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Joseph Carter

During the Last World War
a Few Individuals Bucked the Stream
and Blazed the Trail to Revolution

(September 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 69, 13 September 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In the early days of the First World War only a few isolated voices were raised against the criminal madness of workers lighting workers in the interest of their exploiters at home.

The powerful socialist parties and trade unions became warmongers. “For defense of little Belgium”, shouted the British turn-coats as they rallied the toilers behind the Union Jack. “For national defense!”, cried the French social-patriots. “Against Kaiserism and for democracy!”, rang the appeal of the Russian traitors to socialism as they supported the Tsarist armies. “Against barbaric Tsarism!”, replied their German comrades of yesterday as they prostituted themselves to their own ruling class.

In a word, in each country the official leaders of labor defended the imperialist war in the name of democracy and socialism. And the chorus was powerful, impressive and effective. Could anything be done to fight against the tidal wave of treachery and chauvinistic hysteria?

The First Anti-War Forces Appear

In little Serbia, the Socialist deputies Laptchevitch and Katzerovitch exposed the lying talk of national defense, proved that Serbia was but a pawn in the hands of the Allied powers, and therefore refused to vote war credits or support the war.

In England, four members of the Independent Labor Party voted against the war in the House of Commons, while 38 representatives of the Labor Party supported the war.

In Russia, the fourteen socialist deputies in the Tsarist Duma – Bolshevik and Menshevik – refused to vote war credits or support the war.

In Germany, the small anti-war forces assembled around Karl Liebknectit and Rosa Luxemburg. On December 2 (1914) Liebknecht in the Reichstag electrified the world by his eloquent denunciation of the war as a robber struggle between the two groups of powers. In defiance of party discipline, he answered the roll-call vote on war credits with a powerful “NO!” One man against the German Empire and the Social Democratic Party!

“The main enemy is at home!” Liebknecht declared in opposition to the social-imperialists.

But in the first months of the war only a handful followed him.

Lenin and Trotsky Against the Stream

Alone also were the socialist-internationalists Lenin, Zinoviev, and Trotsky, swimming against the current of reaction; analysing the causes of the war; denouncing the ruling classes and their predatory governments; attacking the socialists of yesterday who now were the lackeys of militarism; warning the workers against those who declared that a truly democratic peace could be achieved by the imperialist powers. Only the overthrow of the governments, the conquest of power by the working class, they constantly reiterated, could bring a lasting peace by destroying capitalism and establishing a socialist society.

As dark and hopeless as the situation appeared, they had faith in the recuperative powers of the working class, certain that once the masses learned from the frightful experiences of the war itself that they had been betrayed, they would turn on their old leaders and conduct a revolutionary struggle to end the war.

They were called hopeless dreamers whose wish was father to the thought, insane fanatics who were dealing with a world of their own imagination. A handful of people will stop the war by socialist revolution? No, replied the internationalists, the masses will make the revolution. Our duty is to point the road, utilize the experiences of the workers patiently to explain to them the meaning of the events, and the methods they must employ at each stage of development.

Anti-War Forces Gather Together

The anti-war socialists reassembled slowly their ranks. In March 1915 an International Socialist Women’s Conference was held at Berne, Switzerland. In the same city, in April the International Conference of Socialist Youth took place. Both conferences adopted clear statements against the war but were vague on what was to be done. The differences were expressed in clearer form at the conference of anti-war socialists at Zimmerwald in September of the same year.

The left wing at the conference, grouped around Lenin, insisted that opposition to the war must be expressed in explicit preparations for revolutionary action as the way out, and for an immediate split with those who either supported the war or were in an alliance with the pro-war socialists.

Those who opposed the left wing thought that the differences, with the pro-war socialists and their allies were temporary, and would be overcome once peace was again established. They did not believe that socialist revolutions would develop during the war and therefore concentrated on getting the belligerent powers to adopt “democratic peace terms.”

Lenin Becomes Leader of Anti-War Forces

Lenin’s position was supported by only a minority at the Zimmerwald Conference. But when the second conference was held at Kienthal in April 1916, his program had made such headway that the official resolution of the conference explicitly condemned the social-chauvinists (the pro-war “socialists”) and the social-pacifists – (those who taught that peace could be achieved by the imperialist powers through disarmament, compulsory arbitration and democratization of foreign politics). The resolution called for revolutionary action as the only way to end the war. This program was supported by the German group of Liebknecht and Luxemburg. One month after Kienthal, Liebknecht spoke at a mass May Day rally in Berlin, “Down with the war!”, he shouted. And though thrown into prison, his slogan echoed throughout the country by means of illegal leaflets, pamphlets and papers.

Strikes began to break out in country after country; reports of fraternization of soldiers on both sides began to seep through the censored press. In England, for example, army men were sentenced for acts of sedition and mutiny: in 1916, 60; 1917, 221; 1918, 676, according to the official reports.

The Russian Revolution Blazes the Trail

These anti-war actions were given added impetus by the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in March 1917. But the Kerensky government continued to support the Allies. The Bolsheviks unleashed a tremendous campaign to achieve the aim they had set for themselves at the beginning of the war: peace through the Socialist revolution. And with their victory in November 1917, the first great breach was made in the World War.

The Bolshevik Revolution accelerated the strike movements in the, warring countries, particularly in Germany and in Austro-Hungary. The mass actions of 1918 culminated in the German and Austrian revolutions of November. Peace was being achieved by the actions of the working class!

But only in Russia were the revolutionary socialists in control of political power. In Germany and Austria those who had supported the war, those, who were the most active opponents of the revolution, succeeded in forming the new governments. As during the war, their main task became the suppression of the revolutionary workers’ movement and the assurance of capitalist stability.

The Bosses’ Peace Prepared This War

The Allied statesmen and their social-patriotic agents had promised a democratic peace. They imposed the oppressive Versailles Treaty on the German people. The revolutionary Socialists time and again warned that only socialist revolutions, workers’ governments united in a Socialist United States of Europe could bring about a lasting and democratic peace. The Bolsheviks showed the way in Russia. They made clear during and after the war that unless the Russian Revolution was extended internationally, reaction and more bloody wars would follow.

How tragically accurate were the predictions of the revolutionists! What scurrilous lies were the promises of the “democratic” imperialists and their lickspittles!

The second World War is now a stark reality. Once again the masters, and their agents in the labor movement, are repeating the old slogans.

The anti-war forces are once again reduced to a handful. But as in 1914–1918 the masses will learn that they are being deceived, and will unite their forces against the war. They can stop the war, and bring about a lasting peace, only by struggling for the socialist revolution, for the Socialist United States of Europe and a World Socialist Federation.

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