Luxemburg, Zetkin and Kollontai: socialist women against imperialist war

20 March 2022

RECENT EVENTS in Ukraine have been a sharp reminder that under capitalism, inter-imperialist rivalries inevitably lead to brutal wars that cause mass death and devastation. While some of these wars are localised within individual countries or regions, there is always the danger that another World War could break out, which would inevitably involve human suffering on a scale never before seen and could potentially lead to the destruction of civilisation as we know it.

It was the revolutionary theoretician and leader, Rosa Luxemburg, who made the phrase, ‘Socialism or Barbarism’ into a famous slogan during the First World War. In an era of nuclear weapons and climate catastrophe it is even more true today. This International Working Women’s Day it seems pertinent to look at the contributions made to the Marxist principles of resistance to imperialist war (below), by two other great female revolutionaries, Clara Zetkin (1857–1933) and Alexandra Kollontai (1872–1952) who, during World War I, were active in two opposing imperialist powers, Russia and Germany.

Clara Zetkin

Clara Zetkin was a member of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) from 1880 onwards. She knew Frederick Engels and the leaders of the Social Democratic Party the SPD, who supported her founding of a women’s movement linked to the party around the paper Die Gleichheit, (Equality) which campaigned for universal suffrage, including votes for women, as well as a whole range of demands on equal wages and social reforms. She often had to overcome the inertia of her own party and trade union leaders to get them to take political rights for women seriously.

Zetkin also fought for women’s self-organisation. She set up a special organisation for working class women to argue for the importance of women’s liberation in a male-dominated movement, and to explain the double burden of factory and domestic labour faced by women workers. She also distinguished clearly between the struggle of German proletarian women and that of bourgeois feminists, who only wanted to extend the vote to women with property, arguing that those women were ‘enemy sisters’.

She was also one of the originators of International Women’s Day. In a proposal to the Second International Women’s Conference at Copenhagen in August 1910, she proposed that ‘the Socialist women of all countries will hold each year a Women’s Day…the Women’s Day must have an international character and be prepared carefully’.

The Women’s Commission of the Second International was dominated by Zetkin and other left wingers and this was why, when the First World War broke out, both it and the International Socialist Youth Movement, founded by Karl Liebknecht, remained true to the International’s pledge at its Stuttgart Congress in 1907 to oppose imperialist war and seek to turn it into revolution.

Zetkin bravely challenged the national chauvinism which swept most of the socialist parties in 1914, standing up for international proletarian solidarity. In a speech given the day after Germany declared war, entitled ‘Proletarian Women be Prepared’, she said ‘Let us not waste a minute. War is at the gate . . . leave your factories and workshops . . . join the mass protest!’

She organised an international women’s conference in Berlin in 1915 where she proclaimed:

‘Who profits from this war? Only a tiny minority in each nation: The manufacturers of rifles and cannons, of armour-plate and torpedo boats, the shipyard owners and the suppliers of the armed forces’ needs. In the interests of their profits, they have fanned the hatred among the people, thus contributing to the outbreak of the war. The workers have nothing to gain from this war, but they stand to lose everything that is dear to them.’

The common position on the war reached by these women revolutionaries, though divided by borders and trenches, demonstrates how a clear understanding of imperialism is the basis of a consistent revolutionary policy, rebuilding the fighting unity of the international working class movement that had been shattered by mass slaughter. Today, when war again rages in Europe and faces us with an even greater catastrophe, we should learn from the experiences and ideas of Zetkin and her comrades.

Alexandra Kollontai

Alexandra Kollontai joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) in 1899. After the 1903 congress in London, in the famous split she sided with Julius Martov and the Mensheviks against Lenin and the Bolsheviks. In fact, like Trotsky, she soon occupied a position between the two factions, working with both.

Kollontai, like Zetkin in Germany, took up the struggle for women’s emancipation within the RSDLP which had reunited from 1906 to 1912. There she fought for the self-organisation of women within the party, arguing that self-organisation was necessary if the party was to adequately formulate women’s demands.

She also engaged in a relentless struggle against class collaboration with the bourgeois feminist movement and took a principled position against nationalism within the workers’ movement.
In 1915, under the impact of the war, she sided with the Bolsheviks. Central to her decision was Lenin’s consistently revolutionary defeatist attitude to the war. Like Zetkin, she was active in campaigning against the war, from exile in Sweden and America. Her focus on working class women gave her a unique perspective on the hardships faced by peasant as well as working class families during the war.

In 1915, Kollontai wrote an article describing in graphic detail the miserable fate of the injured soldier returning from the front to the village and exposing the hypocrisy in the way they were treated: ‘cripple-heroes wander about the village, some with one medal, some with two. And the only ‘respect’ the hero gets is to hear his family reproach him as a parasite who eats the bread of others. And the bread is rationed!’.

By clearly identifying the governments of all imperialist nations as responsible for the war, and its only beneficiaries, she argued that only a social revolution could bring a positive end to the conflict for the international working class:

‘If we are looking for the culprit, then we must say directly and honestly: the governments of all the belligerent powers are equally responsible for this present war. Responsibility for the war lies with the capitalists, bankers and landowners, together with their patrons and friends the Tsars, Kings, Kaisers and their ministers and diplomats. They all constitute one criminal band.’

Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, and Alexandra Kollontai went on to build the movement which came together in the conferences held in Switzerland at Zimmerwald (1915) and Kienthal (1916). Though they were unable to attend in person, the first two being in prison and the other in exile in Sweden and then the USA, their writings inspired a whole movement. All hailed the Russian Revolution of 1917 and though Rosa Luxemburg was brutally murdered in the German Revolution of 1919, the others went on to help found the Communist International and the International Communist Women’s Movement linked to it.

Their struggles and their writings should inspire us today, faced with the same enemies.

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