CPGB and revolutionary defeatism

Mark Fischer has developed an interesting analysis of revolutionary defeatism (Weekly Worker October 12). Unfortunately, his approach seems to be that there is only one principled and monolithic approach to the question. In actuality the Marxist approach has undergone constant change and modification. Crucially there has been a continual tension between the possibly competing conceptions of defeatism and defencism.

Mark Fischer has developed an interesting analysis of revolutionary defeatism (Weekly Worker October 12). Unfortunately, his approach seems to be that there is only one principled and monolithic approach to the question. In actuality the Marxist approach has undergone constant change and modification. Crucially there has been a continual tension between the possibly competing conceptions of defeatism and defencism.

The approach of Marx and Engels towards war was connected to the necessity of consolidating bourgeois democratic revolution and realising national self-determination in Europe. This meant they tended to support any military effort that would weaken the Tsarist empire, which was considered to be the bulwark of counterrevolution. Specifically, they were enthusiastic proponents of developing political and military methods to bring about Polish independence. When war broke out between France and Prussia in 1870, they initially supported what they defined as the war of national defence by Prussia (to facilitate German unification) and they only opposed this war when Prussia became expansionist (annexing Alsace-Lorraine) and supported the French bourgeois government against the Paris Commune.

So it was Marx and Engels who pioneered the perspective of support for supposed progressive national bourgeois governments, whilst simultaneously upholding the political independence of the working class from the given bourgeois regime. The political tensions expressed in this policy were shown by Engels in the mid-1890s when he was still prepared to contemplate support for a dynamic and expansionist Germany in war with Tsarist Russia. Engels' call for the formation of mass and democratically organised militia did not mitigate the opportunist aspects of his stance.

The national opportunism of the Second International, and its related support for inter-imperialist war, led to explanatory clarification by Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, as to what constituted a principled Marxist attitude towards war. Lenin argued that the claims of Serbia for national emancipation did not mean supporting Serbia in the context of an inter-imperialist war. Serbia could only be an adherent to one or other imperialist camp. However, in contrast to Luxemburg's stance, Lenin maintained that national wars of liberation led by the bourgeoisie were still possible in the epoch of imperialism. For example, in Ireland, a national revolt led by the petty bourgeoisie was genuinely anti-imperialist, and even though it would not directly lead to proletarian revolution it was still necessary to support the anti-imperialist content of this uprising.

Actual political events began to challenge Lenin's optimistic views about the anti-imperialist potential of the national bourgeoisie. One political outcome of the October revolution was the increasingly reactionary trajectory of the national bourgeoisies in the former Tsarist empire. For example, the national bourgeoisie in the Ukraine made an alliance with German imperialism against the Soviet state. So an acute tension arose between the demands of the defence of the workers' state and the competing claim for self-determination by nations led by a reactionary national bourgeoisie. Stalin 'resolved' this tension in his Great Russian chauvinist manner with the bureaucratic constitution that founded the Soviet Union.

Developments outside of the Soviet Union also challenged Lenin's views about the national bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations. The growing momentum of the Chinese revolution in the mid-1920s led to Chiang Kai-shek, the main political representative of the national bourgeoisie, suppressing the working class and peasants in order to uphold his accommodation to imperialism. These events showed that in general terms the national bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations was not as progressive and anti-imperialist as Lenin had envisaged.

Trotsky's approach to the question to war in the 1920s and 1930s was similar to Lenin's. However, he developed two distinctive aspects of the Marxist approach. Firstly, he supported the Stalinist bureaucracy in the dispute with China about control of the Manchurian railway. This meant the defence of the USSR was a higher principle than realising the demands of the Chinese national bourgeoisie. So defence of the USSR became the supreme aspect of revolutionary tactics in relation to war.

Secondly, in relation to the Japanese imperialist invasion of China, Trotsky advocated a military bloc with Chiang Kai-shek, whilst simultaneously retaining the political independence of the working class and party. This stance was an extension of his approach towards Spain during the period of revolution and counterrevolution in the 1930s. Trotsky was for a military bloc with the popular front government, and yet also maintaining a stance of no political confidence in the popular front. Trotsky did not advocate (as Lenin had done in 1917) a revolutionary defeatist stance of struggle to defeat both the popular front government and the fascist counterrevolution.

In hindsight we can question whether the stance of Marx and Engels was adequately explanatory and principled. Specifically, it could be argued that their critical support for German nationalism was an accommodation to Russophobia, and thereby compromised the development of an independent working class standpoint. By 1870 Prussia was already effectively Germany, and was in a position to become a dynamic imperialist power based upon the domination of monopoly capital. Hence, Prussia was likely to be counterrevolutionary in a war situation, as occurred in relation to the French-Prussian war of 1870-71.

To argue that the war was initially progressive, and then became reactionary and expansionist, was a formulation that glossed over Prussia's aim to become a dynamic and hegemonic regional power. Marx and Engels half-corrected their theoretical mistake, and began to oppose Prussian reactionary expansionism. But Engels still clung to the illusion that Prussia (and then Germany) could conduct a progressive bourgeois democratic war against Tsarist Russia.

The leadership of German Social Democracy tried to utilise Engels' comments about a possible progressive war with Russia to justify their opportunist pro-imperialist stance. Obviously Engels is not to blame for this situation, but it is necessary to criticise Marx's and Engels' views in order to thoroughly indicate that there are no political circumstances that can justify a supposedly 'progressive' imperialist war.

Lenin's conception of revolutionary defeatism has generally retained its explanatory credentials. In a struggle between two rival imperialist powers it is not principled to be for a victory of any bloc, and instead it is necessary to call for their defeat. Two important theoretical questions arise. Firstly, is it politically principled to defend the USSR in World War II, or has the USSR become imperialist, as Shachtman essentially argued? Secondly, given the increasingly reactionary nature of the national bourgeoisie in the oppressed nations, is it still principled to defend them in a conflict with the imperialist powers?

The answer to the first question obviously relates to how we characterise the class nature of the USSR. If it is defined as a degenerated workers' state, then defencism can be principally upheld. But if the USSR is labelled as bureaucratic collectivist or state capitalist, this will mean the USSR can be considered to be imperialist and a defeatist position is logically adopted.

However, there is also an alternative approach. German imperialism was aiming to turn the USSR into a subordinate colony, so even if we consider the USSR to be bureaucratic collectivist it is still possible to advocate a defencist position. For the USSR is conducting a just war of national liberation against colonial domination by German imperialism. This does not mean that any political support should be given to the Stalinist bureaucracy, and it was necessary after World War II to call for the Red Army to withdraw from eastern Europe. The Stalinists were not conducting any type of progressive or revolutionary war, but they were leading a war of national defence against imperialist expansion.

The answer to the second question depends, as Lenin stated, on an analysis of the concrete situation and its particular circumstances. For example, Trotsky was incorrect to support a military bloc with Chiang Kai-shek on the basis of the principle of national defence against Japanese imperialism. Chiang Kai-shek was not leading a genuine anti-imperialist war against Japanese imperialism. He was more concerned to suppress the Chinese Communist Party. However, the CCP was leading a genuine anti-imperialist struggle, which was to lead to bourgeois revolution in 1949. In the postwar period, in Vietnam, Cuba, Africa and Asia, national liberation struggles occurred and achieved political independence from imperialism. It was politically necessary to give support to these struggles and to also outline their generally bourgeois and anti-working class character. In this sense the meaning of support is not an accommodation to the national bourgeoisie but is rather considered within a political context of striving for working class hegemony, and thereby replacing the domination of the national bourgeoisie with a working class leadership.

To define these genuine national liberation struggles as monolithically reactionary could imply that they should not be supported against imperialism. This approach would be to commit the error (which Lenin identified) of imperialist economism, and to be therefore indifferent about the possibility of colonial countries acquiring independence from imperialism. This does not mean being indifferent about what has happened in post-1949 China, which has had many terrible upheavals, but it was still necessary to defend the CCP against Chiang Kai-shek, the main agency of imperialism. For the main issue of contention was that of bourgeois revolution and national independence, or prolonged colonial control by imperialism.

Mark Fischer's analysis of Lenin's comments about defeatism in 1917 would seem to deny this theoretical and political necessity of concrete and specific analysis. His comments about Lenin in 1917 are problematic, in that Lenin's views seem to have become over-generalised and made to apply to a multiplicity of situations. It is necessary to understand that Russia in 1917 was an imperialist country with a dual power situation, which meant real political power was with the soviets. Thus Lenin was correct, as Mark outlines, to argue that opposing the Kornilov coup did not mean defending the Kerensky government. Instead these defensive measures were part of the independent attempt to consolidate and build the strength necessary for proletarian revolution.

Lenin's approach can be utilised to comprehend the revolution in Spain. Trotsky made the political mistake of conflating opposition to fascist counterrevolution with the opportunist tactic of military defence of the popular front government. He defended his approach using the analogy of opposition to the Kornilov coup combined with supposed defence of the Kerensky government.

In this sense Mark's reference to Lenin's 1917 writings, and their tactical significance, is a timely reminder of the necessity to oppose opportunist accommodation to 'bourgeois democratic' governments in a revolutionary situation. But Lenin's 1917 writings do not (and cannot) indicate what is tactically necessary in relation to the conflict between oppressed nations (with no monopoly capital structures) and imperialist nations. In other words, after they have obtained political independence in the post-World War II period, do we support oppressed nations in the event of conflicts with the imperialist powers? Lenin could not have possibly commented on this new development.

Mark seems to be correct to argue that it is not sufficient merely to give unconditional support to a non-imperialist nation in conflict with imperialism. This is based upon rigid adherence to the formal wording of Lenin's and Trotsky's (1930s) stance about conflicts between imperialist and non-imperialist nations. For example, Trotsky gave critical support to the Mexico government which was trying to nationalise the oil industry. But to over-generalise from this situation would be to project support from a seemingly progressive bourgeois government and to give similar credentials to any manner of reactionary regimes. This over-generalisation has been carried out by dogmatic Trotskyists, and this has led to capitulation to populist bourgeois nationalism in some of the non-imperialist nations. Dogmatic Trotskyists also refer to Trotsky's mistaken unconditional support for Chiang Kai-shek against Japanese imperialism in order to justify their opportunism. Nevertheless this criticism does not mean to suggest that Mark is right to essentially maintain that it is not politically principled to defend non-imperialist nations in a conflict with imperialist powers.

Three important examples can make my point. Firstly, the Malvinas/Falklands conflict of 1982. The war between Britain and Argentina occurred in a situation of growing political crisis for the Thatcher government. Defeat in the war could have led to its downfall. Indeed it was the task of British Marxists to call for the defeat of the British task force in any conflict with the Argentinean army. This suggests a stance of victory for Argentina. However, in Argentina it was necessary to oppose the sending of the army to the Malvinas as an adventurist diversion, and to thereby call for the withdrawal of the army. It would be necessary to oppose the prevailing populist nationalism, and to therefore develop propaganda for the overthrow of the military junta.

Secondly, the Gulf War conflict. The invasion of Kuwait by the Iraqi army was connected to the attempt to challenge the dictation of the level of the oil prices by other Opec countries. If Iraq had been a progressive country the liberation of Kuwait could have been realised. But Iraq was dominated by a reactionary bourgeois nationalist regime, which had its own expansionist aims. Nevertheless in the conflict between the UN task force and Iraq it was necessary for Marxists in the imperialist nations to call for the defeat of the task force and for victory for Iraq.

In Iraq it would be necessary to challenge the military adventurism of the Iraqi regime, and thereby call for its withdrawal from Kuwait. It was vital to indicate that a victory over the UN coalition was impossible, and so it would be better to unconditionally accept the UN's demands rather than get involved in a terrible unwinnable conflict. This defeatist stance would be the basis to contrast proletarian internationalism to expansionist bourgeois nationalism.

Thirdly, the Milosevic regime in Serbia. It is a fairly uncontentious point that it has been necessary to oppose Milosevic's expansionist wars. Controversy has arisen over the extent to which the regime should have been defended in the conflict with Nato. In contrast to Mark's view, opposition to Nato does suggest the defence of Serbia by Marxists in the imperialist nations. In Serbia itself, the terrible actuality of Nato action intensifies the necessity to propagandise for the downfall of the Milosevic regime. Indeed there was a political connection between Nato action and growing support for the overthrow of Milosevic. But this situation should not lead Marxists in the imperialist countries to effectively support imperialist action because of its supposed anti-Milosevic dynamic. To support this action would be to adapt to national chauvinism. The tasks in the imperialist nations and Serbia are interrelated, but not identical. Proletarian internationalism means opposing Nato action in the imperialist nations and thereby defending Serbia, but Marxist tactics in Serbia has meant striving for proletarian leadership in the struggle for democracy in periods of both wartime and peacetime.

In conclusion, Mark's indication of the political and explanatory problems involved in applying dogmatically Lenin's and Trotsky's conception of defence of non-imperialist nations (and by implication opportunist problems with defence of the USSR) in conflict with imperialist powers, seems to have led to support for Shachtman's rigid conception of revolutionary defeatism. In other words, there is no real possibility of envisaging support and defence until a genuine workers' state is formed. This approach could justify an abstentionist stance, or even adaptation to imperialism, as it did with Shachtman in his later trajectory towards rightwing politics.

Certainly a dogmatic conception of defence of the USSR and defence of the oppressed nations can become a formula to justify opportunist adaptation, but the alternative is not that of uncritical adaptation to Shachtman. A better mixture of Shachtman's intransigent revolutionary defeatism, combined with Lenin's concrete analysis of the necessity of defence against imperialism, is still possible for the CPGB.

Phil Sharpe