Max Shachtman


“Defend the Soviet Union”?

Excerpts from a Letter to a West Coast Comrade

(August 1941)

From Workers Party Internal Bulletin, No. 10, August 1941
An abridged version copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty book The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism, vol. 1.
Additional transcription by Einde O’Callaghan.
Marked up by A. Forse & Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

[Dear S:]

... I should like to try to make as plain and convincing as possible, the position I hold on the present stage of the war, with particular reference to Russia.

1. Some comrades argue that the character of the war has changed. Others even quote the article I wrote for The New International a few months ago, which says in effect that if the character of the war should change, then we should be for the defense of the Soviet Union whether it is attacked by one or more imperialist powers. But, while I still hold to that, the quoters are obliged to prove that the character of the war, that is, its predominant character (for there is no such thing as a war which is “purely” one thing or another) has changed. Here it must be said that the Cannonites are more consistent than some of our own defensists. And although B. is evidently losing all his bearings, from his point of view it nevertheless makes sense when he now says that the Cannonites are right now and were right a year and a half ago. One of the principal arguments of the Cannonites at the beginning of the war was that it did not matter who fired the first shot because you cannot, and it is not necessary to, decide between the “aggressor” and “defender” in a war. From a military point of view, this is of course, unassailable. Therefore, they could be for the defense of the Soviet Union when Stalin invaded Poland, the Baltic, Finland and the Balkans, in anticipation of the next stage of the war in which the conquests resulting from these invasions would serve as defensive outposts protecting the Soviet Union when it is attacked. In other words, if it is correct to defend the Soviet Union now, in the second stage of the war, then it was correct to defend it twenty months ago, and we would have to say that the genial Stalin showed a lot of foresight in providing himself in advance with protective armoring he acquired during the initial invasions. And summa summarum, that is now the big trump card Stalin’s apologists are playing in this country. To a lot of simple people that even sounds convincing. For supporters of the Stalin regime this argument is and should be enough, and if I were such a supporter, all the petty lies and deceptions of Stalin would then recede into twentieth place.

Some of our comrades, however, fail to take into account that we are the revolutionary enemies of that regime. We are not its advisors, we are not out to reform it, we are out to overthrow it. We must therefore judge its “aggressive” and “defensive” measures not from a military, but from a social and political standpoint. We subordinate the former to the latter. The Cannonites subordinate the latter to the former. Example: they said the invasion of Poland or of Finland was a blow to the world revolution, that it was shameful and criminal. Presumably it was shameful and criminal primarily from a political and not a military standpoint. But, they said, they were for the defense of Russia, that is, for the victorious execution of this shame, this crime, this blow at the world revolution because it was militarily necessary. We said there is no conceivable abstraction in this world, not even the talk about nationalized property, that can get us to defend a blow against the world revolution, and a shameful and criminal one at that. We refused to be defensists because the Soviet Union was engaged in a reactionary war. Did that mean that the nationalized property of Russia was not at stake in the war? Of course it was. Would the fact that Leningrad would be more heavily protected if Stalin got southern Finland, help defend the nationalized property if Russia were attacked at a later stage? Of course it would. Isn’t it also a fact that in the conquered territories Stalin abolished bourgeois property and nationalized it? Of course it is. But our basic criterion is the interest of the world proletariat and the international revolution. Stalin’s war struck the most brutal blows at these interests. And, we said with Trotsky, the nationalization of property in the occupied territories does not compensate for these blows by one-tenth!

Just exactly what were these blows?

  1. Capitulation to German imperialism.
  2. The joint imperialist subjugation of the conquered territories, which should now be clear to anybody after the disclosures of Hitler and Von Ribbentrop a couple of months ago, was deliberately decided upon in advance and by agreement between the two bandits.
  3. The political alliance between Stalin and Hitler, as exemplified, among other things by Stalin’s white-washing of Hitler’s war and of Hitler’s peace.
  4. The fact that Stalin drove the workers of Finland and of other countries, Germany and the United States included, deeper into the arms of their bourgeoisies.
  5. That Stalin’s army and GPU immediately suppressed all genuine revolutionary and Soviet manifestation of the masses in the territories he invaded. And so on.

All these either constituted or followed inescapably from the character of the war in which Stalin was engaged. We never condemned Stalin just because he and not the Finnish or Polish bourgeoisie fired the first bullet or because he was the first one to cross a boundary line.

Now let us see what has changed. The bureaucracy is now defending its imperialist conquests of a year and a half or more ago. We were against the Stalin bureaucracy’s acquiring these conquests. Why should we defend it when it seeks to retain these conquests? We said with Trotsky, “We are and remain against seizures of new territories by the Kremlin.” Why should we be for the Stalinists holding these territories after they have seized them? The Stalinists have changed imperialist camps. That is of great importance, but by no means of principled importance. In 1939 and 1940 their alliance with and subjugation to German imperialism drove the workers into the arms of the bourgeoisie. I contend that their alliance with Anglo-American imperialism in 1941 drives the workers into the arms of the bourgeoisie at least as much. The objective consequences of the bureaucracy’s war in 1939 was the victory of one imperialism; now, of another imperialism. But, isn’t the nationalized property, which is not bourgeois, “really” at stake in 1941, as was not the case in 1939? Allow me to return to the question at a later point. Right now I want to deal with the question of the famous “mixed war”.

2. We used to speak a great deal in our movement, before the war broke out, of the “mixed war”. It arose in connection with the Stalin-Laval pact in 1935 and it meant this: If Russia and France are allied in a war against Germany that would make it an imperialist war on the one side but not on the other. [More concretely: while we would not be defensists in imperialist Germany or in imperialist France, we would be defensists in Russia because it is a workers state. This conception was based upon analogy and hypothesis. But when the “mixed war” took place in reality, it did not correspond to our original suppositions. That is the fact. You know, perhaps, the origin of the “mixed war” business, and the historical circumstances of the Soviet republic to which Trotsky referred in 1935–36. It would be well if every comrade understood these circumstances concretely and in detail.

Early in 1918, after the Bolsheviks had offered peace to the entire imperialist world, the Germans proceeded to march deeper into the territory of the Soviets. Negotiations with the Germans were snarled up, and towards the end of February the Kaiser resumed the offensive against the Bolsheviks. Noulens, the French ambassador to Moscow thereupon telegraphed Trotsky an offer of military and financial support “in your resistance to Germany”. The Social Revolutionists were against accepting any support. So were many of the Bolshevik leaders. Trotsky was in favor of it. So was Lenin, who sent the following note to the Central Committee, “I am in favor of accepting potatoes and arms from the robbers of Anglo-French imperialism”.

Against the left Bolsheviks who advocated a revolutionary war against Germany, Lenin later pointed out that while a peace treaty with Germany would help German imperialism, continuation of the war would help Anglo-French imperialism, and that in this very narrow and restricted sense, Russia could not escape helping one or another of the bandits. But listen for a moment to the resolution presented by Trotsky to the Central Committee, and adopted on February 22nd by a vote of 6–5:

“As the party of the socialist proletariat, which is in power and is conducting war with Germany, we apply, through the medium of the state organs, all means of equipping our revolutionary army in the best possible way, with everything that is necessary, and in order to acquire them (the equipment – M.S.) wherever it is possible, then also from the capitalist governments. In doing so, the Social Democratic Workers Party of Russia (that was then the name of the Bolshevik Party – M.S.) retains its complete independence with regard to its foreign policy, obligates itself in no wise to the capitalist governments, and in every single case considers their proposals, from the standpoint of expediency”.

Read over this resolution carefully. It established a principled foundation upon which alone the Soviet government could make any agreement, even a military agreement, with an imperialist government. From these words, to which corresponded the practice of the Bolsheviks, you can, so to speak, determine the character of the war the Bolsheviks would have carried out even if the “alliance” with Anglo-French imperialism had materialized, which it did not. The mixed war did not take place in 1918 because imperialism could not make an alliance with a workers state under the terms of Trotsky’s resolution. At least not in my opinion and in the past 21 years life seems to substantiate this opinion. Lenin and Trotsky know that even a circumscribed agreement with the imperialists was an extremely perilous business. But, precisely by the terms of Trotsky’s resolution this hazard was more than sufficiently compensated. By what? By the provisions of the second sentence of the resolution. Why? Because in practice Lenin and Trotsky would have more than cancelled out the effects of their “support” of one imperialism against another by the revolutionary activity which the Bolshevik state and the Bolsheviks conducted precisely in the ranks of their imperialist “ally”. This is nor mere hypothesis. It is borne out by the facts. Example: After signing the imposed Brest-Litovsk treaty with Germany and thereby “supporting” German imperialism against Anglo-French imperialism, the effects of this were more than cancelled out by the unceasing revolutionary propaganda of the Bolsheviks which resulted a very few months later, in the overthrow of German imperialism.]

We cannot stand still in our own conceptions or be bound by the fetishism of words or memories. We must allow life to influence our conceptions. Life has proved that the degenerate Stalinist regime cannot fight a “mixed war” as a progressive or revolutionary war. By its very nature its agreements and alliances – alliances without quotation marks this time – with imperialism are reactionary through and through. And that again brings us to the character of the present war and the character of Russia’s participation in it, even in the present stage of the war.

Again and again I repeat, we must judge our position of defeatism or defensism in any country by the interests of the socialist world proletariat, and not of the workers of one country. The victory of German imperialism in the war would have nothing but reactionary effects. The victory of Anglo-American imperialism over Germany, likewise. We are for the defeat of German imperialism – not by Anglo-American imperialism but by the German proletariat. We are for the defeat of the British empire – but not by Hitler. From the standpoint of our basic criterion what are the objective consequences of “defense of the Soviet Union” now? Taken on a world scale, and that is the only way we can take it, since we are not Russian nationalists, it means the imperialist victory of Washington and London over German imperialism, with all the tragic consequences that flow from that. [Why? Because the very nature of the Stalinist alliance with Lonodn and Washington, which is fundamentally and in principle different from the “alliance” That Trotsky proposed to make in 1918. A few examples:] The victory of Stalin in Poland was undoubtedly a “victory for nationalized property”, if considered as an isolated national phenomenon. In the realities of present world politics and the present world war, however, this victory was a victory of German imperialism over its rivals. That is the fact and even children ought to know it. The same is true of the invasion of Finland. Trotsky said it was carried out at the dictates of Hitler. Correct. Did it help protect Leningrad? Of course. But from the international point of view, which is decisive, the invasion was a necessary part of the war strategy of German imperialism. What has changed now is that concretely “defense of the Soviet Union” means promoting the grand strategy of Anglo-American imperialism – objectively to be sure. Hence the dilemma of the defensists. I mean, of course, of revolutionary defensists like some of our comrades and the Cannonites. What concretely do they propose to do that we do not propose? I would like very much to hear that. In 1935–36 we used to say that in the hypothetical mixed war we would be for facilitating shipments to Russia but not to France or Germany. In the present real and not hypothetical war I ask the following question of the defensists: Are you for facilitating American shipments to Russia today? Alas, the accursed realities of the war show that shipments to Russia mean convoys and that convoys, as our good president says, mean a shooting war. Is that a fact or not? Even Goldman is compelled to acknowledge this in the Militant. He tries to get around the dilemma by the poor lawyer’s argument that he doesn’t “urge” shipments, because that means convoys and they mean war, but his party will not oppose them. Isn’t that a beauty of a position? Or will the defensists be proposing, for example, tomorrow, that we demonstrate before the Japanese consulates if hostilities break out between Japan and Russia? I doubt it. Because even they understand that such demonstrations, given the real and not hypothetical situation, would only be grist to the mill of American imperialism.

Or what will they do in the not at all inconceivable situation which may confront them tomorrow morning, so to speak, where British and Russian troops are fighting side by side in Afghanistan or Iran? Where do the British troops end and the Russians begin? Where does defensism end and non-defensism begin? Every intelligent observer knows that this is an entirely practical and immediate possibility. And where are the revolutionary compensations for the inevitably reactionary effects of Stalin’s war, compensations which the Lenin-Trotsky regime could and did provide for? They do not exist and in the nature of the case cannot.

[3. The Mixed war theory, so far as the Stalin regime is concerned, has not worked out, and that is all there is to it. But suppose the character of the war does change? And what do I mean exactly by a change in the character of the war? Simply this, that it ceases to be a predominantly imperialist, or rather inter-imperialist war. Is there such a possibility? Certainly. You might say that that is what Hitler’s whole present strategy is. That is the essence of his whole so-called peace offensive. You might say that that is the whole objective of the conscious appeasement elements among the British bourgeoisie also. What else is the objective of the propaganda of the America Firsters, the Hearst press, and their ilk? They are seeking deliberately to change the character of the war; because they know, as we should know what the predominant character of the war is at present. We want to change the character of the war into a war of the working class against the bourgeoisie and world imperialism. They want to change the character of the war into a war of world imperialism against the Soviet Union. Should they succeed in this, and it is not impossible, then it would be a social war of world imperialism against the Soviet Union. Whether it would be conducted actively by one imperialist power alone with the tacit support of the others, or by all of them jointly and actively, would not, in my opinion be decisive, for the number of troops employed against Russia would not be the important thing. That and that alone is what I meant by the paragraph in my New International article of a few months ago, which has been so unwarrantedly quoted by some of the defensist comrades. Were the character of the war to change as indicated, then you could easily see that the arguments about the Stalinist alliance with imperialism referred to in the proceeding point, would not and could not apply. From the point of view of the SU, even under Stalin, the objective consequences of the war could not and would, not be the same as they are now. Revolutionary defensism in such circumstances would not in any way involve support of imperialism or subordinate the interests of the workers in one country to the interests of the International proletariat. Under such circumstances the greater likelihood is, in fact it is almost a certainty, mobilization of the working class of any country for revolutionary defense of the Soviet Union would be and could only be directed against the bourgeoisie of that working class. I don’t think that should be hard to understand. Yet, contrast such a situation with the obvious facts of the present situation. To anyone for whom “defense of the Soviet Union” is not a collection of religious words, but concrete problem of revolutionary politics, the difference, as the French say, leaps to the eyes.]

4. What about the workers in the Soviet Union? What about the defense of Nationalized Property? Nationalized property is not an abstraction any more than democracy is an abstraction. Nationalized property under the regime of Soviet democracy, that was a revolutionary workers’ state. The nationalized property with the regime of the anti-soviet autocracy whether you call it a degenerated workers’ state or bureaucratic collectivism, is certainly not equivalent to a revolutionary workers’ state. On the basis of this very same nationalized property, in fact, during the very period when this property was consolidated and expanded enormously at the expense of bourgeois property, the proletarian and revolutionary movements in Russia were all but completely destroyed and the international proletarian movement frightfully undermined. As you know, I consider nationalized property in the Soviet Union a historically superior form of property to any form of private property in history. But I do not attribute to it what Marx would call a supra-historical significance, any more than, for example, I would attribute such a significance to democracy. Is it worth defending? That depends on concrete circumstances, and not upon an evaluation of nationalized property in and of itself. It is dangerous to argue by analogy because people can easily demonstrate that analogous situations are not identical situations. Yet to argue by analogy is also often illuminating. In the Spanish civil war there were elements of imperialist war and we pointed them out. But, we said, the war is decisively between bourgeois democracy and Fascism; and given the fact that the proletariat was not ready to take power in its own name, we supported bourgeois democracy as against Fascism – critically, to be sure. In the same manner, in a social war between world capitalism and the Soviet Union I would be a revolutionary, i.e., a critical defensist in Russia, because I do not want to see world imperialism get a new lease on life by reducing the non-capitalist Soviet Union to a capitalist colony. Isn’t the nationalized property at stake in the present war too? Of course it is. But isn’t the working class movement in the United States, its rights and institutions and in England too, also at stake in the present war? That is, if Hitler conquers the United States, would that not mean that in addition to the crushing of American imperialism the working class movement and the more or less democratic basis on which it can exist and progress, would also be destroyed? Of course it would. Yet, we are not defensists in the United States because however important the role this element plays, it does not alter the decisively imperialist and reactionary character of the war. But at the same time, even in the United States, we do not take a completely negative position. Without becoming defensists, or even flirting with defensism, we fight right in the midst of the imperialist war itself for the interests and rights of the working class. We fight to advance that which is worth defending. In the present situation in Russia, I would apply much the same policy. Would I tell the Russian workers not to fight the war? That advice is meaningless or stupid. I could not and do not tell them that in the United States. Do I tell them in Russia not to obey their officers? Of course not. I am not an anarchist. In Russia and anywhere else the workers and especially the soldiers will obey their superiors until they have accumulated the organized power ... not to obey if they so desire. In the Soviet Union now what would I fight for? You understand, of course, that “fighting for” anything in the Soviet Union today is, so far as our movement is concerned, a work of “patient enlightenment” as Lenin used to put it. I would say to the workers, organize and mobilize your strength to re-establish the Soviets, in the cities, in the army and on the land; to re-establish your trade unions; to take power again; to drive out the bureaucrats. Demand even now the diminution and eventual abolition of all bureaucratic privileges. Demand the release of all the revolutionary opponents of Stalin who were imprisoned. Demand the right of self-determination for the Ukraine (I notice that the Cannonites dropped this slogan out of their program of action for Russia), and so on.

[Would I raise the slogan of peace? One of our defensist comrades demanded that I answer why I do not raise the slogan now whereas I did raise it during the Finnish invasion. The problem is a very simple one. The peace slogan is not in and of itself a revolutionary or a defeatist slogan, even in a reactionary war. Not at all.

The peace slogan should be raised by us under any situation only when it means the revolutionary mobilization of the working class against the reactionary regime. Lenin was against the slogan up to 1917, because in that period it was a purely pacifist slogan. After the revolution, the situation was such that the slogan was revolutionary. But an even better example. We do not even raise the slogan of peace in the United States or England today. [1] Why not? Because we are for the war? Of course not. But because the demand for peace, the slogan for peace, would, under the concrete circumstances in England today, play right into the hands of Hitler and the British ultra-reactionaries and would not mobilize the masses for revolutionary struggle. In the United States also, the peace slogan would not mobilize the masses for revolutionary struggle, and would play right into the hands, not only of Hitler, but more important of the pacifist bone-heads, the America Firsters, and all other reactionary appeaser elements. At a later stage the peace slogan may very well have revolutionary significance. But not now. So in Russia today. In the case of the Finnish invasion, the slogan of peace would have been a good slogan, not only for its revolutionary effects upon the Finnish proletariat, but because it would have been directed against the reactionary regime in alliance with Hitler. Right now, assuming you want to look reality in the face, such a slogan would only play into the hands of those elements of the bureaucracy who undoubtedly aspire to a complete surrender and capitulation to Hitler. And I am not for that.

But I would like to raise this question, especially to the defensist comrades. The Stalinist alliance with Anglo-American imperialism is reactionary through and through, is it not? It means support of world imperialism, political and military, does it not? In my agitational and educational work among the Russian masses I would raise the slogan: break the reactionary imperialist alliance with London and Washington. The Cannonites, I am pretty sure, would not countenance this slogan, which is eminently correct. Would our defensists? I would like to hear from them on this score.]

5. Finally, it is necessary to have a little more clarity on the question of defeatism. You remember in the SWP dispute, the gifted Marxist, Cannon, explained to us that the Leninist theory of defeatism means that you prefer the victory of the enemy to the victory of your own government. That is, you prefer the defeat of your country by the enemy country, to the defeat of the enemy country by your country. Of course, Lenin never had such an idea, but trifles like that have never bothered Cannon in his theoretical flights. I personally think that so much confusion has been introduced in the concept of defeatism that I doubt if we would be losing too much if we dropped the word out of our vocabulary. However, be that as it may, let me try to specify what I mean by the content of this conception in the present situation. I am not for throwing open the front, so that Hitler can march in. Not at all. For that matter, in a considerably different situation, and for somewhat different reasons, I am not for throwing open the front in England either. By defeatism in Russia, if I may still use that word, I aim at the defeat of the Stalinist counter-revolution by the soviet working class. Right now, to talk realistically of revolutionary actions which endanger the front is phrase-mongering, playing with formulae, and nothing more. If ever a situation called for “patient explanation” it is the present situation in Russia. To the extent that anything can be done in Russia I would seek to direct the efforts of the Internationalists at reconstituting the independence and the integrity of the proletariat. Then one of two things. This would either facilitate the development of a favorable revolutionary situation, or else would be facilitated by the development of such a situation; more accurately, the one would influence the other. After such an independent proletariat became strong enough to have an influence on the front and on the military operations, then, given the continued existence of the Stalin regime you would have the beginnings of the dual power in Russia. In that case, without yet becoming a defensist, while continuing to denounce Stalin’s reactionary war and reactionary war aims, I would try to appeal to the soldiers as Lenin did in 1917, not to engage in futile mutinies or riots or in any sporadic actions, to hold the front, so that the Germans do not break through and crush the proletarian elements of the dual power, and to speed the day when the Russian proletariat can crush the Stalinist elements of the dual power and change the war into a revolutionary war against imperialism.

I know that among certain comrades in the Party, a tiny minority I hope, there is what you might call a reactionary mood about the famous “Russian question”. In their fury at Stalin and Stalinism and the Stalinists, some comrades are seeking some magic formula which will “rid them of the Russian problem” – and of Stalinism. I am firmly in favor of resisting and counter-acting such moods of desperation, because that is all they are. It is even reported to me that one comrade said that he is a “defeatist” in Russia, because, you see, if Russia is defeated we won’t have the problem of Stalinism in the unions any more! I cannot, of course, vouch for the accuracy of this remark. But I hardly need say that I have nothing in common with such a point of view. I can understand such a point of view only as a result of a reaction provoked by the hideousness of Stalinism and perhaps to a lesser degree by some extremist statements by defensists. It is necessary to be on guard against such extreme reactions, because even the best comrades, once they start on that road, will sure as fate go to hell. I appeal, rather, for the calmest and most objective judgement of the problem. I don’t for a moment contend that it is a simple one. For the Stalinists of course, it is simple. They don’t even have to think. Anything Stalin does automatically merits support. For the Cannonites too, it is pretty simple. Any war that the “nationalized property” fights against capitalism, they defend it. The present Soviet state, said Trotsky, is a terrible monstrosity. It was never thought of or conceived by Marx or Engels or Lenin or Trotsky himself. It is unprecedented and unique and full of startling surprises and innovations. I consider it the height of stupidity to believe that every single problem connected with it can be answered by a simple formula. For my part I am ready to leave that travesty on Marxian politics to the Cannonites.

[I do not think, however, that what I have said in this ever so long letter exhausts the whole problem or even all the important aspects of it or that it succeeds in answering every question to 100% satisfaction. I like to believe, however, that it will throw more light on our position and thereby accomplish at least this, that it will facilitate the continuation of an objective discussion of the question.

I am sending copies of this letter to a number of comrades who may be interested in it.

New York
August 8th, 1941]

With best wishes


[1. Since this letter was written, my attention has been called to the fact that this formulation may lead to a misunderstanding. To clear up any such misunderstanding, I would add the following: In saying that we do not even raise the slogan of peace in the United States today, I mean that exclusively in the sense of not making it the center of our activities NOW. In general, we are just as much, fundamentally, the opponents of capitalist “peace” as are are of capitalist war. In particular, that is, at every concrete stage of the developing situation, the peace slogan, as referred to above, is to be adopted or rejected by us in accordance with whether it advances or retards the revolutionary struggle against the class enemy. It goes without saying that our refusal to advance this as a fighting slogan now does not in the least imply a relaxation of our struggle against the war, or against American participation in the war. On the contrary, we carry on that struggle no less intensively than in the past. Only, as has been explained time and again in our movement, with special reference to the demands and slogans of our transitional program, the struggle against the war right now cannot be effectively conducted by a naked counterposing of “peace” to “war” but only by putting forward such concrete demands and slogans as are best calculated to mobilize the working class in a movement which is, in fact, directed against the imperialists and their war and towards the establishment of workers’ power. – M.S.]

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