Although the material conditions and historical moment is quite different, the 100th anniversary of the Zimmerwald Conference serves as a reminder to the international left to continuously re-analyze our perspectives in combatting imperialism. 100 years ago, within the organized working class and social democratic organizations [such as the Second International], we saw what were once principled organizations line up behind their respective countries in fighting for “national independence” and the lesser evil of imperialisms. With old rivalries and nationalistic wounds coming to the forefront in the moments preceding WWI, there was a serious issue that workers across Europe would be fighting amongst each other for what amounted as an inter-imperialist struggle for the sake of capital.
This being said, this comes to be relatable in our current moment where we are have continued to see a mission creep of larger inter-imperialist struggles amongst the ever weakening super power of the United States and the EU intertwined with countries such as Russia, China, Turkey, India, Japan, and others beginning to vie for more power in the post-Cold War terrain. These movements, whether involving proxies in Syria or the Ukraine on the behalf of both the West (including the U.S., EU, NATO, and the ‘anglo-Empire’) to various other growing imperial powers (including Turkey, China, Russia, India etc.) this continues to challenge the left on to which side we are on. With old Cold – War dogmatism still in the background, we see self-proclaimed anti-Imperialists lining up behind former “socialist” states in defense against Western Imperialism due to ‘pragmatism’. This line however continues to contradict itself not only in being ahistorical to the struggles in these respective countries for working people, but as well lines up behind other countries ruling elites to combat working people’s militancy. This dualistic view, harkening back 100 years ago to the political arguments of a nations right to be imperialist itself in WWI, we must reject both options and take the third option that the Zimmerwald Conference bravely took with standing unequivocally with the working class of all countries irregardless of nationality.
It is essential for leftists to oppose their own countries foreign policies and national aggressions, and this is especially crucial within the United States that has had a unipolar grasp on world power since 1945. However, this should not exempt criticizing opposing ruling classes of all nationalities and listening to leftists and popular uprisings within other respective countries. For the success of a genuine revolutionary break from capitalism, it necessitates taking advantage of contradictions and uniting the international working class, and no less.
The Zimmerwald Conference, a small gathering held in Switzerland 100 years ago, on September 5-8, 1915, marked a turning point in the world socialist movement. Socialists from many countries issued an appeal that united an antiwar resistance to the First World War and helped prepare the revolutions with which the war concluded.
Here, we publish a resolution drafted by Polish socialist Karl Radek on behalf of 11 left-wing delegates from Russia, Poland, Latvia, Germany, and Switzerland convened by Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin. This group, which became known as the Zimmerwald Left, said that workers’ antiwar struggle should aim at “the overthrow of the capitalist government” and an end to capitalist power. Though its resolution was not adopted by the conference, the Zimmerwald Left became a rallying point for revolutionary socialism.
The document is published as part of the SocialistWorker.org series marking the 100-year anniversary of the war. Also included is series editor John Riddell’s introduction to the Zimmerwald conference, as well as two other documents from the meeting: “Liebknecht’s letter to Zimmerwald” and “The Zimmerwald Manifesto.”
Draft Resolution on the World War and the Tasks of Social Democracy
Submitted by the Zimmerwald Left
THE WORLD war that has laid waste to Europe for a full year is an imperialist war. It is being waged for political and economic exploitation of the world, for markets, sources of raw materials, outlets for capital investment, and the like. The war results from capitalist development that simultaneously knits together the entire world in a global economy and generates independent groups of capitalists, formed around national states, with counterposed interests.
The bourgeoisie and the governments seek to conceal the true nature of the world war by claiming it is a struggle forced on them to maintain national independence. But this is a deception of the proletariat. In reality the war is waged precisely in order to oppress other peoples and countries. The stories about defending democracy in this war are just as deceptive, for imperialism signifies the most ruthless tyranny by big business and political reaction.
Imperialism can only be overcome by eliminating the contradictions from which it arose through socialist organization of the capitalist countries. Objective conditions are already ripe for this task.
When the world war broke out, the majority of workers’ leaders did not propose this slogan, the only one possible against imperialism. When the war broke out, these leaders, entrapped by nationalism and consumed by opportunism, delivered the proletariat the proletariat over to imperialism, while abandoning the principles of socialism and thus the genuine struggle for the interests of the proletariat.
Social patriotism and social imperialism represent a more dangerous enemy for the proletariat than the bourgeois apostles of imperialism because, by misusing the banner of socialism, it can lead astray the less conscious layers of the working class. In Germany, not only the openly patriotic majority of the former Social Democratic leaders but also the party’s Centre current, which poses as an opposition, share this outlook. So too do the majority of leaders in France and Austria, plus a portion of the leaders in Britain and Russia (Hyndman, the Fabians, trade-unionist ideologues, Plekhanov, Rubanovich, theNashe Delo group). The first prerequisite for revolutionary mobilization of the proletariat and the reconstruction of the International is an irreconcilable struggle against social-imperialism.
It is the task of socialist parties and of socialist oppositions within parties that have gone over to social-imperialism to arouse and lead the masses of workers to revolutionary struggle against the capitalist governments and to conquer political power for the socialist organisation of society.
Socialists do not give up the struggle for every single step forward against capitalism, for every reform that strengthens the proletariat; they do not relinquish any of the means to organize and arouse the masses. On the country, revolutionary Social Democrats utilize every struggle, all demands contained in our minimum program, with the goal of heightening the war crisis just like every other social and political crisis of capitalism and broadening it into an attack on capitalism’s foundations. By conducting this struggle under the banner of socialism, the working masses are inoculated against slogans of oppressing other peoples, of maintaining the domination of one nation over another, and of seeking new annexations. They will become deaf to the cry of national solidarity that led the proletarians onto the fields of slaughter.
The prelude to this struggle is the struggle against the world war and for a quick end to the slaughter of the peoples. This struggle demands rejection of war credits, an exit from government ministries, and denunciation of the war’s capitalist and anti-socialist character–in the parliamentary arena, in the pages of legal and, when necessary, illegal publications, along with a forthright struggle against social-patriotism. Every popular movement arising from the consequences of war (impoverishment, heavy casualties, and so on) must be utilised to organize street demonstrations against the governments, propaganda for international solidarity in the trenches, demands for economic strikes, and the effort to transform such strikes, where conditions are favourable, into political struggles. “The slogan is civil war, not civil peace.”
Revolutionary Social Democrats reject all illusions that the foundations for an enduring peace can be laid and the first steps toward disarmament be taken through some kind of diplomatic and governmental accord. On the contrary, revolutionary Social Democrats must say again and again that only social revolution can achieve an enduring peace and the liberation of humankind.
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1. Translated from Horst Lademacher, ed., Die Zimmerwalder Bewegung, The Hague: Mouton, 1967, pp. 117-123. The resolution, drafted by Radek, was presented jointly with Lenin. Lenin also prepared a draft resolution for the Zimmerwald Left that was not presented to the conference; see Marxist Internet Archive. For the proposed manifesto also submitted by the Zimmerwald Left, see Riddell, Lenin’s Struggle, pp. 299-301. Italics are as in original text.
2. The word “social” in “social patriotism” and similar expressions refers to reactionary positions taken by Social Democrats or others claiming to be socialists.
3. “Minimum program” refers to demands that can in principle be accomplished within capitalism. A classic presentation of a minimum program is found in German Social Democracy’s “Erfurt program” of 1891.
4. Footnote in the original text: These words are taken from the letter to the Zimmerwald Conference of an outstanding leader of the German Opposition.
This is part of a series of articles and reprints compiled by John Riddell documenting the developing socialist response to the First World War 100 years ago. Other installments include:
- John Riddell –Capitalism’s world war and the battle against it
- V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky – Two calls to struggle against the war
- Karl Liebknecht – Liebknecht’s historic appeal against war
- Women’s conference statement – Socialist women unite against war
- Socialist Youth International – The youth challenge to war
- John Riddell – The Zimmerwald resistance emerges
- Karl Liebknecht – A letter to Zimmerwald
- Zimmerwald Left – Resolution of the Zimmerwald Left
For a comprehensive collection of other documents from the period, see Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, edited by Riddell.
PROLETARIANS OF Europe!
The war has lasted more than a year. The battlefields are littered with millions of corpses; millions more have been crippled for the rest of their lives. Europe is like a gigantic slaughterhouse. Its entire civilization, created through the labour of many generations, is consigned to destruction. Fierce barbarity celebrates its triumph over everything that was until now the pride of humankind.
Regardless of the truth regarding immediate responsibility for the outbreak of this war, one thing is clear: the war that produced this chaos is the result of imperialism, the striving by capitalist classes of each nation to feed their greed for profit through exploitation of human labour and natural resources around the entire globe.
In this way, economically backward or politically weak nations are subjugated by the great powers, who seek to utilize the war to redraw the world map through blood and iron in accord with their exploitative interests. In this way entire peoples and countries, like Belgium, Poland, the Balkan states, and Armenia, risk being partly or entirely torn apart and annexed.
As the war proceeds, its driving forces are revealed in their full depravity. Shred by shred, the veil that has concealed the nature of this global catastrophe from the masses’ awareness falls away. Capitalists of every country, who coin the red gold of war profits from the blood spilled by the people, claim that this war serves to defend the fatherland, democracy, and liberation of oppressed peoples. They lie! In actual fact, they are burying on the fields of destruction the freedom of their own peoples along with the independence of other nations. New fetters, new chains, new burdens are arising that will weigh down on the proletariat of all countries, both the victors and vanquished. When the war broke out, it was said to herald better living standards, but the real results are privation and want, unemployment and inflation, malnutrition and epidemics. Paying the costs of war will consume the peoples’ best energies for decades, imperilling the achievements of social reform and hindering every step forwards.
Cultural devastation, economic decline, political reaction: these are the blessings bestowed by this abominable conflict of nations.
The war thus reveals the naked form of modern capitalism, now incompatible not only with the interests of the working masses and the requirements of historical development, but with the basic requirements of the human community.
The ruling powers of capitalist society, who held the fate of nations in their hands–both monarchist and republican governments, secret diplomacy, the powerful business groups, the bourgeois parties, the capitalist press, the church–all of them bear the full weight of responsibility for this war, which arose from the social organization that nourishes these institutions and is defended by them–a war waged on behalf of their interests.
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Exploited, deprived of rights, scorned as you were when the war broke out, they called you brothers and comrades in order to lead you to the slaughter, to death. And now that militarism has crippled, maimed, degraded, and destroyed you, the rulers demand that you surrender your interests, your goals, and your ideals–in a word, accept slave-like subordination to the civil peace. You are denied the possibility of expressing your views, your feelings, and your pain; you are prevented from raising your demands and acting to achieve them. The press is gagged, political rights and freedoms are trodden underfoot. Military dictatorshipreigns with an iron fist.
No longer can we passively stand by in face of this situation, which threatens the entire future of Europe and humankind. For decades the socialist proletariat has waged a struggle against militarism. At the proletariat’s national and international conferences, its representatives grappled with growing concern with the constantly growing danger of war arising from imperialism. At the Stuttgart , Copenhagen , and Basel  congresses, the international socialist congresses showed the path that the proletariat must trod.
Since the beginning of the war, socialist parties and workers’ organizations in many countries that voted for this course have disregarded the obligations arising out of it. Their leaders have called on the working class to suspend the class struggle, the only possible and effective means of proletarian emancipation. They have approved war credits for the ruling classes. They have placed themselves at the disposal of governments for the most varied tasks. Through their press and their emissaries, they have sought to win the neutral powers for the policies of their governments. They have provided socialist ministers to serve as hostages for maintenance of civil peace. They have thus assumed responsibility before the working class, present and future, for the war, including its aims and methods. And just as the individual parties failed, so too did the most authoritative representative body of international socialism, the International Socialist Bureau.
These factors are largely responsible for the fact that the international working class, which did not succumb to the national panic when the war broke out, or subsequently broke free of it, has even now, in the second year of mass slaughter, not found ways and means to launch a simultaneous and effective struggle for peace in every country.
In this intolerable situation, we have gathered as representatives of socialist parties, trade unions, and minorities in their ranks–as Germans, French, Italians, Russians, Poles, Latvians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Swedes, Norwegians, Dutch, and Swiss. We stand not on the ground of national solidarity with the exploiting class but on that of international proletarian solidarity and class struggle. We have come together to retie the torn threads of international relations and to appeal to the working class to come to its senses and take up the struggle for peace.
This struggle is one for freedom, brotherhood among the peoples, and socialism. The task is to take up this struggle for peace–a peace without annexations or reparations. Such a peace is only possible if every thought of violating the rights and freedom of peoples is condemned. Occupation of entire countries or parts of countries must not lead to their forcible annexation. There must be no annexation, either open or concealed, and no forcible economic alignment, one made still more unbearable by denial of political rights.The right of nations to self-determination must be the unshakable foundation of national relations.
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Since the war began, you have placed your energies, your courage, and your endurance at the service of the ruling classes. Now the task is to act for your own cause, for the sacred aims of socialism, for the deliverance of oppressed peoples and subjugated classes through irreconcilable proletarian class struggle.
Socialists in the belligerent countries have the task and duty of taking up this struggle with full force. Socialists in the neutral countries have the task and duty of supporting by every effective means their brothers in this struggle against blood-soaked barbarity.
Never in world history has there been a more urgent and noble task to be accomplished through our combined efforts. No sacrifice is too great, no burden is too heavy to achieve the goal of peace among the peoples.
Working men and women! Mothers and fathers! Widows and orphans! Wounded and crippled! We call on all of you who are suffering from the war and because of the war. We call to you across the borders, across the smoking battlefields, across the destroyed cities and villages:
PROLETARIANS OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!
On behalf of the International Socialist Conference:
For the German delegation: Georg Ledebour, Adolf Hoffmann
For the French delegation: A. Bourderon, A. Merrheim
For the Italian delegation: G.E. Modigliani, Constantino Lazzari
For the Russian delegation: N. Lenin, Paul Axelrod, M. Bobrov
For the Polish delegation: St. Lapinski, A. Warski, Cz. Hanecki
For the Inter-Balkan Socialist Federation: C. Rakovsky (Rumanian delegation), Vasil Kolarov (Bulgarian delegation)
For the Swedish and Norwegian delegation: Z. Höglund, Ture Nerman
For the Dutch delegation: H. Roland-Holst
For the Swiss delegation: Robert Grimm, Charles Naine
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Translated from Horst Lademacher, ed., Die Zimmerwalder Bewegung, The Hague: Mouton, 1967, pp. 166-9. Italics are as in original text.
1. The key passage in these congress resolutions reads as follows:
If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau, to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the sharpening of the general political situation.
In case war should break out anyway, it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.