Clara Zetkin was, during the late 19th and early 20th century, a prominent German communist. With a strong sympathy for the proletariat causes, Zetkin argued that only through a class revolution, one that would overthrow capitalism, could women finally be considered and treated equally. Most of her work was as a prominent supporter, but not member, as women were not permitted to join, of the German Social Democratic Party and, later, as a founder of the German Communist Party. With an ally in Vladimir Lenin, Zetkin was a feminist who advocated the liberation of women using Marxist reform.
Clara Zetkin was born Clara Eissner on 5 July 1857, the eldest of three to a schoolteacher and church organist father. She was raised in Wiederau, near Leipzig, in Germany. Her stepmother, previously the widow of the local doctor, influenced her from an early age. She learned of women’s education societies and became an activist for economic power and equal rights for women.
At the age of 15, Clara’s family moved to Leipzig and there, in 1875, she began formal studies at Schmidt and Otto’s Van Steyber Institute. She was influenced by the German Women’s Association and continued her studies while reading local periodicals and publications, and attending Association meetings.
As editor of Die Gleichheit, a women’s journal stemming from the SDP, young Clara worked tirelessly to promote women’s issues. She met Russian Ossip Zetkin through some fellow students and, with his mentoring, developed a better understanding of the writings of Marx and Engels. In 1879, with Zetkin, Clara rejected what she considered her bourgeois lifestyle, split from her family and traveled to Russia to observe Marxism in action.
In 1882, Clara and Ossip travelled to Austria where she worked as a tutor for factory workers, while Ossip campaigned for greater socialist reform.
Women’s Rights and Political Activity
From Austria, the couple moved to Paris, where they lived an impoverished life. Having contacted tuberculosis, Clara returned to Germany to recover, where she re-established contact with her family. While recovering, she came to believe that it was social equality of the classes that would liberate women from their oppression without need for special concessions in laws and provisions. She returned to Paris on hearing that her husband had contacted spinal tuberculosis.
As one of the only eight female delegates to the Second International Congress in Paris in 1889, Clara Zetkin made a number of speeches concerning the rights and conditions of the working class, and suggesting that the lives of women would only improve once the capitalism had been eradicated. Her views put her at odds with many of her colleagues who found her views too extreme. Their efforts were more focused on specific goals, such as equal pay for equal work. Not to ne denied, she continued to work in Berlin, where, with others, she founded the Berlin Agitation Committee.
Zetkin served as both a representative of the German Communist Party in the Reichstag legislative body and as an associate of Lenin. She also edited the Marxist SPD journal for women. She also became a firm supporter of trade unionism and its use of organized strikes. She became more moderate in her views as she worked more extensively with the working classes. But in other ways she remained a staunch Marxist in thought and practice even amidst efforts by Marxist Revisionists who urged her to modify her views for more general audiences.
Private life and Last Days
The Zetkins lived as husband and wife and had two sons. In order to retain her German citizenship, Clara never legally married Zetkin but took his name and lived with him to his death in Paris in January 1889. She married again in 1899, the German painter, Georg Friedrich Zundel, 18 years her junior. Their marriage ended in divorce during the Great War.
From 1907 to 1910 Zelkin worked as the secretary of the International Women’s Bureau. She established the first International Women’s Day on 19 March 1911. During the First World War, she and fellow activist, Rosa Luxemburg (pictured in 1910 with Clara Zetkin), condemned the radicals within their party resulting in her leaving the party and resigning her post as editor. Later, with Luxemburg, she formed the Sparticus League, which later evolved into the German Communist Party.
Clara Zelkin’s political views didn’t falter and throughout the 1920s she continued to advocate for women’s education and workers’ reform. In 1932, she was the party’s oldest member and spoke out against Hitler and the rise of Nazism in Germany. Following the ban of the German Communist Party, following the Reichstag Fire in February 1933, Zetkin moved to the Soviet Union.
Clara Zetkin died outside of Moscow from poor health on 20 June 1933. She was honoured with an elaborate funeral attended by some of the leading dignitaries of the Communist world.
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