Clara Zetkin

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Clara Zetkin circa 1920

Clara Zetkin (5 July 1857 – 20 June 1933) was a German Marxist theorist, communist activist, and advocate for women's rights. Originally a member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) until World War I, she later joined the Independent Social Democratic Party (USDP), the Spartacus League, and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). She represented the Communist Party of Germany in the Reichstag between 1920 and 1933, when the rise of the Nazi Party forced her into exile in the Soviet Union.


  • The woman of the proletariat has achieved her economic independence but neither as a person nor as a woman or wife does she have the possibility of living a full life as an individual. For her work as wife and mother she gets only the crumbs that are dropped from the table by capitalist production.
    Consequently, the liberation struggle of the proletarian woman cannot be – as it is for the bourgeois woman, a struggle against the men of their own class. She does not need to struggle, as against the men of her own class, to tear down the barriers erected to limit her free competition... The end goal of her struggle is not free competition with men, but bringing about the political rule of the proletariat. Hand in hand with the men of her own class, the proletarian woman fights against capitalist society.
  • Where there’s a will there’s a way. We have the will to world revolution, therefore we must find the way to reach the masses of the exploited and the enslaved women, whether the historical conditions make it easy or difficult.
  • The liberation of the workers can only be the work of the working class itself, it can never accomplish this gigantic and terrible work of history, however, if it is torn in two halves by the sex distinction. As the men and women of the proletariat are united body and soul in their crushing life of misery, so must they also unite a burning hatred of capitalism with a more confident, more daring will to fight for the Revolution.
  • [About Rosa Luxemburg] With a will, determination, selflessness and devotion for which words are too weak, she consecrated her whole life and her whole being to Socialism. She gave herself completely to the cause of Socialism, not only in her tragic death, but throughout her whole life, daily and hourly, through the struggles of many years ... She was the sharp sword, the living flame of revolution.
    • As quoted in Rosa Luxemburg, Ideas in Action (1972) by Paul Frölich, p. x
  • [About Rosa Luxemburg] Rarely was heard on her lips the phrase, “I cannot”; more frequently were heard the words, “I must.”
  • Healthy sport, swimming, racing, walking, bodily exercises of every kind, and many-sided intellectual interests. . . . that will give young people more than eternal theories and discussions about sexual problems and the so- called "living life to the full." Healthy bodies, healthy minds! . . . And I wouldn't bet on the reliability, the endurance in struggle of those women who confuse their personal romances with politics. . . . No, no! that does not square with the revolution.
    • "Lenin on the Woman Question," International Publishers, 1934, p. 12. Quoted in California Red: A Life in the American Communist Party by Dorothy Ray Healey and Maurice Isserman (1990)

Quotes about Clara Zetkin[edit]

  • Clara had been so affected by the failure of the German Social Democracy, to which she had dedicated the best years of her life, that I felt she would never recover from the shock.
  • I have already mentioned the rôle of Clara Zetkin in the German revolutionary movement and as founder and leader of the Marxist movement among women throughout the world. When Clara arrived in Moscow in the fall of 1920, she was ill and hysterical...Knowing that she was being used for demonstration purposes by Zinoviev, I urged her to refuse these invitations or to cut her speeches to a few words of greeting and solidarity. But I did not realize how Clara was fascinated by the platform itself and by the applause that greeted her. "Look at this white-haired veteran of the movement," Zinoviev would say when he introduced her. "She is a living testament to the approval which all great revolutionaries give to the tactics of our great, invincible Party. Long live the glorious Communist Party!" Then, as soon as Clara would begin to speak, Zinoviev would write in a note to the translator: "Abbreviate; cut her speech. We can't waste so much time on her eloquence." I soon discovered that Clara really loved the atmosphere with which she was surrounded and that she would speak for the sake of the applause. The Bolsheviks availed themselves of this weakness to the full; they flattered her, invited her for personal audiences, let her think that she was influencing their policies. Instead, they were laughing at her naïveté-especially when she criticized them for the fatal mistakes they had imposed upon the German Communists. Yet, knowing their tactical errors and the fruits of these errors in Germany, Clara could not resist their flattery. After my departure from Russia, when she was surrounded completely by the tools of Zinoviev, she let herself become one of these tools. She emphasized her adherence to the dominant Bolshevik leadership which meant the leadership of the Russian government-even while she knew that the nonconformist minority in Germany was right. This attitude of Clara was one of the bitter personal disillusionments of my life. I had been not only her ardent disciple, but also her friend. She had once assured me that after the loss of Rosa Luxemburg, for whom she had had an unlimited devotion, she looked upon me as her closest friend. At the time of our last encounter in Russia I realized that I could no longer look to her either as a friend or as a teacher. I had told her of my refusal to collaborate any longer with the Bolsheviks and of my determination to leave Russia as soon as possible. She insisted that I should remain. "You can be appointed secretary of the International Woman's movement, Angelica," she said. "This will leave you independent of the other Comintern institutions. You must remain, Angelica. You are one of the few honest people left in the movement." There were tears in her eyes as she said this. I shook my head. "No, I can't do it, even for Clara Zetkin." This was the second time in my life when I found it necessary to resist the appeal of some one for whom I had had the most profound admiration and whose happiness was dear to me.
  • Despite her writing and speaking experience during the 1880s, as well as her general political experience working within the socialist movement, not even the active support of the party's leader August Bebel and its chief theoretician Karl Kautsky could secure for Zetkin any more creative work within the party than soliciting advertisements for the party press.
    • Karen Honeycut in European Women on the Left edited by Jane Slaughter and Robert Korn (1981)
  • March 8 was designated International Women's Day by the International Socialist Conference in 1910, upon the initiative of Clara Zetkin, the heroic German Communist leader, who later electrified the world with her brave denunciation of the Nazis in Hitler's Reichstag in 1933.
  • the great revolutionary Clara Zetkin, a woman who fought passionately for the emancipation of women-workers
  • The honored guest of the conference, Klara Zetkin, like a sweet old grandmother, is surrounded by respectful attention.
    • Osip Mandelstam THE FIRST INTERNATIONAL PEASANTS' CONFERENCE translated into English in The complete critical prose (1997)
  • It was a great privilege to work so closely with these wonderful women of our movement. Clara Zetkin, one of the outstanding members of the German Party, all her life long devoted herself especially to work among women. She was known throughout the world for her great fight against the World War. She had been a friend of Engels, and Lenin was very fond of her, and loved to talk with her. She was a fine orator, and spoke with a strong resonant voice. Though she suffered from a heart ailment, she never spared herself. I have seen her talk until she dropped unconscious. At such times her son, who was always with her, would revive her, and then she would continue. The last time I saw her was in 1929. She was already beginning to fail. She was sitting outside the door of a committee meeting, resting, and I can remember her telling me she wished that she still had the strength I had. In the last popular election in Germany before Hitler became dictator, she was elected to the Reichstag on the Communist ticket, and, as the oldest member, opened the session. Weak and frail as she was at that time, she made a powerful attack on Nazi brutality, appealing to the German people to unite against fascism.
  • In the PSP a group of us organized a woman's caucus; in fact this is what most of the women in Left organizations did. We studied the writings of the Russian leader, Clara Zetkin on the "women's question." We read about revolutionary Cuban women-Haydée Santamaría, Vilma Espín-and the role they played in toppling the Batista government.
    • Carmen Vivian Rivera in The Puerto Rican Movement: Voices From the Diaspora, edited by Andrés Torres and José E. Velázquez (1998)

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