Karl Korsch 1941
First Published: in the American journal Living Marxism, Spring 1941;
Source: John Gray’s Archive;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden, for marxists.org 2003;
Proofread: by Chris Clayton 2006.
There is no better means of finding out how far we have traveled since the 19th century workers’ movement collapsed in the cataclysm of the first world war than to raise the question of the war aims of the international working class today. There is nothing left in 1941 of that misleading simplicity in which for the class conscious minority of the social democratic parties of 1914 the problem of a true or false war policy resolved itself into a choice between outright betrayal and an unswerving allegiance to the revolutionary duty of an unconditional resistance to the capitalist war. The glorious example set by Liebknecht in Germany, by the Bolsheviks in Russia, and by certain other Marxist groups in Europe was admired everywhere. The adverse policies followed by the right wing and by the so-called Marxist centre were never wholeheartedly accepted by the masses of the proletarian membership, although much suffering and a full military defeat were needed to exhaust the endurance of the social democratic workers in Germany. Even when that point had been reached, the great majority of the workers were not prepared to do more than admire the new example of revolutionary consistency set by the Bolsheviks in Russia. They did not join the small groups of class conscious workers in Germany who at that time rallied round the Spartacus-Bund and the Workers Councils in an attempt to proceed from revolutionary resistance to the capitalist war to a veritable overthrow of the capitalist state and the capitalist system of production. In their actual practice, the great majority of the German workers did nothing to prevent that gigantic fraud by which the right wing leadership of the social democratic party and of the trade unions transformed its belligerent patriotism of the war period into the mock democracy of the Weimar Republic and the mock pacifism of the League of Nations. For the next fifteen years this provided a propitious atmosphere for the lusty growth of the new anti-democratic and anti-pacifistic power of fascism.
Thus the social nationalism of the social democrats of 1914 came to rest in the national socialism of 1933.
The first lesson to be learned from this short recapitulation of working class war policies is a more realistic appreciation of the intrinsic difficulties of a truly proletarian attitude toward the war. In view of the tremendous discouragement that followed the comparative optimism of the last generation of revolutionaries with respect to this task, it is worthwhile to point out that the greater part of these difficulties already existed in 1914-18. They found their expression then in the contrast between powerful working class organizations without a proletarian policy and the revolutionary slogans of an extremely powerless class conscious minority. Neither side of this contrast can be said to have embodied in itself the war policy of the German working class. We cannot even say in retrospect which of the two was in more clear agreement with the tactics recommended by Marx and Engels in the event of a European war. The further development, both in Soviet Russia where the left wing had had its way and in Germany where it had been crushed, shows clearly that the European working class as a whole had not developed a policy that enabled it to transform the capitalist war into a proletarian revolution or even to prevent the reestablishment of bourgeois class rule in a re-enforced form by the victory of the fascist counter-revolution.
None of the revolutionary slogans of the last war can be immediately applied to the much more intricate problems that arise from the immensely more entangled state of affairs today. There is no longer a need for the revolutionary workers of 1941 to bring about by their own consistent effort that “transformation of the capitalist war into a civil war” that was described as the ultimate aim of the working class by the most daring revolutionary slogan of 1914. The present war from its very outset (or even from its preparatory phases, the phase of the protests against Japanese aggression in Manchuria, the sanctions against the Italian conquest of Ethiopia, the “non-intervention” in Spain) has been a veritable civil war on both a European and a world-wide scale.
We do not know enough about the currents below the surface of present-day Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Russia, Japan and other totalitarian states that might come to the top under conditions of strain and defeat. But we had ample opportunities both before and after the fact to study the conditions preceding the rape of Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and the collapse of France. We have no reason to believe that, with the outbreak of war or, for that matter, with the “miracle of Dunkirk,” all the “appeasement” and outright pro-Nazi tendencies that up to then had been represented by the Cliveden and Chamberlain groups in England have been wiped out in favor of a grand unanimity of purpose. (We admit suffering an invincible distrust of all forms of “sacred unions” ever since the days of the first world war.) Last and not least, we are aware of the powerful undercurrents of present-day American politics. Thus we can safely say that in every “democratic” country today the ruling class is divided within itself. So far all Hitlerian victories have been victories in a civil war. There are two Norways, two Hollands, two Frances today, and the first day of restored “peace” (with or without a previous German invasion) will show that there are also two Great Britains.
Under such conditions no slogan that could be devised for an independent war policy of the working class today can escape being tinged with the same ambiguity that is so strikingly apparent in the policy of the ruling classes. “Down with the imperialist war !” – was a plausible war aim of the proletarian class so long as the war represented the supreme form of the united will of the bourgeoisie of one country to survive and to conquer in the struggle that was waged both against the hostile competition of the other national units of the bourgeois class and against the threatening proletarian revolt. The slogan has lost all of its former revolutionary force at the present time when it fits in so perfectly with the tendencies of the bourgeois appeasers; and isolationists. “Defeat of one’s own country!” – was regarded as the most insidious of all the weapons of the class war when it was used as a slogan by the revolutionary defeatists in Russia and Germany in 1914. Latterly it became a practical policy of that substantial part of the ruling class in various European countries that preferred the victory of fascism to the loss of its economic and political supremacy.
Despite this apparent ambiguity of every description of the war aims of the working class that can be devised under present conditions, there is no point in turning from a strictly independent war policy of the proletarian class to one or another “classless” substitute. It is the most distressing experience of our time to see those inveterate labor leaders, who have, for almost thirty years, incessantly advised the workers to sacrifice their independent class action for the sake of their “fatherland” or for the defense of an assumedly “progressive” fraction of the bourgeoisie against an assumedly less progressive fraction of that same bourgeois class, resuming their old game with slightly modified phraseology. It is even more distressing to see those well-known people being joined today by so many formerly class-conscious socialists. Both the old professionals and the disenchanted newcomers ask the workers to subscribe to one or another kind of interventionist, anti-fascist, or “Save Democracy First” program by pointing to the defeats and frustrations that have been suffered in the past by all attempts at an independent revolutionary policy of the working class. The utter futility of this “historical proof” has been shown above. The defeat of the workers in the war and post-war period did not result from the failure of the revolutionary attempts of the minority any more than from the policies of the majority leadership. Both the genuine attempts at a revolutionary war policy and the classless substitutes for that policy have led to the same result. No fatherland was saved from defeat through the sacrifices of the German workers in 1914-18. No democracy was preserved by the sacrifices made by the workers during the episode of the Weimar Republic. No peace was secured by the workers’ acceptance of the international bourgeois policies of the League of Nations.
The urgent advice given to the workers from all sides today – that in order to defend themselves they have first of all to join in the common task of defending “democracy” against the murderous assaults of fascism – bears a striking resemblance to a number of other much embattled slogans of the day. It seems to have become quite fashionable to think, in this age of substitutes, that to achieve something one has first to endeavor to do something else.
There is, first, the slogan of the interventionist fraction of the American bourgeoisie : “Defend America through aiding Britain !". This seems to convey the idea that even if we take it for granted that the supreme goal for Americans is to defend America, this goal is not adequately served under present conditions, by such simple and direct methods as those advocated by the “America First” program, but can be served only by active intervention in the present war on the side of Great Britain. We are not in a position to judge the relative merits of either of these plans from a strictly strategical point of view. But we strongly suspect that the real division between the adherents of the two slogans is not based on any strategical reasons at all. They do not express two different ways of furthering the common interests of the American bourgeoisie as a whole (and even less the interests of the American people). They rather express the different material interests and ensuing political philosophies of two definite fractions of the American bourgeoisie, or two different concepts of a desirable future development of the internal and external policies of the growing American empire. It is in this internal conflict of the ruling class that one side – the interventionist side as against the isolationist side – tries further to fortify its position through another appeal, which for the purpose of this discussion is most conveniently summed up in the slogan : “Defend democracy through defending Britain !” (Here by the way, appears the ultimate purpose of that other slogan which asked the workers to defend their own rights by defending democracy. The credo of present-day interventionist “socialism” boils down to the same miserable substitute as that of present-day Stalinist “communism”: the defense of the power politics of a particular state.)
There is one flaw in the clever device of making the present British empire the international champion of the fight for democracy (thus at the same time of the fight for socialism). It showed itself in the recent discussion of the advisability of an official announcement of the British war aims.
True friendship should be mutual. If the fight for Britain is assumed to be a fight for democracy, the British government should openly accept, in unmistakable words, the obligations connected with this world championship. It should openly announce its democratic war aims.
This seems simple enough. (It should be noticed that nobody up to now has asked from the Churchill government anything more than a solemn declaration in words. Nobody made the help of the friends of democracy, the help of the workers for the British victory, dependent on an immediate practical step – say the long overdue “democratization” of the British rule in India.)
Yet to make their argument acceptable to a government that up to now has never betrayed any particular attachment to further progress towards democracy, the friends of democracy approached the question from another angle. (Who would have expected them to approach any question in a straight line anyhow?) They agreed that for the British the victory of Britain must be the supreme goal. But this goal, they went on, cannot be reached, under present conditions, by a mere military fight. It can be reached only by that powerful mobilization of all progressive forces of humanity that would result from the solemn announcement of a truly democratic British war program.
Even so, the plea for an early announcement of the British war aims did not prevail over the opposite reasoning which points to the possible weakening of the apparent unity of the British (and the American) public if such highly controversial question were to be openly discussed. Again it is easy to see that the real point of dispute lies deeper. The whole debate on the advisability of an open announcement of the British war aims is only an ideological expression of an altogether different division within the British (and American) bourgeoisie. The conservative British government knows full well that an important fraction of the ruling class of America is much less concerned with the lack of democracy in the present British set-up than it is interested in the assurance that the actual war aims of Great Britain will at no time assume a too “democratic” character that could endanger the security of the existing capitalistic regime. The ruling class of the fully developed capitalist countries no longer splits on such general political issues as that between “democratic progress” and “conservative power politics". If it splits at all, it will be split on the much more realistic question of conflicting material interests.
In spite of the contrary illusions of a small and comparatively powerless group of political idealists, the ultimate fate of the British empire in its present desperate struggle against the Nazi aggressors does not depend on the outcome of the present world-wide ideological fight between the “democratic” and the “fascist” principles. It will not even be decided by the comparative strength of the fighting armies or by the superior technical equipment that may result from American all-out help to Britain. The outcome of the present war depends in the first place on the degree of internal division within the ruling capitalist class in England itself that, after a temporary truce between the pre-war appeasers and the Churchillites, reasserts itself in the beginning struggle for or against the announcement of the British war aims. It will be decided in the last instance by the repercussions that the bitter fight of conflicting capitalist groups, at present fought out both by the war and by internal struggles within each country, will produce in the hitherto immobilized third camp, the camp of the proletarian class. We do not hesitate to say that if the assumed supreme goal of humanity in our time, the defeat of Hitler and the wiping out of fascism, can be reached at all, it will be reached in no other manner than by the independent fight of the working class for its most elementary, most narrowly defined, most concrete class aims. Not Great Britain, not “democracy,” but the proletarian class is the world champion in the revolutionary fight of humanity against the scourge of fascism.