The ideas of 1914

…and their consequences

The identification of militarism with state socialism did not suddenly emerge in World War One. It was not new. What was new was that, ever since 1914, it was accepted by the SPD. It was 1887 when the work of Gustav Tuch first appeared. For Tuch, in the words of Karl Kautsky, “militarism was the one and only national and civilized socialism, against the unpatriotic and barbaric socialism of Social Democracy” — a proposition Kautsky energetically rejected.

A whole generation before 1914, Tuch declared Prussian militarism such a great blessing one had only to implement it “completely” in order to solve the social question. Assuming, as Kautsky argued at the time, one wasn’t afraid of turning Europe into a system of barracks!

However, at the outbreak of World War I, German Social Democracy fulfilled the predictions of Eduard Bernstein in his 1899 book Evolutionary Socialism, which was invoked in 1915: “In the long run, however, national action is no less socialist than municipal action. Even today, socialists in democratic states often like to call themselves nationalists.”

So Majority Social Democracy [Mehrheitssozialdemokratie], which established itself on the foundations of defense of the fatherland and voting for war, above all “war socialism,” became the first national socialist party in world history! And it was not a coincidence Anton Fendrich belonged to those who founded this Majority Social Democratic [mehr­heits­­sozialdemokratischen] national socialism:

In order to survive the nation’s hardest trial, socialism must learn how to act nationally. The nation’s government, meanwhile, will have to learn how to act socialistically. However, one of the larger arteries of the new body of the people will be socialism, which correctly already sees a German trade union paper in the raft of state measures during the war. … As a powerful party of reform within the state organism, Social Democracy will drive the national labor policies in coming years.

On 15th April 1915, the first — and only! — issue of Die Internationale appeared, the magazine of the Spartacist League, with an article by Rosa Luxemburg at the top, and other contributions by Franz Mehring, August Thalheimer, Clara Zetkin. In a report from the Prussian state parliament fraction of the SPD, Heinrich Ströbel writes on March 17, 1915:

It is very gratifying that the spirits are separating… and that the new spirit of “national socialism” (you can even just say national socialism, because Pastor Naumann never represented another program and even Paul Lensch has clearly vulgarized the erstwhile national socialist [Paul] Rohrbach) has unabashedly professed this.

So that after the return to normality, the Party will certainly deal with all of these mistakes and confusions.

The eventual implications of this national socialist tendency inside the MSPD is illustrated by August Winnig, among others, who later actually joined the Nazi Party. However it was in the regular 1914 yearbook of a free trade union, the German Building Workers Union, that he published his ideas. The executive of the union not only identified itself with these ideas “that are based on our position on the war and arms trade,” but went so far as to produce a reprint, because the yearbook only reached a small circle of individuals. August Winnig also defended the following ideas in Spring 1915 about the First World War: Since the war, state socialist measures like the nationalization of large branches of production no longer belonged to the realms of the inconceivable and impossible, since the state had begun to confiscate supplies of grains, to regulate the consumption of bread, to establish a nitrogen monopoly etc. The necessities of war had forced politicians to intervene “in the direction of the socialization of economic life.” No war could be organized today without the masses of the proletariat, and so policies would no longer be hostile toward them. They would have to participate in the leadership and administration of public life through their organizations: “It is to the credit of the constituent parts of the German labor movement, which created the elements of a new Germany through their political and economic activity, and that the masses now see these as a glimpse of the German future that gives them the strength and spirit to persevere.”

Hence these workers organizations, which emerged through proletarian class struggle, were declared to have become not only partners of the Wilhelmine state but even the most important pillars of its wartime economy. This foreshadows the later German “Labor Front” from the “Third Reich.” Winnig further explained, that there could be no “duality” [„Zweiheit“] — i.e., no separation between the proletariat and the people in relation to the state: “The fate of Germany is also the fate of the German working class.” In this war, it had already been proven that “wherever national independence and the economic interests of the nation are at stake, national solidarity precedes international solidarity. With regard to the nation’s economic interests, Winnig goes as far as to support imperialist politics: workers can neither deny nor “fight” imperialism, because it is an inexorable stage of development and a necessary historical precondition for socialism.

We must go through the highest stage of capitalism, even imperialism, as compulsorily as we go through the whole of capitalism. In struggling against imperialism, with the goal of making it impossible, in such a struggle the politics of the working class can never succeed… The working class fundamentally cannot stand in the way of imperialist development, because this is supported by strong, indeed even imperative, economic needs.

It is widely known that in the first few months of 1933 there was the possibility of a new split in the SPD, and tendencies could be observed that wanted to expel the remaining communist and Marxist elements from the party, to reconstitute itself as Majority Social Democracy and, together with the “Harzburger Front,” putting itself at the disposal of NSDAP (supposedly “in order to prevent something far worse”). At the time, members of the SPD executive even accepted an invitation from Göring to travel, hoping to counter publication of Nazi atrocities in the non-German press. They were not even forced to do so. Plus, it cannot be denied that the SPD’s Reichstag fraction voted for the National Socialist declaration on foreign policy on May 17, 1933, instead of unveiling it as a mere propaganda maneuver.

It is likely that Paul Löbe would have become leader of this new Majority Social Democracy, as Ebert was of the old one from 1914 to 1921. Anderson thus writes in her 1945 book:

The section of the party’s Reichstag fraction, led by Paul Löbe, president of the Reichstag, made concession after concession to the new regime in the futile hope that Hitler would reward its subservience by recognizing a difference between “good” and “bad” Social Democrats.

It is not due any virtues of these “Majority Social Democrats” of 1933 that they did not come to repeat the role of their historical predecessors. The consequences of Nazi rule thwarted all their clever, statesmanlike calculations. But if the Nazis had actually “tolerated” these “good” Social Democrats, the latter would have simply followed Hitler into World War II the same way their predecessors had loyally followed the Kaiser into World War I. Like Winnig, they could have claimed they were only participating in the war to deliver Germany from the following threats:

In the West, the Rhine as the German-French border, in the East, the loss of the Prussian, Posen and Silesian provinces to Russia. That would be the annihilation of the German nation. Germany would be eliminated as a political power and would be economically strangled.

The question of “war guilt,” along with the problem of “the aggressors,” could have been dealt with in 1939 as it was dealt with in 1914, with an argument which can be found in Social Democratic pamphlets at the beginning of the First World War: namely, that the question of war guilt can always be investigated after the war. But when your own house is burning down, you must first save it and help to put the fire out. Only then can you look for the arsonist. Nevertheless, as in the case of the outbreak of war in 1914, German Social Democracy had already named the arsonist shortly beforehand, by denouncing “Austria’s attack against European peace.” At the time, the party executive determined a “frivolous war has been provoked by the Austro-Hungarian government.” In principle, the same assessment as that of later historical research.

However, when conflict finally broke out, the party executive forgot its assessments about who was guilty for the Serbian conflict and repeated the claims of the official war propaganda on the question of guilt, to the point of exhaustion, preaching “defense of the fatherland” on behalf of the “just cause” of Germany. All the same, the party executive would still demand on June 23, 1915 “peace without annexations.” Thus in no way did he follow Winnig’s proposed support for imperialist politics. However, that was all going to change soon. In 1916, Reichstag deputy Max Cohen (Reuss) concluded that if the Imperial Chancellor were to call for safeguards “which should protect us now and in the future from new attacks,” then he would be in agreement with the whole German people. Hence “annexation endeavors” also became supported on the Majority Social Democratic side. Hence annexation plans were no longer rejected on principle, it was only on an assessment of actual circumstances that one could decide for or against current possibilities for annexation, just as Cohen-Reuss had said:

Because the annexations of other territories and the absorption of foreign peoples can be a historical and economic step forward under certain circumstances, it would certainly be unfair to reject annexations from the outset on the basis of socialist principles.

With this and other affirmations of annexationist policy, there was also a change in Majority Social Democracy’s war propaganda: initially one only emphasized “defense of the fatherland” against, above all, “bloody tsarism.” But to the extent that “safeguards” were approved and annexations defended, Majority Social Democracy now no longer saw its main enemy in Russia, but in England instead. Here we again encounter the “German Social Democrat” Fendrich, who not only wrote the book, but also “on the day Hindenburg was appointed Chief of Staff” (August 29, 1916), wrote a propaganda pamphlet against England. “England leads the Allied Nations with the cool superiority of a tamer of the greedy barbarous devices of Russia and France, which has become insane with vengefulness and unsatisfied vanity. England spiritually dominates and financially maintains them. Therefore England is the foremost enemy.”

Winnig already called upon Paul Lensch as early as 1915. Lensch belongs to the chosen few approvingly cited by a later forerunner to Nazism, Oswald Spengler, at the end of 1919: German capitalism is now going to become socialist. Like [Johann] Plenge outside Social Democracy, albeit with her in spirit, Paul Lensch became the most outstanding ideologist of “war socialism” inside German Social Democracy.

Lensch highlighted — quite correctly — that if one adhered to Lassalleanism (never officially denounced or overcome in the party), then the vote for war credits in no way contradicted the previous attitude of German Social Democracy, referring to writing by his Reichstag fraction colleague, Eduard David. At the time, however, Lensch was initially one of the fourteen Reichstag deputies, alongside Rühle and Liebknecht, who wanted to vote against the war credits in a meeting of the SPD’s Reichstag fraction on August 3, 1914. He pointed to the modern development of the economy, which led to the formation of syndicates and cartels as a consequence of its endeavor “to dominate the market as a monopoly, through organization.” But the principle of organization was already the lifeblood of the old Prussian state. Only later did this principle expand across the whole of the German economy.

The rise of the German working class also occurred according to the principle of organization, “without the lightning of a revolutionary civil war” but “in the thunder of a revolutionary civil war.” Social Democracy understood that the “same root cause that made Prussia into a military state” had likewise “turned it into a ‘state of organization’.” In this respect, the convergence of state and labor organization was inevitable. As a result of this process, and under wartime pressures, a “new era and new social ideal” had arisen in the German Empire: i.e., “a socialized society; its sword is Germany.”

Germany would force revolution onto Europeans in the thunderstorms of World War, just as France had in the great French Revolution. Majority Social Democracy was still therefore a revolutionary party, even if it left leadership of this world revolution to Supreme Army Command! And this despite the fact that the imperial state was dependent upon Social Democracy during its greatest national danger: “That was, in turn, characteristic of the deep irony in which world history is so rich: Socialism as the savior of nationalism!”

Obviously Lensch declared slogans like “no annexation,” “the right of peoples to self-determination,” and “general disarmament” to be abstract and unhistorical demands. Of particular interest are the more forward-looking statements: the individualistic ideas of 1789 are rejected, not only because “socialist ideals of freedom” differ fundamentally from those of individualism, but the former conversely has “discipline and organization as its preconditions.” No party has emphasized the value of discipline more, and no party has suffered more deeply for its slackening, than German Social Democracy: “It relies on a steadfast attitude of discipline as much as the army and so cannot push for an army whose organization would lead it to slacken.”

Yes, it is literally “the historical task of the working class to lead the struggle for the social reorganization of the army.” Under the banner of rising socialism, Social Democracy was the historical vehicle of reform, even military reform, because by August 1914 it had become the “German Center Party.” Only with its awakening to “state-consciousness” [„Staatsbewusstsein“] did it go from an agitational group into a political party. Therefore it is “the party of intellectuals, not least the party of officials and officers,” and can no longer be exclusively the party of the industrial proletariat, even if this class continued to be its “core troops,” as before. On August 4, 1914, the “identity of socialist and nationalist labor” was given complete expression for the first time. Are we not confronted here with a particularly clear expression of the MSPD’s national socialism?

“1914,” says Plenge, was the “turning point” for the “idea of organization in general,” because this is the year “voluntary incorporation of all major economic organs into the state” took place in an exemplary fashion. The state thus became “the unifying center for all members of economic life.” Nevertheless, this development does not seem to have taken place quite so voluntarily. Only in wartime, as Plenge writes later, was “the socialist idea adopted in German economic life.”

The ideas of 1914 thus emerged from the German nation’s drive for self-affirmation. In essence they consist of the idea of “German organization” and “the people’s community of national socialism” [die Volksgemeinschaft des Nationalsozialismus]. The ideas of 1914 are not that extreme, but adhere much more closely to the golden mean: “Neither purely state socialist, nor purely democratic, existing in the tension between organization and individualism, bureaucracy and popular freedom, a system of human duties and human rights, always on the historical path between Scylla and Charybdis.”

The ideas of 1914, of German organization, embark upon an equally enduring triumphal march around the world as the ideas of 1789 [i.e., liberté, égalité, fraternité] they will replace, and hardly peacefully. By 1915 Plenge had already alluded to Napoleon I, in writing: “For the second time, an emperor is going through the world as a leader of a people with the tremendous, world-storming sense of power of the highest unity.” The idea of organization may not restrict itself to the nation, but must also prevail in the construction of a state system and European balance, becoming the principle of a new order: “Everything depends on whether we now take the lead for ourselves or if we want to leave the legacy of our spirit to another nation.”

Plenge saw Germany as emerging from “a shattered Europe” with new ideas and new historical tasks, acting as “a strong pillar of support in a continent turned upside-down.” It is a shame that the new idea of 1914 was not fundamentally new at all, because Plenge’s task, as he admits himself, only consisted of “raising up the idea of a unified people in the hour of historical need, with complete commitment.”

Plenge was also a contributor to the magazine Die Glocke [The Bell], published by Parvus and Haenisch. The latter recognized the necessity of realizing socialism on the basis of the nation-state. Here Plenge first published his essay series on “Revolutionizing the Revolutionaries.” Accordingly, the close contact of many “neo-Lassallean” representatives of Majority Social Democracy (and later programmaticians of its right wing in Görlitz 1921) with Plenge is beyond doubt. In fact, one can easily observe how the ideas of Plenge and Lensch bounced off each other, later taken up and propagated by lesser spirits of the pre-Nazi brain trusts.

Plenge also commented on the problems raised by the 1918 November Revolution according to his own thought. At first he doubted that the November 1918 movement represented a genuine economic revolution, because it was not directed against the economic order of capitalism. Contradicting his earlier sentiment, Plenge now called for “the external restoration of capitalism.” The foremost concern for the socialist revolution which had broken out at the end of the world war was none other than capitalism’s restoration! In restoring it, “all of the lessons learned from war organization would have to be utilized.” Forces must be stretched to the utmost “so the organization of our war economy is maintained.” Luckily, in Plenge’s view, “the wartime organization was already well-established, so essentially it only had to be maintained. By contrast, the revolution itself — namely the sailors’ and soldiers’ movement — was without any goals and was in any case incapable of superseding the large, educated labor movement of the trade unions and the SPD.”

So, as before, Plenge sees in the trade unions and in Majority Social Democracy as the sponsors of “war socialism,” which is actual socialism, which basically only consists of “organization and centralization of forces.” This has once again been shown by the maintenance of strict order and discipline of the German people and the German working masses. The MSPD should have “essentially absorbed the revolution with their orderly ranks,” since it is precisely “Social Democracy, educated in our military traditions, which can deploy its battalions in reasonable order.” Nevertheless, the ultimate mission of Majority Social Democracy has to go beyond the old revisionism, toward “organizational socialism.”

The core of this socialism consists of order and duty. Plenge refers to Lenin. The needs of large-scale enterprises for strict uniformity were just as Lenin recognized them to be in managing large economic operations. Yes, Plenge even accepts the slogan of Trotsky: “Work, discipline, and order can save the Soviet Socialist Republic!” Quite obviously organizational socialism would “require a strong state.”

At the time, after the first shock of the revolution, this first existed in the “entirely undemocratic autocracy of our own Social Democrats.” A second shock was to come with the return of the troops at the frontline because the front was the innocent victim of the revolution. Here we encounter a somewhat milder version of the infamous stab-in-the-back myth. But this second shock would be transformed into a movement which considerably strengthened the “return to order.” The third shock was a result of the difficulties in demobilization. Due the lack of resources, there would be difficulty reintegrating the army into the workforce, which was only strengthened by the accelerated redundancies of female laborers.

Plenge therefore advocated that a national assembly be convened as soon as possible. Until then, however, the still-existent Reichstag would appoint a “transitional committee in the style of a war cabinet,” which would stand at the head of the German Empire until the Reichstag was to meet. The reason for this: “In this difficult transitional period, we need the authority of dictatorship in a form recognized as legitimate by the whole people.” This organized authority had to exist prior to the National Assembly and make provisions for the people’s economy and work.

So Plenge declares parliamentarism in Germany to be “practically impossible from the outset.” Therefore, a newly elected Reichstag should pass all the main tasks of administration onto a “Reichstag committee,” which represents, in a sense, the “board of directors” of social democracy. The ministers should not only be appointed from Parliament, but from all qualified circles, “administrators of democracy,” so to speak. The chancellor virtually embodies the General Director, and his ministers would be his codirectors.

But that’s not the head of state! Plenge proposes, in all seriousness, that the upcoming Weimar Constitution even “incorporate the crown.” The Reichstag Committee requires a chairman, a kind of administrative Kaiser, an embodiment of kingship, that could also be thought of as an “elective monarchy” and tentatively introduced through a “reign.”

The ideas of Plenge and other state socialists within and outside of Majority Social Democracy did not only powerfully influence the previous principled supporters of a planned economy but also held appeal in certain circles of officialdom, owing to the wartime economic measures of Imperial Germany. Yes, some forms of the war economy even became models for projects by the Socialization Commission between 1918 and 1919. It is therefore no coincidence that Rudolf Wissel brought in Wichard von Möllendorff of all people as a colleague in writing new proposals, the former initiator of the War Resources Organization.

The aftermath of the “war socialist” ideas of 1914 can also be clearly observed in the debates at the 1921 Görlitz Party Congress of the MSPD. The Majority Social Democrats officially declared they wanted to come to socialism via the detour of their own recognized state, by way of the legal means of parliamentary-democratic republics, dropped from Bebelian Social Democracy as a “bourgeois state” under the fundamental rejection of the state since 1891.

Thus were the leading Majority Social Democratic ideologues completely clear that the First World War had shaken up the idea of the state “down to its roots.” For example, Friedrich Stampfer realized: “World War I was the omnipotence, the total power of the state in all countries. The individual counted for nothing — the state was everything. The state took people in its hand and hurled them against enemy tanks and machine guns. It gave orders, paid for everything, regulated the war economy. It sliced everyone’s bread, it controlled public opinion. This overextension in the state was necessarily followed by fitful easing and relaxation.”

Therefore the danger was that the state itself might disintegrate with the collapse of imperial rule. That this did not happen, that the state could survive in the new form of a democratic parliamentary republic, was all to the credit of the MSPD: “Through the republic, Social Democracy saved the people’s greatest asset: the state. Where there is no state, there is anarchy. Where there is anarchy, capitalism can certainly thrive, but never any kind of socialism. When I say the republic and socialism, or the republic and Social Democracy belong together, then, applied to today’s conditions, that means exactly the same as saying the state and socialism, the state and Social Democracy belong together.”

That is the victory of Ferdinand Lassalle over Marx and Engels! And if Zinoviev had not split the USPD, so that the left wing went into the KPD and the right came home to the SPD, Majority Social Democracy would have most likely continued down a political path which would have hardly left anything to National Socialism. German National Socialism therefore emerged out of 1914, to a large extent within the right wing of Social Democracy, and ended its development here soon after the Görlitz Program of 1921, in order to develop itself further on a different basis, partly more consistent, and partly more varied. We do not have to pursue this later development here.

Willy Huhn
West Germany
August 1953

Translated by
Rida Vaquas