On the II. International
Opportunism and the Collapse of the Second International
“Vorbote” No. 1.
Lenin, collected works, volume 22, pages 108 - 120
The article was written by Lenin in German and published in January 1916 in the first issue of the theoretical organ of the Zimmerwald Left, the magazine Vorbote (Herald ). Earlier, Lenin had written an article in Russian under the same title; it was first published in the magazine Proletarskaya Revolutsia (Proletarian Revolution ) No. 5 (28) in 1924, and is included in Volume 21 of Lenin’s Collected Works (LCW), where the text is not quite identical with the one in Vorbote
Has the Second International really ceased to exist? This is being stubbornly denied by its most authoritative representatives, like Kautsky and Vandervelde. Their point of view is that, save for the rupture of relations, nothing has really happened; all is quite well.
To get at the truth of the matter, let is turn to the “Manifesto of the Basle Congress of 1912, which applies particularly to the present imperialist world war and which was accepted by all the socialist parties of the world. No socialist, be it noted, will dare in theory deny the necessity of making a concrete, historical appraisal of every war.
Now that war has broken out, neither the avowed opportunists nor the Kautskyites dare repudiate the Basle Manifesto or compare its demands with the conduct of the socialist parties during the war. Why? Because the Manifesto completely exposes both.
There is not a single word in the Basle Manifesto about the defence of the fatherland, or about the difference between a war of aggression and a war of defence; there is nothing in it at all about what the opportunists and Kautskyites of Germany and of the Quadruple Alliance at all crossroads are now dinning into the ears of the world. Nor could it have said anything of the sort, because what it does say absolutely rules out the use of such concepts. It makes a highly concrete reference to the series of political and economic conflicts which had for decades been preparing the ground for the present war, had become quite apparent in 1912, and which brought about the war In 1914. The Manifesto recalls the Russo-Austrian conflict for “hegemony in the Balkans”; the conflicts between Britain, France and Germany (between all these countries!) over their “policy of conquest in Asia Minor”; the Austro-Italian conflict over the “striving for domination” in Albania, etc. In short, the Manifesto defines all these as conflicts emanating from “capitalist imperialism”. Thus, the Manifesto very clearly recognises the predatory, imperialist, reactionary, slave-driving character of the present war, i.e., a character which makes the idea of defending the fatherland theoretical nonsense and a practical absurdity. The big sharks are fighting each other to gobble up other peoples’ “fatherlands”. The Manifesto draws the inevitable conclusions from undisputed historical facts: the war “cannot be justified on the slightest pretext of its being in the interest of the people”; it is being prepared “for the sake of the capitalists’ profits and the ambitions of dynasties”. It would be a “crime” for the workers to “shoot each other down”. That is what the Manifesto says.
The epoch of capitalist imperialism is one of ripe and rotten-ripe capitalism, which is about to collapse, and which is mature enough to make way for socialism. The period between 1789 and 1871 was one of progressive capitalism when the overthrow of feudalism and absolutism, and liberation from the foreign yoke were on history’s agenda. “Defence of the fatherland”, i.e., defence against oppression, was permissible on these grounds, and on these alone. The term would be applicable even now in a war against the imperialist Great Powers, but it would be absurd to apply it to a war between the imperialist Great Powers, a war to decide who gets the biggest piece of the Balkan countries, Asia Minor, etc. It is not surprising, therefore, that the “socialists” who advocate “defence of the fatherland” in the present war shun the Basle Manifesto as a thief shuns the scene of his crime. For the Manifesto proves them to be social-chauvinists, i.e., socialists in words, but chauvinists in deeds, who are helping “their own” bourgeoisie to rob other countries and enslave other nations. That is the very substance of chauvinism—to defend one’s “own” fatherland even when its acts are aimed at enslaving other peoples’ fatherlands.
Recognition that a war is being fought for national liberation implies one set of tactics; its recognition as an imperialist war, another. The Manifesto clearly points to the latter. The war, it says, “will bring on an economic and political crisis”, which must be “utilised”, not to lessen the crisis, not to defend the fatherland, but, on the contrary, to “rouse” the masses and “hasten the downfall of capitalist rule”. It is impossible to hasten something for which historical conditions are not yet mature. The Manifesto declares that social revolution is possible, that the conditions for it have matured, and that it will break out precisely in connection with war. Referring to the examples of the Paris Commune and the Revolution of 1905 in Russia, i.e., examples of mass strikes and of civil war, the Manifesto declares that “the ruling classes” fear “a proletarian revolution”. It is sheer falsehood to claim, as Kautsky does, that the socialist attitude to the present war has not been defined. This question was not merely discussed, but decided in Basle, where the tactics of revolutionary proletarian mass struggle were recognised.
It is downright hypocrisy to ignore the Basle Manifesto altogether, or in its most essential parts, and to quote instead the speeches of leaders, or the resolutions of various parties, which, in the first place, antedate the Basle Congress, secondly, were not decisions adopted by the parties of the whole world, and thirdly, applied to various possible wars, but never to the present war. The point is that the epoch of national wars between the big European powers has been superseded by an epoch of imperialist wars between them, and that the Basle Manifesto had to recognise this fact officially for the first time.
It would be a mistake to regard the Basle Manifesto as an empty threat, a collection of platitudes, as so much hot air. Those whom the Manifesto exposes would like to have it that way. But it is not true. The Manifesto is but the fruit of the great propaganda work carried on throughout the entire epoch of the Second International; it is but the summary of all that the socialists had disseminated among the masses in the hundreds of thousands of speeches, articles and manifestos in all languages. It merely reiterates what Jules Guesde, for example, wrote in 1899, when he castigated socialist ministerialism in the event of war: he wrote of war provoked by the “capitalist pirates” (En Garde!, p. 175); it merely repeats what Kautsky wrote in 1909 in his Road to Power, where he admitted that the “peaceful” epoch was over and that the epoch of wars and revolutions was on. To represent the Basle Manifesto as so much talk, or as a mistake, is to regard as mere talk, or as a mistake, everything the socialists have done in the last twenty-five years. The opportunists and the Kautskyites find the contradiction between the Manifesto and its non-application so intolerable because it lays bare the profound contradictions in the work of the Second International. The relatively “peaceful” character of the period between 1871 and 1914 served to foster opportunism first as a mood, then as a trend, until finally it formed a group or stratum among the labour bureaucracy and petty-bourgeois fellow-travellers. These elements were able to gain control of the labour movement only by paying lip-service to revolutionary aims and revolutionary tactics. They were able to win the confidence of the masses only by their protestations that all this “peaceful” work served to prepare the proletarian revolution. This contradiction was a boil which just had to burst, and burst it has. Here is the question: is it worth trying, as Kautsky and Co. are doing, to force the pus back into the body for the sake of “unity” (with the pus), or should the pus be removed as quickly and as thoroughly as possible, regardless of the pang of pain caused by the process, to help bring about the complete recovery of the body of the labour movement?
Those who voted for war credits, entered cabinets amid advocated defence of the fatherland in 1914-15 have patently betrayed socialism. Only hypocrites will deny it. This betrayal must be explained.
It would be absurd to regard the whole question as one of personalities. What has opportunism to do with it when men like Plekhanov and Guesde, etc.?—asks Kautsky (“Die Neue Zeit”, May 28, 1915). What has opportunism to do with it when Kautsky, etc.?—replies Axelrod on behalf of the opportunists of the Quadruple Alliance (Die Krise der Sozialdemokratie, Zurich, 1915, p. 21). This is a complete farce. If the crisis of the whole movement is to be explained, an examination must be made, firstly, of the economic significance of the present policy; secondly, its underlying ideas; and thirdly, its connection with the history of the various trends in the socialist movement.
What is the economic substance of defencism in the war of 1914-15? The bourgeoisie of all the big powers are waging the war to divide and exploit the world, and oppress other nations. A few crumbs of the bourgeoisie’s huge profits may come the way of the small group of labour bureaucrats, labour aristocrats, and petty-bourgeois fellow-travellers. Social-chauvinism and opportunism have the same class basis, namely, the alliance of a small section of privileged workers with “their” national bourgeoisie against the working-class masses; the alliance between the lackeys of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie against the class the latter is exploiting.
Opportunism and social-chauvinism have the same political content, namely, class collaboration, repudiation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, repudiation of revolutionary action, unconditional acceptance of bourgeois legality, confidence in the bourgeoisie and lack of confidence in the proletariat. Social-chauvinism is the direct continuation and consummation of British liberal-labour politics, of Millerandism and Bernsteinism.
The struggle between the two main trends in the labour movement - revolutionary socialism and opportunist socialism—fills the entire period from 1889 to 1914. Even today there are two main trends on the attitude to war in every country. Let us drop the bourgeois and opportunist habit of referring to personalities. Let us take the trends in a number of countries. Let us take ten European countries: Germany, Britain, Russia, Italy, Holland, Sweden, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Belgium and France. In the first eight the division into opportunist and revolutionary trends corresponds to the division into social-chauvinists and internationalists. In Germany the strongholds of social-chauvinism are “Sozialistische Monatshefte” and Legien and Co.; in Britain the Fabians and the Labour Party (the I.L.P. has always been allied with them and has supported their organ, and in this bloc it has always been weaker than the social-chauvinists, whereas three-sevenths of the B.S.P. are internationalists); in Russia this trend is represented by Nasha Zarya (now Nashe Dyelo), by the Organising Committee, and by the Duma group led by Chkheidze; in Italy it is represented by the reformists with Bissolati at their head; in Holland, by Troelstra’s party; in Sweden, by the majority of the Party led by Branting; in Bulgaria, by the so-called “Shiroki” socialists; in Switzerland by Greulich and Co. In all these countries it is the revolutionary Social-Democrats who have voiced a more or less vigorous protest against social-chauvinism. France and Belgium are the two exceptions; there internationalism also exists, but is very weak.
Social-chauvinism is opportunism in its finished form. It is quite ripe for an open, frequently vulgar, alliance with the bourgeoisie and the general staffs. It is this alliance that gives it great power and a monopoly of the legal press and of deceiving the masses. It is absurd to go on regarding opportunism as an inner-party phenomenon. It is ridiculous to think of carrying out the Basle resolution together with David, Legien, Hyndman, Plekhanov and Webb. Unity with the social-chauvinists means unity with one’s “own” national bourgeoisie, which exploits other nations; it means splitting the international proletariat. This does not mean that an immediate break with the opportunists is possible everywhere; it means only that historically this break is imminent; that it is necessary and inevitable for the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat; that history, which has led us from “peaceful” capitalism to imperialist capitalism, has paved the way for this break. Volentem ducunt fata, nolentem trahunt.
This is very well understood by the shrewd representatives of the bourgeoisie. That is why they are so lavish in their praise of the present socialist parties, headed by the “defenders of the fatherland”, i.e., the defenders of imperialist plunder. That is why the social-chauvinist leaders are rewarded by their governments either with ministerial posts (in France and Britain), or with a monopoly of unhindered legal existence (in Germany and Russia). That is why in Germany, where the Social-Democratic Party was strongest and where its transformation into a national-liberal counter-revolutionary labour party has been most obvious, things have got to the stage where the public prosecutor qualifies the struggle between the “minority” and the “majority” as “incitement to class hatred”! That is why the greatest concern of the clever opportunists is to retain the former “unity” of the old parties, which did the bourgeoisie so many good turns in 1914 and 1915. The views held by these opportunists in all countries of the world were expounded with commendable frankness by a German Social-Democrat in an article signed “Monitor” which appeared in April 1915, in the reactionary magazine “Preußische Jahrbücher”. Monitor thinks that it would be very dangerous for the bourgeoisie if the Social-Democrats were to move still further to the right. “It must preserve its character as a labour party with socialist ideals; for the day it gives this up a new party will arise and adopt the programme the old party had disavowed, giving it a still more radical formulation” (Preußische Jahrbücher, 1915, No.4, pp.50-51).
Monitor hit the nail on the head. That is just what the British Liberals and the French Radicals have always wanted—phrases with a revolutionary ring to deceive the masses and induce them to place their trust in the Lloyd Georges, the Sembats, the Renaudels, the Legiens, and the Kautskys, in the men capable of preaching “defence of the fatherland” in a predatory war.
But Monitor represents only one variety of opportunism, the frank, crude, cynical variety. Others act with stealth, subtlety, and “honesty”. Engels once said that for the working class “honest” opportunists were the greatest danger. Here is one example.
Kautsky wrote in “Die Neue Zeit” (November 26, 1915) as follows: “The opposition against the majority is growing; the masses are in an opposition mood.... After the war (only after the war?—N. L.) class antagonisms will become so sharp that radicalism will gain the upper hand among the masses... . After the war (only after the war?—N. L.) we shall be menaced with the desertion of the radical elements from the Party and their influx into the party of anti-parliamentary (?? meaning extra-parliamentary) mass action... Thus, our Party is splitting up into two extreme camps which have nothing in common.” To preserve unity, Kautsky tries to persuade the majority in the Reichstag to allow the minority to make a few radical parliamentary speeches. That means Kautsky wants to use a few radical parliamentary speeches to reconcile the revolutionary masses with the opportunists, who have “nothing in common” with revolution, who have long had the leadership of the trade unions, and now, relying on their close alliance with the bourgeoisie and the government, have also captured the leadership of the Party. What essential difference is there between this and Monitor’s “programme”? There is none, save for the sugary phrases which prostitute Marxism.
At a meeting of the Reichstag group on March 18, 1915, Wurm, a Kautskyite, “warned” against “pulling the strings too taut. There is growing opposition among the workers’ masses to the majority of the group, we must keep to the Marxist [?! probably a misprint: this should read “the Monitor”] Centre” (“Klassenkampf gegen den Krieg!” - Material zum Fall Liebknecht. Als Manuskript gedruckt, p. 67. Thus we find that the revolutionary sentiment of the masses was admitted as a fact on behalf of all the Kautskyites (the so-called Centre) as early as March, 1915!! But eight and a half months later, Kautsky again comes forward with the proposal to “reconcile” the militant masses with the opportunist, counter-revolutionary party—and he wants to do this with a few revolutionary-sounding phrases!!
War is often useful in exposing what is rotten and discarding the conventionalities.
Let us compare the British Fabians with the German Kautskyites. Here is what a real Marxist, Frederick Engels, wrote about the former on January 18, 1893: “...a band of careerists who have understanding enough to realise the inevitability of the social revolution, but who could not possibly entrust this gigantic task to the raw proletariat alone.... Fear of the revolution is their fundamental principle" (Letters to F. A. Sorge, p. 390).
And on November 11, 1893, he wrote: “...these haughty bourgeois who kindly condescend to emancipate the proletariat from above if only it would have sense enough to realise that such a raw, uneducated mass cannot liberate itself and can achieve nothing without the kindness of these clever lawyers, writers and sentimental old women” (ibid., p. 401).
In theory Kautsky looks down upon the Fabians with the contempt of a Pharisee for a poor sinner, for he swears by “Marxism”. But what actual difference is there between the two? Both signed the Basle Manifesto, and both treated it as Wilhelm II treated Belgian neutrality. But Marx all his life castigated those who strove to quench the revolutionary spirit of the workers.
Kautsky has put forward his new theory of “ultra-imperialism” in opposition to the revolutionary Marxists. By this he means that the “rivalries of national finance capitals” are to be superseded by the “joint exploitation of the world by international finance capital” (“Die Neue Zeit, April 30, 1915”). But he adds: “We do not as yet have sufficient data to decide whether this new phase of capitalism is possible.” On the grounds of the mere assumption of a “new phase”, which he does not even dare declare definitely “possible”, the inventor of this “phase” rejects his own revolutionary declarations as well as the revolutionary tasks and revolutionary tactics of the proletariat—rejects them now, in the “phase” of a crisis, which has already broken out, the phase of war and the unprecedented aggravation of class antagonisms! Is this not Fabianism at its most abominable?
Axelrod, the leader of the Russian Kautskyites, sees “the centre of gravity of the problem of internationalising the proletarian movement for emancipation in the internationalisation of everyday practice”; for example, “labour protection and insurance legislation must become the object of the workers’ international organisation and action” (Axelrod, The Crisis of Social-Democracy, Zurich, 1915, pp.39-40). Not only Legien, David and the Webbs, but even Lloyd George himself, and Naumann, Briand and Milyukov would quite obviously subscribe to such “internationalism”. As in 1912, Axelrod is quite prepared to utter the most revolutionary phrases for the very distant future, if the future International “comes out [against the governments in the event of war] and raises a revolutionary storm”. How brave we are! But when it comes to supporting and developing the incipient revolutionary ferment among the masses now, Axelrod says that these tactics of revolutionary mass action “would be justified to some extent if we were on the very eve of the social revolution, as was the case in Russia, for example, where the student demonstrations of 1901 heralded the approaching decisive battles against absolutism”. At the present moment, however, all that is “utopia”, “Bakuninism”, etc. This is fully in the spirit of Kolb, David, Suedekum and Legien.
What dear old Axelrod forgets is that in 1901 nobody in Russia knew, or could have known, that the first “decisive battle” would take place four years later—please note, four years later—and that it would be “indecisive”. Nevertheless, we revolutionary Marxists alone were right at that time: we ridiculed the Krichevskys and Martynovs, who called for an immediate assault. We merely advised the workers to kick out the opportunists everywhere and to exert every effort to support, sharpen and extend the demonstrations and other mass revolutionary action. The present situation in Europe is absolutely similar. It would be absurd to call for an “immediate” assault; but it would be a shame to call oneself a Social-Democrat and not to advise the workers to break with the opportunists and exert all their efforts to strengthen, deepen, extend and sharpen the incipient revolutionary movement and demonstrations. Revolution never falls ready-made from the skies, and when revolutionary ferment starts no one can say whether and when it will lead to a “real”, “genuine” revolution. Kautsky and Axelrod are giving the workers old, shop-worn, counter-revolutionary advice. Kautsky and Axelrod are feeding the masses with hopes that the future International will surely be revolutionary, but they are doing this for the sole purpose of protecting, camouflaging and prettifying the present domination of the counter-revolutionary elements—the Legiens, Davids, Vanderveldes and Hyndmans. Is it not obvious that “unity” with Legien and Co. is the best means of preparing the “future” revolutionary International?
“It would be folly to strive to convert the world war into civil war,” declares David, the leader of the German opportunists (Die Sozialdemokratie und der Weltkrieg, 1915, p. 172), in reply to the manifesto of the Central Committee of our Party, November 1, 1914. This manifesto says, inter alia:
“However difficult that transformation may seem at any given moment, socialists will never relinquish systematic, persistent and undeviating preparatory work in this direction now that war has become a fact.”
(This passage is also quoted by David, p. 171.) A month before David’s book appeared our Party published its resolutions defining “systematic preparation” as follows: (1) refusal to vote for credits; (2) disruption of the class truce; (3) formation of illegal organisations; (4) support for solidarity manifestations in the trenches; (5) support for all revolutionary mass action.
David is almost as brave as Axelrod. In 1912, he did not think that reference to the Paris Commune in anticipation of the war was “folly”.
Plekhanov, a typical representative of the Entente social-chauvinists, takes the same view of revolutionary tactics as David. He calls them a “farcical dream”. But listen to Kolb, an avowed opportunist, who wrote: “The consequence of the tactics of Liebknecht’s followers would be that the struggle within the German nation would be brought up to boiling point” (Die Sozialdemokratie am Scheidewege, p.50).
But what is a struggle brought up to boiling point if not civil war?
If our Central Committee’s tactics, which broadly coincide with those of the Zimmerwald Left, were “folly”, “dreams”, “adventurism”, “Bakuninism”-as David, Plekhanov, Axelrod, Kautsky and others have asserted—they could never lead to a “struggle within a nation”, let alone to a struggle brought up to boiling point. Nowhere in the world have anarchist phrases brought about a struggle within a nation. But the facts indicate that precisely in 1915, as a result of the crisis produced by the war, revolutionary ferment among the masses is on the increase, and there is a spread of strikes and political demonstrations in Russia, strikes in Italy and in Britain, and hunger demonstrations and political demonstrations in Germany. Are these not the beginnings of revolutionary mass struggles?
The sum and substance of Social-Democracy’s practical programme in this war is to support, develop, extend and sharpen mass revolutionary action, and to set up illegal organisations, for without them there is no way of telling the truth to the masses of people even in the “free” countries. The rest is either lies or mere verbiage, whatever its trappings of opportunist or pacifist theory.
When we are told that these “Russian tactics” (David’s expression) are not suitable for Europe, we usually reply by pointing to the facts. On October 30, a delegation of Berlin women comrades called on the Party’s Presidium in Berlin, and stated that “now that we have a large organising apparatus it is much easier to distribute illegal pamphlets and leaflets and to organise ‘banned meetings’ than it was under the Anti-Socialist Law.... Ways and means are not lacking, but the will evidently is” (Berner Tagwacht, 1915, No.271).
Had these bad comrades been led astray by the Russian “sectarians”, etc.? Is it these comrades who represent the real masses, or is it Legien and Kautsky? Legien, who in his report on January 27, 1915, fumed against the “anarchistic” idea of forming underground organisations; or Kautsky, who has become such a counter-revolutionary that on November 26, four days before the 10,000-strong demonstration in Berlin, he denounced street demonstrations as “adventurism”!
We’ve had enough of empty talk, and of prostituted “Marxism” à la Kautsky! After twenty-five years of the Second International, after the Basle Manifesto, the workers will no longer believe fine words. Opportunism is rotten-ripe; it has been transformed into social-chauvinism and has definitely deserted to the bourgeois camp. It has severed its spiritual and political ties with Social-Democracy. It will also break off its organisational ties. The workers are already demanding “illegal” pamphlets and “banned” meetings, i.e., underground organisations to support the revolutionary mass movement. Only when “war against war” is conducted on these lines does it cease to be empty talk and becomes Social-Democratic work. In spite of all difficulties, setbacks, mistakes, delusions and interruptions, this work will lead humanity to the victorious proletarian revolution.