V. I.   Lenin

An Open Letter to Boris Souvarine[5]

Published: First published in full in Russian in the magazine Proletarskaya Revolutsia No. 7 (90), 1929. First published (in abridged form) in La Vérité No. 48, January 27, 1918. Written in the second half of December (old style) 1916. Translated from the French. Published according to La Vérité page proofs.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1964, Moscow, Volume 23, pages 195-204.
Translated: M. S. Levin, The Late Joe Fineberg and and Others
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala
Public Domain: Lenin Internet Archive 2002 (2005). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.README

Citizen Souvarine says his letter is addressed also to me. I take all the greater pleasure in replying, since his article touches on vital problems of international socialism.

Souvarine believes that those who consider “defence of the fatherland” to be incompatible with socialism are taking an “unpatriotic” view. As for himself, he “defends” the view of Turati, Ledebour, Brizon who, while voting against war credits, declare that they accept “defence of the fatherland”; in other words, he defends the trend known as the “Centre” (the “marsh”, I would say), or as Kautskyism—after its chief theoretical and literary exponent, Karl Kautsky. I might remark, in passing, that Souvarine is wrong in maintaining that “they [i.e., the Russian comrades who speak of the collapse of the Second International] equate men like Kautsky, Longuet, etc... with nationalists of the Scheidemann and Renaudel type”. Neither I nor the Party to which I belong (the R.S.D.L.P. Central Committee) have ever equated the social-chauvinist viewpoint with that of the “Centre”. In our official Party statements, in the Central Committee manifesto published November 1, 1914,[1] and in the resolutions adopted in March 1915[2] (both documents are reproduced in extenso in our pamphlet Socialism and War[3] which is known to Souvarine), we have always drawn a dividing line between the social-chauvinists and the “Centre”. The former, in our opinion, have defected to the bourgeoisie. With regard to them we demand not merely struggle, but a split. The latter hesitate, vacillate, and their efforts to unite the socialist   masses with the chauvinist leaders cause the greatest damage to the proletariat.

Souvarine says he wants to “examine the facts from a Marxist viewpoint”.

But from a Marxist viewpoint, such general and abstract definitions as “unpatriotic” are of absolutely no value. The fatherland, the nation are historical categories. I am not at all opposed to wars waged in defence of democracy or against national oppression, nor do I fear such words as “defence of the fatherland” in reference to these wars or to insurrections. Socialists always side with the oppressed and, consequently, cannot be opposed to wars whose purpose is democratic or socialist struggle against oppression. It would therefore be absurd to deny the legitimacy of the wars of 1793, of France’s wars against the reactionary European monarchies, or of the Garibaldi wars, etc.... And it would be just as absurd not to recognise the legitimacy of wars of oppressed nations against their oppressors, wars that might break out today—rebellion of the Irish against England, for instance, rebellion of Morocco against France, or the Ukraine against Russia, etc....

The Marxist viewpoint requires that in each individual case we define the political content of the war.

But what determines the political content of a war?

Every war is only the continuation of policy. What kind of policy is being continued in the present war? The policy of the proletariat, which from 1871 to 1914 was the sole exponent of socialism and democracy in France, England and Germany? Or imperialist policy, the policy of colonial rapine and oppression of weak nations by the reactionary, decadent and moribund bourgeoisie?

The question has only to be squarely put and we get a perfectly clear answer: the present war is an imperialist war. It is a war of slave-owners quarrelling over their chattels and eager to consolidate and perpetuate slavery. It is the “capitalist brigandage” of which Jules Guesde spoke in 1899, thereby condemning in advance his own betrayal. Guesde said at the time:

There are other wars ... they arise every day, wars for the acquisition of markets. This kind of war does not disappear, but, on the contrary, bids fair to become continuous. It is chiefly a war between the   capitalists of all countries for profits and possession of the world market, and it is fought at the price of our blood. Now, just imagine that in each of the capitalist countries of Europe, this mutual slaughter for the sake of plunder is directed by a socialist! Just imagine an English Millerand, an Italian Millerand, a German Millerand, in addition to a French Millerand, working to embroil the proletarians in this capitalist brigandage and make them fight each other! What would remain I ask you, comrades, of international solidarity? On the day the Millerands became a common phenomenon,we would have to say ‘farewell’ to all internationalism and become nationalists, and this neither you nor I will ever agree to” (Jules Guesde, En Garde!, Paris, 1911, pp. 175–76).

It is not true that France is waging this 1914–17 war for freedom, national independence, democracy, and so on.... She is fighting to retain her colonies, and for England to retain hers, colonies to which Germany would have had a much greater right—from the standpoint of bourgeois law, of course. She is fighting to give Russia Constantinople, etc.... Consequently, this war is being waged not by democratic and revolutionary France, not by the France of 1792, nor the France of 1848, nor the France of the Commune. It is being waged by bourgeois France, reactionary France, that ally and friend of tsarism, the “world usurer” (the expression is not mine, it belongs to Lysis, a contributor to l’Humanité[6]), who is defending his booty, his “sacred right” to possess colonies, his “freedom” to exploit the entire world with the help of the millions loaned to weaker or poorer nations.

Do not tell me it is hard to distinguish between revolutionary and reactionary wars. You want me to indicate a purely practical criterion that would be understood by all, in addition to the scientific criterion indicated above?

Here it is: Every fair-sized war is prepared beforehand When a revolutionary war is being prepared, democrats and socialists are not afraid to state in advance that they favour “defence of the fatherland” in this war. When however, in contrast, a reactionary war is being prepared, no socialist will venture to state in advance, before war is declared, that is, that he will favour “defence of the fatherland”.

Marx and Engels were not afraid to urge the German people to fight Russia in 1848 and 1859.

In contrast, at their Basle Congress in 1912 the socialists   did not venture to speak ofdefence of the fatherlandin the war they could see was maturing and which broke out in 1914.

Our Party is not afraid to declare publicly that it will sympathise with wars or uprisings which Ireland might start against England; Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia against France; Tripoli against Italy; the Ukraine, Persia, China against Russia, etc.

But what of the social-chauvinists? And the “Centrists”? Will they have the courage openly and officially to state that they favour, or will favour, “defence of the fatherland” in the event of war breaking out between, say, Japan and the United States, a clearly imperialist war prepared over the course of many years, and one which would imperil many hundreds of millions of people? I dare them! I am prepared to wager that they will not, for they know only too well that if they make such a statement, they will become a laughing stock in the eyes of the workers, they will be jeered at and driven out of the socialist parties. That is why the social-chauvinists and those in the “Centre” will avoid any open statement and will continue to wriggle, lie and confuse the issue, seeking refuge in all manner of sophisms, like this one in the resolution of the last, 1915 French party congress: “An attacked country has the right to defence.”

As if the question were: Who was the first to attack, and not: What are the causes of the war? What are its aims? Which classes are waging it? Could one imagine, for example, a sane-minded socialist recognising England’s right to “defence of the fatherland” in 1796, when the French revolutionary troops began to fraternise with the Irish? And yet it was the French who had attacked England and were actually preparing to land in Ireland. And could we, tomorrow, recognise the right to “defence of the fatherland” for Russia and England, if, after they had been taught a lesson by Germany, they were attacked by Persia in alliance with India, China and other revolutionary nations of Asia per forming their 1789 and 1793?

That is my reply to the really ludicrous charge that we share Tolstoy’s views. Our Party has rejected both the Tolstoy doctrine and pacifism, declaring that socialists must seek to transform the present war into a civil war of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, for socialism.

Should you object that this is utopian, I will answer that the bourgeoisie of France, England, etc., do not, apparently, subscribe to that opinion. They would not play so vile and ridiculous a role, going to the length of jailing or conscripting “pacifists”, had they not felt and foreseen the inevitable and steady rise of revolution and its early approach.

This leads me to the question of a split, raised also by Souvarine. A split! That is the bogy with which the socialist, leaders are trying to frighten others, and which they themselves fear so much! “What useful purpose could now be served by the foundation of a new International?”—Souvarine asks. “Its activity would be blighted by sterility, for numerically it would be very weak.”

But the day-to-day facts show that, precisely because they are afraid of a split, the “activity” of Pressemane and Longuet in France, Kautsky and Ledebour in Germany, is blighted by sterility! And precisely because Karl Liebknecht and Otto Rühle in Germany were not afraid of a split, openly declaring that a split was necessary (cf. Rühle’s letter in Vorwärts, January 12, 1916), and did not hesitate to carry it out—their activity is of vast importance for the proletariat, despite their numerical weakness. Liebknecht and Rühle are only two against 108. But these two represent millions, the exploited mass, the overwhelming majority of the population, the future of mankind, the revolution that is mounting and maturing with every passing day. The 108, on the other hand, represent only the servile spirit of a handful of bourgeois flunkies within the proletariat. Brizon’s activities, when he shares the weaknesses of the Centre or the marsh, are blighted by sterility. And, conversely, they cease to be sterile, help to awaken, organise and stimulate the proletariat, when Brizon really demolishes “unity”, when he courageously proclaims in parliament “Down with the war!”, or when he publicly speaks the truth, declaring that the Allies are fighting to give Russia Constantinople.

The genuine revolutionary internationalists are numeric ally weak? Nonsense! Take France in 1780, or Russia in 1900. The politically-conscious and determined revolutionaries, who in France represented the bourgeoisie—the revolutionary class of that era—and in Russia today’s revolutionary class—the proletariat, were extremely weak   numerically. They were only a few, comprising at the most only 110,000, or even 1/100,000, of their class. Several years later, however, these few, this allegedly negligible minority, led the masses, millions and tens of millions of people. Why? Because this minority really represented the interests of these masses, because it believed in the coming revolution, because it was prepared to serve it with supreme devotion.

Numerical weakness? But since when have revolutionaries made their policies dependent on whether they are in a majority or minority? In November 1914, when our Party called for a split with the opportunists,[4] declaring that the split was the only correct and fitting reply to their betrayal in August 1914, to many that seemed to be a piece of insensate sectarianism coming from men who had completely lost all contact with real life. Two years have passed, and what is happening? In England, the split is an accomplished fact. The social-chauvinist Hyndman has been forced to leave the party. In Germany, a split is developing before everyone’s eyes. The Berlin, Bremen and Stuttgart organisations have even been accorded the honour of being expelled from the party ... from the party of the Kaiser’s lackeys, the party of the German Renaudels, Sembats, Thomases, Guesdes and Co. And in France? On the one hand, the party of these gentlemen states that it remains true to “fatherland defence”. On the other, the Zimmerwaldists state, in their pamphlet The Zimmerwald Socialists and the War, that “defence of the fatherland” is unsocialist. Isn’t this a split?

And how can men who, after two years of this greatest world crisis, give diametrically opposite answers to the supreme question of modern proletarian tactics, work faith fully side by side, within one and the same party?

Look at America—apart from everything else a neutral country. Haven’t we the beginnings of a split there, too: Eugene Debs, the “American Bebel”, declares in the socialist press that he recognises only one type of war, civil war for the victory of socialism, and that he would sooner be shot than vote a single cent for American war expenditure (see Appeal to Reason[7] No. 1032, September 11, 1915). On the   other hand, the American Renaudels and Sembats advocate “national defence” and “preparedness”. The American Louguets and Pressemanes—the poor souls!—are trying to bring about a reconciliation between social-chauvinists and revolutionary internationalists.

Two Internationals already exist. One is the International of Sembat-Südekum-Hyndman-Plekhanov and Co. The other is the International of Karl Liebknecht, MacLean (the Scottish school-master whom the English bourgeoisie sentenced to hard labour for supporting the workers’ class struggle), Höglund (the Swedish M. P. and one of the founders of the Zimmerwald Left sentenced to hard labour for his revolutionary propaganda against the war), the five Duma members exiled to Siberia for life for their propaganda against the war, etc. On the one hand, there is the International of those who are helping their own governments wage the imperialist war, and on the other, the International of those who are waging a revolutionary fight against the imperialist war. Neither parliamentary eloquence nor the “diplomacy” of socialist “statesmen” can unite these two Internationals. The Second International has outlived itself. The Third International has already been born. And if it has not yet been baptised by the high priests and Popes of the Second International but, on the contrary, has been anathemised (see Vandervelde’s and Stauning’s speeches), this is not preventing it from gaining strength with every passing day. The Third International will enable the proletariat to rid itself of opportunists and will lead the masses to victory in the maturing and approaching social revolution.

Before concluding, I would like to say a few words in reply to Souvarine’s personal polemics. He asks (the socialists now residing in Switzerland) to moderate their personal criticism of Bernstein, Kautsky, Longuet, etc.... For my part, I must say that I cannot accept that. And I would point out to Souvarine, first of all, that my criticism of the “Centre” is political, not personal. Nothing can restore the mass influence of the Südekums, Plekhanovs, etc.: their authority has been so undermined that everywhere the police have to protect them. But by their propaganda of “unity” and “fatherland defence”, by their striving to bring about a compromise, by their efforts to draw a verbal veil over   the deep-seated differences, the “Centrists” are causing the greatest damage to the labour movement, because they are impeding the final break-down of the social-chauvinists’ moral authority, and in that way are bolstering their influence on the masses and galvanising the corpse of the opportunist Second International. For all these reasons I consider it my socialist duty to fight Kautsky and other “Centre” spokesmen.

Souvarine “appeals”, among others, to “Guilbeaux, to Lenin, to all those who enjoy the advantage of being ‘outside the battle’, an advantage that often enables one to take a reasonable view of men and affairs-in socialism, but one that, perhaps, is fraught also with certain inconveniences.”

A transparent hint. In Zimmerwald, Ledebour expressed the same thought without any ambiguity. He accused us “Left Zimmerwaldists” of addressing revolutionary appeals to the masses from abroad. I repeat to Citizen Souvarine what I told Ledebour in Zimmerwald. It is 29 years since I was arrested in Russia. And throughout these 29 years I have never ceased to address revolutionary appeals to the masses. I did so from prison, from Siberia, and later from abroad. And I frequently met in the revolutionary press “hints” similar to those made in the speeches of tsarist prosecutors—“hints” that I was lacking in honesty, because, while living abroad, I addressed revolutionary appeals to the Russian people. Coming from tsarist prosecutors these “hints” surprise no one. But I must admit that I expected arguments of another kind from Ledebour. Apparently he has forgotten that when they wrote their famous Communist Manifesto in 1847, Marx and Engels likewise addressed revolutionary appeals to the German workers from abroad! The revolutionary struggle is often impossible without revolutionaries emigrating abroad. That has repeatedly been the experience in France. And Citizen Souvarine would have done better not to follow the bad example of Ledebour and ... the tsarist prosecutors.

Souvarine also says that Trotsky, “whom we [the French minority] consider one of the most extreme elements of the extreme Left in the International, is simply branded as a chauvinist by Lenin. It has to be admitted that there is a certain exaggeration here”.

Yes, of course, “there is a certain exaggeration”, but on Souvarine’s part, not mine. For I have never branded Trotsky’s position as chauvinistic. What I have reproached him with is that all too often he has represented the “Centre” policy in Russia. Here are the facts. The split in the R.S.D.L.P. has existed officially since January 1912.[8] Our Party (grouped around the Central Committee) accused of opportunism the other group, the Organising Committee, of which Martov and Axelrod are the most prominent leaders. Trotsky belonged to Martov’s party and left it only in 1914. By that time the war had started. Our five Duma deputies (Muranov, Petrovsky, Shagov, Badayev and Samoilov) were exiled to Siberia. In Petrograd, our workers voted against participation in the war industries committees (the most important practical issue for us, just as important in Russia as the question of participation in the government in France). On the other hand, the most prominent and most influential Organising Committee writers—Potresov, Zasulich, Levitsky and others—have come out for “defence of the fatherland” and participation in the war industries committees. Martov and Axelrod have protested and advocated non-participation in the committees. But they have not broken with their party, one faction of which has turned chauvinist and accepts participation. That is why at Kienthal we reproached Martov with having wanted to represent the Organising Committee as a whole, whereas in fact he can represent only one of its two factions. This party’s Duma group (Chkheidze, Skobelev and others) is divided, with some of its members for and others against “fatherland defence”. But all of them favour participation in the war industries committees, resorting to the ambiguous formula of “saving the country”, which, essentially, is but another wording of the Südekum and Renaudel “fatherland defence” slogan. More, they have in no way protested against Potresov’s position (which is actually identical to Plekhanov’s; Martov publicly protested against Potresov and declined to contribute to his journal because Plekhanov had been invited to contribute).

And Trotsky? Having broken with Martov’s party, he continues to accuse us of being splitters. Little by little he is moving to the Left, and even calls for a break with   the Russian social-chauvinist leaders. But he has not definitely said whether he wants unity or a break with the Chkheidze faction. And that is one of the key issues. For, indeed, if peace comes tomorrow, we shall be having Duma elections the day after tomorrow, and the question will immediately arise of siding with or opposing Chkheidze. We oppose such an alliance. Martov favours it. And Trotsky? His attitude is unknown. There has been no definite indication of it in the 500 issues of the Paris Russian-language newspaper Nashe Slovo, of which Trotsky is one of the editors. These are the reasons why we do not agree with Trotsky.

We are not the only ones. In Zimmerwald, Trotsky re fused to join the Zimmerwald Left. Together with Comrade Henriette Roland-Hoist he represented the “Centre”. And this is what Comrade Roland-Hoist now writes in the Dutch socialist paper Tribune[9] No. 159, August 23, 1916): “Those who, like Trotsky and his group, want to wage a revolutionary struggle against imperialism must overcome the consequences of émigré differences—largely of a personal nature—which disunite the extreme Left, and join the Leninists. A ‘revolutionary centre’ is impossible.”

I must apologise for having dwelt at such length on our relations with Trotsky and Martov, but the French socialist press refers to this quite frequently and the information it gives its readers is often very inaccurate. The French comrades must be better informed of the facts concerning the Social-Democratic movement in Russia.







[5] This article was written in reply to an open letter by Boris Souvarine, the French Centrist, “A nos amis qui sont en Suisse” (“To Our Friends in Switzerland”), published in Le Populaire du Centre. December 10, 1916.

Lenin sent the article to Souvarine who in January 1918 turned it over to the socialist La Vérité for publication, together with his preface. The article was to have appeared on January 24, in No. 45 of the gaper, but was banned by the censor. La Vérité came out with a blank space, over which was the heading “Un document inédit. Une lettre de Lénine” (“Unpublished document. A Letter from Lenin”) with the signature “Lénine”. Three days later, on January 27, La Vérité published the article, with many cuts and with its own subheadings, in No. 48. The full text was published in the magazine Proletarskaya Revolutsia (Proletarian Revolution) No. 7, 1929 from the La Vérité galleys.

[6] l’Humanité—daily French socialist newspaper founded in 1904 by Jean Jaurès. During the First World War was controlled by the socialist Right wing and followed a chauvinist policy.

In 1918 Marcel Cachin, an outstanding leader of the French and international workers’ movement, became its political editor. In 1918–20 l’Humanité campaigned against the French Government’s imperialist policy of armed intervention in Soviet Russia. In December 1920, following the split in the Socialist Party and the founding of the Communist Party, l’Humanité became the Communist Central Organ.

[7] Appeal to Reason—a newspaper published by the American socialists; founded in Girard, Kansas, in 1895. Had no official connections with the U.S. Socialist Party but propagated socialist ideas and enjoyed wide popularity among the workers. Took up an internationalist position in the First World War.

Lenin’s reference is to Eugene Debs’ article “When I Shall Fight”, in the issue of September 11, 1915 (No. 1032).

[8] In January 1912 the Mensheviks were expelled from the Party by decision of the Sixth (Prague) Conference of the R.S.D.L.P.

The Sixth All-Russia Conference of the R.S.D.L.P. met from January 5 to January 17 (18–30), 1912 in Prague and actually assumed the character of a Party congress.

Lenin was the leading figure at the Conference. He delivered the reports on the current situation and the tasks of the Party, the work of the International Socialist Bureau, and took part in the discussions. He also drafted the resolutions on all major agenda items.

The Conference resolutions on “Liquidationism and the Group of Liquidators” and on “The Party Organisation Abroad” were of tremendous theoretical and practical significance. The Conference declared that by their conduct the liquidators had definitely placed themselves outside the Party and expelled them from the R.S.D.L.P. The Conference condemned the activities of the anti-Party groups abroad—the Menshevik Golos group, the Vperyod and Trotsky groups, and recognised the absolute necessity for a single Party organisation abroad, conducting its work under the supervision and guidance of the C.C., and pointed out that Party groups abroad “which refuse to submit to the Russian centre of Social-Democratic   activity, i.e., to the Central Committee, and which cause disorganisation by communicating with Russia independently and ignoring the Central Committee, have no right to use the name of the R.S.D.L.P.”. The Conference adopted a resolution on “The Character and Organisational Forms of Party Work”, approved Lenin’s draft Organisational Rules, made the newspaper Sotsial-Demokrat the Party Central Organ, elected a Party Central Committee and set up the Bureau of the C.C. in Russia.

The Prague Conference played an outstanding part in building the Bolshevik Party, a party of a new type, and in strengthening its unity. It summed up a whole historical period of struggle against the Mensheviks, consolidated the victory of the Bolsheviks and expelled the Menshevik liquidators from the Party. Local Party organisations rallied still closer round the Party on the basis of the Conference decisions. The Conference strengthened the Party as an all-Russian organisation and defined its political line and tactics in the conditions of the new revolutionary upsurge. The Prague Conference was of great international significance. It showed the revolutionary elements of the parties of the Second International how to conduct a decisive struggle against opportunism by carrying the fight to a complete organisational break with the opportunists.

[9] De Tribune—organ of the Left wing of the Social-Democratic Labour Party of Holland. Founded in 1907 by A. Pannekoek, H. Gorter, D. Wijnkoop and Henriette Roland-Holst. In 1909, following the expulsion of the Left wing, became the official organ of the new, Social-Democratic Party, and in 1918 of the Dutch Communist Party. It appeared under this name until 1940.

< backward   forward >
Works Index   |   Volume 23 | Collected Works   |   L.I.A. Index