CORE 107: The War to End All Wars
The Bolsheviks and World Peace
Leon Trotsky (1917)
Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) was a Ukrainian Jew who in his youth became involved in socialist politics. He was imprisoned in Siberia and later spent many years abroad writing about socialism. He was a key figure in the overthrow of the Czarist monarchy and the Bolshevik seizure of power during the Russian Revolution in 1917. He was second only to Lenin in the early stages of Soviet communist rule, but was later pushed out in the power struggle with Joseph Stalin that followed Lenin’s death in 1924. Trotsky was assassinated while living in exile in Mexico City.
INTRODUCTION (by Lincoln Steffens1)
The voice that speaks in this book is the voice of Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik Minister of Foreign Affairs for Revolutionary Russia. It is expressing ideas and views which lighted him on the course of his policy toward the War, Peace and the Revolution. It throws light, therefore, on that policy; it helps to an understanding of it, if one wishes to understand. But that isn’t all. The spirit that flames and casts shadows upon these pages is not only Trotsky’s. It is the spirit also of the Bolsheviks;2 of the red left of the left wing of the revolutionary movement of New Russia. It flashed from Petrograd to Vladivostok, in the first week of the revolt; it burned all along the Russian Front before Trotsky appeared on the scene. It will smoulder long after he is gone. It is a hot fact which has to be picked up and examined, this spirit. Whether we like it or don’t, it is there; in Russia; it is elsewhere; it is everywhere today. It is the spirit of war; class war, but war. It is in this book.
Nor is that all.
The mind in this book—the point of view from which it starts, the views to which it points—Trotsky’s mind is the international mind. We have heard before of this new intelligence; we have read books, heard speeches, witnessed acts demonstrative of thoughts and feelings which are not national, but international; not patriotic, but loyal only to the lower-class-conscious war aims of the workers of the world. The class warrior is as familiar a figure to us as the red spirit is of the red left of revolution. But the voice which utters here the spirit and the mind, not only of the Russian, but of the world revolution is the voice of one having authority.
And Trotsky, in power, has been as red as he is in this book. The minister of foreign affairs practised in Petrograd3 what he preached in Switzerland, where he wrote most of the chapters of his book. And he practised also what all the other great International Socialist leaders talked and wrote. That’s what makes him so hard to understand, him and his party and the Bolshevik policy. We are accustomed to the sight of Socialists and Radicals going into office and being “sobered by the responsibilities of power.” French and Italian Socialists in the Liberal ministries of their countries; British Labor leaders in Parliament in England or in the governments of their Colonies; and the whole Socialist party in Germany and Austria (except Liebknecht4 in prison)—all are examples of the effect of power upon the International Mind. The phenomenon of compromise and surrender is so common that many radicals oppose the taking of any responsible office by any member of their parties; and some of the extremists are advocating no political action whatsoever, nothing but industrial, economic or what they call “direct action.” (Our I.W.W.’s5 don’t vote, on principle.) This is anarchism.
Leon Trotsky is not an anarchist; except in the ignorant sense of the word as used by educated people. He is a Socialist; an orthodox Marxian Socialist. But he has seen vividly the danger of political power. The body of this book was addressed originally to the German and Austrian Socialists, and if is a reasoned, but indignant reproach of them for letting their political position and their nationalistic loyalty carry them away into an undemocratic, patriotic, political policy which betrayed the weaker nations in their empires, helped break up the Second (Socialist) International and led the Socialist parties into the support of the War.
Clear upon it, Trotsky himself does not illustrate his own thesis. He not only detests intellectually the secrecy and the sordid wickedness of the “old diplomacy”; when he came as minister into possession of the archives of the Russian Foreign Office, he published the secret treaties.
That hurt. And so with the idea of a people’s peace. All the democratic world had been talking ever since the war began of a peace made, not by diplomats in a private room, but by the chosen representatives of all the peoples meeting in an open congress. The Bolsheviks worked for that from the moment the Russian Revolution broke; and they labored for the Stockholm Conference6 while Paul Milyukov7 and Alexander Kerensky8 were negotiating with the allied governments. When the Bolsheviks succeeded to power, Lenin and Trotsky formally authorized and officially proposed such a congress. Moreover Trotsky showed that they were willing, if they could, to force the other countries to accept the people’s peace conference.
This hurt. This hurt so much that the governments united in extraordinary measures to prevent the event. And when they succeeded, and it was seen that no people’s peace could be made openly and directly, Trotsky proceeded by another way to get to the same end. He opened negotiations with the Kaiser’s government and allies; arranged an armistice9 and agreed tentatively upon terms of peace.
This act not only hurt; it stunned the world, and no wonder! It was like a declaration of war against a whole world at war. It was unbelievable. The only explanation offered was that Trotsky and Lenin were pro-German or dishonest, or both, and these things were said in high places; and they were said with conviction, too. Moreover this conviction colored, if it did not determine, the attitude the Allies took toward New Russia and the peace proposals Trotsky got from the German government. Was this assumption of the dishonesty of Trotsky the only explanation of his act?
This book shows, as I have said, that Trotsky saw things from the revolutionary, international point of view, which is not that of his judges; which is incomprehensible to them. He wrote it after the War began; he finished the main part of it before the Russian Revolution. It is his view of the War, its causes and its effects, especially upon international Socialism and “the” Revolution. These are the things he holds in his mind all through all these pages: “the” Revolution and world democracy. Also I have shown that, like the Russians generally, his mind is literal. The Russians mean what they say, exactly; and Trotsky not only means, he does what he writes. Putting these considerations together, we can make a comprehensible statement of the motive and the purpose of his policy; if we want to comprehend.
To all the other secretaries of state or of foreign affairs in the world, the Russian Revolution was an incident, an interruption of the War. To Minister Trotsky it was the other way around.
The World War was an incident, an effect, a check of “the” Revolution. Not the Russian Revolution, you understand. To Trotsky the Russian Revolution is but one, the first of that series of national revolutions which together will become the Thing he yearns for and prophesies: the World Revolution.
His peace policy therefore is a peace drive directed, not at a separate peace with the Central Powers; and not even at a general peace, but to an ending of the War in and by “the” Revolution everywhere. Especially in Germany and Austria. He said this. The correspondent of the London Daily News cabled on January 2, right after the armistice and the agreement upon peace terms to be offered the Allies, that “Trotsky is doing his utmost to stimulate a revolution in Germany... Our only chance to defeat German designs is to publish terms (from the Allies)... to help the democratic movement in Germany.”
Trotsky is not pro-German. He certainly was not when he wrote this book. He hates here both the Austrian and the German dynasties, and his ill-will toward the House of Hapsburg10 is so bitter that it sounds sometimes as if there were something personal about it. And there is. He shows a knowledge of and a living sympathy with the small and subject nations which Austria rules, exploits and mistreats. He blames his Austrian comrades for their allegiance to a throne which is not merely undemocratic, but “senile” and tyrannical. That he, the literal Trotsky, would turn right around and, as the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, do what he had so recently criticized the Austrian Socialists for doing is unlikely.
Trotsky is against all the present governments of Europe, and the “bourgeois system” everywhere in the world. He isn’t pro-Allies; he isn’t even pro-Russian. He isn’t a patriot at all. He is for a class, the proletariat, the working people of all countries, and he is for his class only to get rid of classes and get down or up to—humanity. And so with his people.
The Russians have listened to the Socialist propaganda for generations now. They have learned the chief lessons it has taught: liberty, land, industrial democracy and the class-war the world over. This War was not their war; it was the Czar’s war; a war of the governments in the interest of their enemies, the capitalists of their several countries, who, as Trotsky says, were forcing their states to fight for the right to exploit other and smaller peoples. So when they overthrew the Czar, the Russians wanted to drop his war and go into their own, the class war. Kerensky held them at the front in the name of “the” Revolution; he would get peace for them by arrangement with the allies. He didn’t; he couldn’t; he was dismissed by them. Not by the Bolsheviks, but by the Russian people who know the three or four things they want: land and liberty at home; the Revolution and Democracy for all the world.
I heard a radical assert one day that that was the reason Trotsky could be such an exception to the rule about radicals in power. He came to the head of the Russian Revolution when his ideas were the actual demands of the Russian people and that if was not his strength of character, but the force of a democratic public opinion in mob power, which made him stick to his philosophy and carry out his theories and promises. I find upon inquiry here in New York that while he was living and working as a journalist on the East Side, he left one paper after another because he could not conform to their editorial policies and would not compromise. He was “stiff-necked,” “obstinate,” “unreasonable.” In other, kinder words, Trotsky is a strong man, with a definite mind and a purpose of his own, which he has the will and the nerve to pursue.
Also, however, Trotsky is a strong man who is ruled by and represents a very simple-minded people who are acting like him, literally upon the theory that the people govern now, in Russia; the common people; and that, since they don’t like the War of the Czar, the Kaiser, the Kings and the Emperors, their government should make peace with the peoples of the world, a democratic peace against imperialism and capitalism and the state everywhere, for the establishment in its stead of a free, worldwide democracy.
That may be the true explanation of Trotsky’s Bolshevik peace policy in the world crisis of the World War. That is the explanation which is suggested by this book.
“Written in extreme haste,” he says at the close of his preface, “under conditions far from favorable to systematic work... the entire book, from the first page to the last, was written with the idea of the New International constantly in mind—the New International which must rise out of the present world cataclysm, the International of the last conflict and the final victory.”
New York, January 8th, 1918
CHAPTER XI: THE REVOLUTIONARY EPOCH
At the close of the last century a heated controversy arose in Germany over the question, What effect does the industrialization of a country produce upon its military power? The reactionary agrarian politicians and writers, like Sehring, Karl Ballod, Georg Hansen11 and others, argued that the rapid increase of the city populations at the expense of the rural districts positively undermined the foundation of the Empire’s military power, and they of course drew from it their patriotic inferences in the spirit of agrarian protectionism. On the other hand Lujo Brentano12 and his school championed an exactly opposite point of view. They pointed out that economic industrialism not only opened up new financial and technical resources, but also developed in the proletariat the vital force capable of making effective use of all the new means of defense and attack. He quotes authoritative opinions to show that even in the earlier experiences of 1870-71 “the regiments from the preponderantly industrial district of Westphalia were among the very best.”13 And he explains this fact quite correctly by the far greater ability of the industrial worker to find his bearings in new conditions and to adjust himself to them.
Now which side is right? The present War proves that Germany, which has made the greatest progress along capitalistic lines, was able to develop the highest military power. And likewise in regard to all the countries drawn into it the War proves what colossal and yet competent energy the working class develops in its warlike activities. It is not the passive horde-like heroism of the peasant masses, welded together by fatalistic submissiveness and religious superstition. It is the individualized spirit of sacrifice, born of inner impulse, ranging itself under the banner of the Idea.
But the Idea under whose banner the armed proletariat now stands, is the Idea of war-crafty nationalism, the deadly enemy of the true interests of the workers. The ruling class showed themselves strong enough to force their Idea upon the proletariat, and the proletariat, in the consciousness of what they were doing, put their intelligence, their enthusiasm and their courage at the service of their class-foes. In this fact is sealed the terrible defeat of Socialism. But it also opens up all possibilities for a final victory of Socialism. There can be no doubt that a class which is capable of displaying such steadfastness and self-sacrifice in a war it considers a “just” one, will be still more capable of developing these qualities when the march of events will give it tasks really worthy of the historical mission of this class.
The epoch of the awakening, the enlightenment and the organization of the working-class revealed that it has tremendous resources of revolutionary energy which found no adequate employment in the daily struggle. The Social Democracy summoned the upper strata of the proletariat into the field, but it also checked their revolutionary energy by adopting the tactics it was obliged to adopt, the tactics of waiting, the strategy of letting your opponent exhaust himself. The character of this period was so dull and reactionary that it did not allow the Social Democracy the opportunity to give the proletariat tasks that would have engaged their whole spirit of sacrifice.
Imperialism is now giving them such tasks. And imperialism attained ifs object by pushing the proletariat into a position of “national defense,” which, to the workers, meant the defense of all their hands had created, not only the immense wealth of the nation, but also their own class-organizations, their treasuries, their press, in short, everything they had unwearingly, painfully struggled for and attained in the course of several decades. Imperialism violently threw society off its balance, destroyed the sluice-gates built by the Social Democracy to regulate the current of proletarian revolutionary energy, and guided this current into its own bed.
But this terrific historical experiment, which at one blow broke the back of the Socialist International, carries a deadly danger for bourgeois society itself. The hammer is wrenched out of the worker’s hand and a gun put into his hand instead. And the worker, who has been tied down by the machinery of the capitalist system, is suddenly torn from his usual setting and taught to place the aims of society above happiness at home and even life itself.
With the weapon in his hand that he himself has forged, the worker is put in a position where the political destiny of the state is directly dependent upon him. Those who exploited and scorned him in normal times, flatter him now and toady to him. At the same time he comes into intimate contact with the cannon, which Lassalle14 calls one of the most important ingredients of all constitutions. He crosses the border, takes part in forceful requisitions, and helps in the passing of cities from one party to another. Changes are taking place such as the present generation has never before seen.
Even though the vanguard of the working-class knew in theory that Might is the mother of Right, still their political thinking was completely permeated by the spirit of opportunism, of adaptation to bourgeois legalism. Now they are learning from the teachings of facts to despise this legalism and tear it down. Now dynamic forces are replacing the static forces in their psychology. The great guns are hammering into their heads the idea that if it is impossible to get around an obstacle, it is possible to destroy it. Almost the entire adult male population is going through this school of war, so terrible in its realism, a school which is forming a new human type. Iron necessity is now shaking its fist at all the rules of bourgeois society, at its laws, its morality, its religion. “Necessity knows no law,” said the German Chancellor15 on August 4th. Monarchs walk about in public places calling each other liars in the language of market-women; governments repudiate their solemnly acknowledged obligations, and the national church ties its God to the national cannon like a criminal condemned to hard labor. Is it not clear that all these circumstances must bring about a profound change in the mental attitude of the working-class, curing them radically of the hypnosis of legality in which a period of political stagnation expresses itself?
The possessing classes, to their consternation, will soon have to recognize this change. A working-class that has been through the school of war will feel the need of using the language of force as soon as the first serious obstacle faces them within their own country. “Necessity knows no law,” the workers will cry when the attempt is made to hold them back at the command of bourgeois law. And poverty, the terrible poverty that prevails during this war and will continue after its close, will be of a sort to force the masses to violate many a bourgeois law. The general economic exhaustion in Europe will affect the proletariat most immediately and most severely. The state’s material resources will be depleted by the war, and the possibility of satisfying the demands of the working-masses will be very limited. This must lead to profound political conflicts, which, ever-widening and deepening, may take on the character of a social revolution, the course and outcome of which no one, of course, can now foresee.
On the other hand, the War with its armies of millions, and its hellish weapons of destruction can exhaust not only society’s resources but also the moral forces of the proletariat. If it does not meet inner resistance, this War may last for several years more, with changing fortunes on both sides, until the chief belligerents are completely exhausted. But then the whole fighting energy of the international proletariat, brought to the surface by the bloody conspiracy of imperialism, will be completely consumed in the horrible work of mutual annihilation. The outcome would be that our entire civilization would be set back by many decades. A peace resulting not from the will of the awakened peoples but from the mutual exhaustion of the belligerents, would be like the peace with which the Balkan War16 was concluded; it would be a Bucharest Peace17 extended to the whole of Europe.
Such a peace would seek to patch up anew the contradictions, antagonisms and deficiencies that have led to the present War. And with many other things, the Socialist work of two generations would vanish in a sea of blood without leaving a trace behind.
Which of the two prospects is the more probable? This cannot possibly be theoretically determined in advance. The issue depends entirely upon the activity of the vital forces of society—above all upon the revolutionary Social Democracy.
“Immediate cessation of the War” is the watchword under which the Social Democracy can reassemble its scattered ranks, both within the national parties, and in the whole International. The proletariat cannot make its will to peace dependent upon the strategic considerations of the general staffs. On the contrary it must oppose its desire for peace to these military considerations. What the warring governments call a struggle for national self-preservation is in reality a mutual national annihilation. Real national self-defense now consists in the struggle for peace.
Such a struggle for peace means for us not only a fight to save humanity’s material and cultural possessions from further insane destruction. It is for us primarily to fight to preserve the revolutionary energy of the proletariat.
To assemble the ranks of the proletariat in a fight for peace means again to place the forces of revolutionary Socialism against raging, tearing imperialism on the whole front.
The conditions upon which peace should be concluded—the peace of the peoples themselves, and not the reconciliation of the diplomats—must be the same for the whole International.
THE RIGHT OF EVERY NATION TO SELF-DETERMINATION.
THE UNITED STATES OF EUROPE—WITHOUT MONARCHIES, WITHOUT STANDING ARMIES, WITHOUT RULING FEUDAL CASTES, WITHOUT SECRET DIPLOMACY.
The peace agitation, which must be conducted simultaneously with all the means now at the disposal of the Social Democracy as well as those which, with a good will, it could acquire, will not only tear the workers out of their nationalistic hypnosis; it will also do the saving work of inner purification in the present official parties of the proletariat. The national Revisionists and the Socialist patriots in the Second International, who have been exploiting the influence that Socialism has acquired over the working masses for national militaristic aims, must be thrust back into the camp of the enemies of the working class by uncompromising revolutionary agitation for peace.
The revolutionary Social Democracy need not fear that it will be isolated, now less than ever. The War is making the most terrible agitation against itself. Every day that the War lasts will bring new masses of people to our banner, if it is an honest banner of peace and democracy. The surest way by which the Social Democracy can isolate the militaristic reaction in Europe and force it to take the offensive is by the slogan of Peace.
* * * *
We revolutionary Marxists have no cause for despair. The epoch into which we are now entering will be our epoch. Marxism is not defeated. On the contrary: the roar of the cannon in every quarter of Europe heralds the theoretical victory of Marxism. What is left now of the hopes for a “peaceful” development, for a mitigation of capitalist class contrasts, for a regular systematic growth into Socialism?
The Reformists on principle, who hoped to solve the social question by the way of tariff treaties, consumers’ leagues, and the parliamentary co-operation of the Social Democracy with the bourgeois parties, are now all resting their hopes on the victory of the “national” arms. They are expecting the possessing classes to show greater willingness to meet the needs of the proletariat because it has proved its patriotism.
This expectation would be positively foolish if there were not hidden behind it another, far less “idealistic” hope—that a military victory would create for the bourgeoisie a broader imperialistic field for enriching itself at the expense of the bourgeoisie of other countries, and would enable it to share some of the booty with its own proletariat at the expense of the proletariat of other countries. Socialist reformism has actually turned into Socialist imperialism.
We have witnessed with our own eyes the pathetic bankruptcy of the hopes of a peaceful growth of proletarian well-being. The Reformists, contrary to their own doctrine, were forced to resort to violence in order to find their way out of the political cul-de-sac—and not the violence of the peoples against the ruling classes, but the military violence of the ruling classes against other nations. Since 1858 the German bourgeoisie has renounced revolutionary methods for solving its problems. They left it to the feudal class to solve their own bourgeois questions by the method of war. Social development confronted the proletariat with the problem of revolution. Evading revolution, the Reformists were forced to go through the same process of historical decline as the liberal bourgeoisie. The Reformists also left it to their ruling classes, that is the same feudal caste, to solve the proletarian problem by the method of war. But this ends the analogy.
The creation of national states did really solve the bourgeois problem for a long period, and the long series of colonial wars coming after 187118 finished off the period by broadening the arena of the development of the capitalistic forces. The period of colonial wars carried on by the national states led to the present War of the national states—for colonies. After all the backward portions of the earth had been divided among the capitalist states, there was nothing left for these states except to grab the colonies from each other.
“People ought not to talk,” says Georg Irmer,19 “as though it were self-evident that the German Empire has come too late for rivalry for world economy and world markets—that the world has already been divided. Has not the earth been divided over and over again in all epochs of history?”
But a re-division of colonies among the capitalist countries does not enlarge the foundation of capitalist development. One country’s gain means another country’s loss. Accordingly a temporary mitigation of class-conflicts in Germany could only be achieved by an extreme intensification of the class struggle in France and in England, and vice versa. An additional factor of decisive importance is the capitalist awakening in the colonies themselves, to which the present War must give a mighty impetus. Whatever the outcome of this War, the imperialistic basis for European capitalism will not be broadened, but narrowed. The War, therefore, does not solve the labor question on an imperialistic basis, but, on the contrary, it intensifies it, putting this alternative to the capitalist world: Permanent War or Revolution.
If the War got beyond the control of the Second International,20 its immediate consequences will get beyond the control of the bourgeoisie of the entire world. We revolutionary Socialists did not want the War. But we do not fear it. We do not give in to despair over the fact that the War broke up the International. History had already disposed of the International.
The revolutionary epoch will create new forms of organization out of the inexhaustible resources of proletarian Socialism, new forms that will be equal to the greatness of the new tasks. To this work we will apply ourselves at once, amid the mad roaring of the machineguns, the crashing of cathedrals, and the patriotic howling of the capitalist jackals. We will keep our clear minds amid this hellish death music, our undimmed vision. We feel ourselves to be the only creative force of the future. Already there are many of us, more than it may seem. Tomorrow there will be more of us than today. And the day after tomorrow, millions will rise up under our banner, millions who even now, sixty-seven years after the Communist Manifesto, have nothing to lose but their chains.
SOURCE: Leon Trotsky, The Bolsheviki and World Peace (New York: Boni & Liveright, 1918), 7-19, 220-238.