Alexandra Kollontai 1914

The War and Our Immediate Tasks
November 1914

First Published: Försvarsnihilisten, November 1914;
Source: Alexandra Kollontai: Selected Articles and Speeches, Progress Publishers, 1984;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for, 2000;
Proofed: and corrected by Chris Clayton 2006.


When the workers' International last met in Basle in 1912 [1] in order to raise its voice in protest against the threat of a world war, which might have broken out as a result of the events in the Balkans, everyone was filled with confident hope. World war seemed impossible.

While solidarity and the brotherhood of peoples unites the workers of every nation, while there exists that unity of objectives that marked the Basle Congress and draws together the proletariat of states both large and small, the working class has no need to fear Landsknechte and the bloody wars that accompany them. Then the old imperialist-capitalist world would not dare to provoke a war, for should war break out, the 'red spectre' would appear on the scene to terrify bourgeois society.

This was what we, socialists, believed as recently as two years ago. But now world war has become a fact, with all its horrors, suffering and barbarity. These have exceeded anything that even the most grotesque fantasy could have imagined. World war broke out at the very moment when an international congress was to be held in Vienna. [2] This congress was to discuss yet again the important question of how socialists in every country could avert war, and how the organised working class was to avoid falling into the trap of the imperialists-capitalists. Until only very recently, until the start of the war, it seemed completely impossible that the clear Marxist world outlook of the Social-Democrats could be infected with bourgeois chauvinism. One might have thought that the materialist understanding of history and the clear perception of class contradictions possessed by Social-Democrats would serve as a scientific compass guiding the workers along the correct path, even during a hurricane of chauvinism.

However, amidst all these considerations, Social-Democracy overlooked one important factor: it underestimated the moral influence of the old bourgeois world on the mood of the populace. It failed to take sufficiently into account the present, well-prepared, treacherous policy being pursued by the supporters of the class interests of imperialism. It turns out that the governments of the bourgeois states understood popular psychology better than the very representatives of the democratic and working-class masses!

The national feelings artificially stimulated by the capitalists and junkers of every country in the world with the help of the church and the press, and which are also preached in the schools, at home and in society, would appear to be more deeply entrenched among the people than the internationalists realised. The imperialist-capitalist world skilfully manipulates people's national sentiments in order to drive its own national population into the ready-prepared lethal trap of war. And when irrational and blind chauvinism proved insufficient to provoke a militarist mood among the people, the authorities had recourse to other methods in order to fool the people – including the proletariat – and attract it onto its side so that it would take part in a bloody war. All the capitalist states are now assuming the disguise of an attractive idealism in order to justify their rapacious imperialist policy.

The Germans, it would seem, are raising the sword not in order to eliminate their rivals on the world market, but in order to overthrow Russian tsarism!... The English and the French, so we are told, are merely seeking to avert the threat to the world presented by the German police state and German militarism! And the Russians, if you please, are sending their sons into the battlefield not in order to satisfy their pan-Slavism, but in order to liberate Galicia and Serbia, and also in order to save the republican system in France and democracy in Belgium! Thus tsarism is fighting for republicanism, and the Junkers in Prussia are sacrificing the blood of their sons in order to 'liberate Russia from the yoke of absolutism'. This is an amusing caricature which, in other circumstances, would reduce us to laughter, but which now, amidst blood and tears, is turning into a major historical catastrophe.

People talk of 'the right of each people to self-defence'. Each state naturally tries to present itself as having begun the war in order to preserve and defend its culture, and not in order to fill the purses of the capitalists.

Culture! Yes, culture is indeed man's most precious possession. But is it not war that threatens the very existence of culture? Is it not because of war that magnificent old forests (the forests just outside Paris, for example, which constitute one of its most attractive features) are ruthlessly destroyed? Is it not war that destroys the best historical monuments and works of art? Finally, are there any 'cultural values' which are worth the cost of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of human lives?

People talk of culture, but is it not war that gives rise to the most horrific barbarity? The slaughter of the sons of the people, of the children of the proletariat, grows with every day. The human mind is incapable of grasping the sum total of all the misery, deprivation and suffering of the people. The basest, most bestial instincts rise to the surface. Militarism and the inhuman cruelty and blind discipline to which it gives birth rule the world. No one gives any thought any more to men's most valuable possession-life itself. And this is called 'defence of culture'!

What will be the outcome of this dreadful blood-letting? Will the workers derive any benefit from the war, even in the case of victory in just one country? Even if it were possible to ensure the payment of war reparations by the defeated states whose countries lie in ruins, part of this money would immediately go into the pockets of the capitalists, while the rest would have to be used to rebuild the shattered economy. Want and misery will reign supreme everywhere after this world war, even in those countries that emerge the victors. Everywhere there will be an increase in the number of people unfit for work: invalids, the sick, the mentally deranged and orphans. Worst of all, however, war will subsequently affect to some degree or other the development of the productive forces of all the belligerent countries.

Disaster and bankruptcy, debt and unemployment will reduce the purchasing power of the people, and this will have a paralysing effect on the normal development of the forces of production. This is, for us, the heaviest blow of all: our hope for the rapid realisation of our dream concerning the future of mankind is closely bound up with the continuing unimpeded development of all the productive forces. Any delay in this development means that our best hopes are postponed to some unspecified date in the distant future.

However, apart from all the horrors of war and mass murder, apart from the disruption of the national economy and the lowering of the cultural level, war has a particularly unfavourable effect upon the position of the working class and its objectives insofar as the whole of mankind will be divided (albeit for a short time) not into classes, according to the basic tenet of the Social-Democrats, but into nations. This reduces the impact of one of the most powerful weapons that the proletariat is called upon to wield, namely the solidarity of the workers' International.

Nonetheless, this dreadful war has already taught us a great deal. It has provided us with several painful lessons which we must fully recognise in order to benefit from them in the future.

The war has shown us that the workers' party made a great mistake in underestimating the danger of militarism and offering too weak a resistance to its influence. The principled position of the Social-Democratic parties on the question of how the workers are to behave in case of war was too ill-defined, too imprecise. The resolutions adopted by the International worked to the benefit of nationalist trends. Now, however, when German Social-Democracy has allowed itself to be fooled by the Prussian Junker state and is pursuing a mistaken tactic in support of war, [3] it has become clear that it will be the duty of the future International to state its position on this issue clearly and precisely and to determine upon a firm, clearly defined revolutionary tactic as regards the threat of war. There can be no doubt that, as soon as this dreadful war is over, all the workers' parties will have the task of mounting a campaign against militarism. This task will continue to face us for many years to come. However, the ways and means to be used by Social-Democracy to defeat the spirit of militarism will become clear only with time.

In any case we are wholly convinced that the struggle against militarism is at the same time a struggle for our ideals: all wars impede the further development of the productive forces, weaken the sense of the solidarity of the international proletariat and encourage the spread of chauvinism, and thus they delay the great day when working class will finally be liberated. However a systematic struggle against militarism is a task for the future, this does not mean that socialists should be passive towards war today. Today also we can and should intervene in the bloody events taking place in the world and make our voices heard in favour of the most rapid possible peace under the slogan: 'An end to cannibalistic mass murder?' We Social-Democrats have no interest in and draw no benefit from the fact that ever more hundreds of thousands of our brothers are sacrificing their lives for the glory of their bourgeois-capitalist homelands. We need these lives in order to create that army which will fight imperialism and capitalism.

Thus our immediate task is to unite all our forces in order to achieve the quickest possible peace, and our task for the future is to wage a relentless struggle against militarism and strengthen the spirit of international solidarity among the workers. In the face of the bloodthirsty chauvinist atmosphere now reigning throughout the world, socialists from every country must redouble their efforts and confidently proclaim: 'Down with war! Down with militarism! Down with blind chauvinism! May those international forces which will bring final victory to the working class flourish and triumph!'



1. This is reference to the Extraordinary International Socialist Congress of the Second International, convened in Basle on 24-25 November, 1912. The congress was called in order to consider ways of opposing the approaching threat of world imperialist war, and was attended by 555 delegates. The congress adopted a manifesto opposing war. The leaders of the Second International, who had voted for the adoption of the manifesto, subsequently betrayed it after the First World War began and supported their own imperialist governments.

2. The Vienna congress of the Second International was to take place in the summer of 1914. This congress was seen as particularly significant as the date when it was to be held coincided with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the First International, and the 25th anniversary of the Second International. The congress agenda was to include the most important issues relating to the position of the working class and its struggle against imperialism, the problems of war and militarism in the context of the tragic international tension that existed in the middle of 1914. The outbreak of war prevented the socialists from holding the Vienna congress.

3. German Social-Democracy – the leading party in the Second International – abandoned the interests of the proletariat as soon as war was declared and defended its own imperialist fatherland. On 4 August, 1914, the Social-Democratic faction within the Reichstag voted with the bourgeois parties to allocate 5,000 million marks to the Kaiser's government for military expenditure.