From: A reply to the RSL, Chauvinism and Revolutionary Defeatism

An edited version of a reply of the leadership of the Workers' International League during the war to the sectarian position of the then RSL that refused to apply Trotsky's military policy. Full version available on the Ted Grant archive.

The basic reason for the mistakes of the RSL lies in the fact that the leadership does not understand the revolutionary attitude towards the war. It is this which leads them to the sins against Marxism which they commit. Their position is summed up towards the end of their statement:

"In conclusion, we must state that the basis for all the main political mistakes of WIL is to be found in the defencist position it has adopted with regard to the imperialist war since the fall of France first made the defeat of British imperialism a real possibility. Defencism rarely shows itself in its open form especially in a left-centrist organisation. Concealment is especially necessary in an organisation still professing to stand upon the principles of revolutionary defeatism..."

An understanding of this confusion can be obtained by restating the fundamental position of Marxism on the question of war. If we take any of the writings of Lenin during the period of 1914-17, the issue can be clarified. In the little pamphlet Socialism and War, for example, we read the following:

"Social chauvinism is adherence to the idea of 'defending the fatherland in the present war'. From this idea follows repudiation of the class struggle in war time, voting for military appropriations, etc. In practice the social chauvinists conduct an anti-proletarian bourgeois policy, because in practice they insist not on the 'defence of the fatherland' in the sense of fighting against the oppression of a foreign nation, but upon the 'right' of one or other of the 'great' nations to rob the colonies and oppress other peoples. The social-chauvinists repeat the bourgeois deception of the people, saying that the war is conducted for the defence of freedom and the existence of nations; thus they put themselves on the side of the bourgeois against the proletariat. To the social chauvinists belong those who justify and idealise the governments and the bourgeois of one of the belligerent group of nations, as well as those who, like Kautsky, recognise the equal rights of the socialists of all belligerent nations to 'defend the Fatherland'. Social chauvinism, being in practice a defence of the privileges, prerogatives, robberies and violence of 'one's own' imperialist bourgeoisie, is a total betrayal of all socialist convictions and a violation of the decisions of the International Socialist Congress in Basle."

It is clear from this single quotation that the RSL have failed to understand the essence of the meaning of chauvinism. How can any serious party or individual honestly claim that the above quotation characterises the policies and activities of WIL? Our fundamental international thesis War and the Fourth International explains:

"In those cases where it is a question of conflict between capitalist countries, the proletariat of any one of them refuses categorically to sacrifice its historic interests, which in the final analysis coincide with the interests of the nation and humanity, for the sake of the military victory of the bourgeoisie. Lenin's formula: 'defeat is the lesser evil' means not that defeat of one's own country is the lesser evil as compared with the defeat of the enemy country; but that a military defeat resulting from the growth of the revolutionary movement is infinitely more beneficial to the proletariat and to the whole people than military victory assured by 'civil peace'. Karl Liebknecht gave an unsurpassed formula of proletarian policy in time of war: 'The chief enemy of the people is in its own country.'"

And indeed to pose the problem in any other way would be to become inverted chauvinists: that is, while not supporting the bourgeoisie of one's own country, to fall into the objective position of supporting the bourgeoisie of the enemy country. In his last writings, which are undoubtedly among the finest he ever wrote, the Old Man gave the finest theoretical exposition of the Marxist-Internationalist attitude to imperialist war in general, and the present imperialist war in particular. These fragments will remain for all time the classical exposition of the Marxist approach to the problem and of the dialectical method as a means for determining the policy of the revolutionary party. The readers will forgive us if we quote extensively both from Lenin and Trotsky to establish the position of Marxism on an unassailable basis. Trotsky presents the theoretical basis of our attitude towards the war thus:

"The present war, as we have stated on more than one occasion, is a continuation of the last war. But a continuation does not signify a repetition. As a general rule, a continuation signifies a development, a deepening, a sharpening. Our policy, the policy of the revolutionary proletariat towards the second imperialist war is a continuation of the policy elaborated during the last imperialist war, primarily under Lenin's leadership. But a continuation does not signify a repetition. In this case too, continuation signifies a development, a deepening and a sharpening. We were caught unawares in 1914.

"During the last war not only the proletariat as a whole but also its vanguard, and, in a certain sense, the vanguard of this vanguard was caught unawares. The elaboration of the principles of revolutionary policy toward the war began at a time when the war was already in full blaze and the military machine exercised unlimited rule. One year after the outbreak of the war the small revolutionary minority was still compelled to accommodate itself to a centrist majority at the Zimmerwald Conference[1]. Prior to the February Revolution and even afterwards, the revolutionary elements felt themselves to be not contenders for power but the extreme left opposition. Even Lenin relegated the socialist revolution to a more or less distant future...

"In 1915 Lenin referred in his writings to revolutionary wars which the victorious proletariat would have to wage. But it was a question of an indefinite historical perspective and not of tomorrow's task. The attention of the revolutionary wing was centred on the question of the defence of the capitalist fatherland. The revolutionises naturally replied to this question in the negative. This was entirely correct. But this purely negative answer served as the basis for propaganda and for training cadres but it could not win the masses who did not want a foreign conqueror.

"In Russia prior to the war the Bolsheviks[2] constituted four fifths of the proletarian vanguard, that is, of the workers participating in political life (newspapers, elections, etc). Following the February revolution the unlimited rule passed into the hands of the defencists, the Mensheviks and the SRs. True enough, the Bolsheviks in the space of eight months conquered the overwhelming majority of the workers. But the decisive role in this conquest was played not by the refusal to defend the bourgeois fatherland but the slogan: 'All power to the Soviets!' And only by this revolutionary slogan! The criticism of imperialism, its militarism, the renunciation of the defence of bourgeois democracy and so on could never have conquered the overwhelming majority of the people to the side of the Bolsheviks..." (Bonapartism, Fascism and War, an unfinished article by Trotsky, dictated just prior to his assassination.)

And following on this analysis, the basis is laid for the Marxist approach to the problems of the war today. The collapse and betrayal of the great parties of the Second International[3], by their support of the capitalist fatherland, came as a terrible shock and a great blow to the whole socialist movement. It was no accident, for example, that when Lenin in Switzerland received the issue of Vorwaerts, organ of the German Social Democracy, voting war credits to the Kaiser's government, he believed at first that it must have been a forgery of the German general staff. In this little episode is mirrored the confusion and disorientation of the revolutionary vanguard.

The internationalists of all countries remained as isolated individuals and groups, most of whom merely opposed the war in a confused pacifist and semi-pacifist way. As late as the middle of 1915, at the Zimmerwald Conference, only a handful of delegates assembled. Yet even among this vanguard of the masses, confusion and lack of theoretical understanding of the war and of revolutionary policy were clearly displayed. The main task of Lenin during this period was not at all to win the masses to his banner, but to educate the vanguard, and even the vanguard of the vanguard. As Trotsky expresses it, Lenin had to concentrate his attention exclusively at this period on the question of 'defence of the capitalist fatherland'.

If we would examine all the extensive writings of Lenin from the beginning of the war to the outbreak of the February Revolution, we would find that they concentrate on theoretical questions as to the nature of the war and the betrayal by the Second International of the international proletariat. Lenin's basic task was the struggle against what he characterised as social chauvinism and social opportunism. Lenin's role then was to demonstrate that the class struggle remains the basic law of class society in peace time as in war time. Luxemburg and Liebknecht in Germany, and in a confused way the ILP[4] pacifists and opposition groups in other countries all groped in the same direction. All at that time conducted their work around the theoretical struggle on the question of the 'defence of the fatherland'. So it was that even after the February Revolution, this question occupied a predominant place. It is here that the confusion of the RSL on the question of 'revolutionary defencism' arises.

Lenin would not tolerate the slightest concession to social patriotism and support of the bourgeoisie. After the overthrow of the Czar, the Mensheviks and SRs became social patriots and supported the Russian bourgeoisie. Lenin condemned the position of Kamenev and Stalin who, in Pravda, came out in support of the Provisional government, and in an unclear fashion even supported the war by saying that they would defend the bourgeois revolution against the attacks of the armies of the Kaiser. The revolutionary defencism which Lenin condemned was that of the Mensheviks and SRs who supported the war, who supported the capitalist state, and who supported the ruling class, as the method of defending the gains of the February Revolution. By revolutionary defencism is meant no more, no less, than social chauvinism. Lenin's speech to the delegates of the Bolshevik faction of the soviets clearly put the position:

"The masses approach this question not from the theoretical but from a practical viewpoint. Our mistake lies in our theoretical approach. The class conscious proletarian may consent to a revolutionary war that actually overthrows revolutionary defencism. Before the representatives of the soldiers the matter must be put in a practical way, otherwise nothing will come of it. We are not at all pacifists. The fundamental question is: Which class is waging the war? The capitalist class, tied to the banks cannot wage any but an imperialist war. The working class can..." (Collected Works, Vol. 20, page 96. International Publishers, New York, 1929).

Let us take an example from another sphere in which the Marxian attitude has been worked out theoretically and demonstrated practically. Marxism has demonstrated the superiority of the Soviet system to parliamentarism. But the position of the anti-parliamentarians, basing themselves on this correct idea, is hopelessly sectarian. It is necessary to lay this down theoretically, but in our day-to-day agitation we still conduct our work through parliamentary elections and convince the masses by their own experience of our point of view; not by the mere repetition, parrot-fashion, that soviets are the sole means of salvation for the working class. The mistakes of the RSL are of the same character.

Trotsky throws a penetrating light on one of the most important reasons for the impotence of the revolutionary left during the last war. Trotsky has emphasised better than anyone else the outlived character of the national state and its reactionary role in our epoch. Our attitude is based on that criterion. Our opposition towards war waged by imperialist states lies precisely on their outmoded character and the fact that support for any imperialism cannot assist the development of the productive forces – on which all human progress depends. From this stems the profoundly dialectical approach of Trotsky to the problems of the revolutionary movement in the last war. Russia was the country where the proletariat was freshest and most revolutionary. Bolshevism had conquered the overwhelming majority of the organised and politically awakened workers before the commencement of the last war.

On the eve of the war, barricades were already appearing on the streets of St Petersburg. Yet in the first period of the war the Bolsheviks were smashed by police repression without protest on the part of the masses, and even sections of the workers participated in patriotic demonstrations in favour of the Czar. The war weariness and disillusionment of the masses led to the February Revolution. Yet despite the traditions of Bolshevism within Russia, the Mensheviks and SRs gained overwhelming preponderance among the masses, including the workers. The war weary masses placed in power, not those who consistently opposed the war, but social chauvinists!

In Germany, where Liebknecht and Luxemburg conducted an internationalist opposition to the war, the German revolution placed the rotten social democracy and not at all the Spartacists[5] in power. Yet the socialist traitors had supported the Kaiser and the imperialist war to the limit and even figured in the cabinet of his government. The social democrats fought and opposed the revolution with all their strength and even attempted to save the monarchy. Yet by the irony of history they usurped the power in the revolution.

In Britain where the Labour leaders were supporting the war as members of His Majesty's government, the radicalisation and revolutionary upsurge of the British workers saw a tremendous increase in the support and influence of the Labour Party. The revolutionary international remained isolated from the working class – this despite the disillusionment of the masses of the people in the war and its results.

In all other countries the same phenomenon can be observed. One of the reasons for this (of course there are other fundamental reasons into which we cannot enter here) was precisely the issue which Trotsky raises. The correct criticism by the internationalists (by itself), 'of imperialism, its militarism, the renunciation of the defence of bourgeois democracy, and so on, could never have conquered the overwhelming majority of the people to...their side'.

It has been shown that the attention of the revolutionary vanguard was concentrated on the renunciation of the defence of the capitalist fatherland. This could not be a basis to win the masses who do not want a foreign conqueror. 'True enough,' Trotsky wrote, 'the Bolsheviks in the space of eight months conquered the overwhelming majority of the workers. But the decisive role in this conquest was played not by the refusal to defend the bourgeois fatherland but by the slogan "All power to the Soviets!"And only by this revolutionary slogan!'

An examination of the Bolshevik agitation in the period between February and October demonstrates this irrefutably. Not only this. If we examine Lenin's approach to the masses on the question of the war before February 1917, and after, there is a striking difference. In the first period as we have shown, it is purely of an appositional character; in the second, the period of revolution, all agitation and for that matter, propaganda and theory, is directed towards the goal of the seizure of power. With the imminence of the goal before him, Lenin links up the question of the war with the problem of which class possesses power. In this he is not at all contradicting his stand during the early period of the war, and in fact remains watchful that the leadership of the Bolsheviks does not stray from the internationalist position. But now, from theoretical clarification, he is carrying the policy into action. From training the cadres, he is advancing towards the solution of the problem of winning the broad masses. In both positions he remains true to the stand of Marxism. There is no need to quote extensively for this.

The RSL has stated (quite incorrectly) that the WIL bases its agitation on the war on Lenin's Threatening Catastrophe. However, this pamphlet itself is an annihilating reply to the sectarian criticism of Trotskyism and its attitude towards the war. In attempting to dodge the issue the RSL states: 'In practice the WIL claim that, for instance, Lenin's remarks on the Threatening Catastrophe [written on the eve of the seizure of power!] apply today, and such is the basis of their propaganda.' We might draw the attention of the leadership of the RSL to the fact that even if we did base ourselves on the perspective of the immediate seizure of power, it solves nothing of the question of whether or not we are chauvinist. It would indicate only, in the worst event. an error of perspective.

The fact that Lenin wrote on the eve of the seizure of power could not excuse him if he were guilty of chauvinism. Nor would it excuse the WIL today. Twenty-five years after they are willing to forgive Lenin his 'chauvinism' because it led to the successful revolution, but without having learned that had Lenin adopted their method, there would have been no revolution. In our view, chauvinism 'on the eve of the seizure of power' would be a hundred times more unpardonable than at any other time. However, let us examine what Lenin really did say. In Threatening Catastrophe, under the section, The war and the fight against economic ruin:

"All the above measures of fighting the catastrophe would, as we have already pointed out, immeasurably strengthen the defensive power or, in other words, the military strength of the country. This on the one hand. On the other hand these measures cannot be introduced without transforming the predatory war into a just war, without transforming the war waged by the proletariat in the interests of all the toilers and exploited."

And again:

"It is impossible to lead the masses into a robbers' war in accordance with secret treaties and still expect them to show enthusiasm. The foremost class of revolutionary Russia, the proletariat, realises ever more clearly the criminal character of the war, while the bourgeoisie not only has failed to shatter this conviction of the masses, but on the contrary, the consciousness of the criminal character of the war is growing. The proletariat of both capitals of Russia has become definitely internationalist. How can anyone talk about mass enthusiasm here in favour of the war? One thing is inseparably bound up with the other; internal politics with foreign politics. It is impossible to render the country capable of defending itself without the greatest of heroism on the part of the people in courageously and decisively carrying out great economic transformations. And it is impossible to appeal to the heroism of the masses without breaking with imperialism, without offering to all the peoples a democratic peace, without thus transforming the war from a war of conquest, a predatory criminal war, into a just, defensive, revolutionary war."

The RSL triumphantly exclaims, as if it had discovered a crime:

"...their [the WIL] slogan, nowhere explicitly stated in the document it is true, but implicit in it and in their other propaganda is 'turn the imperialist war into a workers' anti-fascist war'. In other words their main attack is directed not against the British bourgeoisie, but its rivals, the fascist regimes."

If the argument contained in the first part of this 'charge' can be levelled against us, then it applies a hundred times more to Lenin...because Lenin's propaganda for changing the imperialist war into a workers' war is not implicit, but explicitly stated. In any event, how can the war be changed into an anti-fascist war without the workers having conquered power? So far as we are concerned, we prefer to remain in the 'chauvinist' company of Lenin. The latter part of this criticism, that our 'main attack is directed against the fascist regimes' is absolutely false and cannot honestly be held by anyone who reads our press and documents.

On the question of slogans too, Lenin answered the RSL long in advance. They complain that WIL does not raise the slogan of turning the imperialist war into a civil war, though the WIL has proclaimed often enough that it stands on the principles and methods of the Fourth International. It would be nothing short of lunacy to raise this as an agitational slogan in the period ahead. As senseless as raising the slogan of the insurrection for the week after next.

There is a time and a place for every slogan. Just think, in the middle of the revolution, Lenin proclaims: 'To speak of civil war before people have come to realise the need of it, is undoubtedly to fall into Blanquism[6].' (CW, Vol. 24, page 236). And to give some advice that ultra-lefts would be wise to pay some attention too: 'It happens only too often that, when history makes a sharp turn, even the most advanced parties cannot get used to the revolutionary situation for some time, and repeat slogans that were correct yesterday, but have no more meaning today, having lost it as suddenly as the sharp turn in history "suddenly" occurred.' (CW, Vol. 21, page 43. International Publishers, New York, 1929). At a certain stage in the revolution, Lenin even denounced those who claimed that he stood for civil war, quite correctly laying the responsibility on the shoulders of the bourgeoisie for anything of the sort.

The Conquest of Power is the Axis of our Propaganda

Our policy in relation to the problems of the epoch remains on the granite foundation laid down by Lenin. Our attitude towards imperialist war remains that of irreconcilable opposition. We continue the traditions of Bolshevism. But in the epoch of the decline and disintegration of capitalism a continuation, as Trotsky points out, does not mean a mere repetition. In the quarter century that has passed, the objective conditions for the socialist revolution have reached maturity and the decay and disintegration of capitalism have revealed themselves in the abortive attempts at revolution on the part of the masses, in fascism, and now in the new imperialist war. All the objective conditions of the past epoch render the proletariat responsive to the posing of the problem of the conquest of power by the working class.

As distinct from 1914-18, the cadres of Bolshevism have been trained and educated in the Leninist approach towards imperialist war. The social-chauvinism on the part of the Social Democrats and the Stalinists was anticipated and predicted by the Trotskyists long in advance. The theoretical exposure of social chauvinism is not a live issue for Bolshevism today. We build and construct our party on the Leninist internationalist basis, not least on the fundamental question of war.

As Trotsky once pointed out, war and revolution are the fundamental test for the policy of all organisations. On both these questions we continue the Leninist tradition. But Marxism does not consist in the repetition of phrases and ideas, however correct these may be. Otherwise Lenin could not have developed and deepened the conceptions first formulated by Marx. And Trotsky could not have propounded the theory of the Permanent Revolution. If all that was required of revolutionaries was to repeat ad nauseam a few phrases and slogans taken from the great teachers of Marxism, the problem of the revolution would be simple indeed. The SPGB[7] would be super-Marxists instead of incurable sectarians. As Trotsky remarked of the ultra-lefts, every sectarian would be a master strategist.

In the last analysis, the basic principles of Marxism, as developed theoretically by Marx himself, have remained the same for nearly a century. The task of his successors consists, not at all in repeating a few half-digested ideas, parrot fashion, but of using the method of Marxism and applying it correctly to the problems and tasks posed at a particular period. It is now necessary to approach the problem of war, not only from its theoretical characterisation by Lenin, but in the task of winning the masses to the Leninist banner. For the past epoch the cadres of the Fourth International have been educated in the spirit of internationalism. We look at the war from the principled basis established by Lenin, but now from a more developed angle. We do not conduct our propaganda from the standpoint of analysing the nature of the defence of the capitalist fatherland alone but from the standpoint of the conquest of power by the working class and the defence of the proletarian fatherland.

As Trotsky posed the problem:

"That is why it would be doubly stupid to present a purely abstract pacifist position today; the feeling the masses have is that it is necessary to defend themselves. We must say 'Roosevelt says it is necessary to defend the country: good, only it must be our country, not that of the 60 families and their Wall Street.'" (American Problems. August 7, 1940.)

Only hopeless formalists and sectarians, incapable of appreciating the revolutionary dynamic of Marxism, could see in this a chauvinist deviation or an abandonment of Leninism. Our epoch is the epoch of wars and revolutions, militarism and super-militarism. To this epoch must correspond the policy and approach of the revolutionary party. War has come as a horrible retribution for the crimes of Stalinism and reformism. It came through the fact that the traitors in the workers' leadership frustrated the striving of the masses in the direction of the socialist revolution. It is a reflection of the blind alley in which imperialism finds itself, and of the historical ripeness and over-ripeness for the socialist revolution.

The last world war was already an expression of that fact that on a world scale capitalism had fulfilled its historical mission. This objective fact leads rapidly to the subjective position where the masses of the workers are ripe for the posing of the problem of the socialist revolution, that is the problem of power. The events of the past epoch have left the working class with a psychology of frustration and bewilderment. They regarded with apprehension and horror the coming of the second blood-bath in which they would expect nothing but suffering and misery. In this war, right from its inception, among the British workers, especially among the Labour workers, there has been an absence of hatred towards the German people. Even in America, where the masses are far less politically conscious than in Britain, in a recent Gallup Poll, two thirds of the people interviewed differentiated between the German people and the nazis on the question of responsibility and punishment after the war. This, despite all the propaganda of the bourgeoisie. If this is the case in America, it is a hundred times more true of Britain.

It is perfectly true, however, that especially among the working class there is an unclear, but deep-seated hatred of Hitlerism and fascism. But with all due respect to the leadership of the RSL, this hatred is not reactionary and chauvinist but arises from a sound class instinct. True, it is being misused and distorted for reactionary imperialist ends by the bourgeoisie and labour lackeys. But the task of revolutionaries consists in separating what is progressive and what is reactionary in their attitude: in winning away the workers from their Stalinist and Labour leaderships who misuse these progressive sentiments. And there is no other way than that mapped out by Trotsky in his last articles, of separating the workers from the exploiters on the question of war.

The decay and degeneration of British imperialism render the masses responsive to the posing by the revolutionaries of the problem of power; to the problem of which class holds the power. Every issue which arises must be posed from this angle. Our position towards war is no longer merely a policy of opposition, but is determined by the epoch in which we live, the epoch of socialist revolution. That is, as contenders for power. Only thus can we find an approach to the working class. On paper, and in the abstract, the RSL accepts the Transitional Programme as the basis for our work in the present period. Trotsky points out that the objective situation demands that our day to day work is linked through our transitional demands with the social revolution. This applies to all aspects of our work. The plunging of the world into war does not in the least demand a retreat from this position, but on the contrary gives it an even greater urgency. But the same theoretical conception which forms the basis of the Transitional Programme[8] and dictates the strategical orientation of all our activists forms the basis of the strategical attitude towards war in the modern epoch.

War is part of the life of society at the present time and our programme of the conquest of power has to be based, not on peace, but on the conditions of universal militarism and war. We may commiserate with the comrades of the RSL on this unfortunate deviation of history. But alas we were too weak to overthrow imperialism and must now pay the price. It was necessary (and, of course, it is still necessary) to educate the cadres of the Fourth International of the nature and meaning of social patriotism and Stalino-chauvinism and its relation towards the war. Who in Britain in the left wing has done this as vigorously as WIL? But we must go further. The Transitional Programme, if it has any meaning at all, is a bridge not only from the consciousness of the masses today to the road of the socialist revolution, but also for the isolated revolutionaries to the masses.

The RSL convinces itself of the superiority of its position over that of Stalinism and reformism. It comforts itself that it maintains the position of Lenin in the last war. This would be very good...if the RSL had understood the position of Lenin. However, for Trotsky and the inheritors of Bolshevism, we start (even if the RSL correctly interpreted Lenin, which it does not) where the RSL leadership finishes! We approach the problem of war from the angle of the imminence of the next period of the social revolution in Britain as well as other countries. The workers in Britain, as in America 'do not want to be conquered by Hitler, and to those who say, "let us have a peace programme" the workers will reply: "but Hitler does not want a peace programme." Therefore we say, we will defend the United States with a workers' army with workers' officers, and with a workers' government, etc.' (Trotsky, American Problems).

Those words of the Old Man are saturated through and through with the spirit of revolutionary Marxism, which, while uncompromisingly preserving its opposition towards the bourgeoisie, shows sympathy and understanding for the attitude of the rank and file worker and the problems which are running through his mind. No longer do we stop at the necessity to educate the vanguard as to the nature of the war and the refusal to defend the capitalist fatherland, but we go forward to win the working class for the conquest of power and the defence of the proletarian fatherland.

A Petty-Bourgeoise Pacifist Tendency

The harping on the theme of 'peace' runs like an ever recurring thread through the RSL document, and indeed, provides the key to the development of the RSL and their present position. Commenting on a sentence in Preparing for Power, 'The corruption and incompetence, industrially and militarily, raises sharply in the minds of the workers the question of the regime,' the RSL writes:

"There is no question of misunderstanding this sentence. It means that the workers are questioning the right of capitalism to continue as the system of this country. This before the workers have even begun to display a mass sentiment for peace, while they still support the imperialist war and are, in fact, anxious to see it more efficiently and offensively conducted."

This recurring theme of 'peace' indicates the hopelessly petit bourgeois position of the leadership of the RSL. And it does not rise accidentally either. It is the continuation and culmination of a whole series of mistakes on the question of the revolutionary attitude towards militarism and war. At the time when conscription was imposed in Britain a few months before the outbreak of the war, the RSL in the Militant[9] correctly condemned conscription for imperialist ends. But as a means of fighting against this they found themselves in the company of the Peace Pledge Union, the ILP and other pacifist and semi-pacifist bodies in advocating the futile, and from a revolutionary point of view, the dangerous policy of refusal to accept conscription into the militia. This at a time when it was obvious that the overwhelming majority of the workers would enter into the militia. In the Militant of June 1939, the RSL wrote, under the heading 'What to do':

"Conscription must he smashed! Demand that the TUC prepare a General Strike. Demand that the Labour Party force a General Election. Demand that the Executive Committee of your Trade Union instructs all its members of conscription age to refuse to register, and defend them if they are prosecuted for refusing. Only by mass action can conscription be smashed!"

This revolutionary-sounding alternative had an entirely social pacifist orientation, characteristic of centrism and petty bourgeois socialism. From the standpoint of the traditional Leninist position it was a false general directive: and as the attitude towards conscription adopted by comrade Trotsky demonstrates, it was also false from the standpoint of modern Leninism-Trotskyism. It left the members and sympathisers of the RSL without the slightest directive on what to do when faced with the concrete position: Register.

Indeed, so utopian was this that the directive to refuse to register was given, yet the members of the RSL registered. It is indeed somewhat embarrassing to even have to argue over such questions among people who claim to be supporters of Lenin. But as the RSL leaders seem to have a hankering for posing as defenders of 'old fashioned' ideas, perhaps it will settle the matter if we give a good quotation from Lenin on this question. Incidentally, the revolutionary attitude on this issue goes way back to Marx, and even the old social democracy on the continent had a correct and revolutionary attitude when compared with that of the RSL:

"At the present time the whole of social life is being militarised. Imperialism is a fierce struggle of the great powers for the division and re-division of the world, therefore it must inevitably lead to further militarisation in all countries, even in the neutral and small countries. What will the proletarian women do against it? Only curse all war and everything military, only demand disarmament? The women of an oppressed class that is really revolutionary will never agree to play such a shameful role. They will say to their sons: 'You will soon be big. You will be given a gun. Take it and learn to use it. The proletarians need this knowledge not to shoot your brothers, the workers of other countries, as they are doing in the present war, and as you are being advised to do by the traitors to socialism, but to fight the bourgeoisie of your own country, to put an end to exploitation, poverty and war, not by means of good intentions, but by a victory over the bourgeoisie and by disarming them.' (Lenin, CW, Vol. 23, page 82.)

Immediately the war began, the RSL joined up in an unprincipled alliance with the pacifists in the 'Socialist Anti-War Front'. Hardly had they recovered breath from the exertions in this direction than they immediately fell into an even worse petit-bourgeois pacifist position. At a time when both the Stalinists and the ILP came out with the slogan 'Stop The War', the RSL made haste to follow in the same pacifist strain. In one of the issues of the Militant this was blazoned as the main headline! There is no need to polemicise against this position today, as events drove it into oblivion.

Not even the RSL, which dropped this slogan without explanation, would argue in its favour now. In fact even the centrists of the ILP would not do so. From this error, the RSL leadership naturally and automatically slid into the next. The Executive Committee of the RSL issued a special statement repudiating the section of the Manifesto of the Fourth International – Imperialist War and the World Revolution, 1940, under the heading: 'Workers must learn the Military Arts' as being inapplicable to Britain. In private the leaders of the RSL pooh-poohed the idea that comrade Trotsky could have been the author of such 'chauvinist' statements, which corresponded to the WIL's position. This is what they said:

"Under the heading 'Workers must learn the Military Arts', the Manifesto demands that the state immediately provide the workers and the unemployed with the possibility of learning how to use arms. This might be construed by some as support for the opportunist demand put forward by certain organisations in this country for the arming of the workers. The slogan 'arm the workers' put forward in a belligerent country at a time when the masses are at a white heat of patriotism and in immediate fear of invasion is purely defencist and patriotic in character. The masses at such a time desire arms in order to repel the invader, ie in order to defend their 'own' capitalist state. Such a slogan is used by the imperialists for recruiting purposes....The British Section therefore states that the demand in the international manifesto has no validity in the existing conditions in this country..."

Their position on this question flowed from the incorrect policy they held previously on the question of conscription. And finally, as the culminating point of this whole process, they finish up with the position of...peace in the present period! Well might an ordinary worker retort to such a position: 'They say "Peace, Peace", and there is no peace!' Lenin undoubtedly pointed out the necessity to utilise at a certain stage the desire of the masses for peace. But he pointed out that such a position had nothing in common with pacifism. The RSL's position, on the contrary, is pacifist and has nothing in common with Leninism. All Lenin's writings on this question were aimed not only against the social patriots, but also against those who toyed with the slogan of peace without reference to time and place and the conditions under which peace could be obtained:

"We do not want a separate peace with Germany, we want a peace among all peoples, we want the victory of the workers of all countries over the capitalists of all countries." (CW, Vol. 24, page 125).

"The slogan 'Down with the War' is correct, to be sure, but it does not take into account the peculiarity of the tasks of the moment, the necessity to approach the masses in a different way. It reminds me of another slogan, 'Down with the Czar', with which an inexperienced agitator of the 'good old days' went directly and simply to the village – to be beaten up. Those from the masses who are for revolutionary defencism are sincere not in a personal but in a class sense, ie they belong to such classes as really gain nothing from annexations and the strangling of other peoples. They are quite different from the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia who know very well that it is impossible to give up annexations without giving up the rule of capital, and who unscrupulously deceive the masses with beautiful phrases, with no end of promises, no end of assurances.

"The average person who favours revolutionary defencism looks upon the thing in a simple matter-of-fact way: 'I for one, do not want any annexations, but the German "presses" me hard, that means that I am defending a just cause and not any imperialist interests.' To a man like this it must be explained very patiently that it is not a question of his personal wishes, but of mass, class, political relationships and conditions, of the connection between the war and the interests of capital, the war and the international network of banks etc. Only such a struggle against defencism is serious and promises success, perhaps not very quick, but real and durable. The war cannot be ended 'at will'. It cannot be ended by the decision of one side. It cannot be ended by 'sticking the bayonet into the ground', to use the expression of a soldier defencist." (CW, Vol. 24, page 65).

Lenin defines the position on war further:

"To terminate the war in a pacifist manner is sheer Utopia. It may be terminated by an imperialist peace. But the masses do not want such a peace. War is a continuation of the policies of a class; to change the character of the war, one must change the class in power." (CW Vol. 24, page 150).

This clear and simple position constitutes an annihilating reply to the position of the RSL on peace. In following all the major errors of the leadership of the RSL during the last few years on this question, there is revealed indubitably the existence of a petit-bourgeois pacifist or semi-pacifist tendency. But the quantity of the mistakes develops into a new quality. The RSL leadership is now revealing a fundamental breach with the ideas and methods of Leninism, with the ideas and methods of the Fourth International. Trotsky answered this particular argument on 'peace' for us in his criticism of Shachtman[10] in August 1940:

"We should understand that the life of this society, politics, everything, will be based on war, therefore the revolutionary programme must also be based on war. We cannot oppose the fact of the war with wishful thinking; with pious pacifism. We must place ourselves upon the arena created by this society. The arena is terrible, it is war, but in as much as we are weak and incapable of taking the fate of society into our hands; in as much as the ruling class is strong enough to impose upon us this war, we are obliged to accept this basis for our activity.

"I read in a short report of a discussion that Shachtman had with a professor in Michigan, and Shachtman formulated this idea: 'let us have a programme for peace, not war; for the masses not for murder,' etc. What does this mean? If we do not have peace, we cannot have a programme for peace. If we have war, we must have a programme for war, and the bourgeoisie cannot help but organise the war. Neither Roosevelt[11] nor Willkie are free to decide; they must prepare the war, and when they have prepared it they will conduct it. They will say they cannot do otherwise, because of the danger of Hitler, etc, of the danger from Japan, etc.

"There is only one way of avoiding the war – that is the overthrow of this society. However, we are too weak for this task, the war is inevitable. The question then, for us, is not the same as in the bourgeois salon – 'Let us write an article on peace, etc', which is suitable for publications like The Nation. Our people must consider it seriously; we must say: the war is inevitable, so let us have an organised workers' programme for the war. The draft of the youth is part of the war and becomes part of the programme." (American Problems)

Comrades of the RSL, there 'Is nothing chauvinist in this! It is the revolutionary internationalist and Marxist approach to war and the militarism of our epoch. It is not at all excluded that at a certain stage, there will arise a mass feeling for peace resulting from the mass slaughter, stalemate on the military fronts, the suffering of the masses reaching an unbearable intensity. However, even if this arises, our approach would still have nothing in common with the pacifist position of the RSL leadership. We would approach the question from the angle, that just as we cannot leave the problem of the war in the hands of the capitalists, so it would be fatal to leave the problem of peace in their hands. Peace in the modern epoch, if imperialism still survives, will not be much different from war. Peace under capitalism cannot be of long duration, but merely an interlude.

The sole road for ensuring peace would lie in the overthrow of imperialism in Europe and the world. In effect then our emphasis might shift in our agitation from the difference between war waged in the interests of the masses and war waged by the capitalists, on the one hand, to peace in the interests of workers, and peace in the interests of the capitalists, on the other. The axis of our agitation would remain the same: the problem of Power: which class holds and wields the power in its own interests.

In order to strengthen their case, the RSL quotes from War and the Fourth International: 'The revolutionary struggle for peace which takes on ever wider and bolder forms is the surest means of "turning the imperialist war into a civil war"…' This conditional prognosis of the possible development of events is used merely as a cover for a pacifist or semi-pacifist position. However, even in the Russian Revolution, which is deemed 'typical' of the events which will take place in other countries, the slogan of 'peace' was not separated by Lenin from the idea of revolutionary war. On the contrary, Lenin waged a struggle, especially in the first months of the revolution, precisely around the question of 'revolutionary war' being possible only if the proletariat held state power. However, he never considered it in the bald way in which the problem is conceived by the RSL.

True it is, that the slogan of peace was one of the mightiest weapons in the arsenal of Bolshevism. However, this conditional formula does not necessarily have to be put forward at all stages of the war, possibly not at all at certain periods. Slogans such as 'peace' are based on the consciousness of the masses. At the present time the masses in Britain are what the RSL chooses to call 'chauvinist'. Faced with a choice between peace with a victory for Hitler, or even a compromise with the nazis, and the continuance of the war, 99 per cent would favour a continuance of the war. The Labour leaders justify their support for the capitalist government by the necessity to fight Hitlerism. What can the RSL reply to this? To refer to the enemy at home is very good and correct, but does not constitute a reply to the worker. For he does not desire a foreign conqueror and a fascist one at that. Instead of looking down with scorn and disgust at the 'chauvinist' masses, the RSL leaders should try and learn something from the workers as well as attempt to be their 'teacher'.

An instructive episode occurred in the early stages of the war in 1939, before the fall of France. The Stalinists, during their 'anti-war' period, launched a campaign in their stronghold of South Wales. They secured a referendum among the South Wales miners on the question of war. This among one of the most militant and class conscious sections of the workers in Britain. A great deal of discontent and uneasiness existed among the miners on the question of the war. They were suspicious of the aims of the ruling class. Under these conditions, the Labour and reformist bureaucrats had to execute a manoeuvre to prevent the Communist Party from gaining big support among the miners on the ballot vote. They placed the question on the following basis: 'Against the war' or 'For the war with a Labour government'. As was to be expected they secured an overwhelming majority of the votes for the latter. And this was at a time when Hitler had not gained his tremendous victories and the masses did not feel directly threatened by the totalitarian heel of the nazis.

To reach these workers we must have a programme that can face up to the problem squarely of the defeat of reaction both at home and abroad. It is significant in this connection that the pacifists have lost a great part of what little support they had at the beginning of the war. Even the ILP has been compelled to modify its pacifist outlook. And even from the intransigent and isolated RSL leadership, while retaining basically its pacifist outlook, no more is heard of the pathetic slogan 'Stop the War'. All this, of course, has been due to the unparalleled victories of German imperialism. The leadership of the RSL has been unable to orient themselves to events and apply the revolutionary method which a theoretical understanding of the past would demand. For them everything must be an exact replica of the past. Revolution in war-time must follow the exact pattern of the Russian Revolution. In reality history proceeds in a far more complex way. The events of all revolutions are decided by the fundamental structure of class society, and that is why the basic laws of all revolutions can be formulated and predicted in advance. But to lay down an absolute blueprint, from which events cannot deviate, would be scholastic nonsense. There are too many factors involved which are completely incalculable. The Paris Commune[12] developed on different lines from the Russian Revolution; the Russian from the Chinese and Spanish, etc, etc. On questions of this character, the lines of development can be indicated only algebraically.

The Situation in Britain Today

Let us examine how the RSL sees the present situation in Britain today:

"Nor are these false policies long in merging. 'The corruption and incompetence, industrially and militarily, raises sharply in the minds of the workers the question of the regime.' There is no question of misunderstanding this sentence. It means that the workers are questioning the right of capitalism to continue as the system of this country. This before the workers have even begun to display a mass sentiment for peace, while they still support the imperialist war and are, in fact, anxious to see it more offensively conducted.

"Either all previous history was accidental and from it no lessons can he learned or else the WIL utterly misunderstands and distorts not only the present position of British imperialism, but also the present stage of development of working-class consciousness. We incline to the latter theory. The mood of the masses is still predominantly in support of the imperialist war and the British bourgeoisie are conducting the war as efficiently as the limitations of 'democratic capitalism' permit. These factors do not provide for the 'rapid maturing' of 'all the conditions for social explosions'. When social explosions come, as come they will, they will not arise upon the basis of demands by the workers for a more efficient prosecution of the war. No class struggles can arise on this issue because it is not a class issue as far as the workers are concerned. This is not their war and they have no class interest in victory in it.

"At present the masses are under the ideological leadership of the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois and hence support the imperialist war. Many defeats have been suffered by the British bourgeoisie in this war and sections of the workers have as a result criticised the leadership of the bourgeoisie and demanded a more efficient prosecution of the struggle. But this is not a proletarian class reaction to the situation, it is a petty bourgeois reaction and is possible only because the workers are still imbued with alien class ideology. Such working class discontent will stop at grumbling, in the same way as the similar and even more vocal discontent of the petty bourgeois does, and may even be transformed by British victories into greater support for the imperialist government.

"It cannot lead to working-class action, just because the demand for a more efficient prosecution of the imperialist war is not a class demand for the workers. Moreover class action by the workers, as they know, would yet further impair the efficiency of British imperialism. British defeats can lead to social explosions, but they will be explosions caused by war weariness, by a desire to end the fruitless slaughter, to escape from the economic hardships of war and to bring an enduring peace and prosperity to the world."

These lines indicate a complete lack of comprehension of the position in Britain today. They constitute an indictment of the stagnant position in which the RSL finds itself. Any organisation with the remotest connection with the working class in Britain would realise that this is hopelessly incorrect as an appraisal of the actual situation. The development of mass consciousness in Britain during the war has been in the direction of a 'socialist' and, yes...even a 'communist' consciousness. Among the workers, within the ranks of the armed forces, among wide strata of the middle classes, a growing ferment and a process of radicalisation has been taking place.

There has not been a period in Britain for many decades in which the minds of the masses have been so receptive to revolutionary ideas and revolutionary perspectives. The objective, and even in a sense, the subjective conditions for the socialist revolution are already maturing in Britain. It can be stated without exaggeration that the ground is more favourable for the swift growth of Trotskyism within the British working class than at any time in the history of our movement. There is a growing and widespread criticism and lack of confidence in the ruling class. The present relationship of forces between the classes has been completely undermined. This, in its turn, has its effect within the ranks of the ruling class, where differences and fissures have been opening out.

We are in a pre-revolutionary situation. With a correct policy we can gain a good springboard for a great leap in influence in the coming period. Here we see why it is that the WIL has made substantial if modest gains in the present milieu, while the RSL has declined and disintegrated. But in order to take advantage of the situation it is necessary to understand the process that is taking place and the way in which the mass consciousness will develop.

With an air of smug incredulity, the RSL proclaim 'there is no question of misunderstanding this sentence. It means that the workers are questioning the right of capitalism to continue as the system of this country...' If this means that we say that the workers seriously desire a socialist revolution now, it is nonsensical. But that the workers are unconsciously moving in this direction, is true beyond a doubt. Yes, comrades, we definitely assert that the workers are beginning to challenge the right of capitalism to continue as the system of this country.

Only hopeless scholastics would attempt to lay down a rigid pattern from which events do not deviate. The RSL pictures the workers as if they were in a state of violent and hysterical chauvinism. They triumphantly point to the undoubted fact that the overwhelming majority of the masses still support the war. But they do this because of a desire to defend their rights and their organisations from destruction, and not at all from a desire to defend the capitalist class. It is a pity that the RSL never asks the question: why if their mechanical schema is correct, the defeats of British imperialism in the past did not lead the masses to demand peace 'but on the contrary, led them to desire to see the war 'more efficiently and more offensively conducted'? Nor do they explain why the workers, who support the war, have become more and more critical of the ruling class despite the victories, as is shown from the by-election results and the increased number of strikes. Any pseudo-socialist programme has secured big support against government candidates in by-elections.

The Common Wealth[13], reflecting the move of the petit-bourgeoisie towards the proletariat has secured successes in traditional Tory strongholds. The Times sees in this an ominous 'portent' of the feeling of the masses. The 'revolutionary Marxists' of the RSL are incapable of making this correct evaluation. Literally, there is not a single firm social prop within the population upon which the bourgeoisie could be certain of relying in a social crisis. The civil servants in one union after another are violating the Trades Disputes Act. Even the police have not been unaffected by the prevailing mood within the population. It is precisely in an attempt to sidetrack this mood among the masses, that the Beveridge Scheme[14] has been brought forward. Millions of workers are sceptical of the aims of the ruling class in the war and of the results of a British victory. But they still support the war. Is it because they have a hatred of the 'Huns' as the RSL would have us believe? On the contrary, among the broad masses, especially those organised in the labour and trade union movement such a feeling is non-existent.

As if to mock the position of the RSL the victories of the British armies in North Africa have coincided with strikes and unrest throughout the country on wage questions. According to the RSL's version, the opposite should have taken place. In reality there is no contradiction here. The masses support the war because they cannot see any alternative. In the meantime, the class struggle does not wait. Here is the key to the mood in Britain which the Old Man so clearly visualised.

The masses are becoming critical of capitalism and imperialism, but feel themselves paralysed by fear of the consequences of a nazi victory. The military policy and the Old Man's writings give us the weapon that provides the answer to the questions which are troubling the masses. The leadership of the RSL still supports the idea of agitating for Labour to take power. How does it happen that they support what, according to their method of reasoning, should obviously be a 'chauvinist' demand? And they have done so right throughout the course of the war. Far from the Labour leadership desiring 'peace', even the so-called left wing of the type of Shinwell and Bevan are more zealous than anyone else in their support of the war. The RSL talks of the big swing in the direction of Labour that will take place in the next period. This is correct, but they have not understood or explained why this is so.

The first big swing of the workers to the left, a process which is in its beginnings already, will come because of the dissatisfaction with the contrast between their own conditions and the profits and privileges of the capitalist class. It will not be an anti-war movement as such at all. In spite of the Labour Party's wholehearted support of the war, the masses will inevitably move towards the Labour Party. A revolutionary situation does not arise with the masses as hysterical patriots one day, and deliriously demanding peace the next. Their demands will reflect themselves in pressure on the leadership of the mass organisations. Today that pressure is being reflected in the movement towards the ending of the political truce. But the growth of the mass feeling for the ending of the coalition is expressed as a reaction against support for the bourgeoisie, not against support for the war.

What programme does the RSL suggest we should develop among the masses as the programme for the Labour government? A programme for immediate peace? As fear of a Hitler victory subsides, the demands of the masses for improvements and concessions grow. This is especially so, as the broad strata realise, that victory and the ending of the war will not improve their conditions, but will result in mass unemployment and widespread distress. In spite of the ideas of the RSL, the experiences of the last war and its aftermath have not gone without leaving traces on the consciousness of the working class. The need for Marxists is to dissect and find what is progressive in the contradictory moods and to understand the changes in the psychology and movement of the Masses.

The attempt of the labour and trade union leaders to demagogically intensify their promises to the working class of the glorious prospects after the war is far from achieving startling success. The Stalinists are beginning to reap the rewards of their strike-breaking and anti-working-class activity in the shape of increasing antagonism towards them on the part of the workers. And this, in spite of their attempts to whip up and intensify chauvinist feelings, and in spite of the widespread sympathy for the Soviet Union.

Strikes last year were the highest in many years in the face of innumerable difficulties and obstacles placed before the workers by the Stalinist and Labour bureaucrats. Hardly an indication of tranquil relationships in Britain! But in one factor, we see the amazing maturity of the working class demonstrated better than anything else: the widespread critical attitude not only towards the bourgeoisie, but towards the Labour leaders. This is not an isolated phenomenon, but embracing large sections of the workers, organised and unorganised, in industry and in the armed forces. Broad sections of the workers have no illusions about the trade-union bureaucrats, yet their class instinct and solidarity makes them cling to their organisations despite this. For the present they tolerate them for lack of an alternative.

The whole situation imperiously demands that we prepare for the explosions that are developing by understanding what is taking place in the objective development of events and their subjective reaction within the consciousness of the working class. The revolutionary minority can play a role even now, and can make certain of a powerful influence on the coming revolution. That we are in a period of black reaction and chauvinism within the working class can only be the opinion of sectarians who are completely out of touch with the working class.

Go back to The Unbroken Thread contents page or go on to next section Preparing for Power


[1] Internationalist opponents of the First World War met in 1916 in the Swiss village of Zimmerwald. The February revolution in Russia 1917 saw the fall of the Czar and brought to power a provisional government of reformist and capitalist Parties.

[2] The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were, respectively, the revolutionary and reformist wings of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party, at first as factions and, later, as separate parties. The SRs (Social Revolutionaries) were a reformist party with a large influence among the peasantry.

[3] Established in 1889 bringing together social democratic (socialist) and Labour parties. It effectively collapsed in 1914 when virtually all its sections voted to support their own capitalist governments in the war. It was revived in 1923 as a completely reformist organisation becoming known as the Socialist International.

[4] Independent Labour Party. Usually on the left, it split from the Labour Party in 1932. Most of its leaders returned to the Labour Party after the war, leaving it to a prolonged period of sectarian isolation until it was wound up in the late 1970's.

[5] Grew from the revolutionary wing first in the German SPD, then the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). Formed the basis of the Communist Party (KPD) in 1918. Its leaders included Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht.

[6] After Louis Blanqui (1805-81). French revolutionary socialist whose name became linked with the theory of armed insurrection by small conspiratorial groups, as opposed to the Marxist concept of mass struggle.

[7] The Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), established in 1905, was, and remains, a small sect with its own peculiar 'interpretation' of Marxism.

[8] Adopted by the Fourth International at its founding in 1938. Transitional demands are intended to bridge the gap between the existing level of conciousness of the working class and the need for socialist revolution.

[9] Journal of the RSL. Not linked to the paper Militant established in 1964.

[10] Max Shachtman. One of the founders of the American Left Opposition, he split from the official Fourth International in 1940.

[11] Franklin D Roosevelt, a Democrat, was American President from 1933-45. Introduced the 'New Deal' programme of state intervention intended to deal with economic recession while heading off the radicalisation of the working class. Wendell Willkie was the Republican Party Presidential candidate in 1940.

[12] The Short-lived workers' government established after the uprising of the Paris workers on 18 March 1871. It was crushed on 28 May 1871, with over 20,000 workers murdered. Fully dealt with in Trotsky's On the Paris Commune and Marx's The Civil War in France.

[13] The Common Wealth party was formed in Britain during the war. Advocating radical policies including nationalisation, and opposing the wartime electoral truce, it won substantial votes and two by-elections.

[14] The report on 'Social Insurance and Allied Services', published in December 1942. Its main proposals, a National Insurance Scheme and a National Health Service, were implemented by the 1945 Labour government.