A Century of Betrayal, Part 1

The Role of Social Democracy in the Mass Slaughter of World War One

Part 1 — The Roots of Betrayal

Originally Published: July 2014

French Socialist Party leader Jean Jaurès speaking at a mass meeting in Paris before the First World War.

THIS AUGUST MARKS THE 100TH anniversary of the beginning of First World War — the first great industrialized slaughter of millions of workers in order to maximize the profits of “their own” ruling classes. By the time the guns finally fell silent, after four years and three months of relentless brutality, over 10 million soldiers were dead, more than 23 million were wounded and nearly 8 million were missing. Civilian deaths exceeded 7 million — nearly two-thirds of whom perished as a result of hunger and disease.

As part of the centennial commemorations, the exploiting and oppressing classes will put their propaganda machines into overdrive, flooding the airwaves and Internet with specialized, compartmentalized and sanitized narratives about both the necessity and futility of the “Great War.” American media commentators will talk about the “lost generation” and how Washington’s entry into the conflict was a watershed moment in U.S. history, leading to this country becoming the “pre-eminent superpower” in the world today.

A century on from the beginning of the First World War, some liberal historians and media pundits are taking the opportunity to ask whether the outbreak of war could have been prevented. They talk about the overlapping and complex series of alliances and agreements the European Great Powers had among each other, how a nationalist conflict in the Balkans managed to drag the great world empires and colonial masters on to battlefields spanning three continents, and how a war that had its roots in disagreements over who received the largest piece of the colonial pie started an international process that would lead to the end of colonialism itself. Some of the more savvy elements will also point out how many of the events that led to the end of the First World War (e.g., the Treaty of Versailles) set up the conditions for the outbreak of the Second only 20 years later.

What few, if any, of these apologists for mass murder will talk about is the role of the working class and the organized workers’ movement in both the outbreak of the war and its end. While it might be difficult for many workers today to fathom the idea of an organized working class being decisive in whether the world goes to war, the fact is that there was a moment in time, in the days and weeks leading up to the start of the conflict, when the fate of humanity was in the hands of those our predecessors considered to be the “leaders” of our class and its international movement.

By the beginning of 1914, the Socialist International was the undisputed organizing center for the working class, with mass political parties throughout Europe (and other large parties throughout the rest of the world) connected to trade union federations that counted millions of working people as its members. In Germany, France, Austria, Britain, Italy and most of the other soon-to-be warring countries, Social-Democrats (as most of them called themselves) sat in parliaments, led strikes for better wages, published numerous daily newspapers in every language spoken, and had won the support of the bulk of working men and women.

In 1912, 33 Social-Democratic parties met in Basel, Switzerland, for an “emergency” congress of the International. As early as 1910, the threat of a continent-wide war hung over Europe, threatening to draw in all of the peoples of the world. The congress adopted a manifesto strongly opposing the drive toward war: “It is with satisfaction that the Congress records the complete unanimity of the Socialist parties and of the trade unions of all countries in the war against war. The proletarians of all countries have risen simultaneously in a struggle against imperialism; each section of the [Second] International has opposed the resistance of the proletariat to the government of its own country, and has mobilized the public opinion of its nation against all bellicose desires. Thus there resulted the grandiose cooperation of the workers of all countries which has already contributed a great deal toward saving the threatened peace of the world. The fear of the ruling class a of a proletarian revolution as a result of a world war has proved to be an essential guarantee of peace. The Congress therefore calls upon the Social-Democratic parties to continue their action by every means that seems appropriate to them. In this concerted action it assigns to each Socialist party its particular task.”

The Basel Manifesto was seen by most workers as the final word of the Socialist International on what must be done to stop the drive to war. They fully expected that if the ruling classes in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, St. Petersburg and London sought to drag the world into a violent conflict the Social-Democratic parties and trade unions would call on workers to rise up and wage “war against war.” Even as late as July 29, 1914, the Socialist International was calling on workers to “intensify their demonstrations against the war, for peace,” in the spirit of the unanimous decision made two years before.

However, within a week, all of Europe would be at war, and the largest parties of the International — the German Social-Democratic Party and French Socialist Party — would be leading the working class into the bloody breach.

“Not Only Useless, But Harmful”

To best understand how the Socialist International collapsed so spectacularly — how its largest, most influential and popular sections so easily capitulated to “their own” ruling classes without a proverbial (or literal) shot being fired — it is necessary to look at the history and development of Social-Democracy in the latter half of the 19th century.

According to the “official” history, often written by those descended from one or another split within that movement, the wave of reaction that spread through Europe following the defeat of the Paris Commune of 1871 began to ebb by the end of that decade. In Germany and France, new workers’ organizations began to emerge, seeking to fuse the lessons of the International Working Men’s Association (First International, 1864-1873) and the Paris Commune with the growing workers’ currents of the day. In 1881, the German, French and Swiss Social-Democratic parties, all of whom worked closely with Marx and Engels, held an international meeting that would eventually be recognized as the Founding Conference of the second, Socialist International.

The implication given by these “official” historians is that there was a line of continuity from the First to the Second International — a development of “Marxism” that would rally the working class in ways the early movement could only imagine. The further implication is that the great betrayal of the Socialist International in 1914 was the end of that movement as the focal point for revolutionary workers, to be superseded by a new, Third (Communist) International — a retroactive prophecy fulfilled by Russian Bolshevism.

However, it is only in retrospect that one can attempt to find a “red thread” connecting the First and Second Internationals, and then only by ignoring the fact that these “Marxists” did not have the support of Marx himself. In a letter to Ferdinand Nieuwenhuis, a Dutch Socialist who was set to attend the 1881 conference, Marx made his views clear:

“My own conviction is that the critical conjuncture for a new international working men’s association has not yet arrived; hence I consider all labor congresses and/or socialist congresses, in so far as they do not relate to the immediate, actual conditions obtaining in this or that specific nation, to be not only useless but harmful. They will invariably fizzle out in a host of rehashed generalized banalities.” (Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 46 [Lawrence & Wishart Ltd., 2010], p. 67; emphasis mine)

In fact, both Marx and Engels were wary of such gatherings, especially since, in the wake of the suppression of the Commune, all manner of opportunists and charlatans attempted to build up their “revolutionary” credentials by attaching themselves to this or that “socialist” or “social-democratic” organization. They had already seen these hustlers attempt to enter and overrun the International Working Men’s Association after 1871, and did not want to devote more time and resources to dealing with the next wave of those who were, as Engels described them, “capable of any stupidity.”

The formation of the German Socialist Workers Party in 1875 and the French Workers Party four years later were formed from mergers between the remnants of the IWMA and other self-described socialist currents, often on the basis of programs that both Marx and Engels fiercely criticized. Even when the leaders of the French “Marxists” came to Marx for help with the drafting of their party program, they couldn’t resist “revising” his positions and stuffing the platform with all sorts of partial and reformist demands. This often led to angry letters to the members of these parties from the two aging revolutionaries about how they were being compelled to address positions attributed to them that they did not hold, thus distracting them from their work on finalizing the three-volume analysis of capitalism, Capital.

Such was the tense and often sharp dynamic that existed between the political leaders of the Communist League and First International, on one side, and the leaders of the new Social-Democratic parties, on the other. Neither Marx nor Engels wanted the inevitable responsibility that would be placed on them should a new International take shape that was based on the existing Social-Democratic parties, and believed that the organizations made up of the “hotchpotch of people attending these affairs” would only lead to the discrediting of the revolutionary workers’ movement, which had gained a decisive amount of political authority and influence in the working class after the Commune.

But whereas Engels was more concerned with the timing of the building of a new International, Marx saw the political deficits and “poverty of philosophy” among the new Socialist and Social-Democratic organizations as an obstacle to the development of the revolutionary workers’ movement — a movement he was convinced, after the experience of the IWMA, must exist “at a higher political plain.” Indeed, the split with the petty-bourgeois socialists Marx and Engels had predicted the need for as early as 1879 had still not materialized. Until the day he died four years later, the veteran communist thinker continued to insist on the need for a break with these “adulterers” and a reorientation of the movement on an openly working-class communist basis.

“The Inevitable Fruit”

Social-Democrats in German Reichstag vote for war credits, opening the door to four years of mass slaughter. These petty-bourgeois “socialists” justified their support for war by claiming “national defense” against Russian “tsarist despotism.”

In 1916, at what is arguably the last congress of the old Socialist International, taking place in the small town of Kienthal, in neutral Switzerland, V.I. Lenin, representing the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party, spoke of the betrayal of the main parties of the organization and its leaders, particularly the “centrist” trend, which called for a “peace program” that, in his words, “reinforces the subjection of the working class to the bourgeoisie by ‘reconciling’ the workers, who are beginning to develop a revolutionary struggle, with their chauvinist leaders, by underplaying the gravity of the crisis in the socialist movement to bring back the pre-war state of affairs in the socialist parties which led the majority of the leaders to desert to the bourgeoisie.” (“Proposals Submitted by the C.C. of the RSDLP to the Second Socialist Conference,” Collected Works, Vol. 22 [Progress, 1977], p. 173)

For Lenin, the methodology of the “centrists” represented “the inevitable fruit of the ideology of the petty bourgeoisie.” But borne fruit is but a reflection of its mother tree, and a rotten fruit is the sign of a blighted and sickly bearer. For the “tree” of the Socialist International, the sickness was not only due to the attempt to merge disparate tendencies together into a single organization on an ultimately unprincipled bases, but also to its theoretical underdevelopment in the face of a changing epoch — the rise of imperialism.

In many respects, imperialism was the Great White Whale of the social-democratic organizations: strong, elusive, cunning, always just below the surface and, most of all, deadly. It was in every way the great theoretical challenge of its time, especially as the 20th century dawned. And those who took its challenge seriously would find themselves better prepared for what the next 100 years had in store.

But the theoretical weaknesses of the parties of the Socialist International — the unprincipled compromises with petty-bourgeois socialist and democratic groupings; the transformation of communist methodology into a rote-learned catechism; the reliance on academics, journalists and professionals for theoretical and analytical guidance — meant that it was slow to understand and assimilate new circumstances, and resistant (or openly hostile) to changes demanded by the transformation of material conditions.

All of these tendencies were to be found in the “crown jewel” of the Socialist International: the Social-Democratic Party of Germany. Launched in 1891 as the legal successor to the illegal Socialist Workers Party, the new social-democratic organization was an eclectic mush of trade unionists, agrarian reformers, aging radicals and academic “Marxists” presiding over a membership in the tens of thousands and an electorate that made it the largest party in the country. However, in order to maintain unity in the face of the imperial state and police repression, these differences of principle were often swept under the rug or minimized, and key questions of how to translate paper slogans into concrete action were continually pushed off, to be discussed at a later time.

The question of imperialist war was no exception. The differences among members of the Social-Democratic Party were more than divisions over specific on-the-ground tactics or strategy that would be used to best implement their principles. They were differences over principle itself. Support for war was often couched in the language of “special circumstances,” the “national question,” equality and “autonomy,” and “national defense against despotism” — the meaning of each of these phrases being whatever suited them at the time.

A good example of this was a 1907 speech by Gustav Noske, a leading member of the party, in the German Reichstag on the question of a war of “national defense.” In his view, the social-democrats would, if confronted with a situation, “defend the fatherland with great passion…. Our attitude towards the military is determined by our view on the national question. We demand the autonomy of each nation. But this means that we also insist on the preservation of the autonomy of the German people. We are fully aware that it is our duty and obligation to make sure that the German people are not pushed against the wall by some other people.”

Whenever revolutionary criticisms were raised of this kind of “socialist” chauvinism at party meetings or congresses, the various cliques in control of this or that section of the organization would close ranks around whomever was being criticized, and then turn on their opponents, often unleashing some of the most bitter and vile personal slander against them. Women like Rosa Luxemburg, whose revolutionary criticisms of German Social-Democracy would aid in the development of the communist movement during the First World War, was often the target of sexist personal attacks and intrigue by who led the party and International.

Indeed, between the beginning of the century and the outbreak of the War, the political climate in German Social-Democracy (and, in turn, in the entire Socialist International) had degenerated into an atmosphere of personal allegiances dictating political program, and the most vile of attacks being substituted for honest, principled discussion. At the same time, those aging leaders of the party and International, many of whom had been involved in the movement since the 1870s and 1880s, who were looked to as the theoretical successors to Marx and Engels, had not only grown comfortable with the conditions of legality and the party’s place within the bourgeois political order, they had also begun to bow to the pressures coming from within their own classes (most of them were of bourgeois or petty-bourgeois origins) and adapting “Marxism” to those pressures.

Social Democracy’s “Civilizing Mission”

Some of the delegates to the International Socialist Congress in Amsterdam, 1904. The Amsterdam Congress is infamous for its resolutions condemning Asians, Africans and Latinos as “backward” and “inferior.”

At the end of the 19th century, one of the heaviest pressures on the social-democratic movement was that of European chauvinism and racism toward the peoples of Asia and Africa. Existing in the age of colonial empires, with most of its sections based in the imperial Great Power centers, the Socialist International often accommodated the Social Darwinism of “white man’s burden” in its ranks. Europe was the home of “civilization” and European social democrats (which also included the European-derived Americans) were not only bringing economic emancipation, but also “civilization,” through their struggles for “socialism” across the globe.

It was common for social-democratic leaders to refer to Africans (including African Americans), Indians, Chinese, Latinos and indigenous peoples as “backward” or “inferior,” and opposed their right to emigrate to Europe and the U.S. Anti-Semitism was also common among European social democrats, even though it was the Socialist International that was known as the most strident defender of European Jews, especially after the infamous Dreyfus Affair in France.

But some of the strongest European chauvinism was saved for Russia. In the view of the social democrats, especially those in Germany, Russia represented a “bulwark of reaction” that was to be resisted at all costs, and this chauvinist view overrode all other considerations — not the least of which was the militarism and despotism of the imperial throne in Berlin. Indeed, this Russophobia extended to Engels himself, who, in 1891, counseled his friend, August Bebel, a leader of the German Social-Democratic Party:

“Our people [in the French Workers Party] have got to realize that a war against Germany in alliance with Russia would first and foremost be a war against the strongest and most efficient socialist party in Europe, and that we should have no option but to fight with all our might against any assailant who went to Russia’s aid. For either we should succumb, and that would put paid to the socialist movement in Europe for the next 20 years, or we should ourselves come to the helm and then the words of the Marseillaise, ‘Quoi, ces cohortes étrangères feraient la loi dans nos foyers? [Shall these foreign cohorts lay down the law in our own homes?]’, would apply to the French.” (Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 49 [Lawrence & Wishart, Ltd, 2010], p. 244)

This anti-Russia hysteria was used repeatedly by German social democrats, both on the party’s left and right, to justify their support for the First World War. Local social-democratic papers cried, “The slogan is the same everywhere: against Russian despotism and treachery!” “We have to wage war above all against Tsarism, and this war we shall be waging enthusiastically. For it is a war for culture.” (Emphasis mine.) In a letter to a Polish comrade, one German social democrat, previously considered to be on the party’s left, stated: “If, like me, you do not for a second consider it to be a moral crime that our French brothers are resolutely defending their country’s culture (which I infinitely value) against the ‘German barbarians,’ then you may not scold me as a bad socialist for wanting to see our German culture defended against the truly barbaric hordes of [Russian] tsarism.”

This support for beating back “tsarist barbarism” — for engaging in kulturkampf [culture war] against Russian “backwardness” and “despotism” (and, later, “English intrigue”) — was fully in line with the ideology of the exploiting classes, which had built up a mythology around Germany acting as the gatekeeper and sentry of European peace, maintaining “balance” and “order” along the lines of the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna, which reorganized Europe after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. European social democracy, which never fully broke with the ideologies of the ruling classes, sought to integrate itself into this order, using the specter of proletarian revolution to earn itself a place in the negotiations. And when that order broke down, so did social democracy.


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