Revolutionary defeatism

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As the First World War broke out Lenin called for socialists to oppose their own governments. How his analysis of the war and his defeat slogan were eventually proved to be correct.

In August 1914 Lenin argued that the First World War was an inter-imperialist conflict and the key task for Russian socialists was to continue the struggle against the Tsar — who in his view was “one hundred times” worse than Germany’s Kaiser.

Lenin’s proposition was that, “From the viewpoint of the working class and all the Russian people the ‘lesser evil’ would be the defeat of the Tsarist monarchy and its army.”

Here we see Lenin in heavy thick strokes laying stress on the immediate task that commanded the attention of the Bolshevics — exaggerating in every way that side of the problem which points in the direction it is necessary to move.

In this context the “defeat slogan”, as Lenin referred to it, sliced through the abstractions and vagaries of other socialists who were desperate not to raise slogans that would alienate the masses swept up by patriotic fervour. T

Those socialists and revolutionaries who opposed an insurrectionary solution to the war in effect believed that only a war started by governments can be ended by governments. Lenin argued that they failed to address the class contradictions at the heart of the war.

The Russian Menshevik Martov called simply for “peace” and even Trotsky adopted the deeply ambiguous slogan “Neither victory nor defeat”. In reality this meant returning to the pre-war status quo and ignoring the underlying crisis that was at the very root of the war.

Unfortunately for Lenin his slogan was also taken up by the German Socialist party (SPD) as a pretext to support its ruling class — as a German victory was the “lesser evil”.

In his pamphlet Socialism and War Lenin drew a parallel between warring slave owners He wrote,

“Picture to yourselves a slave owner who owned one hundred slaves warring against a slave owner who owned two hundred slaves. Clearly the application of the term ‘defensive war’ or ‘war for the defence of the Fatherland’ in such a case would be historically false and in practice would be sheer deception of the common people by the astute slave owners.”

Lenin writes it is possible to argue that from the standpoint of “bourgeois justice” Germany was being done out of colonies and, in one sense, was the “lesser evil” because its enemies oppressed an immeasurably far larger number of colonial peoples.

However, Germany was not fighting for the liberation of the colonies but for its share of the oppression of these nations.

In the pre-imperialist epoch it had been possible to take sides, for example, supporting the young rising bourgeoisie in their battles against those outlived classes still blocking the road to capitalist development.

At that time a judgement could be made as to whose victory would help to widen the road down which the working class could intervene in its own interests, and conversely whose defeat would help to get rid of a force which blocked this road.

By 1914 these questions had become redundant. Capitalism was no longer the liberator of nations as it had been in the struggle against feudalism. Now, in the Age of Imperialism, it had become the greatest oppressor of nations.

Lenin wrote,

“For almost half a century the governments and ruling classes of England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Russia pursued a policy of plundering colonies, of oppressing other nations, of suppressing the working class movement.

There could be no question in Lenin’s mind that Germany would have withdrawn from Belgium, a country steeped in the blood of its own colonial brutality, had the British and French agreed to share their colonies.

But as Lenin made clear, “It is not the business of socialists to help the younger and stronger robber (Germany) to rob the older and over-gorged robbers.”

He was uncompromising in his view that socialists must take advantage of the war between “the robbers” to overthrow them, and he was correct in predicting that the military reverses of Tsarism would pave the way for a revolution in Russia in 1917.

He wrote,

“A revolutionary class cannot but wish for the defeat of its government in a reactionary war, cannot fail to see that its military reverses facilitate its overthrow.”.

Likewise the military reverses for Germany the following year facilitated its revolution — although Lenin was careful to point out that socialism was not inevitable even in these favourable circumstances.

Without attempting to build a revolutionary alternative and maintaining as high a level of agitational and political activity as possible, given wartime conditions, the defeat slogan would just remain an abstraction.

Lenin wrote, “Present-day 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 ‘both worse’. Any other decision will, in reality, be national-liberal and have nothing in common with genuine internationalism.”

The defeat slogan provided the logical underpinning for the demand to turn the imperialist war into an insurection because without it the demand would have been mere sophistry.

Lenin concluded with great passion: “In every country one must struggle first of all against one’s own proper chauvinism, awaken hatred of one’s own regime. No one is proposing to guarantee when and to what degree this work will prove practicable or justified: this is not what is at issue. At issue is the line of work. Only such work is socialist; it alone will bear revolutionary fruit.”