A call for workers’ power to end the war

September 15, 2016

One hundred years ago, the German socialist Käte Duncker spoke on working class struggle and the First World War in an address to the last unified national conference of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), held in Berlin on September 21-23, 1916.

The vote by SPD parliamentary representatives in support of German war spending on August 4, 1914, had split the party. At the September 1916 conference, the right-wing pro-war Majority Socialists were opposed by the Working Group (later USPD), a centrist current, as well as by the revolutionary current, the International Group (later the Spartacus League), led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. In November 1918, supporters of the USPD and Spartacus League led a workers' revolution that overturned the German emperor and brought the war to an abrupt end.

Duncker was another leader of the Spartacus League and the German Communist Party formed later (KPD). She was born and raised in Thuringia in 1871, and worked as a teacher. She met Clara Zetkin at a union congress and joined the SPD in Leipzig in 1898. As an SPD member, she was a prominent speaker and writer, an assistant editor of the SPD publication for women Gleichheit, and a part of the SPD educational committee with Rosa Luxemburg. During the war, she co-founded the International Group and was arrested in 1916 and banned from speaking publicly. As a leader of the KPD, she was forced into exile by the Nazis and lived in New York--during the Second World War, her third child became a victim of the Stalinist regime in the USSR. She died in 1953.

Here, we publish Duncker's 1916 speech as part of the SocialistWorker.org series marking the 100-year anniversary of the war, compiled by John Riddell, who wrote this introduction.

COMRADES! THE International [Spartacus] Group asked me to speak here today because we not only sharply disagree with the SPD Majority's policies, but are also in disagreement with the Working Group on significant issues. This applies above all to our position on the International and to "defense of the fatherland."

To the extent that the Working Group and its members' positions are not limited to rejection of war credits, they strive to restore the party and the International to the point of view they maintained before August 4, 1914, and to take up again its prewar policies, supposedly tried, true and triumphant.

But what August 4 really showed was that these policies had utterly failed. They had led us not to victory but to a devastating defeat precisely on the issue that put them to the test. [Interjection: "Very true"]

In our opinion, the Second International collapsed irretrievably on August 4, 1914. It was fated to collapse, because--despite all the fine speeches and decisions at its congresses--it was not an organic whole but only a loose structure with no internal cohesion. The national parties were autonomous. The German party in particular was unwilling to see its freedom of action restricted by any solid international agreements. Every attempt to convert the International into a genuine force shattered against the German delegation's response: "Unacceptable."

Käte Duncker
Käte Duncker

The International that we are striving for will stand above the national parties. It must be both the goal and the fulcrum of proletarian class organization. It must make the decisions on all questions whose significance extends beyond national frontiers, such as military and naval policy, colonialism and, above all, the policy to be adopted in case of the outbreak of war.

After the war, we want to build the International on a more secure foundation and make it a real political force. To that end, it is above all essential that the concept of the International, and along with it that of the class struggle, becomes the very essence of our educational work across the country. Every party member in every village must feel and understand that proletarians on the other side of our borders are our brothers, our working-class comrades. They stand closer to us than the ruling classes of our own country, and so too our obligations to workers abroad are much greater.

Against the ideology of nationalism, before which the Party capitulated in 1914, we uphold that of internationalism. Organizationally, we do not conceive of the new International as a loose structure of autonomous parties with some office in Brussels or The Hague, where comrades gather for inconclusive discussion of international issues. Nor do we imagine it, contrary to what was said of us in a Working Group publication, as a general staff commanding from on high, above the clouds, and sending down orders to the international proletarian multitudes from above.

What else to read

This is part of a series of articles and reprints compiled by John Riddell documenting the developing socialist response to the First World War 100 years ago. Other installments include:

John Riddell
Capitalism's world war and the battle against it

V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky
Two calls to struggle against the war

Karl Liebknecht
Liebknecht's historic appeal against war

Women's conference statement
Socialist women unite against war

Socialist Youth International
The youth challenge to war

John Riddell
The Zimmerwald resistance emerges

Karl Liebknecht
A letter to Zimmerwald

Zimmerwald Left
Resolution of the Zimmerwald Left

Zimmerwald Conference
The Zimmerwald Manifesto

Vladimir Lenin
Ireland's fight for self-determination

Karl Liebknecht
Liebknecht's cry of defiance in a military court

Käte Duncker
A call for workers' power to end the war

For a comprehensive collection of other documents from the period, see Lenin's Struggle for a Revolutionary International, edited by Riddell.

On the contrary, we conceive of the organizational ties as much closer, as an ongoing structure that is equipped with decision-making power. It will have this capacity because it is based on the internationalist consciousness of the masses in all capitalist countries, and because its decisions are thus binding for Social Democracy in all these countries. [Interjection: "How will you manage that?"]

WHAT WE are asking is, so to say, that the "alliance of provinces" that existed in the past be transformed into a "federal state."

Our position on national defense flows from our positions on the International and on the imperialist nature of the war. As we know, every war begins with the battle cry, "The fatherland is in danger." This is a marvelous way to deceive the less informed masses. This slogan of the endangered fatherland was already a conscious swindle in most earlier wars; it is all the more inapplicable in the era of imperialism regarding relations among the leading imperialist great powers.

There is no longer any such thing as a defensive war among the imperialist great powers. The claim to be going to war in defense of national frontiers and national independence is now simply outright deception. [Interjection: "How's that again?"]

When one pirate ship attacks another in order to seize its booty, we don't talk about justified self-defense. The imperialist states always seek to expand, to seize more booty. Their wars are about conquest from the very beginning. [Interjection: "Very true!"]

It makes no difference on whose territory the war is fought. When a war breaks out, it must be fought out somewhere. [Laughter] Just where it takes place depends on the fortunes of war, but that is not the basis on which we determine the war's character. [Interjection: "Very true!"]

As a human being and a socialist, I am just as pained and shocked by the killing of a French, Belgian and Russian proletarian as I am when the victim is German. "Sound the alarm: They're killing our brothers": This principle holds true for internationalist socialists no matter where war breaks out. And that is why we cannot base our stand on the war and the approval of war credits on the state of the war at any given moment, as the Working Group did in its December 21 statement and influential comrades have done in various speeches.

Imagine: If we were now in France's situation; if large portions of Germany were occupied by enemy troops, who knows--the Social Democratic Working Group might not even exist. [Loud laughter]

Let me repeat: Our position on the war is not dependent on the state of the fighting at any given moment. This way of thinking would always block any chance for unified action against the war by the international proletariat. In any given war, the Social Democrats of a country would pursue a policy based on the success of their country's armies, and thus necessarily opposed to that of their counterparts in another country. That would amount to an admission of bankruptcy as regards any international proletarian policy.

A MEMBER of the Working Group reproached us for an attitude of so-called "defense-nihilism." That term is quite inapplicable. We stand on the foundations of the Stuttgart resolution,[1] which laid on us the obligation, if we were unable to prevent war, not to defend the fatherland but to use every means to end the war rapidly and to utilize the crisis it creates in political and economic life to speed the abolition of the capitalist order.

If socialists achieve power in a given country, they will have to use against invading enemies, just as the revolutionaries of the French revolution defended their bourgeois freedom against feudal Europe, and the fighters of the Paris Commune in 1871 defended their commune against the Prussian troops.

Henke[2]: And that is precisely what our program says.

Duncker: I will refrain from taking up here the other points of disagreement between us and the Working Group. These include disagreements on taxation, submarine policy and the party executive's appeal for peace. With regard to taxation, let me just say that we reject war credits regardless of whether they are paid for out of the slim wallets of the masses or directly from the wealth of the propertied. They provide resources for war regardless.
This brief outline of the differences between us and the Working Group aims not at involving ourselves in a polemic with them but rather at showing why our group has to act independently and to refute the concept that the opposition is united. We will march separately, but we will unify to deal blows to our opponents, and the main task today is to deal that unified blow.

Delegates of the SPD Majority: "Aha" and laughter.

Duncker: We, too, have to settle accounts with the party executive, with the so-called Majority. But not with the social imperialists. We do not discuss with Kolb, Lensch, Cohen, Heine, Heilmann and the like. Nor do we discuss with those who, like Konrad Haenisch,[3] sing the "Workers Marseillaise" to the tune "Deutschland, Deutschland Über Alles"--

SPD Minority delegates: "Very good" and laughter.

Duncker: --because these people have moved outside the framework of the party program and its convention decisions. Almost every comrade understands this.

Minority delegates: "Very true."

Duncker: Keeping them in the party would require a complete transformation of its program. [Interjection: "Very true."]

Duncker: Or we could take a shortcut here and simply adopt the program of the National Liberals,[4] adorned by a few socialist turns of phrase. So long as our present party program is in force, these social-imperialists and their supporters are outside our party's framework. We have nothing in common with them.

Ledebour[5]: Not with us either.

Duncker: They have belonged for a long time to the bourgeois camp and are intruders in the house of socialism. When the day of reckoning comes, then those who adhere to the party's program, tradition and decisions will exercise this authority by throwing out these intruders.

Minority delegates: "Very good" and loud laughter.

Duncker: These people desecrate the temple of socialism and the socialist world outlook.

Ebert[6]: I must request that the speaker frame her remarks in a fashion consistent with debates among party comrades.

Ledebour: If you followed the example of Heine and Timm, the Chair would not call you to order!

Ebert: Silence, please. What I have just said applies to all party comrades and has always been the procedure at party congresses. [Interjection: "Very true."]

Duncker: We are dealing today above all with comrades who claim to adhere to the party's program and statutes but are in fact trampling program and statutes underfoot. They misuse the words "internationalism," "party unity," and "party discipline" in order to consciously deceive comrades across the country.Despite the incontestably imperialist nature of the war, comrades of the party executive and the official [Majority] parliamentary fraction continue to call for "holding out to the end" and approve war credits, despite the unambiguously imperialist nature of the war. They continue to support and defend the government despite its open calls for annexations. They therefore have no right to speak of working to reestablish international relations [among socialists] and peace. [Interjections: "Aha!" and "Very true."]

Duncker: The first precondition for resumption of international relations is to stop making charges against the parties in other countries, and clean up one's own backyard [Interjection: "That means the defeat of Germany."] and to break with the policy of August 4...

We call on all those who uphold the class struggle and international socialism not to be deluded by fanatical uproar about violations of party unity and discipline but to defend the integrity of our principles and to be disciplined in defending our world outlook.

That means we must also renounce obedience to the policies of the party's leading bodies. We must put an end to half-measures and abandon illusions that it is simply a matter of resolving the purely parliamentary issue of approval or rejection of war credits. The task is rather to call on the masses to wage a mighty struggle against imperialism and against the war.

Let us be clear on one thing: If the war ends as it began, as a gift from on high without the proletariat's involvement, as a result of diplomatic negotiations, then peace on that basis will seal the defeat dealt to socialism during the war.

Let this peace be achieved by utilizing all the proletariat's instruments of power. In that case, such a peace will prepare the road for the victory of socialism and shape the International into a power that will prevent any repetition of such horrendous genocidal slaughter for all time.


1. The Stuttgart Resolution was adopted by the Socialist (Second) International's congress of 1907. See "1907: The Birth of Socialism's Great Divide" by John Riddell.
2. Alfred Henke (1868-1946) was a member of the Working Group.
3. The named figures formed part of the SPD's extreme right wing, which openly embraced the aims of German imperialism and expressed confidence in the German emperor and his government. The "German Marsaillaise," written 1864 by Jacob Audorf, was a socialist poem sung to the tune of the French revolutionary anthem.
4. The National Liberals were the main political party of the German bourgeoisie.
5. Georg Ledebour (1850-1947) was a member of the Working Group and a prominent supporter of the Zimmerwald Manifesto.
6. Friedrich Ebert (1871-1925) was the SPD's chair from 1913 and president of the German republic (1919-25).

Source: The text has been translated from Dokumente und Materialien zur Geschichte der deutschen Arbeiterbewegung, Series 2, Vol. 1, pp. 457-63.

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