In this 1950 article from the “Thread of Time” series Amadeo Bordiga examines the question of war and revolution in Marxist theory—characteristically emphasizing the epochal shift entailed by the Franco-Prussian War—and the role played by the ideological legacy of the French Revolution in the defeat of the Paris Commune and in the mobilization for and justification of participation in World Wars One and Two, which “were not revolutionary wars, but massacres of the slaves of Capital”.
War and Revolution – Amadeo Bordiga
All the renegades who have abandoned the terrain of the class and of the social war, in order to take up positions on the terrain of the war between the armies of the States and nations, seek their historical orientation in the traditions of the France of 1792-93. In a very important passage that Lenin would recall in 1915, Marx had already warned the Parisian proletariat against precisely those same traditions:
“… the ‘national ideology’ (the traditions of 1792), with which a section of the Parisian workers were imbued, was their petty-bourgeois weakness, which Marx noted at the time, and was one of the causes of the fall of the Commune.”1
And now we, too, repeat this along with Lenin. Repetita iuvant. When Mussolini definitively abandoned the class party and Marxism,2 he featured the following quotations as epigraphs on the front page of his newspaper, Il Popolo d’Italia:
“A revolution is an idea which has found its bayonets.” – Napoleon;
“He who has iron, has bread.” – Blanqui;
and then poured forth his propaganda in favor of the war that was democratic, national, socialist and revolutionary at the same time, as well as a war for liberation, that is, the whole rubbish heap in the name of which its worthy disciples ended up hanging him upside down.
The schema of the bourgeoisie is the following: idea – armed force – class interest. The schema of the naïve revolutionary proletarian is: proletarian idea – proletarian armed force – proletarian class interest.
The Marxist dialectical schema, on the other hand, is: real interest of the proletarian class – proletarian class struggle and two parallel derivations: organization into a class party and revolutionary theory; conquest and armed exercise of proletarian power.
In the gossip of literary circles, the traditional processes of the bourgeois revolution constitute models for the workers revolution. In the scientific position of Marxism, the link between the two revolutions is expressed in a different way: the victory of the bourgeoisie in its revolutions was necessary in order to liberate the productive forces and allow the full unfolding of capitalism, which constitutes the precondition for the generalization of the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and therefore for the socialist revolution. In relation to the latter, the bourgeois revolution was the premise, not the model.
The development of historical situations replaces poetic evocations and the clownish confusions between patriotic ardor and revolutionary force, whose Saturnalia we beheld during the Second World War in the resistance movements of the Partisans. We might see even worse things in a Third World War, carried out by always new groups of disciples of “Mussolinism”, as we correctly call it.
The succession of wars between France and the European alliances that concluded with the restoration of the absolute monarchy represented a fundamental stage for the spread of capitalism in Europe (which was not actually impeded by the victory of the feudal armies, the allies of arch-capitalist England). Throughout this entire historical period, the bourgeois revolutionaries not only engaged in a politics of patriotism and extreme nationalism, but dragged the incipient proletariat along with it. Both were driven to support this kind of politics, as well as the ideologies that correspond with it, due to the social necessity of abolishing the remaining feudal bonds. This does not mean, however, that the military clash of States and armies replaces the civil war between the classes that dispute with each other for power. The determinant fact in social development is still the class struggle, which breaks out in every country, one after another; without this we would be unable to explain the development of the wars themselves, with the generalization of modern militarism and its new mass character. The Jacobins themselves, despite the new “Battle of Thermopylae” that was waged on the frontiers of France (and whose Leonidas, Dumoriez, would soon betray the cause and end his life as a traitor), never let their main focus of attention stray from the internal struggle.
The alliances were formed when the monarchy still held power under a constitutional form, and the extremist revolutionaries accused the royalists, and then the moderate republicans, of having provoked the wars: “Before declaring war on the foreigners, we will destroy our internal enemies … we will make freedom triumphant at home, and no enemy will dare to attack us. It will be with philosophical progress and the spectacle of the prosperity of France that we will extend the empire of our revolution, not with the force of arms and the calamity of war.” The dialectical reality proved to be very different from the romantic clichés and the bizarre fairy tales that were so popular. On August 10, 1792, the moderates dominated the National Legislative Assembly, while the Jacobins controlled the General Council of the Commune. The war appeared to be over, but the treason of the royalist general, LaFayette, caused the fall of Longwy, then of Verdun, and then the news reached Paris that the Prussians from Brunswick were on the march and were headed towards the capital. The Commune sounded the alarm, the people assembled and demanded arms. Danton entered the Assembly and imposed measures for military defense. The sans-culottes, however, had something more urgent to take care of than going to the front: before marching with their “epic columns” towards Chalons, they raided the prisons and executed justice on the counterrevolutionary culprits whom the government had been slow to punish.
It was not “our” revolution and we do not ask for any models, but we should learn a lesson from it. As Marxism has made clear, the revolution comes more from the machine than from the guillotine. For its own actors and for its most resolute ideologues, however, the revolution came more from the guillotine than from the cannon. The decisive battle was won on the internal front, not at Valmy or Jemmapes.
We know that Marxism has considered the wars of the period of 1792-1871 as wars of development. To simplify, they can be called wars of progress, but without succumbing to the trap of “‘defensive’ wars”. Actually, Lenin was entirely correct to point out that they can also be “aggressive wars”, and that in the hypothetical case of wars between feudal States and bourgeois States, Marxists can “justify” the action of the most advanced State, “irrespective of who attacked first”. His argument was directly polemical and was aimed at the French and German socialists who were, on both sides, in favor of supporting the war under the base pretext of “defense”. This means that if, at any given historical conjuncture, a war is revolutionary, it must be supported even when it is not defensive. In essence, when it exists, revolutionary war is typically a war of attack, of aggression. This dialectical argument destroys the vile hypocrisy of all the campaigns that mobilize the masses for war by claiming they did not prepare for it and they do not want war, but that they are forced to repel the war that was prepared and desired by the enemy.
Thus, it is not by virtue of the moralist criterion of defense, which is diametrically opposed to its own perspective, that Marxism judges the wars that took place between the classic dates of 1792 and 1871, but rather by examining them from the point of view of their effect on the general course of development. On many occasions the Marxist critique considered certain military initiatives of an offensive nature to be useful and progressive with regard to the general course of development, such as, for example, Napoleon’s initiative in 1859 and that of Prussia in 1866. It is therefore not a matter of saying that up until 1871 the Marxist party was in favor of the “defense of the fatherland” or the “defense of liberty”, but something else entirely.
After the victory of the counterrevolution in 1848, Marx and Engels, as we have so often pointed out, were not just disappointed that the proletariat was not victorious; they were also concerned with the fact that a historical obstacle still existed that stood in the way of the full imposition of bourgeois power throughout Europe. Unfortunately, despite the fact that the goals of the bourgeoisie were not their goals, it was quite clear that the workers and the socialists still had to support the bourgeoisie and shed their blood for them. But between that recognition and the acceptance, if even only in the form of propaganda, of the principles and the concepts of the nation, the fatherland and democracy which are by their very nature the principles and concepts of the bourgeoisie (as our contemporary ex-Marxists do so shamelessly), there is a very great distance. If the historical demonstration that we have engaged in were to lead to such a conclusion, then all politics of class struggle and of the very function of the proletariat would collapse. It is one thing to say that for the complete establishment of the capitalist system of production a struggle still had to be waged under the banners of patriotic and nationalist ideologies, and that the proletarians had an interest in the victory of these struggles; it is something else entirely, however, for them to embrace as their own these same patriotic and nationalist demands. From 1848 to 1871, Marx and Engels followed the straight road without the least deviation. Today, when that historical situation is not repeated and belongs to a distant past, we behold a double betrayal; the lie that falsifies the situation by maintaining that the basic conditions for the class struggle are lacking and that it is still necessary to satisfy the prerequisites of national liberation, and the infamy that consists in conducting these campaigns not as transient historical demands, but openly supporting the general anti-classist ideas of the national interest and patriotic duty, at all times and historical stages.
After 1848, for example, Engels was furious because the German bourgeoisie was so cowardly and backward that it was incapable of liquidating the vestiges of feudalism; he would continue to engage in a patient and detailed analysis of the thrashings that history would dish out to the German bourgeoisie in the episodes of 1859, 1866, 1870…. After 1850, however, he also mercilessly criticized the ideology and the politics of the democratic refugees grouped around Mazzini, Ledru-Rollin and their ilk, and tore to pieces a text by the “European Democratic Central Committee”. These movements were cut from the same cloth as the recent blocs of anti-Franco and anti-fascist émigrés, and the propaganda that has poisoned us throughout the war of 1939-45. Here is what Engels said:
“So: progress — association — moral law — freedom — equality — brotherhood — association — family, community, state — sanctity of property — credit — education — God and the people — Dio e popolo.… Summarized, this gospel teaches a social order in which God forms the apex and the people — or, as is said later, humanity — the base. That is, they believe in society as it exists, in which, as is well known, God is at the apex and the mob at the base.”3
The irony is glaring and the quotation does not have to be any longer. Exactly one century has passed since those words were written. But from what other plates could the Cominformist propaganda feed?
In his 1870 Preface to The Peasant War, Engels defended all his invectives and insults against the deaf German bourgeoisie, and its dialectical satisfactions over Solferino, Sadowa, Sedan. Someone who did not know better would take it for a precursor of the Anschluss:
“… the Austro-Germans will now be compelled to ask themselves what they wish to be, Germans or Austrians; whom they wish to adhere to, to Germany or her extraordinary transleithanian appendages.”4
What a racist that Engels was! What raw material for the legend of the Pan-Germanic duo, Marx-Engels, a pendant to the Pan-Slavic duo, Lenin-Trotsky!
Marxist critical analysis does not allow itself to be deceived by the spurious semi-bourgeois form of the state regime established in Berlin after the founding of the Empire. By virtue of the very fact that not all the feudal institutions have disappeared, this type of State might seem to be an imperfect class dictatorship, similar in this respect to the parliamentary bourgeois republics of that same period. On the pretext that these bastard forms of government are not merely administrative committees of the industrial class, reactionary speculation has attempted to ensure that they receive the support of confused corporatist workers movements. With his admirable historical vision, Engels defined the regime of the Hohenzollern Empire, after the victory of 1870, as Bonapartist. In his 1874 Preface, he claims to have already provided this definition in his 1872 essay, “The Housing Question”. Just like the first and second Napoleonic dynasties, such a regime seems to have a bureaucratic and military network that is more powerful than the classes. As Engels explains, however, it is itself based on the impetuous course of development of capitalism. And Engels revealed the social structure of the Germany of 1874: resolute industrial development; the birth of a numerous and class-conscious proletariat; the transfer from Second Empire France of not only billions in war indemnities, but also the “… surest sign of industrial prosperity — speculation — has blossomed richly, princes and dukes being chained to its triumphal chariot”.5
All those who are looking for the key to contemporary bourgeois forms could learn a lot from this analysis. Please note, however, that Engels is not proposing a campaign for a fully democratic form of government against German Bonapartism on the pretext that the latter is a retrograde bourgeois form! Bonapartism was the road by which Prussia would leave the feudal era, and escape from its “semi-feudal” condition. The formulas employed by Engels are always crystal clear:
“… Bonapartism is, at all events, a modern form of state which presupposes the abolition of feudalism.”6
Jokingly, Engels predicted that this arduous process of bourgeoisification of German power would last until about 1900, but with each step forward in this process he expected that the proletarian forces would quickly crush the nobles, junkers, landowners and industrial bourgeoisie as a bloc.
In 1914, German economic development had become one of the most important facts on the world scene. His data led Lenin to designate it as a typical imperialism. And it was at this point that the clownish international “Mussolinism”, that is, social-patriotism, was able to convince the people in every major country (except Italy) that the war against the Kaiser was the revolutionary war par excellence, on the pretext that the German Empire sought, not to dispute over imperialist markets for its ultra-modern industrial apparatus, but to restore the feudal epoch! War, then, to defend the permanently threatened bourgeois-democratic revolution, a war that must be fought over and over again forever!
The powerful demolition of opportunism effected by Lenin and the Third International was therefore based on political positions and Marxist orientations that declared that the stage of struggles between feudalism and capitalism was now over. This demolition is also applicable in its entirety to an evaluation of the second imperialist war that broke out in 1939.
Just as one may deduce from the text by Engels that after the situation that was established at the end of the past century, the next war could no longer be a war for the liquidation of feudalism, one may also deduce from the text by Lenin from 1915 that the second imperialist war, and all the others, just like the war of 1914, could no longer be defined as wars of defense and for national liberation, regardless of which side of the front lines these pretenses are voiced.
Lenin expressed it explicitly: our task will only be correctly fulfilled with the transformation of “the imperialist war into a civil war…. It is impossible to foretell whether a powerful revolutionary movement will flare up during the first or the second war of the great powers, whether during or after it; in any case, our bounden duty is systematically and undeviatingly to work precisely in this direction.”7
On both sides of the front, everyone who supported the policy of defensive war, national war and democratic war, during the war of 1914, imposing silence on the class struggle in the name of these bourgeois goals, betrayed the line laid down by Marx and Engels. Likewise, in the war of 1939, all those who, in all the bourgeois countries, in Germany, France, England, America, and Italy, supported the war of their governments, collaborating with them militarily and politically, betrayed, for the exact same reason, the line laid down by Lenin, the only revolutionary proletarian line.
For, just as in 1914 they claimed to discern the rebirth of feudalism in the Kaiserism of the Germany of that time which had just become one of the leading industrial States, so, too, in 1939, the exact same thing was repeated with respect to Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Then, too, it was also maintained that the result of the war in the case of a German victory and a defeat of the democratic countries, France, England and America, would have caused history to turn back the clock one hundred years and therefore the liberal revolution would once again be necessary, that is, the bourgeois revolution. And just as in 1914, the politics of all-inclusive coalitions and the sacred union with the bourgeois opposition governments opposed to the governments of Berlin and Rome was invoked and practiced, thus giving a new lease on life to these practically defunct oppositions that no longer deserved anything but burial; the class struggle and the civil war were renounced.
The war was interpreted by the new social traitors as a “revolutionary” war in the sense of the bourgeois revolution. The question has another aspect, which this “Thread of Time” will not address: that of the “proletarian revolutionary war”, or what was called “revolutionary national defense” which was on the agenda after the conquest of power by the workers. Lenin also fought hard against the deceits and false positions of this thesis and had to give the Kamenevs and the Zinovievs a dressing down, and then the Bukharins and Stalin above all. Here, however, we shall only take into account the justifications offered for the war in the name of an alleged anti-feudal and bourgeois “revolution”. It cannot be denied that there was a veritable orgy of such justifications in the propaganda against the Axis, thus following the dictates of the English and American radio broadcasts.
If the propaganda against the Axis was based on class motives, then we would not have had to pass through the stage of the Berlin-Moscow alliance for the division of Poland, nor would there have been so much servile support, which still prevails, for the exaltation of “national liberation”. In Italy, for example, there would not have been any apologetics for the “Second Risorgimento” and the “liberal revolution”, which was identified with the return to power of an assortment of imbeciles, impotent anti-fascists, inveterate anti-proletarians, and old Mussolinists of the most typical and repugnant kind who date from the first orgy of war that took place to the rhythm of bourgeois democracy, nostalgic for the far-off victory of the First World War (which, as always, was due to foreign armies, since the noblest national enterprise was called Caporetto).8
The bourgeois revolution was a serious event in history and made its mark on great wars. The last two wars in Europe were not revolutionary wars, but massacres of the slaves of Capital.
Originally published under the title, “Sul filo del tempo: Guerra e rivoluzione”, in Battaglia Comunista, No. 10, 1950.
Spanish translation: “Siguiendo el hilo del tiempo: Guerra y revolución”, El Programa Comunista, No. 31, June-September 1979, pp. 63-69.
Translated into English from the Spanish translation in October-November 2014.
- 1 “Socialism and War”.
- 2 At the end of October 1914, Mussolini, at that time the editor of L’Avanti!, was expelled from the Italian Socialist Party for having advocated a position of “active neutrality” towards the war, a position that was the prelude to his support for the war on the side of the Allies that he would defend in Il Popolo d’Italia.
- 3 Neue Rheinische Revue – Politische-ökonomische Revue, No. 5-6, May-October 1850.
- 4 1870 Preface to The Peasant War; the “transleithanian appendages” refers to Hungary (the Leitha River is the tributary of the Danube that constitutes the border between Austria and Hungary).
- 5 1870 Preface to The Peasant War.
- 6 1874 Preface to The Peasant War.
- 7 “Socialism and War”, op. cit.
- 8 The site of the military disaster suffered by the Italian army against the Austrians in October 1917.