On the attitude of revolutionary Marxists to Imperialist War

Yossi Schwartz, ISL the RCIT section in Israel/Occupied Palestine, 24.03.2022

The masses in Europe at this moment raise the demand: End the war of Russia in the Ukraine which is a pacifist position. When the masses raise pacifist demands it is a step in the right direction. It is a different story when organizations claiming to be revolutionary Marxists adopt pacifism. Different Stalinists and centrist organizations adopt their position to this pacifist mood rather than being interested in a revolutionary program of revolutionary defeatism for Russia and revolutionary defense of Ukraine – namely military victory of the Ukrainian people without giving Zelensky’s government any political support.

While the actual war in Ukraine is between Russia, which is an imperialist state and Ukraine which is not an imperialist state, WWI was a war between two imperialist camps. Nevertheless, we can learn a lot about the revolutionary attitude to imperialist war by studying the positions of Lenin and Trotsky to WWI.

The resolutions of the Socialist International about the First World War were adopted at the Stuttgart Congress in 1907 and reaffirmed at Copenhagen in 1910 and Basle in 1912. They outlined the responsibility of socialists to prevent the outbreak of war and added: ‘Should war nonetheless break out, they must intervene and bring it to an end, and with all their energies to use the political and economic crisis created by the war to rouse the masses of the people and to hasten the fall of capitalist domination’. Lenin wrote on Stuttgart congress:

“Bebel’s resolution (moved by the Germans and coinciding in all essentials with Guesde’s resolution) had one shortcoming—it failed to indicate the active tasks of the proletariat. This made it possible to read Bebel’s orthodox propositions through opportunist spectacles, and Vollmar was quick to turn this possibility into a reality. That is why Rosa Luxemburg and the Russian Social-Democratic delegates moved their amendments to Bebel’s resolution. These amendments (1) stated that militarism is the chief weapon of class oppression; (2) pointed out the need for propaganda among the youth; (3) stressed that Social-Democrats should not only try to prevent war from breaking out or to secure the speediest termination of wars that have already begun but should utilize the crisis created by the war to hasten the overthrow of the bourgeoisie” [i]

As we know while the Bolsheviks, Trotsky, and Rosa Luxemburg carried out this program the other parties of Socialist International betrayed the working class and supported their ruling classes, proving to be social imperialists.

During the war, The Zimmerwald conference in September 1915 brought together for the first time since the outbreak of the war socialist groups in the different countries at war to call the working class to ‘begin the struggle for peace’, as the conference manifesto written by Trotsky who was a centrist at that time stated. This manifesto advanced the slogan of a peace without annexations or war indemnities and based on self-determination for all peoples. However, it left out the connection between peace and social revolution. Lenin voted for the Zimmerwald manifesto because he considered it would have been sectarian to stand aside. But he reserved full freedom to criticize the weaknesses of the manifesto, and the Bolshevik group issued a declaration regretting the absence of a clear declaration as to the methods of fighting against the war.

After Zimmerwald, Lenin advanced his ‘defeatism’ thesis, which was valid for all countries participating in the war. In ‘The War Program of the Proletarian Revolution’ Lenin wrote:

“Firstly, socialists have never been, nor can they ever be, opposed to revolutionary wars. The bourgeoisie of the imperialist “Great” Powers has become thoroughly reactionary, and the war this bourgeoisie is now waging we regard as a reactionary, slave-owners and criminal war. But what about a war against this bourgeoisie? A war, for instance, waged by peoples oppressed by and dependent upon this bourgeoisie, or by colonial peoples, for liberation? In Section 5 of the Internationale group these we read: “National wars are no longer possible in the era of this unbridled imperialism.” That is wrong” [ii]

“Secondly, civil war is just as much a war as any other. He who accepts the class struggle cannot fail to accept civil wars, which in every class society are the natural, and under certain conditions inevitable, continuation, development, and intensification of the class struggle. That has been confirmed by every great revolution. To repudiate civil war, or to forget about it, is to fall into extreme opportunism and renounce the socialist revolution” [iii]

“Thirdly, the victory of socialism in one country does not at one stroke eliminate all wars in general. On the contrary, it presupposes wars. The development of capitalism proceeds extremely unevenly in different countries. It cannot be otherwise under commodity production. From this, it follows irrefutably that socialism cannot achieve victory simultaneously in all countries. It will achieve victory first in one or several countries, while the others will for some time remain bourgeois or pre-bourgeois. This is bound to create not only friction but a direct attempt on the part of the bourgeoisie of other countries to crush the socialist state’s victorious proletarian” [iv]

“Theoretically, it would be wrong to forget that every war is but the continuation of policy by other means. The present imperialist war is the continuation of the imperialist policies of two groups of Great Powers, and these policies were engendered and fostered by the total of the relationships of the imperialist era. But this very era must also necessarily engender and foster policies of struggle against national oppression and proletarian struggle against the bourgeoisie and, consequently, also the possibility and inevitability; first, of revolutionary national rebellions and wars; second, of proletarian wars and rebellions against the bourgeoisie; and, third, of a combination of both kinds of the revolutionary war, etc” [v]

In November 1916 Lenin wrote: “The “socialist” who under such circumstances delivers speeches to the people and the governments about a nice little peace resembles the clergyman who, seeing before him in the front pews the mistress of a brothel and a police officer, who are working for hand in glove, “preaches” to them, and the people, love of one’s neighbor and observance of the Christian commandments… Whatever the outcome of the present war, those who maintained that the only possible socialist way out of it is through civil war by the proletariat for socialism will have been proved correct. The Russian Social-Democrats who maintained that the defeat of Tsarism, its complete military smash-up, is, “in all cases’, the lesser evil, will have been proved correct. For history never stands still; it continues its forward movement during this war too. And if the European proletariat cannot advance to socialism now, cannot cast off the social-chauvinist and Kautskyite yoke in the course of this first great imperialist war, then East Europe and Asia can advance to democracy with seven-league strides only if Tsarism is utterly smashed and deprived of all power” [vi]

Lenin clashed with Trotsky over the demand for Peace without annexation, and Lenin’s line on ‘defeatism’. Trotsky opposed Lenin’s line that the defeat of Russia is the less evil. In his 1914 pamphlet on The War and the International Trotsky wrote: “If we presuppose a catastrophic Russian defeat, the war may bring a quicker outbreak of the Revolution, but at the cost of its inner weakness. And if the Revolution should even gain the upper hand under such circumstances, then the bayonets of the Hohenzollern armies would be turned on the Revolution. Such prospect carts hardly fail to paralyze Russia’s revolutionary forces; for it is impossible to deny that the party of the German proletariat stands behind the Hohenzollern bayonets. But this is only one side of the question. The defeat of Russia necessarily presupposes decisive victories by Germany and Austria on the other battlefields, and this would mean the enforced preservation of the national-political chaos in Central and South-Eastern Europe and the unlimited mastery of German militarism in all Europe” [vii]

In the summer of 1915, Lenin and Zinoviev, in their pamphlet Socialism and War wrote:

“Both the advocates of victory for their governments in the present war and the advocates of the slogan “neither victory nor defeat”, equally take the standpoint of social chauvinism. A revolutionary class cannot but wish for the defeat of its government in a reactionary war, cannot fail to see that its military reverses facilitate its overthrow. Only a bourgeois who believes that a war started by the governments must necessarily end as a war between governments and wants it to end as such, can regard as “ridiculous” and “absurd” the idea that the Socialists of all the belligerent countries should wish for the defeat of all “their” governments and express this wish. On the contrary, it is precisely a statement of this kind that would conform to the cherished thoughts of every class-conscious worker and would be in line with our activities towards converting the imperialist war into civil war. Undoubtedly, the serious anti-war agitation that is being conducted by a section of the British, German, and Russian Socialists has “weakened the military power” of the respective governments, but such agitation stands to the credit of the Socialists. Socialists must explain to the masses that they have no other road of salvation except the revolutionary overthrow of “their” governments, and that advantage must be taken of these governments’ embarrassments in the present war precisely for this purpose” [viii]

Trotsky, to be sure, opposed bourgeois pacifism. With the outbreak of World War I, the pacifist philosopher Bertrand Russell became involved in anti-war activities and in 1916 he was fined 100 pounds for authoring an anti-war pamphlet. Because of his conviction he was dismissed from his post at Trinity College, Cambridge. [ix]

‘Only very slight injury can be done to the machinery of war of the ruling class by pacifism. This is best proved by the courageous but rather futile efforts of Russell himself during the war. The whole affair ended in a few thousand young people being thrown into prison on account of their conscientious objections… In the old Tsarist army the sectarians, and especially the Tolstoyans, were often exposed to persecution because of their passive resistance to militarism; it was not they, however, who solved the problem of the overthrow of Tsarism.’ [x]

“Bourgeois pacifism and patriotism are shot through with deceit. In the pacifism and even the patriotism of the oppressed, there are elements which reflect on the one hand a hatred of destructive war and on the other a clinging to what they believe to be their good elements which we must know how to seize upon to draw the requisite conclusions. Using these considerations as its point of departure the Fourth International supports every, even if insufficient, demand if it can draw the masses to a certain extent into active politics, awaken their criticism and strengthen their control over the machinations of the bourgeoisie” [xi]

These Days the Stalinists and the centrists are spreading pacifist illusions about the war in the spirit of Kautsky.

The American Stalinists wrote:

“We, the members of the CPUSA, unequivocally join with peace forces around the world in demanding: No expansion of NATO, No deployment of troops, No war on Ukraine, No war on Russia, and No war period! The future of the planet depends on it” [xii]

Very nice, very nice but how to achieve peace without socialist revolutions?

The Communist party of Israel stated “We are against war and the Russian invasion. However, I will not take sides in unnecessary wars that harm innocent civilians, strengthen those in power and enrich the masters of war,” said Hadash MK Ofer Cassif. “I do not support nationalists and persecutors of the communists in Ukraine, and no, neither do I support Putin and the Russian communist-hating nationalists. No to war – yes to peace.” added. “Very sad that good leftists are being deceived after false propaganda — and even expect my friends and me to align with the lies being fed to us,” Cassif said in a tweet.” [xiii]

A typical reformist position that put on the same level an imperialist state and non- imperialist state.

The Stalinist Party of Cyprus on March 2, stated:

“A fruitful and constructive debate took place in the Parliamentary Foreign and European Affairs Committee, examining all the facts surrounding the Ukrainian crisis. We would like to express our satisfaction because the Foreign Minister appeared to fully share the views we have expressed in the Committee on Foreign and European Affairs. We would like to take this opportunity to stress the following: The need for an immediate end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a return to dialogue and diplomatic efforts to find a solution to the Ukrainian crisis” [xiv]

Really? And how dialogue and imperialist diplomacy will stop the imperialist’s drive for wars?

The ISA wrote: “Will arms deliveries — Swedish or from other states — ensure peace and freedom?

In the last 12 months, the United States has sent weapons worth one billion dollars (9 billion kronor) to Ukraine. Now there are drones from Erdoğan’s Turkey, missiles from Germany, and body armor from the Swedish military. The Swedish military has previously trained Ukrainian soldiers. The Finnish Parliament and the Danish Parliament have unanimously decided to send weapons.

The fact that governments are now sending weapons to Ukraine is not happening for humanitarian reasons. We witnessed a stark demonstration of this in Afghanistan. Military operations were prioritized for over 20 years with devastating results.

The weapons now being sent may slow down the Russian attack, but few believe it can decide the war; rather, it is a revolt against the war at home in Russia, mass protests internationally, and a global workers’ blockade against Putin’s war machine that can have the greatest effect. It is unlikely that the Western powers will deploy air force and soldiers, which would create a major war. But the pressure will grow for escalated efforts.

The fact that public opinion massively favors ending the horrors of war means that the governments can initially get support for weapons shipments to Ukraine. This will also be used for even greater investment in the military in the country after country and for both Finland and Sweden to join NATO.” [xv]

The British SWP wrote in the same spirit:

“The first reply is that the genuine horrors of Vladimir Putin’s invasion are no reason to escalate to an even more appalling war. NATO’s increasingly aggressive demands and its arms shipments threaten a reckless march towards a wider conflict that could be fought with nuclear weapons.” [xvi]

Both centrists oppose the sending of weapons to the Ukrainian people against imperialist invasion. Demonstrations against the Russian invasion are important and so is the growing opposition in Russia and among the Russian soldiers in Ukraine, but the interest of the international working class is for the resistance to the invasion to win in the war and for this, the Ukrainian fighters need sophisticated weapons. There is no doubt that Western imperialism is sending weapons to Ukraine for its imperialist reasons, but this does change the need for the Ukrainian fighters to have weapons. In addition, these weapons can be used by working-class militias that can and should be organized in Russia and Ukraine. 

Trotsky wrote on this question of weapon:

“Let us assume that rebellion breaks out tomorrow in the French colony of Algeria under the banner of national independence and that the Italian government, motivated by its imperialist interests, prepares to send weapons to the rebels. What should the attitude of the Italian workers be in this case? I have purposely taken an example of rebellion against democratic imperialism with intervention on the side of the rebels from a fascist imperialism. Should the Italian workers prevent the shipping of arms to the Algerians? Let any ultra-leftists dare answer this question in the affirmative. Every revolutionist, together with the Italian workers and the rebellious Algerians, would spurn such an answer with indignation. Even if a general maritime strike broke out in fascist Italy at the same time, even in this case the strikers should make an exception in favor of those ships carrying aid to the colonial slaves in revolt; otherwise, they would be no more than wretched trade unionists – not proletarian revolutionists. At the same time, the French maritime workers, even though not faced with any strike whatsoever, would be compelled to exert every effort to block the shipment of ammunition intended for use against the rebels. Only such a policy on the part of the Italian and French workers constitutes the policy of revolutionary internationalism. Does this not signify, however, that the Italian workers moderate their struggle in this case against the fascist regime? Not in the slightest. Fascism renders “aid” to the Algerians only to weaken its enemy, France, and to lay its rapacious hand on her colonies. The revolutionary Italian workers do not forget this for a single moment. They call upon the Algerians not to trust their treacherous “ally” and at the same time continue their irreconcilable struggle against fascism, “the main enemy in their own country”. Only in this way can they gain the confidence of the rebels, help the rebellion and strengthen their revolutionary position” [xvii]

The only way out from the danger of Western and Eastern imperialists and their wars leading eventually to the WWIII unless we get rid of them, their economic crisis, their inability to fight the Covid-19, the disaster to the ecology they create, the starvation they cause to close to 1 milliard people is to turn the war to an armed civil war of the working class against the ruling classes in a world socialist revolution.

Turn the imperialist war to a civil war!

Military victory for the Ukrainian people!

No political support for the Zelensky government!

Down with the US and NATO! Down with Russian imperialism!


[i] Lenin: The International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart [1] (Proletary) Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1972, Moscow, Volume 13, pages 75-8.

[ii] Lenin: The Military Programme of the Proletarian Revolution

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid

[v] Ibid

[vi] Lenin A Separate Peace Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1964, Moscow, Volume 23, pages 125-133.

[vii] Leon Trotsky: The War and the International (The Bolsheviks and World Peace)

[viii] Socialism and War: The Attitude of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party Towards the War https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/s-w/ch01.htm

[ix] Hardy, Godfrey H., 1942, Bertrand Russell and Trinity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970.

[x] L.D. Trotsky, ‘On Pacifism and Revolution’, 1926,

[xi] L.D. Trotsky, Transitional Program of the Fourth International, 1938

[xii] https://www.cpusa.org/article/no-war-on-ukraine-no-war-on-russia-no-war-period/

[xiii] https://maki.org.il/en/?p=30210

[xiv] https://akel.org.cy/statement-by-the-central-committee-of-akel-on-the-russian-invasion-of-ukraine/?lang=en 

[xv] https://internationalsocialist.net/en/2022/03/war-in-ukraine

[xvi] https://socialistworker.co.uk/comment/whats-the-alternative-to-nato-intervention-in-ukraine

[xvii] Leon Trotsky Learn to Think: A Friendly Suggestion to Certain Ultra-Leftists

(May 1938)

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