German socialist women’s movement - Self-organisation and class unity

Submitted by Anon on 4 November, 2005 - 9:48

During the nineteenth century, the emerging workers’ movement began to develop its policy on the “woman question”. Some of the early, “utopian” socialists argued strongly for women’s liberation. Ferdinand Lassalle led the “proletarian anti-feminists”, opposing votes for women and urging male workers to strike against women’s entry into industrial labour. Marx and Engels opposed Lassalle, arguing that women’s work was a step forward, a precondition for liberation.

In 1875, the Socialist Labour Party of Germany — later to become the Social Democratic Party (SPD) — was formed. The party went on to build and organise a working-class women’s movement led by SPD member Clara Zetkin. Janine Booth concludes her appreciation of that movement. The full text can be found at:

Laws against women’s organisation

After Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Law lapsed in 1890, laws remained which restricted women’s political activity. The 1851 Prussian Association Law banned women from membership of political organisations, and from organising politically.

The application of the law varied between different states, but throughout Germany, women’s political activity was severely curtailed. In general, women were not allowed to attend any meeting at which public affairs were discussed.

Women were forced to get around these laws. In many cases, organising distinctly as women could achieve this, albeit temporarily. In some places, working-class women found it possible legally to take part in women-only meetings. Working women’s associations survived (although not without harassment) until 1893, when the police disbanded them.

From 1900, some states relaxed the implementation of the Association Law. In 1902, the Prussian Secretary of State ruled that women could now attend political meetings alongside men — on condition that they sat separately, and did not clap or boo!

This signalled the beginning of moves within the SPD to reduce the organisational independence of the socialist women’s movement.

In 1908, the Association Law was repealed, and the SPD set about completely integrating the women’s organisation into the Party’s structures. The Party Executive dissolved all separate women’s organisation; removed any independence from the Women’s Bureau and subordinated it to the Party Executive; and assumed for itself control over agitation amongst women. The Women’s Bureau was eventually to be dissolved in 1912, and the biannual Women’s Conference was postponed in 1910 and subsequently abolished.

One seat on the Party Executive was to be reserved for a woman: Luise Zietz was appointed. At the time, she supported special women’s organisations, regardless of the Association Law. Once on the Executive, however, she argued for full integration.

Ironically, in the same year (1907) that the German SPD abandoned the system of women organisers (Vertrauenspersonen), considering it no longer necessary after the law change, Austrian socialist women introduced the system with tremendous success: by 1910, the Austrian socialist party had 15,000 women members.

Clara Zetkin believed that the abolition of the Association Law did not abolish the need for some autonomy for socialist women. In 1908, she called for the retention of women-only groups for education and agitation. Five years later, Zetkin continued to argue that “If the women of the people are to be won for socialism then we need in part special ways, means and methods ... whose driving and executive forces are predominantly women.”

Building unity?

The SPD integrated the women’s organisation into party structures in the name of class unity. But some women felt that the opposite was true. Fride Wulff argued that relations between men and women in the SPD worsened following integration.

One result of integration was a new division of labour within the SPD. Women came to dominate work on welfare issues, especially child labour committees, and were kept out of positions of responsibility and authority on other matters. The evidence suggests strongly that formal equality and integration masked actual disunity.

When the National Executive refused to organise a women’s congress in 1910, many women wrote to Die Gleichheit in protest. For these women, one of the roles of the women’s section was to articulate the demands of women within the Party, and to do so against Party leaders if necessary.

In 1981, the Socialist Workers Party guru, the late Tony Cliff, addressed the issue of the German socialist women’s organisation: “If Zetkin opposed the ghettoisation of women workers both industrially and politically, why then did she build a separate socialist women’s organisation? The reason was quite simple. The law did not allow women to join any political party in the greater part of the Reich until 1908. To circumvent the law Zetkin and her friends had to adopt very awkward measures.”

But even when the law was scrapped, the socialist women tenaciously defended their women’s structures against the Party bureaucracy’s attempts to dismantle them. The women clearly believed that these structures would continue to benefit their participation in the socialist movement.


Was the law was the only obstacle to women’s equal participation in the struggle for socialism?

The experience when such laws were not in force shows that simply the legal right to organise politically alongside men does not guarantee that women participate in equal numbers or on an equal basis with men. For example, in 1914 the French Socialist Party’s membership of over 90,000 included fewer than 1,000 women.

In some cases, blame for the low level of women’s participation rests with the anti-feminism of the policy and leadership of socialist parties. This was a factor in both France and England at this time. But in the German SPD, there was at least a theoretical commitment to women’s equality. What obstacles existed?

• Socialists could not expect their own movement to be immune from the prejudices and gender socialisation of society as a whole: this socialisation discouraged working-class women from having the confidence or aspirations to be politically active.

• Capitalist economic relations assign women an exhausting, time-consuming “double burden” of waged work and domestic labour.

• Women occupied a weaker position in the labour market. They generally stayed in a particular job for a shorter time than men, which may have discouraged them from involvement in political or union organisation.

• Women’s limited education opportunities hit their ability and confidence to become active.

• Discrimination in political rights — for example, the vote — served to assert that “public life” was not a sphere for women.

• Women’s position as “the slave of the man” restricted a woman’s ability to make her own independent decision to become involved in socialist activity. Even many socialist men discouraged their wives and daughters from becoming politically involved.

Women argued that because of all these obstacles, it would be absurd for the Party to adopt a “sex-blind” formal equality in the Party’s structures. This would do nothing to challenge inequalities; instead, it would mask them.

These women’s experience points to two good reasons to see women’s self-organisation as an appropriate strategy. Firstly, the women’s structure achieved obvious success in organising women in the fight for socialism. Secondly, it generated strategies for the SPD as a whole to take up the challenge of involving, recruiting and representing working-class women.

Sexism in the workers’ movement

Clara Zetkin complained that: “In theory comrades have equal rights, but in practice the male comrades have the same philistine pigtail hanging down the back of their necks as do the best-wigged petty bourgeois.” Others complained that capable women were obstructed; that women’s criticism of the Party leadership or of male chauvinism in the Party was often put down in a sexist manner and so on.

For women on the Party’s left wing, it seemed that just as the Party bureaucracy’s reformist practice was increasingly at odds with its public, revolutionary rhetoric, so socialist men did not live up to their formal support for women’s equality. Many socialist men (including leading figures such as August Bebel and Karl Kautsky) acted as patriarchs within their own families, discouraging their wives and daughters from working outside the home.

Around the turn of the century, conflict intensified between the revolutionary and revisionist wings of the SPD. From 1897, Eduard Bernstein advanced theories that some basic elements of Marxism were no longer valid. Bernstein denied the centrality of class struggle; he argued that revolution was not necessary for socialism, that gradual reforms of capitalism would be sufficient. Under this theory, the SPD’s role would be as a propagandist electoral machine, not as a revolutionary, political leadership of working-class struggle.

The SPD left, which included Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin, strongly opposed this “revisionist” move. The revolutionary wing took up the issue of Party democracy and the dangers of growing bureaucratisation. Even before the revisionist tendency came to dominate German social democracy, the Party became increasingly bureaucratic; and whilst the SPD remained revolutionary in theory, it became increasingly reformist in practice. Sexist behaviour in the SPD took place in this political context. It was used by the right wing as a weapon against left-wing women.

The women’s movement, though by no means politically uniform, was aligned with the SPD left.

Tony Cliff and
women’s self-organisation

Tony Cliff puts together an argument which begins with support for Zetkin’s stance against collaboration with bourgeois feminists, and concludes by denying any benefit from special women’s organisation. Cliff argues that capitalist economic development simultaneously unites and divides workers — that whilst it creates a working class that is increasingly cohesive, it also sets up barriers between workers on the basis of (amongst others) sex and nationality.

Cliff cites Lenin’s argument against the notion of the Bund, the Jewish socialist organisation in Russia, that due to anti-semitism, Jewish workers should organise into a separate party, which would then make federal links with non-Jewish socialists. Lenin argued that this would divide and weaken the workers’ movement.

But the German socialist women never put forward a policy like the Bund’s. Cliff does not draw any distinction between two quite different policies: on the one hand, a separate socialist women’s organisation; on the other, distinct structures for women within the movement.

Cliff also argues (remember this was in 1981) that “The relations between different sections of the proletariat are such that the weaker sections are helped very much by the stronger when there is a general upturn, while they are badly damaged during a downturn.” Cliff seems to conclude that socialists should concentrate on “stronger sections”, hoping this will develop of the weaker sections in a “trickle-down” way.

Marx advocated working-class struggle to win legal reforms, welcoming the Ten Hours Bill in Britain in 1847. Such reforms could advance the whole of the working class, whereas struggle in individual workplaces may benefit stronger sections but leave weaker sections still weak.

Weaker groups of workers may well benefit from the success of stronger groups: but it is also the case that strengthening the weaker sections benefits the movement as a whole. Not only do working-class women benefit from the struggles of working-class men: working-class men also benefit from the strong organisation of working-class women.

Stronger sections of the working class may perceive their advantages over weaker sections to be privileges that they should defend. For example, male workers who followed Lassalle’s policies saw women’s entry into the workforce as a threat to their wages and status as men. There are many other examples, for instance “craftism” in the trades unions.

From the Matchgirls to the Grunwick strikers, women workers have continually proved themselves to be stronger than expected. Write off women workers as a “weak section of the working class” and you risk under-estimating a source of great power.

Questions for socialists

If the working class is divided, if there are “stronger” and “weaker” sections, the question for socialists is: do we accept this as inevitable, or do we make efforts to redress this? And if working-class women, in struggling for their emancipation, build a socialist women’s movement, how should a socialist party respond? By joining that movement and attempting to build and influence it? Or by arguing that it should give up any autonomy and liquidate itself into the general working-class movement?

Does women’s self-organisation divide the workers’ movement? Do supporters of self-organisation believe that the fight for women’s liberation is a fight for women to wage alone? In both cases, no.

Although the German socialist women were continually frustrated by the attitudes of men in the labour movement, Zetkin did not believe that working-class women could or should achieve liberation by themselves. She saw women’s liberation being achieved through socialism, and socialism being achieved through the united action of the working class. The purpose of building women’s organisations was to bring women into a united workers’ movement, not to separate women off into a liberation struggle apart from socialist men.

Socialist feminists are continually accused of “divided loyalties”, challenged to declare which is our priority: class or sex. It makes a lot more sense to direct this challenge at feminists who defend capitalism, or at socialist men.

All working-class people share a common interest in overthrowing capitalism and achieving socialism. Nevertheless, some groups enjoy a degree of privilege within capitalism. Their benefits may be marginal and short-term, but could still influence working-class men’s attitudes to the struggles of working-class women. Will they — as socialists would wish — oppose sexism and unite with women in the pursuit of a common goal? Or will they defend their privileges as men at the expense of working-class unity and struggle? Women’s organisation, and socialists’ input, can be crucial in determining the answer.

Socialists need to devise and implement a strategy to relate to working-class women. For the German socialist women, this included having definite bodies and individuals with a remit to organise work amongst women. Together with women’s political education, publications, congresses and international work, this strategy reaped great rewards.

But this is not just about structural set-ups, nor about recruiting female foot-soldiers. The struggle for socialism is about self-activity. So we need a women’s movement based on rank-and-file activism. This is why Clara Zetkin insisted that Die Gleichheit was not simply for entertainment: the paper was a tool for activists — an agitator, educator and organiser.

The German socialist women stand out from other women’s movements in one crucial way. In other cases, cross-class women’s movements did not have a mass appeal amongst working-class women, and came to represent the interests and aspirations of middle-class women.

Even if this is not an argument for an entirely separate movement for working-class women, it is a convincing good case for orienting any existing women’s movement towards alliance with the workers’ movement. Without this, a women’s movement can easily swing politically to the right.

But the decisive point is this. Even if women of all classes experience oppression as women, the form and degree of this oppression — and its solution — is so different that any commonality of women’s interests does not override class differences.

The German experience also shows that the fortunes of the women’s movement are closely linked to the fortunes of working-class struggle. Within a mass workers’ party, political conflicts affect, and find expression in, the women’s section.

In German social democracy, the left showed genuine support to the aspirations of working-class women, whilst the revisionist right did not. Worse, the Party’s bureaucracy was prepared to crush the women’s organisation as part of its battle against the left and against the rank and file.

To fulfil the potential of women’s contribution to its struggles, the labour movement must make itself accessible to women. It should purge sexism within its own ranks, and fight effectively for working-class women’s interests. The experience of the German socialist women’s movement shows that organisational autonomy for women contributes greatly to making the socialist movement accessible and attractive to women. It helped develop women’s confidence and skills, and enabled them to put their demands onto the agenda of the socialist struggle.

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