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Liberal and Imperialist Marxism / Anton Pannekoek, 2009
Source: Liberaler und imperialistischer Marxismus / Anton Pannekoek. – In: Lichtstrahlen, 1915, Nr. 7 (4 April), p. 121-125; translated from: Neubestimmung des Marxismus 1 : Diskussion Über Arbeiterräte. – Berlin (West) : Karin Kramer Verlag, 1974. – p. 27-30; translation by Daniel Gaido for Marxists’ Internet Archive , 2009, latest changes 19 May 2019.
In this essay Pannekoek takes issue with the so-called ‘radical imperialist’ wing of the s.p.d. – a group of extreme social-patriots that developed during the First World War and included some prominent former defenders of ‘orthodoxy’ and left-wingers such as Paul Lensch, Heinrich Cunow, Max Cohen and Konrad Haenisch. (1) It draws an interesting analogy with the so-called ‘Legal Marxists’ in Russia who ultimately became supporters of the Liberal Cadet party, like Peter Struve and Mikhail Tugan-Baranovsky.
Even if in previous years former Social Democrats, by gradually shifting their attitude, advanced often enough to the position of ministers and pillars of the government, we certainly never had to unlearn so much and so quickly as in the current World War.
We are not thinking primarily of the revisionists, who even earlier, in times of peace, never concealed that they wanted to replace the class struggle by a permanent ‘class truce;’ (2) and also not of the ‘pale red’ radicals (3) who, confused and stunned in the world storm, clinging desperately to the old, are forced by the lack of clear goals to take part in it. Much more amazing is the case of those people that formerly appeared as spokesmen for the extreme left, and all of a sudden became enthusiastic supporters of imperialism.
We have experienced a similar case earlier, when in Russia before 1905 former Marxists, such as Peter Struve and others, became political leaders of the bourgeoisie. Because the explanation of this fact fits almost verbatim in the present case, we reprint the following passages from an old article of 1909 about the Russian experience:
“The cause of this, at first sight, strange phenomenon lies in the dialectical character of Marxism itself, in the historical character of the Marxist theory of history. It not only constitutes a critique of capitalism, but also shows, at the same time, its historical necessity. It appreciates each stage of social development in its historic justification, until it must clear the way for the next stage.
What we then said about capitalism as opposed to primitive small-scale production now holds for imperialism as opposed to small-scale capitalism. It opens up wide horizons, leads beyond the narrowness of the European area, revolutionises the world at a colossal scale, and gives people an indomitable energy. Just like the British people, as rulers of the seas, are at home on every part of the world, and regard all continents as part of their area of action, each aspiring nation would like to imitate them. England’s world domination and wealth, built upon the possession of the richest countries of the world, is the model their yearnings.
It is only too natural that even socialist theoreticians, in order to show the irresistibility of imperialism, should stress this aspect of the question in their fight against the old party tradition, which knew nothing of imperialism. Against the obtuse torpor of those party circles that hid their complete inability to understand modern development behind the comfortable phrase “good old tactics,” those theoreticians had to emphasize above all the irresistibility of the imperialist development. However, those who see nothing but the irresistibility and necessity of imperialism may as well be enthusiastic spokesmen of imperialism as revolutionary Social Democrats, depending on whether they want to promote it or whether they infer from this insight the need for a stronger tactic of the workers against imperialism. Thus, in previous years the Leipziger Volkszeitung pointed out that to the new phenomenon of imperialism necessarily belong the new tactics of mass action.
It is understandable that a Social Democratic student of imperialism can easily find arguments in his theoretical luggage if he wants switch to the other side. He only has to regard Marxism mechanically and say: ‘Socialism is only possible on the foundations of the highest capitalist development, of imperialist development; therefore, let us first help consolidate these foundations with all our power, let us protect the world power of our own country against foreign imperialism; today we must be imperialists, but socialism remains the ultimate goal’ – in the remote future, because it has surely become apparent that the proletariat is still far too weak for victory.
It is obvious that, with this attitude, the quasi-Marxists do not prepare and promote the realization of socialism, but rather inhibit and delay it. The realization of socialism depends solely on the strength, independence, energy and clarity of purpose of the working class.
1. On this issue see Abraham Ascher, ‘“Radical” Imperialists within German Social Democracy, 1912-1918,’ Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 4 (December 1961), p. 555-575. [Note by Daniel Gaido]
2. Burgfrieden: literally ‘fortress peace’ or ‘castle peace.’ but more accurately ‘party truce,’ The term was used to denote the political truce the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the other political parties agreed to during World War I. The trade unions refrained from striking, the s.p.d. voted for war credits in the Reichstag and the parties agreed not to criticize the government and its war. The only s.p.d. member of parliament to vote against war credits in the second session was Karl Liebknecht. In the third session of March 20, 1915, Otto Rühle joined him. An American equivalent of the term would be the so-called ‘no strike pledge’ of the c.p.u.s.a. during World War II. [Note by Daniel Gaido]
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Compiled by Vico, 5 June 2019