Karl Liebknecht

Self-Determination of Nations and Self-Defense

Source: The Class Struggle, Vol II. No 2, March-April, 1918
Transcription: Sally Ryan for Marxists Internet Archive
Markup: John Wagner for Marxists Internet Archive
Online Version: Karl Liebknecht Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2002

"But, since we have been unable to prevent the war, since it has come in spite of us, and our country is facing invasion, shall we leave our country defenseless? Shall we deliver it into the hands of the enemy? Does not Socialism demand the right of nations to determine their own destinies? Does it not mean that every people is justified, nay more, in duty bound, to protect its liberties, its independence? When the house is on fire, shall we not first try to put out the blaze before stopping to ascertain the incendiary?"

These arguments have been repeated, again and again in defense of the attitude of the Social Democracy, in Germany and in France. And even in the neutral countries they have played an important part in the discussions.

But there is one thing that the fireman on the burning house has forgotten: that in the mouth of a Socialist the phrase "defending one's fatherland" cannot mean playing the role of cannon fodder under the command of an imperialistic bourgeoisie.

Is an invasion really the horror of all horrors, before which all class conflict within the country must subside as though spellbound by some supernatural witchcraft? Has not the history of modern capitalist society shown that in the eyes of capitalist society, foreign invasion is by no means the unmitigated terror as which it is generally painted; that on the contrary it is a measure to which the bourgeoisie has frequently and gladly resorted as an effective weapon against the enemy within? Did not the Bourbons and the aristocrats of France invite foreign invasion against the Jacobites? Did not the Austrian counter-revolution in 1849 call out the French invasion against Rome, the Russian against Budapest? Did not the "Party of Law and Order" in France, in 1850, openly threaten an invasion of the Cossacks in order to bring the National Assembly to terms?

And was not the Bonaparte army released, and the support of the Prussian army against the Paris Commune assured by the famous contract between Jules Favre, Thiers and Co. and Bismark? This historical evidence led Karl Marx, 45 years ago, to expose the "national wars" of modern capitalist society as miserable frauds. In his famous address to the General Council of the International on the downfall of the Paris Commune, he said:

"That, after the greatest war of modern times the belligerent armies, the victor and the vanquished, should unite for the mutual butchery of the proletariat—this incredible event proves, not as Bismark would have us believe, the final overthrow of the new social power—but the complete disintegration of old bourgeoise society. The highest heroic accomplishment of which the old order is capable, is the national war. And this has now proved to he a fraud perpetrated by the government for no other purpose than to put off the class struggles, a fraud that is bared as soon as the class struggle flares up in civil war. Class rule can no longer hide behind a national uniform. The national governments are united against the proletariat."

In capitalist history, invasion and class struggle are not opposites, as the official legend would have us believe, but one is the means and the expression of the other. Just as invasion is the true and tried weapon in the hands of capital against the class struggle, so on the other hand the fearless pursuit of the class struggle has always proven the most effective preventative of foreign invasions. On the brink of modern times are the examples of the Italian cities, Florence, and Milano, with their century of bitter struggle against the Hohenstaufen. The stormy history of these cities, torn by inner conflicts proves that the force and the fury of inner class struggles not only does not weaken the defensive powers of the community, but that on the contrary, from their fires, shoot the only flames that are strong enough to withstand every attack from a foreign foe.

But the classic example of our own times is the great French Revolution. In 1793 Paris, the heart of France, was surrounded by enemies. And yet Paris and France at that time did not succumb to the invasion of a stormy flood of European coalition; on the contrary, it welded its forces in face of the growing danger, to a more gigantic opposition. If France, at that critical time, was able to meet each new coalition of the enemy with a new miraculous and undiminished fighting spirit, it was only because of the impetuous loosening of the inmost forces of society in the great struggle of the classes of France. Today, in the perspective of a century, it is clearly discernible that only this intensification of the class struggle, that only the Dictatorship of the French people and their fearless radicalism, could produce means and forces out of the soil of France, sufficient to defend and to sustain a new-born society against a world of enemies, against the intrigues of a dynasty, against the traitorous machinations of the aristocrats, against the attempts of he clergy, against the treachery of their generals, against the opposition of sixty departments and provincial capitals, and against the united armies and navies of monarchial Europe. The centuries have proved that not the state of seige, but relentless class struggle is the power that awakens the spirit of self-sacrifice, the moral strength of the masses, that the class struggle is the best protection and the best defense against a foreign enemy.

It is true Socialism gives to every people the right of independence and freedom, of independent control of its own destinies. But it is a veritable perversion of Socialism to regard present day capitalist society as the expression of this self-determination of nations. Where is there a nation in which the people have had the right to determine the form and conditions of its national, political and social existence. In Germany the determination of the people found concrete expression in the demands formulated by the German revolutionary democrats of 1808, the first fighters of the German proletariat, Marx, Engels, Lassalle, Bebel and Liebknecht, proclaimed and fought for a united German Republic. For this ideal the revolutionary forces in Berlin and in Vienna, in those tragic days of March, shed their heartsblood upon the barricades. To carry out this program Marx and Engels demanded that Prussia take up arms against Czarism. The foremost demand made in the national program was for the liquidation of that heap of organized decay, the Hapsburg monarchy, as well as of two dozen other dwarf monarchies within Germany itself. The overthrow of the German revolution, the treachery of the German bourgeoisie to its own democratic ideals, led to the Bismark regime and to its creature, present day Greater Prussia, twenty-five fatherlands under one helm, the German Empire. Modern Germany is built upon the grave of the March Revolution, upon the wreckage of the right of self-determination of the German people. The present war, supporting Turkey and the Hapsburg monarchy, and strengthening German military autocracy, is a second burial of the March revolutionists, and of the national program of the German people. It is a fiendish jest of history that Social-Democrats, the heirs of the German patriots of 1848, should go forth in this war with the banner of "self-determination of nations" held aloft in their hands. But, perhaps the third French Republic, with its colonial possessions in form and its colonial horrors in two continents, is the expression of self-determination of the French nation. Or the British nation, with its India, with its South African rule of a million whites over a population of five million colored people. Or perhaps Turkey, or the Empire of the Czar.

Capitalist politicians, in whose eyes the rulers of the people and the ruling classes are the nation, can honestly speak of the "right of national self-determination" in connection with such colonial empires. To the socialist no nation is free whose national existence is based upon the enslavement of another people, for to him colonial peoples, too, are peoples, and, as such, parts of the national state. International socialism recognizes the right of free independent nations, with equal rights. But Socialism, alone, can bring self-determination of their peoples. This slogan of Socialism is, like all its others, no apology for existing conditions, but a guiding post, a spur for the revolutionary, recreative, active policy of the proletariat. So long as capitalist states exist, i.e., so long as imperialistic world policies determine and regulate the inner and the outer life of a nation, there can be no "national self-determination" neither in war nor in peace.

In the present imperialistic milieu there can be no wars of national self-defense. Every socialist policy that depends upon this determining historic milieu, that is willing to fix its policies in the world whirlpool from the point of view of a single nation, is built upon a foundation of sand.

In a discussion of the general causes of the war and of its significance, the question of the "guilty party" is completely beside the issue. Germany certainly has not the right to speak of a war of defense, but France and England have little more justification. They, too, are protecting, not their national, but their world political existence, their old imperialistic possessions from the attacks of the German upstart. Doubtlessly the raids of German and Austrian imperialism in the Orient started the conflagration, but French Imperialism, by devouring Morocco, and English attempts to rape Mesopotamia, and all the other measures that were calculated to secure its rule of force in India, Russia's Baltic policies, aiming toward Constantinople, all of these factors have carried together and piled up, brand for brand, the firewood that fed the conflagration. If capitalist armaments have played an important role as the mainspring of that brand, the outbreak of the catastrophe, it was a competition of armaments in all nations. And if Germany laid the cornerstone for European competitive armaments by Bismark's policy of 1870, this policy was furthered by that of the second Empire and by the military colonial policies of the third empire, by its expansion in East Asia and in Africa.

The French Socialists had some slight foundation for their illusion of "national defense," because neither the French government nor the French people entertained the slightest warlike desires in July, 1914. "Today everyone in France is honestly, up rightly and without reservation for peace," insisted Jaures in the last speech of his life, on the eve of the war, when he addressed a meeting in the People's House in Brussels. This was absolutely true, and gives the psychological explanation for the indignation of the French Socialists when this criminal war was forced upon their country. But this fact was not sufficient to determine the socialist position of the world war as a historic occurrence.

* * *

Imperialism is not the creation of any one or any one group of states. It is the product of a particular stage of ripeness in the world development of capital, an innately international condition, an indivisible whole, that is recognizable only in its relationships, and from which no nation can voluntarily withdraw. From this point of view only is it possible to understand the question of "national defense" in the present war correctly.

Let us assume for a moment for the sake of argument, for the purpose of investigating this phantom of "national wars" that controls Social-Democratic politics at the present time, that in one of the belligerent states, the war at its outbreak was purely one of national defense. Military success would immediately demand the occupation of foreign territory. But the existence of influential capitalist groups, interested in imperialistic annexations, will awaken expansionistic appetites as the war goes on. The imperialistic tendency that, at the beginning of hostilities, may have been existent only in embryo, will shoot up and expand in the hothouse atmosphere of war until they will, in a short time, determine its character, its aims and its results. Furthermore the system of alliances between military states that has ruled the political relations of these nations for decades in the past, makes it inevitable that each of the belligerent parties, in the course of war, should try to bring its allies to its assistance, again purely from motives of self-defense. Thus one country after another is drawn into the war, inevitably new imperialistic circles are touched and others are created. Thus England drew in Japan, and spreading the war into Asia, has brought China into the circle of political problems and has influenced the existing rivalry between Japan and the United States, between Mexico and Japan, thus heaping up new material for future conflicts. Thus Germany has dragged Turkey into the war, bringing the question of Constantinople, of the Balkans and of Western Asia directly into the foreground of affairs. Even he who did not realize at the outset that the world war, in its causes, was purely imperialistic, cannot fail to see after a dispassionate view of its effects that war, under the present conditions, automatically and inevitably develops into a process of world division. This was apparent from the very first. The wavering balance of power between the two belligerent parties forces each, if only for military reasons, in order to strengthen its own position, or in order to frustrate possible attacks, to hold the neutral nations in check by intensive deals in peoples and nations, such as the German-Austrian offers to Italy, Rumania, Bulgaria and Greece on the one hand and the English-Russian bids on the other. Finally the fact that all modern capitalist states have colonial possessions that will, even though the war may have begun as a war of national defense, be drawn into the conflict from purely military considerations, the fact that each country will strive to occupy the colonial possessions of its opponent, or at least to create disturbances therein, automatically turns every war into an imperialistic world conflagration.

* * *

In view of all these considerations, what shall be the practical attitude of the Social Democracy in the present war? Shall it declare: since this is an imperialistic war, since we do not enjoy Socialist self-determination, its existence or non existence is of no consequence to us, and we will surrender it to the enemy? Passive fatalism can never be the role of a revolutionary party, like the Social Democracy. It must neither place itself at the disposal of the existing class state, under the command of the ruling classes, nor can it stand silently by to wait until the storm is past. It must adopt a policy of active class politics, a policy that will whip the ruling classes forward in every great social crisis, and that will drive the crisis itself far beyond its original extent. That is the role that the Social Democracy must play as the leader of the fighting proletariat. Instead of covering this imperialistic war with a lying mantle of national self-defence, the Social Democracy should have demanded the fight of national self-determination seriously, should have used it as a lever against the imperialistic war. Yes, Socialists should defend their country in great historical crises. And here lies the great fault of the German Social-Democratic Reichstag group. When it announced on the 4th of August, "In this hour of danger, we will not desert our fatherland," it denied its own words in the same breath. For truly it has deserted its fatherland in its hour of greatest danger. The highest duty of the Social Democracy toward its fatherland demanded that it expose the real background of this imperialistic war, that it tend the net of imperialistic and diplomatic lies that covers the eyes of the people. It was its duty to speak loudly and clearly, to proclaim to the people of Germany that in this war victory and defeat would be equally fateful, to oppose the gagging of the fatherland by a state of seige, to demand that the people alone decide on war and peace, to demand a permanent session of Parliament, for the period of the war, to assume a watchful control over the government by parliament, and over parliament by the people, to demand the immediate removal of all political inequalities, since only a free people can adequately govern its country, and finally, to oppose to the imperialist war, based as it was upon the most reactionary forces in Europe, with the program of Marx, of Engels and Lassalle.

* * *

The great historical hour of the world war obviously demanded a unanimous political accomplishment, a broadminded, inclusive attitude that only the Social Democracy is destined to give. Instead there followed, on the part of the parliamentary representatives of the working class, a miserable collapse. The Social Democracy did not adopt the wrong policy—it had no policy whatsoever. It has wiped itself out completely as a class party with a world conception of its own, has delivered the country, without a word of protest, to a fate of imperialistic war without, to the dictatorship of the sword within. Nay, more, it has taken the responsibility for the war upon its own shoulders. The declaration of the "Reichstag group" says: "We have voted only the means for our country's defense. We decline all responsibility for the war." But as a matter of fact, the truth lies in exactly the opposite direction. The means for 'national defense,' i.e., for imperialistic mass butchery by the armed forces of the military monarchy were not voted by the Social Democracy. For the use of the war credits did not in the least depend upon the Social Democracy. They, as a minority, stood against a compact three-quarter majority of the capitalistic Reichstag. The Social-Democratic group accomplished only one thing by voting in favor of the war credits. It placed upon the war the stamp of democratic fatherland defense, supported and sustained the fictions that were propagated by the government concerning actual conditions and problems of the war.

"But what action should the party have taken to give to our opposition to the war and to our war demands weight and emphasis? Should it have proclaimed a general strike? Should it have called upon the soldiers to refuse military service? Thus the question is generally asked. To answer with a simple yes or no were exactly as ridiculous as to decide 'when war breaks out we will make a revolution.' Revolutions are not 'made' and great movements of the people are not produced according to technical recipes that repose in the pockets of the party leaders. Small circles of conspirators may organize a riot for a certain day and a certain hour, can give their small group of supporters the signal to begin. Mass movements in great historical crises cannot be initiated by such primitive measures. The best prepared mass strike may break down miserably at the very moment when the party leaders give the signal, may collapse completely before the first attack. The success of great popular movements depends, aye, the very time and circumstance of their inception is decided by a number of economic, political and psychological factors. The existing degree of tension between the classes, the degree of intelligence of the masses and the degree of ripeness of their spirit of resistance—all these factors that are incalculable, are premises that cannot be artificially created by any party. That is the difference between great historical upheavals, and the small show-demonstration that a well disciplined party can carry out in times of peace, orderly, well-trained performances, responding obediently to the baton in the hands of the party leaders. The great historical hour itself creates the forms that will carry the revolutionary movement to a successful outcome, creates and improvises new weapons, enriches the arsenal of the people with weapons unknown and unheard of by the parties and its leaders.

What the Social Democracy as the advance guard of the class-conscious proletariat should have been able to give was not ridiculous precepts and technical recipes, but a political slogan, clearness concerning the political problems and interests of the proletariat in times of war.

"Would the masses have supported the Social Democracy in its attitude against war?" That is a question that no one can answer. But neither is it an important one. Did our parliamentarians demand an absolute assurance of victory from the generals of the Prussian army before voting in favor of war credits? What is true of military armies is equally true of revolutionary armies. They go into the fight, wherever necessity demands it, without previous assurance of success. At the worst, the party would have been doomed, in the first few months of the war to political ineffectuality. It would have accomplished nothing but to save the honor of the proletariat; and thousands upon thousands of proletarians who are dying in the trenches in mental darkness, would not have died in spiritual confusion, but with the one certainty that which has been everything in their lives, the International, liberating Social Democracy, has been more than the figment of a dream.

The voice of our party would have acted as a wet blanket upon the chauvinistic intoxication of the masses. It would have preserved the intelligent proletariat from delirium, would have made it more difficult for Imperialism to poison and to stupefy the minds of the people.

And as the war went on, as the horror of endless massacre and bloodshed in all countries grew and grew, as its imperialistic hoof became more and more evident, as the exploitation of bloodthirsty speculators became more and more shameless, every live, honest, progressive and humane element in the masses would have rallied to the standard of the Social Democracy. The German Social Democracy would have stood, in the midst of this mad whirlpool of collapse and decay, like a rock in a stormy sea, would have been the lighthouse of the whole International, guiding and leading the labor movements of every country of the earth. The unparalleled moral prestige that lay in the hands of the German Socialists would have reacted upon the Socialists of all nations in a very short time. Peace sentiments would have spread like wildfire and the popular demand for peace in all countries would have hastened the end of the slaughter, would have decreased the number of its returns.

Truly this was a task not unworthy of the disciples of Marx, Engels and Lassalle.

Karl Liebknecht Internet Archive