Letter from Clara Zetkin

Wilhelmshöhe, 17 November 1918

My dearest Rosa,

Can you imagine how happy I was to finally hear your voice again yesterday? For only then will you be able to gauge how unhappy and angry that I was not able to better understand you and make myself better understood. Oh, Rosa, life is full of questions I need to discuss with you. You know how little I trust my own judgement. And although I am surrounded by kind people here, whose opinions and views certainly inspire me, there is no one whose assessment of the situation could provide me with any real guidance or self-understanding. I am forced to rely on myself alone, and yet I still haven’t returned to my old vitality and freshness. This is why my need to see you is stronger than ever, all personal emotions aside. I understand, of course, that you cannot leave now. I therefore intend to pay you a visit as soon as possible. So don’t be surprised when I just turn up on of these days. And I have been wondering whether I wouldn’t be far more useful in Berlin than here in the first place. I get the feeling Stuttgart isn’t the place for me to be most effective. And I’d really like to do more than edit the Leipzig women’s paper1.

     My assessment of the current situation is as follows: the German revolution had its origins in a soldiers’ movement pursuing soldiers’ demands. Yet under the given conditions, it inevitably had to turn into a political struggle against militarism, the Persönliches Regiment2, for political democracy. This struggle naturally had to be fought by proletarian masses. In the eyes of the bourgeoisie, militarism and the Kaiser’s personal power have long ceased to be hostile forces, and have instead become well-tended pillars of the bourgeois order; comprehensive democracy, by contrast, is seen as the Homeric Greek gift whose hollow insides yield the wars that led to Troy’s downfall. Correspondingly, the bourgeoisie stood on the side-lines, unenthusiastically and warily. The proletariat attained political power without even having fought in earnest. Or, more precisely: its struggle was negative, the thrashing the workers took as gladiators of imperialism from the imperialist adversary, the Entente. The proletariat was victorious because the bourgeoisie didn’t intervene, not least because it was surprised by the course of events. Following the proletarian humbleness and self-degradation of the war years, the bourgeoisie no longer feared the “class-conscious” proletariat of the Scheidemanns, etc. – expecting anything but a real struggle. Adding to this was the convenient chance to blame the the social democrats for the liquidation of the legacy of the World War. As soon as the proletarian masses became the bearers of the struggle it outgrew the confines of political democracy, going beyond bourgeois revolution. It was inevitable that it had to transcend these boundaries given the questions raised by the World War, the bankruptcy of international imperialism, the disastrous collapse of the bourgeois world. The shell of political upheaval simultaneously exhibited its social core; the necessity of an economic revolution became obvious, the fairy tale of class harmony was exposed as a lie by the clang of arms of the class war. The bourgeoisie is crawling out of its hiding places all over to prepare to crush the revolution. It is already forging alliances with the old powers of the past with the aim of breaking the proletariat’s future power. Republican demands are abandoned, while the nostalgic cry for the monarchy is no longer drowned by the traditional lullaby of “democracy”. Democracy is adequate, but only to the extent that it becomes indispensable as a tool of power sharing that protects bourgeois interests vis-à-vis those of the Junkers, namely by silencing the proletariat tying its hands. The constituent National Assembly is the bourgeois counter-revolution’s protective shield. It is the complete liquidation of the fig leaf of war in favour of the construction a supposed harmony of people and classes – in the shadows of which the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie can insert and consolidate itself. Yet this liquidation must inevitably turn into a satire which divides classes and minds. It poses the question: liquidation under the banner of socialism or of capitalism. It unleashes class war with all the ferocity and the momentousness of the World War. On an international scale. It gives the chance to find its second wind in its struggle for power, only thereby rendering it truly revolutionary in Germany. The question arising from this is whether the proletariat is willing to share power with the bourgeoisie, synonymous with the alternative of either surrendering power or fighting for it. It is already possible to make out today how things will develop. The vast majority of the proletariat is willing to accept, under the leadership of the dependents3, pittances of power. The question is, however, whether this segment is able, both objectively and historically, to accomplish what it aspires to subjectively. In my view, the social conditions hold the answer to this: no. Modesty would necessarily have to lead to the proletariat’s self-destruction. The conditions will be grist to the mill of the left socialists when they, based on a socialist programme, launch the struggle for power. Will the USP accept this challenge? To this day, it continues to be of two minds. There is certainly a tendency to relinquish fundamental clarity and revolutionary action. But there are also forces acting counter to this tendency, and indeed, are doing so with growing impact – this is my impression. See Leipzig4. The task of the International5 is to advance the masses towards fundamental recognition and revolutionary boldness. With the USP, should it act in a revolutionary manner, and without and against it, should it not. The question is how to accomplish this most effectively. While incorporated into the structure of the USP, or as an independent party? My personal feeling is that a clean break may be best, but my assessment of the current situation currently forbids such as step. It is possible, and even likely, that a split will become inevitable. But we should take that step under conditions most favourable to our impact on the masses, circumstances which would render the question of splits within more or less large organisations a matter affecting larger proletarian masses. Such circumstances are not given at present. A split today would go unnoticed, a step without the understanding of and resonance among the masses. Furthermore, owing to our notorious lack of leading cadres and funds, we would significantly diminish our access to the masses. In my view, we should therefore remain in the USP while voicing relentless fundamental criticism, at least for the time being. Thalheimer and Rück pleaded for an immediate split. They want to form an independent party today. They claimed that, based on their experience and as far as discernible from certain indicators, you also favour immediate independence. I told them I didn’t believe that. I had a long and passionate debate with them subsequently, without being able to change their minds, however. I made it clear to them that my political conviction prevented me from supporting the split at this point, but that – in order to rule out any misinterpretations and avoid any imbalance – I would give up the post as editor of the women’s paper. Some days later I had the conversation with you, and was very relieved to learn that you and Leo [Joriches] shared my view. It would have been the most bitter moment of my already sufficiently bitter life should I have been forced to dissent from you in such a crucial matter and at such an important time.

     Now that my thoughts are clearer and more consistent, I will do what I can to have an impact here. As far as my physical capacities allow me, I will participate in the Stuttgart Spartacus group more thoroughly and be more involved in public action in accordance with our basic understanding of political agitation. Especially on behalf of women. Our struggle today needs women more than ever. The women’s paper gives me the opportunity to influence the leading women elite. While this is one important point, it is absolutely essential that we appeal to directly proletarian women masses. For this, we would need a daily paper, as well as concise leaflets. A daily paper is impossible at present. This ought to be compensated for by frequently produced leaflets. They would have to publicise our demands regarding different issues as pushed to the fore by current affairs. We won’t be able to prevent the National Assembly. We must therefore try to neutralise its counter-revolutionary potential.

     The most pressing issues affecting women are the consequences of demobilisation: questions of food, income or unemployment, etc. This is where we should proceed from when spreading our demands among the women proletarian masses. The broader intellectual substance underlying individual demands would have to be broken down into separate ideas. The masses, and particularly women, aren’t able to process more than one thought at a time. Our approach ought to always proceed from local conditions, respectively. If you can provide me with materials, I am glad to help you produce such leaflets. I look forward to receiving a letter from you with instructions.    

     Maxim [Zetkin] and his army hospital are on their return march. He has almost constantly suffered from stomach and intestinal catarrh, as well as rheumatism. Kostja [Zetkin] is still in a convalescent home near Stuttgart. His nerves are still quite frayed. Only the gods know where he will be deployed next as assistant army doctor. This uncertainty is hard on him. He intends to perhaps “discharge himself” and go to Thübingen to complete his medical studies. He is eager to have his degree, a stable job and independence.

     It will be five weeks tomorrow since Friedel [Zundel] fell ill. The first three weeks he was at home, and then in hospital for the past fortnight, as he is having abrupt nervous seizures both day and night, instilling in him the feeling of struggling for survival and the fear of death, for which he requires medical attention. Not that the doctor can do anything, objectively speaking, but, subjectively, his presence is needed for the poet to overcome his state. It is such a shame. You understand even without my words how much I have endured during these past weeks and how much I am suffering.

     I spent the revolution on Saturday6 with the soldiers, on Sunday followed endless inconclusive and pointless discussions. On Monday I visited the prisoners of war camp in Ulm in order to inform and calm the poor devils. It was feared they might escape, and the military authorities were determined to mow down any “insurgency” with their machine guns. I delivered five speeches out in the open, with the audience(s) including: Frenchmen, Italians, Romanians and Serbs, Russians [and] the German guard details. The foreigners were delighted and grateful. The Russians asked me to convey their greetings and thanks to the revolutionary German people. I delivered two more brief addresses; on the Münsterplatz in Ulm and on the street below the fairground shacks in Göppingen. I returned home tired to death and with a sore throat.

     Yesterday, there was a large women’s gathering, unfortunately convened by some 17 women’s organisations, including some very reactionary ones. The audience was largely bourgeois. Despite my views there was much approval, although I have learned to not take such passing approval too seriously. Unfortunately, our people have done very little so far to awaken and enlighten the women who participated in the vote for the workers’ councils7. I am afraid the election results will hardly be pleasant: a compact mass of Social Democratic-opportunist and bourgeois-minded delegates, a few members of the USP and some scattered Spartacists.

     Dearest Rosa, I impatiently look forward to your reply. I will end for now, though there are countless other things I want to tell you. I embrace you dearly, and hold you close to my heart.

     Yours, Clara

My regards to all, especially Karl [Liebknecht] and Leo [Jogiches]

1 Clara Zetkin was the editor of the women’s supplement to the Leipziger Volkszeitung from 29 June 1917.

2 Personal power wielded by the Kaiser in the German parliament.

3 The term “dependents” is used by Clara Zetkin to refer to the majority Social Democrats within the SPD, as distinct from the members of the “independents”, i.e. the USPD.

4 The Leipzig branch of the SPD had joined the USPD almost entirely, soon forming the new party’s left wing. See Curt Greyer: Die revolutionäre Illusion. Zur Geschichte des linken Flügels der USPD, Stuttgart: Wolfgang Benz und Hermann Graml, 1976, pp. 49-193.

5  This refers to the members of the Spartacus group, who referred to themselves as the “international group” (Gruppe Internationale).

6 On 9 November 1918, workers and soldiers toppled the monarchy in Wurttemberg. Clara Zetkin was received enthusiastically on the Schlossplatz in Stuttgart and subsequently addressed the cowd. See Annelies Laschitza: Rosa Luxemburg. Im Lebensrausch, p. 585.

7 In the Workers‘ and Soldiers‘ Councils of Wurttemberg and its Executive Council, whose members included Edwin Hoernle, Fritz Rück, August Thalheimer and Jacob Walcher, among others, the Spartacus group and USPD initially had a mojority. See: Ibid.

First published in: Vorwärts, 1. Mai 1969, Bonn.

Quoted from Marga Voigt: Clara Zetkin. Die Kriegsbriefe, Bd. 1, Berlin,  S. 437-442.

Translated by Zachary Murphy King and Jan-Peter Herrmann