The Socialists and the Great War

By William English Walling

[The Independent, August 24, 1914]

Ever since the Great War began there, has been almost no reference in any of the dispatches as to the part the Socialists and workingmen of Europe are playing in the situation. This is most surprizing, for the workingmen are the one class of citizens in all nations who are persistently and consistently the bitterest in their opposition to war. Accordingly we have asked Mr. Walling to explain to our readers the present attitude of the Socialists. No writer of the United States is more competent to discuss this question than he, as for years he has been a thoro student of the subject as his numerous magazine articles and books attest. His volumes, "Socialism as It Is" and "The Larger Aspects of Socialism" are standard works of their kind.—THE EDITOR.

If we get down to actualities, the Socialist parties of the countries involved have done nothing whatever to stop the war. After all these years of anti-war talk they inaugurated no general or partial strike, interfered in no organized or effective way with military discipline and did not delay the mobilization a single hour.

Italy, possibly, is an exception. She is not in the war, but it is probable, as many of the dispatches state that the threat of a general strike and insurrection by her Socialists—both reformers and revolutionists—by her labor unions, by her Republicans, and other radical and democratic elements, carried the day. Two great forces, however, were at work in the same direction—the anti-Austrian, ultra patriots (deadly enemies of the Socialists) and the accident of a general strike in June, which involved nearly 2,000,000 strikers, caused twenty deaths, brought barricades and revolts in many places, and as an aftermath brought no less than 6000 strikers before the courts—so that another general strike was being seriously considered as a protest against such reprisals, when the war broke out. It must be admitted, however, that the general strike of June was in reality anti-military, being a protest against the effects of the Tripoli war.

It will only take a moment's reflection to see that—after the German invasion of Belgium—the Socialists of Belgium, France, and Great Britain are also in an exceptional position. The Socialists of France had voted in favor of an international general strike in case of war as late as the fifteenth of July and the majority of those of Belgium and Great Britain also favored the well known Keir-Hardie and Vaillant resolution which was to have been decided this month at the proposed international Socialist Congress. French and British parties alike took the stand, most desired by Germany, that Russia—by mobilizing—was the aggressor in the war.

On the invasion of Belgium—which was admitted to have been a wrong, even by Bethmann-Hollweg—all was changed in a day. The international congresses have been unanimous in declaring for the rights of the smaller nations. The majority (led by Bebel) has always favored the defense of every country against the invader—-and the congresses have been unanimous again in declaring that such resistance ought to be made where the aggressor was a markedly less democratic country—nearly all agreeing that the German government is far preferable to the Russian and the French to the German, Neither in Italy, Switzerland, the United States, nor anywhere in the world was a single Socialist voice raised in protest when the Belgian Socialists hurled themselves into the war to defend their country against this wanton invasion.

The record of the British Labor Party is not so clear. After the country was already at war it declared itself ready to fight—because the government had declared war. The day before the British declaration of war when Belgian workers had already decided to defend their country, and when Belgium had appealed to England for aid, the Laborites had been against war. The Daily Citizen declared that Continental conditions did not concern the British workers, while J. R. MacDonald denied in Parliament that Belgium was in danger—even after she was invaded. Compare this with the Daily Citizen's statement the next day, after the declaration of war:

Our horror at the origin of the war must-give way to an understanding of Great Britain's position. We' are at grips with a power which has set itself to a life-and-death struggle with this country. That is an outstanding fact which no argument can dispel, no regret can alter. While grave danger to our existence as a nation confronts us, all of us must stand together in defense of our motherland.

We must also make an exception of Russia. There is no doubt that the Czar's Government was an aggressor, nor that it is the worst of all governments. Every Russian Socialist will gladly admit both points. Nor can there be any doubt that Russian Socialists have done everything to overthrow their Government and will redouble their heroic sacrifices during the war. Every Russian Socialist leader has declared as much. But if there was any doubt it must have been removed by the recent general strike which involved 200,000 men in St. Petersburg and surely from the various reports no less than 500,000 in the country. After the twenty-first of July, when President Poincaré was visiting the capital, it turned into an imposing anti-war revolt. The Cossacks were instructed to use the knout in order that the reactionary representative of the $4,000,000,000 France has invested in Russian military railways and Cossacks might not get an idea of how the people loved the Government and its projects of war.

From riots the workers past on the 23rd to barricades in St. Petersburg, where they had never been before—not even in the giant revolt of 1905. On the 24th they held up trains in Finland, on the 25th they stopped the trains at many points between Moscow and St. Petersburg, many railroad workers struck, and large bodies of troops were ordered out to protect this all-important line. On the 26th (two days before the Austrian-Servian war) a state of siege was declared in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

Doubtless overwhelming military forces and the most bloody repression will have supprest this revolt at the beginning of the war. But who can doubt-—after the mutinies and disturbances of the Russian-Japanese war—that they will break out again at the first favorable moment, or that this moment will soon arrive? It is significant that the revolt was still going on in Warsaw on the day of the declaration of war—and of the Russian censorship—July 28. One of the largest magazines in Warsaw was blown up on that day. And, of course, the sharpest revolts may be expected in Finland, Poland, the Baltic Provinces and the Caucasus.

This leaves us only Austria and Germany to consider. What did their Socialists do to stop the invasions of Servia and Belgium by their governments? When it comes to overt action, as I have pointed out, none of the other parties was tested, so that we cannot say what they would have done had their governments been wholly in the wrong. But it is admitted that Austria was the aggressor against Servia, and Germany against Belgium, whatever the role played by Russia and France.

The Austrian and German parties were undoubtedly tested, and failed to do anything—beyond issuing proclamations against the war. But the real question remains: Were they unwilling to take the risk, or were they utterly powerless?

The Austrian situation need not detain us. No Socialist party is more strenuously opposed to militarism and nationalism. This is the very condition of the party's brilliant success in the past, and even of its existence in a country of many nationalities like, Austria. But the Austrian Socialists are both proportionately weaker than the German and are confronted by an even more autocratic government.

But how about Germany? The leading German Socialists have declared that they would fight in defense of Germany against an aggression of the Czarism. They have also declared that Germany could have no legitimate quarrel with England or France. And Kantsky has declared that Socialists should resist to the bitter end a world war involving all these powers. But few German leaders have so definitely outlined their position as to a world war. Then the party has been equally wavering as to the means to stop war. They have neglected the international general strike proposed by the Socialists of France and England as being utterly beyond the power of the Socialists to carry out in any of these countries—and they are doubtless right. They favored instead the rejection of military supplies by Parliament—a much wiser and more effective policy—and replied to the British Socialists by showing that they had voted in favor of budgets carrying military supplies.

But last year, 1913, after half a century of this policy the German party in Parliament voted the Government money specifically devoted to an increase of the German army by 40,000 men, and were sustained by two-thirds of the party congress—against the bitter and still continued opposition of the minority. After this all talk of the anti-militarism of the German party as a whole is monstrous pretense. The party had this one opportunity to act—the opportunity for which it Had claimed to be waiting for fifty years. The German party acted. And it acted in favor of militarism. It gave the Kaiser 40,000 additional troops with which to begin this war.

The lame defense was that the rich were to pay the new taxes. As if we could favor the increase of an army and military expenses merely because somebody else pays the money bill. The workers furnish the bulk of the 40,000 men and pay in blood.

The majority claimed the bill would have past without its support. But this was not admitted by the minority, who pointed out that this was the opportunity at least for resistance to militarism. The majority claimed that it had not voted that the new military expenditures should be made, but had merely voted the money to be specifically devoted to these expenditures (I have explained the whole situation at length elsewhere).

The very nature of the excuses shows they were mere pretexts—which is finally proved by the admission of two of the majority leaders before the Party Congress, admission quoted against them in Vorwärts' leading editorial, that the majority was influenced by the fact that to vote otherwise would mean that the Socialist delegation would be reduced from 110 to 40 (which would include the loss of their own seats). Because militarism is popular among the middle classes who hold the balance of political power—especially when the rich pay for it—the Socialists abandoned their principles and voted the money to increase the army! Thus at the time when their anti-militarism ought to have reached its highest point it absolutely failed. So that the German Socialist Party must take its full share of responsibility for this war.

The powerful minority, however, representing at least 400,000 party members, if not more (of the 1,150,000 members), did not cease their revolutionary agitation. Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg especially (now reported to have been shot by the Kaiser) were a host in themselves, and recently have won the most powerful Socialist body in the country, that of greater Berlin, to their standpoint.

The Reichstag elections, because of the unequal election districts which give one voter in Hohenzollern the same voice as ten voters of Berlin, are entirely controlled by middle class voters, who hold the balance of power in all but some fifty industrial districts, and a somewhat large number of rural districts in control of the Prussian nobility ancl the middle class are militarists. But the industrial masses, who furnish the soldiers, are not only anti-militarists, but are embittered against the officers to the last degree. There have been over 10,000 suicides, due largely to brutality, since the Franco-Prussian war. And when Rosa Luxemburg said that such brutality was an "everyday affair," and was prosecuted by the Government, she was able in a short time to produce over a thousand witnesses and her lawyers accumulated 32,000 cases of abuse.

At the same time Liebknecht has shown that many of the officers and officials are corrupt and that all the great armament firms, the chief source of corruption, were international in their ownership and operation—catering to Germany's chief enemy, Russia, and even subsidizing the anti-German press of Paris. Only a small part of the Geman revolutionary Socialists imagined that a general strike would be possible at the time of the declaration of war, but all hope to take advantage of the fact that the Government is at war, at first, to weaken, and later to overthrow it. In view of the fact that probably no less than a million of the Kaiser's soldiers hate their officers more than any foreign foe (to say nothing of the Poles, Alsatians and Danes in the army) a number of highly interesting developments may be expected:

1. Breaches in discipline. The reekless disregard of the soldiers' lives by the officers will often lead, as before Liege, to refusals to charge again. Discipline will be steadily undermined.

2. Single desertions and surrender by groups have already been reported in considerable numbers. Some captured soldiers in Belgium explained that they did not know they were fighting Belgium, others that they didn't know who they were fighting, others that they had been butchered or starved, others merely that they were Socialists and opposed to the war—all being excuses for surrender. Many declared they were not going back to Germany.

3. As night attacks are becoming frequent officers will be more and more frequently shot by their own soldiers. They may even be decimated in this way before the war is over, as happened in a number of Russian regiments, in the Japanese war.

Many embittered German Socialists, tortured and driven into the shambles against peaceable Belgians or French, will remember the advice that the recent Premier of France, Aristide Briand, in his Socialist days, gave to soldiers ordered to fire on strikers. "If the order to fire persists," said Briand, "if the obstinate officer still tries to coerce the will of the soldiers in spite of everything.… Oh, no doubt, the guns may go off, but perhaps not in the direction intended." This speech has been circulated by the hundred thousand in France and is not unknown in Germany.

4. With defeats and demoralization which will certainly occur here and there, if not all along the line, successful mutinies will become more and more frequent—as was happening at the close of the Russian-Japanese war.

5. And, finally, it is hoped that some section of the army will turn its guns against the home government. Even such a non-revolutionary Socialist as Wells expects this contingency. "I do not know," he says, "how long the swaggering Prussian officer will be able to drive his crowded men to massacre before they revolt against him. Nor do I know how far the inflated vanity of Berlin has made provision for defeat."

But the chief Socialist advantage will be after the war. In times of peace Socialist parties and labor unions have not been able to advance the working classes in proportion to the advance of the more prosperous classes. They have been weak on the offensive. With existing organization and education they will be infinitely stronger on the defensive.

Who is to pay for the vast burdens the war will entail? The classes that pay will have to submit to a lowering of an already fixed standard of living. Everybody knows, how much harder people will fight against such an outcome than they will to gain an advance. And the working people will be the most formidable in this fight. In desperation they will not only use the methods of sabotage, they will use every method. And even if they did not resist, the efficiency of industry requires the efficiency of the workers and minimum standards of living. If the employers of one country do not see this those of another will take away their trade.

The resistance of the workers will force the capitalists—large or small -—to pay the bill. And another and even fiercer class war will break out to see which group of capitalists shall pay the bill. In this war the large capitalists are bound to be annihilated (as capitalists) and genuine democracies established both in Germany and in every country where existing governments are sufficiently humiliated and where Socialists have prepared the way. The large capitalists' functions will be assumed by the new state Socialist governments and society will pass into the firm control of the small capitalist and skilled labor majorities.

Such will probably be the ultimate result in France and Great Britain. But in Germany, Austria and Russia it is probable that the people will find a much shorter and radical solution. The larger part of the wealthy classes of Russia and Austria and a large part of those of Germany are landlords. It is these that furnish the nobility, the army officers and higher officials; it is they who sustain militarism and religious persecution, and live on the backs of the millions of peasants, keeping them in ignorance, poverty and degradation.

Their wealth—the land—-is what is most needed by the people and is most easily confiscated. But besides this there will be no other source of wealth sufficient to pay the huge costs of the war—far greater for Germany and Austria than for the other contending governments, to say nothing of the almost certain indemnities. As to impoverished Russia, she is near bankruptcy now. Six months of such a war as this will mean, first, the repudiation of the national debt —which would involve the loss of some $3,000,000,000 to France, and cause an absolute financial collapse there (which is what the French Socialists desire)—and, second, it would necessitate the expropriation of all large estates.

But the process of confiscation will not stop here. The fortunes of the great armament firms, of the big bankers, of all the monopolists will also be involved. And where the process of confiscation stops that of a nearly confiscatory taxation will begin. In a word Socialists have everything to gain if the military autocracies of Russia, Austria and Germany are crushed, and if the reactionary nationalist upper classes of England and France are given a fearful lesson, by this war.

This—approximately—is what the majority of Socialists hope for and expect from the war. The British Laborites, above referred to, do not even claim to be Socialists. The compromising majority of the last German Party Congress seems no longer to represent the majority of the Party members, if it ever did so—and certainly it will no longer control the Party after this debacle.

A few voices In America have represented the opposite extreme, that no good can come from this or any other war. But In America as elsewhere (with the possible exception of Germany) the majority of Socialists expect a tremendous advance of Socialism. And no better expression of this view has fallen into my hands than a recent editorial in The New York Call I shall therefore close by quoting from it at some length:

The staff and business departments of this paper are composed of many so-called nationalities. There are Americans, Germans, Russians, British, French, and even, people from the Balkan States. But all stand for and desire but one thing out of this war—social revolution. That consideration subordinates everything else.

The Germans on this paper would gladly see the hosts of the "fatherland" beaten to their knees, the Kaiser made a "fatherlandless rascal," the militarism and imperialism of the country irretrievably smashed, if the victory of the proletariat were certainly insured thereby.

And in like manner, the Britishers would be not only content, but immensely pleased, if the British Empire were to fall to fragments, the mighty navy sunk to the last ship a thousand fathoms deep in the sea, if that in particular would insure the destruction of world capitalism.

And the French, and Russians and others here feel exactly the same way —for they are all Socialists to a man—and a woman.

All Socialists everywhere are our brothers. All workingmen everywhere are our friends. And conversely all capitalists, militarists and imperialists of all nationalities are our enemies.

One German workingman is more to us than a thousand British, French or Russian capitalists. And one British workingman is more to us than all the Kaisers, Czars and Emperors that ever curst the earth. Apply this philosophy of things all around and it gives our general position.

We want to see the workingmen of all these lands turn on their butchers and murderers, and rend them into fragments, and stamp out forever the abominable class rule, the capitalism that has turned a continent into a shambles.

And now the thing has started we don't care how they do it, whether with cannon, musket and saber, or with confiscation and legislation. Any old way that is most convenient, provided only that they do it.

The things that our correspondent speak of as "Germany," "England," "Russia," etc., represent nothing to us but the capitalism, imperialism and despotism of those countries, and we are only interested in the destruction of these things, wherever they exist.

Between what our German remonstrants call "Cossack domination", and the "military Imperialism" of Germany, we have no choice. "We should accept neither, and do our best to destroy both. With one or the other dominant, our fight against it would go on just the same. And that goes for the capitalist domination of all the others as well.

We have not the slightest interest in the so-called "civilization" that it is claimed one or other group is fighting for. It is the same thing in all cases—imperialism, militarism, dominion, wage-slavery, exploitation and capitalism. Art, science, culture, music, painting and literature will survive in any case. They are not dependent on militarism and capitalism. The latter, in fact, are deadly enemies to them.

We have not started this thing, and we hope that our co-respondents will comprehend us when we say that, now that it is started, the most cold-blooded calculation on our part at the present moment is that they should all heed each other to exhaustion so that the coming social revolution may have an easier job of sweeping out the stinking fragments. We are thru with protesting, mourning and deploring. That time has past, and now we stand for destruction—the destruction of capitalism. (Italics mine.)

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury