Alexandra Kollontai 1914-1916

A Giant Mind, a Giant Will

Source: Alexandra Kollontai: Selected Articles and Speeches, Progress Publishers, 1984;
First Published: Oktyabr (October), No. 1, 1963, Moscow. pp 4-6;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for, 2000;
Proofed: and corrected by Chris Clayton 2006.

There are individuals – a mere handful in the history of mankind – who, while themselves being the product of an imminent catastrophic change, leave their mark upon an entire epoch. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is one such giant mind, one such giant will...

However mighty such giants of history may be, the universal-general principle that they symbolise and embody dissolves all the narrowly individual. The ordinary measuring rod of the qualities, failings and passions characteristic of the people of that age is not applicable to them. It is not a question of the personal characteristics of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin but what he symbolises... He has gathered to himself like a magnet everything in the revolution that is expressive of will, power, ruthless destruction and constructive persistence. Everyone who values what the workers' revolution brings with it in its cleansing whirlwind cannot but value and cherish its symbol, its embodiment – Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.


The imperialist war of 1914. The Second International was unfaithful to the behests of Marx and betrayed the interests of the working class. The leading force of the Second International – German Social-Democracy – revealed its opportunist essence. It reached out its hand to its own ruling bourgeoisie and consented to total class peace.

I myself witnessed and lived through that day of shame when the German Social-Democrats renounced revolutionary class struggle. I was in the Reichstag on 4 August, 1914, and I saw with my own eyes the whole vile spectacle of the collapse of the leaders of German Social-Democracy, their vote in favour of the military budget and their promise to support the government of Bethmann-Hollweg.

The poisonous air of imperialist war had clouded minds. The hypnotic effect of compromise and opportunism even infected certain Russian political emigres. They hurried back to Russia repentant of their political sins and ready to serve their tsarist homeland, defending the policy of Nicholas II and his minions.

I experienced horror and despair. It seemed that everything was lost. The atmosphere was so suffocating, so devoid of even a glimmer of light, that a wall seemed to have closed in around me and cut off any way forward. With the help of Liebknecht I managed to get out of Germany to Stockholm. I still believed that it was possible to revitalise the Second International in opposition to the carnage of world war, but neither I nor anyone else knew what our policy should be and on what it should be based. We were like people lost in a forest.

In that moment of total confusion and the collapse of the Second International, when the bourgeois capitalist parties were rejoicing over their victory and praising class unity, there rang out the mighty voice of Lenin. Alone against the whole world, he pitilessly analysed and laid bare the essence of imperialist war and, more importantly, clearly indicated the ways and means of transforming this war into civil war and revolution. He who desires peace must declare war against opportunism and break with compromise, with his own bourgeoisie.

A few editions of the central press organ Sotsial-Demokrat [1] arrived in Stockholm from Switzerland, and they contained Lenin's directive concerning the war and our tasks. This was one of the most significant moments of my life. Lenin's articles dissolved the wall against which I had been beating my head in vain. It felt as if I were emerging out of a deep, dark well into the sunlight, and could see my way forward. That way was clearly marked. All I had to do was to follow Vladimir Ilyich in the ranks of the revolutionary-working class. Only much later did we learn that the Bureau of the Central Committee in Russia was already acting in accord with Lenin's directive.

In those days it seemed to me that Lenin stood above the whole of mankind and that his extraordinarily powerful mind could perceive that which was hidden from us all. It was then that I understood his moral and spiritual fearlessness, a fearlessness that knew no bounds. The lower sank the opportunists, Kautsky and his closest associates, the larger towered the fearless image of a man who, amidst all bloody chaos, clearly pointed the way.

In October, 1914, I wrote my first letter to Vladimir Ilyich. [2] In the reply which received through a Russian comrade I was ordered to start work immediately and to get in touch with those socialists in Scandinavia who would assist in carrying out Lenin's policy on the continuing struggle of the working class. From that moment onwards I worked under the direct guidance of Vladimir Ilyich.

At the same time both I and comrade Shlyapnikov were given the task of arranging permanent contact in Scandinavia between Lenin and the Bureau of the Central Committee in Russia. This contact was established and it operated until the Swedish Conservative government of Hammarskjöld decided to close down the 'Bolshevik centre'. I was arrested and imprisoned in Kungsholmen, and then expelled from Sweden. [3] With the help of Norwegian friends I was able to move to Norway, staying at a little place called Holmenkollen, just outside Oslo. From a little red house above a fjord my requests went out to Vladimir Ilyich, and here I received the pamphlets and articles I had ordered. Here in this house I opened the letters from Vladimir Ilyich, which he sent to me using my friends' addresses. [4] In this same little red house in Holmenkollen we drew up the resolution to be put forward by the Norwegian left, which supported the Zimmerwald left and was approved by Vladimir Ilyich.

When I thought about Vladimir Ilyich in those years, he seemed to me to be not merely a man but the embodiment of some natural-cosmic force pushing aside the socio-economic crust that had formed over thousands of years of human history. A plan was maturing and taking shape that would bring about a stupendous change in social relations and lead to the reconstruction of society on new principles.

The imperialist war continued, but thanks to Lenin cracks were beginning to appear in the social structure of society... The Second International had been shattered to pieces, but already fresh new forces were beginning to gather around Lenin, and when, in 1915 and 1916, Vladimir Ilyich gave me the task of drawing the best, revolutionary-minded socialist youth away from the self-besmirched Second International and grouping it around the Zimmerwald left, this task proved much easier than I thought. [5]

Twice I had to cross the Atlantic Ocean in order to rally together, from Boston to San Francisco and from Philadelphia to Seattle, the forces necessary to struggle against the imperialist war and support the platform of the Zimmerwald left.


1. Sotsial-Demokrat - an illegal newspaper and the main press organ of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, published from February, 1908, to December, 1913, and again from November, 1914, to January, 1917. During the war, the newspaper restarted publication with No. 33, which came out on 1 November, 1914. Its lead article 'The War and Russian Social-Democracy', was written by Lenin and was the manifesto of the Central Committee of the RSDLP. This is the article referred to here by Kollontai.

2. The correspondence between Lenin and Kollontai began in the first months of the war. The earliest surviving letters from Kollontai to Lenin are dated October-November, 1914. Lenin was very pleased that Kollontai shared the views of the Bolsheviks.

3. At the end of November, 1914, the Swedish government expelled Kollontai 'permanently' from Sweden. The reason given was her participation in the campaign organised by the left wing of Swedish Social-Democracy to reveal the imperialist nature of the war. On 28 November, 1914, in a letter to Lenin, Kollontai explained the reason for her expulsion from Sweden as follows: 'Officially, my arrest and expulsion are the result of my article published in the anti-militarist Swedish "youth" magazine and entitled "On the War and Our Tasks". However, it would seem that the real reason was my speech on the same theme delivered at a closed party meeting. Anyway, I delivered the speech on Monday, and by Friday was arrested, dragged from jail to jail (Stockholm and Malmö) and then sent under police escort to Copenhagen.'

4. The correspondence between Lenin and Kollontai can be found in the Complete Works of V. I. Lenin, Vol. 49 (Puss. ed.), which contains 21 letters from Lenin to Kollontai, and also in the Central Party Archives of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, which contain over 30 letters from Kollontai to Lenin and Krupskaya.

5. During preparations for the Zimmerwald Conference, at Lenin's request, Kollontai translated into Norwegian and Swedish the draft declaration that had been prepared for the conference, organised discussion of the draft declaration at a meeting of Norwegian left-wing Social-Democrats, and obtained their agreement in principle to Lenin's draft. The Swedish left-wing Social-Democrats later joined the Norwegians. Commenting on this, Lenin wrote: 'We are very glad about the statement by the Norwegians and your efforts with the Swedes.' (Collected Works, Vol. 35, p. 200). The Norwegian declaration, which Kollontai forwarded to Lenin, is now kept in the Central Party Archives of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism.