A War to End All (Class) Wars: Lessons from the Second International

Just over a century ago, a revolutionary event took a conflict-ridden world by storm, calling into question the orthodoxies that defined the political discourse of each society. The Russian Revolution, against all odds and in defiance of nearly universal expectations of the contrary, ushered in a society aspiring to abundance and characterized by institutional devotion to social progress. This event, a formative one in the course of human history, was presaged by a set of historical conditions that facilitated it. It would be unhelpful, in this instance, to add to the clamor of commentary that has grown with recognition of the Revolution’s centennial, primarily consisting of scholars wrangling over the integrity of the Revolution as a working class movement. Likewise, it would be unhelpful to add to the recounting and explicating of its swift, devastating deterioration. Rather, it is of greater utility to focus on the events that set the stage for the Revolution, particularly World War I. This approach will afford us a look into conditions that we might take advantage of in the modern era to conduct further struggles, and to understand past failures.

World War I was the culmination of imperial tensions— colonial empires clashed mightily, as their resources were strategically mobilized to maintain their hegemonic spheres. Competing powers depended on support grounded in artificial and temporary alliance systems, but were nevertheless emboldened to confront their adversaries. These troops could not be depended upon to remain docile, obedient sheep—they’d been exploited for far too long, first as workers, second as soldiers. It was time for their dignity to be recognized. If no one else would bring about this change, then they would, from the front lines of battle or from the floors of the factories that produced the munitions, pieces of which could be found in their massacred comrades.

Russian socialist leader Vladimir Lenin, above all others, understood that the interests of the capitalist state were in opposition to those of the soldiers and laborers, and therefore understood that the primary objective of the working class had to be this state’s overthrow. Accordingly, Lenin could not help but be shocked and dismayed at the unwillingness of other European leftists to lead their respective movements, a failure signaled first by their votes in support of the war effort. This incapacity to assert political independence rendered the proletariat vulnerable to social opportunism. This soon infected the working class’ consciousness by directing workers’ fervor against their fellow workers and, by extension, against their class allies in other nations. The Second International, the foremost international leftist organization of the period, tragically dissolved at a point where organization of its type was indispensable. The workers had to turn elsewhere for solidarity and direction, but their desperate rotations were met, in most places, with a lack of revolutionary agitation. They were misled by leftists who defended the nation state. In practice, this translated into the squandering of one revolutionary opportunity after another. Every setback the workers’ movement suffered allowed for further capitalist competition and exploitation.

This is not to assert that no leftists attempted revolutionary organization; Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and Eugene Debs in the United States afford us a towering examples. But the comparative immaturity that characterized class consciousness in these nations were crippling defects, and there was no viable party, as there was in Russia, to take and retain the reins of power. Ultimately, when socialists collaborated across class lines for the War, they secured the defeat of their ideal world. Racism in the United States was an especially toxic ingredient in the disaster that was the failed attempt to revolutionize American society; labor was crippled by this seemingly insurmountable division. Only leftists in Russia were able to meet and take advantage of conditions for their revolution, from the spirit of the working class to the discipline of a vanguard party.

Profile of a head with sickle and hammer inside
Illustration by Téa Wimer

Today, American leftists must learn from the failures of the Second International, because in many respects our circumstances parallel those of European powers during World War I. First parallel: the United States is a thoroughly militarized state. And, much of the American working class today is as hostile toward the major political parties and toward liberal institutions, as workers a century ago were toward the analogous structures of their time. Second, ruling ideologies and assumptions are now on the cultural chopping block as they were then. As such, an understanding of World War I is essential to the formation of a modern revolutionary movement. The leftists of a century ago, all over the world, ultimately advanced the interests of the capitalists they intended to undermine. Today, it is incumbent upon the class-conscious to cultivate and enhance the codependent forces of leadership and mass struggle, and do so with the unassailable conviction that their enemy is the behemoth of American capitalism. Failure to do this will direct fervor into reactionary outlets—as we can see in the uptick in fascist violence across the world perpetrated against the most vulnerable populations. An equally international response is necessary to seize opportunities that were missed in the past.

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