News | Party / Movement History - Politics of Memory / Antifascism - German / European History - Europe - Social Theory Clara Zetkin’s Prescient Analysis of Fascism

The Communist icon’s groundbreaking speech 100 years ago still offers lessons today


Clara Zetkin and Nadezhda Krupskaya, widow of Vladimir Lenin, around 1927. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Anyone who wishes to discuss the very first analysis of Italian fascism, presented 100 years ago on 20 June 1923 by Clara Zetkin (1857–1933), ought not to eschew mentioning the Italian Left and its blind spots. For as in war, so in historiography: the first casualty is often truth.

Jörn Schütrumpf headed up the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Rosa Luxemburg research until his retirement in 2022.

Translated by Louise Pain and Eve Richens for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

Even Lucio Magri, the great Italian democratic leftist, considered the beginning of the Communist movement in his homeland to date back to the founding of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), which occurred in 1921. It is important to acknowledge this and let this acknowledgement come with the understanding that Magri acted with the utmost sincerity in this regard. Magri, who was expelled from the PCI in 1969, like other icons of the contemporary Left who were also expelled due to their sympathy for the Prague Spring,[1] is certainly above suspicion of duplicity. It merely shows that even the most reputable of authors can fail to discern the real story hidden behind the prevailing historiography.

For it was not the founding of the PCI that heralded the beginning of the Communist movement in Italy, but rather the admission of the Italian Socialist Party (SPI) into the Communist International two years prior.

The Fragmentation of the Italian Left

The entire affair is preceded by a lengthy prehistory, which also happens to form part of the prehistory of Italian fascism.

In 1907, at their congress in Stuttgart, the European and non-European political parties that had come together under the banner of the Socialist International (also known as the “Second International”) resolved that, in the event of war, they would do everything in their power to put an end to the carnage as swiftly as possible. While in Germany the Social Democratic Party (SPD), like the socialist parties in almost all other warring states, ultimately abandoned this decision, the SPI was the only party in the Second International with a substantial membership to implement the 1907 resolution during World War I and to consistently refuse to actively participate in the war.

In September 1915 in Zimmerwald in neutral Switzerland, Robert Grimm, editor of the social-democratic Tagwacht published in Bern, and Angelica Balabanoff,[2] the most prominent leader of the Italian socialists (in 1919, she briefly served as the first “secretary” of the Communist International) saw to it that the various strands of the broad European Left were able to communicate with each other for the very first time following the outbreak of war: from Lenin, who called for the world war to be transformed into a global civil war, to pacifists in Germany and France who were in no way willing to substitute one war with another, but who — in line with the Second International’s 1907 resolution— simply wanted to put an end to the war as quickly as possible.

Founded in 1892, the SPI positioned itself between these two opposing poles. At a party congress held in 1912, the party base had voted Filippo Turati’s reformist founding generation out of power. Since then, the party had been led by the revolutionary Left headed by Giacinto Menotti Serrati, Angelica Balabanoff, and — until the onset of the war —Benito Mussolini, who would later go on to become a fascist dictator.

It was not least on account of this experience that Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, and their followers came to believe that it would also be possible in Germany to set Social Democracy on a course that would empower the party when faced with a revolutionary situation, meaning the party would be able to recognize — needless to say, following a course of sober analysis — the next steps to be taken in each case in order to escalate the revolution, and then present these to the mobilized masses.

This is precisely how the French Revolution of 1789 had functioned — except that in that instance, not one political party served as stooge: in the face of mounting levels of radicalization, the ideological direction had shifted from the centre-right to the far left.

When the Bolsheviks founded the Third International — also known as the Communist International — in Moscow at the beginning of March 1919, the Italian Socialist Party was quick to join this new international organization. The SPI had not been able to participate in the founding of the Communist International due to a lack of opportunity — and neither had any other foreign political party.

The sole foreign delegate who had a proper mandate for the founding congress was the German Hugo Eberlein from Saalfeld in Thuringia. He had, however, received a limited mandate from Rosa Luxemburg — shortly before her murder on 15 January 1919 — to oppose the formation of the Communist International in any case.

Rosa Luxemburg, a Pole, and her friends had joined the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party between 1906 and 1912. The party consisted of Lenin’s Bolsheviks, Julius Martov’s Mensheviks, and a number of independents such as Leon Trotsky and Anatoly Lunacharsky. It was Rosa Luxemburg’s experience with Lenin in particular that gave her cause to fear that the Bolsheviks might try to split up the foreign parties by creating a new International in order to subjugate the “willing”.

As would later be demonstrated in Italy, Rosa Luxemburg’s fears were in fact more than justified. Even before the Communist International was founded in March 1919, the Bolsheviks sent two provocateurs, armed with documents and a great deal of money, to Trieste to sow division between the various factions of the Italian socialist Left. Angelica Balabanoff later recalled:

I was very concerned, so I went to see Lenin […]. Much to my astonishment (this interaction predated the founding of the Communist International; people were only just beginning to adopt the Bolsheviks’ methods within the broader international movement), Lenin appeared neither surprised nor outraged: instead, he seemed angered by my appeal. “Even these are good enough to crush Turati’s party,” he angrily remarked.

A few weeks later, fierce protests erupted in Italy: “The boys had done nothing more than foster a general sense of outrage by dolling out huge sums of money at high-end venues and brothels.”[3] Thus, this first attack on the Italian socialists had foundered.

The events continued in Moscow during the summer of 1920. The governing committee of the Second World Congress of the Communist International consisted of Lenin and Karl Radek — both Bolsheviks and former opponents of the revolutionary-democratic socialist Rosa Luxemburg — as well as two prominent figures of the Italian and German Left, Serrati and Paul Levi , both of whom had remained allies of Rosa Luxemburg in spirit even after her murder, and as such were also opposed to Lenin’s policy of division and dominance.

The fascists had identified the very thing that rendered the socialist movement so successful in Western Europe — the vision of a better world — and succeeded in presenting it wrapped up in the guise of a revolutionary programme.

Behind the scenes at the Second World Congress, the two sides were at serious loggerheads. But of course there is no mention of this in the official congress minutes. Wilhelm Pieck, who later went on to become the president of East Germany (he was certainly not the cleverest co-founder of the Communist Party of Germany, but he was the most capable of survival), innocently reported on the events in its journal in 1921 — after Paul Levi had been expelled from the Communist International. At the time, the censors were not yet in full swing.

But in the wake of the Second World Congress, the Bolsheviks began to get serious. They brought together several Italian leftists of vastly different calibres: the group led by economist Antonio Graziadei, [4] along with supporters of Nicola Bombacci, Antonio Gramsci, Amadeo Bordiga, and Egidio Gennari. In the autumn of 1920, these Italian leftists allowed the Bolsheviks to form a Communist faction within the SPI — in a bid to secure majority support at the next party congress, which was held in Livorno in January 1921.

It proved to be a resounding failure. In spite of this, the Bolsheviks opted to transform the Communist faction into a separate — largely inconsequential — Communist Party. Of these figures, only one enjoys enduring relevance in the intellectual circles of today: Antonio Gramsci. The remainder of the Socialist Party splintered into an array of different groups. Lenin had accomplished his objective of eliminating Turati’s party.

Mussolini Benefits from the Split

The person who benefited the most from the demise of the socialist workers’ movement in Italy was Benito Mussolini. Mussolini, who was editor-in-chief of the Italian socialists’ newspaper Avanti!, had been bought by the French intelligence agency in the autumn of 1914.

The intermediary of the French intelligence agency was the socialist Marcel Cachin, who co-founded the French Communist Party in December of 1920. Until his death in 1958, the French intelligence agent remained one of the Bolsheviks’ most loyal supporters. He used a suitably generous sum of money to persuade Mussolini to start up his own newspaper, Popolo d’Italia. The paper advocated Italy’s participation in World War I — and that the country join forces with France and Britain — at a time when the majority of Italians were reluctant to go to war.

The French, who were of course also making other moves in Italy, had made a sound investment: on 23 May 1915, Italy — despite its alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany — entered the world war on the side of the Entente. They emerged victorious, but with little to show for their efforts.

One thing the French had not anticipated, however, was that Mussolini would start his own movement in the aftermath of the war, which he planned to mobilize against his former comrades from the workers’ movement: he called it the Fasci di combattimento.

Mussolini’s fascist movement swept across Italy in the wake of the Bolsheviks’ splitting of the country’s socialist movement. In February 1921, the country was home to only 1,000 or so fascists — by 1922, their ranks numbered more than 300,000. Mussolini’s gangs of thugs busted up workers’ meetings, set fire to workers’ homes, and assassinated socialist leaders at every level.

The Italian government, which was by no means angered by this development, turned a blind eye. Big landowners and industrialists lived it up, while the Italian workers’ movement, which was splintering into several different groups, was being eroded bit by bit.

From 27 to 31 October 1922, Mussolini staged what became known as the March on Rome, an event that led to the establishment of the world’s first fascist dictatorship. For those watching events unfold from overseas, the entire spectacle was regarded — even by members of the Left — as a “classic” example of counterrevolution, like the one that occurred in Hungary under Admiral Miklós Horthy.

Clara Zetkin’s Analysis of Fascism

Only one woman broke away: Clara Zetkin, the founder of the international socialist women’s movement. Clara Zetkin was the only familiar, presentable face in the Communist International outside of Soviet Russia. This was one of the reasons for her influence in the early years of the Communist International. 

In her youth in Leipzig, she had trained not only as a teacher of French and English, but also of Italian. The press had not yet been brought into line in the early days of Mussolini’s rule, and so Zetkin, who was already gravely ill, had all available Italian news publications delivered to her house in Sillenbuch near Stuttgart. She soon realized that something unprecedented was going on. The existing benchmarks were foundering.

Clara Zetkin urged the Bolsheviks to present their analysis of fascism at a meeting of the Extended Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) in June 1923 — despite being keenly aware that it was unlikely the Bolsheviks would accept ideas they had not come up with themselves. She had written to Paul Levi in 1921: “Our friends in Moscow have … yet to learn that while one’s own fist is more often than not sufficiently indispensable, in the West, ever since the end of the Middle Ages, one is no longer permitted to punch people in the face; instead, one is expected to slip one’s hand into a velvet glove and caress their peers’ faces.”[5]

Although opposed to the Moscow trip, Clara Zetkin’s elder son, a doctor, also knew that resistance would be futile and as such chose to accompany his ailing mother on her journey. Having arrived in Moscow, Clara Zetkin was carried into the meeting hall on 20 June 1923. As she was unable to stand, she became the first and only person in the history of the Communist International to deliver her speech from a seated position.

Of course, Clara Zetkin was well aware of the catastrophic policy pursued by the Bolsheviks in Italy. But the damage had already been done. All that remained was to ensure they would not wreak any further havoc.

The first departure from the classical form of counterrevolution that Clara Zetkin mapped out in detail: “… the base of fascism lies not in a small caste but in broad social layers, broad masses, reaching even into the proletariat.” The fascists had identified the very thing that rendered the socialist movement so successful in Western Europe — the vision of a better world — and succeeded in presenting it wrapped up in the guise of a revolutionary programme.

Clara Zetkin lived to witness the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany in 1933. She escaped to Moscow, where she died on 20 June 1933.

Due to Italy’s failure to recover from the post-war crisis, fascist ideology drew in masses of people there from vastly different social strata. According to Zetkin, fascism had become “an asylum for all the politically homeless, the socially uprooted, the destitute and disillusioned. … We can combat fascism only if we grasp that it rouses and sweeps along broad social masses who have lost the earlier security of their existence and with it, often, their belief in social order.”

For Clara Zetkin, it was “evident that fascism has different characteristics in every country, based on specific circumstances. Nonetheless, in every country it has two essential features: a sham revolutionary program, which links up in extremely clever fashion with the moods, interests, and demands of broad social masses; and the use of brutal and violent terror.”

While the Bolsheviks both conceived of and practised their politics in militaristic and police terms, Clara Zetkin adopted an approach to the battle against fascism that no one person had pursued quite as rigorously as Rosa Luxemburg once had:

Military means alone cannot vanquish it, if I may use that term; we must also wrestle it to the ground politically and ideologically. … We must take up the struggle more energetically not only for the souls of proletarians that have fallen to fascism but for those of small and medium bourgeois, small peasants, intellectuals — in a word, all the layers that are placed today, by their economic and social position, in increasingly sharp conflict with large-scale capitalism.

Antonio Gramsci later referred to this as the battle for hegemony.

Clara Zetkin goes on:

Fascism does not ask if the worker in the factory has a soul painted in the white and blue colors of Bavaria; or is inspired by the black, red, and gold colors of the bourgeois republic; or by the red banner with a hammer and sickle. It does not ask whether the worker wants to restore the Wittelsbach dynasty, is an enthusiastic fan of Ebert, or would prefer to see our friend Brandler as president of the German Soviet Republic. All that matters to fascism is that they encounter a class-conscious proletarian, and then they club him to the ground. That is why workers must come together for struggle without distinctions of party or trade-union affiliation.

And more specifically, they should come together to form, as Zetkin calls it, a “proletarian united front” — in other words, the very antithesis of the Bolsheviks’ standard policy of division.

Clara Zetkin had associated with Friedrich Engels, already an old man at that time, in her younger years. Engels was always keen to frame the organized masses as Gewalthaufen (“crowds of force” or “crowds of violence”) that military force could do little to counter. Clara Zetkin echoed this notion here:

We must not combat fascism in the way of the reformists in Italy, who beseeched them to “leave me alone, and then I’ll leave you alone”. On the contrary! Meet violence with violence. But not violence in the form of individual terror — that will surely fail. But rather violence as the power of the revolutionary organized proletarian class struggle.

While the Bolsheviks had always considered Russia’s working class and its all-powerful peasantry to be the primary targets of their policies, Zetkin broadened the scope: instead of division, the first step for her was the proletarian united front. But she did not stop there:

We must make efforts to address the social layers that are now lapsing into fascism and either incorporate them in our struggles or at least neutralize them in the struggle. … In my view, it is extremely important that we purposefully and consistently carry out the ideological and political struggle for the souls of those in these layers, including the bourgeois intelligentsia.

Clara Zetkin’s speech was met with lengthy, rapturous applause. But it had absolutely no impact on the machinations of the Communist International. Not a single thing Zetkin had proposed was implemented.

In fact, from 1928 onwards, the Bolsheviks pursued the very opposite path: they did not see the fascists as their most dangerous opponents, but rather the “social fascists” — by which they meant the Social Democrats. Rather than fight for the souls of the non-proletarian classes, they adopted the slogan “Class against class!”

Clara Zetkin lived to witness the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany in 1933. She escaped to Moscow, where she died on 20 June 1933.

The last word should go to Angelica Balabanoff, who in 1920 spoke of her erstwhile comrade Nikola Bombacci, whom the Bolsheviks had helped mould: 

At a meeting of the Congress of the Communist International, those in attendance were asked to write something about Lenin in an album that was dedicated to some anniversary celebration or other. What Bombacci wrote was so inane and demonstrated such a flagrant ignorance of socialism that when I pointed out this particular contribution to him, Lenin angrily exclaimed “Do not speak to me of that illiterate idiot.”

In 1933, Bombacci switched sides and became Benito Mussolini’s closest confidant. An iconic image has entered the European collective visual memory that shows a petrol station in Milan with four people hanging from its rafters, upside down, suspended by their feet: one of the bodies is Mussolini’s, another is that of his girlfriend Clara Petacci; one of the other two men is Nikola Bombacci — long lauded by the Bolsheviks as the leader of the Italian Communists.

[1] Rossana Rossanda (1924–1920) considered herself a Marxist in the tradition of Rosa Luxemburg, Valentino Parlato (1931–2017) was one of the leading officials of the PCI in the 1960s, and Luciana Castellina (born 1929) was one of the leading journalists of the PCI until her expulsion — she has been a member of Sinistra Italiana since 2016.

[2] Angelica Balabanoff (1869–1965) was born into Ukraine’s upper-middle class. In 1921, she broke with the Bolsheviks, who were increasingly prioritizing the pursuit of power over the fulfilment of their socialist aims, and returned to exile.

[3] Angelica Balabanoff, Lenin oder: Der Zweck heiligt die Mittel, 2nd revised edition, Berlin 2018, p. 73.

[4] Count Antonio Graziadei (1873–1953), generally referred to as Antonio, was expelled from the PCI in 1928.

[5] Clara Zetkin to Paul Levi, 10 January 1921.