John Riddell on Zimmerwald, 1915: New socialist resistance against war

Site of Zimmerwald Conference

Site of Zimmerwald conference

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By John Riddell

August 21, 2015 --, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- The Zimmerwald conference, a small gathering held in Switzerland 100 years ago, on September 5-8, 1915, marked a turning point in the world socialist movement. Socialists from many countries issued an appeal that united anti-war socialists during World War I and helped prepare the revolutions with which it concluded. To mark the Zimmerwald centenary I am presenting links to three major documents of the conference in new translations, together with my short introduction.

Documents of the Zimmerwald conference

  1. Introduction to the 1915 Zimmerwald conference (by John Riddell) – below
  2. Letter to the conference by Karl Liebknecht
  3. Resolution of the Zimmerwald Left (drafted by Karl Radek)
  4. The Zimmerwald Manifesto (drafted by Leon Trotsky)

100 years ago: 42 delegates from 11 countries met in the first international conference of socialist currents opposed to World War I, held 5-8 September 1915 in Zimmerwald, Switzerland. The resulting “Zimmerwald Manifesto” helped inspire a mass movement of anti-war and socialist activists across the warring countries of Europe.

Posted above are links to new translations of the Zimmerwald Manifesto and of two other conference documents: a letter from renowned German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht and a text proposed by a radical caucus at the conference, the “Zimmerwald Left”.

The Socialist International had collapsed at the outset of war in August 1914, and contact between member parties was broken off. The following year, socialists in Switzerland and Italy called for a conference that could restore inter-party relations and reaffirm the principle of internationalist opposition to the war. Socialist women and youth opened the road by holding their own international gatherings in March and April 1915.

Socialist party officials in most warring countries were hostile to this proposal, but a small conference of anti-war socialist parties and groups was nonetheless scheduled for September 1915 in Switzerland. Delegates set out from Bern, Switzerland, on a 10-kilometre trip to the conference site, a guest house in the village of Zimmerwald. They joked about the fact that 50 years after the foundation of the First International, it was still possible to seat all the internationalists in four horse-drawn coaches. “But they were not sceptical”, conference delegate Leon Trotsky later wrote. “The thread of history often breaks – then a new knot must be tied. And that is what we were doing in Zimmerwald.”[1]

Divergent goals

While agreed in their opposition to the war, delegates were divided in their goals. The main conference organiser, Swiss socialist Robert Grimm, sought above all to revive the structures of the shattered Socialist International. By contrast, left-wing delegates, led by the Bolshevik current in Russia, set their sights on organising a new, revolutionary international, free of the “opportunism” that had led to the socialist collapse in August 1914.[2]

Significantly, Grimm and some other delegates of the conference’s right wing did not wish to condemn parliamentary support for “war credits” – that is, approving funds for government war spending. Yet most anti-war socialists held support for war credits to be a violation of fundamental principle, and this issue was to split the German Social Democracy only two years later. The difference was smoothed over in Zimmerwald by inclusion of modified wording on this point in the final manifesto.

Letter from Karl Liebknecht

On the first day of the conference, a letter from imprisoned German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht was read out to the conference and received with great enthusiasm. Liebknecht had won fame among workers across Europe in December 1914 as the first German parliamentary deputy to vote against war credits. (See "When Karl Liebknecht said ‘no’ to world war".)

Liebknecht’s statement highlighted central themes advanced by left-wing delegates at the conference, including the need to resume class-struggle initiatives for workers’ interests and to break from the alliance with capitalist rulers imposed by the right-wing Social Democratic leaders – a policy he summed up in the slogan “Civil war not civil peace”.

Liebknecht also called for an “irreconcilable judgment” against the pro-war socialists and for building a new International “on the ruins of the old”.

Zimmerwald Left

Also translated is the resolution drafted by Polish socialist Karl Radek on behalf of 11 left-wing delegates from Russia, Poland, Latvia, Germany and Switzerland convened by Bolshevik leader V.I. Lenin. This group, which became known as the Zimmerwald Left, said that workers’ anti-war struggle should aim at “the overthrow of the capitalist government” and an end to capitalist power. The draft resolution incorporated Liebknecht’s challenging formula regarding resumption of the class struggle.

Although a minority at the Zimmerwald Conference, the Zimmerwald Left soon became a rallying point for revolutionary socialism and can be viewed as a precursor of the Communist International founded in 1919.

Zimmerwald Manifesto

Despite significant disagreement, the conference unanimously approved a manifesto drafted by Leon Trotsky. The manifesto, revolutionary in spirit and thrust, was intended as a appeal to the masses rather than a statement of principles and tactics. The Zimmerwald Left criticised the text for failing to analyse opportunism and omitting any discussion of how to carry out the struggle against war.[3] Nonetheless, the Left supported the manifesto as a “call to struggle” and a basis for united action among antiwar socialists.

Military censors in the warring countries suppressed reports on the Zimmerwald conference and its manifesto. Still, news filtered out, and the manifesto was widely distributed as an underground leaflet. The ideals of Zimmerwald became a source of inspiration for a growing movement of militant action which prepared the revolutions of 1917 and 1918.

“The conference of Zimmerwald has saved the honor of Europe”, wrote Trotsky’s newspaper, Nashe Slovo, on October 19, 1915, “and the ideals of the conference will save Europe itself.”[4]


[1]. Leon Trotsky, My Life, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970, p. 249.

[2]. Substantial portions of the Zimmerwald conference proceedings can be found in John Riddell, Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, New York: Pathfinder, 1984, pp. 276-322. For a short account of the Zimmerwald conference, see R. Craig Nation, War on War, Chicago: Haymarket, 2009, pp. 85-95.

[3]. For the Zimmerwald Left`s statement on this point, see Riddell, Lenin’s Struggle, p. 315.

[4]. Quoted in Nation, War on War, p. 92.