The Myth of Lenin’s “Revolutionary Defeatism”
“All of Marx is contained in the Communist Manifesto, in the foreword of his Critique and in Capital. Even if he had not been the founder of the First International, he would always have remained what he is. Lenin, on the contrary, lives entirely in revolutionary action. Had he not published a single book in the past, he would nonetheless appear in history as that which he is now, as the leader of the proletarian revolution, as the founder of the Third International.” Leon Trotsky
“When Vladimir Ilyitch once observed me glancing through a collection of his articles written in the year 1903, which had just been published, a sly smile crossed his face, and he remarked with a laugh: ‘It is very interesting to read what stupid fellows we were!’” 
Since the First World War, more than one generation in the Marxist movement has been brought up, in good part, on a close study of Lenin’s anti-war position.
Lenin was not the only Marxist of the time who reacted to the war with a policy of consistent and thorough opposition to all varieties of “social-patriotism” or “social-chauvinism”. But even in comparison with the other anti-war socialists, his writings on the war have a special force because of the exceptionally clear fashion in which he did one thing: he analyzed the political character of the war in the context of the new epoch of capitalism-imperialism.
Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg (to take these as the best examples of the non-Bolshevik socialist-internationalists) did so also; the difference is in degree, not in kind; but no one so successfully hammered this home as sharply as did Lenin, and on so well thought-out a theoretical basis. His study of imperialism as a stage of capitalism, together with the political approach to the war question which flowed from it, was Lenin’s chief theoretical contribution to the arsenal of Marxism.
In most other respects, as Lenin rightly saw it himself, his role was to revive and reanimate the revolutionary substance of Marxism that had been overlaid by the creeping reformism of the Second International. In this respect, however, he did not merely revive: he had to, and did, readapt Marxism and its ideas to a new epoch. From that time on, the Marxist analysis of war had a new starting point.
The old starting point, the starting point of Marx and Engels and the old Second International, was one that had befitted the previous epoch of capitalism, the pre-imperialist era when progressive wars by the young, rising bourgeoisies of Europe were not only possible but of great historic significance. In this epoch of struggles between bourgeoisies engaged in progressive tasks and outlived classes seeking to block the road of capitalist progress, Marx and Engels had asked themselves typically: The victory of which contender will be of the greatest advantage to the working class and the possibilities of socialist revolution? Which is more progressive and which more reactionary? Whose victory is the lesser evil? Whose victory will help to widen the road down which the working class can march to intervene in the name of its own interests? And conversely: whose defeat will help to eliminate an important force which blocks the road to progress?
By 1907 the anti-war resolutions of the Second International had already implicitly broken with this approach, but only implicitly. The world war that all saw looming ahead was imperialist on all sides. The 1907 Stuttgart and 1912 Basle resolutions of the Second International did not pose the question in the old way: namely, the victory or defeat of which war coalition will be best for us? Instead, the political attitude which they recommended was dictated by the facts of life, the reality of the imperialist era and its manifestations, pointed out in detail in the resolutions; but there was no consistent and conscious realization that a great change had occurred in theory. When the war broke out and the wave of chauvinism and patriotic hysteria swept over the belligerent nations, it was easy for the social-democratic parties, rotted from within by reformism, to snap back to the standpoint of the past, from which they had never consciously broken, and which afforded them the rationalizations they needed to justify their betrayal of their anti-war pledges.
In 1914, Lenin, like the other “orthodox Marxist” leaders of Second International parties, had not yet really worked out the foundations of the new standpoint on war. But unlike them he reacted to the war on the political bases already implied by the Basle and Stuttgart resolutions – and proceeded to go beyond them, to make explicit and theoretically founded the viewpoint there contained, and to Work out the political tactics that followed. The thinking of the Second International snapped back to the old bases as if on the end of a rubber band which had been stretched far beyond its normal scope-but only stretched; Lenin reacted by breaking the old bond.
But the old Marx-Engels-Second International tradition was strong, stronger than Lenin knew. It was deeply embedded in the thinking of all them, Lenin included, and had only been overlaid by the impress of events. Lenin too retained more of it than he was aware.
This was the fundamental reason why there remained with him an idea which constituted, in truth, an alien intrusion into the body of his politics – better still, a fossil remnant. It was this, we shall show, which gave rise to the notion which later came to be called “revolutionary defeatism”.
At a certain time after Lenin’s death, and for reasons which we shall see, this “defeatism” became a fixed part of the Lenin-canon; to question it was to question a “fundamental principle” of Leninism. That it is any principle at all is part of a myth. The rest of the myth includes the following:
(1) During the war Lenin alone adopted a completely consistent and uncompromising policy of opposition to the war, all others among the anti-war socialists being guilty of some “centrist” deviation or other or of some unclarity tending in such direction.
(2) In this “defeatist” principle was contained the very heart of Lenin’s anti-war, position; or as it has sometimes been put, this “defeatism” of Lenin’s “summed up” his anti-war politics.
(3) Such “defeatism” is the necessary alternative to defensism – these being the only consistent choices. To reject “defeatism” means to make some degree of concession to social-patriotism.
(4) This “defeatism” had a whole historical tradition and was not merely invented by Lenin. Its historical precedent was particularly to be found in the “defeatism” which permeated all classes of Russian society in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, this experience being the reason why the Bolsheviks so readily came to the “defeatist” position in 1914.
So goes the myth. [1*]
When we look at Lenin’s writings themselves we will find a variety of shifting and inconsistent formulations on “defeatism” at various times, but the part which has entered into the canonical form of “defeatism” includes the following.
(1) In a reactionary war, you must wish for the defeat of “your own” government, desire defeat, be in favor of defeat, nothing less than defeat.
(2) It was not enough, then, merely to be against the war, against voting the war credits for example; it was not enough to organize or be in favor of organizing mass struggles against the war; it was not enough to organize or be in favor of organizing mass struggles against the war; it was not enough to denounce “defense of the fatherland” and its social-patriotic proponents; it was not enough, certainly, to denounce the consequences of military victory by “one’s own” government, since there were “centrist” positions which were “against both victory and defeat”. In fact, an anti-war position which fell short of avowed defeatism was either “left-centrist” or tinged with pacifism, or, at the very best, it was an “unconscious” defeatism which could not be carried out consistently and fearlessly in action until the “slogan of defeat” itself was embraced.
Lenin’s claims during the 1914-16 period, and he counterposed them in polemic to the anti-war views of Trotsky and Luxemburg. The latter two (to continue to use them as examples of the non-Bolshevik opposition to the war) held the same analysis of the war and of what-is-to-be-done as did Lenin, straight down the line on all essential questions which were moot among the socialist left, including the need for breaking with the Second International and forming a new revolutionary international. [2*] But Trotsky specifically attacked Lenin’s “slogan of defeat”, and Luxemburg (who possibly never even heard of it during the war) wrote along a line which precluded any sympathy for it. What exactly would have been added, supposedly, to their anti-war clarity or effectiveness if they had proclaimed “For defeat in the war”, in addition to the position they held?
In the later exegesis of the Trotskyist movement, Trotsky (for example) was retroactively admitted into the ranks of the wartime defeatists on the ground that this term is “really only a synonym” for an internationalist opponent of imperialist war. If it is only this synonym, as has been often stated, then most of what Lenin actually wrote on the subject, even abstracting the polemical heat, was a congeries of nonsense; whereas in truth it was merely a congeries of confusion. In any case we have to find out what Lenin meant by his “slogan of defeat”, as distinct from the later reinterpreters who confounded his confusion with their own.
For this purpose the test question is not what Lenin meant as against the pro-war defensists, but what he meant as against the other anti-war socialists who held the Third Camp point of view, like Trotsky and Luxemburg, but who were not “defeatists”.
Our study of what Lenin meant by his “defeatism” will begin with the historical sources of his conception, rather than by trying directly to take hold of the tangled threads of his 1914-16 formulations and shifts. This means beginning some distance away, with the Marx-Engels-Second International period, and then with the period of the Russo-Japanese War.
In doing so, however, we shall have to refer often to the attempts which were made in 1914-16 by Zinoviev, as Lenin’s righthand collaborator on the editorial board of Sotsial-Demokrat, to invent an historical tradition for their “defeatism” in precisely these two periods. Part of Zinoviev’s stock-in-trade in this strenuous endeavor is a systematic confusion of their “defeatism” with entirely different political viewpoints which might be called defeatism too.
(1) The most obvious and, at first blush, painfully unnecessary point to make is that there is another word, also spelled “defeatism”, in various languages, which means a mood of pessimistic, despairing or hopeless resignation to admitting defeat. We think it can be shown that this other meaning enters into Zinoviev’s 1915-16 articles on “defeatist” moods among the Russian people during the Russo-Japanese War, and also into the writings of bourgeois historians on the same “defeatist” moods, the latter being under the doubled disadvantage of not understanding anything about political defeatism in the first place.
(2) Not less elementary but more important: Obviously not everyone who is for the defeat of some government in a war is a “defeatist”. Every pro-war patriot is for defeat – of the enemy government. In the First World War, it was the pro-war socialists who were most enthusiastically for defeat – of the enemy government. In a just war which we support, we are for defeat-of the enemy government. Is it really necessary to point this out? Well, we find Zinoviev making a point of the fact that even Engels was a “defeatist” – because he called for the defeat of tsarist Russia in a war with Germany which Engels was then ready to support as a German revolutionist!  If Engels thus becomes a proponent of “defeatism” and a predecessor of Lenin’s war line, then Scheidemann and Ebert have an equal right to be denominated “defeatists”, and it does not matter that Engels may have been correct in his time and the German social-patriots wrong in theirs.
This serves to give some example of the sort of thing of which Zinoviev’s “historical precedents” are full, reflecting on the fearful entanglement of thinking behind his articles, which were written under Lenin’s editorial eye.
In another case, Zinoviev cites as a predecessor in “defeatism” the views expressed by the French Marxist leader Jules Guesde, in 1885, about the looming conflict between England and Russia over Afghanistan.  Guesde explains that whichever of the two governments is defeated, it will be a good thing “for us”, for socialism, since both are “equally, oppressive although in different ways”. His words were merely an expression of refusal: to support either war camp. But in any case he was not talking about the defeat of “his own” government.
(3) Then defeatism means desiring defeat of one’s own government, as Lenin indeed often stressed [3*] (Zinoviev too, for that matter!). But there is still a very notable ambiguity which this phrase covers up.
To take an example from our own day first: In the Second World War many German liberals and radicals were violently pro-war – in favor of the Allies. They were for the defeat of “their own” government. Aside from the difference in national origin, their political position was identical with that of pro-war socialists and non-socialists in the Allied war camp.
As a matter of fact, there were such “defeatists” also in the First World War, and Lenin was well acquainted with them. There were Russian socialists who were for the defeat of Russian tsarism, “their own” government, and by the same token for the victory of Germany, this being the lesser evil for them, since they took their stand not as admirers of Prussian junkerdom but as enemies of tsarism. The political position of these Russian “defeatists” was the same as that of the German social-patriots, who also were for German victory as the lesser evil.
There were also analogous tendencies among the socialists of the nationalities in the Hapsburg Empire, who were for the defeat of “their own” government – i.e., the government which oppressed them – the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. They were pro-Allied.
These were pro-war defeatists. They were defeatists because they were pro-war, “pro” the war of the imperialist camp aligned against their own rulers.
Lenin was, of course, well aware of these tendencies. He never looked upon them as defeatists, never called them defeatists, never thought of them as fellow defeatists. He classified them as social-patriots along with the other social-patriots of the Second International who ranged themselves with one or the other of the imperialist camps. In recognizing no political kinship with these defeatists, he was of course entirely correct: they were social-patriotic defeatists.
A terminological hassle ensues: according to the myth, defeatism and social-patriotism are opposites; a pro-war defeatist is something like a red blackbird. Very well then, we must re-define: a defeatist is not only one who desires the defeat of his own government but one who also does not wish the victory of the enemy camp. As a “definition” of defeatism, it is perfectly arbitrary and ad hoc, but if it is insisted on as a definition of Lenin’s special variety of defeatism, then we will find out some very peculiar things about the Lenin-myth.
To sum this up, then, we have the following:
(1) On the one hand, we have the leading anti-war internationalists like Trotsky and Luxemburg who were against both camps of imperialism in the war; against voting war credits; for irreconcilable class struggle during the war; for transforming the fight against the war into a fight for socialist power; for breaking with the International of the social-patriots of both camps. They counterposed, to the military victory of their own government’s imperialism, the victory of their own working-class struggle for socialism. To the military victory of their own government, they did not counterpose a desire for its military defeat. They counterposed their own socialist solution to any military outcome, victory or defeat, on the plane of the inter-imperialist conflict.
These anti-war socialists were not “defeatists”.
(2) On the other hand, we have tendencies which were for the defeat of their own government and at the same time pro-war on the basis of a position politically identical with that of their fellow social-patriots across the state lines.
But in the case of the position peculiar to Lenin, we have an attempt at a different kind of “defeatism” – one which sought to combine some variety of “defeat of your own government” with the anti-war policy of opposition to both war camps.
Lenin attempted to combine defeatism and an anti-war line.
Note that this is put in a manner precisely opposite that of the Lenin-myth, which has come to paint “defeatism” as the inescapable and necessary expression of anti-war line, which cannot see any problem at all in making such a combination.
We will get a good idea of how great indeed the problem is as we follow (a) Zinoviev’s efforts to find Marxist historical sanction for his “defeatism”, and (b) Lenin’s efforts to settle on a precise meaningful content for his anti-war “defeatism”.
1*. That is, the myth as it is accepted among those who consider themselves Leninists. Confusing as defeatism has been for the latter, we can imagine what it does to the bourgeois professorial “authorities” on Bolshevism. One such expert has recently published a book entitled A Century of Conflict: Communist Techniques of World Revolution with a whole section on The Theory of Revolutionary Defeatism. According to the erudite scholar Prof. Stefan T. Possony, “In July 1915, eleven months after the outbreak of World War I, Lenin outlined the doctrine of revolutionary defeatism for the first time”, whereas Zinoviev had written about it in February; therefore this savant finds it “interesting to note that Sinovyev [sic] rather than Lenin seems to have been the originator of revolutionary defeatism”. The trouble seems to be that this devotee of learning and truth did not even bother to check Lenin’s Collected Works before announcing his historical discovery; he is obviously going by the selected articles of Lenin and Zinoviev to be found in Gegen den Strom. The rest of his pages on the subject are just as illuminating as this pearl of academic profundity, up to and including his sole word of political analysis: “treason”.
2*. The outstanding qualification to this statement, if it is considered an “essential question”, was Trotsky and Luxemburg’s difference with Lenin on the question of raising the slogan of peace. Lenin was never very clear on whether he criticized any use of the peace-slogan or only its use without tying it up with the socialist class struggle and the aim of revolution (a pacifist deviation of which Trotsky and Luxemburg were not guilty in any case, in spite of the picture which might be gained from some of Lenin’s polemics especially against the former).
3*. Lenin made it explicit that he did not consider anything else defeatism in only one passage, an Incidental mention in 1918 in the course of his “Theses” on the Brest-Litovsk peace, in answer to an argument that the German left socialists do not want the Bolsheviks to sign the treaty with the kaiser’s government. He said in passing: “They say that the German Social-Democratic opponents of war have now become ‘defeatists’ and ask us not to give in to German imperialism. However, we have always considered defeatism as an attitude toward one’s own bourgeoisie.” CW22 (Russ. ed.), pp.195-6.
CW stands for Lenin’s Collected Works and refers to the English edition unless otherwise noted: it is followed by the volume number, book number if any (in the case of Vol. 20 and 21), and the page number. References to the Russian edition are to the second or third edition. The French edition was used for Vol.7 only, and the German edition for Vol.6 only. Page references to Gegen den Strom (a collection of wartime articles by Lenin and Zinoviev) are of course to the German edition, but in point of fact all translations from the second half of this book were made from the French edition (Contre le Courant, v.2).
Emphasis within all quotations follows the original; no italics added.
Grateful acknowledgements are due to four comrades for translating and checking passages from Russian and German: Jack Maxwell, Elizabeth Frank, Max Shachtman, and Gordon Haskell.
1. From articles by Trotsky and Radek published in Current History magazine for March 1924, translated from Pravda, there noted as “written shortly before Lenin’s death”.
2. In Zinoviev’s article The Second International and the Problem of War – Are We Renouncing Our Heritage?, pub. in Sotsial-Demokrat, Oct. 1916, collected in Gegen den Strom.
3. In Zinoviev’s “Defeatism” Then and Now, Oct. 1916; in Gegen den Strom, p.440-1. For this aspect of Guesde’s views, see also Charles Rappoport, Jean Jaurès, l’Homme, le Penseur, le Socialiste, p.371.
Last updated on 25.9.2004