Anton Pannekoek

The War and Its Effects

Written: October 14, 1914.
Translation: Alfred D. Schoch.
Published: International Socialist Review, vol. 15, no. 6. December 1914.
Transcription/Markup: Micah Muer, 2017.

The war has already lasted two months and it is still undecided. What it has brought is a frightful destruction of human life and human happiness, not only for the soldiers, but also for the civil population; not only of property and food supplies, but also of architectural monuments and works of art impossible to replace. Belgium had been for many centuries the battlefield of Europe, but in spite of that fact the old cities, the wonderful churches, the treasures of art left by the Middle Ages, were still preserved when the first flourishing and powerful profit-making class arose there, for the armies were small and their means of destruction were limited. That cities and villages have now been laid in ashes, that hundreds of thousands of peaceable city folks and peasants, robbed of all they possessed, have fled in terror as before the Huns, is not due to any special German barbarity (in East Prussia the Russians were still worse), but is an effect of the awful development of modern war machinery, not only in the lifeless material of war, but also in the living. A modern imperialistic war requires and at the same time arouses deep feelings of hatred for the enemy and of national consciousness among people of their own country, but by the laws of war only soldiers in uniform are allowed to fight, and when these feelings are translated into hostile acts without the uniform, they are punished without mercy as crimes. This is the explanation of the atrocities which this war is bringing forth on a more gigantic scale than previous wars; everything has become more colossal, the armies, the cannons and, at the same time, the terrors of war. Many hundreds of thousands already have fallen. But the end is not yet in sight.

At first the German army rolled in August like an enormous war machine across Belgium into France and crushed everything with its irresistible impact. The most modern forts were unable to stop it, but were reduced to ruins in a few days by new monster mortars. The comparison with a machine is, indeed, a fitting one; the Germans carried on the war like a great industrial operation; all the war material of the highest efficiency, everything completely arranged for in advance, and — what also gives German industry its strength — regulated down to the smallest details by a splendid organization. Paris already seemed lost; then the onward march came to a halt on September 8; the German troops were driven back over the Marne as far as the Aisne by the French army, reinforced by an English auxiliary corps; and there, along a line of 300 kilometers from the Somme to the Vosges mountains, the armies have stood facing each other since the middle of September, deeply and strongly intrenched, pushing and pressing against each other in continual fighting with heavy losses, without gaining ground. Meanwhile the Russian armies advanced from the east, at first into East Prussia, where they were driven back again with heavy losses by a vigorous attack of the Germans, then into Galicia, where they threw the Austrian army back behind the fortifications of Przemysl after a struggle of several weeks. The Russian army has shown itself to be far better than it was commonly supposed to be before. "Let us not deceive ourselves," wrote as early as August 29 the Austrian social democrat, Hugo Schulz, a man well informed on military affairs, who served in the Galician campaign, "victory over the millions-strong Russian army will be hard to win, much harder than over the French." The Austrian army showed itself incapable of holding back the Russians long enough till the enemy in France could be overcome; now the Germans are compelled to send a strong force against the Russians. It will depend on the struggle now beginning in Poland, whether the Germans will be able to throw themselves again with forces superior in numbers against the French positions, which have been reinforced in the meantime by new English troops, or whether they will be compelled to carry on a defensive warfare, in which they will not easily be subdued. And so it seems as if neither of the two sides, after a long and bloody struggle, may be able to obtain the victory, but that they may have to break off the war after making enormous sacrifices, because further fighting would exhaust even the possible victor to the last drop of blood.

As long as military operations leave the final result undecided, it is impossible to foresee the effects of the war on international relations. What is to become of Austria, of Poland, of Turkey, of Germany as a world-power, of the relations of the countries on the Pacific — nothing can as yet be said about all that. But it is already easy to see, by various effects of the war, how deeply all domestic political conditions in old Europe will be revolutionized. War is an enormous crisis of the social body; it compels people to show what they are in reality, and tears away all phrases and traditions that ruled men's minds; so we see conservatives appear as adepts of the revolution, and revolutionists as nationalists. It compels the ruling classes in the different countries to strain their strength to the utmost to win the victory, and so opens their eyes to the necessity of abandoning old-time traditional political institutions and passwords. Let us here consider some of these effects already visible.


The war did not become a world-war until England joined the ranks of the enemies of Germany. It is probable that the leaders in German policy went into the war only because they believed England would remain neutral. In this assumption, however, lies their greatest, almost incredible mistake in policy, that they could believe this, that they should allow themselves to be lulled to sleep by the friendly approaches of the last few years, instead of recognizing clearly that English imperialism could not possibly keep out of it. In the years gone by, whenever war between England and Germany was considered, nobody ever thought of anything but a naval war — that is why Germany has been building warships so feverishly for the past fifteen years. And now the naval war has not yet made its appearance; both sides are holding their fleets in reserve. Everybody looked at it in this way: that Germany was unquestionably superior on land, and that England could not think of disputing her supremacy, but that England was unconditional mistress of the seas. The care with which England holds back her fleet, however, shows in itself that she is afraid of surprises that the progress of modern science in destructive agencies might offer.

So while there has been no real war on the sea worth considering, we see the English army take the initiative against Germany on the continent. This is a fact of great historical significance. The rulers of England consider it necessary for them to have England's world-power defended on the continent by the English army, as they did against Napoleon. What is more, if the assertion is well founded that the help of the small English army was the decisive factor in bringing the German army to a stop and driving it back, then it appears that an English army can play an important part here as well as the others; and the number of the English troops, even if beneath comparison with the gigantic armies of Germany, grows continually in Belgium and northern France. And it is no longer unthinkable, what no one could have expected before, that German imperialism in its march of conquest may yet batter its head off on land against the British land army as a quite necessary addition to the French forces.

This experience, however, carries with it important consequences for the home policies of England. If English capital feels the necessity and the possibililty [sic] of defending on land English dominion in the world, it will have to take measures to build up a large efficient army unless it wishes to remain absolutely dependent on France and Russia. The system of enlisting volunteer recruits might do well enough for the needs of a colonial army, but under that system the English army will not stand comparison at all with the millions-strong continental armies, which are based on compulsory military service. While the English capitalist class uses hired proletarians to fight its battles, at the same time making itself comfortable at home, the German capitalists stand with the rank and file on the frontiers, risk their lives full of enthusiasm for the "fatherland," that is, for the dominance of German capital, and so carry with them the entire population. In these terrible wars, with life and death in the balance, money can not take the place of the personal sacrifice. When once the English government and the English capitalist class see this clearly, they will have to resort to some form of compulsory, military service; they will have to introduce militarism as the price of maintaining their position in the world. The "territorials" already constitute a sort of transition stage, and the present war will easily bring the beginning of military enthusiasm which is necessary for such a revolution in policy. No doubt this radical change will encounter great opposition, and will not come all at once, either; but the tendency of development is plainly to be seen.

With the adoption of a military system based on compulsory personal service, one of the pillars of old-time "free" England falls to the ground. What gave Englishmen a privileged position above the citizens of other countries, who were compelled to take their places in the army and do the bidding of those placed in command, was precisely this inviolable personal liberty; that gave them the feeling of being a sort of people apart, a lordly race of free Britons. When that all comes to an end, the most important part of the old liberal institutions will be gone. The opposition of radical and middle-class traditions was not able to hinder the progress of the imperialistic policy. How they did often struggle against the alliance with the "Blood Czar!" But what meaning have their sentimental arguments when confronted with the fact that without the Russian army German imperialism can not be intimidated and kept on the defensive? In the face of the necessities of modern imperialism, as it has now grown to be, with its robber-like, violent methods, the opposition of the frightened middle class, seeing its peaceful old world sinking away before its eyes, is powerless. Against imperialism nothing but a new power can struggle, the power of a socialist proletariat that refuses to go back to the quiet of petty capitalism, but will march onward to the social revolution.

And this power will come. The working people of England will be driven by the new developments in home politics to a more intense political class struggle. So far they have held to a middle-class, liberal policy in parliament. If the heavy personal burden of compulsory military service is placed upon them along with the growing burden of taxation to defend the world-dominion of English capital, then their political opposition will take on a more intense, more revolutionary character. The free, liberal institutions of England have so far kept down class-conscious feeling among the working people; when those institutions are done away with, class consciousness will grow strong. If the English capitalist class takes up with militarism, then the English working class will take up with socialism. In this way the war now going on will be the beginning of a complete revolution in the domestic politics of England; the backwardness of socialism and the class struggle in England will disappear in the same degree as the English capitalist class is driven to defend its world-power more intensely.


For Russia this war means admission to the rank of the modern capitalistic great powers of Europe.

In the nineteenth century Russia was the unassailable colossus against which the waves of the French Revolution broke without effect, and which also remained unshaken in the stormy times of 1848. That was because Russia, in its inner organization, was an Asiatic despotism; the absolute power of the czar was built up on the village communism of the peasants, which had existed unchangeable for centuries. Then in the second half of the nineteenth century, when capitalism made its appearance, it showed itself at first only in the form of manifestations of social dissolution and degeneration. Village communism slowly and quietly went to pieces, the peasants suffered from starvation, some of them as ragged beggars went to work in the new factories; corruption, incompetence, thievery, grew up in the government into an unbearable system that finally came down with a terrible crash in the Russo-Japanese war. Who has not read the accounts Vereshchagin has given of what he saw in this war — how in Kharbin the trains of soldiers could not run out to the battlefield, because the governor, Alexeieff, had occupied all the sidetracks with his luxurious private train kept continually under full steam, so that he could make his escape at any moment, and how generals squandered with their mistresses the funds collected by the Red Cross, while the wounded soldiers lay groaning for lack of attention! The revolution of 1905 destroyed the old Russia of absolutism; it allowed the working people to come forth as a revolutionary class; it created the Duma, in which the class struggle between the capitalists, the nobility and the peasantry could run its course, and started a thoroughgoing revolution in agrarian conditions. While the surviving revolutionary fighters were being martyred and murdered in such a pitiless, bestial way under the counter-revolution that a cry of indignation went up from all Europe, the capitalist class settled down to making profits, and the peasants were quieted by Stolypin's agrarian reforms of 1906, which made the peasants personal owners of their land and did away with the last traces of the former village communism. And so the way was opened in Russia for a capitalistic development in the same form as in western Europe.

The military power of Russia was completely broken in the Japanese war and the revolution. For years the government was unable to cut any figure in European politics; it had to stand by powerless and see affairs settled in the Balkans and the battles fought without its intervention. When it stirred up Servia to resist Austria some years ago, it was compelled to desist as soon as Germany threatened war. But gradually as stable conditions came to prevail in the country, the army also was made better again. It was known, of course, that it was no longer such an entirely negligible factor as it was seven years ago, but the strength it has so far shown in the present war has really been a surprise to everybody. Not only the war material but also the quality of the officers and soldiers is much better than formerly. It is a new Russia we have before us — no longer the Asiatic fatalistic indifference of "nitshevo," but the beginning of a capitalistic Russia.

There is another phenomenon to consider in this connection: A genuine Russian nationalism now appears for the first time. Formerly one special Russian popular character or one Russian peculiarity was often singled out and glorified by authors of the nineteenth century; that was the unusual character of the communistic peasants. Then when the revolutionary epoch came, it was "liberty" which was revered and longed for, and the grafting tshinovniks with the czar at their head were objects of scorn and hatred. At present a modern nationalism is appearing among the upper class and the intellectuals, an enthusiasm for the government unit that has to fight against other nations; the czar as the head of this government is now honored by the same classes which once cursed him as the chief of the black hundreds. It is precisely the same thing as happened before in Prussia, when the same prince who was detested after 1848 as the "grapeshot prince" was acclaimed in 1870 as the "hero emperor." Several weeks ago an interview with the revolutionary Burtseff was published in the newspapers, made public by revelation of a member of the secret police, Atseff; he spoke like a genuine nationalist about the unified Russia that is fighting for its holy cause under the leadership of the czar against German military barbarism, and that will come out of the struggle a free, democratic people! The illusion and self-deception in the idea that the Russian people will be given democratic liberties as a reward for allowing itself to be slaughtered for the ruling class, is evidence of the lack of insight of this variety of revolutionists; such expressions of opinion are, however, worthy of consideration as symptoms of the change in feeling that has come over the minds of the opposition. Of course, the attitude of the social democratic workingmen will not be affected by this; they have set their faces against the war, and now, as before, they stand in a most intense struggle against the government oppressing them by force.

Even if the methods of the government are still barbarous and backward in Russia, as they were in Germany after the war of 1870, even if the country is still principally agricultural (six-sevenths of it) and the wage-workers have to fight hard for their rights, still we can say: Russia has finally stepped out of the rank of an Asiatic despotism; it has also passed through the transition stage, and has now become one of the ordinary capitalistic great powers of Europe. And as such it is only in the beginning of its development, and with its large population and rich natural resources still has a great future before it.


In Germany, too, the war will have a profound influence on home politics. The development of political conditions in Germany is determined entirely by the sharp contrast between the ruling class and the working class. For fear of proletarian uprisings the German capitalist class has come to rely more and more on the protection of the landed nobility and the military powers, who built up the German Empire by war and by force. They supported the violent and brutal methods of suppression used by the government against the working people, the enemies of their class. On the other hand, the working people, who intensified the traditions of the old middle-class democracy with their class consciousness, were stirred up to strenuous resistance. In this way mutual estrangement and hatred grew exceedingly strong. Everything that was called social democratic was persecuted from above as anti-patriotic and subversive, was proscribed and put under the ban as inferior, and hindered in its free development by petty, exasperating police interference. So there grew up in Germany two entirely separate worlds, complete strangers to each other, the official world of the capitalist class and the workingmen's world. The working people built up their own organization, which, so to say, formed a separate state within the great state, with their own system of self-government and well-filled treasuries, their own press, their own literature, their own world of thought adopted from the revolutionary science of Karl Marx. As they grew in strength, the fear of the capitalist class increased, and the rigor of repressive measures increased correspondingly. It is true, there were voices raised in opposition to this line of development. The reformers tried to turn the working class aside from the class struggle, and to unite them with the left wing of the capitalist class to fight together against the reactionary element; that they did not succeed in this was mostly due to the lack of courage and strength displayed by these liberals of the left. Among the liberals attention was often called to the fact that the English method of humoring the workers with small concessions and friendly treatment was far more effective against the threatening revolution than forcible measures of repression. But they lacked the strength to make their method prevail.

Then the war came. The reasons why all at once the social democracy went over to the side of the government, and the workingmen fought for German imperialism, were given in THE INTERNATIONAL SOCIALIST REVIEW for October. The first result of this attitude was the abolition of the government regulations and decrees which made the social democracy a party with less legal rights than other parties; social democratic writings may now be circulated even in the army, though, of course — precaution is never out of place — only such as are published from now on and do not interfere with the magnificent unity of the people, that is to say, those that do not preach the class struggle. No doubt the equality of rights now prevailing in the treatment of social democrats is not simply a reward for their patriotic conduct, but above all else a matter of necessity — to avoid everything in this serious struggle that might arouse discord. And when the war is over, the old spirit of brutality and repression is sure to wake up again. But never again can things be quite the same as they were before. After workingmen and members of the capitalist class have fought shoulder to shoulder as comrades in the field, and have passed through the same privations, they can no longer form two worlds entirely unknown to each other. Hundreds of thousands of workingmen have now seen the capitalists from their best side, as soldiers in a common cause, to which they sacrifice their individual interests; so many a weighty old catchword has lost its force. What real class consciousness, what real insight into class distinctions there was on both sides as a result of exploitation still exists, and will become still more intense as the contrast widens. But what was only instinctive hatred and apparent ill will, a consequence of the additional repressive activity of the police, much of that will disappear. Of course, it is not likely that the working people will be given new rights of any consequence — new rights are only promised before the struggle or gained in the struggle, not given as a reward after the struggle is over — unless Germany faces some terrible menace. But the methods of the government in Germany no doubt will change, becoming milder, less stupidly brutal; the sharp separation of the classes in public and political life no doubt will disappear; perhaps steps may also be taken to open the way to freer political institutions, on which the strong opposition of the proletariat will be easier broken than by former methods. But even if the class struggle afterwards becomes more intense and purified under the new development of affairs, still the war will change the forms and conditions of domestic politics in Germany in the direction of the conditions in England.

English authors have been blathering about England being called upon to give this country back its freedom by overthrowing German militarism. It is necessary to be in full possession of the ignorance that prevails in England regarding German affairs, as well as in Germany regarding English affairs, to believe that the German system of government is a foreign body in Germany, an outside force which is borne with against their will by the sturdy descendants of Goethe and Schiller. On the contrary it has its foundation deep in the development of capitalism, and no foreign power needs to come to the rescue, any more than a German victory should have as its object freeing the Russians from czarism. Such statements are signs of a benighted nationalism which exalts the home country and picks it out as the salvation of the rest of the world. Mr. Wells, who speaks of the necessity of destroying "Prussian militarism," will open his eyes when he sees this militarism he hates as "Prussian" gain a foothold in his own dear old England. For that is what appears, from an investigation of the forces at work, to be the result of the war as affecting domestic political conditions: a noteworthy equalization of the three great world-empires which have been drawn into this conflict. The great dissimilarity which they showed because of their different historical development, gives place to the identity of their imperialistic necessities. Their close association in the war compels them to adapt themselves to each other, so that none of them may be inferior to the others. The tendency of these readjustments can be briefly stated in this way: England becomes more German, Germany becomes more English, Russia becomes more European than it was before.

For the proletariat the struggle will in this way take on, a much more uniform and consequently a much more determined character in all countries.

October 14, 1914.