After Zimmerwald - Radical Chains


The modern left, bolshevism included, are all children of Zimmerwald. It was at the Zimmerwald conference in 1915 that the revolutionary left thrashed out the issues of its relation to the centrist and reformist wings of the movement and its orientation towards national self-determination... Lenin may have been well in advance of anyone in his call for revolutionary defeatism, but... Lenin's defence of the right of nations to self-determination was no more than a reiteration of orthodoxy and... in their assessment of the real consequences of support for nationalism the European left proved to be more perspicacious than Lenin.

While bolshevik historiography tends to present bolshevism, and within bolshevism, Lenin, as the vanguard of the assault on opportunism, B.Shepherd shows that the reality was more complex. Lenin may have been well in advance of anyone in his call for revolutionary defeatism, but he failed to break with Second International theoretical orthodoxy and remained isolated on most questions, even within his own organisation. Lenin's defence of the right of nations to self-determination was no more than a reiteration of orthodoxy and one that the European left was able to identify as a dangerous survival from a previous epoch. In their assessment of the real consequences of support for nationalism the European left proved to be more perspicacious than Lenin. In examining this moment in the formation of bolshevism, Shepherd helps to further undermine the myth of bolshevism as the only or most advanced opposition to opportunism and, crucially, calls into question some of the theoretical props of that opposition.

radical chains

On September 5, 1915 thirty-eight anti-war social democrats assembled in Zimmerwald, Switzerland. They came to draw up a program to inspire the working class to stop the war. Some also came to revive the Second International, some to bury it. Some of them managed to do both.

As we have said before, dating the history of proletarian revolution from 1917 has seriously misled the Bolshevik tradition, and cut it off from much of the material that it requires for the self-analysis that it is at last engaging in. Even a small step back in time from 1917 can be very revealing and open up serious questions for the tradition.

Recent events call for a re-evaluation of the left's attitude to war and what is called with ever more vagueness, imperialism. If history can teach us anything then it is to Zimmerwald, two years before 1917, that we should turn, from where much of current left ideology derives. The modern left are all the children of Zimmerwald. Lenin did not organise it, nor did he dominate it. He worked hard to coordinate the Zimmerwald left and then gratuitously threw away that coordination for the sake of orthodoxy.

All the major themes of modern leftism were debated in the Zimmerwald movement. The debate on schism from orthodox, and in the end, opportunist social democracy, the policy of 'defeatism', as it was labelled by its opponents, and support (or not) for the right of national self-determination that has now degraded into support for virtually anything that calls itself a national liberation movement. The first was a matter of debate on the left. The second united them. The third well nigh destroyed them.

It should always be remembered when considering these events that they took place in the midst of the greatest carnage the world had ever seen. Millions lay dead in the mud of the western front. Millions more on the eastern front. Chillingly the bourgeoisie were not only happy to slaughter the working classes of all nations (as they had already proved in the aftermath of the Paris Commune) but also the sons of the aristocracy and of the bourgeoisie themselves.

The Second International had always opposed war in abstract principle. As war became more likely the International gave more consideration to it in the concrete. The major debate at the 1907 Stuttgart Congress of the International was on 'Militarism and National Conflict'. The left managed to add its own paragraphs to the final text leaving the resolution 'committing all socialists to take action to prevent outbreak of war'. What this action might be remained unspecified. Lenin tried but failed to convene his own caucus of the left at this congress.

The next year Lenin wrote 'Bellicose Militarism and the Anti-Militarist Tactics of Social Democracy' (CW15), in the context of increased war fever and persecution of anti-militarists all over Europe. In this document Lenin relied on the Stüttgart congress resolution, quoting it heavily and relying on its formulations, especially for the origins of militarism in capitalism and the definition of imperialism. He analysed the various social democratic strategies proposed, spending equal space criticising the nationalist right and the voluntarist left - from the 'opportunist tendencies' to 'anarchist phrase-mongering'. This latter was represented by Hervé's demand for a 'military' strike on the outbreak of war. This would, according to Lenin lead to the bourgeoisie setting the agenda and 'the proletariat would . . . use up its fighting preparedness . . . in the struggle against the effect (war) and allow the cause (capitalism) to remain'. Lenin's position was essentially pragmatic, desiring the proletariat to attack when its consciousness was high, its organisation strong and the occasion appropriate. He also drew attention to local conditions at home and abroad that may influence proletarian activity.

The 1910 congress of the International met in Copenhagen. Kier Hardy and Valliant again raised the question of an anti-war general strike. This was defeated by strong opposition from the SPD. Ledebour argued that a general strike in these circumstances would damage the largest and best organised labour movements and hence on the international socialist movement as a whole. The congress agreed on the usual pious preventative measures; elimination of standing armies, international arbitration, abolition of secret diplomacy, general disarmament.

Fear of the spread of the Balkan war caused the International to call an extraordinary congress at' Basel on November 24th and 25th, 1912. Bebel proposed a motion outlining steps to be taken. An amendment by Luxemburg, Lenin and Martov committed parliamentary deputies and the International Socialist Bureau (ISB), 'to do all in their power to utilise the economic and political crisis caused by the war to rouse the peoples and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule'. Lenin was, in the very near future, to refer to this resolution frequently to legitimise his revolutionary anti-war stance and present himself as the true heir of the International in the face of the betrayal by the leaders.

The first declaration of war by Austro-Hungary on Serbia, began the paralysis of the ISB, whereas by July 28 Lenin had already moved to the revolutionary anti-war policy he was to pursue for the rest of the war. Probably unaware that a general mobilisation had been ordered in Russia, his draft for a declaration 'War and Revolution' (CW41) contained in section iv the following notes; 'Militarism, imperialism - Guns go off themselves -Struggle against war - resolution of Juares vs. Guesde - experience of workers in Russia -Best war against war: revolution'. At the same time the Dutch leftist SDP (as opposed to the orthodox and official SDAP) issued a leaflet calling for 'war on war' and united with pacifists and anarcho-syndicalists in the 'United Labour Organisation'. On August 2 three Polish parties called for a general strike against conscription. Other acts of resistance were taking place in the difficult circumstances of the temporary hysterical jingoism that greeted the declarations of war. Germany invaded Belgium on August 4 and on the same day the German SDP parliamentary caucus block voted in favour of war credits in the Reichstag. That evening a small group met in Luxemburg's flat to oppose what became known as 'the policy of August the Fourth', the Burgfrieden (civil truce). They were able to send out 300 telegrams to supporters. Not in touch with Lenin, on August 8 the Bolshevik and Menshevik fractions refused to vote for war credits in the Duma and walked out in protest, never to return.

Caught by the outbreak of war on holiday in Poland, Lenin with some difficulties returned to Bern in neutral Switzerland. Zinoviev soon joined him there, to be followed by various Bolsheviks and others as the war spread and political activity became untenable for them. On September 6 Lenin presented his 'Theses on War' (Tasks of Revolutionary Social-Democracy in the European War, CW21) to a conference of Bolsheviks in Switzerland. The 'Theses' talked of betrayal by 'most leaders of the Second International' for 'ignoring the fundamental truth of socialism . .. that the workingmen have no country' and not 'recognising the need for a revolutionary war'. While flaying defencist postures in general it was only in Russia that '[F]rom the viewpoint of the working class and the toiling masses of all the peoples of Russia, the defeat of the tsarist monarchy and its army ... would be the lesser evil by far.' The 'Theses on War' obviously gained enough support at the Bern conference to circulate them, together with an article developed from them, around the rest of the Bolshevik movement, even into Russia. Support was not so easy to obtain without Lenin's presence however and grave reservations were expressed about the 'defeatist' slogan. Opposition came from major figures including Kamenev, Bukharin, Shliapnikov and Kollantai, not only because of the expression of the desire for the defeat of tsarism in Russia but because Lenin had extended the call for revolutionary civil war to western Europe. This call was well integrated into the text, and the full import is best expressed in an amendment not included; 'The only correct proletarian slogan is to transform the present imperialist war into a civil war. This transformation flows from all the objective conditions of the current military disaster, and only by systematically propagandising and agitating in that direction can the workers' parties fulfil the obligations they undertook at Basel. That is the only kind of tactics that will be truly revolutionary working-class tactics, corresponding to the conditions of the new historical epoch (CW41). Enough support was eventually won for 'The War and Russian Social-Democracy' to appear with the imprimatur of the Central Committee in Sotsial-Demokrat 33 on November 1, 1914. The Bolsheviks went to considerable lengths to circulate this document as a pamphlet, with copies sent to the ISB and the various fractional conferences that were beginning to take place, the Copenhagen conference of northern neutrals, the Conference of Socialists of the Allied countries in London (where Litvinov was denied the right to speak and ejected) and presumably the Conference of Socialists of the Central Powers. In Russia itself it was published in the first issue of Proletarskii Golos in Petersburg. Criticism now appeared in print from non-Bolshevik Russians, the Mensheviks Plekhanov and Martov, the Social Revolutionary Chernov. Even Radek, the European left radical, was critical. All opposed the 'defeatism' line, counterposing 'peace' demands. Lenin was no doubt grateful for the publicity if enraged at its content. Over the winter of 1914-15 he carried the Bolshevik organisation and went on a speaking tour. The final seal of approval was applied at a conference of Bolshevik Sections Abroad in Bern on February 27- March 5, 1915.

Not without considerable debate (all three critical resolutions counterposed 'peace' to 'defeatism') the essential element, turning the imperialist war into civil war was carried and adopted by all sections. Other aspects did not gain such acceptance. The slogan for a United States of Europe was dropped. Bukharin objected strongly to Lenin's use of the formulation 'democratic-republican' with respect to the policy for Russia when proletarian revolutionary socialism was on the agenda in Europe. This was to cover the, as Lenin thought, necessary 'smychka', the alliance between the workers and the peasantry, and the bourgeois phase of Russian development. The 'smychka' was to be a main plank of Bukharin's policy in years to come but at that time Bukharin was very much a European radical in a way that Lenin never was. Smoothed over at this conference, this debate was to erupt again before the end of the war and nearly wreck the European Bolshevik organisation. Lenin was evidently in a flexible frame of mind at this time for in fact the 'defeatist' formulation was hardly used in Bolshevik propaganda, Lenin apparently being satisfied with the 'civil war' formulation. Nonetheless his opposition to 'peace' slogans continued. It is easy to see why. A 'peace' line precluded civil war and revolution. The historical models he was relying on were the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 which led to the Paris Commune and the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 which led to the Petrograd soviet.

If it was not stressed in propaganda, Lenin continued to defend 'defeatism' against 'peace' demands. Trotsky earned his ire with an article in Nashe Slovo 105. In a reply; 'Defeat of One's Government in the Imperialist War' (Sotsial Demokrat 43 July 26, 1915, CW 21), Lenin mocks Trotsky's 'phrase-bandying', It seems to him that to desire Russia's defeat means desiring the victory of Germany ... the Bern resolution made it clear that in all imperialist countries the proletariat must now desire the defeat of its own government'. If anything important came out of Lenin's much vaunted philosophical readings which he began in September 1914 it was this. The decoupling of defeat from victory, of events at home from those abroad, within a nonetheless international perspective which involved turning your back on international events to concentrate on revolution at home. Here was the victory of dialectical logic at the service of a thinker whose project was revolution. The elegance of the writing of The War and Russian Social-Democracy, which totally lacks Lenin's usual expressions of personal rancour and his ugly constructions, illustrates that he,was completely comfortable with his formulations, utterly convinced that he was correct, and feeling that despite the horrors of the war history was going his way, towards proletarian revolution.

The Bolsheviks were not by any means the only people to oppose the war from a revolutionary perspective. The Serbian party voted against war credits. An anti-war faction of the Rumanian party was led by Christian Rakovski. The Bulgarian 'narrows' issued a strong anti-war manifesto on August 29th, demanding a new International and revolutionary mass action. In Greece the Socialist Workers Federation of Saloniki led the anti-war opposition and dominated a Panhellenic socialist conference in Athens in April 1915. The whole of the Balkan opposition convened an Inter-Balkan Socialist Conference in July 1915 and called for a revived International. A Balkan socialist federation was set up with a permanent executive in Bucharest. In the USA the left of the Socialist Party of America led by Debs took an active anti-war position as did the fWW and Daniel DeLeon's Socialist Labour Party of North America. In the other neutral countries opposition tended to be centred on the party youth leagues except in Italy, where the whole party resisted entry into the war apart from a 'revolutionary intervention' fraction around Mussolini (who had, in 1910, taken an opposition position on Italy's annexation of Libya, actually tearing up railway tracks and announcing, 'the proletariat has no fatherland, nor in truth has the bourgeoisie; in case of war we Socialists will not go to the front - we will raise insurrection within our own borders'). In western Europe the French party had capitulated with opposition only from Merrheim and his Federation of Metal Workers and a few isolated small groups. Likewise in Austria, a small group around Friedrich Adler in Vienna resisted and Bohemian, Slovakian and Italian sections railed against the defencism of the centre. In Germany resistance was not limited to the Internationale group round Luxemburg and Liebknecht, although the latter was to become 'the most popular man in the trenches' as Kautsky grudgingly recognised. Julian Borchardt's International Socialists of Germany published Lichtstrahlen from Berlin. In Stuttgart the party split in the autumn of 1914, in Hamburg Laufenburg and Wolffheim led an autonomous group and Bremen also went autonomous under the influence of Pannekoek and Radek. All these, and many other small groups, took a revolutionary position. Liebknecht's slogans were typical: 'war on war'; 'the main enemy is at home'; 'civil war not civil truce'.

Despite the obvious abandonment of Second International principles by the official sections, everybody tried to maintain a facade of internationalism. But not even the parties of the neutral states could cooperate. On September 27 delegations from the Italian PSI and the Swiss SPS met in Lugano, Switzerland. The northern neutrals, the Dutch and Scandinavians, convened on October 11 in Stockholm. A further conference, in Copenhagen on January 18, 1915 attempted to revive the pre-war strategy of the International; international arbitration, disarmament, abolition of secret diplomacy. Future activity was hampered by the decision that action outside ISB was inappropriate. The Swiss and Italians refused to attend due to a refusal to extend invitations to all neutrals. In February there was a Conference of Socialists of Allied Powers in London and in April a Conference of Socialists of Central Powers. Both defended their defencist stands. Between these two bleak comedies some real international progress was being achieved, if haltingly. The ISB continually played a deliberately obstructive role, bureacratically denying its ability to call an International conference without the approval of all parties which it would only have been possible to obtain at such a conference. Various individuals, mainly of the neutral nations and the peace faction, like the Italian Morgan and the Swiss Grimm engaged in desperate shuttle diplomacy. In the midst of the most unbelievable carnage the world had ever seen conferences were rejected on the grounds that they would be manipulated by the ultra-left, 'irresponsible elements' and 'intransigent extremists'. But progress was being made. An International Women's Conference took place in Bern on March 26-29. Thirty delegates attended. In April a Conference of the Socialist Youth International took place, also in Bern. On April 22 the SPS announced their intention of convening a conference of neutrals for 30 May in Zurich. On May 15-16 a special session of the PSI directorate approved sponsorship of a general conference urging participation of all 'socialist parties or party groups' opposed to the 'Burgfrieden'.

On May 22 Grimm put the PSI initiative to the SPS executive. They rejected it. But Grimm, using a procedural loophole, issued a schedule for an unofficial preliminary meeting in Bern on July 5. Matters were getting urgent for the neutrals. Italy entered the war on Entente side on May 24. On June 18 the SPS directorate declared its intention 'to continue work with those parties, or fragments of parties, which have remained faithful to the ideals of socialism, to relaunch international activity as soon as possible, and to initiate an extraordinary international conference, an energetic movement to secure peace in Europe.' Thus, despite previous 'respectable' fears, the left was presented with an opening. Only 7 delegates attended Grimm's preliminary meeting and of these only the Italians came from abroad, the rest being Swiss or exiles, mainly Russians and Poles. Zinoviev attended for the Bolsheviks and demanded commitment to revolutionary action. Having laid down this marker, he acted in a relatively flexible manner despite losing 5:1 with one abstention a vote on inviting the left groups that Lenin had been painstakingly coordinating. The meeting appears to have closed amicably with the expressed intention 'to begin a practical proletarian movement for peace and against the Burgfrieden'. Immediately after, Zinoviev circulated an open letter asking 'where were the truly lefts of the International?' Grimm worked hard to recruit delegates for the full meeting from the French SFIO and CGT, the British ILP and BSP Internationalists (delegates from both failed to get visas), as many German and Austrian groups as possible (Kautsky's group decided in the end not to attend and Adler's group arrived from Austria too late). Lenin and Zinoviev worked just as hard to produce a common programme for the left. They updated the party platform and Lenin produced 'Socialism and the War' which was circulated together with a draft manifesto for the meeting. Lenin insisted on the importance of a 'common ideological declaration' from the 'left Marxists. Bukharin published a list of those considered to be the basis for a new International: the ISD, the Internationale group, those around Merrheim, Monatte and Nicod in France, the British ILP and BSP Internationalists, the Swedish Youth League, the Bulgarian Narrows, the Dutch SDP and left fractions of the PSI and SPS. It did not all go smoothly. The Dutch Tribunists refused to attend any conference organised by the 'centrist' Grimm despite hard lobbying by Pannekoek. Lenin's attachment to the ISD group around Borchardt's journal Lichtstralen alienated the rest of the German opposition. This led to a falling out between Lenin and Radek who believed that this was becoming a barrier to building a mass base 'the opposition in Germany is a product of unrest amongst the masses, while Bolshevism is the orientation of a small group of revolutionaries'. Lenin fell back on a What is to be Done?-like formulation 'For the development of "unrest amongst the masses" a left declaration is necessary'. Behind all these upsets lay an unsettled difference on the left, schism. Was there to be a new International or an attempt to revamp the old? Therefore, logically, should groups split from their parent parties or remain inside? And, finally, how should the upcoming meeting be handled? Lenin's strategy was to work within and against the old order in one final effort to increase support for his positions before schism, but he had the comfort of a unified party behind him. Others were not so lucky. The Dutch, having had their revolutionary split long before were all for purity and non-contact, but in Germany, Luxemburg and the Internationale group resolutely refused schism (Luxemburg had, on the occasion of the split in Dutch social-democracy, told Henrietta Roland Holst that any workers party, no matter how bad, was better than no party), and wanted no new International. Radek, as his comment above shows, was willing to compromise for the sake of a mass party and remained sympathetic to Grimm. He produced his own draft resolution, more flexible than Lenin's despite the latter reducing his definition of the left to those who; unconditionally condemned opportunism and social chauvinism, had a revolutionary action programme regardless of whether it spoke of mass action or civil war (an earlier bone of contention), and stood against 'defence of the fatherland'.

On Sept 2 or 3 there was a caucus of Russian (Bolshevik) and Polish delegates in Bern, followed on the 4th by an open meeting at Zinoviev's residence. This was attended by Trotsky, most of the Germans, Merrheim, Bourderon, Berzin, Borchardt, Platten, Radek, Hogland, Neiman. Lenin's draft was abandoned in favour of an amended version of Radek's. On September 5, 1915 38 delegates assembled in Bern and took 4 hired coaches to the Beau Sejour rest home in Zimmerwald for a meeting of an 'ornithological society'.

The first two days of the conference were taken up with procedural wrangling enlivened by a letter from Karl Liebknecht, then in prison, again calling for 'civil war not civil peace'. The wrangling was important to the left, made up as it largely was by delegates from unofficial fractions of parties. Both as a means of limiting the influence of the left and to avoid a break with the ISB and hence the International itself the rest wished to limit voting rights to official parties. An executive was appointed. It reduced Borchardt to observer status and allocated 5 votes to each national section contrary to the left's desire for separate votes for separate sections of their parties. These decisions gave Grimm a dominant moderate bloc.

The first 'political' item on the agenda was taken on the 7th., 'Peace Action by the Proletariat'. This allowed Radek to make an immediate attack on the centre, 'a more dangerous enemy than the bourgeois apostles of imperialism'. Grimm was defensive, described the sentiment as 'unsuitable' and asked, 'do we want a manifesto for party comrades or for the broad masses of the workers?'. Lebedour introduced his resolution with the words 'we have come together here to fulfil the duty that the ISB has failed to fulfil, and not in order to found a third International'. No common agreement could be reached and Trotsky and Roland-Hoist were deputed to produce a compromise. Their version endorsed revolutionary goals but stressed the desire for peace.

On the 7th the majority fought back. So far as Lebedour was concerned the sole purpose of the conference was to 'restore the International and to work for peace'. Lassari pointed out that they were all minorities within minority parties, Radek's tone was described as 'pretentious'. Radek would not compromise; the peace slogan was an 'illusion'. After three sessions and late in the night the resolution on tactics was abandoned. A drafting commission was set up to produce instead a general manifesto. Composed of Lenin, Lebedour, Trotsky, Grimm, Merrheim, Modigliani and Rakowski this merely localised the general differences. The differences were wide. Lebedour would not even agree to a demand for voting against war credits (at a peace conference!) and threatened withdrawal of the German delegation. With no agreement in prospect Trotsky was mandated to produce a final text.

On the 8th the war credits issue re-surfaced with the same results. Trotsky's manifesto was adopted eventually. It was nowhere near Lenin's desired statement of principles being a brilliantly written but basically emotional appeal aimed at the masses and their desire for peace.

Lenin had at last inserted himself into the European left and convinced most of them of the importance of concerted action. Many divisions remained. The most obvious was the question of schism but time and events would take care of that (it rumbled on until the founding of the Third International). But something much more theoretically fundamental separated Lenin from the left. This was the question of the right of national self-determination. Lenin considered this so important that he was prepared to isolate himself again from the Europeans.

Lenin's position on national self-determination was impeccable Second International orthodoxy. National self-determination was endorsed as 'a right' by the 1896 London congress when it passed, although not without dissension, a resolution from George Lansbury which combined this support for autonomy with a call for all 'class-conscious workers of the world to organise for the overthrow of international capitalism'. This position was never challenged at any later congress. Two years later the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) included national self-determination in its founding manifesto. In 1903 the RSDLP adopted the full Lansbury line, the 'right of self-determination for all nations entering into the composition of the state', this procedure to be approved by a popular referendum. This 'right' applied to Russia and was not deemed to be necessarily desirable in any particular case. As Lenin said at the time, 'It is not the business of the proletariat to preach federalism and national autonomy; it is not the business of the proletariat to advance such demands, which inevitably amount to a demand for the establishment of an autonomous class state' (CW6). Lenin wrote several articles on the subject around this time using as a source Kautsky's Finis Poloniae. This was a response to an article of Luxemburg's that Kautsky had published in Die Neue Zeit. In this article Luxemburg used a class analysis of Poland to demonstrate the reactionary nature of demands for national self-determination. It was this line of argument that the European left developed. Lenin followed Kautsky's 'progressive' support for self-determination.

Colonialism was debated more frequently at the International congresses. Anti-colonialism was not self-evident to social-democracy. There was considerable belief in the 'civilising' mission of western domination of the colonies across the spectrum of the International. There was also considerable opposition. But the anti-colonialists, which included most of those considered to be on the left, were generally content to wait until the inhabitants of the colonies themselves began to agitate against their status.

Matters came to a head in 1907. In Germany the government called an election based on all the questions on which social-democracy challenged the existing order. The government's right to rule without interference from the parties, ie the parliament, was the first question, followed by the governments expressed desire to become an international power rather than a merely national one in Europe, ie was the government to be mandated to pursue an active colonialist and imperialist policy? Also involved was, of course, the role and status of the army. The issues had been well chosen and the SPD took a beating at the polls and they lost half their seats in the Reichstag. That year's congress of the International at Stuttgart debated all the major issues. The colonial commission report presented by van Kol and Vandervelde came out in favour of a pro-colonial policy but the congress accepted a minority report against, presented by Kautsky. Kautsky went on to write two important articles that year, Socialism and Colonial Policy, a polemic against future social-democratic administration of colonies, and Patriotism and Social Democracy where he introduced his theory of 'ultra-imperialism' (that the imperialist nations, although bound for at least one war and possibly two, would in the end devise a peaceful means of dividing the world between them). In that year also, Luxemburg updated her anti-self-determination analysis in The National Question and Autonomy. It was to the criticism of this article that Lenin turned when he was temporarily living in Austrian Poland in 1912 and commissioned Stalin to answer it in The National Question and Social-Democracy. Lenin's last writings on the matter before the outbreak of the war The Rights of Nations to Self-Determination (CW20) represented his final version of orthodoxy on the subject; 'the formation of independent, national states is a tendency of all bourgeois-democratic revolutions' which the proletariat should support and the denial by ruling nations of the right of self-determination was a flouting of the principle of equality among nations to which the proletariat must not be an accomplice. He also reiterated the get-out clause, that recognition of the right to agitate for self-determination was different to actual support for it in any specific situation. This was the position that Lenin took to Zimmerwald.

The Zimmerwald manifesto prepared by Trotsky included the standard Second International formulation of recognition of the right of self-determination. It is unclear how much, if any, discussion there was of this at Zimmerwald. Radek, an originator with Luxemburg of the SDKPiI position which had become the accepted European left analysis, reacted with speed and on an impressively broad front. On the 28th and 29th of October, the Berner Tagwacht (Grimm's newspaper) carried his two part article Annexione and Sozialdemokratie, a condensation of the SDKPiL theses presented at Zimmerwald against the right of national self- determination, under the pseudonym Parabellum. The article insisted on the importance of economic over ethnic considerations in fixing national boundaries, noting that redrawing them on'national' lines would lead to economic dislocation: 'It cannot be to the interest of the proletariat to turn back the wheel of history and thus to limit the economy which has outgrown these national borders. It is to the interest of the proletariat that the productive power shall develop as fully as possible, that the whole world become one economic organisation. But if this is to be accomplished ... it must be made clear that the proletariat cannot set as its goal the resurrection of the fatherland intact (in its former boundaries) ... as this can only be done at the expense of someone else's fatherland.' Lenin wrote a response ('The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination CW21) but never published it. In it Lenin accused Parabellum of ignoring national struggles in Asia and Africa. This was not the subject of Radek's article which he had taken pains to make clear concerned Europe. On December 5th Radek published a further article in Borchardt's Lichtstrahlen. This must have infuriated Lenin as it was he who had championed Borchardt's group against Radek's strong recommendation to widen his net in Germany. This article quoted Luxemburg's repudiation of national self-determination, a 'petty-bourgeois formula that has nothing in common with Marxism'. It continued; 'We do not reject the slogan of self-determination merely because it is historically false. From a practical viewpoint, it can also mislead the proletariat. It encourages the proletariat to believe that it possesses the right of self-determination ... and that it is the duty of Social Democrats to support every struggle for independence'.

Worse yet, the new Bolshevik journal Kommunist edited by the Stockholm section of Bukharin, Piatnikov and Bosh appeared in September carrying not only Lenin's call for schism and a new International The Collapse of the Second International but also yet another article by Radek. Lenin objected, refused to participate further and demanded that Kommunist be abolished. In November the Stockholm group communicated with the central committee in Switzerland their position on self-determination and attacking Lenin. So far as they were concerned the slogan of self-determination was 'first of all utopian (it cannot be realised within the limits of capitalism) and harmful as a slogan which disseminates illusions'. Far from fostering nationalist illusions the correct tactic was to 'revolutionise the consciousness of the proletariat' by 'continually tossing the proletariat into the arena of world struggle, by placing constantly before it questions of world policy'. The influence of the European left is evident. Under Lenin's influence the central committee deprived the Stockholm group of the right to communicate directly with Russia. They responded by dissolving themselves as a bolshevik section. The political stakes were evidently high. The controversy continued into 1916 with the young European bolsheviks saying they were 'outraged' at Lenin's attitudes and pointing out 'all extreme Lefts who have a well-thought-out theory' were against the self-determination slogan, 'are they all "traitors" they asked. Lenin's response was to claim their views had 'nothing in common with Marxism or revolutionary social democracy', which drew from Bukharin the accusation that 'in regard to the slogan of self-determination, you stand on the viewpoint of the "past century"'.

In October 1915 Radek had appealed to Henrietta Roland-Holst for support in publishing a journal of the international left. He told her that Lenin, Borchardt and Pannekoek would support it, although possibly not Lenin if Trotsky was to be involved. Pannekoek, meanwhile, contacted the Tribunist, van Ravenstijn in an attempt to bring at least some of the Dutch SDP over to a Zinimerwaldist position. While sympathetic to the Zimmerwald Left, the SDP leader David Wijnkoop, having refused to attend, described the meeting as a 'historical farce' and its results as 'compromised' due to the leading role of Grimm 'the centrist'. According to Pannekoek the new journal was to have himself and Roland-Holst as editors-in-chief with Lenin, Radek, Trotsky and van Ravenstijn himself as co-editors with potential contributors in Mehring, Borchardt, Merrheim, Grimm, Zetkin, Fraina (USA), 'an Englishman and a Swede'. By October 26th van Ravenstijn was convinced and broke with Wijnkoop. This all took place in the context of a major realignment in Dutch social-democracy as the left of the SDAP, organised as the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSV), joined up with the majority of the left radical SDP including the Tribunists'. The resulting organisation was to affiliate with the Zimmerwald Left. Roland-Holst was one of those who moved left so that although Lenin does not appear to have balked at the inclusion of Trotsky, Trotsky withdrew in January 1916 after the editorial board described the new journal as 'representing the view of the Zimmerwald Left'. He had already described the Zimmerwald Left around Lenin as 'extremist and sectarian' and rejected schism in an article in the November issue of Nashe Slovo.

The strife over the right of national self-determination question opened a wide rift between Radek and Lenin just as the new journal, to be called Vorbote, was becoming a reality. The Zimmerwald Left coordinating bureau met in Bern on January 15th, 1916. Lenin tried to insist that the journal must be under tight editorial control as a party journal. Radek wanted a looser structure to represent the whole of the international left. Lenin's demand could not but have upset the Dutch and given that the Europeans rejected his self-determination position it is not surprising that Pannekoek informed Lenin within a few days that the editorial board was dissolved with only Pannekoek himself and Roland-Hoist remaining as editors-in-chief. The coordinating bureau met again on January 25th. Vorbote issue one was to contain an article by Radek attacking Lenin over the national question. Lenin protested the dissolution of the editorial board and demanded again that Vorbote be an organ of the Zimmerwald Left. With this attitude it is surprising, and a tribute to the openness of the Dutch that issue 2 of Vorbote contained not only Radek's Theses on Imperialism and National Self-Determination as presented at Zimmerwald but also Lenin's response Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination (CW22).

Only two issues of Vorbote were published. The reorganisation of the Dutch left led to increased activity at home which led up to a mass anti-war demonstration in Amsterdam on June 21st. The argument over editorial control led the Bolsheviks to publish a new Russian-language party journal to replace the closed Kommunist and as propaganda for the Zimmerwald Left. It was hardly a replacement for the truly international German language Vorbote. Lenin wrote to Radek that 'our common struggle in Russian and Polish affairs is finished.

In July 1916 Lenin refused to publish Bukharin's article Towards a Theory of The Imperialist State (it was not finally published until 1925 and then without its conclusion), because it was 'decidedly incorrect'. Only in 1917 did Lenin discover, to his evident surprise, while researching The State and Revolution that he had 'reached conclusions much sharper against Kautsky than against Bukharin ... Bukharin is much better than Kautsky'. What Bukharin had done was to start by 'rescuing' Marx and Engels' original understanding of the state: 'The state is nothing but the most general organisation of the ruling classes, the basic function of which is the maintenance and extension of the exploitation of the suppressed classes'. 'Rescuing' it, that is, from the Second International and especially the SPD's understanding which Lenin apparently clung to. Despite Lenin's stated position that opportunism had a material class basis, he appeared still to believe that the International's and especially Kautsky's betrayal was some kind of personal failing and deviation from previously held sound theoretical positions rather than a
consequence of those positions.

Lenin made no re-evaluation of the right of self-determination. The European left, independently, although it must have been beginning to look like a conspiracy to Lenin, continued to publicise its beliefs. On the first of January 1916 the Internationale Group reformed themselves as the Spartacus League and adopted a preliminary program written by Luxemburg. It included the analysis that in the age of imperialism 'national wars can no longer exist' and ergo the right of self-determination was a dead issue. The publication of the Junius pamphlet soon followed. Lenin responded late, writing in July 1916 an article not published until October. His ignorance of the identity of Junius lent a patronising air to what was meant, for once, to be a comradely argument.

The Polish theses set out in Vorbote 2 are carefully set in the concrete conditions of the time. Imperialism 'represents the tendency of finance capital to outgrow the limits of nation states'. It leads to the seizure of 'transoceanic' sources of raw materials and food supplies together with spheres for investment and markets. In Europe the tendency is to 'combine' adjacent territories which are economically complementary regardless of the nationality of the inhabitants. Military reasons also contribute to this as the need for defence and offence increase.

The consequent national oppression is against the interest of the working class (all judgements in the theses are based on the needs of the class and proletarian revolution). The imperialist bureaucracy uses all the means it has learned against the oppressed peoples against its own proletariat. In the oppressed nations, not only does the working class have its struggle checked by having its freedom to organise removed but it develops feelings of solidarity with its national bourgeoisie. It is in danger of becoming 'a helpless object of exploitation' and 'a dangerous rival', as a wage-cutter and strikebreaker, of the proletariat of the oppressing nation. Seizure of territory leads to further war as the loser will always try to restore the status quo. The grievance covers the loser's own imperialist policy.

Social-democracy must therefore energetically fight annexations and national oppression. It denies the claim that colonies are necessary for further development of capitalism. The oppressing nations of Europe and the United States are already ripe for transformation to socialism. The transformation would not adversely affect the development of countries currently colonised as all aid and assistance would be forthcoming from a socialist regime. Annexation divides the working class which should be united against the working class to fulfil its historic task of overcoming capital.

The starting point for policy is the renunciation of any 'defence of the fatherland' which is only a defence of the Tight of one's own bourgeoisie to oppress and plunder foreign peoples. This involves denouncing national oppression and demanding all democratic rights for the oppressed. While this would give the freedom to agitate for separation 'Social Democracy does not advocate either an erection of new boundary posts in Europe or the re-erection of those which have been torn down by imperialism'. Social democracy has to educate the masses of both the oppressed and the oppressor nations for a united struggle to lead mankind 'beyond imperialism toward socialism'. That is the only way to abolish national oppression and economic exploitation.

The defeat of imperialism involves not a return to old forms but clearing the road for socialism, for which conditions are ripe. Socialism would take up the cry 'away with boundaries' and 'away with colonies'. In the colonised nations national bourgeoisie are developing so, to hasten socialism, Social democracy 'will support the proletarian struggles in the colonial countries against European and native capital'. This also involves workers of the oppressed nations showing solidarity with those of the oppressor nation.

National oppression is inherent in imperialism and the struggle should be against the cause not the effect. This is achieved by social revolutionary methods, the abolition of capitalist private property, the root cause. This is not a postponement of the lifting of national oppression, for the social revolution 'in which the proletariat will break all chains' is imminent.

The 'formula' of the right of national self-determination is an inheritance from the Second International. It had a dual content; firstly, the legitimate one of opposing national oppression and subjugation and secondly, the 'defence of the fatherland'. The formulation avoided analysing each situation concretely. The war has shown its counter-revolutionary nature. While its revolutionary aims are supportable the slogan cannot be accepted as correct. First of all self-determination is impracticable in capitalist society which is ruled by the bourgeoisie who determine 'national' policy. This is regardless of any democratic forms, for the bourgeoisie control all the institutions that condition the thinking of people such as the churches, schools and the press. The only reason that they use force in oppressed nations is because not sufficient time has passed for these institutions to have their full effect. If self-determination is to be decided by plebiscite (orthodox social-democratic policy), the bourgeoisie would determine the outcome. Even if that were not so, a decision would be made by a minority that would be binding on the majority, a possibility that might lead to war at worst.

If self-determination is an impracticable demand under capitalism, under socialism it is inapplicable. Socialism abolishes all national oppression by abolishing the class conditions that give rise to it. There is no reason to believe that a nation in socialist society would take on the nature of an economic-political unit. The latter would be the basis of the requirement for all citizens to participate in any decisions on sub-division. To apply the 'right of self-determination' to socialist society is to completely misunderstand the character of a socialist community.

The consequence of trying to apply the formula is that, being utopian, it will mislead the proletariat into believing that, a) it is possible and b) would solve their problems without abolishing capitalism itself. Like war, national oppression is inherent to capitalism. The tendency would be to encourage national reformist views as opposed to social revolutionary ones. The consequent nationalism contradicts the necessary internationalism of the proletariat. Ina period of transition, when the conditions are ripe but social revolutionary struggles have not yet begun it is tactically necessary to
propagandise for socialism and revolution.

The theses end with the resolution of the Polish social democrats on Poland itself. Before that they draw attention to Marx. His precise political positions are not of the 'slightest value' now. They were concrete analyses of his own time. 'Marx's position shows exactly that it is not the task of Marxism to formulate an attitude toward concrete questions in terms of abstract rights'.

Lenin had the advantage of writing his theses after and in full knowledge of the Polish offering. He had also been working on the materials that were to go into his 'Imperialism - the Highest Stage of Capitalism'. Lenin's definition of imperialism is significantly different from that in the Polish theses. Rather than finance capital he concentrates on fractions of capital and monopoly replacing competition. He agrees that the proletarian revolution is on the agenda in western Europe and the United States, the reasons being that the conditions of the masses have been worsened economically by the 'trusts' and an increased cost of living and politically by militarism, war and general reaction with the 'intensification and expansion of national oppression and colonial plunder'.

Socialism would 'necessarily' establish full democracy which means also the full equality of nations and the right to self-determination. It is a mistake to see a struggle for democracy as a diversion from socialist revolution and as an aspect of democracy it would equally be a mistake to remove national self-determination from the 'democratic programme' on the grounds of it being 'impracticable' or 'illusory' under imperialism.

Theoretically self-determination is not 'impracticable' in the sense that, for instance, labour money is impracticable. Lenin uses the example of Norway's secession from Sweden in 1905.

He draws a sharp distinction between the 'political' and the 'economic'. Admitting that 'finance capital' can bribe or buy any democratic government and in itself cannot be abolished politically he nonetheless holds that 'political democracy' is a 'freer, wider and clearer form of class oppression and class struggle'. Not only self-determination but 'all the fundamental demands of political democracy' are only partially practicable under the current system.

The demand for the liberation of the colonies must be put in a revolutionary, not a reformist way, ie not within the limits of bourgeois legality but by all means of mass struggle for there is no prescribed or preordained immediate cause for the start of socialist revolution, it might not only be through 'some big strike, street demonstration or hunger riot or a military insurrection or colonial revolt,' but may also be a result of 'a political crisis such as the Dreyfus case ... or in connection with a referendum on the secession of an oppressed nation, etc.'. Social democracy should use the conflicts that arise from increasing national oppression under imperialism as grounds for mass action and revolutionary attacks on the bourgeoisie.

As in the past Lenin attempts to make a clear distinction between independence in the political sense, which is the right to 'agitate for' secession and a referendum and the 'demand for separation, fragmentation and the formation of small states'. It is unlikely, he thinks, that the latter would happen as big states offer 'indisputable advantages' and as the freedom to agitate is attained separation becomes less tempting (for the bourgeoisie?).

Just as there would be a transition period of the dictatorship of the oppressed class, there would also be a transition period of complete emancipation of all the oppressed nations expressed in their freedom to secede.

It is true that the petty-bourgeoisie put forward all points of the democratic minimum programme in a 'utopian' manner, utopian because they ignore class struggle. Nevertheless the programme of the social democrats 'must postulate the division of nations into oppressor and oppressed as basic, significant and inevitable under imperialism'. Thus the proletariat must struggle for the 'freedom of political separation for the colonies and nations oppressed by "their own" nation'. On the other side, socialists of the oppressed nations must 'defend and implement' unity, including organisational unity, between the workers of the oppressed and oppressing nations.

Lenin notes that 'the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations persistently utilise the slogans of national liberation to deceive the workers' and also that rival great powers may use self-determination struggles for their own ends.

In a footnote he says it is ridiculous to reject the right of self-determination on the grounds of rejection of 'defence of the fatherland'. It must be a matter of concrete analysis not a 'general principle'. There is also a confused note about the difference between national and imperialist wars.

'Marx' says Lenin, 'regarded every democratic demand without exception not as an absolute, but as a historic expression of the struggle of the masses of the people, led by the bourgeoisie, against feudalism' and they had all been used to deceive the workers. The right of self-determination is no different. On the other hand Marx's support for economic and political concentration as progressive did not still hold in the imperialist era.

Lenin divided the world into three types of countries. Firstly the advanced capitalist countries of western Europe and the United States where progressive bourgeois national movements came to an end long ago. They all oppress other nations both in the colonies and within their own borders. To forget the latter is a form of independent 'small nation narrow-mindedness' he accuses in a footnote attack on Gorter for 'incorrectly' rejecting 'self-determination' while 'correctly' applying it in a demand for the immediate 'political and national independence' of the Dutch East Indies. Secondly, eastern Europe, Austria, the Balkans and especially Russia. Here the twentieth century has seen the rise of bourgeois-democratic movements and the intensification of national struggles. The task of the proletariat in these countries is to complete the bourgeois-democratic reforms and render assistance to socialist revolutions in other countries. Thirdly, semi-colonial (eg China, Persia and Turkey) and colonial countries. Bourgeois-democratic movements have hardly begun here. Socialists should demand the liberation of the colonies and 'render determined support to the more revolutionary elements in the bourgeois democratic movements for national liberation ... and assist their uprising - or revolutionary war, in the event of one - against the imperial powers that oppress them.

'The socialist revolution may begin in the very near future. In this case the proletariat will be faced with the immediate task of winning power, expropriating the banks and effecting other dictatorial measures'. The bourgeoisie and intellectuals of the Fabian and Kautskyite tendency will attempt to limit revolution by foisting limited, democratic aims on it. If the revolution does not come for some time (Lenin talks of five, ten or more years), then there will be time for social democratic education of the masses especially for the right of self-determination. Those who do not support it act 'as chauvinists and lackeys of bloodstained and filthy imperialist monarchies and the imperialist bourgeoisie.'

Given Lenin's determination to break with the 2nd International and his moves towards the European left, we have to ask why he clung to the orthodox position on self-determination to the extent of destroying the coordination for which he had worked so hard. His thesis gives some clues. The stage theory is most obvious, allied with the separation of the political from the economic. Thus he requires the proletariat to pass through a bourgeois-democratic stage defined by political democracy. This is a strange and idealist construct. Whether the working class becomes strong enough to exert its needs through dictatorship is after all not a question of political forms of the rule of the ruling class. It is a question of political economy, of the growth and formation of the class itself within and against capital.

Lenin's position would be easy fora political emigre Russian of the time to adopt, initially impressed, no doubt, with the German SPD parliamentary activity, and coming to accept it as normal while in Russia a mad, unwashed, peasant, prophet-monk determined national policy by hypnotising the tsarina (imagine the effect on Lenin's blood pressure of reading that kind of news). Political democracy must have looked tempting. On the other hand it had not prevented, indeed it had led to, the betrayal of August 4. Nevertheless Lenin sticks to the necessity of the proletariats' long march through the ideal stages. His internationalism must be viewed in this light. The Polish theses, speaking for the European left, support decolonisation no less than Lenin but offer their support to the colonised proletariat against capital, native or European, and desire to split it from the national bourgeoisie. Lenin on the other hand, adamant that there must be a bourgeois-democratic stage, neglects any possibility of an autonomous working class with its own, autonomous struggle. But this is not enough to explain his obsession with national self-determination. For that we have to look to Russia.

Russo-centrism was Lenin's besetting sin. When Gorter returned from Moscow after pleading the case of the European left at the third International in 1920 he is reported to have said that when he went he expected to find in Lenin a man who thought himself the commissar of the world revolution; instead he had found a Russian. Lenin had been in western Europe since 1900. For most of that time he had acted as a correspondent for Bolshevik newspapers distributed in Russia. An examination of the Collected Works covering that period shows Lenin's contributions to have been almost entirely polemics against political positions held by others (mainly the Mensheviks) or commentary on events in Russia. Reading Lenin you would have no idea that by 1914 many people in western Europe were expecting a revolution. Not because of the power of the parties of the 2nd International but because, increasingly, neither those parties nor the trades unions could hold the working class in check. Bourgeois society, not without considerable internal dispute, had begun to come to terms with the demands of social democracy and to recuperate its position within those demands. But the prevention of communism was missing its target. From about 1902 strikes had been getting larger and more frequent in every country in Europe. This explains the relatively muted reaction to Russia's 1905; it was seen as merely an extreme version of a general trend. Lenin, unlike the European left, took no part in this and wrote very little. Long after the European left he notices the integration of the SPD into the state and appears to assume that the working class had been similarly integrated. Instead the working class had been breaking free of officialdom. Strikes in Germany went from 1468 involving 321,000 workers in 1900, to 3228 involving 681,000 in 1910, to 2834 involving 1,031,000 in 1912. Many of these strikes were against the express wishes of both unions and the party. Similar stories can be told for all the countries of western Europe. It was even happening in Britain. George Askwith, the Board of Trade's senior arbitrator was confidently expecting an all-out general strike at best and a revolution at worst (from his point of view) by mid-1914 after four years of less and less controllable industrial unrest. None of this did Lenin relay to Russia.

Lenin knew that war led to revolution in the current epoch; the French communes in 1871, Russia in 1905. Oppression and privation would see to that. So his revolutionary response converged with that of the European left. But Russia was the 'prison house of the nations'. Where the European empires, Germany and Austro-Hungary, were relatively homogeneously developed with class unity possible across 'national' boundaries, Russia was in comparison seriously underdeveloped and, worse, extremely unevenly developed. If post-revolutionary Russia was to be held together its disparities had to be recognised. Lenin's answer was national self-determination. With a political viewpoint he then elided the Russian with the European empires and the liberation of the colonies - the right of self-determination for all. But also unintentionally holding back everything to the pace of development of events in Russia. The Polish theses see further division, or even support for it, as a backward step. The empires were capitalist phenomena and their internationalisation was a progressive aspect of capital. The spread of industry, the economic development of the continent was no longer confined within national boundaries. Re-imposition of those boundaries would be a serious threat to working-class control and management of production. The class had no nation. Lenin on the other hand seemed to wish to teach the class that it had.

Lenin cannot be held fully responsible for the use to which his words have since been put, but his relatively sophisticated differentiation between the right of self-determination and the actual event (or is it mere sophistry?), and his demand that socialists should support elements of 'revolutionary' bourgeois nationalist movements have been cheapened and coarsened. The left has all too frequently assumed that it is leftist to support national struggles per se, no matter what brutality they might mete out to the working class, no matter what check they are on the formation of that class, and no matter what ludicrously economically inadequate piece of territory they claim. There is no real historical excuse; even before the First World War, Anton Pannekoek pointed out that bourgeois nationalists in the colonies were injecting their own interests into socialist ideology due to the bankruptcy of bourgeois ideology. This process has continued until now it is accepted wisdom that support for national bourgeois regimes is inherent in socialism. And so it may be to socialism, the outdated ideology of the Second International. But it has little or nothing to do with proletarian revolution.

B.Shepherd From Radical Chains no.3


Horace B Davies Nationalism and Socialism, Marxist and Labor Theories of Nationalism to 1917, Monthly Review Press 1967.
O.H.Gankin and H.H.Fisher, The Bolsheviks and The World War, The Origins of the Third International, Stanford 1940.
R.Craig Nation,War on War Lenin, the Zimmerwald Left, and the Origin of Communist Internationalism, Duke University Press 1989.
Lenin's Struggle for a Revolutionary International, Pathfinder Press.