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Ernest Lund

Discussion Article:

Basis for Defensism in Russia

(June 1941)

From New International, Vol. VII No. 7 (Whole No. 56), August 1941, pp. 187–91.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

LONG AND VIOLENT polemics were waged between Trotsky and his supporters on the one hand and ourselves on the other during the Russian invasions of Poland and Finland over the relation between the economy of a state and the character of its wars.

Trotsky insisted, in the case of Russia, upon an automatic relationship – “Progressive economy equals progressive war” was what his formula boiled down to. This resulted in the contradiction of simultaneously denouncing the invasion as a “blow at the world revolution” but characterizing them as “progressive wars.”

We answered that no war that dealt a blow at the revolution could be progressive since it was precisely the effect of the war on advancing or retarding the proletarian revolution that determined whether it was progressive or reactionary.

We did not, however, (nor could anyone who considered himself a Marxist), say that there was no connection between the economy of a state and the character of its war. What we insisted on was that certain states could, on the basis of the same economy, fight both progressive and reactionary wars. Factors in addition to the economy would have to be weighed in connection with a specific war to determine its character. These would be rooted in the political, diplomatic and military policies that preceded that war.

The war between Britain and Germany was an imperialist war on both sides because the economy of both countries forced them to fight for markets, raw materials and outlets for surplus capital. It was a war over the re-division of the world.

The war between Japan and China was imperialist on Japan’s side and national defensive on China’s side because the economy of Japan forced her to expand into China while the latter was struggling to create a unified national existence.

In the war between Germany and Russia we must begin by asking “What is the nature of Russian economy?”

A defensist cannot discuss the character of the war with those who hold that Russia is a capitalist state. The discussion with them can only revolve around the question of the nature of Russian economy. If Russian economy is no different from that of Germany’s or Britain’s, then, obviously, the matter of defeatism or defensism requires no discussion.

With those, however, who hold that Russian economy is basically different from the economy of the capitalist world, as does Shachtman, there is common ground on which to discuss an attitude toward the character of the war.

The Economic Conflict Between Russia and World Imperialism

The Russian Revolution dealt world capitalism a double blow. First, it established a workers’ state to act as both a beacon and a spur to the revolution in the rest of the world. We can refer to this as a political blow to capitalism. Second, it wrested one-sixth of the earth from world imperialism and threw up a monopoly of foreign trade to keep it free from imperialist penetration. We can refer to this as an economic blow to capitalism.

The Stalinist counter-revolution has effectively wiped out the existence of Russia as a political threat to capitalism. Far from remaining merely passive, Stalinist Russia did its utmost in Spain, China, Germany, France and elsewhere to reassure the capitalist states that it desired nothing else than the status quo – to be left alone. There was no political concession too treacherous or revolting for Stalin. He buried revolutions with an effectiveness that surpassed anything the capitalists themselves could do.

But he could not purchase peace and security! Neither from the Anglo-French imperialists nor from Hitler. For the new exploiting class in Russia was forced to exist upon the nationalized economy they had appropriated from the revolution. The existence of the nationalized economy was possible only as long as a monopoly of foreign trade kept Russia beyond the reach of world imperialism. Economically, therefore, the Russia of Stalin remained as much a problem on the agenda of world imperialism as the Russia of Lenin. As capitalism declined, the problem became ever more acute.

It is in this that the irrepressible conflict between Russia and world imperialism existed.

In speaking of “world imperialism” it is necessary to bear in mind that the term refers to both a generalized economic law and to definite national states. Economically imperialism is the same system, no matter which capitalist state carries it out. But politically, imperialism is the diplomatic and military activity of each particular imperialist state.

Thus we speak of the law of imperialist expansion into economically backward states. Yet in connection with a specific expansion, for instance Ethiopia, it was undertaken by Italian imperialism in the face of resistance by British imperialism. Not love for the Ethiopians, but their own imperialist interests motivated the British.

The above must be borne in mind when discussing the conflict between Russian economy and world imperialism.

Why the Concerted Imperialist Attack Did Not Occur

The years following the revolution in 1917 saw feverish activities on the part of the imperialists directed against the Soviet Union. The first activities consisted of small scale intervention – Americans at Archangel, Japanese at Vladivostok, French in the Black Sea – and material assistance to the White Guard armies. As long as the war lasted, the Germans were also active against the Soviets in Finland and the Ukraine.

Following the German revolution, the German bourgeoisie was unable to act against the Soviets on its own and unwilling to act as the agents of French and German imperialism. To do the latter would have only established Anglo-French imperialism on both of Germany’s frontiers and make the resurrection of German military strength all the more difficult. Following the failure to successfully utilize Poland against the Soviet Union in 1921, the British imperialists made preparations for a direct intervention. The militant response of the British working class with a general strike put an end to these moves.

The German bourgeoisie answered the anti-Soviet agitation of Anglo-French imperialism with the Treaty of Rap-polio, a German-Soviet pact for diplomatic and military collaboration. The pact was not the inspiration of German Social Democracy but of the Reichswehr general staff, the stronghold of the most aggressive German nationalists. Russian collaboration represented to the Germans both a weapon against Anglo-French imperialism and a means of blackmailing them. This tactic foreshadowed the policy of Nazism, which was nothing else but the national chauvinist element in complete control. From 1921 until 1935 the existence of a strong revolutionary movement in Central Europe and the anti-war sentiments of the British and French working classes prevented any further imperialist adventures against Russia. However, the victory of Hitler opened a new epoch. Beginning in Germany, the proletarian movements of Central Europe were smashed one by one. In their place arose the new military might of German imperialism. But German imperialism was not only a threat to the Soviet Union. It was also a threat to Anglo-French hegemony. Even if Germany struck at Russia first, Anglo-French imperialism would have little consolation. For the German organization of Russian resources would again make her the first military power on the continent and place France at her mercy. The result was the feverish and contradictory diplomacy of England and France from the advent of Hitler to the outbreak of the war. First, efforts to placate Germany with loans, permission to rebuild its navy, etc. – then the Stalin-Laval Pact – then the Munich Peace – then feverish efforts for a British-Russian Pact – then the war.

From this review it becomes apparent that the nature of the conflict between Germany and Anglo-France was such that a joint imperialist attack became ever more improbable. (The conflict between America-Britain and Japan in the Far East had the same result.) History had cast Stalinist Russia for the role of an ally of one of the imperialist camps.

Had England been willing to sign a second Munich Pact over the body of Poland, it is highly probable that German imperialism would have launched its first offensive against Russia. But another appeasement would have cost Britain every continental ally, with the possible exception of France. When Hitler realized that a second Munich was out of the question, he chose the pact with Stalin and the war against Britain first.

But the war against Britain has bogged down. The Channel could not be blitzed. The prospect is a long war. Russian supplies now became imperative for Germany. The economic organization of Russia by German imperialism would solve both its historic objective and its immediate military needs. The long awaited imperialist attack on Russia is taking place.

The Hitler-Stalin Pact and Russian Imperialism

For the Kremlin, the pact with Hitler promised two advantages: (a) another chance to escape involvement in the war and (b) the opportunity of sharing in the conquests of German imperialism. But did not the Russian participation in the division of Poland, the conquest of the Baltic states, etc., prove that Russian participation in the war was identical with that of Germany? Superficially it was identical. In both cases armies attacked and occupied territories. But fundamentally is was different.

The imperialism of Russia was of that primitive kind found in embryonic form in every exploiting class and awaiting but the opportunity to become active. Every exploiting class seeks to perpetuate itself against internal and external foes. This requires military and economic strength. An opportunity to increase its military and economic strength is therefore eagerly accepted. Parts of Poland and Finland, Bessarabia and the Baltic states were to be picked up, practically, for a song. The Russian rulers would truly have been altruists had they declined the invitation.

But is this the same as modern finance imperialism with its dictum of “expand or die”? Has anyone yet proven that Russian expansion was forced by internal economic pressures? Has anyone yet explained why Russia took such modest slices of Finnish territory when she could have extracted more if Finnish resources were vital to her? Or why she relinquished the nickel mines? Or why she chose territory that had primarily little economic value?

Russian imperialism has perhaps something in common with Chinese imperialism in Tibet but nothing in common with modern finance imperialism.

Stalin’s War Against Finland and Stalin’s War Against Germany

The invasion of Poland and Finland was an attempt by the Kremlin to strengthen its own reactionary rule. Since it made the workers of the occupied countries victims of nationalist illusions and agents of their own national bourgeoisie and through them of world imperialism, the Soviet occupation lowered their revolutionary consciousness and retarded their class development. This constituted a blow at the world revolution. The revolts in the Baltic states have revealed that Stalin had not turned them into fortresses but rather into prisons with inmates who were prepared to mutiny at the first opportunity. This has justified our position that military occupation of buffer territory at the expense of alienating the support of the workers of the world would be a loss, not a gain, to the defensive efforts of the Kremlin. The purposes, the execution, and results of the Soviet occupations were thoroughly reactionary.

Can we, however, say the same for the Kremlin’s attempts to defend Russia against German imperialism?

In the case of the conflict between Germany and the British Empire we are not concerned with who is waging a defensive and who an offensive war. All finance imperialism is, by its very nature, aggressive. If Germany attacked first, it only meant that the solution to her economic problems could not bear as long a postponement as those of Britain and France.

But can we also say that the conflict between Germany and Russia is basically an attempt to re-divide the world. We can say that on Germany’s side it was caused by the pressure of German economy upon the frontiers of Russia. But can we say that it was also caused by the pressure of Russian economy on the frontiers of Germany?

Germany’s attack on Russia is so obviously a predatory imperialist raid against Russian economic resources that no one – no one – has yet tried to attribute it to anything else.

Is the reactionary war against Poland and Finland – undertaken on the initiative of the Kremlin – being repeated in the attempt of the Kremlin to resist German imperialism? The answer is so obviously no that it seems a bit childish to have to deal with the question in these terms.

Russia is participating in this war because the Kremlin is fighting for its life. Further concessions to Hitler would have so lowered its prestige and strength within the country as to make it vulnerable to its internal enemies – either of the right or left. True, it turned down Hitler’s demands and chose to fight because its own neck was at stake. But why did Negrin fight? Why did Haile Sellassie fight? Why does Chiang Kai-shek fight? Stalin can save his own neck only by resisting German imperialism. In doing this his interests coincide with those of the world proletariat. Russia’s defense against Germany is a progressive war.

How the Outcome of the Russo-German War Will Effect World Revolution

Victory or defeat for either Germany or the British Empire will offer the proletariat as great or as small a perspective for revolution. The destruction of the British Empire will open up an epoch of colonial revolutions in Asia and Africa which might prove the Achilles’ heel of “victorious” German imperialism. The defeat of Germany will liberate Europe and once more offer the proletariat an opportunity to play its historic role.

What will Hitler’s conquest of Russia offer the world proletariat? The only answer that might be given – we hope never in our ranks – is that it will destroy Stalinism. This program has long ago been written for “Trotskyism” – not by revolutionists but by the GPU and Stalin’s pen prostitutes. The destruction of the Stalin regime by the Russian proletariat would of course mean the destruction of Stalinism everywhere. The destruction of the Stalin regime by Hitler would – aside from its other reactionary consequences – forever prevent history from putting the Stalinist lies about the Soviet “paradise” to the test. The Stalinist dupes would not become revolutionists because Hitler destroyed Stalinism. They would carry their illusions about the Soviet Union to the grave.

The effect of an imperialist conquest of Russia was very ably described by Max Shachtman in the December 1940 issue of The New International:

“The aim of imperialism in that case, whether it were represented in the war by one or many powers, would be to solve the crisis of world capitalism (and thus prolong the agony of the proletariat) at the cost of reducing the Soviet Union to one or more colonial possessions or spheres of interest. Even though prostrated by the victors in the last war, Germany remained a capitalist country, whose social regime the Allies did their utmost to maintain against the revolutionary proletariat. In the present war, we find victorious Germany not only not undertaking any fundamental economic changes in the conquered territories but preserving the capitalist system by force of arms against the unrest and revolutionism of the proletariat. There is no reason to believe that victorious imperialism in the Soviet Union would leave its nationalized property intact – quite the contrary. As Germany now seeks to do with France, imperialism would seek to destroy all the progress made in the Soviet Union by reducing it to a somewhat more advanced India – a village continent. In these considerations, too, the historical significance of the new, collectivist property established by the Russian Revolution again stands out clearly. Such a transformation of the Soviet Union as triumphant imperialism would undertake would have a vastly and durably reactionary effect upon world social development, give capitalism and reaction a new lease on life, retard enormously the revolutionary movement, and postpone for we don’t know how long the introduction of the world socialist society. From this standpoint and under these conditions, the defense of the Soviet Union, even under Stalinism, is both possible and necessary.”

(Comrade Shachtman, however, would defend Russia against the above consequences only in case of a combined imperialist attack in which Russia would have no allies. Why such a combined attack became virtually impossible was dealt with in point 3 of this article.)

But there are those who argue that Hitler is not invading the Soviet Union primarily to destroy the nationalized economy and make it a German colony. His primary concern, they say, is to defeat Great Britain. The Russian campaign is merely (!) a raid to secure the resources with which to continue his main war. True, perhaps. But how absurd when used as an argument to define the character of the war! Hitler, likewise, was not primarily interested in expropriating the German Jews. He only wanted their resources for his war against Britain. True, perhaps, but of little comfort to the Jews.

But what would the effect of a Russian victory be? The possibility of a Russian victory without the support of proletarian revolutions in the West is extremely hypothetical. But we can be sure that news of serious German reverses tomorrow would set the wheels in motion in Britain for an understanding with Germany. Is anyone so hare-brained as to believe that Britain would turn over the task of organizing Central Europe to Stalin?

But if the European revolution breaks out before Hitler has smashed Stalin, will it not fall victim to Stalinism as did the Spanish revolution? Of this we have no guarantee. All we can say is that with the rise of the revolutionary current, the revolutionary Marxists can again swim with the stream and seek to win it for their program. We can ask for no more.

Stalin’s Relations with Anglo-American Imperialism

“War is a continuation of politics by other means” has long been accepted as a guide-rule by Marxists. But progressive politics in time of a general imperialist war often become inseparable from one of the imperialist camps and, thereby, lose their progressive character.

In the last war the struggle of the Arabs against the Turkish Empire became merged with the reactionary struggle of British imperialism to control the Near Eeast. The struggle of Serbia for national unity and independence became merged with the struggle of Russia to break up the Austro-Hungarian Empire and control the Balkans. The struggle of Belgium to maintain its national independence became merged with the struggle of Anglo-French imperialism to control the continent. China was ordered by the Allied imperialists to declare war on Germany. The nationalist revolutionary movement of the Czechs was enlisted by the Allies against Germany. The fighting organizations of the Polish nationalists were enrolled by the Central Powers.

The Irish revolutionary movement entered into military relations with the Germans. Submarines landed arms on the Irish coast and conveyed information between Ireland and Germany. But revolutionary Marxists hailed and supported the uprising of the Irish nationalists against British rule in 1916.

These examples illustrate the fact that the mere alliance with a reactionary force for military reasons does not affect the progressive nature of a struggle. What is important is the extent to which the progressive side in the war can maintain its independence.

Had the Ethiopians risen in revolt against Italian rule at the outbreak of the war and accepted British arms, would this have changed the revolutionary content of their struggle? The fact that they arose at a time when Italy was occupied in a war with Britain would have attested to their perspicacity but would not have changed the character of their struggle. But their current r61e as auxiliaries of the British army in conquering Ethiopia for British imperialism has no progressive content whatsoever.

Chiang Kai-shek has long been acting as an ally of British and American imperialism in China. American imperialism has already given him mote financial, material and diplomatic support than it will ever give Russia. American engineers, military advisers, aviators and other specialists have long been part of the Chinese forces. Roosevelt seeks volunteers for China’s army by offering to accept service there as equivalent to service in America’s own army and therefore releases them from the draft obligation. Has this changed the character of China’s war? No. Will an American declaration of war against Japan alter the situation? It might. We would have to wait and see. Naval struggles in the Pacific between Japan and America and military operations on the Philippines would not affect the character of the war. Even a few regiments of marines joining the Chinese forces would not necessarily change the character of China’s war. Those who would become defeatists in China at such a time would, in effect, be punishing China for remaining at war with Japan while the latter was being attacked by a third power. Was the American Revolution any the less historically progressive because it was accomplished with the aid of Louis XIV’s army and navy?

If, however, the Chiang Kai-shek government were reduced to a mere facade for American imperialism, the character of its war would obviously change. Its outcome would only determine whether Japanese or American imperialism would exploit China. The world proletariat has no interest in this question. It rejects both imperialisms.

The argument that Russia takes part in the war in a reactionary manner because she is allied to Anglo-American imperialism becomes at first incomprehensible and then ludicrous. She has merely “switched sides” is the argument. That she has “switched sides” is incontestable. But this would only have validity if we had been defeatists during the Finnish war on grounds that Russia was allied to Germany. This was not the case. We were defeatists because the alliance with Germany had a reactionary purpose, the conquest of new territory by the Kremlin. Is this the purpose – today – of the alliance with Anglo-American imperialism? How utterly absurd! What the Kremlin may do tomorrow we will leave until tomorrow. No one has yet asked us to be defeatists in China on the ground that Chiang Kai-shek has designs upon Japan which he will realize after crushing the Japanese army. The argument that the alliance with Anglo-American imperialism makes Russia’s war reactionary is nothing but the other side of the coin from the Stalinist argument that the same alliance makes the war of Anglo-American imperialism progressive.

Those who hold that it is possible for Russia to fight a progressive war against imperialist encroachment upon her territory and who refuse to be for Russian defense today can only do so on one basis – that Stalin has already become a mere facade for the Anglo-American imperialists and turned the country over to them. That this might take place is improbable but not impossible. In that event it will be immaterial whether Russia becomes a colony of German or of Anglo-American imperialism. But since when do we base our strategy of today on the possibility of tomorrow?

Stalin’s alliance with Anglo-American imperialism today does not give the latter one-tenth as much entrée to Russia as the Anglo-American alliance with China gives it entrée to the latter country. To be consistent, those who hold that Russia is fighting a reactionary war by virtue of her alliance must certainly say the same for China.

The Lines of Defeatism and Defensism Tested in Action

An attitude toward the character of a war must be based on the fundamental factors – strategy of the world revolution, nature of imperialism, character of Russian economy, etc. But the position based on these considerations must also coincide with the obvious tactics of the revolutionary struggle. If they do not, something is wrong with the position. It was in this test that the line of Trotsky on the Polish and Finnish events bogged down worst. It bogged down so badly that a Finnish civil war had to be discovered to bolster it.

The revolutionary defeatist in Russia today must tell the workers to continue the class struggle without regard for its effect on the military front against Germany. This could only be justified with the argument that a German conquest of Russia is no different for the world proletariat than a German conquest of France. The quotation from Shachtman has already pointed out the significant difference. Or the defeatists would have to become preposterous and tell the Russian worker that the country was already in the hands of imperialism – Anglo-American imperialism – and that resistance to German imperialism is only in the interest of Wall Street and London investments.

(Or would the defeatist tell the Russian worker that there are only three camps in this war – two imperialist camps and the revolutionary camp, and that Russia is part of one of the imperialist camps? If it is the slogan of the Third Camp that has led our defeatist astray then the motion of Comrade Coolidge of a year ago to expunge all reference to the Third Camp from our documents was absolutely correct. The “Third Camp” as an agitational slogan was very much in order. But the “Third Camp” in the sense of military line-ups which precludes the possibility of a military alliance between a progressive and a reactionary force – this is a snare and a delusion. The sooner Marxist education roots it out of our movement, the sooner will the damage be undone.)

Basing himself upon this line, the defeatist would seek to institute a mass movement against the Kremlin on the demand that it cease its imperialist war against Germany – the slogan of “peace” in time of war is very revolutionary. But what would our movement say tomorrow if Stalin made peace – which could only take place on Hitler’s terms? We would denounce him as a capitulator and traitor. Why? We did not do it when he made peace with Finland. As true defeatists, we welcomed the latter. Would we welcome peace with German imperialism?

Would the defeatist ever be able to explain to a Russian worker why he should take the manufacture and transport of supplies to China into account when waging the struggle against Stalin but not the needs of the Russian front against Germany? How explain to the Russian worker that the conquest of China by Japan is of direct consequence to him, but the conquest of Russia by Germany does not matter sufficiently to require defensive efforts?

The program of the Russian revolutionary defensist would be along the following lines:

In America this policy calls for:

July 6, 1941

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