Militarism, Imperialism, and Self-Determination: Marxist Debates on the War

During World War I, the Marxist movement had a rich debate on the questions of militarism, imperialism, and self-determination. Those discussions help inform some of the current issues around the war in Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine has shaken much of the conventional wisdom that has been established over the years. First and foremost is the idea that capitalist “globalization” had made it possible to overcome the acute contradictions between the great powers — whether the notion of a global imperium that annulled the clashes between imperialist states, as advocated by Negri, or the aspiration of Habermas that democratic dialogue would set the agenda for Europe.1Translator’s note: Antonio “Toni” Negri is an Italian Marxist sociologist and political philosopher and a principal theorist of autonomism. He is the coauthor, with Michael Hardt, of Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), which theorizes that modern imperialism is being replaced by a postimperialist order — “the Empire” — in which conflict between nations is no longer relevant and in which the leading countries, international organizations, multinational corporations, and various NGOs rule. Jürgen Habermas is a German philosopher and sociologist associated with the Frankfurt school who has written extensive analyses of advanced capitalism and has promoted a theory of “communicative action,” extended to the European nation-states, that social order ultimately depends on the capacity of actors to recognize the intersubjective validity of the different claims on which social cooperation depends. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the collapse of the former Soviet Union, and the creation of the Eurozone, many claimed that European history’s warlike chapters were behind us.

The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria had already shown that this did not correspond to reality. But the return of war in Eastern Europe has finally shattered the illusions about some sort of harmonious development of capitalism.

The war in Ukraine has brought back the debates within the world Left on how to define the type of war that is in progress, as well as on the character of imperialism. Some on the Left are situating themselves in the camp of the Western powers against “Russian totalitarianism,” without opposing their own imperialists governments’ own economic sanctions and their supplying of arms to Zelenskyy. On this side we find the neoreformist Left, which proposes to “moderate” escalation of the war and which appeals instead for a diplomatic solution within the framework of European or international institutions. Such is the case with Mélenchon in France and Podemos in the Spanish State.2Translator’s note: Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the current presidential candidate in France of La France Insoumise (LFI, Unbowed France or Unsubmissive France), a social democratic populist party he founded in 2016. Podemos is a left-wing populist party in whose founder, Pablo Iglesias, joined the bourgeois government after liquidating Podemos as an ostensibly anti-capitalist party. Even some sectors of the anti-capitalist Left, including those who claim to be socialist and revolutionary, have aligned themselves with Zelenskyy and NATO against the Russian invasion.

Although they are fewer, there are those who insist that Russia and China represent a progressive alternative to U.S. and Western imperialism. This position disregards the repressive Bonapartism of Putin’s regime, which today is reacting with particular brutality to anti-war activism in Russia. Those on this side also tend to evaluate all of Putin’s foreign policy moves as “defensive maneuvers” against U.S. hegemonized imperialism, thus openly and shamefully justifying the reactionary Russian invasion of Ukraine and its national oppression.

These controversies are approached from several different angles in articles we are republishing today, including here and here, while in each case putting for the need to maintain an independent position. The present article focuses on some of the rich debates in the Marxist movement before and after World War I concerning war, imperialism, and the right to self-determination of oppressed nations. Although these are not analogous situations, recovering some theoretical and methodological definitions allows us to think about current problems.

Militarism and Imperialism

In 1907, the International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart passed resolutions condemning militarism and colonialism. Lenin and the German Left introduced one such resolution that read, “In case war should break out anyway, it is [Socialists’] duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.” There was, though, a strong opportunist tendency expressed at the Congress that defended the colonial policies of the imperialist states. The right wing introduced a motion to support colonialism, raising arguments unheard of for a socialist congress and asserting that “Europe needs colonies.” For his part, Bernstein said at the Congress, “Socialists too should acknowledge the need for civilized peoples to act somewhat like guardians of the uncivilized.”3“Congress Debate on Colonial Policy,” in John Riddell, ed., Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International: Documents, 1907–1916, the Preparatory Years (New York: Monad Press, 1984), 10. Translator’s note: Eduard Bernstein (1850–1932) was a leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) of Germany who was close to Marx and Engels until he began to challenge the Marxist materialist theory of history. Eventually, he began a wholesale revision of revolutionary socialism and is today associated with the destruction of the SPD as a revolutionary organization. Rosa Luxemburg’s famous 1900 work Reform or Revolution? was a polemic against Bernstein. The condemnation of colonialism was approved only by a narrow majority.

These discussions show that the social-chauvinist evolution of the Second International, which culminated in 1914 with the approval of war credits, did not fall from the sky. Lenin later explained that social chauvinism was the direct continuation and culmination of French Millerandism (ministerialism)4A reference to Alexandre Millerand, who went down in history as the first socialist to become a minister in a capitalist government. Appointed minister of commerce and industry in the French government of the radical Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau, he held the post from 1899 to 1902., Bernsteinism, and English liberal labor politics. Both Lenin and Trotsky later pointed out that it was the expression of bourgeois influence in the organizations of the working class in the epoch of imperialism — an influence that was supported by the concessions that the imperialist bourgeoisie could make to a sector of the working class (the labor aristocracy) thanks to the plundering of the colonies.

In the 19th century, Marx and Engels had fought the syndicalist and pro-Proudhon tendencies5Translator’s note: Syndicalism is a current in the workers’ movement that sees local, worker-based organizations as the path forward for revolution, largely through strikes. It constituted a significant component of the International Workingmens’ Association, which was the First International. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a similar tendency (although not precisely analogous) in the Russian Marxist movement that came to be called “economism.” Lenin, most notably, characterized this group’s focus on improving the conditions of working-class life rather than organizing the proletariat to liberate itself from the system of wage slavery. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) was a French socialist considered the “father of anarchism,” famous for the assertion that “property is theft.” within the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) that underestimated the struggle for national emancipation in the cases of Poland and Ireland. The IWA supported these struggles in its founding manifesto, as well as the anti-slavery struggle in the United States, with the idea that “a people that oppresses another people cannot be free.” But this was a product of the political struggles of Marx and Engels against the workers’ corporatism that had a strong influence among the English unions and in the conceptions of French anarcho-syndicalism. These corporatist and nationalist tendencies in sectors of the working class grew in the last third of the 19th century, with the formation of imperialism.

The outbreak of World War I in July 1914 showed that the new imperialist epoch was deepening the tendencies toward crises, wars, and revolutions. The world war and then the Russian Revolution were two poles of the historical dilemma. The approval of the war credits in the German Parliament, with the unanimous support of the Social Democratic bloc, meant the collapse of the Second International. A sector adhered to the defense of the imperialist fatherland, betraying the working class. The principles of the Basel Congress (1912) were a long way off.6The Congress called on the workers of every country “to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective,” and if they could not prevent war, to do everything possible to paralyze the rush to war. And in case they could not prevent it, their duty was “to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.” While the majority of the International became social-chauvinist, the center, whose main spokesman was Kautsky,7Translator’s note: Karl Kautsky (1854–1938) was a very important socialist theorist of the Second International who held revolutionary views until the time of World War I, when he began to revise his support for revolution and ultimately argued that there was a peaceful, “democratic” road to socialism — including through bourgeois elections. He became a major critic of the Bolshevik Revolution. Lenin famously took apart his views in his 1918 work The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, writing that he had turned into a “common liberal.” opportunistically capitulated to warmongering, subordinating itself to party discipline and declaring that the International was apt only “for times of peace.” This sector oscillated between open social chauvinism and a passive questioning of the war from reformist positions, advocating that the imperialist states reach a diplomatic understanding.

Only an internationalist minority of the International opposed the war. The Zimmerwald conference in September 1916 brought together delegates from a number of countries, some of whom held pacifist positions and did not want to break with the leaderships of their parties. The revolutionary wing was represented by the German Spartacus League, Leon Trotsky, and Lenin. From the far Left, Lenin proposed the slogan of transforming the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war, which failed to win the approval of the delegates. Even so, it was a key meeting to resume the historical thread, after the betrayal of the Second International, and lay the foundation for the new world organization of the working class. At the beginning of the war the revolutionaries gathered in Zimmerwald were a small minority, but by the end of the war, the unprecedented suffering of the masses had given rise to a wave of class struggle that birthed the Russian Revolution and the foundation of the Third International.8Guillermo Iturbide, “A 102 años. La conferencia de Zimmerwald” [The Zimmerwald conference: 102 years ago], La Izquierda Diario, September 5, 2017.

The Imperialist Era and the War

For Marxists, the starting point for defining the character of the ongoing war was the change of epoch, the transformation from the capitalism of free competition into imperialist capitalism. In “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism,” Lenin synthesized some of these transformations: the rise of monopolies; control and manipulation of the economy by financial capital; the seizure of the sources of raw materials by the financial oligarchy; and growing disputes and wars over a new division of the world markets.

In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin characterized imperialism as the “world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of ‘advanced’ countries” in an epoch of wars between those great powers to extend their oppression of nations. And in “The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” he wrote of the epoch as one of “political deception and financial robbery,” with the masses deceived by “social-chauvinists” who “repudiate the right of self-determination” with the argument of “defense of the fatherland,” justifying and defending the enslavement of the majority of the nations of the globe by the great powers.

The social chauvinists had completely abandoned the Marxist point of view, adopting the bourgeois ideology of “national defense,” “defense of civilization,” and the struggle of “democracy against totalitarianism.” The German social chauvinists, for example, justified the war as a progressive struggle against “Russian totalitarianism.” Against this hypocritical argument, Trotsky replied in 1915 that it was up to the Russian working class alone, not German guns, to settle accounts with czarism.

Lenin pointed out that Kautsky’s theory of “ultra-imperialism” was the basis for his conciliating to the social chauvinists and their petit bourgeois pacifism. Kautsky claimed that the clashes between imperialist states had been overcome thanks to the exploitation of the entire world by finance capital, united on an international scale. Kautsky separated the economic basis of imperialism from its “expansionist” policy, as if this could be “regulated” by “peace” conferences. In 1911, Rosa Luxemburg had polemicized against such views, according to which the war could be stopped through diplomatic means within the framework of capitalist society. Furthermore, she explained that the struggle against militarism could not be separated from the anti-imperialist struggle. Militarism, she argued, is closely linked to colonial policy, tariff policy, and international policy.

The independent position on the war held by the German Spartacists, Lenin, and Trotsky was based on the conception of imperialism as the highest phase of capitalism, which opened the way to interimperialist wars and to progressive national wars against imperialism. In the case of the former, the only progressive resolution was revolutionary mobilization against the governments of both sides, not submission to the “lesser evil” of one imperialist power or another. In the case of national wars, these could emerge as a continuation of mass movements or national liberation insurrections. Such wars could not be excluded from Europe, waged by small nations against the oppression of the great imperialist powers. In such cases, it was necessary to support the struggle for national emancipation, joining the military camp of the oppressed country while giving no political support to its government.

The struggle against the war necessarily included the struggle against the imperialist government itself, as well as against the workers’ and reformist bureaucracies that imposed “social peace” and a truce with respect to class struggle given the “emergency” situation. Against such positions, Trotsky pointed out that class struggle was at the center of revolutionary politics, whether in times of peace or times of war:

If in time of war it is necessary to reject the class struggle for the sake of national interests, it is also necessary to renounce “Marxism” in the epoch of a great economic crisis that endangers “the nation” no less than war. Back in April 1915, Rosa Luxemburg exhausted this question with the following words: “Either the class struggle is the imperative law of proletarian existence also during war … or the class struggle is a crime against national interests and the safety of the fatherland also in time of peace.”

National Self-Determination and Revolutionary Politics

Within the framework of this shared independent position, Lenin engaged in an important polemic with the Spartacists and with the Polish Marxist Left on the question of national self-determination and national wars in the imperialist epoch. In his critique of the Junius Pamphlet, which Luxemburg had written under a pseudonym in 1915, Lenin established the main axes of the debate. On the one hand, he questioned why the pamphlet did not openly criticize Kautskyism as an opportunist current.9This, from Lenin’s point of view, was the greatest weakness of the German left: the lack of a consolidated legal organization independent of Kautskyism. The other fundamental error he pointed to was a mistaken position on the question of self-determination. According to Lenin, “Junius” was correct in pointing out the imperialist character of the war when Luxemburg wrote, for example, that “behind Serbian nationalism there is Russian imperialism.” But, he said, the pamphlet hyperbolized this truth without concretely analyzing the different wars, and it thus established the erroneous idea that in the imperialist epoch there is no longer a place for national wars.10Luxemburg’s position against the slogan of the right of self-determination long predated the war. She considered that, given the integration of the Polish capitalist economy with the Russian one, the idea of Polish independence no longer made sense, that it was utopian and reactionary. Lenin polemicized several times with that position and systematized his arguments in 1914.

Lenin saw the defense of self-determination as necessary, as a way to fight not only Great Russian nationalism but also the influence of Polish nationalism on the working class of the oppressed country. His position stemmed from the struggle against Great Russian oppression of the so-called alien peoples who constituted 57 percent of the population (including 17 percent Ukrainians, 6 percent Poles, 4.5 percent White Russians, etc.). Insofar as the oppressed nationalities represented a significant part of the worker and peasant population, the Russian working class could not ally itself with the oppressed minorities without raising, along with the land question and the social demands of the working class, the unconditional right of the oppressed nationalities to self-determination, which included their right to separation.

For Luxemburg, raising self-determination was the opposite of class politics and could be favorable only to the bourgeoisie, fostering nationalism. In his reply, Lenin was categorical: to deny the right of self-determination was tantamount to defending the point of view of the oppressor state. He wrote,

If the proletariat of any one nation gives the slightest support to the privileges of its “own” national bourgeoisie, that will inevitably rouse distrust among the proletariat of another nation; it will weaken the international class solidarity of the workers and divide them, to the delight of the bourgeoisie. Repudiation of the right to self-determination or to secession inevitably means, in practice, support for the privileges of the dominant nation.

Defending self-determination was the only way to seek the voluntary fusion of the oppressor country’s proletariat with the proletariat of the oppressed country and, by that means, to combat the nationalism of its own bourgeoisie. It was a battle on two fronts.11Lenin alluded to this issue: “In this situation, the proletariat, of Russia is faced with a twofold or, rather, a two-sided task: to combat nationalism of every kind, above all, Great-Russian nationalism; to recognize, not only fully equal rights, for all nations in general, but also equality of rights as regards polity, i.e., the right of nations to self-determination, to secession. And at the same time, it is their task, in the interests of a successful struggle against all and every kind, of nationalism among all nations, to preserve the unity of the proletarian struggle and the proletarian organizations, amalgamating these organizations into a close-knit international association, despite bourgeois strivings for national exclusiveness.”

In turn, Lenin made it clear that defending the right to self-determination also takes aim at the false proclamations that the bourgeoisies of the oppressed countries use to manipulate nationalist sentiment in favor of their privileges or to guarantee their own national rights at the expense of other oppressed nations. He wrote,

On the plea that its demands are “practical,” the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations will call upon the proletariat to support its aspirations unconditionally. The most practical procedure is to say a plain “yes” in favor of the secession of a particular nation rather than in favor of all nations having the right to secede!

The proletariat is opposed to such practicality. While recognizing equality and equal rights to a national state, it values above all and places foremost the alliance of the proletarians of all nations, and assesses any national demand, any national separation, from the angle of the workers’ class struggle.

In the framework of a Europe marked by the dispute between different imperialist powers over the weaker nations, with each imperialist state seeking to subdue under its influence and connect with different sectors of the native bourgeoisies of the oppressed countries, Lenin reinforced the need for the political independence of the working class in the context of the struggle against national oppression. He wrote,

The bourgeoisie always places its national demands in the forefront, and does so in categorical fashion. With the proletariat, however, these demands are subordinated to the interests of the class struggle. …

The bourgeoisie is most of all interested in the “feasibility” of a given demand — hence the invariable policy of coming to terms with the bourgeoisie of other nations, to the detriment of the proletariat. For the proletariat, however, the important thing is to strengthen its class against the bourgeoisie and to educate the masses in the spirit of consistent democracy and socialism.

Finally, the defense of the right to self-determination did not mean for Lenin and the Bolsheviks that propaganda should always, every time and in every place, favor self-determination, or that the slogan was progressive in every circumstance. What guided politics toward the question of self-determination, from a socialist point of view, was not only the satisfaction of the national demand but also the search for unity between the working class of the oppressor country and the working class and oppressed of the subjugated nation. Therefore, it was not a question of defending self-determination in some abstract form, much less if it was directly opposed to that objective. Lenin saw the struggle for self-determination and national wars as progressive, as part of the struggle against imperialism. But if they turned into their opposite, the politics would change.

Lenin insisted, therefore, that it is necessary to analyze each concrete war to establish its character, because the imperialist powers also use the national movements of the “small nations” for their own ends. This could be seen quite acutely during World War I in the case of the Balkan nations, in Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.

For example, when the German army expelled Russia from Poland, czarism instrumentalized the slogan of “Polish independence” for its own imperialist ends. Lenin then argued that the abstract slogan of “independence for Poland” or “peace without annexations” in the hands of czarism was opposed to the interests of the class struggle. The key was to develop a revolutionary mobilization of the German working class against its own government, while in Russia revolutionaries defended the right of self-determination of all peoples oppressed by czarism, as explained here.

Ultimately, it was a question of maintaining an independent and socialist position in the face of the war, one centered on developing the class struggle against imperialism and the national bourgeoisies.

For a Massive, Independent Anti-War Movement

Reflecting on these debates in the Marxist movement regarding World War I allows us to reclaim principles and positions, based on a correct method — even if today’s situation is, obviously, not the same. The character of any given war can be defined only in its particular concrete historical situation.

The current war in Ukraine is not an interimperialist war, as was World War I, but neither is it a classic example of a war of national liberation against imperialism — like so many wars throughout the 20th century, such as the one in Vietnam or more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the current case involves the reactionary invasion by Russia, a military power, against a semicolonial country, Ukraine, and the consequences are horrific for millions of people, on one side there is a front formed by the Ukrainian government and all the imperialist powers of NATO.

In recent weeks, the idea of defending Ukraine’s sovereignty or its “self-determination” has been put forward by various actors on the world political stage. The imperialist powers have used it to justify a militaristic escalation unlike anything seen for decades. Putin has openly questioned Ukraine’s right of self-determination as put forth by the Bolsheviks, while claiming the defense of Russian-speaking Ukrainians to justify the invasion. As we pointed out above, part of the Left appeals to the idea of “self-determination” to justify its support for Zelenskyy, while sectors sympathetic to Putin deny it or use it at their discretion. Some foster reformist illusions about their own imperialisms, taking up the old Kautskyist arguments about the supposedly “benevolent” consequences of the interpenetration of capitals. Others nourish hopes in a new world multilateralism headed by the Russia-China axis, recycling “third worldist” tendencies of class conciliation. And there are those who deny any right to self-determination on the grounds that it would be an “undeclared interimperialist war,” thus facilitating the work of the ruling classes — whether pro-NATO or pro-Putin — to manipulate national oppression in favor of their business dealings with the contending powers.

More generally, many of these positions have something in common: skepticism that in the face of this war, and more broadly the crises and wars to which capitalism leads, an independent solution can be developed for the exploited and oppressed.

In the past weeks, there have been massive demonstrations against the war, like those in Germany. But the German trade unions and most of the organizations behind the demonstrations are committed to strengthening the sanctions against Russia, following the policy of the German imperialist state. That is why they do not decisively challenge the policy of military rearmament, even if they want to negotiate a greater share of “social spending” in the budgets. In other places, such as England and Italy, some demonstrations have raised more progressive slogans against the Russian invasion and also against NATO, with greater participation of youth. While the reformists aim to lead the movement behind pacifist illusions in diplomacy, these demonstrations show that the emergence of an anti-war movement with an independent position is possible.

In our case, the groups that compose the Trotskyist Fraction (FT) internationally are committed to developing a massive movement against the war with an independent policy, together with sectors of workers, women, and youth. That is why we have been promoting actions in several countries and calling for unity against the war on this basis. It is urgent that we promote a massive movement that combines the struggle against the reactionary Russian invasion with the struggle against imperialism itself. It is the path forward for having an important progressive impact on the oppressed masses of Ukraine and Russia.

From our point of view, an independent program against the Russian invasion and against NATO’s imperialist intervention includes the defense of the right of self-determination of the Donbas and eastern regions along with other democratic and social demands. It is about promoting unity among the working class and the oppressed of different regions of Ukraine. The struggle for the effective realization of the democratic and social demands cannot be separated from the struggle against the different sectors of the national oligarchies and imperialism, and in this sense it is linked to the struggle for a workers’ and socialist Ukraine.

First published in Spanish on March 19 in Contrapunto, the Sunday supplement of Izquierda Diario in the Spanish State.

Translation by Scott Cooper


Josefina is a historian from Madrid and an editor of our sister site in the Spanish State,