Parvus: for German victory

New translations shed light on the thinking of socialists who ended up supporting 'their' side in WWI. Mike Macnair introduces a second Parvus article

This is the second in our series of translations from 1914-15 from German-defencist authors in the left wing of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Ben Lewis introduced the series (Weekly Worker June 26), and my introduction to Esen Uslu’s translation of Alexander Parvus’s August 4 1914 interview in Tasvir-i-Efkâr (Weekly Worker August 14) gave some general background on Parvus. With the article, ‘For democracy - against tsarism’, which Ben Lewis has translated here, Parvus moved from arguing that German victory would be in Turkish national interests to arguing that it would be in the interests of the proletariat as a whole.

This article was first published in the Bucharest socialist paper Zapta and the Sofia socialist paper Rabotnichesky Vestnik. Parvus’s biographers, ZAB Zeman and WB Scharlau, date it to “a few days after the outbreak of war”. It is translated here from the German text in Die Glocke Vol 1, issue 2 (September 15 1915). This is - as will appear below - dated October 1914, and contains a gap of about 7.5 lines, which may be attributable to the German censors. If any of our readers speaks Romanian and has access to an archive of Zapta, or speaks Bulgarian and has access to an archive of Rabotnichesky Vestnik, it would be very helpful to see any variations between the German and the Romanian/Bulgarian texts.

Parvus’s analysis that the war had been planned for some time - and in particular on the Entente side since the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 - is corroborated by recent historical work.1 His implicit characterisation in the title and conclusion that the German and Austrian regimes constitute ‘democracy’ has a sort of basis in the existence of male suffrage for the Reichstag - which was at this time also present in France, but not in Britain - but ignores the restricted suffrage in the constituent states of the Reich (especially Prussia), the very substantial restrictions on freedom of speech and the press (quite a lot of SPD journalists and speakers were sentenced to jail as a result of their speeches or articles) and the fact that ministers were answerable to the kaiser, not the Reichstag. Austria was, if anything, less democratic. This piece of special pleading was further developed elsewhere. Russia, obviously, was in no sense democratic. His statement regarding the decay of bourgeois culture and ‘civilisation’, and that this is worse in the parliamentary regimes (Britain and France), is no more than nostalgia politics.

Parvus’s argument that Russian defeat would lead to revolution is obviously true - not merely in hindsight, but also in the light of the revolution of 1905. On the other hand, his argument that Entente victory would lead to “a vassal relationship”, in which western capitalism was subordinated to Russia, is nonsense: in 1914-17 the tsarist regime was playing yet again the role it had played since the 18th century of a subordinate ally of western capitalist powers, providing cannon-fodder in exchange for military technology transfers.2 The United States is also startlingly absent from the argument (the claim that the US might replace a disunited Europe wrecked by war did appear in later Die Glocke articles and shaped Parvus’ politics in his last years after the war).

In short, the article is characterised by a combination of perceptive insights and highly artificial arguments in order to produce a ‘Marxist’ German-defencist construction. This combination is a common feature of the arguments of Die Glocke authors.

Mike Macnair

For democracy, against tsarism

This war was created by imperialism, which has been fostered by capitalism. The war has been ripening over the course of decades and was consciously planned over the course of several years. The socialist workers’ parties saw the great collision coming and repeatedly took a stand on it. Those who consider themselves able to ignore the great capitalist conditions behind this war, seeking an explanation for it rather in the role of rogue diplomats or rogues from other circles, have forgotten how to think in a socialist manner.

The development of capitalist industry in the individual countries created tension and conflicts across the entire world, because capitalist industry in each and every country has the tendency to conquer the entire world market. Because the development of militarism goes hand in hand with industrialism, the competition for markets has assumed the character of political conflicts. We saw how the democratic United States fought against Spain and the aspirant Mongoloid industrial state of Japan fought against China as far back as 1894. In the middle of these capitalist contradictions, which affected every country without exception, the struggles between German and English imperialism increasingly moved to the fore.

Conflicts between England and Germany emerged in all four corners of the globe: in Mesopotamia, South Africa and in the small states of central America.3 The English capitalist class’s global dominance was threatened on various sides - not just by Germany. But it rightly saw Germany as its greatest rival, because Germany’s industry had proved superior on the market and its imperialism was based on a powerful military state with a strong governmental power. Yet certain conditions needed to be fulfilled before English imperialism could turn against this main opponent with all its might: the Boer War [1899-1902] and the Russo-Japanese war [1904-05]. It is now patently clear that if the Boers had not been defeated beforehand then England would have lost South Africa in this war. Thus the destruction of the independent Boer republics was the first condition of the war against Germany. In the Russo-Japanese war, which had been consciously prepared by England,4 Russia’s influence in Asia - a threat to that of England - was broken. The rapidity with which the English government concluded an agreement with Russia immediately after the conclusion of peace is proof that England already had further-reaching plans back then.

The Triple Entente was formed. Its origins, aims and its sole raison d’être lay in the struggle against Germany. Europe was divided up into two hostile camps, which balanced each other out. Italian imperialism exploited this situation in order to carry out the raid of Tripoli on its own.5 The Balkan states - whose paths to political development had been cut off by European diplomacy as far back as their formation, and in which the capitalist drive for territorial expansion was increasingly asserting itself, the more that these states were drawn into industrial trade - ambushed Turkey, a country which had already been undermined by all means of agitation, corruption and assassination on the part of European diplomacy, as well as that of the Balkan states. Turkey’s power was broken, but the Balkan League, whose creation had been encouraged by the tsar, fell to pieces.6

An untenable situation resulted. Nobody could see a way out and it was possible that a new war might break out at any moment.

During the Balkan Wars, the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance, of which Italy was only formally part, weighed up each other’s strength. In so doing the Triple Alliance avoided an open conflict. First it abandoned Turkey and then left Bulgaria in the lurch. Following this test of strength, which turned out in favour of the Triple Entente, this alliance assumed the leading role in the Orient and showed itself to be increasingly provocative and belligerent.

This fact deserves to be remembered by those whose position on this capitalist-inflicted catastrophe depends on which of the powers in the current war was the aggressor. I do not share this view and already opposed it when it was expressed by August Bebel in the Reichstag.7 Back then I explained that the question of whether a power is attacking or defending itself can only be of a purely formal nature and also that we must not tie our position to a superficial aspect of the question. Yet, even if one is of this view, then obviously politics as a whole before the declaration of war need to be taken into consideration. And in this sense Germany’s attitude during the Balkan Wars showed clearly and openly that it attempted to avoid a European conflict. It did so not out of idealism, but because it was not in the interests of German capital to put all its eggs into one basket - it was German capital that profited most from peace. The main charge against Germany from English imperialist circles was, after all, penétration pacifique - that is to say that German capital was peacefully penetrating foreign territories. We thus see how, to the extent that English imperialism becomes ever more demanding, by contrast German diplomacy aims to fit in, first seeking friendship with Russia and soon after with England.

Germany was unable to prevent the war. Yet I am saying more than that. I am saying that the war could no longer be avoided by the Triple Entente either. This may appear as a paradox to those who see the emanation of the spirit of world history in those few people who, more or less by chance, happen to be at the head of governments. For me, this situation is rather proof of how untenable existing conditions have become. Evidence of the inevitability of the war came as far back as the enormous armaments race after the Balkan Wars, which far outdid anything we had seen before. In France in particular the return to the three-year period of military service could not be justified in any other way than by the fact that war was on the immediate horizon.

The Triple Entente made its preparations for the war in feverish haste, amongst which came the efforts of tsarist diplomacy to stoke up the megalomania of Greece and Serbia as much as possible. Whilst this imperialist development - which we have characterised with broad brushstrokes - was underway, there was a great change in bourgeois public opinion. During the economic depression, which lasted from the end of the 1870s to the middle of the 1890s, the bourgeoisie was peaceful and timid. Yet the period of industrial Sturm und Drang8 which followed this depression made the bourgeoisie adventurous and bold.

Simultaneously, the tremendous concentration of industrial and financial capital had forced the bourgeoisie out of its independent role in enterprise and onto the stock exchange. Currency speculation, exacerbated by the wanton shifts between boom and crisis, dominated all thought. The old solidity of the bourgeois had vanished. The bourgeois became a speculator and an adventurer. Stock market speculation seized broad layers of the population and also opened up political gambling9 to them too.

Bourgeois parliamentarism, which had already betrayed its own ideals earlier on, completely degenerated into demagogy and cliquism under the influence of the stock exchange and imperialism. It was precisely wherever parliamentarism was strongest that corruption was the worst. Press bandits, jobbers on the stock market, high finance and parliamentary cliques laid waste to the state, corrupted public opinion, feuded with each other and yet were always united in their cries for power, world dominance and imperialism.

The socialist parties themselves were repeatedly betrayed and led astray by those who went over from their ranks to join the adventurer vermin - this happened in various countries, but in France in particular.10 All the while German social democracy showed the greatest resistance to the influences of the decaying bourgeoisie. Its proletarian organisations showed the greatest cohesion of the time.

The bourgeoisie’s whole way of thinking and feeling and its expression in ideas in art, literature and science - everything that can be summarised as bourgeois culture - was seized by a wild delirium, frayed, corrupted and unnerved. Scepticism consumed all social ideals, all political principles, all great points of view; one lived for the moment, paying homage to the personality who lives life in the most refined craving for pleasure. The hunt for the sensations of ‘individuality’, which had freed itself from social bonds and their moral restrictions, led to perversions, which in turn led to a cult of blood and brutality. [Friedrich] Nietzsche’s ideas, which were a glowing protest against philistine, petty bourgeois morality, were falsely turned into a glorification of naked egoism, raw violence and a reversion to barbarism. Success was the only god, whose omnipotence was acknowledged by everybody. The more bloody the path it led to, the greater the moral restrictions which had to be overcome, the more numerous the victims, the more shameless the brutal expressions of violence, the greater the triumph.11 This is how hearts and minds [die Geister] were prepared for this war.

In the face of this bourgeois hullaballoo, working class opposition grew and became more determined. Yet this opposition did not hold back the drives of the imperialists, but more than ever drove them towards adventurist policies. The more obscure the situation became, the greater the dangers that were conjured up, the more militarism and imperialism found an apparent justification. In order to attain election results favourable to the government, the danger of war was toyed with and diplomatic conflicts were provoked. Imperialism was recommended as a means of struggle against socialism and was consciously carried out - war was to be the lightning conductor of revolution.

Thus the world war was prepared in all areas of capitalist competition, bourgeois parliamentarism and bourgeois culture. The historical meaning of this war is the following: capitalism, whose historical development is characterised by the annihilation of whole swathes of people, has henceforth set Europe on fire through the collision of the forces of economic, political and military competition, which it has fostered in the individual countries - accompanied by a decay in social civilised behaviour, by corruption and decadence.

With the monstrous means of the weapons technology and army organisations it created, capitalism has destroyed Europe’s industry, which science and the civilised nations worked for generations to create - destroying wealth and the formal civilisation on which it constantly based itself as its last and decisive raison d’être over and beyond any of the measures it took to increase the exploitation of the people and destroy the system of property ownership [Eigentumsordnung], whose inviolability it had preached and sought to defend using all of the means of the state.

The position of the socialist parties towards this capitalist world catastrophe obviously could not be justified by ideas taken from professors, who are cut off from the world; they had to be based on a perception of the interests of the fighting proletariat ...12

Yet tsarist Russia was also drawn into this war as an important factor - perhaps even a decisive one.

A victory for tsarism would signify a terrible blow to democracy and at the same time open up a new era of boundless capitalist exploitation. The Russian bourgeoisie is full of enthusiasm for this war. Its motivations are, however, different from those of the imperialists in the industrial states of Europe. The Russian capitalist class, unlike its European counterparts, does not fight for markets abroad, because it has its hands full exploiting the domestic market, which it secured for itself through high protective tariffs. The knights of Russian industry no doubt attain a certain malicious joy [Schadenfreude] in the ruin of European industry, because they expect business in Russia to blossom as a consequence. Yet the main reason behind the Russian bourgeoisie’s motivation is political. It wants to assert itself as a national power - as do all aspirant bourgeoisies. To this end it needs a war of conquest; it needs this all the more because its path to the masses through parliamentary agitation has been cut off by the socialist parties. On the other hand, it wants to win the sympathy of tsarism by showing it the powerful impulse towards the expansion of the state administration that it can deliver. At the same time, it produces itself as the leader of the nation and as the buttress of the throne, thereby achieving the same success as German national liberalism in its day.

Yet, since Europe already has the history of German national liberalism behind it, Russian national liberalism can now only appear in a shabby, corrupt form. In a parliament without universal suffrage and with an omnipotent governmental power this Russian national liberalism will be the officious informer of the government and warm itself in the sun of its favours. In Russia a quite different kind of militarism would arise to that in Germany, while on the other hand the Russian bourgeoisie, based on governmental power, would create an exploitation at home and abroad which would know no measure or conscience.

The war rescued tsarism, because it plunged itself into this war in order to avoid a new outbreak of the revolution, which was on the immediate horizon: victory in the war would help it to develop its power in a new, unexpected and formidable manner. Based on the emerging bourgeoisie, on a powerfully developing industry, on an army which encompasses almost 200 million people, tsarism would control Europe and the world.

Capitalism in the western European states would rebuild on the ruins of the industry it had destroyed, but without acquiring the leading role it previously held; it would enter into a vassal relationship with Russia and occupy a subordinate position in the world market. This is the danger threatening democracy and socialism.

In the face of this danger, there can only be one slogan for us: “Fight tsarism!” This slogan not only holds true for the socialist parties of Germany and Austria-Hungary, who have to protect their fatherlands from the tsarist armies. It also holds true for the socialist parties across the world.

The socialists in France and England have to say to themselves that by helping tsarism to victory in this war they are burying the very foundation of their class struggle: democracy. They would reforge capitalist class rule with the blood of the proletariat. They are being deceived by the idea of the fatherland with the result that they can be ruled all the more easily by the capitalist cliques (with the help of the Russian army), who know no fatherland in their exploitation. The power of the tsarist throne is to be built on the corpses of the English, French and Belgian worker masses, which will pile up alongside those of their fellow sufferers from Germany and other countries.

And what about the Russian socialists and revolutionaries?! I ask each and every one of them the following question, which must be answered clearly and without reservations before any of them takes a position: if tsarism is defeated in this war, would the outcome not be a revolution which would get rid of this political system and open up the path to democracy? Yes or no?

How can there still be any doubts as to our position?

For the most part, however, the Russian intelligentsia is joining in with the chauvinist movement of the Russian bourgeoisie. It is precisely this intelligentsia that I accuse of being prepared to betray the interests of democracy in Europe in order to beg for, and seek to fraudulently obtain from tsarism, the shabbiest, most impoverished national liberalism.

And I do not understand how any socialist in any country could remain neutral in this conflict. We stand before a global turning point. Yet we can only be successful if we fight. And here it is above all a matter of defending what we have conquered through hard struggles within the capitalist state: democracy. Tsarism threatens it. Therefore we must fight tsarism!

Constantinople, October 1914


1.. See, for example, C Clark, The sleepwalkers New York 2013, chapter 3.

2. See B Kagarlitsky Empire of the periphery London 2007, chapters 4-9.

3. Mesopotamia: this relates to the German-funded and German-built Berlin-Baghdad railway (incomplete in 1914). This was already argued to be a prime cause of the war by US author M Jastrow Jr in The war and the Bagdad railway (New York 1914); see also AP Maloney, ‘The Berlin-Baghdad railway as a cause of World War I’ [1959] Centre for naval analyses professional paper No401 (1984), which reviews literature down to the 1950s, arguing both ways. On German aspirations in Latin America (and resulting conflicts with the US) see N Mitchell The danger of dreams: German and American imperialism in Latin America Chapel Hill 1999.

4. The implicit reference is probably to the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902-23.

5. Italo-Turkish war 1911-12.

6. “Ambushed”: first Balkan war 1912-13; “went to pieces”: second Balkan War 1913.

7. The relevant date is not clear; no reference in Zeman and Scharlau; and Bebel made the argument criticised here repeatedly from 1880 on: see WH Maehl August Bebel, shadow emperor of the German workers Philadelphia 1980.

8. Parvus: “I first highlighted the difference between these two periods as an addendum to Marx’s crisis theory in 1895 in my Trade unions and social democracy and backed up this view in several of my articles for Die Neue Zeit. Based on this understanding, already in 1895 in the book mentioned above I developed the view that we had entered into a period of wars and revolutions and also predicted the entanglements which the economic advance of German capital had driven diplomacy into. This was before [Alfred von] Tirpitz’s naval bills and the occupation of Kiaochow.” Editors: “The German expression Sturm und Drang, originally meaning the Romantic/revolutionary period of the late 18th-early 19th century, has been received into English in Marxist economics to refer to a period of tempestuous economic growth.” See, for example, Marchlewski in R Day and D Gaido (eds) Discovering imperialism (Leiden 2012) p499 (following Parvus’s 1901 pamphlet); and L Trotsky: www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/ffyci-1/ch19b.htm [1921].

9. The title of a chapter of his 1907 Colonial policy and the breakdown, as yet not completely translated into English.

10. This reference to the pro-imperialist wings in the several socialist parties before the war is unfair to the French, being pretty much solely supported by the prominence of the debate over Alexandre Millerand’s participation in government, since pro-imperialist wings existed in most of the Second International parties: see the introduction to R Day and D Gaido (eds) Discovering imperialism (Leiden 2012).

11. Parvus: “I highlighted the decay of the bourgeoisie and of bourgeois parliamentarism in my books Colonial policy and the breakdown and The class struggle of the proletariat.

12. This is where about 7.5 lines of text are missing.