10 March 2022
The following is a lightly edited version of a talk at an IBT study class on 6 March 2022 (audio also available below). The reading for the class was “Against Imperialist War!,” a manifesto adopted by the founding conference of the Fourth International in 1938. Participants discussed the ongoing war in Ukraine in light of the historical lessons of the Trotskyist movement.
This war in Ukraine is going to reverberate for years. It’s an event of world historical significance, which has disoriented people and is realigning political forces in strange ways.
Let us start from first principles. So what is our first principle? It might not come as a great surprise to you that we think Marx had it right. The first principle of our program is this: Workers of the world, unite!
In practice when we are working out what must be done, we are trying to discern how to unite the international working class, especially in the face of inter-imperialist war. That in turn calls for clarity about the nature of imperialism and inter-imperialist war.
In the decade before the outbreak of the First Imperialist War, the Second International, which was led by the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), resolved at innumerable international meetings and conferences that in the event of war socialists would simply refuse to be a part of it. They agreed that when the bosses of one country go to war against another country, the workers should refuse to be divided along national lines.
Well, that went out the window.
On 28 June 1914, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo. That lit the fuse.
Not much more than a month later, on one day, 4 August 1914, there were three significant developments:
- Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm invaded Belgium.
- Britain declared war on Germany.
- And most importantly, every member of the German parliament, the Reichstag, voted for war credits, including every member of the SPD, the repository of Marxist orthodoxy.
So, starting on 4 August 1914, the workers of Europe were led by their mass political parties to kill and be killed on behalf of their bosses, in that terrible First Imperialist War.
The barbaric invasion of “poor little” neutral Belgium by the militaristic German regime on 4 August came under virulent criticism in Britain and France.
There was a massive surge of social patriotism throughout Europe, which totally swamped international class consciousness.
But whipping up hostility to Germany, mobilizing the populace to go to war against it, merely accelerated the conflagration. Just as no German worker would eat better for the German invasion of Belgium, no British or French worker, nor any worker anywhere else, would eat better by responding with like hostilities.
In fact, the invasion of Belgium was an outcome of the system of imperialist competition. It was actually somewhat accidental that it was Germany that took the first decisive act in this unfolding war.
If instead of supporting their ruling classes the leaders of the Second International had adhered to a Marxist policy, then the SPD and the other labor and socialist parties in Europe and around the world would have opposed the war not only from their parliamentary seats, but also in the factories and the mines and the streets. The First World War would not have happened—and a lot of other things would have happened.
So, in the tragic bloodshed of the First World War, the left wing of the workers’ movement split off from the old Second International: Lenin and the Bolsheviks, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Liebknecht and the Spartacists. It was a complex process of argument and political clarification to hammer out a refined understanding of the imperialist system, of war and peace and the material basis of misleadership in the working class. It hammered out new understandings of connected questions of the labor aristocracy and the labor bureaucracy, opportunism and social patriotism, and the kind of party the working class needs to make a revolution.
The central element of this new understanding was the Leninist conception of imperialism.
Imperialism is the system we live under, the capitalism of the present epoch—an epoch of wars and revolutions. Imperialism is the capitalism of vast monopolies dominated by the bourgeoisie of the financial conglomerates, who use their national states to help maximize their profits, through intensifying international competition for raw materials, markets, cheap labor, investment opportunities, trade routes, territory and the capacity to project their imperialist power.
There is no way that good capitalists or nice liberals, or honest social democrats, can tame imperialism or trim its claws. Imperialist competition cannot be renounced. And imperialism has within it the inherent, inescapable, tendency to inter-imperialist war, with all its attendant inhumanity and destruction.
The imperialist system contains within it an important new social process, whereby the imperialist bourgeoisie is able to super-exploit some parts of the international working class in the colonies and semi-colonies, and give special increased remuneration to others, in the imperialist heartlands. The labor bureaucracy in the trade unions and the privileged labor aristocracy could be rewarded for their services in helping reconcile the masses with the existing order.
It was this understanding of the material basis for non-revolutionary consciousness in the leadership of the working class, and the understanding that it was necessary to find new frameworks to organize a political struggle against that non-revolutionary consciousness, that led to the crystallization of the conception of the Leninist vanguard party.
The mass struggles in opposition to the war, which embedded these new understandings in the working class, were integral to the revolutionary events which came out of the war, most importantly the Russian Revolution and the birth of the Third International. This was a period of amazing struggle, amazing conquests and amazing development of revolutionary organization and consciousness.
The revolutionary wave receded in the 1920s and the Third International degenerated. The Left Opposition developed in response to that degeneration, and it was the Left Opposition that transmitted these programmatic principles to the next generation. So, in the period of the lead-up to the Second Imperialist War, Trotsky and those he led were trying to build the nucleus of a new international revolutionary party, the Fourth International. Theirs was a political struggle for programmatically-based splits and fusions on the basis of the lessons learned in the blood and struggle of the First Imperialist War.
Now, let me jump forward to September 1938, when, just as the Second World War was about to begin, there were two events of world-historic importance: the German invasion of Czechoslovakia and the founding congress of the Fourth International.
The document we are discussing today was a necessary product of the founding conference of the Fourth International. Its central argument was that:
“the main enemy is in one’s own country. The working class has no fatherland to defend except where it conquers and rules. No support to the war makers, but continuation of the class struggle in every situation and utilization of the war crisis for the overthrow of capitalist rule, i.e., the overthrow of the war and of capitalism itself!”
—“Against Imperialist War”
But Marxism applies a hierarchy of considerations, and the defense of deformed or degenerated workers’ states is a higher consideration than inter-imperialist war.
Defense of the Soviet Union, despite its Stalinist degeneration, was central to revolutionary politics in the 1930s. Revolutionaries defended the Soviet Union from capitalist enemies, irrespective of the circumstances and immediate causes of the conflict. A decisive victory for the Soviet Union could have set in motion a dynamic that swept away the Stalinist caste and led to a wave of revolutions around the world.
In a 1934 piece, Trotsky noted:
“Taken on a historic scale, the antagonism between world imperialism and the Soviet Union is infinitely deeper than the antagonisms that set individual capitalist countries in opposition to each other. But the class contradiction between the workers’ state and the capitalist states varies in acuteness depending upon the evolution of the workers’ state and upon the changes in the world situation.”
—“War and the Fourth International,” June 1934
As Trotsky observed, in the immediate conjuncture of the 1930s, the contradictions between imperialism and the Soviet Union were temporarily somewhat softened by what Trotsky called “the extreme weakening of the international revolution.”
China today plays rather the role of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and Trotsky’s remark casts a certain light on why the tensions between imperialism and China are today somewhat muted.
Despite harboring a huge growth of capitalism, China remains a deformed workers’ state, based on statized property in key sectors and the overall state direction of the economy. And ultimately China is certainly a far bigger factor in world affairs than Russia, and fundamentally counterposed to imperialism. But for a variety of reasons, including the low ebb of the international class struggle, the tension is rather quiescent.
So, today, if China becomes embroiled in an inter-imperialist war, revolutionaries defend China, and that defense of China will not cease if it goes into an alliance with imperialist Russia. We do not support the Chinese bureaucracy, nor do we support the imperialists they are allied with, but we defend and support the planned, non-capitalist elements of the Chinese system of production which imperialists seek to dismantle.
However, the main thrust of the war manifesto of the founding conference of the Fourth International was against the various excuses for taking sides in inter-imperialist wars. The manifesto argued against support for “peaceful” countries over “warlike” countries “because war is inherent in capitalism itself.”
The manifesto argued against support for “democratic” countries over “dictatorial” countries, “because the ‘democracies’ are already allied with many dictatorships,” and anyway, “when war does break out the first victims will be the democratic rights and institutions.” No inter-imperialist war is really for democracy, “since true democracy for the masses can be won only in the struggle against capitalist domination.”
Likewise, the manifesto argued against support for non-fascist countries over against fascist countries. The difference between fascist imperialism and “democratic” imperialism is secondary—it is about how a country is organized internally, not about how it conducts wars.
Of course, we are not indifferent to fascism. We are for united fronts of workers’ organizations to destroy fascism. But neither the bourgeois state nor imperialist war are effective instruments to smash fascism.
And this manifesto also argued against supporting smaller or weaker countries over larger powers, and against the choosing of sides in an inter-imperialist war on the basis of calls for national independence.
Of course, outside the context of inter-imperialist war, the question of national independence may be decisive, but workers are an international class. Our very highest value is our strengthening and development and consciousness as an international class, and ultimately in our power as an international class. So, as a consequence, our opposition to the destruction of our class through international war is a central task and takes precedence over questions of national independence.
Another argument used to justify support for one side in a war is “who started it.” Trotsky argued:
“There are progressive, just wars and there are reactionary, unjust wars, independently of who ‘started’ first.… Consequently, of decisive importance is … which class is leading the war and in behalf of what historical ends.”
—“Who Is Guilty of Starting the Second World War?,” September 1939
In September 1938, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, incorporated the German-speaking Sudetenland area into Germany and installed a puppet to run the rest of Czechoslovakia.
I think we can see parallels in the public reaction, back to the German invasion of Belgium in 1914, and forward to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Writing immediately after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Trotsky noted the clamor of leftist support for “poor little” Czechoslovakia. He noted that “voices were raised even at the left flank of socialism, holding that … the proletariat would be obliged to help Czechoslovakia and save her ‘national independence’.”
As the founding congress of the Fourth International declared: “It is a lie to say that the war will take place for the national independence or freedom of Czechoslovakia. That is a cruel falsehood in which Czechoslovakia is playing the same role as ‘poor Belgium’ in 1914.”
So what then was the main issue at stake in the invasion of Czechoslovakia? What was the war really about? It wasn’t about Czechoslovakian independence. It was about the relative strength of the major imperialist powers and how the world should be carved up. For Trotsky, those who were blinded by talk of Czechoslovakian independence missed the essential truth of the situation.
As he said at the time, “it would be impermissible to consider a war between Czechoslovakia and Germany apart from the pattern of European and world imperialist relations of which such a war would have been an episode” (“A Fresh Lesson On the Character of the Coming War,” October 1938).
So in this context the working class had nothing to gain on either side on the Czechoslovakia question. On both sides, the defeat of their own ruling class would be the better outcome. Tears for Czechoslovakia were so much sentimental twaddle.
This is not to argue that we are indifferent to questions of national independence. It is a question of determining what is the main thing, or the essential issue, in a given conflict.
When Italy invaded Abyssinia in 1935, the main thing going on was not one of inter-imperialist rivalry. The main thing was a struggle about Abyssinian independence. Trotskyists took the side of Haile Selassie.
And in working out the essential issue, or the main thing going on, it is not simply a matter of looking at the politics of the leadership on each side. Interviewed at around the same time, Trotsky used the hypothetical example of Brazil, where, he said, there was:
“a semifascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that … England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict will the working class be? … I will be on the side of ‘fascist’ Brazil against ‘democratic’ Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains on Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship. The defeat of England will at the same time deliver a blow to British imperialism and will give an impulse to the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat. Truly, one must have an empty head to reduce world antagonisms and military conflicts to the struggle between fascism and democracy. Under all masks one must know how to distinguish exploiters, slave-owners, and robbers!”
—“Anti-Imperialist Struggle is Key to Liberation,” September 1938
In China, too, with Japan’s invasion in 1931, the main thing was not a matter of inter-imperialist rivalries, but of a colonial dependency pitted against an imperialist power. Communists took the side of China against Japan.
However, at a certain point, things changed. The bombing of Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of war between the United States and Japan at the end of 1941 opened a new phase, an inter-imperialist war. The war was no longer at its core about the national independence of China. The war had become one about the relative power of the major imperialist forces, and how the world would be carved up.
So now we must consider what is the main thing going on, what is the essential issue in the Ukraine war today.
A sentimental feeling that the essential issue is Ukrainian independence is simply wrong. The struggle between Western and Russian imperialisms, each seeking to extend its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, is quite clearly typical inter-imperialist rivalry, which has been the motive force in the international politics of the region for years.
So the formula from the First Imperialist War and the Second, “defeat is the lesser evil,” is fully applicable on both sides in Ukraine. As Karl Liebknecht said, and Trotsky repeated: “The main enemy is in one’s own country.” The task for revolutionaries in the combatant countries is to seek ways to transform the imperialist war into a civil war.
Ukraine & the Left (7 March 2022)
NATO Provokes Russian Attack on Ukraine (24 February 2022)
NATO Imperialists Escalate Ukraine Crisis (audio and text, 1 February 2022)