Between 1896 and 1917, the left wing of the Second International, with Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin at the forefront, fought against the nascent feminist movement, then focused on extending the suffrage to bourgeois and petty-bourgeois women. It was this battle that gave rise to the birth of March 8 as a day of workers’ demands. The confrontation against feminism was settled with the outbreak of the First World Imperialist War and the Russian Revolution.
In this article…
- Feminism and the socialist movement
- Zetkin against Women’s rights mumbo-jumbo
- Rosa Luxemburg and the Left of the International against feminism
- Proletarian women’s day of solidarity vs. feminism
- The moment of truth
Feminism and the socialist movement
Feminism appears in the late 1890s throughout Europe as “suffragism”. Suffragettes championed the extension of women’s voting rights within census suffrage (restricted to property owners), i.e., the right of women of the property-owning classes to participate in the political leadership of the established state and society.
In their battle to carve out a place in the leadership of business and government for women of the petty bourgeoisie and upper classes, the suffragettes tried early on to win over working women, who were much larger in number and above all far more organized. The feminists proposed an interclassist front of “women” whose goal would be to secure female bourgeois deputies within the census system. They promised to represent the “common interest as women” which supposedly bound women workers with those bourgeois women of English radical liberalism.
The Left of the Second International, with Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin at its head was radically opposed. A year before the formation of the first suffragette group in England, Zetkin had presented at Gotha, the actual founding congress of the German socialist party a unanimously approved report on “The Woman Question and the Tasks of Social Democracy”.
Since then the German socialists had been engaged in organizing and training thousands of working-class women, pushing forward mobilizations for universal suffrage for both sexes. From the Stuttgart Congress of the International, the left, with Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg at the head, fight the battle on a global level. Not against an alleged machismo of the leadership, but against the concessions to feminism of some parties such as the Belgian one, which had approved at its congress to support the extension of census suffrage to upper class women.
The Congress of the Second International held in Stuttgart committed the social democratic parties of all countries to initiate the struggle for universal woman suffrage as an essential and unrenounceable part of the general struggle of the proletariat for the right to vote and for power, in clear opposition to feminist aspirations.Clara Zetkin
Zetkin against Women’s rights mumbo-jumbo
The word “feminism” first appeared in 1891 in France, signaling the moment when the petty-bourgeois women’s movement first asserted itself throughout the country. For a long time, however, it will nevertheless remain known in continental Europe as “Frauenrechtlerinnen” (“women’s rights advocacy”).
Marxists, and especially Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg, will use other terms of very different nuance that nevertheless appear today in translations as “feminism”, completely changing its meaning. For example, the term most frequently used by Zetkin was “Frauenrechtelerei“: ” women’s rights mumbo-jumbo”. In fact she would continue to use it throughout her life:
The guidelines must clearly express that the true emancipation of women will only be possible through communism. The relationship to the means of production must be strongly emphasized. With this we shall draw a firm and permanent dividing line against the movement of the “women’s rights mumbo-jumbo.”Clara Zetkin. Reminiscences of Lenin
Actually Zetkin uses sometimes, “frauenrechtelei”, which is no better: “chatter about women’s rights”. As far as we have found, Zetkin only uses the term “feminist” very late, in 1928, when doing a history of the working women’s movement in Germany, she criticizes the “feministische tendenz” (feminist tendency) of the opportunist Social Democratic leaders.
By the way, that rapprochement towards the political expression of the female petty bourgeoisie gave occasion to the first confrontation of the left -with the explicit support of an already very old Engels- with the opportunist leadership of the SPD. It is therefore not a very positive context. But the rest of the times that Rosa Luxemburg and Zetkin refer to feminism it is with an openly derogatory term.
Rosa Luxemburg and the Left of the International against feminism
The ideological battle grew more and more intense over the years. Rosa Luxemburg shares in her correspondence her intimate rejection of feminism’s “moral and spiritual” arguments and invocations of the “development of one’s own personality” when what feminism were really claiming was equality between men and women of the layers in power within that same power.
She is clear about the fact that “woman” is not a historical subject above or apart from social classes and therefore she is deeply repulsed by the claim of a supposed “women’s right” that would benefit women workers regardless of the evolution of the workers’ movement in general and the struggle against capitalism.
For Rosa Luxemburg, feminism attempt to use workers’ rejection of women’s oppression in a way to divert the struggle and consolidate a capitalist system that was then ending its historically progressive phase, just as nationalism did by manipulating resistance to cultural-national oppression:
The duty to protest against national oppression and to fight it, which belongs to the class party of the proletariat, does not find its foundation in any particular “right of nations”, just as the political and social equality of the sexes does not emanate from any “women’s right” referred to by the bourgeois women’s emancipation movement.
These duties can only be deduced from a generalized opposition to the class system, to all forms of social inequality and to all powers of domination. In a word, they are deduced from the fundamental principle of socialism.Rosa Luxemburg. The National Question and Autonomy, 1908
In “Die Gleichheit,” the newspaper edited by Zetkin, she makes it clear that the power of women benefiting from census suffrage was born of their social position in the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie and that the legal voting rights reform they proposed would entrench that power; however, working women could only assert themselves through workers’ struggles hand in hand with their fellow workers.
Bourgeois women’s rights advocates want to acquire political rights to participate in political life. Proletarian women can only follow the path of workers’ struggles, the opposite of setting foot in real power by means of basically juridical statutes.
That is why she denounced any “women’s” organization and any “front of women’s organizations,” for she realized that organizing in a deceitful interclassist space only served to swell the power of the petty-bourgeois (and, as we shall see, patriotic) layers that sustained feminism and to divide the class movement.
Proletarian women’s day of solidarity vs. feminism
Rosa Luxemburg is so aware of the fact that the organization of exclusive women’s groups must not open the door to either interclassism or class separation that, when Clara Zetkin invited her to the first congress of socialist women, she scoffed in a letter to Luisa Kautsky: “Are we women’s rights advocates now?” -ironically referring to the name by which feminism identified themselves in Germany.
But Rosa Luxemburg knew that Clara Zetkin organized socialist women’s groups for the same reason that the Second International created youth groups: to reach out with its program to the working class as a whole, not just the workers in large workers’ concentrations in their workplaces. Although there were many women in factories in Germany at the time, most women workers were engaged in non-industrial jobs, raising their own children and in industries based on domestic work.
There is but a single movement, a single organization of communist – formerly socialist – women within the communist party alongside communist men. The ends of communist men are our ends, our tasksClara Zetkin
The creation of March 8 as a day of struggle, of strike, in 1910 under the name of “Day of International Solidarity of Proletarian Women” at Zetkin’s proposal is part of the same thing. It is about affirming the socialist and working-class character of the movement for truly universal suffrage, that is, including the attainment of suffrage by women.
That is, the creation of March 8 was part of the struggle of the women of the Left of the Second International for the democratic rights of all workers and against the feminist idea of the “women’s union”, “against which I have fought all my life” as Rosa Luxemburg would write.
The moment of truth
The moment of truth proving the depth and justification of the Second International left’s battle against feminism would come with the world war.
The suffragettes literally “demand” that governments incorporate women into the war effort and wartime carnage. In reward, the British government in 1918 grants the vote to the 8 million women from wealthier families, still far from universal suffrage. This is what is now lauded by the press as the “conquest of the vote by women” neglecting to say that only a few women could vote.
In contrast, Zetkin and the women workers’ groups will organize the first international anti-war conference in the midst of the most savage repression of internationalists by all governments. It is the first political act organized by a group of the Second International against the war at a time when Rosa Luxemburg, Rühle or Liebcknecht are already in prison.
To lead the proletarians to free themselves from nationalism and the socialist parties to regain their full freedom for the class struggle. The end of the war can only be achieved by the clear and unbreakable will of the popular masses of the belligerent countries. In favor of an action, the Conference appeals to the socialist women and to the socialist parties of all countries: War against war!Declaration of the International Conference of Socialist Women against the war
On March 8, 1917, the March 8 demonstration in Petrograd, which, as was traditional, was organized by socialist women workers’ groups calling on all workers regardless of gender and asserting demands for the entire class, would become the trigger for the Russian Revolution.