This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.
Before 1914, the Second International resolved to act to prevent war…
Before 1914, the Second International, grouping together socialist and workers’ organisations throughout Europe, resolved to act to prevent war. Once war had been declared, however, nearly all of these parties backed the capitalists in their own countries. This was a betrayal of the workers’ movement of truly historic proportions, and with far-reaching consequences.
The First World War was both predicted and a surprise. Predicted because the increasing competition and arm races between the major, and some minor, imperialist powers meant that for many years prior to 1914 a conflict was seen as inevitable sooner or later. A surprise in that initially the Sarajevo assassinations did not seem to many to immediately threaten a European war, something that changed within a few weeks. But the biggest shock for socialists was that the majority of the leaderships of socialist and workers’ organisations supported their “own” ruling classes in this bloody conflict.
In the years before 1914 the increasing threat of war was a constant issue which was discussed many times within the then growing mass workers’ and socialist organisations. Campaigns against militarism, arms expenditure and the threat of war were regular features of socialist activity before 1914, which sometimes led to arrest and imprisonment. Capitalism and war were seen as inevitably linked together. There were widespread discussions as to what could be done to stop war in both national parties and the International, later known as the Second International, the organisation which linked together socialist and other workers’ organisations from many countries.
As the war clouds gathered in 1914 there were many statements of opposition to war from both the International and national parties. A couple of weeks before the First World War started a congress of the then French socialist party, the SFIO, called for a general strike if war broke out. Demonstrations against war were held in many countries, including Germany, France and Britain in the days before the fighting began.
Initially many thought that the Sarajevo killings would not lead to war as had been the case with earlier international “incidents”, like the 1905 and 1911 crises between France and Germany over who would dominate Morocco, that had threatened war.
These previous incidents, along with the arms race and changing international alliances, for example Britain forming an alliance, symbolised in the 1904 Entente Cordiale, with its old enemy France, fuelled the public discussion of the possibility of war in Europe. While this not a peaceful world period, witnessed by the continuing colonial wars which imperialist countries like Britain, France and Germany were almost continually waging in Africa and Asia, there had been no major war in most of Europe since 1871, apart from the Balkans.
The fear of war was increased by dread at the huge casualties and damage which modern military technology could bring. It was Frederick Engels, Marx’s closest collaborator, who back in December 1887 forecast with striking accuracy the human, economic and political impact of a future war which he notably described as a “world war”:
“And, finally, the only war left for Prussia-Germany to wage will be a world war, a world war, moreover of an extent and violence hitherto unimagined. Eight to ten million soldiers will be at each other’s throats and in the process they will strip Europe barer than a swarm of locusts. The depredations of the Thirty Years’ War compressed into three to four years and extended over the entire continent; famine, disease, the universal lapse into barbarism, both of the armies and the people, in the wake of acute misery irretrievable dislocation of our artificial system of’ trade, industry and credit, ending in universal bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their conventional political wisdom to the point where crowns will roll into the gutters by the dozen, and no one will be around to pick them up; the absolute impossibility of foreseeing how it will all end and who will emerge as victor from the battle. Only one consequence is absolutely certain: universal exhaustion and the creation of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class.
“That is the prospect for the moment when the development of mutual one-upmanship in armaments reaches its climax and finally brings forth its inevitable fruits. This is the pass, my worthy princes and statesmen, to which you in your wisdom have brought our ancient Europe. And when no alternative is left to you but to strike up the last dance of war – that will be no skin off our noses. The war may push us into the background for a while, it may wrest many a conquered base from our hands. But once you have unleashed the forces you will be unable to restrain, things can take their course: by the end of the tragedy you will be ruined and the victory of the proletariat will either been achieved or else inevitable.” (Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 26, page 451)
It was these experiences and fears that had laid the basis for the rising workers’ movement to oppose both capitalism and war. As many socialist and worker activists had drawn the conclusion that capitalism means war there were continuing, and sometimes heated, discussions on what should be done to prevent catastrophe.
International opposition to war
This came to a head in 1912 when the First Balkan War was seen as threatening to expand into a wider European war. Mass demos throughout Europe began in October, the largest being 250,000 in Berlin, leading up to a European-wide day of protest, called by the Second International, on 17 November. The International, which had been founded in 1889, brought together workers’ organisations, especially but not exclusively, from Europe. Over the years it had played a vital role in helping the development of mass organisations and as a forum to discuss socialist ideas and the tactics of the workers’ movement. In an age of imperialism and the threat of war the International was a symbol of internationalism and unity of the working class. Thus its November 1912 call saw simultaneous protests throughout 11 European countries with the largest single one taking place in Paris with 100,000. A week later in Basle, Switzerland, an emergency congress of the International took place. This Congress, attended by over 500 delegates from all over Europe, was greeted by an international demonstration of up to 30,000 opposing war.
Politically this special congress followed on from and developed the anti-war debates and decisions at the previous, regular, congresses of the International held in Stuttgart in 1907 and in Copenhagen in 1910.
One of the issues was whether to call for a general strike to stop a war breaking out. This call was supported by, amongst others, the French SFIO and in 1912 it had, at an extraordinary congress on 21 November, included “a general strike and insurrection” amongst the actions that should be taken if an outbreak of war was threatened.
The declaration of the Basle International congress summed up much of the previous years’ debates and, despite some weaknesses, spelled out a clear opposition to war between the capitalist powers:
“If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the sharpening of the general political situation.
“In case war should break out anyway it is their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule…
“The overcoming of the antagonism between Germany on the one hand, and France and England on the other, would eliminate the greatest danger to the peace of the world, shake the power of czarism which exploits this antagonism, render an attack of Austria-Hungary upon Serbia impossible, and secure peace to the world. All the efforts of the International, therefore, are to be directed toward this goal…
“It calls upon the workers of all countries to oppose the power of the international solidarity of the proletariat to capitalist imperialism. It warns the ruling classes of all states not to increase by belligerent actions the misery of the masses brought on by the capitalist method of production. It emphatically demands peace. Let the governments remember that with the present condition of Europe and the mood of the working class, they cannot unleash a war without danger to themselves. Let them remember that the Franco-German War was followed by the revolutionary outbreak of the Commune, that the Russo-Japanese War set into motion the revolutionary energies of the peoples of the Russian Empire, that the competition in military and naval armaments gave the class conflicts in England and on the Continent an unheard-of sharpness, and unleashed an enormous wave of strikes. It would be insanity for the governments not to realise that the very idea of the monstrosity of a world war would inevitably call forth the indignation and the revolt of the working class. The proletarians consider it a crime to fire at each other for the profits of the capitalists, the ambitions of dynasties, or the greater glory of secret diplomatic treaties…
“The proletariat is conscious of being at this moment the bearer of the entire future of humankind. The proletariat win exert all its energy to prevent the annihilation of the flower of all peoples, threatened by all the horrors of mass murder, starvation, and pestilence.
“The Congress therefore appeals to you, proletarians and Socialists of all countries, to make your voices heard in this decisive hour! Proclaim your will in every form and in all places; raise your protest in the parliaments with all your force; unite in great mass demonstrations; use every means that the organisation and the strength of the proletariat place at your disposal! See to it that the governments are constantly kept aware of the vigilance and passionate will for peace on the part of the proletariat! Counter-pose the proletarian world of peace and fraternity of peoples to the capitalist world of exploitation and mass murder!”
Given the growing strength of the International’s parties, especially the German SPD which in the same year won over a third of the vote in Germany, there was the widespread expectation that the parties, even if not capable of stopping a war breaking out, would oppose a war and utilise the subsequent crisis to overthrow capitalism.
Hence the complete shock to many activists when in August 1914 practically all leaders of the International’s parties supported their “own” ruling classes. As in 1912 in many countries there were mass demonstrations in July 1914 against a war, albeit often with rather vague demands. Throughout Germany between July 25 and 30 a minimum of 750,000 attended anti-war protests called by the SPD. In France, although street demonstrations were banned in Paris, around 90,000 attended protests outside Paris between July 25 and August 1. Similarly in Britain, the “British Section” of the International, meaning the Labour Party, Independent Labour Party and British Socialist Party, organised a series of protests over the August 1and 2 weekend under the slogan of “War Against War”, the largest attracting 20,000 in central London.
But as the countdown to war continued increasing ruling class pressure was piled onto the leaders of workers’ organisations in all countries to support their “own” governments. At the same time ruling class propaganda played on popular fears and historic prejudices to whip up support for war. The Austrian socialist leader Victor Adler explained to an International meeting on the very eve of the war that “we now see the results of years of (ruling) class agitation and demagogy … In our country, hostility to Serbia is almost second nature”.
As war became more likely each ruling class sought to mobilise public support for war and to apply more and more pressure on the workers’ leaders to “fall into line”. But this was no defence for the actions of those leaders who supported their own capitalist class. To be sure excuses, justifications were given in every country to present the war as one of “national defence” and often repeated by the pro-war “socialists”. In Germany it was the threat of Tsarist Russia, while in Britain and France the threat of Prussian/German militarism and the defence of “poor little Belgium”.
But all this was completely hypocritical. None of these European states were even formally democratic, all denying every woman and also many men a vote. All were colonial powers continually involved in brutal wars to create and maintain their empires. Britain, France and Germany were all participating in carving up China between the rival imperialist powers. Between 1904 and 1907 the German army carried out the mass killings, which have become known as the “Herero and Namaqua Genocide”, in what is now Namibia. Only days after the 1914 war broke out the British army was shooting unarmed demonstrators in Abeokuta, in the then newly created Nigeria, as part of a drive to suppress protests against new colonial taxes and forced unpaid labour. The capitalist class running “Poor little Belgium” were not that “poor” and its king, Leopold II, had written to a minister “Il faut à la Belgigue une colonie” (Belgium needs a colony) before going on to establish a particularly brutal, personalised rule over the Congo.
Even some of those opposing the war, like the French leader Jean Jaurès who was assassinated by a nationalist as the war was starting, had hopes that the capitalists themselves would stop the war. At an International anti-war rally in Brussels two days before he was killed Jaurès argued that “we do not have to force a peace policy on our (French) government. It is carrying out such a policy … at present the French government wants peace and works to maintain peace. It is the best ally of the peace efforts of the splendid British government, which took the initiative for conciliation”. How Jaurès, who generally was on the right of the workers’ movement, would have reacted to the fact that five days later it was Germany that formally declared war on France is an open question.
The capitulation of previously “anti-war” socialist leaders was widespread as they came under the dual pressures of the patriotic wave that accompanied the outbreak of war and the intense pressure of the ruling classes for “unity” on the “home front”. In Britain Arthur Henderson, who moved the resolution at the August 2 “War Against War” rally in London, rapidly became a supporter of the war and in 1915 joined the wartime coalition, the first time a member of the Labour Party became a British minister. At the same time these twin pressures re-enforced the position of the already pro-capitalist elements within the workers’ organisations who had no desire for, or regarded as impossible, the socialist transformation of society.
But while the outbreak of a war was not unexpected, this almost complete collapse of opposition to the war as in most combatant countries the parties of the International immediately decided to support their ‘own’ side, with the only exceptions being in Russia, Bulgaria and Serbia, was shocking to the socialists who continued to uphold the previously agreed positions against war. What the First World War revealed was the difference between words and actions, namely that while many leaders had publically still maintained a revolutionary position, i.e. a rejection of capitalism, in the words the reality was that they were being effectively incorporated into the capitalist system and becoming traitors to socialism. Many of the workers’ leaders became out and out nationalists, thus the pro-war August 5 editorial of the main Austrian socialist daily, the Viennese Arbeiter-Zeitung, was headed “Der Tag der deutschen Nation” (The Day of the German Nation).
It many ways this retreat was symbolised most in Germany where the SPD, the strongest party in the International, had in effect fallen into the hands of leaders who in reality had no intention of leading a struggle against capitalism. The old SPD motto “Diesem System keinen Mann und keinen Groschen!” (For this system, not one man and not one penny!) with which one of its founders, Wilhelm Liebknecht, greeted the 1871 foundation of the German Empire, was superseded in August 1914 by “Burgfrieden” (civil peace). But while the SPD leaders had “civil peace” with the Kaiser and the capitalists they increasingly imposed a police regime inside their own party to stifle critics and, when that did not work, began expelling those opposing the war. When revolution broke out in Germany in 1918 some of these traitors worked with the military and prototype fascist gangs to bloodily suppress the revolution – including in the summary executions of the revolutionary leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, in January 1919 at the behest of SPD leaders. Co-operation with their ruling classes in government as not limited to the SPD leaders, the same occurred in Britain, France, Belgium and, in 1917, in the first period of the Russian revolution before the Bolsheviks came to power.
The growth of reformism
The impact of what happened in Germany was greater both because of the country’s economic and scientific strength and as, before the 1914-18 war, the SPD was internationally seen as a model workers’ movement. The SPD effectively politically led the International, which then fundamentally comprised Marxist parties.
Internationally the SPD had paved the way in building massive working class organisations that, formally at least, had the aim of overthrowing capitalism. Rejecting the “revisionist efforts” to formally commit the party to simply attempting to reform capitalism, the 1901 SPD congress, for example, condemned attempts “to supplant the policy of the conquest of power by overcoming our enemies with a policy of accommodation to the existing order”. Organisationally the SPD enjoyed massive growth. After emerging in 1890 from 12 years of illegally the SPD’s vote increased in every subsequent national election, reaching 4.25 million (34.7%) in 1912. In 1913 its individual membership peaked at 1,085,900, when Germany’s total population was around 68 million.
However the SPD’s revolutionary heritage was being undermined by a combination of illusions sowed by that period’s economic growth and, paradoxically, the year by year growth of the SPD itself. Most of the leading layers within the SPD and trade unions began to assume that the movement would continue to progress almost automatically until it won a majority and that step-by-step reforms would steadily improve workers’ lives. Over time this led to the de facto abandonment of the expectation that crisis would grip the system and of a revolutionary perspective, as increasing numbers with the leadership thought that capitalism would carry on generally steadily developing.
This development, an adaptation to capitalism, was strengthened by the fact that the growing workers’ organisations naturally had to do more than just propaganda activities; increasingly they had to engage in waging day to day struggles, open for reforms or over day to day workplace issues or for reforms that could immediately improve workers’ lives. With the SPD having not bridge between its maximum programme of revolution and a minimum programme of immediate reform this meant that daily struggles were often seen as separate from the wider goal of building a conscious movement aiming to end capitalism.
At the same time the very growth of workers’ organisations produced the danger this growth would come to be seen as an end for itself. These expanding organisations also faced the risk that they could become vehicles for the personal comfort or careers of a privileged minority, something that could only be checked by a politically active rank and file. In many cases there was a conscious ruling class policy of developing a layer of pro-capitalist leaders within workers’ organisations, those who the pioneer US socialist Daniel De Leon called the “labour lieutenants of capital”. For example the August 1914 pro-war vote of the SPD was partially prepared by private talks between the German Chancellor and the right wing SPD MP, Südekum, who then reported to the SPD leadership.
In 1914 this was a new phenomenon, hence the shock of what happened. There had been previous examples of individual socialist leaders moving to the side of capitalism. The most famous was when Millerand joined the French government in 1899, a step which led to an international debate that culminated in the International denouncing his position in August 1904. While Jaures succeeded in 1903 in preventing the French Socialist Party congress expelling Millerand, he was later expelled by the Seine regional federation in January 1904. But the “moving over” by entire parties had not been seen before 1914. Unfortunately today socialists have far more experience of once socialist forces or individuals adapting and becoming integrated into the capitalist system but have also learnt lessons on how to combat the growth of pro-capitalist and careerist tendencies.
But in 1914 it was deeply shocking to many activists when the news spread that the SPD MPs had voted in favour of the war. As is well known Lenin, then in exile, initially thought that the issue of the main SPD daily, Vorwärts, that announced that the party was supporting the war was a forgery by the German military. The SPD backing for the Kaiserreich’s war brought out into the open the fact that the majority of its leadership had clearly adopted a pro-capitalist position and would, in future, oppose a socialist revolution. This was the essential meaning of the turning point of August 4, 1914, when the SPD voted in parliament to support ‘their’ side in an inter-imperialist war waged by what were, at best, only semi-democracies.
The SPD leadership’s decision to back this war, unlike its founders’ opposition to the 1870 Prussian-led occupation of France, and now collaborated with the government, was a stunning blow that publicly marked the end of that party’s claim to be revolutionary. This was a decisive step towards the SPD leaders’ integration into the capitalist system and prepared the way for the openly counter-revolutionary role they played in and after the 1918/9 German revolution.
Preparing for revolution
Despite many being shocked, this was not entirely a bolt from the blue, although hardly anyone expected the SPD to actually fully support a war. Before 1914, in a sharpening political struggle within the SPD, Rosa Luxemburg had become the leading opponent of the growing reformist, non-revolutionary and de facto pro-capitalist trend within the party. By 1914 the SPD was divided into three tendencies: the openly reformist wing; the so-called centre (led by Kautsky); and the radicals (i.e. the Marxist left) led by Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and others. But, unlike the Bolsheviks in their struggle between 1903 and 1912 in the Russian Social Democracy, Luxemburg did not try to draw together the Marxist wing into a coherent opposition that systematically fought both for its ideas and to build support. Tragically this contributed to their weakness at the beginning of war and later at the start of the German revolution in 1918.
As war approached the patriotic wave in most countries frightened many leaders and became another reason not to oppose the war. Thus the Austrian leader Victor Alder told the last meeting of the International’s Bureau before the war started that “we run the danger of destroying 30 years’ work without any political result”.
Clearly no workers’ leader wants to destroy or weaken the movement by adventurism, but sometimes it is necessary to say the truth, albeit skilfully, in order to prepare for the future. The challenge was how to prepare for the inevitable revolutionary effects of the war which, as Engels had predicted, would only have one “absolutely certain” consequence: “universal exhaustion and the creation of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class”.
This is what exactly what happened as the initial patriotic enthusiasm for the First World War was swept away by the horrors of war and the cynicism of the ruling classes and replaced by revolt and a worldwide revolutionary wave.
It was the challenge of how to prepare for these inevitable revolutionary effects of the war which dominated socialists’ political activity in the first period of the war. The questions of why the International had collapsed as a force, why the Basle resolution had been ignored, why its constituent parties were on different sides of the trenches and what political and organisational conclusions should be drawn from this were debated amongst activists as they sought to rebuilt the socialist movement.
In his 1915 article, the “Collapse of the Second International”, Vladimir Lenin while criticising the arguments of those leaders supporting the war also stressed that the abandonment of the ideas in Basle Manifesto of not just opposing war, but also preparing for the revolutionary events that the war will bring in its wake, meant a fundamental, qualitative change in the old parties. Now the majority of the old leaders had moved over to the side of their “own” ruling class.
“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 …
“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 class, 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 … 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.”
It was Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks who, in Russia in 1917, were guided by these past examples in winning mass support to carry through the October revolution and set an example that inspired millions around the world.
The First World War marked the end of the Second International as a force for socialism and it became a pro-capitalist brake on the workers’ movement, something which helped shape subsequent history. But out of this defeat came a new movement, striving to learn the lessons of the past and of the 1917 Russian revolution, that built a new International, the Communist International. This was the largest worldwide revolutionary movement seen so far, built by a combination of pre-war activists who opposed the war and collaboration with the ruling classes and those, especially young people, radicalised by the experience of war and revolution. Tragically this new International was undermined by the growth of Stalinism in the then Soviet Union which ultimately led to its collapse.
Today the basic characteristics of capitalism are the same as before the First World War. It is still a system which means instability and, in many cases, wars. Even if today the main powers want to avoid direct confrontation between themselves, this has not meant a peaceful world, tens of millions have died in conflicts since the end of the last world War in 1945.
In this sense the fight to end war, in all its different forms, still continues and is still a task for the workers’ movement. The character of the fight can be different, for example striving to build a united workers and poor response to sectarian conflicts or fighting against repression. But they all depend on whether a workers’ movement able to respond can be built. As we have seen with the 2003 invasion of Iraq even if the capitalists are able to start wars, it is only the workers’ movement which can hold them to account, both individually and collectively.
Today’s world is more linked together than ever before. Today the idea of an International linking together working people around the world in a movement to transform the world has more potential than ever before. The CWI is striving to build upon that potential, learning from past experiences in order to help realise the aim of the pioneers of the workers movement of transforming the world by ridding it of the chaos of capitalism and the threat of violence and war.