Ideological Differences of Major Socialists

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism—From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

The First World War saw the rise of different factions of socialism. It also saw the rise of several major players such as Vladimir Lenin, Benito Mussolini, Rosa Luxemburg, and Karl Liebknecht, among others. Their views on World War I and socialism differed, giving rise to new conflicts and ideologies.

An image representing socialist and communist leaders—Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin.
When World War I broke out, the socialist states were faced with difficult choices. Should they defend the capitalist states, or should they fight against their own states in order to bring about a world revolution? (Image: sandykot/Shutterstock)

A French socialist, Jean Jaurès, was against the war and worked dedicatedly toward bringing peace during the crisis that led to World War I. Unfortunately, he was assassinated by French nationalists, who feared Jaurès would halt France’s entry to the war. The socioeconomic situation of the working class encouraged French socialists to vote for the war and rally behind their government.

Learn more about why a Marxist regime come to power in Russia.

Mussolini’s Surrender of Pacifism

A photograph of Benito Mussolini.
Fascist leader Benito Mussolini came to power in Italy in 1922. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Another socialist whose perspective toward the war had changed was Benito Mussolini. In 1912, Mussolini was arrested and sentenced to jail for stimulating unrest and mob violence in Libya against Italy’s imperialist war. However, Mussolini realized that war could be advantageous for Italy and soon surrendered his pacifist ideologies and argued for Italy’s entry into the war. In 1915, Italy finally entered the First World War and that eventually led to Mussolini joining the army. This was the beginning of a new ideology called ‘fascism’, which was a fusion of nationalism and socialism. In 1922, after the end of World War I, fascism came into power in Italy under Mussolini’s leadership.  

The shifts in political ideologies broadened the differences among followers of different factions such as the capitalists, Marxists, Bernsteinian revisionists, socialists, deviationists, and so on. When World War I broke out, the issues of defensism and defeatism came to the fore. The socialist states were faced with difficult choices. Should they defend the capitalist states, or should they fight against their own states in order to bring about a world revolution?

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Denunciation of Defensism

A photograph of Rosa Luxemburg.
Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg did not favor war. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

A small and dynamic group of socialist, who opposed the war, came together against defensism. One such socialist was Rosa Luxemburg. She was a Polish revolutionary who was quite active in Germany. During World War I, she urged soldiers to give up fighting. However, her actions were not well-received, and she was sentenced to jail for undermining Germany’s war efforts. Another important figure was Rosa’s comrade, Karl Liebknecht. He was Wilhelm Liebknecht’s son, who was one of the founders of the SPD. He was also the leader of SPD’s left-wing faction, which made him quite influential and powerful. However, he refused to vote for Germany’s war interests and partnered with Rosa to form the ‘Spartacus League’, a group of socialists that was named after a leader of the Roman slave revolt. In 1916, he, too, was sentenced to jail when he shouted, “Down with war!” in an open street in Berlin. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian socialist, also denounced defensism and opposed the war efforts. He was the leader of a left-wing socialist party and theorized on hegemony as a form of cultural power and control. He was an active socialist and contributed toward the founding of the Italian Communist Party. He was later arrested by Mussolini’s fascist regime, and the imprisonment broke his health and eventually led to his death.

Denunciation of defensism in different countries revealed that not all socialists supported the war and that they encouraged their states and governments to take a different, more radical path. But sadly, this was a small group and their voices did not reach the well-established political parties. In September 1915, the Swiss socialist Robert Grimm organized a meeting that invited members of this group. Among the members who attended was Vladimir Lenin. Since Switzerland was a neutral zone, the members who attended the meeting could not openly join it. They pretended to be attending a meeting for birdwatchers to hide their actual agenda. This meeting denounced the war, the imperialist ideologies that expedited it, and called for peace without territorial conquests. At the meeting, Lenin asked for a more radical solution and suggested the creation of a Third International. He wanted to recruit loyal revolutionaries and transform this imperial war into a civil war. He believed that the ruling class should be overthrown by the working class. However, the group was not convinced, and Lenin left the meeting with eight people and formed the Zimmerwald Left group.

A photograph of a French version of Lenin's book, State and Revolution.
In his book State and Revolution, Lenin compared fully organized socialism in the future to a post office. (Image: Photo personnelle/Public domain)

After leaving the Zimmerwald Conference, Lenin hopefully waited for the participants to agree to his suggestion of organizing a Third International. He was impressed by how the Germans concentrated on industrial development, which was also called ‘war socialism’ by some people. He believed that this could lay the foundation for socialism after a revolution. In his book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin described how the capitalists generated profits from colonization to ensure greater profits. He feared that a revolution in Russia would be catastrophic, as it was the weakest link in the system. Soon Lenin published his work called State and Revolution, in which he predicted the consequences of a revolution. According to him, the state was the “centralized organization of force, the organization of violence”. He believed that the state would become unnecessary and the dictatorship of the proletariat would be enforced by the working class. In State and Revolution Lenin compared fully organized socialism in the future to a post office. According to him, a post office was a “mechanism of social management” that was capitalist at present but could be repurposed under workers’ control in the future. On the other hand, he declared parliamentary democracy a sham. However, Lenin’s plans and ideas were called un-Marxist and anti-democratic by the German socialist Kautsky. Even though Lenin did not care then, he eventually grew discouraged.

Learn more about Polish-German socialist Rosa Luxemburg’s revolutionary activities throughout Switzerland, Poland, and Germany.

Common Questions about Socialists’ Ideologies

Q: What was the basis of Mussolini’s new ideology?

Mussolini fused socialism and nationalism to form a new ideology called fascism.

Q: What were the objectives of the Zimmerwald Conference?

The Zimmerwald Conference denounced the war, the imperialism that had precipitated it, and called for peace without territorial conquest.

Q: What did Lenin suggest at the Zimmerwald Conference?

Lenin suggested the creation of a Third International and recruitment of loyal revolutionaries to transform this imperial war into a civil war.

Q: In his book State and Revolution, why did Lenin compare fully organized socialism to a post office?

Lenin believed that a post office was a “mechanism of social management” that was capitalist at present but could be repurposed under workers’ control in the future.

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