August 1914 – When Social Democracy Went to War

The following document originally appeared in Workers’ Voice in 1994. It, along with so much of our earlier material, has never been digitalised, but thanks to a sympathising comrade we have begun to address this issue and will be publishing more in future. As the orgy of lies about the First World War goes on the article below is a timely reminder of the real role of Social Democracy in saving capitalism, then as now.

This summer marks the 80th anniversary of a major turning point in the history of working class politics. In August 1914 the Second International collapsed. Headed by the German SPD the parties of the International supported their local bourgeoisies at the outbreak of the First World War. That decision marked the permanent and irrevocable end to Social Democracy’s role as a tool for proletarian revolutionists. How did it happen and what was the response from the revolutionary minority within Social Democracy at the time?

80 Years of Service to Imperialism

In many advanced capitalist countries and in a whole number within imperialism’s periphery, Social Democratic parties are a more-or-less fixed part of the bourgeois regime. Particularly within Western Europe, parties affiliated to the “Socialist International” either form the government or act as the loyal parliamentary opposition. Parties such as the German SPD or the British Labour Party have played on one or other of those roles continuously since the establishment of post–1945 imperialist order. In Spain the bourgeoisie breathe life into the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Party) to maintain democratic capitalist rule after the end of the Francoist regime. Similar attempts were, and are being, made in the former Soviet empire.

The role of Social Democracy as a pillar of the bourgeois order, in fact stretches back beyond the Second World War (during which the British Labour Party was invited into the Coalition Government to help run the imperialist slaughter). Throughout the 1920s and 30s the Social Democrats played key role in the various European democracies. Prime examples were Labour Governments in Britain and the role of the Social Democrats during the Weimar Republic, where the Social Democrats had earned the trust of the ruling-class by organising the bloody defeat of the revolutionary workers’ movement in 1919. Other variants were the Popular Fronts in France and Spain during the 1930s. In the latter cases the Social Democrats were participants in the bourgeois democratic coalitions which also included the local Stalinist representatives, fraudulently using the title “Communist” Parties.

Social Democracy has been one of the main tools by which the ruling – class has maintained their dominance since the end of the First World War. Their ability and willingness to play the role was established during that war when the four year bloodbath gave the Social Democrats a lengthy baptism in the bourgeois order. However all baptisms are preceded by a birth – Social Democracy as a tool for imperialism was born in August 1914. More accurately, for proletarian revolutionists whether in 1914 or 1994, Social Democracy as a proletarian formation died in that month to be reborn as a fully fledged tendency of the bourgeoisie.

The Second International (1889-1914)

The Second International was founded to mark the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution and to provide an international forum for socialists which had not existed since the collapse of the International Workingmens’s Association (the First International) in 1872. Throughout its history its formalistic use of Marxist terminology and commitment to class struggle and revolution mixed uneasily with the day-to-day theory and practice within its main nation sections.

From its early days bourgeois and petit-bourgeois influence could be detected within the International. These counter-revolutionary and fundamentally anti-Marxist tendencies were evident in both the writings and actions of Second International before the turn of the century.

In 1895 Friedrich Engels wrote an introduction to Marx’s writings on the 1848 revolution in France. In his document Engels dealt with the changes which had taken place since the book was written and considered the resultant strategic changes which the proletarian movement would need to carry out in a successful struggle against the social, political and military strength of the bourgeois state machine. The SPD executive, fearful of increased state repression, edited the documents to remove its revolutionary element and to present the question of gradualism and mass education.

The attack on the revolutionary kernel of Marxist theory was codified and developed by Eduard Bernstein, a leading Social Democrat, after Engels’s death. Bernstein wrote a series of articles on the “Problems of Socialism” in the journal Neue Zeit in 1896 to 1898. These articles, marked the theoretical foundation of the “revisionist” attempts to transform Marxism into a petit-bourgeois democratic political practice based on gradualism and reformism – in Bernstein’s own words,

"The final aim of socialism, whatever it may be, means nothing to me, it is the movement itself which is everything."

The concrete implications of Bernstein revisionism were soon translated into political practice by the French Social Democracy. In 1899 the socialist Alexandre Millerand took a ministerial position in the French government alongside representatives of bourgeois order such General Gallifet, butcher of the Pairs Commune. This entry into government by a Social Democrat was welcomed, or at the very least condoned, by all those who were beginning to express socialism as a gradualist process more concerned with parliamentary power than class struggle.

The growing influence of revisionism can be tracked throughout the remaining years of the International. For example, by 1904 Socialists in the Landtag of Baden (a state in South Germany) were forming a coalition Government with the Liberals – the logical outcome of voting for a capitalist budget which South German Social Democrats had done as early as 1891.

The response of the International to these expressions of revisionism is instructive. Decisions, up to and including the question of taking part in bourgeois governments were deemed to be tactical questions. As such, nation sections were left free to make their own decisions. The International therefore allowed the practice of revisionism to develop at its own pace wherever it could establish itself.

The failure of the International’s executive bodies to act as an organisation centre was a failing which allowed each national section to adapt their own theory and practice to that of their own national conditions, i.e. their local bourgeois order. This in turn led to an erosion of proletarian internationalism in favour of various national deviations. The culmination of that process was only to become fully apparent in 1914.

Resistance to Revisionism

The development of revisionism did not go unchallenged. Within the German SPD Marxists such as Franz Mehring, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg continued to counterpose revolutionary Marxism to petit-bourgeois democracy. In 1899 Luxemburg replied to Bernstein in the clearest terms:-

"…Opportunist practice is essentially irreconcilable with Marxism. ….also opportunism is incompatible with socialism (the socialist movement) in general, … its internal tendency is to push the labour movement into bourgeois paths, … Opportunism tends to paralyse completely the proletarian class struggle."

Elsewhere within Social Democracy, Lenin carried out prolonged and consistent resistance to revisionism amongst the Russian Social Democrats. In 1908, commenting on Marxism and revisionism, Lenin wrote prophetically –

"What we now frequently experience only in the domain of ideology, namely, disputes over theoretical amendments to Marx; what now crops up in practice …. as tactical differences with the revisionists…. Will make it necessary in the heat of the fight to distinguish enemies from friends, and to cast out bad allies in order to deal decisive blows at the enemy. The ideological struggle waged by revolutionary Marxism against revisionism at the end of the nineteenth century is but the prelude to the great revolutionary battles of the proletariat, which is marching forward ….despite all the waverings and weaknesses of the petty bourgeoisie."

Imperialism and Resolutions Against the War

By the end of the 19th century capitalism had entered its imperialist phase. New sources for raw materials and markets for surplus capital were being carved out across the globe and each of the imperialist powers were scrambling to defend their own interests.

On at least two occasions the European powers had nearly stumbled into war as a result of conflicting colonial interests in Africa. In 1904 the Russo-Japanese war was to contribute to the crisis of Tsarism and the revolutionary upsurge of 1905. In the face of the growing threat of war the International passed anti-war resolutions. In a Congress in Stuttgart in 1907 the organisation passed a resolution drafted by Luxemburg which declared.

"In the event of war threatening to break out, it is the duty of the workers and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved to do everything possible to prevent the out break of war …. Should war break out nevertheless, it is their duty to advocate its speedy end and to utilise the economic and political crisis brought about by the war to rouse the various social strata and to hasten the overthrow of capitalist class rule."

Broadly similar resolutions were also passed at congresses in Copenhagen (1910) and Basle (1912).

July 1914 – the Third Balkan War?

In 1912-13 two wars had been fought in the Balkans as the various local states, egged on by one or other of the more powerful European states, had fought over the spoils of the declining Turkish Empire.

When the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914 it was not immediately clear that a World War would ensure. During the next few days and weeks the sections of the International published statements in line with the resolutions of the International Congresses.

As late as July 28th, Vorwarts, the main paper of the German SPD, printed the following rhetorical question and answer-

"How shall the German proletariat act in the face of such a senseless paroxysm. The German proletariat is not in the least interested in the preservation of the Austrian national chaos."

On the 25th July Austro-Hungary declared war on Serbia. The respective responses of the Marxist minority and the revisionist majority are graphically shown by the responses of the Second Internationalists in the two countries. The response of Serbian Socialist deputies, Ljaptchevitch and Katzleerovitch, is powerfully recorded by Leon Trotsky in an article published in November 1914.

"In the Skuptchina, in an atmosphere of indescribable national enthusiasm, a vote was taken on the war credits. The voting was by roll-call. Two hundred members had answered “Yes”. Then in a moment of deathlike silence came the voice of the Socialist Ljaptchevitch- “No”. Every one felt the moral force of this protest, and the scene has remained indelibly impressed upon my memory."

In contrast to the principled bravery of their comrades in Serbia the leading elements of Austrian Social Democracy had already collapsed. A meeting of the International was held in Brussels on July 29th and 30th. Austrian Social Democrat, Victor Adler, later recalled his contribution.

"The war is already upon us. Up to now we have fought against war as well as we could. The workers also did their utmost against the war intrigues. But don’t expect any further action from us. We have a state of emergency and martial law as a backdrop. I did not come here to address a public meeting, but to tell you the truth, that when hundreds of thousands are already marching to the borders and martial law holds sway at home, no action is possible here."

Following the meeting the International hosted a mass rally against the war in Brussels. According to Paul Frohlich’s biography of Luxemburg the rally filled the “Cirque Royal” to capacity.

August 1914

In the few days following the meeting in Brussels two historical processes converged with an incredible speed. Firstly, the logic of imperialist rivalry and the sets of alliances which had evolved around it arrived at its logical and fatal conclusion. Austria-Hungary and Russia both fully mobilised on July 31st. On August 1st, Germany declared war on Russia – on the 3rd on France. On the 4th Britain declared war on Germany.

The second historical factor, in fact intimately linked to the effects of imperialism within the metropolitan countries, was the outcome of decades of creeping revisionism and parliamentarianism. The parliamentary deputies of the German SPD, the “jewel in the crown” of the international met on August 3rd to decide their stand on the forthcoming vote on war credits. Frohlich described the historic decision.

"Out of 111 deputies only 15, including Liebknecht, Haase, Ledebour, Ruhle and Lensch, called for a “No” vote. Their demand for a special permission to register their minority vote was refused. On 4th August the parliamentary membership closed ranks to vote in favour of the war credits. Even Karl Liebknecht bowed to party discipline."

The Revolutionary Response

When the SPD deputies voted for war credits on August 4th the International died as a force which could in any way serve the proletariat. The vast majority of the Second Internationalists immediately sided with their own bourgeoisies just as the SPD had.

The collapse was a thunderbolt even to the Marxists in the International who had resisted the moves towards revisionism. It is well know that Lenin though that the edition of Vorwarts describing the vote was a forgery. The Rumanian socialists also thought the news was a lie.

Amongst the Second Internationalists only a small minority were initially able to withstand the waves of national chauvinism which swept across Europe. Apart from the Serbian Socialists mentioned above, the two other main groups were the Russian Bolsheviks and the Bulgarian Tesnyaki (meaning Narrow) faction.

Those who had carried out the most thoroughgoing fight against revisionism were best placed to analyse the collapse of the International and carry forward the struggle for revolutionary internationalism.

On the night of the 4th August a group of German Marxists including Luxemburg, Mehring and Marchlewski-Karski met to oppose the war and the SPD support for it. In Trotsky’s articles, printed in the Russian émigré paper Golos (The Voice) in November 1914 he wrote:

"We revolutionary Marxists have no cause for despair. The epoch into which we are now entering will be our epoch. Marxism is not defeated. On the contrary: the roar of the canon in every corner of Europe heralds the theoretical victory of Marxism. What is left now of the hopes for a “peaceful” development, for a mitigation of capitalist class contrasts, for a regular systematic growth into Socialism? Socialist reformism has actually turned into Socialist imperialism."

Even more incisively Lenin, writing in October 1914 (published in Sotsial Demokrat, of November 1st ), declared;

"The collapse of the Second International is the collapse of opportunism …. The opportunists have long been preparing the ground for this collapse by denying the socialist revolution and substituting bourgeois reformism."

Lenin concluded with a call for a new International – “Long live a proletarian International, freed from opportunism”.

From August 4th, 1914 revolutionaries had two tasks – to turn the imperialist war into civil war and to build a new International of proletarian Internationalists. By October 1917 those who had held to that perspective were able to herald the Russian Revolution as the first step towards world revolution.

Unlike the latter-day revisionists who drive workers time and time again back into the arms of the bourgeois social democracy, today’s internationalist communists continue to stand in the tradition of 1914’s revolutionary minorities.

Monday, February 9, 2015