Anton Pannekoek

Liberal and Imperialist Marxism


Source: Neubestimmung des Marxismus 1: Diskussion über Arbeiterräte, Berlin (West): Karin Kramer Verlag, 1974, pp. 27-30.
Published: ‘Liberaler und imperialistischer Marxismus,’ Lichtstrahlen, nr. 7, 1915
Transcriber: Daniel Gaido
Translation: Daniel Gaido, 2009

In this essay Pannekoek takes issue with the so-called ‘radical imperialist’ wing of the SPD—a group of extreme social-patriots that developed during the First World War and included some prominent former defenders of ‘orthodoxy’ and left-wingers such as Paul Lensch, Heinrich Cunow, Max Cohen and Konrad Haenisch.[2] It draws an interesting analogy with the so-called ‘Legal Marxists’ in Russia who ultimately became supporters of the Liberal Cadet party, like Peter Struve and Mikhail Tugan-Baranovsky.

Even if in previous years former Social Democrats, by gradually shifting their attitude, advanced often enough to the position of ministers and pillars of the government, we certainly never had to unlearn so much and so quickly as in the current World War.

We are not thinking primarily of the revisionists, who even earlier, in times of peace, never concealed that they wanted to replace the class struggle by a permanent ‘class truce;’[3] and also not of the ‘pale red’ radicals[4] who, confused and stunned in the world storm, clinging desperately to the old, are forced by the lack of clear goals to take part in it. Much more amazing is the case of those people that formerly appeared as spokesmen for the extreme left, and all of a sudden became enthusiastic supporters of imperialism.

We have experienced a similar case earlier, when in Russia before 1905 former Marxists, such as Peter Struve and others, became political leaders of the bourgeoisie. Because the explanation of this fact fits almost verbatim in the present case, we reprint the following passages from an old article of 1909 about the Russian experience:

“The cause of this, at first sight, strange phenomenon lies in the dialectical character of Marxism itself, in the historical character of the Marxist theory of history. It not only constitutes a critique of capitalism, but also shows, at the same time, its historical necessity. It appreciates each stage of social development in its historic justification, until it must clear the way for the next stage.
“Marx not simply attacked capitalism; he depicted, described and explained it in a wonderfully accurate way. The proletarian learns from this depiction of capitalism the causes of his condition, the insight about how surplus value is extracted from his labour; he learns from it the law of development of this social order and the goal towards which he must strive: socialism. But Marx’s picture [of capitalism] also shows some other traits, which impress most those who do not live immersed its reality. It shows how capitalism revolutionizes the old, immovable conditions, sweeping away the old stifling atmosphere of barbarism and lack of culture, opening up the springs of huge gold flows and unlimited opportunities, clearing away the obstacles for energetic, aspiring persons, turning them into masters of the world, and creating wonders as no historical period before it did.
“Those traits must impress particularly those who, like our Russian comrades, live under barbaric conditions, in the lack of culture of primitive conditions of production; those who want to rise above those conditions, but are held down by force. What grows up in them as an ideal is not socialism, which is so distant as to be hardly recognizable, but the tremendous capitalist development itself, which abolishes the old, narrow circumstances. Marx has taught them to know capitalism, and they want that capitalism, they yearn for it.
“Of course, they do not want it as a final goal: one can wholeheartedly stand up for a cause only if one believes that it will bring happiness to everybody. The bourgeois liberties and order alone can no longer do that; socialism, which Marx proved to be the necessary result of capitalism, should be the ultimate goal, but the promotion of capitalism, the only means to that ultimate goal, was the next immediate practical goal. Thus Marxism, which shows much better than all previous ideologies the need to make a clean sweep of the old [order of things], became a theory of a rising revolutionary bourgeoisie—that is to say, primarily of the Russian intelligentsia, which provided the spokesmen of this class.
“When the proletariat then emerged, the Marxism of these ideologists of the bourgeoisie had to adopt the well-known revisionist colouring: the workers should struggle, together with the bourgeoisie, for the bourgeois constitutional state, but not raise their own demands. They should first nurse and strengthen capitalism, before they can defeat it.
“It is thus understandable how Marxism could take the place of the former liberalism at the service of a bourgeoisie like the Russian one; it is also clear that, in doing so, it had to be something completely different from the theory of the proletarian struggle, and especially it had to assume a narrow mechanical character. This intelligentsia took from Marxism no more than it could use. It needed no more [than proof] that capitalism is rational and necessary. That capitalism is likewise subjected to development and doomed to decline—the validity of this truth they shifted to the distant future, which lay outside the area of practical action.
“Marxism, however, is not a mechanical doctrine; the two sides of capitalism are inseparable, and the reverse is not a future issue, but a present one. Bourgeoisie and proletariat do not appear one after another on the world stage but simultaneously, and they immediately begin to fight out their antagonism. The sooner the proletariat stands on its own feet spiritually, the more rapidly will its strength grow, and all the sooner it will be ready to reach its goal. It may be that initially the two classes have the same interest in progress, but from the beginning there is a contrast between the ways in which each class understands this progress. The proletariat would like to shape the political and economic forms so that the way is as smoothed as possible for quiet, peaceful further development; [while] the bourgeoisie seeks to consolidate its rule for all time. If the working class lets itself be persuaded by the quasi-Marxist theorists, it should trustfully relinquish the leadership to the bourgeoisie wherever it appears progressive, trusting its leaders because, after all, the next goals are the same. The proletariat would thus handicap its own further advancement. Because the real practical goals are different, even if the name of the theory temporarily coincides.”

What we then said about capitalism as opposed to primitive small-scale production now holds for imperialism as opposed to small-scale capitalism. It opens up wide horizons, leads beyond the narrowness of the European area, revolutionises the world at a colossal scale, and gives people an indomitable energy. Just like the British people, as rulers of the seas, are at home on every part of the world, and regard all continents as part of their area of action, each aspiring nation would like to imitate them. England’s world domination and wealth, built upon the possession of the richest countries of the world, is the model their yearnings. It is only too natural that even socialist theoreticians, in order to show the irresistibility of imperialism, should stress this aspect of the question in their fight against the old party tradition, which knew nothing of imperialism. Against the obtuse torpor of those party circles that hid their complete inability to understand modern development behind the comfortable phrase “good old tactics,” those theoreticians had to emphasize above all the irresistibility of the imperialist development. However, those who see nothing but the irresistibility and necessity of imperialism may as well be enthusiastic spokesmen of imperialism as revolutionary Social Democrats, depending on whether they want to promote it or whether they infer from this insight the need for a stronger tactic of the workers against imperialism. Thus, in previous years the Leipziger Volkszeitung pointed out that to the new phenomenon of imperialism necessarily belong the new tactics of mass action.

It is understandable that a Social Democratic student of imperialism can easily find arguments in his theoretical luggage if he wants switch to the other side. He only has to regard Marxism mechanically and say: ‘Socialism is only possible on the foundations of the highest capitalist development, of imperialist development; therefore, let us first help consolidate these foundations with all our power, let us protect the world power of our own country against foreign imperialism; today we must be imperialists, but socialism remains the ultimate goal’—in the remote future, because it has surely become apparent that the proletariat is still far too weak for victory.

It is obvious that, with this attitude, the quasi-Marxists do not prepare and promote the realization of socialism, but rather inhibit and delay it. The realization of socialism depends solely on the strength, independence, energy and clarity of purpose of the working class.


1. Anton Pannekoek, ‘Liberaler und imperialistischer Marxismus,’ Lichtstrahlen, nr. 7, 1915. Reprinted in Anton Pannekoek, Neubestimmung des Marxismus 1: Diskussion über Arbeiterräte, Berlin (West): Karin Kramer Verlag, 1974, pp. 27-30.

2. On this issue see Abraham Ascher, ‘”Radical” Imperialists within German Social Democracy, 1912-1918,’ Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 4 (December 1961), pp. 555-575.

3. [Burgfrieden: literally ‘fortress peace’ or ‘castle peace.’ but more accurately ‘party truce,’ The term was used to denote the political truce the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the other political parties agreed to during World War I. The trade unions refrained from striking, the SPD voted for war credits in the Reichstag and the parties agreed not to criticize the government and its war. The only SPD member of parliament to vote against war credits in the second session was Karl Liebknecht. In the third session of March 20, 1915, Otto Rühle joined him. An American equivalent of the term would be the so-called ‘no strike pledge’ of the CPUSA during World War II.]

4. Pannekoek refers here obliquely to the centrists like Karl Kautsky.

Last updated on: 1 January 2010