R. Page Arnot

A Short History of the Russian Revolution

from 1905 to the present day (1937)

Part I
from 1905 to February 1917

Chapter V

The Imperialist World War

1. Origins of the War

IN THE FIRST DAYS OF AUGUST 1914 there began the war between the coalition headed by Britain (the Triple Entente of Russia, France, Britain) and the coalition headed by Germany. Before it ended, twenty millions of mankind had been killed or wounded. Known at the time as “The War to end War,” it is often nowadays significantly described as “The first Imperialist World War.” As early as 1906 the British Liberal Ministers, following up the Entente Cordiale concluded between France and Britain in 1904, had authorised military conversations between the French and British General Staffs as to their common action in France and Belgium against the German army. These, like the later Anglo-German Naval Treaty of 1935, were to be strictly “non-committal” as regards general foreign policy. But there already existed the Dual Alliance of the Tsardom and France, also directed against the power of German capitalism. The European conflict, for which the diplomats and military staffs were preparing, could not be split in two. Consequently, it was only a matter of time before there came into existence an effective Triple Entente against the Triple Alliance headed by Germany. From 1907 onwards, the European Powers were rushing towards war; and one sign of this headlong rush was the armaments race. Europe became a powder magazine. The assassination in June 1914 of the heir to the throne of the Hapsburgs was only the igniting spark: it was capitalism itself which had become an explosive mixture.

What was the attitude of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (the Bolsheviks)? Their attitude had already been discussed beforehand, together with the Socialist Parties of other countries. All the chief Socialist Parties of the world from 1889 onwards (or after 1889 as they came into existence) had been associated together in the Second International. It was called the Second International to distinguish it from the First International, the International Working Men’s Association which existed from 1864 to 1874 under the leadership of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Every three years or so, from 1889 onwards, the Socialist Parties came together in an International Socialist Congress to work out a common line, which then became the most authoritative expression of Socialist policy.

On the question of war, as the menace of war between the Triple Alliance and Triple Entente became more threatening, the policy had thrice been affirmed—at the International Socialist Congress of Stuttgart (1907), Copenhagen (1910), Basel (1912). This policy, accepted unanimously, signed for by the leaders of the parties, binding equally on the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, the British Labour Party, the Socialist Party of France, etc., etc., and also upon the trade unions attached or affiliated to those parties, laid down in its operative clause the following as the duties of the working class and its representatives:

(1) To prevent war breaking out.

(2) If war nevertheless broke out, to oppose it.

(3) To utilise the crisis arising from war to bring about the downfall of capitalist class rule.

In the last days of July 1914, the Socialist Parties made attempts to prevent war. When war broke out, the leaders of the parties went back on their pledged word. Instead of opposing the war, they split the working class and helped the capitalist Governments of Europe to drive the workers into the slaughter-house. It was the greatest betrayal of Socialism, of the interests of the working class, and of the whole of mankind.

Alone of the leading parties of the Second International, the Russian Social-Democratic Party (Bolsheviks) remained true to the principles of Socialism, opposed the war, and, when the war crisis came, utilised it to bring about the downfall of capitalist class rule. Within Russia the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party suffered great losses. The legal Labour Press was completely destroyed. The majority of the trade unions were closed down. Renewed imprisonment and banishment to Siberia was the lot of the party members. Nevertheless, the party members did their duty as set forth in the International Socialist Congress resolutions. On August 8th, 1914, in the Duma, they declared against the war, refused to vote for the war credits (in contrast to the German Social-Democrats and the British Labour Party), and demonstratively walked out of the Duma in order to make their protest more striking. The Mensheviks at first wavered, under the pressure of the Bolsheviks. Later, on receipt of an appeal from the Belgian Emile Vandervelde (then Chairman of the Second International and a member of the Belgian War Cabinet), in which he asked Bolsheviks and Mensheviks to support Tsardom, the Mensheviks swung over and wrote in response, “We declare to you that in our activities in Russia we shall not hinder the prosecution of the war.” They did more than that: they assisted the Tsar. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, replied reasserting their intention to be true to the decisions of the International. The Bolsheviks soon paid the penalty. In mid-November the Bolshevik members of the Duma, together with many others, were arrested, tried, and banished to Eastern Siberia. Nevertheless, the few who remained continued the work under the tenfold increased oppression of Tsardom.

Abroad, where nearly all the one-time internationalists were now turned nationalist, the difficulties were enormous. It was a struggle against fearful odds. The torrent of jingoism, of chauvinism, seemed to be sweeping everything away. Lenin, almost single-handed (Stalin and other leading Bolsheviks were immured in Siberia beyond the Arctic Circle), undertook the uphill task of rebuilding revolutionary Socialism throughout Europe and throughout the world. Working with concentrated energy against the tremendous war machinery of the warring capitalist Powers (in which were now included the one-time opponents of the capitalist Governments), Lenin, then in Geneva, set himself to explain what had happened and what had to be done. He put the essence of working-class Socialist policy into a single slogan: Transform the Imperialist War into Civil War!

At first, amid the thunder of the guns, Lenin’s voice was heard by hundreds only, then by thousands, and at last by scores of millions.

2. The Character of the War

On what analysis did Lenin and the Bolsheviks base the slogans that eventually were borne to millions? Clearly the war did not bear the character ascribed to it by the propaganda of the wavering Powers. It was not a war of defence—least of all in the case of Britain. It was not a war for civilisation and culture—when Tsardom was one of the Allies. It was not a war for the liberation of small nationalities—for the iron heel of Prussian militarists in Belgium was offset by the iron heel of British militarists in Ireland, Egypt, and India. All such descriptions of the war, on both sides, were merely means of deceiving the people.

When the war was analysed, it was found to be of an imperialist character. There had been wars in the past, especially in the period 1789 to 1871, of a national character for the purpose of abolishing national oppression and creating national capitalist States out of the separate feudal States; wars of liberation in which Marxists had supported the oppressed against the oppressors. There might be wars of a class character, in which Marxists would support, for example, a Socialist State against capitalist aggressors. For Marxists have never been pacifists. But the only element of national war in 1914-18 was in the struggle of Serbia against the Austro-Hungarian monarchy: and this alone was such a subordinate factor that the war as a whole had to be classed as imperialist.

But what is “imperialism”? The answer to this was given by Lenin in his war-time book Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism. There Lenin proved that imperialism, so far from being a mere policy of big Powers towards colonies, was actually the capitalist system in its latest stage, the stage of monopoly capitalism. Capitalism, from its first beginnings in England four centuries ago, had gone through many stages of development. In the nineteenth century, or at any rate in the first three-quarters thereof, capitalism as a mode of production had been marked by unrestricted competition. The beginning of trusts and combines was the sign of a great change which matured with the opening of the twentieth century. By the twentieth century, capitalism was marked by the growth of monopolies (the big banks, the big trusts); by the fusion of monopolist banking capital and monopolist industrial capital into finance capital; by the export of capital as well as the continuing export of goods; by the internationalisation of economic life (international trusts like Standard Oil or Unilever); by the partition of almost the entire globe into colonies of the big Powers; by the productive forces of world capitalism outgrowing the narrow confines of the national States; by the full ripening of the objective conditions for the transition to Socialism.

The essence of the war was a struggle of the big imperialist Powers over colonies and for the plunder of the defeated side. It was a predatory war, a war of grab. It was precisely the type of war foreseen by the International Socialist Congress resolutions which gave the outline of the slogan: “Transform the Imperialist War into Civil War.” This meant that the revolutionary working class in each country must be for the defeat of its own Government.

A further analysis by Lenin dealt with the collapse of the Second International. It was, he said, the collapse of Socialist opportunism. Opportunism had grown up especially in the twenty years that had elapsed since the death of Engels, in a relatively “peaceful” epoch of development of the Labour movement. This epoch taught the working class how to use parliamentary institutes, how to build mass trade unions and political parties; but at the same time in this epoch grew up the tendency to repudiate the class struggle and to preach class harmony, to recognise capitalist patriotism, etc., etc. And what in essence was this opportunism? It was the influence of the capitalist class inside the Labour movement. And what were the channels of this influence? Certain sections of the working class, such as the aristocracy of labour, which got its “whack” out of the plunder of the colonies, the bureaucracy of the movement, and petty-bourgeoisie within the Socialist Parties—these were the channels.

The war crisis had revealed the real nature of opportunism as an accomplice of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat. This applied not only to the open opportunists supporting the war, whom Lenin described as having turned from “Social-Democrats” into “Social-Chauvinists,” but also to the Social-Democratic Centre, such as Karl Kautsky, who for many years had been regarded as the leading theoretician of the Second International. The Centrists, under a cover of hypocritical phrases, had also rolled down into opportunism. Kautsky set himself to explain away all “awkwardness” in the situation: the Second International, he discovered, was an instrument of peace-time, and not of war-time, in which latter it was unable to function. Kautsky pretended to be anti-war: but in practice shielded and supported the war-mongers as against the true Left. Lenin criticised Kautsky with the utmost scorn. At the close of an article written in March 1916 on “Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” Lenin adds the following postscript:

“In the latest issue of Die Neue Zeit, dated March 3rd, 1916, Kautsky openly extends a Christian hand of reconciliation to the representative of the filthiest German chauvinism, Austerlitz. He rejects the freedom of secession for the nations oppressed by the Austria of the Hapsburgs, but accepts it for Russian Poland, thus rendering lackey’s service to Hindenburg and Wilhelm II. A better self-exposure of Kautskyism could not be desired!” (Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. V, p. 281).

Thus, the prevalence of opportunism meant that the Second International had collapsed because it was rotten to the core. A new international had to be built, an international not of words but of deeds. Lenin issued the call for the building of a Third International.

Lenin also warned the workers against bourgeois pacifism, the preaching of peace in the abstract. This applied to all the varieties of pacifism such as that of the bourgeois Liberals, or of the Christian pacifists, or of Social-Democrats who adopted bourgeois pacifism and clothed it with Marxist phrases. All were forms of deception of the working class. In March 1915 he wrote:

“Propaganda of peace at the present time, if not accompanied by a call for revolutionary mass action, is only capable of spreading illusions, of demoralising the proletariat by imbuing it with belief in the humanitarianism of the bourgeoisie ” (Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. V, p. 135).

The propaganda of the Bolshevik standpoint was conducted as a bitter struggle against opportunists of all countries, both Social-Chauvinists and Centrists. Against the Russian Centrists, the struggle was particularly fierce. We may take as an example the opening of a polemical article written in August 1915 by Lenin:

“A revolutionary class in a reactionary war cannot but desire the defeat of its Government. This is an axiom. It is disputed only by the conscious partisans or the helpless satellites of the Social-Chauvinists. To the former, for instance, belongs Semkovsky of the Organisation Committee (No. 2 of its Izvestia); to the latter belong Trotsky and Bukvoyed,1 and in Germany, Kautsky. To desire Russia’s defeat, Trotsky says, is ‘an uncalled-for and unjustifiable concession to the political methodology of social-patriotism which substitutes for the revolutionary struggle against the war, and the conditions that cause it, what, under present conditions, is an extremely arbitrary orientation towards ‘the lesser evil’ (Nashe Slovo No. 105). This is an example of the high-flown phraseology with which Trotsky always justifies opportunism” (“Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War,” Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. V, p. 142).

Then, later, there came a new growth of “Leftism,” of semi-anarchist phrase-mongering. A bitter struggle had to be conducted by Lenin, especially in the latter part of the war, against Bukharin, Radek, and Pyatakov, who wished to abolish the Marxist “right of nations to self-determination.” They argued that it was impossible under imperialism: or that, if it were possible after the social revolution, then it was unnecessary!

Meantime, parallel with this huge task of propaganda and agitation, Lenin and his comrades were striving to bring together the threads of an anti-chauvinist revolutionary International.

At Zimmerwald, in Switzerland, in September 1915, there assembled a mixed grouping, out of which the Bolsheviks were able to form a Zimmerwald Left. At a subsequent meeting in Kienthal in April 1916, this Zimmerwald Left was able to exercise greater influence on the decisions, and from this time onwards the Zimmerwald Left is to be regarded as the nucleus of the future Third International.

3. The War and its Effects

The Tsardom was already in a rotting condition when the imperialist world war broke out in 1914, The military history of the war brought the defeat of the Tsardom, and therefore had a bearing on the internal condition of Russia. The blockade of Russia began in 1914 with the stoppage of German imports and the closing of every other means of ingress except what little could filter through the Trans-Siberian Railway, or come down the single track line from Murmansk. Then was seen the difference between an industrialised manufacturing country and an agricultural, raw-materials country forced to import its manufactured goods. It was an engineers’ war. This meant that Russia was counted out in the second round. Her mere weight of men and initial reserves of ammunition had made possible the inroad into East Prussia, and, after this had been repulsed by Hindenburg at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes, the push in the spring into Galicia, with the capture of Lemberg and Przemysl; but by the late spring of 1915 the ammunition of Russia was exhausted, her armaments were defective, her organisation in pieces, and her peasant conscripts, in many cases, had not even the rifles wherewith to defend themselves against the exterminating fire of the German and Austrian battalions. Her bolt was shot. The degree of disorganisation almost exceeds belief. It is on record that on single-track lines the railway trucks which had delivered their loads were actually derailed in order to enable later trains to be brought to the terminus. The great retreat of the summer and early autumn of 1915 dealt a final blow to the prestige of the Tsardom. For a period, a renaissance of nationalist enthusiasm amongst the manufacturing classes brought forward the production of munitions of war, but this was accomplished at the expense of other forms of manufacture essential for home production. Russia had been exhausted before. The net result of this final effort was to make recovery from that exhaustion impossible.

By the end of 1916, Tsardom had made very slight gains on the Caucasus front against the Turks and had sustained extremely serious reverses on the western front. The strategy of the Austrian Conrad von Hoetzendorf, supported by the German General Staff, had proved far superior to that of the Tsarist generals; while the Tsarist inferiority in all military matters other than strategy has already been noted. The huge area of Poland, together with Lithuania and Courland, was lost. Nor was this loss compensated for by large gains on the part of Russia’s Allies. True, the British and Japanese had seized the German colonies and had taken lower Mesopotamia from the Turks. But Germany and her Austro-Hungarian ally held practically the whole of Serbia, Montenegro, Belgium, Rumania, part of France, and the greater part of Poland. So favourable was the position that in December 1916 the German Government put out peace proposals: and could do so partly because they must have been aware of pro-German influences at the Court of Tsar Nicholas II.

4. Nicholas the Second

Throughout the war, and throughout the twenty years preceding the war, the Tsar of All the Russias was Nicholas Romanoff. His father, the sot Alexander III, would have gone down to history as the lowest of the Romanoff dynasty, had he not been succeeded by Nicholas. For Nicholas was not even a sot; and, apart from a certain relish for cruelty, he appeared to be almost without characteristics. Hence Lenin refers to him as “the dull-witted and bloodthirsty Nicholas.”

In the Romanoff family, closely interbred with the other royal families of Europe, the malady of hæmophilia had appeared: and the Tsarevitch, the heir to the throne, was affected. The bigoted and superstitious Tsarina, on behalf of her son, had recourse to quacks and miracle-mongers, and presently came to place her chief trust in a dirty profligate monk called Gregory Rasputin, who claimed wonder-working powers. There have been examples in the past, in the monarchies of the Middle Ages and earlier, when such a creature as Rasputin could play a rôle. But it was in the twentieth century that this illiterate blackguard, lecher, and charlatan came to be the power behind the throne. Under his influence, Ministers were appointed or dismissed: and among his selections were the pro-German Sturmer and the notorious Protopopov.

During the latter part of 1916 it began to be suspected that the circle around Rasputin was in secret contact with the German General Staff. The leaders of the main Duma parties became fretful, and began to sound the Allied embassies as to the desirability of a change of Ministers in order to ensure a more vigorous prosecution of the war. But this was only a ripple on the surface. In the depths below, it was the masses of the people, and above all the working class and the peasantry, who had to bear the brunt of the war and the terrible conditions of Tsardom in the winter of 1916-17. So far there was little indication of anything stirring in the depths. But the hunger and suffering of the millions was clearly approaching a point where it would be unendurable. The day of revolution drew nearer. The embassies of the Entente became anxious, and Lord Milner, considered to be the ablest member of the War Cabinet, was sent over in the winter of 1916-17 to examine the situation and report. It was just at this moment that the assassination of Rasputin, the favourite of the Empress, by certain noblemen had flared out over the dark sky of Russia like a presaging comet. Lord Milner returned to report that there was no danger of revolution.

* * * * * * * *

Within a few weeks of that the Tsar had abdicated and revolution had begun.



1.  The pseudonym of D. B. Ryazanov.