This is the second in our series of translations from the review Kommunist via the French version published by the Collectif d’édition smolny (www.collectif-smolny.org) as La Revue Kommunist: Les communist de gauche contre le capitalisme d’état (The review Kommunist: Left Communists against state capitalism). Our first translation was of Radek’s article on the situation of the October Revolution in Russian in March 1918 entitled Five Months On. (See leftcom.org). This second one is also by Radek from Kommunist No. 1.
In it he looks to the wider international situation in which the Russian Revolution had to survive. It demonstrates that Radek, born in a what was then Lemberg in a Poland divided between the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and German Empires, had acquired a dispassionate grasp of what was happening during the war. The article is also important in giving a picture of how the Russian revolutionaries saw the international balance of power in March 1918. Radek once again makes it clear that in the imperialist maelstrom of the First World War there was no guarantee that the Russian Revolution would survive unless the world (and specifically the German) revolution came to its aid.
There is a sense that the Russian Left Communists were still smarting over their defeat in the Brest-Litovsk debate. Radek alludes to Russia rebuilding its army to defend its territory but this was premature. At the time the main issue for Soviet power was the fight to consolidate the revolution on its own soil against the regrouping supporters of both the Tsar and other socialist parties which refused to support Soviet power. The “betrayal” of Brest-Litovsk became a rallying call for these forces to destroy the prospect of peace which Lenin had so earnestly sought in order to deal with the economic disaster the soviets had inherited from the Tsar and the Provisional Government. As a result the soviet experience was to live a hand to mouth existence for the next 3 years and this turned out to be a disaster for the very revolution which the Bolsheviks had tried to make. As usual in Radek’s writings there is always a prescient passage (see footnote 15). His prediction that the Peace of Brest-Litovsk will lead to
"… a new massacre on the Western Front which will probably end in the victory of Germany; and, even if not, it will not be able to conclude a compromise peace with England; it will be a violent peace that will prepare a new War"
came very close to the actual course of history over the next twenty years.
The Left Communists of 1918 were amongst the clearest about the way in which events were taking both the revolution in Russia and the world in general, but they were in no stronger a position to influence those events than anyone else. Therein lies the tragedy of the working class.
2 April 2017
The International Situation
The international situation is mainly characterised by extreme instability in all regions. The Central Powers emerged victorious from the war with Russia in a way that not even the most insolent fantasists of German imperialism could have imagined. The Central Powers have occupied Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Livonia1 , Estonia and Latvia, and have made the Ukraine their prey. At any rate, they will have to pay for this victory which has created a dispute between imperialist Germany and Russia, which, now crushed and bleeding to white, is a country with enormous resources. If the Soviet power regains its strength and heals its wounds, the whole peace agreement between it and Germany will be called into question, as the terms of the Brest-Litovsk treaty cannot be implemented without viciously attacking the interests of the Russian proletarian masses. If Soviet power is overthrown, any bourgeois government in Russia will want revenge, and the Peace of Brest-Litovsk will inevitably push it into the hands of the Allies. One day history will say of the peace of Brest-Litovsk what Marx said of the German victory in 1871:
"History will measure its retribution, not by the extent of the square miles conquered from France, but by the intensity of the crime of reviving, in the second half of the 19th century, the policy of conquest!" 2
Even the German imperialists foresaw the danger created by the Peace of Brest-Litovsk. The German ruling circles dread that even if in the course of this war the Allies cannot keep Russia on their side, if the war does not end with a complete victory for Germany; then during the general peace negotiations, the Allies will try to snatch part of the Russian prey from the hands of German imperialism in order to make it an ally and not allow Germany to entirely dominate the Baltic Sea. The clear proof of this German fear is the government's insolent and infantile telegram in reply to the telegram of the American Ambassador, Sir Francis.3
The Peace of Brest-Litovsk, involuntarily, awakens in Germany the memory of the Peace of San Stefano of which the German historian Johannes Haller4 said in his book Bismarck’s Friedensschlüsse ("How Bismarck concluded peace")5 : "A glaring example of overestimation of a victory and excessive demands based on the latter, is the peace of San Stefano, concluded in 18686 between Turkey and Russia. If, at the time, Count Ignatiev7 or Prince Gortchakov8 (we do not know who was to blame) had not exaggerated the demands imposed on Turkey so much, England and Austria-Hungary would not have been obliged to intervene; Russia would have avoided the humiliation of the Congress of Berlin9 where she appeared as the accused and had to let its European judges dictate that they recognised only half of the prey Russia already held in his hands."10
The policy of Germany at Brest-Litovsk was dictated by a so-called orientation towards the West whose apostle was always Mr. Kühlmann11 and which consisted in seeking a compromise with England to the detriment of Russia. This policy of Kühlmann has triumphed thanks to the German super-imperialists who aspired to defeat England and Russia by deriving the necessary resources from the one to beat the other. The military party led by the first quartermaster General Ludendorff12 , whose literary spokesman is Reventlow13 , while leaving it to Kühlmann, returned to the front against England and France, after eliminating the conditions for a compromise with the Allies. England cannot consent to the creation of a European empire from Hamburg to Baghdad and Vladivostok, because such an empire – which would impose its conditions throughout the European continent – would threaten England’s world domination. The conditions of peace with France are based on concessions over the question of Alsace-Lorraine. The victorious military party cannot and will not make such concessions, as Count Czernin14 openly said a few days ago. With victory over Russia strengthening the military party it will consider the right of self-determination of Belgium in the same way it did for the border areas of Russia. The Peace of Brest-Litovsk which, according to German diplomacy, should have paved the way for a compromise with the Allies, will lead to a new battle against them, to a new massacre on the Western Front which will probably end in the victory of Germany; and, even if not, it will not be able to conclude a compromise peace with England; it will be a violent peace that will prepare a new War.15
From the outset, the foreign policy of German imperialism had a problem to solve: how to get out of its state of isolation? How to break the iron curtain put in place by the other capitalist nations in order to prevent German expansion? German diplomacy could not conclude an alliance with Russia, or with England. That is why German imperialism is still under crossfire in this war and drags behind it the historical corpses: Turkey and Austria. Despite all its victories, its isolation has simply persisted; having failed to compromise with England, it has dug an abyss between itself and Russia. Of course, if the German proletariat triumphs and Soviet power holds on, if the social revolution begins immediately in the West, German and Russian imperialism would be overthrown and German imperialists, who would have lost their heads, would not have to worry about how to get out of this isolation. But German diplomacy, which certainly does not currently intend to prepare for a European revolution, doesn’t see that the clearest result of the war is its complete isolation; it sees only one problem, that of Alsace-Lorraine, in place of ten others of the same type. They are not only "Future Alsaces”, but there are several peripheral regions, currently under the iron boot of German occupation, where a ferocious class war is going on; and in every striker, in every rebellious peasant, the German ruling class recognises the hydra of the Russian revolution. "The victories, which were once decisive (the conquests of the States themselves) don’t take us any closer to peace at all," General von Freytag-Loringhoven says, in a melancholy way, in his recent book The Consequences of War.16
The uncertainty of the political situation in Germany, despite all its great victories, does not make it possible to define precisely the direction of its policy in the immediate future. Just remember that after the cessation of the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, after our declaration "Neither peace nor war",17 not only did England say she did not want war, but, according to the German press, Germany diplomacy itself was undecided for some time about whether to launch its new offensive. The situation in Austria suggests the most unpredictable meanderings in the policy of the Central Powers. One of its diplomats, Kurt Riezler18 , in his book published on the eve of the war, noted that Germany, like all young nations, overestimated its military power. Before the war the wing of German diplomacy to which Riezler belonged tried to take the path of "international politics without war" (it was the title of an anonymous programmatic pamphlet published by the confidant of Prince Lichnowsky19 , Doctor Plehn20 ). From the middle of the fourth year of war, especially after the victory over Russia, German diplomacy has led Germany to an endless world war, without clear international policy aims capable of ensuring the future development of German imperialism.
And what is the situation in the opposing camp? Russian imperialism entered the war with one goal: to occupy the Dardanelles, although it would not have been enough to free Russia from the clutches of the Allies, the Mediterranean being a closed sea. In short, not only have the Dardanelles remained in the hands of Germany and Turkey, but Russia lost Riga and Reval21 : there is the threat of losing access to the Pacific Ocean; Not only has Russian imperialism been crushed, but also Russia’s entire military power. Russia as an international power exists only in potentia for the future. England is committed to the international confrontation to avoid the crushing of Russia and France and to prevent German imperialism’s domination of the continent. Result: Russia has been crushed, France has been bled white and is condemned to live like a disabled person for decades, unless it is saved by the international revolution which will prevent such problems. Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania have become the vassals of German imperialism. European union, which has only existed so far in the dreams of German imperialists22 , is almost a reality and will be directed mainly against England.
England was afraid that the German victories would create a powerful competitor so at every turn wherever their imperialist paths crossed, old Great Britain, queen of the seas, the queen of the world, opposed it. According to the lofty formula of The New York Times, following the consequences of the war, "The United States is the factory, the storehouse and the stock exchange of the Allies." It's the dollar which is the universal currency and not the pound sterling; and promissory notes are denominated by New York and not by London. The United States is creating a powerful fleet and a land army at dizzying speed. Now, after Russia has left the ranks of the belligerents, the outcome of the war depends on them. The decisive influence of American capital for the outcome of the war depends more and more on the debts contracted by the Allies with America. Japan, which before the War was financially dependent on England and was the instrument of its policy, quickly transformed itself during the war into a militarist state, with great economic and political strength; it is therefore a danger already mentioned by the clairvoyant spokesman of Anglo-Saxon imperialism, Homer Lea23 , when he said that from the American point of view, England’s time was up. Perhaps this danger can be avoided, leaving China to be torn apart by Japan, whilst its attacks on Australia, India and the archipelagos of the Pacific Ocean can be contained. However, England’s first military objective is the liquidation of the global competition that threatens it on the German side, but this objective is unobtainable. It was already utopian at the beginning of the war when England was threatened by German, Japanese and American imperialism. It remains utopian today.
Having failed to solve any of the problems that led to the war, the Allies continue to throw millions of people into the massacre and spend billions. They still have enough strength to carry on the war, but not to win it. Nevertheless, they cannot stop it. How, in fact, can they return empty-handed, and say to millions of families who have lost their fathers, sons and brothers: "We left to crush German imperialism and we have given them half of Europe; with hundreds of thousands dead we bring you the need to raise a new army!" The fear of saying this to the masses forces the Allies to drag the War on to infinity.
In the first year of war, they consoled the masses of France, Italy and England by telling them that the German Hydra was going to be slaughtered at the powerful hand of Russia.
Afterwards, they told them that the German beast would be crushed by the English bulldog; now they are promoting American aid and pinning all their hopes on an army that has yet to be trained and whose transport to Europe is one of the most difficult military tasks for a capitalist state.
After the plunderers’ peace of Brest-Litovsk the Allies initially hoped to drag Russia, which had to create a new army, onto their side. After that they stopped screaming about the betrayal of Russia and shed crocodile tears for its suffering and even offered verbal support. But the Allies are no longer masters of the situation, not even in their own camp. Despite the oaths of loyalty to the alliance, each of them conducts its policy at its own peril by trying to confront others with a fait accompli. While England and France blame Soviet Russia, the US tries to establish relations with it. And when England decides to follow America, France –– which fears for its billions invested in Russia –– abandons Russia to the looting of the Japanese hyena to insure French loans. Thus, at a time when Russia is organising its army to defend itself against the offensive of German imperialism, Japan plunges a dagger in its back and we do not really know if it is acting to satisfy its own appetites or those of France or even Germany. This last option, which cannot be excluded, is based on the existence of powerful cliques in both Germany and Japan who support the alliance between these two young imperialist powers. After the rupture of Brest-Litovsk and German looting of Russia, the English representative pathetically declared to Soviet Russia: gentlemen, what you have done at Brest-Litovsk delivered several blows to us; English workers thought that they were defending the Russian revolution in Flanders’ fields. The Japanese "ally" hastened to destroy this illusion of those honest English workers.
The political and military labours of both the Central Powers and the Entente are like the torture of Sisyphus. He was condemned to roll a rock uphill which constantly fell back before he got to the top. It is possible that the war will end in general exhaustion. Perhaps there will be a victor, but then, as the Italian historian Guglielmo Ferrero rightly and strongly argues, the victor will die on top of the corpse of the vanquished. And while the imperialists of all countries spend their time cutting or untying the Gordian knot, the social crisis will increase every day with the crisis of the imperialist epoch precipitated by the immense concentration of industry during the war, its militarisation, the elimination of the middle strata of society, the burden of death and other incredible evils following the imperialist disaster. At the beginning of the war, when opposition to the betrayal of the socialist parties and their capitulation to the bourgeoisie arose from the most advanced fractions of the proletariat, one of the German bourgeois publicists remembered an ancient legend. According to this, when the Goths had crossed the Danube to attack the Roman Empire, on the other side of the river, on the site of their extinguished fires, the gods had gathered to weep.
This is your opposition, said this publicist, you mourn the devastated temples of Socialist ideals, but the Goths have already crossed the Danube. After the mass strike of the German and Austrian proletarians, no one can deny that the proletariat of the Central Powers, particularly in Germany, has returned to the old demon of the class struggle. The bloody repression which rages in Germany, the victory of the war party not only does not refute it, but confirms it. For now, the German and Austrian revolutions have shrunk in the face of counter-revolutionary forces. "You have created a situation in which the Chancellor is the target and we will have to use weapons to support him", a notorious counter-revolutionary, a leader of the Prussian Junkers24 said, after the strike had been suppressed. Austria is currently in a state of turmoil. To the proletarian social struggle against the oppressors, which has already had some success, we can add the movement of the poor peasants of Galicia and Hungary, as well as the extremely hard-fought struggle within the bourgeoisie for national domination and power.
And what is the situation among the Allies? We have less information on the internal situation in England and France than on the Central Powers. Not long ago, Lloyd George was forced to publicly recognise that women strongly desire peace.25 According to French officers, we know that in the ranks of the English army which fought on the French front, disturbances appeared that worried the French government. On the other side, the greatest concern in English governing circles is the situation in France. In addition, in December, well-informed sources tell us that France is getting ready for an imminent revolution. The massive number of arrests there prove that even the old tiger Clemenceau feels the earth wobbling under his feet. Recently, on the question of Japan's policy, English diplomats expressed the fear that France would push Russia into conflict with the Allies in order to have the chance to demand an end to the war. The Clemenceau Government will not commit suicide by emerging from the war without obtaining concessions from Germany over the problem of Alsace-Lorraine. However, the first wave of a powerful strike movement could bring the Caillaux faction to power, representing the party of financial capital and which, before the war, called for agreement with Germany. The mass arrests of the leaders of the Italian Socialist Party and the condemnation of Lazzari26 , the beloved and esteemed leader of the Italian proletariat, prove the absurdity of the idea that Italian military failures have diminished class contradictions in Italy. Yes, the proletarian struggle in Europe is growing, not as fast as we would like, but the undermining of the foundations for imperialist war (the obedience of the masses to the directives of capital) increases day by day, and every day can bring unexpected surprises.
In this short text we have outlined the international situation and its deep instability. Now, by basing ourselves on the foundations of proletarian communism, we have only to map out the political line in the light of the workers' and peasants' revolution, in these difficult transitional times.
Viator [Karl Radek]
20 April 1918
- 1A former Baltic province to the north of Latvia and south east of Estonia.
- 2Highlighted in the original. From Karl Marx “Second Address of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association on the Franco-Prussian War” marxists.org
- 3This is an editing error and refers to the British Ambassador to France since 1905, Sir Francis Bertie (1844-1919).
- 4Johannes Haller (1865-1947): German historian, Professor at the University of Tübingen from 1913 until his retirement in 1932. Defender of the imperial idea he welcomed Nazism and its expansionist policy, especially in Poland. His masterpiece is Die Epochen der Deutschen Geschichte (1923) which had a number of re-editions until 1940.
- 5Johannes Haller Bismarck’s Friedensschlüsse (Bruckmann, Munich 1916). It goes without saying that Haller was a great admirer of Bismarck.
- 6Another editing error. The Treaty of San Stefano which put an end to the Russo-Turkish War (1877-8) was signed on 3 March 1878.
- 7Count Nikolai Pavlovitch Ignatiev (1832-1908), Russian statesman and diplomat, Ambassador to Constantinople (1864-77) he contributes to the policy which ended in the Russo-Turkish War and the creation of a “Big Bulgaria”. The Tsar finding the gains from the Treaty of San Stefano too meagre he was disgraced. He became the short-term and reactionary Minister of the Interior under the new Tsar Alexander III (1881-2).
- 8Prince Alexander Mikhailovitch Gortchakov (1798-1883). Russian politician and diplomat, Chancellor of the Empire under Alexander II, he quit all his positions in 1882 after the Tsar’s assassination.
- 9The Congress of Berlin was held between 13 June and 13 July 1878. The product of Austrian and British (led by Disraeli) aims to undo the Treaty of San Stefano, trimming Russia’s gains and removing it from Bulgaria.
- 10Johannes Haller “Einleitung” Bismarck’s Friedensschlüsse(Bruckmann, Munich 1916) p. 9
- 11Richard von Kühlmann (1873-1948): Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs he was part of the German delegation at Brest-Litovsk from 21 December 1917.
- 12Erich Ludendorff (1865-1937): German officer and politician, he was at the side of Paul von Hindenburg in charge of the German Amry from August 1916 to October 1918. Later prominently supported Hitler’s failed “Beer Hall Putsch” of November 1923 for which he was acquitted.
- 13Count Ernst zu Reventlow (1869-1943): German naval officer and journalist.
- 14Count Ottokar von Czernin (1872-1932): Austrian politician and diplomat. Foreign Minister from 1916 on.
- 15Radek (and the rest of the editorial board) here outlines with great lucidity the approximate path that history took: the German spring offensive (Operation Michael), the final defeat of Germany and the fall of the imperial regime, the Treaty of Versailles and the preparation of the conditions that would lead to the Second World War.
- 16The quote is from Hugo von Freytag-Loringhoven’s Folgerungen aus dem Weltkriege (Berlin 1917). Hugo von Freytag-Loringhoven (1855-1924) was a Prussian general and military writer who became the chief delegate of the German General Staff during the First World War (1916-18).
- 17On 10 February (28 January old style) 1918 Trotsky broke off negotiations with Germany and Austria-Hungary at Brest-Litovsk declaring that Russia would not sign the peace but pursue a policy of “neither war nor peace”.
- 18Kurt Riezler (1882-1955): German philosopher and diplomat, confidante of German Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg. He became his private secretary in 1914 and his adviser on Russian affairs. It was he who made contact with Alexander Helphand (Parvus) in order to favour a revolutionary rising in Russia. He was later sent with diplomatic missions to Stockholm (1917) and Moscow, following the murder of Count von Mirbach there in 1918. The quote that follows is from his Die Erfordlichkeit des Unmöglichen: Prolegomena zu einer Theorie der Politik und zu anderen theorien (Munich 1913).
- 19Prince Karl Max von Lichnowsky (1860-1928): German diplomat and Ambassador to Britain. He left London on 4 August 1914 when the war he had tried to prevent broke out. He always maintained that the war would be a disaster for German interests and blamed his own government for the start of the war in his book Meine Londoner Mission 1912-14 (Zürich 1918).
- 20Hans Plehn: German journalist. He was the author of the pamphlet referred to here (Deutsche Weltpolitik und kein Krieg!) which he wrote with the aid of Richard von Kühlmann (see Note 11 above).
- 21Today called Tallinn (capital of Estonia)
- 22The dominance of Mitteleuropa was one of the war aims of the German Empire. The idea that Germany needed a zone for expansion in Central and South east Europe went back to the political and economic theories of Friedrich List (1789-1846).
- 23Homer Lea (1876-1912): American author and adventurer who supported Sun Yat Sen in China. In his works, The Valor of Ignorance (1909) and The Day of the Saxon (1912) he foresaw the clash of the US and Japan in the Far East as well as the inevitable struggle for hegemony between the US and Britain.
- 24Prussian landowning class (medieval term derived from “jung Herr” or “young lord”)
- 25In the Representation of the People Act (January 1918) votes for women (over 30) was passed for the first time and the franchise was extended to more working class men over 21.
- 26Constantino Lazzari (1857-1927): artisan and one of the founders of the Italian Socialist Party. He was on its maximalist wing (which also included Mussolini until 1914). He followed the PSI’s pacifist position of “neither support nor sabotage” in the First World War but when the Communist Party of Italy was formed in 1921 he advocated working with it for which he was expelled from the PSI in 1922 dying in poverty five years later.