3. The debate on a united Europe around the First World War

Submitted by PaulHampton on Sat, 08/08/2015 - 12:51

The threat of world war did not recede into the new century. On the contrary, it became clear by the second decade of the twentieth century that Europe was fast heading towards a terrible armed conflict. In these circumstances, the demand for European unity took on a growing urgency.

The next round of discussion was sparked by an intervention in the German Reichstag in April 1911. The SPD leftist George Ledebour argued that the socialists “demand the economic and political union of the European states”. He stated: “I am firmly convinced that, while it is certain to come during the period of socialism, it can also come to pass before that time, that we will live to see the United States of Europe, as confronted at present by the business competition of the United States of America. At least we demand that capitalist society, that capitalist statesmen, in the interests of capitalist development in Europe itself, in order that Europe will later not be completely submerged in world competition, prepare for this union of Europe into the United States of Europe.”

Kautsky argued in Die Neue Zeit later the same month (‘War and Peace’, April 1911) that while international agreements to limit armaments and resolve disputes could temporarily lessen the war danger, they could not prevent capitalism’s competitive antagonisms creating conditions which would eventually dissolve into military conflict. Instead he advocated “the States of European civilisation in a confederation with a universal trade policy, a federal Parliament, a federal Government and a federal arm – the establishment of the United States of Europe”. Such an arrangement, he speculated, “would possess such overwhelming power that, without any war, they could compel all other nations, so far as these did not willingly do so, to join them, to disband their armies and give up their fleet.” This would create the possibility of “an era of eternal peace.”

Such a confederation of European states would not come about voluntarily. Although “the attempt to peacefully unite the States of Europe in a federal Commonwealth” was conceivable – on the model of the Swiss cantons, its prospects were “bound up with the prospects of the Revolution”. It would be the begrudging response of European governments to the threat of workers' revolution, either again the crippling tax burden of armaments or against the destructive impact of a war. Kautsky saw the United States of Europe as an advanced stage of capitalist development; not something which must wait for the socialist revolution.

Kautsky's position provoked a rebuke from Rosa Luxemburg, who in ‘Peace Utopias’ (May 1911) rejected the demand for a united Europe on the grounds that it was both utopian and reactionary. First, she argued that “this idea is entirely new, at least in party-agitation. Our minimum programme contains no mention of any such construction; our party congresses and the international congresses never concerned themselves with it, not has it ever been seriously discussed in the party literature”. “Plausible as the idea of the United States of Europe as a peace arrangement may seem to some at first glance”, said Luxemburg, “it has on closer examination not the least thing in common with the method of thought and the standpoint of social democracy”.

Luxemburg accepted that Europe was “a geographical and, within certain limits, an historical cultural conception”. However she believed the idea of Europe as an economic unit contradicted capitalist development in two ways. First, capitalist states within Europe contained “the most violent struggles of competition and antagonisms” and second, “the European States can no longer get along economically without the non-European countries”, as suppliers of foodstuffs, raw materials and as consumers. For Luxemburg, the United States of Europe was an idea that ran “directly counter both economically and politically to the course of development” and took “absolutely no account of the events of the last quarter of a century” (Day and Gaido 2012: 453-55).

Bourgeois politicians championed the idea of Europeanism directed against the “yellow peril,” the “dark continent,” against the “inferior races,” Luxemburg regarded the demand as “an imperialist abortion”. The solution of the European union within the capitalist social order meant in the economic sense “only a tariff war with America” and in the political sense “only a colonial-patriotic race war”. The idea of a European union of states betrayed “its utopian nature by insecurely wavering between the capitalist and socialist world” and was useless as an agitation slogan to convey international solidarity (Day and Gaido 2012: 456-57).

Luxemburg was plainly wrong in a number of important respects. She was certainly wrong about the novelty of the demand for a united Europe. The classical texts may not have been readily available, but the demand was entirely consistent with the established Marxist tradition. She was wrong to suggest a united Europe ran counter to political and economic developments. Integration and independence were a growing feature of capitalist development during the period, although it was not sufficient to counteract the tendencies towards war between the advanced capitalist states. Luxemburg did not conceive of the interpenetration of US and European capital, nor of independent centres of capital accumulation developing in colonies freed from their imperial vice. While characteristically sharp with her rhetoric, Luxemburg’s vision was hampered by an erroneous conception of the national question and a mistaken theory of imperialism.

The debate during the First World War

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the majority of socialist parties discarded notions of a united Europe, supporting their own governments in the orgy of slaughter that unfolded. Revolutionary socialists such Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky had to craft their slogans about peace in Europe in the context of isolation, repression and war – including against leaders like Kautsky who they had previously looked to for ideological clarity.

In this disorientating situation, many revolutionary socialists continued to advocate the United States of Europe slogan as part of their answer to the war. Leon Trotsky wrote a pamphlet, ‘War and the International’ (1914), which summed up this position. His slogans included: “The right to every nation to self-determination. The United States of Europe – without monarchies, without standing armies, without ruling feudal castes, without secret diplomacy” (Riddell, Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International, 1986: 151, 155).

Lenin’s position was not as absolute as either Trotsky’s support for the slogan, nor Luxemburg’s total opposition to it. Lenin initially supported the slogan “a republican United States of Europe”. Its formation, he wrote in ‘The War and Russian Social-Democracy’ (1914), “should be the immediate political slogan of Europe’s Social-Democrats. In contrast with the bourgeoisie, which is ready to ‘promise’ anything in order to draw the proletariat into the mainstream of chauvinism, the Social-Democrats will explain that this slogan is absolutely false and meaningless without the revolutionary overthrow of the German, the Austrian and the Russian monarchies” (LCW 21: 33). In other words, Lenin was giving the slogan a revolutionary-democratic character – part of the democratic minimum programme to be achieved through revolutionary working-class means.

At this point, the discussion was primarily political and some appeared to interpret the slogan not as part of Marxists' democratic programme but, rather, to describe the political form that a federation would take after the socialist revolution. Though Bukharin, for instance, defended the slogan, he wrote in his ‘Theses on the Tasks and Tactics of the Proletariat’ (1915) that in “reply to the imperialist unification of the countries from above, the proletariat must advance the slogan of a socialist unification of countries from below – republican United States of Europe – as a political-juridical formulation of the socialist overturn.” (Gankin and Fisher, The Bolsheviks and the World War, 1940: 188). This was to give it a rather different meaning to Lenin's 1914 formulation.

The slogan was attacked by Hermann Gorter and others from the ‘left’. Their argument was that under imperialism, democracy and democratic demands are impossible to achieve, therefore, a United States of Europe is also impossible. They thought the demand was impossible, owing to the conflict of interest between the interests of European capitalist powers. And if it was somehow constituted, such an arrangement would signify an alliance for the purpose of attacking the USA.

According to the Bolshevik Shklovsky's recollections, Lenin responded by arguing that on the basis of such reasoning “it would be necessary to discard a whole series of points from our minimum programme as being impossible under imperialism. While it is true that genuine democracy can be realised only under socialism, we still do not discard these points” (Gankin and Fisher, 1940: 179).

Lenin’s second thoughts

Yet, by 1915 Lenin had second thoughts. The Berne Bolshevik conference in early 1915 voted for the United States of Europe slogan, but Lenin began to question his earlier support for it. In part he was revolted by Kautsky’s accommodation to pro-war Social-Democrats through abstract speculation for ultra-imperialism and European unity, expressed in his article ‘National State, Imperialist State and Confederation’ (February 1915). Lenin was rightly disgusted by those such as the ‘socialist’ minister Vandervelde who instigated the London peace conference on 14 February 1915, which connected the united Europe slogan with Allied victory. The conference resolution stated: “The victory of the Allied Powers must be a victory for popular liberty, for unity, independence, and autonomy of nations in the peaceful federation of the United States of Europe and the world” (Gankin and Fisher, 1940: 279).

By August 1915, Lenin composed an article, ‘On the Slogan for a United States of Europe’, changing his position and opposing the slogan. He continued to argue that democratic demands, far from in any way weakening the struggle for socialism, in reality serve to “draw new sections of the petty bourgeoisie and the semi-proletarian masses into the socialist struggle”. Lenin stated that the slogan of a republican United States of Europe was “quite invulnerable as a political slogan” – as long as it was accompanied by the revolutionary overthrow of the three most reactionary monarchies in Europe. However he was also influenced by anti-war critics of the slogan, such as Luxemburg and Radek, who highlighted its economic content and significance. Lenin concluded that: “From the standpoint of the economic conditions of imperialism—i.e., the export of capital arid the division of the world by the ‘advanced’ and ‘civilised’ colonial powers—a United States of Europe, under capitalism, is either impossible or reactionary” (LCW 21: 339-340).

This article is often quoted by Stalinists to give a Leninist gloss to their nationalistic anti-working-class policy in favour of unilateral withdrawal from the European Union. This is especially convenient as Lenin's polemic was aimed, in part, against Trotsky. It is true that Lenin and Trotsky disagreed on this question in 1915. Not only are conditions in Europe wholly different today than they were in 1915, but the Stalinist method substitutes simplistic quotation-mongering for understanding Lenin's method.

Trotsky articulates the demand for a united Europe

Trotsky's main point of departure, following Parvus, was that WW1 had been caused by a contradiction between the growth of the productive forces of the economy and the fact that economic development had up until now been organised by and within the bounds of nation-states. “Imperialism,” argued Trotsky in ‘Imperialism and the National Idea’ (May 1915), “represents the capitalist-predatory expression of a progressive tendency of economic development: to construct the human economy on a world scale, having emancipated it from the constraining fetters of the nation and the state”.

Central to Trotsky's vision of socialism was freeing the modern forces of production from the fetters of national tariff barriers, and counter-posing a rational humane means of organising society to the imperialist butchery of the capitalist’s ‘solutions’ to the problem. It is only socialism, he wrote, “that emancipates the world economy from national fetters, thus emancipating national culture from the grip of economic competition between nations – only socialism provides a way out of the contradictions that have broken out before us as a terrible threat to the whole of human culture” (Riddell 1986: 369-70).

Trotsky denounced as reactionary any programme which sought to force economic development back within national limits. He wrote in ‘The Nation and the Economy’ (July 1915), “It would truly be a miserable petty-bourgeois utopianism... to think that the fate of development in Europe and the entire world will finally be secured if the state map of Europe is brought into correspondence with the map of nationality, and if Europe is split into more or less complete nation-state cells ignoring geographic conditions and economic ties” (Day and Gaido 2012: 879-880).

Instead he advocated that “the economy will be organised in the broad arena of a European United States as the core of a worldwide organisation. The political form can only be a republican federation, within whose flexible and elastic bounds every nation will be able to develop its cultural forces with the greatest freedom… For us, recognition of every nation’s right to self-determination must be supplemented by the slogan of a democratic federation of all the leading nations, by the slogan of a United States of Europe” (Day and Gaido 2012: 883-84).

Trotsky answered the Bolshevik objections to the United States of Europe slogan in brilliant series of polemics in 1915-16. These were brought together as ‘The Programme for Peace’ and published in the Bolshevik press in June 1917. This version was translated into English and published in Fourth International magazine in 1944. In the pamphlet Trotsky describes the socialist movement as the “third power”, as distinct from the two imperialist blocs waging war. He argued that Europe was “not only a geographic term, but a certain economic and cultural-historic community”.

Trotsky reiterated his conception of imperialism as “the capitalist-thievish expression of this tendency of modern economy to tear itself completely away from the idiocy of national narrowness”. He argued that “while fighting against the imperialist form of economic centralisation, socialism does not at all take a stand against the particular tendency as such but, on the contrary, makes the tendency its own guiding principle” (‘The Programme for Peace’, 1944: 282).

Trotsky asserted that “The state unification of Europe is clearly a prerequisite of self-determination of great and small nations of Europe. A national-cultural existence, free of national economic antagonisms and based on real self-determination, is possible only under the roof of a democratically united Europe freed from state and tariff barriers”. Just as the slogan of national independence of Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks and others “remains an empty abstraction without the supplementary slogan Federative Balkan Republic”… so on the all-European scale “the principle of the ‘right’ to self-determination can be invested with flesh and blood only under the conditions of a European Federative Republic”. Trotsky spelt out the advantages of a bourgeois United States of Europe in terms that remain prescient today:

“To bourgeois politics the destruction of ‘internal’ European customs houses is an insurmountable difficulty; but without this the inter-state courts of arbitration and international law codes will have no firmer duration than, for instance, Belgian neutrality. The urge toward unifying the European market which, like the effort towards the acquisition of non-European backward lands, is caused by the development of capitalism, runs up against the powerful opposition of the landed and capitalist classes, in whose hands the tariff apparatus joined with that of militarism (without which the former means nothing) constitutes an indispensable weapon for exploitation and enrichment… Hence it is that the economic unification of Europe, which offers colossal advantages to producer and consumer alike, and in general to the whole cultural development, becomes the revolutionary task of the European proletariat in its struggle against imperialist protectionism and its instrument – militarism. The United States of Europe – without monarchies, standing armies and secret diplomacy – is therefore the most important integral part of the proletarian peace programme” (‘The Programme for Peace’, 1944: 283).

Trotsky discussed the three possible scenarios for the outcome of the war and what this would mean for the slogan of the United States of Europe: 1) the victory of one side (in his example Germany); 2) stalemate; and 3) the eruption of revolution. In each case he argued that the slogan retained its prescience.

In the first case, Trotsky posed the rhetorical question: if German militarism succeeded in actually carrying out the compulsory half-union of Europe what would be the central slogan of the European proletariat? He answered: “Would it be the dissolution of the forced European coalition and the return of all peoples under the roof of isolated national states? Or the restoration of ‘autonomous’ tariffs, ‘national’ currencies, ‘national’ social legislation, and so forth? Certainly not.” Instead, the programme of the European revolutionary movement would be: “The destruction of the compulsory anti-democratic form of the coalition, with the preservation and furtherance of its foundations, in the form of complete annihilation of tariff barriers, the unification of legislation, above all of labour laws, etc”.

In the second case of stalemate, Trotsky highlighted the apparent danger of “the establishment of an imperialist trust of European States, a predatory share-holding association”. However he believed the United States of Europe slogan retained its realistic and revolutionary significance. Trotsky wrote: “If the capitalist states of Europe succeeded in merging into an imperialist trust, this would be a step forward as compared with the existing situation, for it would first of all create a unified, all-European material base for the working class movement. The proletariat would in this case have to fight not for the return to ‘autonomous’ national states, but for the conversion of the imperialist state trust into a European Republican Federation.”

In the final case of revolution in Russia, Trotsky drew on his perspective of permanent revolution, whereby the seizure of power by the working class in Russia (or elsewhere) would ultimately depend on the international response of other labour movements. Trotsky believed there was “every reason to hope that during the course of this present war a powerful revolutionary movement will be launched all over Europe”. He argued that “the salvation of the Russian revolution lies in its propagation all over Europe”. The founding of a stable workers’ state “would be conceivable only if it extended throughout Europe, and consequently in the form of a European Republican Federation” (‘The Programme for Peace’, 1944: 283-84).

Trotsky took up Lenin’s unfortunate formulation about the unevenness of political and economic development providing the possibility of socialism in one country, later adopted by Stalin in 1924. Trotsky was clear that no national workers’ movement should “wait” for the others internationally to act. However he stressed the “interdependence” of workers’ movements that made other revolutions necessary for victory. On that score, the United States of Europe slogan retained its full value. As such the demand was transitional, pointing towards socialist revolution across Europe.

As Trotsky summed it up: “The democratic republican unification of Europe, a union really capable of guaranteeing the freedom of national development, is possible only on the road of a revolutionary struggle against militarist, imperialist, dynastic centralism, by means of uprisings in individual countries, with the subsequent merger of these upheavals into a general European revolution… Consequently the United States of Europe represents the form – the only conceivable form – of the dictatorship of the European proletariat” (‘The Programme for Peace’, 1944: 285-86).

Trotsky’s insight, which he took from the earlier Marxist tradition, was that European integration provides the best terrain on which the European workers’ movement could link up to fight the bosses, level up of democratic and social rights and in the process of this unfettered class struggle, fight for socialism. This was the perspective he took into 1917 and which informed his leadership of the workers’ revolution that year.

This facet of his thinking was ably recorded by John Reed, in his wonderful book, Ten Days that Shook the World (1919). Reed gained an audience on 30 October 1917 at the Petrograd Soviet headquarters, just days after the insurrection. Trotsky outlined the new workers’ government’s foreign policy:

“Our first act will be to call for an immediate armistice on all fronts, and a conference of peoples to discuss democratic peace terms... At the moment of the conclusion of peace the pressure of the Russian Revolution will be in the direction of ‘no annexations, no indemnities, the right of self-determination of peoples,’ and a Federated Republic of Europe.
“At the end of this war I see Europe recreated, not by the diplomats, but by the proletariat. The Federated Republic of Europe—the United States of Europe—that is what must be. National autonomy no longer suffices. Economic evolution demands the abolition of national frontiers. If Europe is to remain split into national groups, then Imperialism will recommence its work. Only a Federated Republic of Europe can give peace to the world.” He smiled—that fine, faintly ironical smile of his. “But without the action of the European masses, these ends cannot be realised—now” (Rosenstone, The Collected Works of John Reed, 1995: 633-4).

Was Lenin convinced? Did he revert to his original position of support for the slogan? It appears so. In 1918, Louis Fraina published a collection of articles in the US by Lenin and Trotsky from the war period, including Trotsky’s controversial articles on the United States of Europe. Commenting on the book at the Ninth Congress of the Russian Communist Party (March-April 1920), Lenin stated: “The American comrade, F., was wholly right in publishing a big volume containing a series of articles by Trotsky and me and thus giving a handbook of the history of the Russian Revolution” (LCW 30: 487). Lenin certainly never raised his objections again and moreover, the slogan was adopted at Trotsky’s behest by the Communist International (Comintern) during its heyday.

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