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World War I

H. Allen & R. Stone

World War I in Retrospect – III

(August 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 7, August 1942, pp. 212–215.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(The June New International article dealt with the strength of the European working class movement before the First World Imperialist War, at the same time analyzing the inherent political and theoretical weaknesses which imply its later collapse. The consequent betrayal by the socialist and labor leadership was described in the July issue. We now enter upon the stage of reviving militancy and internationalism which foreshadow the Russian Revolution.)

So the war raged on. The “short war” quickly lengthened from days and weeks into months and years and “military experts” from all walks of life came to view its devastation and duration as “indefinite.”

In France, “the party, most of whose members were mobilized, had lost its best forces. The locals and federations no longer met. Political life was suspended. For a year it was a veritable eclipse of socialism.” The treason of the socialist leaders had “led to the collapse of the entire party. Those who remained clear-visioned and faithful to socialism could not make their voices heard; all civil liberties were suppressed, meetings were forbidden, the censor blanked in the newspapers every expression of a point of view different from the official and governmental point of view.” [1]

Three “Socialist” Congresses

As several months of the war pass, repercussions in the organizations of the Second International and the labor movement of Europe begin to appear. A Socialist Congress is called by the neutral countries for December 1914 to be convened in Copenhagen. The executive body of the French CGT, by a vote of 22 to 20, decides to take no notice of the invitation to participate. Pierre Monatte and Francis Merrheim (president of the Union des Métaux) protest this act of sabotage of the international solidarity of labor and demonstrate their protest by resigning from the executive committee of the CGT.

With only 16 delegates representing the neutral Scandinavian countries and Holland, the Congress is convened in January 1915 and passes a resolution calling for peace. The French syndicalists, now up to their ears in support of the imperialist war, have the effrontery to call the Scandinavians cowards and hypocrites, saying that their voices are those of eunuchs because they are not directly involved in war.

A few weeks later, on February 14, 1915, a conference of “socialists” is held at London, a conference, however, which permits as participants only the socialists whose countries are on the side of the Allied Powers. The British government actually encourages (and perhaps was the initial stimulus for) its convocation. By excluding socialist representation from Triple Alliance countries and even from neutral countries, such a conference could only aim at reinforcement of patriotism in the name of socialism. Moreover, the London conference is strictly a get-together sponsored and directed from the top. The rank and file of the Socialist Parties are not even informed about this conference, much less asked for opinions or advices on its character and purpose.

Resolutions are adopted by the London conference: The conference notes the imperialist causes of the war. But, it asserts, the invasion of Belgium and France menaced national independence; a victory of the German imperialists would mean the end of democracy and liberty in Europe. Hence, the conference resolutions conclude: Support Allied imperialism now and, at the end of the imperialist war, the Socialist (Second) International will have the duty of uniting the International to suppress secret diplomacy; to work for disarmament; and to create an organ of arbitration to prevent wars thereafter.

London Conference of the International

It is to be noted that the London conference, even aside from its illusions or belief in the “war for democracy” and hence its support of its own imperialism, has no working class perspective for the post-war period. It adopts proposals entirely predicated on a continuation of bourgeois rule following the war. Moreover, the proposals adopted for the amelioration of war dangers have been demonstrated to be completely illusory and utopian. Disarmament by agreement of imperialist powers who must arm to the teeth to protect what they already possess and endeavor to increase further their imperialist control at one another’s expense! Arbitration when wars today begin unproclaimed, and so forth.

Even more appalling from a revolutionary standpoint, coming from a conference which calls itself socialist, is the lack of a revolutionary perspective to bring an end to the war. The London conference does not envisage the goal of socialist or workers’ power and a socialist economic and political program for the post-war period. The Socialist Party (Second International), then as now, was not really convinced ideologically of the validity of the socialist solution to the evils of capitalism and to the scourge of imperialist war. It did not consciously develop the will to struggle toward the socialist assumption of power and the socialist reorganization of society. That is the empirical way and it always results in unworkable or unimportant palliatives or proposals to reform the beast of imperialism. Whatever the intentions of the conciliationists and reformists, the results are uniformly devastating to the workers. The first “World War for Democracy,” with the help and sponsorship of the socialists and labor capitulators, labored only for the victory of the Allied imperialists (“democracies”) and thus could only produce the Versailles Treaty. Today, the Norman Thomasites, with their post-war councils and their “Youth for Democracy” leagues, prove themselves legitimate heirs to the imperialist-bloodstained legacy of the social-patriots of the First World War. The proletarian revolution is not in their calculations any more than the Russian October was in the program or expectations of the Second International and syndicalist patriots.

Another significant episode takes place with the injection of the Russian Bolsheviks into the proceedings. Maxim Litvinoff forces his way into the conference, declaring his protest at the decisions being taken and proclaiming the non-participation of the Bolsheviks in this social-patriotic gathering. On behalf of the Bolsheviks, he demands that Emile Vandervelde of Belgium and Jules Guesde and M. Sembat of France quit their cabinet posts; and finally, that the Belgian and French Socialist Parties clearly renounce the national blocs (popular fronts) which support “national unity.” (Incredible as it may seem, this is the same Maxim Litvinoff who has been the leading exponent of Stalin’s popular front conceptions. At present Soviet ambassador to the United States, he is noted for his espousal of collective security between the Allied governments to encircle Germany and for the Stalin-Laval pact between Russia and France in 1934.)

The revolutionary socialist elements thus indicate to the Allied “socialists” their emphatic opposition to the abandonment of principled policy and demonstrate their unflinching resistance to the growing crimes of Russian czarism, which is participating in the Allied “democratic” cause. These revolutionaries also extend the hand of solidarity to the revolutionary social-democrats of Germany and Austria – Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and others.

To the London conference of social-patriots, the Central Powers social-patriots have only one answer – a similar conference of Central Powers “socialists” scheduled for April 1915. Thus the “socialists” in each camp align themselves on opposing imperialist fronts, maligning the name of true socialism, which stands for international class solidarity.

Labor Militancy Begins to Revive

Resistance to the war develops slowly and with difficulty. After nine months of war, the French Federation of Metal Workers is able to issue a May Day statement in respect to the war. Since the war, its official organ, the Union des Métaux, had been unable to appear because of lack of funds. The journal relates facts and information suppressed by others. It discusses the capitulation of the CGT. It reports the appeal of the German workers (April 4, 1915) for peace and socialism – an appeal which the CGT had ignored. Moreover, the publication refuses to print material in support of the London conference on the ground that this so-called socialist conference was sponsored by the Allied governments to promote their war objectives.

Merrheim’s protests and that of his Metal Workers Union cause a stir among workers wherever the actions become known. To intimidate others who might be inspired by Merrheim’s action to follow suit, rumors are circulated that he has been placed under arrest.

The Socialist Party press continues publication all the while. Permission for its continued publication is obvious in view of its crass pro-war position. Nevertheless, it is obvious from the columns of the paper that the leadership is far from being in good repute with the rank and file. Space is continuously devoted to an effort to explain and justify to the ranks their desertion by their leaders. These justifications become harder to find after Jules Guesde and M. Sembat enter the war cabinet on August 28, 1914.

At the same time, the Socialist Party is constantly under attack from the right nationalists. The latter accuse them of having hindered the war efforts by their earlier proposals for peace. The embarrassing predicament of the Socialist Party is evidently that all of those who differ with the dominant ruling group or administration are not principled but tactical and secondary. (Witness the attacks today on the America Firsters, who were the bourgeois isolationists, by the war-made Rooseveltians, who were the bourgeois interventionists.) By their failure to maintain a consistent stand against war, the social patriots are open to attack from the right for having impeded preparedness before the war. From the left, of course, the real basis for attack on the French socialists (and other Second Internationalists of that stripe) is that they deserted the proletarian cause and proletarian opposition to war and went over bag and baggage into the camp of the imperialists.

Next René Nicod enters a protest against the war. His protest is answered by his mobilization into the armed forces.

As the human waste and futility of imperialist war become increasingly evident, the ranks of the Socialist Party begin to become more vocal in their discontent and criticism. The locals begin to meet again. The flag of opposition is raised when, in June 1915, the Federation of the Haute-Vienne adopts a critical resolution which asks for immediate moves toward the establishment of peace. The resolution which cites the action of Liebknecht in Germany and recalls the resolutions of the pre-war international congresses, serves as a rallying point of oppositionists to the war in the next period.

The women and youth have also begun to move in an oppositionist direction. In March 1915, the Women’s Socialist Conference is held and a youth conference takes place in April 1915. Both conferences take positive stands against the war. Significantly, both conferences have delegates from the Central Powers, the Allied Powers and the neutral countries. At these conferences are present delegates who are soon to become adherents of the Third (Communist) International. These elements find themselves combating two other trends: one, a pacifist outlook toward the war; two, a centrist outlook and proposals.

The regroupments in the labor and socialist movements begin to take clearer shape. Over the opposition of Jouhaux (leader of the CGT), a conference of syndicalists is called by a vote of 19 to 10; Jouhaux finally relenting upon the understanding that the conference be limited to one day. His hope is clearly to render the opposition helpless by making discussions brief and unimpassioned. The conference adopts a resolution to achieve understanding with the workers’ organizations in the belligerent countries. Jouhaux endeavors to mini-mire the differences between himself and the oppositionists by making an appeal for a “just peace.” By incorporating this proposal in his resolution, he aims to split away or dissuade anti-war oppositionists from support of the more specific and concrete left wing stand on the war. The resolution introduced by Merrheim and representing the left wing contains as its central concepts: “THIS IS NOT OUR WAR!” and “THIS IS ENOUGHI” His resolution receives 27 votes.

It will be noted that the CGT and the French socialists (and similar elements in other countries) issued calls for a “just peace” from time to time. But all these calls were empty and meaningless, whatever their intent, because they did not ring out clear and straight on the fundamental aspects that alone could strike root and evoke response from the workers. They did not include a denunciation of the imperialist war and of the imperialist governments on both sides. They did not state clearly and boldly that this was not our war. And they did not assert precisely and unambiguously that the class struggle and its conscious continuation, in times of war as in peace, was the fundamental principle.

The bureau of the Second International had not met since the beginning of the war. Even after the bureau’s office had been moved to The Hague (neutral territory), the French socialists refused to attend, despite special arrangements made for them to meet at a different time and not with the Germans. So deep had social chauvinism penetrated the body of official French socialism.

However, Grimm, the Swiss socialist, makes his way to Paris, and reports on the socialist groups of the left that are in existence in Italy, Switzerland and Germany. Plans are discussed and made for regularizing connections among the anti-war socialists. Morgari, the Italian socialist, insists upon the convocation of an international gathering. Emile Vandervelde, right wing socialist who had entered the Belgian cabinet and was a strong supporter of the Allies, resists the proposal and says he will fight against the convocation of such a conference. But the opponents of the imperialist war are determined. The Italian Socialist Party, which had remained fundamentally on an internationalist course during the war, takes the initiative in calling the international congress. Zimmerwald approaches the first beacon light of the reviving spirit, militancy and internationalism of the working class out of the war morass and spiritual collapse of the masses.

The Second International had collapsed. Capitulation to the imperialist war had rendered this certain. Elementary lessons of the theories of socialism had ben forgotten or disregarded by the officialdom of the Second International and the respective parties and by the theoryless elements in the labor organizations.

Opponents to War Convene at Zimmerwald

History, revolutionary history, had to be made again. Zimmerwald was to prove the first firm step in the consolidation of a small group of revolutionary internationalists, who understood thoroughly that the years ahead were stormy – representing essentially either times of war, reaction and misery for the masses (with brief interludes of relative peace) or social revolution, the effort of the proletariat to come into its own.

A preliminary conference for Zimmerwald is held in July, 1915. Present are representatives from the Italian and Swiss socialists, Axelrod from the Russian Mensheviks and Zinoviev from the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks want to exclude wavering non-revolutionary elements from the pending Zimmerwald conference. Others want to bid for support from the centrist groups. Lenin, from the left, asks for uncompromising opposition and condemnations of the social chauvinists. Repudiating their defense of the fatherland, he offers in its place a program of revolutionary action.

Opposition to the war gains momentum, and proof that Zimmerwald is not an isolated phenomenon is found in the fact that two weeks before the Zimmerwald gathering, thirty members of the social democrats in the German Reichstag refuse to vote for the war credits and leave the Chamber.

The Zimmerwald Conference is held in secrecy. Delegates good-humoredly remark that half a century after the founding of the First International, it is yet possible to hold all the internationalist delegates in four stage coaches. But, remarks Trotsky, they were not skeptical and looked forward to their work at Zimmerwald.

Conspicuously absent at Zimmerwald are Jules Guesde, M. Sembat, Renaudel and J. Longuet, all of France; Emile Vandervelde of Belgium, Plekhanoff of Russia, Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein of Germany, and Adler of Austria. History records that, having surrendered ignominiously to social patriotism and social chauvinism and having abandoned or totally disregarded the principles of socialism and the working class movement, never again did these once significant figures of the international socialist and labor movement return to the revolutionary road.

The British government refuses passports to members of the British Independent Labor Party and the British Socialist Party – among them Ramsay Macdonald, who was opposed to the First World War, although he later turned renegade to the cause of socialism. Karl Liebknecht manages to send a message from Germany where he had been imprisoned for revolutionary agitation against the war. Delegates are present from the Russian social-democracy and social revolutionaries, and likewise from Italy, Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria, Sweden, Norway and Holland. The French syndicalists of the left are represented by Merrheim. The representative of the French SP is Bouderon. Both men are mainly pacifist in outlook.

Lenin Calls for Struggle Against War

The conference lasts from September 5 to 8, 1915. A joint statement representing the French and German opposition to the war is issued and characterizes the war as imperialist and NOT OUR WAR.

All sessions of the conference are animated, even stormy. Lenin, who holds the extreme left position, regards the majority of the other delegates as pacifist in their outlook toward the war. On several questions he is a minority of one, even within the group of the Zimmerwald left. It is Lenin’s conviction that the delegates should make a complete break with centrism and the centrists who wished to reform the Second International. He believes that the foundations of a Third International should be laid.

Trotsky is close to the Zimmerwald left on all decisive questions but is not formally a member of it. He endeavors to play the rôle of conciliator between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. Rakovsky, later the leader of the Rumanian Bolsheviks and member of the ECCI, takes a centrist position on this occasion, hoping for the reformation of the Second International.

On the thirty-five delegates at Zimmerwald, Lenin can count on only seven or eight. His left resolution on the war is opposed most violently by the German, French and Italian delegates. In accordance with the procedure of the conference, the left draft resolution is not presented since only twelve delegates vote for its presentation and nineteen against.

Lenin finally accepts the majority resolution which is restrained in its criticism of the centrists in the hope that this group can still be reformed into a genuine socialist international movement. The resolution calls for a policy of irreconcilable class struggle, but does not specify the forms which the struggle should take. It does not insist that the socialists in the parliaments should refuse to vote war credits; it does not demand that the socialists in war cabinets should quit the ministries of national unity and national defense; it does not call for open opposition in the Parliaments to the war; it does not call for legal and underground propaganda against the war nor for street demonstrations and strikes in protest against the war. While accepting the resolution, Lenin nevertheless emphasizes that it is futile to call for peace without revolutionary struggle.

The Zimmerwald Conference sets up a permanent enlarged executive committee to plan further action and struggle. (This committee is dissolved in March 1919 at the founding congress of the Third International.)

Following Zimmerwald, the CAP (Commission Administrative Permanente) of the French Socialist Party passes a resolution repudiating the Zimmerwald Conference and movement. However, the middle of the road opposition to the majority (Longuet, etc.) begins to grow. The British ILP prints the resolution adopted at Zimmerwald. The bureau of the Second International vigorously fights the Zimmerwald decisions and resolutions.

Thus, Zimmerwald stands – repudiated by the social-patriots for its first efforts at resuming international class solidarity, and criticized by the left wing for its failure to adopt the revolutionary consequences of its anti-war position. Nevertheless, it marks the beginning of encouraging and serious responses from anti-war elements, especially the youth. Through this conference, impetus is given to the anti-war elements in Germany, in France, in Russia and elsewhere.

The Russian Revolution Approaches

The Spartacists of Germany begin to enlarge upon their activities. The French CGT, confronted with rising disillusionment and dissatisfaction among the workers, finds itself forced to organize a campaign of self-defense against the accusations of having accepted and endorsed the imperialist war and also of having been against the resumption of international relations between labor. One notes a revival of the pacifists. The intellectuals begin to study the causes, the roots of the war. At the same time, working conditions become more intolerable. Women especially suffer from low wages and long hours. The CGT majority, in an attempt to revive its lost prestige among the workers, offers to plead the case of the workers with the government, claiming special powers because they have private access to government officials. This proposal to make the demands of the metal workers a football in the game of palace politics is refused by Merrheim.

What next? With the commencement of the war, the state power of the bourgeoisie in the respective countries became stronger. At the moment, it alone appeared the stable force in society, as chaos spread everywhere. The labor and socialist movements had surrendered at the outset to social patriotism and national unity, betraying the interests and losing the confidence of the masses whom they led. Failing to see in vigorous class opposition to the imperialist war the real opportunity for labor and all the oppressed, they had become mere adjuncts in the imperialist state power.

From the course of the war, from the behavior of the labor and socialist officialdom and from the reaction of the masses, this much is clear: Before the commencement of war, at the moment of its outbreak, during the war itself – at all these times, the problem of “what must be done” revolves about the question of the relation of the working class movement to the state, to the governing powers and to the imperialist class they represent. Imperialist war, the most critical and cruel expression of the class struggle in society, even more than the interludes of peace under capitalism, poses before the working class the need of socialism. More dear than at any other time is the necessity for the working class to achieve state power in order to bring an end to imperialist power and to lay the foundations for lasting peace through the new social order of socialism. This lesson had yet to be understood and applied during the First World War. It is first applied by the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party under the leadership of Lenin. But before the emergence of this event, which really raises aloft the flag of world socialism, two years more of blood are to drench the earth.


1. From Boris Souvarine’s account of French Socialism during the War in the American Labor Year Book, 1919–20.

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