The Question of Women Workers, Past and Present

Eleonora Roldán Mendívil

Summary: This is a review of Clara Zetkin: The Women’s and Women Workers’ Question of our Time [], translated and introduced by Ben Lewis, which contains a translation of a work by a foremost figure in the European socialist women’s movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. — Editors.

Clara Zetkin’s The Women’s and Women Workers’ Question of our Time is a brief pamphlet written in 1889. Ben Lewis has translated this agitational piece from German to English for the first time. A 36-page introduction and a 10-page biographical timeline by the translator embed a rather old text into contemporary debates about Marxism and Feminism and their historical relationship.

Born July 5, 1857, in Wiederau, Saxony, the pamphlet’s author is little known to an English-speaking audience. Lewis makes sure to briefly trace Zetkin’s impressive biographical stages of political involvement in the world socialist movement—from her early engagement and later membership in the German Socialist Worker’s Party, her break with the party during World War I due to her opposition to its voting for war credits and the nationalist and anti-worker policy of “civil peace” (meaning a siding with the ruling class of one’s nation-state during the war), to founding the Spartakusbund [Spartacus League] alongside Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and Franz Mehring and consequently joining the anti-war Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands [Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany].

Lewis follows her commitment to the international Women Worker’s Movement within the Second International as well as her important role as the lead editor of the social-democratic publication Die Gleichheit. Zeitschrift für die Interessen der Arbeiterinnen [Equality. Newspaper for the Interests of Women Workers] from 1892 till 1917. After the USPD merged into the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands [Communist Party of Germany], she was elected to the party leadership in no time and was re-elected for many years. Also, International Women’s Day, first commemorated in 1911, goes back to Clara Zetkin’s and Käthe Duncker’s advocacy of the resolutions passed at the 1910 Second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen.

What is striking is the reception Zetkin has had within and without socialist circles. Though “Zetkin was, quite correctly, viewed as somebody who rejected notions of a cross-class ‘universal sisterhood’ of all women and who deployed much of her polemical skill in the struggle against this and similar feminist ideas” (pp. 11-12), her life’s work has been most notably claimed by bourgeois feminists. Yet, “Clara Zetkin refused the struggle of the sexes and fought […] against feminism and the feminists” as Marie-Louise Janssen-Jurreit already summarised in 1976 (p. 12). Zetkin emphasized “the need to establish a distinct social democratic women’s movement, independent of pro-capitalist women’s associations and clubs, to struggle against the rise of opportunism within the SPD and the Second International, and to uphold the erstwhile revolutionary spirit of the SPD and the International in the face of their collapse following the outbreak of war in 1914” (p. 4).

However, the early German socialist-feminist groups of the 1960s also took an interest in Zetkin: “What they mainly drew from these works was not the need for the organizational unity of men and women in a revolutionary party, but chiefly her arguments in favor of women’s work (the importance of which Zetkin always stressed, as she does in this pamphlet) at a time when women were being portrayed as destined for housewifery.” (ibid.)

For Lewis, feminists such as Florence Hervé, Jean Quataert, or Lou Zucker “project categories and definitions backwards in time” (p. 24). These feminist claims demonstrate an “ahistorical and homogenizing approach,” that “effectively erases the key class and political divisions between the two women’s movements and what was distinct about Zetkin’s revolutionary working-class approach to women’s liberation” (pp. 24-25). Finally, Lewis argues that Zetkin’s pamphlet in fact “shows that another approach—the political organization of the working class against the interests of capital—is achievable” (p. 27). And for this, women need to be present and organized on all levels of socialist organizing.

In the German Democratic Republic Zetkin was idolised as a devout female communist figure. Yet Lewis rightly underlines, that “given what we know about the GDR’s practices of indoctrination and the significance of the notion that ‘The party is always right’ (Zetkin’s political life revolved around demonstrating how the exact opposite was the case), we see a much darker side to this instrumentalization of her legacy” (p. 16) This is particularly problematic for the project of “socialism in the Eastern bloc, where the claims of having ushered in the liberation of women did not match the harsh reality of women facing the ‘triple burden’ of work, family and party-political commitments” (pp. 16-17)

Zetkin’s pamphlet itself starts with a short summary of the historical conditions for women’s exploitation and oppression: “Over the centuries, the weakness and backwardness of women were elevated to a social dogma, to an irrefutable fundamental outlook on which an entire system of physical, mental and moral oppression was built” (p. 50). She further highlights: “as with the modern workers’ question, the women’s question is actually a child of large-scale and industrial production, which has been revolutionized by electricity, mechanical tools and steam power. Although the women’s question includes moral and political elements, it is neither a moral nor a political question, but an economic one” (p. 52).

Furthermore, she describes how the development of the means of production “destroyed the economic basis of woman’s activity within the family, but at the same time created the conditions for her activity in society—outside of the home on the ‘market of life’” (p. 54). Zetkin aptly describes the circle of competition in the industrializing centres of capitalism of her time: “Wherever women’s labor enters into industry, it is cursed to reduce men’s wages and possibly even to drive them out of a particular branch of industry altogether. Women’s labor, in turn, experiences competition from child labor, and all human labor put together has to endure a terrible struggle against machine work. As long as production is not conducted for the purpose of satisfying the needs of the workers themselves, but for the extraction of surplus value, of profit for individual entrepreneurs and not for use but for sale, as long as it is solely a matter of producing as cheaply—and selling as expensively—as possible, then these relations of production will pitilessly produce such an outcome for men, women and children” (p. 58).

In summary, she writes: “If we want to prevent—or at least alleviate—the disastrous […] results that accompany women’s work in today’s society […], then we must not place the interests of male and female workers in hostile opposition to each other but must unite them both into a unified mass that represents workers’ interests in general, in opposition to the interests of capital” (p. 52) Thus she concludes, “it is only the socialist party that can meet the women’s expectations of full emancipation. The movement of those fighting exclusively for women’s rights might win certain selective benefits, but it can never solve the women’s question in its entirety” (p. 100).

Lewis’s introduction sheds light on a number of issues arising in the reception of Zetkin. He does not hesitate to also show the less heroic role she played in the Soviet Union, for example publicly condemning Trotskyism as counter-revolutionary in 1928. He paints a picture of a uniquely talented and passionate Socialist woman, without shying away from her contradictions.

When Lewis writes about “genuine Marxism” and what it stands for— “the fight against women’s oppression, racism and chauvinism, and the struggle for peace and ecological sustainability […] just as much […] as pay, trade-union rights and demands for high-quality health, housing and education”[1]—questions arise (p. 26). Who defines what “genuine Marxism” is? It seems that for Lewis only those adhering to the above-cited principles are.

I believe treating any and every current within Marxism that failed to take all of the above-mentioned questions seriously in their theory and practice would mean dismissing every current—in history and at present. It has been the struggles within socialist and communist organizations that have developed into shifts in paradigms for different Marxist currents—fought for by women, men, racial out-and-insiders, queer folk, and hetero comrades. Thus, I find it more helpful to understand that as Marxists, socialists, and/or communists we stand in the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary tradition of all these currents and have the task of understanding, under which circumstances certain currents lost their revolutionary potential and turned against their own principles. For even if we claim in words to stand for all the above, it will be very hard to find any current, who can satisfactorily stand for a “genuine Marxism,” only striving for the good of humanity, without any reactionary tendencies within the organization.

Being products of such a violent world, anything else would be utopian. This does not mean not openly opposing the one-party mockeries of real existing socialist experiments such as in the Stalinized Soviet Union, Cuba, or China under Mao. Surely these experiences show us how “socialism in one country” has failed; how the killing of internal democracy brought these projects to social regression and led to reactionary policies around gender, race, and sexuality.

All in all, Lewis’s introduction, his translation of Zetkin’s pamphlet, and the brief biographical timeline are an important contribution in times of hegemony of intersectionality theory and other forms of bourgeois ideas on questions of class and gender, as shown in the variant forms of today’s liberal to conservative feminisms.



[1] A definition from the Communist Party of Great Britain’s website.



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