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What did Lenin have to say about socialism and war?

Writing as a new era of imperialist war was unfolding, Lenin grasped how military conflict is an essential part of the class struggle – a point that’s still relevant today, writes LINDSEY GERMAN

THE most famous slogan associated with Lenin is “Bread, peace and land” — the simple demands posed after Russia’s February revolution in 1917 overthrew the tsar but when the working class and peasantry still faced the privations of war. The October Revolution, led by the Bolsheviks, took Russia out of the first world war.

Opposition to war was not new to Lenin or to the socialists of Europe. His political activity developed as a new and terrifying era of wars was beginning: the Spanish American war which began in Cuba in 1898, the Boer war between Britain and the South African Boers in 1900, and the Russo Japanese war in 1904, where Russia’s defeat led directly to the 1905 revolution, the “dress rehearsal” for 1917. 

These wars marked the beginning of a new era of imperialist war. The latter part of the 19th century had been characterised by expansion of capital throughout Europe and North America. In addition it was the era of a new colonialism — notably the “scramble for Africa” where a number of European powers grabbed the land and resources of the continent.

Capital was constantly in the search for new markets and this led to a growing hunt for them in the colonies and other countries beyond the existing centres of capitalism. Since capitalism is based on competition, then this competition increasingly moved beyond the domestic sphere to competition between countries and empires. This was accompanied by increases in arms spending and the development of new and sophisticated weaponry.

Socialists recognised that a much bigger imperialist war was coming closer as a result of the competition between different empires. In 1907 the Stuttgart conference of the Second International — the body organising the socialists internationally — opposed war. Its resolution argued that war was the outcome of capitalist competition in the world market, and that the working class should oppose it. Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg wanted a general strike against war to stop it happening before it began but this was not included, reflecting differences within the movement which became much more overt, despite repeated commitment to oppose war.

Lenin was horrified when, at the outbreak of the first world war, this stand collapsed within days of the different European empires declaring war on each other. Right up to that point, there were mass protests against war, including in London’s Trafalgar Square, but these were followed by rapid capitulation by nearly all the working-class parties — the main exception being the Russian. In Germany, with the largest socialist party in Europe, only Karl Liebknecht voted against war credits in the Reichstag. When the former “pope of Marxism,” the theoretician Karl Kautsky, supported the war, Lenin at first believed the newspaper article containing the news was a forgery.

The anti-war socialists were a tiny minority and their own views were often confused. Lenin developed some of his most important ideas at this time. He was not a pacifist but believed instead that the working class had to wage war on war. In 1915, during the depths of isolation, Lenin wrote a pamphlet called Socialism and War:  

“Socialists have always condemned war between nations as barbarous and brutal. But our attitude towards war is fundamentally different from that of the bourgeois pacifists (supporters and advocates of peace) and of the anarchists. We differ from the former in that we understand the inevitable connection between wars and the class struggle within the country; we understand that war cannot be abolished unless classes are abolished and socialism is created; and we also differ in that we fully regard civil wars, ie, wars waged by the oppressed class against the oppressing class, slaves against slave-owners, serfs against land-owners, and wage-workers against the bourgeoisie, as legitimate, progressive and necessary.”

This makes the fundamental point: war is part of the class struggle, just as much as strikes over economic conditions. Workers cannot fight their employers at home while falling in behind their own national ruling class in killing fellow workers from another country; in adopting their chauvinistic views that the enemy are all those of another nation, rather than seeing that the ruling classes of all countries are the enemies of all workers. Lenin studied the theoretician of war, Clausewitz, who famously said that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” For Lenin, this meant all politics, not just those between the major powers, but the politics of class struggle itself.

He therefore talked about turning “the imperialist war into a civil war” — that the war must be fought on the domestic front and socialists should call for the defeat of their own ruling class. This was put most famously by the German socialist Karl Liebknecht when he said “the main enemy is at home.” In 1916 Lenin wrote his book Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, where he theorised the process of colonisation, the search for markets and export of capital. In it he, as the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs pointed out, made a concrete analysis of a concrete situation. In other words, he linked imperialism with its political consequences and crucially “the theory of the concrete class forces which, unleashed by imperialism, are at work within it.”  

The contradictions created by imperialist war were growing as its full horror was revealed: soldiers mutinied and opposed conscription, there were shortages of food and housing. Strikes broke out among key sectors of workers, for example in Britain and Germany in 1917. The Irish staged the first revolt against the British empire at Easter 1916.

Most dramatic was the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in February 1917. Lenin’s April Theses stressed the need for working-class revolution as the only means of ending the war and that this required class struggle at home — the civil war against Russia’s rulers and then throughout the belligerent countries.

Lenin understood that to achieve peace socialists and the working-class movement need to oppose all wars but ultimately also fight to overthrow the system which produces war.

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