What is postmodernism? Is it a problem? The following continues a series of posts explaining postmodernism. It is inspired by the excellent Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault, by Prof. Stephen Hicks. (Additional support includes Trotsky on World War One, by Leon Trotsky; The Red Flag: A History of Communism; Mussolini, by Nicholas Farrell.)
Red Star Rising
The Franco-Prussian War united victorious Germany. Defeated France divided in civil war. Marx exploited the bloody Paris Commune. Marx’s First International split. The anarchist Bakunin warned against Marx’s authoritarianism, dictatorship, and slavery. Nietzsche hinted of looming twentieth century catastrophe, likening Socialists to poisonous spiders, bent on vengeance and weaving webs of deception.
- Part 31: Paris Commune
- Part 32: The Commune and Communism
- Part 33: The Anarchist Bakunin
- Part 34: Tarantulas
The First World War would see Marx’s Second International split, this time over nationalism.
Nationalism and Internationalism
The twentieth century saw nationalism blamed for the world wars. Was nationalism to blame? Who ascribed blame? Why? What were nationalism’s alternatives? Imperialism? International Communism? When the First World War broke out, nationalism faced Communism with an existential crisis.
Earlier, in 1872, the First International had fallen apart, riven by divisions between Marx’s state socialism (“authoritarian communism”) and Bakunin’s anarchism (“revolutionary collectivism”). They shared goals (a new social order, collective ownership of the means of production), but disagreed over the means. Bakunin warned that Marx’s corrupt “cult of the state” would conquer and enslave.
International Communism was an inevitable fact of history, Marx and Engels had espoused. However, the anarchist Bakunin had questioned Marx’s internationalism. He accused Marx of being a German nationalist. Marx’s international communism, Bakunin warned, would be a “great Pan-German State” dictatorship. So, the First International collapsed. Marx’s state socialists split from the anarchists.
The Communists organized “Social Democrat” parties to represent workers within the bourgeois political system until the inevitable (international) proletarian revolution and “dictatorship of the proletariat”. (Communists then identified as Social Democrats, with the terms “Communist”, “Social Democrat”, and “Democratic Socialist” being generally interchangeable.) “Socialism”, they said, would follow until the “withering of the state” and true Communism.
The German Social Democrats showed their nationalist stripes when war began in 1914. Germany was the capital of Communism. The German Social Democrats were the largest member of the Second International. All nations furthered bourgeois interests and all war was bourgeois war. The Second International collapsed when the Germans chose nation over class.
As war broke out, Russian Social Democrats took strong anti-war positions. “Revolution has no real interest in war,” argued Leon Trotsky, in his anti-war booklet, The War and the International. The proletariat should not shed blood for bourgeois war. He blasted German Social Democrats for their nationalist war support.
Trotsky condemned German Social Democrats for “hysterical nationalism” and abandoning “the standpoint of international Socialism”. He blamed the Germans for the collapse of the Second International (but also blamed the Austrian, French, English, and Polish socialists for their nationalism). “The German party was the strongest, most influential, and in principle the most basic member of the Socialist world,” he said, “Its historic capitulation reveals most clearly the causes of the downfall of the Second International.”
Nevertheless, Trotsky believed the War marked the end of nations. “All talk of the present bloody clash being a work of national defense is either hypocrisy or blindness,” he argued, the war was “at bottom a revolt of the forces of production against the political form of nation and state” that meant “the collapse of the national state as an independent economic union.”
The war would spark revolution, Trotsky claimed. “When the people, deafened by the thunder of the cannon, realize the meaning of the events now taking place in all their truth and frightfulness,” he wrote, “The revolutionary reaction of the masses will be all the more powerful the more prodigious the cataclysm which history is now bringing upon them.”
Trotsky scoffed at German Social Democrats’ promises to “liberate” Russia from czarism. Russian Social Democrats “stand so firmly on the ground of internationalism, that we cannot … entertain the idea of purchasing the doubtful liberation of Russia,” he wrote, “which German imperialism offers us in a … munitions box, with the blessing, alas! of German Socialism.” This was not liberation, but the “unlimited mastery of German militarism in all Europe … which began with the capitulation of [German Social Democrats] to nationalistic militarism,” he wrote, “the cause of the Social Revolution would have received a mortal blow.”
The nationalism crisis did not shake Trotsky’s faith that proletariat victory was near. “Why should we have faith in the future of the Socialist movement?” Trotsky asked, when the “the [bankruptcy] of the old Socialist parties has become catastrophically apparent”? His faith was unshaken. “It is not Socialism that has gone down, but its temporary historical external form,” he claimed, “The revolutionary idea begins its life anew as it casts off its rigid shell.” It is “the old Socialist parties [that] have become the main hindrance to the revolutionary movement of the working class,” Trotsky argued, “The New International … must rise up out of the present world cataclysm, the International of the last conflict and the final victory.”
Seeds of Fascism
The nationalism crisis did shake the faith of another Communist, Italy’s Benito Mussolini. He would forsake international Communism, but remain a Socialist to his dying day.
Benito Mussolini followed the socialist politics of his father, Alessandro Mussolini. Alessandro was a revolutionary Socialist agitator, who had joined the First International. Alessandro participated in local politics until his death in 1910.
By 1910, Benito was a revolutionary Socialist agitator and journalist. In the preceding years, he was tutored by Angelica Balabanoff, a Ukrainian revolutionary Socialist. After deserting from the army, Mussolini fled to Switzerland (where he attended lectures by Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto) before returning to complete his military service after the king granted amnesty to deserters. By 1908, he had begun his career in Socialist journalism.
In 1912, Mussolini rose to leadership in the Italian Socialists. To Lenin’s approval, Mussolini ousted the “reformist” (democratic) leadership and replaced them with revolutionaries. (Lenin later remarked, “Mussolini was the only one among you [Italian Socialists] with the mind and temperament to make a revolution.”) Mussolini awaited unrest that he might use to stir up revolution. Then, in June 1914, came “Red Week”, a general strike and uprising that was quickly crushed.
Months later, the War broke out. Italy remained neutral (disregarding its treaty obligations to Germany and Austria). Italian Socialists advocated neutrality because “any war between nations was a bourgeois war”. Mussolini demanded neutrality, “or else the proletariat will know how to impose [neutrality] on [Italy] with all its means”.
Then, the Second International collapsed. Classical revolutionary socialist theory was dead. The proletariat did not rise up in general strikes and refuse to fight. German, then British, then French socialists supported their governments. The governments did not collapse. The Second International collapsed, instead. Mussolini contemplated a different Marxian theory: that bloody war would cause the proletariat to rise in revolution (a theory shared by Italy’s revolutionary syndicalists).
The nationalism issue remained. Mussolini considered the power of nationalism. Nationalism had prevailed over class for Germany’s devout Social Democrats. Why not nationalism? And why not national war against foreign class enemies? The Italian Mussolini favored neutrality, while the Socialist favored war.
Finally, Mussolini renounced neutrality and joined support for the War. After Italy joined the war, he joined the fight. Nationalism had collapsed the Second International and brought his own incipient nationalism to the fore. The War, its aftermath, and the plight of its veterans would lead Mussolini and Italy further to Fascism.
Marxist theory failed, causing a crisis for the faithful. The socialists had chosen nation over class. This crisis was especially hard on “reformist” socialists (who favored gaining power through democratic means). Revolutionary socialists (like Lenin and Mussolini) were more adaptable because they had little faith in democracy. Trotsky and Lenin clung to international Communism, while Mussolini parted company. He embraced nationalism but clung to revolutionary socialism.
Mussolini was far from alone in Italian nationalism. Italy was a young nation. National unity was still recent. (The Risorgimento had culminated a few decades earlier, in 1870.) Nationalist feeling was shared across the political spectrum. For a revolutionary socialist, like Mussolini, nationalism appeared a means to revolution. And why not?
Bakunin was proved prophetic (and, awfully, would be again). The German Social Democrats had chosen nationalism. They had betrayed international Communist ideals. Bakunin was right that Marxism anticipated a “great Pan-German State”.
By and large, Marxist theory would continue to fail. The major failures would cause new existential crises. Each crisis would spawn mutations that bring us ever closer to postmodernism.
Marx’s theory is taking too long. So, the Communists get tired of waiting and come up with a new plan. Next: Part 36, What Is To Be Done?.