Trotsky and the Second World War
What appears below for the first time in English is the second instalment, much delayed, of a controversy carried on in the French language press about the attitude of Leon Trotsky to the Second World War. Chronologically it takes in the first and final contributions, the part we selected for publishing two years ago (Lutte Ouvrière/Daniel Guérin, Trotsky and the Second World War, Revolutionary History, Volume 1 no.3, Autumn 1988, pp.38-40) making up the central part of it.
Our initial item, which sparked off the discussion in the first place, is Daniel Guérin’s preface to Léon Trotsky – Sur la deuxième guerre mondiale, a collection of Trotsky’s writings on the war first published by Éditions la Taupe in Brussels in 1970. The second and third pieces are reviews of this work, by André Frankin in the Belgian Socialist weekly La Gauche, 28 March 1970, and by an anonymous reviewer in the French weekly Informations Ouvrières, no.485, 29 July-5 August 1970, the journal of the OCI. The final document is Guérin’s reply to his critics, which took the form of a postscript added to the French edition of Trotsky’s writings on the war, publish by Seuil (Bibliothèque politique) in 1974.
They have all been rendered into English by Ted Crawford. All emphasis is as in the original, but citations of Trotsky’s writing have been altered from the French texts to the standard English ones, generally those of the Pathfinder corpus.
1. Daniel Guérin’s Preface
The articles reprinted here consist of pieces by Trotsky and interviews which he gave to a number of publications in the last years of his life from August 1937 to August 1940, when he was murdered by an assassin on the orders of Stalin. These articles are exclusively concerned with the forecasts, the outbreak and the first year of the Second World War. In order to provide them with more homogeneity and to concentrate the thought of Leon Davidovich better on one and the same subject, we have deliberately left passages out of certain texts that have no connection with the question.
These writings deal with a particularly dramatic slice of history. They start with the period of agonising international tension which culminated in the Munich agreement of 30 September 1938, signed by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini for the Axis, and Neville Chamberlain and Eduard Daladier for the so-called Western ‘democracies’. This agreement, which anxious peoples believed had really given them peace, was only a short respite, as we now know, and what is more it helped to isolate dangerously the USSR by creating the possibility of a future coalition of these four great powers against the Socialist state.
The following sequence helps us understand the period which preceded the start of the war, after Munich, and despite Munich. It is then marked by the dramatic German-Soviet pact of 23 August 1939, which was a complete reversal of previous Stalinist foreign policy, which had been more or less aligned with the Western ‘democracies’ until then, in a common defence against the menace of Hitler. The prolonged negotiations which had taken place with them until then collapsed at the last moment as the Western powers dragged things out while Poland opposed the passage of the Red Armies across its territory.
The unnatural alliance between ‘Bolshevism’ (or what was left of it) and National Socialism simultaneously struck a heavy moral blow against the revolutionary movements in many countries, while leaving Hitler’s hands free for warlike enterprises. Then came the lightning aggression against the reactionary Poland of the colonels, the pretext invoked by Hitler being the Danzig corridor, which had, in fact, scandalously cut Germany into two since the Treaty of Versailles. In a few weeks, because of his superior military might and crushing technical superiority, Hitler finished with Poland, which was then divided between the two German and Russian gangsters.
Then there was that strange period called the ‘Phoney War’, where the Western powers, who had done nothing, or hardly anything, to help their ally Poland, passively faced the Wehrmacht, itself immobilised behind the Siegfried line.
But Stalin was not content with absorbing that portion of Poland and the Baltic states that Hitler was happy to leave him. His appetite whetted, he suddenly demanded a cession of territory from Finland and, being refused, just as Hitler had smashed down Poland, his armed forces fell on Finland, but with much less success. Thus started the particularly stressful Winter War, in the course of which, to the surprise of the whole world, and of Hitler in particular, the giant Red Army, weakened and demoralised by a previous series of purges of its generals and officer corps, did not succeed in finishing off the Finnish dwarf for several months. The soldiers on the Soviet side did not understand the legitimacy of an aggressive war waged by a Socialist country against a small people. In this situation the Finns fought with the energy of despair to preserve their national independence. Finally, in March 1940, a sort of compromise peace put an end to this disastrous adventure.
The World War had still not really started. Hitler, with economic help from Stalin, finally decided to commit himself. On 11 May 1940 the Wehrmacht first invaded Holland and then Belgium: by the beginning of June, after a shattering armoured breakthrough, France was routed and, on 2 June, Marshal Petain, the new head of state, signed the surrender.
As we shall see, Trotsky was an attentive and passionate observer of this succession of changing scenes. Unhappily, was not able to see how things finally turned out, because the blow of the pick which penetrated his skull on August 1940 put an end to the activity of his brain. The present compilation therefore, has the appearance of an unfinished work.
But his material is so rich and so powerful, and his predictions as to the eventual evolution of the war are always so lucid, that the writings of Trotsky on the Second World War go further than the moment when their author was forced to put down his pen on his blood-stained desk. While they interpreted the warlike events of which Leon Davidovich, in a masterly fashion, did not lose the thread for an instant, they throw no less light on the of the world conflict – which the author did not live to see – and by that they help us to understand it better.
For today’s reader the collection has a double interest:
- We all know the lively curiosity that is growing about every aspect of the Second World War. Trotsky’s analyses, unknown in France until today, are even more precious since they emanate from a man who was not only a great Marxist theoretician, but a leading governmental and military figure in his own country. What is more, he had been able to follow the Balkan Wars as a journalist, and he had observed the First World War as a perceptive witness before creating the Red Army during the Civil War. He was therefore better able than most others to understand what lay behind the start of the Second World War.
- In addition these writings will not fail to arouse great interest amongst those who are familiar with the rest of Trotsky’s written work from the period just before his tragic death. The reader will note that until the very last moment, Trotsky, the multinational specialist, followed the internal evolution of the belligerent countries in a manner that was both incisive and detailed, as can be seen in the two short fragments, which were left unfinished by his death, on France, Pétain and the foreseeable moral deterioration of the occupying forces.
No-one can predict the future. It is therefore not surprising to find some anticipated events which failed to happen in the articles and interviews with Trotsky; but these errors are more than compensated by a series of extraordinary prophecies. If we balance the errors of prediction with visions of the future that did occur, we are led to conclude that he was more often right than wrong.
A unique occurence in the war of 1914-18, which has never happened since, was surely the presence of Lenin, a superhuman and supernational mind, placed above the conflict in a neutral country both as an observer and interpreter, who watched the unfolding of the conflict, whereas those who managed it were as blind as they were deaf. Trotsky, in the same way, did not allow himself to give advice to governments, however useful he might have been to the leaders of the countries at war, who, if they had wished, could well have betaken themselves to the new Delphi at Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico, to listen to the oracle whose eye pierced the shadows of world politics, and who so clearly read the contradictions which made up the diplomatic alliances and conduct of the war.
In fact, the articles by Trotsky on the Second World War were only read by a small minority of initiates, and their private character is accentuated by the war censorship and counter-revolutionary prejudice towards a man like him, which were international obstacles to the spread of his written thought, along with the call-up of so many revolutionary activists into the imperialist armies. An exception must be made for the articles and interviews that Leon Davidovich gave to the American press. One cannot exclude the fact – what a paradox! – that, against his wishes and though he would not have counselled them, the only great power which was to some extent able to use the profound analyses and audacious anticipations of Trotsky, was American imperialism.
It is true that the United States was still then ‘neutral’, that is to say, less caught up in the conflagration, and was thus less blinded by it, while the President, Franklin Roosevelt, had an infinitely more subtle and astute mind than the wild men urging their people on at the head of the belligerents.
Leon Davidovich was all the time aware of his vocation as a professional soothsayer. The word ‘prediction’ appears more than once in these articles. However, he has the modesty and honesty to doubt the accuracy of his forecasts himself. “Reality”, he wrote, “is worse than all the predictions that I have made.” “It would be hopeless to foresee the result of the War.”
Before allowing Trotsky himself to speak, we would like to make a short list of his numerous predictions for the benefit of the reader.
- Trotsky immediately understood, 10 days after the event, that the Munich Quadrumvirate was incapable of maintaining peace and that war was inevitable, after a more or less brief delay. With great precision he fixed a delay of two years in August 1937.
- Trotsky guessed that the Second World War would be a total one, and that only a very few small countries would be able to avoid the fighting.
- Trotsky denounced the misdeeds of the Stalinist Popular Front policy, which deluded the masses by mobilising them merely against Hitler and diverting them from opposing their own imperialist war. Furthermore, he saw that the seizure of power in France by Marshal Pétain was a direct consequence of the bankruptcy of the Popular Front in that country.
- Trotsky saw that the negotiations undertaken by the Kremlin with the Western powers in the spring of 1939 had an element of sincerity: because of the possible alternatives, Stalin was obliged to put forward the proposal of a ‘United Front of the Democracies’ in good faith. But in the opposite sense Leon Davidovich was right, on the one hand, to think that the negotiations gave Stalin a most important source of information on the military potential of the Allies, and, on the other, that they camouflaged the secret negotiations in which he was already engaged with Hitler.
- Trotsky thought that it was Hitler’s Germany which had treacherously pushed the USSR into attacking Finland. In his opinion it was the Franco-British threats that finally forced Stalin, as a result of his military reverses at the beginning of the campaign, to give up the idea of annexing Finland. In his opinion the humiliating check inflicted by this Nordic country was the start of the fall of Stalin.
- From 9 August 1937 Trotsky predicted that the German army would start by gaining great victories in the West, but correctly excluded the possibility of a complete victory over Britain. He saw France cut up, partitioned and reduced to the rank of a second-rate power, even to that of an oppressed nation. In September 1939 he foresaw the possibility that the French government, together with the governments of Belgium, Holland, Poland and Czechoslovakia, would have to take refuge in Great Britain. From 1937-38 he waited for the growth of French Fascism, which would be capable of replacing democracy. He foresaw Vichy.
- On 1 October 1939 Trotsky clearly saw the reason for the ‘Phoney War’ on the Western front: he knew that France and Britain hesitated to start a real war without an assurance of American help.
- On the morrow of Munich Trotsky predicted the Hitler-Stalin pact, a shameful collusion which arose out of a double fear, of a German attack on Russia and of a revolution. He reminded us that from the seizure of power by National Socialism Stalin went on his hands and knees to become Hitler’s ally. But at first he had been rebuffed. Trotsky reckoned that the Moscow Trials, among other things, had been a cover for the preparation of the Russo-German pact. Unlike others, however, he did not think that Stalin deliberately wished to provoke a world war by his alliance with Hitler, the outcome of which he, above all, doubted.
- Trotsky insisted on pointing to the considerable economic aid that Stalin gave to Hitler up to the moment of the break between the two countries in June 1941. He estimated that this made the Western blockade of Hitler’s Germany at least 25 per cent less effective.
From 1937, in spite of his hatred of Stalin, Trotsky had an unshakeable confidence in the future of collective property in the USSR. For him the social basis of the Soviet regime (the new forms of property and the planned economy) would pass the test of war and would come out of it strengthened. In his opinion it would take merely a dozen or so years for Soviet industry to catch up with that of the capitalists.
However, Leon Davidovich did not hide the fact that if the USSR were attacked, the war against the foreigner would undoubtedly strengthen the position of the bureaucracy. That happened.
Once more, in spite of his savage struggle against Stalinism, Trotsky affirmed his unconditional defence of the Soviet Union. If the country was invaded, he stated that his supporters would fight against Hitler’s troops, and he congratulated the Russian people on their understanding that a defeat of the USSR would signify the destruction of the nationalised and planned economy.
Trotsky was full of optimism for the future of the Germany that had been subjugated by Hitler. If National Socialism had been able to triumph, it was only because the working class no longer had any confidence in its old parties and its old slogans, and it had not yet found a new way out. But on 11 September 1939 Leon Davidovich was convinced that Hitler would continue to slide into catastrophe. He saw that Hitler was walking to the abyss with the infallibility of a sleep-walker. He thought that Nazi rule, proclaimed as lasting for a thousand years, was not likely to last for even 10.
Shortly before his death, Trotsky had not the slightest doubt as to the resistance of the occupied peoples conquered by German imperialism, and he compared the occupied countries to powder-barrels.
Trotsky did not hesitate to proclaim that America must not stay 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 intensive military preparation. For him, at any rate, American intervention was absolutely inevitable. The real war would be between Germany and the USA.
From the beginning of September 1939, Trotsky never ceased to warn the Soviet Union against future German aggression. For him the Russo-German pact was only a “scrap of paper”. If Hitler was unfortunately victorious on the Western front, he would then turn his arms against the USSR.
As a corollary Trotsky predicted an alliance between the USSR and the imperialist ‘democracies’.
From 4 September 1939 onwards Trotsky said that Japan would launch an offensive towards the south in the direction of the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, Borneo, French Indochina and Burma, rather than attack the USSR. But while he foresaw the extension of Japanese rule over the greater part of the Asiatic continent, he reckoned that Japan was incapable of maintaining a war of great intensity.
From the years 1937-38, at the start of the coming world conflict, it is clear that for Trotsky, domination of our planet would fall to the United States, which would proceed into an explosion of imperialism, the like of which the world had never seen before.
Finally, Trotsky envisaged the perspective of a Third World War which would be waged by entire continents against one another, and which would become the tomb of civilisation.
Whatever happened, Trotsky kept an intransigent faith in proletarian internationalism. He cried out that in aiding the democracies against the Fascists, the workers in the western countries could only assist and accelerate the victory of Fascism inside their own countries. The war between the two adversaries could bring nothing but oppression and reaction in both camps.
However, one point on which his perspicacious mind was mistaken was his scepticism about the possibility of an eventual outcome by a secret weapon held in reserve by one of the combatants. He said that no army could hold chemical or electronic miracles in reserve. In August 1937 Leon Davidovich was unable to guess at the military use of nuclear physics.
Another erroneous point was his ardent conviction that the Second World War would end in the victory of the world revolution, and in consequence, in the triumph of the Fourth International, in which he showed the utmost confidence. But is it possible to be a revolutionary and a guide to other revolutionaries unless, in addition to an incisive Marxist analysis, there is faith and fire in one’s belly?
The reader can perceive from the foregoing that Trotsky was two men, on the one hand a revolutionary internationalist, the spokesman of the Fourth International, and on the other, a leader who was still very much a Soviet militant, staying faithful to the revolution he had himself led and the military power that he had created.
It is natural that in Against the Stream, the first Trotsky looked at the Second Imperialist War with similar eyes to those of Lenin, that is to say a totally revolutionary point of view demanding the defeat of all the imperialist countries. But the other Trotsky, the Soviet Trotsky, we repeat, is above all concerned with the unconditional defence of the USSR, a position from which he never deviated. The result is an alternating series of texts, the one inspired by the most burning Soviet patriotism, while in others he shows himself implacably opposed to the Stalinist bureaucracy, which he accuses of inadequately defending the Soviet homeland. This second Trotsky allows himself to be led into taking up positions that seem to contradict those of the first Trotsky – the internationalist.
It is thus that, foreseeing 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 its military preparations. He insisted on several occasions that Stalin had cooperated with Hitler, above all out of fear of him, and that the only way to help him out of the clutches of the Nazi dictator was for the Allies to show themselves strong.
One might think that day-to-day articles about events of long ago, now 30 years, would lose something of their immediacy. This is by no means the case for the articles that we publish. To us they do not appear to have aged. They keep their freshness and sharpness. No doubt this is because each of them raises itself above the situation of the moment to exhibit an interpretation, a philosophy, a global orientation, which is based on a coherent and durable system of thought, that of revolutionary Marxism.
The central piece in this collection, both by length and by content, is the admirable Manifesto of the Fourth International of May 1940 which was written in Trotsky's own hand. If he needs to, the reader can verify this with his own eyes, since, thanks to the Houghton Library of Harvard, we reproduce the handwritten manuscript. I do not believe that anyone else has dared to publish a text of such quality on the Second World War, which expresses with so much force and conviction the fundamentals of proletarian internationalism. I am the better able to judge since I myself inserted, as an appendix to my book, Front Populaire: la Révolution Perdu, the appeals published during the war by the Front Ouvrier International contre La Guerre, the international rival to the Fourth International, and by the French Parti Socialist Ouvrier et Paysan, both inspired by Marceau Pivert.
Far be it for me to belittle the value of texts from the organisations of which I have just spoken and about which, in my opinion, Trotsky was rather too severe. For Marceau Pivert also had the great virtue that he stayed faithful above all to proletarian internationalism throughout the war. But I believe Trotsky expresses far better than he does, with much greater sharpness, greater weight, and a greater genius, an obstinately internationalist position which left him, like Marceau Pivert and we, his friends, isolated souls preaching to the desert, submerged by the depth of the wave of the world conflagration in which, in one way or another, all the nationalist passions were unleashed.
Trotsky’s Manifesto, which would also be his testament, saved the honour of the world working class in these accursed years.