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About the war in Ukraine

Proletarian internationalism and revolutionary defeatism in the Marxist tradition



As we write this article, the war in Ukraine is gaining momentum. The famous Ukrainian counter-attack, massively trumpeted for months by Western propaganda (after Ukraine was so credibly supposed to face a Russian attack that never materialised), is exhausting itself in a fight to the death. NATO countries, eager to continue the war to the last Ukrainian, continue to increase their arms supplies. The latests are the “cluster bombs” supplied by the United States, even though they are prohibited by the UN Convention because of their devastating impact on civilians, even many years after the end of the conflict, as Cambodia still proves today. It is true that neither the United States nor Russia, nor Ukraine have signed this convention; the signatory countries belonging to NATO, on the other hand, have let this slide: further proof that these conventions are just scraps of paper.

The war has had disastrous consequences for the proletarians, both at the front, where they become cannon fodder, and at the rear, where they continue to be fodder for exploitation, albeit at an increased rate, or in forced emigration. It also has international repercussions because it sharpens the factors of the crisis for which the bourgeoisie always makes the proletariat pay. As far as the situation of the proletarians on both fronts is concerned, episodes such as the tragicomic “rebellion” of Wagner's forces and their pseudo-march on Moscow do not play a role: the proletariat cannot seek salvation through the internal dissensions within the ruling classes and their henchmen, but only through the renewal of its traditions of classist struggle.



Every time history pits imperialist states against each other in intensely barbaric, intensely bloody and intensely unjust wars, the whole political panoply of opportunism (1) falls before the human misery these wars represent, into chaos and spreads out on all political fronts, from calls for peace or moderation on the part of the warring parties to support for the war of this or that camp, labelled here as the camp of democracy defending human rights, here as the innocent victim dragged into the war. All these political variations on the same theme, along the same lines, are linked together and as one voice defend the camp of their nation, their state, their capitalism. In this way, opportunism confirms that it acts as the representative of bourgeois domination over the proletariat, as the representative of the exploitation of the proletariat by capital. The political attitudes that transform the imperialist war in which the bourgeoisie participates to defend its interests – whether it is a direct war or a proxy war as in the case of Ukraine – into a “just” war worthy of the support of the working class to strengthen the forces of democratic good against the forces of autocratic evil, must be totally eradicated from the internationalist political line of the proletariat.

The same is true of the deceptive pacifist attitudes which obscure the inner nature of the war, distort its real material causes, and thus forever alienate the working class from its class and internationalist perspectives and tasks in history, while rousing the camp of the warmongers, voting for war credits and honouring the courage of the national army.

In these situations, when the clashes between the capitalist powers are leaving the terrain of economic struggle and passing over to the terrain of military confrontation, the bourgeoisie needs more than ever the proletariat's cohesion to its national interests, above all to make it accept the direct control and collateral sacrifices of war and abandon the struggle to defend the living conditions of its own class. Today, the more the war escalates, the more it draws the Western powers into an uncontrollable escalation and maelstrom, the more this demand for that cohesion will intensify, the more it will strengthen, unless the working class abandons this usual practice of class collaboration, and with it its indifference and its embarrassment, whether feigned or not, towards war, or its identification with the war effort of its bourgeoisie justified by the massacres of the civilian population, and does not resume its classist struggle independent of national interests.

The proletarians of the so-called West must always remember that it is their Ukrainian and Russian class brothers who are the victims of the imperialist war being waged on the battlefield of Ukraine, regardless of how they view it politically, and regardless of the morbid depiction of the number of civilian and military casualties on both sides, or the over accentuated comparison between the atrocities of the Russian army and the “human” behaviour of the Ukrainian army.

Not a penny, not a single weapon for war!, Refusal of orders, disobedience, rebellion and revolt of the mobilised proletarians!, Fraternization of the soldiers of both camps, Propaganda of revolutionary defeatism!, these are the watchwords and the objectives of the struggle which resonate in the ears of the internationalists, which recall the great insurrectionary struggles of the Russian and German proletariat at the end of the First World War, and which reflect the great principle of internationalism applied to the question of war.

This great principle, which underlies all the action of the proletariat, aims to transform the imperialist war into revolutionary war against bourgeois domination, against capitalist society, against class society, against the nationalist and chauvinist blindness that paralyses the working class. It is a principle which the communists have always followed. Since the Manifesto of the Communist Party of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published in 1848, which proclaimed that “The working men have no country” and “Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution” and that “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!”, the position of the then communists vis-à-vis the war between the formed and accomplished bourgeois nations, which have already become imperialist, between the homelands of one national bourgeoisie and another, has always been clear: the proletariat does not participate in these wars, regardless of the formal and apparent causes and of the alleged culprits, neither on one side nor on the other. The position of the proletariat towards the end of hostilities is by no means wait-and-see, it is not a retreat into itself; on the contrary, it is offensive towards its bourgeoisie, its state and its army. The proletariat thus declares class war. On one side of the front or the other, the proletarians must wish for the defeat of their camp, of their national bourgeoisie, and this wish must not remain platonic, but must find its echo in the class struggle against imperialist war, in the struggle for international revolution against this established world order which transforms the proletarians into fodder for capital and cannon fodder.

Of course, in a situation of general social weakness of the proletariat, this perspective is an objective that seems remote; but in any immediate action against imperialist war, even if it were only propaganda, to deviate even an inch from this line would inevitably cause a slide towards pacifist positions full of compromises with the bourgeoisie. History teaches us the necessary rigour in these questions. Just as we go back to the Manifesto to approach the fundamental principles of communism, we must go back to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871 to understand how these principles were applied in the bourgeois wars of that period and how they were practically translated into political struggle.

It was Germany, which was at the height of the revolutionary democratic upsurge, that was the cradle of communism, and its most prominent protagonists, Wilhem Liebknecht and August Bebel, were confronted with this war, which “their” bourgeoisie considered to be entirely “just” because France opposed the unification of Germany with Prussia, and had to defend the principles of communist internationalism against Bismarck's war as members of the Reichstag. They both belonged at that time to the SDAP (Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei, Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany), which they had founded in 1869 at the Eisenach Congress, which was a member of the IWA (International Workers' Association, known as the First International) and programmatically defended the fundamental principle of internationalism. In July 1870, in accordance with their principles, they abstained from voting on war credits in the Reichstag, and in November, they opposed the new demand for credits by the military chiefs and protested against the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine. For this political act, they were both arrested in December and sentenced to two years in prison for treason. In the name of the unity of the working class of all countries, and without ever entering into a game of arguments from German or French bourgeois circles about the justification of the war, they brilliantly defended this principle engraved in the history of the working class: i.e. internationalism. Unfortunately, their programmatic rigour did not withstand the pressure of socialist class collaboration in Germany. In this historical period, the German proletariat took upon itself the task of the political organisation of its class as party. There were two parties that subscribed to socialism: The ADAV (Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiter-Verein, General German Workers’ Association) under the influence of the reformist, opportunist and aristocrat Lassalle, and the above-mentioned party of Liebknecht, Bebel and Bracke, the SDAP.

However, the merger of these parties at the Gotha Congress in 1875, which Marx fully agreed with, was made based on a programme largely inspired by Lassallianism, which drew the ire of Marx and Engels (see Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme). The wrath also fell on Liebknecht and Bebel, who were guilty of having had a programme imposed on them which, since it put Lassallean fallacies into first place, no longer had anything revolutionary or internationalist in it and turned into a hodgepodge of delusional bourgeois principles about the nation, reducing internationalism to a vague “international brotherhood of peoples” which imposed no obligations on communists and the working class.

Marx's and Engels' critique therefore rested firmly on the question of workers' internationalism. Engels, in a letter to Bebel in 1875 (2), stressed that it was the duty of the party of “(…) agitation against impending or incipient dynastic wars and, during such wars, an attitude such as was exemplarily maintained in 1870 and 1871 [reference to the refusal of war credits, ed.] (…)”.

Thus, these two beacons of German socialism lost their guiding light and lost the path that was so clear before!

In the same letter Engels, after having set as the first condition for the unification of the two parties the rejection of the Lassallean principle of “state aid” to facilitate the formation of workers' associations, which was the basis of the Lassallean petty-bourgeois socialist society, proceeds to the second condition: “Secondly, the principle that the workers’ movement is an international one is, to all intents and purposes, utterly denied in respect of the present, and this by men who, for the space of five years and under the most difficult conditions, upheld that principle in the most laudable manner. The German workers’ position in the van of the European movement rests essentially on their genuinely international attitude during the war; no other proletariat would have behaved so well. And now this principle is to be denied by them at a moment when, everywhere abroad, workers are stressing it all the more by reason of the efforts made by governments to suppress every attempt at its practical application in an organisation! And what is left of the internationalism of the workers’ movement? The dim prospect – not even of subsequent co-operation among European workers with a view to their liberation – nay, but of a future ‘international brotherhood of peoples’ – of your Peace League bourgeois ‘United States of Europe’!” (3).

For Engels, the strength and political influence of communism as doctrine and programme within the working class is formed on such fundamental and vital issues as internationalism and the position against war, both of which are inexorably linked. To step aside on these questions, as Wilhem Liebknecht and August Bebel were able to do a few years later after their spectacular struggle against Prussia's war with France, is to abandon the class terrain, to abandon all revolutionary perspectives, to abandon the fundamentals of communism, and ultimately to ground oneself in the ideology of vulgar bourgeois pacifism.

This lesson, which Lenin would adopt in his struggle for revolutionary defeatism and against the pacifism, nationalism and chauvinism that divided the ranks of the workers, is more valid today than ever, but it remains to be revived in the ranks of the proletariat.



(1) By opportunism in this article we designate all schools of bourgeois or adopted reformism. As far as France is concerned, this ranges from the parliamentary left social democrats, including the dispirited “extra-parliamentary left”, through the reformed parliamentary remnants of Stalinism, the ecologist thematic organisations, but also the whole spectrum of the “extreme left”, whose positions, often very zigzag, in a way obscure the reality of counter-revolutionary pacifism.

(2) Cf. Engels to August Bebel In Zwickau, 18–28 March 1875, in Marx and Engels Collected Works, vol. 45, Lawrence & Wishart, 2010, p. 60–66.

(3) Idem.


  August 2024



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