Lessons of World War I: Imperialism and the antiwar movement

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Lessons of World War I: Imperialism and the antiwar movement


Anti-war protest in San Francisco
Anti-war protest in San Francisco

It is impossible to build a revolutionary movement and a party based on Marxism without the most unflinching struggle against opportunism and chauvinism. The test comes under the duress of war.

August 4, 2004 marks the 90th anniversary of World War I. It also marks the near-complete victory of opportunism in the socialist movement of the day. It heralded a sudden political collapse of a huge movement that had the support of the majority of the working class throughout Europe. Inscribing on their banners “Workers of the World Unite” and insisting, as Marx had in the Communist Manifesto, that the working class has no “Fatherland,” the large socialist parties that constituted the Socialist International suddenly threw their principles overboard on August 4 by supporting the war effort in their respective countries.

The war fever engulfed all of society as the capitalist war machine went into high gear fostering patriotism and nationalist chauvinism.

The victory of opportunism in the Socialist International seemed to be confirmation of the death of Marxism. Once ordered into battle by each of their respective governments, the workers of the world did not unite—rather they marched off to slaughter each other.

The socialist movement’s sudden capitulation was not due to an unexpected political development that caught them off guard. On the contrary, the socialist parties representing millions of workers throughout Europe had anticipated the coming war.

At an Extraordinary International Socialist Congress held in Basle, Switzerland, in November 1912, delegates pledged that it was the “duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives … to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of the war.” Should the war break out anyway, the socialists agreed to an international strategy where each party would “utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.” This was the essence of a strategy that became known as revolutionary defeatism.

But after so many other high sounding speeches and declarations made by “militant” leaders in the safety of “socialist” congresses and meetings, the working class leadership in 1914 capitulated in the face of the war pressure.

After the victory of the October Revolution in Russia, it became commonplace to condemn the capitulation of Karl Kautsky, the leader of the German Socialist Party, along with the other Marxist leaders in 1914 for their refusal to stand against the war at the decisive moment. But what is not adequately understood is the central reason that the parties of the socialist working class became transformed overnight into parties that Lenin called “social imperialist,” that is, socialist in words but imperialist in deeds. They either supported their own governments outright or, as in the case of centrists like Kautsky, opposed elements of the war without appearing to be subversive to the capitalist government and the system that had provoked the war.

The problem facing the socialist and antiwar working class movement in 1914 is the real problem that faces every progressive organization at the onset of imperialist war.

Applying working class internationalism

To understand the essence of the problem it is useful to take a home-grown contemporary example. For U.S. socialist and antiwar organizations, steadfastly opposing war should have been relatively easy in the past decades. It has meant standing against U.S. wars of aggression in faraway lands and against formerly colonized and semi-colonized countries that could not strike back. U.S. civilians are rarely in danger of attack.

But even when the bleeding and dying is far away (the last foreign attack on the U.S. mainland before September 11, 2001, was during the War of 1812), the main U.S. pacifist and social-democratic organizations went out of their way to make sure they did not appear to be siding with the “enemy.”

For instance, in the run-up to the 1991 Iraq War, the slogan of the main groups that now constitute United for Peace and Justice was “Sanctions not War.” Before and after the current massacre in Iraq, organizations like Win Without War and other mainstream peace groups insisted that economic sanctions and weapons inspections against Iraq “were working” and should have been continued as the “alternative” to war.

Leaders of Win Without War knew full well that economic sanctions meant mass murder for the children in Iraq and that UN weapons inspection left Iraq defenseless in the face of the 2003 U.S. and British military assault. David Cortright, formerly the leader of the peace organization SANE/Freeze and now a leader of Win Without War, writes in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, “The much-maligned UN-enforced sanctions regime actually worked. Contrary to what critics have said, we now know that containment helped destroy Saddam Hussein’s war machine and his capacity to produce weapons.”

In the three weeks between the March 19, 2003, opening of Bush’s “shock and awe” invasion and the April 12, 2003, fall of Baghdad, thousands upon thousands of Iraqis fought to the death with small arms against a high-tech death machine. Cortright, the “peace” leader, seems to be downright proud about the advantages secured for the U.S. invading army due to the economic sanctions and UN weapons inspections that he championed for years. “The Iraqi military that confronted them [U.S. invasion forces] had, in the previous twelve years, been decimated by the strategy of containment.” Of course, this political opportunism has a real social basis in the context of world imperialism.

When the U.S. was attacked on its own soil on September 11, 2001, very few organizations were rushing into the streets to take a stand against the Bush administration’s immediate efforts to use the attack to unleash a long-planned war. In the days after the attack, the A.N.S.W.E.R. coalition was the only formation in the U.S. that called for mass demonstrations on September 29, 2001, against the government’s war moves. That initiative was greeted at the time by either fear, or denounced or boycotted, by most of the “respectable” pacifist and social-democratic leaders and organizations—not to mention a few who consider themselves revolutionaries and Marxists. A.N.S.W.E.R.’s call to action was not a bland and politically innocuous call for peace. Rather, it directly focused on building opposition inside the United States to the Bush administration’s war drive.

Just consider what might have happened if after the September 11 attacks, a broader war ensued that resulted in additional attacks on U.S. soil. On October 7, 2001, the Bush administration began the bombing of Afghanistan. But imagine for a second the case that Afghanistan, instead of being totally isolated and militarily defenseless, had allies in Germany and France. Suppose these allies were pledged to defend Afghanistan through a mutual security treaty. Imagine that the day after U.S. bombs began dropping, on October 8, 2001, French and German airplanes began a retaliatory aerial bombardment of New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, Atlanta and other U.S. cities.

Keep imagining. What would be the stance of the leaders of the different U.S. antiwar coalitions, or the different socialist and Marxist parties in the event that there was actually war between German and French imperialism on the one side and the United States on the other—and that some of the war actually took place on U.S. soil?

With bombs falling and German and French armies preparing to move just as the U.S. would be moving against them in Europe, any organization that would stand up and say “this is not our war, this is a predatory war for plunder carried out by the bosses, and we will take advantage of the crisis to hasten the downfall of capitalism,” would be the subject of immediate and harsh repression.

Maintaining the position of irreconcilable opposition to capitalist war under these circumstances is the true test of the internationalist character of a working class leadership. A militant speech denouncing war among friends is one thing. Condemning the war at a time when it means going to prison or going into a clandestine existence is something else.

From repression to victory

In the war hysteria following the outbreak of World War I, it was only the Bolsheviks under Lenin’s leadership, along with a handful of others like the small German left wing under the leadership of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Leibknecht that withstood the test. On August 4, 1914, all the socialist representatives in the German Parliament, with the exception of Karl Liebknecht, voted to allocate funds for the war effort. So did the representatives of the socialist parties in other countries. In Russia, it was only the five members of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party faction in the Czarist Duma (Parliament) who voted in accordance with the Basle Manifesto. They were arrested, put on trial and sentenced to life imprisonment in Siberia.

The revolutionary left not only suffered immense personal repression. Their organizations went into sharp decline between 1914 and 1917. The patriotic socialists were allowed to publish their newspapers and magazines and retain their parliamentary seats.

In the United States, Eugene Debs, a working class militant and leader of the left wing of the Socialist Party, led the most determined opposition to World War I. In 1918, at the age of 63, he was sentenced to ten years in prison under the Sedition Act for speaking out against U.S. participation in World War I.

In speeches across the country, Debs spread the message that the workers of the United States had nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by participating in their bosses’ wars.

Although they were politically isolated and repressed in 1914, it was the principled position of Lenin, Leibknecht, Luxemburg and Debs that made them the heroes of the international working class. As the immense slaughter of World War I unfolded—more than 15 million were killed—the patriotism and nationalist chauvinism that had infected the working class in 1914 began to give way. While the bourgeoisie successfully demonized the “enemy” at the war’s beginning, in the end millions saw the truth of the revolutionary internationalist position. Revolutionary struggles broke out in Germany and in Russia.

The struggle against opportunism and chauvinism isolated the revolutionary left from the people at the beginning of the war in 1914, leading to terrible repression. But it was the necessary precondition for the successful socialist revolution that took place three years later in Russia.

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