Against the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, for the Successful Resistance of the Ukrainian People


This essay is an expanded version of remarks I made at a discussion on “War and Capitalist Crisis” held at the Woodbine Collective in Ridgewood on September 10, 2022.

I have changed my mind more than once about important aspects of the Russian war against Ukraine over the last eight months. To some extent, this reflected the effects of quite persuasive, but profoundly opposed, arguments put forward by many different individuals, including arguments by some whom I have been hesitant to disagree with, given their extraordinary records of knowledgeable and principled politics.

Early on in the war, I privately circulated a draft flier that attempted to straddle the divide between strong support for the Ukrainian resistance and strong opposition to nato. In fact, it probably went so far as to define the internationalist position as one that could only be an anti-nato expansion position.1 It met with criticisms from a number of perspectives. I thanked those who had responded and said that I needed to think more about it. It took me a while. Hopefully, this article has fewer flaws.

The essay is primarily an essay about socialist history, specifically a history of the debates among socialists before and during the First World War and in the final days of that war. Those debates resulted in the crystallization of what became the “classical” revolutionary antiwar tradition during the twentieth Century. It is intended to clear up what I think is a great deal of mythology and mystification among far-left activists about that tradition. Beyond an accounting of the debates, I also hope to explore some of the profound differences in historical contexts between now and just over a hundred years ago. Those differences include matters such as the form and content of nationalism, imperialism and internationalism.

Towards that end, I will address the significance of Rosa Luxemburg’s surprising sympathy for and support of struggles against national oppression and the development of a regional grassroots internationalism in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and other Eastern European countries as an encouraging sign of the potential of a new internationalism being born out of the vast suffering in Ukraine.2

One of my starting points is a conviction that the invocation of “tried and true” formulas from the past (such as the “No war but the class war!” slogan or the call for “revolutionary defeatism”) has little to recommend itself when we are faced with a situation that is unlike any other situation we know about.3 More importantly, it has nothing to recommend itself when it comes to advising the Ukrainians about what they should do. They are faced with an existential crisis—perhaps comparable to what the Palestinians have dealt with since 1948. For the Ukrainians, the time to fight is now. The time will never be better if the Russians succeed.

None of that is intended to suggest that the war is not a catastrophe for the Ukrainians and awful for the Russians. Nor is it to underestimate the danger that the war might spiral even more out of control. The best way for the carnage to end and to forestall the dangers that may lie ahead is the fastest possible withdrawal of Russia from all of Ukraine and, by extension, the toppling of the Russian regime. There are roles to play for both Ukrainians and Russians in making that outcome a reality. Thus far, albeit in unequal measure, people in both countries seem willing and able to do what needs to be done. In a world without very much hope of anything good ever happening, that is no small accomplishment.

I suggest making a distinction between the defense of Ukraine and the defense of the Ukrainian state. Events on the ground in Ukraine have provided convincing evidence that the distinction is a valuable one. By every account, the Ukrainian people have rallied around the defense of their country. For the moment, the defense of the people cannot be accomplished without the use of the state. If the Ukrainians succeed, they will live to fight another day against that state. If Ukraine fails, there will be no fight left to have—there will only be tyranny and prolonged national subjugation. Many of them likely have illusions about the state that is conducting the war but not all do and not all have all illusions. And many more have had an extraordinary experience of self-activity in fighting a war they were never expected to win.

It is all but impossible to have a serious argument with those who have adopted a pro-Russian position. On the other hand, it is essential that arguments be joined with those who believe that each of the warring states is as bad as the other and that all nationalism is poisonous. We need an end to false equivalents—a bourgeois republic, distorted by excessive corruption, is not the same as a quasi-fascist autocracy. In the one, politics is possible; in the other, nothing other than mindless consumption and collaboration is typically the rule of the day.

But not always! The signs of resistance within Russia have been extraordinary—from public demonstrations to refusal of conscription to flight from the country to the burnings of state offices to the sabotage of war-related infrastructure. What is most striking about some aspects of the resistance in Russia, especially among anarchist groups, is their commitment to the success of the Ukrainians and not just their opposition to Russia.

Debates about war and peace among socialists before and during the First World War

In the middle of the nineteenth century, there was no universal Marxist policy of opposition to war. Instead, Marx and Engels argued that each outbreak of hostilities should be weighed in terms of the relative advantages for the cause of workers’ emancipation. Their position was deeply influenced by the existing landscape of European nation states and empires which gave rise to their articulation of a “special position” on Russia. For them, Russia was the center of reaction and counter-revolution. “For the defeat of tsarism” was the watchword of the revolutionary forces.

This approach was taken for granted for at least several decades. Thus, when war was waged between Russia and Japan in 1904–1905, the predominant socialist view, including within Russian social democracy and specifically including Lenin, was to give strong support to Japan. “This policy was not for international application. It was a policy on one side of a given war between a despotic, backward state and a ‘progressive’ capitalist state.” This meant that social democrats wanted the defeat of Russia and the victory of Japan. That was defeatism!4

Things changed rapidly. The development of capitalist industries in the Russian Empire produced a dramatic growth in the size of the Russian working class, although the great majority of the population were still peasants working on the land. In turn, this had contributed to the development of Russian social democracy. The 1905 Revolution announced these developments to the world. Rather than lagging behind, the proletariat in the empire was leading the way.

The establishment of the Second International (in 1889) had brought representatives of social democratic parties together in regular gatherings and contributed to the beginnings of a new internationalism—one that included Russia’s social democrats.5 But the old tradition of a focus on tsarism as the primary enemy was strong and, whether by conviction or convenience, it continued to influence the opinions of social democratic parties. This was especially true of its echoes in the German spd (“the Party”).

The extent of these activities was so extensive that in 1913, Lenin celebrated the Party’s choirs:

In 1892, after the repeal of the Anti-Socialist Law, there were 180 workers’ choral societies in Germany with 4,300 members. In 1901, the membership reached 39,717, in 1907, 93,000, and by 1912, 165,000. Berlin is said to have 5,352 members of workers’ choral societies; Hamburg, 1,628; Leipzig, 4,051; Dresden, 4,700, etc.

We recently reported how the workers of France and other Romance countries had marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Eugene Pottier (1816–1887), the author of the famous Internationale. In Germany, the propaganda of socialism by workers’ songs is much more recent, and the “Junker” (landowners,’ Black-Hundred) government of Germany has been throwing up many more foul police obstacles to such propaganda.

But no amount of police harassment can prevent the singing of the hearty proletarian song about mankind’s coming emancipation from wage-slavery in all the great cities of the world, in all the factory neighborhoods, and more and more frequently in the huts of village laborers.6

The members of the Social Democratic Party were ill-prepared to deal with the challenges of the impending world war. By the turn of the twentieth century, the Party’s politics that resulted from the combination of a preoccupation with electoral victories and a comprehensive program of educational/cultural activities were not Marxist in any sense of the term. Indeed, the party was probably not “Marxist” from the beginning.7 In 1875, Karl Marx had written an unpublished critique of its founding program (Critique of the Gotha Program) where he emphasized the ways in which the program reflected the continuing influence of Ferdinand Lassalle.8 Karl Korsch summarized what Marx was attempting to do:

Karl Marx had devoted his whole life to transforming socialism from a theoretical ideology and practical utopia into a realistic and material science and practice. It is not surprising that a program like this deeply disappointed and dismayed him. This is why the whole letter on the Program became one blazing indictment of what he explicitly stated to be a “thoroughly objectionable program, which would demoralize the Party” in everything it said. The theory and practice of scientific socialism is materialist. The draft Program is Lassallean—that is, ideological and utopian. Even if one were able and willing to ignore this, “the Program is worthless” taken in and for itself. Marx therefore holds it to be his “duty” “not to accept” such a theoretically and practically unprincipled Program “by a diplomatic silence.”9

At the time, Marx’s Critique was shared only with a few individuals in Germany and its existence did not become well known until Engels published it in 1891.

Opposition to war and betrayal of socialist principles

In spite of the German state’s imperial aspirations and actions, there were numerous examples of the patriotism of social democratic leaders. The patriotism consisted of repeated avowals that if Germany were the victim of aggression, the spd would be found marching to her defense. In 1900, August Bebel told the Reichstag that “… if it came to a war with Russia … I would be ready, old boy that I am, to shoulder a gun against her.” In 1907, Gustav Noske told the Reichstag that if Germany were attacked, Social Democrats would fight with the same “loyalty and devotion” as the bourgeois parties. Later that year, Bebel told the Party Congress of Essen that: “If ever we should really be called upon to defend the fatherland, we will defend it because it is our fatherland, the soil on which we live, whose language we speak, whose customs we possess, because we want to make of our fatherland a country that is inferior to none in the world in perfection and beauty.”10

On the other hand, in the years before the outbreak of the First World War, the Party, along with its counterparts in other countries, consistently pronounced its opposition to imperialist war. At international conferences, the German spd earned widespread respect for its parliamentary opposition to various militaristic proposals. But signs that pledges might not mean as much as thought emerged early enough. For years, the French socialists had actively promoted the adoption of an international general strike as a response to the declaration of war but their efforts had been blocked by the Germans.

Matters came to a head at the Stuttgart Conference in 1907 after the French party had passed a resolution that declared it would oppose war “by all means, from parliamentary intervention, public agitation, popular demonstrations, to the workers’ general strike and insurrection.” The Germans pushed back hard and a classic compromise was forged: “If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working class and of its parliamentary representatives in the country concerned … to exert every effort to prevent the outbreak of the war by every means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the sharpness of the class struggle and the general political situation.” 11

In 1912, at a Congress in Basel, Switzerland, the delegates reaffirmed previous antiwar resolutions:

In case war should break out anyway it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.

More than ever, recent events have imposed upon the proletariat the duty of devoting the utmost force and energy to planned and concerted action. On the one hand, the universal craze for armaments has aggravated the high cost of living, thereby intensifying class antagonisms and creating in the working class an implacable spirit of revolt; the workers want to put a stop to this system of panic and waste. On the other hand, the incessantly recurring menace of war has a more and more inciting effect. The great European peoples are constantly on the point of being driven against one another, although these attempts are against humanity and reason cannot be justified by even the slightest pretext of being in the interest of the people.

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 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 of a proletarian revolution as a result of a world war has proved to be an essential guarantee of peace.12

In spite of the proclamations, there was no coherent internationalist antiwar position. Craig Nation summarized the predicament: “The Second International was fundamentally divided over the issues of war and militarism, but up to the First World War its differences were patched over by vague pronouncements that assumed a common ground of internationalism based upon the premises of classical Marxism. The resolutions accepted unanimously by its Stuttgart, Copenhagen, and Basel conferences were most notable for their failure to specify effective means of resistance to a danger that all acknowledged to be clear and present.” 13

As the war fever grew in 1914, it remained an open question if the German party would vote for its internationalist principles or its national practical interests. Rosa Luxemburg cited two hopeful examples from the socialist press in the week before the war began. On July 26:

We are not marionettes. We combat with all our energy a system that makes men into will-less tools of blind circumstance, this capitalism that seeks to transform a Europe thirsting for peace into a steaming slaughterhouse. If destruction has its way, if the united will to peace of the German, the international proletariat, which will make itself known in powerful demonstrations in the coming days, if the world war cannot be fended off, then at least this should be the last war, it should become the Gotterdammerung of capitalism (Frankfurter Volksstimme).

On July 30, the central organ of German Social Democracy stated:

The socialist proletariat rejects any responsibility for the events being brought about by a blinded, a maddened ruling class. Let it be known that a new life shall bloom from the ruins. All responsibility falls to the wielders of power today! It is “to be or not to be!” “World-history is the world court.”14

Indeed, there were many antiwar demonstrations in Germany right up to the start of the war. On the other hand, there were also warning signs of the coming collapse: “At a conference on 1 and 2 August the chairmen of the major trade unions decided, on the basis of prior negotiations with the Ministry of the Interior, to call off all ongoing strikes and not to initiate any new labor actions for the duration of the war. With the unions close affiliation to the spd, this decision effectively inaugurated the Burgfrieden, the political truce that subordinated the German labor movement to the interests of the Imperial State.”15

On August 1, Germany declared war on Russia; on August 2, it declared war on France and invaded Belgium, a neutral country. On August 4, Great Britain declared war on Germany. On that fateful day, all the pronouncements of international working-class solidarity against war came to naught when the spd’s parliamentary group voted in favor of war credits in the Reichstag. At times, it tried to justify its endorsement of the war by proclaiming it as a war against Tsarist barbarism in Russia or by insisting that the government was right in its definition of the war as a defensive one.16

Most of the other socialist parties in Europe followed suit and joined one or the other of the war alliances in their commitment to kill as many of their worker comrades as possible. Even the French party quickly reversed direction. It was “an imperialism on all sides.”


Lenin was in the forefront of those who opposed the war from the start. Before the month of August was over, he had sketched theses on the war that he submitted to a party conference of the rsdlp (Russian Social Democratic and Labor Party), which adopted them. Lenin changed very little of substance in the August theses when he wrote a more polished document in November. One notable exception is that in August, he argued:

From the viewpoint of the working class and the toiling masses of all the peoples of Russia, the defeat of the tsarist monarchy and its army, which oppress Poland, the Ukraine, and many other peoples of Russia, and foment hatred among the peoples so as to increase Great-Russian oppression of the other nationalities, and consolidate the reactionary and barbarous government of the tsar’s monarchy, would be the lesser evil by far [emphasis added].17

In September, Lenin published a formal summary of the Bolshevik Party’s Central Committee position on the issues. The statement argued that social democrats had a unique responsibility to reveal the true meaning of the war—two groups of belligerent nations have embarked on “robber” wars of plunder. There is no national defense of any kind involved.18 He insists that only civil war against all of the bourgeois governments holds out the prospect of ending the war on favorable terms for the working class.

He suggested that the immediate political slogan of Europe’s Social Democrats must consist of the revolutionary overthrow of the German, Austrian and Russian monarchies. In the particular backward circumstances of Russia, the Social Democrats should strive to achieve three fundamental conditions for democratic reforms:

  1. a democratic republic (with complete equality and self-determination for all nations);

  2. confiscation of landed estates, and

  3. an eight-hour working day.

He ends by proclaiming that, although the Second International is no more, a new International will be created by the masses of workers.19

His November argument deserves careful citation and summary. He wrote:

Advocacy of class collaboration; abandonment of the idea of socialist revolution and revolutionary methods of struggle; adaptation to bourgeois nationalism; losing sight of the fact that the borderlines of nationality and country are historically transient; making a fetish of bourgeois legality; renunciation of the class viewpoint and the class struggle—for fear of repelling the “broad masses of the population” (meaning the petty bourgeoisie)—such, doubtlessly, are the ideological foundations of opportunism. And it is from such soil that the present chauvinist and patriotic frame of mind of most Second International leaders has developed.

He also mapped out the broader landscape of social democratic attitudes towards the war. In one European country after another, the dividing lines had become clear—one group of social democrats had all but abandoned internationalist principles and embraced the cause of patriotic war; another group, usually much smaller, stood fast in defense of principle, and here and there, another group of opportunist “Centrists” were reluctant to oppose the parties but wanted to be against the war. Lenin argued that the betrayal of the opportunists in their, more or less, active support of the war represented the logical consequence of opportunism.20

He insisted that the epoch of imperialism had made the notion of national wars more or less obsolete:

The question of the fatherland—we shall reply to the opportunists—cannot be posed without due consideration of the concrete historical nature of the present war. This is an imperialist war, i.e., it is being waged at a time of the highest development of capitalism, a time of its approaching end. The working class must first “constitute itself within the nation,” the Communist Manifesto declares, emphasizing the limits and conditions of our recognition of nationality and fatherland as essential forms of the bourgeois system and, consequently, of the bourgeois fatherland. The opportunists distort that truth by extending to the period at the end of capitalism that which was true of the period of its rise. With reference to the former period and to the tasks of the proletariat in its struggle to destroy, not feudalism but capitalism, the Communist Manifesto gives a clear and precise formula: “The workingmen have no country.” One can well understand why the opportunists are so afraid to accept this socialist proposition, afraid even, in most cases, openly to reckon with it. The socialist movement cannot triumph within the old framework of the fatherland. It creates new and superior forms of human society in which the legitimate needs and progressive aspirations of the working masses of each nationality will, for the first time, be met through international unity, provided existing national partitions are removed [emphases added].

He then argued that the proletariat has demanded that the imperialist war be turned into a civil war against the bourgeoisie. In this instance, what’s noteworthy is the claim that the proletariat has arrived at this demand. So far as I know, there is no evidence of any kind that confirms that claim. The compulsion that Lenin apparently felt to insist that the proletariat was behind the argument was revealing of something else. Lenin insisted on the need to establish a new International—grounded in recognition of the need for a “revolutionary onslaught” against capitalist governments and for a socialist movement purged of “turncoats and opportunism.” 21

The masses demanded it.

In early 1915, Clara Zetkin of the German spd issued a call for an antiwar socialist women’s conference. She was joined in the conference planning by Angelica Balabanoff of the Italian Socialist Party. The group met clandestinely in Bern, Switzerland, in March. The Bolshevik Central Committee actively supported the meeting and designated Lenin’s wife, Krupskaya; Zinoviev’s wife, and Inessa Armand as its official representatives.22 While Lenin did not participate, he monitored the proceedings from a nearby café. Balabanoff, in her book titled Impressions of Lenin, recounted his involvement: “At times, their [the Bolsheviks’] interest in the women’s movement had an almost comic aspect; for a man like Lenin to sit for days on end in the corner of a coffeehouse where the women delegates of his faction came to report everything that happened at the convention and to ask for instructions was, no doubt, ludicrous.” When the delegates came up with a resolution that gained majority approval, an effort was made to secure unanimous consent. The Bolshevik delegates refused to go along until they secured Lenin’s agreement. Lenin was obdurate and refused. Only when Zetkin went to him and pleaded for him to agree, did they come up with a compromise: “the Bolshevik delegates were authorized to sign the document drawn up by the majority of the congress members, provided the Bolshevik statement was included in the minutes of the meeting.”23

A few weeks later, socialist youth from different countries met in the same place to draw up their own statement addressed to young people in the warring countries. Lenin was consulted by phone. Once again, the Bolsheviks raised demands that the majority could not accept. In response, the Bolshevik delegates left the meeting. Subsequently, direct negotiations with Lenin led to the same outcome as at the women’s conference. The Bolsheviks would vote in favor of the majority’s text so long as the Bolshevik minority’s statement was included in the minutes.24

In the fall, an international conference of antiwar socialists was held in Zimmerwald, Switzerland. Important differences became evident. Some participants, led by Robert Grimm of Switzerland, wanted to rebuild the old International on an antiwar basis. This placed them on the “right.” Others, on the “left,” wanted to build a new international on the ruins of the old. Karl Radek presented a resolution summarizing the left’s views on the third day of the conference. His resolution described the social democratic center as “more dangerous than the bourgeois apostles of imperialism.” 25 It insisted that only revolution could lay the groundwork for a lasting peace. The left wing was led by the Bolsheviks but also attracted support from a number of other radicals. A letter from Liebknecht was read and interpreted as being aligned with the lefts because he called for “civil war, not civil peace.”

A major division emerged over the question of condemning any support for war credits—with the “right wing” hesitant to do so because it might threaten the possibility of rebuilding ties with individuals and parties who had voted for them and the “left” insisting that any support for credits was a violation of fundamental principles. After much unproductive debate, Trotsky was charged with drafting a conference manifesto designed to accommodate the different views. Craig Nation concluded that: “Though Trotsky borrowed some phrases from Radek, his text was primarily an emotional appeal aimed at the masses, not the statement of principles that Lenin originally desired.”26 Trotsky’s draft eventually received unanimous approval. But it did not completely satisfy the Bolsheviks who drafted a “Zimmerwald Left” statement, which Trotsky also endorsed.27 Luxemburg was quite critical of the Zimmerwald meeting (in which she had played no part because of her continued imprisonment).28 She formalized her position in a “Resolution on the Character of a New International” submitted to the International Group’s first conference in March 1916:

The new international that must revive after the collapse of the former on 4 August 1914 can only be born as a result of the revolutionary class struggle of the proletarian masses in the most important capitalist countries. The existence and viability of the International is not an organizational issue, not a question of understandings within a small circle of individuals who come forward as representatives of the oppositionally-inclined strata of the working population, but rather a question of the mass movement of the proletariat of all lands… The first word of this struggle must be systematic mass action to force the achievement of peace.29

War opposition within Germany

Three groups opposed the war from within Germany—the Spartacus Group, the revolutionary shop stewards (or Revolutionarre Obleute) and the Bremen Left Radicals (or Linksradikalen).

The Spartacus Group was established soon after August 1914, initially as Die Gruppe Internationale, by Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring and Clara Zetkin, and a small number of others. Soon afterward, they were joined by Karl Liebknecht and Otto Rühle.30 The League committed itself to the principles of consistent class struggle, international solidarity, opposition to war and nationalism. Its two most important members were Liebknecht and Luxemburg.

Liebknecht did not initially break with the discipline of the Social-Democratic Party and voted for war credits on August 4.31 The Social Democrats claimed that support for the government had been unanimous. Liebknecht corrected the record in “The First Days”:

I understand that several members of the Socialist Party have written all manner of statements to the press with regard to the deliberations of the Socialist Party in the Reichstag on August 3rd and 4th.

According to these reports, there were no serious differences of opinion in our party in regard to the political situation and our own position, and decisions to assent to war credits are alleged to have been arrived at unanimously. In order to prevent the dissemination of an inadmissible fiction I feel it to be my duty to put on record the fact that the issues involved gave rise to diametrically opposite views within our party parliament, and these opposing views found expression with a violence hitherto unknown in our deliberations.

It is also entirely untrue to say that assent to the war credits was given unanimously.32

By December of that year, however, he cast a sole vote against war credits. After being drafted into the army, Liebknecht used his parliamentary protections to continue his antiwar activities.33 In a protest in the Reichstag, he challenged two of the most frequent arguments made by the socialist supporters of war:

The German word of command “against tsarism,” like the English or French word of command “against militarism,” has been the means of bringing forth the most noble instincts, the revolutionary traditions and hopes of the peoples, for the purpose of hatred among the peoples. Accomplice of “tsarism,” Germany, a model country of political reaction, possesses not the qualities necessary to play the part of a liberator of peoples…

This war is not a defensive war for Germany. Its historical character and the succeeding events make it impossible for us to trust a capitalist Government when it declares that it is for the defense of the country that it asks for the credits.34

The spd formally censured him.

In May 1915, Liebknecht authored a leaflet titled “The Main Enemy Is At Home.” The centerpiece of his argument was the following:

The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: German imperialism, the German war party, German secret diplomacy. This enemy at home must be fought by the German people in a political struggle, cooperating with the proletariat of other countries whose struggle is against their own imperialists.

We think as one with the German people—we have nothing in common with…. the German government of political oppression and social enslavement. Nothing for them, everything for the German people. Everything for the international proletariat, for the sake of the German proletariat and downtrodden humanity.

The enemies of the working class are counting on the forgetfulness of the masses—provide that that be a grave miscalculation. They are betting on the forbearance of the masses—but we raise the vehement cry:

How long should the gamblers of imperialism abuse the patience of the people? Enough and more than enough slaughter! Down with the war instigators here and abroad! [emphases in original]35

In January 1916, Liebknecht was expelled from the Social Democratic Party for “having greatly embarrassed the government with his questions two days before in the Reichstag.”

At the end of 1915, eighteen Reichstag members, called the Haase-Ledebour Group, voted against war credits for the first time and did so again on March 24, 1916. They were expelled from the Social Democratic Party and organized themselves as the Social Democratic Working Group—later to become the Independent Socialist Party (uspd). Liebknecht cautioned that they would not be reliable opponents of the war:

The formal combination of all kinds of indefinite oppositional feelings and motives is always a great danger, especially so in a time of world changes. This means confusion and dragging along on old lines, it sterilizes and kills the militant elements which get into this mixed company. What must be the conclusion from all this?

The masses were ripe for the test already at the beginning of the war. They would not have failed. The only result of the hesitation and doubt has been the strengthening of poisonous opportunism.

Clear cut principles, uncompromising fighting, wholehearted decision!36

In April 1916, Liebknecht issued a call to the Berlin proletariat to join a May Day demonstration.37 Luxemburg joined him. One participant described the demonstration as it began:

Shortly after 2pm of the same May Day, I have taken a hasty lunch at the Central Hotel. As I near the door I hear the footsteps of the great multitudes. As far as I can see, all the streets and side streets are full of surging, silently moving human beings; all moving in the direction where the May Day demonstration is to take place. These are men and women, mostly women. The men among them are mostly over fifty. Suddenly it becomes apparent to me that there are more children in the crowds than men and women together. As they march I notice that I cannot see one in the crowd who has a smile on her or his face. Along the route no one is cheering them. I had never seen such immense crowds in the streets of Berlin. Not even during the Agadir crisis had the streets of Berlin held such multitudes. The crowds move as though they are part of a funeral procession. They are all sad, very sad. I recognize a group of comrades in the crowd. I rush in and join them. Mund halten [keep your mouth shut] is the unwritten rule, and everyone seems to observe it strictly.38

In his speech, Liebknecht ridiculed the supposed “rights” of the German people. The same participant recorded his words:

The doctor begins: “Comrades and friends.” They start to cheer him. He holds up his hand forbiddingly, then he resumes: “Some years ago a witty Socialist observed that in Prussia we Germans have three cardinal rights, which are: we can be soldiers, we can pay taxes and we can keep our tongues between our teeth. The Socialist who made this observation made it with a grim humor, but today the humor of it must be disconnected from it—it is all too grim. Especially in these days, this observation is too true. Today we are sharing these three great Prussian State privileges in full.”39

At the end of the speech, mounted police charged through the crowd to get at Liebknecht. Terrified people scattered in all directions to avoid being trampled by the horses. Liebknecht was forced off the speakers’ platform, arrested, tried in July and sentenced to prison at hard labor for two and a half years. In August, after a failed appeal, the sentence was increased to four years.

In 1914, Luxemburg had been convicted of inciting soldiers to insubordination, a charge that she denied legally and accepted politically. Her imprisonment was delayed because of an appeal and an illness but she was abruptly taken into custody in March 1915 to serve a one-year sentence. After her release, she had five months of freedom before she was detained and sentenced to indefinite military detention in July 1916. I think it fair to say that the German government did not want Rosa Luxemburg out on the streets.40

Luxemburg lacked the parliamentary protections that Liebknecht had and thus was not able to play the same public antiwar role until a brief period in the early part of 1916.41 Most of her efforts were devoted to writing. Her first antiwar text, “Rebuilding the International,” appeared in the first issue of Die Internationale.

On August 4th, 1914, German Social Democracy abdicated politically, and at the same time the Socialist International collapsed. All attempts at denying or concealing this fact, regardless of the motives on which they are based, tend objectively to perpetuate, and to justify, the disastrous self-deception of the socialist parties, the inner malady of the movement, that led to the collapse, and in the long run to make the Socialist International a fiction, a hypocrisy.

With the outbreak of the world war, word has become substance, the alternative has grown from a historical tendency into the political situation. Faced with this alternative, which it had been the first to recognize and bring to the masses’ consciousness, Social Democracy backed down without a struggle and conceded victory to imperialism. Never before in the history of class struggles, since there have been political parties, has there been a party that, in this way, after fifty years of uninterrupted growth, after achieving a first-rate position of power, after assembling millions around it, has so completely and ignominiously abdicated as a political force within twenty-four hours, as Social Democracy has done. Precisely because it was the best-organized and best-disciplined vanguard of the International, the present-day collapse of socialism can be demonstrated by Social Democracy’s example.

On August 4th, German Social Democracy, far from being “silent,” assumed an extremely important historical function: the shield-bearer of imperialism in the present war. Napoleon once said that two factors decide the outcome of a battle: the “earthly” factor, consisting of the terrain, quality of the weapons, weather, etc., and the “divine” factor, that is, the moral constitution of the army, its morale, its belief in its own cause. The “earthly” factor was taken care of on the German side largely by the Krupp firm of Essen; the “divine” factor can be charged above all to Social Democracy’s account. The services since August 4th that it has rendered and it is rendering daily to the German war leaders are immeasurable: the trade unions that on the outbreak of war shelved their battle for higher wages and invested with the aura of “socialism” all the military authorities’ security measures aimed at preventing popular uprisings; the Social-Democratic women who withdrew all their time and effort from Social-Democratic agitation and, arm in arm with bourgeois patriots, used these to assist the needy warriors’ families; the Social-Democratic press which, with a few exceptions, uses its daily papers and weekly and monthly periodicals to propagate the war as a national cause and the cause of the proletariat; that press which, depending on the turns the war takes, depicts the Russian peril and the horror of the Tsarist government, or abandons a perfidious Albion to the people’s hatred, or rejoices at the uprisings and revolutions in foreign colonies; or which prophesies the re-strengthening of Turkey after this war, which promises freedom to the Poles, the Ruthenians, and all peoples, which imparts martial bravery and heroism to the proletarian youth—in short, completely manipulates public opinion and the masses for the ideology of war; the Social-Democratic parliamentarians and party leaders, finally, who not only consent to funds for the waging of war, but who attempt to suppress energetically any disquieting stirrings of doubt and criticism in the masses, calling these “intrigues,” and who for their part support the government with personal services of a discreet nature, such as brochures, speeches and articles displaying the most genuine German-national patriotism—when in world history was there a war in which anything like this happened?42

Soon after she was imprisoned, Luxemburg authored a longer, more detailed, analysis. Originally, it was titled “The Crisis of Social Democracy” and was smuggled out of the prison. When it was finally published in January 1916, it was titled The Junius Pamphlet. Its opening paragraphs provided a powerful denunciation of the war:

The scene has changed fundamentally. The six weeks’ march to Paris has grown into a world drama.43 Mass slaughter has become the tiresome and monotonous business of the day and the end is no closer. Bourgeois statecraft is held fast in its own vise. The spirits summoned up can no longer be exorcized.

Gone is the euphoria. Gone the patriotic noise in the streets, the chase after the gold-colored automobile, one false telegram after another, the wells poisoned by cholera, the Russian students heaving bombs over every railway bridge in Berlin, the French airplanes over Nuremberg, the spy hunting public running amok in the streets, the swaying crowds in the coffee shops with ear-deafening patriotic songs surging ever higher, whole city neighborhoods transformed into mobs ready to denounce, to mistreat women, to shout hurrah and to induce delirium in themselves by means of wild rumors. Gone, too, is the atmosphere of ritual murder, the Kishinev air where the crossing guard is the only remaining representative of human dignity.

The spectacle is over. German scholars, those “stumbling lemurs,” have been whistled off the stage long ago. The trains full of reservists are no longer accompanied by virgins fainting from pure jubilation. They no longer greet the people from the windows of the train with joyous smiles. Carrying their packs, they quietly trot along the streets where the public goes about its daily business with aggrieved visages.

In the prosaic atmosphere of pale day there sounds a different chorus—the hoarse cries of the vulture and the hyenas of the battlefield. Ten thousand tarpaulins guaranteed up to regulations! A hundred thousand kilos of bacon, cocoa powder, coffee-substitute—c.o.d, immediate delivery! Hand grenades, lathes, cartridge pouches, marriage bureaus for widows of the fallen, leather belts, jobbers for war orders—serious offers only! The cannon fodder loaded onto trains in August and September is moldering in the killing fields of Belgium, the Vosges, and Masurian Lakes where the profits are springing up like weeds. It’s a question of getting the harvest into the barn quickly. Across the ocean stretch thousands of greedy hands to snatch it up.

Business thrives in the ruins. Cities become piles of ruins; villages become cemeteries; countries, deserts; populations are beggared; churches, horse stalls. International law, treaties and alliances, the most sacred words and the highest authority have been torn in shreds. … There are food riots in Venice, in Lisbon, Moscow, Singapore. There is plague in Russia, and misery and despair everywhere.

Violated, dishonored, wading in blood, dripping filth—there stands bourgeois society. This is it [in reality]. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretense to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law—but the ravening beast, the witches’ sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form.44

In February 1916, Luxemburg was released from prison. In April, she joined Liebknecht in his criticism of the wavering opposition to war represented by the Haase-Ledebour group in the Reichstag in “Either/Or.” Here’s her closing argument:

Here again, Comrades, it is a question of either-or! Either we nakedly and shamelessly betray the International as Heine, David, Scheidemann, et al. have done; or we take the International in deadly seriousness and attempt to extend it into a firm stronghold, a bulwark, of the international socialist proletariat and of world peace. Today there is no longer room for any middle way, for vacillation and indecision.45

In April 1917, after having been expelled from the spd (now the Majority spd), the Social Democratic Working Group formed the Independent Socialist Party. This new party attracted the support of a substantial minority of the spd’s members and appeared to have become somewhat more consistently opposed to the war. In spite of the bitter criticisms that had been leveled by Liebknecht and Luxemburg against its founders, the Spartacus Group joined the uspd but retained its ability to function independently. Paul Mattick provided a convincing explanation, and possible justification, for the Spartacus Group’s decision in his essay on “Otto Rühle and the German Labor Movement”:

Within the Spartakusbund Otto Rühle shared Liebknecht’s and Rosa Luxemburg’s position which had been attacked by the Bolsheviks as inconsistent. And inconsistent it was but for pertinent reasons. At first glance, the main reason seemed to be based on the illusion that the Social Democratic Party could be reformed. With changing circumstances, it was hoped, the masses would cease to follow their conservative leaders and support the left-wing of the party. And although such illusions did exist, first with regard to the old party and later with regard to the Independent Socialists, they do not altogether explain the hesitancy on the part of the Spartacus leaders to adopt the ways of Bolshevism. Actually, the Spartacus faced a dilemma no matter in what direction they looked. By not trying—at the right time—to break resolutely with social-democracy, they forfeited their chance to form a strong organization capable of playing a decisive role in the expected social upheavals. Yet, in view of the real situation in Germany, in view of the history of the German labor movement, it was quite difficult to believe in the possibility of quickly forming a counter-party to the dominant labor organizations. Of course, it might have been possible to form a party in the Leninist manner, a party of professional revolutionists, willing to usurp power, if necessary, against the will of the majority of the working class. But this was precisely what the people around Rosa Luxemburg did not aspire to. Throughout the years of their opposition to reformism and revisionism, they had never narrowed their distance from the Russian “left,” from Lenin’s concept of organization and revolution. In sharp controversies, Rosa Luxemburg had pointed out that Lenin’s concepts were of a Jacobin nature and inapplicable in Western Europe where not a bourgeois but a proletarian revolution was the order of the day. Although she, too, spoke of the dictatorship of the proletariat, it meant for her, in distinction to Lenin, “the manner in which democracy is employed, not in its abolition—it was to be the work of the class, and not of a small minority in the name of the class.”46

The Revolutionary Shop Stewards were not organized like a traditional political group. It was led by Richard Müller, the head of the Berlin lathe operators’ section in the German Metalworkers Union (dmv), the largest trade union in the world.47

The stewards came together initially simply by seeking out other union members who had antiwar views. To escape police detection, they started “under the guise of a bunch of drinking buddies.” Patiently they built a secret network that included stewards from many different work places—consisting mostly of long-term union members. Interestingly, many of the plants represented were in the munitions industry. Their internal decision-making was apparently very democratic. While many members were in favor of “council socialism,” the group did not have explicitly defined principles of agreement on political issues.

Ralf Hoffrogge has argued that while there was opposition to the Burgfrieden in Berlin as early as 1914, the stewards were not radicals and did not actually become a political antiwar movement until June 1916. Later still, they became a revolutionary organization.48

On June 28, 1916, the stewards were responsible for organizing a strike and demonstration of more than 50,000 workers on less than twenty-four hours notice to protest the trial and likely imprisonment of Karl Liebknecht. Afterwards, dozens of strikers and strike leaders were drafted and sent to the front.

The Spartacists and Stewards worked on plans for a follow-up strike in August but the Stewards declined to participate—judging that too few workers would be prepared to strike in light of the repressive measures that the government had implemented. The Spartacists went ahead alone but secured little response. These dynamics gave rise to some sharply critical estimates of the Stewards by the Spartacists and of the Spartacists by the Stewards. Hoffrogge writes: “Liebknecht considered the Stewards to be (in Müller’s words) ‘a club of feral bourgeois philistines who met in secret and never informed the world of their existence.’49 Müller and the Stewards, on the other hand, dubbed the Spartacists’ constant demands for actions—‘hop[ing] that street fights would escalate the tension and bring about a revolutionary situation’—‘revolutionary gymnastics.’ ”50 In spite of the nasty words exchanged, Hoffrogge concluded that the two groups actually benefited from their contact—the Stewards could mobilize tens of thousands of workers and the Spartacists could provide literature that assisted in the Stewards’ further development.51

Like just about everyone else, the Bremen Left Radicals (Linksradikalen) were shocked by the vote on August 4. But while even the most fervent of the other antiwar activists remained committed to the spd, the Bremen Radicals quickly moved to embrace the idea that social democracy had to be split apart. As he was about to be shipped to the front lines, Jonathan Knief, a leading member of the group, wrote: “It is not the labor movement that has suffered a defeat but its leaders. They have ensured that Social Democracy has ceased to exist. […] The masses will have to carve their own path; their leaders are finished. Until now the masses have not been taken into account. But they will make their demands. Long live the future!”52 At the same time, they continued to see themselves as politically close to the Spartacists.

In October 1915, Knief returned from the front and picked up where he had left off. He wrote about the war: “It is not that war emerged from humanity’s ‘faults and follies,’ nor the question of whether it is ‘rational’ or not—whether it meets certain ‘goals’ that, from a scientific standpoint, can impress us. The only question is which social forces led us to its emergence and what new social forces it will unleash.”53

When the Spartacus Group joined the new Independent Social Democratic Party in May 1917, the Bremen group refused to do so and, instead, insisted on immediately building a new revolutionary party. The effort to do so came up short when only a handful of delegates made it to the founding conference that summer.

Back to Lenin!

In the months following the Zimmerwald meetings, Lenin was tireless in promoting his view of the political situation among those who had been in the Second International. In his mind, there were three tendencies:

  1. the social chauvinists who supported their governments and the war;
  1. the Centrists who opposed the war but were reluctant to break either with the majorities of their respective parties that supported the war or to embark on an oppositional program of likely illegal activity, and
  2. the left Zimmerwaldists, who opposed the war and advocated a complete break with the old social democracy.

Interestingly, he almost always cited Karl Liebknecht as the outstanding representative of this last tendency.

What he effectively acknowledged in his various speeches and articles in the period but did not make explicit, however, was that there was a fourth tendency (a tendency that Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht likely belonged to) of those who were opposed to the war and willing to break with the majority social democrats but who did not want to completely break with the Centrists. In addition to Liebknecht and Luxemburg, this tendency included individuals like Angelica Balabanoff, Boris Souvarine, Leon Trotsky, and Clara Zetkin.54

In December 1916, Souvarine, a French socialist, published “To Our Friends in Switzerland” and argued that a defensist position was not inconsistent with social democratic positions because it was hard to distinguish between revolutionary and reactionary wars. Lenin responded and insisted that, in the context of an imperialist war, no such position could be maintained. His response included a distinctive argument:

Do not tell me it is hard to distinguish between revolutionary and reactionary wars. You want me to indicate a purely practical criterion that would be understood by all, in addition to the scientific criterion indicated above?

Here it is: Every fair-sized war is prepared beforehand. When a revolutionary war is being prepared, democrats and socialists are not afraid to state in advance that they favor “defense of the fatherland” in this war. When however, in contrast, a reactionary war is being prepared, no socialist will venture to state in advance, before war is declared, that is, that he will favor “defense of the fatherland.”

But what of the social-chauvinists? And the “Centrists”? Will they have the courage openly and officially to state that they favor, or will favor, “defense of the fatherland” in the event of war breaking out between, say, Japan and the United States, a clearly imperialist war prepared over the course of many years, and one which would imperil many hundreds of millions of people? I dare them! I am prepared to wager that they will not, for they know only too well that if they make such a statement, they will become a laughing stock in the eyes of the workers, they will be jeered at and driven out of the socialist parties. That is why the social-chauvinists and those in the “Center” will avoid any open statement and will continue to wriggle, lie, and confuse the issue, seeking refuge in all manner of sophisms, like this one in the resolution of the last, 1915 French party congress: “An attacked country has the right to defense.”55

Let’s go back to Lenin hiding out in the Swiss café waiting to give orders to the delegates to the women’s antiwar conference. But let’s not make fun of him. Let’s instead try to understand him. We’ve already read what Balabanoff thought he was up to. Fast forward almost forty years and we encounter another wise person who widened the perspective on understanding Lenin. In 1953, Hal Draper, an American revolutionary and an admirer of Lenin, authored a devastating critique of aspects of Lenin’s antiwar views.56 We’ll get to the critique below but, for now, I want to focus on what Draper had to say about the “madness” in Lenin’s method:

Shocked and appalled by the collapse of the whole Second International all around him, he sees the line of blood which has been drawn between the leaders who are whipping the working class into capitulation to the imperialist chauvinism of their own ruling class, under the slogan of “civil peace” and “defense of the fatherland,” and the socialists who maintain the class struggle against the war and for the overthrow of this murderous capitalism which is setting worker against worker to cut each other’s throats.

He reacts in the fashion which is characteristic of Lenin the man, and not merely Lenin the Marxist.

For example, over a decade before, he had had to raise a great hue and cry in order to bring together the atomized Russian social-democratic groups and circles into a modern centralized party with a central organ; that at the time was the great next step which had to be taken, it was “what is to be done.” It was the key; it had to be pounded home into the consciousness of every militant; everything had to be subordinated to emphasizing it. How do you emphasize it? By repeating it a thousand times, in every conceivable way? Yes. By explaining it patiently over and over? Yes. By piling up argument after argument, seizing every fact, every problem, and converting it into, turning it toward, a lesson on centralization? Yes. But that is not all. The problem is greater centralization, as compared with the present looseness. Then put “Centralization!” on a banner, on a pedestal, emphasize it by raising it to a principle. But the opponents of this elementary need cover their political objections demagogically by yelling “Bureaucratism!” “Lenin wants more bureaucratism, while we are for democracy!”—How does Lenin react? Yes, he replies: “Bureaucratism versus democracy”—that is what we need now. He makes perfectly clear what he means, but that is how he seeks to underline, with heavy, thick strokes, the task of the day, by exaggerating in every way that side of the problem which points in the direction it is necessary to move now. Tomorrow he will recapture the balance, but today that is the way he puts the weight on the side which needs it.

In 1914 the traitors to international socialism are yelling “Civil peace!” No, says Lenin, civil war!

In 1914, the traitors are yelling “Defense of the fatherland!” No, says Lenin, defeat of your own fatherland!

Exaggerated exaggeration may have its uses in debates but it’s seldom valuable as the foundation for serious thinking about politics. Unfortunately, the advocates of “revolutionary defeatism” as an all-purpose solution to the problem of war seldom, if ever, seem to have much knowledge of its origins.

Let’s try to make sense of Lenin’s defeatism. Typically, Lenin would insist that his meaning was clear and unequivocal. It means that you must be in favor of defeat and nothing else. A refusal to support either side is not defeatism; it must be desiring defeat of one’s own country. A defeatist does not wish the victory of the enemy. He made little headway in convincing those of his comrades in the International who had the sharpest analytical skills. Trotsky opposed the slogan. Luxemburg probably never even heard of it. Trotsky and Luxemburg both emphasized a socialist solution to the war rather than any particular military outcome. Specifically, defeatism as the inescapable and necessary expression of an antiwar line was a myth.57

For Draper, Lenin’s defeatism was “no principle at all.” Instead, it was a variety of shifting and inconsistent formulations that amounted to “a congeries of nonsense and confusion”:

By… March 1915, we have … four formulas of “defeatism” created out of the attempt to meet the insoluble contradictions without solving them.

No.1: The special Russian position: defeat of Russia by Germany is the “lesser evil.”

No.2: The objective statement that “defeat facilitates revolution.”

No.3: The slogan: wish defeat in every country.

No.4: Do not halt before the risk of defeat.

These are four different political ideas. Only three of them are meaningful for the international movement. Only two of them involve any wish for defeat (1 and 3). Only one of them can actually be put forward in the form of a “slogan” (3).

Which is the meaning of Lenin’s position, even assuming that all of them have some self-consistent meaning of their own? The truth is that from this point on, Lenin juggles all four depending on polemical aim and convenience. …. new aspects are introduced up to the very last gasp of Lenin’s defeatism in November 1916.58

In Draper’s account, there was no consistent meaning to revolutionary defeatism.

Everything changed in February of 1917 when Russian workers and peasants erupted in a massive rebellion that overthrew the Czar. As had been the case in 1905, workers and soldiers across the country spontaneously formed soviets or councils.

The new Provisional Government, led by liberals, decided to stay in the war. The Bolsheviks in Russia mostly went along with that decision. In March, after convoluted negotiations with the German High Command, Lenin secured approval for him and a number of his fellow Bolsheviks and other revolutionaries to travel from Switzerland through Germany in a sealed train, onto a ferry across the Baltic Sea to Sweden, then to Finland and on to Russia. When Lenin arrived in Russia, he all but horrified the Bolsheviks by urging an overthrow of the existing government and an immediate end to the war.

What then becomes most illuminating about the significance or insignificance of defeatism is Lenin’s abandonment of it once he returned to Russia. Upon that return, he was confronted with the challenge of bridging the gap between intransigent war opposition and the thinking of masses of revolutionary workers.

Lenin turns in a surprising direction. He observes and insists upon the idea that the degree of freedom in post-tsarist Russia makes a new approach absolutely necessary. The Russian workers are not being repressed into a defensist position. They are embracing it voluntarily—unlike their counterparts in other warring nations. It might well be that the degree of freedom was unparalleled in comparison to what prevailed under tsarism, but it is a caricature of the situation in the rest of Europe. Freedom was a Russian novelty but it was no peculiarity.

In any case, for Lenin, the Russian workers’ adoption of defensism was “the instinct of an oppressed man.” It represented “conscientious sincere revolutionary defensism.” Lenin determined that it was impossible to wish defeat and project the idea of transforming the war into a revolutionary war. The working class had a stake in the defense of the nation. The defense of the country required the greatest heroism. It was not possible without breaking with imperialism. It demanded a decisively consistent break with the capitalists. But none of that meant that the revolutionary workers had to be “defeatists.” In 1917, Lenin became a revolutionary patriot. Defeat disappeared “as thoroughly as an icicle in fire.”

Lest it be assumed that Lenin’s new approach was developed only after the October Revolution, there is clear evidence that he was advocating defensism under Kerensky’s government. In May 1917, on behalf of the Party, he called upon the Russian peasants to “take over all the land without delay, and to do it in as organized a way as possible, under no circumstances allowing damage to property and exerting every effort to increase the production of grain and meat since the troops at the front are in dire straits.”59

In September, he railed against the treason of the landowners and bourgeoisie who,

headed by the Cadet Party, and the generals and officers who are on their side, have organized themselves; they are ready to commit, or are committing, the most outrageous crimes, such as surrendering Riga (followed by Petrograd) to the Germans, laying the war front open, putting the Bolshevik regiments under fire, starting a mutiny, leading troops against the capital with the “Savage Division” at their head, etc. The purpose of all this is to seize power completely and put it in the hands of the bourgeoisie, to consolidate the power of the landowners in the countryside, and to drench the country in the blood of workers and peasants.60

Let’s step back a bit and try to situate Lenin’s almost manic pursuit of his defeatist slogan. At the time, he was convinced that capital had reached its highest and bloodiest stage of imperial conquest, domination, and competition. Because it was the “highest stage of capitalism,” it implied that the next great historical step would be the conquest of power by the international working class. That class had been organized in what, until the war erupted, Lenin had considered to be a perfectly satisfactory international. All signs suggested that the working class was ready to act. But then there was the great betrayal. What to do in the face of such a betrayal? Fight back the only way he knew—with words blazing like guns! Even if they did not make much political sense!

The war was “imperialism on all sides.” But what if imperialism was not the right category for capturing the stage of capitalism and encapsulating the revolutionary potential? Perhaps there was no new stage, no last moment before socialism, no waiting room for a proletarian victory. Then, maybe, the revolutionary project needed to be less messianic.61 Perhaps that is what Lenin realized in 1917. Unfortunately, the flash of wisdom did not endure. He went on to play his part in the events that resulted in the establishment of the prototype of the state that is waging war against Ukraine in 2022.

The Bolsheviks quite quickly came to see Russia as the new center of revolutionary politics. Lenin wrote: “Things have turned out differently from what Marx and Engels expected and we, the Russian working and exploited classes, have the honor of being the vanguard of the international socialist revolution….” 62 Lenin began assembling an apparatus to promote that view and to secure international support for all the steps the Bolsheviks would deem necessary to remain in power.63

While the Bolsheviks quickly declared an end to the war with Germany, the matter of peace was a bit more complicated. Beginning in December, the Russians and Germans negotiated with each other on the terms of a peace treaty. Not surprisingly, the Germans insisted on harsh terms—primarily the handing over to Germany of much of western Russia, including the Ukraine, the Caucasus, Byelorussia, Finland and the Baltic states.64 Trotsky was the principal Russian negotiator and he used the negotiating sessions as opportunities to proclaim Russian solidarity with workers in other countries. He also delayed the negotiations as much as possible in the hope that revolts would occur elsewhere. When mass strikes erupted in Germany and Austria in January of 1918, it appeared that he was being successful. The Germans knew what he was up to and increased the pressure on Russia by threatening to resume hostilities. Trotsky withdrew from the talks, declared the war to be over and refused to sign the treaty. The Germans proceeded to invade Russia and made rapid progress—almost threatening Petrograd.

This led to a sharp disagreement with Lenin who wanted the treaty signed immediately and threatened to resign if it was not. He relied on the threat by the Germans to overrun Russia to argue that it was essential to do whatever needed to be done to save the country.65 Most of the Bolshevik leadership and party members opposed Lenin and insisted that the treaty was a betrayal of principles, specifically, the commitment to transform the war into a class war. Some urged a revolutionary war against Germany, by which they meant something similar to what Luxemburg and Pannekoek had been advocating—an option which did not align well with the increasingly obvious emphasis Lenin was placing on the survival of Bolshevik power in Russia.66 In the end, Lenin prevailed and the Brest-Litovsk Treaty was signed in March.

Rudolf Hilferding, by now a member of the uspd, perceptively analyzed the situation:

Lenin signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in order to prolong the war between Germany and Austria, on the one hand, and Great Britain and France on the other hand, and in order to secure peace for himself. He did it at the risk of bringing about a victory of the reactionary Hapsburgs and Hohenzollerns over the Western democracies, and against the opposition of Trotsky, who fully realized the possibility that a German victory might result from the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty. The intervention of the United States, of American “capitalism,” as the foolish vulgar Marxists used to say, intervention which could hardly be foreseen at that time, saved him from this danger.67

Luxemburg wrote a devastating critique of the Bolsheviks in “The Russian Tragedy.” It is very unlikely that she had seen the article by Lenin cited above but it appears that she got most things right:

The end result of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk is thus to encircle, starve out and strangle the Russian revolution from all sides.

And now the most terrible prospect looms ahead of the Bolsheviks, the final stage of their path and thorns—an alliance between the Bolsheviks and Germany! This, to be sure, would forge the final link in that disastrous chain which the world war has hung around the neck of the Russian Revolution: first retreat, then capitulation and finally an alliance with German imperialism. In this way the Russian Revolution would be dragged by the world war, from which it sought to withdraw at any price, over to the opposite camp—from the side of the Entente while under the Tsar to the German side under the Bolsheviks.

It is to the everlasting credit of the Russian revolutionary proletariat that its first gesture following the outbreak of the revolution was a refusal to continue to fight as levies of Franco-English imperialism. In view of the international situation, however, to render military service to German imperialism is even worse…

But then other considerations, quite different from these apparently realistic ones, must be taken into account. An alliance between the Bolsheviks and German imperialism would be the most terrible moral blow that could be delivered against international socialism. Russia was the one last corner where revolutionary socialism, purity of principle and ideals, still held away. It was a place to which all sincere socialist elements in Germany and Europe could look in order to find relief from the disgust they felt at the practice of the West European labor movement, in order to arm themselves with the courage to persevere and in faith in pure actions and sacred words. The grotesque ‘coupling’ of Lenin and Hindenburg would extinguish the source of moral light in the east. It is obvious that the German rulers are holding a gun to the Soviet government’s head and are exploiting its desperate situation in order to force this monstrous alliance upon it. But we hope that Lenin and his friends do not surrender at any price and that they answer this unreasonable demand with a categorical: “This far but no further!”

A socialist revolution supported by German bayonets, the dictatorship of the proletariat under the patronage of German imperialism—this would be the most monstrous event that we could hope to witness. And what is more, it would be pure utopianism. Quite apart from the fact that the moral prestige of the Bolsheviks would be destroyed in the country, they would lose all freedom of movement and independence even in domestic policy, and within a very short time would disappear from the scene altogether…

If this were to happen, all the sacrifices until now, including the great sacrifice of Brest-Litovsk, would have been totally in vain, for the price of the sacrifice would ultimately be moral bankruptcy. Any political destruction of the Bolsheviks in an honest struggle against the overwhelming forces and hostile pressures of the historical situation would be preferable to the moral destruction [emphasis added].68

But whatever attention her criticisms attracted, the power of the Russian Revolution to inspire revolutionaries across the globe was undeniable. It caused just about everyone with revolutionary sympathies to join in an enduring embrace of the imagined first socialist revolution.

1918 in Germany

Four years of war had taken a terrible toll on the people of all the warring countries and signs of rebellion against its continuation, with no end in sight, were emerging across the European continent. Many German workers had been inspired by the events in Russia and began to act. In January 1918, strikes against the war, once again initiated by the Shop Stewards, erupted in Berlin. Over a million workers went out and a new workers’ council was formed.69

Surprisingly or not, Richard Müller argued for the strike committee to include worker members of the spd; the reason was likely his deep-seated conviction that the ultimate wisdom of ordinary workers was more important than their particular political views at any moment. But what was true most of the time was not necessarily true all of the time. Müller was subsequently again drafted into the army and, while he was gone, the Stewards moved steadily to the left. But many remained close to the spd.

In subsequent months, German soldiers began their own withdrawal from war by taking advantages of opportunities to desert and return home. In part, this may have been an unintended result of the government’s sending of arrested strikers and militants to the front lines where they continued their antiwar propaganda.70

These developments were deeply troubling to the army’s leaders and they forced Kaiser Wilhelm to withdraw from the government at the end of September. A new government, led by Prince Max von Baden, was formed. For the first time, the government included members of the spd. Negotiations for the terms of an armistice began with the Allied Powers.

Soon afterwards, Liebknecht was released and was greeted by the cheers of thousands when he arrived in Berlin. He threw himself into the antiwar and pro-revolution ferment. And there was plenty of ferment. On October 28, massive strikes broke out in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Many more workers’ and soldiers’ councils were formed.

While the difficulties for the government kept mounting, the opposition forces were not ready. Franz Borkenau wrote: “In the last days before the end all Germany seemed to have become revolutionary, because all Germany sympathized with the pacifist and republican program of the usp. The majority socialists withstood the wave till the end; even on November 8th they still issued leaflets for the war and the dynasty. In the meantime, the usp leaders stood quietly by, making peaceful propaganda and nothing more. The small Spartakusbund could do nothing but issue leaflets, which were increasingly violent in tone, but had little effect.”71

On November 2, Liebknecht presented a proposal to the Shop Stewards’ Delegates that a call be issued for a general strike and armed mass demonstrations to be held on November 5—with the demand that the government be replaced by a government of workers’ and soldiers’ councils. He wasn’t able to prevail and the proposal was not adopted.

But explosive events intervened. On November 3, sailors on ships in Kiel on the Baltic Sea coast mutinied and refused orders to set sail to face almost certain slaughter at the hands of the British Navy, which had been blockading German ports. Soldiers’ and workers’ councils quickly formed.72 The Kiel councilists sent delegations to cities and towns across Germany.73 On November 4, Liebknecht proposed to the Delegates’ executive committee that an insurrection against the government be mounted on November 8. Still, there was hesitation—which was finally overcome only when the government uncovered the plans for the insurrection.

On November 8, the Spartacus Group issued a direct appeal to the workers in Berlin to join the rebels outside the capital city and warned that the spd was now trying to take over the leadership of the antiwar rebellions. The next day, the heavens and the earth moved. Hundreds of thousands of workers joined the strike and headed for a mass demonstration in the center of the city. They were led by armed workers, but there was no violence—for many soldiers broke ranks and joined with the workers. When the demonstrators assembled outside the Kaiser’s palace, Liebknecht addressed them and proclaimed “the free socialist republic of Germany.”

There had been little effort on the part of conservative political groups or the armed forces to oppose the toppling of the government. Indeed, in a letter on November 11, Leo Jogiches wrote: “The Revolution […] is above all, a soldiers’ mutiny. It was executed by soldiers who were dissatisfied with their lot as soldiers. Certainly the masses contributed to the Revolution, but for the moment its social core remains shrouded in darkness.”74 The ambiguity regarding the motives and potentials of the rebellious troops would haunt events for the next two months.

Later that day, Richard Müller addressed a meeting of thousands of “Delegates.” He proposed that workers’ and soldiers’ councils be organized in every factory and military unit and that the councils should meet on November 10 to elect a provisional government. Before that meeting was held, Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated and Prince Max von Baden handed over the government to Friedrich Ebert of the spd. The spd then proclaimed “the free republic of Germany” to distinguish its goal from Liebknecht’s. There were effectively two potential governments.

On November 10, the assembly of councils proposed by Müller was convened. In an ominous sign of what was to come, the spd leadership had formed its own soldiers’ and workers’ councils and its representatives were the majority at the assembly. Perhaps more significant was the fact that the soldiers’ councils outnumbered the workers’ councils. When an Executive Council was elected, it too was dominated by the spd.

On November 11, an Armistice was declared—at last, there was an end to the murderous warfare.75 There is much to say about the course of the German Revolution over the course of the next seventy days, before the murders of Liebknecht and Luxemburg in January 1919,76 but that will have to wait for another time.

Some surprising ideas from Rosa Luxemburg on national oppression and resistance

Probably no individual in the revolutionary tradition has been more associated with opposition to nationalism and national self-determination than Rosa Luxemburg. She had nothing but scorn for the nationalist proponents of an independent Poland. Indeed, she was very critical of Marx and Engels for the support they had extended to the Polish national cause, embodied in the slogan “Let Poland Live!”77

For her, the development of capitalism had buried the idea of an independent Poland serving as a buffer between Tsarist autocracy and “free” Europe. It had also led to the creation of a revolutionary class movement of a unified proletariat in Russia and Poland—a movement which made any traditional restoration of Poland all but reactionary because it would divide that proletariat.

But Luxemburg emphasized other aspects of her thinking on the national question in the same text. Essentially, she insisted on the need to differentiate the nationalism of the schlachta (land-owning nobles and bourgeoisie) from the national instincts of the Polish workers. She condemned the “utter bankruptcy of social patriotism in the face of revolutionary crisis” (meaning the revolution of 1905). Its advocates had no program for democratic reforms for the Russian empire as a whole. While social democracy had called for a republic for all of Russia and national autonomy for Poland, the social patriots were content to call for an autonomous constitution for the Kingdom of Poland within the Russian absolutist state.” 78

She argued that the proletariat had very different national interests. I have reconstructed the elements of her argument below:

  • “To the credit of mankind, history has universally established that even the most inhumane material oppression is not able to provoke such wrathful, fanatical rebellion and rage as the suppression of intellectual life in general, or as religious or national oppression.”
  • “To tolerate national oppression, to toady to it servilely—that is the special talent of … the possessing classes whose interests today are reactionary to the core.”
  • “The cause of nationalism in Poland is not alien to the working class—nor can it be. The working class cannot be indifferent to the most intolerably barbaric oppression, directed as it is against the intellectual and cultural heritage of society.”
  • “The national interests of the Polish proletariat consisted of the free development of the national cultural heritage, bourgeois equality, and abolition of all national oppression.”
  • “…. only classes which are revolutionary by virtue of their material social situation are capable of heroic revolt and martyrdom in defense of these intellectual riches.”
  • “As a class possessing no material stake in present society, our proletariat, whose historical mission is to overthrow the entire existing system in short, the revolutionary class must experience national oppression as an open wound, as a shame and disgrace, and indeed it does, although this does not alter the fact that this particular injustice is only a drop in the ocean of the entire social privation, political abuse, and intellectual disinheritance that the wage laborer suffers at the hands of present-day society.”
  • “…. our proletariat can and must fight for the defense of national identity as a cultural legacy, that has its own right to exist and flourish. And today our national identity cannot be defended by national separatism; it can only be secured through the struggle to overthrow despotism and solidly implant the advantages of culture and bourgeois life throughout the entire country, as has long since been done in Western Europe.” 79

In these very different times, the national struggle that Luxemburg embraced seems to be the essence of the fight the Ukrainians have been conducting. The despotism that needs to be immediately overthrown is Russian despotism, not the despotism within Ukraine. This is no fight for national separatism. It is instead a “fight for the defense of national identity as a cultural legacy, that has its own right to exist and flourish.”

Luxemburg concludes: “From even a purely national perspective, everything that contributes to promoting, expanding, and expediting the working-class movement must be viewed as a contribution to national patriotism in the best and truest sense of the word. But anything that checks or impedes this development, anything that might delay it or cause it to depart from its principles, must be regarded as injurious and hostile to the national cause.”80

We should not be surprised that the response of those in the working classes in Ukraine takes on national forms. Indeed, we should be encouraged. If their response did not result in resistance to the Russians, it would mean that they were willing, in Luxemburg’s words, “to tolerate national oppression, to toady to it servilely.” At this moment, there is nothing that “contributes to promoting, expanding, and expediting the working-class movement” in Ukraine more than the fight against Russia. If they are successful in that fight, they will face new challenges. But better by far that they will have challenges than that they will have been defeated.

Imperialism then, imperialism now

To a great extent, all of capitalist history has been imperialist but the forms and contents have not been the same. According to Tomas Konicz, the current moment is the moment of “crisis imperialism.” It is characterized by ceaseless strivings by the most powerful states for dominance. That dominance can be achieved and maintained by economic, political or military means. But its victories are often transient because the battles are being fought in the epoch of the “contraction of the valorization process” of capital. The battles are never-ending.

Those states are confronting a system crisis driven by permanent advances in productivity, which simultaneously produce “scorched earth” regions, economically and ecologically, in the periphery and make the emergence of “new accumulation regimes” based on mass wage labor in production impossible in advanced economies. The crisis is manifested in the staggering rise of debt that grows faster than economic output. This, in turn, leads to the rapid growth of an “economically superfluous part of humanity.” It manifests a fundamental difference from imperialism of the earlier epochs which took place in a historical phase of the expansion of capital.81

The twentieth century featured practices of informal imperialism; in the twenty-first, forms of direct imperialist aggression once again prevail. The current military expansionist drive of the imperialist states directly linked to is capital’s compulsion to exploit capital. But there is too much capital to be profitably invested. This all but impossible situation is reflected in internal political and social turmoil social tensions and drives the demand for raw materials and energy sources. Perhaps needless to say, the search for new energy makes most efforts at responding to the climate crisis all but futile.

In this dog-eat-dog, rat-eat-rat, competition, no state is innocent but not all states play the same part. The war against Ukraine is not an “imperialism on all sides.” A serious analysis of that war should remind us of the wisdom of Marx and Engels’ nineteenth century opinion that each war should be judged on the basis of its potential outcomes. Today, the stakes are enormous.

Konicz argues that without emancipatory system transformation, the risk of collapse into climate catastrophe and nuclear war becomes more real than ever. The current war certainly reflects those dangers. But a Russian triumph would do little to reduce the possibilities of cataclysmic outcomes. At the moment, the two legs of its standing as a serious power consist of its nuclear arsenal and its vast deposits of fossil fuels. If that turns out to be enough to “win” in Ukraine, it will all but certainly not be the last time it plays with fire.

What does an emancipatory vision look?82 What are the implications for politics, defined as genuine engagements with significant numbers of people in reasonably strategic locations? War is a very odd place to look for evidence of what might be done but it may well be that what the Ukrainians, some Russians and others are doing provides examples for how to concretize emancipatory system transformation.

Grassroots regional internationalism

Within Ukraine, there are encouraging signs of shared opposition to the Russian invaders among different linguistic groups (primarily Ukrainian and Russian). There is a widespread recognition of a common bilingualism. Any simple-minded understanding of the country as being divided into a pro-Russian east and a pro-European west is belied by the fact the leaders and many members of the Azov Battalion are from eastern, Russian-speaking, areas of Ukraine. Put simply, there is no automatic way of reading individuals’ politics off of their imagined “identities.”83

At the same time, there are encouraging signs of mutual solidarity among Ukrainian, Russia, Belarussian, and Polish activists. A somewhat sensible division of labor has emerged between activists in the different countries.

In Ukraine, solidarity of course takes the forms of direct participation in the armed struggle, support of armed and unarmed resistance, opposition to linguistic discrimination against Russian speakers, and support for internal refugees.

In Russia, solidarity takes the forms of an explicit commitment to Ukrainian victory; the vandalism of public spaces, sabotage of war-related infrastructure, assistance to those in jeopardy of arrest, assistance to Ukrainians who have been forcibly removed to Russia and active antiwar propaganda. All told, these activities within Russia represent treason to the Russian state and manifest what we might consider real revolutionary defeatism.

In Belarus, solidarity takes the form of imaginative railroad sabotage (clearly undertaken by railroad workers with deep knowledge of how the trains run); the active enlistment of Belarussians in the Ukraine resistance and preparations for the coming overthrow of the dinosaur dictator, Lukashenko.

In Poland, solidarity takes the forms of support for refugees from Ukraine; opposition to discriminatory treatment of refugees from other countries who have been living in Ukraine and support for women refugees facing the realities of Poland’s barbaric anti-abortion law.84

All told, these actions, undertaken under terribly difficult circumstances, suggest that internationalist solidarity remains possible. Instead of paying too much attention to what people elsewhere are saying (including me), we need to pay attention to what’s happening on the ground.

What might we do?

I could end this essay as I have ended too many others in my life—with a resolute call to action. I’m going to resist the impulse although I can think of many things we could and should do. Instead, I’d simply suggest that we need to see solidarity with the Ukrainians, without abandoning the struggle against capital and its states, as the defining challenge of the moment. If we meet that challenge, maybe we’ll figure out what to do.

  1. I have since been persuaded that a preoccupation with nato’s expansion in the context of the Ukrainian invasion is, in fact, a pro-Russian position.↩︎
  2. All told, the topics I address were intended to respond to questions that had been posed to the panelists at the Woodbine discussion.↩︎
  3. Recently, I had the good fortune of reading Rob Myers’s article titled “The War in Ukraine Through Some Memories of the Yugoslav Wars,” also published in this issue. He provides valuable insights into how the politics of the war in 2022 echoes those wars.↩︎
  4. See Hal Draper, The Myth of Lenins Revolutionary Defeatism.↩︎
  5. It’s beyond my scope in this essay to take a full measure of the Second International. Arthur Rosenberg seems to have gotten much of it right:

    An organization can only be looked upon as revolutionary when it has for its avowed and sole object the accomplishment of the overthrow of the existing order within a measurable space of time. If judged by this—the only just—criterion, the groups composing the Second International were not revolutionary… They accepted the existence of the capitalist state and sought to improve the condition of the working class within its limits. In consequence they were forced into a position incompatible with their own beliefs. For the theories of Marx, which they had made their own, called for revolution. There were, indeed, two ways in which they could attempt to evade this contradiction between their professed beliefs and their actions. The first way was an open and sincere confession that Marx’s theories must be altered to suit changed circumstances, and that Social-Democracy, even possibly in alliance with middle-class opinion and abandoning an ideology dominated by its final aim, must seek to accomplish definite reforms. Those who believed in this course became known as revisionists. The second way was that of continuing to accord the chief place in agitation and propaganda to the final aim, rejection of reforms, refusal to cooperate in the peaceful promotion of better conditions and to compromise with middle-class political parties and governments. At the same time there was to be no action of a revolutionary nature, and the small successes won for the working class by the “reformist” trade unions were to be regarded secretly as matters for rejoicing… There can be no question that up to 1914 the revisionists had a far better knowledge of actual political and economic conditions than had the so-called radicals.

    Arthur Rosenberg, A History of Bolshevism: From Marx to the First Five-Year Plan, 1934.↩︎

  6. V.I. Lenin, The Development of WorkersChoirs in Germany. Until 1914, there was no question that Lenin thought the German party was the exemplary socialist party. It’s often been reported that he, and Trotsky as well, believed that the first report of the spd support of war credits was a forgery. If this is in fact the case, it appears evident that both of them took a great deal of what they knew at face value. Indeed, in the opinion of Arthur Rosenberg, Lenin’s subsequent virulent denunciation of Karl Kautsky, typically identified as “The Renegade Kautsky,” was more than a difference of opinion. “Such hatred can only be entertained by a person who has formerly loved greatly. After 1914 Lenin sought to revenge himself upon Kautsky for having mistakenly admired his ideas and organization for twenty years past.” Arthur Rosenberg, op. cit.↩︎
  7. It might well be the case that a political party can never be “Marxist.” In a 1934 essay, Why I am a Marxist, Karl Korsch enumerated four essential points of Marxism. The second and third seem relevant to an argument for why a political party cannot be Marxist: “2) Marxism is not positive but critical. 3) Its subject-matter is not existing capitalist society in its affirmative state, but declining capitalist society as revealed in the demonstrably operative tendencies of its breaking-up and decay.”↩︎
  8. Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program. A new translation, which introduces several subtle but important changes in the customary English equivalents of the German, by Kevin Anderson and Karel Ludenhoff, has recently (October 2022) been published by PM Press.↩︎
  9. Karl Korsch, op. cit. In a 1937 essay, The Passing of Marxian Orthodoxy: Bernstein-Kautsky-Luxemburg-Lenin, Korsch argued that neither Luxemburg nor Lenin had accurately understood what had become of social democracy by the time that Bernstein argued his revisionist theory and that they effectively had the same understanding of the matter as the centrist orthodox thinkers, like Bebel and Kautsky:

    But it was not only the demagogues of the Social Democratic party executive and their “theoretical” advocates who, through the pseudo-struggle which they waged at that time against Bernstein’s revisionism, lent aid to the danger of an advancing reformist and bourgeois degeneration of the socialist movement. Rather in the same direction with them there worked for a considerable time, unconsciously and against their will, also such radical revolutionary theoreticians as Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and Lenin in Russia, who according to their subjective design conducted a serious and uncompromising struggle against the tendency expressed by Bernstein. When at the present time, on the basis of the new experiences of the last three decades, we look back on those earlier directional struggles within the German and all-European labor movement, it is somewhat tragic to see how deeply even Luxemburg and Lenin were stuck in the illusion that “Bernsteinism” represented only a deviation from the basically revolutionary character of the then Social Democratic movement, and with what objectively inadequate formulas they too sought to conduct the struggle against the bourgeois degeneration of the socialist party and trade union policy.


  10. Richard Hostetter, “The spd and the General Strike as an Antiwar Weapon, 1905–1914,” The Historian, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Autumn, 1950), pp. 27–28.↩︎
  11. Resolution Adopted at the Seventh International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart.”↩︎
  12. Basel Manifesto. Rosa Luxemburg approvingly cited these statements in The Junius Pamphlet. When clr James wrote his book on world revolution in 1937, he had nothing but scorn for them. He charged that while “internationalism remained on the lips,” the resolutions were “high-sounding but empty.” clr James, World Revolution: 1917–1936 (Duke University Press: 2017), p. 93.↩︎
  13. R. Craig Nation, War on War: Lenin, the Zimmerwald Left, and the Origins of Communist Internationalism. Chicago (2009), p. 20.↩︎
  14. Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet, Chapter 1.↩︎
  15. Ralf Hoffrogge, Working-Class Politics in the German Revolution: Richard Müller, the Revolutionary Shop Stewards and the Origins of the Council Movement (Chicago: 2015), p. 24.↩︎
  16. According to Hal Draper, anti-tsarism was “not the cause of collapse of the spd but effective ideological cover.” He cites what Luxemburg wrote about this: “Long-forgotten chords that were sounded by Marx in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung against the vassal state of Nicholas I, during the German March Revolution of 1848, suddenly reawakened in the ears of the German Social-Democracy in the year of our lord 19114, and called them to arms, arm in arm with Prussian Junkerdom against the Russia of the Great Revolution of 1905.” See Draper, “The Myth of Lenin’s Revolutionary Defeatism.”↩︎
  17. See here. There was no mention of the “lesser evil” in November. Lenin must have realized that a defeat of Russia in those terms meant a victory for Germany.↩︎
  18. It’s worth noting that, in this instance, Lenin implies that if national defense was real, it would be justified.↩︎
  19. V.I. Lenin, “The War and Russian Social Democracy.” Lenin never ceases to insist that the masses of workers will demand or accomplish something when he knew perfectly well that those accomplishments (good or bad) were the results off the actions and decisions of quite small numbers of active party members or, even more precisely, of those who were party leaders.↩︎
  20. “Centrists” is a term that explains itself; “opportunists” is another matter. Perhaps, the most useful general definition of opportunists in the context of revolutionary working-class politics might be a political tendency that was prepared to sacrifice the long-term interests of the working class as a whole for the short-term interests of a section of that working class.↩︎
  21. V.I. Lenin, “The Position and Tasks of the Socialist International.” More than a hundred years later, I assume that it’s self-evident that the period of the time was not the end of capitalism.↩︎
  22. Inessa Armand was a French-born Bolshevik who had a close personal and political relationship with Lenin.↩︎
  23. Angelica Balabanoff, Impressions of Lenin (Ann Arbor: 1968), pp. 40–41. Lenin spent the years from 1914 to 1917 in Switzerland, first in Berne and then in Zurich. When not attempting to revolutionize the Swiss social democrats, he spent his time trying to control every aspect of Bolshevik policy and practice. See here. A fascinating account of Lenin in the last year of his Swiss exile is provided in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel, Lenin in Zurich (New York: 1977). Solzhenitsyn devoted a great deal of time and effort to research in Zurich when he was writing the novel. It is subtly critical of Lenin but is no right-wing tract.↩︎
  24. Balabanoff concluded that Lenin’s intransigence about what at times seemed to be minor issues had a particular explanation: “He wanted it recorded in the annals of the workers’ movement that on specific occasions, the Bolsheviks had said this or that, opposed this or supported that particular motion. The aim of it was to show that the Bolsheviks, and they alone, were right and all the others had been counterrevolutionaries, saboteurs, and servants of the bourgeoisie.” Ibid., p. 4.↩︎
  25. An eerie anticipation of the later, and profoundly destructive, charge of “social fascism.”↩︎
  26. Nation, op. cit., p. 89. Unlike Lenin, Luxemburg never claimed proletarian activity as a source of a development that she endorsed unless it was real. In proverbial terms, she told no lies.↩︎
  27. All of the Zimmerwald documents are available online.↩︎
  28. See “Rosa Luxemburg and the First Zimmerwald Conference” online.↩︎
  29. Nation, op. cit., pp. 94–95.↩︎
  30. The Spartacus Letters are available in German. It would be a very good deed if someone would translate these letters into English.↩︎
  31. clr James notes that Liebknecht fought against the war credits bill in the spd faction for three days and was then defeated by a vote of 78 to 14. He couldn’t convince the other 13 to actually vote against the bill in the full Reichstag and he reluctantly followed them. “Although only a tiny minority of the spd opposed the war, Liebknecht was sharply criticized by some of his comrades. After meeting a group of party activists, mainly industrial workers, in Stuttgart in September 1914, Liebknecht showed the ability of a true socialist leader to learn from the class: ‘You are quite right in criticizing me. Even if alone, I should have called out my “No!” … I have committed a serious error.’ ” Ian Birchall, “Red Letter Days: Leipzig, 13 August 1871.”↩︎
  32. Karl Liebknecht, “The First Days.”↩︎
  33. clr James noted that Liebknecht was constantly shifted around to different army units because of the popularity of his antiwar views among the soldiers who got to know him.↩︎
  34. Karl Liebknecht, “Protest Against the War Credits.” It is noteworthy that Liebknecht insisted that it was not a defensist war for Germany. That suggests that he would not have been opposed to a war that was defensist in character. This distinction may very well not apply to any of the warring nations during the First World War but that does not mean that it will never be relevant. Not all wars are the same.↩︎
  35. Karl Liebknecht, “The Main Enemy is At Home.”↩︎
  36. See “Revolutionary Socialism in Germany.”↩︎
  37. The “Mayday Manifesto” was previously posted on Insurgent Notes. According to Mathilde Jacob, the Manifesto had been written by Rosa Luxemburg. Jacob, op. cit., p. 43.↩︎
  38. Karl Liebknecht, The Future Belongs to the People, chapter 24.↩︎
  39. Ibid.↩︎
  40. The difference between the imperial government’s treatment of Rosa Luxemburg and that of a nominally working-class government was that the prior government only locked her up while the latter one murdered her.↩︎
  41. It should be remembered that, throughout the period at hand, women did not have the right to vote in Germany.↩︎
  42. Luxemburg, “Rebuilding the International.”↩︎
  43. The German military’s high command had predicted that it would only take six weeks to defeat the French forces and occupy Paris.↩︎
  44. Luxemburg, “Junius Pamphlet.”↩︎
  45. Luxemburg, “Either/Or.”↩︎
  46. Paul Mattick, “Otto Rühle.”↩︎
  47. Hoffrogge, 2015, op. cit., p. 6.↩︎
  48. Ibid., p. 5.↩︎
  49. Ibid., p. 62.↩︎
  50. Ralf Hoffrogge, “From Unionism to Workers’ Councils: The Revolutionary Shop Stewards in Germany, 1914–1918.”↩︎
  51. Ibid.↩︎
  52. Gerhard Engel, “The International Communists of Germany, 1916–1919,” in Ralf Hoffrogge and Norman Laporte, Weimar Communism as Mass Movement: 1918–1933 (Chadwell Heath: 2017), p. 29.↩︎
  53. Ibid., p. 30.↩︎
  54. The dividing lines between the second and third and the third and the fourth tendencies were not always very clear.↩︎
  55. Lenin, “Open Letter to Boris Souvarine.”↩︎
  56. Hal Draper, “The Myth of Lenin’s Revolutionary Defeatism.” Also worthy of mention is that Lenin spent the war years in neutral Switzerland, far removed from the physical and political turmoil in the warring nations.↩︎
  57. Ibid.↩︎
  58. Ibid.↩︎
  59. An Open Letter to the Delegates to the All-Russia Congress of PeasantsDeputies.


  60. See his Draft Resolution on the Present Political Situation.


  61. Before we move on, I’d like to emphasize that the radical forms and contents of the German antiwar movement had developed without any reference to the defeatist slogan. Defeatism was not essential to revolutionary antiwar activity.↩︎
  62. Lenin, Report on the Activities of the Council of Peoples Commissars, Third All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers,’ Soldiers,’ And Peasants’ Deputies. January 10–18, 1918.


  63. “The Bolsheviks established a Foreign Ministry (People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs) which was de facto and de jure recognition of the existing system of international relations and the first legal but unnoticed step towards ‘socialism in one country.’ ” Mikhail Agursky, The Third Rome: National Bolshevism in the USSR (Boulder: 1987), p. 161.↩︎
  64. Russia recognized the independence of Ukraine, Georgia and Finland; gave up Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to Germany and Austria-Hungary and returned territories near the Black Sea that it had gotten from the Ottoman Empire at the conclusion of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878. The total concessions involved a third of Russia’s population, and a majority of its coal, oil and iron resources.↩︎
  65. The German and Austrian threat seems to have been a bluff, since the last thing that they wanted was to become entangled in a lengthy war in the vast Russian territory and to risk the continued spread of mass strikes at home. They wanted to end one side of the war so they could concentrate on the other.↩︎
  66. “One may stress again that the arguments used by the opposition against Lenin in 1918 were very close to those arguments used by Stalin’s opposition some eight or nine years later. Therefore, the concept of socialism in one country was formulated, not in 1924, but in February–March 1918 during the debates on the Brest-Litovsk treaty.” Agursky, op. cit., p. 192. See Lenin’s article titled “The Chief Task of Our Day” from Izvestiia on March 12, 1918, for evidence about his effective embrace of that position. Here are the closing paragraphs:

    Since October 25, 1917, we have been defensists. We are for ‘defense of the fatherland’; but that patriotic war towards which we are moving is a war for a socialist fatherland, for socialism as a fatherland, for the Soviet Republic as a contingent of the world army of socialism.

    “Hate the Germans, kill the Germans”—such was, and is, the slogan of common, i.e., bourgeois, patriotism. But we will say “Hate the imperialist plunderers, hate capitalism, death to capitalism” and at the same time “Learn from the Germans! Remain true to the brotherly alliance with the German workers. They are late in coming to our aid. We shall gain time, we shall live to see them coming, and they will come to our aid.”

    Yes, learn from the Germans! History is moving in zigzags and by roundabout ways. It so happens that it is the Germans who now personify, besides a brutal imperialism, the principle of discipline, organization, harmonious co-operation on the basis of modern machine industry, and strict accounting and control.

    And that is just what we are lacking. That is just what we must learn. That is just what our great revolution needs in order to pass from a triumphant beginning, through a succession of severe trials, to its triumphant goal. That is just what the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic requires in order to cease being wretched and impotent and become mighty and abundant for all time. [emphasis added]


  67. Agursky, op. cit., p. 188–189.↩︎
  68. See “The Russian Tragedy.” The fact of the matter is that the situation was even worse than she had imagined. In August of 1918, Adolph Joffe, who had been a negotiator at Brest-Litovsk but had opposed signing the treaty and was now the Soviet ambassador in Berlin, wrote to the German Foreign Minister to explain the Russian government’s positions on a number of outstanding matters related to the implementation of supplementary treaties. The document was titled “Secret Protocol to the German-Soviet Treaties of 27 August 1918.” Those August treaties were supplements to the principal document signed in March and contained terms related to the financial compensation of Germany for losses it had suffered during the war. (Joffe had signed them on behalf of the Soviet government). The Secret Protocol is mostly about military cooperation. The terms specify what the two nations will and will not do in various eventualities—such as the failure of the Soviets to immediately defeat the Entente troops in north Russia, the shared need to put down General Alexeyev in Czecho-Slovakia, the possible conflict between Soviet troops and a “Third Power” in the Caucasus, and the employment of Russian warships by Germany for various purposes in the Baltic Sea, including “military purposes in case of military need.” The note ends with an assurance that the Soviet government will keep its contents confidential. The full text of the note is included as Appendix I in this essay. For what it’s worth, Joffe consistently identified himself as a member of the Trotskyist opposition. One more thing, it’s also worth remembering that in 1916, when Liebknecht was enumerating the crimes of Imperial Germany, its use of secret diplomacy was prominent. Furthermore, the Bolsheviks themselves had renounced secret diplomacy in its first proclamations after the Revolution.↩︎
  69. According to Hoffrogge, strike committees began calling themselves workers’ councils in early 1917.↩︎
  70. Hoffrogge, op. cit. Also see Nick Goodell’s fine essay.↩︎
  71. F. Borkenau. World Communism: A History of the Third Communist International (New York), 1939, p. 135. In June of 1918, Franz Mehring had diagnosed the source of the uspd’s ineffectiveness: “… the Independent Social Democracy lacks the revolutionary energy that will arouse and carry away the proletarian masses. …. They aspire to restore the German Social-Democracy that existed up to the 4th of August, 1914. They would return to the old ‘proven tactics,’ to the ‘glorious victories,’ to the successful fight against revisionism from convention to convention.” Speaking about Kautsky, he added: “… it is characteristic of the party that its members should still continue to worship Kautsky as the holy prophet. Did not the 4th of August prove that the learned schoolmaster possesses not a spark of Marxian revolutionary spirit?” Mehring, “Socialist Divisions in Germany,” June 16, 1918.↩︎
  72. Borkenau was skeptical about the revolutionary potential of the sailors’ revolt:

    The sailors simply mutinied against the attempt of the officers to make the fleet perish-gloriously, as they saw it-in a last battle in the Channel. Unwillingly, the mutinous sailors found themselves in possession of the town. They elected a sailors’ council, which did not issue a single political slogan and submitted without much difficulty to Gustav Noske, a very anti-revolutionary social-democrat.


  73. On November 6, sailors,’ soldiers’ and workers’ councils took power in Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck. On November 7–8, councils did the same in Dresden, Leipzig, Chemnitz, Magdeburg, Brunswick, Frankfurt, Cologne, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, and Munich. See Pelz, op. cit., pp. 64–72.↩︎
  74. Oktokar Luban, “The Role of the Spartacist Group,” in Hoffrogge & Laporte, op. cit., p. 50. Leo Jogiches was born in 1867 in Vilna, Lithuania. He emigrated to Switzerland and in 1890 he met Rosa Luxemburg. In 1894, they founded the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland (sdikp). In 1890, he went with her to Berlin but did not become directly involved in German politics. For many years, they were lovers but their personal relationship became very troubled. Eventually, they were able to establish a new friendship and close political relationship.↩︎
  75. The Armistice abrogated the terms of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, thereby relieving Russia of many of the most onerous conditions that had been imposed on it. Nevertheless, for some time, Lenin chose to honor the Brest-Litovsk terms—hinting at the significance that he attached to German-Russian cooperation. On the same day, the Spartacus Group became the Spartacus League—demonstrating its further distance from organized social democracy.↩︎
  76. Luxemburg was released from prison and, upon her return to Berlin on the 12th, she assumed responsibility for editing Rote Fahne, the newspaper of the Spartacist League.↩︎
  77. Rosa Luxemburg, “Foreword to the Anthology: The Polish Question and the Socialist Movement,” 1905, p. 17.↩︎
  78. Ibid., p. 21.↩︎
  79. Ibid., p. 23–25.↩︎
  80. Ibid., p. 25.↩︎
  81. See the numerous writings of Tomasz Konicz, News and Analysis: Value Criticism, Crisis, Antifa. I have a great deal of appreciation for the insights of the “value criticism” school, established by the work of Robert Kurz, that Konicz considers himself part of. That said, notions that capital has at last entered its end stages have probably outlived their usefulness. It is another matter entirely if we consider the end of habitable nature and something resembling civilization. Capital may survive but none of us will be there to enjoy its advertising.↩︎
  82. In that context, it appears essential that the revolutionary left return the goal of the elimination of all nuclear weapons to the priority it once had and not limit its concerns with the danger to those occasions when the threat seems imminent.↩︎
  83. See Karmina, “The Tragedy of the Ukrainian Working Class.”↩︎
  84. This last section is admittedly a sketch. For detailed accounts of the developments, see, in no necessary order, “Position on Russia’s Attack on Ukraine”; “Russia: The Anarcho-Communist Combat Organization, An Interview”; “Manifesto of the Resistance Committee”; “ ‘In the Spirit of Sholem Schwarzbard’—Addressing Confusion about the War in Ukraine”; “War and Social Struggle.”↩︎


2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. AC,

    Well, this is quite a position for someone who not that long ago (10 years?) argued AGAINST defending Cuba and its revolution from the US organized invasion at the Bay of Pigs.
    As retro as it is to ask a question of “class content,” let’s ask it. What is the class content of Ukraine’s resistance that JG is defending? How does that differ, and is “more revolutionary” from the class content of the Cuban government in 1961?

    So much for history. Let’s say JG is right. UKraine is engaged in “self-defense” against Russian aggression. Which class is leading the Ukraine’s resistance? What is the social program of that class leading the resistance. Clearly, Zelensky and co. represent the capitalists. Call the oligarchs, call them “nascent,” “embryonic” etc etc. They are capitalists. They are committed to taking the economy, that is to say the social relations of production into the conditions advocated by the EU, the IMF, the OECD.

    So would it not be correct, at this dire moment, to counter the class content of the Russian attack– which is capitalist in its essence; that essence being destruction without prospect for recovery–and the class content of the Ukrainian government with a program that articulates the necessary, critical independence of the working class and poor? Does a “national struggle” against an invader supersede class struggle? If so, move over the former Soviet characterization of “Great Patriotic War,” and make room for your little brother “Ukraine’s defensive war for national existence.”

    But in vain will you search for the slightest mention of necessary class struggle in the midst of war.

    So I think questions of class remain primary, and where you don’t raise those questions, you immediately, but hopefully not irrevocably, undercut the basis for a revolutionary program, which pretty much proves itself to be the only way to end these conflicts.

  2. Kudos to Insurgent Notes for this special issue presenting an important and helpful range of perspectives on the Ukraine war. I especially appreciate John Garvey’s essay–for the arguments he makes, the history he presents, his honest effort to grapple with difficult issues and willingness to rethink his position.

    People may be interested in a recent guest post on Three Way Fight by Linda Mann, a review of Medea Benjamin and Nicolas Davies’s book War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict. Mann criticizes the book for implicitly justifying Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and echoing Russian government propaganda. She also traces the rise of a “red-brown ‘peace movement’,” which in the name of opposing U.S. and western imperialism serves as apologists for mass killings by Putin’s government and its right-wing authoritarian allies, notably Assad’s government in Syria. (The Anarchist Federation reposted the essay, per the January 9 trackback above.)

Add Your Comments

Your email is never published nor shared.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <ol> <ul> <li> <strong>