Leon Trotsky

Democracy, Pacifism and Imperialism

(June 1917)

Written: June 1917.
Originally published: Veperiod, 30 June 1917 (in Russian).
Source: Socialist Appeal (Supplement), Vol. II No. 14, 2 April 1938, p. 3-A.
Transcribed & marked up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2015. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

(The following article on pacifism was written by Leon Trotsky in the third year of the imperialist world war and published originally in Vperiod, a Russian revolutionary organ, on June 30, 1917. Its timeliness today, on the eve of a new world war, when the pacifists are playing their old game of sidetracking the workers from the revolutionary anti-war struggle, is more than apparent.Ed.)

There have never been so many pacifists as at this moment, when people are slaying each other on all the great highways of our planet.

Each epoch has not only its own technology and political form, but also its own style of hypocrisy. Time was when the nations destroyed each other for the glory of Christ’s teachings and the love of one’s neighbor. Now Christ is invoked only by backward governments. The advanced nations cut each other’s throats under the banner of pacifism ... a league of nations and a durable peace. Kerensky and Tseretelli shout for an offensive in the name of an “early conclusion of peace.”

There is no Juvenal for this epoch, to depict it with biting satire. Yet we are forced to admit that even the most powerful would appear weak and insignificant in the presence of blatant baseness and cringing stupidity, two of the elements which have been released by the present war.

The Roots of Pacifism

Pacifism springs from the same historical roots as democracy. The bourgeoisie made a gigantic effort to rationalize human relations, that is, to supplant a blind and stupid tradition by a system of critical reason. The guild restrictions on industry, class privileges, monarchic autocracy – these were the traditional heritage of the middle ages. Bourgeois democracy demanded legal equality, free competition and parliamentary methods in the conduct of public affairs.

Naturally its nationalistic criteria were applied also in the field of international relations. Here it hit upon war, which appeared to it as a method of solving questions that was a complete denial of all “reason.” So bourgeois democracy began to point out to the nations – with tongues of poesy, moral philosophy and certified accounting – that they would profit more by establishment of a condition of eternal peace. Such were the logical roots of bourgeois pacifism.

From the time of its birth pacifism was afflicted, however, with a fundamental defect, one which is characteristic of bourgeois democracy; its pointed criticisms addressed themselves to the surface of political phenomena, not daring to penetrate to their economic causes.

The Idea of “Eternal Peace”

At the hands of capitalist reality, the idea of eternal peace, on the basis of a “reasonable” agreement, has fared even more badly than the ideas, of liberty, equality and fraternity. For capitalism, when it rationalized industrial conditions, did not rationalize the social organization of ownership, and thus prepared instruments of destruction such as even the “barbarous” middle ages never dreamed of.

The constant embitterment of international relations and the ceaseless growth of militarism completely undermined the basis of reality under the feet of pacifism. Yet it was from these very things that pacifism took a new lease on life, a life which differed from its earlier phase as the blood and purple sunset differ from the rosy-fingered dawn ...

Theoretically and politically, pacifism stands on the same foundation as does the theory of the harmony of social interests. The antagonisms between capitalist nations have the same economic roots as the antagonisms between the classes. And if we admit the possibility of a progressive blunting of the edge of the class struggle, it requires but a single step further to accept a gradual softening and regulating of international relations. The source of the ideology of democracy, with all its traditions and illusions, is the petty bourgeoisie ...

“If War Should Come ...”

(William Jennings) Bryan rashly and noisily expressed the natural aversion of the farmers and of the “small man” generally to all such things as world-policy, military service and higher taxes. Yet, at the same time that he was sending wagon-loads of petitions, as well as deputations, to his pacifist colleagues at the head of the government, Bryan did everything in his power to break the revolutionary edge of the whole movement.

“If war should come,” Bryan telegraphed on the occasion of an anti-war meeting in Chicago ... “we will all support the government of course; yet at this moment it is our sacred duty to do all in our power to preserve the nation from the horrors of war.”

These few words contain the entire program of petty bourgeois pacifism: “to do everything in our power against war” means to afford the voice of popular indignation an outlet in the form of harmless demonstration, after having previously given the government a guarantee that it will meet with no serious opposition, in case of war, from the pacifist faction.

Official pacifism could have desired nothing-better. It could now give satisfactory assurance of imperialistic “preparedness.” After Bryan’s own declaration, only one thing was necessary to dispose of his noisy opposition to war, and that was, simply, to declare war. And Bryan rolled right over into the government camp. And not only the petty bourgeoisie, but also the broad masses of the workers, said to themselves: “If our government, with such an outspoken pacifist as Wilson as its head, declares war, and if even Bryan supports the government in the war, it must be an unavoidable and righteous war ...” It is now evident why the sanctimonious, Quaker-like pacifism of the bourgeois demagogues is in such high favor in financial and war industry circles.

return return return return return

Last updated on: 30 July 2015