XVII. The Relationship between War and Revolution




We have said above that since imperialism and war are organic part of capitalism, the struggle against these phenomena is subject to the same laws as the struggle against all other features of capitalism. However, this must not lead to ignore the specific elements embodied in this struggle. One of the most important of this is the relationship of war and revolution.


War represents the utmost extreme tension of all forces of a society. It helps the ruling class to suppress oppositional tendencies but, at the same time, below the surface, it accelerates the contradictions and prepares future catastrophes. The precursors to war – tensions between Great Powers, trade wars, jingoism, anti-migrant chauvinism etc. – do not have the same dramatic consequences but are steps in such a direction.


History has demonstrated such a relationship between war – and more precisely the defeat of a reactionary government in a reactionary war – and revolution numerous times. The reason for this is pretty obvious. Wars represent by definition the tension of all forces of a society. While a war of liberation usually succeeds in mobilizing the masses so that they voluntarily support resp. participate in it, this is different in a war of oppression. In such wars, the ruling class is compelled, to various degrees, to use a combination of chauvinist lies, war hysteria, military compulsion and repression against oppositional forces.




“Small” and “Large” Imperialist Wars




Obviously there is a difference between “small” and “large” wars of oppression. By “small” wars we mean usually colonial wars like the US attack on Iraq or Afghanistan or Russia’s intervention in Syria. These are not small wars for the oppressed people – quite the opposite, these wars result in the slaughter of tens or hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants. But they are small from the point of view of the imperialists as they do not necessitate mass conscription or the mobilization of the whole economy for the military purpose. In short, they have much less consequences for the everyday life of the society in the imperialist countries.


This is completely different in the case of “large” wars by which we basically mean wars between Great Powers. Such large wars force the ruling class to a comprehensive tension of all social forces. Furthermore, such wars have also drastic consequences for the civilian population – food shortage, lack of medication right up to aerial bombardment. The First and even more the Second World War provide numerous examples for this. Any future World War between Great Powers will bear even more such a “total” character as it will nearly inevitable imply the deployment of nuclear weapons.


Of course, one should not make a too schematic division between “small” and “large” imperialist wars. A sustained colonial war, for example, might not necessitate a comprehensive tension of all social forces. However, its protracted nature, the accumulation of losses, the rising costs etc. will have important political consequences – particularly if they end in a defeat for the imperialists. Take for example France’s war in Algeria, the U.S. war in Vietnam or Yeltsin’s war in Chechnya.


From this results that the defeat of the ruling class in reactionary wars has potent effects. Its material strength as well as its political and moral prestige are severely shattered. At the same time, the masses are infuriated and “militarized”, i.e. more used in using weapons. This is all the more the case the “larger” (in the terms defined above) such a reactionary war of the imperialists is. This is why such wars go pregnant with revolutionary upheavals the oppressed masses and this is why Lenin, in the light of the defeat of Russia’s autocracy against Japan in 1904/05, spoke about “the great revolutionary role of the historic war in which the Russian worker is an involuntary participant.[1]


History provides numerous examples of the relationship between wars lost by the ruling class and revolutionary developments. To name but a few historical examples we refer to the Jacquerie, the great peasant uprising in northern France during the Hundred Years War after the ruling class suffered a number of defeats against the English [2]; the heroic uprising of the Russian peasants led by Yemelyan Pugachev in 1774/75 at the end of the long and exhausting Russo-Turkish war [3]; the humiliating defeats of the despised Qing dynasty in the two Opium Wars against the Western Great Powers which gave birth first to 110 local peasant insurrections in 1841-49 and finally to the powerful uprising of the religious social-revolutionary Taiping popular movement – one of the longest and bloodiest civil wars in human history (1850-64) [4]; and then we have the well-known examples of modern history with the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71 leading to the Parisian Commune [5], the Russo-Japanese war in 1904/05 which led to the first Russian Revolution in 1905-07 [6], World War I which resulted in the Russian October Revolution 1917 as well as a number of other workers uprisings in 1918/19 and finally World War II which provoked civil wars and revolutionary developments in various countries (e.g. China, Korea, Greece).


Already Marx and Engels recognized the potentiality of transforming a war into revolution: „But we must not 'forget that there is a sixth power in Europe, which at given moments asserts its supremacy over the whole of the five so-called "Great" Powers and makes them tremble, every one of them. That power is the Revolution. Long silent and retired, it is now again called to action by the commercial crisis, and by the scarcity of food. From Manchester to Rome, from Paris to Warsaw and Pesth, it is omnipresent, lifting up its head and awaking from its slumbers. Manifold are the symptoms of its returning life, everywhere visible in the agitation and disquietude which have seized the proletarian class. A signal only is wanted, and this sixth and greatest European power will come forward, in shining armor, and sword in hand, like Minerva from the head of the Olympian. This signal the impending European war will give, and then all calculations as to the balance of power will be upset by the addition of a new element which, ever buoyant and youthful, will as much baffle the plans of the old European Powers, and their Generals, as it did from 1792 to 1800.[7]


It is worth noting that even the sagacious representatives of the ruling class were aware of the relationship of war and revolution. For example, the German Chancellor Bismarck noted in an expose for a meeting of his emperor Wilhelm I with Russia’s Alexander III in November 1887: “In our present time, more than in any other historical epoch, it is in the interest of the great monarchies to avoid war because today the nations tend to make their governments responsible for suffering military defeats. (...) Altogether, a possible next war would have less the character of a war between governments but rather of a war between the red flag and the elements of order and preservation.[8]


Later, Lenin and other Marxists processed the experiences of the Russian-Japanese War in 1904/05 and in particular of World War I. They understood that imperialist wars can massively accelerate the tempo of history: The war of 1914-1918 was a gigantic ‘accelerator’ (Lenin) of the socialist revolution.[9]


It was on this basis that they developed the slogan of the transformation of the imperialist war into civil war – not as a voluntaristic radical slogan but as a slogan which is objectively based on the potential of a reactionary war to result in collapse of the prevailing order and armed insurrections of the oppressed masses.


This is why Lenin poured scorn on reformist and centrist ideologists who complained about the destructive consequences of wars and hoped for a peaceful revolution. Such wrote Lenin in a polemic against the leading German centrist theoretician at that time, Karl Kautsky:


These are the two “favourite points” of this “extremely learned” man! The “cult of violence” and the break-down of industry—this is what has driven him to the usual, age-old, typical whining and snivelling of the philistine instead of analysing the real conditions of the class struggle. “We expected”, he writes, “that the revolution would come as the product of the proletarian class struggle.. .”, “but the revolution came as a consequence of the collapse of the prevailing system in Russia and Germany in the war. . . . ” In other words, this pundit “expected” a peaceful revolution! This is superb! But Herr Kautsky has lost his nerve to such a degree that he has forgotten what he himself wrote when he was a Marxist, namely, that in all probability a war would provide the occasion for revolution. Today, instead of calmly and fearlessly investigating what changes must inevitably take place in the form of the revolution as a consequence of the war, our “theoretician” bewails the collapse of his “expectations”![10]


This does not mean that every war will result in a revolutionary uprising of the popular masses. But the historical experience demonstrates that major wars which mobilize the resources of the whole economy, which affect all classes of the society and which influence the whole political life and hence the consciousness of the masses, that such events provoke massive social and political instability and hence can lead to revolutionary ruptures. As we are convinced that chauvinism, military tensions and wars are becoming an increasingly defining feature of the capitalist society, we think that such a development towards militarism will in the end also break ground for sharp class struggles and revolutionary explosions.




World War III and Revolution – A Contradiction in Itself?




Finally, let us briefly deal with the following issue. As we have elaborated above in chapter XII we consider a new World War between the Great Powers as more or less inevitable if the working class does not overthrow the imperialists in time. Likewise, it is difficult to imagine such a world war without the Great Powers using their deadly arsenal of nuclear weapons. Should one conclude from this fatalistically that the relationship between war and revolution will not be existent in a future scenario of a World War III?


In our opinion, this question can not be answered in a schematic way. Yes, it is true, if a total World War III takes place with all Great Powers deploying all their nuclear weapons, humanity will be thrown back to the stage of barbarity. But, first, such a total nuclear war would not come out of the blue. It is very likely that such a catastrophic event would be preceded by a longer period of extreme global tensions between the Great Powers. Naturally, the ruling elite of the imperialist rivals will not start such an extremely risky event light-mindedly. True, there are lunatics like Trump but one should not assume that the U.S. elite would let Trump start a nuclear war against their will. [11]


No, it is far more likely that there would be a longer period of trade wars, smaller military clashes, severe domestic political crisis, maybe coup d'états, diplomatic crisis, etc. It is nearly inevitable that such events will spark revolutionary and pre-revolutionary crises which will offer the working class opportunities to weaken or overthrow the ruling class.


Furthermore, we can not foresee into the future. One can not exclude that such a World War might not end in the total annihilation of humanity but rather the defeat of one side or localized nuclear devastation. In such a case, a World War III could both result in the annihilation of many millions of people and, at the same time, open a period of global rebellion against the imperialist war-mongers.


In any case, the point is that revolutionaries should not get petrified by the danger of a World War III. The task is not to speculate about the future (or even to use such dangers as an excuse to become trapped in passivity) but to intervene resolutely in the class struggle and to mobilize the worker vanguard so that the chances of the international socialist revolution increase and the dangers of a World War III decrease!


[1] V. I. Lenin: The Fall of Port Arthur (1905), in: LCW Vol. 8, p. 53

[2] See on this e.g.. I. M. Shukow (Ed.): Weltgeschichte, VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, Berlin 1963, Vol. 3, pp. 730-758. The 10 volumes of Weltgeschichte (with a combined total of 8,500 pages) is the German-language translation of the famous Soviet History Encyclopedia published after the death of Stalin. To our knowledge, this encyclopedia has not been translated into English language (in contrast to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia). Written by a large collective of Soviet historians under the direction of E.M. Zhukov, these ten volumes are a real treasure chest of historical knowledge as they combine detailed information with a materialistic approach. Nevertheless, one has to view this encyclopedia critically as it suffers from the unavoidable theoretical limitations of Stalinism, in particular, its mechanistic conception of history according to which all societies in history pass through one and the same sequence of stages of social-economic formations: primitive communism, slave holder society, feudalism, capitalism, and communism. Such a view excludes e.g. the so-called Asiatic Mode of Production to which Marx referred repeatedly. (See e.g. his Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy published in 1859, in: Marx Engels Collected Works, Vol. 29, International Publishers, New York 1987, p. 263.)

[3] See on this e.g. Paul Avrich: Russian Rebels, 1600-1800, Schocken Books, New York 1972; Dorothea Peters: Politische und gesellschaftliche Vorstellungen in der Aufstandsbewegung unter Pugačev (1773–1775). Wiesbaden, Berlin 1973; Marc Raeff: Pugachev's Rebellion, in: Robert Forster (Ed.): Preconditions of Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1970; Alice Plate: Der Pugačev-Aufstand: Kosakenherrlichkeit oder sozialer Protest, in: Heinz-Dietrich Löwe: Volksaufstände in Rußland. Von der Zeit der Wirren bis zur «Grünen Revolution» gegen die Sowjetherrschaft, Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden 2006; Leo Yaresh: The "Peasant Wars" in Soviet Historiography, in: American Slavic and East European Review, Vol. 16, No. 3 (October 1957), pp. 241-259; Philip Longworth: Peasant leadership and the Pugachev revolt, in: The Journal of Peasant Studies, 2:2 (1975), pp. 183-205; B. H. Sumner: New Material on the Revolt of Pugachev, in: The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 7, No. 19 (June 1928), pp. 113-127; B. H. Sumner: New Material on the Revolt of Pugachev: II, in: The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 7, No. 20 (January 1929), pp. 338-348; Alexander Pushkin: Geschichte des Pugatschew'schen Aufruhrs, Stuttgart 1840

[4] The Taiping Revolution was a social-revolutionary movement of miners, poor peasants and ethnic minorities against the corrupt Qing dynasty which aimed to create an "Heavenly Kingdom of Peace" and which was organized by an millenarian sect known as the God Worshipping Society led by Hong Xiuquan, who believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. See on this, e.g., Franz Michael and Chung-li Chang: The Taiping Rebellion. History and Documents Vol.1, University of Washington Press, London 1966; Stephen R. Platt: Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the epic story of the Taiping Civil War, Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2012; I. M. Shukow (Ed.): Weltgeschichte, Vol. 6, pp. 440-455

[5] Obviously, there exists a variety of literature on the Paris Commune. To name just a view socialist classics on this subject: von P. L. Lavrov: Die Pariser Kommune vom 18. März 1871, Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, Berlin 1971; Jean Villain: Die großen 72 Tage. Ein Report von Jean Villain über die Pariser Kommunarden, Verlag Volk und Welt, Berlin 1981; Prosper Lissagaray: Geschichte der Kommune von 1871, Rütten & Loening, Berlin 1956. See also Donny Gluckstein: The Paris Commune: A Revolution in Democracy, Bookmarks Publication, London 2006; I. M. Shukow (Ed.): Weltgeschichte, Vol. 6, pp. 628-643 and Vol. 7, pp. 15-39.

[6] Again, there exist a variety of literature on the Russian-Japanese War 1904/05 and the subsequent Russian Revolution 1905-07. In place of many we refer to Leon Trotsky’s Die Russische Revolution 1905, Vereinigung Internationaler Verlagsanstalten, Berlin 1923 (republished in Leo Trotzki: Ausgewählte Werke, Vol. 1, Verlag Neuer Kurs, Berlin 1972); M. Pokrowski: Russische Geschichte, Berlin 1930; M. Pokrowski: Geschichte Russlands von seiner Entstehung bis zur neuesten Zeit, C.L.Hirschfeld Verlag, Leipzig 1929, pp. 314-496; Abraham Ascher: The Revolution of 1905. Vol. 1 and 2, Stanford University Press, Stanford 1992.

[7] Friedrich Engels: The European War (1854), in: MECW 12, pp. 557-558

[8] Quoted in: Heinz Wolter: Die Alternativkonzeption der Sozialdemokratie zum außenpolitischen Kurs Bismarcks nach 1871, in: Ernst Engelberg (Ed.): Diplomatie und Kriegspolitik vor und nach der Reichsgründung, Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 1971, p. 255 (our translation)

[9] The Platform of the Opposition (1927), in: Leon Trotsky: The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27), p. 382

[10] V. I. Lenin: The Heroes of the Berne International (1919); in: LCW 29, p. 397. See on this also Nikolai Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhensky: The ABC of Communism (1920), published by the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1922; Nikolai Bukharin: Ökonomik der Transformationsperiode. Mit Randbemerkungen von Lenin, Dietz Verlag, Berlin 1990

[11] It is likely that if there are advisers who steal Presidential orders from Trump’s table in order to avoid them being implementing (and they can rely on the orange man’s obliviousness so he doesn’t notice it), there will be also Generals and Security Advisers who make sure that Trump would not get access to the Red Button. (May be they show him instead the red button to order his daily Coca Cola!)