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John West

The Bands Are Playing

(July 1935)


From The New International, Vol. II No. 7, July 1935, pp. 113–116.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

INSURRECTION and war are, in the end, the ordeals by fire that test beyond appeal the integrity of working class parties. When faced with war or insurrection, no further equivocation is possible, no fine phrases can any longer hide inner decay, no abstractly noble slogans can serve to check the impact of the mailed fist of history. All veils are torn aside; and the working class is given its clearest chance to see and to judge.

These tests are infallible, and the parties that fail to meet them are thereby forever condemned. It was the Bolshevik party alone—even more narrowly, the Leninist wing of the Bolshevik party—that stood unshaken before the October insurrection. Before the insurrection, however, the leaders of the Bolshevik party, by their position during the imperialist war, had already demonstrated that they would not fail.

Conversely, it was the outbreak of the war which proved conclusively that social democracy could not lead the revolutionary movement of the working class. All the municipal housing and “honest government” and social insurance in the world could not weigh a feather against the lead weight of the handing over of the workers to the war machines of the imperialist powers. This verdict needed no confirmation. History, however, generously provided her second great test to remove any trace of doubt: and once more, in the German revolution, she exposed the corrupted sinews of social democracy.

Now it must be clearly understood that failure or success in these two final tests—war and insurrection—is not at all an accident of the moment. Rather is one or the other prepared for slowly, in cumulative fashion, over a long period of years. Corruption does not set in in an instant. It is the result of a developing decay, manifested first in little things, in isolated spots and tissues, and finally, unchecked, taking possession of the entire body. So, likewise, is strength built up—by a long process of vigorous exercize, healthy diet, discipline and control. Thus, it was the generation-long fight of Lenin against the incursions of opportunism, reformism, sectarianism, that brought the Bolsheviks intact and ready through to 1918. And it was a generation of too much ease, too much minor success, and above all a subtly, increasing confusion, both in theory and in actions, on the question of the nature of the state, that brought social democracy to the betrayal of 1914. Since, in 1914, the social democracy no longer saw the bourgeois state as its irreconcilable enemy, it was thus ready, under the “exceptional circumstances”, to support the bourgeois state.

It is the duty of Marxists to foresee and to prepare. Although Lenin and the other genuine Marxists, before the war of 1914-18, had been aware of the growing corruption of social democracy; although they had analyzed it and fought against it; yet even they had not clearly enough warned the working class against betrayal. Consequently, the blow to the working class was even greater than it need have been. “If these, our leaders, who have so long propagandized against imperialist war,” reasoned the workers, “now support this war, then this war must be just, it must be our war.” The workers had not been told often and forcibly enough that the whole development of their leaders’ policies was carrying them to support of the oncoming war and the sell-out of their class.

Once again, the prospect of imperialist war, a war far greater and more deadly than the last, confronts us. The day and the hour when it will break out openly cannot, of course, be predicted. It will not be next month, nor in all probability during the next twelve months. Certain necessary factors are not yet in line. However, the material presuppositions for war are now present The imperialist tensions are more taut even than in 1914. Armaments are not merely at their highest point in history, but are being increased more rapidly than ever before. Inescapable inner forces are driving Japan and Germany to expansion. The hegemony of France over Continental Europe, temporarily secured by the Versailles Treaty, is threatened by the treaty revisionists; and France must steadily slip back unless she reasserts herself, and resolutely goes forward—that is, unless she is victor in a new war. Italy’s Ethiopian campaign brings her directly and indirectly into potential conflict with Japan, France, and England, all three of whom have greedy eyes fixed on the Empire of Haile Selassie. The imperialist interests of the United States are daily more threatened by, on the one hand, Japan, and on the other England.

The chief factor now delaying the outbreak of war is the lack of sufficiently secure “national unity” in certain of the imperialist nations, notably France and England. To wage external war successfully, the bourgeois state must be reasonably certain of no major disturbances within. Above all in France this certainty does not at present hold. This situation, however, cannot long endure; and whichever way the internal issue is decided in France will complete the preparation for war: Fascism will consolidate the nation through the totalitarian state, and make France ready for external war; whereas a workers’ insurrection would itself be the signal for an immediate continental outbreak.

This, then, is what confronts us. We must therefore ask: What will be the position of the working class parties in the face of war? Will it be the Marxian position, the position of intransigent struggle against the enemy at home, the fight to turn the imperialist war into civil war and to utilize the war crisis to achieve the victory of the workers’ state? Or will it be again a “truce with the bourgeoisie”—that is, capitulation and betrayal?

No future event is inevitable, and it is therefore impossible to predict with certainty the answer to this question. Nevertheless it is clear that all of the evidence of every kind, in the case of the parties of the Second and the Third Internationals, points to: betrayal. No charge can be more serious than this one, and it is with a full sense of responsibility that it is made. Silence, in this case, would mean to share in the betrayal.

We are concerned here primarily with the socialist and Stalinist parties in France, Great Britain, and the United States, and with the respective Internationals in relation to these. In Germany and Italy, the parties are not at present important forces. The three former are the decisive countries.

A betrayal, naturally, is not a successful betrayal if it is an open and straightforward repudiation. That is not the danger. The danger is that slogans which may be—abstractly and formally considered—correct and unassailable, are manipulated in the concrete to serve the betrayal. Slogans are always historically meaningless when taken in the abstract; it is not until we examine their specific content in particular policies and actions that we can estimate their role. In the present article it is chiefly by the examination of two such formally correct slogans, together with their specific content, that I shall present some of the evidence substantiating the prediction that the Second and Third Internationals will capitulate at the outbreak of the next war.

These slogans are: (1) “Against War and Fascism”; (2) “Defend the Soviet Union”.

As to the social democracy, however, one point, in itself sufficiently conclusive, must be made to begin with: Lack of clarity on the question of the state was the central issue that led to the capitulation of social democracy in 1914. Since 1914, however, in spite of the hammering of history, social democracy has not in any respect clarified this question, either in theory or in practise. Indeed, the opposite is the case. Today, among the social democratic leadership, there is more confusion on this question than in 1914. We do not need to look far for proof. For example: the British Labor party’s declaration “against dictatorship whether of the Right or the Left”; the behavior of the social democrats in office in the Scandinavian countries; voting for Hindenburg in Germany; the attitude toward the NRA at the beginning of Roosevelt’s administration; above all, among recent events, the entry of Vandervelde—the leader of the Second International—into the Belgian Government. Like results, fortunately or unfortunately, follow from like causes. And the like result in this case will be the new betrayal.


“Against War and Fascism!” How persuasive and unimpeachable a slogan this seems to be! Is there any Marxist who is not against these two primary scourges of the working class? It is easy to be carried along by the appealing surface. Yes, Marxists are against war and against Fascism, but their opposition is a revolutionary opposition, and to understand this we must go beneath the surface.

There are two cardinal errors in the use made by the socialists and Stalinists (in this respect they are scarcely distinguishable, though their positions spring from different roots) of the slogan, “Against War and Fascism!”

The first is old and familiar. The slogan, negative in form, is used as a cover for purely “defensive” and pacifist agitation against war. This has always been true of social democratic opposition to war. In the case of the Stalinists it has become most striking during the past two years. The pacifist peace policy of the Soviet Union is only the home counterpart of the building of pacifist “Leagues Against War and Fascism” throughout the world. In Moscow, Radek, writing officially for Pravda, praises Barthou, after the Marseilles assassination, as one whose whole life had been devoted to the cause of peace. Barthou, world agent of French imperialism! And in this country the communist party unites in the League, in program as well as in activities, with the worst liberal, ministerial, and women’s club riff-raff. The League of Nations has suddenly become the great defender of world peace—so outstanding a defender that Litvinov, a few weeks ago, no longer finds it necessary on the floor of the Council to object to Mussolini’s Ethiopian outrage. As usual, pacifism turns out to be not merely ineffectual against war, but in practise part of the ideological preparation for war. Litvinov has become more eloquent than the Pope in calling for “disarmament”—and rather less effective.

Naturally, the socialists are not disturbed at the pacifist charms of their bureaucratic rivals. They are old hands at the pacifist game.

The only fight against war is the revolutionary struggle for socialism. This shameful, weak-kneed, blear-eyed, sentimental pacifism of the two parties is, precisely, a major method of blunting the revolutionary struggle, deceiving the working class, and ultimately of handing them over helpless to the bourgeois state when war does actually come. A pacifist position, however disguised, when encountered in a working class party is invariably a symbol of wholesale political degeneration. It was so in the case of social democracy, which was so enlightenedly pacifist before 1914. It is so now. Pacifism is the hypocritical face of social-patriotism. And, as before, it will prove the bridge to capitulation.

The second error in the use of the slogan, “Against War and Fascism!” is even more deadly; and in its case we have a new development, the development that will distinguish the capitulation of working class officialdom in the next war from its capitulation in 1914. The same tricks will not work twice in exactly the same manner. There must be at least a change of costume.

The reason goes as follows: Fascism, especially Hitlerism, means war. Therefore, the fight against war is the fight against Fascism, and especially against Hitlerism, the worst form of Fascism. The success of Fascism means the destruction of all democratic rights. The destruction of democratic rights means the crushing of the organizations of the working class, and thus defeat for the revolutionary movement. But Fascism, especially Hitlerism, can succeed only by war, and, since Fascism means war, will inevitably undertake war.

What then follows? What follows is the betrayal of the working class of France, England, and the United States. For, on the basis of the above chain of reasoning, to support the democratic nations in a war against Hitler is to defend democratic rights against Fascism; thus to defend the organizations of the working class; and thereby the revolution. The wheel completes its circle. Defense of the national state—that is, defense of, the interests of the imperialist bourgeoisie of England, France, and the United States—becomes, through the position of the socialists and the Stalinists, a revolutionary duty!

Let no one imagine that this analysis is a mere fantasy. This is the necessary and inescapable consequence of the cumulative corruption of Marxian principle in the hands of the leaders of the Second and Third Internationals. Once more we shall find that the working class officials make the most effective recruiting sergeants for the bourgeoisie.

The moral fallacy in this position is easy enough to understand when once examined from the point of view of Marxism. The statement, “Fascism means war” is incomplete. It is not fascism that means war. Rather is it the continued existence of capitalism that means both Fascism and war ... Fascism means war only in the sense that it marks outwardly a great intensification of the inner conflicts of capitalism, and is thus an indication of the more rapid drive of the whole capitalist system toward the highest expression of these conflicts—imperialist war. But in the linked chain of causes that make war an inevitable concomitant of the continued existence of capitalism, the democratic nations have as integral a part as the Fascist nations. From the point of view of the working class, there can be no “friendly”, no “peace-loving” capitalist states. Every capitalist state, democratic as well as Fascist, represents one or another form of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie over the working class, and is thus the implacable enemy of the working class. To defend the democratic rights of the working class is one thing. But this has nothing in common with the defense of the “democratic” capitalist state. The former is a primary duty of every working class party; the latter is the occupation of traitors. The latter will be put forward as the only way to protect the working class against war and Fascism; in practice, it will give the working class both war and Fascism, for the bourgeoisie of the democratic countries will not overcome the necessity for a resort to Fascism in the decline of capitalism merely by success in the next war.

The business of the working class within any country is never under any circumstances to defend “the government”—that is, the political executive of the class enemy—but always to fight for its overthrow. This holds above all in the case of war, for war undertaken by the capitalist government is at once both the most frightful blow that can be directed by the bourgeoisie against the working class, and likewise one of the signal opportunities for doing away with the bourgeois state. The duty of the French (or British or American) Marxist in the case of war is not to suspend the struggle against the class enemy, but to redouble its vigor and intransigence. It is a fine revolutionary policy that goes actively along in “normal” times and is abandoned in the “exceptional” instances of war and insurrection. These “exceptions” are exactly what the whole revolutionary policy should be designed to prepare for. As I stated at the beginning of this article, these are the supreme tests of revolutionary integrity. Failure to meet these tests is the proof not merely of a “deviation” on particular points, but of the complete degeneration of the entire policy.

Under the slogan, “Against War and Fascism!!” along the lines I have traced, social democracy and Stalinism have already completed the full ideological preparation for the sell-out to the next war. The speeches of Leon Blum are only the complements of the statements of Stalin, Radek and Litvinov. Every Moscow broadside about the “peace-loving nations”, the “sincere friends of peace” (Laval, Flandin, Simon, Benes, Roosevelt...!) in contrast to the “Fascist war-mongers” only serves to cement the structure more firmly.


The second formally “correct” slogan which is being manipulated to prepare for capitulation to the next war is the familiar “Defend the Soviet Union!” Here we are at the very heart of Stalinism.

Defend the Soviet Union? Naturally. An elementary duty of every worker? Of course. A first principle of any revolutionary program since 1918? What pretender, even, to Marxism would deny it? And it is just because this slogan, in the abstract, is so unquestionable, so entirely correct, that its misuse by Stalinism is so completely deceptive and disastrous.

What does the slogan, “Defend the Soviet Union!” mean to a Marxist? The essence can be summed up quickly. It means: “Extend the October revolution.” It means to strengthen the economic and political organizations of the world proletariat, to carry the class struggle on a world basis to ever higher levels, to drive toward workers’ power. It means to put all faith in the working class. It means to achieve working class victory in the capitalist nations. And it means these things quite openly and realistically. For these are the only possible defense of the Soviet Union.

To Stalinism, however, the slogan means: support the program of national Bolshevism; no word of criticism of Stalin and his bureaucratic associates; put all faith in diplomatic deals with bourgeois powers; adopt an attitude of philistine cynicism toward the world proletariat; reduce the working class parties to branches of the foreign office of the Soviet state. And it means: do not carry on genuinely revolutionary activities within your own country, because this would upset “peace”; permit the working class of Germany and Austria to be crushed under Fascism rather than risk one ounce of cement at Dnieprostroy or one tractor at Stalingrad. And, lastly, it means: support the war policy of your democratic government, and offer the working class to the coming imperialist war in all nations where the bourgeois finds its imperialist aims best served by a temporary alliance with the Soviet bureaucracy.

Yes, we shall see the workers of France, England, and the United States rallied to the flag by the Stalinist officials. “Defend the Soviet Union! Enlist in the army, and—fight against war and Hitlerism! Defend the Soviet Union!” And the workers will sign up while the band, no doubt, plays The Internationale. Finance capital will smile grimly to itself; it has a long training in cynicism. And finance capital will be willing to accept the services of Stalinism and Stalinist-deceived workers, and of the Red Army, as well as of any others, to use as levers for the re-allotment of colonies, oil wells, copper mines, and spheres of influence. Bullets have a way of piercing through ideologies without making fine distinctions.

This infamous development under the veil of the slogan, “Defend the Soviet Union!” has been going on steadily for many years, since approximately the time of the Anglo-Russian Committee. It reaches maturity in the Franco-Soviet military pact, and the statements that accompanied the initialling of the pact and the collateral memoranda. Here, displayed before the world, is the full blown flower of Stalinism. And, alas, it is only the working class—the class that is too trustful, too straightforward—that is any longer deceived. The bourgeoisie knows clearly enough the significance of the pact, and its correspondents and editorial writers have gloated over it with appropriate enthusiasm. Stalin here has announced openly what was actually accomplished some time ago: the liquidation of the last vestiges of international revolutionary policy by the Communist International and its sections. To the French bourgeoisie he promises protection from revolution within, in return for a crumb or two of paper protection of his own bureaucratic regime from external aggression by Germany. To the French bourgeoisie he declares: build your military machine as strongly as you wish; and if you use it to suppress the rights of the French working class, to maintain the power of the bourgeois state, to further your imperialist ambitions, if, even, you find it necessary to impose Fascism in order to carry on, I will keep the communist party from unduly interfering, I will see that its leaders while away their time in dickers with the socialist officials and harmless patter about democratic rights and immediate demands, I will guarantee that they do not undertake the struggle for power; only, in return, let me remain safe in the Kremlin.

A specious argument in excuse of the present foreign policy of Stalinism has lately been growing in popularity among certain “friends” of the Soviet Union who, in spite of chronic political blindness, are a trifle disturbed over such open and extravagant excesses as entry into the League of Nations and the Franco-Soviet pact. This argument runs somewhat as follows: We will grant that, formally considered, Stalin has departed from true Marxism. However, this was partly forced on him by the historical contradictions involved by the existence of the Soviet Union in an otherwise bourgeois world. Partly, it is true, the Soviet difficulties result from Stalin’s errors. Nevertheless, we are faced with a situation, not a theory, and we must be realistic. The Soviet Union is the greatest achievement of the working class, and the major bulwark of the revolution. Its immediate difficulties compel Stalin to make such moves as entering the League and signing the French pact. We will have to swallow our principles for the time being, and digest it. When the situation improves, we will make the necessary corrections.

This argument is false to the core.

In the first place, the situation is not going to improve. Day by day it sharpens, and every additional hour on the false path, every new step away from principled policy, makes correction that much more difficult.

In the second place, even if this reasoning were true, it would in no way provide an “excuse” for Stalinism. If a pilot, by one false calculation after another, brings the ship into dangerous shoals and heads square for the reefs, the intelligent conclusion is scarcely, “Well, he has made mistakes, but here we are and we will have to let him go to the end.” Rather is it, “This man has gone far enough, and has proved his incompetence. We need a new pilot, and a revised plan of action not merely to go forward, but even to escape complete disaster on the rocks.” If a stockbroker has lost nine-tenths of a man’s fortune, a reasonable man, rather than turning over the remainder to follow that has gone before, finds a new broker. Perhaps the new broker will have to depart from the rules of “sound finance” because of the debacle caused by his predecessor. But at least the investor will have some chance of a new direction. No. We condemn Stalinism for what it has done, for where it has led the Soviet Union. But this is not merely a matter of raking up dead ashes. What Stalinism has done is the evidence that demonstrates beyond any possible doubt what it will do—proves that Stalinism, which has brought the Soviet Union to the edge of the abyss, will end by plunging it into the abyss itself.

But, finally and conclusively, it is not merely the past policies of Stalinism that are disastrous. It is the present policies. And they are disastrous not merely for the working class of bourgeois nations, but for the Soviet Union itself. Granted that heroic measures are needed to save the Soviet Union in the present historical situation, the policies of Stalin are the guarantors of its defeat. To state that the strengthening of the world proletariat and the extension of the October revolution are the only means of defending the Soviet Union is to do more than repeat high-sounding phrases. For any other method of defending the Soviet Union means in the end its overthrow.

It should be remembered that the overthrow of the Soviet Union, from the point of view of the working class, does not necessarily mean the dismembering of the Soviet Republics and their conquest by imperialist nations. This is what Stalin would have us believe to be the sole meaning. This does indeed threaten in part—as for example in Hitler’s plans for a Nazi-dominated Ukraine. But there is a deeper meaning: not conquest of the Soviet Union by foreign powers, but the revival of class rule within the Soviet republics, that is, the definitive overthrow of the working class regime. This is the most fundamental danger to the Soviet Union. And not only does Stalinism take no steps against this danger; it is Stalinism itself and its policies which are directly leading to the overthrow of the working class regime within the Soviet Union. Indeed, the present stage in the development of Stalinism is transitional in this process. The present bureaucratic, nationalistic officialdom, resting primarily on the apparatus and the army, is already an immense distance from the dictatorship of the proletariat as Lenin understood it. And this internal development is only the correlative of the external policy that attempts to defend the Soviet borders by alliance with finance capital. The betrayal of the workers in France, England and the United States to their governments during the next war will be merely the reverse side of the betrayal of the workers of the Soviet Union, in the suppression of the Russian revolution itself by the completion of the process of undermining the workers’ regime.

In brief summary, let it be asked: “What is the answer? What is the conclusion to be drawn?” The conclusion is inescapable. Foreshadowed by the events in the British general strike, the events of the Chinese revolution, the policy of the “Third Period,” demonstrated by the triumph of Hitler in Germany and the defeat of the workers in Austria, it is now exposed by the approach of the war crisis in letters too gigantic for any Marxist to avoid: The Third International, as thoroughly as the Second International, is rotten through and through, decayed and irrecoverable, preparing systematically for the new August 4, the new bloody sacrifice of the working class. The only possible answer is the rallying of all revolutionists under the banners of the world revolution, in the struggle for workers’ power, in the rejection of all truce with the class enemy under whatever disguise, and the concentration of attack on the enemy at home. But this means and can only mean decisive and final break with social democracy and with Stalinism. The only road is the road of the Fourth International.


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