Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


S.F. Kissim, War and the Marxists: Socialist Theory and Practice in Capitalist Wars, Volumes One and Two, Andre Deutsch, London, 1988 and 1989, pp291 and 262, £17.96 each

The programmatic reason for the great split in the international working class movement was the issue of war, and, more particularly, the attitude to the First World War. It was not the other topics, such as colonialism or immigration, which divided the Second International at the Stuttgart conference of 1907, let alone the future organisation of the economy under a Socialist government, which was never discussed, that foreshadowed this great schism, while the issues of war and militarism were also the main topics at both the Copenhagen and Basel congresses that followed Stuttgart. It is therefore most welcome that the late Siegfried Kissin’s scholarly and well written study of this area has now been published. It consists of two volumes, the first being the attitude taken by the Socialist movement up to the final split in the International at the end of the ‘First Great War for Civilisation’ while the second takes the story up to the end of the Second World War and, among other things, deals with the debates in the Trotskyist movement on that issue.

The contents of the first volume should be almost unreservedly welcomed by the readers of Revolutionary History. Kissin tells us of the positions taken up by Marx and Engels on various nineteenth century conflicts and the debates among Socialists both before and during the First War. Marx and Engels had a very much more flexible and less intransigent view of the many wars in their time than we are now accustomed to think of as ‘Marxist’. They were seldom defeatist, and since many of us are only familiar with the later debate from a rather one-sided Leninist polemic, much of the material that Kissin introduces will be fresh and new. The position of the Founding Fathers in any particular case depended on an assessment of the effects of victory or defeat for the prospects of Socialism in a world context. Later the differences amongst those denounced by Lenin – differences which at the time might have appeared more important to the participants than those which divided the centre and moderate left from the Bolsheviks – are clearly brought out, and add a good deal to our understanding of the flavour and context of the dispute at the time. A final, if controversial piece looks at the differences between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin on the 1914-18 war, where Kissin seems to come down on Luxemburg’s side. Even in the First World War case, however, Kissin argues that in the parliamentary democracies of England and France it was not necessary to work actively for and desire the defeat of one’s own government, though he would denounce the ‘social-patriots’’ belief that the war meant a truce in the class struggle.

One fascinating aspect with contemporary echoes is his account of the debate on the Boer War, which for me has parallels with the Falklands campaign. Kissin makes the point that defeatism, as in the Boer War example, does not have to be revolutionary and that there maybe cases (Britain in the Falklands war was surely one), where the defeat of one’s own side would merely lead to a change from a conservative to a slightly more left wing government at the next election, rather than a revolution. This is nearly always the case in colonial wars where the nation’s existence is not perceived to be imperilled. In this event, as he says, there may well be liberals and pacifists who are thorough defeatists, though none of this makes the defeatist position incorrect. And just as it could be argued – as it was by Hyndman – that a British defeat would leave the South African Blacks enslaved by the Afrikaners, so, I suppose, it could be argued that in the Falklands British victory was a great benefit to the Argentine, if not to the British working class. In the event, the Blacks were enslaved anyway, and the end of the Junta has seen an even further fall in Argentine living standards. As the First World War showed, there could be more than one honest opinion on this. Indeed, one impression from reading Kissin about the German SPD in 1914 is how naive many of them were about their own government and how ‘wet’ they appear, faced with dissimulating noblemen who clearly did believe in the class war, made little distinction between the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ enemy and saw these nice SDP deputies as adversaries to be tricked and beaten like foreign foes. Distant Lenin saw far more clearly than the German Socialists what the game was about.

In Kissin’s three page conclusion in Volume One, he attempts to forecast what attitude Marx and Engels would have taken to the events in the early twentieth century, and here he sets them up in opposition to Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Of course, this is not the first time that this has been done, but at least he makes a good job in arguing his case. A more basic reservation that I have is that Kissin sees the issues of war and conflict in rather static terms, so that he approvingly quotes Luxemburg’s forecast of German nationalist revival and another war as a consequence of Germany’s defeat. But this was surely not an inevitable result of such a defeat, and it was a close-run thing between revolution and counter-revolution.

The second volume continues the story with a description of the positions taken on the many pre-Second World War conflicts by left wingers from both the Social Democratic and Communist traditions. Kissin tests the later Stalinist wrigglings against the classical Leninist position with damning conclusions. Finally, in the last part of the book he discusses the Trotskyists and, by printing a paper he submitted to the Edinburgh WIL in 1943, he makes his own position on the Second World War clear. He was an unabashed defencist, as he thought that the war was not primarily a national one, but a European civil war between the working class allied to a section of the bourgeoisie against Fascism, and the other bourgeois fraction. So, just as left wingers in Spain had supported Azana against Franco, in Britain they should stand with Churchill against Hitler. They should, of course, maintain a programme distinct from that of the conservative and Stalinist patriots. Such a programme would include the demand for independence for India and the colonies, constant fraternal appeals to the German workers and a guarantee of no vindictive Versailles peace, but a promise to integrate Germany into a peaceful Europe after the overthrow of the Nazis, together with demands for workers’ control of war production, election of officers tend so on. Such a position had much more in common with ‘Proletarian Military Policy’ of the SWP or the WIL than the RSL and other more pacifistic and abstentionist Trotskyists who were inclined to see the war as a re-run of 1914-18. He argues that victories for Hitler meant the smashing of all the gains from working class struggle, and the imposition of Fascist and authoritarian regimes in the occupied countries. In the event he was correct, as there was a greater left wing movement among the people of the Allied countries as a result of victory than among the populations of the defeated Axis.

The great value of the book is the immense range of evidence that Kissin has collected to illustrate his theme. There are some splendid choice items from the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact – in particular some statements by the late unlamented Walter Ulbricht and a fascinating account of how in 1939 the Labour Party leadership, which had started by declaring that the enemy was Hitler, not the German people, ended up in 1945 with a much more social-patriotic line which was only slightly more civilised than that of the Communists. The Labour lefts like Bevan stand out for their decency on this issue.

There are a number of omissions and inaccuracies in the book, above all in the final section on the Trotskyists, which probably arose as he seems to have researched it in isolation, perhaps not realising that there were a number of other people honestly seeking to understand this period. He does not seem to have been aware of Bornstein and Richardson’s War and the International, or of the debates in the United States between the Workers Party and the SWP on the problem of the war with Japan, which was much more purely an inter-imperialist conflict than the war in Europe. Indeed, Kissin thinks that the Workers Party quickly disappeared after the 1940 split, which was by no means the case. Neither has he read Guérin's analysis of Trotsky’s political evolution at the beginning of the war though this analysis has considerable similarities with his own. Furthermore, he does not mention the tiny group of French defeatists led by Barta, though today those in that tradition around the paper Lutte Ouvrière seem to be the largest Trotskyist tendency in France.

These are, however, minor blemishes. For those on the left who seek to understand the history of war and the Marxist attitude to it, and whatever disagreements one might have with the author’s judgements, these two volumes will be an invaluable source of information.

Ted Crawford

Updated by ETOL: 12.7.2003