World War I: SPD left's dirty secret

Ben Lewis discusses a largely forgotten and ignominious chapter in the history of the German workers’ movement

As long as there is imperialism, there will be ‘social’-imperialism, with sections of the ‘left’ seeking to apologise for, downplay or cheerlead for the actions of its own state. This article - based on continuing research and translation work with Mike Macnair1 - will briefly outline the formation of a rather peculiar ‘social-imperialist’ outfit within German social democracy around the publication, Die Glocke (The Bell), founded in 1915. This article draws largely on Robert Sigel’s study, Die Lensch-Cunow-Haenisch-Gruppe: eine Studie zum rechten Flügel der SPD im Ersten Weltkrieg (Berlin 1976), as well as my translation work.

The leadership of the Social Democratic Party, of course, fell behind the kaiser’s war effort, as symbolised by the SPD parliamentary deputies voting for war credits on August 4 1914. The peculiarity of Die Glocke, however, lies in the fact that it was made up of figures who before 1914 had overwhelmingly been on the hard, anti-imperialist left of the party. Regularly working alongside several anti-imperialist icons of the workers’ movement - not least Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring and Karl Liebknecht - lefts like Parvus (Israel Lazarevich Gelfhand, 1867-1924), Konrad Haenisch (1876-1925), Heinrich Cunow (1862-1936) and Paul Lensch (1873-1926) rapidly transformed themselves into some of the most vociferous champions of a German victory.

The fact that a grouping of this nature emerged poses various theoretical and historical questions regarding both our conceptions of anti-imperialist strategy and the history of social democracy. Additionally, many of the theoretical traps fallen into by the group concerning political democracy, the nature of war-driven nationalisations and the need to choose a side at all costs in imperialist conflicts remain a persistent problem of many sections of the left to this day.

August 4

The dominant account is that the SPD’s ignominious capitulation to German imperialism on August 4 1914 can largely be traced back to the Marxist centre around Karl Kautsky and the non-dialectical, evolutionist and fatalist outlook for which he and his political allies were responsible. By contrast, so the story goes, the consistent struggle of Lenin and the Bolsheviks against the imperialist war either reflected the fact that they were much closer to the left of the SPD (like Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek and others) or that with the outbreak of war the scales suddenly fell from the eyes of Lenin and co, who abruptly broke with the centre’s perspectives to chart new political territory.

In light of recent research, it is clear that this account is radically false, not only when it comes to Lenin,2 but because it overlooks the fact that some of the most important figures of the pre-1914 German left came out in support of the war and German victory - and did so more aggressively than the pro-war majority of the party.

Almost all historians agree that August 4 1914 was a milestone in the history of European socialism. But was the vote, and the consequent policy of Burgfrieden (social peace), a break with or a continuation of earlier perspectives? Was it a necessary outcome of the party’s development before 1914 - in particular its approval of the government’s Military Tax Bill to enlarge the German army (1913), on the basis that this bill introduced progressive property taxation?3

In his German social democracy 1905-1917, Carl E Schorske argues that “the vote for the war credits on August 4 1914 is but the logical end of a clear line of development”.4 Susann Miller,5 by contrast, accepts that reformism had come to dominate the party, but states: “the question is merely whether a reformist policy necessarily had to the lead to the decision of August 3” (when the majority of the party’s Reichstag fraction agreed on the action to be taken the following day). Could another decision have been possible? For Georges Haupt, writing in 1970, “the fiasco of 1914 … still always dominates judgements and views [in relation to the Second International]. One had emphasised the significance of this ‘capital offence’, yet neglected a clarification of the process that led to it, thereby arriving at the false conventional posing of the question: is [August 4] based on the lack of theoretical reflection or on the thoughtless repetition of the lessons of a Marxism that had been raised to … a dogma and isolated from practice?”6

The group around Die Glocke sheds some new light on the question of how, in the words of the Austro-Marxist Friedrich Adler, “it could come to pass that this revolutionary-socialist approach, something that was stressed over and again, burst like a bubble at the moment the war broke out.”7


Parvus is a somewhat enigmatic figure, chiefly famous on the left for his influence on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. Yet there is nothing mysterious about his theoretical commitment to the struggle against imperialism and war before 1914. He wrote a range of different publications on the world market and the main states’ colonial division of the world. His classic was Colonial policy and the breakdown, published in 1907 in the wake of the SPD’s unexpected defeat at the hands of a pro-colonialist political bloc in the so-called ‘Hottentot elections’.8 Luxemburg, Kautsky and others drew on his theoretical output for their polemics on questions of war and peace. But on August 4 1914 Parvus advocated a German victory, albeit from abroad, and, given his importance, it is quite likely that he provided the inspiration for others to rethink their anti-war politics.

Parvus gave an interview to the Istanbul daily, Tasvir-i Efkar, which was published on August 4 1914 - not only the day of the SPD Reichstag fraction’s vote, but of the British declaration of war. It came three days after the German declaration of war on Russia, and a week after the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia. Parvus was thus very quick to make up his mind in stating his opinion on what the war means for Turkey: “The hostilities in Europe laid bare all matters of conflict. Those nations who fail to get their demands will be the prey of others. The time for talk and reasoning has passed. Now action is needed! You should heed this well.” Parvus could not be more clear: now the war had started, it was impossible to stand aside from it. Before leaving Istanbul, he also wrote for Türk Yurdu two pamphlets with the same theme: Umumî Harb Neticelerinden: Almanya Galip Gelirse (The outcome of the general war if Germany wins), and Umumî Harb Neticelerinden: İngiltere Galip Gelirse (The outcome of the general war if England wins).

Shortly afterwards, he published ‘For democracy - against tsarism’. This article drew on a deep-rooted theme of international social democracy: implacable opposition to Russian tsarism as the greatest bulwark of reaction in Europe. Parvus underlines how, for him, Russia is a greater enemy than Germany:

German social democracy knows full well what German militarism means and where it comes from. Its main sources are:

1. A strong, centralised governmental power;

2. The junker class in the officialdom and in the army, in conjunction with its economic strength from the land-owning class;

3. A relatively large mass of peasants - the very same source from which nationalism sprung;

4. A layer of large industrialists that require state power in order to exploit the people.

Yet all of this can be found to an even greater extent in Russia. There, militarism is already pressing on the development of the country far more than in Germany.

So, Germany was to be preferred to Russia, not least given its strong workers’ movement.

In 1915 Parvus founded, financed and edited a new publication, Die Glocke, where he and his allies could develop their theoretical views and comment on events. The group also regularly published German social democracy’s diverse local newspapers, which were increasingly coming under the direct control of the party leadership (and the military censor). These included the Karlsruher Volksfreund, Lübecker Volksbote, Schwäbische Tagwacht and the Arbeiterzeitung in Dortmund. Their articles did not pass unnoticed, either, provoking a reaction in Die Neue Zeit (edited by Karl Kautsky from 1883-1917) and the party’s main daily, Vorwärts.

In the first issue of Die Glocke, Parvus wrote an editorial piece, entitled ‘German social democracy: the stronghold of socialism’, which reads like a modern-day Trotskyist critique of the SPD’s Erfurt programme and approach. Many modern left readers would recognise his indictment of the SPD’s quietism, highlighting its aloofness to the “political mass strike” and so on. Yet he deploys these arguments not in opposition to the SPD’s policy on August 4, but in favour of it! With a clear ‘national party patriotism’, he chides international social democrats - those from France in particular - for their criticism of the war credits vote, reminding them of the huge intellectual and political debt they all owed German social democracy. He also emphasises the importance of the “idea of the state” as an instrument for socialism, and castigates Friedrich Engels (supposedly the “great vulgariser of Marx’s ideas”) for drawing on Lewis Henry Morgan in order to portray the state “simply as a machine of oppression”.9

Paul Lensch

On August 3 1914, when the SPD parliamentary fraction met to discuss its attitude to war credits (Kautsky was also in attendance after being invited to present his views), Paul Lensch was one of the deputies who insisted that the war credits must be opposed. This marked the logical culmination of a career on the left of the party and his view, articulated four years before Lenin, that “imperialism was the last and highest stage of capitalist society”.10

After studying political economy, Lensch began working for the radical Leipziger Volkszeitung, a journal which was the first to take up the struggle against early manifestations of revisionism within the party at the end of the 19th century. In 1908 he was appointed its lead editor - a post he held until 1913. He was elected as a member of the Reichstag in 1912.11 The revisionist right wing of the party had been the subject of his polemics on many occasions. He considered himself to be upholding revolutionary Marxism in the face of revisionist attacks - not least at the party congresses in Essen (1907), Jena (1911) and Chemnitz (1912), where he was an outspoken critic of this wing’s view on questions of colonialism, militarism and imperialism.

On August 4, all the oppositional SPD deputies, including Lensch and Karl Liebknecht, agreed to bow to party discipline and voted for the credits. Yet they came under a lot of political pressure subsequently. The party leadership accused him of mocking the party line and helping to organise oppositional meetings. Yet Lensch denied this. He likewise denied initiating a statement declaring opposition to the fraction majority. Rather, he had signed a declaration agreed by activists in Rosa Luxemburg’s flat on the evening of August 4, which he agreed to do despite misgivings about the wording. He was also prepared to ask two fellow members of the fraction whether they considered such an action to be a good idea. Apparently, one of them was not at home and the other refused to associate himself, whereupon, on the very same day, he phoned to withdraw his own support.

As soon as he was alone with Luxemburg, Lensch claims to have made it clear that he would not sign up to something in which Franz Mehring was involved. Lensch’s views were obviously in flux at this point. Looking back, after being charged with making his views contingent on the success of the German army, Lensch claimed that the gutting of the international was “plainly the decisive fact” in his change of heart - “events in the theatre of war had no influence on his political reorientation, nor could they have had, but the collapse of the international did”.12

In December 1914 Lensch wrote his German Social Democracy and the world war: a political study, published in January 1915, in which he publicly equated the war with “revolution”. As he put it,

Finding our way in this revolutionary process - for what we are witnessing is a revolution - is perhaps more difficult for social democracy in Germany than for social democracy in another country. German social democracy has never witnessed great conflicts in which Germany has been involved.13

How could this come to pass? He claims he had consistently argued that Britain, the imperialist top dog, was the ‘main enemy’ and its dominance of the world had helped ensure that Marxist social democracy had not developed there - only a faint shadow of it in the form of Labourite trade unionism. So the destruction of Britain’s military dominance could have a revolutionary effect.

Looking back on his decision, Lensch notes: “I sought the reasons for the international’s collapse. Far from seeing it in the personal inadequacies of its leaders, I felt that I had to look for it in the socio-economic relations of the individual countries and found the cause in England’s exceptional position”.14

Heinrich Cunow

The leading SPD intellectual, Heinrich Cunow, represents something of an exception in this grouping, in that he was not a known figure of the left in the 1911-13 debates on ‘mass action’ and imperialism. In fact he was closer to the centre. Cunow was, though, part of the older left. As a member of the Vorwärts editorial board, he was heavily involved in the struggle against the revisionists in 1905, when Kurt Eisner and others were forced out. He was in regular contact with the party’s left wing as a teacher in the party school, working alongside Luxemburg and Mehring.

Cunow acquired a wide knowledge of Marxist political economy, as well as Kantian and Hegelian philosophy. In the period leading up to World War I he had distinguished himself with a number of studies and journalistic essays on a whole range of topics (not least his writings on anthropology and matriarchal society, which remain untranslated, despite being regarded as significant by even bourgeois academic experts).

Cunow thus brought some intellectual weight to the Glocke group, and was seen by many on the left as among the “most dangerous teachers of heresy from the school of social-imperialism”. Angry critics damned him for “scribbling the alphabet of revisionist tactics on the board of scientific socialism”.15 Because of a fierce controversy on the editorial board of Vorwärts in 1916 we get a first-hand account of his evolution. In a collective note we find this statement: “At the beginning of the war comrade Cunow wholly stood on the same ground as the editorial board as a whole. Indeed it was he who on August 4 1914 formulated a declaration on the Reichstag fraction’s vote to this effect in the name of the editorial board. Until the middle of October 1914 comrade Cunow had been on our side.”16

Two days later, Cunow responded by agreeing with the general thrust of the above account, but denying that until the middle of October he had shared a joint approach with the editorial board. Back in August, he explains, it was a matter of a war conducted by Germany and Austria-Hungary against Russia, France and Serbia. At that point he was unaware of the participation of “England” in the war, the British “incitement” of Japan and the “games of intrigue” between Britain and Belgium, making it seem that the war was a struggle between Austria-Hungary and Russia for their position of power in the Balkans. “As soon as England entered the war, it acquired a quite different status.”17

It is unclear whether this actually is the real course of events, or just an ex post facto justification for his shift from left to right. At any rate though, there is an overlap with Lensch’s approach: “England” and its participation in the war makes it necessary to choose the side of the central powers, as opposed to the Entente.

Konrad Haenisch

Haenisch was a follower of Parvus and was known as ‘Parvulus’ by his close friends and comrades (a nickname he accepted). Like Lensch, Haenisch also came from a respectable bourgeois background, but his break with his own family was particularly painful.

In 1893 he and another pupil were punished by their school authorities because of contact with social democrats. The other boy committed suicide. Haenisch, 17 at the time, was forbidden access to political material and from speaking about politics with fellow pupils. Moreover, some of the pupils had agreed to carry out some kind of boycott, resulting in him leaving school before completing his studies. His mother subsequently agreed to hand authority over him to a rural minister. Just four weeks later Haenisch appeared at the doctors, accompanied by four policemen, to have his sanity assessed. He was placed under constant police observation. Unable to take any more, he escaped and even published the entire story in the Leipziger Volkszeitung. So he finally broke all ties with his family.

As with others in the group, he was influenced by the workers’ movement in Leipzig. The city constituted the heart of the SPD’s radical left. In October 1900 he became the editor of the Dortmunder Arbeiterzeitung and succeeded in making it highly influential. He was strongly involved in the debate around the mass strike following the 1905 revolution in Russia and in the miners’ strike in the Ruhr.

In 1910, he joined others on the left in advocating extraparliamentary tactics and mobilisations against the Prussian three-class suffrage law. In 1913 he moved to Berlin and was elected as a deputy to the Prussian state parliament, and thus was not involved in the discussion of the Reichstag deputies on August 3, making it difficult to tell whether he actually opposed the August 4 vote. Yet he probably did. Only in late September did he start to waver. The entry for September 28 1914 in the war diaries of a rightwing SPD deputy reports: “From several sides it is being reported that Haenisch has come over to our views. That would represent a very worthwhile addition”.18

On October 4 1914, Haenisch replied to Karl Radek, who had heard that he was beginning to have doubts about opposing the war. Haenisch’s slightly incoherent letter reveals his new approach:

Today, our proletarians are also outside fighting against tsarism (and lamentably its allied armies from the western powers) for all these German poets and thinkers, for these thinkers one day becoming the common property of the German people. And if, like me, you do not for a second consider it to be a moral crime that our French brothers are resolutely defending their country’s culture (which I infinitely value) against the ‘German barbarians’, then you may not scold me as a bad socialist for wanting to see our German culture defended against the truly barbaric hordes of tsarism.

Somewhat bizarrely, he concludes: “Do not fret, dear friend! I will be always be found on the side of the barricades, where you too can be found, on the side of the workers! And I believe that I have never served the cause of the workers, the cause of socialism, better than I have at this moment.”19

This position chimed in with the SPD majority idea of German ‘self-defence’ against the Russian bear. Yet the following statement of Haenisch clearly fitted more closely Lensch’s ‘war as revolution’ approach: “And again, this is why the German bayonets - again I say, 10 times unfortunately! - had to be beckoned in order to carry out this great historical task as revolutionaries against their will!”

Remarkably, Lensch viewed the differences of the Die Glocke group with the rest of the party as boiling down to “the difference between revisionism and Marxism”.20 One problem the group faced was how to present their approach as the logical continuation of their pre-war radicalism in a battle against the old rightwing of the party and the anti-imperialist left around the later Spartacus League. Haenisch’s Social democracy in and after the world war (Berlin 1915) is full of jibes directed against Karl Liebknecht. In a 1915 article for the Hamburger Echo, Haenisch insisted that it was possible for social democrats to be in favour of the war without renouncing their past, proving his point by citing the examples of none other than Paul Lensch, Parvus and … Karl Kautsky!21

Not mainstream

It could be argued that the convergence of these writers around Die Glocke happened more by accident than by design; but Parvus’s early stance was probably decisive in helping to cohere their differing approaches. The dilemma they faced as a new factional grouping was that of all converts: they had left their home in the left, but were still viewed with suspicion, not least by the leadership - which on occasion would borrow their arguments. The group had to chart a peculiar course between its erstwhile allies from the left, who were now opponents, and the former revisionists of the pro-war majority.

In a future article we will take a closer look at the group’s attempts to buttress its chauvinist conclusions with ‘Marxist theory’ against the backdrop of unfolding events l



1. See Karl Kautsky on colonialism London 2013; Mike Macnair’s paper ‘Die Glocke or the inversion of theory’, Critique conference April 2014; and other work in progress.

2. Lars T Lih’s recent articles in particular clearly stress the continuity of Vladimir Ilych Lenin’s ideas with those of Kautsky and the pre-war ‘Marxist centre’: see ‘The new era of war and revolution’ Weekly Worker April 10; and ‘True to revolutionary social democracy’ Weekly Worker April 16.

3. See AJP Taylor The German revolution of 1918 Cambridge 1967, p29.

4. CE Schorske German social democracy 1905-1917: the development of the great schism London 1955, p285.

5. Robert Sigel, Die Lensch-Cunow-Haenisch-Gruppe: eine Studie zum rechten Flügel der SPD im Ersten Weltkrieg (Berlin 1976), p12.

6. G Haupt Programm und Wirklichkeit. Die internationale Sozialdemokratie vor 1914 Berlin 1970, p155.

7. F Adler, ‘Karl Kautsky’ in Ein Leben für den Sozialismus: Erinnerungen an Karl Kautsky Hannover 1954, p57.

8. There is a partial translation of Parvus’s text in R Day and D Gaido (eds) Discovering imperialism: social democracy to World War I Leiden 2011.

9. A Parvus, ‘German social democracy: the stronghold of socialism’ Die Glocke No1, Munich 1915, p9.

10. Quoted in A Ascher. ‘“Radical” imperialists within German Social Democracy’ Political Science Quarterly 76,4, p559.

11. R Sigel op cit p22.

12. Ibid p25.

13. P Lensch Die deutsche Sozialdemokratie und der Weltkrieg: eine politische Studie Berlin 1915, p6.

14. Ibid p28.

15. Quoted in R Sigel op cit p25.

16. Quoted in Ibid p27.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid p32.

19. Ibid p41.

20. Ibid p45.

21. Ibid.