Lenin and the myth of revolutionary defeatism by Hal Draper

Submitted by Anon on 30 September, 2001 - 1:53

“When Vladimir Ilyitch once observed me glancing through a collection of his articles written in the year 1903, which had just been published, a sly smile crossed his face, and he remarked with a laugh: ‘It is very interesting to read what stupid fellows we were!”’
Karl Radek(1)

Introduction to the myth

Since the First World War, Marxists, would-be Marxists, and even many non-Marxist socialists have gained a good part of their political education through a close study of Lenin’s anti-war writings of 1914-1918. In fact, even much of anti-Marxist and anti-Leninist literature is often based on an unexamined acceptance of Lenin’s account of ideas, even when these writers change all the value signs from plus to minus.… Myths about Lenin’s views on war policy during the First World War have a very tenacious hold on life…
Since our subject concerns a peculiarity of the Lenin group, we need to be aware of the other anti-war socialists for purposes of comparison, and to this end we will largely use two who denounced “social-patriotism” (pro-war socialism) as sternly as did Lenin. These were Leon Trotsky, then an independent in the Russian Social-Democratic factional situation, and Rosa Luxemburg, best known as a leader of the left wing in the German party…

As Lenin himself saw the problems of theory and political policy, his historical role in the socialist movement was to revive and reanimate the revolutionary substance of Marxism that had been overlaid by the creeping social-reformism of the Second International. In respect to anti-war policy, however, he — along with Luxemburg and the whole left — had to do more than revive. They had to readapt Marxism and its policies to the realities of a new epoch. From the First World War on, the Marxist view of war had a new starting point. Even if we eliminate revolutionary defeatism from this package, Lenin made the major contribution to this end, with Luxemburg (as author of the Junius Pamphlet) running second.

The old Second International had never worked out a clear line on the fight against war. By and large, its resolutions had repeated that war flowed from the capitalist system and would disappear along with that system, and had vaguely recognised the right of nations to defend themselves from attack by another power acting from presumably reprehensible motives. When the day came that saw all participants in the world slaughter “defending” themselves against some attack or other, this principle was no help by itself. It was not until the 1907 Stuttgart congress of the International that a new note was injected: the threat of socialist revolution, not through the empty brandishing of a general strike threat on the outbreak of war, but the threat of revolution developing as the outcome of the disaster. This was expressed in the amendment to the main resolution submitted by Lenin, Luxemburg and Martov. It simply said that if war should break out despite all, the socialists should intervene “with all their powers to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule”. This passage was included also in the resolution adopted by the next International congress, the last regular congress, held at Copenhagen in 1910…
For most of the delegates it was a matter of some more verbiage about revolution to scare the bourgeoisie with a threat they scouted. For the left, it was a challenge — once war had broken out — to work out the practical and tactical meaning of the statement.
In August 1914... Lenin worked out the view that “revolutionary defeatism” was a necessary part of the socialist anti-war riposte…

Content of the myth

Before recounting what Lenin did and thought, let us present the myth itself, which has blanketed socialist history on this point since it was invented in 1924...To begin with, the myth claims that “revolutionary defeatism” became a permanent and fixed part of the Lenin canon, and that to question it was to question a “fundamental principle” of Leninism. We will see that it was not only not permanent or fundamental, but it was not even a “principle”.

The rest of the myth includes the following:
- During the war Lenin alone adopted a completely consistent and uncompromising policy of opposition to the war, all others among the anti-war socialists being guilty of some “centrist” deviation or similar unclarity.
- This defeatist principle comprises the very heart of Lenin’s anti-war position; or, as it has sometimes been put, this defeatism of Lenin’s “summed up” his anti-war politics.
- This “revolutionary defeatism” is the necessary alternative to defencism — these two being the only consistent choices. To reject defeatism means to make some degree of concession to social-patriotism...

So goes the myth. When we look at some of Lenin’s writings of 1914-1915, we will find a variety of shifting and inconsistent formulations on defeatism, but the part that has entered into the canonical concept of defeatism includes the following: in a reactionary war you must desire the defeat of “your own” government, wish defeat, favour nothing less than defeat.

It was not enough, then, merely to condemn the war, or condemn the voting of (say) war credits; it was not enough to organise or favour the organising of mass struggles against the war; it was not enough to denounce “defence of the fatherland” and its social-patriotic proponents; it was not enough, certainly, to denounce the consequences of military victory by “one’s own” government, since there were “centrist” positions that were “against both victory and defeat”. In fact, an anti-war position that fell short of avowed defeatism was either “left-centrist” or tinged with pacifism, or, at the very best, it was an “unconscious” defeatism which could not be carried out consistently and fearlessly in action until the “slogan of defeat” itself was embraced.

These were Lenin’s claims during the 1914-1916 period, and he counterposed them in polemic not only against the pro-war social-patriots but also against the views of other anti-war socialists such as Luxemburg and Trotsky. These two not only agreed with Lenin on war policy in general but also on the main organisational conclusion, i.e., the call for a new revolutionary International. The main difference was on Lenin’s “slogan of defeat”, which Trotsky specifically attacked; and Luxemburg, who possibly never even heard of it during the war, wrote along a line that precluded any sympathy for it...

Lenin’s combination

In sum, we are faced with the following counterposition. On the one hand, we have the leading anti-war internationalists like Luxemburg and Trotsky who were against both imperialist camps in the war; against voting for war credits; in favour of irreconcilable class struggle during the war; in favour of transforming the fight against the war into a fight for socialist power; in favour of breaking with the International of the social-patriots of both camps. Against the military victory of their own government’s imperialism, they counterposed the victory of their own working class struggle for socialism. Against the military victory of their own government, they did not counterpose a desire for its military defeat. They counterposed their own socialist solution to any military outcome, victory or defeat, on the plane of the inter-imperialist conflict.

These antiwar revolutionary socialists were not “defeatists”...
In the case of the position peculiar to [him], Lenin... sought to combine some variety of “defeat of your own government” with the anti-war policy of opposition to both war camps.

Lenin attempted to combine defeatism and an anti-war line.
Note that this is worded in a manner precisely opposite to that of the Lenin myth, which paints defeatism as the inescapable and necessary expression of antiwar policy and which therefore recognises no problem at all about making such a combination...

Lenin in 1914: the four formulas
Before 1914, without any exception known to me, [defeatism] meant defeat by the enemy government — what we have called pro-war defeatism — because it also meant victory for the enemy government. It was not a policy capable of international application, but could be held by one side of a given war between a despotic, backward state and a capitalist state considered “progressive”.

As we raise the curtain on Lenin in August 1914, preparing the first document to state the anti-war position of the Bolshevik Party, it was this tradition and this meaning that was in his consciousness. Shocked and appalled not only by the onset of world slaughter but also by the collapse of the Socialist International, he saw a line of blood not of his making: the line of blood between those socialist leaders who were whipping their parties and workers into line in favour of the imperialist chauvinism of their own ruling class, under the slogans of “civil peace” and “defence of the fatherland”, and, on the other hand, those relatively few socialists who maintained the class struggle against the war and sought to carry out the International’s injunctions of 1907-1910 to utilise the war crisis for the overthrow of the capitalist system that was setting workers against workers to cut each other’s throats.

He reacted in a fashion that was characteristic of Lenin the man, and not merely Lenin the Marxist.

For example: over a decade before, he had had to raise a great hue and cry in order to bring together the atomised Russian Social-Democratic groups and circles into a modern centralised party with a central organ. At the time, he thought, this was the great next step that had to be taken; it was “what is to be done”. Since it was the key, it had to be pounded home into the consciousness of every comrade; everything had to be subordinated to emphasising it. How do you emphasise it? By repeating it a thousand times in every conceivable way? Yes. By explaining it patiently over and over? Yes. By piling up argument after argument, seizing on every fact and every problem and converting them into lessons on centralisation? Yes. But that was not all. The problem was greater centralisation, as compared with the existing looseness, when no party existed at all. Then put “Centralisation!” on a banner, on a pedestal; emphasise it by raising it to a principle. But the opponents of this elementary step of centralisation covered their political objections — objections against having any organised party at all — by demagogically yelling “Bureaucratism! Lenin wants more bureaucracy while we are for democracy!”

Lenin reacted typically. Yes, he retorted, “Bureaucracy versus democracy” — that is the revolutionary organisational principle.(2) The whole passage made fairly clear how he used the initially shocking statement to underline, with heavy strokes, the task of the day, by exaggerating in every way that side of the problem pointing in the direction where it was necessary to move now. Tomorrow the balance could be recaptured, but first you put the weight on where it was needed. That was Lenin’s way of doing it.

He did it again in 1921, at the Third Congress of the Comintern, when Lenin (together with Trotsky and the Bolshevik leadership) was fighting the ultra-leftist trends that he had attacked in his book Left-Wing Communism. At a meeting of key delegations, Lenin told them — in words virtually made to be wrenched out of context: “Our sole strategy now is to become... more sensible, more ‘opportunistic’, and that is what we must tell the masses.”(3) The point was, of course, that the ultra-leftists were accusing him of becoming “opportunistic”. Therefore, “Become opportunistic!” was sloganised onto a banner, and waved in a spirit of bravado. Lenin had done this all his political life.

It was undoubtedly with relish that an article by Lenin in 1915 used a quotation “by a French philosopher” which obviously had impressed him. The quotation went this way: “Dead ideas are those that appear in elegant garments, with no asperity or daring... Strong ideas are those that shock and scandalise, evoke indignation, anger, and animosity in some, and enthusiasm in others.”(4) The other side of this virtue has been shown by the large number of passages in Lenin in which he resorted to exaggerated one-sided generalisations in order to give emphasis, temporarily seeing only the one-sidedness. Whatever benefits there were in this method were garnered by his contemporaries; the same cannot be said for the generations that tried to learn from his writings without understanding that, in reading Lenin, one must know not only what he was saying but also what he was polemically concerned about at the moment. This is a case where “authority by quotation” can be quite misleading. Tendentious historians have naturally found that this offers opportunities for tendentious misinterpretation, but it is a pitfall for honest students too.

In 1914 the people whom Lenin considered traitors to international socialism were yelling “Civil peace!” Well then, said Lenin, No! Civil war!
In 1914 these traitors were yelling “Defence of the fatherland!” No, said Lenin, defeat of your own fatherland!..

Formulation No. 1: the “Lesser Evil” formula

In early September 1914 Lenin presented his draft thesis on the war to his Bolshevik Party comrades in Bern. In this document — in a subordinate place, to be sure, but still included — was this statement:

“From the viewpoint of the working class and the toiling masses of all the peoples of Russia, the defeat of the Tsarist monarchy and its army, which oppress Poland, the Ukraine, and many other peoples of Russia, and foment hatred among the peoples so as to increase Great-Russian oppression of the other nationalities, and consolidate the reactionary and barbarous government of the Tsar’s monarchy, would be the lesser evil by far.”(5)

What role did this statement play in the thesis? It was not in the point (No. 7) that presented the general line and slogans on the war. It was in the section (No. 6) which related the war to the national question in the Tsarist prison of the peoples; which argued that Russian socialists must “wage a ruthless and all-out struggle against Great-Russian and Tsarist-monarchist chauvinism”. In this connection, Lenin argued, defeat was the “lesser evil” for the oppressed nationalities.

Lenin had remembered the idea and stuck it in at this point. This was the starting point of a development which we will now have to follow step by step, as it evolves and changes and shifts. It can be done only step by step because, as we have indicated, we are not dealing with a clear political idea that can be easily discussed pro and con, through “examples” and “illustrative quotations”, but with a theoretical snarl that has to be disentangled.

We get a hint of what was working in Lenin’s thinking, as he remembered the concept of defeat, by his rough notes for an unfinished article which he jotted down at about the same time.(6)

“...if Russian Tsarism is particularly infamous and barbarous (and more reactionary than all the rest), then German imperialism too is monarchist: its aims are feudal and dynastic, and its gross bourgeoisie are less free than the French. The Russian Social-Democrats were right in saying that to them the defeat of Tsarism was the lesser evil, for their immediate enemy was, first and foremost, Great-Russian chauvinism, but that in each country the socialists (who are not opportunists) ought to see their main enemy in their ‘own’ (‘home-made’) chauvinism.”(7)
This gives us a train of thought. Note the criteria with which he compares Russian Tsarism and German kaiserism. Tsarism is the most reactionary regime. But… he recalls that the enemy government, Germany, is also dominated by pre-capitalist reaction (it is monarchist, feudal, dynastic, etc.). In this comparison, it is not imperialist-capitalist Germany that is examined...

The emphasis limiting the concept to the Russian socialists was brought out very sharply in Lenin’s next mention of defeat as a programmatic idea. This was in his letter to Shlyapnikov of October 17:

“...in order that the struggle should proceed along precise and clear lines we need a watchword which generalises it. That watchword is: for us Russians, from the point of view of the interests of the working masses and the working class of Russia, there cannot be the smallest doubt, absolutely any doubt, that the lesser evil would be now, at once the defeat of Tsarism in this war. For Tsarism is a hundred times worse than Kaiserism. Not sabotage of the war, but the struggle against chauvinism… It would be a mistake both to call for individual acts of shooting officers, etc., and to tolerate arguments like the one that ‘we don’t want to help Kaiserism’.”(8)

It was now a watchword, a slogan. And when Lenin wrote that there could not be “the smallest doubt, absolutely any doubt” about it, it was his way of reacting vigorously to the fact that it had already been attacked in the Bolshevik ranks.

The letter made very clear that by “defeat” Lenin meant defeat by the enemy government, by the German armies. It was this that was the “lesser evil”. (Later reinterpretation sometimes claimed that Lenin meant defeat by the workers’ revolution; but in the first place, this was no “evil” at all, and in the second place the whole business about defeat would be totally incomprehensible if that were all he intended to say.)
It is not breaking in an open door to insist on this point, since odd interpretations of Lenin’s “revolutionary defeatism” have been legion. At this stage, defeatism had no other meaning than military defeat by the enemy camp...

This was what gave the “lesser evil” formulation the sense it had: defeat by Germany would be an evil, yes, but the greater evil would be the victory of the Tsar’s army; and we choose between these two evils.

This made sense of the reason given by Lenin for the slogan: “For Tsarism is a hundred times worse than Kaiserism.” This defeat slogan depended for its rationalisation not on balanced opposition to both camps but on a “lesser evil” distinction between the two camps. Tsarism was the worst: this plainly could not apply in Germany, where Kaiserism was a hundred times better than Tsarism. It could apply only for “us Russians”.

Moreover, Lenin never did apply this “lesser evil” formulation of the defeat slogan to any other country. When he tried to internationalise the concept, it became something else.
The slogan of defeat began, therefore, as a special Russian position on the war. Like the motivation for it, it had its roots in the “special Russian position” that had developed in the Second International. Without this background, the very idea of a “special Russian position” on the war in 1914 would be strange. Here was a general world war, where in every other respect Lenin was driven to emphasise the inextricable entangling of all the threads of world imperialism, and yet he proposed that the socialists of one of the belligerents should adopt a position which he did not propose for the others.

For these socialists, the next question raised by the proposal leaps to the eye. If the defeat slogan meant defeat by Germany (whose victory is the lesser evil), then didn’t this mean preferring the victory of Germany? But — that was exactly what the German social-patriots preferred. Yet the bulk of Lenin’s writing at this time was devoted to marshalling the arguments against the social-patriots (the Germans above all). Clearly the slogan of defeat could not have the simple and clear meaning that it had in 1904-1905. How could this contradiction be resolved?

Out of the attempt to resolve this contradiction came the wavy course of Lenin’s defeatism in 1914-1916.

Rejection of defeatism in the Bolshevik ranks

It turned out that the defeat slogan was the one aspect of Lenin’s war position that immediately met with the widest opposition in the ranks of the Bolshevik Party itself. In his letter to Shlyapnikov, Lenin had asked for “More details about the views and reactions of the workers”. Others reported also.

Shlyapnikov’s memoirs recount that when Lenin’s first official statement on the war was brought to Petersburg, it was generally acceptable to the “party workers”, “but the question of ‘defeatism’ did cause perplexity”...

Bukharin and Piatakov criticised the defeat slogan in the emigration...
Shlyapnikov’s memoirs give other indications of at least uneasiness about the defeat slogan...
Shlyapnikov never reports that he ever raised the defeat slogan, in the course of great and varied activity as a party activist, in touch with Lenin as we have seen. He quotes the longish texts of anti-war declarations he wrote and circulated and not one of them shows a wisp of defeatism...

In fact — outside of Lenin’s immediate co-workers on the Central Organ in Bern, particularly Zinoviev in his own peculiar way — we cannot cite any known leading Bolshevik who defended the defeatist slogan, or any section of the party that came to its defence against its critics; though one imagines there must have been such people, to one degree or another, since at different times different formulations of the idea were approved or compromised on.

The Geneva section of the Bolshevik emigration sent their objection in to Lenin...
The passage had meant to the Geneva Bolsheviks exactly what it had meant in the past of the movement: a wish for the victory of the enemy government. They could not answer the question: if we Russian Bolsheviks see reason to wish this, why attack the German Social-Democrats for wishing the very same thing? So they proposed that a different statement should be made about defeat, a statement about the objective consequences of defeat. What they had in mind was merely the idea that “defeat facilitates revolution”. And they wanted to strip the passage down to this.
Whittling down the “Lesser Evil” formula.

But when the Bolshevik Central Committee adopted its thesis on the war for publication as the position of the party on November 1, the change proposed by the Geneva Bolsheviks was not made. The “lesser evil” formulation went into the document — but in modified form.

Now it was not merely tied up with the nationalities problem; it was directed more generally. And it was preceded by a sentence (whose idea had already been somewhat indicated in Lenin’s rough notes(9) which doubly underlined that this was a notion for Russian socialists only, and which warned that it could not be applied for the international socialist movement as a whole. The passage in the party statement began as follows:

“In the present situation, it is impossible to determine, from the standpoint of the international proletariat, the defeat of which of the two groups of belligerent nations would be the lesser evil for socialism...
“But to us Russian Social-Democrats there cannot be the slightest doubt that, from the standpoint of the working class and the toiling masses of all the nations of Russia, the defeat of the Tsarist monarchy, the most reactionary and barbarous of governments, which is oppressing the largest number of nations and the greatest mass of the population of Europe and Asia, would be the lesser evil.”(10)

This “special Russian position” now became the public position of the party. It repeated Lenin’s tell-tale emphasis that Russia was “the most reactionary and barbarous government” in order to justify this special Russian policy as such, echoing the thought that “Tsarism is a hundred times worse than Kaiserism”.

The next step that had to be taken was a step that followed politically from this statement of the “lesser evil”. Surely the “lesser evil” opinion could not remain simply an interesting thought in a thesis. Though the thesis did not say so as yet in so many words, what followed was that socialists had to wish for this “lesser evil”, actively desire it. Otherwise, why was it brought up in that way?

In fact, Lenin put this down in black and white in his next mention of the defeat concept, published on December 12:

“We say that the Great-Russians cannot ‘defend the fatherland’ otherwise than by desiring the defeat of Tsarism in any way, this as the lesser evil to nine-tenths of the inhabitants of Great Russia.”

So socialists now “wished defeat”; and this conclusion could hardly have been avoided. But the “lesser evil” notion had depended for its political motivation on nothing else than the idea that Tsarism was “worst”, “most reactionary”, “most barbarous” and so on. This motivation was surely inseparable from the formula. But when Lenin now stated the reason (to continue the quotation where we broke it off) it was watered down to a statement that could apply to any of the imperialist powers and not only to Russian Tsarism:

“For Tsarism not only oppresses those nine-tenths economically and politically, but also demoralises, degrades, dishonours, and prostitutes them by teaching them to oppress other nations and to cover up this shame with hypocritical and quasi-patriotic phrases.”(11)
But this was agitation; it was no longer a motivation for the special position. The motivation for the special Russian position had disappeared, and, as we will see, it will soon be specifically repudiated. Only the formula was left, and this too will soon be changed.

Formulation No.2: “Defeat Facilitates”

The big contradiction remained: if the Russian socialists could wish the military defeat of Tsarism (everybody understood: by German arms), then what was so terrible about the German socialists wishing for the same outcome? Very likely Lenin confronted this objection within Bolshevik ranks where criticisms of the defeat slogan were being raised. But we do not find him taking note of it until February 1915 — and then in a polemic against the Menshevik Axelrod. Lenin had accused Axelrod of being an apologist for the German social-patriots; and, as his critics had warned, he found this apologist utilising his own methodology.

Axelrod’s assertion [wrote Lenin] that “the defeat of Russia, while unable to hamper the organic development of the country, would help liquidate the old regime”, is true if taken by itself, but when it is used to justify the German chauvinists, it is nothing but an attempt to curry favour with the Südekums.(12)Recognition of the usefulness of Russia’s defeat, without openly accusing the German and Austrian Social-Democrats of having betrayed socialism means in reality helping them justify themselves, wriggle out of a difficult situation, and deceive the workers. Axelrod’s article is a double obeisance — one to the German social-chauvinists, the other to the French.(13)

No doubt Axelrod was using the argument to justify the Germans, but what was wrong with the argument that could be so used? Lenin had replied in effect: “When the Germans said what we say, it’s because they merely wanted to find a pretext for their betrayal of socialism.” True, of course. But is it a cogent pretext? Is the pretext justified politically? Had not Lenin lent colour and strength to this pretext with his insistence, as a basic political concept governing war policy, that “Tsarism is a hundred times worse than Kaiserism” or at any rate “most reactionary”, and with his formula of the “lesser evil”? Lenin had no reply to this argument. He was being confronted with the other side of his formula as it looked from the German angle, and against Axelrod he did not repeat the formula. Instead, he ran for defence to precisely the line which the Geneva Bolsheviks had recommended in its place, which he had refused to accept: he proceeded to write as if all he had said was that Russian defeat had its “usefulness”. (“Objectively”)...
And so we find Lenin going over to what we may call Formula No. 2 — the idea that “defeat facilitates revolution” (objectively). As will typically happen again on this question, it is a shifting of ground in the face of the insoluble contradiction…

Formulation No. 3: “Wish Defeat In Every Country”

Lenin’s Formula No. 2 was in fact internationally applicable and not special to Russia. At this same time (February 1915) Lenin explicitly launched his “defeatism” as an international policy.

“Present-day democracy [i.e., socialism] will remain true to itself only if it joins neither one nor the other imperialist bourgeoisie, only if it says that the two sides are equally bad,(14) and if it wishes the defeat of the imperialist bourgeoisie in every country. Any other decision will, in reality, be national-liberal and have nothing in common with genuine internationalism.”(15)

This was the end of the road for the politics which had given birth to Lenin’s defeatism. Lenin was specifically repudiating, in so many words, the whole motivation which had brought it on in the first place: both sides were “equally bad,” or more exactly, “both are worst”. Only a few months before, the basic thought had been that “Tsarism is a hundred times worse than Kaiserism”; “most reactionary”; “more reactionary than any”, etc. Not only had the original motivation been abandoned, but now the formula itself had been changed. The “slogan of defeat” remained as the smile without the Cheshire cat. What remained was a running polemic but not a political line.

The new formula was now: “wish the defeat of the imperialist bourgeoisie in every country.” Superficially it sounded as if he had said it before, and he had indeed used the phrase “wish defeat”. But that was only as part of the “special Russian policy”, as a conclusion from the lesser-evil formula; it was only Russian socialists who were supposed to “wish defeat” because of the uniquely reactionary character of their own government.

The phrase was the same, but the political content was now entirely different. “Wish defeat” was a consistent conclusion from the lesser-evil formula. But what did it mean once it was internationalised? Something different, at any rate. It was, in fact, a new formulation, Formula No. 3.

Let us now see how the insoluble problem of what it meant gave rise to the fourth and last switch in the formulation of defeatism.

“Wish defeat” was, as a matter of historical fact, the necessary kernel of any defeatism properly so called... One may say anything one wants about “defeat”, but not every statement about defeat is a “defeatism”. Defeatism means favouring defeat, desiring defeat, calling for defeat, working for defeat, or something akin, or else one is simply inventing misleading and useless terminology.

In the experience of the Second International and in the tradition established by socialists in the Russo-Japanese War, by Lenin as well as others, “defeat” meant defeat by the enemy government, the government whose victory we support. And when this concept was revived in Lenin’s thinking in 1914, it still meant defeat by the enemy government. This was what we called (redundantly, it is true) pro-war defeatism.

Entirely unaware of what he was getting into, Lenin in 1914 was trying to work out a way of preserving the sharp anti-war flavour of the term defeatism on the basis of a political position that left no room for this meaning. A new one had to be invented.

The Baugy Group’s attack

At precisely this point, the pertinent political problem was raised by a section of the Bolshevik emigration led by Bukharin. On February 27 to March 4 1915, the Bolsheviks convened a Conference of the Foreign Sections of the Party in Bern. The Bolshevik group from Baugy (Switzerland) presented a document with a number of criticisms of the party’s war thesis. Point 11 of the Baugy resolution dealt with the slogan of defeat. Although it stated opposition to any form of the slogan, it balked particularly at the formulation “wish defeat”, more than at the “lesser evil” formula.

“11. The group denounces positively any advancing of the so-called slogan ‘the defeat of Russia’, particularly in the manner in which it has been advanced in No. 38 of the Central Organ [Sotsial-Demokrat(16)
“In the manifesto of the Central Committee as well as in the reply to Vandervelde, the defeat of Russia is described as being the ‘lesser evil’, after an objective evaluation of the other issues of the war. The editorial of No. 38, on the other hand, says that every revolutionary is obliged to desire ‘the defeat of Russia’.

“Such a consideration of the question, in the judgement of the group, is not only devoid of practical sense but also introduces into the question an undesirable confusion. If a revolutionary is obliged merely to ‘desire’ the defeat, then there is no use in writing leading articles about it in the Central Organ of the political party; but if he is obliged to do more than merely ‘to desire’, then this would be not simply an objective evaluation but the preaching of an active participation [i.e., taking of sides — H.D.] in the war, which participation would hardly be approved by the editorial board of the Central Organ.
“Still more unsatisfactory, according to the opinion of the group, is the consideration of the same question in the third and concluding paragraph of the article, when the desirability of the defeat is explained by the revolutionary uprisings which may follow. The absolute impossibility of practical agitation in this sense compels the rejection à limite of such agitation for the defeat. We record that in the article referred to, the boundary line between the objective, fully admissible, and correct evaluation of the situation and the agitation for the defeat has not been traced at all; the group believes that it is an urgent necessity to have all confusion and obscurity in this question removed in a most decisive manner(17)

The challenge was plain: if you really “desire” it, then you work for it. (Especially if it is so important to “desire” it that you write resolutions, articles, editorials and polemics about it.)
But what does “work for defeat” mean?

Remember that, in spite of the tentative “internationalisation” of the defeat slogan in one article so far, “wish defeat” still carried the meaning of “wish military defeat by the enemy government”. More than once Lenin will have to stress that he did not mean “blowing up bridges”, helping the enemy, etc. The reason he had to insist that he did not mean this was simply that the slogan he was using did mean this to the movement.

His comrades knew what it meant to “work for revolutionary action”; but “work for defeat” in this war in which we did not support either camp — what was that? To be sure, agreed Bukharin and the Baugy people, revolutionary action might objectively be related to defeat, but what we worked for was not “defeat” but the socialist aim.

There is no recorded answer by Lenin to this political refutation of the defeat slogan. Certainly none was recorded in connection with this Bern party conference; and none can be found in Lenin’s collected works, down to manuscripts and rough notes published as supplementary material at a later time. He simply never faced up to it.

Formulation No. 4: “Don’t halt before the risk”

Even more important is a fact that can be ascertained more easily: in the face of the Baugy group’s criticism, Lenin dropped the formulation they had attacked. The resolution adopted by the conference said absolutely nothing about “wish defeat” or “desire defeat”. Instead, for the second time, confronting a difficulty with the formulation of the defeat slogan, Lenin abandoned the formulation that was criticised and invented a new one.

The final resolution was adopted unanimously... Besides eventually agreeing on the resolutions, the disputants agreed to consider the differences as a mere matter of emphasis, and parted amicably. But Bukharin and Baugy had won their point.18
The Bern resolution, written by Lenin, said on this point, under the heading “The Defeat of the Tsarist Monarchy”:

“In each country, the struggle against a government that is waging an imperialist war should not falter at the possibility of that country’s defeat as a result of revolutionary propaganda. The defeat of the government’s army weakens the government, promotes the liberation of the nationalities it oppresses, and facilitates civil war against the ruling classes.

“This holds particularly true in respect of Russia. A victory for Russia will bring in its train a strengthening of reaction, both throughout the world and within the country, and will be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the peoples living in areas already seized. In view of this we consider the defeat of Russia the lesser evil in all conditions.”19
This seems to have been a compromise. A kind of “lesser evil” formula was still in it. To be sure, its “special” motivation was still dead and would never be disinterred; but a version of Formula No. 1 was indubitably there.

No. 2 was there also: “defeat facilitates.”
But instead of No. 3, precisely the one that had been vigorously attacked, there was a totally new formulation of the “internationalised” defeat slogan: viz, the class struggle must not falter (or halt, to use another translation of this passage) before the possibility of defeat brought on by “revolutionary propaganda”. Or, as it will read when we meet it again: do not halt (falter, etc.) before the risk of defeat. This was Formula No. 4.
It is one of the curious features of the history of the defeat slogan that this last formulation has been so widely accepted as simply the equivalent, or restatement, or variant of a “wish for defeat”, or even of the “special Russian policy” of the lesser evil. Formula No. 4 is not only completely different from a “wish for defeat”, but in implication it is precisely the reverse.

“Do not halt before the risk” implies that we do not wish defeat. What we wish is a continuation of the class struggle to socialist victory; and we pursue this wish in spite of the fact that it may have an objective effect on the military plane.

This is especially clear when the word “risk” or an equivalent is actually used, as Lenin did more than once. In these cases it specifically repudiated Formula No. 3. In other cases the same thought might be implied. Yet it is possible to find — in scholarly histories or soi-disant Leninist expositions — that both meanings are quoted indiscriminately as equally “illustrative” of Lenin’s defeatism, plus (more often than not) the special Russian formula of the lesser evil thrown in for good measure.
In Formula No. 4, as in No. 2, there is the positive element which we noted before. It would play a part in the analysis of socialist war policy quite apart from the confusions of “revolutionary defeatism”. But for our present purposes we want only to emphasise the formulation’s limitations.

“We do not halt (or hamper) the socialist struggle before the risk (or possibility) of defeat...” Very well; but the same socialists might make similar statements of policy. We will not halt the struggle before the risk or possibility of — say, personal injury or loss; or before the risk or possibility that an intensified class struggle will stimulate fascist elements to organise; or before the risk or possibility that our struggle will lead to persecution by the government; or before a number of other contingencies — contingencies which we certainly seek to take into account, but which we do not “wish”, which we do not turn into a slogan or an “ism” or a new political “principle”.

But Lenin had pushed himself into an impasse, from which he refused to extricate himself by dropping the whole business. He was seeking the sharpest ways to separate the sheep from the goats, and “defeatism” became a point d’honneur of the Bolshevik war line. Later it became a shibboleth.

Summary: the four formulas

By this time, March 1915, the four different formulas of “defeatism” had been created out of Lenin’s attempts to meet the insoluble contradiction without solving it. Let us summarise them.

No. 1. The special Russian position: defeat of Russia by Germany is the “lesser evil”.
No. 2. The objective statement that “defeat facilitates revolution”.
No. 3. The slogan: wish defeat in every country.
No. 4. Do not halt (falter, etc.) before the risk of defeat.

These are four different political ideas. Only three of them are meaningful for the international movement. Only two of them involve any wish for defeat (No. 1 and No. 3). Only one of them can actually be put forward in the form of a “slogan” (No. 3).
Even if we assumed that all of them had some self-consistent meaning of their own, we could ask: which one expressed Lenin’s position? The answer is this: from this point on, Lenin juggled all four interpretations depending on his polemical aim and convenience — until by the end of 1916 he dropped all references to defeatism at last...

The rest of the record: before 1917

We now come to the only article published by Lenin written solely to expound his defeat slogan; all his references to defeatism had previously been in passing paragraphs... Lenin... wrote his article “The Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War” as a blast against Trotsky.

This article was easily the biggest muddle of any we have so far encountered. Because it is a whole article discussing “defeatism”, and therefore appears to be the authoritative statement on the subject for handy reference, it has undoubtedly played a major role in disorienting investigators of the present subject.

To understand this article and how it was written, it is necessary to present its immediate background, which fortunately is known. The background was the clash between Lenin and Trotsky on issues not involving defeatism.

Trotsky was at this time the leading leftist spirit of the Russian anti-war paper Nashe Slovo, published in Paris as a daily of the revolutionary emigration. On the paper collaborated also a number of dissident Bolsheviks, a number of internationalist (i.e., anti-war) Mensheviks — including Martov, up to almost the Zimmerwald Conference — and a number of unaffiliated Social-Democrats (the latter category including Trotsky himself). Its technical spark plug was Antonov-Ovseyenko; a partial list of its contributors would include a roster of later leaders of the Russian Revolution. It was the leading anti-war organ of the Russian movement.

At the beginning of 1915 there were tentative efforts made between the Nashe Slovo group and Lenin’s Bolsheviks to collaborate in anti-war propaganda...

Nashe Slovo sent invitations to both the Bolsheviks and the Menshevik “Organisation Committee” to get together to prepare a joint statement against the war... Lenin agreed, and drew up a draft statement. The joint action never took place, with some accompanying hard feeling, but we can note here that it was not because of the question of defeatism. It couldn’t have been, for the good and sufficient reason that Lenin’s draft did not include a wisp of the defeatist idea, not in any of its protean forms...(20)

Yet Nashe Slovo had been taking pot-shots at the Bolsheviks’ defeat slogan ever since it had been launched. According to the account by Alfred Rosmer, who was himself a Nashe Slovo contributor and a collaborator of Trotsky’s, “The polemic [on defeatism] developed between Lenin and Nashe Slovo, most particularly Trotsky.”...(21)

He mentioned these political differences and commented on them. In this context, the following was his comment on the defeat slogan, as a subordinate matter:
“...under no conditions can I agree with your opinion, which is emphasised by a resolution, that Russia’s defeat would be a ‘lesser evil’. This opinion represents a fundamental concession to the political methodology of social-patriotism, a concession for which there is no reason or justification, and which substitutes an orientation (extremely arbitrary under present conditions) along the lines of a ‘lesser evil’ for the revolutionary struggle against war and the conditions which generate this war.”(22)

In my opinion, Trotsky here hit the nail on the head. He pointed to the fundamental identity in methodology between the “lesser evil” formulation of defeatism and that of the social-patriots. Nashe Slovo had pointed out that this defeatist concept was simply defencism turned inside-out. Trotsky pointed precisely to the social-patriotic potential which resided in the defeat slogan...

Lenin versus Trotsky on defeatism

Lenin’s anti-Trotsky roast was published on July 26. Following are important points about the article “The Defeat of One’s Own Government in the Imperialist War”... At Zimmerwald in September 1915, the Bolsheviks’ position was put forward in the documents of the “Zimmerwald Left”, which brought several non-Russian left-wingers to support of these views on the war, as distinct from those of other anti-war and “centrist” elements at the conference. While Lenin supported the majority resolution after his own was rejected, the resolution and manifesto of the Zimmerwald Left were intended to put on record what the Bolsheviks considered the complete anti-war position.(23)

These documents as introduced by the Zimmerwald Left, and as introduced to the Left by the Bolshevik delegation, did not mention defeatism or the defeat slogan.(24)

It appears that the Bolshevik delegation to Zimmerwald rejected Lenin’s draft in favour of one by Radek (who was representing the Social-Democracy of Poland and Lithuania), but their preference had nothing to do with defeatism: Lenin’s draft had no mention of it. Neither did his speeches at the conference, according to the minutes; nor did other notes of his, collected in a supplementary volume of Lenin’s Collected Works.(25) There is an unclear exception which may be mentioned only for the sake of completeness: in a (probably unfinished) manuscript article on “The Draft Resolution Proposed by the Left Wing at Zimmerwald”, there is a subordinate clause lost in a long sentence, about “not shying away in that [revolutionary] agitation from considerations of the defeat of their ‘own’ country”.(26) Was this, the weakest form of Formula No. 4, directed against the Radek resolution? It said nothing about “defeatism” being lacking from that resolution...

The social-patriotic version of defeatism

We have pointed to the relationship between the defeat slogan and the “methodology of social-patriotism”. We have seen how easily one could turn into the other. Now, finally, we can show how it did turn into a clearly social-patriotic idea — in the hands of Zinoviev.
This will be shown by an idea that Zinoviev repeated a number of times, in three different articles; it was no passing slip of the pen. In its own way it was perhaps the most surprising aspect of what happened to the defeat slogan. Although these articles came from Zinoviev and not Lenin, we must add that they went through Lenin’s editorial hands.

In these multiple cases, Zinoviev slipped a single word into the formulation on defeat — a single word with a political meaning as devastating as the insertion of a “not” into a clause.

It was a question of his repeated limitation of his argumentation to despotic governments.
For example, in his historical article on “‘Defeatism’ Then and Now”, Zinoviev wrote the following when he got down to formulating the principle:

“All other things being equal,(27) the defeat of a despotic government in foreign war always helps the people to overthrow the government. It is absolutely impossible to seriously deny this principle... The whole modern history of Russia admirably illustrates this truth that the defeats abroad of reactionary governments redound to the benefit of the democratic movement inside the country.”(28)

That said it twice in a short passage: the “truth” was limited to “despotic” governments, “reactionary” governments. Was it possible for a sophisticated writer to set this down without understanding that the principle did not apply to a democratic capitalism?
Similarly, in another article, where “Russia” (in quote marks) was used to mean theTsar’s regime while Russia (unquoted) meant the country of the Russian people:
“Yes, we are for the defeat of ‘Russia’, for this would further the victory of Russia, its breakaway from slavery, its liberation from the chains of Tsarism. Where are the cases in the recent history of Europe where the victory abroad of a reactionary government led to democratic freedom within the country?”(29)

The counter-position was just as clear here: “reactionary” versus “democratic”. In immediate illustration, Zinoviev gave the quotation from Wilhelm Liebknecht that will be found below.

In his long article on “The Russian Social-Democracy and Russian Social-Chauvinism”, where he gave his most elaborate polemic in favour of defeatism, the same thought abounded.(30) The first occasion came when he attacked Plekhanov:

“Plekhanov maintains that only the liberals were given to desiring a defeat of their despotic government, in the hope that this would broaden the possibility of political freedom, while they themselves had neither the strength nor the inclination to fight for it.”
And Zinoviev replied with the same language:

“Of course, Plekhanov is completely wrong. That the defeat of a despotic government in war can further a democratic transformation in the country, this idea is not in the least peculiar to the liberals.”

In proof of this, he brought a couple of “defeatists” onto the witness stand, citing their words triumphantly. One was Wilhelm Liebknecht, who (according to Plekhanov) had written these words:

“Has anyone ever heard of a despotic government that became liberal after it won a victory? With defeated governments this has happened on occasion for a short period.”
He adduced August Bebel as a “defeatist”, quoting these words:
“It is my opinion that for a nation which lives in an unfree condition, a military defeat is more a help than a hindrance for its internal development.”
Bebel was referring to Prussia as distinct from bourgeois democracies like France or England.

This takes us quite a distance beyond the mere “methodology” of social-patriotism. If the formulas of defeatism were to be limited to “despotic” governments, to “reactionary” regimes needing a democratic transformation, to nations “in an unfree condition”, then certain consequences followed: defeatism could not be internationalised; it could not be the policy of socialists in all the belligerent countries. And if, simultaneously, one insisted that defeatism was the only consistent anti-war policy and that the only consistent alternative was defencism (social-patriotism), then it was scarcely a short step to draw social-patriotic conclusions for the socialists of non-despotic governments. The governing slogans became “Democracy versus despotism” and “Progress versus reaction”. And these were already familiar to Zinoviev when he wrote these articles.

Furthermore, we should note that Zinoviev (as well as his authorities W. Liebknecht and Bebel) applied the “despotic” limitation not even to the formulation “wish defeat” but to the idea “defeat facilitates revolution”. The muddle was thereby raised to the second power. What special reason was there to believe that “defeat facilitated revolution” only in despotic countries? Wouldn’t it have a similar impact in bourgeois-democratic countries (“all other things being equal”)?

Historically speaking, there was no mystery as to why Zinoviev fell into this strange formulation, even if it remained surprising that he was not caught at it. His thinking was a reflection of the situation in the Russo-Japanese War; he was reproducing it, transplanting it to the World War. In 1904-1905, for Lenin (as for most of the Second International) it had been a question of “despotism” versus “progress”, and defeatism had been the other side of a wish for Japan’s victory. But Lenin’s defeatist position of 1904-1905, transplanted to the World War, was — social-patriotism.

What was the significance of Zinoviev’s strange mistake? He found himself, perhaps quite unawares, playing with a “defeatism” that would apply to only one side of an imperialist war. It was not thought out; it teetered on the edge of political débâcle. It was in reality not a “position” at all, except insofar as one can be said to be in a certain “position” when on the edge of a cliff and swinging arms wildly to recover balance.
To be sure, neither Lenin nor Zinoviev were subjectively “teetering on the brink”. Their anti-war position was in fact anchored in a quite different analysis, which kept them on the ground with only occasional gyrations around the defeat slogan. It was not fatal for them; but it bore the seed of considerable confusion.
“Neither victory nor defeat”

The defeat slogan led Lenin (with Zinoviev trailing along) into a swamp. Others did better in analysing the relationship between defeat and revolution from the standpoint of Marxism. This was especially true, during the war, of the two outstanding leaders of anti-war socialist opinion outside the Bolshevik ranks: Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky.
Luxemburg and Trotsky differed from Lenin at this time on certain points; perhaps the most important concerned raising the slogan of peace as an integral part of a revolutionary platform.(31) But we will not examine these questions. What united the anti-war wing was essentially two points: rejection of “civil peace”, the aim of turning the imperialist war into a struggle for a revolutionary outcome; and the perspective of building a new International.

Still, an investigation of the defeat slogan must look at the alternatives to it proposed by the revolutionary wing, not only the attack on it by the pro-war proponents of victory for one or the other side of the imperialist powers. One of the alternative slogans that Lenin criticised most often was the idea sloganised as “Neither victory nor defeat!”
We saw in previously that Lenin made that concept a whipping boy especially in his anti-Trotsky polemic. But in fact Trotsky did not raise that slogan. The Menshevik leadership, including Martov, did indeed raise this idea as their slogan, especially in the form “Neither victor nor vanquished!’’(32)

It was against the Mensheviks that Lenin emphasised what was wrong with “Neither victory nor defeat”. This conception of the tasks before revolutionaries presupposed a return to the status quo ante bellum as the aim of socialists, as against the struggle for a revolutionary outcome of the war. Everything was supposed to return to Square One, to the pre-war status quo that had produced the holocaust, after untold sufferings that were now to be ignored, and regardless of the revolutionary crisis that the war itself had produced.

The same political development had occurred to the Mensheviks in the Russo-Japanese War, when they likewise accepted the dilemma of victory-or-defeat within the framework of the existing governments. But Trotsky had not taken this line then, as he did not in the world war.

Far from using “Neither victory nor defeat” to summarise his war policy, Trotsky levered powerful attacks on it, from his own point of view. He was able to do this without in any way falling into the “defeatist” quagmire of confusion. To the in-betweeners’ cry of “Neither victory nor defeat” he did not reply “We must wish defeat” (like Lenin). He did not reply “We must wish for victory” (like the social-patriots). He argued that the question itself was a trap. “Victory or defeat” meant: victory for one government over the defeated enemy government, and these were simply not the alternatives accepted by revolutionary socialists. For they counterposed a different alternative, a third way: the utilisation of the war crisis to overthrow both ruling classes.

Thus his approach undercut the defeatist line as well as that of the Mensheviks. This difference in “methodology” went to the root of the war question.

This analysis was put forward in a work by Trotsky written during the 1915-1916 period, one which specifically took up the question of victory-or-defeat. It was published as a series of articles in Nashe Slovo, directed against the Mensheviks. Under the title What Is a Peace Programme? it was later republished in pamphlet form after the Russian Revolution.

In this work Trotsky showed in some detail how the total consequences of the victory of either side (which meant also the defeat of either side) would be reactionary from the viewpoint of the socialists’ aims. He devoted special attention to the slogan “Peace without annexations” in order to show that this aim could be realised neither through the victory (or defeat) of one side nor the victory (or defeat) of the other side of the war camps.

He presented “three typical possibilities” for the outcome of the war:
1. A decisive victory by one of the camps.
2. A general exhaustion of the opponents without the decisive dominance of one over the other.
3. The intervention of the revolutionary proletariat, which forcibly interrupts the development of military events.(33)
On the first: “Only charlatans or hopeless fools can believe that the freedom of the small nations can be secured by the victory of one side or the other”, he summarised. “A like result,” he argued, would follow if the war ended in something like a draw, as envisioned by the Menshevik slogan “Neither victors nor vanquished”.

“The absence of a pronounced preponderance by one of the combatants over the other will only display, all the more clearly, both the dominance of the strong over the weak within either one of the camps, and the preponderance of both over the “neutral” victims of imperialism. The ending of the war without victors or vanquished is no guarantee for anybody.”(34)

He made it explicit that he looked to “the third power, the revolutionary power”:
“The second possible ending of the war, which mainly those depend on who seek to promote the narrow programme of ‘peace without annexations and nothing more’, presupposes that the war, exhausting as it does all the resources of the warring nations, will end in general lassitude, without victors or vanquished, without the intervention of the third power, the revolutionary power. To this very condition, in which militarism is too weak to effect conquests and the proletariat is too weak to make a revolution, the passive internationalists of the Kautsky type adapt their abbreviated programme of ‘peace without annexations’, which they not infrequently present as a return to the status quo ante bellum.”(35)

But this was only “apparent realism”, for under the conditions of imperialism, “an indecisive outcome” of the war does not “exclude annexations but on the contrary presupposes them”. It was only the third way, the revolution, that could really paralyse the war and “finally stop it from the bottom up”.

“A powerful movement of the proletariat is thus a necessary prerequisite for the actual realisation of a peace without annexations.” The Menshevik programme assumed such a movement but it was inadequate “in that it accepts the restoration of the order which prevailed prior to the war and out of which the war broke out”. The only positive content of the slogan “Peace without annexations” turned out to be “the European status quo ante bellum.”(36)

From this standpoint Trotsky had no difficulty rejecting both Lenin’s “defeat as the lesser evil” and the Mensheviks’ slogans that meant return to the pre-war status quo. Trotsky, to be sure, wished “neither victory nor defeat” for either of the war camps, but this could not be his slogan. He rejected the disjunction that it posed.

In another valuable article, published in Nashe Slovo in late summer 1915, Trotsky made an important survey of “Defeat and Revolution”, that is, the historical relationship between these phenomena.(37) It was not formulated as a critique of Lenin’s defeat slogan, but it demands reading as part of the bigger question which, we have said, lies behind the present issue. In August 1916, an article by Trotsky on the factional situation in the Russian movement devoted a couple of paragraphs to the two errors in the Bolsheviks’ war line. One was Lenin’s hostility to the peace slogan, and the other was defeatism (in the form of Formula No. 3, which Lenin had emphasised in his anti-Trotsky polemic):

“Finally, the paradoxical and internally contradictory formula ‘the defeat of Russia is the lesser evil’ creates difficulties for our German co-thinkers and does not enrich but rather hampers our agitation. It has provided the social-patriotic demagogues with a most important weapon in their struggle against our common banner. Such an exaggeration of revolutionary slogans is all the more dangerous since Sotsial-Demokrat [the Bolshevik organ] is quick to turn these formulas into the absolute test of internationalism.”(38)

Luxemburg on victory and defeat

Rosa Luxemburg took a position on the victory-or-defeat dilemma that was identical with Trotsky’s — entirely independently. When she discussed this question in her anti-war argument (the Junius pamphlet of 1915), she was probably not even aware of Lenin’s defeatist line, but even so she demolished it in advance. We need do little in this section but quote her at some length, from her last chapter, Chapter 8.

“Victory or defeat” is the watchword that the Social-Democratic leaders have adopted: “yet, what can victory bring to the proletariat?” Either of the two alternatives will mean for the people impoverishment, economic ruin, an intensification of militarism. Here is the general line of her analysis:

“...even before any military decision of victory or defeat can be established... the result of the war will be: the economic ruin of all participating nations... This, in the last analysis, neither victory or defeat can alter; on the contrary it makes a purely military decision altogether doubtful and increases the likelihood that the war will finally end through a general and extreme exhaustion.”(39)

We may note parenthetically that during the war Trotsky also expressed the opinion that this was the most likely military outcome. The consequences for the working class would not depend on the political character of the belligerents as “democracies” or “absolutisms”. Preparations for a new imperialist world war would begin on the morrow of the peace. The consequences of either victory or defeat would be reactionary, she concluded after an examination.

“Under the circumstances the question of victory or defeat becomes, for the European working class, in its political exactly as in its economic aspects, a choice between two beatings. It is, therefore, nothing short of a dangerous madness for the French socialists to believe that they can deal a death blow to militarism and imperialism, and clear the road for peaceful democracy by overthrowing Germany. Imperialism and its servant militarism will reappear after every victory and after every defeat in this war. There can be but one exception: if the international proletariat, through its intervention, should overthrow all previous calculations. The workers must not ‘become the uncritical echo of the victory-or-defeat slogan’ in any of the warring countries, for the content of this slogan is really identical for each of the imperialists with another question: ‘gain or loss of world political power, of annexations, of colonies, of military supremacy.’”


“For the European proletariat as a class, victory or defeat of either of the two war groups would be equally disastrous. For war as such, whatever its military outcome may be, is the greatest conceivable defeat of the cause of the European proletariat. The overthrow of war and the speedy forcing of peace by the international revolutionary action of the proletariat alone can bring to it the only possible victory. And this victory alone can truly rescue Belgium, can bring democracy to Europe.

“For the class-conscious proletariat to identify its cause with either military camp is an untenable position. Did this mean advocating a return to the pre-war status quo, in ‘the fond hope that everything may remain as it was before the war?’ No, that would be impossible; we cannot go back to the old Europe.

“In this sense alone is it possible for the proletariat to oppose with its policy both camps in the imperialist world war.”(40)

Thus her “methodology” excluded the slogan of defeat; it was, in contemporary terms and almost in her own terms, the methodology of the Third Camp. It was equally hostile both to social-patriotism and to the latter’s bisymmetric opposite, the swamp of defeatism...

The abandonment of defeatism in 1917
whatever defeatism meant to Lenin in 1914-1916, it was in 1917 that the pay-off came on the whole question: with the March Revolution in Russia and the overthrow of Tsarism, Lenin dropped defeatism and the defeat slogan completely.
“We were not defeatists”

But in fact all the Bolshevik slogans on war line did not remain the same. Lenin (if not all the Bolsheviks) remained consistently opposed to the war, even now when it was being conducted by a democratic republic under capitalist domination, the party had to re-emphasise its opposition to defencism twice as energetically. But on certain points where, during 1914-1916, the Bolsheviks had differed from other left-wing Marxist internationalists, Lenin revised his distinctive positions, in content or in scope: the peace slogan; the application of the slogan “turn imperialist war into civil war”; and the defeat slogan. These shifts took place in stages, not suddenly; and mostly implicitly, not by overt statement.

Lenin’s explicit statement about his abandonment of defeatism in this period came... after the November Revolution: in March 1918. Let us record it now. The subject came up, perhaps accidentally, at the special Congress of Soviets called to ratify the Brest-Litovsk treaty of peace with Germany. The Socialist-Revolutionaries (S-Rs) were against peace — for continuation of the war in spite of the complete exhaustion of the country. In reply to a speech by the Left S-R Kamkov about disrupting the army, Lenin remarked that Kamkov was confused:

“He [Kamkov] has heard that we were defeatists, but he has recalled this when we have ceased to be defeatists.”

And he immediately re-emphasised this in still another way:
“...alright; we demoralised the army and we must recall that now. But how did we demoralise the army? We were defeatists at the time of the Tsar, but at the time of Tsereteli and Chernov [i.e., under the Kerensky regime] we were not defeatists.”41
Here Lenin used “under Tsereteli and Chernov” (S-R ministers in the cabinet) to denote the period from March to November 1917 because of the context of Kamkov’s speech, not for any reason that need concern us.

Lenin never explicitly discussed this change, any more (for example) than he ever discussed the coeval revision of his views on Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. But even without the categorical statement of March 1918, his abandonment of the defeat slogan would have been clear, simply because it was no longer put forward. There were no exceptions that really change the picture...


To sum up, it is not enough merely to point out that Lenin dropped defeatism after the March Revolution. Why he did so and the programme he replaced it with make clear what was wrong with the mistake of 1914-1916.

1. Lenin dropped defeatism in the face of the realisation, made vivid to him for the first time, that the defeat-slogan broke all links between the sentiments and interests of the masses and the programme of consistent revolutionaries. In this sense, it was sectarian; and in my opinion the defeat-slogan deserves to be recorded as a classic example of a sectarian shell built around an opportunistic (in this case social-patriotic) theoretical core. It is an example of the oft-repeated Marxist truism that there is a dialectic relationship between the sectarian-opportunist opposites.

2. Lenin discovered in practice that the defeat-slogan was incompatible with a living Marxist approach to the problem of the defence of the nation, conceived not in the social-patriotic sense as the “defence of the fatherland” but in the light of a Marxist class understanding of the nation.

3. Lenin’s change of line after the democratic revolution (not socialist revolution) of March 1917 reflected an important fact. The defeat slogan had a meaning only in terms of a war by the Tsarist pre-bourgeois autocratic despotism against a progressive capitalist revolutionary force. This was the situation that Lenin thought obtained in 1904-1905, and though he was wrong even then, at least the defeat slogan had a clear meaning for him. It was the same arrière pensée that had led Zinoviev to write the qualification “despotic” into his defeatist formulations.
The March democratic revolution erased the basic motive leading to the defeat slogan in the first place — the “special Russian” consideration of Tsarism as the unique menace, the worst evil. Naturally, this did not bear on the conscious motivation but only on the real theoretical underpinnings, which have their effect despite consciousness.

4. Lenin’s course in 1917 proved that defeatism was and is not any necessary element in a consistent revolutionary anti-war position...

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