Karl Radek

Marxism and the Problems of War


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2, 2002, pp. 50–58.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


AFTER the outbreak of war, the workers’ press printed statements from the old masters of scientific socialism in a variety of places. They aimed thereby to explain the attitude towards the war on the part of the majority of the Social Democratic fraction. One group – who would more usually mock any orientation of workers’ politics according to the teachings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as some sort of orthodox worshipping of the line – bandied around passages of Marx’s writings as if they were a holy bequest. In protest at such activity, even the historian of German Social Democracy raised a caveat, pointing out that such usage left out of the picture the historical circumstances under which Marx and Engels took their positions on questions of war. And these are indeed historical conditions that are as similar or dissimilar to the current ones as the nightingale is to an owl. In the following few brief lines, we hope to outline what lay behind Marx’s and Engels’ judgement of the problems of war. First of all, it is necessary to point out that, as we might assume, the old masters of scientific socialism never betrayed their own method in their treatment of questions of war. Their method, that is, the mode of their scientific investigation, is comprised of the fact that they explained all manifestations of social life in their historical development in relation to the development of the productive forces. In the case of war, their method is manifest in the fact that the particular significance of each and every war is investigated in conjunction with economic developments. However cruel any particular war was, they would never be led down the path of simply wailing and groaning. They always asked what the sources of this war were, whether, in its violent and swift way, it ripped down a rotten old building, and whether or not a new life could bloom in the ruins left behind. Where the friend of humanity who lacks historical vision sees only blood and horror, a senseless slaughter, they often spied the ways of human progress, and new conditions of class struggle. We must, of course, apply their procedures to the current war. With the old masters’ and their pupils’ insights into the current economic crisis at hand, we are compelled to discover the great economic contradictions that have brought about the world war. Had the Social Democratic parties of the nations involved in war thought about the legacy of our teachers, they would all agree today on the judgement of the character of the war. This intellectual unity would have prevented the collapse of mutual trust between these Social Democratic parties, even if the popular masses were not in a position to thwart the outbreak of war, and were still compelled to march onto the battlefields. Here is evident what great practical significance Marxist theory possesses, but that is the case only if one refuses to treat it as a collection of quotes and ciphers, as a recipe book. Instead, one should use it as an intellectual guide, which allows one to find one’s way through the muddle of facts.

The position of Marx, Engels and their pupils on specific wars is yet another question. It is of the greatest interest for us how they judge particular wars, because thereby we see how they themselves deploy their own method. But even the most cursory examination of their standpoint demonstrates in each concrete case how impossible it is to consider this standpoint relevant to today. During the ‘mad year’ of 1848, Marx and Engels came out enthusiastically in favour of a German-Russian war. How did they justify their position? They delineated the forces of feudal reaction that ruled over Germany and the weakness of the bourgeoisie, which was in no position to break this dominance. The broad masses of the people formed the petit-bourgeoisie, a class that, even in the middle of the nineteenth century, was not in a position to fight energetically and consciously for democracy. That the proletariat was unable to form a strong and independent factor under these circumstances is clear. The revolutionary upturn in Germany slumped: under these conditions of internal political struggle, neither the unification of Germany into a national state nor the democratic reconstruction of the state could be achieved. Russia, at that time the centre of reaction – Tsarism still exists, as our ‘national’ press likes to remind us, and yet only thanks to the support of French capital – supported feudalism in Germany and Austria alike. According to Marx’s understanding at the time, a war against Russia would be a war against the same forces that held back revolution in Germany, and therefore, as a result of war – so they hoped – the national emergency would spur the petit-bourgeoisie on to revolutionary deeds. Indeed, as Engels explained later quite openly in a letter to Lassalle in 1859, occasioned by the Italian war, he (and Marx) harboured the hope that the war against Russia and Napoleon III would burden Germany with such tasks that bourgeois democracy would collapse, at which point decisive revolutionary elements would come to the helm.

How did the situation look in 1870? All hopes for the unification of Germany through a revolutionary movement proved to be unfounded. The more the bourgeoisie gained in economic strength, the more it moved to the right politically. In line with the economic backwardness of Germany, the workforce was still weak, incapable even of manufacturing the political conditions for their further development.

If Germany wins, French Bonapartism will at any rate be smashed, the endless row about the establishment of German unity will at last be over, the German workers will be able to organise themselves on a national scale quite different from that prevailing hitherto, and the French workers, whatever sort of government may succeed, are certain to have a freer field than under Bonapartism.

That is what Engels wrote to Marx on 15 August 1870. And he continued: ‘Bismarck is doing a bit of our work, in his own way and without meaning to, but all the same he is doing it.’ [1] And although in this private letter, which must be taken as a personal opinion, he expresses himself so clearly on the historical necessity of the war of 1870 – which, in the light of the incapacity of the bourgeoisie to carry on the revolutionary struggle and given the weakness of the proletariat, was the only way in which the preconditions for the progress of the working class could be fought for and won – he explicitly cites as one of the duties of Social Democracy, ‘constantly to stress the unity of interests between the German and French workers, who do not approve of the war, and who are also not making war on each other’.

Even these short extracts show that Marx’s and Engels’ attitude towards the war of 1870 was quite different from their attitude towards the war of 1848. In the former case, there was open agitation for the war with Russia, which is then supposed to pave the way for revolution. But, in the latter case, this attitude towards a fait accompli, of which one does not approve, but about which one must say that, despite its reactionary form, it will create the conditions for the rise of the working class. And despite this objective judgement of the war of 1870, it does not occur to Marx to declare his solidarity with any one of the parties that is leading the war, because he knows that Bismarck’s methods of realising historical necessities are not those of the class-conscious working class. In both cases, Marx’s attitude is determined according to the varying degree of social development, whereby it should also be noted that neither in 1848 nor in 1870 did the proletariat yet possess any great power.

One can think what one likes about Marx’s attitude in 1848 and 1870 – but one should not have to prove that it has anything to do with a susceptibility to national feelings or his opportunistic fears about all the successes up until that point. It was a political position taken up under concrete political conditions, whereby Marx did not forget for a moment the day of coming battles. Whoever regards Marx’s standpoint in 1870 as so charming a view that he wants to copy it, must first of all be asked: why not imitate the standpoint of 1848? Why not harbour the hope that now the rulers Kopsch and Wiener will carry out the revolution in the war against Russia, with Comrade Pfannkuch playing the rôle of Marat? And whoever responds to this question by remarking on the fact that social and political conditions have altered since then, would then qualify for being asked the second question: have not social relations also altered since 1870? Do the same tasks confront Germany now as they did four decades ago? There is only one answer to these questions: social and political conditions have changed completely since 1870; there can no longer be any talk of the tasks that stood before Germany then and influenced the attitude of Social Democracy (quite differently, by the way). The standpoint of Social Democracy in relation to the world war of 1914 can only be determined by the character of this world war itself, and by the current tasks of the proletarian class struggle. Marxism provides the proletariat with our intellectual weapons, in that it teaches us how to conceive the world war historically out of the contradictions of mature capitalism, and how to grasp the tasks of the proletariat who play such a large rôle in the process of production. The attitude of Marx to the wars of the past cannot be rigidly transposed to the present moment. Whoever does that shows only that it is simply a matter of borrowing arguments, and that he is unable to think up anything off his own bat. It is understandable, for necessity knows no law, as the Chancellor of the Reich used to say. This nonsense can, however, never be endorsed. In what follows, we will show how current circumstances are to be assessed from the standpoint of Marxism.


In this epoch of world economy and world politics, the question that has been confronting the capitalist world for several decades is as follows: how can capitalism, in the most expedient and thorough ways, continue to make the capitalist world compliant? Engaged in solving this question is the extensive development of the means of transportation, the export of capital, the arms race and diplomatic struggle. In its service are placed the linguistic, geographical, historical, medical and technical sciences, and indeed even church institutions. In 1800, the export and import of all civilised countries was estimated at six million marks, in 1850 it went up to 17, in 1870 about 45, in 1900 it was 90, and in 1910 150 million marks. Since import and export each count separately and also as the masses in transit cannot be isolated, Professor K. Wiedenfels estimates that, on the basis of these figures, the value of world trade amounts to 70 thousand million marks. The largest part of this massive amount that has been thrown into world trade comprises goods produced in capitalist states, which then enter into other capitalist states. But increasingly the masses of products from the highly developed capitalist states are imported into less developed or even quite backward states, and increasingly the products that move from agrarian countries into capitalist-industrial states grow in number and significance. The first fact is proven by the 13 million mark export to Asia and Africa, the growth of the railways, whose length in 1890 in Asia was 33,774 km and in Africa was 9,386 km, but in 1912 in Asia was 107 230 km and in Africa was 47,707 km. The growing significance of semi-capitalist countries such as Australia, Canada and South America should also not be forgotten. The significance of the import from agrarian, industrially underdeveloped countries expresses itself starkly in the fact that 26 per cent of German imports consist of foodstuffs, and 55 per cent industrial raw materials and semi-manufactured goods. England’s imports consist of 42 per cent of foodstuffs, and 35 per cent of raw materials. France draws in over 60 per cent of its industrial raw materials, and the imports of the United States of America also comprise 25 per cent of foodstuffs and 32 per cent of industrial raw materials. The more the economic conditions of the capitalist countries harmonise with each other in respect of the mode of production, the greater grows the pressure on those capitalist states towards non-capitalist areas of profit. And the more capitalism in the civilised countries develops industry at the cost of agricultural economy, the more it depopulates the countryside, at the cost of the agrarian labour force, the more it seeks to secure the import of foodstuffs from agrarian countries, where this process has not yet taken place. This is quite apart from the fact that it also needs raw materials, which cannot be produced in Europe and America, or in which until now the United States possessed a monopoly that puts pressure on European capital.

European capitalism is more and more dependent on the non-capitalist countries. If it renounced their development, its own development would slow down, given its declining rate of profit. It would have to aim for a conscious alteration of the distribution of the productive forces in favour of agricultural economy. In addition, it would for the time being have to give up a number of branches of production that are impossible to run without raw materials, whose importation from Africa and Asia would lessen, perhaps even totally halt. The slowing down of capitalist development at this particular moment would, however, awaken amongst the masses the question of whether or not the misery, which stagnation would bring with it, could be abolished by the conscious organisation of production. Given a fast tempo of capitalist development, the resources of ever-new unenlightened proletarians, recruited from the layers of the petit-bourgeoisie, does indeed widen the recruitment field of the socialist army, while momentarily weakening their power of action. Also, a faster tempo of capitalist development offers the workers greater prospects for an improvement in their situation on the capitalist terrain. However, the slowing down of capitalist development, at its present stage, means the increased sharpening of class struggle, and the beginning of social revolutionary mass struggles. Capitalism simply must go forwards, if it does not want to admit that its rôle has ended.

But these considerations are speculative – they quite certainly lie outside the considerations of individual capitalists, and are made here only in order to prove the objective necessity of the world-economic expansion of capitalism. The export of goods into the capitalistically undeveloped countries, like the import of its agricultural products, the building of railways in these countries, the loans, etc., all these means of world-economic expansion give the leading layers of capital such opportunities for profit, unattainable for even the most pious Christian in this world and in the hereafter combined. For that reason, they usually begin to take up relationships with the undeveloped countries, before the political economy of a capitalist country begins to conceive the necessity of world-economic relations as a matter of life or death. On the other hand, however, in recent years, under the influence of world-economic developments in the newly capitalist countries, the realisation is dawning that in the future striding out into far-off lands will be increasingly unavoidable. This is the spur for the political securing of space for world-economic expansion.

Capitalism is not able to develop any further at the fast tempo it has maintained until now without the domination of agrarian non-capitalist areas. In the last decades, it has sought to grab for itself the whole of Africa and Asia. Through its export of commodities and the building of railways, it seeks to explode the traditional economic make-up of these regions, and to turn these peoples into commodity producers who pay dearly for the products of European industry, and who sell their own products cheaply. It is impossible to demonstrate here the colonial and finance-political methods by means of which capital achieves its aim. Let it suffice to say that the world-economic development of capital does not only signify the massive expansion of its profit-demanding activity, but also its most inconsiderate intensification. And in this quest, world-economic development can only advance through the deployment of force. Even if the capitalist states amongst themselves stood united against the undeveloped parts of the world, world-economic development would not take place without massive clashes and world destruction. Hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indian people, brought into movement by capitalist development, would have their world turned on its head, if international capital stands up against them with united forces.

However, the capitalist world does not represent a united organism. It is split into special national organisms, according to the historical routes whereby capitalism penetrated the individual countries of Europe. Every capitalist state would like to receive a portion of the earth. For centuries they have been fighting each other for the remaining free regions: China, Turkey and Persia. Strong capitalist states that went about this policy of expansion too late look greedily at the small ones, such as Portugal and Holland, which possess large colonies from an earlier epoch. Old powerful colonial realms, such as England, fear that other capitalist states could exploit unrest in their colonies, in order to snatch for themselves a bit of the booty.

For 30 years, conflicts between the capitalist states have intensified over the dividing up of the world. They have caused the war between Spain and the United States of America and the Russo-Japanese war. To them we can give thanks for the ever fiercer competition on land and at sea. At the same time, this fight has generated colonial uprisings. It brings about the danger of popular uprisings, such as the world has never seen before. Out of all of these conflicts the genocidal world war of 1914 resulted. It is a war about world power, a war about which capitalist states should receive the largest part of it. That this is the case is stated in all the writings about the world war published by the advocates of this policy in order to impel the bourgeoisie to keep on going at any price. Taking up a position towards the world war is impossible, however, without answering the question: has the proletariat an interest in the further expansion of the capitalist mode of production? Only those who give a clear answer to this question adopt a clear position in the face of the monstrous historical events that we are experiencing. Neither quotations from Marx, nor declamations can render redundant an answer to this question. We want to give one…


Once the modern economic form of capitalism in the form of trade capital began its course centuries ago, it exploited the peoples of the orient. ‘If Western Europe experienced such a strong capitalist development’ – writes Professor Sombart, by no means a socialist – ‘then it is surely not least to be explained by the fact that the Western Europeans, more than any other people, could and did make earlier foreign peoples dependent (tributpflichtig)’:

One should not forget that West Europe’s economic development was necessarily predicated on the plundering of three continents, and that the wealth of countless blossoming and rich peoples of the old and new world first created the means that called European capitalism into life. The wealth of the Italian cities is just as unthinkable without the exploitation of the rest of the Mediterranean, just as the flourishing of Portugal, Spain, Holland, France and England is unthinkable without the previous destruction of Arabic culture, and without the plundering of Africa, the impoverishment and desolation of South Asia and its island world, of the fruitful East India and the thriving states of the Incas and Aztecs. (Modern Capitalism, Volume 1)

In pushing back the natural economy and placing a money economy in its place, capitalism made it possible for the feudal lords to increase the exploitation of the peasants to an immeasurable degree: for the possibility of selling agricultural produce, cheating the peasants, increasing the numbers of serfs (Robote) and expropriating the peasants’ land, really made sense for the first time. Capital took the gold ground from artisanal work. And as the modern factory system came into being, capital truly brought the proletarianised masses of the peasants and craftsman under its command. Meanwhile, in all of the many centuries from the emergence of trade capital, so to say, in the chinks and corners of feudal society, up until its open conquest of the throne, its path was also characterised by the reckless struggle of various capitalist groups amongst themselves. They waged wars over the borders of areas of domination, and these led to the formation of nation states. They fought each other for overseas territories. And in all these wars it was the people that provided the fighters. The people often rebelled against them, and sought to block the wheels of history, but in vain. For capitalism increased the interest of the capitalists in the yield of work, and it spurred it to discoveries that could increase the productivity of human labour massively. The mass of value, which capitalism piled up in ever greater amounts, bequeathed to it great resources of power. It allowed it, in spite of the intensification of the rate of exploitation of the mass of people, to participate in certain cultural forms, and these means of culture – school, chancellery, press, books – all preached to the mass that in itself it is nothing without the capitalists, and that they are to be thanked for every step forward. And if ever the masses pushed aside with a sudden shove the humility inculcated in them from childhood, then capitalism turned its powerful means of force against them, until once more they crawled to the cross.

And yet it was not a meaningless torture. Through it capital was able to conquer the whole European world. There was such an intensification of the human capacity for labour that nowadays even within just an eight-hour day of work huge profits can be made. Capital has subjected nature to humans to such a degree as has never been the case before. It dominates water, air and the innards of the earth. After it had done this, its dialectical contradictions broke through. The current level of science now allows an increase in the productivity of the land. But capital favours industry, because, through it, it is able to multiply itself much more rapidly. Countless discoveries are withheld from the public because an individual has bought them up. Capitalist associations – trusts and cartels – organise production not according to the needs of the population, but according to their own calculations. An ever-larger part of human labour power must be withdrawn annually from production, in order to learn the art of weaponry to secure the nation state. Now the oriental peoples are awakening, and they are turning towards the cultural achievements of Europe, but they cannot adopt these without the destruction of their local, antiquated economic forms.

The working masses of the modern states are understanding better and better this connection, and their opposition grows ever stronger in the form of the modern socialist workers’ movement. This no longer directs itself against the achievements of capitalism or against its technology, for it knows too well that this brings salvation to the people, if it is administered by them, and used in their interests. The vanguard of the working class does not set as its goal a return to the pre-capitalist times of the guild worker, of feudalism, but rather the organisation of the productive forces, in order to promote the interests of the whole of humanity. But the intellectual, alert, enlightened elements form only a minority of the working class. They are in no position to achieve their goal by themselves. In opposition to them stand the great masses of workers who still do not perceive any other possibility of organising the economy differently, or who, mellowed by the everyday torture of labour, do not feel confident to bring it about. In the meanwhile, capitalism goes about conquering new continents, which previously stood outside of modern development. There it hopes to get hold of new working masses, and to collect new riches. What position should the conscious part of the working class take in response to this? It knows that it is impossible to halt economic development. It refuses to attempt this through reactionary measures. But in no way does it make itself a champion of this process. Rather it attempts to make the transition to higher forms of production as painlessly as possible. Imperialism is a policy that hopes to lead the as yet undeveloped countries into modern capitalism, with the aid of state violence. The proletariat has most sharply fought this policy, not only because it knew that this can lead to world war, but also because it wants to make possible the transition to higher forms of production without torture and misery for the undeveloped peoples too. The proletariat that is conscious of its historic task can never be a proponent of capitalist development, because it holds that mankind is already ripe enough for higher forms of life. These facts explain the fundamental opposition of the proletariat to this world war. In the past there were wars that represented a necessary link in the chain of economic development. The proletariat faced many of these wars without any kind of self-conscious understanding, because at that time it had no socialist consciousness. The wars that led to the formation of the German Empire were also necessary, because, on German soil, the modern economic form could develop best of all under a unified state. For this reason, one part of the leadership of the socialist movement that was emerging at that time held that the war was necessary, from the viewpoint of the working class, even though they judged critically the possessors of power who were leading the war. A second part, however, protested against the war in the sharpest forms, and it is no historical coincidence that this protest holds a lasting place of honour in the grateful memory of the working class.


1. F. Engels, Letter to K. Marx, 15 August 1870, K. Marx and F. Engels, Collected Works, Volume 44, Moscow 1989, pp. 46–7.

Last updated on 30 May 2021