Socialism’s foreign policy

Introduction: Remembering Karl Liebknecht

Walt Auerbach

Karl Liebknecht was not a great theorist. Unlike Rosa Luxemburg, with whose name he will be forever linked, he wrote no major treatises on forms of protest or political economy (and even had his doubts about the labor theory of value).1 Nor was he a skillful politician. Before the war he was mostly known for being the son of Marx’s colleague and SPD cofounder,2 while after the war he was far too reluctant to break from social democracy once and for all.

Yet Liebknecht was a man of principle. Sebastian Haffner, a famous liberal historian, described him as “one of the most courageous men Germany ever produced.”3 He proved himself capable of sudden flashes of insight, moreover, some of which can be read in the fragment that follows. Liebknecht wrote this piece in April 1918 from Luckau prison. Although rambling at times and jotted down hurriedly, it deals with crucial themes such as the dialectic of inside and outside, subject and object, consciousness and conditions. It thereby remains relevant today.

What Liebknecht hopes to ascertain here is what Trotsky attempted to theorize some years later as the “propitious moment,” specifically in connection with the failed German revolution, reflecting on the lessons of October 1917.4 Georg Lukács couched the problem in rather more philosophical terms as the Augenblick — that is, the fleeting glance or blink of an eye in which the class-conscious proletariat can subjectively intervene within the objective course of events and disrupt the capitalist totality. Often this was discussed as the “ripeness” of conditions.

“Rosa and Karl went to their deaths almost somnambulistically,” Paul Mattick later recalled.5 Indeed, a grim sense of foreboding hangs over their last articles, as if they already knew what was in store for them. Today, a century after the crushing the Spartacist revolt and the murder of its leaders, it is fitting to revisit works left by these slain revolutionaries.

Originally published by Intransigence.


1 For more on this see his Grundzüge einer Marxkritik, posthumously published in 1922.
2 Wilhelm Liebknecht. Luxemburg would sometimes joke that Liebknecht had been “born into” the party. Prior to August 1914, Karl had devoted most of his energy to bolstering the youth sections of the SPD. His decision to vote against credits for war made him the sole elected voice of opposition, and resulted in his trial in 1915 and jailing until November 1918.
3 Sebastian Haffner. Failure of a Revolution: Germany, 1918-1919. Translated by Georg Rapp. (The Library Press. New York, NY: 1973). Pg. 140.
4 Incidentally, this was Bordiga’s favorite Trotsky pamphlet (apart from Terrorism and Communism): “What does it mean to lose the propitious moment? The most favorable conditions for an insurrection exist, obviously, when a maximum shift in our favor has occurred in the relationship of forces. We are of course referring to the relationship of forces in the domain of consciousness, i.e., in the domain of the political superstructure, and not in the domain of the economic foundation, which may be assumed to remain more or less unchanged throughout the entire revolutionary epoch. On one and the same economic foundation, with one and the same class division of society, the relationship of forces changes depending upon the mood of the proletarian masses, the extent to which their illusions are shattered and their political experience has grown, the extent to which the confidence of intermediate classes and groups in the state power is shattered, and finally the extent to which the latter loses confidence in itself. During revolution all these processes take place with lightning speed. The whole tactical art consists in this: that we seize the moment when the combination of circumstances is most favorable to us.” Leon Trotsky. Lessons of October. Translated by Naomi Allen. The Challenge of the Left Opposition, 1923-1925. (Pathfinder Press. New York, NY: 1975). Pg. 232.
5 Paul Mattick, Sr. Anti-Bolshevik Communism. (Merlin Press. Monmouth: 1978). Pg. 95.


Socialism’s foreign policy

Karl Liebknecht

International socialism, by virtue of its socialist and international character (that is, qua socialism and internationalism), can neither know nor tolerate any contradiction between its internal and external politics. Homogeneity and continuity of its internal and external politics are for it unconditional postulates. From each side it demands one and the same socialist, international, revolutionary spirit.

The task of socialist politics, supported by the class-conscious proletariat, is the following: to promote social development in the direction of the socialist order, etc., by means of proletarian class movement. In the moment of peripety [Momente der Peripetie],1 this movement assumes the character of social revolution in the narrower sense. Social revolution is possible only if a decisive part of humanity is ripe for the socialist order. But this ripeness is the overripeness of the capitalist order, the completion of its social-developmentary task.

Does it follow, then, as superficial schematics sometimes imagine, that socialist politics must promote capitalist development so as to accelerate the emergence of necessary preconditions for social revolution?

The ripeness of society [for revolution] is not an absolute but a relative measure, even in an economic and technical respect. Whether society is ripe for the socialist order depends not only on the degree of its economic development, but on its overall social development in the broadest sense. Above all, on the degree to which the consciousness, insight, will, and active determination of the proletariat [has been developed], namely from the spiritual, moral, and psychic level of the working masses.

Insofar as this psychic factor does not arbitrarily drop out of the clear blue sky, but rather results from the masses’ entire respective living conditions, its measure is hardly determined by extrahuman or extrasocial powers. Man’s psychic faculties also include the capacity for self-movement within certain limits, the capacity to augment given faculties through systematic action inside of these bounds. This applies to society as well as the individual. Compare their education. And as far as these capacities exist in either case, however they may be objectively conditioned or determined, men are not prevented from exercising them within certain limits. Just as the freedom to examine, resolve, and act which various groups of men claim for themselves appears imaginary from the standpoint of social psychology, so too is the notion of individual free will from the standpoint of personal psychology. In the broadest sense of man’s psychic and spiritual nature, the effect of the powers of the human soul cannot be other than individuals and groups working together, counteracting, and interacting with each other, objectively entwined, although they seem to act independently of one another. In this convoluted process, teeming with self-deceptions — in which the overall social psychology, and from it the material social activity, finds complete expression — everyone has to act with all the forces and impulses of which they are capable, for themselves and in relation to others, so they will contribute their part to the realization of the objectively required and determined processes of life for the whole of society.

To bolster the psychic factor, in order to hasten the possibility of socialist society — that is the specific task of socialist politics, its revolutionary task. By fulfilling this task, it helps create the conditions to systematically cultivate the germs and conditions of socialist society within the capitalist order, especially in political and economic terms. Dialectically, therefore, it has the effect of bringing society’s point of ripeness as near as possible.

It is often said of capitalism that the more it triumphs, the more it is its own gravedigger. This correct kernel of “catastrophe theory” is correct only because the counteraction [Gegenwirkung] increases, not only in equal ratio to it but in an even higher proportion. Such counteraction neither supports capitalist triumph nor serves as its corybantic accompaniment [korybantische Begleitung], à la [Paul] Lensch; it is rather our task, the task of the struggling proletariat.

In the question of capitalism’s unfolding, in its capitalist essence, socialist politics is purely critical. But this critique is also creative in that it carves out and cultivates the faculties that are still in control [of this unfolding], which can be used by the socialist movement as still latent elements of its development.

The foreign policy of socialism is not merely the extension of its internal politics beyond national borders, which are contingent from a socialist standpoint. More than any other social principle, it is identical both in idea and practice to socialism’s internal politics. For the external as well as internal politics of socialism are equally rooted in international social contradictions. Socialism expresses the class interests of the international proletariat, of which each national proletariat is merely an isolated splinter. In the context of international class struggle, every national contest between the classes is merely a dependent subprocess. Which is to say that they are only special applications of essentially international socialist principles to the concrete forms where class antagonisms appear in detail and in their totality, either locally or overall, in the concrete conditions of class struggle (exhibited either specifically in the interior of individual states or generally over and above state borders).

From the primacy of the international over the national viewpoint, the primacy of external over internal politics follows in principle. The internal politics of socialism are thus only a special case of its external politics. And what imperialism says is therefore necessarily true of socialism, albeit in an opposite sense: “Victory inwardly and victory outwardly require one another.”

The ends of socialism’s foreign policy must be socialist, as must their means. Socialism seeks to promote social development in the direction of the socialist order, which must be international [in scope]. Promotion of this development occurs through all socially suitable faculties — the socialist faculties of a working class still opposed to capitalism on the basis of capitalist society. But it also occurs through the influence of the developmental power of capitalism itself: insofar as the socialist movement gauges the type and energy of the power that it casts against the opposing measure of imperialist power and its degree of antisocialist danger, in order to ensure as simultaneously as possible the ripeness of the capitalist regions most important for socialist transformation. The means of socialism’s foreign policy are the various forms and methods of the revolutionary class struggle.

No more could the means of socialism’s foreign policy lie outside class struggle than any of its internal means.

Originally published by Intransigence.


1 Peripeteia or peripety refers to a sudden and dramatic shift of fortune, a device often used in literature.