Tony Cliff

Lenin 2

Chapter 1
The War

The Collapse of the International

On 1 August 1914 (according to the western calendar) the First World War started. At the time Lenin was living in Poronin, near Cracow, in Polish Austria.

On 7 August the quartermaster of the local gendarmes came to our house accompanied by a witness, a local peasant armed with a rifle, to make a search. The officer did not quite know what he was to search for, fumbled in the book-case, found an unloaded Browning pistol, took several notebooks containing statistics on the agrarian problem and asked a few insignificant questions. The witness, in a state of embarrassment, sat on the edge of a chair and looked about in a perplexed manner. The gendarme officer poked fun at him and, pointing to a jar of paste, said it was a bomb. Then the officer said that there was a formal complaint against Vladimir Ilyich, and that he really should arrest him, but since he would have to deliver the prisoner tomorrow morning to Novy Targ, the nearest town where military authorities were stationed, it would be just as well for Ilyich to report in the morning in time to board the six o’clock train. The danger of arrest was obvious, and in war time, during the first days of the war, they could easily put him out of the way. [1]

Through the intervention of Social Democratic MPs, Lenin was freed from prison after eleven days. He then got permission to leave Austria for Switzerland. On 23 August he entered Switzerland and settled in Berne.

For Lenin the outbreak of war was not unexpected. What shook him, however, was the support given by the socialist leaders of different countries to their national governments. Above all, he was not prepared for the volte-face of the German Social Democrats; the German party had been regarded as the jewel of the International.

In 1907, at the Congress of the Second International in Stuttgait, a resolution drafted jointly by Luxemburg, Lenin and Martov had made clear what the attitude of socialists to the future imperialist war should be:

If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working class and of its parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, supported by the consolidating activity of the International [Socialist] Bureau, to exert every effort to prevent the outbreak of war by means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the accentuation of the class struggle and of the general political situation.

Should war break out nonetheless, it is their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and to do all in their power to utilize the economic and political crisis caused by the war to rouse the peoples and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule. [2]

Similar resolutions were endorsed by the Copenhagen Congress of the Second International in 1910, and by a special conference convened at Basle in November 1912 to consider the issues raised by the Balkan War.

As late as 25 July 1914 the Executive of the German Social Democratic Party issued a clear anti-war manifesto:

The class-conscious proletariat of Germany, in the name of humanity and civilization, raises a flaming protest against this criminal activity of the warmongers. It insistently demands that the German government exercize its influence on the Austrian government to maintain peace; and, in the event that the shameful war cannot be prevented, that it refrain from belligerent intervention. No drop of blood of a German soldier may be sacrificed to the power lust of the Austrian ruling group [or] to the imperialist profit-interests. [3]

Similar declarations followed daily. Thus on 30 July the SPD’s official paper Vorwärts declared: ‘The socialist proletariat refuses all responsibility for the events which are being conjured by a ruling class blinded to the point of madness.’ [4]

Naturally, when Lenin read in Vorwärts the report of the meeting of the Reichstag of 4 August, at which the Social Democratic deputies voted for the military budget, he assumed that it was a forgery published by the German general staff to deceive and frighten their enemies. He was not the only person to be deeply shocked by the betrayal of 4 August. Thus Trotsky remembers: ‘The telegram telling of the capitulation of the German Social Democracy shocked me even more than the declaration of war, in spite of the fact that I was far from a naïve idealizing of German socialism.’ [5] Bukharin wrote about 4 August that ‘it was the greatest tragedy of our lives.’ [6] Both Rosa Luxemburg and Klara Zetkin suffered nervous prostration, and were for a time near to suicide. [7]

But Lenin had to come to terms with the truth. ‘Facts are stubborn things’, he often remarked in English. He was quick to reevaluate the situation and develop a clear revolutionary strategy towards the war. In his recollections, the old Bolshevik G.L. Shklovsky could write: ‘I may testify that the fundamental slogans of Lenin’s tactic in the imperialist war had been formulated by him in Austria during the first few days of the war, for he brought them to Berne completely formulated.’ [8] Throughout the war, Lenin stuck to the policy line which he had developed at this time.

First of all the class nature of the war had to be defined. He wrote:

The present war is imperialist in character. This war is the outcome of conditions in an epoch in which capitalism has reached the highest stage in its development; in which the greatest significance attaches, not only to the export of commodities, but also to the export of capital; an epoch in which the cartelization of production and the internationalization of economic life have assumed impressive proportions, colonial policies have brought about the almost complete partition of the globe. World capitalism’s productive forces have outgrown the limited boundaries of national and state divisions, and the objective conditions are perfectly ripe for socialism to be achieved.

The task of the working class was to fight the imperialist war by using the weapon of the class struggle, culminating in civil war.

The imperialist war is ushering in the era of the social revolution. All the objective conditions of recent times have put the proletariat’s revolutionary mass struggle on the order of the day. It is the duty of socialists, while making use of every means of the working class’s legal struggle, to subordinate each and every one of those means to this immediate and most important task, develop the workers’ revolutionary consciousness, rally them in the international revolutionary struggle, promote and encourage any revolutionary action, and do everything possible to turn the imperialist war between the peoples into a civil war of the oppressed classes against their oppressors, a war for the expropriation of the class of capitalists, for the conquest of political power by the proletariat, and the realization of socialism. [9]

In all advanced countries the war has placed on the order of the day the slogan of socialist revolution... The conversion of the present imperialist war into a civil war is the only correct proletarian slogan. [10]

And Lenin was not equivocal. To aim at overthrowing one’s own ruling class through civil war, one must welcome the defeat of one’s own’ country.

A revolution in wartime means civil war; the conversion of a war between governments into a civil war is, on the one hand, facilitated by military reverses (‘defeats’) of governments; on the other hand, one cannot actually strive for such a conversion without thereby facilitating defeat. [11]

The line of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ is a universal one, applicable to all imperialist countries.

Present-day socialism will remain true to itself only if it joins neither one nor the other imperialist bourgeoisie, only if it says that the two sides are ‘both worse’, and if it wishes the defeat of the imperialist bourgeoisie in every country. Any other decision will, in reality, be national-liberal and have nothing in common with genuine internationalism. [12]

A revolutionary class cannot but wish for the defeat of its government in a reactionary war, and cannot fail to see that the latter’s military reverses must facilitate its overthrow ... the socialists of all the belligerent countries should express their wish that all their own’ governments should be defeated. [13]

Any retreat from ‘revolutionary defeatism’ might well lead one to hesitate in carrying through the class struggle, in case this would weaken national defence.

In each country, the struggle against a government that is waging an imperialist war should not falter at the possibility of that country’s defeat as a result of revolutionary propaganda. The defeat of the government’s army weakens the government, promotes the liberation of the nationalities it oppresses, and facilitates civil war against the ruling classes ... [14]

To repudiate the defeat slogan means allowing one’s revolutionary ardour to degenerate into an empty phrase, or sheer hypocrisy. [15]

Against Pacifism

As the imperialist war was the product of capitalism, there was in Lenin’s view no way to end wars without overthrowing capitalism.

As long as the foundations of present, i.e. bourgeois, social relations remain intact, an imperialist war can lead only to an imperialist peace. i.e. to greater, more extensive and more intense oppression of weak nations and countries by finance capital, which grew to gigantic proportions not only in the period prior to the war, but also during the war. [16]

Thus Lenin rejected with utter disgust the pacifist programme of Kautsky and his group.

Any ‘peace programme’ will deceive the people and be a piece of hypocrisy, unless its principal object is to explain to the masses the need for a revolution, and to support, aid, and develop the mass revolutionary struggles breaking out everywhere (ferment among the masses, protests, fraternization in the trenches, strikes, demonstrations, etc.). [17]

Not ‘peace without annexations’, but peace to the cottages, war on the palaces; peace to the proletariat and the working people, war on the bourgeoisie! [18]

Socialists cannot, without ceasing to be socialists, be opposed to all war ... civil war is just as much a war as any other ... To repudiate civil war, or to forget about it, is to fall into extreme opportunism and renounce the socialist revolution. [19]

An oppressed class which does not strive to learn to use arms, to acquire arms, only deserves to be treated like slaves. We cannot, unless we have become bourgeois pacifists or opportunists, forget that we are living in a class society from which there is no way out, nor can there be, save through the class struggle and the overthrow of the power of the ruling class ... Our slogan must be: arming of the proletariat to defeat, expropriate and disarm the bourgeoisie. [20]

‘Long Live the Third International’

Long before the war Lenin had reached the conclusion that in Russia the rift between revolutionaries and reformists in the labour movement could not be healed, that it would be damaging to try to conciliate the two wings of the movement, and that it was necessary to form a separate party of revolutionaries. Now, given the débâcle of the international Social Democratic movement, he was encouraged to generalize these beliefs and to apply them to the world labour movement.

In an article called The Position and Tasks of the Socialist International, published in Sotsial-Demokrat, No.33, 1 November 1914, he wrote: ‘The Second International is dead, overcome by opportunism ... long live the Third International.’ [21] It was a tremendous shift for Lenin to free himself so completely from the two decades of admiration of the Second International, and above all of the German section.

It is necessary at this point for us to make a detour and deal with Lenin’s long-standing illusions about German Social Democracy – the pride of the Second International.

He had to admit that he had been wrong, terribly wrong, in his approbation of Karl Kautsky. For many years, Kautsky had been the only living socialist leader whom Lenin revered. After Marx and Engels, he was the authority whom he quoted most often in support of the positions he took at various times. The German Social Democratic Party was picked out as an example to be followed.

What is to be Done? quoted Kautsky as the main authority for its central theme, and praised the German Social Democratic Party as a model for the Russian movement. In December 1906, Lenin wrote: ‘The vanguard of the Russian working class knows Karl Kautsky for some time now as its writer’; he described Kautsky as the leader of the German revolutionary Social Democrats’. [22] In August 1908, he cited Kautsky as his authority on questions of war and militarism. [23] In 1910, at the time of Rosa Luxemburg’s debate with Kautsky on the question of the path to power, Lenin sided with the latter. And as late as February 1914, he invoked Kautsky as a marxist authority in his dispute with Rosa Luxemburg on the national question.

Even when Lenin had to admit that the German party was not consistently revolutionary, he was very charitable towards it. However, 4 August was no accident, but rather the culmination of a long process of decay of Social Democracy, and above all of its German section. This will be clear if we quote a few examples from the history of the SPD.

In 1904 Karl Liebknecht urged the SPD Congress in Bremen to authorize the development of extensive anti-militarist propaganda among potential recruits. What was the Party leaders’ reaction? The proposal was rejected as both impractical and unnecessary. The German courts, they said, would never tolerate anti-militarist agitation among youth. [24]

At the Mannheim congress in 1906, Liebknecht again tried to get the party to embark on more determined anti-militarist agitation. He now had an added counter to play: a newly organized Social Democratic youth movement which placed great emphasis on the fight against militarism. Bebel was violent in his opposition to Liebknecht. His unparalleled heat indicated that this was an issue on which he would brook no opposition – and no change. [25]

The Reichstag debates on the military budget in April 1907 gave Bebel his opportunity. The SPD voted against the military budgets only because the financial burden fell upon the people. If they were to be provided by direct Reich taxes rather than by indirect taxes, Social Democracy would vote the funds for the military establishment.

Gustav Noske came to Bebel’s aid and expounded the premises for his position. It was Noske’s first major speech in the Reichstag: a fitting start for his later career as political chief of the counterrevolutionary armies in the first stormy year of the Republic. Opposing the persistent representations of the Social Democrats, whom he described as vagabonds without a fatherland’, Noske stated that the party’s stand on militarism was conditioned by our acceptance of the principle of nationality’. Advocating the independence of every nation, the Social Democrats would of course fend off attacks on Germany with as much determination as any gentleman on the right side of the House’. They wanted Germany to be as well armed [wehrhaft] as possible’ and for the whole people [to] have an interest in the military establishment which is necessary to the defence of our fatherland’.

The war minister, Count von Einem, was quick to seize upon these protestations of patriotism. He accepted Noske’s statement that his party was determined to defend the German Empire against an aggressive war in the same manner and with the same devotion as the other parties. While thus welcoming the Social Democrats into the national camp, von Einem took occasion to point out that the professions of their Reichstag deputies did not coincide with the views of the party agitators. He touched Bebel in a sensitive spot – no doubt unwittingly – by quoting a flaming passage from Liebknecht’s newly published Militarism and Anti-Militarism, showing how the persistent mishandling of German soldiers in the army could serve as ‘a splendid means to combat militarism’. The minister drew the conclusions for his Social Democratic hearers: the party leaders should liquidate the Social Democratic youth organization whose propaganda was inconsistent with national defence.

Bebel, obviously annoyed and embarrassed at the citations from Liebknecht, declared in answer to von Einem that the party’s position was as he had stated it. He added – and it was a bold statement for a Social Democratic leader to make – that comments made or written by persons outside the house ‘are not and cannot be representative of the party in any way’. [26]

In the summer of 1911 an international crisis broke out. On 1 July the cruiser Panther was sent to Agadir in Morocco, to ‘protect’ German interests. Camille Huysmans, the Secretary of the International Socialist Bureau, sent a round robin to all member parties asking for their reaction to the impending crisis. In Germany the correspondence was dealt with by Hermann Molkenbuhr, a senior party official. Molkenbuhr argued in favour of avoiding taking a position.

If we should prematurely engage ourselves so strongly [as to go on record through an International meeting] and even give precedence to the Morocco question over questions of internal policy, so that an effective electoral slogan could be developed against us, then the consequences will be unforeseeable ... It is a vital interest for us not to permit the internal developments: taxation policy, the privileges of the agrarians ... etc., to be pushed into the background. But that could happen if we ourselves were to speak on the Morocco question in every hamlet, and were thus to strengthen the [chauvinistic] counter-tendency. [27]

Molkenbuhr did not even support the idea of a meeting of the International Bureau.

In 1912 the SPD took another step forward. In the Reichstag, the party introduced resolutions to improve pre-military youth training in the public schools, and to procure for the Social Democratic cooperatives a proportion of the supply contracts for the army! The former motion was shelved by the Reichstag, the latter rejected. That Social Democracy should be attempting to obtain its share of war orders, however, was a sign of the times. [28]

Where did Kautsky stand? During this period of the decay of Social Democracy, he did not take a revolutionary position towards imperialism and war, but a pacifist one. He argued that armaments and war were not necessarily the result of capitalism. On the contrary, capitalism might well lead to general peace, as a result of what he called ‘ultra-imperialism’.

The armaments race had economic causes, but was not, like the quest for markets, an economic necessity. In the case of the growth of monopoly, initial competition between national monopolies yielded to international cartel agreements; similarly in the development of imperialism, the rival nations were already reaching the point where mutual agreement was a necessity for the mitigation of the economic burden of armaments. The imperialist interest of Britain and Germany could, in fact, be better served by an agreement between them in which the other Western European nations would have to join. With the armaments rivalry put aside, ‘their capitalists could open up the whole area [of the underdeveloped portions of the world], or at least the eastern hemisphere far more energetically ... than before’. Russia would be contained by this Western alliance for the mutual, rather than competitive, exploitation of the underdeveloped sectors of the globe. Such a scheme might not banish war forever, said Kautsky, but it would at least postpone it. He saw strong support for such a plan already existing in the middle classes, especially in England and France. [29]

All Subordinated to Parliamentarism

Throughout the decay of German Social Democracy its central theme was the subordination of its politics to the needs of parliamentary elections. Thus in a discussion on Molkenbuhr’s letter, Rosa Luxemburg explained why the whole of the SPD leadership, including Bebel, sided with Molkenbuhr.

The plain truth is that August [Bebel], and still more the others, have pledged themselves to ... parliamentarism, and wherever anything happens which transcends the limits of parliamentary action, they are hopeless – no, worse than hopeless, because then they do their utmost to force the movement back into parliamentary channels. [30]

Kautsky did not oppose all extra-parliamentary mass action, but he subordinated it to parliamentary activity. Thus he wrote in 1910: ‘This “direct action” of the unions can operate effectively only as an auxiliary and reinforcement to, and not as a substitute for, parliamentary action.’ [31]

Again, in a polemic with Pannekoek in 1912, Kautsky stated that the goal must remain the same as it had always been: the conquest of state power by winning a majority in parliament and by making parliament the controller of the government. [32]

Why Lenin’s Illusions about Kautsky Persisted

With hindsight 4 August appears as an inevitable outcome of the development of German Social Democracy. Why did Lenin not foresee this development?

A number of factors were responsible. First of all, during the years of his exile – until the outbreak of the war – Lenin did not participate in the activities of the socialist movement in the countries where he lived. He was fully occupied in leading the Russian party. Unlike Trotsky, who lacked a party of his own, and therefore was able to be active in the Socialist Party of Austria before the war, Lenin was completely absorbed in the activities of the Russian party. His writings were nearly all in the Russian language. The exceptions were a few official documents explaining the position of the Bolsheviks to the higher bodies of the International.

Secondly, in backward Russia the mass German socialist movement was looked upon as a beacon – as an image of the future of the young and weak Russian labour movement. The SPD was still basking in the glow of its heroic past. During twelve long years from 1878 to 1890 inspired by Friedrich Engels it had had to work illegally under the repressive laws of Bismarck.

Thirdly, on the face of it the centralism of Lenin was not radically different from that of the German SPD. In his debate about party organization with Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin again and again quoted Kautsky as his authority.

The genesis of the SPD threw a red glow over its present position. The presumed abyss separating it from capitalist society and the state was symbolized by the policeman sitting on the platform of every SPD mass meeting, with the right to stop the proceedings whenever the meeting overstepped what he thought was legitimate. But, however one explains Lenin’s attitude before the war to the German Social Democratic Party in general and Karl Kautsky in particular, one must make it clear that he was totally wrong. Lenin was not alone among revolutionaries in this error. The only exceptions were Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek, who accurately gauged the opportunism of Kautsky and the SPD.

Now, after the betrayal of 4 August, Lenin had no hesitation in declaring the death of the Second International, and raising the banner of a new, Third, International. He dearly linked the demise of the Second International with its opportunistic degeneration. ‘The collapse of the Second International is the collapse of socialist opportunism. The latter has grown as a product of the preceding “peaceful” period in the development of the labour movement.’ [33] [1*]

In The Position and Tasks of the Socialist International, he wrote:

The Second International did its share of useful preparatory work in preliminarily organizing the proletarian masses during the long, ‘peaceful’ period of the most brutal capitalist slavery and most rapid capitalist progress in the last third of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. To the Third International falls the task of organizing the proletarian forces for a revolutionary onslaught against the capitalist governments, for civil war against the bourgeoisie of all countries for the capture of political power, for the triumph of socialism! [37]

The Zimmerwald Conference

After months of preparation, on 5 September 1915 a conference of anti-war socialists at last met in the hitherto obscure, tiny village of Zimmerwald in Switzerland. As a result, the name of Zimmerwald was to echo throughout the world. As Trotsky reminisced many years later:

The delegates, filling four stage-coaches, set off for the mountains. The passers-by looked on curiously at the strange procession. The delegates themselves joked about the fact that half a century after the founding of the First International, it was still possible to seat all the internationalists in four coaches. [38]

Thirty-eight delegates attended, some of whom were observers without votes. From the very beginning of the conference three fairly distinct groups emerged. On the right there were some nineteen or twenty delegates, constituting a majority of the conference, who, although they supported a general demand for peace, opposed any breach with the social patriots or split with the Second International. This group included most of the German delegation, the French, some of the Italians, the Poles and the Russian Mensheviks. Those who were dissatisfied with this moderate objective and favoured a denunciation of civil peace, an organizational break with the social patriots and a revolutionary class struggle, constituted a left group of eight led by Lenin. To this group belonged Zinoviev, one Lithuanian, the Pole Karl Radek, two Swedish delegates and Julian Borchard, the delegate of a tiny group, the German International Socialists. Between these two was a smaller centre group of five or six, among whom were Trotsky, Grimm, Balabanoff and Roland-Holst.

The German edition of a pamphlet Socialism and War by Lenin and Zinoviev was distributed among the delegates. But the Bolsheviks were unable to persuade the conference to adopt the draft resolution and thesis which Lenin proposed.

A resolution moved by Lenin was overwhelmingly defeated by the conference as childish and dangerous nonsense. Merrheim said that he could not pledge himself to urge the French people to rise up in rebellion against the war; the European situation was not in his view ripe for revolution. Ledebour declared: ‘Lenin’s resolution is unacceptable.’ ‘Perhaps’, he added, ‘revolutionary actions might occur, but not because we call for them in a manifesto ... In the belligerent countries people who sign or distribute such a manifesto would at once be liquidated.’ Ernst Meyer stated that not even a tiny proportion of the German proletariat would be prepared for the kind of action proposed by Lenin’s manifesto. An Italian delegate stressed that the task of the conference was to end the world war, not to unleash a civil war.

Lenin’s resolution had stipulated, as an essential pre-condition for the revolutionary mobilization of the proletariat, the splitting of the socialist parties in a ruthless struggle against the majority of the labour leaders, whose minds it declared, were ‘twisted by nationalism and eaten up with opportunism’ and who ‘at the moment of world war had delivered the proletariat into the hands of imperialism and abandoned the principles of socialism and therewith the real struggle for the daily needs of the proletariat’.

The conference decisively rejected Lenin’s efforts to create a breach with the Second International and found a new organization. Merrheim, for example, declared in the debate: ‘You, comrade Lenin, are not motivated by the desire for peace, but by the wish to lay down the foundations of a new International; it is this which divides us.’ In similar vein the official conference report stated: ‘In no way must the impression be created that this conference aims to provoke a split in or to establish a new International.’ [39]

The manifesto adopted by the Conference was almost identical with Trotsky’s draft. There was not a word in it about revolutionary defeatism, or turning the imperialist war into a civil war. Instead it consisted largely of vague liberal and pacifist sentiments:

[The] struggle is also the struggle for liberty, for brotherhood of nations, for socialism. The task is to take up this fight for peace – for a peace without annexations or war indemnities. Such a peace is only possible when every thought of violating the rights and liberties of the nations is condemned. There must be no enforced incorporation either of wholly or partly occupied countries. No annexations, either open or masked, no forced economic union, made still more intolerable by the suppression of political rights. The right of nations to select their own government must be the immovable fundamental principle of international relations. [40]

The Zimmerwald manifesto naturally did not say a word about the need to create a Third International. Even the question of voting for or against the military budget was evaded: On the categorical demand of the German delegates, the concrete parliamentary measures of class struggle (the refusal of credits, the withdrawal from the ministries, etc.) were not included, though in Trotsky’s original draft they had been pronounced imperative for all socialist organizations in time of war.

Towards the end of the conference, Lenin and his friends found it necessary to issue a statement sharply criticizing the Zimmerwald manifesto for its pacifist and vague nature:

The manifesto adopted by the conference does not give us complete satisfaction. It contains no characterization of either open opportunism or opportunism covered up by radical phrases -that opportunism which is not only the chief culprit of the collapse of the International but which strives to perpetuate that collapse. The manifesto contains no clear characterization of the means of combating the war.

We shall advocate, as we have done heretofore, in the socialist press and at the meetings of the International a decidedly marxian position in regard to the tasks with which the proletariat has been confronted by the epoch of imperialism.

We vote for the manifesto because we regard it as a call to struggle, and in this struggle we are anxious to march side by side with the other sections of the International.

We request that our present declaration be included in the official report. [Signed] N.Lenin, G.Zinoviev, Radek, Nerman, Höglund, Winter.

Another declaration was signed by Roland-Holst and Trotsky, in addition to the leftists who had introduced the draft resolution. Its text was as follows:

Inasmuch as the adoption of our amendment [to the manifesto] demanding the vote against war credits might endanger to some extent the success of the conference, we withdraw our proposal under protest. We are satisfied with Ledebour’s statement in the Commission to the effect that the manifesto contains all that is implied in our proposal. [41]

The Kienthal Conference

The committee elected at Zimmerwald called a second conference, which met from 24 to 30 April 1916 in the village of Kienthal, near Berne. This time forty-four delegates attended, representing roughly the same groups and parties as were at the first conference.

Again Lenin arrived with a clear-cut programme; again he called for revolutionary propaganda and a break with the International. In a memorandum which he submitted to the conference, he declared that socialist anti-war propaganda would be mere shamming, unless it simultaneously called on the troops to lay down their arms, and preached the need for revolution and the transforming of the imperialist war into civil war for socialism. In his view the conference manifesto should clearly proclaim that the masses were being led astray not only by the capitalists but also by the social chauvinists who mouthed slogans about defending the fatherland in order to further this imperialist war; revolutionary action would be impossible while the war lasted, unless socialists were prepared to threaten their own governments with the prospect of defeat – and the defeat of any government in a reactionary war could only serve to hasten the revolution, which was the sole means of achieving a lasting democratic peace settlement. The struggle against the social chauvinists was vital. It was the duty of socialists to enlighten the masses on the inevitability of their separation from those who were pursuing bourgeois policies under the banner of socialism. [42]

Again Lenin was in a minority. But this time there were twelve supporters for his standpoint, as against eight at the first conference. Moreover, the final resolutions passed at Kienthal were nearer to the line taken by Lenin and his friends than the Zimmerwald resolution.

There was still a lack of unity, not only between the Zimmerwaldian majority and the left minority, but also within the left itself. Among this group the questions of self-determination, disarmament and arming of the people separated the Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian and Polish leftists from the Bolsheviks. Dissensions relating to these and other controversial matters developed among the Bolsheviks, and involved Lenin in a hot debate with the former Vpered group (Lunacharsky, Manuilsky and others) and with the Bukharin-Piatakov group, on the national question, the right of self-determination. [2*]

Nevertheless, the development of the war and the pressure from Lenin had made an impression at Zimmerwald. And the Kienthal manifesto was far sharper than that of Zimmerwald had been seven months before. The conference eventually agreed to go beyond a general call for an immediate peace settlement without annexations. It also demanded that the representatives of the socialist parties refuse all support for war policies and refuse to grant war credits. [43]

In a special resolution the conference defined its attitude to the Second International – the most contentious issue at the meeting. As Zinoviev rightly stated, it was, in fact, ‘the most important point on the agenda, since it was the discussion on this formula which fundamentally decided the question whether to keep the Second or whether to have a Third International’. However, the resolution made no reference to the break with the Second International which Lenin demanded. It only declared that the Executive Committee of the International, in obstinately refusing to convene a plenary meeting despite repeated requests from various national sections, had completely failed in the fulfilment of its duty, and had become an accomplice in the policy of betraying principles, political truce and so-called defence of the fatherland. It declared that the parties which had joined the Zimmerwald movement had the right to demand of their own accord that the Bureau of the Socialist International be convened. [44]

Lenin Enters the International Arena

Besides Zimmerwald and Kienthal, other conferences attracted the attention and intervention of Lenin. He did not neglect any opportunity to put forward his policy on the war.

Thus on 13/26-15/28 March 1915, an International Women’s Conference met in Berne. Lenin greeted it with a well-prepared programme. Representing the Bolsheviks were Krupskaya, Inessa Armand, Zlata Lilina (Zinoviev’s wife), E.F. Rozmirovich and Olga Ravich.

The prevailing atmosphere of the meeting was one which Lenin denounced as pacifist. The Bolsheviks had at first sought to limit the gathering to a more radical membership, but according to Armand, Zetkin decided to convene ‘an “official conference” instead of a conference of the left’. The delegates spoke of seeking a ‘just peace’. The Bolsheviks offered a resolution criticizing the socialist parties of the warring powers for having betrayed socialism, calling for an end to civil peace, and demanding a dear break with the Second International. By a vote of twenty-one to six, the meeting rejected the resolution, but in order to win unanimous support for the majority’s resolution Zetkin agreed, after consulting Lenin, to publish the Bolshevik resolution in the official report of the conference. The Bolsheviks accordingly declared that while they still disagreed with the majority’s resolution, they nevertheless accepted it as a first step in the revolutionary struggle ... Speaking later in Zurich, Armand called the conference ‘a first step – a portent of greater things’ ... Lenin criticized the majority’s resolution sharply. ‘Not a word of censure for the traitors or a single word about opportunism.’ [45]

On 17 April an International Youth Conference took place. The Bolsheviks were represented by Armand and G.I. Safarov, with Lenin communicating by telephone.

The political currents of the youth conference resembled those of the women’s conference, and when their resolution was defeated by fourteen to four, the Bolshevik delegation staged a walkout. The majority of the conference refused to pass judgement on the Second International. Lenin then received a delegation from the meeting, and another compromise resulted. [46]

For many years Lenin had lived in Switzerland without actively intervening in the local labour movement. Now with the war things changed, and he began to participate in the Swiss socialist movement, trying to forge a group of revolutionary internationalists, and to split them off from the Socialist Party. He succeeded in organizing a faction within the Swiss Socialist Party, which eventually became the seed-bed of the Communist Party of Switzerland. [47]

Axelrod, the Menshevik leader, could complain with some justification that Lenin was trying to transfer his beloved methods of factional struggle into the International. [48] As Krupskaya wrote:

The international range of [Lenin’s] activity gave a new tone to his work for Russia, it gave it fresh vigour, new colour. Had it not been for the many years of hard work previously given to building the party, to organizing the working class of Russia, Ilyich would not have been able so quickly and so firmly to take a correct line with respect to the new problems raised by the imperialist war. Had he not been in the thick of the international struggle, he would not have been able so firmly to lead the Russian proletariat towards the October victory. [49]

Ilyich ardently devoted himself to the mobilization of the forces for the struggle on the international front. ‘It does not matter that we now number only a few individuals,’ he once remarked, ‘millions will be with us!’ [50]

As one historian has rightly said: ‘Lenin had now established his position on the left wing of the socialist movement among Russians as well as internationally.’ [51] ‘Of all the émigrés, Lenin stood out as the one who most successfully exploited his wartime opportunities in Switzerland. Before 1914 he had had no significant foreign audience; by 1917 he had a band of followers from a number of countries.’ [52]

Puny Material Resources

Throughout the war the Bolshevik organization abroad was faced with acute financial problems. A hundred francs was regarded as a large sum. Its official journal was appearing once a month or once in two months. And Lenin was carefully counting the lines in order not to exceed his budget.

In October 1914, when Lenin decided to restart the journal, Sotsial-Demokrat, the Bolshevik ‘treasury’ held just 160 Swiss francs. The Bolsheviks had no printshop of their own, and had to rely on a Russian printer, Kuzma, an old emigré whose service was very slow and irregular. He worked only in the evenings. In addition he handled the publications of most of the other Russian émigré groups in Switzerland. At one point, Krupskaya complained, ‘The typesetter is nonparty and a positive man. He prints for all factions in turn.’ [53] Kuzma was also partial to the bottle, and to ‘moods’. On 20 February 1915, Lenin wrote to V.A. Karpinsky, ‘We are terribly worried at the absence of news and proofs from you. Has the compositor taken to the bottle again ? Or taken on outside work again?’ [54] On 26 August he wrote to Sophia Ravich: ‘Keep me informed by postcards: “a bulletin of Kuzmikha’s moods and the chances of success”. Both you (and we) are fed up with Kuzma, I understand, but what can we do?’ [55] This unreliability of the printer, together with the CC’s continued shortage of funds, made the appearance of Sotsial-Demokrat very irregular.

Lenin also tried to publish a regular collection of essays under the title Sbornik Sotsial-Demokrata. Only two issues were produced. Copy was prepared for No.3, but owing to lack of funds it never appeared.

To add to these problems, Lenin and Krupskaya were harassed by personal financial troubles, especially after the death of Lenin’s mother, who had provided him with money over the years. On 14 December 1915 Krupskaya wrote to Lenin’s sister, Maria.

Now I am writing for one special reason. We shall soon be coming to the end of our former means of subsistence and the question of earning money will become a serious one. It is difficult to find anything here. I have been promised a pupil, but that seems to be slow in materializing. I have also been promised some copying but nothing has come of it. I shall try something else, but it is all very problematic. I have to think about a literary income. I don’t want that side of our affairs to be Volodya’s worry alone. He works a lot as it is. The question of an income troubles him greatly. [56]

In January 1916 Lenin begged a friend to try and find him a cheap room, preferably in a worker’s family, and asked about the price of meals in popular canteens. [57] In October he sent an appeal: ‘As regards myself personally, I will say that I need to earn. Otherwise we shall simply die of hunger, really and truly!! The cost of living is devilishly high, and there is nothing to live on.’ And he asked repeatedly for editorial and translation work: ‘If this is not organized I really will not be able to hold out, this is absolutely serious, absolutely, absolutely.’ [58]

On 15 February 1917 – less than a fortnight before the February revolution – Lenin wrote to Maria complaining bitterly about financial difficulties: ‘the cost of living makes one despair and I have desperately little capacity for work because of my shattered nerves’. [59]

Underlying all these difficulties was the feeling of being completely isolated from Russia. Krupskaya describes how they sat in the libraries more diligently than ever, and took walks as usual, but says that all this could not remove the feeling of being cooped up in a democratic cage. Somewhere beyond, a revolutionary struggle was mounting, life was astir, but it was all so far away. [60]

No wonder Lenin’s nerves were very much on edge.

The day after Ilyich’s arrival from Zimmerwald we climbed the Rothorn. We climbed with a ‘glorious appetite’, but when we reached the summit, Ilyich suddenly lay down on the ground, in an uncomfortable position almost on the snow, and fell asleep. Clouds gathered, then broke; the view of the Alps from the Rothorn was splendid, and Ilyich slept like the dead. He never stirred and slept over an hour. Apparently Zimmerwald had frayed his nerves a good deal and had taken much strength out of him. It required several days of roaming over the mountains and the atmosphere of Soerenberg before Ilyich was himself again. [61]

Things did not improve as the weeks and months of the war progressed. On the contrary, Lenin’s mood became more and more depressed. Thus on 15 January, about a month before the February revolution, Lenin wrote to Inessa Armand, ‘I am pretty tired. I have got unused to meetings’. [62] On 7 February he wrote again: ‘Yesterday there was a meeting (meetings tire me; nerves no good at all; headaches; left before the end).’ [63] However the harsh experience, personally and politically, was not in vain.

In Conclusion

Among the anti-war revolutionaries Lenin stood practically alone in his ‘extremism’, in his advocacy of ‘revolutionary defeatism’. Even Trotsky could write:

under no condition can I agree with your opinion, which is emphasized by a resolution, that Russia’s defeat would be a ‘lesser evil’. This opinion represents a fundamental connivance with the political methodology of social patriotism, a connivance for which there is no reason or justification and which substitutes an orientation (extremely arbitrary under present conditions) along the line of a ‘lesser evil’ for the revolutionary struggle against war and the conditions which generated this war. [64]

And again:

If we presuppose a catastrophic Russian defeat, the war may bring a quicker outbreak of the revolution, but at the cost of its inner weakness ... The defeat of Russia necessarily presupposes decisive victories by Germany and Austria on the other battlefields ... a Russian revolution, even if temporarily successful, would be an historical miscarriage, needs no further proof ... The Social Democrats could not, and cannot now, combine their aims with any of the historical possibilities of this war, that is, with either the victory of the Triple Alliance or the victory of the Entente. [65]

The superiority of Lenin’s position was that by its extremism, by its ‘bending the stick’ – by speaking about the defeat of one’s own country as being the lesser evil it was better calculated to create a clear division between revolutionaries and social patriots. Lenin’s position was direct, his language was simple. What he said could not be misinterpreted. Where he stood nobody could mistake. There was no room for equivocation.

It was with obvious relish that Lenin in August 1915 used a quotation which had impressed him:

A French philosopher has said: ‘Dead ideas are those that appear in elegant garments, with no asperity or daring. They are dead because they are put into general circulation and become part of the ordinary intellectual baggage of the great army of philistines. Strong ideas are those that shock and scandalize, evoke indignation, anger, and animosity in some, and enthusiasm in others’. [66]

The ‘exaggerated’, one-sided, stick-bending formulation of Lenin’s revolutionary defeatism itself aimed to do just this. As he wrote:

The experience of the war, like the experience of any crisis in history, of any great calamity and any sudden turn in human life, stuns and breaks some people, but enlightens and tempers others. Taken by and large, and considering the history of the world as a whole, the number and strength of the second kind of people have – with the exception of individual cases of the decline and fall of one state or another – proved greater than those of the former kind. [67]

The world war, like every profound crisis in society, had its positive side. It put to the test all the various traditions, organizations and leaderships. It laid bare the rottenness of many who disguised their contradictions during peace time, but could do so no longer. Throughout this very hard time, Lenin and the Bolsheviks were steeled and ready to lead a revolution.

Years later, on 20 September 1919, Lenin could write: ‘the Bolsheviks have proved to be right; in the autumn of 1914 they declared to the world that the imperialist war would be transformed into civil war.’ [68]




1*. Lenin’s vehemence against Kautsky now knew no bounds. ‘Kautsky is the most hypocritical, most revolting and most harmful of all!’ he wrote to Shliapnikov on 21 October 1914. [34] Some days later he again wrote to Shliapnikov: ‘I hate and despise Kautsky now more than anyone, with his vile, dirty, self-satisfied hypocrisy ... Rosa Luxemburg was right when she wrote, long ago, that Kautsky has the “subservience of a theoretician” – servility, in plainer language, servility to the majority of the party, to opportunism.’ [35] On 27 February 1917 Lenin wrote to Inessa Armand: ‘Kautsky is despicably mean ... Kautsky is the acme of opportunism.’ [36]

2*. For further reference to the differences on the national question between Lenin on the one hand and Bukharin and Piatakov on the other, see Chapter 3.




1. N.K. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, London 1970, pp.240-1.

2. O.H. Gankin and H.H. Fisher, The Bolsheviks and the World War: The Origins of the Third International, Stanford 1940, p.59.

3. C.E. Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917: The Development of the Great Schism, Cambridge, Mass. 1955, p.286.

4. J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg, London 1966, Vol.2, p.604.

5. L. Trotsky, My Life, New York 1960, p.236.

6. S.F. Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, London 1974, p.22.

7. Nettl, op. cit., Vol.2, p.609.

8. G.L. Shklovsky, The Berne Conference 1915, Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, No.5 (40), 1925. Gankin and Fisher, op. cit., p. 143.

9. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Translated from the fourth Russian edition (henceforth referred to as Works), Vol.21, pp-347-8.

10. ibid., pp-33-4.

11. ibid., p.276.

12. ibid., p. 144.

13. ibid., p-315.

14. ibid., p. 163.

15. ibid., p.278.

16. ibid., Vol.22, p.169.

17. ibid., p.176.

18. ibid., p. 140.

19. ibid., Vol.23, pp.77-9.

20. ibid., p.96.

21. ibid., Vol.21, p.4o.

22. V.I. Lenin, Sochineniia, 4th edition, Vol.11, p.330.

23. ibid., Vol.15, pp. 173-6.

24. Schorske, op. cit., p.69.

25. ibid., p.72.

26. ibid., pp.77-8.

27. ibid., p.199.

28. ibid., pp.244-5.

29. ibid., p.245.

30. ibid., p.54.

31. K. Kautsky, The Road to Power, Chicago 1910, p.95.

32. Schorske, op. cit., p.247.

33. Lenin, Works, Vol.21, p.1.

34. ibid., Vol.35, p.165.

35. ibid., pp.167-8.

36. ibid., Vol.43, p.613.

37. ibid., Vol.21, pp.40-1.

38. Trotsky, My Life, op. cit. p.249.

39. J. Braunthal, History of the International, 1914-1943, London 1967, Vol.2, pp.47-8.

40. Gankin and Fisher, op. cit., p.332.

41. ibid., p.334.

42. Braunthal, op. cit. Vol.2, p.50.

43. ibid., p.51.

44. ibid.

45. A.E. Senn, The Russian Revolution in Switzerland, 1914-1917, Madison 1971, p.41.

46. ibid., pp.41-2.

47. ibid., pp.204-18.

48. ibid., p.83.

49. Krupskaya, op. cit., p.254.

50. ibid., p.260.

51. Senn, op. cit., p.45.

52. ibid., p.233.

53. ibid., p.32.

54. Lenin, Works, Vol.43, p.448.

55. ibid., p.486.

56. ibid., Vol.37, p.624.

57. ibid., Vol.36, p.365.

58. ibid., Vol.35, p.236.

59. ibid., Vol.37, p.535.

60. Krupskaya, op. cit., p.268.

61. ibid., p.267.

62. Lenin, Works, Vol.43, p.602.

63. ibid., p.609.

64. Gankin and Fisher, op. cit., p.170.

65. L. Trotsky, The War and the International, Colombo 1971, pp.20-1.

66. Lenin, Works, Vol.21, p.353.

67. ibid., p.216.

68. ibid., Vol.30, p.32.


Last updated on 21.10.2007