Leon Trotsky
War and the International

The Decline of the Revolutionary Spirit

Six or seven years ago a political ebb-tide everywhere followed upon the revolutionary flood-tide. In Russia the counter-revolution triumphed and began a period of decay for the Russian proletariat both in politics and in the strength of their organizations. In Austria the thread of achievements started by the working class broke off, social insurance legislation rotted in the government offices, nationalist conflicts began again with renewed vigour in the arena of universal manhood suffrage, weakening and dividing the Social Democracy. In England, the Labour Party, after separating from the Liberal Party, entered into the closest association with it again. In France the Syndicalists passed over to reformist positions. Gustave Hervé changed to the opposite of himself in the shortest time. And in the German Social Democracy the Revisionists lifted their heads, encouraged by history’s having given them such a revenge. The South Germans perpetrated their demonstrative vote for the budget. The Marxists were compelled to change from offensive to defensive tactics. The efforts of the Left Wing to draw the party into a more active policy were unsuccessful. The dominating Centre swung more and more towards the Right, isolating the Radicals. Conservatism, recovering from the blows it received in 1905, triumphed all along the line.

In default of revolutionary activity as well as the possibility for reformist work, the party spent its entire energy on building up the organization, on gaining new members for the unions and for the party, on starting new papers and getting new subscribers. Condemned for decades to a policy of opportunist waiting, the party took up the cult of organization as an end in itself. Never was the spirit of inertia produced by mere routine work so strong in the German Social Democracy as in the years immediately preceding the great catastrophe. And there can be no doubt that the question of the preservation of the organizations, treasuries, People’s Houses and printing presses played a mighty important part in the position taken by the fraction in the Reichstag towards the War. “Had we done anything else we would have brought ruin upon our organization and our presses,” was the first argument I heard from a leading German comrade.

And how characteristic it is of the opportunistic psychology induced by mere organization work, that out of ninety-one Social Democratic papers not one found it possible to protest against the violation of Belgium. Not one! After the repeal of the anti-Socialist laws, the party hesitated long before starting its own printing presses, lest these might be confiscated by the Government in the event of great happenings. And now that it has its own presses, the party hierarchy fears every decisive step so as not to afford opportunity for confiscation.

Most eloquent of all is the incident of the Vorwärts which begged for permission to continue to exist on the basis of a new programme indefinitely suspending the class conflict. Every friend of the German Social Democracy had a sense of profound pain when he received his issue of the central organ with its humiliating “By Order of Army Headquarters”. Had the Vorwärts remained under interdiction, that would have been an important political fact to which the party later could have referred with pride. At any rate that would have been far more honourable than to continue to exist with the imprint of the general’s boots on its forehead.

But higher than all considerations of policy and the dignity of the party stood considerations of membership, printing presses, organization. And so the Vorwärts now lives as two-paged evidence of the unlimited brutality of Junkerdom in Berlin and in Louvain, and of the unlimited opportunism of the German Social Democracy.

The Right wing stood more by its principles, which resulted from political considerations. Wolfgang Heine crassly formulated these principles of German Reformism in an absurd discussion as to whether the Social Democrats should leave the hall of the Reichstag when the members rose to cheer the Emperor’s name, or whether they should merely keep their seats. “The creation of a republic in the German Empire is now and for some time to come out of the range of all possibility, so that it is not really a matter for our present policy.” The practical results still not yet achieved may be reached, but only through cooperation with the liberal bourgeoisie. “For that reason, not because I am a stickler for form, I have called attention to the fact that parliamentary cooperation will be rendered difficult by demonstrations that needlessly hurt the feelings of the majority of the House.”

But if a simple infringement of monarchical etiquette was enough to destroy the hope of reformist cooperation with the liberal middle class, then certainly the break with the bourgeois “nation” in the moment of national “danger” would have hindered, for years to come, not only all desired reforms, but also all reformist desires. That attitude that was dictated to the routinists of the party centre by sheer anxiety over the preservation of the organization was supplemented among the Revisionists by political considerations. Their standpoint proved in every respect to be more comprehensive and won the victory all over. The entire party press is now industriously acclaiming what it once heaped scorn upon, that the present patriotic attitude of the working class will win for them, after the War, the good will of the possessing classes for bringing about reforms.

Therefore, the German Social Democracy did not feel itself, under the stress of these great events, a revolutionary power with tasks far exceeding the question of widening the state’s boundaries, a power that does not lose itself for an instant in the nationalistic whirl but calmly awaits the favourable moment for joining with the other branches of the International in a purposeful interference in the course of events. No, instead of that the German Social Democracy felt itself to be a sort of cumbersome train threatened by hostile cavalry. For that reason it subordinated the entire future of the International to the quite extraneous question of the defence of the frontiers of the class state— because it felt itself first and foremost to be a conservative state within the state.

“Look at Belgium!” cries the Vorwärts to encourage the workmen-soldiers. The People’s Houses there have been changed into army hospitals, the newspapers suppressed, all party life crushed out. [A sentimental correspondent of the Vorwärts writes that he was looking for Belgian comrades in the Maison du Peuple and found a German Army hospital here. And what did the Vorwärts correspondent want of his Belgian comrades? “ To win them to the cause of the German people ”—when Brussels itself had already been won “for the cause of the German people!”] And therefore hold out until the end, “until the decisive victory is ours.” In other words, keep on destroying, let the work of your own hands be a terrifying lesson to you. “Look at Belgium,” and out of this terror draw courage for renewed destruction.

What has just been said refers not to the German Social Democracy alone, but also to all the older branches of the International that have lived through the history of the last half century.