Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Divisions in the international socialist movement became more apparent during the Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences, two meetings of antiwar European socialists. In response, Vladimir Ilich Lenin organized a left-wing communist group that criticized the more moderate socialist majority.

Summary of Event

In August of 1914, patriotic fervor had swept aside last-minute attempts by the International Socialist Bureau International Socialist Bureau (ISB) of the Second International, Second International a loose association of the world’s socialist parties, to organize large-scale antiwar demonstrations throughout Europe. As a result of this lack of organization, most socialists in the warring countries had rallied behind their governments, and most parliamentary delegations—except those in Russia and Serbia—had voted almost unanimously for war-appropriations bills. Union leaders had proclaimed a “civil truce,” forswearing strikes and other actions in the workplace that might undermine the national war effort. About six months after the outbreak of World War I, antiwar socialists began to regroup in hope of finding a way of ending the conflict. Zimmerwald Conference Kienthal Conference Bolsheviks;Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences [kw]Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences (Sept. 5-8, 1915, and Apr. 24-30, 1916) [kw]Kienthal Conferences, Zimmerwald and (Sept. 5-8, 1915, and Apr. 24-30, 1916) [kw]Conferences, Zimmerwald and Kienthal (Sept. 5-8, 1915, and Apr. 24-30, 1916) Zimmerwald Conference Kienthal Conference Bolsheviks;Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences [g]Switzerland;Sept. 5-8, 1915, and Apr. 24-30, 1916: Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences[03830] [c]Government and politics;Sept. 5-8, 1915, and Apr. 24-30, 1916: Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences[03830] [c]Social issues and reform;Sept. 5-8, 1915, and Apr. 24-30, 1916: Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences[03830] Lenin, Vladimir Ilich [p]Lenin, Vladimir Ilich;Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences Radek, Karl Grimm, Robert Vandervelde, Émile

Socialists from Italy and Switzerland took the lead in trying to persuade the ISB to summon a conference that would help reunify the Second International. ISB leaders, however, believed that such a meeting could not possibly succeed. The leaders of the French and Belgian Socialist Parties bitterly rejected the idea of meeting with their counterparts from the German Social Democratic Party, which had backed Germany’s invasion of Belgium and France in August of 1914. In particular, the Belgian socialist Émile Vandervelde, chairman of the ISB, vowed to block an international conference unless the German Social Democratic Party repudiated its support for the German war effort.

Undeterred by Vandervelde’s threat, the Italians, the Swiss, and the Russian Marxists living in exile in Switzerland began preparing for a meeting of antiwar socialists to be held in Bern, Switzerland’s capital city. Robert Grimm, the editor of a socialist newspaper in Bern, was the conference’s principal organizer. Invitations went out to Socialist Party members from neutral European countries and to socialist groups in the warring countries who either had opposed the war from the outset or had recently taken an antiwar position. Fewer than forty delegates, however, showed up in Bern in early September, 1915. On the morning of September 5, Grimm transported the delegates to the tiny mountain village of Zimmerwald, about ten kilometers (a little more than six miles) from Bern, to begin the conference.

Discord among the antiwar socialists quickly became apparent. A “left bloc” of eight presented a militant resolution. The leading leftist figures were Vladimir Ilich Lenin, head of the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, and Karl Radek, a Polish Marxist who had been expelled from the German Social Democratic Party in 1913. Both Lenin and Radek had reputations as fractious, vituperative critics of any Marxists they deemed less than fully committed to revolutionary action. True to form, their draft resolution called on socialists to use both legal and illegal means in their work against the national war effort in all countries; their goal was to replace the war between nations with a war between classes. Lenin and Radek wanted socialists to condemn both the prodefense socialists, whom they considered opportunists, and the bankrupt Second International and to establish a truly revolutionary Third International. In short, the left bloc wanted the Zimmerwald Conference to issue a call for an immediate socialist revolution.

This radical agenda was unable to muster more than twelve votes at the Zimmerwald Conference. The majority of the delegates wished to resuscitate the Second International, not overthrow it or break with their respective socialist parties. Most of the delegates also opposed the call for an immediate revolution; some were pacifists, and others believed that the agenda was doomed to fail under the current circumstances. In the end, both factions accepted a compromise resolution that denounced the war, condemned the prodefense socialists for supporting it, and criticized the ISB for failing to take effective antiwar action. The resolution refrained, however, from embracing any of the specific revolutionary measures proposed by the left bloc, although Lenin and Radek continued to promote the left bloc’s program. The manifesto issued by the Zimmerwald Conference barely concealed the inability of the antiwar socialists to unite behind a common strategy for ending the war.

The Zimmerwald Conference had little impact on socialist groups in the warring nations, where the “civil truce” continued to prevail. The continued dominance of the prodefense factions was a source of increasing frustration for the antiwar socialists, who were also growing impatient with the ISB. The bureau’s leadership was reluctant to initiate measures that might alienate patriotic socialists, and their strategy amounted to little more than waiting for socialists on both sides to begin seeking a compromise settlement. Consequently, in February of 1916, the International Socialist Commission elected by the Zimmerwald Conference began to organize a second international conference of antiwar socialists. Once again, the ISB and the prodefense majorities attempted to marginalize the conference by pressuring dissidents not to attend, and the governments of the nations at war made matters more complicated by refusing to issue passports to potential delegates. As a result, the second antiwar conference, which met in the Swiss village of Kienthal from April 24 to April 30, 1916, was only slightly larger than the one at Zimmerwald.

Ironically, the attempts by the ISB and the warring governments to thwart the second conference actually strengthened the hand of the left-wing socialists, who continued to call for a complete break with the Second International and an immediate socialist revolution. The left-bloc faction could count on twelve delegates, while as many as seven others voted for resolutions that were sharply critical of the bureau’s leadership and of pacifist strategies (these seven, however, refused to agree to a complete repudiation of the Second International).

Together, the nineteen delegates constituted nearly half of the people attending the Kienthal Conference. As at Zimmerwald, a compromise formula preserved the appearance of socialist unity: The revolutionary leftists dropped their demand for a repudiation of the Second International, and the majority accepted language condemning socialist patriotism and endorsing the concept of class war. This compromise fell short of the left bloc’s calls for a Third International and for the soldiers of all the warring nations to turn their weapons against their own ruling classes, but it represented a weakening of the center’s opposition to revolution as a viable alternative to patriotic socialism.

Significance

Lenin did not win acceptance for his revolutionary proposals at the Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences, but he still made significant gains in promoting his radical socialist agenda. After more than a full year of war, many of the socialists who took the rhetoric of internationalism seriously were less and less opposed to Lenin’s radicalism. The war was not the root cause of the tensions within Europe’s socialist parties, but as the war dragged on into its second year, the cracks were rapidly widening. Most of the delegates at the Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences resisted either secession from their own parties or rejection of the Second International. Nevertheless, political momentum began to flow in Lenin’s direction. In March of 1919, sixteen months after his Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, Lenin established the Third International, and this move forced the moderates to choose between acceptance of Lenin’s revolutionary program and reconciliation with the patriotic socialists. Zimmerwald Conference Kienthal Conference Bolsheviks;Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Braunthal, Julius. 1914-1943. Vol. 2 in History of the International. 3 vols. New York: Praeger, 1967. Detailed history of the international socialist movement from the outbreak of World War I to the dissolution of the Comintern.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eley, Geoff. Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2002. A sympathetic history of the European Left, arguing that radical movements played the central role in the creation and evolution of democracy in Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fainsod, Merle. International Socialism and the World War. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1935. Classic history of European socialism from the outbreak of World War I to the founding of the Third International; argues that the war aggravated preexisting divisions within the socialist factions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harding, Neil. Leninism. 2 vols. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1996. Shorter version of the author’s Lenin’s Political Thought (1977-1981). Maintains that Lenin was an orthodox Marxist in his economic and social analysis despite dramatic shifts in his revolutionary tactics after 1914.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirby, David. War, Peace, and Revolution: International Socialism at the Crossroads, 1914-1918. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Focuses on the peace efforts of socialists from neutral countries; argues that the civil peace began to break down only in the winter of 1916-1917.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lerner, Warren. Karl Radek: The Last Internationalist. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1970. Elucidates Radek’s tenuous relationships with fellow Marxists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nation, R. Craig. War on War: Lenin, the Zimmerwald Left, and the Origins of Communist Internationalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1989. Argues that Lenin’s rejection of pacifism closely followed Marx’s teachings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Senn, Alfred Erich. The Russian Revolution in Switzerland, 1914-1917. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1971. Traces the political and ideological conflicts within the community of exiled Russian socialists living in Switzerland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Service, Robert. Lenin: A Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Argues that Lenin’s ideas and policies were shaped by an intense but controlled rage to destroy the old order and overcome political obstacles.

Lenin Critiques Modern Capitalism

Bolsheviks Suppress the Russian Orthodox Church

Russian Communists Inaugurate the Red Terror

Lenin Leads the Russian Revolution

Bolsheviks Mount the October Revolution

Russian Civil War

Assassination of Rosa Luxemburg

Lenin Establishes the Comintern

Lenin Announces the New Economic Policy

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