The Revolutionary Masses
leftist groups embraced a variety of attitudes towards the war.
Most Socialist-Revolutionaries and other peasant-orientated
socialist groupings, such the Trudoviks, advocated ‘defensism’.
The essence of this approach was expressed by the Trudovik
spokesman Alexander Kerensky, who urged the working people first to
‘defend our country and then set it free’. Many Mensheviks were in
favor of pacifism, while the Bolshevik leader, from his exile in
Switzerland, preached outright defeatism insisting on ‘turning the
imperialist war into a civil war’.
The scale of
the war confirmed Lenin’s radicalism. To him it was an irrefutable
proof that the final crisis of capitalism had arrived. In the work
Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism published in
1916, Lenin argued that by the end of the nineteenth century
capitalism in advanced capitalist countries had reached its highest
and last stage - imperialism.
The war arose from the irreconcilable internal contradictions of
‘bourgeois’ societies and the growing conflicts between imperialist
capitalist powers over colonial profits. The class struggle became ever
more intense. Mounting economic crises escalated into a general crisis
of the capitalist system which spilled over in the catastrophe of
The war marked the death agony of
capitalism and opened the way to revolution. The task of the
proletariat and Social-Democratic parties of the belligerent
countries was to transform the imperialist war into a series of
revolutionary civil wars against their capitalist governments, which
would ultimately lead to the triumph of a world revolution.
insistence the slogan of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ was adopted by the Central Committee of
RSDLP as early as the autumn of 1914. The Bolsheviks denounced the
war as unjust and predatory on all sides of the conflict and called
on the workers of the belligerent nations to seek the defeat of
their own ‘bourgeois’ governments. Lenin and his adherents hoped
that the implementation of this slogan in practice would lead to the
collapse of the imperialist states and the transformation of the the
First World War
into a world revolution.
of the German Social-Democratic Party to support the German
government in 1914 confirmed Lenin’s fear that, at the moment of
truth, moderate socialist parties would support the bourgeoisie.
From this time he saw the moderate socialists as enemies, fighting
for, rather than against,
the bourgeoisie. Lenin’s suspicion of them was further vindicated at
two international conferences of the socialist Left in Switzerland,
the first in Zimmerwald in 1915 and the second at Kienthal in 1916,
at which he presented his ‘defeatist’ program. Lenin’s extreme
defeatist views were rejected even by these radical leftist
gatherings. Only a small minority supported his stand that it was
impossible to attain socialist revolution without wishing for the
defeat of one’s government and actively working for such a defeat.
by the objections to his strategy in the ranks of the leftist
socialists, Lenin continued to work, with his characteristic
stubbornness and ruthlessness, for the realization of his ideas. By
1916 the defeatist slogans began to gain popular support leading to
the rise of the pacifist movement in the army and navy. Instances of
insubordination to officers, refusals to advance, mass surrenders,
desertions multiplied. At some parts of the eastern front Russian
soldiers even fraternized with the enemy troops. The continual
growth of the Bolsheviks’ influence - both at the front and in the
rear - spelled grave dangers to the authorities.