Karl Radek

Preparations for Imperialist War

Head in the Lion’s Mouth

(May 1935)

Source: From International Press Correspondence, Vol. 15 No. 22, 25 May 1935.
Scanned, prepared and annotated for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Names misspelt in the original have been corrected.

The announcement of the reintroduction of compulsory general military service in Germany is an event of great historical importance. However, its significance is not quite so one-sided as bourgeois public opinion all over the world appears to think.

It certainly means the opening up of a new stage in the preparations for the redivision of the world by means of imperialist war and it is a weapon which is directed against both the old imperialist world and the new socialist world. The decision taken by fascist Germany opens up a prospect of great suffering for the whole world, but at the same time it represents a leap into the dark for the capitalist world as a whole.

Imperialism cannot get along without mass armies. Imperialism has now recognised this and has placed the final military decision into the hands of the masses of the people and above all into the hands of the proletariat. Imperialism has placed its head in the lion’s mouth.

It is as necessary to follow the train of thought which this fact opens up to its logical conclusion as it is to convince the world of the war danger which threatens from German imperialism.

The temporary experiments made with a view to reducing armaments by organising ‘small’ motorised armies were dictated by the fear that militarism and its standing armies would be destroyed from within by the masses, a prospect opened up by Engels in his Anti-Dühring.

Neither Major-General Fuller,[1] nor Captain Liddell Hart[2] nor General von Seeckt,[3] nor any other of the host of military theoreticians can claim the credit for developing the theory of ‘the small army’. The theory arose logically as a result of the conditions which accompanied the end of the world war of 1914–18.

Tremendous masses of men fought against each other during the world war. The history of warfare has no other example of mass mobility to offer. Industrial and technical equipment was used to an unparalleled extent.

For all that, the war took place in the trenches. The whole theoretical art of modern warfare stood helplessly before the immobility of the two fighting fronts in which capitalist countries of varying stages of technical and cultural development were locked. All the military theories of the great breakthrough or of rolling up the flanks proved vain against the extended trenches.

In its search for a solution military science turned its attention to the air and by the end of the war it was specialising in bombing planes, chemical warfare and tanks. The military experts thought they had found a means capable of development to a system which would permit imperialism to relinquish mass armies.

As a result of the situation which developed after the war and as a result of social relations, all countries experienced a serious financial crisis. The generals of all countries realised that the slogan of the ‘War to end War’ was a mockery, and they did not believe that the League of Nations would be able to compose the differences of the imperialist countries peaceably. On the other hand, they were faced with the fact that a modern bomber costs as much as the equipment of a whole regiment with rifles, that a tank detachment of twelve units costs as much as the normal equipment of a whole infantry division (Sikorski).[4] Therefore they came to the conclusion that it would not be possible to equip a mass army with modern fighting equipment, and therefore the theory of ‘the small army’, equipped with the last word in technique and science came into being.

The decisive role in the rapid popularity of this theory was played by the imperialist fear of the proletarian revolution. The writings in which Major-General Fuller sets down his ideas are coloured with an almost panicky fear of ‘the masses’, that is, of the proletarian insurrection. His book develops the thesis that if things go on as they have been going, ‘the coming world war’ will end with ‘a general bolshevisation of Europe’.

As a result of all these factors the military experts of imperialism came to the conclusion that reliance must be placed on ‘the small, motorised army’ exclusively manned by an ‘élite’, that is, by the sons of the bourgeoisie.

We saw [writes Georg Soldan][5] that modern warfare demands the services of the flower of the country and places the leadership in the hands of the élite, in the hands of the pick of the nation. We have deliberately chosen this expression as a symbol for those elements on which reliance can be placed.

These ideas have recently found admission into socialist circles. It is sufficient to mention the book of Paul Kéry, Gas, Tanks and Aeroplanes.[6] After rehashing all the arguments of Fuller and von Seeckt, this Hungarian Social Democrat comes to the conclusion that the masses of the workers have lost their significance in modern warfare and that therefore there can be no question of the workers playing a revolutionary role in the coming war.

Where do all these theories break down? They are not in accordance with general historical tendencies and they are not even in accordance with the actual conditions of modern warfare. A simple analysis of the conditions of modern warfare is sufficient to show that the plans of all those who would remove the decision in warfare from the hands of mass armies, that is, in the last resort from the hands of the proletariat, are irrational. Their ideas become positively absurd when one considers for a moment the general conditions necessary for the creation of modern military technical equipment and its application. First of all a powerful and highly developed industry is necessary for the creation of modern military technical equipment, an industry served by millions of highly-skilled workers, whilst for the use of such equipment in war further millions of men are necessary.

In the next world war each great power will employ not thousands, but tens of thousands of aeroplanes and machine-guns. A number of military experts declare that in the coming war the belligerent armies will have to reckon with a monthly loss of anything up to 80 per cent of the air forces involved. That means that the armies will need hundreds of thousands of highly-skilled pilots, and both air and ground mechanics, and they will be able to find them only in the ranks of the proletariat. The application of modern scientific and industrial technique to warfare will not reduce the human factor, but merely provide it with still more efficient weapons.

Now that the strongest power in Western Europe in possession of the most powerful modern industry is creating a mass army, all further discussion on the point has become superfluous. The question has been decided by history. German fascism is well aware of the risk it is taking when it creates a mass army, but it has no choice. German fascism is determined to oppose its enemies not only with the full power of German industry, but also with the full resources of Germany’s manpower. That is a dangerous game, but fascism itself has its origin in the fear of the bourgeoisie. German fascism has no choice. To use a phrase of Mussolini, it must live dangerously or not at all. There is more than melodrama in the fascist enthusiasm for Frederick the Great of Prussia because he never went forth to battle without a phial of poison in his saddle-bag.

However, when we come to the conclusion that Fuller’s theories are fallacious we must not tip out the baby with the bath water. We must not fail to appreciate the rational kernel which is behind the ideas of Fuller and his school. The first important factor in any consideration of Fuller’s theories is that he has grasped the great significance of modern industrial and scientific technique in warfare. Indeed, it would be frivolous to underestimate the significance of technique in the coming war. The highest pitch of mass enthusiasm will be impotent in the face of modern military technique unless the masses have also such technique at their disposal.

Our party and the leaders of the Red Army never shared Fuller’s ideas. Our military literature is the only one in the world which has systematically criticised Fuller’s contentions. However, although our party, its leader comrade Stalin, and the leaders of the Red Army rejected Fuller’s ideas, they have never for one moment failed to recognise the great changes which industrial and scientific technique has brought about in the conditions of modern warfare.

Our party has concentrated on providing the Red Army with all the means of modern industrial and scientific technique. It has never hesitated to learn from Fuller and Douhet[7] what these two great tank and aeroplane specialists could teach it. We shall face our enemies not only with our enthusiasm, with a politically-conscious mass of fighters, but with an army which has always set itself the task of catching up and passing the enemy on the field of modern warfare as on all other fields.

The second important and undeniable factor is that the means of modern warfare are tremendously costly, and this will limit their adoption by the armies of imperialism. This fact and the fear of placing weapons in the hands of the proletariat represent the basis of the variety of forms chosen by modern imperialist armies. The idea of ‘the small army’, highly motorised and on a high level of technical efficiency, has developed into the idea of creating ‘shock armies’, or as they are sometimes diffidently called, ‘covering armies’, operating in front of larger armies on the basis of compulsory general military service and consisting chiefly of infantry.

In his book On the Way to a Professional Army, the French Colonel Charles de Gaulle[8] proposes that a special nucleus of a hundred thousand volunteers and specialists should be formed. The task of this nucleus would be to cover the general mobilisation by carrying out offensive drives against the enemy and then to play the role of ‘shock troops’ for the general army. This army should consist of six divisions with a threefold firing strength and a tenfold mobility as compared with the armies of 1914.

There is no doubt that the new German army has set itself the task of creating such a shock nucleus. In his book National Defence, General von Seeckt discussed the idea of a ‘small army’ of 200,000 men, but he did not reject the idea of compulsory general military service. However, he was of the opinion that the army formed on the basis of compulsory general military service would be used chiefly to occupy the territory rapidly conquered by the ‘small’ motorised and mechanised army. Probably he regarded the former as being more or less on the level with the old Prussian Landwehr[9] of the later years, poorly equipped and without any real offensive power.

This idea of strictly dividing the army into a first-class, highly equipped, highly mechanised and highly trained force on the one hand and a sort of Landwehr on the other, is now a matter of historical interest only. The shock troops will be exposed to the greatest danger and their ranks will be depleted rapidly. During the course of a war they will have to be not only reinforced, but completely renewed and the army based on compulsory general military service will be the permanent source of this renewal and replacement. Further, shock troops alone are not in a position to win a decision in warfare. Each belligerent army will first of all do its utmost to increase the strength of its shock troops and secondly to support them by flinging the weight of their other troops into the scales. Therefore it will not suffice to equip the latter merely with rifles and machine-guns.

The line of demarcation between the picked ‘élite’ troops and the mass army, based on compulsory general military service, which the imperialists hope to be able to draw is illusory. Both the ‘élite’ troops and the troops of the mass army must be well trained and well equipped. The mass army, too, will have to possess high powers of attack and defence. It will have to be a first-class fighting unit. The idea that it could be a docile and silent mass easily controlled by the well-trained and well-equipped ‘élite’ troops taken from the ranks of the bourgeoisie is untenable. In other words, the mass troops will not be the soulless tools of the fascist ‘élite’ and amenable merely to the threats and violence of the latter.

The soldiers on whom the outcome of the next war will depend will not be the sons of the bourgeoisie, ‘the flower of the nation’. The next war will be an industrial war and the most complicated technical machinery will be in action. The decision will still lie in the hands of the workers. In his book on the coming war General Sikorski opposes the suggestion that the highly-skilled workers should be left in the factories:

Such a mobilisation would spell disaster for national defence. It would rob the front of the best fighters and it would satisfy the needs of the hinterland at the expense of the fighting power of the troops.

The imperialist governments and above all the fascist rulers will do their utmost to keep communists out of their armies by putting them into prisons and concentration camps. Naturally, they will attempt to create special units of reliable troops, but the war itself will show the masses of the petty-bourgeoisie that their hopes for the salvation of the small property-owner are illusory. The war will not only ruin the petty-bourgeoisie economically, but it will be burdened with sufferings of which it has now not the least idea. The main mass upon which the outcome of the war will depend in all highly-developed capitalist countries will be the industrial workers.

‘The masses, that is an expression taken over from the dying epoch of Marxism. Once they were praised; now they are accused’, writes the fascist Visconti Prasca[10] in his book in which he is compelled to admit that the consciousness of the masses will determine the outcome of the coming war. If he is not careful the accusers may find themselves in the dock.

All the military experts without exception are in agreement on one point, namely that in the coming war the line of demarcation between the fighting front and the hinterland will be eliminated. Chemical and air warfare will be directed largely against the hinterland.

The mechanised army [writes Major General Fuller] can, if it meets with no resistance, race through France or Germany in three or four days and not only terrorise the civil population, but occupy the great political and industrial centres.

We do not propose to discuss with Major General Fuller whether or not a small motorised and mechanised army could race through a large country in three or four days providing it met with no resistance. We consider the idea to be fantastic, but the important point is that, as Fuller points out, this army must terrorise the civil population.

Fuller’s colleague Douhet, writes:

If necessary a thorough disorganisation of the whole organism of the country will be carried out. The moment may arrive very rapidly in which the terrorised masses of the people, driven by the instinct for self-preservation, demand the abandonment of the struggle under all circumstances. This may happen even before the mobilisation has been carried out, even before the battleships have left their bases.

In his book Behind the Smoke-Screen, General Groves[11] discusses the main objectives of an attack from the air and declares that this aim will be to create such an atmosphere of panic and terror in the hinterland and that the terrorised population will fly at the throats of its own rulers and force them to make peace at any price. This policy of terrorising the civilian population is nothing but a speculation on the revolution in the rear of the enemy. What the army cannot achieve immediately by breaking down the resistance of the opposing army the high command hopes to achieve by stirring up revolt against the government amongst the civil population of the enemy.

The supporters of this theory are all leaders of imperialist armies, but playing with the revolution in the country of the enemy may end up very sadly for them all, not only because revolution is catching, but also because this policy will be pursued not only by the Germans against the French and the English, but also by the French and the English against the Germans. This parallel drive may very easily produce parallel results, that is, the revolution on an international scale.

It is undeniable that the dialectics of historical development make themselves felt very strongly here. In the immediate postwar period the imperialists began to dream of modern warfare in which the masses of the people would play no decisive role, and then gradually developed towards the theory of terrorism whose aim it is to stir up the masses of the people in the enemy countries to overthrow their imperialist governments.

Naturally, those imperialist governments whose foreign policy is directed chiefly against the Soviet Union hope that this same policy of terrorising the hinterland will have the same effects on the population of the Soviet Union. It is not the aim of this article to discuss the relation of forces as between world imperialism and the first country of socialism, and we shall therefore leave this speculation undiscussed and shall content ourselves with pointing out that in case of war the Red Army has rather better opportunities than its enemies for carrying the war into Egypt.

We declare further that whilst all imperialist countries represent a pyramid with its basis in the air, the Soviet Union is a pyramid firmly based on the unity of the broad masses of the workers and peasants who are convinced that the Soviet government is working with all its might for peace and that it will lead them into war only when war is forced upon the Soviet Union by its enemies.

In his book on the changes in modern warfare General Fuller writes:

If no immediate decision can be obtained the war will drag on. Both sides will make air raids and drives with speedy tanks in order to demoralise the civil population of the enemy. Which side will be able to hold out longest? That is the main question of any future war.

The socialist character of our country, the class consciousness of the masses, the close relations between the government and the masses leaves no room for doubt concerning the answer to such a question.

As far as the imperialist powers are concerned, it must be pointed out that each of them which raises the question of war accelerates the socialist revolution in its own territory. The guarantee of this is contained not only in the character of the coming war and the mass character of the armies which imperialism is creating to wage it, but also in the fact that the seventeen years of postwar history have proved to the hilt the utter incapacity of capitalism to provide a solution to any of the questions which history has raised.

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Notes by the Marxist Internet Archive

1. Major-General John Frederick Charles ‘Boney’ Fuller (1878–1966) was a career British army officer, military historian and strategist. He was a pioneer of the concept of armoured warfare and he planned tank operations during the First World War. His plans for a fully mechanised army were not instituted during his lifetime. He was also an occultist and fascist, and was a leading member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s.

2. Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart (1895–1970) was a career British army officer, military theorist during the interwar period, and a prolific newspaper columnist and historian on military matters after his retirement in 1927.

3. Johannes Friedrich von Seeckt (1866–1936) was a career German army officer. He was in charge of rebuilding the German army after the First World War, and was determined to subvert the military restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty upon Germany, including by way of secret military cooperation with the Soviet Union. After Hitler’s victory, he became a military advisor to Chiang Kai-Shek.

4. Wladyslaw Eugeniusz Sikorski (1881–1943) was a leading Polish military officer and political figure. He was head of the Polish armed forces under Pilsudski and held ministerial positions in the government. He wrote Przyszla wojna (War in the Future) in 1934, which pioneered blitzkrieg tactics.

5. Georg Soldan was a German army officer on the Western Front during the First World War. He criticised the concept of the mass army on the grounds of its military effectiveness and political reliability in his Der Mensch und die Schlacht der Zukunft (Man and Future Battle, Oldenbourg, 1925).

6. Pál (Paul) Kéri (1882–1961) was an Hungarian journalist who wrote for Social Democratic papers, and was the author of Gas, Tank und Flugzeug: Krieg der Zukunft, Friede der Zukunft (Gas, Tanks and Aeroplanes: Future War, Future Peace, Leipzig and Vienna, 1931).

7. General Giulio Douhet (1869–1930) was an Italian career officer and air power theorist. He was a key proponent of strategic bombing, as set out in his book The Command of the Air, first published in 1921. He was a supporter of Mussolini.

8. Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle (1890–1970) was at this juncture a lieutenant-colonel in the French army. His book, Vers l’Armée de Métier (Towards a Professional Army), published in 1934, advocated a professional army based upon mobile armoured divisions.

9. Landwehr – Defence of the Country. All able-bodied men between 18 and 45 years old in Prussia were from 1813 liable to conscription to the Landwehr, which in 1815 was made part of the Prussian army.

10. Sebastiano Visconti Prasca (1883–1961) was an Italian general. His book Guerra (War) recommended a strategy of blitzkrieg. He led the initial offensive against Greece in 1940, but was soon relieved of his command on grounds of incompetence.

11. Brigadier General Percy Robert Clifford Groves (1878–1959) was a career British army officer. He transferred to the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War, retired in 1922, and later worked in the diplomatic service. He wrote various books on air power, including Behind the Smoke-Screen in 1934.

Last updated on 26 July 2016