Reform or Revolution, 2. Paul Mattick

Reform and Revolution

The bourgeois political revolution was the culmination of a drawnout process of social changes in the sphere of production. Where the ascending capitalist class gained complete control of the state, this assured a rapid unfolding of the capital-labor relation. Feudalistic resistance to this transformation varied in different countries. Though capitalism was on the rise generally, its gestation involved both force and compromise, characterized by an overlapping of the new and the old both politically and economically. The ruling classes divided into a reactionary and a progressive wing, the latter striving for political control through a democratic capitalist state. The division between an entrenched autocracy and the liberal bourgeoisie reflected the uneven pace of capitalist development and extended the internal distinctions between reaction and progress to the nations themselves and to their political institutions.

The socialist movement arose in an incompletely bourgeois society in a world of nations still more or less in the thrall of the reactionary forces of the past. This situation led to an expedient but unnatural alliance between bourgeoisie and proletariat. Historically, the opposition of labor and capital had first to appear as an identity of interests, so as to release the forces of production that would turn the proletariat into an independent social class. To partake in the bourgeois revolutions with their own demands did not contradict the postulated “historical goal” of the working class, but was an unavoidable precondition of its future struggle against the bourgeoisie.

Although it has often been asserted that it was fear of the proletariat that induced the bourgeoisie to limit its own struggle against the feudal autocracy, it was rather the recognition of its own as yet restricted power vis-a-vis the reactionary foe that made it draw back from radical measures in favor of its own political aspirations. While the bourgeoisie found support in the laboring population, it was certain that it would find the assistance of the reactionary forces should this prove necessary to destroy the revolutionary initiative of the working class. In any case, time was on the side of the bourgeoisie, as the feudal layers of society adapted to the capitalization process and integrated themselves into the capitalist mode of production. The integration of the apparently irreconcilable interests of the conservative elements, largely based on agriculture, and the progressive democratic forces, representing industrial capital, finally realized the goals of the failed bourgeois revolutions of 1848, which had gripped almost all the nations of Western Europe. Eighteen forty-eight had raised hopes for an early proletarian revolution, particularly because of the devastating economic crisis conditions that had caused the political ferment in the first place. But the years of depression passed and with them also the social upheavals against everything thought to stand in the way of social change. Capital accumulated no less within countries ruled by politically reactionary regimes than in those where the state favored the liberal bourgeoisie.

The modern nation-state is a creation of capitalism, which demands the transformation of weak into viable states, so as to create the conditions of production that allow for successful competition on the world market. Nationalism was then the predominant concern of the revolutionary bourgeoisie. Capitalist expansion and national unification were seen as complementary processes, although nationalism in its ideological form was held to be a value in its own right. In this form, it took on revolutionary connotations wherever particular nations, such as Ireland and Poland, had come under foreign rule. Because capitalism implied the formation of nations, those who favored the first necessarily favored the second, even if only as another presupposition of a future proletarian revolution which, for its part, was supposed to end the national separations of the world economy. It was in this sense that Marx and Engels advocated the formation of nations powerful enough to assure a rapid capitalistic development.

Of course, it did not really matter whether or not Marx and Engels favored the formation of capitalistically viable nation-states, for their influence upon actual events was less than minimal. All they could do was express their own sentiments and preferences with regard to the various national struggles that accompanied the capitalization of the European continent. In these struggles the workers could as yet provide only cannon fodder for class interests that were not their own, or were so only indirectly, in that a rapid capitalist development promised to improve their conditions within their wage-labor dependency. Only in a historical sense was their participation in the national-revolutionary upheavals of the time, and in the ensuing national wars, justifiable, for at the time, they could serve only the specific class interests of the rising and competing bourgeoisie. However, even though history was made by the bourgeoisie, the fact that the latter’s existence implied the existence and development of the proletariat made it obligatory to view this process also from the position of the working class and to formulate policies that would presumably advance its interests within the capitalistic development.

As the formation of viable national states involved the absorption of less viable national entities, a distinction was made between nations possessing the potential for a vast capitalistic development and others not so endowed. Friedrich Engels, for instance, differentiated between nations destined to affect the course of history and others unable to play an independent role in historical development.(1) In his opinion, nationalism as such was not a revolutionary force, except indirectly in situations where it served a rapid capitalist development. There was no room for small or backward nations within the unfolding capitalist world. National aspirations could thus be either revolutionary or reactionary, depending upon their positive or negative impact on the growing social powers of production. Only insofar as national movements supported the general capitalist development could these movements be seen as progressive and so of interest to the working class, for nationalism was only the capitalistically contradictory form of a development preparing the way for the internationalization of capital production and therefore also for proletarian internationalism.

Of course, this general conception had to be spelled out empirically, by taking sides, at least verbally, in the actual national movements and national wars of the nineteenth century. According to the degree of their capitalist development, or the clear need and desire for such nation’s competitive position within the world economy, their defense implied the defense of the nation, if only to safeguard what had already been gained. The more advanced the working class thought itself to be, the more outspoken its identification with the prevailing nationalism. Where the workers did not challenge capitalist social relations at all, as in England and the United States, their acceptance of bourgeois nationalism with its imperialist implications was complete. Where there was at least ideological opposition to the capitalist system, as in the Marxist movement, nationalist sentiments were extolled in a more hypocritical fashion, namely as a means to transform the nation into a socialist nation powerful enough to withstand a possible onslaught of external counterrevolutionary forces. A distinction was now made between nations clearly on the road to socialism, as attested by the increasing power of the socialist organizations and their growing influence upon society at large, and nations still completely under the sway of their traditional ruling classes and trailing behind the general social development along the socialist path.

A particular nation could thus become a kind of “vanguard nation,” destined by its example to lead other nations. This role, played by France in the bourgeois revolution, was now claimed, with respect to the socialist revolution, for Germany, thanks to her quick capitalist development, her geopolitical location, and her labor movement, the pride of the Second International. A defeat of this nation in a capitalist war would set back not only the development of Germany and its labor movement, but along with it the development of socialism as such. It was thus in the name of socialism that Friedrich Engels, for instance, advocated the defense of the German nation against less advanced countries such as Russia, and even against more advanced capitalist nations, such as France, were they to ally themselves with the potential Russian adversary. And it was August Bebel, the popular leader of German Social Democracy, who announced his readiness to fight for the German fatherland should this be necessary to secure its uninterrupted socialist development.

In a world of competing capitalist nations the gains of some nations are the losses of others, even if all of them increase their capital with the enlargement of the world market. The capital concentration process proceeds internationally as well as nationally. As competition leads to monopolization, the theoretically “free world market” becomes a partially controlled market, and the instrumentalities to this end – protectionism, colonialism, militarism, and imperialism – are employed to assure national privileges within the expanding capitalist world economy. Monopolization and imperialism thus provide a degree of conscious interference in the market mechanism, though only for purposes of national aggrandizement. However, as conscious control of the economy is also a goal of socialism, the economic regulation due to the monopolization of capital and its imperialist activities was held by some socialists and social reformers, such as the Fabians of England, to be a progressive step toward the development of a more rational society.

Because a relatively undisturbed growth of labor organizations in ascending capitalism presupposes a rate of capital accumulation allowing at the same time for sufficient profits and for the gradual improvement of the conditions of the laboring classes, the nationally organized labor movement, bent on social reforms or merely on higher wages, cannot help favoring the expansion of the national capital. Whether the fact is acknowledged or not, international capital competition affects the working class as well as capital. Even the socialist wing of the labor movement will not be immune to this external pressure, in order not to lose contact with reality and to maintain its influence upon the working class, regardless of all the ideological lip service paid to proletarian internationalism as the final but distant goal of the socialist movement.

The national division of capitalist production also nationalizes the proletarian class struggle. This is not a mere question of ideology – that is, of the uncritical acceptance of bourgeois nationalism by the working class – but is also a practical need, for it is within the framework of the national economy that the class struggle is fought. With the unity of mankind a distant and perhaps utopian goal, the historically evolving nation-state and its success with respect to the competitive pursuit of capital determine the destiny of its labor movement together with that of the working class as regards the conditions of its existence. Like all ideologies, in order to be effective nationalism too must have some definite contact with real needs and possibilities, not only for the class interests directly associated with it but also for those subjected to their rule.

Once established and systematically perpetuated, the ideology of nationalism, like money, takes on an independent existence and asserts its power without disclosing the specific material class interests that led to its formation in the first place. As it is not the social production process but its fetishistic form of appearance that structures the conscious apprehension of capitalist society, so it is the nationalist ideology, divorced from its underlying class-determined social relations, that appears as a part of the false consciousness dominating the whole of society. Nationalism appears now as a value in itself and as the only form in which some sort of “sociality” can be realized in an otherwise asocial and atomized society. It is an abstract form of sociality in lieu of a real sociality, but it attests to the subjective need of the isolated individual to assert his humanity as a social being. As such, it is the ideological reflex of capitalist society as a system of social production for private gain, based on the exploitation of one class by another. It supplements or replaces religion as the cohesive force of social existence, since no other form of cohesion is possible at this stage of the development of the social forces of production. It is thus a historical phenomenon, which seems to be as “natural” as capitalist production itself and lends to the latter an aura of sociality it does not really possess.

The ambiguities of ideologies, including nationalism, are both their weakness and their strength. To retain its effectiveness over time, ideology must be relentlessly cultivated. The internalization of ideological nationalism cannot be left to the contradictory socialization process itself, but must be systematically propagated to combat any arising doubt as to its validity for society as a whole. But as the means of indoctrination, together with those of production and of direct physical control, are in the hands of the bourgeoisie, the ideas of the ruling class are the socially ruling ideas and in that form answer the subjective need for the individual’s integration into a larger and protective community.

Capital operates internationally but concentrates its profits nationally. Its internationalization appears thus as an imperialistic nationalism aiming at the monopolization of the sources of surplus value. This is at once a political and an economic process, even though the connection between the two is not always clearly discernible because of the relatively independent existence of nationalist ideology, which hides the specifically capitalistic interests at its base. This camouflage works the better because the whole of known history has been the history of plunder and war of various people engaged in building up, or in destroying, one or another ethnic group, one or another empire. “National” security, or “national” security by way of expansion, appears to be the stuff of history, a never-ending “Darwinian” struggle for existence regardless of the historical specificity of class relations within the “national” entities.

Just as monopolization and competition, or free trade and protectionism, are aspects of one and the same historical development, nationalism and imperialism are also indivisible, although the latter may take on a variety of forms, from direct domination to indirect economic and financial control. Politically, the accumulation of capital appears as the competitive expansion of nations and so as an imperialistic struggle for larger shares of the exploitable resources of the world, whether real or imaginary. This process, implicit in capitalist production, divides the world into more or less successful capitalist nations. The specifically capitalist imperialist imperative, or even the mere opportunity for imperialist expansion, was taken up by some nations sooner than by others, such as England and France in the eighteenth century, and was delayed by nations such as Germany and the United States until the nineteenth century. Some smaller nations were not at all able to enter into imperialist competition and had to fit themselves into a world structure dominated by the great capitalist powers. The changing fortunes of the imperialist nations in their struggle for larger shares of the world’s profits appear economically in the concentration of the world’s growing capital in a diminishing number of nations. This would also result eventually from the expansion of capital without imperialistic interventions on the part of the competing national capitals: it is not competition which determines the course of capitalist development, but capitalist production which determines the course of competition and capitalism’s bloody history.

The object of national rivalries is the amassing of capital, on which all political and military power rests. The ideology of nationalism is based not on the existence of the nation but on the existence of capital and on its self-expansion. In this sense, nationalism mediates the internationalization of capital production without leading to a unified world economy, just as the concentration and monopolization of the national capitals does not eliminate their private property character. Nationally as well as internationally capitalist production creates the world economy via the creation of the world market. At the base of this general competitive process lies an actual, if still abstract, need for a worldwide organization of production and distribution beneficial to all of humanity. This is not only because the earth is far better adapted to such an organization, but also because the social productive forces can be further developed and society freed from want and misery only by a fully international cooperation without regard to particularistic interests. However, the compelling interdependency implied in a progressive social development asserts itself capitalistically in an unending struggle for imperialist control. Imperialism, not nationalism, was the great issue around the turn of the century. German “nationalist” interests were now imperialist interests, competing with the imperialisms of other nations. French “national” interests were those of the French empire, as Britain’s were those of the British empire. Control of the world and the division and re-division of this control between the great imperialist powers, and even between lesser nations, determined “national” policies and culminated in the first worldwide war.

As crisis reveals the fundamental contradictions of capital production, capitalist war reveals the imperialistic nature of nationalism. Imperialism presents itself, however, as a national need to prevent, or to overcome, a crisis situation in a defensive struggle against the imperialistic designs of other nations. Where such nations do not exist imperialism takes on the guise of a measure to maintain the well-being of the nation and, at the same time, to carry its “civilizing” mission into new territories. It is not too difficult to get the consent of a working class more or less habituated to capitalist conditions, and thus under the sway of nationalism, for any imperialist adventure. The workers’ state of absolute dependency allows them to feel that, for better or worse, their lot is indissolubly connected with that of the nation. Unable as yet and therefore unwilling to fight for any kind of self-determination, they manage to convince themselves that the concerns of their masters are also their own. And this the more so, because it is only in this fashion that they are able to see themselves as full-fledged members of society, gaining as citizens of the state the “dignity” and “appreciation” denied to them as members of the working class.

There is no point in being annoyed by this state of affairs and in dismissing the working class as a stupid class, unable to distinguish its own interests from those of the bourgeoisie. After all, it merely shares the national ideology with the rest of society, which is equally unaware that nationalism, like religion at an earlier time, and like the faith in the beneficence of market relations, is only an ideological expression for the self-expansion of capital, that is, for the helpless subjection of society to “economic laws” that have their source in the exploitative social relations of capitalist production. It is true that the ruling class, at least, benefits from society’s antisocial production process, but it does so just as blindly as the working class accepts its suffering. It is this blindness which accounts for the apparently independent force of ideological nationalism, which is thus able to transcend the social class relations.

The materialist conception of history attempts to explain both the persistence of a given societal form and the reasons for its possible change. Its supporters ought not to be surprised by the resiliency of a given society, as indicated by its continual reproduction and the consequent recreation of its ruling ideology. Changes within the status quo may be for long times almost imperceptible, or unrecognizable as regards their future implications. The presence of class contradictions explains both social stability and instability, depending upon conditions outside the control of either the rulers or the ruled. In distinction to preceding societal forms, however, the capital-labor relation of social production continually accelerates changes in the productive forces, while maintaining the basic social relations of production, and thus allows for the expectation of an early confrontation of the contending social classes. At any rate, this was the conclusion the Marxist movement drew from the increasing polarization of capitalist society and from the internal contradictions of its production process. Class interests would come to supersede bourgeois ideology and thus counterpose the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie with that of the proletariat.

As stated before, these expectations were not unrealistic and were held by the bourgeoisie as well, which reacted to the rise of socialist movements and the increasing militancy of wage struggles with repressive measures that betrayed its fears of the possibility of a new social revolution. Class consciousness seemed indeed to destroy the national consensus and the hold of bourgeois ideology over the working population. Until about 1880 the theory of the impoverishment of the working class in the course of capital accumulation, and the consequent sharpening of the class struggle, found verification in actual social conditions, and accounted for the radicalization of the laboring masses. This same period, however, which resembled a prolonged social crisis situation, also laid the foundation for a new and accelerating phase of capital expansion which lasted, with occasional interruptions, almost to the eve of the first world war. It provided the objective conditions for the legalization of organized labor and its integration into the capitalist system in economic as well as in political terms.

Of course, the acceptance of organized labor and socialist organizations was not a gift freely offered the working class by a more generous bourgeoisie, but was the result of class struggles – albeit of a limited nature – which wrested concessions from the bourgeoisie and its state, improving the material conditions of the workers and elevating their social status within bourgeois democracy. These concessions could not have been made without a rapid increase in the productivity of labor and a consequent quickening of the accumulation process. But they appeared nonetheless as results of the self-exertion of the laboring population, a class rising within the confines of capitalism, which encouraged the growing illusion that the increasing power of organized labor would eventually turn the working class into the socially dominant class, displacing the bourgeoisie. In reality, the improving conditions of the working class implied no more than its increasing exploitation, i.e., the decrease of the value of labor power with respect to the total value of the social product. However, both the capitalists and the workers think in everyday life not about social value relations but in terms of quantities of products at their disposal for purposes of capital expansion or general consumption. That the improvement in the conditions of the working class resulted from the accelerated growth of their productivity did not diminish the importance of the betterment of their living standards and its reflection in their ideological commitments.

Disappointed by the slow development of proletarian class consciousness in the leading capitalist nations and upset by the latter’s ability to weather their crisis situations, and thus to reach always greater heights of self-expansion, the socialists had to admit that Marx’s predictions of the impoverishment of the working class and the development of revolutionary class consciousness, as an outgrowth of its class struggle, seemed unsubstantiated by actual events. Friedrich Engels, for instance, tried to explain this dismal condition with the assertion (later to be parroted by Lenin) of a deliberately fostered “corruption” of the working class on the part of the bourgeoisie, which allowed a growing section of the industrial proletariat to partake to some extent of the spoils of imperialism. In this view, a rising “labor aristocracy” within the international working class weakened the class solidarity necessary for a consistent struggle against the bourgeoisie and carried the bourgeois ideology, and here particularly its nationalist aspect, into the ranks of the proletariat. The decline of revolutionary class consciousness showed itself in the steady growth of an opportunistic reformism based on the acceptance of the capitalist relations of production and bourgeois democracy.

In any case, there was no direct connection between the economic class struggle and the revolutionizing of the workers’ consciousness. The expectation that the recurrent confrontations of labor and capital over profits and wages would lead to the recognition that the wage system must itself be abolished to end the workers’ Sisyphean activities on its behalf was disappointed, due to the simple fact this was not possible at this particular stage of capitalistic development. As long as profits and wages could rise simultaneously – however disproportionately – and the class division of the social product be affected by social legislation, even though this involved economic and political struggles, the character of these struggles was set by the limited demands made by the part of the laboring population still under the sway of bourgeois ideology. Although growing in numbers and in social influence, trade unions and socialist parties remained in a minority position within the population at large and even within the working class as a whole.

Not only were expectations of a possible revolutionary change now relegated to a more remote future, but even the growth of the socialist movement was seen as a long term, prosaic educational effort to win the laboring population to an acceptance of socialist ideology. Notwithstanding the struggles for wages and social reforms, which were themselves conceived of as learning processes, the class struggle was mainly seen as ideological in nature: in the end people would favor socialism because of its more accurate comprehension of the developing reality. One simply had to wait for the time when objective conditions themselves verified the socialist critique of the capitalist system, thus ending the subjective submission of the proletariat to the ruling ideology.

As an organized ideology, socialism opposed the dominant bourgeois ideology; the class struggle became by and large a struggle of ideas and thus the preserve of the proponents of ideologies. Ideologies competed for the allegiance of the masses, who were seen as recipients, not as producers, of the contesting ideologies. Ideologists found themselves in search of a following, in order to effectuate their goals. The working class – apparently unable to evolve a socialist ideology on its own – was seen as dependent upon the existence of an ideological leadership able to combat the sophistries of the ruling class. Due to the social class structure and the associated division of labor, ideological leadership was destined to be in the hands of educated middle-class elements committed to serve the needs of the workers and the goals of socialism.

However limited they were, the parliamentary successes of the socialist parties, which brought an increasing number of representatives of the working class into capitalism’s political institutions, not only induced a growing number of educated professionals to enter the socialist organizations but also provided the latter with a degree of respectability unknown at an earlier stage of the developing socialist movement. Leaving economic struggles to the trade unions, the spreading of the socialist ideology was now measured by the number of its representatives in parliament and by their ability to present “the case for socialism” to the nation and to initiate and support social legislation for the improvement of the conditions of the laboring class. Political actions were now conceived of as parliamentary activities, made for the workers by their representatives, with the “rank and file” left no other role than that of passive support. In a rather short time, the workers’ submission to their intellectual superiors in the parliaments and the party hierarchy was complete enough to turn this incipient class consciousness into a political consciousness derived from that of their elected leadership.

What was at first a tendency within the socialist movement, namely the substitution for proletarian self-determination of a nonproletarian leadership acting on behalf of the working class, later became the conviction and the practice of all branches of socialism, both reformist and revolutionary. Not only its right-wing revisionists but the so-called centrist Karl Kautsky and the leftist Lenin were convinced that the working class by itself was not able to evolve a revolutionary consciousness, and that this had to be brought to it, from outside, by members of the educated bourgeoisie, who alone had the capacity and opportunity to understand the intricacies of the capitalist system and thus to develop a meaningful counter-ideology to the ruling capitalist ideology and so lead the struggle of the working class. Of course, this elitist idea was itself a product of the rapid rise of the labor movement, which attracted a growing number of middle-class elements into its ranks. Ideologically, at any rate, socialism ceased to be the exclusive concern of an awakening proletariat, but became a social movement with some appeal for members of the middle class.

This class found itself in a process of transformation, caught between the millstones of capital concentration and social polarization. The old middle class lost its property-owning character and became in increasing measure a salaried class in the service of the big bourgeoisie and its state apparatus. It became a managerial class filling the gap that divided the bourgeoisie from the proletariat and, in the various professions, a class serving the personal and cultural needs of the divided society. The mediating functions of the new middle class in support of the existing social production relations was reflected in the socialist movement by the determination of its theory and practice by its intellectual leadership. Although some workers were able to advance into leading positions within their organizations, the tone of their politics, as suggested by an alleged predominance of theory over practice, was set by the intellectually emancipated leadership stemming from the middle class. This was a question not so much of the relationship between theory and practice as of the relationship between the leaders and the led. Policies were made by an elected leadership and found their parliamentary and extraparliamentary support in the disciplined adherence of the mass of workers to their organizations’ programs and their time-conditioned variations. The division between mental and manual labor, so necessary for the capitalist system, was thus also a characteristic of the labor movement.

The rapid influx of middle-class elements into the leading positions of the socialist movement disturbed even its intellectual founders. Notwithstanding his own reformist inclinations, Friedrich Engels, for instance, was greatly worried about the increasing subjugation of the self-activity of the working class to the political initiative of the well-meaning petite bourgeoisie. His own reformism, as he saw it, was after all a mere strategem, not a matter of principle, whereas the reformism of the petite bourgeoisie tended to eliminate the class struggle altogether in obeisance to the rules” of bourgeois democracy. “Since the foundation of the International,” he wrote to August Bebel, “our war cry has been: the emancipation of the working class can only be the work of the workers themselves. We simply cannot collaborate with people who declare openly that the workers are not sufficiently educated to be able to liberate themselves, and for that reason have to be freed from above by a philanthropic bourgeoisie.”(2) He suggested throwing these elements out of the socialist organizations so as to safeguard its proletarian character.

The workers themselves, however, were unperturbed if not flattered by the attention given to them by some of the “better kind” of people. In addition, they felt the need for allies in their rather unequal class struggle.

But in any case the revolutionary character of socialism was not lost because of the class-collaborationist ideas evolved by its nonproletarian leadership, but because the “strategy” of reformism, as the only possible practical activity, became the principle of the organizations in their attempts to consolidate and to enlarge their influence within capitalist society. With respect to German Social Democracy, for instance, it had by 1913 a membership of close to a million and was able to muster 4.5 million votes in national elections. It sent 110 members to the Reichstag. The trade unions had a membership of about 2.5 million and their financial assets amounted to 88 million Marks. The Social Democratic Party itself invested 20 million Marks in private industry and in state loans. It employed more than 4,000 professional officials and 11,000 salaried employees, and controlled 94 newspapers and various other publications. To maintain the party and to assure its undisturbed further growth was the first consideration of those who controlled it, an attitude even more pronounced in the purely proletarian trade unions.

There is no point in describing this process in other nations, even though their labor movements varied in one or another respect from that in Germany. Social Democracy and trade unionism advanced – although more often than not at a slower pace than in Germany – in all the developed capitalist nations, thus raising the specter of a socialist movement that might eventually, by reformist or revolutionary means, or both, transform capitalism into a classless, nonexploitative society. Meanwhile, however, this movement was allowed, and indeed compelled by circumstances, to integrate itself as thoroughly as it could into the capitalist fabric as one special interest group among those which together constitute the capitalist market economy. The specter of socialism, though used by the bourgeoisie to delimit the political and economic aspirations of the working class, remained a mere apparition, unable to destroy the self-confidence of the ruling classes with regard to either their material or their ideological control of society. Dressed in whatever garb, the organized labor movement remained a small minority within the working classes, thus indicating that a decisive weakening of bourgeois ideology presupposes the actual decay of capitalism. Only when the discrepancy between ideology and reality finds an obvious display in persistently deteriorating economic and social conditions, will the otherwise rather comfortable ideological consensus give way to new ideas corresponding to new necessities.

There is also quite a difference between an ideology based on tradition and on actual circumstances, and one based on nonexisting conditions, with relevance to a future which may or may not be a reasonable expectation. In this respect, socialist ideology is at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the ruling capitalist ideology. A powerful exertion of the latter, for purposes of waging war, or even for internal reasons, will create serious doubts regarding the validity or the effectiveness of the socialist ideology even in some of its more consistent supporters. The emerging feeling of uncertainty mixed with the fear of the unknown, which accounts for the mass hysteria accompanying the outbreak of war, will affect the socialists too and induce them to question their own ideological commitments anew. Their critical attitude towards the ruling ideology, to reiterate, does not free them from acting as if they were under its sway, while their socialist convictions cannot be actualized within the given conditions of their existence. They can be carried away by the apparent euphoria of the agitated masses and drown their own ambiguities in the murky sea of nationalism in a spontaneous reassertion of loyalties latent but not yet lost.

Furthermore, there is the objective fact of the national form of capitalism, and therefore of its labor movement, which cannot be overcome by a mere ideological commitment to internationalism, such as can be gained by a loose consultative body as was the Second International. The various national organizations comprising this institution differed among themselves with regard to their effective powers in their respective countries and thus also with regard to their opportunities to influence national policies. What would happen if the socialist movement of a particular country should succeed in preventing its bourgeoisie from waging war while that of another country did not? Even though “the main enemy resides in one’s own country,” a foreign enemy may nonetheless attack a nation made defenseless by its socialist opposition.

It was the recognition that the road to socialism finds a barrier in unequal capitalist development, which also shows itself in the unequal class consciousness of the laboring population, that induced Marx and Engels to favor one or another country in imperialistic conflicts, siding with those bearing the greatest promise for a socialist future. They could not envision a capitalist development without national wars and they did not hesitate to state their preferences as to their outcome. Pacifism is not a Marxist tradition. It was then not too difficult to rationalize the socialist acceptance of war and even to invoke the names of Marx and Engels in its support.

Notwithstanding the apparently general recognition that in the age of imperialism all wars are wars of conquest, it was still possible for socialists to assert that, from their point of view, they may also be defensive in nature insofar as they prevent the destruction of more progressive nations by socially less-advanced countries, which would be a setback for socialism in general. In fact, this became the flaccid justification for participation in the imperialist war for the majority of socialists in all the warring nations, each national organization defending its own more advanced conditions, against the backwardness of the enemy country. Supposedly, it was the barbarism of the Russian autocratic adversary that demanded the defense of a cultured nation such as Germany, as it was the barbaric aggressive militarism of the still semifeudal Germany that justified the defense of more democratic nations such as England and France. But such rationalizations merely covered up an actual inability as well as unwillingness to oppose the capitalist war in the only effective way possible, namely by revolutionary actions. The international labor movement was no longer, or not as yet, a revolutionary movement, but one fully satisfied with social reforms and for that reason tolerated by a bourgeoisie still able to grant these concessions without any loss to itself. The antiwar resolutions passed at the International’s congresses meant no more than a whistle in the dark and were composed in such an opaque fashion as to be practically noncommittal.

In 1909, in the first bloom of his socialist conversion, Upton Sinclair wrote a manifesto calling upon socialists and the workers of Europe and the United States to realize the peril of the approaching world war and to pledge themselves to prevent this calamity by the threat of a general strike in all countries. He sent the manifesto to Karl Kautsky for publication in the socialist press. Here is Kautsky’s reply:

Your manifesto against war I have read with great interest and warm sympathy. Nevertheless I am not able to publish it and you will not find anybody in Germany, nor in Austria or Russia, who would dare to publish your appeal. He would be arrested at once and get some years imprisonment for high treason.... By publishing the manifesto we would mislead our own comrades, promise to them more than we can fulfill. Nobody, and not the most revolutionary amongst the socialists in Germany, thinks to oppose war by insurrection and general strike. We are too weak to do that.... I hope, after a war, after the debacle of a government, we may get strength enough to conquer the political power.... That’s not my personal opinion only, in that point the whole party, without any exception, is unanimous.... You may be sure there will never come the day when German socialists will ask their followers to take up arms for the Fatherland. What Bebel announced will never happen, because today there is no foe who threatens the independence of the Fatherland. If there will be war today, it won’t be a war for the defense of the Fatherland, it will be for imperialistic purposes, and such a war will find the whole socialist party of Germany in energetic opposition. That we may promise. But we cannot go so far and promise that this opposition shall take the form of insurrection or general strike, if necessary, nor can we promise that our opposition will in every case be strong enough to prevent war. It would be worse than useless to promise more than we can fulfill. (3)

While Kautsky’s pessimism with respect to the possibility of preventing the approaching war proved to be correct, his optimistic assessment of the antiwar position of the German labor movement turned out to be totally erroneous. Moreover, this was not a German peculiarity but had its equivalent, with some slight modifications, in all the warring nations. There were of course exceptions to the rule, but the actual outbreak of war found the large majorities within organized labor, and within the working class as a whole, not only ready to support the imperialist war but ready to do so enthusiastically, which impelled Kautsky to resign himself to the fact that “the International was an instrument of peace but unworkable in times of war.” As easy as it had been to discuss the prevention of war, so difficult it proved to act when it arrived. The fait acompli of the ruling classes was enough to create conditions that destroyed overnight an international movement that had tried for decades to overcome bourgeois nationalism through the development of proletarian class consciousness and internationalism.

Paraphrasing an old slogan referring to the French nation, Marx once declared that “the proletariat is revolutionary or it is nothing.” In 1914 it was obviously nothing, as it prepared to lay down its life for the imperialist notions of the bourgeoisie. The socialist ideology proved to be only skin-deep, powerless to withstand the concerted onslaught of the accustomed bourgeois ideology, which identifies the national with the general interests. As for the working class as a whole, it put itself at the disposal of the ruling classes for purposes of war, as it accepted its class position in times of peace. The capitalist reality weighed heavier than the socialist ideology, which as yet represented not an actual but only a potential social force. However difficult it is to understand the unifying power of bourgeois ideology and its hold upon the broad masses, this difficulty itself in no way alters the force of the traditional ideology. What was more astonishing was the rapidity with which the socialist movement itself succumbed to the requirements of the imperialist war, and thereby ceased to be a socialist movement. It was as if there had been no socialist movement at all but merely a make-believe movement with no intention to act upon its beliefs.

The collapse of the socialist movement and the Second International has been propagandistically described as a “betrayal” of principles and of the working class. This is of course a recourse to idealism and a denial of the materialist conception of history. Actually, as we observed above, the changes the movement had gone through, within the general capitalist development, had long since relegated all programmatic principles to the purely ideological sphere, where they lost any connection with the opportunistic behavior of the movement. The pragmatic opportunism of the reformist movement no longer possessed principles it could “betray,” but adjusted its activities in conformity with what was possible within the frame of capitalism. No doubt, the antiwar sentiments displayed at international congresses, and in each nation separately, were true convictions and the longing for perpetual peace a genuine desire, already because of widespread fear that war would lead to the destruction of the socialist movement, as the bourgeois state might suppress its internal opposition in order to wage war more effectively. Not to oppose the war seemed to be one way to assure personal and organizational security, but this alone does not explain the eagerness with which the socialist parties and trade unions offered their services to the war effort and its hoped-for victorious end. Behind this lay the fact that these organizations had become quite formidable bureaucratic institutions, with their own vested interests in the capitalist system and the national state. This accomplishment in turn had changed both the lifestyle and the general outlook of those who filled the bureaucratic positions within the labor organizations. If they had once been proletarians conscious of their class interests, they were so no longer but felt themselves to be members of the middle class and changed their mores and habits accordingly. Set apart from the working class proper, and addicted to a comfortable routinism, they were neither willing nor able to lead their following into any serious antiwar activity. Even their harmless exhortations in favor of peace found an abrupt end with the declaration of war.

To be sure, there were minorities within the leadership, the rank and file, and the working class that remained immune to the war hysteria gripping the broad masses, but they found no way to turn their steadfastness into significant actions. With the war a reality, even the more consistent international socialists, such as Keir Hardie of the British Independent Labour Party, found themselves forced to admit “that once the lads had gone forth to fight their country’s battles they must not be disheartened by dissension at home.”(4) With socialists and nonsocialists together in the opposing trenches, it seemed only reasonable to rally to “the lads” support and to provide them with the essentials for waging war. The war against the foreign foe, in short, required the end of the class struggle at home.

The triumph of the bourgeoisie was absolute as it was general. Of course, that minority that upheld socialist principles began at once, if only clandestinely, to organize opposition to the war and to reconstitute the international socialist movement. But it took years before their efforts found an effective response, first in the working class than then in the population at large.


1. Engels’s position on this question has been passionately criticized by the Leninist and Ukrainian nationalist Roman Rosdolsky in his book Friedrich Engels und das Problem der “Geschichtslosen Völker” (Frankfurt: Archiv für Sozialgeschichte, Bd. 4, 1964).

2. F. Engels, Briefe an Bebel (1879) (Berlin: Dietz, 1958), p. 41.

3. Upton Sinclair, My Lifetime in Letters (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1960), pp. 75-76.

4. W. T. Rodgers and B. Donoughue, The People into Parliament (New York: Viking, 1966), p. 73.