116) The Zimmerwald Conference

Even though the Bolsheviks, formally speaking, had no international organization, 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 organizations 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 labor 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 demoralization that would inevitably arise from the kind of isolation from the workers’ movement which so frequently characterizes exile organizations. 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 crystallization 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 organized working class. But for a long time up till 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 antiwar 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.615

Worse still were the maneuvers 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 organize 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.616 But there were differences on how the line should be expressed. In the end Litvinov, for the Bolsheviks, tried to read an antiwar 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 antiwar mood, were best placed to organize 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 antiwar 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 organized 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 terrorized 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.617

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.618

In other words, he criticizes 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 truble 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,” he writes, “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.”619

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 prerevolutionary 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. Antiwar 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 antiwar position. A revolutionary, or quasi-revolutionary current was beginning to crystallize within the existing mass organizations everywhere.


615 Lenin, Collected Works, in Russian, vol. 49, 51.

616 Lenin, Collected Works, in Russian, vol. 26, 128.

617 Trotsky, Fighting Against the Stream, in Writings, 1938–39, 252–53.

618 LCW, The First Step, vol. 21, 384.

619 Shlyapnikov, On the Eve of 1917, 160.

117) 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:





























(Source: Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, 624)

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 . . .”620

The growing social crisis found a belated echo within the mass organizations 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 maneuver. 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, Rumania, Switzerland, and other countries met together to fight back from the left and expose Huysmans’ maneuver 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 muddlehead 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.”621 One month later, the tsar was overthrown. In less than a year, the Bolsheviks had come to power.


620 LCW, Several Theses, vol. 21, 402.

621 Quoted in Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 335.