11 September 1915 – International Socialism

In Zimmerwald, Switzerland today, a small but historic conference of international socialists concludes their week-long event by publishing an anti-war manifesto calling on the working classes of all belligerent nations to turn on their capitalist masters and transform the imperialist conflict into a worldwide proletarian revolution. Hosted by Swiss socialists and Italian leftists who object to their nation’s participation in the bloody conflict, and held in a peasant’s guest house six miles outside the city of Bern, the gathering has included forty-two people representing Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Latvia, and three of the combatants.

In the course of the war, its driving forces are revealed in all their vileness. Shred after shred falls the veil with which the meaning of this world catastrophe was hidden from the consciousness of the peoples. The capitalists of all countries who are coining the red gold of war-profits out of the blood shed by the people, assert that the war is for defense of the fatherland, for democracy, and the liberation of oppressed nations! They lie. In actual reality, they are burying the freedom of their own people together with the independence of the other nations in the places of devastation.

New fetters, new chains, new burdens are arising, and it is the proletariat of all countries, of the victorious as well as of the conquered countries, that will have to bear them. Improvement in welfare was proclaimed at the outbreak of the war – want and privation, unemployment and high prices, undernourishment and epidemics are the actual results. The burdens of war will consume the best energies of the peoples for decades, endanger the achievements of social reform, and hinder every step forward. Cultural devastation, economic decline, political reaction these are the blessings of this horrible conflict of nations. Thus the war reveals the naked figure of modern capitalism which has become irreconcilable, not only with the interests of the laboring masses, not only with the requirements of historical development, but also with the elementary conditions of human intercourse.

[…] The Socialist proletariat has waged a struggle against militarism for decades. With growing concern, its representatives at their national and international congresses occupied themselves with the ever more menacing danger of war growing out of imperialism. At Stuttgart, at Copenhagen, at Basel, the international Socialist congresses have indicated the course which the proletariat must follow.

Since the beginning of the war, Socialist parties and labor organizations of various countries that helped to determine this course have disregarded the obligations following from this. Their representatives have called upon the working class to give up the class struggle, the only possible and effective method of proletarian emancipation. They have granted credits to the ruling classes for waging the war; they have placed themselves at the disposal of the governments for the most diverse services; through their press and their messengers, they have tried to win the neutrals for the government policies of their countries; they have delivered up to their governments Socialist Ministers as hostages for the preservation of civil peace, and thereby they have assumed the responsibility before the working class, before its present and its future, for this war, for its aims and its methods. And just as the individual parties, so the highest of the appointed representative bodies of the Socialists of all countries, the International Socialist Bureau, has failed them.

[…] It is the task and the duty of the Socialists of the belligerent countries to take up this struggle with full force; it is the task and the duty of the Socialists of the neutral states to support their brothers in this struggle against bloody barbarism with every effective means. Never in world history was there a more urgent, a more sublime task, the fulfillment of which should be our common labor. No sacrifice is too great, no burden too heavy in order to achieve this goal: peace among the peoples.

A British delegation was denied passports, but not all French socialists have given up on the international workers’ dream in wartime, and two of them are signatories to the final document. Unable to attend himself due to severe restrictions on his movements imposed by the German government, Karl Liebknecht sent a letter calling for “civil war” against militarism and an “inexorable settling of accounts with the deserters and turncoats” of international socialism who split with the movement to endorse their respective nations’ ‘war efforts.’ It was delivered by Adolf Hoffman and Georg Lebedour, delegates who speak for those German socialists still cleaving to pacifism and international solidarity and whose names also appear on the final communiqué.

But of all the parties present, the Russian delegation will eventually have the most impact. Seen above, exiles Vladimir Lenin and his former rival, Leon Trotsky, are determined to return to their country on the leading edge of a people’s revolution with ambitions to incite a global class struggle.


A contemporary drawing of the modest house where the conference ending today was held in order to minimize attention

Indeed, Lenin’s draft letter calling for a new socialist convention to replace the shattered Second International is far more strident than the final manifesto, for he sees no possible outcome that advances the interests of the common people.

The demand must immediately and energetically be made that the war be stopped, a loud protest must be raised against the exploitation of one people by another, against the division of any people among several states. All this will take place if any capitalist government comes out victorious and is able to dictate the terms of peace to the others. If we allow the capitalists to conclude peace in the same manner as they started the war without the participation of the masses, the new conquests will not only strengthen reaction and arbitrary police rule in the victorious country, but they will sow the seeds of new wars even more horrible.

The overthrow of the capitalist governments – this is the object which the working class in all belligerent countries must set themselves, because only then will an end be put to the exploitation of one people by another, an end put to wars, when capital has been deprived of the power of disposing of the life and death of peoples. Only peoples who shall be freed of want and misery, of the rule of capital, will be in a position to settle their mutual relations, not by war, but by friendly agreement.

Nor is the Zimmerwald Conference far detached from events in Russia. On September 27th, a planned election for the War Industries Committees in Petrograd becomes a fiasco as the Bolsheviks call for a boycott, an end to the war, and a revolution, disrupting the efforts of Russian industrialists to solve production problems that bedevil the Russian Army.

But future splits are already visible. Signing the conference manifesto with Lenin is Pavel Axelrod, a Jewish-born Russian socialist and past associate of pro-war Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov who nevertheless opposes the conflict himself. Standing out as one of the few Russian radicals who have not emerged from the upper ranks of society, but from the bottom, Axelrod founds the international socialist newspaper Our World with Trotsky and Julius Martov to popularize the worldwide proletarian revolution. Yet he is also an experienced rival of Lenin’s, having first opposed him during the Second International in 1903, when the Menshevik-Boshevik split first emerged. After the October revolution of 1917 — which he denounces as a “historical crime without parallel in modern history” that has “introduced into Russia a system worse than Tsarism, suppressing the Constituent Assembly and the liberty of the press” — Axelrod will travel the world to rally socialists in opposition to Bolshevism and Lenin’s Third International.

Before the end of the year, the German delegation will also split openly with leaders of the Socialist Democratic Party in the Reichstag over the extension of war credits, the very same controversy on which the Zimmerwald Conference has divided. Contrary to the popular image of a vast conspiracy, the socialist movement on 1915 is riven with such intellectual and personal fault-lines that unified purpose is impossible.


In 1917, Karl Liebknecht will lead the Spartacist Movement to agitate for workers’ councils to take over German industry