A Letter from Mexico [Paul Kirchhoff to Hugo Oehler]

Paul Kirchhoff

Published: Spark, vol. 1, no. 1. February 1938. Pages 35-38. Kirchhoff signed the letter with his pseudonym Eiffel.
Source: The Internet Archive
Note: Spark was the theoretical organ of the Marxist Workers League, a split from the Revolutionary Workers League, of which Hugo Oehler was a leading member. Like Kirchhoff, the Marxist Workers League held that the Spanish Civil War was an imperialist war.
Transcription/Markup: Micah Muer, 2021.

Editor's note: We are publishing this document of comrade Eiffel although we have principle disagreements with him on many fundamental questions. This article, however, deals with the dialectical relationship between imperialist war and civil war with which we express our agreement. The article was written in the form of a letter to Oehler on his return from Spain. It clearly demonstrates the hopeless theoretical confusion of Oehlerism on the most important question of the day — war, aside from pointing out the many contradictions of Oehler. We think that without a theoretical basis as this letter presents, it is impossible to have a sound foundation not only on the Spanish question but of imperialist and civil war in general.

The reader will notice that the close of Eiffel's letter deals with a slander campaign which has been instituted against him by the Mexican Trotskyists. He has been publicly accused of being an agent of the GPU. When he demanded that the Trotskyists prove their charges, they completely, in Stalinist fashion, avoided offering evidence to corroborate their charges. Thus not only Stalinism frames revolutionists but its political bed fellow, Trotskyism.

To further delineate the bankruptcy of the Mexican Trotskyists, the latest issue of their paper, "IV Internacional" contains the following headline: "Roosevelt Calls for Struggle Against Fascism." The content of this article hypocritically warns the workers against American imperialism and at the same time calls for a policy of marching separately and striking together with American imperialism against Italo-German imperialism!! Just like Stalinism, having an opportunist line has to resort to frameups, so it is the case with Trotskyism.

August 14, 1937

Comrade Oehler:

You say the "Revolutionary Workers League never characterized the Spanish struggle as ONLY an imperialist conflict". In order to settle this question it is necessary to define clearly what we mean by "imperialist conflict" or "imperialist war" (two terms which in this connection are obviously synonymous). You have a mechanical and totally false concept of what we mean by imperialist war and what its dialectical relations with civil war is. You claim that both can exist at the same time, one being "upppermost," the main "aspect", the other accompanying the former, etc. These very terms (and language has to express our dialectical understanding of a given process) prove that you have not understood the essential relationship between class war and imperialist war; the latter in every struggle within a class society, is only another form of class war, — that form in which the proletariat temporarily has been driven off its class line, so that the class struggle in its actual manifestations has become a one-sided struggle. Thus imperialist war becomes possible only if and when the class struggle in its direct, two sided, open form has been temporarily suppressed, and its transformation into a class war (i.e., back into a class war) becomes possible only through a total and complete separation from and break with imperialist war. Imperialist war and class war (in the open "two sided" form) cannot exist "side by side", in the sense of your position, but are continuously fighting to replace each other. That is the meaning of the alternative: imperialist war or proletarian revolution. It is or, not and!!! To speak of the "Civil War and imperialist conflicts in Spain" would be true only if the struggle would be essentially a class struggle, which the great imperialist powers would try to benefit from in a secondary sense as they did with the Civil War in Russia. But the war in Spain is essentially an imperialist conflict and the only way for the proletariat to "profit" from this is by TRANSFORMING IT IN OPEN CLASS WAR, which demands a complete break with it. The moment this break begins, class war in the open form and imperialist war formally exist side by side for some time, but only formally, since in reality from that moment on the basis for imperialist war no longer exists. In other words, once the proletariat is back on its class basis, the imperialist war is doomed to yield its place to open class war, — and even should the proletariat be defeated in the resulting struggle, the essential character of the struggle remains: a class struggle.

Now thee [sic] can be no way of getting around the fact that the Political Committee in the fall of last year had the position that "in the absence of a class party of the proletariat, the Spanish bourgeoisie and the world bourgeoisie have turned a civil war into a war under the leadership of the bourgeoisie, that is, essentially an imperialist conflict" and that it considered this fact, i.e., the change in the ESSENCE of the war as a "fundamental fact". Am I reading too much into the word "essentially" as we used it then? That question can be settled by one single quotation from that very same article (which, as we said in the introduction had the task to "analyze the fundamental fact" of the change of ESSENCE of the war): "Today... the masses of workers in the militia (are back) in their CENTURY OLD ROLE AS MERE CANNON FODDER FOR THE BOURGEOISIE" (emphasis in the article). If only they are "mere cannon fodder for the bourgeoisie then it is most certainly ONLY an imperialist war". In fact, the very affirmation that the war is "under the leadership of the bourgeoisie" says precisely the same. In other words, what we affirmed at the time was that the class struggle had temporarily been replaced by class collaboration [sic] (witness the joint military struggle of the organized workers and "loyalist" regiments, civil guards, police). That is what precisely characterizes "imperialist war". There can't be "side by side" an imperialist war and a class struggle. The moment the latter begins again, the former's base is taken away. But this is not a process of "strengthening one against the other" as one would put your position, but of counterposing one to the other by a frontal attack: Liebknecht's old battle cry: "DOWN WITH THE WAR, LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION". All your confusionist formulations on the "receding" civil war of classes, only helps to conceal the essentially imperialist character of the war in Spain, which we ourselves had theoretically established in one of our official publication [sic] and to make the formulation of a revolutionary police impossible, thereby leaving those sections of the Spanish proletariat leaderless, which instinctively try to break with the war of their masters without of course finding the correct way of doing it: frontal attack vs. the exploiters [sic] STATE and its backbone, the ARMY. Their instinctive elementary struggle could be transformed into the beginning of class war and the end of the imperialist war, but only on condition that there is a vanguard organization that tells them what we belatedly found out in October last year but never since had the courage of making the axis of our work: THE WAR WHICH YOU SUPPORT IS IN ESSENCE AN IMPERIALIST WAR, i.e., A WAR OF YOUR OWN MASTERS AGAINST YOU...

Now as to the practical slogan (revolutionary defeatism) which flows from our theoretical analysis of last October; its essence is clearly contained in the article of the Italian Left Fraction of Communism which as an expression of our solidarity with their point of view, we decided to publish not internally but in the "Fourth International".[01] That article said among other things the following: "From the present situation, in which the proletariat is caught between two capitalist forces, it cannot pass over into an opposite one except by embarking on the road of insurrection. No evolution of the present armies of Catalonia, Madrid, Asturias, etc., is possible. No, what is needed is a sharp break, without the slightest ambiguity." Why on earth did you vote to publish an article with that central line, if you were against it? And how could you be against it if you really understood the "essentially imperialist" character of the war?? Do you still hold to that position or not? Come clear and stop this unworthy play with words, to hide your confusion in the face of a war which does not fit the historical familiar pattern.

Your formula is that of a "three cornered struggle." Well, the only sense which this formula can have is that of comrade Stamm's, Feudalism-Bourgeoisie-Proletariat, but this formula can have no place in capitalist countries in the decay stage of capitalism. Your "three-cornered" struggle (the democratic bourgeoisie vs. the fascist bourgeoisie and the proletariat vs. both) is nothing but wishful thinking. The only correct way of stating facts, not wishes, is to say that the proletariat, instead of fighting vs. both factions of the ruling class, is fighting with and for one against the other — and you shouldn't forget one additional fact: that the peasants in the main are fighting for the other faction. By misrepresenting facts, i.e., by making believe that the Spanish proletariat is fighting vs. both, you make it impossible to bring about this very thing. While the Spanish proletariat is fighting with and within the state apparatus of the "democratic" bourgeoisie against the "fascist" bourgeoisie, you dare to tell them that they are fighting both!! The amount of elementary struggle vs. the bourgeoisie on "their own side" which the workers continue to carry on, not only does not endanger the capitalist regime but in the final analysis strengthens it, since it has as its conscious goal to "intensify the anti-fascist struggle". Only the moment a Marxist vanguard force gives the struggle a definite direction AGAINST THE STATE, ABOVE ALL AGAINST THE CAPITALIST ARMY AND THE CAPITALIST WAR, this struggle becomes a danger and initiates the struggle for the transformation of the imperialist war into class war. The outburst at Barcelona could have been made that very beginning, if only a handful of comrades had used it to spread the slogan: DOWN WITH THE WAR!! LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION!!! But as far as I know there is no group yet in Spain that has understood the essentially imperialist character of the war and the only possible way of transforming it into the proletarian revolution. AS LONG AS THAT GROUP DOES NOT APPEAR ON THE SCENE THE IMPERIALIST WAR IN SPAN CAN GO ON INDEFINITELY. As long as even a left force like the Revolutionary Workers League says that the war in Spain is SOMETHING IN ADDITION TO BEING AN IMPERIALIST WAR, and therefore not an imperialist war at all, (this is the only logical position theoretically and practically) there is no danger to the bourgeoisie and its war.

Protected from the left by the kind of "Marxism" to which you resort in your confusion, that war can go on unmolested. Left in the lurch by all its "leaders" the uprisings of the Spanish workers, at the front and at the rear, will go down in blood and despair one after another. And while you go on talking of the Revolution and the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie as being more "decisive" than the struggle between the exploiters themselves (perfectly correct as an abstract statement) you actually put it off until doomsday. It is precisely your "revolutionary" perspective, your belief that the present war can "grow over" kind of into class war, by strengthening the one "aspect" of the war against the other, without a fundamental break with the whole war, which makes a revolutionary policy impossible and prolongs the imperialist shambles and the continuously intensifying of the crushing of the proletariat and the peasantry. Only by admitting the imperialist essence of the war, and by excluding all intermediate "solutions" can we work for the Spanish revolution. Against all the formulations of all the "left" supporters of the war, that the war and the revolution are inseparable, we must pose the fundamental alternative that characterizes our whole historical period: WAR OR REVOLUTION, i.e., REVOLUTION AGAINST WAR.

Now a few more words on the method by which the Trotskyists are fighting against this position, and (unfortunately it has to be said) for yours. Their denunciation to the police quite plainly directed against that "objectively pro-fascist" position of the group here (therefore their shift from "Stalinist agents" to "fascist agents" and their over repeated insistence on my German nationality) and not against any harm our work supposedly does to Trotsky's stay in Mexico. Even in the demagogical manner in which they quoted only a single sentence from Ayala's open letter, nobody can be seriously impressed by the charge especially if one knows their press which continuously screams the name of Trotsky all over the page. Their real attack is neither on this, nor is it only an attempt to eliminate us from the Mexican scene: it is essentially an attack on the position of revolutionary defeatism — a political attack in other words. Your only defense (or rather counter-attack) could be likewise a political one. But since you on the contrary agree with the Trotskyist evaluation of our position, you really can do nothing else but defend us against the charge of being CONSCIOUS agents of fascism. Thus your "defense" will be at bottom an expression of political solidarity with the Trotskyists. In this connection it is interesting that the Trotskyists in the first public meeting they have held for ages, spoke of "our comrade Oehler" having been arrested by the Barcelona government. Their line is clearly to defeat us here as advocates of the position of revolutionary defeatism, not as representatives of the RWL, with whose fundamental line on Spain they agree.

P. Eiffel
Mexico, D.F.


[01]. See the October 1937 issue of Fourth International — MIA.