History of the Bolshevik Party: Bolshevism - The Road to Revolution

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Part Five: The War Years

The Collapse of the Second International

The outbreak of the First World War immediately provoked a crisis in the Socialist International. Violating every decision of the International, the leaders of the German, French, British, and Austrian parties of the Second International had lined up behind their own bourgeoisie and became the most rabid chauvinists. The German Social Democratic press began to call on the working class to ‘defend the fatherland’. At a meeting of the Reichstag fraction on 3 August, the SPD leaders decided to vote for the war credits. The very next day, they voted with the bourgeois and Junker parties five billion marks for war purposes. The ‘Lefts’ who had spoken against in the fraction meeting, now voted ‘for’ on formal grounds of group discipline! This perfectly exposes the perfidious role of left reformism and centrism, which, despite their radical phrases, at decisive moments are inextricably bound up with the right wing. Their essential function is always to act as a left cover for the right reformists.

In all the belligerent countries, the Social Democratic leaders entered coalition governments with the representatives of the bourgeoisie. They preached the doctrine of ‘national unity’ – that emptiest of all slogans – opposing strikes ‘for the duration of the war’, accepting all the impositions placed on the shoulders of the workers and peasants in the name of the struggle for victory. In Germany, Vorwärts published an editorial statement promising not to publish articles reflecting “class discord and class hatred” for the duration of the war. The SPD was the most important and prestigious party of the Second International, with about a million members. Their betrayal was decisive. But the others were no better.

On 31 July 1914, the anti-war French Socialist leader Jean Jaurès was murdered by reactionaries. Four days later, the French Socialist leaders voted for war credits, as did the Belgians, and entered the bourgeois coalition government (the ‘union sacrée’ or sacred union). In Britain, Labour’s Arthur Henderson did the same. In France, the sell-out was actively backed by the ‘Syndicalist’ trade union leaders who before the war had demagogically called for a general strike against war. This slogan was opposed by the Marxists even before 1914. The idea of the pacifists and anarcho-syndicalists that it is possible to call a general strike to prevent war overlooks the obvious fact that a general strike can only be called when the necessary conditions exist. The situation on the eve of a war is normally the least appropriate for such a development. Unless we are talking about a general strike as part of a revolutionary situation, the prelude to the taking of power by the proletariat, it is ruled out as a means of preventing war. At best it is a utopian illusion, at worst it is a way of throwing dust in the eyes of the advanced workers by giving the impression of a radical policy, where nothing of the sort exists. Trotsky characterised it as “the most ill-considered and unfortunate of all types [of general strike] possible”. And he explains why:

Hence it follows that a general strike can be put on the agenda as a method of struggle against mobilisation and war only in the event that the entire preceding developments in the country have placed revolution and armed insurrection on the agenda. Taken, however, as a ‘special’ method of struggle against mobilisation, a general strike would be a sheer adventure. Excluding a possible but nevertheless exceptional case of a government plunging into war in order to escape from a revolution that directly threatens it, it must remain as a general rule that precisely prior to, during, and after mobilisation the government feels itself strongest, and consequently is least inclined to allow itself to be scared by a general strike. The patriotic moods that accompany mobilisation, together with the war terror, make hopeless the very execution of a general strike, as a rule. The most intrepid elements who, without taking the circumstances into account, plunge into the struggle would be crushed. The defeat and the partial annihilation of the vanguard would make revolutionary work difficult for a long time in the atmosphere of dissatisfaction that war breeds. A strike called artificially must turn inevitably into a putsch, and into an obstacle in the path of the revolution. (L. Trotsky, Writings: 1935-36, pp. 140-41.)

The truth of this assertion was demonstrated in 1914 when the anarcho-syndicalist leaders, the day after war was declared, immediately dropped the slogan of a general strike against war and meekly took up their ministerial portfolios in the government of the ‘sacred union’.

The official leaders of the Social Democracy of all the belligerent powers were easily ensnared, since they needed no encouragement to rally to the support of ‘their’ bourgeoisie. In the celebrated phrase of Clausewitz, ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’. The right wing of the labour movement conducts a pro-bourgeois policy in peace time. Their collaboration with the most reactionary imperialist circles in time of war is only the continuation of this. The only difference is that war necessarily strips off the veneer of hypocrisy and mercilessly reveals every political trend in its true colours. The left reformists, as a petty bourgeois tendency, wriggle uncomfortably between a bourgeois and a proletarian policy, and express their confusion and impotence in pacifism. But the serious representatives of the ruling class in the labour movement, the labour lieutenants of capital, as they used to be called in the USA, make no bones about their support for war. The only difference between them is which particular imperialist gang they support. The British labour leaders backed king and country in a coalition with Lloyd George and Churchill, the German Social Democrats backed the Kaiser and the reactionary Junkers. The Social Democrats of the smaller capitalist powers backed either one or the other, reflecting the dependence of their bourgeoisie on German or Anglo-French imperialism. Thus, the Belgian Social Democrats lined up with the Allies, while the Dutch and Scandinavian Social Democratic leaders were more inclined to Germany.

The wave of social-patriotism swept away all before it. The ruling class of the belligerent countries disposed of ample means to confuse and intoxicate the masses with a thousand arguments. With the enthusiastic collaboration of the workers’ leaders, they succeeded in disorienting even a large layer of organised workers at the beginning of the war. Many German Social Democrats – not only the right-wing leaders, but honest workers – were prepared to justify the war, at least at first. They argued as follows: victory for the Tsar means that his Cossacks would destroy our party and our unions, papers, and halls. In the same way, the average French worker likewise listened trustingly to the appeals of Renaudel, Cachin, and co. to keep the Republic and democracy out of the hands of the Kaiser and his Junkers. But the worries of the average German or French worker are one thing, the cowardice, hypocrisy and cynicism of the leaders of the Socialist parties another thing altogether.

Unlike the masses, they could not plead ignorance. The imperialist character of the war was evident from the war aims of the contending powers. This was not a war for defence on the part of any of the contending powers, but solely a war for the redivision of the globe, for the possession of markets, raw materials, colonies, and spheres of influence between Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. Russia had her eyes on Turkey, leading directly to a conflict between Germany and Russia over Constantinople and the Straits. Russia and Turkey were also in conflict over Armenia, with Austria over the Balkans and with Austria and Italy over Albania. Nor could it be argued that the outbreak of war had taken the Socialist International by surprise. For at least a decade before 1914, the great powers had been systematically preparing for war. Thus, the question of who struck the first blow was therefore of no significance.

The danger of war had been widely discussed. In two congresses of the International – at Stuttgart (1907) and Basel (1912) – all the socialist parties in the world solemnly pledged themselves to oppose any attempt to unleash an imperialist war. At the Stuttgart Congress, they approved an amendment moved by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg that:

In case a war should break out anyway, it is their duty to intervene for its speedy termination and to strive with all their power to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.

The Basel congress, called as an emergency response to the Balkan war, unanimously ratified the earlier decision. As Zinoviev later commented:

The Basel resolution was not worse, but better than that of Stuttgart. Every word in it is a slap in the face to the present tactics of the ‘leading’ parties of the Second International. (Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, p. 35 and p. 103.)

Because in the moment of truth, every one of the socialist parties betrayed the cause of socialism and the working class. Only the Russian and Serbian parties stood against the war. The Italian party took a halfway position of ‘neither collaboration nor sabotage’.

The Social Roots of Chauvinism

Everywhere socialists struggled to find some understanding of what had happened. An event of such earth-shattering significance could not be explained in terms of individual failings alone – although personal qualities undoubtedly played a role, as we see in the courageous stand taken by Karl Liebknecht in Germany. Lenin and Trotsky found the explanation in the long period of capitalist upswing that preceded the First World War. The mass parties of the Second International had taken shape under conditions of full employment and rising living standards which formed the basis of the politics of ‘class peace’. A similar situation existed in the developed capitalist countries between 1948 and 1974. In both cases the results were similar. Marx long ago explained that “social being determines consciousness”. In such conditions, the labour leaders tended to separate themselves from the working class. In the hothouse atmosphere of parliament or shut away in trade union offices, and enjoying a privileged standard of living, they gradually succumbed to the pressure of alien classes.

The theoretical expression of this pressure was the rise of revisionism – the assertion that the ideas of Marx and Engels were out of date and had to be revised. In place of revolutionary politics, they advocated peaceful parliamentary reform and gradualism. ‘Today better than yesterday; tomorrow better than today’ was their watchword. Slowly, peacefully, gradually, they would reform the capitalist system until it would imperceptibly grow over into socialism. What a beautiful idea! How practical! How economical! No sane person would prefer the road of hard struggle and revolution to such an alluring vision of the future. But unfortunately, all theories sooner or later must face the test of practice. The dreams of the reformists were weighed in the balance of the events of August 1914 and found wanting. All the beautiful illusions of peaceful parliamentarism and gradual change ended up in the muck and blood and poison gas of the trenches.

Cutting through the fog of chauvinist demagogy and sentimental pacifism, Lenin explained the socioeconomic roots of social chauvinism, its class basis in the labour aristocracy. The mass parties and trade unions of the Second International had taken shape in a long period of capitalist upswing and full employment in which reforms and concessions could be made to the working class and particularly its upper layers. Under such conditions, a thick crust of bureaucracy formed at the top of the labour organisations, composed of a large number of members of parliament, trade union officials, journalists, and the like, among whom were a host of careerists and jacks-in-office, separated from the class by their incomes, life styles, and psychology and imbued with bourgeois ideas derived both from their living standards and the social milieu in which they moved. Decades of slow, peaceful development in boom conditions, the absence of class struggle for long periods (Russia was the exception here) meant that the mass organisations, and especially their leading layer, came increasingly under the pressure of alien classes. While they still professed loyalty to the class struggle and socialism before the Party faithful, in practice their conduct was entirely circumscribed by the limits of what was permitted by bourgeois legality and ‘public opinion’. They had fallen victim to that fatal disease which Marx called ‘parliamentary cretinism’. In his article ‘The Historical Destiny of the Doctrine of Karl Marx’, Lenin characterises this period thus:

The second period (1872–1904) was distinguished from the first by its ‘peaceful’ character, by the absence of revolutions. The West had finished with bourgeois revolutions. The East had not yet risen to them. The West entered a phase of ‘peaceful’ preparations for the changes to come. Socialist parties, basically proletarian, were formed everywhere, and learned to use bourgeois parliamentarism and to found their own daily press, their educational institutions, their trade unions, and their cooperative societies. Marx’s doctrine gained a complete victory and began to spread. The selection and mustering of the forces of the proletariat and its preparation for the coming battles made slow but steady progress.

The dialectics of history were such that the theoretical victory of Marxism compelled its enemies to disguise themselves as Marxists. Liberalism, rotten within, tried to revive itself in the form of socialist opportunism. They interpreted the period of preparing the forces for great battles as renunciation of these battles. Improvement of the conditions of the slaves to fight against wage slavery they took to mean the sale by the slaves of their right to liberty for a few pence. They cravenly preached ‘social peace’ (i.e., peace with the slave-owners), renunciation of the class struggle, etc. They had very many adherents among socialist members of parliament, various officials of the working-class movement, and the ‘sympathising’ intelligentsia. (Reproduced in Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, p. 101.)

The right-wing leaders were not the only trend in the international Social Democracy. There were also centrist tendencies – Karl Kautsky, Rudolph Hilferding, and Hugo Haase in Germany; Jean Longuet and Alphonse Merrheim in France; Ramsey MacDonald in Britain; Victor Adler in Austria, and others. The usual line of these people was to hide behind pacifism, but to avoid a real struggle against the right-wing social chauvinists. Lenin directed his most severe attacks against this trend as the main obstacle, preventing the workers from taking the revolutionary road. They were, he said, ‘left in words, right in deeds’, a comment that is applicable to left reformists at every period.

Only slowly did the revolutionary wing begin to recover from the deadly blow inflicted in August 1914. But gradually, a regroupment took place everywhere. The forces of revolutionary internationalism in almost every case emerged from an inner differentiation and splits in the old mass organisations – the Social Democracy and the unions. The international left included Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, and Klara Zetkin in Germany; Dimitar Blagoev and Vasil Kolarov in Bulgaria; John MacLean in Scotland; and James Connolly in Ireland, as well as the Serbian Social Democrats whose two MPs voted against the war credits. The Bulgarian ‘tesnyaki’ (‘Narrow socialists’) issued an anti-war manifesto and voted against the militarisation of the country. That was the plus side. But on the other hand, some ex-lefts like Parvus in Germany and Plekhanov in Russia went right over to the camp of social-chauvinism. In the German SPD the left international tendency had the strongest base after Russia, Serbia, and Bulgaria.

On 2 December, 1914, Karl Liebknecht voted against war credits in the Reichstag. This courageous act was a turning point which gave heart to the left-wing workers not only in the German SPD, but in all the belligerent countries. On 4 December, a meeting of party activists in Halle voted to support Liebknecht’s stand. The Bolsheviks tried to contact the German Lefts, but found this materially impossible either through Switzerland or Scandinavia. Because of the traditional role of the German party in the International, this was particularly important. Revolutionary internationalists like Rosa Luxemburg and Franz Mehring took a courageous stand against the war. In Austria likewise the left began to organise. In Britain, especially in Scotland, there were anti-war meetings and later strikes (the Glasgow rent strike, the shop stewards movement.) By posing fundamental questions in a very sharp way, the war provoked a series of crises and splits in the ‘left’ parties in Britain – the Socialist Party and Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and also in the Independent Labour Party (ILP), out of which the forces of the future Communist Party were formed.

There was also a growing left opposition within the French Socialist Party and trade unions. The revolutionary syndicalist current led by Alfred Rosmer and Pierre Monatte led the opposition to the ex-Syndicalist right-reformist leaders. As the war dragged on, the support for the chauvinists began to melt away. The circulation of the right-chauvinist paper L’Humanité went down by about a third. In Italy, the revolutionary socialist trend was represented by Avanti, edited by Giacinto Serrati, while the leader of the right wing of the Socialist Party was the future fascist dictator Mussolini. The Romanian Social Democrats also adopted a revolutionary anti-war position. The Dutch ‘Lefts’ organised around the paper Tribune, but their leader, Anton Pannekoek, like several others, suffered from the kind of extreme ultra-left tendencies that were prevalent at the time, as a reaction against the policies of the leadership. In general, the left was composed of rather weak, mainly young forces whose lack of experience expressed itself in a swing towards ultra-left, semi-anarcho-syndicalist positions.

Tendencies in Russian Social Democracy

Despite all its horrors and cruelty, war at least has the merit of exposing all that lies hidden in society and politics. All tendencies are put to the test, all pretences are rudely stripped away, as diplomatic evasions become impossible and history presents its final bill. Wars and revolutions pitilessly seek out any weakness in parties, programmes or individuals and destroy them. The patriotic wave that swept through society appeared to carry all before it. More than one former revolutionary celebrity rallied round the flag, including, of all people, the famous theoretician of anarchism, Prince Kropotkin. The advocate of mutual aid, as Lionel Kochan observes, now became the advocate of mutual destruction. (L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, p. 177.) All the tendencies which manifested themselves in international Social Democracy were present in Russia, but with an important difference. The influence of the revolutionary wing of Social Democracy – Bolshevism – was immeasurably stronger as a result of Lenin’s stubborn struggle against opportunism throughout the whole of the previous period. By contrast, reformism, both in its right and left variants, was a weak and sickly plant. While the Bolsheviks did not entirely escape from the prevailing disorientation and suffered from vacillations, especially in the first period, they soon recovered their bearings, thanks to the implacable stand adopted from the very first moment by Lenin.

By contrast, the war cruelly laid bare the chronic ideological weakness and instability of the Mensheviks, who immediately splintered into conflicting trends. The outbreak of war caught the Mensheviks off guard. Theoretically disarmed, they split into a myriad of factions and sub-factions on the all-important war question, ranging from the ultra-nationalist Plekhanov to the left-centrism of Martov. In between there were a host of intermediate views. More than anything else, the war cruelly exposed the political and organisational helplessness of Menshevism. The intellectuals grouped around the literary journal Nasha Zarya, A.N. Potresov, E. Maevskii, F.A. Cherevanin, and P.P. Maslov, defended one variant or another of defencism.

The saddest case was that of Plekhanov, who went over to the extreme right wing from the outset, adopting such a rabid chauvinist stance that he remained isolated even among the Mensheviks. Just like all the other social-chauvinists, Plekhanov tried to cover up his sell-out with ‘clever’ sophisms, an art at which he excelled:

The struggle between exploiters and exploited does not cease to be a class struggle because the exploiters live on the other side of the frontier and speak another language. The proletarians of the countries attacked by Germany and Austria, are conducting an international class struggle by the very fact that they are opposing, arms in hand, the realisation of the exploiting plans of the Austro-German imperialists. (G.V. Plekhanov, Voprosy Voiny i Sotsialisma, p. 69.)

Lenin found it hard to believe what had happened to his old mentor, particularly as he had come so close to Bolshevism in the period of reaction. “Early in October,” recalls Krupskaya, “we found out that Plekhanov, who had returned from Paris, had already addressed a meeting in Geneva and was going to read a paper in Lausanne. Plekhanov’s position worried Ilyich very much. He could not believe that Plekhanov had become a ‘defencist’. ‘I just can’t believe it,’ he said, adding thoughtfully, ‘it must be the effect of his military past’.”

Once Lenin saw that Plekhanov had indeed crossed the line, he immediately decided to confront him in open debate. At first, as Krupskaya recalls, he was worried that he would not be admitted to Plekhanov’s lecture and say what he had to say – the Mensheviks might not let in so many Bolsheviks.

I can imagine how reluctant he was to see people and carry on small talk with them, and I can understand the naïve ruses he devised to shake them off. I can clearly see him amid the dinner-table bustle at the Movshovichs’, so withdrawn, absorbed and agitated that he could not swallow a bite. One can understand the rather forced humour of the remark uttered in an undertone to those sitting next to him about Plekhanov’s opening speech, in which the latter had declared that he had not been prepared to address such a large audience. ‘The slyboots,’ Ilyich muttered, and gave himself up entirely to hearing what Plekhanov had to say. The first part of the lecture in which Plekhanov attacked the Germans had his approval, and he applauded it. In the second part, however, Plekhanov set forth his ‘defence-of-the-country’ views. There was no room for doubt anymore. Ilyich asked for the floor – he was the only one to do so. He went up to the speaker’s table with a pot of beer in his hand. He spoke calmly, and only the pallor of his face betrayed his agitation. He said in effect that the war was not an accidental occurrence, that the way for it had been paved by the whole nature of the development of bourgeois society. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 286 and pp. 287-88.)

Lenin had only ten minutes to speak, during which he reminded the audience of the resolutions of the International Congresses at Stuttgart, Copenhagen, and Basel, and called on the Social Democrats to combat the chauvinist intoxication and strive to convert the war into a decisive fight against the ruling classes on the part of the proletariat. Plekhanov retorted with his usual irony and was wildly applauded by the Mensheviks, who were an overwhelming majority. Lenin must have felt completely isolated.

The war fever claimed other notable casualties. Potresov, like Plekhanov, capitulated to chauvinism. Another prominent Menshevik, G.A. Alexinsky, moved so far to the right that he became a White Guard after the October Revolution. His was not the only such case. However, Plekhanov’s blatant defence of social-chauvinism found no echo in the ranks of Social Democracy, and throughout the war he remained virtually isolated. Of Plekhanov’s group, McKean writes:

A paltry number of Menshevik intellectuals in Petrograd replicated Plekhanov’s outright capitulation to nationalism. His few adherents included A.I. Finn-Enotaevskii and N. Yordansky, Party Menshevik and editor of the monthly periodical Sovremennyi mir (which reprinted many of Plekhanov’s articles). An Okhrana survey of socialist attitudes to the war in January 1916 noted that the Russian supporters of Plekhanov “exerted minimal influence upon the public mood”. (R.B. McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, p. 362.)

Far more dangerous, as Lenin immediately realised, were the disguised chauvinists, those ex-lefts like Kautsky, who enjoyed huge personal prestige and who concealed their betrayal behind a screen of hypocritical ‘Marxist’ sophistry.

On 17 October, 1914, Lenin wrote to Shlyapnikov:

Plekhanov, as I think you have already been told, has become a French chauvinist. Among the Liquidators there is evidently confusion. Alexinsky, they say, is a Francophile… It seems as though the middle course of the whole ‘Brussels bloc’ of the Liquidator gentry with Alexinsky and Plekhanov will be adapting themselves to Kautsky, who now is more harmful than anyone else. How dangerous and scoundrelly his sophistry is, covering up the dirty tricks of the opportunists with the most smooth and facile phrases (in Neue Zeit). The opportunists are an obvious evil. The German ‘Centre’ headed by Kautsky is a concealed evil, diplomatically coloured over, contaminating the eyes, the mind and the conscience of the workers, and more dangerous than anything else. Our task now is the unconditional and open struggle against international opportunism and those who screen it (Kautsky). (LCW, To A.G. Shlyapnikov, 17/10/1914, vol. 35, pp. 161-62.)

The Russian Mensheviks actually stood to the left of most other groups in the International because of the pressure of the Bolsheviks. They adopted what amounts to a centrist position but soon split into two groups. The majority of Mensheviks were closer to Kautsky’s ‘centre’ than to Plekhanov. Throughout the war, in sharp contrast to Plekhanov, they advised the Menshevik fraction in parliament to vote against military credits and maintained an ambivalent attitude to the question of defence. The ‘Organising Committee’ led by P.B. Axelrod, elected by the August 1912 meeting, had an ambiguous (Kautskyite) position on the war and, as ever, calling for the ‘unity’ of all Social Democrats – including Plekhanov and Alexinsky! They supported the Menshevik Duma Fraction which at first failed to oppose the war, but then opposed the war credits.

Three days after his clash with Plekhanov and in the same hall – the Maison du Peuple – Lenin delivered his own lecture. Krupskaya writes:

The hall was packed. The lecture was a great success. Ilyich was in a buoyant fighting mood. He elaborated his views on the war, which he branded as an imperialist war. He pointed out in his speech that a leaflet against the war had already been issued in Russia by the Central Committee and that similar leaflets had been issued by the Caucasian organisation and other groups. He pointed out that the best socialist newspaper in Europe at the moment was Golos (Voice), in which Martov was writing. “The more often and seriously I have disagreed with Martov,” he said, “the more definitely must I now say that this writer is doing just what a Social Democrat should do. He is criticising his government, denouncing the bourgeoisie of his own country, railing against its ministers”. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 288.)

Martov stood on the left of the Mensheviks throughout the war. The left wing of Menshevism was represented in Petrograd by the Central Initiative Group, which from August 1914 defended a radical internationalist stance against the war. At first, it seemed as if Martov was moving in the direction of Bolshevism, not only in his internationalist stand, but also in his opposition to blocs with the liberals.

In sharp contrast to most Mensheviks, they [the Menshevik Internationalists] adamantly refused to accept the ‘reactionary’ and ‘anti-popular’ bourgeoisie as the ally of the working class. (R.B. McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, p. 364.)

This gave Lenin reason to hope for an alliance with his old colleague Martov, for whom he always maintained a deep personal affection to the end of his days. But, as usual, Martov halted halfway and did not go to the length of conducting a struggle against Kautsky. Nevertheless Martov and his group, the Menshevik-Internationalists, despite certain inconsistencies, held an internationalist position during the war.

Some Menshevik leaders like the Duma deputies Chkheidze, Tulyakov, and Skobelev were inclined to the position of Martov’s ‘Internationalist Mensheviks’. They advocated a campaign for a non-annexationist, democratic peace and later subscribed to the resolutions of the Zimmerwald Conference. They also supported the reconstitution of the old International. Later, with the emergence of the Progressive Bloc and the clash between the State Duma and Goremykin’s cabinet in the summer of 1915, these three parliamentary representatives had illusions (apparently shared by Martov) of the possibility of replacing the 3 June regime by a democratic republic, which would then act as a stimulus to the European peace movement. The reactionary implications of this kind of left-reformist pacifism were only revealed after February 1917 when it led the Mensheviks to support not only the bourgeois Provisional Government, but the war as well.

Trotsky, while still not formally in any faction, immediately took up a consistent internationalist revolutionary stand and tirelessly engaged in agitation and propaganda against the war and social chauvinism. From his place in exile in Paris, Trotsky succeeded in doing something which no other member of the Russian internationalist tendency achieved. With the active collaboration of his friends Monatte and Rosmer, the most outstanding leaders of the left wing in France, he published a daily paper, Nashe Slovo (Our Word). Together with Martov and other internationalists especially in France, Trotsky’s paper played an important role in campaigning for an International Conference, which eventually bore fruit in Zimmerwald. It used to be the fashion in the old Stalinist histories to classify Trotsky at this time as ‘centrist’. That is nonsense. Trotsky’s position on the war differed in no fundamental sense from that of Lenin. The fact that he was not yet formally a member of Lenin’s organisation reflected not political differences, but was an inheritance of the polemics of the previous period. In fact, despite some tactical disagreements and mutual suspicion inherited from the past, there was frequent collaboration between the Bolsheviks and Nashe Slovo which kept up its anti-imperialist struggle until it was finally banned by the French government when a mutiny broke out on the Russian cruiser Askold, based in Toulon, and copies of the paper were found on some of the mutineers.

As ever, what separated Lenin and Trotsky was not the political line but the question of party unity. Given the immense difficulties faced by the revolutionary internationalist wing, Trotsky considered it more vital than ever to strive to unite all those elements who maintained an internationalist position. That included not only the Bolsheviks but those Menshevik-Internationalists like Martov who had come out firmly against social-chauvinism from the beginning of the war. There were, in fact, many such people, a good part of whom later joined the Bolshevik Party and played an outstanding role. A clear example was the Inter-District Group in Petrograd (Mezhraiontsy). Lunacharsky, the future People’s Commissar for Culture and Education, was another case. He also collaborated with Nashe Slovo, and recalls not only Trotsky’s efforts to achieve unity of all the genuinely internationalist elements, but also the vacillations of people like Martov who adopted an internationalist position, but was unwilling to draw all the necessary conclusions:

We sincerely wanted to bring about, on a new basis of internationalism, the complete unification of our Party front all the way from Lenin to Martov. I spoke up for this course in the most energetic fashion and was to some degree the originator of the slogan “Down with the ‘defeatists’, long live the unity of all Internationalists!” Trotsky fully associated himself with this. It had long been his dream and it seemed to justify his whole past attitude.

We had no disagreements with the Bolsheviks, but with the Mensheviks, things were going badly. Trotsky tried by every means to persuade Martov to break his links with the Defencists. The meetings of the editorial board turned into lengthy discussions, during which Martov, with astounding mental agility, almost with a kind of cunning sophistry, avoided a direct answer to the question whether he would break with the Defencists, and at times Trotsky attacked him extremely angrily. Matters reached the point of an almost total break between Trotsky and Martov – whom, by the way, Trotsky always respected as a political intellect – and at the same time a break between all of us left Internationalists and the Martov group. (A.V. Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes, pp. 63-64.)

The so-called Inter-District Committee (the Mezhraionka) played an important role throughout the war, which has not received the attention it deserves from historians. The Mezhraiontsy, as its members were known, dated back to 1913, when it was set up on the initiative of a 23-year old Bolshevik, K.K. Yurenev; an ex-deputy of the Third Duma from Perm, N.M. Yegorov; and the metalworker, A.M. Novoselov, a Bolshevik since 1906, who was prominent in the Metalworkers’ union in Vasil’evskii Island. Its declared aim was to achieve the ‘reunification from below of all revolutionary Social Democrats’, (that is, Bolsheviks, pro-Party Mensheviks), and to conduct party agitation in the armed forces. From the beginning, it took a principled position in relation to the war. Independently from the Bolsheviks, the Mezhraiontsy, at a meeting on 20 July, also adopted the slogan ‘war upon war’.

Robert McKean writes:

In the first six months after the outbreak of hostilities the most ‘successful’ of the revolutionary factions was the Mezhraionka. In Vasil’evskii Island an inter-party strike committee survived after the July 1914 disturbances. Sometime in the autumn it set up an illegal Social Democratic district committee which adhered to the Mezhraionka platform. Cells functioned in 11 enterprises, including the Pipes works and Siemens-Schukkert. In October in the town district a group emerged, as did circles in several plants on Petersburg Side, among which were Petrograd Engineering and Langenzippen. In Narva, where the Mezhraionka had put down no roots before the war, Bolsheviks and Party Mensheviks created a committee which won some 130 adherents, mostly in Putilov workshops. In November this autonomous organisation voted to join the Mezhraionka. The latter also possessed a press which printed five leaflets and one edition of the illegal newspaper Vperyod. As in the past, however, the Mezhraionka signally failed to penetrate the Neva or Vyborg quarters. In view of the crucial importance the Mezhraionka ascribed to the army as the key to a successful revolution, it set up a military propaganda group which managed to issue a leaflet to the soldiers. But it possessed no cells in individual Petrograd military units. By the close of the year the Mezhraionka had attracted over 300 followers. Judging from the membership of the Mezhraionka committee itself, the leadership derived from three groups at this time – students, skilled metal workers and, in particular, printers. The organisation’s expansion soon attracted retribution from the security forces. Early in February 1915, widespread arrests almost completely wiped it out, paralysing its activity for months thereafter. (R.B. McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, pp. 373-4.)

In 1917, the Mezhraiontsy joined the Bolshevik Party, together with Trotsky, and played an important role, as we shall see later.

Lenin’s Position

Perhaps no part of Lenin’s work has been more misunderstood as his writings on war. Lenin stood on the far left of the internationalist current throughout the war. To many, even in the ranks of Bolshevism, Lenin’s position appeared tinged with ultra-leftism at this time. The sharpness of some of his formulations provoked controversy, and some of them were later toned down or abandoned altogether. The resulting disagreements made it impossible to unite with many genuinely internationalist elements. But there were reasons for this. The collapse of the International had taken him completely by surprise. Once he understood the nature of the problem, he arrived at the conclusion that a radical break was needed, not only with the extreme right-wing chauvinists, but also with the so-called lefts (Kautsky, Haase, Lebedour). The revolutionary wing, isolated and partially disoriented in the first instance, was faced with a difficult task. It was not enough simply to ‘break with social chauvinism’ in words. It was necessary to win over the masses to the programme of genuine internationalism. But the masses could not be reached. The work of the revolutionary internationalists in most cases was, for the time being, reduced to re-educating the cadres in small circles, and waiting for a break in the situation.

It is difficult to imagine now what a shatteringly demobilising effect the betrayal of the Second International had. This was an entirely new and unprecedented situation. Everywhere the workers’ vanguard were caught off guard. For a time confusion reigned, until gradually the Internationalists began to regroup and fight back. Lenin had to re-educate the cadres in an uncompromising spirit against the poison of social-chauvinism. The betrayal of the leaders of the Socialist International in August 1914 fell like a thunderbolt from a clear blue sky. So unexpected was the conduct of the SPD’s Reichstag faction in voting for the war credits that when Lenin read the report in the Party’s official organ Vorwärts, he initially refused to believe it, attributing the article to a provocation invented by the German general staff. Nor was he alone in this. At the Zimmerwald Conference Trotsky recalled: “We thought that the 4 August issue of Vorwärts had been produced by the German general staff.” (Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, p. 293.) Zinoviev summed up what was the general position:

Many socialists shared the foreboding that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. But we shall not be wise in hindsight. We honestly admit: the possibility of anything remotely resembling what we witnessed on 4 August, 1914, occurred to none of us. (Ibid., p. 104.)

Axelrod described the reaction of the Mensheviks: “The German party has always been our teacher. When we got word of the German [parliamentary] fraction’s vote we couldn’t believe it.” (Ibid., p. 293.)

But it was true. Particularly shocking was the behaviour of the left Social Democratic leaders. Not for nothing did Lenin reserve his sharpest barbs for the so-called Lefts, and Kautsky in particular, during the war. Before the war, Kautsky was widely seen as the leader of the left. Lenin had considered himself an ‘orthodox Kautskyite’. Rosa Luxemburg, who knew Kautsky better than Lenin, was always more critical of him, sensing that behind all his erudite ‘Marxism’ lay a cowardly conciliator and a bureaucrat. Lenin had occasion to ponder Rosa’s prophetic warnings now:

Rosa Luxemburg was right when she wrote, long ago, that Kautsky has the “subservience of a theoretician” – servility, in plainer language, servility to the majority of the Party, to opportunism. (LCW, To A.G. Shlyapnikov, 27/10/1914, vol. 35, pp. 167-68.)

Kautsky and his followers wanted to convince the workers that the International could not function under war conditions, but that it would be revived again after peace had been restored. Such a view resembles an umbrella full of holes – useless precisely when it rains! Lenin spared no efforts to expose the role of the ‘Lefts’ and hammer home the impossibility of any reconciliation with those responsible for the greatest act of treachery in working-class history. The time for shamefaced evasions and diplomatic formulas was over. It was necessary to call things by their right name!

Keenly feeling his isolation, Lenin anxiously looked around for co-thinkers. As occurred more than once in the course of his political life, his thoughts turned to his old comrade Martov.

In private conversation Ilyich often remarked what a good thing it would be if Martov came over to our side altogether. But he doubted whether Martov would stick to his present position for long. He knew how prone Martov was to yield to outside influences. “He writes like that while he is alone,” Ilyich added. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, pp. 288-89.)

But long and bitter experience of Martov’s vacillations had taught Lenin to be wary. In a letter to Shlyapnikov he welcomed Martov’s early stand against social-chauvinism, but immediately gave voice to his doubts about the man he knew so well: “Martov is behaving most decently of all in Golos. But will Martov hold out? I don’t believe it.” Time would confirm his worse fears on this score.

Lenin had a clear vision of what had to be done. The Second International was dead. All efforts to reconstitute it were in vain. It was necessary to build a new International. The message was as bold as it was simple. But to carry such a project into practice was not so simple. The millions of workers in the belligerent states still remained in the old organisations. To reach them, especially under wartime conditions, seemed an impossible task. And when we consider that Lenin’s group had by now been reduced to a tiny handful of people, with no apparatus, no money and little influence over events in Russia or anywhere else, it might appear to be sheer madness. No wonder even people who stood very close to Lenin politically were reluctant to accept all the implications of his position. No wonder he had serious difficulties in convincing even the leaders of his own party. Yet Lenin did not hesitate even for an instant. In him we see not just theoretical brilliance, not just an astonishing breadth of vision, but colossal personal courage – not the kind that explodes momentarily and then vanishes, but a dogged, stubborn determination to draw all the necessary conclusions and see things through to the end. These qualities were much in evidence during this testing time. They are shown in the following, absolutely typical lines:

This is an international task. It devolves on us, there is no one else. We must not retreat from it. It is wrong to put forward the watchword of the ‘simple’ restoration of the International (for the danger of a rotten conciliatory resolution on the Kautsky-Vandervelde line is very, very great!). The watchword of ‘peace’ is wrong: the watchword should be transformation of the national war into a civil war. (This transformation may be a long job, it may require and will require a number of preliminary conditions, but all the work should be carried on in the direction of precisely such a transformation, in that spirit and on that line.) Not sabotage of the war, not separate, individual actions in that spirit, but mass propaganda (not only among ‘civilians’) leading to the transformation of the war into a civil war. (LCW, To A.G. Shlyapnikov, 17/10/1914, vol. 35, p. 161 footnote and p. 162.)

The contrast with Martov’s Hamlet-like hesitations and doubts could not be greater. “It devolves on us. There is no one else. We must not retreat from it.” In these few lines is the essence of Lenin the man, the fighter who, once he is convinced of the correctness of a given line of action, does not look back.

But there were problems here too. Most of the young and immature forces that made up the Zimmerwald Left did not really understand what Lenin was driving at. The first task was therefore to insist on basic principles. Lenin’s method always involved an element of polemical exaggeration. He would always hammer home a particular point, and even exaggerate (as he did in 1902, when he stated, wrongly, that the working class, if left to itself, could only attain a ‘trade union’ consciousness) in order to shock people into grasping his point of view. War always mercilessly tears away all subterfuges and falsehoods and compels men and woman to face the truth. Lenin’s implacable onslaught on the old leaders, on opportunism and chauvinism took on an extreme form because he was determined to leave not the smallest chink through which they could crawl back after the war. In order to carve this message on the consciousness of the cadres, Lenin did not hesitate to employ the sharpest and most extreme language. True, this created some difficulties, but he considered it absolutely necessary in order to re-educate the proletarian vanguard and prepare it for the titanic tasks that lay ahead. Lenin’s manifesto War and the Russian Social Democracy was intended to stiffen up his own ranks where there was some wobbling, as might be expected under these circumstances. Lenin’s theses on the war only reached Petersburg in September. They did not arouse much enthusiasm. Shlyapnikov states that Lenin’s revolutionary defeatism was greeted by “perplexity”. According to the Moscow Okhrana: “The war caught the ‘Leninists’ unprepared and for a long time… they could not agree on their attitude towards the war…” (Quoted in L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 168.)

These vacillations among even the leading strata of the Bolsheviks on the vital question of the war, again explains why Lenin adopted slogans that lay them open to the accusation of ultra-leftism such as “turn the imperialist war into a civil war”, and “the defeat of Russia is a lesser evil”. Trotsky criticised Lenin’s slogan: “Turn the imperialist war into a civil war”, understanding that it could not provide a basis for conducting a broad campaign against the war that could get an echo in the masses, and was working on the possibility of a platform which could unite all the genuinely international socialists. There is no doubt that Trotsky had a point. Such slogans could never have appealed to the masses, at least not in that form and at that stage. Lenin described Trotsky’s position as “centrism” and even “Kautskyism”. This was entirely incorrect. Throughout the war, like Lenin, Trotsky maintained a consistently internationalist position. On all the fundamental positions, his position on the war and the International was the same as Lenin’s. But through the pages of his daily paper, Nashe Slovo (Our Word), which he edited in Paris, Trotsky could command a far broader audience than Lenin. Partly for this reason, he placed his emphasis differently, and posed the need for a revolutionary struggle against the war in different terms that could get an echo with at least the most conscious workers who were beginning to look for a left-wing alternative.

During the First World War, Lenin was completely isolated from the masses. The slogans he advanced at that time were not intended for the masses. Lenin was writing for the cadres. If we do not understand this, the most grotesque errors can result. Moreover, the way in which Lenin formulated the question of defeatism left a lot to be desired. Not for the first time, as we have seen, Lenin tended to exaggerate a formulation, in order to hammer home a point that had not been grasped. Endless confusion has arisen from the fact that this has not been grasped by people who have read a few lines of Lenin without grasping Lenin’s method. It is necessary to understand the concrete conditions in which these works were written and who they were aimed at. Lenin was taken aback by the overwhelming tide of chauvinism which seemed to sweep all before it. Cut off from Russia, he was also worried by the possibility of vacillations among his own supporters on the question of war and the International. It was necessary to re-establish basic principles. The stakes were very high. What was involved was the fate not just of the Russian but of the world revolution. For this reason, diplomacy and ambiguity was out of place. Krupskaya explains:

Ilyich deliberately put the case very strongly in order to make it quite clear what line people were taking. The fight with the defencists was in full swing. The struggle was not an internal Party affair that concerned Russian matters alone. It was an international affair. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 290.)

Part of the problem is that Lenin’s slogan, intended to educate the cadres in an uncompromising spirit of revolutionary struggle against all brands of chauvinism, was frequently presented in a caricatured form by his supporters. In an article published in Sotsial Demokrat (No. 38) Zinoviev, typically, presented it in a crude and simplistic manner: “Yes, we are for the defeat of ‘Russia,’ for that will facilitate the victory of Russia, emancipating it, liberating it from the fetters of tsarism.” (Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, p. 273.) As usual, Lenin’s views were wrongly expressed by his supporters, who seized upon his words (which were actually only a polemical exaggeration) and turned them inside out. The idea that a military defeat of tsarism would accelerate the process of revolution in Russia was obviously correct and was confirmed by events. But to go before the masses in Russia with the bald assertion that the revolutionaries were for the victory of the Kaiser would have been suicidal. As a matter of fact, it would have been defencism turned inside out, and would have laid them open to the accusation (used later by the Provisional Government) that the Bolsheviks were German agents.

The Mood of the Working Class

The real content of Lenin’s slogan was not this at all, but merely an emphatic way of expressing the need to fight against chauvinism and oppose the ‘Burgfrieden’. The essence of the position was that socialists cannot take upon themselves any responsibility for an imperialist war. Even the defeat of Russia was a ‘lesser evil’ than support for the Russian bourgeoisie and its predatory war. It was necessary to instil this idea into the minds of the cadres, to inoculate them against the disease of chauvinism. On the other hand, Lenin was too much of a realist not to understand that it is a fatal error to confuse the way revolutionaries see things with the consciousness of the masses. The whole art of building the revolutionary party and cementing it with the masses consists precisely on knowing how to connect the finished scientific programme of Marxism with the necessarily unfinished, confused and contradictory consciousness of the masses. That is precisely why, when Lenin returned to Petrograd in the spring, he modified his position, stating that he had seen that there were two kinds of defencism – that of the social-chauvinist betrayers and an ‘honest defencism’ of the masses. In making such an assertion, Lenin in no way turned his back on his earlier position of revolutionary defeatism, but merely acknowledged that the way that these ideas were conveyed to the masses in the given situation had to take into account the actual level of consciousness. Not to have done this would have been to reduce the party to the level of a sect.

Lenin’s speeches at that time bear little or no relation to the position he put forward during the war. It is sufficient to read his speech at the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets to see the difference. When speaking to honest working class ‘defencists’ – Menshevik and Social Revolutionary workers who believed that they were fighting to defend a democratic republic and the revolution – Lenin took their views into account. We are prepared to fight against the German imperialists, he explained. We are not pacifists. But we have no confidence in the bourgeois Provisional Government. We demand that the Menshevik and SR leaders break with the bourgeoisie and take the power. Then we can wage a revolutionary war against German imperialism, calling on the German workers to follow our example. This, and not the caricature of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ that is so often presented by empty-headed ultra-lefts, was the real essence of Lenin’s revolutionary military policy.

In the beginning, the organised workers, under the influence of the Bolsheviks, tried to oppose the war but were swiftly swept aside by the mass of patriotic petty-bourgeois peasants and backwards workers. Is it true that the Russian workers were infected with patriotism? Many non-Marxist historians cite evidence to the contrary. Robert McKean, who cannot be suspected of partiality for the Bolsheviks, commenting on the class composition of the patriotic demonstrations writes:

The reports in the capital’s middle-class press described crowds as being formed for the most part of officers, students, society ladies and members of the professions, with a sprinkling of artisans, shopkeepers and shop assistants. One may conclude that at the very least there was no large-scale, overt opposition to the war among the mass of factory and artisanal hands. (R.B. McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, p. 358.)

This entirely coincides with the version of a prominent Bolshevik who was an eyewitness of these events, Alexander Shlyapnikov. The declaration of war initially took the workers by surprise. The stunned mood was described by Shlyapnikov:

Knots of people crowded around the leaflets, talking over the events in an anxious, despondent mood. Hundreds of workers’ families thronged the police stations, which had been converted into recruiting offices. Women wept, wailed, and cursed the war. In the workshops, factories, and mills the mobilisation created great havoc since as many as 40 per cent of the workers were taken from their machines and benches. Helplessness and despair arose everywhere. (Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, p. 128.)

But once the initial shock wore off, it was soon replaced by a wave of anger. From the beginning, in fact, there were attempts to organise anti-war protests. McKean says that “On the day war was declared, the secret police noted that militant revolutionary youths were arranging factory meetings, at which they exhorted all socialist tendencies to oppose the war and the soldiers to turn their weapons against the internal enemy, the autocracy.” (R.B. McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, p. 356.) The workers came out onto the streets to demonstrate their opposition. On 31 July, an estimated 27,000 people demonstrated against the war on the streets of the capital. In all the great industrial centres, there were strikes and demonstrations – in Belorussia, the Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Urals. There were initial attempts to resist mobilisation leading to clashes with police and Cossacks in which many were killed and wounded. According to official government figures, there were disturbances and anti-war protests in 17 provinces and 31 districts. 505 draftees and 106 officials were killed in 27 provinces in the two weeks following the declaration of war. That the war was deeply unpopular with the working class was even recognised by the tsarist police whose reports continually emphasised that internationalist positions secured the widest acceptance. (Ibid., p. 365.) In no other country except Ireland was there such resistance to the war.

This was a mainly spontaneous, unorganised mass protest. But it was condemned from the start by the unfavourable class balance of forces and the wave of patriotic fervour that swept all before it. Badayev recalls how the backward layers of the population were used against the workers:

In Petersburg the first days of the war were marked by strikes and even by some scattered demonstrations. On the day that army reservists were mobilised, workers at more than 20 Petersburg enterprises went on strike to protest against the war. In some places the workers met the reservists with shouts of ‘Down with the war’ and revolutionary songs.

But the demonstrations now took place under conditions different from those two or three weeks earlier. The crowds of onlookers, especially in the centre of the city, were stirred up by patriotic shouts. Now they not only did not maintain a ‘friendly’ neutrality, but fell upon the demonstrators, and helped the police arrest and beat them. One incident typical of this time was the ‘patriotic’ outburst that took place the same day as the mobilisation in the city centre, at the City Duma building on the Nevsky Prospect.

Just as a batch of reservists were passing by here, a crowd of demonstrating workers appeared. With shouts of ‘Down with the war’ the demonstrators closed in on the reservists. The public on the Nevsky Prospect, mainly philistines and all sorts of idle loafers, usually scurried away and hid in the side streets during workers’ demonstrations. Sometimes, as a last resort, they huddled timidly in porches and gateways and observed the demonstrators from afar. But this time the public displayed ‘activism’, and took on the role of tsarist police. Crying ‘Betrayers, traitors’ they rushed from the sidewalk onto the avenue and began to beat up the demonstrating workers. The police then arrested the demonstrators and dispatched them to nearby police stations.

Under these conditions any broad development of a protest movement against the war was impossible. The individual heroic actions of the workers were drowned in the broad sea of militant patriotism. (Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, pp. 129-30.)

The regime easily rode out the storm. Mobilisation meant that the relatively thin layer of advanced Bolshevik workers were drowned in a sea of politically untutored masses. The army was overwhelmingly peasant in composition. Until events changed the outlook of the muzhiks in uniform, the worker-Bolsheviks in the trenches were impotent.

The Party Decimated

At the first sound of the drum the revolutionary movement died down. The more active layers of the workers were mobilised. The revolutionary elements were thrown from the factories to the front. Severe penalties were imposed for striking. The workers’ press was swept away. Trade unions were strangled. Hundreds of thousands of women, boys, peasants, poured into the workshops. The war – combined with the wreck of the International – greatly disoriented the workers politically, and made it possible for the factory administration, then just lifting its head, to speak patriotically in the name of the factories, carrying with it a considerable part of the workers, and compelling the more bold and resolute to keep still and wait. The revolutionary ideas were barely kept glowing in small and hushed circles. In the factories in those days nobody dared to call himself a ‘Bolshevik’ for fear not only of arrest, but of a beating from the backward workers. (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, pp. 58-59.)

As soon as war was declared, the regime clamped down hard. In the first months of war, the Party was decimated by arrests. The Bolsheviks once again bore the brunt of the repression. Almost overnight the fortunes of the Party suffered the most abrupt and brutal transformation. Thousands of Bolsheviks were rounded up and dispatched to prison and exile. Many areas were smashed. Party structures disappeared. Links with the leading centres were severed. In St. Petersburg alone over a thousand party and union members had just been arrested for participation in the July general strike. The first wave of mobilisations eliminated many more party activists, especially the youth. The closure of Pravda was the green light for a general witch hunt against the left and progressive press. Most of the central committee members were sent to Siberia. Many of the leaders were in foreign exile. Lenin was caught in Austrian Poland at the outbreak of war and, to avoid being interned by the Austrian authorities, moved to Berne in Switzerland where he remained until the outbreak of the February Revolution. But in the dark days of 1915 such things seemed relegated to a distant and uncertain future. Here he began the painful task of regrouping the Party’s shattered forces, mostly in emigration, and above all concentrating on the ideological rearmament of the cadres on the basic position of war, revolution, and internationalism.

The blow was made much worse by the unexpected collapse of the International. The sell-out of the leaders of the International Social Democracy badly affected morale. Moreover, the isolation of the exiled leaders was far more terrible than anything hitherto experienced. Under wartime conditions, the closure of the borders meant that for months on end no word was received from Russia. This worked two ways. The party centre abroad was completely cut off from the interior until September. Even then communication was all but impossible to maintain. Censorship and other wartime measures deprived the tiny forces of the Party that still functioned inside Russia of any information. Badayev says that conditions were far worse than in the worst period of reaction. The defeat was apparently total for reasons that were not hard to find. At the outset of war, there is almost always a wave of patriotic intoxication that sweeps through the population, dragging behind it not just the petty bourgeoisie but also backward sections of the working class. The advanced guard finds itself temporarily isolated.

After moving to Berne, where they were joined by Zinoviev, Lenin and Krupskaya began the difficult task of reorganising the work. The main problem, apart from the eternal lack of funds, was isolation. Lenin’s manifesto War and the Russian Social Democracy appeared in Sotsial Demokrat no. 33 which had a total print run of 1,500. This figure, however, gives one no real idea of the actual numbers Lenin could hope to reach with his ideas at this time. Only a handful of journals ever reached Russia. Contacts with the interior had been reduced virtually to nil. After July 1914 all communications between Russia and the West had to be conducted across the difficult far northern Swedish-Finnish frontier. In September the Bolshevik Duma deputy, F.N. Samoilov, who had been recuperating in a Swiss sanatorium at the start of the war, brought to Russia a copy of Lenin’s Seven Theses. The hope of renewed contact with Lenin gave a welcome boost to the morale of the party activists, who were only gradually recovering from the body blows inflicted on them since July.

The Duma Fraction

In the Duma session of 26 July 1914, the deputies unanimously adopted a resolution declaring their readiness “at the summons of their sovereign, to stand up in defence of their country, its honour and its possessions”. The only dissentients were the six Mensheviks, five Bolsheviks, and the Trudovik deputies. They left the session and refused to vote war credits (though Kerensky came out in favour of a defensive war). Those were “wonderful early August days” and Russia seemed “completely transformed”, wrote the British ambassador. (L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, pp. 176-77.)

The Duma fraction remained as an important focal point of the work for a time. The provocateur Malinovsky, shortly before the war, had suddenly resigned and gone abroad. Now only five Bolshevik deputies remained – Badayev, Petrovsky, Muranov, Samoilov, and Shagov – and their position was increasingly precarious. The pressure of the petty bourgeois masses led to an immediate breakdown of the agreement with the Trudoviks. Kerensky announced that the latter would actively back the war, hence his attempts to attribute a ‘defencist’ position to the working class. Actually, the workers were mostly against the war, unlike the peasants, who backed the Trudoviks. Feeling themselves isolated, the Bolshevik Duma deputies drew closer to the Mensheviks, much to Lenin’s dismay. Chkheidze, the leader of the Menshevik fraction in the Duma, adopted a semi-left stance, which facilitated a temporary rapprochement with the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks in the Duma fraction wobbled under the intense pressure of jingoism and war fever. The position of the Bolshevik deputies was not at all firm and they were inclined to gloss over the differences with the Mensheviks who, in turn, wavered in the direction of defencism. Under the influence of Kamenev, they soft peddled on the issue of revolutionary defeatism and tried to tone down Lenin’s formulations. The Bolshevik and Menshevik Duma fractions initially took the same position on the war. The joint resolution presented by both factions was read out to the Duma. In Krupskaya’s words it “was very cautiously worded and left many things unsaid”, (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 285.) but it was enough to provoke howls of protest from the rest of the chamber.

The behaviour of the Russian Social Democrats in the Duma attracted the attention of the leaders of the Socialist International, who were already acting as the open agents of their respective governments. Sometime in August the Duma fraction received a telegram from the Belgian socialist Emile Vandervelde, president of the International Socialist Bureau, who had entered the cabinet as Minister of State, in effect inviting his Russian comrades to follow his example. The hypocrisy of the man was all the more revolting, since only a few months earlier, in the spring of 1914, he had visited Russia on a fact-finding mission, and therefore was well acquainted with the monstrously oppressive character of Russian tsarism. Now, hiding behind the excuse of the need to “defeat Prussian militarism”, he proposed that the Russian Social Democrats suspend their opposition to tsarism until after the war:

For Socialists of Western Europe, the defeat of Prussian militarism – I do not say of Germany, which we love and esteem – is a matter of life and death… But in this terrible war which is inflicted on Europe owing to the contradictions of bourgeois society, the free democratic nations are forced to rely on the military support of the Russian government.

It depends largely on the Russian Revolutionary proletariat whether this support will be effective or not. Of course, I cannot dictate to you what you should do, or what your interests demand; that is for you to decide. But I ask you – and if our poor Jaurès were alive he would endorse my request – to share the common standpoint of socialist democracy in Europe… We believe that we should all unite to ward off this danger and we shall be happy to learn your opinion on this matter – happier still if it coincides with ours. (Quoted in A.Y. Badayev, Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma, p. 208.)

These weasel words, which carried the signature “Emile Vandervelde, delegate of the Belgian workers to the International Socialist Bureau and Belgian minister since the declaration of war”, must surely rank as one of the finest examples of sly diplomacy in history. However, it had the effect of causing the Menshevik Duma deputies to waver in their initial position of outright opposition to the war. There was a violent discussion inside the faction on how to respond to the message. Finally, they issued a statement which represented a clear abandonment of the earlier anti-war position. After enumerating the sufferings of the Russian people under tsarism, they concluded:

But in spite of these circumstances, bearing in mind the international significance of the European conflict and the fact that socialists of the advanced countries are participating in it (!), which enables us to hope (!) that it may be solved in the interests of international socialism (!!), we declare that by our work in Russia we are not opposing the war. (Ibid., pp. 208-9.)

Lenin followed the conduct of the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd with growing anxiety. He was especially disappointed at the Duma deputies’ feeble response to Vandervelde’s telegram.

From fragmentary evidence it can be inferred that Lenin was far from satisfied with his followers’ attitude to the war. Publicly and privately he kept silent about the Duma declaration and, in as yet unpublished correspondence, criticised the Bolsheviks’ reply to Vandervelde. (R.B. McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, p. 366.)

Given the intensity of the war fever, it is perhaps not surprising that the Duma deputies were also affected. In the end, what was decisive was not these vacillations, but the fact that they could be rapidly corrected. After its initial hesitations, the Duma fraction recovered its nerve and began to take a principled stand against the war. The Social Democratic deputies refused to vote for the war credits and spoke against them in the Duma, and demonstratively walked out of the chamber. Thereafter, the members of the Duma fraction behaved courageously, visiting the factories and delivering anti-war speeches to workers’ meetings. For the first few months of the war, their activity was at the centre of the party’s work.

Trotsky, commenting on the conduct of the Duma fraction, writes:

The Bolshevik faction in the Duma, weak in its personnel, had not risen at the outbreak of the war to the height of its task. Along with the Menshevik deputies, it introduced a declaration in which it promised “to defend the cultural weal of the people against all attacks wheresoever originating.” The Duma underlined with applause this yielding of a position. Not one of the Russian organisations or groups of the party took the openly defeatist position which Lenin came out for abroad.

But the same author adds:

The percentage of patriots among the Bolsheviks was, however, insignificant. In contrast to the Narodniks and Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks began in 1914 to develop among the masses a printed and oral agitation against the war. The Duma deputies soon recovered their poise and renewed their revolutionary work – about which the authorities were very closely informed, thanks to a highly developed system of provocation. It is sufficient to remark that out of seven members of the Petersburg committee of the party, three, on the eve of the war, were in the employ of the secret service. (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 59.)

The work was constantly plagued by the activity of the police who had infiltrated it to the highest levels. Attempts to organise meetings – even small meetings – in the interior merely led to new arrests. The party had virtually ceased to function, except to a limited extent at local level. Not until November 1914 did a national meeting take place, in a small country home outside Petersburg. The meeting was chaired by Kamenev, who had come from Finland. The conference met in conditions of the utmost secrecy in the house of a factory clerk in an isolated suburb of Petersburg. The meeting was only attended by the Duma fraction members plus a handful of delegates from local organisations – from Petrograd (as St. Petersburg had been renamed, to avoid using a German-sounding name), Kharkov, and Ivanovo-Voznesensk, plus one representative from the Latvian Social Democrats. No minutes are available as the person who had them was arrested. When the delegates finally assembled, after many hours of dodging the police, the picture of the organisation that emerged from their reports could not have been more desolate. Badayev, who was present, along with the other Bolshevik Duma members, recalls:

Party cells suffered heavily as well as the legal organisations; our party, the leader and guide of the proletariat, had been half destroyed. Yet the skeleton still existed, some party work was still being done and the question of its extension was bound up with the question of preserving the Duma fraction which acted as the centre and core of the whole organisation. (A.Y. Badayev, Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma, p. 212.)

Lenin’s position on war was discussed. According to the ‘official’ version, it was endorsed with only ‘small amendments’. In point of fact, the Duma deputies were by no means convinced of Lenin’s defeatist position. Later, at their trial, all but one of them (Muranov) repudiated it. The hardest blow was about to fall. Despite all the precautions taken, the conference was known to the police. On the third day [4 November, OS], when the delegates were still discussing Lenin’s theses on war, the door burst open and the police arrested everyone present and ‘turned the place over’. The Duma deputies were shortly released but did not remain at liberty for long. They managed to destroy compromising documents, but in the evening the whole Bolshevik fraction was arrested. This was the final blow. With the removal of the one point that had served to rally the party’s scattered forces, the situation was desperate. After the arrest of the five Duma deputies, Lenin wrote to A.G. Shlyapnikov:

This is terrible. The government has evidently decided to have its revenge on the Russian Social Democratic Labour group, and will stick at nothing. We must be ready for the very worst: falsification of documents, forgeries, planting of ‘evidence’, false witness, trial behind closed doors, etc., etc. (LCW, To A.G. Shlyapnikov, 28/11/1914, vol. 35, p. 175.)

In the general atmosphere of depression and fear, the arrest of the Duma deputies did not arouse mass protests. The chief of the Petrograd Okhrana reported complacently to his superiors that “workers reacted inertly, even coldly” to the arrests. (Quoted in R.B. McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, p. 370.) Attempts by the Bolsheviks to organise protests got no response, with the exception of a half-day walkout at the Psycho-Neurological Institute. The fortunes of the party seemed to be at their lowest ebb. With the liquidation of the Duma fraction, work in Russia was rendered even more arduous than before. It was increasingly difficult to get experienced collaborators in Russia. By January 1915, most of the activists had been swept away by arrests. The charge was always the same: ‘anti-war agitation’. The routes through which letters and propaganda could be delivered were long and dangerous, and the police controls tightened as the war dragged on. The focus then shifted abroad. But here too the problems were multiplying.

Vacillations Among the Bolsheviks

All through the war, Lenin had plenty of trouble in his own camp. Not for the first or last time, Lenin found himself isolated increasingly within the leadership of his own Party. Some Bolsheviks, admittedly only a few, even lost their bearings to the extent of going over to chauvinism, like the members of the Parisian émigré group who actually volunteered to serve in the French army. Not even the Bolsheviks were immune to the pressures of defencism. These were, after all, not rank-and-filers but members of the Bolshevik ‘Foreign Committee’. But the Party was hard up and didn’t even have the means to call a congress of the exiles. In any case, who would have attended? And would Lenin have had a political majority? That was far from clear. There were a lot of problems with different local groups of exiles, who were clearly showing signs of demoralisation, of which the case of the intellectuals in the Paris group was only one expression.

In a way, this was not all that surprising. After all, the war had caused a crisis in every section of the labour movement. It would be surprising if the prevailing atmosphere of war fever had no echo in the ranks of the Bolsheviks. Krupskaya remembered the general mood of confusion that reigned in the first months of the war:

People were not clear on the question, and spoke mostly about which side was the attacking side.

In Paris, in the long run, the majority of the group expressed themselves against the war and volunteering, but some comrades – Sapozhkov (Kuznetsov), Kazakov (Britman, Sviagin), Misha Edisherov (Davydov), Moiseyev (Ilya, Zefir), and others – joined the French army as volunteers. The Menshevik, Bolshevik, and Socialist-Revolutionary volunteers (about 80 men in all) adopted a declaration in the name of the ‘Russian Republicans’, which was printed in the French press. Plekhanov made a farewell speech in honour of the volunteers before they left Paris.

The majority of our Paris group condemned volunteering. But in the other groups, too, there was no definite clarity on the question. Vladimir Ilyich realised how important it was at such a serious moment for every Bolshevik to have a clear understanding of the significance of events. A comradely exchange of opinions was necessary: it was inadvisable to fix all shades of opinion right away until the matter had been thrashed out. That is why, in his answer to Karpinsky’s letter framing the views of the Geneva section, Ilyich wrote: “Would not this ‘criticism’ and my ‘anti-criticism’ make a better subject for discussion?”

Ilyich knew that an understanding could more easily be reached in a comradely discussion than by correspondence. Of course, this was no time to keep such an issue long confined to comradely talks within a narrow circle of Bolsheviks. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, pp. 285-86.)

What happened in Paris was an extreme case, and an isolated one. Few Bolsheviks were drawn to an open chauvinist position. But some veered towards pacifism. Sections of the Party in France (Montpellier) advanced the slogan: ‘Down with war!’ and ‘Long live peace!’ which Lenin subjected to withering criticism. In all his writings of this period, Lenin pours scorn on pacifism, which he regarded as a debilitating influence on the working class. Not the slogan of ‘peace’, but class war, was what was needed. This idea is repeated time and again in dozens of letters and articles:

The watchword of peace, in my opinion, is incorrect at the present moment. It is a philistine, parson’s watchword. The proletarian watchword must be civil war. (LCW, To A.G. Shlyapnikov, 17/10/1914, vol. 35, p. 164.)

In July 1915, Lenin wrote to the Dutch Marxist, David Wijnkoop, expressing his delight that the Dutch comrades had taken up the slogan of a people’s militia:

I welcome with the greatest joy the position taken up by you, Gorter, and Ravesteyn on the question of a people’s militia (we have that in our programme too). An exploited class which did not strive to possess arms, to know how to use them, and to master the military art would be a class of lackeys. (LCW, To David Wijnkoop, vol. 35, p. 195.)

The essence of Lenin’s position on war is this: that the only way to end the war was to overthrow capitalism. Any other proposal was essentially a lie and a diversion. The slogan of ‘peace’ could only play a progressive role to the degree that it was closely linked to this perspective.

The struggle against war is the preparation for revolution, that is to say, the task of working class parties and of the International. Marxists pose this great task before the proletarian vanguard, without any frills. To the enervating slogan of ‘disarmament’ they counterpose the slogan of winning the army and arming the workers. (L. Trotsky, Writings 1935-36, p. 26.)

The truth of these assertions was established by the Russian Revolution in 1917. But initially, Lenin’s position was greeted with doubts and even incredulity. Even among experienced Bolshevik leaders, there were doubts and hesitations. Lenin’s implacable stand against chauvinism, which concentrated its fire against the ‘Centre’, was only grudgingly accepted by his colleagues, many of whom had been conciliators before the war. Although he occupied a leading position in the party and was entrusted with overseeing the work in Russia, Kamenev clearly did not agree with Lenin’s policy of defeatism. His conduct at the trial of the Duma deputies, with whom he had been arrested, left a lot to be desired and was sharply criticised by Lenin.

It is indeed evident from several sources that Kamenev entertained the severest doubts about Lenin’s Theses, especially the propagation of defeatism. Most spectacularly at his trial in February 1915 he publicly repudiated all Lenin’s theories on the war and called in his defence the ‘social chauvinist’ Yordansky. That this was not merely a device to secure a lighter sentence is confirmed by the fact that when the police raided another conference of the Bolshevik deputies with party workers on 4 November they discovered in Petrovsky’s possession notes dictated to him by Kamenev amending the Seven Theses and above all sidestepping the call for defeatism. Kamenev’s objection to the slogan of Russia’s defeat was apparently widely shared among Bolsheviks. (McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, p. 360.)

On the basis of a textual analysis of 47 leaflets and appeals published illegally by Bolshevik militants between January 1915 and 22 February, 1917, McKean finds that not a single leaflet mentioned the slogan of the defeat of Russia being the lesser evil. Ten leaflets made reference in the form of short phrases to the necessity of turning the imperialist war into a civil war and nine to the formation of a Third International. But in general the party’s illegal literature avoided themes likely to evoke a hostile response from the masses and concentrated, as before the war, on attacking the government’s policies towards the working class and advocating a revolutionary struggle against the autocracy as the only way of ending the war, based on the old Bolshevik slogans of a democratic republic, the eight-hour day, and confiscation of the estates of the gentry (the ‘three whales’).

The ‘Left’ Bolsheviks

If Kamenev represented a deviation in the direction of opportunism, there were also ultra-left and sectarian deviations, especially among a section of the exiles. Bukharin, Piatnitsky, and other leading elements had an ultra-left position on the national question. Some supporters of Bukharin’s group (N.V. Krylenko and E.F. Rozmirovich) in Switzerland insisted on publishing their own local journal, in defiance of the central committee which, given the lack of resources, had forbidden other local groups (Paris, Geneva) to do so. There was a bitter row over this issue. Lenin, who always had a soft spot for Bukharin, and recognised both his personal sincerity and his ability as a theoretician, nevertheless was well acquainted with his weaknesses. The question of self-determination always occupied a central place in the armoury of the Bolsheviks. But now, in the midst of an imperialist war, its importance was multiplied tenfold. No concessions were possible on this issue because it involved the whole question of annexations – a central issue in the war.

Lenin’s opposition to the imperialist war did not at all imply opposition to all war in general. He distinguished very carefully between different types of war. In all his writings, Lenin poured scorn on pacifism and the slogans of peace and disarmament. He always pointed out that Marxists have a duty to defend just wars – wars for the liberation of oppressed peoples and classes. Writing to Kollontai in late July 1915, Lenin answered the arguments of Bukharin:

How can an oppressed class in general be against the armament of the people? To reject this means to fall into a semi-anarchist attitude to imperialism – in my belief, this can be seen in certain Left-wingers even among ourselves. Once there is imperialism, they say, then we don’t need either self-determination of nations or the armament of the people! That is a crying error. It is precisely for the socialist revolution against imperialism that we need both one and the other.

Is it ‘realisable’? Such a criterion is incorrect. Without revolution almost the entire minimum programme is unrealisable. Put in that way, realisability declines into philistinism. (LCW, To Alexandra Kollontai, vol. 35, p. 198.)

In view of the deterioration of the internal situation, Lenin finally decided to call a Conference of foreign party groups, which opened in Berne on 15 February, 1915. It was attended by the representatives of the CC, the editorial board of the central organ Sotsial Demokrat, the Bolshevik women’s organisation, and foreign branches – Paris, Zurich, Berne, Lausanne, Geneva, Baugy-en-Clarence, and London. Among those present were Lenin, Krupskaya, I. Armand, Zinoviev, and Bukharin. Apart from the conflict with the Baugy group, the conference was called to discuss disagreements over the party’s approach to the war. In fact, the organisational dispute over the publication of a local paper was really the indirect expression of these differences. Bukharin submitted theses reflecting his view that the advent of imperialism meant that democratic demands were no longer important in the advanced capitalist countries. His remarks were directed specifically against the rights of nations to self-determination, echoing the arguments of Rosa Luxemburg and the Polish lefts.

There was only a hint of it in the resolution moved by the Baugy group on party tasks, which expressed strong reservations about Lenin’s slogan of ‘civil war’ and in particular the so-called defeat of Russia slogan. While agreeing in general with the idea that the war, at a certain stage, would provoke a revolutionary movement and a civil war, and while accepting the revolutionary significance of the slogan in combating the ‘Burgfrieden’ (‘civil peace’, suspension of the class struggle for the duration of the war), the resolution goes on:

However, our group categorically rejects advancing for Russia the so-called defeat of Russia slogan, particularly the way it was expressed in Sotsial Demokrat, No. 38. (Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, p. 272.)

The article here referred to was the one written by Zinoviev which put the position of revolutionary defeatism in a very crude fashion.

At the Berne conference, Lenin led off on the war, basing his remarks on the Manifesto. Lenin tried to get agreement on a comradely basis with the Baugy group. But right at the end of the Conference E.B. Bosch and G.L. Pyatakov (the inseparable duo known as the ‘Japanese’ because they had escaped from exile via Japan) turned up and insisted on reopening the discussion on the war issue. Bukharin immediately identified himself with their position, which flowed from an abstract, undialectical, mechanical way of thinking. They argued that, since the period of democratic demands (including the rights of nations to self-determination) was over, the only demand that could now be put forward was the seizure of power by the proletariat. No one supported Bukharin’s theses at the Conference and the commission on the war resolution accepted Lenin’s resolution unanimously. Since the commission was made up of Lenin, Zinoviev, and Bukharin, it can only be presumed that Bukharin voted against his own position!

The ‘United States of Europe’ slogan was also discussed at Berne. This had appeared in the Manifesto War and the Russian Social Democracy, written by Lenin in the early days of the war and published in Sotsial Demokrat No. 40. The slogan was part of the fight to overthrow the three reactionary monarchist regimes: Russian tsarism, Germany, and Austria-Hungary. Later, however, Lenin revised his opinion on the basis of the debate in Berne. After the conference, Lenin wrote his article ‘On the Slogan for a United States of Europe’, in which he explains that the slogan of the united states of Europe under capitalism is “either impossible or reactionary”, a position which, despite the illusions of the European capitalists today, remains correct at the present time. “Capitalism,” explains Lenin, “is private ownership of the means of production, and anarchy of production. To advocate a ‘just’ division of income on such a basis is sheer Proudhonism, stupid philistinism.” Temporary agreements can be reached between the different ruling classes of Europe, for the purpose of sharing out the spoils and for the joint exploitation of the colonies, such as the agreement between the French, German, and other capitalists after the Second World War. But they will inevitably break down again in periods of crisis. All this was explained in advance by Lenin.

Lenin is referring here specifically to the unification of Europe on a capitalist basis, of course. The unification of Europe remains an absolute necessity, but can only be achieved by the working class taking power and establishing the Socialist United States of Europe. The entire thrust of this article, and all Lenin’s writings of this period, was precisely the need to fight for a socialist revolution, not only in Russia, but throughout Europe. The issue was not resolved and was postponed for further consideration.

Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism

Lenin now embarked on a major theoretical study of imperialism which culminated in his great work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. It was written partly in answer to Hilferding’s Finance Capital, published in 1910, a work in which the latter, ignoring the contradictions inherent in capitalism and the inevitability of inter-imperialist conflict, raised the possibility of a universal cartel, a world planned economy under monopoly capitalism and the resolution of the conflict between wage labour and capital, or ‘organised capitalism’ – an early example of the idea of ‘managed capitalism’, so beloved of reformist leaders in the 1950s and 60s. Kautsky later seized upon Hilferding’s idea of organised capitalism for his theory of ultra-imperialism. Bukharin was struck by this idea which he answered in his book Imperialism and World Economy. Lenin, always on the lookout for young talent, was favourably impressed by Bukharin’s book on imperialism.

These were not the only attempts to revise Marx’s economic theories. Rosa Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital, written shortly before the war, posed the idea of the automatic collapse of capitalism, an idea that has since been utilised by revisionists to belittle the role of the subjective factor in carrying out the socialist transformation of society. As always, Lenin’s main task was the education of the cadres. He waged an implacable ideological struggle on two fronts – against opportunism and anarcho-syndicalism. Later on the Stalinists indulged in an unscrupulous attempt to link Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution to the Mensheviks and the ‘Left’ Bolsheviks, Bukharin, Pyatakov, and Bosch! There is absolutely no link between ‘permanent revolution’ and the infantile rejection of democratic demands advocated by the ‘Lefts’. But it is quite possible that Lenin’s attacks on ‘permanent revolution’ in this period were aimed at this group.

Conscription had a big effect on the working class. Seventeen per cent of working class cadres in Petrograd were called up, including almost all the youth. To take their place, a mass of politically untutored layers flooded into the factories, further diluting the class content of the workforce with raw, semi-proletarian elements. The younger, more energetic layers both from town and village were sent to the front. A large number of women and adolescents were drafted into the factories. These new elements – shop assistants, waiters, domestics, innkeepers, porters – brought their class prejudices with them. The factory proletariat was thrown back. The Bolshevik workers had to keep their heads down for a period. Conditions and wages were worsening and ‘military discipline’ imposed in factories. The general political level was reduced in the short term, but the merciless pressure on the workers and the proletarianisation of new layers in turn were preparing the way for a new explosion. The Party itself was temporarily disorganised, and only gradually recovered some semblance of order. But the ideas and traditions of Bolshevism were still alive in the factories and trenches. The fall-off of the movement is reflected in strike statistics in table 5.1.

(5.1) Strike statistics in the year 1914

Month

Number of Strikes

Number of Strikers

August

24 (40 x less than June)

24,688 (13 x less than June)

September

10

 

October

9

 

November

16

 

December

9

 

In the whole period August–December 1914, according to official figures, there were 70 strikes and 37,200 participants in all Russia. In Ivanovo-Voznesensk, one of the main centres of the workers’ struggles, strikes practically ceased. In all these months only one small stoppage was registered. Things were not much better in Petrograd.

The Trial of Bolshevik Duma Deputies

The arrest of the Duma deputies caused new problems for the Party. The local branches managed to get a few underground protest leaflets out. But no general movement was possible except small strikes. The Duma trial was preceded by a wave of arrests. There was a massive police presence on the streets of the main cities in order to ‘soften the working class up’ for it. In February, political protest strikes involved 4,630 – not a bad result given the extremely difficult conditions, but really a very small number, reflecting a generally depressed mood in a majority of workers.

The deputies’ performance at the trial was uneven. M.K. Muralov confined himself to admitting to being a member of the RSDLP and a deputy, elected by the workers. But G.I. Petrovsky’s speech, in Lenin’s words, ‘did him honour’. However, Lenin was critical of some aspects of the defence. For example, the defendants denied all personal participation in the illegal party. Kamenev, who as a Central Committee member was arrested at about the same time as the Duma deputies and put on trial with them, made a declaration which did not display the courage one might have expected from someone in his position. Lenin was dismayed by Kamenev’s conduct. Referring to the trial of the Duma deputies, Trotsky writes:

At the trial, which took place on the 10th of February, the defendants maintained the same line. Kamenev’s declaration that the documents with which he was confronted “decidedly contradict his own views on the current war” was not dictated only by concern for his own safety; essentially, it expressed the negative attitude of the entire Party upper layer toward defeatism. To Lenin’s great indignation, the purely defencist tactics of the defendants extremely weakened the agitational effectiveness of the trial. The legal defence could have proceeded hand in hand with a political offensive. But Kamenev, who was a clever and well-educated politician, was not born to meet extraordinary situations. The attorneys, for their part, did whatever they could. Repudiating the charge of treason, one of them, Pereverzev, prophesied at the trial that the loyalty of the labour deputies to their class will be forever preserved in the memory of future generations; whereas their weaknesses – lack of preparation, dependence on their intellectual advisers, and the like – “all of that will fall away, like an empty shell, together with the libellous charge of treason”. (L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 169.)

Lenin had expected something more. At a moment when all the leaders of the Second International were reneging, he saw the trial as an opportunity for the Bolsheviks to stand out, to give a clear public display of firmness and courage. The trial should have been a rallying point to raise the fighting spirits of the workers in Russia and internationally. But the opportunity was thrown away. Nor did their diplomatic defence tactics help to give them lighter sentences. The accused were sentenced to perpetual exile in Siberia. Despite Lenin’s misgivings, the fate of the Bolshevik deputies helped to raise the authority of the Bolsheviks in the eyes of the masses, who could not understand the finer points of the defence, but saw that their parliamentary leaders were prepared to go to prison for their principles. After the trial, Lenin asserted that the Bolsheviks had four-fifths of the conscious workers in Russia behind them. This was certainly true in 1914, as we have seen. About 40,000 workers used to buy Pravda before the war. Many more would have read it. Despite arrests, imprisonment, and exile, this tradition – a Bolshevik tradition – remained in existence. Even if the organisation had been reduced to a minimum expression, it still survived in the hearts and minds of the workers. This was the soil upon which the revolutionary tendency would eventually flourish once again.

But for the present, the situation of the party was grim. The party membership slumped with the outbreak of war. In the underground, the basic Bolshevik unit was the factory cell. The number of workers active in the cells at the time was very small. Because of arrests and mobilisation, a relatively high proportion of party members were new, inexperienced people. The Bolshevik Central Committee included Lenin, Zinoviev, Shlyapnikov, who was responsible for work in Russia, and the indispensable Krupskaya as secretary. That was about all! Only in the autumn of 1915 was a Russian Bureau of the CC established. By the autumn of the following year the Bureau was reorganised. The leadership fell to P.A. Zalutsky, V.M. Molotov and Shlyapnikov and remained so until February 1917. Gradually, painfully, the Party was being reorganised in the interior. The most important group was, of course, in Petrograd. It is claimed (in the Istoriya KPSS) that ten District Committees (rayonnye komitety) functioned here, though ‘not uninterruptedly’ (i.e., their existence was tenuous).

But by 1915 the mood was changing, the masses were slowly beginning to lose their fear. By the second half of 1915 there were already sporadic strikes in Moscow against the high cost of food. This changing mood was reflected in a gradual recovery of the party’s fortunes. Membership began to pick up slowly. In November 1914, the Petrograd Party organisation had only between 100 and 120 members. But by the spring of 1915, this went up to 500 and to 1,200 by the autumn. By mid-1916 and early 1917, there were 2,000 members in the capital. Also in the outlying areas the Party organisations were beginning to fill out. Apart from workers, there were groups of students, and even soldiers and sailors of the Baltic Fleet. It was the same elsewhere. In Kharkov in the spring of 1915 there were only 15 members. By the autumn, it had risen to 85, and one year later to 120. In Yekaterinoslav, at the end of 1915 there were 200, by November 1916, 300, and by the beginning of 1917, 400. The maintenance of underground party meetings, even when they were reduced to a few people, was the key to future success.

Slowly, the work was beginning to revive. Work was conducted in legal organisations, such as insurance and friendly societies. Even so, these were difficult and dangerous conditions of work. The Istoriya claims that the Party had groups in 29 towns and cities and names them as: Petrograd, Moscow, Kharkov, Yekaterinoslav, Kiev, Makeyevka, Samara, Saratov, Ryazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov-on-Don, Odessa, Yekaterinodar, Baku, Tiflis, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Tula, Orekhovo-Zuyevo, Tver, Gomel, Vyazma, Revel, Narva, Yuryeva, Irkutsk, Zlatoust, Yekaterinburg, and Orenburg. However, these claims should be treated with caution. Many of these groups will have been mere shells, and their existence problematical. The work was continuously hampered by agents provocateurs and arrests. Many of these organisations were probably not stable or long lasting like the Petrograd committee, which was smashed at least 30 times, although every time it was reconstituted. But, if this estimate is correct, then we must conclude that, at one time or another, party organisation existed in this period in at least 200 different towns and cities in Russia.

Underground work in wartime demanded the strictest centralisation and conspiratorial methods. The election principle was virtually impossible to retain. Elections were the exception, not the rule. Committees were formed by means of co-option: the regional committee (rayonny komitet), formed by members of local factory cells, nominated the members of the local committee (gorodsky’ komitet) which also had the right to co-opt experienced local workers. Some abuses were bound to creep in. But as far as possible the rank and file were kept informed by a combination of meetings and the underground press. The latter, in spite of all the difficulties, played a vital role in keeping the Party’s forces together. Three months after the outbreak of war, a new Bolshevik journal, the Sotsial Demokrat, was launched. In all, between October 1914 to January 1917, 26 issues (numbers 33–58) were produced – an average of one per month – a remarkable achievement in the given conditions.

Closed Frontiers

Lenin’s work in exile was proceeding frustratingly at a snail’s pace, fraught with difficulties at each step. With meagre resources, Lenin struggled to keep the work going with his tiny group of collaborators in exile. Apart from Zinoviev and Krupskaya, there was Inessa Armand, G.L. Shklovsky, and V.M. Kasparov. These made up the ‘foreign bureau of the Central Committee’. They tried to get the Bolshevik journal Sotsial Demokrat to act as an organiser. 300 issues were distributed in Paris, 100 in London, Stockholm, and New York, 75 in Geneva and Berne, 50 in Zurich and Lausanne. A few copies were sold in Milan and Genoa. But only a small number ever reached Russia. The collection of money occupied a central place in the preoccupations of the exiles. But despite excruciating difficulties, the paper not only continued to appear, but actually managed to reflect the life of the workers’ movement inside Russia. Its columns carried news, reports, resolutions, and leaflets from the underground party. In order to solve the ever-pressing financial difficulties, a fighting fund to aid Sotsial Demokrat was organised. The party was very hard up and the life of the exiles, bitter enough in itself, was made still more unbearable by the lack of contact with the movement in Russia.

If it was difficult to produce regular publications, it was even harder to deliver them to the intended readership. Closed frontiers and associated wartime conditions rendered the maintenance of regular contact with the interior almost impossible. Police vigilance, spies, and provocation bore down on the revolutionaries on all sides, breaking up all the old channels of underground transportation. The centre for this activity now moved to Stockholm, and also Murmansk and Arkhangelsk. The Scandinavian Social Democrats helped, although because of the pro-German stance of the leadership, such assistance came mainly from the Lefts, especially the Young Socialists who took an anti-war position, though tinged with pacifism, as in all the Scandinavian Social Democratic parties (‘Lay down the weapons!’). The man in charge of the transportation was the veteran worker-Bolshevik Alexander Shlyapnikov, whose memoirs provide an important source for the Party’s activities in this period. Krupskaya, as always, played an invaluable role in organising with meticulous detail all this work and helping younger comrades understand underground methods of work. Her small team of collaborators, apart from Shlyapnikov, included Kollontai, who had recently broken with the Mensheviks and now embraced the Bolshevik cause with the enthusiasm of a neophyte, Lenin’s two sisters, M.I. Ulyanova, A.I. Ulyanova-Elizarova, L.N. Stahl, and V.M. Kasparov. There were not many others. The fact that two of Lenin’s sisters had to be involved indicates the extreme difficulty in obtaining trustworthy people for this activity.

Lenin continued to have trouble with his close collaborators abroad. In August 1915 another Bolshevik journal appeared, Kommunist, edited by Bukharin. But very soon, Bukharin’s ultra-leftism soon had Lenin tearing his hair out. In an angry letter to Shlyapnikov, he complained that:

Kommunist has become harmful. It has to be stopped and replaced by a different title: Sbornik Sotsial-Demokrata (edited by the editorial board of Sotsial-Demokrat). Only in this way will we avoid squabbling, avoid wavering.

Having made numerous concessions to ‘the trio’ – Bukharin, Pyatakov and Eugenie Bosch – Lenin’s patience had finally run out.

Nik[olai] Iv[anovich] is an economist who studies seriously, and, in this we have always supported him. But he is (1) credulous where gossip is concerned and (2) devilishly unstable in politics. The war pushed him to semi-anarchist ideas. At the conference which adopted the Berne resolutions (the spring of 1915) he produced theses (I have them!) which were the height of stupidity, a disgrace, semi-anarchism. I attacked severely, Yuri and Eug. Bosch listened and remained satisfied that I did not allow any falling away to the left (they declared at the time their complete disagreement with N. Iv. [Bukharin]. Six months passed. Nik. Iv. studies economics. He doesn’t occupy himself with politics. And lo and behold, on the question of self-determination, he serves up the same nonsense. Eug. Bosch and Yuri sign it!! (LCW, To A.G. Shlyapnikov, 11/3/1916, vol. 35, pp. 214-15.)

The worst problem was isolation, the sense of being cut off from the movement in Russia. The work with the interior was plagued with difficulties and dangers. Only on rare occasions could someone reliable be sent into Russia to gather first-hand information on the state of affairs in the interior. The ever-resourceful Shlyapnikov, champing at the bit in Stockholm, was dogged by problems of all sorts, not just police surveillance and frontier guards, but lack of funds and the demoralisation produced by the collapse of the International. At first it was possible to maintain reasonable contacts with Russia by means of businessmen and emigrants returning to answer the call-up. But when this possibility dried up and controls became tighter, with regular searches of travellers at the frontier, things took a serious turn for the worse. Many Russian émigrés, who had previously been prepared to carry illegal material into Russia, were no longer willing to do so, preferring to dedicate themselves to more lucrative smuggling activities. The mood of disorientation and despair in the ranks was expressed in the following comments:

The news of our Paris Bolsheviks going off in the army, the ‘cosy chats’ of the old man of Geneva, Plekhanov, and the situation as a whole also casts a gloomy cloud across our heads.

The disorganisation of work in the interior, especially after the arrest of the Duma fraction, expressed itself in a financial crisis. Shlyapnikov found some seafarers who were willing to smuggle in illegal propaganda – for a price. But the money was simply not to be had:

I reported this to the Petersburg Committee and the Duma fraction, but received the sad news that they were not in a position to give the necessary sum of some 300 to 500 roubles a month. It was hard enough for them to send out money for my keep, and, having once sent me 100 roubles, the comrades recommended that I arrange all my own expenses. I could not even begin to think of finding work, as those first months of war had caused great unemployment in Sweden and the plants were operating only a few days per week. No opportunity presented itself of finding resources in the local emigrant community, although there were a lot of speculative racketeers there. Our party’s foreign-based Central Committee was too poor to allocate such a sum for this operation. In order to keep the work going I resorted to loans and sent back news only occasionally. (A. Shlyapnikov, On the Eve of 1917, p. 35 and pp. 37-38.)

German Intrigues

As always in time of war, the activities of the secret services were stepped up. The efforts of the secret service to gain potentially useful recruits for their particular cause was not limited to the official leaders of labour in the main countries. Every attempt was made to gain points of support through intrigues, bribes, and blackmail. Working on the well-known axiom that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, the great powers attempted to encourage rebellions in the enemy’s rear, appealing demagogically to the ‘rights of nations to self-determination’. Thus, London sent its agent, the adventurer T.E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’), to rouse the Arabs against the Turks, and cynically promised Palestine both to the Jews and the Arabs (with no intention of giving it to either), while Berlin tried to get the Finns to rise against the Russians. In this shady game of intrigue and counter-intrigue, the agents of the imperialists were not averse even to putting out feelers to revolutionaries with a view to entangling them in acts of subversion which would weaken the enemy. For example, the ex-left winger Parvus, a capable man but an adventurer who had gone over to social chauvinism, opened a so-called Institute for the Study of the Social Consequences of the War, in Copenhagen, as a means of luring Russian Revolutionaries into collaborating with the Germans. Out of poverty and demoralisation, many fell into the trap.

Throughout the war, the Bolsheviks took great care to maintain themselves aloof from all the attempts of the German imperialists to involve them in intrigues which would have completely compromised the party in the eyes of the world working class. In relation to both the Allied and the German brigands, the position of Lenin was made clear in hundreds of articles and speeches: ‘A plague on both your houses!’ This is a matter of public record. And although the Party, as we have seen, was in desperate need of money at this time, there was never any question of accepting German funds, although they were in fact offered. The position of Lenin on this was clear and unambiguous. While making use of the contradictions between the imperialists, the revolutionaries must not get ensnared with their intrigues or become dependent on them in any way. However, lately, as part of a general campaign to smear and discredit Lenin by all possible means, the enemies of Bolshevism have fished out of the dustbin the slanderous accusation that Lenin was a ‘German agent’. This monstrous lie was invented by the tsarist secret service to discredit the Bolsheviks, and later repeated and amplified by the Provisional Government to harry and persecute the Bolsheviks in the period of reaction that followed the July Days of 1917. In the recent period, it has been revived by unscrupulous ‘historians’ like Volkogonov, who make no attempt to conceal their vitriolic hatred of Lenin, Trotsky, and revolutionaries in general.

In his book on Lenin, Volkogonov dredges up all the old lies about Lenin as a ‘German agent’ that were answered long ago. In addition to the old calumniators, he quotes some new ones, who, on closer inspection, appear to be mere replicators of the old stuff. A “Russian historian”, a certain S.P. Melgunov, is the first authority quoted by Volkogonov. He assures the reader that one must seek “the key to the German gold in the pocket of Parvus (Helphand), who was simultaneously in touch with the socialist world and the German general staff”, and that “this would explain the extraordinarily rapid success of Lenin’s propaganda.” When was this startlingly new and original material written? In 1940, when it appeared in a book called The Bolsheviks’ German Golden Key, published in Paris and part of a rather voluminous literature published by Russian exiles, all of them fanatical opponents of Bolshevism, motivated by spite, hatred, and the spirit of revenge. From such sources, one can hardly expect a scientific appraisal of this subject or any other.

But at last Volkogonov arouses our interest when he adds: “Now that I have examined a great number of hitherto unobtainable documents…” Yes, at last we catch a glimpse of these new and exciting sources! And what do they show? Believe it or not, they show that the famous “secret of the revolution”, which has so long been kept hidden… “is still far from being cleared up”. (My emphasis.) Either the “secrets” were passed on by word of mouth among a small circle of Bolshevik leaders, or the evidence has been destroyed, and “Lenin knew well how to guard secrets”. (D. Volkogonov, Le Vrai Lénine, p. 130.)

The mountain has laboured, and borne, not even a mouse, but a squeak! But even the squeak of such a diminutive mouse is capable of being magnified a thousandfold and broadcast to the ends of the earth. As has happened in this case, with a little help from Volkogonov’s friends in the mass media, who did not waste any time in assuring everyone that this book contained conclusive proof, based on entirely new sources (hitherto unobtainable!), that Lenin was no more than an agent of the Kaiser (just as Trotsky was later said to be an agent of Hitler).

We are treated to a potted (and not very illuminating) life history of Parvus, who, by 1914, was very rich and in tow to the German general staff. Lenin seems to have met Parvus in Switzerland in 1915. Nothing new here, either, since Shub’s material has been around for a very long time, as has Zeman’s biography of Parvus, from which Volkogonov has taken most of this “new and original” section. In fact, this accusation (made by the Provisional Government during its notorious slander campaign against Lenin and the Bolsheviks in July 1917) was already answered by Lenin himself:

They implicate Parvus, trying hard to establish some sort of connection between him and the Bolsheviks. In reality it was the Bolsheviks who in the Geneva Sotsial-Demokrat called Parvus a renegade, denounced him ruthlessly as a German Plekhanov, and once and for all eliminated all possibility of close relations with social-chauvinists like him. It was the Bolsheviks who at a meeting held in Stockholm jointly with the Swedish Left Socialists categorically refused to admit Parvus in any capacity, even as a guest, let alone speak to him.

Hanyecki was engaged in business as an employee of the firm in which Parvus was a partner. Commercial and financial correspondence was censored, of course, and is quite open to examination. An effort is being made to mix these commercial affairs with politics, although no proof whatsoever is being furnished!! (LCW, Dreyfusiad, vol. 25, p. 167.)

When Bukharin raised the question of working with Parvus, Lenin dissuaded him from doing so, although some Mensheviks were working there – a fact which Lenin never utilised, and which is now never mentioned, since the slanderers are only interested in discrediting revolutionaries. In fact, Lenin reserved his sharpest attacks for the likes of Parvus, whom he castigated as a renegade and a traitor in the pages of Sotsial Demokrat, although none of these facts find the least echo in Volkogonov’s book. In 1915, Lenin wrote the following about Parvus in an article significantly entitled At the Uttermost Limit:

He fawns upon Hindenburg, assuring his readers that “the German General Staff has taken a stand for a revolution in Russia”, and publishing servile paeans to this “embodiment of the German people’s soul”, its “mighty revolutionary sentiment”. He promises Germany a painless transition to socialism through an alliance between the conservatives and part of the socialists, and through “bread ration cards”. Like the petty coward he is, he condescendingly semi-approves of the Zimmerwald Conference, pretending not to have noticed in its manifesto the expressions directed against all shades of social-chauvinism, from the Parvus and Plekhanov variety, to that of Kolb and Kautsky.

In all six issues of his little journal there is not a single honest thought or earnest argument or sincere article. It is nothing but a cesspool of German chauvinism covered over with a coarsely painted signboard, which alleges it represents the interests of the Russian Revolution! It is perfectly natural for this cesspool to come in for praise from such opportunists as Kolb and the editors of the Chemnitz Volksstimme.

Mr. Parvus has the effrontery to publicly declare it his “mission” “to serve as an ideological link between the armed German proletariat and the revolutionary Russian proletariat”. It is enough to expose this clownish phrase to the ridicule of the Russian workers. (LCW, At the Uttermost Limit, vol. 21, pp. 421-2.)

Volkogonov refers us triumphantly to a whole series of letters written in code by Lenin and received by him. Since these letters cannot be deciphered, regrettably, we can know nothing of their content. However, on the word of Volkogonov (who also could not know what is in them), we may safely assume them to refer to ‘German gold’, (whatever else would they refer to?) Unfortunately, though, there was a lot more business that Lenin conducted that had to be kept secret – like all the work of the underground, that is, 90 per cent of the party’s work at that time! During its campaign of slander against the Bolsheviks, the Provisional Government referred to a whole series of letters, allegedly from the Bolsheviks, that were either fabricated or deliberately distorted by the German press for propaganda purposes. Undoubtedly, the letters referred to by Volkogonov fall into this category. In dealing with these slanders, and specifically with the “letters in code”, Trotsky remarks:

The testimony of the merchant, Burstein, concerned the trade operations of Hanecky and Kozlovsky between Petrograd and Stockholm. This wartime commerce, which evidently had recourse at times to a code correspondence, had no relation to politics. The Bolshevik Party had no relation to this commerce. Lenin and Trotsky had publicly denounced Parvus, who combined good commerce with bad politics, and in printed words had appealed to the Russian Revolutionists to break off all relations with him. (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, pp. 599-600.)

Getting more and more desperate, Volkogonov finally appeals to…
Kerensky! At which point the wheel has turned full circle, and we are left with the original campaign of lies directed against the Bolsheviks in “the month of the great slander”, as Trotsky called it. A certain Yevgeviya Mavrikevna Sumenson is quoted as yet another “new and original” source. She is said to have confirmed the existence of a special account at the bank of Siberia of “around a million roubles”, of which the quantity of 800,000 is said to have been withdrawn on the eve of the revolution. Who is this Miss Sumenson? A witness at the trials of the Bolsheviks during the witch hunt of July 1917. Where did Volkogonov get the quote? Not from “hitherto unobtainable sources”, but from Melgunov’s book published in Paris in 1940. And so on and so forth…

Is it not possible that some of the money distributed by the German general staff through its agents abroad found its way, one way or another, into the accounts of the Bolsheviks? Throughout the war, not only the Germans but the Allies also used their stooges in the labour movement to buy support among left groups in other countries. But to allege that the Germans had bought the Bolsheviks with gold and that there existed an actual bloc between the Bolsheviks and German imperialism is not only monstrous but extremely stupid. It flies in the face of all the known facts about the political conduct of the Bolsheviks both during and after the war. For example, Volkogonov tries to show that German money was channelled to the Bolsheviks via Sweden. The representative of the Bolshevik Party in Sweden was Alexander Shlyapnikov. In his memoirs, he recalls that the German secret service was indeed very active in Sweden, had penetrated the Swedish Social Democracy, and attempted to bribe the Russian Revolutionaries into its service. What attitude did he take?

The answer is given in Shlyapnikov’s memoirs. In October 1914, the Dutch Social Democratic leader Troelstra, who was pro-German, arrived in Stockholm on a mission on behalf of the SPD, that is to say, on behalf of the German general staff. He wanted to stiffen up the pro-German sympathies of Branting and the other Swedish Social Democratic leaders, while pushing the idea that the International Bureau be moved to Amsterdam. The Dutch leader took the opportunity to sound out the Bolsheviks on their attitude to the war. Shlyapnikov gave him his answer in a speech to the congress of the Swedish Social Democrats which he attended.

After denouncing the Allies and exposing the reactionary war aims of Russia, he then turned to Troelstra:

The German socialists’ surprise that we are not rejoicing over their recently announced alliance with their government for a ‘holy war on Russian tsarism’ is nothing but a hypocritical cover for their own betrayal of the International and socialism from the eyes of the masses.

We have always been glad to accept a helping hand from comrades in toil and ideas in our arduous struggle against tsarism but we have never demanded nor expected assistance to the Russian Revolution from the part of German feudalism and Wilhelm II, the Russian Tsar’s reactionary counsellor and friend.

We do not renounce our struggle against Russian tsarism but in that struggle we are counting only upon our own forces.

We would ask the German Social Democrats not to send Wilhelm II with his 420-millimetre gun to our aid but to try to put this war material to use against their own feudal lords just as we hope to use ours against Russian tsarism.

The Finns, our brothers in toil, have also given a negative reply to all the ploys of Germany’s bellicose capitalism and take the same standpoint.

The revolutionary proletariat of Russia, along with all the oppressed nationalities, hope to emerge victorious without doing deals with any government whatsoever. (A. Shlyapnikov, On the Eve of 1917, pp. 40-41.)

The attack on the German Social Democracy launched by Shlyapnikov (whose name figured in the minutes as A. Belenin for reasons of security) provoked the indignation of the Swedish leader Branting, and sparked a conflict between the right and left wings of the party:

Branting takes the floor on a question over which he considers it essential to take a decision. He had just familiarised himself with the text of a greeting, originating from one of the Russian parties, where it speaks of a betrayal by the German party. The speaker points out that it does not befit the congress to express condemnation directed at other parties and considers it necessary that a motion of regret be formally moved with regard to the paragraph inserted in the greetings.

Höglund (Stockholm) considers it improper for the congress to adopt such a resolution because within our own party there are also comrades who regard the Germans’ behaviour as a betrayal. He moves that congress does not pass judgement but contents itself with entering Branting’s statement in the minutes.

S. Vinberg (Stockholm) considers that we should state merely that the judgement expressed remains the responsibility of the Russians.

Branting repeats his demand and asserts that otherwise the misunderstanding will arise that delegates to congress are in sympathy with the aforementioned judgement.

In the end, the congress defeated Vinberg’s motion and passed Branting’s but only by a narrow margin – 54 votes to 50. This situation was eventually to be duplicated in all the parties of the Second International, paving the way for massive splits and the formation of a new International. But that still lay five years in the future, after the most terrible tribulations.

Far from enjoying access to unlimited funds in the form of ‘German gold’, the Bolsheviks were afflicted by constant financial difficulties. The lack of funds is a constant theme in Shlyapnikov’s memoirs:

I set about reinforcing the working group of Bolsheviks in Stockholm and training several proletarians in the conspiratorial work of smuggling literature, etc. The Petersburgers had displayed no initiative in organising communications. My activity in this direction ran into obstacles for lack of funds. Smuggling could be managed at great expense, but I had no money and not a hope of obtaining any. We had to improvise. This was far from satisfactory, especially when with some 500 roubles a month I could have showered our working-class organisations in Russia with literature and maintained a regular monthly contact with every corner of the country. But such a trifling sum could not be managed, so there matters rested.

Had the Bolsheviks been prepared to accept money from the Germans, they would not have been in such desperate financial straits during the war. But to have accepted aid from such a source would have been the kiss of death. Shlyapnikov recalls the difficulties they faced:

There were no permanent properly established links with Russia. We had to use the good offices of passing emigrants, and also Finnish comrades, for transporting the precious funds. Various commercial and manufacturing firms were running contraband traffic in both goods and personnel. Heading some of these establishments were Russian engineers glorying in their former Social Democracy, but these gentlemen were afraid of losing their cosy niches and did not wish to lift so much as a finger in the business of aid for revolutionary work in Russia. (Ibid., p. 44, p. 51 and p. 47.)

How Did the Party Survive?

In recent years there have been many attempts to downgrade and belittle the role of the Bolsheviks in the workers’ movement in Russia. One of the more serious studies is Robert McKean’s book, which is very well documented, and is intended to correct the excessively rosy and simplistic picture of the old Stalinist histories which present the history of Bolshevism as a kind of triumphal march. The party made no mistakes, was always on the ascent, always in the leadership of every strike and demonstration, and so on. From such fairy tales, one can learn nothing about the way in which the Bolshevik Party was really built. Thus, the road is blocked, not only to the past, but to the future. It is necessary to understand the truth about the past in order to learn from it. While McKean’s case is probably overstated, there is no reason to doubt that the party was in very poor shape at the beginning of the war. This is hardly surprising. The objective conditions were extremely difficult at this time, McKean admits:

At the advanced Petrograd Metals plant, one memoirist recalled, the workers exhibited indifference in the first year of the war to the Bolsheviks’ anti-war case. At other cardinal defence enterprises such as Erikson and Putilov, operatives voluntarily surrendered as much as a fifth of their weekly wage in order to provide support to the families whose breadwinners had been summoned to military duty. Work stoppages remained extremely rare occurrences until the summer of 1915. Bolshevik leaders themselves privately, if indirectly, admitted the existence of this impediment. In the spring of 1915, for example, they acknowledged their “inability to attract the masses to the socialist camp by demonstrations against the war”.

He quotes one unnamed worker from the red Vyborg district of Petrograd as recalling that “in the factories… in the first year of the war the mood was not particularly revolutionary.” And concludes that:

At most the party’s membership [in Petrograd] did not exceed 500. In the almost complete absence of all city or even district networks, consistent planned activity or the formulation of an agreed strategy proved a chimaera. Agitational work could take place only on the most restricted scale. In all the constraining circumstances the outreach of the 25 or so anti-war leaflets published to the summer of 1915 and the unknown copies of Sotsial-Demokrat reaching the city was likely to have been inconsiderable.

Arguing against Soviet historians who claimed that at the outset of the war the five Bolshevik deputies reconstituted along with Kamenev the Russian Bureau of the Central Committee, McKean states that he has found no corroboration of this assertion in the relevant Okhrana files. There is no reason to doubt this, since the arrest of Kamenev along with the Duma deputies, and the general disorganisation of the party committees, would have cut short its activities, if it ever had any. The absence of leadership, either from the leading bodies in Russia or from abroad, meant that everything depended on the initiative of the worker-Bolsheviks in the factories. The difficulty in getting precise information about the work of these unnamed heroes and heroines is self-evident, above all in conditions of strict clandestinity. But this lack of information does not mean that these people did not exist. The point is made by McKean who writes:

In the absence of effective leadership from abroad or from the PK [Petersburg Committee], revolutionary strategy and tactics were at the discretion of rank-and-file socialist militants throughout the first year of the war.

In preparation for 9 January, 1915, the Petersburg Committee succeeded in putting out a leaflet calling for a strike on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. McKean compares the poor response to the situation after the Lena shootings in 1912. But that was the beginning of an upturn in the class struggle, when the workers were recovering from the effects of the defeat of the 1905 Revolution. In the given context of the war and patriotic reaction, the very fact of producing a leaflet at all may be considered a success. 2,000 workers responded to the call and downed tools – a small result when compared to the pre-war figures, but still a significant one in the given situation. All that it shows is that the masses still had their heads down. The orgy of reaction had still not exhausted itself:

Sweeping police raids and detentions towards the end of April put paid effectively to revolutionaries’ plans for 1 May. “The work of local Leninists,” the police reported at the time, “is at present completely disorganised”. Although the remnants of the PK succeeded in publishing a leaflet on the very eve of the workers’ ‘holiday’, the small number of copies remained undistributed for the most part. A mere 600 workers refused to report for work on that day. (McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, p. 368, p. 369, p. 367 and p. 370.)

However, the Okhrana’s agents spoke too soon. Leninism was by no means destroyed. The creation of a strong and disciplined centralised organisation composed of revolutionary cadres was what permitted the Bolsheviks to survive the test of fire. They alone were in a position to sustain revolutionary work in the harsh conditions of the underground. By contrast, the war utterly disorganised the Mensheviks at grass roots level. By January 1916, Martov could write in a plaintive tone: “In Russia things are going badly for us… F.I. (Dan) fears that everything that is alive is going over to the Leninists.” (Pis’ima P.B. Aksel’rod Yu. O. Martova 1901-1916, p. 355.) This was no accident. The organisational and political flabbiness of Menshevism (which were head and tail of the same coin) rendered them ill-equipped to cope with the arduous conditions of underground work in wartime. In any case, they had made a principle out of disbanding the illegal party organisation in favour of purely legal activities. How could such a position be justified now?

In fact, the Menshevik organisation barely existed in Russia at this time. This is acknowledged by non-Marxist writers like Robert McKean: “The Organisational Committee and the Central Initiative Group betrayed no sign of existence in this period.” And again: “Both the Mensheviks’ dearth of organisations and the ‘liquidationist’ intellectuals’ aversion to strikes as a form of labour protest resulted in their complete indifference to the possibility of utilising the political anniversaries.” (R.B. McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, p. 371.)

The lack of an organised expression of Bolshevism does not tell us everything. If Bolshevism had been completely liquidated during the war, how was it possible for the party to recover so quickly after February? How did it succeed in moving to take power in only nine months? If one accepts McKean’s case at face value, there is no answer to this riddle. But there is, in fact, a very simple answer. In the period before the war, four-fifths of the organised workers supported the Bolsheviks. Many of them were not active in party committees, but readers of Pravda who collaborated with the Bolsheviks in one way or another. Many hundreds of thousands more would have been touched by the agitation and slogans of the Bolsheviks. The idea of the party lived on in their minds even though they had their heads down. This was the real capital of the party, that re-emerged as conditions changed and played a key role in the events of February 1917. In the same letter to Shlyapnikov, where he underlines the difficult position the party found itself in after the arrest of the Duma deputies, Lenin points out the real strength of Bolshevism – in that layer of revolutionary workers educated by the party in the period 1912–14:

At all events, the work of our Party has now become 100 times more difficult. And still we shall carry it on! Pravda has trained up thousands of class-conscious workers out of whom, in spite of all difficulties, a new collective of leaders – the Russian CC of the Party – will be formed. (LCW, To A.G. Shlyapnikov, 28/11/1914, vol. 35, p. 175, my emphasis.)

Subsequent events proved Lenin to be correct, despite Robert McKean’s attempts to show the opposite. In August 1915, when the tide was already beginning to turn in Russia, Lenin wrote to Shlyapnikov, calling for the rebuilding of the organisation:

It would be extremely important for leading groups to come together in two or three centres (most conspiratively), establish contact with us, restore a Bureau of the Central Committee (one exists, I think, in Petersburg already) and the CC itself in Russia. They should establish firm ties with us (if necessary, one or two persons should be brought to Sweden for this purpose). We would send news-sheets, leaflets, etc. The most important thing is firm and constant relations. (LCW, To A.G. Shlyapnikov, 23/8/1915, vol. 35, p. 205.)

The party still faced an uphill struggle. The party’s organisations inside Russia were badly disorganised and contacts with the exterior extremely difficult. Yet the most important thing, as Lenin pointed out in this letter, was that the party had survived, despite everything: “It is clear that the advanced sections of Pravdist workers, that bulwark of our Party, has survived, in spite of terrible devastations in its ranks.”

Lenin’s comments go right to the heart of the matter. No matter what persecution, no matter how many arrests, no matter how many police agents succeeded in infiltrating the party, Bolshevism could not be eradicated. As long as there remained a hard core of cadres, trained and educated in the ideas, methods and traditions of the party, it was invincible. Trotsky writes:

The war produced a dreadful desolation in the underground movement. After the arrest of the Duma fraction the Bolsheviks had no centralised party organisation at all. The local committees had an episodic existence, and often had no connection with the workers’ districts. Only scattered groups, circles and solitary individuals did anything. However, the reviving strike movement gave them some spirit and some strength in the factories. They gradually began to find each other and build up the district connections. The underground work revived. In the Police Department they wrote later: “Ever since the beginning of the war, the Leninists, who have behind them in Russia an overwhelming majority of the underground social democratic organisations, have in their larger centres (such as Petrograd, Moscow, Kharkov, Kiev, Tula, Kostroma, Vladimir Province, Samara) been issuing in considerable numbers revolutionary appeals with a demand to stop the war, overthrow the existing government, and found a republic. And this work has its palpable result in workers’ strikes and disorders”. (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 62.)

Catastrophe at the Front

At the commencement of hostilities, the Russian army appeared as a formidable military machine – a numberless mass of fighting men, ready to lay down their lives for the Tsar like the hero of Glinka’s opera. The German officers were impressed, then appalled, by the sight of vast numbers of grey overcoats advancing remorselessly over open fields, only to be mowed down by German machine guns. Surely, here was the famous old Russian army described by Tolstoy in War and Peace, made up of mindless peasants willing to follow the orders of their superiors with blind obedience, and submit, patient and unquestioning, to the harshest impositions. This myth about the Russian people, which even surfaces today as a supposed ‘explanation’ of the present situation, despite its patently unscientific and quasi-racist character, was blown sky-high by the real historical experience of 1914–17. The Russian army did not benefit from the vast number of troops at its disposal. It was gravely under equipped in everything. Even such elementary items as boots and rifles were in short supply, to say nothing of tanks, aeroplanes, shells, and artillery. In 1914 there were no more than 679 motor cars (and two motorised ambulances!) for the whole of the army.

Throughout the war, the Russian army was expected to play the role of cannon fodder for the Allies. Thus, the original plan of the Russian high command had been to launch an offensive on the South Western Front against the weaker Austrian forces, while defending the North Western Front against a stronger German force. But under pressure from France this plan was changed to an all-out offensive on both Fronts to force the Germans to transfer troops from the theatre in the West and thus relieve pressure on the French. The offensive, which seemed to start well, ended in the bloody disaster of Tannenberg, where at the end of August Samsonov’s army was surrounded and cut to bits in four days of the most appalling butchery. 70,000 Russians were killed or wounded and another 100,000 taken prisoner. By contrast, the Germans losses amounted to a mere 15,000 men. In answer to the condolences offered by the French representative, the Grand Duke Nikolai, the Russian commander in chief, replied nonchalantly: “Nous sommes heureux de faire de tels sacrifices pour nos alliées” (“We are happy to make such sacrifices for our allies”). By the end of 1914, Russian casualties were already in the region of 1.8 million.

All this slowly worked on the psychology and morale of the soldiers, as slow dripping wears away the hardest rock. Just as the Russian working class was in the main not patriotic in outlook, so the mass of peasants in uniform were unenthusiastic about a war which they did not understand and could not identify with. The proverbial obedience of the Russian muzhik was soon strained to the limit by the months and years of hardship, suffering and death. Orlando Figes affirms that: “The soldier of the Russian army was, for the most part, a stranger to the sentiment of patriotism.”

And to underline this point, he quotes several instructive examples:

A farm agent from Smolensk, who served in the rear garrisons, heard such comments from the peasant soldiers during the first weeks of the war:

“What devil has brought this war on us? We are butting into other people’s business.”

“We have talked it over among ourselves; if the Germans want payment, it would be better to pay ten roubles a head than to kill people.”

“Is it not all the same what Tsar we live under? It cannot be worse under the German one.”

“Let them go on and fight themselves. Wait a while, we will settle accounts with you.”

These sorts of attitudes became more common in the ranks as the war went on, as Brusilov had cause to complain:

“The drafts arriving from the interior of Russia had not the slightest notion of what the war had to do with them. Time after time I asked my men in the trenches why we were at war; the inevitable senseless answer was that a certain Archduke and his wife had been murdered and that consequently the Austrians had tried to humiliate the Serbians. Practically no one knew who these Serbians were; they were equally doubtful as to what a Slav was. Why Germany should want to make war on us because of these Serbians, no one could say… They had never heard of the ambitions of Germany; they did not even know that such a country existed.”

An army always reflects the society from which it is formed. The class divisions in the tsarist army, the brutal discipline, the corruption and inefficiency, the callous indifference of the officers to the suffering and slaughter around them, did not pass unnoticed by even the most politically uneducated peasant soldier. The Allied commanders themselves were shocked by the rottenness of the Russian general staff, which was but the mirror image of the rottenness of the tsarist-Rasputin regime. The Supreme Commander himself, the Grand Duke Nikolai, had never taken part in any serious fighting and was little more than a figurehead, writes Figes. “General Yanushkevich, his Chief of Staff, had nothing to recommend him but the personal favour of the Tsar, who had discovered him as a young Guardsman at the palace. He had never even commanded a battalion. Colonel Knox, the British military attaché at Stavka, gained ‘the impression of a courtier rather than a soldier’.” The rot seeped from the top down. “The aristocratic generals committed endless blunders (one even had the distinction of ordering his artillery to fire on his own infantry’s trenches).”

The growing mood of revolt is mirrored in the declarations of the troops:

“Look at the way our high-up officers live, the landowners whom we have always served,” wrote one peasant soldier to his local newspaper at home. “They get good food, their families are given everything they need, and although they may live at the Front, they do not live in the trenches where we are but four or five versts away”.

Any study of army mutinies will show that the leaders are usually the NCOs. These ‘natural leaders of men’ are usually selected from the most energetic and intelligent layers of the soldiers. In charge with most of the day-to-day running of the army, they are frequently hostile and contemptuous of the upper echelons. Sixty per cent of the NCOs in the tsarist army were peasants, mostly in their early twenties and with very little education. But, as Figes points out:

The war was… a great democratiser, opening channels of advancement for millions of peasant sons. Their sympathies lay firmly with the ordinary soldiers, and any hopes that they might form a bridge between the high-born officers and their low-born troops were badly misplaced. This was the radical military cohort – literate, upwardly mobile, socially disoriented and brutalised by war – who would lead the mutiny of February, the revolutionary soldiers’ committees, and eventually the drive to Soviet power during 1917. Many of the Red Army’s best commanders (e.g., Chapaev, Zhukov, and Rokossovsky) had been NCOs in the tsarist army, much as the marshals of Napoleon’s wars had begun as subalterns in the king’s army.

One such sergeant in the tsarist army, the peasant Dmitry Os’kin, who later became a Social Revolutionary, wrote in his diary, April 1915:

“What are we doing in this war? Several hundred men have already passed through my platoon alone and at least half of them have ended up on the fields of battle either killed or wounded. What will they get at the end of the war? …My year and a half of military service, with almost a year at the Front, has stopped me from thinking about this, for the task of the platoon commander demands strict discipline and that means, above all, not letting the soldier think freely for himself. But these are the things we must think about”. (O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, p. 257, p. 258, p. 259, p. 260, p. 264 and p. 265.)

Out of such stuff are revolutions made.

From May to September 1915 the Germans inflicted a series of shattering blows against the tsarist forces. The Russians were pushed back 300 miles, surrendering a territory bigger than France. Three quarters of a million Russian soldiers were in prisoner of war camps, and ten million people became refugees. The losses of the army in killed, wounded, and missing amounted to between 7.2 and 8.5 million men, i.e., between 45 per cent and 53 per cent of all the men mobilised. A million men surrendered to the German and Austrian forces during the Great Retreat. “The army was no longer retreating but simply fleeing”, Polivanov, Minister for War, stated. “Confidence in its strength is completely destroyed… Headquarters has completely lost its head. Contradictory orders, wavering hither and thither, feverish changes of commanding officers, and general confusion unnerve even the most courageous men… The confusion at headquarters is no longer a secret and still further demoralises the army.”

At the end of July, Krivoshein, Minister of Agriculture, told the Council of Ministers:

Hungry and destitute people are bringing panic everywhere, and extinguished all the vestiges of the enthusiasm of the first months of the war. [Refugees] move in a solid mass, they tread down the fields, destroy the meadows and woods… The railway lines are congested; even movements of military trains and shipments of food will soon become impossible. I do not know what is going on in the areas that fall into the hands of the enemy, but I do know that not only the immediate rear of our army but the remote rear as well are devastated, ruined… it is in my competence to declare, as a member of the council of ministers, that the second great migration of peoples, staged by general headquarters, will bring Russia to the abyss, to revolution and to ruin. (Quoted in L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, pp. 181-82.)

Bolsheviks in the Armed Forces

The possibilities of conducting revolutionary work in the armed forces were clearly even more limited than elsewhere, although the situation began to change after 1915. It was never the Party’s policy to refuse to join the army or fight in a war, but to go with the rest of the class and conduct revolutionary work in the barracks and trenches. However, the class composition of the Russian army, overwhelmingly made up of peasant troops, initially created unfavourable conditions for revolutionary activity. The Bolsheviks did conduct work in the armed forces, especially among sailors – the navy being traditionally working class in composition. In the latter stages of the war, there was a growing radicalisation and ferment in the fleet. Bad food and conditions and excessive work caused outbreaks of mutiny which was viciously put down in October 1915. Warships are like floating factories and the crews that manned them had to contain a fair number of skilled workers – engineers, stokers, electricians, and the like – drawn from the factories themselves. Many of these sailors had participated in the revolutionary movements before the war and had been Bolsheviks or at least had been touched by Bolshevik propaganda. In the Baltic Fleet almost every big ship had its group of Social Democrats. It was no accident that the sailors played a key role in 1917, or that the majority of them backed the Bolsheviks.

Among those active in the Baltic Fleet was F.F.I. Iyin – known to history as Raskolnikov – who played an important role in the revolution. His political biography is fairly typical. Born into a poor family, he discovered the ideas of Marx and Engels as a teenager and joined the RSDLP in 1910 while studying at the St. Petersburg Polytechnical Institute where Vyacheslav Molotov was one of his comrades in the Bolshevik students’ organisations. When Pravda was launched in 1912, Raskolnikov (he was now given his Party name) was one of the original editorial team, working as a secretary. He was then arrested and sentenced to three years exile in the far northern province of Arkhangelsk. As a result of pleas from his widowed mother, the sentence was reduced to banishment from Russia. Raskolnikov travelled to Paris where he hoped to continue his revolutionary work with the Bolsheviks, but was arrested in Germany as a spy and sent back to Russia. In 1913 he was amnestied and returned to Petersburg where he continued to work on Pravda until the outbreak of war, when he joined the navy as a cadet. It was in this situation that Raskolnikov found himself when the February Revolution broke out. There were many Raskolnikovs in the tsarist fleet.

It is impossible to know exactly how many Bolsheviks were active in the army, for obvious reasons. Such work would have been extremely clandestine. The Khrushchevite Istoriya claims the existence of more than 80 party cells in the Baltic Fleet and 30 or more on the Western Front. This is almost certainly an exaggeration. But that there were Bolsheviks active in the army and especially in the fleet is undeniable. The importance of these soldier-sailor Bolshevik agitators cannot be underestimated, but the figures given in the Istoriya are described as ‘approximate’, and no source given, so we must treat them with caution. The real position was undoubtedly far more complex than this. Alexander Shlyapnikov, who played a leading role in the Bolshevik Party in Russia during the war, explains that while there were many Bolsheviks and actual party organisations in the fleet, their connections with the party leadership were, at best, tenuous. Under the harsh conditions of wartime, the RSDLP sailors’ committees functioned independently, although their activities alarmed the authorities which strove to root them out through arrests and repression.

The growing strength of the revolutionary current among the sailors, particularly in the Baltic Sea Fleet, is shown obliquely by the wave of arrests of sailors that took place in Petersburg, Kronstadt, and Helsinki, coinciding with a strike wave in Petersburg in early 1916. A major trial of the ‘Military Organisation of the Petersburg Committee of the RSDLP’ was held. The voluminous Bill of Indictment drawn up by the Okhrana and filling 50 typed pages, describes the work of the Social Democrats in the navy in great detail. The tsarist secret police, whose agents closely monitored all subversive activity in the armed forces, states that:

From the autumn of 1915 reports started coming into the Kronstadt gendarmerie headquarters that there was a marked increase in the activity of revolutionary organisations of social democratic tendencies among the crews of vessels of the Baltic Fleet. These are endeavouring to place as many of their supporters in the fleet who would train the ships’ crews for actions in pursuit of a variety of demands when the war comes to an end. The aforementioned activity, although not succeeding in organising systematic propaganda, has, as events have proved, nevertheless exerted a powerful influence on the crews’ excited mood and this in the end overflowed into major disorders on the battleship Hangut on 19 October, 1915, the participants in which, namely 26 ratings, were sentenced by the Naval Court-Martial of 17 December of the same year and duly punished.

At the same time there arose similar disorders on the cruiser Riurik.

The existence of propaganda was confirmed by the participants and by disorders on other vessels that arose from the crews’ dissatisfaction with their food and officers bearing German surnames.

The Petersburg Security Department has received reports parallel to this material about the emergence of a military organisation of the Russian Social Democratic Party among ship and shore-based crews of the Baltic Fleet.

According to these reports social democratic circles have been formed on each warship whose leading personnel sat on a general directing committee. The latter, by arranging gatherings ashore in teashops and restaurants, directed its energies chiefly towards explaining current events to the sailors in a desirable light with the purpose of creating a climate of discontent among them.

With the unconscious humour that is characteristic of police statements about political questions, the report continues in its poker-faced bureaucratic tone: “This approach apparently succeeded in winning some influence on the sailors, creating among them a highly restive mood for which no other reason could be observed.” What a priceless pearl of bureaucratic-police wisdom! The sailors of the Baltic Fleet faced atrocious conditions, bad food, autocratic officers, and a bloody and reactionary war, yet the police blockheads can see no reason for their “restive mood” other than the malicious activity of agitators. The same malignant cause lies behind every strike and manifestation of social discontent, since the working people must be delighted to work long hours in bad conditions for low pay, for the greater glory of God and the capitalist system!

Having made this profound discovery of the law that explains everything in terms comprehensible to a policeman’s level of intelligence (i.e., demonology) the report then proceeds to contradict it:

Although the circles arose on the ships independently and outside of the influence of the group functioning in Petersburg that styles itself the Petersburg Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, the leading committee of the naval organisation has nonetheless from the time of appearance sought opportunities to join forces with the ‘Petrograd Committee’ which it in fact achieved through one of the active leaders of the workers’ movement who was the representative of the Vyborg party district on the Petrograd Committee, the peasant Ivan Fedorovich Orlov. (A. Shlyapnikov, On the Eve of 1917, pp. 138-39 and pp. 139-40, my emphasis.)

Here, unintentionally, the real relationship between the Bolshevik Party and the developing movement of revolt is fairly accurately described. The “highly restive mood” of the sailors was due to objective conditions that were not created by the revolutionaries, but by the tsarist regime and the imperialist war, itself the product of the unbearable contradictions of world capitalism. This inchoate but increasingly intense feeling of discontent in the mass finds a conscious expression at a certain stage through the minority who have had some experience of political life before the war, and who are able to put into words the unconscious aspirations of the majority below decks. Inevitably, this mood strives for an organised expression, and eventually finds it in the necessarily secret organisations established by the sailor-revolutionaries, who, in turn, attempt to establish contacts with the party, which remains their only point of reference. Only at this point does the Okhrana obtain the information that convinces them of the existence of a gigantic and sinister plot of some all-powerful revolutionary centre which, by magical means, turns honest, god-fearing sailors into subversives “for which no other reason could be observed”.

The upsurge of the workers’ movement in St. Petersburg found an echo in the Baltic Sea Fleet. By the autumn of 1915, it seems that a fairly strong Social Democratic organisation existed there, with committees on all the big warships and shore companies in Kronstadt, Helsingfors, Petersburg, and other points on the Baltic coast, all of which were linked to the ‘Chief Committee of the Kronstadt Military Organisation’. On 19 October, the anger over bad food and the harsh regime on board exploded in a protest on the battleship Hangut. The sailors seized some of the officers and contacted other vessels requesting aid. This was precisely the kind of unorganised outburst which the Bolsheviks had been striving to prevent. The movement was quickly isolated and put down with savage reprisals. 26 men stood trial and the whole group was transferred to shore duty and disbanded. At the trial in December 1915, two men were sentenced to death and 14 others to hard labour. But such sentences could not extinguish the flame of revolt. Other protests followed, provoking increasing concern in the authorities. One police report states that:

Functioning on board every vessel are social democratic cells that elect their own committees, each vessel’s committee having its representative on the leading committee. The aforementioned cells have arisen quite independently, owing to the existence of favourable soil in the sense of the high degree of development of the ratings and the presence among them of individuals who prior to entry into military service had already become skilled in underground work.

The report shows how the Social Democrats conducted agitation and propaganda in the canteens and cafés, explaining current events to the sailors and drawing revolutionary conclusions, while adding that:

The ideological leaders of the underground work on the warships have tried in every way to restrain the sailors from sporadic unrest, in order to bring about a situation where a general action could take account of the possibility of an active movement on the part of the working class which might bring crucial influence to bear upon changing the political system… (A. Shlyapnikov, On the Eve of 1917, p. 191.)

Allowing for an element of exaggeration for the sake of effect, this report of the trusted agents of the regime has obviously the ring of authenticity in at least some aspects.

Despite the impossibility of establishing the exact nature and extent of revolutionary activity in the armed forces in time of war, there can be no doubt that as time wore on and conditions worsened, the mood of the soldiers began to change and become more open to revolutionary ideas, and they looked towards the Social Democrats, especially their most radical wing, the Bolsheviks. The process is well portrayed by Trotsky in his History:

The revolutionary elements, scattered at first, were drowned in the army almost without a trace, but with the growth of the general discontent they rose to the surface. The sending of striking workers to the front as a punishment increased the ranks of the agitators and the retreat gave them a favourable audience. “The army in the rear, and especially at the front”, reports a secret agent, “is full of elements of which some are capable of becoming active forces of insurrection, and others may merely refuse to engage in punitive activities.” The Gendarme Administration of the Petrograd province declares in October 1916, on the basis of a report made by a representative of the Land Union, that “the mood in the army is alarming, the relations between officers and soldiers is extremely tense, even bloody encounters are taking place. Deserters are to be met everywhere by the thousands. Everyone who comes near the army must carry away a complete and convincing impression of the utter moral disintegration of the troops”. (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 44.)

The Liberals Begin to Stir

The military catastrophe stirred the liberals out of their state of inertia. Under growing pressure, the Tsar finally agreed to recall the Duma on 19 July, 1915. Here was an opportunity to seize the reins of power from the shaky grasp of the ruling clique without a revolution! The regime was riven with splits. The Progressive Bloc was formed in the late summer, when Russia was already in the throes of a deep crisis. It ranged all the way from the moderate Nationalists and Octobrists to the Cadets and had a clear majority in the Duma – 241 votes of a total of 407. “Since 1915 we patriots had almost become Cadets because the Cadets had almost become patriots,” this was how Sulgin, a Nationalist deputy, put it. In the more conservative-minded upper house, the state council, it only had 89 votes out of a total of 196. “Only a strong, firm and active authority can lead the fatherland to victory,” declared the bloc’s first manifesto.

The Mensheviks and Trudoviks – though formally outside the bloc – supported the bourgeois liberals. Once again, Chkheidze tried to frighten the bourgeoisie into taking power with the threat of the masses. For its part, the autocracy, which had originally given some concessions to the bourgeois (reshuffling certain ministers and changing a few generals) then moved away again. But all this ‘palace politics’ with its constant game of parliamentary musical chairs was by now quite irrelevant. It is interesting to note that, while all this was going on, against the will of the bourgeoisie, the Tsar had secretly entered into contact with Berlin with the aim of concluding a separate peace with Germany. This was no accident. The situation was getting serious: crisis and splits at the top; military defeats at the front; strikes and demonstrations and bourgeois opposition at home. Even the thick-headed Nicholas could now feel the ground shake under his feet. The Tsar had no intention of ‘sharing power’ with the bourgeois liberals, who were by this time toying with the idea of a palace coup to put Nicholas’ brother Mikhail on the throne. But this plan, like all the other schemes of the liberals, came to nothing.

The bourgeoisie, while striving for a place in the sun and bristling at the rule of a corrupt and incompetent autocracy, nevertheless lived in fear of revolution and constantly looked over its shoulder at the ‘dark masses’. Lionel Kochan quotes the comments of the director of the Police Department that the strike outbreak had acted “in a chilling manner” on the tactics of the Cadets. Fully aware of the impotence of the liberals, the government treated them with undisguised and well-merited contempt. Sazonov (Minister of Foreign Affairs) contemptuously told his fellow ministers that if the Cadets were offered some crumbs they would be the first to come to an agreement with the government. “Milyukov is the greatest bourgeois of all and fears a social revolution more than anything else,” he continued. “Yes, and the majority of the Cadets are trembling for their investments.” If only Sazonov had trembled for his investments…

“Shulgin defined the bloc’s aim in purely static terms – as an attempt ‘to calm the masses’.”

The Cadets’ dilemma – to see the need for action, yet to fear to act – was graphically illuminated in V.A. Maklakov’s famous article A Tragic Situation. He compared Russia to an automobile entrusted to a chauffeur, so incapable that he is taking the vehicle to inevitable disaster. Those in the vehicle who are able to drive dare not interfere – not for one second must the car be left without a driver or else it will fly into the abyss. The chauffeur knows this and that is why he can make merry over the alarm and impotence of his passengers.

The bloc, therefore, petrified by fear lest it inadvertently admit the masses to its private quarrel with the Tsar, spent its time in discussion that did not lead to action. Like so many Oblomovs, it discussed, negatively and positively, the growing despair in the country, the fear of revolution, the need for another 11 March, the railway crisis, the fuel crisis… In retrospect, Milyukov identified the autumn of 1915 as “the precise moment” when the revolution became inevitable. (L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, p. 184, p. 185 and p. 186.)

The proposal of a parliamentary government responsible to the Duma was put forward by the left-wing Cadets and Kerensky. This was supported by the Mensheviks, but Milyukov, the Cadet leader and principal architect of the Bloc, would not hear of it. The Cadets bent over backwards to make their proposals acceptable to the Tsar. But all this moderation was in vain. The Tsarina and the Rasputin clique had far more influence over Nicholas than the ‘moderates’ could ever aspire to. “‘Show your fist,’ the tsarina had urged her weak-willed husband. ‘You are the Autocrat and they dare not forget it’.” (O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, p. 276.) Nicholas responded accordingly. On 3 September the Tsar ordered the dissolution of the Duma until November and began dismissing ministers he thought insufficiently trustworthy. At the beginning of October, the acting Minister of the Interior, Shcherbatov, was replaced by the reactionary Alexei N. Khvostov. Kerensky wrote bitterly:

The Tsar’s co-ruler, the Tsarina, was thus giving notice to the entire nation that there was to be no more vacillation in the defence of the time-honoured principles of Russian autocracy. All hopes of an agreement with the Crown were crushed – that much the leaders of the Progressive Bloc now realised. What were they to do? (A. Kerensky, The Kerensky Memoirs: Russia and History’s Turning Point, p. 142.)

What could they do? The only way to remove the regime was by mobilising the masses for a direct onslaught. But the very thought filled these gentlemen with terror. The workers responded to the dissolution of the Duma with a protest general strike. But the slogan was not ‘Convene the Duma’, but ‘Down with the government!’ The strike was to have continued for three days, but when General Frolov issued an order for the strikers to be brought before field court-martials, and so on, the Petersburg Committee resolved to strike for one more day to demonstrate that the workers were not ending the strike on the general’s orders. The Liquidators were against this and their supporters returned to work; the Bolshevik workers returned to work one day later, as had been decided. Altogether, 150,000 went on strike in Petersburg, 25,000 in Nizhny Novgorod (where they struck for only one day); there were big strikes in Moscow, Kharkov, and Yekaterinoslav. “After these strikes,” reported Sotsial Demokrat, “the liberals went on a concerted ‘pacification’ drive, but the workers were not about to be pacified at all. The repression carried out against them, the incredible rise of inflation, and so on, heightened the revolutionary mood.” (Quoted in Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International)

This strike served notice that the proletariat had recovered from the earlier setbacks and was on the move again. Such a prospect filled the liberals with dread. Far better to knuckle under to the autocracy than have another 1905! The fear of the masses ensured that the liberals’ response to the arbitrary action of the Tsar would be non-existent. Prince Lvov was elected to lead a delegation to plead with the Tsar to “place the heavy burden of power upon the shoulders of men made strong by the nation’s confidence”. But Nicholas refused to receive them. They were summoned instead to the Ministry of the Interior where they were told that their “intrusion into state politics” had been presumptuous.

The dissolution of the Duma cruelly exposed the liberals’ impotence. Power lay firmly in the hands of the Romanov-Rasputin regime. The liberals were becoming desperate.

“I am afraid”, one Cadet leader told his colleagues in the autumn of 1916, “that the policy of the government will lead to a situation in which the Duma will be powerless to do anything for the pacification of the masses”.

On 1 November, when the Duma reassembled, even the moderate Milyukov finally understood that time was running out for the policy of cooperation with the government. In his opening speech to the Duma, he launched an attack on the government’s abuses of power, one after another, and asking the question: “Is this folly or treason?” Of course, Milyukov had no intention of stirring up revolution – merely to frighten the autocracy into making concessions in order to save itself. But in the charged atmosphere of the times, his words had an altogether different effect – much to its author’s discomfort. Since the law prohibited its publication, the speech was copied and distributed by illegal means. The workers made use of its contents to denounce the autocracy, its ministers and all its works.

“My speech acquired the reputation of a storm-signal for the revolution,” a bemused Milyukov later recalled. “Such was not my intention. But the prevailing mood in the country served as a megaphone for my words”. (O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, p. 285 and p. 287.)

The Turn of the Tide

Trotsky once remarked that theory is the superiority of foresight over astonishment. As Lenin had predicted, the revolution was given a powerful impetus by Russia’s military defeats. At the beginning of the war, Lenin was completely isolated. His views on the war were not even shared by many of his closest comrades. But now things were different. Finally, events were proving him right. The turning point was probably in April-June 1915. His letters begin to reflect a new confidence and optimism:

Events in Russia have completely endorsed our position, which the social-patriot donkeys (from Alexinsky to Chkheidze) have christened defeatism. The facts have proved that we are right!! The military reverses are helping to shake the foundations of tsarism, and facilitating an alliance of the revolutionary workers of Russia and other countries. People say: what will ‘you’ do, if ‘you’, the revolutionaries, defeat tsarism? I reply: (1) our victory will fan the flames of the ‘Left’ movement in Germany a hundredfold; (2) if ‘we’ defeated tsarism completely, we would propose peace to all the belligerent powers on democratic terms and, if this were rejected, we would conduct a revolutionary war. (LCW, To A.G. Shlyapnikov, 23/8/1915, vol. 35, pp. 204-5.)

The corruption of the regime was palpable at all levels, at the court, in the army, and in industry. There was a cosy relation between the government and the big arms manufactures.

The huge Putilov plant, for example, received 113 million roubles worth of orders for shells – far more than it could deliver on time – at a price six times higher than the average market price. Putilov used the cash to subsidise the loss-making parts of his business, including his own fabulous lifestyle, so that his company eventually went bankrupt and had to be sequestered by the state in 1916. (O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, p. 273.)

No wonder Lenin wrote sarcastically in response to the tearful complaints of the pacifists: “War is a ‘terrible’ thing? Yes. But it is a terribly profitable thing.” (LCW, May Day and the War, 1915, vol. 36, p. 325.)

The war brought rising prices, bread shortage, speculation, and black marketeering. Fabulous profits were made by the arms manufacturers. The unbearable conditions of the masses called forth a wave of strikes. In 1915 there were 1,063 strikes, 15 times more than in the second half of 1914 (i.e., the first six months of the war). The number of strikers reached 569,999 – more than 15 times more. The strikes affected especially the big factories. The upswing in the strike movement began in April-June 1915. In these three months alone there were 440 strikes and 181,600 strikers, double the figures for the eight previous months of the war. The rising graph of the strike movement served notice on the regime that the patience of the working class was reaching its limits. A key role in this was played by the textile workers of Ivanovo-Voznesensk and Kostroma. They were the first to move.

In spite of everything, some victories were won. In July, the Bolsheviks managed to hold a conference of the Petrograd Party in Oranienbaum, with 50 delegates representing 500 members. This was a considerable achievement under the conditions. There was also a conference in Kiev. Gradually, contacts between the towns were improving. The shooting in Ivanovo-Voznesensk provided the basis for the call for a general political strike of textile workers. This began on 8 August, and initially began with economic demands. On the night of 10 August, 19 workers’ leaders were arrested. On the next day, more than 25,000 workers from 32 factories took part in a street demonstration. When the workers turned up at the jail to demand the release of their arrested comrades, the troops opened fire, killing 100 people and wounding another 40. Among the dead were members of the Bolshevik Party. But no amount of shooting could stop the movement. Like a hydra-headed monster, no sooner had the regime lopped off one head than two more grew in its place. Strikes broke out in other areas: in Petersburg, Tver, Tula, Kharkov, Nizhny Novgorod, Yekaterinoslav, and other areas. The stormy outbreak of strikes announced the reawakening of the proletariat.

The strike curve continued its upwards course. From August to October 1915 there were officially 340 strikes, and 246,000 strikers. A key role in the movement was played by Bolshevik worker-activists, trained in the school of struggle in the period 1912–14. Thus, history does not pass in vain. Despite the war, despite the arrest and exile of the leadership, despite the disruption of the Party’s structures and the reduction of its organisation to a minimum, despite everything, something remained. That ‘something’ was the revolutionary consciousness imbibed by the proletariat from its earlier experiences and retained through its most active and developed layer, which had been biding its time patiently in the hope of better days. Now, sensing a change in the mood of the workers, these activists – a big majority of them Bolsheviks – once more came to the fore. The strikebreaking role of the defencists provoked a growing rejection on the factory floor. Workers at many factories carried resolutions demanding the recall of their representatives from the War Industry Committees.

The September strike in Petrograd involved 150,000 workers, protesting at the arrest of 30 Bolshevik workers from the Putilov works. There were also strikes in Moscow and elsewhere. The masses stirred and dimly remembered the old slogans which had not been heard in the factories, except in whispers, since that fateful summer of 1914. Now they were on everyone’s lips again – those slogans which became popularly known as Lenin’s ‘Three whales’: For a Democratic Republic! For the confiscation of all landed estates! For the eight-hour working day! And above all, in this bloody dance of death of the nations, for the international solidarity of the working class! Down with the war! And a curse on all those responsible for it!

In May 1915, the bourgeoisie moved to set up ‘War Industry Committees’ (VPK), in part to try to get some control over the lucrative war industries, while simultaneously establishing their patriotic credentials as the would-be saviours of Russia, in the hope of winning concessions from the Tsar. As part of this tactic, they attempted to involve the workers in the war effort and boost production.

In May 1915, on the initiative of leading Moscow industrialists and businessmen, an All-Russian Trade and Industry Convention was held, without prior notification to the government. The main business of this meeting was the establishment of a Central War Industry Committee with a number of subsections. All industry was now being mobilised for the immediate dispatch of munitions, clothing, and equipment to the front. Everyone of importance in Russia became active in the cause. (A. Kerensky, The Kerensky Memoirs: Russia and History’s Turning Point, p. 136.)

In June 1915 a congress of these committees decided to set up ‘workers’ groups’ in them. Here again we see the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism. The Mensheviks again revived the idea of a ‘Labour Congress’, trying to work in ‘legal’ conditions in wartime. More than anything else, this shows how far removed these ‘realistic’ labour leaders were from reality. Under wartime conditions, the tsarist regime was even less likely to permit genuine organisations of the working class.

The Mensheviks and SRs supported participation in these committees, demagogically arguing that they represented ‘workers’ control’ and could be used to defend the workers’ interests against capital. They played with the idea of soviets, conveniently overlooking the fact that real soviets are organs of struggle, not talking-shops that aim to bring about conciliation between the classes. As Lenin explained:

Soviets of Workers’ Deputies and similar institutions must be regarded as organs of insurrection, of revolutionary rule. It is only in connection with the development of a mass political strike and with an insurrection, and in the measure of the latter’s preparedness, development and success that such institutions can be of lasting value.

The Bolsheviks were radically opposed to participation in these committees, which were organisations of the bourgeoisie set up to help the imperialist war effort. Nevertheless, complicated tactical questions were involved here, which could not be reduced to a simply negative attitude. Under conditions where it was necessary to take advantage of each and every legal opening, it would be correct, Lenin explained, to participate in the first round of elections to these committees exclusively for the purpose of agitation and propaganda and to build the organisation:

We are opposed to participation in the war industries committees, which help persecute the imperialist and reactionary war. We are in favour of utilising the election campaign; for instance, we are for participation in the first stage of the elections for the sole purpose of agitation and organisation. (LCW, Several Theses, vol. 21, p. 401 and p. 402.)

The Petrograd Committee called on the workers to participate massively in the first round of elections, holding factory meetings where they should clearly and publicly explain the Party’s position and try to get elected in order to go to a citywide meeting. There they should read out a speech denouncing the war and call for a boycott of the War Industry Committees. In order to hold elections to the War Industry Committees, the regime was indeed compelled to call open mass meetings in the factories. Only factories of more than 500 were allowed to participate. The Bolsheviks, who had their main strength in the big factories, actively participated in them and the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks struggled for influence in these election campaigns, carrying their different message to the masses. Some Mensheviks were elected, but the main beneficiaries were the Bolsheviks. Lenin was delighted at the victory which he considered very important. After the success of the Bolsheviks in the election campaign, the bourgeois Gvozdev angrily demanded the holding of new elections. The Liquidators were only too pleased to go along with this.

The second round of elections was marked by a reign of police terror. The government was determined not to permit a repeat and took the precaution of arresting leading Bolsheviks. Under these conditions, the Bolsheviks – who were in a ‘left bloc’ with the left SRs – went to the factory meetings to denounce the traitors and demonstratively walk out. There were protest meetings in a number of factories. After the experience in Petrograd, the government took no chances with the election in Moscow: there were massive police raids. Even so, the defencists’ campaign was not a success. Out of a total of 244 War Industry Committees, ‘workers’ groups’ were only set up in 58 – mostly in small, backward factories. In the main working class centres, the tactic of active boycott triumphed. The chief of the Moscow Okhrana wrote in a report:

Literally, nearly all (sic) the beginnings of this group suffer shipwreck because of the hostile attitude of the overwhelming majority of the workers, influenced by the Bolsheviks. (Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, p. 581.)

Throughout the war, the Bolsheviks inside Russia were faced with extremely difficult conditions. By contrast, the right-wing Mensheviks (the ‘defencists’) enjoyed a privileged position because of their innate opportunism and their willingness to subordinate the workers’ interests to the bourgeoisie. Although the Bolsheviks had more support among the most active and conscious workers, the defencists had the advantage of their legal status. In addition to their representatives on the workers’ sections of the War Industry Committees, they had ample funds from their liberal friends, and possessed legal journals like Delo (The Cause) and Ekonomicheskoe Obozrenie (Economic Review). Their ‘Labour Group’ even had premises on one of the main streets in Petersburg (the Liteiny) where they could meet freely and receive reports from the Duma from Chkheidze and Kerensky. These legal meetings were well attended, and the Bolsheviks used to attend them in order to expose the policies of the defencists – which, on at least one occasion, ended in the arrest of the unwelcome ‘guest’. Nevertheless, the tsarist authorities were suspicious of them, and eventually, patriotism notwithstanding, began to crack down on the Labour Group also.

These objective difficulties made it both necessary and correct to try to arrive at working agreements with other tendencies in the workers’ movement. They attempted to form a united front with those Social Democratic groups that defended an internationalist position. The Bolshevik bureau had on several occasions participated in negotiations with other tendencies in the Petrograd working class movement during the war, notably the Inter-District Committee (Mezhraiontsy) who, as Shlyapnikov states, were politically indistinguishable from the Bolsheviks, but who stubbornly clung to a ‘non-factional’ position which kept them from uniting with the Bolsheviks. (See A. Shlyapnikov, On the Eve of 1917, p. 164.) By December 1916, very close contacts already existed between the Bolsheviks and the Mezhraiontsy, who were finally persuaded by Trotsky to join the Bolsheviks in the summer of 1917. As a matter of fact, there was always a large number of Social Democratic workers – both individuals and groups – who were not formally aligned with Bolsheviks or Mensheviks. The immense difficulties of the war years, the weakness of the party’s central organisation, led to a situation where many local groups existed in isolation. “Similar groups of social democrats,” writes Shlyapnikov, “which had no permanent link with the overall city organisation existed in large numbers in Petersburg. Several of these circles kept apart and isolated through fear of provocateurs.” (Ibid., p. 152.)

The attempt to form a united front was not confined to the Mezhraiontsy. There were also proposals from the Bolsheviks for a united front with left Mensheviks (the ‘initiative group’) and they also offered practical agreements to the non-defencist left, represented by Chkheidze, the leftward-leaning chairman of the Menshevik Duma fraction, and even Kerensky of the Duma Trudovik group. The latter at the time even called himself an internationalist and a supporter of Zimmerwald (!). However, they refused to break with the defencist right-reformists. They were besotted with the idea of parliamentary action and, above all, they feared a break with the liberal bourgeoisie. At bottom, all these elements feared the mass movement like the plague.

The attempt to secure practical agreements or episodic blocs for specific aims does not at all imply the shelving of differences. On the contrary. The prior condition for the united front tactic is complete freedom of criticism. Lenin treated with justified contempt the notion that unity means the mixing up of programmes and banners. In his article ‘The Defeat of Russia and the Revolutionary Crisis’, written in November 1915, Lenin writes:

There is nothing more puerile, contemptible and harmful, than the idea current among revolutionary philistines, namely, that differences should be ‘forgotten’ ‘in view’ of the immediate common aim in the approaching revolution. People whom the experience of the 1905–14 decade has not taught the folly of this idea are hopeless from the revolutionary standpoint. (LCW, The Defeat of Russia and the Revolutionary Crisis, vol. 21, p. 379.)

Not playing at unity, but an open struggle for the leadership of the working class was the banner of Lenin.

Crisis of Tsarism

A revolution breaks out when all the antagonisms of a society have reached their highest tension. But this makes the situation unbearable even for the classes of the old society – that is, those who are doomed to break up. (L. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 97.)

The weakness of tsarist Russia, the corruption that gnawed at the entrails of the regime, was cruelly exposed. The military catastrophes, the rising cost of living, the profiteering and speculation, the rottenness of the court clique expressed themselves in a crisis of the regime. In May 1916 there were scattered disturbances among recruits in the provinces. Food riots began in the South and spread to the naval fortress of Kronstadt. By late autumn Petrograd was once more the scene of stormy social agitation and a massive strike wave. The military defeats, the bungling of the government, the whiff of corruption from the Rasputin regime, the rising prices and constant repression provoked a burning sense of anger and injustice in the very depths of society. By 1916, the strike wave reached new and unprecedented heights. A staggering 1,542 strikes involving up to 1,172,000 workers were recorded – much more than in 1905. No other country experienced such an explosion of strikes during the First World War. The workers advanced mainly economic demands, at first. But the number of political strikes steadily increased: in 1915, 216; in 1916, 273. And the number of participants increased likewise: in 1915, 156,900; in 1916, 310,300. By the autumn of 1916, the mood of discontent had reached threatening proportions.

The regime’s anxiety grew as the anniversary of Bloody Sunday approached. Repression and arrests were stepped up, especially in December 1915–January 1916. Despite a pre-emptive strike of the police, there were mass protest meetings on 9 January, 1916, with 55 factories out in Petrograd alone, according to official figures. There were strikes in Moscow, Kharkov, Revel, Tver, and Yekaterinoslav. The metal workers – the heavy battalions of the proletariat – took over from the textile workers as the main force in the strike movement. More ominous for the regime was the commencement of fraternisation at the front. News of mutinies in the army was now reaching the authorities – from Kharkov, Greece, and France. There were the beginnings of a peasant movement, giving notice of the explosive mood in the villages, especially among the poorest layers who bore the brunt of the war. Uprisings took place in Kazakhstan and Central Asia which lasted several months in the summer of 1916.

This was a decisive turning point. By 17 October, 45 factories were on strike, protesting against the high cost of living, the war, and the autocracy. In an ominous development, the troops turned against the police and supported the workers. The Cossacks, sent to restore order, refused to fire on the soldiers. Only with great difficulty did the authorities manage to get the soldiers to return to barracks that evening. For those with eyes to see, here were the unmistakable symptoms of a revolution in the advanced stages of gestation. Further strikes occurred later in October, culminating in a lockout, which was defeated by a general strike. In the whole of October, up to 250,000 Petrograd workers participated in political strikes.

The crisis of the regime was revealed by the assassination of Rasputin. The hideous reality of a drunken and debauched ‘Holy man’ intriguing with a degenerate court clique and dictating to a superstitious Tsarina, handing out favours and even deciding military policy, brought to a head the unbearable contradictions between different wings of the state. A section of the aristocracy resolved to eliminate Rasputin as a means of regenerating the regime and staving off imminent disaster. Since all attempts to remove him (including the offer of a bribe of 200,000 roubles in cash to return to Siberia) foundered on the opposition of the Tsarina, the only solution was murder. The reactionary politician and bitter enemy of Rasputin, V.M. Purishkevich, hatched a plot, together with a clique of noblemen, to assassinate Rasputin and place the Tsarina in a mental institution, a simple expedient, whereby the Tsar, freed from the pernicious influence of the court camarilla, would be miraculously transformed into a model constitutional monarch!

Similar dreams have accompanied every absolute monarchy to the grave. The basic flaw in all of them is the same: that monarchy, especially of the absolute type, is organically inseparable from court camarillas. The Rasputin regime was merely a particularly poisonous example of this phenomenon. The details of the assassination of Rasputin, which combined the macabre with comic opera, are too well known to need much elaboration here. Topped up with a large dose of his favourite brand of sweet Madeira liberally laced with cyanide, shot several times, and finally knocked on the head, the Holy man was finally dispatched, his body weighed down with iron chains and dumped in the river Neva. His death was celebrated in champagne by dukes and field marshals. The principal assassin, the Grand Duke Dimitri, was given a standing ovation at the Bolshoi Theatre. But the Tsar was not amused. Dimitri was exiled to Persia, and, contrary to all expectations, Nicholas was still more under the thumb of his grief-stricken wife than before. Thus, the attempt to reform the monarchy by means of a surgical operation had the opposite effect to what was intended.

The idea of a palace revolution offered no solution for Russia. Things were too far gone. The intrigues and manoeuvres at the top resembled the antics of a man dancing on the edge of a volcano. Meanwhile, society was in a state of constant and uncontrollable ferment. The intrigues at the top bore no relation to the sufferings of the masses which constantly worsened. While rich speculators and arms manufacturers got richer, the masses suffered from constantly rising prices. To pay its huge debts, the government resorted to printing roubles. The money supply increased eightfold between 1914 and 1917. Prices soared. Food became scarce and dear. In Moscow the price of rye – the basis of Russian black bread – rose 47 per cent in the first two years of the war. In the same period, a pair of boots went up by 334 per cent, and a box of matches by 500 per cent. By November 1916, the food supply to the army and to the cities had reached a critical level. On the eve of the February Revolution, the average working woman in Petrograd had to spend around 40 hours a week queuing to get the basic necessities of life. In such circumstances, the antics at court could only provide a passing interest for the mass of workers and peasants, struggling for survival. But the whiff of corruption and decay that emanated from the regime served to deepen the sense of outrage, hatred, and contempt that was ripening in the depths of society. The regime was bankrupt in every respect, not just economically, but politically and morally as well.

Change of Mood

As the war dragged on and the mood of the masses began to grow restive, the situation of the Party began to change, slowly at first, and then with increasing rapidity. For the first time opportunities began to open up for the revolutionaries. The beginning of the war saw the revolutionary movement in the wilderness. For the first two years, the possibilities were negligible. The arrest and trial of the Duma fraction removed one of the few remaining possibilities for legal activity. Those trade unions that were not banned were placed under strict police surveillance. Most workers’ cultural and educational centres were shut down. Those who went on strike were handed over to the police who usually made sure they were sent to the front with a letter that usually ensured they did not return. Most worker activists were in jail or in hiding. The Party’s forces were reduced to a minimum expression. The masses had their heads down. A few illegal papers were produced inside Russia, like the Petrograd Proletarsky Golos of which four issues appeared at long intervals.

According to the Istoriya, (Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, p. 547.) the Bolsheviks at this time had organisations in 29 towns and cities: Petersburg, Moscow, Kharkov, Yekaterinoslav, Kiev, Makayevsk, Samara, Saratov, Ryazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Rostov-on-Don, Odessa, Yekaterinodar, Baku, Tiflis, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Tula, Orekhovo, Zuyevo, Tver, Gomel, Vyazma, Revel, Narva, Yureva, Irkutsk, Zlataust, Yekaterinburg and Orenburg. But it gives no details. It is possible that, at one time or another, small groups could have existed in all of these places and more. The Istoriya calculates that the Bolsheviks at different times would have had a presence in over 200 different places. This may well be an exaggeration. But, in any case, under the prevailing conditions, their existence would, in most instances, have been precarious and fleeting. Only the Latvian Social Democrats, with their tradition of tight organisation, seem to have been able to produce a regular paper in the underground. The other papers had, at best, a fleeting existence. In the war years, 11 different illegal papers saw the light of day, but their sum total amounted to only 17 issues. The Letts, on the other hand, produced 26 issues, no less, in the Latvian language with an impressive run of 80,000 and, in addition, produced journals in Lithuanian and Estonian. But this was quite exceptional.

A report from the city of Tver gives us a glimpse of the kind of situation that must have been prevalent in most of the provincial party organisations:

A city committee was elected as early as the autumn meeting of local party workers in 1915, but it was only able to resume active work in March 1916 when a group of new party workers arrived to assist the ailing committee. Discussion-group activity was promptly set in motion but there was no coordination in the work for the lack of a centre. The committee did not disband but did nothing. The strikes which broke out in the second half of April ended in a victory for the workers at two undertakings. The strike movement ended at the end of May with the rout of the organisation. Over that period the organisation had managed to issue three leaflets on the war, the War Industries Committees, and May Day. Work was resumed at the beginning of June. A new centre was formed and a plan of work was drawn up (the main point lay in stepping up agitation). Work was made harder by the fact that no people remained at the centre who were rich in knowledge and experience. Discussion-group work had not ceased even by September.

From these lines it is clear that the party organisation in Tver only really began to function towards the end of 1915. Even then, it must have been very small (no figures for membership are given) and more of a discussion circle than anything else. Most of the members lacked the experience and political level to make much of an impact, and the very existence of the leading committee was tenuous. A similar picture emerges in a report from the Nizhny-Novgorod area. Here figures are given for membership (between 150 and 200). There were four circles active on the outskirts and a further 14 in the factory districts, with two committees in charge of the different areas. Here the work seems to have been on a sounder basis than in Tver. Even so, there was a “dreadful shortage of literature”.

As yet we have not had many issues of the central organ. The pamphlets On the War and On the High Cost of Living come out only in single copies and those are hard to get hold of. We haven’t even seen Kommunist. All the work in the organisation, including purely propaganda work (there exists a college of propagandists of six members) is at present being undertaken exclusively by workers. The main shortcoming of the organisation is the almost total lack of theoretically knowledgeable and experienced people. The local intellectual forces do not take close part in the work for a variety of reasons. (A. Shlyapnikov, On the Eve of 1917, pp. 181-82.)

The Kazan committee reports a demonstration of students against the war, but says nothing about its participation. On the other hand, the Kharkov organisation claimed “some 120 members” paying dues regularly. But this was in Latvia where the degree of organisation was much higher than elsewhere, as we have seen. The Kharkov organisation even succeeded in producing its own hectographed weekly paper – Golos Sotsial Demokrata. The position of the central organisation was weak in the extreme. The ‘apparatus’ at the disposal of the CC Bureau in Petrograd consisted of the flat of a couple where the wife acted as the ‘custodian of the press’ and the Bureau’s tiny archives. There were various rendezvous points in the city where comrades could pick up the party press – a hazardous occupation when the place was crawling with police agents and spies. Vadim (Tikhomirov) was in charge of the illegal shipment of literature from Finland to the provinces, and also its storage and distribution in Petrograd. For this, he organised a group of young women who travelled to Finland and delivered the hot material to designated addresses.

True, the mood of apathy and pessimism was gradually being dissipated. An increasing number of workers who had been party members before the war were rejoining. But the problems remained immense. The strongest organisation was in St. Petersburg. The Moscow organisation suffered from the lack of a serious leading centre throughout the war and only picked up during the course of 1917 on the basis of the influx of fresh young comrades. Moscow also suffered a great deal from the activities of police provocation. A serious problem was the lack of finance, which prevented the Bolshevik centre in Petersburg from supporting the organisations in the provinces. Only occasional visits were possible. Shlyapnikov recalls with some bitterness how former comrades with well-paid jobs were reluctant to donate to the underground party, though many of them later re-joined it. The bitter tone was understandable, considering the risks and hardships the underground activists were obliged to experience every day:

But we had to work under extremely tough conditions. We proved able to group many active comrades around us. But owing to lack of resources we did not succeed in expanding the work very widely. We were very poor. From 2 December, 1916, to 1 February, 1917, only 1,117 roubles 50 kopeks flowed into the funds of the Central Committee Bureau. We had to carry out all work within these means. If we sent an organiser out to the provinces we could not guarantee him even one month’s support; consequently we had to rely upon the initiative of chance visits by comrades from different areas or strokes of luck for our contacts. The Bureau spent very little on maintaining its staff. The majority had their earnings but underground workers even in February 1917 could not receive more than 100 roubles a month. The supply of literature required a great deal of funds, but we were unable to assign very much to it.

No less difficult were conditions of personal existence. From the very first days of my arrival, when I at once became the object of intensive trailing by spies, it was plain to me that settling down with my own flat, a valid passport, and other such luxuries was, in such a situation, to court real disaster. To have any possibility of countering the stratagems of the agents I had to have as many lodgings as possible. Comrades helped me to find places, and I had a particular spot for each night. These were dispersed in various parts of Petersburg, including its extremities; for example, on the one hand, on the Grazhdanka and on the other, at the Galley Harbour and also in between them in the city centre. My life was turning into a perpetual wandering. It was hard to write, read, and at times even to think as often when tired hospitable comrades engaged me with their political programmes and enjoyable conversation deep into the night. You could survive like that for two or three months but my physical energy did not allow more. (Ibid., p. 141.)

The upswing in the workers’ movement, however, acted as a spur to the recovery of the Bolsheviks. The first signs of recovery were to be observed also in the provinces. In February and March 1916, in the Donets Basin, a major coal-producing area, the first leaflets appeared, calling on workers to organise, and repeating the slogans of the Bolsheviks. In early April, the first wartime strike broke out in the Donets coalfield, involving 20 neighbourhoods with a total participation of some 50,000 miners. The signal for strike action came from the pit where the Bolshevik leaflets had appeared. In at least one pit, a strike committee was elected. Two companies of soldiers were dispatched to the coalfield, but the soldiers refused to take action against the strikers. Even the police showed reluctance to act. The attempt of management to divert the strike into anti-Semitic channels was roundly rebuffed by the workers. Finally, the authorities managed to ‘restore order’ but only after four workers had been killed and 20 wounded. The strike was lost, but the mood of the workers was transformed. This fact was reflected in the growth of the revolutionary organisation:

Simultaneously with the strike wave, strong political groups began to be formed, the cells rapidly gaining strength rather as if workers wanted to recover the precious time lost. They started to seek links between each other. This was now easy. During the strikes all these grouplets and cells had become acquainted with each other. At this juncture they all united to form the social democratic organisations of the Donets Basin, whose statutes and programme were those of the RSDLP majority.

Thus, little by little, the Bolsheviks were reorganising and growing:

In spite of ever mounting repression, mass arrests, and the loss of party workers, our illegal organisation developed and strengthened. The most powerful illegal organisation in Petersburg was our party’s Petersburg Committee which brought together some 3,000 members, but the majority of Petersburg workers could be regarded as sympathising with its anti-war policy. Out of our party’s legal organisations there remained in existence only the Workers’ Group of the Insurance Council, which was also the all-Russian centre of the hospital funds and its journal, Voprosy Strakhovaniya. The activity of these institutions was inhibited in the extreme and many members of the Insurance Group were in jail or exile. (Ibid., p. 163 and p. 164.)

Despite the chronic shortcomings of the apparatus, from the end of July 1916 to 1 March, 1917, local Bolshevik organisations produced more than 600 different leaflets with a total run of about two million printed in about 80 different towns and cities, familiarising the mass of workers and soldiers with Bolshevik slogans. Despite the irregular and unstable nature of these illegal publications, they played a significant role in a situation where legal possibilities for getting Social Democratic ideas into print were practically non-existent. Every legal opening had to be used, though these were limited in the extreme. The trade unions in Petrograd had been closed “for the duration,” although certain “professional associations” were permitted. In Moscow, unions were theoretically allowed, but the workers who participated in them could be prosecuted by the law. Under these circumstances, such openings as health insurance and friendly societies were important. The revolutionaries used them as best they could to maintain contacts with the masses, including the new layers of women and youth.

Work Among Women

Revolutionary social democratic work in Russia during the First World War faced enormous difficulties. The Party and the unions were illegal. But by 1915 the movement was recovering from the blows it received in the first months of the war. One area where it began to make important gains was among women, who were being drawn into the industrial work force in large numbers. By the outbreak of the war, women made up roughly one-third of industrial workers, and a still larger portion of those in the textile industry. This increased even further during the war as men were mobilised for military service. The situation of women worsened during the war as many became the sole support of their families and necessities became scarcer and more expensive. Women workers took part in many strikes and demonstrations against the economic hardships created by Russia’s involvement in the war.

Pitiful as the lot of the worker is, the status of the woman is far worse. In the factory, in the workshop, she works for a capitalist boss, at home – for the family.

Thousands of women sell their labour to capital; thousands drudge away at hired labour; thousands and hundreds of thousands suffer under the yoke of family and social oppression. And for the enormous majority of working women it seems this is the way it must be. But is it really true that the working woman cannot hope for a better future, and that fate has consigned her to an entire life of work and only work, without rest night and day? (Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, p. 268.)

The preceding lines are from a leaflet entitled ‘To the Working Women of Kiev’, distributed by the Bolsheviks in Kiev (Ukraine), on 8 March (International Women’s Day), 1915. The leaflet gives us an idea of how the Bolsheviks posed the question in their public agitation. Their appeal linked the oppression of women to the suffering of male workers, and to a programme for the liberation of all working people.

The war was a disaster for the people of Russia. From the outset, the Germans dealt the Russian forces one devastating blow after another. In the Summer Campaign of 1915 the Russians were kicked out of Galicia1 and the German army was poised to take all Poland, the Baltic, and Belorussia. Ill-prepared for war, the tsarist armies suffered one humiliating defeat after another. As early as the summer of 1914, 150,000 Russians were prisoners of war. By the end of the war, the number of Russians killed at the front rose to a staggering 1.8 million. Slowly but surely, the seemingly mighty armies of the Tsar were being ground to a bloody pulp. To replace such horrendous losses, millions of workers and peasants were called up – nearly 16 million by the end. And to make up for the lost numbers in industry, new layers were drawn into the factories – women, youth, and peasants – all without any previous experience of factory life and the class struggle. This caused further difficulties for the revolutionaries who still remained. But the harsh conditions of wartime soon educated the new layers.

The main victims of the war were women. The suffering and death at the front were only one face of the war. The other, less well-known but no less appalling, was the fate of those numberless women from working-class and peasant homes who saw their world collapse into ruins as if by the command of some pitiless and all-powerful God. Drafted into the factories to replace their menfolk sent to the front, the proletarian women had to bear the brunt of the social problems of the war. Formerly backward and unorganised, they soon learned a harsh lesson in the school of factory life, and became transformed. Exploited and oppressed in the factory and in the home, working long hours under bad conditions only to find at the end of the month that their wages had been eroded by the remorseless rise in prices, the women saw that the rich owners were literally taking the bread from the mouths of their children. Sweeping aside all the traditional prejudices about a woman’s role, they occupied the front line of battle.

An investigation carried out into 700,000 war workers by the Special Council for Defence in 1917 found that 17 per cent of them were women and 12.5 per cent adolescents. In manufacturing industry generally the proportion of women rose from 27.4 per cent in 1914 to 34.2 per cent in January 1917; the corresponding figure for adolescents and juveniles (of both sexes) were 10.9 per cent and 14.0 per cent. In the engineering industry female labour accounted for a mere 1.1 per cent of the total number of employees in 1913 but for 14.3 per cent in January 1917; the percentage of adolescents and juveniles rose slightly from 9.4 per cent to 11.7 per cent. In the textile industry, where women had always played a very important part, their proportion now doubled, reaching 43.4 per cent. Women were even recruited for underground work in the mines, although at least not as face-workers. On the records of the factory inspectorate there were virtually as many women and young people as there were men. (J.L.H. Keep, The Rise of Social Democracy in Russia, p. 49.)

Lenin constantly emphasised the revolutionary potential of these women proletarians and insisted that the party take special measures to win them to the revolutionary cause. To this end, in 1914 they launched a woman’s newspaper called Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker). Already in the revolutionary upsurge of 1912–14, the party had begun consistent work among women, and had organised the first International Women’s Day meeting in Russia in 1913. Simultaneously, Pravda began to publish a regular page devoted to questions affecting women. The first issue of Rabotnitsa came out on International Women’s Day, to coincide with a demonstration organised by the party. Rabotnitsa was financed by collections organised by women in the factories, on the same lines as Pravda. It carried material on the conditions of women workers and reported on their struggles. It also reported on the position of women in other countries. The same year that Rabotnitsa appeared the Mensheviks also began to publish a woman’s newspaper. However, these publications shared the same fate as the rest of the workers’ press in Russia after July 1914.

The work of the Bolshevik Party among women had nothing whatsoever in common with bourgeois or petty-bourgeois feminism, but was impregnated with an implacable revolutionary and class spirit. From the beginning, the Bolsheviks encouraged women to get organised and join in the struggle of the male workers, and urged them to turn their backs on the movements set up by bourgeois women after the defeat of the 1905 Revolution. In the leaflet already quoted we read the following:

Comrades! Working women! The men comrades toil along with us. Their fate and ours are one. But they have long since found the only road to a better life – the road of organised labour’s struggle with capital, the road of struggle against all oppression, evil, and violence. Women workers, there is no other road for us. The interests of the working men and women are equal, are one. Only in a united struggle together with the men workers, in joint workers’ organisations – in the Social Democratic Party, the trade unions, workers’ clubs, and cooperatives – shall we obtain our rights and win a better life.

Of course, the party took up those demands of special interest to women – benefits for pregnancy and maternity; full equality of civil and family rights for men and women, and so on. But all these demands were seen as part of the general struggles of the working class as a whole and inseparably linked to the perspective of socialist revolution: “Comrades! Working women, let’s go to work! Wake all those who are still sound asleep; unite in the struggle for the demands of the whole working class.” (Reprinted in Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, p. 268 and p. 269.)

As the conditions worsened, so women began to participate more and more in strikes and demonstrations against the appalling conditions brought on by the war. Nor did they stop at merely economic demands. The women textile workers of Kostroma distributed a leaflet to the troops with the title ‘To the Russian soldier from the Russian Woman’. The regime, in a panic, lashed out. Troops and Cossacks were sent into Kostroma and on 5 July, there were bloody clashes in which 12 people were killed and 45 wounded. In the whole of 1915, 20 per cent of all strikes were political. In the war months of 1914 the figure was only 11 per cent. The work of the Bolshevik Party among women bore important fruits. During the dark days of the war, the women Bolsheviks played a key role in agitating against the war and fighting against chauvinism. It is no accident that the Russian Revolution of February 1917 commenced on Woman’s Day, and that the first initiative came from the women workers who had received their baptism of fire during the war.

Pacifist Gestures

Discontent with the war was naturally most deeply felt by women, who in many ways were the main victims everywhere. The Bolshevik women’s journal Rabotnitsa took the initiative to campaign for an international conference of left socialist women and wrote to Klara Zetkin as secretary of the International Women’s Bureau, who immediately agreed to it. In March 1915 in Oslo, there were mass demonstrations of women against the war. In the same month the Berne Socialist Women’s Conference of German and Austro-Hungarian Social Democrats was convened by socialist leaders of the German bloc, anxious not to be outdone by their counterparts in the Entente. Lenin was quick to see this as an opportunity to put forward the ideas of revolutionary internationalism. This was a chance to put the work among women to good use. At the conference there were 25 delegates from eight countries. The Bolsheviks were represented by four delegates, including Inessa Armand and Krupskaya. The Polish delegate, Kamenskaya, also stood for a hard-line Leninist position. The majority, however, were muddled centrists, pacifists, and reformists. Had Rosa Luxemburg been present, it might at least have made a difference to the flavour of the proceedings, if not the final outcome. But Rosa was in a German prison, and her place was taken by Klara Zetkin, who, much to Lenin’s annoyance, made all sorts of concessions to the pacifist majority and watered down Lenin’s position to remove its revolutionary essence.

A courageous stand on the war at this conference would have been a rallying call for the left internationally. Lenin wrote a declaration for this meeting which was not passed. Instead, the majority took the line of “We can’t criticise the parties”, and must confine ourselves to “supporting peace”. When the Bolshevik delegates opposed this and stuck out for their resolution, they were subject to a barrage of criticism, and portrayed as sectarians and splitters for standing in the way of unity. Lenin already anticipated such accusations which he had heard so many times. The left reformists and centrists have always denounced the real revolutionaries as ‘sectarians’ because they refuse to compromise on principled questions. On this, Lenin wrote to Alexandra Kollontai:

You underline that “what we must put forward is a slogan that would unite us all.” Frankly, what I fear most of all at the present time is just this kind of indiscriminate unity, which in my opinion is most dangerous and harmful to the proletariat.

Lenin was indignant and spared no feelings in his denunciation of these so-called peace initiatives, even though Klara Zetkin was friendly to him. Indeed he was particularly scathing about her role.

She would have to see, she could not help seeing, he said, that sliding down into pacifism at such a time was impossible. All the issues at stake had to be emphasised very strongly.

The accusations of ‘splitting’ cut no ice with Lenin. “‘No matter that we are so few,’ he said once, ‘We shall have millions with us’.” (Quoted in N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 301 and p. 303.) In another letter to Alexandra Kollontai written in July 1915, Lenin underlined the impermissibility of unprincipled agreements with Kautsky and the ‘lefts’ on the grounds of preserving unity:

In international affairs we shall not be for rapprochement with Haase-Bernstein-Kautsky (for in practice they want unity with the Südekums and to shield them, they want to get away with Left phrases and to change nothing in the old rotten party). We cannot stand for the watchword of peace, because we consider it supremely muddled, pacifist, petty-bourgeois, helping the governments (they now want to be with one hand ‘for peace’, in order to climb out of their difficulties) and obstructing the revolutionary struggle.

In our opinion, the Left should make a common declaration of principle (1) unquestionably condemning the social-chauvinists and opportunists, (2) giving a programme of revolutionary action (whether to say civil war or revolutionary mass action, is not so important), (3) against the watchword of ‘defence of the fatherland’, etc. A declaration of principle by the ‘Left’, in the name of several countries, would have a gigantic significance (of course, not in the spirit of the Zetkin philistinism which she got adopted at the Women’s Conference at Berne; Zetkin evaded the question of condemning social-chauvinism!! out of a desire for ‘peace’ with the Südekums+Kautsky??). (LCW, To Alexandra Kollontai, 11/7/1915, vol. 35, pp. 193-94.)

A few days later, the International Socialist Youth Conference was also held in Berne, summoned by the secretary of the Swiss Young Socialists, Willy Münzenberg. The German and French YS refused to participate, arguing that the war question was outside their competence. The Austrian YS took the same position. Despite this, delegates came from Germany and the RSDLP was represented by Inessa Armand and G.I. Safarov. The majority even here were ‘centrists’. The Bolshevik resolution was lost 13-3 and a pacifist resolution was carried, as with the women. But they did decide to hold an ‘International (anti-militarist) Youth Day’ annually and publish a journal, Youth International, which carried articles by Lenin and Liebknecht.

Lenin’s comments on the conference of the youth was that it was full of good intentions but basically ‘marking time’, that is to say: the decisive break with the social-chauvinists was avoided. These early efforts did not lead very far. The time was not yet ripe. The ground not sufficiently prepared for a big shift to the left. On the other hand, it can be argued that Lenin’s position was out of step with the majority – he went a bit too far, too fast. But as the war dragged on with no end in sight, the situation changed. The current was flowing to the left in many countries, and this was eventually reflected inside the mass organisations, beginning with the unions, which began to reflect the mood of opposition developing in the masses against the intolerable impositions, exploitation, profiteering, and inflation, which was expressed in a wave of strikes. In Britain, the birth of the shop stewards’ movement was a direct result of the radicalisation of the workers and the class collaboration and remoteness of the trade union bureaucracy.

The first expression of these stirrings of revolution was the strengthening of left reformist and centrist currents in the leadership of the Socialist Parties. The pacifist declarations of the leaders reflected in a distorted, emasculated way the desperate yearning for peace, the hatred of the imperialist war of the mass of workers, peasants, soldiers, and women. In June 1915, Kautsky, Haase, and Bernstein published a declaration, ‘The Demands of the Moment’, which appeared in the Leipziger Volkszeitung, protesting against the ‘war of annexation’ and calling for a speedy conclusion of peace. This belated action of the opportunist leaders was a feeble reflection of the mood of the masses. At every opportunity Lenin subjected the pacifism of the centrists to withering criticism.

The Zimmerwald Conference

Even though the Bolsheviks, formally speaking, had no international organisation, they never ceased to consider themselves as part of an international. Never did Lenin abandon the idea of recreating a genuine revolutionary international. The Bolsheviks followed the internal life of all the Socialist Parties very closely. Every day, Lenin scoured the foreign socialist press eagerly, enthusiastically welcoming every attack on social chauvinism. While advocating a decisive political break from the right, he did not suggest leaving the mass organisations of the working class – quite the reverse. The bureau instructed by letter all Bolsheviks living abroad to set up local ‘internationalist clubs’. Those who had a knowledge of the language of the country were instructed to participate in the labour movement of that country, especially the Socialist Parties. This was particularly stressed, not only as a means of getting new contacts with internationalists from other countries, but in order to prevent the demoralisation that would inevitably arise from the kind of isolation from the workers’ movement which so frequently characterises exile organisations. However, there was another dimension to this.

Already the idea of a new international was forming in Lenin’s mind. But he was well aware that this could not simply be proclaimed. It had to be built through a struggle against the social chauvinists and the crystallisation of a revolutionary-internationalist tendency. The split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks had taken ten years to complete, and was only really achieved when the Bolsheviks had won over four-fifths of the organised working class. But for a long time up until 1912, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks had coexisted as two antagonistic tendencies in one party. The Bolsheviks participated actively with the left wing of the different Socialist Parties abroad. Inessa Armand, Gopner, and Stahl worked in the French Socialist Party, Abramovich and others in the Swiss party, where Lenin also helped out with lectures. Shlyapnikov maintained close contact with the Swedish and Norwegian Social Democrats, and so on. This work laid the basis for the Zimmerwald Left, and therefore for the Communist International. But it was not enough to conduct revolutionary work in each separate country. It was necessary to call an international conference of the left.

The first attempts at an international meeting took place in the autumn of 1914 in Lugano (Switzerland). The Italian and Swiss Social Democrats passed anti-war resolutions, but ruined it by appealing to the IS Bureau to hold a meeting as soon as possible to discuss international affairs. The Bolsheviks, who turned up with Lenin’s theses on war, naturally could not support this. Typically, the proceedings at Lugano were generally tinged with pacifism. Finally, the Lugano affair ended in failure. Nevertheless, it could be considered half a step forward, better than none at any rate. The Bolsheviks used it as a stepping stone to call for a real international conference of the revolutionary wing.

In November 1914, the Congress of Swedish Social Democrats in Stockholm was attended by Shlyapnikov, who defended the Bolshevik position, causing a storm. Larin was present for the Mensheviks. Typically, the Swedish leader, Karl Branting, took an abstentionist line (“we can’t interfere in affairs of other parties”). But Shlyapnikov was backed by the left leader Karl Höglund. The Social Democracy of the small neutral countries was mainly inclined to the kind of impotent, hand-wringing ‘pacifism’ which Lenin cordially detested. The Bolsheviks did not even bother to attend the Conference called by the Socialists of the ‘neutral’ states (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Holland) in Copenhagen in January 1915: “We won’t learn anything. You won’t achieve anything there. We’ll just send our manifesto. That’s all we have to do,” he commented dismissively. (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, in Russian, vol. 49, p. 51.)

Worse still were the manoeuvres of the ‘socialist’ leaders of the belligerent states, who acted as conscious agents of the ruling class. In February 1915 in London, there was a conference of socialists of the Entente countries (Britain, France, and Belgium). From Russia, the Mensheviks and SRs were invited. The Bolsheviks in London protested that only socialists from the Entente were invited and also at the invitation of the Mensheviks. Nashe Slovo invited the Bolsheviks to organise a demonstration against ‘official socialist patriotism’ at the conference and counterpose to the London conference the real international standpoint. Lenin, after initial hesitation, sent the editorial board of Nashe Slovo a draft declaration to be read out at the London conference. (V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, in Russian, vol. 26, p. 128.) But there were differences on how the line should be expressed. In the end Litvinov, for the Bolsheviks, tried to read an anti-war resolution at the London meeting, but was interrupted by the chair. After distributing copies of the statement, he walked out.

The conditions were now ripening for an international conference of the lefts. The Italian and Swiss parties, in whose ranks there was a strong anti-war mood, were best placed to organise this. The leaders of this initiative (Grimm and Balabanova) were centrists. They called a conference at Berne in July 1915. They did not invite a single one of the real left groups, but did invite the ‘centrist’ leaders: Hugo Haase, Karl Branting, and Peter Troelstra, against the Bolsheviks’ protests. The overriding concern of Grimm was to prove that this was not the occasion for the setting up a new International. Lenin was in regular touch with the lefts of many Socialist Parties: Sweden, Norway, Holland, Germany, Bulgaria, Switzerland. Trotsky also played an important role in convening the Zimmerwald conference, which was finally held in September 1915. Lenin arrived early at the sleepy little Swiss village to hold long discussions with other delegates. There was enthusiasm about the conference, which was logical after the long period in which the anti-war socialists had been isolated under difficult conditions. But Lenin was anxious that the conference should settle the fundamental issues, and that there should be no papering over the cracks. He amended the original manifesto, which was too academic and not sufficiently militant for his liking.

Upon arrival, when he looked around the room and saw the small number in attendance, Lenin made a joke. He said: “You can put all the internationalists in the world into two stagecoaches.” Even so, the majority of the delegates were far from consistent, and tended towards centrism. At Zimmerwald, Lenin organised the ‘Zimmerwald Left’. This was a minority within a minority (eight out of 38), made up of Lenin, Zinoviev, and J.A. Berzin (Latvia), Karl Radek (Poland), Julian Borkhat (Germany), Fritz Platten (Switzerland), Karl Höglund (Sweden), Ture Nerman (Norway). The Bund sent observers. The bureau of the conference was made up of Robert Grimm, Constantino Lazzari, and the celebrated Balkans Socialist Christian Rakovsky.

Karl Liebknecht sent a letter from his prison cell which was read out at the conference – an emotional moment in the proceedings: “I am a prisoner of militarism. I am in chains. Therefore I cannot address you, but my heart and my thoughts, all my being is with you,” and Liebknecht ended his letter with a fierce denunciation of the betrayers of the International in Germany, France, and Britain, and a call for “Civil war, not civil peace!” which unconsciously echoed Lenin’s slogan. The idea of a ‘Third International’ filled the centrists with horror. George Lebedour heatedly defended the ‘unity’ of the International! – this is the classical role of centrism, to preserve unity with the right wing. These people represented the right wing Zimmerwaldists. Grimm commented, not without some grounds, that Lenin’s draft resolution ‘to the workers of Europe’ was directed more to party members than the masses.

Many years later, looking back on this period, Trotsky wrote:

I remember the period between 1908 and 1913 in Russia. There was also a reaction. In 1905 we had the workers with us – in 1908 and even in 1907 began the great reaction.

Everybody invented slogans and methods to win the masses and nobody won them – they were desperate. In this time the only thing we could do was educate the cadres and they were melting away. There was a series of splits to the right or to the left or to syndicalism and so on. Lenin remained with a small group, a sect, in Paris, but with confidence that there would be new possibilities of a rise. It came in 1913. We had a new tide, but then came the war to interrupt this development. During the war there was a silence as of death among the workers. The Zimmerwald Conference was a conference of very confused elements in its majority. In the deep recesses of the masses, in the trenches and so on, there was a new mood, but it was so deep and terrorised that we could not reach it and give it an expression. That is why the movement seemed to itself to be very poor and even this element that met in Zimmerwald, in its majority, moved to the right in the next year, in the next month. I will not liberate them from their personal responsibility, but still the general explanation is that the movement had to swim against the current. (L. Trotsky, Fighting Against the Stream, in Writings: 1938-39, pp. 252-53.)

Zimmerwald set up an International Socialist Commission which served to coordinate the left, but was mainly composed of centrists like Grimm and Balabanova. In general most of those present at Zimmerwald were confused, vacillating centrist types. Lenin had no illusions in them, but saw the conference as a step forward. Despite reservations, Lenin signed the Zimmerwald manifesto, written by Trotsky. Lenin’s attitude to Zimmerwald was summed up by the title of his article ‘The First Step’, where he writes:

In practice, the manifesto signifies a step towards an ideological and practical break with opportunism and social-chauvinism. At the same time, the manifesto, as any analysis will show, contains inconsistencies, and does not say everything that should be said. (LCW, ‘The First Step’, vol. 21, p. 384.)

In other words, he criticises the manifesto, not for what it says, but for what it does not say. The main thing was to develop the Zimmerwald Left as an independent current. Even so, many of the ‘Lefts’ also immediately began to vacillate. Lenin in particular had trouble with Roland-Holst and Radek over the line of the official journal of the left, Vorbote (Herald), published in Holland with Pannekoek’s assistance.

Thanks to his participation in Zimmerwald Lenin’s writings on war and the International became more widely known in different languages. The Zimmerwald Left gained important points of support for the future Third International. Zimmerwald’s message, despite its shortcomings, was beginning to get across. Workers in the main are not accustomed to read the ‘small print’ of political documents, but seize upon what they perceive to be the central message and fill it with their own content. In his memoirs, Shlyapnikov explains how the news of the Zimmerwald conference gradually reached the workers in Russia and had a very positive effect in encouraging particularly those groups that were not directly affiliated to the Bolsheviks.

As it later turned out, all these cells were to become adherents of the Zimmerwald resolutions. We should note that these grouplets were not interlinked and did not even know of the existence of the others similar to themselves. (A. Shlyapnikov, On the Eve of 1917, p. 160.)

This reaction was not confined to Russia. There was now the beginnings of a ferment in the mass parties of the Second International. Germany itself was now moving towards a pre-revolutionary situation. Early in 1916, Otto Rühle, a Reichstag deputy, called publicly for a break with the social chauvinists. Independently, the German Lefts were coming to see the need for a new International. A series of public ‘Letters’ originating from the German Left, signed ‘Spartacus’, was closely followed by Lenin. The Socialist Youth founded by Karl Liebknecht was the main base of the left. Things were moving in Austria too. In the autumn of 1916 there was the formation of a left wing in the Austrian Socialist Party (SPÖ) based on the youth. Anti-war agitation was conducted from the ‘Karl Marx Club’ in Vienna. In France, a left group of MPs was formed and received letters of support from the trenches. In Britain, Hyndman’s chauvinist group was forced out of the BSP at the Salford Conference in April. In Italy, Serrati, ‘the most left’ of the leaders, was still linked to the centrists, while Gramsci, still a youth, supported Lenin’s ideas. The Swiss SP rejected the Zimmerwald position as ‘too radical’ but a big sector of the rank and file supported it. In Bulgaria, the tesnyaki (‘narrow’ socialists) already had a revolutionary anti-war position. A revolutionary, or quasi-revolutionary current was beginning to crystallise within the existing mass organisations everywhere.

The Kienthal Conference

The symptoms of a growing revolutionary crisis were unmistakable. There was anecdotal evidence: a crowd in Germany booed the right-wing Socialist leader Scheidemann; a rent strike in Glasgow; demonstrations against the high cost of living in several countries. Above all, the increasing social ferment in all the belligerent powers was expressed in a notable increase in strikes, as demonstrated in table 5.2.

(5.2) Increase in strikes across Europe (1915-16)

Country

Year

Strikes

Strikers

Germany

1915

137

14,000

1916

240

129,000

France

1915

98

9,000

1916

314

41,000

Russia

1915

928

539,000

1916

1,410

1,086,000

Lenin watched carefully for any sign of a shift in the mood of the European proletariat. This question was absolutely fundamental to his perspectives for the revolution in Russia. “The task confronting the proletariat in Russia,” he wrote in October 1915, “is the consummation of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia in order to kindle the socialist revolution in Europe. The latter task now stands very close to the former…” (LCW, Several Theses, vol. 21, p. 402.)

The growing social crisis found a belated echo within the mass organisations of the old International, where the ferment of discontent expressed itself in increased support for the left wing. In order to head off the Lefts, the old leaders of the Second International tried a new manoeuvre. The International Socialist Bureau had been totally inactive since the war began. Now, suddenly, Camille Huysmans, the Bureau’s secretary, announced at a congress of the Dutch party in January 1916 that the “International was not dead”. In February 1916 at Berne there was the meeting of the ‘Broad Commission’: representatives from Austria, Germany, Italy, Russia, Romania, Switzerland, and other countries met together to fight back from the left and expose Huysmans’ manoeuvre as a “conspiracy against socialism”. Here it was agreed to call another international conference of the left. In early May at Kienthal a second conference was held, with the participation of 43 delegates from Russia, Poland, Germany, Italy, France, Switzerland, Austria, Serbia, and Portugal. Willi Münzenberg attended as representative of the International Youth Section. For the Bolsheviks there were Lenin, Zinoviev, and Inessa Armand. For the Poles, Radek, (another Polish group was represented by V. Dombrovski and Mieczislav Bronski); three Swiss socialists: Ernst Nobs, Fritz Platten and Agnes Tobman; the Serb Trisha Kantslevovich; the representative of a left group in Bremen, Paul Fröhlich, plus Münzenberg, Thalheimer, and others. The left was stronger here than at Zimmerwald. But even so, their resolution on peace was not accepted. The mood of the majority was still centrist. The end result was a compromise but still an advance over Zimmerwald.

But the tensions were growing between the right and left of the Zimmerwald movement – a heterogeneous creature at best. Lenin was prepared for a temporary coexistence with the centrists, starting from a weak initial base. But it could not last. A de facto international split, which only Lenin really understood, already existed. Under conditions of war and revolution all halfway currents are doomed to disappear. Lenin simply helped them on their way, insisting on clarification. Ambiguity is intolerable in critical moments of history when there is a pressing need to choose. The objective situation was pushing the masses to the left, to the road of revolution. The centrist Zimmerwald current was dragging its feet. There were only two ways to go: either go the whole way, breaking decisively with reformism and passing over to an open revolutionary position, or to go back to the swamp of reformism. Lenin, by word and deed, made this abundantly clear. For that the centrists hated him, as at every moment in history a muddle-head always hates a man with clear ideas.

Robert Grimm was the first to move to the right. By the summer of 1916, he had gone over. Lenin was merciless in his criticism of the centrists who were revolutionary in phrases, but bourgeois-reformist in deeds. This was exactly what Lenin detested. Turati, Merrheim, Bourderon, and the other centrists sooner or later went the same way. In the end nothing was left of Zimmerwald, except the memory – and the Left! The Zimmerwald Left itself could not have an independent significance except as a stepping stone to the new International. But this had to be built on the basis of great events which were only a few months away. By going through the experience of Zimmerwald, Lenin had gained invaluable experience and a wide range of contacts: the German Lefts (the Spartakists and the Bremen Arbeiterpolitik group), Ferdinand Loriot’s group in France, John MacLean in Britain, Eugene Debs in the USA, Pannekoek and Gorter in Holland, Serrati and Gramsci in Italy, Fritz Platten (Switzerland), Hanyecki and Radek (Poland). There were also problems within the Zimmerwald Left. The political positions of all the above were by no means unanimous. Prominent people in Lenin’s own circle – Radek, Bukharin, Pyatakov, and others – did not have a clear Bolshevik-Leninist position. Even the left was somewhat heterogeneous. This, too, was a necessary stage on the journey towards October. But such a perspective seemed very far off at the time.

Trapped in his Swiss exile, Lenin paced his room like a caged tiger. Would the nightmare of reaction never end? The isolation and frustration of émigré life acted like a slow poison that corroded even the strongest from within. Lenin was not immune from this. At times he was tormented by the thought that he might not live to see the revolution. In a letter to Inessa Armand written on Christmas Day 1916, Lenin gave voice to his innermost misgivings: “The revolutionary movement grows extremely slowly and with difficulty.” And adds in a tone of resignation: “This must be put up with.” In one of the most ironic comments of history, in a speech to the Swiss young socialists delivered in January 1917, Lenin said: “We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution.” (Quoted in N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 335.) One month later, the Tsar was overthrown. In less than a year, the Bolsheviks had come to power.

Footnotes

1 Galicia was the part of Poland that was under Austrian rule before the First World War.