Friday, 8 January 2016

Book Review: Clara Zetkin: Letters and Writing

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter #57 (January 2016)  


Revolutionary History: New Series No. 1: Clara Zetkin – Letters and Writings Edited by Mike Jones and Ben Lewis Socialist Platform/Merlin Press 2015 Paperback £20.00 ISBN
978-0-85036-720-1 See

All too often studies of the early years of the international Communist movement focus on Lenin and Trotsky at the expense of a number of other remarkable figures who made an important contribution but have largely disappeared from the historical record. One such is Clara Zetkin, who, if she is mentioned at all, is remembered for her contribution to the women’s movement – she was one of the initiators of International Women’s Day.

But as this new collection produced by Revolutionary History shows, she was a complex figure involved in many fields of struggle. The collection contains some examples of her work on women’s oppression. But though she vigorously defended women’s rights, she always saw class as more important than gender.

The very first item is an article on the emergence of a servant girls’ movement in Berlin, which got little sympathy from the “elegant parlour ladies” who dominated the bourgeois feminist movement. And as the “Guidelines for the Communist Women’s Movement” she wrote for the Second Congress of the Communist International show, she was against making “women’s work” a ghetto for female comrades; the crucial task of recruiting and politically educating women workers was a job for the whole party, male and female: “There must be a committee for agitation amongst women in every local party organisation, to which male comrades can also belong.”

 Zetkin opposed the First World War from the outset (despite an initial tactical disagreement with Luxemburg), arguing that workers should “struggle for peace, in order to liberate the forces of the proletariat once more for the international class struggle.” In March 1915 she convened a socialist women’s anti-war conference in Switzerland, six months before Zimmerwald. Her activities earned her twenty-two months in jail. In 1919 she was devastated by the murder of her close friends Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, but despite this and her declining health, she flung herself into building the newly founded German Communist Party (KPD) and the Communist International.

She was on friendly terms with Lenin, and the volume contains a number of the letters she sent him. She admired Lenin, but was not deferential, and if she believed things were going wrong in the International, she did not hesitate to point this out. Thus she warned him to be distrustful of the Comintern Executive representatives, and not to see the world through their spectacles, which “are coloured and give a distorted view”.

 In the spring of 1921 the KPD launched the notorious March Action, an insurrectionary general strike without preparation or mass support. The result was repression and a massive loss of members. The situation was aggravated by the fact that former party leader Paul Levi publicly attacked the party and was expelled. Here Zetkin was at her best. Essentially she agreed with Levi’s criticisms, but she stayed to fight, arguing her case at the Third Congress (of which we now have the complete minutes - ) and trying, in discussion with Lenin and in correspondence with Levi, to find some way Levi could be brought back into the party.

 In 1923 she presented a detailed report on fascism to the Comintern Executive. It was one of the earliest attempts to make a Marxist analysis of fascism, and to understand what was new about it. Mussolini was triumphant in Italy, and fascism was a real threat elsewhere in Europe, notably in Germany. Zetkin analysed the social crisis which had given rise to fascism, and showed how it had “a programme which proved to be extremely attractive to the broad masses”, since workers and other sections of the oppressed were disillusioned by reformist betrayals and the inadequacies of the Communist parties. She argued Communists had been wrong when they “considered fascism merely as a military-style phenomenon and overlooked its ideological and political aspects”. Above all she argued the united front was essential for proletarian self-defence. While she pointed to the contradictions at the heart of fascism which meant that it was ideologically and politically bankrupt, she also argued that its collapse was not imminent: “A monster is often still capable of dealing destructive blows in its death agony.”

 Zetkin never broke with the Communist International. But as several of the items here make clear, she was deeply unhappy with the way the International was developing as Stalin rose to power. She was equally unhappy about developments in the KPD, seeing it as declining into “clique-politics, group- and faction-building, group- and faction-warfare, narrow-minded bureaucratisation instead of ideological politicisation of party life”. In a letter to Bukharin she wrote that KPD leader Thälmann “is clueless and theoretically uneducated, has grown into self-deception and self-delusion which borders on megalomania”. By 1931 she described the KPD as “justification of the line at the top, and intimidation, expulsions below …. A damn shame!” When the KPD developed the dangerous and destructive theory that Social Democrats were “social fascists” she did not follow the line but continued to call for a united front.  This is clear from the final piece in the collection - Zetkin’s address to the Reichstag in August 1932, when she got to make the opening speech as the oldest member. Though the Nazis were now the largest party in the parliament, she vigorously denounced Nazis as murderers, advocated the overthrow of the government, and again called for the united front.

Hopefully this volume will serve to arouse greater interest in Zetkin, and lead to further translations of her work. The volume also contains a reviews and obituaries section, including among other things a brief biography of veteran Trotskyist Sam Bornstein, an obituary of the Indian Trotskyist Raj Narayan Arya which touches on the problems of entrism in India, and an extended analysis of an anthology of Irish poetry.

Ian Birchall

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