Gus Fagan

Biographical Introduction

Christian Rakovsky

Regroupment of the socialist movement:
from Zimmerwald to the Comintern

The outbreak of the first world war had a shattering and disorienting effect on the entire European socialist movement. Rakovsky recounted to the delegates at Zimmerwald how the Rumanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had shown such concern for him that as soon as the Ministry received a telegram saying that on 4 August 1914 the German Social Democrats had voted for war credits, the telegram was immediately forwarded to him. [14] Confronted with this news Rakovsky fried to find some justification for the behaviour of the German and French socialists in supporting their respective national war efforts. But the arrival from Paris of Golos (Voice) and its sequel Nashe Slovo played a key role in orienting Rakovsky and the entire Rumanian socialist movement on the questions posed by the socialist betrayal of August 1914.

Golos was edited by Martov in Paris. It opposed the war and any form of socialist support for it. Its internationalism won the support of Lenin who said at the time that it was “the best socialist newspaper in Europe”. [15] It was replaced by Nashe Slovo in January 1915. Nashe Slovo was edited by Martov and Trotsky but was in fact dominated by Trotsky and identified with him. Some of the others who worked with Nashe Slovo in Paris were Ryazanov, Lunacharsky, Lozovsky and Angelica Balabanov Its foreign correspondents were Chicherin in London, Kollontai in Sweden, and Rakovsky in the Balkans. Nashe Slovo was “a modest sheet of two, rarely four pages, abundantly strewn with white spaces marking the censor’s deletions, and yet packed with news and comment. The paper was constantly in danger of being killed by the censor and by its own poverty ... The members of the editorial team were at one in their opposition to social patriotism, but apart from this they represented various shades of opinion. Next to Lenin’s Social Democrat, Trotsky’s paper was, at this juncture the most important laboratory of the revolution.” [16] Rakovsky played a key role in Nashe Slovo, not just as contributor but as financial backer. According to the records of the Paris prefect of police, when Trotsky arrived in Paris in January he brought with him “not just the resources of his own talent, of his journalistic and revolutionary activity, but also the financial resources of his friend Rakovsky, the well-known Rumanian socialist”. [17] In an article on 17 April 1915 in Nashe Slovo Trotsky publicly thanked Rakovsky for his financial assistance and in another article on 25 April referred to him as “the best friend of Golos and Nashe Slovo”. At Zimmerwald Rakovsky pointed out that “Nashe Slovo had played an important part in setting forth the development of the international position of the Balkan Social Democratic parties”. [18]

In 1914 Rakovsky was already an internationally respected anti-militarist. (Immediately on the outbreak of war he changed the name of his paper to Jos Rasboiul, “Down with the War”.) His own internationalism, deeply rooted in his convictions and his own experience, and his long-standing opposition to war in the Balkans, made it inevitable that he would play a major role in the new internationalist anti-war movement that developed after the disaster of August 1914.

In the spring of 1915 Rakovsky defended the position put forward by Trotsky and expressed in the slogan “Peace without indemnities or annexations, peace without conquerors or conquered”. Lenin, however, had gone beyond such considerations in a qualitative and significant way. For him, the task was to turn the inter-imperialist war into a civil war against the bourgeoisie. Writing to Kollontai on 4 August 1915, Lenin denounced in strong terms the position taken by Rakovsky and Trotsky: “Roland-Holst, as well as Rakovsky (have you seen his French pamphlet?) and Trotsky too, are in my opinion all most harmful Kautskyists, inasmuch as they all, in one way or another, are in favour of unity with the opportunists. In one way or another they embellish opportunism. They all (each in his own way) advance eclecticism instead of revolutionary marxism.” [19] The charge of accommodation to opportunism would certainly have been rejected by Rakovsky. In the already mentioned letter to Dumas he singled out opportunism in the socialist movement as the key cause of the betrayal and disintegration of the Second International: “This moral disaster of our party is not the result of a passing error, of a simple parliamentary incident. Its cause is a profound alteration in the socialist consciousness of Europe, poisoned by revisionism and socialist opportunism.” [20]

Rakovsky opposed the war and the voting for war credits, he opposed from the beginning any form of governmental collaboration with the bourgeoisie, he opposed social patriotism from a principled internationalist standpoint, but saw in the majority position of the International the end result of opportunism and an inherent ambiguity in the traditional socialist position on war and national defence; he did not call for a decisive split with the majority or the founding of a new International, as did Lenin.

Contrary to popular belief, the Zimmerwald Conference, which met in September 1915, was not the first organized internationalist regroupment in the Second International, but was preceded in July of that year by the Conference of Bucharest, organized by Rakovsky, which brought together on an internationalist platform the social democratic parties of the Balkans. It is described by him with characteristic modesty in his autobiography. In the summer of 1915 “a conference had met in Bucharest of all the Balkan Socialist Parties with a platform based explicitly on internationalist and class principles ... A ‘Revolutionary Balkan Social Democratic Labour Federation’ was formed, comprising the Rumanian, Bulgarian, Serbian and Greek parties, A Central Bureau was elected, and I became its secretary. Thus even before the Zimmerwald Conference, the Balkan parties had indicated their implacable hostility to imperialism.” In Serbia the Social Democratic Party had two members in parliament who, unlike their German and French comrades, had refused to vote for war credits in 1914. In an article, Internationalism and the War, written in 1917, Rakovsky once again paid tribute to “the small but heroic Serbian Social Democratic Party whose two members in parliament have courageously defended the internationalist viewpoint by voting against the war credits”. In his letter to Dumas in April 1915 Rakovsky criticized the fact that the socialists of different countries had failed to regroup themselves to fight the war. “The socialist and international conscience has shown itself, in certain respects, to be weaker than the Catholic conscience. The Catholic cardinals from Germany, France, Austria and England have been able to meet at Rome to elect a new Pope, our International Socialist Bureau has not been able to meet one single time since the beginning of the war.” [21]

The betrayal of August 1914 and the organizational disintegration of the International after the outbreak of the war posed immediate political and organizational problems for the internationalist or left wing of the Social Democracy. Although they constituted significant minorities in most parties, and had the majority in the Russian party, their ability to carry out any effective political action was hampered by the absence of organizational structure, co-ordination or political clarification. On 6 February 1915 Nashe Slovo, Trotsky’s paper in Paris, sent a letter to the Central Committee of the RSDLP (Bolshevik) and the Organizing Committee of the RSDLP (Menshevik) proposing a joint demonstration of internationalism at the Inter-Allied Socialist Conference to be held in London. Nothing came of this, however, although the Bolshevik Central Committee wrote to Nashe Slovo again in March agreeing that “unification of all real Social Democratic internationalists is one of the most urgent matters to be considered at the present moment.” [22] The strategy of Nashe Slovo, as explained in a letter sent to the Bolshevik Central Committee on 25 March 1915, was to facilitate the process of regroupment by beginning “with the Russian groups ... believing that in the case of success of that first attempt, the widening of agreement among the national groupings would then present no difficulties”. [23] Social Democrats in Switzerland also attempted to call a conference in Zurich for the end of May to discuss “socialist activity in neutral countries for peace”. This conference also failed to take place.

Rakovsky, who organized the first socialist regroupment in the Balkans in the summer of 1915, also played a key role in initiating the Zimmerwald Conference, although this is only hinted at in his autobiography: “In April 1915 I was invited by the Italian Socialist Party to an international anti-war meeting in Milan. On my way home I broke my journey in Switzerland to meet Lenin and the Swiss workers’ party. Even before this I had been in contact with Trotsky who had been editing Nashe Slovo in Paris, and for which I also wrote. These discussions and meetings ended in the summoning of the Zimmerwald Conference.”

In April–May 1915 the Executive of the Italian Socialist Party decided to call for an International Conference to which would be invited all parties and workers’ organizations which were ready to come out against civic peace (Burgfrieden) and to stand for united action of socialists in various countries against the war on the basis of proletarian class struggle. The Swiss social democrats supported this call of the Italian party. In March, before the call came from the Italian Party, a meeting of the Swiss social democracy had singled out Rumania and Italy as the two countries which were promoting such an international conference. Already in September 1914 the Italian Party had proposed that the International Socialist Bureau call a meeting but the suggestion was received coldly by the British and the French. It would appear that it was the initiative of Rakovsky, in contacting the Swiss and Italian parties in early 1915, which decided those parties to renew the attempt. On 29 March the Comité Directeur of the Swiss party wrote to the International Socialist Bureau: “Because of a letter from Comrade Rakovsky, and a copy of a letter written by the Bulgarian social democratic party, we feel ourselves constrained once more to take up this question [the international conference of socialists against the war – GF]. Comrade Rakovsky expresses in his letter his agreement with our decisions and suggestions. He approves the calling of an international conference and proposes that this conference should take place in Switzerland.” [24]

The Italian party then sent one of their deputies, Morgari, to discuss this proposal with the French and English parties. He was coolly received. Trotsky in My Life gives a vivid description of Morgari’s reception in Paris:

On the terasse of a café on one of the grands boulevards, we held a meeting attended by a few socialist deputies who for some reason thought themselves “lefts”, and Morgari. As long as the conversation held to pacifist talk, and to repeating generalities about the necessity of restoring international connections, everything went smoothly. But when Morgari spoke in a tragic whisper of the necessity of getting false passports for the trip to Switzerland – he was obviously fascinated by the “carbonari” aspect of the affair – the deputies made long faces, and one of them – I don’t remember which – hurriedly called for the waiter and paid for all the coffee we had had. The ghost of Molière stalked across the terasse, and, I think, the ghost of Rabelais too. That was the end of the meeting. As we walked back with Martov, we laughed a lot, gaily, but not without a certain anger. [25]

After discussion with the Italians in April Rakovsky went to Paris, where he spent the greater part of May in discussions with Trotsky about the conditions under which such a conference could be held. Having reached agreement with Trotsky he then went to Switzerland to discuss with Lenin and the Swiss party. He then returned to the Balkans, where the Bucharest Conference was held in July.

The Conference finally met in September in the small Swiss village of Zimmerwald, high in the mountains and about ten kilometres from Berne. Delegates came from eleven countries. Ten came from Germany, among whom were Ledebour and Ernst Meyer. Lenin, Zinoviev, Martov and Axelrod were among the Russian delegates. Trotsky represented the Nashe Slovo group. Rakovsky represented the Rumanian Social Democratic Party and among the Italian delegates were Angelica Balabanov (a close friend of Rakovsky), Serrati, Morgan and Modigliani. The British delegates, F.W. Jowett and Bruce Glasier from the ILP, were unable to secure passports to attend. There were thirty-eight delegates in all. “The delegates, filling four stage-coaches, set off for the mountains,” wrote Trotsky later. “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. But they were not sceptical. The thread of history often breaks - then a new knot must be tied. And that is what we were doing in Zimmerwald.” [26]

Three groups formed right from the beginning. The majority, about nineteen or twenty delegates, wanted to organize a general demonstration in favour of peace but opposed a final break with the social-patriots or a final rupture in the International. This group consisted of the German and French delegates (the majority of them), some Italians and Poles and the Russian Mensheviks. Martov regarded any split in the International as a catastrophe, and he proposed a strategy of “conquering the International from the inside”. Opposed to them were those who demanded a complete break with the International. This was the group, eight delegates in all, around Lenin. Between those two groups were the “centrists”, five or six delegates, including Trotsky, Rakovsky, Angelica Balabanov, Grimm and Roland-Holst. Three draft manifestoes were submitted to the conference, from the right wing of the German delegation, from the Lenin group and from Trotsky. A Commission of seven members was elected to consider the drafts. The Commission consisted of Trotsky, Rakovsky, Lenin, Grimm, Ledebour, Merrheim and Modigliani. After discussion Trotsky and Grimm were asked to prepare a final draft. The manifesto which was adopted by the conference was almost identical with the draft manifesto written by Trotsky. Although in Nashe Slovo Trotsky had already stated the need to create a Third International, he did not include this in the manifesto. In all major respects the Manifesto of Zimmerwald was similar to the manifesto issued by the Bucharest Conference which had been drawn up by Rakovsky. A new International Socialist Commission was elected which included Rakovsky.

Thirteen years later, in the struggle in the Soviet Union, Zinoviev accused Rakovsky of having voted with Martov at Zimmerwald. This was not true. He also accused Rakovsky of having made concessions, in his letter to Dumas, to the idea of defence of the fatherland. Thus Zinoviev wrote, in his report on Zimmerwald, “Rakovsky, in his new pamphlet, makes concessions to the idea of defence of the fatherland. At the conference, not wishing to declare a decisive struggle to the end against the opportunists he declared himself to be an adherent of the restoration of the old Second International.” [27] Lenin, writing to Radek in August 1915 had said the same: “Rakovsky (see his brochure) is for the defence of the fatherland.” [28] Rakovsky, in fact, supported Trotsky’s position. Trotsky opposed “defeatism” with the “struggle for peace”. This position had been explained by Trotsky on 4 June 1915 in an open letter to the editorial board of the journal Kommunist: “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 circumstances) along the line of a ‘lesser evil’ for the revolutionary struggle against war and the conditions which generated this war.” [29] The manifesto drawn up by the commission included Trotsky’s idea of peace without annexations. Lenin voted against Trotsky’s text in the commission, but in the conference the Lenin group voted for the manifesto. Lenin explained his attitude in this way: “That this manifesto is taking a step forward towards a real struggle against opportunism, towards breaking and splitting with it, is a fact. It would be sectarian for us to refuse to take this step forward together.” [30]

At the end of the conference Rakovsky returned to Rumania, where stood for election to parliament and won 109 votes. In February 1916 he returned to Switzerland for a meeting of the Zimmerwald Executive Committee which met in Berne from 5 to 9 February. At this meeting the Lenin group demanded that the meeting be declared a full Congress with the power to make decisions. Lenin wanted approval for a manifesto which would call for a new International. But, in fact, the balance of forces was the same as Zimmerwald. Rakovsky proposed a compromise which was accepted. Instead of a manifesto, a circular would be sent to all parties and groups affiliated to Zimmerwald. A committee was elected to prepare the circular which consisted of Martov, Rakovsky, Zinoviev, Serrati and three other delegates. The final text strongly criticized the “social-patriots” of France and Germany and criticized the International Socialist Bureau led by Huysmans for its inactivity. The text approves of strikes and demonstrations and calls upon the masses to “intervene”. It went much further than the Zimmerwald Manifesto, and spoke of “open economic and political struggle of the masses against the ruling classes and their governments”. [31] The circular represented in fact a rapprochement of the centre with the thesis of Lenin. A break with the Second International was still avoided.

Rakovsky was unable to attend the Kienthal Conference of the Zimmerwald movement because Rumania had closed its borders in preparation for entry into the war. Hostilities commenced on 16 August. Rakovsky was almost immediately arrested by the Rumanian authorities and was taken from Bucharest to Iassy, where he was freed by Russian troops on May Day, 1917.

On the day of his release from prison by a mass demonstration of Rumanian workers and Russian soldiers Rakovsky addressed a crowd of twenty thousand people, then was taken by special train to Odessa. On his arrival in Odessa, with the help of the local soviet, he organized a “Rumanian Social Democratic Action Committee” to work towards revolution in Rumania. On 11 May the Petrograd Soviet issued its Appeal to the socialists of all countries calling for “peace without annexations or reparations on the basis of the self-determination of peoples”. Rakovsky published a defence of the theses entitled How to Put an End to the War (Petrograd 1917). After two weeks in Odessa he went to Petrograd. He had to leave the city in August to avoid arrest: he went to Stockholm, where he arrived in September, the month in which the third Zimmerwald Conference was to be held in that city. After the conference he remained in Stockholm where, with Radek, he edited and produced Pravda Correspondence, which later became Messenger of the Russian Revolution. These were bulletins primarily for the information of the Western social democratic press. [32] Rakovsky’s attitude towards the October revolution was expressed in his letter of congratulations sent to “the Comrades of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies” on 18 November 1917, which was printed in Izvestia on 29 November and included the following:

The Rumanian comrades will accomplish their tasks even more so now with the support of the Russian revolution. Their hopes are especially directed towards the socialist government of Russia, towards which the peoples of the whole world are looking. The Rumanian people also put their trust in the socialist government of Russia. There can be no question of the fear and defiance towards you which the people felt towards the imperialist governments. May the revolution triumph in Russia: such is the interest of the Rumanian people. [33]

Rakovsky joined the Bolshevik Party in 1918.


14. Shklovsky, Zimmerwald, in Proletarskaya Revoliutsiya, No. 9 (44), pp. 73–106: a Bolshevik account of Zimmerwald, text in Gankin and Fischer, The Bolsheviks and the World War (Stanford, California, 1940), p. 343.

15. Lenin, Sochineniya, vol. XXI, p. 21.

16. I. Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, op. cit., pp. 220–23.

17. According to A. Kriegel, Le dossier de Trotski à la prefecture de police de Paris; quoted in Conte, op. cit., p. 143.

18. Trotsky, My Life, op. cit., p. 250.

19. Lenin, Letters, p. 369. Text also in Gankin and Fischer, op. cit., p. 316.

20. Rakovsky, Socialists and the War, p. 28.

21. ibid.

22. Text in Gankin and Fischer, op. cit., p. 164.

23. ibid., p. 167.

24. From the archives of the Swiss party, quoted in Conte, op. cit., p. 152.

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

26. ibid.

27. Zinoviev, in Sozial Demokrat, No. 45–6, 11 Oct. 1915. Reprinted in Zinoviev, Sochineniya, vol. V, pp. 218–25; also in Gankin and Fischer, op. cit., p. 338.

28. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 36, p. 336 (4th edition, Moscow, 1966). See also Radek’s account in his Autobiography, in G. Haupt, Makers of the Russian Revolution (London 1974), p. 372ff.

29. Text in Gankin and Fischer, op. cit., p. 170.

30. Lenin, The First Step, in Sozial Demokrat, 11 Oct. 1915.

31. Text in Gankin and Fischer, op. cit., pp. 385–9.

32. See Radek’s account in Haupt, op. cit., p. 377.

33. Quoted in Conte, op. cit., p. 183.

Last updated on 16.10.2011