How World War I Affected Socialists

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism—From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Before the First World War erupted, socialist parties in Europe pledged to prevent war at any cost. But, once the war was declared, many socialists, especially Germans, decided to support their government in the war-funding efforts. This was a major cause of friction between the Russian socialists and the German socialists.

An image of five fists on a red background depicting socialism.
When the Great War erupted, the socialist parties that were part of the Second International, except for those in Russia, voted for war credits. (Image: Cvijovic Zarko/Shutterstock)

The Centenary of the First World War

The year 2014 marked a hundred years since one of the biggest and most traumatic events in human history—World War I. The world saw the death of over 13 million people and almost twice that number of people were wounded. There was an unprecedented change in the political and economic views that shows the impact of World War I on different nations and their governments. According to many historians, it was the first modern genocide, which refers to the crimes committed against the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. It was a definite warning of bigger and more horrific things to come. This war reshaped the history of the world.

Lenin’s Secret Train Ride

In 1917, as World War I raged, the February Revolution broke out in St. Petersburg (or Petrograd, as it was renamed during World War I). When news of the revolution reached Vladimir Lenin, he decided to return to Russia. However, most of the passages into Russia were blocked. With the help from the German government, Lenin and his wife managed to travel in a ‘sealed’ train carriage that eventually took them to Russia. According to Lenin, the war was an accelerator of history and he wanted to be part of it.

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Lenin’s Expectation of a Crisis

After the Revolution of 1905, Lenin had been living in exile in Switzerland. He waited for some crisis of an economic or military nature that would enable him to return to Russia and steer the political situation toward socialism. However, according to the German revisionist socialist Eduard Bernstein, chances of such a crisis were diminishing. Even the Great Depression of 1873–1896 was unable to cause a proletarian revolution. Lenin, however, predicted that a great war would break out between the capitalist powers. In 1891–1892 famine broke out in the Volga area, resulting in the death of five million people. During this crisis, Lenin advised against relief efforts because he believed that it could lead to revolution and called the famine “a progressive factor”. This gives an insight into Lenin’s emotional distance from the events that took place.

Learn more about why Vladimir Lenin called war an “accelerator of history”.

The Second International’s Pledge to Prevent War

Before the start of World War I, tensions grew among the Great Powers in Europe. The Second International reiterated its pledge to prevent a world war. It stated that any great capitalist war would result in the loss of the lives of workers, when, in fact, all working classes had similar interests. It was imperative that a world war was prevented at any cost. A popular saying among the socialist states was that “a rifle was a deadly weapon with a worker on both ends!”

In 1911, Benito Mussolini, an Italian socialist, spearheaded mob violence to oppose Italy’s imperialist war in Libya. He was arrested and sentenced to jail, which showed a sort of paradoxical rowdy pacifism. In 1912, the year after Mussolini’s arrest, the German Social Democratic Party said that in case of a war, it would call strikes to paralyze the war.

The Great War Surprised Socialists Worldwide

In late July and August 1914, the Great War that shook the entire world erupted. The following years witnessed the breakdown of the Second International and demolished the ideological concept of internationalism. Socialists in every European country (except one) realized that they had competing loyalties. They were patriots who not only followed socialism but were also willing to fight for their countries. World War I saw them divided into different factions such as French socialist, German socialist, and so on. In the end, it was only the Russian socialists that carried out the pre-war plan.

A Bolshevik parade in St. Petersberg
Bolsheviks parade in St. Petersberg during the Russian Revolution in Spring 1917. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

When the Great War erupted, the socialist parties that were part of the Second International, except for those in Russia, voted for war credits stating that they needed the funds to defend their countries from their national enemies. These socialists called themselves ‘defensists’ because they believed they were the victims in the war. By doing so, the ‘defensists’ went against their pledge to prevent war. The German Social Democratic Party played a decisive role in the First World War. Being one of the biggest socialist party in Europe, Germany could have stopped the chain reaction by voting against funding the war effort. However, they surprised everyone, including the German imperial government, which had an arrest list with the names of socialist leaders in case war broke out. The war also showed the true colors of the German socialists who hated Russia. They believed that war with Russia was the key to preserving the advancement of the Social Democratic Movement in Germany.  

Learn more about how Lenin’s plan changed the appearance of Russia.

Lenin Denounced His Comrades as “Social Chauvinists”

When news of the German Social Democratic Party’s actions reached Lenin in Switzerland, he was shocked and furious. He refused to believe that the news had any truth to it. Finally, the reality sank in and he furiously declared that his comrades were not real revolutionaries and denounced them as “social chauvinists”. He even called the leader of the German Social Democratic Party a “political prostitute”. This incident left Lenin disillusioned, and he decided to call himself a communist and not a social democrat. He announced, “The conversion of the present imperialist war into a civil war is the only correct political slogan.”

Common Questions about the Great War and Socialism

Q: What was the basis for Lenin’s expectations of a crisis.

After the Revolution of 1905, Lenin was exiled from Russia. He was living in Switzerland with his wife. He wished to return to Russia, but he was unable to do so. He believed that a crisis of an economic or military nature would enable him to return to Russia and steer the political situation toward socialism.

Q: What was Lenin’s advice to the Russian government during the 1891–1892 famine?

Lenin advised against relief efforts because he believed that it could lead to revolution and called the famine “a progressive factor”.

Q: Why did the Second International pledge to prevent a world war?

According to the Second International, any capitalist war would result in the loss of the lives of the workers, when in fact all working classes had similar interests. However, once the Great War broke out, all socialist countries, except for Russia, voted for war funding to defend their countries, going against their pledge to prevent war.

Q: Why was Benito Mussolini sentenced to jail in 1911?

In 1911, Benito Mussolini was sentenced to jail for instigating a mob war in Libya to oppose Italy’s imperialist war.

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