‘Just Wars in the Light of Marxism’ by Erich Wollenberg from New International. Vol. 3 No. 1. February, 1936.

Our revolutionary alarm bell still sounds! Workers, peasants, working towards new battles and new victories! Against the white cavalry – we will advance the red one. Hurry to the ranks of the Red cavalry! 1919.

Erich Wollenberg was wounded five times as a soldier in the Germany army during World War One, being promoted to Lieutenant. After the war he joined the Spartacists and was military leader of the Bavarian Soviet of 1919, the Ruhr uprising in 1923; an officer and instructor in the Soviet Red Army from 1924-26, and a central figure of the Roter Kämpferbund from 1930 until his 1933 expulsion from the KPD for ‘Trotskyism.’ A writer on the Red Army and military policy, this on the Comintern’s ‘Popular Front’ change in position reaffirms what are ‘just wars in light of Marxism.’ He includes the civil war of the proletariat; wars of liberation of the oppressed colonial and semi-colonial peoples; war of a country in which the proletariat has seized power, against its imperialist aggressors; wars of national liberation of an oppressed nation.

‘Just Wars in the Light of Marxism’ by Erich Wollenberg from New International. Vol. 3 No. 1. February, 1936.

WITHOUT AN afterthought the French Stalinists have thrown overboard all of their principles – which they maintained only in words, never really in their essence – and now openly proclaim their support of the military policy of the French government, the “defense of the fatherland”. That means: the defense of the brigand interests of the imperialist bourgeoisie. They “motivate” their stand for a class truce with the argument that a war conducted by French imperialism as an ally of the Soviet Union would not be an imperialist, a reactionary war, but rather a just, a progressive war. For this stand, the tragic heroes of the Third International invoke Marx and Lenin, who “always held the view that an international socialist cannot remain inactive on the sidelines of a just war, but must support it by all means whatsoever”.

Erich Wollenberg.

As is the case with all skillful falsifications, the Stalinist deception of the French people consists precisely in the manner in which they combine lies with truths, falsehoods with correct statements. They apply concepts valid for a specific epoch, for specific situations, for specific classes, to other epochs, to other situations, to other classes. Thus they make it difficult for the simple, honest workers, to whom such sleight-of-hand tricks are alien in their very nature, to penetrate the whole deception.

What is a “just” war in reality – that is, what do Marxists, not the imperialist brigands or their lackeys, mean when they use that term?

The expression “just war” in its application to the proletariat hails from the old Wilhelm Liebknecht, the father of our unforgettable Karl. Marx and Lenin, when they used the expression “just war”, meant a war in the epoch of the bourgeois revolution, that is, in the nineteenth century, conducted by an oppressed nation divided up among foreign states, against its oppressors with the aim of uniting itself into a single national state. Such a “just war”, for instance, was the war conducted by Cavour, the Italian “Bismarck”, for Italian independence. “Just wars” in this sense, were many of the wars conducted by the armies of the Great French Revolution at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. “Just wars” could also be used as a designation of the wars which aimed at the national unification of all the German principalities into a pan-German national state. For this aim – the creation of a pan-German democratic republic – Friedrich Engels, for instance, fought under arms in the Baden insurrection of 1849. In the middle of the nineteenth century, national wars of liberation against Napoleon III and the Russian Czar, who both sought to prevent the national unification of Germany, were “just wars”.

Comrades! Oppressed workers of the Ruhr need your help! 1923.

That is how matters stood on the question of “just wars” in the epoch of the bourgeois revolution, the content of which, aside from the abolition of feudalism (the liberation of the peasants, etc.), consisted precisely in the formation of great national states. That was in the nineteenth century! Matters stand quite differently, however, with the question of “just wars” during the twentieth century, in the epoch of the socialist revolution. Its content is the destruction of capitalism, the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. That implies the overthrow (among others) also of the French imperialist bourgeoisie, which the Stalinists so demonstratively declare they will not overthrow, but defend.

How should Marxists (not Stalinists) approach the question whether a war is “just” or “unjust” in our epoch?

Lenin gave a clear answer to this question also, in his struggle against the forerunners of the Stalinists, the heroes of the Second International who, during the first imperialist world war, had transformed themselves into unconscionable lackeys of their national bourgeoisies.

We will therefore apply Lenin’s teachings to the present concrete situation.

First of all: Every war is the continuation of politics by other (i.e., military) means. A just war is therefore the continuation of a just policy, a policy along the lines of progress for all of human society; a progressive war in contradistinction to a reactionary war. The character of a war conducted by a state must therefore be determined by Marxists according to the character of the policy of the ruling class in this state. The most reactionary class in the twentieth century is the bourgeoisie: in particular, the imperialist bourgeoisie based on finance-capital. The mortal enemy of all human progress in our epoch is imperialism, whether it be of the as yet “democratic” variety or of the more open and brutal Fascist variety. The main representative of progress is the socialist proletariat of the Soviet Union together with the proletariat of the capitalist countries; among the latter, particularly the proletariat of the highly industrialized states, i.e., the proletariat of the great imperialist brigand powers. Because of the mismanagement of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, the importance of the proletariat of the great imperialist powers in Europe and America has grown considerably beyond its role in the days of Lenin.

Freedom is deserved only by those who pick up their rifle in defence. 1920.

With this general compass of Marxist-Leninist knowledge – and not with the stupid, liberal formula of Litvinov – “Who fired the first shot?” – every Marxist must approach the question of whether a given, actual war is “just” or “unjust”. From the reply to this question flows the tactic which an honest working class leader, one who has not sold out to his bourgeoisie, must pursue in the given war.

In the epoch of imperialism, Lenin distinguished the following types of “just”, progressive wars:

I. The civil war of the proletariat

The civil war is also a war, the war of the oppressed classes against their exploiters and oppressors. The civil war, the continuation and the highest form of the class struggle, is the most outstanding type of “just” war in the epoch of imperialism. The class struggle of the proletariat is a bitter, uninterrupted struggle, constantly changing in its forms and methods until it reaches the point of open war, carried on by the toiling masses against their own bourgeoisie and its instrument of power, the bourgeois state: that is, in its most decisive form, against the armed forces of the bourgeoisie. Stalin’s command to his French underlings, transmitted through Stalin’s ally, Monsieur Laval, “to support completely the policy of national defense adopted by France in order to maintain its armed forces on a par with its [imperialist! – E.W.] security” ( Stalin-Laval communiqué of May 15, 1935), is nothing else than an intervention on the part of Stalin in the internal affairs of France on the side of the imperialist bourgeoisie. It is nothing else than a stab in the back of the French proletariat fighting for its liberation.

October 25, 1917 – November 7, 1920. The third anniversary of the communist revolution in Russia is the collapse of world imperialism.

Messrs. Stalinists will reply to this: “But we combine our support of the military policy of France with the demand [!!] for democracy in the army, for the removal of all its Fascist elements.” How far Thorez, Cachin and Co. have departed from Marxism in so short a time! Have they “forgotten” that the bourgeois state remains an instrument of power in the hands of the capitalists, no matter how “democratic” or how “Fascist” it may be? Does the character of the imperialist plunder policy of the ruling class, of the bourgeoisie, change with the introduction of “democracy” into the army?

A Marxist also fights for democracy in the state apparatus and, therefore, in the army. He does so because, under the protection of democratic institutions, the proletariat can be better organized to undermine “national defense”, for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the destruction of its state apparatus. A Marxist utilizes every crisis which hits the bourgeois state, for the achievement of his just goal, socialism. War constitutes one of the great crisps of capitalism. The slogan for every Marxist in every one of the imperialist countries, in every war conducted by this country, must therefore be the Leninist slogan of the transformation of the war into a civil war. The Stalinists demand democracy in the army “in order to maintain, at the level required for their security” – the bourgeois state, its national defense, and its armed forces. The Stalinists declare demonstratively that they will oppose the utilization of the profound crisis created by the coming war for its transformation into civil war. Can a more dastardly betrayal of socialism, and a service more welcome to the bourgeoisie, be imagined?

Death to suppressors and oppressors of workers and peasants! Struggle for the Volga, – the struggle for the BREAD OF THE STARVING! 1919.

Everything has its own logic. Where and when do the “interests of national defense” of an imperialist country begin and where do they end? The unobstructed development of industrial production as a whole, and of the “war industries” in particular is undoubtedly a prerequisite for “national defense”! Consequently, it is necessary for the Stalinist apostles of a class truce to promote class peace even now, today. And, to be sure …! When powerful strikes broke out last summer in Brest and Toulon, against the will of the great “socialist” parties; when these strikes led to clashes with the armed forces of the state, the Stalinists, in cahoots with their colleagues of the so-called “People’s Front”, unmasked themselves as strike-breakers and denounced the fighting workers as “provocateurs”. And an agricultural workers’ strike? Will not such a strike impede the national defense of French imperialism? Not to mention a strike of the railroad workers! And what do the “interests of national defense” demand in case insurrections of the oppressed colonial peoples break out? But here we have come upon another type of just war in the present epoch.

II. The wars of liberation of the oppressed colonial and semi-colonial peoples

For the epoch of imperialism, Lenin expanded and concretized the old Marxian battle-cry into “Proletarians of all countries and oppressed peoples of the world, unite!” How important this fraternal alliance of the proletarians in the imperialist mainland with the oppressed peoples in the colonies really is, was proved anew in the strike struggles at Brest and Toulon. There Laval, Stalin’s ally, ordered colonial troops into action against the strikers. In Toulon the French government used colonial troops against its “own” workers, denounced by the Stalinists as “provocateurs”. What will the Stalinists do when colonial uprisings in Africa begin to threaten the French imperial possessions with collapse and thus endanger to the extreme the “interests of national defense”? We can predict that in advance: Just as in Toulon, Thorez, Cachin and Co. will denounce the liberation struggle of the colonial peoples as a provocation, as the devilish work of a Hitler. Just as in Toulon, they will offer their services as strike-breakers.

China is on the way to liberation from Imperialism. 1930.

III. The war of a country in which the proletariat has seized power, against its imperialist aggressors

The war of a country in which the proletariat has seized power, against its imperialist aggressors, is another type of just war. In that case, it is not of any account who “fires the first shot”. Such a war is on both sides the continuation of their politics. On the side of the workers’ state, therefore, it is the continuation of the just struggle for the liberation of the working class. On the side of the bourgeois state, it is the continuation of the reactionary struggle of the capitalists for the maintenance of exploitation and oppression. In this case a Marxist must learn to distinguish between the just, progressive policy of the October revolution and the reactionary Stalin-Litvinov League of Nations policy which injures the true interests of the Soviet Union, disorients the international working class and betrays the oppressed peoples. It is precisely in the service of this reactionary policy that the French Stalinists want to harness the French proletariat. They declare that the war of French imperialism, because the latter has allied itself with the Soviet bureaucracy for the defense of the plunder of Versailles, is therefore a “just” war. Following this line of reasoning, it could be said with equal justice that the war of the Soviet Union, because its ruling bureaucratic stratum has allied itself with French imperialism is a reactionary war. What conclusions the Stalinists would have to draw if they could still think their own thoughts out to the end!

English peacemaker. How we taught peacefulness to English bourgeois. 1920

It is decisive for us that so long as the bourgeoisie and not the proletariat stands at the head of the French state, a war conducted by France is a reactionary, an imperialist war. The task of the French working class lies in transforming the imperialist war into a civil war, in overthrowing their own bourgeoisie and in defending the revolution under the banner of international socialism. That is also the best, in fact, the only aid the French proletariat can bring the toiling masses in the Soviet Union as well as the proletariat of Germany. The alliance of the Stalinist bureaucracy with the wolves and jackals of French finance-capital is grist to the mills of German nationalism and chauvinism. It strengthens the tendencies toward class truce, it strengthens the trickery of the “People’s Front” not only in a France allied with the Soviet Union, but even more so in a Fascist Germany under Hitler. The victorious French Commune will burst through the iron shell of “national unity” in Germany and give the signal for the overthrow of Hitler Fascism. But, should the French Stalinists succeed in culminating their betrayal of international socialism by their policy of civil truce in the coming imperialist war, and thereby save the rule of French finance-capital, the final result can be nothing short of a new Versailles – that is, a plundering imperialist redivision of the world; as well as a new Brest-Litovsk – that is, an imperialist siege against the October revolution. A Soviet Union weakened by the war and by the isolation of the international proletariat will face, at the end of such a war, a united front of arrogant imperialist brigands. The Stalin-Litvinov policy, which demoralizes and devitalizes “the only true and reliable allies of the Soviet Union, the European and the American proletariat” (Lenin), and which delivers them, through the “People’s Front”, bound hand and foot, to the hangman of the bourgeoisie, leads the Soviet Union itself toward a catastrophe.

IV. Wars of national liberation of an oppressed nation

This is a type of “just” war, which really belongs to the previous century, to the epoch of bourgeois revolution. In 1916, Lenin wrote about the possibility of such a war in Europe as follows:

“That the imperialist war will be transformed into a national war is highly improbable, since that class which represents progressive development today is precisely the proletariat which objectively works to transform it into a civil war against the bourgeoisie … while international finance-capital has created everywhere a reactionary bourgeoisie. But it is not a matter of declaring such a transformation impossible: if the European proletariat were to remain without power for the next twenty years; if this war were to end with such victories as those of Napoleon and with the subjugation of a whole group of states capable of continuing an independent existence; if imperialism outside of Europe (in the first place, Japanese and American imperialism) could maintain itself for twenty years without going over to socialism (as, for instance, in consequence of a Japanese-American war), then a great national war would be possible in Europe. For Europe that would mean a retrogressive development for several decades.”

Death to the world imperialism. 1920.

Clearly, nations are meant here which are already today oppressed. According to Lenin’s conception, therefore, not “victorious countries” of the first world war, that profit from the Versailles robber treaty and themselves oppress colonial peoples and other nations. Note how carefully Lenin scrutinized this possibility of a just war after the conclusion of the first world war. How many “ifs” he uses to cut off every pretext that social-patriots of a later day might use in order to cover themselves up with a quotation from Lenin! It was to no avail. Under Stalin’s leadership, the Comintern, created by Lenin himself, has been dragged into the swamp of social-patriotism. The Stalinists, the most unconscionable falsifiers of Leninism today, proclaim “national defense” as their policy in the countries of those Versailles victors which are allied with the Stalinist bureaucracy and designate wars carried on by these imperialist powers as “just” wars. In doing this they paint a horrible picture of how a victorious Hitler Fascism can defeat the given country, rob it of its oppressed colonial peoples and subjugated nations and itself oppress them nationally. Is there such a possibility? Of course. As long as imperialism exists it is possible that a victorious state will subjugate a foreign nation. In order to prevent that once and for all, it is necessary to abolish capitalism. But to propagate civil peace today on the basis of such a possibility, is nothing else than treachery to socialism, a betrayal of the most vital interests of the international proletariat. It is undoubtedly not excluded that at the end of the next imperialist war, Germany may be subjugated, partitioned and nationally oppressed. But what could be said of a “socialist” who on the basis of such a possibility would already today propagate a policy of civil truce with the Hitler regime? Stalin is likely to find such an apt pupil in Germany too …

* * *

To recapitulate: today the Stalinists apply the thesis of the “just” war in precisely those cases where it is a matter of unjust, imperialist robber wars. The Stalinists do everything in their power to restrain the proletariat from its just war against its exploiters and oppressors. In this process, they abuse the rightful sympathies of the workers for the great cause of the October revolution, defiled by the Stalinist bureaucracy. The Stalinist betrayal of socialism has resulted in the most profound crisis of socialism, deeper and more fatal than the crisis of 1914. In one respect alone the outlook of international socialism is brighter than in 1914. At that time, the betrayal by the leaders of the Second International came like a “stroke of lightning from a clear blue sky”, unexpected in its extent even to Lenin, even to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. At that time the heroes of the Second International first adopted the imperialist point of view of their national bourgeoisies on the day after the outbreak of the world slaughter. Today the heroes of the Third International show their true social-chauvinist faces before the outbreak of imperialist war. Today they propagate the civil truce before the outbreak of war. Today also, in contrast to 1914, the banner of international socialism, the flag of the Fourth International, has been unfurled before the outbreak of the war.

The New International began as the theoretical organ of the Communist League of America, formed in 1928 by supporters of The International Left Opposition in the Communist Party. The CLA merged with the American Workers Party led by AJ Muste to form the Workers Party of the U.S. in Dec 1935 before intervening in the Socialist Party, at which time this magazine was suspended. After leaving the SP, the main Trotskyist forces formed the Socialist Workers Party in 1938 and resumed publication. In the split of 1940, the State Capitalist/ Bureaucratic Collectivist faction left the Party and held on to the magazine; the SWP then produced ‘The Fourth International’ as their organ of theory.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/ni/vol03/no01/v03n01-w13-feb-1936-new-int.pdf

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