Gregory Zinoviev

Wars – Defensive and Aggressive

(4 August 1916)

Source: New International, Vol.5 No.5, May 1939, pp.148.
Written/First Published: 1916 (approximately) in The War and the Crisis in Socialism
On-line Publication: Zinoviev Internet Archive, 18 June 2006.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan.

Part III

Colonial Conquests Since the ’70s – Wars that Materialized and Wars that Didn’t

LET US CONSIDER the most important events in the field of colonial conquest since the 70s of the Nineteenth century.

Since 1870, England has enriched itself in Asia with the following territories: Beluchistan, Burma, Cyprus, British North Borneo, Wei-hai-wei. The Straits Settlements were extended. In 1899, the protectorate of Koweit was taken over, the Sinai Peninsula was conquered, etc.

In Australia, England won the southeastern part of New Guinea, a part of the Solomon and the Tonia Islands.

In Africa: Egypt, the Egyptian Sudan with Nyanda, British East Africa, British Somali, Zanzibar; in South Africa, the two Boer republics, Rhodesia, British Central Africa; in West Africa, Nigeria, etc.

France conquered: Tonkin, Annam, Laos, Tunis, Madagascar, parts of the Sahara, of the Sudan, of the Ivory Coast territories in Dahomey, on the Somali coast, etc.

Germany carried off since 1884 (the official beginning of the German colonial policy): Cameroon, Togo, German Southwest Africa, German East Africa, New Guinea, a whole series of islands (Kaiser Wilhelm Land, Bismarck Archipelago, Caroline Islands, etc.).

Russia seized possession of Urga (in China) in 1870, of Kulchu in 1871, of Fergana in 1870, and then of Manchuria; finally, it has been pursuing its latest policy in Persia ...

We have mentioned only the four Great Powers. But Japan too, since 1874, began its imperialist policy with the expedition against Formosa.

At the beginning of the Twentieth century, a few years brought about three sharp conflicts over Morocco, two over Balkan affairs. And each time European peace hung by a thread.

We present here an incomplete table of the wars conducted since 1870:


the German-French war.


Holland’s war upon the Sultan in Sumatra.


Servia and Montenegro against Turkey.


the Russo-Turkish war.


three English armies invade Afghanistan (concessions are made to England).


France against China (over Tonkin).


Servian-Bulgarian war (the Serbs are defeated at Slirnitza, Peace of Bucharest on March 3, 1886).


Russia against Afghanistan (“victory” of General Komarov).


war of the French and the conquest of Dahomey (Guinea).


Japan against China over Corea (Japan wins).


Spain against the Island of Cuba.


Italy against Menelik (the Abyssinian war; Italy defeated).


Greco-Turkish war (defeat of the Greeks; the Isle of Crete obtains autonomy in 1898).


Spanish-American war (over Cuba; Spain defeated).


England’s war against the Boers.


war of the European Powers against China (Boxer war).


England against Tibet (victory of England).


Germany against the Hereros.


Russo-Japanese war.


Italy against Turkey (over Tripoli).


war of the Slavic Balkan peoples against Turkey.


Servia and Greece against Bulgaria.


outbreak of the World War.

If these wars are analyzed, it is seen that most of them were of a purely imperialistic nature. Before us lies a segment of entirely new wars which are quite different from the national wars of the former epoch. Their causes are different. Their social content is different. They are the expression of a different stage of development of capitalism.

Of the same character are the majority of those conflicts in recent times which were resolved without war. The famous pacifist, Professor Fried, tried to make a list of prevented wars. In the period between 1904 and 1916, he enumerated 17 such wars that did not reach the point of outbreak. They include the following conflicts:

  1. Hull incident, 1904 (conflict between England and Russia).
  2. Moroccan conflict, 1905 (conflict between Germany and France).
  3. Separation of Norway from Sweden, 1905.
  4. Conflict between Japan and the United States, 1907.
  5. Moroccan conflict, 1908 (France against Germany).
  6. The Casablanca incident, 1908 (Germany against France).
  7. Annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  8. Austria against Turkey, 1908.
  9. Bulgaria against Turkey, 1908.
  10. Turkey against Greece, 1908 (over the Isle of Crete).
  11. Japan – China, 1909 (over the Manchurian Railway).
  12. Bolivia – Peru – Argentine, 1909.
  13. United States – Chile, 1909.
  14. Russia – Japan, 1909 (conflict over Manchuria).
  15. Greece – Turkey, 1910 (Crete).
  16. Chile-Peru, 1910.
  17. Ecuador – Peru, 1910.

We thus see lying before us a whole period of imperialist conflicts and imperialist wars.

A Few Words on the Savagery of Modern Colonial Policy

The German imperialists began their colonial policy later than the others. Their first steps in this field were made almost at the beginning of the Twentieth century. And yet: how much blood and filth, how much violence and cruelty are on their heads!

Their whole colonial policy, from start to finish, is one crime. How incredible do their “treaties” sound which they conclude with the natives while stealing their land! “We, the undersigned independent [!] kings and army chiefs of Cameroon, cede our possessions to Herren Eduard Schmidt and Johann Voss, representatives of the firm of G. Wermann,” reads one such treaty. In place of their signatures, 23 Negroes (“independent kings”), since they could not write, make the sign of the cross ... The other part of Cameroon was sold to the same firm of Wermann for 150 tons of rum!

English and French capitalists acted the same way only a short time ago in India. Whoever is on the spot first, whoever hangs out his national flag first, is the master ...

And then the cruelties and robberies of the servants of German imperialism against the population of the colonies! Whippings are the lightest penalty in the Cameroons. During the uprising in Cameroon, hundreds of Negroes were tied together on the orders of the German officials, Leist and Wehlau, and left in the hot sun-rays until they died of thirst. The scum of German militarism is sent into the colonies, hence the unheard-of cruelties. Women are lashed with rods in the presence of their husbands, whole settlements are burned to the ground and left to die of hunger. Shooting is resorted to on every occasion. At the beginning of the Herero uprising, this tribe numbered about 100,000 persons. According to official statistics, there were only 21,699 left on January 1, 1913: 7,071 men, 9,209 women and 5,420 children.

In 1905, a new uprising broke out in East Africa. The introduction of forced labor, inhuman taxes and constant executions, provoked the uprising of the Matmuba tribe. The German soldiers gave free rein to their lust for pillage. In 1913, the German Colonial Office declared in an official report that 20,000 natives lost their lives at the time. The German Professor Schilling, however, asserted that no less than 150,000 natives were killed during the uprising. Villages were burned, the crop destroyed. Many weakened natives became the prey of lions. The lions were satiated with human flesh at that time ...

We are writing about the cruelty of the German imperialists. But cruelty is not a characteristic of the German imperialists alone. Let us recall what reached the public about the policy of English imperialism in India, of the policy of the Belgian government in the Belgian Congo, of the French policy in the French colonies! Let us mention only this, that according to the calculations of Sir William Diglys, in the period from 1850 to 1870 in India, 5,000,000 persons died of hunger, and in the period from 1875 to 1900, some 26,000,000. [1] Let us add that in 1896, 2,000,000 Indians died of the plague. Let us recall further that the former English Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, estimated the average annual income of an inhabitant of British India at $6.50. And all this frightfulness is produced mainly because England exports the largest part of the Indian crop (hence the starvation), and that taxes and imposts are placed mainly upon the agricultural population (about 80% of all the taxes)!

Recently, an interesting booklet on English customs in India was written by the former American Secretary of State, William Bryan, who collected personal experiences. This booklet, which appeared in the Indian language, was immediately confiscated by the English government. The American periodical, Coast Seaman, produces some data which are taken from this booklet. The tax burden in India is relatively twice as heavy as in England. Mortality, which was 2.4% in 1882-1884, was 3% in 1892-1894, and is now 3.4%. Starvation takes on terrifying dimensions. “England boasts of having brought peace to India, in reality it has brought death to millions of persons in India ... It sucks the sap of life from India by means of robberies which are justified by law.” Thus writes not some “agitator”, not even some “German”, but a man who occupied a high post in the friendly American government.

In 16 years, 8,000,000 persons died of the plague in India; the land tax amounts to 65%; the average earnings of an Indian amount to 10 cents. But England gets a yearly income of $166,000,000 from India. Thus writes the committee of the Indian Revolutionary Party in an appeal made public in San Francisco in 1916.

Let us recall the “international expeditions”, which, the famous American politician, Morgan Schuster (who was a Persian minister in 1911), wrote in his book in 1912, made all literate Europe indignant – a book that bears the eloquent title, The Strangling of Persia. [2]

The True Motives of Imperialist War

In 1909, the well-known English monthly, The United Service Institution, published the excellent prize-awarded treatise of a high English naval officer. In this treatise, we find the following noteworthy lines:

We [England] undertake no war out of any sentimental reasons. I doubt if this has happened even once. War is the product of commercial conflicts; the aim of war – to impose upon the enemy those economic conditions one considers necessary for oneself. We utilize all possible pretexts for war, but their actual causes are always questions of trade. Whether defense or the necessity of a strategic position is alleged as the cause of war, whether treaties must be violated or similar reasons play a part – in the long run everything has its origin in commercial interests. For the simple but decisive reason that trade is our heart’s blood.

What is, is said here clearly and openly: “We imperialists (this of course also applies to the German imperialists) seize upon any pretext, we speak of defense, of violated treaties, etc. But the essential is one thing: the money-bag, the interests of the capitalists.”

That is the pure truth. That’s what imperialist wars are. Outward causes and pretexts may seem credible. One is “defending” himself, another is fighting nobly for the independence of a country, a third is defending the interests of “civilization”, purely out of idealism, against “Russian barbarians”.

In reality, however, all fight for the interests of a handful of magnates of finance capital.

What has the criterion of defensive wars to do with all this?

It is extremely easy to distinguish defense and attack in words, but extremely difficult in practise to establish exactly who is the aggressor and who the defender. In almost all the wars of recent decades, as in former times, both sides considered themselves the attacked. (Ruedorffer, Grundzüge der Weltpolitik, p.218.)

By and large, the instrument of arbitration courts serves only to avert the outbreak of unwanted wars ... (Loc. cit., p.167.)

Whoever considers the history of the colonial expansion of the Great European Powers in recent decades ... will find without trouble that all the wars of modern times in which the Great European Powers participated were, if not contrived by the interests of capital, at least initiated by them. (Loc. cit., p.157.)

These are the valuable admissions of the well-known German imperialist, Ruedorffer. So far as candor is concerned, they are not inferior to the above-mentioned declarations of the decorated English author.

Even the bourgeois-democratic pacifists have rightly appraised the true value of the assertions of all imperialist governments: “We” are the attacked, “they” are the attackers. In the international organ of these pacifists, La Voix de l’Humanité, January 5, 1916, we find the following table, drawn up not without humor:

Every belligerent state contends:

  1. That it is conducting a defensive war and is fighting for the just cause.
  2. That it is conducting a fight for the freedom and civilization of all peoples.
  3. That it is striving for a lasting peace.
  4. That it is bending all efforts and will fight until the enemy has been conclusively beaten.
  5. That it will be the victor, beyond a doubt.
  6. That it is forging ahead victoriously and has only slight losses to record.
  7. That the bombs of its aviators hit only the military institutions of the enemy and always with great success.
  8. That its aviators and its artillery are far better than the aviators and artillery of the enemy.
  9. That at this very moment it is planning great measures which promise absolute success.
  10. That the good Lord is on its side.

And every belligerent state further contends:

  1. That the enemy wanted the war and was preparing for it long ago.
  2. That the enemy began the war and attacked “us”.
  3. That the enemy is conducting a war of conquest and wants to dominate the world.
  4. That the enemy is trampling underfoot the rights of the people.
  5. That the enemy has violated the neutrality of the small states and threatens the neutrality of other small states.
  6. That the enemy is conducting the war with barbarous means.
  7. That the enemy uses dum-dum bullets.
  8. That the enemy is misusing the Red Cross.
  9. That the enemy mistreats prisoners.
  10. That the enemy violates women, murders and plunders.
  11. That the military courts of the enemy are a mockery of the law.
  12. That the enemy kills prisoners.
  13. That the enemy bombards open cities, kills women and children, but does not do “us” the slightest military damage thereby.
  14. That the attack of the enemy is always nipped in the bud or else is beaten back with great losses for the enemy.
  15. That the enemy is using gas bombs.
  16. That the enemy is a pirate on the high seas.
  17. That the enemy is needlessly preventing neutral trade.
  18. That the reports of the enemy are lies through and through, and calumnies to boot.
  19. That the enemy is trying to influence the neutrals by means of lies, threats and bribery.
  20. That the enemy is egging the neutral states on to war – to their greatest misfortune.
  21. That the enemy is suffering from a lack of money, rising living costs, industrial crises.
  22. That the war loans of the enemy are subscribed only by means of deception.
  23. That epidemics are ravaging the enemy.
  24. That strikes and domestic disturbances are the rule in the land of the enemy.
  25. That the enemy’s ministers and generals are resigning.
  26. That the enemy is war-weary. [3]

This list could be extended further ... If the wide masses of the people could read the newspapers of all countries, they would see that the ruling classes say the same thing everywhere, they would be convinced that the bourgeoisie employs the same methods everywhere, the same “technique” for the deception of “its” people. But the masses of the people read – if they read at all – only the press of “their” bourgeoisie and of “their” social-chauvinists, who only parrot the wisdom of their homeland bourgeoisie. And it is noteworthy that the same arguments, the same “technique” function in all the belligerent countries. There is but one thing left for the bourgeois and social-chauvinistic writers to do: in place of the name of one fatherland, to put the name of another, e.g., Germany in place of Russia, and their goal is attained.

Some Concluding Remarks

The stage of the military armament of a given country may serve as one of the important factors for an objective estimation of which side is the aggressor from the diplomatic standpoint and which side the defender. Tell me who is better prepared militarily for the war, and I will tell you who it is that wanted the war at the given moment, who brought it about! Naturally, it may happen that this or that government has overrated its war preparedness, or that it is compelled, in spite of insufficient armament, to begin the war – for example, for reasons of domestic policy, etc. But all other conditions being equal, the thesis just put forward is absolutely applicable.

Back in the earliest days, there were great disputes over the question of which side was the aggressor and which the defender. Most decisive is the outcome of the war itself, victory or defeat in the war. History usually characterizes as the aggressor the one who has triumphed. The war of the Huns against the Visigoths in the 70s of the Fourth century may serve as a classic example from early times. Most historians agree that in 373 the Visigoths attacked. The Huns, however, are known in history as “Huns” because they proved to be the stronger in the course of the war.

Book after book has been written on the diplomatic history of the war of 1914-1916. The social-chauvinists respect dates and the contents of the dispatches of this or that diplomat on the eve of the war as exhaustive arguments. We are less interested in the question. The contents of the White, Yellow, Gray and other books, which contain fragments of the diplomatic negotiations, have of course a great significance for the appraisal of the system of modern diplomacy. But a serious importance for judging the character of the war of 1914-1916 and for establishing the socialist tactic in this war, is not contained in them. It is very likely that public opinion will consider that side the aggressor which carries off the final victory.

Such a judgment would not be an absolutely arbitrary one. Both belligerent sides would like to win; but the victory depends mainly upon the degree of military armament. The one that was better prepared militarily, has more objective prospects for winning, and all other conditions being equal, had more cause to undertake the war; and can therefore – again, all other conditions being equal – be considered as the directly aggressive side.

On the basis of her military armament, Prussia was able to undertake a war of aggression against France in 1870. Bismarck’s machinations lead Napoleon III to declare war first. But when it later appeared that France was not at all prepared militarily, whereas Prussia was excellently armed, down to the last button on her soldiers’ coats – this was the best objective proof that Prussia, at that moment, had wanted the war.

The degree of military armament still has the same importance today. At the beginning of the war of 1914. Germany was again best prepared for the war; and once more this gives one the right to think that at that moment Germany wanted the war.

But this has absolutely no importance for the position of the working class towards the wars of our epoch in general, and towards the war of 1914 in particular.

We have seen that even in the epoch of the national wars, the question of who attacked first was not decisive for democracy. In our present epoch, however, defensive wars in the old sense of the word have become altogether impossible.

Twenty-five years ago, Wilhelm Liebknecht, who had the epoch of the national wars in mind, spoke of a “just” war, one in which he admitted the participation of the social democrats. A quarter of a century later, Plekhanov digs up these words in order to be able to say: That’s right, we too are for a “just” war.

By referring to Liebknecht’s words about a “just” war, Plekhanov facilitates a rectification of his false contention. For in reality, what does Plekhanov’s juggling with the criterion of defensive war consist of? Of this, that he mixes up two epochs – the epochs of the national wars and the epoch of the imperialist wars.

Can “just” wars in general still take place in the imperialist epoch?

Yes, but only in two cases. The first case would be the war of a proletariat which has triumphed in some country, and which defends socialism against other states which represent the capitalist regime. The second – a war of China, India or similar countries which are oppressed by the imperialism of other lands and are fighting for their independence against these imperialist Powers.

The replacement of one epoch by the other appears most crassly in Italy. In 1859, we saw there a typically national war. In 1859 it was a question of the emancipation of Italy from the Austrian yoke, of Italian unification, in which the whole people, the whole of democracy, was interested. Austria was the oppressor, Italy the oppressed.

In 1859, shortly before the war, we see a man like N.A. Dobrolyubov stigmatize Austria by having her say the following words:

We, your Masters, are inexpressibly outraged
That you rebel-folk disturb us with your rising! ...
What? For forty years, without once giving way,
We shielded all the world from your blunders! ...
Upon you we lavished all that we possessed:
Spies, new hangmen, garrisons and jails.
E’en our speech, our customs, the law and the tribunal –
And what is your thanks for Austria’s faithful aid?
For shame! What would you that we grant you more?
Why can we not, as heretofore, in noblest concord live?
Or mayhap our soldiers there are still too few for you?
Or else maybe the police we have you think is ill-advised ?
Why, swiftly do we move! The remedy is instant,
A regiment we’ll gladly quarter in every town and hamlet ...

And now? Now things look quite different. Now Italy fights against Turkey for Tripoli, against Austria for Albania, Dalmatia, Istria. Can one still speak today of a just defensive war of Italy?

A just war between imperialist governments is impossible, just as impossible as a “just” struggle between several thieves for the division of their loot. Every warexcept for the two cases namedis, in our time, an absolutely “dishonorable” war.

Nor can it be otherwise, so long as we apply a terminology suited for one epoch to one that is entirely different. There can now be no “just” wars between the Great European Powers which pursue imperialist policy. The Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente were the two important Power groupings, decisive for all of European policy. And these two groupings arose, lived and acted under the sign of imperialism, where, as Kautsky rightly observes, one plays the aggressor today, the other tomorrow, and then back again.

If those socialists who till now considered the criterion of defensive war correct could learn from history, they would have to say now: “Up to now we held to this criterion and – we now experience the collapse of the Second International, an unheard-of, unprecedented disgrace. Anything but the repetition of August 4, 1914! Anything but the repetition of this shame, in which, by applying the criterion of defensive war, we become traitors to the proletariat, agents of the bourgeoisie!”

And whatever the fate of the Workers’ International may be – one thing can be said today with assurance: the theory of defensive war must be buried for all honest socialists. The experience of 1914 has buried it.

Can there be a more convincing, a more grewsome lesson than the one given by the war of 1914-1916? A theory which lead to the collapse of the International during such events can no longer be defended.

Where have the “defense of the Fatherland” and the theory of defensive war lead us? To the policy of August 4, to the Südekums of all countries, to complete collapse! During the war, so long as the passions still rage, one can, if he is stubborn, continue to adhere to the criterion of the defensive war: “We are defending ourselves, we are in the right!” But once the war ends, and one is forced to draw the balance, everyone who thinks honestly will have to give up this criterion.

Could one speak, in the “just” national wars of the earlier epoch, of the struggle of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat, which put the socialist overturn on the order of the day? No, there could be no question of that. For the conditions were not yet ripe for socialism, the proletariat had not yet gathered itself together, everywhere, as a class. In the imperialist wars, however, the struggle against the labor movement is one of the main tasks of the

To characterize an imperialist war as “just” is possible only for an agent of the bourgeoisie. Now, however, this is, unfortunately, done also by such people as call themselves socialists.

“We are conducting a just war!” cry Südekum and – Hindenburg. “No, it is we who are conducting the just war,” answer Plekhanov and Thomas ...

The criterion of defensive war has long ago become obsolete. If it had not happened long before the war of 1914, this war would have buried it. What has this war showed ? Who appealed to the criterion of defensive war ? Everyone and no one. Everyone – for to justify their piratical policy, the imperialists of every country seized upon it, the diplomats and governments of all the peoples, the deceivers of the European press, regardless of their language. No one – for no one really took the criterion seriously.

And then the International! Could the criterion of defensive war save it from collapse? All the parties, including the official social-chauvinistic ones, assure us that they are holding strictly to the criterion of defensive war. Germans, Frenchmen, Italians – all contend that they are observing the principle of defensive war. Who among them is right? Everyone and no one. For the principle, in and by itself, is no longer valid. For the proletariat, however, it has now lead to the collapse of the Second International.

There was a time when even Plekhanov knew that the abstract criterion of defensive war is not worth much. In August 1905 he wrote:

Just as dogmatic is the viewpoint that we socialists may sympathize only with “defensive wars”. Such a viewpoint is correct only from the standpoint of the conservative suum cuique. The international proletariat which consistently defends its standpoint, must be in sympathy with every war which – regardless whether it is a war of defense or aggression – can remove an important obstacle on the road of the socialist revolution. [4]

Plekhanov’s terminology is not very clear. He makes no distinction between the defensive war in historical respects and the defensive war in diplomatic respects. In any case, however, he perceives that the theory of defensive war is inadequate and false. Defensive or aggressive war, it makes no difference, says Plekhanov. Only a dogmatist can think that “defense” or “attack” is decisive for us. For us socialists the problem is somewhat different. Decisive for us are the interests of the social revolution.

The class struggle assumes an acute revolutionary character, it overturns the old conceptions handed down by earlier generations ; and moreover where the oppressed class convinces itself that its interests are identical with the interests of the oppressed classes of other countries, but are opposed to the interests of the ruling classes of its own country, the concept of the Fatherland loses in large measure its former allure. (Plekhanov)

For decades the Marxists labored to deprive the bourgeois idea of the Fatherland of its attractive power, they repeatedly showed the workers how similar in form was the position of the oppressed classes in the various Fatherlands. But now, when the first imperialist war has begun, when the imperialists utilize the idea of the Fatherland in order to dupe the workers of all countries – now the former Marxist Plekhanov also glorifies the idea of the Fatherland! What an enormous turn-about-face! From Marx and Engels to Heine and Südekum – that is the path trod by the former Marxists who now render homage to social-chauvinism.

Frederick the Great once said that when monarchs wanted war, they began it and then commissioned some zealous jurist to prove that right is on their side.

When we see how the Plekhanovs and Südekums of all countries are acting now, the expression of Frederick the Great can be modified in the following way: When the imperialists want a war, they begin it and then commission a zealous social-chauvinist to prove that right is on their side.

Aug. 4, 1916



1. For details, see, e.g., Dr. Herm. v. Staden, Indien im Weltkrieg, Stuttgart 1915.

2. W. Morgan Schuster, ex-Treasurer-General of Persia, The Strangling of Persia, A Record of European Diplomacy and Oriental Intrigue, London and Leipzig 1912.

3. La Voix de l’Humanité, No.58, 1916. Prominent politicians of France, England and other countries contribute to the editing of this periodical.

4. See Social-Democratic Diary, No.2. Patriotism and Socialism.

Last updated: 17.6.2008