V. I.   Lenin

A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism


2. “Our Understanding of the New Era”

The heading is Kievsky’s. He constantly speaks of a “new era”, but here, too, unfortunately his arguments are erroneous.

Our Party resolutions speak of the present war as stemming from the general conditions of the imperialist era. We give a correct Marxist definition of the relation between the “era” and the “present war”: Marxism requires a concrete assessment of each separate war. To understand why an imperialist war, i.e., a war thoroughly reactionary and anti-democratic in its political implications, could, and inevitably did, break out between the Great Powers, many of whom stood at the head of the struggle for democracy in 1789–1871—to understand this we must understand the general conditions of the imperialist era, i.e., the transformation of capitalism in the advanced countries into imperialism.

Kievsky has flagrantly distorted the relation between the “era” and the “present war”. In his reasoning, to consider the matter concretely means to examine the “era”. That is precisely where he is wrong.

The era 1789–1871 was of special significance for Europe. That is irrefutable. We cannot understand a single national liberation war, and such wars were especially typical of that period, unless we understand the general conditions of the period. Does that mean that all wars of that period were national liberation wars? Certainly not. To hold that view is to reduce the whole thing to an absurdity and apply a ridiculous stereotype in place of a concrete analysis of each separate war. There were also colonial wars in 1789–1871, and wars between reactionary empires that oppressed many nations.

Advanced European (and American) capitalism has entered a new era of imperialism. Does it follow from that that only imperialist wars are now possible? Any such contention would be absurd. It would reveal inability to distinguish a given concrete phenomenon from the sum total of variegated phenomena possible in a given era. An era is called an era precisely because it encompasses the sum total of variegated phenomena and wars, typical and untypical, big and small, some peculiar to advanced countries, others   to backward countries. To brush aside these concrete questions by resorting to general phrases about the “era”, as Kievsky does, is to abuse the very concept “era”. And to prove that, we shall cite one example out of many. But first it should be noted that one group of Lefts, namely, the German Internationale group,[3] has advanced this manifestly erroneous proposition in §5 of its theses, published in No. 3 of the Bulletin of the Berne Executive Committee (February 29, 1916): “National wars are no longer possible in the era of this unbridled imperialism.” We analysed that statement[1] in Sbornik Sotsial-Demokrata.[4] Here we need merely note that though everyone who has followed the internationalist movement is long acquainted with this theoretical proposition (we opposed it way hack in the spring of 1916 at the extended meeting of the Berne Executive Committee), not a single group has repeated or accepted it. And there is not a single word in the spirit of this or any similar proposition in Kievsky’s article, written in August 1916.

That should be noted, and for the following reason: if this or a similar theoretical proposition were advanced, then we could speak of theoretical divergencies. But since no such proposition has been advanced, we are constrained to say: what we have is not a different interpretation of the concept “era”, not a theoretical divergency, but merely a carelessly uttered phrase, merely abuse of the word “era”.

Here is an example. Kievsky starts his article by asking: “Is not this (self-determination) the same as the right to receive free of charge 10,000 acres of land on Mars? The question can be answered only in the most concrete manner, only in context with the nature of the present era. The right of nations to self-determination is one thing in the era of the formation of national states, as the best form of developing the productive forces at their then existing level, but it is quite another thing now that this form ,the national state, fetters the development of the productive forces. A vast distance separates the era of the establishment of capitalism and the national state from the era of the collapse of the national state and the eve of the collapse of capitalism itself.   To discuss things in ‘general’, out of context with time and space, does not befit a Marxist.”

There you have a sample of caricaturing the concept “imperialist era”. And its caricature must be fought precisely because it is a new and important concept! What do we mean when we say that national states have become fetters, etc.? We have in mind the advanced capitalist countries, above all Germany, France, England, whose participation in the present war has been the chief factor in making it an imperialist war. In these countries, which hitherto have been in the van of mankind, particularly in 1789–1871, the process of forming national states has been consummated. In these countries the national movement is a thing of an irrevocable past, and it would be an absurd reactionary utopia to try to revive it. The national movement of the French, English, Germans has long been completed in these countries history’s next step is a different one: liberated nations have become transformed into oppressor nations, into nations of imperialist rapine, nations that are going through the “eve of the collapse of capitalism”.

But what of other nations?

Kievsky repeats, like a rule learned by rote, that Marxists should approach things “concretely”, but he does not apply that rule. In our theses, on the other hand, we deliberately gave an example of a concrete approach, and Kievsky did not wish to point out our mistake, if he found one.

Our theses (§6) state that to be concrete not less than three different types of countries must be distinguished when dealing with self-determination. (It was clearly impossible to discuss each separate country in general theses.) First type: the advanced countries of Western Europe (and America), where the national movement is a thing of the past. Second type: Eastern Europe, where it is a thing of the present. Third type: semi-colonies and colonies, where it is largely a thing of the future.[2]

Is this correct or not? This is what Kievsky should have levelled his criticism at. But he does not see the essence of the theoretical problems! He fails to see that unless he refutes the above-mentioned proposition (in §6) of our   theses—and it cannot be refuted because it is correct—his disquisitions about the “era” resemble a man brandishing his sword but striking no blows.

In contrast to V. Ilyin’s opinion,” he writes at the end of his article, “we assume that for the majority [!] of Western [!] countries the national problem has not been settled....”

And so, the national movements of the French, Spaniards, English, Dutch, Germans and Italians were not consummated in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and earlier? At the beginning of the article the concept “era of imperialism” is distorted to make it appear that the national movement has been consummated in general, and not only in the advanced Western countries. At the end of the same article the “national problem” is declared “not settled” in precisely the Western countries!! Is that not a muddle?

In the Western countries the national movement is a thing of the distant past. in England, France, Germany, etc., the “fatherland” is a dead letter, it has played its historical role, i.e., the national movement cannot yield here anything progressive, anything that will elevate new masses to a new economic and political life. History’s next step here is not transition from feudalism or from patriarchal savagery to national progress, to a cultured and politically free fatherland, but transition from a “fatherland” that has out lived its day, that is capitalistically overripe, to socialism.

The position is different in Eastern Europe. As far as the Ukrainians and Byelorussians, for instance, are concerned, only a Martian dreamer could deny that the national movement has not yet been consummated there, that the awakening of the masses to the full use of their mother tongue and literature (and this is an absolute condition and concomitant of the full development of capitalism, of the full penetration of exchange to the very last peasant family) is still going on there. The “fatherland” is historically not yet quite a dead letter there. There the “defence of the fatherland” can still be defence of democracy, of one’s native language, of political liberty against oppressor nations, against medievalism, whereas the English. French, Germans and Italians lie when they speak of defending their father land in the present war, because actually what they are defending is not their native language, not their right to national   development, but their rights as slave-holders, their colonies, the foreign “spheres of influence” of their finance capital, etc.

In the semi-colonies and colonies the national movement is, historically, still younger than in Eastern Europe.

What do the words “advanced countries” and imperialist era refer to? In what lies the “special” position of Russia (heading of §e in the second chapter of Kievsky’s article), and not only Russia? Where, is the national liberation movement a false phrase and where is it a living and progressive reality? Kievsky reveals no understanding on any of these points.




[3] The Internationale Group—a revolutionary organisation of Left German Social-Democrats, founded in the early days of the First World War by Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, Clara Zetkin, Julian Marchlewski, Leon Jogiches (Tyszka) and Wilhelm Pieck. In April 1915, Rosa Luxemburg and Franz Mehring started the Internationals magazine, which served to unite the core of the Left forces in Germany. A national conference of these forces was held in Berlin on January 1, 1916, and officially inaugurated the Internationale group. It also adopted its platform of “Basic Principles” (“Leitsätze”), drawn up by Rosa Luxemburg in cooperation with Liebknecht, Mehring and Clara Zetkin. In 1915 the group issued a number of political leaflets and in 1916 began illegal publication of its Political Letters signed Spartacus (they appeared regularly up to October 1918), and the group came to be known by that name.

It conducted mass revolutionary propaganda, organised mass anti-war demonstrations, directed strike struggles and exposed the imperialist nature of the world war and the treachery of the opportunist Social-Democratic leaders. However, the Spartacus group made serious mistakes on questions of theory and policy: they negated the possibility of national liberation wars in the imperialist   era, were inconsistent on the question of turning the imperialist war into a civil war, underestimated the vanguard role of the proletarian party, and did not work for a decisive break with the opportunists.

In April 1917 the group joined the Centrist Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany as an organisationally autonomous unit, but broke with the Independents following the November 1918 Revolution in Germany and organised the Spartacus League. It published its programme on December 14, 1918 and at its inaugural Congress (December 30, 1918–January 1, 1919) founded the Communist Party of Germany. Lenin repeatedly criticised the errors and inconsistency of the German Left Social-Democrats, but had a high regard for their revolutionary activity.

[4] Sbornik Sotsial-Demokrata was founded by Lenin and published by the newspaper Sotsial-Demokrat. Two issues appeared, in October and December 1916 (see also Note 17).

  1. The Marxist Attitude Towards War and “Defence of the Fatherland” | 3. What Is Economic Analysis?  

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