The New Socialist Alignment

By Charles Edward Russell

[Harper's Monthly Magazine, March 1918]

"We were Germans before we were Socialists," retorted an eminent Social Democrat of Germany when taunted with the record his party has made in the last five years. "A long time before," he might have added; also, figuratively, "a long distance." The war has been to the world a series of disillusions, but none of them of sharper or more painful meaning than when we saw that all the fine professions of the German Socialists in favor of peace and universal brotherhood were soluble at the mere touch of the imperial scepter, waving to war.

Indeed, in this case the reality, which most of us have not yet fully grasped, is still worse. When did the war begin? April, 1913; not August, 1914, as the press always has it. The real declaration of war was made by the German Reichstag when it struck observing Europe dumb and chill by passing an extraordinary war credit of $250,000,000; and to that act of belligerency in a time of profound peace the Socialists in the Reichstag gave practically their support.

All men in the world accustomed to make upon the day's news an intelligent diagnosis must have gasped and stared at this portent. Unless Germany deliberately planned now to bring down upon mankind the war her armament had silently threatened these many years, there was no good reason for this perilous saber-rattling; certainly none appeared in the state of Europe. Yet the Socialists seemed to be for it; that was the incomprehensible fact. August Bebel, then still active, was the ablest and most famous of their leaders, and criticism from many lands seemed to goad him into a defense. It was of a nature to chill the last hope in any friend of peace. Two reasons he gave for the Reichstag's action. One was that President Poincaré of France, who had been but newly elected, was a war-like and dangerous man and no one could tell to what lengths he might go. The other was that in the Balkan wars the Turks, taught by German officers, had been beaten by the Serbians, taught by French. The judicious might grieve indeed when they came upon such an offering from such a source, and anybody able to read might see that war was close at hand.

The world had long looked upon the German Socialists as one of its safeguards. It had been told that even if the War Lord should command to battle the Socialists would not abate one jot of their faith, and affecting pictures were drawn of the typical German Socialist folding his arms and allowing himself to be shot rather than obey his Kaiser and go forth to shoot his brother proletarians. Four millions was the strength of the German Socialist party; all opposed to war and ready to refuse to engage in it. How then could Germany ever break the peace? Let her drill her great armies as she might list, delight her rulers with her far-famed autumn maneuvers, and make the welkin and other things ring about the Mailed Fist. The Social Democrats were the sufficient answer to all that.

And now it appeared to our dazed senses that this belief must be surrendered as but fantasy. Now it appeared that when a band of jingoes went to and fro beating the war drum the Socialists were as much entranced with the rub-a-dub as any school-boy of them all.

Either so or they were sand-blind to what other men could see very plainly, even men farther from the stage and not directly concerned in the play there. Many good men in Switzerland, for instance, knew perfectly well what was going on. They did not need an apostolic revelation to understand that nations do not adopt extraordinary war credits of $250,000,000 to expend the money on Sunday-schools. These excellent men, in reasonable alarm, started out to see if the world's peace might not still be kept. We ought not to overlook now what the historian will probably regard as the most significant event of the whole war prologue. The Swiss invited the radical members of the French Chamber of Deputies and of the German Reichstag, Socialists and advanced liberals, to come to Berne for a friendly, informal conference that they might find a basis for common action and avert the coming storm. It was a kindly and might have been a serviceable thought, but it came to nothing for only one reason that the Swiss had overlooked. They believed that radicals everywhere were opposed to war and ready to take any steps to prevent it. In this they seemed to have made no error about the French radicals, who came to Berne in a body, and seemed but too glad to come. But when they arrived they found they had only themselves to talk to; the German radicals largely failed to respond.

Some minds, I understand, are still able to cling to the notion that in those days of fate the German Socialists were the innocent dupes of a wicked, designing Government in which they had placed a beautiful and child-like faith. The suggestion that the skilful Bebel and the adroit Scheidemann not once suspected war to mean war, could never appeal powerfully, I should imagine, to the adult mind; but, anyway, the story of the collapse of the Berne conference ought to give it its quietus. Yet it is only one of many incidents that will never fit with any theory that the Socialists did not know what they were doing. I spent the summer of 1913 in France, Germany, and Austria, and the storm signals were flying so plainly that even the eye of an alien visitor could hardly mistake them. A large part of the German press, flagrantly led by the journals that supported the Pan-Germanic League, was engaged in trying to arouse in the German people a virulent hatred of France. The thing was as open as day; the campaign was deliberate and unmistakable; and any one that read at all could not escape it.

A part of this vicious effort was a series of fantastic tales of outrage, insult, and injury alleged to have been suffered by Germans that ventured unattended upon French soil. It was to be noted that all these events were staged in French towns along the eastern part of the frontier, a fact that I have since pondered as not likely to have been accidental. Another circumstance that might have struck the least attentive was that, although the press described events certainly calling for action by the Government of the victim, Berlin turned not a hand in any of these matters.

The most famous and successful of the narratives was the weird tale of Hans Müller. This was said to be a poor German boy who enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and merely because of his nationality was horribly tortured and maltreated until at last he had been beaten into a dying condition and left to rot upon the desert. The fire-eating part of the German press dwelt upon all this with infinite detail; one, I remember, going to the length of a picture of the body of poor Hans abandoned to the vultures. A furious demand went up for an official apology and reparation from France. The wilder among the journals were all for an ultimatum from Germany that France disband her Foreign Legion, the German ambassador to ask for his passports within twenty-four hours if the demand were not complied with. This, of course, would be equivalent to a declaration of war.

Then the whole story was raked to and fro by competent authority and shown to be a web of falsehoods. There had been no Hans Müller in the Foreign Legion; no member of it, whether German or other, had been persecuted or abused; none had been left dying on the desert. Journalism has not known balder inventions or more wicked; the whole thing must have been the work of wholly depraved minds, for it might easily have brought about a war.

All the other stories in this category made a similar record. It was proved by patient investigation that no German woman had been persecuted at Lunéville; that no German traveler had been beaten at Verdun; that no German traveling salesmen had been mobbed at Nancy. Yet the fire-eating press ignored all these demonstrations and continued to print and refer to the canards as if they were things veritable and established. What was still more alarming was the course of the Socialist journals. It was to have been expected, most assuredly, that they at least would perceive the danger of such incendiary utterances and strive to counteract them. I was unable to discover that any of them did so, or that Socialists as individuals were interesting themselves on the side of sanity and safety, even after the jingo fabrications had been stripped bare and riddled.

These were ugly signs, and, coupled with the incessant beating of the tocsin by the League, might well fill with dismay and forebodings every friend of peace. The attitude of the Socialists and their press seemed so inexplicable that when I returned home I addressed to one of the most distinguished and fair-minded of the German Socialists a series of inquiries on the subject. With the prolegomena appropriate to his position, I asked him to explain, if he would be so good, the course of the Socialists in the Reichstag; why they had refused or neglected to attend the Berne conference; why they had made no effort to combat the war-drum campaign of the League press; why the Socialist journals had not printed the truth about the Hans Müller fabrication; why they had not overwhelmed the war-makers with the facts about the Lunéville story and other fictions of the kind; why the manifestly alarming situation created by these fables had not been denounced by the Socialist organizations. These inquiries were sent through an intimate friend of the Socialist leader. I never received a reply.

When the war broke out the civilized world was amazed at the spectacle offered by the German Socialists, ardent in the support of their Government in a wanton and wicked assault upon a small country then at peace with Germany. Nothing more repugnant to the announced principles of Socialism could be imagined than the brigandage Germany practised upon Belgium; and German Socialists not only acquiesced in it, they took a hand in it. Instead of the beautiful martyrdom in the cause of peace and brotherhood that we had been promised, German Socialists, apparently with great good-will, seized arms and went forth to shoot their Socialist comrades of Belgium and France. Not all of them did this, of course; we are not to forget the example of Liebknecht and his handful of followers; but in these cases the world can deal only with averages, and no one can pretend that the average German Socialist showed any more hostility to the war than the veriest Junker.

Some of them attempted to take shelter in an ingenious but unsubstantial plea that an inexorable necessity drove them to the firing-line. Civilization, they said, was in danger from Russian barbarism. Germany was about to be overrun by Russian hordes. German kultur, the real hope of the world, was in peril of annihilation. Russia, envious of German success, prosperity, and superior intelligence, was about to descend with its vast, ignorant millions upon a defenseless Fatherland. Under these conditions their duty was to fight. The cause of Socialism, as of the world's intellectual welfare, demanded that the invasion be stopped; that the Russians, standing now with boots uplifted to trample out this benign light, should be driven back.

So to drive them back and rescue kultur from the threatened destruction by the savage north, Germany marched due south, invaded Belgium, and made its historic lunge at Paris. It never seemed to occur to these acute reasoners that the world would remain unconvinced of their innocence when it looked upon this performance. The horrors of Aerschot and Herve seemed to outsiders an extremely faulty answer to the alleged threat of Russia. Moreover, to those that knew the inside of the European game the excuse seemed from the first no better than a grim jest. Whatever the two Governments might pretend for gallery effect, the real Russia and the real Germany were always one in sympathy; the Kaiser was always the Czar's dearest friend. The negotiations for a separate peace, cut short by the Russian Revolution, were the expression of the actual sentiments of two sovereigns far too much interested in upholding the monarchical principle to be committed to the "crushing" of any of its powerful exponents. It was not the Russian hordes that the Kaiser feared; it was the rising tide of democracy in the world, threatening to put out of business the last of the kings.

But, aside from all this, something occurred two and a half years later that caused this plea of the German Socialists to appear both foolish and dishonest. When the Russian people arose, threw off the blight of autocracy, and founded the Russian democracy the first and imperative duty of the German Socialists, if they were sincere, was to hail the new order with rejoicing and absolutely to refuse to fight against it. For this there were unassailable reasons. The Russian Revolution was a great political upheaval and more; it was a great Socialist triumph. Almost all the Russian Revolutionists were Socialists; they adopted the Socialist red flag as the national ensign of new Russia, they organized the first Socialist government in the world. The German Socialists were condemned out of their own mouths. If civilization could be in any danger from such Russians the whole Socialist theory was a menace. If the Socialist theory were right, then the German Socialists should be fighting on the side of new Russia, not against it.

In truth the last ground had been cut from under them. They had always professed ardent admiration for political democracy. Here was a people that had won out of tyranny to freedom, and the German Socialists now appeared in an effort to drive them back to servitude. Here was flying at last the red flag, the symbol of the Socialist faith, the colors of the international brotherhood. The German Socialists had always professed the utmost devotion to that flag. They now appeared in the act of making war upon it, of tearing it down that it might be supplanted with the old flag of capitalistic despotism. Before a movement could endure an inconsistency so monstrous as this the world would have to lose all sense of the congruous and the just.

The truth then appears that the German people, under the inspiration and example of their Government, had eaten of the insane root of world empire, and Socialism was no more of a protection against that poison than was conservatism. A long period of success and unexampled development had turned the German head. The Day, toasted by twenty years of German officers, had come at last; a wild, alluring dream of destiny to be fulfilled seized the minds of millions, Socialists and others. This is easy to understand, and easy also to adjust to the precepts of German heroes from Frederick the Great to Bismarck, but no human being can ever reconcile it with the cornerstone of Socialism or with the teachings of two generations of admired Socialist sages, mostly of German birth. The great idea of the extreme, doctrinaire or Marxian Socialists was always that the members of the proletariat of all lands owed allegiance and loyalty to their class above any country or "capitalistic" form of government. "Workers of the world, unite!" was their incessant slogan. Be loyal to your class. They preached what they called the class war while they solemnly exhorted against all other kinds of warfare. Whatever the plea might be, all wars between nations were made by and for the sole benefit of the exploiting or capitalist class. Fight everywhere against that class and for your own; do not think of fighting for your country. It means nothing to you; your class means everything.

But now it was demonstrated that the first time this doctrine was put to the test, the first time the issue was really raised whether Socialists should go with their country or go with their class, they forgot all about both class and revered doctrine and went with their country. And these were the Socialists of whom, in accordance with their pretensions, the most had been expected! If the doctrine of class loyalty would not work with them would it work at all? Was it not sufficiently shown, for this age and probably for ages to come, as no more than an agreeable dream? Men had not, after all, been remade; the ponderous volumes of Das Kapital had not changed their essential impulses. The old instinct of loyalty to the soil whereon one was born could not with a few elegant phrases be eliminated from the human heart. It must be so, for if any Socialists could be thought to be emancipated from the nationalistic feeling and at the same time sophisticated about the adroit manipulation of that feeling it was surely the German Socialists, who had the advantage of so much practical experience, who had been so long successful in the political field. And yet what they called the "capitalistic" press of their country, and the worst part of that press, had but to call to them with some faked-up stories of insult and some cheap appeals to patriotism and they turned Chauvinists like the rest!

I am not, however, interested in indicting the German Socialists, but in trying to estimate what will be the effect of all this upon the Socialist movement of the world. Before the war the organized part of that movement was dominated by Germans and German influence. That kind of domination will never be possible again. In the old days the German Socialists used to bring to the triennial International Socialist Congress a spirit of prideful arrogance that other delegates often found extremely indigestible. The Germans usually made plain, and without excessive suavity, their view of the movement, which was that of proprietorship. Representation in the Congress is on the basis of the number of Socialist votes cast at the last preceding national election. This gave to the German Socialists, who had cast all these millions of votes and won all these seats in the Reichstag, a great numerical advantage and the authority of success.

Another reason for their masterful attitude was their impression that Socialism was a product of the Fatherland, a thing "made in Germany," like a brand of cutlery or half hose. Karl Marx was a German Jew; most of the eminent writers on Socialism had been Germans; the rest of the Socialist world was peopled with novices and persons in pupilage who it was quite preposterous to think were capable of any real acquaintance with the arcana of the science. The Germans at the Congress usually had their way about everything. In view of the facts mentioned in the foregoing pages it is clear enough that hereafter, if there continues to be any organized international movement, they will be in a very different position in regard to it.

This is to say nothing of another and obvious influence that will be at work to quiet them, provided, as before, there is any such organization as we used to know. The easy supposition is in some quarters that when the war is over all the existing animosities will be as if they had never been, and delegates from all nations will meet together in oblivious harmony. This may be right, but an incredulous world will have to be shown about it. Moreover, while there may be English Socialists that will take the chance of sitting at an International Congress by the side of a man that pointed a rifle at the heart of Edith Cavell, and French Socialists willing to go cheek by jowl with apologists for what happened at Senlis and Lille, something else is to be reckoned with, and that is the feelings of the rank and file of the workers in England and France. What the rank and file of English workers think about a show of tender amity and warm regard for Germany they have made fairly well known, and the chance is small that their views will change much in this generation; German air raiders and submarines have attended to all that. But the most important phase of the matter still remains. Socialism's advance (outside of International Congresses) is supposed to be through the conversion of the proletariat. The small chance it will have with the English proletariat if English Socialists meet on terms of cordiality with the men that killed Captain Fryatt, let us say, while the German Socialists continue their ardent support of German autocracy, is apparent. We are to remember that almost every other nation that has been at war with Germany has cases like that of Captain Fryatt. It is contrary to human nature that these things should be wiped in an instant and as with a sponge from the memories of men.

No International Socialist Congress has been held since Copenhagen, 1910. One was due at Vienna, in 1913, but the Viennese, because of local difficulties, asked for a year's postponement, and then the war broke out a few days before the Congress was to assemble. It is planned to call a Congress as soon as peace may be declared. Delegates, no doubt, will be sent from many countries, but the hope that the division in the movement can be healed or the old conditions restored is manifestly a dream.

It is not alone that men do not so readily forget, nor that in the supreme crisis of the movement the German Socialists turned against the faith they had embraced. Besides these dividing influences the war has revealed two irreconcilable conceptions of Socialist theory and activities.

I think something of the kind was indicated even before the war; at the Stuttgart Congress of 1907, for instance, in the sharp clash between the Germans on one side and the French and Italians on the other. Heedful men might have seen even then that racial differences so vital would be likely to show with more emphasis on a greater occasion. The French and Italians appeared with an idealistic conception of Socialism; the Germans with one wholly materialistic. These things will not cohere. The Germans have always looked upon Socialism from the point of view of the stomach. It was a thing to fill bellies, not to gratify the yearnings of the race for freedom and intellectual expansion. Any view but the materialistic was called by German authorities "unscientific" and sourly frowned upon. But this, of course, brings us once more against the old rock of national or racial instinct. Socialism can advance in the world only by winning the support at the polls of peoples that have at least some measure of electoral freedom. Such people will not be won by what is inherently repugnant to them, and a theory of bald materialism without a touch of the ideal will never appeal much to Frenchmen, Italians, or Americans. There must be more involved than plenty of Wienerwurst. This is one reason why Socialism has made so little progress in this country. It has been presented to the American voter always in its uncouth German garb, and he has not cared for it in that attire and never will.

We are to remember, further, that the war is exceedingly likely to bring about a great spiritual uprising in the world; if it does not, indeed, it will have been fought largely in vain. The ideal, which is the only real, will occupy a larger share of men's thoughts than ever before. It is unlikely that the German Socialists will abandon a conception to which they have been so thoroughly committed and one so consonant with national instincts, but if they do not the greater part of the Socialist movement of the world will probably take its way without much regard to them, whether here or abroad.

The war has taught some other lessons, or should have taught them, to those capable of being instructed. One is that this world cannot be remade in a minute. There are now neither trumpets nor soap-box orators, however expert in vocalism, that can in an instant blow down the walls of Jericho. The New Day for which Socialists look will not arrive with a bound, but come as the product of evolution and changing conditions. To preach the impossible view of the Socialist doctrine merely discredits what is sound. The generality of men is much too sane to believe that the American people, let us say, will arise of a morning, overturn the present business and social system and by noon have the co-operative commonwealth swinging harmoniously down the ringing grooves of time. These things do not happen. In former days when one had a glimpse of this truth the custom was to assure him that the tactic was good because by demanding a great deal we achieved a part. "By demanding revolution we get reform," Keir Hardie was wont to say. It does not now appear so. In this country, at least, by talking mirage you merely waste time.

The war has shown that neither this nor that other once favorite Socialist method of kicking everybody in the face is the best way. Americans will not rapturously welcome the idea that they must quarrel with every man that owns more than one shirt. If they go into the subject at all, they are usually too wise to believe that all men that have money are thieves and all that have not are angels. They will freely admit that the existing system works great injustice and ought to be changed, but they do not see how it is to be changed by personal abuse of its supposed beneficiaries, who are also oftentimes its victims.

Heretofore we have had in the United States this most singular condition of a larger Socialist sentiment than exists in any other country and a smaller representation of it in the recognized Socialist movement. With the essentials of Socialism almost everybody in the United States, aside from our near-aristocrats, is in sympathy. The charge involved may not be designated to them by any Socialist label, but they are of its faith nevertheless. Most men that accepted the idea shied from any connection with the Socialist organization because in its methods and make-up it seemed alien, fanatical, and unworkable on this soil. You can never get very far in this country with a political party whose members call one another "comrade," are bound by iron-clad regulations to surrender their judgment at the polls to a committee of gentlemen with unpronounceable names and a tangled dialect, and observe a sign-manual after the manner of a secret society. The American voter does not understand these things, never will, and does not care to.

Hitherto the organized Socialist movement in the United States has been German made and adjusted to the German psychology. The war made the final showing of this fact when it revealed a majority of the American Socialist party as preferring the cause of Germany to the survival of Socialism in Russia. Like their eminent leader, they were Germans before they were Socialists—-or anything else. It would be absurd to suppose that Americans, aware of the American psychology and American conditions, could work again with an element whose loyalty to the country of their origin went beyond all loyalty to the country they had sworn to support as much as it went beyond their devotion to Socialist principles. The International Socialist organization will be steered whither the men in charge of it may direct; it will no longer express the Socialist movement. When we remember that two months of the war moved Great Britain farther and faster to Socialism than forty years of argument and disquisition had moved it, the utility of the old device of trying to convert the converted doesn't seem impressive. Great changes are impending when the war shall end, the greatest the world has known and the most valuable to its peace and happiness, but the organized efforts of theorists and long-distance disputants will probably have little to do with these transformations.

Here in the United States the Socialist machine takes on some temporary bulk and makes some additional noise because of passing sympathy with it from extreme pro-Germans and from pacifists in whom the faculty of co-ordination is lacking; but these are but spasmodic manifestations and without significance. Probably few of the pro-Germans, brewers, and afflicted pacifists that have joined themselves this last year to the American Socialist party have the least knowledge of or interest in the principles of Socialism; probably many of them would be horribly shocked at the slightest likelihood of the success of those principles. German sympathies and pacifism run mad have made strange bedfellows; also the pro-German feeling has driven many indoctrinated Socialists far from the ancient moorings. A cardinal article of faith with these used to be that the Socialists wanted no votes except those of men convinced of the Socialist creed. It is, in fact, but another illustration of the rather disconcerting discovery with which I started. The old racial or nationalistic instinct is stronger than we had fondly believed. The wing of the Socialist party that has taken a position against the Government in the war is chiefly of German or Jewish origin, and with many Jews the inborn feeling of hatred against Russia seems to be unconquerable even when the hideous old Russian autocracy has fallen before new-born democracy.

In such conditions, a philosophical view of the future of Socialism in the United States is that it will be a progress In fact but not in name. Many of the fundamental things contended for by the Socialists will come now by evolution and changed conditions. The Utopia may still be far off, but by different designations the practical essence of the Socialistic doctrine cannot be averted. These changes will probably be with as little reference to organizations as to him of the soap-box. If a party that in a time of war and national emergency deliberately sets itself against the country and the Government could be much of a factor in the political field the American voter would have to be remade, and the Socialist party of the United States was sufficiently handicapped even before its recent adventures in disloyalty.

This country has had no monopoly of the disillusion process. The same thing has been at work abroad. Even the German party is now hopelessly split. In Great Britain, H. M. Hyndman, the veteran and pioneer of the British Socialist movement, for many years its ablest champion, has withdrawn from the regular organization and formed a new association similar in purpose to the new Socialist union in America. In Great Britain, as here, it was the war that precipitated the division. Mr. Hyndman and his friends took the position that the war had been forced upon the world by Germany, that the real issue was between autocracy and democracy, that if autocracy should win the very foundations of Socialist hope would be swept away, that without democracy Socialism would be impossible and unthinkable, and that as autocracy made the attack the duty of every Socialist was to give himself to democracy's defense. The element in Great Britain that does not sympathize with him has made no good answer to these propositions. It seems to have cast out the Hyndman thesis merely on the general principle that war is to be opposed no matter how it comes about, for what ideal of freedom or defense it may be waged, or what may be the consequences of victory on one side or the other. There are optimists, of course, that think this split may be healed, but the hope is probably baseless.

It is also immaterial. In Great Britain as in America and some other countries the attempt to found a kind of Socialist sect, bitter of countenance and fanatical of creed, was always a failure and always would be. A wall of alien methods long blocked the progress of social reform. The war has broken a way through it and indicated industrial democracy as a nearly attainable goal. Some persons, undoubtedly, will continue to try to pass through the wall by butting at it, but this would seem to be an overrated pleasure and unattractive to men not so much interested in orthodoxy as in results.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
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The Headlong Fury