England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Clara Zetkin: Pioneer of socialist feminism

Clara Zetkin was an inspiring figure who made a significant contribution to the revolutionary movement. Along with socialists like Eleanor Marx and Alexandra Kollontai, she linked the struggle for women’s emancipation with the struggle against the capitalist system.

By Caroline Vincent, Socialist Alternative Leicester

Born Clara Eissner in Germany in 1857, it was whilst studying in Leipzig that she was introduced to Marxism by a group of exiled Russians, including Ossip Zetkin, who became her partner. Due to repressive anti-socialist laws in Germany, the couple spent several years in exile in Paris.

Women were not legally allowed to be politically active in Germany until 1908, but despite this she became involved with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) – the largest socialist party in Europe at the time – in 1890, and went on to become a central figure in the socialist movement.

She fought to get women organised in trade unions, she was the editor of a socialist women’s publication Die Gleichheit (Equality) from 1891 to 1917, and was dedicated to the recruitment of working class women into the socialist movement, as well as to their ongoing political education.

Opposition to imperialist wars

The SPD was part of the Second International which collapsed following the outbreak of World War I and the treachery of the leadership of most official social democratic parties, who supported militarism and protection of their own fatherlands.

Zetkin was amongst the minority in the SPD who firmly opposed this course. She said:

“Imperialist wars are directed against the workers, they are the inevitable expression of the very being of capitalism. The first decisive step towards demolishing the system of blood-sucking capitalism must be strong and inexorable recognition that the workers are against imperialist wars.”

Zetkin co-founded the Spartacist League in 1916, alongside Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht to fight for revolutionary movement to end the war. They would play a role in the founding of the anti-war Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) in 1917, which was a split from the SPD. She went on to become a member of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) in 1919.

Trade union organising

Zetkin was fighting for the demands of women workers at a time when large numbers of women were entering the workplace, for example in factories. This was a radicalising experience for women. Zetkin advocated for liberation on the basis of economic independence. At the time, this meant coming into conflict with the idea held by some, including even many socialists in that period, that women should be banned from being part of the workforce. She rallied against the notion that a woman’s place is at home.

Women were paid less than men, therefore there were complaints that they were driving down wages. She took the approach of getting women organised in trade unions to ensure that they earned better wages and better working conditions, explaining that men and women are not in competition with each other, they are both being exploited by capitalism.

Zetkin saw paid work as essential to women’s liberation, and the economic independence of women as a step towards the liberation of the working class as a whole. She said:

“We must not place the interests of male and female workers in hostile opposition to each other, but must unite them both into a unified mass that represents workers’ interests in general, in opposition to the interests of capital.”

She was ahead of her time with her condemnation of sexual harassment in the workplace, calling on trade unions to work for the inclusion of women as equals, to put a stop to male workers viewing the female worker “primarily as a woman to be courted”, to stop “molesting them with crude sexual advances”, and that “the workers must get accustomed to treat female proletarians as working class comrades fighting class slavery and as equal and indispensable fighters in the class struggle.”


Zetkin campaigned for female suffrage, despite seeing it as an insufficient goal in itself. She saw women’s suffrage as a necessary step towards liberation and a way to encourage women to become politically activev. She recognised that the terrible conditions for working-class women, along with the double oppression that they faced, would make them determined fighters for socialist change.

The bourgeois feminists leading the suffrage movement revealed the differences between socialist and bourgeois feminism with their approach. They were mainly interested in protecting their own property, wealth and inheritance rights, and did not care if working class women got the vote so long as they did. They placed emphasis on the need for legal equality. Zetkin, on the other hand, highlighted poor conditions for women and the burden on them, such as the lack of maternity leave. She fought for parental leave, childcare, and protective legislation for women workers.

Was Zetkin a feminist?

There are some groups on the left who see feminism as divisive to class struggle, and who think that the rights of oppressed groups can wait until after the revolution. Zetkin certainly did not think that women should have to wait!

Yet whereas she was a tireless campaigner for women’s rights and universal suffrage, she raised strong criticisms of the dominant trends in the feminist movement of her time, as outlined in this excerpt from a profile on Zetkin published in The Guardian in 1992:

“Zetkin was outspoken in her opposition to feminism – a movement composed overwhelmingly of upper and middle-class women. For Zetkin the bottom line was this: middle-class women had middle-class interests, working class women had working-class interests. Like the clash of interests between worker and employer, these class differences could not be reconciled. Rather than being a unifying force, feminism meant privileged women fighting for their own betterment. Socialism was, Zetkin believed, the only movement that could truly serve the needs of working class women.”

The dominant feminist ideas at the time were those of these better-off women who were no friends to their working-class ‘sisters’. Their approach focussed on suffrage and reforms, and they had totally different economic interests. Zetkin saw this as a dead end for the working class, and she recognised the damage that these ideas could do to the movement.

In ‘What the Women Owe to Karl Marx’, Zetkin rejected the idea of a cross-class ‘universal sisterhood’, saying:

“In the atmosphere of the materialist concept of history, the ‘love drivel’ about a ‘sisterhood’ which supposedly wraps a unifying ribbon around bourgeois ladies and female proletarians, bursts like so many scintillating soap bubbles. Marx has forged and taught us to use the sword which has severed the connection between the proletarian and the bourgeois women’s movement. But he has also forged the chain of discernment by which the former is inextricably tied to the socialist labour movement and the revolutionary class struggle of the proletariat. Thus he has given our struggle the clarity of its final goal.”

On the question of where to put the blame for women’s lower standing in society, bourgeois feminists tended to blame men and their lack of morals and empathy. Zetkin instead squarely placed the blame on capitalism, as a system that benefits from exploitation and depends upon and breeds oppression. Division along gender lines would prevent the working class from being able to carry out the task of socialist revolution, and she maintained that the proletarian women’s movement had to be revolutionary.

Zetkin saw the Bolsheviks and the gains made for women following the 1917 revolution in Russia as something that could be hugely inspiring to working women. She used Die Gleichheit – which had articles on workplace conditions, trade union action and strikes – to guide the most advanced participants within the socialist women’s movement, to “school the female comrades who stand in the forefront of the battle” in Marxism, and to prevent them from being misguided by the ideas and goals of bourgeois feminists.

Socialist feminism

There are some strands of feminism and ideas in the movement today that differ from, or are even opposed to Marxism. These days we might use the term ‘liberal feminism’ when talking about the bourgeois approach of narrow goals centred on improving the lives of mainly better-off women, and lacking an inclusive approach – for instance insufficiently taking up the demands of women of colour. These feminists will raise demands like more female CEOs and more women in high places.

There are anti-trans ‘radical’ feminists, some of whom would (disgracefully) describe themselves as Marxists or socialists, but who actually have a reactionary and exclusionary approach to trans people.

Socialist feminism is inclusive and anti-capitalist, and can build unity amongst the multi-gendered, multiracial working class with a unique class-struggle based approach and a strategy to overthrow the capitalist system that underlies our oppression.

The term ‘socialist feminism’ began to be used in the 1970s by some Marxist organisations. An article in Jacobin last year made the claim that Zetkin was not a socialist feminist because the term did not exist during her lifetime! But Zetkin, the same as these feminists in the 1970s, brought a materialist analysis of oppression to feminism and pointed to the writings of Frederich Engels (The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State), and August Bebel (Women and Socialism) as key texts to explain the link between gender oppression and class exploitation. 

International Working Women’s Day

Part of Zetkin’s legacy is the establishment of International Working Women’s Day. It may have been co-opted in recent years into a day where women are offered discounts and treats, but the fact is that it has its roots in the international struggle for socialist change.

Zetkin initiated the event on 8 March 1910. She was inspired by working women’s struggles that had been organised in New York in 1857 and 1908 – actions of young female immigrant garment workers who organised impressive strike actions. At Zetkin’s suggestion, the day became an annual event for working women’s rights, and an event for the workers movement and the socialist movement to support and actively organise around globally. The following year, over a million people participated.

Fighting fascism

Much of the end of Zetkin’s life was spent in exile in the Soviet Union where she died in 1933.

Unfortunately under Joseph Stalin’s leadership, the regime in the USSR had gone back on many of the progressive measures introduced around the time of the revolution.

She wrote texts and delivered speeches about the danger of the rise of fascism and how it could be defeated, having produced a report analysing its key characteristics in 1923. She pointed to the economic crisis of capitalism, the decline of its institutions as well as the demoralisation amongst the working class due to lack of leadership and the failure of the socialist revolution in Germany and beyond. She saw workers’ self-defence and united front action as crucial to fight back.

Just one year before her death, despite her age and health, Zetkin travelled to Berlin where she delivered a warning speech in the Reichstag urging people not to open the door to fascism.

Zetkin’s determination right up until her death to fight for a better world is a shining example to socialists. Her writings and speeches are rich in lessons for how to build class struggle, and her theoretical contribution helps to provide an understanding of the relationship between fighting the capitalist system and the struggles against all oppression and wars


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