The sharpening interimperialist antagonisms, upsurge in imperialist rivalry and “surprising” new alignments pose for the third time in this century the spectre of a world war, this time with thermonuclear weaponry. Imperialist war has always been a decisive test for the communist movement. Such wars are the consummate expression of the inability of capitalism to transcend the contradiction between the productive forces, which have outgrown both national boundaries and private property relations, and the relations of production which define the two great classes of modern society, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Imperialist war brings only increased misery, enslavement and suffering to the working class, exacerbating the tensions of class society to a fever pitch. Marxists seek to use these periodic violent disruptions of decaying capitalism to bring about the liberation of the proletariat. This is due not to a “the worse the better” outlook, but rather is the necessary recognition of the objective conditions of crisis weakening bourgeois society which Marxists must seek to utilize in order to drive forward to the socialist revolution.
As the outlines and alignments of yet a third global inter-imperialist war begin to take shape, it is essential to examine the policy of the Trotskyist movement in World War II and to understand the role and nature of the modern bourgeois state and its army, in order to prepare ourselves for the coming period of increasing international conflicts and war. Failure to take the basic Leninist conception of the state as a starting point for any strategy towards the bourgeois army leads almost inevitably to major theoretical errors, as was the case with the Socialist Workers Party’s adoption of the “Proletarian Military Policy” (P.M.P.) in 1940. A study of the P.M.P. and of Trotsky’s writings on the coming war, fascism and military policy in 1940 reveal a sliding off from basic Leninist concepts of the bourgeois state and army.
The P.M.P. was a misdirected attempt to turn the American working class’s desire to fight fascism into a revolutionary perspective of overthrowing its “own” imperialist state. The core of the P.M.P. was a call for trade-union control of the compulsory military training being instituted by the state. The SWP resolution on “Proletarian Military Policy” adopted at the SWP’s Plenum-Conference in Chicago in September 1940 states:
We fight against sending the worker-soldiers into battle without proper training and equipment. We oppose the military direction of worker-soldiers by bourgeois officers who have no regard for their treatment, their protection and their lives. We demand federal funds for the military training of workers and worker-officers under the control of the trade unions. Military appropriations? Yes—but only for the establishment and equipment of worker training camps! Compulsory military training of workers? Yes—but only under the control of the trade unions!
James P. Cannon, leader of the SWP, defended the policy, primarily against the criticisms of Max Shachtman who had recently broken from the SWP and founded the Workers Party. Essentially, the P.M.P. contained a reformist thrust; it implied that it was possible for the working class to control the bourgeois army. The logic of the P.M.P. leads to reformist concepts of workers control of the state—which stand in opposition to the Marxist understanding that the proletariat must smash the organs of bourgeois state power in order to carry through a socialist revolution.
Cannon “Telescopes” the Tasks
It is necessary to see the background against which the P.M.P. was developed, and what the expectations of the SWP and Trotsky were in World War II, as these expectations were the assumptions which led them to the P.M.P. Cannon said at the 1940 SWP Conference:
We didn’t visualize, nobody visualized, a world situation in which whole countries would be conquered by fascist armies. The workers don’t want to be conquered by foreign invaders, above all by fascists. They require a program of military struggle against foreign invaders which assures their class independence. That is the gist of the problem.
Many times in the past we were put at a certain disadvantage: the demagogy of the Social Democrats against us was effective to a certain extent. They said, “You have no answer to the question of how to fight against Hitler....” Well, we answered in a general way, the workers will first overthrow the bourgeoisie at home and then they will take care of invaders. That was a good program, but the workers did not make the revolution in time. Now the two tasks must be telescoped and carried out simultaneously.
(“Summary Speech on Military Policy”)
We are willing to fight Hitler. No worker wants to see that gang of fascist barbarians overrun this country or any country. But we want to fight fascism under a leadership we can trust.
(“Military Policy of the Proletariat”)
Cannon strongly emphasized that capitalism has plunged the world into an epoch of universal militarism, and that from now on, “great questions can be decided only by military means.” For Cannon, “antimilitarism was all right when we were fighting against war in times of peace. But here you have a new situation of universal militarism.”
Trotsky and the SWP were attempting to take advantage of the intersection of the “universal militarism” of the bourgeois states’ preparation for imperialist war with the genuine anti-fascist sentiment of the masses. Trotsky’s writings of 1939-40 reveal an apocalyptic vision of the coming war which led him to see the need to develop some strategy to fairly immediately win over the army. Trotsky and the SWP vastly overestimated the extent to which the processes of the war itself would rip the facade off the (Anglo-American) bourgeoisie’s ideology of “democracy” fighting “dictatorship.” Trotsky, in conversations with SWP leaders in Mexico in 1940, said, “If the bourgeoisie could preserve democracy, good, but within a year they will impose a dictatorship....Naturally in principle we would overthrow so-called bourgeois democracy given the opportunity, but the bourgeoisie won’t give us time” (“Discussion with Trotsky,” 12 June 1940).
“Reformism Cannot Live Today”
As part of his projection, Trotsky also believed that reformism had exhausted all its possibilities: “At one time America was rich in reformist tendencies, but the New Deal was the last flareup. Now with the war it is clear that the New Deal exhausted all the reformist and democratic possibilities and created incomparably more favorable possibilities for revolution.” The SWP developed the viewpoint that as a result of the crises resulting from the war, reformism could not survive. A section of the SWP Resolution titled “Reformism Cannot Live Today” stated, “In the first place the victories of the fascist war machine of Hitler have destroyed every plausible basis for the illusion that a serious struggle against fascism can be conducted under the leadership of a bourgeois democratic regime.” But following World War II, because of the hatred of the working class for fascism and the broad strike wave, the bourgeoisie was forced to reinstate liberal reformist ideology and parliamentary politics, in an effort to mollify the workers.
The Trotskyists took as the basis and starting point of their new policy, the deeply popular working-class sentiment against fascism. The working class was being conscripted, and part of their acceptance of this conscription was based on their desire to fight fascism, the SWP reasoned, so therefore their acceptance of conscription has a “progressive” character. The P.M.P. was based on the belief that the bourgeoisie would be forced to institute military dictatorships and thus would be forced to expose its reactionary character in the midst of war, in a situation when the working class was armed (by the state itself) and motivated by deeply anti-dictatorship and anti-fascist feelings. This would lead inevitably to a revolutionary situation, and very quickly at that. These were the primary assumptions of Trotsky and the SWP. They do not serve to justify the adoption of the P.M.P., however, but rather only illuminate the background against which it was developed.
The slogan “For trade-union control of military training,” implies trade-union control of the bourgeois army. The P.M.P. slid over the particular nature and role of the imperialist army as the bulwark of capitalism. Shachtman caught the core of the P.M.P.’s reformist thrust and this sliding over when he wrote:
...I characterized his [Cannon’s] formula as essentially social-patriotic....Cannon used to say: We will be defensists when we have a country to defend, that is, when the workers have taken power in the land, for then it will not be an imperialist war we are waging but rather a revolutionary war against imperialist assailants....Now he says something different, because the revolution did not come in time. Now the two tasks—the task of bringing about the socialist revolution and defending the fatherland—“must be telescoped and carried out simultaneously.”
(“Working-Class Policy in War and Peace”)
In 1941 Shachtman had not yet been a year on his uneven eighteen-year-long centrist course from revolutionary Marxism to social democracy. In the first years Shachtman’s Workers Party claimed to be a section of the Fourth International and argued for the “conditional defense” of the Soviet Union whose “bureaucratic collectivism”—as he designated the degenerated workers state—was still progressive relative to capitalism. And as late as 1947 the issue of unification between the SWP and the Workers Party was sharply posed. His revisionist break with Marxism was nonetheless profound from the outset: a complete repudiation of its philosophic methodology coupled with the concrete betrayal of the Soviet Union in the real wars that took place, first with Finland in 1939 and then the German invasion in 1941. Thus the SWP’s departure from the clear principled thrust of Leninism in advancing the ambiguous P.M.P. was for the early revisionist Shachtman a gift which he was able to exploit because it did not center on his own areas of decisive departure from Marxism.
Ten years later, however, under the pressures of the Korean War, Shachtman’s revisionism had become all-encompassing and he advanced a grotesquely reactionary version of the P.M.P. of his own. Writing of the anticipated Third World War he asserted that “the only greater disaster than the war itself...would be the victory of Stalinism as the outcome of the war.” From this he concluded that “socialist policy must be based upon the idea of transforming the imperialist war into a democratic war [against Stalinism].” And to achieve this transformation he looked to “a workers’ government, no matter how modest its aims would be at the beginning, no matter how far removed from a consistently socialist objective” (“Socialist Policy in the War,” New International, 1951). Shachtman’s “workers’ government” is clearly no dictatorship of the proletariat—without socialist aims!—but rather the blood relative of Major Attlee’s British Labour