A 1915 Review of Leon Trotsky’s
The War and the International

Why the German


Written: 1915
First Published: “Der Krieg und die Internationale.” By L. Trotzky. (Fritz Platten, Robachstrasse, 25, Zürich.) 50c.
Source: Justice! 25th March 1915, p.8
Translated: Unknown
Transcription/HTML Markup: Ted Crawford and David Walters
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2004. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

When the war broke out, and the papers reported that the German Social-Democrats were going hand in hand with the German Government, one refused at first to believe it. British Socialist papers withheld their criticism till all the facts had reached them. Their leniency will stand to their credit.

L. Trotzky, a well-known member of the Russion Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, has published a “brochure” in German, in which he deals with the question of war, and with the action of the German Social-Democracy, the most influential members of the International. L. Trotzky does not hesitate to criticise his own country, and levels some scathing criticism at the German S.D.P.

When on August 4, the German Social-Democratic fraction voted for the War Budget, their action was explained by the “danger of the Russian despotism.” They completely shut their eyes to the invasion of Luxembourg and Belgium, or to the declaration of war on France. Yet even a Revisionist like Bernstein saw the fallacy of the Reichstag explanation, and wrote in Vorwärts (on August 28): “If Germany were democratically governed, there would be no doubt as to how the settlement with Tsardom would be effected and attained. A democratic Germany would wage war against the East in a revolutionary spirit. She would call upon the peoples oppressed by Russia to rise against her and give them the means to fight for freedom in earnest. But Germany is not a democratic State, hence it would be utopian to expect such a policy with all its consequences from her.“

Trotzky thinks the expectation that German victories would hasten the revolution in Russia is mistaken, the same as the view that the Russo-Japanese war caused the revolution of 1905-6. What the war did was to call forth the revolutionary movement prematurely, and for that reason it was crushed. So it would be in the present case. If the German Army is victorious, and a revolution does break out in Russia, it would mean that the movement would again lack in strength and intensity. Besides, if a revolutionary movement did overthrow Tsardom, then the bayonets of the German Army, led by the Hohenzollerns, would be ruthlessly turned against the revolutionaries in Russia. The work of overthrowing despotism in Russia is the work of the revolutionary Russian proletariat. How well the Russian working class does its duty we saw by the strikes which took place just before the war.

“An alliance between the Hohenzollerns and the Romanoffs” (after Russia has been defeated), says Trotsky, “after the Western States have been humbled and have become exhausted, will mean an epoch of the blackest reaction in Europe.”

After the revolutions of 1848 and the wars that united Italy, Germany, etc., and created national States; after the Paris Commune had shown that it was impossible for the proletariat to overthrow the existing State and to change society by an improvised revolution, an epoch of capitalist development began on the basis of the national State. For the working class it was a period of gradually gathering its strength, of organising and of political possibilism.

“The German proletarian movement,” says Trotsky, “marched under the banner of Marxism. Yet because Marxism had to depend upon the conditions of the period, it became not an algebraic formula of revolution for the German workers, as it was at the period of its creation, but a theoretical method of adaptation to the capitalist national State under the aegis of Prussia. Capitalism gradually revolutionised the basis of the national life … The bourgeoisie surrendered every political position to the feudal Monarchy, yet, protected by the military police State, it entrenched itself in its economic position … The revolutionising of the economic life, and the complete abandonment of revolutionary methods and traditions in the political life, are the dominant feature of the last period, embracing forty-five years. The whole activity of the German Social-Democracy was directed towards waking up the backward working class by waging a systematic fight for their prime needs – towards gathering strength increasing the membership, amassing funds, developing the Press, conquering any positions that were not barred, making use of them and increasing their importance. In forty-five years history has not given the German proletariat a single opportunity to overthrow an obstacle by onrush, or to conquer an enemy position by a revolutionary attack. Owing to the changing relation of the social forces it was forced to get round obstacles or to adapt itself to them. In this practice Marxism, as a method of thought, was a valuable guide in ascertaining the workers’ political position.”

“But Marxism could not alter the possibilist character of the class movement, which at this period was the same in England, France and Germany.” The tactics of the unions (though the German organisation was indisputably superior) were the same in Berlin and in London: their crowning point was agreements regarding tariffs. In the political field this difference undoubtedly bore a much deeper character. At the time when the English proletariat marched under the banner of Liberalism, the German workers were creating an independent Party with a Socialist programme.

“Yet in reality the political difference was far smaller than its idealistic forms of organisation. Thanks to historical traditions and to the political conditions the English proletariat adapted itself to the capitalist State through the medium of the Liberal Party; the German proletariat was forced to create an independent party. Yet the meaning of the political fight of the German proletariat bore in this period the same historically narrow, possibilist character as that of the English workers. The similarity between the two phenomena, though different in form, became quite clear in the latest outcome of the period; on the one side, the English proletariat was forced in its struggle for its immediate necessities to found an independent party which did not break with its Liberal traditions; on the other side, the party of the German proletariat, which the war compelled to make a definite choice, gave a reply in the spirit of the national Liberal traditions of the English Labour Party.”

“... The fact that the German working class, revolutionary in its aims, was forced during long years to adapt itself to the monarchical police State, which rested on a mighty capitalist development, that through this adaptation an organisation comprising a million was founded, and in which all the working-class bureaucracy that leads it was educated – this fact does not cease to exist, and does not lose its weighty meaning simply because Marxism anticipates the revolutionary character of the future development ...”

Another cause of the present position of German Social-Democracy was economic. As capitalism developed the proletariat improved its organisation and built up craft unions. When trade was bad the unions felt the pinch. To the extent that capitalism left its national boundaries and entered upon the international imperialist path, the economic struggle of the proletariat became directly dependent upon the world markets, which are safeguarded by Dreadnoughts and big guns – i.e., some sections of the proletariat became dependent upon the success or failure of the foreign policy of the German Government, and they were easily wooed by the German Imperialism when the war broke out. “The Socialist Imperialism does not manifest itself in the German Social Democracy for the first time,” says Trotzky; “it suffices to recall the fact that at the International Congress at Stuttgart the bulk of the German delegates, especially the trade unionists, voted against the Marxian resolution on colonial policy.”

As the war went on, and the German Army threw itself against the Allies in the West – instead of “smashing Russia and letting loose the revolution” – some of the Social-Democratic papers tore the mask from their face. They stated, quite cynically, that “Germany fights for industrial supremacy, and that the welfare of the German proletariat is closely bound up with that of the German Imperialism.” Revisionism and self-interest – at the expense of the workers of other nations – induced the German Social-Democracy to betray the International.

In Trotzky’s opinion, capitalist Imperialism has outgrown the national State. It breaks down the existing boundaries and paves the way for a Republican United States of Europe as the nucleus for “a Republic of the whole world.” National Socialist Parties led by reactionary possibilist leaders go to smash, too. But Socialism remains, though its outer present expression is broken up by the war. The new International will spring up in due time, called forth by the inexorable logic of events. As capitalist Imperialism draws the world closer, so the organisations of the proletariat will have to follow suit and effect its historic mission – to bring about the Social Revolution!


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Last updated on: 17 July 2014