Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

Trotsky and the Second World War

An exchange between Lutte Ouvrière and Daniel Guérin

1. Review in Lutte Ouvrière, No 80 (10-17 March 1970) of Sur la deuxième guerre mondiale, texts by Leon Trotsky collected and edited by Daniel Guérin, Taupe editions, Brussels.

This collection of texts contains the greater part of the analyses which Trotsky devoted to the coming of the Second World War from 1937 until his death in August 1940.

As far as Trotsky was concerned, if the First World War had brutally ripped aside the Second (Socialist) International’s veil of opportunism, the Second war was not going to provide any surprises.

On 10 October 1938 he wrote:

Today all the starting positions have been occupied with precision prior to the war. But wherever the bourgeoisie continues to feed the labour bureaucracy, the Social Democrats and ex-Communists will be found completely on the side of their general staffs, and, what is more the first fiddle of chauvinism will be in the hands of the musicians of the Stalin school. Not only the fiddle, but also the revolver aimed at the revolutionary workers!

Right from the start he denounced the operation mounted by the bourgeoisie and reformists of all stripes who were attempting to drag the workers into war by representing it as a struggle between ‘democracy and fascism’. He continued to show without ceasing that this argument assisted the Anglo-French (and later the American) imperialists in attempting to harness their own people to the defence of their own interests threatened by German imperialism. Trotsky returned to this question in numerous writings to demonstrate the criminal policy of the French and English ‘democracies’, so accomplished in the plunder and enslavement of the colonial peoples.

As for the war itself, from the summer of 1937 Trotsky foresaw it would be unleashed in three or four years’ time. The essential criterion for this was the achievement of German rearmament. The scenario that the English bourgeoisie put forward at this time was for the reinforcement of British armaments, which had to acquire an adequate level to ‘assure peace’. As can be seen, ‘the deterrent’ does not date from yesterday.

At the time of the Munich agreement Trotsky shows that, far from guaranteeing peace, it simply proved that the ‘Western democracies’ preferred to sacrifice Czechoslovakia rather than allow Hitler to satiate himself on their colonies. It was on these premises that, from 1938 onwards, Trotsky was able to foresee the rapprochement of the now isolated USSR with Hitler (a rapprochement whose possibility he had proclaimed from 1933 on). And the Kremlin bureaucrats passed quickly from celebrating ‘the alliance of the democracies against fascism’ to the Hitler-Stalin pact. But no sooner had the German-Soviet pact been signed than Trotsky perceived that the capitulationist policy of Stalin could only assist the next offensive of Hitler, against the USSR. That is indeed what happened in 1941.

More than any other person of his time Trotsky had a clear vision of the reality of the coming war. Each of his analyses permits us to grasp the point of the political actions it was necessary to undertake. And his writings are full of precious indications for militant workers who found themselves in the political torment that preceded the war.

From this point of view one of the particularly interesting writings of this collection is the transcript of a discussion of Trotsky with the American Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party. This time it is not a matter of an analysis of the world war itself, but of the concrete measures that the American revolutionaries would be able to take in order to find a way to the masses, most of whom had already been won to chauvinist ideas. An opponent of abstract opposition to the war, he attempted to find forms of struggle that would allow the workers in uniform to oppose the officer corps of the bourgeoisie. As far as he was concerned, in the same way as the revolutionary party had to utilise bourgeois institutions in ‘normal times’ (parliament, the schools, the courts), in wartime it was necessary to use the only strong institution, the army, to turn it against the bourgeoisie. That is why he elaborated a certain number of transitional demands capable of mobilising the workers in uniform, including those who had been won over to support the war effort, such as for example military training controlled by the trade unions, the creation of a proletarian officer corps, etc.

It is unfortunate that this text was literally cut to pieces by Guérin (nearly four cuts per page, notably on page 254), who in his preface writes:

In order to provide them with more homogeneity, and to concentrate the thought of Leon Davidovitch better on one and the same subject, we have deliberately left passages out of certain texts that have no connection with the question.

Sure enough, the selection of texts from such an author as Trotsky is always difficult. But in any case we think that whatever texts were chosen should have been published complete. This is even more the case because in his preface Daniel Guerin very freely interprets the last text to which we referred, and more especially writes:

Trotsky did not hesitate to proclaim that America must not remain neutral. According to him it was necessary to give Hitter such a decisive blow that Stalin would cease to fear him. And he encouraged the American workers to engage in an intensive military preparation. 2

Nothing, absolutely nothing at all in this collection allows Guérin to define Trotsky's ideas in this manner. Very much to the contrary: all his writings show his steadfast opposition to American militarism as well as the unceasing advice he addressed to the workers that they should not fall into the trap of the ‘Sacred Union’. 3

Daniel Guérin has manifestly attributed his own views on this question to Trotsky, and he gives a meaning which is consistently opposite to Trotsky's real position. It is unfortunate that this feature has marred an otherwise indispensable collection of texts for those who want to understand what the Second World War was really about.

2. Letter by Daniel Guérin, On the Writings of Leon Trotsky on the Second World War published by La Taupe in Lutte Ouvrière, No.87 (29 April-5 May 1970).


Your summary of the book of Trotsky, On the Second World War, charges me with “literally cutting to pieces” the transcript of a discussion of Trotsky with some American Trotskyists. But here it was a matter of an extremely long document where the most varied subjects were touched upon, and where the interventions of the various participants were often as long as Trotsky’s replies. If I was obliged to carry out four cuts on page 254, it is because otherwise I would have been obliged to give space for the development of certain questions (generally of American domestic policy) without direct link with the subject of the collection: the Second World War. I also regret that you have charged me with “interpreting very freely” the thought of Trotsky on two points: a) The abandonment of American neutrality. As Trotsky says explicitly on pages 129 and 131:

The intervention of the United States, which would be capable of changing the orientation of the Kremlin … To make the Kremlin change its policy there remains only one way, but a sure one. It is necessary to give Hitler such a decisive blow that Stalin will cease to tear him. In this sense, it is possible to say that the most important key to the Kremlin’s policy is now in Washington. 4

b)The support for military preparations for the workers:

“We must be for compulsory military training for the workers and under the control of the workers”, and on page 252: “The war is inevitable … We must learn the art of handling arms.”

And he did not hesitate to treat as “deserters” those who evaded this duty. 5

I fully expect you to publish this final word. Thank you and most fraternally.

Daniel Guérin

3. Reply of Lutte Ouvrière in No.87, 29 April-5 May 1970.

In 250 pages of collection of texts there is this bit of phrase, “to make the Kremlin … it is necessary to give Hitler”. Ambiguous, perhaps, but the sense of it cannot remain in doubt when what precedes it and what follows it is read. This is the bit of phrase, then, that allows Daniel Guérin to write (we are quoting from his preface):

Trotsky did not hesitate to proclaim that America must not remain neutral. According to him it was necessary to give Hitler such a decisive blow that Stalin would cease to fear him. And he encouraged the American workers to engage in an intensive military preparation.

And it is not ourselves who emphasise this, it is Guérin who stresses his “must not”. Apart from the sole phrase above quoted, and otherwise contradicted by the context, can Guérin provide us with the slightest text, in this collection or elsewhere, where Trotsky writes that America “must not” remain neutral, or that he pronounced in favour of the entry of the USA into the war, and with good reason, that justifies Guérin in writing in the same preface:

It is thus that, presenting or even calling for the entry of the United States into the war on the side of the Western Allies, Trotsky was led into lambasting the American pacifists, considered as ‘enemy no.1’ by him, and to encouraging the United States to accelerate their military preparations.

Where did he see Trotsky appeal to the United States to enter the war, or press them to accelerate their military preparations? Where? In the same phrase quoted in his letter, doubtless, a phrase, so it seems, that he makes say many things.

Sure enough, Trotsky affirms that in the conditions of war he proposed that the American revolutionaries ought to be in favour of military preparations for the workers, and he does lambast the revolutionaries who would evade this task. But is this policy due to the participation of the USSR in the conflict – as Guérin would have us believe – and in what way is it so different from the position of Lenin on war?

As far as Guérin is concerned, this must be an ‘interpretation’ to he drawn from what Trotsky wrote in this sole phrase quoted by him, because if there is any other in the entire collection we have not been able to find it. This sole phrase where Trotsky says “it is necessary to give Hitler” is only an analysis and a statement, and not the expression of support that Guérin would have us believe, for this is an interpretation that is otherwise contradicted by all Trotsky’s work; the same text from which the phrase is taken is analysing the inevitability of the entry of the United States into the war as part of the struggle for world hegemony, and that went for the USA as well as Hitler as far as Trotsky was concerned.

It is this sole phrase, therefore, that allows Guérin to make all these statements, including that there are two Trotskys, one the internationalist and the other a second Trotsky who even “allows himself to be led into taking up positions that seem to contradict, to a certain extent, those of the first Trotsky, the internationalist”.

Then in the same manner, on the following line in another context, Guérin writes of Trotsky:

On several occasions, as has been seen, in the same way he insisted on the fact (which to him seems to provide extenuating circumstances) that Stalin had co-operated with Hitler above all out of fear of him.

If Trotsky had found extenuating circumstances for Stalin, in this context or in any other, he would have no need of the pen of Daniel Guérin to tell him so. If such were the case he would have clearly said it, and in addition this contention, coming up one does not know why, would have a social or historical sense. Why should it be necessary to excuse the myopia of Stalin from Trotsky’s point of view?

Yes, in the preface Guérin does provide Trotsky with ideas that he did not hold. Yes, he does interpret his writings by distorting them to a great extent, and it is because we cannot believe that Guérin has done this deliberately that we have not written that he has falsified their sense. In any case, as far as we are concerned, this preface adds nothing to Guérin’s reputation.

And when we see in these conditions how the editor is reading and interpreting the texts that are published, why should we not ask if the cuts have indeed been wisely done?

Moreover, we are in principle against the general idea of such collections of select pieces, which under the pretext of opening up a subject, all too often choke it.


Translator's Notes

1. L. Trotsky, A Fresh Lesson, (10 October 1938), Writings of Leon Trotsky (1938-39), New York 1974, p.76.

2. L. Trotsky, The US will Participate in the War, (1 October 1939) and On the Question of Workers’ Self Defence, (25 October 1939), Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939-40), New York 1973, pp.95, 97, 103.

3. The Union Sacrée was the alliance of workers and bourgeoisie demanded by the reformists to defend France during the First World War.

4. L. Trotsky, The US will Participate in the War, op. cit., pp.95, 97.

5. L. Trotsky, Discussions with Trotsky, (12-15 June 1940), Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939-40), op. cit., pp.256, 258.

Updated by ETOL: 5.7.2003