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1915: Socialist women unite against war

March 28, 2015

100 years ago today: The first international socialist conference against World War 1

By John Riddell. Eight months into the First World War, socialist women united across the battle-lines in adopting the first international socialist appeal to stop the war.

Their statement, translated below, ended, “Down with capitalism, which sacrifices untold millions to the wealth and power of the propertied! Down with the war! Forward to socialism!”

The 29 conference delegates came from Russia, Poland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, France, and Britain. They met March 26-28, 1915, in the People’s House of Bern in neutral Switzerland.

Clara Zetkin

Clara Zetkin

The conference originated on the proposal made by an exiled Russian Bolshevik, Inessa Armand, to Clara Zetkin, head of the Socialist Women’s Movement that had been affiliated to the prewar Second International. Zetkin organized the gathering and drafted its final statement.

Zetkin’s text, while anti-capitalist in its thrust, focused closely on the goal of peace, while avoiding mention of the split among socialists that had caused the Second International to collapse when war was declared.

The Bolshevik delegates supported an alternative text that attacked the leadership of “most socialist parties of the belligerent countries” for having “committed a real betrayal in respect of socialism, supplanting it with nationalism.”

Inessa Armand

Inessa Armand

The Bolshevik draft pointed out that “imperialism threatens the world with a series of wars, unless the proletariat musters enough strength to put an end to the capitalist system.” The suffering of imperialist wars can be ended “only through a revolutionary mass movement, and a strengthening and sharpening of socialist struggle.”[1]

Zetkin’s text was approved by a vote of 21 to 6. The Bolsheviks and the Polish delegate (Anna Kamenska) voted against, but joined in editing the final text and in common work after the conference.

The conference manifesto was widely distributed underground in the warring countries and helped lay the groundwork for the historic international antiwar conference in Zimmerwald, Switzerland, five months later.

 Women of the working people![2]

Where are your husbands? Where are your sons?

For eight months they have been at the front – torn from their work and their home. Youth, the support and hope of their parents; men in the prime of their life; men with graying hair, the providers for their families: clothed in uniforms, they all live in the trenches, under orders to destroy everything that diligent labor has created.

Already, millions lie in mass graves. Many hundreds of thousands lie in the hospitals with shattered bodies, smashed limbs, sightless eyes, and broken minds, gripped by epidemics or prostrated by exhaustion.

Villages and cities burned to the ground; bridges reduced to rubble; forests destroyed; fields churned up and cratered – that is what their deeds have produced.

Proletarian women! You have been told that your husbands and sons have been taken away to protect you, weak women, and your children, your house, and your hearth. What is the reality? The shoulders of “weak” women must now bear a double burden. Defenseless, you are delivered over to grief and deprivation. Your children go hungry and freeze; you face threats to take your home; your hearth is cold and empty.

You have been told about a great brotherhood and sisterhood between the high and the lowly, about a “civil peace” between the rich and the poor.[3] But the civil peace finds expression when the employers drive down your wages; merchants and unscrupulous speculators raise prices; and landlords threaten to throw you on the street. The government is miserly toward you, while bourgeois charity sets up soup kitchens and advises you to be frugal.

What is the purpose of this war, which inflicts on you such dreadful suffering? You are told it is for the good of the country, the defense of the fatherland. What is the good of the fatherland? Doesn’t it mean the well-being of the many millions that the war converts into corpses, cripples, jobless, beggars, widows, and orphans?

What has placed the fatherland in danger? Is it the men in other uniforms on the other side of the border? But they wanted war just as little as your husbands. They are just as ignorant of why they should murder their brothers who wear different uniforms. No! The fatherland is endangered by all those who grow rich from the suffering of the broad masses and base their rule on oppression.

Who benefits from the war? Only a small minority in every nation. First of all, manufacturers of rifles and cannon, of armor plate and submarines; the owners of docks and suppliers to the army. To increase their profits, they fomented hate between different peoples and so contributed to the outbreak of war.

The war serves the interests of the capitalists as a whole. The labor of disinherited and exploited masses produced heaps of goods that cannot be consumed by their creators. They are too poor; they cannot pay! The workers’ sweat produced these goods; workers’ blood is now shed to win them new markets abroad. Colonies must be conquered, where capitalists will pillage the earth’s treasures and exploit the cheapest labor power.

This war’s goal is not to defend the fatherland but to expand it. That is ordained by the capitalist order, which cannot exist without the exploitation and oppression of some human beings by others.

Workers have nothing to gain from this war and stand to lose everything that is near and dear to them.

Working women! The men of the working class have been brought to silence. The war has dulled their consciousness, paralyzed their will power, and distorted their whole being.

But on top of the gnawing concern for your loved ones at the front, you women endure poverty and distress at home. Why should you wait before expressing your desire for peace and your protest against the war? Why do you recoil? You have endured for the sake of your loved ones, your sons and husbands; now you must act on their behalf!

Stop the slaughter! This cry rings out in every language. Millions of proletarian women raise this call. It echoes back from the trenches, where the consciousness of the people’s sons rebels against this slaughter.

Women of the working people! In these harsh times, Socialist women from Germany, Britain, France, and Russia have come together. Their hearts are moved by your needs and your suffering. For the sake of your future and that of your loved ones, they call on you to work for peace. Just as they found a path to unity across the trenches, so you too must come together, in all countries, to raise a single cry: Peace! Peace!

The world war has imposed on you great sacrifices. Sons born of your pain and suffering, raised through your care and effort, your husbands – your companions in the hard struggle to survive – all are taken from you. Compared with these sacrifices, all others are small and insignificant. All humankind is looking to you, proletarian women of the warring countries. You must become the heroines who will deliver them!

Join together in common purpose and common action. Proclaim in your millions what your sons cannot yet affirm:

Laboring people of all countries are brothers. Only their common will can put an end to the slaughter. Socialism alone will assure the future peace of humankind.

Down with capitalism, which sacrifices untold millions to the wealth and power of the propertied!

Down with the war! Forward to socialism!

Other articles in the ‘100 years ago’ this series

This article also appears in “Socialist Worker (US).”


[1]. John Riddell, ed., Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1984, p. 277. See also R. Craig Nation, War on War, Chicago: Haymarket, 2009 (1989), pp. 68-71.

[2]. Translated from Dokumente und Materialien zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, series 2, vol. 1, pp. 125-7.

[3]. “Civil peace” (Burgfrieden) was the concept that the capitalist class, on one side, and the Social Democracy and trade unions, on the other, would suspend mutually hostile activity during the war.

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