Zimmerwald (1915-1917): From war to revolution

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The first stirrings of the proletariat against the First World War

Some lessons for the regroupment of revolutionaries

Who today remembers Zimmerwald, that small Swiss village which in September 1915 was the scene of the first international socialist conference since the beginning of the First World War? And yet the name gave hope to millions of workers flung into the horrors o imperialist war. Having been mobilized for war by the workers' parties it had given birth to through the course of decades of capitalism's peaceful evolution, the international working class, now literally betrayed, and     forced to massacre itself for the interests of the imperialist powers, was plunged into the most profound crisis, the most violent trauma it had ever been subjected to.

Zimmerwald was the first response of the proletariat on an international scale to the carnage on the battlefields, to the foul killing which capital had forced them to take part in. It symbolized the protest of all the exploited against the barbarism of' war. It prepared the proletariat's revolutionary response to the war in Russia and in Germany. Zimmerwald rehoisted the flag of internationalism which had been dropped into the mud of the Union Sacree. It constituted the first stage of regroupment of revolutionaries for the Third International. It is for this reason that Zimmerwald is part of our heritage.   It is still very rich in lessons for the proletariat, lessons which have to be reappropriated in order to prepare the revolution of tomorrow.

The first reactions

The First World War provoked the most profound crisis the workers' movement had ever known. This crisis cut the socialist parties in two: one part passed directly to the bourgeoisie by adhering to the Union Sacree; another part refused to march into the imperialist war. The war posed the question of the break-up of these parties and of a split. The question of the formation of new revolutionary parties and of a new International excluding the fractions which had passed over to the enemy, had been posed since the outbreak of the war.

The Second International died on August 4th 1914, the day the French and German socialist parties, the very ones which had a leading role to play in the struggle against the war, voted for the war credits. The leadership of these and others such as the Belgian and British parties bears the direct responsibility for the recruitment of workers behind the banners of the national capital. It was this leadership which caused the involvement of millions of workers in the first massive world butchery in the name of ‘the defense of the endangered fatherland' and of the ‘Union Sacree against the enemy'. The resolutions against war adopted by preceding congresses of the International at Stuttgart and Basle were trampled underfoot; the flag of the International was spattered with the blood of workers sent to the front. The slogan ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite' became ‘Proletarians of all countries, tear each others' throats out' in the mouths of the social‑patriots.

Never was the face of such an infamous treason raised with such impudence. Vandervelde, the president of the International became a minister in the Belgian government overnight. Jules Guesde, the head of the socialist party in France also became a minister. The leadership of the British Socialist Party (BSP) went as far as organizing the military recruitment campaign on behalf of    the government.                     

The betrayal of the leadership of these parties did not follow from a betrayal by the International. The latter had collapsed and broken up into autonomous national parties which supported their respective bourgeoisie instead of applying the decisions of the congresses against the war. By ceasing to be an instrument in the hands of the entire international proletariat, it was nothing more than a corpse. Its collapse was the culmin­ating point of a whole process in which reformism and opportunism triumphed in the larger parties.

The betrayal of the leaders was the ultimate event in a long evolution which the left tendencies in the International had not been able to prevent. Nevertheless, the betrayal of August 4th did not signify the betrayal of all the parties, nor even of the entirety of some parties - like the German social democracy - which from the very beginning had been confronted by the intransigence of the left tendencies.                        

There at first limited resistance of some parties to the Union Sacree, but also the resistance within the big parties whose leaders had become social-patriots, posed the real question of a split. Some courageous parties were capable of ­going against the current of nationalist fury and made a clear break with the chauvinist current. From the beginning of the war the small Serbian socialist Party had voted against the military credits, and had rejected any notion of a ‘national defensive' war for small nations. As one of its leaders affirmed:

"The most decisive factor... for us was that the war between Serbia and Austria was, only a small part of a whole, nothing more   a prologue ‘to a universal European war; and we were profoundly convinced that this war could have nothing other than a clearly pronounced imperialist character."[1]

Another magnificent attitude was that of Rosa Lu­xemburg's SDKPIL which, from the very onset of the war called for a strike and rejected any notion of a war or of ‘national liberation'.

But the best known case of intransigent internationalism is that of the Bolshevik Party whose Duma deputies, along with the Menshevik deputies, voted against the war credits and were soon exiled to Siberia. Theirs was the most resolute opposition to the war from the outset. In a situation of complete demoralization of all the revolutionary fractions they were the only ones to proclaim the necessity of "transforming the imperialist war into a civil war".[2] Theirs was the only opposition which, right from the beginning pointed to the perspective of the revolution and also to a regrounment of all internationalists in a new International: "The Second International is dead. Its conqueror was opportunism... Down with       opportunism and long live the third International purged not only of turncoats but also of opportunism... The third International has to organize the proletarian forces for the revolutionary assault on the capitalist governments, for the civil war against the bourgeoisie of all countries, for political power, for the victory of socialism." (Lenin, 1 November 1914)          

But no party, not even the Bolsheviks were able to avoid a profound crisis in the workers' movement caused by the shock of the war. In Paris, a minority of the Bolshevik section joined the French army under the influence of Antonov Ovseenko, the future head of the Red Guard in 1917.

Other revolutionary organizations, less well known, than the Bolsheviks, tried to swim against the current at the price of a more or less serious crisis and succeeded in maintaining an internat­ionalist attitude. In Germany:

-- the group Die Internationale, constituted in August 1914 around Luxemburg and Liebknecht;

-- the group Lichtstrahlen (Rays of Light), or International Socialists of Borchardt constituted in 1913;

-- the Bremen Left (Bremerlinke) of Johann Knief, influenced by Pannekoek and the Bolsheviks.

The existence of these three groups shows that the resistance to the betrayal had been very strong within the social democratic party in Germany right from the very beginning.

Apart from Germany and Russia, Poland and Serbia, one can mention because of their future importance:

-- Trotsky's group, which, to begin with concentrated itself around Martov's publication Golos; later it had its own publication Nashe Slovo among the Russian immigrants in France, influencing a part of French revolutionary syndicalism (Monatte and Rosmer), and also the Romanian social democratic party of Rakovsky, in a revolutionary sense;

-- Gorter and Pannekoek's Tribunist Party in Holland which from the beginning adhered to the Bolsheviks' theses and led a vigorous campaign against the war and for a new International.

A third current which emerged from the crisis of the whole socialist movement developed alongside the social-chauvinists and the intransigent revolutionaries. This current, which can be described as centrist[3], was characterized by an attitude of hesitations and oscillation: some­times radical in phraseology, sometimes opportunist, maintaining the illusion of a party unity which led them to try to renew relations with the social-chauvinist traitors. The Mensheviks, Martov's group in Paris were riddled with hesitations, wavering between an attitude of calling for the revolution and a pacifist position. The Socialist Party of Italy had a typical attitude of trying from September 1914 to renew the inter­national links broken by the war and by voting against the war credits in May 1915. Yet they claimed to be ‘neutral' in the war with the slogan "Neither support nor sabotage". In Germany the best revolutionary elements like Liebknecht still marked their break with the ‘Burgfriede' (social peace) with pacifist slogans "for a rapid peace and one which humiliates no one, a peace without conquests".[4]

The revolutionary movement, itself weighed down by hesitations, developed slowly and painfully. It was confronted by a centre - the ‘swamp' - which was still situated in the proletarian camp. The groups which emerged from the centre and through the confrontation with it were able to develop a struggle against the war. The international regrounment of revolutionaries came about following the break with social-patriotism and through a confrontation with the centrists and other hesitating elements with a view to forming a new International.

This was the profound meaning of the Zimmerwald and Kienthal conferences: firstly to raise the flag of the International by the rejection of the imperialist war through the inevitable break with the socialist parties, and to prepare the subjective conditions for the revolution which alone could put an end to the war.       

The International Socialist Conference at Zimmerwald                          

In the midst of the turmoil of the imperialist war, involving the death of millions of workers and faced with a terrible misery amongst an overexploited working class which was more and more reduced to famine, the Zimmerwald conference was to be the rallying point of the exploited victims of capitalist barbarism. By becoming the beacon of internationalism beyond all frontiers, beyond the military fronts, Zimmerwald symbolized the reawakening of the international proletariat which up until then had been traumatized by the shock of war; it stimulated the nroletariat's consciousness which, once freed from the noxious vapors of chauvinism, passed on progressively from a will to return to peace to an awareness of its revolutionary goals. Despite all the confusions which reigned within it, the Zimmerwald movement was to be the decisive step on the path leading to the Russian revolution and the foundation of the Third International.                                                                 

Originally, the idea of a resumption of international relations between the parties of the Second International which had rejected the war was born in the ‘neutral' countries. On 27 September1914 a conference of the Italian and Swiss socialist parties in Lugano (Switzerland) took place which proposed to "fight by all possible means the further extension of the war to other countries". Another conference of ‘neutral' parties ­was held in Copenhagen on 17-18 January 1915 with delegates from the Scandinavian and Dutch social democratic parties (the Dutch party being the same one which had excluded the Tribunist revolutionaries in 1909). The two conferences, which had no echo in the workers' movement, proposed the re-affirmation of the "principles of the International", of an International which was definitively dead. But while the reformist-dominated Scandinavians and Dutch called on the International Socialist Bureau to hold a peace conference between parties adhering to social-chauvinism, the Italian and Swiss parties were making the first timid steps towards a break. Thus in January 1915 the Swiss socialist party decided it was no longer to turn over its dues to the late (Second) International. But it was a very timid break, for in May of the same year the joint conference of the Italian and Swiss socialist parties which was held in Zurich called in a resolution "to forget the weaknesses (!) and the mistakes (!) of the brother parties in other countries"[5], and used slogans such as "general disarmament" in the middle of a military carnage and "no violent annexations" (sic) in the full heat of war!

In reality it was the birth of the class struggle in the belligerent countries and the reawakening of minorities hostile to the war in the social-chauvinist parties which went on to impulse the Zimmerwald movement. In February 1915 the first big strikes of the war began in the Clyde Valley in Great Britain. At the same time there were the first food riots in Germany, riots by workers' wives protesting against rationing. The oppositional movement to the war became more and more determined. On March 20, 1915, Otto Ruhle - the future theoretician of ‘councilism' and a Reichstag deputy - who up until then had voted for the war credits out of party discipline voted against with Liebknecht, while 30 social democratic deputies abstained by leaving the parliament house. Even more significant was the development of the revolutionary forces. Besides the International Socialists who published Lichtstrahlen (Rays of Light) and who were close to the Bolsheviks and the Bremen ‘Radicals', Rosa Luxemburg's group distributed hundreds of thousands of leaflets against the war and published the review Die Internationale. Such was the revolutionary activity which gave the basis for an international regroupment. Even in France where chauvinism was particularly strong, the anti-war reactions, contrary to Germany, were first and foremost the work of revolutionary syndicalists around Monatte who were influenced by Trotsky and his group Nashe Slovo. A majority developed against the Union Sacree in the federations of Isere, Rhone, among the engineering workers and the teachers. There were significant fractions within the socialist parties themselves - like the federation of Upper Vienna[6] which followed a similar path. Such were the premises of Zimmerwald. A gradual split took place on the question of the war and by consequence on support for the class struggle which inevitably became the beginnings of the revolution. The question of the break with social-chauvinism was posed. It was posed by the two international conferences which were held in Berne in the spring of 1915. The first, that of the Women Socialists, from 25-27 March negatively; for although it declared "war on war", the conference refused in fact to condemn the social patriots and to envisage the necessity of a new International. For this reason the Bolshevik delegates refused to support any ambiguous attitude and left the conference. The second conference, that of the socialist international youth posed the question in a more positive way; it decided to establish an international bureau of autonomous youth and to publish a review International Youth, to fight against the Second International. In a very clear and unambiguous Manifesto the delegates affirmed "their support for all revolutionary actions and for the class struggle":

"It's s a hundred times better to die in prison as a victim of the revolutionary struggle than to fall on the field of battle against our comrades of other countries for the sake of our profit-thirsty enemies."[7]

The first internationalist conference was called for September 1915 on the initiative of Italian and Swiss socialist Party leaders like Grimm and Platten. Braving the police, social-chauvinist lies and nationalist hysteria, 38 delegates from 12 different countries met in a little village near Berne. The location of the conference had been kept secret to avoid the spies sent by the different imperialist powers. It is significant that the numerically strongest delegations were those of Russian immigrants, Bolsheviks, Menshev­iks and Social Revolutionaries and of Germany, the two key countries to the world revolution.

This conference bore a decisive historic signif­icance for the evolution of the class struggle and the formation of an international communist left.

In fact the conference produced a "common declaration" of French and German socialists and syndicalists, signed by the French syndicalists Meerheim and Bourderon and the German deputies Ledebour and Hoffmann. The declaration had a considerable effect both in France and Germany by the fact that it called for an "end to the killing" and by affirming that ‘this war is not our war'. Its effects went beyond the intentions of the signatories who were by no means revolutionaries but merely timid elements from the centre. Ledebour, for example, despite Lenin's very firm appeals, refused to vote against the war credits,    preferring to ‘abstain' instead. Also, because the declaration emanated from socialists of the belligerent countries it rapidly appeared as an incitement to fraternization between the soldiers of both sides in the war.                                                           

Finally, the Manifesto, written by Trotsky and Grimm and addressed to the proletarians in Europe, because it was unanimously adopted by the sociallists of 12 countries, went on to have a considerable effect on the workers and soldiers. Translated and distributed into several languages mostly in clandestine leaflet or pamphlet form, the Manifesto appeared as a living protestation by the internationalists against barbarism:

"Europe has become a gigantic human slaughter house. The whole of civilization, the product of the work of many generations has collapsed. The           most savage barbarism is today triumphing over what used to be the pride of humanity."                              

It denounced the representatives of the parties who "had placed themselves at the service of their government and have tried via the press and their emissaries to win the neutral countries over to their government's policies", and the International Socialist Bureau which had "comp­letely failed in its task". "Beyond frontiers, beyond frontiers, beyond battlefields, beyond devastated towns and countryside, proletarians of all countries, unite!"[8]           

Faced with the gravity of the situation the ambiguities contained in the Manifesto became secondary in the minds of workers who saw in it the first signs of internationalism. The Manifesto was in fact the fruit of a compromise between the different tendencies at Zimmerwald who wanted to app ear as a united movement in the face of the imperialist powers.                                         

Bolsheviks criticized with revolutionary int­ransigence the Manifesto's pacifist tone - "drawing the working class into a struggle for peace" - and the absence of the perspective of the revolu ion: "The manifesto doesn't give any clear indication of the means of combating the war".[9]        

It is significant, however, that the left, without abandoning its critiques, voted for the Manifesto. Lenin quite correctly justified this attitude of the left as follows:                      

"Should our central committee have signed this inconsequent and timid manifesto? We think it should. We haven't abandoned any of our opinions, of our slogans, of our tactics... It is certain  that this manifesto constitutes a step forward (underlined by Lenin) towards the real struggle against opportunism, towards rupture and scission. One would have to be a sectarian to refuse to take this step forward with the minority of the Germans, the French, the Swedes, the Norwegians, the Swiss, seeing as we retain our full freedom of movement and are entirely free to criticize the present half-heartedness in working towards greater results."[10]

The left, regrouping seven to eight delegates, a tiny minority, was conscious of this step forward. The international bourgeoisie in fact wasn't mistaken on the meaning of Zimmerwald. Either it used the most infamous calumnies in order to pres­ent the revolutionaries as ‘enemy agents', and it was backed up in this by the social-chauvinists, or else, as much as possible, it censored any article dealing with the results of the conference. It wasn't for nothing that the bourgeoisie of both camps were afraid. The establishment of an International Socialist Commission, to which the most part of the Zimmerwald movement subsequently adhered, was a step forward in the break with the Second International, even if its initia­tors declared that they didn't want to "substitute itself for the International Secretariat", and intended "to dissolve itself as soon as the latter begins again to fulfill its mission". In France, the creation by the readers of La Vie Ouvriere and Nashe Slovo in November 1915 of a Committee for the Re-establishment of International Relations, was a direct, positive consequence of the conference.

The development of the Zimmerwald Left

The conference was an important indicator of the forces present:

-- a right wing represented by the Mensheviks, the Social Revolutionaries, the German syndicalists and stewards, the Italians and the Swiss, all ready to make any concession to social chauvinism. It expressed a right-wing centrism which in the ensuing years revealed, on the question of the revolution and no longer that of ‘peace', its counter-revolutionary character (in 1917 and 1919) ;

-- a centre, oriented towards the left, and pushed towards conciliation by its indecision and lack of firmness on principles. Trotsky, the delegates of the group Die Internationale, and the Balkan and Polish parties expressed the hesitations of this centre;

-- the Zimmerwald Left, regrouped around the Bolsheviks, the Scandinavians, Radek, Winter (representing a Latvian group linked to the Bol­sheviks), affirmed clearly and without hesitation the necessity of the struggle for the revolution, becoming more and more conscious that the revolution and not the struggle against the war would be the dividing line:

"Civil war, not the ‘Union Sacree', that is our slogan... It is the duty of the socialist parties and of the oppositional minorities within the parties which have become social-patriots, to call the working masses for a revolutionary struggle against the imperialist governments for the conquest of political power, with a view towards the socialist organization of society."[11]

The unwavering struggle of the left to create a cleavage in the centrists' ranks is very significant. It shows that the struggle of revolutionaries leads inevitably to a process of selection. That the forces in operation are not congealed. Under the pressure of the class struggle and of the marxist avant-garde, a crisis is triggered off which draws a part of the hesitators onto the revolutionary road. Political combat, like will, is a conscious historical force which imposes a            pitiless process of selection. At moments when historic choices have to be made, it is impossible to remain for long in the swamp.                 

For the left, the task of the hour, while adhering to the Zimmerwald movement, was that of maintai ing its autonomy of action and of regrouping itself in an organ which, while participating in the International Socialist Commission, symbolized the flag of the future International: the ‘Permanent Bureau of the Zimmerwald Left', composed of Lenin, Zinoviev and Radek, charged with pursuing its own work at the international level.                                 

The attitude of the Zimmerwald Left is full of lessons for revolutionaries today. For the left, while pitilessly denouncing centrist oscillations, the task was not that of artificially proclaiming the new International, but of preparing it. This preparation required a clear break with social-patriotism, and thus the establishment of criteria for conferences excluding this current which had gone over to the bourgeoisie.                                               

Secondly, this presupposed an absolute condemnation of any kind of pacifism professed by the centrists, who were attempting nothing less than a reconciliation with social-chauvinism and a return to the nre-1914 Second International. The road           to revolution could not but pass over the dead body of pacifism. As Gorter affirmed in October1914 in his pamphlet Imperialism, the World War and Social Democracy:                                

"The pacifist movement is the attempt being made by the bourgeoisie, the reformists and the radicals, at a moment when the proletariat finds itself confronted by the choice between imperialism and socialism, to push it towards imperialism. The pacifist movement is the imperialist striving of        the bourgeoisie against the socialism of the proletariat."                

And so the sole alternative was not war or peace but war or revolution. Only the revolution could put a stop to the war, as was shown in 1917 in Russia and 1918 in Germany.

Thirdly, at the practical level, the point was to construct marxist parties independent of centrism, on a truly revolutionary basis. As the Arbeiter-politik group (Bremen Left), supported by the Bolsheviks, affirmed: "The split (at the national and international level) is not only inevitable, but a pre-condition for a real construction of the International, for a new growth of the proletarian workers' movement." (‘Unity or Split in the Party?', Arbeiterpolitik nos. 4-8 and 10, 1916) .                                                                   

This struggle of the Zimmerwald Left could not be denied its fruits. At the beginning of a powerful resurgence of the international class struggle, the conference of Kienthal (in March 1916) oriented itself more clearly towards the left. Already the circular letter of invitation from the International Socialist Commission (ISC) affirmed in February 1916 a clear break with the Second International:    

"Any attempt to revive the International through a reciprocal amnesty of the compromised socialist chiefs who persist in their attitude of solidarity with the governments and the capitalist classes can only in reality be something directed against socialism and would put a brake on the revolutionary awakening of the working class."[12]

Finally, the resolution of the same ISC at Kienthal in April 1916 marked a clear rupture with the pacifist ideology; it was a matter now "of' absorbing the discontent and the protests of the masses, enlightening them in a revolutionary socialist direction, so that the sparks and rumbles of revolt grow to a powerful flame of active protestation of the masses, and so that the international proletariat, in conformity with its historical mission, accelerates the accomplishment of its task of toppling capitalism, which alone can liberate the peoples."[13]

To be sure there was still, despite the growth of the left which had more delegates than at Zim­wmerwald, a large right wing in the Zimmerwald movement. But it still represented a great step forward towards the new International. As Zinoviev stressed just after Kienthal:

"The second conference of Zimmerwald represented indisputably an advance, a step forward. The influence of the left has been much stronger than at the first Zimmerwald meeting. The prejudices against the left have been weakened...at present there is a greater chance than after Zimmerwald that things will develop advantageously for revo­lutionaries, for socialism." (Against the Current). "No illusions" concluded Zinoviev, however.

Towards the IIIrd International

"Let's finish off any illusions!" "The main enemy is in our own country" (Liebknecht). This slogan found its practical echo in the development of the class struggle in 1917, in the main imperialist countries: in Germany, with gigantic strikes throughout the Reich; in Italy, where in Turin the workers confronted the army arms in hand; and above all in Russia, where the outbreak of the revolution heralded the world revolution. It was the question of the revolution which provoked the splitting of the parties. In Spring 1917 the party of the independents (USPD) was formed in Germany, within which the Spartakist League constituted a fraction[14]. In Italy the fraction of Bordiga was formed. In Russia, the revolution pushed the Zimmerwald ‘centrists' - the official Mensheviks and right Social-Revolutionaries (with the exception of Martov's group and the Left SRs) - into the camp of the counter-revolution. In France, where the crudest nationalist ideology had triumphed, the minority - itself composed mainly by centrist partisans of Longuet (‘Longuettistes'), and by a small revolutionary minority ‑ was at the point of becoming the majority in the face of the social-patriotic leadership in 1918.

The rupture with the centrist elements posed itself clearly as the condition for the birth of the Third International. If this rupture was theoretically valid, its realization necessitated several years and was achieved through a necessary break-up of this current. No revolutionary, in the heat of the Russian revolution, could have imagined that this process would take such a long time, given the tasks of the hour. That's why the Bolsheviks, and above all Lenin, the Bremen Linksradikalen and the partisans of Gorter, were led to accelerate the liquidation of the Zimmerwald movement.

"The principal sin of the (Zimmerwald) International, the cause of its bankruptcy (since it was already morally and politically bankrupt) lies in its vagueness, in its indecision on the essential question which determines practically all the others, that of the rupture with the old social-chauvinist International... It is necessary to break without delay with this International. We shouldn't stay in Zimmerwald except for information purposes." (Lenin, ‘The Objectives of the Proletariat in Our Revolution', 10 April 1917)

The position of Lenin is explained in fact by the orientation of the Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionary centrists towards the capitalist camp. Moreover, the centrist majority of Zimmer­wald was prepared to give in to the social-patriotic sirens who planned a conference in Stockholm in Spring 1917 with the goal of drawing revolutionary Russia into the war. In reality, a conference did take place at Stockholm, from 5-7 September 1917, but this was the Third (and last) Zimmerwald conference. The Bolsheviks, the Menshevik Internationalists (the Mensheviks withdrew before the end), the Independents and the Spartakists sent their delegates. Contrary to the expectations of the Bolsheviks, the left was in the majority at this conference. The latter published a manifesto calling for an international strike against the war and in support of the Russian revolution. It concluded strikingly with these words: "Either the revolution will slay the war, or the war will slay the revolution."[15]                     

The presence of the Bolsheviks at this last conference went in fact against the position of Lenin in April 1917, which was to leave - as he put it - "the rotten organization of Zimmerwald" in order to found the Third International. The            thesis of Lenin was rejected at the end of 1917 by the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, on the initiative of Zinoviev. It had to be noted thit ungortunately Lenin's thesis on rapidly founding new parties and the International, as correct as it was, was still premature, in the absence of a revolution in Germany and of the            formation of real, independent communist parties which had broken from the centrist current.                                                                                          

It was necessary to wait one and a half more years, on account of the slow maturation of the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariat, one and a half years of revolutionary battles, before being able to found the Communist International (March 1919). Zimmerwald no longer had a reason for being and was officially dissolved by the Congress. The necessary selection, having gone through a process of splits, was achieved: one part of the Zimmerwaldists adhered to the CI. The rest - a part of the Independents and the centrists - joined up with the social-patriots "using the banner of Zimmerwald in the interests of the reaction". The declaration of the participants of the left (Zinoviev, Lenin, Trotsky, Platten and Rakovsky) could conclude:                               

"The conferences of Zimmerwald and Kienthal had their importance at a time when it was necessary to unite all the proletarian elements who had decided, in one form or another, to protest against the imperialist butchery. But pacifist and hesitant ‘centrist' elements penetrated the ranks of Zimmerwald alongside the clearly com­munist elements. The communist current has been reinforced in a whole series of countries, and the struggle against the centrist elements who prevent the development of the socialist revolution has now become one of the most, urgent tasks of the revolutionary proletariat. The Zimmerwald groupment has passed its time. All that was truly revolutionary in the Zimmerwald groupment comes over to the Communist International."[16]

Thus, despite its weaknesses, the Zimmerwald move­ment acquired a decisive importance in the history of the revolutionary movement. The symbol of internationalism, the banner of the proletariat in its struggle against the war and for the revolution, it was the indispensable bridge between the 2nd and 3rd Internationals. It posed, with­out being able to resolve, the question of the regroupment of revolutionary forces dispersed by the war.

Today, 70 years afterwards, the lessons of Zimmerwald still remain fundamentally valid for the revolutionary movement. This is true to the extent that revolutionaries understand the histor­ical difference between today and 1915:

a) Since imperialist war is a permanent given in the decadence of capitalism, under its generalized or localized form, the lessons of Zimmerwald remain truly alive today. In local-wars, which permanently afflict the countries of the third world - for example the present Iran-Iraq war ‑ the revolutionaries of the areas like those of the whole world must engage themselves energetically in a struggle against the imperialist war. Like their predecessors of the Zimmerwald movement, they must appeal for the fraternization of the soldiers of the two camps, and work, within the working class, for the transformation of the imperialist war into a class war. Their activity is inseparable from the class struggle of the proletariat of the big imperialist countries for the world revolution.

b) Like at Zimmerwald, the regroupment of revolutionary minorities is posed acutely today. But happily it is posed under different circumstances: the present course is not towards generalized war. The course of the class struggle in the main industrial countries leads towards decisive class confrontations, in which the march towards revolution and the overthrow of capitalism are at stake. Faced with the present stakes, the historic responsibility of revolutionary groups is posed. Their responsibility is to engage in the formation of the world party of tomorrow, whose absence can be cruelly felt today. The regroupment of revolutionaries cannot be an agglomeration of diverse tendencies. It is an organic process, on the basis of the acquisitions of the Communist Left, the outcome of which is necessarily the formation of the party. The recognition of the necessity of the party is the precondition of a real regroupment. This recognition has nothing platonic about it, as is the fashion among the diverse ‘Bordigist' sects, but is based above all on a real militant engagement in the present class struggle.

c) On the basis of the recognition of the necess­ity of the party and of a militant commitment, the international conferences of groups and organizations claiming inheritance from the Communist Left are decisive stages in the regroupment of revolutionaries. The failure of the first attempt at conferences (1977-80)[17] does not invalidate the necessity of such places of confrontation. This failure is a relative one: it is the product of political immaturity, of sectarianism and of the irresponsibility of a part of the revolutionary milieu which is still suffering the weight of the long period of counter-revolution. The past conferences have been and remain an important moment in the history of the present revolutionary movement. They constitute a first step, however limited, towards regroupment. Tomorrow, new conferences of groups descending from the Left will be held: they will refer themselves to the previous conferences of 1977-80, but also in a more general manner to the conferences or congresses which have determined the existence of the revolutionary movement. Without being a "new Zimmerwald"[18], the future international conferences will work in a ‘Zimmerwaldian' spirit, the spirit of the Left. Such a conference is not an affair for gas bags but something to be engaged in a militant fashion, by taking up positions, by issuing manifestos and resolutions of the groups present.                                                            

d) The whole history of the proletarian movement eveal.s a profound heterogeneity. It is necessarily divided into different tendencies on account of its immaturity, but also of the pressure of the dominant ideology.       

The centre current (‘centrism') is less than any other a homogeneous political current. It oscill­ates constantly between communist positions and a greater or lesser opportunism. The present          groups which suffer these oscillations, either finding themselves in an anarchistic swamp, or contaminated by leftist positions, are not bourg­eois groups. These groups, though each one accord­ing to its history is more or less a far cry from the most coherent revolutionary pole, are not part of the camp of capital. Despite their hes­itations, their confusions, their opportunism, they are not fatally lost for the revolution. The theoretical and political firmness of revol­utionary groups of the avant-garde - in particular the ICC today - is absolutely crucial for the development of the whole proletarian milieu. There is no fatal evolution, no absolute determin­ism. As Zimmerwald showed, revolutionary groups which suffered oscillations (those of Trotsky and of Rosa Luxemburg, for example) were subsequently able to fully engage in a revolutionary regroup­ment, under the pressure of the most clear and          intransigent avant-garde.                                                                               

To the extent that history accelerates towards decisive conclusions, the elements or groups which wallow in the swamp are obliged to choose their camp, at the price of breaking up or of going over to the enemy camp. In this respect, the history of the Mensheviks and the Independents in 1917 and 1919 is rich in lessons.

For the present revolutionary movement, Zimmerwald is not a simple commemoration date. It is today as yesterday the flag of the internationalists. But in different conditions from those of 1915, the communist militants are today engaged in rising class struggle, in which the conditions for the triumph of the revolution cannot but be posed. The regroupment of revolutionaries is inscribed in the only possible perspective - that of transforming the world crisis into a struggle for the world revolution. This is the overriding condition for preventing the possibility of a third world war, the result of which could only be the destruction of humanity and thus of the perspective of communism.


[1] Quoted by Rosmer, The Workers' Movement During the War, 1936.

[2] See Against the Current, Coll. Maspero, 1970

[3] On the question of centrism see the articles in the International Review no. 43

[4] See Liebknecht, Militarism, War and Revolution, Maspero, 1970.

[5] See Humbert-Droz, The Origin of the Communist International (from Zimmerwald to Moscow), Coll. La Baconniere, 1968.

[6] See Rosmer, opcit.

[7] See Humbert-Droz, opcit.

[8] Texts by Rosner and Humbert-Droz.

[9] Cf. Humbert-Droz.

[10] Lenin, Zinoviev, Against the Current.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Quoted by Humbert-Droz.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Afterwards, Franz Mehring, one of the principal Spartakist leaders, came to recognition along with other militants, that joining the USPD had been an error: "We were wrong on just one point: to have rallied the organization to the party of Independents after its foundation (while of course holding into the autonomy of our positions) in the hope of making progress. We have had to give up these hopes." (‘Open Letter to the Bolsheviks', 3 June 1918, quoted in Documente und Materialen zur Geschichte der Deutchen Arbeiterbewegung, vol II, Berlin, 1958. 

[15] Quoted by Humbert-Droz.

[16] See Premier Congress de L'Internationale Comuniste, EDI, 1974.

[17] The proceedings and texts of these conferences have been published by the "Technical Committee" and are available (ICC-WR and RI, PCI-Battaglia, CWO)

[18] In 1976 Battaglia Comunista wanted to call for a second Zimmerwald ... against the Eurocommunism of the CPs which were supposedly moving towards ‘social-democratization'; one way of transforming a revolutionary symbol into a farce!

History of the workers' movement: 

Heritage of the Communist Left: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: