Edgar Hardcastle

Socialists and War (on Boris Souvarine)

Source: Socialist Standard, August 1932.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain.
HTML Markup: Adam Buick
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2016). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit "Marxists Internet Archive" as your source.

Boris Souvarine (a French ex-Communist), writing in La Critique Sociale (March, 1932, published at 31, rue Jacob, Paris, price 5 francs), maintains that there has been a fundamental, if unobserved change in the attitude of Socialists towards war during the past 25 years.

Taking the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5) as an illustration, Souvarine says that most of the Socialists "declared themselves on the side of Japan, less by reason of sympathy for a superior civilisation than out of hatred for Czarism, and, above all, because they anticipated that the defeat of Russia would have beneficial results for the international Socialist movement." He quotes Jules Guesde as having said : "We must be against Russia and for Japan. Long live Japan !"

Kautsky, who took the same view wrote : "Never in my opinion has a problem been set in such simple terms."

Franz Mehring went into the question rather more deeply. He differentiated between what he called the "policy of neutrality of the workers," and the "policy of neutrality of the capitalists." In his view the workers "have little cause to wax enthusiastic for either Japan or for Russia, but it is not a matter of indifference to them whether Japan or Russia wins." He argued that a Japanese victory would be in the interests of the Socialist movement.

Plekhanov approved of this point of view. The Russian Party (including Lenin's group) hoped for the defeat of Russia, and the Russian Poles actually sent Pilsudsky to Japan to mark their support of that country against their own Government.

Edouard Vaillant, while anxious that the Western countries should not be involved, looked to the victory of Japan to lead to an immediate revolution in Russia.

Vandervelde thought similarly, and said there was no room for hesitation—" Czarism is the enemy."

Souvarine quotes Hyndman as holding the view that War in itself is a factor in progress : —

"I do not share the opinion of Jean Jaurès and some others of our friends who wish to prevent war between Japan and Russia. This war seemed to me inevitable and all my Russian friends, Social-democrats and Social Revolutionaries, have said the same thing, namely, that whether Russia is victor or vanquished, a revolution in Russia will certainly follow."

(This passage is not the original, but is re-translated into English from Souvarine's French version).

He hailed Japan for having "helped to deliver the whole Western world from a shameful oppression."

Souvarine remarks that, although there was a general tendency to support Japan against Russia, yet there was conflict of opinion as well as confusion of thought among the groups whose spokesmen are referred to above. In particular, Souvarine instances the different standpoints of Mehring and Hyndman.

Going back still further, Souvarine argues that even the confused views of 1904 were an advance on the attitude of many Socialists during earlier war crises.

In 1885, when war threatened between Russia and England, Jules Guesde openly welcomed it. In his opinion, a Russian defeat would lead to a proletarian victory in Germany, "a working class 1789," and a British defeat would mean a universal upheaval, with the British workers at its head. In an article entitled "Long Live War," he prophesied the immediate overthrow of capitalism whichever way the war might end. To him, war was a "fertiliser of progress," and the God of Battles was an ally of the Socialist Movement. As Souvarine quite rightly points out, it was this sort of reasoning that led Guesde to welcome the war of 1914 on the ground that it would "give birth to revolution."

Souvarine traces the Bolshevists' attitude towards war back to Kautsky, from whom, he says, Lenin derived his views. Extensive quotations are given from a pre-war, but undated, article written by Kautsky. Briefly the argument is as follows :

Socialists are not bound to support defensive wars and oppose offensive wars, any more than they should renounce the class struggle. However much we may dislike war, we cannot prevent this appeal to violence on the part of rival capitalist groups. The working class cannot repudiate all use of force, and therefore they cannot repudiate war. We must judge the policy which leads to war, but not war itself.

Souvarine claims that Lenin's writings in 1914, particularly an "Open Letter to Souvarine," contained arguments identical with Kautsky's. Souvarine says:—

"There is no doubt that Lenin borrowed from Kautsky the best of his reasoning. Both of them paraphrased the dictum of Clausewitz that "war is a continuation of policy by other means," .... and agree in affirming that there is not always cause for condemning even offensive wars. In support of this contention that socialists may support an offensive war, Kautsky instances the view of Marx and Engels, in 1848, that it was necessary for Germany to wage an offensive war on Russia, and their efforts later on to stir up English public opinion for war against Russia." (This was the Crimean War.)

Souvarine quotes Plekhanoff as saying: "The international working class, faithful to its revolutionary point of view, must approve of every war—whether of defence or of conquest—which promises to remove an important obstacle on the road to revolution."

After his survey of the pronouncements made by these leaders of various schools of thought, Souvarine claims that the present attitude of Communists and the Labour Parties, of demanding "disarmament," the "outlawry of war," and "pacts of non-aggression," represents a definite break with the views of those who have claimed to speak for the working class in the past. (He does not mention the demand made by the "Labour and Socialist International," that the League of Nations, the Governments, and the Trade Unions should take action against Japan on account of the "aggression" in Manchuria and other Chinese territories.)

Finally, Souvarine urges the workers to clarify their minds on the problem, so that they may take up a realistic attitude in future.


Readers of the socialist standard who have acquainted themselves with the S.P.G.B's attitude towards war will see that not one of the views mentioned by Souvarine is identical with ours. Nor is it true that our view has changed with the years. Articles in the socialist standard at the time of the Russo-Japanese war show the S.P.G.B.'s attitude then to be essentially the same as in 1914 and now (see, for example, the issues for July and August, 1905). The writers at that time cherished certain illusions about the French and German so-called Socialists and their attitude towards war, and about the likely outcome of the Russo-Japanese conflict, but they fully understood the fundamental point that the workers have no interest in supporting wars between capitalist States. When it is remembered that the S.P.G.B. was at that time a newly formed party, clarifying its attitude on various questions of policy, it is remarkable that the question of war should have been understood as clearly as it was.

The S.P.G.B.'s view can best be explained by taking up points referred to by Souvarine.

We do not distinguish between "offensive" and "defensive" wars. In truth, no real distinction is possible. Let those who believe such distinctions to be practicable answer these questions :—Can a Government which pleads the necessity of war to defend its territory be denied the right to conduct operations outside its borders? Could the English Government in 1914, before the declaration of war, allow the German Fleet in the Channel? Could Germany refrain from defending itself by occupying Belgium? Could the Allies trouble about the neutrality of Greece when they needed Salonika as a base against Bulgaria and Turkey ? If defence and offense appeared to be separable half a century ago, the changing technique of war has made it difficult to-day. An obvious defence against air attack is to strike against the air base of the other side. Any Government can put up a plausible case to show that its military offensive is needed to defend "vital national interests."

And what—in a capitalist world—is a war of conquest"? Germany in 1914 pleaded the necessity of war to prevent encirclement and extinction. Germany demanded colonies. Was Germany guilty of "aggression" when she demanded colonies, and the other Powers, which had already seized the best colonial lands, not guilty of "aggression"? Capitalist Japan needs the natural resources of Manchuria, and Japan's steps to seize Manchuria fall into the same category as Germany's gamble in 1911. In other words, "aggression" is merely the name applied to the actions of the late-comers by those who were first to collar the loot.

The S.P.G.B. does not attempt to distinguish between the relative merits of the conduct of capitalist Governments at war with each other. We recognise as a fact that they are all of them defending by armed force the private ownership of the world's means of production and distribution, i.e., forcibly excluding the mass of the population from entering into possession. Should the slaves take sides when the slave-owners fall out? Obviously, no.

There remains the Guesde-Lenin-Kautsky argument that wars, or some of them at least, are "progressive" in their effects and lead on to revolution. We repudiate this argument that certain wars should be supported by the workers because of their supposed revolutionary effects. First of all, there is the suffering for the workers which war brings in its train—both to combatants and civilians. Then there is the war fever and political repression which make Socialist propaganda more difficult. Then it will be observed that the Russo-Japanese War did not result in the overthrow of Czarism. The progressive effect of war and defeat has been misunderstood. War may speed up the development of industry and may produce disturbed conditions leading to the overthrow of Governments. In countries where democratic methods of electing and changing the Government have not yet developed, this possible result of defeat may appear to possess considerable importance. But the defeats in the Great War which hastened political changes in Germany, Russia, Austria, and elsewhere, did not lead to Socialism. What was overlooked by those who put forward the argument was that the overthrow of a throne or an autocratic Government cannot possibly lead to Socialism where the working class are not fit to take on that task. In other words, their view on this aspect of war was different from that of the S.P.G.B. because their view on the conditions for achieving Socialism was different. Experience has taught us something it had not at that time taught them. They (and this includes Marx and Engels in their earlier years) had underestimated the extent of the knowledge and experience required to build up a solid and reliable Socialist political organisation out of the unorganised workers. To them, the overthrow of an autocracy was but a step removed from the conquest of power by the working- class. The lessons of the past 100 years have shown how over-sanguine they were. Wars, revolutions, and ordinary economic and political evolution have destroyed numerous monarchies and autocracies, but because an organised Socialist working class nowhere exists, every attempt to gain power for Socialism has failed—including, of course, the Russian attempt.

The S.P.G.B. opposes working class participation in war between capitalist Governments for reasons based directly on working class interests and the interests of the Socialist Movement.

In all countries the workers are exploited by the owners of the means of production and distribution. There are no differences between the conditions under which exploitation is carried on in the different countries sufficient to make it worth the workers' while supporting war in order to defend their subjection to one national group of capitalists rather than to another. As a case in point, the new Manchurian Government (said to be a tool of Japan) in taking over the Posts and Customs from China, guarantees to the staffs exactly the same wages and conditions as before. Why should they worry who governs Manchuria while capitalism lasts?

Many people who recognise these facts, nevertheless argue in favour of supporting wars for national defence and to secure national independence on the ground that only in this way can the national question be thrust on one side. They argue that Socialists ought to help the Irish, Chinese, Indians and others to secure national independence as a means of clearing nationalistic prejudices out of the way. This is an illusion. Every support of nationalism feeds it and encourages it. Nationalism breeds conditions in which Socialist propaganda and organisation are made more difficult. The Irish Free State is not less nationalistic than it was ten years ago because it is now partly independent of England. England is not free from nationalism in spite of its hundreds of years of independence. Japan—whose own territory is under no threat—is at present going through a violent fever of nationalism. For Socialist propaganda to make headway, nationalistic prejudices have got to be struck it the roots, and that from the very beginning.

As a practical policy this means that Socialists must carry on their struggle against the capitalist parties in their own country and must on no account allow it to appear, through political alliances or collaboration in capitalist Governments, that they associate themselves with their own capitalists against the rest of the world. It is only natural that the Labour Parties, believing as they do in associating with capitalist parties, should find themselves during war forming nationalist united fronts against the "enemy" country. There can be no sound Socialist attitude towards war except where there is a sound Socialist attitude towards capitalism at home.

The Great War showed how easy it was for the Governments to capture the so-called Labour and Socialist Parties. Germany provided a particularly interesting spectacle. The German Social Democratic Party had cherished the illusion that it was opposed to wars of aggression, and had also professed to abhor the methods of the Czarist Government in Russia. In August, 1914, the German Government was afraid that a war with France and England would not be popular with the Social Democrats and might be opposed by them. Here was a problem which the German Chancellor (Bethmann-Hollweg) and his advisers solved with the greatest ease by declaring war on Russia, thus giving the Social Democrats the kind of war their unsound theories would inevitably lead them to support. Prince von Buelow, in his Memoirs (Putnam, 1932, p. 163) describes the situation, and states that it was this motive which induced the Chancellor to hasten the declaration of war on Russia, for which otherwise there was no immediate cause. In "Class 1902" (Martin Seeker, 1929), Ernst Glaeser describes from the point of view of a member of the Social Democratic Party how easily the trick worked.

In Japan, at the present time, the wave or nationalism that has swept over the Trade Unions and so-called Socialist Parties has been helped on by the Labour Parties in England and elsewhere through their endeavour to judge the "merits" of the disputants. By denouncing Japan as the aggressor, these parties have at once thrown themselves open to the suspicion of being pro-China and anti-Japan. The nationalist elements in the Japanese organisations have used this effectively to discredit the whole idea of internationalism and of Socialism. By being able to represent the foreign so-called Socialists as helping capitalist interests hostile to Japanese capitalism, they have succeeded in overwhelming the working-class elements in Japan which have a clearer understanding of the position. Confidence between Socialists in the different countries requires as its first condition that each group shall show that its hands are clean in its activities at home. The Labour Parties can make no such claim and are rightly suspect in the eyes of the Japanese workers.

When Souvarine suggests that there is need for a revision of theories about war held by the Labour and Communist Parties, he is right. But what is really needed is that they should undertake the fundamental revision required to bring their theories as a whole into line with the facts of capitalism and the lessons of experience.