Militarism and anti-militarism


 Brian Parkin


2 April 2024 –

In 1907 the German left-socialist Karl Liebknecht, one of Rosa Luxemburg’s closest collaborators, wrote an important bookcalled Militarism and anti-militarism*. As the Zionist war machine inflates, Brian Parkin argues for the continuing relevance of anti-militarism today, in what was originally a talk given to Edinburgh rs21.

protestors in London with banners and placards, saying stop guns.
Stop the Arms Fair – Walk from Stratford to the ExCel Centre, east London 6th September 2023. Photo by Steve Eason

In 1907 the German Empire was just 46 years old. It was founded following the Prussian victory in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871, during which the Paris Commune rose and fell. Prussia was the largest of the pre-unification German states, and the most heavily militarised. Its ruler Otto von Bismark had long argued for a unified and ‘greater’ Germany, and became the first Chancellor of the new Empire. Germany from 1871 onwards was marked by a strict set of militaristic conventions, which tightly controlled the civil service, police and education system, but it also had an expanding welfare state which aimed to draw workers away from the growing workers’ movement. Despite repressive laws, both trade unions and the German Social-Democratic Party (SPD) grew in numbers and influence, and by 1907 the German workers’ movement was the largest in Europe. 

Desires of colonial empire

The largely land-locked and ‘constrained’ Germany of 1907 had long been subordinated to the declining Austro-Hungarian empire. Although it was starting to realise an enormous industrial potential, it could not match the overseas imperial reach of its closest rivals – France and Britain. The Empire had taken part in the ‘the scramble for Africa’, hosting the 1884 Berlin conference which formalised the carve-up of Africa between the major European powers. But Germany’s colonial spoils from the conference were modest by comparison with their competitors, which fuelled a drive to war which would explode in 1914.

The second reprint of this title in 1914, after the majority of the SPD’s Reichstag deputies had voted for war credits for what was to be the first imperialist war, saw Liebknecht thrown into prison. It remains a useful guide today, as we see yet again the terrible evidence of imperialist carnage. It is particularly important because we can see militarism becoming more and more powerful, and the very real danger of this becoming one of the ruling ideas of our times.

As Liebknecht explained the danger

Militarism has in fact already become the central sun in one dominant field, as we shall see in more detail below. Around it revolves the solar system of class legislation, bureaucracy, police administration, class justice, and clerisism (organised religion) of all kinds. It is the final regulator, sometimes secret, sometimes open, of all the tactics of the class struggle – not only the capitalist classes but also the proletariat, in its trade union organisation no less than in its political organisation. 


This insidious ideology of militarism, although a birth-mark on the skin of the new Germany, was also deep under the skin of the then jingoistic British prevailing ideology. Popular notions of the British Empire as a ‘civilising’ force for the better dominated popular culture and education for the better part of a century, as expressed in the 1877 music-hall songWe don’t want to fight/But by jingo if we do/We’ve got the ships/We’ve got the men/We’ve got the money too).

While Liebknecht does not bring Imperialism as a world economic system into his account, his general thesis is still applicable, in that governments in their drives to war, need to mobilise popular consent and use all parts of the media to vilify pacifists and other dissenters. The mobilising of capital, the state and civil society for war requires an underpinning popular ideology, at the heart of which is militarism. 

Still relevant today

In 1916, Lenin developed his concept of imperialism in Imperialism, the Furthest Stage of Capitalism). This crucial work drew on the ideas of the English liberal economist J A Hobson, and the work of his fellow Bolshevik, Nikolai Bukharin, later published as Imperialism and World Economy. Both works draw on Marx’s insistence that capitalism’s drive to compete and accumulate would become enmeshed with the economic functions of the state. In this symbiosis, cartels, monopoly capitals and their interests become imperatives of the state.

That’s still true today. Many of the most profitable earners of UK manufacturing are arms companies, in large part because of massive government subsidies. And in a local context, Scotland with just over eight percent of the UK population, manufactures some 37 percent of all UK defence exports, and also ‘hosts’ the Trident nuclear submarine base at Faslane. To facilitate this, the British state easily grants export licences and provides export credits to underwrite company profits, whilst at the same time binding workers under the Official Secrets Act. British defence companies are required to work under the specifications and requirements of Britain allies in NATO, while realising huge profits from lucrative arms deals with Arab Gulf states (and to a lesser degree, Israel). Within this imperialist matrix, a pecking order headed by the US dictates the customer base according to its list of ‘most approved (or trusted) states’, and banning exports to the ‘untrusted’.

Beware the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC)

This term was first uttered by the outgoing US president, and previously four-star general, Dwight D Eisenhower in 1961. Eisenhower said that as a consequence of a ‘cold war’ atmosphere, the powerful matrix of the Defence Department, the US armed services, defence companies, defence lobbyists and cold warriors in Congress risked creating ‘the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex’.

The ’Cold War’ policy of Eisenhower’s administration, and the accompanying arms race, had of course strengthened the MIC. Very high levels of arms production did much to maintain relatively high rates of growth and profit from the late 1940s until the mid-1960s, while at the same time adding greatly to international tensions. But even as the US arms boom was coming to a close, the impact of the profound defeats in Cambodia and Vietnam had yet to register. However, by the early 1980s, the US was back into a new mood of militarism, and with an even higher technology content.

Post-cold war

The fall of the USSR brought the end of the 1980s ‘Star Wars’ expansion, and US defence spending went into a short-lived decline. But from 2001 onwards, the US set off on a post-cold war spree of even greater military expansion, with US defence spending hitting new heights at US$ 731.8 billion, compared to US$ 241.1 billion for the rest of the world combined. But in war after war – Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq and to some degree Libya – a clear victory has proved impossible.

Nevertheless, the US remains by far the biggest military power, and with an unchallenged hegemony over NATO. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 caught them by surprise, but it also offered the US a chance of a proxy-war via NATO, and a chance to both bully existing NATO member states into increasing arms spending, and to expand NATO. However, that has now been overshadowed by Palestine,and the greatest carnage unleashed on a defenceless population since the Indochina wars of the early 1970s. The US seems unwilling to constrain a genocidal Israel, however much they may want Netanyahu to attenuate his onslaught. This has led to the biggest upsurge of anti-war activity since the early 2000s, as Western governments determined to stand by a pariah state find their citizens increasingly outraged and drawn to anti-militarism.

From the perspective of US strategists, the genocide in Gaza is a sideshow that they would’ve preferred to go without. Nevertheless, once more caught in a Middle East detour whilst on its way to a pivot on China, the US may again be tempted to settle its long festering scores with Iran. Because as with all imperialist wars, it is often the case that minor partners with their own scores to settle create wider zones of conflict into which a whole alliance can be drawn.


For Israel itself, a state shored up by the US to be a watchdog over the Middle East and its oilfields, time may be running out. I say this for two reasons. Firstly, because the oil and gas resources of the region are finite – according to some estimates, as short as maybe ten years. Secondly, the states dependent on those resources in northwestern Europe and Japan, are those most intent on heeding the climate crisis warning. Many of them are already moving away from complete reliance on oil and gas consumption. If that carries on, Israel loses its central importance to the Western powers, who may be less willing to prop the state up. But this is by no means certain – Israel’s ultra-Zionists with their greater-Israel ambitions are another element to factor in, as is China, now the world’s largest oil importer.

One of the things that the unfolding tragedy in Gaza highlights is that militarism’s other side of the coin is hubris, the arrogance of unrestrained power. As writers from Sophocles onwards have reminded us, hubris all too often brings about the downfall of tyrants. But that poses for us the question of how to topple capitalism and its imperialist nightmare states? Anti-militarism is a good start, but we have to ask of the anti-war movement what comes next.

Militarism and anti-militarism is available online at the Marxist Internet Archive. The most recent print edition was published by Black Rose Books of Montreal, Canada, and can be bought from their website here or from their British distributors Central Books here