Leon Trotsky

A Step Towards Social Patriotism

(May 1939)

Written: May 1939.
Source: Workers Liberty, Vol. 3 No. 7 (copied with thanks from the Workers Liberty Website).
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2016. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

Our Palestinian friends have made an obvious and extremely dangerous concession to the social patriots, even though their point of departure is opposed to that of social patriotism ...

We maintain that in the quarter of a century that has elapsed since the outbreak of the last war, imperialism has come to rule even more despotically over the world; its hand weighs more heavily on events during peacetime as well as wartime; and finally, under all of its political masks it has assumed an even more reactionary character. In consequence, all the fundamental rules of proletarian “defeatist” policy in relation to imperialist war retain their full force today. This is our point of departure, and all the conclusions that follow are determined by it.

As regards this point of departure, the authors of the document hold a different position ... [They start from] the world menace of fascism. Monarchist reaction in the last war, they state, was not of an aggressive historical character, it was rather a vestige, whereas fascism nowadays represents a direct and immediate threat to the whole civilised world. The struggle is therefore the task of the international proletariat as a whole in peacetime as well as wartime. It is only natural if we become suspiciously wry: such a narrowing down of revolutionary tasks – replacing imperialism by one of its political masks, that of fascism – is a patent concession to the Comintern, a patent indulgence of social patriots of the “democratic” countries ...

Our Palestinian comrades ... focus their attention on fascism, as the immediate threat to the world working class and the oppressed nationalities ...

The main tendency of the authors of this document is apparently the following: they hold that “defeatism” is obligatory for the leading fascist countries (Germany, Italy), whereas it is necessary to renounce defeatism in countries which are even of doubtful democratic virtue, but which are at war with the leading fascist countries. That is approximately how the main idea of the document may be worded. In this form, too, it remains false, and an obvious lapse into social patriotism.

Let us recall that all the leaders of the German Social Democracy in emigration are “defeatists” in their own fashion. Hitler has deprived them of their sources of influence and income. The progressive nature of this “democratic”, “anti-fascist” defeatism is exactly zero. It is bound up not with revolutionary struggle but with pinning hopes on the “liberating” role of French or some other imperialism. The authors of the document, obviously against their own will, have taken, alas, a step in this very direction.

In the first place, they have, in our opinion, given far too nebulous, and especially far too equivocal a definition of “defeatism” as of some special and independent system of actions aimed to bring about defeat. That is not so. Defeatism is the class policy of the proletariat, which even during a war sees the main enemy at home, within its particular imperialist country. Patriotism, on the other hand, is a policy that locates the main enemy outside one’s own country. The idea of defeatism signifies in reality the following: conducting an irreconcilable revolutionary struggle against one’s own bourgeoisie as the main enemy, without being deterred by the fact that this struggle may result in the defeat of one’s own government; given a revolutionary movement the defeat of one’s own government is a lesser evil. Lenin did not say, nor did he wish to say, anything else. There cannot even be talk of any other kind of “aid” to defeat. Should revolutionary defeatism be renounced in relation to non-fascist countries? Herein is the crux of the question; upon this issue, revolutionary internationalism stands or falls.

For instance, should the 360,000,000 Indians renounce any attempt to utilise the war for their own liberation? The uprising of Indians in the midst of a war would undoubtedly aid strongly in the defeat of Great Britain. Furthermore, in the event of an Indian uprising (despite all “theses”) should the British workers support them? Or, on the contrary, are they duty bound to pacify the Indians, and lull them to sleep for the sake of a victorious struggle of British imperialism “against fascism”? Which way for us?

“Victory over Germany or Italy is at present (on the morrow the case may be different) tantamount to the downfall of fascism.” Our attention is first of all struck by the qualification “at present (on the morrow the case may be different).” The authors do not elucidate just what they mean to say by this. But they do in any case indicate that even from their own viewpoint their position is episodic, unstable, and uncertain in character; it may already prove useless on the “morrow.” They do not take sufficiently into account the fact that in the epoch of decaying capitalism shifts and semi-shifts of political regimes occur quite suddenly and frequently without altering the social foundation, without checking capitalist decline. On which of these two processes must our policy be based in such a fundamental question as war: on the shifts of political regimes, or on the social foundation of imperialism common to all political regimes and unfailingly uniting them against the revolutionary proletariat? The fundamental strategic question is our attitude toward war, which it is impermissible to subordinate to episodic tactical considerations and speculations.

But even from the purely episodic standpoint the above cited idea of the documents is incorrect. A victory over the armies of Hitler and Mussolini implies in itself only the military defeat of Germany and Italy, and not at all the collapse of fascism. Our authors admit that fascism is the inevitable product of decaying capitalism, in so far as the proletariat does not replace bourgeois democracy in time. Just how is a military victory or decaying democracies over Germany and Italy capable of liquidating fascisms, even if only for a limited period? If there were any grounds for believing that a new victory of the familiar and slightly senile Entente (minus Italy) can work miraculous results, i.e., those counter to social-historical laws, then it is necessary not only to “desire” this victory but to do everything in our power to bring it about. Then the Anglo-French social patriots would be correct. As a matter of act they are far less correct today than they were twenty-five years ago, or to put it more correctly, they are playing today an infinitely more reactionary and infamous role.

The authors of the document come out flatly against abstract pacifism, and in this they are of course correct. But they are absolutely wrong in thinking that the proletariat can solve great historical tasks by means of wars that are led not by themselves but by their mortal enemies, the imperialist governments. One may construe the document as follows: during the crisis over Czechoslovakia our French or English comrades should have demanded the military intervention of their own bourgeoisie, and thereby assumed responsibility for the war – not for war in general, and of course not for a revolutionary war, but for the given imperialist war. The document cites Trotsky’s words to the effect that Moscow should have taken the initiative in crushing Hitler as far back as 1933, before he became a terrible danger (Biulleten Oppozitsii, March 21, 1933). But these words merely mean that such should have been the behaviour of a real revolutionary government of a workers’ state. But is it permissible to issue the same demand to a government of an imperialist state?

Assuredly, we do not assume any responsibility for the regime they call the regime of peace. The slogan “Everything for Peace!” is not our slogan, and none of our sections raises it. But we can no more assume responsibility for their war than we do for their peace. The more resolute, firm, and irreconcilable our position is on this question all the better will the masses understand us, if not at the beginning then during the war.

“Could the proletariat of Czechoslovakia have struggled against its government and the latter’s capitulatory policy by slogans of peace and defeatism?” A very concrete question is posed here in a very abstract form. There was no room for “defeatism” because there was no war (and it is not accidental that no war ensued). In the critical twenty-four hours of universal confusion and indignation, the Czechoslovak proletariat had the full opportunity of overthrowing the “capitulatory” government and seizing power. For this only a revolutionary leadership was required. Naturally, after seizing power, the proletariat would have offered desperate resistance to Hitler and would have indubitably evoked a mighty reaction in the working masses of France and other countries ... Yes, we are not pacifists; we are for revolutionary war. But the Czech working class did not have the slightest right to entrust the leadership of a war “against fascism” to Messrs. capitalists who, within a few days, so safely changed their coloration and became themselves fascists and quasi-fascists. Transformations and recolourations of this kind on the part of the ruling classes will be on the order of the day in wartime in all “democracies.” That is why the proletariat would ruin itself if it were to determine its main line of policy by the formal and unstable labels of “for fascism” and “against fascism” ...

It is naturally easier to begin the struggle in those countries where the workers’ organisations have not yet been destroyed. But the struggle must be begun against the main enemy who remains, as hitherto, at home. Is it conceivable that the advanced workers of France will say to the workers of Germany: “Inasmuch as you are in the toils of fascism and cannot emancipate yourselves we will help our government to smash your Hitler, i.e., strangle Germany with the noose of a new Versailles treaty and then ... then we shall build socialism together with you.” To this the Germans can well reply: “Pardon us, but we have already heard this song from the social patriots during the last war and know very well how it all ended ...” No, in this way we shall not help the German workers to rouse themselves from their stupor. We must show them in action that revolutionary politics consists in a simultaneous struggle against the respective imperialist governments in all the warring countries. This “simultaneity” must not of course be taken mechanically. Revolutionary successes, wherever they may originally erupt, would raise the spirit of protest and uprisings in all countries. Hohenzollern militarism was overthrown completely by the October Revolution ...

The policy that attempts to place upon the proletariat the insoluble task of warding off all dangers engendered by the bourgeoisie and its policy of war is vain, false, mortally dangerous. “But fascism might be victorious!” “But the USSR is menaced!” “But Hitler’s invasion would signify the slaughter of workers!” And so on, without end. Of course, the dangers are many, very many. It is impossible not only to ward them all off, but even to foresee all of them. Should the proletariat attempt at the expense of the clarity and irreconcilability of its fundamental policy to chase after each episodic danger separately, it will unfailingly prove itself bankrupt. In time of war, the frontiers will be altered, military victories and defeats will alternate with each other, political regimes will shift. The workers will be able to profit to the full from this monstrous chaos only if they occupy themselves not by acting as supervisors of the historical process but by engaging in the class struggle. Only the growth of their international offensive will put an end not alone to episodic “dangers” but also to their main source: class society.

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Last updated on: 18 January 2016