XVI. Revolutionary Defeatism as a Combined Strategy




In our Theses on Revolutionary Defeatism we have stated the following idea: “The two fundamental aspects of Revolutionary Defeatism – (i) refusal to side with any camp in conflicts between Great Powers and (ii) active support for the struggle of oppressed people in order to defeat the imperialists – are inextricably linked with each other. The tensions between the Great Powers are based, to a large degree, on the desire of each ruling class to expand its sphere of influence in the South at the cost of its rivals. The oppression and super-exploitation of the oppressed people is determined by the Great Powers’ drive for global dominance.


As we consider this approach as one of the most important (and often ignored or misunderstood) aspects of the anti-imperialist struggle, we want to elaborate on it here in more detail.


To begin with, we have to emphasize again that the struggle against imperialism, militarism and war is not a separate struggle which would be subject to different laws than the struggle against other features of capitalism. No, militarism and war are part and parcel of the same system and, hence, the struggle against imperialism and war must be conducted with the same methods of independent class struggle like in all other fields of the class struggle. The Fourth International, led by Leon Trotsky, made this very clear in a resolution adopted at a congress in 1936:


“The "struggle against war" cannot be conducted as something separate and apart from the class struggle itself, from the intransigent struggle of the proletariat against imperialist capitalism, that is, against that social order which inexorably gives rise to imperialist war and oppression and which is inconceivable without these twin scourges. Any attempt to conduct a struggle "against war" by means of "special, methods" separate or "above" the class struggle itself is at best a cruel illusion and as a rule a malicious deception that facilitates the work of the imperialist warmongers.” [1]


As we will outline in the chapters below in detail, Marxists basically distinguish between two different types of wars: between wars of oppression and wars of liberation. Wars of oppression are wars of the ruling class in order to impose their reactionary interests at the expense of others – either against their capitalist rivals or against the working class and oppressed people. Socialists can never, under any circumstances, support such wars of oppression.


The only wars worthy of socialists’ support are wars of liberation. Such wars are wars in defense of the interest of the working class and the oppressed people. Such wars can take the form of civil wars – for example the Spanish Civil War 1936-39, India’s war against the Kashmiri people, Russia’s war against the Chechen people or the Syrian Civil War since 2011. They can also take the form of wars between states – for example the imperialist wars against the Soviet Union or against semi-colonial countries (Afghanistan, Iraq etc.). Socialists are obligated to support the proletariat and the oppressed people in such wars and to work for the defeat of the reactionary camp.


Trotsky summarized the Marxist position on wars concurrently in a statement for an anti-war congress in 1932: „Capitalist brigands always conduct a “defensive” war, even when Japan is marching against Shanghai and France against Syria or Morocco. The revolutionary proletariat distinguishes only between wars of oppression and wars of liberation. The character of a war is defined, not by diplomatic falsifications, but by the class which conducts the war and the objective aims it pursues in that war. The wars of the imperialist states, apart from the pretexts and political rhetoric, are of an oppressive character, reactionary and inimical to the people. Only the wars of the proletariat and of the oppressed nations can be characterized as wars of liberation (...) [2]


Marxists call the program to defend the camp of the working class and the oppressed people “defensism” while they call the program to defeat the reactionary camp “defeatism”. Trotsky emphasized that understanding the true character of a war and drawing the correctly programmatic conclusions is one of the most important tasks for any revolutionary organization: The problem or war, next to the problem of revolution, is the touchstone of a revolutionary party. Here no kind of equivocation is permissible. The principled decision is clear beforehand: defensism and defeatism are as incompatible as fire and, water. It is necessary to say this first of all. This truth must be taught the members of the party.[3]


In its most general definition, the Marxist program of defeatism means that revolutionaries continue the class struggle of the workers and oppressed against the imperialist ruling class in times of war and refuse any support for the class enemy. Revolutionaries desire to utilize the war conditions to weaken and eventually to defeat the class enemy. Here is how the Left Opposition, fighting against the Stalinist revisionists, formulated the essence of defeatism in an official document in 1927:


What is meant by the term defeatism? In the whole past history of the party, defeatism was understood to mean desiring the defeat of one’s own government in a war with an external enemy and contributing to such a defeat by methods of internal revolutionary struggle. This referred of course to the attitude of the proletariat towards the capitalist state.[4]


Trotsky himself gave a more or less identical definition in the same year: „What is defeatism? It is a policy which aims at contributing to the defeat by of ‘one’s own’ state, which is in the hands of the enemy class.[5]


Rudolf Klement, a leader of the Fourth International who was killed by the Stalinist GPU in 1938, summarized the principles of revolutionary defeatism in an article which was praised by Trotsky:


War is only the continuation of politics by other means. Hence the proletariat must continue its class struggle in wartime, among other things with the new means which the bourgeoisie hands him. It can and must utilise the weakening of its “own” bourgeoisie in the imperialist countries in order relentlessly to prepare and to carry out its social revolution in connection with the military defeat engendered by the war, and to seize the power. This tactic, known as revolutionary defeatism, is one of the strongest levers of the proletarian world revolution in our epoch, and therewith of historical progress.[6]


Revolutionaries fighting against the imperialist enemy desire to utilize each crisis – from economic recessions, political crisis to military conflicts – in order to strengthen the combative power and the consciousness of the working class and the oppressed masses and to weaken, and eventually to overthrow, the ruling class. This is why Marxists view imperialist wars always from the perspective how it can be transformed into a revolutionary war against the imperialist rulers.




The Contradictory Nature of Imperialism as the Objective Basis for Anti-Imperialism




However, before we deal with the specific aspects of the program of revolutionary defeatism we have to clarify one of its most fundamental aspects. Revolutionary defeatism is a combined strategy. This means that it combines the anti-imperialist struggle against all Great Powers with support for all liberation struggles of the workers and oppressed people against all Great Powers respectively their proxies. The program of defeatism is either such a combined strategy or is not defeatist at all!


This is why Trotsky emphasized to analyze the character of each conflict as concrete as possible and, at the same time, to recognize the relations between them: “To teach the workers correctly to understand the class character of the state imperialist, colonial, workers’—and the reciprocal relations between them, as well as the inner contradictions in each of them, enables the workers to draw correct practical conclusions in situation.[7]


Such a combined strategy is the only possible conclusion from the Marxist theory of imperialism. As we have shown above, Lenin, Trotsky and other prominent Marxists of the 20th century were always clear about the nature of imperialism as a system where a small number of monopolies and Great Powers rival against each other for domination of the world and the exploitation of its economic resources. Hence, imperialism, by definition, implies the oppression and exploitation of the dependent, subordinated countries and people of the South by these monopolies and Great Powers. Let us reproduce again Lenin’s definition of imperialism:


We have to begin with as precise and full a definition of imperialism as possible. Imperialism is a specific historical stage of capitalism. Its specific character is threefold: imperialism is monopoly capitalism; parasitic, or decaying capitalism; moribund capitalism. The supplanting of free competition by monopoly is the fundamental economic feature, the quintessence of imperialism. Monopoly manifests itself in five principal forms: (1) cartels, syndicates and trusts—the concentration of production has reached a degree which gives rise to these monopolistic associations of capitalists; (2) the monopolistic position of the big banks—three, four or five giant banks manipulate the whole economic life of America, France, Germany; (3) seizure of the sources of raw material by the trusts and the financial oligarchy (finance capital is monopoly industrial capital merged with bank capital); (4) the (economic) partition of the world by the international cartels has begun. There are already over one hundred such international cartels, which command the entire world market and divide it “amicably” among themselves—until war redivides it. The export of capital, as distinct from the export of commodities under non-monopoly capitalism, is a highly characteristic phenomenon and is closely linked with the economic and territorial-political partition of the world; (5) the territorial partition of the world (colonies) is completed.“ [8]


From this follows that imperialist oppression and super-exploitation of the colonial and semi-colonial people are essential features of the present world system:


Imperialism means the progressively mounting oppression of the nations of the world by a handful of Great Powers (…) That is why the focal point in the Social-Democratic programme must be that division of nations into oppressor and oppressed which forms the essence of imperialism, and is deceitfully evaded by the social-chauvinists and Kautsky. This division is not significant from the angle of bourgeois pacifism or the philistine Utopia of peaceful competition among independent nations under capitalism, but it is most significant from the angle of the revolutionary struggle against imperialism.[9]


In other words, imperialist monopolies and Great Powers exist and can only exist a) in rivalry against each other and b) by oppressing and exploiting oppressed nations. Both aspects are related with each other because the monopolies’ and Great Powers’ strive for more profit and power can only be satisfied by expanding their global influence and market share at the cost of their rivals and by squeezing more wealth from the oppressed peoples.


Such a contradictory nature of imperialism constitutes the objective basis for the program of anti-imperialism and has profound consequences for the revolutionary struggle. As both aspects are organically and objectively linked with each other, any meaningful strategy against the Great Powers must take both of them into account and integrate them into a single, unified strategy.


This is why Lenin emphasized already in the middle of World War One, when the Great Powers were slaughtering millions of people of each other on the battle fields, the crucial importance of the liberation struggles of the oppressed nations. He did so despite the fact that at that time there were hardly any such national uprisings. But Lenin fully understood the close connection between Great Power rivalry and the imperialist oppression of the colonial and semi-colonial people. He emphasized this connection numerous times:


Theoretically, it would be absolutely 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 those policies were engendered and fostered by the sum 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 of 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 revolutionary war, etc.[10]


Marxists have never forgotten that violence must inevitably accompany the collapse of capitalism in its entirety and the birth of socialist society. That violence will constitute a period of world history, a whole era of various kinds of wars, imperialist wars, civil wars inside countries the intermingling of the two, national wars liberating the nationalities oppressed by the imperialists and by various combinations of imperialist powers that will inevitably enter into various alliances in the epoch of tremendous state-capitalist and military trusts and syndicates.[11]


From this follows that Marxists have to actively strive to win the vanguard of the working class and the oppressed for combining its struggle against the Great Powers with the liberation struggle of the oppressed people.


National wars against the imperialist powers are not only possible and probable; they are inevitable, progressive and revolutionary though of course, to be successful, they require either the concerted effort of huge numbers of people in the oppressed countries (hundreds of millions in our example of India and China), or a particularly favourable conjuncture of international conditions (e.g., the fact that the imperialist powers cannot interfere, being paralysed by exhaustion, by war, by their antagonism, etc.), or the simultaneous uprising of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie in one of the big powers (this latter eventuality holds first place as the most desirable and favourable for the victory of the proletariat).[12]


The objectively combined character of the strategy of defeatism is also always reflected in the following fact. Given the objective interconnection between Great Power rivalry and the struggle of oppressed people against Great Powers, it often happens that the former influences the later and vice versa. We have dealt with this issue extensively in other works. [13] Sufficient to say at this place that there can be cases where such interference of Great Powers in an ongoing liberation struggle becomes so dominant that the character of this struggles gets transformed and it becomes a proxy struggle for the interests of one or another Great Power. However, it would be foolish to assume that Great Power interference as such already results in such a transformation. Marxists have to undertake a concrete analysis of the concrete situation.


History has seen numerous cases where such combinations of inter-imperialist wars and liberation wars took place. In our above mentioned analysis we have elaborated a number of examples. Here we limit ourselves to a few examples. In World War II revolutionaries had to take into account that this global war included three different types of war: a) the war between imperialist Great Powers (Germany-Italy-Japan vs. US-UK-France), the war between an imperialist Great Power and a Degenerated Workers State (Germany vs. USSR) and wars between Great Powers vs. oppressed people (Germany vs. oppressed people in occupied European countries; Japan vs. oppressed people in occupied South-East Asian countries, Britain vs. the Indian people, etc.) Naturally, each Great Power tried to weaken its enemy by supporting the USSR or oppressed peoples with weapons, etc. The Trotskyist Fourth International deployed a tactic which differentiated between the characters of the different types of wars. They took a position of revolutionary defeatism on both sides in the war between the two imperialist camps but they supported the USSR resp. the oppressed people against the respective Great Power.


Such complicated situations also exist today as we can currently see in Syria. Revolutionaries support the ongoing liberation struggle of the rebels against the Assad tyranny and its Russian imperialist masters. In the clashes between the pro-Turkish rebels (supporting the treacherous Astana/Sochi process) and the rebels opposing Astana, they side with the latter. They support the rebels in their struggle against Daesh/ISIS. But they oppose the US imperialist onslaught with the help of the Kurdish YPG/SDF against Daesh. In conflicts between the pro-Russian Assadist troops and pro-US YPG/SDF troops revolutionaries don’t take a side as they are both imperialist proxies. [14]


Another example is the Western imperialist air strikes in Libya during the popular revolution against the Gaddafi dictatorship. These air strikes, which revolutionaries resolutely opposed, did however not become the dominant element in the liberation struggle, i.e. the liberation struggle against Gaddafi kept its progressive character and was not transformed into a proxy war for the imperialists (contrary to the silly claims of the Stalinists and various pseudo-Trotskyists). This was confirmed by the events following the downfall of Gaddafi. Had the civil war against Gaddafi have been a proxy war of NATO agents (as the Stalinists and semi-Stalinists claim), NATO would have taken control after the downfall of Gaddafi in autumn 2011. However, the opposite took place: more than seven years after the fall of the dictatorship, the imperialists have still failed to bring Libya under control. In fact, they had to evacuate their embassies and a US ambassador was assassinated. [15]


Such a complex and contradictory nature of wars, when the aspect of liberation struggles and the aspect of imperialist intervention are both present, were not unknown to the Marxist classics. In fact Lenin and Trotsky were fully aware of such combinations of different types of wars and outlined a revolutionary response.




The Marxist Classics on the Combined Strategy




Trotsky warned against any mechanic schemas which ignored the contradictory, dialectical nature of such conflicts. „In ninety cases out of a hundred the workers actually place a minus sign where the bourgeoisie places a plus sign. In ten cases, however, they are forced to fix the same sign as the bourgeoisie but with their own seal, in which is expressed their mistrust of the bourgeoisie. The policy of the proletariat is not at all automatically derived from the policy of the bourgeoisie, bearing only the opposite sign – this would make every sectarian a master strategist; no, the revolutionary party must each time orient itself independently in the internal as well as the external situation, arriving at those decisions which correspond best to the interests of the proletariat. This rule applies just as much to the war period as to the period of peace.“ [16]


Lenin explained, in the epoch of imperialism Great Powers will always try to interfere and utilize national and democratic conflicts. However, this fact should not lead Marxists to automatically adopt a defeatist instead of a revolutionary-defensist position in such conflicts. Rather, the position taken by Marxists should depend on which factor becomes dominant – the national, democratic liberation struggle or the imperialist war of conquest.


On the other hand, the socialists of the oppressed nations must, in particular, defend and implement the full and unconditional unity, including organisational unity, of the workers of the oppressed nation and those of the oppressor nation. Without this it is impossible to defend the independent policy of the proletariat and their class solidarity with the proletariat of other countries in face of all manner of intrigues, treachery and trickery on the part of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations persistently utilise the slogans of national liberation to deceive the workers; in their internal policy they use these slogans for reactionary agreements with the bourgeoisie of the dominant nation (for example, the Poles in Austria and Russia who come to terms with reactionaries for the oppression of the Jews and Ukrainians); in their foreign policy they strive to come to terms with one of the rival imperialist powers for the sake of implementing their predatory plans (the policy of the small Balkan states, etc.). The fact that the struggle for national liberation against one imperialist power may, under certain conditions, be utilised by another “great” power for its own, equally imperialist, aims, is just as unlikely to make the Social-Democrats refuse to recognise the right of nations to self-determination as the numerous cases of bourgeois utilisation of republican slogans for the purpose of political deception and financial plunder (as in the Romance countries, for example) are unlikely to make the Social-Democrats reject their republicanism.” [17]


Later, when faced with the complex scenario of the approaching World War II, Rudolf Klement elaborated on the Marxist approach:


Class struggle and war are international phenomena, which are decided internationally. But since every struggle permits of but two camps (bloc against bloc) and since imperialistic fights intertwine with the class war (world imperialism—world proletariat), there arise manifold and complex cases. The bourgeoisie of the semi-colonial countries or the liberal bourgeoisie menaced by its “own” fascism, appeal for aid to the “friendly” imperialisms; the Soviet Union attempts, for example, to utilise the antagonisms between the imperialisms by concluding alliances with one group against another, etc. The proletariat of all countries, the only internationally solidarity—and not least of all because of that, the only progressive—class, thereby finds itself in the complicated situation in wartime, especially in the new world war, of combining revolutionary defeatism towards his own bourgeoisie with support of progressive wars.


Klement defends a dialectical approach, arguing that “the proletariat, especially in the imperialist countries, requires, in this seemingly contradictory situation, a particularly clear understanding of these combined tasks and of the methods for fulfilling them.” And, at the end of his article, he goes on to emphasize: “Thus we see how different war situations require from the revolutionary proletariat of the various imperialist countries, if it wishes to remain true to itself and to its goal, different fighting forms, which may appear to schematic spirits to be “deviations” from the basic principle of revolutionary defeatism, but which result in reality only from the combination of revolutionary defeatism with the defence of certain progressive camps.[18]


It is this concrete, dialectical method which the Marxist classics developed and which we apply today to the different types of wars that occur in a world situation characterized by increasing contradictions and rivalry.


And it is exactly this dialectical, contradictory nature of conflicts which nearly all reformists and centrists fail to understand. In the best case they take only one or another aspect of the defeatist program but not the strategy in its totality. Or worse, they don’t even understand a single of those complex elements of revolutionary defeatism as a combined strategy.


The result of such failure, as we stated in the Theses and as we elaborate more in detail below, is that an opposition against the Great Powers without full support for the liberation struggles of the oppressed people is “platonic anti-imperialism” at best or “masked social-imperialism” at worst. Support for this or that liberation struggle without steadfast opposition against all Great Powers involves the risk of siding with one imperialist camp against the other and, hence, of transforming a liberation force into a proxy for this or that Great Power.


In short, “anti-imperialism” without pro-liberationism is not anti-imperialism but open or concealed social-imperialism!


[1] Leon Trotsky: Resolution on the Antiwar Congress of the London Bureau (1936), in: Documents of the Fourth International, New York 1973, p. 98

[2] Leon Trotsky: Declaration to the Antiwar Congress at Amsterdam (1932), in: Writings 1932, p. 153 (emphasis in the original)

[3] Leon Trotsky: Defeatism vs. Defensism (1937), in: Trotsky Writings 1937-38, p. 86

[4] L. Trotsky, G. Zinoviev, Yevdokimov: Resolution of the All-Russia Metal Workers Union (1927); in: Leon Trotsky: The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27), pp. 249-250 (Emphasis in the original)

[5] Leon Trotsky: ‘Defeatism’ and Clemenceau (1927); in: Leon Trotsky: The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-279), p. 252

[6] Rudolf Klement: Principles and Tactics in War (1938); in The New International (Theoretical journal of the Socialist Workers Party, US-American section of the Fourth International), May 1938, Vol. 4, No. 5, pp. 144-145, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol1/no1/printact.html. The RCIT re-published this text in: Revolutionary Communism No. 4 (2012), pp. 44-46.

[7] Manifesto of the Fourth International on Imperialist War: Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution. Adopted by the Emergency Conference of the Fourth International, May 19-26, 1940, in: Documents of the Fourth International. The Formative Years (1933-40), New York 1973, p. 327, http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fi/1938-1949/emergconf/fi-emerg02.htm

[8] V. I. Lenin: Imperialism and the Split in Socialism (1916); in: CW Vol. 23, pp. 105-106 [Emphases in the original]

[9] V. I. Lenin: The revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination (1915); in: CW 21, p. 409

[10] V. I. Lenin: The Military Programme of the Proletarian Revolution (1916) ; in: LCW Vol. 23, p. 80

[11] V.I.Lenin: Report on the Review of the Programme and on Changing the Name of the Party, March 8 (1918), in: LCW Vol. 27, p.130

[12] V.I.Lenin: The Junius Pamphlet (1916), in: LCW Vol. 22, p.312 [emphasis in the original]

[13] See e.g. Michael Pröbsting: Liberation Struggles and Imperialist Interference. The failure of sectarian “anti-imperialism” in the West: Some general considerations from the Marxist point of view and the example of the democratic revolution in Libya in 2011, Autumn 2012, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/liberation-struggle-and-imperialism/

[14] The RCIT has published a number of booklets, statements and articles on the Syrian Revolution which can be read on a special sub-section on this website: https://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/africa-and-middle-east/collection-of-articles-on-the-syrian-revolution/. In particular we refer to Michael Pröbsting: Is the Syrian Revolution at its End? Is Third Camp Abstentionism Justified? An essay on the organs of popular power in the liberated area of Syria, on the character of the different sectors of the Syrian rebels, and on the failure of those leftists who deserted the Syrian Revolution, 5 April 2017, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/syrian-revolution-not-dead/; Michael Pröbsting: World Perspectives 2018: A World Pregnant with Wars and Popular Uprisings, February 2018, Chapter V, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/world-perspectives-2018/chapter-v/; Yossi Schwartz: Raqqa: Defeat the US Imperialist Offensive! An assessment of the US/SDF/YPG war against Daesh, April 2017, https://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/africa-and-middle-east/us-offensive-in-raqqa/

[15] See on this RCIT: Stop the US Bombing of Libya! 23.2.2016, https://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/africa-and-middle-east/us-bombing-libya/; RCIT: Europe / North Africa: Storm the Gates of Rome! Open Borders for Refugees! Stop the Imperialist EU-War against Refugees! No to the Preparations for an Imperialist Aggression against Libya! 22.5.2015, http://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/europe/eu-war-against-refugees/; RCIT: Revolution and Counterrevolution in the Arab World: An Acid Test for Revolutionaries, http://www.thecommunists.net/theory/theses-arab-revolution/; RCIT: General Sisi, Hollande, Obama: Hands Off Libya! Defeat General Haftars’ Imperialist Lackeys! Down with the Daash-Gang of Killers! For a Workers’ and Popular Government! 26.2.2015, http://www.thecommunists.net/worldwide/africa-and-middle-east/hands-off-libya/

[16] Leon Trotsky: Learn to Think: A Friendly Suggestion to Certain Ultra-Leftists (1938); in: Trotsky Writings 1937-38, pp. 332-333. (Emphasis in the Original) The RCIT re-published this text in Revolutionary Communism No. 5 (2012).

[17] V. I. Lenin: The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination (1916); in: CW 22, p. 148

[18] Rudolf Klement: Principles and Tactics in War (1938); in The New International (Theoretical journal of the Socialist Workers Party, US-American section of the Fourth International), May 1938, Vol. 4, No. 5, pp. 144-145, https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol1/no1/printact.html. The RCIT re-published this text in: Revolutionary Communism No. 4 (2012), pp. 44-46.