Lenin and Trotsky on Pacifism and Defeatism
‘Only very slight injury can be done to the machinery of war of the ruling class by pacifism. This is best proved by the courageous but rather futile efforts of Russell himself during the war. The whole affair ended in a few thousand young people being thrown into prison on account of their conscientious objections.... In the old Tsarist army the sectarians, and especially the Tolstoyans, were often exposed to persecution because of their passive resistance to militarism; it was not they, however, who solved the problem of the overthrow of Tsarism.’ (L.D. Trotsky, ‘On Pacifism and Revolution’, 1926, written in reply to a review by Bertrand Russell of Trotsky’s book Where Is Britain Going?)
‘Bourgeois pacifism and patriotism are shot through with deceit. In the pacifism and even the patriotism of the oppressed there are elements which reflect on the one hand a hatred of destructive war and on the other a clinging to what they believe to be their own good elements which we must know how to. seize upon in order to draw the requisite conclusions. Using these considerations as its point of departure the Fourth International supports every, even if insufficient, demand, if it can draw the masses to a certain extent into active politics, awaken their criticism and strengthen their control over the machinations of the bourgeoisie.’ (L.D. Trotsky, Transitional Programme of the Fourth International, 1938.)
This article aims to assist the progress of these discussions by recalling the main phases and the main controversies in the development of Marxist theory and practice concerning imperialist war during the period of the First World War. The most important benefit to be obtained from such a study is, of course, not the discovering of ‘analogies’ but the clarification of principle and method.
The operative resolution of the Socialist International with regard to war which was in force in 1914 at the time of the outbreak of the First World War was that which had been adopted at the Stuttgart congress in 1907 and which was reaffirmed at Copenhagen in 1910 and at Basle in 1912. After outlining the responsibility of socialists to work to prevent the outbreak of war, this resolution went on to add: ‘Should war none the less break out, their duty is to intervene and bring it to an end, and with all their energies to use the political and economic crisis created by the war to rouse the masses of the people and to hasten the fall of capitalist domination.’
To pass such a resolution is one thing, to carry it out in face of martial law and mass patriotic hysteria is quite another. Raymond Postgate commented thus on the loyalty of the various parties composing the International to this resolution, in his book The International During The War (published by The Herald in 1918): ‘The Russian section has carried out this programme to the letter. No other section seems to have taken it seriously. Socialists in most other countries have supported their governments, or, if they have not, have been forced to confine themselves to agitation.’
In order to understand how it was possible for open betrayal on the part of some socialist leaders and hopeless confusion on the part of the others to take place in July-August 1914 in spite of the decisions of the international congresses, it must be appreciated that these decisions, then still comparatively recent, marked a break with the previous Marxist approach to international wars, and also that in 1914 the motivation of this break, and its implications, had not been fully worked out. It was not difficult, for instance, for German Social-Democrats to hark back to Marx in 1870, or Engels in 1891, for justification of the support they gave to their own government in its war with Tsarist Russia and her allies; with a little sophistry, this could even be ‘reconciled’ with the 1907-1912 resolutions. Nobody at that stage had got around to analyzing whether the new line on war meant that Marx and Engels had been wrong in their practice of ‘choosing sides’ in the inter-state conflicts of their time, or, if not, what exactly were the changes in the world situation which dictated a change of line by socialists on this vital question. Even less attention had been given to working out the precise practical conclusions to be drawn from the general phrases of the 1907-1912 decisions.
Changes Since Engels
In a number of writings of his in 1915-1917, Lenin stressed the two changes which he saw as underlying and justifying the new line on war first adopted by the international socialist movement in 1907. Besides the passing of the advanced capitalist countries into the phase of monopoly capitalism, imperialism, with its implications of ‘reaction all along the line’, there was the 1905 revolution in Russia. In a sense, 1905 rather than ‘1898-1900’ was the real turning-point. Lenin appears never to have repudiated the attitude he took up at the time of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, an attitude in accordance with the Marx-Engels tradition. At that time he did not merely oppose the war aims of Tsarism, he explicitly approved those of Japan. In his article on ‘The Fall of Port Arthur’ (January 14, 1905) he wrote about how ‘progressive, advanced Asia has struck an irreparable blow against reactionary and backward Europe’. ‘The war of a progressive country with a backward one has this time, as more than once in the past, played a great revolutionary role ....’ And he poured scorn on those Russian commentators who said that a socialist could be only for a workers’ Japan but not for a bourgeois Japan. Looking back on that episode in 1908 (in ‘Inflammable Material in World Politics’), Lenin still saw fit to characterize the victories of Japan in 1905 as ‘victories which ensured her independent national development’.2
The overwhelmingly important result of Tsarist Russia’s defeat in 1905, however, was to put an end to the ‘special question’ of Russia as a question to be solved on the international plane. Whereas Marx and Engels had had to decide in all international conflicts which outcome would be most disadvantageous to Russia, and work for that, and even to incite war against Russia, from 1905 onward the liquidation of Tsarism could be safely left to the Russian working class, which had now stepped into world history.
Lenin soon clashed with Trotsky over ‘defeatism’, and also over what was called at the time ‘the peace slogan’. As regards the latter, Lenin was desperately anxious to prevent the revolutionary socialists from being taken in tow by various pacifist trends. Only by fighting to overthrow capitalism, to mobilize the workers to carry out a socialist revolution, by ‘turning the imperialist war into civil war’, could the war be ended in a fashion advantageous to the masses. Any other line would lead merely to the victory of one imperialist coalition or the other or to a compromise at the expense of the peoples which would prove merely an armistice followed by renewal of conflict. Lenin knew the heavy pressure on his comrades, if not to join the ‘patriots’ then to drop their revolutionary work in favour of abstract peace propaganda of a kind which would find echoes even in some capitalist circles. In reply to Alexandra Kollontai, he wrote at the very end of 1914: ‘You emphasize that "we must bring forward a slogan which will unite us all". I tell you frankly that at present what I am afraid of is just this indiscriminate uniting, which in my opinion is most dangerous and most harmful to the proletariat.’ He never ceased, throughout the War, to combat the illusions of pacifism. The two major fallacies in the pacifist approach he saw as these. First, the idea that it is possible to abolish war without abolishing capitalism: ‘only after we have overthrown, finally vanquished, and expropriated the bourgeoisie of the whole world, and not only of one country, will wars become impossible’ (‘The War Programme of the Proletarian Revolution’, September 1916). Second, avoidance of the hard fact that the process of extirpating the causes of war must itself include a series of wars of various kinds: ‘civil wars of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie for socialism are inevitable. Wars are possible between a country in which socialism has been victorious and bourgeois or reactionary countries’ (‘The "Disarmament" Slogan’, Autumn 1916). Far from turning their backs on weapons and military knowledge, the workers must strive to obtain both, since only with their aid would the capitalist class, the source of war, be overthrown and put down, nationally and internationally. ‘We must not let ourselves get mixed up with the sentimental liberals. A bayonet period has begun! And that is a fact which means that we must fight with the same kind of weapon’ (Letter to Shlyapnikov, November 14, 1914).
Peace by Revolution
It must be appreciated that Lenin did not, of course, ignore in the sectarian manner the broad anti-war movement or fail to see that the revolutionaries had to make contact with it. Already in May 1915 (‘Bourgeois Philanthropists and Revolutionary Social Democracy’) he noted that alongside all sorts of intrigues and diversions there were also the ‘peace sympathies’ of ‘the unenlightened masses’, expressing a ‘growing protest against the war’, and that the revolutionaries must take these into account. And in the pamphlet Socialism and War (Summer 1915), Lenin and Zinoviev pointed to the popular sentiment for peace and observed: ‘It is the duty of all Social-Democrats to take advantage of this sentiment. They will take the most ardent part in every demonstration made on this basis, but they will not deceive the people by assuming that in the absence of a revolutionary movement it is possible to have peace without annexations ....’ ‘Socialists of a pacifist shade ... can be our fellow travellers’; we have ‘to get closer to them’ in order to fight the social-patriots. But in doing so, the revolutionaries must never forget the limitations of the political position of these elements, and must certainly never confine themselves ‘to what is acceptable to them’.
Parallel with Lenin’s differences with Trotsky on the ‘peace slogan’ and ‘peace programmes’, and also to some extent on ‘defeatism’, were differences on organizational questions. Trotsky clung much longer to the hope that it would not be necessary to make a clean break with the various centrist trends in the Russian and internationalist movements. In the end, of course, Trotsky came over to Lenin’s view on this matter, as on that of the type of internal organization of the party. On organizational questions Lenin convinced Trotsky: it is by no means clear, however, that Lenin did not come round eventually, on questions of the tactics and slogans of the fight against war, as on the ‘permanent revolution’ approach to Russia’s politics, to something closer to Trotsky’s position.
Trotsky versus Lenin
That had happened, indeed, in 1905; but one ought not to forget that ‘while the Russo-Japanese war weakened Tsarism, it strengthened Japanese militarism. The same considerations apply in a still higher degree to the present German-Russian war’. Moreover, a revolution in Russia which was brought on by defeat would find the German bayonets at its chest at the moment of birth, and that would not help it. No, ‘the Social Democrats could not and cannot now combine their aims with any of the historical responsibilities of this war, that is, with either the victory of the Triple Alliance or the victory of the Entente’. Trotsky’s Paris paper Nashe Slovo ridiculed Lenin’s defeatism as ‘defencism turned inside out’ and ‘social-patriotism standing on its head’. In an open letter to the editorial board of Kommunist, June 1915, Trotsky explained his disagreements with Lenin on both the peace slogan and defeatism. ‘I cannot reconcile myself’, he wrote, ‘with the vagueness and evasiveness of your position on the question of mobilizing the proletariat under the slogan of struggle for peace, the slogan under which, as a matter of fact, the labouring masses are now recovering their political senses and the revolutionary elements of socialism are being united in all countries; the slogan under which an attempt is being made now to restore the international contacts among the socialist proletariat. Furthermore, under no condition can I agree with your opinion, which is emphasized by a resolution, that Russia’s defeat would be a "lesser evil". This opinion represents a fundamental connivance with the political methodology of social patriotism, a connivance for which there is no reason or justification, and which substitutes an orientation (extremely arbitrary under present conditions) along the line of a "lesser evil" for the revolutionary struggle against war and the conditions which generate this war.’4
The resolution referred to by Trotsky was that adopted by the foreign (i.e., outside Russia) sections of the Bolshevik party at their conference in Berne in March 1915. In this document two things were said about the question of defeat. First, that ‘in every country, the struggle against a home government conducting an imperialist war must not be stopped by the prospect of the country being defeated as a result of revolutionary agitation’. It will be noticed that Trotsky raised no objection to this idea. But, second, it went on to assert that defeat actually facilitates revolution, that ‘this proposition is particularly true as regards Russia’, and, finally, that ‘the defeat of Russia is, under all conditions, the lesser evil’.
The text of this resolution itself represented a certain retreat from a position Lenin had taken up a little earlier. In his article ‘Under A Stolen Flag’ (February 1915) Lenin replied to the Russian defencist Potresov, who tried to shelter behind the Marx-Engels approach to wars, that in the present war ‘both sides are worst’, and that for this reason the socialist workers must desire ‘the defeat of every imperialist bourgeoisie’. In this article the special characteristics of Russia were relegated to the past: ‘Potresov cannot fail to know that in our epoch not one of the backward state formations is or can be "the central evil".’ This was done, however, in order to apply to every country the slogan originally devised for Russia alone. A group of Bolsheviks which included Bukharin (the ‘Baugy group’) objected to this ‘wish-defeat’ formulation as an international slogan, and their objections were reflected in the final terms of the Berne resolution. (As can be seen, this resolution actually goes back to the idea that Tsarist Russia is in some way specially noxious, and it even specifies that ‘the victory of Russia would bring with it a strengthening of world reaction’; which was just what the German social patriots claimed.)
In the summer of 1915, doubtless as a result of the clash with Trotsky over the Berne resolution, Lenin and Zinoviev, in their pamphlet Socialism and War, reverted to the formulation to which Bukharin had objected, and declared that ‘the Socialists of all the belligerent countries should express their wish that all "their" governments be defeated’. Lenin went even further in his article (August 1915) on ‘Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War’: ‘Revolutionary action against one’s own government undoubtedly and incontrovertibly means not only desiring its defeat but really facilitating defeat.’ He added however: ‘(For the "penetrating reader": this does not mean "blowing up bridges", organizing unsuccessful military strikes, and in general helping the government to inflict defeat upon revolutionaries.)’ Just what it did mean, in what sense it meant anything more than carrying on the class struggle without regard to the effects this might have on the fortunes of war, was not really made clear. The only special, novel kind of activity specified as needed in wartime was the promoting of fraternization between the rank-and-file soldiers at the front; and this was not in dispute.5
Zimmerwald and After
After Zimmerwald, Lenin continued for just over a year to plug away at his ‘defeatism’ thesis, which he continued to present as valid for all countries participating in the war, and not merely for Russia. Thus, in February 1916, replying to a German social-patriot who had asserted that the anti-war fight of Karl Liebknecht helped the Allies, Lenin observed: ‘Kolb is right when he says that the tactics of the Left ... mean the "military weakening" of Germany, i.e., desiring and aiding its defeat, defeatism. Kolb is wrong only – only! – in that he refuses to see the international character of these tactics of the Left’ (‘Wilhelm Kolb and George Plekhanov’). In other words, if Liebknecht was helping the Allies, Lenin was no less helping the German-led group of powers. When the internationalist socialists held a second gathering at Kienthal in April 1916, Lenin submitted proposals which explicitly affirmed that it was not sufficient to say that ‘the workers in their revolutionary struggle must not take into account the military situation of their country’ – one must go further and show that defeat was a good thing, for ‘every defeat of the government in a reactionary war facilitates revolution, which alone is capable of bringing about a lasting and democratic peace’. Replying to Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet, in August 1916, Lenin posed rhetorically the question whether it was not true that ‘defeats help the cause of the revolutionary class’. In ‘The War Programme of the Proletarian Revolution’ (autumn 1916), he reaffirmed that ‘the proletariat must not only oppose’ all wars waged by the imperialist great powers, ‘but it must also wish for the defeat of "its" government in such wars’.
That appears to be the last statement of the ‘defeatism’ thesis by Lenin in its ‘internationalised’ form. And the last statement of it in its original narrower form as special to Russia appears to have occurred in the article ‘On Separate Peace’, written in November 1916 – in a form which implies that, in spite of 1905, Tsarism remained after all a reactionary power sui generis, not merely one imperialist power among several. Whatever the outcome of the war, he wrote, ‘it will prove that the Russian Social-Democrats who said that the defeat of Tsarism, the complete military defeat of Tsarism, is "at any rate" a lesser evil were right’. Even if the workers of Europe should prove unable to advance to socialism during the war, at least ‘Eastern Europe and Asia can march with seven-league strides towards democracy only if Tsarism meets with utter military defeat’.
With the passage of time, experience6 seems to have brought home to Lenin the reality of the danger of a sterile nihilistic conclusion being drawn from his presentation of the way to fight against the war – the existence of that ditch on the other side of the road which Trotsky had had clearly in view since the beginning of the war. Very early on, in January 1915 (‘Reply to Basok’), Lenin had had to rebuff the hopeful overtures of a Ukrainian nationalist working for Russia’s defeat who thought Lenin could only mean the same as himself, and sought a working agreement. ‘We are not travelling the same road’ was Lenin’s laconic reply. Regarding the Bundists, the Jewish socialists in Russia, who advocated the defeat of Russia by Germany during the war, Lenin had also early indicated that there was no basis for solidarity on the part of the Bolsheviks. ‘The Bundists ... are generally Germanophils and rejoice at the thought of Russia’s defeat, but how are they any better than Plekhanov?’ (Plekhanov, the Russian social-patriot, claimed that it would be good for Germany to be defeated by Russia.)7 Confusion on the implications of ‘defeatism’, as on the ‘peace slogan’, developed during 1916 among a section of the Bolsheviks, and Lenin found it necessary to wage a polemic against their spokesman ‘Kievsky’ (Pyatakov) in the autumn of 1916 which may well have served to clarify his own thinking as well as theirs. In ‘A Caricature of Marxism’, Lenin denounced the views of those who, from the rejection of abstract peace propaganda, deduced that ‘we are not in favour of a democratic peace’. Merely negative, ‘down-with’ slogans were no good. ‘Social Democracy does not and cannot advance a single "negative" slogan that would merely merely serve "to sharpen the consciousness of the proletariat against imperialism" [a phrase of Pyatakov’s] without at the same time giving a positive answer to the question as to how Social Democracy would solve the same problem if it were in power. A "negative" slogan that is not connected with a definite positive position does not "sharpen" the mind but blunts it ....’ And in ‘The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up’ he finally flings away the special defeat-worthy characteristics of Tsarist Russia: ‘Tsarism has obviously and incontrovertibly ceased to be the chief mainstay of reaction, firstly because it is supported by international finance capital, particularly French; secondly, because of 1905.’ Lenin’s investigation of the nature of imperialism had evidently led him to a realization of the subordination of Tsarist absolutism to ‘international finance capital’, its dependent relationship to the latter, which was one of the starting points of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.
The article ‘On Separate Peace’, mentioned above, dealt with rumoured moves for a peace between Russia and Germany, directed against Britain. This theme recurs in Lenin’s writings thereafter, at the end of 1916 and the beginning of 1917, e.g., in ‘A Turn in World Politics’ (January 31, 1917). There was a definite turn on the part of certain ruling-class circles, Lenin perceived, from imperialist war to imperialist peace, partly in order to avoid the danger of revolution. Such a peace would, of course, be merely an armistice before another bout of imperialist war with different alignments. Implicit in moves of this kind was the possibility of some countries being sacrificed for the benefit of others, the possibility of a sort of reactionary defeatism, and the danger that some tired and confused people would say that, ‘after all, an imperialist peace is better than imperialist war’. Another factor in Lenin’s thinking in the weeks immediately preceding the February (March) revolution in Russia was the direct contact he was now able to make with ordinary Russian rank-and-file soldiers, so that he could ascertain at first hand their moods and their ways of thinking. In his letter of January 30, 1917 to Inessa Armand he describes a talk he had had with some escaped Russian prisoners of war. He learnt with interest how these men, though bitterly hostile to the Tsar, had resisted with indignation attempts by their German captors to win them over for defeatist purposes, and how, though they wanted the war to stop, they could not agree to a purely pacifist position: ‘If the Germans press hard, how is it possible not to defend oneself?’ Rosmer suggests that the difference between Lenin and Trotsky on anti-war tactics was derived to a large extent from the differences in their location during the war – Lenin being in neutral Switzerland while Trotsky was in France, in closest touch with the masses of a belligerent country. Trotsky may sometimes have yielded unduly to the influence of the moods of these masses; it was certainly impossible for him to ignore them. With the irruption of those escaped prisoners of war into Switzerland Lenin was already, before his actual return to Russia, in direct touch with the Russian workers and peasants.
Neither Defencist nor Defeatist
There could be no question of going over to ‘defencism’, i.e., political support of the war, which remained an imperialist war so long as the bourgeoisie remained in power. Lenin struck sharply at Stalin and Kamenev, who at first advocated a line of ‘pressure on the Government to open peace negotiations’ (see Stalin’s article in his Works, Vol. III, English edition, p.8). In his historic ‘April Theses’ Lenin insisted on ‘exposure as a policy instead of the inadmissible and illusion-sowing "demand" that this government, a government of capitalists, should cease to be imperialist’. At the same time, one could not continue in the old way. ‘The slogan "Down With The War" is correct, to be sure, but it does not take into account the peculiarity of the tasks of the moment, the necessity to approach the masses in a different way. It reminds me of another slogan, "Down With The Tsar", with which an inexperienced agitator of the "good old days" went directly and simply to the villages to be beaten up.’ One had to undertake careful, patient, tactful work of explanation among the masses who were honest defencists, in order to show them how the war could be ended in a way to the people’s advantage: ‘It cannot be ended by "sticking the bayonet into the ground", to use the expression of a soldier defencist’ (‘The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution’).
Again, at the April conference, of the Bolshevik Party: ‘Many of us, myself included, have had occasion to address the people, particularly the soldiers, and it seems to me that even when everything is explained to them from the point of view of class interests there is still one thing in our position that they cannot fully grasp, namely, in what way we intend to finish the war, in what way we think it possible to bring the war to an end.’ Clearly, ‘the war cannot be ended by a simple refusal of the soldiers of one side only to continue the war’, and the Bolsheviks had to work in a situation in which ‘the idea of thus concluding the war had been attributed to us over and over again by persons who wish to win an easy victory over their opponents by distorting the latter’s views’. Addressing the Petrograd city conference of the party Lenin reminded them that ‘here the power is in the hands of the soldiers, who incline towards defencism’. He drew the attention of the Bolshevik fraction in the Congress of Soviets to the need to take account of the defencist feeling of the masses, which was based on the fact that ‘nowhere else is there the degree of freedom we have’. ‘The masses approach this question not from a theoretical but from a practical viewpoint. Our mistake lies in our theoretical approach.’ One had to appreciate what the defencist worker meant by his ‘defencism’, and try to find a bridge to him.9
Looking back on that period a year later, after the October Revolution, Lenin had occasion to define in a clear-cut way the change of line which the Bolsheviks had made. This occurred at the Congress of Soviets which was discussing whether or not to ratify the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In his concluding speech in this debate made on March 15, 1918, Lenin replied to some remarks by Kamkov, a Left Socialist-Revolutionary. ‘I will quote you yet another passage from Kamkov’s speech, in order to show how any representative of the working people and the exploited masses will react to this speech. "When Comrade Lenin declared here yesterday that Comrades Tsereteli and Chernov and others [leaders of the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary parties in 1917] disrupted the army, can we not find the courage to say that Lenin and ourselves also disrupted the army?" Kamkov missed his mark. Having heard that we were defeatists, he remembered this fact at a time when we have ceased to be defeatists. He did not remember it at the right time. They have memorised this tag, it serves as a revolutionary rattle for them to make a noise with, but they can’t think out what it means, as they should. I declare that out of a thousand village assemblies where Soviet power has been consolidated, in more than nine hundred of such assemblies there are people who will tell the Left S-R party that it deserves no confidence whatever. They say, just think: we disrupted the army and now we ought to remember that fact. But how did we disrupt the army? We were defeatists under the Tsar, but under Tsereteli and Chernov we were not defeatists. [My emphasis, BP.] We published in Pravda the appeal which Krylenko, who was then still on the run, addressed to the army: "Why I Am Going To Petrograd." He said: "We don’t call on you to make riots." This was not disintegrating the army. Those who declared this great war were the ones who disintegrated the army.... And I affirm that, beginning with this appeal of Krylenko’s, which was not the first and which I recall to you because it has particularly stuck in my memory, we did not disrupt the army but said: hold the front – the sooner you take power the easier you will be able to maintain it ....’
Krylenko’s appeal, to which Lenin here referred, had been issued by him when, though wanted by the police, this Bolshevik junior officer had been elected as the delegate of part of the army at the front to the Congress of Soviets in Petrograd. ‘Beware of provocateurs who, posing as Bolsheviks, will attempt to lure you into disorders and riots.... The real Bolsheviks appeal to you not to make riots, but to carry on a class-conscious revolutionary struggle.’ Lenin had himself quoted it in Pravda of June 16, 1917, in an article entitled ‘Bolshevism and the "Disintegration" of the Army’, in which he wrote, in reply to slanderers and persecutors: ‘where Bolshevism has a chance to appear in the open, there we find no disorganization. Where there are no Bolsheviks, or where they are not permitted to talk, there we find excesses, disintegration and pseudo-Bolsheviks. And this is just what our enemies need. They need a pretext for saying that "the Bolsheviks are disorganizing the army", in order later to shut the mouths of the Bolsheviks.’
On the Road to October
The weeks between August and October saw reactionary defeatism come out into the open more than ever before, and imposed a highly complicated task upon the Bolsheviks, especially those in the army at the front. This was when the generals deliberately surrendered the city of Riga to the Germans and left the approaches to Petrograd unguarded. A report by the Rumanian ambassador, published after the October Revolution, revealed that the commander-in-chief, Kornilov, calculated ‘that the impression which the capture of Riga will produce on public opinion will permit the immediate restoration of discipline in the Russian army’ (Pravda, December 1, 1917). How did the soldiers, more influenced by Bolshevism on this sector of the front than anywhere else, behave in this crisis? Trotsky quotes official accounts: ‘The spirit of the soldiers was astonishing. According to the testimony of ... officers, their staunchness was something never before seen.’ ‘In the centre of the point of attack was a Lettish brigade consisting almost exclusively of Bolsheviks.... Receiving orders to advance the brigade went forward with red banners and bands playing and fought with extraordinary courage.’ He notes that official reports also testify that the sailors who took part in the defence of the Moonsund archipelago, in the Gulf of Riga (where treachery by the Russian command was intensified by the sinister attitude of the British naval authorities), showed unusual bravery, and comments: ‘A part was played in determining the mood of the servicemen, especially the Lettish riflemen and the Baltic sailors, by the fact that this time it was a question of the direct defence of two centres of the revolution, Riga and Petrograd. The more advanced of the soldiers and sailors had already got hold of the Bolshevik idea that "to stick your bayonets in the ground does not settle the question of the war", that the struggle for peace was inseparable from the struggle for power, for a new revolution’ (History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. II, pp.193-194).
In this new situation, not only Trotsky (in ‘What Next?’, September 1917) could accuse certain Russian generals of working for the defeat of Russia (in order to facilitate not revolution but counter-revolution), but Lenin himself as well. In his ‘Draft Resolution on the Political Situation’ Lenin wrote that the landlords and bourgeoisie are now ready to commit, and are committing, the most outlandish crimes, such as giving up Riga (and afterwards Petrograd) to the Germans, laying the front open ...’. In ‘The Tasks of the Revolution’ he declared that ‘the Kornilovist generals and officers remaining in power will undoubtedly open the front to the Germans on purpose, as they have done in Galicia and near Riga. This can be prevented only by the formation of a new government on a new basis ...’. The pamphlet The Impending Catastrophe and How To Combat It set forth a programme of demands – nationalization of the banks, a democratically controlled rationing system, etc. – which was frankly inspired by the example of the Jacobins in 1793: ‘The example of France shows one thing and one thing only, namely, that in order to render Russia capable of self-defence, in order to obtain in Russia too "miracles" of mass heroism, all the old ways must be swept away with "Jacobin" ruthlessness and Russia rejuvenated and regenerated economically.’ This idea was reiterated in ‘Will The Bolsheviks Maintain Power?’ – ‘The defensive power of the country, after ridding itself of the yoke of capitalism and after giving the land to the peasants and placing the banks under workers’ control, would be many times stronger than the defensive power of a capitalist country.’
Almost on the very eve of the October insurrection in his urgent ‘Letter to Comrades’ inciting the Central Committee to go into action at once, Lenin pointed to the danger of a collapse of the front, with possible collusion between the Russian bourgeoisie and the Kaiser, based on mass desertion by the weary and disillusioned soldiers. The Bolsheviks seized power in time to prevent the surrender of Petrograd, to deprive the capitalists of the opportunity to send ‘send the workers to school under Ludendorff’, as Trotsky expressed it.
Further reading: For the foreign policy of the Bolsheviks after their capture of power, see ‘"Export of Revolution", 1917-1924’, by Brian Pearce in Labour Review for August-September 1958; and for the application of the lessons of 1914-1917 by the Trotskyists in 1939-1945, see ‘"Marxists in the Second World War"’, by B. Farnborough [Brian Pearce] in Labour Review for April-May 1959.
1. Presumably a reference to Imperialism, published in the spring of 1916.
2. Lenin may not have regarded the Japan of 1904-1905 as already an imperialist power. In Imperialism (1916) he wrote: ‘new imperialist powers are emerging (e.g., Japan)’.
3. An English version of this was published in 1918 under the misleading title The Bolsheviks and World Peace. Trotsky was not, of course, a Bolshevik when he wrote this work. (He joined the Bolsheviks informally in May 1917, formally in July.)
4. Alfred Rosmer, who took part in the internationalist struggles and polemics of this period, wrote in the first volume (1936) of his Le Mouvement ouvrier pendant la guerre mondiale: ‘The consequences of our activity are of interest to us only in relation to our purpose, revolution, and not in relation to "victory", which is the business of the imperialist bourgeoisie. Does "revolutionary defeatism" add anything to this? I do not think so. On the contrary, I see clearly the dangers which it involves.... "Defeatism", even followed by the adjective "revolutionary", puts the emphasis on defeat, whereas we should put it on revolution.’ Trotsky admired Rosmer’s book very much, and in his review of it in New International, June 1936, went so far as to declare that ‘the rule should be established: nobody in our ranks who has not studied Rosmer’s work ought to be allowed to speak publicly on the question of war’.
5. After the October revolution, Trotsky’s wartime articles in Nashe Slovo, ‘What Is A Peace Programme?’, were published by the Soviet Government (1918), and his 1914 pamphlet The War and the International went through several editions, ‘serving as a textbook for the study of the Marxist attitude towards the war’ (Trotsky, My Life) until it was banned in 1924. The year 1924 saw an outburst of articles and republications of documents in the Soviet and international Communist press which revived the story of the wartime differences between Lenin and Trotsky about the peace slogan and defeatism (on which neither of these leaders had commented after 1917); and it became an article of faith in the bureaucratized Bolshevik Party to believe that Lenin was always right against Trotsky.
Trotsky never analysed the differences between himself and Lenin on the war question, but always wrote about the struggle against imperialist war in a way which sought to unite Lenin’s form with Trotsky’s content, e.g., in ‘Learn To Think’ (1938): ‘Revolutionary defeatism signifies only that in its class struggle the proletarian party does not stop at any "patriotic" considerations, since defeat of its own imperialist government, brought about, or hastened, by the revolutionary movement of the masses is an incomparably lesser evil than victory gained at the price of national unity, that is, the political prostration of the proletariat.’ Again, in ‘A Step Towards Social Patriotism’ (1939): ‘The idea of defeatism signifies in reality the following: conducting an irreconcilable revolutionary struggle against one’s own bourgeoisie as the main enemy, without being deterred by the fact that this struggle may result in the defeat of one’s own government: given a revolutionary movement, the defeat of one’s own government is a lesser evil.’ And in the book Stalin (written in 1940) Trotsky asserts that ‘the essence’ of ‘what has been called Lenin’s theory of "defeatism"’ is that one must not be held back by the possibility that one’s revolutionary agitation may facilitate the defeat of one’s own government. Nothing is said about wishing for defeat, trying to facilitate defeat, etc.
6. Already long before the war, Lenin had encountered and rejected the negative, flippant semi-anarchist views of Hervé (who, when the war came, made a right-about turn into the extremest French chauvinism). ‘That the "proletarians have no fatherland" is actually stated in the Communist Manifesto; that the [social-patriotic] position of Vollmar, Noske and company is a "flagrant violation" of this fundamental proposition of international socialism is equally true. But it does not follow from this that Hervé and the Hervéists are right when they assert that it is immaterial to the proletariat in which fatherland it lives: whether it lives in monarchist Germany, republican France or despotic Turkey. The fatherland, i.e., the given political, cultural and social environment, is the most powerful factor in the class struggle of the proletariat, and if Vollmar is wrong in establishing a kind of truly German "attitude of the proletariat towards the fatherland", Hervé is not less wrong in treating such an important factor of the proletarian struggle for emancipation in an unpardonably uncritical fashion. The proletariat cannot treat the political, social and cultural conditions of its struggle with indifference or equanimity, consequently it cannot remain indifferent to the destiny of its country. But it is interested in the destiny of its country only in so far as it affects its class struggle, and not by virtue of some bourgeois "patriotism" which sounds altogether indecent on the lips of a Social Democrat’ (‘Militant Militarism and the Anti-Militarist Tactics of Social Democracy’, 1908).
7. Trotsky wrote to the French socialist-turned-chauvinist Jules Guesde, October 11, 1916, replying to the charge that he and other opponents of war from the Marxist standpoint were so many agents of the German General Staff: ‘I believe I have the right to assert that we revolutionary internationalists are far more dangerous enemies of German reaction than all the governments of the Allies put together. Their hostility to Germany is, at bottom, nothing but the mere rivalry of the competitor. whereas our revolutionary hatred of its ruling class is indestructible. Imperialist competition may again unite the enemy brethren of today.’
8. In their introduction to the 1918 re-issue of their 1915 pamphlet Socialism and War, Lenin and Zinoviev make a point of reminding the reader of when it was written: ‘It is particularly necessary to remember this in connexion with the passages dealing with Russia. Russia then was still Tsarist, Romanov Russia.’
9. Cf. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. I, pp.276-277: ‘Deserting, extraordinarily frequent on the eve of the revolution, was very infrequent in the first weeks after. The army was waiting. In the hope that the revolution would give peace, the soldier did not refuse to put a shoulder under the front: otherwise, he thought, the new government won’t be able to conclude a peace.... "We mustn’t stick our bayonets in the ground!" Under the influence of obscure and contradictory moods the soldiers in those days frequently refused even to listen to the Bolsheviks. They thought perhaps, impressed by certain unskilful speeches, that the Bolsheviks were not concerned with the defence of the revolution ....’
Learn to Think: A Friendly Suggestion to Certain Ultra-Leftists
The following short article was first published in English in the (American) New International of July 1938 and the (British) Workers International News of August 1938 at the time when German Fascism was strengthening its hold in Central Europe, with the occupation of Austria and threats to Czechoslovakia. It was then still unclear whether the British and French imperialists would form an alliance with the Soviet Union or would continue to try to deflect Nazi aggression against that country.
The proletariat of a capitalist country which finds itself in an alliance with the USSR1 [states the thesis] must retain fully and completely its irreconcilable hostility to the imperialist government of its own country. In this sense its policy will not differ from that of the proletariat in a country fighting against the USSR. But in the nature of practical actions considerable differences may arise depending on the concrete war situation (‘War and the Fourth International’, page 21, para. 44).
The ultra-leftists consider this postulate, the correctness of which has been confirmed by the entire course of development, as the starting point of ... social-patriotism.2 Since the attitude towards imperialist governments should be ‘the same’ in all countries, these strategists ban any distinctions beyond the boundaries of their own imperialist country. Theoretically their mistake arises from an attempt to construct fundamentally different bases for war-time and peace-time policies. Let us assume that rebellion breaks out tomorrow in the French colony of Algeria under the banner of national independence and that the Italian government, motivated by its own imperialist interests, prepares to send weapons to the rebels. What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case? I have purposely taken an example of rebellion against a democratic imperialism with intervention on the side of the rebels from a fascist imperialism. Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians? Let any ultra-leftist dare answer this question in the affirmative. Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation. Even if a general maritime strike broke out in fascist Italy at the same time, even in this case the strikers should make an exception in favour of those ships carrying aid to the colonial slaves in revolt; otherwise they would be no more than wretched trade unionists – not proletarian revolutionists.
At the same time, the French maritime workers, even though not faced with any strike whatsoever, would be compelled to exert every effort to block the shipment of ammunition intended for use against the rebels. Only such a policy on the part of the Italian and French workers constitutes the policy of revolutionary internationalism.
Does this not signify, however, that the Italian workers moderate their struggle in this case against the fascist regime? Not in the slightest. Fascism renders ‘aid’ to the Algerians only in order to weaken its enemy, France, and to lay its rapacious hand on her colonies. The revolutionary Italian workers do not forget this for a single moment. They call upon the Algerians not to trust their treacherous ‘ally’ and at the same time continue their own irreconcilable struggle against fascism, ‘the main enemy in their own country’. Only in this way can they gain the confidence of the rebels, help the rebellion and strengthen their own revolutionary position.
If the above is correct in peace-time, why does it become false in war-time? Everyone knows the postulate of the famous German military theoretician, Clausewitz, that war is the continuation of politics by other means. This profound thought leads naturally to the conclusion that the struggle against war is but the continuation of the general proletarian struggle during peace-time. Does the proletariat in peace-time reject and sabotage all the acts and measures of the bourgeois government? Even during a strike which embraces an entire city, the workers take measures to ensure the delivery of food to their own districts, make sure that they have water, that the hospitals do not suffer, etc. Such measures are dictated not by opportunism in relation to the bourgeoisie but by concern for the interests of the strike itself, by concern for the sympathy of the submerged city masses, etc. These elementary rules of proletarian strategy in peace-time retain full force in time of war as well.
An irreconcilable attitude against bourgeois militarism does not signify at all that the proletariat in all cases enters into a struggle against its own ‘national’ army. At least the workers would not interfere with soldiers who are extinguishing a fire or rescuing drowning people during a flood; on the contrary, they would help side by side with the soldiers and fraternize with them. And the question is not exhausted merely by cases of elemental calamities. If the French fascists should make an attempt today at a coup d’état and the Daladier government found itself forced to move troops against the fascists, the revolutionary workers, while maintaining their complete political independence, would fight against the fascists alongside of these troops. Thus in a number of cases the workers are forced not only to permit and tolerate, but actively to support the practical measures of the bourgeois government.
In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases, however, they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace.
Let us imagine that in the next European war the Belgian proletariat conquers power sooner than the proletariat of France. Undoubtedly Hitler will try to crush proletarian Belgium. In order to cover up its own flank, the French bourgeois government might find itself compelled to help the Belgian workers’ government with arms. The Belgian soviets of course reach for these arms with both hands. But, actuated by the principle of defeatism, perhaps the French workers ought to block their bourgeoisie from shipping arms to proletarian Belgium? Only direct traitors or out-and-out idiots can reason thus.
The French bourgeoisie could send arms to proletarian Belgium only out of fear of the greatest military danger and only in expectation of later crushing the proletarian revolution with their own weapons. To the French workers, on the contrary, proletarian Belgium is the greatest support in the struggle against their own bourgeoisie. The outcome of the struggle would be decided, in the final analysis, by the relationship of forces, into which correct policies enter as a very important factor. The revolutionary party’s first task is to utilise the contradiction between two imperialist countries, France and Germany, in order to save proletarian Belgium.
Ultra-left scholastics think not in concrete terms but in empty abstractions. They have transformed the idea of defeatism into a vacuum. They can see vividly neither the process of war nor the process of revolution. They seek a hermetically sealed formula which excludes fresh air. But a formula of this kind can offer no orientation for the proletarian vanguard.
To carry the class struggle to its highest form – civil war – this is the task of defeatism. But this task can be solved only through the revolutionary mobilization of the masses, that is, by widening, deepening, and sharpening those revolutionary methods which constitute the content of class struggle in ‘peace’-time. The proletarian party does not resort to artificial methods, such as burning warehouses, setting off bombs, wrecking trains, etc., in order to bring about the defeat of its own government. Even if it were successful on this road, the military defeat would not at all lead to revolutionary success, a success which can be assured only by the independent movement of the proletariat. Revolutionary defeatism signifies only that in its class struggle the proletarian party does not stop at any ‘patriotic’ considerations, since defeat of its own imperialist government, brought about, or hastened, by the revolutionary movement of the masses is an incomparably lesser evil than victory gained at the price of national unity, that is, the political prostration of the proletariat. Therein lies the complete meaning of defeatism and this meaning is entirely sufficient.
The methods of struggle change, of course, when the struggle enters the openly revolutionary phase. Civil war is a war, and in this aspect has its particular laws. In civil war, bombing of warehouses, wrecking of trains and all other forms of military ‘sabotage’ are inevitable. Their appropriateness is decided by purely military considerations – civil war continues revolutionary politics but by other, precisely, military means.
However, during an imperialist war there may be cases where a revolutionary party will be forced to resort to military-technical means, though they do not as yet follow directly from the revolutionary movement in their own country. Thus, if it is a question of sending arms or troops against a workers’ government or a rebellious colony, not only such methods as boycott and strike, but direct military sabotage may become entirely practical and obligatory. Resorting or not resorting to such measures will be a matter of practical possibilities. If the Belgian workers, conquering power in war-time, have their own military agents on German soil, it would be the duty of these agents not to hesitate at any technical means in order to stop Hitler’s troops. It is absolutely clear that the revolutionary German workers also are duty-bound (if they are able) to perform this task in the interests of the Belgian revolution, irrespective of the general course of the revolutionary movement in Germany itself.
Defeatist policy, that is, the policy of irreconcilable class struggle in war-time cannot consequently be ‘the same’ in all countries, just as the policy of the proletariat cannot be the same in peace-time. Only the Comintern of the epigones has established a regime in which the parties of all countries break into march simultaneously with the left foot. In struggle against this bureaucratic cretinism we have attempted more than once to prove that the general principles and tasks must be realized in each country in accordance with its internal and external conditions. This principle retains its complete force for war-time as well.
Those ultra-leftists who do not want to think as Marxists, that is, concretely, will be caught unawares by war. Their policy in time of war will be a fatal crowning of their policy in peace-time. The first artillery shots will either blow the ultra-leftists into political non-existence, or else drive them into the camp of social-patriotism, exactly like the Spanish anarchists, who, absolute ‘deniers’ of the state, found themselves from the same causes bourgeois ministers when war came. In order to carry on a correct policy in war-time one must learn to think correctly in time of peace.
1. We can leave aside here the question of the class character of the USSR. We are interested in the question of policy in relation to a workers’ state in general or to a colonial country fighting for its independence. So far as the class nature of the USSR is concerned we can incidentally recommend to the ultra-leftists that they gaze upon themselves in the mirror of A. Ciliga’s book In the Country of the Big Lie. This ultra-left author, completely lacking any Marxist schooling, pursues his idea to the very end, that is, to liberal-anarchic abstraction.
2. Mrs Simone Weil even writes that our position is the same as Plekhanov’s in 1914-18. Simone Weil, of course, has a right to understand nothing. Yet it is not necessary to abuse this right.