WW1: The Bolsheviks and the war

The horrors of the first world war, and the economic and social turmoil it created, led to mass upheaval. In Russia alone did this lead to a successful revolution…

The horrors of the first world war, and the economic and social turmoil it created, led to mass upheaval. In Russia alone did this lead to a successful revolution, and the creation of the world’s first workers’ state. This was only possible, writes PETER TAAFFE, because the workers were led by the Bolsheviks, armed with a clear Marxist analysis and revolutionary programme.

“The bourgeoisie is not stupid, that is a merit, one cannot deny. The bourgeoisie foresaw the danger from the beginning of the war, and with the aid of its zealous generals delayed the onset of the revolution as long as possible. In the first years of the [war]… I happened to have a conversation in Paris with some bourgeois politicians, and they whispered to me that, as a result of this war, a great revolution would burst forth, but they hoped to be able to deal with it. Bourgeois newspapers and periodicals (for example, the British periodical, The Economist, in August, September or October 1914) predicted that, as a result of the war, there would arise, in the countries that were drawn into it, a movement for social revolution”. (The Military Writings of Leon Trotsky, Volume 1, How the Revolution Armed, 1918)

The serious representatives of the capitalists usually come to the same conclusions as farsighted Marxists from opposite class standpoints. The capitalists at the start of the first world war thought they would be able to deal with revolution. However, they reckoned without the leadership provided by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks to the Russian and world working class. Lenin took a clear, principled class position at the outset of the war but also related his programme to the developing consciousness of the working class and its different layers.

All genuine socialist internationalists condemned the war. They also denounced in the most vitriolic terms the right-wing leaders of the Second (‘Socialist’) International, who lined up behind their own governments and capitalists to justify the war, condemning the working class to its slaughter and suffering. Karl Kautsky, up to this time, was recognised as the ‘pope’ of international socialism due to his great political authority. But he and other traitors to socialism were condemned by Lenin, Trotsky and other revolutionaries as ‘social chauvinists’: socialist in words but sell-out nationalists in practice.

No one was more vitriolic in his denunciations than Lenin, the leader of the Russian Bolsheviks. He not only condemned these so-called leaders but formulated the policy of ‘revolutionary defeatism’. Since then, however, there is perhaps no other aspect of Lenin’s ideas and writings which has caused so much confusion and political mistakes. This formulation has been used by every stripe of sectarian to justify sometimes the most outlandish and incorrect political positions, particularly on the issue of war. It has been quite incorrectly used as a slogan during wars, which we will show was not at all the intention of Lenin when he first formulated this idea at the outbreak of the first world war.

This kind of mistake is only possible if Lenin’s formulation is torn out of its historical context, combined with a failure to fully understand the isolated, limited audience of politically advanced workers he was addressing at that stage. Later, when it was a question of speaking to and leading the Russian masses, Lenin adopted a different approach.

At the outbreak of the war, Lenin stated: “The European and world war has the clearly defined character of a bourgeois, imperialist and dynastic war… The conduct of the leaders of the German Social-Democratic Party, the strongest and the most influential in the Second International… a party which has voted for war credits and repeated the bourgeois-chauvinist phrases of the Prussian Junkers and the bourgeoisie, is sheer betrayal of socialism… [as is] the conduct of the Belgian and French Social-Democratic party leaders… [who] have betrayed socialism by entering bourgeois governments”. (The Tasks of Revolutionary Social-Democracy in the European War, September 1914) Lenin equally condemned the English ‘Labour’ opportunists who gave support to their own bourgeoisie during the war. He also criticised the so-called ‘centre’ within the international labour movement who only half-opposed the war.

Lenin wrote: “Both the policy of Kautsky and… Henderson help their respective imperialist governments by focusing attention on the wickedness of their rival and enemy, while throwing a veil of vague, general phrases and sentimental wishes around the equally imperialist conduct of ‘their own’ bourgeoisie. We would cease to be Marxists, we would cease to be socialists in general, if we confined ourselves to the Christian, so to speak, contemplation of the benignity of benign general phrases and refrained from exposing their real political significance”. He condemned the capitalists on all sides: “Neither of the two belligerent groups of nations is second to the other in cruelty and atrocities in warfare”. (Bourgeois Pacifism and Socialist Pacifism, January 1917)

Revolutionary defeatism

In Russia, he began by criticising his ‘own’ ruling class: “It is the first and foremost task of Russian Social-Democrats to wage a ruthless and all-out struggle against Great-Russian and tsarist-monarchist chauvinism, and against the sophisms used by the Russian liberals, Cadets, a section of the Narodniks, and other bourgeois parties, in defence of that chauvinism”. He went on to declare: “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”. (The Tasks of Revolutionary Social-Democracy in the European War)

The last phrase used by Lenin here could be construed as ‘revolutionary defeatism’. Was it correct? If it was for use among the masses at that stage – which Lenin never intended or ever did – the answer from a Marxist perspective would be, no. This could not be a slogan for winning the masses, nor was it intended to be.

An indication of the mood at the beginning of the first world war was given in Trotsky’s autobiography, My Life. He witnessed the celebratory pro-war scenes in Vienna. The massive crowds were in a carnival mood, totally unaware of the carnage which would follow. The explanation for this was to be found in the seeming disruption of the everyday, deadening routine of capitalism. The approach of war seemed to shake everything up, offering big changes in the lives of workers who had no idea that many were going to their slaughter. Similar scenes were played out in Berlin, London, Paris and elsewhere. The mood, of course, fundamentally changed as the corpses piled up and the maimed and injured returned from the front to their homes in the farms and cities.

Trotsky, commenting on the eve of the second world war, gives us a picture of the circumstances under which Lenin first laid down the idea of ‘revolutionary defeatism’. In his last, invaluable letters, Trotsky commented: “During the last war not only the proletariat as a whole but also its vanguard and, in a certain sense, the vanguard of this vanguard was caught unawares. The elaboration of the principles of revolutionary policy toward the war began at a time when the war was already in full blaze and the military machine exercised unlimited rule. One year after the outbreak of the war, the small revolutionary minority was still compelled to accommodate itself to a centrist majority at the Zimmerwald conference. Prior to the February revolution and even afterwards the revolutionary elements felt themselves to be not contenders for power but the extreme left opposition. Even Lenin relegated the socialist revolution to a more or less distant future. (In 1915 or 1916) he wrote in Switzerland: ‘We, the older men, will perhaps not live long enough to see the decisive battles of the impending revolution’.” (Bonapartism, Fascism and War, August 1940)

The betrayal and collapse of the Second International was a big blow to the advanced layer of workers, including Lenin and the Bolsheviks. When Lenin was in Switzerland, he received the newspaper of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany which announced that they had voted for war credits to the Kaiser’s government. At first, he believed it was a forgery of the German General Staff. This is just one indication of the isolation of the advanced revolutionary forces at that stage. An appeal to the masses on the war and other issues was the task of the future and would require a different approach. Initially, however, it was necessary to clarify these issues of the war, and the attitude of revolutionaries towards it.

It was in this context that some of the sharp formulations of Lenin, such as ‘revolutionary defeatism’, were used in order to draw a clear demarcation line between the genuine revolutionary forces and those who had betrayed socialism. This, however, was not the agitational slogan or programme with which to approach the broad masses. Trotsky formulated the issue clearly: “The attention of the revolutionary wing was centred on the question of the defence of the capitalist fatherland. The revolutionists naturally replied to this question in the negative. This was entirely correct. But this purely negative answer served as the basis for propaganda and for training the cadres but it could not win the masses who did not want a foreign conqueror”.

He added: “The Bolsheviks in the space of eight months conquered the overwhelming majority of the workers. But the decisive role in this conquest was played not by the refusal to defend the bourgeois fatherland but by the slogan: ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ And only by this revolutionary slogan! The criticism of imperialism, its militarism, the renunciation of the defence of bourgeois democracy and so on could have never conquered the overwhelming majority of the people to the side of the Bolsheviks”. (Once Again on Fascism, August 1940)

Lenin, throughout most of the first world war, concentrated on the general theoretical questions: on the nature of the war, the betrayal of the Second International and the call for a new, Third International, as well as the fate of the working class. The Bolsheviks mainly emphasised the task of exposing the social chauvinism and opportunists within the ranks of ‘official’ socialism. They were part of an international trend – including Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany – which adopted the same approach. In fact, Liebknecht’s formula of “the main enemy is at home” expressed better the policy for the mass mobilisation of the working class.

Lenin fought his own ‘war’ against any concession to social patriotism. He pursued this even after the Russian revolution in February 1917, mercilessly criticising from abroad those Bolsheviks, like Stalin and Kamenev, who gave support to the provisional government that continued the war. This theoretical struggle on war was absolutely necessary for the more advanced, guiding layers of the working class. It was not enough to win over the masses in the subsequent development of the revolution.

Rapidly changing consciousness

Lenin was quite aware of this in his writings. For instance, in May 1917, he wrote about the views of an ordinary worker: “We don’t want a war for supremacy over other nations, we are fighting for our freedom. That is what all the workers and peasants say, that is… the view of the working man, his understanding of the war. They imply by this that if the war were in the interests of the working people against the exploiters they would be for such a war. So would we, and there is not a revolutionary party that could be against it… We soldiers, we workers, we peasants are fighting for our freedom. I shall never forget the question one of them asked me after a meeting. ‘Why do you speak against the capitalists all the time?’ he said. ‘I’m not a capitalist, am I? We’re workers, we are defending our freedom’.”

Lenin answered him: “You’re wrong, you are fighting because you are obeying your capitalist government; it’s the governments, not the peoples, who are carrying on this war. I am not surprised at a worker or peasant… saying naively: Who cares about the capitalists, when it’s me who’s fighting! He doesn’t understand the connection between the war and the government, he doesn’t understand that the war is being waged by the government, and that he is just a tool in the hands of that government”. (War and Revolution, 27 May 1917)

What is revealed in this is the acute sensitivity of Lenin to the outlook of the masses, their consciousness, and at each stage how to approach them in a careful, transitional fashion. It was, of course, necessary to point out at all times the class character of the war. But in itself this was not enough. It was necessary to go further and to elaborate transitional demands and fight for them in order to help develop this consciousness, linked to the march of events. Above all, it was necessary to link the war to the catastrophic economic and social situation facing the masses, to the idea of power being taken by the soviets – in turn, linked to a government that would introduce ‘land to the peasants, peace and freedom’.

In no way was this an unacceptable opportunist concession to ‘defencism’ or the capitalist ‘fatherland’. Lenin, even during the war, explicitly recognised that in the future the working class would be “bound to encounter conditions under which the class struggle within each given nation may come up against a war between the different nations, a war conditioned by this very class struggle”. Therefore, revolutionary wars waged by revolutionary classes could not be ruled out. He invoked as an example the wars of the great French revolution of 1792, when “France had carried out a revolution and was then forced to wage a revolutionary war against a united monarchist Europe in continuation of that policy”.

So, while conceding a ‘revolutionary defencist’ position for the ‘indefinite future’, Lenin mercilessly attacked ‘defencism’ after the February revolution and opposed all those – some in the ranks of the Bolshevik party itself – who supported this idea, which was linked to the workers’ parties sharing power in coalitions with bourgeois parties. This was Lenin’s position even after the February revolution, because the revolution had not been completed. The consequences of that were the continuation of the war and the defence of capitalist property relations. But this did not mean the repetition of mere propaganda against the war. The Bolsheviks adjusted their approach, programme and slogans to the situation and the rapidly changing consciousness.

In his article, War and Revolution, Lenin is aware of the mass yearning for peace and also a fear of the ‘foreign invader’. He writes: “The ridiculous view is ascribed to us that we are out for a separate peace. The German robber capitalists are making peace overtures, saying: ‘We’ll give you a piece of Turkey and Armenia if you give us ore-bearing lands’… What nonsense it is to allege that we are for ending the war by a separate peace! To end the war which is being waged by the capitalists of all the wealthiest powers… by one-sided withdrawal from military operations is such a stupid idea that it would be absurd even to refute it… The war which the capitalists of all countries are waging cannot be ended without a workers’ revolution against these capitalists”.

He added: “If the Soviets were to assume power and the Germans continued the war what would we do then?… If the revolutionary class in Russia, the working class, comes to power, it will have to offer peace… We are not suggesting that the war be ended at one blow. We do not promise that… There is no easy way out of this terrible war. It has been going on for three years. You will go on fighting for ten years unless you accept the idea of a difficult and painful revolution. There is no other way out. We say: The war which the capitalist governments have started can only be ended by a workers’ revolution”.

Transitional method

At the same time, Lenin and the Bolsheviks linked the war to the conditions of the masses on a day-to-day basis. The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It (October 1917) was, in reality, a transitional programme, which Trotsky drew on in formulating his famous manifesto for the Fourth International in 1938. Lenin advanced a series of demands: nationalisation of the banks, for workers’ control, opening company books to inspections of workers and peasants’ committees, the abolition of business secrets, etc.

In War and Revolution, Lenin took up the issue of the taxation of the capitalists, and criticises Matvey Skobelev, a Menshevik member of the provisional government, from what appears to be a ‘moderate’ position. He wrote: “When Skobelev in his speech yesterday said: ‘We’ll take all the profits, we’ll take 100%’, he was just letting himself go with ministerial élan”. The capitalists would respond, he wrote, by declaring that “this means starvation, death! One hundred per cent means all!… [The Bolsheviks] never went as far as that. We never suggested taking 100% of profits… If you take the resolution of our Party you will see that we propose there, only in a more closely reasoned form, exactly what I have been proposing. Control must be established over the banks, followed by a fair tax on incomes”.

Lenin was arguing here not for complete confiscation but for a ‘fair tax’ on the capitalists. Crucially, however, this was linked to the issue of workers’ control, which was envisaged as a school for workers to learn gradually how to run the factories and, eventually, society. But he also specifically used the same method in relation to the war: “The defence potential, the military might, of a country whose banks have been nationalised is superior to that of a country whose banks remain in private hands. The military might of a peasant country whose land is in the hands of peasant committees is superior to that of a country whose land is in the hands of landowners”.

He argued that the example of France shows one thing, and one thing only: that to render Russia capable of self-defence, to obtain in Russia, too, ‘miracles’ of mass heroism, all that is obsolete must be swept away with ‘Jacobin’ ruthlessness and Russia renovated and regenerated economically. “And in the 20th century this cannot be done merely by sweeping tsarism away (France did not confine herself to this 125 years ago). It cannot be done even by the mere revolutionary abolition of the landed estates (we have not even done that, for the Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks have betrayed the peasants), by the mere transfer of the land to the peasants. For we are living in the 20th century, and mastery over the land without mastery over the banks cannot regenerate and renovate the life of the people”. (The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It)

Revolutionary programme

This is a model of how to take into account at all times the level of consciousness of the masses, seeking to push it forward and raise it to new heights. While opposing the war, Lenin and the Bolsheviks recognised that it was a fact. In a speech to the delegates of the Bolshevik faction of the Soviets he stated: “The masses approach this question not from the theoretical but from a practical viewpoint. Our mistake lies in our theoretical approach. The class conscious proletarian may consent to a revolutionary war… Before the representatives of the soldiers the matter must be put in a practical way, otherwise nothing will come of it. We are not at all pacifists…The capitalist class, tied to the banks, cannot wage any but an imperialist war. The working class can”. (Collected Works, Volume 36) This is an entirely revolutionary, realistic way of posing the question, a method which is foreign to sectarians.

For instance, in The Impending Catastrophe, Lenin wrote: “Measures to avert catastrophe would… immeasurably strengthen the defence potential or, in other words, the military strength of the country”. But this would not be possible without turning the war of conquest into a just war: turning the war waged by the capitalists in the interests of the capitalists into a war waged by the proletariat in the interests of all the working and exploited people.

Foreign policy is a continuation of home policy – Lenin drove home this point forcefully. He emphasised that it was impossible for Russia to defend itself without the greatest sacrifices and heroism on the part of the people. But he linked this to the need for a fundamental social overturn: “And it is impossible to appeal to the heroism of the masses without breaking with imperialism, without offering to all the peoples a democratic peace, without thus transforming the war from a war of conquest, a predatory criminal war, into a just, defensive, revolutionary war”. Lest it be objected that this is all very well because Lenin was speaking about a future workers’ state, this is not true. The Impending Catastrophe was a programme from before the October revolution, which could only be put into effect by the revolution itself. Trotsky and his followers drew on Lenin’s writings in pursuing a working-class ‘military policy’ in the second world war.

This issue is not only of historical interest. An analysis of Lenin’s approach towards the first world war in its different stages helps us to understand how the Bolsheviks came to power. This was achieved by well-honed strategy and tactics, not through the constant repetition of abstract propagandism. Propaganda is absolutely necessary in educating the new generation of workers and youth in the fundamentals of Marxism and socialism. But it is not enough to reach mass audiences, as Militant, the forerunner of the Socialist Party, alone of all the ‘Marxist’ groups in Britain, was able to do in the monumental struggle in Liverpool between 1983-87, and in the anti-poll tax battle. Without Lenin’s approach to the complex questions thrown up by the first world war, and his and Trotsky’s masterly application of revolutionary, all-sided dialectics, this would not have been possible.

We stand on the shoulders of Lenin and Trotsky, and workers and young people today must absorb their method in preparing for the great events which impend. War on the scale of the first and second world wars is not on the agenda, not least because it would result in the ‘mutually assured destruction’ of the whole of humanity, including the capitalists themselves. This does not rule out brutal and savage regional wars, as the current catastrophe in Iraq and Syria indicates. Moreover, clashes between different capitalist powers and blocs are possible – witness the current clashes in Ukraine, the jockeying between China and its rivals in Asia, etc. Only a socialist world can banish forever the horrors of war. Lenin’s writings during the first world war can prepare us for this task.

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