Imperialist War and the Question of Peace

The Peace Politics of the Bolsheviks Before the November 1917 Revolution

2 From opportunism to social chauvinism

In Rosa Luxemburg's classic Junius Pamphlet, we find the following noteworthy passage:

‘And then came the awful, the incredible fourth of August 1914[46]. Did it have to come? An event of such importance cannot be a mere accident. It must have its deep, significant, objective causes. But perhaps these causes may be found in the errors of the leader of the proletariat, the social-democracy itself, in the fact that our readiness to fight has flagged, that our courage and our convictions have forsaken us. Scientific socialism has taught us to recognise the objective laws of historical development. Man does not make history of his own volition, but he makes history nevertheless. The proletariat is dependent in its actions upon the degree of maturity of social evolution. But again, social evolution is not a thing apart from the proletariat; it is in the same measure its driving force and its cause as well as its product and its effect. The action of the proletariat itself is one of the determinants of the historical process. And though we can no more skip a period in our historical development than a man can jump over his shadow, it lies within our power to accelerate or to retard it.’[47]

Thus Rosa Luxemburg poses the question of the objective conditions of socialism's disaster in the First World War, of the reasons why ‘after the 4th of August 1914 German social-democracy became a stinking corpse.’ But she does not answer this question- instead she wanders off into social psychology, into a philosophical discussion (excellent, nevertheless) of the interrelation between free will and historical necessity[48]. This was the point Lenin seized on, as we read in his critique on the Junius Pamphlet:

‘The chief defect in Junius's pamphlet, and what marks a definite step backward compared with the ... magazine, Internationale [49], is its silence regarding the connection between social-chauvinism (the author uses, neither this nor the less precise term social-patriotism [49a]) and opportunism. The author rightly speaks of the "capitulation" and collapse of the German Social-Democratic Party and of the "treachery" of its "official leaders", but he goes no further.... This is wrong from the standpoint of theory, but it is impossible to account for the "betrayal" without linking it up with opportunism as a trend with a long history behind it, the history of the whole Second International. It is a mistake from the practical political standpoint, for it is impossible either to understand the "crisis of Social-Democracy", or overcome it, without clarifying the meaning and the role of two trends-the openly opportunist trend (Legien, David, etc) and the tacitly opportunist trend (Kautsky and Co) ... It is clearly quite absurd to suggest that the old Social-Democratic Party of Germany, or the party which tolerates Legien, David and Co, would participate in a "new" International.’[50]

If, therefore, the collapse of the Second International in the First World War is to be explained scientifically, one must investigate the class content of social-chauvinism and uncover its ideological relation to earlier currents within the labour movement. Lenin deals with this question most thoroughly in his article 'The War and the Second International' [51], written in the summer of 1915. What is the real substance of social-chauvinism? It is the

‘... acceptance of the idea of the defence of the fatherland in the present imperialist war, justification of an alliance between socialists and the bourgeoisie and the governments of their "own" countries in this war, a refusal to propagate and support proletarian-revolutionary action against one's "own" bourgeoisie etc' ... It is perfectly obvious that social-chauvinism's basic ideological and-political content fully coincides with the foundations of opportunism. It is one and the same tendency ... The idea of class collaboration is opportunism's main feature ... (and for that very reason) in the conditions of the war of 1914-15, opportunism leads to social-chauvinism.'[52]

It is well known that there had been a broad opportunist current in the Second International for decades. The source of this current, says Lenin, was to be found in the upward development of capitalism in Europe and North America,

... when the comparatively peaceful and cultural life of a stratum of privileged workingmen "bourgeoisified" them, gave them crumbs from the table of their national capitalists ... The imperialist war is the direct continuation and culmination of this state of affairs, because this is a war for the privileges of the Great-Power nations, for the repartition of colonies, and domination over other nations. To defend and strengthen their privileged position as a petty-bourgeois "upper stratum" or aristocracy (and bureaucracy) of the working class-such is the natural wartime continuation of petty-bourgeois opportunist hopes and the corresponding tactics (of the pre-war period - RR).'

Thus it becomes evident that

‘… chauvinism and opportunism in the labour movement have the same economic basis: the alliance between a numerically small upper stratum of the proletariat and the petty-bourgeoisie ... against the masses of the proletarians, the masses of the toilers and the oppressed in general. Secondly, the two trends have the same ideological and political content ... (as) by and large ... we must admit that it was the opportunist wing of European socialism that (in the war - RR) betrayed socialism and deserted to chauvinism.'[53]

Nonetheless, there is a world of difference between the opportunism of the period before the war and that of the war years! Pre-war opportunism was still at a 'youthful' stage, and one could still entertain the hope of holding it in check and subordinating it to the general interests of the labour movement. For this reason organisational unity with the opportunists within the framework of a party was at that time still possible. This was totally changed by the World War. The World War represented an historical turning-point of such magnitude, that the attitude of revolutionaries towards opportunism could no longer remain the same. It was impossible to undo what had been done, and to erase from the consciousness of the working-class the fact that, just at the time of crisis, the opportunists became the core of those elements which went over to the bourgeoisie. It was equally impossible to overlook the fact that they now objectively represented a mouth-piece of the bourgeoisie, and acted as its agents within the labour movement [54]. Social-chauvinism in war-time was ‘an opportunism which has matured to such a degree, ... that the existence of such a trend within the Social-Democratic workers' parties cannot be tolerated’. [55]

This applied with even greater force given that the European socialist movement had passed through the relatively peaceful stage of development, and with the World War had entered a stormy period in which it must tread the ‘Road to Power’ [56] and prepare itself for the task of overthrowing capitalism. ‘Flimsy, thin-soled shoes may be good enough to walk in on the well-paved streets of .a small provincial town, but heavy hob-nailed boots are needed for walking in the hills.’ And precisely because the working class was faced with totally new and immense tasks, it had become an imperative necessity to break organisationally with the open and the veiled opportunists (Kautsky and others)[57].

Clearly, Lenin's critique of the Junius Pamphlet was absolutely consistent on this point. All it did was simply to draw the logical conclusions from the ‘crisis of social-democracy’, which Rosa Luxemburg and her followers (the ‘Spartacists’) were very soon compelled to do, when they established themselves as a particular political current fundamentally different from the old social-democracy. - On the other hand, historical objectivity commands that attention be drawn to the fact that, before the outbreak Lenin did not grasp (or not sufficiently) the essentially opportunist character of ‘Kautskyism’ and that on this point Rosa Luxemburg proved to be more far-sighted. ‘Rosa Luxemburg was right’, Lenin wrote to Shlyapnikov on 27 October 1915. ‘She understood long ago that Kautsky revealed "the fawning of a theoretician", servility, to put it plainly, servility before the majority of the party, before opportunism.’[58] It is a matter of debate as to the circumstances leading Lenin to vacillate with regard to the Kautskyite ‘centre’[59]. The fact itself, however, cannot be disputed.

In this context, Trotsky's ingenious explanations in his previously mentioned pamphlet of September 1914 should also be examined.

Trotsky asks, what were the deeper causes of the collapse of the Second International at the beginning of the First World War? It would certainly be absurd, he says,

‘... to seek these causes in the mistakes of individuals, in the narrowness of leaders and party committees. They must be sought in the conditions of the epoch as a whole in which the Socialist International first came into being and developed.’


‘it is clear that such a catastrophe could not have occurred had not the conditions for it been prepared in previous times. The fact that two young parties, the Russian and the Serbian, remained true to their international duties is by no means a confirmation of the philistine philosophy, according to which loyalty to principle is a natural expression of immaturity. Yet this fact leads us to seek the causes of the collapse of the Second International in the very conditions of its development that least influenced its younger members.’ [60]

Here Trotsky means the fact that the epoch of the formation and rise of the Second International was the epoch of the constant upward development of capitalism in Western Europe, which was not interrupted by any major wars on the Continent and which did not offer the proletariat of the Western countries any prospect of leading a real struggle for the seizure of power. Of course, the largest and most imposing labour movement in Western Europe, that is the German labour movement,

‘theoretically ... marched under the banner of Marxism. Still ... Marxism became for the German proletariat not the algebraic formula of the revolution that it was at the beginning, but the theoretic method for adaptation to a national-capitalist state crowned with the Prussian helmet.’


‘in the forty-five years history did not offer the German proletariat a single opportunity to remove an obstacle by a stormy attack, or to capture any hostile position in a revolutionary advance.’

On the contrary:

‘It was constrained to avoid obstacles or adapt itself to them. In this, Marxism as a theory was a valuable tool for political guidance, but it could not change the opportunist character of the class movement, which in essence was at that time alike in England, France and Germany.’ [61]

Looked at realistically, however, the difference between the German and the English labour movement in that epoch was not as great as it seemed: it was reduced to the following:

‘Through the pressure that English labour exerted on the Liberal Party it achieved certain limited political victories, the extension of suffrage, freedom to unionise, and social legislation. The same was preserved or improved by the German proletariat through its independent party, which was obliged to form because of the speedy capitulation of German liberalism.’

And just for this reason

‘The political struggle of the German proletariat in this entire period had the same opportunist character limited by historical conditions as did that of the English proletariat.’[62]

Marxism, of course, - Trotsky continues - was not something accidental or historically insignificant in the German labour movement! A profound contradiction lay in the fact that Germany's awakening revolutionary working class faced a still semi-feudal, reactionary state, and this required an unswerving ideology to bring the whole movement under the banner of revolutionary aims. Yet ‘there would be no basis for deducing the social-revolutionary character of the party from its official Marxist ideology.’ For

‘ideology is an important, but not a decisive factor in politics ... The fact that the class which was revolutionary in its tendencies was forced for several decades to adapt itself to the monarchical police state, based on the tremendous capitalist development of the country, in the course of which adaptation an organisation of a million members was built up and a labour bureaucracy which led the entire movement was educated - this fact does not cease to exist and does not lose its weighty significance because Marxism (as a theory -RR) anticipated the revolutionary character of the future movement ...’ (Trotsky adds. ‘Reformism made its impress even upon the mind of August Bebel, the greatest representative of this period ...’)[63]

And what was the result of this development? 'Condemned for decades to a policy of opportunist waiting', Social-democracy in the pre-war period created

‘the cult of organisation as an end in itself. Never was the spirit of inertia produced by mere routine work so strong in the German Social Democracy as in the years immediately preceding the great catastrophe. And there can be no doubt that the question of the preservation of the organisations, treasuries, People's Houses and printing presses played a mighty important part in the position taken by the fraction in the Reichstag towards the War.’[64]

However - Trotsky emphasises – ‘... there is one factor in the collapse of the Second International that is still [65] unclarified', but which constitutes the deepest cause of this collapse; and this factor is

‘... the dependence of the proletarian class movement, particularly in its economic conflicts, • upon the scope and the successes of the imperialistic policy of the state ... (this) is a question which, as far as I know, has never been discussed in the Socialist press.’

In fact, as soon as capitalism grew out of its 'national' into its imperialist stage,

‘... national production, and with it the economic struggle of the proletariat, came into direct dependence on those conditions of the world market which are secured by dreadnaughts and cannon. In other words, in contradiction of the fundamental interests of the proletariat taken in their wide historic extent, the immediate trade interests of various strata of the proletariat proved to have a direct dependence upon the successes or the failures of the foreign policies of the governments.

England long before the other countries placed her capitalist development on the basis of predatory imperialism, and she interested the upper strata of the proletariat in her world dominion. In championing its own class interests, the English proletariat limited itself to exercising pressure on the bourgeois parties which granted it a share in the capitalist exploitation of other countries. It did not begin an independent policy until England began to lose her position in the world market, pushed aside, among others, by her main rival, Germany.

But with Germany's growth to industrial world-importance, grew the dependence of broad strata of the German proletariat on German imperialism, not materially alone but also ideally.’

It is not surprising that

‘... when the decisive moment came, there seemed to be no irreconcilable enmity to imperialistic policies (of the government - RR) in the consciousness of the German workingmen. On the contrary, they seemed to listen readily to imperialist whisperings veiled in national and democratic phraseology...’[66]

Enough on Trotsky's pamphlet from 1914. It is amazing how clearly he assessed the position of the Second International, and how thoroughly he was able to uncover the roots of opportunism and the contamination by imperialism of the labour movement in Western Europe. In this respect, his analysis is in no way inferior to Lenin's. And yet in the years 1914-16, this self-same Trotsky stood, in opposition to Lenin, for organisational unity with the 'centrist' (Kautskyite) wing of social-democracy. - Let us not forget, however, that even after the victory of the February 1917 Revolution in Russia, the majority of the Bolsheviks actually in the country - with Stalin and Molotov at their head - were for political and even organisational unity with the Mensheviks, and it required the return of Lenin to Russia to put an end to this tendency within Bolshevism...

The view has often been expressed that Lenin only insisted so passionately on the left wing of the labour movement splitting from the opportunists because he was counting on the immediate outbreak of socialist revolution in Europe as a result of the war. If only he had recognised that there were no grounds for his revolutionary hopes, then of course it would never have come to the creation of the Third International, nor to a 'split' in the labour movement ... What could be more false than this comfortable interpretation of history!

As early as Lenin's letter to Shlyapnikov of 17 October 1914, we read:

‘... the watchword should be transformation of the national war into a civil war ... The time for this transformation is a different question ... We can neither "promise" civil war nor "decree" it, but to go on working- if necessary for a very long time- in that direction, we are duty bound.’ [67]

One week later, however, Lenin wrote in his article ‘The Proletariat and the War’:

'Imperialism sets at hazard the fate of European culture: this war will soon be followed by others, unless there are a series of successful revolutions. The story about this being the "last war" is a hollow and dangerous fabrication, a piece of philistine "mythology" ... The proletarian banner of civil war will rally together, not only hundreds of thousands of class-conscious workers but millions of semi-proletarians and petty bourgeois ... whom the horrors of war will not only intimidate and depress, but also enlighten, teach, arouse, organise, steel and prepare for the war against the bourgeoisie of their own" country and "foreign" countries. And this will take place, if not today, then tomorrow, if not during the war, then after it, if not in this war, then in the next one.' [68]

A similar point is made in the article 'Socialism and War' (August 1915):

‘It is impossible to foretell whether a powerful revolutionary movement will flare up in connection with, during or after the first or the second imperialist war of the Great Powers; in any case it is our bounden duty to work systematically and unswervingly in this direction.’ [69]

In Autumn 1915 Lenin declared:

‘We cannot tell whether the proletariat's first "decisive" battle against the bourgeoisie will take place in four years or two, within a decade or more; ... but we do know firmly and we declare "positively" that at present it is our immediate and bounden duty to support the growing unrest and the demonstrations (against the war - RR) which have already begun.’ [70]

And finally, at the beginning of March 1916, he wrote:

‘The socialist revolution is not a single act, it is not one battle on one front, but a whole epoch of acute class conflicts, a long series of battles on all fronts, i.e. on all questions of economics and politics, battles that can only end in the expropriation of the bourgeoisie ... It is possible, however, that five, ten or more years will elapse before the socialist revolution begins. This will be the time for the revolutionary education of the masses in a spirit that will make it impossible for socialist-chauvinists and opportunists to belong to the working-class party and gain a victory, as was the case in 1914-16.’[71]

It is true, however, that after the victory of the November Revolution and especially after the fall of the German and Austro-Hungarian monarchies, all the Bolsheviks (and Lenin in particular) ardently hoped for the imminent outbreak of the European - or at least the German - socialist revolution. This greatly strengthened the pressure for the creation of independent -communist parties. Yet the splitting of the socialist parties was at that time historically inevitable, and it is pure subjectivism to ascribe this splitting to Lenin's ‘exaggerated revolutionary hopes.’ Lenin was not 'all-powerful' despite the great historic influence of his thought and activity.


46. R. Luxemburg is here referring to the famous declaration by the German social-democratic parliamentary-fraction in the Reichstag session of 4 August 1914. 

47. Rosa Luxemburg Speaks op cit p268-9. The sentence ‘The action of the proletariat ... historical process’ has been omitted from the Pathfinder translation. 

48. ‘Socialism is the first popular movement in the world’ - she continues- ‘that has set itself a goal and has established in the social life of man a conscious thought, a definite plan, the free will of mankind.’ Ibid p269. It was no accident, that in contrast to the totally quietist theoreticians of Austro-Marxism (K Kautsky, O Bauer, R Hilferding), all the revolutionary Marxists (Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht) stressed the ‘voluntarist’ element of the materialist conception of history. 

49. The only issue of the magazine Internationale, published by R Luxemburg, Mehring, C Zetkin among others, appeared early in 1915, that is, one year before the publication of the Junius Pamphlet

49a. On the other hand it must be remembered, that in her essay The Rebuilding of the International, published a year earlier, R Luxemburg employed a much more exact expression – ‘social imperialism’ - to characterise the politics of the SDP. (John Riddell (ed) Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, (Pathfinder, New York, 1986, p184-5, 189, 191). 

50. Lenin 'The Junius Pamphlet' CW Vol 22 p306-7.

51. Not to be confused with Trotsky's text War and the International. September 1914.

52. Lenin 'The Collapse of the Second International' op cit p242.

53. Ibid p242-4 and p246. Of course, Lenin continues, there are other roots of opportunism: the routine of relatively ‘peaceful’ evolution, adherence to legality-to which the Western labour parties have been accustomed for a long time-fear of sharp turns (not believing in them anyway), national prejudices etc. A particular source of opportunism however is represented by organisation‑fetishism: ‘Here you have the living dialectic of opportunism: the mere growth of legal unions and the mere habit that stupid but conscientious philistines have of confining themselves to bookkeeping, have created a situation in which, during a crisis, these conscientious philistines have proved to be traitors and betrayers, who would smother the revolutionary energy of the masses.’ Ibid p252. ‘Young man’ -said Rudolf Hilferding to one of his visitors after the seizure of power by Hitler – ‘young man - governments come and go, trade unions remain’ Quoted by P M Sweezy in the book K Marx and the Close of His System NY 1949 p18.

54. Lenin particularly liked to quote the expression coined by the American Lefts ‘labour lieutenants- of the capitalist class’. (‘Letter to the Workers of Europe and America’ CW Vo1 28 p433) One of the many actual cases confirming Lenin's assertion will be found in the, chapter on the January strike in Austria. (RR refers to the other extant chapter of his work, 'The revolutionary situation in Austria in 1918 and the politics of the social-democrats - The January 1918 strike in Austria' Studien über revolutionäre Taktik Berlin 1973. Here p119).

55. ‘While capitalism persists, the proletariat will always be a close neighbour to the petty bourgeoisie. It is sometimes unwise to reject temporary alliances with the latter, but unity with them, unity with the opportunists can be defended at present only by the enemies of the proletariat or by hoodwinked traditionalists of a bygone period.’ What Next?' CW Vol 21 p111 .

56. The title of the book written by K Kautsky in 1907, in which he (for the last time) defended revolutionary Marxist positions.

57. Lenin 'The Collapse of the Second International', op cit p249. Lenin adds: ‘This definition of the tasks of the new era of international development confronts socialism which does not, of course, immediately show how rapidly and in what definite forms the process of separation of the workers' revolutionary Social-Democratic parties from the petty-bourgeois opportunist parties will proceed in the various countries. It does, however, reveal the need clearly to realise that such a separation is inevitable, and that the entire policy of the workers’ parties must be directed from this standpoint’ ibid. C.f. 'Opportunism and the Collapse of the Second International’, CW Vol 22 p113. ‘It is absurd to go on regarding opportunism as an inner-party phenomenon ... unity with the social-chauvinists means unity with one’s ‘own’ national bourgeoisie ... This does not mean that an immediate break with the opportunists is possible everywhere; it means only that historically this break is imminent, ... that history, which has led us from- "peaceful" capitalism to imperialist capitalism, has paved the way for this break. Volentem ducunt fata, nolentem trahunt (The fates leading the willing, drag the unwilling-Ed.)’

58. Gankin and Fisher The Bolsheviks and the World War op cit p195.

59. In the opinion of the Soviet historian Slutzkij (‘The Bolsheviks on German Social-Democracy in the Period of its Pre-War Crisis’ Proletarskaya Revolutsiya No 6 1930) this vacillation could largely be attributed to the factional disagreements between the Bolsheviks and the Polish Social-Democrats led by R Luxemburg. (We would lay more stress on the ‘almost unquestioning admiration’ (R Luxemburg Pathfinder edition p263) which Kautsky and the official leadership of German Social Democracy enjoyed in the Slav countries and particularly in Russia). Be that as it may, Slutzkij 's article was immediately attacked in the most vicious fashion by Stalin (this pearl of bureaucratic stupidity can be read in Book I of R Luxemburg's ‘Speeches and Writings’ printed in East Germany), and Slutzkij finally had to pay with his life for the fact that his opinion deviated from the ‘orthodoxy’...

60. L Trotsky op cit pp178-182; 53-4.

61. Ibid 1918 pp190-3; 57-8.

62. Ibid 1918 pp194-5; 58-9.

63. Ibid 1918 pp196-9; 59-60.

64. Ibid 1918 pp204-5; 63.

65. We remind the reader that Trotsky’s pamphlet was written in September 1914.

66. Ibid 1918 pp211-5; 67-8. 

67. Lenin ‘Letter to Shlyapnikov October 17 1914’ CW Vol 35 p162-4.

68. Lenin ‘The Position and the Tasks of the Socialist International’ CW Vol 21 p40.

69. Lenin ‘Socialism and War’ op cit p313.

70. ‘Kautsky, Axelrod and Martov - true Internationalists' CW Vol 21 p398. C.f. also ‘The Proletariat and the War’ op cit p299; and ‘The Collapse of the Second International’ op cit p217.

71. ‘The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination’ CW Vol 22 p144 and p153 c.f. also Lenin's article ‘The "Disarmament" Slogan’ (October 1916): ‘And we do not wish to ignore the sad possibility - if the worst comes to the worst - of mankind going through a second imperialist war, if revolution does not come out of the present war, in spite of the numerous outbursts of mass unrest and mass discontent and in spite of our efforts’ CW Vol 23 p100.