Marx and Engels on war

Submitted by Anon on 30 March, 2002 - 10:23

Marx and Engels commented on many conflicts and wars between the great powers of 19th century Europe. In this article Hal Draper demonstrates that their political attitude towards those conflicts was consistently based on advancing, not whichever of the established five great powers seemed the “lesser evil” or more progressive, but what Engels called “the sixth great power… the [workers’] Revolution”.

Draper’s account is here abridged from appendices in his book, War and Revolution: Lenin and the Myth of Revolutionary Defeatism (edited by Ernest Haberkern: Humanities Press, 1996). It forms the second part of a feature, the first part of which was an abridgement from the body of the book which we carried in WL2/1. In that first part Draper discussed Marxist attitudes in World War 1, and showed that the idea that Lenin’s polemics of that time establish a new standard Marxist response to wars involving imperialist powers — “revolutionary defeatism” — is false. (A third part of the feature will follow in WL2/3).

The gist of Lenin’s stance in World War 1 was that socialists should refuse to support any imperialist camp in the war. They should promote working-class struggle; they should advocate socialist revolution as the way to win a peace without conquests or annexations. Other revolutionaries, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, argued essentially the same view without the confusing terminology of “defeatism”.

At the outset of the war, Lenin sought to state his opposition to Russian socialists offering any support to Russia’s war effort by declaring that the defeat of Russia by Germany would be a lesser evil than Russian victory. He preferred defeat of Russia by Germany. But, then, should the German socialists prefer victory by Germany over Russia? Seeing the snare, Lenin successively redefined “defeatism” until, finally, it meant no more than that Marxists should not let their socialist struggle be limited or restrained by the risk that it might bring on the defeat of their own country. True enough: but quite different from preferring defeat.

After the end of 1916, Lenin dropped the term “defeatism”, and it disappeared from Marxist discourse — until it was revived after Lenin’s death, by Zinoviev and others, then allies of Stalin, as part of their campaign against Trotsky.

In his polemics during World War 1, Lenin took as good coin the claims of the pro-war, or equivocal, socialists that their line was a continuation of an attitude taken by Marx and Engels, who supposedly decided their stance in wars according to which great power’s victory they calculated to be probably the lesser evil. He sought to refute them by claiming that the world had changed since Marx and Engels wrote, mandating the new policy of “revolutionary defeatism”. Draper shows that the pro-war socialists’ claims were false. The world had indeed changed, but in their time Marx and Engels had advocated the same fundamental independent working-class approach as Lenin himself would advocate in World War One.

The Franco-Prussian War, 1870
All authorities have taught for a very long time that a “special Russian position” on the war question was established by Marx, who suffered from a phobia against Tsarist Russia (or maybe just Russia). It is quite true that Marx regarded the Tsarist regime as the main focus of reaction and counterrevolution in the world, and that he thought the Tsarist state had to be fought harder than any other. But it is not true (though repeated a thousand times in authoritative works) that the mature Marx made this anti-Tsarist (or anti-Russian) position the be-all and end-all of his political line on war and peace.

In many cases these authorities are concerned mainly with expressing horror over the call by Marx and Engels (and the German Democratic movement in general) in 1848-1849 for revolutionary war against Russia; for they are evidently unaware that this was explicitly a call for the revolutionary overthrow of the alliance of the Prussian absolutism with the Russian Tsarist knout, and that at that very time Marx used the words “war” and “revolution” interchangeably for this demand.(1) Indubitably Marx would have supported this “war”, for it was also the revolution toward which they were oriented.

But while gross incomprehension of Marx’s line in the 1848 revolution frequently surfaced in the 1914 debates between pro-war and anti-war socialists, it is important to see how much further the social-patriots went in their concoction of a fable about Marx’s war position. We are concerned here to see it through Lenin’s eyes, to see how it entered into his thought at the time.

The first article in which Lenin confronted the argument-from-Marx was a polemic he started writing in early 1915 (but did not finish) against the pro-war Menshevik A. Potresov, “Under a False Flag”. Here Lenin quoted Potresov’s account of what Marx’s policy was, and accepted it, arguing only that it was no longer valid in the new era of imperialism. Repeatedly it was asserted in this way (assertion and quotation by Potresov, conceded by Lenin) that Marx’s basic criterion for support of a war was “the success of which side was more desirable,” slightly modified by Lenin only to say “the success of which bourgeoisie...” This, asserted Potresov, was how Marx went about it even when both sides were “highly reactionary”, and therefore “Marxists too are at present obliged to make a similar appraisal”. In Marx’s day, Lenin agreed, “no other question could have been posed at the time...”(2)

In the first article that Lenin published on this subject, in May 1915, he added another facet to this picture of Marx’s war policy, as taken over by him from Potresov’s and Kautsky’s writings, in justification of the pro-war line. Marx, repeated Lenin from these teachers, took sides with one of the belligerents when, despite the will of the socialists, war had become a fact. “That is the main contention and the chief trump card in Kautsky’s pamphlet. It is also the stand of Mr Potresov...”(3) This too was accepted as historical fact by Lenin, whose political reply was only this: “The sophistry of this reasoning consists in a bygone period of history being substituted for the present.” So the movement was educated to believe, in retrospect, that confronted with two belligerents, however reactionary, Marx and Engels always supported one or the other, on the stated basis. The subsequent generations of Leninists, real or alleged, found Lenin’s reply so satisfactory that no one ever asked just where Marx or Engels laid down these categorical principles of war policy, and likewise never asked why no one had ever quoted them.

Indeed, Lenin never asked this. Though he was always concerned to find support for his views in Marx’s and Engels’ writings (unlike Trotsky, for example), not once and nowhere did Lenin ever purport to cite a source for these magisterial expressions of Marx’s views. He never reported that Potresov or Kautsky (or Plekhanov, et al.) had offered such evidence. He simply accepted. The whole structure of what in 1914 was called “Marx’s position on war” rested upon a series of unsupported assertions, which no one has ever found in Marx’s own work.(4)

But while these alleged principles of policy cannot be found in Marx and Engels, it is not difficult to find numerous examples of how the two thinkers followed courses basically different from these that have been alleged. Instead of the fable that has Marx always asking “the victory of which of the warring bourgeoisies would be better for socialism”, we find again and again that Marx asked a very different question: “How can this conflict, before or after war has been declared, be turned to promote or hasten revolution?” (More or less the same basic principle that was laid down by the resolution on war of the Stuttgart Congress of the International in 1907, and again at the 1910 Congress.) And again and again Marx or Engels declared against supporting either belligerent in a war — even when they specifically recognised one side or another as more “progressive”.

There is no doubt that at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Marx was pulled in different directions; but the frequent statement (by Lenin among others) that at least in the first period of that war Marx supported the German side as a war of defence against Bonaparte — this is an inaccurate exaggeration. It is based almost solely on the “Address on the War” which Marx wrote for the First International; but it is seldom understood that this address (public statement) was not only ambiguous but was intended to be ambiguous; for it was naturally not put forward as Marx’s personal opinion but as the official stand of the International, to be accepted by the French and German sections as well as the British.

Alongside this ambiguous statement were two far more definite ones. The best known of these was Marx’s position, stated at the time and subsequently, enthusiastically approving the stand taken in the German Reichstag by Bebel and Liebknecht, refusing to vote for the war credits — precisely in the first period of the war. The significance of this stand can be appreciated especially when one realises that Marx and Engels had to go through a change of mind to get there. Certainly Engels at first condemned the Bebel-Liebknecht vote,(5) perhaps Marx momentarily also. But soon, and for the rest of their lives, Marx and Engels proudly endorsed the anti-war vote, precisely with reference to the first period of the war.

On July 28, still in the first period, Marx wrote on the subject to his daughter, Laura, and her husband, Paul Lafargue, who were active in the French movement. He sounded very “neutralist” indeed: meaning that he refused to give political support to either side. Marx remarked that the war was considered a “national war” in Germany, and wrote about that view with acrid cynicism, without a word of approval; “on both sides”, he grunted, “it is a disgusting exhibition”. The only consolation was “that the workmen protest in Germany as in France”. This war “will produce results not at all expected by the ‘officials’ on both sides”. Bebel and Liebknecht “behaved exceedingly well in the Reichstag”. And finally (writing in rough English):

“For my own part, I should like that both, Prussians and French, thrashed each other alternately, and that — as I believe will be the case — the Germans got ultimately the better of it.”

Even this mild preference was not motivated by the claimed principle about progressive bourgeoisies. What Marx stated as the reason had solely to do with the dialectics of defeat and revolution: “I wish this, because the definite defeat of Bonaparte is likely to provoke revolution in France, while the defeat of the Germans would only protract the present state of things for 20 years.” In England, Marx told the Lafargues, the workers “hate Bonaparte”, but —

“At the same time they say: ‘The plague on both your houses’... For my own part, I do everything in my power, through the means of the International, to stimulate this ‘Neutrality’ spirit...”(6)

There it was: refusal to vote war credits, mutual defeat, “neutrality”, and “a plague on both their houses” — but the only sentiment usually quoted is the completely overshadowed preference that Germany “ultimately” defeat France because of its objective consequences. But for Marx this was not the equivalent of a statement of political position; it was exactly what it said it was, namely, a statement about objective consequences regardless of political policy.

The Crimean War, 1854-6
But Marx’s real “phobia” is alleged to have been Russia, and especially in 1914 the crux was, naturally, defencism in a war alleged to be for democracy and civilisation against Tsarist absolutism. We are told, indeed, that Marx simply yearned to support war, any war, against Russia — just as Scheidemann and Ebert did in 1914; and Lenin’s only reply was (in effect) that times and politics had changed. To this day, the Authorities’ books are full of this myth.

Well, by 1853, Marx had a splendid opportunity to support a war against Tsarist Russia. This war was mainly fought by the most advanced and “progressive” governments in Europe, namely England and France, against that most hateful of autocracies. Marx and Engels wrote voluminously about it for two years and more in the New York Daily Tribune articles and in letters. Here is the place to find Marx definitely supporting a war against his bête noire...

But this cannot be found, because it never happened. Marx did not support the war of the Western powers against Russia in the Crimean War. He wrote this down repeatedly, but has not succeeded in getting any of these statements quoted by the Authorities. Instead they cite his usual imprecations against Tsarist crimes and turpitude. Also, Marx and Engels were always willing to explain, in the columns of the NYDT, why the English bourgeoisie, from the standpoint of its interests, should stiffen its opposition to Russian policy. But in no case did this mean they were promising their support (or that of the working class) to a war fought for said interests.

“England cannot afford to allow Russia to become the possessor of the Dardanelles and Bosphorus,” Engels told his NYDT readers, as military analyst (which was the capacity in which Marx sent these articles to editor Dana in his own name). But at the end of this same article, Engels (writing for Marx) stated his own views. Today, he stressed, the chief antagonist of the Russian regime is not any of the Western Powers.

“We mean the European Revolution, the explosive force of democratic ideas and man’s native thirst for freedom.” This Revolution will roll over both war camps. There are now “in reality but two powers on the continent of Europe — Russia and Absolutism, and the Revolution and Democracy”.(7)

This concept — counterposing the European revolution to the European war, in a way not emulated by the Second International until the Lenin-Luxemburg-Martov amendment was added to the main resolution on war in 1907 and 1910 — was repeated by Marx and Engels in article after article throughout the year 1853.(8) In early 1854 the language became even more dramatic. One of Engels’ analyses of the military strength of the Powers ended with the counterposition of the Revolution to all the Powers:

“But we must not forget that there is a sixth power in Europe, which at given moments asserts its supremacy over the whole of the five so-called “great” powers and makes them tremble, every one of them. That power is the Revolution. Long silent... awaking from its slumbers... A signal only is wanted, and this sixth and greatest European power will come forward... This signal the impending European war will give...”(9)

There was not a word compatible with the notion that workers should support the war of the established Powers against Russia. Perhaps one should support the war by Turkey? Marx left no room for the thought: in the case of Turkey too only the Revolution was a viable choice.

“The Sultan holds Constantinople only in trust for the Revolution... The Revolution which will break the Rome of the West will also overpower the demoniac influences of the Rome of the East.”(10)

If anyone had the idea of ranging Turkey among the bearers of civilisation, that country would itself have to be remade, transformed, and this too would mean nothing less than the Revolution.

“Can any one be credulous enough to believe in good earnest that the timid and reactionary valetudinarians of the present British Government have even conceived the idea of undertaking such a gigantic task, involving a perfect social revolution, in a country like Turkey? The notion is absurd.”(11)

Marx was most brash and direct in repudiating any support to the war against Russia by the advanced bourgeoisies of Britain and France. In an article of 24 June 1854, Marx criticised a speech by Kossuth. For one thing Kossuth had threatened that Hungary might ally itself with Russia if England allied itself with Austria. This obviously was sure to draw Marx’s fire.

And then Marx attacked a bisymmetric error: it was equally a mistake [by Kossuth] to describe the war against Russia as a war between liberty and despotism.

“Apart from the fact that if such be the case, liberty would be for the nonce represented by a Bonaparte, the whole avowed object of the war is the maintenance of the balance of power and of the Vienna treaties — those very treaties which annul the liberty and independence of nations.”(12)

Here Marx applied to the war the same methodology that Lenin worked out in 1914: namely, what politics was this war a continuation of? What was the war being fought for — not in slogans but in socioeconomic fact?

An article by Marx of 27 April 1855 brings us back to our starting point, Marx’s starting point: the “sixth power” or third camp — the Revolution. Reviewing the war, he explained that the British bourgeoisie had begun by being enthusiastically in favour of the anti-Russian war, but cooled down considerably as it began to affect their purses. As against these motivations of the ruling classes he counterposed the social alternative: power to the working class.

“With regard to the political positions taken by the working class in Britain and France — the main point, with them, is this: that this war, coinciding with a commercial crisis... conducted by hands and heads unequal to the task, gaining at the same time European dimensions, will and must bring about events which will enable the proletarian class to resume that position which they lost, in France, by the battle of June 1848 [the “June uprising”], and that not only as far as France is concerned, but for all Central Europe, England included.”(13)

No-one has ever documented a word of political support by Marx to the alliance of the Western Powers against Tsarist Russia in the Crimean War; but on the other hand, we have by no means touched on all the aspects of Marx’s statements of an opposite character. Marx’s line on the Crimean War was 100% in line with the 1907-1910 anti-war resolution of the International, including the Lenin-Luxemburg amendment. Through it all, Marx noted now and then something that was ABC in terms of revolutionary politics:... things are clearly seething and fermenting and we can only hope that great disasters in the Crimea will bring them to a head.(14) Or as it was also put frequently enough: defeats facilitate revolution.

Engels’ last words on looming world war

The last years of Engels’ life — for convenience we can consider the dozen years by which Engels outlived Marx — coincided with a period of rapid growth of the imperialist tensions that were going to lead to the first world slaughter. It grew clear to all that a great world war was looming in the near future; and there was no-one who warned against the coming catastrophe as often and as cogently as Engels. The following, written by Engels, is perhaps the best known:

“And in the end, for Prussia-Germany no other war is possible any longer except a world war, and indeed a world war of an extensiveness and fierceness undreamt of up to now. Eight to 10 million soldiers will be at each others’ throats and thereby strip all Europe bare as no swarm of locusts has ever done. The devastation of the Thirty Years War... famine, pestilence, general degeneration of civilisation... irremediable disorganisation of our artificial machinery... ending in general bankruptcy; breakdown of the old states and their traditional state wisdom, such that crowns by the dozens will be rolling in the streets and no-one will pick them up; absolute impossibility of foreseeing how all this will end and who will emerge the victor... general exhaustion and the establishment of conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class. This is the prospect... And when there is nothing else left for you except to start the final great war dance, that will be all right with us. The war may perhaps push us into the background temporarily; it may take away from us many positions we had previously won. But when you have unleashed forces that you will never again be able to get under control, then let events take their course: at the end of the tragedy you will be ruined and the victory of the proletariat will either have been achieved or anyway will be inevitable.”(15)

A couple of weeks after writing the above passage, and indeed about the time it was coming off the press, Engels spelled his views out so that no one could make a mistake. The new Romanian socialist movement had asked him to write for its new magazine, Contemporanul, published in Jassy, and as usual Engels complied. He sent a survey of the state of Europe as it faced world war. Before citing the conclusion of this survey-letter, we must make perfectly clear that it was as toughly anti-Tsarist as ever; there was not the slightest evidence of any increasing softness about the Russian autocracy: “Since Russia enjoys a strategic position almost impervious to conquest, Russian Tsarism forms the core of this alliance [‘the old Holy Alliance of the three assassins of Poland’], the great reserve of all European reaction. To overthrow Tsarism, to destroy this nightmare that weighs on all Europe — this is, in my eyes, the first condition for the emancipation of the nationalities of the European centre and east.” And a good deal more of the same, such as he had written all his political life.

Did this mean, to Engels himself, that workers should give political support to war by the “progressive” Allies against this reservoir of world reaction? Not a bit. The statement ended with the following political conclusion, in view of the fact that war seemed “imminent”:

“I hope that peace will be maintained; in such a war, one could not sympathise with any of the combatants; on the contrary one would wish them all to be beaten if that were possible.”

We are back, or still with, the “plague on both their houses” approach of 1870, and, before that, with the support given only to the “sixth power” or third camp in the Crimean War. Engels’ statement ended with a repetition of the idea that the war would be terrible, but it would lead in the end to the socialist revolution.(16)

The idea of the defeat of all sides in a war was going to be mooted in 1914; but no one quoted Engels’ trenchant epistle to the Romanians of January 1888. It was in effect buried, and has remained effectually buried for a century, while Authorities filled books with assertions that the Marx-Engels view was its opposite.

But this demonstration of Engels’ war-and-peace politics of the last period is not yet complete; and there was another facet that seemed to look in a different direction. This was the large loophole that Engels — along with the entire socialist movement — left for support of war by one’s own government: in case of invasion or attack by a predatory power, socialists had to be concerned with the defence of the nation in the name of national self-preservation. (This knotty problem was not adequately analysed from the standpoint of Marxist politics until Luxemburg did so in her Junius Pamphlet of 1915.) In 1891-1892 Engels published, in both France and Germany, a statement that attempted to cover this question in the light of the looming war, through an article titled “Socialism in Germany”.(17) Whereas the main facts about Marx’s and Engels’ war policy have met with much silence and suppression, this article by Engels was well publicised in the movement, and lives on — in selected quotes — through the works of the “marxological” Authorities.

This is not the place to detail the background and content of the article, but there is no difficulty in understanding how it could be used in 1914 to vindicate “defencism”. Yet it could be so used only by maintaining silence and suppression about two features of his explanation which Engels tried in vain to make clear and unmistakable.

1. Very far from Engels’ thinking was a “defence of the nation” in which the socialists declared the class struggle suspended, as was the universal interpretation of the defencists of 1914, in the concept called “Burgfrieden” (civil peace). Engels’ idea, as he made very clear more than once, was just the reverse: the socialists could really defend the nation “only by the application of revolutionary measures”. But it was not the present government that would “unleash the revolution”. It was the Social-Democratic Party’s job to see that this was done, either by forcing the present government to take revolutionary steps, “or, if need be, [it] can replace it”. Thereupon Engels referred to the great historical example of what he had in mind: “The splendid example that France gave us in 1793.” Engels’ concept was that, in the very course of taking the lead in the nation to save it against the hated autocracy, the socialist movement would force the carrying on of the war as a revolutionary war.(18)

2. This “defence of the nation” repudiated the idea that socialists should wish for victory by any of the present ruling classes. Engels stated this so expressly that no one could misinterpret, and so his statement is not usually misinterpreted — it is simply not quoted. What he wrote was this, as part of a pithy summary laying down his position in ABC terms:

“No socialist, whatever his nationality may be, can desire the military triumph either of the present German government or of the French bourgeois republic, least of all that of the Tsar, which would mean the subjugation of Europe.”(19)

The reader must recall that the revolutionary precedent of 1793 not only urged socialists to take over the reins of power, but also taught the great lesson that “defeats facilitate revolution”. That principle was much older than 1793, as a matter of fact, and so when we run into it again, we must not think it was a new invention called defeatism.

The idea that war’s stresses made for revolt by the people was as old an idea as any in the socialist movement. When Lenin referred to it on the eve of the First World War, in 1913, it was uncontroversial. He was writing to Gorky about the probable position of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS, a right-wing Social-Democratic party opposed to Luxemburg’s):

“The PPS are undoubtedly for Austria and will fight for her. A war between Austria and Russia would be a very useful thing for the revolution (throughout Eastern Europe), but it’s not very probable that Franz Josef [the Hapsburg emperor] and Nicky [the Tsar] will give us this pleasure.”(20)

1. Instead of citing a long list of articles of this period by Marx and Engels, we select one for quick confirmation: Marx’s “The Revolutionary Movement”, published in Marx’s paper on the first day of 1849, as a summary of the situation; in MECW [Marx-Engels Collected Works] 8:213-15.

2. Lenin, “Under a False Flag” (not published until 1914), LCW [Lenin Collected Works] 21:139-40, p. 148.

3. Lenin, “The Social-Chauvinists’ Sophisms”, published 1 May, 1915; LCW 21:185. For a similar passage, see the pamphlet (by Lenin and Zinoviev but mainly Lenin) Socialism and War, in LCW 21:308.

4. What Kautsky and others did, by and large, was offer their accounts of the wars of the nineteenth century that Marx discussed, work out their interpretations, and then assert that these interpretations were Marx’s. Here I am interested only in stressing what went to form Lenin’s thinking on the war question in the early stages of the war.

5. Engels to Marx, 15 August 1870, in MEW [Marx-Engels Werke] 33:39-41.

6. Marx to Paul and Laura Lafargue, 28 July 1870; original, in Marx’s rough English, is here transcribed from Marx: Lettres et Documents de Karl Marx, pp. 177-79.

7. Engels: “The Real Issue in Turkey”, NYDT, 12 April 1853, in MECW 12:13, p. 17.

8. See especially the following five articles which, for the sake of space, are here identified by their initial pages in MECW 12:22, 93, 101, 209, 421.

9. Engels: “The European War”, NYDT, 2 February 1854, in MECW 12:557.

10. Marx: “Financial Failure of Government...”, NYDT, 12 August 1853, MECW 12:231.

11. Marx: “The Greek Insurrection”, NYDT, 29 March 1854, in MECW 13:72.

12. Marx: “Reorganisation of the British War Administration...”, NYDT, 24 June 1854, in MECW 13:228.

13. Marx: “Prospect in France and England”, NYDT, 27 April 1855, in MECW 14:145.

14. Marx to Engels, 3 July 1855, in MECW 39:541.

15. Engels: Introduction to Borkheim’s pamphlet Zur Erinnerung für die deutschen Mordspatrioten, 1806-1807, in MEW 21:350f; dated by Engels 15 December 1887.

16. Engels to Nadejde, 4 January 1888, published in Contemporanul (Jassy), January issue, translated into Roumanian by the magazine. Engels had sent it in French; extant is his (first?) draft in French. The German translation in MEW 37:6 was made from the Roumanian text checked with the French draft; my English translation is based on the French draft checked against the MEW version; but no substantive differences are visible among any of these versions. I am indebted to the Institute of Marxism-Leninism in Berlin (GDR) for sending me copies of both the Contemporanul publication and a typescript of the French draft.

17. The article was first written (October 1891) and published (December 1891) in French, in an almanac of the French party; then somewhat enlarged for German publication next February. The German version can be found in MEW 22:245-60; there is an English translation, not always reliable, in the appendix of Henderson’s Life of F. Engels, 2:796+.

18. Note that this was not the same as the conception of Karl Liebknecht in 1914 (adopted by Lenin), tagged with the slogan “Turn the imperialist war into civil war!” even though in both cases the objective of the socialists was to utilise the war crisis to take power. Whether Engels’ perspective was feasible, in 1891 or any other time, is a subject for debate. But this debate would have nothing to do with the myth that Engels’ kind of “defencism” was akin to that of the prowar social-democrats of the First World War.

19. This passage can be read in MEW 22:256; the preceding quote, about 1793 (etc.), is on p. 255.

20. Lenin to Gorky, written after 25 January 1913; in LCW 35:76.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.