Lecture on “The Proletariat and the War”. October 14, 1914
|Written||1 October 1914|
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1971, Moscow, Volume 36, pages 297-302.
Lenin’s lecture on “The Proletariat and the War” was given in Lausanne on October 14, 1914, two days after Plekhanov’s social-chauvinist lecture, and was carried in the Paris Golos Nos. 37 and 38 on October 25 and 27. The report of the lecture was filed by a Golos correspondent (initials: I. K.) who noted that “Lenin’s lecture was held before a great concourse of people”.
NEWSPAPER REPORT[edit source]
The speaker divided his lecture into two parts: clarifying the nature of the present war, and the attitude of socialists to the war.
For a Marxist clarifying the nature of the war is a necessary preliminary for deciding the question of his attitude to it. But for such a clarification it is essential, first and foremost, to establish the objective conditions and concrete circumstances of the war in question. It is necessary to consider the war in the historical environment in which it is taking place, only then can one determine one’s attitude to it. Otherwise, the resulting interpretation will be not materialist but eclectic.
Depending on the historical circumstances, the relationship of classes, etc., the attitude to war must be different at different times. It is absurd once and for all to renounce participation in war in principle. On the other hand, it is also absurd to divide wars into defensive and aggressive. In 1848, Marx hated Russia, because at that time democracy in Germany could not win out and develop, or unite the country into a single national whole, so long as the reactionary hand of backward Russia hung heavy over her.
In order to clarify one’s attitude to the present war, one must understand how it differs from previous wars, and what its peculiar features are.
Has the bourgeoisie given such an explanation? No. Far from having given one, it will not manage to give one in any circumstances. Judging by what is going on among the socialists, one might think that they, too, have no idea of the distinctive features of the present war.
Yet, the socialists have given an excellent explanation of it, and have predicted it. More than that, there is not a single speech by a socialist deputy, not a single article by a socialist publicist, that does not contain that explanation. It is so simple that people somehow do not take notice of it, and yet it provides the key to the correct attitude to the present war.
The present war is an imperialist one, and that is its basic feature.
In order to clarify this, it is necessary to examine the nature of previous wars, and that of the imperialist war.
Lenin dwelt in considerable detail on the characteristics of wars at the end of the 18th and during the whole of the 19th centuries. They were all national wars, which accompanied and promoted the creation of national states.
These wars marked the destruction of feudalism, and were an expression of the struggle of the new, bourgeois society against feudal society. The national state was a necessary phase in the development of capitalism. The struggle for the self-determination of a nation, for its independence, for freedom to use its language, for popular representation, served this end—the creation of national states, that ground necessary at a certain stage of capitalism for the development of the productive forces.
Such was the character of wars from the time of the great French Revolution up to and including the Italian and Prussian wars.
This task of the national wars was performed either by democracy itself or with the help of Bismarck, quite independently of the will and the consciousness of those who took part in them. The triumph of present-day civilisation, the full flowering of capitalism, the drawing of the whole people and of all nations into capitalism—that was the outcome of national wars, the wars at the beginning of capitalism.
An imperialist war is quite a different matter. On this point, there was no disagreement among the socialists of all countries and all trends. At all congresses, in discussing resolutions on the attitude to a possible war, everyone was always agreed that this war would be an imperialist one. All European countries have already reached an equal stage in the development of capitalism, all of them have already yielded everything that capitalism can yield. Capitalism has already attained its highest form, and is no longer exporting commodities, but capital. It is beginning to find its national framework too small for it, and now the struggle is on for the last free scraps of the earth. If national wars in the 18th and 19th centuries marked the beginning of capitalism, imperialist wars point to its end.
The whole end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century were filled with imperialist policy.
Imperialism is what impresses a quite specific stamp on the present war, distinguishing it from all its predecessors.
Only by examining this war in its distinctive historical environment, as a Marxist must do, can we clarify our attitude to it. Otherwise we shall be operating with old conceptions and arguments, applied to a different, an old situation. Among such obsolete conceptions are the fatherland idea and the division, mentioned earlier, of wars into defensive and aggressive.
Of course, even now there are blotches of the old colour in the living picture of reality. Thus, of all the warring countries, the Serbs alone are still fighting for national existence. In India and China, too, class-conscious proletarians could not take any other path but the national one, because their countries have not yet been formed into national states. If China had to carry on an offensive war for this purpose, we could only sympathise with her, because objectively it would be a progressive war. In exactly the same way, Marx in 1848 could call for an offensive war against Russia.
And so the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th are characterised by imperialist policy.
Imperialism is that state of capitalism when, having done all that it could, it turns towards decline. It is a special epoch, not in the minds of socialists, but in actual relationships. A struggle is on for a division of the remaining portions. It is the last historical task of capitalism. We cannot say how long this epoch will last. There may well be several such wars, but there must be a clear understanding that these are quite different wars from those waged earlier, and that, accordingly, the tasks facing socialists have changed.
To tackle these new tasks the proletarian party may need organisations of a very different type.
Kautsky, in his pamphlet Weg zur Macht, pointed out, in making a careful and detailed examination of economic phenomena and drawing very cautious conclusions from them, that we were entering a phase quite unlike the old peaceful and gradual development.
It is hard to say just now what the new form of organisation, corresponding to this phase, should be. But it is clear that in view of the new tasks, the proletariat will have to create new organisations or modify the old. All the more absurd is the fear of disarray in one’s organisation, so vividly manifest among the German Social– Democrats; all the more absurd is this legalism at all costs. We know that the St. Petersburg Committee has issued an illegal leaflet against the war. The same has been done by the Caucasian and certain other organisations in Russia. There is no doubt that this could also be done abroad, without any rupture of ties.
Legality, of course, is a most valuable thing, and Engels had good reason to say: “Messrs, bourgeois, you will have to be the first to break your legality!” What is now going on might teach the German Social-Democrats a lesson, because a government which has always boasted of its legality is not put out by now having violated it all along the line. In this respect, the brutal order of the Berlin Commandant, which he forced Vorwärts to run on its front page, may prove useful. But Vorwärts itself, once it renounced the class struggle on pain of being closed down, and promised not to refer to it until the end of the war, has committed suicide. It is dead, as the Paris Golos, now the best socialist paper in Europe, has rightly said. The more frequently and the more violently I differed with Martov before, the more definitely I must say now that that writer is now doing precisely what a Social-Democrat should do. He is criticising his own government, he is unmasking his own bourgeoisie, he is accusing his own Ministers. Meanwhile, those socialists who have disarmed in relation to their own government, and devote themselves to exposing and shaming the Ministers and ruling classes of another country, play the part of bourgeois writers. Südekum himself is objectively playing the part of agent of the German Government, as others play it in relation to the French and Russian allies.
Socialists who fail to realise that the present war is imperialist, who fail to take a historical view of it, will understand nothing about the war. They are capable of taking a childishly naïve view of it, in this sense, that at night one seized the other by the throat, and the neighbours have to save the victim of attack, or in cowardly fashion to shut themselves away from the fight “behind locked doors” (in Plekhanov’s words).
We shall not allow ourselves to be deceived, and let the bourgeois advisers explain the war as simply as that: people were living at peace, then one attacked, and the other is defending himself.
Comrade Lenin read an extract from an article by Luzzatti, carried by an Italian newspaper. In that article, the Italian politician rejoices that the great victor in the war turned out to be ... the fatherland, the idea of fatherland, and repeats that we should remember the words of Cicero who said that “civil war is the greatest evil”.
This is what the bourgeoisie have managed to achieve, this is what excites and delights them most, this is what they have spent vast sums and efforts on. They are trying to convince us that it is the same old, conventional, national war.
No, indeed. The era of national wars is past. This is an imperialist war, and the task of socialists is to turn the “national” war into a civil war.
We all expected this imperialist war, and prepared for it. And if this is so, it is not at all important who attacked first; all were preparing for the war, and the attacker was the one who thought it most advantageous to do so at the particular moment.
Comrade Lenin then went on to define the conception of “fatherland” from the socialist point of view.
This conception was clearly and precisely defined by the Communist Manifesto, in the brilliant pages whose truth has been fully tested and justified by experience. Lenin read an extract from the Communist Manifesto, where the conception of fatherland is regarded as a historical category, which corresponds to the development of society at a definite stage and which later becomes unnecessary. The proletariat cannot love what it has not got. The proletariat has no country.
What are the tasks of the socialists in the present war?
Comrade Lenin read the Stuttgart resolution, later confirmed and supplemented at Copenhagen and Basle. This resolution clearly states the socialists’ methods of combating the trends leading to war and their duties in respect of a war that has broken out. These duties are defined by the examples of the Russian revolution and the Paris Commune. The Stuttgart resolution was carefully worded, in consideration of all kinds of criminal laws, but it indicated the task clearly. The Paris Commune is civil war. The form, the time and the place are a different matter, but the direction of our work is clearly defined.
From this angle, Comrade Lenin then examined the actual stand taken by socialists in the various countries. Apart from the Serbs, the Russians have done their duty, as the Italian Avanti! notes, and Keir Hardie is doing it by exposing the policy of Edward Grey.
Once the war is on, it is impossible to escape it. One must go and do one’s duty as a socialist. In a war, people think and ponder probably even more than “at home”. One must go out and organise the proletariat there for the final aim, because it is Utopian to imagine that the proletariat will tread a peaceful path to it. It is impossible to go over from capitalism to socialism without breaking up the national framework, just as it was impossible to pass from feudalism to capitalism without national ideas.
- The Way to Power.—Ed.
- See Engels, Socialism in Germany, Section One.
- On September 27, 1914, the central organ of the German Social-Democrats, Vorwärts, carried an article, “Germany and Foreign Countries”, which timidly suggested that the German and French proletariat were involved in the war against their will. On this pretext the paper was banned by the Commander of the Brandenburg district, General von Kessel. Haase and Fischer requested that the ban be lifted. Kessel agreed, provided Vorwärts refrained from dealing “with the subject of class hatred and the class struggle”. The editors accepted the condition, and the paper reappeared on October 1, frontpaging General Kessel’s order on the resumption of its publication.
- Golos (Voice)—-a Menshevik-Trotskyist daily published in Paris from September 1914 to January 1915, advocating a Centrist stand.
Early in the First World War (1914–18), Golos carried Martov’s articles against the social-chauvinists. That was when Lenin approved of the paper’s activity. Following Martov’s turn to the right, the paper began to defend the social-chauvinists, preferring “unity with the social-chauvinists to drawing closer to those who are irreconcilably hostile to social-chauvinism” (see present edition, Vol. 21, p. 113).
From January 1915, Golos was replaced by Nashe Slovo (Our Word).
- The anti-war resolutions of the international socialist congresses of the Second International in Stuttgart (1907), Copenhagen (1910) and Basle (1912).