From the Zimmerwald Left to the Establishment of the Communist International

Translation of an article originally published in The Communist (May 2019 reprinted March 2021), organ of Internationalist Communist Perspective (South Korea).

September 1915 - March 1919: From the Zimmerwald Left to the establishment of the Communist International

An Event from 102 Years Ago

From 2-6 March 1919, 102 years ago, 52 delegates from more than 40 political groups from various countries outside Russia gathered in Moscow. The five-day congress became the first congress of the Third International, abbreviated as the Comintern and also known as the Communist International. This event marked a key point in the development of revolutionary proletarian organisations.

The Congress was held at a historical moment when the proletariat made its greatest challenge to the capitalist order. Lenin revealed the perspective of the Third International with "revolutionary optimism" through a phonograph voice recorded at the end of March after the Congress:

Today, workers who are faithful to the cause of throwing off the yoke of capital call themselves 'communists.'... Soon we will see the triumph of communism around the world. We're going to see the foundations of the Soviet Union of the World.

The Foundation of the Communist International – Minutes and Documents of the First Congress: March 1919, Ed. John Riddell, Anchor Foundation, 1987 p.316

He then wrote the following article in April:

A new era in world history has begun. Humanity is throwing off the last form of slavery: capitalist, or wage slavery. By emancipating themselves from slavery, humans will move towards true freedom for the first time.

The Third International and its Place of History. The translation here is an improvement on the original which can be found in Lenin Collected Works Volume 29, Moscow, 1964, p.307

The foundation of the Communist International thus expressed confidence in the class struggle of the world proletariat and hope for a world revolution. But for the whole capitalist class and its minions, it was an unpleasant memory. The revolutionary wave at the end of the First World War in particular was a horror and nightmare for them. The victory of the Russian proletarian revolution in October 1917, the mutiny in the trenches, the abdication of Emperor Wilhelm in Germany and the signing of an armistice in the face of working class revolts and riots, the German workers' uprising, the establishment of workers' council republics in Bavaria and Hungary along Russian lines, mass strikes in Britain and Italy, and the revolts of the French fleet and army as well as some British troops who refused to take up arms against Soviet Russia.

Although it was already 102 years ago, the foundation of the Comintern was the culmination of a global wave of revolution from 1917 to at least the end of 1923, from Europe to Asia and from North America to Latin America. This wave of revolution was the response of the international proletariat against the First World War, the four-year imperialist war that led to a new division of the world between capitalist countries.

However, in the history of this class struggle, there were major divisions and turning points within the proletarian movement. It is the attitude of socialists and proletarians towards imperialist war during the First World War and its consequences. The imperialist wars of 1914 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 confirmed the Marxist view that capitalism would inevitably enter a "century of social revolution" and fostered fundamental divisions within the proletarian movement. At the time, the main social democratic parties of the Second International supported the imperialist war, even echoing earlier Marxist writings, and denounced the October Revolution, arguing that Russia still had to go through a period of bourgeois development. They had entered the camp of the bourgeoisie when they became recruits for the imperialist war of 1914 and police dogs for the counter-revolution of 1918. The socialist organizations, which started with Marx and Engels, were on the side of the class enemy for the first time.

This showed conclusively the fact that fidelity to the class and the revolution is evidenced not by hypocritical declarations or party signs, but by living practice. It was all the left currents within the Second International that single-handedly raised the flag of proletarian internationalism during the imperialist massacres, that reassembled in defence of the proletarian revolution in Russia, and that led the strikes and uprisings in numerous countries during the war. And it was the same current that provided the core of the new Communist International, which was founded in 1919.

Betrayal and the Left in the Second International

Within the Second International, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg were first able to recognize the changes in the capitalist period that occurred in the early 20th century. The capitalist mode of production had reached its peak and has come to dominate the entire planet. As Lenin said, the period of “imperialism, the highest phase of capitalism” had now begun. The upcoming European war at this period would be an imperialist world war between capitalist states over the division of colonies and their influence. It was the left of the Second International that led the International and the proletariat into battle against an opportunist camp that increasingly betrayed the principles of proletarian struggle day by day. At this crucial moment of struggle, Rosa Luxemburg, who drew lessons from Russian experience of the mass strike in 1905, linked the imperialist war to the mass strike and the proletarian revolution.

In 1907, an international congress was held in Stuttgart. The Congress adopted a major amendment proposed by the left and submitted by Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin.

If, however, a war should break out, socialists are obliged to intervene to bring fighting to a speedy conclusion and to exploit in every way the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thus accelerate the overthrow of capitalist rule . . .

Quoted from The Attitude to the Socialist Currents and to the Berne Congress, adopted by the First Congress of the Comintern in Theses, Resolutions and Manifestoes of the First Four Congresses of the International, Ink Links 1980 p.22

The Basel Congress of the Second International in 1912 reaffirmed this position in the face of the growing threat of imperialist war in Europe.

The bourgeois governments should not forget that the Franco-Prussian war resulted in the revolutionary rising of the Paris Commune and the Russo-Japanese war led to the development of the Russian revolutionary movement. The workers consider it a crime to shoot one another for the sake of capitalist profits, dynastic competition and the flourishing of diplomatic treaties.


The First World War broke out on 4 August 1914. The main parties of the Second International (especially the French and German Social Democrats and the British Labour Party, who were in the hands of opportunists more than anyone else) voted in favour of funding the war, calling for a "sacred alliance" with the bourgeoisie in "defence of the homeland" and against "foreign aggression". In France, they were even rewarded with ministerial positions in exchange for abandoning class struggle. They received theoretical support from 'centrism' (the middle ground between the left and right wings of the International) when Kautsky, who was called the 'Pope of Marxism', distinguished between war and class struggle, declaring that class struggle was only possible in 'peacetime' and 'impossible until the war is over'. Eventually, the Second International ended its life shamefully as it began to crack due to opportunism and was broken by the patriotic flood and the war frenzy.

To the class-conscious workers, socialism is a serious conviction, not a convenient screen to conceal petty-bourgeois conciliatory and nationalist-oppositional strivings. By the collapse of the International they understand the disgraceful treachery to their convictions which was displayed by most of the official Social-Democratic parties, treachery to the most solemn declarations in their speeches at the Stuttgart and Basel international congresses, and in the resolutions of these congresses, etc.

The Collapse of the Second International, Lenin Collected Works, 1964, Volume 21 p.207

Only a few stood tall in the midst of this storm, especially the parties of Serbia, Bulgaria, Poland and Russia. Elsewhere there were isolated revolutionaries and revolutionary groups. The Dutch “Tribune" group around Gorter and Pannekoek, as well as Rosa Luxemburg were faithful to proletarian internationalism and class struggle and attempted to reorganise.

The death of the Second International was a profound defeat for the proletariat. It made them bleed in the trenches. Countless revolutionary workers were slaughtered. The 'revolutionary social democrats' had lost their international organisation. It certainly had to be rebuilt.

The Second International is dead, overcome by opportunism. Down with opportunism, and long live the Third International, purged not only of “turncoats”(as Golos wishes), but of opportunism as well.

The Position and Tasks of the Socialist International, Lenin, 1 November, 1914, Collected Works,1964, Volume 21 p.40

The Zimmerwald Left: The Struggle for a New International

From 5 to 8 September 1915, an international congress was held in Zimmerwald, Switzerland, a neutral country where more than 40 anti-war socialists gathered. An important issue in the debate between opposing political lines in Zimmerwald reverberated across Europe in the following years. And it still affects what we have to do today.

It was more than a year later that the Second International collapsed like a house of cards, as its main political parties of the Second International joined in supporting the belligerent imperialist war aims on their respective 'homelands'. For revolutionary Marxists, many of whom had struggled against revisionism before the war, the capitalist world imperialist war was perceived as a historical turning point in that the objective conditions for socialism became a reality. There was no doubt in the minds of revolutionary Marxists that workers had no homeland and that they needed a new International, firmly committed to Marx's principles, to lead the struggle for socialism. From Trotsky, who wrote about the new International shortly after the war, to the Dutch "Tribune" group of Pannekoek, Roland Holst and Gorter who emphasised that "this war is the melting pot in which the New International will be born" in relation to imperialism, world war and social democracy. The German left, which separated in Borchardt's "Lichtstrahlen" group, the Bremen left around Johan Knief, Paul Frölich and Karl Liebknecht, and the Social Democratic parties of Poland and Lithuania (the party of Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogisches), announced as war broke out, "The proletariat declares war against the government, the oppressor! " and tried to organise a general strike against the war on the basis of revolutionary defeatism.

Some of this current considered the urgency of establishing a new International that would publicly confirm the betrayal of the Social Democrats more important than other socialists. (For example, Hermann Gorter took a break from political activity for two crucial years. Others, such as Rosa Luxemburg, expected the new International to be built after the war – or rather, as a product of working-class struggle).

Those who wanted to establish a new International wanted not only to claim the right to speak in the name of the working class, but also to offer political direction on how the struggle of the international working class could be unified into a revolutionary struggle for socialism.

At the time, however, there was confusion, even among internationalists, as to whether "war against (imperialist) war" meant that the proletariat should struggle for "peace" as a precondition for building socialism, or whether, as Lenin insisted on prioritising, that in the struggle against the terrible costs of war workers would first have to overthrow their governments and solve the problem themselves about whether this would lead to a socialist revolution.

Based on the experiences of the Paris Commune and the Russian Revolution of 1905, he argued for the possibility that imperialist world war itself could create revolutionary conditions. He argued that if the working class wanted to defend its own interests, it should seize power on its own and start a global struggle for socialism.

Once the war is on, it is impossible to escape it. One must go and do one’s duty as a socialist. … it is Utopian to imagine that the proletariat will tread a peaceful path to it. It is impossible to go over from capitalism to socialism without breaking up the national framework, just as it was impossible to pass from feudalism to capitalism without national ideas.

From a report of Lenin’s Lecture on “The Proletariat and the War” in Golos 37/38¹, October 1914. the full document can be found at

From this point of view, it follows that:

The conversion of the present imperialist war into a civil war is the only correct proletarian slogan, one that follows from the experience of the Commune, and outlined in the Basel resolution (1912); it has been dictated by all the conditions of an imperialist war between highly developed bourgeois countries. However difficult that transformation may seem at any given moment, socialists will never relinquish systematic, persistent and undeviating preparatory work in this direction now that war has become a fact.
It is only along this path that the proletariat will be able to shake off its dependence on the chauvinist bourgeoisie, and, in one form or another and more or less rapidly, take decisive steps towards genuine freedom for the nations and towards socialism.
Long live the international fraternity of the workers against the chauvinism and patriotism of the bourgeoisie of all countries!
Long live a proletarian International, freed from opportunism!

Lenin War and Russian Social Democracy, written October 1914, published November 1914 in Collected Works, 1964, Volume 21 p. 34

While in exile in Switzerland, Lenin engaged in a number of struggles to acquire a proletarian internationalist perspective that would turn imperialist wars into civil wars. First of all, some of the Bolsheviks in exile abroad thought it was their duty to volunteer for the French army (a position supported by Plekhanov, once considered the mainstream of Russian Marxism). At the Berne Conference of the Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) group abroad in early 1915, the French Bolshevik group opposed Lenin’s call for revolutionary defeatism in favour of a 'struggle for peace'.

On the international front, the task was essentially the same. He was preparing the base for new international action, with the basic line that workers would not be loyal to existing governments and would turn imperialist wars into civil wars, in order to counter the claim that "nothing could be done" during the war (in particular Kautsky's words that the International was a weapon in peacetime, but would be revived after the war), to unite forces in struggle to destroy social peace and defend workers' own interests.

By 1915, there were signs of increased war fatigue. In Germany, there were street protests over the cost of living as people ignored martial law. Since April, strikes in Russia had increased and become more political. In July, the Petrograd Bolsheviks led a boycott of the War Industry Committee, which was established by the government to recruit workers to the war.

Even the obsolete International Socialist Bureau was dragged into approving a "peace" conference. In January, Social Democrats from the neutral countries met in Copenhagen and appealed to socialists in the belligerent countries to take action to stop the war. In February, the British Independent Labour Party (ILP) held a 'socialist' congress in of the Allied nations, chaired by Keir Hardie, who prevented the Bolshevik Litvinov (Maximovich) from reading the Internationalist Manifesto.

The resolution adopted at the congress stated that war is the common responsibility of all nations as a result of the conflicts created by capitalist society, imperialism and colonial competition. Nevertheless, it passed a resolution saying that a German victory would destroy freedom, national independence, and confidence in treaties; that workers of the Allied countries are not fighting against the German and Austrian people, but are fighting a defensive war against the German and Austrian governments, and must resist attempts to turn it into a war of conquest. Specifically, the resolution called for the restoration of Belgium, the autonomy or independence of Poland, and the settlement of all European national problems from Alsace-Lorraine to the Balkans on the basis of national self-determination.

In April, the Allied Socialists held a similar meeting in Vienna to that of the members of the Social Democratic Party, and passed a resolution dealing primarily with post-war relations.

But when the Italian and Swiss Social Democratic Parties proposed an anti-war congress of workers' organisations, regardless of "their countries'" role in the war, the International Socialist Bureau (ISB) was not interested. They decided to push ahead anyway and called a congress of all socialist parties and workers' organisations that could adhere to the fundamentals of class struggle and struggle for immediate peace through simultaneous action. In an organisational sense, Zimmerwald was free from the burden of the rotten Second International. However, it was not intended to undermine social democracy politically. Zinoviev suggested that the purpose of the upcoming competition should be to "organize around a clear revolutionary line and prepare for a clear break with the old international," but received little attention. Nevertheless, Lenin perceived it as a process to get the revolutionaries to be listened to, to expand their influence, and to integrate the forces necessary to build a new international. In the months leading up to the congress, there was an intensive exchange of correspondence and discussion among the left about the key themes that should be included in a joint statement on the proletariat and war. Radek and Lenin, both drafted the resolution.

Alexandra Kollontai organised the participation of Swedish and Norwegian left socialists. Marxist groups around the Tribune in the Netherlands have been in contact.
The Bolsheviks published a German-language pamphlet for distribution to delegates ... The pamphlets included "Socialism and War" by Lenin and Zinoviev, as well as resolutions of the Central Committee and the Berne Congress. It also included the Bolshevik resolution of 1913 on the national question, on which the Russian revolutionaries disagreed with many of their left allies.

Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International: Documents, 1907-1916, the Preparatory Years, Communist International in Lenin's Time, ed. John Riddell, Monad Press, 1984

This last theme (the national question) was a controversy that would not be resolved before the formation of the Third International. But in the run-up to the Zimmerwald Congress, Lenin had to give way to the majority. In the pre-conference debate over the wording of the statement to be presented by the left, the majority of the eight delegates preferred the draft of Radek rather than that of Lenin. The final version makes no mention of oppressed or oppressor peoples.

However, this was not a deterrent to the majority, who could not tolerate even the semblance of revolutionary defeatism. The resolution of the left was rejected. The Zimmerwald Declaration, as it has come to be known historically, was the result of a compromise drafted largely by Trotsky. Nevertheless, the left signed it because they were able to add to the clauses they found problematic. In September 1915, Lenin described the congress of Zimmerwald as the 'first step'.

With all its contradictions and timidity is a fact that this manifesto is a step forward towards a real struggle against opportunism, towards a rupture with it.

Lenin The First Step in Collected Works, Volume 21, 1964, p. 387

The second Zimmerwald (Kienthal) is undoubtedly a step forward. ... So what should we do going forward? We must continue our determination and our struggle for a revolutionary social-democratic Third International. The Zimmerwald and Kienthal congress showed that our path is the right one.

Zinoviev, 6 October 1916

The biggest advance in this event was that most of the internationalists came together and organised an independent left. Before leaving Zimmerwald, they founded the Zimmerwald Left Bureau, consisting of Lenin, Zinoviev and Radek. The crisis caused by the war in 1916 and the crisis predicted by Lenin became acute throughout Europe. The big difference between the Zimmerwald majority, which did not completely break away from the Social Democratic Party, and the left, became a rift. After the February Revolution broke out in Russia, Lenin argued that 'the swamps of Zimmerwald can no longer be tolerated' and that what was needed now was the immediate building of a 'new proletarian International', 'composed only of the left'.

The Russian Proletarian Revolution of 1917 ushered in a revolutionary wave across Europe. The threat of proletarian struggle confirmed to the international bourgeoisie that it had put an end to the imperialist carnage. The slogan of Lenin became a reality. The Russian and international proletariat turned the imperialist war into a civil war, and in doing so paid tribute to the left of the Second International by applying the famous Stuttgart resolution.

The First World War decisively pushed the parliamentary right wing of the Social Democratic Party into the bourgeois camp. The revolutionary wave brought centrist pacifists into the fight against the bourgeoisie, but many of them, especially leaders like Kautsky, jumped into the bourgeoisie's camp. The International no longer existed. The new party, created by the left who had split from Social Democracy, began to use the name 'communist' party.

The revolutionary wave encouraged and called for the building of a world party of the proletariat, the Third International. In 1919, at the height of the post-war revolutionary wave, the position of the founding congress of the Communist International represented the most advanced position of the proletarian movement. A complete break with the social-patriotic traitors, adoption of methods of mass action demanded by the new period of capitalist decline, the destruction of the capitalist state and the international dictatorship of the workers' councils. This doctrinal clarity reflected the enormous momentum of the revolutionary wave, but it had been prepared in advance by the political and theoretical work and struggle of the left revolutionaries within the old Second International.

The Significance of the Zimmerwald Left

The significance of the Zimmerwald Left was, above all, that it was a step towards the founding of a new International. And the significance of the founding of the Communist International is that it was the "International Communist Party".

However, the move from the Zimmerwald left to the new International came too late. The Communist International was founded just over a year after the October Revolution of 1917 and two months after the first defeat suffered by the Berlin proletariat. For many years afterwards, the international revolutionary wave was defeated and declined, and the Russian proletariat became increasingly isolated. This isolation was a decisive factor in the degeneration of the proletarian dictatorship. Because of this, the Communist International could not stop the spread of opportunism and died after continuous degeneration.

So what is the real significance of the Zimmerwald left for revolutionaries today? It means that the international working class still needs an international revolutionary party like the Communist International. Just like in 1919, the working class today is crushed by severe economic suffering under a declining capitalism and faces the threat of imperialist war, yet its struggle against the ravages of capitalism is sporadic and isolated. The great imbalance in power relations between classes requires a revolutionary party to play a political and organisational role in the class struggle, even more so than 102 years ago. This is because capitalist ideology permeates the working class not only through the capitalist class, but also through labor/leftist parties and trade union organizstions that were once the organisation of the working class (like the Second International). They are sometimes critical of capitalism, but they are always practically useful to the capitalist class in suppressing the struggles of workers, and consequently play a role in maintaining capitalism. For the working class to regain its revolutionary consciousness, and for the upcoming all-out war with the capitalist class, an international revolutionary party with a clear platform and the ability to take internationalist action is essential.

As the most conscious part of the class, the revolutionary minority, communists must not be passive observers in the face of capitalist decline, imperialist wars, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting capitalist devastation of working class lives. Lenin said that there are no truces in class war. The slogan "turn the imperialist war into civil war" is not simply asking revolutionaries facing imperialist wars today to repeat the slogans of the past in every situation. It is the basic activity of communists to take a working class position, even in everyday life, and not to sacrifice themselves in "overcoming the national crisis" or "national defence" or "preparing for war", but to "struggle for the destruction of the capitalist state". We workers have to recognise that "there is no homeland to defend" and that "the only war worth fighting is the class war". We have to take up the struggle of the world proletariat, not that of some nation or ethnicity.

The internationalist communists of the world must patiently reorganise their revolutionary forces to build a future international revolutionary party, just as the Zimmerwald left did over a century ago. Against imperialist wars, we must defend the principles of internationalism and engage in joint action and international solidarity, take up international class struggle to turn wars into civil wars (class wars).

We are not the party, but we exist for the party. We appeal to comrades with the same principles as us to struggle together for "no war but the class war" and to build the Communist Party (the International Revolutionary Party) in the spirit of the Zimmerwald left and the founding congress of the Communist International that we inherited.

No War but the Class War!
For Proletarian Internationalism – International Class Struggle!
Build a New International – a World Revolutionary Party!

Internationalist Communist Perspective
SOURCE : The Communist no. 9 (May 2019, reprinted March 2021)
Saturday, March 25, 2023