Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History

2. Leon Trotsky on the Second World War

From La Gauche (socialiste et révolutionnaire) 28 March 1970

Collected and introduced by Daniel Guérin, this choice of articles by Leon Trotsky illustrates in a masterly way the power of analysis and lucidity of a man who, in spite of the fact that he was practically cut off from the world, observed the frightful reality of where the world was going for three long years. These writings, which run from August 1937 until the assassination of the leader of the Fourth International in August 1940, astonish us, not only because of the depth and clarity of their argument – the perfect mastery of the dialectical method in politics – but above all they astound the reader with the incomparable gift which Trotsky had of ‘predicting’ developments for a number of years, which his contemporaries, starting with the leading politicians, did not in any way suspect.

Recalling briefly the material in these articles, which for a long time were confidential or only read by the censor, Guérin sets out the favourable balance-sheet of the analyses of this man isolated in Mexico:

  • From the time of Munich Trotsky understood that war was inevitable, and in August 1937 he fixed the date in two years’ time;
  • Trotsky, in denouncing the bankruptcy of the Popular Fronts so dear to the Stalinists, had seen very well that while mobilising the masses against Hitler in the name of ‘democracy’, Stalin was carefully arranging a deal with the German dictator ... inasmuch as he feared war as a mortal danger to the Soviet bureaucracy;
  • On 3 August 1939 Stalin’s double game led to the reversal of his foreign policy and gave the green light to the Nazi dictator;
  • The fact that Stalin had decapitated the Soviet army, party and the Bolshevik state apparatus in the purges of 1936-38, for a long time prevented him from facing up to the threat from Hitler, of which Hitler was aware when pushing Stalin into the laughable adventure of the Finnish war, a fiasco which destroyed the prestige of the Red Army ... while conceding compensation to Stalin (such as the partition of Poland and the invasion of the Baltic states);
  • Trotsky foresaw that at first the Germans would gain striking successes in the West (he always pointed out that Britain would maintain its independence) before turning East and attacking the USSR.
  • It was not in order to provoke a world war that Stalin allied himself with Hitler, but because he, being a short-term tactician, thought that he himself could escape war and revolution;
  • In spite of Stalinism Trotsky never doubted that the Socialist system would survive the war. This was the position that Mao Zedong took in the course of his quarrel and clash with the Soviet bureaucracy;
  • Any attack on the USSR would temporarily strengthen the power of the bureaucracy, and Trotsky did not hide this, but thought that this was preferable to a defeat of the USSR, which would wipe out the gains of October;
  • From 11 September 1939 he announced that, in the case of a prolonged war (and that is what would happen if the United States joined the dance) Hitler would march to the abyss with the `infallibility of a sleep-walker; [1]
  • In May 1940 he compared the occupied countries of Europe with powder barrels where revolutionary defeatism would develop. At Teheran and Yalta we know that Stalin focused on the partition of the world, which would demobilise the masses educated in the Western European Resistance;
  • Trotsky never ceased to assert that the real war was between Germany and the USA for a new partition of the world. According to him, the USA could not long remain neutral, because it was a question of their supremacy, and in their intervention he saw an effective way of persuading Stalin to lose his fear of Hitler;
  • On 4 December 1939 Trotsky foresaw that Japan, rather than attack the USSR, would throw itself into the conquest of East Asia and dispute the supremacy of the Pacific with the USA; but he added that, even if Japan succeeded in conquering large territories at the start, it was incapable of supporting a long war;
  • At the end of the Second World War, wrote Trotsky, supremacy would fall to the United States, not without noting that war would hasten movements for national liberation in the colonies of the imperialist European countries;
  • Connecting the facts of a new imperialist explosion with the behaviour of the USA, Trotsky dared to conceive of a Third World War “which this time would pitch entire continents against one another and which would be the tomb of civilisation”;
  • Finally, Trotsky stayed faithful to proletarian internationalism. In Guérin’s words: “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.”

Such a balance sheet leaves us speechless. In three short years Trotsky, an infallible observer, had foreseen not only the course of the war, but the situation which would result from it, and in which we still live today ... These two points culminated in the Manifesto of May 1940 which Trotsky drafted in his own hand, and which constitutes the cornerstone of the book (pp.187-245). Haunted by the position of Lenin during the First World War, Trotsky reckoned up the situation: “State power and domination of the economy can be torn from the hands of these rapacious imperialist cliques only by the revolutionary working class. That is the meaning of Lenin’s warning that ‘without a series of successful revolutions’ a new imperialist war would inevitable follow.” [2] Simultaneously fighting the innocent choir boys of pacifism, the cynical partisans of isolationism and the masses deceived by the charlatan Stalinists, at that decisive moment Trotsky embodied the unhappy consciousness of the world proletariat. Guérin is mistaken when he states that Trotsky was torn between his old role as a Soviet leader and the fact that he led the Fourth International. When Trotsky writes: “The USSR’s defeat in the world war would signify not merely the overthrow of the totalitarian bureaucracy but the liquidation of the new forms of property, the collapse of the first experiment in planned economy, and the transformation of the entire country into a colony; that is the handing over to imperialism of colossal natural resources which would give it a respite until the Third World War” [3], it is clear that Trotsky is behaving as both the last representative of Bolshevik power and the founder and theoretician of the Fourth International.

These articles frequently emphasise that it must not be left to Hitler to overthrow Stalin: that task must be done by the Soviet workers and peasants. He recalls also that “taken on an historic scale the antagonism between world imperialism and the Soviet Union is infinitely deeper than the antagonisms that set the individual capitalist countries in opposition to one another”. [4] Twelve years before Stalin announced his opposing thesis on inter-capitalist economic rivalry Trotsky had already destroyed it, as he had already deflated the petit-bourgeois windbags for whom support for imperialism against Stalinism would aid the former to defeat the bureaucratic caste: in fact this had and continues to have the opposite effect (in particular when that great friend of Khrushchev’s, Averell Harriman, signed the non-proliferation treaty on nuclear arms). [5] On this matter Trotsky’s strategy not only appreciated the role of the colonial peoples, but emphasised the importance of the Chinese Revolution “on which the proletariat will have to trace a strong line of orientation”. [6] Finally, let us remember this prophesy which takes on its full meaning today: “The trade unions can escape burial beneath the ruins of war only if they take the road of Socialist revolution.” [7] As Trotsky predicted, the disasters of war have integrated the trade unions into capitalism during the greatest expansion of imperialism ever seen.

André Frankin



1. “The fall of Stalin will not, however, save Hitler, who with the infallibility of a sleepwalker is being drawn towards the greatest catastrophe in history.” The Riddle of the USSR, 21 June 1939, in Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938-39, New York 1974, p.360.

2. L. Trotsky, Imperialist War and the World Proletarian Revolution, Manifesto of the Emergency Conference of the Fourth International, May 1940, in Documents of the Fourth International: The Formative Years 1933-40, New York 1973, p.313.

3. Op. cit., pp.325-6.

4. Op. cit., p.327.

5. Presumably these are references to Stalin’s statement of 1 February 1952 (“Consequently, the struggle of the capitalist countries for markets and their desire to crush their competitors proved in practice to be stronger than the contradictions between the capitalist camp and the Socialist camp.” (Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, Works, Volume 16, London 1986, p.331)); and to the later trajectory of Max Shachtman.

6. Nothing exactly parallels this at the position in the text cited. But then we have: “The Chinese people will be able to reach independence only under the leadership of the youthful and self-sacrificing proletariat, in whom the indispensable self-confidence will be rekindled by the rebirth of the world revolution. They will indicate a firm line of march.” Op. cit., pp.331-2. If this is really the original, the French version hardly amounts to a paraphrase.

7. Op. cit., p.342.

Updated by ETOL: 24.7.2003