Anarchism and imperialist war (part 1): Anarchists faced with the First World War

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In the anarchist milieu today, notably in France and Russia, we are seeing a number of elements attempting to distinguish themselves from the nationalist approach contained in the defence of regionalism, ‘ethnic identity' and national liberation struggles, questions that are often characteristic of the weaknesses of this milieu. The catastrophic course of capitalist society obliges all those who passionately desire to take part in the social revolution to seriously examine the perspectives facing the proletariat - not only the prospects for the class struggle but also the development of the barbarity of imperialist war on almost every continent.

For the proletariat, faced with imperialist war, the only attitude that corresponds to its interests is the rejection of any participation in one or the other camps involved and the denunciation of all the bourgeois forces that appeal to the proletariat, under some pretext or the other, to give their lives for one of these capitalist camps. In the context of imperialist war, the working class must put forward the sole perspective possible: the development of conscious and intransigent struggle with the ultimate aim of overthrowing capitalism. In this sense, the question of internationalism constitutes the decisive criterion for an organisation or current being in the camp of the proletariat.

Internationalism is based on universal conditions imposed on the working class by capitalism at the world level - on the exploitation of its labour power, in every country and on every continent. It was in the name of such internationalism that the First International and the two Internationals that followed were born. Internationalism is based on the essential fact that the conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat are international: beyond frontiers and military fronts, beyond ethnic origins and particular cultures, the proletariat finds its unity in the common struggle against its conditions of exploitation and for the abolition of wage labour, for communism.

But generally, for anarchism, internationalism is more tied up with its abstract ‘principles' such as anti-authoritarianism, liberty, the rejection of any power, anti-statism, etc., than to a clear conception that this internationalism constitutes a class frontier that distinguishes the camp of capital from the camp of the proletariat. That's why, as we'll see, the history of anarchism is subject to permanent oscillations between decisive internationalist positions and positions that are humanist, pacifist, sterile or outright warmongering.

In this series of articles, we will try to understand why, at each major imperialist moment - such as the two world wars - the majority of the anarchist milieu, on the one hand, was unable to defend the interests of our class and allowed itself to be gripped by bourgeois nationalism, whereas, on the other hand, a small minority succeeded in defending proletarian internationalism.

The betrayal of internationalism by Social-Democracy and anarchism in 1914

The outbreak of the First World War witnessed the shameful collapse of the Socialist International. The great majority of its parties submitted to capital, declared a union with each respective national bourgeoisie and led the mobilisation of the proletariat for imperialist war. Similarly, the main components of the anarchist movement spoke of going to war for the profit of the bourgeois state. Kropotkin, Tcherkesoff and Jean Grave were the most eager defenders of France: "Don't let these heinous conquerors wipe out the Latin civilisation and the French people again... Don't let them impose on Europe a century of militarism" (Letter of Kropotkin to J.Grave 2 September1914). It was in the name of the defence of democracy against Prussian militarism that they supported the Sacred Union: "German aggression was a threat - executed - not only against our hopes for emancipation but against all human evolution. That's why we, anarchists, we, anti-militarists, we enemies of war, we passionate partisans for peace and fraternity between peoples, we line up on the side of the resistance and we have not thought of separating our fate from that of the rest of the population" (Manifesto of Sixteen (the number of signatories) 28 February 1916). In France, the anarcho-syndicalist CGT threw into the bin its own resolutions that called on it organise the general strike in case of war, transforming itself into a hysterical purveyor of cannon fodder for imperialist butchery: "against the force of arms, against Germanic militarism, we must save the democratic and revolutionary tradition of France", "go without regret comrade workers when you are called to the frontiers to defend French soil."(La Bataille Syndicaliste, organ of the CNT, August 1914). In Italy, some anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist groups launched the ‘fasci' "against barbarity, German militarism and perfidious Roman and Austrian Catholicism".

However, this convergence of the majority of Social Democracy and anarchism in favour of supporting imperialist war and the bourgeois state showed fundamentally different dynamics.

The position of Social Democracy in 1914 faced with war constituted a betrayal of marxism, the theory of the international and revolutionary proletariat and of its principle that the workers had no country. The rallying to imperialist war and the bourgeoisie in 1914 by the majority of anarchists internationally was, on the contrary, not a false move but the logical conclusion of their anarchism, conforming to their essential political positions.

Thus, in 1914, it was in the name of anti-authoritarianism, because it was unthinkable "that one country could be violated by another" (Letter to J.Grave), that Kropotkin justified his chauvinist position in favour of France. By basing their internationalism on "‘self-determination' and ‘the absolute right of any individual, any association, any commune, province, region, nation to decide themselves, to associate or not associate, to link up with whom they wanted and break their alliances'"(Daniel Guerin, Anarchism Idees Gallimard p.80) the anarchists merely reflected the divisions that capitalism imposed on the proletariat. This chauvinist position has its roots in the federalism that is found at the very basis of all anarchist conceptions. In arguing that the nation is a natural phenomenon, in defending the right of all nations to existence and to their free development, anarchism judges the sole danger in the existence of nations to be their propensity to give way to the ‘nationalism' instilled by the dominant class in order to separate the people one from the other. It is naturally led, in any imperialist war, to operate a distinction between aggressors/aggressed, oppressors/oppressed, etc, and thus to opt for the defence of the weakest, of rights that have been flouted, etc. This attempt to base the refusal to go to war on something other than the class positions of the proletariat leaves all sorts of latitude to justify support for one or the other belligerent parties. Concretely, that's to say, to choose one imperialist camp against another.

Loyalty to internationalist principles affirmed by the Zimmerwald movement and the development of class struggle

However, some anarchists succeeded in affirming a really internationalist position. A minority of 35 militants (including A. Berkman, E. Goldman, E. Malatesta, D. Neiuwenhuis) published a manifesto against war (February 1915). "It is naive and puerile, after having multiple causes and occasions for conflicts, to try to establish the responsibility of such and such a government. There is no possible distinction between offensive and defensive war (...) No belligerent has the right to claim civilisation, as none has the right to declare itself in a state of legitimate defence (...) Whatever form it's dressed up in, the state is just organised oppression for the profit of a privileged minority. The present conflict illustrates this in a striking fashion. All forms of the state are currently engaged in the war: absolutism with Russia, absolutism mitigated with parliamentarism with Germany, the state reigning over people of quite different races with Austria, the constitutional democratic regime with Britain, and the democratic republican regime with France (...) The role of anarchists wherever they are or whatever situation in which they find themselves, in the present tragedy, is to continue to proclaim that there is only one war of liberation: that which in every country is led by the oppressed against the oppressors, by the exploited against the exploiters"(The Anarchist International and War, February 1915). The capacity to maintain class positions was clearer among mass proletarian organisations which, in reaction to the progressive abandonment of any revolutionary perspective by Social Democracy before the war, were part of the revolutionary syndicalist current. In Spain, A. Lorenzo, an old militant of the First International and founding member the CNT, immediately denounced the betrayal by German Social Democracy, the French CGT and the British unions for "having sacrificed their ideas on the altars of their respective countries, by denying the fundamentally international character of the social problem". In November 1914, another manifesto signed by anarchist groups, some unions and workers' societies all over Spain developed the same ideas: denunciation of the war, denunciation of the two rival gangs, necessitating a peace that "could only be guaranteed by the social revolution" (See ‘The CNT faced with war and revolution (1914-19)', International Review 129, and the rest of our series on the history of the CNT in IRs 128-122). The reaction was weakest among the anarcho-syndicalists most heavily handicapped by the weight of anarchist ideology. But from the betrayal of the CGT, a minority opposed to war came together in the small group La Vie Ouvriere of Monatte and Rosmer (See ‘Anarcho-syndicalism faces a change in epoch: the CGT up to 1914' International Review 120). The nebulous anarchist milieu was split between anarcho-patriots and internationalists. After 1915, the recovery of struggle by the proletariat and the repercussions of the slogan for transforming the imperialist war into civil war, launched by the socialist conferences opposed to the war at Zimmerwald and Kienthal, meant the anarchists could anchor their opposition to the war in the class struggle.

In Hungary after 1914, it was militant anarchists who headed the movement against imperialist war. Among them, Ilona Duczynska and Tivadar Lukacs introduced and propagandised the Zimmerwald Manifesto. Under the impulsion of the internationalist conference, the Galilee Circle, founded in 1908, and composed of a mixture of anarchists, socialists excluded from Social Democracy and some pacifists, became radicalised through a process of decantation. It went from anti-militarism and anti-clericism to socialism, from an activity as a discussion circle to a more determined propagandist activity against the war and active intervention in the openly fermenting workers' struggles. Its defeatist leaflets were signed "A Group of Hungarian Socialists Affiliated to Zimmerwald".

In Spain, the struggle against war was the central activity of the CNT, linked to the enthusiastic support of the workers' struggle that grew from the end of 1915. It demonstrated a clear will for discussion and was fully open to the positions of Zimmerwald and Kienthal, which were welcomed with enthusiasm. It discussed and collaborated with socialist minority groups in Spain that opposed the war. There was a great effort of reflection to try to understand the causes of the war and the means to struggle against it. It supported the positions of the Zimmerwald Left and made it known that it wanted: "along with all the workers, the war to be ended by the uprising of the proletariat in the belligerent countries" (‘Sobre la paz dos criterios' (‘Two criteria on peace') Solidaridad Obrera, June 1917).

October 1917, the beacon of the proletarian revolution

The outbreak of the Russian revolution stirred up an enormous enthusiasm. The revolutionary movement of the working class and the victorious insurrection of October 1917 led the proletarian currents of anarchism to identify with it explicitly. The most fruitful contribution of the anarchists to the revolutionary process in Russia was concretised by their collaboration with the Bolsheviks. Internationally, the political convergence of the internationalist anarchists with communism and the Bolsheviks was further strengthened.

Within the CNT, October was seen as a veritable triumph of the proletariat. Tierra y Libertad considered that "anarchist ideas have triumphed" (7 November 1917) and that the Bolshevik regime is "guided by the anarchist spirit of maximalism"(21 November1917). Solidaridad Obrera affirmed that: "the Russians show us the road to follow." The Manifesto of the CNT said: "Look at Russia, look at Germany. Let's imitate these champions of the proletarian revolution."

Among the Hungarian anarchist militants, October 1917 led to more clearly oriented action against war. So as to support the proletarian movement in all its ferment, the Revolutionary Socialist Circle was founded in 1918 from the Galilee Circle. It was essentially composed of libertarians, which regrouped some currents from marxism as well as anarchism.

In this phase, the trajectory of Tibor Szamuely is exemplary of the contribution from a good part of the anarchist milieu that was attached to the cause of the proletariat. Szamuely was, during his life, a dyed in the wool anarchist. Mobilised on the Russian front, taken prisoner in 1915, he made links with the Bolsheviks after February 1917. He helped set up a communist group of proletarian prisoners of war and, during the summer of 1918, participated in the combats of the Red Army against the Whites in the Urals. Faced with the development of a pre-revolutionary situation, he returned to Hungary in November 1918 and became an ardent defender of the creation of a communist party that was capable of giving a lead to the action of the masses and regrouping the most revolutionary elements. The recognition of the imperious needs of the class struggle and of the revolution led the anarchist militants to overcome their aversion to any form of political organisation and any prejudices about the exercise of political power by the proletariat. The Constituent Congress of the Communist Party took place at the end of November 1918 and the anarchists, among whom were O. Korvin and K. Krausz, editor of the anarchist daily Tarsadalmi Forrdalo. The Congress adopted a programme defending the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The HCP "got to work straightaway setting up the power of the Councils" (R.Bardy: 1919, La Commune de Budapest, Ed La Tete de Feuilles, 1972, p.60). In the revolutionary movement, from March 1919, Szamuely took up numerous responsibilities including that of Commissar of Military Affairs which organised the fight against counter-revolutionary activities. Some anarchists, veteran mutineers of Cattaro (1918), formed its shock brigade under the leadership of Cserny within the Red Army. It was renowned in the defence of Budapest for defeating the sudden Franco-Serbian attack against the capital and in the support given to the short-lived Slovak Republic of Councils in May 1919. Because of their firm commitment to the proletarian revolution, they were known as "Lenin's Boys".

In Russia, at the time of the White offensive against Petrograd (October 1919), the anarchists demonstrated their loyalty towards the revolution despite their disagreements with the Bolsheviks. "The Anarchist Federation of Petrograd, lacking in militants having given the best of its forces to the many fronts and to the Communist Bolshevik Party, finds itself in these serious times (...) entirely at the side of the Party" (Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution).

Calling into question anarchist dogmas

The experience of the world war, then of the revolution, confronted all revolutionaries with the need to make a complete revision of the ideas and means of action that had existed before the war. But this change wasn't posed in the same terms for everyone. Faced with world war, the left of Social Democracy, the communists (Bolsheviks and Spartacists at their head) maintained an intransigent internationalism. They were able to understand that the overthrow of the capitalist system by the proletariat, which was the only way to eradicate the barbarity of war from the surface of the Earth, was now on the historical agenda, and it was this that enabled them to embody the will of the working masses. They were able to assume the tasks of the hour by fundamentally situating themselves in continuity with their previous programme. They recognised that this war inaugurated the phase of the decadence of capitalism, implying that the final aim of the proletarian movement, communism, the ‘maximum programme' of Social Democracy, henceforth constituted the immediate objective to aim for.

It went quite differently for the anarchists. For those that only saw the ‘peoples', it was necessary first of all to establish their rejection of war and their internationalism on something other than the idealistic rhetoric of anarchism and adopt the class positions of the proletariat in order to remain faithful to the cause of the social revolution. It was by opening up to the positions developed by the communists (through the internationalist conferences against the war) that they were able to strengthen their combat against capitalism, and notably to surmount the apoliticism and the refusal of any political struggle typical of the conceptions inspired by anarchism. Thus within the CNT, the reception of Lenin's book State and Revolution aroused a very attentive study, leading to the conclusion that the text "established an integral bridge between Marxism and anarchism".

By leaving to one side the prism of mistrust for politics and anti-authoritarianism, the capacity of anarchism to understand the practice of the working class itself in its opposition to war and in the revolutionary process in Russia and Germany, allowed them to adopt a consistently internationalist attitude. In its 1919 Congress, the CNT expressed its support for the Russian revolution and recognised the dictatorship of the proletariat. It underlined the identity between the principles and the ideas of the CNT and those embodied by this revolution, and discussed its adhesion to the Communist International. Also, as a result of participation in the Munich Republic of Councils, 1919, the German anarchist E. Muhsam declared that "the theoretical and practical theses of Lenin on the accomplishment of the revolution and of the communist tasks of the proletariat have given a new base to our action (...) There are no longer any insurmountable obstacles to a unification of the international proletariat in its entirety. The anarchist communists have had, it is true, to give way on the most important point of disagreement between the two great tendencies of socialism: they had to renounce the negative attitude of Bakunin towards the dictatorship of the proletariat and yield on this point to the opinion of Marx. The unity of the revolutionary proletariat is necessary and must not be delayed. The only organisation capable of realising this is the German Communist Party" (Letter from E.Muhsam to the Communist International (September 1919), Communist Bulletin 22 July 1920).

Within the anarchist milieu numerous elements were sincerely committed to the social revolution and devoted themselves to rejoining the combat of the working class. Historic experience shows that each time the anarchists have adopted valid revolutionary positions it is by basing themselves on the experience and real movement of the working class and by working together with communists in order to draw out the lessons of this experience.  

Scott 11/5/9

see also

Anarchism and imperialist war (part 2): Anarchist participation in the Second World War

Anarchism and imperialist war (part 3): From the end of the Second World War to the end of the counter-revolution

Anarchism and imperialist war (part 4): Internationalism, a crucial question in today's debates


Historic events: 

Political currents and reference: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: