Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

Revolutionary Defeatism

J.P. Joubert lectures in the Institut d’études politiques in the University at Grenoble, and is well known for his work as publication director of the Bureau of the Institut Leon Trotsky as well as for his book Revolutionnaires de la SFIO: Marceau Pivert et le pivertisme, Paris, 1977. The following article, which first appeared in the Institut’s Cahiers Leon Trotsky (September 1985) was translated from the French by John Archer and appears here with the author’s permission. It forms a necessary introduction to the article by Sam Levy. Further information about this Proletarian Military Policy is to be found in T. Wohlforth, The Struggle for Marxism in the United States, New York 1971, pp.87-94, Workers Power/Irish Workers Group, The Death Agony of the Fourth International, 1983, pp 19-21 and D. North, The Heritage we Defend, Detroit 1988, pp.70-85.

The history of the Trotskyist movement as a whole during the Second World War (as opposed to that of individual countries) is not very well represented, either in English or in any other language. Apart from the works listed above, and those in the preface to the Prager articles following, we have P. Frank, The Fourth International: The Long March of the Trotskyists, London 1979, pp.62-7, the works by M. Pablo listed in Revolutionary History, Spring 1988, p.9 n1, Workers Vanguard (Greece: The War Question and Pabloite Revisionism, in Fourth International, Winter 1973, pp.l34-138, and On the Degeneration of the Fourth International: Concerning a text of the Workers Vanguard (Class Struggle/Lutte de Classe, February 1967, pp.18-26) and The Origins of the Degeneration of the Fourth International (Class Struggle/Lutte de Classe, March 1967, pp.14-18).

The formula ‘revolutionary defeatism’ is one of those which led to sharp controversies among socialists, in obscure meetings, around the beginning of the century. No doubt it is different from most of those formulae, at any rate in the one respect that it has had an astonishing destiny. No formula is more universally known. None has been used more in the succeeding decades. None has received so many different – and even contradictory explanations. We do not concern ourselves here with its ‘vulgar’ interpretation, which, in the final analysis, is that held by the police, that any ‘defeatist’ is an agent of the enemy.

Study of the writings of Trotsky about World War Two has led us to question ourselves about precisely what this formula means, about the different meanings which it can have, about its place in the theoretical arsenal of the Communist International or of revolutionary organisations in general, since it was first coined, in the Tsarist Empire, at the time of the Russo-Japanese War, and from then up to the outbreak in 1939 of World War Two.


Part 1: Lenin and Defeatism

The Russo-Japanese War broke out in 1904. Lenin immediately called for a victory of Japan. He regarded Japan as the incarnation of capitalist progress over Tsarist reaction. [1] On 14 January 1905 he expressed his delight at the fall of Port Arthur. He regarded “progressive”, “advanced” Asia as having dealt an irreparable, blow to old, “reactionary”, “backward” Europe. The Japanese bourgeoisie was carrying out a “revolutionary” task, at which the international proletariat could only rejoice.

Lenin was not alone in holding this opinion. Nearly all the parties of the Second International shared it, as did an important faction of the Russian bourgeoisie, which hoped that revolutionary changes would result from a military defeat of Tsarism. Moreover, this viewpoint was fundamentally a return to the old viewpoint of Marx and Engels. In their time they had hoped for the victory of the young bourgeoisie in struggles against pre-capitalist classes. They had believed that the proletariat should regard the young bourgeoisie as allies, even when it was organising and fighting for its own interests. [2] We also know that Marx and Engels regarded Russia as “the greatest reserve of reaction”, the centre and bastion of counter-revolution in Europe.

They were, therefore, above all “against Tsarism”, the pillar of the Holy Alliance of 1815, into whose arms, they believed, all the European governments would ultimately fling themselves in order to stave off the danger of revolution. They constantly repeated in 1848 that the democracy must fight “a revolutionary war” against Tsarism, in order to rid itself of this “nightmare”. Once the Russian autocracy had been brought down, the forces of democracy in Europe would find themselves liberated and the coming of the proletarian revolution would be speeded up. [3]

Lenin does not appear, therefore, to have introduced anything new with his ‘revolutionary defeatism’ in 1904. However, when he introduced the same formula again, in 1914, in relation to World War One, he did introduce something new. To be sure, his characterisation of this war as an “imperialist” war had its roots deep in the whole heritage of ideas of the Second International and, especially, in the Stuttgart and Basel decisions. But differences emerged on this common basis when it came to action. The celebrated amendment which Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Martov presented at Stuttgart, requiring the socialists to make use of the crisis created by the war in order to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule, expresses in reality the opinion of the international left rather than that of the organisation as a whole. [4]

This was the basis on which Lenin formulated the policy which he called “defeatist”. He intended it, at first, for Russia alone, at the time when the war was declared, and based it on the principle, “when two thieves fall out, let them both perish!” He wrote on 24 August 1914 that the duty of Russian Social Democrats was to wage a pitiless struggle against Great Russian chauvinism, and that the defeat of the Russian armies would be the lesser evil [5] Already, however, he was generalising the formula, and declaring that the proletariat should “desire” the defeat of “its own” government, contributing to it in every imperialist country. He explained himself clearly on this point in his article, The Defeat of One’s Own Government in the imperialist War:

Wartime revolutionary action against one’s own government indubitably means not only desiring its defeat, but really facilitating such a defeat. A revolution in wartime means civil war: the conversion of a war between governments into a civil war is, on the one, hand, facilitated by military reverses (‘defeats’) of governments: on the other hand, one cannot actually strive for such a conversion without thereby facilitating defeat. [6]

We can say, if we are very precise, that Lenin used the term “defeatism” at this time in more than one sense. In the first place, he means that the proletariat, in its fight against its own government, must not stop in the face of a defeat which may be precipitated by revolutionary agitation. He believed, also, that the military defeat of its “own” government helped the civil war of the proletariat. Did Lenin regard the formula as a slogan? Did he think that the attitude which he defined could have a short-term influence on events? In other words, was his polemic about the formula directed at socialist militants or at the masses? After the war he replied to this question when he said that it was “impossible” to “answer” the war by the revolution in the literal sense of the term. He stated:

We must explain the real situation to the people, show them that the war is hatched in the greatest secrecy and that the ordinary workers’ organisations, even if they call themselves revolutionary organisations, are utterly helpless in the face of a really impending war. We must explain to the people again and again in the most concrete manner possible how matters stood in the last war, and why they could not be otherwise. We must take special pains to explain that the question of "defence of the fatherland" will inevitably arise, and that the overwhelming majority of the working people will inevitably decide it in favour of their bourgeoisie. [7]

The position of Lenin cannot, therefore, be summed up in the one word ‘defeatism’. He regarded revolutionary defeatism as the result of a strategic line – which he was not alone in recommending – the transformation of the imperialist war into civil war. When we study his writings closely, we find that he refers to ‘defeatism’ less frequently than the subsequent use of the word by commentators might lead us to expect. In the final analysis, Lenin did not make acceptance of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ a precondition, or even a preliminary, to joint activity: the formula is found neither in the unity proposals which he addressed to the Nashe Slovo group in 1915, nor in the draft resolution and manifesto of the ‘Zimmerwald Left’. Zinoviev, who as we know, was Lenin’s faithful imitator at this time, defended Lenin’s policy during the war as follows, in his preface to the French edition of their writings in 1918:

To transform the imperialist war into civil war was the essential slogan which we launched at the beginning of the war … It was a great source of satisfaction to us to receive a letter from Karl Liebknecht, at the end of the first Zimmerwald Conference, ending thus: “civil war, not civil peace – that is our slogan”. [8]

It is clear, then, that Lenin’s ‘revolutionary defeatism’ – which was not a slogan – was only one of the positions which the revolutionary internationalists defended. Liebknecht, Luxemburg and Trotsky did not adopt this formula. Nonetheless, they declared themselves, without ambiguity, to be opposed to both imperialist camps, to any vote of war-credits and any ‘civil peace’, for irreconcilable class struggle in time of war. They emphasised the victory of the revolution, and counterposed it to the victory of their own imperialism. But they advocated the defeat of the latter only by the revolution.

In the course of the debate about the Brest-Litovsk peace in 1918, and in a polemic with a Social Revolutionary orator, Lenin declared unequivocally:

We were defeatists at the time of the Tsar, but we were not defeatists at the time of Tseretelli and Chernov. [9]

Of course, the fact that “we were not defeatists” – and we shall search in vain for the formula in Lenin’s writings from the February Revolution onwards – by no means meant that he supported ‘defencism’. In opposition to those Bolsheviks who believed that they could go beyond the stage of rejecting national defence, he clearly stated in his letter of farewell to the Swiss workers:

We abide unconditionally by our declaration, which appeared in the Central Organ of our party, Sotsial-Demokrat. In it we stated that, should the revolution prove victorious in Russia, and should a republican government come to power, a government intent on continuing the imperialist war, a war in alliance with the imperialist bourgeoisie of England and France, a war for the seizure of Constantinople, Armenia, Galicia, etc, we would resolutely oppose such a government and would be against ‘the defence of the fatherland’ in such a war. [10]

At the time of the putsch of Kornilov, a few weeks before the October Revolution, Lenin advanced the following argument:

It is my conviction that those who become unprincipled are people who (like Volodarsky) slide into defencism or (like other Bolsheviks) into a bloc with the SRs [Social Revolutionaries] into supporting the Provisional Government. Their attitude is absolutely wrong and unprincipled. We shall become defencists only after the transfer of power to the proletariat, after a peace offer, after the secret treaties and ties with the banks have been broken – only afterwards. [11]

Was the fact that Lenin no longer advocated ‘defeatism’, while at the same time he firmly condemned ‘defencism’, an abandonment of his earlier policy? By no means. In 1917 Lenin was no longer addressing small limited groups of militants or cadres (as had happened in 1914 and 1915). In 1917 he was addressing the masses. The question was no longer one of ideological clarification. The question was the advance to the conquest of power. We can find another example of this difference in his attitude to the slogans of ‘peace’. After having energetically opposed them, essentially because they were being used within a pacifist orientation, he now took them up again, and linked them with the demand for power, arguing that the Provisional Government with its association with imperialism could not stop the war or change its character. It was necessary for state power to pass into the hands of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies, for a durable democratic peace without annexations.

Lenin outlined another formulation in 1917, and this signifies the change in the situation itself. He began, in fact, to pose the question of the ‘revolutionary war’. What about the defeats of Tsarist imperialism? They had happened, and had given rise to a revolutionary situation. Defeatism had contributed to turning the imperialist war into a civil war. It was no longer a useful formula, in a situation of open civil war or in the process of becoming open civil war. Lenin therefore posed the question of the revolutionary war – the defence of the fatherland and the revolutionary war would soon be on the order of the day. He had written in his farewell letter to the Swiss workers:

In No.47 of Sotsial-Demokrat we gave a clear and direct answer to the question that naturally arises: what would our party do if the revolution immediately placed it in power? Our answer was … we would be forced to wage a revolutionary war against the German – and not only the German – bourgeoisie. And we would wage this war. We are not pacifists. We are opposed to imperialist wars over the division of the spoils among the capitalists, but we have always considered it absurd for the revolutionary proletariat to disavow revolutionary wars that may prove necessary in the interests of socialism . [12]

During the six years which followed the Russian Revolution, the term ‘defeatism’ was hardly ever used in any of the major documents of Lenin or of the Communist International. It does not appear in the resolutions of the first four congresses of the Communist International. We do not find it in the journal Communist International. The principal programmatic texts in this period of the Bolshevik Party, as well as of the Communist International were all drafted by Trotsky and were all adopted without amendment; they include the resolution of the Eighth Bolshevik Party Congress (1919), the manifesto of the First Congress of the Communist International (1919), the manifesto and programme of the Second Congress (1920), the theses of the Third Congress (1921), the report on war at the Fourth Congress (1922) and the manifesto of the Fifth Congress (1924). [13] None of these mentions ‘revolutionary defeatism’. However, their argument is centred round ‘transforming imperialist war into civil war’ and the formula of Liebknecht, ‘the main enemy is in our own country’.

However, the term ‘revolutionary defeatism’ reappears. It is in the writings of Zinoviev in the course of the struggle of the ‘troika’ Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin, against Trotsky and ‘Trotskyism’ and for the so called ‘Bolshevisation’ of the Communist parties. To be sure, it is not by chance that the term was used again after six years of eclipse, in an article in Communist International immediately after Lenin's death, which blandly mentions the past divergences between, Lenin and Trotsky. Thereafter, ‘revolutionary defeatism’ was systematically advanced as a principle of ‘Leninism’ as against ‘Trotskyism’. [14] In August 1928 the Sixth Congress of. the Communist International adopted the Theses on the Struggle Against Imperialist War and the Tasks of the Communists; these theses declared:

The proletariat fights when there is a war between imperialist states. Its viewpoint is one of defeatism towards its own bourgeoisie. It seeks to transform the imperialist war into a civil war against the bourgeoisie. The proletariat of the imperialist countries adopts the same principled position in relation to a war of oppression directed against a national revolutionary movement and especially against colonial peoples. The proletariat must act in the same way if there is a revolutionary war with imperialists threatening the workers' dictatorship. [15]

This resolution was adopted when the ‘Third Period’ was already in full swing. It omitted to make clear what would be the policy of the Communists in an imperialist conflict in which the Soviet Union was allied to one of the groups of belligerents.

However, the problem was soon to be posed concretely. Hitler seized power in Germany. We know how the Stalinised Communist International then replied to the question: it decided that a war in which the Soviet Union was fighting for its existence would not be an ‘imperialist’ war. Consequently it called upon the workers in the countries allied to the USSR to form a ‘sacred union’ with their own ruling classes, in order to defend the ‘socialist fatherland’.


Part 2: Trotsky and Defeatism

This ‘turn’ in the Communist International in the 1930s meant that ‘revolutionary defeatism’ became a formula for debate among the opponents of war and of Stalinism. It divided, in particular, Trotsky’s supporters in the International Communist League and the Fourth International. The basic text is entitled War and the Fourth International. It consists of a draft by Trotsky, which was modified in the course of discussions lasting several months, as a contribution to the elaboration of the platform of the Fourth International.

We must mention, first, that Trotsky saw no necessity for using the term ‘revolutionary defeatism’ in the document, though it was long and was intended to lay down the programmatic positions of the Fourth International. We do not, of course, have all the documents about this question that would be needed to clear up the problem conclusively. However, we do have several contributory sources. In the Trotsky Archives at Harvard, we find the first draft of paragraph 51 of the theses: Trotsky had drafted it as follows:

Defeatism is not a mere practical slogan, around which we can mobilise the masses during the war. The defeat of one’s own national army can be an aim only in a single case, that is when we have a capitalist army fighting against a workers’ state or marching against a developing revolution. But in the case of a war between two capitalist powers, the proletariat of neither of them can set itself the defeat of its own national army as a task. [16]

The leader of the German Section, Eugene Bauer (Erwin Ackerknecht), with the support of Alfonso Leonetti, criticised him for distancing himself too far from “revolutionary defeatism” in the name of the “defence of the Soviet Union”. It is probable that he proposed an amendment. We find an echo of the discussion in a letter from Bauer which is in Martin Abern’s archives in the Library of Social History in New York. There is also a letter from Trotsky to the International Secretariat; this is dated 5 January 1934 and includes these lines:

I cannot accept the amendment on defeatism a) because it says that we must desire the defeat, without saying whether we must do anything and, if so, precisely what, in order to bring it about. The Social-Democrats in exile are full of zeal for someone to fight Hitler. and to relieve them of the necessity of doing anything; b) because the defeatist formula of Lenin in 1914-1916 had nothing yet to do with war between capitalist states and a workers’ state, and did not draw any of the theoretical consequences which flow from that. Under Kerensky. Lenin was already declaring: “We are no longer defeatists”. But since the distinctions which I drew in the first sentence of para 51 disturb you, I strike them out completely, and we may perhaps succeed later in agreeing on the precise statements which we need. [17]

It was in the existence of the workers’ state that Trotsky saw the new problem to which an answer had to be given. For many years Trotsky and the Left Opposition had firmly laid down their position in the event of an attack on the USSR. In 1926 Trotsky had recalled the example of Clemenceau, in reply to Stalin and Molotov, who wanted to exploit the war danger in order to silence the mouths of the Opposition. (Clemenceau had not allowed himself to be overawed by either governmental persecution or dernagogic appeals for national unity. He had developed a systematic agitation against the French government, which he accused of lack of daring. He justified this agitation by arguing that it was precisely because the Germans were marching on Paris that the government had to be overthrown, in order to ensure that the country was really defended.) Trotsky explained that if, as a result of the incompetence or hesitation of the Soviet Government, the imperialist enemy were to advance into the heart of Russia, at precisely that moment the Left Opposition would intensify its efforts to change the regime, because it was the most resolute defender of the Soviet Union.

In 1934 Trotsky was obliged to declare that in the coming world war the weakening of the world revolutionary movement resulting from the policies of Stalin would to all appearances oblige the USSR to ally itself with one or other of the existing imperialist camps. This new situation demanded an appropriate tactic. Trotsky wrote in War and the Fourth International:

44. Remaining the determined and devoted defender of the workers’ state in the struggle with imperialism, the international proletariat will not become an ally of the imperialist allies of the USSR. The proletariat of a capitalist country that finds itself in an 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 actions, 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. [18]

Did Trotsky make the concessions which Batter and Leonetti demanded, as some say he did? In any case, he seems to have stepped back in order to avoid the conflict. He agreed in any case that the formula of ‘defeatism’ could be used. But he warned his comrades against using it carelessly:

Lenin’s formula, “defeat is the lesser evil”, means not defeat of one’s country is the lesser evil compared with the defeat of the enemy country but that a military defeat resulting front the growth of the revolutionary movement is infinitely more beneficial to the proletariat and to the whole people than military victory assured by ‘civil peace’. Karl Liebknecht gave an unsurpassed formula of proletarian policy in time of war. “The chief enemy of the people is in its own country” … The transformation of imperialist war into civil war is that general strategic task to which the whole work of a proletarian party during war should be subordinated. [19]

Trotsky did not succeed in getting his point of view as a whole adopted in the theses on War and the Fourth International. From that time onwards he was to find means to spell out his positions in relation to specific questions. The first of these was the question of ‘just’, ‘progressive’ wars, in which the question of defeatism does not arise.

As we know, Lenin never excluded the possibility of ‘just wars’, ‘progressive’, ‘national’, ‘revolutionary’ wars for ‘the defence of the fatherland’. * He explained all this many times during World War One, especially in discussion with Inessa Armand and Zinoviev, for whom the imperialist character of the war implied refusing to support national wars. Of course, Lenin pointed out that in World War One this national character was represented only by the war of Serbia against Austria, and that it consequently had a secondary character, which did not affect the generally imperialist character of the war. These essential remarks by Lenin were of little practical importance at the time they were uttered. But they did become important afterwards.

The events in Spain (1936-39) provided Trotsky with the opportunity to elaborate the attitude of revolutionaries in a civil war directed against a developing revolution, with the government under attack remaining a ‘bourgeois’ one. On 14 April 1937, in the course of the work of the Commission of Enquiry into the Charges Made Against Trotsky in the Moscow Trials, Benjamin Stolberg, the New York author and journalist, asked him: “With which side would you side at the present time in Spain?” Trotsky replied:

Every Trotskyist in Spain must be a good soldier, on the side of the Left. Naturally, it is so elementary a question – it is not a question worth discussing. A leader … of the working class cannot enter the bourgeois government. We did not enter the government of Kerensky in Russia. While we defended Kerensky against Kornilov. we did not enter his government. As I declared, I am ready to enter into an alliance with Stalin against the Fascists or an alliance with Jouhaux against the French Fascists. It is an elementary question.

The civil rights lawyer from Washington DC, John F. Finerty, then asked Trotsky:

If you were in power in Russia today, and your help was asked by the loyalists in Spain, would you condition yourself on the basis that the land was given to the peasants and the factories to the workers?

Trotsky replied:

Not on that condition, not on this question. The first question would be the attitude of the Spanish revolutionary party. I would say: “No political alliance with the bourgeoisie”, as the first condition. The second: you must be the best soldiers against the Fascists. Thirdly, you must say to the soldiers, to the soldiers on the other side and to the peasants: “We must transform our country into a people’s country”. Then, when we win the masses, we will throw the bourgeoisie out of office and then we will be in power and we will make the social revolution. [20]

He wrote a document entitled Against ‘Defeatism’ in Spain on 14 September 1937. His problem was to answer questions which a Los Angeles militant had put to him. Without going so far as to take up the position of certain groups which saw in the civil war only a struggle between two bourgeois clans – by analogy with an ‘imperialist’ war – and who took up a position in favour of ‘revolutionary defeatism’, a group of American militants came out against any political or material support to the loyalist bourgeois government, Trotsky answered them as follows:

The difference between Negrin and Franco is the difference between decaying bourgeois democracy and Fascism.

Everywhere and always, wherever and whenever revolutionary workers are not powerful enough immediately to overthrow the bourgeois regime, they defend even rotten bourgeois democracy from Fascism, and they especially defend their own position inside bourgeois democracy.

The workers defend bourgeois democracy, however, not by the methods of bourgeois democracy (e.g., Popular Fronts, electoral blocs or governmental coalitions, etc), but by their own methods, that is, by the methods of revolutionary class struggle. Thus, by participating in the military struggle against Fascism. they continue at the same time to defend their own organisations, their rights and their interests against the bourgeois-democratic government.

Trotsky then explained:

The defence of bourgeois democracy against Fascism is only a tactical episode, subordinated to our line: to overthrow bourgeois democracy and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat.

However tactical the distinction might be, it was nonetheless essential, in Trotsky’s opinion. He added:

One can object to this: during a war between two bourgeois states, the revolutionary proletariat, independent of the political regime in its country, must take the position that “the defeat of our own government is the lesser evil”. Is this rule not applicable also to the civil war in which two bourgeois governments are fighting one another? It is not applicable. In a war between two bourgeois states, the purpose is one of imperialist conquest and not a struggle between democracy and Fascism. In the Spanish civil war, the question is: democracy or Fascism?

Trotsky’s distinction shows that, in his opinion, we could not be ‘defeatists’ in Spain, any more than we could be ‘neutral’, but, on the contrary, we must be ‘defencists’:

We are ‘defencists’. The ‘defeatists’ are Negrin, Stalin and their ilk. We participate in the struggle against Franco as the best soldiers and at the same time, in the interests of the victory over Fascism, we agitate for the social revolution, and we prepare for the overthrow of the defeatist government of Negrin.

This ‘defencist’ task is not restricted to the people who are actually fighting in Spain. It is an international task:

Let’s take an example: Two ships with armaments and munitions start from France or from the United States – one for Franco and the other for Negrin. What should be the attitude of the workers? To sabotage both ships? Or only the one for Franco? We are not neutral. We will let the ship with the munitions for the Negrin government pass. We have no illusions: from these bullets only nine out of ten would go against the fascists; at least one against our comrades. But out of those marked for Franco, ten out of every ten would go to our comrades. We are not neutral. [21]

The second example has to do with the Sino-Japanese conflict. Thanks to the study which Pierre Broué has devoted to Chen Tu-Hsiu, we know that this question deeply divided the Chinese Trotskyists. In general, Chen supported a ‘patriotic’ orientation: this gave rise to energetic attacks denouncing his ‘opportunism’ and ‘capitulation’. From the first incident onwards, Trotsky took his stand alongside the great Chinese revolutionary: his reaction was immediate: a press statement declared that the Trotskyists throughout the world were on the side of China and of the Chinese people in the just war against Japanese imperialism. He wrote:

If there exists in the world a just war, it is the war of the Chinese people against its oppressors. All workers’ organisations. all progressive forces in China, without abandoning their programmes or their political independence, will carry out to the end their duty in the war of liberation. regardless of their attitude towards the government of Chiang Kai-Shek. [22]

He declared, in a discussion with Li Fu-jen on 11 August 1937 (in which he criticised some of the formulations of his Chinese comrades): “Japanese workers’ organisations have no right to be patriotic, but Chinese have a right”. [23] These statements, at the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War, provoked opposition in the Trotskyist ranks. Trotsky answered it firmly:

We do not, and never have put all wars on the same plane. Marx and Engels supported the revolutionary struggle of the Irish against Great Britain, of the Poles against the Tsar, even though in these two nationalist wars the leaders were, for the most part, members of the bourgeoisie and even at times of the feudal aristocracy … at all events, Catholic reactionaries. When Abd El-Krim rose up against France, the democrats and Social Democrats spoke with hate of the struggle of a ‘savage tyrant’ against the ‘democracy’. The party of Leon Blum supported this point of view. But we, Marxists and Bolsheviks, considered the struggle of the Riffians against imperialist domination as a progressive war. Lenin wrote hundreds of pages demonstrating the primary necessity of distinguishing between imperialist nations and the colonial and semi-colonial nations which comprise the great majority of humanity. To speak of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ in general, without distinguishing between exploiter and exploited countries, is to make a miserable caricature of Bolshevism and to put that caricature at the service of imperialists. [24]

Trotsky was specially definite in the case of China, but we can generalise from it. In other documents he considered the case of a war between ‘democratic’ Britain and a semi-colonial country such as Brazil, with a Fascist-type government. [25] He defended the standpoint that revolutionaries must support the just war of the oppressed people, without regard to the political complexion of their government. Likewise, at the time of war between Italy and Abyssinia, he believed that it was correct to support Ethiopia (Abyssinia) against Italy, without regard to the reactionary, medieval character of the government of the Negus, the King of Ethiopia, and at the same time denouncing ‘sanctions’ which expressed the policies of the imperialist powers. [26]


Evidently, the most complex question arose from the case of an ‘imperialist’ war, in which the USSR would be involved and would be in an alliance with one of the imperialist camps. The ‘;defeatist’ formula of Lenin had not been worked out to deal with such a situation. The discussion which War and the Fourth International had started in 1934 opened up again on this question. Trotsky’s statement to the Commission of Enquiry (Dewey Commission), in reply to a question from Stolberg about what he would advocate in the event of a war in which the USSR would be allied with France, occasioned new discussions … and new conflicts. This is what Trotsky replied to Stolberg:

In France I would remain in opposition to the government. and would systematically develop 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 military machinery of Japan, to disorganise it, both in Germany and Japan. In France it is political opposition to 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 have the aim of the proletarian revolution. [27]

This declaration by Trotsky was developed in an article by Klement in December 1937. It also drew down upon him a vigorous criticism from Georges Vereeken, the leader of the Belgian PSR. Vereeken wrote on 15 December 1937, that Trotsky’s reply permitted the belief that: “Trotsky does not hold the opinion that we must be defeatists in France.” Vereeken went on to discuss the position of the French Section:

What should the POI do? There are two solutions which, in practice, come down to one single one. The POI will not sabotage the war machine of French imperialism. It will not be defeatist. In a word, it will remain neutral in relation to the war-machine. This will mean that it will facilitate the victory of French imperialism, or that it will be consistent and struggle for the victory of ‘its own’ country. The proper name for this is ‘joining the sacred union’. [28]

The International Secretariat replied to this major accusation, through Klement, and Trotsky unreservedly supported Klement. Klement did not agree with Vereeken’s definition of revolutionary defeatism, because Vereeken thought that it was the same as military sabotage. Klement drew attention to the fact that this definition was consistent neither with the position of Lenin in 1914-16 nor with that of the Fourth International. The latter had always stressed that revolutionary defeatism does not consist of “blowing up bridges” nor of terrorist actions against the General Staff itself, but of continuing the class war in time of war. This social and political struggle takes on a military character only at its highest point, that of the armed insurrection and the civil war.

No ‘sacred union’

Klement and Trotsky strongly attacked Vereeken for regarding revolutionary defeatism as being the same as sabotage. They saw here not merely an incorrect definition of defeatism, but still more a sign of refusal to take into account the fact that the coming war would not be ‘imperialist’ on every side, unlike World War One. Therefore, the proletariat must recognise the progressive character of one of the camps. If it started from that point, it could not apply just one single tactic. The proletariat was in the difficult position of having to combine revolutionary defeatism with support for progressive, wars. The Stalinists and Social Democrats were making this situation all the more difficult by their efforts to justify the ‘sacred union’. The proletariat had to recognise the progressive character of certain struggles. It could not be victorious, as in the imperialist camps, at the price of military defeat. On the contrary, it could he victorious only by way of the military victory of the camp which was waging a just war, ie, colonial and semi-colonial countries such as Abyssinia and China, workers’ states such as the USSR and democracies waging civil war against fascism, as in Spain.

What was new in Trotsky’s answers to the Dewey Commission (Commission of Enquiry) was that the struggle for the victory of the camp of the oppressed must be completed by the use of military sabotage within the camp of their enemies. For example, the workers of Germany or Japan would sabotage the military machine of Germany to defend the USSR, and that of Japan to defend China. In that case, the masses would understand that this activity, and the defeat of their own country, far from being a ‘lesser evil’, could become an objective. When the war takes on such a character as this, the proletariat has the duty not only to struggle for the revolution through ‘defeatism’ but also to sabotage the military machine of the hostile imperialism for the benefit of its own allies.

These clarifications brought out more and more sharply the relationship between the defence of the USSR, that of the colonial and semi-colonial countries and, in civil wars, the defence of democracy. They likewise made it possible to distinguish carefully revolutionary defeatism from military sabotage, which is a method of ensuring the immediate military defence of the ally of the proletariat. What remained to be spelt out were the tasks of the proletariat in the imperialist countries allied to the USSR. Vereeken had in fact accused Trotsky, the International Secretariat and Klement of preparing to integrate the proletariat into the ‘sacred union’ in the countries allied to the USSR.

Trotsky accepted full responsibility for what he had said before the Dewey Commission. This is clear from a letter which he wrote to Jean Van Heijenoort on 2 January 1938. He explained that the question at the heart of the differences was of “knowing whether we ate obliged to defend the USSR … in case of war, without giving up revolutionary opposition, and, if so, by what means?” [29] He stressed that reactionary struggles and progressive struggles are linked together in an international conflict, with the result that the tasks of the proletariat are combined and are necessarily different, according to the country. Trotsky laid down that the proletariat had the duty to sabotage the military machine of imperialism for the benefit of its allies who are waging a just war. Klement laid down, however, that military sabotage for the benefit of the non-imperialist enemy of one’s own bourgeoisie could not be extended for the benefit of the imperialist enemy of one’s own bourgeoisie. He gave the example of a war in which the USSR was allied with France at war with Germany. The German workers must try to disorganise the Eastern Front in order to help the USSR. But in France, the ally of the USSR, as well as in Germany on the Western Front, as Klement stressed, this did not mean either sabotage or aiming at defeat. It did mean pursuing the class struggle and the struggle for the revolution without hesitation in the face of the eventual consequences.

Finally, the essence of the contribution of Trotsky and Klement to the 1937-38 polemic is to be explained by their conviction that the coming war would be world-wide and that the USSR would necessarily be involved as an ally of one of the imperialist camps. In these conditions the formula of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ did not suffice. It did not answer precisely the crucial question. Moreover, it was precisely on the question of the ‘defence of the USSR’ that the crisis broke out after the conclusion of the German-Soviet Pact. Under the pressure of public opinion, an important section of the Socialist Workers Party in the USA, led by James Burnham, and Max Shachtman, began to argue that the event was important enough to justify questioning the traditional analysis of the ‘nature of the USSR’ and, consequently, its defence. Trotsky regarded the Pact as an unprincipled manoeuvre, which revealed the weakness of the Soviet bureaucracy and its hope of avoiding involvement in the war. He did not think, however, that this cynical agreement – for which there was no lack of precedent in Stalin’s policies – was such as to call into question the social basis of the USSR. He continued to think that the Fourth International must defend the progressive social regime of the USSR, the ‘conquests of October’, by the methods of the class struggle, while at the same time it must wage a pitiless struggle to prepare the overthrow of the Kremlin oligarchy by the Soviet workers and peasants, through all the variations of alliances and military fronts. The subject of the debate is so well known, and documents so accessible, that we need not return to it here.[30]

No equivocation

We have seen the reasons why Trotsky felt obliged on occasions to refine the word ‘defeatism’, and even to refrain from using it. But, at the same time, he powerfully defended this same ‘defeatism’ against those for whom the coming war would be one between ‘democracy’ and ‘fascism’ and who believed that the proletariat must line up in the camp of the democracies.

The 1934 theses had already stressed that the war would not be a conflict between democracy and fascism, but a new struggle for a new share-out of the world and a new redistribution of the colonies. The theses pointed out that both camps included democratic as well as fascist states and that, while revolutionaries have the duty always of defending democracy against their ‘;own’ government, they can never repeat the Social Democratic treachery of supporting their ‘own’ imperialism against the foreign imperialism.

In the course of the argument at the end of the 1930s, Trotsky concluded that he must vigorously attack the interpretation according to which he was advocating two distinct policies, one for democratic countries and the other for Fascist countries, on the grounds that in the last analysis the war would not be a competition between opposing ‘political regimes’, but a social struggle to redivide the world, to subjugate China and to reconquer the Soviet territories,

On 11 March 1939, he polemicised against the Palestinian group Haor, which made defeatism obligatory only in the Fascist countries and renounced it in the democratic countries. He characterised this position as “a dangerous step towards social-patriotism”, remarking that it failed to take into account the place of the USSR, which, it was not excluded, Stalin might line up in the camp of Hitler. He then criticised the definition which Haor gave of defeatism, which it conceived as “a special and independent system of activities aimed at provoking defeat”. This seemed to him to be “too equivocal”.

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 that 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 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. [31]

The last fundamental document which Trotsky wrote about the war again takes up this question. The Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution, which he wrote for the so-called ‘Emergency’ Conference in May 1940, condemns the slogan of “war for democracy”. Trotsky posed once again the question of knowing whether the working class must aid the democracies in their struggle against German Fascism. His reply was unambiguous:

That is how the question is put by broad petty-bourgeois circles, for whom the proletariat remains only an auxiliary tool of this or that faction of the bourgeoisie. We reject this policy with indignation. Naturally there exists a difference between the political regimes in bourgeois society, just as there is a difference in comfort between cars in a railway train. But when the whole train is plunging into an abyss, the distinction between decaying democracy and murderous Fascism disappears in the face of the collapse of the entire capitalist system. [32]

Why did Trotsky not utilise the term ‘revolutionary defeatism’ in the Manifesto? We know that he did not generally refuse to use it, though he did refuse to turn it into a magic incantation and never used it as a slogan. But had not the formula of ‘defeatism’ already had a remarkable destiny by 1940? It had been elaborated by Lenin when he was the firmest of internationalists. It had then been used in the struggle against ‘Trotskyism’ by counter posing it to ‘Leninism’ in respect of the Fourth International as well as the Third. No doubt Trotsky was too clearly aware of the content of these polemics to allow himself to be trapped in a discussion which was all the more pointless in that the problems which World War Two posed – especially in connection with the existence of the USSR – could not be solved by even the best of the formulae of the preceding war. But, at the same time, he had no reason to abandon this part of the heritage of Lenin to his opponents.

Jean-Paul Joubert



The content of these notes and the details of the sources included in the above text have been slightly amended by the translator from the original French text. Wherever possible references have been given to English language sources and some relevant information has been added in places.

1. See especially V. Lenin, The Fall of Port Arthur, European Capital and the Aristocracy and Debacle, Collected Works Vol.8, Moscow 1977, pp.47-55, 267-74, 482-5.

2. Marx and Engels did not elaborate a ‘specific theory’ of war. They adopted Clausewitz’s formula and regarded war as “the pursuit of policy by different means”. Their policy in relation to any given war was not worked out from theory a priori, but on the basis of an analysis of the specific conflict. They investigated the specific conflict in order to determine the camp the victory of which would be the most advantageous to the working class. During the American Civil War Marx took up his position in favour of the victory of the North against the stave-owning South. We know Engels’ formula in 1866: “My greatest desire is that Prussia gets itself defeated. Then there will be a revolution in Berlin.” In 1870 Engels began by supporting the national interests of Germany against the French Empire. But at the same time he recommended the German Social Democracy to preserve its complete independence and approved of the decision of Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel to vote against the military credits. But as soon as German unity was assured and the French Empire was overthrown, Engels radically changed his position. He estimated that the continuation of the war from then on was aimed at enabling the Prussian Junkers to dominate Germany and a Prussified Germany to dominate Europe. He at once placed himself on the side of a war of defence by France and thought that this war might become a revolutionary factor.

3. See especially G. Haupt and C. Weill, Marx and Engels and the Problems of Nations, and M. Drachovitch, Socialism in France and Germany and the Problem of War, Geneva 1953, pp.221-44.

4. Drachovitch, op. cit., pp.323-30.

5. V. Lenin, The Tasks of Revolutionary Social Democracy in the European War, CW Vol.21, Moscow 1977, pp.15-19.

6. V. Lenin, The Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War, CW Vol.21, op. cit., pp.275-6. This article was written by Lenin on 26 July 1915 in reply to a polemic by Trotsky in Nashe Slovo, No.105. Trotsky wrote that:

The desire for a Russian defeat is an uncalled-for concession, and an unjustified concession, to the methodology of social-patriotism. It substitutes for the revolutionary struggle against the war and against the conditions which caused it an extremely arbitrary orientation towards the line of the lesser evil, in similar circumstances.

Lenin’s reply was written in the heat of a vigorous polemic. Later on it was frequently used against Trotsky. Lenin was evidently inspired by the example of the Paris Commune and that of the Russian Revolution of 1905. He believed that the proletariat must contribute effectively to defeat. Nonetheless, he was careful to point out that this in no way meant “desiring the victory of Germany”. He completely excluded military sabotage as an obviously ridiculous method of revolutionary defeatism. He wrote that a perceptive reader would easily see that the question “does not mean ‘blowing up bridges’, organising unsuccessful strikes in the war industries, and in general helping the government defeat the revolutionaries” (V. Lenin, The Defeat …, op. cit., p.275). Lenin excluded the use of special military means from which the enemy would directly profit but which would not advance the proletarian cause.

7. V. Lenin, Notes on the Tasks of our Delegation to the Hague, CW Vol.33, Moscow 1976, p.447.

8. G. Zinoviev, Against the Stream, p.10.

9. V. Lenin, Reply to the Debate on the Report on Ratification of the Peace Treaty, CW Vol.27, Moscow 1977, p.193.

10. V. Lenin, Farewell Letter to the Swiss Workers, CW Vol.23, Moscow 1974, pp.368-9.

11. V. Lenin, To the Central Committee of the RSDLP, CW, Vol.25, Moscow 1977, p.289.

12. V. Lenin, Farewell Letter …, op. cit., p.370.

13. The manifestos and theses of the first four congresses of the CI are in A. Adler (ed), Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Third International, London 1980, and those written by Trotsky are also in L. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, two volumes, London, 1973 and 1974.

14. A. Martynov, The Great Proletarian Leader, Communist International, February 1924, G. Zinoviev, War and Leninism, Communist International, June 1924.

15. See Theses and Resolutions of the Sixth Congress of the Communist International, or the extracts in J. Degras, The Communist International 1919-1943, Volume 2, London 1960, p.525.

16. Harvard Closed Archives, V84.

17. Harvard 8009. This letter is not in the French edition of the Oeuvres because it was not discovered until after the two volumes devoted to 1934 had been published. It does not appear in the English language Pathfinder volumes either.

18. L. Trotsky, War and the Fourth International, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1933-1934), New York 1975, p.315.

19. ibid., p.320.

20. The Case of Leon Trotsky, London 1937, p.296.

21. L. Trotsky, Answers to Questions on the Spanish Situation, The Spanish Revolution 1931-39, New York 1973, pp.282-5, p.289. The text in this English language edition of Trotsky’s writings on Spain is incomplete. The editor has omitted the section in which Trotsky explained what he meant when he characterised Negrin and Stalin as ‘defeatists’ in the Spanish Civil War. The full text can be found in French in P. Broué, La Revolution Espagnole (1930-39), Paris, p.431.

The question arose over the attitude of revolutionaries to the Negrin government which, with the patronage of Stalin and under the benevolent eye of the governments in London and Paris, had just severely attacked the left and was in the process of creating the conditions for defeat in the war against Franco. Some militants belonging to the Socialist Appeal Association and who formed the Joerger-Salemme group opposed any political or material support for the loyalist bourgeois government. See P. Broué, op. cit., p.431.

22. L. Trotsky, Japan and China, On China, New York 1976, p.547

23. L. Trotsky, A Discussion on China, ibid., p.558.

24. L. Trotsky, On the Sino-Japanese War, ibid., p.568

25. L. Trotsky, Anti-imperialist Struggle is Key to Liberation, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1938-39), New York 1974, p.34.

26. See, for example, L. Trotsky, Open Letter to a British Comrade and On Dictators and the Heights of Oslo, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1935-36), New York 1974, pp.293-7, pp.317-20.

27. The Case of Leon Trotsky, op. cit., p.290.

28. G. Vereeken, La Guepeou dans la Movement Trotskyiste, Paris 1975, p.267. The GPU in the Trotskyist Movement, London 1976, is the English edition. See also Rudolf Klement’s article Principles and Tactics in War in New International, May 1938 and reprinted in Revolutionary History, vol.1 no. 1, Spring 1988, pp.17-19.

29. L. Trotsky, Letter on Defeatism, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1937-38), New York 1976, p.123.

30. L. Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, London, 1975, passim.

31. L. Trotsky, A Step Towards Social Patriotism, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1938-39), New York 1974, p.209.

32. L. Trotsky, Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution, Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939-40), New York 1973.

Updated by ETOL: 31 January 2009