Hal Draper


The Myth of Lenin’s “Revolutionary Defeatism”

II. Defeatism in the Russo-Japanese War

According to the myth, the most solid historical precedent for “defeatism” is supposed to be Lenin’s “defeatism” in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. Lenin’s “defeatism” of 1914-16 was only the continuation of the line he developed for the earlier war, and indeed, we have been told, in 1904-5, not only Lenin but even the Mensheviks and large sections of the liberal bourgeoisie were pervaded with “defeatism”. Lenin’s line for the First World War grew out of this experience. In 1916 Zinoviev wrote [15] along these lines: “Germany today does not possess the tradition of 1905; it could not have any clear ‘defeatist’ tradition” – whereas we Bolsheviks, happily in possession of the 1905 tradition, were ready to come to the “defeatist” position easily in 1914.

This is not true. Lenin’s position on the Russo-Japanese war was fundamentally different from his position on the First World War, and precisely with respect to defeatism.

The true story of Lenin’s real war policy in 1904-5 has never been told in any literature familiar to our movement [4*] – indeed, as far as we know, it has not been told anywhere. It has to be exhumed from his writings of the period, where it is plain enough.

One might have expected that in 1914-16, when Lenin was hotly arguing for his defeat-slogan of that time, he would have referred (if only in passing) to the phenomenon of defeatism in the previous war and his position on it. He never does, not even in passing. Zinoviev, however, was a horse of a different color. The latter deliberately concealed and falsified the truth, and it was his account which served to miseducate the movement.

1. The Peculiarity of Zinoviev’s History

Let us start, again, with Zinoviev’s version of the history of “defeatism” – rather, his attempt to invent a history for Lenin’s brand of “defeatism”.

The work by Zinoviev which was the main source of this miseducation was his History of the Russian Communist Party (1925) [16], which in turn on this question was in good part based on an article he published in 1916, entitled “Defeatism” – Then and Now [17], in which he dealt in detail with the “defeatism” of the Russo-Japanese War.

In both his History and the 1916 article, Zinoviev correctly relates that defeatist sentiment was common in Russia not only among socialists but also among bourgeois liberals. (As a matter of fact, defeatism had also appeared earlier in Russia in the Crimean war.) This is a solid fact. The peculiarity of Zinoviev’s version of history is this: that in not one line of his extensive discussion does he permit himself to use any of the plentiful evidence which proves this fact; we will have to do that ourselves later, and the reason why Zinoviev does not will be all too clear.

None of the examples of “defeatism” which Zinoviev selects is an example of the real defeatism which existed.

To be sure, even his examples show the widespread scope of anti-war feeling in the country; but by this time we should be aware of the gap between being merely against a war and being for defeat of one’s own country in that war. In fact, when Zinoviev wrote his 1916 article he was vociferously insisting on the difference.

He certainly does show that the Russo-Japanese War was unpopular; that the people were against it; that there were “defeatist” moods (in the other sense) which expected defeat, and linked this expectation of (or in some cases, resignation to) defeat up with coming revolutionary changes. He does show that large sections did not look to victory in the war, and even were afraid of the prospect of victory for tsarism. But we have already made clear that a point of view which says “Against victory” does not yet add up to a “desire for defeat”, though it can go over to it. Lenin and Zinoviev were well aware of this, since in the First World War they polemized against the viewpoint which they called “Neither victory nor defeat” as “centrist”. In 1904-5 a point of view which rejected both the desire for victory and defeat was even more of a definite tendency. We have already stated that real defeatism existed, but a good deal of the anti-war opinion of the time deliberately stopped short of defeatism. This tendency did so either (a) in uncertainty or ambivalence, (b) where more thought-out, in a wish for a war of exhaustion and stalemate, which was a not-infrequent perspective also. [5*]

2. Zinoviev’s Fake Examples

Keeping this in mind, let us look at Zinoviev’s examples, before raising the question of the motive for his peculiar omissions.

(1) Boris Chicherin:

This is Zinoviev’s prize example, in both writings mentioned. In his 1925 History, he tells us that Chicherin, who was a prominent liberal though a monarchist, wrote as follows: [18]

“The consequences of this war will, finally, help to solve the internal crisis. It is difficult to say what outcome of this war is more to he desired to this end.”

That is all! It does not seem to express a desire for defeat. But Zinoviev immediately adds:

“These words, which declare with little ambiguity the defeat of tsarist Russia to be more desirable than its victory, were written under the Russian censor.”

Well, that puts a new face on it. Zinoviev is telling us that Chicherin was using Aesopian language to get by the censor, and that what he really meant to convey was that he desired defeat.

But this is untrue. The witness against Zinoviev is himself, namely, his 1916 article, in which he had detailed the case of Chicherin a little more fully. [19] There we learn, still from the same Zinoviev, that Chicherin’s statement was not “written under the Russian censor” at all. In fact, it was not written. It was a remark made by Chicherin a few days before his death, and was quoted by another man (who vouched for it as coming from a reliable source) in Struve’s organ Ozvobozhdeniye. But perhaps this other man, M. Zemetz, was writing “under the Russian censor”? No, he was not; Struve’s organ was published in emigration.

In other words, this prize example, Chicherin’s statement, meant exactly what it said: this liberal-monarchist did not know what outcome of the war to desire. Nothing strange about that! It was a common state of mind among bourgeois liberals who did not like the war at all.

This quite understandable frame of mind was also very prevalent during the world war, but we would like to see Zinoviev citing such indecisive, soul-torn characters as fellow defeatists in 1914-16! Elements in Chicherin’s frame of mind were then a good deal to the right of the “centrists” that Zinoviev was attacking because they rejected “defeatism”! But for the purposes of historical precedent, Chicherin became a “defeatist”!

It seems amazing: why on earth does Zinoviev have to drag this ringer in, and falsify it to boot, when there were real defeatists to be cited?

(2) The S-R leader Gershuni:

In the 1925 History Zinoviev makes a long and garrulous to-do about this. Gershuni is in prison. His lawyer informs him that the war has broken out, tells of its unpopularity, and the defeats that have taken place. And Gershuni remarks: “A second Crimean campaign? And Port Arthur = Sebastopol [where tsarism had suffered a heavy defeat]?” Then Gershuni relates in his memoirs:

“... everything suddenly seemed to become clear. I felt that something infinitely terrible, infinitely menacing, and infinitely sorrowful was rushing upon us, which would hit the state like a thunderbolt, arousing the sleepers, and rending asunder the veil which conceals from the majority of the people the true essence of the autocratic system.” [20]

The thing that was “infinitely terrible”, etc., was, of course – defeat. If Gershuni desired defeat, he neglected to mention it in his memoirs so that Zinoviev could quote it. Later in his memoirs, when Gershuni writes after the fall of Port Arthur, “We trembled. Port Arthur had fallen – the autocracy would fall too”. Zinoviev quotes this and comments, “Clearly a defeatist state of mind”.

Clearly, indeed! The one thing certain about this “Gershuni” example is its ambiguity. It becomes twice as suspect when we add the information that the S-R Party’s organ came out against the viewpoint which desired the defeat of Russia by Japan!

(3) The above are Zinoviev’s two first and longest examples. Next he cites a novel, The Pale Horse by Savinkov, whose fictitious hero, a terrorist, hears of the Russian naval disaster at Tsushima and “is seized by the most contradictory feelings”. In his 1916 article Zinoviev adduced other examples: Struve, etc. Without exception, they are even less likely examples of “defeatism” than the above; he proves that liberals were anti-war, and then tags them with the “defeatist” label, gratis, with an appropriate assertion.

(4) Plekhanov:

Finished with examples of bourgeois defeatism, Zinoviev claims that “The Mensheviks, albeit not without some hesitation, had also adopted the defeatist position”. His example is Plekhanov. At the Amsterdam congress of the Second International, held during the war in 1904, opening addresses were given by both Plekhanov for the Russian delegation and Sen Katayama for the Japanese socialist delegation. On the stage they embraced amid the enthusiastic applause of the assemblage. They were vigorously anti-war. But Zinoviev says that Plekhanov’s speech was “defeatist”. In point of fact, he quotes Plekhanov as going so far, in a peroration, as denouncing the prospect of Russian victory. It is this that Zinoviev automatically equates with “defeatism”, entirely without justification. (We will see later that the Menshevik party was not for defeatism.)

3. Anti-War Moods in Russia

So we still do not have from Zinoviev a single clear example of anyone who came out as desiring defeat. If one judged only by Zinoviev, a critical reader might be led to the conclusion that this alleged “defeatism” that was supposed to have existed in 1904-5 was only another myth created by this fertile writer.

And that would be quite wrong. It existed. It even obtrudes into Zinoviev’s own History in the form of a couple of real examples – when Zinoviev attacks Martov for giving these examples!

Here he goes from concealment to falsification. Zinoviev, having ceased to drum up examples, has turned his attention to the position of the Mensheviks on the war. He writes: [21] “But today, Martov, reviewing the past in his History of the Russian Social-Democracy, endeavors to disown the defeatist position of the Mensheviks during the war.”

He gives the following quotation from Martov’s history: “As soon as, following the failures of the Russian army [Martov wrote], a typically defeatist attitude developed among liberal society and in revolutionary circles, and the hope grew stronger that continued military disaster would deal a mortal blow to tsarism almost without any new effort upon the part of the Russian people; as soon as there commenced to be manifested a certain ‘Japanophilism’ and idealization of the role that Japanese imperialism was playing in the war – Iskra [Menshevik organ] came out against defeatism, and in defense of the position that it was to the interest of the people and of the revolution that the war should not end by imposing heavy sacrifices upon Russia, and that freedom would not be brought to the Russian people on the bayonets of the Japanese.”

And Zinoviev complains:

“Martov is obviously beclouding the issue ... attempting to exculpate his revolutionary sins in the eyes of the bourgeoisie ... The pro-Japanese position had absolutely nothing in common with defeatism.”

Let us see who is beclouding the issue. What Martov referred to is a fact. The real defeatists of 1904-5, the elements who really did come out with a “desire for defeat”, tended to merge this sentiment into its obvious consequence: a wish for the victory of Japan, pro-Japanism.

Naturally this was not true of those anti-war elements who were for neither-victory-nor-defeat, who were either ambivalent on that score or who consciously held the view that the favorable outcome would be a stalemate of mutual exhaustion. But for those, especially bourgeois-liberal, elements who were indeed for defeat, the obvious corollary was also to be for Japan’s victory as progressive. This was a widespread feeling not only in Russia but throughout the world, where, particularly in England and America, Japan was looked on as a civilizing agent as compared with Russian barbarism. (The “Yellow Peril” had not yet overwhelmed the US.)

The strength of the Russian liberal bourgeoisie’s feeling on the war was not hard to explain. The rising bourgeoisie wanted political reforms and concessions; the tsarist government froze them out of all participation in the state power. They knew that a victory in the war would only consolidate the autocracy’s attitude, make it feel its oats, and strengthen its obstinacy. The bourgeoisie wanted a division of power with tsarism, and knew that it would be aided insofar as tsarism was weakened and had to yield. Many felt further that the aims of this war were dynastic, and did not bear upon the “national interest”, i.e., their own class interests. Many considered it merely a tsarist adventure. There were also divergences on whether Russia’s imperialist drive should turn face to the Far East or to the west.

For example, Struve’s organ Ozvobozhdeniye wrote on the outbreak of the war:

“The occupation of Manchuria and the outlet to the sea were economically nonsensical for Russia ... The loss of Manchuria and the Kwantung Peninsula [to Japan] will be no loss at all but will be to our advantage, for, in the pursuit of our own interests, we should long ago have abandoned this awkward adventure. And our enemies will ask no more than that from us.” [22]

The last sentence is important from the point of view of the going-over of liberal sentiment from anti-war feeling to outright defeatism. For the bourgeois liberals felt that defeat by Japan would be no skin off their back, since there was not the remotest possibility that Japan would carry the war to attack Russia at home, but that a Japanese victory would only mean the loss of Far Eastern outposts that were a white elephant anyway and not of interest to their own class, while a definitive tsarist defeat would weaken the autocracy and make it amenable to internal compromise. “The Japanese”, said a Russian liberal, “will not enter the Kremlin, but the Russians will.” [23]

Moreover, the bourgeoisie knew that one reason why the autocracy had gotten into the war was to use pro-war enthusiasm against revolutionary stirrings. Prime Minister Plehve had said, “We need a small victorious war to stem the tide of revolution”, [24] and Prince Urussoff wrote in his memoirs that “the members of the government expressed a hope, after the first battle, that the war would evoke a wave of patriotism, and that it would thus arrest the anti-governmental propaganda, and render it easier for the local authorities to preserve order and public tranquillity”. [25]

4. Pro-Japan Defeatism

But reasons aside, the fact is the evidence shows that the existence of a real “desire for defeat” was in association with a wish for the victory of Japan. Zinoviev is forced to cite some cases in polemizing against Martov [26]:

During the war, when the Japanese were battling with the troops of the Russian tsar, certain circles of liberal society (the students in particular) went so far, it was rumored, as to send a telegram to the Mikado of Japan.

(A.G. Mazour’s history Russia Past and Present states this as a fact. The students “wired the Mikado their best wishes for victory”.)

But, continues Zinoviev, we revolutionaries came out against Japanophilism.

“And from this point of view [Zinoviev writes], we condemned every excess [!] on the part of the liberal bourgeoisie and the superficial student revolutionaries, who, if they did not actually send, doubtless intended to send, the telegram to the emperor of Japan. In this sense Martov was correct: yes, we were against ‘Japanophilism’, but we did stand for the defeat of the tsarist armies ...”

Zinoviev is then asserting (in 1925) that the Bolshevik position was for defeat of tsarism but not for the victory of Japan. If that were true, we would finally have here an anti-war defeatism. (We will see that it was not true.)

Zinoviev continues with another involuntary example of the real defeatism of 1904-5, in the same peculiar form of an attack on Martov for bringing up the subject:

“... Martov is deliberately mixing up the cards when he writes as follows: ‘The leader of the Finnish “Activists” [nationalist group], who later headed the Finnish government in 1905 – Konni Zilliacus – openly proposed to Plekhanov as well as to the foreign representatives of the Bund, that they enter into negotiations with the agents of the Japanese government in regard to aid for the Russian revolution in the form of money and arms.’”

Very interesting – we have defeatists here. Boris Souvarine, in his Staline, recounts that

“The Japanese government ... offered money and arms to all the subversive parties; the only ones that accepted were the Finnish Activists, the Georgian Socialist-Federalists and the most nationalistic faction of the Polish Socialist Party whose leader Pilsudski even went to Japan to discuss terms with the enemies of the oppressor Russia.” [27]

But why is Martov “mixing up the cards” when he brings out this not irrelevant fact? Zinoviev says:

“Martov adds that this proposal was rejected. This is true. When the Russian revolutionaries, and even a section of the Russian bourgeoisie, came out definitely as defeatists, the Japanese and some of their agents tried to hook us with the following bait: Since you are in favor of the defeat of the tsar, we will be glad to support you with money and arms. It goes without saying that a proposal of this nature met with indignant refusal on the part of our organization and of all honest revolutionaries, as well as on the part of Plekhanov and the Mensheviks.”

This does not tell us why Martov was “mixing up the cards”. Zinoviev merely asserts that “The pro-Japanese position had absolutely nothing in common with defeatism”. It would be more convincing, even at this point, if he himself had been able to trot out one real defeatist who was not for the victory of Japan.

A contemporary magazine article (in the London Fortnightly Review for February 1, 1906) described the state of affairs in Russia:

“No sooner did the news of the Japanese war spread through the country than, with the one exception of the peasants, the Empire unanimously declared that should the Russian aims succeed, Russia herself would be ruined. From the first, the Russians prayed for Japanese victories ...

“When the first batch of Japanese prisoners reached Kalouga, everyone turned out to witness their arrival, flowers were showered on them, and at a dinner given at the best club in town, members and also officials of the provincial council were present, and the speeches were of a very liberal, not to say revolutionary character. It was at that dinner that the memorable phrase, ‘They are fighting for Russia’s freedom’, was uttered for the first time. In consequence of these proceedings, the club was shut up ...” [28]

Souvarine writes: “Defeatism, which had already appeared in the Crimean war, showed itself this time very widely in the liberal bourgeoisie, the oppressed nationalities, and among the workers and peasants. As against imperial Russia, which was undergoing defeat after defeat, the young Japanese imperialism took on almost the aspect of a champion of civilization.” [29]

This was the real face of the defeatism of 1904-5. It can come as a surprise only to those who have been nurtured on the Lenin-myth of the First World War. What else in fact could have been expected? It took a couple of highly skilled political theoreticians even to make an attempt, in 1914, to develop a “defeatism” which did not mean desire for the victory of the enemy’s government – and they did not succeed. For liberals, workers or oppressed nationalities whose hatred of tsarism led them from “mere” anti-war sentiment to a desire for defeat of tsarism, this automatically meant (in their case) defeat by Japan.

If Zinoviev denies this, it is simply out of ex-post-facto embarrassment, embarrassment which he takes out on Martov in the form of round abuse. This is why, in 1916 and 1925, Zinoviev casts around vainly – for “examples” of defeatism in 1904-5 which do not reveal the truth that defeatism in the Russo-Japanese War meant pro-Japanism – and more often than not, not merely pro-Japanism in the sense of desiring the victory of Japanese imperialism but also in the sense of “idealizing” Japan as a progressive force.

Perhaps the above is only true of the politically unsophisticated elements who were against tsarism and the war – raw workers, raw students, raw liberals, etc.?

No. Among those who most enthusiastically carried their anti-war anti-tsarism to the point of pro-Japanism were:

(1) Some of the most outstanding leaders of the Second International, and (2) Lenin.

5. Lenin’s Pro-Japan Position

The picture painted by Zinoviev’s “history” is a fairy tale from beginning to end. By the same token, so is the picture held by the Marxist movement of Lenin’s position in the Russo-Japanese War, specifically the meaning of his defeatism.

Lenin was for the victory of Japan in the war, as the standard-bearer of progress versus tsarist reaction.

We have to turn to Lenin’s writings of 1904-5 for this.

First of all, all during the year 1904, Lenin scarcely even mentions the fact that there is a war on. The party is in the after-throes of the Bolshevik-Menshevik split at the 1903 congress, and Lenin’s absorption in the internal situation is virtually complete.

All through 1904 there are only two references to the war in his collected works. [29a] First mention comes in April: it is not an article, thesis or resolution discussing the war but simply a May Day manifesto which Lenin wrote for distribution as a leaflet, signed by the Central Committee and editorial board of the party - three months after the war broke out in February. Its content: against the war, overthrow tsarism, demand peace, etc. There is no mention of defeat, defeatism, or any related idea.

Second mention of the war comes in a document addressed To the Party, on the split crisis (July-August), which refers to the war in order to make the point that revolutionary ferment is growing with its continuation. There is nothing on defeat or defeatism.

As the year 1905 began, the big military debacle, the fall of Port Arthur, was in plain sight, but had not yet occurred. An article by Lenin in Vperiod, January 4, made the point that

“The development of the political crisis in Russia depends ... on the course of the war with Japan ... Absolutist Russia is henceforth defeated by constitutional Japan ... The military fiasco is inevitable, and with it a redoubling of the discontent, ferment and indignation.” [30]

There is as yet, however, no more explicit statement than this on the desirability or necessity of defeat, which comes 10 days later, with the news of the military disaster at Port Arthur.

Now (January 14) for the first time Lenin writes a full-scale discussion of the war and the defeat, and of his line on the war – The Fall of Port Arthur.

This, and subsequent articles, are full of political characterizations of Japan as the progressive side of the war. We have already seen his remark, in the previous issue of Vperiod, that “Absolutist Russia is henceforth defeated by constitutional Japan”. The idea which is already implicit in this political counterposition is developed explicitly: [31]

“Progressive, advanced Asia has struck an irreparable blow against reactionary and backward Europe ... The criticism of the autocracy formulated by all advanced Russians, by the Russian Social-Democracy, by the Russian proletariat, is now confirmed by the criticism of Japanese arms ...”

He refers to Russia’s war as a “conflict with a progressive people”.

“The war of an advanced country with a backward country has once again played a great revolutionary role, as has happened many times in history. And the class-conscious proletariat, resolute enemy of war, which is the inevitable result of all class rule, cannot conceal from itself this revolutionary work that has been accomplished by the Japanese bourgeoisie in its victory over the autocracy. The proletariat is hostile to every bourgeoisie ... but this hostility does not relieve it of the necessity of distinguishing between the representatives of a bourgeoisie that is playing a progressive role or a reactionary role in history.”

Japan, he writes, is playing an “historically progressive role”.

But while fighting free competition, we cannot forget that it represents progress with relation to semi-serfdom. While fighting: all war and every bourgeoisie, we must in our agitation distinguish with care between the progressive bourgeoisie and the feudal autocracy; we must stress in all circumstances the great revolutionary role of the historic war in which the Russian worker is taking part despite himself.

What we see is that in this, the first big inter-imperialist war of the 20th century, Lenin is continuing to apply the Marx-Engels-Second International criterion of “progressive bourgeoisie” versus “reactionary regime” which was the old approach with respect to the earlier epoch of progressive, rising capitalism. He is asking the question: In this given war, the victory of which nation, which national ruling class, carries with it the progressive consequences for social and revolutionary development?

Theoretically speaking, what we find in Lenin’s position on the Russo-Japanese War is the analysis which, on August 4, 1914, became the theoretical rationale of the German social-patriots. Lenin puts this theoretical approach forward most clearly in an article written later on April 5:

“... it is necessary, when a war sets exploiting nations against each other, to distinguish between the progressive and the reactionary role of the bourgeoisie of each given nation. The Russian Social-Democracy has had to apply these general principles of Marxism to the war with Japan.” [In the same context, Lenin immediately refers back to the article The Fall of Port Arthur.] [32]

Nothing could be clearer as to the methodology, which underlay his defeatism in this war.

In line with this view of the role of Japan and in line with his sympathy for its victory, his articles are full of sympathetic, even enthusiastic, references to Japan’s armed might, etc. Thus, in The Fall of Port Arthur: [33]

“And along comes little Japan, up to now despised by all, and in eight months it seizes this citadel [Port Arthur] while France and England allied together took a whole year to take Sebastopol [in the Crimean war]. “

He catalogs Japan’s military strength, crowing with delight at the statistics, as if glorying in its military and naval power. He exults over “the Japanese fleet, magnificently armed and equipped with the most modern means of defense ... the growing power of young, new Japan”.

In The Fall of Port Arthur, he even seems to defend Japan’s imperialist expansion and gains as progressive. In the Sino-Japanese war, Japan had defeated China, but when the treaty of Simonoseki came in April 1895, Russia, supported by France and Germany, ganged up on Japan to force her to give up all annexations in China, though she did get the whole Liao-Tung peninsula. Here is Lenin’s reference to this fact that Japan’s burgeoning imperialism had been done out of its “rightful” spoils:

“Progressive, advanced Asia has struck an irreparable blow against reactionary and backward Europe. Ten years before, this reactionary Europe, headed by Russia, was worrying about the defeat inflicted on China by young Japan, and it combined to snatch the finest fruits of its victory away from the victor ... The return of Port Arthur to Japan is a blow struck against all of reactionary Europe. “

But this is not all: he dots the i’s and crosses the t’s, in a passage defending the views expressed on the Russo-Japanese war by Jules Guesde and H.M. Hyndman.

6. Guesde and Hyndman

A French socialist monthly Le Mouvement Socialiste, had, in its March 1904 issue, carried a symposium on the war by a gallery of the most prominent Second International leaders of various countries. The general line expressed was that of support of Japan in the war in order to defeat Russia, especially by Guesde, the leader of the “orthodox-Marxist” wing (God save them!) of the French Socialist Party, and by H.M. Hyndman, leader of the Social-Democratic Federation in England.

The Russian S-R organ, Revolutsionnaya Rossiya, in its May 18 issue, had attacked these two. The S-R organ was, of course, strenuously against Russia’s war, but it criticized Guesde and Hyndman for being for Japan. It rejected Guesde’s injunction to be “against Russia and for Japan”. It noted, quite truly, that “Hyndman’s answer [in the symposium] is nothing but a dithyrambic eulogy of Japan”. And it said:

“We think the question ... is posed in a radically false way. We are of the opinion that all socialists must and can be only for the working-class and people’s Japan against the imperialist Japan.” [34]

Lenin comes to the defense of Guesde and Hyndman’s pro-Japan position, and attacks the S-R criticism as “confused”. After one of his formulations about distinguishing between a progressive and a reactionary bourgeoisie, he goes after the S-Rs [35]:

“... One understands therefore why the most determined and intransigent representatives of the international revolutionary social-democracy, Jules Guesde in France and Hyndman in England, have expressed without any circumlocution their sympathy for Japan, which is battering the Russian autocracy. Naturally there has been found among us, in Russia, socialists who show that they are confused in their ideas on these questions. The Revolutsionnaya Rossiya has censured Jules Guesde and Hyndman, declaring that socialists could sympathize only with the Japan of the workers and people, not with bourgeois Japan. This censure is as absurd as if one censured a socialist for recognizing the progressive character of the free-trade bourgeoisie as compared with the conservative bourgeoisie. Guesde and Hyndman did not defend the Japanese bourgeoisie and its imperialism but, dealing with the conflict between the two bourgeois countries, they correctly noted the historically progressive role of one of them. The confusion in the ideas of the Socialist-Revolutionaries is naturally the inevitable result among our radical intellectuals of a lack of comprehension of the class point of view and of historical materialism.”

This passage continues with an attack upon the Mensheviks, to be discussed later. In this passage Lenin, labeling the Mensheviks confused also, attacks their “platitudes about the impropriety of ‘speculating’ (!!?) about the victory of the Japanese bourgeoisie and about the war which is a calamity ‘whatever may be’ the result – victory or defeat – for the autocracy”.

In his later article of April 5, he calls this “only sentimental phrases alien to the class point of view and to an analysis of the existing social forces”. [36] The class point of view, it would seem, was represented by the policy of being for the victory of imperialist Japan, not by a policy which fought tsarism and its war but refused to become an advocate of Japan’s military victory.

To get a close-up of the views which Lenin was defending, let us see what Guesde and Hyndman had actually written. In fact, the entire symposium in Le Mouvement Socialiste [37] gives a valuable insight into (1) the thinking of the Second International on the war question, in which the full-blown social-patriotism of 1914 can be seen in the bud, and (2) specifically, the meaning of defeatism in the RussoJapanese war from the point of view not only of socialists but of the most prominent leaders of the socialist movement.

In the preceding issue of this magazine, M. Beer had painted the historical background as follows: “... in the course of the last 30 years, Japan has undergone a development diametrically opposite that of Russia. In 1868 Japan abolished feudalism and founded the national state; the absolute monarchy was abolished in 1889, to give way to a constitutional government, which opened the way to a liberal development. During the same period, Russia set aside all the liberal measures taken around 1860, and about 1880 returned to the old Russian policy, to become, in 1890, an Asiatic cultural and political force.” [38]

In the symposium in the following issue, [39] Jules Guesde wrote: “In order to see which side, in the conflict which is reddening the Far East with blood, should receive the sympathies and best wishes not only of socialists but even of the most vulgar democrats, it is enough to examine the consequences (1) of the defeat, and (2) of the triumph of those who are improperly called ‘our allies’ [i.e., France’s allies – Russia] ...”

If Russia is beaten, he argues, the Russian people would suffer no organic damage in losing Manchuria and Korea. As a necessary first step toward the social revolution, the backbone of European reaction must be broken.

“So no hesitation is possible. In the interests of and for the peace of France and the world; in the interests of and for the liberation of Russia itself, it is necessary to be against Russia and for Japan. Long live Japan!”

“Long live Japan!” cries this “intransigent representative of the international revolutionary social-democracy”, but it is nothing compared with Hyndman’s contribution. Hyndman does exactly what Lenin denies he does: whitewash Japanese imperialism. Wrote Hyndman:

“What Japan is demanding is nothing less than reasonable. It is demanding, in effect, that Manchuria, which Russia seized without any scruples, be recognized as belonging again to the Chinese empire ... [Geography shows] the importance, for the future of Japan, of not leaving Manchuria any longer in Muscovite hands.

“For Russia, the possession of this part of Chinese territory is assuredly one more step in its long career of annexation and expansion.

“For Japan, it is nothing more nor less than a question of life or death.

“All who, like us, recognize the Asians’ right to work out their own destiny ... all who, like us, consider that the extension of the infamies of the Russian regime in China ... would be ... harmful to humanity, all such must necessarily wish the triumph of the Japanese.”

Forty years ago, Hyndman goes on to say, Japan was considered barbarous but today it combats “the black beast of Europe”. One must “admire its progress and its policies” though they have great defects. In Japan “we have seen a display of patriotism in its most noble aspect”. The assault by Japan on China was merely “the result of bad judgment”, but now Japan is not only fighting for its own existence but also for the independence of China! “I hope it will be victorious, not only for our own cause, but for the consequences which will flow therefrom”.

All socialists must aspire to see the exhaustion of Russia. If the Muscovite despotism is weakened either by a defeat or by a costly victory, we will see a new era open up for this great country and its neighbors.

He also hopes that the war will wake up China, and that China, “encouraged and enlightened by the example of the Japanese”, will clean out the Russians, Germans, French and English.

Thus, Hyndman. One is tempted simply to assume that Lenin must have read this very important symposium (Le Mouvement Socialiste was an outstanding journal of the international socialist movement and Lenin was in Switzerland) and that he was not merely going by the S-R organ’s quotations. Perhaps he did not actually get a full dose of it. In any case, if the S-Rs erred, it was only in the direction of mildness.

7. The 2nd International

Let us continue with the articles in the symposium in order to get a fuller cross-section of social-democratic thinking on the Russo-Japanese War. Lenin was not alone; he was, alas, in the deep current.

The contributions by Kautsky and Franz Mehring were more circumspect. Kautsky says:

“Never, in my opinion, has the problem been posed in terms so simple, and never has there been greater unanimity in international socialism, than on this question. The struggle against tsarismthat is the central point of the foreign policy of the socialist parties of all countries ...”

But Kautsky does not take up an attitude on Japan’s side of the war. [6*]

Mehring’s article is one of the vaguest. He makes the cloudy distinction that the revolutionary party can never have an interest for war, but it can have an interest in certain wars. The nearest he gets to the moot point is in the statement that the working class is not indifferent to the question whether Russia or Japan will win; if Japan wills, tsarist despotism gets a mortal blow; if Russia triumphs, tsarism will be consolidated; etc.

Vandervelde wrote: “One can state that, on this question, the socialist democracy is unanimous. It is with the Russian socialists and with the Japanese socialists when they denounce the capitalist influences which have unleashed the war; it has no more sympathy for the imperialism of the Mikado than for the imperialism of the tsar; but, in view of the inevitable repercussions of the conflict on the international and external politics of Europe, it cannot fail to take sides and wish for the defeat of the more dangerous of the two adversaries, whose victory would constitute the most fearful menace for the militant proletariat. And so from this point of view, hesitation is not possible: tsarism, that is the enemy!

Note that more than any of the others, more than Lenin too, Vandervelde “criticizes” the imperialism of Japan as well as the imperialism of the tsar; but only to introduce the plainest formulation of a “lesser evil” policy: we “wish for the defeat of the more dangerous of the two adversaries”, i.e., we support the less dangerous imperialism against the more dangerous imperialism.

The editor of Le Mouvement Socialiste, André Morizet, sums up the symposium in the same vein, equally delighted in the “unanimity” of socialist opinion. The unanimity was an illusion; all were opposed to tsarism’s war, but other political questions were glossed over. The International Socialist Bureau of the Second International limited itself to urging all socialist parties “to struggle with all their strength and combined efforts to prevent any extension of the war, so that their countries, far from participating in it, will seek to re-establish and maintain peace”. [40]

How much was glossed over we see when we get to the position taken by the socialist party which forthrightly came out against Japan in the war. This was the young Socialist Party of Japan itself, led by Sen Katayama. But before we quote Katayama, let us hear from one later contributor to the symposium, the leading figure among the Russian socialists, Plekhanov.

Plekhanov is very cautious. Writing in a later issue of Le Mouvement Socialiste [41], he says that he has little to add after the articles in the March issue. He does not ascribe the war to imperialism: war came, he explains, because tsarism wanted war for internal reasons, to counter revolutionary sentiment; that is all. He spends much space on the incompetence and stupidity of the Russian military leaders. He predicts more defeats for the autocracy, which will thereby be weakened; if tsarism falls or gets very much weaker, socialists would rejoice ...

There are two passing references to Japan:

“... whereas in Japan the government and the nation are one, the socialist movement being only at its beginning, with us an abyss already exists between the rulers and all the best elements among the ruled ...”

Who told him that in Japan “the government and the nation are one”? When he wrote this, he had already read a first article by Katayama on the anti-war position of the Japanese socialists, not to speak of Katayama’s attacks on the anti-working-class policies of the Mikado’s regime generally. We can recall that Hyndman had seen in the Japanese people a “display of patriotism in its most noble aspect”. No doubt this English Japanophile would have denounced the Japanese socialists as “unpatriotic”.

The second reference to Japan by Plekhanov is not due to him, but is very interesting. Plekhanov quotes at length two resolutions which had been adopted by social-democratic workers’ groups in two Russian towns. Both express solidarity with the anti-war stand taken by the Japanese socialists against their own government; indeed the first says further that the war is “of benefit only to our governments and harmful to the working class without distinction of language or nationality”. This occurs in the course of the quotation but Plekhanov does not comment on it or point to it.

The position taken by Sen Katayama was apparently partly based on pacifism and partly on a general feeling of class hostility to the Mikado regime, not on any reasoned-out analysis of the war question. Indeed, in an article [42] of his written just before the war broke out but when it was clearly on the way, he seems to whitewash the Japanese regime’s policy even though he is opposed to war against Russia. The Japanese people (he says in this article) are indignant at the arrogant and unfriendly attitude of Russia, especially because Russia and its allies deprived Japan “of the fruits of our victories in the Sino-Japanese War”. The attitude of the people is hostile to Russia. “Japan’s policy with regard to Korea and China has always aimed at opening these countries to civilization and developing them along the lines of modern culture. Russia has always blocked these beneficent efforts of Japan.” The principal cause of the way crisis is the fact that Russia has ignored its pledges to withdraw its troops from Manchuria. Among the people there is a peace-faction and a war-faction, but “The attitude of the government is rather ambiguous; but it does not seem to want war ...”

Then, after all this, Katayama sets forth the anti-war views of the Japanese socialists. They are “opposed to war against Russia”. The war would only be a war in the interests of capitalists, for whose profit thousands would die. “If Japan is beaten, we would have to pay a heavy war indemnity to Russia – we, that is ... the proletarian class. If we are victorious, the result does not seem bright for the workers.” The workers got no benefits from the victory over China; they just had to pay new taxes to maintain the armed forces, and militarism intensified. “I myself do not believe that the occupation of Manchuria by Russia is a question of life or death for Japan. Very far from it: the Japanese workers have no vital interest in it.”

He goes on to describe the oppressive character of the Japanese regime: conscription; militarism; police state; no laws to protect the working class; meetings broken up by police; the workers have no right to vote. He says he is sure that the great majority of the Japanese people are opposed to war with Russia, and the working class certainly is.

In a subsequent article [43] after the outbreak of war, he says more or less the same thing:

“The position taken by the Japanese socialists in the present conflict with Russia has been very clear and very frank from the very beginning. They were and remain hostile to war, not only to the war with Russia but to all war in general – ... the protest of the Japanese socialists against the war has been courageous and energetic.”

The Japanese party organized many anti-war meetings, very successful ones too. The government harassed them, and also suspended socialist publications.

8. The Mensheviks’ Position

Was the Japanese Socialist Party alone in the Second International in specifically opposing the war by Japan? We have already mentioned the position taken by the S-R organ Revolutsionnaya Rossiya, which was the central organ of the S-R Party itself. In addition, the Menshevik party too rejected the pro-Japanese defeatist line.

The position of the Mensheviks leads us back to the views expressed by Lenin. We have already seen, quoted by Zinoviev, what the Menshevik leader Martov said about it in his later History of the Russian Social-Democracy. Zinoviev pretended that this was an ex-post-facto revision by Martov of the “defeatist” line which the Mensheviks too held during the war itself. He accused Martov of “obviously beclouding the issue ... attempting to exculpate his revolutionary sins in the eyes of the bourgeoisie”.

Were the Mensheviks really for defeatism during the war, and was Martov concealing this in his later History? It appears not. It seems to be a case of literary “Zinovievism” again.

We have already seen that Lenin not only criticized the S-Rs as “confused” on pro-Japanism but he linked this with an attack on the Mensheviks for the same sin. The reason is that the Menshevik organ had polemized against Lenin’s article on The Fall of Port Arthur, the article in which Lenin’s pro-Japanese defeatism had blossomed. The Mensheviks had inveighed against “speculating on the victory of the Japanese bourgeoisie”, and Lenin had ridiculed this caution as a “sentimental phrase”.

A very interesting example of the Mensheviks’ views on the war is afforded by a document which the editors of Lenin’s Collected Works quote, in a footnote, to explain Lenin’s attack on them. This was a Menshevik statement, distributed as a leaflet and signed by the editors of Iskra (undated):

“If Russia is victorious in the present war, the tsar and his accomplices will have won a victory over all of Russia, over the working class and likewise over the bourgeoisie. If Japan inflicts defeat on Russia, the bourgeoisie will have won over the imperial government, after which it will unite with it and both will turn their combined forces against the working class. Complete victory of Russia or defeat of Russia will have only disadvantages for the working class, although in truth no defeat can do more evil in Russia than is daily done to it by the existence of the autocracy. But the working class does not have to choose between the victory of democracy and the defeat of Russia. Although defeat is the lesser evil, it would, we have seen, bring enough calamities. What does the working class need, what result would be of advantage to it? First of all, it needs the end of the war. It needs peace at any price.” [44]

It is clear that this is a pronouncement “against both victory and defeat”. The Mensheviks are trying to work out an anti-war position which will eschew the error of supporting Japan’s victory. They are trying to get away from the alternatives of victory-or-defeat. We will later see how Trotsky and Luxemburg did this in the First World War, in a revolutionary, Marxist fashion. But the Mensheviks are Mensheviks: they are not capable of doing so. (The anti-war Mensheviks of the First World War were to fall into the same pattern.)

In attempting to avoid the dilemma of victory-or-defeat, they fall into the slogan of “peace at any price”. And Lenin tears them apart on this. He shows how a socialist cannot possibly be for “peace at any price” – peace, yes, but not peace at any price, as Lenin emphasizes at one point.

In Lenin’s article [45] of April 5, his polemic against this slogan is especially vigorous. He notes with justified glee that the Menshevik Iskra had started backwatering in an editorial on March 16 which modified the position. “One cannot limit oneself”, said the new Menshevik editorial, “to demanding peace because peace combined with the maintenance of the autocracy would mean the ruin of the country.” That is very good, comments Lenin; one cannot in truth speak of peace at any price but only at the price of the overthrow of the autocracy. [7*]

In other words: fight for peace, yes, but this fight for peace must be indissolubly linked with the continuation of the revolutionary struggle to overthrow the autocracy.

Furthermore (and here we are not paraphrasing Lenin): it is an error to call for the defeat of Russia by Japan; but it is an opposite error to make an entirely false estimate of the objective effect of military defeat on the tsarist regime and internal politics. The Menshevik analysis denied that the weakening of the autocracy by the war debacle would open up revolutionary opportunities for the working class and other enemies of tsarism. They drew no revolutionary perspective from the war.

The Menshevik conception of “neither victory nor defeat”, then, was one of a return to the status quo ante bellum. They did not know how to avoid the dilemma of victory-or-defeat without falling into this centrist and pacifist pattern, which flowed from their fundamental politics, not from their rejection of support to Japan.

But in polemizing against the Mensheviks on “peace at any price”, Lenin writes as if a refutation of their position on this slogan was also, and automatically, a refutation of their position on pro-Japanism. And this is not true.

We note another interesting thing in the Menshevik statement quoted above. To anticipate a discussion which will arise when we get to the First World War period, we note that it contains a kind of “lesser evil” formulation: “Defeat is the lesser evil” as compared with tsarist victory, says the statement, though it refuses to choose the “lesser evil” by advocating the defeat of Russia by Japanese imperialism.

Let us grant that, in the tsarist despotism, and under the conditions of this tsarist despotism, defeat of tsarism is the lesser evil as compared with its victory. But the whole point is that a recognition of the existence of a greater and lesser evil does not necessarily obligate socialists to support the lesser against the greater. We do not remain within the confines of the choice between lesser and greater evil, as if these unequal evils were the only alternatives. We propose our own socialist alternative to the victory or defeat of either government by the other.

In this political sense, it is entirely possible to speak of defeat in a given war as being a lesser evil” as compared with one’s own government’s victory without thereby becoming “defeatists”, since one puts forward a third road to take. But when we come to meet the “lesser evil” formulation in Lenin in September 1914, it will not be this approach that will be embodied in it. The 1905 Menshevik use of the phrase “defeat is the lesser evil” is, therefore, by no means an anticipation or precursor of the same phrase in Lenin-1914, as might appear on the surface or out of context. The political idea is quite different. It is useful to have this example of the formulation that “defeat is the lesser evil” in the course of a position which dissociates it from defeatism.

9. The “Special Russian” Character of Lenin’s Line

The key idea is that the socialist approach in such imperialist wars does not base itself on the perspective of a military decision between the imperialist contestants. But in the Russo-Japanese War, Lenin explicitly, looked to an end of the war by the military power of one or the other government. Thus, writing on June 9, 1905 after the destruction of the tsar’s fleet at Tsushima, Lenin, rejoicing over this crushing defeat, points out the significance of the event by writing: “Everybody understood that the definitive outcome of the war depended on the naval victory of one of the belligerents.” [46]

Lenin here writes “naval victory” because he wants to show that with the debacle of the fleet, the tsar is done for; but in passing, his methodological approach is made crystal-clear. The outcome of the war to which he looked was the “victory of one of the belligerents”.

Finally, it is important to take note of another over-all aspect of Lenin’s position on the Russo-Japanese War. At no time did Lenin generalize it into a “defeatism” as a matter of general socialist policy. It was a policy for this war, between these contenders, in this concrete situation. He never gave the idea of defeat the “principled” character which he and Zinoviev were to give it later in 1914-16. It obviously could not be “internationalized”. In no way could this defeat-concept be applied to any other country, except Russia or some other backward, semi-feudal reactionary despotism at war With a “progressive” capitalist state.

While this is obvious from the position itself, Lenin’s argumentation brought it out from still another angle. This was his reiterated analysis that Russia’s defeat was due to, and necessitated by, not merely the reactionary, character of its war aims (imperialism, etc.), but by its rotten, outlived, un-modern, backward social structure as compared with “progressive” Japan – which, we must remember, may or may not have been “progressive” as compared with Russia but was hardly so in comparison with Western Europe.

Thus in his June 9 article, he wrote: “The autocracy ... now faces the end it deserves. The war has revealed all its running sores, brought to light its whole rottenness showed how it is divorced from the people ... The war has been an implacable judgment.” [47]

This he does at even greater length in The Fall of Port Arthur:

“[The autocracy’s collapse in war is] a symptom of the collapse of our whole political system ... War is now made by peoples, and that is why one sees an essential characteristic of the war brought out in particularly bold relief: the manifestation in action ... of the incompatibility of the people and the government ...

“The fall of Port Arthur draws one of the greatest historic balance-sheets on the crimes of tsarism ... The military and civil bureaucracy has been revealed as being fully as venal and parasitic as in the days of serfdom ... The ignorance, lack of culture, illiteracy and extremely oppressed state of the peasant masses were manifested with terrible clarity in the conflict with a progressive people, in the course of a modern war which requires human material of high quality as imperiously as does contemporary technology ... Tsarism is revealed as an obstacle to modern organization, an obstacle to attaining the high level of present needs ... The connection between the military organization of the country and its whole economic and cultural structure has never been as close as at the present time. Therefore the collapse could not fail to be the beginning of a deep political crisis.” [48]

Lenin connected defeat with revolution, to be sure, but even more basically he connected defeat with the un-modern, pre-capitalist social structure of tsarism, the social divorcement between the despotism and the people – in comparison with which Japan was “modern”, “young”, “fresh”, and “progressive”. The historical basis of his defeatism was, therefore, the type of situation which belonged to the youthful epoch of capitalism, which could not be carried over into the new imperialist era which had already begun. His position on the war was a case of “political lag” (on the analogy of the famous “cultural lag”): socialist theory had not yet caught up with political reality. More than anyone else, Lenin caught up with it in the First World War, but without throwing off all the remnants of the past which weighed on the socialist movement.




4*. Qualification [added by author to later article in series]: In Bertram Wolfe’s Three Who Made a Revolution, the author includes a quotation from Lenin’s article on The Fall of Port Arthur which would itself be enough to convey to the informed reader that Lenin’s position was one of support to Japan’s side of the war, or at least that Lenin considered Japan to be fighting a “progressive” war.

However Wolfe’s own text does not indicate that he understood what he was quoting. In fact he states that “[Lenin’s] words are worth pondering ... because they contain within them the germ of his future ‘revolutionary defeatism’ in World War I ...”. This is precisely what is not true as I have tried to make clear. Lenin’s position was merely a continuation of the then-orthodox approach to the war question and particularly to Russia’s participation therein, and was the near-unanimous line of the whole International.

Wolfe also comments that Lenin “expected Japan to win, and thought that this would be an aid to the progressive forces in Russia ...” Again, this formulation quite misses the point, which is that Lenin desired Japan to win. Wolfe comes closest with the remark that Lenin’s article was “a scarce-concealed cry of exultation that ‘progressive Japan’ had defeated ‘backward and reactionary Europe’ ...”.

However, all in all, Wolfe’s passage on this point (pages 27-9) is better informed than any other I have yet seen.

5*. For this tendency, see remarks by S.A. Korff in Autocracy and Revolution in Russia (1923), pp.67-9.

6*. But in 1907 at the Essen congress of the German Social-Democratic Party, August Bebel said in passing: “The Japanese were the aggressors beyond doubt; we rejoiced over that; we wished victory for them ...” His point at the moment was that socialists do not base their attitude on who is the aggressor; when he refers to socialist support of Japan’s side of the war, he is obviously assuming it as being well known and beyond the need of discussion.

7*. The same notes by the editors of Lenin’s Collected Works state that the slogan “peace at any price” was also at that time put forward by Trotsky in his pamphlet Our Political Tasks. They quote him as writing: “It is necessary to cover Russia with proclamations which are as clear, simple and short as possible, all of which must aim, in the present period of agitation, at the same goal: peace at any price.” Without an independent check, it is impossible to take this at face value, given the falsifications of Trotsky’s views that fill the Stalinist notes. The position of the Mensheviks is attested by Lenin’s articles, not only by the notes.



Reference Notes

15. Op. cit. (note 3); in Gegen den Strom, pp.441-2.

16. Translated into English serially in The Workers Monthly, Sept. and Oct. 1925 and following issues; but the whole book was not published here, the series ending before it got to 1914. Considering the great space which Zinoviev devotes to defeatism in the Russo-Japanese war, it is strange that his section on the World War does not mention the defeat-slogan at all (cf. the French edition, Histoire du Parti Communiste Russe, Paris, 1926).

17. Op. cit. (note 3) ; in Gegen den Strom, pp.427-442.

18. Workers Monthly, Sept. 1925, p.518.

19. Op. cit. (note 3); Gegen den Strom, p.432.

20. Workers Monthly, Sept. 1925, p.519.

21. Ibid., Oct. 1925, p.569-70.

22. Quoted in Dallin, The Rise of Russia in Asia.

23. Quoted in Pares, A History of Russia, p.428.

24. Op. cit. (note 22), p.79.

25. Quoted in G. Alexinsky, Modern Russia.

26. Workers Monthly, Oct. 1925, p.570.

27. Staline (Leiden, 1935), p.70.

28. Article, The Revolutionary Movement in Russia, by Alinar and Jayare.

29. Op. cit. (note 27), p.69.

29a. CW6 (German ed.) pp.449-53 for first, and pp.461-2 (final draft p.472) for second.

30. CW7 (French ed.), pp.45-6, The Autocracy and the Proletariat.

31. CW7, pp.58-66. The Fall of Port Arthur, from Vperiod, No.2, Jan. 14, 1905.

32. CW7, 205, European Capital and the Autocracy, from Vperiod, No.13, April 5, 1905.

33. Op. cit. (note 31).

34. Quoted in editors’ note to CW7, p.63.

35. Op. cit. (note 31).

36. Op. cit. (note 32).

37. The main body of the symposium was carried in the March 1904 issue of Le Mouvement Socialiste (Paris). A second article by Sen Katayama followed in the April issue, and Plekhanov’s contribution in the May issue.

38. Ibid., February issue, p.180.

39. Ibid., March issue.

40. Quoted in the contribution by André Morizet, March issue.

41. May issue.

42. Included in the March issue; originally published in L’Aurore of Jan. 11, 1904, i.e., before the war started.

43. April issue.

44. Quoted in editors’ note to CW7, p.64; statement titled Who Must Win?.

45. Op. cit. (note 32).

46. CW7, p.389, The Debacle, from Proletarii, No. 3, June 9, 1905.

47. Ibid., p.392.

48. 0p. cit. (note 31), p.61.


Last updated on 26.9.2004