Lenin and the Myth of Revolutionary Defeatism by Hal Draper (part 2)

Submitted by Anon on 30 September, 2001 - 2:16

After Lenin: the revival and reinterpretation

The revival of defeatism did not take place while Lenin was alive, that is, during the first five years of the Comintern... A check of the resolutions and theses, major documents, and publications of the Comintern permits the confident statement: if anyone referred to defeatism at all, it certainly played no role in the programme, policy and principles of the Communist International under Lenin.

The first four congresses of the Comintern (from 1919 to 1922) adopted a large number of long, detailed, analytical theses on all the major questions of revolutionary policy and many minor ones. And these documents were not infrequently marked by discursive historical sections.

Especially at the Second Congress in 1920, the aim of these defining documents was not to make it easy for individuals or groups to adhere to the new revolutionary International, but on the contrary: the Bolsheviks thought one of the main dangers was the tendency of centrists and other dubious elements to flock to the new banner, now that the Second International was thoroughly discredited; too many were only too anxious to cover their pasts with present acceptance of the most revolutionary-sounding slogans. To bar these elements the Second Congress adopted the famous “21 Points” as conditions for admission.

Yet there was not a hint of any kind of defeat slogan in any of the documents of the first four congresses of the Comintern.

By 1924 the International and many of its parties were considering the question of new overall programmes. Even at this date (which is after the period we are now discussing, as we will see) the draft programme for the Communist International presented by Bukharin ignored defeatism. Even at the Fifth Congress in 1924 the reports on the Programme Question delivered by Bukharin and August Thalheimer ignored defeatism under the head of the war question. At the same time the Young Communist International, the German party, and other parties were also developing new draft programmes — without defeatism.

From the November Revolution up to Lenin’s death, a flood of books and pamphlets were issued by the Communist movement, presenting discussions of the war positions of the First World War period as well as current policies, usually prominently displaying Lenin’s ideas. I have checked a large number of these, including a number by Zinoviev. In not one case have I found a recollection of defeatism.

There was the monthly organ of the International, called The Communist International. From 1919 to 1923 inclusive, there was no lack of articles reviewing the war question, the World War period, Lenin’s distinctive ideas, and so on. Not once was the defeat slogan raised, either as a reminiscence of the war or as a current view.

It would be nice to cite one or two exceptions, since the complete disappearance of the defeat slogan seems almost preternatural. If it was a question of finding the defeat slogan raised, there were no exceptions. But the rule was “proved”, nevertheless, by a couple of mentions of defeat that deserve quoting.

1. Karl Radek
In the April-May 1921 issue of The Communist International, an article by Radek painted the consequences of defeat, and they were not very happy. He wrote about the post-war world:
“Not a proletarian revolution but Wilsonianism was the slogan of the working masses in the victorious countries. In the defeated countries on the contrary the thirst for peace and quiet predominated over all other proletarian feelings; a morsel of bacon was of more value than dreams for the liberation of mankind...”
And so on along the same lines. This distorted picture, reflecting Radek’s journalistic subjectivity at its worst, was no contribution to history; but more important for present purposes: the man who wrote this could not have had the slightest recollection that the Bolsheviks had called for defeat in the war.

2. August Thalheimer
In issue No. 25 of 1923, The Communist International reprinted a polemical exchange of articles that had appeared in the German organ Die Internationale between Thalheimer and a critic named Sommer, on policy regarding the French invasion of the Ruhr. (This was the tense situation which evoked the notorious “Schlageter” speech by Radek heavily tinged with a sort of “national-Bolshevism”.) In this dispute with Sommer, Thalheimer came little short of taking a defencist position, that is, for defence of Germany against French rapacity. In this context, one of Thalheimer’s articles mentioned the defeatism of 1914-1916 — in order to reject it for now!
This was a fascinating case, for once again it illustrated the social-patriotic potential in the notion of defeatism. What was operative here was the dichotomy: if not defencism, then (horrors) defeatism; and if you can’t swallow that, then it has to be — defencism. We will see this methodology again.

How Zinoviev revived defeatism in 1924

Well then, when do we find defeatism raised again? The facts so far have been bound to awaken a certain suspicion in the minds of all who know the history of this period. And there is strong documentary evidence to substantiate this suspicion.

Defeatism was revived as a “principle of Leninism” in the beginning of the Stalinist counter-revolution, specifically by Stalin’s partner in the “troika” (triumvirate) that succeeded to Lenin’s leadership, namely Zinoviev.

The sign under which this “troika” of Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev took over was the fabricated struggle against Trotsky and “Trotskyism”. The background history of the “invention of Trotskyism” can be read in many works, and will not be given space here.42 Defeatism was only one of the levers set in place for this struggle. The ideological cover under which this anti-Trotsky coalition operated, created by Zinoviev, was the slogan of “Bolshevisation” of the cadres of the Comintern. Defeatism was revived as one of the elements in this anti-Trotskyist “Bolshevisation”.

By the time of Lenin’s death in January 1924, after his lingering incapacitation, Stalin was already in control of the main levers of the party apparatus; Zinoviev, his accomplice, was the “boss” of the Comintern and public ideological mentor of the anti-Trotsky cabal. They were ready to go into high gear before Lenin’s body was cold. They had, in fact, had a rehearsal in the factional “literary discussion” (so-called) over Trotsky’s Lessons of October.

The first time that we find defeatism recalled as a “principle of Leninism” in the pages of the Comintern organ was in the very first issue published after the death of Lenin.
This number of The Communist International was, naturally, mostly made up of articles on Lenin, his ideas, his role and so on. One of the most prominent of these articles was signed by Martynov, on “The Great Proletarian Leader”. Martynov had been a leading Menshevik up to yesterday, and presently he was a hatchet man for the troika; he had joined the Bolshevik bandwagon with the New Economic Policy wave. Now he loaded his gun with the defeat slogan and fired its shot openly and by name — straight at Trotsky.

We here give its essential passage at a little length, because of the crucial historical role it played. Not only Lenin opposed the war, wrote Martynov; so too did other “internationalist minorities” of socialist parties. But —
“...the slogans launched by Lenin at that time were so daring, I should say so defiant, that they contained a challenge not only to the social-patriots but also to all the internationalists... He said: ‘In order to put an end to the imperialist war, it should be transformed into civil war. Those who will start the civil war may be menaced by defeat in the imperialist war, but we have no fear about that. Particularly to us Russian Social-Democrats, defeat in the war is the lesser evil.’ This ‘defeatism’ aroused the protests not only of social-patriots but even of all the internationalists, including the most Left ones, as for instance Comrade Trotsky. He [Lenin] was told: ‘You want Russia to be defeated, consequently you want Germany to win, and in this case it is social-patriotism inside out! You reason the same way as the social-patriots, but for another country, not your own.’ This accusation, as everyone can now see, was quite beside the mark.”
The small amount of theoretical rationalisation that Martynov tried to insert was no brighter than his old efforts as a Menshevik theoretician. Thus:

“Lenin knew and did not disguise the fact that if we start the revolution during the war, it will lead directly to our military defeat. But he knew more than that; he knew that the revolution started by us will spread also to Germany and that our defeat like the German victory will be but short-lived. He therefore said: ‘Dare!’ and he was fully vindicated by history... Lenin could see farther than his nose, and he therefore launched such slogans as appeared rather unreasonable to the other socialists.”(43)
Let us note by the way that (1) the defeat formula resurrected here was Formula No. 1, the “special Russian” version which Lenin dropped most decisively; but in my opinion there was no significance in this bit of incompetence beyond its reflection on Zinoviev’s or Martynov’s ability to remember political ideas. (2) In giving Lenin’s alleged reply to Trotsky’s argument, Martynov here invented a motivation for defeatism based on the expectation of international revolution; and while this was not encountered in Lenin’s argumentation on the subject, it did smack of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. It would be superfluous to underline the convolutions of the Stalinist mind in intrigue.
Thus, all of a sudden, after six years of silence, the defeat slogan got more space in this article than any other element in Lenin’s war position.

A few issues later, likewise in the Comintern organ, Zinoviev himself picked up the campaign which he had put Martynov up to launch. His article was specifically on “War and Leninism”. Here too the sharp point of the reference was turned against Trotsky, this time without openly naming him; but the dig was lost on no-one, especially since Martynov had already done the naming:

“Leninism was much taken to task for its ‘defeatism’. Even some of the internationalists, on reaching this point, would turn their backs on Bolshevism and their faces to social-chauvinism. Nevertheless, Leninism, remaining true unto itself, said... ”
Then Zinoviev quoted the sentence on defeatism from the pamphlet Socialism and War, which just happened to be the one which he had signed together with Lenin. The meaning was: “This was how I, Zinoviev, stood at Lenin’s side while Trotsky was attacking him...”(44)
This was the beginning.

It was not until the Sixth Congress of the Comintern (1928) that defeatism was canonised as an article of programme for the Communist movement. (By the Fifth Congress, in 1924, the sly references were only getting under way.) At the Sixth Congress, the resolution on “The Struggle Against Imperialist War and the Tasks of the Communists” put defeatism almost at the head of “the political programme of the Communists in an imperialist war”. It defined “Defeatism, i.e., to work for the defeat of the home imperialist government in the war”.

We need not follow the further progress of defeatism in the Communist movement as an article of faith. The more interesting question is the reaction to the revival of defeatism by the man who was the target of the exercise, Trotsky himself.

Trotsky: dodging the bullet

Obviously the whole point of Zinoviev’s resuscitation of this old difference between Lenin and Trotsky was as a part of what Zinoviev later confessed to be “the invention of Trotskyism”. This bogey was to be brandished in the power struggle launched by the Stalin-Zinoviev group to oust Trotsky from the party leadership, even though Lenin’s death left him the single most popular leader of the revolution.

Every difference that Trotsky had ever had with Lenin was revived, and if defeatism has the distinction of being the very first one to be given the treatment after Lenin’s death, it was not the most important. The theory of the permanent revolution, the peasant question, the dispute over the role of trade unions, Trotsky’s “organisational” criticisms of the Bolsheviks before 1917, the conflict over Brest-Litovsk, and so on — all of these were systematically recalled and put to work for factional purposes. Trotsky was not an “old Bolshevik” but a comparative newcomer to the Bolshevik ranks, in spite of his already pre-eminent position; and the leaders of the bureaucratic counter-revolution struck the pose of “old Bolsheviks” who were defending historical Leninism against an old foe. Thus they threw up a smoke screen of old and outlived differences in order to press forward their new course of national-socialism and bureaucratisation.

As these old issues and disputes were artificially revived one after the other, Trotsky’s reaction was, in general, to minimise the significance of the differences. On some he openly admitted that he had been wrong and Lenin right, as on his pre-1917 “organisational” differences. On others, as on the theory of permanent revolution, he fought back vigorously, while maintaining that the difference had never been as fundamental and irreconcilable as the Stalinists made out.

But on defeatism, he “passed”, as they say in poker…
There was no reply from Trotsky on the substantive point. Still, if only for himself and aside from polemical purposes, Trotsky had to face the question in his own mind. His own course in the matter had been a model of clarity. He had always been against the defeat slogan. When he joined the Bolshevik Party in 1917, the slogan was dead; and for the next six years it remained effectively buried. He certainly had no reason to change his opinion.

But now, along with the rest of the anti-Trotsky fabrications, the disloyal revival of the defeatist issue was tactically embarrassing, even though all political logic and truth was on his side. Plainly he decided that he could not meet this assault head-on. As mentioned, he sought to minimise his historical differences with Lenin, hopefully within the limits of honesty and political clarity. On the subject of defeatism, it would seem, he managed to convince himself, under the difficult circumstances, that there was no real difference at all…

Trotsky in the Trotskyist movement

Did, then, Trotsky come to agree with Lenin’s defeat slogan? Or did he refrain from indicating any criticism of it purely for “diplomatic” and tactical reasons, that is, insincerely and in defiance of elementary political honesty? All one has to judge by is the record of what Trotsky did in the 1930s, as the theoretical leader of the Trotskyist movement, in formulating “defeatism” or the defeat slogan for programmatic purposes.

From this examination, we must come to the following conclusion: Trotsky persuaded himself to accept the term “defeatism,” or “revolutionary defeatism”; but he never did accept it in any sense ever given to it by Lenin — or by anyone else. What happened was that he sought to reinterpret it in a peculiar fashion that not only deprived it of Lenin’s content but sometimes of any content whatever. If the history of defeatism has been one of confusion and muddle up to now, with this period of Trotskyist reinterpretation the muddle reaches awe-inspiring proportions.

Under the pressure of the Stalinist campaign against his Bolshevik credentials, Trotsky tried to be “orthodox” (that is, to bend before the pressure) but he also wished to write nothing that he did not believe, or could not persuade himself to accept. Therefore none of his formulations of “defeatism” came within a mile of “wishing defeat”. Of Lenin’s four formulas, he sometimes paraphrased the one that was furthest away from “wishing defeat”, namely, No. 4: “Do not halt before the risk of defeat”. But in addition, and mainly, he developed for his purposes an ingenious formula of his own devising that had the advantage of sounding like the “lesser evil” formulation.

This ingenious contrivance may be found in his document for the fundamental programme of his Fourth International, the theses called “War and the Fourth International” (1934), under the heading “‘Defeatism’ and Imperialist War”. This is what he worked out:
“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...”

Pausing for a moment at this point, what we have is already rather odd. We are told here what the formula does not mean; and this meaning which is not Lenin’s is also not anybody else’s. Whatever it may mean, which is moot, the counter-position was not “Defeat of one’s own country” against “defeat of the enemy country”, but rather this: “defeat of one’s own country” is the lesser evil as compared with the “victory of one’s own country”. The latter was so indubitably Lenin’s explicit idea that we need not prove it all over again at this point.(45)

The odd thing that Trotsky did here was to invent a brand new set of words in order to deny that Lenin ever said it! — in which he was undeniably right since he had just invented it himself. Why? Perhaps because the necessary conclusion from Lenin’s actual formula was “wish defeat”, and this was the last thing that Trotsky wanted to suggest.
Now, to continue Trotsky’s new set of words: Lenin’s formula means —
“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’.”(46)

Of course, we have seen that there is nothing in Lenin’s writings (or in anyone else’s) that corresponds to such a bowdlerised version of defeatism. This is a fabricated meaning which is arbitrarily assigned to Lenin; Trotsky wanted to convince himself that it had some relation to Lenin’s slogan because he managed to use the words “defeat” and “lesser evil” in close association. Let us see how Trotsky has juggled the words to get his effect.
“Military defeat resulting from growth of the revolutionary movement is better than military victory assured by civil peace.”

The italicised qualifiers are what do the trick. To see how little it actually says, let us put other terms into the same algebraic formula and note the effect:
“Hunger due to continuing a hard strike is better than getting a raise which is conditioned on the capitulation and destruction of the union.”

This is obviously the analogous slogan of “hungerism”, which proves that “hunger is the lesser evil”. And there is no doubt that hunger is a lesser evil, as compared with a great number of other evils. If this is all that is proved about “defeat”, then an open door is being kicked to splinters. But above all, the exercise in words does not convince us to “wish” hunger any more than to “wish” defeat. The case is, as it were, that we “continue the strike even at the cost of hunger”.

(Or try this: “Defeat of a socialist party [in an election] resulting from a revolutionary programme is better than its victory assured by compromising deals and class collaboration.” Then call this the principle of “electoral defeatism”, and you have Trotsky’s formula.)

Secondly: however indubitable Trotsky’s well-qualified version may be in itself (in the case of defeat as in the case of anything else), such a formula is no positive guide whatever on the war question, and this is fundamentally because it poses the question in terms of a defeat or victory of the government. For this reason it is not itself a “formula of proletarian policy” but, at best, a warning against a bad one. Trotsky fell into the methodological error of putting the question in terms of a choice between military outcomes on the governmental plane. This was the error that he saw so clearly in Lenin, before he started to invent “orthodox” formulations.

Thirdly: Trotsky limited his formula to “military defeat resulting from the growth of the revolutionary movement”. Lenin never did so. Lenin thought in precisely the reverse terms: growth of the revolutionary movement resulting from military defeat at the hands of the enemy government. The hollowness of Trotsky’s attempt at a paraphrase (or parody) should be apparent.

This same limitation of Trotsky’s does not make sense when we apply it to the formula “defeat facilitates revolution”. What defeat “facilitates”? Only that defeat “which results from the growth of the revolutionary movement”? Of course not.

Fourthly and finally: Trotsky presented his set of words as a formula for defeatists. Yet it clearly applied also to situations in which Trotsky (among others) was a defencist! Consider, for example, Trotsky’s position on the Spanish Civil War, in which he advocated a form of revolutionary defencism in the Loyalist camp fighting Franco. Yet, as a defencist with revolutionary aims, he would say that “military defeat which results from the growth of the revolutionary movement” was, at any rate, the “lesser evil” as compared with “military victory which is assured by” the left’s abandonment of its revolutionary role and its support to popular-frontism and the bourgeois-Stalinist government...

What this illustrates is that the truth which is contained in Trotsky’s formula is of so general a nature, indeed so fundamental, that it applies not only when we oppose a war but even when we are supporting a progressive war. It is not a formula for “defeatism” at all; it is not even a formula for an anti-war policy without defeatism; it is a general formula for proletarian class independence.
It simply has nothing to do with defeatism...

Exegesis in the Trotskyist movement

Trotsky’s course of dealing with the defeatist orthodoxy, by interpreting it away, was reflected in all the products of the Trotskyist movement. Alfred Rosmer can be considered an exception, as a friend of Trotsky’s outside the organised movement. He is worth mentioning also for the light he threw on the significance of the question.
Rosmer has already come up as a collaborator of Trotsky on Nashe Slovo, and his point of view no doubt stemmed from that period, “unreconstructed”. In his great historical work on France, Le Mouvement Ouvrier Pendant la Guerre, there is a short passage which stands out in the post-war literature of the soi-disant Marxist movement, as one of the few (if there are any others) indicating the hollowness of Lenin’s wartime defeat slogan. Rosmer argued that there was no validity to Lenin’s claim that defeatism was necessary to a fearless and consistent anti-war fight. Besides —

“I see clearly the dangers it involves. The word ‘defeatism’ is very widely used during war. The press utilises it unceasingly to scare and frighten. It is useless to reinforce this if it is not absolutely necessary. I will recall here a retort by Noah Ablett that I mentioned in 1915. When the Welsh miners went out on strike, all of chauvinist England rose up against them, crying: ‘You are helping the enemy! You are pro-German!’ And Noah Ablett, in the name of the miners, calmly answered: ‘We are not pro-German; we are working class.’ I believe that is the best basis, a sure and sufficient basis to carry on the working class struggle against war and justify it in the eyes of all workers. ‘Defeatism’, even though preceded by the qualification ‘revolutionary’, puts the accent on defeat while we ought to put it on revolution.”(47)

Rosmer also cited a recent (1935) case in which the German CP leader Pieck invoked Lenin’s defeat slogan “to justify the absurd tactic adopted by his party in the question of the Saar plebiscite” — that is, to cover a defencist position…

Perhaps this is the point to mention the absolute opposite extreme in Trotskyist politics, in a segue from wits to witlings. A sect that split off from the Trotskyist movement, generally called the “Oehlerites”, put out a pamphlet on war policy which set down the defeatist concept in its crudest form: defeatism meant “to work for the military defeat of their ‘own’ army by the ‘enemy’ army”.(48) This flat-footed version cannot be found in regular Trotskyist literature.

About 1935-1936 a pamphlet by James Burnham, published by the then Trotskyist group which called itself the Workers’ Party, gave a version of defeatism that had been hovering on the fringes as the “authoritative” meaning:
“The Marxists fight, but within each country they fight not for the victory but for the defeat of their own government — not for its defeat by the opposing capitalist powers but for its defeat by its own working class.”(49)

We have seen that this effort at a reinterpretation had already surfaced now and then. It was an “acceptable” formula since it made defeatism mean nothing special — nothing except “the revolution”. Now, as before, no-one wondered why the revolution should be relabeled “defeat”. The term was retained only as a ritualistic bow to Lenin and to the myth that no war position was completely “revolutionary” without something called defeatism.

On the other hand, another prominent Trotskyist writer, CLR James, could not ignore Lenin’s world war slogan entirely since he was producing a history of the Comintern: World Revolution, 1917-1936 (published in 1937). He wrote of 1914 that Trotsky and Luxemburg
“had early called for the new international, but Trotsky refused to accept Lenin’s uncompromising demand that each socialist should fight for the defeat of his own country.”(50)

Aside from the common gaffe (“country” for “government”), we should note that this ritualist, only a couple of pages before, had devoted a long passage to summarising Lenin’s position on the war — and had not even mentioned defeatism at that point.(51) He had remembered the defeat slogan only when it was a matter of showing Lenin to be more “revolutionary” than other anti-war socialists, in line with the myth. Indeed, this was the pattern that defeatism played with Lenin himself, who “forgot” it on more than one occasion.

At the end of 1937 the newly formed Socialist Workers’ Party (henceforth the official Trotskyist group in the United States) adopted a basic programme in which the defeat slogan was formulated as a variant of Formula No. 4:
“The SWP will advocate the continuance of the class struggle during the war regardless of the consequences for the outcome of the American military struggle...”(52)
Neither the word “defeatism” nor “defeat” was used. From this time on, the Trotskyist movement in general (with the possible exception of those with unusual memories) came to regard this formula as if it were the classical and canonical meaning of defeatism, and as particularly “authentic” in some sense. The “dirty words”, at any rate, had been shoved under the table.

The confusion over defeatism came up for another workout in 1939, when the outbreak of the Second World War — and Russia’s role in it — precipitated a fierce political conflict in the SWP; a split in the Trotskyist movement followed, and the formation of the Workers’ Party (later called the Independent Socialist League). In this conflict, Trotsky’s line of “defence of the Soviet Union” in the war, that is, support of Moscow’s invasion of Poland and Finland, was captained in the United States by JP Cannon.
You are against the defence of the Soviet Union? said the majority-Trotskyists. Then that means you are defeatists in Russia. That means you wish the defeat of Russia by reactionary Finland and Poland. It means you wish the victory of imperialism against the “workers’ state”!

The minority, opposed to “defence of the Soviet Union” and its invasions, was faced with the task of defining defeatism. The situation was ironic. The followers of Cannon knew well enough that they had never considered defeatism to mean favouring the victory of the enemy side; yet they began to insist that defeatism meant just that. (Demagogy, to be sure; yet it happened to be basically true, as we have seen, in terms of how defeatism had been developed by Lenin.) On the other hand — such things were possible only in the muddle of ideas known as defeatism — these same Cannon followers considered themselves to be defeatists with respect to American imperialism, and nevertheless indignantly denied that this made them favour the victory of an opposing imperialist camp. Unwittingly the Cannonite-Trotskyists had developed a double-barreled concept of defeatism: it meant one thing for one war camp and a different thing for the opposing war camp...

In response, the minority — upholding a “Third Camp” anti-war position— sought to make clear its belief that “defeatism” did not mean favouring the military victory of the other side. It even coined a new set of terms to make the distinction. In a document entitled “War and Bureaucratic Conservatism”, the new terminology (which has since been heard of, here and there) went like this: the kind of defeatism where you do wish the other side’s victory was tagged “military defeatism”; the kind of defeatism where you don’t was simply left to stand as “revolutionary defeatism”. What was here called “military defeatism” (favouring the military victory of the other side) was obviously related to what we called “pro-war defeatism” in Chapter 1.

As for the meaning of “revolutionary defeatism” in this terminology, the document “War and Bureaucratic Conservatism” explained:

“Does revolutionary defeatism mean the defeat of “our” army by the “enemy” army — the American army by the Japanese, the British army by the German, the Italian army by the French? Not at all. It means the defeat of one’s “own” government by one’s own proletariat.”(53)

From this point of view, “defeatism” more and more was stripped down to mean nothing more than non-defencism. In conjunction with the development of the Third Camp position in the Cold War (“Neither Washington nor Moscow”) all use of the term virtually died out. Even in the “official Trotskyist” circles of the SWP, without any re-examination, references to the word also virtually disappeared.

The revival by Shachtman

In the early 1950s the picture changed through a development in the Independent Socialist League.54 The best-known leader of this group from the beginning had been Max Shachtman. By 1950 Shachtman began a slow process of political collapse which was going to bring him, in 1956, to the overt abandonment of his long-standing revolutionary Marxist views. In brief, Shachtman went through the classic breakdown pattern from left-wing socialist to right-wing social-democrat. From his standpoint, the war question was prominently involved in this transmogrification (he wound up, for example, as a supporter of the Vietnam War)…

Shachtman set out to work up a “revolutionary” justification for abandoning revolution; and to this end struck out on a course where we have seen a predecessor. The interest of this tale is that Shachtman’s road to social-patriotism was going to be — the concept of “revolutionary defeatism”.

In a two-part essay on “Socialist Policy and the War” in the 1951 New International, Shachtman revived the old exegeses on “what Lenin meant” by defeatism in 1914-1916 — precisely in connection with the question: Will this “defeatism” apply in the next, Third World War? Woven into the structure of his essay was a basic ambiguity: he presented Lenin’s concept of defeatism as the correct and necessary policy for 1910-1916, but he rejected it as inapplicable to the looming Third World War (the one to make the world safe from Stalinism)...

What was the meaning of the split-up position that Shachtman proposed, and which put forward a brand-new variant on the whole defeatist muddle?

Obviously its political meaning was to provide a justification for supporting war by the capitalist democracies against Russia. Since Shachtman was, at this point, not yet ready to come out openly with this proposition, he drew a slightly different conclusion: namely, in the looming Third World War by our American democrats against Stalinist Russia, we cannot be “defeatists” at home, even though “defeatism” was the correct policy in 1914-1916 and even though Russians must be for the defeat of their government in the same war...(55)

What the difference was, in these two different versions of allegedly opposing the war, was impossible to explain; and indeed when another ISL leader directed this inquiry to Shachtman, formally in the pages of the New International, Shachtman retreated with the claim that he had been misunderstood.(56) All that is unimportant now: water under the bridge — arguments invented when the arguer did not want to look his own views in the face.(57)

What remains worthy of continued emphasis is the meaning of what may be called “one-way defeatism”. The proposal for a sort of “one-sided” defeatism, the kind of proposal exemplified by the “Palestine Trotskyists” and by the Shachtman episode, raises this question: can a distinction be invented between a “defeatist” anti-war policy and a “non-defeatist” anti-war policy?

No such distinction can be fabricated; no such distinction has ever been devised that made sense...

The concept of “revolutionary defeatism” is an untenable position, and like many another untenable position it gives rise to opposite errors as a way out. On the one hand, it may encourage a tendency, in reaction, to cling to Lenin’s defeat formulas in all their crudity, in the hope that at least these will “guard against social-patriotism” like a blessed medallion (though they will not). And on the other hand, as an equal and opposite reaction, it may encourage a tendency to press from a “one-sided” defeatism to a politically disastrous end.

Bury the dead. The tradition of Lenin’s defeatism was born in a political mistake in 1904-1905; it was revived in confusion in 1914, to be shelved without stock-taking in 1917; it was revived again in malice and reaction in 1924; it was turned into a hollow phrase by “explaining away” in the 1930s; it was ignored in the 1940s; and muddled into a pro-war stew in the 1950s; and any war policy based on it can only be disorienting or worse. In a world like ours, which at any time can blow itself to smithereens, revolutionaries of any persuasion or politics have only to start with the traditional policy of Marxism on the war danger: the policy of the Third Camp, which was the real content also of Lenin’s war policy when he ignored the hollow formulas of defeat.

Appendix 1: Some Authorities on “Defeatism”

Isaac Deutscher: The Prophet Armed

Deutscher’s first consideration of the defeat slogan is in connection with Zimmerwald. Deutscher writes that Lenin “urged the conference to adopt a defeatist attitude towards all warring governments”.58 Besides being false, and neglecting to explain what a “defeatist attitude” was, it limits its attention to the internationalised version, ignoring the “lesser evil” and special Russian position.

Ten pages later we learn that there was a disagreement over defeatism between Lenin and Deutscher’s subject, Trotsky. Deutscher does not give Trotsky’s line of argumentation against revolutionary defeatism, which permits him to argue that this disagreement was merely “one of propagandist emphasis, not of policy”. Defeatism is treated as the “defeat facilitates” idea, i.e. “risk” of defeat.

“Trotsky, and with him many of Lenin’s own followers, refused to tie the fortunes of revolution so exclusively to defeat.”(59)

Deutscher winds up with a justification of defeatism: it made a revolutionary “immune from warlike patriotism”, an “insurmountable barrier…”.(60) (Trotsky, not quoted by Deutscher, argued that this was not so, and he was right.) Deutscher has nothing more on revolutionary defeatism.

Possony: A Century of Conflict

When I first started investigating this question, one academic authority had recently published a book titled A Century of Conflict: Communist Techniques of World Revolution with an unusual feature: a whole section on “The Theory of Revolutionary Defeatism.” According to the erudite scholar Professor Stefan T. Possony: “In July 1915,
months after the outbreak of World War One, Lenin outlined the doctrine of revolutionary defeatism for the first time,”" whereas Zinoviev had written about it in February. Therefore the savant found it "interesting to note that Sinovyev [sic] rather than Lenin seems to have been the originator of revolutionary defeatism.”

Since this statement of Possony’s is quite false (as we have seen), one may wonder how an eminent expert could go so wrong. It is clear that this devotee of scholarship did not bother to check Lenin’s collected writings before announcing his discovery, but limited his research to the articles by Lenin and Zinoviev which in 1916 were collected in the book Gegen den Strom. This indubitably saved him a lot of trouble. The rest of his pages on the subject are not less (or more) illuminating, up to and including his sole word of political analysis: “Treason!”

Tony Cliff: Lenin Vol. 2, All Power to the Soviets

Cliff’s treatment throughout is simply a repetition of the orthodox myths, uncritically. In Chapter 1, “The War”, he asserts: “Throughout the war, Lenin stuck to the policy line which he had developed at this time." Specifically, "this time" is the first Bern conference of the Bolsheviks after outbreak of war. As he expounds Lenin’s war line through uncritical citations of the usual documents, he writes:
“And Lenin was not equivocal. To aim at overthrowing one’s own ruling class through civil war, one must welcome the defeat of one’s own country.”

But the citation he immediately gives says nothing about welcoming. It is the one about “defeat facilitates”. He then asserts, having ignored Lenin’s first formulations: the line of “revolutionary defeatism” is a universal one, applicable to all imperialist countries.
And lastly, he brings up the denunciatory rhetoric, and summarises: “Any retreat from ‘revolutionary defeatism’ might well lead one to hesitate in carrying through the class struggle, in case this would weaken national defence.”(61)
This statement about why the defeatist slogan is necessary (the necessity of firm purity) makes explicit what was only implicit in Lenin: the typically sectarian approach. This line must be correct because it is soul-saving...

At the end of this chapter, he criticiszes Trotsky for disagreeing with Lenin on revolutionary defeatism, giving two passages from Trotsky’s view. He says nothing about why Trotsky was wrong, only again making the sectarians’ soul-saving argument: this position "was better calculated to create a clear division between revolutionaries and social patriots." And then he asserts:
“What he [Lenin] said could not be misinterpreted. Where he stood nobody could mistake. There was no room for equivocation.”(62)

In Chapter 2, he recounts some of the known information about disagreement with the defeat slogan inside Bolshevik ranks. There is no evaluation of the criticisms. The implicit politics is that any criticism of the defeat slogan meant only that the critic was wavering or uncertain in his anti-war politics.63 Among the prominent examples of this internal disagreement was that of the Baugy group led by Bukharin, whose criticism obviously rocked Lenin and affected his approach; but precisely this case is prominent in Cliff by its nonexistence; Cliff pointedly ignores it.

David Shub: Lenin… [Unabridged Ed.]
A good example of the Stripped-Down Mode of reference to defeatism: a minimum. In his Chapter 7, “From War to Revolution”.

In the course of two substantial passages from Lenin’s anti-war documents, the defeatist concept appears as part of the quotes, with no comment on it by the author, no analysis, no link-up with the rest of contemporary history, etc. The two defeatist formulas that are embedded in the quotes are, as it happens, No. 1 and No. 2.

Leonard Schapiro: The CPSU…

Naturally Schapiro makes a tangle of it; for one thing, he wants to make the majority of the Mensheviks (not merely Martov) “internationalist”. This Menshevik majority of “internationalists”, he says, included the view of “limited approval of the war”. It would seem you are a “defencist” only if you approve of the war sans limites. A writer who can pull off this sleight of hand, what can’t he do with a slippery term like defeatism! But in fact he does nothing with it, except a gaffe:
“Lenin’s simple formula that Russian defeat was the lesser evil was both more direct and, as time went on, more popular...”(64)

More popular than what? Apparently, than the Mensheviks’ position, though there “all shades of opinion prevailed”... It would be hard to be wrong from more directions.
—About defeatism in the Russo-Japanese war? As far as I can make out from Schapiro’s book, this war didn’t exist, so there could be no question of mentioning war policy.

Dan: The Origins of Bolshevism
Regarding war policy: nothing, or next to nothing, in the whole book. This book is not concerned with such matters, only with polemicising for the Menshevik factional view of the Russian Revolution as a bourgeois revolution only. It would be misleading to mention that revolutionary defeatism is not mentioned, for it is the whole war question that Dan finds irrelevant.


1. This passage is from an article by Karl Radek published in the magaazine Current History for March 1924, translated from Pravda, there noted as “written shortly before Lenin’s death”.
2. Lenin: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (1904), in LCW 7:396. For the meaning Lenin attached to “bureaucracy” in this context, see not only the immediate context but also the preceding discussion from p.392 on.
3. Lenin, “Speeches at a Meeting of Members of [various] Delegations”, July 11, 1921; in LCW 42:326.
4. Lenin, “The Voice of an Honest French Socialist”, LCW 21:353.
5. Lenin, “The Tasks of Revolutionary Social-Democracy in the European War”, in LCW 21:18; written not later than 6 September.
6. The current LCW gives the time of writing as “late August-September”. The original Russian is a good deal rougher than this smoothed-out translation shows.
7. Lenin, “The European War and International Socialism:, in LCW 21:22f.
8. Lenin to Shlyapnikov, 17 October 1914, in LCW 35:162f.
9. That is, the piece referenced in note 5, above.
10. Lenin, “The War and Russian Social-Democracy”, in LCW 21:32f.
11. Lenin, “On the National Pride of the Great Russians”, in LCW 21:104.
12. Südekum’s name was often used by Lenin to represent the especially vulgar pro-war wing of the German Social-Democrats.
13. Lenin, “The Russian Brand of Südekum”, in LCW 21:123f.
14. This is the translation in the current LCW. As explained in the Foreword, the more exact version is the one in the old collected works: socialism will be true only “if it says that ‘both are worst’.” This deliberately repudiated the original formulation, about Tsarism being “a hundred times worse than kaiserism”.
15. Lenin, “Under a False Flag”, not published until 1917; in LCW 21:144.
16. No article by Lenin was published in No. 38. The reference seems to be to an unsigned leading article on the war, said to have been written by Zinoviev. Note that the Baugy people did not limit themselves to Zinoviev as the target; they went on to question also the party statements Lenin had written.
17. Gankin & Fisher, The Bolsheviks and the World War, pp.190-191.
18. Ibid, p. 182; for some other details on Bern, see Cohen: Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, pp. 22-24, but unfortunately Cohen’s account ignores the dispute on defeatism, and elsewhere he shows no grasp of it.
19. Lenin, “The Conference of the RSDLP Groups Abroad”, published by the end of March 1915; in LCW 21:163.
20. For Lenin’s draft, see LCW 21:165-68, or Gankin & Fisher, pp. 164-67; the latter’s account of the affair begins on p. 162.
21. Rosmer: Le Mouvement Ouvrier Pendant La Guerre, p. 478.
22. Trotsky, “Open Letter to the Editorial Board of Kommunist”, 4 June 1915, in Gankin & Fisher, p. 170; there is another translation in Riddell, ed.: Lenin’s Struggle [&c], p. 235.
23. The myth that defeatism was a basic element in Lenin’s anti-war policy was well exemplified when even Isaac Deutscher stumbled over it. In his great biographhy of Trotsky (The Prophet Armed, Trotsky: 1879-1921, p. 226) telling of the Zimmerwald Conference, Deutscher related that “A minority, grouped around Lenin... urged the conference to adopt a defeatist attitude towards all warring governments...” Not so.
24. The documents giving the position of the Bolsheviks and the Zimmerwald Left are found in the appendix of the old collected works of Lenin 18:477-81, or in Gankin & Fisher, pp. 349-53.
25. For Radek, see Gankin & Fisher, 348; for the supplementary material on Zimmerwald, see LCW 41:349-57.
26. Lenin, “The Draft Resolution Proposed by the Left Wing at Zimmerwald”, in LCW 21:347.
27. Aside from the present point under examination, note this qualification: it covered a lot of territory. In effect, it hedged on the categorical principle that “defeat facilitates revolution”, recognising that the idea had to be historically conditioned. Zinoviev showed sensitivity to this point more than once, whereas Lenin did not waver on the unqualified assertion.
28. Zinoviev, “‘Defeatism’ Then and Now”, in Gegen den Strom, p. 438.
29. Zinoviev, “The War and the Fate of Our Liberation”, first published 12 February 1915; then in Gegen den Strom, p. 56.
30. Zinoviev, “The Russian Social-Democracy and Russian Social-Chauvinism”, in Gegen den Strom, p.243f.
31. Lenin used to charge that Trotsky (like “pacifists”) failed to link the peace slogan up with class struggle and revolution, a charge I think was unjustified; and in practice Lenin adopted the attitudes he criticised when he returned to Russia in 1917 and confronted what he called “the social-patriotism of the masses”. The same can be said, I believe, about the critique Lenin seemed to make against Luxemburg with respect to her analysis of “defence of the nation” in her Junius pamphlet; Luxemburg’s theoretical approach to this difficult issue was brilliant, and Lenin’s (in his review of the Junius pamphlet) was abstract. All this bears on the larger myth — that only Lenin followed a complete and thoroughgoing antiwar policy during the war. People who accept this myth (including academic historians who have swallowed the Lenin myths whole) tend to be unaware of how extensively Lenin changed his tactics and emphases when he returned from emigration and confronted a different practical situation — one that Trotsky and Luxemburg had been familiar with from the beginning. But these are side-issues in the present context.
32. Martov & Dan: Geschichte der Russische Sozialdemokratie, p. 276 (this section written by Dan); and Getzler: Martov, Chap. 7, esp. pp. 139-42.
33. Trotsky: What is a Peace Programme? p. 10.
34. ibid p. 6.
35. ibid p. 11.
36. ibid p. 12.
37. Trotsky, “Defeat and Revolution”, trans. in Riddell, ed.: Lenin’s Struggle [&c], pp. 170-72.
38. Trotsky, “Groupings in Russian Social-Democracy”, ibid, p. 405.
39. Luxemburg: Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, p. 320.
40. ibid pp. 321-24.
41. Lenin, at 4th Congress of Soviets, “Reply to the Debate on the Report on Ratification of the Peace Treaty”, 15 March 1918; in LCW 27:193.
42. See, for example, Deutscher’s second volume of his Trotsky biography, The Prophet Unarmed, especially Chapter 2; also many sections of Trotsky’s The Stalin School of Falsification, esp. pp. 89-99.
43. Martynov, “The Great Proletarian Leader”, in The Communist International (English ed.), No. 1 New Series (not dated: ca. Feb. 1924), p. 41.
44. Zinoviev, “War and Leninism”, in The Communist International (English ed.), No. 5 New Series (not dated, ca. June 1924), pp. 6-7.
45. There is the minor point that Lenin never spoke of “defeat of one’s own country”, except in one slip. One was supposed to say: defeat of one’s government or one’s bourgeoisie. The reader should remember, also, that Lenin never proposed the “lesser evil” formula for international use. But in the attempt to be “orthodox”, Trotsky combined the well-known “lesser evil” phrase with the equally well-known fact that Lenin internationalised the slogan — without being aware that these two features never came together in Lenin. (We have pointed out that Zinoviev made similar gaffes.)
46. Trotsky: War and the 4th International [1934 pamphlet], Sec. 58, p. 26.
47. Rosmer, Le Mouvement Ouvrier Pendant la Guerre (1936), p. 478.
48. Revolutionary Workers’ League: The Workers’ Answer to Boss War, a pamphlet.
49. “John West” [i.e., James Burnham]: War and the Workers (N.Y., Workers Party, 193?), p. 13.
50. James: World Revolution, p. 74.
51. ibid, pp. 71-73.
52. Socialist Workers’ Party: Declaration of Principles and Constitution. (1938), p. 24.
53. “War and Bureaucratic Conservatism”, issued by the SWP minority in the dispute, was a mimeographed document, [reprinted later as an appendix to James P Cannon’s Struggle for a Proletarian Party].
54. Starting as the Third Camp minority in the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party, founded as the Workers’ Party in 1940 in the subsequent split, the group adopted the name Independent Socialist League in 1949. Its weekly organ was Labor Action, its magazine was The New International.
55. Shachtman, “Socialist Policy and the War”, in The New International, May-June 1951 (p. 164+) and July-August 1951 (p. 195+); these two parts constituted the complete essay.
56. A criticism of Shachtman’s essay by Gordon Haskell, followed by Shachtman’s reply, appeared under the same title, “Socialist Policy and the War”, in The New International, September-October 1951 (p. 294+).
57. However, the original version of this essay, in 1953-54, did devote six or seven pages to detailing the course of Shachtman’s argumentation, with emphasis on his special methodology. As the “Foreword” mentioned, the space dedicated to this episode has been sharply reduced, but the material is still there for anyone concerned with the history of the ISL.

Notes to Appendix 1

58. Deutscher: The Prophet Armed, p. 226.
59. ibid, p. 236.
60. ibid.
61. Cliff: Lenin, p. 4.
62. ibid, p. 21.
63. ibid, pp. 22-25.
64. Schapiro, The CPSU, p. 152

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.