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Ernest Erber

Marxism and National Defense

(June 1940)

From New International, Vol. VI No. 5 (Whole No. 44), June 1940, pp. 106–108.
Transcribed by Damon Maxwell.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Proofread by Einde O’ Callaghan (January 2013).

AS is done by every imperialist bourgeoisie, the Roosevelt administration proceeds with its war preparations under a thick smoke-screen of “national defense” hysteria. Since no worker will become excited when told that the Nazis threaten the Firestone Rubber Company properties in Liberia, Africa and the Chase National Bank investments in South America, or that the Japanese threaten to jump in on the oil wells of the Dutch East Indies before Standard Oil can get a hold of them, it is necessary to stir him up with stories about parachute troops about to land on his roof and tanks to rumble down his street.

The creation of a widespread fear of invasion in the past would have been almost impossible since the geographical location of the United States made invasion seem very absurd. Unlike the European countries in which the “enemy” was always at the border, the “enemy” of the United States was thousands of miles beyond the sea. However, the Hitler “blitzkrieg” has made such a deep impression upon the public’s thoughts that Roosevelt found little difficulty in convincing the bulk of the people that a plane and parachute invasion could suddenly swoop down upon the country without the slightest notice.

The “national defense” hysteria puts to the test for the first time the ability of the Revolutionary Marxist movement in America to withstand the tremendous bourgeois patriotic pressure and yet find the agitational forms through to speak to the workers without being driven to purely abstract formulas.

To place the two tasks in their proper relationship, it is necessary to point out that the maintenance of the basic views of Marxism upon the class state and national defense in the imperialist epoch is far more important than the task of forging the agitational weapons with which to burst through the “national defense” illusion. Once the movement has been swept from its basic moorings, all else is lost.

This article is, therefore, an attempt to restate those basic principles upon which our anti-war fight rests and show how our movement, far from standing on the side-lines and repeating bare formulas, can boldly wade into the struggle with a program to answer the “national defense” swindle.

The “radicals” of yesterday who are beating the drums on behalf of the re-armament program seek to convince us of the error of our ways with arguments like this:

“Of course we are still opposed to imperialism. If it were a matter of 50,000 planes to defend Wall Street investments abroad, we would also oppose re-armament. But you have to admit that every nation has a right to national independence. Is not that what we fight for in China? If we are opposed to China becoming a Japanese colony, should we not as vigorously oppose attempts to make America a German colony? If you do not believe in a war for democracy in Europe, you should at least support the President’s program of national defense.”

Unless the revolutionary ranks are steeled with an understanding of both the basic principles of our movement and armed with a living program, such sophistry, supported by the whole pressure of bourgeois public opinion, will make inroads among the most determined revolutionists.

I. The National State

Beginning with Karl Marx himself, Marxist historians have viewed the creation of the national state out of the ruins of the feudal system as one of the great progressive achievements of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. It was the political prerequisite to the expansion of the means of production and the basis for the extension and development of the class struggle and proletarian organizations.

As such, Marxists in the bourgeois-democratic epoch not only fought for the creation of national states but also for their defense. The creation and maintainance of national states coincided with the class interests of the proletariat. The fight for the national unification of Germany in the 19th century was also the fight for a strong German labor movement and the possibility of confronting the German bourgeoisie class against class, without the contusing and diverting baggage of a national problem.

However, the outbreak of the World War in 1914 signalized the fact that the means of production had outgrown their national borders. Capitalism had entered its imperialist epoch. Its further expansion now meant the clash of the capitalist states for a division and re-division of the earth.

The World War proved that capitalist economy was over-ripe for socialization. The hour had come for the proletariat to appear on the stage of history, in the words of the Communist Manifesto, as “the gravedigger of capitalism.”

With the Socialist Revolution on the order of the day in Europe, America, and other advanced industrial centers, national states lost their progressive character. They now became a straight jacket upon human progress. The new task for humanity became, not the preservation of state boundaries, but their abolition through the Socialist Revolution to clear the path for planned production and the division of labor on an international scale.

Marx and National Wars

Marx had already exposed the fraud of a war of national defense under capitalism at the threshold of the imperialist epoch. In his famous address to the General Council of the International on the defeat of the Paris Commune, written soon after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, he wrote:

The highest heroic accomplishment of which the old order is capable, is the national war. And this has now proved to be a fraud perpetrated by governments for no other purpose than to put off the class struggle, a fraud that is bared as soon as the class struggle flares up in civil war. Class rule can no longer hide behind a national uniform. The national governments are united against the proletariat.

The unity of Bismark and Thiers against the Parisian proletariat was to be repeated on a much vaster scale and with less disguise when international capitalism, including the Russian capitalists who had sent millions to die on the battlefield in the name of “national defense”, carried on a joint attack upon the Soviet regime.

When capitalism entered its imperialist epoch and Socialism became the only way out for humanity, the defense of its own national state became a blind alley for the proletariat. The failure of Social Democracy to see this in 1914 lead the workers into the impasse in which wage slave murdered wage slave in the name of “national defense”.

The imperialist epoch has posed – all the more clearly in the post – war period of decline – the question as follows: Either subordinate the struggle for the Socialist Revolution in the interests of national defense or subordinate the interests of national defense to the struggle for the Socialist Revolution.

The proletariat cannot solve its problem by fighting for both – as Social Democracy claims to do in this war. The two tasks are contradictory under the police regime of degenerate capitalism.

The struggle for the Socialist Revolution means an intensification of the class struggle aimed at the establishment of a workers government. This weakens the war efforts of the capitalist state – above all in the totalitarian form which it assumes in modern war.

A policy of “national defense” under capitalist class rule means for the proletariat civil peace, the liquidation of the class struggle, and a postponement of the Socialist Revolution.

The continuation of the struggle for Socialism in time of war may lead, it is true, to the defeat and national subjugation of the nation by a foreign power. However, in the continuation of the struggle for Socialism in time of war there is the hope of a future for the proletariat. In the abandonment of the class struggle in the interests of “national defense” their is only the continued prospect of life under a degenerate capitalism with its future of hunger, totalitarianism, and more wars.

II. The Proletariat and Its Nation

Again the radicals” of yesterday come to the fore with an argument:

“Who will deny that German conquest had a detrimental effect upon the class struggle and the political education of the proletariat in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands? These countries did not seek a war with Germany. They sought only to defend their national independence. How can you tell the worker that foreign conquest does not matter to him?”

The above is not a polemic against a Marxist understanding of the proletariat and the independence of its nation. This might be a polemic against those who have vulgarized Marxist teachings upon this question by literally saying that it makes no difference to the worker whether his nation lost its independence or not. It was this same vulgarization of Marxism that lead to the perversion of “revolutionary defeatism” to mean the active attempt of the proletariat to bring about the military defeat of its “own” bourgeoisie at the hands of the “enemy” bourgeoisie as an alleged means of advancing the revolution at home.

Such vulgarizations are not only inconsistent with the general body of Marxist theoretical views upon the national state and the revolution, but their very sectarian unreality lead to sterility and futility in the daily political struggle and are a source of weakness rather than strength in the face of the tremendous bourgeois pressure upon the movement in time of war. Such a position deprives the movement of some of its most potent agitational weapons against the “national defense” swindle of the imperialist bourgeoisie. Unless a living movement gives living answers, the un-reality of its slogans will lead to uncertainty in its own ranks and tendencies to seek refuge in opportunist formulations.

National Oppression and Class Struggle

Without a doubt, it is true to say that the conquest of half of Europe by Hitler has been a blow to the class struggle. The proletariat of the oppressed nation has always been driven into greater reliance upon its own bourgeoisie. It has always tended to see its problem through the nationalist spectacles of the bourgeoisie rather than its own proletarian class spectacles.

Also without a doubt, the countries overrun by Hitler did not seek the war and fought for their national independence.

But what do our Messrs. Ex-Radicals conclude from the above? They conclude what appears as a simple, “common sense” truth – support the transgressed nations against the aggressor.

But who will determine the policies of the “transgressed” nations? Who will limit it to a struggle for national defense? Not the workers of these nations. And certainly not the poor deluded and badly frightened ex-radicals. The policies will be determined by the bourgeoisie of the nations concerned.

Let us examine the case of Czechoslovakia. Certainly the Czech bourgeoisie did not seek a war with Germany when Hitler conquered the country in 1939. After they had lost the Sudeten areas and control over the Slovaks and Ruthenians, one could certainly have said that here was the case of a bourgeoisie solely concerned with saving its national independence.

But what would have happened had they fought Germany and won? Would the Czech munitions makers, textile barons, and shoe kings have retired to their own borders? Of course not. They would have disarmed Germany, robbed her of territory, re-erected their rule over the Slovaks and Ruthenians, and emerged as the dominant imperialist power of Central Europe.

What will happen if the Allies defeat Germany in this war? They would certainly carve it up beyond recognition. Germany would be set back to a stage it was in 100 years ago. Would not this also be a terrific blow to the “class struggle and the political education of the proletariat” in Germany? Of course it would.

The proletarian youth who enlists in the US army today in response to Roosevelt’s propaganda about “national defense” will in many cases be motivated by a genuine and progressive sentiment of wanting to defend his home. But tomorrow he may find himself dying upon a battlefield in Europe, Australia, Asia, or Africa.

No, Marxists do not say that the proletariat is unconcerned with the fate of its nation. What they say is that they place the interests of Socialism above those of the nation when the capitalist police state establishes an unbridgable contradiction between the fight for Socialism and national defense.

However, Marxists are not opposed to national defense when it does not contradict the struggle for Socialism.

Marxists were for the defense of the national state in the bourgeois revolutionary epoch because it furthered the proletarian cause. Marxists can be for national defense today, upon a basis that furthers the interests of the proletariat against those of the bourgeoisie. In this lies the key to our agitation in the daily political struggle – our agitation to expose the “national defense” of the bourgeoisie and reveal its fraudulent character.

Luxemburg’s Answer to National Defense

Writing on this problem during the last war, Rosa Luxemburg said:

In view of all these considerations, what shall be the practical attitude of the Social-Democracy in the present war? Shall it declare: since this is an imperialist war, since we do not enjoy in our country, any Socialist self-determination, its existence or non-existence is of no consequence to us, and we will surrender it to the enemy? Passive fatalism can never be the role of a revolutionary party, like the Social Democracy. It must neither place itself at the disposal of the existing class state, under the command of the ruling classes, nor can it stand silently by to wait until the storm is past. It must adopt a policy of active class politics, a policy that will whip the ruling classes forward in every great social crisis, and that will drive the crisis itself far beyond its original extent. That is the role that the Social Democracy must play as the leader of the fighting proletariat. Instead of covering this imperialistic war with a lying mantle of national self-defense, the Social Democracy should have demanded the right of national self-determination seriously, should have used it as a lever against the imperialist war.

The most elementary demand of national defense is that the nation take its defense into its own hands. The first step in this direction is the militia; not only the immediate armament of the entire adult male populace, but above all, popular decision in all matters of war and peace. It must demand, furthermore, the immediate removal of every form of political oppression, since the greatest political freedom is the best basis for national defense. To proclaim these fundamental measures of national defense, to demand their realization, that was the first duty of the Social Democracy. (Rosa Luxemburg: The Crisis in the German Social Democracy)

In our agitation we can truthfully hurl the lie back in the faces of the bourgeois spokesmen who accuse the revolutionists of being unconcerned with national independence. We oppose the hoax and swindle of the Roosevelt administration which is put over under a cover of “national defense” slogans. It is they – the bourgeois rulers – who are opposed to national defense. They are only for the defense of their own imperialist interests. Wall Street cares no more for “national independence” than did the Russian bourgeoisie after it lost control in 1917.

A Proletarian Program for National Defense

We have our own program for national defense – a proletarian program that will make national defense part and parcel of our struggle for the final solution of Socialism.

  1. Arm the working masses – the city workers and poor farmers. Let them organize their own People’s Army with democratically-elected command and the right to keep their arms at home.
    Abolish the standing army and National Guard with their officer castes of Jim Crow, anti-semitic, labor-hating reactionaries.
    Establish sailors councils in the Navy.
    Remove the “college education” clause and open the Air Corps training schools to sons of working class families.
    If a militia composed of workers and farmers with their own elected officers was able to drive out the British in the War for Independence, a People’s Army today will be able to defend independence and democratic rights against the enemy at home and abroad.
  2. Withdraw all troops from foreign territories and ships from foreign waters. Grant full and immediate freedom to all colonies and spheres dominated by American imperialism.
    If it is national independence we are concerned with, let us begin by giving it to those nations subjected by American rule. If it is an invasion we are opposed to, let us stop invading foreign territory.
  3. Abolish secret diplomacy. Open the files of the Department of State. Publish all diplomatic correspondence and treaties.
    If we are only concerned with national independence, there should be nothing in our diplomacy that we are ashamed to publish. Conduct all diplomacy open and above board.
  4. No war loans to Europe – 20 billions to build new homes in America.
    Before having the temerity to ask the worker to “defend his home” give him a home worth defending.
  5. Put the jobless back to work by reducing hours of labor without any cuts in wages. $30 minimum wage – 30 hours maximum work.
    Hungry and jobless men will never be very enthusiastic about defending their nation.
  6. Let the people vote on war through a popular referendum.
    Certainly the majority of the people should know whether their national independence is threatened. Let them decide.
  7. Abolish Nazi race practices in America first. Full social, political, and economic equality for the Negroes and all other minorities.
    Why should the threat of a Nazi invasion frighten the Negro in Alabama who continually lives in fear of a lynch mob?
  8. Fullest extension – not curtailment – of democratic rights. No wartime dictatorship. Smash the labor-spy system. Abolish poll taxes. Defend civil liberties.
    Only a free people can defend its national independence.
  9. Government ownership of all basic industries – steel, oil, chemicals, public utilities, railroads, coal, etc. – with control over production by workers committees in the shops.
    Why should the bankers and munitions makers wax rich out of a struggle for so sacred a cause as national defense? The conduct of these gentlemen in the last war makes it sheer madness to leave them in control of basic industries. Only the workers employed in the industries can be trusted with their management in the interests of the whole nation.

* * * * * *

If the above program were to be accepted and executed, there would no longer be any contradiction between national defense and the Socialist future of humanity. But those bourgeois propagandists who howl loudest for “national defense” would as soon permit Hitler to take over the country as to carry out such a program. In their horrified rejection of the above, they reveal their own national defense talk to be a swindle to cover their imperialist aims.

For the revolutionists the task remains – not a single concession that compromises the struggle for Socialism, the only future for humanity.

Ernest ERBER

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