Comparing 1911 and 2011: What's relevant for socialists today?

The German gunboat, Panther, tried to halt French claims to Morocco in 1911.

By Dimitris Fasfalis

June 4, 2011 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- History, of course, never repeats itself. Yet there are lessons to be learned from past experiences, especially when similar patterns affect similar historical actors in different epochs and settings. This seems to be the case for revolutionary socialists when we compare 2011 and 1911. Despite their differences, these are times when imperialist war threatens while a revolutionary-democratic upsurge sweeps vast areas that were thought of as stable, if not stagnant. Hence the question: what’s relevant for us on the left today in our socialist predecessors’ experience in 1911?

Threat of imperialist war

First, the early 20th century socialists developed an understanding of the contradictory dynamics of capitalist globalisation and imperialist rivalries.

On July 1, 1911, the German warship Panther entered into the Moroccan harbour of Agadir, while a French expeditionary force had been intervening since March 1911 to free the sultan and protect Europeans from anti-European troubles that sparked off in the city of Fez. The German move was designed to halt French claims to Morocco, as the latter was moving quickly into the French sphere of influence.

The rivalry between the two powers triggered an international crisis, and, in July 1914, Europe was on the brink of war. An agreement was finally reached in November. With Britain's support, France obtained from Germany freedom of action in Morocco in return of so-called “commercial freedom”. On March 30 ,1912, the Fez treaty with the sultan settled for a time imperialist rivalries by establishing a French protectorate in Morocco.

Debate within the German social democracy

The debate that this 1911 crisis triggered in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) is where the interest lies for us today.

In face of the crisis, the Socialist [Second] International’s International Socialist Bureau asked its sections (parties) whether an emergency meeting should be held or not. The German SPD’s answer to this request was sent by Hermann Molkenbuhr, member of the SPD executive committee. It read:

Now I give credit to Bethmann-Hollweg and Kinderlen-Wächter for every kind of stypidity, sufficient even to lead to serious European conflicts. But in the case of Morocco I don’t think these gentlemen have a free hand. Conflicting capitalist interests come into play here, and in Germany the pro-French group is stronger... I don't believe the managers of our foreign policy will go any further. The biggest capitalists are keenly aware that this would harm their interests, and they will order a timely halt. Even if we were to rapidly launch a very active campaign, subordinating all questions of domestic policy and so permitting our opponents to concoct an effective election slogan against us, it is not clear that we would achieve anything. For the [industrialists] Krupp and Thyssen are just as afraid of Socialists as Bethmann-Hollweg.[1]

While the Socialist International had been campaigning since the turn of the century against rising militarism and threats of imperialist war, some leaders within the SPD were subscribed to the idea that a real war between European powers was not on the agenda of the rulers, since they had too much to lose from it. In other words, the wave of globalisation through exports and finance had created, so thought these socialists, a web of solidarity between capitalist states, brushing aside the threat of a European war. The pope of social democracy, Karl Kautsky, later formulated his theory of ultra-imperialism on the same basis.

As a member of the International Socialist Bureau representing the social democracy in Poland and Lithuania, Rosa Luxemburg received a copy of this letter. On July 24, 1911, she published it in the left-wing SPD paper Leipziger Volkzeitung along with a criticism of the opportunism it embodied. She wrote:

If [Molkenbuhr's] position errs by showing too little confidence in the power of our slogans, we believe it also fails by greatly overestimating the weight of capitalist interests as a guarantee of peace... The future course of the Morocco adventure will not be determined by [German industrialists] Mannesmann and Thyssen alone. Like every sudden thrust in world power politics, it can easily escape the control of its originators. Starting as a silly game with matches it can flare up into a world holocaust. “Concessions” of some sort can easily shift the center of gravity to southern Africa or some other part of the world, and there give birth to completely new conflicts. We therefore hold that it is not Social Democracy's duty to soothe public opinion, but rather to arouse it and warn it of the dangers lurking behind every such adventure in present-day politics. It is best to rely not on the commitment to peace of any particular capitalist clique but on the resistance of the enlightened masses as a force for peace.[2]

Luxemburg rightly argued that capitalist interests and their reciprocal relations within international trusts were not enough to prevent a war. In fact, they were part of the problem; their competition in the race for accumulation was laying the basis for great geopolitical and state rivalries over the division of the the world into spheres of influence. In other words, global capitalism cannot be separated from the international rivalries that stem from it and the drive towards war between the contending powers. “For the international antagonisms of the capitalist states are only the complement of class antagonisms, and world political anarchy is but the reverse side of the anarchic system of capitalist production.”[3]

Her criticism of Molkenbuhr's letter also reviewed the opportunistic basis of the electoral tactics it implied.

… the general conception of an election campaign as expressed by the party’s Executive Committee is, we believe, open to objection. They would have us confine our agitation exclusively to questions of domestic policy like taxes and social legislation… Above all we must carry out socialist education in the Reichstag [German parliament] elections. This cannot be accomplished, however, if we aim our criticism exclusively at Germany's internal political conditions, and fail to portray the overall international context… We must not fashion our electoral agitation as some simplistic political primer cut down to a couple of catchy slogans, but as the Socialist world view in its all-encompassing totality and diversity.[4]

To establish the relevance of some of Luxemburg’s ideas and method of thought, it is necessary to determine the differences between international conflicts at the beginning of the 20th century and those of the turn of the 21st century.

1911 and our own epoch

The first striking difference between both epochs is related to the specific features of the world order. Tendencies towards conflict and tensions among capitalist powers are since the end of World War II halted from developing by the hegemonic power of the United States. Indeed, no other capitalist power can today challenge the military and geopolitical strength of US imperialism.

This doesn’t mean there are no rivalries but only that their full-fledged manifestation is stunted by the configuration of the world order. The latter however is changing: the rise of eastern Asia and of regional powers such as the “BRICs” (Brazil, India and China) show that the centre of gravity of the world economy is shifting from the Atlantic to the East and that a multipolar world is progressively being established, with all the uncertainties that this process implies.

The second difference between Luxemburg’s years and our epoch concerns the transformation of modern warfare. Total war such as the world wars the world witnessed in 1914-1918 and 1939-1945  became much less probable since the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The reason is simple: a world war would mean, since the arms race and the nuclear build up of the Cold War, not to mention nuclear proliferation since the 1970s, the annihilation if not of humankind, at least of modern civilisation. War has thus become more restrained since the end of the two world wars, but, modern illusions notwithstanding, it has not left us.

In fact, the 20th century and our own times confirm the Marxist thesis that capitalism equals war. Behind us we have a century of constant fighting: the Cold War, with its ideological confrontation and its peripheral conflicts, the colonial wars against national liberation movements, the regional inter-state conflicts stemming from the world disorder since the 1970s (such as the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s) and finally the new imperialist wars launched against Iraq and Afghanistan.

To the extent that 1911 and 2011 share these common features, there are two lessons for revolutionary socialists to be underlined. First, the dialectical understanding of the relations between capitalist powers and states in the era of globalisation still stands as valid. Global capitalism and war are the two sides of the same coin.

Second, revolutionary politics can only have a global framework and national and local tactics are subordinate to a clear understanding of the dynamics of the world system. This does not mean we lose focus on the local specificities and details, but only that national political and social life is determined by the world dynamics of capitalism, and not vice-versa.

[Dimitris Fasfalis currently lives in Paris and has written for a number of left publications, including  Socialist Voice, Presse-toi à gauche and Europe solidaire sans frontiers.]


[1]    John Riddell, ed., Lenin's Struggle for a Revolutionary International. Document: 1907-1916. The Preparatory Years, New York, Monad Press, 1984, pp. 75-76.

[2]    Riddell, op. cit., pp. 76-77.

[3]    Riddell, op. cit., p. 73.

[4]    Riddell, op. cit., p. 77.