by the International Executive Committee of the international Spartacist tendency
The series of demands centering on the call for “trade-union control of military training,” first raised by Leon Trotsky in the last months of his life and adopted by the Trotskyist movement as the “Proletarian Military Policy” (P.M.P.), played no small role in disorienting the small and sometimes isolated sections of the Fourth International in the early years of World War II. The P.M.P. has not been operational since about 1943, when German and Japanese military power began to recede and it became clear that the Allied imperialists would win the war. However, Pierre Broué opened a discussion on the subject in Cahiers Léon Trotsky in September 1985.1 More recently Sam Levy, a veteran of the British Trotskyist movement, has again raised the subject for critical historical review.2 As Levy and Broué both partially document, at the time of its initiation the P.M.P. was a source of some dispute among those claiming the mantle of Trotskyism.
Leon Trotsky’s articles and letters on the subject of World War II and the P.M.P. are available in English in Pathfinder Press’s Writings of Leon Trotsky series. The key writings and speeches of American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) leader James P. Cannon on this subject are also available in Pathfinder’s collection, The Socialist Workers Party in World War II. However, other important documentary materials have long been out of print. We publish some of these here in Prometheus Research Series 2; a listing of the immediately relevant material by Cannon and Trotsky appears in a bibliography appended to this bulletin. The documents we reprint should be read in conjunction with the equally important articles and speeches in the Cannon and Trotsky writings.
The political consciousness of all classes in Europe in the period following WWI was dominated by the victory of the proletarian revolution in Russia in 1917. The spectre of Bolshevism loomed very large for those European sectors that had even one piece of silver to rub between their grubby fingers. For these elements—those who gained the slightest material advantage from the status quo, those with ideological or religious connection to the bourgeois order—fear of Communism dictated necessarily pro-fascist sympathies. After the military defeat in WWI of the most powerful European state, Germany, and especially after the failure of two successive proletarian revolutions in that country, the stage was set for Nazism, Germany’s virulent nationalism, to place itself at the head of European reaction. The proletarian victory in Russia failed to spread to the rest of Europe following the inconclusive war between Russia and Poland in 1920. This failure was largely due to the immaturity of the Communist leadership, as Trotsky pointed out in his brilliant and fundamental 1924 work, Lessons Of October.3 Nonetheless, European reaction continued to feed on the combativity of the working class, particularly in Germany. Since fear of Communism had not been accompanied by its spread, the growing Nazi party, with wide echoes of agreement, offered up the Jews as surrogate Bolsheviks.
When Leon Trotsky launched his call for the Fourth International in July 1933, the approaching interimperialist war already cast its shadow over the world. Hitler’s rise to power ensured that German imperialism would sooner, rather than later, embark on a military struggle to reverse the terms of the Versailles treaty which had ended the First World War. Nazism had triumphed in Germany largely because of the treacherous misleadership of the working class by the Stalinists and Social Democrats. Hitler’s barbaric regime was widely and acutely hated by the world proletariat. As Hitler crushed the working class under the Nazi jackboot, consolidated a military alliance with Mussolini’s Italy and built the war machine with which he would launch a struggle to redivide the world, the opposing imperialist bourgeoisies took advantage of the anti-fascist sentiments of the masses. The French and British ruling classes portrayed their defense of the existing imperialist status quo as a defense of “democracy” against fascism. The American bourgeoisie began to abandon the posture of European “peacemaker” which it had adopted after WWI, aligning itself with the French and British camp and also cloaking its imperialist war aims in “democratic” and “anti-fascist” garb.
“War and the Fourth International”
When in June 1934 Trotsky authored “War and the Fourth International,” a manifesto on the coming imperialist conflagration, he cut through the “anti-fascist” and “democratic” pretensions of the imperialist warmongers:
18. The sham of national defense is covered up wherever possible by the additional sham of the defense of democracy. If even now, in the imperialist epoch, Marxists do not identify democracy with fascism and are ready at any moment to repel fascism’s encroachment upon democracy, must not the proletariat in case of war support the democratic governments against the fascist governments?
Flagrant sophism! We defend democracy against fascism by means of the organizations and methods of the proletariat....And if we remain in irreconcilable opposition to the most “democratic” government in time of peace, how can we take upon ourselves even a shadow of responsibility for it in time of war when all the infamies and crimes of capitalism take on a most brutal and bloody form?
19. A modern war between the great powers does not signify a conflict between democracy and fascism but a struggle of two imperialisms for the redivision of the world.4
Leninists believed that the rise of imperialism had starkly posed before humanity the choice: either socialism or barbarism. The coming world war would be both a resumption and an extension of the first, on a more global scale. If the crisis of proletarian leadership was not resolved with the successful seizure of state power, human civilization would pay dearly. The working class would not shrink from defending its own conquest of power, arms in hand, nor would it shrink from giving all the military support within its means to the struggles of the colonial masses against imperialism. But the proletariat had no interest in this coming war, which would see the slaughter of millions, the mass destruction of industrial capacity, the devastation of agricultural lands and of the infrastructure of civilization—all so that one or another imperialist cabal could be assured of superprofits from colonial exploitation. Extending the revolutionary defeatist policy which guided the Bolsheviks during the First World War and which imbued the documents of the first four congresses of the Communist International, Trotsky wrote:
58. In those cases where it is a question of conflict between capitalist countries, the proletariat of any one of them refuses categorically to sacrifice its historic interests, which in the final analysis coincide with the interests of the nation and humanity, for the sake of the military victory of the bourgeoisie. Lenin’s formula, “defeat is the lesser evil,” means not defeat of one’s country is the lesser evil as compared with the defeat of the enemy country but that a military defeat resulting from the growth of the revolutionary movement is infinitely more beneficial to the proletariat and to the whole people than military victory assured by “civil peace.” Karl Liebknecht gave an unsurpassed formula of proletarian policy in time of war: “The chief enemy of the people is in its own country.” The victorious proletarian revolution not only will rectify the evils caused by defeat but also will create the final guarantee against future wars and defeats. This dialectical attitude toward war is the most important element of revolutionary training and therefore also of the struggle against war.
59. The transformation of imperialist war into civil war is that general strategic task to which the whole work of a proletarian party during war should be subordinated.
Trotsky made only one addition to the revolutionary program elaborated during World War I—the duty of the world proletariat to militarily defend the gains of the October Revolution despite the usurpation of political power by the bureaucratic caste headed by Stalin:
8. ...Defense of the Soviet Union from the blows of the capitalist enemies, irrespective of the circumstances and immediate causes of the conflict, is the elementary and imperative duty of every honest labor organization.
Trotsky foresaw that a new world war would inevitably draw in the Soviet degenerated workers state, perhaps in military alliance with one of the imperialist camps. In no way would this mitigate either the proletariat’s duty to defend the Soviet Union, or the policy of intransigent defeatism toward all the warring imperialist bourgeoisies:
44. Remaining the determined and devoted defender of the workers’ state in the struggle with imperialism, the international proletariat will not, however, become an ally of the imperialist allies of the USSR. The proletariat of a capitalist country that finds itself in an alliance with the USSR must retain fully and completely its irreconcilable hostility to the imperialist government of its own country. In this sense, its policy will not differ from that of the proletariat in a country fighting against the USSR. But in the nature of practical actions, considerable differences may arise depending on the concrete war situation. For instance, it would be absurd and criminal in case of war between the USSR and Japan for the American proletariat to sabotage the sending of American munition to the USSR. But the proletariat of a country fighting against the USSR would be absolutely obliged to resort to actions of this sort—strikes, sabotage, etc.
Trotsky’s elaboration of the tactical considerations which flowed from Soviet defensism provoked controversy within the international movement. Yvan Craipeau, who held the position that the Russian bureaucracy was a new ruling class, argued that military defense of the Soviet Union in the coming war would inevitably lead the Trotskyists into social-patriotism. In his reply to Craipeau, Trotsky pointed out that Soviet defensism and revolutionary defeatism had existed as two coequal elements in the program of the revolutionary proletariat since 1918:
In that period [1918-1923] the Soviet state maneuvered on the international arena and sought temporary allies. At the same time, it is precisely in that period that defeatism was made a duty for the workers of all the imperialist countries, the “enemies” as well as the temporary “allies.”5
Within the basic framework established by “War and the Fourth International,” the Trotskyist movement debated and adopted positions upon the various military conflicts which preceded and prefigured the approaching world war (military support to the Republican side while refusing to vote war credits during the Spanish Civil War; the military defense of Ethiopia against imperialist Italy; the military defense of China against imperialist Japan). Trotsky recognized that there was no sharp line of demarcation between the proletariat’s policy in war and peace. He insisted that defeatism was simply the extension to wartime of the proletariat’s irreconcilable hostility to bourgeois class rule:
To carry the class struggle to its highest form—civil war—this is the task of defeatism. But this task can be solved only through the revolutionary mobilization of the masses, that is, by widening, deepening, and sharpening those revolutionary methods which constitute the content of class struggle in “peacetime.”6
Within the context of heightened interimperialist rivalry and war there could arise colonial uprisings and proletarian struggles to which one or another of the imperialist camps might give military assistance. This would not mitigate the duty of the international proletariat to give all the military support within its means to these struggles, just as the proletariat would be bound to militarily aid the Soviet Union in the coming war.
The horrible depravity of German fascism, fusing as it did the most base social barbarism with a new technology of mass death, propelled many despairing ex-leftists into the Allied imperialist camp as the war approached. While in the period leading up to the First World War it was the extreme right-wing militarists who pushed for war, in the Allied countries in the pre-WWII period it was the factions on the “left” of the political spectrum who were the most ardent advocates of war (the Roosevelt New Dealers, the British Labour Party, and the Stalinist parties from 1935 until the Hitler-Stalin pact). The main factions of the French and British bourgeoisies tried to appease Nazi Germany. When, after the abject capitulation of Chamberlain and Daladier to Hitler at Munich in the fall of 1938, some of Trotsky’s supporters in Palestine capitulated to popular “anti-fascism” and argued for abandoning revolutionary defeatism, Trotsky labeled the Palestinian comrades’ position “a step toward social patriotism.” Using the concrete example of Czechoslovakia to unmask the “anti-fascist” rhetoric of the bourgeoisie, Trotsky wrote:
“Could the proletariat of Czechoslovakia have struggled against its government and the latter’s capitulatory policy by slogans of peace and defeatism?” A very concrete question is posed here in a very abstract form. There was no room for “defeatism” because there was no war (and it is not accidental that no war ensued). In the critical twenty-four hours of universal confusion and indignation, the Czechoslovak proletariat had the full opportunity of overthrowing the “capitulatory” government and seizing power. For this only a revolutionary leadership was required. Naturally, after seizing power, the proletariat would have offered desperate resistance to Hitler and would have indubitably evoked a mighty reaction in the working masses of France and other countries. Let us not speculate on what the further course of events might have been. In any case the situation today would have been infinitely more favorable to the world working class. Yes, we are not pacifists; we are for revolutionary war. But the Czech working class did not have the slightest right to entrust the leadership of a war “against fascism” to Messrs. Capitalists who, within a few days, so safely changed their coloration and became themselves fascists and quasifascists. Transformations and recolorations of this kind on the part of the ruling classes will be on the order of the day in wartime in all “democracies.” That is why the proletariat would ruin itself if it were to determine its main line of policy by the formal and unstable labels of “for fascism” and “against fascism.”7
The Origin of the “Proletarian Military Policy”
Trotsky soon saw indications that the Munich capitulation had frightened Stalin into seeking a military alliance with Hitler.8 But Trotsky also saw that this alliance would be short-lived. On 23 August 1939 the Hitler-Stalin pact was signed: the Soviet Union pledged to stay out of any war between Germany and the Western “democracies.” Little more than a week later the pact was consummated when the Nazis invaded Poland, finally provoking Britain and France to a declaration of war. The German Blitzkrieg defeated the Polish forces in three weeks. Meanwhile, Soviet troops occupied eastern Poland, as per their agreement with Hitler. As a result of the Hitler-Stalin pact, the parties of the Communist International did an about-face. The Stalinist Popular Front policy, inaugurated in 1935 with the Stalin-Laval pact, had seen the Stalinist parties following and adding to the mass pro-war sentiment. Now they suddenly discovered the imperialist ambitions of the “democratic” Allies, while ignoring the Italian occupation of Abyssinia and the German invasion of Poland.
The Stalinist about-face produced a sharp break in popular political consciousness in the Allied imperialist countries as the war began: public opinion turned sharply to anti-Communism. A section of the cadre of the American Socialist Workers Party, led by Max Shachtman, Martin Abern and James Burnham, bowed to this wave of anti-Communism and took the first, qualitative step toward reconciliation with their own bourgeoisie, abandoning the military defense of the Soviet Union. As a result, Trotsky and Cannon spent the early months of the war embroiled in a crucial factional struggle over the Russian question. It was resolved only in April 1940 when the defectors split, taking 40 percent of the membership from what had been the largest and most successful section of the Fourth International, to found the Workers Party.
In May 1940, as Hitler’s armies rolled through Belgium and Holland and on toward Paris, an emergency conference of the Fourth International was held in New York. Trotsky authored a new Manifesto on the war, which was adopted by the conference.9 It is in a passage near the end of this Manifesto that a new element in the Fourth International’s program on the imperialist war first appears:
The militarization of the masses is further intensified every day. We reject the grotesque pretension of doing away with this militarization through empty pacifist protests. All the great questions will be decided in the next epoch arms in hand. The workers should not fear arms; on the contrary they should learn to use them. Revolutionists no more separate themselves from the people during war than in peace. A Bolshevik strives to become not only the best trade unionist but also the best soldier.
We do not wish to permit the bourgeoisie to drive untrained or half-trained soldiers at the last hour onto the battlefield. We demand that the state immediately provide the workers and the unemployed with the possibility of learning how to handle the rifle, the hand grenade, the machine gun, the cannon, the airplane, the submarine, and the other tools of war. Special military schools are necessary in close connection with the trade unions so that the workers can become skilled specialists of the military art, able to hold posts as commanders.
These sentences are the first expression of what became known as the “Proletarian Military Policy,” though it appears that Trotsky had, as early as October 1939, been groping for some way to use the war to popularize the need for proletarian military training.10
Trotsky elaborated this new set of demands in a discussion with leaders of the American SWP on 12 June 1940.11 He also wrote several letters and an article on the subject over the next few months.12 When his life was cut short by a Stalinist assassin in August, Trotsky was working on a major article designed in part to provide the theoretical justification for the new demands.13 In September, the SWP formally adopted a resolution on the new military policy at a conference in Chicago:14
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!
From October 1940 until March 1945 these demands held a spot in the program box of the SWP’s weekly press.
The adoption of the “Proletarian Military Policy” did not provoke known opposition within the American SWP. However, Max Shachtman, then only one step down the long road he followed toward reconciliation with American imperialism, wrote some very effective polemics against it, which we reprint here.15 When some of those who had left the SWP with Shachtman rejoined in Los Angeles, they retained their opposition to the P.M.P.16
In Britain the P.M.P. was extremely controversial. All wings of the faction-ridden Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), official section of the Fourth International, initially opposed what they called the “American Military Policy.” However, a pro-P.M.P. faction eventually developed within the RSL: the Trotskyist Opposition (TO) led by Hilda Lane and John Lawrence. In 1942 the TO was expelled, and opposition to the military policy was made a criterion of RSL membership. In contrast, the British Workers International League (WIL), which had been condemned by the founding conference of the Fourth International for its cliquist refusal to join the RSL, adopted the P.M.P., though not without some internal dissension. When, in March 1944, the WIL fused with the remnants of the RSL, the P.M.P. was still a subject of debate.17 The new organization, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), adopted the resolution on military policy submitted by the former WIL and TO. In addition to this resolution, we reprint below the motions submitted to the RCP founding conference by the Militant Group and the Left Faction of the former RSL.18
Communication among the Fourth Internationalists was spotty to nonexistent during the war. The Dutch Committee of Revolutionary Marxists, which produced some of the best defeatist propaganda, appears not to have known about the P.M.P. Where it did become known, however, the new military policy provoked controversy. The Bulletin Mensuel de la IVe Internationale published by the Committees for the Fourth International in Vichy France printed excerpts from the SWP’s conference resolution in its April 1941 issue. We print below translations of two articles which accompanied the excerpts. One, a letter by “Comrade C.,” objects to the SWP resolution and to the fact that the French leading Committee saw fit to print it. The Committee’s reply to Comrade C. also takes issue with the SWP’s military policy while defending their decision to open a discussion on the question.19
Telescoping the Tasks
In large part the P.M.P. was based on an exaggerated prognosis of the extent to which the proletariat would engage in struggle against the war early on. Trotsky thought that wartime necessity would rapidly rip the “anti-fascist” and “democratic” mask off the Anglo-American imperialists. He expected that the bourgeoisies of both countries would be forced to impose some variant of bonapartist dictatorship in the face of mounting discontent, leading to social struggle and perhaps situations of dual power. Moreover, Trotsky projected that, faced with internal social struggle, the Anglo-American imperialists would follow the example of their French allies and become “defeatist,” viewing Hitler as the lesser evil. In his last article, Trotsky wrote:
The Second World War poses the question of change of regimes more imperiously, more urgently than did the first war. It is first and foremost a question of the political regime. The workers are aware that democracy is suffering shipwreck everywhere, and that they are threatened by fascism even in those countries where fascism is as yet nonexistent. The bourgeoisie of the democratic countries will naturally utilize this dread of fascism on the part of the workers, but, on the other hand, the bankruptcy of democracies, their collapse, their painless transformation into reactionary dictatorships, compel the workers to pose before themselves the problem of power, and render them responsive to the posing of the problem of power.20
Based on this prognosis, Trotsky combined “fighting fascism” in the war with the task of the proletariat seizing power. In his summary speech to the SWP’s September conference, Cannon makes the telescoping explicit:
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.”...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.21
In “Bonapartism, Fascism, and War” Trotsky bases the P.M.P. on the experience of the Russian Revolution:
True enough, 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 defense of bourgeois democracy and so on could have never conquered the overwhelming majority of the people to the side of the Bolsheviks....22
But Trotsky’s use of the post-February Bolshevik example could only be misleading in a situation where there did not yet exist a situation of dual power in any imperialist country.
Defeatism and Revolutionary Tactics
After the overthrow of tsarism in February 1917 the Bolsheviks maintained their intransigent opposition to the imperialist war, now being waged by the new “democratic” capitalist government. Lenin’s April Theses declare that “not the slightest concession must be made to ‘revolutionary defencism’.” But the April Theses also state that:
In view of the undoubted honesty of those broad sections of the mass believers in revolutionary defencism who accept the war only as a necessity, and not as a means of conquest, in view of the fact that they are being deceived by the bourgeoisie, it is necessary with particular thoroughness, persistence and patience to explain their error to them, to explain the inseparable connection existing between capital and the imperialist war, and to prove that without overthrowing capital it is impossible to end the war by a truly democratic peace, a peace not imposed by violence.23
Increasingly the Bolsheviks attempted to find a “bridge” to the defensist sentiments of the masses. But this was only possible because the working masses had overthrown the tsar and created the soviets—incipient organs of proletarian state power. The proletariat had in hand a conquest worth defending against the German armies. Correspondingly the Russian bourgeoisie, faced with the revolutionary proletariat, increasingly went over to defeatism (even going so far as to allow German troops to take Riga). “All Power to the Soviets!” became a call for the Russian proletariat to take power, the better to be able to defend the revolution against both internal counterrevolution and the German armies. The Bolsheviks recognized that they might well have to defend a Russian Soviet state after taking power, and they certainly never excluded the possibility that the new state might wage a revolutionary war against Germany.
The shift in Bolshevik propagandistic emphasis led Lenin to remark in 1918 that “we were defeatists under the Tsar, but under Tsereteli and Chernov we were not defeatists.”24 Yet the Bolsheviks never abandoned a defeatist posture toward the Russian bourgeois government—they simply varied the tactical application because of the class war then raging in Russia. When the imperialist war is transformed into a civil war, that civil war is fought out on the internal political terrain of the individual nation-state.
Politics is in large part the art of the possible. It is not possible to demand the equivalent of “All Power to the Soviets!” in the absence of that level of class struggle and consciousness which leads to soviets or some other organs of dual power. The general strike which rocked Prague 21-22 September 1938 was certainly a situation which approximated the one foreseen in Trotsky’s last, unfinished article on the war: the question of change of regime was imperiously posed when the working class simply (and evidently spontaneously) revolted against the rumored capitulation of the Hodza government to Hitler’s demand for the Sudeten. The call for the formation of general strike committees to take power out of the hands of the bourgeoisie—the only measure which could defend the Czech, Slovak and German working masses against Hitler—would have been appropriate here, though it was necessary to couple this with agitation for the democratic rights of the Sudeten Germans oppressed by the Czech bourgeoisie. In the absence of a struggle for proletarian state power, the Czech ruling class, with the indispensable aid of the mass Stalinist party, succeeded in derailing the revolt of the masses. The new Syrovy government promised before crowds of hundreds of thousands to “fight to the end”—and once the proletariat was demobilized gave way to the French and British insistence on capitulation, ceding the Sudeten to Hitler.25