1914 or 1939?


Notes on historical analogies for the current NATO-Russia conflict


By Michael Pröbsting, International Secretary of the Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT), 15 February 2022, www.thecommunists.net




In this turbulent and difficult time, we breathe the explosive air of evolving world history. Only people without any sense for world politics or history (or both) can ignore the fateful character of the current period. There can be no doubt that the current period resembles the years before 1914.


Several imperialist Great Powers – the U.S., China, EU, Russia, and Japan – are engaged in bitter rivalry with each trying to expand their sphere of influence at the cost of others. The conflicts between the U.S. and China in the Asian-Pacific region [1], between NATO and Russia in Eastern Europe [2] are currently the most important areas of crisis in the inter-imperialist rivalry.


The intention of our analogy with 1914 is not to suggest that World War III will start next month. This seems rather unlikely to us. But one must be blind not to recognize the fundamental developments where the interests of the Great Power clash with increasing pace and intensity. And everyone with an inch of historical awareness senses that what we are experiencing in these years resembles events like the confrontations between France and Germany in the two “Moroccan Crises” (in 1905-06 resp. 1911) or the Balkan wars in 1912-13. It is clear that if the working class does not succeed in overthrowing the ruling class of the imperialist Great Powers, humanity is drifting into a devastating World War. Such an event will kill masses of people and, at the same time, bring the global capitalist order to the brink of collapse.


At this place we do not want to speculate about the possible timeframe until such an event – something which is impossible anyway as it depends on numerous factors, most importantly the course of the liberation struggle of the workers and oppressed peoples. Neither will we discuss here the strength and weaknesses of each imperialist power.


The purpose of this brief article is rather to discuss, with the help of historical analogies, the important difference between the Marxists’ and the opportunists’ understanding of the nature of the Great Powers rivalry in the current period.


The Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT) has elaborated in a number of works its analysis of the Great Power rivalry. [3] We recognize the decay of Western imperialism – first and foremost of the long-time hegemon, the U.S. – as well as the emergence of China [4] and Russia as new imperialist powers. [5] We therefore consider the conflict between these powers – respectively between their proxies – as thoroughly reactionary. Consequently, socialists must not lend support to any side in such conflict between Great Powers or their proxies. In all such conflicts, the RCIT advocates a program of revolutionary defeatism, i.e. working towards the defeat of the respective governments and the transformation of this conflict into a revolutionary crisis at home. [6]


We therefore think – looking for a historical analogy – that the current world situation resembles to a certain degree the years before 1914, i.e. before the beginning World War I.




Do China and Russia today have a similar character like in 1939?




In contrast, most Stalinists, Bolivarians, left-reformists, and also a number of pseudo-Trotskyists reject such an understanding of the world situation. They consider China and Russia not as imperialist powers. Many believe that China would be some kind of “socialist” or (deformed) “workers state”. Others claim that China and Russia are capitalist but not imperialist powers. But in one way or another, they all agree in considering these two Great Powers as something qualitatively different, weaker, less reactionary than their Western rivals. [7]


As a consequence, these opportunist parties join the camp of China and Russia – openly or concealed – in the conflict between the Great Powers. Hence, their historical analogy – consciously or unconsciously – is not 1914 but rather 1939.


It is common knowledge that the constellation of World War II differed from the previous one in a way that by 1939 there existed the Soviet Union, i.e. a big workers state (albeit one which was already dominated by the dictatorship of the Stalinist bureaucracy). Likewise, there was a major war going on in East Asia, where the Chinese people fought against the Japanese invaders.


Leon Trotsky and the Fourth International concluded from this, that socialists had to deploy a dual tactic. In the conflict between imperialist powers (Britain, France and later the U.S. versus Germany, Italy and later Japan), socialists could not support either side and had to take a defeatist position against all Great Powers. However, in the war between Germany and the USSR respectively between Japan and China, socialists had to defend the USSR resp. China without lending any political support to its non-revolutionary leadership. [8]


It is evident that the current world situation has much more similarities with the 1914 analogy than with 1939. Russia resp. the USSR was a degenerated workers state at that time. China was a capitalist semi-colony. Today, both are imperialist powers.


However, the opportunist friends of Moscow and Beijing ignore this. They rather whitewash the class character of China and Russia in order to legitimize joining the imperialist camp of the Eastern Great Powers.


There are also those socialists who instinctively oppose supporting either camp but lack a clear theoretical basis as they refuse to recognize the imperialist character of China and Russia. These comrades should, in our opinion, rethink this issue because a failure in theory can have dangerous consequences in tactics in the future. For Marxists, a consistent theory is the precondition for a consistent program. Lacking the first can result in opportunism and social-imperialism in the field of strategy and tactics.


It is urgent for socialists to clarify their theory and program. Those who agree in opposing all imperialist powers must start collaborating and discussing possibilities for unity. The RCIT calls socialists to build a joint international organization which fights against all Great Powers – both in East and West – and which supports all liberation struggles of the workers and oppressed peoples against any Great Power or its reactionary lackey.


[1] See on this e.g. RCIT: The Coming Inter-Imperialist War on Taiwan. Revolutionary Defeatism against both Great Powers – the U.S. as well as China! 10 October 2021, https://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/global/the-coming-inter-imperialist-war-on-taiwan/.

[2] We refer readers to a special page on our website where all RCIT documents on the current NATO-Russia conflict are compiled: https://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/global/compilation-of-documents-on-nato-russia-conflict/; our two key statements are: Neither NATO nor Russia! Down with all Imperialist Warmongers! No support for either imperialist camp or its proxies in the Ukraine and Donbass! Unite the workers and oppressed for an independent struggle for liberation! 25 January 2022, https://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/global/neither-nato-nor-russia-down-with-all-imperialist-warmongers/; The Current NATO-Russia Conflict and the Anti-Imperialist Tasks of Revolutionaries. Down with all Great Powers and their proxies! For an independent and socialist Ukraine! 29 January 2022, https://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/global/the-current-nato-russia-conflict-and-the-anti-imperialist-tasks-of-revolutionaries/. Most of our documents have been translated in several languages.

[3] See on this e.g. our book by Michael Pröbsting: Anti-Imperialism in the Age of Great Power Rivalry. The Factors behind the Accelerating Rivalry between the U.S., China, Russia, EU and Japan. A Critique of the Left’s Analysis and an Outline of the Marxist Perspective, RCIT Books, Vienna 2019, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/anti-imperialism-in-the-age-of-great-power-rivalry/; see also the following pamphlet by the same author: “A Really Good Quarrel”. US-China Alaska Meeting: The Inter-Imperialist Cold War Continues, 23 March 2021, https://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/global/us-china-alaska-meeting-shows-continuation-of-inter-imperialist-cold-war/.

[4] The RCIT has published numerous documents about capitalism in China and its transformation into a Great Power. See on this e.g the following works of Michael Pröbsting: China: An Imperialist Power … Or Not Yet? A Theoretical Question with Very Practical Consequences! Continuing the Debate with Esteban Mercatante and the PTS/FT on China’s class character and consequences for the revolutionary strategy, 22 January 2022, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/china-imperialist-power-or-not-yet/; Chinese Imperialism and the World Economy, an essay published in the second edition of The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism (edited by Immanuel Ness and Zak Cope), Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2020, https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-3-319-91206-6_179-1; China‘s transformation into an imperialist power. A study of the economic, political and military aspects of China as a Great Power (2012), in: Revolutionary Communism No. 4, http://www.thecommunists.net/publications/revcom-number-4; China’s Emergence as an Imperialist Power (Article in the US journal 'New Politics'), in: “New Politics”, Summer 2014 (Vol:XV-1, Whole #: 57); How is it possible that some Marxists still Doubt that China has Become Capitalist? (A Critique of the PTS/FT), An analysis of the capitalist character of China’s State-Owned Enterprises and its political consequences, 18 September 2020, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/pts-ft-and-chinese-imperialism-2/; Unable to See the Wood for the Trees (PTS/FT and China). Eclectic empiricism and the failure of the PTS/FT to recognize the imperialist character of China, 13 August 2020, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/pts-ft-and-chinese-imperialism/.

[5] The RCIT has published numerous documents about capitalism in Russia and its rise to an imperialist power. See on this e.g. several pamphlets by Michael Pröbsting: The Peculiar Features of Russian Imperialism. A Study of Russia’s Monopolies, Capital Export and Super-Exploitation in the Light of Marxist Theory, 10 August 2021, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/the-peculiar-features-of-russian-imperialism/; by the same author: Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism and the Rise of Russia as a Great Power. On the Understanding and Misunderstanding of Today’s Inter-Imperialist Rivalry in the Light of Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism. Another Reply to Our Critics Who Deny Russia’s Imperialist Character, August 2014, http://www.thecommunists.net/theory/imperialism-theory-and-russia/; Russia as a Great Imperialist Power. The formation of Russian Monopoly Capital and its Empire – A Reply to our Critics, 18 March 2014, in: Revolutionary Communism No. 21, http://www.thecommunists.net/theory/imperialist-russia/; Russian Imperialism and Its Monopolies, in: New Politics Vol. XVIII No. 4, Whole Number 72, Winter 2022, https://newpol.org/issue_post/russian-imperialism-and-its-monopolies/. See various other RCIT documents on this issue at a special sub-page on the RCIT’s website: https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/china-russia-as-imperialist-powers/.

[6] See e.g. RCIT: Theses on Revolutionary Defeatism in Imperialist States, 8 September 2018, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/theses-on-revolutionary-defeatism-in-imperialist-states/

[7] See on this e.g. two pamphlets by Michael Pröbsting: Servants of Two Masters. Stalinism and the New Cold War between Imperialist Great Powers in East and West, 10 July 2021, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/servants-of-two-masters-stalinism-and-new-cold-war/; Putin’s Poodles (Apologies to All Dogs). The pro-Russian Stalinist parties and their arguments in the current NATO-Russia Conflict, 9 February 2022, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/nato-russia-conflict-stalinism-as-putin-s-poodles/

[8] See e.g. Fourth International: Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution; Manifesto adopted by the Emergency Conference of the Fourth International in May 1940; in: Documents of the Fourth International. The Formative Years (1933-40), New York 1973, pp. 311-350, http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fi/1938-1949/emergconf/fi-emerg02.htm; see also Leon Trotsky: War and the Fourth International (1934), in: Trotsky Writings 1933-34, pp. 299-330