98) 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 instill 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 program 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 defensism—that of the social-chauvinist betrayers and an “honest defensism” 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 “defensists”—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 ultralefts, was the real essence of Lenin’s revolutionary military policy.

In the beginning the organized 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.548

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 mobilization created great havoc since as many as 40 percent of the workers were taken from their machines and benches. Helplessness and despair arose everywhere.549

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 organize antiwar 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.”550 The workers came out onto the streets to demonstrate their opposition. On July 31, an estimated 27,000 people demonstrated against the war on the streets of the capital. In all the great industrial centers, there were strikes and demonstrations—in Byelorussia, the Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Urals. There were initial attempts to resist mobilization leading to clashes with police and Cossacks in which many were killed and wounded. According to official government figures, there were disturbances and antiwar 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 recognized by the tsarist police whose reports continually emphasized that internationalist positions secured the widest acceptance.551 In no other country except Ireland was there such resistance to the war.

This was a mainly spontaneous, unorganized mass protest. But it was condemned from the start by the unfavorable class balance of forces and the wave of patriotic fervor 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 mobilized, 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 center 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 mobilization in the city center, 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.552

The regime easily rode out the storm. Mobilization 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.


548 McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, 358.

549 Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, 128.

550 McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, 356.

551 Ibid., 365.

552 Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, 129–30.

99) The Party Decimated

At the first sound of the drum the revolutionary movement died down. The more active layers of the workers were mobilized. 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.553

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 centers 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 mobilizations 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 sellout 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 center 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 reorganizing 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.


553 Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 58–59.

100) The Duma Fraction

In the Duma session of July 26, 1914, the deputies unanimously adopted a resolution declaring their readiness “at the summons of their sovereign, to stand up in defense of their country, its honor 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 favor of a defensive war). Those were “wonderful early August days” and Russia seemed “completely transformed,” wrote the British ambassador.554

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 “defensist” 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 defensism. 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,”555 but it was enough to provoke howls of protest from the rest of the chamber.

The behavior 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.556

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 antiwar 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.557

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,” writes Robert McKean, “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, criticized the Bolsheviks’ reply to Vandervelde.”558

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 antiwar speeches to workers’ meetings. For the first few months of the war, their activity was at the center 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 organizations 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.559

The work was constantly plagued by the activity of the police who had infiltrated it to the highest levels. Attempts to organize 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 organizations—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 organization 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 organizations; 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 center and core of the whole organization.560

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 [November 4, 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 Labor 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.561

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.562 Attempts by the Bolsheviks to organize 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: “antiwar 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.


554 L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, 176–77.

555 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 285.

556 Quoted in Badayev, Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma, 208.

557 Ibid., 208–9.

558 McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, 366.

559 Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 59.

560 Badayev, Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma, 212.

561 LCW, To A.G. Shlyapnikov, 11/28/1914, vol. 35, 175.

562 Quoted in McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, 370.

101) Vacillations Among the Bolsheviks

All through the war, Lenin had plenty of truble 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 defensism. 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 demoralization, 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 labor movement. It would be surprising if the prevailing atmosphere of war fever had 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,” writes Krupskaya.

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 honor 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 realized 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.563

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 (Montpelier) 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,” he wrote. “It is a philistine, parson’s watchword. The proletarian watchword must be civil war.”564

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 program 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.565

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,” wrote Trotsky years later, “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.”566

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 “Center,” 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 criticized by Lenin.

“It is indeed evident from several sources,” comments McKean, “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 defense 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 November 4 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.567

On the basis of a textual analysis of 47 leaflets and appeals published illegally by Bolshevik militants between January 1915 and February 22, 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”).


563 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 285–86.

564 LCW, To A.G. Shlyapnikov, 10/17/1914, vol. 35, 164.

565 LCW, To David Wijnkoop, vol. 35, 195.

566 Trotsky, Writings, 1935–36, 26.

567 McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, 360.

102) The ‘Left’ Bolsheviks

If Kamenev represented a deviation in the direction of opportunism, there were also ultraleft and sectarian deviations, especially among a section of the exiles. Bukharin, Piatnitsky, and other leading elements had an ultraleft 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 recognized 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 armory 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?” he thundered. “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 ‘realizable’? Such a criterion is incorrect. Without revolution almost the entire minimum program is unrealizable. Put in that way, realizability declines into philistinism.”568

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 February 15, 1915. It was attended by the representatives of the CC, the editorial board of the central organ Sotsial Demokrat, the Bolshevik women’s organization, 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 organizational 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).569

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.


568 LCW, To Alexandra Kollontai, vol. 35, 198.

569 Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, 272.