For International Women’s Day: Clara Zetkin Appreciation Post

Today when people think of Clara Zetkin, they generally think of a grandmotherly figure associated with International Working Women’s Day. And it’s true that she was instrumental in founding this world-historic holiday in 1910, which sounded the alarm of the Russian Revolution in 1917, and that is still a day of protest and celebration for women around the globe.

But Zetkin was not just IWD. She was a communist revolutionary who spent her entire adult life in the struggle, who helped lead the anti-war resistance after the Second International’s betrayal during World War I, who rubbed shoulders and sometimes went toe-to-toe with other giants of the class struggle like Engels, Bebel, Lenin and Luxemburg.

Clara Zetkin (2nd from left) at Third Congress of the
Communist International in Moscow, 1921.
Recently, I’ve been reading “To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International” from John Riddell’s indispensable series documenting the Comintern in Lenin’s lifetime. And it is clear to me that Zetkin was the true hero of the Third Congress, held in Moscow in June-July 1921. She stood strong against the most unprincipled and vile slanders by the ultra-leftists who then dominated the leadership of the Communist Party of Germany and the Executive Committee of the Comintern, and who engineered the adventurist “March Action” of 1921 in Germany. The controversy over this action overshadowed everything else at the congress.

Although Zetkin, already in her 60s, had to “take her lumps,” as Lenin said, in the interests of preserving the unity of the International, it was ultimately her view that prevailed and set the stage for the historic Fourth Congress and the United Front strategy that emerged from it the following year.

Reading through the material assembled in Riddell’s book, it is striking both how Zetkin, despite her seniority and experience, had no problem understanding or accepting Lenin’s great authority in the international communist movement, and at the same time, had no qualms about disagreeing and challenging him when she felt he was in the wrong or misinformed.

Reading the documents of the Third Congress has truly given me a new appreciation for the outstanding revolutionary leader, Clara Zetkin.

Greg Butterfield

March 7, 2018

Further reading:
Some of Zetkin’s writings are available in the Marxists Internet Archive, including her contributions to the Third Congress:

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