Wed Jul 17, 2024
July 17, 2024

On the 100th anniversary of the Zimmerwald Conference, what lessons should we learn? Part II

In September this year, when the Zimmerwald Conference completed its 100th anniversary, a lot of articles and essays referring to this event was published. And predictably, in most of them, explicitly or implicitly, Lenin’s policy on this conference is considered an example to be followed to address the current situation.

Considering that historic analogies should be made very carefully, since it is necessary to observe the different class struggle scenarios that are being compared, we agree that the Leninist policy before Zimmerwald and centrism is a crucial guide to respond to the current situation: Syriza, Cristina Kirchner’s and Dilma’s governments etc. The problem of the different works that have been published is the huge confusion towards Zimmerwald’s meaning and the Bolshevik policy at that time.

What was the Zimmerwald Conference?

It was neither a united workers’ front nor a permanent block between revolutionaries and centrists, and even less a united revolutionary front. It was just a meeting between very few anti-war leaders of the Second International. Trotsky, who played a key role at the conference, describes it as follows:

“In the summer of 1915 there arrived in Paris the Italian deputy Morgari, the secretary of the Socialist faction of the Rome parliament, and a naive eclectic, who had come to secure the participation of French and English socialists in an international conference. (…) The organization of the conference was in the hands of the Berne socialist leader, Grimm, who was then trying his utmost to raise himself above the philistine level of his party, which was also his own inherent level. He had arranged to hold the meeting in a little village called Zimmerwald, high in the mountains and about ten kilometres distant from Berne. The delegates, filling four stage-coaches, set off for the mountains. 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. The days of the conference, September 5 to 8, were stormy ones. The revolutionary wing, led by Lenin, and the pacifist wing, which comprised the majority of the delegates, agreed with difficulty on a common manifesto of which I had prepared the draft.

“The manifesto was far from saying all that it should have said, but, even so, it was a long step forward. Lenin was on the extreme left at the conference. In many questions he was in a minority of one, even within the Zimmerwald left wing, to which I did not formally belong, although I was close to it on all-important questions. In Zimmerwald, Lenin was tightening up the spring of the future international action. In a Swiss mountain village, he was laying the corner-stone of the revolutionary International. (…) Liebknecht himself was not in Zimmerwald; he had been imprisoned in the Hohenzollern army before he became a captive in prison. Liebknecht sent a letter to the conference which proclaimed his abrupt about-face from pacifism to revolution. His name was mentioned on many occasions at the conference. It was already a watchword in the struggle that was rending world-socialism.(…)The conference at Zimmerwald gave to the development of the anti-war movement in many countries a powerful impetus. In Germany, the Spartacists expanded their activities.(…) The essentially unimportant differences that still separated me from Lenin at Zimmerwald dwindled into nothing during the next few months.” (Paris, and Zimmerwald, My Life, Leon Trotsky. 

The meeting, the Manifesto – which had been agreed upon after “a lot of effort” – as well as the upcoming international links were considered by Lenin as “a step forward towards a real struggle against opportunism, towards a rupture with it” and, besides, against Kautsky’s will (the leading centrist figure) to reestablish international relations only after the end of the war.

The “Zimmerwaldian International”, as Lenin used to call that meeting, had a very short life. But it was never a bloc of the revolutionaries with the centrists. On the contrary, Lenin developed a violent struggle against the centrists in the Conference, despite being clearly in minority (8 of 38 delegates). He knew his position would not pass at the Conference, but he wanted to win the best cadres of the Second International. That is why Trotsky says that “in Zimmerwald, Lenin was tightening up the spring of the future international action.” And, according to his own address, the differences between him and Lenin reduced to nothing during the following months.

In line with this policy, Lenin demanded that, along with the joint Manifesto, the resolution of the Left Zimmerwald, drafted by Radek, should also be published. It called for:

“The prelude to this struggle is the struggle against the world war and for a quick end to the slaughter of the peoples. This struggle demands rejection of war credits, an exit from government ministries, and denunciation of the war’s capitalist and anti-socialist character – in the parliamentary arena, in the pages of legal and, when necessary, illegal publications, along with a  forthright struggle against social-patriotism. Every popular movement arising from the consequences of war (impoverishment, heavy casualties, and so on) must be utilised to organize street demonstrations against the governments, propaganda for international solidarity in the trenches, demands for economic strikes, and the effort to transform such strikes, where conditions are favourable, into political struggles. “The slogan is civil war, not civil peace.” (Draft Resolution on the World War and the Tasks of Social Democracy,

There is no chance of winning the working class with centrist positions

This was Lenin’s position and this is how he presents it in his text “Socialism and the War”, of August 1915, whose German version was distributed at the Zimmerwald Conference. In this text, he makes a critical analysis of the international meetings that preceded Zimmerwald:

“We have in mind the conferences in Luganoand Copenhagen, the International Women’s Conferenceand the International Youth Conference.These assemblies were inspired by the best wishes. But they totally failed to see the above-mentioned danger. They did not lay down a fighting line for internationalists. They did not point out to the proletariat the danger that threatens it from the social-chauvinists’ method of “restoring” the International. At best, they confined themselves to repeating the old resolutions without indicating to the workers that unless a struggle is waged against the social-chauvinists, the cause of Socialism is hopeless. At best they marked time.”

In the same text, Lenin explains why the centrists are more harmful than the social-patriots:

“Weare convinced that the author of the leading article in the magazine Die Internationale was profoundly right when he asserted that the Kautskyan “Centre” is doing more harm to Marxism than avowed social-chauvinism. Whoever now obscures disagreements, whoever now, in the guise of Marxism, preaches to the workers what Kautskyism is preaching, is lulling the workers, is more harmful than the Südekums and Heines, who put the question bluntly and compel the workers to try to grasp the issue.”

And he finishes, in the moment when revolutionaries lived in a situation of deep isolation from the mass movement, explicitly defining what is the only way to gain the sympathy of the working class:

Conferences with so-called programmes of “action” have amounted up till now only to the proclamation, more or less fully, of the programme of simple pacifism. Marxism is not pacifism. It is necessary, of course, to fight for the speediest termination of the war. But only if a revolutionary struggle is called for does the demand for “peace” acquire proletarian meaning. Without a series of revolutions, so-called democratic peace is a philistine utopia. The purpose of a teal programme of action would be served only by a Marxian programme, which gave the masses a full and clear explanation of what has occurred, which explained what imperialism is and how to combat it, which openly stated that it was opportunism that led to the collapse of the Second International, which openly called for the building of a Marxist International without and against the opportunists. Only such a programme as would show that we have confidence in ourselves, confidence in Marxism, that we proclaim a life-and-death struggle against opportunism would sooner or later ensure for us the sympathy of the genuine proletarian masses.

His inflexible stance against Kautskyist centrism makes him behave very harshly towards those whom he believes that capitulate to it. This is the case of Martov, Rakovsky and also of Trotsky, whom Lenin questioned not only for not having completely broken with his conciliatory expectations and not defending “revolutionary defeatism,” but also for raising the slogan of “United States of Europe.” Lenin believes that this proposal, as well as being reactionary because it proposes the unity of imperialist countries, is a capitulation to Kautsky.

From the very beginning: adamant delimitation with the centrists, no bloc with them

In January 1917, Lenin writes Zimmerwald at the Crossroads, which says:

Either expose the vapidity, stupidity and hypocrisy of bourgeois pacifism,or “paraphrase” it into “socialist” pacifism. Fight the Jouhaux, Renaudels, Legiens and Davids as the “hirelings” of the governments,orjoin with them in empty pacifist declamations on the French or German models.Thatis now the dividing line between the Zimmerwald Right, which has always strenuously opposed a break with the social-chauvinists, and the Left, which at the Zimmerwald Conference had the foresight publicly to dissociate itself from the Right and to put forward, at the Conference and after it in the press, its own platform.”

This adamant delimitation with the centrists, right from the start, is reaffirmed in the project of the platform of the proletarian party, written by Lenin in April 10, 1917 (The tasks of the Proletariat in our Revolution). In Section 17, Collapse of the Zimmerwald International. The Need for founding a Third International, it is stated:

“From the very outset, the Zimmerwald International adopted a vacillating, “Kautskyite”, “Centrist” position, which immediately compelled the Zimmerwald Left to dissociate itself, to separate itself from the rest, and to  issue its own manifesto (published in Switzerland in Russian, German and French).”

Trotsky confirms and claims Lenin’s attitude towards centrism

In 1929, responding to a criticism of being pretty hard on centrism and very mild with the right, Trotsky says: 

“But the centrists, as well as the right wing, are on our right. When fighting centrism, we are undertaking a two fold battle against the right, because centrism is nothing but a modified, disguised, misleading form of opportunism.” (Diplomacy or revolutionary politics? Letter to a Czechoslovakian comrade, July 1, 1929)

He adds, in the same text: 

“Lenin himself was accused of forgetting the right and helping it when he fought the left centrism. He was accused by me of doing that on more than one occasion. This, and not the permanent revolution, was the fundamental error of ‘historical Trotskyism’. In order to arrive at real Bolshevism, not with a Stalinist passport, it is necessary to fully understand the meaning and the uncompromising attitude of Lenin in relation to centrism; without it you can’t get to the proletarian revolution… Will we grow faster or slowly? I do not know. It does not depend solely on us. But we will grow relentlessly… with a correct policy.”

Trotsky’s self-criticism of Leninist policy confirms what we expressed at the outset: Leninist policy towards Zimmerwald and centrism are a guide to face the current challenges. As Trotsky said, we can grow faster or slower, but we can’t set up the proletarian revolution without assuming Lenin’s uncompromising attitude in relation to centrism.


Read Part I: 100 years of Zimmerwald

Check out our other content

Check out other tags:

Most Popular Articles