Tuesday, August 19, 2014

R. Craig Nation - War on War: Lenin, the Zimmerwald Left and the Origins of Communist Internationalism

Most of this book deals with the machinations of a tiny number of socialists during World War One. The anti-war socialists who gathered in the Swiss village of Zimmerwald on September 5th 1915 represented few others. Many years afterwards in his autobiography Leon Trotsky joked that "half a century after the formation of the First International it was still possible to fit all the internationalists in Europe into four coaches."

Before the outbreak of World War One, the international socialist movement, united in the Second International, had promised strikes, mass opposition and rebellion against the war. Instead they almost completely capitulated and supported their nation states. Overnight, the Second International turned into a toothless beast. Most of its constituent groups supported their own ruling class' role in the slaughter of the trenches. Those individual members who didn't were in no way united in how their opposition to the conflict should manifest itself. There were those that supported a defensive war, those who wanted to issue the simple demand for "peace" and those, like Lenin, who argued that the war needed to be turned into "a civil war" that could overthrow capitalism.

Nation's book is tremendously important, because he shows how Lenin's political clarity and firmness of action was able to create a very small, but important, Zimmerwald Left. Lenin hoped that this would become the basis for a new, revolutionary, Third International. The author explains,

"Lenin's response to the crisis stood out for its forcefulness and consistency. The Bolsheviks were not a sect, and with a unified organization, emigre cadres dispersed throughout the European continent, and a foreign bureau in neutral Switzerland at the nerve center of what would become the socialist antiwar movement, they were well placed to serve as a goad to radical elements elsewhere."

Lenin and his closest allies believed that the war would lead to revolution. His orientation on the Zimmerwald movement through 1915 and until the Russian Revolution was because he saw the importance of a clear revolutionary vision.

"The war's origins were perceived to lie in the contradictions of advanced capitalism. What was unfolding was not a contest for culture or democracy, but a predatory war of imperialism. The International's surrender to nationalism was considered to be a direct consequence of revisionism; at issue was not merely a tactical choice, but the long-term orientation of the socialist labor movement. Internationalism was essential to the meaning of socialism and its premises demanded that the war be opposed by rejecting the Burgfrieden [a truce between the left and the ruling class for the duration of the war] and supporting popular protest actions. Most important, the struggle against the war must be linked to the restoration of an authentically revolutionary Marxism".

Lenin's opponents in the Zimmerwald movement saw it differently. They hoped for a negotiated piece and saw the conference as an opportunity to rebuild what had been lost, to return to the pre-war comfort of the Second International. A secondary aim from the moderates "was to neutralize the extreme left". This obviously contrasted with the aim of Lenin and his supporters who were "outspoken in demanding a clean break with the compromised past."

The major difference was the attitude to the demand for peace. This, for the majority of those involved in Zimmerwald, had to be the key demand. The central organising figure, the Swiss socialist Robert Grimm wrote to a leading Russian Menshevik in May 1915, "Nothing can be achieved through the official parties [but a] conference of opposition elements naturally does not mean a split. In my opinion it should concern itself only with the establishment of a tactical line for the struggle against the war."

Grimm and the majority socialists betrayed their hesitancy by rejecting calls for "mass actions". In this they were following the right-wing of the movement who were fearful of undermining their nation states' ability to fight the war. Instead, abstract demands for peace, where the key demand. Grimm called for the participation of "all parties or factions" that "support the renewal or continuation of the class struggle, oppose the Burgfrieden, and are ready to take up the struggle for peace." Responding to this, Zinoviev, a close ally of Lenin insisted that "theoretical clarity is more important than the question of peace".

This sounds strange, after all, peace surely was the aim of the anti-war left in the midst of the carnage of World War One? But Lenin, Zinoviev and their allies were looking forwards. Their analysis was that the war would lead to revolution, and the demand for peace was a abstract slogan that could mean anything to anyone. What they wanted was an end to war, and this meant the end of capitalism. This meant turning the imperial war into a revolutionary war of the oppressed classes against the ruling class. On this point turned all the debates at Zimmerwald. The left lost all the votes, but Lenin created in the process a Zimmerwald Left that was able to become the nucleus of a larger force in the struggles to come.

Nation explains the Zimmerwald process and the follow up conference at Kiental meant that,

"The revolutionary left, though still an isolated minority was infused with new confidence. In a number of cases pressures led to outright schisms and the creation of independent Zimmerwaldist or left radical parties. In France the minoritaires were on the verge of winning control of the part from Within. The Zimmerwald Left seldom entered directly into the disintegration of traditional organizations, but its arguments were influential. In every significant national movement a left radical faction aligned with Lenin's position had come into being well prior to the fall of the czar."

These small groups were to become the essential basis for the Third International when it was launched in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, as well as, in some cases, the revolutionary struggles that gripped Europe in the same period. Again Nation explains,

"International communism did not spring from the 'accident' of revolution, nor was it ever a simple extension of the Bolsheviks' fight to seize and maintain state power. Its roots lay in the left opposition's reaction to the socialist collapse of 1914 and the international movement of protest against the war that followed."

"As the self-declared precursor of the third International, the Zimmerwald Left accomplished several meaningful; steps forward... it established a political identify and made itself a part of the landscape on the international left... By 1917 Lenin could claim to speak for a small but dynamic tendency with the capacity to grow."

That said, the groups were small and in some of the key battles were to prove hopelessly inadequate. This book is an excellent explanation of the importance the Zimmerwald process and Lenin's theoretical and organisational contribution to this. Indeed the author celebrates the clarity of thought of Lenin in understanding both the needs of the revolutionary movement and the potential for revolution. When revolution broke out in 1917 in Russia, Zimmerwald did not become irrelevant. The book shows how the organisation played an important role in spreading the message of revolution, as well as giving the Bolsheviks' an opportunity (both before and after October) of getting their message out to the rest of the world. 

This is an important study and for readers trying to understand the dynamics of the opposition to World War One I would suggest it is an essential read. But it is not without fault.

Firstly I think the author underestimates the scale of revolution at the end of World War One. He writes that in April 1917 it was still possible for Lenin "to consider the arrival of the European revolution as imminent" but that by the time of Brest-Litovsk this expectation had to be abandoned. This might be fair, but it misses the point that within months revolution had broken out in Germany and mass movements, Soviets and workers' councils were erected in many different countries. Yet Nation dismisses the German Revolution in barely a couple of pages, suggesting it ended in January 1919 without noting that it wasn't completely defeated until 1923, and, as a number of authors have shown, the revolutionary movement on occasion came close to victory.

Secondly I think Nation has a simplistic understanding of the politics of the revolutionaries. It is simply not true to suggest that "International communism was built upon the conviction, enunciated by Gerrard Winstanley centuries before and by Leonhard Frank in his passionate antiwar novel Man is Good during 1918, that war was only the ultimate expression of man's inhumanity to man." The politics of the Third International rested on the work of Marx and Engels, in particular the idea that "the emancipation of the working class had to be the act of the working class".

In his short summary of the work of the Third International, Nation again betrays his ignorance. For instance he doesn't see how the Comintern attempted to develop new ways of relating to the ebb and flow of revolutionary struggle, in particular, the theory of the United Front. For Nation the Third International was simply an international group modeled on Lenin's Bolsheviks that could centrally steer the constituent parties. Here, and elsewhere, Nation fails to clearly explain the break that took place between the revolutionary movement of the Bolsheviks and later Communist Parties from the Stalin era onward.

From Wikipedia: Coloured lithography of the Hotel
"Beau Séjour" in Zimmerwald, where the delegates lived.
Finally the author attempts in a postscript chapter to link the revolutionary movements of the early 21st century to the state of the Communist Parties of the world in 1989 when the book was first published. Hindsight is of course always very clear, and I doubt this book would have been written in the same way after the Berlin Wall had come down.

But Nation fails to grasp the rupture that took place between the revolutionary internationalism of Lenin and the first few years of the Third International with the politics of Stalin and Socialism in One Country. In places the author comes close to suggesting that this began with Lenin. While Lenin and the Bolsheviks certainly had "no choice" but to work to ensure the survival of the Russian Revolution in the face of the failure of the German Revolution, this was far from a decision to "to coexist with the capitalist world system".

Finally Nation dismisses Lenin's ideas of revolutionary organisation in the modern world and instead suggests that what is really important today is Lenin's "priority accorded to the 'utopian' ideals of visionary internationalism and of socialism itself as ethical norms, sources of motivation and standards for political conduct." Given what Lenin's Bolsheviks achieved this seems a rather limited ambition.

These conclusions are a shame, because Nation's book is mostly an excellent introduction to the Lenin's method, based on his Marxist politics. The summary of Lenin's actions, the historical importance of Zimmerwald and the Zimmerwald Left and the writings of Lenin during this period are ones that revolutionaries today can learn much from and Nation does an excellent job of explaining them. I would suggest that readers don't bother with the final postscript, but enjoy the in depth study of a period that the author, rightly, considers to be central to the shaping of the 20th century world and modern revolutionary movement.

Related Reviews

Sherry - Empire and Revolution: A socialist history of World War One
Zurbrugg - Not Our War: Writings Against the First World War
Lenin - The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade
Cliff - All Power to the Soviets

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