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Lenin’s view of World War I and the tasks of socialists

By staff |
November 10, 2018
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V.I. Lenin
V.I. Lenin (Fight Back! News/Staff)

To mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, Fight Back! is reprinting some excerpts from the outstanding Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin on the class nature of the war and what socialists should do about it. When the war broke out in 1914, the leadership of most socialist parties at the time often supported their ‘own’ governments.

Lenin and other revolutionaries put forward the correct proposition that the war was a battle between imperialist powers, in which working-class movement should work for the defeat of their ‘own’ rulers, and, where possible, take advantage of those defeats, turn the imperialist war in to a civil war, and make use of every opportunity to seize political power and replace capitalism with socialism.

The excerpts are taken from Lenin’s 1915 pamphlet “Socialism and War.”

Nearly everybody admits that the present war is an imperialist war, but in most cases this term is distorted or applied to one side, or a loophole is left for the assertion that this war may, after all, have a bourgeois-progressive, national liberating significance. Imperialism is the highest stage in the development of capitalism, reached only in the twentieth century. Capitalism now finds the old national states, without the formation of which it could not have overthrown feudalism, too tight for it. Capitalism has developed concentration to such a degree that whole branches of industry have been seized by syndicates, trusts and associations of capitalist billionaires, and almost the entire globe has been divided up among the "lords of capital," either in the form of colonies, or by enmeshing other countries in thousands of threads of financial exploitation. Free trade and competition have been superseded by the striving for monopoly, for the seizure of territory for the investment of capital, for the export of raw materials from them, and so forth. From the liberator of nations that capitalism was in the struggle against feudalism, imperialist capitalism has become the greatest oppressor of nations. Formerly progressive, capitalism has become reactionary; it has developed the forces of production to such a degree that mankind is faced with the alternative of going over to Socialism or of suffering years and even decades of armed struggle between the "great" powers for the artificial preservation of capitalism by means of colonies, monopolies, privileges and national oppression of every kind.

The war has undoubtedly created a most acute crisis and has increased the distress of the masses to an incredible degree. The reactionary character of this war, and the shameless lies told by the bourgeoisie of all countries in covering up their predatory aims with "national" ideology, are inevitably creating, on the basis of an objectively revolutionary situation, revolutionary moods among the masses. It is our duty to help the masses to become conscious of these moods, to deepen and formulate them. This task is correctly expressed only by the slogan: convert the imperialist war into civil war; and all consistently waged class struggles during the war, all seriously conducted "mass action" tactics inevitably lead to this. It is impossible to foretell whether a powerful revolutionary movement will flare up during the first or the second war of the great powers, whether during or after it; in any case, our bounden duty is systematically and undeviatingly to work precisely in this direction.

Both the advocates of victory for their governments in the present war and the advocates of the slogan "neither victory nor defeat," equally take the standpoint of social-chauvinism. A revolutionary class cannot but wish for the defeat of its government in a reactionary war, cannot fail to see that its military reverses facilitate its overthrow. Only a bourgeois who believes that a war started by the governments must necessarily end as a war between governments and wants it to end as such, can regard as "ridiculous" and "absurd" the idea that the Socialists of all the belligerent countries should wish for the of all "their" governments and express this wish. On the contrary, it is precisely a statement of this kind that would conform to the cherished thoughts of every class-conscious worker, and would be in line with our activities towards converting the imperialist war into civil war.