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Fourth International, January 1942


Editorial Comment

[The Far-Eastern War]

[They Dared Not Arm the Natives]


From Fourth International, vol.3 No.2, February 1942, pp.35-38.
Transcribed, Edited & Formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for the ETOL.


The Successes of Japanese Imperialism in the Far East, Products of Desperation – The “Mistakes” of the Imperialist Democracies Which Dared Not Arm the Colonial Peoples – The Nakedly Imperialist Character of the War – What Opposition to the War Means – The Problem of Winning Over the Masses to the Socialist Revolution

It begins to appear very possible that the two most powerful imperialist countries in the world will be compelled, for this stage of the war, to aurrender their dominant position in the western Pacific and Asia to Japanese imperialism. They have certainly received mighty blows; with the Japanese already in control of the Philippines and Malaya, and holding strong footholds in Burma and the Dutch East Indies, the Anglo-American forces may well be ousted for a time before they succeed in mobilizing their tremendous resources of manpower and armameits.

One could develop some striking analogies between the successes of the Japanese and those of the Nazis, despite the far weaker industrial base of Japan. In both cases “hungry” imperialists, commanding resources inferior to those of their opponents, out of very desperation more than made up for their economic inferiority by new military techniques, superior preparation and by striking the first blows. For the “hungry” imperialists, it was a question of life or death and they embarked on conquest with the desperation of cornered rats. Their wealthy opponents, on the other hand, were weakened by the complacency of their long-continued superiority – the commanders of Pearl Harbor and Singapore were as certain of their invincibility as were the generals of the Maginot Line – and by the fundamental contradictions growing out of their very wealth – unemployment, idle capital, the apathy of the masses of France and its European satellites and of the colonies of the “democracies.”

The smug decadence of the American officer caste in Hawaii and of the British overlords in the Far East have become matters of public record. Time magazine (January 12) sighs for “the old robust, acquisitive East” of the conquerors of the Nineteenth Century which has become “an effete, tired, hyper-civilized society.” It confesses that the causes of the defeats “lay, deep as marrow” in “super-AngloSaxon complacency.” The London Sunday Express, flagellating its own class in bitterness at the defeats, complained: “The rich men again could not bear to see their property destroyed (in Malaya). They toasted the land instead of scorching it.” The CBS correspondent in Singapore, Cecil Brown, was expelled for cabling Life: “The atrophying malady of dying-without-death, best known as the ‘Singapore mentality,’ largely helped to bring the Japanese more than 125 miles inside Malaya. For civilians this walking death is characterized by an apathy to all affairs except making tin and rubber, money, having stengahs between 5 and 8 p.m., keeping fit, being known as a ‘good chap,’ and getting thoroughly ‘plawstered’ on Saturday night.”

This “self-criticism” even extended to the hitherto unmentionable question of arming the natives. The London Daily Express (January 15) bitterly complained: “We could have had a native defense force in Malaya of even better quality than that which General MacArthur raised in the Philippines. But a pack of whisky-swilling planters and military birds of passage have forgotten this side of the Malayan population. They have handed it over to the Japanese, together with the radio station and stores of Penang.” And as the chorus grew, lo and behold, even one of the newspapers of overlords in the colonies, the Singapore Free Press, declared that Singapore Asiatic peoples should be given arms to defend themselves against the approaching Japanese, declaring: “No invader relishes the task of subduing a population plentifully supplied with grenades, rifles, pistols and tommy-guns.” The hypocrisy of this belated proposal is not lost on the correspondent who cabled it to the New York Post (January 15); he terms it “unthinkable and certainly unmentioned before the invaders passed Kuala Lumpur,” and sardonically notes “But shooting scenes in westerns and gangster films are still censored” – the Asiatics might be inspired to emulate them against their British masters.

From Chungking come bitter indictments of British and American strategy in the Far East; the bitterness seems exacerbated by the thought of the Chinese bourgeoisie: And these are the people who treat us as inferiors! A January 13 United Press dispatch quotes a Chinese newspaper which summarizes the two “vital Allied mistakes” as follows: “First, failure to carry out a true scorched-earth policy, and second, failure to accomplish mobilization of native populations, resulting in most effective fifth-column activity.”

These so-called mistakes, however, emanate from the very essence of the character of imperialist rule. The imperialists, of course, have never wanted to arm and train mass armies of natives. That would have been dangerous to their continued rule. The colonial masses certainly cannot be convinced that this is a war for democracy. The ignorant and uneducated natives are not learned enough in logic and casuistry to see black as white and white as black. They look at things as they are and they know from very intimate and practical experience that democracy has nothing to do with this war. Neither do the Malayans, the Filipinos, the Burmese, the natives of the Netherlands Indies, appear to be too perturbed about a change of masters – at least not sufficiently to rouse them to a life and death struggle for one master as against another.

The Imperialist Character of the War

The whole situation in the south-western Pacific is characterized by the fact that the native population, although greater in number than the Japanese, has not been mobilized by the British, Dutch and American warlords. But, we repeat, this is not a “mistake,” rather it expresses the nature of imperialist rule, the irreconcilable clash of interests between the “democracies” and their colonial slaves.

We must admit that we are left completely undisturbed at the prospect of seeing the American, British and Dutch imperialists kicked out of the preserves they have for so long marked out as their own. Our regret is that it was not the native population that kicked them out, for we are just as much opposed to Japanese imperialism exploiting the natives as we are to exploitation by the “democratic” imperialisms.

Let bourgeois moralists and hypocrites raise their hands in horror at the infamy of Japan striking at Pearl Harbor and Malaya withoilt due notice. For revolutionary Marxists the aggressor in this war as in all imperialist wars is the imperialist clique that controls every capitalist country. The struggle for colonies, for markets, and for spheres of influence is the aggression that is responsible for this war and that is inherent in imperialism. When the representatives of the imperialist. democracies complain about the “unethical conduct” of the fascist dictatorships, it merely prompts us to recall that they did not acquire the colonies by following the precepts of Christ or the Marquis of Queensbury rules.

Too much has been written by everybody about rubber and tin as the true reasons for the conflict, for the myth to persist that democracy, is involved in the war with Japan. The actual causes of the conflict between Hitler and the “democracies” are. unfortunately not so visible to the broad masses in England and the United States, but in the war with Japan sources of raw materials, colonies, fields of investment, stand out so plainly as the real causes that not even the bourgeois apologists, trouble overmuch to deny the realities.

When Roosevelt indicts Japan because its “scheme of conquest goes back half a century” (speech of January 6, 1942) he certainly treads on dangerous ground for, if age determines the degree of the guilt of an imperialist clique, then British imperialism and the United States are no less guilty than Germany and Japan. And it is the age of British imperialism and the tremendous wealth of American imperialism that give Hitler and the spokesmen of Japanese imperialism powerful arguments with which to sway the minds of their followers. Why should the Japanese and the Germans and the Italians be reduced to the category of poor nations without colonies, without raw materials, without markets, shout the leaders, of these respective imperialist nations? What divine law decrees that Great Britain and the United States should control all the wealth of this world? And to the Italian and German and Japanese people the “democracies” have no effective answer to the Nazi arguments. The four freedoms which Roosevelt claims he is fighting for are abstractions which mean at best, to the masses of Germany and Italy and Japan, a continuation of their miserable existence.

To revolutionary Marxists Roosevelt’s claim that he is fighting for the four freedoms is as valid as Hitler’s claim that he is the champion of Europe and humanity.

This war on the part of all nations, except the Soviet Union and China, is imperialist in character. That knowledge determines for revolutionary Marxists the attitude they should take to the war, whether they are in the United States or Great Britain or Germany or Japan. It is a reactionary imperialist war on the part of all nations involved except the Soviet Union, a degenerated workers’ state, and China, a colonial nation fighting for its independence. This is the primary characteristic of the war; all other factors are secondary and accidental and cannot influence our principled position on the war.

What Our Opposition to the War Means

There follows, from this analysis, the necessity on the part of revolutionary Marxists to oppose the war, to oppose the class in control of all the capitalist imperialist states involved in the war. This correct attitude was taken by James P. Cannon, Secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, in a statement that was published in the January issue of Fourth International. We expected nothing less from a Trotskyist, that is, a revolutionary Marxist.

As we were forcibly reminded by the Minneapolis prosecution of the anti-war principles of the Socialist Workers Party, it is necessary to explain just what is meant. “Oppose the war” does not mean an opposition consisting of acts of sabotage. Opposition to the war is a political concept, synonymous with non-support of the war. It is, of course, an active opposition in the sense that revolutionary Marxists are obligated at all times to explain to the working masses the true nature of the war and what they should do to assure peace for themselves and future generations.

Lenin laid down the fundamental revolutionary principles which must govern the position of revolutionary Marxists in a reactionary imperialist war. He used the terms “revolutionary defeatism” and “the transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war.” Correctly interpreted (and a correct interpretation requires not a sentence taken at random from some article written by Lenin but a consideration of his position based on all his writings and taking into account the circumstances under which he wrote the articles), they mean that the revolutionary party. must not support its own government in a reactionary war and must continue during the war the education and organization of the working masses for victory against the capitalist exploiters. Revolutionary defeatism does not mean that we prefer the defeat of our own imperialism at the hand of German or Japanese imperialism, but that we favor the continuation of the class struggle for the purpose of defeating the imperialists by the revolutionary forces of the nation. And since it is certain that the minority of exploiters will forcibly resist any attempt by the working masses constituting the vast majority of the people to introduce a socialist order, it is necessary to state that the imperialist war will be transformed into a civil war if and when the majority decide to take their fate into their own hands.

The nature of the activities of a revolutionary Marxist party during an imperialist war depends, of course, on its strength and on the consciousness of the masses. If it is a small party and has no mass following, its activities are necessarily confined to propaganda and agitation centering around both the nature of the war and the immediate tasks confronting the working masses.

Essentially the task of a revolutionary Marxist party is the same in war as in peace, the gaining of the support of a majority of the laboring masses. The subject matter of the propaganda and agitational material is different, a new approach may be necessary, but the essential task remains the same.

Only ignorant and falsifying prosecutors, and ultra-left sectarians who are satisfied with a phrase and do not take the trouble to analyze its real meaning, will interpret “revolutionary defeatism” to mean anything other than that indicated above.

The Latest Alibi for the Imperialists

We need not argue much against those social democrats who insist that this is not an imperialist war, that this war is a war between conflicting ideologies, a war between fascism and democracy. These social democrats are continuing the line followed by their predecessors of the First World War. They are openly defending the interests of their own imperialist bourgeoisie. They must pretend not to hear when Eden, upon his return from a conference with Stalin, says that there would be no quarrel with Nazism if it only remained within the boundaries of its own country; or when both Hitler and Churchill express the truth that this war is a continuation of the last war. But this type of social-democratic support of the war is not our main concern.

As far as the advanced workers are concerned, the danger (because of the subtle plausibility of their argument) comes from those social. democrats who admit that this is an imperialist war, that the ruling classes of the various imperialist countries are fighting for markets, sources of raw material and spheres of influence. But, they add, it is also a war in which the working masses must give political support to the military efforts of the democratic imperialists against the fascist imperialists.

Their argument can be summed up as follows: A victory for Hitler destroys the possibility of a social revolution for generations while a victory for the imperialist democracies will permit the revolutionary party the freedom necessary for the education and organization of the working masses for the achievement of the socialist revolution.

Thus their policy is based not on the essential character. of the war but on speculation as to the victory of which side will be best for the revolutionary movement. This may be very interesting speculation but is completely useless and dangerous when presented as the motivation for a position on the war by a revolutionary party. It may possibly be that a defeat of Hitler will set into motion revolutionary forces in Europe but is it not just as likely that a defeat of the United States will set into motion revolutionary forces in the most powerful capitalist countries? Is it not likely that a defeat of Great Britain will set into motion revolutionary forces throughout the whole colonial world? The revolutionary party worthy of its salt is interested in accomplishing the social revolution in its own country first, knowing that thereby it best serves the interests of the revolutionary movement throughout the world.

Some of those who argue that the advanced workers give political support to the military efforts of the democratic imperialists admit that a victory of the democratic imperialists will also be followed by fascism unless the socialist revolution intervenes, but they contend that there will be a shorter or longer period after the military victory for the revolutionary movement to organize its forces against the fascist danger within the “democracies.”

Even granting that this is the case (though it is by no means certain that the victorious “democracies” would give the revolutionary movement a breathing spell), it still remains a fact that to support the imperialist democracies means to betray the historic interests of the working masses for a few years of grace. As against that possible advantage, the disadvantages of supporting the democratic imperialists are far more serious. For he who supports the democratic imperialists has no right to ask the support of their colonial slaves. What confidence can the enslaved colonial peoples have in a party which makes common cause with their oppressors? He who supports the democratic imperialists has no right to ask the support of the German, Italian and Japanese masses.

The revolutionary party has no alternative but to say: “This is not our war; we shall not assume the slightest responsibility for it.”

We dismiss with disdain, the dishonest argument that by our attitude we make it easier for the fascist imperialists to defeat the democratic imperialists. The capitalist interests of this country are in control of the war. So long as we are in a minority we cannot help but go to war ourselves. Revolutionary Marxists are opposed to sabotage. The capitalist government officials know that they need not fear sabotage on the part of revolutionary Marxists and any accusation of sabotage against a revolutionary worker can be nothing but a frame-up.

The Problem of Mass Agitation

Having-settled the fundamental question of principle as to what position to take with reference to the war, there still remains the problem of the method of approach to the masses – what issues to raise and how to raise them.

The problem of legality is, of course, not to be disregarded. The criminal code exists and revolutionary socialists do not disregard it when it comes to questions of tactical approach – what to say and how to say it, in order to be within the law. But that is by no means the important factor. Far more important than the legitimate desire to be within bourgeois legality is the necessity of making contact with the masses by proper slogans.

It has frequently been pointed out that the Russian workers were not won over to Bolshevism by going to the masses with the slogans of “revolutionary defeatism” or of “turning the imperialist war into a civil war.” Those were propaganda slogans for the creation of party cadres; they were used by Lenin in their sharpest form in order to create a distinct line of demarcation between the social patriots and the revolutionary Marxists, in order to destroy every remnant of social patriotism in the ranks of revolutionary socialists. But they were not and by their very nature could not be mass agitational slogans.

It is not sufficient simply to say that we follow the principles Lenin taught in the First World War. The present war is not a repetition of the war of 1914-1918; it is only a continuation. Outside of the Soviet Union, the important new factor is the one of fascism. While that factor does not change our principled line it does and must affect our whole line of agitation.

Justifiably fearful of fascism, the masses are naturally anxious to defeat Nazism and see in the military might of the democratic imperialist governments a means to achieve that objective. The fear the masses have for fascism is the most powerful weapon the democratic imperialists and their labor lieutenants have for the purpose of chaining the workers to the war machine. Revolutionists are compelled to meet the question of the threat of fascism and meet it in a manner that the masses can understand and accept.

Suicidal indeed, because so contrary to truth, would it be for a party to say: there is no difference between the democracy that exists in the United States and in England and the fascism that exists in Germany. The workers would not accept a proposition which they know is not true. There are similarities but there are great differences and those differences are important.

It is up to us to convince the workers that only through the socialist revolution can the defeat of fascism be accomplished. Our agitational material must show that the democratic imperialists are not opposed to fascism as such; that they helped Hitler consolidate his power in Germany; that this war is not fought to destroy fascism but to protect the imperialist interests of British and American capitalists against the designs of German, Japanese and Italian imperialists; that a military victory of the democratic imperialists leaves the door wide open to the entry of fascism in the victorious countries. Every argument in our agitational material used with reference to the war must center around the question of defeating fascism. If it does not, then it fails to answer the question uppermost in the minds of the thinking workers.

Sectarians satisfied with what they themselves think and completely indifferent to the thoughts of the more mundane working masses, will call this positive approach contrary to everything Lenin taught. They forget one of the most important of Lenin’s teachings: flexibility in application of principle to a given situation.

Many voices have been raised to tell the workers what to do in this war. The social democrats and conservative labor leaders exhort them to fight for the democratic imperialist governments because this is a war for democracy. The Stalinist leaders, guided only by the orders of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union are, for the present, even more violent than the social democrats in their support of the democratic imperialists. The semi-socialist, semi-pacifist, semi-isolationist position of Norman Thomas and his Socialist party has now developed into a position which says that Japanese and German imperialism can be destroyed only by the military might of the democratic imperialists and therefore “critical” support should be given the latter – a capitulation to the support of the democratic imperialists. The sectarians are satisfied with telling the workers that there is no difference between fascism and bourgeois democracy and throwing such slogans at them as “revolutionary defeatism” and “turn the imperialist war into a civil war.”

The Trotskyists alone, of all the groups and parties, have made clear and necessary distinctions. They have distinguished between the Soviet Union and China on the one hand, and the imperialist nations on the other. Support the war of the Soviet Union and China; oppose the war of all the imperialist governments. They have also distinguished between a principled position on the war and the application of the principled position in mass agitation.

It is at present too early to state when the masses will begin to listen to the voice of revolutionary Marxism. By and large the masses are not moved by propaganda: they are set into motion by unbearable conditions. When this happens, as it surely will, it is Trotskyism that will lead them in the struggle for peace, freedom and plenty.

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