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World War I

H. Allen & R. Stone

World War I in Retrospect – II

The Period of “National Unity”

(July 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 6, July 1942, pp. 179–182.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

[In the first section of this article, published in the June number of The New International, we described the French labor movement in the period preceding World War I. The apparent strength of the labor movement and the mass opposition to the impending war were contrasted with the impotence of the French CGT and the Socialist Parties of the Second International. In this second section of the article, the false theories of the trade union and socialist leadership are proved by their utter helplessness and betrayal in the face of the catastrophic events of the imperialist slaughter.]

Then came the assassination and the Austro-Serbian break. The juggernaut was beginning to roll. Again Jean Jaurès, hoping to prevent war, rushed to the French government to receive assurances of peace – which were duly proffered, as before.

An emergency session [1] of the International Socialist Bureau was quickly convened at Brussels which was attended by Morgari (Italy); Hardie (England); Roubanovitch (Bulgaria); Vandervelde (Belgium); Troelstra (Holland); Haase and Rosa Luxembourg (Germany) as well as Jaurès (France). Jaurès declares: “It is our duty to insist that our government speak with force to Russia so that she abstains.”

Therefore, Jaurès rushes back to the French government, only to find that he has been deceived; that the war is really on and that the bourgeoisie intends to pursue its course to the end. Jaurès still stoutly maintains that the socialists will continue to campaign against the war and its further extension. The French Under Secretary of State, knowing that the die is cast, insolently tells Jaurès: “You do not dare; you will be killed at the next street corner.”

Prophetic words. The next day, July 31, 1914, Jaurès is assassinated. Thus ends a period. Of the sincere Jaurès it has been said that he was killed by his enemies and betrayed by his own party. With his death and that of the great German revolutionary leader, Bebel, Trotsky has said: “Their deaths marked the line where the progressive historical mission of the Second International ended.”

Two days later, August 2, just two days before the fateful August 4, Mueller, the representative of the German Social-Democracy, arrives in Paris. But, as he advises the French comrades, he is only on a visit for information! He has no authority to help formulate decisions, actions or policies on behalf of the German Social-Democracy. All communications were cut. Each Socialist Party, therefore, reserves the right of freedom of action. From his subsequent report back to the Germans one receives the impression that the French socialists would proceed to vote the war credits in the French Chamber as demanded by the French government.

Events Move Rapidly

What has been the rôle of the French CGT during these eventful days? On Monday, July 27, the CGT calls for a demonstration in Paris, to take place on the following Thursday.

But the masses are impatient to demonstrate their opposition to war. So, on that same Monday night, a demonstration of tens of thousands mills in the streets. Despite extreme violence and brutality on the part of the police, the demonstration goes on. It is not possible to stop or break it up. The syndicalist press comments on the “mobilization of the police and government against the workers.” Their press further asserts: “War is impossible because the people will not permit it.”

But feeling continues to mount. Patriotic pressure and hysteria are on the increase. Innumerable street fights break out between the nationalists and the socialists.

Because the feeling is so high and rises steadily, the CGT’s call for a demonstration is advanced one day, to Wednesday. But the government proscribes the gathering. Police are given orders to oppose with all necessary brutality the holding of any meetings in the vicinity. The neighboring transportation stations are all closed early in the evening. Arrests are made of anyone attempting to go to the meeting place. Nevertheless, many little meetings are held.

The CGT then issues a manifesto: “Down with War! War is no solution.” But the manifesto also says that the French people will cooperate with the governments who work for peace; and further says that Austria bears the guilt for the break and the consequence of war.

The CGT manifesto further calls upon the proletarians of all lands to unite for peace, but it puts the main emphasis on the democratic right to demonstrate in favor of peace. Thus, when a policy of offensive action is required, the CGT, on the defensive, puts its main emphasis on its democratic rights or civil liberties.

While the CGT is calling and proposing to demonstrate for peace, the outstanding exponent of peace in France, Jean Jaurès, is assassinated. Yet even after the assassination, Leon Jouhaux, head of the CGT, says: “The hour is grave, but not desperate. The cause of peace still has numerous partisans in the world.”

Following this, the CGT and the Socialist Party decide to call a joint international demonstration against war on August 9.

However, developments are now too fast to permit of proposals for anti-war action a week off. Nationalist and governmental pressure for war becomes greatly accentuated. Nationalism, chauvinism and social-patriotism swiftly overcome the officialdom of the CGT and the French SP. The capitulation to the “Union Sacrée,” to national defense and national unity is rapid and complete. “The fact of war, unbelievable as it is, must be admitted.” The fighter against war, Jaurès, lies on his bier. The call is issued for a peaceful demonstration at Jaurès’ funeral. Thus, the officialdom tries to cool the temper of the mass, who want a real struggle against the war itself.

Then: “It is not the German people we hate, but German militarism,” declares Leon Jouhaux. “It is not the German people we hate, but German Nazism,” (Green, Murray, Hillman, et al. in supporting the imperialist war of today). Official syndicalism, represented by the president of the Confédération Generale, Jouhaux, fades away in twenty-four hours. “He denied the state in peacetime, only to kneel before it in time of war,” said Trotsky.

By August 14, Jouhaux is calling upon the French workers to profit by the blockading of Germany to build up French imports and exports; but still he says: “This is not a war of conquest; it is a war of defense and liberation.”

Jouhaux “Explains” His Betrayal

Syndicalist Jouhaux follows in the footsteps of another betrayer of labor, ex-syndicalist and now war Premier, Briand. [2] Like the strike-breaker Briand, Jouhaux, too, offered his “explanations” for his betrayal of labor. These explanations in essence were:

  1. If the German unions had followed the same action as the French syndicalists in trying to force the hand of the Kaiser, the war would not have occurred. Farthest from Jouhaux’s mind was the necessity for the labor leaders and ranks to put offensive pressure on their own government at home to take serious measures to maintain peace.
  2. Karl Legien, German secretary of the International Secretariat, had made no reply to Jouhaux’s proposal for joint action at the Brussels meeting. In other words, thinks Jouhaux, a betrayal by Legien justifies a betrayal by Jouhaux.
  3. The German social democrats had voted war credits. [3]

A Ministry of National Defense is set up in France. Jules Guesde [4] and M. Sembat, socialist leaders, enter the cabinet. This is only August 26, three weeks after Austria’s attack on Serbia.

The repercussions elsewhere were swift. Emigrés from Russia, such as the outstanding Marxists, Plekhanoff, Axelrod and Deutsch, and the anarchist, Peter Kropotkin, turned social-patriotic at once, declaring support of the war and, of course, for Czar and Fatherland; as the German social-democrats were for the Kaiser and the Vaterland; the French socialists for France and the Bourse; the British Laborites for God Save the King and Country, not to mention The City and the British Empire.

But fourteen social-democrats, to their revolutionary honor, walked out of the Russian Duma and refused to vote support of the war. And in Serbia, the unwilling victim and incident for setting Europe on fire, a united Opposition stood out against the war.

In France, the CGT proceeds to print the same false news about Germany as the capitalist press: “Germany is famine-stricken”; “Germany is powerless militarily,” and so on.

Indeed, the CGT press becomes even more docile than the capitalist press. Endeavoring to prove that national unity exists, it ignores the dissension within its own ranks. It fails to report Jouhaux’s functioning in the Committee for National Aid, apparently realizing that large numbers of its ranks would not rejoice that their labor leader performs anti-labor deeds. The CGT press fails to publish Pierre Monatte’s [5] letter of resignation.

Worse yet, from the standpoint of proletarian honor and dignity, the CGT press mutilates the letter of Rosa Luxemburg to the English socialists in which she analyzes the causes of the war and the failure of the international socialist movement to measure up to its duties and responsibilities in the war crisis. The CGT press printed only sections of her document, and then in such a way as to make it appear that all the blame for the collapse of the Second International lay on the German social-democracy.

S-D Cowers on Its Belly

It goes without saying that one should not minimize the shocking betrayal of the German social-democracy. Revolutionists, such as Leon Trotsky, had no illusions about and were far from idealizing German social-democracy. They did not expect revolutionary initiative and drive from the Second International leadership. Yet the capitulation of the German social-democracy hit hard. Trotsky states in My Life that he “could not even admit the idea that the social-democracy would simply cower on its belly before a nationalist militarism.” And the far-seeing and critical Lenin at first refused to believe the report of the Reichstag meeting of August 4 (in which the social-democrats voted for war credits) and suspected that the Vorwärts containing the report was a fake issue published by the German general staff.

The Austrian social-democracy likewise surrendered its principles without a struggle. Some of the leading circles, really nationalists with but the thinnest veneer of socialist culture and ideology, were actually pleased with the war. The Adlers, Victor, the elder, and Friedrich, the son, had greater realization of the effects of the war, although they were confused in their analysis. As a protest against the war, Friedrich Adler shot Count Stuergkh, the Austro-Hungarian Premier, an act of futility and despair, politically opportunistic and potentially dangerous. Marxists have long understood that individual terrorism is not only futile, but generally furnishes the excuse for an attack on labor in the name of law and order.

Illusions prevailed in socialist circles that the war would be it short one. They proceeded on the assumption that it was impossible for the bourgeoisie of the various countries to utilize their resources indefinitely, and in addition a long war increased the danger of social revolution to the bourgeoisie. Life has since taught us all that imperialist war and devastation can go on for years, with the primary destruction wreaked in agony, misery, hunger and death on the common people – until such time as the masses themselves consciously consider what to do about war or peace; and find the solution in peace through the social, the proletarian revolution.

Before proceeding to the beginning of disillusionment with the war within the ranks of the labor and socialist movements in Europe, comment is in place concerning the essential attitude of these movements toward war and the social order.

Illusions in German S-D Concepts of Power

The right wing of the socialist movement, it is clear, had early arrived at a reformist, parliamentary conception of the development of the working class and the objective of a socialist society. The German social-democracy is the best example of this. The substantial social and economic reforms achieved through parliamentary means only confirmed the greater part of the SD leadership in its long-accepted revisionist and evolutionary theory of social change through evolution. Their fundamental ideas unquestionably penetrated the mass of the ranks of the social-democracy and the German labor movement. The essence of this outlook, as indicated before, was that the capitalist state would evolve peacefully into the socialist people’s state. In time, this basic outlook of the social democracy on the development of the existing social order into the socialist society grew into the illusion that their substantial and growing parliamentary strength would prove sufficient even to prevent German capitalism from venturing into actual imperialist war. Equally false and reactionary in its consequences was the fact that the achievement of substantial reforms over a period of years caused the social-democratic leadership more and more to regard Germany as the first international foundation for a socialist order. From this developed finally the “defense of the Fatherland” and justification thereof for allegedly socialist reasons. The right wing never did accept the ideas and practice of revolutionary socialism, and thus their betrayal was perfectly consistent with their ideology. But the working class cannot be concerned with such abstract consistency. “By their deeds shall ye know them.” History correctly pillories the German social-democracy as traitors to the working class at the time of the greatest crisis for the working class movement – that is, war.

The centrist view was best represented by Marxists such as Karl Kautsky, theoretician of the German SD and in fact accepted internationally as the inheritor of the ideological legacy of Marx and Engels. Kautsky gradually passed from an international revolutionary position on the nature of capitalism and the road to power by the working class to a centrist and in time even entirely revisionist theory on many important questions. Kautsky’s authority carried enormous weight among all sections of the international socialist movement Leaders looked to him for leadership.

As late as 1912 [6], only two years before the outbreak of the First World War, Kautsky approached very closely to the Bolshevik position on the decisive questions of the working class movement. But his position swiftly unfolded thereafter, from a centrist adaptation to the war to vitriolic opposition to revolutionary ideas and practice, as exemplified by the Bolshevik Revolution. He who had defended Marxism in his polemics with Eduard Bernstein became finally the driveling apologist for the rotten deeds of imperialism. He avowed that capitalism was decaying steadily. Therefore, the working class should develop staying power and, by peaceful political experience, would steadily develop its strength and powers. Capitalism would wear itself out in the process. Thus Kautsky’s views only helped to inculcate a pacificist and passive outlook among the workers.

“National Socialism” Yesterday and Today

Of more than passing interest, indeed of crucial significance TODAY, is Trotsky’s explanation of the conception of national socialism, or the theory of socialism in one country, which motivated and dominated the outlook of the German social-democracy and the French Socialist Party – the leading socialist movements on the continent. This theory could only lead in practice to adaptation, capitulation and betrayal (whether consciously or not is here unimportant) of the proletariat to the Mammon of imperialist war. Instead of the battle of Armageddon, the Second International delivered the European masses to Gethsemane.

Moreover, it is not digression but supplementation and necessary conclusion, to show by analogy the even more terrible rôle which has been performed by Stalinism in peace and war during the past fifteen years in Russia, China, Germany and indeed internationally Here it is not necessary to do more than to suggest to the reader a substitution of certain terms in order to draw the significant and decisive lessons that the working class and revolutionary movement must learn for today and for tomorrow’s struggles: The suggested substitutions are placed in brackets in the text. [7] Here is to be seen by all who will look the living example today of confusing and betraying the working class, accentuated a thousandfold in the false theory and criminal practices of Stalinism.

“To approach the prospects of a social revolution within national boundaries is to fall victim to the same national narrowness which constitutes the substance of social patriotism. Vaillant to his dying day considered France [USSR] the promised land of social revolution; and it is precisely from this standpoint that he stood for national defense to the end. Lensch and Co. (some hypocritically and others sincerely) considered that Germany’s [USSR] defeat means first of all the destruction of the social revolution ... In general it should not be forgotten that in social patriotism there is, alongside of the most vulgar reformism, a national revolutionary Messianism which deems that its own national state, whether because of its ‘democratic’ form and revolutionary conquests [October], is called upon to lead humanity toward socialism or toward ‘democracy.’ If the victorious revolution were really conceivable within the boundaries of a single more developed nation, this Messianism together with the program of national defense would have some relative historical justification. But as a matter of fact this is inconceivable. To fight for the preservation of a national basis of revolution by such methods as undermine the revolution itself, which can begin on a national basis but which cannot be completed on that basis under the present economic, military and political interdependence of the European states, was never before revealed so forcefully as during the present war.

“The patriotism of the German Social Democrats [Stalinists] began as a legitimate patriotism to their own party, the most powerful party of the Second International [Third International]. On the basis of the highly developed German technology [collectivised economy] and the superior organizational qualities of the German people, the social democracy [Stalinists] prepared to build its “own” socialist society. If we leave aside the hardened bureaucrats, careerists or parliamentary sharpers, and political crooks in general, the social patriotism of the rank and file social democrats [Stalinists] was derived precisely from the belief in building German socialism [Russian socialism]. It is impossible to think that hundreds of rank and file social democrats (let alone the millions of rank and file workers) wanted to defend the Hohenzollerns or the bourgeoisie [Stalinist bureaucracy]. They wanted to protect German industry, the German railways and highways, German technology and culture, and especially the organizations of the German working class, as the ‘necessary and sufficient’ national prerequisites for socialism.

“A similar process also took place in France. Guesde, Vaillant and thousands of the best rank and file party members with them, and hundreds of thousands of ordinary workers, believed that precisely France [Russia] with her revolutionary traditions [October], her heroic proletariat, her highly cultured, flexible and talented people, was the promised land of socialism. Old Guesde and the Communard Vaillant, and with them hundreds of thousands of sincere workers did not fight to protect the bankers or the rentiers [Stalinist bureaucracy]. They sincerely believed that they were defending the soil and the creative power of the future socialist society. They proceeded entirely from the theory of socialism in one country, and in the name of this idea they sacrificed international solidarity, believing this sacrifice to be ‘temporary.’”

[To Be Continued]

[In the third and final section of this article, we deal with the revival of the working class movement in Europe, after its betrayal by the social-patriots. The international labor movement begins to recover its militancy and solidarity slowly but surely as Lenin’s call to struggle begins to be heard. The Russian Revolution approaches, demonstrating conclusively that the socialist solution is the only solution to the imperialist war.]


1. This was to prove the last International link between the Second International socialists for the duration of the war.

2. Aristide Briand, syndicalist leader, aided the government and French bourgeoisie to break the strike of the railroad workers in 1910 by nationalizing the railroads and then declaring that it was “illegal” to strike against the government. Briand’s progress in capitalist politics thereafter was rapid, culminating in the war premiership in October 1915.

3. The German social-democratic Reichstag fraction voted 78 to 14 in their fraction meeting for war credits to the Kaiser-Junker war, and in the Reichstag utilized the unit rule to have all the social democrats vote the credits. Haase, who turned out to be an Independent social democrat, or centrist, had voted against war credits in the fraction meeting but was the spokesman for the majority social democrats in voting war credits in the Reichstag. Liebknecht, also an opponent of the war, voting against war credits in the fraction meeting, obeyed party discipline in the Reichstag for the last important time. Later he became a leader of the Spartacus or revolutionary socialist group.

4. Jules Guesde, Marxist leader of the French SP, “who had exhausted himself in a long and trying struggle against the fetishes of democracy, proved to be capable only of laying down his untarnished moral authority on the altar of ‘national defense.’” (L. Trotsky)

5. Militant and revolutionary leader in the CGT. Comment on Monatte letter below.

6. See the brochure, The Road to Power, by Karl Kautsky.

7. The Third International After Lenin, pp. 68 to 71. Emphasis ours.

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