94) 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 August 3, 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 July 31, 1914, the antiwar 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 characterized 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 mobilization 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 mobilization, 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 mobilization 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 mobilization, 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.527

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 labor movement conduct 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 colors. 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 labor movement, the labor 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 labor 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 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 organized 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 defense 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 utilize 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.528

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.”


527 Trotsky, Writings, 1935–36, 140–41.

528 Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, 35 and 103.

95) 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 labor 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 labor 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 labor organizations, 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 organizations, 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 characterizes 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 “sympathizing” intelligentsia.529

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; Viktor 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 organizations—the Social Democracy and the unions. The international left included Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, and Klara Zetkin in Germany; Dimitr 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 antiwar manifesto and voted against the militarization 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 December 2, 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 December 4, 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 organize. In Britain, especially in Scotland, there were antiwar 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 Rumanian Social Democrats also adopted a revolutionary antiwar position. The Dutch “Lefts” organized around the paper Tribune, but their leader, Anton Pannekoek, like several others, suffered from the kind of extreme ultraleft 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 ultraleft, semi–anarcho-syndicalist positions.


529 Reproduced in Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, 101.

96) 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 pretenses 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, programs 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.530 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 subfactions on the all-important war question, ranging from the ultranationalist 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 organizational 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 defensism.

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,” he wrote, “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 realization of the exploiting plans of the Austro-German imperialists.”531

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 ‘defensist. ‘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,” she writes, “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 humor 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 ‘defense-of-the-country’ views. There was no room for doubt any more. 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.”532

Lenin had 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 defense 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.Iu. 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.”533

Far more dangerous, as Lenin immediately realized, 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 October 17, 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 “Center” headed by Kautsky is a concealed evil, diplomatically colored 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).534

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 “center” 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 defense. The “Organizing 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 organization 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 criticizing his government, denouncing the bourgeoisie of his own country, railing against its ministers.”535

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,” writes Robert McKean, “they [the Menshevik Internationalists] adamantly refused to accept the ‘reactionary’ and ‘anti-popular’ bourgeoisie as the ally of the working class.”536

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 June 3 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 organization 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 (Mezhrayontsi). 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 Defensists. 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 Defensists, 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.537

The so-called Inter-District Committee (the Mezhrayonka) played an important role throughout the war, which has not received the attention it deserves from historians. The Mezhrayontsi, 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’evsky 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 Mezhrayontsi, at a meeting on July 20, 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 Mezhrayonka. In Vasil’evsky Island an inter-party strike committee survived after the July 1914 disturbances. Some time in the autumn it set up an illegal Social Democratic district committee which adhered to the Mezhrayonka 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 Mezhrayonka 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 organization voted to join the Mezhrayonka. The latter also possessed a press which printed five leaflets and one edition of the illegal newspaper Vperyod. As in the past, however, the Mezhrayonka signally failed to penetrate the Neva or Vyborg quarters. In view of the crucial importance the Mezhrayonka 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 Mezhrayonka had attracted over 300 followers. Judging from the membership of the Mezhrayonka committee itself, the leadership derived from three groups at this time—students, skilled metal workers and, in particular, printers. The organization’s expansion soon attracted retribution from the security forces. Early in February 1915, widespread arrests almost completely wiped it out, paralyzing its activity for months thereafter.538

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


530 L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, 177.

531 Plekhanov, Voprosy Voiny i Sotsialisma, 69.

532 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 286 and 287–88.

533 McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, 362.

534 LCW, To A.G. Shlyapnikov, 17/10/1914, vol. 35, 161–62.

535 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 288.

536 McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, 364.

537 Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes, 63–64.

538 McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, 373–34.

97) 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 ultraleftism 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 program 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 demobilizing 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 reeducate 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 August 4 issue of Vorwärts had been produced by the German general staff.”539 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 August 4, 1914, occurred to none of us.540

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.”541

But it was true. Particularly shocking was the behavior 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, he wrote.542

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,” writes Krupskaya, “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.”543

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 organizations. 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.544

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 language and the most extreme language. True, this created some difficulties, but he considered it absolutely necessary in order to reeducate 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 . . .”545

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 themselves open to the accusation of ultraleftism such as “turn the imperialist war into a civil war,” and “the defeat of Russia is a lesser evil.” Trotsky criticized 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 reestablish 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:

Ilych deliberately put the case very strongly in order to make it quite clear what line people were taking. The fight with the defensists was in full swing. The struggle was not an internal Party affair that concerned Russian matters alone. It was an international affair.546

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 caricature 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.”547 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 defensism turned inside out, and would have laid them open to the accusation (used later by the Provisional Government) that the Bolsheviks were German agents.


539 Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, 293.

540 Ibid., 104.

541 Ibid., 293.

542 LCW, To A.G. Shlyapnikov, 27/10/1914, vol. 35, 167–68.

543 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 288–89.

544 LCW, To A.G. Shlyapnikov, 17/10/1914, vol. 35, 161 (footnote) and 162.

545 Quoted in Trotsky, Stalin, p.168.

546 Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 290.

547 Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, 273.