From Marx to Lenin: Debates that forged the socialist approach to war

by Mick Armstrong • Published 30 October 2023

In an era of intensifying imperialist tensions between the US and China, an accelerating arms build-up by all the major powers and the growing threat of all-out war, in part foreshadowed by the current brutal war in Ukraine, it is worth looking back at the debates among socialists in the lead-up to and during the First World War. It was out of those at times furious debates, literally in the heat of battle, that the Marxist approach to imperialism and the struggle against war was forged. The economic and political realities today are, of course, not entirely the same. The imperialist pecking order has changed substantially, most notably in recent decades with the rise of China. The destructive capacities of the competing militaries have been qualitatively enhanced with the development of nuclear weapons which threaten the very existence of the planet. Nonetheless the vital insights developed by Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky, Bukharin and other revolutionaries of that earlier period of rising imperialist contention and eventual world war still provide sound foundations upon which socialists can build.

The 4th of August 1914 was a decisive turning point for the socialist movement. The collapse of the great majority of parties of the Second Socialist International into pro-war chauvinism and support for their own ruling classes laid the basis for a fundamental divide in the socialist movement between reformists and revolutionaries, leading to the eventual founding in March 1919 of the Third Communist International – the Comintern.

The capitulation of these supposed Marxist parties, above all the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the leading party of the Second International, was the product of a long-term degeneration and accommodation to the capitalist system by the leadership of the parties and their associated trade unions. It was not simply a question of a mistaken position on war policy or militarism but reflected a broader integration into the capitalist system, and an increasing identification with their own nation state. This dynamic was most pronounced among the trade union leaders and a cohort of MPs and party functionaries. Well before 4 August these leaders had abandoned the interests of their working-class followers and crossed over to the side of the bourgeoisie. The debates in the socialist parties about war, colonial policy, militarism and imperialism which occurred in these years were but one reflection of that broader capitulation – though a most decisive one.

Marx and Engels on war

The original Marxist approach to war developed by Marx and Engels occurred in a period prior to the rise of modern capitalist imperialism. Marx and Engels saw war as an abomination that was part of the very essence of capitalism and previous class societies. It was only with the overthrow of capitalism and the development of a socialist world order that war could be eliminated. The First International, formed in 1864, in which Marx and Engels played a leading role, denounced standing armies as an incitement to militarism and championed instead the concept of the popular militia with officers democratically elected. They believed that a popular militia would be less amenable to being used by governments to crush strikes and working-class revolts.

Marx and Engels supported the victory of the rising capitalist powers in their wars against semi-feudal reaction, drawing a parallel with the wars of revolutionary France against the old feudal powers, backed by England, which sought to crush the great revolution. In particular they supported wars against tsarist Russia which they saw as the backbone of reaction in Europe. At the time of the 1848 revolutionary wave that swept Europe they called on the forces of democracy to wage a revolutionary war against tsarism. They believed that the defeat of tsarism would speed up the coming proletarian revolution. Over subsequent years they continued to call on England and the other powers to wage war on tsarism.

Marx and Engels also supported wars of national reunification in Italy and Germany. They supported the North against the slave-holding South in the US Civil War and the armed national rebellions in Ireland and Poland. They believed these were progressive wars that would hasten the development of capitalism and put workers in a better position to fight for freedom.

In wars between capitalist powers Marx and Engels supported the principle of national defence. In the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian war that culminated in the 1871 Paris Commune, Marx and Engels took a concrete tactical approach based on their assessment of whose victory best served the interests of the revolutionary cause. At the outbreak of the fighting they supported a defensive war by Prussia, which they hoped would precipitate the downfall of the reactionary Bonapartist French regime. After the fall of Bonaparte they opposed the Prussian invasion of France and went on to support the defence of Paris by the popular forces of the National Guard.

Marx and Engels’ general attitude to war was appropriate until roughly the 1880s, when the rapid development of imperialist competition demanded a new approach. It is debatable exactly when the modern imperialist system was consolidated, but it definitely had been by the beginning of the twentieth century. In a world increasingly carved up by the imperialist powers, the principle of national defence had been made redundant for the likes of Britain, France, the US and Germany. Indeed talk of national defence was now a reactionary concept in any war between the imperialist powers. By the early 1890s Engels sensed an important change had occurred and warned of the threat of a reactionary Europe-wide war which could devastate the continent and derail the development of the working-class movement. However there was a considerable delay before socialists developed an approach to war appropriate for the modern imperialist epoch.

Even Lenin, later vital to the development of a Marxist theory of imperialism, long held to elements of the old approach. Seeing tsarist Russia as the main enemy, in 1904 Lenin supported the defeat of Russia by Japanese imperialism, which he argued was a progressive force. In January 1905 he expressed delight at the fall of the Russian garrison at Port Arthur, regarding “progressive”, “advanced” Asia as having dealt an irreparable blow to old, “reactionary”, “backward” Europe.[1] This approach of advocating the defeat of reactionary tsarism, even if by other imperialist forces, still coloured Lenin’s standpoint at the outbreak of World War I.

The road to capitulation

In the early 1900s a number of Marxist theorists, including Rudolph Hilferding and Rosa Luxemburg, began to develop analyses of the new capitalist imperialism and an opposition to imperialist war.[2] The resolution against war adopted at the 1907 Stuttgart conference of the Socialist International and reaffirmed in 1910 at Copenhagen and again in 1912 at Basel, implicitly (but only implicitly) broke with the old Marx and Engels approach. It proclaimed that the socialist parties should stridently oppose the outbreak of war:

Should war break out none the less, it is their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and 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 domination.[3]

A worthy declaration is one thing; more important, however, is what is done in practice. The Second International was not a centralised body but a federation of national parties that held Congresses roughly every three years. The individual national parties were not mandated to carry out the decisions of those Congresses. An International Socialist Bureau was established as an executive of the International in 1900 but its decisions were also only recommendations. The International developed no clear guidelines for collective action to fight militarism and no common program when war erupted. Thus for example at the special Basel Congress of the International in November 1912, called in response to the outbreak of the Balkan Wars, there was plenty of maximal rhetoric and strident attacks on capitalist imperialism, but no definite strategy was adopted for opposing the drive to war.

On the extreme left of the Socialist International, Domela Nieuwenhuis of the Netherlands as early as 1891 had called for socialists to launch an armed insurrection in response to war. This call was later championed by French socialist Gustave Hervé, but with the outbreak of World War I Hervé flipped from this bombastic ultraleftism to an extreme French chauvinism. Then at the 1907 Stuttgart conference the old French Blanquist and Communard Edouard Vaillant, with the support of British Independent Labour Party leader Keir Hardie, moved an amendment calling for a general strike if war broke out. However revolutionaries like Lenin and Luxemburg recognised that the anarchist-style approach of Hervé was unworkable. A general strike or insurrection can’t be summoned on command at the best of times, let alone in the face of nationalist euphoria provoked by a declaration of war. As for talk of a general strike by reformists like Hardie, that was dismissed as hot air. The right-wing socialists also naturally denounced calls for a general strike or other forms of militant action. They did not want to commit to any concrete measures against war.

Little in the way of practical activity to lay the basis for concerted opposition to war was developed by the Second International parties, despite a prolonged arms race in the early twentieth century. This was to a considerable part due to the approach of the leadership of the German SPD, easily the most influential party in the International. The young radical Karl Liebknecht did commence an anti-militarist campaign in Germany in 1904, publishing his crusading polemic Militarism and Anti-Militarism in 1907.[4] Liebknecht received support from SPD youth groups in radical centres such as Stuttgart but he was stomped on by the party leadership at the 1906 Mannheim Conference.[5]

There were a few other examples of anti-war agitation by the international left. In France the syndicalist-led trade union federation, the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), which was not affiliated to the Socialist International, to its credit did for some years concertedly campaign against militarism and conscription. But it too gradually began to make its peace with the capitalist system, and like the French Socialist Party capitulated at the outbreak of war. In 1905 the Swedish Social Democrats called on workers to launch a general strike if the government carried out its threat to invade Norway after it declared independence from Sweden. In Italy the Socialist Party expelled right-wing supporters of the Italian invasion of Libya in 1912. In Australia the small socialist movement campaigned against so-called “boy conscription” in the pre-war years, with some activists being jailed.[6] However these were exceptions that went against the grain of the International’s passivity.

From about 1907 the SPD increasingly accommodated to German nationalism and colonialism. The right-wing revisionists in the party opposed abolishing the colonies as a “utopia” and claimed that German imperialism was a progressive force bringing “European civilisation” to the colonies. Edward David, a leading revisionist, argued at the 1907 Stuttgart Congress of the International that “Europe needs colonies. It does not have enough of them”. The revisionists in turn were backed by the powerful trade union leaders. Opposition to colonialism was only narrowly carried by a vote of 127 to 108 at the Stuttgart Congress, with SPD delegates making up much of the pro-colonial minority.[7] The International never clearly declared that “defence of the fatherland” did not apply to imperialist war, and even sections on the SPD left in these pre-war years still clung to the concept of national defence. Much of the SPD left and the international far left in this period backed pacifist appeals for international disarmament and for an international court of arbitration to settle disputes between the Great Powers. These utopian reformist positions were voted up unanimously at the 1907 Stuttgart Congress of the International, though in 1911 Rosa Luxemburg polemicised against such pacifist illusions in her article Peace Utopias.[8]

One of the first serious tests came with the 1911 Morocco crisis, when the German navy cruiser Panther sailed into Agadir harbour in a direct challenge to France’s imperialist interests in North Africa. The centrist SPD leadership did not want to speak out, fearful of an electoral backlash. But in the major German cities where the SPD left was strong protests were organised and the central leadership were eventually forced to back the protests after Luxemburg exposed their prevarication. The Morocco crisis did not only expose the backsliding of the SPD. The Socialist International took no initiative. It was entirely passive in the face of the war threat – a clear sign of what was to come.[9]

Then in April 1913, in a secret meeting of the budget committee of the German Reichstag, the Social Democrats present did not protest when the army’s plans for an offensive in the west at the beginning of a war were revealed to them. In the same year, after a heated debate in its parliamentary caucus, the SPD for the first time voted to support new taxes to fund increased arms spending, using the excuse that the money was to be raised by an income tax rather than indirect taxes that disproportionately hit workers and the poor.

The problem, however, was not just the right wing of the socialist movement. In 1912 Karl Kautsky, the most prominent socialist theorist of the day and a leading representative of the SPD centre, abandoned his previous opposition to any war by the German state, whether offensive or defensive. Where he had once argued that socialists could not make a meaningful distinction between the two, Kautsky now backed party leader August Bebel’s support for any supposedly defensive war by Germany. Kautsky argued that no proletariat could remain indifferent to the fate of the nation in the event of invasion.[10]

Kautsky also began to develop his theory of ultra-imperialism, which he argued could supersede the imperialist phase of capitalist development. Kautsky claimed that the increasing economic integration of capitalist industry across national borders and the massive expansion of world trade and investment made a full-scale war unlikely. It would be more profitable, he argued, for the emerging giant capitalist monopolies to peacefully divide up the world between themselves rather than to support wars by rival nation states. A rehashed version of this economic determinist theory was put forward in recent decades by the autonomist Toni Negri, and in more recent times these ideas have been used to dismiss the danger of war between the US and China.[11]

Kautsky polemicised against the argument made by the SPD’s revolutionary left that “war is strictly linked to the essence of capitalism”.[12] He claimed that rearmament was not an economic necessity of capitalist development, but was rather the result of a specific economic policy due to the weight commanded by particular forces in the state. Kautsky claimed that only a few sectors of capital, above all finance capital and the arms manufacturers, supported war and that they could potentially be disciplined by the dominant sections of the industrial capitalist class that had no interest in conflict.[13] This, in his view, opened up the possibility of an alliance against war between socialists and progressive capitalists. It was therefore necessary “to support and strengthen the movements of the petty bourgeoisie and bourgeoisie against war and the world arms race”.[14] To aid these developments socialists should in turn focus on campaigning for arms control and the arbitration of international disputes. Even after the outbreak of World War I, the greatest slaughter in human history, had decisively refuted his argument that a peaceful capitalism was possible, Kautsky published an article arguing:

There is no economic necessity for continuing the arms race after the World War, even from the standpoint of the capitalist class itself, with the possible exception of certain armaments interests. On the contrary, the capitalist economy is seriously threatened precisely by these disputes. Every far-sighted capitalist today must call on his fellows: capitalists of all countries unite![15]

Well before the war the most militant section of the SPD left and of the Socialist International around figures like Rosa Luxemburg had developed a more rigorous critique of imperialism. However the lefts tended to concentrate their fire against the right-wing revisionists and did not clearly differentiate themselves from the Kautskyite centre. Compounding the problem was the fact that the reactionary nature of Kautsky’s standpoint on imperialism was not immediately obvious even to a committed anti-militarist like Karl Liebknecht, who associated himself with Kautsky’s position at the SPD’s 1912 Chemnitz Congress.[16] It was only in the aftermath of the SPD’s 1913 Jena Congress that Luxemburg, who was the clearest, called for “a systematic offensive against the swamp [the Kautskyites]”.[17] As well, the lefts were hampered by the fact that most of them viewed party unity as sacrosanct and feared splits. The lefts also opposed a centralised international that might have been able to discipline the reformists. So the major political differences in the socialist movement were fudged until the war broke out. It has to be said that in the pre-war years even Lenin, despite his harsh criticisms of the German revisionists, still saw them as a legitimate shade in the International. Lenin also still had illusions in Kautsky and did not seriously attempt to organise an international left on clear lines. So while Lenin had split from the Menshevik reformists in Russia, he did not generalise that approach to the whole of the International, even though the reformists in Germany, Austria and France were in a series of ways politically worse than the Mensheviks.

As the imperialist powers edged closer to war, the socialist parties, despite their strong working-class support bases in the major European states, were largely passive. They did not politically prepare their ranks to stridently combat the virus of nationalism. Reflecting how far they had accommodated to bourgeois society, many of the reformist leaders right up until the very outbreak of the war clung to illusions in the peaceful intentions of their own ruling classes. Bruce Glazier, a leader of the left reformist British Independent Labour Party, was still claiming in July 1914 that the “whole of the [British] cabinet wants peace”. Leading French socialist Jean Jaurès declared in a speech on 29 July 1914: “the French government wants peace and works to maintain peace. It is the best ally of the peace efforts of the splendid British government”. On 30 July 1914 the SPD’s Berlin daily paper Vorwärts proclaimed that the German Emperor Wilhelm II “has proved himself to be a sincere partisan of international peace”.[18] Meanwhile the Austrian socialist leader, Victor Adler, had thrown up his hands in despair and abandoned any pretence of mounting resistance to the war drive. Having passively accepted the build-up to war it was no great leap for the leaders of the major parties to go over to outright support for their own nation once the war had been officially declared.

Adding to the pressure to capitulate was the surge of middle-class pro-war hysteria, the threat of harsh repressive measures that would destroy the unions, the parties and all the working-class institutions built up in peaceful times. By 1914 the German SPD had a million members, an apparatus that employed 10,000 people and investments of 20 million marks in its various enterprises, all of which were threatened if the party was outlawed.[19] Thus the SPD could go from organising mass demonstrations against the threat of war in July 1914 to unanimously voting for war appropriations only a couple of weeks later, following the declaration of war on Russia. The German workers who had heroically defied police violence to protest in huge numbers against the war were left totally abandoned by their leaders. The SPD left, paralysed by their commitment to party unity and discipline, offered no alternative.

The SPD’s capitulation had a profoundly demoralising impact on socialist-inspired workers right across Europe. The party that had been held up as the beacon of hope for workers, the party that other smaller socialist parties had aspired to emulate, had now betrayed. In Russia militant workers, who in the face of savage police repression and brutal assaults by middle-class mobs had been striking and protesting against the war, were thoroughly disoriented when the news came through of the SPD’s vote for war credits.

The opportunists sought to cover up their warmongering with a left-wing gloss and came up with an array of theoretical justifications for their betrayals. In voting for war credits the SPD Reichstag faction declared that Germany was fighting a war of self-defence and pathetically hoped that the war would be ended “by a peace which makes friendship possible with neighbouring peoples”.[20] The opportunists in Austria and Germany also dredged up Marx and Engels’ hostility to tsarism. A German victory, it was claimed, would advance the interests of workers in both Russia and Germany by provoking a revolution to overthrow tsarism. In France and Britain leading socialists declared that they were fighting a defensive war against reactionary Prussian militarism. That wasn’t a total lie; the war was a defence of their ruling classes’ colonial conquests from the rising power of Germany.

Most of the leaders of the centre in the SPD and the other socialist parties backed the initial vote to support the war, but were somewhat shamefaced about it. As the war dragged on and working-class discontent increasingly surfaced, sections of the centre began verbally to drift to the left to cover their tracks. They began to talk of a “democratic peace”, of a negotiated settlement “without victors or vanquished” and to reject annexations. In June 1915 Kautsky, Haase and even Bernstein of the SPD came out for a negotiated peace. Later, after being driven out of the SPD by the vitriolic pro-war right, they found themselves on the right wing of the centrist Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD).

Debates on the revolutionary left

The scale of the betrayal by the leading parties of the Socialist International left the small bands of socialists that held firm to internationalist principles shocked and initially extremely isolated. Lenin at first refused to believe reports that the SPD had voted for war credits. The revolutionaries were confronted with the task of developing a thoroughgoing critique of imperialism and socialist opportunism, combined with a strategic and tactical approach to the struggle against the war. “The result”, in R Craig Nation’s words, “was one of the most intense and creative debates in the entire history of socialist thought, a debate about alternative visions of revolutionary transformation in the circumstances of the twentieth century”.[21] There was a flourishing of theoretical work, including important works on imperialism – Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism and Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy.[22] These debates are of ongoing relevance in light of the sharp accentuation of imperialist rivalry between the US and China.

The revolutionary left all agreed on three key points: first, that this was an imperialist war that had to be opposed by workers in all the combatant countries; second, that the leaders of the social democratic parties had betrayed the working class; and third, that a workers’ revolution was needed to end the war and the whole system of capitalism that bred wars. However there was a series of at times strident debates: over revolutionary defeatism, the peace slogan, the disarmament slogan, national liberation struggles and the need for a clear break with the reformists and centrists to form a new revolutionary socialist international.

Lenin rightly spent the early years of the war establishing a hard-left pole of attraction that made no concessions to opportunists, and combated any illusions about achieving peace without workers’ revolutions. He sought to draw a sharp line between revolutionaries and pacifists who believed the war could be ended on just terms through negotiations

Revolutionary defeatism is commonly held up as the core element of Lenin’s opposition to the imperialist war. However he used the term much less frequently than is commonly portrayed, and even before he arrived back in Russia in the wake of the February 1917 revolution he had dropped talk of defeatism. Prominent Bolsheviks disagreed with Lenin on the defeatism slogan, and not just waverers or more conservative figures such as Kamenev. The left of the party around Bukharin, Krylenko, Piatakov and Bosch also opposed it.[23] Zinoviev was one of the few leading Bolsheviks who backed Lenin. In terms of the activity of Bolshevik militants on the ground in Russia during the war years revolutionary defeatism seems to have played little or no role. According to one study:

A textual analysis of forty-seven leaflets and appeals published illegally by Bolshevik militants between January 1915 and 22 February 1917 is most illuminating. Not a single leaflet mentioned the essential Leninist slogan of the defeat of Russia being the lesser evil.[24]

Virtually nobody on the international revolutionary left, including Trotsky, Luxemburg and Radek, supported revolutionary defeatism.[25] As Rosa Luxemburg argued in The Junius Pamphlet:

For the European proletariat as a class, victory or defeat of either of the two war groups would be equally disastrous. For war as such, whatever its military outcome may be, is the greatest conceivable defeat of the cause of the European proletariat. The overthrow of war and the speedy forcing of peace, by the international revolutionary action of the proletariat, alone can bring to it the only possible victory.[26]

The Communist International in its early revolutionary years did not adopt revolutionary defeatism in relation to imperialist wars. Revolutionary defeatism was only revived in 1924 as a cynical manoeuvre by the troika of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin in their campaign against Trotsky and as part of their authoritarian drive to “Bolshevise” the Comintern and crush all revolutionary opposition.[27] The Sixth Comintern Congress in 1928 fully installed defeatism and it subsequently was turned into a dogma by the Stalinists.

Lenin changed his position a series of times on what revolutionary defeatism concretely meant and flip-flopped back and forth between substantially different meanings of the slogan. At the outbreak of the war he supported the military defeat of Russia by German imperialism, which he saw as the lesser evil compared to reactionary tsarism – essentially Marx’s old position. Bukharin pointed out that this was effectively the same position as the German SPD leadership which also backed a German military victory using a similar justification. Lenin retreated in the face of this criticism to a position that workers not only of Russia but of every belligerent country “must not falter at the possibility of that country’s defeat”.[28]

Lenin began to call on socialists to take a position of revolutionary defeatism in all the contesting powers, though he explicitly ruled out the use of sabotage of the war effort. He also briefly argued that “wartime revolutionary action against one’s own government means not only desiring its defeat, but really facilitating such a defeat”.[29] Later he changed his stance again, stating that all revolutionary defeatism meant was that socialists should not hold back the class struggle out of fear of jeopardising the imperialist war effort of their government. This, however, was no different from the position of Trotsky, Luxemburg, Radek and Co., whom he had sharply criticised earlier.

As Trotsky pointed out, socialists could oppose the war and support working-class mass action to confront capitalism without embracing the confusing slogan of revolutionary defeatism – ie supporting the victory of the opposing imperialist army over your own ruling class. Trotsky described Lenin’s formulation as “defencism turned inside out” and as “social patriotism standing on its head”.[30] In his 1914 pamphlet The War and the International Trotsky argued:

We must not for a moment entertain the idea of purchasing the doubtful liberation of Russia by the certain destruction of the liberty of Belgium and France, and – what is more important still – thereby inoculating the German and Austrian proletariat with the virus of imperialism.[31]

It was undoubtedly necessary for revolutionary Marxists to draw a sharp line between themselves and reformists and centrists who hid behind pacifist slogans to disguise their unwillingness to back mass working-class struggle to end the war. That objective, however, could be achieved without embracing the ultra-radical sounding but disorienting slogan of revolutionary defeatism.

The last time Lenin publicly raised the defeatism slogan was in November 1916. Back in Russia in April 1917 Lenin recognised that the Bolsheviks were not going to win over the mass of workers and soldiers by proclaiming maximalist slogans. The working masses wanted peace, but they also feared that a German military victory would result in the defeat of the Russian revolution. Indeed by September 1917 sections of the Russian bourgeoisie hoped for a German invasion to crush the Bolsheviks.

Lenin also changed his position on the peace slogan. At the start of the war he stridently polemicised against the peace slogan and counterposed to it the slogan of “turn the imperialist war into civil war”. “Not ‘peace without annexations’”, he proclaimed, “but peace to the cottages, war on the palaces; peace to the proletariat and the toiling masses, war on the bourgeoisie”.[32] In a letter to Radek he denounced “the obtuse and traitorous slogan of peace”.[33] Lenin saw the call for peace raised by centrists like Kautsky as being in direct opposition to a workers’ revolution which was the only way to end the war. As he wrote in a letter to his fellow Bolshevik Shlyapnikov: “The watchword of peace, in my opinion, is incorrect at the present moment. It is a philistine, parson’s watchword. The proletarian watchword must be civil war”.[34]

Lenin rightly pointed out that in a capitalist world the only peace possible was an “imperialist peace” based on the balance of forces between the Great Powers. Lenin attacked Kautsky’s call for a “democratic peace” as a utopian demand which simply created illusions in the imperialist governments and deflected from the need for revolutionary struggle. The reformist leaders claimed they were for a “democratic peace” that involved the renunciation of all annexations and war reparations. But this simply meant supporting the pre-war imperialist status quo – the existing division of the spoils of empire.

On similar grounds Lenin opposed calls for universal disarmament and the international arbitration of disputes that had been unanimously adopted at the 1910 Congress of the Second International and which was still advocated by sections of the revolutionary left. The Norwegian and Swedish Socialist Youth League, which was an important component of the Zimmerwald left, continued to be influenced by this pacifist position. Universal disarmament, however, is impossible under imperialism, and even if capitalism was overthrown in one or two countries, the new workers’ states would need to be armed to defend themselves. As well, Lenin rightly argued that socialists should not demand the disarmament of colonial and nationally oppressed peoples. Unlike many on the revolutionary left, including Luxemburg, Radek and Bukharin, Lenin backed armed national rebellions in colonies such as Ireland and India and by the oppressed nations of the Russian empire. He understood that those national revolts could play an important role in challenging capitalist rule. As for international arbitration, in a class-based society there was no genuinely neutral body capable of justly settling disputes, and any decision would merely reflect the balance of imperialist forces.

Lenin was correct to argue that talk of a democratic peace, disarmament and the like was utopian under capitalism. War could only be ended under socialism. It was undoubtedly true that Kautsky and Co. were raising these slogans in opposition to a strategy of working-class struggle to end the war and the capitalist system that bred it. But that did not entirely settle the issue. As discontent rose over the collapse of living standards, food shortages, falling wages, incredibly harsh working conditions, conscription, the slaughter at the front and the crushing of democratic rights, workers and the mass of the oppressed increasingly demanded peace. Revolutionaries could not turn their backs on those demands. As Trotsky wrote in August 1916 in criticism of Lenin’s approach:

[E]xperience shows that the mobilization of proletarian opposition everywhere has taken place precisely under this slogan [the struggle for peace]. Only on this basis can revolutionary internationalists today successfully carry out their work. The formula of civil war expresses in an essentially correct way the inevitable exacerbation of all forms of class struggle in the coming period. But they [the Bolsheviks] counterpose it to the struggle for peace, which causes the formula to hang in mid-air and lose its meaning for the period we are going through.[35]

Workers were not demanding peace out of cynical pro-imperialist motivations but out of heartfelt concerns. They were not looking to prop up capitalism. The Bolsheviks in their agitation in the factories could not simply denounce calls for peace as utopian. That would have cut them off from the masses they needed to win over and driven them back into the arms of the opportunists. Once he was back in Russia Lenin clearly recognised this. The Bolsheviks could not simply proclaim: “Turn the imperialist war into a civil war” to the millions who were yearning for peace and an end to the war. It was way too maximal. Lenin now criticised the previous Bolshevik orientation with its insistence on hard formulations as too theoretical and abstract an approach:

The masses take a practical and not a theoretical approach to the question. We make the mistake of taking the theoretical approach…

We Bolsheviks are in the habit of taking the line of maximum revolutionism. But that is not enough. We must sort things out.[36]

More concrete demands and transitional slogans were necessary that constructively related to mass sentiment and sought to move it forward in a revolutionary direction. The Bolsheviks’ practical program became: no class peace; no participation in war-time governments; no war credits; carrying out illegal work; and encouraging fraternisation at the front between troops of the opposing armies. The key Bolshevik slogans for the October Revolution famously became: “Bread, Peace and Land”, combined with the means to achieve these goals: “All Power to the Soviets”.

This concrete program was a product of the tactical flexibility of Lenin and the Bolsheviks as they applied their principled revolutionary politics to the realities of the class struggle and the emerging consciousness of the working masses as they moved towards revolutionary conclusions. Maximalist ultimatums were of no use. Revolutionaries had to patiently win workers to a series of transitional steps that led to them ultimately taking power.

In the aftermath of the February revolution the Bolsheviks were confronted with another vital issue – what Lenin called the “honest defencist” sentiments of many soldiers and workers.[37] These soldiers believed it was necessary to fight on, not for the imperialist goal of seizing territory, but to protect the gains of the revolution. The Bolsheviks did not retreat at all from their determined opposition to the war, but they had to relate to these genuine concerns.

The Bolsheviks did not call for mutinies in the army or desertions from the front. The war would not be ended by soldiers simply “sticking their bayonets in the ground” or abandoning the front – that was pure demagogy, an anarchist or pacifist idea. The war could only be ended by revolutions in several countries. The first step would be for workers and soldiers to take power in Russia. In the short term that meant forming soldiers’ soviets, fraternisation with the enemy and opposing reckless offensives ordered by the Provisional Government that sacrificed thousands of lives in pursuit of an imperialist agenda of territorial conquests. In a similar vein, in May 1917 Lenin called on the peasants to seize the land, but added that they should do so “using every effort to increase the production of grain and meat since the troops at the front are in dire straits”.[38] The point here is that individual refusal to work or fight was no step forward: the socialist solution to these immense problems could only be found through collective action and the democratic transformation of society.

This approach was soon to be tested. In the months before the October revolution top tsarist officers conspired to open the front for the Germans to capture St Petersburg. And as John Reed recorded:

A large section of the propertied classes preferred the Germans to the Revolution…and did not hesitate to say so. In the Russian household where I lived, the subject of conversation at the dinner table was almost invariably the coming of the Germans, bringing “law and order”… One evening I spent at the house of a Moscow merchant; during tea we asked the eleven people at the table whether they preferred “Wilhelm or the Bolshevikii”. The vote was ten to one for Wilhelm.[39]

Bolshevik-influenced troops however, such as the Lettish regiments, fought hard to prevent German advances.

Zimmerwald and a new International

As an internationalist Lenin was not narrowly focused on developments in Russia during the war years. With the collapse of the Second International into support for the war Lenin immediately came out calling for a new revolutionary international. At the start of the war the forces of the revolutionary left were far too small to make that a practical proposition. Small openings for the revolutionary left emerged in March and April 1915 at the International Conference of Socialist Women and the International Socialist Youth Conference, which were both to the left of the mainstream of the Socialist International. At the women’s conference Inessa Armand pursued what was to become the broad tactical orientation of the Bolsheviks at a series of international left conferences: “challenging the dominant moderate consensus but striving to avoid an open breach”. Their goal was “to use the conferences as a platform to air an alternative viewpoint, to recruit supporters and to exert some influence on the final resolutions”.[40]

The women’s and youth conferences helped lay the basis for the first serious step forward for the anti-war left, the September 1915 Zimmerwald conference in Switzerland. The bulk of the small group of attendees at Zimmerwald did not advocate revolutionary struggle to end the war. They mostly held centrist-style positions, and did not see themselves as laying the basis for a new International. The key figure behind the Zimmerwald movement, Robert Grimm of the Swiss Socialist Party, stood for “class struggle not civil truce” but he was not a revolutionary and opposed splits in the socialist parties. The conservative wing of Zimmerwald was represented by figures such as the SPD parliamentarian Georg Ledebour who, although he was to the left of Kautsky, had up to this point voted for war credits. Ledebour and the left Menshevik Martov were for restoring the International around the common denominator of peace.

Even some more left-wing delegates, such as Trotsky, the Romanian, Christian Rakovsky, who went on later to become a leading Bolshevik, and Vasil Kolarov, subsequently a leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party, did not join the Zimmerwald left bloc that Lenin laboriously fought to cohere. In a few cases this was because they did not want at this stage to totally cut off their links with the Second International. Trotsky, for example, despite having a thoroughly revolutionary standpoint in opposition to the war, still held onto illusions in the possibility of unity of Russian socialists. Recognising this reality, Lenin in the lead-up to Zimmerwald had toned down his conditions for affiliation to the left bloc to: (1) unconditional condemnation of opportunism and social chauvinism; (2) a revolutionary action program (with the concession that whether one preferred the slogan “mass strike” or “civil war” was of secondary importance); (3) refutation of defence of the Fatherland.[41] Notably this program did not call for revolutionary defeatism or a break with the Second International and the foundation of a Third International. Nor did it call for support of struggles for national self-determination which significant figures in the left bloc, such as Radek, still opposed.

The Zimmerwald manifesto, which was drafted by Trotsky, was a compromise. It raised the democratic peace slogans and did not call for a revolutionary civil war. The Zimmerwald left voted for the manifesto as they saw its call to struggle as a step forward. Nonetheless they publicly criticised it for saying nothing critical about the socialist opportunists and for not offering a clear pronouncement about the methods for fighting against the war.[42]

Zimmerwald played an important role in reviving the spirit of the anti-war left and the first minimal steps had been taken in establishing a left bloc of revolutionary opponents of the war. By the time of the second conference of the Zimmerwald movement in April 1916 at Kienthal, also in Switzerland, the tide had shifted substantially to the left, with an upsurge of working-class protests and strikes over the appalling deterioration of living standards, incredibly long working hours, food shortages and the never-ending war. The resolution on peace adopted at Kienthal was more radical than the Zimmerwald one, with a call for the overthrow of the capitalist class, a more explicit call for a vote against war credits and a description of arms controls and compulsory arbitration of international disputes as mere utopias. The actual Kienthal manifesto, however, did not fully reflect this shift and the issue of breaking with the Socialist International was still fudged. The right wing had threatened to walk out of the conference if a vote to split from the International Socialist Bureau was carried.

The arguments of the left bloc organised by Lenin were gaining a broader hearing as events unfolded and the class struggle increasingly broke out. The Zimmerwald left, despite an ongoing lack of cohesion, was increasingly critical of the socialist centre and was pulling in new forces including Giacinto Serratti, the editor of the Italian socialist paper Avanti!, three Swiss delegates and a prominent Serbian socialist. The basis was being laid for the formation of the Communist International. The revolutionaries’ argument that the war could be ended by working-class revolts was to be decisively proved correct over the next two years by the October 1917 revolution in Russia, the November 1918 German revolution and a series of further revolts that swept across Europe and much of the world.


The fundamental principles of the Marxist approach to war and imperialism developed in response to World War I have substantially stood the test of time. Socialists must oppose both sides in all wars between imperialist powers, support the mobilisation of mass opposition to such wars and stand for ending war and the capitalist system that breeds it by working-class revolution. Lenin’s strategic orientation of “turn the imperialist war into a civil war” remains correct.

It is not enough, however, to make abstract calls for a revolutionary challenge to imperialism. Militant action against militarism and war is vital. Socialists also need to develop specific slogans and transitional demands that can help galvanise opposition to any specific war and assist workers to draw the conclusion that they need to overthrow capitalism. Socialists have to relate to all the partial struggles of workers and the oppressed around the issues of falling living standards, the deterioration of wages and working conditions, the undermining of democratic rights and racist scapegoating brought on by the war, as these can help to lay the basis for a powerful anti-war movement. Maximalist rhetoric should not be counterposed to calls for peace, opposition to preparations for war and the basic defence of living standards, especially when those calls are not the cynical rhetoric of opportunist politicians but arise from the mass of workers and the oppressed. The specific slogans socialists raise will necessarily depend on the concrete political circumstances of the day. They will be significantly different in a period leading up to war, like the present, and the period after the actual outbreak of shooting.

One important modification of the Marxist approach to war has been necessitated by the development of nuclear weaponry. Nuclear weapons are qualitatively different from conventional weaponry in their destructive capacity. Unlike rifles or machine guns, they are not weapons that the working class or a workers’ state can simply turn against the bourgeoisie. Indeed, an all-out nuclear war would threaten the very destruction of our planet and the entire human race. For these reasons socialists should definitely campaign for nuclear disarmament. In countries which already have nuclear weapons the demand of socialists must be the unilateral nuclear disarmament of their own ruling class. In countries, like Australia, which don’t currently have nuclear weapons, socialists should stridently oppose any move by their ruling class to acquire them.

As in 1914, there is in the world today no neutral or independent body that can be looked to for the just arbitration of disputes between the imperialist powers or prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The United Nations, to which many liberals and pacifists appeal to prevent wars, has been utterly ineffective. The UN is after all a gathering of our enemies – the ruling classes of the world. The UN Security Council is dominated by the major imperialist powers and, as has been shown repeatedly, if one of the major powers, such as the US, cannot get its way on the Security Council it will act unilaterally. Mass action remains the only option to challenge the drive to war, and the threat of war can ultimately only be ended by workers taking power out of the hands of the capitalist classes of the whole world.


Barrett, John 1979, Falling In. Australians and “Boy Conscription” 1911–1915, Hale & Iremonger.

Bukharin, Nikolai 1972 [1915/1917], Imperialism and World Economy, Merlin.

Callinicos, Alex 2001, “Toni Negri in perspective”, International Socialism, 2:92, Autumn.

Carsten, FL 1982, War against War. British and German Radical Movements in the First World War, University of California Press.

Draper, Hal 1953/54, “The Myth of Lenin’s ‘Revolutionary Defeatism’”.

Gankin, Olga Hess and HH Fisher 1940, The Bolsheviks and the World War. The Origin of the Third International, Stanford University Press.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri 2000, Empire, Harvard University Press.

Hilferding, Rudolf 1981 [1910], Finance Capital. A Study of the Latest Phase of Capitalist Development, Rutledge and Kegan Paul.

Jauncey, LC 1968, The Story of Conscription in Australia, Macmillan.

Joubert, Jean-Paul 1988, “Revolutionary Defeatism”, Revolutionary History, 1 (3), Autumn.

Lenin, VI 1905, “The Fall of Port Arthur”.

Lenin, VI 1914, “Letter to AG Shlyapnikov”.

Lenin, VI 1915a, “The Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War”.

Lenin, VI 1915b, “The ‘Peace Slogan’ Appraised”, Collected Works, Vol.21.

Lenin, VI 1916, “Peace Without Annexations and the Independence of Poland as Slogans of the Day in Russia”.

Lenin, VI 1917a, “Report at a meeting of Bolshevik delegates to the All-Russian Conference of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies”, 4 (17) April.

Lenin, VI 1917b, “Honest Defencism Reveals Itself”.

Lenin, VI 1917c, “An Open Letter to the Delegates to the All-Russian Congress of Peasants’ Deputies”.

Lenin, VI 1973 [1916], Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Foreign Languages Press.

Liebknecht, Karl 1973 [1907], Militarism and Anti-Militarism, Rivers Press.

Luxemburg, Rosa 2003 [1913], The Accumulation of Capital, Routledge.

McKean, Robert B 1990, St Petersburg Between the Revolutions, Yale University Press.

Nation, R Craig 2009, War on War. Lenin, the Zimmerwald Left, and the Origins of Communist Internationalism, Haymarket Books.

Pearce, Brian 1961, “Lenin and Trotsky on Pacifism and Defeatism”, Labour Review, 6 (1), Spring.

Reed, John 1961 [1919], Ten Days that Shook the World, Lawrence & Wishart.

Riddell John (ed.) 1984, Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, Monad.

Rosdolsky, Roman 1999, Lenin and the First World War, Prinkipo Press.

Salvadori, Massimo 1990, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880–1938, Verso.

Schorske, Carl E 1955, German Social Democracy, 1905–1917. The Development of the Great Schism, Harvard University Press.

Trotnow, Helmut 1984, Karl Liebknecht (1871–1919). A Political Biography, Archion Books.

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Waters, Mary-Alice 1970, “The Junius Pamphlet” [1915], in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, Pathfinder.

[1] Lenin 1905.

[2] Hilferding 1981 (first published in 1910), and Luxemburg 2003 (first published in 1913).

[3] Gankin and Fisher 1940, p.59.

[4] Liebknecht 1973.

[5] Schorske 1955, pp.69–70, 72–5 and Trotnow 1984, pp.55–71.

[6] For the campaign against “boy conscription” see Barrett 1979 and Jauncey 1968.

[7] Riddell 1984, pp.6, 15.

[8] Riddell 1984, pp.71–75.

[9] Schorske 1955, pp.197–205.

[10] Salvadori 1990, p.176.

[11] Hardt and Negri 2000. For a critique of Negri see Callinicos 2001.

[12] Salvadori 1990, p.171.

[13] Nation 2009, p.17. See Lenin 1973, pp.142–8 and Bukharin 1972 pp.130–43 for contemporary critiques of Kautsky’s ultra-imperialism.

[14] Salvadori 1990, p.171.

[15] Riddell 1984, p.180.

[16] Salvadori 1990, pp.177–8.

[17] Riddell 1984, p.97.

[18] Riddell 1984, pp.116–19.

[19] Carsten 1982, p.17.

[20] Rosdolsky 1999, p.35.

[21] Nation 2009, p.59.

[22] Lenin 1973, Bukharin 1972.

[23] See for example the declaration of the left Bolshevik Baugy group, Riddell 1984, pp.250–1.

[24] McKean 1990, p.361.

[25] For detailed critiques of the revolutionary defeatist slogan see Draper 1953/54, Pearce 1961 and Rosdolsky 1999.

[26] Waters 1970, p.323.

[27] Draper 1953/54 and Joubert 1988.

[28] Riddell 1984, p.252.

[29] Lenin 1915a.

[30] Quoted in Pearce 1961.

[31] Trotsky 1914.

[32] Lenin 1916.

[33] Nation 2009, p.78.

[34] Lenin 1914. See also Lenin 1915a.

[35] Quoted in Riddell 1984, p.405.

[36] Lenin 1917a.

[37] Lenin 1917b.

[38] Lenin 1917c.

[39] Reed 1961, p.7.

[40] Nation 2009, p.69.

[41] Nation 2009, p.83.

[42] Lenin 1915b.

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