MIA: History: ETOL: Documents: International Communist League/Spartacists—PRS 2

“Attitude of the Proletariat Towards Imperialist War”

submitted by the Left Faction of the Revolutionary Socialist League

Written: 1944
Source: Prometheus Research Library, New York. Published in Prometheus Research Series 2, 1989.
Transcription/Markup/Proofing: David Walters, John Heckman, Prometheus Research Library
Public Domain: Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line 2006/Prometheus Research Library. You can freely copy, display and otherwise distribute this work. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive & Prometheus Research Library as your source, include the url to this work, and note the transcribers & editors above.

The text of this resolution, which was submitted to the March 1944 founding conference of the British Revolutionary Communist Party by the Left Faction of the former RSL, is taken from six unsigned, undated pages headlined only with the title of the resolution.

I. The Validity of Leninist Policy

This Conference declares that the policy of revolutionary defeatism as laid down by Lenin during the First World War is entirely applicable to the present conflict. No new factors have arisen which can justify a departure from this fundamental proletarian policy towards Imperialist War.

The view that the rise of fascism constitutes a new factor warranting the abandonment of the policy of revolutionary defeatism and the adoption of a defencist policy is a manifestation of petty-bourgeois ideology and is irreconcilable with the profession of socialist internationalism. The policy of revolutionary defeatism is applicable in all belligerent imperialist powers irrespective of the state form—whether fascist or democratic.

The existence of the Soviet Union warrants only tactical changes. It cannot justify an abandonment of the basic expression of the class struggle in war time—the policy of revolutionary defeatism.

II. The Fundamental Premise of Revolutionary Action in War Time

The policy of revolutionary defeatism constitutes an assurance that there will be no capitulation to bourgeois ideology. It guarantees that the struggle for socialism will be carried on unaffected by fears of it facilitating “national disaster.”

The fear of “National disaster” is the main weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie for the maintenance of its hegemony in war time for it is the source of all opportunist (chauvinist) deviations, hence the Leninist axiom—“A revolutionary class in a reactionary war cannot but desire the defeat of its own government” constitutes the premise of every truly revolutionary action in war time.

Such a desire and only such a desire is compatible with genuine class struggle. Revolution in war time is civil war, and the transformation of war between governments into civil war is on the one hand facilitated by military reverses (defeats) of governments, on the other hand it is impossible really to strive for such a transformation without thereby facilitating defeat.

The desire of defeat must not be relinquished even where it is clear that such defeat carries with it the military victory of the enemy bourgeoisie. Defeat, even though it be by a “fascist” country, demoralises not the proletariat but the bourgeoisie hence such a defeat constitutes not an aid but an obstacle to the victory of fascism.

Fascism can in no wise be imposed by an army of occupation. Fascism is based on the demoralisation of the working class and the destruction of its organisations and must not be confused with a military dictatorship. The demoralisation of the proletariat which is the fundamental condition for the victory of fascism can derive only from its failure to achieve socialism after a favourable opportunity has presented itself. Then and only then does the “initiative” pass to the frenzied petty bourgeoisie—which acting as agents of the big bourgeoisie, vents its despair—in the form of hate, upon the proletariat. Under a military occupation the petty bourgeoisie is more inclined to direct its hate against the foreign army, not against the proletariat. Fascism can only be “home grown.” Nor is the victory of democratic imperialism in any way other than that of disintegrating and demoralising the bourgeoisie whose power is exercised through a fascist state, conducive to the restoration of “democracy.”

In the conditions of imperialist war the distinction between decaying democracy and murderous fascism disappears in the face of the collapse of the entire capitalist system. From the point of view of the British Workers the victory of German Imperialism is preferable to the victory of “democratic” Britain and conversely from the point of view of the German workers the victory of Britain is preferable to the victory of “fascist” arms. The class conscious proletarian sees in such victories only the defeat and humiliation of his own exploiters which he ardently desires.

The proletarian does not regard imperialist war as simply a war between governments hence he does not consider that to desire the defeat of one’s own government is the same as desiring the victory of the “enemy” government. In a war between governments he is neutral, but imperialist war is a manifestation of the class conflict within society consequently he is not neutral towards his own bourgeoisie, he is not impartial towards the military fate of his own oppressor but desires the defeat of his own ruling class—the class which directly exploits him.

To his own bourgeoisie he is related by the fact of direct exploitation, to the enemy bourgeoisie he is related on the one hand by the fact of it being the enemy of his own bourgeoisie in a war between governments, and by the fact of it being the oppressor of his class brother—the proletarian of the “enemy” country. Thus his only real enemy (sole enemy if allied countries are excluded) is his own bourgeoisie, in relation to the imperialist war he is neutral to the enemy bourgeoisie (desiring neither victory nor defeat), but of course desires its defeat by his brother proletarian. Thus also is it impossible for the proletariat to strike a blow in war time at the enemy bourgeoisie without striking at the proletariat of the “enemy” country and aiding its own bourgeoisie.

International action in war time is directed solely against one’s own bourgeoisie.

Lenin’s axiom is the prerequisite for serious revolutionary action, not because revolution is impossible without military defeat, history proves only that defeats are more advantageous to the revolutionary proletariat than victories, but because the proletariat and in particular the vanguard of the proletariat is rendered impotent unless it desires the defeat of its own government.

III. Application of the Policy of Revolutionary Defeatism

Revolutionary defeatism counterposes to the bourgeois necessity of achieving victory the necessity of the proletariat desiring the defeat of its own government. To the bourgeois lie that the enemy country is the cause of the war it counterposes the concept of our own bourgeoisie bearing to us sole responsibility for the war and its effects. To hatred of the enemy—fraternisation, to imperialist war—civil war for socialism. The task of the revolutionary party is to destroy the influence of bourgeois ideology upon the masses and to impose a socialist ideology upon the struggles of the proletariat. In war time the most pernicious and dangerous illusion is defencism. Defencism is a manifestation of nationalism—revolutionary defencism of national socialism. It is an insuperable obstacle to fraternisation and the achievement of international socialism. Hence the substitution of defeatism for defencism is of vital importance. The destruction of the elements of chauvinism can be accomplished only by counterposing the class needs of the masses to the national needs—the needs of the bourgeoisie.

The defencism of the masses is mixed with many progressive sentiments and class instincts. The development of these features into a socialist consciousness cannot be accomplished simply by supporting the progressive features for to the masses they are inextricably mixed with the defencist illusions, but only by counterposing the one to the other.

Failure to bring the class features into opposition to the nationalistic features means to give a “left” covering to patriotism. This is the role of charlatans. Attempts to capture the leadership of the workers on any other basis than that of revolutionary defeatism will lead to social-patriotism, to the destruction of the Revolutionary Party. This is not to say that the masses can be won to the banner of the Fourth International on the slogans of “turn imperialist war into civil war,” etc., but slogans which are evasive and ambiguous with regard to the proletarian attitude to the war are a betrayal of socialist internationalism.

The value of all slogans, demands, etc., must be measured by the extent to which they enlighten the masses, destroy bourgeois ideological influence, raise socialist consciousness. During an imperialist war—especially prior to the revolutionary upsurge this means above all the raising of the internationalism of the workers. Therefore it is necessary to patiently explain the nature of the war, its incompatibility with working-class interests, and the necessity of fraternisation with the workers in the “enemy” country on the basis of class struggle each against his own ruling class. At first the Revolutionary Party can expect only to swim against the stream, but on its ability to do this depends its whole future. If it makes the smallest concession to defencism and fails to correct it, it is irretrievably lost.

IV. Revolutionary Defencism

Revolutionary Defencism constitutes an attempt to reconcile the socialist tasks of the proletariat with the bourgeois task of resisting defeat. It is an expression of petty-bourgeois ideology. Revolutionary Defencism seeks to present the revolution as a means of defeating the imperialist enemy, or of opposing defeat of one’s own country by the enemy. The socialist revolution is not a means of solving bourgeois national problems, but of resolving the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeois nationalist problems of the imperialist belligerents were solved nearly a century ago. The policy of revolutionary defencism might possess some justification in a colonial war, at least if undertaken in a spirit of internationalism, but its application to an imperialist war is nothing but the policy of the social-chauvinist Kautsky, the “internationalism” of which serves only to justify the working class in every country with the defence each of its own fatherland. It is a betrayal of international socialism.

Such a policy, notwithstanding its “revolutionary” flavour, cannot advance the working class one real step forward. Defencist illusions do not constitute a means of achieving the socialist revolution, they only bar the way to an internationalist attitude which is the prerequisite for fraternisation and the transformation of imperialist war into civil war.

Revolutionary defencism has found numerous specious formulations—telescoping the tasks of winning the war and the revolution, defeating one’s own bourgeoisie first. The use of such general formulas as “The workers everywhere are the enemies of the bourgeoisie everywhere and working-class action in our own country encourages working-class action in the enemy country,” serve as a cover for defencism. The former as a justification of “neither victory nor defeat,” and the latter to justify a desire for the military defeat of the enemy. Even fraternisation has been presented as a weapon, not against our own bourgeoisie but against the enemy bourgeoisie also. The practical results of this “internationalism” in the spirit of Kautsky have been the American Military Policy, demands for efficient military equipment, deep shelters, better rationing, increased production, etc. Slogans which can only drive the workers further into the blind alley of defencism, into disillusionment and demoralisation.

The American Military Policy (Chicago Conference Policy) is not a working-class policy but a petty-bourgeois hotch potch. It represents a fundamental departure from the traditions of the Fourth International. It adopts the view that this imperialist war would be progressive if it were under workers control, “we never...give them (the capitalists) any confidence in their conduct of the war.” As a general formula it is true a workers state wages progressive wars but we are confronted with specific conditions—not abstractions. This war is an imperialist war in which millions of workers are engaged in the slaughter of their class brothers at the behest of their own exploiters. It is reactionary to demand that this bloody slaughter, this crime should be conducted “under workers control.” Moreover the fact of the workers in each country demanding of its own bourgeoisie that it be made responsible for the slaughter of its fellow-workers cannot lead to international socialism, hence the “workers control” can never be realised, it remains an empty phrase. All that remains is support of the imperialist war.

The American Military Policy advocated that the workers should “fight against sending of worker-soldiers into battle without proper training and equipment.” This is alleged to be a translation of Trotsky’s Military Policy. However the class-conscious proletarian can distinguish between not wishing to permit one’s own bourgeoisie recklessly to squander the lives of workers even though it be in the slaughter of brother workers and demanding the efficient prosecution of that slaughter.

The demand for deep shelters—a specific demand which flows from acceptance of the American Military Policy can only be distinguished from the demand for superior weapons of war by drawing an absolute distinction between offence and defence and between military personnel and civilians. The demand springs from the masses because they accept the necessity of winning the war and desire to protect their lives. The necessity of winning the war is a product of bourgeois deception and is reactionary. The desire to protect one’s life is not specifically working-class—nor for that matter specifically human. It becomes specifically working-class only if it means protection of working-class lives (soldiers no less than civilians) from the attacks of one’s own bourgeoisie, i.e., if one’s own bourgeoisie is held responsible for the war and its effects (bombing); but in this case the demand for shelters is nonsensical. The demand for shelters is in fact directed only in form against one’s own bourgeoisie, in essence it is an act of aggression against the proletariat of the “enemy” country. It is a betrayal of international class solidarity.

Similarly the demand for “increased production” springs from the desire to “defeat fascism,” i.e., German imperialism and as such it possesses no progressive content. The addition of the words “under workers control” does not alter the general character of the slogan. It only adds a “socialist” covering to the bourgeois lie of “defeating fascism.” The outcome of bourgeois lies can never be socialism, not any step towards it. The demand for “increased production” to aid the Soviet Union did possess a certain progressive feature—the desire to aid a workers state. But this feature could possess no value to the workers despite its class nature until it was counterposed to the defencist—i.e., bourgeois features. Failure to counterpose the desire of the workers to aid a workers state to their desire to prevent the defeat of “their own” country, e.g., by demanding that all existing arms be sent from Britain without regard to the interests of national defence, left the workers at the mercy of the Stalinists. In a slogan such as “Total Aid to the Soviet Union,” the addition of “under workers control” would not be a deception of the working class.

The demand for the ending of the Party truce may be progressive or reactionary. Progressive if counterposed to the bourgeois task of winning the war, reactionary if advanced as a means to the better prosecution of the war.

In circumstances in which the masses are dominated by defencist illusions it is valueless to adopt slogans which fail to oppose such illusions. It is necessary to place the working-class necessity of ending the truce in as sharp opposition as circumstances will allow to the “national interest,” to “winning the war.”

The idea that to call upon the workers to seize power can never be reactionary whatever the purpose is in its very essence unmarxist. No slogan can possess an intrinsic progressiveness. The call to the workers to seize power must be evaluated not in accordance with some Kantian virtue of the “slogan in itself” but by the purpose—the aim for which the slogan is advanced. “To seize power in order to defeat fascism” is in existing circumstances no more progressive than support of the imperialist war. The aim of “defeating fascism” is the aim of our own bourgeoisie even though the original deception practised by the bourgeoisie is cloaked by a “socialistic” demand to “seize power.” A slogan cannot alter the character of the imperialist war.

V. Defencism of the Leaders and of the Masses

Defencism is a manifestation of bourgeois ideology. It infects the Revolutionary Vanguard through the capitulation of the masses to the intense ideological pressure exerted by the bourgeoisie through the instrumentality of the reformist leadership. But a “Revolutionary Vanguard” which succumbs to such influences and is unable to extricate itself is worthless. A failure of a “leadership” to resist an alien ideological pressure implies a failure to analyse the class origin of this pressure, that is, that it adopts a non-marxist, non-proletarian standpoint. It is petty-bourgeois. The masses on the other hand slowly but surely overcome their defencist illusions. The ideological pressure of the bourgeoisie is counteracted by the demands made by the bourgeoisie upon the proletariat. The sacrifices made by the workers in the interests of winning the war so sharply conflict with their class interests that the desire for the defeat and humiliation of their exploiters becomes the dominating factor in their attitude to the war. It is entirely untrue that the masses are unable to comprehend and accept the Leninist policy of Revolutionary Defeatism. The masses can assimilate every marxist theoretical question, but they do it in their own way, by testing it “under fire,” in the same way they test the Revolutionary Leadership. Those “leaders” who have been unable to swim against the stream, who have capitulated to defencism and been unable to extricate themselves, are lost to the movement. The masses will never accept them as the Revolutionary Vanguard.

VI. Defencism and the Fourth International Leadership

Defencist tendencies in the Fourth International have manifested themselves most markedly in precisely those countries in which the proletariat has more than its chains to lose—those countries which possess or possessed at the outbreak of the war colonial empires on the basis of which the bourgeoisie could grant its proletariat a privileged position. Hence it is not surprising to find that one feature of this defencism is expressed as a desire to “defeat fascism”—i.e., as opposition to the loss of a privileged position—as a pampered slave.

Such opportunism must inevitably infect and is in fact infecting every aspect of Fourth International policy. In America and Britain the Fourth International is following in the footsteps of the 2nd., and 3rd., Internationals and it is useless to attempt to appeal to the absence of a distinct social strata in the Fourth International as the basis for degeneration. “History knows degenerations of all sorts” and the ideological influence of a “parasitic” proletariat may yet provide the basis for the death of Trotsky’s International.

If the Fourth International is to live it must purge its ranks of all defencists. Not the slightest concession must be made to revolutionary defencism. At the core lies the need for a firm internationalist leadership which can resist the pressure of alien interests. This, not “objective conditions,” is the only guarantee that the Fourth International can fulfill its historic role.