How and when did the split which formed the Zimmerwald Left in 1915 take place? Why was this the important step to building a new international? What are the lessons to be learned today as US imperialism steps up its war drive? With the end of the Soviet Bloc most of the Western left has reverted to a Menshevik position of putting faith in the completion of the bourgeois revolution. They have given up on any belief that the working class is the revolutionary class and substituted the petty bourgeois intelligentsia. Those who adapt to democratic imperialism, Stalinists, centrists, and social democrats avoid fighting their own ruling class! They turn their backs on revolutionary Marxism, Leninism, and Bolshevism. As the contradictions of imperialism intensify these Menshevik currents form a counter-revolutionary barrier to the leftward movement of workers and poor peasants. That is why we need a New Zimmerwald, a new Bolshevik left, and a new Communist International.
Zimmerwald at Last
During the first year of the war the pressure from the left for an international conference to unite those prepared to break with the social chauvinists and pacifists was sabotaged by the right and centre. The preliminary conference in Bern on July 11 1915 was dominated by the right and centre and rejected Zinoviev’s motions for revolutionary mass actions against the war. When the Zimmerwarld Conference was finally held, September 5-8, 8 delegates including the Polish, Russian delegates met beforehand and formed the ‘Zimmerwald left’. They were Lenin and Zinoviev (Bolsheviks), Berzin (Latvian social democrats), Radek (Polish-Lithuanian opposition), Borchardt (for Lichenstrahlen in Germany), Hoglund and Nerman (Swedish and Norwegian left), Platten (Switzerland). Trotsky was among several others who attended this meeting but did not endorse the left’s position.
Liebknecht writing from prison greets the delegates and calls for a "settling of accounts with the deserters and turncoats of the International". He urges the delegates to fight an international class war and to break with false appeals to national and party unity. He concludes:
"The new international will arise on the ruins of the old. It can only arise on these ruins, on new and firmer foundations. Friends – socialists from all countries – you must lay the foundation stone today for the future structure. Pass irreconcilable judgement upon the false socialists…Long live the future peace among peoples! Long live internationalist, people-liberating,
The formation of the ‘Zimmerwald left’ was the decisive step in the break with the old international. Lenin and Radek had drafted resolutions to put to the conference. Radek’s was adopted but Lenin’s references to support for colonial wars and calling for ‘defeat of one’s own country’ were omitted. Yet Radek’s draft was still strong. The war is characterised as an imperialist war. The causes of war can only be overcome by socialist revolution in the leading countries. The majority of the socialist international has gone over to the social patriotism of their national bourgeoisies. The ‘centre’ current of pacifists such as Kautsky is more dangerous than the open patriots because it misleads and confuses the more advanced workers. The left must struggle against social patriotism with every method at its disposal - rejection of war credits, propaganda against the war, demonstrations, fraternatisation in the trenches, strikes etc. Quoting Liebknecht’s letter, Radek concludes: "Civil war, not ‘civil peace’ is out slogan" (LSRI, 299).
The debates centred around the question of ‘civil peace’ versus ‘civil war’. Most delegates were for ‘peace’ because they said workers were demoralised, confused and needed further preparation before they could turn the war into a ‘civil war’. Those against ‘civil peace’ also included Trotsky who opposed to pacifism ‘class struggle and ‘social revolution’. Chernov the Russian socialist revolutionary said that the "struggle for peace exclusively" must be extended to the "struggle for social revolution". Radek’s resolution that put the case for ‘civil war’ was voted down 19 to 12 and did not become part of the final manifesto. Trotsky and Roland-Holst, Chernov and Natanson voted with the Zimmerward 8.
The Zimmerwald Manifesto addresses the Proletarians of Europe: "one thing is certain: the war that has produced this chaos is the product of imperialism…economically backward or politically weak nations are thereby subjecated by the great powers, who, in this war, are seeking to remake the world map with blood and ironin accord with their exploiting interests…In the course of the war, its driving forces are revealed in all their vileness…The capitalists of all countries who are coining the gold of war profits out of the blood shed by the people, assert that the war is for defence of the fatherland, for democracy and the liberation of oppressed nations…thus the war reveals the naked figure of modern capitalism which has become irreconcilable not only with the interests of the masses of workers, not only with the requirements of historical development, but also with the elementary conditions of human existence…this situation that faces us, threatening the entire future of Europe and humanity, cannot and must not be tolerated any longer without action…
So far so good, but what action? The Manifesto concludes: "Proletarians! Since the outbreak of the war you have placed your energy, yiour courage, your endurance at the service of the ruling classes. Now you must stand up for your own cause, for the sacred aims of socialism, for the emancipation of the oppressed nations as well as of the enslaved classes, by means of irreconcilable class struggle".
"Class struggle"? What does this mean? Socialists in the countries at war are told to take up "this task". What is this? "peace among the people". Compared with real task of turning the imperialist war into civil war this is a pious platitude. (320)
Lenin, Zinoviev, Radek, Nerman, Hoglund and Winter of the Zimmerwald left produced a statement protesting the ommision of any "characterisation of opportunism" as the main cause of the capitulation to war, and any clear presentation of "methods of struggle against the war". But they said that they would still vote for the Manifesto as a "call to struggle, and because we want to march forward in this struggle arm in arm with the other sections of the International".
Zimmerwald leads to inevitable split
The Zimmerwald left was aware of the need to use the left position to break with the right and centre to form a new international. Lenin and the others (excluding Trotsky) saw that a split was necesssary. Radek calls the betrayal of the opportunist a de facto split. The failure to prepare for a new international quickly was to set the scene for later defeats. This is most obvious in Lenin’s critique of the Spartacists for not taking a firm independent line against the centrists in Germany.
The main lesson from tZimmerwald was that the left needed to strike out on an independent course (collaborating where possible at Zimmerwald etc) to win over the most advanced workers, with both a critique of opportunism and the revolutionary mobilisation against the ruling class.
Radek put this forcefully in his report on the conference: "It may be a long-time before the masses, bled white by the war recover and renew the struggle. We can shorten this time, however by explaining to the most conscious workers why the International collapsed, how they have to struggle, for what goals they must appeal to other workers, and how they must organise the struggle under conditions of military rule. The more difficult the situation the clearer must be the politics of socialism. It is never too early to tell the workers their true situation" (339).
Lenin's critique of Luxemburg
Lenin critiqued Luxemburg and the German Spartacists for following the Zimmerwald Manifesto in toning down their critique of opportunism and failing to break from the centrists and create an independent party. He was responding to Luxemburg’s famous ‘Junius Pamphlet’.
"The chief defect in Junius pamphet…is its silence about the connection between social chauvinism …and opportunism..This is wrong from the standpoint of theory, for it is impossible to account for the ‘betrayal’ [of the 2nd international without linking it up witih opportunism as a trend with a long history behind it, the history of the whole Scond International. ..It is also a mistake from the practical political standpoint, for it is impossible either to understand the ‘crisis of social democracy’ or overcome it, without claifying the meaning and the role of two trends, the openly opportunist trend…and the tacitly opportunist trend…A very great defect in revolutionary Marxisn in Germany as a whole is its lack of a compact illegal organisation that would systematically pursue its own line and educate the masses in the spirit of the new tasks; such an organisation would have to take a definite stand on opportunism and Kautskyism (436).
Lenin also criticises Luxemburg for not understanding that a civil war against the bourgeoisie was necessary. "In saying that the class struggle is the best means of defence against invasion, Junius applies Marxist dialectics only half way…Marxist dialectics call for a concrete analysis of each specific historical situaiton…Class struggle…is too general and therefore inadequate in the present specific case. Cvil war against the bourgeoisie is also a form of class struggle, and only this form of class struggle would have saved Europe…from invasion" (443)
Lenin explains these defects in Luxemberg’s position materially as due to the ‘environment’ of German social democracy and the fear of the leftists to follow "their revolutionary slogans to their logical conclusions". As a result Luxemburg pulls back to "something like a Menshevik ‘theory of stages’ of first defending a republic and then to the next stage – socialist revolution"
"But this shortcoming is not Junius’ personal failing, but the result of the weakness of all the German leftists, who have become engangled in the vile net of Kautskyite hypocrisy, pedantry and "friendliness" for the opportunists."
Trotsky the semi-menshevik
Trotsky’s role in all this was confusionist. He had illusions in winning of the ‘centre’. He talked of Kautsky moving left. He confused the necessary subjective task of winning the most advanced workers (Radek’s point) with the objective backward consciousness of workers. This misled him into trying to influence the party leaders of the centre like Kautsky who had "authority" with the masses. Hence his mechanical schematic view that workers had to stop fighting themselves before they would fight their own bourgeoisies. This was true but undialectical.
Trotsky was proved wrong. When the German soldiers and sailors mutinied in 1918 they fulfilled the first part of Trotsky’s schema. But instead of turning their guns against the bourgeoisie, they were talked into exchanging their guns for votes in a German Republic. In Russia, the first revolution in February against the Tzar did not succumb to the bourgeoisie. The armed workers retained their guns, defeated the counter-revolution and went on to make a socialist revolution.
What was the lesson from Zimmerwald? Lenin expressed it very well. Imperialist wars can be won by workers only by means of a socialist revolution. Wars open up revolutionary crises and the revolutionary leadership must clearly take the lead from the right and centre of the party. The right goes further to the right and drags the centre with it. Failure to break from the centre was the fate of the German Spartacists. The lack of as Bolshevik party in Germany was the vital factor that allowed the counter-revolution to succeed. The defeat of the German revolution was ultimately to bring the defeat of the Russian revolution in 1991.
Lenin’s "Socialism and War" pamphlet from 1915 is available online at;
We need a new Bolshevik International
Menshevism allows the possibility of a ‘peaceful’ evolutionary transition to socialism and so sees bourgeois democracy as a shell for workers democracy. But In times of war capitalism doesn’t want workers votes it want their blood. Revolutionaries have to counter that by building independent workers organs that do not rely on bourgeois democracy. Bourgeois democracy is the dictatorshp of the bourgeoisie counterposed to the dictatorship of the proletariat. That’s why we were against bourgeois democracy in the former DWS’s. As Trosky said bourgeois democracy could only be counter-revolutionary in a DWS.
Today the remains of the 2nd International are even more openly social imperialist. Socialism has virtually dissappeared inside imperialism. The new imperialism promotes western values of democracy and human rights as the means of ‘civilising’ the colonial and semi-colonial world. The remains of the 3rd international have become 2nd internationalists in the imperialist world, In the ‘3rd world’ they are for the patriotic popular front to complete the bourgeois revolution in the former workers states and in the semicolonies. This means counterposing the international civil society of Porto Alegre to the rogue institutions of globalisation such as the IMF, World Bank, WTO etc. Both of these currents endorse the right of imperialism to intervene in oppressed states to remove local dictators and facilitate ‘democratic’ regimes. They are against the armed struggle of colonial and semi-colonial peoples to do it themselves.
The degenerate Trotskyists are joining forces with these betrayers to revise the permanent revolution and promote the democratic stage as a necessary preparation for the socialist stage. But this is a grotesque deformation of the theory of permanent revolution that says that the democratic stage can be completed only by socialism. That is, the struggle right now is for socialism during which the incomplete democratic tasks will be completed.
Zimmerwald teaches us the importance of the fundamental distinction between the methods of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks explained by Lenin in What is to be Done, and then proven decisively i the massive betrayal in imperialist war. The Mensheviks wanted peace first, that is an end to military imperialism by peaceful imperialism. This was so because it was the institutions of bourgeois democracy, parliament, pressured by the masses that would enact peace. The Bosheviks, dominating the Zimmerwald Left, saw the need to activate the working masses directly to stop the war by turning the imperialist war into a ‘civil war’.
Thus the Bolsheviks called for the struggle for socialism as the only way to stop the imperialist war. They knew that this struggle would transform workers from a backward, defensive consciousness, in awe of the bosses’ parliament, into a revolutionary force capable of socialist revolution.
Today, under conditions of growing crisis and drive to imperialist war on the part of US imperialism, revolutionaries have this same task. We need a New Zimmerwald. We have to reject the Menshevik program of counterposing bourgeois democracy to US imperialism in the Porto Alegre, anti-globalising, sense. We have to break from the politics of the popular front and internationally from the Menshevik international. We have to rebuild a new Bolshevik International now!
All page references are to Lenin's Struggle for a Revolutionary International. Documents: 1907-1916. The Preparatory Years. Edited by John Riddell. Monad Press, New York, 1984.