Marx and the “Marxist line” on war

Submitted by Anon on 2 March, 2006 - 6:13

Tom Unterrainer reviews Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume V: War and Revolution by Hal Draper

This is the fifth volume of Hal Draper’s mammoth project to organise the political ideas developed by Marx and Engels on a coherent, closely argued and contextualised basis. It is something Marx managed for himself in his economic writing, but never with the diffuse array of journalism, essays and correspondence that constitutes his directly political writing.

For Draper, this project wasn’t a mere academic exercise — though his lack of political activity during the period of writing leads some to level this accusation — but was part of a decades-long battle against those who used Marx’s name in association with “counter-revolutionary tyranny”. He was determined to expose this “biggest Big Lie” with the aim of organising a genuine socialist movement.

Draper was a founding member of the Workers Party and played a leading role in successor organisations up to the 1970s. His political career coincided with socialists such as Max Shachtman and C L R James who developed a critique of Stalinist society and attempted to orient Trotsky’s Fourth International towards working class emancipation.

Volume Four of KMTR on Critique of other Socialisms was published in the midst of the collapse of Stalinism and in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. Fifteen years after Draper’s death, and at a time when socialists are faced with pressing questions on the issue of war, Ernest Haberkern has completed Volume Five at a similarly relevant time.

The concern of this volume is not to develop the “Marxist line” on war, but to account for the many complex and often forgotten episodes to which Marx and Engels were forced to react. For Marx the issue was not just to explain why wars happened but also to determine what impact war would have on the working class movement and any prospects for revolution.

This motivating spirit has often been obscured by downright misinterpretation by such august figures as Lenin, Kautsky and Luxemburg. By claiming that Marx was a Russophobe, by invoking “Marxist” assertions that were never made or by making excuses for Marx and Engels’ supposed “aberrations” on certain questions, the common picture of their stand on the issue of war and revolution is terribly muddied.

The book shows that up until their deaths, both Marx and Engels changed their specific views on war time and time again whilst never loosing sight of the overall perspective of revolution. This should be no surprise given the tumultuous events and rapid developments they both lived through — and given the fact they were both very human.

Three key themes are identified in the introduction: Marx’s alleged “lesser-evilism” on the question of Russia, his supposed predilection for choosing “one bourgeoisie over another”, and the case of what Engels did and didn’t say.

You could be forgiven for thinking that what we have here is more akin to a detective story than a work of politics and Draper’s forensic method in some ways bears this out.

14 August 1914 is a date in the history of the socialist movement whose resonance will be felt for some time. On that day the avowedly socialist German Social-Democratic Party joined forces with the German ruling class and backed war credits. This move came as some surprise to members of the Second International who’d seen the party press expose again and again the dubious activity of German diplomats. Surely this move represented a massive break with the Marxist tradition? Apparently not!

You see, Marx and Engels were outspoken Russophobes who supported any prospect of war on Tsarism. The pro-war social-democrats appeared to have a precedent for their abandonment of socialist politics; and Lenin and Luxemburg — though opposing the war — seemed to agree with them. Marx had been a Russophobe, but he was wrong or out of date, went the official view. The fact that neither the pro-war social-democrats, Lenin and Luxemburg produced written evidence for Marx’s pro-war position didn’t stop this becoming a Marxist “fact”.

Marx did despise the Tsarist regime and often seemed to be cheerleading the prospect of war, but on a very clear basis. The basis that “democracy” — the newly democratic or potentially revolutionary states — would be the liberating force.

The alleged pro-war Marx didn’t limit himself to just Russia — he appears to have a habitual tendency to choose one bourgeoisie over another. That has become a “Marxist fact”, too. But where Marx and Engels did support one side over another in some instances they did so on the assumption that success for one side would further the prospect of revolution.

As European capitalism developed and the much-hoped-for revolutions failed to develop as Marx had predicted, Engels went about developing what became a socialist anti-war perspective — one that recognised the fact that wars between rival powers would be to the detriment of the working classes involved.

In the final analysis it was the dynamic of the European working class that most effected Marx and Engels’ judgments on war. They were active participants in the creation of a working class movement ready to take on the bourgeoisie to end all war and exploitation. This meant that at times the content of their work was addressed to very specific sections of society in very specific conditions.

This context is rigorously argued through by Draper and Haberkern in an effort to show that no other concern occupied their political positions than moving towards socialist revolution. At a time when the dominant “anti-war” stance of the left seems at pains to ignore the dynamic of the Iranian and Iraqi working classes, this book provides powerful reading for those of us determined to forge a socialist anti-war movement.

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