James P. Cannon

The Socialist Appeal

December 7, 1940

Lenin, Trotsky and the First World War

Written: 1940
Source: The Socialist Appeal
Transcription\HTML Markup:Andrew Pollack
Third of three articles in the Socialist Appeal on SWP military policy.

In advancing our military transitional program, we proceed from the point of view that permanent war and universal militarism have become the dominant characteristics of our epoch, and we visualize the social revolution as the immediate outcome of the imperialist war. We begin, as did Lenin, with a declaration of irreconcilable class opposition to the imperialists and their war. It is only by means of this principled standpoint of class opposition that the cadres of modern Bolshevism are formed and clearly delimited from all other parties, groups, and tendencies, which to one degree or another, tend toward conci1iation or collaboration with their national ruling class in the war.

But the situation which confronts us today is not an exact duplication of that which confronted the revolutionary Marxists at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. For one thing, the capitalist order has reached a far more advanced stage of decay and is more susceptible to revolutionary overthrow. In addition, we have the benefit of twenty-six years of the richest historical experiences which have been generalized by the great Marxist Trotsky. These circumstances enable us to go farther, with more concretely worked out slogans of agitation to advance the class struggle under conditions of war and militarism, than was possible for the revolutionary Marxist at the beginning of the First World War.

Trotsky, the author of our program, contributed extremely important thoughts to the workers’ vanguard facing the Second World War: the immediacy of the revolutionary perspective in connection with the present war, and the necessity for transitional slogans which can serve to mobilize the masses for independent class action leading up to it. It is precisely this immediacy of the revolutionary perspective that makes the transitional program a burning necessity. “Our policy,” Trotsky wrote, “the policy of the revolutionary proletariat toward the second imperialist war, is a continuation of the policy elaborated during the last imperialist war, primarily under Lenin’s leadership. But a continuation does not signify a repetition. In this case too, continuation signifies a development, a deepening and a sharpening.” (Fourth International, October 1940.) He reminded us, and we repeated after him, that not even Lenin had visualized the victory of the proletarian revolution as the immediate outcome of the First World War.

At this point Lenin suddenly acquired an advocate in a c amp which hitherto has not been distinguished by its fidelity to Leninism. Shachtman, comrade-in-arms of the avowed anti-Bolshevik Burnham, and the present leader of the “Workers Party” (the Burnham group minus Burnham), comes to the defense of Lenin against us. The “floating kidney,” as Trotsky denominated Shachtman, bobs up in the most unexpected places!

However, we have committed no assault on Lenin, and he is in no way in need of the dubious “defense” of this attorney. It is necessary to take a little time out to prove this, because the authority of Lenin is one of the greatest treasures of the revolutionary movement. His name is written beside that of Trotsky on the banner of the Russian Revolution. We proclaim the extension of this revolution throughout the world in the name of Lenin-Trotsky. We must not permit the slightest confusion as to how we regard Lenin; and it is a matter of simple respect to his memory to protect him from the hypocritical support of an advocate who is known among Leninists only as a betrayer of Leninism.

It will take a little time and space, but this can’t be helped. It is a simple task—mainly work with a shovel. His own confusion and instinct to sow confusion—two qualities always happily married in Shachtman’s factional “polemics”—plus his unfailing twisting, falsifying, and misrepresenting the words of others and the events of the past are all piled together here also. It is simply necessary to dig this stuff away, and then to unwind the quotations and replace the historical incidents in their true position. Then nothing will be left of the dirty mess that Shachtman has made of our alleged attack on Lenin and Shachtman’s “brief” as attorney for the defense.

The defense of Lenin is the second “point” in Shachtman’s indictment of our military policy. The occasion for it was the publication of my speech to our Chicago conference which adopted our resolution. Shachtman made a big “case” out of what I said about Lenin, or rather, what I didn’t say. Here are the sentences which Shachtman quoted from my speech: “We said and those before us said that capitalism had outlived its usefulness. World economy is ready for socialism. But when the world war started in 1914 none of the parties had the idea that on the agenda stood the struggle for power. The stand of the best of them was essentially a protest against the war. It did not occur even to the best Marxists that the time had come when the power must be seized by the workers in order to save civilization from degeneration. Even Lenin did not visualize the victory of the proletarian revolution as the immediate outcome of the war.”

Shachtman characterized this as a “monstrous falsehood,” and as a “complete misrepresentation of the views and traditions of the Bolsheviks in the last war.” He offers a number of “quotations” to prove that Lenin and the Bolsheviks advocated revolution during the war, he implies that Lenin expected revolution as the war’s immediate outcome, and finally asks: “And above all, what in heaven’s name was the meaning of Lenin’s slogan, repeated a thousand times during the last war, ’Turn the imperialist war into a civil war’?”

Our quoter undoubtedly establishes the fact that Lenin was in favor of revolution, that he had a program of revolution. And he tries to make it appear that I denied it, or didn’t know it. Shachtman’s whole case rests upon this false construction. Lenin advocated the “program of revolution” not only during the world war but before it, before 1905, from the very beginning of his activity as a revolutionary Marxist. Shachtman’s entire argument is directed against a contention which I did not make.

He makes his argument appear superficially plausible by the use of two well-known devices of literary charlatans. First, he mutilated the quotation from my speech, breaking it off short and eliminating immediately following sentences in the same paragraph which made my meaning more clear and precise. I wrote: “Even Lenin did not visualize the victory of the proletarian revolution as the immediate outcome of the war.” Shachtman twisted it and distorted it into a denial that Lenin had “a program of revolution” during the war. But I think it is thoroughly clear to a disinterested reader that I was speaking of something else, namely, Lenin’s expectations as to the immediate outcome of the war, and not at all of what he wanted and what he advocated.

My meaning was made more precise by the sentence which immediately followed: “Just a short time before the outbreak of the February revolution in Russia, Lenin wrote in Switzerland that his generation would most probably not see the socialist revolution. Even Lenin had postponed the revolution to the future, to a later decade.” The context of my published speech, from which the sentences were extracted, makes it even clearer that the references to Lenin were concerned not at all with differences of program, but only with the immediate perspectives of the revolutionary Marxists in this war and in the First World War. I don’t see how anyone can seriously dispute our contentions on this point because the words of Lenin himself constitute the basis for the reference. The October Fourth International cites two exact quotations on the point to which I referred without directly quoting.

“It is possible, however, that five, ten, and even more years will pass before the beginning of the socialist revolution.” (From an article written in March 1916, Lenin’s Collected Works, vol. XIX, p. 45, third Russian edition.) “We, the older men, will perhaps not live long enough to see the decisive battles of the impending revolution.” (Report on 1905 Revolution delivered to Swiss students, January 1917, idem, p. 357.)

That is not all. The main quotation from Lenin which Shachtman cites in his polemic against us—a quotation which he also mutilates to twist the meaning—shows that Lenin was not speaking of the revolution as an immediate perspective; that is, the quotation will show it when we restore the words which Shachtman cut off in the middle of a sentence. He quotes from the article of October 11, 1915, which appears on page 347 of the English edition of Lenin’s works, volume XVIII: “. . . It is our bounden duty to explain to the masses the necessity of a revolution, to appeal for it, to create the fitting organizations, to speak fearlessly and in the most concrete manner of the various methods of forceful struggle and of its ’technique’. . .” There Shachtman ended the quotation, breaking Lenin’s sentence off at a comma.

Here are the immediately following words which he left out: “This bounden duty of ours being independent of whether the revolution will be strong enough and whether it will come in connection with the first or second imperialist war, etc.” Lenin obviously was not arguing about the immediacy of the revolution as we visualize it in connection with the present war, but about the necessity of advocating it and preparing for it.

If any further proof is needed one only has to read the rest of Lenin’s article! In the very same article, on page 349 of the same volume, Lenin continued: “As to the untimeliness of preaching revolution, this objection rests on a confusion of terms customary with the Romance Socialists: They confuse the beginning of a revolution with its open and direct propaganda. In Russia, nobody places the beginning of the 1905 Revolution before January 22, 1905, whereas the revolutionary propaganda, in the narrow sense of the word, the propaganda and the preparation of mass action, demonstrations, strikes, barricades, had been conducted for years before that. The old Iskra, for instance, preached this from the end of 1900, as did Marx from 1847 when there could have been no thought as yet about the beginning of a revolution in Europe.”

Shachtman took my remarks about the immediate perspectives of Lenin during the First World War, lifted them out of their context, mutilated the paragraph from which they were extracted, twisted them into an attack on the program and traditions of the Bolsheviks which was not intended or implied in any way by me, and then Shachtman attempted to bolster his thesis by quotations from Lenin which in reality prove the opposite—when they are honestly quoted without breaking off sentences in the middle, (and without suppressing other sentences in the same article which make Lenin’s real meaning even clearer.

To top off his exercise in literary skullduggery Shachtman refers to the “outlived” Lenin, using quotation marks to convey the impression that he is quoting me. That is an outright literary forgery. I never used such an expression and could not do so; it is not my opinion.

All this literary fakery and forgery in “defense” of Lenin has a fundamental aim which is not frankly avowed, but only thinly disguised. Against whom is Shachtman really defending Lenin? To be sure, he mentions only “Cannon,” but it is perfectly obvious that Cannon in this case is only serving Shachtman as a pseudonym for the real target of his attack. My remarks about Lenin’s perspective during the First World War were no more and no less than a simple repetition of what Trotsky said on the subject. It was he who called our attention to the relevant quotations and explained their precise significance.

In the October number of our magazine Fourth International which Shachtman had at hand when he wrote his article in Labor Action of November 4—he refers to the Goldman-Trotsky correspondence contained therein—Trotsky wrote: “Prior to the February revolution and even afterwards, the revolutionary elements felt themselves to be not contenders for power, but the extreme left opposition. Even Lenin relegated the socialist revolution to a more or less distant future. . . . If that is how Lenin viewed the situation, then there is hardly any need of talking about the others.”

Here is the real nub of the matter. Shachtman’s attack on “Cannon” in behalf of Lenin is in reality aimed against Trotsky in a cowardly and indirect manner. He wants to set Lenin against Trotsky, to make a division in the minds of the radical workers between Lenin and Trotsky, to set himself up as a “Leninist” with the sly intimation that Leninism is not the same thing as Trotskyism. There is a monstrous criminality in this procedure. The names of Lenin and Trotsky are inseparably united in the Russian Revolution, its achievements, its doctrines and traditions, and in the great struggle for Bolshevism waged by Trotsky since the death of Lenin. “Lenin-Trotsky”—those two immortal names are one. Nobody yet has tried to separate them; that is, nobody but scoundrels and traitors.

Shachtman’s article in Labor Action serves the same aim as the special “Trotsky Memorial Issue” of their magazine which was published only to defame the memory of Trotsky, to belittle him, to justify themselves against him, and at the same time—like any shopkeeper looking for a little extra profit—to claim his “heritage.”

Trotsky, as if anticipating such attempts, gave this answer in advance. Here is what he wrote in the Socialist Appeal: “Only the other day Shachtman referred to himself in the press as a ’Trotskyist.’ If this be Trotskyism then I at least am no Trotskyist. With the present ideas of Shachtman, not to mention Burnham, I have nothing in common. . . . Towards their new magazine my attitude can only be the same as toward all other petty-bourgeois counterfeits of Marxism. As for their ’organizational methods’ and political ’morality,’ these evoke in me nothing but contempt.”

The literary manners and morals of petty-bourgeois dabblers in politics are no better than their theses. With such people, as Trotsky once remarked, it is not sufficient to check their theses; it is necessary to watch their fingers too! If we keep this salutary warning in mind the “theses” of Shachtman directed against our military transitional program can be disposed of without difficulty. As I said before, it is mainly work with a shovel.