First Published: Marxist-Leninist Quarterly No. 10, 1975
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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SM’s review article in MLQ 8&9 of ’Workers against the Monolith’ by Ian Birchall of the ’International Socialists’ is an excellent criticism of Trotskyist ultra-leftism and it correctly attributes these errors to the fundamental philosophical error of idealism – the approach of the ’general principle’. However the authors of this reply wish to take issue with SM in one particular aspect of his general criticism, the aspect of his critique of the Trotskyist approach to united front tactics. As SM points out, the fundamental error that Trotskyists fall into is their inability to correctly analyse the specific contradictions in a given situation and to analyse those contradictions in the light of a general theory. Thus for Trotskyists everything is reduced to the contradiction between Labour and Capital and they fail to see that alliances between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are correct in certain circumstances.
According to SM:
A central feature of ’leftism’ is its failure to understand real united front policies: a consistent opposition to the Marxist approach of ’uniting all those who can be united against the main enemy.
Quite so! And a central feature of opportunism is the entering into of UNPRINCIPLED alliances with people who are really your enemies. The practice of the modern CPGB abounds with this type of opportunism–obvious examples are their lauding of the ’left’ Labour MPs and the whole concept of the ’antimonopoly alliance’.
A united front is, as SM says, the policy of ’uniting all those who can be united against the main enemy’. But this begs the question of who the main enemy is. No doubt the revisionists could use this formula to justify their unprincipled alliance with the ’left’ Social-Democrats on the grounds that they can be united against the main enemy who for the revisionists are the Tories, not the bourgeois?
The application of united front tactics requires a rigorous use of Marxism by carefully analysing all the contradictions in a given situation and then deciding which contradiction is principal, and which are secondary. Unless this is done then the ’left’ adventurist and Trotskyist error of treating secondary enemies as principal, or the right opportunist error of treating principal enemies as secondary are easily fallen into. We believe that in 1941 the western Communist parties fell into the second error.
SM is correct when he says:
As so often, the Trotskyist alternative was based not on a concrete analysis of the situation but on mere comparison, an analogy; in this case with the first world war.
Apart from being based on analogy their methodology is another illustration of the ’general principle’ approach; in this case the ’general principle’ that alliances between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie are always impermissible. OUR approach is to make a concrete analysis of the 1939-45 war and then use the theory of Marxism-Leninism as a guide to defining the appropriate policy. This is the methodology of Marxism and such a methodology can only lead to the conclusion that the war was principally an imperialist war and that for once the Trotskyists were right. As SM says:
The timeless dogmatism has often been compared with that of a stopped clock. Like that clock it can hardly help being right on occasions.
The 1939-45 war may correctly be seen as a continuation of the war of 1914-18. In both wars states which had only lately entered onto the path of imperialism (principally Germany) were fighting for a redivision of the world against well-established imperialist states (principally Britain and France) who were fighting for the maintenance of the status quo. Because of this we shall look first at the first imperialist world war, the lin6 taken by Marxists in that war and compare that line to the lines of 1939-41 and 1941-45, taking due account of changed circumstances.
The development of imperialism from around the time of the turn of the century led to the logical culmination of the first imperialist world war. A war which Lenin described in the following terms:
Herein precisely, lies the specific feature of imperialist war, war between reactionary-bourgeois, historically obsolete governments, waged for the purpose of oppress1ng other nations. Whoever justifies participation in the present war perpetuates imperialist oppression of nations. Whoever advocates taking advantage of the present embarrassments of the governments to fight for social revolution champions the real freedom of really all nations, which is possible only under socialism.
As in 1939, the outbreak of war in 1914 threw European socialists into confusion. Most European parties (including the German, generally considered to be the most advanced in the world) supported the war. Only a few individuals such as Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Gallacher opposed the war …And of course in Russia the Bolshevik party as a whole carried out a principled and resolute struggle against social-chauvinism. Lenin’s analysis of social-chauvinism was:
Social-chauvinism is advocacy of the idea of the ’defence of the fatherland’ in the current war. Further this idea logically leads onto the abandonment of the class struggle during the war, to voting war credits etc. Actually, the social-chauvinists are pursuing an anti-proletarian, bourgeois policy; for actually, they are championing not the ’defence of the fatherland’ in the sense of fighting foreign oppression, but the right of one or the other ’great powers to plunder colonies and to oppress other nations. The social-chauvinists repeat the b0urgeois deception of the people that the war is being waged to protect the freedom and existence of nations, and thereby go over to the side of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat.
For Leninists then there can be no case for supporting one’s ’own’ imperialist bourgeoisie in an imperialist war. Lenin urged socialists to work for the defeat of their ’own’ ruling classes and to turn the war into a civil war:
The reactionary character of this war, and the shameless lies told by the bourgeoisie of ALL countries in covering up their predatory aims with ’national’ ideology, are invariably creating, on the basis of an objectively revolutionary situation, revolutionary moods among the masses. It is our task to help the masses to become conscious of these moods, to deepen and formulate them. This task is correctly expressed only in the slogan; convert the imperialist war into civil war.. . it is impossible to foretell whether a powerful revolutionary movement will flame up during the first or second war of the great powers, whether during or after it; in any case our bounden duty is systematically and undeviatingly to work in this direction.
Unfortunately only the Bolshevik party was able to act successfully on this advice and so the imperialist powers lived to fight another day and in 1939 the second imperialist world war broke out. What it is necessary to do now is to analyse the differences in circumstances between 1914 and decide if the line of 1914 was still applicable in 1939. What were those differences? Firstly that one group of imperialist powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) were Fascist powers and that the opposing group (Britain, France and later the USA) were bourgeois democratic in character. Secondly that a socialist country existed. This latter factor could not affect the nature of the war until 1941 when the German imperialists invaded the Soviet Union.
For SM, the fact that Britain was fighting a Fascist country and was itself a bourgeois democracy means that the ’contradiction’ between bourgeois democracy and Fascism was principal and that (by implication) the contradictions between British imperialism and the oppressed nations and between the British bourgeoisie and proletariat had become secondary. SM doesn’t argue this he merely asserts it. Perhaps he believes it to be self-evident, but it certainly isn’t so to the authors – NOR WAS IT TO THE COMINTERN IN 1939. In his spirited defence of the Comintern line of 1941 onwards SM conveniently ignores the fact that the Comintern line of 1941 argued that the war was an imperialist war and should not be supported by the Communist parties and the working people. In November 1939 the Comintern said:
Three of the richest states – England, France and the USA – hold sway over the most important world routes and markets. They seized possession of the main sources of raw materials. In their hands are huge economic resources. They hold over half of mankind in subjection. They cover up the exploitation of the working people, the exploitation of the oppressed peoples, with the false phantom of democracy, so as to more easily deceive the masses.
Fighting against their world supremacy, and for their own mastery, are the other capitalist states, which came later onto the path of colonial expansion. They want to divide anew, to their own advantage, the sources of raw materials, food, gold reserves, and the huge masses of people in the colonies. Such is the real meaning of this war, which is an unjust, reactionary, imperialist war.
Those who would support the war are answered as follows;
Workers! Don’t believe those who wave the flag of national unity. What can there be in common between you and those who profit by the war? What unity can there be between exploited and exploiters?
Don’t believe those who are calling upon you to support the war under the false pretext of the defence of democracy. What right to speak of democracy have those who oppress India, Indo-China, the Arab countries, who keep half the world in the chains of colonial slavery…the lords of Britain maintain reaction on all the five continents of the earth.
Those who, like SM, support the line adopted in 1941, have a duty to explain why the first line was wrong, (or, if both were right, to explain that). The line was changed immediately after the invasion of the Soviet Union by the German imperialists. Now it could be argued that the duty of all Communists was then to support their ’own’ country’s war effort against the Germans, a war to defend the Soviet Union. But this line isn’t argued; the line that is put is of a ’war against Fascism’, a ’war in defence of democracy’. If that were the case then it was also so in 1939! In fact of course the two lines are irreconcilable, the second one being born out of the CPSU’s subordination of the interests of the working people and oppressed nations of the world to the state interests of the Soviet Union.
What then were the main contradictions in the world in 1939? They were:
1) Between the imperialist powers and the oppressed nations.
2) Between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in the imperialist powers.
3) Between the imperialist powers.
4) Between the imperialist powers and the Soviet Union.
After the outbreak of war in 1939 the contradiction between the imperialist powers became the most acute on a world scale. For the oppressed nations of the world the contradiction between themselves and the imperialist powers remained principal and for the proletariat in the imperialist powers the contradiction between themselves and the bourgeoisie remained principal.
The line that the ’contradiction’ between bourgeois democracy and Fascism was principal is superficially convincing. But what does the adoption of this line mean in practice? It means subordinating the struggles of the proletariat and the oppressed nations to the interests of the British and French (and later American) imperialists.
For the working people of Britain and France it meant that the struggle for socialism should be postponed simply because the British bourgeoisie was fighting an imperialist rival. The fact that the imperialist rival was Fascist does not significantly alter the case. The line of the bourgeoisie that the war was being fought in ’defence of democracy’ was so much sand thrown in the eyes of the workers, just like the crap about ’gallant little Belgium’ and ’Prussian Militarism’ in 1914. In the words of Dimitrov;
The older generation of workers who experienced the first imperialist world war, well remember how at that time the press of Britain and France sought day in and day out to prove that the governments of those countries were waging war only ’in defence of democracy’ against ’Prussian militarism’, while the German press, in their turn sought to convince people that the war was being waged against ’Russian Tsarism’. In actual fact, however, as is well known, what was taking place was a struggle between two groups of imperialists for the repartition of the earth.
Marxists accept that there is a difference between bourgeois democracy and Fascism, although the difference is quantitative, rather than qualitative. Fascism is the face that capitalism wears in its death throes, with the mask of bourgeois democracy thrown aside. In the struggle against Fascism the working class cannot enter into a united front with the bourgeoisie because there is no qualitative difference between them because bourgeois democracy and Fascism are both FORMAL aspects of capitalism (individual members of the bourgeoisie may of course be won over to a broad front against Fascism, as Fascism can be against the interest of individual capitalists). The only way that the working people can liquidate the threat of Fascism is by the overthrow of the capitalist system; therefore to talk of the 1939-45 war as an ’anti-Fascist’ war is sheer sophistry. As Dimitrov said;
The Communist parties must rapidly reorganise their ranks in accordance with the conditions of the war, purge their ranks of capitulatory elements, and establish Bolshevik discipline. They must concentrate their fire against opportunism, expressed in slipping into the position of ’defending the fatherland’, in support of the fairy tale about the-anti-Fascist character of the war, and in retreat before the acts of oppression of the bourgeoisie.
A far more serious betrayal by the Communist parties was their betrayal of the nations oppressed by imperialism. In demanding that the oppressed nations give up their struggle for independence (as the western parties did) for the duration of the war the western Communist parties lapsed into gross social-chauvinism. Irrespective of their subjective feelings about ’fighting Fascism’, objectively they were supporting their ’own’ imperialist bourgeoisie in their efforts to maintain their exploitation of the colonies. In reality the Communist parties and ”working people of the imperialist powers were fighting for the continued enslavement of the colonial peoples and for their own continued exploitation by capitalism.
We believe that the correct line, for the western parties in a situation where
The bourgeoisie are doing everything to compel millions of people to go to war and die for a cause that is alien to them. But the proletariat, the working people have nothing to defend in this war. It is not their war, but the war of their exploiters. It brings them suffering, privation, ruin and death. Were they to support such a war, they would be merely defending the interests of their enslavers and oppressors, would be supporting capitalist slavery.
would have been that of revolutionary defeatism, of turning the imperialist war into civil war. This line should have been carried out even in the event of German occupation. We say that the French CP were wrong to “engage in armed resistance against the Germans as Lenin said: “A revolutionary class cannot but wish for the defeat of its government in a reactionary war, cannot fail to see that its military reverses facilitate its overthrow”. To fight foreign occupiers is only justifiable in national liberation wars, to fight them in imperialist wars is to support your ’own’ imperialist bourgeoisie and their rape and plunder of the colonies. The fact that the invaders might be Fascist is a secondary question and in any case, fighting them on that basis assumes a qualitative difference between Fascism and bourgeois democracy. The general line of revolutionary defeatism put forward by Lenin in the 1914-18 war REMAINED CORRECT in the 1939-45 war. This line was in fact the, line of the Comintern in 1939-41;
The imperialists of the warring countries have begun the war for a new partition of the earth, for world domination, dooming millions of people to destruction. The working class is called upon to put an end to the war after its own fashion, in its own interests, in the interests of the whole of labouring mankind and thereby to destroy once and for all the fundamental causes giving rise to imperialist wars.
In summary then the war started by two groups of imperialist states in 1939 was a straight imperialist war and the fact that one group was Fascist and the other bourgeois-democratic was irrelevant. The Communist Parties and the working people could not possibly justify supporting that war and in fact should have taken advantage of the acute contradictions to overthrow the capitalist system and liberate the colonies. This was the general line of the Comintern from September 1939 to June 1941 when the German: imperialists invaded the Soviet Union.
Clearly the invasion of the Soviet Union introduced a major new factor into the war. But as we have already argued the Comintern, the CPSU and the western parties didn’t argue that the war was a war in defence of, the, Soviet Union, but rather a war in ’defence of democracy’, an ’anti-Fascist war’. We have already shown that these formulations were social chauvinist. SM argues that the policy of 1941 was a policy of;
.. supporting the interests of the Socialist Soviet Union on the one hand, and of the working class in both the Fascist countries and the western democracies on the other....
The truly extraordinary thing about this statement, and indeed of SM’s whole defence of the new Comintern line, is that no where does SM consider the question of the relationship of the ’western democracies’ to the oppressed nations. We suggest that this is because any examination of this relationship will reveal the utter opportunism of the Comintern line of 1941. If in imperialist countries the Communist parties and the working people support the imperialist wars of those countries then they cannot do other than support the predatory aims of their ’own’ imperialist bourgeoisie.
SM does not distinguish between united fronts in imperialist countries and united fronts in countries oppressed by imperialism. In the latter a united front of classes takes place under the direction of a Marxist-Leninist Party, with the objective of defeating Imperialism and then starting the struggle for socialist revolution. In the former, as the proletariat do not have state power, any united front in an imperialist war can only objectively be an unholy alliance of bourgeoisie and proletariat for the purpose of maintaining the enslavement of the colonies. SM says of Birchall that he has;
...no understanding of correct united front policies because of a leftist error of believing that the only progressive force at anytime is the working class, that all enemies can be fought at once, and that any other approach is to compromise ’principles’.
Unlike Birchall and most other Trotskyists the authors of this article do recognise the need for compromises with class enemies in certain situations. Obvious examples from our epoch are the principled compromises made by the Chinese and Vietnamese comrades with their national bourgeoisies in their common struggle against imperialism. That is a principled compromise.
There are different kinds of compromises. One must be able to analyse the situation and the concrete conditions of each. One must learn to distinguish between a man who has given up his money and fire-arms to bandits so as to lessen the evil that they can do and to facilitate their capture and execution, and a man who gives his money and fire-arms to bandits so as to share in the loot.
We would suggest that the compromise made by the Comintern and the western parties with their ’own’ imperialist bourgeoisie against the German imperialists was the latter type – an unprincipled compromise, a lapse into opportunism and social-chauvinism.
Now let us examine the Comintern statements of May Day 1942 (the first to be issued after the invasion of the Soviet Union);
May Day 1942 comes in a year of great historic decisions. This year May Day is more than a day when the working class reviews its force so it is a day of mobilization against Hitler in a life and death struggle....
The issue at stake is not only the destiny of any one nation or anyone class. The liberty and independence of all nations are at stake. It is a question of saving them from the mortal foes who are thrown into a fury at the very sound of such words as the rights of man, liberty and democracy....
The workers of the whole world and the nations are determined once and for all to win a lasting and durable peace and seek only to destroy Hitler fascism. For a whole generation May Day was a day when the worker fortified his faith in his own strength and felt himself at one with his class brothers, a day when he felt conscious of belonging to a mighty militant body. The significance of May Day 1942 is incomparably greater; this year it is a day of rallying all people, all honest men who cherish freedom for the struggle in defence of their decent existence, for the sacred liberation war against Fascism, for the cause of all mankind.
The change in the politics and language since the statements of 1939 is truly remarkable Instead of the forthright Marxist analysis and urging of the class war of Lenin, we read (in the case of the authors, with nausea) of the ’rights of man, liberty and democracy’ of ’honest men who cherish freedom’ and of ’the cause of all mankind’. This is all so much humbug and cant! The class war has ended and we are all (the entire imperialist bourgeoisie included) ’honest men who cherish freedom’. Probably the most significant thing about the document is that (long before Khrushchev) the Leninist concept of liquidating war by liquidating imperialism is turned on its head and instead a ’lasting and durable peace’ is to be achieved by defeating ’Hitler Fascism’.
How does SM imagine that the Communist Parties and working people could, in a principled fashion, support the Soviet Union’s war effort by supporting their ’own’ bourgeoisie’s war effort? Nowhere does he explain this in concrete terms. Like the rest of this section of his article it remains an unsubstantiated assertion. In reality of course it couldn’t be done – the principal effect of supporting the war effort was, as we have shown in this article that of supporting imperialism. Obviously the war effort of the Soviet Union was considerably helped by the western power’s war effort, but this could not in any way justify the principal aspect of supporting an imperialist war.
The period covered is of key importance to Marxist-Leninists, but in our work to more fully understand it, far from receiving help from the Trotskyists, we will have to continuously combat their errors.
We agree that we will get no help from the Trotskyists in understanding the period but we will have to go far beyond SM’s simplistic defence of our past history if past errors are to be isolated and learned from. Marx once said that history repeats itself, the first time as farce, the second time as tragedy. We have had the farce – the Comintern line of 1941. The tragedy might be yet to come – the growing contention between Soviet social-imperialism and US imperialism in Europe might bring a very nasty chicken home to roost!
An Editorial comment in Marxist-Leninist Quarterly 11 (1976) stated:
In the last issue of MLQ we published an article by two comrades entitled NEITHER ADVENTURISM NOR OPPORTUNISM – A REPLY TO SM (MLQ 10). This article represented a minority position in the CFB, and more over questioned a long standing line of the Communist Movement. It was therefore incorrect to publish this without a refutation of the position, or without explanation. As a response to this we publish an article from Peking Review no.20 1975, ’Commemoration 30th Anniversary of Victory over German Fascism’ which clearly puts the line that:
“The anti-fascist war was a gigantic struggle between the world anti-fascist forces and German-Italian-Japanese fascism, a just war on a scale unprecedented in the history of mankind.
It also points out that the victory over anti-fascism laid the basis for further advances towards socialism, and links the post war retrogression which took place to the victory of the revisionism over Marxism in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
 MLQ 8&9 – SM’s review article. Workers Against the Monolith’ by Ian Birchall
 Lenin – ’Socialism and War’ – Published in ’Lenin on War and Peace’ FLPH, Peking.
 Comintern statement of 11th Nov. 1939 – ’On the Occasion of the 22nd Anniversary of the October Revolution’. (This and all the other Comintern documents referred to are to be found in ’Documents of the Communist International’ Vol 3, edited by Jane Degrass).
 Comintern statement of 11th Nov. 1939 – ’On the Tasks of the Working Class in the Imperialist War – Dimitrov.
 MLQ 8&9, Op. cit
 Lenin,’Left Wing Communism – An Infantile Disorder’.
 Comintern statement of May Day 1942
 MLQ 8&9, Op. cit.