Leon Trotsky
War and the International

What Have Socialists to Do with Capitalist Wars?

But the German Social Democracy, we shall be told, does not want victory. Our answer must be in the first place that this is not true. What the German Social Democracy wants is told by its press. With two or three exceptions Socialist papers daily point out to the German workingman that a victory of the German army is his victory. The capture of Maubeuge, the sinking of three English warships, or the fall of Antwerp aroused in the Social Democratic press the same feelings that otherwise are excited by the gain of a new election district or a victory in a wage dispute. We must not lose sight of the fact that the German labour press, the Party press as well as the trade union papers, is now a powerful mechanism that in place of the education of the people’s will for the class struggle has substituted the education of the people’s will for military victories. I have not in mind the ugly chauvinistic excesses of individual organs, but the underlying sentiment of the overwhelming majority of the Social Democratic papers. The signal for this attitude seems to have been given by the vote of the fraction on August 4th.

But the fraction was not thinking of a German victory. It made it its task only to avert the danger threatening from the outside, to defend the fatherland. That was all. And here we come back to the question of wars of defence and wars of aggression. The German press, including the Social Democratic organs, does not cease to repeat that it is Germany of all countries that finds itself on the defensive in this War. We have already discussed the standards for determining the difference between a war of aggression and a war of defence. These standards are numerous and contradictory. Yet in the present case they testify unanimously that Germany’s military acts cannot possibly be construed as the acts of a war of defence. But this has absolutely no influence upon the tactics of the Social Democracy.

From a historical standpoint the new German imperialism is, as we already know, absolutely aggressive. Urged onward by the feverish development of the national industry, German imperialism disturbs the old balance of power between the states and plays the first violin in the race for armaments.

And from the standpoint of world politics the present moment seemed to be most favourable for Germany to deal her rivals a crushing blow—which however does not lessen the guilt of Germany’s enemies by one iota.

The diplomatic view of events leaves no doubt concerning the leading part that Germany played in Austria’s provocative action in Serbia. The fact that Czarist diplomacy was, as usual, still more disgraceful, does not alter the case.

From the standpoint of strategy the entire German campaign was based on a monstrous offensive.

And finally from the standpoint of tactics, the first move of the German army was the violation of Belgian neutrality.

If all this is defence, then what is attack? But even if we assume that events as pictured in the language of diplomacy admit of other interpretations—although the first two pages of the White Book are very clear as to their meaning—has the revolutionary party of the working class no other standards for determining its policy than the documents presented by a government that has the greatest interest in deceiving it?

“Bismarck duped the whole world,” says Bebel, “and knew how to make people believe that it was Napoleon who provoked the war, while he himself, the peace-loving Bismarck, found himself and his policy in the position of being attacked.

“The events preceding the war were so misleading, that France’s complete unpreparedness for the war, that she herself declared, was generally overlooked, while in Germany, which appeared to be the one attacked, preparations for war had been completed down to the very last wagon-nail, and mobilization moved with the precision of clockwork.” (Autobiography, Vol. III, pp.167-168)

After such an historical precedent one might expect more critical caution from the Social Democracy.

It is quite true that Bebel more than once repeated his assertion that in case of an attack on Germany the Social Democracy would defend its fatherland. At the convention held at Essen [29], Kautsky answered him:

“In my opinion we cannot promise positively to share the government’s war enthusiasm every time we are convinced that the country is threatened by attack. Bebel thinks we are much further advanced than we were in 1870 and that we are now able to decide in every instance whether the war which threatens is really one of aggression or not. I should not like to take this responsibility upon myself. I should not like to undertake to guarantee that we could make a correct decision in every instance, that we shall always know whether a government is deceiving us, or whether it is not actually representing the interests of the nation against a war of attack.... Yesterday it was the German government that took the aggressive, tomorrow it will be the French government, and we cannot know if the day after it may not be the English government. The governments are constantly taking turns. As a matter of fact what we are concerned with in case of war is not a national but an international question. For a war between great powers will become a world war and will affect the whole of Europe, not two countries alone. Some day the German government might make the German proletariat believe they were being attacked; the French government might do the same with its subjects, and then we should have a war in which the French and German workingmen would follow their respective governments with equal enthusiasm, and murder each other and cut each other’s throats. Such a contingency must be avoided, and it will be avoided if we do not adopt the criterion of the aggressive or defensive war, but that of the interests of the proletariat, which at the same time are international interests.... Fortunately, it is a misconception to assume that the German Social Democracy in case of war would want to judge by national and not by international considerations, and felt itself to be first a German and then a proletarian party.”

With splendid clearness, Kautsky in this speech reveals the terrible dangers—now a still more terrible actuality—that are latent in the endeavour to make the position of the Social Democracy dependent upon an indefinite and contradictory formal estimate of whether a war is one of defence or one of aggression. Bebel in his reply said nothing of importance; and his point of view seemed quite inexplicable, especially after his own experience of the year 1870.

Nevertheless, in spite of its theoretical inadequacy, Bebel’s position had a quite definite political significance. Those imperialistic tendencies which the danger of war begat excluded the possibility for the Social Democracy’s expecting salvation from the victory of either of the warring parties. For that very reason its entire attention was directed to the preventing of war, and the principal task was to keep the governments worried about the results of a war.

“The Social Democracy,” said Bebel, “will oppose any government which takes the initiative in war.” He meant his as a threat to Wilhelm II’s government. “Don’t reckon upon us if some day you decide to utilize your cannon and your battleships.” Then he turned to Petrograd and London: “They had better take care not to attack Germany in a miscalculation of weakness from within on account of the obstructionist policy of the powerful German Social Democracy.”

Without being a political doctrine, Bebel’s conception was a political threat, and a threat directed simultaneously at two fronts, the internal front and the foreign front. His one obstinate answer to all historical and logical objections was: “We’ll find the way to expose any government that takes the first step towards war. We are clever enough for that.”

This threatening attitude of not only the German Social Democracy but also of the International Party was not without results. The various governments actually did make every effort to postpone the outbreak of the war. But that is not all. The rulers and the diplomats were doubly attentive now to adapting their moves to the pacifist psychology of the masses. They whispered with the Socialist leaders, nosed about in the office of the International, and so created a sentiment which made it possible for Jaurès and Haase to declare at Brussels, a few days before the outbreak of the War, that their particular governments had no other object than the preservation of peace. [30] And when the storms broke loose, the Social Democracy of every country looked for the guilty party—on the other side of the border. Bebel’s utterance, which had played a definite part as a threat, lost all weight the instant the first shots were fired at the frontiers. That terrible thing took place which Kautsky had prophesied.

What at first glance appeared the most surprising thing about it all is, that the Social Democracy had not really felt the need for a political criterion. In the catastrophe that has occurred to the International the arguments have been notable for their superficiality. They contradicted each other, shifted ground, and were of only secondary significance—the gist of the matter being that the fatherland must be defended. Apart from considerations of the historical outcome of the War, apart from considerations of democracy and the class struggle, the fatherland that has come down to us historically must be defended. And defended not because our government wanted peace and was “perfidiously attacked”, as the international penny-a-liners put it, but because apart from the conditions or the ways in which it was provoked, apart from who was right and who was wrong, war, once it breaks out, subjects every belligerent to the danger of invasion and conquest. Theoretical, political, diplomatic and military considerations fall into ruins as in an earthquake, a conflagration or a flood. The government with its army is elevated to the position of the one power that can protect and save its people. The large masses of the people in actuality return to a pre-political condition. This feeling of the masses, this elemental reflex of the catastrophe, need not be criticized in so far as it is only a temporary feeling. But it is quite a different matter in the case of the attitude of the Social Democracy, the responsible political representative of the masses. The political organizations of the possessing classes and especially the power of the government itself did not simply float with the stream. They instantly set to work most intensively and in very vaned ways to heighten this unpolitical sentiment and to unite the masses around the army and the government. The Social Democracy not only did not become equally active in the opposite direction, but from the very first moment surrendered to the policy of the government and to the elemental feeling of the masses. And instead of arming these masses with the weapons of criticism and distrust, if only passive criticism and distrust, it itself by its whole attitude hastened the people along the road to this pre-political condition. It renounced its traditions and political pledges of fifty years with a conspicuous readiness that was least of all calculated to inspire the rulers with respect.

Bethmann-Hollweg announced that the German government was in absolute agreement with the German people, and after the avowal of the Vorwärts, in view of the position taken by the Social Democracy, he has a perfect right to say so. But he had still another right. If conditions had not induced him to postpone polemics to a more favourable moment, he might have said at the Reichstag session of August 4th, addressing the representatives of the Socialist proletariat:

“Today you agree with us in recognizing the danger threatening our fatherland, and you join us in trying to avert the danger by arms. But this danger has not grown up since yesterday. You must previously have known of the existence and the tendencies of Czarism, and you knew that we had other enemies besides. So by what right did you attack us when we built up our army and our navy? By what right did you refuse to vote for military appropriations year after year? Was it by the right of treason or the right of blindness? If in spite of you we had not built up our army, we should now be helpless in the face of this Russian menace that has brought you to your senses, too. No appropriations granted now could enable us to make up for what we would have lost. We should now be without arms, without cannons, without fortifications. Your voting today in favour of the war credit of five billions is an admission that your annual refusal of the budget was only an empty demonstration, and, worse than that, was political demagogy. For as soon as you came up for serious historical examination, you denied your entire past!”

That is what the German Chancellor could have said, and this time his speech would have carried conviction. And what could Haase have replied?

“We never took a stand for Germany’s disarmament in the face of dangers from without. Such peace rubbish was never in our thoughts. As long as international contradictions create out of themselves the danger of war, we want Germany to be safe against foreign invasion and servitude. What we are trying for is a military organization which cannot—as can an artificially trained organization—be made to serve for class exploitation at home and for imperialistic adventures abroad, but will be invincible in national defence. We want a militia. We cannot trust you with the work of national defence. You have made the army a school of reactionary training. You have drilled your corps of officers in the hatred of the most important class of modern society, the proletariat. You are capable of risking millions of lives, not for the real interests of the people, but for the selfish interests of the ruling minority, which you veil with the names of national ideals and state prestige. We do not trust you, and that is why we have declared year after year, ‘Not a single man or a single penny for this class government!’”

“But five billions!” voices from both the right and the left might interrupt.

“Unfortunately we are now left no choice. We have no army except the one created by the present masters of Germany, and the enemy stands without our gates. We cannot on the instant replace Wilhelm II’s army by a people’s militia, and once this is so, we cannot refuse food, clothing and materials of war to the army that is defending us, no matter how it may be constituted. We are neither repudiating our past nor renouncing our future. We are forced to vote for the war credits.”

That would have been about the most convincing thing that Haase could have said.

Yet, even though such considerations might give an explanation of why the Socialist workers as citizens did not obstruct the military organization, but simply fulfilled the duty of citizenship forced upon them by circumstances, we should still be waiting in vain for an answer to the principal question: Why did the Social Democracy, as the political organization of a class that has been denied a share in the government, as the implacable enemy of bourgeois society, as the republican party, as a branch of the International—why did it take upon itself the responsibility for acts undertaken by its irreconcilable class enemies?

If it is impossible for us immediately to replace the Hohenzollern army with a militia, that does not mean that we must now take upon ourselves the responsibility for the doings of that army. If in times of peaceful normal state-housekeeping we wage war against the monarchy, the bourgeoisie and militarism, and are under obligations to the masses to carry on that war with the whole weight of our authority, then we commit the greatest crime against our future when we put this authority at the disposal of the monarchy, the bourgeoisie and militarism at the very moment when these break out into the terrible, anti-social and barbaric methods of war. Neither the nation nor the state can escape the obligation of defence. But when we refuse the rulers our confidence we by no means rob the bourgeois state of its weapons or its means of defence and even of attack—as long as we are not strong enough to wrest its powers from its hands. In war as in peace, we are a party of opposition, not a party of power. In that way we can also most surely serve that part of our task which war outlines so sharply, the work of national independence. The Social Democracy cannot let the fate of any nation, whether its own or another nation, depend on military successes. In throwing upon the capitalist state the responsibility for the method by which it protects its independence, that is, the violation of the independence of other states, the Social Democracy lays the cornerstone of true national independence in the consciousness of the masses of all nations. By preserving and developing the international solidarity of the workers, we secure the independence of the nation—and make it independent of the calibre of cannons.

If Czarism is a danger to Germany’s independence, there is only one way that promises success in warding off this danger, and that way lies with us—the solidarity of the working masses of Germany and Russia. But such solidarity would undermine the policy that Wilhelm II explained in saying that the entire German people stood behind him. What should we Russian Socialists say to the Russian workingmen in face of the fact that the bullets the German workers are shooting at them bear the political and moral seal of the German Social Democracy? “We cannot make our policy for Russia, we make it for Germany,” was the answer given me by one of the most respected functionaries of the German party when I put this question to him. And at that moment I felt with particularly painful clearness what a blow had been struck at the International from within.

The situation, it is plain, is not improved if the Socialist parties of both warring countries throw in their fate with the fate of their governments, as in Germany and France. No outside power, no confiscation or destruction of Socialist property, no arrests and imprisonments could have dealt such a blow to the International as it struck itself with its own hands in surrendering to the Moloch of the state just when he began to talk in terms of blood and iron.


In his speech at the convention at Essen Kautsky drew a terrifying picture of brother rising against brother in the name of a “war of defence”—as an argument, by no means as an actual possibility. Now that this picture has become a bloody actuality, Kautsky endeavours to reconcile us to it. He beholds no collapse of the International.

“The difference between the German and the French Socialists is not to be found in their standards of judgement, nor in their fundamental point of view, but merely in the difference of their interpretation of the present situation, which, in its turn, is conditioned by the difference in their geographical position (!). Therefore, this difference can scarcely be overcome while the War lasts. Nevertheless, it is not a difference of principle, but one arising out of a particular situation, and so it need not last after that situation has ceased to exist.” (Neue Zeit, 337, p. 3)

When Guesde and Sembat appear as aides to Poincaré, Delcasse and Briand, and as opponents to Bethmann-Hollweg; when the French and German workingmen cut each other’s throats and are not doing so as enforced citizens of the bourgeois republic and the Hohenzollern Monarchy, but as Socialists performing their duty under the spiritual leadership of their parties, this is not a collapse of the International. The “standard of judgement” is one and the same for the German Socialist cutting a Frenchman’s throat as for the French Socialist cutting a German’s throat. If Ludwig Frank takes up his gun, not to proclaim the “difference of principle” to the French Socialists, but to shoot them in all agreement of principle; and if Ludwig Frank should himself fall by a French bullet—fired possibly by a comrade—that is no detriment to “standards” they have in common. It is merely a consequence of the “difference in their geographical position”. Truly, it is bitter to read such lines, but doubly bitter when they come from Kautsky’s pen.

The International was opposed to the war.

“If, in spite of the efforts of the Social Democracy, we should have war,” says Kautsky, “then every nation must save its skin as best it can. This means for the Social Democracy of every country the same right and the same duty to participate in its country’s defence, and none of them may make of this a cause for casting reproaches (!) at each other.” (Neue Zeit, 337, p. 7)

Of such sort is this common standard to save one’s own skin, to break one another’s skulls in self-defence, and not to “reproach” one another for doing so.

But will the question be answered by the agreement in the standard of judgement? Will it not rather be answered by the quality of this common standard of judgement? Among Bethmann-Hollweg, Sazonov, Grey and Delcasse you also find agreement in their standards. Nor is there any difference of principle between them either. They least of all have any right to cast reproaches at each other. Their conduct simply springs from “a difference in their geographical position.” Had Bethmann-Hollweg been an English Minister, he would have acted exactly as did Sir Edward Grey. Their standards are as like each other as their cannon, which differ in nothing but their calibre. But the question for us is, can we adopt their standards for our own ?

“Fortunately, it is a misconception to assume that the German Social Democracy in case of war would want to judge by national and not by international considerations, and felt itself to be first a German and then a proletarian party.”

So said Kautsky in Essen. And now when the national point of view has taken hold of all the workingmen’s parties of the International in place of the international point of view that they held in common, Kautsky not only reconciles himself to this “misconception”, but even tries to find in it agreement of standards and a guarantee of the rebirth of the International.

“In every national state the working class must also devote its entire energy to keeping intact the independence and the integrity of the national territory. This is an essential of democracy, that basis necessary to the struggle and the final victory of the proletariat.” (Neue Zeit, 337, p. 4)

But if this is the case, how about the Austrian Social Democracy? Must it, too, devote its entire energy to the preservation of the non-national and anti-national Austro-Hungarian Monarchy? And the German Social Democracy? By amalgamating itself politically with the German army, it not only helps to preserve the Austro-Hungarian national chaos, but also facilitates the destruction of Germany’s national unity. National unity is endangered not only by defeat but also by victory.

From the standpoint of the European proletariat it is equally harmful whether a slice of French territory is gobbled up by Germany, or whether France gobbles up a slice of German territory. More over the preservation of the European status quo is not a thing at all for our platform. The political map of Europe has been drawn by the point of the bayonet, at every frontier passing over the living bodies of the nations. If the Social Democracy assists its national (or anti-national) governments with all its energy, it is again leaving it to the power and intelligence of the bayonet to correct the map of Europe. And in tearing the International to pieces, the Social Democracy destroys the one power that is capable of setting up a programme of national independence and democracy in opposition to the activitiy of the bayonet, and of carrying out this programme in a greater or lesser degree, quite independently of which of the national bayonets is crowned with victory.

The experience of old is confirmed once again. If the Social Democracy sets national duties above its class duties, it commits the greatest crime not only against Socialism, but also against the interest of the nation as rightly and broadly understood.


The Essen Convention of the German Social Democrats took place in 1907.


On the 29th July 1914, after a meeting of the International Socialist Bureau at Brussels, a well-attended public meeting was addressed by Jaurès, the recognized leader of the French Socialists, and Haase, Chairman of the German Social Democracy and head of its Reichstag fraction. Jaurès demonstratively put his arm round Haase, to the applause of the audience.