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The Guilt of William Hohenzollern


Since the outbreak of the world-war one question has exercised every mind: Who brought upon us this frightful calamity? In what persons or what institutions are we to find its originating cause?

This is not merely a scientific question for the historian; it is eminently a practical one for the politician. Its answer is a death-sentence for the guilty—not in the physical sense but certainly in the political. Persons and institutions whose power has produced anything so fearful must be politically flung to the dead; they must be divested of all power.

But just for this reason, because the question of the origination of the war is not an academic but a highly practical one with far-reaching consequences for the organization of public life, the real authors of it have from the beginning sought to cover up their traces. In this attempt they have found eager helpers in all those who, though not themselves involved in any responsibility, have an interest in maintaining the power of the guilty persons and institutions.

This fact has long operated to render very difficult the discovery of the true authorship of the war. On the other hand, a practical interest in the cause had its effect in sharpening the critical insight of the opposing parties, so that there were not a few who came on the right track at the beginning. Thus the fog began slowly to dissolve, until the latest publication of documents by the Austrian and German Foreign Offices dispersed it altogether. We are now in a position to see clear.

And yet one cloud lies still before our eyes. It is alleged to be a profound piece of Marxian philosophy. Marx taught that the course of history is guided not by particular persons or institutions, but in the last resort by economic conditions. Capitalism in its most developed form, that of finance, everywhere creates imperialism—the impulse towards forcible extension of the territory of the State. This law governs all States—all are warlike by nature, and from this condition the world-war proceeded. No individual persons or institutions are guilty, but Capitalism as a whole: this it is that must be combated.

That sounds very radical, and yet it works in a very conservative sense wherever this idea governs practical effort. For Capitalism is merely an abstraction, derived from the observation of numerous individual phenomena, and affording an indispensable aid in the attempt to investigate these in the law of their mutual relations.

But one cannot fight an abstraction except theoretically. It cannot be fought in the field of practice. Practically, we can only fight the individual phenomena. The theoretic comprehension of the nature of Capital does not relieve us from the necessity of this practical struggle—on the contrary, its function is to further it, inasmuch as it enables us to bring together the details of the struggle in a systematic connection, and thereby to shape it more effectively. At the same time it always remains a struggle against definite institutions and persons, as the bearers of definite social functions.

From the Marxian standpoint, therefore, one can at most say that the object of the struggle is not the punishment of the individuals against whom it is directed. Every man is merely the product of the conditions in which he grows up and lives. It is unjust to punish even the worst of criminals. The task of society is rather to take from him the possibility of doing further mischief, to make him, if possible, a useful, not a mischievous, member of society, and to remove those conditions which made him what he was and gave him the possibility and the power of doing harm.

And this is the position which a Marxist should take up towards the authors of the world-war. But it is by no means the Marxian doctrine that we should divert investigation from the guilty persons by dwelling on the impersonal guilt of Capitalism.

Marx and Engels never contented themselves with general disquisitions on the destructive effects of capital. They were just as much concerned with tracing out the working of particular institutions and parties, and their political leaders, such as Palmerston and Napoleon. To follow the same course in regard to those who brought about the world-war is not only our right, but our duty; and that not alone from a consideration of foreign but also of home politics, so that the return of the persons and institutions guilty of this fearful ruin shall be made for ever impossible.