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The New International, June 1941



Total War and Revolution


From New International, Vol. VII No. 5 (Whole No. 54), June 1941, pp. 107–10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


(Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of an essay on the war and the labor movement sent to this magazine by a Canadian contributor.)


ONE OF THE most important lessons of the present war flows from the collapse of the German concept of blitzkrieg as a swift and definitive annihilation of the adversary.

Hitler has won the most startling military victories in history. Yet each of his conquests, instead of bringing him closer to the finale, has served only to broaden the scope of his war tasks. Of the blitzkrieg there remain only blitz-battles on rapidly changing fronts, which are mere stepping stones to evermore intricate military, economic and political problems.

Moreover, we must bear in mind that the present war is only the prelude to the most formidable armed conflict between the real contenders for world domination, the United States and Germany. Even more than the present war, this impending conflict will be long in duration and universal in scope. This perspective justifies our attempt, while there is still time for revolutionaries to communicate through the printed word, to arrive at a few general conclusions and predictions about total war and its influence on the class struggle, however schematic and one-sided they may be, in view of the novelty of the problem.

The outstanding feature of total war is that it represents the most gigantic economic enterprise of human history, an industrial revolution in its own right, which will change the face of society no less than did the industrial revolution of rising capitalism.

I shall not at this time deal with the question of how a prolonged total war will affect the position of the capitalists as a social class. I shall take up this problem in the discussion columns of this magazine. As for the working class, the war not only puts an end to the standing army of unemployed created by the general decline of capitalism, but also increases the numerical strength of this class far beyond its peacetime size.

Social Position of the Proletariat

Basing themselves on the experience of the last war, Allied technicians have estimated that the ratio between the number of soldiers and the number of workers at home necessary to supply the army and civilian masses would be from 1 : 5 to 1 : 7 for the Allies, and from 1 : 10 to 1 : 12 for Germany. As for the United States, this ratio was in the neighborhood of 1 : 8 during the last World War.

However inexact these estimates, there can be no doubt that the war brings about a real mushroom growth of the industrial working class. This development will only be accentuated by the weakening of the ruling classes through the exhaustion of war and the pauperization of the middle classes whom war will free from their present inclination toward fascism as a way out of insecurity. Thus war will not lessen but rather increase the specific gravity of the working masses in society.

This general trend, however, is being to some extent offset by counteracting forces. Germany, having assimilated the lesson of her own industrial restoration after the Versailles Treaty, has been systematically dismantling the economies (and especially the industries) of her conquered adversaries. This procedure has brought in its wake a decline in the strength of the working classes in those countries. Large masses of industrial workers in Poland, France and Czechoslovakia are being reduced to the status of slave-laborers and farm-hands, at the mercy of the German conquerors or their native mercenaries.

From these undeniable facts some former socialists in Europe have drawn the conclusion that Trotsky’s forecast about the end of the proletariat’s socialist mission under totalitarian regimes has already come to pass. But such a conclusion is as hasty as it is ill-considered.

The economic status of the conquered countries of Europe is still hanging fire, pending the final outcome of the military struggle. France, for example, is still wavering between the rôle of an imperialist country and that of a defeated and dismembered people confronted with the task of national liberation.

Proletarian Militancy Inevitable

On the other hand, the frequently invoked dictum that the political mentality of the masses tends to straggle behind economic developments is working at this juncture on the side of the proletarian revolution. The French, Polish and Czech workers, uprooted from their social milieu, still remain proletarians in their minds, and one can safely predict that they will remain so for quite some years to come. Their nationalist sentiments will be inseparably linked with the aspiration of regaining their former social status, which will drive a wedge between them and the defeated bourgeoisie.

So much for occupied Europe. In the colonies our traditional predictions of increased imperialist pressure and growing nationalist opposition during wartime retain their full validity. But this nationalist opposition too will assume a specific form. Instead of stifling the industrial development of the colonies, the Anglo-Saxon imperialists will be forced, as the war broadens in scope, to stimulate the building of national industries in the backward countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia. Even now the United States is beginning to encounter difficulties in exporting to Latin America industrial commodities needed for defense, and is resorting instead to capital export.

Thus a young and militant working class will rise in the colonial countries, challenging not only imperialist rule but also the political leadership of their native bourgeoisie.

What has been said about the numerical growth of the industrial working class in modern countries applies above all to the Anglo-Saxon and German camps. But there is a decisive difference between the “industrial revolution” of total war and that of organic capitalism.

Totalitarianism and Labor

While the latter was accompanied by the general spread of democratic forms of government and a comparatively free labor movement – economic and political – the contemporary “industrial revolution” of war economy occurs simultaneously with the replacement, violent or gradual, of democratic by absolutist or totalitarian forms of government. No ruling class, representing an exploiter minority of society, can, in the long run, afford the granting of democratic rights to the masses in wartime. While expanding production and thereby the working class to the utmost limits, it must – by the very nature of its war – strive for the most far-reaching political atomization of its most antagonistic class in society. It must stifle and crush the labor movement.

This process varies according to the political and social conditions of the different countries before and at the outset of the war. In the United States and in Great Britain the war-boom has been and will still be accompanied by an upsurge of the labor movement. The drive for unionization in the United States will undoubtedly take proportions similar to those of the first period of the New Deal. In Great Britain the shop steward movement is advancing everywhere. But if war continues – and here we are mainly concerned with long term perspectives – a retrogressive development of organized labor is inevitable. For the advance of organized labor is incompatible with the continuation of war.

How such a transition to totalitarian or quasi-totalitarian regimes would occur we shall, at this point, not endeavor to analyze in detail. Suffice it to say that, if we bear in mind the Russian, French, Czechoslovak and Scandinavian experiences, one cannot exclude the possibility of a cold, gradual transition to totalitarian or quasi-totalitarian regimes with the aid of corrupt labor bureaucracies protected from the wrath of the workers by the restrictions of the social curfew in war times.

But, while it is possible temporarily to suppress the manifestations of class struggle, it is impossible to eliminate the basic social antagonism of modern life. Like microbes in a diseased organism, this antagonism would grope for new ways of expression. The revolutionary revival of the proletarian mass movement would most likely use the very channels created by the dictatorial powers with a view to harnessing labor to its war task, whether it be a bureaucratized trade union set-up, as in the United States and Great Britain, or whether it be, on the other hand, the Arbeitsfront of Ley or Mussolini’s fascist corporations. The latter organizations have already more than once been used by the workers as a legal cover for their class opposition.

On the other hand, however, such a “disciplining” or atomizing of organized labor will seriously hamper the swift gathering of revolutionary forces under a unified leadership and with a clear-cut revolutionary program. As Trotsky puts it in the transitional program of the Fourth International: A revolutionary group and its program must be verified by mass experience. “And it is precisely experience in mass movements which is lacking in countries of totalitarian despotism.”

Germany, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union, along with the nations conquered by the Axis, bear witness to the lack of an organized mass movement of the proletariat.

The Effects of Total War

After the First World War the situation was different. The international labor movement was left comparatively unscathed as an organized force. The Bolsheviks were quick in rallying, as were all other anti-czarist parties in Russia. In the other countries, the revolutionary leaders – all too often with untried hands – gathered their following from among the still existing old socialist parties and unions. The warring soldiers had remained in their mentality what they had been when the war began: workers, peasants, middle class people, longing again for the idyllic life of pre-war society. Thus the organizational continuity between the pre-war and the postwar labor movement, though at times threatened, was assured on the whole. The army assumed but an auxiliary character. All that was needed was a shift from reformist to revolutionary leadership (in part even in the Bolshevik party).

Total war, as we have said, cannot in the long run tolerate the maintenance of free labor organizations. More than that, it increasingly tends to replace the old parties by military and semi-military mass organizations. In the totalitarian countries, including Japan and Russia, the militarization of the people begins with children of six years and less. Military drill, complete abstention from independent thought, are the supreme aims. The Japanese have found for this branch of service a blunt and fitting official name. Their Gestapo they call: Thought Control.

If the war lasts long enough the present “democracies” will, no doubt, follow the “militant liberal,” Mr. Brailsford, who coined the battle cry:

“Banish from your daily lives the value and psychology of peace. Train your young men in the whole accursed art of war. Postpone for some years ... every civilized purpose, every humane ambition. Adapt yourselves, in short, to a world abandoned to the unbridled lust for power.”

Soon they will herd boys and girls from every walk of life into semi-military groups of Prussian type. Thus total war will gradually abolish the old type of democratic political organizations and put the masses of mankind bodily and mentally into the straitjacket of militarism. It is therefore not only possible but very likely that the revolutions following the present series of total wars will, at variance with the revolutions after the first war, not be able to “take over” the old Socialist Party and trade union cadres of the democratic epoch, but will have to use a human mass educated in the spirit of military action as the supreme expression of political thought.

What concrete forms the revival of the labor movement would take under conditions of total war, is extremely difficult to forecast at this stage. However, this article is primarily concerned with analyzing the role of “the masses in uniform” in contemporary class struggles.

Militarization of the Proletarian Revolution

The industrial workers groping for political articulation after years of totalitarian slavery and the monotony of factory life will not be the sole force of the proletarian revolution. Total war – barring the victory of the revolution in a very near future – means war in permanence, with only short intervals of peace. The military tasks of the war compel the imperialists to press large masses of skilled workers into uniforms, to give ever larger masses of young unemployed their first training and skill, their first and only social function – the craft of modern warfare.

And again the very nature of total war compels the imperialists – as we have shown in a previous article – to instill into the bulk of these craftsmen of warfare a sense of initiative, a wide latitude of independence and personal responsibility in action. Since a revolution presupposes the collapse of the war fronts, these soldiers, imbued with self-confidence, used to straight thinking and direct action, will be primarily interested in the one vital question: what kind of social order will follow the war? They will face the grave problem of demobilization, difficult for those former workers who after years of war will have lost contact with civil life, doubly difficult for those whose only social function will have been soldiering. They will take an active and interested part in the great social controversy of the proletarian revolution. And, used to solving problems by military means, they will, in their turn, hasten to translate rhetoric into action against the forces of counter-revolution.

A very peculiar relationship between the “military” and the “civil” forces of the proletarian revolution may thus occur. The revolution might prove to be slow in rallying its expressly political and “civil” forces; far quicker and more dynamic in rallying its “military” forces. The proletarian revolution might, thus, in many instances, take preponderantly military forms. This would depend mainly on the degree of the destruction of the old labor movement wrought by the totalitarian forces, the duration and intensity of the war, etc.

But such a phenomenon would not be exactly new. Of the two outstanding bourgeois revolutions, the English and the French, the first had as its main moving force Cromwell’s Model Army, the second various political parties and fractions. The first advanced chiefly through its military ventures, the second through its “police” terror. The Russian revolution, as we know, used both methods in succession, but even during the civil war the leadership remained with the political party of the revolution, the Bolsheviks.

In contemporary society we have, so far, seen revolutions in preponderantly military forms mainly in countries where the two main classes of society, the bourgeoisie and the working class, were relatively undeveloped. In China, in Latin America, with no class strong enough to conquer power directly, the “Generals” (the privates, corporals, amateur “soldiers” of yesterday) established their Bonapartist rule, rooted above all in the formless peasant mass.

The Socialist Revolution

But military “corporals” revolutions of the socialist type described above would be altogether different. They would be the highest expression of the social antagonism between the decayed capitalist and totalitarian rules and the highly developed proletarian class. At the same time, however, they would reflect the political inexperience, the lack of organization of the broad civilian working masses caused by the lapses and failures of the labor movement in the epoch of pre-war capitalism.

Such revolutions started or perhaps even led by large formations of proletarian soldier masses and backed by the formidable power of the industrial proletariat, would represent an almost unbeatable alliance and have the advantage of endowing the proletarian revolution from the outset with the necessary striking power. But they would also bear grave dangers. All past revolutions have shown that terror – the pioneer of new social orders – tends to perpetuate itself, to make itself independent of its original aim. This is doubly true of military dictatorships, whether bourgeois or proletarian. To lead the revolution into democratic channels, two things will be necessary: first, a swift and direct passage of the political leadership of the revolution into the organs of the industrial working class, the only group in society able to combine dictatorship against the former rulers with democracy for the masses; second, the presence of devoted and trained Marxists not only among the workers but among the leaders of the military, to ward off the influence of adventurers and class-enemies and to give the struggle a unified purpose: toward workers’ democracy and peaceful socialist planning.

In the last war the Bolsheviks did not have such an outlooks. Although the 1905 revolution had been crushed by hostile troops, composed mainly of peasants, there was no systematic consideration of the rôle of the army in the struggles to come. “In revolutionary circles they had discussed (the army problem) much,” Trotsky writes in his History, “but rather abstractly.” Thus until the eve of the October Revolution there was in the army, which had assured the downfall of czarism, “hardly any reference to the Bolsheviks. The majority of the officers had hardly learned that strange name. When they raised the causes of the disintegration of the army, it was newspapers, agitators, Soviets, ‘politics’ in general ...” in other words, the “self-mobilization” of the masses. The rô1e of the Bolsheviks was then not to guide the soldiers to the opening of the revolution, but remained limited to gaining political predominance after it had already taken place.

Future Prospects

Trotsky spoke of the rising “military epoch,” as an epoch which might stretch over long years and decades, preparing new and sharper forms of revolutionary struggle. To blot out the perspective of the possibility of early revolutionary outbreaks in the warring countries would be as senseless as it would be to fall into sanctimonious optimism and deny that the terror of the imperialist rulers may in the near future succeed in coping with incipient revolutions and that the labor fakers (whether reformists or Stalinists) could again lead the next wave of the revolution into disaster. This is why any revolutionary group must base itself on a combination of short-term and long-term perspectives.

This was Trotsky’s viewpoint. While incessantly working to shape the cadres of the Fourth International, he warned that:

“It is necessary to prepare for long years, if not decades, of wars, uprisings, brief interludes of truce, new wars and new uprisings ... It is a question of an entire revolutionary epoch ... A young revolutionary party must base itself on this perspective ...”

Trotsky was far from falling into political Couéism of those who hold that the revolution is bound to knock at their – and nobody else’s – door some nice day and humbly beg for leadership. His was not the view that one could solve the problem of a revolutionary vanguard party with appointing another five or ten “organizers.” He who viewed our epoch as one of violent turns refused to graft the reformist views of slow evolution on the party question. He knew and has often stated that socialist-revolutionaries were the first victims of the very defeats against which they warn. And at every important turn of events Trotsky, who had firmly adopted the Leninist views on the necessity of a revolutionary party, placed his hope in the ability of the working class to generate its leadership in the fire of the revolution.

In 1936, during the French general strike, in his article, The French Revolution Has Begun, he hailed the “self-mobilization” of the French workers. In their strike committees he detected the incipient general staff of the revolution. And without mentioning his own “party” (whose leadership he had, shortly before, sharply criticized for its inveterate sectarianism), he stated “real revolutionaries will seek contact (with the new leaders of the movement).”

In the United States again, scarcely four months after the creation of the SWP, confronted with what he then thought to be the beginning of a trend toward the political independence of American labor, he came forward with the slogan of the Labor Party, motivating it as follows:

“... we cannot say to the trade unions, you should adhere to the Socialist Workers Party. It would be a joke(!) ... Why? Because the decline of capitalism develops ten, a hundred, times faster than the speed of our party ... Our party is too small, with too little authority in order to organize the workers in its ranks ... The slogan of the Labor Party is (for the masses). The second slogan (SWP) for the more advanced.”

In another discussion he stresses the point:

“And we have the greatest interest in winning more time because we are weak and the workers are not prepared in the United States ... In 1917 we would not have won without 1905. My generation was very young. During twelve years we had a very good chance to understand our defeats and to correct them and win. But even then we lost again to the new bureaucracy. That is why we cannot see whether our party will directly lead the ... working class to victory. That can last for a long period, years and years, and during this time our people will steel themselves ... Only wars produce heroes ...”

Several Forecasts

Thus, several conclusions may be drawn from an analysis of the “military epoch” as they affect the formation of a revolutionary party.

First: At its formation, the Fourth International had hoped that the revolutionary struggles in France, Spain and America would create the conditions whereby its organizations would rise to the leadership of the masses. However, Trotsky’s admonition that “the war is advancing far more speedily than the rate at which new cadres of the proletarian revolution are being formed” has turned out to be undeniable fact. It is clear, as the war becomes universal, that a genuine proletarian vanguard party can only emerge, at the proper historical junction, through a regroupment of various Marxist formations on a “minimum program” of the socialist revolution and the merger of this “old guard” with new and as yet unknown militant leaders arising out of the chaos of war.

Second: The destruction of a free labor movement in a long-lasting war will deprive the revolutionary militants of a milieu in which to further their socialist ideas. In such years of isolation, only those will be able to survive who learn how to shake off the routinism of the mechanical propagation of ready-made formulae, and who are capable of acting with initiative, even if separated for long periods from an organized party.

Third: It would be sheer blindness to conclude that because of the spread of war and totalitarianism, and the likely proscription of the labor movement, the radicalization of the masses is forever postponed. Quite the contrary, military, bureaucratic and fascist totalitarian dictatorship, seeming all-powerful at the outset, will wear themselves out with every year of the war and place the imperialists to a test never before experienced by any ruling class. The reaction of the masses to the present war will be as violent as the war itself. In the present epoch, revolutionary optimism and determination must base themselves on such a long-term perspective and not on short-lived Jimmie Higgins enthusiasm.

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