A century since World War I

Introduction to “The Ideas of 1914”

One hundred years after Armistice, it is hard to imagine the shockwaves that the SPD’s vote to fund war credits on August 4, 1914 sent throughout the European Left. Romanian Social Democrats were still describing Reichstag deputy Hugo Haase’s speech as an “incredible lie” that had been edited by the government censor, even towards the end of August. Shortly before the fateful Reichstag fraction meeting, in which the final decision to vote for war credits was made, Karl Liebknecht had been on holiday, not seeing any need to make preparations. As he wrote in Klassenkampf gegen den Krieg, well before August 3, he was under the impression that “the refusal of the war credits was a matter of course for the majority of the parliamentary faction and could not in any event be doubted.”

Up until 1914, even the radical left of the Second International had faith that its internationalism was not limited to brittle resolutions, but would come through in deed the hour that it mattered. The effect resembles Kafka’s description of the village schoolmaster: “Most older people have something deceptive or mendacious in their dealings with younger people. That is, you can live among them easily enough, think that you get along, know their views on things, receive regular assurances of good feeling, think everything is as it appears to be. And then suddenly, when something dramatic happens and the long-established peace is supposed to swing into effect, these old people get up like strangers and it turns out they hold deeper and stronger views than you first thought. They unfurl their banner, and only now do you read with alarm what’s written on it.”

Yet a hundred years later, the ideas of 1914 do not appear to us as strangers, but as the most depressingly familiar acquaintances, the ones you can try to avoid but bump into anyway. We take it as if a matter of course that parties of the Left will be nationalist, that their concept of socialism will be based on state power and not class power, that they will speak to “the people” and not the class. The celebration of La France Insoumise, and its leader Mélenchon, demonstrates the Left’s collective acclimatization to nationalism, the replacement of the red flag and the Internationale for the tricolore and the Marseillaise attracts very little more than murmurs of criticism, if that. What were regarded by the antiwar Left as temporary “mistakes and confusions” have now embedded themselves as dominant spirits in the course of European social democracy and beyond. They have been so dominant that they have constricted our imaginations on what an emancipatory political project can be, where the US Military-Industrial Complex can be presented as an example of socialism, in defense of socialism!

How to break from the stranglehold of these ideas? We need to make them feel strange again, as strange as they appeared to Liebknecht or Luxemburg or Mehring, to build a movement capable of fighting its own battles, organized on the basis Franz Mehring laid out: “With the leaders if they are with us; without the leaders if they fail to act; in spite of the leaders if they oppose us.” The distance between the ideas of socialism and the ideas of 1914 is not simply a matter of strategy or tactics, it is a distance that is drenched in the blood of working class militants across the century.

Rida Vaquas
London, England
November 2018