Max Shachtman


Socialist Policy and the War

A Reply

(September 1951)

From New International, Vol. XVII No. 5, September–October, pp. 296–301.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It would be regrettable, I believe, if the discussion of the war policy that should be pursued by us socialists, as distinguished from those who have abandoned the fight for socialism, were to center around the question of summary formulations. They have their importance and it is of course quite in order to deal with them as Comrade Haskell does in his letter. But our principal concern should remain the basic ideas of the socialist position on the war. They are set forth in the resolution of the last convention of our Independent Socialist League and, in a different way, in my two articles in the New International. If I restate a few of these ideas, it is not so much because of what Comrade Haskell writes in his letter as because it offers the opportunity to comment on a completely unexpected and just as completely unwarranted conclusion that some readers of my articles seem to have drawn. These readers did not draw their conclusion out of my articles because there was nothing in them to justify it; I can only suppose that, over-anxious and over-hopeful, they read their own conclusion into my articles. Let me disabuse them.

I compared the first world war with the coming third world war to establish their similarities and differences. That should help establish the extent to which internationalist-socialist policy toward the third world war should be the same as in the first and the extent to which it should differ. That some people object to this method, is a minor matter. Their indifference toward the traditions of the socialist movement and toward history is their main strength, while ours lies elsewhere.

I have taken Lenin as exemplifying the revolutionary socialist, the consistent democrat and the internationalist from whom we have most to learn. He opposed the war on the ground that, on both sides, it was imperialist and reactionary. He took issue with the opportunists and chauvinists in the socialist movement who supported the war with the claim that, for their country, it was a war of national defense. Precisely that claim, argued Lenin, is false and criminal. Marxists must analyze every war concretely, and this one is not a war for the defense of the nation. Its specific characteristic is that each bloc, or the chief power in each bloc, is fighting to get a greater share of the world market from the other bloc; each bloc is fighting to transfer to itself the ownership of the colonial nations and peoples enslaved by the other. Only those socialists support their governments in the war, said Lenin, who have been chauvinistically corrupted, either ideologically or economically or both, by the extraordinary privileges which their regimes have acquired from the imperialist exploitation of subject peoples.

The working classes, continued Lenin, have no real interest in the victory of one side or the other. Let them continue the class struggle against their respective governments. Let them utilize every crisis of the regime to bring closer the hour of its overturn, the end of the war and, with the revolutionary proletariat in power, the beginning of socialist reconstruction. “Turn the imperialist war into a civil war!”

But the continuation of the class struggle may help bring about the defeat of our government by the armies of the other government, declared the social-patriots. At this point in my articles, I paraphrased the question which they put to Lenin: “What if the prosecution of the class struggle imperils the military position of the government, even to the point where it may be defeated by the enemy and lose the war?” This paraphrased question occurs originally in my first article, be it noted. To that question, as I pointed out, Lenin said, in effect: “No matter. The class struggle must be continued regardless of the cost to the existing governments.”

But if our country loses the war, what happens to the nation, what happens to the working class? The key to Lenin’s position is found in his answer. The aim of German imperialism in the war is not to “impose an alien yoke on the French or the Russians” or even on the Belgians, but “to decide which of them is to rob Turkey and the colonies.” The national integrity of the main belligerents and the position of their working classes is not threatened in any fundamental or drastic way by the victory of one side over the other. Hence, the only practically conceivable consequence of the continuation of the class struggle by the German working class is not such a defeat of its government as will assure the conquest and subjugation of Germany by Russia but a defeat of its government as will assure the conquest of power by the working class. Similarly, in the case of the working class of Russia and the other belligerents.

This is plain enough, it would seem; and it is even plainer in my first N.I. article where Lenin’s thoughts are set forth in far greater detail.

In my second article, I explain some of the similarities and differences between the first and third world wars. The third world war, too, will be imperialist and reactionary on both Sides. Stalinist Russia already rules one large part of the world (with all sorts of difficulties and opposition in its world); capitalist United States already rules the larger part of the world (likewise with difficulties and opposition). The war will be fought, as the cold-war is now being fought, to decide which of them shall rule over the entire world. That being the aim of the war on both sides, it determines the opposition to the war on both sides by all socialists still entitled to that name.

Highly interesting is the fact that the supporters of the war, in both camps, avoid the question of the aims of the war as if it were some unmentionable disease. Not that they avoid it entirely, for they are always ready and even eager to give you fifty per cent of the story. The “Trotskyists” pour out their ink in streams to explain the aims of American imperialism, in order to show why no socialist and no worker should support its war. But when it comes to the war aims of Stalinism – not of the gagged peoples it rules, but of Stalinism itself – they present us with reams of blank paper. The “critical” and “socialist” supporters of American imperialism act the same way in the other war camp. On the aims of Stalinism in the war, they give you all you need and more. On the aims of American imperialism, they maintain a dignified silence. It seems that they cannot – or cannot yet – get themselves to repeat the fraudulent pretensions of the American bourgeoisie.

Yet, it is the aims of a war – not necessarily (in fact, quite seldom) in terms of what its directors proclaim them to be, but in terms of the objective consequences of a victory over the other side – that should determine the socialist position toward it.

For example, the aim of the Italian government in the war against Ethiopia was not to rid that country of its feudal, slave-trading, reactionary regime but to reduce it to colonial slavery. Socialists opposed this war, even though Italy was a more advanced and civilized country, even though it was better able to “develop the productive forces” of Ethiopia than the ruling class of that country. The aim of Ethiopia was to maintain its national independence, which is a good democratic principle; it did not and could not aim at reducing Italy to a colony. Therefore socialists supported Ethiopia, even under such a reactionary anachronism as Haile Selassie, and they worked to the best of their ability for the victory of Ethiopian arms.

The aim of the Loyalist government in the Spanish civil war was to crush Franco fascism. The means, the policies, it pursued to reach this aim were not those advocated by us, but that did not change the aim of the war. Socialists unhesitatingly supported the war, criticizing the policies of the government, but working for the victory and aims of Loyalist arms and calling on workers throughout the world for active aid.

The supporters of the coming world war and the preparations for it, however, do not and cannot talk about the real aims of the two war camps. Support of a war demands, first of all and above all, a declaration that, on the part of your war camp, it is a just war; support of a war demands wishing and working for the victory of your war camp. Otherwise, the term “support” has no meaning and less value. Victory for Stalinism means the subjugation or subordination of the entire world to the worst kind of totalitarian despotism. Victory for the United States means the realization of its aim in the war (in so far, of course, as such an aim is realizable, which holds for the Stalinist aim as well), namely, the establishment of its imperialist rule over the world, the subjugation or subordination of all other lands to itself.

At this point in particular, the “critical” supporters of American imperialism interpose the argument:

“You emphasize the inter-imperialist aspect of the war, but you forget that it is also a conflict between two different social and political regimes. If Stalinism wins, all trace of a working-class and socialist movement and all forms of democracy will surely be wiped out. If American imperialism – and we grant that it is imperialism – wins, some form of bourgeois democracy, and therefore of a free labor movement, will surely, or at the very least, possibly remain. You must agree that the consequences of an American victory will differ vastly from those of a Russian victory, with the former being much less an evil than the latter.”

We do not at all forget this aspect of the war. On the contrary, we give it the heavy weight it deserves. We nevertheless reject the position of the war supporters, and on the very grounds on which they take their stand. They can see and think and act only in these terms:

American imperialism may be victorious over Russia or be defeated by it. Stalinist totalitarianism may be victorious over the “Western bloc” or be defeated by it. The working class may be set back in the one case or crushingly defeated in the other, but it cannot emerge from the war with a victory of its own, achieved by acting in the class struggle independently of the two war camps and opposed to both.

I do not know of a single one of the “sophisticated” war supporters, especially the pro-American variety, in whom this view is not explicit or implicit. You need only an hour’s “intimate conversation” with any of them to understand this perfectly. Why they continue to call themselves socialists, that is, people whose entire social outlook is warranted or comprehensible only on the basis of the conviction that the working class and it alone is capable of emancipating itself and all society, is a problem that is not wholly within the province of political science.

The possibility of a Stalinist victory has thrown these people into such a state of demoralization and panic that they have given up scientific political analysis. In fact, they are impatient with it and prefer to be guided by emotions. It is next to futile to keep asking them to explain just what has made and is making it possible for a monstrous reaction like Stalinism to grow to the point where it threatens to defeat a foe of the caliber of American capitalism and its international allies, and to crush the working class everywhere – in a word, to devour the entire world.

Our explanation is this: so long as the crisis of capitalism exists and deepens as it does and will, Stalinism will grow to solve it in its own reactionary way if the working class does not break with capitalism to solve the crisis in its own democratic socialist way. We become firmer in our attachment to this explanation, the more often we hear the hilariously stupid explanations of bourgeois and social-democratic thinkers.

Now, facing that supreme crisis of capitalism which the third world war represents, the working class is told again that Stalinism can be defeated only by supporting capitalist imperialism and its policies – ever so critically, to be sure – that is, by following the very same course which has contributed so decisively and overwhelmingly to the rise of Stalinism. Thank you, no! We believe that the beginning of wisdom and effectiveness in fighting and smashing Stalinism lies in the complete separation of the working class from capitalism, its governments, its parties, its policies and the struggle against them in the name of the working class and its own program. That applies to war-time no less than to peace-time.

Then you are indifferent to the outcome of the war? Then you don’t care if the Stalinist totalitarians defeat the bourgeois democracies? Then you will continue the class struggle regardless of its effect upon the outcome? The “critical” supporter asks these questions in genuine horror. Even though he has sucked them out of his trembling thumb, they should be answered.

The ordinary citizen sees only the victory (or defeat) of “his own” country, or the victory of its enemy. He knows little or nothing about the class struggle, revolutions, capitalist economy, imperialism, secret treaties, and the like. He is not to be condemned; he will one day learn. The socialist, however, has already learned, and he is to be condemned if he forgets. In a war like the third world war, he cannot be indifferent to the outcome. He cannot be for the victory of either war camp, because he cannot and must not support the aims which such a victory would achieve. He cannot take any responsibility for these aims, for the governments that pursue them, and the policies that serve them. He will not say anything to encourage the preposterous idea that these governments can be persuaded to follow any policies or aims fundamentally different from those that arise out of their very nature. He will devote all his efforts to replace them with the only kind of governments that can adopt and follow democratic policies and aims, a workers’ government.

The ordinary citizen, who can think only in terms of his present government winning the war or being defeated and crushed by the arms of the enemy – Russia, the Stalinists – comes to the conclusion that if the socialists are not for the victory of the government in the war, they are for its defeat by the enemy. So does our “critical” supporter. And so, we regret to note, are some radicals who have misread Lenin badly and misapplied him worse. Patiently, we reply:

We are not for suspending the class struggle of the toilers, that is, the defense and promotion of their economic, political and social positions. We are not for subordinating that struggle to the military triumph of imperialism, to the “victory.” We are not for abandoning the workers, or for having them abandon their legitimate interests, even in wartime, because, as Rosa Luxemburg once put it, that would really be leaving the nation in the lurch by surrendering it entirely to the reactionary classes and their interests. But because we take this view, it does not follow for us that we are for the defeat of the American bourgeoisie and its arms by Stalinism.

It is right here that we emphasize the difference between the first world war and the third. It is in this connection that I cited Lenin’s position in 1914 to show why it could not simply be repeated by socialists today, and his position in 1917 to show the extent to which it should be repeated today. The victory of Stalinism in the war would “impose an alien yoke” on the nations it conquers; it would mean the enslavement of the working class and the destruction of its movement, the war is not merely or even primarily a war “to decide which of them is to rob Turkey and the colonies.” We are not indifferent to who defeats Stalinism, because that involves how it is being defeated and what are the consequences of such a defeat; therefore we are not for support of capitalist imperialism in the war. By the same token, we are not indifferent to who defeats capitalism (in general) or our own bourgeoisie (in particular): therefore we are not for support of Stalinism in the war. We have nothing at all in common with those who support Stalinism on the ground that its conquests establish “anti-capitalist regimes,” because the views of these self-educated ignoramuses have nothing at all in common with socialism. We are opposed to such defeats of the bourgeoisie whose consequences are, and cannot but be, a disaster and an inferno of exploitation for the working class. We do not exist to see that revenge is taken upon the bourgeoisie for its social crimes, but to see that the working class emancipates itself from all class rule.

To make that clear for the nth time, I repeated in my second article the question put to Lenin by the social-patriots in the first world war as applied to carrying on the class struggle in the conditions of the third world war to the point where it would “imperil the military position of the government, even to the point where it may be defeated by the enemy and lose the war.” The Stalinists, as well as those who follow them, answer that question in the affirmative, for their “class struggle” against the bourgeoisie has as its only aim the victory of the Stalinist army and therewith the victory of the Stalinist bureaucracies in the capitalist countries. The socialist answer is the one I sought to give: We do not for a moment suspend the class struggle, even in wartime. But, not being Stalinists and not being cretins, we do not prosecute it in such a way as to produce a defeat of the government by Stalinism. We are for the working class defeating the bourgeoisie in the class war and that is all we work for. We do not work for it in such a way as assures the defeat of the bourgeoisie by a reaction that would crush the proletariat itself.

The “critical” supporters may “interpret” this position as they will, but there is really no reason to misunderstand it. The difference between us and them may be summed up in this way: Those of them who still talk about class struggle at all (that is, the “best” among them), say: “The class struggle during the war must be subordinated to the interests of the victory of American imperialism over the greater menace of Stalinist imperialism, for American imperialism, alas, is the only force left in the world today that can stop Stalinism in the countries threatened by it.” That is the position of the well-meaning socialists who have been frightened into chauvinism by the Stalinist rise. Our position is:

“The class struggle during the war must be ‘subordinated’ not to the victory of capitalism, and not to the victory of Stalinism, but only to the victory of the independent working class over them both.”

This thought, which does not claim to be an all-solving formula but a general guiding line, the strategical objective of the movement before and after the war breaks out, must be inseparably attached to and concretized in a program of “transforming the imperialist war into a democratic war,” to repeat the excellent and now eminently applicable words of Lenin in 1917. We will see what the democratic and socialist “critical” supporters of the war say and do about such a program in practical political life. Experience with them up to now has forearmed us against too many surprises.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 20 November 2018