Pacifism as the Servant of Imperialism

Excerpts of an article by Leon Trotsky originally published in Communist International, English Edition, No. 5 New Series, transcribed for the Trotsky Internet Archive by J.J. Plant. While undated, it was clearly written in mid-1917.

There were never so many pacifists in the world as now, when in all countries men are killing one another. Every historical epoch has not only its own technique and its own political form, but also a hypocrisy peculiar to itself. Once peoples destroyed each other in the name of the Christian teaching of love of humanity. Now only backward governments call upon Christ. Progressive nations cut each others’ throats in the name of pacifism. [U.S. President] Wilson drags America into the war in the name of the League of Nations, and perpetual peace. Kerensky and Tseretelli [leaders of Russia’s Provisional Government] call for an offensive for the sake of an early peace.

Our epoch lacks the indignant satire of a Juvenal. In any case, even the most potential satirical weapons are in danger of being proved powerless and illusory in comparison with triumphant infamy and groveling stupidity; which two elements were unfettered by the war.

Pacifism is of the same historical lineage as democracy. The bourgeoisie made a great historical attempt to order all human relations in accordance with reason, to supplant blind and dumb tradition by the institutions of critical thought. The guilds with their restriction of production, political institutions with their privileges, monarchistic absolutism—all these were traditional relics of the middle ages. Bourgeois democracy demanded legal equality for free competition, and for parliamentarism as the means of governing public affairs. It sought also to regulate national relations in the same manner. But here it came up against war, that is against a method of solving all problems which is a complete denial of "reason." So it began to advise the people in poetry, in philosophy, in ethics, and in business methods, that it is far more useful for them to introduce perpetual peace. These are the logical arguments for pacifism.

The inherited failing of pacifism, however, was the fundamental evil which characterizes bourgeois democracy. Its criticism touches only the surface of social phenomena, it has not the courage to cut deeper into the underlying economic facts. Capitalist realism, however, handles the idea of perpetual peace based on the harmony of reason, perhaps more pitilessly than the idea of liberty, equality and fraternity. Capitalism, which developed technique on a rational basis, failed to regulate conditions rationally. It prepared weapons for mutual extermination which would never have occurred to the dreams of the "barbarians" of medieval times.

Theoretically and politically, pacifism has just the same basis as the doctrine of social harmony between different class interests.

The opposition between capitalistic national states has just the same economic basis as the class struggle. If we are ready to assume the possibility of a gradual toning down of the class struggle, then we must also assume the gradual toning down and regulation of nationalistic conflicts.

English and American pacifism, despite all the variety of social conditions and ideology (despite also the lack of any ideology as in America) carry out essentially the same work: they provide an outlet for the petty bourgeois citizens’ fear of world-shaking events, which after all can only deprive him of the remnants of his independence; they lull to sleep his watchfulness by useless notions of disarmament, international law, and arbitration tribunals. Then, at a given moment, they hand him over body and soul to capitalistic imperialism which has already mobilized every means necessary for its end: i.e., technical knowledge, art, religion, bourgeois pacifism and patriotic "Socialism."

"We were against the war, our deputies, our Ministers, were all against the war," cry the French petty bourgeois: "Therefore, it follows, that we have the war forced upon us, and in order to realize our pacific ideals we must pursue the war to a victorious end." And the representative of French pacifism, Baron d’Estournel de Constant, consecrates this pacifist philosophy with a solemn "jusqu’au bout!"—war to the end!

The thing which above all others the English Stock Exchange required for the successful conduct of the war, was pacifists like the liberal Asquith, and the radical demagogue Lloyd George. "If these men are running the war," said the English people, "then we must have right on our side."

And so pacifism had its allotted part to play in the mechanism of the war, like poison gas, and the ever-rising pile of war loans.

Posted: 26 February 2003