V. I.   Lenin

A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism

No one can discredit revolutionary Social-Democracy as long as it does not discredit itself.” That maxim always comes to mind, and must always be borne in mind, when any major theoretical or tactical proposition of Marxism is victorious, or even placed on the order of the day, and when, besides outright and resolute opponents, it is assailed by friends who hopelessly discredit and disparage it and turn it into a caricature. That has happened time and again in the history of the Russian Social-Democratic movement. In the early nineties, the victory of Marxism in the revolutionary movement was attended by the emergence of a caricature of Marxism in the shape of Economism, or “strikeism”. The Iskrists[3] would not have been able to uphold the fundamentals of proletarian theory and policy, either against petty-bourgeois Narodism or bourgeois liberalism, without long years of struggle against Economism. It was the same with Bolshevism, which triumphed in the mass labour movement in 1905 due, among other things, to correct application of the boycott of the tsarist Duma[4] slogan in the autumn of 1905, when the key battles of the Russian revolution were being fought. Bolshevism had to face—and overcome by struggle—another caricature in 1908–10, when Alexinsky and others noisily opposed participation in the Third Duma.[5]

It is the same today too. Recognition of the present war as imperialist and emphasis on its close connection with the imperialist era of capitalism encounters not only resolute opponents, but also irresolute friends, for whom the word“imperialism” has become all the rage. Having memorised   the word, they are offering the workers hopelessly confused theories and reviving many of the old mistakes of the old Economism. Capitalism has triumphed—therefore there is no need to bother with political problems, the old Economists reasoned in 1894–1901, falling into rejection of the political struggle in Russia. Imperialism has triumphed—therefore there is no need to bother with the problems of political democracy, reason the present-day imperialist Economists. Kievsky’s article, printed above, merits attention as a sample of these sentiments, as one such caricature of Marxism, as the first attempt to provide anything like an integral literary exposition of the vacillation that has been apparent in certain circles of our Party abroad since early 1915.

If imperialist Economism were to spread among the Marxists, who in the present great crisis of socialism have resolutely come out against social-chauvinism and for revolutionary internationalism, that would be a very grave blow to our trend—and to our Party. For it would discredit it from within, from its own ranks, would make it a vehicle of caricaturised Marxism. It is therefore necessary to thoroughly discuss at least the most important of Kievsky’s numerous errors, regardless of how “uninteresting” this may be, and regardless of the fact, also, that all too often we shall have to tediously explain elementary truths which the thoughtful and attentive reader has learned and understood long since from our literature of 1914 and 1915.

We shall begin with the “central” point of Kievsky’s disquisitions in order to immediately bring to the reader the very “substance” of this new trend of imperialist Economism.


1. The Marxist Attitude Towards War and “Defence of the Fatherland”

Kievsky is convinced, and wants to convince his reader, that he “disagrees” only with §9 of our Party Programme dealing with national self-determination. He is very angry and tries to refute the charge that on the question of democracy he is departing from the fundamentals of Marxism   in general, that he has “betrayed” (the angry quotation marks are Kievsky’s) Marxism on basic issues. But the point is that the moment our author begins to discuss his allegedly partial disagreement on an individual issue, the moment he adduces his arguments, considerations, etc., he immediately reveals that he is deviating from Marxism all along the line. Take §b (Section 2) of his article. “This demand [i. e., national self-determination] directly [!!] leads to social-patriotism,” our author proclaims, explaining that the “treasonous” slogan of fatherland defence follows “quite [!] logically [!] from the right of nations to self-determination”.... In his opinion, self-determination implies “sanctioning the treason of the French and Belgian social-patriots, who are defending this independence [the national independence of France and Belgium] with arms in hand! They are doing what the supporters of ‘self-determination’ only advocate....” “Defence of the fatherland belongs to the arsenal of our worst enemies....” “We categorically refuse to understand how one can simultaneously be against defence of the fatherland and for self-determination, against the fatherland and for it.”

That’s Kievsky. He obviously has not understood our resolutions against the fatherland defence slogan in the present war. It is therefore necessary again to explain the meaning of what is so clearly set out in our resolutions.

The resolution our Party adopted at its Berne Conference in March 1915, “On the Defence of the Fatherland Slogan”,[1] begins with the words: “The present war is, in substance”....

That the resolution deals with the present war could not have been put more plainly. The words “in substance” indicate that we must distinguish between the apparent and the real, between appearance and substance, between the word and the deed The purpose of all talk about defence of the fatherland in this war is mendaciously to present as national the imperialist war of 1914–16, waged for the division of colonies, the plunder of foreign lands, etc. And to obviate even the slightest possibility of distorting our views, we added to the resolution a special paragraph on “genuinely national wars”, which “took place especially (especially does not mean exclusively!) between 1789 and 1871”.

The resolution explains that the “basis” of these “genuinely” national wars was a “long process of mass national movements, of a struggle against absolutism and feudalism, the overthrow of national oppression”....

Clear, it would seem. The present imperialist war stems from the general conditions of the imperialist era and is not accidental, not an exception, not a deviation from the general and typical. Talk of defence of the fatherland is therefore a deception of the people, for this war is not a national war. In a genuinely national war the words “defence of the fatherland” are not a deception and we are not opposed to it. Such (genuinely national) wars took place “especially” in 1789–1871, and our resolution, while not denying by a single word that they are possible now too, explains how we should distinguish a genuinely national from an imperialist war covered by deceptive national slogans. Specifically, in order to distinguish the two we must examine whether the “basis” of the war is a “long process of mass national movements”, the “overthrow of national oppression”. The resolution on “pacifism” expressly states: “Social-Democrats cannot overlook the positive significance of revolutionary wars, i.e., not imperialist wars, but such as were con ducted, for instance [note: “for instance”], between 1789 and 1871 with the aim of doing away with national oppression....” Could our 1915 Party resolution speak of the national wars waged from 1789 to 1871 and say that we do not deny the positive significance of such wars if they were not considered possible today too? Certainly not.

A commentary, or popular explanation, of our Party resolutions is given in the Lenin and Zinoviev pamphlet Socialism and War. It plainly states, on page 5, that “socialists have regarded wars ‘for the defence of the fatherland’, or ‘defensive’ wars, as legitimate, progressive and just” only in the sense of “overthrowing alien oppression”. It cites an example: Persia against Russia, “etc.”, and says: “These would be just, and defensive wars, irrespective of who would lie the first to attack; any socialist would wish the oppressed, dependent and unequal states victory over the oppressor, slave-holding and predatory ‘Great’ Powers.”[2]

The pamphlet appeared in August 1915 and there are German and French translations. Kievsky is fully aware of its contents. And never, on no occasion, has he or anyone else challenged the resolution on the defence of the father land slogan, or the resolution on pacifism, or their interpretation in the pamphlet. Never, not once! We are therefore entitled to ask: are we slandering Kievsky when we say that he has absolutely failed to understand Marxism if, beginning with March 1915, he has not challenged our Party’s views on the war, whereas now, in August 1916, in an article on self-determination, i.e., on a supposedly partial issue, he reveals an amazing lack of understanding of a general issue?

Kievsky says that the fatherland defence slogan is “treasonous”. We can confidently assure him that every slogan is and always will be “treasonous” for those who mechanically repeat it without understanding its meaning, without giving it proper thought, for those who merely memorise the words without analysing their implications.

What, generally speaking, is “defence of the fatherland”? Is it a scientific concept relating to economics, politics, etc.? No. It is a much bandied about current expression, sometimes simply a philistine phrase, intended to justify the war. Nothing more. Absolutely nothing! The term “treasonous” can apply only in the sense that the philistine is capable of justifying any war by pleading “we are defending our fatherland”, whereas Marxism, which does not degrade itself by stooping to the philistine’s level, requires an historical analysis of each war in order to determine whether or not that particular war can be considered progressive, whether it serves the interests of democracy and the proletariat and, in that sense, is legitimate, just, etc.

The defence of the fatherland slogan is all too often unconscious philistine justification of war and reveals inability to analyse the meaning and implications of a particular war and see it in historical perspective.

Marxism makes that analysis and says: if the “substance” of a war is, for example, the overthrow of alien oppression (which was especially typical of Europe in 1789–1871), then such a war is progressive as far as the oppressed state or nation is concerned. If, however, the “substance” of a war is redivision of colonies, division of booty, plunder of foreign   lands (and such is the war of 1914–16), then all talk of defending the fatherland is “sheer deception of the people”.

How, then, can we disclose and define the “substance” of a war? War is the continuation of policy. Consequently, we must examine the policy pursued prior to the war, the policy that led to and brought about the war. If it was an imperialist policy, i.e., one designed to safeguard the interests of finance capital and rob and oppress colonies and foreign countries, then the war stemming from that policy is imperialist. If it was a national liberation policy, i.e., one expressive of the mass movement against national oppression, then the war stemming from that policy is a war of national liberation.

The philistine does not realise that war is “the continuation of policy”, and consequently limits himself to the formula that “the enemy has attacked us”, “the enemy has invaded my country”, without stopping to think what issues are at stake in the war, which classes are waging it, and with what political objects. Kievsky stoops right down to the level of such a philistine when he declares that Belgium has been occupied by the Germans, and hence, from the point of view of self-determination, the “Belgian social-patriots are right”, or: the Germans have occupied part of France, hence, “Guesde can be satisfied”, for “what is involved is territory populated by his nation” (and not by an alien nation).

For the philistine the important thing is where the armies stand, who is winning at the moment. For the Marxist the important thing is what issues are at stake in this war, during which first one, then the other army may be on top.

What is the present war being fought over? The answer is given in our resolution (based on the policy the belligerent powers pursued for decades prior to the war). England, France and Russia are fighting to keep the colonies they have seized, to be able to rob Turkey, etc. Germany is fighting to take over these colonies and to be able herself to rob Turkey, etc. Let us suppose even that the Germans take Paris or St. Petersburg. Would that change the nature of the present war? Not at all. The Germans’ purpose—and more important, the policy that would bring it to realisation if they were to win—is to seize the colonies, establish   domination over Turkey, annex areas populated by other nations, for instance, Poland, etc. It is definitely not to bring the French or the Russians under foreign domination. The real essence of the present war is not national but imperialist. In other words, it is not being fought to enable one side to overthrow national oppression, which the other side is trying to maintain. It is a war between two groups of oppressors, between two freebooters over the division of their booty, over who shall rob Turkey and the colonies.

In short: a war between imperialist Great Powers (i.e., powers that oppress a whole number of nations and enmesh them in dependence on finance capital, etc.), or in alliance with the Great Powers, is an imperialist war. Such is the war of 1914–16. And in this war “defence of the fatherland” is a deception, an attempt to justify the war.

A war against imperialist, i.e., oppressing, powers by oppressed (for example, colonial) nations is a genuine national war. It is possible today too. “Defence of the fatherland” in a war waged by an oppressed nation against a foreign oppressor is not a deception. Socialists are not opposed to “defence of the fatherland” in such a war.

National self-determination is the same as the struggle for complete national liberation, for complete independence, against annexation, and socialists cannot—without ceasing to be socialists—reject such a struggle in whatever form, right down to an uprising or war.

Kievsky thinks he is arguing against Plekhanov: it was Plekhanov who pointed to the link between self-determination and defence of the fatherland! Kievsky believed Plekhanov that the link was really of the kind Plekhanov made it out to be. And having believed him, Kievsky took fright and decided that he must reject self-determination so as not to fall into Plekhanov’s conclusions.... There is great trust in Plekhanov, and great fright, but there is no trace of thought about the substance of Plekhanov’s mistake!

The social-chauvinists plead self-determination in order to present this war as a national war. There is only one correct way of combating them: we must show that the war is being fought not to liberate nations, but to determine which of the great robbers will oppress more nations. To fall into   negation of wars really waged for liberating nations is to present the worst possible caricature of Marxism. Plekhanov and the French social-chauvinists harp on the republic in France in order to justify its “defence” against the German monarchy. If we were to follow Kievsky’s line of reasoning, we would have to oppose either the republic or a war really fought to preserve the republic!! The German social-chauvinists point to universal suffrage and compulsory primary education in their country to justify its “defence” against tsarism. If we were to follow Kievsky’s line of reasoning, we would have to oppose either universal suffrage and compulsory primary education or a war really fought to safe guard political freedom against attempts to abolish it!

Up to the 1914–16 war Karl Kautsky was a Marxist, and many of his major writings and statements will always remain models of Marxism. On August 26, 1910, he wrote in Die Neue Zeit,[6] in reference to the imminent war:

In a war between Germany and England the issue is not democracy, but world domination, i.e., exploitation of the world. That is not an issue on which Social-Democrats can side with the exploiters of their nation” (Neue Zeit, 28. Jahrg., Bd. 2, S. 776).

There you have an excellent Marxist formulation, one that fully coincides with our own and fully exposes the present-day Kautsky, who has turned from Marxism to defence of social-chauvinism. It is a formulation (we shall have occasion to revert to it in other articles) that clearly brings out the principles underlying the Marxist attitude towards war. War is the continuation of policy. Hence, once there is a struggle for democracy, a war for democracy is possible. National self-determination is but one of the democratic demands and does not, in principle, differ from other democratic demands. “World domination” is, to put it briefly, the substance of imperialist policy, of which imperialist war is the continuation. Rejection of “defence of the father land” in a democratic war, i.e., rejecting participation in such a war, is an absurdity that has nothing in common with Marxism. To embellish imperialist war by applying to it the concept of “defence of the fatherland”, i.e., by presenting it as a democratic war, is to deceive the workers and side with the reactionary bourgeoisie.





[3] Iskrists—supporters of Lenin’s newspaper Iskra, the most consistent revolutionary Social-Democrats.

Iskra—the first all-Russian illegal Marxist newspaper founded in December 1900, published abroad and secretly sent into Russia. It was taken over by the Mensheviks in 1903, and beginning with No. 52 ceased to be the organ of revolutionary Marxism. It came to be known as the new Iskra as distinct from the old, Bolshevik Iskra.

[4] The Bulygin Duma derived its name from Minister of the Interior A. G. Bulygin, who drafted the act for its convocation and the regulations governing the elections. The Duma was intended to be an advisory body under the tsar. The Bolsheviks called for an active boycott of the Duma and concentrated their propaganda on the following slogans: armed uprising, revolutionary army, provisional revolutionary government. They used the boycott campaign to mobilise all the revolutionary forces, carry out mass political strikes and prepare an armed uprising. The nation-wide general political strike of October 1905 and the mounting wave of revolution prevented the elections and the Duma was never convened. Lenin discusses the Bulygin Duma in his articles: “The Constitutional Market-Place”, “The Boycott of the Bulygin Duma and Insurrection”, “Oneness of the Tsar and the People, and of the People and the Tsar”, “In the Wake of the Monarchist Bourgeoisie, or in the Van of the Revolutionary Proletariat and Peasantry?” (see present edition, Vol. 8, pp. 351–55; Vol. 9, pp. 179–87, 191–99, 212–29).

[5] Reference is to the otzovists and ultimatumists.

Otzovists—an opportunist group composed of A. A. Bogdanov, G. A. Alexinsky, A. V. Sokolov (S. Volsky), A. V. Lunacharsky, M. N. Lyadov and others, which emerged among a section of the Bolsheviks in 1908. Under cover of revolutionary phrases they demanded the recall (the Russian word otozvat means recall) of the   Social-Democratic members of the Third Duma. They also refused to work in legal organisations—the trade unions, co-operatives and other mass organisations—contending that in conditions of rampant reaction the Party must confine itself exclusively to illegal activity. The otzovists did immense damage to the Party. Their policy would have isolated the Party from the masses and, in the end, would have turned it into a sectarian organisation.

Ultimatumism—a variety of otzovism, from which it differed only inform. The ultimatumists proposed that the Social-Democratic Duma members be presented with an ultimatum—either they fully submit to the decisions of the Party Central Committee, or be recalled from the Duma. The ultimatumists failed to appreciate the need for painstaking work to help the Social-Democratic deputies overcome their mistakes and adopt a consistent revolutionary line. Ultimatumism was, in fact, disguised otzovism. Lenin called the ultimatumists “bashful otzovists”.

[6] Die Neue Zeit (New Times)—theoretical organ of the German Social-Democratic Party, published in Stuttgart from 1883 to 1923; edited by Karl Kautsky up to October 1917 and after that by H. Cunow. Die Neue Zeit was the first to publish several works of Marx and Engels. Engels helped the magazine by his advice and not infrequently criticised it for deviating from Marxism. After Engels’s death in 1895, Die Neue Zeit threw its pages open to articles by Eduard Bernstein and other revisionists. It published Bernstein’s “Problems of Socialism”, which became the starting-point of a revisionist campaign against Marxism. In the First World War Die Neue Zeit took a Centrist position and gave factual support to the social-chauvinists.

  | 2. “Our Understanding of the New Era”  

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