Clara and the Comintern
Though the idea was inspired particularly by the battles fought by women workers in the United States, like those at the Lawrence mills, who came up with the historic slogan "We want bread -and roses too!", it was the women of Petrograd, Russia who gave it powerful meaning when their demonstrations on Women's day, March 1917 (late February in the old Russian calendar) began the first round of the Russian Revolution, bringing down Tsar Nicholas II.
Clara herself was born in a village in Saxony, however, in 1857, and first gained prominence as a member of the German Social Democratic Party, later becoming a founder of the Communist Party of Germany. The stamp above was issued in her honour by the GDR (East German) post office in 1987.
Earlier this year the Australian-based journal Links International published an article based on a talk given in 2010 in Toronto by John Riddell.
Describing how Clara Zetkin began her speeches " Genossinnen und Genossen!" - German for “women comrades and men comrades”. an unusual greeting at a time when few women were at socialist meetings, Riddel says Zetkin had been a friend of Fredrick Engels and joined the Social Democratic "in its earky heroic days". She formed a close alliance with Rosa Luxemburg to defend the party's revolutionary heritage against opportunist leaders.
At a time when women still had not even got the vote, let alone wide recognition in the movement
" Zetkin and Luxemburg were the first women to fight their way into the central leadership of socialist parties." Clara Zetkin led the Socialist (or Second) International’s work among women, and it was in this capacity that she not only promoted women's rights and struggles, and International Women's Day, but called the first international socialist conference in opposition to the World War I
.However, John Riddell draws attention to another aspect of Clara Zetkin's importance.
In 1917 and 1918 the First World War was ended by revolutions in Russia and Germany. In 1919 Clara Zetkin was one of the founders of the German Communist Party. The war's end had not brought peace, as the Allied powers waged wars of intervention against the emergent Soviet Union, and in Germany right-wing militarists waged terror against the revolutionaries. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered. Right-wing social democrats, anxious to preserve capitalist rule under the new republic, were implicated with the officers.
Nevertheless, though the new Communist Party was strong and determined, the Social Democrats retained the support of the majority of workers. In March 1920, when extreme rightists attempted a military takeover (the Kapp Putsch) the Social Democrats played a major role in the massive general strike that defeated the coup.
Later that year an assembly of metalworkers in Stuttgart, where Clara Zetkin was based, adopted a resolution calling on the trade unions for a joint campaign on five demands “shared by all workers”:
Reduced prices for food and essentials of life.
Opening of the capitalists’ financial records and higher jobless benefits.
Lower taxes on workers and higher taxes on the rich.
Workers’ control of raw material and food production and distribution.
Disarming of reactionary gangs and arming of the workers.
John Riddell says this was "an early example of the communist concept of transitional demands, which are rooted in immediate needs but point toward workers’ rule."
The following month, in January 1921, the German Communist Party central bureau made a more comprehensive appeal to all workers’ organisations, including the Social Democrats, for united action. Clara Zetkin was a leading member of this body, but the appeal’s main author was party co-chairperson Paul Levi. Known as the “Open Letter”, this call included the Stuttgart five points, in more detailed form, plus demands for the release of political prisoners and resumption of Germany’s trade and diplomatic relations with the Russian Soviet republic.
Riddell says the Communist (or Third) International (Comintern) adopted the united front policy in 1921. Zetkin, at 64, older than any other of its main leaders, became an influential figure not only in the German Communist Party, but in the International. The call for an alignment with the Soviet Union took on added importance in Germany, as the Allied victors were demanding reparations from the near-bankrupt German state and threatening occupation. .
Clara Zetkin, hoping to channel national resentment in Germany away from the right, called in the Reichstag for an alliance with Soviet Russia, as “the only way to achieve a revision of the Versailles Treaty and ultimately to tear it up”. The establishment of workers’ power, she said, will be “the hour when the German nation will be born, the birth of a unified German people, no longer divided into lords and servants”.
Many German Communists were not happy with what they saw as a turn from revolutionary aims towards appeasing the Social Democrats (whose leaders had in fact rejected the Open Letter), and were even less comfortable with what seemed like invocation of nationalism. There was also oppositon in the Comintern. "A current led by Hungarian communists such as Béla Kun called on communists to sharpen their slogans and initiate minority actions that could sweep the hesitant workers into action – the so-called 'theory of the offensive'. Although criticised by Lenin, this concept found some support in the Moscow-based Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI), including from Nikolai Bukharin and Gregory Zinoviev."
The ECCI initially criticised the Open Letter. Lenin supported it, however, and the matter was referred to the next world congress.
Worsening poverty in Germany had produced a contradictory situation. The Communist Party had more than 400,000 members, and many were impatient for action, whereas the bigger section of workers remained with the Social Democrats and union leaders, clinging desperately to their jobs if they could, pessimistic and passive. In Clara Zetkin’s words, the workers were “almost desperate” yet “unwilling to struggle”.
"Zetkin and her colleagues urged efforts to unite workers in a defensive struggle, in which they could regain the confidence needed for a renewed and concerted offensive for workers’ power. However, her left-wing opponents within the party urged minority action to provoke a crisis. As one of them later commented, “A stagnant swamp was everywhere. A wall of passivity was rising. We had to break through it at any cost.”
Unfortunately events outside Germany, relayed through the Comintern's envoys, led to Zetkin and Levi being ousted from the leadership, and the Party took an adventurist turn, with the "March Action", in 1921, an abortive armed revolt that ended in defeat. Paul Levi was expelled after labelling it a putsch.
That left Clara Zetkin, who at the central committee in April criticised those who had abandoned the Open Letter and the alliance with Soviet Russia, and taken the party on a confrontation course that excluded the masses. “Party campaigns can prepare the road for mass action, can provide goals and leadership for them, but cannot replace them”, her proposed resolution stated.
"When the Comintern met in congress in Moscow, in June, Zetkin found support. Lenin and Leon Trotsky launched a campaign to overturn the ultraleft 'theory of the offensive' and won the Communist International to a course similar to what Zetkin had advocated."
The Comintern adopted the United Front policy. This "enabled Zetkin to carry out two years of fruitful work as the Communist International’s best-known non-Russian leader. As the head of the Communist International’s work among women, Zetkin sought to imbue it with united front concepts.
This work was never a high priority for party leaders, and women made up at best 10 per cent of the total membership. Still, the Communist Women’s International had its own publications and conferences both internationally and nationally, which reached far beyond the party membership. Zetkin “wanted to win not only women [industrial] workers, but women who were office employees, peasants, civil servants, intellectuals”, writes biographer Gilbert Badia. “She favoured appealing to Social Democratic women, setting aside invective in order to win a hearing.”
"In the mid-1920s, as the Comintern was bureaucratised under Joseph Stalin, the Communist Women’s International was among the first victims. In 1925, Zetkin’s international women’s magazine was shut down as 'too costly'; the next year, over strenuous objections by Zetkin and her colleagues, the women’s secretariat was dissolved and formation of further women’s organisations prohibited, amid warnings regarding “feminism” and “Social Democratic methods”.
Zetkin also was among the leaders of International Workers Aid, which provided humanitarian relief, and International Red Aid, which defended victims of political persecution. Established to help counter the famine in Russia in 1921, Workers’ Aid soon had 200,000 people fully under its care; it then provided funds for industrial development equal to half what the Soviet government summoned up from its own resources.
"This promising beginning was undone ... when the Communist International and its KPD reverted to a more extreme version of the ultraleftism of the “theory of the offensive” period. Social Democracy was now seen as a “wing of German fascism”, or, in Stalin’s word, its “twin”. The term “united front” was still used, but it was now to be a “united front from below”, that is, no appeals to leaders of other political currents; instead, attempts to win rank-and-file workers to Communist-led movements.
"This reversal was dictated by the tactical needs of a bureaucratic faction that ruled in Moscow, in the first stage of a process that quickly led to the Communist International’s degeneration.Except for a partial respite in 1926-27, Zetkin now became an oppositionist, expressing her most deeply held views only in private letters, closed meetings and confidential memos.
"The then-dominant left faction of the KPD was aligned with Comintern president Gregory Zinoviev, and in 1926 they followed him into the United Opposition, led by Zinoviev and Trotsky. Zetkin allowed her animosity to the German ultralefts to colour her assessment of this new opposition. She lined up with Nikolai Bukharin, then allied with Stalin, in a combination that was promoting bureaucratisation of the Communist International. Tragically, in 1927 she vocally supported measures to expel the United Opposition’s supporters.John Riddell , Socialist Voice (Canada), April 19, 2010
"Only two years later, Zetkin supported the current led by Bukharin, the so-called “Right Opposition”, in its rebellion against an ultraleft turn in Stalin’s policies. Bukharin’s tendency was defeated, and its supporters expelled or forced to recant. Zetkin alone remained at her post, never recanting her views, and proclaiming them when she could in letters, memos and personal discussions. She made no secret of her scorn for Stalin, once writing of him, in the chauvinist idiom of the era, as “a schizophrenic woman wearing men’s pants”.
During these tormented years, her health, never good, gave way. Circulatory problems increasingly impeded her walking. She suffered the after effects of malaria, and in her last years she was almost blind.
She held to the hope that the Communist International could be reformed – as did Bukharin, Trotsky and almost all Communist oppositionists at that time. She did not quit the official Communist movement. But she could not prevent Stalin from utilising her enormous prestige for his own purposes.
On one occasion she managed to assert in print that she disagreed with the Comintern’s line. Two of her closely argued critiques of Stalinist policy somehow reached independent socialist periodicals, which published them.
Zetkin’s greatest concern was the rise of German fascism. Faced with this threat, the Communist International retreated into sectarianism, branding the Social Democrats as fascist, rejecting a broad alliance against Hitlerism, and making no attempt to prepare concerted resistance. Zetkin favoured a united front response, a position similar to that championed by Trotsky and the Left Opposition.
When the German parliament reconvened in 1932, it was Zetkin’s right, as its oldest member, to officially open the session. When she heard this, she exclaimed, “I’ll do it, dead or alive.” The Nazis vowed to kill her if she appeared. Now near death, she was carried in a chair to the speaker’s platform, to face an arrogant throng of uniformed Nazi deputies. Her voice, weak at first, grew in volume and passion, expressing both her defiance and her insight into how the fascist menace could be defeated: ...
Nonetheless, the German workers’ movement went down without making a stand. In the early months of 1933, the Nazis took power and crushed the Communist Party and the workers’ movement.
Clara Zetkin died in July that year. It was a time of defeat and demoralisation. Had she lived five years longer, she would have witnessed the Communist International turn sharply to the right, embracing alliances with bourgeois forces in defence of capitalism, while Stalin organised the murder of almost all her friends and colleagues then living in the Soviet Union".
Links International, January -February 2013
In the SHS book on Clara Zetkin, Florence Herve notes that while she was treated as a heroine in the postwar GDR, idealised in stamps and sculpture and with parks named after her, nothing was said about her differences with Stalin or the leaders of the KPD.
In drawing attention to John Riddell's lecture and quoting extracts I hope this will help fill the gap, which is not coverd in the otherwise excellent SHS book, .
SHS Book launch at Housman's, Wednesday, June 12. 7pm Admission £3 redeemable against any publication in the bookshop. http://www.housmans.com/