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SINCE the war there has been a certain amount of discussion, for obvious reasons, as to why Marx never developed a theory of Socialist imperialism. Proverbially, the revolution was to usher in the era of "to each according to his needs" and make power politics, old style, no longer necessary. But we have been learning that Socialists can be imperialists. Russia has been upsetting the Marxist equation.
Before the First World War there were some German Socialists who had quite a well-defined theory of imperialism. Not a great deal of attention has been paid to them, but there are interesting parallels (and differences) between their policies and those of the Communists today. The theory of this Socialist group, known as the Imperialists, was never officially approved; but the group was never expelled from the Party, the reason probably being that the Majority group (not the Independents, who were genuinely liberal and anti-imperialist) were in any case of pretty much the same mind in foreign policy.[i] The Imperialists, who centered about the periodical, Die Sozialistische Monatshefte, contained a heavy representation of trade union men: Max Schippel, Ludwig Quessel, Max Cohen and Wolfgang Heine. In addition they included a few highly articulate individuals who operated more on their own: Heinrich Cunow, Konrad Haenisch and Paul Lensch, the last being probably the most interesting of them all. It is somewhat artificial to treat these men as a separate group, for half the time they were only making the Majority's implied beliefs explicit and what new elements they added to Socialist theory were not too difficult to fit onto the Majority scheme. Yet they did have some ideas which the Majority, even though sympathetic, could never have accepted, and which are worth examining in the light of current developments in Socialist theory and practice.
These Imperialists of the old German Socialist Party wanted what the Russians seem to want today, but they had a harder time in justifying their position. The Russians can point to the revolution, and they can make out a case of sorts for being a Socialist country. Russia and Marx being synonymous, the Russians never conquer; they only spread the revolution. In Germany in 1914 it was all too obvious that the classless society was a long way off. The Imperialists therefore could only argue that though Germany was not yet a Socialist state it was becoming one very fast. To make this argument, though, they had to resort to some fairly elaborate explanations about the nature of the state. Marx said that the state is always a class state, that is, it can never represent the interests of society as a whole, as democrats hold, but has to represent the interests of a class, and in fact is merely the instrument used by one dominant class to oppress all other classes. There can be a proletarian as well as a middle-class state, of course, but the proletariat cannot simply take over the middle-class state and expect it to function for proletarian purposes. The workers have to smash the state and rebuild it to serve their own purposes, which is why Communists claim that violent revolution is a necessity and condemn anything like the New Deal or the present Labor Government of England. Now if the Imperialists in Germany were anxious for conquest and neither wanted nor expected a proletarian revolution (as they did not), then they had to abolish the Marxist state idea or recognize their own government as purely middle-class. Their state could be bourgeois or proletarian, but it could not be half one and half the other.
Actually, though, the Imperialists adopted just that conception. They said that absolute classes and absolute class states did not exist, that there were only concrete states, and that these could be more or less under the control of the proletariat. The German state, for example, was controlled by the capitalists, but also by the proletariat. It was quite obvious that the proletariat was well organized in the Socialist Party and the trade unions, and had some real weight. This being the case, the proletariat had an interest in defending the state.
So far, the theory solved only the problem of the German worker. He might be hurt by Germany's defeat, but that was not the same thing as saying that his defeat would be bad for Socialism as a world movement. So the Imperialists went a step further, and made German capitalism practically equivalent to Socialism. They argued that Socialism would come first to the most advanced capitalist country. It had to, since only a mature capitalism could pass over into Socialism. The system had to provide its own gravediggers, and Socialism could grow only out of advanced capitalism just as capitalism could have come out of nothing but high feudalism. The whole point of Marx's interpretation of history was that things develop inevitably according to the laws of their own being: a system develops itself to the point where it has to pass over into something else or break down, and it passes most easily into the order which it has itself prepared. Thus capitalism produces the proletariat, mass methods, centralization of ownership and production, which make Socialism inevitable, and without which Socialism is inconceivable.
This led to the point where the Imperialists could argue that because Germany had the most advanced capitalism it was the country nearest to Socialism economically. And they could argue that because the state could change hands without violent revolution, and the proletariat was gaining more and more political power, Germany was nearest to Socialism politically. Thus it was that Germany, being in their eyes almost a Socialist state, and certainly the nearest to one in Europe, embodied the cause of international Socialism. "To endanger the future of German capitalism, and with it the future of the German working movement, is also to endanger the cause of international Socialism!" [ii] It was one thing for a Frenchman to defend his government, which was middle-class; it was quite another thing for a German to defend his.
In other words, German Socialists could not only support their government in its foreign policy but could coöperate with it in internal affairs. All kinds of arguments could be found for cooperating with other parties, joining a coalition government, voting the budget. Every time the German state interfered a little more in economic life the Imperialists saw a new victory for Socialism. The Independents thought that the German war economy was state interference for the benefit of the capitalists; but by the time the Imperialists were through with their explanations they had convinced themselves that it was an expression of Socialism, since they saw in it a partially proletarian state taking over from the capitalists. Similarly, the Imperialists were gentler in their criticism of the Army's rule over civilians, wartime censorship, rationing and such. In general, they were careful not to make any demands which they thought would hurt capitalism, on the theory that the stronger it was the nearer the state came to Socialism.
As for foreign policy, the Imperialists found the appropriate quotations from Marx to prove that he had really been in favor of the great nations taking over the small. Incidentally, Marx's attitude toward the Slavs made this not too difficult. The Imperialists reasoned that the more mature capitalism became, the larger its necessary field of operations. In other words, capitalism had outgrown national boundaries. Progressive capitalism called for supra-national units. This did not mean that small nations would have no rights at all, simply that their rights would not extend beyond the needs of cultural autonomy. This to them represented historical progress, similar to that represented by the breakdown of the independent artisan economy. "Even a certain forceful annexation or impoverishment of small 'crippled' nations by the great nations of civilization was held by Marx and Engels justified under certain conditions. . . ."[iii]
According to this theory, also, colonies could be justified for the first time. The traditional line of the Second International had always been that colonies were evil and only provided a means for capitalists to exploit more human beings. Now anything that benefited Germany was ipso facto good, and as Germany needed raw materials the proletariat should favor the possession of colonies. Outright demands were not often made for new colonies, but emphasis was laid on the fact that Germany had to keep all her old colonies, and the general impression was given that if Germany had a chance to obtain others she should make no bones about taking them. Cunow, less hesitant than the rest, said frankly that Germany should take the Portugese colonies.
Much stress was laid on the hatred of other countries for Germany. Russians today see Russia being plotted against by the capitalist states because as the great Socialist state she represents the cause of progress; the Imperialists of the Socialist Party saw Germany being plotted against because she was the most advanced capitalist state. According to the Imperialists, the war of 1914-1918 was economic in origin, basically an attempt of the old capitalist states to crush the German economic threat. They developed a standardized picture of what would happen to Germany if she lost the war -- dismemberment among the Allies, and economic serfdom. England was their particular enemy. Paul Lensch worked out a very sweeping analysis to prove that the war was in reality a world revolution on the part of progressive capitalism, represented by Germany, against the reactionary principle of laissez-faire capitalism, represented by England. Since a German victory would save the most advanced form of capitalism, it would be a victory of Socialism. Carrying his concept of Socialism to fantastic lengths, Lensch identified whole nations with classes, and interpreted the war as a struggle between a world-wide exploiting class, made up chiefly of the English capitalists and proletariat combined, and a world-wide exploited class, composed chiefly of the German capitalists and proletariat combined.
Lensch and other Imperialists advocated the old idea of a continental bloc against England. Their talk of economic infiltration and exploitation did not differ greatly from what the Russians say about the Marshall Plan and the American design for turning Europe into a colony. The double standard, of course, came in here again. If Germany dominated Central Europe economically, then the Imperialists approved it as a victory of Socialism; but if England did the same, then it was imperialism, and hateful. In short, Imperialist theory was hardly more than window dressing for traditional German nationalism, plus a strong trade union sentiment. When the war came, the Imperialists wanted Germany to win in every possible respect just as the Conservatives did. But since the Imperialists were Socialists, and for any number of obvious reasons wanted to stay in the Party, they had to resort to the tortuous ingenuity described above.
Certain features of the German state could be made to seem Socialistic. The very fact that the German state was so reactionary was in a sense an asset, since this meant that there was no place for the ideal of laissez-faire individualism. Here lay the decisive difference between the Imperialists and the Majority Socialists. The Majority did stand, even though with reservations, for the western liberal tradition -- rule by parliament, civil liberties, individual freedom; they carried on what was left in Germany of the liberal middle-class tradition after Bismarck. The anti-liberal, anti-middle-class Imperialists actually were returning to the ideas of Lassalle. Lassalle had been a Hegelian, and consequently wrote a good deal of nonsense about the state as the repository of the Divine and the instrument through which the Divine manifested itself in history. This, since it implied that in practice the state was always good no matter who controlled it, was far from Marx's idea of the state as the executive of the ruling class. Its purpose of revealing the Divine to man could, of course, be perverted, but there need be no talk about smashing the state. All that would be necessary would be to reform the state.
Actually, Lassalle would have been as pleased with a Socialistically-minded absolute monarchy as with anything else, and he tried to persuade Bismarck to bypass the liberals by granting universal suffrage and winning the proletariat's support for the monarchy. He never disliked the reactionaries. His hatred was reserved for the liberals. Though in practice they fought for many of his demands, nevertheless they represented the liberal Manchester school of thought that would have weakened the state. Instead of the traditional Marxist tactic -- a proletarian alliance with the middle class against feudalism first, and only later a struggle between proletariat and middle class -- Lassalle advocated an alliance of feudalism and the proletariat against the middle class. In 1914 Lensch and others did much the same thing. They wanted the proletariat to join with feudalism and the great capitalists against the lower middle class, coöperate in an aggressive foreign policy, and then divide the spoils. Noske, for example, advocated an alliance between the proletariat and the German officer class.
In insisting on the need for a strong state, the Imperialists could have the best of both worlds -- they could be good Socialists and good Germans at the same time. German Conservatives saw, rightly, that a strong state was a necessary instrument for power politics. Hence their theories that the nation was an organism instead of the mere sum of its members and that freedom consisted in the willing subordination of the individual to the state. The Imperialists favored the same methods, the difference being in aim: Socialism demands mass organization and individual subordination for the good of the whole. Since Germany had always been distinguished by precisely these characteristics, it followed that Germany had a natural affinity for Socialism, and indeed had always been at least partially Socialistic without knowing it.
Where they found difficulty in identifying certain Marxist concepts with the nationalist scheme of things the Imperialists changed Marxism. The class struggle, for example, they interpreted as a kind of good-natured rivalry among different groups to see which could contribute most to the national good. Capitalism fought so that Germany could have a strong industry, the worker fought so that Germany could have an educated and physically fit proletariat, and whichever won, Germany was also the winner. In particular, Socialism also helped Germany by making the worker nationalistic, since it brought the blessings of universal suffrage, universal education and universal military service, all of which made the worker conscious of his citizenship.
In fact neither in Germany before the First World War nor in Russia afterwards have Marxists ever faced realistically the problem of a Socialist brand of imperialism. They have always taken it for granted that no kind of imperialism would exist under Socialism since in theory there would be no need for it. There would be no capitalists wanting to make profits, there could be unrestricted production; there would be enough of everything, therefore, to go around. From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. But what happens if material resources are not unlimited, and productivity is not that high? In fact nationalist rivalries are as strong as ever.
It is interesting to compare the rationalizations of these German Socialists with those of the Russian Communists, who today have the same desire to be good Russians and good Socialists simultaneously. Russian nationalism seems to have been amalgamated with pride in the peculiar brand of Marxism that Lenin and Stalin have developed; and the end product, whatever it is called, is nothing so simple as what we mean by the word nationalism in its nineteenth century sense. There is no doubt that the Russians have a supra-national ideology. German Socialists had little real interest in international Socialism. They were interested in German greatness and trade unions, and to the degree that they accepted Socialism they did so because it supplied a convenient ideology and organization for a trade union movement.
The Russians ignore the problem. They content themselves by saying that they are a Socialist state, and that world Socialism is inevitable. When their armies enter a country, the people are given an opportunity for the first time to express their wishes freely, and it is only natural that they should elect a Socialist government. There is no question of coercion. And since the people's governments have no capitalists to restrict production, to put up tariff barriers and to exploit the workers, they coöperate freely. When a dispute like that between the Cominform and Tito arises, the Russians cannot admit that it is a quarrel among Socialist states. They must say that Tito has sold out to the Anglo-American imperialists and repudiated Marxism. And Tito as a Marxist must say that the difficulty has arisen because the Russians treat Jugoslavia as a colony, restrict her to the production of raw materials which they need and keep her poor so that they can be rich. In other words, they say, there is not enough to go around in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia is taking the lion's share, and that makes her an imperialist instead of a Socialist Power.
The Germans came closer to the problem, perhaps, but they never thought it through. Their theory had to be more elaborate than that of the Communists because they could neither claim that they had a Socialist government nor that the governments set up by the German armies in occupied territories were Socialist. At the same time they had to justify German conquests as a boon to humanity. Since big business and the traditional nationalist elements stood behind Pan-German peace plans, the Imperialists had to claim these forces as their own. German capitalism was almost Socialism, therefore the proletariat should support it; German business needed new territory, therefore the German proletariat should support the government's foreign policy. They took it for granted that there was too little to satisfy everyone. They never said that scarcity would prevail once all Europe or the world went Socialist; they talked only about the Europe of their day which was being fought over by the capitalist Powers, and argued that since Germany was the best of these Powers she should gain the most. Presumably the problem of division would not arise in a Socialist world, since England would no longer have need to hurt the German economy and Germany no need to defend herself.
Nationalism, which makes the theory held by the Imperialists in the old German Socialist Party seem so different from that of the Russian Communists, was probably less important as a measuring rod than it appears to be at first. The Russians simply find nationalism unnecessary for their theory. The Germans had to pretend that nationalism was the same thing as Socialism. In the process they produced a kind of theory very much like National Socialism, even down to terminology. It would probably be going too far to say that the Imperialists were Nazis, or would have become Nazis under Hitler; and in any event, the leaders -- Lensch, Heine and Quessel -- were dead by Hitler's time. They were good trade union men, though, and in many ways excellent practical leaders. In fact, reading through Die Sozialistische Monatshefte, one is rather impressed by their realism and good sense in questions of practical economic policy. But when questions of German patriotism were involved they took refuge in the catchwords and pseudo-metaphysical gibberish of the Hegelian and anti-individualistic nationalists. We should not place too much stress on this, perhaps, since it distracts from the other aspects of Imperialist thinking. And while the Russians use more rational terms for argument, still they have a mystique just as hard to cope with on rational terms as German nationalism, as witness their claim to have a special Communist physical science.
In practice, the results of Russian policy are much the same as the results of German policy would probably have been had the Imperialists ever come into control of the German Government. In each case, a national cause is identified with a supranational cause. The Communists justify their actions by saying that anything that strengthens Russia is good because Russia is the great Socialist Power. The Imperialists said that anything that benefited Germany was good because the Germans, due to their peculiar character, were the nearest thing to a Socialist Power that existed in Europe. The logic of the two positions is the same. Dimitrov's main point at the Seventh Congress of the Comintern in 1935 was that the way to judge the character of any country is to examine its attitude toward Russia, and this is still the argument of the Cominform in its dispute with Jugoslavia: "The touchstone of a man's progressiveness is his attitude toward the Soviet Union."
[i] The German Socialists during the First World War split into three groups. The Spartacists were the nucleus of the later Communist Party; the Majority group supported the Government; the Independents went into opposition in 1916. After 1918 the Independents broke up, some returning to the Majority, some joining the Communists.
[ii] "Krieg und Sozialdemokratie," by K. Haenisch. Hamburg, 1915, p. 9.
[iii] "Partei-Zusammenbruch? Ein offenes Wort zum inneren Parteistreit," by H. Cunow. Berlin, 1915, p. 36.