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International Socialism, Autumn 1981


Juliet Ash

Clara Zetkin: A reply to Tony Cliff


From International Socialism, 2 : 14, Autumn 1981, pp. 120-124.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Tony Cliff’s article in International Socialism 2 : 13 on Clara Zetkin attempted to point out some of the grave complexities involved in understanding the development of socialist and feminist movements during the last 100 years. In doing so he employed a classic male leadership method, conveniently picking out from writings and correspondence of this period quotes from socialist women which would suggest a concern with issues considered important by socialists and feminists at present. The result is to modernise the historical figures, transforming them into heroines without a context, and suggest that everything has been said before, that these women felt and acted much as we do today and if they didn’t then they should have done. It’s all too easy to do this with hindsight and an axe to grind – the familiar dictum that women should be passive stooges within the cosy enclaves of the Party.

To prove there should be no separate organising of women within the Party he explains away Clara Zetkin’s Gleichheit movement (‘the separate socialist women’s organisation’) by saying: ‘The reason was quite simple. The law did not allow women to join any political party in the greater part of the Reich till 1908’ (IS 2 : 13, p. 45). There is no doubt that until 1908 women in Prussia were banned from joining political organisations and social democrats had to resort to the creation of women’s education and cultural clubs in order to reach women. Thus special methods of organisation were dictated initially by practical considerations. However the different world women inhabited, their different experiences, their shyness about speaking in public, were recognised as other reasons for the existence of a women’s movement, and special organisational structures were preserved even after women were granted equal rights to participate in political organisations. [1]

Cliff, although mentioning Clara Zetkin’s recognition of ‘women’s special but not separate’ organisation in connection with the Party, regards it as merely a reaction to the edicts of the state without crediting her with a more general understanding of women politically. He relates it also to the nature of the SPD but fails to show why a proletarian women’s movement of this magnitude at this time developed specifically in Germany and nowhere else. The German middle class was small and closely tied to the State with the result that the labour movement defined itself very much in opposition to the rest of society and its women’s movement developed very definitely as a proletarian women’s movement within the confines of the Socialist Party. In commenting on the contents of the paper Die Gleichheit he chooses not to mention the detailed accounts of what was happening to the ‘feminist movement’ or the fight for suffrage in all its complexity. The debate concerning suffrage continued to be an essential ingredient in social democratic and, later, Third International practice and theory, revolving, as it did, around the whole question of pacifism, feminism and the vote. ‘Bürgerliche Frauenbewegung’ (Bourgeois Feminism) [2] was discussed not omitted as Cliff would have us believe.

Although Cliff pulls facts out of Jean Quaetert’s article The Feminism of German Socialist Women 1890–1918, he ignores its recognition that Clara Zetkin never expanded or radicalised Marx, Engels and Bebel’s analysis of the family. Clara Zetkin religiously kept to the edict that until women were workers they could never be emancipated and that for biological reasons women should retain the dual submission of housewife (mother) and worker. Only with the advent of the revolution would this be changed radically, although she did not rule out reforms which would alleviate women’s role i.e. equal pay, abortion rights etc. As Jean Quaetert says, also with hindsight:

‘To a certain extent female comrades were victims of their ideology which posited the inevitable evolution of the family. In their official debates they omitted discussing the family as an institution and its place in conditioning male and female role divisions or women’s subordinate status.’ [3]

In refusing to criticise Clara Zetkin theoretically, in order to set her up as a paragon of Marxist virtue, Cliff fails to use historical hindsight to its advantage for both Marxists and feminists. The crux of Cliff’s argument hinges on his audacious and fallacious statement at the conclusion of the piece. This is that the history of the women question in relation to socialism and communism has yet to be written – by him, although he has not bothered to read books on Clara Zetkin written in German, not bothered to consult those who are researching this period, or unpublished works by women in this country on subjects such as Sylvia Pankhurst. The only reference to work done in this area by women is to snidely condemn Sheila Rowbotham, in Hidden from History – a history of women in England – because she didn’t mention Clara Zetkin (a German). He ends:

‘When it came to the women’s 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.’ (IS 2 : 13, p. 68)

The last is mere slander, but in his haste to hoist Clara Zetkin onto a pedestal and pronounce her writings and politics pre-1914 as gospel, he has denied not only feminists their own history but the whole of the Communist Movement, its history and tradition in relation to women. Between 1914 and 1930 there was the emergence of the most complicated interweaving of ideas and practice concerning the particular questions of the relations between women and the socialist tradition and left wing organisations. If a women’s movement the size of the ’60s one didn’t emerge, instead there developed the weighty International Communist Women’s Movement crucial to which was Die Kommunistische Frauen Internationale, its International Communist women’s journal which appeared once a month between 1920 and 1924. The women’s question did not just die. The journal was largely intended for internal consumption within the many national communist parties that developed within the confines of the Third International, directly after the Russian Revolution. But its pages include debates concerning united front work, women’s participation in trade unions, attitudes to ‘bourgeois feminism’ and anarchist feminists in different countries, opposition to policies handed down by the Women’s Secretariat as well as reports of women’s work from all the countries involved. Henrietta Roland Hoist from Holland carried on a heated debate with Clara Zetkin as to whether the united front policy could be extended to include joint activity with social democrats, anarchists and feminists (Die Kommunistische Frauen Internationale, Mai/April 1922). She was harshly rebuked by Clara Zetkin but the discussion continued. Cliff suggests that ‘when we come to the women’s question things are different’, meaning that women’s work was unaffected by Third International policy and thus ‘has no marxist tradition’. The whole establishment and progress and downfall of the International Communist Women’s Movement, with sections in most European countries and North America, were dependent on the policies of the Comintern and the success or failure of oppositional ideas such as Trotsky’s. Clara Zetkin was to continue active political commitment for another decade and a half after Cliff’s article finishes and, although the International Communist Women’s Movement petered out after 1924, it didn’t mean the ideas and practice it had evolved suddenly came to a halt until the ‘soft maoist’ option of the ’60s.

Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai made a fundamental mistake in attempting to model this new Third International movement on German Social Democratic methods. The strength of the SPD was its roots in working class culture; the Party was almost synonymous with working class politics. The principle of ‘special’ work within the Party left space and opportunity to make contact with women of the working class and keep in touch with their needs and struggles. In Soviet Russia, within a few years of 1917, all Parties and political groups other than the Bolsheviks were banned or disappeared with the result that here also the scope of the Party and of politics were all but identical; and for a Party in power the possibilities of reaching women and introducing them to political activity were immense. Elsewhere, however, where the Communist Parties were weak and isolated the principle of tying women closely to the Party and refusing to contemplate any joint work with non-party organisations immediately raised problems and stunted the growth of the movement.

However, the problem was not merely that the Comintern mistakenly attempted to graft the organisational methods of the SPD on to another type of Party structure, but the German methods themselves were inadequate for any time or place because they failed to take into consideration sufficiently the gender divisions within society that cut across and inter-connect with class divisions. For, one of the recurring problems of the Communist Women’s Movement, was that whatever the methods adhered to by the Parties, they were carried out sluggishly, with indifference and very often were not carried out at all. In 1918 and 1919, at the height of the revolutionary upsurge in Europe, the Communist Parties ignored the question of organising women. The KPD in the year of its foundation distributed 12 million leaflets and 3 million pamphlets, none of which specifically addressed themselves to the concerns of women. [4] The Polish and British Communist Parties resisted Comintern instructions for several years and refused to establish women’s departments. Kollontai observed that male comrades had not actively involved themselves in setting up the women’s movement, Clara Zetkin that the growth of the movement had taken place without the support of the Parties ‘and at times with even their open or hidden opposition’. The most biting criticism came from Lucie Colliard, the French delegate to the Third Congress, who opened her speech: ‘Comrades, I am speaking on behalf of the women communists, but first of all I must make it clear that I have been sent here by a Communist Party which has done little to attract women to its ranks.’

Despite the failings of the International Women’s Secretariat (IWS) after 1924. individual women and whole groups of women in some countries had attempted to set up special committees of women, housewives committees, delegates meetings, some of which failed and others of which succeeded. Debates had gone on about the nature of feminism, trades union work amongst women, abortion etc.

The increasing marginalisation of women was justified by the Communist Movement’s theoretical treatment of gender divisions and their relationship to class. The resolution passed by Comintern in 1921 closely linked organisational methods with theory:

‘The Third Congress of the Communist International supports the basic position of revolutionary Marxism that there is no “special” women’s question, nor should there be a special women’s movement and that any alliance between working women and bourgeois feminism or support for the vacillating or clearly right-wing tactics of the social compromisers and opportunists will lead to the weakening of the forces of the proletariat, thereby delaying the great hour of the full emancipation of women.’ [5]

An independent women’s movement was rejected because the subordinate position of women in society was so closely linked with that of the proletariat it needed no separate organisational expression. The oppression of women as a sex was recognised but held to pale into insignificance beside the exploitation of the working class. The class position of a woman was, in the long run, the deciding factor, and so collaboration across class lines around issues of oppression was ruled out.

The Russian Revolution raised hopes amongst many socialist women and Left-wing feminists that the liberation of women was to be given a more prominent place in socialist theory and practice, for many of the ideas expressed at that time seemed to echo the doubts they themselves had sometimes had in private and occasionally expressed in public about the wisdom of subordinating oppression so firmly to exploitation. The pronouncement of the Soviet government and its early legislation seemed to express an awareness of the connections between changes in political and economic structures and in the position of women. Bolshevik writings recognised that the struggle to emancipate women did not end with the revolution, was not automatically achieved with the seizure of power, that real equality would only come with time and effort. Theorists discussed the withering away of the family and the new forms of social life that could free women from domestic labour.

But just as the dissidents abroad were never in a position to influence their parties, the influence of the writings of Soviet theorists on the politics of the Bolshevik party and the Comintern was extremely limited. As the cult of Lenin developed, his writing on the women question was advertised as the embodiment of Marxist excellence on the subject and when everything had already been said there was no incentive to try and say anything more. Lenin once said that the Russian Revolution would not have succeeded or ‘hardly have succeeded’ if not for the participation of women. The economist E. Varga made the same point: ‘Without the active participation of women the victory of the revolution is impossible’ [6], and like Lenin he does not elaborate or substantiate his statement in any way.

Individual women communists had come to a far more complex understanding of the significance of gender than this, but they proved unable to bridge the gap and suggest how the Comintern could integrate the struggle for women’s liberation into its politics. They tended to fall back on the same generalities as the leading male comrades and pay lip-service, in the end, to the division the International made between its theoretical acceptance of women’s oppression and the political subordination of the women’s movement. But that was a period when the optimism of the revolution created some kind of identification of revolution and women’s liberation.

We are now, however, in a far more unhealthy political climate and there is a need for a radical reappraisal of methods of organising as revolutionaries and women, not a mere mouthing of organisational methods in the past, uninformed by theory. Clara Zetkin, for her time, was an amazing woman but Cliff refuses to recognise that a great deal has happened in connection with the women’s question since then, both in theory and in practice, and makes an historical leap for his own ends.

Clara Zetkin admitted bravely in 1925 that ‘the working woman, and not only the labour aristocracy, are in their feelings and ideas, reformist and not revolutionary. That was the real reason they were led by the 2nd International’ ... [7] and she was at the centre of the search for a reorientation of the Communist women’s movement. In looking back she reassessed, she didn’t condemn.

I feel that it is more important for Cliff to realise the damage done by dogmatic male revolutionaries through dismissing feminism, and different methods of ‘special’ organisation, than to accept that the well-worn paths are the safest. While it is important to uncover the insights of the women within social democracy and the women’s movement, the modernisation process can be very misleading; distinctions between class, race and gender become blurred in a clumsy association of 1904 with the present day. In showing the struggle of the socialist women within the context of the socialist movement, by drawing attention to the different spheres of socialist culture, the different experiences expressed in struggle, the isolation of women in the movement; lessons can be drawn for the present revolutionary movement. The most important of these is that it is possible to distinguish between the formal equality and actual subordination of women within the socialist movement at the national and official levels and the real struggles and creative energies at the grass roots level.


1. See chapter 3 of Juliet Ash and Alex Holt, Socialism and Feminism in the International Communist Women’s Movement, Pluto Press, forthcoming.

2. There is a long discussion of this in Karen Bauer, Clara Zetkin, Oberbaum Press, p. 11.

3. Jean H. Quaetert, The Feminism of German Socialist Women 1890-1918, p. 10.

4. Erna Hal’ba, Zhenskoe dvizzhenie v Germanii, Pravda, 11 July 1924.

5. Resolution passed by Comintern at the Third Congress 1921.

6. E. Varga, Ekonoiceski Krizis i rabotnitsa, Kommunitska, no. 12, 1921, p. 7.

7. Clara Zetkin, Blizhe K trudyashchimsya zhenskin massam, Kommunitska, no. 2, February 1925, pp. 2–3.

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