Trotsky: The first year of war

Article by LEON TROTSKY translated into English for first time

On the first anniversary of the start of the war, LEON TROTSKY wrote this perceptive assessment of the situation, and the need for a Marxist analysis and programme. Originally published on 4 August 1915 in Nashe Slovo (Our Word), a Paris-based newspaper for Russian revolutionaries, this is the first time it has been translated into English – by Pete Dickenson.

The past year – 365 days and nights of continuous mutual extermination of the peoples – will go down in our history as a staggering testament to how deeply humanity is still imprisoned in shameful blind barbarism by its social roots.

In order to stigmatize the German Mausers, which have a bigger diameter than the Allied guns, and the German shells, which spread their suffocating stench further than those of the Quadruple Entente1, Allied rhetoric created a special term, ‘barbarie scientifique’ or scientific barbarism. The perfect term! It is only necessary to extend it to the entire war and its socio-historical background – regardless of state and national borders. All those technical forces that created human progress moved to the business of the destruction of the cultural foundations of society and, above all, of the annihilation of mankind: this is the ‘mobilisation of industry’, which is now spoken about in all the languages of European civilization. Educated barbarism is armed with all the conquests of human genius – from Archimedes to Edison – to erase from the surface of the earth everything created by humanity collectively, by Archimedes and Edison. If the Germans stand out in this bloody, insane competition, it is only because they are more widely, systematically and efficiently organised than their mortal enemies.

As if to give the fall of mankind the most humiliating character, the war, using the latest proud technological conquest of aviation, has driven man into trenches, into dirty earthen caves, sewers, where the rulers of nature, eaten away by parasites, lying in their own filth, lie in wait for other troglodytes, covered with lice, and newspapers and politicians in various languages all say that it is precisely this that is now serving civilization. Crawling on all fours from the dark primordial swamp, humanity brought its organised mind to bear in the struggle with nature. By heroic revolutionary upheavals, it brought elements of reason to state structures, displacing blind inertia, ‘by the Grace of God’, with the idea of popular sovereignty and a parliamentary regime. But in the very foundations of its social life, in its economic organisation, humanity remains entirely in the grip of dark forces, beyond rational control, which are always threatening to spontaneously explode with accumulated contradictions and then bring them down onto the head of mankind, in the form of global catastrophes.

Colossal, shameful war

Europe, torn by capitalist development from medieval provincialism and economic inertia, in a series of revolutions and wars, created incomplete ‘national’ states, from both large and small powers, and linked them in a transient and ever-changing scheme of antagonisms, alliances and agreements. Nowhere having achieved national unity, capitalist development came into conflict with the state framework it had created, and for the last half-century sought a way out in continuous colonial plunder, leading, untypical for Europe, to an ‘armed peace’. This system, in which the ruling upper classes economically, politically and psychologically adapted themselves to the monstrous growth of militarism, gave birth to a war for world domination – the most colossal and shameful war that history has known.

The war has already involved seven of the eight great powers and threatens to involve the eighth2; in order to broaden its base, it draws in the minor powers one after the other (all the work of diplomacy now consists of this). It automatically dissolves individual subordinate aims into the mechanics of mutual debilitation, exhaustion and extermination. With the generality, formlessness and multiplicity of its aims, combining and throwing against each other all races and nationalities, all state systems and all stages of capitalist development, this war of usurpation wants to show that it is completely free from any racial or national origins, religious or political principles – it simply expresses the bare fact of the impossibility of the further coexistence of peoples and states on the basis of capitalist imperialism.

The system of alliances, as it developed after the Franco-Prussian war, was generated by a desire to create a guarantee of stability of states through a rough military balance of opposing forces. This equilibrium, demonstrated by the current ‘guerre d’usure’ (war of attrition), precludes the possibility of a fast and decisive victory of one party and makes the outcome of the war dependent on the gradual depletion of the approximately equal material and moral resources of the opponents.

On the western front, the thirteenth month of the war finds the trenches in about the same place they were in the second month. Here they have moved tens of metres in either direction – through the bodies of thousands and tens of thousands of soldiers. On the Gallipoli Peninsula, as well as on the new Austro-Italian front, the lines of trenches immediately signified lines of military hopelessness. On the Russian-Turkish border it is the same picture on a provincial scale. Only on the eastern (Russian) front, giant armies, after a series of movements in both directions, now roll back to the east onto the body of ravaged Poland, which each party promises to ‘liberate’.

In this picture, generated by the blind automatism of capitalist forces and the conscious shame of the ruling classes, there are absolutely no points of reference that, from a military point of view, would allow, in any way whatsoever, any hopes and plans to be linked with a decisive victory for either side. If only the ruling powers of Europe had as much historical good intent as bad, then they would still have been powerless by force of arms to resolve the problems that caused the war. The strategic situation in Europe gives a mechanical expression to the historical impasse, into which the capitalist world has driven itself.

International’s bloody crime

Even if the socialist parties were powerless to prevent the war in its first period, or to hold the rulers to account, if from the outset they had declined to take any responsibility for the global carnage, and the parties had used their close links to warn the people against the rulers and to denounce them, played a waiting game – in the sense of revolutionary action, counting on the inevitable turn in the mass mood – how great would now have been the authority of international socialism to the masses. Deceived by militarism, weighed down by mourning and increasing want, all the more would the masses have turned their eyes to the true shepherd of the peoples!

Look! In a condition of desperation, both groups of military powers are now grasping for every small state: Romania, Bulgaria or Greece, for the l’etat du Destin (the country of destiny), whose weight could finally tip the balance in one direction or another. What really would be a ‘make or break’ weight under these conditions is the International, the great power of international socialism, whose every word would find an ever greater echo in the minds of the masses! The liberation programme, which individual sections of the broken International are now dragging through the bloody filth in the tail of the General Staff baggage train, would become a powerful reality in an international appeal of the socialist proletariat against all the forces of the old society.

But history, even at this time, remained stepmother to the oppressed class. Its national parties incorporated into their organisations not only the initial successes of the proletariat, not only its desire for total liberation, but also all of the indecision of the oppressed class, its lack of self-confidence, its instinct for submission to the state. These parties have been passively dragged into the world catastrophe and, making a cowardly virtue of necessity, took it upon themselves to cover up an unprincipled bloody crime with the lie of liberation mythology. Arising from a half-century of world antagonisms the military catastrophe was a disaster transferred onto the edifice of the fifty year-old International. The anniversary of the war is also the anniversary of the most terrible fall of the strongest parties of the international proletariat.

The only way out

And yet we meet the bloody anniversary without any mental decline or political scepticism. Revolutionary internationalists had the inestimable advantage that they held their position in the face of the world’s greatest catastrophe, with analysis, criticism and revolutionary foresight. We renounced all the ‘national’ point-scoring issuing from the General Staff, not only those with a cheap price tag, but even those with a surcharge. We continued to see things as they are, to call them by their names and anticipate the logic of their further movement. We have seen how, in a mad kaleidoscope in front of bleeding humanity, old illusions were adopted and new programmes hastily adapted to them, they were approved and, in the maelstrom of events, failed, yielding place to new illusions and more new programmes that hurtled to the same fate, all the more exposing the truth. And the social truth is always revolutionary!

Marxism, the method of our orientation to the historical process and the instrument of our intervention in this process, is able to withstand the blows of 75mm guns, as well as the 42cm Mausers. It prevailed when the parties standing, it seemed, under its banner were shattered. Marxism is not a snapshot of working-class consciousness – it gives the laws of historical development of the working class. In its struggle for liberation the working class can be unfaithful to Marxism – by sheer force of circumstances, the analysis of which constitutes Marxism – but in betraying Marxism, the working class betrays itself. Through downfall and disappointment, through tragic disasters, arriving at new, higher forms of self-knowledge, the working class again comes to Marxism, consolidating and deepening in its consciousness its latest revolutionary conclusions.

This is the process that we have seen over the last year. The logic of the situation of the working class powerfully drives it out everywhere from under the yoke of the national bloc and – an even greater miracle! – clears out from many socialist brains the mould of possibilism. Despite their apparent success, how pathetic and contemptible seem the hasty efforts of the official parties once again to proclaim at their meetings, the revolutionary role of the states’ melinite3 and to inculcate, through multiple repetition, the slavish illusion of ‘the defence of the fatherland’, not leaving the great imperialist road!

The hopeless military situation, the parasitic greed of the ruling capitalist cliques feeding on this hopelessness, the widespread growth of armed reaction, the impoverishment of the masses and, as a result of this, a slow but steady sobering of the working class – this is a genuine reality, the further development of which will not be held back by any force in the world! In the bowels of all the parties of the International is a process, as yet only an ideological revolt, against militarism and chauvinist ideology – a process that not only saves the honor of socialism, but also indicates to the nations the only way out of the war, with its slogan ‘to the end’, this finished formulation coming up against the blind alley of ‘scientific barbarism’.

To serve this process is the highest task which now exists on our bloody and dishonored planet!


1. Quadruple Entente referred to the alliance of Britain, France, Russia and Japan.

2. The seven powers were Germany, Britain, France, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Japan and Italy. The eighth referred to is the USA.

3. A chemical used to make explosives.

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July 2014