The Myth of Lenin’s “Revolutionary Defeatism”
Special attention to Zinoviev is necessary because, during the period that has been under discussion, it was Zinoviev who was virtually the only close colleague of Lenin in the formulating and propagandizing of the Bolshevik war policy, working with Lenin in Berne. And among the leading Bolsheviks it was Zinoviev alone who, under Lenin’s immediate supervision, attempted to defend and expound the defeat-slogan. His role during this period is preserved in the volume Gegen den Strom (Against the Current) which was later published by the Bolsheviks as the collection of published writings by both of them during these years of the world war.
Zinoviev played no independent role in the formulation of the defeat-slogan. He tried to follow Lenin’s lead. Whereas Lenin never mentioned supposed precedents for his defeatism, it was Zinoviev who specialized particularly in giving it an historical tradition, as we have discussed in the first two chapters. The only article by him which is specifically on defeatism, included in Gegen den Strom, is the historical “Defeatism” Then and Now  already referred to. There is a long passage on defeatism in another article,  and references in a couple of others. 
When, however, Zinoviev himself wrote a big book on the war question in 1915-16 (not published until April 1917), The War and the Crisis of Socialism, it did not have a line in it raising the defeat-slogan. [14*] This was not due to its restricted scope, which included an encyclopedic array of topics! – nor was it due to restricted size, which is no less than 652 pages in the German edition. For Lenin’s closest collaborator, this is something of an oversight, in terms of the myth that defeatism was and is the heart of anti-war policy in an imperialist war, or at any rate an essential ingredient.
In his articles, Zinoviev tried to follow Lenin’s lead on defeatism, no doubt as best he could. But how could anybody follow successfully when the lead was so confused and shifting? Here is Lenin’s right-hand collaborator on the same question, and his staggering course is a picture of confusion worse confounded. The last point under this head that we will discuss was not merely a question of confusion: it was the outstanding evidence, even in this world war period, of the social-patriotic potential inherent in the defeat-slogan.
Outside of his historical excursions en the subject, Zinoviev’s longest discussion of the defeat-slogan is in his extensive article The Russian Social-Democracy and Russian Social-Chauvinism, written in the summer of 1915. Like Lenin’s anti-Trotsky polemic, it is written under the impress of Trotsky’s attack in his Open Letter. Zinoviev does not even quote Trotsky’s criticism. His direct reference to Trotsky is a snide sideswipe: On the question of defeatism, he writes –
“... the following march against us in a closed Phalanx: the direct social-chauvinists ... the right center ... and the “left-center” (see the rather unenlightening remarks on this point by Trotsky in his Open Letter to the editors of Kommunist). We are firmly convinced that the unity of the center with the social-chauvinists on this point is not at all accidental. Everything has a reason. 
Outside of this “amalgam” Zinoviev is not very enlightening himself. He does not discuss the “lesser evil” formulation that Trotsky had criticized. In this he perhaps shows discretion. When, later in the article, he himself presents the “lesser evil” idea, he blunders in where Lenin did not tread.
We have made clear that Lenin never applied the “lesser evil” formulation to any other country but Russia. This fine point, apparently, was never explained to Zinoviev, who says:
“... the internationalists can pursue a consistent struggle against their governments and their chauvinists in none of the warring countries if they do not defend in their agitation the principle that the defeat of the imperialists of their ‘fatherland’ would he the lesser evil from the standpoint of the interests of the proletariat.” 
This is flatly in contradiction with the November 1914 theses of the Central Committee that “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. For us Russian Social-Democrats, however ...”
It is to be doubted whether Zinoviev knew he was doing anything different than loyally repeating the “line”. If the line was too muddled, that was hardly Zinoviev’s fault; he couldn’t make it out either.
Zinoviev’s most extended course of argumentation is on the “safest” version: we must not halt the class struggle for fear of defeat. In addition to what we have already discussed about this formulation (No.4), there is an extra point to be made about Zinoviev’s use of it.
It bears precisely on the “methodology of social-patriotism” that is embodied in the thinking behind the defeat-slogan. It was the social-patriots who insistently tried to pose the whole question of socialist war policy in terms of “For or against defeat?” This way of posing the question was and is properly a hallmark of social-patriotism. And what is interesting is that, in so many words, Zinoviev puts the stamp of approval on this way of posing the question:
[The social-patriots argue, says Zinoviev:] “Shall we continue the class struggle in the country ... would this not mean weakening the military strength of our government? And this will surely be of benefit to the external enemy. It follows that you are for the defeat of your country? Say, yes or no? If no, then you must grant us that temporarily ... the class struggle must be halted and replaced by a policy of civil peace.” 
So he paraphrases the social-patriots. And his comment on it? It is: “Decidedly there is a logic in this way of putting the question.”
And since the social-patriotic methodology is correct, we must take our stand on the same ground as they, but with the sign reversed: we are for defeat.
Although he had found Trotsky’s remarks “unenlightening”, could he possibly have more crudely illustrated their validity?
Yet Zinoviev had just been inveighing against predicating socialist policy on the fear of defeat. That way lies social-patriotism. Just as invalid is the idea of predicating socialist policy on the desire for defeat. That way lies social-patriotism-in-reverse, social-patriotism standing on its head. The Marxist does not take off from the question of defeat in either direction; to the whole dilemma of military victory-or-defeat of the governments he counterposes the struggle for socialist victory against the governments. In terms of such a Marxist methodology, it makes sense to add that we do not halt this struggle for socialist victory out of fear of military defeat of “our own” government; in terms of the methodology which Zinoviev approves, the methodology represented by the social-patriots’ dilemma, this statement does not make sense. For if you have already told the social-patriots that we must wish for defeat, it does not make sense to add that we must not halt for fear of the defeat, which we wish!
Zinoviev puts some stress on an argument which is not used by Lenin in connection with defeatism, though Lenin brought it out in other contexts. This is the, argument that military defeat by the enemy army does not really affect any true national interest of the people but only the imperialist interest of the bourgeoisie:
“The bourgeois ‘fatherlands’ – this becomes more and more obvious in the course of the war -are threatened by nothing but the loss of one colony or another, one border area or another, as far as the bourgeoisie is concerned. The bourgeoisie aspires to nothing but a diplomatic regroupment of powers, nothing but new secret treaties and conspiracies.” 
This too is an echo of the feeling during the Russo-Japanese War, when the war was taking place in the Far East, in the colonial and border area itself, and no one (including the Japanese) even dreamed of an attack on and subjugation of the homeland.
When it is brought forward in connection with a wish for defeat (and not merely in connection with an analysis of the imperialist springs of the war, as Lenin did elsewhere), it raises an implication. Granting for the sake of argument that this was so regarding Russia’s participation in the First World War, it certainly is not necessarily so in every imperialist war or even with respect to every nation in the First World War. Suppose defeat of one’s own government in an imperialist war does mean important hardships for the people-as indeed Germany’s defeat in the war did mean, under the Treaty of Versailles-do we cease to wish for defeat? And if furthermore it is argued that defensism and “defeatism” are the only consistent alternatives, then the door is opened for social-patriotic conclusion – once any doubt is cast on the argument for defeatism.
Now as a matter of fact this argument for defeatism is demonstrably false, in the light of the actual consequences of the First World War. It turned out that it was not true that “The bourgeois ‘fatherlands’ ... are threatened by the loss of one colony or another, one border area or another, as far as the bourgeoisie is concerned”. For the defeated bourgeoisies of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy, etc., defeat had far more serious consequences, consequences which intimately concerned the lot of the people too.
The revolutionary Marxist can recognize this fact without drawing pro-war conclusions. It is precisely the. reason why he may speak of continuing the socialist struggle in spite of the risk of defeat, because for him the alternative to defeat is not the victory of his own imperialist government but a third alternative which has to be pursued and which alone will have progressive consequences.
Not so for one who raises the slogan of “wish defeat”. The proof of this comes further along in Zinoviev’s article (unrelated by him to the quotation just given), when he admits:
“The chauvinists paint the horrors which await the workers in the event of a defeat of their fatherland. For the masses of people, the horrors, deprivations and sufferings of a defeat are in fact monstrous, unimaginable, colossal.”
How does he reply? As follows: “Well, but how about in case of victory? Do not the same masses pay for it – to the benefit of the imperialists? And if they stand on the basis of internationalism, can the workers of one country wish for themselves victory and for the workers of the other country defeat, when defeat would have even more suffering connected with it?” 
Zinoviev does not notice that, from the point of view of the defeat-slogan, he has refuted himself. As internationalists (he argues) we cannot wish victory for our own government because this means we are wishing defeat and the colossal sufferings of defeat for the workers on the other side of the lines. Very well, but then why wish defeat for the workers on our side of the lines, as Lenin’s slogan does?
He is entrapped in the vicious circle of victory-or-defeat, just as the social-patriots are, and he cannot extricate himself, except by implicitly shifting to a viewpoint which is not that of defeatism.
It must be said that Zinoviev’s attempt to work up a refutation of the critics is more conscientious than any made by Lenin, who never faced up to the problems posed. This is also the reason why Zinoviev is forced to set down in black and white ideas which are not met with in Lenin.
Thus Zinoviev tries to meet the question: “If you are talking about the defeat of all the warring governments, what does this mean? Who then will be the victor?”
It is a perfectly legitimate question given the fact that Lenin’s formulations on defeatism made clear time and again, if not always consistently, that he was thinking of defeats inflicted by the enemy camp. The question had not been any embarrassment in the Russo-Japanese War, because there Lenin was openly in favor of the victory of the enemy camp.
In his anti-Trotsky polemic , Lenin had quoted this embarrassing question from the pen of the Menshevik Semkovsky, and had indignantly replied that this showed that Semkovsky was thinking of the military outcome solely in terms of the imperialist governments. (A curious example of a “You too” reply since the question could be asked in the first place only because Lenin’s use of the defeat-slogan was itself obviously based on this kind of thinking.) But in hitting back at Semkovsky, Lenin did not draw the explicit conclusion from his retort. Zinoviev does. The latter replies, in effect: the defeat of all the governments makes good sense if it is understood to mean the defeat of all of them by the revolution.  Here, quite clearly, defeat is equated with the European revolution.
But if all the slogan of defeat meant was a pseudonym for the revolution, then the obvious question is: Why on earth should we christen this revolution by the name of “defeat”? It would be an incomprehensible choice of slogan formulation if such were really the case.
But of course, Lenin’s defeat-slogan did not at all mean “we wish defeat of our own government by, our own proletariat only”. Zinoviev is pushed into this interpretation only because he has pushed himself into a corner.
We have been pointing out the relationship between the defeat-slogan and the methodology of social-patriotism. We have pointed out how easily the former can turn into the latter. Now, finally, we can show how it does turn into a clearly social-patriotic idea – in the hands of Zinoviev.
This we can show, not by some single quotation from Zinoviev which might have been a passing slip of the pen, but by an idea which he repeats a number of times and in three different articles. In its own way, it is the most amazing facet of the defeat-slogan as put forward by the Bolshevik spokesmen during the war.
It is simply the fact that, in these multiple cases, Zinoviev slips a single word into the formulations on defeat – a single word whose effect on the political meaning is as devastating as the insertion of a “not” in a clause.
It is his repeated limitation of his argumentation to despotic governments.
For example, in his historical article on “Defeatism” Then and Now, Zinoviev writes the following when he finally gets to formulate the principle:
“All other things being equal, [15*] the defeat of a despotic government in foreign war always helps the people to overthrow the government. It is absolutely impossible to seriously deny this principle ... The whole modern history of Russia admirably illustrates this truth that the defeats abroad of reactionary governments redound to the benefit of the democratic movement inside the country.” 
Is it possible for a politically-educated polemist to write this without understanding that it means the principle does not apply, to a democratic capitalism?
Similarly in another article: “Yes, we are for the defeat of ‘Russia’ [i.e., tsarism], for this would further the victory of Russia [i.e., the Russian people], its breakaway from slavery, its liberation from the chains of tsarism. Where are the cases in the recent history of Europe where the victory abroad of a reactionary government led to democratic freedom within the country?” 
The counterposition is clear: “reactionary” versus “democratic”. In immediate illustration of it, Zinoviev gives the quotation from Wilhelm Liebknecht which we will cite below.
In his long article The Russian Social-Democracy and Russian Social-Chauvinism, where he gives his most elaborate polemic in favor of defeatism, the same thought abounds in the course of his argumentation.  The first occasion comes when he attacks Plekhanov:
“Plekhanov maintains that only the liberals were given to desiring a defeat of their despotic government, in the hope that this would broaden the possibility of political freedom, while they themselves had neither the strength nor the inclination to fight for it.”
And Zinoviev replies: “Of course, Plekhanov is completely wrong. That the defeat of a despotic government in war can further a democratic transformation in the country, this idea is not in the least peculiar to the liberals.”
In proof of this, he brings a couple of “defeatists” onto the witness stand, citing their words triumphantly. One is, Wilhelm Liebknecht, who had written: “Has anyone ever heard of a despotic government that became liberal after it won a victory? With defeated governments this has happened on occasion for a short period.”
He hails forth August Bebel as a “defeatist”, quoting him: “It is my opinion that for a nation which lives in an unfree condition, a military defeat is more a help than a hindrance for its internal development.”
Bebel was referring to Prussia as distinct from bourgeois democracies like France or England.
We are now quite a distance beyond the mere “methodology” of social-patriotism. If the formulas of defeatism are to be limited to “despotic” governments, to “reactionary” governments which need a democratic transformation, to nations “in an unfree condition”, then defeatism cannot be internationalized, it cannot be the policy of socialists in all the belligerent countries. And if, simultaneously, it is insisted that defeatism is the only consistent anti-war policy, that the only consistent alternative is defensism, then it is scarcely a step to draw social-patriotic conclusions for the socialists of non-despotic governments. “Democracy versus despotism”, “progress versus reaction”, become the governing criteria. And this is too familiar.
Furthermore, we must note that Zinoviev (as well as his “authorities” W. Liebknecht and Bebel) applies the “despotic” limitation not even to the formulation “wish defeat” but to the idea “defeat facilitates revolution”. The muddle is raised to the second power. Whatever qualifications we might ourselves make to the formulation “defeat facilitates”, it is clear that there is no reason for limiting its application to “despotic” governments only.
Now historically speaking, there is no mystery as to why Zinoviev falls into this formulation, even if it remains amazing that he does not catch himself. His thinking is a reflection of Lenin’s in the Russo-Japanese War; he is reproducing it in toto. He is transplanting it to the First World War. For Lenin in 1904-5, it was a question of “despotism versus progress”, and defeatism was the other side of a wish for Japan’s victory. But Lenin’s defeatist position of 1904-5, transplanted to the world war, is – social-patriotism.
What is the significance of Zinoviev’s “mistake”? He finds himself, perhaps unawares, playing with a “defeatism” which would apply to only one side of an imperialist war. It is not thought out, it cannot be thought out, it teeters on the edge of political debacle. It is not a “position” in reality except insofar as a man can be said to be in a certain “position” when he has retreated to the edge of a cliff and is swinging his arms wildly to recover his balance.
Needless to say, neither Lenin nor Zinoviev was in actuality “teetering cm the brink” subjectively. Their anti-war position was too solidly tied to a quite different analysis which kept them firmly on the ground even in the course of occasional gyrations on the defeat-slogan. It was not fatal, for them. It is a warning for others.
The defeat-slogan led Lenin and Zinoviev into a swamp. In positive contrast is the analysis of the victory-or-defeat dilemma which was made by the two outstanding leaders of anti-war socialist opinion outside the Bolshevik ranks. These were Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, whose views on the question we have already referred to.
In his anti-Trotsky polemic of July 1915, Lenin had seemed to ascribe to Trotsky the slogan “Neither victory nor defeat”. It was the Mensheviks who had actually raised as their slogan “Neither victors nor vanquished”, which they coupled with “Peace without annexations”. As put forward by the Mensheviks, the perspective was one of a return to the pre-war status quo as the outcome of the war crisis.
Far from being an advocate of this perspective of “Neither victory nor defeat” in the sense which Lenin had attacked, Trotsky leveled powerful attacks on it, from his own point of view. And he was able to do it in a thoroughly Marxist fashion without in any way falling into the “defeatist” trap.
He did this through a consistent attack on the whole notion of posing the question in terms of victory-or-defeat by the belligerent governments, and, breaking out of that vicious circle, counterposing the socialist victory to both as a third alternative. Thus he simultaneously undercut the “defeatist” approach as well as the Mensheviks. The difference in “methodology” goes to the root of the whole war question, and not in the First World War alone.
This type of analysis can be seen in a work of Trotsky’s during the 1915-16 period which specifically takes up the question of victory-or-defeat. It was published as a series of articles in Nashe Slovo, directed against the Mensheviks. Under the title of “What Is a Peace Program?” it was later republished in pamphlet form after the November revolution. 
He shows in detail how the total consequences of the victory of either side (and that means also the defeat of either side!) would be reactionary from the viewpoint of the socialist aims. He devotes special attention to the slogan “Peace without annexations” in order to show that this aim can be realized neither through the victory (or defeat) of one side nor the victory (or defeat) of the other side of the war camps.
He poses “three typical possibilities” for the outcome of the war: “(1) A decisive victory by one of the camps. (2) A general exhaustion of the opponents without the decisive dominance of one over the other. (3) The intervention of the revolutionary proletariat, which forcibly interrupts the development of military events.”
On the first: “Only charlatans or hopeless fools can believe that the freedom of the small nations can be secured by the victory of one side or the other”, he summarizes. “A like result”, he argues, would follow if the war ends in something like a draw, as envisioned by the Menshevik slogan “Neither victors nor vanquished”.
“The absence of a pronounced preponderance by one of the combatants over the other will only set off, all the more clearly, both the dominance of the strong over the weak within either one of the camps, and the preponderance of both over the “neutral” victims of imperialism. The outcome of the war without victors or vanquished is no guarantee for anybody ...
“The second possible outcome of the war, which is mainly depended upon by those who try to promote the narrow program of ‘peace without annexations and nothing more’, presupposes that the war, exhausting as it does all the resources of the warring nations, will end in general lassitude, without victors or vanquished, without being interrupted by the third power, the revolutionary power. To this very condition where militarism is too weak to effect conquests and the proletariat is too weak to make a revolution, the passive internationalists of the Kautsky type adapt their abbreviated program of “peace without annexations”, which not infrequently they present as a return to the status quo ante bellum.”
But, he continues, this is only “apparent realism”, for under the conditions of imperialism, for the reasons given in the first paragraph quoted, this outcome “does not at all exclude annexations but on the contrary presupposes them”.
To the negative peace perspective of “Neither victory nor defeat”, he counterposes the only way out which we call for and wish: the intervention of the proletarian revolution, in this war crisis itself, against the alternatives of victory or defeat for either war camp.
“A powerful movement of the proletariat is thus a necessary prerequisite for the actual realization of a peace without annexations. But again, while presupposing such a movement, the foregoing program [of the Mensheviks] remains quite inadequate in that it accepts the restoration of the order which prevailed prior to the war and out of which the war broke out. The European status quo ante bellum, the resultant of wars, robbery, violations, bureaucratism, diplomatic stupidity and the weakness of peoples, remains as the only positive content of the slogan ‘without annexations’ ... It is possible to overcome this regime only by means of the proletarian revolution.”
What is the guiding line? “We say that ... the line of direction to be followed by the international proletariat and its national fighting corps [the socialist parties] must not be determined by secondary political and national features nor by problematical advantages in military preponderance by one side over the other (whereby these problematical advantages must be paid for in advance with the absolute renunciation of the proletariat’s independent policy) but by the fundamental antagonism existing between the international proletariat and the capitalist regime generally.”
It is easy to see why, from this standpoint, Trotsky rejected Lenin’s “lesser evil” formula.
So Trotsky, to be sure, wished neither victory nor defeat for either of the war camps, but this was not and could not be his slogan. He rejected the disjunction that it posed.
Rosa Luxemburg took up the identical approach to the victory-or-defeat dilemma – quite independently, of course. It is worthwhile quoting her at more than our usual length. 
“Victory or defeat? This is the slogan of all-powerful militarism in every belligerent nation, and, like an echo, the Social-Democratic leaders have adopted it ... And yet, what can victory bring the proletariat?”
She argues that either alternative, victory or defeat, will mean, for the working class and for the people of the nation, impoverishment, economic ruin, an intensification of militarism, etc. In the course of this argument, some of her polemical points are sometimes exaggerated (in hindsight) but what we are concerned about here is the line of her analysis. Thus:
“... even before any military decision of victory or defeat can be established ... the result of the war will be: the economic ruin of all participating nations ... This, in the last analysis, neither victory nor defeat can alter; on the contrary it makes a purely military decision altogether doubtful and increases the likelihood that the war will finally end through a general and extreme exhaustion.” [16*]
After her examination of the reactionary consequences of either victory or defeat as such, she writes:
“Under the circumstances the question of victory or defeat becomes, for the European working class, in its political exactly as in its economic aspects, a choice between two beatings. It is therefore nothing short of a dangerous madness for the French Socialists to believe that they can deal a deathblow to militarism and imperialism, and clear the road for peaceful democracy, by overthrowing Germany. Imperialism and its servant militarism will reappear after every victory and after every defeat in this war. There can be but one exception: if the international proletariat, through its intervention, should overthrow all previous calculations.
“The important lesson to be derived by the proletariat from the war is the one unchanging fact, that it cannot and must not become the. uncritical echo of the ‘victory or defeat’ slogan, neither in Germany nor in France, neither in England nor in Austria. For it is a slogan that has reality only from the point of view of imperialism, and is identical, in the eyes of every large power, with the question: gain or loss of world political power, of annexations, of colonies, of military supremacy.
“For the European proletariat as a class, victory or defeat of either of the two war groups would be equally disastrous. For war as such, whatever its military outcome may be, is the greatest conceivable defeat of the cause of the European proletariat. The overthrow of war and the speedy forcing of peace by the international revolutionary action of the proletariat alwie can bring to it the only possible victory. And this victory alone can truly rescue Belgium, can bring democracy to Europe.
“For the class-conscious proletariat to identify its cause with either military camp is an untenable position. Does-that mean that the proletarian policies of the present day demand a return to the status quo, that we have no plan of action beyond the fond hope that everything may remain as it was before the war? [No, she answers, that is impossible.] ... The proletariat knows no going back, can only strive forward and onward, for a goal that lies beyond even the most newly created conditions. In this sense alone is it possible for the proletariat to oppose, with its policy, both camps in the imperialist world war.”
Her “methodology” excludes the slogan of wishing defeat. And her methodology is clear: it is, in contemporary terms and almost in her own terms, the methodology of the Third Camp. For this is indeed a methodology in the sense which we have been using; and it is equally hostile to both social-patriotism and its bisymmetric opposite, the swamp of “defeatism”.
14. This is underlined by the fact that there is a mention of defeatism – in a footnote. Here Zinoviev refers to Jaurès as a “defeatist” in the free-wheeling fashion we saw earlier.
15. Note this qualification, incidentally; it covers a tremendous amount of territory. It mainly plays the role of a hedge on the statement which Lenin made so categorically. A moment’s thought about it serves to show that it tends to turn the thesis “defeat facilitates revolution” from a “principle” into a historically conditioned possibility, operative or not operative in a given context. Zinoviev seems to be sensitive to this point (he does it more than once) whereas Lenin never wavers in the unqualified assertion. This qualification alone automatically disbars the “facilitate” formula per se as a formulation of any kind of defeatism. Actually, we would suggest, for Lenin the formula “defeat facilitates revolution” is a truncated form of “wish defeat in order to facilitate revolution”.
16. During the war, Trotsky also once expressed the opinion that this was the most likely military outcome.
86. See note 3.
87. See note 4.
88. See note 2 and note 97.
89. Zinoviev, op. cit. (note 4); in Gegen den Strom, p.243.
90. Ibid., p.245.
91. Ibid., p.245.
92. Ibid., p.246.
93. Ibid., p.247.
94. See note 63.
95. Op. cit. (note 4); in Gegen den Strom, p.248.
96. Op. cit. (note 3); in Gegen den Strom, p.438.
97. Article The War and the Fate of Our Liberation, pub. Feb. 12, 1915; in Gegen den Strom, p.56.
98. Op. cit. (note 4), pp.243-4.
99. L. Trotsky, What Is a Peace Program?, Petrograd, February 1918; pamphlet, in English translation, of a series of articles which had been originally published in Nashe Slovo during 1915-16. The English is very awkward and foreign; I have taken the liberty of polishing it a bit.
100. The Crisis in the German Social-Democracy (the “Junius” pamphlet), 1915.
Last updated on 26.9.2004