She has been claimed as a pacifist and a feminist because she stood up for women’s rights and opposed war.
But such labels misrepresent her revolutionary Marxism, which two new books will bring to a fresh audience.
The books contain selections of Zetkin’s writings, speeches and letters.
They give a glimpse of the scale of her contribution to the Marxist tradition and the debates of her day—particularly around the question of fighting against women’s oppression.
They show just how sharp her writing and speeches were, and how she used humour to mock her enemies.
Zetkin was rooted in the German socialist movement from the age of 20 in the late 19th century.
But she was to become an international figure at the turn of the last century.
From the start she was an activist. Apart from ten years in political exile she worked all her adult life to build the socialist movement in Germany.
Zetkin was part of the mass socialist German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which declared itself Marxist.
But it contained both revolutionaries, such as Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg, and those who wanted to reform the system.
Zetkin was the forefront of the German Revolution from 1918. The SPD failed the test of leading the working class and the revolutionary minority broke to form its own organisation.
She was one of the few who, alongside Luxemburg, stood out against the imperialist slaughter of the First World War.
To their shame, the majority of the SPD leadership supported the German state’s war effort.
Her early active years had been spent organising illegally under Germany’s anti-socialist laws during the 1890s.
Women were specifically barred from forming political organisations with men and from public speaking.
The SPD found ways to get round the law. Socialist women set up political groups under the guide of being “educational” classes.
They were so successful in pulling women workers into political organisation the party maintained them even after the law changed.
One SPD member Louise Zietz recounted how women got round the law banning women from public speaking. “A male comrade spoke for ten minutes, and then I participated in the discussion from the floor, by speaking for one and a half hours,” she said.
Zetkin is often best known for proposing the launch of International Women’s Day.
This was envisaged as an opportunity to celebrate the struggle of women workers for the vote and equal pay.
Her commitment to women’s liberation has meant activists have fought over her political legacy since the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960s and 70s.
Zetkin has been claimed as a feminist partly because of a misunderstanding of her view of oppression and class.
She saw that class was the key divide in society.
In the same way as activists today refer to the one percent at the top of society Zetkin wrote of the gilded lives of the “the upper ten thousand” in German society.
But she understood both that oppression reached across the class divide and was shaped by it.
She pointed out the contradictions for a woman of this social class who “by virtue of her possession of property, can freely develop her individuality —she can live in accordance with her inclinations.”
Yet she also recognised that as a wife, such a woman was still “legally subjected to the man.”
Zetkin expresses trenchant criticism of privileged women, the middle class feminists who solely fought for their rights to be equal to “the men of their class”. But this did not mean she ignored their oppression.
She wrote of wealthy women, “the wife is tired of living like a doll in a doll house, where she wants to take part in the broader development of modem culture.
“And on both the economic and intellectual-moral sides the strivings of the bourgeois feminists are entirely justified.”
But this didn’t mean she had illusions that such women had the same interests as working women.
She argued that the question of women’s liberation was not an isolated one but “rather constitutes a part of the great social question.
“The emancipation of women as well of all humankind will only occur within the framework of the emancipation of labour from capital.”
Zetkin argued that the system of exploitation, which capitalism is based on, is the root cause of oppression.
Most importantly she saw the significance of the fact that “the machine makes muscular strength unnecessary, and everywhere women’s labour could operate with the same results for production as man’s.”
So she welcomed the massive influx of women into the workforce at the beginning of the 20th century.
She did not see class as simply another element of suffering experienced by a particular individual.
Despite the low pay and bad conditions they endured, she understood that women were gaining the potential for collective resistance.
Zetkin edited a paper for women workers called Gleichheit (Equality) for over 25 years.
It was selling 112,000 copies by 1913. The number of women joining the SPD exploded during the same period, from 4,000 in 1905, to over 141,000 by 1913.
Zetkin saw it as a tool for the most militant and politicised sections of women workers.
She wanted to build a revolutionary leadership in the working class.
This caused tensions with the reformist wing of the SPD, which argued that Zetkin made the newspaper “too difficult” for the mass of women.
She was told it should include a fashion supplement and cooking advice.
Zetkin refused, and argued that women activists did not need to be talked down to.
She raged against the prejudice that claimed that “women’s smaller brain, or their alleged natural vocation as mothers” deemed them incapable of “intellectual labour”.
It was only when she became part of a minority of revolutionary Marxists in the SPD that she lost control of the paper. It began to include recipes and dress patterns.
When she was removed as editor in 1917 she maintained her defiance against the pro-war majority in her own party. She said that “to have been silent would have been to assume an attitude of undignified cowardice.”
After the defeat of the German Revolution and the rise of Stalinism in Russia, Zetkin no longer played the same role.
She spent much time in poor health being cared for in Soviet hospitals.
But she briefly took to the political stage again in 1932, just months before Hitler took power.
On 30 August she came out of hiding. Despite her state of health, blindness and Nazi death threats she returned to Berlin.
It was her right as the oldest MP to convene a new session of parlaiment—and she was determined to use it.
She was transported by stretcher from an ambulance, past Nazi demonstrators, and took to the rostrum. Although frail she spoke for over an hour.
She railed against the fascists, in front of the many Nazi members, and called for a united front to take them on.
And she made sure to call for the inclusion of women in the struggle. She finished by declaring, “I hope, despite my present illness, to have the happy experience of opening the First Council Congress of Soviet Germany as its oldest member.”
But it was not to be. She died the following year.
She was a giant of the socialist movement and stood up against oppression and imperialism.
She saw the working class as the social force that could challenge the system that bred them —and transform society.
Some of her formulations will jar to the modern reader.
Even she sometimes wrote of socialism enabling women to be happier wives and mothers.
But she was far ahead of so many others, with insights that remain valuable today.
She saw that if the working class was stronger when it fought “together without distinction of nationality or distinction of occupation” then “so also it can achieve its emancipation, only if it holds together without distinction of sex.”