Max Shachtman

The War Today Is What It Was
Yesterday – Imperialist!

(July 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 27, 7 July 1941, pp. 1 & 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We print below extracts from the speech delivered by Max Shachtman to the New York membership of the Workers Party in elucidation of the position taken by the Political Committee of the Workers Party on the Russian events.

* * *

I should like to go over the Russian events as they present themselves before our party in the light of the latest turn of world events.

Your Political Committee has unanimously adopted a position which is represented in its statement in Labor Action of June 30. This position is before the party for discussion and decision. Moreover, in view at the acceleration of the pace of events, the PC has decided to advance the date of the second national convention of the party. For the discussion of all party problems, including

the question of our position on the Russian question, the membership will have at its disposal in the coming pre-convention period not only the NI, which was. opened for discussion some time ago, and inner-party bulletins specially devoted to the convention, but also a special section of Labor Action. In addition, of course, all branches will arrange the customary discussion evenings. There is therefore every assurance that the position finally taken will be highly representative and, more important than that, will be the result of carefully thought out and freely debated views.

A Continuation of Our Views

The position taken by the PC is both a continuation and a development of the views we have defended since the beginning of the Second World War, which finally led to the mass expulsions from the SWP, the split and the founding of the WP.

These views may be slimmed up as follows: the predominant character of the war is an inter-imperialist conflict for the redivision of the world, in which Stalinist Russia constitutes a subordinate partner of one of the imperialist camps. The best interests of the international working class, and of international socialism, can be served only by intransigent opposition to the war on both sides, by refusal lo support either camp in the war, by an intensification of the class struggle against the ruling regimes in all countries, the belligerent countries in particular, with the aim of establishing peace and socialism by bringing to power revolutionary workers’ governments throughout the world.

In no country do we therefore accept the lie of national defense which is a deception calculated to confuse, paralyze and destroy the working class.

Now, with the German attack on the Soviet Union, the war has taken a turn of great importance. Everyone is greatly agitated. Particularly for us, in whom the fresh memories of the revolutionary epoch and the achievements of the Soviets are still alive, the new situation is of great concern: But if our concern, and the profound sentiment of attachment to the principles of the Russian Revolution, are to be of positive value, if they are to result in advancing the cause of the working class, we must thrust aside mercilessly all tendencies to blind panicky thinking and acting, turn our backs coolly to popular clamor, even where it is not inspired. by cunning reactionary interests, and judge the situation and our attitude toward the problems created, with utmost objectivity, from the standpoint of the highest interest of the international working class.

The first question to ask is this: What caused the turn of events, the rupture of the Hitler-Stalin pact and the assault on Russia, and does the new situation alter the character of the war to the extent that warrants an alteration of our position toward it?

The reasons impelling Hitler to attack the Soviet Union at this time should now be fairly clear. Despite all his success on the continent and hopes for the early termination of the war, he has been unable to inflict a military defeat on his principal enemy, England. With England still able to hold out, with American aid to England not only mounting, but threatening to turn into direct American participation in the war, and with the conquered countries at the point of exhaustion from fascist pillage. Hitler is compelled to prepare a sounder base for the long war ahead. Conquering the Soviet Union would give him a triple advantage:

  1. it would eliminate for good the possibility of a thrust from the east while he bogged down in the west;
  2. it would provide him with the war materials (food and fuel) for a long war, compensating in large measure for America’s contributions to the enemy camp; and
  3. it enables him to raise again the demagogic cry of a crusade against Bolshevism by means of which he aims to strengthen the hand of the appeasers in the enemy countries, in much the same manner that he did from 1933 onward.

Could he [1] not achieve at least one of these aims – the most important one of getting food and fuel – by forcing Stalin to capitulate without a struggle? The events, in any case, show that he couldn’t. He undoubtedly made such demands upon the Kremlin as would have meant the conversion of the bureaucracy into a handful of totally powerless Quislings. In all likelihood, his demands included the demobilization of Stalin’s western armies, or its equivalent.

Now, important as the change in the military course of the war is, has it reached a point where we can say that it has changed the predominant character of the war?

In the opinion of the PC, the answer to that question is NO. The attack upon the Soviet Union is part and parcel, an integral part, as the Berlin spokesman said, of the war against Great Britain, that is, of the war between Axis and Anglo-American imperialism. Hitler continues the war against the latter by launching an attack on Russia for the simple reason that the conquest of Russia is now indispensable to the continuation and winning of the war against England and the United States.

Every thoughtful statesman, from Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill and Roosevelt down, understands and recognizes this important fact. Berlin has already said so. Gayda has taunted the USA with the prospect of its aid being negated by the acquisition of compensating aid in Russia. Churchill has made it clear that he will not (in this war) be diverted from the war against Hitler by the latter’s attack on the Soviet Union, but rather regards the Soviet Union as an invaluable ally in the war of British imperialism against Hitler. Roosevelt has said the same. And, for that matter, allowing for the differences in form and emphasis, the Kremlin is saying the same.

So far as the predominant character of the war is concerned, it remains essentially the same. Only now, instead of an inter-imperialist war in which the USSR is a junior partner of the Axis, subordinated to its aims in the war, it is an inter-imperialist war in which the Soviet Union is a junior partner of Anglo-American imperialism, subordinated to ITS aims in the war.

The Realities of the Situation

Let us look a little further into the role of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the war. What is it fighting for? Essentially the same thing it has been fighting for for years, and particularly since the Second World War began. Its role is reactionary through and through because

  1. it subjugates the working class of the world, wherever it has influence, to the war machines of the imperialist democracies;
  2. it is fighting to retain control over the territories it seized when it pursued the course of joint imperialist conquest with Hitler – Poland, the Baltic lands, Bessarabia, Bukovina, Finland;
  3. it is fighting to retain control over the Ukraine and White Russia and other internal colonies of the Kremlin overlords;
  4. it is fighting to retain control of its counter-revolutionary power over the Soviet Union as a whole, its aristocratic privileges, its murderous police rule, its enslavement of the proletariat and peasantry.

We have spoken so often in the past about “defense of the Soviet Union” that we are apt to forget or overlook some of the blunt realities of the situation. We have not, from the very beginning of this war, been for the defense of the Soviet Union. We were not for the bureaucracy and its army when they conquered southern Finland, eastern Poland and other countries; we are not for them, or for defending them, when they are fighting to retain their conquests. We are not for the bureaucracy continuing its brutal domination of the Ukraine and White Russia; we are for the declaration of independence of a genuinely revolutionary Soviet Ukraine. We are not for preserving the power of the bureaucracy to continue its infamous rule over the whole of the Soviet Union, the rule which has slaughtered the whole revolutionary Bolshevik movement, massacred millions of workers and peasants, imprisoned and tortured millions of others, and converted the rest of the working class into prison laborers. We are for the overthrow of this detestable regime. Let us not forget this fundamental program of ours for a single moment.

Two arguments may be raised against our position, our anti-defensist position. One is: the Soviet workers have something to defend – not the bureaucracy, to be sure, but the remaining achievement of the Russian Revolution which is represented by the nationalized economy! That makes the present war a mixed war – we are not defensists in the imperialist countries and are defensists in the Soviet Union. The second is: while we are for overturning the Stalinist regime and replacing it with a genuine Soviet regime, a workers’ democracy, we are not for Hitler doing that job for us – Hitler cannot avenge the international working class for Stalin’s crimes, for he will replace the bureaucracy with a regime that is worse or, in any case, at least as bad.

The arguments are based on a misconception. First: the nationalized economy of the Soviet Union is not something abstract and supra-historical and therefore valuable and progressive in and of itself and regardless of the circumstances of place and time in which its existence is involved. In the hands of the proletariat, it is the indispensable precondition to the building of socialism. In the hands of the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy, it is the basis of the power which they wield to keep the proletariat in subjection and themselves in the seats of aristocratic, totalitarian rule. Furthermore, if you agree with some of us, myself included, that nationalized economy is historically superior to private capitalist economy, it does not follow at each and every moment of the development of history and the class struggle that it is involved as the decisive criterion by which to judge our position. Let us grant for the moment – and I personally grant it freely – that the nationalized economy IS involved in the war as it is in its present stage.

Does a position of defensism follow from this? In our opinion, given the concrete circumstances of the war, it does not follow. Not any more than it follows that just became Hitler’s attack on Czechoslovakia involves an assault on the democratic principle of self-determination of nations and peoples, as well as an assault on the rights and institutions of the working class, that therefore we must be for the defense of Czechoslovakia.

We are told and, for that matter, we ourselves say, that Hitler threatens the working class and its institutions in England and the United States. If he conquers these countries, then, as in France, the labor and revolutionary movements and their rights are completely abolished. Does the worker in the U.S. have something to defend? Most certainly! Does that mean we are for national defense in the U.S. or in England? NO! We say: to preserve what you have, much less to extend what you have, it is necessary to establish a genuine workers’ government – the present reactionary government is not fighting for YOUR achievements and interests.

In the present war, which the bureaucracy is conducting in its interests and as part of the imperialist War, we must say the same thing to the Russian workers: “Whatever you have to defend can be defended only by no support to the war of the bureaucracy, no support to the bureaucracy itself, only by overthrowing the bureaucracy and establishing a genuine workers’ government.”

The second argument is really so specious, or based on such thoughtlessness, that it hardly deserves a serious answer. We mustn’t turn over to Hitler the job of crushing the infamous Stalinist bureaucracy. But we are doing no such thing: We do not turn over to Hitler the job of crushing the infamous British imperialist ruling class either. It is the dirty scoundrels and footmen of imperialism, people like the New Leader crowd, and Hook and Eastman who tell us, whining and cringing in their shame, that they too don’t like British imperialism but they don’t want to turn over the job of crushing it to Hitler since he will at the same time crush the working class of England; therefore, they say, we are agents – oh, of course, objective agents – of Hitlerism. It’s as much a lie in the case of the British example as in the case of the Russian example.

What Is Basic Is The Character of the War

A final point. Does this mean that we abandon the present party position and declare that defensism of the Soviet Union is inconceivable under any circumstances so long as the Stalinist bureaucracy is at its head? I do not believe so and I would warn earnestly against such an abandonment.

Every modern war in particular has within it the elements of a war of a different character. There are no wars which are purely this or purely that in character. That is why we speak of the PREDOMINANTLY imperialist character of the war.

We were defensists in the Spanish civil war, although it had in it the ELEMENTS of a war of a fundamentally different character, the World Imperialist War that finally broke out.

We would have been, according to Lenin, defensists in a war between Servia and Austria-Hungary, had it remained a duel. But it immediately became a European war, predominantly imperialist in character.

We were defensists in Ethiopia, in 1936, but we are not defensists in Ethiopia today, because the character of the war, predominantly, has changed.

We are defensists in China today, because it is in its predominant character a war of a semi-colonial country for independence from imperialism represented by Japan. In this war are already present the elements of an imperialist war, with China a subordinate part of it. Suppose, which is very likely, that China tomorrow becomes a mere battleground between Anglo-American and Japanese imperialism? Would we be defensists? I don’t think so, because IN CONCRETE FACT that would mean defense of one of the imperialist camps.

Lenin was ready to accept aid from Anglo-French imperialism in the last war – to “work with it,” so to speak. It was a dangerous maneuver, to be sure, even under Lenin. But it had to be judged by its decisive character and outcome. Its outcome was the strengthening of the revolutionary movement, because under Lenin that art, so to speak, of becoming an agent of Anglo-French imperialism was subordinated in theory AND IN PRACTICE to the policy of spreading the world revolution. Hindenburg, Clemenceau and Lloyd George learned that fact to their dismay and fury, but not before it was too late for them. For, as is known, Anglo-French aid never materialized.

Should The Character of the War Change

The imperialists know what we must know, namely, that the war of the bureaucracy is subordinated to the needs of world imperialism. That is why this time they are ready to extend aid and. if necessary. IN THIS WAR, to fight side by side with the Stalinist army. Should the Hitler army fail, as is possible, to conquer Russia quickly in a blitzkrieg, we should in turn be prepared for the armies of Anglo-American imperialism fighting side by side with the army of the Bonapartist autocracy in Russia. I do not envy the revolutionary defensists of Russia – the Cannonites are the ones I refer to – when that situation arises. That it can arise and will arise – provided the condition mentioned before obtains – is proved for us by the fact that politically and to a certain extent militarily, it already exists. England’s imperialist forces ARE already fighting side by side with Stalin’s forces and only those fail to see this reality who are blinded by the geographical detail – in this case it is a detail – of the distance that separates the two military forces.

But England would not be, and is not, a “reliable ally” of Russia. In the first place, no country has “reliable allies” – Mussolini’s ally is not very reliable; Churchill’s ally in Washington wants as much from England as does his enemy in Berlin. In the second place. if and when Anglo-American imperialism is no longer on the side of Russia – or the other way around – then that means that THE CHARACTER OF THE WAR HAS INDEED CHANGED, and by virtue of that fact, a reconsideration of our position would be dictated.

In that case, if we can assume this hypothetical situation, it would be a war in which one or more of the capitalist imperialist powers would be engaged in an attack on the Soviet Union – whether with the active or passive support of the other imperialist powers would not be decisive, in my opinion. In that case, the predominant character of the war could not be described as an inter-imperialist war. In that case, again I give my opinion which is in harmony with the present position of our party, our opposition to the Stalinist bureaucracy would have to take the same form and occupy the same relative position – in substance – as, let us say, our opposition to bourgeois democracy in Spain at the time of its civil war against fascism. A fundamental position of revolutionary defensism would be dictated to us. At the very least, the grounds for such a position would exist.


Footnote by MIA

1. In the printed version “we”, which does not fit the context.

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