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Reading Karl Liebknecht's "Militarism"

The other day, the good folks of r/communism attempted to start a "communist of the day" discussion around Karl Liebknecht.  Although the post produced very little discussion, it made me remember how I always intended to read Liebknecht.  So yesterday I dusted off the copy of Liebknecht's Militarism (which I have since learned is only half of a larger work, Militarism and Anti-Militarism) that I procured at a book sale nearly two years ago and have just finished reading all 178 pages.

(On a side note, I'd like to say that the r/communism moderators––who I know from outside of the reddit world––have done an excellent job of producing a subreddit where, unlike r/socialism, radical thought is actually promoted and in a decidedly non-sectarian manner.  And though the quality of r/communism will not convince me to join the reddit community, it has caused me to lurk this tiny corner of the reddit universe on a semi-regular basis.  So without participating on reddit because, as with facebook, I am not interesting in giving myself more internet angst, I am trying to support their "communist of a day" suggestion, albeit lately.)

Like many communists and anti-capitalists, my appreciation of Liebknecht was due to his association with Rosa Luxemburg.  Since he was her comrade––that other dissenting voice in Germany's revisionist party who was also part of the Spartacist uprising and also executed by the freikorps––and since her influence on marxist theory is far more immense than his, it was easy to simply relegate him to the status of a secondary sun, important only because he reflected Luxemburg's light and was a committed revolutionary.  One of the two commenters on the "communist of the day" discussion even referred to Liebknecht as Luxemburg's "dumb brother" because he was supposedly not a good theorist, he failed to abide by the the SPD's democratic centralism––going so far as to suggest a coup.

And yet we need to ask why any committed revolutionary should have abided by the democratic centralism of a party that had already degenerated into opportunism: this is a party that rejected revolution, supported imperialism, locked up Liebknecht and Luxemburg, and eventually handed them over to the fascists.  Perhaps an in-house coup of the central committee was a bad idea, but we must wonder why it possessed any less worth than the Spartacist uprising, which revolutionaries everywhere salute, that was crushed by the order of an SPD parliament member.

Moreover, simply because the theory Liebknecht produced was of less worth than the theory of Luxemburg does not mean the former was a bad theorist.  Very few German communists at that period in time produced theory that even came close to matching Luxemburg's work.  And Liebknecht's theoretical offerings, which is not widely read today, though not on par with Luxemburg's, is still far superior and revolutionary than much of the garbage produced by self-congratulatory academic marxists.

Militarism is a case in point, and yes part of me did expect to encounter the polemics of a committed revolutionary who was little more than Luxemburg's "dumb brother".  But this book, though imperfect in many ways, is still stunning as the first attempt to make sense of the phenomenon of militarism and how it relates to the capitalist mode of production.  Although it is hampered by the constraints of Liebknecht's historical period (and this hampers all historical materialist works), and though it would have been improved had Liebknecht read Lenin's analysis of imperialism (an impossible feat since Militarism was written ten years before Lenin's Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism), it is still one of the best historical materialist engagements with capitalism's need for militarism, and what makes militarism under capitalism different from militarism under other class-based societies.

In some ways Militarism is a response to Bernstein's laughable claims that the phenomenon of militarism is the product of a feudal mode of production, a rotting institution that is actually hampering capitalism from being properly capitalist.  Of course Bernstein, despicable opportunist that he was, would make such a claim; it ran parallel to his belief that communists could run parliamentary parties and have their "revolution" through a legal process of reform––peacefully, as "civilized" as the bourgeoisie.  But Liebknecht begins by arguing that militarism, pace Bernstein, is a core component of all class divided societies; the military institution (along with the police) necessary to maintain the hegemony of the ruling class.  It is the "mailed-fist" of imperialism abroad when economic coercion fails and the "watch-dog" of capitalist relations at home when the masses become uppity.  (And there are moments when Liebknecht's Militarism prefigures Gramsci's thoughts on poles of "coercion" and "consent" that make up the concept of hegemony.)

Simply stating that militarism is necessary for capitalism just as it is necessary for all class-divided societies, however, is not enough: most of us already understand this point, and we now have a history of radical theory to say the same thing in different ways.  What makes Liebknecht's Militarism especially important is that it is attempting to describe the precise character of capitalist militarism, what makes militarism under this mode of production different than militarism under other modes of production.  This might seem like a false dilemma––especially since we now live in a world where it is easy to mistake the armies of the most powerful capitalist nations as synonymous with capitalism––but it is actually more complex than we would at first assume.

Take for example the way militarism functioned before capitalism, which Liebknecht (being a good historical materialist), examines.  Under feudal systems, for example, you have a standing army comprised primarily of the nobility (an army of knights), and a recruited army in times of war drawn from separate fiefdoms.  Weapons and armour are distributed on basis of rank; a smaller corps of better armed and trained nobles––bound into feudal ideology with all the mystification of the Great Chain of Being––who can easily monopolize military violence.  This structure was not only the product of feudal ideology but existed to maintain feudal heirarchy; it fell apart because an ascendant bourgeoisie eventually were those who were in control of production (meaning they were also in control of the production of technological developments in weaponry).

Under capitalism there arose the problem of maintaining a standing army.  Now it appears to be no problem at all, because we know that every powerful capitalist state has a standing army, but in the period when Liebknecht was writing all of the old powers of Europe were attempting to reform their armies because the old feudal military structures were becoming inadequate.  Switzerland, for example, made the mistake of arming its entire citizenry to deal with external threats and then quickly realized that the majority of the people had interested different from the ruling class when the war was over––causing a manic disarmament campaign in 1899.

Most importantly, and on an ideological level, there was the fact that the feudal myths were severely damaged by bourgeois ideology.  It's easier to convince people to go on a crusade to install the kingdom of God on earth than it is to fight another group of poor people because the rich people who aren't in the army want money.  Obviously this feudal way of seeing the world does not vanish, and we know that so many modern imperialist ventures are explained in these reactionary moral terms that still make sense (and Liebknecht does recognize this), but the question under capitalism becomes: by what mechanism are they permitted to persist when the dominant ideology, despite other lingering and useful ideologies, is one of economic rather than metaphysical alienation.

The sharper problem was thus the following: militarism was needed to maintain capitalism both externally and internally, but how can the bourgeoisie convince the becoming-conscious proletarian to die in its service?  A draft system is a possible problem because it breeds resentment (and we know from World War I, that would happen soon after Liebknecht wrote this book, that the drafted workers dying in the trenches were extremely resentful of their slave-driving bourgeois officers), and in most nations where the draft was employed those whose class made them most inclined to support an army were also those who were considered more important than the average (and replaceable) worker, and in any case there were far less of them.  Most drafts could be dodged by the wealthy, lotteries rigged, and thus more resentment fostered––more possible class-consciousness.

Interestingly enough, Liebknecht notes that the capitalist nations maintaining settler colonies had no problems maintaining standing armies in the colonies due to the privileged position of the colonists, racism, and thus the colonial necessity to militarize colonial societies in all aspects of life.  (But he cannot stretch this insight far enough because this is before Lenin's theorization of the labour aristocracy and before Fanon's theorization of colonial power.)  Colonial militarism thus prefigures full-scale capitalist militarism: the point is to extend military discipline and military ideology to all aspects of capitalist society, just as it is extended in all aspects of colonial society, so as to condition the masses to accept the military terms of their oppression as necessary.

The problems posed by a draft and privileged escapes from the draft––the problems posed by an armed society where the majority might seek the end of the terms of this society––can be side-stepped with the creation of a standing army in the midst of a society that celebrates this standing army.  An ideological draft, an economic draft, a normalization of capitalist militarism:
"Militarism thus appears in the first place in the army itself, then as a system reaching beyond the army and embracing all of society in a net of militaristic and semi-militaristic institutions (such as the control system, the prohibition of literary activity, court of honor, the reserve-officer system, the provision for time-expired non-commissioned officers, the militarization of the whole bureaucratic apparatus [due above all to the mischievous reserve-officer system and the military claimants for pubic positions], cadet corps, veterans' associations, etc.); further as a system of saturating the whole private and public life of our people with the military spirit for which purpose the church, the schools, and a certain venal art, as well as the press, a despicable literary crowd and the social prestige, with which our 'splendid war army' is ever being surrounded as by a halo, cooperate in a tenacious and cunning fashion."
When reading this quotation one cannot help but imagine contemporary USAmerican society where the soldier profession is venerated in every institution, where military parades are common-place, where every artist lackey of the bourgeoisie produce "venal art" to patriot might, where veterans clubs are revered, where television shows and movies extol the beauty of imperialist militarism, where supposed "leftists" think campaigns to install minority groups in the army are liberatory because it is so bloody amazing to be a soldier, and where military funerals produce much tears.  And those imperialist powers who are lesser lights than America are partially lesser because they have not accomplished militarism at the same level.  Even so, those of us who live in capitalist nations outside of America are similarly affected by patriotic militarism: we have our parades, our funerals, our pundits lauding "our" troops, and our holy days where we are expected to shed a tear in silence for the sacrifice of "our boys".  We are now living in the days when all of our institutions praise the military and where the halo that Liebknecht envisioned has grown terribly bright.

There is a point in Militarism where Liebknecht begins to sound like Foucault, but a Foucault whose foundations were thoroughly historical materialist, and it is here that I found myself most gripped by his prescience, regardless of the flaws.  Halfway through the book, near the one hundredth page of my decaying copy, Luxemburg's "dumb brother" ("dumber" than Luxemburg but, I would argue, far wiser than most of us) discusses a book by a pro-capitalist German theorist: Gustav Tuch's The Expanded German Military State in its Social Significance.  In this book, Liebknecht tells us, Tuch
"sketched a future society of which the all illuminating, warming, directing central sun is militarism, its heart and soul, the only true 'national and civilized socialism' [note the proto-fascism of this statement]; where the whole state is transformed into the image of the barracks, the barracks being grammar school, high-school and a factory for producing patriotic spirit, the army an all comprising organization of strike-breakers.  That ecstatic hallucination about the millennium of militarism was indeed mere methodical madness, but the very fact that it was a methodical madness, which imagined the militaristic aims and methods apart from all checks and carried them to their extreme conclusions, lends to it a symptomatic significance."
Fascism was an ideology unknown to Liebknecht in 1906, though he would encounter its emergence when he was executed in 1919, and here he is talking the imagined utopia of capitalist militarism which pretends it is a "national and civilized socialism"––fascism, thus, being the utopia of monolithic capitalists.  And this utopia is significant to Liebknecht not because he would be executed by its supporters in 1919 (this is more than ten years earlier, he possesses no crystal ball), but because this is the necessary reality of capitalist militarism.  Military discipline needs to spread beyond the barracks, to every facet of life, and thus become "the ultimate, sometimes recondite, sometimes patent regulator of all class politics, all tactics of the class-struggle, not only for the capitalist classes, but also for the proletariat, in regard to its economic organization no less than in regard to its political organization."

Perhaps what I found most interesting about Militarism, however, was not its main argument regarding militarism under capitalism (which was compelling enough) but those moments where Liebknecht was trying to think through the revolutionary strategies needed to respond to capitalist militarism.  Since the book was written in 1907, the author was not yet conditioned by the events of 1917 in Russia and the so-called "October Road" of insurrectionist revolutionary strategy.  Instead, when he looks to the revolutionary events of Russia, he is thinking of the world historical stage of 1905 and he argues, in a throwaway footnote, that "[t]he tactics of the urban guerilla method, splendidly developed in Moscow, will be epochal."  So already he is thinking of a revolutionary process, not yet completed by 1917, that was a protracted and guerrilla method.  Already, Canada's Revolutionary Communist Party is arguing that the universal method of revolution, theorized by the experience of the Chinese Revolution, is one of Protracted Peoples War and not a single Insurrection after a protracted legal process––to the single moment of 1917, they respond 1905-1917––and it is clear that, for Liebknecht, the events in Russia are beginning in 1905 and that this process is "epochal".

And though he never precisely theorizes a protracted method (this is before the Russian Revolution, let alone the Chinese Revolution), Liebknecht's insights on capitalism's militarism should lead one to think about the theoretical process rather than the moment of insurrection which might have only been the end of a larger chain.  After all, if we live in a society where militarism has been thrust into every aspect of life, then we also live in a society where militarism favours the bourgeoisie and a responding military strategy "is almost lacking in the case of the proletarian revolution."  Hence these prescient moments where Liebknecht focuses on nascent "peoples armies"––a term he even used in regards to the case of Switzerland's 1899 disarmed proletariat.

Moreover, "the superiority of the army to the unarmed people, the proletariat, is far greater today than it was ever before on account of the highly developed military arts and strategy, the enormous size of the armies, the unfavorable local distribution of the various classes and the relative economic strength of proletariat and bourgeoisie which shows the proletariat in a particularly disadvantageous position, wherefore alone a future proletarian revolution will be far more difficult than any revolution that has taken place hitherto."  In essence: the problem of bourgeois militarism cannot be solved simply by pinning all our hopes on the possibility of a single insurrectionary moment.  For Liebknecht understood, even in 1907 when the opportunism of his party was already rearing its head, that those who spoke about a protracted legal process were most often those who also spoke of abandoning revolution and entering the bourgeois arena of parliamentarianism.  Looking to the revolutionary events in 1905 Russia, he possibly glimpsed the ghost of a revolutionary strategy that would not be theoretically grasped until the Chinese Revolution.