Zimmerwald Conference – An indispensable reference for the defence of internationalism

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The struggle against war can only be taken in hand by the working class through the struggle on its own class terrain and its international unification. Revolutionary organisations cannot wait for a massive mobilisation by the working class against the war: they must act as a determined spearhead in the defence of internationalism and point to the need for the overthrow of the system. This demands that the working class and its revolutionary organisations reappropriate the lessons and the attitudes of previous struggles against war. The experience of the Zimmerwald conference is enlightening in this respect.

Zimmerwald is a small town in Switzerland, and in September1915 it was host to a small conference: 38 delegates from 12 countries - all the internationalists transported there in a couple of taxis, as Trotsky joked.  And even among these few, only a small minority defended a really revolutionary position against the war. Only the Bolsheviks around Lenin and some of the other German groups stood for revolutionary methods and revolutionary goals: transformation of the imperialist war into civil war, the destruction of capitalism as the source of all wars. The other participants had a centrist position or even leaned strongly to the right.

The result of the fierce debates at Zimmerwald was a manifesto to the proletarians of the world which was in many ways a compromise between the left and the centre, since it did not take up the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary slogans. Nevertheless its ringing denunciation of the war and its call for class action against it still enabled it to articulate and politicise the anti-war sentiments that were growing among the mass of the working class.

The struggle for internationalism needs political organisation

The example of Zimmerwald demonstrates that, for revolutionaries, the struggle against war takes place at three distinct but interconnected levels:

  • Propaganda and agitation: Revolutionaries did not wait until the class started moving: they started agitation against the war at the first day of hostilities, well before the class was able to  react. The regroupment of revolutionaries into political organisations enabled them to develop their propaganda and agitation through the medium of a regular press and mass-produced leaflets, and to speak in the workers’ assemblies and councils which arose later, not as individuals representing only themselves but on behalf of a definite political tendency within the class movement.  
  • Organisational: the betrayal of the majority of the old parties demanded that the minority of internationalists had to work as an organised fraction, to work either for the expulsion of the traitors or, when this proved impossible, as it did in the majority of cases, to fight to win over the maximum number of healthy elements and to prepare the ground for a new party, a new International. This demanded a relentless battle against centrism and opportunism, against the ideological influence of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. Thus the Zimmerwald left in particular was the driving force behind the formation of the Third International in 1919. In a situation of war or impending revolution, the heroism of individual militants like Luxemburg, Liebknecht, John Mclean or Sylvia Pankhurst was certainly vital, but could never be enough on its own. It could only have a real meaning in the context of collective organisation around a clear political programme;
  • Theoretical: the necessity to understand the characteristics of the new epoch demands a patient work of theoretical elaboration, an ability to step back and reassess the whole situation in the light of the past and of the perspectives for the future. The work of Lenin, Bukharin, Luxemburg, Pannekoek and others enabled the re-emerging political movement of the class to understand that a new epoch had dawned, one in which the class struggle would take on new forms and new methods to achieve directly revolutionary objectives. There were considerable divergences on a number of questions, for example between Lenin and Luxemburg on national self-determination, but this did not prevent them from taking a common position against the war while continuing to debate as passionately and intensely as before.

We cannot go into more detail here, but encourage our readers to read the following articles:






Revolutionaries and war