ICC Public Meeting: 1915, 1945: the development of internationalist opposition to imperialist war

Printer-friendly version

On the 10th October, 2015, the ICC is organising a day-long public meeting in London. In order to facilitate discussion, we are publishing the article that will form the basis of the afternoon presentation. We hope this will give a flavour of the topic of the meeting and also give participants the opportunity to prepare comments and counter-arguments in advance.

1915, 1945: the development of internationalist opposition to imperialist war

1915, 1945: two rather contrasting anniversaries. On 1915, the ruling class and its mouthpieces don’t have anything like as much to say as they did on 1914. The unutterable slaughter of the Somme might come in for a mention: regrettable for the right, but part of the necessary sacrifice for king, country, or resistance to German aggression; for the left, proof of the futility of this particular imperialist war.

1945 is also an anniversary of horrors: the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the opening of the Nazi death camps. But on this particular imperialist war, both left and right are in agreement. After the scandal of not singing the National Anthem at a Battle of Britain memorial, Jeremy Corbyn hastened to say, in a statement issued by Labour HQ, that his parents, “like that whole generation….showed tremendous courage and determination to defeat fascism”. This was a Good War, not only toppling Hitler, but also bringing us post-war “socialism” in the shape of a Labour Government and the NHS.

For revolutionaries, these dates have a rather different significance. 1915 was the beginning of proletarian resistance to the imperialist massacre, opening the road to the revolutions of 1917 and 1918 and ultimately forcing the bourgeoisie to bring the war to an end. This resistance was expressed both through mass actions such as demonstrations against the war in Berlin and strikes on the Clyde, and through the revival of the political organisations of the working class, which had been hit hard by the shameful betrayal of mainstream social democracy at the outbreak of the war[1].

1945, by contrast, was a year that indeed brought horror and not hope, because it was a low point in the defeat of the international working class after its revolutionary attempts at the end of the first war. The “victory over fascism” in 1945 also meant the victory of the Stalinist counter-revolution in the east and the democratic counter-revolution in the west.  

In this discussion, we want to recall what has made it possible for revolutionaries today to defend a proletarian position on both theses wars and on all the innumerable wars that have ravaged the world since 1945. In other words, we want to focus on the combat waged by internationalist political organisations in the two world wars, which was certainly connected to the mass struggles of the class, but which also has its own dynamic and importance.

In 1915 there were two highly significant moments in the revival of marxist political organisation: the Zimmerwald conference, and the publication of Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet.

The Zimmerwald conference

Zimmerwald is a small town in Switzerland, and it was host to a small conference: 38 delegates from 12 countries - all the internationalists transported there in a couple of coaches, as Trotsky joked.  And even among these few, only a small minority defended a really revolutionary position against the war. The “classic” centrist tendency, incarnated in the likes of Kautsky and the future leaders of the USPD, was on the right at Zimmerwald[2]. Kautsky had argued that the International, which had indeed collapsed in 1914, was not an instrument that could be used in war, but only in peacetime, so for him and his ilk the priority was to call for peace, appealing to the good sense of the world’s rulers rather than the class struggle. The centre here was represented rather by Trotsky and by Luxemburg’s comrades in the Spartacus group, who were for the methods of class struggle to end the war, but who also called for peace without annexations as the goal of the struggle. 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.

Analysing imperialism

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. And within two years the theoretical standpoint of the left was to be put into practice by the workers of Russia, whose revolt against the war led them to seize political power through the soviets.

But if Luxemburg lagged behind Lenin on the question of the goals of anti-war action, she had leapt ahead of him when it came to providing a more general theoretical understanding of the origins of the war, and its consequences for certain key elements of the revolutionary programme. In a series of works published around 1915 or the year after, all the revolutionaries were agreed – unlike the former “pope of marxism”, Kautsky – that imperialism was not a policy, whether good or bad, freely decided on by capitalism, but a historical necessity, a whole new epoch in the life of the bourgeois economy, which had unified the planet under the reign of capital, but in doing so had brought not peace and harmony but war and catastrophe. Lenin’s Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism and Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy were both important landmarks in the elaboration of this outlook. But just before the war Luxemburg had already published The Accumulation of Capital, which went deeper than either of them in locating capitalism’s imperialist drive in the historical conditions of accumulation, and it was on this theoretical foundation that Luxemburg, writing from prison, was able to put forward the most thorough-going analysis of the motives behind the different imperialist antagonists in the push towards war. And at the same time she was able to draw the most radical conclusions from an understanding that imperialism “is not the creation of any one or any group of states. It is the product of a particular stage of ripeness in the world development of capital, an innately international condition, an indivisible whole, that is recognisable only in all its relations, and from which no nation can hold aloof at will." (The Junius Pamphlet). In sum: all nations are imperialist: every small nation acts under the aegis of a larger power but has its own imperialist appetites. Hence the epoch in which revolutionaries could support struggles for national independence was over once and for all. Even then this profound breakthrough was not entirely without limitations: Lenin, who continued to hold on to the old slogan of the “rights of nations to self-determination” criticised the Junius Pamphlet for its curious concessions to the idea of national defence, which he understood was impossible in the context of this war. But for the whole of the coming century, which was to witness an endless proliferation of proxy imperialist conflicts fought under the slogans of national liberation, it was above all Luxemburg’s approach that has made it possible for revolutionary minorities to maintain an internationalist stance against these wars.

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:

  • 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. Hence Lenin, at the outbreak of war, “retreating” to the Zurich library to read Hegel in order to grasp the dialectic of social change, which can make what was valid in one period entirely reactionary in another. This reinforced Lenin’s ability to reply to the traitors and opportunists who used Marx’s words from a different period to justify, for example, their advocacy of a war to defeat Russian Czarism. 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;
  • Propaganda and agitation: armed with a lucid theoretical framework, the intervention of revolutionaries in the new situation could avoid unthinking activism and make thought-out, concrete proposals to fortify the resistance against war and the struggle for revolution. Hence Lenin’s study of the marxist theory of the state in State and Revolution underpinned the Bolshevik slogan “all power to the soviets”.  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 not as individuals representing only themselves but on behalf of a definite political tendency within the class movement.  

The dark road to 1945

In 1915 the working class was beginning to throw off the heavy weight of its ideological defeat in 1914, which had been prepared by decades of growing opportunism in the movement. By 1917 the period was directly revolutionary. This rapid shift in the historic course was, however, also reversed very rapidly: by 1923, the post-war revolutionary wave was over and the Russian revolution was sinking into isolation and internal degeneration. By the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 30s the counter-revolution was triumphant all along the line: Stalinism in Russia, fascism in Germany and Italy were its most evident forms, but as the world lurched towards another war, the ideology of democracy and anti-fascism was to prove indispensable to the bourgeoisie in mobilising the working class for a second world war within 20 years.

Class struggle did not cease during this dark period, and there was still a proletarian political opposition to the advancing counter-revolution. But it was extremely weak, facing police repression and endless defections and betrayals. It was weak above all at the theoretical/political level, with the majority of forces within Trotskyism and anarchism more and more succumbing to the siren calls of anti-fascism and thus incapable of standing against the march towards war. Rather than seriously examining the balance of forces between the classes and the programmatic changes demanded by the new epoch, Trotskyism in particular threw itself into an unprincipled quest for growth at any cost, culminating in the formation of an abortive Fourth International in 1938.

This process of degeneration left the clearest elements of the political movement – the heirs of the left communists who had first begun to recognise the decline of the Russian revolution and the opportunist course of the Third International – extremely isolated. The capacity of the groups of the German/Dutch left to maintain political activity was further undermined by the drift towards “councilism”, the denial of the necessity for political organisation – in effect a concession to anarchist ideology. This mean that the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left was almost alone in advocating a course of activity appropriate to a highly unfavourable historical juncture, where the priority was to draw the lessons of past defeats and prepare the programmatic basis of the party of the future.

The most decisive test for the political milieu of the day came with the war in Spain in 1936. The initial military coup led by Franco in July was halted by a real working class uprising, but this was almost immediately led onto the terrain of anti-fascism and the defence of the bourgeois republic; with the intervention of the fascist powers and Stalin’s USSR, the conflict was also transformed into a rehearsal for the next imperialist world war. The Trotskyists and anarchists, with a few exceptions, threw themselves into the anti-fascist camp, leaving a minority of left communists denouncing the war for what it truly was: not a civil war, but an imperialist war, not a revolution, but a new step in the world-wide counter-revolution. The Italian Fraction distinguished itself by its ability to situate the war in its real historical and global context, and to remain loyal to the needs of the class struggle against both capitalist camps. And even then the pressures of the period did not spare the Fraction, which suffered a serious split soon after the war began, with a minority enrolling in the militias of the POUM in Spain.

The outbreak of the world war in 1939 increased these pressures, not only because of the brutal repression that revolutionaries faced under conditions of military occupation, but also because the enormous force of imperialist ideology strengthened confusions within their own ranks: the Italian Fraction, for example, was thrown into disarray when the war began because some its leading figures had developed the revisionist “theory of the war economy” which in the late 30s suddenly began to argue that world war was not on the agenda, and, when the war in fact began, insisted that it proved the social disappearance of the proletariat and thus the impossibility of any organised political activity. This theory was vigorously opposed within the Fraction and in particular by comrades in France who managed to regroup and carry out organised, clandestine work in both the “Vichy” zone and the area directly occupied by the German army. This work involved both internal debates about the theoretical problems posed by the war, and political propaganda calling for class struggle against both warring blocs, with no concessions to the patriotic ideology of the Resistance.

The definitive betrayal of internationalism by the Trotskyist organisations and many of the anarchists had already been prepared by the events in Spain, although there were some important minorities in both who rejected the ideology of the anti-fascist war: for the Trotskyists, the Stinas group in Greece, Munis in Spain and Mexico, the RKD in Austria and so on. In Britain, while the Trotskyists almost unanimously declared for participation in the war to defend democracy and the “workers’ state” in Russia, small groups of revolutionaries from the councilist and anarchist traditions stuck to their internationalist principles.

Before and during the war, many revolutionaries had clung to the hope that the end of the war would bring about another revolutionary situation, as in 1917. And indeed there were some important class movements towards the end of the war, most notably in the factories of northern Italy in 1943, which led the ruling class to drop the Mussolini regime like a hot potato. This created a wave of short-sighted optimism among revolutionaries, especially comrades of the Italian left, many of whom returned from exile to join the Partito Comunista Internazionalista which was formed in considerable haste from different oppositional groupings.

In a situation of considerable confusion it was again the French Fraction of the Communist Left (constituted in 1942) which was best able to carry on the political tradition of the Italian Fraction, now dissolved into the PCInt. Having initially thought that the strikes in Italy announced a change in the historic course, they soon understood that the bourgeoisie had learned the lessons of 1917 and was well-prepared to prevent any re-run of the revolution at the end of the Second World War. The terror bombing of German cities, Churchill’s policy of “letting the Italians stew in their own juice” in 1943 – halting the advance of the allied armies from the south of Italy to allow the Nazis to crush the class movement in the north – expressed the ruthless determination of the bourgeoisie to wipe out the least sign of resistance to its rule in the potentially dangerous closing phase of the war. 

The French Fraction was able to understand that the formation of a party – in one single country, and in conditions where the defeat of the working class was being further exacerbated both by repression and the ideological poison of “Liberation” and the “victory of democracy” – was an opportunist error that could only result in a programmatic regression in relation to the gains made by the Fraction in the previous period. This was demonstrated by the concessions made by the new party – especially after the fusion with the groups in the south led by Bordiga in 1945 – on such vital issues as the nature of Russia, the trade union and national questions, and even electoralism.

Against the activist attitudes of the new party, the French group (which took the name Gauche Communiste de France following the split with a tendency that aligned itself with the Italian party) understood that the need for theoretical elaboration was still paramount, and in the post war period produced a considerable body of work analysing such issues as the function of war in the epoch of capitalist decadence, the development of state capitalism as a worldwide phenomenon, the role of the party, and the problem of the state in the period of transition to communism. 

Obviously the scale of the activity of revolutionaries during and immediately after the Second World War, and the perspectives for the growth of its influence within the class, was considerably reduced in comparison with the groups that met at Zimmerwald in 1915 and were to meet again at the formation of the Third International in 1919. But the essential dimensions of this activity – organisation, theory, intervention – were as relevant in 1945 as they had been 30 years earlier.

Internationalism today

One of the clearest signs that capitalism has outlived its usefulness for humanity is the near permanence of war over the last century. Even before the end of the Second World War, the battle lines for the Third were already forming: the primary motive for the atom bomb being dropped on an already defeated Japan was to issue a warning against the imperialist ambitions of the USSR in the east. The ‘Cold War’ was mainly made up of a series of proxy wars between the new superpowers, but as we said earlier they were often fought under the banner of national independence. A number of the groups of the communist left today were born in the period of the Vietnam war, and they found themselves having to fight against the dominant trend, among those who considered themselves to be revolutionaries, which advocated support for North Vietnam as the “little guy” against the US bully, when in fact Vietnam was backed by the “big guys” of Russian and Chinese imperialism, and this “national liberation” struggle was in reality yet another inter-imperialist confrontation. In the period after the break-up of the two imperialist blocs, marked by a more chaotic series of conflicts, the need for a principled and coherent position on war is as vital as ever: the recent rush of elements within the anarchist milieu to line up with Kurdish nationalism (and the USA) against ISIS in Rojava is proof of that. But a principled and coherent position can only be maintained and developed on the basis of the acquisitions we have inherited from the revolutionaries of the past, those who faced the ultimate test of loyalty to the proletarian cause.



[1] Anarchism also split in 1914 between those like Kropotkin who called for support for Anglo-French imperialism, and those who remained true to internationalism. This rupture was to reproduce itself throughout the 20th century. But whereas in the first war the majority of anarchists were internationalists, only a small minority were by the time of the second.  It would take a separate article to trace this evolution in any depth.



Life of the ICC: 


ICC Public Meeting, 10th October 2015