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The Workers’ Movement in World War One

(Winter 1959/60)

From Fourth International (Amsterdam), No. 8, Winter 1959–60, p. 57.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The Workers’ Movement in the First World War, Vol. 2
by Alfred Rosmer

The working-class movement has a relatively short history; but the intensity which this history has acquired in recent years, to which must be added the acts of deformation of the working-class leaderships, has meant that as a result events which are known to generations still living are literally unknown to most of the rank and file.

Thus, the years of the First World War and the first years of the Russian revolution are still unknown not only to the youngest generations, but even to the main part of the rank-and-filers of thirty to forty years old. We cannot expect the present leaderships and the historians at their disposal to give a true account of this period, whether they be socialist or Stalinist. So the second volume of Alfred Rosmer’s book, The Workers’ Movement during the First World War, will fill a gap and educate new generations of working-class militants.

This second volume covers essentially the year 1916, and deals mainly with the repercussions of the Zimmerwald Conference on the working-class movement which was beginning, under the pressure of the growing misery provoked by the war, to awaken from the torpor into which it was plunged by the declaration of war and the passing to the side of “national unity” of the organizations – Parties and trade unions – which had existed before 1914. It ends on the eve of the outbreak of the Russian revolution, which opens a new period for which Rosmer promises a third volume.

An extremely rich account is to be found in the book which has just been published, mostly of that part of the working-class movement which was obliged to act in an underground or semi-clandestine manner, and which began to wage a struggle against the leaders of the Socialist party and the CGT, the Renaudels and the Jouhaux. Here are to be found not only the events and their unfolding, but also the essence of the ideas and arguments which clashed – both in the struggle against the corrupt leaderships and within the minority groups which, on the morrow of August 2, 1914, found themselves in an extremely confused ideological state.

It is not our intention to summarize this book, meant for study and reference. Every militant will have many occasions to refer to it, either in discussion or in preparing historical talks. This book prompts many reflections on the development of the working-class movement since that time.

First of all, the working-class movement was then mainly European, with certain extensions into the United States. All the discussions turned on Europe and the European peoples. At the time, nobody imagined that, 40 years later, the colonial peoples would surpass, in their revolutionary struggles, the workers of the advanced capitalist countries.

Apart from this, resistance to social-patriotism, although still rather weak in 1916, was nevertheless much more accentuated than it is at present. Who could have imagined that the founders of the Third International would be in the position later to be exploited by usurpers who would compete in social-patriotism.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is its illustration of the ideological feebleness of the opposition to the war, more particularly in the French working-class movement. It is enough to see how the leadership of the Socialist party, for a long time was able to outmaneuver the oppositionists, thanks to the intervention of a wing which interposed itself between the leadership and the oppositionists. The gap is also noticeable between the vigor of the Kienthalians’ speeches in parliament, and their theoretical poverty. Without forecasting what is coming in the third volume of Rosmer’s work, one can easily understand, in the light of volume 2, what will be in effect the Communist party which will emerge, less than four years later, at the Tours Congress, and how far it was from being a really Communist party.

The question which, from Zimmerwald onwards, projects itself over the whole working-class movement of this period, is the question of the new International, the Third International to be created. The most patriotic of the old socialist leaders, those of France to begin with, did not wish even to hear talk of a meeting of the former Second International. Those among them most conscious of the new tendencies, which penetrated deeply into the masses, tried hard, like Camille Huysmans, by means of eleborate maneuvers, to isolate the revolutionary vanguard.

At Kienthal, as at Zimmerwald, it was the Russians who were the most determined partisans of the Third International, because they saw most clearly the reasons for the debacle of 1914 and the possibilities provided, after all, by the war. In his book Rosmer shows that Lenin, on this question also, combined the most implacable firmness of principle with a tactical suppleness, planning that no meeting of the old International should take place without the revolutionary minority being represented and heard. This political and theoretical superiority which he showed from the beginning of the war on a question concerning which there had been much discussion within the working-class movement in former years (though without much clarity or consequence), was very soon to find its expression in the capacity to lead the Russian revolution in a way which remains a model unparalleled in history.

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