Sunday, March 27, 2011

Friends & Enemies

The First World War was a watershed for the international left. For decades, socialists had organized in the nations of the industrialized world for the rights of workers, for social justice, for democracy; they exhorted values of international labor solidarity and talked about the common interests of the same classes across national divisions. The First World War was nobody's moral crusade: it was clearly a war for power and territory and economic strength. And yet, all of a sudden major portions of the left in each nation decided that being French or German or English or Russian was the most important thing. Their former class brothers and sisters across each other's borders were now enemies to be shot at; and the governments they were formerly protesting or struggling with were now the embodiments of their national pride. In an instant as socialist parties in the parliaments of France and Germany voted to support the war begun by their governments, the ideals they had bandied about were shown to be virtually meaningless.

Not all the socialists made this shameful turn, and it was from those who refused to surrender their ideals and principles that what became the Communist movement was born. The story of what happened to that movement later after the successful Russian revolution can be rightfully debated. But there was a moment of real heroism as some socialists said "no" to their own ruling classes, and continued to regard their allies as the people, the working classes, of all nations. Karl Liebknecht was one of those heroes. I've quoted this document before, and I'll probably quote it again, but in 1915 as the majority of German Socialists were rallying behind their government and the German flag to support the war, he wrote and distributed this leaflet, called "The Main Enemy Is At Home!" Liebknecht's heroic genius was in recognizing that for the working class, the war changed nothing. The government that was suddenly appealing to them for support, attempting to morally inspire the German people to war, was the same government, the same class force of big business and the aristocracy, that was moments before engaged in ripping them off and oppressing them.

Here's a few key excerpts. Liebknecht is too optimistic about the immediate future, but he's pointing out that the German government is lying when it says it has embarked on a quick and easy war. Italy has just joined the other side in the war.

"The masses in the warring countries have begun to free themselves from the official webs of lies. The German people as well have gained insight about the causes and objectives of the world war, about who is directly responsible for its outbreak. The mad delusions about the "holy aims" of the war have given way more and more, the enthusiasm for the war has dwindled, the will for a rapid peace has grown powerfully all over – even in the Army! This was a difficult problem for the German and Austrian imperialists, who were seeking in vain for salvation. Now it seems they have found it. Italy's intervention in the war should offer them a welcome opportunity to stir up new frenzies of national hatred, to smother the will for peace, and to blur the traces of their own guilt. They are betting on the forgetfulness of the German people, betting on their forbearance which has been tested all too often.

The enemies of the people are counting on the forgetfulness of the masses – we counter this with the solution:

Learn everything, don't forget anything!...We have seen how when war broke out, the masses were captured for the capitalist aims of the war with enticing melodies from the ruling classes. We have seen how the shiny bubbles of demagogy burst, how the foolish dreams of August vanished, how, instead of happiness, suffering and misery came over the people; how the tears of war widows and war orphans swelled to great currents; how the maintenance of the three-class disgrace, the unrepentant canonization of the Quadrinity – semi-absolutism, junker rule, militarism, and police despotism – became bitter truth.

Offensive are the tirades with which Italian imperialism glosses over its pillaging... More offensive still is that in all of this we can recognize, as if reflected in a mirror, the German and Austrian methods of July and August 1914. The Italian instigators of war deserve every denunciation. But they are nothing but copies of the German and Austrian instigators, the ones who are chiefly responsible for the outbreak of war. Birds of a feather!...

For thinking people, Italy's imitation of Germany's actions from summer of last year cannot be a spur for new war frenzies, just an impetus to scare away the phantom hopes of a new dawn of political and social justice, just a new light for the illumination of the political responsibilities and the exposure of the public danger presented by the Austrian and German pursuers of war, just a new indictment of them.

The main enemy of every people is in their own country!

The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: German imperialism, the German war party, German secret diplomacy. This enemy at home must be fought by the German people in a political struggle, cooperating with the proletariat of other countries whose struggle is against their own imperialists.

We think as one with the German people – we have nothing in common with the German Tirpitzes and Falkenhayns, with the German government of political oppression and social enslavement. Nothing for them, everything for the German people. Everything for the international proletariat, for the sake of the German proletariat and downtrodden humanity. The enemies of the working class are counting on the forgetfulness of the masses – provide that that be a grave miscalculation. They are betting on the forbearance of the masses – but we raise the vehement cry:

How long should the gamblers of imperialism abuse the patience of the people? Enough and more than enough slaughter! Down with the war instigators here and abroad!... Proletarians of all countries, follow the heroic example of your Italian brothers! Ally yourselves to the international class struggle against the conspiracies of secret diplomacy, against imperialism, against war, for peace with in the socialist spirit.

The main enemy is at home!


These are important words, far more important than the long-forgotten details of national intrigue in the early days of the First World War. Because once again a large portion of the left who knows better is making the wrong choice of friends.

I read the very disappointing "Open Letter to the Left on Libya" by Middle East Scholar and anti-war activist Professor Juan Cole. And Cole, who's made numerous insightful analyses of the U.S. war on Iraq is now siding with the liberal interventionists and calling the bombing of Libya a "humanitarian" action. The same NATO, the same US war machine, the same neocolonialist European allies, that Cole has criticized elsewhere are now, in his opinion, doing the right thing.

It is more difficult to respond to current events than it is to analyze history. But history's lessons are useful. And forgetting the material class interests of NATO, US imperialism, and European neocolonialism, is an absolutely fundamental mistake of those who think that the current intervention into the Libyan civil war is any way legitimately humanitarian. Even in the possible (but unlikely, in my opinion) outcome of a quick end to this conflict, a low bodycount, the removal of a dictator, and the restoration of civil order, the story does not end there.

The foreign intervention in Libya may ostensibly be in support of the Libyan rebels, but it is most certainly NOT in the support of the tide of revolution sweeping the Arab world. It is an an attempt to control and tame that struggle. Just connect a few dots. US. Arab League. Saudi Arabia. Bahrain. And do the world's protesters really want to empower the US airforce and NATO to act as the world's policemen?

This is grotesque. The left knows better; at least it knew better.

Other recommended readings:
* Zunguzungu blog has an intelligent but ultimately incorrect post on the subject, "Libya, Waiting to See."
* On The Unrepentant Marxist a left veteran analyzes the situation but criticizes left-wing countries in Latin America for supporting Qaddafi, "Libya, Imperialism and ALBA"
* Richard Seymour on the excellent Lenin's Tomb hasn't really written a definitive piece on Libya, but he reminds of his timely book "The Liberal Defence of Murder." I should review that book here.


  1. Despite what we are told I don't think America has ever gone to war for altruistic reasons; there is always ever present the need to feel powerful, urged on by home-grown profiteers.

    "That which has driven the masses of Europe into the trenches and to the battlefields is not their inner longing for war; it must be traced to the cutthroat competition for military equipment, for more efficient armies, for larger warships, for more powerful cannon. You cannot build up a standing army and then throw it back into a box like tin soldiers.
    —Emma Goldman on From "Preparedness: The Road to Universal Slaughter"

    "American participation in the war against Germany would constitute the most tremendous and profitable coup in the history of American finance… The war created 21,000 new American millionaires and during the war period, 69,000 men made more than three billion dollars over and above their normal income…
    —John Kenneth Turner, Shall It Be Again? 1922

  2. dear ish: i am literally up to my ears (and i am very tall) in a serious programming project and do not have much time to read this thoroughly, but that image is absolutely golden. i think it speaks volumes more than any words ever could. obama has dissapointed me as the days on libya have gone by.

    what happened to talking?

  3. I love Emma Goldman, Annie. Great quotes.

    "what happened to talking" indeed, freebones! Remember back to the elections when Obama got into all that trouble for saying he'd talk to "America's enemies"? I thought that stand was admirable.