Zimmerwald Conference 1915: Revolutionaries against the imperialist war

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90 years ago, in September 1915, the first international socialist conference was held at Zimmerwald, not much more than a year after the start of the First World War. In discussing it, we are not just reopening a page in the history of the workers’ movement, but reviving workers’ memories about the meaning of the conference. Faced with the criminal butchery of the European proletariat,  Zimmerwald reaffirmed that the working class response to imperialist war is internationalism, the struggle against exploitation and war in all countries.

Today, while the horrors of the trenches are not hidden from us and the last of the old soldiers are encouraged to tell us what they went through, this war, like all the other wars that succeeded it in capitalism’s epoch of decline, is still ‘commemorated’, celebrated with poppies and Remembrance Days organised by the very state which sent so many workers to be slaughtered at the front. We are still told that our duty is to ‘defend our country’ and to support it in its present and future wars. And the response of revolutionaries today can only be what it was in 1915 -that the workers have no country, and that patriotism is diametrically opposed to the international interests of the working class.     

The impact of the start of the war on the proletariat and workers’ organisations

Zimmerwald was the first proletarian reaction to the first world butchery, and its growing echo gave hope to millions of workers submerged by the bloody horror of the war. The start of the war on August 4th 1914 was an unprecedented catastrophe for the workers’ movement. In fact, alongside the bourgeoisie’s nationalist ideological barrage, the decisive element in the mobilisation for this vile slaughter was the treachery of the main workers’ social democratic parties. Their parliamentary fractions voted for war credits in the name of the Sacred Union, urging masses of workers to kill each other in the interests of the imperialist powers, resorting to the most abject chauvinist hysteria. The unions banned all strikes from the beginning of the war. The Second International, which had been the pride of the working class, was consumed in the flames of the world war, after the largest of its parties, the French Socialist and above all German Social Democracy, rallied shamefully to the war. Although infected with reformism and opportunism, the Second International, under the pressure of its revolutionary minorities, particularly the German left and the Bolsheviks, had previously made a number of pronouncements against the threat of war. In 1907, at the Stuttgart Congress, at the Basle Congress in 1912, and right up to the last days of July 1914, it raised its voice against the militaristic propaganda and imperialist designs of the ruling class. So several decades of work and effort were annihilated in one blow. But, having fought opportunism within the Second International and its parties for some years, the revolutionary minority remained loyal and intransigent on the principle of proletarian internationalism, and was able to resist and continue the struggle. Among them:

- in Germany, ‘Die Internationale’ group, constituted in August 1914 around Luxemburg and Liebknecht, the ‘Lichtsrahlen’, the Bremen Left;

- in Russia and among émigrés, the Bolsheviks;

- in Holland, the Tribunist Party of Gorter and Pannekoek;

- in France, some of the revolutionary syndicalists around Rosmer and Monatte;

- in Poland, the SDKPIL

- in Britain, the Socialist Labour Party, John Mclean, Sylvia Pankhurst and others.

Another current was also developing: hesitant, centrist, oscillating between an attitude of calling for revolution and a pacifist position (the Mensheviks around Martov, the Italian Socialist Party), some of whom wanted to renew their ties with the social-chauvinist traitors. The revolutionary movement was able, through the confrontation of positions, to win new forces to its struggle against the imperialist war, and to prepare the conditions for the inevitable split in the socialist parties and the formation of a new International.

The Zimmerwald Conference

The task of the hour was thus to encourage the international regroupment of revolutionaries, and contacts were immediately made between the different internationalists who had broken with social-patriotism. The struggle against the war was given impetus in Germany first of all, when on 2nd December Liebknecht was the only deputy to openly vote against war credits. In the months to come his example was followed by other deputies. Working class activity against the war was developing, among the rank and file of the workers’ parties but also in the factories and in the streets. The hideous reality of the war with its slaughter and death and mutilation at the front, the development of poverty at the rear, would open the eyes of more and more workers and bring them out of the fog of nationalist intoxication. In March 1915, in Germany, there was the first demonstration against the war, by women mobilised for arms production. In October there were bloody confrontations between the police and demonstrators. In November of the same year nearly 15,000 people marched against the war in Berlin. Class movements against the war also appeared in other countries: Austria, Britain and France. This renewal in class struggle, alongside the activity of revolutionaries who distributed propaganda against the war in very dangerous conditions, accelerated the holding of the Zimmerwald Conference (near Berne) where, from 5 to 8 September 1915, 37 delegates from 12 European countries met. This Conference symbolised the reawakening of the international proletariat, which, until then, had been traumatised by the impact of the war. It was a decisive step on the road to the Russian revolution and the foundation of the Third International. The Manifesto it issued was the fruit of a compromise between the different tendencies. In fact the centrists were in favour of putting the end of the war in a pacifist framework without referring to the necessity for revolution. They were strongly opposed by the left, represented by the ‘Die Internationale’ group, the ISD and the Bolsheviks, who made the link between war and revolution the central question. Lenin criticised the pacifist tone and the absence of means for opposing the war expressed in the Manifesto: “The slogan of peace is not at all revolutionary. It can only take a revolutionary character when it is linked to our argument for a revolutionary tactic, when it goes along with a call for revolution, a revolutionary protest against the government of the country in which one is a citizen, against the imperialists of one’s own country” (‘Contre le Courant, vol 1, translated from the French). In other words, the slogan for the imperialist epoch must be “turn the imperialist war into the civil war”. Despite these weaknesses the Left, without abandoning its criticisms, considered this Manifesto a as “step forward towards a real struggle against opportunism, towards a rupture with it” (Vol.21 ‘The First Step’). The Zimmerwald Manifesto created an enormous stir in the working class and among the soldiers. With the strong recovery in the class struggle internationally, the intransigent struggle of the left to split the centrists, the second international conference held in Kienthal in March 1916 was clearly more orientated to the left and marked a clear break from pacifist phraseology.

The considerable widening of the class struggle in 1917 in Germany, in Italy, and above all the outbreak of the Russian revolution, the first step in the world revolution, would make the Zimmerwald movement obsolete, having exhausted all its potential. From then on the only perspective was the creation of a new International which, taking account of the slow maturation of revolutionary consciousness, the formation of sizeable communist parties and the expectation of a revolution in Germany, took place a year and a half later in 1919.

So, despite its weaknesses, the Zimmerwald Movement played a decisive role in the history of the revolutionary movement: as a symbol of proletarian internationalism, as a proletarian standard in its war against the war and for the revolution. It truly represented a bridge between the Second and the Third International.

The lessons for today

One of the important lessons of Zimmerwald, which remains valid in our period of the incredible exacerbation of imperialist conflicts, must be the reaffirmation of the importance of the question of war for the proletariat. The struggle against the bourgeoisie’s militaristic schemes is an integral part of the class struggle, in the same way as the struggle against exploitation. The history of the workers’ movement shows that the working class has always considered war a calamity as it is the principal victim of it. War is not an aberration in capitalism, especially in its decadent period. It is part of its functioning and has become a permanent aspect of its way of life. The reformist illusion of a capitalism without war is deadly for the proletariat. Caught in their contradictions, in an economic crisis which they cannot escape due to the world wide saturation of solvent markets, the different national fractions of the bourgeoisie have no choice but to tear each other to pieces to keep their share of the cake, to take that of others, or to win the strategic positions necessary to their domination. In this sense, to pretend that we can struggle for an improvement in our living conditions or for peace, without affecting the foundations of capitalist power, is a mystification, an impossibility. Without the perspective of a massive, revolutionary political confrontation, there is no real struggle against capitalist war. Pacifism is a reactionary ideology used to channel the proletariat’s discontent and revolt, provoked by war, in order to reduce it to impotence. Similarly, for workers to fall into the trap of defending the democratic bourgeoisie, making common cause with their exploiters and supporting the bellicose campaigns of the ruling class, is to fall head first into the warlike dynamic of decomposing capitalism, which goes from ‘local’ war to ‘local’ war and will end up putting the survival of humanity at risk. The working class struggle for its own interests, which cannot go forward without developing the perspective of overthrowing this society and replacing it with communism, is the only possible struggle against war.  SB

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: