From New International, Vol.5 No.7, July 1939, pp.207-210.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
WE SUMMARIZE HERE A letter of the Palestinian comrades which begins by citing with approval from the war theses of the Fourth International: “The success of a revolutionary party in the next period will depend above all on its policy on the war issue.” They go on to say that the revolutionary position on war must be distinguished “by a clarity and definitiveness so complete as to preclude beforehand any possibility of confusion and bewilderment whenever the time comes for applying this policy in action and translating it into the language of concrete slogans. In consequence, ideological confusion in such a question is especially dangerous for the Fourth International ...”
After pointing out that the days of the Munich crisis served as the latest confirmation of the correctness of the evaluation given by the Fourth International to Fascism, outlived bourgeois democracy, and the role of the Second and Third Internationals and their “People’s Front” policy, the authors pose the following questions:
“What should have been the slogans of the Fourth International in this concrete situation? Were they distinguished in those days by the clarity of their formulation, and were they, as was always the case hitherto, correct and pointed slogans? Didn’t the position of the war question reveal itself as too schematic in the light of these events?”
The letter then continues:
“The general schema is defeatism in all imperialist countries ... Defeatism, according to Lenin’s definition, and as it has been generally understood, signifies a desire for defeat and giving aid to the latter. Is that slogan applicable to any imperialist country in any war?”
In the opinion of the authors, it is no longer applicable.
Two hypothetical warring camps are envisaged: on the one side – Germany, Italy and Japan, and on the other – Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, Spain, China, France, England and the United States.
“True, such a combination is least likely, but it is not excluded, and therefore the working class must be prepared for it. What are the differences between the last world war and the one we presuppose?”
The differences are listed under four heads:
“(1) The last war was wholly imperialist ... The specific weight of the Serbian question was far too insignificant ... The war we presuppose is not imperialist on all sides. The difference between Serbia and the Soviet Union is far too obvious. (2) Even if we were to assume that the international reactionary significance of the then monarchy and of modern fascism are equivalent for the world proletariat, with the composition of the warring camps during the last war, there were no particular reasons, for example, among the French workers, for striving precisely for the overthrow of the Hohenzollern monarchy ... (3) However, there is an enormous difference between the historical role of the monarchy in the epoch of ascendant capitalism and the role of fascism ... (4) In the period of the first world war there existed in ail countries a revolutionary movement and the objective possibility of conducting a defeatist policy. Fascism has introduced a radical change. It so strangles the working class as hardly to make it possible to comply with Lenin’s third condition for defeatist policy, and it is not excluded that the question of revolutionary intervention may arise.”
There is a footnote to Point 4 which reads:
“In his article: On the Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War Lenin wrote: Whoever seriously wishes to refute the ‘slogan’ of defeating one’s own government in the imperialist war must prove one of three things:
From this the following conclusion is drawn:
“We thus see that the establishment of the bare fact that a given country is imperialist is not sufficient for conducting the necessary revolutionary policy in any war precisely by the methods and slogans of defeatism.”
The authors then seek to establish the fact that a military victory over Germany and Italy” at the present time (tomorrow the case may be different) “is equivalent to the collapse of Fascism ... Any serious shaking of world fascism undermines nowadays the foundations of the rule of capitalism.”
In support of their line of reasoning, the authors cite Trotsky’s position in March 1933, after the assumption of power by Hitler. (The reader will find this point dealt with in the body of the reply to the letter.)
They next criticize an article in La Lutte Ouvrière for September 23, 1938 (during the Munich crisis) as denoting a concession to pacifism.
The letter concludes as follows:
“Not a single section of the Fourth International is threatened with the danger of a patriotic deviation. But in our opinion, the recent events have shown that a possibility of deviating toward pacifism is not excluded ... The internal danger now approaches from the opposite side. But it is necessary to see it and to correct our mistakes with the boldness and candor inherent in Bolshevism.”
The document, dated November, 1938, is signed “Group of Palestinian Bolshevik-Leninists”, and is answered in the following article from the Russian Bulletin.
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 shall indicate only those points which are in our opinion the most erroneous in the document Isn’t It a Mistake?
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, that 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 differentiate qualitatively between the coming war and the last war and, what is more, in two respects. In the last war only imperialist countries presumably participated: the role of Serbia, they say, was far too insignificant to place its stamp on the war (they forget about the colonies and China). In the coming war, they write, one of the participants will certainly be the USSR, a magnitude far greater than Serbia. On reading these lines, the reader tends to conclude that the subsequent reasoning of the authors of the letter will revolve precisely around the participation of the USSR in the war. But the authors drop this idea very quickly, or to put it more correctly, it is relegated to the background by another, namely, the world menace of fascism. Monarchist reaction in the last war, they state, was not of an aggressive historical character, it was rather a survival, whereas fascism nowadays represents a direct and immediate threat to the whole civilized 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 wary: 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.
Let us first of all establish that the two new historical factors which presumably dictate a change in policy during wartime – namely, the USSR and fascism – need not necessarily operate in one and the same direction. The possibility is not at all excluded that Stalin and Hitler, or Stalin and Mussolini may be found in one and the same camp during a war, or, at all events, that Stalin may buy a brief, unstable neutrality at the price of an agreement with the fascist governments, or one of them. For some unknown reason, this variant drops out completely from the field of vision of our authors. Yet they state justly that our principled position must arm us for any possible variant.
However, as we have already stated, the question of the USSR does not play any real role in the entire trend of reasoning of our Palestine comrades. They focus their attention on fascism, as the immediate threat to the world working class and the oppressed nationalities. They hold that a “defeatist” policy is not applicable in those countries which may be at war with fascist countries. Again, such reasoning over-simplifies the problem, for it depicts the case as if the fascist countries will necessarily be found on one side of the trenches while the democratic or semi-democratic are on the other. In point of fact, there is absolutely no guarantee for this “convenient” grouping. Italy and Germany may, in the coming war as in the last, be found in opposing camps. This is by no means excluded. What are we to do in that case? Indeed, it is becoming increasingly difficult to classify countries in accordance with purely political features : Where would we assign Poland, Rumania, present-day Czechoslovakia, and a number of other second-rate and third-rate powers?
The main tendency of the authors of this document is apparently the following: to hold that “defeatism” is obligatory for the leading fascist countries (Germany, Italy), whereas it is necessary to renounce defeatism in countries 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 which 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 Hindus renounce any attempt to utilize the war for their own liberation? The uprising of Hindus in the midst of a war would undoubtedly aid strongly in the defeat of Great Britain. Furthermore, in the event of a Hindu uprising (despite all “theses”) should the British workers support them? Or, on the contrary, are they duty-bound to pacify the Hindus, 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 document 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 of decaying democracies over Germany and Italy capable of liquidating fascism, 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 such miraculous results, i.e., those counter to socio-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 fact they are far less correct today than they were 25 years ago, or to put it more correctly, they are playing today an infinitely more reactionary and infamous role.
If there are chances (and there indubitably are) that the defeat of Germany and Italy – provided there is a revolutionary movement – may lead to the collapse of fascism, then, on the other hand, there are more proximate and immediate chances that the victory of France may deal the final blow to corroded democracy, especially if this victory is gained with the political support of the French proletariat. The entrenchment of French and British imperialism, the victory of French military-fascist reaction, the strengthening of the rule of Great Britain over India and other colonies, will in turn provide support for blackest reaction in Germany and Italy. In the event of victory, France and England will do everything to save Hitler and Mussolini, and stave off “chaos”. The proletarian revolution can of course rectify all this. But the revolution must be helped and not hindered. It is impossible to help revolution in Germany otherwise than by applying in action the principles of revolutionary internationalism in the countries warring against her.
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 which are led not by themselves but by their mortal enemies, the imperialist government. 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 (Bulletin of the Russian Opposition, March 21, 1933). But these words merely mean that such should have been the behavior 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 assume 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. Let us not speculate on what the further course of events might have been. In any case the situation today would have been infinitely more favorable to the world working class. 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 sub-fascists. Transformations and recolorations 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”.
We consider as erroneous to the core the idea of the document that of the three conditions for “defeatist” policy enumerated by Lenin, the third is presumably lacking nowadays, namely, “the possibility of giving mutual support to revolutionary movements in all warring countries”. Here the authors are obviously hypnotized by the reported omnipotence of the totalitarian regime. As a matter of fact, the immobility of the German and Italian workers is determined not at all by the omnipotence of the fascist police but by the absence of a program, the loss of faith in old programs and old slogans, and by the prostitution of the Second and Third Internationals. Only in this political atmosphere of disillusionment and decline can the police apparatus work those “miracles” which, sad to say, have produced an excessive impression also on the minds of some of our comrades.
It is naturally easier to begin the struggle in those countries where the workers’ organizations 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. For Hitler and Mussolini the success of a socialist revolution in any one of the advanced countries of the world is infinitely more terrible than the combined armaments of all the imperialist “democracies”.
That policy which attempts to place upon the proletariat the unsolvable 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 a 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 with 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: the class society.
Last updated on 8.8.2006