Wed Nov 29, 2023
November 29, 2023

A hundred years since the Zimmerwald Conference – Part 1

In September 1915, a handful of leaders of the Second International gathered at the Zimmerwald Conference, in Switzerland, to try to reach a common position against the First World War. Among them were Lenin and Trotsky.

Recently, two leaders of parties of the IWL-FI (André Freire from the PSTU-Brazil and Alicia Sagra from the PSTU-Argentina) published articles on this historical event on the Brazilian Blog Convergência with their views on its meaning. We believe it will be of interest to our readers to know both materials, that are to be posted in two parts.


Zimmerwald and the struggle for the reconstruction of Revolutionary Marxism

André Freire

At exactly one hundred years ago, in September 1915, happened an important international meeting, which turned out to be a crucial first step for the reconstruction of revolutionary Marxism. Extremely shaken and divided, the Marxists were at a crossroads before the betrayal of the Socialist International (Second International) and most of the leaderships of its parties, especially the German SPD, the most important and most traditional of them, that ended up supporting the bourgeoisies of their countries in the First World War. This included their MPs voting for the expansion of the War Budget (so-called “war credits”).

In order to oppose the capitulationist policy of the international leadership’s majority wing, an International Socialist Conference was held in the town of Zimmerwald, Switzerland, between 5 and 8 September 1915. The discussions that happened at the Zimmerwald Conference, as it became known historically, were important to the assertion that revolutionary Marxist ideas had not died along with the enormous betrayal of the working class represented by the policy of the Second International in the First World War.

Doubtlessly, the reconstruction of a revolutionary International was a task of enormous magnitude, but it fell into the hands of very few organizations, groups and Marxist leaders, who at that time represented an extremely small wing within the “powerful” Socialist International. Without them, however, it’s impossible to fully understand the major facts of class struggle that followed the realization of the Zimmerwald Conference and the role of enormous importance its participants played in them, namely the outcome of the World War I, the October Revolution 1917 in Russia, the defeat of the German revolution in the shift from the first to the second decade of the twentieth century and the building of the Third International (the Communist International).

Two years from now we will be celebrating the first centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. It is just fair to incorporate in this historic celebration the critical role which the Bolshevik Party played – when it was still a minority organization (although already a very important one) inside Russia itself – both in the struggle against the betrayal of social democracy and in the decisive steps within the movement of Zimmerwaldists for the construction of the Third International, an overcoming of the already bankrupt Second International, from the point of view of revolutionary struggle.

Organizing the Conference

The Italian Socialist Party, after having a year before expelled Mussolini himself, opted for neutrality in the war, and along with the Swiss socialists, were the main organizers of the Zimmerwald Conference.

The figures are not completely accurate, but it was attended by anything between 36 and 42 delegates [1], representing parties and/or minority groups within parties from at least 19 countries. Among the main were: Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, Netherlands, Sweden, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland and Norway; from Russia showed up three organizations – the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks and the Left wing of the Socialist-Revolutionaries; the English representatives, members of the Independent Labour Party and the British Socialist Party, could not leave their country. The German Spartacist Group, which was led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, was not present.

At the end of the Conference, a Manifesto was approved, drafted by Leon Trotsky, which condemned the policy of the Second International in World War I, although there were important controversies over its contents. An International Socialist Committee (ISK) was also appointed, which represented, in practice, a new international grouping. Or, in Lenin words “… a new International Socialist Bureau, against the wishes of the old Bureau and on the basis of a manifesto that openly condemns their tactic.”

The ISK was a step towards the reorganization, on an international basis, of the forces that claimed Marxism and opposed the betrayal of the Second International. Although it did not adopt the strategy of splitting with the Socialist International, it, in addition to the approval of the Manifesto, also took organizational steps, such as publishing statements, bulletins and circulars, which informed the labor movement and the militants of organizations which had participated in the Conference about its meetings and initiatives.

Major Controversies

Even though there was a common ground among its participants – the condemnation of the policy of the majority of the leadership of the Second International in the war – the Zimmerwald Conference was marked by strong polemics since its beginning.

In the main discussions, two groupings were established. A majority, with more moderate positions on the program to be adopted by the Conference; and a left wing, that expressed more forcefully the positions of revolutionary Marxism. At the head of the Zimmerwald Left is the Russian Bolshevik Party.

The primary controversy ended up being the definition of the final Conference Manifesto. A majority proposal unified the moderate sectors and centrists, which had 19 votes against the proposal made by the Bolsheviks and some international allies (the Internationalists), which had 12 votes.

After heated debates, the final Manifesto ended up incorporating some ideas espoused by the Bolsheviks, particularly those concerning the definition of the imperialist character of World War I and the severe condemnation of the policy of “social-chauvinism” (nationalism) of the leadership of the Second International in the war.

However, even taking into account the advances in the content of the final Manifesto, still there remained significant differences. Among them, the refusal of the majority to incorporate in the manifesto a political condemnation of the pacifist and centrist sectors which wavered in breaking completely with the policy of the majority of the Second International. More importantly, the hesitation of nearly all of those present in pointing to the urgent need to break with the social-democratic International, taking the first steps to building the Third International. This task was, even then, the main strategic concern of the Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks made a positive appraisal of their role at the Zimmerwald Conference, despite the programmatic limits previously pointed out in its manifesto. For Lenin, the manifesto meant an important “first step” in the struggle against the social-chauvinism of the Second International and as an assertion of an alternative, which took form with the creation of the ISK, which in practice appeared as an alternative, in face of the bankruptcy, for the revolutionary project, of the leadership of the former Socialist Bureau (of the Second International). On the outcome of the activities of the Bolsheviks in Zimmerwald, Lenin stated:

Was our Central Committee right in signing this manifesto, with all its inconsistency and timidity? We think it was. Our non-agreement, the non-agreement, not only of our Central Committee but of the entire international Left-wing section of the Conference, which stands by the principles of revolutionary Marxism, is openly expressed both in a special resolution, a separate draft manifesto, and a separate declaration on the vote for a compromise manifesto. We did not conceal a jot of our views, slogans, or tactics. A German edition of our pamphlet, Socialism and War was handed out at the Conference. We have spread, are spreading, and shall continue to spread our views with no less energy than the manifesto will. It is a fact that this manifesto is a step forward towards a real struggle against opportunism, towards a rupture with it. It would be sectarianism to refuse to take this step forward together with the minority of German, French, Swedish, Norwegian, and Swiss socialists, when we retain full freedom and full opportunity to criticise inconsistency and to work for greater things. It would be poor war tactics to refuse to adhere to the mounting international protest movement against social-chauvinism just because this movement is slow, because it takes “only” a single step forward and because (…) In September 1914, our Central Committee’s Manifesto seemed almost isolated. In March 1915, an international women’s conference adopted a miserable pacifist resolution, which was blindly followed by the Organising Committee. In September 1915, we rallied in a whole group of the international Left wing. We came out with our own tactics, voiced a number of our fundamental ideas in a joint manifesto, and took part in the formation of an I.S.C. (International Socialist Committee), i.e., a practically new International Socialist Bureau, against the wishes of the old one, and on the basis of a manifesto that openly condemns the tactics of the latter. (Lenin, The first step, October 1915).

Lenin especially valued the fact that the Bolsheviks did not conceal their substantial differences with the Zimmerwald Manifesto’s content to keep taking part in its forums. On the contrary, they discussed the controversies during the Conference, were able to incorporate several of their arguments on the joint Manifesto and even made a public statement at the end, making explicit what for them were the limits of that document. Now, as Lenin said, it would be a sectarian error to hastily break with Zimmerwald, for the participation in the conference of the Bolsheviks meant a step forward for the reconstruction of revolutionary Marxism internationally.

The release of the joint Manifesto did not mean that the controversies had closed; on the contrary, in fact, they deepened inside the Zimmerwaldian group and within its forums, mostly the ISK.

The controversies increased by the end of 1915 and at the beginning of the year 1916. Divergences were a consequence of the prolongation of the War and the treacherous politics of the Second International, which made more evident the programmatic limits of the first manifesto, particularly about the need for a forceful rupture with the social-chauvinist sectors, and also with the pacifists and centrists, toward the construction of the Third International. The intensification of controversies precipitated the convocation of the Second International Socialist Conference, which happened between 24 and 30 April 1916 in the Swiss city of Kienthal.

Towards the Third International

The Central Committee of the Bolsheviks wrote a preliminary draft for the Kienthal Conference, harshly criticizing the wavering position of the majority of the Zimmerwaldian group and reaffirming the need for a complete break, political as well as organizational, with the Second International. The draft of the Bolsheviks even pointed out that such rupture was already happening naturally and practically at several national parties. Therefore it was necessary to move immediately to the practical work of building the Third International, as stated by the Bolshevik document:

“Actually, there is already a split throughout the world; two entirely irreconcilable working-class policies in relation to the war have crystallised. We must not close our eyes to this fact; to do so would only result in confusing the masses of the workers, in befogging their minds, in hindering the revolutionary mass struggle with which all Zimmerwaldists officially sympathise… It is the social-chauvinists and Kautskyites of all countries who will undertake the task of restoring the bankrupt International Socialist Bureau. The task of the socialists is to explain to the masses the inevitability of a split with those who pursue a bourgeois policy under the flag of socialism.” (Lenin, Proposals Submitted by the Central Committee of the R.S.D.L.P. to the Second Socialist Conference, 1916)

Despite the escalation of World War I and the increasingly nefarious role of the social-chauvinist policy of the leadership of social democracy, once again most of the Zimmerwaldian group hesitates, and doesn’t adopt the proposals of the Bolsheviks. Especially, it refuses to point out the need for a Third International.

The Bolsheviks make a harsh assessment of the vacillating attitude of the majority wing of the second Conference, but choose to continue working within it, to contend for the construction of a new revolutionary international organization, given the evident failure of the Second International.

However, the permanence of the Bolsheviks in the ISK, in practice, was accompanied by an intensification of the political, theoretical and programmatic struggle against the majority of the Zimmerwald group. After all, although the Kienthal Manifesto condemned once again the policy of the Second International in the war, most of its groups and leaders had already consolidated a pacifist attitude and already rehearsed the first movements which would seek in the future for a political recomposition with the old leadership of the Second International. At this time, the conclusion of the Bolsheviks was as follows:

It has now been definitely established—of this we are profoundly convinced—that the Zimmerwald majority, or the Zimmerwald Right, has made a roundabout turn not towards struggle against social-chauvinism, but towards complete surrender to it, towards merger with it on a platform of empty pacifist phrases. And we consider it our duty openly to state that to support, in these circumstances, the illusion of Zimmerwald unity and Zimmerwald struggle for the Third International would cause the greatest damage to the labour movement. We declare, not as a “threat” or “ultimatum”, but as an open notification of our decision, that unless the situation changes we shall not remain a member of the Zimmerwald group. (Lenin, Theses for an Appeal to the International Socialist Committee and All Socialist Parties, 1917)

The political regression carried out by the majority of the Zimmerwald group towards pacifist positions becomes even more explicit in the agreements which they have begun to materialize, in various national parties, with the old social democratic leadership, isolating the internationalist groups that organized themselves in the Zimmerwald Left.

The intensification of the debate inside the Zimmerwaldian group is combined with the reopening of the revolutionary process in Russia. In February 1917, a revolution at last overthrows the Russian Tsar, the Soviets are again organized and a provisional government is installed, with a Liberal (Kadet) majority supported by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, which would later be part of it.

The Bolsheviks even conclude that it is necessary to take advantage of the political opening in Russia, with the collapse of Tsarism, to work openly for the construction of the Third International, definitely breaking away with the right and the center of Zimmerwald, remaining in ISK only for a while, to make clear their positions. They said:

“The Zimmerwald bog can no longer be tolerated. We must not, for the sake of the Zimmerwald “Kautskyites”, continue the semi-alliance with the chauvinist International of the Plekhanovs and Scheidemanns. We must break with this International immediately. We must remain in Zimmerwald only for purposes of information.

“It is we who must found, and right now, without delay, a new, revolutionary, proletarian International…” (Lenin, The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution, 1917)

Still a third International Socialist Conference was held in September 1917 in Stockholm (Sweden), but already without the support and attendance of the Bolshevik party. This was the last international meeting convened on behalf of the Zimmerwaldian Group.

The practical tasks of the Russian revolutionary process and discussions with international allies who still resisted in explicitly agreeing with the founding of the Third International, especially with the Spartacist Germans (the political group of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht), ended up delaying for two years its official creation. The extraordinary impulse given by the seizing of power by the Bolsheviks in October 1917, creating the first workers’ state in history, allowed a favorable situation for the construction of a new revolutionary international. The Third International is thus established in March 1919.

The impact of the Russian Revolution on the international labor movement and the revolutionary upheaval that shook an important part of Europe at the end of World War I opened up the conditions in which the Third International would become, in a short span of time, a real party of the World Revolution, with strong national parties, which gained great political influence and an increasing membership in the main European countries.

For this, first, the programmatic and principled inflexibility for the construction of a genuine revolutionary International, along with the tactical flexibility of knowing how to strive for this proposal relentlessly inside the Zimmerwaldian group and the ISK, was an important process of accumulation of forces, by the Bolsheviks and the Internationalists, for the construction of the Third International.

The political and programmatic force and the size which the “Comintern” had already acquired at the beginning of the 20s of the last century can’t be understood without a rigorous study of the irreconcilable political and theoretical struggle which the Bolsheviks fought within the social democracy and the group of Zimmerwald, when they were still a minority organization within Marxism, by the rupture and overcoming of the Second International, against their betrayal in World War I, and the urgent construction of the Third International.

This is why it is important that we remember and celebrate the centenary of the Zimmerwald Conference because, in the present day, the defense of revolutionary Marxism also requires us to have the same firmness of ideology and of principles, combined with the flexibility in political tactics, which the Bolsheviks had faced with the huge betrayal of social democracy at World War I and on the steps which they were required to take, in better conditions, for the construction of the Third International.


[1] – Tau Golin in his text “Introduction to the annals of the world party of revolution,” talks about 42 delegates; but Pierre Broué, in his book “History of the Communist International”, speaks of 36 delegates from 19 different countries.

Read Part II: 100 years of Zimmerwald. What lessons should we learn?

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