Social Democracy
and the approaching war:
The Stuttgart and Basel congresses

It is astonishing that today years after the October Revolution in Russia so many profound lessons are still as relevant as they were the day after the victory of the revolution.

Take the question, for instance, of the struggle against war. Its urgency proclaims itself every day in the headlines of the world press.

There have now been two world wars; two predatory wars in Asia -- in Korea and Viet Nam; many wars in the Middle East; a whole series of decades-long interventions both overt and covert in Africa and Latin America, an invasion of Cuba followed by a missile crisis in the Caribbean that threatened a world holocaust; and a continuing war between the African people and the settler regimes.

Such is the glorious record of the imperialist free enterprise system in this century, a century of the most stupendous technological and scientific discoveries and inventions. Such splendid achievements would assure peace and happiness for suffering humanity were it not for the incubus of monopoly capitalism.

In addition, the Damocles sword [1] of nuclear war, which has hung over the planet ever since Hiroshima and Nagasaki is more threatening than ever.

One might well say that the war danger in general and the nuclear peril in particular are history's punishment to humanity for the failure of the leadership of working-class parties to assimilate the great anti-war lessons of the October Socialist Revolution.

Many believe that the Russian Revolution would have been impossible without World War I. Indeed the unprecedented carnage was so devastating and destructive in terms of human casualties and property loss that it seemed the continuation of the conflict would swallow up all of capitalist civilization as it existed at the time.

The war not only contributed heavily to making the Russian Revolution possible. It also provoked a revolutionary situation in almost every leading capitalist country in the world. It brought about revolutionary struggles in Germany, Italy, and Hungary and caused a tremendous revolutionary upsurge in France. Mutinies in the armed forces followed. It also caused a rapid leftward swing of the working class in Britain. The great General Strike of 1926 [2] was really a continuation of the consequences of the imperialist war. Yet despite the unsurpassed suffering of the masses as a result of the havoc wrought by the war, nowhere else in Europe did a proletarian revolution succeed.

The war in and of itself could not have brought the Bolsheviks to power. The war merely accelerated all of the social, political, and economic processes which existed during peacetime. While the imperialist war interrupted the progress of the working-class movement in Russia, as elsewhere on the continent of Europe, once the war was on in earnest, once the carnage and suffering took an ever-increasing toll, the very same processes which had been either submerged or driven underground began to surface and speed up.

The class struggle, even when it appears to be most dormant, nevertheless exists. It can be muffled, stifled, mutilated but the objective process of capitalist exploitation is remorseless and relentless. And in time of imperialist war, it accelerates and intensifies. War, therefore, is not some utterly external factor which suddenly collapses over the heads of the masses. It is an outgrowth of peacetime tendencies inherent in the mode of capitalist production.

The reason the war was a central factor contributing to the victory of the October Revolution but failed to have the same effect in France, Italy, or even Germany must be traced to the position taken toward the approaching conflict by the great socialist parties of Western Europe in the peacetime period immediately before the war.

It is often mistakenly thought that the outbreak of World War I caught the leadership of the socialist parties completely off guard. And it is certainly true that the masses as a whole were taken off guard in light of the official leadership's default. Large sections of the working class and lower-ranking and middle officials of the social democratic parties were also taken by surprise. But certainly the official leadership of the Second International,[3] if it was taken by surprise, should not have been. It had no cause to be.

The years preceding the outbreak of the war were characterized by considerable anti-war agitation on the part of the socialist parties of Germany, France, and other European countries. There were also a variety of bourgeois pacifist organizations, such as exist in many parts of the West today. However, socialist and working-class agitation against the war predominated. In a general way the antiwar struggle, unlike today, was carried on as an inseparable part of the struggle against capitalism.

It was of course limited by the times which were considered a period of so-called peaceful capitalist development, at least in the developed capitalist countries. The anti-war struggle was also limited by local conditions and the state of the socialist movement in its large metropolitan strongholds, Berlin, Hamburg, Paris, Marseilles and, in a different way, London, where it was developing agitation against militarism. But it is important to know that there was a strong, working-class peace movement and that anti-war agitation was one of the political aspects of the socialist and working-class struggle. Any talk about the leadership of the Second International being surprised or overwhelmed by a totally unexpected outbreak of war is false.

The Socialist International, as it existed at the time, held frequent international congresses. There were at least three socialist congresses -- at Stuttgart, 1907; Copenhagen, 1910; and Basel, 1912 -- in which the approach of war was very seriously discussed and acted upon with firmness and resolution. These congresses are of singular significance. They mark the apex of the growth of the socialist and working-class movement in Europe. They demonstrate the highest point of class consciousness and internationalism which the working-class movement had known up to that time (with the exception, of course, of the revolutionary upsurges in 1848 and 1871).

The first of these congresses was held in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1907. Five years later, in 1912, another congress in Basel, Switzerland, discussed and reaffirmed the antiwar position taken at Stuttgart. It is extremely illuminating to examine the Basel resolution in detail. It has been quoted many times in the polemics of Lenin against Karl Kautsky, then the leader and outstanding theoretician of the Second International.

It is to be noted that the Basel meeting was not regarded as just another congress. It was entitled an Extraordinary International Socialist Congress, precisely because of the imminence of the war danger. It was held on November 24-5, 1912, and the Basel Manifesto was subsequently published in the Vorwarts, the organ of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. (See Appendix for complete document.)

"If a war threatens to break out," said the resolution," it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of the war. ...

"In case war should break out anyway," the resolution continues, "it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule."(Emphases in the original.)

"The congress urged the proletariat to devote the utmost force and energy to planned and concerted action. On the one hand," the resolution continues, "the universal craze for armaments has aggravated the high cost of living, thereby intensifying class antagonisms and creating in the working class an implacable spirit of revolt; the workers want to put a stop to this system of panic and waste."

It warns "the ruling classes of all states not to increase by belligerent actions the misery of the masses brought on by the capitalist method of production. Let the governments remember that with the present condition of Europe and the mood of the working class, they cannot unleash a war without danger to themselves. Let them remember that the Franco-Prussian War [4] was followed by the revolutionary outbreak of the Commune,[5] that the Russo-Japanese War [6] set into motion the revolutionary energies of the peoples of the Russian Empire, that the competition in military and naval armaments gave the class conflicts in England and on the continent an unheard-of sharpness, and unleashed an enormous wave of strikes.

"It would be insanity for the governments not to realize that the very idea of the monstrosity of a world war would inevitably call forth the indignation and the revolt of the working class. The proletarians consider it a crime to fire at each other for the profits of the capitalists, the ambitions of dynasties, or the greater glory of secret diplomatic treaties."

It ends with a clarion call to the workers: "To the capitalist world of exploitation and mass murder oppose in this way the proletarian world of peace and fraternity of peoples!"

It is to be noted that this resolution, and the earlier one passed at the Stuttgart congress, did not confine themselves to mobilizing the masses to end the war only after the war was on. And they didn't separate the economic struggle from the political struggle. On the contrary, the resolutions directed themselves to the working class and warned that if war were to break out, then the working class must utilize the economic and political crisis not merely to end the war but to arouse all the people and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist rule.

The Basel resolution was remarkable because it brought up to date the strategical approach and tactical orientation of the working class in a new period of capitalist development. In the earlier so-called progressive period of capitalist development, Marxists had viewed it as permissible to side with one's own capitalist country if it were acting to complete the bourgeois democratic revolution in the struggle against feudalism, if it were carrying out a struggle essential to the development of a unified capitalist state to attain autonomy within its own borders.

That was during the epoch of the bourgeois national revolutions. It was when the bourgeoisie constituted itself within the framework of a national state, without which it could not fully develop. It was therefore a period when the Marxist criterion for support of a bourgeois war and participation in it was whether or not it promoted a progressive and necessary tendency of the bourgeoisie in the development of a national, that is, a centralized state.

The Stuttgart and Basel resolutions recognized by implication, if not by explicitly saying so, that it was now the epoch of imperialist wars, that the previous progressive period of capitalism had ended. The capitalist class could no longer carry on a war on a relatively progressive basis, and the workers therefore ought not to support it.

These resolutions were also the highest theoretical exposition of the Marxist approach to capitalist wars at the time. Indeed, the very idea of formulating the question of war as it was done at these two socialist congresses was in itself an expression of the high degree of class-consciousness and international working-class solidarity that the socialist movement had achieved at the time.

As we noted earlier, Basel was a congress specially convened to consider the war danger. The resolution gave expression to the fullest extent possible to the yearnings of the working class for peace as well as to their readiness to struggle. Efforts to downplay the significance of the resolution as merely a ceremonial act are the post-war lies of right-wing social democrats and bourgeois historians.

The congress was attended by the most important leaders in the world movement. It met at the time of the war crisis in the Balkan countries which, as the resolution pointed out, had the potential of engulfing all of Europe. And it specifically warned the British, French, and German governments that the Socialist International knew what they were up to. On no account can it be said that the resolution was just one of those things passed at socialist congresses. It wasn't. It was a question, however, whether the leadership of the Socialist International had the will, determination, and readiness to follow up the mandate given by the International and would utilize the crisis created by the war to overturn the capitalist system.

There was another school of thought within social democracy which, decades after the resolution on imperialist war, minimized the significance of the legacy of Stuttgart and Basel. According to this interpretation the resolutions were framed by the leftists. The insidious thought behind this is that a small group of fanatics positioned themselves in the resolutions committee and put over a line really contrary to the "moderate, reasonable, and pragmatic" positions of the European socialist leaders.

It is true, of course, that the key amendments to the resolutions were written by Lenin (on behalf of the Bolsheviks), Julius Martov, who was in the left-wing of the Mensheviks, [7] and Rosa Luxemburg -- especially the one about using the crisis created by imperialist war to struggle for the abolition of capitalism. They were seen as representatives of the Russian Revolution of 1905 [8] and of the great strike struggles that were developing in Russia around the time of the Basel congress. The Russian revolutionaries had tremendous prestige among the workers on the European continent, very much like the heroic Vietnamese, Cuban, Palestinian and other oppressed peoples of today who carry out revolutionary struggles against imperialism. Russia at the time was, on the one hand, a backward country oppressing its peoples at home, but also an oppressor abroad in concert with the other imperialist powers. The prestige of the revolution, as represented by the Russian and Polish delegations, was something the opportunists had to reckon with. At the same time, the fact is that no one really challenged the validity of the resolutions.

It should be added that in an effort to go even further to the left than the resolution, the great socialist orator Jean Jaures from France, in an ultra-leftist maneuver, tried to amend the key paragraph (relating to the utilization of the economic and political crisis created by the war to overthrow capitalist class rule) by calling the workers to insurrection. This, however, was properly defeated. It was typical of Jaures at the time that he cast himself in the role of being more left than the leadership, yet at the same time was a proponent of ministerialism -- the practice of accepting posts in a bourgeois cabinet. The Amsterdam congress of 1904 had condemned this opportunist practice. Jaures frowned at this manifestation of adhering to orthodox Marxist principles and impugned the motives of the German Social Democratic leaders, especially Karl Kautsky, who along with the other leaders of the Socialist International at the time still opposed such practices.

"It is all well and good for you, German comrades," said Jaures, "to speak against accepting cabinet posts in the bourgeois government. Is it because you are unable to get such posts, since no German government would offer any at all?"

Whatever the motivation, the fact remains that all the German Social Democratic leaders, along with most of the French, Italian, Belgian, Dutch, Swedish, and Japanese when they were able to attend, took the position of the congress as embodied in the resolutions. But there was a world of difference between how these resolutions were applied by the Bolsheviks, on the one hand, and nearly all the other Second International socialist parties, on the other, including the Mensheviks.

The Bolsheviks, especially Lenin, took most seriously the last, exceptionally significant, sentence of the Basel resolution. In the event of an imperialist war, the workers' party would in accordance with the International's resolution strive to utilize the economic and political crisis of the bourgeoisie and the war it created to overthrow it. Lenin's conception in particular gave the workers the opportunity to intensify the class struggle against the bourgeoisie.

War, according to Lenin, was merely a continuation of the politics of the bourgeoisie by other means. Of course, Kautsky himself knew this very well, as did other leaders. Yet a profound gulf separated the Bolsheviks from the other socialist parties, except for the left wings emerging within the latter. Only the Bolsheviks had pursued a resolute irreconcilable class struggle against the bourgeoisie and at the same time had fought relentlessly against any softening, watering down, diversion, or distortion of the anti-war thesis in the working-class movement with vigor and perseverance.

This in essence was what the struggle against opportunism was all about. Opportunism means the sacrifice of the larger issues affecting the working class in the interest of illusory, minor, everyday gains. Opportunism in varying degrees is a common phenomenon in all the labor movements of the world. But it took on an exceptional character in Western Europe in this period when the working-class movement grew in breadth, as Lenin put it, yet at the same time accumulated practices and distortions of socialist tactics in the class struggle that militated against firm adherence to principle. It was in the struggle against opportunism that the Bolsheviks grew strong.

This was not so in the other European parties. It is true that in 1899 Kautsky and others had taken up the theoretical cudgels to defend Marxism from the revisionism of Eduard Bernstein. But by and large that was a long way from a steady, consistent struggle against opportunism and all its manifestations in the trade unions, among the trade union leaders, in the parliamentary fraction of the German Social Democratic Party within the Reichstag, and on the many other fronts. The trend toward opportunism in practice was permitted to grow automatically as though it were an inevitable and necessary accompaniment to socialism -- merely a demonstration of the variety of thought and diversity of tendencies which all contributed progressively to making social democracy a mighty movement of the working class and its allies.

It was in the fight against opportunism and the struggle to pursue a rigidly working-class approach that Leninist doctrine over the years created a qualitatively different party in Russia than that which existed in Western Europe.


1. Damocles sword: Legend has it that Dionysius the Elder (430-367 B.C.), a cruel and oppressive ruler, had a sword suspended by a single hair from the ceiling of a banquet hall over the head of Damocles. This was meant to punish the courtier for his servility and excessive obsequiousness and to demonstrate the precariousness of high rank. [return]

2. General Strike of 1926: For nine days, from May 4 through May 12, 1926, the British working class staged a general strike called by the Trades Union Congress that completely paralyzed the country and showed the great potential strength of the workers. The strike originated in solidarity with striking coal miners. [return]

3. Second International: The Second International of the Social Democratic movement was founded in 1889, but collapsed in 1914 when most of its member parties sided with their own bourgeois governments on the outbreak of the first imperialist world war. [return]

4. Franco-Prussian War: The Franco-Prussian war, 1870-71, resulted in the annexation by Germany of the French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. [return]

5. Commune: The war spurred on a revolutionary uprising by the people of Paris in September 1870. The armed population established a new form of state, the Commune, which was seen by Marx and later Lenin as the model for a state run by the working people. The Commune lasted nearly five months, but was crushed by the combined weight of the French and German armies. The French bourgeoisie was willing to collaborate with its bitter rivals the Germans in mowing down the workers of Paris. [return]

6. Russo-Japanese War: The Russo-Japanese War, 1904-5, was a disaster for the czarist regime, costing billions of rubles and hundreds of thousands of casualties. Russia lost Manchuria, which it had captured earlier from China, and saw its entire fleet destroyed by Japan. The war greatly intensified the struggle against czarism, and led directly to the first Russian Revolution of 1905. [return]

7. Mensheviks: In 1903, the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party split into two factions, the Bolsheviks led by Lenin, and the Mensheviks. The Mensheviks were for an alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie in the struggle to establish democracy in Russia. In February 1917, after the overthrow of czarism, the Mensheviks joined the bourgeois Provisional Government. They opposed the second (workers) revolution led by the Bolsheviks in October 1917. [return]

8. Revolution of 1905: The 1905 Revolution grew from a series of militant strikes and demonstrations to armed uprisings that gripped the entire country. It began in January 1905 and reached its peak in December of that year. The democratic movement against czarist autocracy embraced sections of the bourgeoisie as well as the workers and peasants. But the events of 1905-7 showed that the bourgeoisie was incapable of carrying out a decisive struggle against czarism, and would in fact side with the reaction against the increasingly militant workers and peasants. The first workers' councils, or Soviets, were formed in 1905. They were to reappear again in 1917 and become the vehicle for the workers, peasants, and soldiers to exercise state power. While the 1905 Revolution forced some political concessions from czarism, such as the formation of a Duma or parliament with limited powers, the regime instituted severe repression as soon as the revolution began to subside. [return]

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