What do socialists say about the United States of Europe?

Submitted by cathy n on 12 April, 2013 - 4:15
Europe in red

Early socialist debates about the United States of Europe help us orientate in today’s conditions.


The term ‘United States of Europe’ has its origins in bourgeois democratic thought in the nineteenth century, and was directed at the multi-national absolutist empires such as Austria and Russia. Some of the more far-sighted thinkers envisaged an alternative way in which the European continent could be organised. The Italian republican Giuseppe Mazzini, for instance, saw a United States of Europe as the logical continuation of Italian unification. For the League of Peace and Freedom, a pacifist organisation Victor Hugo, Giuseppe Garibaldi and John Stuart Mill were involved with, a United States of Europe was a way of preventing war.

Marx and Engels had their own view of conflict between nations. In the Communist Manifesto in 1848, they anticipated that “in place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency,” capitalism would lead to “intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations.” Engels linked the growth of the workers movement and the increasing influence of Social-Democratic parties to the prospects for maintaining peace. When asked if he anticipated a United States of Europe in 1893, he replied: “Certainly. Everything is making in that direction. Our ideas are spreading in every European country.” (Daily Chronicle June 1893)


The sharpening of inter-power competition ultimately led to the outbreak of the First World War in July 1914. It was in response to the increasing threat of war that the German Social-Democrat Karl Kautsky discussed the possibility of a United States of Europe.

Kautsky argued in War and Peace (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 this short-term unity.

However, “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”, he argued, “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. 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. Nevertheless, it was seen by Kautsky has an advanced stage of capitalist development; not something which must wait for the socialist revolution.


Kautsky's thesis provoked a rebuke from Rosa Luxemburg, who argued in Peace Utopias (1911) that it was utopian to expect “an era of peace and retrenchment of militarism in the present social order.” She accused Kautsky of “projecting making”, of hatching detailed schemes as if to prove the practicality of his ideas, much in the way that nineteenth century utopian socialists created intricate blueprints of what their proposed societies would look like.

It was not Marxist, argued Luxemburg, to start with the political form of a union of European states without analysing its economic underpinning. She denied that Europe at this time was an economic unit because of violent antagonisms between European nations, and the ties between European and non-European states due to the industrial economies’ requirement for raw materials and foodstuffs. Hence, argued Luxemburg, the “‘United States of Europe’ is an idea which runs directly counter both economically and politically to the course of development, and which takes absolutely no account of the events of the last quarter of a century.”

More damningly, Luxemburg insisted that every time bourgeois politicians have raised the idea of European unity it has been as an imperialist project directed against the ‘yellow peril’ or the ‘inferior races’. “The solution of the European union within the capitalist social order,” she argued, “can objectively, in the economic sense, mean only a tariff war with America, and in the political sense only a colonial race war.”

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 such as 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”.

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.” 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.” 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 that not only was it impossible owing to the conflict of interest between the interests of European capitalist powers but that if it was somehow constituted it would be as an alliance for the purpose of attacking the USA.

Lenin responded, correctly, that on “the basis of [this] 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.”

Lenin’s second thoughts

Yet, by 1915 Lenin was having second thoughts. The Berne Bolshevik conference in early 1915 voted for the slogan, but Lenin began to question his earlier support for it. He continued to argue that democratic demands, far from in any way weakening the struggle for socialism, in fact, serve to “draw new sections of the petty bourgeoisie and the semi-proletarian masses into the socialist struggle.” Nor did he deny that revolutionary-democratic slogans had lost their relevance, writing that “political revolutions are inevitable in the course of the socialist revolution, which should not be regarded as a single act, but as a period of turbulent political and economic upheavals, the most intense class struggle, civil war, revolutions, and counter-revolutions.”

However, in a departure from his previous position, 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.”

This article, On the Slogan for a United States of Europe (1915), 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 Leon 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 formalistic quotation-mongering for understanding Lenin's method and his revolutionary internationalism.


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 (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 the freeing of the modern forces of production from the fetters of national tariff barriers, and counter-posing a rational and 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.”

Trotsky was hostile to and denounced as reactionary any programme which sought to force economic development back within national limits. He wrote in The Nation and the Economy (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.”

Recognising that the struggle for national unification was a crucial element of bourgeois-democratic movements in the nineteenth century, Trotsky noted that “in the previous epoch, France and Germany approximated the form of a national state [but] this in no way prevented either their colonial policy or their current plans to move the border to the Rhine or the Somme.”

Beneath the moves towards national unification lies capitalism’s impulse for constant expansion. Consequently, if “at a certain stage of development, the national idea is the banner of struggle against feudal-particularistic barbarism or foreign military coercion, later, by creating a self-sufficing psychology of national egoism, it becomes itself an instrument for the capitalist enslavement of weaker nations and an indispensable instrument of imperialist barbarism.”

“The task,” argued Trotsky, “is to combine the claims to autonomy on the part of nations with the centralising requirements of economic development.” Here he was developing his earlier analysis of the Balkan states, in which he argued that a Balkan Federation would be the framework in which the national aspirations of the Serbs of Macedonia, Bulgaria, Serbia proper and Herzegovina could be realised vis-a-vis Tsarism and European imperialism. In Europe as a whole, then:

“The national community, arising from the needs of cultural development, will not only not be destroyed by this but, to the contrary, it is only on the basis of a republican federation of the leading countries that it will be able to find its full completion. The necessary conditions for this presuppose emancipation of the limits of the nation from those of the economy and vice versa. 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.”

Therefore, “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.”

The consistent thread running through Trotsky's analysis in this period is that there are objective economic reasons why capitalism is over-spilling the limitations of the nation-state. This expansion is, in grand historical terms, undertaking a progressive task because it creates the possibilities for increasing humans' control over nature and exploiting the division of labour necessary to achieve socialism. The extent to which it is progressive, however, is determined by the degree to which the growth of the workers' movement is able to guarantee “the further development of the productive forces by way of freeing them from an imperialist blind alley within the broad arena of socialism” (Imperialism and the National Idea).

Nowhere in Trotsky can you find arguments for 'national development' of the sort often put forward by proponents of the Euro-exit. Arguments for building on European integration apply, argues Trotsky, if the plans of German imperialism to unify Europe under the Kaiser were realised. What, asked Trotsky in The Programme for Peace (1916), would the programme of the working-class movement be in this case?

“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 tariffs, “national” coinage, “national” social legislation, and so forth? Certainly not. The programme of the European revolutionary movement would then 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 other words, the slogan of the United States of Europe-without monarchy and standing armies-would under the foregoing circumstances become the unifying and guiding slogan of the European revolution.”

This method of posing the question has a bearing on what we say about the EU today. Much like Marxists do not 'endorse' the spread of capitalism, and help workers to fight the capitalists every step of the way, we recognise how it creates the possibility of socialism. Similarly, just as Trotsky did not give political support to European unification under German imperialism, we do not take political responsibility for the way in which the European bourgeoisie has unified Europe in its own incomplete and increasingly destructive way.

We recognise, however, that European integration provides the terrain on which the European workers' movement can link up to fight the bosses, and for the levelling up of democratic and social rights. To the capitalist European Union we pose not ‘national sovereignty’ or ‘national development’ but the Socialist United States of Europe.

The Communist International

Trotsky continued to raise the slogan as Commissar for Foreign Affairs in the Soviet government and in the Communist International. We can learn a lot about how the slogan of the United States of Europe was used as a transitional demand from the early Communist International debates.

Political and economic divisions after the war blocked the way to economic recovery and the general development of culture in Europe. French imperialism wished to keep Germany on its knees, while the USA looked on, hoping that a weak Europe would pave the way to its dominance as a world power.

In June 1923, several months after the French had invaded the Ruhr region of Germany to extract reparations, Trotsky wrote a discussion article Is the Slogan “The United States of Europe” a Timely One? from the standpoint of “finding a way out of the present European impasse. We have to offer a solution,” he argued, “to the workers and peasants of torn and ruined Europe...”

Trotsky used the slogan of “The United States of Europe” as a transitional slogan. A system of transitional demands, argued Trotsky in 1938, act as a “bridge... stemming from today’s conditions and today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”

For immediate struggles of the working-class over issues such as wages, working hours and self-defence against the far-right, Communists’ proposed a “united front” to bridge the split between Communist and Social-Democratic workers and develop the class struggle in a socialist direction.

In some situations, such as in Germany in 1920 when a right-wing military putsch toppled the government in Berlin and the Social Democratic trade unions called for a general strike, the immediate tasks of the workers’ movement may even extend to forming a workers’ government of all working-class parties.

To the united front on the level of day-to-day class struggle, and the workers’ government slogan on a national political level, Trotsky added the ‘United States of Europe’ to the system of transitional demands as a Europe-wide slogan for the workers’ movement, as a “transitional slogan, indicating a way out, a prospect of salvation, and furnishing at the same time a revolutionary impulse for the toiling masses.”

Trotsky wrote that: “In connection with the slogan of ‘a workers’ and peasants’ government’, the time is appropriate, in my opinion, for issuing the slogan of ‘The United States of Europe’. Only by coupling these two slogans shall we get a definite systematic and progressive response to the most burning problems of European development.”

“The peoples of Europe,” he argued, “must regard Europe as a field for a unified and increasingly planned economic life…Without this supplementary slogan the fundamental problems of Europe must remain suspended in mid-air.”

The slogan was used by the Communist International until 1926, then was dropped as Stalinism took hold. The omission of the slogan ahead of the Sixth Congress in 1928 provided the starting point for Trotsky’s important work, The Draft Programme of the Communist International: A Criticism of Fundamentals.

In this critique, Trotsky sought to rebut Stalin’s charges that the slogan of a United States of Europe was inadmissible in principle and that Lenin’s 1915 argument that capitalism develops unevenly meant that socialism could possibly be achieved in a single country. In doing so, he downplays the differences between himself and Lenin, arguing that he raised the slogan “exclusively as a prospective state form of the proletarian dictatorship in Europe.”

Trotsky, however, at the time saw even the capitalist unification of Europe, if it was at all possible, in a more positive light than Lenin did. Moreover, in equating the slogan with that of the workers’ government in 1923, Trotsky is admitting the possibility of a federation of European states as a bridge towards the proletarian dictatorship in Europe.

Nevertheless, Trotsky is right to insist that “the conception of the building of socialism in one country is a social-patriotic conception” and is thus totally incompatible with Lenin’s revolutionary internationalism. Lenin polemicised against those, such as the Mensheviks, who argued that because socialism must be international therefore socialists should wait for revolution on an international scale. This is very different from the Stalinist’s bureaucracy’s policy of proclaiming ‘socialism in one country’ and sabotaging revolution elsewhere.

In Disarmament and the United States of Europe (4 October 1929), Trotsky located a tendency towards increased American power which would pressure European states towards integration while at the same time diminishing their share of the world market. It was in this context that he analysed French Prime Minister Briand’s advocacy of greater European integration and the need for the Communist International to “counterpose the slogan of the Soviet United States of Europe to the pacifist concoctions of the European imperialists.”

Trotsky argued that this analysis of the inter-connectedness of Europe’s economic problems and, from it, the grounds for the ‘United States of Europe’, slogan contradicted the idea that socialism could be built in one country. Hence the Stalinist opposition to it. “The formula Soviet United States of Europe,” wrote Trotsky, “is precisely the political expression of the idea that socialism is impossible in one country. Socialism cannot of course attain its full development even in the limits of a single continent. The Socialist United States of Europe represents the historical slogan which is a stage on the road to the world socialist federation.”

The Fourth International and After

The slogan appeared regularly in Trotsky’s programmatic writings in the 1930s as the world approached the plunge into war. It flowed from Trotsky’s consist analysis of the whole post-1914 epoch. In the War and the Fourth International (June 10, 1934) Trotsky wrote that “slogan of the United States of Europe is a slogan not only for the salvation of the Balkan and Danubian peoples but for the salvation of the peoples of Germany and France as well”, and A Programme of Action for France (June 1934) stated forcefully that: “Throughout the aged European continent, divided, militarized, bloodstained, threatened with total destruction by a new war, we raise the only banner of liberation, that of the Workers’ and Peasants’ United States of Europe, the fraternal Federation of Soviet States!”

After the Second World War, the Fourth International republished some of Trotsky’s article on the United States of Europe, arguing that his approach was “all the more instructive in view of the fact that in the period ahead, with the termination of the war in Europe, the task of the continent’s unification is once again imperiously posed, and the road is once again opening up for a progressive solution through the proletarian revolution” (Fourth International May 1945).

The ideas behind the United States of Europe remained the orthodoxy in the Trotskyist movement until the 1960s, when many on the left flipped over to nationalism in response to the European Economic Community (EEC). In the 1960s, all the Trotskyist groups initially refused to join the Stalinist Communist Party and the Tribune left of the Labour Party in opposing the EEC, arguing that European working class unity was decisive: “In or out, the class fight goes on!”

The International Socialists (IS) were the last to jump on the anti-EEC campaign bandwagon, rejecting it as late as its Easter 1971 conference. Yet two months later, Tony Cliff argued that the arguments used against opposing European unity were sound, but that “tactics contradict principles” and the IS would do best not to be isolated. After this, as Sean Matgamna explained in The Trotskyist Tendency and IS, the Cliff organisation opportunistically adapted itself to the prevailing left-nationalist Stalinist common sense in the labour movement. Within weeks, Socialist Worker was making anti-European unity propaganda.

The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’s forerunners continued to argue in favour of European workers’ unity in the face of the labour movement’s embrace of nationalism. We demanded a special conference and for this we were expelled from the IS in December 1971. As we wrote at the time: “Politically, the expulsion indicates a qualitatively bureaucratic hardening of IS” (Workers Fight, 14 January 1972).


From these earlier debates in our tradition, we draw a number of conclusions. We should base ourselves on the real and progressive trends towards European economic and political integration. Since the Second World War, largely under US sponsorship and partly due to the dynamics of the Cold War, Europe has been partially unified. Because of the series of defeats suffered by the working-class movement, we do not have a Socialist United States of Europe but a capitalist, quasi-democratic and highly bureaucratised European Union.

We have no trust in, nor do we support, the limited, incomplete and stunted efforts of the bourgeoisie to integrate. The outworkings of the capitalist crisis are now threatening to tear Europe apart, as the European bourgeoisie, through the EU, insists on imposing socially-destructive austerity on the working-class. But the working-class has nothing to gain from the EU splitting up. The process of European integration is reversible only by regression into economic and social chaos, the 'Balkanisation' of the continent into antagonistic nations and alliances, and perhaps even war.

The capitalist crisis transcends national barriers and requires an international solution. To start, we counterpose our own programme of working-class internationalism both to the undemocratic and bureaucratic EU and to those wishing for a return to competing national capitalisms. We fight for European workers’ unity, for levelling up of the best social provisions, wages and conditions, for democratisation of the European institutions and the expropriation of the banks and high finance. We fight to rebuild the European workers' movement and for a Workers’ United States of Europe.


Most of the key articles mentioned here are on the Marxist Internet Archive www.marxists.org

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