The Left Wing: 2. Imperialism

S. J. Rutgers

Published: International Socialist Review, vol. 16, no. 12. June 1916. Pages 728-731.
Transcription/Markup: Micah Muer, 2021.

NOTE: Dr. S.J. Rutgers, who has been for years associated with the best known socialists of Holland and Germany, as a member of the uncompromising Social Democratic Party of Holland, and who is in close touch with the European comrades who are planning for a new Socialist Conference, to be wholly International in its aims, has consented to write a short series of articles for the REVIEW, of which this is the second. His general subject is the attitude toward Imperialism and toward Internationalism of the LEFT WING, or revolutionary group, in each of the Socialist parties in Europe today. These groups seem to us to contain within themselves the only hope of a real working class International. We want every reader of the REVIEW to read these articles carefully, and discuss them with comrades who have become discouraged and left the Socialist Party. We believe that an overwhelming majority of American Socialists will welcome the plan of action suggested in these articles, and will desire to swing the Socialist Party of America into line with the new International that is even now taking definite form. We believe these articles will prove to be the most valuable series we have ever published in the REVIEW. They will put the American comrades, who want a revolutionary organization, in touch with the comrades across the ocean who have like aims and a more definite program. — EDITORS.

The editors have asked me to give more information about the principles and action advocated by the European Socialists of the Left Wing, who signed the resolution printed on page 648 of the INTERNATIONAL SOCIALIST REVIEW for May. In so doing, it is of foremost importance to make clear what these groups understand by Imperialism.

This is not so simple as it may seem, and the dictionary will not help. For Imperialism is a living conception, that has already an evolution of its, own, and that will broaden its meaning until it has taken definite form in the heads and hearts of the workers.

Originally the word Imperialism was used in the more restricted meaning of foreign colonial expansion in its modern form, resulting in monopolistic tendencies, and in the investment for export of fixed capital such as steel and machinery, instead of textiles and other commodities for direct consumption. This form of Imperialism attracted general attention in Europe, where it originated, and it soon became clear that foreign aggression was not simply a colonial problem, but that Imperialism includes a number of tendencies in modern capitalism that materially affect the relations of social classes. Imperialism means not merely an aggressive foreign policy, but an aggressive home policy as well.

In Europe it had already been noticed that for some ten years preceding the present world war there had been an absolute stagnation in political reforms. After a period in which some political results, some so-called social laws, were secured, there followed a period of reaction. Not only did the bourgeoisie refuse to make any further concession to the working class, but some of the advantages already granted were actually withdrawn. The greatly admired social laws in Germany, for example, enacted some forty years ago, have recently been mutilated; by taking away from the working class the greater part of its influence over the management of the funds.

It has become evident that the significance of European parliaments is on the decline, while the importance of the executive and the senate is generally increasing; that there is a growing tendency among the judges to exercise political influence, and that the police grows more powerful and more brutal. Wherever there was a clash between military and civil government, the latter has had to back down, and attacks on free speech and a free press are more frequent. There was a general reaction all along the line, and back of these reactionary measures were the same interests that cause foreign aggression — namely, big capital and monopoly.

It was gradually realized by close observers of these tendencies among the European Socialists, that foreign aggression and home aggression were two faces of the same monster. They came to see that Capitalism, under the absolute rule of highly concentrated and monopolistic financial interests, means a new phase of development with new forms of the class struggle; it means the broadening of the class struggle into an international world struggle. It is this new policy of the capitalist class, under control of financial, monopolistic capital, that European Socialists now mean when they speak of Imperialism. In this sense Imperialism is the present day form of the class struggle.

Among the characteristics of this new class-policy in Europe are: Aggressive, brutal home policy; no results from parliamentary action; declining influence of congress with increasing power of the executive; brutal police; reactionary judges; growing influence of militarism; attack on free speech and a free press.

But that is exactly what you have in the United States!! — in a form and an intensity that puts Europe in the shadow!!

All the symptoms of your own case lead to this one diagnosis: Highly advanced Imperialism of a special American variety, with retarded development of foreign aggression.

No one can fail to see this, and to me it was a kind of revelation, because it solved at once a problem that has been haunting many of us over in Europe.

Most of the European Socialists who were interested in American conditions reasoned as follows: In Europe we have succeeded in getting some social reforms, and we expect gradually to get more, together with a development of democratic influence on the government. In the United States, conditions being economically more advanced, and democratic forms better developed, the result should be: more political reforms; yet we observe that the results are, on the whole, negative. Then we shrugged our shoulders and murmured something about the difficulties of so many different languages, corruption, etc., but we knew that these were by no means a satisfactory explanation.

Now as soon as we realize that present-day capitalism has not a growing tendency for social reforms and democracy, but that, on the contrary, the old middle class democracy is on the decline, and social reforms, as a means to keep labor quiet and content, have lost much of their attraction to capitalists, the American situation loses much of its mystery.

European Left Wing Socialists had already emphasized, over and over again, that in fighting the power of Big Capital, the labor politicians as such were powerless, and that labor can gain only by putting its organized mass-power against the capitalist power as organized in trustified industries and in the State. These smaller groups of European Socialists had, however, a hard job in fighting their own official party leaders. This all-day fighting did not leave much time to study American conditions, and moreover the outbreak of the war meant a temporary disorganization of the Left Wings.

Since then there has been a readjustment, and the war, which was the practical, tho horrible proof, that the official parties were wrong and the principles of the Left Wing were right, has clarified the problem, and has already produced a new literature and a start towards the consolidation of future tactics in the class struggle.

At the same time the interest of European Socialists in the problems of the United States, now that it prepares to enter the field of world politics, has increased; and we can now understand, that because the United States is ahead of Europe in industrial development, your home policy must be brutal, and social reforms are lacking. Far from expecting more political reforms and more influence of the workers upon the government than is found in Europe, and far from expecting a less brutal suppression of the workers in this so-called "democratic" country, it proves logical to expect a more complete failure of middle class democracy under the iron heel of financial capital. Even without much aggression in the direction of foreign colonies, Imperialism, being the latest form of the capitalist class struggle, must put its mark on all of your social institutions as well.

The American comrades will realize that, in the more fundamental sense of the word, Imperialism has already developed in your country, even farther than it has in Europe, and that the stagnation of your political party is due to this development. In recognizing this will be found the only hope for getting out of the dead-lock.

Nevertheless the United States shows signs of a new life. Mass action, which in Europe, up to now, has been advocated without much result, has grown up in the United States out of the practical facts — not as a theory, but as a necessity of working class conditions. Spontaneous mass actions on the economic field, and a general recognition that the future belongs to a higher form of organization along industrial instead of craft lines, may be considered as the more positive and hopeful results of Imperialistic development in the United States.

That American comrades have not hitherto recognized Imperialism as the basic cause of the difficulties in carrying on the proletarian organization along the old lines, is due to the fact that Imperialism in America has not shown its most familiar face of foreign aggression. This, however, has only been a temporary phase, caused by the big possibilities in developing your own "new world." Now that your masters have decided to embark upon world politics, the last excuse for not recognizing actual conditions has disappeared, and even those who still imagine they have some political "democracy," must admit that the coming wave of militarism will sweep away all that may be left of the old methods and old ideals.

That foreign aggression and militarism are on their way in the United States, no one can deny. Preparedness overshadows all other problems, and there is not the least doubt about the meaning of this "preparedness." Your government has already tightened its grip on Haiti and on some of the "independent" republics in Central America; it has already practically decided upon intervention in Mexico. The fact that your president dreads the consequences of his "punitive expedition," knowing that real intervention at the present moment might mean the defeat and annihilation of the present army of the United States, may give some delay, but will not alter the final results. It is typical of the unscrupulous methods of Big Capital, that they would not hesitate one moment to sacrifice the nation's army, and even some of their own temporary interests in Mexico, in order to stimulate the necessary national feeling and militaristic spirit at home, and to secure their future interests, not only in Mexico, but in the world at large.

If you wish to know what will be your future politics, you have simply to watch the activities of your bankers. The fifty million dollars invested in the "American International Corporation," organized by the National City Bank, affiliated with the Rockefeller interests, is of more importance than all the acts of Congress in a whole session. The increasing number of branches of United States banking houses in foreign countries, are the forerunners of Imperialistic capitalism, and pave the way for this aggressive form of capitalism, as missionaries did for the old style of colonial exploitation. The fact that each university is requested to send two graduates to be trained at the National City Bank for well-paid jobs in South America and elsewhere, illustrates the interests of the middle class in Imperialistic policy. There can be no greater mistake than to think that behind preparedness are only the interests of armament manufacturers. Those interests may be powerful; they could not dominate the whole nation, if it were not for Imperialism, binding together the different groups of capitalists with a new strong ideology of world power.

It is disappointing to see the lack of understanding among the workers, just at the time when the forces of aggression are organizing efficiently. Take for example the "International Trade Conference," where hundreds of bigger and smaller manufacturers came together with the big banking interests to discuss ways and means for the better exploitation of the world, and especially of South America. It was certainly touching to hear these big bankers explain that their patriotic aim was to stimulate American industry, that they wanted to give good service for small profits, etc. Of course these passages in the speeches were for the public and the press, none of the interested parties being fooled by them. And altho not on the official program, there arose at this meeting a gentleman who had general attention and sympathy, showing a picture, on which were indicated in brilliant colors the big part of the total product that went to labor, and relatively small parts left to the different forms of profit. And he proved that in Europe the conditions were not quite so hard for capital, and that there was not much in foreign trade and foreign markets unless this big share of labor in the United States could be reduced considerably. General applause followed, altho the chairman explained that this gentleman was out of order, meaning that such a truth should not be spoken out loud. This incident gives an excellent illustration of the fact that a reduction of the share of labor in its product, which means home aggression, is another face of that same Imperialism that prepares for foreign aggression: both faces together showing the new and brutal form of the class struggle.

There has been a lack of understanding and an almost criminal lack of interest among the workers of the United States as to Imperialism, probably because it was supposed to be a special European problem. Many Socialists did realize that the problem would come to America some time, but it was not thought very actual. As soon, however, as you see Imperialism in its broader sense, and in the light of your own American conditions, it becomes the most important problem in actual tactics; it means moreover for you a chance for the rebirth of your own Socialist movement.

This is so all-important, that in our next article it will be necessary to prove more completely, that the broader conception of Imperialism, as understood in Europe by the Left Wing, is no mere clever piece of construction, but that it is based upon and grows out of solid economic facts.

NOTE: The address of the Left Wing of the Zimmerwalder Conferenz was misprinted in the May issue of the REVIEW and should read Fritz Platen, Rotachstr., 28, Zurich, Switzerland. There is another typographical error at the top of page 648 in the declaration of Ledebour and Hoffman who voted against the war credits because there were no foreign soldiers in Germany, which is a nationalistic argument and accepts the principle of defending capitalist fatherlands.