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Historical events

August 1914 and World War I

Wednesday 10 September 2014, by William Smaldone

August, 1914 was truly a world-historical moment for European socialism. Forced to choose between its internationalist principles and the pull of nationalism, the movement collapsed as the latter sentiment revealed itself to be a much more powerful force than most socialists had expected. Their division over the war would prove of immeasurable importance to the future of Europe and the world. [1]

At the beginning of the 20th century the European socialist movement appeared to be an unstoppable force. The establishment of parliamentary institutions in most countries during the last third of the 19th century had opened the door to the creation of new political organizations calling themselves “Socialist,” “Social Democratic,” or “Labor” parties, some of which soon had tens or even hundreds of thousands of dues-paying members and millions of voters.

Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) was the quintessential model. Equipped with a theoretical and practical program largely grounded in Marxist principles, the party called for the overthrow of the system of competitive capitalism based on private property and its replacement by a socialist order based on cooperation and public property.

In addition to its demands for immediate reforms in such spheres as social insurance, collective bargaining rights, education and workplace safety, it supported the democratization of political and economic life and called for the universal emancipation of workers, oppressed minorities and women. By 1913 the SPD had over one million members and the electoral support of one-third of the country’s 12 million voters.

On the national level, Europe’s socialist parties had the backing of an even more rapidly-growing trade union movement, while their commitment to workers’ internationalism was symbolized by their membership in the Socialist International, founded in 1889, to link the theoretical and practical aims of member parties around the world. [2] It appeared to many workers — and even to many in the ruling classes — that history was on the side of socialism and it was only a matter of time before the growing labor movement would bring capitalism to its knees.

Yet this powerful movement rapidly splintered and never fully recovered its strength. The outbreak of the First World War revealed a number of ideological and political tensions that had long been present within socialism but had never seemed divisive enough to challenge its fundamental unity.

The war acted as the catalyst: it destroyed the International and precipitated 30 years of upheaval that included the Russian revolutions of 1917, the longterm division of the labor movement into competing social democratic and communist currents, and the rise of fascism. By the time of the latter’s defeat in 1945, these developments had fundamentally altered what it meant to be a socialist.

If the two decades preceding the outbreak of war can be regarded as socialism’s halcyon days, its apparent strength was chimerical. During this time virtually all socialists believed that capitalism was obsolete and should (and inevitably would) be replaced by “socialism,” but what that would look like remained vague and serious disagreements erupted about how to move toward it.

At the outset, the basic division in the movement was between reform-oriented socialists such as Edward Bernstein in Germany and Jean Jaurés in France, and more radical socialists such as August Bebel and Karl Kautsky in Germany, who believed that capitalist development paved the way for proletaria