The flaw in the peoples' army

IssueJune - August 2002
Feature by Wolfram Beyer

About a hundred years ago there was a significant debate in the international workers movement that continues to be relevant today. The discussion involved the connection between capitalism and militarism, the responsibility of the individual, conscientious objection, and striking against war.

It was a controversy between the German social-democrat Karl Liebknecht (1871-1919), a well-known personality in the international social-democratic movement, and the Dutch libertarian socialist, Domela Nieuwenhuis (1846-1919). In 1907 Liebknecht published Militarism and Antimilitarism for the socialist youth movement:

”Social-democratic antimilitarism wages war against militarism as a function of capitalism, in recognition and using the laws of, economic and social development.” It suggested the need for education and training in order to create “peoples' defence” in place of standing armies. Social democrats opposed what they called the “utopian position”, because they believed that it “isn't opposed to militarism” [because of a narrow interpretation of antimilitarism equating only with the capitalist-state variety], but rather opposes each type of preparation for war itself, and fundamentally opposes participation in every type of war.1

Abolish or reform the military?

At the conferences of the Second Interntional (IAA) in 1891 and 1893, anarchists, including Nieuwenhuis, presented resolutions that envisioned a call for general conscientious objection and for a general strike in the event of a declaration of war. The majority of the IAA, however, believed that all wars would disappear if capitalism could be removed.

Nieuwenhuis spoke out against the socialist democracy, declaring that they did not want to abolish the military institution, but rather wanted to reform it. In a speech aimed at Karl Liebknecht, he firmly declared, “... that we anarchists know, that with the removal of capitalism ... militarism is still not removed. ... The social democrats do not want to target militarism at its roots; they merely want a peoples' army. They only want to change the form, not the essence. What the social democrats call antimilitarism, in truth, is to reform the army,... it is also what the radical Bourgeoisie want.” 2

Nieuwenhuis saw that a socialist democracy could not take a more radical position on antimilitarism, because it strives for power to be located within the state and therefore remains dependent on the use of the military as a means of state power in securing domination.

Nieuwenhuis's ideas foresaw that the social democrats approval of a “war of defence” would end in chauvinism. This was borne out during the First World War (1914-1918) when social democrats and socialists served as soldiers of their respective countries and as defenders of their “homeland” in the war, and mutually murdered themselves.

Power from obedience

For Nieuwenhuis, individual personal responsibility provided orientation for political action. Nieuwenhuis stands in the philosophical tradition of the Frenchman Etienne de la Boetie (1530-63). In his essay entitled Of Voluntary Servitude, Etienne de la Boetie threw light on the whole social edifice and exposed the fact that leaders only have power when people allow them to have it.

Official authority - the legal power over others - is more moral than physical in character. It depends less on violence than on respect, that is, on the belief that those in power have the right to govern. Several centuries later Domela Nieuwenhuis had this to say on the subject: “A people in uniform is its own tyrant!” 3

In 1915, Nieuwenhuis was a signatory to a call to conscientious objection. It stated: “We declare publicly that we take a stand with our entire soul against everything that belongs to militarism, and also against a so-called peoples' army. As far as anyone should oblige us to take part in armed national defence, we hope to possess the power to refuse our direct personal participation, [to possess] the power to subject ourselves to imprisonment, to even being shot, rather than to practise treason against our conscience, our conviction, or against what we consider to be the highest law of general humanity. Personal conscientious objection has a huge moral value and contributes to achieving conscientious objection of the masses.”4

Resolving “good power”

Karl Liebknecht also performed civil disobedience and refused participation in war preparations in the parliament. On 2 December 1914, he was the only parliamentarian in the German Reichstag to reject a move to further finance the war. Though in August he had subjected himself to party discipline and had voted in support of financing the war.

Liebknecht was murdered by soldiers in 1919 along with Rosa Luxemburg. Both wanted a socialism connected with a “peaceful state” and “good power”. However, this model of the real socialism has failed historically.

The War Resisters International (WRI) was established 1921, and we continue in a political and critical way to - as Nieuwenhuis highlighted - try to resolve the axioms of “state” and “power” and to strive for a nonviolent society.