The Question of War in the 1st and 2nd Internationals

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On the eve of World War I, when revolutionaries like Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg declared the internationalist position characteristic of capitalism's new historic phase - "There is no longer any such thing as defensive or offensive wars" (Congress of Basel, 1912) - they did so with reference to the Balkan War. In capitalism's "decadent", "imperialist" phase, all wars between powers are equally reactionary. Contrary to what happened in the 19th century, when the bourgeoisie could still lead wars against feudalism, the proletarians could no longer choose between either camp in these wars. The only possible response to capitalism's militaristic barbarism is the destruction for capitalism itself. These positions, ultra-minority ones in 1914 when the First World War broke out, where nonetheless to form the basis for the great revolutionary movements of this century: the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the German Revolution of 1919, which put an end to the bloodbath begun in 1914.

For the first time since World War II, war has broken out again in Europe, and again it has broken out in the Balkans. It is vital that we reappropriate the experience of revolutionaries' struggle against war. This is why we are publishing this article which sums up a crucial aspect of revolutionaries' action against one of capitalism's most terrible scourges.

Bilan no 21, July August 1936

It would be falsifying history to say that the 1st and 2nd Internationals never considered the problem of war, and that they did not try to resolve it in the interests of the working class. We could even say that the problem of war was on the agenda right from the birth of the 1st International (the war that opposed
Austria to France and the Piedmont in 1859, the 1864 conflict between Denmark and the Austro-Prussian alliance, the war between Prussia and Italy on one side and Austria and South Germany on the other in 1866, the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, not to mention American Civil War of 1861-65, and the insurrection of Bosnia-Herzegovina against Austrian annexation in 1878, all of which provoked the liveliest interest among internationalists at the time).

If we consider the number of wars that arose during this period, we can say that the problem was more a "burning" one in the time of the 1st International than of the 2nd, which was marked above all by the colonial wars for the division of Africa. With the exception of the brief conflict between Turkey and Greece in 1897, wars did not break out in Europe until the Balkan wars, and that between Italy and Turkey for the possession of Libya, which prefigured the world conflagration of 1914.

All this explains - and we are speaking from experience - that we, the generation which entered the struggle before 1914, perhaps considered the problem of war as an ideological struggle rather than a real and imminent danger: the termination, without recourse to arms, of serious crises such as the Fashoda or Agadir incidents tended to make us believe, wrongly, that economic "interdependence", in other words the increasing number of close ties between countries, constituted a secure defense against the outbreak of war among the European powers, and that their increasing military preparations rather than leading inevitably to war, only confirmed the principle "si vis pacem para bellum" ("if you want peace, prepare for war").

When the 1st International was founded, the universal panacea for preventing war was the suppression of standing armies, and their replacement by militia on the Swiss model. This position was put forward by the International's 2nd Congress at Lausanne in 1867, aimed in particular at a bourgeois pacifist movement which had formed a League for Peace that held congresses from time to time. The International decided to take part (in the Congress held in Geneva, where Garibaldi made his pathetically theatrical intervention with the famous declaration that "only the slave has die right to make war on tyrants"), and its delegates insisted that "it is not enough to do away with standing armies to put an end to war, but that a transformation of the entire social order is also necessary").

At the International's 3rd Congress, held in Brussels in 1868, a resolution was voted on the workers' attitude in the case of a conflict between the great European powers, where they were called to prevent a war of one people against another, and to cease work in the event of war. Two years later, in July 1870, the International found itself faced with the outbreak of war between France and Prussia.

The International's first manifesto was innocuous enough: "on the ruins that will be left by the two armies, socialism will remain the only real power. Then will be the moment for the International to decide what to do. Until then, let us remain calm and vigilant" (!!!).

The fact that the war was conducted by Napoleon "the Small" (ie Napoleon III) determined the somewhat defeatist attitude of large sections of the French population, amongst whom the internationalists opposition to the war found an echo.

Moreover, the fact that Germany was generally considered as having been "unjustly" attacked by "Bonaparte", provided a certain justification (since this was a "defensive" war) to the German workers' position of national defense.

The fall of the French Empire, after the catastrophic defeat at Sedan, overturned these positions.

"We repeat what we declared in 1793 to the European coalition" wrote the French internationalists in their manifesto to the German people: "the French people will not make peace with an enemy occupying our territory. Only on the banks of the contested river [the Rhine] will the workers reach out their hands to create the United States of Europe, the Universal Republic".

The patriotic fever intensified, and indeed presided over the birth of the glorious Paris Commune itself.

On the other side, for the German proletariat it was now a war conducted by the monarchy and Prussian militarism against the "French Republic" and the "French people". Hence the slogan of "an honorable peace without annexations", which motivated Liebknecht's and Bebel's protest in the Reichstag against the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine and their consequent condemnation for "high treason".

Another point remains to be clarified on the subject of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and the attitude of the workers' movement to it.

In fact, at the time, Marx envisaged the possibility of "progressive wars" - above all the war against Tsarist Russia - in an epoch where the cycle of bourgeois revolutions was not yet closed, just as he envisaged a possible conjunction of the bourgeois revolutionary movement with the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat, where the latter would intervene, even in time of war, to hasten its final triumph.

"The war of 1870", wrote Lenin in his pamphlet on Zimmerwald, "was a "progressive war" like those of the French revolution, which while they undoubtedly brought with them all the elements of pillage and conquest, had the historic function of destroying or shaking feudalism and absolutism throughout the old Europe still founded on serfdom".

But while such a perspective was still admissible in Marx's day, even though it had already been overtaken by events, in capitalism's final, imperialist phase, to talk about "progressive", "national", or "just" wars is nothing but a deception and a betrayal. In effect, as Lenin wrote, unity with the national bourgeoisie of one's own country is unity against the unity of the revolutionary international proletariat, in a word it is unity with the bourgeoisie, against the proletariat, the betrayal of the revolution and of socialism.

Moreover, we should not forget other problems which influenced Marx in 1870, and which he emphasized in a letter to Engels (20th July 1870). The concentration of state power following the Prussian victory could only be useful to the concentration of the German working class, favorable to its class struggle, and, Marx wrote "the German preponderance will transport the center of gravity of the European workers' movement from France to Germany, and consequently ensure the definitive triumph of scientific socialism over Proudhonism and utopian socialism".

To finish with the 1st International, we will point out that, curiously, the 1871 London Conference did not deal with these problems despite their topicality, any more than did the Hague Congress in September 1872 where Marx gave a presentation in German of the events since 1869, the date of the International's previous Congress. In fact, the events of the time were treated very superficially, and the Congress limited itself to expressing its admiration for the heroic champions who had fallen in the Commune, and its fraternal greetings to the victims of bourgeois reaction.

The first Congress of the reconstituted International, held in Paris in 1889, restated the old slogan of the "replacement of standing armies by popular militias", and the next Congress, held in Brussels in 1891, adopted a resolution calling on workers to protest, by constant agitation, against all attempts at war, adding by way of consolation that the responsibility for war would in all events fall on the shoulders of the ruling classes ...

The 1869 London Congress - which saw the definitive split with the anarchists - declared in a general programmatic resolution on the question of war, that "the working class in all countries must oppose the violence provoked by war".

In 1900, in Paris, following the growth in political strength of the socialist parties, a principle was set forward which was to become axiomatic for all agitation against war: "the socialist deputies to Parliament in all countries are required to vote against all military and naval expenditure, and against colonial expeditions".

But the fullest debates on the question of war took place at Stuttgart in 1907.

Alongside the grandiloquent phrase mongering of the histrionic Herve on the duty of "answering war by the general strike and insurrection", Bebel presented a resolution essentially in agreement with Guesde, which although theoretically correct was inadequate with regard to the role and tasks of the proletariat.

At this Congress, in order to "prevent Bebel's orthodox deductions being read through opportunist spectacles" (Lenin) Rosa Luxemburg, in agreement with the Russian Bolsheviks, added to the resolution amendments which emphasized that the problem consisted not only in the struggle against the eventuality of war, but also and above all in using the crisis caused by the war to accelerate the fall of the bourgeoisie: "to profit in every way from the economic and political crisis to raise the people and so
to precipitate the fall of capitalist rule" .

In Copenhagen in 1910, the previous resolution was confirmed, especially with regard to the strict duty of socialist deputies to refuse all war credits.

Finally, as we know, during the Balkan war, and faced with the imminent danger of a world conflagration exploding in the powder-keg of Europe - today the powder-kegs have been multiplied to infinity - a special Congress was held in Basel in November 1912, to draw up the famous manifesto, which repeated all the declarations of Stuttgart and Copenhagen, denounced the future European war as "criminal" and "reactionary" for all governments, and declared that it could only "hasten the fall of capitalism by unfailingly provoking the proletarian revolution".

But while the manifesto declared that the looming war would be a war of pillage, an imperialist war for all the belligerents, and that it could only lead to a proletarian revolution, it tried above all to demonstrate that this imminent war could not be justified by a shadow of national interest. This implied an admission that, under a capitalist regime, and in the midst of imperialist expansion, cases could exist where participation by the exploited class in a war of "national defense" could be justified.

Two years later, the imperialist war broke out, and with it the IInd International collapsed. This debacle was the direct result of the insurmountable contradictions and ambiguities contained in all these resolutions. In particular, the ban on voting war credits did not resolve the problem of the "defense of the country" against the attack of an "aggressor nation". This is the breach through which the pack of social-chavinists and opportunists poured. The "Sacred Union" was sealed with the collapse of the international class solidarity of the workers.

As we have seen, if we look superficially at the language of its resolutions the IInd International not only adopted a principled class position against war, it also provided itself with the practical means to oppose it, to the point of formulating more or less explicitly the principle of transforming the imperialist war into a proletarian revolution. But if we go to the bottom of things, we can see that while the IInd International posed the problem of war, it resolved it in a formal and simplistic manner. It denounced war above all for its horrors and atrocities, because the proletariat provided the cannon fodder for the ruling class. The Ilnd International's anti-militarism was purely negative, and left almost exclusively to the socialist youth, in some countries against the clear hostility of the party itself.

With the exception of the Bolsheviks during the 1904-05 Russian Revolution, no party envisaged so much as the possibility of systematic illegal work in the army. The parties limited themselves to manifestoes or papers against war, which were posted on the walls or distributed at schools, calling on workers to remember that under the soldier's uniform they remained proletarians. Faced with the inadequacy and sterility of this work, Herve had an easy time of it, especially in Latin countries with his wordy demagoguery of "burying the flag in the dung-heap", and his encouragement of desertion, the rejection of armies, and his famous slogan "shoot your officers".

In Italy - where in October 1912 the socialist patty gave the only example in the Ilnd International of calling a 24-hour strike against the Tripolitanian colonial expedition - a young worker in Bologna, Masetti, followed Herve's suggestions and shot his colonel during a military exercise. This was the only positive event to come out of the entire Herve comedy.

Less than a month later, on the 4th August, temporarily ignored by the mass of workers engulfed in the carnage of World War I, the manifesto of the Bolshevik Central Committee raised the flag of the continuity of the workers' struggle with its historic call for the transformation of the present imperialist war into a civil war.

The October Revolution was on the march.

Gatto Mamone