Politics & Economics

Revolutionary tactics in war

20 March 2022

WAR IS an inevitable product of a society divided by class and a world divided into competing nations. It is also a necessary part of the struggle to overthrow class society. Unlike pacifists – who reject all wars – socialists oppose some wars, support others and are prepared to wage war against the capitalist enemy.

Our aim is to create a world free of national divisions in which classes have been abolished: world socialism. Only such a world can get rid of war altogether and to get it we will have to fight.

But which side if any should revolutionaries take in wars between capitalist nations and how do they decide this?

The starting point for Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky was the observation by the Prussian military theorist, von Clausewitz, that war is the continuation of politics, ‘by other means’. Writing during the carnage of the First World War, Lenin noted that the key questions were, ‘what caused that war, what classes are waging it, and what historico-economic conditions gave rise to it.’

Lenin drew a distinction between wars that advanced the interests of the international working class, which were historically progressive, and reactionary wars. In the former category he included anti-imperialist wars, for example, Ireland’s war for independence.

By the same criterion, the First World War, despite all the patriotic rhetoric, was actually a war to re-divide the world for exploitation between the imperialist powers. In such wars, it was the duty of socialists to stand for the defeat of their ‘own’ bourgeoisie. As Lenin put it:

‘Picture to yourselves a slave owner who owned 100 slaves warring against a slave owner who owned 200 slaves for a more ‘just’ distribution of slaves. Clearly, the application of the term ‘defensive’ war, or ‘war for the defence of the fatherland’, in such a case would be historically false, and in practice would be sheer deception of the common people… Precisely in this way are the present day imperialist bourgeoisie deceiving the peoples by means of ‘national’ ideology and the term ‘defence of the fatherland’ in the present war between slave owners for fortifying and strengthening slavery.’

Today, Putin’s defence of the Russian-speaking third of Ukraine’s population and opposition to Kyiv’s supposedly ‘fascist’ government is mere hypocritical cover for his real aims, the expansion of Russia into Ukraine.

Likewise, Johnson’s and Biden’s support for Ukrainian ‘self-determination’ is a fig-leaf for their push to complete their encirclement of Moscow by anti-Russian regimes reliant on NATO and western imperialism for their survival.

In this situation revolutionaries are duty bound not only to oppose their ‘own’ imperialist bourgeoisies, but to actively disrupt their war effort by means of the class struggle.


But what about Ukraine’s war against its aggressor, Russian imperialism? Is that not a just war? If it were an isolated event, yes – but it is not isolated, it is a continuation of existing politics by other means. The Ukrainian government’s policy is to join NATO, in effect to become a semi-colony of the US, and this cannot be separated from the greater struggle between the two imperialist blocs.

An historical parallel can be found in Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia in 1914. The Serbian Social Democracy courageously voted against war credits in parliament – an act that Lenin fully supported, despite acknowledging that ‘among the Serbs we can find a national-liberation movement of long standing, embracing millions’. He continued:

‘The national element in the Serbo-Austrian war is not, and cannot be, of any serious significance in the general European war… To Serbia, i.e., to perhaps one per cent or so of the participants in the present war, the war is a ‘continuation of the politics’ of the bourgeois-liberation movement. To the other ninety-nine per cent, the war is a continuation of the politics of imperialism, i.e. of the decrepit bourgeoisie, which is capable only of raping nations, not freeing them.’

The Serbian socialists were right to oppose their ‘own’ bourgeoisie in these circumstances and to take a defeatist position.

The confusion among some on the left comes from the fact that socialists support the right of nations to self-determination. But one only has to look at Israel to see that this is not an absolute principle. Yes, the Jewish people have the right to self-determination – but not at the expense of the Palestinian people’s equal right and not if it places them in the service of imperialism in order to secure that right.

War and revolution

The young Fourth International continued to develop the proletarian military policy in the build-up to World War 2. When questioned how he could defend the USSR while calling for the defeat of its ally, France, Trotsky replied:

‘In France I would remain in opposition to the government and would develop systematically this opposition. In Germany I would do anything I could to sabotage the war machinery. They are two different things. In Germany and in Japan, I would apply military methods as far as I am able to fight… In France, it is political opposition against the bourgeoisie, and the preparation of the proletarian revolution. Both are revolutionary methods.’

In Ukraine today, socialist revolutionaries are in ‘political opposition’ to their bourgeoisie’s war aims and methods but would not sabotage their efforts to halt and turn back the Russian invasion. By taking up arms, joining or forming workers’ militia or signing up to the army in order to carry out anti-government agitation, Ukrainian socialists can prepare for revolution.

Rudolph Klement, Trotsky’s secretary who was murdered by Stalinist agents on the eve of WW2, further explored the different forms of revolutionary defeatism:

‘In the imperialist countries, which are allied with the countries conducting progressive and revolutionary wars, it boils down to this: that the proletariat fights with revolutionary means for an effective, direct military support, controlled by it, of the progressive cause.’

The element of workers’ control is important because, as Klement goes on to warn, the semi-colonial bourgeoisie ‘do not dare to appeal to the forces of the [international] proletariat and at a definite stage of the struggle they inevitably call upon imperialism for aid against their “own” proletariat’.

This sums up the situation in Ukraine today. Putin’s war and his denial of the national existence of Ukraine is an example of imperialist aggression like the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ukraine’s workers and youth are thus legitimately fighting to defend their country against Putin.

They should, however, place no confidence in Zelenskiy and his government or generals. They should, by forming their own territorial militias, prepare to take over the leadership of the defence and at a crucial moment make a revolution against ‘their own’ oligarchs and the right wing and fascist forces active in their country.

The workers and youth of all the countries should follow the advice of Lenin, Trotsky and the revolutionary communist movement since and oppose not only Putin’s brutal invasion forces but also Nato’s sanctions and deployment of their forces to surround Russia, which could open the road to a catastrophic world war.

This is a serious danger unless the working class in Ukraine, Russia and the big Nato powers, too, can unite in an anti-imperialist struggle and instead open the road to world revolution.

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