Karl Kautsky

War and Peace

Thoughts for the May Day Festival

(29 April 1911)

Karl Kautsky, War and Peace, Justice, 29th April 1911, p.2.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I. – Dynastic War and People’s War

The First of May celebration was originally intended as a demonstration in favour of the eight hours day, for which, at the time of the first international Congress in Paris (1889), a lively propaganda was everywhere set on foot. In the course of years, however, this point in the May-Day festival fell more and more into the background, and was superseded more and more by the demand for a guarantee of the world’s peace and that of disarmament. And this year the May-Day celebration will be more than ever inspired this idea

This change reflects the change in the position of the world during the last two decades. Twenty years ago the sympathy for Labour protection was so strong, even in bourgeois circles that it appeared to many as if it would be possible to undermine the capitalist world by the progress in Labour protection, Since then social reform has come to a complete standstill. Industrial capital has become finance capital, it has united itself with the land monopolists; both, in the closest union, preach the most energetic war against the proletariat and against every limitation of their own arbitrary power. It is not around the eight hours day that the struggle in social politics is being waged at present, not for the conquering of new positions, but for the defence of those already won, of the right of combination, and of self-administration in the labour organisations.

But in the same measure in which the enmity of the ruling classes increases towards the workers, the dangers of a war between the European Powers increases likewise; the thunder clouds roll nearer and nearer together, and war is spoken, of more and more fearfully. The whole world fears it, and yet no one has the courage to demand energetically that measures be taken to prevent it – no one, that is, except the Social-Democratic Party. The preservation of the world’s peace has become the most important task of the Socialist International. And the International demonstration of the first of May is also inspired by this idea.

But it is not against war alone that we have to demonstrate on this day, but just as much against the sort of peace prevailing to-day; against the present system of armed peace; the preservation of peace by means of a competition of armaments which is exhausting the forces of the nations, only finally to make the catastrophe of war the more devastating and the more inevitable.

Never in all the world’s history were the burdens of armed peace more crushing, nor the terrors of war more horrible, than just now; and never was the prize more wretched which is to be won or retained by means of all these burdens and terrors

War, like all other social phenomena, is not something absolute, which remains eternally the same and always calls forth the same judgement, but is, on the contrary. Something extremely variable.

Clausewitz, in his book On War, compares the dynastic wars of the eighteenth century with the national wars which were let loose by the French Revolution. He wrote under the direct influence of the Napoleonic style of warfare. He was struck above all by the tremendous force and passion of the revolutionary warfare, which pressed on as rapidly as possible to the destruction of the enemy in contradistinction to the slow, conduct of war on the part of most of the field marshals of the absolutist régime who avoided battles as far as possible. The people’s war was much, more sanguinary and devastating than the dynastic war, but the prizes for which the peoples of the revolution period were struggling were also much higher than those fought for by the armies of the despots of the eighteenth century.

Clausewitz only examined the actual warfare, not the arms in time of peace, otherwise he would have had to add that absolutism needed a standing army in time of peace, which constituted a heavy burden, while the citizen army in time of peace only made small demands upon the people.

Since Napoleonic times the art of war has further developed itself, and that to a great extent under the influence of the bourgeoisie, which from that time onward has become more and more the ruling class. Its political character is of a highly contradictory nature. In the struggle against the feudal nobility and absolutism the bourgeoisie can accomplish nothing without the help of the masses. In so far it tends towards democracy. But it lives by exploitation of the masses, and therefore mistrusts the latter, and is inclined to betray the democracy. It is the more democratic the more the industrials and intellectuals in it preponderate, and the more the petty bourgeoisie and peasants have the casting vote among the masses and let themselves be manipulated by the bourgeois wirepullers. It becomes the more undemocratic and reactionary the more that money capital and its highest stage, finance capital, rules in it and the more the proletariat preponderate among the masses and makes itself independent of bourgeois thought and bourgeois politics.

The half-heartedness and unreliability of Liberalism arises from this contradictory position. It has perhaps become most fatal in regard to war. In its revolutionary phase the bourgeoisie unchained the race war and demanded the citizen army. In its reactionary phases it glorifies the standing army. The final result is the mixing of both, the expansion of the standing army to the size of a citizen army, and therewith the increase of the burdens which the maintenance of an army already imposed upon the people in times of peace, in the eighteenth century, to an enormous extent. It did not supersede the defence system of absolutism by the defence system of democracy, but added the burdens of the latter to those of the former.

These became still more oppressive through the progress of technique. It will always be to the credit of capitalism that more than any preceding method of production, applied natural science to the requirement of the process of production, increased enormously the power of man over the forces of nature, and thus multiplied the riches of the capitalist nations to a fabulous extent.

But on the reverse of the medal we see not only that the bourgeoisie monopolises all the advantages of these conquests for itself, but also that it diverts them in an increasing measure to supply the needs of war, that the growing mastery of man over the forces of nature means a growing use of these forces for the purpose of destruction.

As this process goes on, and the burdens of peace and terrors of war thus increase, the bourgeoise ceases to be revolutionary. With that the antagonisms which arise between the States lose more and more their importance for the masses of the people. The bourgeoisie turns more and more to overseas policy – the “world policy” – it seeks to extend its exploitation of defenceless, backward races. In the eighteenth century the States were looked upon by the princes as mere domains; the struggles of the princes among themselves were only concerned with the aspiration of enlarging or rounding off their domains. For the people there was nothing to gain from any of the wars which were waged with this object. In the same way the capitalists of the various European nations (and of the United States) regard the various races outside European civilisation as their legitimate prey, and the antagonisms of the various capitalist Governments among themselves arise only from the attempts to enlarge or round off these domains – colonies and “spheres of influence” – exactly like the dynastic antagonisms of the eighteenth century. And the welfare of the peoples of Europe plays no greater part herein to-day than it did two hundred years ago.

But the horrors of war and the burdens of the preparations for war have now reached a height in comparison to which all that the eighteenth century produced in burdens and horrors of war appears mere child’s play. That is the progress of two centuries!

The devastations with which a European war threatens the whole quarter of the globe have become so unspeakably great, and the advantages which it might bring so trifling that even the bourgeoisie cannot shut its eyes to the impression of this increasing disproportion. The dislike of war is rapidly growing not only among the masses of the people, but also among the ruling classes. And it has, for 40 years, been found possible to get rid of every occasion of conflict between European Powers, however threatening, without any forcible explosion. At the decisive moment everyone shrinks back from the responsibility unchaining the frightful horrors of modern warfare.

Since the French Revolution until the end of last century England was without a rival at sea. With her supreme dominion in the world’s market her supremacy at sea is also coming to an end. Her convulsive struggles to retain it cost her enormous and rapidly increasing sums. But those Powers spend no less which have entered into the race with the sea-ruling Albion. From 1860 to 1880 the expenditure on England’s fleet amounted to, on an average, from nine to eleven million pounds sterling per annum. But it showed a greater tendency to decrease than to grow. In 1860 it amounted to twelve million pounds, in 1870, on the other hand, only to nine and a-half millions, and in 1880 to ten and a half millions. Till 1890 it then rose slowly to 14 millions, and since then rapidly to nearly 40 million pounds annually. In the German Empire the marine expenditure amounted in 1873, to 26 million marks, in 1880 to 39½ millions, in 1890 to 51 millions, Then the naval expenditure shot up rapidly: in 1900 to 162 millions, in 1910 to 442 millions.

Thus the competition in armaments is rapidly assuming the most crushing dimensions But it is just through that, that this very arming itself becomes a cause of war, which grows in proportion as the other causes of war diminish in importance for the masses and as the love of peace increases. If it is not possible to succeed in setting bounds to the armaments, then the danger arises that one of the arming powers which for the moment is stronger than the others but finds it impossible to go any further, will wish to force the others to disarm before it collapses itself. Every attempt of that kind carries the germs of war in its bosom.

Thus we see to-day the love of peace and the danger of war growing side by side. And this contradictory movement is further strengthened by the fear of the proletariat, which is growing in strength by the fear of revolution. The conviction is growing that a European war must of necessity end in a social revolution. This is the strong, perhaps the strongest, reason for the ruling classes to keep the peace and to call for disarmament. But, on the other hand, the fear of the proletariat and of the revolution even in time of peace is growing, and in such a state of things the Governments have always sought by means of external complications to turn away the internal enemy or render it innocuous.

Here, too, we see again a strong need for peace and an equally strong danger of war growing simultaneously from the same root.



II – The Prevention of War

That under the given circumstances it is the task of the Social Democracy to work with all its might against war and the com petition in armaments goes without saying. A number of means to this end are at its disposal.

That which lies nearest at hand is the support and strengthening of the movement of the petty bourgeoisie and the bourgeoisie against war and the competition of armaments. One must not under-estimate this movement, and we have every reason to strengthen it as against the latter.

Our position here is the same as it is towards Liberalism in general. We have already pointed out its contradictions and limitations, If we were to expect anything great from it, and promise the proletariat an energetic democratic policy of Liberalism – not to speak of allowing such expectations to influence our own policy – it would surely be a grievous mistake.

If Liberalism to-day makes, now and again, a fairly energetic opposition, it is on account of the temporary situation, and may change at any moment, and by no means indicates the beginning of the development of a strong bourgeois democracy, which, in company with us, could possess itself of and reform the State. Any such expectations are exceedingly vain.

But, little as we may expect from Liberalism, that is no reason that we should hinder it when it is carrying on opposition instead of taking it at its word and driving it forward,

That which applies to Liberalism in general applies equally to the bourgeois peace aspirations. We ought on no account to meet the demand for international agreements for the preservation of peace by the remark that war, being innate in capitalism, it is on that account unavoidable. The thing is not so simple as all that. And if propositions concerning the preservation of peace and the limitation of armaments which are fairly practicable are made in bourgeois quarters, we have every reason to support them, and to force the Governments to adopt some course of action with regard to them.

When our Party did so recently in the Reichstag, it acted perfectly correctly. It would only have made a mistake if it had placed great expectations on this action, or if our Party, for the preservation of peace and limitation of armaments, were to confine itself to the recommendation of international agreements as the bourgeois peace-apostles do.

We should indeed be utopians and petty-bourgeois illusionists if we expressed the expectation that the Governments would voluntarily grant these demands if one merely asked them; that one could, by beautiful speeches, without any forcible means, bring about the reign of eternal peace; if we believed that by a few resolutions and speeches in favour of arbitration courts we had done enough, and that every other action against militarism was injurious, or in any case superfluous.

In reality, our peace propaganda is as different as possible from that of the bourgeoisie. They differ already therein that for us courts of arbitration and disarmament are not the only demands for the insurance of peace, that they do not even, indeed, stand in the foreground of our propaganda.

We know very well the difficulties which are opposed to the effectiveness of arbitration courts and to the cessation of armaments, For if universal and far-reaching agreements for the use of arbitration courts and international understandings concerning armaments could be brought about, not only would those have to cease arming who today are the strongest and have no prospect of becoming still stronger, but also those who today are weaker but have the prospect, if arming continues, of being the strongest tomorrow. The also the arbitration courts must recognised not only by those who are in possession, and wish to keep what they have, but also by those who have an appetite for more and are stretching out their hands towards it.

One certainly can and must demand international agreements for securing peace and lifting the heavy burdens from the people. But simply to wait until all the Governments are convinced of the necessity of such agreements and have all come to terms regarding a common formula, would be to defer the securing of peace to a dangerous distance – till it is too late.

The Social-Democracy, therefore, does not content itself with formulating these demands. It long ago began to take action by rejecting the military budget. It rose up against militarism then where it can match it – namely in its own country.

The bourgeois, even the Liberal bourgeois, will not hear of this only effective means of fighting against militarism; for to them militarism as an institution is indispensable, only it must not cost as much as it does to-day, and not endanger peace.

Thus the real work for the securing of peace is left to the Social-Democracy, not only as regards words, but deeds also. Little as the capitalist world needs war at the present moment, much as it itself fears war, peace is still only assured in so far as the influence of the Socialist proletariat extends.

Hitherto, indeed, the rejection of the military budget by our Party has been a mere demonstration, only having a moral effect, which, however, is not to be underestimated.

Of more practical use for avoiding war is perhaps the activity of our daily Press. Though the present army of universal military service on the Prussian pattern is not, by a long way, a real citizen army, it still has a good deal of the character of the latter, in so far as it is impossible to use it for war without a corresponding state of mind among the people. This state of mind is determined, to a great extent, by the attitude of the Press. In internal affairs, where class interests are involved, the mere class instinct will, even where clear class-consciousness is wanting, be a good compass for the masses of the people in great decisions, a compass which will not easily be turned away from the right direction, nor let itself be led astray. In the relationship of different States towards each other, this compass, as well as every personal experience, is wanting among the people. What they know about other countries they know from the Press. If the latter is unscrupulous, lying, chauvinist – often quite without the intention of stirring up a real war, but only to help give the Government breathing space in the struggle with internal difficulties by diverting the attention of the people towards abroad – then the mass of the people will hardly be likely to resist such influences if they are not informed truthfully from another quarter.

A forcible and extensive Socialist daily Press, which stands independently against all bourgeois reports, which does not let itself be befouled by any national catch-phrase, and knows foreign countries intimately, is, under such circumstances, invaluable for the preservation of peace.

No country possesses so extensive a Social-Democratic daily Press as Germany; thus no Social-Democratic Party can stand up so effectually for peace as the German Party. Of this those comrades in other countries must ever be reminded who are of opinion that the German Social-Democracy does not do enough for the peace of the world.

This reproach against the German Social-Democracy has its origin in the fact of its having, at International Congresses, refused to enter into any undertaking to use every means to hinder an eventual war; among the latter were mentioned the mass strike and even insurrection. English comrades think it more practical only to demand the cessation of work in those branches which supply the instruments of war.

This limitation does not seem to me to be any improvement. The effect of a mass strike is, above all, a moral one. The weight of the unanimous revolt of a united proletariat, manifested in the cessation of work, may be powerful enough to overthrow a tottering regime. A strike in various trades or branches of industry cannot, however, be expected to make a similar overpowering impression. In such circumstance there would come, in place of the moral, the more mechanical influence, which would be caused by the failure of war materials.

But the difficulty of bringing a working-class organisation to a clear political strike will be the greater the narrower are the limits of that organisation. It would be more feasible to get the whole body of the proletariat to strike as a protest against war. Each would stimulate and lead on the other. If, on the contrary, the general mass remains indifferent, how can a small body possess the necessary strength and resolution which is lacking in the millions!

It is only the quite exceptional and most organised workers who could be expected to act in this direction. But if we once impose upon those employed in the manufacture of war material the duty of striking in the event of war, the immediate practical result would be that the government and the employers would exercise a more rigorous selection than formerly among the workers engaged in these industries, so that only the unorganised or those belonging to “yellow” unions, would be employed, and would, by various privileges, be kept aloof from the general body of the working class.

Only in the form of a general strike of the mass of the workers can the stoppage of work become a means for preventing the outbreak of war, or to nip in the bud one that has already begun. An occasional good result, however, is not therefore impossible. Where a government is so foolish or stupid as to endeavour to force the people to a war against their will; where the State is not threatened with a hostile invasion, and the Government constitutes the momentum that leads to war so that its fall should secure peace; then given the necessary strength of the proletariat, may a mass strike succeed in securing peace. Thus the protest, unlike in Spain against the latest Moroccan adventure, was perfectly right and it might certainly have prevented the mobilisation if the Spanish proletariat had been sufficiently strong and united.

It is quite otherwise, however, when the people of a country, rightly or wrongly, feels itself menaced by a neighbouring State, in whom, and not in its own Government, it sees the cause of war, and where the neighbour is not so harmless perhaps as Morocco, which could never wage war against Spain, but where the danger of an invasion of the land actually threatens. A people fears nothing so much as a hostile invasion. The horrors of modern warfare are terrible for the warriors, and even for the victors. But they are doubly and trebly terrible for the unfortunate people whose territory is overrun by invasion. The thought which torments both French and English alike at the present time is the fear of invasion by the superior forces of their German neighbour.

Once has gone so far that the people see the cause of the war, not in their own government, but in the malignity of the neighbouring State – and what Government does not seek, with the aid of its press, its Parliamentarians, and its diplomatists, to bring the people to this point of view! – if in such circumstances war breaks out, then the whole people are enormously inflamed with the urgent necessity of securing the frontiers against the malignant enemy, and of defending the country against invasion. Then, everyone is first of all a patriot – even the Internationalists – and if any among them should have the superhuman courage to oppose the war and to endeavour to hinder the troops ,from being hurried to the frontier, and supplied with war material it would not be necessary for the Government to raise a finger to render them powerless. The enraged populace itself crush them.

The political mass strike is an enormous undertaking which can only be carried out successfully when a whole series of extraordinarily favourable circumstance’s are combined. To seek to employ the mass-strike in order to prevent the defence of the frontier against foreign invasion – that is to say, when all circumstances without exception would combine to make such a strike impossible – even in the best case, would be no other than a piece of heroic folly.

If we are not strong enough to overthrow the Government which is driving on to war before it has brought about war – and the very outbreak of war testifies that we have not been strong enough – then should we be far less able to do anything against it when the enemy is on the march, and the whole people are united to oppose him.

The demand in that case to make the war impossible by a mass-strike is an outbreak of despair, which would prevent the war at any cost, yet knows no other means by which to prevent it. But there are no means by which war may be made impossible in any circumstances and by which to ensure peace, except the victory of the international Social-Democracy.

So long as the people do not give us power, so long must they groan under the fear of war. We cannot protect them from it so long as we are not in power.



III – United States of Europe

It may be possible, by international arrangements for the reduction of armaments and the institution of international courts of arbitration, to reduce the danger of war in the situation existing to-day. But even if that were attained, and all the great Powers were by these arrangements brought together under the one hat, there is no guarantee that condition would not soon develop which would dissolve that unity. The capitalist method of production rests upon fundamental antagonism of interest, and, in its nature, economically as politically, in the highest degree revolutionary. Never will the mistrust and jealousy between the capitalists of various nations disappear. And even if the antagonisms between then to-day are not such that they would undertake the cost of a war for any one of them, yet a revolution anywhere – for example, in Turkey- might suddenly develop a situation out of which the fiercest antagonism.

The bourgeois apostles of peace, to whom every struggle is hateful, including the struggle against the Government, and even the revolution itself, hope to be able to bring about eternal peace by their words and the power of their speeches. Once let a beginning be made with a code of arbitration and the reduction of armaments and then the growing intelligence of the Governments will take care to ensure the further progress of this movement to complete disarmament and the avoidance of all international conflicts through courts of arbitration. As the club-law of the past has been conquered by the legal decisions of the courts, so must it now happen with the club-law as between nations. The friends of peace believe that the all-important thing is to find the right formula which will harmonise all interests, and which will bring something to everyone. With indignation they reject the idea that the question of eternal peace can be a question of might, as is every question of State life to-day. They see in it only an ethical ideal, and forget that such ideals have the innate defect of never being capable of realisation.

Club-law was not conquered through the progressive intelligence of the contending barons, but through the uprising of a power which was stronger than they, that of the modern States, which compelled their respect for the courts of law.

And the same is the case between the different States. The present situation is exceptionally favourable for International understandings between them. But such understandings are not yet realised – the present alliances are not unions of peace but combinations for the eventuality of war. And the realisation of such understandings betokens no guarantee for the permanent duration of the peace, which shall for ever ban the spectre of war.

Therefore there is today only one way: The union of the States of European civilisation in a confederation with a universal trade policy, a federal Parliament, a federal Government and a federal arm – the establishment of the United States of Europe.

This attained, something enormous would have been achieved. These United States would possess such overwhelming power that, without any war, they could compel all other nations, so far as these did not willingly do so, to join them, to disband their armies and give up their fleets. But with this would also disappear every necessity for the new United States themselves to be armed. They could then not merely give up all further armaments – the standing army, the warships for attack – the abandonment of which we to-day demand, but also every means of defence; even the citizen army itself would he longer be necessary.

Thereby would the era of eternal peace be securely founded, and unlimited economic means be set free – some 20 milliards it year in round figures for the whole world,

What rapid movement could this enormous sum by itself not give to social change, how painlessly might that change be thereby accomplished

But how is the constitution of the United States of Europe to be brought about?

Would it not be defeated by still more energetic opposition than has already confronted the simple decision in favour of voluntary agreements in relation to arbitration courts? Certainly. Every effort in that direction would have to count on the bitterest hostility of every European Government, all of whom would feel their sovereignty thereby threatened; and there would be less to hope for in this connection from the results of persuasion and from the growth of intelligence than has been the case in regard to the recognition of arbitration courts and the reduction of armaments.

Nevertheless the attempt to peacefully unite the States of Europe in a federal Commonwealth is by no means inconceivable. Its prospects are bound up with the prospects of the Revolution.

The Revolution in favour of peace may spring from two separate causes: one being the revolt against the intolerable burdens which have been imposed on the peoples by armaments; with the result that the peoples of Europe will have no other alternative than to drive to the devil all Governments which are imposing upon them new taxes simply in order to be able to continue indefinitely the development of armaments.

That it should come to this will be all the more likely in proportion as the armaments-folly takes on a more powerful form. But, really, it is so near that any Government which is most threatened by a revolution, which feels itself most threatened thereby, which, without prospects of escape, finds itself, as English people say, between the devil and the deep sea, would rather go down in the surging sea of war than give itself over to the devil of Revolution.

It would then forget, however, that it would not escape the devil by throwing itself into the sea; but that he would at once have it there completely. If the first possible cause of Revolution is the revolt against armaments, the second would be war itself.

The Revolution would follow upon war with unerring certainty; not as the product of a Social-Democratic plan, but from the foredoomed logic of the thing. Present-day statesmen count upon that outcome of war.

But whether the Revolution comes from armaments or from war, it will present an international phenomenon, and its first care will be to put an end for ever to the horrors of war. The Revolution will not, like our bourgeois pacifists, simperingly content itself with such petty palliative means as arbitration courts and armaments reduction, which at every moment may tweak down, but will strive to establish such conditions as will make a war thenceforth impossible. That it can only attain through the establishment of the United States of Europe. Governments which would, or could, set themselves in opposition would no longer exist.

Moreover, if the Revolution does not spring from the reaction against the burden of armaments, or against the horrors of war, but from some other ground, and it at the beginning it is not international but limited to a single State, it cannot in existing circumstances long remain so. It must spread over into other States, and it is inevitable that these then will combine. Together it is inevitable that these then will combine together in a close confederation which will exclude any possibility of war between themselves. The proletarian International will them have arrived at the reality of existence as a State. The United States of Europe and their final expansion into the United States of the Civilised World – that, and not the single nation is the stately foundation of the coming Socialist Society. What the cantons are for the Switzerland of today the present nations will be of the Socialist Commonwealth on the States of the future.

The Revolution is the everlasting peace, whether it comes before the threatening war or follows upon it. Whoever desires the peace of the nations must strengthen the revolutionary proletariat. And there is no more impressive demonstration in favour of the peace of the world than the grand review of the flower of the Revolutionary Proletarian army on the First of May.


K. Kautsky


Last updated on 23.9.2004