Hal Draper


The Myth of Lenin’s “Revolutionary Defeatism”

Part 2. “Defeatism” During the First World War

In the first two chapters (Part I) of this article, we discussed two myths: (1) that some kind of precedent for Lenin’s world-war defeat-slogan can be found in Marx, Engels or the tradition of the Second International; and (2) that Lenin’s world-war defeat slogan was first applied in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. We have seen that there is no precedent whatsoever for a slogan of “defeat” combined with opposition to both sides in a war.


III. Lenin’s Defeat-Slogan 1914-16

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, defeatism had a real past history, and the idea of defeat had a definite meaning in the socialist tradition; but this history and this meaning were quite different from what it later became in the Lenin-myth. First of all, it meant defeat by the enemy government (“pro-war defeatism” we have called it). Secondly, it was not a formula for international application, but the given policy on one side of a given war between a despotic, backward state and a “progressive” capitalist state.

As we raise the curtain on Lenin in August 1914 preparing a document to state the position of the Bolshevik party on the imperialist war, it is this tradition and this meaning which is in his consciousness. Shocked and appalled by the collapse of the whole Second International all around him, he sees the line of blood which has been drawn between the leaders who are whipping the working class into capitulation to the imperialist chauvinism of their own ruling class, under the slogan of “civil peace” and “defense of the fatherland”, and the socialists who maintain the class struggle against the war and for the overthrow of this murderous capitalism which is setting worker against worker to cut each other’s throats.

He reacts in the fashion which is characteristic of Lenin the man, and not merely Lenin the Marxist.

For example, over a decade before, he had had to raise a great hue and cry in order to bring together the atomized Russian social-democratic groups and circles into a modern centralized party with a central organ; that at the time was the great next step which had to be taken, it was “what is to be done”. It was the key; it had to be pounded home into the consciousness of every militant; everything had to be subordinated to emphasizing it. How do you emphasize it? By repeating it a thousand times, in every conceivable way? Yes. By explaining it patiently over and over? Yes. By piling up argument after argument, seizing every fact, every problem, and converting it into, turning it toward, a lesson on centralization? Yes. But that is not all. The problem is greater centralization, as compared with the present looseness. Then put “Centralization!” on a banner, on a pedestal, emphasize it by raising it to a principle. But the opponents of this elementary need cover their political objections demagogically by yelling “Bureaucratism!” “Lenin wants more bureaucratism, while we are for democracy!” – How does Lenin react? Yes, he replies: “Bureaucratism versus democracy” [49] – that is what we need now. He makes perfectly clear what he means, but that is how he seeks to underline, with heavy, thick strokes, the task of the day, by exaggerating in every way that side of the problem which points in the direction it is necessary to move now. Tomorrow he will recapture the balance, but today that is the way he puts the weight on the side which needs it. [8*]

In 1914 the traitors to international socialism are yelling “Civil peace!” No, says Lenin, civil war!

In 1914, the traitors are yelling “Defense of the fatherland!” No, says Lenin, defeat of your own fatherland!

Defeat? The concept has lain fallow since 1905. Not once in the interval has Lenin recalled it in his writings. What was it we said about it then? It was our policy against tsarism, against tsarism only ...

1. Formulation No.1: The “Lesser Evil” Formula

In early September 1914 Lenin presents his draft thesis to his comrades in Berne. In it – in a subordinate place, to be sure, but still included – is the statement:

“From the point of view of the working class and the laboring masses of all the peoples of Russia, by far the lesser evil would be the defeat of the tsar’s armies and the tsar’s monarchy, which oppresses Poland, the Ukraine, and a number of other peoples of Russia, and which inflames national hatred in order to increase the pressure of Great-Russia over the other nationalities and in order to strengthen the reaction of the barbarous government of the tsar’s monarchy.” [50]

What role does this statement play in the thesis? It is not in the point (No.7) which presents the line and slogans on the war. It is in the section (No.6) which relates the war to the national question in the tsarist prison of the peoples, which argues that Russian socialists must “conduct a merciless and ruthless struggle against Great-Russian and tsarist-monarchist chauvinism”. In this connection, Lenin argues, for the oppressed nationalities under Moscow “the lesser evil is defeat”.

Lenin has remembered the idea and stuck it in at this point. It is the starting point of a development which we will now have to follow step by step, as it evolves, changes and shifts. It can be done only step by step because, as we have indicated, we are not dealing with a clear political idea which can be easily discussed pro and con, through “examples” and “illustrative quotations”, but with a theoretical snarl which has to be disentangled.

We get a hint of what was working in Lenin’s thinking, as he remembers the concept of defeat, by his rough notes for an unfinished article which he jotted down later the same month (perhaps, as we shall see, after already getting objections to the formulation).

“If everywhere [on both sides, there are] the bourgeoisie and the imperialists, everywhere the infamous preparation for war, if Russian tsarism [is] especially infamous and barbarous (more reactionary than any), then [it is likewise true that] German imperialism is also monarchist – feudal-dynastic aims – big bourgeoisie less free than in France. The Russian Social-Democrats were correct in saying that for them the lesser evil [is] the defeat of tsarism, that their immediate enemy [is] more than anything Great-Russian chauvinism; but the socialists (not the opportunists) of all countries should see their main enemy in ‘their’ (own ‘fatherland’s’) chauvinism.” [51]

It is clear how he is trying to think it through. Note the criteria with which he is comparing Russian tsarism and German kaiserism. Tsarism is the most reactionary regime. But – a shadow of the “progressive” Mikado crosses the page – is not the enemy government, Germany, also dominated by precapitalist reaction? It is “monarchist”, it is dominated by “feudal-dynastic aims”. In this comparison, it is not the imperialist role of Germany, capitalist Germany, which is the criterion. “The big bourgeoisie in Germany is less free than in France” – why is this brought up in this context? It is no mystery because we can understand that in these notes he is not thinking as the Lenin who wrote Imperialism but as the Lenin who wrote The Fall of Port Arthur.

The emphasis limiting the concept to the Russian socialists is brought out very sharply in Lenin’s next mention of defeat, in his letter to Shlyapnikov of October 17:

“In order that the struggle may proceed along a definite and clear line, one must have a slogan that summarizes it. This slogan is: For us Russians, from the point of view of the interests of the laboring masses and the working class of Russia, there cannot be the slightest doubt, absolutely no doubt whatever, that the lesser evil would be, here and now, the defeat of tsarism in the present war. For tsarism is a hundred times worse than kaiserism. We do not sabotage the war, but we struggle against chauvinism ... It would also be erroneous both to appeal for individual acts of firing at officers, and to allow arguments like the one which says: We do not want to help kaiserism.” [52]

It is now a slogan. And when Lenin writes that “there cannot be the slightest doubt, absolutely no doubt whatever” about it, it is his way of reacting vigorously to the fact that it has already been attacked in the Bolshevik tanks.

But mainly what the letter makes clear is that by “defeat” Lenin plainly means defeat by the enemy government, by the German armies. It is this that is the “lesser evil”. (Later reinterpretations sometimes pretended that it meant defeat by the workers’ revolution; but in the first place, this is no “evil”, at all, and in the second place the whole business about defeat would be totally incomprehensible if that was all it intended to say.)

When Lenin writes “here and now” ... “in the present war”, there can be no doubt about it, even if we did not know that, at this stage, defeatism has no other meaning than military defeat by the enemy camp. In this connection, when Lenin reverted to this same formulation in November 1916 (quotation given below), it is again perfectly clear.

This is what gives the “lesser evil” formulation the sense it has: defeat by Germany would be an evil, yes, but the greater evil would be the victory of the tsar’s army; and we choose between these two evils.

This is what makes sense of the reason given here for the slogan: “For tsarism is a hundred times worse than kaiserism.” This slogan of defeat depends for its rationalization not merely on opposition to both camps, but on a “lesser evil” distinction between the two camps. Tsarism is the worst. It obviously could not apply in Germany, where kaiserism is a hundred times better than tsarism. It can apply only for “us Russians”.

Moreover, Lenin never did apply this “lesser evil” formulation of the defeat-slogan to any other country. When he tried to “internationalize” the concept, it became something else.

The slogan of defeat begins, therefore, as a special Russian position on the war. Like the motivation for it, it has its roots only in the “special Russian policy” of the Marx-Engels-Second International period of development. Without this background, the very idea of a “special Russian position” on the war would be strange. Here is a general world war, where in every other respect Lenin is driven to emphasize the inextricable entangling of all the threads of world imperialism, and yet he proposes that the socialists of one of the belligerents must adopt a position which he does not even propose for the others.

But the question leaps to the eye: If the slogan of defeat means defeat by Germany (whose victory is the lesser evil), doesn’t this mean preferring the victory of Germany? Naturally, this conclusion has already been excluded by Lenin – after all, the bulk of his writing at this time is devoted precisely to marshaling the arguments against the social-patriots, the German social-patriots above all – but then this means that the slogan of defeat cannot have the simple, clear meaning that it did in 1904-5. How shall this contradiction be resolved?

Out of the attempt to resolve this contradiction came the wavy course of Lenin’s defeatism in 1914-16.

2. Rejection of Defeatism in the Bolshevik Ranks

For the defeat-slogan was the one aspect of Lenin’s war position which immediately met with the widest opposition in the ranks of the Bolshevik party itself. In his letter to Shlyapnikov, Lenin had asked him to send “more details of Russian voices and reactions”. Others reported also.

Shlyapnikov recounted, in his memoirs, that the defeat-slogan provoked “perplexity” in Russia. He was apparently being mild. Baevsky’s memoirs relate that it raised objections in Russia and that there was a tendency to eliminate the word defeat “as a very odious one”. The Moscow organization adopted the later theses of November 1 (quoted below) with the exception of the paragraph on defeat. [53] The Moscow Bolsheviks wrote, via Stockholm for transmission to Lenin, that “notwithstanding all respect to him, his advice to sell the house [code-word for the defeat-slogan] has not struck a responsive chord”. [54] Later on in 1915, at the trial of the Bolshevik members of the Duma, the Bolshevik deputies refused to take responsibility for the defeat-slogan although generally they defended an and-war view. Bukharin and Piatakov criticized it in the emigration. [9*] In fact – outside of Lenin’s immediate co-workers on the Central Organ in Berne, particularly Zinoviev in his own peculiar way – we cannot cite any known Bolshevik who defended it, or any section of the party which came to its defense against its critics; though there must have been such, to various degrees, since at different times different formulations of the idea were approved or compromised on.

The Geneva section of the Bolshevik émigrés wrote in their objection. A letter to Lenin by Karpinsky (September 27) criticized the draft thesis as follows, putting the finger on the bedeviling contradiction:

“The text of paragraph 6 should be changed in order not to give rise to a misinterpretation of this passage: that the Russian Social-Democrats wish for the victory of the Germans and the defeat of the Russians. Note here the possible connection: the German Social-Democrats struggle against Russian tsarism and the Russian Social-Democrats greet the victory of German arms. This idea should he formulated so as to explain what would be the meaning of the victory of the Russian troops and what would be the meaning of their defeat objectively.” [55]

The passage had meant to the Geneva Bolsheviks exactly what it had meant in the whole past of the socialist movement: wish for the victory of the enemy government. But if we Russian Bolsheviks see reason to wish this, why attack the German social democrats for wishing the very same thing? ... So they propose that the only statement that should be made is about the objective consequences of defeat. What they have in mind is merely the idea that “defeat facilitates revolution”. They want to strip the passage down to this.

3. Whittling Down the “Lesser Evil” Formula

But when the Bolshevik Central Committee adopts its thesis on the war for publication as the position of the party on November 1, this change is not made. The “lesser evil” formulation goes in. Only now it is not merely tied up with the nationalities problem but directed more generally. And it is preceded by a sentence (whose idea had already been somewhat indicated in the rough notes of September) which doubly underlines that this is a notion for Russian socialists only, which warns that it can not be applied for the internationalist socialist movement as a whole:

“Under given conditions, it is impossible to determine from the standpoint of the international proletariat which is the lesser evil for socialism: the defeat of one or the defeat of the other group of belligerent nations ...”

And it continues more or less along the lines of the letter to Shlyapnikov which we have seen: “... For us Russian Social-Democrats, however, there cannot exist the least doubt that from the standpoint of the working class and of the laboring masses of all the peoples of Russia, the lesser evil would be the defeat of the tsarist monarchy, the most reactionary and barbarous government oppressing the greatest number of nations and the greatest mass of the populations of Europe and Asia.” [56]

This “special Russian position” now becomes the public and open position of the party. Once again there is repicated the tell-tale emphasis that Russia is “the most reactionary and barbarous government” in order to justify this, special Russian policy as such, echoing the thought that “tsarism is a hundred times worse than kaiserism”.

What follows politically from this statement of the “lesser evil”? Surely,it cannot remain simply an interesting thought in a thesis. Obviously, though the thesis does not yet say so in so many words, what follows is that we wish for this “lesser evil”. Otherwise, why bring up the subject in this way?

We find Lenin putting this down in black and white in his next mention of the defeat-concept, December 12: “... it is impossible for the Great-Russians to ‘defend the fatherland’ otherwise than by wishing defeat for tsarism in every war, this being the lesser evil for nine-tenths of the population of Great-Russia ...”

So we now “wish defeat”; and this certainly follows from the formula; for if it is so important to emphasize that it is the lesser evil, how can we avoid the conclusion? But the “lesser evil” notion has depended for its political motivation on nothing else than the idea that tsarism is worst, “most reactionary”, “most barbarous”. This motivation is really inseparable from the formula. But when Lenin now states the reason (to continue the quotation where we broke it off) it is watered down to a statement which could apply to any of the imperialist powers and not only Russian tsarism:

“... since tsarism not only oppresses these nine-tenths of the population economically and politically, but also demoralizes, degrades, defiles and prostitutes them by developing in them the habit of oppressing other peoples, by teaching them to cover up their shame with hypocritical quasi-patriotic phrases.” [57]

But this is agitation; it is no longer a motivation for the special position; the motivation has disappeared (it will shortly be specifically repudiated, We shall see), leaving only the formula, which will soon be changed too.

4. Formulation No.2: “Defeat Facilitates ...”

The big contradiction remains: If the Russian socialists can wish the military defeat of tsarism (everybody understands: by German arms), what is so terrible about the German socialists wishing for the same outcome?

No doubt Lenin confronted this abundantly in the objections that arose within his own ranks, as from Karpinsky and the Geneva section. But we do not find him taking note of it until February 1915, in a polemic against – the Menshevik Axelrod, whom he accuses of being an apologist for the German social-chauvinists. And, as his critics had tried to warn him, he finds this apologist utilizing his own methodology:

“Axelrod’s assertion [writes Lenin] that ‘the defeat of Russia, while unable to hamper the organic development of the country, would help liquidate the old regime’, is true when taken by itself, but when used to justify the German chauvinists it is nothing but an attempt to curry favor with the Südekums. [Südekum was an especially crude representative of German Social-Democratic pro-war fervor – H.D.] To recognize the usefulness of Russian defeat without openly accusing the German and Austrian Social-Democrats of betraying socialism means in reality to help them whitewash themselves, extricate themselves from a difficult situation, betray the workers. Axelrod’s article is a double bow, one before the German social-chauvinists, another before the French.” [58]

No doubt Axelrod is in effect whitewashing the Germans with his arguments, but what is wrong with this argument which can be used so? Lenin replies in effect: “No sir, Axelrod, you can’t get away with it, because when the Germans say what we say, it’s because they merely want to find a pretext for their betrayal of socialism.”

No doubt. But is it a cogent pretext? Is the “pretext” justified politically? Has not Lenin lent color and strength to this pretext with his insistence, as an important political concept governing policy on the war, that “tsarism is a hundred times worse than kaiserism – or at any rate “most reactionary” – and with his formula of the lesser evil? He cannot and does not reply to this.

Faced with the other side of his formula as it looks from the German angle, he does not repeat it against Axelrod. Instead, he runs for defense to precisely the line which the Geneva Bolsheviks had recommended in its stead, which he had refused to accept: he writes as if all he had said was that Russian defeat had its “usefulness”. (“Objectively”, as Karpinsky had written.)

And so we get the first mention of what we may call Formula No.2 – the idea that “defeat facilitates revolution” (objectively). As will, typically happen again on this question, it is a shifting of ground in the face of the insoluble contradiction.

Now there is a positive element in this Formula No.2 which will necessitate discussion and analysis in another article, not under the head of “defeatism”, but for our present purposes we must note the following:

(1) At the very least, this new formula, of which we will see several other examples in Lenin’s writings of the period, is different from the defeat-slogan with which he started out. Different political arguments and concepts would be marshaled in defending the two. They do not enforce the same conclusions.

(2) The tremendous difference between them is shown by a simple consideration. The “lesser-evil” formula (No.1), we have seen, was sharply, emphatically and repeatedly limited by Lenin to Russian socialists only. The thesis had gone out of its way to proclaim that it did not hold “from the standpoint of the international proletariat.” It was not capable of “internationalization”. But the notion about the “usefulness” of defeat, its objective effect in “facilitating revolution”, came not from any special Russian consideration or experience but from the experience of all history. It obviously can be applied as much or as little to any and all countries as to Russia. And from this point on, Lenin drops all the previous talk about the special Russian applicability of defeatism and does try to arrive at “international” formulas.

If all the defeatist-talk amounts to is an objective recognition of a connection between defeat and revolution, then it is certainly not a slogan, not even a “slogan” in quotation marks. There is also a connection between economic crisis and revolution – let us say that economic crisis facilitates revolution – but that will lead no educated Marxist into expressing a “wish” for depressions (“the worse the better”). Wage cuts and massacres have been known to facilitate revolutions too ...

As mentioned, an analysis of the relation between defeat and revolution has to be made under another head, but we must point out that even at best, when Lenin tears down “defeatism” to Formula No.2, which is no kind of “defeatism” by itself, he is emphasizing only one side of the relation. When later [59] we find him making this connection absolute, with the statement that revolution is impossible without defeat, we must understand that he is driven to this historical absurdity by the polemical, need to find a content for something called “the slogan of defeat” or “defeatism”, not by any course of political reasoning.

(4) With these things in mind, it is plain that if the idea “defeat facilitates” had been all there was in Lenin’s thinking, he could never have launched such a thing as a “slogan of defeat”, nor would the polemics on the question have taken the course they did.

5. Formulation No.3: “Wish Defeat in Every Country”

As we have seen, Lenin’s formula No.2 is, in fact, internationally applicable and not special to Russia. So it is that at this same time. (February, 1915) Lenin, for the first time, explicitly launches his “defeatism” as an international policy.

Modern democracy [i.e., socialism] will remain faithful to itself only if it does not join one or the other imperialist bourgeoisie, if it says that “both are worst”, Tit wishes the defeat of the imperialist bourgeoisie in every country. Every other decision will in reality be national-liberal and entirely foreign to true internationalism. [60]

This is the end of the road for the politics which gave birth to Lenin’s defeatism. Lenin is specifically repudiating in so many words the whole motivation which had brought it on in the first place: “Both are worst.” Only a few months before, the basic thought had been that “tsarism is a hundred times worse than kaiserism”, he had had to emphasize that tsarism is “the most reactionary barbarous government”, “more reactionary than any”, etc. [10*] Not only has the original motivation been abandoned, but now the formula itself is changed. The “slogan of defeat” remains as the smile without the Cheshire cat. What remains is a running polemic but not a political line.

The formula that we now have is “wish the defeat of the imperialist bourgeoisie in every country”. Superficially it sounds as if he had said it before, and he had indeed used the phrase “wish defeat”. But that was only as part of the “special Russian policy”, as a conclusion from the lesser-evil formula; it was only Russian socialists who were supposed to “wish defeat” because of the uniquely reactionary character of their own government.

The phrase is the same but the political content is now entirely different. “Wish defeat” was a consistent conclusion from the lesser-evil formula. But what does it now mean once it is internationalized? Again, something different at any rate, and it is, in fact, a new Formula No.3.

Let us now see how the insoluble problem of what it means gave rise to the fourth and last switch in the formulas of defeatism.

“Wish defeat” is, as a matter of fact, the historical and necessary kernel of any defeatism which is properly so called. It was the working meaning of defeatism which we used in the previous historical sections. One may say anything one wants about “defeat”, but not every statement about defeat is a “defeatism”. Defeatism means favoring defeat, desiring defeat, calling for defeat, working for defeat, or something akin, or else one is simply inventing misleading and useless terminology.

Now before 1914 there was no difficulty at all in understanding the meaning of “wish defeat.” Nobody could misunderstand it either. With Marx and Engels, in the Second International, with Lenin in the Russo-Japanese War, it meant defeat by the enemy government, whose victory we support. And when it was reborn in Lenin’s thinking in 1914, it still meant defeat by the enemy government. This is what we called (redundantly, it is true) pro-war defeatism.

Entirely unawares of what he is getting into, Lenin is now trying to work out a way of preserving the sharp anti-war flavor of the term defeatism on the basis of a political position which leaves no room for this meaning. A new one has to be invented from scratch.

6. The Baugy Group’s Attack

This – at precisely this point – was raised by a section of the Bolshevik emigration led by Bukharin.

On February 27-March 4, 1915, the Bolsheviks convened a Conference of the Foreign Sections of the party in Berne. The Bolshevik group from Baugy (Switzerland) presented a document with a number of criticisms of the war thesis. Point II of the Baugy resolution dealt with the slogan of defeat. Although stating opposition to any form of the slogan, it balks particularly at the formulation “wish defeat”, more than at the “lesser evil” formula:

“II. The group denounces positively any advancing of the so-called slogan ‘the defeat of Russia’, particularly in the manner in which it has been advanced in No.38 of the Central Organ.

“In the manifesto of the Central Committee as well as in the reply to Vandervelde, the defeat of Russia is described as being the ‘lesser evil’, after an objective evaluation of the other issues of the war. The editorial of No.38, on the other hand, says that every revolutionary is obliged to desire ‘the defeat of Russia’.

“Such a consideration of the question, in the judgment of the group, is not only devoid of practical sense but also introduces into the question an undesirable confusion. If a revolutionary is obliged merely to ‘desire’ the defeat, then there is no use in writing leading articles about it in the Central Organ of the political party; but if he is obliged to do more than merely ‘to desire’, then this would be not simply an objective evaluation but the preaching of an active participation [i.e., taking of sides – H.D.] in the war, which participation would hardly be approved by the editorial board of the Central Organ.

“Still more unsatisfactory, according to the opinion of the group, is the consideration of the same question in the third and concluding paragraph of the article, when the desirability of the defeat is explained by the revolutionary uprisings which may follow. The absolute impossibility of practical agitation in this sense compels the rejection à limite of such agitation for the defeat. We record that in the article referred to, the boundary line between the objective, fully admissible, and correct evaluation of the situation and the agitation for the defeat has not been traced at all; the group believes that it is an urgent necessity to have all confusion and obscurity in this question removed in a most decisive manner.” [61]

The challenge is plain: If you really “desire” it, then you work for it. (Especially if it is so important to “desire” it that you write resolutions about it, articles and editorials about it, and polemize about it!)

But what does “work for defeat” mean?

It must be borne in mind that, in spite of the tentative “internationalization” of the defeat-slogan in one passing article so far, “wish defeat” still carries the meaning of “wish military defeat by the enemy government”. More than once Lenin will have to stress that he does not mean “blowing up bridges”, helping the enemy, etc. The reason he has to insist that he does not mean this is simply because the slogan he is using does mean this to the movement.

His comrades know what it means to “work for revolutionary action”, but “work for defeat” in this war in which we do not support either camp – what is that? True, say Bukharin and the Baugy comrades, revolutionary action may objectively be related to defeat, but what we work for is not “defeat” but the socialist aim.

There is no recorded answer by Lenin. Not in connection with this Berne party conference, and not at any other time – not in his collected works for this period and not in any of the manuscripts (down to rough notes) published supplementary to it at a later time. He simply never faced up to it.

7. Formulation No.4: “Don’t Halt Before the Risk ...”

Even more important: in the face of the Baugy criticism, he dropped the formulation which they had attacked. The resolution adopted says absolutely nothing about “wish defeat”. Instead -

For the second time, confronting a difficulty with the formulation of the defeat-slogan, Lenin abandons the formulation which is criticized and invents a new one. The Berne resolution, which he wrote, reads on this point:

“The struggle against the government that conducts the imperialist war must not halt in any country before the possibility of that country’s defeat in consequence of revolutionary propaganda. The defeat of the governmental army weakens the government, aids the liberation of the nationalities oppressed by it, and makes civil war against the ruling classes easier.

“This proposition is especially true in relation to Russia. The victory of Russia will bring with it a strengthening of world reaction, a strengthening of the reaction inside of the country, and will be accompanied by a complete enslavement of the peoples in the regions already seized. In view of this, the defeat of Russia appears to be the lesser evil under all conditions.” [62]

It seems to be a compromise. A kind of “lesser evil” formula is still in. To be sure, its “special” motivation is still dead and will never be disinterred; to be sure, it is rather peculiar to read that defeat of Russia “appears to be” the lesser evil, and one wonders how that note of uncertainty got in. But this formula No.1 is there.

No.2 is there also: “defeat facilitates.”

But instead of No.3, precisely the one which had been vigorously attacked, we have a totally new formulation of the “internationalized” defeat-slogan: the class struggle must not halt before the possibility of defeat in consequence of revolutionary propaganda. Or, as it will read when we meet it again: do not halt before the risk of defeat. (Formula No.4.)

It is one of the most curious features of the history of the defeat-slogan that this last formula has been so widely accepted as simply the equivalent of, a restatement of, or a variant of, the “wish for defeat” or even of the “special Russian formula”, of the lesser evil. Not only is it completely different but its implication is precisely the reverse of a “wish for defeat.”

“Do not halt before the risk” implies that we do not wish defeat itself, but that what we wish is a continuation of the class struggle to socialist victory, and that we pursue this in spite of the fact that it may have an objective effect on the military plane.

This is especially clear when the word “risk” is actually used, as Lenin does more than once. Then it specifically repudiates Formula No.3. Otherwise the thought is only implied, and the repudiation is by implication. Yet it is possible to find in the movement, in one and the same “educational” article, that both are quoted indiscriminately as equally “illustrative” of Lenin’s defeatism, plus – more often than not – the special Russian formula of the lesser evil thrown in for good measure.

There is surely no other question in Marxist literature where quite such a tangle of confusion reigns. The source of the confusion, however, is in Lenin, not in his confused exegetes.

In this formula too (which is not of itself a form of defeatism) there is a positive element which we shall discuss in another article as already mentioned. But let us apply the comparative test again, taking the formula at face value:

We do not wish to halt the socialist struggle before the risk or possibility of defeat: Very well. But we also will not halt the struggle before the risk or possibility of-say, personal injury or loss; or before the risk or possibility that an intensified class struggle will stimulate fascist elements to organize, or before the risk or possibility that the socialist struggle will lead to persecution by the government; or before a number of other contingencies which we certainly seek to take into account, but which we do not “wish”, which we do not turn into a slogan or an “ism” or a new political “principle”.

Nor would Lenin ever have done this except for the specific impasse into which he had pushed himself, and from which he refused to extricate himself by dropping the whole business. He was in any case seeking the sharpest ways to demarcate the sheep from the goats, and “defeatism” became a point d’honneur of the Bolshevik war line. Some time afterward it became a shibboleth.

8. Summary: The 4 Formulas

By this time, March 1915, we have the four formulas of “defeatism” created out of the attempt to meet the insoluble contradictions without solving them. Before going ahead, let us summarize them:

No.1: The special Russian position: defeat of Russia by Germany is the “lesser evil”.

No.2: The objective statement that “defeat facilitates revolution”.

No.3: The slogan: wish defeat in every country.

No.4: Do not halt before the risk of defeat.

These are four different political ideas. Only three of them are meaningful for the international movement. Only two of them involve any wish for defeat (1 and 3). Only one of them can actually be put forward in the form of a “slogan” (3).

Which is the meaning of Lenin’s position, even assuming that all of them have some self-consistent meaning of their own? The truth is that from this point on, Lenin juggles all four depending on polemical aim and convenience. Let us see what new aspects are introduced up to the very last gasp of Lenin’s defeatism in November 1916.

9. Trotsky’s Attack on the Defeat-Slogan

We now come to the only article written by Lenin solely in exposition of his defeat-slogan (all his other references to it are in passing paragraphs). This article, Defeat of ‘Our’ Government in the Imperialist War [63] is itself the biggest muddle of all, compared with which the previous passages were models of clarity. Because it is a whole article discussing “defeatism” and therefore appears to be the authoritative statement on the subject for handy reference, it has undoubtedly played a major role in disorienting more than one student of Lenin. It must be said, without the slightest exaggeration, that in it Lenin simply goes hog-wild, throwing clear thinking to the winds.

To understand the reason for that, and to understand the article itself, it is necessary to present the immediate background of the article, which fortunately is known. The background is the clash between Lenin and Trotsky on issues which did not involve defeatism.

Trotsky was at this time the leading spirit of Nashe Slovo, published in Paris as a Russian daily for the revolutionary emigration. On the paper collaborated also a number of dissident Bolsheviks, a number of internationalist-Mensheviks (including Martov, up to almost the Zimmerwald Conference), and a number of non-affiliated Social-Democrats (this includes Trotsky himself). Its technical spark-plug was Antonov-Ovseyenko; a partial list of its collaborators and contributors would be in part an honor roll of later leaders of the Russian Revolution. It was the leading anti-war organ of the Russian movement.

At the beginning of 1915 there were tentative efforts made between the Nashe Slovo group and Lenin to collaborate in anti-war propaganda. One such opportunity seemed to arise with the announcement of the London Conference of Inter-Allied Socialists (i.e., the social-patriots in the Allied war camp). Since Russia was an ally too, the anti-war Russian socialists thought to seize the opportunity for a bit of education. Nashe Slovo sent invitations to both the Bolsheviks and the centrist Menshevik “Organization Committee” to get together to prepare a joint statement against the war, for presentation in London. Lenin agreed, and drew up a draft statement. The joint action never took place, with some accompanying hard feeling, but we can note here that it was not because of the question of defeatism for the good and sufficient reason that Lenin’s draft did not include a wisp of the idea, not in any of its protean forms. [64]

Yet Nashe Slovo had been taking pot-shots at the Bolsheviks’ defeat-slogan ever since it had been launched. As Alfred Rosmer writes: “The polemic [on defeatism] developed between Lenin and Nashe Slovo, most particularly Trotsky.” [65] (Rosmer was himself a Nashe Slovo contributor at the time and a collaborator of Trotsky’s.)

The rock on which the joint project had foundered was mainly the question of the participation of the Menshevik O.C., but Trotsky himself was more or less recognized as the left wing of the Nashe Slovo group. His position on the war was a thoroughgoing internationalism, and the Nashe Slovo group as a whole took the attitude that their two main differences on war line with the Bolsheviks – the peace slogan and defeatism – were subordinate questions. The big difference that divided Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, at this time as before, was not on political line at all but on the “organizational question”, in which regard Trotsky acted as a “conciliator” for Bolshevik-Menshevik unity.

At the Berne conference, the Bolsheviks had decided to launch a new magazine to be called Kommunist. Showing a faith in Trotsky’s internationalism which should be kept in mind, Lenin invited Trotsky to become a collaboratoron the magazine.

And Trotsky rejected the invitation with an Open Letter to the Editorial Board of Kommunist, printed in Nashe Slovo of June 4, 1915, which was a slap in the face.

Trotsky declined, not on grounds of any political differences whatsoever, but on his “organizational” grounds: the Bolsheviks’ “factional” methods, etc. His Open Letter emphasizes very carefully that whatever political differences exist are not any bar to collaboration. In the course of doing so, he mentions these differences and comments on them. The following was his comment in passing on the defeat-slogan, in this context:

“... under no conditions can I agree with your opinion, which is emphasized by a resolution, that Russia’s defeat would be a ‘lesser evil’. This opinion represents a fundamental concession to the political methodology of social-patriotism, a concession for which there is no reason or justification, and which substitutes an orientation (extremely arbitrary under present conditions) along the lines of a ‘lesser evil’ for the revolutionary struggle against war and the conditions which generate this war.” [66]

Trotsky hits the nail on the head. He points to the fundamental identity in methodology between the “lesser evil” formulation of defeatism and that of the social-patriots. Nashe Slovo had pointed out that this defeatist concept was simply defensism turned inside-out (in somewhat the same sense that in our time we have called the Stalinist line on the Negro question “Jim Crow in reverse”). He pointed precisely to the social-patriotic potential which resides in the defeat-slogan, and of which we shall see more evidence later.

Lenin’s only public notice of this rebuff was his article in which he assailed, with unparalleled venom and bitterness, the passing comment in the Open Letter on defeatism. But it is not defeatism that he is exercised about! Trotsky has preferred to collaborate with suspect left-Mensheviks and dissident Bolsheviks and not with him. As usual with Lenin’s fiercest attacks on Trotsky, it is the “organizational question” which provides the steam. But the broadside which he fires is a political one, on a peripheral political difference. And alas, he fires this broadside with damp powder.

10. Lenin’s Polemic Against Trotsky on Defeatism

Following are the most important things to be noted about the article, Defeat of ‘Our’ Government in the Imperialist War.

(1) Toward the very beginning, Lenin quotes the criticism of defeatism made by Trotsky in the Open Letter as the butt of his attack. But his quotation is not complete, and a very important part is left out. This is how Lenin put it:

“To wish Russia defeat, Trotsky says, is ‘an uncalled-for and unjustifiable political concession to the methodology of social patriotism ...’ [and so on with the rest of the quotation from Trotsky, which is here given in a different translation].” [67]

Now the fact is that Trotsky’s criticism had been specifically directed at the “lesser evil” formula. Lenin does not show this in beginning the quotation where he does. Without quote marks, he substitutes “to wish Russian defeat” as the formula which Trotsky is presumably attacking.

And this is important because, although it is the “lesser evil” formula which has been attacked, nowhere in the whole article does Lenin even mention the existence of this formula, let alone defend it.

Perhaps because he is through with it himself? This would not excuse such a gambit in his polemic, but as a matter of fact he is going, to recur to it in other writings. But not in this one, where he is replying to a criticism that was made against it and it alone!

(2) Instead of the “lesser evil” formula (No.1), the version which Lenin uses for the most part in this article is “wish defeat” (No.3). This is precisely the one formulation of the defeat-slogan that was not in the Berne Conference resolution of the Bolsheviks, which had just been held! Of course, the Berne Conference resolution was not the product of a congress, with binding power on the Central Committee, but of a consultative conference; still, as we have seen, the “wish defeat” formulation had not been pressed by Lenin in the face of the opposition of the Baugy group. If it had been dropped at the conference as a compromise, the compromise did not mean very much.

In any case, what is interesting is the pattern: for the third time, Lenin meets an attack on the defeat-slogan not by defending the formulation which has been attacked but by substituting one of the other formulations. We saw that, against Axelrod, he resorted to inventing a new formula, (the objective “usefulness” of defeat, or “defeat facilitates”), without discussing the difficulty raised by Axelrod’s remarks; we saw, secondly, that against Bukharin and Baugy, he again inserted a new formula (No.4), dropping the one that was under fire; and now again, against Trotsky, he does not meet the criticism that is made but resorts to the very formulation which had been dropped in Berne when it was under attack from Baugy.

This is not the picture of a Lenin who knows what he believes and is ready to stand up and slug for it; this is the picture of a Lenin who is confused and muddled on this question and cannot really defend it – although he “feels” that there is something terribly fundamental about it as a shield against defensism, as a sharp way of separating the sheep from the goats.

(3) In spite of this fact, we find Lenin appealing to the Berne Conference resolution! This he does as a substitute for taking up the question which, he has avoided – the meaning of the “lesser evil” formulation with regard to Germany’s victory. This is what he actually writes:

“In using phrases to avoid the issue, Trotsky has lost his way amidst very simple surroundings. It seems to him that to wish Russia’s defeat means to wish Germany’s victory ... In this Trotsky also repeats the ‘methodology of social-patriotism’! To help people that do not know how to think, the Berne resolution (Sotsial-Demokrat, No.40) made it clear that in all imperialist countries the proletariat must now wish the defeat of its government.” [68]

This is precisely, what the Berne resolution did not “make clear”; in fact, this is the formulation which the resolution abandoned!

Besides: suppose the Berne resolution had included it: this is no answer to Trotsky’s criticism. Lenin writes that “it seems to him [Trotsky]” that to wish defeat for Russia means defeat by German arms, as if this were a deviation or misunderstanding of Trotsky’s. But we have seen that this is what it had always meant to the whole movement. This is what it had meant to Lenin himself in 1904-5, and this is what it had meant to Lenin only a few months before in September. Moreover this is what it had meant to his own closest comrades who criticized it within the ranks of the Bolshevik party (like Karpinsky). And Bukharin-Baugy too, only a couple of months before, had based their objection to “wish defeat” on the ground that it meant taking sides in the war. Because of this very objection, the formula had not been included in the Berne resolution.

When Lenin merely replies that he applies the defeat-slogan to all warring countries, he is only asserting that he refuses to apply the “lesser evil” formula in its consistent and established sense. Surely Trotsky knew that Lenin did not actually “wish Germany’s victory”. He had shown that the methodology of the defeat-slogan pointed in that direction. Lenin’s feeble “you too” retort is peculiarly out of place.

(4) In this unhappy article, Lenin does not even limit himself to the formulation “wish defeat”. At Berne, the Baugy group had indeed raised the question whether the “wish” could remain a mere wish. In this article – and only in this wild article – Lenin writes down “working toward military defeat” as a variant on the formula. His slogan, he says, is one “calling for” defeat. He exults that “the tsarist government was perfectly right in asserting” that the propaganda of the Bolshevik Duma deputies “aided its defeat”. To deal blows against one’s own war government, he writes, “means helping to defeat one’s own country”. Helping whom? What wide-open writing, at the best! (Note also that on this occasion Lenin slips into “defeat one’s own country”, instead of “government”.)

Three times he repeats that we cannot fight the war “without contributing to the defeat” of the government. And at, one point even the word “defeat” is not sharp enough, not “hard” enough, for him: a worker, he says, cannot unite with the proletarians on the other side of the lines “without contributing to the defeat, the dismemberment of ‘his’ imperialist ‘great’ power”. We are now for dismemberment? No doubt Lenin used the word with the idea in mind of the breaking up of a colonial empire, or the liberation of Russia’s oppressed nationalities, but it is written down in no such context.

And he writes: “We indisputably mean not only the wish for its defeat, but practical actions leading toward such defeat.” Practical actions toward defeat? What does this mean? It is at this point that Lenin adds in parentheses:

“For the ‘penetrating reader’: This does not at all mean to ‘blow up bridges’, organize unsuccessful military strikes, and, in general, to help the government to defeat the revolutionaries.”

So we are assured of what the phrase does not mean. What does it mean? The Baugy group and other comrades had asked the same question. We can understand “practical actions” leading toward an anti-war fight and revolution, which may or may not entail military defeat on the front, as a by-product, but even this idea (Formula No.4, more or less) does not appear in this wild polemic.

Fortunately the slogan “work for defeat through practical actions”, or something of the sort, never took root even in the later myth, and we can understand why.

(5) On none of the questions that we have raised, or that his critics have raised, does Lenin’s article present any reasoned political discussion. Instead hollow categorical assertions substitute , for arguments. The first three sentences are, for example:

“A revolutionary class in a reactionary war cannot but ‘wish the defeat of its own government’. This is an axiom. It is disputed only by the conscious partisans or the helpless satellites of the social-chauvinists.”

This is simple bluster. Even if the defeat-slogan were correct, the last thing in the world it was, was an “axiom” of the socialist movement or anybody else, at any other time or place. And in view of the widespread rejection of the slogan by Bolsheviks, including leading Bolsheviks, the third sentence merely registers uncontrolled fury.

The article is full of such assertive bluster: “we indisputably mean ...” when the point is far from indisputable and, in fact, it is precisely disputation that is called for; “this slogan alone means a consistent appeal to revolutionary action ...” where the italicization of alone carries the burden that should have been shouldered by a political demonstration; and it is here that we are virtually told that revolution is “impossible” without defeat.

Under this head should also come the “amalgam” that Lenin makes throughout this article between Trotsky’s views and those of everyone else in the political spectrum down to the rabid social-chauvinists of the German Social-Democracy (like David). By the time the article gets through in a crescendo of rage, Trotsky and others are “in fact on the side of the bourgeoisie and the opportunists, since they ‘do not believe’ in the possibility of international revolutionary action of the working class against its governments, and since they do not wish to help the development of such actions ...”

It is in this article, also, that we get the most extreme statements about the role of the defeat-slogan in an anti-war position. For example: “To repudiate the defeat slogan means to reduce one’s revolutionary actions to an empty phrase or sheer hypocrisy.”

(6) The only passage which even sounds as if Lenin is trying to present an argument is the following:

“He who wishes earnestly to dispute the ‘slogan’ calling for the defeat of one’s own government in the imperialist war would have to prove one of three things: either (1) that the war of 1914-15 is not reactionary; or (2) that a revolution in connection with it is impossible, or (3) that coordination and mutual aid of the revolutionary movement in all belligerent countries is. impossible.”

He then proceeds to argue that the war is reactionary, that a revolution is possible, and that international action is possible also. But this is a begging of the question. The three conditions. add up to revolutionary anti-war opposition, to be sure, but (to not even begin to bear upon the objections to the defeat-slogan which have been so abundantly made within the framework of revolutionary anti-war policy. He makes the connection after a while only with a final assertion: “It is impossible, however”, unless ... “Such growth is impossible without ...”

His comment on the third of the three conditions is interesting: “The last reason is particularly important for Russia, because this is the most backward country, where an immediate socialist revolution is impossible. This is why the Russian Social-Democrats had to be the first to advance the theory and the practice of the defeat ‘slogan’.”

This is a weak echo of the political motivation which had led Lenin to introduce the defeat slogan in 1914 in the first place – as a special policy limited to Russia. Now he is using it gingerly only to explain why the Russian Bolshevik group alone has seen fit to raise it, among all the anti-war internationalists.

(7) In this article we also get Lenin’s polemic against the slogan “Neither victory nor defeat”. We will later take up the views of Trotsky and Luxemburg on this question. At this point it is enough to note the following:

No such slogan was raised by Trotsky (or by Luxemburg). Although Lenin never quite says that Trotsky did so, there are perhaps few readers who have not gotten the contrary impression from his polemic. [11*] As a matter of fact, it is the Menshevik Semkovsky who alone is actually quoted to this effect by Lenin. The Menshevik leadership did in fact raise this as a slogan, at least in the form “Neither victory nor vanquished!” as recorded by T. Dan. [69] It is against them, dragged into this amalgam, that Lenin is right in pointing out that such a conception presupposes a return to the status quo ante bellum as against a revolutionary outcome of the imperialist war. We saw the same thing happen in the Russo-Japanese War with the Mensheviks: they did not avoid, but merely straddled, the dilemma of victory-or-defeat within the framework of the existing governments. This had nothing in common with Trotsky’s approach to the question of victory-or-defeat.

11. The Rest of the Record: Aug. 1915 to Nov. 1916

From this point on, let us complete the record by noting Lenin’s subsequent references to the defeat-slogan, pausing only at new points of special interest. All four formulations are used indiscriminately, now one, now another.

(1) In the pamphlet Socialism and War (written August 1915) by Lenin and Zinoviev, Lenin wrote the passage on defeatism [70]: we must “wish defeat” of our government, we must “see the’ connection between the government’s military reverses and the increased opportunity for overthrowing it ... the socialists of all the belligerent countries should express their wish that all ‘their’ governments be defeated.”

This would “coincide with the hidden thoughts of every class-conscious worker”, he says. The last remark should be kept in mind when we come to see Lenin in 1917, on his return to Russia, finding out what were the “hidden thoughts” of the class-conscious workers.

(2) In the long article The Collapse of the Second International written about the same time (summer 1915), there is a passing reference to “wishing defeat”. [71]

(3) In a private letter to Shlyapnikov of August 23, 1915, Lenin writes:

“The events in Russia have completely confirmed our position which the blockheads, social-patriots (from Alexinsky to Chkheidze) have christened defeatism. Facts have proved that we were right!! Military failures are helping to shake tsarism and are facilitating the union of revolutionary workers of Russia and the other countries. They say, what will ‘you’ do, if ‘you’ revolutionaries defeat tsarism? I reply: (1) our victory will cause the movement of the ‘Lefts’ in Germany to flare up a hundred times more strongly; (2) should we overcome tsarism completely, then we would propose a peace on democratic conditions to all the belligerents, and in case of a refusal would wage a revolutionary war.” [72]

The most interesting thing about this is the shift that takes place between one sentence and the next. At the beginning of the paragraph, the position that has been “completely confirmed” is the easy Formulation No.2, “defeat facilitates ...”. Naturally this means, and can only mean, defeats inflicted by Germany. Without transition, Lenin swings into the question of the defeat of tsarism by the revolutionaries, that is, the victory of the revolution. Naturally there is a connection between the two, but in the defeat-slogan itself, the “wish for defeat” refers to defeat by the enemy government, which in turn is necessary to facilitate the victory of the revolution. (It was only in the post-Lenin period of reinterpretation that the slogan of “wishing defeat” was made out to mean only “wishing for defeat by the revolution alone” and not by victories of the enemy camp.)

Also: it seems that only blockheads and social-patriots have “christened” the position defeatism. This will not prevent Lenin (and even more often Zinoviev) from subsequently calling it “defeatism” himself, usually in quotation marks but not always. In the later Comintern, the term defeatism became standard in spite of this passage.

(4) In October 1915, Lenin wrote an article (which was not published and remained among his papers) entitled The Defeat of Russia and the Revolutionary Crisis. [73] In it he notes that the defeats being suffered by the tsar’s armies are leading to revolutionary ferment. Here we get his only reference in this connection to the Russo-Japanese War, but not to his position on it. He merely notes that “Again there is military defeat and the acceleration of the revolutionary crisis caused by it”. In fact, there is the following curious passage referring to the present war (1915):

“Equally clear is the position of the liberal bourgeoisie: to take advantage of the defeat and the growing revolution in order to wrest compromises from a frightened monarchy and to compel it to share power with the bourgeoisie. Equally clear, too, is the position of the revolutionary proletariat, which is striving to consummate the revolution by taking advantage of the vacillations and embarrassments of the government and the bourgeoisie.”

Here it is the liberal bourgeoisie (in 1915!) which is painted as recognizing the principle that “defeat facilitates” – which would make them “defeatists” if we took seriously some of Lenin’s previous formulations! – whereas, counterposed, the revolutionaries are not pictured as striving for “defeat”. Make of it what you will. As a matter of fact, the article goes on to crow over the fact that the Mensheviks have issued a call for “revolt” in the rear of the German army – “this after a whole year of fighting the slogan of civil war!” he exclaims. The muddle is really breath-taking since, obviously, a call for revolt in the rear of the enemy government is hardly in contradiction with opposition to civil war (or any other fight) against one’s own government.

But somehow, Lenin concludes out of this muddle that the defeat-slogan is once more confirmed, because of the Mensheviks’ call and the liberal bourgeoisie’s sentiment:

“... in face of the revolutionary crisis in Russia, which is being accelerated precisely by defeat - and this what the motley opponents of ‘defeatism’ are afraid to admit ... The lessons of the war are compelling even our opponents really to recognize both the position of ‘defeatism’ and the necessity of issuing ... the slogan of ‘a revolt in the rear’ of the German militarists, in other words, the slogan of civil war. The lessons of the war, it appears, are driving into their heads what we have preached from the very beginning. The defeat of Russia has turned out to be the lesser evil, for it has advanced the revolutionary crisis on a vast scale and has aroused millions, tens and hundreds of millions.”

(5) In a polemical article entitled (and against) “Wilhem Kolb and George Plekhanov”, in February 1916, Lenin mentions that “both accuse the revolutionary Social-Democrats of ‘defeatism’, using the favorite expression of the Plekhanovists ...” [74] In this article the social-chauvinists’ fear of defeat of their own government is counterposed to the slogan of wishing defeat: Kolb “is right when he says that they [the tactics of the German Left] mean the ‘military weakening’ of Germany, i.e., desiring and aiding its defeat, defeatism.”

(6) For the first time Lenin put the defeat-slogan forward for a vote before the internationalist Left in his theses presented at the Kienthal Conference (the second Zimmerwald conference). It had not been presented at Zimmerwald itself.

In an extant first draft of these theses, Lenin wrote the following, apparently referring approvingly to a statement made in Bulletin No.3 of the Zimmerwald commission, though it is not contained in the Zimmerwald Manifesto or resolution:

“... if we call the masses to struggle against their governments ‘independently of the military situation of a given country’, we thereby not only deny in principle the admissibility of ‘defense of the fatherland’ in the given war, but we admit the desirability of the defeat of every bourgeois government, for the transformation of the defeat into a revolution. And this must be said openly: the revolutionary mass struggle cannot become an international one unless its conscious representatives unite openly in the name of defeat and overthrow of all bourgeois governments.” [75]

To struggle against the government “independently of the military situation – that is, regardless of the consequences of the class struggle on the military situation – is a version of Formulation No.4. It does not involve a wish for defeat, of course. It most certainly does involve carrying on the anti-war fight “in the name of defeat”.

But whereas this first draft seemed to hail it, the theses as they were finally presented referred to this very same idea as “not sufficient”:

“It is not sufficient to say, as the Zimmerwald Manifesto does [this is a mistake – H.D.], that ... the workers in their revolutionary struggle must not take into account the military situation of their country; it is necessary to say clearly what is here merely hinted at, namely ... that revolutionary action during the war is impossible without creating the risk of defeat for ‘one’s own’ government; and that every defeat of the government in a reactionary war facilitates revolution ... “ [76]

In our own day, this formula of “continuing the class struggle regardless of its effect on the military situation” was to become a most frequent watered-down version of the defeat-slogan as reinterpreted, being embodied in these words in the founding program of the Socialist Workers Party. “It is not sufficient”, says Lenin, and he is right from his point of view, though he fails to say that what is really missing is the “wish for defeat”. This he does not put forward himself, in spite of his bluster in the anti-Trotsky polemic.

(7) In his criticism (August 1916) of Rosa Luxemburg’s “Junius” pamphlet on the war, Lenin relegates the question of the defeat-slogan to a footnote. It is obvious to the naked eye that the approach taken by “Junius” is quite incompatible with the defeat-slogan of Lenin’s, but Lenin does not make a great fuss about it. In his footnote he says that the questions must be raised -

“(1) Is ‘revolutionary intervention’ possible without the risk of defeat? (2) Is it possible to scourge the bourgeoisie and the government of one’s own country without taking the risk? (3) Have we not always asserted, and does not the historical experience of reactionary wars prove, that defeats help the cause of the revolutionary class?” [77]

These are his two most watered-down versions. Luxemburg’s pamphlet, incidentally, does have some comments on the connection between defeat and revolution, though these comments do not at all commit Lenin’s error in viewing this connection from a starkly one-sided view; and though she does not take up the “risk” question in the same form, there could not be any slightest doubt in the mind of a reader what her reply would be: we do not hold back because of the risk of defeat of the German armies.

(8) In an article written August 1916 for the Jugend-Internationale, Lenin mentions “wish for the defeat of ‘its own’ government” in passing. [78]

(9) The last gasp of the defeat-slogan comes in November 1916 with an article On Separate Peace in tones that we have already heard:

“Whatever the outcome of the present war may be, it will prove that those who said that the only possible way out of it is proletarian civil war for socialism were right. It will prove that the Russian Social-Democrats who said that the defeat of tsarism, the complete military defeat of tsarism, is ‘at any rate’ a lesser evil were right ... [Even] if the proletariat of Europe is unable to advance to socialism at the present time ... Eastern Europe and Asia can march with seven-league strides towards democracy only if tsarism meets with utter military defeat and is deprived of all opportunity of practicing its semi-feudal imperialist policy.” [79]

Here, as always in Lenin, the “lesser evil” formula occurs only in connection with tsarism and the perspective of the Russian socialists. Here also, as clearly as ever before, it is made plain without the shadow of a doubt that Lenin is talking about the military defeat of Russia by Germany, and not its defeat by the socialist revolution. With this return to the very first formulation of 1914, the circles closes and the defeat-slogan will not be put forward again while Lenin is still alive.

12. When Defeatism Was Not Put Forward

A certain interest can also be attached to another aspect of Lenin’s writings during 1914-16: the occasions on which he did not put forward the defeat-slogan. Naturally this could be pressed to an absurd point, and there is no reason to expect him to put forward the defeat-slogan in every discussion on the war question. (As a matter of fact, in only 11 articles published during the years 1914-16 did Lenin mention the idea; to which we can add only seven other documents of the period that figure in his collected writings: unpublished articles, letters, notes, etc.)

Obviously it would be easy to draw up a long list of articles in which the nature of the questions discussed might lead us to ask: Why didn’t Lenin bring up defeatism here? – especially if we take seriously some of his statements about the crucial importance of the slogan. But we shall mention here only a few special cases, where the presentation of the defeat-slogan would seem to have been most clearly called for.

(1) We have already mentioned that, in February 1915, Lenin drew up a draft of a joint statement [80] against the war to be presented to the London Inter-Allied Socialist Conference, in response to the proposal for common action made by Nashe Slovo. In this draft he systematically set out to list the ideas which were essential to a complete, consistent internationalist war policy. It was by no means intended as a “compromise” draft in any sense, but as a complete position.

There is no hint of the defeat-slogan, or of anything like it, in any of its versions.

(2) The projected joint statement fell through, but in March 1915 the Bolsheviks did send their own representative (Litvinov, then living in London) to present a statement to the conference in the name of the Bolsheviks alone. [81] Again, it would be easy to show that this statement was not intended to be “conciliatory”. It was, furthermore, written by Lenin himself.

In this statement by the Bolsheviks alone, there is no mention of the defeat-slogan in any form.

(3) Also in March 1915, a Bolshevik delegation attended the International Socialist Women’s Conference in Berne. The resolution on war policy [82] which they introduced had no mention of the defeat-slogan in any form. [12*]

(4) In the October 13, 1915 issue of Sotsial-Demokrat, the editors presented a document entitled A Few Theses on slogans and attitude on the war. [83] (It was written by Lenin.) We mention this particularly because later, in 1917, these Theses were going to be repeatedly referred to, reprinted and quoted by Lenin as the position of the Bolsheviks. They were not intended as a complete summary of war policy but as statements on a number of especially important points.

The defeat-slogan was not one of these.

(5) At the Zimmerwald Conference in September 1915, the Bolshevik position was put forward in the documents of the “Zimmerwald Left”, which formed in support of Lenin’s views on the war as distinct from those of the other anti-war elements at the conference. While Lenin voted for the majority resolution after his own was rejected, the resolution and manifesto of the Zimmerwald Left [84] were intended to put on the record what he considered to be the complete anti-war position. In an article in Sotsial-Demokrat on the Zimmerwald Conference (October 11), Zinoviev wrote that the Zimmerwald Left “defended, alone, a complete and definite prograni”. [85]

This complete and definite program had no mention of the defeat-slogan in any form. (We have already pointed out that it was not until the Kienthal Conference in April 1916 that the defeat-slogan was put forward in any version before an international group.)

Even these five outstanding cases would be very strange if Lenin really did regard the defeat-slogan as a sine qua non for anti-war policy. In point of fact, however, they are not strange at all; they stand in contradiction only with the myth. Lenin became a fierce proponent of defeat mainly in counterpunching against an attack, or in factional polemics of his own.

(6) Related to this question are the cases where, in 1917 and later, including during the first years of the Comintern, Lenin harks back to the 1914-16 period in order to summarize in retrospect the different tendencies on the war question in the socialist ranks. The three tendencies are described: the social-chauvinist right, the centrists of various shades, and the internationalist left. There are numerous passages of this sort in the writings of Lenin and the documents of the Comintern from 1917 through 1923. [13*]

The defeat-slogan in any form never figures in this summary, neither its rejection by the “centrists” nor its advocacy by the Bolsheviks.

(7) But the biggest case where Leniin did not put forward the defeat-slogan, but rather abandoned it completely, is the whole period of 1917 between March and November. This will be the subject of the chapter after next.




8*. It was undoubtedly with relish that Lenin wrote in 1915, using a quotation which obviously had impressed him: “A French philosopher wrote: ‘Dead ideas are those that appear in an elegant cloak, without roughness, without daring. They are dead because they enter into general circulation, forming a part of the usual intellectual equipment of the great army of philistines. Strong ideas are those that give impetus and create scandals, that provoke indignation, anger, irritation among one kind of people, enthusiasm among others.’” (CW18, p.327.)The other side of this virtue is shown by the large number of passages in Lenin in which he resorts to exaggerated one-sided generalizations simply in order to give emphasis, temporarily seeing only the one-sidedness. Whatever benefits there are in this method, his contemporaries got; the same cannot be said for the generation or two that tried to learn from his writings Without understanding that, in reading Lenin, it is as important to know what he is polemically concerned about at the moment as it is to understand what he is saying. If there ever was a case where “authority by quotation” is misleading, it is the business of matching texts from Lenin. Both the Stalinist and bourgeois falsifiers have naturally round that this gives them all sorts of opportunities to ply their trade; but more important is the fact that it is a pitfall for students too.

9*. “There is other evidence of reluctance to adopt the defeatist point of view by party workers in Russia and outside, not only at the beginning of the war but even up to the revolution of 1917”, says Bolsheviks and the World War by Gankin and Fisher (p.151), citing Russian sources.

10*. It is significant that this statement, “both are worst”, which so directly repudiates the previously given motivation for the defeat-slogan, occurs right after a passage in which, arguing against Potresov, Lenin gets into a vigorous analysis of the difference between Marx’s approach to war in the previous epoch of progressive capitalism, and the approach to be taken by Marxists today. With the difference sharply in mind, his pen follows out the consequences and writes “Both are worst” – that is, we cannot base a policy on a choice of which to worst. He sees that defeatism can be retained only in an internationalised form.

11*. Including a scholar like Boris Souvarine, who wrote in his biography of Stalin: “Between the two extremes, defensism and defeatism, there were numerous intermediate opinions. Trotsky and Martov, with the majority of the outstanding personalities of revolutionary internationalism, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Franz Mehring, Rakovsky, Riazanov, etc. came out against national defense but for a peace without victors or vanquished and did not intend to break with socialists like Kautsky ...” (p.135, French ed.).

12*. But later, in 1925 (at the time, we shall see, when Zinoviev was reviving defeatism in the Comintern), Olga Ravich, who had been a delegate to this conference, said that the delegation had declared: “In the struggle against the war the proletariat must persevere to the end and must not fear a defeat of the fatherland. Such a defeat would only facilitate the revolutionary struggle and civil war of the proletariat.” (Gankin & Fisher, Bolsheviks and the World War, p.294). If such a statement was made in a speech (embodying Formulations Nos.2 and 4 but not the “wish for defeat”), it was not included in the Bolshevik document.

13. For the first of these, see CW20, I, pp.147-8.



Reference Notes

49. Lenin, Selected Works (International Pub.), vol.2, p.447, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.

50. CW18, p.63, The Tasks of Revolutionary Social-Democracy in the European War. Not published; circulated as internal discussion document.

51. CW30 (Russ.), p.223, The European War and International Socialism. Not published; rough notes for an article. Words in brackets are interpolated by myself.

52. CW18, pp.74-5. Not published; private letter.

53. Gankin and Fisher, The Bolsheviks and the World War (Hoover Library Publication), p.151.

54. Trotsky, Stalin, p.168.

55. Gankin and Fisher (note 58), p.148.

56. CW18, p.81, The War and Russian Social-Democracy, theses signed by the Central Committee; pub. Nov. 1, 1914 (written October).

57. CW18, p.101, On the National Pride of the Great Russians; pub. Dec. 12, 1914.

58. CW18, p.117, Russian Südekums; pub. Feb. 1, 1915.

59. CW18, pp.199-200.

60. CW18, p.124, Under a Stolen Flag; not published (until 1917).

61. Gankin and Fisher (note 53), pp.190-1.

62. CW18, pp.149-150, Conference of the Foreign Sections of the RSDLP; pub. March 29, 1915. (The conference itself took place Feb. 27-March 4.)

63. CW18, pp.197-202, Defeat of ‘Our’ Government in the Imperialist War; pub. July 26, 1915.

64. Gankin and Fisher (note 53), pp.164-167.

65. Alfred Rosmer, Le Mouvement Ouvrier Pendant la Guerre (Paris, 1936), p.478.

66. Gankin and Fisher (note 53), p.170.

67. CW18, p.197.

68. Ibid., pp.197-8.

69. Martov and Dan: Geschichte der Russische Sozialdemokratie, p.276. This section was written by Dan.

70. CW18, p.234, Socialism and War; pub. as pamphlet in 1915 (written in August).

71. CW18, p.304, The Collapse of the Second International; pub. in Kommunist, Nos.1-2, 1915 (written during summer).

72. Gankin and Fisher (note 53), p.206. Another translation in Letters of Lenin, ed. Hill and Mudle, p.373. Not published: private letter.

73. Lenin, Selected Works, vol.5, pp.149-153. Not published.

74. CW19, pp.45-6, Wilhelm Kolb and George Plekhanov; pub. Feb. 29, 1916.

75. CW30 (Russ.), 247. Discarded draft of theses for Kienthal Conference; not published; written beginning of April 1916.

76. CW19, p.74, Theses for Kienthal Conference; pub. June 10, 1916. (The conference itself took place April 24-30.)

77. CW19, p.212, The Pamphlet by Junius; pub. Oct. 1916 (written August).

78. CW19, p.370, The Military Program of the Proletarian Revolution; written August 1916 but not published till Sept.-Oct. 1917 in the Jugend-Internationale.

79. CW19, p.321, On Separate Peace; pub. Nov. 6, 1916.

80. See note 64.

81. CW18, pp.142-4.

82. Text of resolution in appendix to CW18, 472-3.

83. CW18, pp.356-8.

84. Text in CW18, pp.447-80, appendix.

85. Article on the Zimmerwald Conference, Oct. 11, 1915, collected in Gegen den Strom.


Last updated on 26.9.2004