Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2

II: Marxists and Military Thinking

Before we move on to our case studies of mutiny and dissent in various places and at various times, it is useful to consider Marxist analyses of military questions more generally. We are delighted to publish the following article by Ian Birchall. Through its study of a minor character, Kersausie, who flits through reports on the uprising in the pages of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in July 1848, Ian Birchall broaches questions of historical method, as well as shedding light on Friedrich Engels as a military thinker. Socialists have written much about the necessary connections between capitalism and war. In the writings of Marx and Engels, war and military technique provide a point of fascination: through analysis of military conquest, Marx and Engels gauge political and economic progress and reaction. As materialists they were not squeamish about the rôle of violence and force in history. Engels, known to his friends as ‘the General’, wrote extensively on military matters and the military aspects of insurrection. As a young man, Engels had undertaken military training. In 1841, keen to be in Berlin and in contact with the Young Hegelians, he volunteered for the Berlin-based Brigade of Artillery, so that he could simultaneously complete a final year of military service and participate in the intellectual life of the capital. Though lacking the formal requirements, he attended lectures at the university, and made contact with the Young Hegelian circle of The Free, formerly the Doctors’ Club, where Karl Marx was also to be found.

In subsequent years, Engels put his military training to practical use, taking an active part in the armed popular uprising against the Prussian armies in Elberfeld, close to his home town of Barmen, and later in Baden and the Palatinate. When the revolt was defeated, he escaped across the border to Switzerland, and then joined Marx in London. In the subsequent years, he would analyse contemporary military affairs and historical questions of force and violence in history. Gilbert Achcar informs us that Engels’ articles on the European uprisings were so good, that Wilhelm Liebknecht later reported that the pieces on Hungary were ‘attributed to a high-ranking officer in the Hungarian army’, just as, 10 years later, Engels’ pamphlets published unsigned in Berlin, The Po and the Rhine (1859) and Savoy, Nice and the Rhine (1860), were to be attributed to some Prussian general who was anxious to preserve his anonymity. Many of Engels’ articles on military affairs from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung are in Volume 9 of Marx and Engels, Collected Works (Progress, Moscow). Volume 13, Marx and Engels, 1854–55, also contains many key articles.

See also W.H. Chaloner and W.O. Henderson (eds.), Engels as a Military Critic, Manchester University Press, Manchester 1959 (articles by Engels reprinted from the Volunteer Journal and the Manchester Guardian of the 1860s, with an introduction by Chaloner and Henderson), reviewed by Brian Pearce, Labour Review, Volume 5, no. 3, October/November 1960, p. 99.

Studies of Engels’ military thought include Paul Morris, “The General” on War and Insurrection, Workers Power, June 1995; Michel Lequenne, Chroniques politico-militaire du Marx et Engels (a review of Volume 1 of their military writings), Quatrième Internationale, no. 49, May 1971, pp.54–7; Gilbert Achcar, Engels: Theorist of War, Theorist of Revolution, International Socialism, no. 83, Winter 2001; Leon Trotsky, Engels’ War Articles, 19 May 1924, How The Revolution Armed: Military Writings and Speeches, Volume 5, London 1981; Wilhelm Liebknecht, Reminiscences of Engels (1897), in W.A. Pelz (ed.), Wilhelm Liebknecht and German Social Democracy, Greenwood Press, Westport 1994, pp. 140–2; Martin Berger, Engels, Armies and Revolution, Archon Books, Hamden, 1977.

The second article in this section is Karl Radek’s article, Marxism and the Questions of War, translated here by Esther Leslie from Volume 1 of Radek’s collected works, entitled In den Reihen der Deutschen Revolution, 1909–1919, Kurt Wolff, Munich 1921. This was written for the journal Lichtstrahlen. We publish it here because it conveys something of the theoretical shock and confusion that befell Social Democracy upon the outbreak of world war in 1914. The development of an anti-war movement was the task of the very few twentieth century socialists who expressed opposition at the outbreak of the nationalistic bloodfests in 1914. Karl Radek was one of those isolated socialist voices, writing journal articles in 1914 such as Marxism and the Problems of War and Why Should We Bleed?, to which the resounding answer is ‘for capitalist interests’. He stated that socialist opposition to this warmongering is a response to a number of changes: the objectively reactionary rôle of the bourgeoisie, once it has secured its political and economic victory and is now in imperialist pursuit of worldwide profits; the changing technological modes of warfare (which multiply the victims of the slaughter, and shift the horror from the battlezone into civilian arenas); and the new mass mobilisation of men into conscripted armies. Modern total war exhausts great resources of energy, technology and human life. In My Life, Trotsky pinpoints the contradictions of the capitalist push to war: ‘It was as if a man, to prove that his pipes for breathing and swallowing were in order, had begun to cut his throat with a razor in front of a mirror.’

Karl Radek (Sobelsohn, 1885–1939?) was born in Lvov (Lemberg). He participated in the 1905 Revolution in Warsaw as a member of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, and was a member of the RSDLP from its foundation. He took an anti-war stand during the First World War, living in exile in Switzerland. He became a Bolshevik in 1917, and, in 1923, a member of the Left Opposition. He was expelled from the party in 1927, re-entered after ‘recanting’ in 1930, but was again expelled in 1936. He confessed to the charge of treason in the Second Moscow Trial, and is believed to have died while in prison. Victor Serge described Radek as ‘a sparkling writer … thin, rather small, nervous, full of anecdotes which often had a savage side to them … just like an old-time pirate.’

Biographies of Radek include Warren Lerner, Karl Radek: The Last Internationalist, Stanford University Press, Stanford 1970, and Jim Tuck, Engine of Mischief: An Analytical Biography of Karl Radek, Greenwood, Westport 1988. Materials relating to Radek’s trial include The Moscow Trial, January 1937 (a summary of the proceedings in the trial of Yu.L. Pyatakov, K.B. Radek and others) plus two speeches by Stalin, compiled by W.P. Coates and Z.K. Coates, London 1937; D. Collard, Soviet Justice and the Trial of Radek and Others (appendix: verbatim report of Radek’s evidence), Victor Gollancz, London 1937. The German author Stefan Heym wrote a novel about Radek’s life in 1995, entitled Radek: The Conscience of a Revolutionary, Fischer, Frankfurt 1999.

Lichtstrahlen (Rays of Light) was published in Berlin and was edited by Julian Borchardt, a leader of the International Socialists of Germany. Born in Bromberg, Prussia in 1868, he died in Berlin in 1932. Borchardt was the author of a widely translated digest of Das Kapital. He edited Lichtstrahlen during 1913–16 and 1918–21. The journal was banned in 1916 and re-emerged as Der Leuchturm (The Lighthouse), but appeared once more as Lichtstrahlen from November 1918. The journal gave a platform to German and international anti-war oppositionists. The Lichtstrahlen-Gruppe was staunchly anti-militarist and was opposed to party-truce politics and the approval of war credits in August 1914. Borchardt never joined the Communist Party, for he believed in decentralised forms of political organisation, attempting to make links with the anarchists in Berlin in November 1914. Trotsky mentioned the group around the journal Lichtstrahlen in 1915:

In the delegation representing the left section of official German Social Democracy, there was in turn its own left wing. In Germany, two publications gave ideological expression to these tendencies: Julius Borchardt’s little propagandist bulletin Lichtstrahlen, which was formally very uncompromising but in effect very restrained and had little political influence, and Die Internationale, the organ of Luxemburg and Mehring, which in fact was not an organ but one issue in all, militant and lucid, after which the journal was closed down. Around the Internationale Group were such influential elements of the German Left as Liebknecht and Zetkin. No less than three delegates were supporters of the Luxemburg–Mehring group. One supported Lichtstrahlen. Out of the remaining delegates, two Reichstag deputies were by and large backers of Ledebour, two others possessed no definite physiognomy. Hoffmann, as we have said, is an ‘extreme’ left but he is a man of the old cast, and the younger generation of Lefts are seeking new paths. (L.D. Trotsky, Political Profiles, Ledebour and Hoffmann, Kievskaya Mysl, no. 296, 25 October 1915)

Ian Birchall, The Enigma of Kersausie: Engels in June 1848

Karl Radek, Marxism and the Problems of War

Updated by ETOL: 16.10.2011