History: Zimmerwald Conference 1915

An important step in rebuilding the international workers’ movement during WW1

One hundred years ago, socialists opposed to the bloodbath of the First World War held a conference between September 5 and 8 at Zimmerwald, in Switzerland. The meeting discussed how to chart a way forward in mobilising workers against the imperialist slaughter. Robert Bechert examines this important event and in particular the role played by Lenin and Trotsky.


Advances and retreats, victories and defeats: that has been the history of the socialist and the workers’ movement. This year’s U-turn by the Syriza leadership in Greece– a betrayal, as they refused to struggle and moved from opposing to implementing austerity – is not the first, and unfortunately will not be the last, example of ‘socialist’ leaders who refuse to break with capitalism ending up implementing anti-working class policies.

In these situations, the challenge for activists is to learn politically and organisationally from these experiences and use this understanding to help the workers’ movement to recover and move once again onto the offensive against capitalism.

This year Greece has seen missed opportunities which have led to a defeat for the Greek workers’ movement in its struggle against the effects of the ongoing capitalist crisis. But it is not yet a crushing defeat and the Greek movement will revive. Now Greek socialists need to clearly draw the lessons of what has happened, regroup their forces, establish a clear banner and begin to popularise and campaign for their programme.

By coincidence we commemorate the 100th anniversary of a very significant step in the rebuilding of the socialist and workers’ movement after a much more serious defeat, the plunging of most of Europe into the murderous First World War. A hundred years ago, in early September 1915, 42 delegates from 11 countries attended the first international conference of socialist parties and currents opposed to that war, in Zimmerwald, Switzerland. The conference’s “Zimmerwald Manifesto”, drafted by Leon Trotsky, played an important part in helping build the struggle against the pro-war leaders of most workers’ organisations, the war and the capitalist system itself.

In August 1914 the vast majority of socialist activists were stunned when the leaders of most of the socialist parties in the combatant counties supported their own ruling classes when the First World War broke out. They were shocked because up until then these parties, and the Second International they belonged to, had repeatedly declared that they would not support such an inter-imperialist war. But instead as war broke out a majority of leaders of the workers’ organisations on both sides rapidly moved to co-operate with their own capitalists. Partly this was a retreat in the face of the great patriotic waves that were unleashed in the rush to war, but mainly it reflected the fact that these leaders had become absorbed within the capitalist system and had no desire to challenge it.

This betrayal was a wholescale rejection of the political principles upon which the workers’ movement had been previously built, principles which included opposition to inter-capitalist or imperialist wars.

In 1912, during the penultimate international crisis before fighting started in 1914, the Second International, the organisation linking socialist parties from around the world, held a special congress to discuss what to do in face of the danger of war. That congress, held in Basle, agreed that “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.”

The Basle congress recognised that it may be impossible to prevent a war starting but agreed that for the workers’ movement and its leaders “in case war should break out anyway it is their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule” (see “1914 – The capitulation of the Second International”).

Despite the shock of official leaders suddenly dumping the International’s previous anti-war position, almost immediately struggles broke out in many workers’ organisations as oppositions, often initially small, strove to reverse the policy of supporting the war. But this was not simply a political battle, it was also organisational. This was because the war had revealed how organisations painfully built up to help emancipate the working class had, in the hands of pro-capitalist leaders, become instruments to help the ruling class maintain their rule. The question was not just to change policy, but to remove pro-war leaders and forge workers’ organisations seriously committed to ending capitalism and the repeated wars.

The complete abandonment of the International’s anti-war policy, just when bloody slaughter began, bluntly posed the political question of, what should be done now? A sharp battle of ideas opened up. At that time, the workers’ movement in many countries had a conscious internationalist tradition, at least within its guiding layers, which made many anti-war activists see their struggle as not just being against war, but as part of rebuilding an International that would fight capitalism globally. Before the war, the Second International, then the organisation linking socialist parties from around the world, had been seen as the symbol and instrument of workers’ unity and struggle both against capitalism and to change the world.

In this political battle Lenin and the Bolshevik party in Russia clearly argued for drawing both political and organisational conclusions from the August 1914 collapse. Politically this catastrophe flowed from an adaption to capitalism that led to the growth of a pro-capitalist strata within the workers’ movement leadership. To re-build the movement, the ideological lines had to be very clearly drawn to establish a firm basis for rebuilding the workers’ movement on a new basis. At the same time it was not just a question of turning the clock back to before August 1914 and rebuilding the old International. The Bolsheviks argued that a new International was needed, one that had learnt the lessons of the Second International’s collapse.

It was with these ideas that the Bolsheviks participated in moves to draw together socialist opposition to the war and take concrete steps towards rebuilding the international movement. This included co-operating with other forces which did not really have a revolutionary opposition to war. In 1915 the Italian and Swiss socialist parties called for an international conference of socialist parties to reaffirm the principle of opposition to war. The resulting Zimmerwald conference was preceded by international anti-war meetings of socialist women and youth in March and April 1915, respectively.

The socialist parties supporting the war opposed the conference but this did not undermine its significance. The conference, made up of different political forces, saw sharp political debates. There was a right wing not wanting to condemn those socialist parties that had supported financing the war. The Left, led by the Bolsheviks, argued for a clear denunciation of those “socialist” leaders supporting the war and for a “revolutionary struggle against capitalist governments”, i.e. a complete break from both the pro-capitalist and hesitant “centre” currents in the workers’ movement and a determination to try to utilise the crisis caused by the war to end capitalism. The sharpness of Lenin’s language was necessary in order to draw clear demarcation lines from both the openly pro-capitalist and the wavering leaders and to re-affirm the socialist principles needed in the struggle with capitalism.

Although the Zimmerwald Left’s resolution was defeated, the Bolsheviks and the Left voted for the Conference’s Manifesto because it was a “call to action”. The Manifesto had a big effect despite the attempts to crush it. Its publication was banned in Austria-Hungary, France, Germany and Russia. But this did not stop it becoming an important beacon of not just opposition to the war but of rebuilding the international workers’ movement as a fighting, socialist force. Within months it was gathering support from a number of socialist parties and organisations. It became a rallying cry in the struggle against the pro-war and pro-capitalist forces.

The Zimmerwald conference was both an inspiration to those fighting to recover from collapse of the old International and part of the necessary discussion to draw conclusions from the Second International’s failure. In this way, it was one of the stepping stones in the building of the worldwide revolutionary movement that followed the First World War and the 1917 Russian revolution. A movement whose experiences provide important lessons for today’s activists struggling to end, once and for all, bloody capitalist rule.

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September 2015