Paul Temple

What Are the Prospects
for Socialism?

Experiences of the First World War

(June 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 6, June 1943, pp. 179–181.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“If the war got beyond the control of the Second International, its immediate consequences will be beyond the control of the bourgeoisie of the entire world. We revolutionary socialists did not want the war. But we do not fear it.

Leon Trotsky wrote these words in the early part of the First World War, in the midst of a general popular approval and enthusiasm for the war such as no country today experienced from the very beginning of the conflict. More, far more than today, he could look about him and all was social peace; nobody was revolting, preparing to revolt, or even thinking of revolution, with the exception of a small band of intransigents scattered over Europe: a very stubborn Russian named Lenin, barely known outside the Russian cities; an “uncontrollable” named Liebknecht in Germany; a few others.

Was it sheer optimism or blind fanaticism which made these isolated individuals “ignore the realities” of the actual present, and speak as though in a couple of years millions of small men would shake their heads, straighten their backs, and send dynasties, governments, all-powerful statesmen and monarchs rolling in the gutters? Who were these people who went around predicting unprecedented revolutions in the midst of an unprecedented abandonment of the class struggle by the working class?

It was the Marxists alone who looked behind the current scene into the social forces that were even then at work on changing it. The philosophers would put it this way: from an examination of “what is,” they went to an analysis of “what is becoming.” An old steel girder, full of flaws and internally groaning with stresses, appears as strong as ever to the naked eye; but when it cracks all at once, the effects are more devastating than the obvious rotting of a wood shingle.

Today it is possible to read historians’ post-mortem analyses of why the First World War exploded in the First World Revolution of 1917–21. The best historians understand the past. Revolutionary Marxists are different: they seek to be historians in the present tense. Today we ask: What are the social forces which are at work making for revolution out of this war?

We have a competitor in this field: the class-conscious capitalists and their political agents in the governments of the world. And it is a confirmation to know that these are the people most thoroughly convinced of the inevitability of revolution as the consequence of the war. The degree of their conviction is measured by their fear.

This explains one difference between the road to World War I and the road to World War II. Before 1914, the statesmen – Sazanov, Lord Grey, Poincaré, Delcassé – laid a deliberate course toward war for imperial ambitions with a set of calculations which well-nigh excluded the revolutionary intervention of the proletariat as a factor to be considered.

But before 1939 there is no doubt that the most important considerations in the minds of the war leaders was the revolutionary threat of the working class. The peace protestations of Chamberlain had that much truth to them. The “Munich-men’s” slogan was: “Reek the consequences of war! Beware the threatened collapse of (capitalist) civilization!” This was the express burden of Roosevelt’s public notes to Mussolini in the Munich crisis, with the addition that Roosevelt spoke more plainly of the threat of global war to “our economic system.” If Hitler was inexorably driven into war policy by the necessity of cementing his home front – satisfying his capitalist masters with the expectation of imperial gains and doping the workers with nationalism – it was still with the marginal hope that his forays into Europe could be limited, each at its time, short of a general war. For over twenty years, press interviews and memoir writers have freely disclosed of the world’s statesmen that, like a conditioned reflex, a new world war was associated in their thoughts with memoirs of the Czar, the Kaiser and the Hapsburgs.

From where we small people are, the capitalist governments seem fixedly stable and solid; but up there, with a bird’s-eye view, they see the widening cracks heralding the trembling of the earth. Down here we need a compass and a map: a Marxist analysis of social forces and the experiences of modern history.

For we too remember the last period of war and revolution. We remember that two months before the Russian Revolution of March, 1917, Lenin was speaking with unaccustomed pessimism of the prospect of seeing the socialist revolution in his lifetime. And that on November 2, 1918 – one week before the Kaiser abdicated in the face of mutinous sailors and soldiers with red arm-bands – the German Spartacists met in conference with the leaders of the revolutionary shop stewards of Berlin around Richard Müller and Georg Ledebour ... and decided that the time was not yet ripe for the launching of the revolution which they planned. (The famous Kiel mutiny took place before they got in two nights’ sleep.)

So it was that only a small band of revolutionary “optimists” could see farther than their noses. From 1917 on, revolutions broke out all over Europe. Successful in Russia, on the brink of power in Germany and Italy, barely restrained in Austria, successful again in Hungary and Finland, sweeping through a series of Baltic and Balkan states. For four years running, the overwhelming majority of the workers and peasants of war-ravaged Europe had as their popular cry: Socialism! The dictatorship of the proletariat! Soviet power!

And that was after only four years of a war which had been preceded by what? Decades of social peace and calm, practically unmarked by any upheavals – so lulling to a whole generation of workers that “the revolution” was nearly forgotten. It became a sentimental phrase; a monstrous step into the unknown, even for those who called themselves socialists.

This war broke over the heads of a world proletariat that has been brought up in a quite different world. It broke out after twenty years of periodic and constant revolutionary uprisings and upsurges.

We have referred to the First World Revolution of 1917–21. In 1923 came another revolutionary upsurge in Germany. In 1925–26, the revolution in China. In 1926, the British general strike. In 1927, a revolutionary uprising in Austria. In 1929 came the most catastrophic collapse of capitalist economy that had yet occurred, as a result of which the “social prestige” of capitalism went down to a new low and remained there until the outbreak of the war. In February of 1934 an unprecedented day dawned: it witnessed three nation-wide general strikes going on simultaneously in three different countries of Europe! In France, the wave of sit-down strikes, to be repeated in 1936. In Austria, the civil war and barricade-fighting against Dollfuss’ fascists. Then came the Spanish civil war and revolution. This is far from a complete roll-call.

Packed into these twenty years has been more revolutionary activity of the masses than in the whole history of the world since the fall of the Roman Empire.

This is what led up to this war which all the imperialists feared, under conditions of the most deep-going and chronic breakdown of capitalism’s economic machinery. These are the times we live in.

“Twenty years of revolution – twenty years of defeats.” There actually are people who think that this is a more fitting summary of the present era, and cause enough to eliminate the revolution from consideration for the future. What deep thinking!

The history of every social revolution is a history of defeats ... followed by only one victory.

So it was with the social revolution of the bourgeoisie against feudalism in Europe – beginning with the sporadic revolts of the towns against the lords in the late Middle Ages, and even after the French Revolution, the defeats of 1830, 1848, 1905, etc. Even in its revolutionary days, the bourgeoisie was not notable in the qualities of self-sacrificing daring, recklessness of consequences and fighting vigor. Yet feudalism was finally overthrown in all advanced countries, after two centuries of bourgeois struggle, and the complete power of capitalism was established. The working class is not less bold and persistent in its fighting qualities, but a million times more so. It has passed through more defeats because it has engaged battle a hundred times more often.

Is it not clear that only a class with immense recuperative powers could have gone to the assault as often as the revolutionary working class has done? One section is defeated and sinks back; another advances to the fight, and kindles the others. An individual may be exhausted by setbacks; the many-headed masses have shown themselves to be collectively inexhaustible. The most serious defeat of the working class was that of 1917–21; yet it only served to open up the most revolutionary decades in history. It is especially true of the proletarian revolution that it is a course of many defeats and one victory. The basic strength of the capitalist class lay in its economic power, its ownership of property; they were able to advance to full power by stages in many countries. But with the proletarian revolution, different from the bourgeoisie, it is all or nothing – including the whole world or nothing, as has been demonstrated by the defeat of the Russian Revolution at the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

It is no accident that, since the days of the Paris Commune of 1871, the greatest uprisings of the laboring masses have followed the wars of the bourgeoisie.

The hammer is wrenched out of the worker’s hand and a gun put into his hand instead. And the worker, who has been tied down by the machinery of the capitalist system, is suddenly torn from his usual setting and taught to place the aims of society above happiness at home and even life itself. With the weapon in his hand that he himself has forged, the worker is put in a position where the political destiny of the state is directly dependent upon him. Those who exploited and scorned him in normal times natter him now and toady to him. At the same time he comes into intimate contact with the cannon, which Lassalle calls one of the most important ingredients of all constitutions.

Follow further along Trotsky’s thought. A war is the boiled-down essence of the proposition that Might is Right – that is, that physical force is the basis of law. This proposition has a second barrel: Right is not Might, unless backed up by power. This is how the school of war refutes the nonsense of bourgeois moralism. This is how the working class gets its indispensable education in the meaning and necessity of class power.

The school of war teaches that bourgeois legalism is not derived from heavy books, but from the struggle of opposing powers. “The great guns are hammering into their heads the idea that if it is impossible to get around an obstacle, it is possible to destroy it.” Dignified statesmen revile each other and expose each others’ motives, lies, chicanery and methods of ruling. People learn to think casually – naturally – of the fall of governments as the result of armed force. The worker at his bench, who up to now thought of his labor only as a means of supporting himself and his family, is insistently instructed that this is not so – that all society is dependent on his labor and on labor in general, and no evidence appears that it is at all dependent on the profiteering coupon-clippers who own his instruments of labor. It is dinned into him that he must sacrifice for his convictions. A hundred times more than in peacetime, his attention is forcibly arrested and held by politics, economics, international affairs – an interest notably lacking heretofore especially among American workers. The government, especially the national government, becomes less far-away, inviolable and beyond-the-horizon-of-daily-life. It becomes a very concrete institution which intrudes itself upon his affairs, rights, livelihood and life more and more.

Change, change and change – that is the main lesson of the school of war. This world is not fixed and stable; boundaries, laws, lifetime habits, opinions, rights, governments, methods – everything tends to approach the fluid state of a newspaper headline. The tempo of thought and action becomes immeasurably accelerated. No class and no people can pass through the school of total war without a profound change in mental attitudes and psychologies – that is, a profound shake-up of human nature. This is what happened from 1914 to 1925. It is happening now.

An analysis of the revolutionizing forces abroad in the world today does not start from scratch. It can and must start with an understanding of, and contrast with, what happened in World War I. The revolutionary wave that swept over Europe then was not fomented by the revolutionary socialists. It began to swell out of four deep-set causes, and only in its final breaking did the red crest of socialism appear. These four forces were sufficient then to awaken the whirlwind of the revolution. Where are they now? Only to list them – we can do no more without a more detailed history of the anti-war movement during that war – is to give the answer.

(Continued in next issue)

Last updated on 24 May 2015