Socialism and International War

I read this article on socialism in 1914 trying to understand why the socialist revolution never happened in the United States or in Western Europe; why, instead of the workers uniting to fight their oppressors, they divided according to their supposed national identities and fought each other; why socialism has been in a steady decline since 1914 (despite the supposed existence of socialism from 1917 until today).

This is the article:

I’ll quote extensively so you won’t have to read it, and I’ll only add a few comments of my own.

“For the leadership of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), undoubtedly the centre of gravity within the International, the vote for war credits was partly justified as a means of entry into the inner sanctum of power: it was hoped that this vote, and in particular the unanimity of the vote, would make the party respectable. Whether or not the SPD succeeded on these terms, the vote certainly killed the Socialist International, and it did so in a way that was immediately recognised by contemporaries as a ‘seminal moment in the history of socialism’”.

”While they were caught unawares by the swift move to war and offered little by way of concrete proposals to stop it, this is perhaps best understood as a function of how they had allowed themselves, prior to 1914, to become enmeshed within what were de facto reformist organisations, albeit reformist organisations that bowed before revolutionary rhetoric… [However, they also] believed their government’s claims that Germany was merely preparing to defend itself from Russian and French aggression”

Engels believed violence was unavoidable, ”in 1891 he reminded his comrades that socialism could only be realised through a revolutionary regime similar to the Paris Commune,” but the reformists were content with a more moderate practice and their revolutionary-reformist “compromise could hold so long as, on the one hand, the working class was maintained in its ‘pariah’ status by the German state while; on the other hand, revolution was not on the immediate political agenda as economic growth gave rise to improvements in workers’ living standards.”

The contentment of business-as-usual among the labour leadership was bolstered as the ”economic boom from the mid-1890s underpinned a massive expansion of trade unionism that in turn strengthened the social base of reformism within the party.” The opposition within the labour movement called this attitude opportunism.

“[Schorske] explains this behaviour, as did Luxemburg, by the conservative function and structure of the union bureaucracy. Massimo Salvadori similarly notes that Kautsky failed to comprehend that which Luxemburg so clearly perceived: ‘a cleavage between a “goal” that was socialist and a “means” that was ever more thoroughly administered by a conservative and moderate bureaucracy, which was now concerned to fortify the organisation solely within the dominant system.’”

“The bureaucracy grew in strength and became increasingly tied to the state. Rather than view this process as a problem, Kautsky saw it as part of the solution. Indeed, his political pronouncements came increasingly to converge with Bernstein’s revisionism. Thus in 1912 he wrote: ‘The objective of our political struggle remains what it has been up to now: the conquest of state power through the conquest of a majority in parliament and the elevation of parliament to a commanding position within the state. Certainly not the destruction of state power.’”

“Just as war was looming, Kautsky threw his weight behind a utopian foreign policy that obscured the real forces leading to war while simultaneously supporting those elements of the party who were dampening the militancy of the one agency that had the potential power to stop the war: the working class.”

“R Craig Nation is right to argue that though Luxemburg issued dire warnings about social democracy, these ‘never took the form of a comprehensive political challenge.’ Indeed, in the decades before 1914 the most important political challenge to Social Democracy came not from Luxemburg and the left but from Bernstein and the right of the movement.”

Bernstein famously called for socialists to embrace ‘Kant against cant’. The cant to which he referred was the meaningless revolutionary rhetoric of what was in practice a reformist organisation, while the interpretation of Immanuel Kant with which he sought to replace it included “a high degree of that scientific impartiality which is always ready to acknowledge errors and recognise new truths” alongside a recognition that socialists should be able to justify the sort of society they were fighting for morally.

The article now shifts to Lenin and his theoretical approach to this problem of reformism, revolution and organization. I don’t fully agree with the following, but I’ll return to that after.

“Lenin followed Hegel to claim that:

‘The activity of man, who has made an objective picture of the world for himself, changes external actuality, abolishes its determinates (=alters some sides or other, qualities, of it) and thus removes from it the features of semblance, externality and nullity, and makes it as being in and for itself (=objectively true).'”

“Lenin understood that subjective practical activity lay at the centre of the ‘objective’ world, and consequently insisted that social scientific laws should not be ‘fetishised’ as things distinct from conscious human activity but instead be recognised as necessarily ‘narrow, incomplete, and approximate’ attempts to frame political intervention… For Lenin ‘man’s consciousness not only reflects the objective world but creates it.’”

“As John Rees suggests, in the Philosophical Notebooks Lenin came to recognise that ‘practice overcomes the distinction between subjective and objective and the gap between essence and appearance’”.

“Lenin conceived imperialism neither fatalistically as a moment in capitalism’s supposed self-transformation into socialism nor voluntaristically as an abhorrent policy to be condemned from some abstract moral perspective. Rather he explained it as a specific historical form of capitalism that created the potential for, and hence informed a politics that oriented towards, the emergence of a historically specific and socially concrete possible alternative: workers’ power in the metropolis in alliance with national liberation movements in the colonies.”

“Lenin pointed towards a model of political practice that, unlike fatalism, was really subjective and unlike voluntarism offered the potential of real social transformation.”

“Lenin recognised that the form taken by political parties depends on their function: reformist parties tend to mirror the ward and constituency structures of local councils and national parliaments while anarchist organisations are much less centralised because they aim at fostering a plurality of forms of direct action. Because neither reformists nor anarchists orient to smash state power—reformists want to win state power while anarchists generally aim to bypass it—their organisations will differ from the organisational forms taken by revolutionary socialist parties.”

“Marx famously wrote that:

‘The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism…is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism—which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.'”

“If Second International Marxism had degenerated into a form of pre-Marxist materialism, Bernstein’s alternative merely inverted the error by returning to a pre-Marxist form of idealism. Lenin’s reading of Hegel helped him to overcome this opposition.”

So, I disagree with the idea that Lenin found the key to the riddle here. To me it’s mostly just rhetoric that can be used to justify any action whatsoever. There is an important theoretical point though, which is the reiteration of Marx’s transcendentalism. This is a key feature of Marx’s entire philosophical system and whether you’re a materialist, idealist or transcendentalist this is necessary to understand if you want to understand Marx (and by extension, the most comprehensive critique of capital.)

As far as the non-Lenin socialist history concerns, it seems to have been a fairly straight-forward matter of moderation getting the upper hand, first through Bismarck, then passivity among the revolutionaries, then the First Red Scare and to puncture it completely the National Socialists. The theoretical analyses of the state and imperialism remain rather solid, but in terms of organization and action we’re still lacking and we don’t even know which deficiency is most urgent to address and we see in the posturing and in the moderation today a repeat of history with tedious predictability. Basically, if we want to get rid of the puppet masters we need to git gud.

Jack London, in his 1908 The Iron Heel wrote about a possible future wherein history (from the perspective of this alternate future) is described partly as it happened and partly in fiction. He describes in the book how organized labour demanded higher wages and got it through the state, meaning the unorganized labour had to pay for it. In addition, this labour aristocracy, and the privileged unions favoured by the rulers, cut better deals at the expense of the rest and thus were in a position to want to preserve the status quo. Another example of successful divide-and-conquer. Furthermore, he believed that a general strike could stop international war, but in the book the American Oligarchy then overcame the proletariat. His description of the Oligarchy matches fairly well the governing of the world today.

“As far back as 1906 A.D., Lord Avebury, an Englishman, uttered the following in the House of Lords: ‘The unrest in Europe, the spread of socialism, and the ominous rise of Anarchism, are warning to the governments and the ruling classes that the condition of the working classes in Europe is becoming intolerable, and that if a revolution is to be avoided some steps must be taken to increase wages, reduce the hours of labor, and lower the prices of the necessaries of life.’ The Wall Street Journal, a stock gamesters’ publication, in commenting upon Lord Avebury’s speech, said, ‘These words were spoken by an aristocrat and a member of the most conservative body in all Europe. That gives them all the more significance. They contain more valuable political economy than is to be found in most of the books. They sound a note of warning. Take heed, gentlemen of the war and the navy departments!’

At the same time, Sydney Brooks, writing in America in Harper’s Weekly, said: ‘You will not hear the socialists mentioned in Washington. Why should you? The politicians are always the last people in this country to see what is going on under their noses. They will jeer at me when I prophesy, and prophesy with the utmost confidence, that at the next presidential election the socialists will poll over a million votes.’

The oligarchy wanted the war with Germany, and it wanted the war for a dozen reasons. In the juggling of events such a war would cause in the reshuffling of the international cards and the making of new treaties and alliances, the Oligarchy had much to gain. And furthermore, the war would consume many national surpluses, reduce the armies of unemployed that menaced all countries and give the Oligarchy a breathing space in which to perfect its plans and carry them out. Such a war would virtually put the Oligarchy in possession of the world market. Also, such a war created a large and standing army that need never be disbanded. In the minds of the people would be substituted the issue America versus Germany in place of socialism versus oligarchy. And truly the war would have done all these things had it not been for the socialists…

Note: It was at the very beginning of the twentieth century A.D., that the international organization of the socialists finally formulated their long-maturing policy on war. Epitomized their doctrine was: ‘Why should the workingmen of one country fight with the workingmen of another country for the benefit of their capitalist masters?’

On May 21, 1905 A.D., when war threatened between Austria and Italy, the socialists of Italy, Austria and Hungary held a conference at Trieste, and threatened a general strike of the workingmen of both countries in case war was declared. This was repeated the following year, when the ‘Morocco Affair’ threatened to involve France, Germany and England. [Today called the ‘First Moroccan Crisis’ or the ‘Tangier Crisis’.]”

The German socialists were ready to act with us. There were over 5 million of them, many of the them in the standing army, and in addition they were on friendly terms with the labour unions. In both countries the socialists came out in bold declaration against the war and threatened the general strike and in the meantime they made preparations for the general strike. Furthermore, the revolutionary parties in all countries gave public utterance to the socialist principle of international peace that must be preserved at all hazards, even to the extent of revolt and revolution at home. The general strike was the one great victory we American socialists won…

Germany and the U.S. declared war and within an hour, the socialists called a general strike in both countries. For the first time, the German warlord faced the men of his empire who made his empire go. Without them, he could not run his empire. The novelty of the situation lay in that their revolt was passive, they did not fight, they did nothing. and by doing nothing they tied their warlord’s hands. He would have asked for nothing better than an opportunity to lose his war-dogs on his rebellious proletariat, but this was denied him. He could not lose his war-dogs, neither could he mobilize his army to go forth to war nor could he punish his recalcitrous subjects. Nothing moved in his empire, not a train ran, not a telegraphic message went over the wires, for the telegraphers and railroad men had seized work along with the rest of the population. And, as it was in germany, so it was in the United States.

At the last all organized labour had learned its lesson, beaten decisively on its own chosen field it had abandoned that field and come over to the political field of the socialists. For the general strike was a political strike. besides, organized labour had been so badly beaten that it did not care, it joined in the general strike out of sheer desperation. The workers threw down their tools and left their tasks by the millions, especially notable were the machinists. Their heads were bloody, their organization had apparently been destroyed, yet out they came along with their allies in the metalworking traits. Even the common laborers and all unorganized labor seized work. The strike had tied everything up so that nobody could work. Besides, the women proved to be the strongest promoters of the strike. They set their faces against the war, they did not want their men to go forth to die. Then also the idea of the general strike caught the mood of the people. It struck their sense of humor, the idea was infectious. The children struck in all the schools and such teachers as came went home again from deserted classrooms. The general strike took the form of a great national picnic and the idea of the solidarity of labour so evidenced appealed to the imagination of all. And finally, there was no danger to being hurt by the colossal frolic. When everybody was guilty, how was anybody to be punished?

The United States was paralyzed. No one knew what was happening. there were no newspapers, no letters, to dispatches, every community was as completely isolated as though 10,000 miles of primeval wilderness stretched between it and the rest of the world. For that matter, the world had seized to exist. And for a week the state of affairs was maintained. In San Fransisco we did not know what was happening even across the bay in Oakland or Berkeley, the effect on one’s sensibilities was weird, depressing, it seemed as though some great cosmic thing lay dead, the pulse of the land had seized to beat. In truth, the nation had died, there were no wagons rumbling on the streets, no factory whistles, no hum of electricity in the air, no passing of street cars, no crimes of news boys, nothing but persons who at rare intervals went by like furtive ghosts, themselves depressed and made unreal by the silence. And during that week of silence the Oligarchy was taught its lesson and well it learned the lesson. The general strike was a warning, it should never occur again. the Oligarchy would see to that.

At the end of the week, as had been pre-arranged, the telegraphers of Germany and the United States returned to their posts. Through them the socialist leaders of both countries presented their ultimatum to the rulers: The war should be called off or the general strike would continue. It did not take long to come to an understanding, the war was declared off and the populations of both centuries returned to their tasks. It was this renewal of peace that brought about the alliance between Germany and the United States. In reality, this was an alliance between the Emperor and the Oligarchy for the purpose of meeting their common foe, the revolutionary proletariat of both countries. And it was this alliance that the Oligarchy so treacherously broke when the german socialists seized and drove the warlord from his throne. It was the very thing the oligarchy had hoped for, the destruction of its great rival in the world market. With the German Emperor out of the way, Germany would have no surplus to sell abroad. By the very nature of the socialist state, the German population would consume all that it produced. Of course it would trade abroad certain things it produced for certain things it did not produce, but this would be quite different from an unconsumable surplus. [Btw, this was written long before the time of U.S. aid policy to dump surplus in weaker economies.]

‘I’ll wager the oligarchy finds justification’ Ernest said, when its treachery to the German Emperor became known, ‘as usual, the oligarchy will believe it has done right. And sure enough, the Oligarchy’s puppet defense for the act was that it had done it for the sake of the American people whose interest it was looking out for. It had flung its hated rival out of the world market, and enabled us to dispose of our surplus in that market. And the howling folly of it is that we are so hopeless that such idiots really are managing our interests,’ was Ernest’s comment. ‘They have enabled us to sell more abroad which means they will be compelled to consume less at home.'”


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