannheim was more than a mere return to the status quo ante. The trade unions had emerged from their withdrawal, they had abandoned their neutrality to cast their weight into the scales of the party’s destiny ... The relationship of parity between trade-unions and party was, as Luxemburg observed, like the arrangement by which a peasant woman sought to regulate her life with her spouse: ‘On matters of question between us, when we agree, you will decide; when we disagree, I shall decide’. [67]

Now the guns were directed against the Luxemburg group. In the women’s movement that meant an attack on Zetkin. This was facilitated by the 1908 repeal of the Law of Association. In that year the women’s conference in Nuremberg decided that women’s associations wherever they existed should join the SPD local branches. At least one woman was to be included in each local and district executive committee and be responsible for propaganda among women workers. The central bureau of the women’s movement was transformed into a women’s bureau subordinate to the national executive of the Party. Although the women protested only one was admitted on to the Executive. This was Louise Zietz. She was not on the extreme left of the Party, like Zetkin, but belonged to the Kautskian Centre. [68]

During the Morocco crisis [69] (1911) when the executive of the SPD showed its weakness in face of German imperialism, Zietz sided with it and not with the radical critics. In 1913, during the debate on the military budget and on the mass strike, again Zietz sided with the Executive against the radicals.

In the same year, 1908, that the Party leadership took over the women’s movement by pushing Zetkin aside, they took control over the far more radical youth organisation and purged it of its leadership. [70]

The actual integration of the women’s movement into the SPD led to mass recruitment of women into the Party; from 29,468 in 1908 to 174,474 in 1914 – i.e. in the short space of six years a growth of nearly 150,000! [71]. However, this was achieved by a disastrous dilution of its politics.

The Socialist Women’s Movement and the War

A few days after the outbreak of the war, on 5th August 1914, Zetkin published an article in Gleichheit entitled Proletarische Frauen seid bereit! (Proletarian Women, Be Prepared!), attacking the war. [72] In this article she tells her readers that Germany is fighting the war for ‘the interests of the reactionary Hapsburg dynasty, for the gold and power hunger of the unfeeling, conscienceless great landed property owners and big capital.’ [73] The article concludes with a thinly veiled call for revolution: ‘For the working class, brotherhood between people is not a hollow dream, world peace not just a pretty word ... What must be done? There is a single moment in the life of the people when they can win all if only everyone is set. Such a moment is here. Proletarian women, be prepared!’ [74]

Again and again Zetkin came into conflict with the censorship in her opposition to the war. This is shown by the increasing number of blank spaces in Gleichheit, columns which were demonstratively left standing.

Gleichheit became the internationally recognized journal of women opposing the war. Zetkin, together with Rosa Luxemburg, organised the International Women’s Conference against the war in Berne in March 1915. In August 1915, Zetkin was arrested. This was followed by a number of further arrests during the war.

It would be a grave mistake, however, to assume from this that many in the German Women’s Movement supported the position of Luxemburg and Zetkin. In fact they were very isolated in their opposition to the war.

Both Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin suffered nervous prostration, and were at one moment near to suicide. Together they still tried, on 2 and 3 August (1914 – TC) to plan an agitation against war; they contacted twenty SPD members of the Reichstag with known radical views, but got the support of only Liebknecht and Mehring. Rosa herself naturally did not admit to despair as easily as Clara Zetkin, but she too could only emphasize her isolation and the difficulties of making an impact on a party ‘besotted with war ... The party life of the masses is completely stifled.’ ... Rosa sent 300 telegrams to local officials who were thought to be oppositional, asking for their attitude to the vote and inviting them to Berlin for an urgent conference. The results were pitiful. ‘Clara Zetkin was the only one who immediately and unreservedly cabled her support. The others – those who even bothered to send an answer – did so with stupid or lazy excuses.’ [75]

Even after four years of war the number of women collecting around Rosa and Clara – the one by far the greatest genius of the German socialist movement, the other the most prominent socialist women’s movement leader – was tiny. In 1918 in the German Communist Party, the party of Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin, only 9% of the members were women, as against 15% in the USPD and 20.5% in the SPD. [76] In absolute terms the KPD(S) had less than 300 women members while the SPD in 1919 had 207,000 women members.

The situation was tragic, but hardly surprising. If the socialist women’s movement had gone in a different direction to that of the SPD it would have meant that all Zetkin’s assumptions about the women’s organisation being simply a wing of the socialist movement, about the integral relations between working women and working men, would have made nonsense.

The massive move to the right in women’s movement

The war brought the women of the SPD into collaboration with the bourgeois feminists.

Bourgeois women moved into municipal administration. They formed a national women’s service (‘Nationaler Frauendienst’) and organized a women’s auxiliary army for municipal officials. In her capacity as head of Social Democratic women, Zietz spoke before middle-class groups in Berlin to explain socialists’ welfare efforts and raised the possibility of collaboration. Socialist feminists followed the Party in suspending the class struggle. The actual decision to cooperate with bourgeois women was left to the local clubs, but the war had created new political options.

The reaction to contact with middle-class women varied greatly. In Berlin, over six hundred socialists joined together for municipal work and remained independent of the middle-class organization, as did women in Leipzig and Breslau. In Hamburg and Cologne, by contrast, socialist and middle-class women harmonized their efforts. In Cologne, a national association of women was formed and the founders called on women of all political persuasions to join. After contacting the leadership in Berlin, Marie Juchacz, secretary of the local SPD organisation, entered the organization. She reminisced, ‘At first, I was greeted with much often painful curiosity and benevolently made welcome. We (socialists) were appointed to city commissions. I was asked to join the food committee which the mayor himself ran ... I also made it my task to visit two or three families each day ... to help them. We learned that not everything was reactionary on the other side.’ [77]

And Gleichheit of 20 July 1917, now out of Zetkin’s hands, could write: ‘... in practical matters we can learn many things from bourgeois women.’ [78]

In January 1916, to counter Gleichheit the unions launched a fortnightly called Gewerkschaftliche Frauenzeitung (Women’s Trade Union Paper), edited by Gertrud Hanna, which reached a distribution of 100,000 only a year after its inception, and 350,000 by January 1919. [79]

After a year of enthusiastic SPD support for the war, Louise Zietz found the party position hard to swallow. She sided with Kautsky, Bernstein and the leaders of the future Independent Social Democratic Party, USPD. In summer 1915 she was expelled from the Executive of the SPD. A short time later Clara Zetkin was forced to give up the editorship of Gleichheit.

Gleichheit got a new sub-title: Magazine for the Interests of Workers’ Wives and Women Workers. The new editors explained the programme as: ‘Political education, simple teaching and valuable entertainment.’ (In 1922 the subtitle changed again, this time to read, Magazine for women and girls of the working people, organ of the United SPD.)

Working women fight back

The food situation had become intolerable during the war, and this enraged above all the women, as they saw their children suffering.

Food rations were pathetic. Thus, according to Jürgen Kuczynski: between 1 July 1917 and 28 December 1918 the food ration of meat was equal to 12 percent of peace-time consumption; fish, 5 percent; eggs, 13 percent; lard 7 percent; butter 28 percent; cheese 15 percent; cereals 7 percent; vegetable fats 17 percent, and potatoes 94 percent. [80] The food shortages resulted in an estimated 763,000 deaths from hunger. [81.

At a meeting of the Associate Medical Society held in Berlin on 18 December 1918 it was mentioned that in the previous year as many as 15,000 women between the ages of 15 and 30 died from causes directly relating to the lack of food. [82] And infant mortality rose catastrophically. In 1918 it was more than double what it was in 1913. [83]

By 1916 a series of food riots by women occurred throughout Germany. In Düsseldorf in July a group of women held a demonstration outside the city hall demanding more meat and potatoes. When city officials tried to placate them with offers of beans and peas the enraged women smashed all the windows in the city hall. [84] The Spartakists held two demonstrations early in the war. The first on 18 March 1915 attracted 100 women, the second a few months later 1,500 women. [85]

Dialectics of women and men proletarians in the revolutionary struggle

In recent years the literature about women by and large describes them as victims of circumstances. We, as Marxists, need to look at women workers as active people, as the subject of history, not its object.

So long as workers were not concentrated in large factories, ie, in Britain prior to 1840, and in France prior to 1880, the main arena of workers’ struggle, especially during revolutions, was the streets. The main immediate spur was not the demand for higher wages, but for lower prices for foodstuffs, and an adequate supply. Again and again we see that the plebeian women played a vanguard role in the movement of the people at the time.

With the industrial revolution and its aftermath, the centre of gravity of the struggle moved to the factories. Here working women suffered great disadvantages.

Having to carry the double burden of holding down a job and being a housewife affected women workers’ participation in the struggle. While at work the woman’s mind was still largely concentrated on the home. Women workers as a result have been consistently less well organised than men. Yet all evidence points to an explanation lying not in biology, but in the nature of the work situation (being part-time, forced to have a break to bring up children, etc.); in the nature of the work (women being mainly in services) and in the size of the firm for which she works (usually small to medium).

The result is that throughout the history of the working class, the unity of the class is fractured by unevenness between its male and its female sections.

In no way does it mean that women workers are always less militant, less good fighters than men. As a matter of fact, in practically all revolutions, women moved ahead first. They acted as detonators. Women start the movement, but then men, organised in bigger, more cohesive units of production, move to the centre of the arena. Thus the 1917 revolution in Russia was started by the Petrograd women textile workers demonstrating in February, while the workers of Putilov and other engineering factories were the decisive force in the further development of the revolution. In Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution women workers appear only in the first couple of chapters.

In Italy it was mass women’s demonstrations against food shortages in August 1917 that detonated the Fiat workers strike and demonstration in which police killed 150. [86]

In Germany on 12 April 1917 women workers in Leipzig went on a mass demonstration over food shortages. Four days later this was followed by a strike of 300,000 men, mainly engineers, that led to the establishment the same day of the first workers’ council in Germany. [87]

In Britain, on the Clyde in 1915, again it was women’s agitational activity against the eviction of tenants that led to the shipyard workers’ threat to come out on strike. This led to the Rent Act, and was the most successful event in the rise of the revolutionary movement on the Clyde.

The higher the level of class struggle, the more accentuated are the differences between the level of consciousness and organisation of different sections of the class. This unevenness is again and again levelled up by the march of the revolutionary struggle itself. Thus the Petrograd workers were far in advance of the workers of Moscow, Kharkov or Kiev. In all the revolutionary struggles of the first world war period, one and the same section of the proletariat played a vanguard role – in Britain in 1915–1918, in Russia in 1917, in Germany in 1917–18, and in Italy in 1917–18. This was the skilled engineers in the munitions industry, a section naturally delimited by the war itself.

An extreme expression of the unevenness is the under-representation of women in the Soviets. In the 1905 Petersburg Soviet, out of 562 members, only 6 were women, although 2/5ths of the workers in the city were women. [88] Similarly in the Berlin national conference of workers’ and soldiers’ councils in November 1918, there was only one woman among 490 delegates. [89]

The sorry end of the SPD Women’s Movement

During the war millions of women were added to the employed labour force. The number of working women rose from 9.5 million before the war to about 15 million toward the end of the war. [90]

After the war the SPD murdered the German revolution. Crucial to the stabilisation of the capitalist economy and state was a defusion of the political dangers of mass male unemployment following demobilisation. The solution was simple: the mass sacking of women:

The Council of People’s Deputies, which ruled from November 1918 until the convocation of the National Assembly in February 1919, passed measures which included a series of demobilisation decrees intended to regulate the dissolution of the army and the integration of servicemen into the economy. One such decree obliged employers to dismiss anybody who was not unconditionally dependent on their wages. Women were particularly affected by the decrees of 28 March 1919 and 25 January 1920. People were to be dismissed in the following order of priority:

  1. Women, whose husbands had a job
  2. Single women and girls
  3. Women and girls who had only 1–2 people to look after
  4. All other women and girls [91]

Women leaders of the SPD justified these measures. Thus Gertrud Hanna, member of the Women’s Secretariat of the General Federation of German Trade Unions, put it thus:

When looking at the dismissal of women overall, we are confronted with the question: What is the lesser evil, female or male unemployment? It is quite extraordinarily difficult to answer this question ...

As the reporter on this question, I am in the uncomfortable position of being unable to offer any suggestions as to how the woman question can be solved at the present time ... I have only one suggestion: women must work to gain more influence over who is employed and who is dismissed. [92]

The SPD women’s organisation was forced to become merely a body for social work. In December 1919 the SPD founded the ‘Arbeiterwohlfahrt’ (Workers Welfare Bureau) as the main organisation of women’s activities. The 1921 SPD conference in Görlitz justified the shunting of the Party’s women on to social welfare with a statement that ‘women are born protectors of humanity, and, therefore, social work corresponds so well with their nature. Women have more understanding of how to protect and safeguard human life.’ [93]

Looking back in 1925 the SPD executive could sum up the party’s women’s activity thus: ‘Many people are today unable to find a field of activity in the Party which corresponds to their individuality and in which they can prove their worth. Workers’ Welfare is the organisation which now provides such a field. We can observe how women in particular are devoting themselves to this movement with all their heart and soul and a great willingness to sacrifice. The organisation gives our women comrades the inner satisfaction of being able to work within the Party for the benefit of the broad general public.’ [94]

The women in the SPD got a paper that fitted its new politics. The title Gleichheit had too revolutionary an overtone. The new title was Die Frauenwelt (Women’s World) with mainly edifying stories, patterns and fashion illustrations, cookery, recipes and very little politics. When at the Berlin Women’s Conference in 1924 one delegate requested that the paper should deal a little with the real distress of women workers’ lives, she was told by the male editor, Dr. Lohmann:

My own opinion on the matter, at any rate, and I know that I am supported here by the majority of women comrades in distress, who have emphasised the same to me in a whole series of letters, is that they do not want to have the misery of their domestic life before their eyes even in their leisure time. They want to be shown the sun which some day in the future will shine into their lives because of socialism. [95]

In retrospect

How can one explain why at most a couple of hundred from the socialist women’s wing of the SPD, which had counted over 200,000 members before the war, joined with Rosa Luxemburg in the Spartakist League, and then with the KPDS, while the SPD could still claim more than 200,000 members at the end of the war? Why was the impact of Gleichheit so small? Was the women’s movement in Germany really Marxist led, as so many uninformed writers put it?

To be able to answer the above questions, we need to understand the nature of the SPD’s ‘Marxism’. It was Marxism which had atrophied, kept the form but lost the spirit of the revolutionary teachings of Marx. The atrophy resulted basically, from the SPD cutting the direct, intimate link between the struggle for reforms inside capitalism and the revolutionary struggle against capitalism.

How did the Communist Manifesto visualise the relation between the struggle for economic reforms and the struggle of the working class for political power?

The proletariat goes through various stages of development. With its birth begins its struggle against the bourgeoisie. At first the contest is carried on by individual labourers, then by the workers of a factory, then by the operatives of one trade, in one locality, against the individual bourgeois who directly exploits them ... the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois takes more and more the character of collisions between two classes. Thereupon the workers begin to form combinations (trades unions) ... Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battle lies, not in the immediate result but in the ever-expanding union of the workers.

Finally, there arises ‘the organisation of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party.’ [96]

Thus the economic, trade union struggle is but a stepping stone towards the political struggle for workers’ power. The struggle for reforms and the coming revolution are dialectically linked. The fusion between the struggle inside capitalism, and the struggle to overthrow it was the heart of authentic revolutionary praxis.

Alas, because of the very long and sustained expansion of capitalism towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, the trade union organisations, as well as the SPD, managed to expand on a very large scale, and in a sustained way, without necessarily challenging the system. Thus they lost their dynamism. The division between economics and politics, minimum and maximum programmes, theory and practice, was the unavoidable result, and cause of further atrophy. Wage struggles, which the Communist Manifesto saw as going beyond the economic arena, became the exclusive property of the unions. Politics, which the Manifesto saw as a challenge to the bourgeois state, was limited to putting a cross on the ballot paper and to a real accommodation to the capitalist state.

The division between reform and revolution, the restriction of the party to small deeds, while keeping the flag of socialism flying, was embodied in the Erfurt programme of 1891, and in all the speaking and writing of the ageing and ailing Bebel during the last 25 years of his life. It found its clearest expression in the ‘Marxism’ of Karl Kautsky.

The synthesis of reformist content with ‘revolutionary’ form got its clear, organised, formal expression in the Mannheim SPD Congress (1906) resolution that accepted the institutional division of labour between the two pillars of the movement – the trade unions and the party. The legal limitations in Prussia and other states of the Reich, the impotence of the Reichstag, etc., made it possible for the movement to look intransigent in opposition to the current order, while in fact being immobile. In practice, the right wing reformists – the trade union bureaucrats plus the Executive of the SPD – ran the show. [97]

It is sad to say that the extreme left round Rosa Luxemburg did not operate as an interventionist group in the day to day struggle; thus failing to build a bridge between the struggle for reforms and politics; did not, in other words, develop revolutionary practice, but limited themselves to general propaganda. It had no organisation to speak of. It was a collection of individuals with loose connections between them. (Otherwise it is hard to understand how Rosa Luxemburg could send 300 telegrams at the outbreak of the war to individuals she thought were her allies, and only get one positive reply). When the Spartakus League was established during the war it had very weak links with workers in industry. Its main activity was not in the workplace, but on the streets and at public meetings.

If revolutionaries found very few organic ties with actual workers’ struggle in general, this applied even more to women revolutionaries in relation to women workers.

The simple fact is that women workers were by and large less well placed than men in the most militant, key sections of industry. First of all, while women made up more than a third of the labour force in 1914, they made up only 10.1% of the trade union membership. Their strength in the most important industries was extremely small. The proportion of women in different industries in 1914 varied enormously. They were heavily concentrated in Bookbinding 51.1%, Printing (Assistants) 54.1%, Warehouseworkers 57%, Hatmakers 58.6%, Clothing 19.8%, Shoemakers 21.2%, Tobacco 47.7% and Textiles 41.3%. But in the key sections of Engineering and Transport they represented only 5.5% and 4.9% of the workforce. [98]

The conditions for revolutionary practice, are the fusion of the industrial struggle against individual employers and the political struggle against the state, which is dependent to start with on the dynamism of the industrial struggle. In this sphere women were in an even less advantageous position than men workers.

One should also not forget the role of the household burden in blunting women’s ability to undertake revolutionary action. How did the household burden affect women’s class consciousness? Did it spur them on to advance beyond the class consciousness of male workers?

That it affected them there is no doubt. Even outside the house, while working, a mother thinks about the health and feeding of her children etc, while the male worker is publicly orientated. This situation undoubtedly blunts class consciousness among women except when food scarcities and prices get them to riot on the streets.

The walls of the kitchen are very oppressive. But they do not encourage a rise to class consciousness. Class consciousness demands a grasp of society in its entirety, a grasp of the collective interests of the working class in opposition to the capitalist class and the capitalist state. The individual kitchen is the product of capitalist oppression, but in no way is it a point from which capitalism or the working class can be viewed. It is in the valley and not on the heights of the capitalist terrain. To make an analogy: the hundreds of thousands of war invalids in Russia in 1917 were certainly the victims of capitalism in its most brutal form, but, being individual victims of general capitalist oppression, did not make it immediately possible for them to look upon themselves as a collective. As a matter of fact, hardly any of them supported the Bolsheviks. The household similarly blurs class consciousness among women workers.

So it was natural that while only a small number of male workers joined the Spartakus League, the proportion among women workers was even smaller.

What was missing in the German women’s movement throughout its long history was the revolutionary spirit and action of the French working women of 1789, 1848 and 1871, or the Russian women of 1905 and 1917. It had the organisation but not the dynamism vital for revolutionary struggle.

If the SDP’s Marxism was atrophied, that of the women’s movement was even more so. The practice of this movement was an even more massive adaptation to the social and political order. [99]

Whatever criticisms we may lay at the door of Clara Zetkin (and Rosa Luxemburg and friends) for limiting themselves to the activities of a propaganda group instead of being interventionist, one thing we must never forget: that Zetkin was always principled, and never deviated from consistent class politics. Although Clara Zetkin did not achieve the results in building a really revolutionary organisation among working class women that could have accrued from an interventionist instead of a purely propagandist approach, throughout the period she stuck to a basic revolutionary attitude to women’s work. To quote from a thesis she drafted from the Third Congress of the Communist International on methods of work among working women:

Communism is ... the final aim of the proletariat. Consequently, the struggle of the working women for this aim must be carried on in the interests of both, under a united leadership and control, as “one and indivisible” to the entire world movement of the revolutionary proletariat.

The Third Congress of the Comintern confirms the basic proposition of revolutionary Marxism, i.e., that there is no “specific woman question” and no “specific women’s movement”, and that every sort of alliance of working women with bourgeois feminism, (as well as any support by the women workers for the treacherous tactics of the social-compromisers and opportunists) leads to the undermining of the forces of the proletariat, delaying thereby the triumph of the social revolution and the advent of communism, and thus also postponing the great hour of women’s ultimate liberation.

Communism will be achieved not by “united efforts of all women of different classes”, but by the united struggle of all the exploited.

In their own interest the masses of proletarian women should support the revolutionary tactics of the Communist Party and take a most active and direct part in all mass actions and all forms of civil war on a national and international scale ...

The spirit with which the work among women should be imbued is that of the unity of the party movement, of an intact organisation, of independent initiative and independent of Commissions and Sections aiming at a speedy and complete emancipation of women, to be brought about by the Party. What should be striven after is not parallelism in activity, but assistance in the activity of the Party by means of self-development and initiative of the working women ...

Special committees in every local party had to be established to cater specifically to the educational and organisational needs of working women:

The women’s committees must put forward the most important tasks of the proletariat, fight for the unabridged slogans of the Communist Party, of the Communists against the bourgeoisie and the social-compromisers. The committees must see to it that the women are not only registered as equal members of the party, trade unions and other militant workers organisations, which are waging the fight against all injustice or inequality of the women workers, but also that the women should be allowed to occupy responsible positions in the Party, Union or Cooperative on an equal basis with men. [100]

Under capitalism there is ‘estrangement’ between women workers and men workers, otherwise capitalism would not be capitalism. But throughout her life, Zetkin did her best to overcome this estrangement, not to pander to it.

The crucial role of Marxist tradition

It is very disturbing to find out how little is known of the marxist tradition on the question of organizing working class women.

Take, for example, Sheila Rowbotham, who claims to be a Marxist and who is one of the most prolific writers on women. In her book, Hidden from History: 300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight Against It, there is no mention of Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Alexandra Kollontai or Nadezhda Krupskaya. The only prominent Marxist woman mentioned, and quoted (four short lines) is Eleanor Marx. Sheila Rowbotham is not an exception. Even members of revolutionary Marxist organisations are very ignorant when it comes to our tradition in the field. Why?

Stalinism, like a hurricane, smashed down the massive heritage of Marxism and left a desert behind it. It was Trotsky and his followers who largely kept the tradition alive. To this small band of revolutionaries we owe the fact that when we discuss many issues of the day, we can still refer back to the experience, theoretical and practical, of generations past. Thus, for instance, if we discuss the question of reform or revolution, the possibility or otherwise of using the state machine to achieve socialism, tactics and strategy in the colonial revolution, the united front, etc., we do not start from square one, as if we were the first revolutionaries to face these problems, but rely on the century of theory and practice. This is not only because the question of the united front, for instance, was discussed in the Second and Third Congresses of the Communist International (1920 and 1921), but also because the same problem was again posed by Trotsky in the period immediately before Hitler’s accession to power, then in France in 1936, and so on. In this way, Marxist tradition remained alive.

When it came to the woman question things were different. The Stalinist hurricane swept through the period, between the First World War and the late 1960s, when there was a complete gap in the history of the women’s movement.

When a new women’s movement did arise, it was, alas, largely under the influence of ‘Third Worldism’ and soft Maoism, and this did not help to reawaken the Marxist tradition regarding working class women.

The core of Marxism is the centrality of the working class, the idea that socialism is no more than the realisation of the potentialities of the working class. It is the collective power of the proletariat that can emancipate humanity as a whole, by leading all the oppressed – the oppressed nationalities, the mass of atomised peasantry, the mass of atomised, alienated housewives, etc. It is holding to this core of Marxism that led Zetkin, Luxemburg, Krupskaya, Eleanor Marx, to oppose any women’s separatism, and to fight for the complete unity of men and women in one revolutionary party.

To be a Marxist one must be rooted in the tradition of the marxist movement. The Marxist party is ‘the memory of the class’. Our ignorance of our tradition on the women question is very damaging. A study of the writings of Zetkin, Krupskaya, Kollontai, Inessa Armand and Eleanor Marx on the question of organising and leading working class women in the struggle against exploitation and oppression is a long overdue task.


1. This article is part of a forthcoming book about women and socialism. My thanks to Mary Phillips who did a lot of translation.

2. D. McLellan, The Thought of Karl Marx, London 1980, pp. 125–6.

3. In the French Revolution, the Gironde was the half-hearted faction, supporting reaction (though not full-blooded restoration of the old order). The sans-culottes were the propertyless, who had nothing to lose from the revolution running its full course.

4. Lissagaray, History of the Paris Commune, London 1976, p. 419.

5. Luxemburg, Women’s Suffrage and Class Struggle in H. Draper and A.G. Lipow, Marxist Women versus Bourgeois Feminism, The Socialist Register 1976, pp. 214–5.

6. Edwards, The Paris Commune 1871, London 1971, p. 201.

7. Guilbert, Les Femmes et Vorganisation syndicale, pp. 28–9; idem, Le Travail des femmes, Revue francaise du travail (1946), p. 655. G. Dupeux, La Societé francaise 1789–1970, Paris 1974, pp. 179–80.

8. See Chapter Two of my forthcoming book, Women and the Struggle for Socialism.

9. Ibid., Chapter Six.

10. Ibid.

11. Zetkin, Zur Geschichte der proletarischen Frauenbewegung Deutschlands, Berlin 1958, pp. 127–8.

12. The radical SPD daily, Leipziger Volkzeitung, edited for a time by Rosa Luxemburg, and contributed to for many years by her, wrote in December 1913: ‘Feminist ideas are a great danger for the German Women’s Movement ... there is no community of interests among women as a whole.’ Quoted by R.J. Evans, Bourgeois Feminists and Women Socialists in Germany, 1894–1914; Lost Opportunity or Inevitable Conflict?, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 3, 1980, p. 366.

13. The Socialist Register 1976, op. cit., pp. 192–201.

14. Gleichheit, 20 December 1891

15. Ibid., 30 November 1892. The same clear, sharp ideas were formulated by Eleanor Marx when she wrote in 1886, ‘When the revolution comes, and it must come – it will be by the workers, without distinction of sex or trade or country, standing and fighting shoulder to shoulder.’

Six years later she wrote: ‘We see no more in common between Mrs. Fawcett [a leading English feminist 1842–1929 – TC] and a laundress than we see between Rothchild and one of his employees. In short, for us there is only the working class movement.’ Hence ‘only conscious and organised separation of working women from other feminists can make working women into socialists.’ (Socialist Register 1976, op. cit., p. 225).

16. V.I. Lenin, Selected Works, London 1936, Vol. 2, p. 330.

17. Ibid., p. 137.

18. The Zhenotdel (the women’s department) of the Bolshevik Party (1917–1930) was parallelled to the Yevsektsiya (Jewish section of the Party, 1917–1930). Both were integral elements of the united centralised party with specialisation in propaganda among women or Jews. How foreign the idea of women’s separatism was to the Bolsheviks is clear from an editorial written by Krupskaya for the first issue of Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker) on 23 February 1914:

Bourgeois women advocate their special ‘women’s rights’, they always oppose themselves to men and demand their rights from men. For them contemporary society is divided into two main categories, men and women. Men possess everything, hold all rights. The question is one of achieving equal rights.

For the working woman the woman question becomes quite different. The politically conscious women see that contemporary society is divided into classes. Each class has its special interests. The bourgeoisie is one, the working class the other. Their interests are counterposed. The division between men and women does not have great importance in the eyes of the working woman. That which unites the working woman with the working man much stronger than that which divides them. They are united by their common lack of rights, their common need, their common conditions which are the exploitation of their labour, their common struggle and their common goals. ‘All for one, one for all.’ This ‘all’ means members of the working class – men and women alike.

The ‘women’s question’ for working men and women – this question about how to involve the backward masses of working women in organisation, how better to make clear to them their interests, how to make them comrades in the common struggle quickly. The solidarity between working men and women, the common cause, their common goals, and the common path to those goals. Such is the solution for the ‘woman question’ among workers ...

Rabotnitsa will tirelessly repeat the necessity for organisation, will call upon working women to join workers’ organisations, and will make them active members.

In a word, our journal strives to help working women become conscious and organised. (A.F. Bessanova, ed., Kistorii izdeniia zhurnale Rabotnitsa, Istorichheskii archiv, Moscow 1955, pp. 37–39.

19. R.J. Evans, The Feminist Movement in Germany 1894–1933, London 1976 pp. 131–2.

20. Ibid., pp. 137–8.

21. J. Strain, Feminism and Political Radicalism in the German Social Democratic Movement 1890–1914, PhD Thesis, University of California, 1964, pp. 145–8.

22. Evans, The Feminist Movement in Germany, op. cit., p. 137.

23. Gleichheit, 23 January 1895.

24. Letter of Friedrich Engels to Victor Adler, 28 January 1895, Marx-Engels Werke, Vol. 39, p. 400.

25. Gleichheit, 27 February 1901; ibid., 15 January 1902; ibid., 17 December 1902; ibid., 28 June 1905; Protokoll über der Verhandlungen des Parteitages der Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, Berlin 1906, p. 446–9; C. Zetkin, Zur Frage des Frauenwahlrechts, Berlin 1907, pp. 11–38; and International Sozialisten Kongress zu Stuttgart, 18 bis 24 August 1907, Berlin 1907, p. 42. Strain, op. cit., p. 208.

26. Letter of Clara Zetkin to Karl Kautsky, 29 November 1901, KDXXIII, No. 348, Internationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis, Amsterdam.

27. Socialist Register 1976, op. cit., p. 211.

28. D. Geary, The German Labour Movement 1848–1919, European Studies Review, No. 6, 1976.

29. F. Mehring, Geschichte der deutschen Sozialdemokratie, Stuttgart 1903, Vol. l, p. 11.

30. W. Albrecht et al., Frauenfrage und deutsche Sozialdemokratie vom Ende des 19 Jahrhunderts bis zum Beginn der zwanziger Jahre, Archiv fur Sozialgeschichte, 1979, p. 471.

31. Zetkin, Zur Geschichte der proletarischen Frauenbewegung Deutschlands, op. cit., pp. 120–138.

32. H. Quataert, Reluctant Feminists in German Social Democracy 1885–1917, New Jersey 1979, p. 57.

33. Zetkin, Zur Geschichte der proletarischen Frauenbewegung Deutschlands, op. cit., p. 150.

34. Albrecht, op. cit., pp. 471, 464.

35. G. Hanna, Women in the German Trade Union Movement, International Labour Review, July 1923.

36. Albrecht, op. cit., p. 471.

37. Correspondenzblatt, 28 November 1914.

38. On Kartels see D. Fricke, Die Deutsche Arbeiterbewegung, op. cit., pp. 693–5.

39. Gleichheit, 11 January 1893.

40. H. Lion, Zur Soziologie der Frauenbewegung, Berlin 1925, p. 158.

41. Quataert, op. cit., pp. 142–3.

42. Protokoll Parteitag 1906, op. cit., p. 408.

43. Albrecht, op. cit., p. 471. Of course the statistics of female membership of the SPD prior to 1908 gives a distorted picture. Many thousands were to all intents and purposes in the Party without being formal members.

44. R.J. Evans, Sozialdemokratie und Frauenemanzipation im deutschen Kaiserreich, Berlin-Bonn 1979, pp. 166–7.

45. Ibid., p. 265.

46. Gleichheit, 5 January 1898.

47. Cited in Lion, op. cit., p. 93.

48. Ibid., p. 155; D. Fricke, Die deutsche Arbeiterbewegung 1869–1914, Berlin 1976, p. 433.

49. Gleichheit, 30 November 1904.

50. K. Honeycutt, Clara Zetkin. A Left-Wing Socialist and Feminist in Wilhelmian Germany, PhD Thesis, Columbia University 1975, pp. 293–8.

51. Lion, op. cit., p. 155; Fricke, op. cit., p. 433.

52. W. Thoenessen, The Emancipation of Women. The Rise and Decline of the Women’s Movement in German Social Democracy. 1863–1933, London 1976, p. 119.

53. D. Fricke, Zur Organisation und Tätigkeit der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung 1890–1914, Leipzig 1962, p. 133.

54. Ibid., pp. 160–2.

55. Evans, Sozialdemokratie und Frauenemanzipation im Deutschen Kaiserreich, op. cit., p. 168.

56. Quataert, op. cit., p. 196.

57. Ibid., p. 194.

58. Ibid., p. 197.

59. Lion, op. cit., p. 98.

60. Evans, Sozialdemokratie und Frauenemanzipation im deutschen Kaiserreich, op. cit., p. 231

61. See Chapter Four of my forthcoming book Women and the Struggle for Socialism.

62. Thoenessen, op. cit., p. 98.

63. International Sozialisten Kongress 1907, op. cit., Anhang, pp. 40–48.

64. Ibid., pp. 128–9, 132.

65. C.E. Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905–1917, New York 1965, pp. 42–5.

66. Protokoll Parteitages 1906, op. cit., p. 303.

67. Schorske, op. cit., pp. 51–2.

68. On the incorporation of the women’s movement into the SPD in 1908, see Fricke, Zur Organisation, op. cit., pp. 81–2; Fricke, Die deutsche Arbeiterbewegung, op. cit., p. 325.

69. On 1 July 1911, the cruiser Panther sailed into the harbour of Agadir to protect German interests in Morocco. The demand of the radicals in the SPD for strong opposition to this imperialist adventure was rebuffed by the SPD Executive. In March 1913 the Government introduced a record-breaking military expansion bill. To pay for it it was suggested Reich profit taxes be introduced. The SPD Reichstag group was split. 52 favoured voting for the tax; 37 opposed it, and 7 abstained. Thus the Social Democratic Reichstag delegation prefigured its behaviour in the days of 2–4 August 1914. In the same year 1913, the radicals advocated the tactic of the mass strike, but again were rebuffed by the Party Executive.

70. See A. Hall, Youth in Rebellion: The Beginnings of the Socialist Youth Movement 1904–14, in R.J. Evans, editor, Society and Politics in Wilhelmine Germany, London 1978.

71. Albrecht, op. cit., pp. 471–2.

72. C. Zetkin, Ausgewählte Reden und Schriften, Berlin 1957, Vol. 1.

73. Ibid., p. 622.

74. Ibid., p. 625.

75. P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, London 1969, pp. 371–2.

76. R. Wheeler: Zur sozialen Struktur der Arbeiterbewegung am Anfang der Weimarer Republik, in H. Mommsen et al., editors, Industrielles System und politische Entwicklung in der Weimarer Republik, Düsseldorf 1974, p. 182.

77. Quataert, op. cit., pp. 212–3.

78. Ibid., p. 227.

79. Albrecht, op. cit., p. 488.

80. J. Kuczynski, Die Geschichte der Lage der Arbeiter unter dem Kapitalismus, Berlin 1967, Vol. 4, p. 351.

81. R.H. Lutz, ed., Fall of the German Empire 1914–1918, Stanford 1932, Vol. 2, p. 199.

82. Ibid., p. 200.

83. R. Lindau, Revolutionäre Kämpfe 1918–1919, Berlin 1960, p. 209.

84. J. Williams, The Other Battlefield, The Home Fronts: Britain, France and Germany 1914–1918, Chicago 1972, p. 155.

85. R. Müller, Vom Kaiserreich zur Republik, ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der revolutionären Arbeiterbewegung während des Weltkrieges, Vienna 1924, p. 60.

86. C. Ravera, Diario di trent’anni, Rome 1973, pp. 19–20.

87. P. Broué, Revolution en Allemagne 1917–1923, Paris 1971, pp. 101–2.

88. L. Trotsky, 1905, New York 1971, p. 250.

89. F.L. Carsten, Revolution in Central Europe 1918–1919, Berkeley and Los Angeles 1972, p. 133.

90. Thoenessen, op. cit., p. 84.

91. Ibid., pp. 90–1.

92. Ibid., pp. 91–2.

93. Quataert, op. cit., p. 223.

94. [Reference missing in original text – CH]

95. Ibid., p. 122.

96. Marx-Engels, Collected Works, London 1976, Vol. 6, pp. 492–3.

97. How bureaucratic the SPD was becomes clear from the social composition of the delegates to the 1911 Jena conference. Out of 393 delegates only 52 were workers. The rest were party officials – 157; trade union officials – 45; co-operative officials – 15, etc. Workers made up only an eighth of all delegates (Fricke, Die deutsche Arbeiterbewegung, op. cit., pp. 281–2). At the same time workers made up 90% of the Party membership (Fricke, Zur Organisation, op. cit, p. 90).

98. Albrecht, op. cit., p. 469.

99. Of all the leaders of the German Socialist Women’s Movement – Clara Zetkin, Louise Zietz, Ottilie Baader, Emma Ihrer, Gertrud Hanna, Helene Grünberg, Marie Juchacz – only Zetkin joined the Spartakists, and later the KPD(S), and that not earlier than 1919. During the war Zetkin still hesitated about joining a breakaway organisation from the SPD.

100. Thesis on Methods of Work Among the Women of the Communist Party (Adopted at the Third Congress of the Communist International), The Communist International, 1921, pp. 155–83.

Last updated on 29.2.2012