In early August 1914, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), voted in favor of war credits in support of German imperialism’s drive to war. The SPD was the leading party in the Second International, its membership exceeding one million, its influence in international socialism unparalleled. The other European parties soon followed its lead in support of predatory imperialism. This outrageous act of treachery divided the international, between those who defended their “own” national governments and those who hewed to a principled revolutionary internationalism. Lenin, along with comrades such as Luxemburg, Liebknecht, and Trotsky, remained steadfast among the latter, although they were a minority.
By the summer of 1915, Lenin articulated the perspective of the internationalist revolutionary wing of social democracy in opposition to the opportunists’ defense of nationalism. The product of this is the short and brilliant polemic, The Collapse of the Second International. It is not only a shimmering example of a principled intervention in a concrete political situation, it is a precis of core Leninist ideas about the development of revolutionary situations, the role of communists in mass movements, the fundamental importance of revolutionary organization, and imperialism, and for these reasons, is still timely and a must read for twenty-first century communists. The text in its entirety can be accessed here.
Lenin’s polemical target in Collapse is “social chauvinism” and its ideologists. As Lenin discusses in Part VII:
By social-chauvinism we mean acceptance of the idea of the defence of the fatherland in the present imperialist war, justification of an alliance between socialists and the bourgeoisie and the governments of their “own” countries in this war, a refusal to propagate and support proletarian revolutionary action against one’s “own” bourgeoisie, etc.
Further: “It is perfectly obvious that social-chauvinism’s basic ideological and political content fully coincides with the foundations of opportunism. It is one and the same tendency […] The idea of class collaboration is opportunism’s main feature.” Early in the text Lenin clarifies the problem: “Formulating the question in a scientific fashion, i.e., from the standpoint of class relations in modern society”, most social democratic parties with the SPD at their head, “have taken sides with their General Staffs, their governments, and their bourgeoisie, against the proletariat.” His objective in the Collapse is to answer, from a scientific, i.e., a Marxist, standpoint, the question of why, in the defining crisis of its history, social democracy so abjectly capitulated.
Lenin reminds readers of the resolutions of the Basel international socialist congress and German SPD congress at Chemnitz, both in 1912. In particular, Basel anticipated the imminent war, correctly analyzed it as an inter-imperialist war, and stated that it “cannot be justified on the slightest pretext of being in the least in the interests of the people”. Further, it predicted that the war would generate a revolutionary situation.
Lenin’s document also explicitly breaks with Kautsky and Plekhanov, and anticipates the formation of a new, communist, international, freed from opportunism and committed to a clear program of revolutionary action. Kautsky and Plekhanov, previously Marxism’s leading authorities, are now exposed as the most dangerous of the social chauvinists, owing to their influence in the movement. They “lull” the masses with chauvinist illusions. One of the ways they do this is by conflating the present inter-imperialist war, conducted in the interests of capitalists, with historic examples of wars of national self-determination and revolutionary wars. Kautsky, Plekhanov et al. deceive the workers by parroting bourgeois justifications of the current predatory war for colonial loot as a “a people’s war.” Here Lenin anticipates one of his forthcoming, and one of his most important, works: Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.
The Collapse of the Second International, in particular parts IV, VI, and VII, is a clear and brilliant summary of the Leninist theory of imperialism and clarifies the context of its development. It defines opportunism (Part VII) as the promotion of the interests of a privileged layer of the working class, in collaboration with the bourgeoisie, against the general interests of the proletariat as a whole. It clarifies that the ideology of opportunism as articulated by ideologists such as Kautsky et al. is based, socially, upon a European “labor aristocracy,” privileged in relation both to other European workers and, in particular, to the colonized masses (Part VII). In part IV, Lenin exposes the opportunist core of Kautsky’s theory of “ultra-imperialism.” This was the idea that the war would enable capitalism to transcend its imperialist and militarist phase, ushering in a reconciliation and peaceful coexistence between the various national finance capitals. For Kautskyists, this argument was a cudgel against the left of social democracy, a justification for the demobilization of the independent proletariat, its renunciation of a revolutionary strategy, and embrace of class collaborationism – the “most subtle theory of social-chauvinism” as Lenin writes here. Lenin here shows how factually erroneous Kautsky’s theory is — the international integration of finance capitals is in reality leading to an intensification of militarism — and again defends the strategy of socialist revolution and proletarian class independence.
Lenin’s pamphlet also excels as a concise primer on the dialectical method of Marxism, as exemplified especially in Part VI. Here, Lenin subjects Kautsky’s assertion that World War I is not a “purely” imperialist war to withering Marxist critique: for Marxists, Lenin argues, nothing in nature or society exists in a “pure” state, reality is complicated (to follow the logic of Kautsky’s truism). Nevertheless, every concrete situation is a product of deeper class forces – it is the duty of the Marxist to employ dialectical reasoning to accurately grasp both the objective and subjective forces at play in politics. Concretely, while the war may give impetus to the (subjective) aspirations for liberation by oppressed nationalities, its overall objective tendency is the continuation of imperialist plunder.
Maybe the document’s most enduring contribution is its clarification of the concepts of “the revolutionary situation” and “revolution”, in part II. A revolutionary situation occurs when: 1) a crisis opens up in the ruling class, they are “unable to live in the old way,” i.e., they are unable to rule in the same way as they had done before; 2) the suffering of the masses grows more acute; 3) the masses can no longer remain passive, they move into “independent historical action.” These constitute the objective conditions by which a revolutionary situation develops. No individual, political grouping, or political party can bring them about and without them no revolutionary movement can hope to succeed. This is not to say, however, that revolutionary situations inevitably produce revolutions. A “subjective change” must also accompany the aforementioned objective conditions. This subjective factor is “the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, ‘falls’, if it is not toppled over.” It is the “fundamental duty” of communists to alert the proletariat of the existence of a revolutionary situation, and to inspire and mobilize the class to take revolutionary action and to form revolutionary organizations suitable to this task.
Excerpts from The Collapse of the Second International
by V. I. Lenin
The collapse of the International is sometimes taken to mean simply the formal aspect of the matter, namely, the interruption in international communication between the socialist parties of the belligerent countries, the impossibility of converting either an international conference or the International Socialist Bureau, etc. This is the point of view held by certain socialists in the small neutral countries, probably even by the majority of the official parties in those countries, and also by the opportunists and their defenders. With a frankness that deserves profound gratitude, this position was defended in the Russian press by Mr. V. Kosovsky, in No. 8 of the Bund’s Information Bulletin, whose editors said nothing to indicate that they disagreed with the author. Let us hope that Mr. Kosovsky’s defence of nationalism, in which he went so far as to justify the German Social-Democrats who voted for war credits, will help many a worker at last to realise the bourgeois-nationalist-character of the Bund.
To the class-conscious workers, socialism is a serious conviction, not a convenient screen to conceal petty-bourgeois conciliatory and nationalist-oppositional strivings. By the collapse of the International they understand the disgraceful treachery to their convictions which was displayed by most of the official Social-Democratic parties, treachery to the most solemn declarations in their speeches at the Stuttgart and Basle international congresses, and in the resolutions of these congresses, etc. Only those can fail to see this treachery who do not wish to do so or do not find it to their advantage to see it. If we would formulate the question in a scientific fashion, i.e., from the standpoint of class relations in modern society, we will have to state that most of the Social Democratic parties, and at their head the German Party first and foremost—the biggest and most influential party in the Second International—have taken sides with their General Staffs, their governments, and their bourgeoisie, against the proletariat. This is an event of historic importance, one that calls for a most comprehensive analysis. It has long been conceded that, for all the horror and misery they entail, wars bring at least the following more or less important benefit—they ruthlessly reveal, unmask and destroy much that is corrupt, outworn and dead in human institutions. The European war of 1914-15 is doubtlessly beginning to do some good by revealing to the advanced class of the civilised countries what a foul and festering abscess has developed within its parties, and what an unbearably putrid stench comes from some source.
Is it a fact that the principal socialist parties of Europe have forsaken all their convictions and tasks? This, of course, is something that is readily discussed neither by the traitors nor those who are fully aware—or surmise—that they will have to be friendly and tolerant towards them. However unpleasant that may be to various “authorities” in the Second International or to their fellow-thinkers among the Russian Social-Democrats, we must face the facts and call things by their right names; we must tell the workers the truth.
Do any facts exist that show how the socialist parties regarded their tasks and their tactics before the present war and in anticipation of it? They undoubtedly do. There was the resolution adopted at the Basle International Socialist Congress of 1912, which we are reprinting together with the resolution adopted at the Chemnitz Congress of the German Social-Democratic Party held in the same year, as a reminder of socialism’s forgotten ideals. This resolution, which summarises the vast anti-war propagandist and agitational literature in all countries, is a most complete and precise, a most solemn and formal exposition of socialist views on war and tactics towards war. One cannot but qualify as treachery the fact that none of the authorities of yesterday’s International and of today’s social-chauvinism—neither Hyndman and Guesde, nor Kautsky and Plekhanov—dare remind their readers of that resolution. They are either silent about it, or (like Kautsky) quote excerpts of secondary importance and evade everything that is really of significance. On the one hand, the most “Left” and arch-revolutionary resolutions, and on the other, the most shameless forgetfulness or renunciation of these resolutions—this is one of the most striking manifestations of the International’s collapse, and at the same time a most convincing proof that at present only those whose rare simplicity borders on a cunning desire to perpetuate the former hypocrisy can believe that socialism can be “rectified” and “its line straightened out” by means of resolutions alone.
Only yesterday, one might say, when, before the war, Hyndman turned towards a defence of imperialism, all “respectable” socialists considered him an unbalanced crank, of whom nobody spoke otherwise than in a tone of disdain. Today the most prominent Social-Democratic leaders of all countries have sunk entirely to Hyndman’s position, differing from one another only in shades of opinion and in temperament. We are quite unable to find some more or less suitable parliamentary expression in appraising or characterising the civic courage of such persons as, for instance, the Nashe Slovo authors, who write of “Mr.” Hyndman with contempt, while speaking—or saying nothing—of “Comrade” Kautsky with deference (or obsequiousness?). Can such an attitude be reconciled with a respect for socialism, and for one’s convictions in general? If you are convinced that Hyndman’s chauvinism is false and destructive, does it not follow that you should direct your criticism and attacks against Kautsky, the more influential and more dangerous defender of such views?
In perhaps greater detail than anywhere else, Guesde’s views have recently been expressed by the Guesdist Charles Dumas, in a pamphlet entitled The Peace That We Desire. This “Chef du Cabinet de Jules Guesde”, as he styles himself on the title-page of the pamphlet, naturally “quotes” the former patriotic declarations of the socialists (David, the German social-chauvinist, does the same in his latest pamphlet on defence of the fatherland), but he fails to refer to the Basle Manifesto! Plekhanov, who utters chauvinist banalities with an extraordinarily smug air, is likewise silent on the Manifesto. Kautsky behaves just like Plekhanov: in quoting from the Basle Manifesto, he omits all the revolutionary passages (i.e., all the vital content!), probably on the pretext of the censorship regulations… . The police and the military authorities, whose censorship regulations forbid any mention of the class struggle or revolution, have rendered timely aid to the traitors to socialism!
Perhaps the Basle Manifesto is just an empty appeal, which is devoid of any definite content, either historical or tactical, with a direct bearing on the concrete war of today?
The reverse is true. The Basle resolution has less idle declamation and more definite content than other resolutions have. The Basle resolution speaks of the very same war that has now broken out, of the imperialist conflicts that have flared up in 1914-15. The conflicts between Austria and Serbia over the Balkans, between Austria and Italy over Albania, etc., between Britain and Germany over markets and colonies in general, between Russia and Turkey, etc., over Armenia and Constantinople—all this is what the Basle resolution speaks of in anticipation of the present war. It follows from that resolution that the present war between “the Great Powers of Europe” “cannot be justified on the slightest pretext of being in the least in the interests of the people”.
And if Plekhanov and Kautsky—to take two of the most typical and authoritative socialists, who are well known to us, one of whom writes in Russian while the other is translated into Russian by the liquidators are now (with the aid of Axelrod) seeking all sorts of “popular justifications” for the war (or, rather, vulgar ones taken from the bourgeois gutter press) if, with a learned mien and with a stock of false quotations from Marx, they refer to “precedents”, to the wars of 1813 and 1870 (Plekhanov), or of 1854-71, 1876-77, 1897 (Kautsky), then, in truth, only those without a shadow of socialist conviction, without a shred of socialist conscience, can take such arguments in earnest, can fail to call them otherwise than unparalleled Jesuitism, hypocrisy and the prostitution of socialism! Let the Executive (Vorstand ) of the German Party anathematise Mehring and Rosa Luxemburg’s new magazine (Die Internationale ) for its honest criticism of Kautsky; let Vandervelde, Plekhanov, Hyndman and Co. treat their opponents in the same manner, with the aid of the police of the Allied Powers. We shall reply by simply reprinting the Basle Manifesto, which will show that the leaders have chosen a course that can only be called treachery.
The Basle resolution does not speak of a national or a people’s war—examples of which have occurred in Europe, wars that were even typical of the period of 1789-1871—or of a revolutionary war, which Social-Democrats have never renounced, but of the present war, which is the outcome of “capitalist imperialism” and “dynastic interests”, the outcome of “the policy of conquest” pursued by both groups of belligerent powers—the Austro-German and the Anglo Franco-Russian. Plekhanov, Kautsky and Co. are flagrantly deceiving the workers by repeating the selfish lie of the bourgeoisie of all countries, which is striving with all its might to depict this imperialist and predatory war for colonies as a people’s war, a war of defence (for any side); when they seek to justify this war by citing historical examples of non-imperialist wars.
The question as to the imperialist, predatory and anti-proletarian character of the present war has long outgrown the purely theoretical stage. All the main features of imperialism have been theoretically assessed, as a struggle being waged by the senile and moribund bourgeoisie for the partition of the world and the enslavement of “small” nations; these conclusions have been repeated thousands of times in the vast socialist press in all countries; in his pamphlet The Impending War (1911!), for example, the Frenchman Delaisi, a representative of one of our “Allied” nations, has explained in simple terms the predatory character of the present war, with reference to the French bourgeoisie as well. But that is far from all. At Basle, representatives of the proletarian parties of all countries gave unanimous and formal expression to their unshakable conviction that a war of an imperialist character was impending, and drew tactical conclusions therefrom. For this reason, among others, we must flatly reject, as sophistry, all references to an inadequate discussion on the difference between national and international tactics see Axelrod’s latest interview in Nashe Slovo Nos. 87 and 90), etc., etc. This is sophistry, because a comprehensive scientific analysis of imperialism is one thing—that analysis is only under way and, in essence, is as infinite as science itself. The principles of socialist tactics against capitalist imperialism, which have been set forth in millions of copies of Social-Democratic newspapers and in the decision of the International, are a quite different thing. Socialist parties are not debating clubs, but organisations of the fighting proletariat; when a number of battalions have gone over to the enemy, they must be named and branded as traitors; we must not allow ourselves to be taken in by hypocritical assertions that “not everybody understands imperialism in the same way”, or that the chauvinist Kautsky and the chauvinist Cunow can write volumes about it, or that the question has not been “adequately discussed”, etc., etc. Capitalism will never be completely and exhaustively studied in all the manifestations of its predatory nature, and in all the most minute ramifications of its historical development and national features. Scholars (and especially the pedants) will never stop arguing over-details. It would be ridiculous to give up the socialist struggle against capitalism and to desist from opposing, on such grounds, those who have betrayed that struggle. But what else are Kautsky, Cunow, Axelrod and their like inviting us to do?
Now, when war has broken out, no one has even attempted to examine the Basle resolution and prove that it is erroneous.
1) The Chemnitz Congress of the German Social-Democratic Party, held on September 15-21, 1912, passed a resotution “On Imperialism”, which said that the imperialist states were pursuing “a policy of shameless plunder and annexations” and called upon the party “to fight imperialism with greater energy”.
During World War I leaders of the Second International treacherously violated the decisions of the international socialist congresses, in particular, those adopted in Chemnitz.
But perhaps sincere socialists supported the Basle resolution in the anticipation that war would create a revolutionary situation, the events rebutting them, as revolution has proved impossible?
It is by means of sophistry like this that Cunow (in a pamphlet Collapse of the Party? and a series of articles) has tried to justify his desertion to the camp of the bourgeoisie. The writings of nearly all the other social-chauvinists, headed by Kautsky, hint at similar “arguments”. Hopes for a revolution have proved illusory, and it is not the business of a Marxist to fight for illusions, Cunow argues. This Struvist, however, does not say a word about “illusions” that were shared by all signatories to the Basle Manifesto. Like a most upright man, he would put the blame on the extreme Leftists, such as Pannekoek and Radek!
Let us consider the substance of the argument that the authors of the Basle Manifesto sincerely expected the advent of a revolution, but were rebutted by the events. The Basle Manifesto says: (1) that war will create an economic and political crisis; (2) that the workers will regard their participation in war as a crime, and as criminal any “shooting each other down for the profit of the capitalists, for the sake of dynastic honour and of diplomatic secret treaties”, and that war evokes “indignation and revolt” in the workers; (3) that it is the duty of socialists to take advantage of this crisis and of the workers’ temper so as to “rouse the people and hasten the downfall of capitalism”; (4) that all “governments” without exception can start a war only at “their own peril”; (5) that governments “are afraid of a proletarian revolution”; (6) that governments “should remember” the Paris Commune (i.e., civil war), the 1905 Revolution in Russia, etc. All these are perfectly clear ideas; they do not guarantee that revolution will take place, but lay stress on a precise characterisation of facts and trends. Whoever declares, with regard to these ideas and arguments, that the anticipated revolution has proved illusory, is displaying not a Marxist but a Struvist and police-renegade attitude towards revolution.
To the Marxist it is indisputable that a revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, it is not every revolutionary situation that leads to revolution. What, generally speaking, are the symptoms of a revolutionary situation? We shall certainly not be mistaken if we indicate the following three major symptoms: (1) when it is impossible for the ruling classes to maintain their rule without any change; when there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the “upper classes”, a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth. For a revolution to take place, it is usually insufficient for “the lower classes not to want” to live in the old way; it is also necessary that “the upper classes should be unable” to live in the old way; (2) when the suffering and want of the oppressed classes have grown more acute than usual; (3) when, as a consequence of the above causes, there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses, who uncomplainingly allow themselves to be robbed in “peace time”, but, in turbulent times, are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the “upper classes” themselves into independent historical action.
Without these objective changes, which are independent of the will, not only of individual groups and parties but even of individual classes, a revolution, as a general rule, is impossible. The totality of all these objective changes is called a revolutionary situation. Such a situation existed in 1905 in Russia, and in all revolutionary periods in the West; it also existed in Germany in the sixties of the last century, and in Russia in 1859-61 and 1879-80, although no revolution occurred in these instances. Why was that? It was because it is not every revolutionary situation that gives rise to a revolution; revolution arises only out of a situation in which the above-mentioned objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change, namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, “falls”, if it is not toppled over.
Such are the Marxist views on revolution, views that have been deve]oped many, many times, have been accepted as indisputable by all Marxists, and for us, Russians, were corroborated in a particularly striking fashion by the expe rience of 1905. What, then, did the Basle Manifesto assume in this respect in 1912, and what took place in 1914-15?
It assumed that a revolutionary situation, which it briefly described as “an economic and political crisis”, would arise. Has such a situation arisen? Undoubtedly, it has. The social-chauvinist Lensch, who defends chauvinism more candidly, publicly and honestly than the hypocrites Cunow, Kautsky, Plekhanov and Co. do, has gone so far as to say: “What we are passing through is a kind of revolution” (p. 6 of his pamphlet, German Social-Democracy and the War, Berlin, 1915). A political crisis exists; no government is sure of the morrow, not one is secure against the danger of financial collapse, loss of territory, expulsion from its country (in the way the Belgian Government was expelled). All governments are sleeping on a volcano; all are themselves calling for the masses to display initiative and heroism. The entire political regime of Europe has been shaken, and hardly anybody will deny that we have entered (and are entering ever deeper—I write this on the day of Italy’s declaration of war) a period of immense political upheavals. When, two months after the declaration of war, Kautsky wrote (October 2, 1914, in Die Neue Zeit ) that “never is government so strong, never are parties so weak as at the outbreak of a war”, this was a sample of the falsification of historical science which Kautsky has perpetrated to please the Südekums and other opportunists. In the first place, never do governments stand in such need of agreement with all the parties of the ruling classes, or of the “peaceful” submission of the oppressed classes to that rule, as in the time of war. Secondly, even though “at the beginning of a war”, and especially in a country that expects a speedy victory, the government seems all powerful, nobody in the world has ever linked expectations of a revolutionary situation exclusively with the “beginning” of a war, and still less has anybody ever identified the “seeming” with the actual.
It was generally known, seen and admitted that a European war would be more severe than any war in the past. This is being borne out in ever greater measure by the experience of the war. The conflagration is spreading; the political foundations of Europe are being shaken more and more; the sufferings of the masses are appalling, the efforts of governments, the bourgeoisie and the opportunists to hush up these sufferings proving ever more futile. The war profits being obtained by certain groups of capitalists are monstrously high, and contradictions are growing extremely acute. The smouldering indignation of the masses, the vague yearning of society’s downtrodden and ignorant strata for a kindly (“democratic”) peace, the beginning of discontent among the “lower classes”—all these are facts. The longer the war drags on and the more acute it becomes, the more the governments themselves foster—and must foster—the activity of the masses, whom they call upon to make extraordinary effort and self-sacrifice. The experience of the war, like the experience of any crisis in history, of any great calamity and any sudden turn in human life, stuns and breaks some people, but enlighten and tempers others. Taken by and large, and considering the history of the world as a whole, the number and strength of the second kind of people have—with the exception of individual cases of the decline and fall of one state or another—proved greater than those of the former kind.
Far from “immediately” ending all these sufferings and all this enhancement of contradictions, the conclusion of peace will, in many respects, make those sufferings more keenly and immediately felt by the most backward masses of the population.
In a word, a revolutionary situation obtains in most of the advanced countries and the Great Powers of Europe. In this respect, the prediction of the Basle Manifesto has been fully confirmed. To deny this truth, directly or indirectly, or to ignore it, as Cunow, Plekhanov, Kautsky and Co. have done, means telling a big lie, deceiving the working class, and serving the bourgeoisie. In Sotsial-Demokrat (Nos. 34, 40 and 41) we cited facts which prove that those who fear revolution—petty-bourgeois Christian parsons, the General Staffs and millionaires’ newspapers—are compelled to admit that symptoms of a revolutionary situation exist in Europe.
Will this situation last long; how much more acute will it become? Will it lead to revolution? This is something we do not know, and nobody can know. The answer can be provided only by the experience gained during the development of revolutionary sentiment and the transition to revolutionary action by the advanced c]ass, the proletariat. There can be no talk in this connection about “illusions” or their repudiation, since no socialist has ever guaranteed that this war (and not the next one), that today’s revolutionary situation (and not tomorrow’s) will produce a revolution. What we are discussing is the indisputable and fundamental duty of all socialists—that of revealing to the masses the existence of a revolutionary situation, explaining its scope and depth, arousing the proletariat’s revolutionary consciousness and revolutionary determination, helping it to go over to revolutionary action, and forming, for that purpose, organisations suited to the revolutionary situation.
No influential or responsible socialist has ever dared to feel doubt that this is the duty of the socialist parties. Without spreading or harbouring the least “illusions”, the Basle Manifesto spoke specifically of this duty of the socialists—to rouse and to stir up the people (and not to lull them with chauvinism, as Plekhanov, Axelrod and Kautsky have done), to take advantage of the crisis so as to hasten the downfall of capitalism, and to be guided by the examples of the Commune and of October-December 1905. The present parties’ failure to perform that duty meant their treachery, political death, renunciation of their own role and desertion to the side of the bourgeoisie.
Plekhanov’s crude chauvinism is based on exactly the same theoretical stand as the more subtle and saccharo-conciliatory chauvinism of Kautsky, who uses the following arguments when he gives his blessing to the desertion of the socialists of all countries in the side of their “own” capitalists:
It is the right and duty of everyone to defend his fatherland; true internationalism consists in this right being recognised for the socialists of all nations, including those who are at war with my nation… . (See Die Neue Zeit, October 2, 1914, and other works by the same author.)
This matchless reasoning is such an unutterable travesty of socialism that the best answer to it would be to strike a medal with the portraits of Wilhelm II and Nicholas II on one side and of Plekhanov and Kautsky on the other. True internationalism, we are told, means that we must justify German workers firing at French workers, and French workers firing at German workers, in the name of “defence of the fatherland”!!
However, closer examination of the theoretical premises in Kautsky’s reasoning will reveal the selfsame idea that Clausewitz ridiculed about eighty years ago, viz., that when war breaks out, all historically created political relations between nations and classes cease and that a totally new situation arises! There are “simply” those that attack and those that are defending themselves, “simply” the warding off of the “enemies of the fatherland”! The oppression of a number of nations which comprise over half the population of the globe, by the dominant imperialist nations; the rivalry between the bourgeoisie of these countries for a share of the loot; the desire of the capitalists to split and suppress the working-class movement—all these have suddenly disappeared from the pen of Plekhanov and Kautsky, although they themselves were describing these very “politics” for decades before the war.
In this connection, false references to Marx and Engels are the crowning argument of these two chieftains of social chauvinism; Plekhanov recalls Prussia’s national war of 1813 and Germany’s national war of 1870, while Kautsky argues, with a most learned air, that Marx examined the question of whose success (i.e., the success of which bourgeoisie) was more desirable in the wars of 1854-55, 1859 and 1870-71, and that the Marxists did likewise in the wars of 1876-77 and 1897. In all times the sophists have been in the habit of citing instances that refer to situations that are dissimilar in principle. The wars of the past, to which they make references, were a “continuation of the politics” of the bourgeoisie’s national movements of many years’ standing, movements against an alien yoke and against absolutism (Turkish or Russian). At that time the only question was: the success of which bourgeoisie was to be preferred; for wars of this type, the Marxists could rouse the peoples in advance, fostering national hatred, as Marx did in 1848 and later, when he called for a war against Russia, and as Engels in 1859 fostered German national hatred of their oppressors—Napoleon III and Russian tsarism.
Comparing the “continuation of the politics” of combating feudalism and absolutism—the politics of the bourgeoisie in its struggle for liberty—with the “continuation of the politics” of a decrepit, i.e., imperialist, bourgeoisie, i.e., of a bourgeoisie which has plundered the entire world, a reactionary bourgeoisie which, in alliance with feudal landlords, attempts to crush the proletariat, means comparing chalk and cheese. It is like comparing the “representatives of the bourgeoisie”, Robespierre, Garibaldi and Zhelyabov, with such “representatives of the bourgeoisie” as Millerand, Salandra and Guchkov. One cannot be a Marxist without feeling the deepest respect for the great bourgeois revolutionaries who had an historic right to speak for their respective bourgeois “fatherlands”, and, in the struggle against feudalism, led tens of millions of people in the new nations towards a civilised life. Neither can one be a Marxist without feeling contempt for the sophistry of Plekhanov and Kautsky, who speak of the “defence of the fatherland” with regard to the throttling of Belgium by the German imperialists, or with regard to the pact between the imperialists of Britain, France, Russia and Italy on the plundering of Austria and Turkey.
The most subtle theory of social-chauvinism, one that has been most skilfully touched up to look scientific and international, is the theory of “ultra-imperialism” advanced by Kautsky. Here is the clearest, most precise and most recent exposition of this theory in the words of the author himself:
“The subsiding of the Protectionist movement in Britain, the lowering of tariffs in America; the trend towards disarmament; the rapid decline in the export of capital from France and Germany in the years immediately preceding the war; finally, the growing international interweaving between the various cliques of finance capital—all this has caused me to consider whether the present imperialist policy cannot be supplanted by a new, ultra-imperialist policy, which will introduce the joint exploitation of the world by internationally united finance capital in place of the mutual rivalries of national finance capital. Such a new phase of capitalism is at any rate conceivable. Can it be achieved? Sufficient premises are still lacking to enable us to answer this question…” (Die Neue Zeit No. 5, April 30, 1915, p. 144).
“The course and the outcome of the present war may prove decisive in this respect. It may entirely crush the weak beginnings of ultra-imperialism by fanning to the highest degree national hatred also among the finance capitalists, by intensifying the armaments race, and by making a second world war inevitable. Under such conditions, the thing I foresaw and formulated in my pamphlet, The Road to Power, would come true in horrifying dimensions; class antagonisms would become sharper and sharper and with it would come the moral decay [literally: “going out of business, Abwirtschaftung”, bankruptcy] of capitalism… . [It must be noted that by this pretentious word Kautsky means simply the “hatred” which the “strata intermediary between the proletariat and finance capital”, namely, “the intelligentsia, the petty bourgeois, even small capitalists”, feel towards capitalism.] But the war may end otherwise. It may lead to the strengthening of the weak beginnings of ultra-imperialism… . Its lessons [note this!] may hasten developments for which we would have to wait a long time under peace conditions. If it does lead to this, to an agreement between nations, disarmament and a lasting peace, then the worst of the causes that led to the growing moral decay of capitalism before the war may disappear.” The new phase will, of course, bring the proletariat “new misfortunes”, “perhaps even worse”, but “for a time”, “ultra-imperialism” “could create an era of new hopes and expectations within the framework of capitalism” (p. 145).
How is a justification of social-chauvinism deduced from this “theory”? In a way rather strange for a “theoretician”, namely as follows: The Left-wing Social-Democrats in Germany say that imperialism and the wars it engenders are not accidental, but an inevitable product of capitalism, which has brought about the domination of finance capital. It is therefore necessary to go over to the revolutionary mass struggle, as the period of comparatively peaceful development has ended. The “Right”-wing Social-Democrats brazenly declare: since imperialism is “necessary”, we too must be imperialists. Kautsky, in the role of the “Centre”, tries to reconcile these two views.
“The extreme Lefts,” he writes in his pamphlet, The National State, the Imperialist State and the League of States (Nuremberg, 1915), wish to contrapose—socialism to inevitable imperialism, i.e., not only the propaganda for socialism that we have been carrying on for half a century in contraposition to all forms of capitalist domination, but the immediate achievement of socialism. This seems very radical, but it can only serve to drive into the camp of imperialism anyone who does not believe in the immediate practical achievement of socialism” (p. 17, italics ours).
When he speaks of the immediate achievement of socialism, Kautsky is resorting to a subterfuge, for he takes advantage of the fact that in Germany, especially under the military censorship, revolutionary action cannot be spoken of. Kautsky is well aware that the Left wing is demanding of the Party immediate propaganda in favour of and preparation for, revolutionary action, not the “immediate practical achievement of socialism”.
From the necessity of imperialism the Left wing deduces the necessity of revolutionary action. The “theory of ultra-imperialism”, however, serves Kautsky as a means to justify the opportunists, to present the situation in such a light as to create the impression that they have not gone over to the bourgeoisie but simply “do not believe” that socialism can arrive immediately, and expect that a new “era” of disarmament and lasting peace “may be” ushered in. This “theory” boils down, and can only boil down, to the following: Kautsky is exploiting the hope for a new peaceful era of capitalisms as to justify the adhesion of the opportunists and the official Social-Democratic parties to the bourgeoisie, and their rejection of revolutionary, i.e., proletarian, tactics in the present stormy era, this despite the solemn declarations of the Basle resolution!
At the same time Kautsky does not say that this new phase follows, and necessarily so, from certain definite circumstances and conditions. On the contrary, he states quite outspokenly that he cannot yet even decide whether or not this new phase is “achievable”. Indeed, consider the “trends” towards the new era, which have been indicated by Kautsky. Astonishingly enough, the author has included among the economic facts “the trend towards disarmament”! This means that, behind innocent philistine talk and pipe-dreaming, Kautsky is trying to hide from indisputable facts that do not at all fit in with the theory of the mitigation of contradictions. Kautsky’s “ultra-imperialism”—this term, incidentally does not at all express what the author wants to say—implies a tremendous mitigation of the contradictions of capitalism. We are told that Protectionism is subsiding in Britain and America. But where is there the least trend towards a new era? Extreme Protectionism is now subsiding in America, but Protectionism remains, just as the privileges, the preferential tariffs favouring Britain, have remained in that country’s colonies. Let us recall what the passage from the previous and “peaceful” period of capitalism to the present and imperialist period has been based on: free competition has yielded to monopolist capitalist combines, and the world has been partitioned. Both these facts (and factors) are obviously of world-wide significance: Free Trade and peaceful competition were possible and necessary as long as capital was in a position to enlarge its colonies without hindrance, and seize unoccupied land in Africa, etc., and as long as the concentration of capital was still weak and no monopolist concerns existed, i.e., concerns of a magnitude permitting domination in an entire branch of industry. The appearance and growth of such monopolist concerns (has this process been stopped in Britain or America? Not even Kautsky will dare deny that the war has accelerated and intensified it) have rendered the free competition of former times impossible; they have cut the ground from under its feet, while the partition of the world compels the capitalists to go over from peaceful expansion to an armed struggle for the repartitioning of colonies and spheres of influence. It is ridiculous to think that the subsiding of Protectionism in two countries can change anything in this respect.
Let us further examine the fall in capital exports from two countries in the course of a few years. In 1912 these two countries, France and Germany, each had about 35,000 million marks (about 17,000 million rubles) of foreign investments, this according to Harms’s statistics, while Britain alone had twice that sum. The increase in exports of capital has never proceeded evenly under capitalism, nor could that have been so. Kautsky dares not even suggest that the accumulation of capital has decreased, or that the capacity of the home market has undergone any important change, say through a big improvement in the conditions of the masses. In these circumstances, the fall in capital exports from two countries over several years cannot imply the advent of a new era.
“The growing international interweaving between the cliques of finance capital” is the only really general and indubitable tendency, not during the last few years and in two countries, but throughout the whole capitalist world. But why should this trend engender a striving towards disarmament, not armaments, as hitherto? Take any one of the world-famous cannon (and arms) manufacturers, Armstrong, for instance. The British Economist (May 1, 1915) published figures showing that this firm’s profits rose from £606,000 (about 6,000,000 rubles) in 1905/6 to £856,000 in 1913, and to £940,000 (9,000,000 rubles) in 1914. Here, the intertwining of finance capital is most pronounced, and is on the increase, German capitalists have “holdings” in British firms; British firms build submarines for Austria, and so on. Interlinked on a world-wide scale, capital is thriving on armaments and wars. To think that the fact of capital in the individual states combining and interlinking on an international scale must of necessity produce an economic trend towards disarmament means, in effect, allowing well-meaning philistine expectations of an easing of class contradictions take the place of the actual intensification of those contradictions.
Part V is not included in this abridged selection.
The preceding lines had already been written when Die Neue Zeit of May 28 (No. 9) appeared with Kautsky’s concluding arguments on the “collapse of Social-Democracy” (Section 7 of his reply to Cunow). Kautsky sums up all his old sophisms, and a new one, in defence of social-chauvinism as follows:
“It is simply untrue to say that the war is a purely imperialist one that at the outbreak of the war the alternative was either imperialism or socialism, that the socialist parties and the proletarian masses of Germany, France and, in many respects, also of Britain, unthinkingly and at the mere call of a handful of parliamentarians, threw themselves into the arms of imperialism, betrayed socialism and thus caused a collapse unexampled in history.”
A new sophism and a new deception of the workers: the war, if you please, is not a “purely” imperialist one!
In the present war the national element is represented only by Serbia’s war against Austria (which, by the way, was noted in the resolution of our Party’s Berne Conference). It is only in Serbia and among the Serbs that we can find a national-liberation movement of long standing, embracing millions, “the masses of the people”, a movement of which the present war of Serbia against Austria is a “continuation”. If this war were an isolated one, i.e., if it were not connected with the general European war, with the selfish and predatory aims of Britain, Russia, etc., it would have been the duty of all socialists to desire the success of the Serbian bourgeoisieas this is the only correct and absolutely inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the national element in the present war. However it is this conclusion that the sophist Kautsky, who is now in the service of the Austrian bourgeoisie, clericals and militarists, has failed to draw.
Further, Marxist dialectics, as the last word in the scientific-evolutionary method, excludes any isolated examination of an object, i.e., one that is one-sided and monstrously distorted. The national element in the Serbo-Austrian war is not, and cannot be, of any serious significance in the general European war. If Germany wins, she will throttle Belgium, one more part of Poland, perhaps part of France, etc. If Russia wins, she will throttle Galicia, one more part of Poland, Armenia, etc. If the war ends in a “draw”, the old national oppression will remain. To Serbia, i.e., to perhaps one per cent or so of the participants in the present war, the war is a “continuation of the politics” of the bourgeois-liberation movement. To the other ninety-nine per cent, the war is a continuation of the politics of imperialism, i.e., of the decrepit bourgeoisie, which is capable only of raping nations, not freeing them. The Triple Entente, which is “liberating” Serbia, is selling the interests of Serbian liberty to Italian imperialism in return for the latter’s aid in robbing Austria.
All this, which is common knowledge, has been unblushingly distorted by Kautsky to justify the opportunists. There are no “pure” phenomena, nor can there be, either in Nature or in society—that is what Marxist dialectics teaches us, for dialectics shows that the very concept of purity indicates a certain narrowness, a one-sidedness of human cognition, which cannot embrace an object in all its totality and complexity. There is no “pure” capitalism in the world, nor can there be; what we always find is admixtures either of feudalism, philistinism, or of something else. Therefore, if anyone recalls that the war is not “purely” imperialist, when we are discussing the flagrant deception of “the masses of the people” by the imperialists, who are deliberately concealing the aims of undisguised robbery with “national” phraseology, then such a person is either an infinitely stupid pedant, or a pettifogger and deceiver. The whole point is that Kautsky is supporting the deception of the people by the imperialists when he asserts that to “the masses of the people, including the proletarian masses”, the problems of national liberation were “of decisive significance” whereas to the ruling classes the decisive factors were “imperialist tendencies” (p. 273), and when he “reinforces” this with an alleged dialectical reference to the “infinite variety of reality” (p. 274). Certainly, reality is infinitely varied. That is absolutely true! But it is equally indubitable that amidst this infinite variety there are two main and fundamental strains: the objective content of the war is a “continuation of the politics” of imperialism. i.e., the plunder of other nations by the decrepit bourgeoisie of the “Great Powers” (and their governments), whereas the prevailing “subjective” ideology consists of “national” phraseology which is being spread to fool the masses.
Kautsky tries to defeat his opponents, the Lefts, by ascribing to them the nonsensical idea that the “masses”, “in retaliation” to war, should make a revolution “within twenty four hours”, and institute “socialism” as opposed to imperialism, or otherwise the “masses” would be revealing “spinelessness and treachery”. But this is sheer nonsense, which the compilers of illiterate bourgeois and police booklets have hitherto used to “defeat” the revolutionaries, and Kautsky now flaunts in our faces. Kautsky’s Left opponents know perfectly well that a revolution cannot be “made”, that revolutions develop from objectively (i.e., independently of the will of parties and classes) mature crises and turns in history, that without organisation the masses lack unity of will, and that the struggle against a centralised state’s powerful terrorist military organisation is a difficult and lengthy business. Owing to the treachery of their leaders, the masses could not do anything at the crucial moment, whereas this “handful” of leaders were in an excellent position and in duty bound to vote against the war credits, take a stand against a “class truce” and justification of the war, express themselves in favour of the defeat of their own governments, set up an international apparatus for the purpose of carrying on propaganda in favour of fraternisation in the trenches, organise the publication of illegal literature on the necessity of starting revolutionary activities, etc.
Kautsky knows perfectly well that it is precisely such or rather similar actions that the German “Lefts” have in mind and that under a military censorship they cannot talk about these things directly, openly. Kautsky’s desire to defend the opportunists at all costs has led him into unparalleled infamy: taking cover behind the military censors, he attributes patent absurdities to the Lefts, in the confidence that the censors will protect him from exposure.
- Incidentally, it would not have been at all necessary to close all Social-Democratic papers in reply to the government’s ban on writing about class hatred and class struggle. To agree not to write about this, as Vorwärts did was mean and cowardly. Vorwärts died politically when it did this and Martov was right when he said so. It was, however, possible to retain the legal papers by declaring that they were non-Party and non-Social-Democratic, and served the technical needs of a section of the workers, i. e., that they were non-political papers. Underground Social-Democratic literature containing an assessment of the war, and legally published working-class literature without that assessment, a literature that does not say what is not true, but keeps silent about the truth—why should this not have been possible? —Lenin
The serious scientific and political question, which Kautsky has deliberately evaded by means of subterfuges of all kinds, thereby giving enormous pleasure to the opportunists, is this: how was it possible for the most prominent representatives of the Second International to betray socialism?
This question should not, of course, be considered from the standpoint of the biographies of the individual leaders. Their future biographers will have to analyse the problem from this angle as well, but what interests the socialist movement today is not that, but a study of the historical origins, the conditions, the significance and the strength of the social-chauvinist trend. (1) Where did social-chauvinism spring from? (2) What gave it strength? (3) How must it be combated? Only such an approach to the question can be regarded as serious, the “personal” approach being in practice an evasion, a piece of sophistry.
To answer the first question we must see, first, whether the ideological and political content of social-chauvinism is connected with some previous trend in socialism; and second, in what relation—from the standpoint of actual political divisions—the present division of socialists into opponents and defenders of social-chauvinism stands to divisions which historically preceded it.
By social-chauvinism we mean acceptance of the idea of the defence of the fatherland in the present imperialist war, justification of an alliance between socialists and the bourgeoisie and the governments of their “own” countries in this war, a refusal to propagate and support proletarian revolutionary action against one’s “own” bourgeoisie, etc. It is perfectly obvious that social-chauvinism’s basic ideological and political content fully coincides with the foundations of opportunism. It is one and the same tendency. In the conditions of the war of 1914-15, opportunism leads to social-chauvinism. The idea of class collaboration is opportunism’s main feature. The war has brought this idea to its logical conclusion, and has augmented its usual factors and stimuli with a number of extraordinary ones; through the operation of special threats and coercion it has compelled the philistine and disunited masses to collaborate with the bourgeoisie. This circumstance has naturally multiplied adherents of opportunism and fully explains why many radicals of yesterday have deserted to that camp.
Opportunism means sacrificing the fundamental interests of the masses to the temporary interests of an insignificant minority of the workers or, in other words, an alliance between a section of the workers and the bourgeoisie, directed against the mass of the proletariat. The war has made such an alliance particularly conspicuous and inescapable. Opportunism was engendered in the course of decades by the special features in the period of the development of capitalism, when the comparatively peaceful and cultured life of a stratum of privileged workingmen “bourgeoisified” them, gave them crumbs from the table of their national capitalists, and isolated them from the suffering, misery and revolutionary temper of the impoverished and ruined masses.
Social-chauvinism is an opportunism which has matured to such a degree that the continued existence of this bourgeois abscess within the socialist parties has become impossible.
Those who refuse to see the closest and unbreakable link between social-chauvinism and opportunism clutch at individual instances—this opportunist or another, they say, has turned internationalist; this radical or another has turned chauvinist. But this kind of argument carries no weight as far as the development of trends is concerned. Firstly, chauvinism and opportunism in the labour movement have the same economic basis: the alliance between a numerically small upper stratum of the proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie—who get but morsels of the privileges of their “own” national capital—against the masses of the proletarians, the masses of the toilers and the oppressed in general. Secondly, the two trends have the same ideological and political content. Thirdly, the old division of socialists into an opportunist trend and a revolutionary, which was characteristic of the period of the Second International (1889-1914), corresponds, by and large, to the new division into chauvinists and internationalists.
Social-chauvinism is an opportunism which has matured to such a degree, grown so strong and brazen during the long period of comparatively “peaceful” capitalism, so definite in its political ideology, and so closely associated with the bourgeoisie and the governments, that the existence of such a trend within the Social-Democratic workers’ parties cannot be tolerated. Flimsy, thin-soled shoes may be good enough to walk in on the well-paved streets of a small provincial town, but heavy hob-nailed boots are needed for walking in the hills. In Europe socialism has emerged from a comparatively peaceful stage that is confined within narrow and national limits. With the outbreak of the war of 1914-15, it entered the stage of revolutionary action; there can be no doubt that the time has come for a complete break with opportunism, for its expulsion from the workers’ parties.
This definition of the tasks the new era of international development confronts socialism with does not, of course, immediately show how rapidly and in what definite forms the process of separation of the workers’ revolutionary Social-Democratic parties from the petty-bourgeois opportunist parties will proceed in the various countries. It does, however, reveal the need clearly to realise that such a separation is inevitable, and that the entire policy of the workers’ parties must be directed from this standpoint. The war of 1914-15 is such a great turn in history that the attitude towards opportunism cannot remain the same as it has been. What has happened cannot be erased. It is impossible to obliterate from the minds of the workers, or from the experience of the bourgeoisie, or from the political lessons of our epoch in general, the fact that, at a moment of crisis, the opportunists proved to be the nucleus of those elements within the workers’ parties that deserted to the bourgeoisie. Opportunism—to speak on a European scale—was in its adolescent stage, as it were, before the war. With the outbreak of the war it grew to manhood and its “innocence” and youth cannot be restored. An entire social stratum, consisting of parliamentarians, journalists, labour officials, privileged office personnel, and certain strata of the proletariat, has sprung up and has become amalgamated with its own national bourgeoisie, which has proved fully capable of appreciating and “adapting” it. The course of history cannot be turned back or checked—we can and must go fearlessly onward, from the preparatory legal working-class organisations, which are in the grip of opportunism, to revolutionary organisations that know how not to confine themselves to legality and are capable of safeguarding themselves against opportunist treachery, organisations of a proletariat that is beginning a “struggle for power”, a struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.
Legal mass organisations of the working class are perhaps the most important feature of the socialist parties in the epoch of the Second International. They were the strongest in the German Party, and it was here that the war of 1914-15 created a most acute crisis and made the issue a most pressing one. The initiation of revolutionary activities would obviously have led to the dissolution of these legal organisations by the police, and the old party—from Legien to Kautsky inclusively—sacrificed the revolutionary aims of the proletariat for the sake of preserving the present legal organisations. No matter how much this may be denied, it is a fact. The proletariat’s right to revolution was sold for a mess of pottage—organisations permitted by the present police law.
Take the army of today. It is a good example of organisation. This organisation is good only because it is flexible and is able at the same time to give millions of people a single will. Today these millions are living in their homes in various parts of the country; tomorrow mobilisation is ordered, and they report for duty. Today they lie in the trenches, and this may go on for months; tomorrow they are led to the attack in another order. Today they perform miracles in sheltering from bullets and shrapnel; tomorrow they perform miracles in hand-to-hand-combat. Today their advance detachments lay minefields; tomorrow they advance scores of miles guided by airmen flying overhead. When, in the pursuit of a single aim and animated by a single will, millions alter the forms of their communication and their behaviour, change the place and the mode of their activities, change their tools and weapons in accordance with the changing conditions and the requirements of the struggle—all this is genuine organisation.
The same holds true for the working-class struggle against the bourgeoisie. Today there is no revolutionary situation, the conditions that cause unrest among the masses or heighten their activities do not exist; today you are given a ballot paper—take it, learn to organise so as to use it as a weapon against your enemies, not as a means of getting cushy legislative jobs for men who cling to their parliamentary seats for fear of having to go to prison. Tomorrow your ballot paper is taken from you and you are given a rifle or a splendid and most up-to-date quick-firing gun—take this weapon of death and destruction, pay no heed to the mawkish snivellers who are afraid of war; too much still remains in the world that must be destroyed with fire and sword for the emancipation of the working class; if anger and desperation grow among the masses, if a revolutionary situation arises, prepare to create new organisations and use these useful weapons of death and destruction against your own government and your own bourgeoisie.
That is not easy, to be sure. It will demand arduous preparatory activities and heavy sacrifices. This is a new form of organisation and struggle that also has to be learnt, and knowledge is not acquired without errors and setbacks. This form of the class struggle stands in the same relation to participation in elections as an assault against a fortress stands in relation to manoeuvring, marches, or lying in the trenches. It is not so often that history places this form of struggle on the order of the day, but then its significance is felt for decades to come. Days on which such method [sic] of struggle can and must be employed are equal to scores of years of other historical epochs.
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