Fascism’s rise to power in Germany, its consolidation, and above all the spectacular victories it has won in the war, have had a decisive influence in shaping the thoughts and actions of the working class. Especially in the democratic countries, the labor movement is increasingly aware of the peril to its existence represented by Hitlerism, increasingly anxious to fight it to the death. The worker’s hatred of fascism and all it stands for is sound to the core.
Up to the present, however, the revolutionary vanguard elements have been unable to give this hatred a clear-cut class expression. Rather, it has been cunningly and effectively exploited by every capitalist demagogue, every professional “democrat” and every one of their retainers in the labor movement. It has been basely perverted in the interests of a decadent social order, for the preservation of capitalist rule, for the promotion of the profits and privileges of one imperialist gang against another. The most detestable form of this exploitation of a progressive sentiment for reactionary purposes is the use made of it to lead proletarian cannon-fodder docilely into supporting the capitalist democracies in the present war.
We didn’t do so well against fascism in Germany when we had the chance in 1931 and 1932 and 1933—say the social-democrats—but we’re ready to make up for it now under the sacred leadership of Daladier or Churchill or Roosevelt.
War is a terrible thing; it threatens the standards of living and even the existence of the working class—say the labor lieutenants of imperialism—but fascism, which we ourselves cannot fight, is worse and so we must fight it under the banner of imperialism.
We used to have some confidence in the working class and socialism—say the intellectuals who have completed their retreat to capitalism—but now everything, especially the class struggle and all idea of revolution, must be abandoned in the interests of the holy war against fascism.
Our traditional principles and beliefs held in the past—they all say in one way or another—but they hold no longer because fascism makes it necessary for us to revise them or to drop them altogether.
The tragic hordes of refugees fleeing before the mechanized armies of Hitler have as their no less tragic counterpart the flight from working-class principles of virtually everybody in and around the labor movement. Some are moving fast, and some faster, but almost all of them are in flight.
It would be somewhat surprising if even the most revolutionary section of the working class were not affected in one degree or another by the atmosphere thus created. We know from the last world war that those revolutionists who were able to resist the impact of the powerful chauvinistic wave, not give a single inch to it, were exceedingly few in number and remained in total isolation for a long time. Others either plunged into the war current or drifted with it and landed far from the shores of the working class. In those days, the pretext for abandoning Marxism was the need of preserving labor from the horrors of Kaiserism or Czarism; today, it is the horrors of fascism.
The Cannonites Decide on a Change of Front
Among the recent examples of change of front is the unfolding of a new policy towards the war and militarism by the Socialist Workers Party (Cannon group). It is worthy of detailed examination precisely because it is calculated to appeal to those revolutionary workers who were educated in the spirit of Lenin’s uncompromising ideas. Let us see just what it has and what it has not in common with these ideas.
The policy, specifically described as a new one, has its origin in a point of view developed by Trotsky shortly before his assassination. It is presented publicly, with characteristic amplifications, one-legged analogies and other improvements, in two speeches delivered by Cannon at the last meeting of the S.W.P. National Committee in Chicago and a resolution adopted there, all of which appear in recent numbers of the Socialist Appeal.
Our examination could not possibly dwell on all the ludicrous theoretical boners with which Cannon’s contribution is studded and which have always been a source of polite merriment among his less awed colleagues. That would be too long a task for one or even two articles. Insofar as it is possible to crash through the commonplaces and pomposity that surround its central points, we shall deal only with those points.
“These are new times,” says Cannon. “The characteristic feature of our epoch is unceasing war and universal militarism.” So far—even if not very new—so good. And what new policy does the revolutionary Marxist movement need for these new times which it did not have yesterday? “The workers themselves must take charge of this fight against Hitler and anybody else who tries to invade their rights. That is the whole principle of the new policy that has been elaborated for us by comrade Trotsky. The great difference between this and the socialist military policy in the past is that it is an extension of the old policy, and adaptation of old principles to new conditions.” (Emphasis in original.)
Having read what the “whole principle of the new policy” is, we rub our eyes for the first time. “The workers themselves must take charge of this fight against Hitler and anybody else who tries to invade their rights.” Just what is new in this policy, at least so far as the Marxist movement, or the modern Trotskyist movement, is concerned? Of which old policy is it an extension? Liberals, social-democrats and Stalinists in the past (and today) placed the fight against fascism in charge of the bourgeoisie. That is true. But not we.
Especially since the rise of the Nazis in Germany in 1931, Trotsky above all taught the movement that “the workers themselves must take charge of this fight against Hitler” and Hitlerism, both on a national and an international scale, both in the case of civil war in one country and in the case of imperialist war between bourgeois-democratic and fascist nations. That thought runs through every document of the Fourth International, every document of Trotsky, from 1931 down to the thesis on “The War and the Fourth International” and “the Transitional Program of the Fourth International.” If that is the “whole principle of the new policy,” what was the principle of the “old” policy?
Just What Was the Bolshevik Policy?
We have learned, in politics, that the attempt to present an old policy as a new one, or a new policy as merely an old one, usually conceals something quite different. But before we look to see if that is so in this case, let us inquire into the reasons, the premises, for a new policy.
We must rid ourselves, says Cannon, of a hangover from the past of our own movement. “We said and those before us said that capitalism had outlived its usefulness. World economy is ready for socialism. But when the World War started in 1914 none of the parties had the idea that on the agenda stood the struggle for power. The stand of the best of them was essentially a protest against the war. It did not occur even to the best Marxists that the time had come when the power must be seized by the workers in order to save civilization from degeneration. Even Lenin did not visualize the victory of the proletarian revolution as the immediate outcome of the war.” (Emphasis in original.)
Now, having read what the premises for the “new” policy are, we rub our eyes for the second time. One would think that the need of imposing the new line on his party did not require such an insistent display of contempt for commonly-known facts. We restrict ourselves to the term “contempt” only because it is not quite clear to us whether it is falsification that is involved or merely ignorance.
Not even “the best of them,” not even “the best Marxists,” and not even Lenin looked forward to the proletarian revolution in the last war? Let us see:
In one of its very first manifestoes following the outbreak of the war, the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party declared in October, 1914: “The war has placed on the order of the day (in the advanced European countries. M.S.) the slogan of a socialist revolution.” The resolution of the Bolshevik conference in Switzerland, March, 1915, declared: “Civil war to which revolutionary social-democracy calls at the present period is a struggle of the proletariat, with arms in hand, against the bourgeoisie for the purpose of expropriating the capitalist class in the advanced capitalist countries, for a democratic revolution in Russia (democratic republic, eight-hour work-day, confiscation of landowners’ lands), for a republic in the backward monarchist countries in general, etc. ...A revolutionary crisis is approaching.”
Cannon now tells us that “the stand of the best of them was essentially a protest against the war.” If the above perspective and program of the Bolsheviks (“the best of them”) was only a protest against the war, what, if you please, would a program of revolution look like?
Again, in his article of October 11, 1915, Lenin wrote, precisely against those who did not have a revolutionary perspective: “...We are really and firmly convinced that the war is creating a revolutionary situation in Europe, that all the economic and socio-political circumstances of the imperialist epoch lead up to a revolution of the proletariat... (therefore) it is our bounden duty to explain to the masses the necessity of a revolution, to appeal for it, to create befitting organizations, to speak fearlessly and in the most concrete manner of the various methods of forceful struggle and of its ‘technique’”... And a year later, at the end of 1916, the same “not-even-Lenin” wrote in his criticism of the German Marxists: “In the years 1914 to 1916 the revolution stood on the order of the day.” And above all, what in heaven’s name was the meaning of Lenin’s slogan, repeated a thousand times during the last war, “Turn the imperialist war into a civil war”?
Trying to Reconcile the Irreconcilable
Now why is Cannon compelled to resort to so transparently false an argument to motivate the change in course? The answer is not hard to find. His problem is to reconcile the irreconcilable: adherence to the revolutionary anti-war tradition of Lenin and Bolshevism, with advocacy of a new and different policy towards the present war crisis that has little in common with that tradition. He resolves his problem very simply—by a complete misrepresentation of the views and tradition of the Bolsheviks in the last war. Once that is done, he is ready to proceed with his “new” policy. We have already seen that his first attempt to describe what is “new” in the policy adopted by the S.W.P., is simply a failure. Let us see how he fares with his other attempts.
Pacifist opposition to war is futile or misleading or even reactionary. Good, and like most of the commonplaces of which Cannon is qualified master, true. Moreover, it is worthwhile repeating and explaining this truth over and over again. The working class, and revolutionists in particular, are not and cannot be opposed to war as such and therefore to all wars. We were for the war in Spain; we are for the war of a colonial people against an imperialist power (China vs. Japan); we are, above all, for the war of the workers against their oppressors. The professional pacifists are at best utopians (disarmament, or abolition of war, under capitalism!) and at worst, as a rule, they disarm the exploited in face of the enemies of the people. But Marxists have pointed this out for almost a hundred years. The whole modern revolutionary movement was brought up, especially by Lenin and Trotsky, in the last quarter of a century with a keen appreciation of these ideas. Repeat it today? Emphasize it more and more? Yes. But that is not new—at least not to the Marxists.
Individual abstention from imperialist war is futile and reactionary. Good, and again, true. We are not “conscientious objectors.” If the imperialist government, because of our weakness, compels us to enter the army, we enter. If it compels us to participate in its war, we participate. We do not claim “exemption” on grounds of conscientious objection. Such opposition to imperialist militarism and war is futile because it is based on individual action instead of action by the organized masses. And if the masses were conscious and strong enough to impose a demand for “exemption,” they would be strong enough to take power and put an end forever both to militarism and war. Such opposition is reactionary, because, if carried out by us, it would mean eliminating revolutionists from the aggregate of the workers in uniform, thus leaving them prey to chauvinists and reactionaries. But these views are at least twenty-five years old in the Marxist movement. When Cannon says of us, the Workers Party, that “They were primarily concerned about the various ways of evading the draft,” he merely adds another monstrous falsehood to the one he tells about Lenin in the last war, doubly monstrous because of the interest which “perspicacious” authorities would show in the lie...But be that as it may, wherein is what he says on this point new—that is, new to the Fourth International, for it is a new policy for the International that he is proposing?
The interests of the workers-in-uniform must be defended. Good, and true, and an elementary duty of the revolutionary movement, of the working class as a whole, both inside and outside the army. We demand decent living standards for the soldiers. We demand full political, democratic rights for the soldiers. We demand an end to all arbitrariness and abuses by the officer caste. We demand the election of officers by the soldiers. We demand an end to the division between the barracks and the civilian population. All these and similar demands have been put forth in Labor Action. But we do not claim that they are “new.” They represent the position of the modern revolutionary movement since the beginning of the last World War and, for that matter, for many years before it.
And Finally–the “New Policy”
But if these things, to which Cannon devotes slabs of lead in the Socialist Appeal, are not the “new policy” demanded by the “new times,” what is it? We finally come to it in Cannon’s summary speech, tucked away in a few modest little sentences. We will quote them so that the reader may have them right before him:
Was our old line wrong? Does the resolution represent a completely new departure and a reversal of the policy of the past? It is not quite correct to say that the old line was wrong. It was a program devised for the fight against war in time of peace. Our fight against war under conditions of peace was correct as far as it went. But it was not adequate. It must be extended. The old principles, which remain unchanged, must be applied concretely to the new conditions of permanent war and universal militarism. 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, how to prevent Hitler from conquering France, Belgium, etc.” (Of course their program was very simple—the suspension of the class struggle and complete subordination of the workers to the bourgeoisie. We have seen the results of this treacherous policy.) 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. (Socialist Appeal, No. 43. Our Emphasis.)
There is the new policy of Cannon! There it is, along with the real reason for it. At the beginning we were told that the “new military policy” cannot be found in the records of the Marxists during the last war, because “not even Lenin” visualized a revolution coming out of the war, whereas in the present war we do visualize it. The argument was spurious and Cannon implicitly acknowledges it in his summary. What is new is what Jay Lovestone and Sidney Hook say is new, what all the social-patriots say is new, namely, the dramatically speedy advance of the Hitlerite armies which “we didn’t visualize, nobody visualized.”
“The workers don’t want to be conquered by foreign invaders, above all by fascists.” Quite true, and in that the workers are quite justified. But that was true also in the last world war. The German workers, with their socialist traditions and institutions, did not want to be conquered by the invading Cossack representatives of Czarist absolutism. The French workers, with their republican and revolutionary traditions, did not want to be conquered by the invading Prussian Junkers and the Hohenzollern dynasty. And not only the workers in general, but we, the revolutionary Marxists, in particular, and that both in 1914 and in 1940.
But what follows from that for Marxists? The policy of the social-patriots, of Scheidemann and Cachin and Henderson in 1914, Blum and Bevin and Oneal in 1940, the policy of supporting the imperialist war in the name of “defense of the fatherland” (or “defense of the working class and its institutions and rights”) from the “invading aggressor”?