September 1915

The Socialist Conference of Zimmerwald

By Alessandro Salvador

"This war shows ruin and devastation and destroys, at the same time, our freedom and the independence of the people. New chains, new weights will be the consequence and it is the proletariat of all of the countries, conquerors and conquered, that will bear them."

(Manifesto of Zimmerwald – 1915)


The European war had caused a deep fracture in international socialism. In France, Germany and the United Kingdom, socialists were aligned with the idea of a just war and supported the operations of their respective governments. In the name of national interest and unity, the so-called Sacred Union, the socialist parties had approved war credits in their respective countries.

In both the warring and neutral countries, however, there were dissident socialists who had not given up on the idea of a peaceful solution. First, there were the Italian socialists supported by the Swiss. In the spirit of peace, Robert Grimm, a Swiss socialist, with the aid of the Italian Oddino Morgari, convened a conference of socialist pacifists to be held in Zimmerwald, between 5 and 8 September of 1915.

Thirty-eight socialist delegates from eleven countries met to discuss and approve a common resolution against the war. It was not a simple job, since even among the pacifists there were different positions. Specifically, there was a divergence between the radical positions, supported by the German social democrat Karl Liebknecht and the Bolsheviks, and the more moderate ones of the other socialists. Liebknecht, who was unable to participate, had already expressed in the German Parliament the idea that the enemy would be found inside the national borders. He was referring to the imperialist bourgeois who wanted the war and the social democrats who supported it. Repeating this position, Lenin spoke afterward of the “enemy in our home”. At Zimmerwald, Lenin proposed a motion according to which the imperialist war should be transformed into a civil war, prelude to the proletariat revolution. This position was rejected with twenty votes against and only eight in favour. Although the Bolshevik idea did not triumph, Lenin managed to give it ample visibility in the context of European socialism and his ideas influenced many maximalist currents in different countries, including Italy.

The conference reached a moderate shared position, similar in some ways to the formula “neither join, nor sabotage” adopted by Italian socialists after Italy entered the war. The “Zimmerwald Manifesto” condemned the Sacred Union and exhorted socialist movements to join in pacifism. The event and the resolution had a limited impact and were rejected by the socialist majority still adhering to the principles of the second International [Conference]. The conference, however, was the point of departure for a wider movement, the Zimmerwald movement, that coordinated European socialist pacifists: the International Socialist Commission.

In the spirit of Zimmerwald, and with increasing intolerance for the war shown in Europe, there was a later conference in Switzerland, in Kiental, between 24 and 30 April 1916. On this occasion, the more radical approaches became more deeply rooted. The Leninist line prevailed, although with no lack of moderating trends. The Manifesto of Kiental condemned imperialism as a cause of the war and proposed immediate peace without annexes. The same document affirmed that no “bourgeois” peace could ward off the risk of a new war and the survival of capitalism put European security at risk. The second conference had greater impact than the first and gave the Bolsheviks great enthusiasm. There were divergences, especially in the way that the proletariat would contribute to the conclusion of the conflict. Later events, in particular the Bolshevik revolution, in which Lenin put the previously enunciated principles into practice, sharpened the divergences between the socialist pacifists and the third conference convened by the International Socialist Commission in Stockholm was nearly deserted. Although Zimmerwald did not have a determinant influence over the development of war, it served to reduce the rift in international socialism. Nevertheless, the medium-term effects ended in increased influence of Bolshevism on the European socialist scene and gave impetus to the Russian Revolution. Although marginalized, Zimmerwald contributed to the distortion of the European political picture in the war and the years to follow.




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