War and revolutionary strategy

Mike Macnair puts the record straight on Lenin's call for defeatism and insists on the necessity of the left taking the democratic question of arms seriously

I began this series assessing how the debate in the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire around some new form of left unity, and possible alternatives, posed questions of revolutionary strategy. The second article looked at the sense in which 'Marxism' is a strategy, the strategy of the working class emancipating itself through organising to fight politically for socialism; and the third and fourth articles have explored the strategic debate in the German SPD and Second International about how to carry this struggle forward.

The right wing's policy of winning reforms through coalition governments has led us to where we are now (Blairism, etc). The left's mass strike strategy posed but did not solve the question of government and has repeatedly led nowhere. The centre's strategy of patience created mass workers' parties and movements. However, the centre's ambiguities on the state and nationalism led it, when it was faced by war and revolution with sharp choices on state and nation, to collapse into the policy of the right wing of the movement.

I wrote in the second article that the strategic debates of the Second International are more relevant to the modern workers' movement than those of the Third International, in the first place because our times are closer to theirs than they are to the "short 20th century" (Hobsbawn), and secondly because at least some of the strategic concepts of the Comintern are not simply rendered obsolete by the fall of the USSR, but are proved by the fate of the 'socialist countries' to be a strategic blind alley.

Nonetheless, we cannot simply splice the film of history to skip a century. Nor can we simply argue, as Antoine Artous, the editor of Critique Communiste, does, that "the current period is characterised by the end of the historical cycle which began with October 1917" (Weekly Worker February 16).

We live after the great schism in the socialist movement which resulted from the 1914-18 war. Most of the organised left and a good many 'independents' still identify with traditional ideas derived from the first four congresses of the Comintern (usually in a diluted and confused form).

Moreover, the Comintern re-posed the problems of the state and internationalism, party organisation, unity and government coalitions. Any judgment on possible socialist strategies for the 21st century must take the Comintern's ideas into account, even if in the end it proves necessary to reject some or all of them.

Strategic alternatives

There are three core elements of strategy proposed by the Comintern and its leadership. The first and the essence of the split was Lenin's response to World War I - the idea of a defeatist policy.

The second was the idea of the split itself. This started with the notion that organisational separation from the right, and the creation of a new type of International and a new type of party, would immunise the workers' movement against repeating the right's betrayals. In 1921-22 it became apparent to the Comintern's leadership that the right and centre could not be so easily disposed of, and the strategic problem of workers' unity (and the question of government) re-posed itself in the form of the united front policy. But this policy stood in contradiction to the concept of the party established in 1920-21 and proved short-lived.

The third was the problem of what form of authority could pose an alternative to the capitalist political order. Beginning with 'All power to the soviets', the Comintern leadership had shifted by 1920 to the idea that the dictatorship of the proletariat was necessarily the dictatorship of the workers' vanguard party. The united front turn of 1921-22 entailed a shift here as well, to the ideas of a workers' or workers' and farmers' government as the immediate alternative to capitalist rule.

In this article I will discuss the question of war and revolutionary defeatism. This question comes first. Hal Draper has argued that Lenin was wrong on defeatism. If the strategic judgment expressed in 'defeatism' was wrong, Lenin was also wrong to argue for a split with the anti-war centrists.

War and betrayal

In August 1914 the parliamentary representatives of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the majority of the larger parties of the Second International in the belligerent countries voted for war credits for their national governments. In doing so, they betrayed commitments which had been made at the 1907 Stuttgart and 1912 Basel congresses of the International.

If the war had appeared, as Engels imagined it in 1891, as a revanchist attack by France on Germany with Russian support, and had been fought on German soil, the policy of the SPD might have been vindicated. However, the partial success of the Schlieffen plan to outflank the French armies by attacking through Belgium, and the weakness of the tsarist army, meant that the war was not fought on German soil. Moreover, both the long background of rising inter-imperialist tensions, and the immediate diplomatic context (German support of an Austrian ultimatum against Serbia for 'supporting' what would now be called 'terrorism'), made German policy appear aggressive, not defensive.

On the other hand, had the Schlieffen plan succeeded in rapidly knocking France out of the war, the war would indeed have been - as many military leaders imagined it would be in 1914 - a short one, and the error of the socialist leaderships would have been marginalised by the political consequences in the defeated belligerent countries (France and Russia).

But the Schlieffen plan did not work as intended. Invading France through neutral Belgium provided an excuse for British intervention on the French side; and the German forces outran their rail-based logistics and became overextended, enabling the French army to regroup forces and at the first battle of the Marne (September 1914) to strike at a weakness in the German line. The result was that France was not knocked out of the war, Britain became fully engaged in it, and there developed the stabilised trench lines of the various fronts, factories of murder which were to run for another four years. The socialist leaderships had ended up accepting responsibility for an enormous crime against the working class and humanity in general.

Peace and unity or civil war and split?

Lenin argued from the outbreak of the conflict for a clear assessment that it was a predatory imperialist war for the redivision of the world, an understanding shared by Luxemburg, Trotsky and others. On this basis it was to be regarded as reactionary on all sides. This, in turn, led Lenin to support the policy that came to be called 'defeatism' and for the slogan 'Turn the imperialist war into a civil war'. With equal determination he argued for a decisive break with the right wing, and, indeed, from all those socialists who supported their own governments in the war.

A section of the left and centre endeavoured in vain to restore the honour of the socialist movement by convening the Zimmerwald (1915), Kienthal (1916) and Stockholm (1917) conferences of socialists to promote a peace policy. As the true nature of the war became clear, elements of the centre who had initially gone along with the right turned to an anti-war policy; but they still clung to the idea of re-establishing the unity of the International. Lenin now argued for a decisive break with the anti-war centre as well as the right, on the basis that the centre's pacifist line merely covered for the right.

A left wing at the Zimmerwald conference argued for a policy of pursuing the class struggle against the war; the Bolsheviks participated. But even among the Zimmerwald left the instinct for unity of the movement was strong, and Lenin argued even for a break with those elements of the left who were unwilling to split from the centre. There could be no real internationalism, he insisted in this context, without a willingness to carry on a practical struggle against one's own state's war policy: that is, defeatist propaganda in the armed forces.

Until the October Revolution, it is fairly clear that Lenin could not carry the full rigour of his line within the Bolshevik leadership. The public statements of the Bolshevik Party in Russia were anti-war and characterised the war as imperialist and predatory, but did not go to the full lengths of defeatism. The Bolsheviks were equally unwilling to break decisively with the limited unity expressed in the Zimmerwald and Kienthal conferences and call openly for a new International, or - the other aspect of Lenin's insistence on a clear split - to rename the RSDLP (Bolshevik) the Communist Party.

Lenin's line was given strong apparent justification by the course of events. On the one hand, the October Revolution, plus the new regime's ability to hold power into 1918, seemed to confirm the claims of defeatism positively. On the other, the responses of the Russian, German and international right and centre to the February and October revolutions and the 1918-19 revolution in Germany seemed to negatively confirm the need for a rigorous split. A large enough minority of the parties of the Second International (including majorities in France and Italy) was willing to split from the right, to support the proclamation of the Third International in 1919.

The 21 conditions

Even so, the concerns for the broad unity characteristic of the Second International persisted within some of the parties affiliated to the Third. The Russian leadership resolved to force a cleaner break with the centre tendency and did so with the 1920 adoption by the Third Congress of the Twenty-one conditions for affiliation to the Comintern. The defeatist position was not adopted in explicit terms, but the political essence of the content Lenin had intended by it was.

Condition six provided that "It is the duty of any party wishing to belong to the Third International to expose, not only avowed social-patriotism, but also the falsehood and hypocrisy of social-pacifism..."

Condition four required that "Persistent and systematic propaganda and agitation must be conducted in the armed forces, and communist cells formed in every military unit. In the main communists will have to do this work illegally; failure to engage in it would be tantamount to a betrayal of their revolutionary duty and incompatible with membership in the Third International."

And condition eight required that "Any party wishing to join the Third International must ruthlessly expose the colonial machinations of the imperialists of its 'own' country, must support - in deed, not merely in word - every colonial liberation movement, demand the expulsion of its compatriot imperialists from the colonies, ... and conduct systematic agitation among the armed forces against all oppression of the colonial peoples" (emphasis added).

Hal Draper

Hal Draper has argued in his Lenin and the myth of revolutionary defeatism that Lenin's use of 'defeat' slogans in 1914-16 reflected his general tendency to 'bend the stick': "He makes perfectly clear what he means, but that is how he seeks to underline, with heavy, thick strokes, the task of the day, by exaggerating in every way that side of the problem which points in the direction it is necessary to move now." In Draper's view, the resulting slogan was incoherent and mistaken, and Lenin, when he was required to formulate slogans for practical purposes, did not use it. He argues that it ceased to be employed altogether in 1917 and through the early years of the Comintern, and was only revived by Zinoviev in 1924 as a stick with which to beat Trotsky.

Draper is usually an exceptionally careful scholar, and his work on Marx and Engels's ideas in Karl Marx's theory of revolution brilliantly draws out the political context of specific writings and arguments in order to make the underlying ideas clear. In Lenin and the myth of revolutionary defeatism, however, Homer has nodded. Missing from Draper's argument about defeatism are two crucial elements.

The first is that the primary political context is Lenin's argument for a clear split in the International - with the right, and with anyone who wanted to maintain unity with the right, in particular with the centre. This is the precise context of, for example, Lenin's polemic against Trotsky on the defeatism formula. And it is retained in condition six of the Twenty-one conditions (a document whose whole purpose is to finalise the split with the Kautskyian centre).

The second is the concrete conclusion which follows from defeatism. That is, that the socialists should, so far as they are able, carry on an anti-war agitation in the ranks of the armed forces. In November 1914 Lenin wrote: "Refusal to serve with the forces, anti-war strikes, etc, are sheer nonsense, the miserable and cowardly dream of an unarmed struggle against the armed bourgeoisie, vain yearning for the destruction of capitalism without a desperate civil war or a series of wars. It is the duty of every socialist to conduct propaganda of the class struggle, in the army as well; work directed towards turning a war of the nations into civil war is the only socialist activity in the era of an imperialist armed conflict of the bourgeoisie of all nations."

In July 1915, in arguing, against Trotsky, for "practical actions leading toward such defeat", Lenin comments as an aside: "For the 'penetrating reader': This does not at all mean to 'blow up bridges', organise unsuccessful military strikes, and, in general, to help the government to defeat the revolutionaries."

But neither here nor anywhere else does Lenin repudiate carrying on anti-war agitation in the ranks of the armed forces, and, on the contrary, this is the principal concrete conclusion which follows from defeatism. And this, too, is retained in the Twenty-one conditions, in conditions four (a general obligation to organise and agitate in the armed forces) and eight (specifically on the colonial question).

To carry on an effective agitation against the war in the ranks of the armed forces is, unavoidably, to undermine their discipline and willingness to fight. This was apparent in 1917 itself. It is confirmed by subsequent history. One of the few effective anti-war movements in recent history was the movement in the US against the Vietnam war. If we ask why this movement was successful, the answer is clear: it did not merely carry on political opposition to the war (demonstrations, etc) but also disrupted recruitment to the US armed forces and organised opposition to the war within the armed forces. The result - together with the armed resistance of the Vietnamese - was a US defeat.


It is clear enough that these judgments were intended to be strategic. The Zimmerwald left proposed a resolution condemning the imperialist character of the war and arguing (in a slightly less emphatic way than Lenin's version) for class struggle against it. An opponent, Serrati, argued that this resolution would be rendered moot by the end of the war (still anticipated in 1915 to be not far off). Lenin responded that "I do not agree with Serrati that the resolution will appear either too early or too late. After this war, other, mainly colonial, wars will be waged. Unless the proletariat turns off the social-imperialist way, proletarian solidarity will be completely destroyed; that is why we must determine common tactics. If we adopt only a manifesto, Vandervelde, L'Humanité and others will once again start deceiving the masses; they will keep saying that they, too, oppose war and want peace. The old vagueness will remain" (emphasis added).

Right or wrong, then, Lenin's defeatism was arguing for two fundamental changes in the strategy of international socialism. The first was for a clear split: the abandonment of the historic policy of unity of the movement at all costs which had flowed from the success of the Gotha unification, the SPD and the unifications which it had promoted.

The second was a new strategic policy in relation to war, or, more exactly, in relation to imperialist wars. This policy called for an open proclamation along the lines that 'the main enemy is at home', to 'turn the imperialist war into a civil war' and, complementing this, practical efforts to undermine military discipline by anti-war agitation and organising in the armed forces.

Limits of defeatism

Draper's view is that the defeat slogan is simply wrong - meaningless unless you positively wish for the victory of the other side. It must follow that unless you support such a scenario, you would not go beyond a slogan along the lines of 'Carry on the class struggle in spite of the war'.  That is, you would not arrive at Lenin's argument that the principal way to carry on the class struggle in such a war is to argue that civil war is better than this war and to undermine military discipline by anti-war agitation and organisation in the armed forces.

The flip side of this argument is that Draper only partially addresses the internal limits of Lenin's argument. Lenin argues for generalising a defeat position to all the 1914-18 belligerents on the basis that 1914-18 is a war among the imperialist robbers for division of the spoils of the world. He - and the Comintern - further generalise this position to 'colonial wars': that is, the wars of the imperialist states to acquire and retain colonies and semi-colonies.

They do not argue that communists in the colonies and semi-colonies should be defeatist in relation to these countries' wars for independence/against the imperialists. On the contrary, in this context the third and fourth congresses of Comintern urged the policy of the anti-imperialist front. I argued in my 2004 series on imperialism that the course of events since 1921 has proved that the policy of the 'anti-imperialist front' is not a road to workers' power and socialism. That does not alter the point here that the defeatist policy is specific.

Pretty clearly, it is, in fact, more specific than Lenin realised; but it also contains underlying elements of general strategic principle, which need to be teased out of the specificity.

Draper makes the point that when Lenin returned to Russia he found that it was necessary to address mass defencism among workers and soldiers, and the defeat slogan disappeared as a slogan after April 1917. What is missing in Draper's account is that Bolshevik anti-war agitation and organisation among the soldiers did not disappear after April. But the turn, and the mass defencism, were real. Mass defencism reflected the fact that as the war had evolved, it had become mainly a war fought on Russian soil, which Russia was losing. The masses could see perfectly well that the liberty they had won in February would not survive German occupation.

The same issue was posed a great deal more sharply in 1939-45. World War II was indeed a second inter-imperialist war for the redivision of the world. But overlaid on this war was a class war against the proletariat and its organisations, begun with Hitler's 1933 coup, continued with German intervention in the Spanish civil war and with the defeatism of much of the French bourgeoisie and officer class in 1940, Quisling and so on.

The result was that the defeatist position adopted in 1938 by the founding congress of the Trotskyist Fourth International lacked political purchase. Mass support, to the extent that it moved to the left against the bourgeois governments, moved to the communists who - after 1941 - unequivocally favoured the defeat of the Axis. It did not move in the direction of the defeatist, or at best equivocal, Trotskyists. The Trotskyists were split by the war - at least in Britain, France, China and Indochina, and probably elsewhere - between defeatists and advocates of the 'proletarian military policy', who argued that the working class needed to take over the conduct of the war in order to defend its own interests.

In fact, if we look back on 1914-18 itself, it should be apparent from what I said in discussing the outbreak of the war (above) that it was the specific military-political conditions of 1914-18 which allowed Lenin's thesis to obtain the sort of political purchase it did. If the war had been fought on German soil, as Engels anticipated in 1891, a German revolutionary-defencist policy would have been vindicated. If it had been a short war, the issue would have been brushed aside. It was the enormity of 1914-18, and in particular the stalemated fronts, which powered both the defeatist thesis and willingness to split the International.

In other words, the judgment that defeatism is the right approach to inter-imperialist wars is a concrete judgment about the particular war. But there are strategic principles which lie behind it.

Terminal phase

Half the justification for defeatism was Lenin's belief that imperialism was the highest stage of capitalism and hence that 1914-18 showed that revolution was immediately on the agenda. This would mean that the strategy of patience was wholly superseded. This idea was expressed in several documents of the first three congresses of the Comintern, which assert that the major capitalist countries are on the verge of civil war.

This judgment of the international situation is, in fact, the hidden secret of the defeatist line for the world inter-imperialist war. In such a war, it is an almost impracticable line for the workers' party of any single belligerent country. But if the workers' parties of all the belligerent countries agitate and organise against the war in the ranks of the armed forces, the possibility exists of fraternisation between the ranks of the contending armies, leading to the soldiers turning their arms first on their officers and then on their political-economic masters.

This is the meaning of Lenin's argument in his polemic against Trotsky that it is essential to his policy "that co-ordination and mutual aid are possible between revolutionary movements in all the belligerent countries". Such a line assumes that the mass workers' International exists and that its national sections can be made to follow a common defeatist line.

The idea that the class struggle was moving internationally into civil war did not only support the position of 'turning the imperialist war into the civil war'. It underpinned Lenin's and his Russian co-thinkers' willingness to gamble on the seizure of power by a workers' party in a peasant-majority country. It justified the extremely sharp split line in relation to the right and centre tendencies in the international socialist movement. And it also supported the explicit conception of a more or less militarised workers' party adopted in 1920-21.

I argued in my 2004 series on imperialism that this idea mistook the crisis of British world hegemony for a terminal-phase crisis of capitalism. The Comintern was, in fact, already retreating from its full implications by mid-1921. But the Comintern leaders clung to it - and Trotsky clung to it to his death. They did so because, for the Russians, it was their only hope of salvation. If the revolution in western Europe, or that of the 'peoples of the east' against colonialism, did not come to their aid, they had betrayed the hope of the socialist revolution as thoroughly as the right wing of the socialists by their actions in 1918-21 (Cheka, suppression of political opposition, suspension of soviet elections, strike-breaking, Kronstadt and their theorisation of one-party rule of the militarised party as a necessary aspect of the dictatorship of the proletariat).

To say this, however, is still not to imply that the defeatist strategic line was wrong. It was (at least partially) right because it made a true judgment about the state.

State, war and revolution

It is not the capitalist class which is the central obstacle to the emancipation of the working class, but the capitalist state and international state system.

We have already seen this point in the second article in this series (Marx and Engels's critiques of Gotha emphasised the Lassalleans' illusions in the German empire), the third (the policy of government coalitions requires the socialists to manage the state as a competing firm in the world market, and therefore to attack the working class; the mass strike or revolutionary crisis immediately poses the question of government and the form of authority) and the fourth (the Kautskyian centre downgraded the question of state form and ended by bringing state-bureaucratism and nationalism into the workers' movement).

A state is, at the end of the day, an organised armed force. The states of particular classes are tied to those classes by the forms in which they are organised. For the working class to take power, therefore, the existing capitalist (or pre-capitalist) state has to be 'smashed up'. And at the end of the day, this means that the coherence of the existing armed forces has to be destroyed.

Lenin's judgment, expressed in defeatism, was that the war, because it was unjust and predatory, and because it showed imperialist capitalism coming up against its historical limits, offered the workers' party both the need and the possibility to destroy the coherence of the existing armed forces through anti-war agitation - and thereby to take power.

The need was there because the war in itself involved the mass blood-sacrifice of workers. It was also there because any war in which serious forces are engaged and in which the international standing of the belligerent state is at issue reshapes politics around itself. The class struggle therefore necessarily takes the form of the struggle against the war. (This is not true of all wars: minor colonial counterinsurgency operations, etc, may reshape the politics of the colonial country but do not reshape those of the imperialist country.)

The possibility was there because the war was unjust and predatory in character, and therefore tended to lose political legitimacy as it went on.

Underlying the defeatist line, then, is a strategic understanding that in order to take power the working class needs to overthrow the ruling class's state: that is, to break up the coherence of this state as an organisation of armed force. This strategic understanding is in no sense dependent on the "actuality of the revolution" (Lukács).

Preparing for defeatism

The war immediately posed the question of state power and the coherence of the armed forces, as (in a different way) an internally driven revolutionary crisis or mass strike wave does. But the advocates of the 'strategy of patience' could have prepared the workers' movement and the society as a whole for the fact that this question would in future be posed. They chose not to.

In his 1891 critique of the Erfurt programme, Engels wrote that "If one thing is certain it is that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution has already shown."

A democratic republican military policy implies fighting for universal military training, a popular militia and the right to keep and bear arms. It also implies that within any standing military force which may be necessary, the ranks should have freedom of political speech and the right to organise in political parties and trade unions.

It further implies taking seriously the expression 'defence' which appears in ideological form in the 'ministry of defence'. This means consistent opposition in principle to colonial wars and overseas interventions, including 'peacekeeping' activities, which are invariably founded on lies and serve concealed imperialist interests.

If we take every opportunity to spread the ideas of a democratic republican military policy, by doing so we arm the working class movement for the conditions in which defeatism becomes a real necessity. To the extent that we win individual reforms in this direction, we will in practice undermine the ability of the armed forces to be used in defence of the capitalist class, both against the colonies and semicolonies, and also against a proletarian majority.

These ideas are neither an innovation from Marxist principles, nor a 'republican shibboleth'. They are a version of the policy Engels urged on the SPD in 1892-9 in his series of articles Can Europe disarm? Their absence from the political arsenal of the British left is the product of a timid pacifism which is covered by super-revolutionary phrases about rejecting 'reforming the bourgeois state.'

Defeatism and the Trotskyists

The Trotskyists have made of defeatism something different: not a practical strategic choice for the working class's struggle for power, but a purity test. Every war becomes, like 1914-18, a test of the revolutionary moral fibre of organisations; positions considered false on international conflicts are 'proof' of succumbing to the pressure of the bourgeoisie.

It has to be said that this Trotskyist use of war policy as a purity test does originate in the Comintern and Lenin's policy of defeatism. But it originates not in defeatism itself, but in the arguments for the split from the right and centre.

The Spartacist League and sub-Sparts might be said to have reduced this idea to absurdity when they argued that Afghan communists should join with the Taliban (who would immediately shoot them) to fight US imperialism. But the crown must surely belong to the Socialist Workers Party comrades, who claim their revolutionary credentials by calling for "victory to the Iraqi resistance".

This same SWP has for the last 20 years resolutely opposed in the name of 'broad unity' any political agitation either for a democratic republican military policy, or for organised workers' self-defence. Today its 'revolutionary defeatist', supposedly anti-imperialist alliance with political islam involves sacrificing fundamentals of democratic, let alone socialist, policy.