Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

Principles and tactics in war

The following article was originally written by Rudolf Klement in late 1937. Trotsky warmly welcomed it, although he made some minor criticisms. (See An Excellent Article on Defeatism, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1937-38, New York, 1976, pp.l53-154) Klement revised the article and we publish the English translation as it appeared in the New International, May 1938.

The review of the book The Case of Leon Trotsky in the first number of the periodical Der Einzige Weg quotes the following interesting statement of comrade Trotsky on the difference in the tasks of the proletariat during the war between France-Soviet Union and Germany-Japan (reproduced here somewhat more completely):

STOLBERG: Russia and France already have a military alliance, Suppose an international war breaks out. I am not interested in what you say about the Russian working class at this time. I know that. What would you say to the French working class in reference to the defence of the Soviet Union? “Change the French bourgeois government” would you say?

TROTSKY: This question is more or less answered in the thesis, The War and the Fourth International, in this sense: In France I would remain in opposition to the government and would develop systematically this opposition. In Germany I would do anything I could to sabotage the war machinery. They are two different things. In Germany and in Japan, I would apply military methods as far as I am able to fight, oppose, and injure the machinery, the military machinery of Japan, to disorganise it, both in Germany and Japan. In France, it is political opposition against the bourgeoisie, and the preparation of the proletarian revolution. Both are revolutionary methods. But in Germany and Japan I have as my immediate aim the disorganisation of the whole machinery. In France, I base the aim of the proletarian revolution …

GOLDMAN: Suppose you have the chance to take power during a war, in France, would you advocate it if you had the majority, of the proletariat?

TROTSKY: Naturally. (pp.289f.)

Within the limits of a book review it was naturally impossible, with this isolated, half-improvised, necessarily incomplete and special colloquial statement, to develop the general problems of the revolutionary struggle in wartime or even to throw a sufficient theoretical light on that special question. Since the above quotation thereupon unfortunately led to misunderstandings, and worse yet, to malicious distortions (“preparing for the civil peace in France”, renunciation of revolutionary defeatism, etc!), it is well to make up here for the previous neglect.

As to the basic principles of the revolutionary struggle against war and during it, considerations of space compel us to confine ourselves here to our theses on war, which were adopted in May 1934 by the International Secretariat of our movement, have since formed one of the most important programmatic documents of Bolshevism, and acquire more topical importance with the passing of every day.

With regard to the specific question that interests us, comrade Trotsky, in the statement above, makes reference to the following points in the theses on war:

44. Remaining the determined and devoted defender of the workers’ state in the struggle with imperialism, the international proletariat will not, however, become an ally of the imperialist allies of the USSR. The proletariat of a capitalist country which finds itself in alliance with the USSR must retain fully and completely its irreconcilable hostility to the imperialist government of its own country. In this sense, its policy will not differ from that of the proletariat in a country fighting against the USSR. But in the nature of practical action considerable differences may arise, depending on the concrete war situation. For instance, it would be absurd and criminal in case of war between the USSR and Japan for the American proletariat to sabotage the sending of American munitions to the USSR. But the proletariat of a country fighting against the USSR would be absolutely obliged to resort to actions of this sort-strikes, sabotage, etc.

45. Intransigent proletarian opposition to the imperialist ally of the USSR must develop, on the one hand, on the basis of international class policy, on the other, on the basis of the imperialist aims of the given government, the treacherous character of this “alliance”, its speculation on capitalist overturn in the USSR, etc. The policy of a proletarian party in an “allied” as well as in an enemy imperialist country should therefore be directed towards the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the seizure of power. Only in this way can a real alliance with the USSR be created and the first workers' state be saved from disaster.

The wars of recent years did not represent a direct struggle between imperialist powers, but colonial expeditions (Italy-Abyssinia, Japan-China) and conflicts over spheres of influence (China, Chaco, and in a certain sense, also Spain), and therefore did not, for the time being degenerate into a world conflict. Hitler hopes to attack the USSR tomorrow just as Japan attacks China, i.e., to alter the imperialist relationship of forces without directly violating the essential interests of the other imperialisms and thereby temporarily to localise the conflict. These events occurring since 1934, have clearly shown that the above-quoted theses on the attitude of the proletariat of imperialist countries are valid not only in an anti-Soviet war but in all wars in which it must take sides – and those are precisely the ones involved in recent years.

War is only the continuation of politics by other means. Hence the proletariat must continue its class struggle in war-time, among other things with the new means which the bourgeoisie hands it. It can and must utilise the weakening of its “own” bourgeoisie in the imperialist countries in order relentlessly to prepare and to carry out its social revolution in connection with the military defeat engendered by the war, and to seize the power. This tactic, known as revolutionary defeatism and realisable internationally, is one of the strongest levers of the proletarian world revolution in our epoch, and therewith of historical progress.

Only, where the struggle is imperialistic only on one side, and a war of liberation of non-imperialist nations or of a socialist country against existing or threatening imperialist oppression on the other, as well as in civil wars between the classes or between democracy and fascism, the international proletariat cannot and should not apply the same tactic to both sides. Recognising the progressive character of this war of liberation, it must fight decisively against the main enemy, reactionary imperialism (or else against the reactionary camp, in the case of a civil war), that is, fight for the victory of the socially (or politically) oppressed or about-to-be oppressed: USSR, colonial and semi-colonial countries like Abyssinia or China, or Republican Spain, etc.

Here too, how ever, it remains mindful of its irreconcilable class opposition to its “own” bourgeoisie-or its political opposition to the Soviet bureaucracy – and does not surrender without resistance any of its independent positions. As in the imperialist countries it strives with all its strength for the social revolution and the seizure of power, the establishment of its dictatorship, which, moreover, alone makes possible a sure and lasting victory over the imperialists. But in such cases, it cannot and does not, as in the imperialist camp, seek revolutionary victory at the cost of a military defeat but rather along the road of a military victory of his country.

Class struggle and war are international phenomena, which are decided internationally. But since every struggle permits of but two camps (bloc against bloc) and since imperialistic fights intertwine with the class war world imperialism against world proletariat), there arise manifold and complex cases. The bourgeoisie of the semi-colonial countries or the liberal bourgeoisie menaced by its “own” fascism, appeal for aid to the “friendly” imperialisms; the Soviet Union attempts, for example, to utilise the antagonisms between the imperialisms by concluding alliances with one group against another. etc. The proletariat of all countries, the only international solidarity – and not least of all because of that, the only progressive class – thereby finds itself in the complicated situation in war-time, especially in the new world war, of combining revolutionary defeatism towards their own bourgeoisie with support of progressive wars.

This situation is utilised with a vengeance right now and certainly will be tomorrow, by the social-patriots of the social-democratic, Stalinist or anarchist stripe, in order to have the proletarians permit themselves to be slaughtered for the profits of capital under the illusion of helping their brothers of the USSR, China, and elsewhere. It serves the social-traitors, furthermore, to depict the revolutionists not only as “betrayers of the fatherland”, but also as “betrayers of the socialist fatherland” (just as they are now shouted down as agents of Franco). All the more reason why the proletariat, especially in the imperialist countries, requires, in the seemingly contradictory situation, a particularly clear understanding of these combined tasks and of the methods for fulfilling them.

In the application of revolutionary defeatism against the imperialist bourgeoisie and its state, there can be no fundamental difference, regardless of whether the latter is “friendly” or hostile to the cause supported by the proletariat, whether it is in – treacherous – alliance with the allies of the proletariat (Stalin, the bourgeoisie of the semi-colonial countries, the colonial peoples, anti-fascist liberalism), or is conducting a war against them. The methods of revolutionary defeatism remain unaltered: revolutionary propaganda, irreconcilable opposition to the regime, the class struggle from its purely economic up to its highest political form (the armed uprising), fraternisation of the troops, transformation of the war into the civil war.

The international defence of the proletarian states, of the oppressed peoples fighting for their freedom, and the international support of the armed antifascist civil war, must however, naturally take on various forms in accordance with whether one’s “own” bourgeoisie stands on their side or combats them. Apart from the political preparation of the social revolution, whose rhythm and methods are in no way identical with those of war, this defence must naturally assume military forms. In addition to revolutionary support, it consists, consequently, in military support of the progressive cause, as well as in the military damaging of its imperialist opponent.

The military support can naturally take on a decisive scope only where the proletariat itself has the levers of power and the economy in its hands (USSR, and to a certain extent, Spain in the summer of 1936). In the imperialist countries, which are allied with the countries conducting progressive and revolutionary wars, it boils down to this: that the proletariat fights with revolutionary means for an effective, direct military support, controlled by it, of the progressive cause (“Airplanes for Spain!” cried the French workers). In any case, it must promote and control, a really guaranteed direct military support (the sending of arms, ammunition, food, specialists, etc), even at the cost of an “exception” from the direct class struggle. It will have to be left to the instinct and revolutionary perspicacity of the proletariat, which is well aware of its tasks, to make the right distinction in every concrete situation, to avoid injuring the military interests of the far-off ally of the proletariat out of narrow national class struggle considerations, no matter how revolutionary they seem, as well to avoid doing the dirty work for its “own” imperialism on the pretext of giving indirect aid to its allies. The only real and decisive aid that the workers can bring the latter is by seizing and holding the power.

It is otherwise – so far as the outward form of its struggle goes – with the proletariat of the imperialism engaged in a direct struggle against the progressive cause. In addition to its struggle for the revolution, it is its duty to engage in military sabotage for the benefit of the “enemy” – the enemy of its bourgeoisie but its own ally. As a means of revolutionary defeatism in the struggle between imperialist countries, military sabotage, like individual terror, is completely worthless. Without replacing the social revolution or even advancing it by a hair’s breadth, it would only help one imperialism against another, mislead the vanguard, sow illusions among the masses and thus facilitate the game of the imperialists. On the other hand, military sabotage is imperiously imposed as an immediate measure in defence of the camp that is fighting imperialism and is consequently progressive. As such, it is understood by the masses, welcomed and furthered. The defeat of one’s “own”, country here becomes not a lesser evil that is taken into the bargain (a lesser evil than the “victory” bought by civil peace and the abandonment of the revolution), but the direct and immediate goal, the task of the proletarian struggle. The defeat of one’s “own” country would, in this case, be no evil at all, or an evil much more easily taken into the bargain, for it would signify the common victory of the people liberated from the existing or threatening imperialist yoke and of the proletariat of its enemy, over the common overlord – imperialist capital. Such a victory would be a powerful point of departure for the international proletarian revolution, not least of all in the “friendly” imperialist countries.

Thus we see how different war situations require from the revolutionary proletariat of the various imperialist countries, if it wishes to remain true to itself and to its goal, different fighting forms, which may appear to schematic spirits to be “deviations” from the basic principle of revolutionary defeatism, but which result in reality only from the combination of revolutionary defeatism with the defence of certain progressive camps.

Moreover, from a higher historical standpoint these two tasks coincide: in our imperialist epoch, the national bourgeoisie of the non-imperialist countries – like the Soviet bureaucracy – because of its fear of the working class which is internationally matured for the socialist revolution and dictatorship, is not in a position to conduct an energetic struggle against imperialism. They do riot dare to appeal to the forces of the proletariat and at a definite stage of the struggle they inevitably call upon imperialism for aid against their “own” proletariat. The complete national liberation of the colonial and semi-colonial countries front imperialist enslavement, and of the Soviet Union from internal and external capitalist destruction and anarchy, the bourgeois democratic revolution, the defence from fascism – all these tasks, can be solved, nationally and internationally, only by the proletariat. Their fulfilment grows naturally into the proletarian revolution. The coming world war will be the most titanic and murderous explosion in history, but because of that it will also burst all the traditional fetters and in its flames the revolutionary and liberative movements of the entire world will be fused into one glowing stream.

To present clearly, even now, to the proletariat the problems of the coming war and its combined tasks – this serious and difficult task is one of the most urgent of our day. The Bolshevik-Leninists alone have taken it upon themselves to arm the proletariat for its struggle and to create the instrument with which it will gain its future victories: the programme, the methods, the organisation of the Fourth International.

BRUSSELS, December 1937


1. L. Trotsky, War and the Fourth International, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1933-34, New York, 1975, pp299-338

2. We leave aside the case where wars between two non-imperialist countries are only or predominantly the masked combat between two foreign imperialisms – England and America in the Chaco War – or the case where the war of liberation of an oppressed nation is only a pawn in the hand of an imperialistic group and a mere part of a general imperialist conflict – Serbia from 1914 to 1918.

3. It may confidently be assumed that for the French bourgeoisie in wartime, a strike of the Marseilles harbour workers, which makes an exception of war shipments to Russia, in which it is least of all interested, would be particularly vexatious! No less nonsensical would it be, for example, in the course of a printers' strike, not to allow the appearance of the labour papers which are needed for the strike struggle itself.

4. Lenin wrote on 26 July 1915 (see Gegen den Strom) against Trotsky’s false slogan of “Neither victory nor defeat” and said polemically: “And revolutionary actions during the war surely and undoubtedly signify not only the wish for its defeat but also an actual furtherance of such a defeat (for the ‘discerning’ reader: this by no means signifies that ‘bridges be blown up’, that abortive military strikes should be staged, and in general that the revolutionists should help bring about the defeat of the government).” V. Lenin, The defeat of one’s own government in the imperialist war, Collected Works, Vol.21, Moscow, 1977, pp.275-280 (My emphasis – WS)

5. Naturally, military sabotage in favour of the non-imperialist opponent of one’s own bourgeoisie is not to be extended in favour of its imperialist ally. The German proletarians, for example, would seek to disorganise militarily the eastern front, to help Soviet Russia; for the western front, where a purely imperialist war would be raging between Germany and a France allied to the USSR, “only” the rule of defeatism would be valid-for the French proletariat as well as for the Germans.

Updated by ETOL: 28.6.2003