Karl Liebknecht
Militarism & Anti-Militarism
I. Militarism

1. General

1. On the essence and meaning of militarism

Militarism! Few slogans have been so frequently used in our time, and few denote a phenomenon so complicated, multiform, many-sided, and at the same time so interesting and significant in its origin and nature, its methods and effects. It is a phenomenon which is deeply rooted in the structure of class-divided social orders, yet can take on within the same type of social order, according to the special natural, political, social and economic circumstances of individual states and territories, an extraordinary variety of forms.

Militarism is one of the most important and powerful signs of life of most social orders, because it is the strongest, most concentrated and exclusive expression of the national, cultural and class instinct for self-preservation, the most elementary of all instincts.

A history of militarism in the deepest sense discloses the very essence of human development and of its motive force, and a dissection of capitalist militarism involves the disclosure of the most secret and least obvious roots of capitalism. The history of militarism is at the same time the history of the political, social, economic and, in general, the cultural relations of tension between states and nations, as well as the history of the class struggles within individual ante and national units.

There can of course be no question here of even attempting such a history, but we will indicate a few general aspects.


2. Origin and basis of social relations of power

In the last resort the basis of every social relation of power is the superiority of physical force [1], which as a social phenomenon does not appear in the form of the greater physical strength of individuals, since as far as this relation is concerned, one human being is worth as much as any other, and a purely numerical majority is decisive. The relation of numbers with which we are concerned does not simply correspond to the numerical relation between groups of persons with contradictory interests, but is determined – since not everyone is conscious of his own real interests, especially not of his fundamental interests, and above all since not everyone recognizes or acknowledges the interests of his class as his own interests – essentially by the level of intellectual and moral development of each class, by which is decided the extensive and intensive degree of class-consciousness. This intellectual and moral level is itself determined by the economic position of the individual interest groups (classes), while the social and political position represents rather a consequence, though of course one which is very strongly retroactive, and an expression of the relation of power.

Purely economic superiority also contributes directly to the displacement and confusion of the numerical ratio, since economic pressure not only influences the height of the intellectual and moral level and thus the consciousness of class interest, but also produces a tendency to act in accordance with this more or less understood class interest. The fact that the political machinery of the class in control lends it increased means of power to “correct” the numerical relation in favour of the ruling interest group is taught us by all the well-known institutions: police, law courts, schools, together with the church, which must also be included here – institutions which are created by the political and legislative machinery and used as an executive, administrative instrument. The first two work chiefly by means of threats, intimidation and violence, the school chiefly by blocking up as far as possible all those channels through which class-consciousness can travel to the brain and heart. The church on the other hand works most effectively by awakening a passion for the make-believe delights of heaven and a fear of the tortures of hell.

But even the numerical ratio so determined does not decide absolutely the relation of power. An armed man increases his physical strength by many times through his possession of a weapon. The degree of the increase depends upon the development of the technique of arms, including fortification and strategy (whose form is essentially a consequence of the technique of arms). The intellectual and economic superiority of one interest group over another is turned into a simple physical superiority through the possession of arms, or of better arms, on the part of the ruling class. The possibility is thus created of the complete domination of the class-conscious majority by a class-conscious minority.

Even when the division into classes is decided by the economic position, the political relation of power between the classes is determined by the economic position of individuals only in the first place; in the second place it is determined by the countless intellectual, moral and physical means of power at the disposal of the economically dominant class through its economic class position. The fact that these instruments of power exist cannot affect class divisions, since these are created by a quite independent set of conditions which, with a power like that of nature, forces certain classes, which may well represent a majority, into economic dependence on other classes, which may represent a tiny minority – a dependence which neither the class struggle nor any means of political power is capable of eliminating. [2] The class struggle can therefore only be a struggle to develop class-consciousness among class comrades – which embraces a readiness for the performance of revolutionary deeds and for sacrifice in the interest of one’s class – and a struggle to capture those means of power which are of importance with regard either to the creation or to the suppression of class-consciousness, as well as those physical and intellectual means of power whose possession means the multiplication of physical strength.

This demonstrates what an important role the technique of arms plays in social struggles. It depends on this technique whether, in the case where it is no longer economically necessary, a minority remains in a position to dominate a majority against its will by military action, the “most concentrated form of political action” – at least for a certain length of time. Leaving aside the divisions between the classes, the development of the relations of power is in reality closely tied to the development of the technique of arms. As long as more or less everyone – even the person in the worst economic situation – can produce arms under essentially similar conditions of essentially similar efficacy, the majority principle, democracy, will be the normal political form of society. This must be true even in a situation of economic class division, in so far as the above condition holds. The natural process of development is of course that the division into classes, which is the consequence of economic-technical development, runs parallel with the cultivation of the technique of arms (including fortification and strategy). The production of arms therefore becomes to an ever greater degree a professional skill. Further, since class domination as a rule is constituted precisely by the economic superiority of one class over another, and since the improvement of the technique of arms leads to the production of arms [3] becoming ever more difficult and expensive, this production gradually becomes the monopoly of the economically dominant class. The physical basis of democracy is thus removed. The rule then is: whoever is in possession is in the right. A class which has once been in possession of the political means of power may be able temporarily to retain its political domination even when it loses its economic superiority.

After what has already been said, it ought not to need further demonstration that not only the form and character of the political relations of power but also the form and character of the class struggles of a given period are determined by the technique of arms.

It is not enough that all citizens are equally armed and in possession of their weapons to safeguard permanently the rule of democracy. The equal distribution of arms in itself as events in Switzerland have shown, does not rule out the possibility that this distribution may be done away with by a majority which is about to become a minority, or even by a minority which is better organized and ready to strike. The general and equal arming of the population can only become a permanent and irreversible characteristic when the production of arms itself is in the hands of the people.

The role of democratization which the technique of arms can play has been very clearly depicted by Bulwer in one of his less known works, the remarkable utopia entitled The Coming Race. In this work he presupposes such a high technical development that every citizen can at any moment produce the most destructive results by the use of a small stick, easy to get hold of and loaded with a mysterious force similar to that of electricity. And indeed we can suppose that the time will come – even if it is far in the future – when technique and the easy domination by men of the most powerful forces of nature will reach a stage which makes the application of the technique of murder quite impossible, since it would mean the self-destruction of the human race. The exploitation of technical progress will then take on a new character; from a basically plutocratic activity it will to a certain extent become a democratic, general human possibility.


3. Some items from the history of militarism

In the lower cultures which know no division into classes the weapon serves as a rule also as a tool for work. It is at the same time a means of acquiring food (by hunting, by cultivation, etc.) and a means of protection against wild beasts and of defence against hostile tribes, as well as a means of attacking them. The weapon has such a primitive character that anyone can easily acquire it at any time (stones and sticks, spears with stone tips, bows, etc.). This is also true of means of defence. Since no division of labour worthy of the name (if we except the most primitive of all such divisions, that between man and wife) yet exists, since all members of the community, at least within each division of sex, perform more or less the same function, and since there are as yet no relations of political or economic power, it follows that the weapon cannot be used inside the community to support such relations of power. It could not be used as a support in this way even if relations of power did exist, since only democratic relations are possible in conjunction with a primitive technique of arms.

If in this lowest form of culture the weapon is used inside the community at most to settle individual conflicts, the situation changes when a division between classes appears together with a higher development in the technique of arms. The primitive communism of the lower agricultural peoples in which women were dominant knows no social and therefore normally also no political relation of class domination. Generally speaking militarism does not appear. External complications compel these peoples to prepare themselves for war and even, for certain periods, produce military despotisms which are very commonly found among the nomadic peoples, owing to the constant threat of war and the division into classes which as a rule has already come into being.

Let us recall the organization of the Greek and Roman armies, in which, in accordance with the division into classes, there existed a purely military hierarchy, organized according to the class position of the individual, which position determined the quality of his armament. Let us further think back to the feudal armies of knights, with their troops of squires mostly on foot and always much worse armed and equipped, who, according to Patrice Laroque, played rather the role of assistants to the combatants than that of combatants themselves. The fact that at this time the arming of the lower classes was permitted and even encouraged is to be explained not so much by the lack of general security offered by the state to the acknowledged interests of the individual, which in a sense made it necessary that everyone should be armed, as by the need for a possible mobilization of the nation or state for attack on or defence against the external enemy. The differences in the armament of the different social classes always made it possible, however, that the technique of arms might be used to maintain or establish the relation of power. The Roman slave wars throw light in a most remarkable way on this side of the question.

The German Peasant War and the Wars of the German Towns are also important in this respect. Among the direct causes of the unfavourable outcome of the German Peasant War was above all the military-technical superiority of the feudal armies of the Church. But the fourteenth century Wars of the Towns directed against these very same armies turned out successfully, not only because at this time the technique of arms and especially that of firearms was exceptionally backward, the opposite of the position in the Peasant War of 1525, but above all in consequence of the great economic power of the towns. These, as localities in which social spheres of interest came into relation, brought together in close community the representatives of these spheres, without any notable admixture of contradictory elements. Further, owing to the manner in which they were built, the towns from the first held a tactical position of the same importance as that of the feudal lords and of the Church and Emperor in their castles and fortresses; this is similarly a military-technical element (fortification). Finally, it was important that the production of arms was in the hands of the towns; and as their citizens were quite superior in terms of technical preparedness, they overcame the army of the knights. [4]

As an examination of the Peasant and Town Wars in particular demonstrates, it is necessary to bear in mind the important role played by the different social classes, whether each class is united in one locality or mixed with other classes. When the class division coincides with the division of locality, it is simpler to wage the class struggle, not only because of the way in which class-consciousness is thereby developed, but also because of the way in which, speaking from a purely technical point of view, the military organizational unity of the class comrades as well as the production and supply of arms is facilitated. This favourable local grouping of the classes has been of aid to all bourgeois revolutions [5], but in the proletarian revolution is almost entirely lacking. [6]

Economic power is also found directly transformed into physical power in the mercenary armies of our day (just as it is where the distribution of armament in general is concerned), according to the Mephistophelian maxim: “If I can pay for six steeds, is their strength not mine? I drive away and am a real man, just as if I had twenty-four legs”, and according to the maxim: divide et impera! – “divide and rule!” These two maxims are applied to the so-called elite troops. The Italian condottieri on the other hand show in a striking manner – as the Praetorians once did – what political power is conferred on those who possess weapons, military training and the art of strategy. The mercenary sought boldly for the crowns of princes, played ball with them, and became the natural heir to the supreme power of the state – a phenomenon which we see repeated down to our day in times of excitement and war when the mobilized military power rests in the hands of individuals: Napoleon and his generals are an example, Boulanger another! [7]

The history of the German “Wars of Liberation” teaches us important lessons about the influence of the external political situation on the form of military organization and of militarism in general. When in the disastrous Coalition Wars of 1806 against the French Revolution the feudal standing army of Frederick II was crushed as in a mortar by the citizen army of France, the helpless German governments were faced with the alternative: either to submit permanently to the pleasure or displeasure of the Corsican conqueror, or to defeat him with his own weapon, with a citizen army based on a general arming of the people. Their instinct for self-preservation and the spontaneous impulse of the people compelled them to take the latter course. The great period of the democratization of Germany and especially of Prussia then began, impelled by external pressures which for a time alleviated the political, social and economic tension at home. Money and enthusiastic freedom fighters were required. The value of man increased. His social quality as a creator of wealth and a prospective taxpayer, together with his natural-physical quality as a bearer of physical power, as a bearer of intelligence and enthusiasm, took on decisive significance and raised his rate of exchange, as always happens in times of general danger; but the influence of class distinction went down. The “Prussian people” had, to use the jargon of the military weeklies, “learned to suppress their quarrels during the long years of foreign rule”. As so often is the case, financial and military questions played a revolutionizing role. Various economic, social and political obstacles were removed. Industry and trade, which were financially of the first importance, were promoted as far as the petty-bureaucratic spirit of Prussia-Germany would allow it. Even political freedoms were introduced, or at least – promised. The people rose, the storm broke. The Scharnhorst-Gneisenau [1*] army based on universal military service drove the “hereditary enemy” back over the Rhine in the great Wars of Liberation, and set up a model to shame him who had shaken the world, who had undermined the France of the Great Revolution, though as an army it was not the kind of democratic organization that Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had wanted to create. After the “moor” – the German people – had thus done his duty, he received suitable “thanks from the House of Hapsburg”. The Karlsbad resolutions followed the Battle of the Nations at Leipzig; and one of the most important acts of the futile Metternich period of perfidious and accursed memory, when the external pressure had been removed and all the reactionary devils at home had been let loose again, was the abolition of the democratic army of the Wars of Liberation. The culturally developed areas of Germany might have been ready for such an army, but it was abruptly destroyed, together with all the glories of the great popular rising, under the dead weight of the East Elbean-Borussian lack of culture.

A superficial glance at the development of the military organization finally demonstrates how closely dependent is the construction and size of the army not only on the social structure, but even more on the technique of arms. The revolutionizing effect of the discovery of firearms is one of the most remarkable facts in the history of war.

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1. And also of course of intellectual force, which is the inseparable regulator of physical force in so far as it effects the best possible use of that force and makes the physical force of others serve its purpose, which it actually does through the use of the physical force available to it and acquired. The extent to which this use of physical force exists as a social phenomenon, that is to say, the extent to which it contributes to the determination of the structure of the social relation of power in virtue of the scale and regularity of its occurrence in the relations between individual interest groups, depends as a rule essentially on the economic position of those groups. Some of the more important aspects of this question will be discussed later.

2. “In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces.” – Karl Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

3. To the category of arms proper belongs for example – apart from munitions and weapons of all kinds, including the system of searchlighting, and the fortresses and warships – the military communications system (horses, waggons, bicycles, the building of roads and budges, ships in inland waters, railways, automobiles, telegraphs, wireless telegraphy, telephone, etc.). Nor should the telescope, airship, photography and spy dogs be forgotten.

4. The development of Italy in the fifteenth century is of the greatest interest here, directly tempting one to make a more thorough investigation. It strengthens our fundamental thesis throughout. See Burckhardt, Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, ninth edition, vol.I, pp.103ff.

5. Also to the Russian Revolution in its early stages. Especially characteristic, among the numerous other proofs, is the armed uprising in Moscow in December 1905, the astonishing tenacity of which is explained by the fact that the main body of the population of the town co-operated with the revolutionaries in the firing line, who were after all not very numerous. The tactics of urban guerrilla warfare, brilliantly developed in Moscow, will become epoch-making.

6. The fact of men working together in factories, etc., and living together in “working class quarters” must, however, be taken into consideration.

7. See Burckhardt, Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien, vol.I, pp.22ff.

Additional note

1*. SCHARNHORST, GERHARD VON (1755-1813). Appointed head of the Army Reform Commission after the Peace of Tilsit (1807). Collaborated in this field with Gneisenau, with the aim of introducing conscription coupled with political reform. Chief of Staff to Blücher in 1813, he died the same year after receiving a wound in the Battle of Lutzen. – GNEISENAU, GRAF VON (1760-1830). Prussian Field Marshal. In 1813 became First General Staff Officer to Scharnhorst, then Chief of Staff. Attempted to convert the mercenary Prussian army into a so-called citizen army.

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