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TROTSKY ON IMPERIALIST WAR



The following text is taken from Trotsky’s biography of Stalin, beginning on page 162. ( Stalin, Stein and Day Publishers New York, 1967) To the non-Marxist reader, this work presents a puzzling aspect. It is a substantial historical work covering in breadth the early beginning of the struggle to build Bolshevik leadership for the Russian Revolution in the 1890’s, right up to the time that the work was terminated by Stalin’s assassin, Ramon Mercader, in 1940. Why must it be so comprehensive? The answer is that it is impossible to understand Stalin without he is seen as the product and distillation of all this history. It is therefore a very valuable book for Marxist education and for historical study in general.


These pages cover Lenin’s struggle to arm the working class with the correct understanding of imperialist war, an understanding which is more necessary today than ever. Its great value is that it succinctly encapsulates Lenin’s views with explanations for clarity.  All the quotations are from Lenin, and can mostly be found in his Collected Works.  

Editor



     The elaboration of the Bolshevik doctrine on war is in its entirety part and parcel of Lenin’s record. Stalin did not contribute to it a single word, even as he contributed nothing to the doctrine of revolution. However, in order to understand Stalin’s behaviour during the years of exile, and especially during the first critical weeks after the February Revolution, as well as his subsequent break with all the principles of Bolshevism, it is necessary to outline briefly the system of views which Lenin had already elaborated at the beginning of the war and to which he had gradually converted the Party.

  
 The first question posed by the European catastrophe was whether socialists could take upon themselves the “defence of the fatherland”. It was not a question of whether the individual socialist should carry out his duties as a soldier. There was nothing else he could do. Desertion was never a revolutionary policy. The question was whether a socialist party should support the war politically – vote for the military budget, terminate its fight against the government, agitate for “the defence of the fatherland.” Lenin answered: No, it should not, it has no right to do so – not because it was war, but because it is a reactionary war, a bloody shambles brought about by slave-owners who wanted to divide the world.

  
 The formation of nation states in Europe covered an epoch which began approximately with the Great French Revolution and ended with the Versailles peace of 1871. During that period, wars for the establishment or defence of nation states, as a condition prerequisite to the development of productive forces of culture, had a progressive historical character.  Revolutionists not only could, but were duty bound, to support these national wars politically. From 1871 to 1914, European capitalism, having attained its fruition on the basis of nation states, outlived itself, transforming itself into monopoly or imperialistic capitalism. “Imperialism is that state of capitalism which, having accomplished all that it could accomplish, turns toward decline.” [Lenin] The cause of the decline lies in the fact that the productive forces become equally constrained by the framework of private property and by the borders of the nation state. Seeking a way out, imperialism strives to divide and to re-divide the world. National wars are succeeded by imperial wars. The latter are thoroughly reactionary in character, epitomising the historical blind alley, the stagnation, the decay of monopoly capitalism.

  
 Imperialism can exist only because there are backward nations on our planet, colonial and semi-colonial countries. The struggle of these oppressed peoples for national unity and independence has a twofold progressive character, since, on the one hand, it prepares favourable conditions of development for their own use, and on the other, it strikes blows at imperialism. Hence, in part, the conclusion that in a war between a civilised imperialist democratic republic and the backward barbarian monarchy of a colonial country, the socialists will be entirely on the side of the oppressed country, notwithstanding its monarchy, and against the oppressor country, notwithstanding its “democracy”.

  
 Imperialism covers its predatory aims – the seizure of colonies, of markets, of sources of raw materials, of spheres of influence – with the ideas of “protecting peace from the aggressors”, “defence of the fatherland”, “defence of democracy”, and the like. These ideas are false to the core. “The question of whether one or another group struck the first military blow or was the first to declare war”, wrote Lenin in 1915, “has no significance whatever in determining the tactic of socialists. Phrases about ‘defence of the fatherland’, about resisting the invasion of the enemy, about a war of defence, and the like, are an utter deception of the people on both sides …”   As far as the proletariat is concerned, the objective historical significance of the was is the only thing that has any meaning; which class is waging it and for what aims? – and not the rules of diplomacy, which knows how to represent the enemy in the role of the aggressor.

 
  Equally spurious are the references of the imperialists to the interests of democracy and culture. Since the war is waged by both camps, not for the sake of defending the fatherland, democracy and culture, but for the sake of partitioning the world and for the sake of colonial enslavement, no socialist has the right to prefer one imperialist camp to another. Utterly useless would be the attempt “to say, from the point of view of the international proletariat, which nation’s defeat would by the least evil for socialism”. To sacrifice in the name of the supposedly “lesser evil” the political independence of the proletariat, is to betray the future of humanity.

 

  The policy of “national unity” means in time of war, even more than in times of peace, the support of reaction and the eternalization of imperialist barbarism. Refusal of that support, which is a socialist’s elementary duty is, however, merely the negative or passive side of internationalism. That alone is not enough. The task of the party of the proletariat is to present “a manifold propaganda of socialist revolution, embracing the army and the theatre of war, propaganda showing the necessity to turn the guns, not against their own brothers, the hired slaves of the other countries, but against the reactionary and bourgeois governments and parties of all countries.”

   

But the revolutionary struggle in time of war may bring defeat to one’s own government! Lenin is not frightened by that conclusion. “In every country the struggle with one’s own government, which wages the imperialist war, must not stop short before the possibility of defeat of that country in consequence of revolutionary agitation.” Therein is the essence of the so-called theory of “defeatism”. Unscrupulous opponents attempted to interpret this as meaning that Lenin admitted the possibility of collaboration between internationalists and foreign imperialists for the sake of victory over one’s own national reaction. As a matter of fact, what was under consideration was the general struggle of the world proletariat against world imperialism by way of the simultaneous struggle of the proletariat of each country against its own imperialism as the direct main enemy. “From the point of view of the interests of the toiling masses and the working class of Russia”, wrote Lenin to Shlyapnikov in October 1914, “we Russians cannot doubt in the slightest way, absolutely cannot doubt at all, that now and at once the least evil would be – the defeat of Tzarism in the present war …”

 

  It is impossible to fight against the imperialist war with pious lamentations for peace in the manner of the pacifists. “One of the forms of fooling the working class is pacifism and the abstract preachment of peace, Under capitalism, especially in its imperialist stage, wars are inescapable.” Peace, concluded by the imperialists, will be a mere breathing spell before a new war. Only a revolutionary mass struggle against war and the imperialism engendered by it is capable of securing peace. “Without a series of revolutions the so-called democratic peace is philistine utopia.”  

 

  The struggle against the illusions of pacifism is one of the most important elements of Lenin’s doctrine. He rejected with particular abhorrence the demand for “disarmament” as flagrantly utopian under capitalism and capable only of deflecting the attention of the workers from the need to arm themselves. “The oppressed class that does not strive to learn how to use guns and to have guns, such an oppressed class deserves to be treated as slaves. “ And further: “Our slogan must be; the arming of the proletariat in order to win, to expropriate and to disarm the bourgeoisie … Only after the proletariat has disarmed the bourgeoisie can it throw all arms on the scrap heap, without playing false to its world-wide historic task …   “.  Lenin rejects the bare slogan of “peace”, counter-posing to it the slogan of “transforming imperialist was into civil war.”

  

 Most of the leaders of the labour parties found themselves during the war on the side of their own bourgeoisie. Lenin christened their tendency “social-chauvinism” – socialism in words, chauvinism in deeds. The betrayal of internationalism did not, however, fall from the sky but was the inescapable continuation and development of reformist adjustment to the capitalist state. “The content of political ideas in opportunism and social chauvinism is one and the same; collaboration of classes instead of their struggle, repudiation of revolutionary need to struggle, aid to ‘one’s own’ government in a difficult situation instead of utilising those difficulties for the revolution.”

 

  The final period of capitalist prosperity before the war (1909-1913) secured the particularly strong attachment of the proletarian upper layer to imperialism. Out of the surplus profit the bourgeoisie secured from the colonies and from the backward countries generally, fat morsels well into the laps of the labour aristocracy and the labour bureaucracy as well. Their patriotism was thus dictated by direct self-interest in the policy of imperialism. During the war, which exposed all the social relations, “the opportunists and the chauvinists derived their tremendous power from their union with the bourgeoisie, the governments and the general staffs.” The opportunists definitely went over to the camp of the class enemy.

   

The intermediate, and perhaps the broadest tendency in socialism, the so-called Centre, (Kautsky and others), which in time of peace wavered between reformism and Marxism, became almost wholly the prisoner of the social-chauvinists under the cover of pacifist phrases. Having given the sociological and political evaluation of the labour bureaucracy of the Second International, Lenin did  not  stop      half-way .”Unity with opportunists is the unity of workers with ‘their own’ national bourgeoisie and the splitting of the international revolutionary working class.” Hence his conclusion about the need, once and for all, to sever contact with the social chauvinists. “It is impossible to carry out the tasks of Socialism at the present time, it is impossible to achieve the actual international mobilisation of the workers, without a resolute break with opportunism”, as well as with centricism, “that bourgeois tendency in socialism”. The very name of the Party must be changed. “Is it not better to repudiate the sullied and discredited name ‘Social Democrats’ and return to the old Marxist name of ‘Communists’?” It is high time to break with the Second International and build the Third.

   
That was the difference of opinion which only two or three months before the war seemed “childish” to Emile Vandervelde. The president of the Second International had meantime himself become a patriotic minister of his king.


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