Remembering Clara Zetkin on March 8

Clara Zetkin

Clara Zetkin, one of the daughters of the working classes, is as bright as ever in the annals of working people’s struggles for rights – rights to life and dignity. Clara, an epitome of proletarian struggle, steadfastness and courage, always stood for the proletarian people, and never confused the women question with a bourgeois worldview.

Clara (July 5, 1857-June 20, 1933), one of the close comrades of Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, organized the first international women’s conference against World War I. The Marxist politician was always staunch on the issues concerning women’s rights. Clara represented the Communist Party of Germany in the Weimer Republic Reichstag from 1920 to 1933.

The organizer of the working people, always at the front row of fights for women’s dignity and equal opportunities in all spheres of life, was also one of the foremost organizers of women’s political struggle, especially of the women from the rank of the working people.

Clara, as editor of Die Gleichheit, women’s organ of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Germany, which was not today’s SPD, labored with her pen to raise voice for the politics of the proletarian women.

Clara Zetkin’s role in defining the International Women’s Day shall never be forgotten by the people struggling for equality for women.

As preparatory work for the general meeting of the Second International, the International Women’s Conference was organized in August 1910. By that time, the women in the United States made major strides in the struggle for rights. With this background, Clara and her comrades in the conference proposed for an annual Women’s Day. The proposal was accepted, and in 1911, on March 19, the International Women’s Day was observed in countries. That was the first observance of the day on a world scale with more than a million women joining the march in countries including Germany, Denmark, Austria and Switzerland.

Clara was strongly opposed to the bourgeois feminism, a sectarian approach, which was, and still today, mostly a fashion among the females from the ranks of the bourgeoisie. To Clara, the bourgeois feminism, as with other sectarian approaches still prevalent in countries including Bangladesh and India, and in all areas of politics, is a tact of the bourgeoisie to divide the working people, to confuse the working people, to make the working people a mere bandwagon rider of the bourgeois ideology and politics – a powerful tool in the hands of the bourgeoisie to serve its interest.

She never missed the crucial question: The proletarian women, the poor women, the working women have to throw away the concept of the bourgeoisie concept, the bourgeoisie politics, the bourgeoisie approach, the divisive approach, the sectarian approach; and without casting away the concept and approach the exploited women can never emancipate them from the chains of inequality and disparity, from exploitation, from injustice as these originate from capital, from exploitative system of capital, which is not a male-chauvinistic arrangement, but a exploitation-motivated system, an ever accumulation of capital-motivated system. The exploiter is not only male; the exploiter is the owner of capital, the owner of the system that exploits; and the system doesn’t depend on gender – male or female or a transgender.

Yet, till today, the question is viewed by overwhelming majority of NGOs, the so-called civil society organizations, most of which are actually NGOs, and in many cases tied to imperialism, view the women question with a sectarian outlook; and ignore the class question, the relation between exploitation of the poor, females and males, by capital; ignore the political arrangements the dominating capitals construct to keep in bondage all irrespective of gender. It’s a vogue indeed!

Clara’s position never missed the class-view. She never missed the fact that, during her time, the feminist movement was dominated by the women from the rich classes, the aristocrats. So, one of her initiatives were to inspire and organize working women in trade unions, inspire them to strengthen the trade union struggle to achieve rights of the wage laborers.

To Clara, women fights for equality, dignity, rights and safety were not isolated from the broader fight of the exploited, of the working people.

To Clara, the women’s fights in all spheres were not isolated for a broader, wider and deeper struggle for emancipation from exploitation, for a struggle for a society free from exploitation – the issues mostly ignored, not raised today by the females voices dominated and orchestrated by the bourgeoisie. It’s the same old game! It’s a game expressed in crude number – a mechanical, and obviously a silly approach that doesn’t take into consideration capital, its composition, power and tricks spread over entire societies and in the state machine it operates: this number of male and this number of females, this percentage and that percentage as if only numbers and percentages determine/eliminate all the inequalities. They, like a shrewd magician forget that a few persons control almost all wealth, resources and political power, almost all decision-making mechanism in the world. They ignore the questions: shall an increased number of females in the palace of the uber-rich in today’s world eliminate gender disparity? Shall the increase bring in milk and honey in the lives of all the women exploited by capital? Don’t the uber-rich women, a few are already there in the palace of the rich, exploit the working women in sewing factories and manufacturing plants, in agriculture industry, in service sector? Do those exploiters, appearing women, go by gender? Was the milk-snatcher, an iron lady indeed, gifted rights to the proletarian women in the United Kingdom? The Iron Lady ravaged all houses of the poor miners, the action that increased suffering of the exploited irrespective of females and males.

The exact story is in other lands today as it was yesterday. It was/is with political power, it was/is with capital power; it was/is in legislative assembly, it was/is in factories.

And, does an exploiter, an owner of capital, a recipient of big profit, women in appearance, in the United States or in Nigeria, there’re a number of such exploiters and plunderers today in many countries in the global sphere considered North and South including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and some of them have been named in the Panama Papers, a list of thieves, exploit a woman worker less than a male worker? The number/percentage of such women, owners of big capital today, is now not a few in numbers. They, whether a smart appearing woman owning manufacturing capital in Bangladesh or a solemn-appearing woman owning an industry in India or in an African country, can be grouped, and the group is not petty in terms of political power it wields formally and informally, through connections and networks, through the power of capital, in legislative assemblies and in business associations. A rich, capital owning woman, a woman owning a factory and appropriating all workers in the factory including the female workers there, is no less powerful, no less barbaric in the “holy” task of the appropriation than her counterpart. The bourgeoisie female “friends” “ignore”, turn “blind” to these questions. On these questions, they turn “ignorant”. They fail to analyze this class question: owner of capital and exploited by capital.

Clara’s position on the women question is evident as she cites Lenin in a long conversation. It was in Lenin’s study in the Kremlin in 1920. Clara writes:

“‘We must create a powerful international women’s movement, on a clear theoretical basis’, Lenin began. [….]

“[Lenin continued:] ‘I have heard some peculiar things on this matter from Russian and German comrades. […] I was told that a talented woman communist in Hamburg is publishing a paper for prostitutes and that she wants to organize them for the revolutionary fight. Rosa acted and felt as a communist when in an article she championed the cause of the prostitutes who were imprisoned for any transgression of police regulations in carrying on their dreary trade. They are, unfortunately, doubly sacrificed by bourgeois society. First, by its accursed property system, and, secondly, by its accursed moral hypocrisy. That is obvious. Only he who is brutal or shortsighted can forget it. But still, that is not at all the same thing as considering prostitutes – how shall I put it? – to be a special revolutionary militant section, as organizing them and publishing a factory paper for them. Aren’t there really any other working women in Germany to organize, for whom a paper can be issued, who must be drawn into your struggles? The other is only a diseased excrescence. It reminds me of the literary fashion of painting every prostitute as a sweet Madonna. The origin of that was healthy, too: social sympathy, rebellion against the virtuous hypocrisy of the respectable bourgeois. But the healthy part became corrupted and degenerate. [….]”

“Lenin continued: ‘Your list of sins, Clara, is still longer. I was told that questions of sex and marriage are the main subjects dealt with in the reading and discussion evenings of women comrades. They are the chief subject of interest, of political instruction and education. I could scarcely believe my ears when I heard it. The first country of proletarian dictatorship surrounded by the counter-revolutionaries of the whole world, the situation in Germany itself requires the greatest possible concentration of all proletarian, revolutionary forces to defeat the ever-growing and ever-increasing counter-revolution. But working women comrades discuss sexual problems and the question of forms of marriage in the past, present and future. They think it their most important duty to enlighten proletarian women on these subjects. The most widely read brochure is, I believe, the pamphlet of a young Viennese woman comrade on the sexual problem. What a waste! What truth there is in it the workers have already read in Bebel, long ago. Only not so boringly, not so heavily written as in the pamphlet, but written strongly, bitterly, aggressively, against bourgeois society.

“‘The extension of Freudian hypotheses seems ‘educated’, even scientific, but it is ignorant, bungling. Freudian theory is the modern fashion. I mistrust the sexual theories of the articles, dissertations, pamphlets, etc., in short, of that particular kind of literature, which flourishes luxuriantly in the dirty soil of bourgeois society. I mistrust those who are always contemplating the several questions, like the Indian saint looking at his navel. It seems to me that these flourishing sexual theories, which are mainly hypothetical, and often quite arbitrary hypotheses, arise from the personal need to justify personal abnormality or hypertrophy in sexual life before bourgeois morality, and to entreat its patience. This masked respect for bourgeois morality seems to me just as repulsive as poking about in sexual matters. However wild and revolutionary the behavior may be, it is still really quite bourgeois. It is, mainly, a hobby of the intellectuals and of the sections nearest them. There is no place for it in the Party, in the class-conscious, fighting proletariat.’

“I [Clara] interrupted here, saying that the questions of sex and marriage, in a bourgeois society of private property, involve many problems, conflicts and much suffering for women of all social classes and ranks. [….] Forms of marriage and of the family, in their historical development and dependence upon economic life, are calculated to destroy the superstition existing in the minds of working women concerning the eternal character of bourgeois society. A critical, historical attitude to those problems must lead to a ruthless examination of bourgeois society, to a disclosure of its real nature and effects, including condemnation of its sexual morality and falseness. All roads lead to Rome. And every real Marxist analysis of any important section of the ideological superstructure of society, of a predominating social phenomenon, must lead to an analysis of bourgeois society and of its property basis, must end in the realization, ‘this must be destroyed’.

“Lenin nodded laughingly. ‘There we have it! You are defending counsel for your women comrades and your Party. Of course, what you say is right. But it only excuses the mistakes made in Germany; it does not justify them. They are, and remain, mistakes. Can you really seriously assure me that the questions of sex and marriage were discussed from the standpoint of a mature, living, historical materialism? Deep and many-sided knowledge is necessary for that, the dearest Marxist mastery of a great amount of material. Where can you get the forces for that now? If they existed, then pamphlets like the one I mentioned would not be used as material for study in the reading and discussion circles. They are distributed and recommended, instead of being criticized. And what is the result of this futile, un-Marxist dealing with the question? That questions of sex and marriage are understood not as part of the large social question. No, worse! The great social question appears as an adjunct, a part, of sexual problems. The main thing becomes a subsidiary matter. That not only endangers clarity on that question itself, it muddles the thoughts, the class-consciousness of proletarian women generally.

“[Lenin said:] ‘[…] Even the wise Solomon said that everything has its time. I ask you: Is now the time to amuse proletarian women with discussions on how one loves and is loved, how one marries and is married? [….] Now all the thoughts of women comrades, of the women of the working people, must be directed towards the proletarian revolution. It creates the basis for a real renovation in marriage and sexual relations. At the moment, other problems are more urgent than the marriage forms of Maoris or incest in olden times. [….]’

“[Lenin said:] ‘I have also been accused by many people of philistinism in this matter, although that is repulsive to me. There is so much hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness in it. Well, I’m bearing it calmly! The little yellow-beaked birds who have just broken from the egg of bourgeois ideas are always frightfully clever. We shall have to let that go. The youth movement, too, is attacked with the disease of modernity in its attitude towards sexual questions and in being exaggeratedly concerned with them.’ Lenin gave an ironic emphasis to the word modernity and grimaced as he did so. ‘I have been told that sexual questions are the favorite study of your youth organizations, too. [Groups posing as progressives in some countries including Bangladesh also have the same practice.] There is supposed to be a lack of sufficient speakers on the subject. Such misconceptions are particularly harmful, particularly dangerous in the youth movement. They can very easily contribute towards over-excitement and exaggeration in the sexual life of some of them, to a waste of youthful health and strength. You must fight against that, too. [….]

“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.” (My Memorandum Book, February 1922. I must apologize to friends disliking long quotations.)

The women question, the question of emancipation of women, doesn’t miss the issues of reformation and radical change.

Clara clarified her position as she wrote:

“[…] [R]eforms ameliorate the situation of the working class, they lighten the weight of the chains labor is burdened with by capitalism, but they are not sufficient to crush capitalism and to emancipate the workers from their tyranny.” (“The Workers International Festival”, Justice, May 1, 1899)

Alexandra Kollontai has expressed the same viewpoint. She refers to the Communist Manifesto: The booklet “was the first to point to the close link between the overall proletarian problem existing today and the women’s question. It traced the process whereby capitalism gradually draws woman into production and makes her a co-participant in the great struggle waged by the proletariat against oppression and exploitation.” (“Introduction to the book The Social Basis of the Women’s Question”, Alexandra Kollontai: Selected Articles and Speeches, Progress Publishers, Moscow, erstwhile USSR, 1984)

She raises a fundamental question: “[C]an political equality in the context of the retention of the entire capitalist-exploiter system free the working woman from that abyss of evil and suffering which pursues and oppresses her both as a woman and as a human being?” (ibid.)

So AK tells unequivocally: “The ultimate objective of the proletarian woman is the destruction of the old antagonistic class-based world and the construction of a new and better world in which the exploitation of man by man will have become impossible. (ibid.)

Most of today’s feminist movement, mainly driven by bourgeois concepts and NGO-money, doesn’t like to mention Clara as it doesn’t like to mention that it was the proletarian women, thousands in their militant march in Petrograd, who opened the floodgate of revolution in Russia on March 8, 1917 – a harbinger of the revolution unprecedented in human history as this is the revolution that has not replaced one exploiting class with another, but has uprooted an exploiting class, and replaced it with the exploited.

Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka.




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