World War I: The SPD left’s dirty secret

Benjamin Lewis
Weekly Worker 1016
June 26, 2014

The following article by Ben Lewis provides a fairly neat overview of “left” renegacy within the SPD in the run-up to, and aftermath of, Germany’s declaration of war on August 4, 1914. He challenges some of the predominant narratives of this history, especially those which trace the origins of German Social Democracy’s capitulation to the vulgar Marxism of the SPD center led by Karl Kautsky. In this respect, Lewis’ intervention may be seen as motivated by the rehabilitation of Kautsky and Kautskyism by the Canadian academic Lars Lih and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Some of the more orthodox Trotskyist sects, such as the Spartacists, have polemicized against the so-called “neo-Kautskyites” as merely recycling the Second International. For a more balanced article that is still critical of Lih and the CPGB, please see Chris Cutrone’s article on “1914 in the History of Marxism.”

Nevertheless, Lewis et al.‘s rigor in reconstructing the sequence of events and the personalities involved is to be welcomed. While Kautsky himself did not vote for war credits, as a mere consultant to the SPD delegation (he recommended abstention in this matter), he did still view the war as “German ‘self-defense’ against the Russian bear,” as Lewis put it. Only later did he and others come out in opposition to the war.

As long as there is imperialism, there will be “social”-imperialism, with sections of the “left” seeking to apologize for, downplay, or cheerlead for the actions of its own state. This article — based on continuing research and translation work with Mike Macnair 1 — will briefly outline the formation of a rather peculiar “social-imperialist” outfit within German social democracy around the publication, Die Glocke (The Bell), founded in 1915. This article draws largely on Robert Sigel’s study, Die Lensch-Cunow-Haenisch-Gruppe: eine Studie zum rechten Flügel der SPD im Ersten Weltkrieg (Berlin 1976), as well as my translation work.

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The leadership of the Social Democratic Party, of course, fell behind the kaiser’s war effort, as symbolized by the SPD parliamentary deputies voting for war credits on August 4 1914. The peculiarity of Die Glocke, however, lies in the fact that it was made up of figures who before 1914 had overwhelmingly been on the hard, anti-imperialist left of the party. Regularly working alongside several anti-imperialist icons of the workers’ movement — not least Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring, and Karl Liebknecht — lefts like Parvus (Israel Lazarevich Gelfhand, 1867-1924), Konrad Haenisch (1876-1925), Heinrich Cunow (1862-1936) and Paul Lensch (1873-1926) rapidly transformed themselves into some of the most vociferous champions of a German victory.

The fact that a grouping of this nature emerged poses various theoretical and historical questions regarding both our conceptions of anti-imperialist strategy and the history of social democracy. Additionally, many of the theoretical traps fallen into by the group concerning political democracy, the nature of war-driven nationalisations and the need to choose a side at all costs in imperialist conflicts remain a persistent problem of many sections of the left to this day.

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The dominant account is that the SPD’s ignominious capitulation to German imperialism on August 4, 1914 can largely be traced back to the Marxist center around Karl Kautsky and the non-dialectical, evolutionist and fatalist outlook for which he and his political allies were responsible. By contrast, so the story goes, the consistent struggle of Lenin and the Bolsheviks against the imperialist war either reflected the fact that they were much closer to the left of the SPD (like Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek, and others) or that with the outbreak of war the scales suddenly fell from the eyes of Lenin and co, who abruptly broke with the center’s perspectives to chart new political territory.

In light of recent research, it is clear that this account is radically false, not only when it comes to Lenin,2 but because it overlooks the fact that some of the most important figures of the pre-1914 German left came out in support of the war and German victory — and did so more aggressively than the pro-war majority of the party.

Almost all historians agree that August 4 1914 was a milestone in the history of European socialism. But was the vote, and the consequent policy of Burgfrieden (social peace), a break with or a continuation of earlier perspectives? Was it a necessary outcome of the party’s development before 1914 — in particular its approval of the government’s Military Tax Bill to enlarge the German army (1913), on the basis that this bill introduced progressive property taxation?3

In his German Social Democracy 1905-1917, Carl E Schorske argues that “the vote for the war credits on August 4, 1914 is but the logical end of a clear line of development.”4 Susann Miller,5 by contrast, accepts that reformism had come to dominate the party, but states: “the question is merely whether a reformist policy necessarily had to the lead to the decision of August 3” (when the majority of the party’s Reichstag fraction agreed on the action to be taken the following day). Could another decision have been possible? For Georges Haupt, writing in 1970, “the fiasco of 1914…still always dominates judgements and views [in relation to the Second International]. One had emphasized the significance of this “capital offense,” yet neglected a clarification of the process that led to it, thereby arriving at the false conventional posing of the question: is [August 4] based on the lack of theoretical reflection or on the thoughtless repetition of the lessons of a Marxism that had been raised to…a dogma and isolated from practice?”6

The group around Die Glocke sheds some new light on the question of how, in the words of the Austro-Marxist Friedrich Adler, “it could come to pass that this revolutionary-socialist approach, something that was stressed over and again, burst like a bubble at the moment the war broke out.”7

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Parvus is a somewhat enigmatic figure, chiefly famous on the left for his influence on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Yet there is nothing mysterious about his theoretical commitment to the struggle against imperialism and war before 1914. He wrote a range of different publications on the world market and the main states’ colonial division of the world. His classic was Colonial Policy and the Breakdown, published in 1907 in the wake of the SPD’s unexpected defeat at the hands of a pro-colonialist political bloc in the so-called “Hottentot elections.”8 Luxemburg, Kautsky, and others drew on his theoretical output for their polemics on questions of war and peace. But on August 4 1914 Parvus advocated a German victory, albeit from abroad, and, given his importance, it is quite likely that he provided the inspiration for others to rethink their anti-war politics.

Parvus gave an interview to the Istanbul daily, Tasvir-i Efkar, which was published on August 4 1914 — not only the day of the SPD Reichstag fraction’s vote, but of the British declaration of war. It came three days after the German declaration of war on Russia, and a week after the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia. Parvus was thus very quick to make up his mind in stating his opinion on what the war means for Turkey: “The hostilities in Europe laid bare all matters of conflict. Those nations who fail to get their demands will be the prey of others. The time for talk and reasoning has passed. Now action is needed! You should heed this well.” Parvus could not be more clear: now the war had started, it was impossible to stand aside from it. Before leaving Istanbul, he also wrote for Türk Yurdu two pamphlets with the same theme: Umumî Harb Neticelerinden: Almanya Galip Gelirse (The Outcome of the General War if Germany Wins), and Umumî Harb Neticelerinden: İngiltere Galip Gelirse (The outcome of the general war if England wins). Continue reading