Ben Burgis's Bad History
In Jacobin, Ben Burgis has a piece arguing “opposing war has always been at the heart of socialist internationalism.” It begins with a total howler:
The International Workingmen’s Association, later known as “the First International,” was founded in 1864 to bring together the world’s left-wing parties and trade unions. Primarily led by Karl Marx, it also included a significant faction around the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.
While the two factions had fundamental disagreements, they agreed on issues of war and peace. Both took it for granted that workers in every country should oppose the wars declared by capitalist governments but fought by the working class. And both found inspiration in the 1871 Paris Commune, a brief revolutionary experiment that flowered at the end of the Franco-Prussian War when workers and disenchanted soldiers took over the municipal government in Paris and instituted radical policies like reopening abandoned factories under workers’ control.
Parts of this are hopelessly vague and parts of it are downright false. First let’s address why the First International “was founded,” to use the passive construction of the piece: workers founded it in the process of supporting the Polish uprising of 1863, when the Poles attempted to throw off the rule of Russia. As Kevin B. Anderson writes in Marx at the Margins:
In July 1863, an international delegation of French workers was permitted to travel to London for a joint meeting on Poland. During these same days, London trade union leaders such as George Odger, a prominent figure in the Poland meetings, decided to form closer links with workers on the European continent. The eventual result was the founding of the International Working Men’s Association, or First International, in September 1864, in which other workers and intellectuals involved in the Polish cause, among them Marx, played prominent parts.
In a letter to his uncle, Marx notes the direct relationship of the Polish cause and the formation of the International:
In September the Parisian workers sent a delegation to the London workers to demonstrate support for Poland. On that occasion, an international Workers’ Committee was formed. The matter is not without importance because . . . in London the same people are at the head who organized the gigantic reception for [Italian revolutionary Giuseppe] Garibaldi and, by their monster meeting with [British Liberal leader John] Bright in St. James’s Hall, prevented war with the United States.
Alongside Poland there are two other wars in question here: Garibaldi’s reunification of Italy and the American Civil War. In the first case, the members of the International celebrated the war in Italy, and in the second, they organized to support the Union war effort, a cause Marx was a furious and uncompromising partisan of, and their antiwar agitation was against a possible intervention on the side of the Confederacy.
“While the two factions had fundamental disagreements, they agreed on issues of war and peace,” Burgis writes. This is not so. One of the first disputes in the International—not between Bakunists and Marxists, but between Marxists and Proudhonists—was about issues of war and peace. The stated position of the International was strongly in favor of Polish independence—after all, it was founded around that issue—”Restoration of Poland” was even written on its banner. A letter from Marx to Engels, shows the former’s great anxiety to defend and vindicate their position on Polish self-determination:
A plot has been hatched against the INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION, in which connection I need your co-operation…The real crux of the controversy is the Polish question. The fellows have all attached themselves to the Muscovitist line pursued by Proudhon and Herzen. I shall therefore send you the earlier articles by the oracles in the Tribune du Peuple against Poland and you must do a refutation, either for our papers in Geneva (the 'German' one") or for The Workman's Advocate? The Russian gentlemen have acquired some bran-new allies in the Proudhonised section of 'Jeune France.’
Engels dutifully answered his friend’s call and produced articles in favor of the fight for Polish independence. They were quite bellicose in tone in laying down “the foreign policy of the working classes:”
The middle class, too, have had, and have still, ‘sympathies’ with the Poles; which sympathies have not prevented them from leaving the Poles in the lurch in 1831, in 1846, in 1863, nay, have not even prevented them from leaving the worst enemies of Poland, such as Lord Palmerston, to manage matters so as to actually assist Russia while they talked in favour of Poland. But with the working classes it is different. They mean intervention, not non-intervention; they mean war with Russia while Russia meddles with Poland; and they have proved it every time the Poles rose against their oppressors. And recently, the International Working Men’s Association has given a fuller expression to this universal instinctive feeling of the body it claims to represent, by inscribing on its banner, ‘Resistance to Russian encroachments upon Europe – Restoration of Poland’.
This was not just phrase-mongering: Marx actually attempted to organize a battalion of German volunteers to go into Poland and fight the Russians. Nor was this was in defense of a primarily socialist or even radical-democratic uprising: there was a large aristocratic faction in the Polish revolt. But even with the mixed social character of the uprising, which was attacked in Russian propaganda as being the naked attempt of Polish landowners to keep serfdom imposed on their peasants, the International decided to support Poland because they judged Russia to be a reactionary and the restoration of Polish independence favorable—essential, even—to the cause of democracy and revolution. This was also Marx and Engels position in the earlier Crimean War, a conflict between imperialist powers:
Russia is decidedly a conquering nation, and was so for a century, until the great movement of 1789 called into potent activity an antagonist of formidable nature. We mean the European Revolution, the explosive force of democratic ideas and man’s native thirst for freedom. Since that epoch there have been in reality but two powers on the continent of Europe – Russia and Absolutism, the Revolution and Democracy. For the moment the Revolution seems to be suppressed, but it lives and is feared as deeply as ever. Witness the terror of the reaction at the news of the late rising at Milan. But let Russia get possession of Turkey, and her strength is increased nearly half, and she becomes superior to all the rest of Europe put together. Such an event would be an unspeakable calamity to the revolutionary cause. The maintenance of Turkish independence, or, in case of a possible dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the arrest of the Russian scheme of annexation, is a matter of the highest moment. In this instance the interests of the revolutionary Democracy and of England go hand in hand. Neither can permit the Tsar to make Constantinople one of his capitals, and we shall find that when driven to the wall, the one will resist him as determinedly as the other.
Marx and Engels even feared that the middle and upper classes lacked the initiative and energy to prosecute the war and believed that the working class might have to step in to get it done. And far from fearing insurgencies, they openly rooted for the Chechen mountaineer Imam Shamil in his concurrent campaigns against the Russian Empire.
In all these positions, Marx and Engels picked their side based on their analysis of who better represents the success of democracy and revolution. In the history of the socialist movement, major figures have disagreed: Rosa Luxemburg openly contested Marx and then Lenin’s old devotion to the idea of Polish independence as being mistaken under the historical circumstances, but she did not pretend it had been the position of the International all along. Now, we live in a different epoch, and it is possible to come to other conclusions, but the debate should involve such questions. If you sincerely hope for the success of Russian arms in Ukraine, say so. If people think NATO and the EU are the greatest threats to progress in the world, they should openly make that argument. If people think passively allowing the rape of Ukraine brings us closer to socialism, by all, means make that argument so it can be disputed, but don’t hide behind a vague, general pacifism, so alien to the Marxist tradition of political analysis.
Burgis mentions the Paris Commune. But why did the Parisians revolt in the first place? It was against the proposed armistice of their government with the Prussian invaders, to continue the war of national self-defense even in the face of a fearsome siege. And, as soon as a republic returned to power in France, Marx and Engels were strongly in support of its war of national defense. Hal Draper and E. Habenkern write in Karl Marx’s Theory of War and Revolution of Marx and Engels’s “unqualifìed support of the war of the French Republic against the Prussian invasion from September 4 until the end in February 1871. They were active in the attempt to gain recognition for the new Republic by other European governments and especially the government of England. Engels’ articles were intended partly to advise its defenders.” This was on behalf of the bourgeois Government of National Self-Defense, before the working-class commune
I will set aside for a moment Burgis’s wholly inadequate treatment of COMINTERN and the Third International, which pursued its own wars and dishonorable diplomatic policies. Not to mention the Bolshevik’s Russian Civil War, which, in defense of proletarian revolution, basically sacrificed the nation’s revolutionary proletariat. In the case of the disputes within the International about the First World War, they involved arguments about what was most likely to further the cause of revolution: “revolutionary defeatism” was adopted for the sake of a concrete strategy based on a political analysis of the nature of the war and its belligerent powers. If there’s a similar case to be made today, by all means make it! It would at least be interesting reading.
Burgis and his fellows affect a condescending concern for the working-classes fighting and dying in the cause of Ukraine without even wondering if they have not taken up that cause willingly, enthusiastically, as their own. In fact, they ignore, the appeals of a Ukrainian socialist in their very own magazine, who, in the teeth of the invasion, supports the arming of Ukraine and asks his international comrades to stop fixating on US hegemony as the only question.
Burgis writes, “the best things we can do for Ukrainians are to focus on humanitarian aid, promote peace negotiations, and admit refugees.” I agree we should do the first and third, but peace negotiations happen because the belligerent powers no longer believe they can accomplish their goals militarily. The only way for that to happen is for Ukraine to prevail or at least stop the Russian advance. Otherwise, the Russians have no need to negotiate. I believe if you claim to support peace, you should support the continued success of Ukrainian arms, otherwise you are really supporting Ukraine’s conquest and despoliation, not any kind of “peace” worth the name. We now have nightmarish visions of what Russian occupation actually looks like.
I want to note one more irony here: Jacobin is named after the leaders of two wars of national liberation. The Jacobins defended their revolution fanatically in 1793, defeating and humiliating the old powers of Europe in open warfare. And Toussaint L’Ouverture, the “black Jacobin,” lead troops in the field to liberate his nation from slavery and colonialism and resisted re-invasion by imperial powers, often resorting to guerilla war in the process.
Wars are not light topics that can be dispensed of with simple formulas. I, for one, cannot imagine how the success of Russia would further the cause of democracy and socialism around the world. If you do, then say so, openly, so it can be debated in public. But don’t falsify tradition and history and hide behind pathetic slogans. To paraphrase Marx, we Marxists disdain to conceal our views and aims.