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Spartacist English edition No. 64

Summer 2014

Clara Zetkin and the Struggle for the Third International

(Women and Revolution pages)

The outbreak of the first interimperialist war in August 1914 marked a watershed in the international socialist workers movement, as the social-democratic Second International collapsed into social-chauvinism. Saluting the “defense of the fatherland,” the social-chauvinist leaders rallied behind their own ruling classes, helping to lead the proletariat into the carnage of the war and suppress class struggle in the name of “civil peace.” The most spectacular example was the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), widely seen as the leading party in the International. On 4 August 1914, the SPD fraction in the German Reichstag (parliament) voted in favor of granting the imperial government war credits, thereby approving Kaiser Wilhelm II’s imperialist war aims.

Prepared by their years-long struggle and decisive split with the Russian opportunists—the Mensheviks—V.I. Lenin and the Bolshevik Party emerged as the leadership of an international movement to recapture the banner of revolutionary Marxism. As early as the Stuttgart International Socialist Congress in 1907, Lenin had attempted to bring together a left-wing core against the opportunists in the International. Led by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, the left won unanimous approval of a resolution that embodied Lenin’s key point: “The essential thing is not merely to prevent war, but to utilise the crisis created by war in order to hasten the overthrow of the bourgeoisie” (Lenin, “The International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart,” August-September 1907). But when war broke out, among the social-democratic parties in the combatant countries only the Bolsheviks, some Mensheviks and the Bulgarian and Serbian parties opposed war funding for their governments.

The Second International’s ignominious collapse meant, for Lenin, the irrevocable need to break decisively with the opportunists and their centrist apologists and to fight for a new, Third International. In 1919, after years of struggle and the triumphant conquest of power by the proletariat in the October 1917 Russian Revolution, the Third (Communist) International (Comintern, or CI) was founded in Moscow. Its first four Congresses (1919-22) proclaimed a revolutionary program of action, seeking to win over the best of the left-wing socialists throughout the world and begin the process of building mass Communist parties.

Forging new, Leninist vanguard parties required a series of political fights to break the revolutionary elements from social-democratic practice and program and to purge the centrist waverers. As Lenin wrote, “The Third International has gathered the fruits of the work of the Second International, discarded its opportunist, social-chauvinist, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois dross, and has begun to implement the dictatorship of the proletariat” (“The Third International and Its Place in History,” April 1919).

Among the fruits of the Second International was the trailblazing work among women before 1914 that was initiated and carried out mainly by women cadre of the SPD, led by Clara Zetkin. A prominent left-winger associated with Rosa Luxemburg, Zetkin fought for and organized special efforts to bring women under the banner of the party and encouraged the extension of these efforts internationally. For 25 years, she served as the editor of Die Gleichheit (Equality), a high-level, polemical journal that organized and educated SPD women cadre. Zetkin’s pioneering work among women was later to serve as a stepping stone for the Bolsheviks as they sought to implement their revolutionary program for women’s emancipation. A writer, speaker, organizer and translator, Zetkin was one of the best and certainly best-known leaders in the Second International. Already over 60 years old at the time of the Russian Revolution, she was a rare participant in the 1889 founding of the Second International who made it over to the Communist International. Lenin’s hard political struggles with her played a huge part in the positive outcome.

In her path from left-wing social democrat to communist, Zetkin carried a heavy load of political baggage from the Second International. The wrenching process of Zetkin’s journey speaks to the vast gulf between social democracy and communism, even for left-wing social democrats who embraced the Bolshevik Revolution. Her understanding of the necessary, hard, programmatic fight for a Leninist vanguard party was partial; she struggled to break from the social-democratic conception of the “party of the whole class” (one class, one party), which meant conciliation of opportunism. For several years, she straddled social democracy and Leninism before coming over decisively to communism.

Today a large swath of the left avidly promotes the social-democratic illusions in gradual reform and parliamentary tactics that dominated the Second International. In “The Neo-Kautskyites: Recycling the Second International” (Spartacist [English edition] No. 63, Winter 2012-13), we addressed the resurgent popularity of Social Democracy’s main theoretician, Karl Kautsky, among an array of reformist left groups, notably those associated with the journal Historical Materialism and its various conferences and book projects.

In this milieu are supporters of the U.S.-based International Socialist Organization (ISO), the United Secretariat and the British Socialist Workers Party, who distort the lessons of revolutionary history to camouflage their own open rejection of the prospect of international proletarian revolution. In embracing the bourgeois lie of the “death of communism,” the reformists have ever more overtly renounced and denounced even their erstwhile formal pretensions to Leninism. Kautsky and his ilk sought to subordinate the workers to their class enemy through politically muddled “unity” in a “party of the whole class.” Today’s reformists follow in his footsteps.

A parallel revival of interest in Clara Zetkin has taken place among these same reformists and leftist academics. A prime example is John Riddell, a leftist historian and editor of a valuable book series that collects the documents of the early CI under the title The Communist International in Lenin’s Time. Riddell’s writings, frequently published in the ISO’s International Socialist Review and other reformist journals, tout Zetkin precisely because of her differences with the Bolsheviks over the war and party organization. At the same time, he disagrees with and thus seeks to bury the steps Zetkin made toward a Bolshevik perspective. The reformists cannot stand the fact that the veteran socialist Zetkin championed the Bolshevik Revolution and, with great difficulty, came to realize the necessity of the qualitative break with social democracy that Lenin’s party represented.

The Party Question from the Second to the Third International

The official doctrine of international social democracy posited a sharp division between the maximum program (socialism at some point in the future) and a minimum program of political and socio-economic reforms considered achievable within the capitalist system. Crucially, the SPD’s understanding of the state—that it could be transformed in the interest of the working class through parliamentary means—reflected a creeping revisionist gradualism that came to supplant the party’s stated revolutionary socialist perspective. For the main SPD leaders, socialism would be reached through increasing their representation in the Reichstag and the slow accretion of the party’s forces in the working class. This last dangerous illusion was deeply ingrained in Zetkin’s politics.

The “party of the whole class,” as popularized by Kautsky, represented all tendencies claiming to speak for the interests of the working class—from the most opportunist and pro-capitalist to the most class-conscious and revolutionary. The revisionist wing led by Eduard Bernstein rejected the central tenets of Marxism and argued explicitly that capitalism could be gradually reformed in the direction of socialism. While the SPD formally rejected Bernstein’s revisionism in 1903, his program became the de facto practice of the increasingly conservative party executive and the SPD trade-union leadership in the years before the outbreak of the war. Social Democratic party “democracy” meant that the reformist parliamentarians and trade-union officials spoke for the party while the working-class base effectively had no voice.

In sharp contrast, Lenin’s concept of the vanguard party meant a cadre organization of professional revolutionaries cohered around a revolutionary program, including the most advanced layers of the class-conscious proletariat as well as pro-socialist intellectuals. The task of the party was to bring revolutionary consciousness and the program of socialism to the working class. The democratic-centralist party spoke and acted with one voice while allowing the widest internal democracy to argue over party program and priorities.

Until 1914, Lenin saw these organizational methods as applicable only to the particular conditions of tsarist Russia. With the onset of a full-scale interimperialist war and the collapse of the Second International, Lenin transcended the theoretical and doctrinal underpinnings of social democracy and generalized his understanding of the party question to all countries. Whereas in his struggle against the Mensheviks Lenin had seen opportunism as a petty-bourgeois trend external to the workers movement, he now came to understand that there was a material basis within the workers movement itself for the top layer to serve as political agents for the capitalist order. Analyzing the material basis for opportunism and social-chauvinism in the imperialist countries, Lenin wrote:

“Certain strata of the working class (the bureaucracy of the labour movement and the labour aristocracy, who get a fraction of the profits from the exploitation of the colonies and from the privileged position of their ‘fatherlands’ in the world market), as well as petty-bourgeois sympathisers within the socialist parties, have proved the social mainstay of these tendencies, and channels of bourgeois influence over the proletariat.”

—“The Conference of the R.S.D.L.P. Groups Abroad” (February 1915)

Between 1914 and 1917, Lenin developed and fought around three main slogans. One, socialists in the belligerent countries must stand for the defeat, above all, of their “own” bourgeois state. Two, the war demonstrated that capitalism had entered decisively into the imperialist epoch, its highest stage, and that the time for socialist revolution had ripened. Socialists must work to transform the imperialist war into civil war, opposing class collaborationism and “civil peace” in a fight for proletarian revolution. And three, the Second International had been destroyed by social-chauvinism. A new, revolutionary International must be built through a sharp split with the opportunists in the social-democratic movement. Lenin wrote: “To the Third International falls the task of organising the proletarian forces for a revolutionary onslaught against the capitalist governments, for civil war against the bourgeoisie of all countries for the capture of political power, for the triumph of socialism!” (“The Position and Tasks of the Socialist International,” November 1914).

Lenin’s 1915 classic Socialism and War, written jointly with his closest collaborator at the time, Gregory Zinoviev, denounced the social-chauvinism of the SPD majority (led by Philipp Scheidemann, Friedrich Ebert and Gustav Noske): “Opportunism has ‘matured,’ and is now playing to the full its role as emissary of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement.” He called for a total organizational and political break with the majority:

Unity with the opportunists actually means subordinating the working class to their ‘own’ national bourgeoisie, and an alliance with the latter for the purpose of oppressing other nations and of fighting for dominant-nation privileges; it means splitting the revolutionary proletariat of all countries.”

Lenin singled out the centrist role of Karl Kautsky, who provided cover for the outright reformists of the SPD in arguing that the party was a “peacetime instrument” and that a unified International could be re-established when the war ended. (See “Bolshevik Policy in World War I,” page 5.) Unlike the SPD majority leaders, Kautsky was not an open recruiting sergeant for the imperialist military, but his call for “peace” obscured the inevitability of war in the imperialist epoch and provided a road back to the overt social-chauvinists. His theory of “ultra-imperialism” claimed that imperialist rivalry and war could be eliminated by some sort of peaceful alliance of all imperialist powers. Lenin termed this “a most reactionary method of consoling the masses with hopes of permanent peace being possible under capitalism” (Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism [1916]). Such social-pacifism, Lenin argued, “is doing more harm to Marxism than avowed social-chauvinism,” which at least set forth its treacherous course openly (Socialism and War).

The great strength of the Bolshevik Party was that due to its early split with the Menshevik opportunists, it developed as a politically homogenous organization through a series of struggles such as the 1905 Revolution, the work in the Duma (Russian parliament) and many internal political fights. The training and selection of experienced cadre took time, and the party as a revolutionary instrument had to be consciously built to intervene into and guide the struggles of the proletariat. Thus, for the Third International, the first task of revolutionary socialists had to be to defeat and replace the reformists as the leadership of the mass workers movement, the precondition to leading that movement to victory over capitalism and laying the basis for a socialist society.

Opportunism vs. Bolshevism at Berne

Lenin’s struggle for a revolutionary response to the war faced resistance from veteran left-wing social democrats—especially at the September 1915 Zimmerwald and 1916 Kienthal conferences of antiwar socialists—who sought, in various ways, to maintain the “unity” of the old, politically bankrupt International. Zetkin was not present at either of these historic conferences (during Zimmerwald she was in jail for her antiwar activities), but she was the convenor of the March 1915 International Conference of Socialist Women at Berne, where she played a conciliatory role in seeking unity between opposing political forces.

In November 1914, Bolshevik leader Inessa Armand, in the name of the editorial board of the party’s women’s journal, Rabotnitsa (The Woman Worker), wrote Zetkin to urge her to call a conference of left-wing socialist women against the war. The meeting was intended “to draw the working women into the struggle against every kind of civil peace and in favor of a war against war, a war closely connected with civil war and social revolution” (quoted in Olga H. Gankin and H.H. Fisher, eds., The Bolsheviks and the World War: The Origin of the Third International [Stanford University Press, 1940]). Lenin, who hoped that the conference would be a first step toward the founding of the Third International, commented before it began in a letter to Alexandra Kollontai, who was soon to join the Bolsheviks and would become a leader of the CI’s work among women:

“Apparently you do not entirely agree with the civil war slogan, which you relegate, so to speak, to a minor (I should even say to a conditional) place behind the slogan of peace. And you underline that ‘what we must put forward is a slogan that would unite us all.’

“Frankly, what I fear most of all at the present time is just this kind of indiscriminate unity, which, in my opinion, is most dangerous and harmful to the proletariat.”

—quoted in N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (New York: International Publishers, 1970)

Zetkin agreed to organize the conference, but sought to attract women from all wings of the “antiwar” spectrum, including social-pacifist activists who publicly refused to criticize the treacherous politics of the official party leaderships. This fostered precisely the “indiscriminate unity” Lenin feared. The proceedings were marked by a confrontation over counterposed resolutions: one supported by Zetkin and almost all the other delegates, the other put forward by the Bolshevik delegation. Motivating the Bolshevik resolution, Armand argued:

“We Social Democrats who adhere to the Central Committee consider that the slogan of civil war must be advanced now and that the labor movement is now entering upon a new phase in the course of which socialism will be attained in the more advanced countries.... The working women should be told directly that peace can be attained through revolution and that real salvation from war lies in socialism.”

—quoted in Olga Ravich, “Unofficial Account of the International Conference of Socialist Women at Berne, 26-28 March 1915,” published in The Bolsheviks and the World War

Zetkin supported the argument that criticisms of the social-chauvinists should wait for national and international social-democratic conferences and that the appeal for revolution should be postponed until after the war. Against the call for civil war, Zetkin and the other opponents of the Bolsheviks insisted on the peace slogan as the rallying cry of the antiwar socialists. Some harbored the illusion that the imperialists could embrace pacifism, while others claimed that this slogan could unite the broadest layers of the working class against the war.

The manifesto issuing from the Berne conference contained no criticism whatsoever of the betrayal by the leaders of the social-democratic parties to which most of the delegates belonged. Instead, the manifesto declaimed: “As the will of the socialist women is united across the battlefields, so you in all countries must close your ranks in order to sound the call: peace, peace!” Nadezhda Krupskaya, who along with Armand headed the Bolshevik delegation, derisively commented that the majority resolutions reflected the “goody-goody pacifism of the English and the Dutch” whom Zetkin accommodated.

Zetkin continued to urge campaigns for peace, a reflection of her inability to understand the necessity for a split with the social traitors of the SPD. She argued:

“Many resolutions by male comrades calling on the Party Executive to finally undertake an energetic peace campaign have come about at the initiative of women comrades. Undoubtedly this movement, as well as that of the opposition generally, has pushed the PV [Party Executive] forward a bit.”

—quoted in Richard J. Evans, Sozialdemokratie und Frauenemanzipation im deutschen Kaiserreich (Social Democracy and Women’s Emancipation in Imperial Germany) (Bonn: Verlag J.H.W. Dietz, 1979) (our translation)

In his critique of the Conference resolution, Lenin debunked this illusion:

“An absolutely erroneous and harmful idea is being inculcated upon the working masses, the idea that the present-day Social-Democratic parties, with their present Executives, are capable of changing their course from an erroneous to a correct one....

“The Women’s Conference should not have aided Scheidemann, Haase, Kautsky, Vandervelde, Hyndman, Guesde, Sembat, Plekhanov and others to blunt the vigilance of the working masses. On the contrary, it should have tried to rouse them and declared a decisive war against opportunism.”

—“On the Struggle Against Social-Chauvinism” (June 1915)

In September 1915 at Zimmerwald, Lenin won over a small core of left-socialists to this view. When the Bolshevik manifesto was defeated, these Zimmerwald Leftists, as they came to be known, critically endorsed the majority statement because, as Lenin stated, it “signifies a step towards an ideological and practical break with opportunism and social-chauvinism” (“The First Step,” October 1915). Lenin continued: “At the same time, the manifesto, as any analysis will show, contains inconsistencies, and does not say everything that should be said.” The organized Zimmerwald Left fought as the embryo of the Third International; thus, the CI at its founding congress declared the Zimmerwald movement disbanded.

The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women

The October Revolution took Marxism out of the realm of theory and gave it flesh and blood. From the day Lenin proclaimed to the All-Russia Congress of Soviets, “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order,” the hopes of the masses of oppressed and exploited people around the world were directed toward the first workers republic. Zetkin hailed the revolution and followed and reported on the events as closely as possible. In the Leipziger Volkszeitung, a newspaper under the control of the left wing of the Independent Social Democrats, she conveyed her view of the revolution:

“The Bolsheviks have reached their goal in a bold assault which has no parallel in history. Governmental power is in the hands of the Soviets. What has transpired is the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat or more correctly: The dictatorship of the working population because, around the industrial proletariat of the great modern economic centers of Russia (the axis of crystallization for the revolutionary forces) are grouped the peasants and petit-bourgeois citizens in their work garments and military uniforms.”

—“The Battle for Power and Peace in Russia,” 30 November 1917, translated in Philip S. Foner, ed., Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings (New York: International Publishers, 1984)

The Russian Revolution illuminated once and for all the vital interrelationship between the emancipation of women and workers revolution. The fundamental question—reform or revolution—is decisive for the liberation of women as it is for all the exploited and oppressed in class society. Under the dictatorship of the proletariat in Soviet Russia, the working people began to build the infrastructure of collectivized institutions to replace housework and childcare shouldered by women in the family, aiming to liberate women from the drudgery and isolation that for ages had prevented them from full participation in the economy and public life. Soviet legislation at that time granted women in Russia a level of equality and freedom that has yet to be attained by the most economically advanced “democratic” capitalist countries. (For an extensive account of Bolshevik work and the effect on women of the Stalinist degeneration of the revolution, see “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 59, Spring 2006.)

However, the Bolsheviks recognized that without qualitative economic development, the very survival of the revolution was at stake. Soviet Russia had inherited the social and economic backwardness of tsarist Russia, further compounded by the devastation of World War I. In the bloody Civil War (1918-20), the new workers state had to fight against the armies of domestic counterrevolution and their imperialist supporters. The imperialists also instituted an economic blockade, isolating the Soviet workers state from the world economy and world division of labor. The country’s economy was thrown back by decades. Leon Trotsky, who with Lenin was a leader of the 1917 Revolution, explained that from the beginning, the Bolsheviks recognized that:

“The real resources of the state did not correspond to the plans and intentions of the Communist Party. You cannot ‘abolish’ the family; you have to replace it. The actual liberation of women is unrealizable on a basis of ‘generalized want.’ Experience soon proved this austere truth which Marx had formulated eighty years before.”

The Revolution Betrayed (1936)

The Bolsheviks sought above all to break the isolation of the young Soviet state. All eyes turned to Germany, with its advanced industry and restive proletariat, to extend the revolution to West Europe. However, the years of seeking indiscriminate “unity” with opportunists at the expense of forging a programmatically hard vanguard party meant that when the revolutionary moment was at hand, there was no party prepared to lead the working class in a fight for power.

Against Centrist Conciliationism

Instead of forming a new, communist party as Lenin advocated, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin and other left-wing leaders lingered in the SPD, where they were gagged by the pro-war tops and by stringent government censorship and vigorous repression. The principal leader of the SPD left wing, Luxemburg, had a “spontaneist” view of the role of the party, believing that the process of the class struggle itself would bring the working class to revolutionary consciousness:

“The Social Democracy is nothing but the embodiment of the class struggle of the modern proletariat, resting on its consciousness of the historical consequences of this struggle. Its [the Social Democracy’s] actual leader is in reality the masses themselves, namely as dialectically conceived in their process of development.”

—“Der politische Führer der deutschen Arbeiterklasse” (The Political Leader of the German Working Class) (1910) (our translation)

Thus Luxemburg, who had denounced the SPD after August 1914 as a “stinking corpse,” nonetheless believed that the unity of all wings of the party must be maintained at all costs. When the split finally occurred in January 1917, it was instigated by the SPD leadership itself when it expelled virtually all of its critics—bourgeois defeatists, pacifists, centrists and the revolutionary leftists grouped around Luxemburg, Liebknecht, Franz Mehring and Leo Jogiches.

In April 1917, the expelled members founded the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). The USPD had a politically heterogeneous membership replicating that of the mother party, minus only the social-chauvinist right wing. At the far left was the Spartacist group of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. Both the revisionist Bernstein and the centrist Kautsky were USPD leaders. Longing to be reunited with the SPD, they and their adherents determined the dominant politics of the new party. The deft use of Marxist phraseology from the pen of Kautsky and his followers served as a left cover for the USPD’s thorough reformism in deeds. Thus the USPD functioned as a barrier between the Spartacists and the more advanced workers who rejected the outright reformism of the SPD.

In August 1918, Kautsky wrote The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, an attack on the very conception of the class dictatorship, first advanced by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and now embodied in the Soviet workers state. Lenin, who had broken off work on The State and Revolution to lead the Russian proletariat to power, used the leftover material in his 1918 reply, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. But in Germany itself, Kautsky’s attacks on the October Revolution went unanswered. Lenin wrote to the Soviet envoys in West Europe:

“Kautsky’s disgraceful rubbish, childish babble and shallowest opportunism impel me to ask: why do we do nothing to fight the theoretical vulgarisation of Marxism by Kautsky?

“Can we tolerate that even such people as Mehring and Zetkin keep away from Kautsky more ‘morally’ (if one may put it so) than theoretically.”

—“Letter to Y.A. Berzin, V.V. Vorovsky and A.A. Joffe” (September 1918)

Lenin urged the envoys to “have a detailed talk with the Left (Spartacists and others), stimulating them to make a statement of principle, of theory, in the press, that on the question of dictatorship Kautsky is producing philistine Bernsteinism, not Marxism.” The German Marxists never produced such a statement.

In November 1918, the outbreak of mass class struggle and mutinies within the defeated German armed forces resulted in the deposing of the Kaiser. The SPD followed the logic of its earlier betrayal and, with the USPD, formed a government pledged to preserve the capitalist order. In the midst of this revolutionary crisis, the Spartacists and others such as the Revolutionary Shop Stewards were loosely organized, autonomous groupings surrounded by an enormous, volatile periphery. In December 1918, the Spartacists finally split with the USPD and founded the KPD(S) (Communist Party of Germany [Spartakus]). But it was too late for the revolutionary-minded militants to forge a party capable of leading the proletariat to fight for power in the 1918-19 upsurge. In January 1919, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered by the Freikorps, reactionary troops unleashed by the SPD government. In March, Jogiches was also murdered. The young KPD was beheaded, its leadership cut down.

Laying out the decisive difference between the Russian and German revolutions, leftist historian Evelyn Anderson wrote:

“In Russia, a political party emerged, the Bolsheviks, whose leaders knew what the mass of the people wanted and what they wanted themselves, who had the keenest sense of power and the courage to act boldly. In Germany such a political party was totally lacking.”

—Hammer or Anvil: The Story of the German Working-Class Movement (New York: Oriole Editions, 1973)

Zetkin and others lacked the political understanding to draw the balance sheet of the fatal delay of the necessary split. As late as 1921, Zetkin persisted in characterizing the December 1918 founding of the KPD as a “mistake.” She insisted:

“Incidentally, Leo Tyszka [Jogiches] continued to share this opinion with me from the beginning until his death, and the development of the party has proved us correct.”

—Briefe Deutscher an Lenin 1917–1923 (Letters to Lenin by Germans 1917-1923) (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1990) (our translation)

This dead-wrong conclusion is echoed by Lars T. Lih and Ben Lewis, the latter a supporter of the Communist Party of Great Britain, in Martov and Zinoviev: Head to Head in Halle (London: November Publications, Ltd., 2011). Documenting the debate at the 1920 Halle conference, where the majority of the USPD agreed to join the CI, Lewis writes of the split and formation of the KPD that “in the words of a later KPD(S) leader Paul Levi, the split had ‘scarcely any influence’ on the disaffected ranks of the USPD. Clearly, a premature move.” We will hear more from Levi later.

In agreeing with Zetkin and Levi, Lewis and his fellow reformists are denying that there was even a possibility of a German October in 1918-19, turning their backs on the actual historical events. The masses of workers were setting up workers and soldiers councils in an attempt to follow in the path of the Russian proletariat. Lenin wrote:

“When the crisis broke out, however, the German workers lacked a genuine revolutionary party, owing to the fact that the split was brought about too late, and owing to the burden of the accursed tradition of ‘unity’ with capital’s corrupt (the Scheidemanns, Legiens, Davids and Co.) and spineless (the Kautskys, Hilferdings and Co.) gang of lackeys.”

—“A Letter to the German Communists” (August 1921)

After the devastating defeat in January 1919, and in line with earlier consultations with Jogiches and Luxemburg, Zetkin remained in the USPD through its Extraordinary Party Conference in March 1919, where she launched a blistering attack on the USPD leaders for joining the government of Ebert and Scheidemann. This, she argued, was “incompatible with the principles of revolutionary class struggle”:

“We are now confronted with the question: Can these opposing views be reconciled? I don’t hesitate to answer: No! They are irreconcilable because they are fundamentally counterposed conceptions as to historical development and its preconditions. Such contradictions cannot be united by even the most beautiful resolutions.”

—“Speech at USPD Extraordinary Party Conference” (4 March 1919) (our translation)

This was her resignation from the USPD. But though Zetkin joined the KPD soon after, she failed to confront the USPD left wing with a clear demand to split and join the KPD. And she persisted in her efforts to revive the “socialist women’s movement,” maintaining friendly, collaborative relations with the USPD women. In a 13 March 1920 letter to Rosa Bloch, a Swiss comrade, Zetkin asked her to send a “statement of solidarity” with the USPD women and even suggested another “international socialist [i.e., social-democratic] women’s conference.” This call for a unified socialist women’s movement was supported by the USPD women and was starkly counterposed to the CI’s perspective of a complete political break with opportunism. The conference never materialized. Zetkin’s efforts to promote unity continued until the USPD left wing finally split in October 1920 and fused with the KPD in December.

Work Among Women from the Second to the Third International

In his 1921 letter to the German Communists, Lenin noted that the “Guidelines on the Organizational Structure of Communist Parties, on the Methods and Content of Their Work” adopted by the CI’s July 1921 Third Congress “mark a great step forward.” The “Theses on Methods and Forms of Work of the Communist Parties Among Women,” adopted at the same Congress, sought to guide Communist work among women, just as the Organizational Theses did for the work as a whole.

In 2011 we published a new translation of the CI’s Theses (Spartacist [English edition] No. 62, Spring 2011). In our research, we found that the Theses were the product of a yearlong controversy between the Soviet cadre and others. These differences were not known to us when we published “Foundations of Communist Work Among Women: The German Social Democracy” in Women and Revolution Nos. 8 and 9 (Spring and Summer 1975), covering the period from the founding of the SPD in 1875 to January 1917. Although this article has for the most part stood the test of time, we now recognize some flaws as a result of our research on the Comintern’s work among women and in light of a wealth of academic studies that have appeared since 1975.

In 1975, Werner Thönnessen’s The Emancipation of Women: The Rise and Decline of the Women’s Movement in German Social Democracy 1863-1933 (published in German in 1969 and in English in 1973) was virtually the only available study on the work among women of the prewar German Social Democracy. We have come to evaluate it as a politically skewed presentation. Thönnessen’s anti-communist account does not deal with the founding of the Third International and omits altogether that Zetkin went over to the Leninist Comintern. The book has also been criticized academically, centrally by British historian Richard J. Evans, who has published extensively on the history of the SPD and the woman question in both English and German.

In the Spartacist introduction to the Theses we noted:

“In the past…Women and Revolution incorrectly presented the history of the ‘proletarian women’s movement’ as if there were a direct continuity from the work among women of the Second to the Third International. For example, in ‘The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women,’ we wrote, ‘Before World War I the Social Democrats in Germany pioneered in building a women’s “transitional organization”—a special body, linked to the party through its most conscious cadre.’ In fact, the idea of a special party apparatus to conduct work among women was pioneered by the Bolsheviks in their endeavor to draw the masses of toiling women to the side of the vanguard party and can be undertaken only by a programmatically hard Leninist party.”

In the Communist parties, the apparatus for leading the work was to be carefully built as an integral part of all leading bodies—from the women’s department of the central committee to the leading body of party local committees.

The SPD’s pioneering work on the woman question can be best characterized as an important first step in the development of the model of communist work among women. Zetkin rightly insisted that the emancipation of women was a question of class rule. She drew on Engels’ classic The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) and identified the institution of the family as the primary source of the special oppression of women. With organized religion and the state, the family is also a key prop of the capitalist system, a vehicle for the inheritance of private property for the ruling class and the means for the reproduction of labor to be exploited, the source of capitalist profits.

Thus Zetkin understood correctly that the liberation of women required the destruction of the capitalist order and the building of a new socialist society to enable the socialization of housework and childcare, transforming them into collective institutions. This perspective underpinned her well-known hostility to bourgeois feminism, which was pushed by the various European feminist groups and had ideological influence within the SPD as well. As Zetkin put it, “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, burst like so many scintillating soap bubbles” (“What the Women Owe to Karl Marx,” March 1903, translated in Foner, ed., Clara Zetkin: Selected Writings).

Zetkin knew that because of the material conditions of women’s lives—their social isolation in the family, relative political backwardness, and the working woman’s double burden as housewife and wage slave—special methods of party work were necessary to recruit women to socialism. She fought for this perspective at party congresses and in the pages of Die Gleichheit. But by the time of the outbreak of the war in 1914, the SPD leadership viewed women’s subordinate status in society as normal, just as they promoted the parliamentary illusions of a peaceful road to socialism. As stated in the German-language CI journal edited by Zetkin, Die Kommunistische Fraueninternationale (The Communist Women’s International), work among women was widely viewed in the SPD as “an unavoidable secondary task.”

Developing the Theses on Work Among Women

After the First CI Congress, the leading women cadre began work on a guiding document on work among women for submission to the Comintern Executive (ECCI). More than a year later, the First International Conference of Communist Women took place from 30 July to 2 August 1920 in Moscow, at the time of the CI Second Congress. When we examined the record of the 1920 conference, we found that two document drafts were submitted: one by Russian comrades and one by West and Central European delegates.

Writing a report on the conference was greatly hampered by Inessa Armand’s tragic death in September 1920. Particularly impressive was the report’s published summary of Armand’s presentation on the draft Russian theses. Containing the basic components of the final Theses as adopted by the Third Congress, it provided a political blueprint for that document. Armand emphasized that all Communist parties should “immediately begin to engage in the broadest, most intensive work among the masses of proletarian women” (Otchet o Pervoi mezhdunarodnoi konferentsii kommunistok [Report on the First International Conference of Communist Women] [Moscow: Gosizdat, 1921] [our translation]).

Armand placed great emphasis on establishing in all countries the two highly effective methods of work among women developed in Soviet Russia: delegate assemblies and non-party women’s conferences. These methods, implemented under the close watch of the party leadership, were established to educate the masses of women workers and peasants who remained outside the orbit of the party. In the delegate system, elections would be held in a factory for women workers to choose one of their ranks as delegate to the Zhenotdel—a special department of the Russian Communist Party Central Committee for work among women—for a period of three to six months. The delegatka, wearing a red scarf as her badge of office, served as an observer-apprentice in various branches of public activity such as the factory, soviet, trade union, school, hospital or communal dining center.

Differences over the applicability outside Soviet Russia of these methods of work among women was one source of lively and extensive debate. West and Central European comrades argued that these methods could not be used outside of a workers state and would amount to social work. But in fact, non-party women’s conferences were a key part of the Bolsheviks’ organizing efforts among working women leading up to the insurrection in October 1917. Rabotnitsa was a central tool to draw women into active work under the direction of the party (see “History of the Journal Rabotnitsa: How the Bolsheviks Organized Working Women,” Women and Revolution No. 4, Fall 1973). Special efforts to reach working women in Petrograd culminated in the First All-City Conference of Petrograd Working Women in October 1917, which was attended by 500 delegates representing 80,000 working women.

Objections were also raised in various meetings to the Russians’ explicit indictment of the Second International as a “brake on the revolutionary proletarian movement” and “an opponent of the liberation of all toiling women,” shamefully betraying proletarian women’s struggle for the most elementary democratic demands. Rosi Wolfstein from Germany and the Austrian Anna Ströhmer objected to the critical assessment of the Second International’s work among women because it omitted Zetkin’s work. Against that view, a number of Soviet delegates argued that although Zetkin played a leading role and joined the fight of the left wing, it was the opportunist majority that determined the political policies of the Second International and its member parties.

The overall character of the Theses was also at issue, revealing differences on party centralization. In Ströhmer’s opinion, the section on the Second International should not be polemical and the Theses should not be agitational but historical in character. The Danish and Hungarian delegates objected to the detailed organizational forms and methods as “instructions” to the parties. These political differences could not be resolved, and the women’s conference failed to complete a document for submission to the Second CI Congress. When the Congress took place from 19 July to 7 August 1920, the questions of women and youth were referred to the ECCI.

In September 1920, Zetkin arrived in Soviet Russia, where she witnessed the historic gains for women that the October Revolution made possible. She observed in practice the Soviet women’s methods of work under the Zhenotdel. Zetkin recalled in her Reminiscences of Lenin (dated January 1925) that he solicited her help in the development of the Theses.

The political framework for the Theses is laid out in this discussion. Lenin emphasized the “inseparable connection between the social and human position of the woman, and private property in the means of production.” Only communism, not feminism or social democracy, could lay the basis for the emancipation of women. But just as true, the party had to win over the millions of working women in town and country in order to make the revolution and to construct a new, communist society. Therefore the party must build special organs “whose particular duty it is to arouse the masses of women workers, to bring them into contact with the Party, and to keep them under its influence” (quoted in Zetkin, Reminiscences of Lenin [New York: International Publishers, 1934]).

In December 1920, a document was published in Die Kommunistische Internationale No. 15, the German edition of the CI theoretical journal, under the title “Guidelines for the Communist Women’s Movement” and with a note at the end: “Edited by Clara Zetkin.” An early contribution by Zetkin in the discussion, this document appears under the title “Theses for the Communist Women’s Movement” in the documentary collection edited by John Riddell, Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1991). The “Guidelines” represent an important intermediate stage in the discussion, but to title this document as the “Theses,” without any explanation, only promotes confusion between it and the final CI Theses. In fact, the two documents reflect political differences. The Guidelines express the tendency of the German comrades to extol the SPD’s work among women while minimizing the historic betrayal by the Social Democracy. The Theses, honed through months of debate, were tightly focused on “placing before the Communist Parties of the West and the East the immediate task of strengthening the work of the party among the female proletariat.” The work among women is placed firmly in the framework of the tasks of the Communist International.

Another important difference between the documents is Zetkin’s uncritical reference to the 1915 Berne Women’s Conference in the Guidelines:

“These women called for international revolutionary mass action to compel the imperialist regimes to make peace and to free up the historic terrain for the workers’ international struggle to achieve political power and vanquish imperialism and capitalism.”

Thus she continued to uphold the outcome of the Berne Conference and to dodge the necessity of a hard break with the opportunists as well as her own role in conciliating the waverers. To our knowledge, Zetkin never repudiated her role at Berne.

On 21 May 1921, a joint plenum of the Zhenotdel and the Orgburo of the Russian Communist Party Central Committee was held to prepare for the Second International Conference of Communist Women. This plenum appointed an “editorial commission, consisting of cdes. Kollontai, Menzhinskaya, Krupskaya, Itkina, Vinogradskaya” and directed that “all theses are preliminarily submitted for review to the editorial commission” (Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History [RGASPI] f. 17, op. 10, d. 54, l. 81-83). There is little doubt that this was the body, consisting of the Zhenotdel’s top editors and writers, that worked through the considerable volume of documents, drafts and amendments, and prepared the final Theses as they were adopted by the Third CI Congress. While much remains unknown, it is certain that the original language of the document was Russian.

The Second Women’s Conference was held in Moscow from 9 to 15 June 1921, before the Third CI Congress. Reflecting continuing controversy over methods of work, one Soviet delegate, Janson, criticized Zetkin for placing too much emphasis on work among housewives. Housewives were the majority of women in Germany; only one-fifth of women there were workers. Janson argued that in Russia only one-tenth of women worked, but when the Bolsheviks’ forces were small it was necessary to concentrate on the proletariat.

This lack of concentration on workers at the point of production, reaching out to petty-bourgeois layers of women as equally important, reflected the fact that in the prewar period the socialist women’s movement in Germany consisted primarily of housewives, generally the wives of SPD members. Seeking to put the exploited and oppressed in power to construct a new socialist order, the Comintern’s pointedly revolutionary conception was to mobilize the “most backward, most forgotten and oppressed, most humiliated layers of the working class and the toiling poor,” as stated in the summary of Armand’s 1920 presentation cited above. These were precisely the masses of proletarian women, concentrated in the lower strata of the working class, whom the SPD did not succeed in recruiting. In the end, the editorial commission reached agreement on the Theses, and they were adopted by the Third CI Congress.

Struggle Around the 21 Conditions

Under pressure from their leftward-moving members, a number of mass social-democratic parties—such as the USPD, with 800,000 members—had been forced by the tremendous authority and popularity of the Russian Revolution to turn to Moscow. But the CI had to keep out the tagalong reformists and centrists who were simply following their ranks with the full intention of diverting them back to a reformist course. (See the Spartacist publication, “The First Four Congresses of the Communist International,” Marxist Studies No. 9, August 2003.) This task required codifying the CI’s strategy and tactics. In summer 1920, the Second Congress adopted the “Conditions of Admission Into the Communist International” (the “21 Conditions”), an organizational and political weapon with which to separate the revolutionaries from the reformists and centrists and to establish democratic-centralism as the organizational basis for the Comintern.

For the next year, a heated battle raged within various parties in Europe over the 21 Conditions and adherence—or not—to the Third International. The seventh condition stated that the CI “cannot reconcile itself to the fact that such avowed reformists” as Kautsky, Hilferding and others should be part of the International and that “this split be brought about with the least delay” (published in Helmut Gruber, ed., International Communism in the Era of Lenin: A Documentary History [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967]).

In the USPD, the fight was intense. The virulently anti-Bolshevik Luise Zietz, a leading USPD cadre, had headed the SPD women’s work since 1908, when Zetkin was pushed aside by the party bureaucrats. That year, legal restrictions on women joining political organizations were lifted. Under Zietz’s effective organizing and right-wing political influence, thousands of women were recruited to the SPD. After the Second CI Congress, Zietz traveled around Germany, aggressively campaigning against the 21 Conditions as a “diktat” from Moscow that only those with the “souls of slaves” could accept.

In September 1920, Zetkin published a pamphlet arguing for adherence to the Comintern, “Der Weg nach Moskau” (The Road to Moscow). In October, her two-part article under the same title appeared in the KPD’s Rote Fahne (Red Flag). These pieces were published to coincide with, and intervene into, the crucial October 1920 Halle conference, where the USPD was to take up the question of adherence to the Third International. But while Zetkin fervently advocated adherence to the CI, her reluctance to pursue political polarization and splits undermined the hard work necessary to build it. Regarding the 21 Conditions, she wrote:

“It is regrettable that the World Congress did not formulate its demands to the individual national parties more skillfully. What they require and stipulate is wholly justified in terms of the essence of the matter. It is a summary of the organizational measures that are absolutely necessary to create a powerful, homogeneous, cohesive Communist International.... However, in the Conditions, their formal organizational aspect is emphasized at length and insistently instead of their essence, their political-historical content.... This fact gives the rightist USPD leaders a convenient pretext for shifting the field of battle over affiliation to the Communist International and for replacing productive, clarifying debates about the great questions of principles and tactics with heated, nasty squabbling over organizational forms and formulas.”

Rote Fahne, 3 October 1920 (our translation)

While acknowledging in the abstract the necessity of the 21 Conditions, Zetkin balked at their implementation. She had not drawn the lessons of the consequences of maintaining “unity” with the social-chauvinists and their apologists in the German party. As Gregory Zinoviev said at the Halle conference, if the USPD fails to join the CI, “it will be because you do not agree with us on the question of world revolution, of democracy and of the dictatorship of the proletariat” (USPD, Protokoll über die Verhandlungen des außerordentlichen Parteitages in Halle vom 12. bis 17. Oktober 1920 [Minutes of the Deliberations of the Extraordinary Party Conference in Halle from 12 to 17 October 1920] [Berlin: Verlagsgenossenschaft “Freiheit”] [our translation]). The majority of the USPD was won over, voted to affiliate to the CI and fused with the KPD, creating the United Communist Party of Germany (VKPD) with some 350,000 members. After the Third CI Congress, the party reverted to the name KPD.

France, Italy: Zetkin Flinches Some More

Zetkin’s failure to understand the role of splits and fusions in building a revolutionary combat party was also seen in her response to conferences in France and Italy where Socialists debated affiliating with the CI. At the December 1920 Tours congress of the French Socialist Party, Zetkin called on the delegates to “come out clearly, unreservedly and openly for the Third International, meaning not just for its principles and tactics but also for its Conditions” (“Speech at the 18th Party Congress of the French Socialist Party in Tours,” 27 December 1920 [our translation]). The Socialist Party ratified the Comintern conditions in a two-to-one vote.

But in her letter to Lenin of 25 January 1921—the same letter in which she criticized the 1918 founding of the KPD—Zetkin asked him to use his influence to soften the ECCI’s interventions, which “sometimes have the character of a brutal, imperious intervention lacking the proper knowledge of the actual condition under consideration” (Letters to Lenin by Germans). She objected to a scathing, wide-ranging and detailed ECCI critique of the French Socialist Party’s work that had polarized the party. The Socialist Party, which had not split during the war, had “assumed complete responsibility for the imperialist carnage,” wrote the ECCI, and maintained in its ranks the same leaders who had aided and abetted the French bourgeoisie (“Letter to the French Socialist Party from the Presiding Committee,” 29 July 1920, published in Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite!).

The ECCI letter argued effectively for a hard split with the social-patriots. In her letter to Lenin, Zetkin wrote that the ECCI letter “came within a hair’s breadth of putting in question and destroying the success of the gathering.” Thus she balked at the brutally honest political criticism and debate that were necessary to separate the centrists from the revolutionaries.

Zetkin’s same letter also complained to Lenin about the ECCI’s intervention in Italy. In this period, Italy was in vast upheaval in the countryside, where peasants were seizing estates, and in the cities, where the metal workers occupied factories. The Italian Socialist Party (PSI) had come over to the CI without a split, encompassing a spectrum of political tendencies from reformism to syndicalism and ultraleftism. The party leadership had consciously sabotaged the factory occupations, in collaboration with the trade-union bureaucracy, rather than struggle to seize power. As Trotsky put it at the Third CI Congress in June 1921:

“For three years following the war, each and every comrade who arrived from Italy would tell us: ‘We have everything ready for the revolution.’ The whole world knew that Italy was on the eve of the revolution. When the revolution broke out, the party proved bankrupt.”

—“Speech on the Italian Question at the Third Congress of the Communist International” (29 June 1921)

This, he continued, was the direct result of the earlier failure to purge the PSI of the reformists grouped around longtime leader Filippo Turati: “Turati and his friends are in this sense honest, because they declare daily, openly and repeatedly that they do not want the revolution. They do not want it and yet they remain members of the Socialist Party, even its prominent members.”

At the PSI’s Livorno conference in mid-January 1921, the centrists under Giacinto Serrati still refused to break with the reformists, with whom they formed a majority. The minority left-wing delegates around Amadeo Bordiga and Antonio Gramsci walked out of the conference and founded the Communist Party of Italy. Six months later, in his report on the activities of the ECCI at the Third World Congress, Zinoviev stated of the split:

“Even if we lose a great mass of Italian workers for a time, so be it; we will win them back. But not one step, not one single step backward, because otherwise the Communist International is lost. At stake was the clarity of the Communist International; at stake were the principles of communism.”

—Protokoll des III. Kongresses der Kommunistischen Internationale (Minutes of the Third Congress of the Communist International) (Hamburg: Verlag der Kommunistischen Internationale, 1921) (our translation)

Serrati’s failure to split with Turati when it counted was a central factor in the defeat of the revolutionary opening. That failure in turn led to the rapid demoralization of the proletariat and the triumph of Mussolini and his fascists.

The Levi Affair

Zetkin’s 25 January 1921 letter to Lenin called the PSI’s split “a grave defeat,” arguing for a “most rapid reunification of the two factions” as it was “an objectively unjustifiable error for the communists to constitute their own faction.” In this she agreed with Paul Levi, her close colleague and a protégé of Luxemburg, who had inherited the leadership of the KPD. This was the beginning of the Levi affair, which brought Zetkin to the brink of a break with the CI. In this struggle she finally, after a sharp fight, threw over her remaining social-democratic conceptions and became fully a communist.

After Levi’s return to Germany from the PSI conference, he, Zetkin and several other members of the VKPD Central Committee (Zentrale) resigned in protest against the leadership’s refusal to endorse their opposition to the split in the Italian Socialist Party. This left the VKPD with a weakened leadership at a time of great political tumult and confusion—the disastrous 1921 March Action, which began in connection with a wave of workers’ struggles in central Germany provoked by police actions in the mines. The VKPD called for armed resistance and a general strike but did nothing to prepare them. When their calls went unanswered in much of Germany, isolated sectors of the working class were plunged into a futile military action. The well-prepared German bourgeoisie reacted with murderous repression. Despite mass casualties and thousands of arrests of the most militant workers, the VKPD leadership maintained that this grave defeat was actually a victory and vowed to remain on its disastrous course.

The March Action, inspired by the “theory of the offensive,” was associated with Comintern representative Béla Kun. The leader of the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1919, Kun held that the consciousness of its own political interests and historical destiny was insufficient to motivate the working class to revolution; instead, revolutionaries must electrify the proletariat through acts of great audacity. The German leadership was deeply split, with Zetkin and Levi opposed to the bogus “theory” and to the March Action. Accusations flew back and forth between them and the German lefts, led by Ruth Fischer, Arkady Maslow and Ernst Reuter. The party leadership of Ernst Meyer, Heinrich Brandler, August Thalheimer and Paul Frölich supported the left.

On 16 April, Lenin wrote a letter to Zetkin and Levi conceding that “I readily believe that the representative of the Executive Committee [of the CI] defended the silly tactics.” He added that “this representative [Béla Kun] is very often too Left.” Lenin continued:

“I consider your tactics in respect of Serrati erroneous. Any defence or even semi-defence of Serrati was a mistake. But to withdraw from the Central Committee!!?? That, in any case, was the biggest mistake! If we tolerate the practice of responsible members of the Central Committee withdrawing from it when they are left in a minority, the Communist Parties will never develop normally or become strong. Instead of withdrawing, it would have been better to discuss the controversial question several times jointly with the Executive Committee. Now, Comrade Levi wants to write a pamphlet, i.e., to deepen the contradiction! What is the use of all this?? I am convinced that it is a big mistake.

“Why not wait? The congress opens here on June 1. Why not have a private discussion here, before the congress? Without public polemics, without withdrawals, without pamphlets on differences.”

—“To Clara Zetkin and Paul Levi” (April 1921)

Levi published his inflammatory and slanderous pamphlet, Our Road: Against Putschism, on 3 April 1921. While Lenin himself characterized Levi’s criticisms of the March Action as essentially correct, Levi revealed himself as an egocentric, petty-bourgeois dilettante by publicly attacking the party when it was under fire from the class enemy. To Levi, the VKPD leadership consisted of “new Ludendorffs,” an invocation of Hitler’s crony, the right-wing nationalist general who led Germany’s armed forces into the massive bloodbath of World War I. With some 150 workers killed and 3,500 imprisoned, with the VKPD hemorrhaging workers by the thousands, Levi’s public denunciation served to divide the working class, stifle discussion in the party and provide ammunition for state prosecution of the party. For this public breach of party discipline, and not his political criticisms of the March Action, Levi was rightly expelled from the party and later from the International.

Levi was his own worst enemy, said Lenin (Zetkin, Reminiscences). In his August 1921 “Letter to the German Communists,” Lenin characterized Levi’s anti-party action:

“While urging others to pursue a cautious and well-considered strategy, Levi himself committed worse blunders than a schoolboy, by rushing into battle so prematurely, so unprepared, so absurdly and wildly that he was certain to lose any ‘battle’ (spoiling or hampering his work for many years), although the ‘battle’ could and should have been won. Levi behaved like an ‘anarchist intellectual’.”

Going into the Third Congress of the Comintern, the VKPD was at a breaking point, riven by bitter acrimony about the March Action. In a 6 May letter to Lenin, Paul Frölich wrote that without the intervention of the ECCI, Zetkin would have faced expulsion herself for her indiscipline. His letter revealed a party seething with factional venom:

“Let me say a few words about comrade Clara. Although my opinion has been from the outset that in her basic views comrade Clara is not a Communist, I always looked up to her with the greatest trust. But I must say that in the long run, it is impossible to get along with her in the party. She has stated repeatedly, not only now, but also in the past—and comrade Karl [Radek] can cite incidents for this—that her position in the workers movement and now in the Communist International is so important that she cannot submit to party decisions if, in her opinion, these decisions are political stupidities. You will understand that with such a view, party work is made totally impossible. Based on this view and incited by Levi, in the current situation she has challenged the party in the most horrendous way and publicly exposed the party. Objectively the situation was already such that we would have had to expel Zetkin and her acolytes if the express will of the Executive had not held us back. You can believe that we, too, are conscious of what Clara Zetkin’s expulsion from the party would mean for the whole International, and we have left no means untried to restrain her from her exaltations.”

Letters to Lenin by Germans

Third Comintern Congress

This was the situation when the Third World Congress met in Moscow from 22 June to 12 July 1921. The revolutionary wave that swept Europe after World War I, propelled by the Russian Revolution, was receding. The Congress was dominated by the fight over the “revolutionary offensive” that had brought the International to the verge of a split. Kun and the German leadership were backed by Bolshevik leaders Zinoviev, Nikolai Bukharin and initially Karl Radek against Trotsky and Lenin, who placed themselves demonstratively in the right wing of the Congress.

Lenin and Trotsky, at first in the minority in the dispute, led the fight against the ultralefts. They saw this as a fight for the very life of the International. Their position that the Communist parties desperately needed time to gain experience and root themselves in the working class was informed by the disaster of the German events. Trotsky said:

“It is our duty to say clearly and precisely to the German workers that we consider this philosophy of the offensive to be the greatest danger. And in its practical application to be the greatest political crime.”

—“Speech on Comrade Radek’s Report on ‘Tactics of the Comintern’ at the Third Congress” (2 July 1921)

As he had done many times before, Lenin struggled—successfully this time—to win Zetkin over on the eve of the Third Congress (see Zetkin’s Reminiscences). She had persisted in her objections to Levi’s expulsion from the party. Zinoviev noted in his introductory remarks at the Congress on the German party:

“Already at the founding of the VKPD, we feared that centrist currents would emerge in this party. And unfortunately we must say that our fear became a reality all too rapidly.... [The Italian question] is an international question; it is also linked to the German question. The Executive drew up a resolution and disciplined leading German comrades, at whose head stands our esteemed comrade Zetkin.”

Minutes of the Third CI Congress (our translation)

This Congress represented a turning point for Zetkin. As a result of intense arguments with the Bolshevik leaders on the eve of the Congress, Zetkin began to understand that the threat to the International required her to side with Lenin and Trotsky in a disciplined struggle against the ultralefts and the likes of Levi. She finally broke with Levi and threw herself into battle against him.

In winter 1921-22, Levi again proved himself to be an enemy of the Comintern when he published Rosa Luxemburg’s criticisms of the Russian Revolution, knowing full well that Luxemburg herself had not wanted these writings made public. Written while Luxemburg was isolated in prison, these fragmentary pieces, while praising the revolution and its basic principles, criticized some Bolshevik defense measures as “suppression of democracy.” Zetkin, who had personal knowledge of Luxemburg’s change of opinion, defended her in a savage polemic against the SPD and USPD leaders. She wrote that Levi’s publication had provided grist for the Social Democracy’s anti-Bolshevik mill:

“Just think of it! The people of the self-same Vorwärts [SPD paper], who the day before Rosa Luxemburg’s murder had as good as incited such an infamous deed.... All of them suddenly discovered a soft spot for the ‘intellectually superior woman,’ for the ‘sharpness of her intellect,’ the ‘scientific nature’ of her historical thought, and they paid homage to ‘the legacy’ she had left to the proletariat....

“But what is most bitter is that the initial impetus and veneer of justice for [Vorwärts editor] Stampfer’s and Hilferding’s ignominious game were provided by a man who in the decisive last years of her life was one of Rosa Luxemburg’s close comrades-in-arms.”

—Um Rosa Luxemburgs Stellung zur russischen Revolution (On Rosa Luxemburg’s Position on the Russian Revolution) (1922) (our translation)

The SPD’s purpose in exploiting Luxemburg’s essay through lies and distortions, Zetkin wrote, was to make the workers draw back from the fight for their own interests under the Communist banner:

“The press of the majority and Independent Social Democrats pounced on this critical appraisal of Bolshevik tactics with the greed of hungry curs. What they sought in this critique, invoking the name of Luxemburg, was justification of their parties’ great sins of commission and omission against the revolution.”

Zetkin noted: “No one will contest Paul Levi’s right to develop backward. But in doing this he does not have the right to invoke Rosa Luxemburg.” In 1922, most of the rump USPD returned to the SPD. That year, Paul Levi also rejoined the party of Scheidemann, Ebert and Noske—the party that had unleashed the Freikorps against Luxemburg and Liebknecht and crushed the workers uprising in January 1919.

After the March Action, the German KPD leadership drew back. As we detailed in an earlier article: “Having burned their fingers, yesterday’s enthusiasts for the ‘permanent offensive’ like Brandler, Thalheimer and Meyer now genuflected before bourgeois legalism and respectability” (“A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern,” Spartacist [English edition] No. 56, Spring 2001). But in January 1923, the French occupation of the Ruhr provoked a political and economic crisis in which the potential for proletarian revolution was manifest. This opportunity was again lost through the failure of the German party leadership, which was abetted and encouraged in its passivity by Zinoviev and J.V. Stalin in Moscow.

Our opponents, however, take the view that a German October in 1923 was impossible. At bottom, they call into question the validity of the October Revolution and the attempt of the Bolsheviks to extend that revolution internationally. Brandler’s line was always one of “Russian exceptionalism,” i.e., maybe Lenin’s program worked in Russia but it did not apply in Germany with an ostensibly more “cultured” working class that was allegedly wedded to the framework of parliamentary democracy. Since the destruction of the Soviet Union, revisionists have “discovered” that Lenin’s program didn’t work in Russia either, that the Soviet workers state was a “failed experiment.”

Many reformists and left-leaning academics today are sympathetic to Brandler. Brandler posited that it was the working class itself that had failed. According to him, “the decisive cause” was “the still too strongly hindering influence of social democracy.... In other words, the majority of the working class was not yet won for communism” (A. Thalheimer and H. Brandler, “Theses on the October Defeat and on the Present Situation,” January 1924, published in International Communism in the Era of Lenin). To deny that there were real opportunities for revolutionary victory in Germany leads inexorably to the conclusion that Hitler’s rise and the triumph of fascism were inevitable.

Zetkin’s Revisionist Apologists: The Neo-Kautskyites

We stand on the international working-class perspective of Marxism as developed in theory and practice by Lenin and Trotsky and embodied in the decisions of the first four Congresses of the Communist International. Our critical evaluation of Clara Zetkin is in this context. We seek to reclaim her best work from the social democrats, Stalinists and feminists who distort both her positive contributions and her mistakes for their own ends, and from the distortions and falsehoods of the neo-Kautskyites, of whom John Riddell is a leading example.

At the core of these distortions is an accommodation to capitalist rule, and hostility, in deed and increasingly in word, to the Bolshevik Revolution and its world-historic significance as the model for socialist revolution. The contemporary neo-Kautskyites dismiss this legacy in order to embrace the opportunist practices of the German Social Democracy. To this end, they seek to deny the vast gulf that separated the Third International from the Second. To this end, they suck the revolutionary core from Zetkin and substitute for it their own spineless reformist worldview.

Riddell’s attempt to remake Zetkin in his own image has forced him to twist her politics into some pretty strange shapes. Finding it impossible to ignore her innumerable statements attacking bourgeois feminism, Riddell performs a magic trick and redefines the word:

“Feminism is the struggle for women’s liberation and against sexism. And if the word is understood in that sense, the Communist Women’s Movement was indeed a large and effective international component of feminism, until it was sidelined by the rise of Stalinism.”

—“Clara Zetkin in the Lion’s Den,”, 12 January 2014

Feminists seek to change society, and thus the position of women, by changing social relations within the existing capitalist society. We understand that to liberate the exploited and oppressed, you have to change the class relationships to the means of production, that is, abolish private property altogether. As Zetkin knew, this is the difference between reform and revolution. This understanding motivated her best work.

Because our opponents reject the aim of proletarian revolution altogether, the question of the institution of the family as the main source of the oppression of women rarely appears in their writings. In practice, the would-be left rejects the centrality of the family in capitalist society. If it is addressed at all, it is with an empty homage to Engels and a mention of “gender roles” and domestic violence. Only the seizure of power by the proletariat in Russia in 1917 made it possible to get a glimpse of the profound transformation needed to uproot and replace the family. Replacing it by collective means for the nurturing and socialization of children is—in a broad historic sense—the most radical and transformative aspect of the Marxist program for a future society.

Riddell must airbrush Zetkin’s hostility to feminism out of the political picture because it flies in the face of his main preoccupation: unity at all costs, regardless of political program, and certainly across class lines. As a member of the Comintern, according to Riddell, Zetkin sought unity between women of different classes because:

“She favoured a broad and non-partisan approach, aiming for unity with non-revolutionary currents; action in the interests of the working class as a whole; and efforts to win social layers outside the industrial working class.... She opposed a focus on the concerns of the revolutionary vanguard.”

—“Clara Zetkin’s Struggle for the United Front,”, 3 May 2011

Riddell puts this forward as an example of the “united front,” a concept that he attributes mainly to Zetkin. It’s a challenge to count the ways in which this is dead wrong. First, Zetkin’s opposition to bourgeois feminism never let up in the least. Second, Riddell misrepresents altogether the united-front tactic as developed by the CI: It was a tool for the party to fight for political hegemony over the proletarian masses by uniting in action with the reformists and centrists who still held authority in the workers movement. This meant sharp political combat in the course of a unified action. As Trotsky wrote:

“We broke with the reformists and centrists in order to obtain complete freedom in criticizing perfidy, betrayal, indecision and the half-way spirit in the labor movement. For this reason any sort of organizational agreement which restricts our freedom of criticism and agitation is absolutely unacceptable to us. We participate in a united front but do not for a single moment become dissolved in it. We function in the united front as an independent detachment.”

—“On the United Front” (March 1922)

For example, a united front to carry out a common action around specific concrete demands—e.g., in defense of abortion rights—could certainly include bourgeois feminists, whose politics of reliance on the capitalist state would be ruthlessly exposed by the Leninist party.

But Riddell employs classless rhetoric of “unity” to subordinate the interests of the proletariat to those of the petty bourgeoisie or bourgeoisie—this he calls the “united front.” Actually he is arguing for nothing less than the born-again Kautskyite “party of the whole class,” a complete reversion to social democracy as against revolutionary Leninism. Riddell openly favors ostensibly socialist parties supporting and forming bourgeois parliamentary governments, which he misterms “workers governments.” To the contrary, a parliamentary regime headed by a social-democratic party is a capitalist government, not a “workers government” or a “reformist government.” By 1923, the call for a parliamentary “workers government” with the Social Democrats was intrinsic to the KPD leadership’s rightist interpretation of the united front and was a factor in the defeat of the revolutionary upsurge in Germany. Like Lenin, we Spartacists have always insisted that a workers government can be nothing other than the dictatorship of the proletariat.

It’s no surprise that John Riddell defends Paul Levi as a victim of factional politics in the German party and the Comintern. Levi, writes Riddell, was “a voice of caution” who “pressed Communists to take initiatives that were inclusive, aimed at restoring unity in action by the working class as a whole” (“Why Did Paul Levi Lose Out in the German Communist Leadership?”,, 5 July 2013). Riddell argues that the German party’s working-class base itself was “ultraleft” and the source of the problem, declaring that “only a united and authoritative leadership in Germany could have persuaded that vanguard to struggle for unity with more conservative working-class forces.” He blames “[t]he partisan intervention of Comintern leaders in the German dispute,” which “made it impossible for the German leadership to restore its unity through the lessons of own [sic] experience in Germany. Moscow’s involvement tended to freeze the German alignments.”

In his eagerness to embrace “unity, unity” irrespective of political program, Riddell mixes up the entire dispute over both the “theory of the offensive” and the earlier CI struggle with the Left Communists. Lenin wrote his pamphlet Left-Wing” Communism—An Infantile Disorder (1920) specifically to address the disease of ultraleftism. At that time, ultraleftism had a certain mass base in the working class; many of the “lefts” were syndicalist or anarchist workers who in response to social-democratic treachery had rejected parliamentary activity, work in reformist-run trade unions and even the idea of a working-class party. In 1919, Paul Levi actually threw these workers out of the KPD in his own pursuit of “unity” with the USPD.

Lenin sought to regroup to the CI not only the best elements of the Socialist parties but also these subjectively revolutionary syndicalist and anarchist workers. Emphasizing that the vanguard party had to be carefully and consciously built through internal political struggle and external combat with reformist and centrist forces, Lenin wrote, “Would it not be better if the salutations addressed to the Soviets and the Bolsheviks were more frequently accompanied by a profound analysis of the reasons why the Bolsheviks have been able to build up the discipline needed by the revolutionary proletariat?”

Riddell also wants to diminish Lenin’s role in the CI’s struggle against the “theory of the offensive.” He casts Zetkin as the hero of the debate with his claim that “Zetkin’s discussion with Lenin helped win the leading Russian Communists to support her critique of the disastrous ‘March Action’” (“Clara Zetkin in the Lion’s Den”). In fact, Lenin saved Zetkin’s membership with his relentless arguments over her continuing opposition to Levi’s expulsion. At the same time, he made it clear that he would welcome Levi back into the party if Levi recognized the destructiveness of his breach of discipline. In recounting some of these arguments, Zetkin’s Reminiscences shows the comradeship between Zetkin and Lenin, in which sharp political differences were no obstacle to warm personal relations. It must stick in Riddell’s craw to see such friendship between Zetkin and the man he falsely accuses of the “belittlement of women” (“Clara Zetkin in the Lion’s Den”).

For a Revolutionary Internationalist Party!

In a series of writings beginning a few months after the October 1923 debacle in Germany, Trotsky undertook a critical evaluation of the political problems of the German events, leading to his 1924 work, The Lessons of October. Trotsky contrasted the German events with the Russian October, noting that a section of the Bolshevik Party leadership, centered around Lev Kamenev and Zinoviev, had balked at organizing the seizure of power in 1917. Trotsky detailed the series of fights Lenin waged after the outbreak of revolution in February 1917 in order to rearm the party. These fights made the victory in October possible. The fundamental issue in dispute was “whether or not we should struggle for power.” Trotsky asserted:

“If by Bolshevism—and we are stressing here its essential aspect—we understand such training, tempering, and organization of the proletarian vanguard as enables the latter to seize power, arms in hand; and if by social democracy we are to understand the acceptance of reformist oppositional activity within the framework of bourgeois society and an adaptation to its legality—i.e., the actual training of the masses to become imbued with the inviolability of the bourgeois state; then, indeed, it is absolutely clear that even within the Communist Party itself, which does not emerge full-fledged from the crucible of history, the struggle between social democratic tendencies and Bolshevism is bound to reveal itself in its most clear, open, and uncamouflaged form during the immediate revolutionary period when the question of power is posed point-blank.”

Here Trotsky underscored that the struggle for clarity in a Leninist party is never “finished” and is not the province of any one individual. Leninist parties depend upon a collective of comrades, with their strengths and weaknesses, to develop and carry out the revolutionary line that has been determined through democratic-centralist debate and decision in the party as a whole. As part of a collective with Luxemburg, Liebknecht and other talented comrades, Paul Levi was a useful propagandist for the Communist cause. But after the effective decapitation of the German party, instead of fighting to set it back on course, in spring 1921 he reverted to his social-democratic proclivities. Zetkin chose to join a different collective, that of the Bolsheviks and the Third International, in which she fought alongside Lenin to forge a new weapon of worldwide revolution. Sadly, after the Stalinization of the CI began in 1924, she fell into line, nearly 70 years old and suffering from a lifetime of chronic illness.

Today we in the International Communist League seek to uphold and extend the revolutionary lessons of Lenin’s Communist International. As Trotsky stressed in The Lessons of October, “Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer.”

English Spartacist No. 64

ESp 64

Summer 2014


Fruits of Stalinist Class Collaboration

Greece 1940s: A Revolution Betrayed


Clara Zetkin and the Struggle for the Third International

(Women and Revolution pages)


ICL Letter to Revolutionary History, 1991

Against Reformist Apologists for Ukrainian Fascism


From the Archives of Marxism

Bolshevik Policy in World War I

"Pacifism or Marxism" by Gregory Zinoviev