Lenin, World War I and the social roots of opportunism

Today marks the 150th birthday of Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Russian revolution and founder of the Soviet Union whose ideas served as a guide for all subsequent socialist revolutions. To honor his tremendous contributions to the cause of the working class and oppressed of the world, we are reposting this article dealing with some of his main achievements and theories.

This article was originally published on October 1, 2004. 

Leninism became fully recognized as an extension of Marxism after the success of the Russian Revolution in 1917. Throughout the world, the mass socialist parties and working class anarchist trends went through major political convulsions. New revolutionary parties, seeking to base themselves on the political and organizational lessons learned from the Bolshevik victory, were created in country after country as the left-wing socialists and anarchists split from established socialist parties and organizations to form communist parties.

But the arrival of Leninism or Bolshevism as a distinctive international extension of Marxism, in direct opposition to the accepted Marxism of the Second International, actually took shape not at the time of revolutionary victory in 1917. Rather, it happened in a period of deepest reaction: at the very start of World War I. In 1914, V.I. Lenin broke openly with “official” socialism and Marxism, declaring that the leaders of the mass socialist parties who supported their own governments at the outbreak of the war were traitors to the working class and agents of the bourgeoisie inside the working-class movement.

Although the Bolsheviks led by Lenin took shape in 1903 as an independent faction inside the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, affiliated with the Second International, it was only in 1914 that Lenin definitively and openly broke with the International and its flagship German Social Democratic Party, then led by Karl Kautsky. The SPD had millions of members. It had a long-established left wing led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. But Kautsky was considered the principal spokesperson and theoretician of the Second International. Lenin, in spite of the Bolshevik’s affinity with the German left wing, recognized Kautsky’s leadership until 1914. Organized as a party of the “whole class,” rather than as a disciplined revolutionary vanguard united around a political program and a political line, the German SPD and the other mass parties of the Second International had a political left wing, a right wing and a center.

Most prominent socialist leaders of the time had solemnly pledged to oppose imperialist war in powerfully written resolutions and manifestos. Most notable were the declarations of socialist conferences held in Basle, Switzerland in 1912 and in Stuttgart, Germany in 1907.

When the socialist parties voted to support the war efforts of their respective governments in August 1914, it could have been explained as merely an opportunist reflex to the extreme pressure evident at the start of every imperialist war. After all, principled opposition to the war meant going directly from comfortable seats in Parliament to prison, the firing squad, or being drafted and imprisoned, as was the case with Karl Liebknecht, the only member of the German SPD who voted against war credits in the Parliament. It meant that the offices, newspapers and other publications of the party would be declared illegal and shut down. The Bolsheviks in Russia faced capital punishment trials and life-long exile in Siberia as punishment for their stand against the war in 1914, while the other ostensibly left organizations were allowed to function.

The anticipation of certain repression was only one form of pressure, however, that the socialist leaders faced when they had to make the fateful decision in August 1914 on whether to oppose the war they had promised to oppose. The other pressure—perhaps more feared than actual repression—was the fear of political isolation and contraction of support from the workers who were the base of the socialist parties.

At the start of World War I, as at the start of every imperialist war and adventure since, the masses of people were whipped into a nationalist frenzy by the capitalist media. The “enemy” country was thoroughly demonized. It was one thing to be called a traitor by the bankers and bosses. It was another thing to endure the antipathy and rejection of the working people themselves.

Under these exceptional circumstances, it could be argued that it was understandable that only a handful of socialist parties stood up to the test. The Bolshevik delegates in the Duma (the Czarist semi-parliament), adhering to the directions of the party center, voted against the bill authorizing the funds for war. They were sentenced to life in prison in Siberia. The leaders of the Serbian Socialist party, Liebknecht in Germany, Monatte in France, and Eugene Debs in the United States also followed this difficult path.

Roots of the betrayal

Lenin, for the first time, developed an analysis proving that the opportunist betrayal by the majority of the socialist leaders in the advanced capitalist countries was neither accidental nor simply an expression of weakness in the face of pressure. Lenin not only denounced the Second International parties’ capitulation at the outbreak of World War I. He also advanced for the first time a systematic materialist analysis of their retreat into national chauvinism, political opportunism and patriotism.

This analysis has a poignant relevancy for the struggles going on today inside the global anti-war movement.

As a handful of capitalist nations had evolved into global imperial empires, enriching themselves at the expense of the colonized and enslaved peoples of the world, the “receipt of high monopoly profits by the capitalists … makes it economically possible for them to bribe certain sections of the workers, and for a time a fairly considerable minority of them, and win them to the side of the bourgeoisie of a given industry or given nation against all others.” (1)

The analysis of the rise of a “labor aristocracy” was first made by Friedrich Engels in the context of the political struggles inside the British working class during the second half of the nineteenth century. But it was limited to the British experience and the effect of the far-flung British Empire and all of its colonial possessions on class consciousness inside Britain. Engels predicted that the labor aristocracy in Britain, and its attendant conservative influence over the bulk of the British working class, would exist only as a temporary phenomenon. It would vanish, Engels believed, as the British monopoly over industry, trade and colonies gave way to new competition.

Lenin argued that the embrace of national chauvinism and patriotic capitulation throughout the parties of the Second International proved that the rise of a politically influential labor aristocracy, no matter how small it was numerically inside the working class, was now a permanent feature in the last stage of developed capitalism—what Lenin de scribed as monopoly capitalism or imperialism.

“The important thing is … that in the epoch of imperialism, owing to objective causes, the proletariat has been split into two international camps, one of which has been corrupted by the crumbs that fall from the table of the bourgeoisie of the dominant nations—obtained, among other things, from the double or triple exploitation of small nations,” Lenin wrote. (2)

This is what laid the basis for the transformation of the leaders of the mass socialist parties to become agents of imperialism inside the ranks of the working-class movement at the outbreak of war. They were “socialists in words, imperialists in deed,” Lenin and the Bolsheviks asserted from their jail cells and places of exile.

The existence of opportunism as a trend inside the socialist movement was evident before 1914. At the International Socialist Congress in 1907, a majority of delegates in a commission devoted to the colonial question adopted a draft resolution that stated, “The Congress does not in principle and for all time reject all colonial policy, which, under a socialist regime, may have a civilizing effect.” This wrong-headed draft resolution was eventually defeated at the Congress. Instead, the majority passed a strong resolution condemning colonialism and its inherent promotion of conquests, plunder and violence.

But Lenin, who was present at the Stuttgart conference, noted that the episode was reflective of a deeper problem. He wrote, “Only the proletarian class, which maintains the whole of society, can bring about the social revolution. However, as a result of the extensive colonial policy, the European proletarian partly finds himself in a position when it is not his labor, but the labor of the practically enslaved natives in the colonies, that maintains the whole of society. The British bourgeoisie, for example, derives more profit from the many millions of the population of India and other colonies than from the British workers. In certain countries this provides the material and economic basis for infecting the proletariat with colonial chauvinism. Of course, this may be only a temporary phenomenon, but the evil must nonetheless be clearly realized and its causes understood in order to be able to rally the proletariat of all countries for the struggle against such opportunism.” (3)

Eight years after the Stuttgart Congress and at the beginning of World War I, Lenin concluded that the struggle against opportunism and social chauvinism was a permanent and central strategic task. He noted that a favored quote by Marx now needed amending:

“The Roman proletarian lived at the expense of society. Modern society lives at the expense of the modern proletarian. … Imperialism somewhat changes the situation. A privileged upper stratum of the proletariat in the imperialist countries lives partly at the expense of hundreds of millions” in the colonized world. (4)

Who will lead the anti-war struggle?

The struggle against opportunism and social chauvinism is in the end a battle for leadership. On the one side are the “social” imperialists or “liberal” imperialists who retain a loyalty to the system and the political status quo. They base themselves on privileged elements of society, adhering to the capitalist system and the advantages they obtain from their position in society.

During the current colonial war against Iraq, these forces may have opposed the initial invasion. A year later, they insist that the U.S. occupation must remain to prevent “chaos”—as if Iraqis are unable to run their own country free from the “civilizing” force of U.S. imperialism. This position dovetails with the line of both Republican Bush and Democrat Kerry, insisting that “we” must prevail in Iraq.

The broad mass of the U.S. working class is getting poorer. This section of society doesn’t get a dime out of the imperialist enslavement of other countries. Wages and benefits are going down. The prison population continues to climb, with more than two million behind bars. Prison labor is becoming a bigger and bigger ingredient in the capitalist economy.

The working-class cities are being devastated by cutbacks. In Yonkers, New York, 500 teachers were laid off in September. All music, art and gym classes were scrapped for all students. No money for Yonkers—yet Bush and Congress spend $10 million every hour of every day to finance the occupation and corporate takeover of Iraq and its vast oil resources.

In the final analysis, the political fight against opportunism and social chauvinism is a fundamental feature of the class struggle in the epoch of imperialism. The broad working class and the revolutionary socialist organizations that seek to provide leadership in the class struggle must wage a ceaseless fight against any prejudice pedaled by the capitalists and their apologists in the “loyal opposition.”

The channeling of dissent into harmless safe channels is useful to the political establishment. The refusal on the part of the social imperialists in the anti-war movement to expose the imperialists as the real enemy helps keep the working class infected with the chauvinism, patriotism and racism emanating from big business propaganda.

Working-class internationalism is the only effective antidote. That was the lesson of the ultimate success of the Russian Revolution led by Lenin. It is also the key to victory in the struggle against war, racism and anti-labor attacks today.


1. V.I Lenin, “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.” Selected Works, International Publishers, 1971, p. 261.

2. Lenin, “The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up.” Collected Works (1972), vol. 22, p.343.

3. Lenin, “The International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart.” Collected Works (1972), vol. 13, p. 77.

4. Lenin, “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism.” Collected Works (1972), vol. 23, p. 107.

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