How a revolution stopped a war
WW BOOK REVIEW
Published Sep 23, 2007 9:24 PM
“The Bolsheviks and War”
by Sam Marcy; 165 pp.
What gives a political work lasting significance? Surely it must be because it
addresses questions that take on even greater relevance and urgency as time
By this criterion, Sam Marcy’s “The Bolsheviks and War: Lessons for
Today’s Anti-war Movement” is a work that has gained greatly in
importance since he wrote it in 1985. It deserves the attention of the
progressive movement more than ever.
The book is essentially a historical and ideological review of how the first
imperialist world war affected the international socialist movement and the
working class, especially in the imperialist countries themselves.
That war now seems like ancient history. It was followed by many
others—not only a second worldwide conflagration costing more tens of
millions of lives, but countless colonial interventions by the industrially
developed capitalist powers to first conquer and then try to hold on to
countries subjugated for their raw materials and labor.
The war that began in 1914 for the first time sucked a huge section of the
globe into an enormously bloody inter-imperialist conflict that seemed to have
no end. However, it also created the conditions for the first successful
revolution by armed and organized workers and peasants and the establishment of
a socialist government.
When Marcy wrote this book, the Soviet Union, the product of that great
revolution, was in bad shape. Decades of intense Cold War pressures, including
threats of nuclear annihilation from Washington, had reinforced reformist
elements in the leadership who thought that conciliating with imperialism would
give them breathing space. That had eroded their solidarity with People’s
China and with the rising national liberation movements around the world and
had given encouragement internally to the most opportunistic social
Eventually, the bloc of workers’ states headed by the USSR was broken up,
a new class of entrepreneurs with ties to the imperialist West took over, and
the floodgates were opened for a rush of imperialist corporations that have
grabbed hold of everything they could as former state property was privatized
and the workers’ quality of life plummeted.
World imperialism, especially the U.S., trumpeted the “end of
communism.” Capitalism was the “natural” order of things and
would lead the world to a better place now that the immense cost of the Cold
War was over.
It hasn’t taken long for these illusions to be dispelled. A ferocious
anti-worker offensive by the bosses everywhere, capitalist globalization that
is forcing down wages, the unfolding economic crisis spurred by unpayable debts
and the looming devastation of climate change have put capitalism in a very
More than anything else, however, the prospect of un-ending war is roiling the
world. The U.S. is seen as a rogue elephant and no one knows who it might
Today’s apprehension that imperialist rivalries and instability can lead
to even greater carnage is remarkably similar to the worries of the Socialist
International in the period before the outbreak of World War I.
The first section of Marcy’s book examines concretely what the
workers’ organizations were saying and doing at that time. One big
difference from today is that the Socialist International at that time
incorporated many revolutionaries and had enormous influence in the labor
movements in Europe and Japan, where there had been a huge growth in the
industrial working class. Today, by contrast, some of the fiercest class
struggles are taking place in the formerly colonized countries, which now have
huge concentrations of workers and the largest socialist and communist
As the war approached, the Social Democratic parties of that day met in
international congresses and denounced in stirring resolutions the war plans of
the imperialists. They called on the workers not to submit to
“chauvinism,” meaning patriotism to the rulers of their separate
countries, but instead to fight against any war and refuse to slaughter each
other for the profits of the bosses.
But the war came, and it was even more terrible than the International had
predicted. In the trench warfare that turned Europe into a vast killing field,
tens of thousands of young workers, now in uniform, were mowed down by machine
guns as their commanders ordered them in waves against the enemy. For example,
on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, nearly 20,000
British soldiers were killed in this way—five times the current U.S.
death toll in Iraq, and all in one day! And that battle continued for
The war unraveled the Socialist International, which had seemed to be making
progress as socialist deputies were elected to the various parliaments in
Europe. But most of them had caved in to the capitalist war machine and voted
for war credits—or the war budget, as we call it today.
There were notable exceptions. In Germany, Karl Liebknecht was one of the very
few who voted in the Reichstag against the war. Marcy’s book describes a
handful of others who held to their principles. But the most organized group in
the International to fight for an anti-war program based on revolutionary
struggle against their own ruling classes was Lenin and the Bolsheviks in
After the war the Socialist International reconstituted itself as a thoroughly
reformist and opportunist body. Its members today include many parties that are
socialist in name only. One such is the British Labor Party. Its former leader,
Tony Blair, became hated by the people as Bush’s “puppy”
after he sent troops to Iraq.
In 1917, a year in which the war seemed destined to drag on forever and
millions were dying not only of wounds but of starvation and disease, the
impetus for socialist revolution came from Russia, where a moth-eaten monarchy
had poured millions of peasants and workers into the fray hoping to pick up new
territories and bounty.
The credibility of the Bolsheviks grew as it became clear they were the only
party that would end the senseless slaughter: they called on the soldiers to
turn their guns around and overthrow the ruling class. Once a government of
Soviets—councils of workers, peasants and soldiers—took power, it
published all the secret treaties between the czar and the Western imperialists
that laid out who would get what territory after the war. It renounced these
treaties and pulled Russia out of the war, while calling on the workers in the
other belligerent countries to do the same.
The Russian Revolution sparked workers’ uprisings in a number of other
European countries. It was fear of the revolution spreading that finally led
the prime ministers and kings of Europe to call a halt to the carnage.
Marcy’s book is, more than anything else, an examination of the political
struggles in the socialist movement at that time and a reaffirmation of the
importance of building a truly revolutionary party that is not afraid of
isolation when the tide moves rapidly to the right, as at the outbreak of an
imperialist war. Marcy founded Workers World Party in 1959.
His book also sheds light on the early anti-war movement in the United States,
which was largely led by socialists, was working class and “was often
militant in character, resorting to direct action and armed resistance.”
The chapter on “The Green Corn Rebellion and the struggle for
socialism” will be an eye-opener for many on how a multinational,
multiracial alliance of impoverished workers and farmers in Oklahoma and
Arkansas in August 1917 went beyond mere protest and took up arms against the
Many progressive people today, frustrated by the complicity of both capitalist
parties in supporting the imperialist war machine, are asking where the forces
will come from to finally put an end to this terrible period in human
Marcy had optimism that the conditions that produced “a genuine
revolutionary coalition of the most downtrodden workers and oppressed,”
as seen “in an early and premature form” in the Green Corn
Rebellion, are being generated once again “on the soil of the
world’s greatest imperial power.”
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