Victor Serge

New Aspects of
the Problem of War

(August 1926)

This article appeared as V. Serge, Les nouveaux aspects du problème de la guerre, Clarté 3 (1926), pp. 67–70.
Downloaded from What Next? archive.
Translated by Dave Renton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“The only possible method of combating war is the formation and maintenance of underground organisations, carrying on prolonged anti-war activities, and made up of revolutionaries serving in the war.” Lenin

Twelfth anniversary of 2 August 1914.

All politics is prediction. The working class must use the periods of calm to prepare for the fights of the future. We are between two wars. The “Great” imperialist war dominates our past. The armaments, the rivalries between the powers, the lying games of diplomacy, the formidable interests of the imperialist groupings who divide a world as the sun sets beneath their feet, all these facts prepare methodically before our eyes the coming war.

At different times, in these last years, the problem of war has been posed in agitation. Not once, has it been properly scanned to its depths. The working-class organisations seem dominated by an inertia encouraging us “to let events mature” (we will see what happens!). We have most often limited ourselves to the repetition of old anti-war formulas from the socialist international and a few well-struck phrases of Lenin. The error seems great to me. Repetition alone, even the skilful development of the best formulas of the pre-war period, is not enough any more to outline a solution to the problem of war. All facts of the case have profoundly changed. Nothing is less compatible with the intellectual discipline taught to us by Marx and Lenin than the pure and simple repetition of formulas that have since been exceeded. Even a brief examination of the new conditions in which the difficulty arises will be enough, I hope, to make militants reflect – and all those who think of our future.

Before 1914, the revolutionary doctrines possessed a beautiful verbal radicalism. The declaration of war would be answered by general strike and insurrection. The first days of August 1914, days of great fear and great disavowal, showed the limits of this illusion.

During these last years, Communist doctrine has held almost in entirety to a remarkable document compiled by Lenin on 4 December 1922 for the Russian delegation at the Hague Congress of the Peace, organised by the Amsterdam Trade Union Federation. This document, published for the first French time two years later, has often been reproduced since. [1] It is a tough document of proletarian realism. The “hopelessly stupid and futile resolutions of the working Congresses” are treated there with the contempt which any fake-revolutionary verbiage deserves. Lenin underlines the constant danger of war, commits us to study it and to envisage it under all its aspects, invites us to solve with the eyes of the masses the problems of national defense and of defeatism, reminding us of the need for underground organisation. This document is, remember, neither an article intended for publication, nor a thesis. It is an aide de memoir. It is obvious that Lenin expresses not his whole opinion there on the war – he assumes the familiarity of comrades with his thoughts – but the ideas which recent events brought to his attention. Several sentences are there, several right sentences, whose mechanical repetition, i.e. their application to changed circumstances, could be extremely dangerous. They produce a deep impression. Here:

“It is impossible to ‘retaliate’ to war by a strike, just as it is impossible to ‘retaliate’ to war by revolution in the simple and literal sense of these terms. ‘Boycott war’ – that is a silly catch-phrase. Communists must take part in every war, even the most reactionary.”

Lenin says that

“The question of the defence of the fatherland will inevitably arise, and the majority of the working people will inevitably decide it in favour of their bourgeoisie.

“In all probability, the communist press in most countries will also disgrace itself.”

The essential part of his positive thought is held in these words:

“The only possible method of combating war is the formation and maintenance of underground organisations, carrying on prolonged anti-war activities, and made up of revolutionaries serving in the war.”

Even though it is necessary to keep away from mechanical repetition of the first formulas, the last phrase quoted above, contains all practical truth for a long time to come. The developments which follow will lead us to restate this conclusion, with new force.

Immense changes have been produced in the world, since 1914. The most decisive include the victory of the proletarian revolution in Russia, the aggravation of class struggle in all the civilised countries, the awakening of the oppressed people of the colonies and the semi-colonies, the new distribution of wealth (the financial hegemony of the United States), the new development of military technique (aviation, chemistry, the industrialisation of war).

To pose under these conditions the problem of the war, in the terms where it was posed formerly, before Verdun, Red October, the Republic of Canton, before the new plans for industrial mobilisation, would be a really unforgivable naivete. All things are changed, many to our advantage. With the proviso that we should understand the change.

The enemy knows it.

The very technique of war makes it increasingly difficult to sustain the distinction between combatants and non-combatants. In the last war there was – I believe – behind each gunner in the trench, five soldiers or workers absorbed by industrial work and the organisation of massacre. The number of workers behind the combatants will undoubtedly grow with the further mechanisation of slaughter. War is waged now in the factory, more than on the battle field. One is the prolongation of the other. It is the factory which determines the value of the soldiers and the talent of the officers that are at its service. From this fact, it follows that the industrial centers are more than fortresses, the vulnerable points of a country, they are the very places where each side will seek to land its mortal blow. A good industrial mobilisation is the underlying condition of military operation. Corollary: the war will start with the mobilisation of the whole nation. Indeed the life of the entire proletariat will be threatened because the development of aviation and of chemical weapons makes it possible for the enemy to achieve its goal, the destruction of the industrial centers.

From the start of the great power duel, the stake will be the future of the proletariat.

France, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, Belgium, England, Italy, Germany, Poland, Japan and the United States have developed organisations which are designed to proceed with speed for the mobilisation of the whole nation, in war. The whole nation, it is said, but this is primarily about labour, i.e. proletarians and technicians. In modern warfare, the capitalist State is nothing more than one vast factory for the manufacture of death.

In future wars, the mobilisation of the rear will have as much importance as that of the troops themselves. All is fixed. With each factory, each workshop has its task; each man his function. Not a machine is omitted from the inventories. In the preparation of the machine, it goes without saying, the apparatus of coercion will strike the first blow.

The “plans of national organisation for times of war” start with repression. Vast and delicate, the industrial mobilisation requires that the proletariat be reduced to passive obedience. It must begin with a decisive aggression against the organisations of the working avant-garde, the party, revolutionary unions, cooperatives, etc. In a word, the mobilisation must be, and will mean the throttling of the proletariat.

Such is the logic of the preparation of war. The bosses know it. The logic is theirs.

Other factors drawn from the same reserve of experience confirm these forecasts.

In 1914, the war was preceded and followed by an extremely powerful action exerted by the governments on public opinion. This was the mobilisation of consciences. It was necessary to provide ideologies of war, sufficiently convincing, impressive enough so that millions of men could be led to the slaughter. The mobilisation of consciences was made possible by the role of the intellectuals who appeared at the decisive hours as good servants of bourgeois order. It was made possible by the monopoly of the press, the treason of international socialism and especially by the play of the psychological factors of the time. The ideas of Democracy, of the Rights of Nationalities, of Civilisation, provided to the imperialist Allies an effective justification. Civilisation, Law, the Mission of the German people rendered the same service to the Central Empires. The duties of Latins, Slavs, the Anglo-Saxons, the Americans and the Germans served as two sides of one coin. You cannot lead the masses to commit murder without justifying it by great ideas. The impossibility of mobilizing the consciences of the workers against the Russian revolution ruined the Allied intervention against the Soviets. Ever since the Third International was established in the name of the class-conscious workers, including the colonial peoples, there has been a difficulty in mobilizing consciences for colonial war. This obstacle prevented England from subjecting modern Turkey and from “re-establishing order” in Canton.

Here a new fact appears, of great importance. It seems that the bourgeoisie has exhausted its ideological resources. Neither “Democracy” nor the “Right of Nationalities”, neither the “Defense of Civilisation”, nor the theory of the “last war”, nor even, supreme illusion, the assertion that “the Defeated will pay”, can be used again. [2] It is probable that Japan and the United States, the likely belligerents of tomorrow, will be able to improvise vigorous ideologies of war. The European bourgeoisie cannot do it any more.

The only watchword able to galvanize the bourgeoisie and a notable part of the middle class is that of anti-bolshevism, of the counter-revolution. The defence of property, the defence of the Rich, these are slogans civil war and not of wars between States. The needs for repression, the first act of any mobilisation, will undoubtedly oblige our rulers to exploit anti-bolshevism to the depths, in order to realize against the avant-garde of the proletariat, a coalition of all forces of social conservatism. We repeat our forecast. The war will have to start with a period of civil war. The bourgeoisie will be placed from the beginning, because of its intellectual deficiency, in need of striking quick and hard, with its chances of success appreciably reduced.

If there is not, in effect, an ideology of war that can motivate the popular masses, there is on the other hand a revolutionary ideology which can lead them from resistance to revolt, the class-conscious proletariat being, in its own eyes, the object of an unprovoked attack.

The moment of mobilisation is no longer the pinnacle of power for the State bourgeoisie. Nor will it be madness doe the workers to confront it. It is on the contrary just another difficult and dangerous phase of the class struggle. The advantage gained at this time can be decisive. The offensive must be abrupt, because the enemy will certainly not waste time in order to help those who need to be surprised. If the offensive succeeds as a preventive counter-revolution, then the bourgeoisie will endeavour to draw from its victory the greatest advantages, and the proletariat will not be a political factor, for a long period to come. If, on the other hand, the proletarian resistance inflicts a failure, even partial, on the intentions of the rulers, then the future of the revolutionary movement will be safeguarded. Significant positions will be acquired. A state of mind will exist in which the class feels confident to overcome. The possibility of resistance by the attacked proletariat, transformed by success into insurrection, cannot be excluded a priori.

One sees vast and complex prospects which need to be considered. The armed peace is an ambush. Even more than in the past, the states will endeavour to control events. The war must be sudden, the charge decisive. The most elementary theory of war states the following, you must surprise the enemy. The enemy at home, first of all.

We arrive at these conclusions. Events will astonish the masses by their suddenness. The proletariat will be taken by surprise. Such is the first act of mobilisation. It will be the attack of the police force, of the executives of the army, safe troops, of some colonial troops if need be, of fascistic bands, against the organisations of the working class. Could it be a question of “retaliating” against war by strikes or insurrection? Admittedly, not. The old theory, dismissed by Lenin, of the offensive of the proletariat against the war, does not work. But the proletariat must be defended. No-one can envisage where its defense will lead. It could lead very far. The class will be obliged to save its underground organisations, its cadres, its most invaluable leaders. We cannot dare to hope that the bourgeoisie will neglect to shoot at the beginning of a war the potential Lenins and Trotskys of the future.

The development of the class struggle is such, in spite of the relative stabilisation of European capitalism, that Lenin’s formula going back to 1922 seems to have been exceeded: “Communists must serve in every war, even the most reactionary.”

Let us retain the warning against revolutionary phrase-mongering, against having illusions in our own strength. But will they let the Communists take part? It would be bold to assume it. The class consciousness of the bourgeoisie has progressed since the revolution of October, in ways we must not ignore. Admittedly, one does not remove mass parties, but they are already decimated. The defeat of the Italian proletariat is in this respect edifying. Admittedly, the course of the history is not stopped; but it has been delayed. The European bourgeoisie which seemed doomed to us in 1919 has obtained a postponement of its sentence. There is no revolutionary predetermination.

I do nothing but outline these problems. I posed them in July 1925 in a series of articles for International Correspondence [3], to which there was no reply (as if this subject were negligible!). I restrict myself to indicating in these last page the questions which deserve, especially, to be posed. All the arguments here are doubly true on the assumption of a direct or indirect war against the Soviet Union.

I reproduce here my conclusions from last year:

“The coming war will start with a class battle. Whatever its objectives are at the beginning, by the end it will be civil war. In this sense, it will be the second suicide attempt of the capitalist world. By brutally inflicted misery, by forced labour in its factories of death, by white terror, by the horror of its massacres, it will release early or late the revolutionary energies of the whole proletariat, the poor peasantry, the middle class crushed in the mill ... The revolutionaries who hold fast until that point will triumph. It is just a question of holding up to that point. At the first day of the war, if not before, the legal Communist parties will be crushed. We need to fight the war and to defend in spite of the war, serious centralised organisation, but it must be flexible and independent, informed, active, resolute, an organisation concealed from the vigilance of the state and its auxiliary press. Underground organisation. We need rabbit warrens of class struggle. At certain points the leaders who leave the shelter of secrecy will receive their ration of lead as surely as if they stood in the front line ...

“Propaganda against the war must be renewed, must be started again, it must be conceived with much more practical precision than in the past, disengaged from the commonplaces inherited from the pre-war period. The study and the disclosure of the bourgeoisie’s preparations for war would open rich person possibilities. And we need in the final analysis that for which Lenin called in 1922.

“‘What do we know of the plans for civil mobilisation? ... What do we know of the technique of repression planned against us?’

“If by some new cataclysm, bourgeois society succeeds in committing mass suicide, it will be up to the proletariat to begin anew, on those bloody ruins, the succession ... In the next war, it will be much more difficult – but not impossible – than it was in the recent one, to limit the destruction ... Whole countries have been transformed into factories of death, which will devour whole nations ...

“The true interests of the nations, of culture, of the future are defended only by the revolutionary proletariat. From this great truth could be born a great danger. Nothing is certain in the history of the present. Neither the suicide of the capitalist state, nor the saving victory of labour. Organisation, conscience, will, the intelligence of classes in their struggle, these are also determining factors in history. The bourgeoisie will some day dig its own pit. For it to fall in, it must be pushed. This will require the action of the proletariat, helmeted and masked for war. The drama will not resolve itself. We would be foolish to trust fate and nothing is more contrary to the Communist spirit. The war will carry for the possessing classes, guilty of all modern wars, its punishment. But this will be true only if the proletariat achieves its mission consciously. If it sees clearly. If it prepares in advance. If it is not surprised. If it poses in time all the problems of preparation for war.”

Leningrad, August 1926

* * *


1. “To our knowledge, this document is unknown among French Communists.” Clarté editors. [It has however been published in English, as Notes on the tasks of our delegation at the Hague, V.I. Lenin, Collected Works: Volume 33 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1966), pp. 447–51.]

2. The major causes of this ideological decline are to be found in the general level of social development, which is in its turn governed by economic factors and the class struggle. It is not the place to explore these processes deeply here. V.S.

3. The coming war, International Correspondence 72-81, July-August 1925. V.S.

Last updated on 26 May 2021