Editors’ note: In the midst of a world war, in June 1918, Lenin called this passage from Engels’ 1887 writings, “scientific prophecy.” It is worth pondering. More than a few contemporary commentators have stated how much the current world scene resembles the inter-imperialist rivalry characteristic of the world on the eve of the First World War, August 1914- November 1918. The full text can be found at <<www.marxists.org>>
by V. I. Lenin
Nobody, thank God, believes in miracles nowadays. Miraculous prophecy is a fairy-tale. But scientific prophecy is a fact. And in these days, when we so very often encounter shameful despondency and even despair around us, it is useful to recall one scientific prophecy which has come true.
Frederick Engels had occasion in 1887 to write of the coming world war in a preface to a pamphlet by Sigismund Borkheim, In Memory of the German Arch-Patriots of 1806-1807 (Zur Erinnerung für die deutschen Mordspatrioten 1806-1807 ). (This pamphlet is No. XXIV of the Social-Democratic Library published in Göttingen-Zürich in 1888.)
This is how Frederick Engels spoke over thirty years ago of the future world war:
“. . . No war is any longer possible for Prussia-Germany except a world war and a world war indeed of an extent and violence hitherto undreamt of. Eight to ten millions of soldiers will massacre one another and in doing so devour the whole of Europe until they have stripped it barer than any swarm of locusts has ever done. The devastations of the Thirty Years’ War [1618-1648] compressed into three or four years, and spread over the whole Continent; famine, pestilence, general demoralisation both of the armies and of the mass of the people produced by acute distress; hopeless confusion of our artificial machinery in trade, industry and credit, ending in general bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their traditional state wisdom to such an extent that crowns will roll by dozens on the pavement and there will be no body to pick them up; absolute impossibility of foreseeing how it will all end and who will come out of the struggle as victor; only one result is absolutely certain: general exhaustion and the establishment of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class.
“This is the prospect when the system of mutual outbidding in armaments, taken to the final extreme, at last bears its inevitable fruits. This, my lords, princes and statesmen, is where in your wisdom you have brought old Europe. And when nothing more remains to you but to open the last great war dance—that will suit us all right (uns kann es recht sein ). The war may perhaps push us temporarily into the background, may wrench from us many a position already conquered. But when you have unfettered forces which you will then no longer be able again to control, things may go as they will: at the end of the tragedy you will be ruined and the victory of the proletariat will either be already achieved or at any rate (doch ) inevitable.
“London, December 15, 1887
What genius is displayed in this prophecy! And how infinitely rich in ideas is every sentence of this exact, clear, brief and scientific class analysis! How much could be learnt from it by those who are now shamefully succumbing to lack of faith, despondency and despair, if . . . if people who are accustomed to kowtow to the bourgeoisie, or who allow themselves to be frightened by it, could but think, were but capable of thinking!
Some of Engels’s predictions have turned out differently; and one could not expect the world and capitalism to have remained unchanged during thirty years of frenzied imperialist development. But what is most astonishing is that so many of Engels’s predictions are turning out “to the letter”. For Engels gave a perfectly exact class analysis, and classes and the relations between them have remained unchanged.
“. . . The war may perhaps push us temporarily into the background. . . .” Developments have proceeded exactly along these lines, but have gone even further and even worse: some of the social-chauvinists who have been “pushed back”, and their spineless “semi-opponents”, the Kautskyites, have begun to extol their backward movement and have become direct traitors to and betrayers of socialism.
“. . . The war may perhaps wrench from us many a position already conquered. . . .” A number of “legal” positions have been wrenched from the working class. But on the other hand it has been steeled by trials and is receiving severe but salutary lessons in illegal organisation, in illegal struggle and in preparing its forces for a revolutionary attack.
“. . . Crowns will roll by dozens. . . .” Several crowns have already fallen. And one of them is worth dozens of others—the crown of the autocrat of all the Russias, Nicholas Romanov.
“. . . Absolute impossibility of foreseeing how it will all end. . . .” After four years of war this absolute impossibility has, if one may say so, become even more absolute.
“. . . Hopeless confusion of our artificial machinery in trade, industry and credit. . . .” At the end of the fourth year of war this has been fully borne out in the case of one of the biggest and most backward of the states drawn into the war by the capitalists—Russia. But do not the growing starvation in Gerrnany and Austria, the shortage of clothing and raw material and the wearing out of the means of production show that a similar state of affairs is very rapidly overtaking other countries as well?
Engels depicts the consequences brought about only by “foreign” war; he does not deal with internal, i.e., civil war, without which not one of the great revolutions of history has taken place, and without which not a single serious Marxist has conceived the transition from capitalism to socialism. And while a foreign war may drag on for a certain time without causing “hopeless confusion” in the “artificial machinery” of capitalism, it is obvious that a civil war without such a consequence is quite inconceivable.
What stupidity, what spinelessness—not to say mercenary service to the bourgeoisie—is displayed by those who, like our Novaya Zhizn group, Mensheviks, Right Socialist-Revolutionaries, etc., while continuing to call themselves “socialists”, maliciously point to the manifestation of this “hopeless confusion” and lay the blame for everything on the revolutionary proletariat, the Soviet power, the “utopia” of the transition to socialism. The “confusion”, or razrukha,[Dislocation, disruption.—Editor] to use the excellent Russian word, has been brought about by the war’. There can be no severe war without disruption. There can be no civil war—the inevitable condition and concomitant of socialist revolution—without disruption. To renounce revolution and socialism “in view of” the disruption, only means to display one’s lack of principle and in practice to desert to the bourgeoisie.
“. . . Famine, pestilence, general demoralisation both of the armies and of the mass of the people produced by acute distress. . . .”
How simply and clearly Engels draws this indisputable conclusion, which must be obvious to everyone who is at all capable of reflecting on the objective consequences of many years of severe and agonising war. And how astonishingly stupid are these numerous “Social-Democrats” and pseudo-Socialists who will not or cannot realise this most simple idea.
Is it conceivable that a war can last many years without both the armies and the mass of the people becoming demoralised ? Of course not. Such a consequence of a long war is absolutely inevitable over a period of several years, if not a whole generation. And our “men in mufflers”, the bourgeois intellectual snivelers who call themselves “Social-Democrats” and “Socialists”, second the bourgeoisie in blaming the revolution for the manifestations of demoralisation or for the inevitable severity of the measures taken to combat particularly acute cases of demoralisation—although it is as clear as noonday that this demoralisation has been produced by the imperialist war, and that no revolution can rid itself of such consequences of war without a long struggle and without a number of stern measures of repression.
Our sugary writers in Novaya Zhizn, Vperyod or Dyelo Naroda are prepared to grant a revolution of the proletariat and other oppressed classes “theoretically”, provided only that the revolution drops from heaven and is not born and bred on earth soaked in the blood of four years of imperialist butchery of the peoples, with millions upon millions of people exhausted, tormented and demoralised by this butchery.
They had heard and admitted “in theory” that a revolution should be compared to an act of childbirth; but when it came to the point, they disgracefully took fright and their fainthearted whimperings echoed the malicious outbursts of the bourgeoisie against the insurrection of the proletariat. Consider the descriptions of childbirth given in literature, when the authors aim at presenting a truthful picture of the severity, pain and horror of the act of travail, as in Emile Zola’s La joie de vivre (The Joy of Life ), for instance, or in Veresayev’s Notes of a Doctor. Human child birth is an act which transforms the woman into an almost lifeless, bloodstained heap of flesh, tortured, tormented and driven frantic by pain. But can the “individual” that sees only this in love and its sequel, in the transformation of the woman into a mother, be regarded as a human being? Who would renounce love and procreation for this reason?
Travail may be light or severe. Marx and Engels, the founders of scientific socialism, always said that the transition from capitalism to socialism would be inevitably accompanied by prolonged birth pangs. And analysing the consequences of a world war, Engels outlines simply and clearly the indisputable and obvious fact that a revolution that follows and is connected with a war (and still more—let us add for our part—a revolution which breaks out during a war, and which is obliged to grow and maintain itself in the midst of a world war) is a particularly severe case of childbirth.
Clearly realising this, Engels speaks with great caution of socialism being brought to birth by a capitalist society which is perishing in a world war. “Only one result [of a world war],” he says, “is absolutely certain: general exhaustion and the establishment of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class.”
This thought is expressed even more clearly at the end of the preface we are examining.
“. . . At the end of the tragedy you (the capitalists and landowners, the kings and statesmen of the bourgeoisie) will be ruined and the victory of the proletariat will either be already achieved or at any rate inevitable.”
Severe travail greatly increases the danger of grave illness or of a fatal issue. But while individuals may die in the act of childbirth, the new society to which the old system gives birth cannot die; all that may happen is that the birth may be more painful, more prolonged, and growth and development slower.
The war has not yet ended. General exhaustion has already set in. As regards the two direct results of war predicted by Engels conditionally (either the victory of the working class already achieved, or the establishment of conditions which will make this inevitable, despite all difficulties ) as regards these two conditions, now, in the middle of 1918, we find both in evidence.
In one, the least developed, of the capitalist countries, the victory of the working class is already achieved. In the others, with unparalleled pain and effort, the conditions are being established which will make this victory “at any rate inevitable”.
Let the “socialist” snivelers croak, let the bourgeoisie rage and fume, but only people who shut their eyes so as not to see, and stuff their ears so as not to hear, can fail to notice that all over the world the birth pangs of the old, capitalist society, which is pregnant with socialism, have begun. Our country, which has temporarily been advanced by the march of events to the van of the socialist revolution, is undergoing the particularIy severe pains of the first period of travail. We have every reason to face the future with complete assurance and absolute confidence, for it is preparing for us new allies and new victories of the socialist revolution in a number of the more advanced countries. We are entitled to be proud and to consider ourselves fortunate that it has come to our lot to be the first to fell in one part of the globe that wild beast, capitalism, which has drenched the earth in blood, which has reduced humanity to starvation and demoralisation, and which will assuredly perish soon, no matter how monstrous and savage its frenzy in the face of death.
June 29, 1918