A Turn in World Politics

Written in January 1917, Lenin analyses the cynical imperialist manoeuvres behind World War One and puts forward the proletarian revolutionary alternative as the only way out of the impasse for the working class.

There is something of a holiday atmosphere in the pacifist camp. The virtuous bourgeois of the neutral countries are rejoicing: “We’ve made our little pile out of war profits and high prices; isn’t it time to stop? We can’t make more profits anyway, and the people’s patience may not last to the very end.” Why shouldn’t they rejoice when Wilson “himself” “paraphrases” the pacifist declaration of the Italian Socialist Party, which only just recently passed an official and solemn resolution in Kienthal to the effect that social-pacifism is utterly unsound?

Is it surprising that in Avanti! Turati exults at Wilson’s having paraphrased their, Italian, “pseudo-socialist” pacifist phrases? Is it surprising that, in Le Populaire,[2] the French social-pacifists and Kautskyites lovingly “unite” with Turati and Kautsky, who published in the German Social-Democratic press five particularly foolish pacifist articles, which also, of course, “paraphrase” the talk events have brought to the fore about a nice little democratic peace?

And the present talk does differ from the previous talk in that there is some objective ground for it. This ground was created by the turn in world politics from imperialist war, which brought the peoples utter misery and the greatest betrayal of socialism by Messrs. Plekhanov, Albert Thomas, Legien, Scheidemann, etc., towards an imperialist peace, which will bring the peoples the greatest deception in the form of pious phrases, semi-reforms, semi-concessions, etc.

This turn has taken place.

One cannot know at the present moment – even those who direct imperialist policy, the financial kings and the crowned robbers, are not in a position to determine this exactly – when this imperialist peace will come, what changes in the course of the war will precede it, what the details of that peace will be. Nor is that important. What is important is the fact that a turn towards peace has been made; the important thing is the fundamental character of that peace. And these two circumstances have been made sufficiently clear by the preceding development of events.

In the twenty-nine months of war, the extent of the re sources of both imperialist coalitions has become sufficiently evident. All, or nearly all, possible allies of any importance among the nearest “neighbours” have been drawn into the slaughter; the strength of the armies and navies has been tested and re-tested, measured and re-measured. Finance capital has made billions: the mountain of war debts shows the extent of the tribute the proletariat and the propertyless masses “must” now pay for decades to the international bourgeoisie for having graciously permitted them to kill off millions of their fellow wage-slaves in a war for the division of imperialist booty.

It is probably impossible, in the present war, to skin the oxen of wage-labour any more than has been done already – this is one of the profound economic reasons for the turn we now observe in world politics. It is impossible, because all resources in general are becoming exhausted. The American multimillionaires and their younger brethren in Holland, Switzerland, Denmark and other neutral countries are beginning to notice that the gold mine is giving out. That is behind the growth of neutral pacifism, and not noble humanitarian sentiments, as the naïve, wretched and ridiculous Turati, Kautsky and Co. think.

Added to this is the growing discontent and anger among the masses. In our last issue we quoted the evidence of Guchkov and Helfferich,[3] showing that both dread revolution. Is it not about time to stop the first imperialist slaughter?

The objective conditions compelling cessation of the war are thus supplemented by the influence of the class instinct and class interests of the profit-glutted bourgeoisie.

The political turn based on this economic turn follows two main lines: victorious Germany is driving a wedge between her main enemy, England, and England’s allies. She is able to do this because it is these allies and not England who have sustained (and may yet sustain) the heaviest blows, and also because German imperialism, having amassed a considerable amount of loot, is in a position to make minor concessions to England’s allies.

It is possible that a separate peace between Germany and Russia has been concluded after all. Only the form of the political pact between those two freebooters may have been changed. The tsar may have told Wilhelm: “If I openly sign a separate peace, then tomorrow, you, my august partner, may have to deal with a government of Milyukov and Guchkov, if not of Milyukov and Kerensky. For the revolution is growing, and I cannot answer for the army, whose generals are in correspondence with Guchkov and whose officers are mainly yesterday’s high-school boys. Is there any point in my risking my throne and your losing a good partner?”

“Of course not,” Wilhelm must have replied, if such a suggestion was put to him, directly or indirectly. “Indeed, why should we conclude an open separate peace, or any written peace treaty? Can’t we achieve the same results by other, more subtle means? I will openly appeal to all humanity, offering to bestow upon it the blessings of peace. At the same time I will drop a quiet hint to the French, to let them know that I am prepared to give back all, or nearly all of France and Belgium in return for a ‘fair’ share of their African colonies. I will let the Italians know that they can count on scraps of Austria’s Italian lands and, in addition, on a few scraps in the Balkans. And I can bring these proposals find plans to the knowledge of the peoples: will the English be able to retain their West-European allies after that? You and I will then divide Rumania, Galicia, Armenia. As for Constantinople, my august brother, you stand as much chance of seeing it as of seeing your own ears! And Poland too, my august brother – you stand as much chance of seeing it as of seeing your own ears!”

Whether or not such a conversation actually took place it is impossible to say Nor does it matter very much. What does matter is that events have taken precisely this turn. If the arguments of the German diplomats were unable to convince the tsar, the “arguments” of Mackensen’s army in Rumania must have been more convincing.

The plan to divide Rumania between Russia and the “Quadruple Alliance” (i.e., Germany’s allies, Austria and Bulgaria) is already being openly discussed in the German imperialist press! Loquacious Hervé is already blurting out: It will be impossible to compel the people to fight any longer if they learn that we can get back Belgium and France immediately. The pacifist simpletons of the neutral bourgeoisie have already been put “into action”: Wilhelm has loosened their tongues! And the pacifist ... wiseacres among the socialists, Turati in Italy, Kautsky in Germany, etc., etc., are exerting all their humanitarianism, their love of humanity, their celestial virtue (and their high intellect) to embellish the coming imperialist peace!

In general, how well things are arranged in this best of all possible worlds! We, the financial kings and crowned robbers, got ourselves entangled in the politics of imperialist plunder; we had to fight. Well, what of it? We are making as good a thing out of war as we make out of peace; a much better thing, in fact! And we have lackeys in plenty, all the Plekhanovs, Albert Thomases, Legiens, Scheidemanns and Co., to proclaim ours a “liberation” war! The time is coming to conclude an imperialist peace? Well, suppose it is? There are the war debts. Aren’t they obligations guaranteeing our sacred right to exact a hundredfold tribute from the peoples? And aren’t there simpletons to glorify this imperialist peace, to fool the peoples by sentimental speeches? We have them in plenty – Turati, Kautsky and the other “leaders” of world socialism.

The tragicomedy of Turati’s and Kautsky’s utterances is precisely that they do not understand the real objective, political role they are playing, the role of parsons to console the people instead of rousing them to revolution, the role of bourgeois advocates, who by means of flamboyant phrases about good things in general, and a democratic peace in particular, obscure, cover up, embellish and cloak the hideous nakedness of an imperialist peace that trades in nations and carves up countries.

What unites the social-chauvinists (the Plekhanovs and Scheidemanns) and the social-pacifists (Turati and Kautsky) in principle is that objectively both are servants of imperialism. The former serve it by glorifying the imperialist war, describing it as a war for “defence of the fatherland”; the latter serve the same imperialism by glorifying, with their talk of a democratic peace, the imperialist peace that is maturing and being prepared.

The imperialist bourgeoisie needs lackeys of both species and varieties: the Plekhanovs, to encourage the continuation of the slaughter by shouting “Down with the conquerors”; the Kautskys, to console and placate the embittered masses by sweet songs of peace.

Hence the general amalgamation of the social-chauvinists of all countries with the social-pacifists – the general “conspiracy against socialism” referred to in the manifesto of the Berne International Socialist Committee,[4] the “general amnesty” to which we have more than once referred – will not be an accident, but an expression of the unity on principle of both these trends of world pseudo-“socialism”. It is no accident that Plekhanov, while shouting frantically about the “treachery” of the Scheidemanns, hints at peace and unity with those gentry when the time is ripe for it.

The reader may argue, can we forget that an imperialist peace is “after all better” than imperialist war? that, if not the whole, then at least “parts” of the democratic peace programme might possibly be achieved? that an independent Poland is better than a Russian Poland? that integration in Italy of Austrian-held Italian territory is a step forward?

But these are exactly the arguments defenders of Turati and Kautsky use as a cover, failing to see that this transforms them from revolutionary Marxists into ordinary bourgeois reformists.

Can anyone in his right mind deny that Bismarck Germany and her social laws are “better” than pre-1848 Germany? that the Stolypin reforms[5] are “better” than pre-1905 Russia? Did the German Social-Democrats (they were still Social-Democrats at that time) vote for Bismarck’s reforms on these grounds? Were Stolypin’s reforms extolled, or even supported, by the Russian Social-Democrats, except, of course, for Messrs. Potresov, Maslov and Co., from whom even Martov, a member of their own party, now turns away with contempt?

History does not stand still even in dimes of counter revolution. History has been advancing even during the imperialist slaughter of 1914–16, which is a continuation of the imperialist policies of preceding decades. World capitalism, which in the sixties and seventies of the last century was an advanced and progressive force of free competition, and which at the beginning of the twentieth century grew into monopoly capitalism, i.e., imperialism, took a big step forward during the war, not only towards greater concentration of finance capital, but also towards transformation into state capitalism. The force of national cohesion, the significance of national sympathies, were revealed in this war, for example, by the conduct of the Irish in one imperialist coalition, and of the Czechs in the other. The intelligent leaders of imperialism say to themselves: Of course, we cannot achieve our aims without throttling the small nations; but there are two ways of doing that. Sometimes the more reliable and profitable way is to obtain the services of sincere and conscientious advocates of “fatherland defence” in an imperialist war by creating politically independent states; “we”, of course, will see to it that they are financially dependent! It is more profitable (when imperialist powers are engaged in a major war) to be an ally of an independent Bulgaria than the master of a dependent Ireland! To complete what has been left undone in the realm of national reforms may sometimes internally strengthen an imperialist coalition – this is properly taken into account by, for instance, one of the most servile lackeys of German imperialism, Karl Renner, who, of course, is a staunch supporter of “unity” in the Social-Democratic parties in general, and of unity with Scheidemann and Kautsky in particular.

The objective course of events is having its effect, and just as the executioners of the 1848 and 1905 revolutions were, in a certain sense, their executors, so the stage managers of the imperialist slaughter are compelled to carry out certain state-capitalist, certain national reforms. Moreover, it is necessary, by throwing out a few sops, to pacify the masses, angered by the war and the high cost of living: why not promise (and partly carry out, for it does not commit one to anything!) “reduction of armaments”? After all, war is a “branch of industry” similar to forestry: it takes decades for trees of proper size – that is to say, for a sufficiently abundant supply of adult “cannon fodder” – to grow up. During these decades, we hope, new Plekhanovs, new Scheidemanns, new sentimental conciliators like Kautsky will grow up from the depths of “united” international Social-Democracy.

Bourgeois reformists and pacifists are people who, as a general rule, are paid, in one form or another, to strengthen the rule of capitalism by patching it up, to lull the masses and divert them from the revolutionary struggle. When socialist “leaders” like Turati and Kautsky try to convince the masses, either by direct statements (Turati “blurted” one out in his notorious speech of December 17, 1916[6]), or by silent evasions (of which Kautsky is a past master), that the present imperialist war can result in a democratic peace, while the bourgeois governments remain in power and without a revolutionary insurrection against the whole net work of imperialist world relations, it is our duty to declare that such propaganda is a deception of the people, that it has nothing in common with socialism, that it amounts to the embellishment of an imperialist peace.

We are for a democratic peace; and that is precisely why we do not want to lie to the peoples as Turati and Kautsky do – of course with the best intentions, and for the most virtuous motives! We shall tell the truth, namely, that a democratic peace is impossible unless the revolutionary proletariat of England, France, Germany and Russia overthrows the bourgeois governments. We think it would be the height of absurdity for revolutionary Social-Democrats to refrain from fighting for reforms in general, including “constitutional reform”. But at the present moment, Europe is going through a period in which it is more than ever necessary to bear in mind the truth that reforms are a by-product of the revolutionary class struggle; for the task of the day – not because we want it, not because of anybody’s plans, but because of the objective course of events – is to solve the great historical problems by means of direct mass violence, which will create new foundations, and not by means of agreements on the basis of the old, decaying and moribund.

It is precisely at the present time, when the ruling bourgeoisie is preparing peacefully to disarm millions of proletarians and to transfer them safely – under cover of a plausible ideology, and sprinkling them with the holy water of sentimental pacifist phrases! – from the filthy, stinking, fetid trenches, where they were engaged in slaughter, to the penal servitude of the capitalist factories, where by their “honest toil” they must repay the hundreds of millions of national debt, it is precisely at this time that the slogan, which our Party issued to the people in the autumn of 1914,[1] viz., transform the imperialist war into a civil war for socialism, acquires still greater significance than it had at the beginning of the war. Karl Liebknecht, now sentenced to hard labour, adopted that slogan when he said from the Reichstag tribune: “Turn your weapons against your class enemies within the country!” The extent to which present-day society has matured for the transition to socialism has been demonstrated by this war, in which the exertion of national effort called for the direction of the economic life of over fifty million people from a single centre. If this is possible under the leadership of a handful of Junker aristocrats in the interests of a handful of financial magnates, it is certainly no less possible under the leadership of class-conscious workers in the interests of nine-tenths of the population, exhausted by starvation and war.

But to lead the masses, the class-conscious workers must understand the litter corruption of such socialist leaders as Turati, Kautsky and Co. These gentlemen imagine they are revolutionary Social-Democrats, and they are very indignant when they are told that their place is in the party of Messrs. Bissolati, Scheidemann, Legien and Co. But Turati and Kautsky wholly fail to realise that only a revolution of the masses can solve the great problems of the day. They have not a grain of faith in the revolution, they do not pay the slightest attention to, or display the slightest interest in, the way it is maturing in the minds and moods of the masses precisely in connection with the war. Their attention is entirely absorbed in reforms, in pacts between sections of the ruling classes; it is to them that they address themselves, it is them they seek to “persuade”, it is to them they wish to adapt the labour movement.

But the whole thing now is to get the class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat to direct its thoughts to, and muster its forces for, a revolutionary struggle to overthrow their governments. Revolutions such as Turati and Kautsky are “prepared” to accept, i.e., revolutions for which the date and the chances of success can be set in advance, never happen. The revolutionary situation in Europe is a fact. The extreme discontent, the unrest and anger of the masses are facts. It is on strengthening this torrent that revolutionary Social-Democrats must concentrate all their efforts. Upon the strength of the revolutionary movement, in the event of its not being entirely successful, will depend what portion of the “promised” reforms will be realised in practice, and what use they will be for the further struggle of the working class. Upon the strength of the revolutionary movement, in the event of its being entirely successful, will depend the victory of socialism in Europe and the achievement not of an imperialist armistice in Germany’s struggle against Russia and England, or in Russia’s and Germany’s struggle against England, or the United States’ struggle against Germany and England, etc., but of a really lasting and really democratic peace.


[1] See present edition, Vol. 21, pp. 25–34. – Ed.

[2] <Le Populaire – a French Centrist newspaper published in Limoges from 1916 and in Paris from July 1917. Edited in 1916 by Jean Longuet; contributors included Pierre Brizon, Adrien Pressemane, Jean-Pierre Raffin-Dugens, Boris Souvarine and Paul Faura. Became the official organ of the French Socialist Party in 1921; at present is controlled by the party’s Right wing.

[3] Reference is to A. I. Guchkov’s letter of August 15 (29), 1916 to General M. V. Alexeyev, Chief of Staff to the Supreme Commander of the Russian Forces, published in No. 57 of Sotsial-Demokrat, and excerpts from a Reichstag’ speech by Interior Minister Heliferich in reply to an opposition question about the wholesale arrests of Social-Democrats.

The Guchkov letter was sent to Sotsial-Demokrat from Russia along with other materials. In a letter to Inessa Armand dated December 5 (18), 1916, Lenin wrote: “Received another letter from St. Petersburg today. Of late they have been writing frequently.

“In addition to the Guchkov letter, which is being published in No. 57 of the Central Organ... we have also received letters by Lvov and Chelnokov on the same subject (resentment against the traitors who are negotiating a separate peace), etc.”

The Guchkov letter was expressive of the fear inspired in the Russian bourgeoisie by the maturing revolution and of its dissatisfaction with the government for its inability to prevent revolution. The substance of Helfferich’s speech was that, it was better to arrest the leaders of the revolution than to allow the revolution to break out.

[4] This refers to the appeal To Affiliated Parties and Groups adopted at an enlarged meeting of the International Socialist Committee in February 1916. It sharply criticised the social-chauvinists and the social-chauvinist position of the International Socialist Bureau, denouncing its attempts to re-establish the Second International through “mutual amnesty” of socialists as a “plot against socialism”. Socialists, the appeal said, should refuse to vote war credits, should organise strikes, demonstrations, fraternisation at the front and other revolutionary actions against the imperialist war. The appeal was published in the International Socialist Committee Bulletin of February 29 (No. 3) and in Sotsial-Demokrat of March 25, 1916 (No. 52).

[5] On November 9 (22), 1906, the tsarist government issued a decree authorising the withdrawal of peasants from the commune and making their plots their personal property.

Amended by the Duma and Council of State, the decree came into force on June 14, 1910. Known as the Stolypin law, after Prime Minister P. A. Stolypin, it enabled the peasant to withdraw from the commune, take over his land as personal property and sell it if he so chose. The commune was under obligation to allot him land in one place. The Stolypin reform accelerated the development of capitalism in agriculture and differentiation of the peasantry, and aggravated the class struggle in the rural areas.

[6] Reference is to a speech by F. Turati in the Italian Parliament on December 17, 1916, in which he sought to justify the imperialist war. The speech appeared on the next day in Avanti! (No. 345), and comment in the socialist press of various countries was summarised in Volksrecht (December 23, No. 301) under the heading “Eine Rede Turatis über das Friedensangebot” (“Turati Speech on Peace Proposals”).

Lenin quotes and criticises the speech in his article “Bourgeois Pacifism and Socialist Pacifism” (see pp.175–94 of this volume).

Source: Marxist Internet Archive

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