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The world Socialist movement was blown apart as its members supported the First World War. Neil Faulkner looks at how the question of reform or revolution lay behind the split.

German soldiers go to war in August 1914On 4 August 1914, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the largest socialist party in Europe, voted unanimously for war credits in the Reichstag (the German Parliament). The SPD thereby gave its support to an imperialist war in which 10 million would die.

The decision stunned the European Left. It was ‘the greatest tragedy of our lives’ in the view of Russian revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin. ‘The capitulation of German Social Democracy,’ said Leon Trotsky, ‘shocked me even more than the declaration of war’. Lenin, the exiled Bolshevik leader, at first assumed that the paper in which he read the news was a forgery.

The German working-class movement was shattered. ‘Everything seemed to collapse,’ wrote young SPD activist Toni Sender. She found herself on a freight train crowded with troops on the way to the front. Most were married men, grim-faced, with little enthusiasm for what was to come.

Just days before, on 28 July, there had been 100,000 anti-war demonstrators on the streets of Berlin. Across Germany, during four days of mass protest in the final days of peace, there had been no less than 288 anti-war demonstrations involving up to three-quarters of a million people.

The mass movement had been building since 1911. The SPD stood at its head. On 4 August, the SPD vote killed the movement stone-dead and delivered the German working class into the hands of the Junker officer-caste and its war-machine.

On the evening of 4 August, a handful of revolutionaries met in Rosa Luxemburg’s Berlin flat. They issued an anti-imperialist statement and invited some 300 other leading socialists to sign. Clara Zetkin was the only one to cable immediate support. The German anti-war socialists suddenly found themselves a tiny minority.

The German pattern was replicated across Europe: socialist parties abandoned internationalism to support their own bourgeois governments in an imperialist world war. The Second International – a world federation of socialist parties – was exposed as a sham.

Edward Bernstein - the leader of 'revisionism' in the German SPDWhat had gone wrong? Why had all the speeches and resolutions proclaiming international solidarity and opposition to war turned out to be hot air?

The explosive growth of European capitalism from the 1870s onwards had created an industrial proletariat of tens of millions by 1914. Mass strikes had welded this working class into a combative labour movement across much of Europe. This in turn created a mass electoral base for parties like the SPD.

By 1912, with a million members and 90 daily papers, the German SPD was the biggest working-class organisation in the world. It ran a women’s section, a youth section, various trade unions and co-ops, and numerous sports clubs and cultural societies.

In that year, the SPD made a dramatic electoral breakthrough, winning one in three votes and becoming, with 110 seats, the largest party in the Reichstag. But the transformation of the party from a small outlawed minority to a mass electoral machine also transformed its social and political character.

This was reflected in the rise of ‘revisionism’ – what would later be called ‘reformism’. Its leading advocate was Edward Bernstein (1850-1932). He argued that capitalism was becoming less crisis-prone, prosperity was steadily increasing, and therefore, from now on, the condition of the working class could best be improved by gradual reform

Bernstein redefined the SPD as a ‘democratic socialist reform party’ – as opposed to a party of social revolution.

Bernstein never dominated the SPD, but he pulled it sharply to the right. Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) was more representative of the majority. He was a ‘centrist’ rather than a ‘revisionist’.

He continued to believe that capitalism was exploitative and violent, and that socialism was rational and necessary. But he also took the view that the system was so riddled with contradictions that it would eventually collapse of its own accord – without the revolutionary action of the working class.

Kautsky was therefore revolutionary in theory, but reformist in practice. This enabled him to bridge the gap between the out-and-out reformism of Bernstein and the politics of revolutionary socialists like Rosa Luxemburg. All three tendencies, however, remained within the SPD – rather than forming separate parties.

Karl  Kautsky - the 'centrist' who preached socialism but practised reformism in the German SPDReformism reflects: a) the limited consciousness of a class; and b) the actual material interests of a social group.

Most workers under capitalism have ‘mixed consciousness’. This arises from the interaction of three factors. First, because the system is based on exploitation, oppression, and violence, it engenders resentment and resistance among its victims. The class struggle is endemic to capitalism.

On the other hand, the dominant ideas of society are those of the ruling class, and most workers accept at least some of these ideas for much of the time. What strengthens the grip of these ideas is a third factor: the fact that workers often lack the confidence to fight because the balance of class forces seems unfavourable.

Lenin distinguished between ‘trade-union consciousness’ and ‘revolutionary consciousness’. The former is the attitude of most workers most of the time: they do not like aspects of the system, and they will sometimes fight for specific reforms, but they are not committed to an all-out struggle to overthrow it.

Reformism is the political form of trade-union consciousness. It expresses the limited aspirations of workers for political change within the system. It does not reflect the interests of workers as a class. These lie in the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a system based on democracy, collective ownership, and human need.

Reformism does, however, reflect the interests of a distinct social layer within the working-class movement: trade-union leaders, socialist politicians, and their respective bureaucracies of full-time officials, researchers, and spin-doctors.

The political role of the labour bureaucracy is to negotiate the terms of exploitation in the workplace or to secure social reforms in parliament. In performing this role, they work with representatives of the ruling class. Theirs is a mediating role between capital and labour.

The social position of the labour bureaucracy is privileged compared with that of ordinary workers: union officials and politicians enjoy higher salaries, more rewarding jobs, and better working conditions. They inhabit a relatively comfortable and conservative milieu.

The labour bureaucracy embodies the normal everyday reformist consciousness of workers: the lowest common denominator of left politics.

Rosa Luxemburg - 'Red Rosa' This consciousness includes nationalism. If the aim is to win reforms within the system, the bourgeois nation-state becomes the framework for political action rather than a target for revolutionary overthrow. The ‘national interest’ imposes a limit on the reforms that are possible.

Until 1914, none of this was clear. The German-Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) was in the forefront of the struggle against revisionism. She played a central role in defending the revolutionary socialist tradition against the growing bureaucratic conservatism of the SPD leaders. Two pamphlets in particular – Reform or Revolution (1899) and The Mass Strike (1906) – are landmarks in the development of the Marxist tradition.

But even Luxemburg did not predict the betrayal of 4 August 1914. Its effect was to blow world socialism apart.

The war would be ended by revolution, first in Russia in 1917, then in Germany in 1918. When this happened, ‘socialist’ ministers would be on opposite sides of barricades from revolutionary workers.

Tagged under: History Socialism Marxism
Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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