Zimmerwald: Lenin Leads the Struggle of the Revolutionary Left for a New International

One hundred years ago, on September 5-8th 1915 an international conference of forty or so anti-war socialists took place in the village of Zimmerwald in neutral Switzerland. The key issues at stake in the debate between the opposing political currents at Zimmerwald were to reverberate across Europe in the years ahead – and they still have implications for what we do today.

It was by then more than a year since the Second International had collapsed like a house of cards as its leading constituent parties joined in supporting the bellicose imperialist war aims of their respective ‘fatherlands’. For revolutionary Marxists, most of whom had struggled against revisionism before the war, who recognised that capitalism’s global imperialist war was a historical game-changer in that the objective conditions for socialism now existed, there was no question of the need for a new International which would hold firm to Marx’s dictum that the workers have no country and lead the struggle for socialism. From Trotsky who had written soon after the war started of the new International which must arise out of the present world cataclysm; the Dutch Tribunists associated with Pannekoek, Roland Holst, and Gorter whose Imperialism, the World War and Social Democracy reiterated that “this war is the crucible from which the new International must be born”; the splintered German Left from Borchardt’s Lichtstrahlen (Rays of Light) group, the Bremen Left around Johan Knief and Paul Frolich and of course Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg; the Social Democracy of Poland and Lithuania (also the party of Rosa Luxemburg and Jogisches) which had joined with the Left wing of the PPS and the Bund when the war broke out to try to organise a general strike against the war on an essentially revolutionary defeatist basis (“The proletariat declares war upon its governments, its oppressors!”)

Within this current some placed more importance than others on the urgency of establishing a new International which would openly confirm the betrayal of Social Democracy. They wanted to challenge its right to speak in the name of the working class as well as give political direction on how the struggles of the international working class can be unified into the revolutionary struggle for socialism. Hermann Gorter, for example, dropped out of political life for two critical years. Others, like Rosa Luxemburg, envisaged that the new International would be built after the war – or rather, after the working class struggle had brought it to an end.(1)

Even amongst the internationalists there was confusion as to whether ‘war on war’ meant that the proletariat should be struggling for peace as a precondition for building socialism or, as Lenin most urgently insisted, that in struggling against the horrific costs of war, workers have no choice but to get rid of their own government, take matters into their own hands and embark on the revolutionary road to socialism.

Drawing on the experience of the Paris Commune and the 1905 revolution in Russia, he insisted on the likelihood of the imperialist world war itself creating a revolutionary situation where the working class, if it stuck to defending its own interests, would have to take power into its own hands and begin the worldwide struggle for socialism. “Once the war has started , it is unthinkable to run away from it. One must go ahead and do the work of a Socialist. … One must go there and organise the proletariat for the ultimate aim, as it is Utopian to think that the proletariat will achieve its aim in a peaceful way. …” (Golos 37/38 October 1914) From this perspective it follows that:

Turning the present imperialist war into civil war is the only correct proletarian slogan. It is indicated by the experience of the Commune, it was outlined by the Basle resolution (1912) and it follows from all the conditions of an imperialist war among highly developed countries. However difficult such transformation may appear at one time or another, Socialists will never relinquish. systematic, insistent, unflinching preparatory work in this direction once the war has become a fact.
Only on this road will the proletariat be able to break away from under the influence of the chauvinist bourgeoisie, and sooner or later, in one form or another, will it take decisive steps on the road to real freedom of peoples, and on the road to Socialism.
Long live the international brotherhood of the workers united against the chauvinism and patriotism of the bourgeoisie of all countries!
Long live the proletarian International, free from opportunism.

The War and Russian Social Democracy; written October 1914, published November 1914

During his exile in Switzerland Lenin battled on several fronts to get this perspective of proletarian internationalism, of preparing to turn the imperialist war into a civil war, accepted by the Party. First of all amongst Bolsheviks in exile abroad, some of whom thought it their duty to volunteer for the French army (a stance supported by Plekhanov, once regarded as the mainstay of Marxism in Russia). At the Berne Conference of RSDLP Groups Abroad in early 1915 Bolshevik groups from France opposed his call for revolutionary defeatism in favour of ‘the fight for peace’. There was a similar struggle within the Party inside Russia especially over the idea of ‘defeatism’ which militants like Shlyapnikov argued put workers off, but eventually the party on the ground saw that the line of work was to politically and practically prepare a revolutionary course for the working class as the toll of continuing the war weakened the Tsarist regime.

On the international front the task was essentially the same: countering the argument that ‘nothing can be done’ during wartime (especially Kautsky’s gem that the International is a peace time weapon but that after the war it will be revived as before); rallying the forces who were prepared to break the ‘social peace’ and call on workers to defend their own interests. In short, he was preparing the ground for a new International acting on the basis that workers owe no loyalty to the existing governments and for a line of work based on turning the imperialist war into a civil war. By 1915 the signs of growing war weariness were already in evidence. In defiance of martial law, street demonstrations against the cost of living broke out in Germany. From April strikes in Russia multiplied and became more political. In July the Petrograd Bolsheviks led a boycott of the War Industries Committees, set up by the regime to enlist workers into the war effort.

Even the old International’s lifeless International Socialist Bureau was drawn into approving ‘peace’ conferences. In January Social Democrats from neutral countries met in Copenhagen and issued an appeal to socialists in the belligerent states to act to stop the war. In February the ILP hosted a conference of ‘socialists’ from the Allied Powers presided over by Keir Hardie where the Bolshevik, Litvinov was prevented from reading an internationalist declaration.

The resolution adopted by the conference stated that the war was the product of the antagonisms produced by capitalist society, imperialism and colonial rivalry where every country had a share of responsibility but nevertheless passed a resolution on the necessity of continuing the war since a victory for Germany would extinguish liberty, national independence and faith in treaties. After the war they hoped for an end to secret diplomacy, the "interest of armaments makers" and international compulsory arbitration. The workers of the Allied countries are fighting a defensive war against the German and Austrian governments, not against the German and Austrian people, and would resist attempts to turn this into a war of conquests. The resolution specifically demanded the restoration of Belgium, autonomy or independence for Poland, and the resolution of all the national problems of Europe from Alsace-Lorraine to the Balkans on the basis of national self-determination.

In April a similar gathering of Social Democrats from the Central Powers socialists met in Vienna and passed resolutions dealing chiefly with relations after the war.

However, when the Italian and Swiss Social Democratic Parties proposed an anti-war meeting of workers’ groups irrespective of the role of ‘their country’ in the war, the ISB did not want to know. They decided to go ahead anyway and call a conference of all socialist parties and workers’ groups which are against civil peace, which adhere to the basis of class struggle, and which are willing, through simultaneous action, to struggle for immediate peace … In the organisational sense Zimmerwald was outside the remit of the rotten Second International. Politically, however, there was no intention to undermine Social Democracy. When Zinoviev proposed that the purpose of the forthcoming conference should be to organise around a clear revolutionary line and prepare for a clear break with the old International he was given short shrift. Still, Lenin recognised an opening for revolutionaries to get a hearing, expand their influence and in the process consolidate the forces necessary to create a new International. In the months running up to the conference there was intensive correspondence and discussion amongst the Left on the key points they needed to include in a joint statement on the proletariat and the war. Both Radek and Lenin wrote draft resolutions.

Alexandra Kollontai organised the participation of the Swedish and Norwegian left Socialists. The Marxist group around the Dutch paper De Tribune (The Tribune) was contacted.
The Bolsheviks published a pamphlet in German for circulation to delegates … It contained Lenin and Zinoviev’s article Socialism and War, as well as the Central Committee and Bern conference resolutions. It also included the Bolsheviks’ 1913 resolution on the national question, an area where the Russian revolutionaries had differences with many of their left allies.(2)

This last issue was a bone of contention which was never resolved before the formation of the 3rd International. However in the run-up to the Zimmerwald meeting Lenin had to concede to the majority. In the pre-conference discussions over the wording of the statement the Left would present, the majority of the eight delegates preferred Radek’s draft to Lenin’s. The final version (below) makes no reference to oppressed and oppressing nations.

This was not the stumbling bloc for the majority who could not tolerate even a watered down version of revolutionary defeatism. The Left’s resolution was rejected. The Zimmerwald Manifesto which has come down in history was the outcome of a compromise, largely drafted by Trotsky ­– who at this point was amongst “the vacillating elements” editing Nashe Slovo (Our Word) in Paris under the slogan of "peace without indemnities or annexations, peace without conquerors or conquered." Nevertheless the Left signed it since they were able to add a rider regarding its limitations. In September 1915 Lenin was able to describe Zimmerwald as ‘the first step’ which … for all its inconsistency and timidity marks … a real struggle against opportunism, towards a rupture with it.(3)

So it seemed. In the event the biggest step forward was that the internationalists for the most part had come together and organised independently. Before leaving Zimmerwald they had set up their own Bureau of the Zimmerwald Left, composed of Lenin, Zinoviev and Radek. The documents they had presented to the Congress were published in Internationales Flugblatt and in 1916 there was a short-lived journal Vorbote (Herald) which was intended to be a forum for debate within the Left. During 1916 the crisis caused by the war and predicted by Lenin sharpened throughout Europe. The gulf between the Zimmerwald majority, who would not make a clean break away from Social Democracy, and the Left became a chasm. After the February revolution in Russia Lenin argued that “the Zimmerwald bog can no longer be tolerated” and that the need now was for the immediate founding of a “new, proletarian International” “consisting only of Lefts”.

The Zimmerwald conference is not among the World War One events commemorated by the likes of David Cameron or Prince Charles: ‘tributes’ designed to perpetuate myths about ‘the nation at war’. Even so, there are myths being spun by the capitalist left about the significance of Zimmerwald for socialists and the working class today.

First amongst them is the notion that ‘Zimmerwald’ as a whole is an example to follow today. In essence this means refusing to accept that social democracy, including Labour, is fundamentally a bulwark of capitalism and an obstacle in the way of independent working class struggle which is the only path that can lead to the revolutionary struggle for socialism which means the overthrow of the existing state. The point about the Zimmerwald Manifesto is that at the time it was seen as a step towards a complete break with social democracy. Today we know that the majority never made that break. However, it is almost laughable to see the distortion of history being pedalled by Counterfire – whose members engage in just about every cross-class protest movement going, notably the Stop The War Coalition – whose article on Zimmerwald tells us:

The [resulting] “Zimmerwald Manifesto” helped inspire a mass movement of antiwar and socialist activists across the warring countries of Europe. Finishing: The ideals of Zimmerwald became a source of inspiration for a growing movement of militant action which prepared the revolutions of 1917 and 1918.

John Riddell, Counterfire 31.8.2015 www.counterfire.org

This is disingenuous from someone who has made a close study of Zimmerwald and Lenin’s role in the movement to create the Third International. As if the struggle for communism, the overthrow of the capitalist state, the Bolsheviks, the Spartacists, the October Revolution and the working class revolutionary wave which brought an end to world war were the produce of militant action by a bunch of activists. However absurd, this is a convenient myth which can be used to justify almost any reformist protest (“militant action”) as the road which in the past “prepared the revolutions of 1917-18” and which today … well, as one ‘No Glory In War’ post puts it, the Zimmerwald anniversary can be used to promote peace and international co-operation (sic).

For all those would-be revolutionaries today who see only the counter-revolution in Russia and place the blame for it on the shoulders of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party it’s time to acknowledge the significance of his initiating the Zimmerwald Left and for standing up for proletarian internationalism; the revolutionary struggle for socialism which inevitably means confronting and overthrowing the capitalist state. Lenin argued for no truce in the class war (no burgfrieden, no kowtowing to state of emergency regulations, acquiescing in ‘civil peace’): “turn the war into a civil war”. For revolutionaries today in the face of capitalism’s wars it is not a question of simply repeating formulas from the past whatever the situation. But the same principle of calling on the working class not to sacrifice their own interests for ‘national defence’ or the ‘war effort’ remains. We have to continue urging the working class to carrying on defending their own interests, reminding them that workers have no country and that the only war worth fighting is the class war.

Above all, the significance of Zimmerwald is that it was a step towards the creation of a new International. In the end, perhaps inevitably, it was too little too late. The real significance of Zimmerwald for revolutionaries today is not that the international working class does not need an international revolutionary party. Quite the opposite, a party with a clear and unanimously agreed programme needs to be in existence before the working class is once again faced with the practical question of how to get rid of capitalism. Not a token nod to internationalism, such as Camille Huysmans described in 1904 when he took office as International Secretary of the Second International "no more than a letter-box and a postal address, a mere medium of communication, without power and without real influence.” The future international party will play a key political and organisational role in the world working class revolution.


The Resolution of the Zimmerwald Left

The World War, which has been devastating Europe for the last year, is an imperialist war waged for the political and economic exploitation of the world, export markets, sources of raw material, spheres of capital investment, etc. It is a product of capitalist development which connects the entire world in a world economy, but at the same time permits the existence of national state capitalist groups with opposing interests.

If the bourgeoisie and the governments seek to conceal this character of the World War by asserting that it is a question of a forced struggle for national independence, it is only to mislead the proletariat, since the war is being waged for the oppression of foreign peoples and countries. Equally untruthful are the legends concerning the defence of democracy in this war, since imperialism signifies the most unscrupulous domination of big capital and political reaction.

Imperialism can only be overcome by overcoming the contradictions which produce it, that is, by the Socialist organisation of the advanced capitalist countries for which the objective conditions are already ripe.

At the outbreak of the war, the majority of the labour leaders had not raised this only possible slogan in opposition to imperialism. Prejudiced by nationalism, rotten with opportunism, at the beginning of the World War they betrayed the proletariat to imperialism and gave up the principles of Socialism and thereby the real struggle for the everyday interests of the proletariat.

Social-patriotism and social-imperialism, the standpoint of the openly patriotic majority of the formerly Social-Democratic leaders in Germany, as well as the opposition-mannered centre of the party around Kautsky, and to which in France and Austria the majority, in England and Russia a part of the leaders (Hyndman, the Fabians, the Trade-Unionists, Plekhanov, Rubanovich, the Nasha Zarya group) confess, is a more dangerous enemy to the proletariat than the bourgeois apostles of imperialism, since, misusing the banner of Socialism, it can mislead the unenlightened workers. The ruthless struggle against social-imperialism constitutes the first condition for the revolutionary mobilization of the proletariat and the reconstruction of the International.

It is the task of the Socialist parties, as well as of the Socialist opposition in the now social-imperialist parties, to call and lead the labouring masses to the revolutionary struggle against the capitalist governments for the conquest of political power for the Socialist organisation of society.

Without giving up the struggle for every foot of ground within the framework of capitalism, for every reform strengthening the proletariat, without renouncing any means of organisation and agitation, the revolutionary Social-Democrats, on the contrary, must utilize all the struggles, all the reforms demanded by our minimum program for the purpose of sharpening this war crisis as well as every social and political crisis of capitalism of extending them to an attack upon its very foundations.

By waging this struggle under the slogan of Socialism it will render the labouring masses immune to the slogans of the oppression of one people by another as expressed in the maintenance of the domination of one nation over another, in the cry for new annexations; it will render them deaf to the temptations of national solidarity which has led the proletarians to the battlefields.

The signal for this struggle is the struggle against the World War, for the speedy termination of the slaughter of nations. This struggle demands the refusal of war credits, quitting the cabinets, the denunciation of the capitalist, anti-Socialist character of the war from the tribunes of the parliaments, in the columns of the legal, and where necessary illegal, press, the sharpest struggle against social-patriotism, and the utilisation of every movement of the people caused by the results of the war (misery, great losses etc.) for the organisation of street demonstrations against the governments, propaganda of international solidarity in the trenches, the encouragement of economic strikes, the effort to transform them into political strikes under favourable conditions.

Civil war, not civil peace – that is the slogan!

As against all illusions that it is possible to bring about the basis of a lasting peace, the beginning of disarmament, by any decisions of diplomats and the governments, the revolutionary Social-Democrats must repeatedly tell the masses of the people that only the social revolution can bring about a lasting peace and the emancipation of humanity.

Note: This draft resolution was signed by two representatives of the Central Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Zinoviev and Lenin), a representative of the Opposition of the Polish Social-Democracy (Radek), a representative of the Latvian province (Winter), a representative each of the Left Social-Democrats of Sweden (Hoglund) and Norway (Nerman), a Swiss delegate (Platten), and a German delegate. On the question of submitting the draft to the commission, 12 delegates voted for (the eight mentioned above, two Socialist-Revolutionaries, Trotsky, and Roland-Holst) and 19 against.

(1) "Either the International will remain a refuse heap after the war, or its resurrection will begin on the basis of the class struggle from which alone it draws its vital forces. … Only by means of an ‘excruciatingly thorough denunciation of our own indecision and weakness’, of our own moral fall since August 4th, can rebuilding of the International begin. And the first step in this direction is to take action for the rapid termination of the war and for the preparation of a peace in accordance with the common interest of the international proletariat." [‘Rebuilding the International’, Die Internationale, no.1, 1915 [Rosa Luxemburg Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2000] .

(2) Lenin’s Struggle for a New International, Documents, ed. John Riddell, Monad Press

(3) Available on www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/cw/index.htm#volume21

Photo at top: Looting and burning Polish village, September 1915

Tuesday, September 8, 2015