Brian Pearce

Lenin and Trotsky on
Pacifism and Defeatism

(Spring 1961)

From Labour Review, Vol. 6 No. 1, Spring 1961, pp. 29–38.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘Only very slight injury can be done to the machinery of war of the ruling class by pacifism. This is best proved by the courageous but rather futile efforts of Russell himself during the war. The whole affair ended in a few thousand young people being thrown into prison on account of their “conscientious objections”.

‘In the old Tsarist army the sectarians, and especially the Tolstoyans, were often exposed to persecution because of their passive resistance to militarism; it was not they, however, who solved the problem of the overthrow of Tsarism.’
L.D. Trotsky, On Pacifism and Revolution (1926: written in reply to a review by Bertrand Russell of Trotsky’s book Where Is Britain Going?)

‘Bourgeois pacifism and patriotism are shot through with deceit. In the pacifism and even the patriotism of the oppressed there are elements which reflect on the one hand a hatred of destructive war and on the other a clinging to what they believe to be their own good – elements which we must know how to seize upon in order to draw the requisite conclusions.

‘Using these considerations as its point of departure the Fourth International supports every, even if insufficient, demand, if it can draw the masses to a certain extent into active politics, awaken their criticism and strengthen their control over the machinations of the bourgeoisie.’
L.D. Trotsky, Transitional Programme of the Fourth International, 1938

The historic decision of the Scarborough conference of the Labour Party has brought to the forefront once again the great question of the attitude of the working-class movement towards imperialist war – how to prevent it, and how to stop it should it break out in spite of all efforts to prevent it. A major discussion on socialism in relation to war and peace is under way in the Labour Party; and this discussion has obvious points of contact with the discussion about peaceful coexistence and the foreign policy of workers’ states which has been stirred up in the Communist Party through the disagreements exhibited by the Soviet and Chinese leaderships.

This article aims to assist the progress of these discussions by recalling the main phases and the main controversies in the development of Marxist theory and practice concerning imperialist war during the period of the First World War. The most important benefit to be obtained from such a study is, of course, not the discovering of ‘analogies’ but the clarification of principle and method.

The operative resolution of the Socialist International with regard to war which was in force in 1914 at the time of the outbreak of the First World War was that which had been adopted at the Stuttgart congress in 1907 and which was reaffirmed at Copenhagen in 1910 and at Basle in 1912. After outlining the responsibility of socialists to work to prevent the outbreak of war, this resolution went on to add: Should war none the less break out, their duty is to intervene and bring it to an end, and with all their energies to use the political and economic crisis created by the war to rouse the masses of the people and to hasten the fall of capitalist domination.’

To pass such a resolution is one thing, to carry it out in face of martial law and mass patriotic hysteria is quite another. Raymond Postgate commented thus on the loyalty of the various parties composing the International to this resolution, in his book The International During The War (published by The Herald in 1918):

‘The Russian section has carried out this programme to the letter. No other section seems to have taken it seriously. Socialists in most other countries have supported their governments, or, if they have not, have been forced to confine themselves to agitation.’

In order to understand how it was possible for open betrayal on the part of some socialist leaders and hopeless confusion on the part of the others to take place in July–August 1914 in spite of the decisions of the international congresses, it must be appreciated that these decisions, then still comparatively recent, marked a break with the previous Marxist approach to international wars, and also that in 1914 the motivation of this break, and its implications, had not yet been fully worked out. It was not difficult, for instance, for German Social-Democrats to hark back to Marx in 1870, or Engels in 1891, for justification of the support they gave to their own government in its war with Tsarist Russia and her allies; with a little sophistry, this could even be ‘reconciled’ with the 1907–1912 resolutions. Nobody at that stage had got around to analyzing whether the new line on war meant that Marx and Engels had been wrong in their practice of ‘choosing sides’ in the inter-state conflicts of their time, or, if not, what exactly were the changes in the world situation which dictated a change of line by socialists on this vital question. Even less attention had been given to working out the precise practical conclusions to be drawn from the general phrases of the 1907–1912 decisions.

Changes since Engels

Over two years after the outbreak of the First World War it was still necessary for Lenin to explain to the experienced Bolshevik activist Inessa Armand what crucial changes had taken place at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Engels, Lenin insisted, was quite right to advocate in 1891 national defence by Germany in face of the Franco-Russian alliance. ‘In 1891 there was no imperialism at all (I have tried to show in my pamphlets that it arose in 1898–1900, not before [1]) and there was not, nor could there have been, an imperialist war on the part of Germany. (Incidentally, there was no revolutionary Russia either; this is very important.)’ There was a most significant difference between the situation in 1891 and in 1914 – when, not only was imperialism dominant, but ‘Tsarism had been undermined by 1905’ (Lenin, Letters to Inessa Armand, 25 December 1916 and 19 January 1917). Marx and Engels had had to determine their line in circumstances in which there was no modern imperialism and no mature objective conditions for socialism, so that there could be no other question for the workers than the question as to which bourgeoisie’s success was to be preferred. There were no mass socialist parties in all the belligerent countries – indeed, the building of such parties was the central task to which Marx and Engels devoted themselves. In particular, Russia stood in isolation as a fortress of feudal-absolutist reaction, unshaken by internal revolt and presenting a very real threat to every democratic striving in other countries, both in Europe and in Asia.

In a number of writings of his in 1915-1917, Lenin stressed the two changes which he saw as underlying and justifying the new line on war first adopted by the international socialist movement in 1907. Besides the passing of the advanced capitalist countries into the phase of monopoly capitalism, imperialism, with its implications of reaction all along the line ‘, there was the 1905 revolution in Russia. In a sense, 1905 rather than ‘1898-1900’ was the real turning-point. Lenin appears never to have repudiated the attitude he took up at the time of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, an attitude in accordance with the Marx-Engels tradition. At that time he did not merely oppose the war aims of Tsarism, he explicitly approved those of Japan. In his article on The Fall of Port Arthur (January 14, 1905) he wrote about how ‘progressive, advanced Asia has struck an irreparable blow against reactionary and backward Europe’. The war of a progressive country with a backward one has this time, as more than once in the past, played a great revolutionary role ….’ And he poured scorn on those Russian commentators who said that a socialist could be only for a workers’ Japan but not for a bourgeois Japan. Looking back on that episode in 1908 (in Inflammable Material in World Politics), Lenin still saw fit to characterize the victories of Japan in 1905 as victories which ensured her independent national development’. [2]

The overwhelmingly important result of Tsarist Russia’s defeat in 1905, however, was to put an end to the ‘special question’ of Russia as a question to be solved on the international plane. Whereas Marx and Engels had had to decide in all international conflicts which outcome would be most disadvantageous to Russia, and work for that, and even to incite war against Russia, from 1905 onward the liquidation of Tsarism could be safely left to the Russian working class, which had now stepped into world history.


Or could it? At any rate, did this mean that after 1905 the Russian workers could have no different or additional consideration of principle to guide them in war, as compared with the workers of, say, Germany? This question was to give rise to controversy among Russian Marxists when the war came. The opportunist leaders of the German Social-Democratic Party justified their support for the Kaiser’s war by references to the special character of Tsarism and the need for blows from outside Russia to bring it down, in the interests of the workers of Russia as well as of Germany. To this the central committee of the Bolsheviks replied, in heir manifesto of October 1914, The War and Russian Social-Democracy, drawn up by Lenin.

‘During the past few years, the revolutionary movement against Tsarism in our country has again assumed tremendous proportions [i.e., after the lull of 1908–1910] ... The Russian proletariat has not shrunk from any sacrifice to free humanity from the shame of the Tsarist monarchy. But we must say that if anything can, under certain conditions, delay the destruction of Tsarism, if anything can help Tsarism in its struggle against the whole of Russian democracy, it is the present war ... And if anything can hinder the revolutionary struggle of the Russian working class against Tsarism, it is the behaviour the leaders of German and Austrian Social-Democracy, which the chauvinist press of Russia is continually holding up to us as an example.’

At the same time, the manifesto affirmed that ‘from the standpoint of the working class and of the labouring masses of all the peoples of Russia [my emphasis – B.P.], the lesser evil would be the defeat of the Tsarist monarchy’. Some of Lenin’s associates questioned whether there was not room for ‘a misinterpretation of this passage: that the Russian Social-Democrats wish for the victory of the Germans ... (Karpinsky, letter to Lenin, September l7, 1914), but Lenin at this stage refused to budge. Tsarism is a hundred times worse than Kaiserism he wrote to Shlyapnikov, October 17, 1914. Lenin’s defeatism is here advanced, it will be observed, as something special for Russia, not as an international line.

Lenin soon clashed with Trotsky over ‘defeatism’, and also over what was called at the time ‘the peace slogan’. As regards the latter, Lenin was desperately anxious to prevent the revolutionary socialists from being taken in tow by various pacifist trends. Only by fighting to overthrow capitalism, to mobilize the workers to carry out a socialist revolution, by ‘turning the imperialist war into civil war’, could the war be ended in a fashion advantageous to the masses. Any other line would lead merely to the victory of one imperialist coalition or the other or to a compromise at the expense of the peoples which would prove merely an armistice followed by renewal of conflict. Lenin knew the heavy pressure on his comrades, if not to join the ‘patriots’ then to drop their revolutionary work in favour of abstract peace propaganda of a kind which would find echoes even in some capitalist circles. In reply to Alexandra Kollontai, he wrote at the very end of 1914: ‘You emphasize that “we must bring forward a slogan which will unite us all”. I tell you frankly that at present what I am afraid of is just this indiscriminate uniting, which in my opinion is most dangerous and most harmful to the proletariat’. He never ceased, throughout the war, to combat the illusions of pacifism. The two major fallacies in the pacifist approach he saw as these. First, the idea that it is possible to abolish war without abolishing capitalism: ‘only after we have overthrown, finally vanquished, and expropriated the bourgeoisie of the whole world, and not only of one country, will wars become impossible’ (The War Programme of the Proletarian Revolution, September 1916). Second, avoidance of the hard fact that the process of extirpating the causes of war must itself include a series of wars of various kinds: ‘civil wars of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie for socialism are inevitable. Wars are possible between a country in which socialism has been victorious and bourgeois or reactionary countries’ (The “Disarmament” Slogan, Autumn 1916). Far from turning their backs on weapons and military knowledge, the workers must strive to obtain both, since only with their aid would the capitalist class, the source of war, be overthrown and put down, nationally and internationally. ‘We must not let ourselves get mixed up with the sentimental liberals. A bayonet period has begun! And that is a fact which means that we must fight with the same kind of weapon.’ (Letter to Shlyapnikov, November 14, 1914).

Peace by Revolution

So profoundly concerned was Lenin to draw a sharp distinction between the revolutionaries and those who were vaguely ‘for peace’ that he at first viewed with extreme suspicion all attempts to put forward ‘peace programmes’. ‘Not “peace without annexations” but peace to the cottages, war on the palaces; peace to the proletariat and the toiling masses, war on the bourgeoisie!’ (Lenin, “Peace Without Annexations”, February 29, 1916). On this issue Lenin found himself at odds with Trotsky, who considered from the start that the slogan of peace, linked with a programme for a democratic peace settlement, provided ‘the surest way by which Social-Democracy can isolate militarist reaction in Europe’ (The War and the International, 1914). [3] In the opening phases of the war, Lenin and Trotsky thus placed the emphasis differently – Lenin upon the need to prevent any illusions arising about the possibility of peace without revolution, Trotsky upon the need to find transitional demands which would enable the revolutionaries to link themselves with the broad movement of opposition to the war.

It must be appreciated that Lenin did not, of course, ignore in the sectarian manner the broad anti-war movement or fail to see that the revolutionaries had to make contact with it. Already in May 1915 (Bourgeois Philanthropists and Revolutionary Social Democracy) he noted that alongside all sorts of intrigues and diversions there were also the peace sympathies ‘of the unenlightened masses’, expressing a ‘growing protest against the war’, and that the revolutionaries must take these into account. And in the pamphlet Socialism and War (Summer 1915), Lenin and Zinoviev pointed to the popular sentiment for peace and observed: ‘It is the duty of all Social-Democrats to take advantage of this sentiment. They will take the most ardent part in every demonstration made on this basis, but they will not deceive the people by assuming that in the absence of a revolutionary movement it is possible to have peace without annexations ...’ ‘Socialists of a pacifist shade ... can be our fellow travellers’; we have ‘to get closer to them’ in order to fight the social-patriots. But in doing so, the revolutionaries must never forget the limitations of the political position of these elements, and must certainly never confine themselves to ‘what is acceptable to them’.

Parallel with Lenin’s differences with Trotsky on the ‘peace slogan’ and ‘peace programmes’, and also to some extent on ‘defeatism’, were differences on organizational questions. Trotsky clung much longer to the hope that it would not be necessary to make a clean break with the various centrist trends in the Russian and internationalist movements. In the end, of course, Trotsky came over to Lenin’s view on this matter, as on that of the type of internal organization of the party. On organizational questions Lenin convinced Trotsky: it is by no means clear, however, that Lenin did not come round eventually, on questions of the tactics and slogans of the fight against war, as on the ‘permanent revolution’ approach to Russia’s politics, to something closer to Trotsky’s position.

Trotsky versus Lenin

Trotsky protested sharply against the slogan of ‘Russia’s defeat the lesser evil’. In his 1914 (Zurich) pamphlet on The War and the International he declared: ‘We must not for a moment entertain the idea of purchasing the doubtful liberation of Russia by the certain destruction of the liberty of Belgium and France, and – what is more important still – thereby inoculating the German and Austrian proletariat with the virus of imperialism.’ Was it not ‘possible that the defeat of Tsarism might actually aid the cause of the Revolution? As to such a possibility, there is nothing to be said against it’. That had happened, indeed, in 1905; but one ought not to forget that ‘while the Russo-Japanese war weakened Tsarism, it strengthened Japanese militarism. The same considerations apply in a still higher degree to the present German-Russian war’. Moreover, a revolution in Russia which was brought on by defeat would find the German bayonets at its chest at the moment of birth, and that would not help it. No, ‘the Social Democrats could not and cannot now combine their aims with any of the historical responsibilities of this war, that is, with either the victory of the Triple Alliance or the victory of the Entente’. Trotsky’s Paris paper Nashe Slovo ridiculed Lenin’s defeatism as ‘defencism turned inside out’ and ‘social-patriotism standing on its head’. In an open letter to the editorial board of Kommunist, June 1915, Trotsky explained his disagreements with Lenin on both the peace slogan and defeatism.

‘I cannot reconcile myself ‘, he wrote, ‘with the vagueness and evasiveness of your position on the question of mobilizing the proletariat under the slogan of struggle for peace, the slogan under which, as a matter of fact, the labouring masses are now recovering their political senses and the revolutionary elements of socialism are being united in all countries; the slogan under which an attempt is being made now to restore the international contacts among the socialist proletariat. Furthermore, under no condition 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 connivance with the political methodology of social patriotism, a connivance for which there is no reason or justification, and which substitutes an orientation (extremely arbitrary under present conditions) along the line of a “lesser evil” for the revolutionary struggle against war and the conditions which generate this war’. [4]

The resolution referred to by Trotsky was that adopted by the foreign (i.e., outside Russia) sections of the Bolshevik party at their conference in Berne in March 1915. In this document two things were said about the question of defeat. First, that ‘in every country, the struggle against a home government conducting an imperialist war must not be stopped by the prospect of the country being defeated as a result of revolutionary agitation’. It will be noticed that Trotsky raised no objection to this idea. But, second, it went on to assert that defeat actually facilitates revolution, ‘that this proposition is particularly true as regards Russia’, and, finally, that ‘the defeat of Russia is, under all conditions, the lesser evil’.

The text of this resolution itself represented a certain retreat from a position Lenin had taken up a little earlier. In his article Under A Stolen Flag (February 1915) Lenin replied to the Russian defencist Potresov, who tried to shelter behind the Marx-Engels approach to wars, that in the present war ‘both sides are worst’, and that for this reason the socialist workers must desire ‘the defeat of every imperialist bourgeoisie’. In this article the special characteristics of Russia were relegated to the past: ‘Potresov cannot fail to know that in our epoch not one of the backward state formations is or can be “the central evil”’. This was done, however, in order to apply to every country the slogan originally devised for Russia alone. A group of Bolsheviks which included Bukharin (the ‘Baugy group’) objected to this ‘wish-defeat’ formulation as an international slogan, and their objections were reflected in the final terms of the Berne resolution. (As can be seen, this resolution actually goes back to the idea that Tsarist Russia is in some way specially noxious, and it even specifies that ‘the victory of Russia would bring with it a strengthening of world reaction’; which was just what the German social-patriots claimed.)

In the summer of 1915, doubtless as a result of the clash with Trotsky over the Berne resolution, Lenin and Zinoviev, in their pamphlet Socialism and War, reverted to the formulation to which Bukharin had objected, and declared that ‘the Socialists of all the belligerent countries should express their wish that all “their” governments be defeated’. Lenin went even further in his article (August 1915) on Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War. ‘Revolutionary action against one’s own government undoubtedly and incontrovertibly means not only desiring its defeat but really facilitating defeat.’ He added however: ‘(For the “penetrating reader”: this does not mean “blowing up bridges”, organizing unsuccessful military strikes, and in general helping the government to inflict defeat upon revolutionaries.)’ Just what it did mean, in what sense it meant anything more than carrying on the class struggle without regard to the effects this might have on the fortunes of war, was not really made clear. The only special, novel kind of activity specified as needed in wartime was the promoting of fraternization between the rank and file soldiers at the front; and this was not in dispute. [5]

Zimmerwald and After

The Zimmerwald conference in September 1915 brought together for the first time since the outbreak of war representatives of the socialist groups in the different belligerent countries who wished to renew international contacts and to summon the working class to ‘begin the struggle for peace’, as the conference manifesto put it. This manifesto, drafted by Trotsky, advanced the slogan of a peace without annexations or war indemnities and based on self-determination for all peoples. It was essentially a compromise document and though ‘the sacred aims of socialism’ were mentioned, the precise connexion between a democratic peace and social revolution was left unstated. Lenin voted for the Zimmerwald manifesto because, in spite of its shortcomings, it constituted ‘a step towards an ideological and practical rupture with opportunism and social chauvinism’ and he considered it would have been sectarian to stand aside. But he reserved full freedom to criticize the weaknesses of the manifesto, and his own group issued a declaration regretting the absence of either a pronouncement on the opportunism in the socialist movement which was not only the chief cause of the collapse of the international but also strove to perpetuate that collapse, or of a ‘clear pronouncement as to the methods of fighting against the war’.

After Zimmerwald, Lenin continued for just over a year to plug away at his ‘defeatism’ thesis, which he continued to present as valid for all countries participating in the war, and not merely for Russia. Thus, in February 1916, replying to a German social-patriot who had asserted that the anti-war fight of Karl Liebknecht helped the Allies, Lenin observed: ‘Kolb is right when he says that the tactics of the Left ... mean the “military weakening” of Germany, i.e., desiring and aiding its defeat, defeatism. Kolb is wrong only – only! – in that he refuses to see the international character of these tactics of the Left’ (Wilhelm Kolb and George Plekhanov). In other words, if Liebknecht was helping the Allies, Lenin was no less helping the German-led group of powers. When the internationalist socialists held a second gathering at Kienthal in April 1916, Lenin submitted proposals which explicitly affirmed that it was not sufficient to say that ‘the workers in their revolutionary struggle must not take into account the military situation of their country’ – one must go further and show that defeat was a good thing, for every defeat of the government in a reactionary war facilitates revolution, which alone is capable of bringing about a lasting and democratic peace’. Replying to Rosa Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet, in August 1916, Lenin posed rhetorically the question whether it was not true that ‘defeats help the cause of the revolutionary class’. In The War Programme of the Proletarian Revolution (autumn 1916), he reaffirmed that ‘the proletariat must not only oppose’ all wars waged by the imperialist great powers, ‘but it must also wish for the defeat of “its” government in such wars’.

That appears to be the last statement of the ‘defeatism’ thesis by Lenin in its ‘internationalised’ form. And the last statement of it in its original narrower form as special to Russia appears to have occurred in the article On Separate Peace, written in November 1916 – in a form which implies that, in spite of 1905, Tsarism remained after all a reactionary power sui generis, not merely one imperialist power among several. Whatever the outcome of the war, he wrote, ‘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 workers of Europe should prove unable to advance to socialism during the war, at least ‘Eastern Europe and Asia can march with seven-league strides towards democracy only if tsarism meets with utter military defeat.’

Towards Unity

The disappearance of ‘defeatism’ from Lenin’s writings seems to constitute one aspect of a change in his outlook about this time the other aspect of which is an increasing readiness to link the revolutionary struggle with a programme of definite demands in relation to peace. Thus, in The “Peace Programme” (March 1916), while warning as vigorously as ever against the danger that talk of a democratic peace can be used to divert the workers from the real struggle, he now approaches the question rather from the standpoint of clarifying and sharpening the ‘peace programme’: ‘our “peace programme” demands that the principal democratic point on this question – the repudiation of annexations – should be applied in practice and not in words, that it should serve to promote the propaganda of internationalism, not of national hypocrisy’, etc.

With the passage of time, experience [6] seems to have brought home to Lenin the reality of the danger of a sterile nihilistic conclusion being drawn from his presentation of the way to fight against the war – the existence of that ditch on the other side of the road which Trotsky had had clearly in view since the beginning of the war. Very early on, in January 1915 (Reply to Basok), Lenin had had to rebuff the hopeful overtures of a Ukrainian nationalist working for Russia’s defeat who thought Lenin could only mean the same as himself, and sought a working agreement. ‘We are not travelling the same road’ was Lenin’s laconic reply. Regarding the Bundists, the Jewish socialists in Russia, who advocated the defeat of Russia by Germany during the war, Lenin had also early indicated that there was no basis for solidarity on the part of the Bolsheviks. ‘The Bundists ... are generally Germanophils and rejoice at the thought of Russia’s defeat, but how are they any better than Plekhanov?’ Plekhanov, the Russian social-patriot, claimed that it would be good for Germany to be defeated by Russia.) [7] Confusion on the implications of ‘defeatism’, as on the ‘peace slogan’, developed during 1916 among a section of the Bolsheviks, and Lenin found it necessary to wage a polemic against their spokesman ‘Kievsky’ (Pyatakov) in the autumn of 1916 which may well have served to clarify his own thinking as well as theirs. In A Caricature of Marxism, Lenin denounced the views of those who, from the rejection of abstract peace propaganda, deduced that ‘we are not in favour of a democratic peace’. Merely negative, ‘down-with’ slogans were no good. ‘Social Democracy does not and cannot advance a single “negative” slogan that would merely serve “to sharpen the consciousness of the proletariat against imperialism” [a phrase of Pyatakov’s] without at the same time giving a positive answer to the question as to how Social Democracy would solve the same problem if it were in power. A “negative” slogan that is not connected with a definite positive position does not “sharpen” the mind but blunts it ...’ And in The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up he finally flings may the special defeat-worthy characteristics of Tsarist Russia: ‘Tsarism has obviously and incontrovertibly ceased to be the chief mainstay of reaction, firstly because it is supported by international finance capital, particularly French; secondly, because of 1905’. Lenin’s investigation of the nature of imperialism had evidently led him to a realization of the subordination of Tsarist absolutism ‘to international finance capital’, its dependent relationship to the latter, which was one of the starting points of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.

The article On Separate Peace, mentioned above, dealt with rumoured moves for a peace between Russia and Germany, directed against Britain. This theme recurs in Lenin’s writings thereafter, at the end of 1916 and the beginning of 1917, e.g., in A Turn in World Politics (January 31, 1917). There was a definite turn on the part of certain ruling-class circles, Lenin perceived, from imperialist war to imperialist peace, partly in order to avoid the danger of revolution. Such a peace would, of course, be merely an armistice before another bout of imperialist war with different alignments. Implicit in moves of this kind was the possibility of some countries being sacrificed for the benefit of others, the possibility of a sort of reactionary defeatism, and the danger that some tired and confused people would say that, after all, an imperialist peace is better than imperialist war’. Another factor in Lenin’s thinking in the weeks immediately preceding the February (March) revolution in Russia was the direct contact he was now able to make with ordinary Russian rank-and-file soldiers, so that he could ascertain at first hand their moods and their ways of thinking. In his letter of January 30, 1917 to Inessa Armand he describes a talk he had had with some escaped Russian prisoners of war. He learnt with interest how these men, though bitterly hostile to the Tsar, had resisted with indignation attempts by their German captors to win them over for defeatist purposes, and how, though they wanted the war to stop, they could not agree to a purely pacifist position: ‘If the Germans press hard, how is it possible not to defend oneself?’ Rosmer suggests that the difference between Lenin and Trotsky on anti-war tactics was derived to a large extent from the differences in their location during the war – Lenin being in neutral Switzerland while Trotsky was in France, in closest touch with the masses of a belligerent country. Trotsky may sometimes have yielded unduly to the influence of the moods of these masses; it was certainly impossible for him to ignore them. With the irruption of those escaped prisoners of war into Switzerland Lenin was already, before his actual return to Russia, in direct touch with the Russian workers and peasants.

Neither Defencist nor Defeatist

The overthrow of the Tsarist monarchy created a fresh situation in Russia. That which had made it possible to think of Russia as in some special sense a stronghold of reaction had been swept away. [8] On the contrary, Russia was now ‘the freest country on earth’, and the scene of a unique political phenomenon, the dual power of the workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ soviets and the bourgeois Provisional Government. The Russian revolution had begun, but the main battle still lay ahead. Russia was not yet workers’ and peasants’ Russia, though it could become that as soon as the workers and peasants decided to make it so, ending the ‘dual power’ in their own favour. How to bring that about?

There could be no question of going over to ‘defencism’, i.e., political support of the war, which remained an imperialist war so long as the bourgeoisie remained in power. Lenin struck sharply at Stalin and Kamenev, who at first advocated a line of ‘pressure on the Government to open peace negotiations’ (see Stalin’s article in his Works, Volume III, English edition, page 8). In his historic April Theses Lenin insisted on ‘exposure as a policy instead of the inadmissible and illusion-sowing “demand” that this government, a government of capitalists, should cease to be imperialist’. At the same time, one could not continue in the old way. ‘The slogan “Down With The War” is correct, to be sure, but it does not take into account the peculiarity of the tasks of the moment, the necessity to approach the masses in a different way. It reminds me of another slogan, “Down With The Tsar”, with which an inexperienced agitator of the “good old days” went directly and simply to the villages to be beaten up’. One had to undertake careful, patient, tactful work of explanation among the masses who were honest defencists, in order to show them how the war could be ended in a way to the people’s advantage: ‘It cannot be ended by “sticking the bayonet into the ground”, to use the expression of a soldier defencist’ (The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution).

Again, at the April conference, of the Bolshevik Party: ‘Many of us, myself included, have had occasion to address the people, particularly the soldiers, and it seems to me that even when everything is explained to them from the point of view of class interests there is still one thing in our position that they cannot fully grasp, namely, in what way we intend to finish the war, in what way we think it possible to bring the war to an end’. Clearly, ‘the war cannot be ended by a simple refusal of the soldiers of one side only to continue the war’, and the Bolsheviks had to work in a situation in which ‘the idea of thus concluding the war had been attributed to us over and over again by persons who wish to win an easy victory over their opponents by distorting the latter’s views’. Addressing the Petrograd city conference of the party Lenin reminded them that ‘here the power is in the hands of the soldiers, who incline towards defencism’. He drew the attention of the Bolshevik fraction in the Congress of Soviets to the need to take account of the defencist feeling of the masses, which was based on the fact that ‘nowhere else is there the degree of freedom we have’. ‘The masses approach this question not from a theoretical but from a practical viewpoint. Our mistake lies in our theoretical approach’. One had to appreciate what the defencist worker meant by his ‘defencism’, and try to find a bridge to him. [9]

Looking back on that period a year later, after the October Revolution, Lenin had occasion to define in a clear-cut way the change of line which the Bolsheviks had made. This occurred at the Congress of the Soviets which was discussing whether or not to ratify the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In his concluding speech in this debate made on March 15, 1918, Lenin replied to some remarks by Kamkov, a Left Socialist-Revolutionary.

‘I will quote you yet another passage from Kamkov’s speech, in order to show how any representative of the working people and the exploited masses will react to this speech. “When Comrade Lenin declared here yesterday that Comrades Tsereteli and Chernov and others [leaders of the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary parties in 1917] disrupted the army, can we not find the courage to say that Lenin and ourselves also disrupted the army?” Kamkov missed his mark. Having heard that we were defeatists, he remembered this fact at a time when we have ceased to be defeatists. He did not remember it at the right time. They have memorised this tag, it serves as a revolutionary rattle for them to make a noise with, but they can’t think out what it means, as they should. I declare that out of a thousand village assemblies where Soviet power has been consolidated, in more than nine hundred of such assemblies there are people who will tell the Left S-R party that it deserves no confidence whatever. They say, just think: we disrupted the army and now we ought to remember that fact. But how did we disrupt the army? We were defeatists under the Tsar, but under Tsereteli and Chernov we were not defeatists. [My emphasis – B.P.] We published in Pravda the appeal which Krylenko, who was then still on the run, addressed to the army: Why I Am Going To Petrograd. He said: “We don’t call on you to make riots”. This was not disintegrating the army. Those who declared this great war were the ones who disintegrated the army ... And I affirm that, beginning with this appeal of Krylenko’s, which was not the first and which I recall to you because it has particularly stuck in my memory, we did not disrupt the army but said: hold the front – the sooner you take power the easier you will be able to maintain it ...’

Krylenko’s appeal, to which Lenin here referred, had been issued by him when, though wanted by the police, this Bolshevik junior officer had been elected as the delegate of part of the army at the front to the Congress of Soviets in Petrograd. ‘Beware of provocateurs who, posing as Bolsheviks, will attempt to lure you into disorders and riots ... The real Bolsheviks appeal to you not to make riots, but to carry on a class-conscious revolutionary struggle’. Lenin had himself quoted it in Pravda of June 16, 1917, in an article entitled: Bolshevism and the “Disintegration” of the Army, in which he wrote, in reply to slanderers and persecutors:

‘... where Bolshevism has a chance to appear in the open, there we find no disorganization. Where there are no Bolsheviks, or where they are not permitted to talk, there we find excesses, disintegration and pseudo-Bolsheviks. And this is just what our enemies need. They need a pretext for saying that “the Bolsheviks are disorganizing the army”, in order later to shut the mouths of the Bolsheviks’.

On the Road to October

A few further quotations may help to clarify the position of the Bolsheviks on the war during the period between the two revolutions of 1917. ‘The programme [of our party] says: stimulate fraternization (but do not permit the Germans to deceive the Russians) ...’ (Lenin, A Virtual Truce, in Pravda of May 22). On his open letter to the delegates to the All-Russia soviet of peasants’ deputies, May 24, Lenin urged the peasants to take over the land at once and get on with the spring sowing: ‘The cultivation of the fields is absolutely essential ... This is necessary in order to improve the provisioning of the soldiers at the front.’ In the same letter: ‘This terrible war must be ended as soon as possible – not by a separate peace with Germany, but by a general peace, not by a peace concluded by the capitalists, but by one forced on the capitalists by the working masses. There is only one way to do this, that of transferring the whole power of the state into the hands of the soviets of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies, in Russia and other countries.’ At the Congress of Soviets, on June 22, Lenin retorted to accusations of defeatism: ‘We are reminded here of the German front, concerning which not one of us has suggested any change, except the free distribution of our proclamations, which have the Russian text printed on one side and the German on the other ...’

The weeks between August and October saw reactionary defeatism come out into the open more than ever before, and imposed a highly complicated task upon the Bolsheviks, especially those in the army at the front. This was when the generals deliberately surrendered the city of Riga to the Germans and left the approaches to Petrograd unguarded. A report by the Rumanian ambassador, published after the October Revolution, revealed that the commander-in-chief, Kornilov, calculated ‘that the impression which the capture of Riga will produce on public opinion will permit the immediate restoration of discipline in the Russian army’ (Pravda, December 1, 1917). How did the soldiers, more influenced by Bolshevism on this sector of the front than anywhere else, behave in this crisis? Trotsky quotes official accounts: ‘The spirit of the soldiers was astonishing. According to the testimony of ... officers, their staunchness was something never before seen.’ In the centre of the point of attack was a Lettish brigade consisting almost exclusively of Bolsheviks ... Receiving orders to advance the brigade went forward with red banners and bands playing and fought with extraordinary courage.’ He notes that official reports also testify that the sailors who took part in the defence of the Moonsund archipelago, in the Gulf of Riga (where treachery by the Russian command was intensified by the sinister attitude of the British naval authorities), showed unusual bravery, and comments:

‘A part was played in determining the mood of the servicemen, especially the Lettish riflemen and the Baltic sailors, by the fact that this time it was a question of the direct defence of two centres of the revolution Riga and Petrograd. The more advanced of the soldiers and sailors had already got hold of the Bolshevik idea that “to stick your bayonet in the ground does not settle the question of the war”, that the struggle for peace was inseparable from the struggle for power for a new revolution’ (History of the Russian Revolution, volume II, pages 193-194).

In this new situation, not only Trotsky (in What Next?, September 1917) could accuse certain Russian generals of working for the defeat of Russia (in order to facilitate not revolution but counter revolution), but Lenin himself as well. In his Draft Resolution on the Political Situation Lenin wrote that the landlords and bourgeoisie ‘are now ready to commit, and are committing, the most outlandish crimes, such as giving up Riga (and afterwards Petrograd) to the Germans, laying the front open ...’ In The Tasks of the Revolution he declared that the Kornilovist generals and officers remaining in power will undoubtedly open the front to the Germans on purpose, as they have done in Galicia and near Riga. This can be prevented only by the formation of a new government on a new basis ... The pamphlet The Impending Catastrophe and How To Combat It set forth a programme of demands – nationalization of the banks, a democratically controlled rationing system, etc. – which was frankly inspired by the example of the Jacobins in 1793: ‘The example of France shows one thing and one thing only, namely, that in order to render Russia capable of self-defence, in order to obtain in Russia too “miracles” of mass heroism, all the old ways must be swept away with “Jacobin” ruthlessness and Russia rejuvenated and regenerated economically.’ This idea was reiterated in Will The Bolsheviks Maintain Power? ‘The defensive power of the country, after ridding itself of the yoke of capitalism and after giving the land to the peasants and placing the banks under workers’ control, would be many times stronger than the defensive power of a capitalist country.’

Almost on the very eve of the October insurrection in his urgent Letter to Comrades inciting the Central Committee to go into action at once, Lenin pointed to the danger of a collapse of the front, with possible collusion between the Russian bourgeoisie and the Kaiser, based on mass desertion by the weary and disillusioned soldiers. The Bolsheviks seized power in time to prevent the surrender of Petrograd, to deprive the capitalists of the opportunity to ‘send the workers to school under Ludendorff ‘, as Trotsky expressed it.

Note on sources: The following works were utilized in the above article, in addition to the writings of Lenin and Trotsky themselves and Rosmer’s book mentioned in the text: Marxism, Nationality and War, by Dona Torr, and The Bolsheviks and the World War, by Olga Gankin and H.H. Fisher, both published in 1940: and Hal Draper’s articles on Lenin in The New International in 1953–1954.

Further reading: For the foreign policy of the Bolsheviks after their capture of power, see Export of Revolution”, 1917–1924, by Brian Pearce in Labour Review for August–September 1958; and for the application of the lessons of 1914–1917 by the Trotskyists in 1939–1945, see Marxists in the Second World War, by B. Farnborough [Brian Pearce] in Labour Review for April–May 1959.


1. Presumably a reference to Imperialism, published in the spring of 1916.

2. Lenin may not have regarded the Japan of 1904–1905 as already an imperialist power. In Imperialism (1916) he wrote: ‘new imperialist powers are emerging (e.g., Japan)’.

3. An English version of this was published in 1918 under the misleading title The Bolsheviks and World Peace. Trotsky was not, of course, a Bolshevik when he wrote this work. (He joined the Bolsheviks informally in May 1917, formally in July.)

4. Alfred Rosmer, who took part in the internationalist struggles and polemics of this period, wrote in the first volume (1936) of his Le Mouvement ouvrier pendant la guerre mondiale; ‘The consequences of our activity are of interest to us only in relation to our purpose, revolution, and not in relation to “victory”, which is the business of the imperialist bourgeoisie. Does “revolutionary defeatism” add anything to this? I do not think so. On the contrary, I see clearly the dangers which it involves ... “Defeatism”, even followed by the adjective “revolutionary”, puts the emphasis on defeat, whereas we should put it on revolution.’ Trotsky admired Rosmer’s book very much, and in his review of it in New International, June 1936, went so far as to declare that ‘the rule should be established: nobody in our ranks who has not studied Rosmer’s work ought to be allowed to speak publicly on the question of war.’

5. After the October revolution, Trotsky’s wartime articles in Nashe Slovo, What Is A Peace Programme?, were published by the Soviet Government (1918), and his 1914 pamphlet The War and the International went through several editions, serving as ‘a textbook for the study of the Marxist attitude towards the war’ (Trotsky, My Life) until it was banned in 1924. The year 1924 saw an outburst of articles and republications of documents in the Soviet and international Communist press which revived the story of the wartime differences between Lenin and Trotsky about the peace slogan and defeatism (on which neither of these leaders had commented after 1917); and it became an article of faith in the bureaucratized Bolshevik Party to believe that Lenin was always right against Trotsky.

Trotsky never analysed the differences between himself and Lenin on the war question, but always wrote about the struggle against imperialist war in a way which sought to unite Lenin’s form with Trotsky’s content, e.g., in Learn To Think (1938):

‘Revolutionary defeatism signifies only that in its class struggle the proletarian party does not stop at any “patriotic” considerations, since defeat of its own imperialist government, brought about, or hastened, by the revolutionary movement of the masses, is an incomparably lesser evil than victory gained at the price of national unity, that is, the political prostration of the proletariat.’

Again, in A Step Towards Social Patriotism (1939):

‘The idea of defeatism signifies in reality the following: conducting an irreconcilable revolutionary struggle against one’s own bourgeoisie as the main enemy, without being deterred by the fact that this struggle may result in the defeat of one’s own government: given a revolutionary movement, the defeat of one’s own government is a lesser evil.’

And in the book Stalin (written in 1940) Trotsky asserts that ‘the essence’ of what has been called Lenin’s theory of “defeatism” ‘is that one must not be held back by the possibility that one’s revolutionary agitation may facilitate the defeat of one’s own government. Nothing is said about wishing for defeat, trying to facilitate defeat, etc.’

6. Already long before the war, Lenin had encountered and rejected the negative, flippant semi-anarchist views of Hervé (who, when the war came, made a right-about turn into the extremest French chauvinism).

‘That the “proletarians have no fatherland” is actually stated in the Communist Manifesto; that the [social-patriotic] position of Vollmar, Noske and company is a “flagrant violation” of this fundamental proposition of international socialism is equally true. But it does not follow from this that Hervé and the Hervéists are right when they assert that it is immaterial to the proletariat in which fatherland it lives: whether it lives in monarchist Germany, republican France or despotic Turkey. The fatherland, i.e., the given political, cultural and social environment, is the most powerful factor in the class struggle of the proletariat, and if Vollmar is wrong in establishing a kind of “truly German” attitude of the proletariat towards the “fatherland”, Hervé is not less wrong in treating such an important factor of the proletarian struggle for emancipation in an unpardonably uncritical fashion. The proletariat cannot treat the political, social and cultural conditions of its struggle with indifference or equanimity, consequently it cannot remain indifferent to the destiny of its country. But it is interested in the destiny of its country only in so far as it affects its class struggle, and not by virtue of some bourgeois “patriotism” which sounds altogether indecent on the lips of a Social Democrat’ (Militant Militarism and the Anti-Militarist Tactics of Social Democracy, 1908).

7. Trotsky wrote to the French socialist-turned-chauvinist Jules Guesde, October 11, 1916, replying to the charge that he and other opponents of war from the Marxist standpoint were so many agents of the German General Staff:

‘I believe I have the right to assert that the revolutionary internationalists are far more dangerous enemies of German reaction than all the governments of the Allies put together. Their hostility to Germany is, at bottom, nothing but the mere rivalry of the competitor, whereas our revolutionary hatred of its ruling class is indestructible. Imperialist competition may again unite the enemy brethren of today.’

8. In their introduction to the 1918 re-issue of their 1915 pamphlet Socialism and War, Lenin and Zinoviev make a point of reminding the reader of when it was written: ‘It is particularly necessary to remember this in connexion with the passages dealing with Russia. Russia then was still Tsarist, Romanov Russia.’

9. Cf. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. I, pp. 276–277:

‘Deserting, extraordinarily frequent on the eve of the revolution, was very infrequent in the first weeks after. The army was waiting. In the hope that the revolution would give peace, the soldier did not refuse to put a shoulder under the front: otherwise, he thought, the new government won’t be able to conclude a peace ... “We mustn’t stick our bayonets in the ground!” Under the influence of obscure and contradictory moods the soldiers in those days frequently refused even to listen to the Bolsheviks. They thought perhaps, impressed by certain unskilful speeches, that the Bolsheviks were not concerned with the defence of the revolution ...’

Last updated on 15.10.2011