Following the stunning victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party leadership contest this September, much maligned and supposedly outdated terms such as socialism and collective ownership have started to re-enter British political discourse. As of yet, this has predominantly found expression in the media’s constant equation of socialist ideas with support for a whole host of despots – from Stalin to Putin via Pol Pot.
It cannot be denied, however, that many in society have been drawn towards the Corbyn movement by the fact that its ideas represent something different to the political status quo, which is premised on the notion that ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA) to global capitalism and the liberal democracy that – so the story goes – it brings in its wake. Socialism, according to the TINA narrative, may be informed by the best of cotton-vested intentions, but it nonetheless represents the road to hell (or serfdom, as Friedrich Hayek put it), as embodied in the tragic experience of the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic and other self-professed socialist states.
For researchers like me who – swimming against the ideological tide somewhat – have been investigating the history of the European socialist movement, the media’s current portrayal of socialism is completely at odds with the history of the movement and some of the inspiring figures that emerged from its ranks.
Before its degeneration into reformism (socialism via the capitalist state) and Stalinism (socialism in one country), socialism in Europe was the pioneer of progress, democracy, internationalism and peace. In the face of stiff opposition it set the agenda on many of the rights and freedoms we in contemporary Britain often take for granted. Have you ever heard of International Women’s Day, the 8th of March? What about International Workers’ Day on the 1st of May? Both were initiated by the so-called ‘Second’ Socialist International (1889-1914).
Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) was involved in the foundation of these annual celebrations. In an attempt to convey to a modern-day English-speaking audience her outstanding role in the struggle for women’s liberation across the globe and her contribution to Marxist political theory, I have recently co-edited, with Mike Jones, a volume on her entitled Clara Zetkin: Letters and Writings.
Zetkin has left behind an ambivalent legacy. She has been described as “the most dangerous witch” of the German Kaiserreich (one of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s more memorable quips); “an anti-feminist and dogmatic communist” who “sowed division and preached division” in both the women’s and the socialist movements (Angelica Balabanova); a “museum figure who hardly interests anybody” (the German weekly, Die Zeit); and the embodiment of a ‘new woman’ in Louis Aragon’s Bells of Basle.
Born in Saxony in 1857, Clara married a Russian, Ossip Zetkin (who tragically died young), spent a long time in Parisian exile during the period of Otto von Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Law (1878-1890), and much of her later life in the Soviet Union, where she eventually died in 1933, just months after the National Socialists had taken power in Germany. Her last public appearance, in fact, was a speech as the oldest member of the Reichstag in 1932, where – in the face of death threats from Fascist mobs – she called for international working-class unity in the struggle against Fascism in a building packed with National Socialist deputies.
While she may not be the first name that springs to mind when we are asked to name influential Marxist women (Rosa Luxemburg’s sheer brilliance and ultimate tragic martyrdom quite understandably place her at the forefront of most people’s minds), there can be no doubt that Zetkin was one of the most popular figures in the international workers’ movement of her time. She was a journalist, theoretician, leading member of German Social Democracy (SPD) and the oppositional Independent Social Democracy (USPD), Reichstag parliamentarian for the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) between 1920 and 1933, pedagogue, historian of art and literature, translator, anti-imperialist, member of the Communist International’s executive committee, president of Rote Hilfe (Red Aid) – the proletarian solidarity group, secretary of the Socialist Women’s International (1907-17) and much more besides.
It could be argued that she was at least on a par with Marxist contemporaries such as Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and maybe even Lenin. Consider the following event at the December 1920 Tours Congress of the French Section of the International, which saw the party split over whether to affiliate to the Communist International or not:
Congress of Tours, Tuesday December 28 1920. Marcel Sembat presides. Since early afternoon, LO Frossard speaks. Suddenly an interruption. The lights dim. A shiver runs through the assembly. A few seconds later, when the lights go up, a woman with almost white hair stands at the dais. A woman whom the congress, which rises as one, acclaims: it is Clara Zetkin, the delegate of the Third International, saluted by the session leader with these words:
‘This great, noble and glorious woman who, with her glorious friends, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, was the ardent and magnificent soul of the German Revolution.’
Zetkin was convinced that women’s liberation required the defeat of capitalism and had to be informed by these perspectives. Her ideas are likely to be just as controversial today as they were at the time. Nonetheless, they cut to the core of many controversies faced by the contemporary movement for women’s liberation: is it possible under capitalism? What about the question not only of the growing inequality between men and women, but between women? Can men and women be effectively organised together in a political party? On what political basis?
If, against the backdrop of a possible renewed interest in socialism, more people become aware of her life and ideas, then the efforts in making available her ideas in English will not have been in vain.
Ben Lewis is a Wolfson Scholar and Postgraduate Research Student in Germanic Studies at the University of Sheffield. There will be an official book launch for Clara Zetkin: Letters and Writings at the University of Sheffield on Saturday December 5. The details are yet to be confirmed, but if you are interested then please contact Ben for more information at email@example.com.
Cover image: Poster for Women’s Day, March 8, 1914 (cropped) [Wikicommons].
In-text image: Cover of Clara Zetkin: Letters and Writings courtesy of Merlin Books, Ben Lewis and Mike Jones.
 Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (London, 1944).
 Balabanova also described her as the “best friend of the Soviet Union and babushka kommunizma (grandmother of communism)”, as well as a “marionette” of the Bolshevik leaders.
 Cf. Marilyn J Boxer and John S Partington (eds) Clara Zetkin: National and International Contexts Socialist History Society Occasional Publications, Series No. 31, (London, 2013), p. 16.