Trotsky quotes Leibknecht T17

“Let us negotiate with Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Zetkin, not the representatives of the Kaiser” – Trotsky in 1917 excerpts

Today, 15 January, marks the 99th anniversary of the assassination of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, leading figures in the German revolutionary movement, killed in an attempt to behead the German revolution.

In our upcoming title, Trotsky in 1917, Trotsky frequently discusses the importance of the fight for socialism internationally. Below, we publish one of the many articles, speeches etc never before translated into English that are appearing for the first time in Trotsky in 1917. In this speech, Trotsky discusses the importance of international solidarity, the hope embodied by figures such as Liebknecht and Luxemburg, the progress of the peace talks – and the need to be prepared to defend the revolution if necessary.

Trotsky in 1917 will be back from the printers on 18 January. You can pre-order the paperback here, or the ebook here.

Indented text is the Izvestia journalists summary of Trotsky’s comments. Text between ‹› indicates an audience interjection. 

‘We will shed the last drop of our blood for peace and for the brotherhood of peoples’

Meeting held 8 December, published 9 December, Izvestia • First translation
This translation is from the minutes of the second Meeting of the Central Executive Committee, published in 1918
CW title: Speech on the Peace Negotiations at the Joint Meeting of the Sovnarkom, CEC, the Petrograd Soviet, the City Duma, and Professional and Workers’ Organisations in the Alexandrov Theatre
The Sovnarkom is an acronym of the Council of People’s Commissars. CEC stands for the Central Executive Committee (of the Soviets)

At the beginning of his speech, comrade Trotsky referred to two characteristic encounters he had had in 1914, after the present war had broken out. To Trotsky’s question about how long the war would last, the German deputy Molkenbur replied: “We think that military operations will not last more than two or three months. Vigorous pressure on Russia, two or three strong blows to France and we will achieve victory, after which the war will end.”

The same confidence in an early end to the war was expressed in an interview with cde Trotsky by a French socialist who thought that France, hurling back the Germans at the battle of the Marne, will move up to the Rhine and, at the same time, Russia with a vigorous offensive will threaten Berlin and at this the war will end.[1]

This is what cde Trotsky’s interlocutors thought and, indeed, anyone who dared to say at that time that the war could drag on for a year or even more was considered a madman. Obviously, those huge living forces, those colossal military resources that the European powers deployed on the arena of battle would guarantee that the war could not last long.

However, this is already the fourth year and humanity is not coming out of the infernal circle of war. Indeed, this war has shown how resilient human beings are, how much unspeakable suffering they can endure, but the war also shows the extent to which barbarism is still preserved in modern man. Technological progress never achieved such heights as at present, people have conquered space with the radiotelegraph, they effortlessly rise skyward without fear of the elements – and the same people crawl on their knees in filth, making their homes in trenches and there, through their peepholes, do their abominable business under orders from the ruling classes. Human beings – the rulers of nature – sit in these embrasures, and like in a prison cell scrutinise other humans through their peepholes as future prey.

This is how far man has fallen in this war. It is an insult to humanity, to its flesh, to its spirit, to its blood, when you consider that human beings, having passed through a long series of cultural stages – Christianity, absolutism, parliamentarism, imbibing the idea of socialism – are now, like pitiful slaves under the lash of the ruling classes, murdering each other. And if this should end with people again returning to their cattle stalls, picking up those pitiful crumbs that the bourgeoisie tosses to them, if this war finishes with the triumph of imperialism, then it wouldn’t have been worth humanity’s suffering and the colossal intellectual effort carried out over millennia. But this will not happen, it must not happen! ‹stormy applause›

At Zimmerwald were gathered the internationalists who were being mercilessly persecuted by the chauvinists of all countries.[2] We were a small handful, three dozen people. It seemed that the entire past of socialism had been submerged by a bloody wave of chauvinist blindness and that we were the last remnants of a great but now closed chapter. We have received a letter from cde Liebknecht, incarcerated in a fortress by the German tyrants.[3] He writes to us that we should not be worried that we are few, he is certain that our labours and efforts will not be in vain. It is possible to deal with a lone individual easily and with impunity, but in the hearts of the peoples a belief in revolutionary socialism will not be broken. In saying this, Karl Liebknecht is deceiving no-one, life ever more strongly and clearly bears out his hope.

Cde Trotsky in the name of the meeting declares: “Long live our friend, the staunch fighter for socialism, Karl Liebknecht!” ‹stormy applause. From the hall, voices ring out: We demand the freedom of Liebknecht and Fritz Adler!› Other internationalists, Fritz [Friedrich] Adler, Höglund, Rosa Luxemburg, etc, who domestic imperialist governments labelled as being in the pay of enemy states, were accused of treason and have been incarcerated in dungeons.[4]

The speaker eloquently points to a whole series of facts that their efforts, steadfastly raising the voice of protest against the oppression of the peoples by a small group of rapacious imperialists, have not gone unheeded. No methods, no coercion will succeed in erasing from the consciousness of the peoples the criminality of this war that brings only ruin and suffering.

Turning to the struggle for peace, initiated by us, the speaker says:

We can regret that events are not developing as rapidly as we would wish but ‘the earth nevertheless continues to go around’. There is no place for despair. In Russia, in young, uncultured, backward Russia, where the tyranny of tsarist government pressed down particularly hard, the banner of revolutionary struggle was unfurled sooner than in other countries. We were the first. But the same reasons that pushed our masses into struggle are present in all countries, independent of the national temperament of this or that nation. Sooner or later these reasons will tell. The fact that during the war we overthrew the tsar and the bourgeoisie, the fact that in a country of 180 million people what was, until recently, still a small group came to power – this fact has world-historical significance and will always be imprinted on the consciousness of the working masses of all countries.

Having risen up in the land of Europe’s gendarme (as the esteemed Nikolai Romanov was styled), the Russian people declare that they wish to speak with their brothers-in-arms in Germany, Austria, Turkey, etc, not in the language of arms but in the language of the international solidarity of the toilers of all countries.[5] This nation declared openly to the whole world that it does not need conquest, it will not encroach on others’ possessions and that it seeks only the brotherhood of peoples and the freedom of labour. This fact cannot be eliminated from the consciousness of the popular masses of all countries suffering under the yoke of the war. Sooner or later they will hear our voice and stretch out a helping hand.

But even if were to suppose that the enemies of the people conquered us and we perished, if the land of the conquerors crushed us, if we were reduced to dust, our memory would still pass from generation to generation and awaken our children to a new struggle. To be sure, our situation would have been much easier if the peoples of Europe had risen together with us, if we had to parley not with General Hoffmann and Count Czernin, but with Karl Liebknecht, Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg.[6] This has not happened and we cannot be blamed for that. Our brothers in Germany cannot blame us for negotiating with their sworn enemy, the Kaiser, behind their backs. We are talking to him as to an enemy – we do not soften our irreconcilable hostility to this tyrant.

The truce has brought a pause in hostilities, the roar of the guns is silenced. Everyone is anxiously waiting to hear with what voice the Soviet government will talk with the Hohenzollern and Hapsburg imperialists.[7] You must support us in this so that we should talk with them as with enemies of freedom, its suppressors, and not one atom of freedom is sacrificed to imperialism. Only then will the true meaning of our efforts and goals penetrate deeply into the consciousness of the German and Austrian people. If this third force – the voice of the working class – which must play a decisive role, does not awaken and does not exert a powerful influence, then peace will not be possible. But I think the Rubicon has been crossed and there will be no return to the past.

We have a growing confidence that the peace negotiations will become a powerful weapon in the hands of the people in the struggle for peace. But if we should be mistaken, if a deadly silence should continue to persist in Europe, if this silence gave Wilhelm the opportunity to attack and dictate terms, humiliating to the revolutionary dignity of our country, then I don’t know whether we could fight on under conditions of a ruined economy and general collapse, a consequence of the war and internal upheaval. I think that, yes we could! ‹stormy applause› For our life, for our revolutionary honour, we would fight to the last drop of blood. ‹new outburst of applause›

The tired and old would leave. But we would say that our honour is in danger, we would issue the call and create a mighty and powerful army with the revolutionary enthusiasm of the soldiers and Red Guards who would fight to the end. We have still not played our cards. Because, comrades, our enemies and the Allied imperialists must understand that we did not overthrow the tsar and the bourgeoisie to go down on our knees to the German Kaiser, to bow down to foreign militarism and to pray for peace.

If they propose conditions to us and to all countries contrary to the basis of our revolution, we would present these terms to the constituent assembly and say, make up your mind! If the constituent assembly accepts these terms then the Bolshevik Party would leave and say, find yourself another party that will sign these terms. We, the party of Bolsheviks, and I hope the Left SRs, would then call everyone to a holy war against the militarists of all countries.[8] stormy and prolonged applause›

If due to the economic collapse we cannot fight – if we have to renounce the struggle for our ideals, then we will say to our comrades abroad that the proletarian struggle is not over, it is only postponed, like in 1905 when, crushed by the tsar, we didn’t complete the struggle with tsarism we only postponed it. That is why we enter the peace negotiations without pessimistic or dark thoughts. However much the bourgeois press rages, and repeats over and over again that our negotiations will hurt the interests of democracy, we will not halt in our path because everything they attribute to us is lies and slander.

They call us traitors to the people of Britain and France because we are allegedly guilty for new forces bearing down on the Allies, transferred from the eastern front. But you know that the Russian delegation strongly insisted that the German general staff did not transfer soldiers from the Russian front to the west. General Hoffmann hotly objected and used every effort to reject this point, but we didn’t give in and a transfer of forces is not now being implemented.

Cde Trotsky shows two maps of the western front in September and October, from which it is clear that in the course of these two months there was a large transfer of forces from ours to the western front. But in these two months, the speaker says, we were not in power and peace negotiations were not then taking place….

We did not even cede to that point put forward by the Germans for the cessation of propaganda among the German troops. We replied that we had come to Brest to negotiate with the German generals about a cessation of military operations, but for the rest, in particular revolutionary propaganda, we will conduct negotiations without them. We are presently negotiating with German peasants and proletarians in uniform. There, among them, our real people’s diplomacy of the trenches is unfolding. ‹stormy applause›

Next, cde Trotsky moves to a characterisation of the attitude that bourgeois imperialist circles of all countries adopt, using a lackey press for the creation of an atmosphere of hatred and resentment towards the Russian revolution, towards the actions of the Soviet government and towards the toiling masses of the entire world, awakening to the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism and imperialism. Cde Trotsky makes public a series of documents showing that inside Russia there are representatives of foreign powers who are playing an active role in the organisation of counter-revolutionary rebellion.

From these documents it is clear, for example, how representatives of the American mission in Russia attempted, under cover of using the good offices of the Red Cross in Jassi, to take automobiles to the Don and transfer them to Kaledin’s bands.[9] These documents show that the threads of the affair lead to the American ambassador, Francis. This American ambassador, Sir Francis [sic] from the time of the insurrection was the most silent of all the diplomats. Evidently, he consistently and firmly held to the principle attributed to the diplomat Bismarck, that ‘silence is golden, speech is silver’. But Sir Francis must, at the end of the day, break his silence and give an explanation for the affair revealed by the documents that have been made public. Let us hear some of Sir Francis’s silver tongued eloquence! ‹laughter›

Let the representatives of foreign powers know that we are not so weak that they can attack us with impunity. We say this to everyone, in particular to the German and Austrian diplomats. If they think, as representatives of foreign powers, under cover of the Red Cross and using dirty money, they can support Kaledin then they are mistaken. From that moment when their role in helping the counter-revolution becomes clear, they will become for us private individuals and the heavy boot of the revolution will descend on them with all its force. ‹stormy applause›

The bourgeoisie is rich in gold and dollars that serve in their hands as weapons of oppression. We do not have these resources, but we are just as strong, relying on independent revolutionary strength. They have only gold, we have the sympathy of the masses and socialist principles. With these principles we will beat the enemy and, in a generalised proletarian struggle against all imperialists – not only the Germans, but against Messrs. Clemenceau, Lloyd George and the rest – we will win or perish![10] ‹stormy applause› Let everyone know that we will not succumb to the Anglo-American bourgeoisie, we will not surrender to the blandishments of the European exchanges. If necessary we will shed the last drop of our blood for our revolutionary dignity, for our honour, for peace and for the brotherhood of peoples. ‹stormy, prolonged, unremitting applause turning into a standing ovation›

[1]  See Trotsky on World War One, published by the Socialist Party, 2015.


[2]  Zimmerwald is a village in Switzerland where the first anti-war conference of socialist internationalists was held in 1915.


[3]  Liebknecht was a leading German revolutionary. Imprisoned for anti-war campaigning, he would be released by the onset of the German revolution, and later murdered by the reactionary forces.


[4]  Adler was the secretary of the Austrian Social Democratic party until 1916, when he was imprisoned for assassinating the Austrian Premier as an anti-war gesture. Later played a leading role in the Second International. Höglund was a Swedish revolutionary, imprisoned for anti-war campaigning and released in May 1917. Later helped to found the Communist Party of Sweden, but later rejoined the Social Democratic Party. Luxemburg was a leading German revolutionary, imprisoned for anti-war campaigning. She was later freed by the German revolution, in which she played a leading role, and was subsequently murdered by reactionary forces on the same day as Liebknecht.


[5]  Romanov is a reference to former Tsar Nicholas II.


[6]  Hoffmann was chief-of-staff of the German 8th Army. Czernin was foreign minister of the government of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Zetkin was an anti-war socialist in Germany, and a member of the Spartacist League together with Luxemburg and Liebknecht.


[7]  Hohenzollern and Hapsburg were the family names of the German and Austro-Hungarian emperors respectively. The German emperor, Wilhelm II, is later referred to in this article just as Wilhelm.


[8]  The Left SRs were the anti-war minority in the Social Revolutionary (SR) Party.


[9]  Kaledin, a Cossack cavalry general under the tsarist regime, was one of the first to organise an armed attack on the new Soviet hovernment. He killed himself in February 1918. Jassi is a town on the then Romanian/Russian border.


[10] Clemenceau and Lloyd George were, respectively, heads of government of France and Britain.

© Socialist Publications 2018

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