From Workers’ International News, Vol.4 No.9-10, November 1941, pp.5-10.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The latest “theories” of the leaders of the Communist Party bring to the foreground the question of the attitude of Marxists toward wars. When is a war “just”? When is it “unjust”? Under what conditions does an “unjust” war become transformed into a “just” war? And, to be concrete, has Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union, and the fact of the Anglo-Soviet alliance transformed Britain’s unjust, imperialist war into a “just” war for the defence of the Soviet Union and the freedom of Europe from tyranny?
The questions are not new. They have been in the minds of revolutionary socialists during the whole period of the imperialist wars for the re-division of the world. Above all, they had to be answered during the period of the first World War, and no one answered them more consistently, more lucidly or in a more thoroughly Marxist way than Lenin. Before going on to analyse the present situation and discuss the new “theories” of Dutt, Pollitt and the other Communist Party leaders, it will be instructive to observe Lenin’s method of judging wars, and to study his application of the method of dialectical materialism to this greatest and most pressing question of our time.
There were two main stages in Lenin’s fight against those “Socialists” who claimed that the war was “just” on the part of their country and that they must accordingly support their own ruling class. The first stage was between the beginning of the war and the February Revolution. The German Social Democrats, the British Labour Party, the Second Internationalists of the whole Continent, deserted their former stand of opposition to the war and gave support to their ruling class, with various justifications. Against, a general acceptance of the declared aims of the ruling class as a measure of the “justness” of the war, Lenin fought with all his power throughout the war. While German “Socialists” were preaching the necessity of supporting the war to “smash the hold of British imperialism”, and while British “Socialists” were justifying their support by pointing out the necessity to wipe out “Prussian militarism”, Lenin urged that Marxists must not judge wars by the aims that the ruling class said they were fighting for. The real measure was the politics which had been pursued by the various countries before the war and were being continued inevitably during it.
“Every war,” he said, “is inseparably connected with the political system which gave rise to it. The politics which a certain country, a certain class in that country, pursued for a long period before the war, are inevitably pursued by that very same class during the war; it merely changes its form of action.”
Lenin traced these politics meticulously for all the countries engaged in the war and showed how they were not dropped but merely carried on “by other means” that is, by force of arms. Britain was fighting to hold on to and extend her gigantic colonial system, she was fighting to maintain the power of her capital throughout the world – “there is not a spot on the whole globe that this capital has not laid its heavy hand on; there is not a patch of land that is not enmeshed by a thousand threads in the net of British capital.” France was fighting to remain the “usurer of the whole world”. Germany, to seize from her rivals who had been earlier on the field a share in the plunder. Russia for an extension of her empire.
That phase of Lenin’s fight continued until February 1917 when the first Russian Revolution took place, and a new theory in regard to the war emerged. “Now,” said the Russian Liberals and near-Socialists, “we have made a revolution, we are a revolutionary people, we are a revolutionary Democracy. The war on our side is now transformed into a just, revolutionary war. We are fighting to defend the Revolution.” But this was not so. The Czar had been overthrown, but the capitalist and the landlord were enthroned. The war was a continuation of their politics. And these were the politics of annexation and of secret treaties for dividing up Europe and Asia. Lenin did not spare the “defencists”. “The new ‘revolutionary’ national defence is merely the use of the lofty concept revolution to cover up the sordid and bloody war for the sordid and disgusting treaties. The Russian revolution (of February) has not changed the character of the war.” At the same time, of course, Lenin pointed out:
“We cannot deny the possibility of revolutionary wars, that is, of wars arising out of the class struggle; conducted by revolutionary classes, and having direct, immediate, revolutionary significance.”
But the war which Russia was waging between February and October was not such a war, and Lenin and the continued to oppose it. This opposition did not take the form of merely denouncing the war. Instead, Lenin showed the conditions necessary for a genuine revolutionary war, the conditions under which the Bolsheviks would be “revolutionary defencists”.
“We are not pacifists,” he wrote, “and we cannot repudiate a revolutionary war. Wherein does a revolutionary war differ from a capitalist war? The difference is, above all, a class difference: Which class is interested in the war? What policy does the interested class pursue in that war? ... We must demonstrate in practice, that we shall wage a really revolutionary war when the proletariat is in power. Putting the matter thus, we offer, I think, the clearest possible answer to the questions as to the nature of the war and of those who are carrying it on.”
And when the Russian proletariat had taken power and were forced to wage war, the war they waged was a revolutionary war, a. just war. In deeds and not just in words they were fighting for freedom, for the rights of small nations, for a system which would really end wars and bring a genuine peace, for the defence of the rule of the workers. No longer was the war on Russia’s part a continuation of the politics of the capitalist class. It was now a continuation of the politics of the workers in power.
Now comes a new theory. According to Palme Dutt and the other Communist Party leaders of this country, the imperialist war being waged by Britain has been transformed into a just war, not by a “class difference”, not by the proletariat taking power, but by the acquisition of an ally who is waging a just war. As Palme Dutt puts it:
“The second phase of the war, the reactionary war of the Western imperialist Powers for the redivision of the world has passed into the third phase of the war, the just war for the liberation of the peoples against German Fascism ... In this way the participation of the Soviet Union has transformed the character of the war.”
Or in the words of another Communist Party writer, Quaestor:
“The situation in the whole world has been radically changed, and with it has been changed the character of the, war by Hitler’s extension of it to the Soviet Union.”
And William Rust writes in World News and Views of Oct. 18, 1940 of:
“The alliance with the Soviet Union, which, transformed the war.”
This new theory is such a travesty of Marxism, and stands in such glaring contradiction to the whole method of materialist dialectics and to the clear facts of the present situation that it seems impossible that Dutt Co. should he able to pass it off on the members and sympathisers of the Party as a Socialist theory. It is only because of the devotion of these members to the workers’ state and their urgent desire to help to defend it that the leaders of the party are able to dress up their complete betrayal of Marxism as a “realistic”, “revolutionary” policy.
Does Dutt really believe, does he expect any serious-thinking workers to believe that Churchill and the British capitalist class are now waging a “just war for the liberation of the peoples against German Fascism”? What has caused the change, then, we ask Dutt? A change in the politics which were “pursued for a long period before the war”? But the same class is in control. They are still fighting for the same interests their profits, markets, Colonies, etc. And they can fight for no other interests. They are still fighting to keep India under their own subjection and to keep Africa enslaved.
And in Europe they are certainly not lighting for the “liberation of the peoples.” Dutt knows very well that if ever the British capitalists do release the peoples of Europe from German Fascism it will only be to impose on them the chains of a British imperialism which the “freed” peoples will not find so very different from their former bondage. And Dutt knows very well too that if Churchill and. Roosevelt “defend” the Soviet Union from Hitler, it will only be in order that they may exploit its vast wealth themselves. Dutt knows that this is true and has said as much. True, he said it immediately Germany attacked Russia and before the new line had had time to come through from Moscow. True, also, he said the opposite once the line did come through. But he took his words seriously enough to print them in World News and Views, July 5, 1941, and here they are:
“But they (the British imperialists) by no means wish to see a victory of the Soviet Union, with its liberating consequences for Europe. They count, instead, on the basis of the weakening of both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, on establishing their own domination in Europe, and eventually to return to their ultimate aim of crushing the Soviet Union. There is no room for illusions on these ulterior aims of the imperialists.”
Nevertheless, Palme Dutt is now as busy as anybody in spreading the illusion among the workers that Churchill and Beaverbrook are really fighting to defend the Soviet Union and to free Europe. Has anything changed in the meantime to justify this? The signing of the Anglo-Soviet Pact? But pacts do not make the “class difference” which Lenin postulates. Pacts today, as Eden has stated, have only a “brief butterfly existence”. There is not even any reason to believe that Churchill’s pact with Stalin will resemble a long-lived rather than a short-lived butterfly. There is also the example of the pact with Hitler made with the Soviet Union, which was to guarantee peace between the two countries for “a thousand years” and which Stalin said was “sealed with the blood” of the two peoples. That pact paved the way for Hitler’s one-front victories in the West and allowed him, two years later, to turn and wage a one-front war against the Soviet Union in the East.
In passing, we may ask Dutt why it is that his theorem only works one way? That is, why is it only the “just” war that affects the “unjust” one, and not also the reverse? Does Sikorski’s reactionary war for, as the CP has said, “the return to power of the semi-Fascist Government of Colonel Beck and General Sikorski”, not spread its contagion to the lily white skin of Churchill’s crusade for democracy? Does the war of the Greek capitalists for the return to their semi-Fascist rule not spread its odour to the deodorised British ally? Or has Sikorski, like Churchill, been purified by contact with Stalin. Has King George of the Hellenes perhaps been persuaded to fight for a Soviet Greece? We must beg Dutt to follow his profound conclusions through to the end and let their bright light illumine the darkest and most remote corners of history. They will in this way serve their chief purpose by exposing themselves.
The Churchill-Stalin pact no more changes the politics of Britain’s war than the Hitler-Stalin pact changed the politics of Germany’s war. Like the former pact, it is a measure of convenience and, when the time comes, will be scrapped as cynically and brutally as Hitler’s pact. When that moment comes, the British working class must be fully conscious and prepared for Churchill’s anti-Soviet moves, for on them will fall a great responsibility for defending the Soviet Union. To fail to prepare them for that time, to spread the illusion that the Pact is more than a scrap of paper in Churchill’s eyes, is to assure that when British imperialism turns to tear the workers’ state in pieces, the working-class will be confused, disorganised and unable to rally their ranks for a real defence of the Soviet Union.
Nothing fundamental changed between Palme Dutt’s warning against Churchill’s anti-Soviet designs, and his sudden discovery a couple of weeks later that the war was now “Just” and that, as Pollitt put it:
“Speculation on how long this co-operation will last, how soon before a switch is made, are fatal at the present time. They represent defeatism in its worst possible form ...”
There was no change in the politics which were “pursued for a long period before the war” by the British capitalists, and which, in Lenin’s words, “are inevitably pursued by that very same class during the war.” All that changed was the order from Palme Dutt’s master in the Kremlin.
Dutt attempts to cover up his treachery by pointing out that Marx and Lenin, while giving a broad, general directive for the period, could not possible have foreseen details:
“World history,” says Dutt, “always works itself out with a greater richness and complexity, with more twists and turns, than even the most powerful political insight, the insight of the great masters of Marxism, could attempt to plot out beforehand in detail.”
Certainly the twists and turns of Palme Dutt have worked themselves out with a greater richness and complexity, and with more twists and turns than Marx or Lenin could have foreseen. But that, no more than the Stalin-Churchill pact, alters the nature of the war which Britain is waging. It is not the twists and turns of imperialists, manoeuvring desperately to retain their empires and profits, that alter the nature of wars but only the broad, deep, sweeping change brought about by a new class coming to power, a new force striving to rid the world of imperialism.
Suppose this new method of judging wars – the contagious or “who-is-our-ally” method – is applied in other parts of the world. Suppose, for instance, that in the course of the imperialist process of driving Japan out of the Pacific, America becomes allied with China. Now China is undoubtedly waging a just, defensive war against Japan’s imperialist aggression.  According to the new theory, therefore, America’s imperialist war would become transformed into a holy crusade in defence of the freedom and independence of the colonial and semi-colonial countries, and the workers of the USA would be obliged to give full support to Roosevelt.
Every class-conscious worker will see how farcical this is. If America “saves” China from Japan, it will only be in order to get the “Four Hundred Million Customers” together with the raw materials of China for herself. Such a pact with China would parallel the present pact with Russia which aims at saving Russia – for Britain and America. The new theory produces the fantastic conclusion that the whole essence of America’s war in the Pacific would be transformed, not by a change in the politics of one side or the other, but by a change of allies. It is just as fantastic to imagine that the essence of the present war is changed on Britain’s part by a mere matter of “allies”. That essence is that the two most powerful groups of imperialist powers – on one side the German, and on the other the Anglo-American – are fighting to see who shall dominate and exploit the world. The Soviet Union will be one of the richest prizes for the victor, just as China will be another. And yet these “defenders” of the workers’ state tell the British workers that they must support one imperialism against the other.
To say that they are “using” Churchill and Roosevelt temporarily is like the claim of a passenger in a runaway train to be “using” the extra speed of the train to reach his destination more quickly. In the first place, he is unlikely to reach his destination at all: in the second, even if he does reach it, he will be in no condition to “use” anything – ever. An essential prerequisite to being able to “use” anything is control. It is he who is in control who “uses”, and it is Churchill and the capitalist class, and not the Communist Party, who are in control in the present situation.
But let us return to Lenin:
“Can war be explained,” he asks, “if it is not connected with the preceding politics of the given state, the given system of states, the given classes? I repeat: this is the fundamental question which is constantly forgotten: and the failure to understand it transforms nine-tenths of the arguments about war into useless wrangling and the bandying of words.”
The test described by Lenin is the only valid yardstick for assessing wars. When it is applied to the war being waged by Russia at the present time, we see that it is a just war; it is a continuation of the politics of a workers’ state which, in spite of the Stalinist degeneration, still retains the property forms which were fought for and won in October 1917. Applying the same Leninist criterion to Britain’s war, we see that it is the continuation of the politics of an imperialist state and of an exploiting class.
What, then, are the conditions necessary to transform Britain’s imperialist war into a genuine, revolutionary, just war which would really defend the Soviet Union against German imperialism? They are, briefly, that the workers should take the military and the state power into their own hands, that they should fashion their own military and state instruments. In that case the war would become on Britain’s as well as Russia’s part, a continuation of the politics of the working class and would be historically progressive and just.
And until this is done, what is the Soviet Union to do? Refuse aid from the imperialist Government? Of course not! Nobody but a fool would suggest this. But the signing of such a pact must not mean that the working class of the country with which it is signed should give up or moderate their struggle against their ruling class. A pact signed by a workers’ state with a capitalist state, especially a war pact, represents the greatest possible danger to the workers’ state. It is, in effect, a measure of desperation. It is an action taken only because the workers of that state have not yet taken power into their own hands. To use the pact as a reason for their giving up the struggle for power means to commit suicide.
Pacts can be signed, material aid accepted, but, as Trotsky has said, “For this purpose, there is not the slightest need to call black white and re-baptise bloody brigands as ‘friends of peace’.” But this is exactly what Stalin and his hacks are busily engaged in doing. Not only do they advise the British workers to give up the class struggle, but they re-baptise the “bloody brigands” Churchill, Beaverbrook, Roosevelt & Co. as friends of peace, defenders of the Soviet Union and fighters for democracy.
If it is doubted whether it is possible to have an alliance and yet maintain a position of ideological opposition to the “ally.”, let the doubters observe Churchill. His alliance is cynically and openly based on the interests of British capitalism. He does not take back one word he has said about Communism. He continues to ban the paper of the Communist Party in Britain. He openly protects Moore-Brabazon. But, it may be objected, his actions in sending the munitions of war to the Soviet Union – are they not a concession to Communism? No! Churchill reckons, not on “saving” the USSR, not on enabling it to drive the German Army back across Europe, but on using it in order to weaken and hold up for a time German imperialism so that in the end the mutually weakened Germany and Soviet Union will fall to the Anglo-American war machine which is now under construction.
Very different is Stalin’s alliance, for it results in Stalin holding before the world masses a whole series of illusions regarding “democratic” capitalism. The illusion, for instance, that a peace imposed on Europe by Churchill and his class can be anything but an imperialist, repressive, “peace” which will be maintained by the guns of British imperialism and will lead to another war. The illusion, also, that the Atlantic Charter is anything but a cynical fraud intended to dupe the masses of the entire world.
The “peace” which is to follow an Allied victory gives Lawyer Pritt another reason why the alliance with the Soviet Union has changed the nature of Britain’s war. This stooge of Stalin presents the world with the profound theory that such a peace is bound to be “just” for the simple reason that the Soviet Union will have a say in it. Here are Pritt’s words, taken from his pamphlet Together Against Hitler.
“It is now, for the first time, impossible for the defeat of Hitler to be accompanied by the survival, or the establishment, or the growth, of Fascism in Germany, or Italy, or France, or Britain, or any other country; and equally impossible for any peace of a Versailles or ‘Vansittart’ character to be imposed by the British Government. There are strong assertions, but they are justified. The presence of the USSR in the war, with the British Government definitely allied to it, makes the war plainly one of half the world against the purely Fascist countries; and the presence of the USSR at the peace conference excludes the oppression of the people of any defeated country.”
Lawyer Pritt, in spite of his professional attempts to insert covering clauses for every emergency, forgets one detail: unless genuine aid is given to the Soviet Union, there is little likelihood that it will be represented at any “peace conference’’ at all. And that aid can only come from the workers acting independently. Pritt’s very policy of class-collaboration assures that the Soviet Union will not be present at the “peace conference”, for it will not exist. Either its open enemy, German imperialism, or its “ally” Anglo-American imperialism, will have destroyed it.
But suppose for a moment that the USSR were represented at a peace conference after the Allies had defeated Germany. In what way, then, would a severely weakened Soviet Union dissuade the imperialist bandits from imposing a Versailles or a “Vansittart” peace on Europe? Marxists have always pointed out that there cannot be a genuine democratic peace until the European workers and peasants take their destiny into their own hands. Only decrepit Liberals or unscrupulous demagogues can hold out to the oppressed and blood-drenched peoples of Europe the illusion that there can be a genuine, lasting, democratic peace while capitalism continues to rule the Continent. The mere presence of the Soviet Union at the “peace conference” would not exert some magic influence which would dispel the class interests of the representatives of imperialism. War puts to the supreme test the relation of forces existing between the nations. The peace which follows it embodies the will of the powers which have proved to have the greatest force. If the politics of peace are continued in war, so also are the politics of the war carried on into the peace. And the universal domination for which Britain and America are fighting in this war will simply have the stamp of the approval of the capitalists set on it by the “peace”.
The example of Brest Litovsk reveals Pritt’s “theory” for the miserable betrayal of Marxism that it is. The Soviet Union was forced at that time, because of its own weakness to accept a harsh and oppressive peace dictated by the German ruling class and military chiefs. But, far from making any pretence that their presence at the peace conferences had influenced the peace in the direction of a just, democratic peace, they declared in their manifesto immediately they had signed at Brest:
“We do not conceal from anyone that we consider the present capitalist Governments are incapable of making a democratic peace. Only the revolutionary struggle of the workers against their present governments can bring such a peace to Europe. Its full realisation will be guaranteed only through the victorious revolution in all capitalist countries.”
These words apply with as much force today as when they were written 23 years ago. Indeed, they apply with even more force, for, in the meantime the horrors of imperialism, the fratricidal butchery of its wars, the blood-stained contradictions of a system which drives the great Powers relentlessly towards seeking domination of the whole world – all these have in the meantime become emphasised and debased a thousand times.
Even granting that the war were allowed to end in an imperialist way, and that the Soviet Union were allowed to survive and sit at the “Peace” table – then we can say with assurance that its presence there would alter the imperialist nature of the peace just as little as did the presence of the Bolsheviks at Brest Litovsk. But the Bolsheviks at least did not call black white or re-baptise bloody brigands as friends of peace.
The nature of our epoch does not readily allow mistakes on the part of the workers’ leadership to go unpunished. The writhings of capitalism in its death agonies are dangerous to onlookers who do not understand how to finish off the monster. Above all they are dangerous to those who would approach it with the aim of forming an “alliance”. Already we have seen the results of such “tactics” throughout the Continent. The workers of Spain were led unwillingly by the Communist Party leaders into a “Popular Front” with the contorting beast, and a whip of its tail sent them reeling. In the same way the French masses made a “friendly” advance to their deadliest enemy – and suddenly found themselves lying on their backs.
The Dutts, the Pollitts, the Pritts of Europe and the world subdivide the dying but still dangerous monster into its various parts. One part, they assure the workers, is more dangerous than another. At one time the head, at another the tail, at, still another the heart. And it is necessary to form an “alliance” with the less dangerous against the more dangerous parts.
But the beast has already demonstrated its complete unity. Was the body threatened by the workers in France? – Then the head in Germany was called to the rescue. Was the heart threatened by a deadly danger in Spain? – Then the whole of the rest of the body made it its duty to protect this vital organ by assuring that there was no “intervention”.
The epoch is one of ever-recurring universal wars for the redivision of the world into colonies, spheres of influence, markets, etc. Marx and Engels pointed this out even last century, and Lenin and Trotsky have shown the whole dialectics of the process in motion during this. Lenin summed up the nature of the epoch very well in the following passage from his Socialism and War.
“Capitalism, formerly a liberator of nations, has now, in its imperialist stage, become the greatest oppressor of nations. Formerly progressive, it has become a reactionary force. It has developed the productive forces to such an extent that humanity must either pass over to Socialism, or for years, nay, decades, witness armed conflicts of the ‘great’ nations for an artificial maintainance of capitalism by means of colonies, monopolies, privileges, and all sorts of national oppression.”
That is the real picture of our epoch. Not a picture in which the capitalists on one side are painted in shining white, and those on the other in deepest black. But one in which the whole process of capitalist decay is summed up.
It is within the framework of such a picture that we must see the war which Russia is waging. The war of the Russian masses is just and for the defence of the fundamental gains of October. But it does not affect in the smallest degree the unjust, oppressive war for the domination of the world which is being fought by Germany on the one side, and Britain and America on the other. In all its aspects and on both sides that is reactionary. It is a war caused, not by good intentions on one side and bad on the other, but by the imperialist convulsions of the epoch. It is a war which has gone through, not three phases, as Palme Dutt would have us believe, but has from the beginning to the present time been equally reactionary on both sides. It is a war which continues the politics of the capitalist class. It is a gigantic, world-wide war for universal domination in which Hitler’s attack on Russia, and Churchill’s “defence” of it occur only as passing incidents in the eyes of the imperialists, Hitler, forced by the whole logic of the position of German capitalism along the road of wood conquest was the first to attack Russia. Churchill and Roosevelt, forced by their position along the same road, but not yet powerful enough to destroy German power, make full use of Russian resistance to gain time for themselves. But. as we have said, once they have armed sufficiently, and both Russia and Germany have weakened each other enough, the “peace-loving” leaders of the Western Powers will fall on both.
The nature of their War is changed only in words. And it was against judging the phenomena of history, particularly war, by mere words that Lenin warned the workers. Beneath the surface are the interests, the politics for which the war is being fought. These interests end these politics are not changed, and the nature of the war is not changed on the part of a capitalist state by the mere signing of a pact with a workers’ state that is genuinely fighting a just war.
The war will only become just and revolutionary on Britain’s part when the workers take the military and state power into their own hands. Only then will it be waged genuinely for the smashing of fascism, for the rights of small nations, for the defence of the Soviet union. For it will then be a continuation of the politics of the working class, and will be fought for the true interests of the masses everywhere. Meanwhile, the continuation of the class struggle in Britain, the leading of the workers toward power, cannot, as the Communist Party leaders claim, injure the Soviet Union. On the contrary, its success will be the only guarantee against Churchill repeating on a bigger scale his intervention against the Soviet Union in 1919. And the only guarantee also against a third and even more fearful world war which will inevitably follow if capitalism is allowed to survive the present holocaust.
1. It is not possible in the limited scope of this article to deal fully with the wars of the colonial and semi-colonial peoples. But Marxists recognise clearly the “justness” of these wars. Not only do they tear the oppressed peoples from their backwardness and foreign domination, but they administer heavy blows against the exploiting imperialists. No illusions, of course, can be permitted regarding the degree of “democratic development” which will result from these wars in isolation, for the genuine liberation of the colonies will, as Trotsky puts it, “be merely a gigantic episode in the world socialist revolution”. But the war of the Chinese people against Japan, a war of the Indian people against British rule – these cannot be recognised by Marxists as anything but just. They are the continuation of the politics of the exploited masses struggling for freedom from imperialist bondage.
Last updated on 1.10.2005