“The Main Enemy is at Home”: What does the slogan mean?

Anyone who spends much time among the socialist elements of the British anti-war movement will encounter the slogan “The main enemy is at home.” This comes from the title of a pamphlet written in 1915 by the German communist Karl Liebknecht. Unfortunately, it’s generally taken out of context and used as a catchy soundbite without consideration of Liebknecht’s actual argument or its context.

The original context

Liebknecht had been a member of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), but was appalled when the party supported Germany’s declaration of war on Russia in 1914. He saw the war as imperialist aggression, and believed that socialists should have no part in it—as a result, he ended up being imprisoned for his role in anti-war activism.

“The Main Enemy is at Home” is primarily about the conflict between “Austria–Germany” (as Liebknecht calls the combination of Germany and Austro-Hungary) and Italy. The latter had entered the way as an enemy of Austria–Germany, despite having maintained a secret treaty and promised support to them.

Liebknecht suggested that this signalled not a betrayal of Germany but a betrayal of its own population by Germany. He argued that Austria–Germany had known that Italy would not ally with them, and had breached the terms of the secret treaty (with Italy secretly condemning their actions). However, Germany had convinced its population that Italy was a steadfast ally in order to shore up public support for the war.

A summary of the politics

As the title of the pamphlet implies, Liebknecht lays blame for the way primarily on Austria–Germany:

We ask—whom can the German people thank for the continuation of the horrid war and for the intervention of Italy? Who else but the irresponsible people at home who are responsible…
The Austrian ultimatum to Serbia from July 23, 1914 was the spark that ignited the world…
… the German and Austrian instigators, the ones who are chiefly responsible for the outbreak of war.

He also supports the anti-war efforts in Italy, as one would expect:

… the heroic struggle against the war that our Italian comrades have fought and still fight
Our most enthusiastic congratulations for their struggle. Let their spirit be our example!…
Proletarians of all countries, follow the heroic example of your Italian brothers!…
The main enemy of the German people is in Germany: German imperialism, the German war party, German secret diplomacy. This enemy at home must be fought by the German people in a political struggle, cooperating with the proletariat of other countries whose struggle is against their own imperialists.

However, he also doesn’t shrink from attacking Italy:

The Italian instigators of war deserve every denunciation…
Down with the war instigators here and abroad!…
… in Rome they [“the German and Austrian imperialists”] have found nothing but their equals…

Abusing Liebknecht today

All of this is quite different from how Liebknecht is often deployed by socialists these days. Generally, when I hear the slogan “The Main Enemy is at Home” uttered these days, it’s an attempt to derail from criticism of foreign regimes (Russia, Libya, Syria, or what have you), to excuse failure to criticise or condemn these regimes, or to condemn intervention in civil wars/dictatorial regimes/etc. I don’t think a careful reading of the text justifies these attitudes.

Liebknecht mainly blames Austria–Germany for the war because Austria–Germany were actually the aggressors. He isn’t invoking some kind of socialist principle that one should always view one’s own country as the aggressor, he is referring to actual events. Austria intentionally tried to provoke Serbia to war—and when that tactic failed it declared war on them instead; when Russia came to Serbia’s defence, Austria–Germany declared war on them as well.

Nor does Liebknecht establish any moral principle of non-intervention. His text is clearly anti-war, but he is no pacifist (he was involved in a failed revolution after the war’s end). He is writing about a particular kind of violence and a particular kind of anti-war movement. The exact politics of a pamphlet from 1914 do not necessarily translate well into the situation in, say, Syria in 2014. The context of the pamphlet is one of transparent and blatant imperialist war of a kind rarely seen these days:

International proletarian class struggle against international imperialist genocide is the socialist commandment of the hour.

Clearly, the text also isn’t advocating that people stay silent about aggression, war crimes, human rights abuses, etc in other countries. I’m going to repeat a quote I’ve already used because I think it’s important—note the use of the word ‘every’:

The Italian instigators of war deserve every denunciation.

That the main enemy at home does not imply that we should turn a blind eye to the violence of other nations. Liebknecht explicitly calls on us to denounce and condemn other nations too, and to do so in solidarity with their own domestic population, who we should support in efforts to block or end war.

What to take from this

The overriding lesson here is not “condemn your own government and ignore the misdeeds of others,” but “speak out against all wrongs, focus your efforts on promoting a foreign policy of peace and solidarity in your own country, and work together with political allies abroad to do the same in theirs.”

I have two main points that I hope you take from this. Firstly, if you’re influenced by Liebknecht’s slogan, read the whole pamphlet carefully and with an open mind; consider what it is saying and what it is not. Secondly, be aware of the historical context in which it was written and how that is different from today; think about whether conflicts are always as straightforward as WWI, and whether intervention can ever be a positive force.

I don’t think there are easy answers or trite lessons here. But we can at least stop reducing situations to century-old slogans, and applying the principle they express selectively. Often it is entirely right for anti-war socialists to condemn the actions of foreign governments—and that isn’t limited to ‘allies’. Similarly, sometimes violence is justified, and sometimes intervention can be the right choice. Almost every socialist accepts that going to war with Germany in WWII was the right thing to do, even if they condemn the Allied powers’ timing, methods, etc. Liebknecht doesn’t deny either of these points (in the former case he explicitly says the opposite, whereas in the latter case he merely has nothing to say about it in relation to WWI).

Let’s actually debate the situations we find ourselves in, rather than simply dropping a socialist soundbite and adopting a radical posture. Liebknecht featured another slogan prominently in The Main Enemy is at Home, which I think would serve the left at least as well:

Learn everything, don’t forget anything!