Leon Trotsky

The Lessons of October

Chapter 3
The Struggle Against War
and Defensism

The overthrow of tsarism in February 1917 signaled, of course, a gigantic leap forward. But if we take February within the limits of February alone, i.e., if we take it not as a step towards October, then it meant no more than this: that Russia was approximating a bourgeois republic like, for example, France. The petty bourgeois revolutionary parties, as is their wont, considered the February revolution to be neither bourgeois nor a step toward a socialist revolution, but as some sort of self-sufficing “democratic” entity. And upon this they constructed the ideology of revolutionary defensism. They were defending, if you please, not the rule of any one class but “revolution” and “democracy.” But even in our own party the revolutionary impetus of February engendered at first an extreme confusion of political perspectives. As a matter of fact, during the March days, Pravda held a position much closer to revolutionary defensism than to the position of Lenin.

“When one army stands opposed to another army,” we read in one of its editorial articles, “no policy could be more absurd than the policy of proposing that one of them should lay down arms and go home. Such a policy would not be a policy of peace, but a policy of enslavement, a policy to be scornfully rejected by a free people. No. The people will remain intrepidly at their post, answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell. This is beyond dispute. We must not allow any disorganization of the armed forces of the revolution.” (Pravda, No.9, March 15, 1917, in the article No Secret Diplomacy)

We find here no mention of classes, of the oppressors and the oppressed; there is, instead, talk of a “free people”; there are no classes struggling for power but, instead, a free people are “remaining at their post.” The ideas as well as the formulas are defensist through and through! And further in the same article:

“Our slogan is not the empty cry ‘Down with war! – which means the disorganization of the revolutionary army and of the army that is becoming ever more revolutionary. Our slogan is bring pressure [!] to bear on the Provisional Government so as to compel it to make, without fail, openly and before the eyes of world democracy [!], an attempt [!] to induce [!] all the warring countries to initiate immediate negotiations to end the world war. Till then let everyone [!] remain at his post [!].”

The program of exerting pressure on an imperialist government so as to “induce” it to pursue a pious course was the program of Kautsky and Ledebour in Germany, Jean Longuet in France, MacDonald in England; but it was never the program of Bolshevism. In conclusion, the article not only extends the “warmest greetings” to the notorious manifesto of the Petrograd Soviet addressed To the Peoples of the World (a manifesto permeated from beginning to end with the spirit of revolutionary defensism), but underscores “with pleasure” the solidarity of the editorial board with the openly defensist resolutions adopted at two meetings in Petrograd. Of these resolutions it is enough to say that one runs as follows:

“If the democratic forces in Germany and Austria pay no heed to our voice [i.e., the ‘voice’ of the Provisional Government and of the conciliationist sovietL.T.], then we shall defend our fatherland to the last drop of our blood.” (Pravda, No.9, March 15, 1917)

The above quoted article is not an exception. On the contrary it quite accurately expresses the position of Pravda prior to Lenin’s return to Russia. Thus, in the next issue of the paper, in an article On the War, although it contains some criticism of the Manifesto to the Peoples of the World, the following occurs: “It is impossible not to hail yesterday’s proclamation of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies to the peoples of the world, summoning them to force their governments to bring the slaughter to an end.” (Pravda, No.10, March 16, 1917). And where should a way out of war be sought? The article gives the following answer: “The way out is the path of bringing pressure to bear on the Provisional Government with the demand that the government proclaim its readiness to begin immediate negotiations for peace.”

We could adduce many similar quotations, covertly defensist and conciliationist in character. During this same period, and even weeks earlier, Lenin, who had not yet freed himself from his Zurich cage, was thundering in his Letters from Afar (most of these letters never reached Pravda) against the faintest hint of any concessions to defensism and conciliationism. “It is absolutely impermissible,” he wrote on March 9, discerning the image of revolutionary events in the distorted mirror of capitalist dispatches, “it is absolutely impermissible to conceal from ourselves and from the people that this government wants to continue the imperialist war, that it is an agent of British capital, that it wants to restore the monarchy and strengthen the rule of the landlords and capitalists.” And later, on March 12, he said: “To urge that government to conclude a democratic peace is like preaching virtue to brothel keepers.” At the time when Pravda was advocating “exerting pressure” on the Provisional Government in order to induce it to intervene in favor of peace “before the eyes of world democracy,” Lenin was writing: “To urge the Guchkov-Milyukov government to conclude a speedy, honest, democratic and good neighborly peace is like the good village priest urging the landlords and the merchants to ‘walk in the way of God’, to love their neighbors and to turn the other cheek” [CW, (Moscow 1954), Vol.23, Letters from Afar (March 9 and 12, 1917), pp. 315-336]

On April 4, the day after his arrival at Petrograd, Lenin came out decisively against the position of Pravda on the question of war and peace. He wrote: “No support for the Provisional Government; the utter falsity of all its promises should be made clear, particularly of those relating to the renunciation of annexations. Exposure in place of the impermissible, illusion breeding ‘demand’ that this government, a government of capitalists, should cease to be an imperialist government.” [CW, Vol.24, The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution (April 4, 1917), p.22] It goes without saying that the proclamation issued by the conciliators on March 14, which had met with so many compliments from Pravda, was characterized by Lenin only as “notorious” and “muddled.” It is the height of hypocrisy to summon other nations to break with their bankers while simultaneously forming a coalition government with the bankers of one’s own country.

“‘The Center’ all vow and declare that they are Marxists and internationalists, that they are for peace, for bringing every kind of ‘pressure’ to bear upon the governments, for ‘demanding’ in every way that their own government should ‘ascertain the will of the people for peace’.” [CW, Vol.24, Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution – a Draft Platform for the Proletarian Party (May 28, 1917), p.76].

But here someone may at first glance raise an objection: Ought a revolutionary party to refuse to “exercise pressure” on the bourgeoisie and its government? Certainly not. The exercise of pressure on a bourgeois government is the road of reform. A revolutionary Marxist party does not reject reforms. But the road of reform serves a useful purpose in subsidiary and not in fundamental questions. State power cannot be obtained by reforms. “Pressure” can never induce the bourgeoisie to change its policy on a question that involves its whole fate. The war created a revolutionary situation precisely by reason of the fact that it left no room for any reformist “pressure.” The only alternative was either to go the whole way with the bourgeoisie, or to rouse the masses against it so as to wrest the power from its hands. In the first case it might have been possible to secure from the bourgeoisie some kind of sop with regard to home policy, on the condition of unqualified support of their foreign imperialist policy. For this very reason social reformism transformed itself openly, at the outset of the war, into social imperialism. For the same reason the genuinely revolutionary elements were forced to initiate the creation of this new International.

The point of view of Pravda was not proletarian and revolutionary but democratic’Defensist, even though vacillating in its defensism. We had overthrown tsarism, we should now exercise pressure on our own democratic government. The latter must propose peace to the peoples of the world. If the German democracy proves incapable of exerting due pressure on its own government, then we shall defend our “fatherland" to the last drop of blood. The prospect of peace is not posed as an independent task of the working class which the workers are called upon to achieve over the head of the Provisional Government, because the conquest of power by the proletariat is not posed as a practical revolutionary task. Yet these two tasks are inextricably bound together.

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Last updated on: 19.1.2007