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War and the Economy

6. War Socialism and True Socialism

The question whether so-called war socialism is true socialism has been discussed repeatedly and with great passion. Some have answered yes just as firmly as others have answered no. In that connection the striking phenomenon could be observed that as the war continued and as it became even more obvious that it would end with failure of the German cause, the tendency to characterize war socialism as true socialism diminished also.

To be able to handle the problem correctly, one must first of all keep in mind that socialism means the transfer of the means of production out of the private ownership of individuals into the ownership of society. That alone and nothing else is socialism. All the rest is unimportant. It is a matter of complete indifference for deciding our question, for example, who holds power in a socialized community, whether a hereditary emperor, a Caesar, or the democratically organized whole of the people. It does not belong to the essence of a socialized community that it is under the leadership of soviets of workers and soldiers. Other authorities also can implement socialism, perhaps the church or the military state. It is to be noted, furthermore, that an election of the general directorship of the socialist economy in Germany, carried out on the basis of full universality and equality of the right to vote, would have produced a far stronger majority for Hindenburg and Ludendorff in the first years of the war than Lenin and Trotsky could ever have achieved in Russia.

Also nonessential is how the outputs of the socialized economy are used. It is of no consequence for our problem whether this output primarily serves cultural purposes or the waging of war. In the minds of the German people or at least of its preponderant majority, victory in the war was seen beyond doubt as the most urgent goal of the moment. Whether one approves of that or not is of no consequence.21

It is equally of no consequence that war socialism was carried out without formal reorganization of ownership relations. What counts is not the letter of the law but the substantive content of the legal norm.

If we keep all this in mind, then it is not hard to recognize that the measures of war socialism amounted to putting the economy on a socialistic basis. The right of ownership remained formally unimpaired. By the letter of the law the owner still continued to be the owner of the means of production. Yet the power of disposal over the enterprise was taken away from him. It was no longer up to him to determine what should be produced, to acquire raw materials, to recruit workers, and finally to sell the product. The goal of production was prescribed to him, the raw materials were delivered to him at definite prices, the workers were assigned to him and had to be paid by him at rates on whose determination he had no direct influence. The product, furthermore, was taken from him at a definite price, if he was not actually carrying out all the production as a mere manager. This organization was not uniformly and simultaneously implemented in all branches of industry—in many not at all. Also, its net had big enough meshes to let much get through. Such an extreme reform, which completely turns the conditions of production around, just cannot be carried out at one blow. But the goal being aimed at and being approached ever more closely with every new decree was this and nothing else. War socialism was by no means complete socialism, but it was full and true socialization without exception if one had kept on the path that had been taken.

Nothing about that is changed by the fact that the proceeds of production went first to the entrepreneur. The measures characterized as war-socialist in the narrow sense did not abolish entrepreneurial profit and interest on capital in principle, although the fixing of prices by the authorities took many steps in this direction. But precisely all the economic-policy decrees of the war period do belong to the full picture of war socialism; it would be mistaken to keep only particular measures in view and disregard others. Whatever the economic dictatorship of the various agencies of the war economy left free was gotten at by tax policy. War tax policy established the principle that all additional profit achieved beyond the profits of the prewar period was to be taxed away. From the beginning this was the goal that the policy aimed at and that it came closer to with each later decree. No doubt it would have completely reached this goal also if only it had had a little more time. It was carried out without regard to the change in the value of money that had occurred in the meanwhile, so that this meant a limitation of entrepreneurial profit not just to the amount obtained before the war but to a fraction of this amount. While entrepreneurial profit was thus limited on the top side, on the other side the entrepreneur was guaranteed no definite profit. As before, he still had to bear losses alone, while keeping no more chance of gain.

Many socialists declared that they were not thinking of an uncompensated expropriation of entrepreneurs, capitalists, and landowners. Many of them had the notion that a socialist community could allow the possessing classes to continue receiving their most recently received incomes, since socialization would bring such a great rise in productivity that it would be easy to pay this compensation. Under that kind of transition to socialism, entrepreneurs would have been compensated with larger amounts than under the one introduced by war socialism. They would have continued to receive as guaranteed income the profits that they had last received. It is incidental whether these incomes of the possessing classes would have had to continue only for a definite time or forever. War socialism also did not settle the question finally for all time. The development of wealth, income, and inheritance taxes would have been able, especially through extension of the progressivity of the tax rates, to achieve a complete confiscation soon.

The continued receipt of interest remained temporarily permitted to the owners of loan capital. Since they were suffering persistent losses of property and income from inflation, they offered no propitious object for greater intervention by the tax office. With regard to them, inflation was already performing the task of confiscation.

Public opinion in Germany and Austria, entirely dominated by the socialistic spirit, complained again and again that the taxation of war profits had been delayed too long and that even later it had not been applied with appropriate severity. One supposedly should have acted at once to collect all war profits, that is to say, all increases in wealth and income obtained during the war. Even on the first day of the war, therefore, complete socialization should have been introduced—leaving alone property incomes received before the war. It has already been explained why this was not done and what consequences for the conversion of industry onto a war footing would have resulted if this advice had been followed.

The better war socialism was developed, the more palpable did individual consequences of a socialistic order of society already become. In technical respects enterprises did operate no more irrationally than before, since the entrepreneurs, who remained at the head of the enterprises and formally filled their old positions, still harbored the hope of being able to keep for themselves—even if only by illegal means—a larger or smaller part of the surpluses earned and at least hoped for future removal of all measures of war socialism, which, after all, were still always officially declared exceptional wartime orders. Yet a tendency toward increasing expenses became noticeable, especially in trade, because of the price policy of the authorities and the practice of the courts in handling the provisions of penal law regarding exceeding the maximum prices: permitted prices were ascertained on the basis of the entrepreneur's outlays plus a margin of "simple profit," so that the entrepreneur's profit became all the greater the more dearly he had made purchases and the more expenses he had incurred.

Of greatest significance was impairment of the initiative of entrepreneurs. Since they shared more heavily in losses than in profits, the incentive to undertake risky ventures was only slight. Many production possibilities remained unused in the second half of the war because entrepreneurs shied away from the risk bound up with new investments and with introducing new production methods. Thus the policy of the state's taking over responsibility for possible losses, adopted especially in Austria right at the beginning of the war, was better suited for stimulating production. Toward the end of the war, views on this point had changed. With regard to importing particular raw materials into Austria from abroad, the question arose of who should bear the "peace risk," the danger of a loss from the price crash that was expected in the event of peace. The entrepreneurs associated in "centrals," whose chances of profit were limited, wanted to undertake the business only if the state were ready to bear the possible loss. Since this could not be arranged, the importation did not take place.

War socialism was only the continuation at an accelerated tempo of the state-socialist policy that had already been introduced long before the war. From the beginning the intention prevailed in all socialist groups of dropping none of the measures adopted during the war after the war but rather of advancing on the way toward the completion of socialism. If one heard differently in public, and if government offices, above all, always spoke only of exceptional provisions for the duration of the war, this had only the purpose of dissipating possible doubts about the rapid tempo of socialization and about individual measures and of stifling opposition to them. The slogan had already been found, however, under which further socializing measures should sail; it was called transitional economy.

The militarism of General Staff officers fell apart; other powers took the transitional economy in hand.

  • 21. Max Adler (Zwei Jahre . . . ! Weltkriegsbetrachtungen eines Sozialisten [Nürnberg: 1916], p. 64) disputes the idea that war socialism is true socialism: "Socialism strives for the organization of the national economy for the sufficient and uniform satisfaction of the needs of all; it is the organization of sufficiency, even of superfluity; 'war socialism,' on the other hand, is the organization of scarcity and of need." Here the means is confused with the end. In the view of socialist theoreticians, socialism should he the means for achieving the highest productivity of the economy attainable under the given conditions. Whether superfluity or shortage reigns then is not essential. The criterion of socialism is, after all, not that it strives for the general welfare but rather that it strives for welfare by way of production based on the socialization of the means of production. Socialism distinguishes itself from liberalism only in the method that it chooses; the goal that they strive for is common to both. Cf. below, pp. 181 ff.
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