Marxist classics: An appreciation of Zinoviev’s ‘The War and the Crisis of Socialism’

Posted: October 15, 2015 by Admin in At the coalface, Capitalist ideology, Class Matters, Europe, Germany, Imperialism and anti-imperialism, Internationalism, Marxism, Revolutionary figures, State capitalism, State repression, Workers history, WWI
Rosa Luxemburg championed internationalism against the SPD chauvinists and was murdered by them

Rosa Luxemburg championed internationalism against the SPD chauvinists and was murdered by them

This is part of a series in which we review books which are important for revolutionary activists; they include, but are certainly not limited to, Marxist classics. We start off with a key text on social-democratic reformism. The appreciation was written in 1981.

by Sabena Norten

The collapse of the Second International at the outbreak of war in 1914 showed how the social democratic parties had identified with the interests of the imperialist nation states. It was a result, as Lenin put it, of “the victory of opportunism and of the national liberal-labour policy in the majority of European parties” (Socialism and War, 1915). But how and why had the political movement of the European working class taken the side of imperialism?

Lenin’s writings of this period prepared the ground for a scientific understanding of this phenomenon. But his critique of social-chauvinism was limited because it referred almost exclusively to the evolution of the British labour aristocracy. Zinoviev’s study, written between 1914 and 1916, fills the gap. By examining the most prominent social democratic party, the German SPD, it shows how the consolidation of reformism was intricately related to the growth of the trade union bureaucracy and bourgeois parliamentary politics. Zinoviev’s work demonstrates how the labour bureaucracy developed a distinct social and political standpoint and became a pillar of bourgeois society.

This book is the most penetrating analysis ever written of pre-First World War social democracy. Although the German Social Democratic Party possessed a strong and articulate left wing, it took Zinoviev, a member of the Bolshevik Party, to expose its inherently reactionary character. This fact itself is significant: today as in Zinoviev’s time there is no lack of ‘criticism’ of official labour politics. But such criticisms are ineffectual because they too rest on reformist premises, are influenced by opportunism and reflect an unhealthy attachment to the existing institutions of the working class which time and again have proved inadequate. What justifies a review of a book written so many decades ago is that this conservatism still prevents a realistic appraisal of the character of social democracy and modern bourgeois labour politics.

Parliamentary socialism

The most important theoretical chapter analyses “the social roots of opportunism”. It is a study of the social forces which pushed working class politics in a bourgeois direction. Zinoviev identifies two influences on the SPD which led to its disintegration into the state: the trade union bureaucracy and electoral opportunism.

The point he makes about the trade union bureaucracy is that its distinct outlook and interests derive not from its position in the labour market (as was the case for the classical British labour aristocracy) but from the power it gains from its position at the head of the working class organisations. The cultivation and preservation of trade unions – within the confines of the capitalist labour market – is the union bureaucrat’s narrow objective which subordinates the wider political interests of the working class. Zinoviev further shows how, once the conservative influence of the trade union leadership had pushed the party into the framework of parliamentary reformism, electoral pressure drove it to adapt to the outlook and interests of broad petit-bourgeois layers and become a people’s party. Other more recent historical studies of the SPD confirm the correctness of this analysis.

Bourgeois at birth

From the outset the SPD was only in a very limited sense an independent party of the working class. Like most continental socialist parties it was in origin a creation of the petit-bourgeoisie. In the early 1860s, the middle classes in the anti-Prussian states of southern Germany sought to win working class support in their fight against Bismarck’s drive to unite the country under Prussian domination. Workers Associations were formed on the initiative of Liberal politicians. In Prussia itself, Ferdinand Lassalle’s General German Workers Association (ADAV), founded in 1863, attempted to persuade the Bismarck regime to concede an extension of suffrage and freedom of association by supporting its expansionist aims.

The nascent German working class movement was divided along lines which reflected the belated and unresolved conflict between feudalism and bourgeois liberalism: on one side, Lasalle’s ADAV and, on the other, the Socialist Workers Party of Germany (SAPD), formed by August Bebel and Johann Baptist von Schweitzer in 1869 after it became evident that the bourgeoisie had no interest in a consistent fight against Prussian absolutism. Both wings were dependent on rival factions of the bourgeoisie.

In 1875 the split in the German labour movement was healed. At Gotha the SAPD and the Lassalleans united. With the unification of Germany under Prussia, the cause of national and liberal opposition to Prussian hegemony which previously shaped the young labour movement had vanished. The Gotha Programme adopted as the platform of the united SAPD, however, reflected the continued hold of petit-bourgeois politics among its leaders.

Marx and Engels were extremely critical of this programme. They pointed out that it contained not an ounce of working class politics, but a mixture of faint-hearted liberalism and the turgid state socialist theories of Lassalle. Marx’s polemic against the Gotha Programme drew particular attention to the fact that it had a narrow, national standpoint and that this would prevent a systematic struggle against the bourgeoisie. The Gotha Programme didn’t represent a break with bourgeois tradition. Rather, the new SAPD stepped into the vacuum created by the desertion of the middle class to Bismarck to advance the cause of social and political reform within the Prussian state.

The SAPD therefore had no more roots in Marxism than the British Labour Party. It was by birth a bourgeois labour party. Although Marxist literature formed a significant part of its theoretical and ideological heritage, and had close personal ties with its leaders, its politics remained opportunist. The conservatism of the party leadership was consolidated by the growth of the new social forces Zinoviev investigated in his study.

Party of the bureaucrats

Outside events, not the party leadership, were responsible for the adoption of more radical policies by the end of the 1870s. Anti-working class repression reached a peak with the adoption of the Anti-Socialist Law by the Reichstag in 1878, and the SAPD was forced to organise and conduct propaganda in conditions of illegality. This repression intensified workers’ hatred of the state and their identification as a class. Marxist ideas became a force among the advanced sections of the German proletariat, a development that was reflected in the emergence of a radical left-wing in the party.

The conservative leadership, however, managed to retain control. During the period of the Anti-Socialist Law from 1878 to 1890 trade union membership grew from 50,000 to 300,000. This strengthened working class organisation ut it also strengthened the bureaucracy which soon became the principal conservative force in the SPD and the working class. In 1891, Carl Legien, the first modern German trade union bureaucrat, reorganised the movement into one centralised federation under the control of his general commission which thenceforth pursued a systematic policy of partnership with the Prussian state.

The party was transformed into the political servant of the trade union leadership. Legien’s aim was to increase his role as mediator between capital and labour. To this end the state had to be persuaded to lift restrictions on trade union activity, to introduce social policies and to formalise the participation of labour representatives in administering them. The parliamentary party, as the representative of labour within the political sphere, became the agency through which the bureaucracy put pressure on for these changes.

This transformation of the party found its reflection in the party’s name. At its 1891 Erfurt Congress, the SAPD became the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), dropping the tag ‘workers’ which had expressed its formal allegiance to the working class. With the change of name the party leadership indicated that it aspired to be a non-class party of reform.

The change of name indicated the changing social roots of the party. Modern bourgeois society provided social democracy with a base of support which permitted it to develop a degree of independence from the working class, despite the fact that the proletariat formed the bulk of its membership and electorate.

Bourgeois reformism

The corollary of this development was that the party itself became increasingly dependent on the state, which saw it as the agency for reform. A mutual interest emerged which speeded up the process. The bourgeoisie recognised the need to integrate the working class politically and to institutionalise its domination over the working class. Bismarck, the founder of modern social policy, recognised at a very early stage that the working class was a social force he could not ignore. During the 1860s he attempted – with a fair degree of success – to use the working class against his middle class opponents. Then in the 1880s the fierce repression directed against the political emancipation of the working class was accompanied by certain reforms designed to neutralise opposition. Given that social reform was also the main objective of the SPD, the channels through which the leadership was drawn into co-operation opened up quite naturally.

Throughout the period of the Anti-Socialist Law the party led a virtually schizophrenic existence. Its members and press suffered fierce persecution while its representatives in parliament negotiated social reform and economic policy. The issue most hotly championed by SPD delegates was opposition to the proposed tariffs on food imports – a measure which aroused resentment from broad layers of German society.

Whilst its rank-and-file organisation was in chaos, parliamentarism provided a means through which the SPD could gain influence. Illegality reinforced this trend. It increased the independence of the SPD’s parliamentary wing because this was for the time being the only legally functioning section of the party.

The reward was overwhelming. The party enlarged its electoral base significantly. In the Reichstag elections of 1878 it gained eight percent of the vote; in 1887 10 percent; in 1890 20 percent; and in 1893, the first election after the end of the Anti-Socialist Law, 23 percent. The party changed its attitude to parliament too. Up to the early 1890s official party policy, reflecting resolutions of the First International, was to use parliament as a rostrum for propaganda and to oppose all bourgeois bills. But electoral success led the SPD to discard these principles. By the end of the decade, the SPD even joined regional state governments and formed coalitions with other bourgeois parties.

Electoral opportunism provided the SPD with another prop of support: the petit-bourgeoisie. This social stratum was a significant force in backward German society, and the flabbiness of German Liberalism after 1871 made the SPD into a natural focus for the expression of urban and rural petit-bourgeois interests against big capitalists and feudal landlords. As Zinoviev explained:

“This was the strength as well as the weakness of German social democracy. The strong point was that the SPD became the only people’s party, that all dissatisfied people sought its aid, that almost the entire democratic section of society flocked to its banners. The weakness was the petit-bourgeois fellow travellers introduced political corruption, irresolution and bourgeois mentality and all the other features characteristic of the layers between the two big classes into the party. Socialism was infected by opportunism” (p485).

Zinoviev provided detailed statistics to illustrate the increasing sway of the SPD’s petit-bourgeois ‘fellow travellers’. They show that by 1903 up to 50 percent of SPD voters in major towns were non-working class and that 30 percent (one million) of its total electorate were petit-bourgeois. Party officialdom, as he shows, also began to be permeated by this layer.

As long as the preservation of the immediate interests of both workers and petit-bourgeois appeared to coincide there was little tension within the SPD. The Reichstag elections of 1903 were the climax of the SPD’s early career as a people’s party. With three million votes it became the strongest party in parliament, a success which reflected it support among middle strata. But this support depended upon the projection of the party as a national force, one that could be relied upon to serve the interest of the German nation.


The ephemeral character of the SPD’s fellow traveellers was exposed in the subsequent elections of 1907 when the bourgeoisie set out to win back the middle layers by depicting the SPD as traitors to German imperialism. The demagogic tactic was very successful – the SPD suffered a humiliating defeat. In the aftermath the real character of the party was revealed. Party leaders decided that the lesson of defeat was to regain the middle layers by projecting a more strident patriotic image and curbing the anti-militarist activities of revolutionaries like Karl Liebknecht and the youth wing of the party. The accusation that it lacked patriotism was rejected as slander by party orators and writers up and down the country.

By 1912, the bourgeoisie was dismayed to find that the middle strata had returned en masse to the social democratic fold. Some perceptive commentators, however, noticed that the election result was a small loss compared to an infinitely more significant achievement – the SPD had committed itself to the cause of imperialism. Ruedorffer, an ultra right-wing diplomat and politician, commented:

“If international socialism succeeds in separating the worker from the nation and making him a mere member of his class, then it will be victorious. The means of pure coercion which the state in that case would be forced to apply to control him would in the long term be untenable. However, if socialism fails to achieve this the ties which link the worker to the organism we call nation will survive, even if only unconsciously. The victory of socialism is impossible as long as these ties remain – and it will face certain defeat if they are flound to prevail over those of class” (Ruedorffer, Grundzeuge der Weltpolitik, 1914, cited in Zinoviev, p503).

Ruedorffer was proved correct in 1914 and many times since. Unfortunately this grasp of the significance of internationalism for class politics has rarely been equalled in the labour movement.

Building a revolutionary party

The scientific merit of Zinoviev’s study is that it clearly analyses the twin forces which lie at the root of social-chauvinism – the trade union bureaucracy and the petit bourgeoisie. The first drove the SPD in the direction of pragmatic adaptation to bourgeois society; the second completed the degradation of the party into a vehicle for chauvinism and other forms of bourgeois ideology.

His analysis shows that by allowing these influences to grow and prevail the party bred a working class leadership whose interests began to coincide with the interests of the ruling class. He demonstrates that this process is not the result of evil subjective intention or simple material self-interest, but that it originates in the narrow pragmatic outlook of reformist labour politics. Its source is in essence political.

There is a conclusion which Zinoviev did not spell out, although his analysis clearly points to it. The way to overcome the destructive influence of opportunism is to construct a party which is committed to fight for the independent interests of the working class. This means taking on the labour bureaucracy. Only then can a real struggle for power be waged.


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