Socialist Worker

Kienthal - the small beginnings of the anti-war tradition

In 1916 socialists arguing against war were a minority, but change was coming. Alistair Farrow looks at how it started

Issue No. 2501

Russian revolutionary Lenin

Russian revolutionary Lenin

One hundred years ago this week a tiny group of socialists met in the Swiss village of Kienthal.

What they decided there would help shape the mass revolutionary movement that put an end to the First World War.

Just 43 socialists met in Kienthal in 1916 while the mass, industrial-scale slaughter of the war raged across Europe.

The battle of Verdun, one of the bloodiest of the war, had begun two months earlier.

The slaughter on the Somme would begin three months afterwards.

Within 18 months Russia would withdraw from the war because of revolution. Germany would be forced to do the same in 1918.

When the war started in 1914 the mighty German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and virtually all the other socialist organisations backed their own ruling classes.

The majority of SPD deputies in the German parliament voted for war credits, dismissing the idea that class struggle was possible in such circumstances.

Socialists against the war had to regroup and think through their strategies.

The previous year they had met at Zimmerwald.

Pessimistic arguments about the inability of the working class to lead a revolution against the war dominated the conference.

The right wing of the SPD led the warmongers. Georg Ledebour argued that “In wartime it is especially necessary to hold together so that we do not lose influence over the masses.”

Karl Liebknecht, one of the leaders of the SPD left, had spoken out against the war and was forced to dig graves for the German dead.

He sent a powerful letter condemning the war to be read out at the conference, calling for “International class struggle for peace, for socialist revolution!”

However, the left were a minority and could not win their position.

By the time of Kienthal some participants argued for a position of passive opposition to the war but they met with strong resistance.


The betrayals of the right wing of the socialist movement and the full horror of the war were clear by this point.

Russian revolutionary Lenin and the Bolshevik party insisted on a break from the Second International of socialist parties that had backed the war.

They wanted to build a new international revolutionary movement against the slaughter.

Lenin argued that the capitalists’ war was appalling, but represented an opportunity for revolutionaries and the working class.

He went on to say that to be effective against war it was necessary to go beyond pacifism and argue for a revolution to smash the system that creates war.

Lenin argued that socialists should call on workers to turn the war into a civil war against their own rulers.

He said that revolutionaries needed to argue with soldiers to not just lay down their weapons, but turn them on their rulers.

The Bolsheviks and Lenin did not win all of their demands.

But the outcome of the Kienthal conference was significantly more positive than Zimmerwald, at which delegates had agreed only to pacifist opposition to war.

The manifesto that was adopted stated, “There will be further intensification of the struggle against war and imperialism as a consequence of the ruination and suffering brought on by the calamities of this imperialist age.”

The manifesto also strongly criticised the Second International’s support for the war.

It stated that the only way to deliver a world without war was through the working class taking power.

A hundred years on, capitalism still produces the horrors of war.

They will not be eliminated until the system that produces them is overthrown.


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