Hal Draper


The Myth of Lenin’s “Revolutionary Defeatism”

I. The Marx-Engels–Second International Tradition

The Marxists of our day are accustomed to thinking of the “lesser evil” theory in war as being characteristic of the reformist social-patriots. This is historically conditioned. The question has to be thought of in the context of the difference between the progressive period of capitalism and the imperialist stage of capitalism.

1. Marx’s Criterion in the Pre-Imperialist Epoch

When Marx and Engels, in their time, asked “The victory of which nation (i.e., which national ruling class) would have the most advantageous consequences for the working-class movement?” and decided support or non-support on this ground, this also obviously based itself on a kind of lesser-evil choice, though they did not use the term. But this approach had two fundamental historical premises:

(1) The difference between the two belligerents was not basically one of “lesser” or “greater” evil, but of the difference between the historical roles which they played. Marx and Engels’ “lesser evil” was essentially an historical category, not at bottom a matter of eclectically reckoning up “consequences” on two pans of a balance-scale. This is why Lenin was still using their method when he made his great contribution in drawing a sharp dividing line between the progressive wars of the young bourgeoisie against feudal reaction and the modern wars among bourgeoisies all of whom were gripped in a world-wide imperialism which decisively conditioned the politics and consequences of these wars. But this replaced Marx and Engels’ “lesser evil” criterion.

(2) Throughout his world-war polemics against the social-patriots, Lenin always emphasized another accompanying difference between the two epochs: Today, he argued, unlike yesterday, the struggle for socialist power is on the order of the day in Europe. The socialist working class is on the scene as a contender for power itself. This means: There may still be “lesser” and “greater” evils (there always will be) but we do not have to choose between these evils, for we represent the alternative to both of them, an alternative which is historically ripe. Moreover, under conditions of imperialism, only this revolutionary alternative offers any really progressive way out, offers any possibility of an outcome which is no evil at all. Both war camps offer only reactionary consequences, to a “lesser” or “greater” degree.

In this context, any number of quotations can be found in Marx and Engels in which they come out for the defeat of one side in a given war on the ground of the progressive consequences which would thereby be facilitated. By the same token this meant for them: preferring or desiring the victory of the other side, on the ground of the same progressive, revolutionary consequences. Their “defeatism” in these situations was the pro-war defeatism which we have discussed.

It is therefore simply quotation-mongering to utilize such expressions by Marx and Engels to “prove” that they believed that “defeat facilitates revolution”. Of course they did, in given historical wars. In the same way it is just as possible to prove that “victory facilitates revolution”, and this proposition was just as true in the same historical contexts.

In 1915-16 Zinoviev, the only Bolshevik propagandist who stood at Lenin’s side in support of the “slogan of defeat”, specialized in such historical arguments. When we find him appealing to the authority of Marx and Engels in support of “defeatism”, what he is doing in linking up this policy with the methodology of pro-war defeatism. He does not give the slightest sign of being aware of what he is doing.

Thus Zinoviev [4] quotes Engels’ position on the threatened Austro-Prussian war (letter to Marx, April 2, 1866):

“Although every man who bears any part of the responsibility for this war if it breaks out deserves to be hanged, and with absolute impartiality I do not exclude the Austrians from that, yet I wish above all that the Prussians should get a monumental drubbing.” [5]

For, says Engels, then one of two things would happen: either (1) the Austrians would dictate peace in Berlin in two weeks, thus avoiding intervention by Bonaparte, and the Berlin regime’s position would become impossible and a movement against “Prussianism” would start; or else “(2) a change-over would take place in Berlin, before the arrival of the Austrians, and the movement would begin all the same”.

So in this case Engels was “for the defeat of his own government”, but what this meant for him was desiring or preferring the victory of the enemy government. For Zinoviev even to use this as a “Marxist” precedent for his brand of “defeatism” is a give-away.

2. The “Special Position” on War Against Tsarism

But this methodology of Marx and Engels was directed by them, most of all and most vigorously, against tsarist Russia. To them, Russia was the prop and inciter of all reaction on the Continent, the center and fortress of counter-revolution, the inspirer and supporter of every vestige of the old regime in Germany particularly. Behind every manifestation of reaction loomed the tsar and his diplomats and the threat of his armies. Once the Russian autocracy was destroyed, all the forces of democracy in Europe (in Germany first of all) would bound forward with seven-league boots, and the proletarian revolution would not be far behind. “Down with tsarism!” therefore, smash it by any means possible, revolutionary war against tsarism! [6]

Just as Marx and Engels saw a special role being played by Russia in the configuration of European politics, so they advocated a special position by revolutionaries against this threat, through demands which they did not direct against any other state.

This special position on Russia was bequeathed to the Second International at its foundation, and ingrained in it. It was an axiom of the Marxist movement for decades: “For the defeat of tsarism!”

It was this axiom which became the rationalization of the German Social-Democrats for its collapse before the war hysteria on August 4, 1914. True, in 1914 Russia was no longer the monolithic society of feudal barbarism that it had appeared in the days of Marx’s Neue Rheinische Zeitung. A modern working-class and socialist movement had developed strongly. In 1905 this Russia had gone to the head of the European revolution. Tsarism could no longer hope to play the old role in Europe; now it had the revolution at its own back. The political bases of the “special position” had radically changed. But the “special position” and its tradition was still there, still ingrained. It was not the cause of the collapse of the German Social-Democracy but it was strong enough to act as its effective ideological cover.

Just before the black day of August 4 when the Reichstag group stood up to vote for the kaiser’s war credits, the Social-Democratic press snapped back into the groove:

“The German Social-Democracy has always hated tsardom as the bloody guardian of European reaction; from the time that Marx and Engels followed, with far-seeing eyes, every movement of this barbarous government, down to the present day, when its prisons are filled with political prisoners, and yet it trembles before every labor movement. The time has come when we must square accounts with these terrible scoundrels, under the German flag of war.” [7]

So wrote the Social-Democratic Frankfurter Volksstimme on July 31. The press filled with such evocations of the old outlived tradition (not unmixed with a new note of simple chauvinism): “fight first against the Russian knout” ... “Shall the Russian tsar ... who is the worst enemy of the Russian people themselves, rule over one man of German blood?” ... “War against tsarism ... worst enemy of all liberty and all democracy” ... “Poor devils, really creatures without a fatherland, these downtrodden subjects of bloody Nicholas. Even should they desire to do so, they could find nothing to defend but their chains” ...

Rosa Luxemburg commented: “Long-forgotten chords that were sounded by Marx in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung against the vassal state of Nicholas I, during the German March Revolution of 1848, suddenly reawakened in the ears of the German Social-Democracy in the year of our lord 1914, and called them to arms, arm in arm with Prussian Junkerdom against the Russia of the Great Revolution of 1905”. [8]

Or as Zinoviev himself wrote in 1916: “For 60 years the vanguard of the revolutionists of Germany preached justified hatred of tsarism to the German people. Since the time of Marx’s Neue Rheinische Zeitung, the call to struggle ‘against tsarism’ has not ceased to resound in the ears of the German workers. And now, when the war of 1914 has broken out, the German social-chauvinists, who have passed over into the camp of imperialism, have consciously exploited this revolutionary hatred borne by the German workers against bloody tsarism. They have cynically utilized the old slogan ‘against tsarism’ in order to cover themselves and to force the German workers to spill their blood in the interest of German imperialism.” [9]

And not only at the beginning of the war. To the last the social-patriotic leaders insisted that by supporting the kaiser’s war they had been carrying out the behest of Marx and Engels, and when the March Revolution took place in Russia they pointed to it as their handiwork, their justification, their “progressive consequence”. Paul Lensch claimed: “as a matter of fact, the Russian Revolution is a child of the German victories!” – for does not defeat in war facilitate revolution, and did they not “facilitate” the defeat of tsarism? In October 1917 Dr David defended the party’s war record at the first wartime party congress where the leadership had to give an accounting of its policy, at Würzburg:

“The justification of our attitude has still another strong argument. A policy is best judged by its successes. What success has it had? The one immense fruit of this war, which we all greeted with jubilation, is the collapse of the tsarist system, is the Russian Revolution, the Russian democracy, and with it an of the perils which the tsarist system meant to Europe. But this event would not have occurred if we had acted as Haase and his friends wanted us to on August 4, 1914.” [10]

By 1914 the old “special position had been totally emptied of its political and historical content, but it still echoed hollowly in the thinking of the Second International. We will see its echoes in Lenin’s “defeatism”.

3. How Zinoviev Makes a Defeatist Out of Engels

In one of his most tortuous articles of 1916 [11], Zinoviev attempted to refute this “anti-tsarist” rationalization of the social-patriots and at the same time to wrap the authority of Engels around his own variety of “defeatism”. The result is revealing.

To pull off this tour de force, he goes back to Marx and Engels’ line of “revolutionary war against Russia” and seeks to prove that, in putting forth this position, they advocated first the overthrow of the German government and then the carrying out of the “revolutionary war” by a workers’ government. This is necessary for him since he wants to (a) rebut the social-patriots and (b) secure Engels’ authority for “defeatism”, but without admitting that this precedent requires equating such “defeatism” with support of the victory of enemy government.

How does he try to do it? In than one place (especially in the ’90s) Engels took up the question of what German socialists should do if Russia (or even Russia in alliance with France) attacked Germany. Zinoviev describes Engels’ reply as follows – but using his own words, not Engels’:

“What then should the German proletariat do, what should the German Social-Democracy do? defend the Prussian junkers, support its ‘own’ government? No, that is inadmissible ... Engels proposes an entirely different solution: the German proletariat should overthrow its own government and lead a revolutionary war against tsarism, uniting with the French workers for the common struggle.”

What authority has he for claiming that Engels considered it was “inadmissible” in this situation for socialists to support a non-socialist German government which was fighting against Russian attack? What authority has he for claiming that Engels proposed: first overthrow the government and then lead a revolutionary war against Russia?

He has a quotation, from Engels’ article of the ’90s, Socialism in Germany. Here, speaking of the same hypothetical situation, Engels wrote:

“In this struggle our country can save its national existence only by applying revolutionary measures ... We have a very strong party ... It is the Social-Democratic Party. And we have not forgotten the great example which France gave us in 1793 [the example, that is, of ‘Jacobin’ tactics] ...”

Zinoviev then challenges: “We will not insist on the fact that today’s war is not at all the one that Engels envisaged. [This is exactly the main thing he has to insist on, but he has other fish to fry in this article – H.D.] We ask only: Why then didn’t the German social-chauvinists overthrow their government? Why didn’t they have recourse ‘to the most revolutionary measures’?”

But all of this is a falsification of Engels’ viewpoint. Engels left no doubt whatsoever that he was thinking of supporting a defensive war under a government still led by the old class. His reference to “revolutionary measures” meant that the socialists should demand that this government take such measures – just as earlier Marx, during the American Civil War, had advocated that the Lincoln government of the North take “revolutionary measures” against the South, e.g., free the slaves. Engels also looked to the victory of this government as preparing the way for the socialists to come to power eventually, soon or late, possibly even during the war itself; but he did not advocate, “overthrow the government” as a precondition for supporting its defensive war against tsarism.

In a letter to Bebel (October 24, 1891), Engels wrote on exactly the same theme: “... If Russia is victorious we shall be crushed. Therefore if Russia begins war – go for her! go for the Russians and their allies, whoever they may be. [Engels has France in mind – H.D.] Then we have to see to it that the war is conducted by every revolutionary method and that things are made impossible for any government which refuses to adopt such methods ...” [12]

The same day Engels wrote to Sorge: “If Germany is crushed, then we shall be too, while in the most favorable case the struggle will be such a violent one that Germany will only be able to maintain herself by revolutionary means, so that very possibly we shall be forced to come into power and play the part of 1793.” [13]

It is clear that Engels is not thinking of the war as being conducted by a socialist government, necessarily. This was part and parcel of his and Marx’s mode of approach in this pre-imperialist epoch. The social-patriots tried to utilize such quotations for their own purposes. But in this case, once Zinoviev has announced that he will not argue against this sleight-of-hand of the social-patriots on the only ground where their fundamental mistake showed up, he has taken up the gage with them on their own ground.

He then argues himself onto thin ice, because he himself is trying to preserve a remnant of the same tradition on which the social-patriots based themselves. He is led to distort Engels because he is trying to retain the old methodology (only in connection with defeatism!) without accepting the conclusions. He is trying to claim Engels as a “defeatist” without revealing that Engels’ call for the defeat of Russia meant support of “his own” government.

4. How Zinoviev Invents a “Defeatism” for Plekhanov

From the “defeatist” Engels, Zinoviev goes on to the “defeatist” Plekhanov. He approvingly quotes the position taken by Plekhanov at the 1893 congress of the International in Zurich. There, reporting for the Russian socialists, Plekhanov had said:

“When the German army crosses our border, for us it will be a liberator, as the French in the time of the Convention, a hundred years ago, were liberators when they came into Germany to bring liberty to the people after having vanquished the kings.”

Zinoviev actually quotes this as an “authority” in the year 1916, when the German social-patriotic theoreticians are reveling in like quotations. Though he himself does not make this point, he could not have hit on a clearer example of how the “special position” on Russia was involved, in Marx’s view, with a different period of capitalism, typified by the French Revolution, the progressive days of a young rising bourgeoisie fighting against feudalism. Why does Zinoviev do this? He is quoting Plekhanov enthusiastically because, in this context, Plekhanov naturally came out for the defeat of tsarism:

“The more our German friends attack Russian tsarism [the quotation from Plekhanov continues], the more grateful we are to them. Bravo, my friends, beat tsarism, drag it onto the judgment dock as often as possible, strike at it by every means at your command!”

Plekhanov was for “defeatism” against Russia, you see – Q.E.D. So are we Bolsheviks in this war. We have precedent on our side ... And Zinoviev apparently does not suspect that he is giving the show away as to the political methodology of this “defeatism”.

“We have cited the declarations by Plekhanov at the Zurich congress which are ‘defeatist’ in their way” [winds up Zinoviev triumphantly].

But to cover the traces, here again as in the case of Engels he falsely claims that Plekhanov Was thinking only of a “revolutionary war” led by a workers’ government. With that ambivalence which his double-barreled aim imposes on him, he hastens to add that, of course, it would be improper to make those same declarations today in 1916 that Plekhanov did in 18931 No Russian socialist today, he says, would issue such an invitation to the Germans, the situation is different, etc. But then, what remains of the point of citing Plekhanov as a “defeatist in a way”? Of course Plekhanov was then a “defeatist in a way”, but it was precisely the “way” which was used by the German social-chauvinists to justify their betrayal in 1914.

The same methodological shuttle sticks out in a couple of quotations which Zinoviev fishes out of Marx. For example, in the Russo-Turkish war, Marx, wrote (September 27, 1877) that the “gallant Turks have hastened the explosion [in Russia] by years with the thrashing they have inflicted” on the autocracy. He does not mention that Marx was not simply commenting on the frequently revolutionary consequences of defeat in war. Marx was in favor of a Turkish victory in that war. [14]


To sum up:

(1) We will see the echoes, in Lenin’s position on “defeatism” in 1914/16, of the Marx-Engels-Second International “special position” on the defeat of Russian tsarism, as the “lesser evil” in a certain sense.

(2) In going back to this tradition, Lenin’s specialist in historical precedents. in the course of specific polemics in defense of “defeatism” during the World War itself, Zinoviev betrays at all points the reliance of the defeat-slogan on the methodology of the old tradition, and most particularly –

(3) Zinoviev implicitly identifies the political viewpoint of his “defeatism” with the political approach of pro-war defeatism. He has found no precedent in Marx and Engels for any combination of “defeatism” with an anti-war policy against both war camps. He cannot even see the difference between a “defeatism” which is for the victory of the enemy government, and his attempt to invent a “defeatism” which is not.

Before going any further, we could be quite sure at this point that we are dealing with a political viewpoint which is rife with confusion about its own ideas, even if those ideas were after all correct.



Reference Notes

4. In his article Russian Social-Democracy and Russian Social-Chauvinism, pub. in Kommunist, Nos.1-2, 1915; in Gegen den Strom, p.243. Zinoviev quotes the passage from Engels very incompletely.

5. Here translated from the French edition of the Marx-Engels Correspondance, tome IX, p.39.

6. For Marx and Engels’ position on war against tsarism, see the collection The Russian Menace to Europe by Marx and Engels, ed. by Blackstock and Hoselitz, Free Press, 1952.

7. Quoted by Rosa Luxemburg in her “Junius”, pamphlet, The Crisis in the German Social-Democracy, 1915.

8. In The Crisis in the German Social-Democracy.

9. Op. cit. (note 2*).

10. Quoted by Shachtman in New International, June 1939, p.181.

11. Op. cit. (note 2*).

12. Marx-Engels, Selected Correspondence (International Pub.), p.492. See also letter to Bebel of Sept. 29, 1891, pp.489-90.

13. Ibid., p.494.

14. Ibid., p.357.


Last updated on 25.9.2004