The internationalists regroup

A whole new world intervened between the historic Basel anti-war conference of the Socialist International held in November 1912 and the Zimmerwald conference held in Switzerland on September 4, 1915. The revolutionary call contained in the Basel Manifesto to utilize the war in order to overturn capitalist slavery was drowned in the blood of millions of people and was replaced by disgusting chauvinist calls to patriotism to struggle on behalf of each capitalist government against the brothers and sisters of the working class in other countries.

All over Europe the wildest fanaticism aroused by imperialist predatory interests seemed to have silenced the revolutionary voice and blunted the will and determination of the working class. For every individual revolutionary antiwar fighter, there seemed to be hundreds, thousands espousing the cause of imperialism. The most hypocritical and shameless surrender of the official social democratic leadership left the millions ideologically and politically defenseless in the face of the assault of the chauvinists.

The collapse of the Socialist International[1] and the frightening betrayal which was suddenly thrust upon the heads of millions of workers was probably the most staggering blow that could possibly have been delivered to the masses. They were utterly unprepared for this historic debacle. It is no wonder that confusion and demoralization in the initial stages helped the forces of chauvinism tie the working classes of Europe to the chariot wheels of the imperialist war.

The whole question of the monstrous betrayal by social democracy has to be reexamined today in the light of contemporary conditions which seem so fundamentally different from what obtained in 1914.

It took literally millions of lives, after the first salvo of the war on August 4, 1914, to finally achieve another anti-war conference following the one at Basel. This time in the midst of the war, in the midst of chaos, disruption, arrests of hundreds and thousands of opponents of the war, and the difficulty of communication, a conference was finally convoked at Zimmerwald. The mere convening of the conference, the fact that it was held, was in itself an important event. At last, those who were against the war, or at least said they were, were coming together in one place to discuss what to do about it.

The most prominent socialist leader in Europe who opposed the war was an elected representative to the German Reichstag, the well-known revolutionary socialist Karl Liebknecht. But there were other social democratic representatives who also voted against war credits, or the defense budget as it is called today, in their respective parliaments: Monatte in France and, rarely alluded to and often forgotten, the leaders of the Serbian Social Democratic Party (Ljattchevitch and Katzlerovitch) who took the same heroic position as Liebknecht in the Serbian Skuptchina (parliament).

The Zimmerwald conference was formally called by the Swiss and Italian parties of the International. Switzerland was, of course, neutral. Italian imperialism had just recently entered the war, but only against Austria and Hungary, not as yet against Germany. Bulgaria and Rumania were not yet in it, but were dragged in later. Sweden also remained neutral. The Netherlands managed to stay out while garnering huge super-profits in what is now Indonesia.

All told there were about 40 delegates from 11 countries at Zimmerwald, which in itself was a significant factor in demonstrating that the working class movement was on the road to recovering its revolutionary spirit and active opposition to the war.

What came out of the Zimmerwald conference was an historic resolution. It had a lot more significance than the Basel conference, which had been held during peacetime. The Zimmerwald resolution (see Appendix for complete document) said that

"The war which has produced this chaos is the outcome of imperialism, of the attempt, on the part of the capitalist classes of each nation, to foster their greed for profit by the exploitation of human labor and of the natural treasures of the entire globe."

It is, continued the resolution later on, "the capitalists of all countries who are coining the red gold of war-profits out of the blood shed by the people. ... [They] assert that the war is for defense of the fatherland, for democracy and the liberation of oppressed nations! They lie. In actual reality, they are burying the freedom of their own people together with the independence of the other nations. ... The ruling powers of capitalist society who held the fate of the nations in their hands ... bear the full weight of responsibility for this war. ..."(Emphasis in the original.)

This includes, said the resolution, "the monarchic as well as the republican governments, the secret diplomacy, the mighty business organizations, the bourgeois parties, the capitalist press, the Church. ..."

It reminded the workers of the Stuttgart and Basel resolutions and called upon the proletarians of all countries to unite and fight against the war. It did not, however, do much to show how this should be implemented more concretely. It did not openly condemn the leadership of the Second International for their betrayal. And it did not join Lenin and the Bolsheviks in calling for the defeat of the capitalist governments, to turn the imperialist war into civil war. Nevertheless, Lenin and the Bolsheviks considered the Zimmerwald conference an important step in the struggle against the imperialist war. As far as it went, the resolution was correct in all respects and called upon the working class to put up a resolute struggle against the imperialist war. But it didn't go far enough.

The most important question during war time is what to do to stop the war. The Bolshevik answer was as clear as crystal. Fight against the war by all necessary means with the general aim of converting the war of capitalist governments against each other into a war of the workers against the capitalists.

The Bolsheviks nevertheless voted for the resolution, which was unanimously endorsed. They then introduced a resolution of their own (see Appendix for complete document) which contained the necessary additions, roundly condemning the leadership of the Second International who were "rotten with opportunism at the beginning of the World War and betrayed the proletariat to imperialism and gave up the principles of socialism and thereby the real struggle for the everyday interests of the proletariat." This resolution was defeated.

By the time of the Zimmerwald conference the Bolsheviks had made considerable headway with revolutionary anti-war agitation not only in Russia but on the European continent as a whole. Among the left-wing groupings, the so-called Zimmerwaldians, Lenin on behalf of the Bolsheviks had very early in the war elaborated a clear-cut program. This was a distinct advantage not only against the right wing but also against the centrist groupings which, however strongly they might have opposed the war, were nonetheless weak in promoting what had to be done.

In the first place, the Bolshevik representatives in the czarist Duma (the Russian "parliament") took a clear-cut anti-war position in contrast to the Mensheviks in the same Duma. As a result of their opposition to the war, the Bolshevik representatives were sent to Siberia and imprisoned. They were thus in the same revolutionary anti-war bloc with Liebknecht, who was imprisoned for his anti-war stand and his vote against war credits.

The prestige of the Bolshevik grouping was growing enormously and at the same time the struggle in Russia was taking on a broader character, in some places violent in form. The Bolsheviks, however, did not rest their prestige on the heroic struggle which the Russian proletariat was putting up and which they represented so strongly. The Bolshevik delegation to Zimmerwald came with strong, invincible ideological armor. This is especially clear if one examines the basic pamphlet that Lenin had written (together with Zinoviev) in the summer of 1915 called Socialism and War.[2] Having such a powerful ideological weapon in their hands made it easier to rally not only some of the leading figures in the struggle, but to appeal directly to the other social democratic organizations in Europe and even in Britain.

Thus Socialism and War soon appeared not only in French and German but also in Norwegian. This is all the more remarkable because it had to be transported illegally and distributed to the principal cities -- Berlin, Leipzig, Bremen, and others. It is noteworthy that Liebknecht's group distributed Lenin's pamphlet.

Thus it was very clear that the Bolsheviks had consolidated a revolutionary internationalist position which already had political influence that went beyond the small circle of the left Zimmerwaldians, reaching into the lower echelon of the social democratic organizations and, through them, the workers.

Lenin's pamphlet espoused the position of defeatism, a clear-cut call to convert the imperialist war into a war against the bourgeoisie and thus drew a very sharp line between the two conflicting tendencies at the Zimmerwald conference. While it is true that in Europe at the time the word "Zimmerwald" itself was a synonym for opposition to the war, it was the emergence of the left-wing, of a clear and principled anti-imperialist stand, which made Zimmerwald a really historic development.

The ideological and political struggle, which had originally been a struggle conducted by the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks, now revealed itself to be an international struggle. Opportunism as a social phenomenon had become evident in the international socialist movement. The war had merely brought the whole struggle between the two tendencies in the international movement to the surface. It took on a different character in different countries, but what was common to them all was that the right-wing revealed itself as opportunist, while the left-wing, especially during and after the war, was for reviving and resuscitating revolutionary working class struggle and orthodox Marxism.

Lenin's position on defeatism was further refined in the Zimmerwald article "The Defeat of One's Own Government in the Imperialist War." [3] He aptly summed up his formula for struggle against the war in this sentence: "The defeat of one's own capitalist government is the lesser evil in the struggle against the war." In this way Lenin was updating the formula proposed at the Stuttgart and Basel congresses that called for utilizing the difficulties created by the imperialist war to overthrow the capitalist class.

"During a reactionary war a revolutionary class cannot but desire the defeat of its government," says Lenin. "This is axiomatic, and disputed only by conscious partisans or helpless satellites of the social-chauvinists. The opponents of the defeat slogan are simply afraid of themselves when they refuse to recognize the very obvious fact of the inseparable link between revolutionary agitation against the government and helping bring about its defeat."

Further on, he says, "To repudiate the defeat slogan means allowing one's revolutionary ardor to degenerate into an empty phrase, or sheer hypocrisy."

If the French, German, Russian, and Italian workers, as well as the Americans and Japanese, Lenin reckoned, had all in the course of this imperialist war devoted their energies to defeating the war effort of their respective capitalist countries, it would have been a collective act of international proletarian solidarity on the part of each of them. Those who were promoting the defeatist strategy of Lenin were in reality also promoting international solidarity as against the artificial divisions which the world imperialist bourgeoisie had created in the interest of imperialist superprofits.

Other socialist organizations that said they were for stopping the war were for peace. But only the Bolsheviks, the Serbian and Bulgarian social democratic parties, Eugene V. Debs and the left-wing of the U.S. Socialist Party, and the Liebknecht grouping in the German SDP actively opposed the war. The others all said the continuation of the war was necessary in order to stop the aggression of the other imperialist powers. In this way French workers were ordered to kill German workers, and German workers were ordered to kill French workers, until aggression was stopped and imperialist peace achieved -- after the exhaustion of imperialist war.

Thus, one of the fundamental and most significant differences between the Bolsheviks and nearly all other socialist organizations was not merely over how to stop the war. It was a different class approach.

With the other socialists, the class struggle stopped with the outbreak of the war and national unity became the order of the day. The defense budget took preeminence just as it does today in all of the capitalist countries. Cuts in the living standard of the workers became necessary to overcome the crisis created by war expenditures. The workers would have to wait for an improvement after the war -- if they were still alive.

With the Bolsheviks, the class struggle did not stop with the outbreak of war but took on a more intensified and vigorous form and had to be prosecuted to the end.

When the first Russian revolution, which overthrew the czar, broke out in February 1917,[4] there was no thought among the Menshevik leaders of really stopping the war or overthrowing the rule of the bourgeoisie. But Lenin's way was to continue the class struggle so as to make sure the government would not participate on behalf of the bourgeoisie in the continuation of the war.

On each and every question, no matter how small, the issue always revolved around the attitude to the bourgeoisie. How to win the peasants away from the landlords and enlist them on the side of the proletariat. How to win sections of the petty bourgeoisie. How to rally them all under the banner of the working class and separate them out from the bourgeoisie, while isolating the latter. All throughout the peaceful period preceding the war, during the war, and during the course of the whole revolution, a red thread runs through all of Leninist strategy and tactics. The struggle against war in peacetime as in wartime is a struggle against the bourgeoisie. It is inseparable from the struggle against capitalism. To defeat the efforts of the warmakers, it is necessary to defeat the ruling class, making no fundamental distinction between the ruling class at war and the ruling class during peacetime.


1. Collapse of Socialist International: When war was declared, nearly all the parliamentary representatives of the various Social Democratic parties cast their votes for war credits, allowing their respective bourgeois governments to allocate funds for the conflict. This destroyed the international solidarity of the working class in Europe and enabled the capitalists to pit worker against worker in the bloody struggle. The Russian Social Democratic deputies were among the few who voted against the war. [return]

2. V.I. Lenin, "Socialism and War," in his Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), Vol. 21, pp. 295-338. [return]

3. V.I. Lenin, "The Defeat of One's Own Government in the Imperialist War, op. cit., pp. 275-280. [return]

4. First Russian Revolution: In February 1917 mass strikes begun by women textile workers mushroomed into gigantic political demonstrations in Moscow and Petrograd. In less than a week the soldiers' garrisons in those cities went over to the Revolution and Soviets of workers, soldiers, and peasants deputies were in command. The czarist regime crumbled and was replaced by the Provisional Government, which was dominated by bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties. The new government remained in the war and conditions of the masses continued to worsen. In October 1917, the Provisional Government, by then under the leadership of A.F. Kerensky, was overthrown by the working class, led by the Bolshevik party, under the slogan "All Power to the Soviets." [return]

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