From New International, Vol. 6 No. 3, April 1940, pp. 68–72.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
THE OUTBREAK OF THE SECOND World War has once more put prominently at the top of the order of the day the “Russian question”. The signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact was followed by the joint invasion of Poland; by the reduction of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to the state of vassals of the Kremlin; by the invasion and seizure of part of Finland by the Red Army; and by speculation and prediction of coming events which, a year ago, would have been waved aside as preposterous.
In bourgeois-democratic circles, these events furnished the occasion for more pious homilies about the identity of communism and fascism. In the labor movement, the patriots skilfully exploited the workers’ indignation against Stalin’s crimes in order to promote the cause of the democratic warmongers. Among the revolutionary Marxists, however, the events provoked an intense and thoroughgoing discussion, resulting in a re-evaluation of the role of the Soviet Union in the war and in a revision of the traditional slogan of the Fourth International, “For the unconditional defense of the Soviet Union.” It is with this discussion that the present article is concerned.
The views of the Fourth International on the question of defense of the Soviet Union in a war, put forward up to the time the present war broke out, may be summarized as follows:
The Soviet Union, existing on the basis of state property and dominated by a counter-revolutionary bureaucracy, is a degenerated workers’ state which must be defended (by internationalist, class methods independent of those employed by the bureaucracy) in any war with a capitalist power, regardless of which side appeared to be the “aggressor” and regardless of the immediate cause of the war. This defense is “unconditional” in the sense that it is not conditioned on the abdication or overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy, or even upon its acceptance of a revolutionary policy. The Soviet Union must be defended in a war with a capitalist power not because of the Stalinists but in spite of them; must be defended, however, with our own independent policy which is aimed, among other things, to overthrow the bureaucracy because we have no faith in its ability to organize an effective defense of the Soviet Union. Should the Soviet Union, in a war against one or more capitalist powers, find itself in alliance with one or more other capitalist powers, the slogan of defensism retains its full validity, just as the slogan of defeatism retains its validity both in the countries Russia is allied with and at war with; the only difference in policy in the two capitalist countries would be tactical and practical (for example, we would not oppose the shipment of munitions to Russia from the factories and ports of one of its capitalist allies).
Why is it necessary to revise this point of view, it is asked, above all now, when the war has actually broken out? Is it because Stalin has allied himself with a fascist imperialism instead of with a “democratic” imperialism? Can Marxists allow themselves to make a fundamental distinction between the two? And if such a distinction is made with respect to alliances with the Soviet Union, does it not imply a patriotic position towards the “democracies” with respect to their war with Germany? What, in a word, has changed so fundamentally as to justify a change in our position on the defense of the Soviet Union?
The change which the Marxists must make in their position has nothing whatsoever to do with all the petty-bourgeois lamentations over Stalin’s shift from “democrats” to fascists. While allied with France, Stalin was already allied, at least indirectly, with a number of totalitarian regimes and military dictatorships in the orbit of French imperialism. The alliance of the notorious butcher Chiang Kai-shek with the equally notorious butcher Stalin does not eliminate the duty which every revolutionist has to defend China from Japan. The change in position is dictated by far more profound and real considerations.
The discussion of the role of Russia in the war during the period of the Franco-Soviet Pact was based on hypotheses and prediction. Reference to the policy proposed by Lenin in 1917 for an “alliance” with France and England against Germany was invalid, and in any case not decisive, among other reasons because the “alliance” never seriously materialized. It was therefore false to generalize from this experience which was never experienced. The discussion of the role of Russia in the war during the Hitler-Stalin Pact is based upon tangible realities. These realities make it as mandatory upon us to reconsider our slogan of “unconditional defense of the Soviet Union” as the realities of the March, 1917, Revolution in Russia made it mandatory upon Lenin to reconsider the traditional and, up to that point, intransigently defended Bolshevik slogan of a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.”
What are these concrete realities?
The 1935 Pact with France was a defensive alliance for the Soviet Union. It was directed against a rising and truculent German imperialism but it was calculated essentially to maintain the status quo, to keep Germany from precipitating war. The status quo policy of People’s Frontism was adopted by the Comintern in accordance with this objective.
Stalin’s capitulation to Hitler in 1939 took the form of an aggressive military alliance. This is precisely what was not foreseen or allowed for by us in the past, as Trotsky himself acknowledged at the beginning of the war. In general, it is true, the possibility of a rapprochement between Hitler and Stalin had been envisaged in our literature, but not an aggressive military alliance. The difference between the two pacts does not lie in the fact that one was made with such an illustrious democrat as Pierre Laval and the other with an undemocratic fascist. It lies in the real difference between the two imperialisms, French and German. This difference is in no wise of such a fundamental character as to warrant supporting one against the other, in the manner of the war-mongering social-democrats. But it is sufficiently important to change the character of the alliance made by Stalin. In the past, too, it was sufficiently important for us to distinguish between Hitler and Laval, not fundamentally, not so far as their social role is concerned, but to the extent of characterizing Hitler and not Laval as the “super-Wrangel”, that is, the spearhead of world imperialist assault upon the Soviet Union. This difference was not based upon a feeling of tenderness on the part of Laval for Russia, but upon the fact that German imperialism, for a series of historical reasons, was dynamically aggressive and forced, in the most immediate and direct sense, as Hitler himself has said, to “expand or die” (just as England, for example, is forced to hold on to her empire or die).
The role of the Soviet Union can be followed and understood only if one is clear about the predominant character of the war. It is not a war of imperialist attack upon the Soviet Union; it is not a “mixed war”. It is a war between two big imperialist camps for the redivision of the world, with the Soviet Union as an integral part of one of the imperialist camps.
The strategy of the imperialist camp to which Stalin is subordinated, is fairly clear. It is to keep all sides of Germany protected by herself and her allies, to confine the front to the comparative safety of the Westwall-Maginot lines; to destroy the British Empire for the benefit of the Rome-Berlin-Moscow axis, primarily for the Berlin section of it. Stalin’s role in the war, from the very beginning, has been that of auxiliary executant of this strategy.
Hitler did not descend upon Poland until he had assured himself not of Stalin’s neutrality but of Stalin’s active support. Poland was defeated and partitioned jointly and by pre-arrange-ment, with Hitler, in accordance with the real relationship of forces between the partners, getting the lion’s share and Stalin the jackal’s. The work of covering Hitler’s eastern flank from possible attack by the Allies or their vassals, was then completed by Stalin’s invasion and subjugation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Far from meeting resistance from Hitler, Stalin was encouraged to proceed along the indicated line in order that Germany might have at its Baltic rear governments no longer subject to the manipulations of Anglo-French imperialism but sterilized governments kept in escrow for him by his friendly sub-partner of the Kremlin.
Of the same order and in accordance with the same imperialist strategy was Stalin’s invasion of Finland, presented to us so cynically by the Stalinist press as a “defense of the Soviet Union from imperialist attack” and characterized so naively by the Socialist Appeal in the same terms. Whoever did not understand the real meaning of the Finnish invasion at the time, should surely understand it in the light of subsequent events. The middle-class journalistic muttonheads who still talk about Hitler being Stalin’s captive in the pact, sought to present the invasion of Finland as a “blow at Germany”. The truth is just the opposite. Hitler wanted Stalin to invade Finland and Trotsky is without doubt right in saying that Berlin “obviously pushed” Stalin towards Helsinki. Why? For two reasons which are really one. In the first place, the action involves Stalin more deeply in the war on Hitler’s side. In the second place, the occupation or subjection of Finland was needed by Germany as the first step towards closing to the Allies a northern front they were seeking to open against Hitler. Only after Stalin had crushed Finland and enormously weakened Sweden, did Hitler feel able to take those brutal and decisive measures which are calculated to guarantee his northern flank. Denmark and Norway fell to German instead of to Anglo-French imperialism only because Finland fell to Germany’s partner. It goes without saying that if Hitler consolidates himself in Norway (as he appears to be doing at this writing), the fate of Sweden, hemmed in between Hitler and Stalin, is a foregone conclusion.
Thus, in two big moves, Hitler, with the Soviet Union at his orders, has succeeded in doing what the Kaiser and Hindenburg were unable to do in the first World War: to confine the conflict to a momentarily “defensive” war of position on a single well-protected front, the West. With Stalin’s aid, Hitler has fairly well assured his eastern, northeastern and northern flanks. With Stalin’s aid – today in the form of a threat, tomorrow in the form of active military intervention – he is assuring his southeastern flank, in the first place in Romania. The day after, it is not at all excluded that Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union will be fighting jointly for the “defense of the Soviet Union” in the southeast and the Near East – in actuality, for the partitioning of the Balkans and the Near East among the members of the Rome-Berlin-Moscow axis. What the Moscow Izvestia said about Hitler’s invasion of Norway, really holds true here: War has a powerful logic of its own.
Alongside of this parallelism of military action, there is a corresponding parallelism of political agitation. Moscow echoes every claim of Berlin, every diplomatic lie, every self-justification. The same “war-guilt” explanation is given by both. The diplomatic offensives which precede military action are carefully synchronized in both capitals. The Stalinist parties, it goes without saying, do their part loyally for the Axis, concentrating all their attacks upon England and France, to the exclusion of Germany. In the colonies Hitlerite and Stalinist agents, whether by formal agreement or by the internal logic of their war alliance, conduct a harmonious campaign for the “liberation” of the oppressed peoples from Anglo-French imperialism (that is, for subjecting them to the yoke of the Axis). This is what the participation of the Soviet Union in the war looks like in reality. Under these conditions, the slogan of “unconditional defense of the Soviet Union” is tantamount to giving objective political aid to one imperialist camp against another. It is therefore imperative that the slogan be radically altered to read “defense of the Soviet Union in a progressive war”.
Wherein is Russia’s participation in the war reactionary? In two respects: (1) it is acting primarily as agent of German imperialism in the war; (2) it is itself fighting a war of bureaucratic expansion, of subjugation and oppression of other peoples. From these follow the reactionary social and political consequences of its participation in the war: instead of the class consciousness of the workers being heightened, their bourgeois-patriotic feelings are intensified; instead of being brought closer to the revolution, they are driven into the arms of their own ruling class, and not the most liberal sections of it, at that (Poland, Finland); instead of becoming more sympathetic towards the principles and achievements and defense of the Russian Revolution, they become more antipathetic towards them; instead of advancing the interests of the world revolution and weakening world imperialism, the participation of the Soviet Union in the present war retards enormously the former and strengthens enormously the latter.
The two respects in which Russia’s war is reactionary are not contradictory or mutually exclusive. In the partnership of the Pact, Stalin is very much the subordinate; it is indeed quite accurate to say that the Stalinist bureaucracy capitulated to Germany in the hope (a) of buying itself off from an immediate attack by Hitler upon the Soviet Union and (b) of escaping complete involvement in the world war. The first hope has been realized, of that there is no doubt But it has been realized precisely at the expense of the second hope. The very conservatism, the provincial pacifism, the timidity and national-narrowness that have characterized the Stalinist bureaucracy, are precisely the forces that drag it deeper into the war as a tool of one of the imperialist powers. It is no mere literary paradox but a political fact of primary importance that the very fear of war which has dominated the course of the Stalinist bureaucracy has lead it progressively further into war. Not less important is the fact that while serving as an agent of a big imperialist power, the Kremlin bureaucracy pursues an imperialist (expansionist) policy of its own.
The programmatic documents of the Fourth International, in all its pre-history and since its foundation, have never taken into account the possibility of a war of expansion by the Kremlin. Quite the contrary. Our analysis of the Stalinist bureaucracy emphasized its national conservatism, its characteristic of staying-at-home-at-all-costs epitomized in Stalin’s famous phrase about not fighting for an inch of foreign soil and not yielding an inch of Soviet soil. Throughout our political history, one can find only one or two purely incidental remarks about the possibility of the Kremlin seizing new territory; in our programmatic documents, one cannot, we repeat find any whatsoever. This explains, at least in part, the silence, confusion and equivocation that characterized the press of the Fourth International throughout the initial period of Russia’s invasion of other countries. We had not been prepared for such a development. But there is no reason why such a state of affairs should be perpetuated in the revolutionary Marxian movement
Is the imperialist policy of the Kremlin of the same nature as the imperialism of Germany, Japan, France, England and America? No, for it has different origins, different bases, different paths of development Is it based upon the dominance in economy of finance capital, the export of capital and other characteristics of modern imperialism, we have been asked with misplaced sarcasm? No, it is an imperialism peculiar to the Stalinist bureaucracy in its present stage of degeneration.
The opposition to our characterization of Stalinist imperialism (it is not at all “red imperialism”, as the social-democrats would say; there is nothing red about it), is based in large measure on a mis-reading or misunderstanding of Lenin’s conceptions of imperialism. Modern imperialism is characteristic of the last stage of capitalism, of capitalism in decay. But Lenin did not and could not say that imperialism, imperialist policy and imperialist war are possible only under decaying capitalism. Thus, of pre-war Czarist Russia, Lenin declared that “the prevailing type of Russian imperialism is military and feudal”, in distinction from the modern capitalist imperialism of England and Germany which he described so fully in his study, Imperialism. Thus, and even more pertinently to the present discussion, he insisted on a precise formulation of the question in his article On the Revision of the Party Program written in 1917 not as a casual piece of journalism but as a fundamental and critical programmatic document:
Crises, precisely in the form of over-production or of the “stocking up of market commodities” (if comrade S. prohibits the word overproduction), are a phenomenon which is exclusively proper to capitalism. Ware, however, are proper both to the economic system based on slavery and on feudalism. There have been imperialist wars on the basis of slavery (Rome’s war against Carthage was an imperialist war on both sides) as well aa in the Middle Ages and in the epoch of mercantile capitalism. Every war in which both belligerent camps are fighting to oppress foreign countries or peoples and for the division of the booty, that is, over “who shall oppress more and who shall plunder more”, must be called imperialistic. When we say that only modern capitalism, that only imperialism brought with it imperialist wars, that is correct, for the preceding stage of capitalism, the stage of free competition or the stage of pre-monopolist capitalism was predominantly characterized by national wars in Western Europe. But if it is said that in the preceding stage there were no imperialist wars in general, that would be false, that would mean that the equally imperialist “colonial wars” have been forgotten. (Collected Works, German ed., Vol. XXI, pp. 387f.)
“Every war in which both belligerent camps are fighting to oppress foreign countries or peoples and for the division of the booty ... must be called imperialist,” wrote Lenin. Does not the joint invasion of Poland by Hitler and Stalin fall precisely into that category? Does not the joint invasion of Scandinavia (of Finland by Stalin and immediately thereafter of Denmark and Norway by Hitler) also fall into the same category? The Poles are brought under full enslavement by Hitler; the White Russians and Ukrainians, according to Trotsky, under “semi-enslavement” by Stalin. It may be argued, and it is, that in Eastern Poland Stalin carried through the nationalization of property and in Finland he acquired military bases which are valuable to the defense of the Soviet Union from imperialist attack, and that from the standpoint of the international working class these measures are progressive. On October 18, 1939, Trotsky wrote that “the economic transformations in the occupied territories do not compensate for this by even a tenth part!” – meaning by “this” the antagonizing of the world proletariat and oppressed peoples. Even if we granted for the moment the above argument, we would reply, paraphrasing Trotsky:
“The nationalization of property in Eastern Poland and the acquisition of military bases in Finland do not compensate by even a tenth part for the enormous strengthening of one of the imperialist camps, for the demoralization of the world working class, for the subjugation of millions upon millions of Ukrainians, White Russians, Lithuanians, Karelians and Finns to the Kremlin yoke.”
Space does not permit a complete elaboration of the question of Stalinist imperialism, which must be reserved for another article. Let us conclude here by touching on a few brief supplementary points:
The other arguments of the proponents of the traditional policy, are contradictory and untenable. “We condemn the invasion but we remain for the defense of the Soviet Union,” that is, for the victory of the Red Army, they say in connection with Poland or Finland. They condemn the invasion, but support the invaders! They are against seizures of new territories by the Kremlin, but support those who are fighting to seize them! They are against the invasion before it takes place; they are against it alter it has succeeded (once Stalin is triumphant, they will raise the slogan of an independent Soviet Finland); but they are for the invasion (for the victory of the Red Army) while it is taking place.
The attempt to draw an analogy with a conservative trade union on strike misses fire completely. We do not condemn any strike, even if conducted bureaucratically by a reactionary leadership; we may criticize the methods, the timing, etc., of a strike. We do not oppose the “seizure of new territories” (the organizing of the unorganized) even by a reactionary union; on the contrary, we condemn the bureaucrats for not “seizing enough territory” (for not organizing more and more of the unorganized). “It is not a question of ‘little Finland’,” we are told, “since Finland is only an episode in the Second World War. This war will inevitably turn into a war of imperialist attack upon the Soviet Union, aimed at reducing it to a colony of world imperialism.” Essentially the same objection, made in reverse, was put forth by ultra-leftists against our policy in Spain. On Sept. 14, 1937, Trotsky replied to the argument about the “episode” as follows:
It can be objected that the two imperialist camps (Italy and Germany on one side and England, France and the USSR on the other) conduct their struggle on the Iberian peninsula and that the war in Spain is only an “episode” of this straggle. In the sense of a historical possibility, it is true. But it is impermissible to identify a historical possibility with the actual, concrete course of the civil war today. The intervention of the imperialist countries has indisputably great influence upon the development of the events in Spain. But until today it has not changed the fundamental character of these events as of a struggle between the camp of the Spanish bourgeois democracy and the camp of Spanish fascism. (Internal Bulletin, Oct. 1937, p. 38)
What is called an “episode” today is indeed an integral episode of the development of the second imperialist World War, in which the Soviet Union is fighting primarily the battle of German imperialism. The present war may be transformed, at a later stage, into an imperialist war against the Soviet Union, in which case it will be the duty of the international working class to defend the Soviet Union even under Stalin. But it is absurd to apply to the war today the policy applicable to the war into which it may be transformed.
Only a sophist (wrote Lenin) could wipe out the difference between an imperialist war and a national war on the grounds that the one can be transformed into the other. The dialectic has not seldom served, even in the history of Greek philosophy, as a bridge to sophistry. We, however, remain dialecticians who struggle against the sophists, not through a denial of every transformation, but rather by means of a concrete analysis of the given instance, as much in its momentary situation as also in its development. (Gegen den Strom, p. 417.)
A concrete analysis of the given instance shows – it is imperative to repeat this time and again – that the Soviet Union under Stalin is participating in the present war as an integral part of one of the two imperialist camps. To defend the Soviet Union in this war, i.e., to be “the best soldier in the Red Army,” to fight for its victory wherever it marches, means, objectively, to work for the victory of one imperialist camp against the other.
“It is not Stalin we are defending, but the remaining conquest of October – nationalized property.” In the present war, the nationalized property of the Soviet Union is not what is primarily involved. What is at stake is the world dominance of Anglo-French imperialism on the one side, and the imperialist ambitions of German imperialism and the concern for “power, prestige and revenues” of the Stalinist bureaucracy on the other. In a war between Daladier and De la Rocque the fascist, bourgeois democracy would be at stake; the trade union bureaucrats supporting the democratic side would be participating, whatever their motives or methods, in a progressive war against fascism. In a war between Daladier and Hitler, bourgeois democracy would not be at stake but rather the respective imperialist interests of France and Germany; the trade union bureaucrats supporting Daladier on the basis of desiring to defend the French trade unions from Hitlerism, would be participating – again regardless of motives and methods – in a reactionary, imperialist war.
The corollary argument that Stalin did, after all, nationalize property in the occupied territories is no more valid for the thesis of support of the Red Army. In the first place, property relations remain intact in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, so that the Soviet Union is in the unique position of commanding three capitalist colonies, or rather semi-colonies. In the second place, the fact that property was nationalized in Western Ukraine and Southern Finland only means that the proletariat in conquering those territories (as in the Soviet Union itself) would proceed from this new reality in its struggle to overthrow the Stalinist regime, that is, it would base itself upon statified property and give it a genuinely progressive, i.e., socialist significance. It does not have it in and by itself and under all circumstances. Arab or Irish nationalists might utilize, for their own purposes, material aid which German imperialism might give them for its own purposes; it would not follow that revolutionists must work for the victory of the German army. Finnish revolutionists will not only “accept” Stalin’s nationalization but will extend and deepen and fructify it as they grow in power; but it does not follow that they should support the counter-revolutionary troops of Stalin. Capitalism itself, as Marxists have always pointed out, has found itself compelled time and again to take steps which had revolutionary consequences. “Did not the fact that Guchkov and Shulgin (Russian monarchists) brought with them to Petrograd the abdication of Nicholas II play a revolutionary role,” Trotsky once asked.
“Did it not arouse the most downtrodden, exhausted, and timid strata of the population? ... Did not the entire activities of capitalism rouse the masses, did it not rescue them, to use the expression of the Communist Manifesto, from the idiocy of rural life? Did it not impel the proletarian battalions to the struggle? But does our historical evaluation of the objective role of capitalism as a whole or of certain actions of the bourgeoisie in particular, become a substitute for our active class revolutionary attitude toward capitalism or toward the actions of the bourgeoisie? Opportunist policies have always been based on this kind of non-dialectical, conservative, tail-endist ‘objectivism’.” (Third International After Lenin, p. 175)
The nationalization of property is not an abstraction and has no absolute merits in and of itself. “Its progressiveness is relative; its specific weight depends on the sum-total of all the other factors.” (Trotsky.) In the present war, it must be considered in its social and political context. It must be considered in the light of the character of Russia’s participation as an integral part of the imperialist war. The conception that since nationalized property is “progressive by its very nature” a regime based upon it must automatically be fighting a progressive war, has as much in common with Marxism as vulgar economic determinism has with historical materialism; the conception is, at bottom, nothing but a variety of immanent idealism.
To sum up briefly in conclusion: That “concrete analysis of the given instance” which Lenin demanded shows the imperative need of revising one of our traditional slogans. If, at a later stage, the present war between the imperialists should be transformed into an assault upon the Soviet Union, the slogan of defensism would have to be raised again, for it is not to the interests of the socialist world revolution and the working class to have one-sixth of the world, which the October uprising removed from the control of imperialism, restored to capitalist exploitation. In the present war. however, the world proletariat, the Russian included, cannot take upon itself a shadow of responsibility for the participation of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the imperialist conflict. The revolutionary vanguard must put forward the slogan of revolutionary defeatism in both imperialist camps, that is, the continuation of the revolutionary struggle for power regardless of the effects on the military front. That, and only that, is the central strategy of the third camp in the World War, the camp of proletarian internationalism, of the socialist revolution, of the struggle for the emancipation of all the oppressed.
Last updated on 6.7.2013