Karl Kautsky

The First of May and the Struggle against Militarism

(4 May 1912)

Karl Kautsky, The First of May and the Struggle against Militarism, Justice, 4th May 1912, p.2.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Our comrade Kautsky was prevented by circumstances from contributing it special article as we hoped. The Neue Zeit for last week, however, contains an interesting article by him under the above title from which we take the following:

The May-Day Celebration has from the outset, through its international character, constituted a mighty demonstration in the cause of the world’s peace. And the preservation of the latter if tending more and more to become one of its first objects; as the antagonism between the nations become intensified the armaments madness grows and the danger of a world-wide war approaches nearer. The May-Day Celebration this year takes place in the time of the Italian brigandage in Tripoli, the Spanish and French tours de force in Morocco, Russia’s insidious attacks on Persia and Mongolia and the preparations for the crushing of the Mexican rebellion by the troops of the United States, all of which outbreaks of Colonial expansion policy threaten to bring incalculable war-like complications in their train. And the peoples have not yet recovered from the terror of a scarcely avoided world-war, to the brink of which we were led first by Austria’s Bosnian adventures, and then, less than year ago, by the Moroccan trouble.

The general European situation has since become, if possible, even more threatening, and the German people have just been asked by the Imperial Government to increase by several hundreds of million marks the fuel for stoking the conflagration of the world. May-Day will be celebrated here this year under the sign of the new Military Bills.

That the proletariat is the only class, the Social-Democracy the only Party, which will under all circumstances fight most energetically with teeth and claws for the peace of the world, and take militarism by throat, has become a commonplace There is no difference of opinion in our Party about that.

But regarding the question of how best to fulfil this task many different opinions arose before the May-Day Celebration of last year, and these differences are in evidence also this year.

The two demands in which our struggle against militarism has hitherto expressed itself have been the demands for the citizen force and for disarmament ...

It might be supposed that the two demands exclude each other. For does not the citizen force. mean the arming of the people? and does not disarmament mean the exact opposite? That is true if one takes both demands in their literal sense instead of seeking a more reasonable conception. In reality the demand for a citizen force means that the weapons to be used by the State for carrying on war would be taken out of the hands of the professional army and put into those of that portion of the population which is trained to bear arms. But the demand for disarmament means that the extent of these arms be diminished more and more and above all that the introduction of new armaments should be barred.

These two demands are not contradictory of each outer. We can just as well press for the one as for the other.

There is, however, a wide difference in the character of the two. The demand for a citizen force is, above all, not an economic, but a political demand. We put forward this demand in the interest of democracy; to weaken the power which the Government possesses by its control of a professional army. On the other hand, a citizen army is not bound necessarily to be less costly than a professional army. A small professional army may, indeed, in some circumstances cost less than the arming, training and organising into a military force of the whole of that part of the population capable of bearing arms. Neither is the competition in armaments got rid of by the system of a citizen army, as is clearly shown by the example of Switzerland, whose military expenditure is rapidly increasing; although Switzerland has only an army and no navy. Thus the establishment of a citizen force is not a means means of reducing armaments. Our interest therein, therefore, is far more political than economic.

With the question of disarmament, however, the reverse is the case. Our interest in this question is, primarily economic. It would reduce the enormous burdens entailed by the modern competition in armaments, and would set free large sums which would be available for the improvement of the material and intellectual conditions of the masses of the people. On the other hand, this would not prevent even a reduced professional army being used as an instrument of autocracy against the unarmed masses of the the people. Disarmament is quite compatible with the complete absence of any kind of democracy.

These two demands, therefore, have not always, for us, the same value This varies with the change of circumstances. At first the question of the citizen force occupied, with us, the foremost place, and especially with the bourgeois democracy, which has today quite abandoned the idea. That was quite natural so long as the question of armaments was concerned almost exclusively with the army: but during the last two decades the navy has played an even more important part. In that connection the citizen force fails completely. If we narrow down the agitation in support of this demand, and drop the question of disarmament, we have no definite agitation to oppose to that for the increase of naval armaments.

As a matter of fact, the International has always striven for disarmament, both on land and sea. The most useful and effective method of doing this is for the Social-Democracy of each nationality to oppose armaments in its own country. But in this is always hindered by the pretext that in so doing it is rendering the Fatherland unarmed and defenceless against its neighbours if these continue to increase their armaments. The answer to this is that the Social-Democracy works everywhere in the same way against armaments, and that these press so heavily upon the peoples that a relief in any one State would call forth a popular and irresistible demand for its speedy imitation in other States. The only great European State whose system of government might still allow it to ignore any such strong expression of public opinion, Russia, is at present, in a military sense, shattered, and so weak financially that it dare not contemplate a great war.

But it is clear that the agitation for disarmament could make much more far-reaching demands, and could be carried on much more effectually, if in the place of such anticipations there were stringent, binding agreements between the various competing States. Even agitation which has for its object a far-reaching limitation of armaments must advocate such international agreements, and support all steps which may be taken in this direction.

The extension of the market is a necessity of life for capitalism. At a certain stage of its development the easiest way of attaining this appears to be by obtaining colonies and spheres of influence, and this leads to competition in armaments. But if this method is put a stop to, it does not mean the break-up of capitalism, but only the necessity for it to find other methods of expansion.

The competition in armaments depends on economic causes, not on an economic necessity. Its cessation is in no sense an economic impossibility.

But by this we do not mean to commit ourselves to the probability of the carrying out of disarmament. Powerful classes are interested in the competition of armaments. Whether it will be possible to overcome their opposition is a question of political power; a question which cannot be decided beforehand. which can only be answered by the measure of success attained in the struggle against the competition in armaments. But the first condition of success is an energetic agitation for our demand. It would be playing our opponents’ game if one would seek to nip such an agitation in the germ and strike the weapons out of our hands under the pretext that our demand was a senseless one and that the opponents of disarmament were superior to us in economic insight.

Even if the agitation did not promise any practical success we should still have to carry it on. Do we only put forward our demands when they are likely to find a majority in Parliament? If that were the case we should also have to give up all agitation for the citizen force, for its chances of speedy, practical fulfilment the sense that we mean it are still more remote that those of the agitation for an understanding with England to promote disarmament.

A few years ago this idea appeared utopian. To-day it is no longer so as can best be illustrated by a comparison.

The capitalist method of production rests upon free competition – the unrestricted struggle of all against all. Every concern sees in every other concern of the same industry its enemy. The object of each one is to defeat its rivals, to clear them out of the way, in order, finally, to rule the market alone. Competition creates the tendency to a monopoly. This final goal of the capitalist has long been a senseless utopia; but finally the process of concentration of capital in many branches of industry and commerce results in a situation in which only a few great competitor’s are left in the struggle with each other. The fewer there are, the more ruinous the struggle becomes for the defeated. Each one aims at the exclusion of the others, and to obtain the monopoly. But no one can secure this. They all exhaust themselves. At this stage of the struggle the competitors are ripe for a mutual understanding. The apparently natural competition ceases; the Cartel, the Trust, develops, and with that the participants thrive much better than they did under the destructive struggle of free competition.

What during two decades has been going on for competing industries is now beginning to apply to the relationships between capitalist States. They, too, all struggle for expansion; they, too are mutually embarrassing each other more and more, disturbing and hindering each other, and at the same time extending their fighting forces and increasing the costs of expansion in a way that would completely dissipate all profits. Nevertheless, this method is continued as long as any of them believe they will each reach a stage in their armaments when they will outdo all competition and monopolise the world. The more this hope declines, the clearer it becomes that the continuation of the competition struggle will ruin all those concerned, the nearer comes the day approach when the competition struggle of the States will give place to their cartel relationship (trustification). That means nothing less than renunciation of the expansion of home capital, but only for a transition to a cheaper and less dangerous method.

In America it has not seldom happened that two competing railways have tried mutually to ruin each other by underselling each other in a furious tariff-war. But if neither of them succeeded before long in really making the other bankrupt, they finally united, and, in close union, multiplied the tariffs many times over, by which means they got on much better than in the destructive struggle of free competition.

Thus also the capitalists of Germany and England would not lose anything if both sides came to an agreement between themselves regarding their foreign policy, and thereupon diminished their armaments. Both States combined would be able to get all the other States – at any rate in Europe – to join their agreement and their disarmament, and their capitalists could then far more energetically and freely than hitherto, open up the whole expanse, at least of the Eastern Hemisphere, for themselves.

Just as little as the Trust means Socialism, or even the regulating of production, would such an agreement mean a victory for internationalism or eternal peace. Just as little as a union of capitalists excludes competition for ever can an agreement between capitalist Governments be possible which would clear away all cause for conflicts between them for all time. Therefore, no agreement between them is possible which could bring about complete disarmament. But an enormous amount would be gained if one could manage to get out of the present State, which renders a world-wide war – and that in the immediate future – inevitable; and if one could substitute for it a State which, while it would not be certain to exclude war for ever, would at least push it further into the background. This might even mean the end for ever of war between the great European Powers, for with each year the power increases of the European proletariat, whose weight would be thrown into the scales against such a war.

And, on the other hand, even if complete disarmament should not result, it would still be a considerable gain if we got so far as to be able to prevent any extension of armaments.

But even if so much were not attained, and our agitation for disarmament found no response in bourgeois circles, and failed to overcome the enormous difficulties which stand in the way of the realisation of this idea; still, then it would be of immense use, not indeed for bourgeois society. which would then be inevitably driven towards a world war, but for our party, whose propagandist strength would be greatly increased in all those circles, especially of the working class, which were hard pressed and menaced by the competition in armaments and its consequences.

Just now we have every reason to take care that the Liberals should be forced to adopt some definite attitude in the matter of an agreement with England. But we have still further reason to insist upon the responsibility of all the bourgeois parties, who are opposed to such an agreement, for the increasing burdens of taxation, and the world-conflagration which threatens if some agreement is not come to. We have not the slightest reason to relieve them of this responsibility

We have, indeed, every reason to support the struggle against the latest militarist demands in Parliament by mass-action outside. But the masses will only vigorously take up such action if that question is placed in the foreground which has developed out of the historic situation. And that question to-day is not that of the citizen force, but of an international agreement – above all with England – for the limitation of armaments.

If the celebration of the First of May is made a mass-demonstration in this sense, it will give an immense impetus to the cause of the proletariat, and to the assurance of the peace of the world.


K. Kautsky


Last updated on 23.9.2004