Max Shachtman

The Death of
Com. Klara Zetkin

A Historical Appreciation of the Great Woman Revolutionist

(July 1933)

From The Militant, Vol. VI No. 36, 22 July 1933, pp. 3 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The death of Klara Zetkin removes from the revolutionary labor movement one of that diminishing handful of true founders of the Communist International still left in its ranks. More than half a century of undivided devotion to the cause of working class freedom lay behind the great militant whose last public act was her appearance a few months ago in Berlin to preside, as senior member, over the last session of the Weimar Reichstag before its dissolution by those same snarling brutes in brown shirts whom she compelled to listen to the eloquent defiance of a tongue which proclaimed the inevitable revolution in Germany.

Born more than seventy-five years ago, on July 5, 1857, Klara Zetkin became a socialist at the time the Iron Chancellor launched the notorious Exceptional Laws against, the social democratic movement. Her activity in the party not only began with its heroic period, but unlike most of her contemporaries, she carried forward the best of the tradition of those days throughout the rest of her life.

Klara Zetkin – Women’s Leader

For more than a quarter of a century, her name was prominently associated throughout the Socialist world with the movement to win the working class woman to the standard of revolution. To her, more than to any other single force, goes the credit for the rich educational and cultural work among proletarian women which was carried on for decades in Germany. Virtually by her own efforts, she founded the socialist women’s periodical Gleichheit (Equality) and edited it uninterruptedly from 1892 to 1917, when the social patriots summarily removed her from the journal which had become synonymous with her own name. If a socialist woman’s movement came into existence in Germany, distinct and separate from the feminist and other bourgeois movements, it was in no small measure due to the unremitting labors of her brain, her pen, her tongue. Little wonder then that the Executive Committee of the Communist International, after its foundation, confided to her the direction of Communist activity among the working women throughout the world.

Her activities, however, were not confined to this specific field. Klara Zetkin was a party woman, above everything. And in the party, she stood unwaveringly on the side of that small band of warriors who constituted the Marxian group from the very outset of the internal struggle. She stood elbow to elbow with the Left wing of Rosa Luxemburg and Franz Mehring in their fight, made in common with Kautsky, up to a certain point, against the revisionist program of Bernstein, Dav.d and Co. which finally devoured Bebel’s party. And even when Parvus turned grain and munitions agent for the House of Hohenzollern during the war, and Kautsky effected his touching conciliation with Bernstein, Klara Zetkin remained with the now reduced group of Marxists who defended proletarian internationalism by deeds, while others were drowning it in fratricidal blood or else giving it sufficient formal acknowledgment to enable them all the more easily to continue attacking Spartacus.

Opposed the Social Patriots

The solemn decisions on the question of imperialist war adopted by the Congresses of the Socialist International and of the German Party retained their significance for her even after August 4, 1914. Standing at the head of the Wuerttemberg party organization, together with Crispien and Westmeyer, she vehemently opposed the treacherous action of the Reichstag fraction in voting for war credits, and demanded that it adhere to the decisions of the International. Nor did she rest content with a formal gesture. When Rosa Luxemburg and Franz Mehring issued the first number of Die Internationale in April 1915, delivering those crushing blows at chauvinists and Kautskyans alike, the name of Klara Zetkin was to be found on this roll of honor together with Karski, Jogiches, Thalheimer and the other internationalists who subsequently founded the Spartakusbund. Like Rosa and countless others, she was thrown into prison during the war, to the great relief of the Kaiser’s socialists. An illegally distributed Spartacus leaflet of that time commemorated the contrast between the two camps in the social democracy by showing three pictures: Rosa Luxemburg and Klara Zetkin, each in her prison cell for anti-war activity, and Scheidemann, Noske, David and other social-imperialists photographed at a discreet distance behind the front, fraternizing with army officers in front of their quarters; the pictures were eloquent enough without comment – nor did the leaflet supply them with any.

To Klara Zetkin falls the distinction of having initiated the first successful International socialist conference after the outbreak of the war and the collapse of the Second International. Upon her own responsibility, the international socialist women’s conference was convened in Berne, Switzerland, in March 1915, with representatives from all the important belligerents on both sides. There were not many in those black days of treachery and reaction who were ready to speak and act for internationalism, but among them was to be found the already aging but tireless German revolutionist. At that time, it is true, she did not yet stand on the side of the Bolsheviks. The latter’s delegates to the Berne Conference, Inessa Armand and N.K. Krupskaya, were the isolated extreme Left wing, whose resolution to the Conference, edited by Lenin, was overwhelmingly rejected because it put the question of the break with all patriots and Centrists, in the sharpest and most unmistakable manner. Not even Zetkin was at that time prepared to consummate the rupture. But even though Lenin submitted the ambiguous and hesitant decisions of Berne to an acrid criticism, the Conference was nevertheless the first European milestone along that road, marked later on by Zimmerwald and Kienthal, which led directly to the founding of the Communist International in Moscow in April 1919.

The first years of the Russian revolution and the Communist International undoubtedly marked the high water mark of Klara Zetkin’s development and activity. The great period of stormy revolutionary flood brought out all that was best and most positive in the Communist leaders of the time. Despite her years, she put at the disposal of the German and international movements those talents which distinguished her. A fervid temperament, a sincerity of devotion, kept alive in her a luminous flame which dimmed only towards the last. An abyss lay between her and that legion of others, fawning careerists and stock-market revolutionists, who came to the Comintern in its early years like so many tourists and soon left it to write apologies for their momentary aberration.

Her gift of oratory, warm with a rich inspiring prose, was not always combined with the quality of profound and original political thinking. In this respect, she had leaned very heavily upon the sturdier and surer Rosa Luxemburg throughout the years before and during the world war. The political firmness and strength which she gained from this heavy association did not, unfortunately, grow in the years that followed.

The young Communist Party of Germany was cruelly deprived of its central staff immediately after the war. Left without the gifted brain of Luxemburg, the popular and tireless revolutionary spirit of Liebknecht, the organizing talents of Tychko, the leadership of the party slipped by default into the hands of an inferior stratum of the Spartacans, whose qualities were not exactly enhanced by the accretion of the motley Left wing that joined it after the splitting of the Independent Socialists at Halle. She who had once, drawn her strength from the wells of a Luxemburg, now turned to Paul Levi, who proved to be more skilled in the collection of rare pottery than in the leadership of a revolutionary party. In the party crisis that followed the luckless “March Action” in 1921, Zetkin marched at

Levi’s heels together with the group of Daeumig, Brass and the others who finally went back with Levi to the social democracy. With Levi, too, she balked at Lenin’s struggle against G. Serrati, whose fatal attitude in the Italian Socialist party impeded so markedly the development of a mass Communist party for the sake of unity with a coterie of shrewd opportunists. Still, unlike both Levi and Serrati, she never broke with the International and after each crisis, with her position increasingly compromised, she was to be found in its ranks.

In taking her position in the instructive internal disputes of the Comintern, Klara Zetkin did not, alas! always distinguish between the revolutionary Left wing and the adventurist or infantile ultra-Left.

In her defense of Levi against Bela Kun, Pepper and Froelich, as in her defense of Serrati against Bordiga, there was a noticeable distinction between her position and the position, let us say, of the Lenin who so demonstratively proclaimed himself a member of the “Right wing” at the Third Congress of the International. As became even more apparent in later years, Zetkin was unable to adjust herself to the requirements of the revolutionary epoch. Her interventions against ultra-Leftism were essentially actuated by a distinct leaning to the Right.

This weakness she revealed most tragically throughout the whole period of the October 1923 struggle in Germany. Trotsky’s arguments that it was possible and necessary to set a date for the insurrection and to orient the strategy and tactics of the party towards it – that is, his application of the experiences gained in the Russian October to the German situation – she regarded as a species of Blanquist heresy. The protests of the militant and Left wing sectors of the party against the dilatory and headless policy of the Brandler Central Committee always encountered her ardent resistance. Even after the catastrophe, she came to the defense of Brandler, Thalheimer and Radek, not in the spirit of placing the responsibility on the international leadership, where it belonged, but as an apology for the calamitous course of the Right wing combined with a bitter attack upon the Left.

She was linked with Brandler from the earliest days of the Spartakusbund, and the Left wing socialist movement before it. And those bonds were strengthened by her violent reaction against those whom Zinoviev, Stalin and Bucharin helped to impose upon the German party as its leadership in place of the discredited Right wing Central Committee. The characterless ultra-Leftists of the type of Ruth Fischer, A. Maslow, Katz, Schwartz and the camarilla around them, aroused her contempt and deepest mistrust. If she reconciled herself somewhat to the post-1923 leadership, it was not due to the change of heart on her side. Rather the contrary. After the removal of ultra-Leftist leadership in 1925, the party and the International engaged upon that protracted course towards opportunism in which Klara Zetkin felt herself far more at ease than during the period of the dry sectarian ponderosity of Maslow’s literary effusions and the wind and fury of Fischer’s clamorous oratory, Brandler and Thalheimer, virtually marooned in Moscow up to that time, commenced a bolder factional activity inside the party and for a time it appeared that the pitiful Thaelmann leadership was to be “solidified” by the rehabilitation in the party of the Right wing exiles. The latter counted on Zetkin’s support, nor was it withheld.

It was only when the dawn of the “third period” sealed the fate of the Right wing for a second, and apparently last time, and the expulsion of Brandler, Thalheimer and their supporters was consummated, that all hope was abandoned. The ultra-Leftist wrecking crew, considerably inferior to the group of Maslow and Fischer, which was given the helm of party leadership, practically completed the elimination of Klara Zetkin from all active participation in it. It cannot be said that it was an event entirely distasteful to her. She had after all once worked by the side of a Rosa Luxemburg, a Franz Mehring, a Karl Liebknecht. Even in later years, her party had at least been under the leadership of a Paul Levi who, no matter how much his defects impeded and finally put a stop to his political growth, nevertheless had a head on his shoulders, as Lenin said. How could she now subordinate herself voluntarily to the direction of such shoddy, even if internationally advertised, products (the artificial campaign must have revolted her) as were put at the head of the party, of a Heinz Neumann, whom she never ceased to regard as an irresponsible adventurer and a sinister figure in the party? But by this time the regime in the International had reached a point where she could no longer speak her mind openly. The old militant no longer appeared on the tribune of the party or the International. Her bitter protests against the treatment of Brandler and his friends, against the abominations of the party leadership, were uttered only in private letters exchanged with carefully selected confidantes.

Sympathetic to L.O. at Start

Her sympathies for the Russian Opposition suffered an even more ignominious end. In 1923 the parties of the Comintern had not yet been fully “educated” in anti-Trotskyism. The first open attack of the septumvirate upon Trotsky caused a distinct uneasiness in the International. The Polish party protested against the campaign; in France, the most prominent party lenders expressed themselves similarly; in Germany, the Moscow apparatus encountered, if not a resistance, then at least a reluctance to join the pack. At that time, Klara Zetkin took no great pains to conceal her sympathy with the Opposition. It is true, to be sure, that she did not rally to its political platform. Trotsky’s refusal to have Brandler and Thalheimer made the scapegoats for the Zinoviev-Stalin policy in the German October, took the form of a conditional defense of the former which was not unwelcome to Zetkin. In addition, she was not alone among the Right wing elements in the International (Warski was another, for example) who confounded the Opposition’s fight for party democracy with their own desires to “loosen a little” the rigid lines of revolutionary Marxian doctrine. When the gap widened between the Opposition and the party bureaucracy, when the program of the former unfolded to its fullest extent, when the precise nature of its attitude towards the Brandlerites became unmistakable – Klara Zetkin’s support became lukewarm and then cold. Helplessly ensconced among the tarnishing frescoes that formed the facade of the bureaucracy, she had become a purely decorative figure in the International, her prestige and her authority, with the heroic revolutionary memories attached to them, serving a cynical bureaucracy to conceal its malpractises.

Here was a revolutionist who had been accustomed to speak out fearlessly, to struggle against authority under the greater odds, to swim against the stream in the company of such protean figures as the founders of German Communism. A just cause had always found in her a courageous champion. Even in causes not so just she had never failed to express her convictions. In 1922, at a time when a member of the Comintern could still defend his views even when they were opposed by the most authentic leaders, she protested to Lenin and Trotsky against the death sentence imposed upon the counter-revolutionists of the S. R. party. But half a decade of Stalinist rule had reduced the Comintern and its leading figures to such a state that a Klara Zetkin, who once found words in behalf of those who had effected the death of Uritzky and Volodarsky, who had almost assassinated Lenin and blown up Trotsky’s military train – could look on in silence while the artificers of the October revolution, the Rakovskys, the Trotskys and hundreds of others, were sent into prison, exile or banishment. But no, not entirely in silence. For with an eye to the renown still attached to her name, the bureaucracy assigned her the task of writing the scurrilous pamphlet for international consumption, in which she demonstrated that the Bolshevik-Leninists were really counter-revolutionists and that the banishment to Turkey of the organizer of the October insurrection was fully justified.

To resist a Lenin and submit to a Stalin – no, it is not some integrating force in the present regime, making for true homogeneity of revolutionary doctrine, that explains such a phenomenon. Such a humiliating fall was the inexorable result of that moral disembowelment to which an oppressive bureaucracy is compelled to resort to its own ranks. What a terrific arraignment of a regime that can preserve itself only at the cost of such unspeakable triumphs!

Silent on Slander of Luxemburg

If she violated her own conscience in a public assault upon the Russian Opposition, she at least maintained silence when others traduced the memory of Rosa Luxemburg. But it was a silence unworthy of one who was fortunate enough to have such a mentor and friend. When Paul Levi was beating a retreat to the social democracy in 1921–1922 by trying to portray Rosa as a Menshevik, Klara Zetkin came to her defense with magnificent vigor, and concluded by pillorying the defamer of the great Eagle. Later, too, even under the Zinovievist dispensation, when a Ruth Fischer was seeking to disseminate the idea that Rosa had been “a syphilis germ in the body of German Communism”, Klara Zetkin still found sufficient strength of mind and purpose to excoriate such an abomination. But the triumph of Stalinism has meant not only the physical but the spiritual undermining of the International. In the last two years, the campaign launched against Rosa Luxemburg exceeded all imaginable bounds. It was not an undertaking calculated to analyze the defective parts of her doctrine so that the modern Communist movement might learn to avoid the errors flowing from them. In the mind of the bureaucracy, this aim occupied a remote and purely casual place. The tenor of the campaign was the commandment of the jealous deity of Israel: Thou shalt have no other gods than Jehovah, paraphrased to read instead: Stalin. A Kuusinen, a Bela Kun, a Kurt Sauerland, Stalin himself – people who never reached up to the hem of Rosa’s skirts – left no mud untouched with which to besmirch her. Hundreds of “red professors” were let loose around the grave of the dead like so many desecrating vultures. The last Lenin-Liebknecht-Luxemburg week was celebrated throughout the official world by poisonous attacks upon Rosa – more elegant in phrase than Ruth Fischer’s, but no less despicable – and hymns of praise to Stalin.

Paralysis of Stalinist Degradation

And Klara Zetkin? In the corridor of the program commission of the Sixth World Congress, another of the old Spartacans, an educated Marxist, Hermann Duncker, almost wept with mortification before his intimates at the idea that the theory of socialism in one country had been inserted in the program of the International. “Must we now vote to include it in the program too?” Yet he voted for it, and did not voice his protest openly. Klara Zetkin must have asked herself a similar question when the detestable campaign was launched against Rosa. But this time, she too voiced no open protest. The peculiar triumph of Stalinism which heralds its own collapse meant for her, as for all revolutionists who failed to choose the alternative of open struggle, a gag in the mouth, a paralyzing of the will, a terrible spiritual degradation.

* * * *

Klara Zetkin was one of the half-dozen Spartacans left in the International, and with her death the best of the living is gone. She embodied in her finest days the link between the pre-war Left wing movement in the social democracy and the International that was reconstituted under the banner of Bolshevism. She brought with her the great tradition of that resolute group that formed itself under the name of the heroic organizer of the slaves’ revolts in antiquity. Is it perhaps symbolic that Klara Zetkin should die just after the ignominious death of the Communist party which she helped to found? The tradition of the Spartacans, however, established in the dark days of the war, is not irrevocable. The new Communist movement in Germany, rising like a phoenix out of the ashes of the dead, will revive all that was glorious in the old tradition and the memory of the old warriors, and enrich it with the struggle for the liberation of all the oppressed.

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