Max Shachtman

A Letter to a Comrade

“Mixed Wars” and the War Today

(August 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 33, 18 August 1941, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We reprint below a brief excerpt from a lengthy letter sent to a comrade on the question of defensism in Russia and the nature of the war:


We used to speak a great deal in our movement, before the war broke out, of the “mixed war.” It arose in connection with the Stalin-Laval pact in 1935 and it meant this: If Russia and France are allied in a war against Germany that would make it an imperialist war on the one side but not on the other. More concretely, while we would not be defensists in imperialist Germany or in imperialist France, we would be defensists in Russia because it is a workers’ state. This conception was bases upon analogy and hypothesis. But when the “mixed war” took place in reality, it did not correspond to our original suppositions. That is the fact. You know, perhaps, the origin of the “mixed war” business and the historical circumstances of the Soviet Republic to which Trotsky referred in 1935–36. It would be well if every comrade understood these circumstances concretely and in detail.

Early in 1918, after the Bolsheviks had offered peace to the entire imperialist world, the Germans proceeded to march deeper into the territory of the Soviets. Negotiations with the Germans were snarled up and toward the end of February the Kaiser resumed the offensive against the Bolsheviks. Noulens, the French ambassador to Moscow, thereupon telegraphed Trotsky an offer of military and financial support “in your resistance to Germany.” The Social Revolutionists were against accepting any support. So were many of the Bolshevik leaders. Trotsky was in favor of it. So was Lenin, who sent the following note to the Central Committee: “I am in favor of accepting potatoes and arms from the robbers of Anglo-French imperialism.”

Trotsky’s Resolution on “Alliances”

Against the left Bolsheviks, who advocated a revolutionary war against Germany, Lenin later pointed out that while a peace treaty with Germany would help German imperialism, continuation of the war would help Anglo-French imperialism, and that in this very narrow and restricted sense Russia could not escape helping one or another of the bandits. But listen for a moment to the resolution presented by Trotsky to the Central Committee and adopted on February 22 by a vote of 6 to 5:

“As the party of the socialist proletariat, which is in power and is conducting war with Germany, we apply, through the medium of the state organs, all means of equipping our revolutionary army in the best possible way, with everything that is necessary, and in order in acquire them (the equipment – M.S.) wherever it is possible also from the capitalist governments. In doing so, the Social Democratic Workers Party of Russia (that was then the name of the Bolshevik Party – M.S.) retains its complete independence with regard to its foreign policy, obligates itself in no wise to the capitalist governments, and in every single case considers their proposals from the standpoint of expediency.”

Read over this resolution carefully. It established a principled foundation upon which alone the Soviet government could make any agreement, even a military agreement, with an imperialist government, from these words, to which corresponded the practice of the Bolsheviks, you can, so to speak, determine the character of the war the Bolsheviks would have carried out even if the “alliance” with Anglo-French imperialism had materialized, which it did not.

The mixed war did not take place in 1918 because imperialism could not make an alliance with a workers’ state under the terms of Trotsky’s resolution. At least not in my opinion and in the past 21 years life seems to substantiate this opinion. Lenin and Trotsky knew that even a circumscribed agreement with the imperialists was an extremely perilous business. But precisely by the terms of Trotsky’s resolution this hazard was more than sufficiently compensated. By what? By the provisions of the second sentence of the resolution. Why? Because in practice Lenin and Trotsky would have more than cancelled out the effects of their “support” of one imperialism against another by the revolutionary activity which the Bolshevik state and the Bolsheviks conducted precisely in the ranks of their imperialist “ally.” This is no mere hypothesis. It is borne out by the facts. Example: After signing the imposed Brest-Litovsk treaty with Germany and thereby “supporting” German imperialism against Anglo-French imperialism, the effects of this were more than cancelled out by the unceasing revolutionary propaganda of the Bolsheviks which resulted a very few months later in the overthrow of German imperialism.

A “Mixed War” Now?

We cannot stand still in our own conceptions or be bound by the fetishism of words or memories. We must allow life to influence our conceptions. Life has proved that the degenerate Stalinist regime CAN NOT fight a “mixed war” as a progressive or revolutionary war. By its very nature its agreements and alliances – alliances without quotation marks this time – with imperialism are reactionary through and through. And that again brings us to the character of the present war and the character of Russia’s participation in it, even in the present stage of the war.

Again and again I repeat, we must judge our position of defeatism or defensism in any country by the interests of the socialist world proletariat and not of the workers of one country. The victory of German imperialism in the war would have nothing but reactionary effects. The victory of Anglo-American imperialism over Germany, likewise. We are for the defeat of German imperialism – not by Anglo-American imperialism but by the German proletariat. We are for the defeat of the British Empire – but not by Hitler. From the standpoint of our basic criterion, what are the objective consequences of “defense of the Soviet Union” now? Taken on a WORLD SCALE, and that is the only way we can take it, since we are not Russian nationalists, it means the imperialist victory of Washington and London over German imperialism, with all the tragic consequences that flow from that. Why? Because of the VERY NATURE of the Stalinist alliance with London and Washington, which is FUNDAMENTALLY and in PRINCIPLE different from the “alliance” that Trotsky proposed to make in 1918.

A few examples: The victory of Stalin in Poland was undoubtedly a “victory” for nationalized property, if considered as an isolated national phenomenon. In the realities of present world politics and the present World War, however, this victory was a victory of German imperialism over its rivals. That is the fact and even children ought to know it. The same is true of the invasion of Finland. Trotsky said it was carried out at the dictate of Hitler. Correct. Did it help protect Leningrad? Of course. But from the international point of view, which is decisive, the invasion was a necessary part of the war strategy of German imperialism.

What has changed now is that concretely “defense of the Soviet Union” means promoting the grand strategy of Anglo-American imperialism – objectively, to be sure. Hence the dilemma of the defensists. I mean, of course, of revolutionary defensists like some of our comrades and the Cannonites. What, CONCRETELY, do they propose to DO that we do not propose? I would like very much to hear that. In 1935–36 we used to say that in the hypothetical mixed war we would be for facilitating shipments to Russia but not to France or Germany. In the present real and not hypothetical war I ask the following question of the defensists: Are you for facilitating American shipments to Russia today? Alas, the accursed realities of the war show that shipments to Russia mean convoys and that convoys, as our good President says, mean a shooting war. Is that a fact or not? Even Goldman is compelled to acknowledge this in The Militant. He tries to get around the dilemma by the poor lawyer’s argument that he doesn’t “urge” shipments, because that means convoys and they mean war, but his party will not oppose them. Isn’t that a beaut of a position? Or will the defensists be proposing, for example, tomorrow, that we demonstrate before the Japanese consulates if hostilities break out between Japan and Russia? I doubt it. Because even they understand that such demonstrations, given the REAL and not hypothetical situation, would only be grist to the mill of American imperialism.

Or what will they do in the not at all inconceivable situation which may confront them tomorrow morning, so to speak, where British and Russian troops are fighting side by side in Afghanistan or Iran? Where do the British troops end and the Russians begin? Where does defensism end and non-defensism begin? Every intelligent observer knows that this is an entirely practical and immediate possibility. And where are the revolutionary compensations for the inevitably reactionary effects of Stalin’s war, compensations which the Lenin-Trotsky regime could and did provide for? They do not exist and in the nature of the case cannot.

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