Where is Lenin when we need him?
A damaged statue of Vladimir Lenin stands in Debaltseve, Ukraine. The Ukrainian Army shot up the statue for target practice while it occupied the town. Nationalism and imperialism are tearing apart peoples that were once fraternally joined in the Soviet Union, a country founded following the 1917 revolution that Lenin led. | Evgeniy Maloletka / AP

One can draw historical parallels only so far before they break down. No two time periods are exactly alike, but sometimes one can see striking similarities between them. That is true about the current war in Ukraine and World War I. Though much is different today than in the 1914-18 period, similarities exist.

History teachers usually highlight four main reasons for the First World War: 1.) imperialism; 2.) militarism; 3.) nationalism; and 4.) secret alliances. Each of these plays a role in today’s conflict.

Imperialism: There is a clash of imperial ambitions between Russia on the one hand and the United States, and its leading European allies in NATO, on the other.

Nationalism: The Russian and Ukrainian governments both appeal to their people for support with nationalistic arguments.

Militarism: One need only to look at the billions of dollars spent by the United States on arms to prop up the Ukrainian regime. At the same time, Russia is no slouch; it has one of the largest armed forces and military budgets on Earth and built up its forces on Ukraine’s borders for weeks in advance of the invasion. Both sides orchestrated a series of military exercises in the region before we got to the present war.

Secret alliances: Though not secret, NATO is a major player. It gives the United States the support it needs to carry out its program of challenging Russian influence in Eastern Europe.

In 1914, these ingredients exploded into what was at that time the deadliest war in human history. The amount of money spent, the lives lost, and the destruction went far beyond any conflict since the dawn of history. (It would only be surpassed by World War II. One can only shudder to think what World War III might be like.)

At that time, most of the industrialized countries of the world had socialist parties, ostensibly the representatives of the working class. In Britain, it was the Labour Party, in Germany the Social Democratic Party, in Russia the Socialist Democratic Labor Party, and in France the Socialist Party, among others. In the United States, the Socialist Party played a small but important role. Previously, they had all joined together to form the Socialist International, a movement with the goal of ending capitalism and replacing it with a new economic order.

And in that spirit, during the events leading up to the outbreak of hostilities, each one declared its opposition to fighting an imperialist war. But when push came to shove, the majority of their leaders buckled and supported their country’s war effort.

There were significant holdouts, however. The Socialist Party of America took a strong anti-war stance, with its best-known leader, Eugene V. Debs, going to prison for his opposition. Other parties split, the foremost of which was the Russian party. Led by Vladimir Lenin, the Bolshevik wing took a militant stance against the fighting.

Lenin wrote in November 1914, in The War and Russian Social Democracy: “The German bourgeoisie heads one group of belligerent nations. It is deluding the working class and the laboring masses by asserting that it is waging war in defense of the fatherland, freedom, and civilization, for the liberation of the peoples oppressed by tsardom […] The other group of belligerent nations is headed by the British and French bourgeoisie, which is deluding the working class and the laboring masses by asserting that it is waging war for the defense of their native lands, freedom, and civilization, against the militarism and despotism of Germany.”

The common soldiers on both sides were nothing more than cannon fodder for the capitalist war effort, the Russian leader argued.

Lenin’s principled stand against the imperialist war was an impetus for the Russian working class and peasantry to rise up, overthrow the Tsar, replace the corrupt Provisional government, and seize power with the goal of ending Russia’s participation in the slaughter so that they could begin building socialism.

This world-shaking victory brought together militants and activists from all over the world to found the Communist International. A major force among revolutionaries, it became a major bulwark in the growth of the world’s communist and workers’ movement, and in the 1930s was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the defeat of fascism in World War II.

Though in a very different form today, communists remain dedicated to global solidarity in the International Meeting of Communist and Workers Parties.

What we need now is for all peace-loving progressive people and organizations to denounce this war and to call for an international conference to settle the questions of security for all Europe, for the whole world. We can’t let the governments of the major Atlantic powers have the only voice in the future of our Earth.

We need to organize massive pro-peace demonstrations, much like those that took place before the beginning of the Iraq War. We need to circulate petitions to give voice to the billions around the world who desire peace. We need a strong, vibrant peace movement. There is no alternative.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


David Cavendish
David Cavendish

David Cavendish is a retired teacher, active in the union movement, the peace movement (many years in an anti-Iraq/Afghanistan War vigil), and other progressive political activities. He is a longtime contributor to People’s World. David Cavendish es un maestro jubilado, activo en el movimiento sindical, el movimiento por la paz y otras actividades políticas progresistas. Colabora desde hace mucho tiempo en People’s World.