A recent query on H-War asked for the source of the quotation “War is the locomotive of history.” I’ve had problems myself with great lines from historical figures that it seems they didn’t actually say, so I did some digging myself.
The concept as originally expressed is quite different, putting revolution in the place of war, and goes back to Marx himself. In 1845 in “The German Ideology,” Marx wrote “revolution is the driving force of history.” His point was to attack Hegelian idealism–the concept that that ideas, not economics, are what really matter. Fuller context makes this clear: “not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history, also of religion, of philosophy and all other types of theory.” This is orthodox Marxism: economic structures determine ideas and culture, not the other way around. No translation problems here–the original German is straightforward: “daß nicht die Kritik, sondern die Revolution die treibende Kraft der Geschichte auch der Religion, Philosophie und sonstigen Theorie ist.”
For the idea of WAR as the driving force, specifically attached to the image of “locomotive,” we have to go to the Austro-German Marxist Karl Kautsky, who in “War and Revolution” in 1912 observed that “wars have always been powerful locomotives of world history.” Though Kautsky was German, he seems to have first published this in a French newspaper, and I can’t find either German or French versions from my desk.
Kautsky’s formulation, much like Kautsky himself, lacks a certain panache. Leon Trotsky picked up the idea, and as usual, smartened it up a little. Trotsky expressed the idea in two ways. Even before the revolution, in June 1917’s “Farce of Dual Power” Trotsky went back to Marx’s original idea and observed that “Truly, Marx was not wrong when he called revolution the locomotive of history!” Trotsky referred to the same idea using the same concepts (Marx, revolution, locomotives, and history) in 1918 and 1922. On both those later occasions, he was speaking to military audiences, but did not swap revolution for war.
The problem here is that Marx’s “German Ideology” wasn’t published until 1932. We have to surmise that the basic concept, which was certainly clear enough in Marx’s other works and implied by the philosophy as a whole, was floating around European Marxism at the turn of the century. Given the close relationships among leading European Marxists, Trotsky could easily have gotten the phrase from Marx no worse than second-hand.
By 1922, though, only days after Trotsky quoted Marx that revolution is the locomotive of history, he told a NON-military audience, the Comintern, that “war, Comrades, is a great locomotive of history.” The irony, of course, is that he was using Karl Kautsky’s idea and metaphor, and by this point Trotsky and the rest of the Bolsheviks had dismissed Kautsky as a sell-out, opportunist, compromiser, capitalist running-dog, etc. Sic transit gloria mundi.
UPDATE: Hat tip to Jonathan Beard, who spotted an 1850 published use of the phrase “Revolutions are the locomotives of history” by Marx, five years after his “driving force” statement in “German Ideology” in The Class Struggles in France. The original German is about as straightforward as German gets: “Die Revolutionen sind die Lokomotiven der Geschichte.”
What strikes me is that there’s a subtle difference between the way Marx uses two very similar phrases. In 1845, he made revolution the driving force of history in the sense that it determines philosophy, ideas, and culture. In 1850, his point is more down-to-earth: revolutions speed up processes of social change by revealing how things really work. In this particular case, Marx says, revolution shows the French peasantry that their true allies are the revolutionary proletariat, as is clear from the full paragraph:
The condition of the French peasants, when the republic had added new burdens to their old ones, is comprehensible. It can be seen that their exploitation differs only in form from the exploitation of the industrial proletariat. The exploiter is the same: capital. The individual capitalists exploit the individual peasants through mortgages and usury, the capitalist class exploits the peasant class through the state taxes. The peasant’s title to property is the talisman by which capital held him hitherto under its spell, the pretext under which it set him against the industrial proletariat. Only the fall of capital can raise the peasant; only an anti-capitalist, a proletarian government can break his economic misery, his social degradation. The constitutional republic is the dictatorship of his united exploiters; the social-democratic, the red republic, is the dictatorship of his allies. And the scale rises or falls according to the votes the peasant casts into the ballot box. He himself has to decide his fate. So spoke the socialists in pamphlets, almanacs, calendars, and leaflets of all kinds. This language became more understandable to him through the counter-writings of the party of Order, which for its part turned to him, and which by gross exaggeration, by its brutal conception and representation of the intentions and ideas of the socialists, struck the true peasant note and overstimulated his lust after forbidden fruit. But most understandable was the language of the actual experience that the peasant class had gained from the use of the suffrage, were the disillusionments overwhelming him, blow upon blow, with revolutionary speed. Revolutions are the locomotives of history.