The ICC adopted the “Theses on Decomposition” (International Reviews nos. 62 and 107) in May 1990, some months after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc which had preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union. The trap set by the United States for Saddam Hussein, which led him to invade Kuwait at the beginning of August 1990, and the subsequent concentration of American forces in Saudi Arabia, were a first consequence of the disappearance of the Eastern bloc, with the attempt by the American power to close the ranks of the Atlantic Alliance threatened with disintegration because of the disappearance of its Eastern adversary. It was in the aftermath of these events, which prepared the military offensive against Iraq by the main western countries under the leadership of the United States, that the ICC discussed and adopted an orientation text on “Militarism and Decomposition” in October 1990 (International Review no. 64) which complements the Theses on Decomposition.
At its 22nd International Congress in 2017, the ICC adopted an update of the Theses on Decomposition “Report on decomposition today”, International Review no. 164, which basically confirmed the text adopted 27 years earlier. Today the war in Ukraine requires us to produce a complementary document on the question of militarism, similar to that of October 1990 of which it constitutes an update. Such a step is all the more necessary given the error that we made in not foreseeing the outbreak of this war which resulted from forgetting the framework of analysis that the ICC had given itself for several decades on the question of war in the period of decadence.
1) Point 1 of the text “Militarism and Decomposition” of 1990 reminds us of the living character of the marxist method and the necessity to constantly confront the analyses that we have been able to make in the past with the new realities that present themselves to us; either by criticising them, confirming them, or modifying them to make them more precise. It's not necessary to return to this in the present text. On the other hand, faced with erroneous interpretations of the present war in Ukraine made by certain bourgeois “experts”, but also by most of the groups of the proletarian political milieu, it is useful to return to the foundations of the marxist method regarding the question of war and, more generally, historical materialism.
At the base of this there is the following idea: “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite, necessary relations, which are independent of their will, namely, relations of production corresponding to a determinate stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which there correspond definite forms of social consciousness” (Marx, “Preface to a contribution to the critique of political economy”, 1859). This pre-eminence of the material economic base over other aspects of the life of society has often been the object of a mechanical and reductionist interpretation. It’s a fact that Engels notes and criticises in a letter to Joseph Bloch in September 1890 (and in many other texts) that: “According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever asserted more than this. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, such as constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and especially the reflections of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, legal, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine their form in particular. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (…) the economic movement is finally bound to assert itself”.
Clearly, we cannot ask the “experts” of the bourgeoisie to adopt the marxist method. On the other hand, it is sad to note that many organisations that explicitly claim to be marxist and effectively defend this method with regard to the fundamental principles of the workers’ movement, in particular proletarian internationalism, do not follow Engel's vision of the causes of war, but rather the one he criticises. Thus, regarding the Gulf War of 1990-91, we were able to read the following: “The United States has brazenly defined ‘American national interest’ that led it to act as that of: guaranteeing the stable supply of oil produced in the Gulf at a reasonable price: the same interest which made it support Iraq against Iran, now leads it to support Saudi Arabia and the petro-monarchs against Iraq” (leaflet by the Parti Communiste Internationale – Le Proletaire). Or again: “In fact, the crisis in the Gulf is really a crisis of oil and its control. Without cheap petrol, profits will fall. The profits of western capital are threatened and it’s for this reason, and no other, that the United States is preparing a blood-bath in the Middle East...” (leaflet of the Communist Workers Organisation, section in Britain of the International Communist Tendency). An analysis made by Battaglia Comunista, the section of the ICT in Italy, states: “Oil, present directly or indirectly in almost all of the productive cycles, has a decisive weight in the process of the formation of monopoly rents and, consequently, the control of its price is of vital importance (...). With an economy clearly showing signs of a recession, a public debt of staggering dimensions, a productive apparatus mired in low productivity faced with European and Japanese competition, the United States cannot in the least allow itself to lose control of these fundamental variables of the whole world economy: the price of oil”. What has happened in the 30 years since in the Middle East contradicts such an analysis. The different adventures of the United States in this region (like the 2003 war initiated by the Bush Junior Administration) have had an incomparably higher economic cost for the American bourgeoisie than anything relating to the control of oil prices (if indeed it was able to exercise any control due to these wars).
Today, the war in Ukraine has no direct economic objectives; neither for Russia which unleashed hostilities on February 24, 2022, nor for the United States which, for more than two decades, has taken advantage of Russia's weakening following the collapse of its empire in 1989 in order to push the expansion of NATO right up to the borders of that country. If Russia succeeds in establishing control over new areas of Ukraine, it will be faced with huge expenditures in rebuilding the areas that it is currently destroying. Moreover, in time, the economic sanctions put into place by the West will further weaken an already weak economy. On the Western side, these same actions will come at a considerable cost as well, not to mention the military aid to Ukraine which is already in tens of billions of dollars. In fact, the current war is a further illustration of the ICC’s analysis of the question of war in the period of capitalism’s decadence and especially in the phase of decomposition, which constitutes the culminating point of decadence.
2) From the beginning of the 20th century, the workers' movement has highlighted imperialism and imperialist war as the most significant manifestation of the entry of the capitalist mode of production into its phase of historic decline, its decadence. This transformation of historical period brought about a fundamental change to the causes of the wars. The Communist Left of France has shed light on the specific features of this change:
“In the epoch of ascendant capitalism, wars (whether national, colonial, or of imperial conquest) represented the upward movement of ripening, strengthening and enlarging the capitalist economic system. Capitalist production used war as a continuation by other means of its political economy. Each war was justified and paid its way, by the opening up of a new field for greater expansion, assuring further capitalist development.
In the epoch of decadent capitalism, war, like peace, expresses this decadence and greatly accelerates it.
It would be wrong to see war as negative by definition, a destroyer and shackle on the development of society, as opposed to peace, which would appear as the normal and positive course of continued development of production and society. This would be to introduce a moral concept into an objective, economically determined course.
War was the indispensable means by which capital opened up areas external to itself for development, at a time when such areas existed and could only be opened up through violence. In the same way, the capitalist world, having historically exhausted all possibility of development, finds in modern imperialist war the expression of its collapse, which can only engulf the productive forces in an abyss, and accumulate ruin upon ruin in an ever-accelerating rhythm, without opening up any possibility of the outward development of production.
Under capitalism there exists no fundamental opposition between war and peace, but there is a difference between the ascendant and decadent phases of capitalist society, and thus a difference in the function of war (and in the relation of war to peace) in the respective phases. While in the first phase, war has the function of assuring an expansion of the market, and so of the production of the means of consumption, in the second phase production is essentially geared to the production of means of destruction, ie to war. The decadence of capitalist society is strikingly expressed by the fact that, whereas in the ascendant period wars served the process of economic development, in the decadent period economic activity is geared essentially to war.
This does not mean that war has become the aim of capitalist production, since this is always the production of surplus value, but that war becomes the permanent way of life in decadent capitalism.” (Report on the International Situation, July 1945 Conference of the Gauche Communiste de France taken up in “The Report on the Historic course” adopted at the 3rd Congress of the ICC and published in International Review no. 18
This analysis, formulated in 1945, has been fundamentally valid since, even in the absence of a new world war. Since that time the world has known more than a hundred wars which have caused at least as many deaths as the Second World War; a situation which has continued and even intensified after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the end of the “Cold War”, which constituted the first great manifestation of the entry of capitalism into its phase of decomposition. Our 1990 text already announced this: “Society's general decomposition is the final phase of capitalism's decadence. In this sense, this phase does not call into question the specific characteristics of the decadent period: the historic crisis of the capitalist economy, state capitalism, and the fundamental phenomena of militarism and imperialism. Moreover, in as far as decomposition appears as the culmination of the contradictions into which capitalism has plunged throughout its decadence, the specific characteristics of this period are still further exacerbated in its ultimate phase. (...) Just as the end of Stalinism does not mean the end of the historical tendency towards state capitalism, of which it was one manifestation, so the present disappearance of imperialist blocs does not imply the slightest calling into question of imperialism's grip on social life. The fundamental difference lies in the fact that whereas the end of Stalinism corresponds to the elimination of a particularly aberrant form of state capitalism, the end of the blocs only opens the door to a still more barbaric, aberrant, and chaotic form of imperialism”. The war in the Gulf 1990-91, the conflicts in ex-Yugoslavia through the 1990’s, the war in Iraq from 2003 which lasted 11 years, in Afghanistan which spread over 20 years and many others even if of lesser importance, notably in Africa, have further confirmed this prediction.
Today the war in Ukraine, at the heart of Europe, is a new illustration of this reality and on a much larger scale. It is an eloquent confirmation of the theses of the ICC on the complete irrationality of war in the decadence of capitalism from the point of view of the global interests of the system (see the text, “Impact and significance of the war in Ukraine”, International Review no. 168, adopted in May, 2022).
3) In fact, even if the distinction between the wars of the 19th century and those of the 20th, such as that made in the 1945 text of the GCF, is perfectly valid, even when it says that “The decadence of capitalist society is strikingly expressed by the fact that, whereas in the ascendant period wars served the process of economic development, in the decadent period economic activity is geared essentially to war”, one cannot attribute a directly economic cause to each of the wars of the 19th century. For example the Napoleonic Wars had a catastrophic cost for the French bourgeoisie which, in the end, weakened it considerably against the British bourgeoisie, opening the way for the latter towards its position of dominance in the middle of the nineteenth century. The same is true for the war of 1870 between Prussia and France. In the latter case, Marx (in the “First address of the General Council on the Franco-German war") took up the term “dynastic war” used by the French and German workers in order to characterise it. On the German side, the King of Prussia aimed to set up an empire by regrouping around the crown a multitude of small Germanic states which, up to then, had only managed a customs union (Zollverein). The annexation of Alsace-Lorraine was the gift to this marriage. For Napoleon III, the war was fundamentally aimed at strengthening the political structure of the Second Empire, threatened by the industrial development of France. On the Prussian side, beyond the ambitions of the monarch, this war made it possible to create a political unity of Germany which laid the basis for the full industrial development of the country whereas, on the French side, it was totally reactionary. In fact the example of this war perfectly illustrates the presentation made by Engels of historical materialism. We see the superstructures of society, notably politics and ideology (the form of government and the creation of a national sentiment) playing a very important role in the course of events. At the same time, the economic basis of society is seen to be the ultimate determinant in the realisation of the industrial development of Germany and thus of capitalism as a whole.
In fact, analyses which try to be “materialist” by looking for an economic cause for each war, forget that marxist materialism is also dialectical. And this “forgetfulness” becomes a considerable hindrance to understanding the imperialist conflicts of the current period, which is clearly defined by a considerable reinforcement of militarism in the life of society.
4) The text “Militarism and Decomposition” of 1990 devotes an important part to the place that American power was going to take in the imperialist conflicts in the period opening up: “In the new historical period we have entered, and which the Gulf events have confirmed, the world appears as a vast free-for-all, where the tendency of ‘every man for himself’ will operate to the full, and where the alliances between states will be far from having the stability that characterised the imperialist blocs, but will be dominated by the immediate needs of the moment. A world of bloody chaos, where the American policeman will try to maintain a minimum of order by the increasingly massive and brutal use of military force”. The United States continued to play the role of “World Cop”, in a way, after the collapse of its Cold War rival, as we saw in the former Yugoslavia in particular at the end of the 1990s and above all in the Middle East from the beginning of the 21st century (notably in Afghanistan and Iraq). It has also assumed this role in Europe by integrating new countries into NATO, the military organisation under its control, countries that were previously part of the Warsaw Pact or even of the USSR (Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia). The question that was already posed in 1990, with the sharing out of the world between the western and eastern blocs, was that of the establishment of a new division of the world like that at the end of World War 2: “Up to now, during the period of decadence, such a situation where the various imperialist antagonisms are dispersed, where the world (or at least its decisive zones) is not divided up between two blocs, has never lasted long. The disappearance of the two major imperialist constellations which emerged from World War 2 brings with it the tendency towards the recomposition of two new blocs”(“After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, destabilisation and chaos”), International Review no. 61). At the same time, the text pointed out all the obstacles to such a process and particularly the obstacles posed by the decomposition of capitalism: "the tendency to a new share-out of the planet between two military blocs is countered, and may even be definitively compromised, by the increasingly deep and generalised phenomenon of the decomposition of capitalist society as we have already highlighted" (“The decomposition of capitalist society”, International Review no. 57).
This analysis was developed in the orientation text “Militarism and Decomposition” and, three decades later, the absence of such a carve-up of the world into two military blocs confirms it. The text “Impact and significance of the war in Ukraine”, International Review no.168 (Ibid) developed on this subject, largely basing itself on the 1990 text in order to show that the reconstitution of two imperialist blocs sharing the planet between them is still not on the agenda. It may be worthwhile to recall what we wrote in the 1990 text on militarism: “At the beginning of the decadent period, and even until the first years of World War 2, there could still exist a certain ‘parity’ between the different partners of an imperialist coalition, although it remained necessary for there to be a bloc leader. For example, in World War 1 there did not exist any fundamental disparity at the level of operational military capacity between the three ‘victors’: Great Britain, France and the USA. This situation had already changed considerably by World War 2, when the ‘victors’ were closely dependent on the US, which was already vastly more powerful than its ‘allies’. It was accentuated during the ‘Cold War’ (which has just ended) where each bloc leader, both USA and USSR, held an absolutely crushing superiority over the other countries in the bloc, in particular thanks to their possession of nuclear weapons.
This tendency can be explained by the fact that as capitalism plunges further into decadence:
- the scale of conflicts between the blocs, and what is at stake in them, takes on an increasingly world-wide and general character (the more gangsters there are to control, the more powerful must be the ‘godfather’);
- weapons systems demand ever more fantastic levels of investment (in particular, only the major powers could devote the necessary resources to the development of a complete nuclear arsenal, and to the research into ever more sophisticated armaments);
- and above all, the centrifugal tendencies amongst all the states as a result of the exacerbation of national antagonisms, cannot but be accentuated.
The same is true of this last factor as of state capitalism: the more the bourgeoisie's different factions tend to tear each other apart, as the crisis sharpens their mutual competition, so the more the state must be reinforced in order to exercise its authority over them. In the same way, the more the open historic crisis ravages the world economy, so the stronger must be a bloc leader in order to contain and control the tendencies towards the dislocation of its different national components. And it is clear that in the final phase of decadence, the phase of decomposition, this phenomenon cannot but be seriously aggravated.
For all these reasons, especially the last, the reconstitution of a new pair of imperialist blocs is not only impossible for a number of years to come, but may very well never take place again: either the revolution, or the destruction of humanity will come first”.
Today this analysis remains entirely valid, but we should note that in the 1990 text we completely missed seeing that China could one day become a new head of a bloc since today it is clear that it is about to become the main rival to the United States. Behind this omission there is a major error of analysis in that we didn’t foresee the possibility that China could become a leading economic power, the condition for a country to assume the role of a leader of an imperialist bloc. Moreover, the Chinese bourgeoisie had understood very well that it would be able to compete with the American bourgeoisie on the military level only if it could provide itself with an economic and technological power capable of supporting its military power, otherwise it could suffer the same fate as the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980’s. It’s for this reason, among others, that while China is increasingly asserting its growing military ambitions (especially in relation to Taiwan), it cannot as yet, or for a long time to come, have any pretensions to forming new imperialist bloc around it.
5) The war in Ukraine has rekindled concerns about a third world war, especially from Putin's posturing about nuclear weapons. It is important to point out that world war is similar to imperialist blocs. In fact a world war is the ultimate phase in the constitution of imperialist blocs. More precisely, it is because of the existence of constituted imperialist blocs that a war which, at the outset, concerns only a limited number of countries, degenerates, through the playing out of alliances, into a generalised conflagration. Thus, the outbreak of World War 1, whose deep historical causes stemmed from the sharpening of imperialist rivalries between European powers, took the form of a chain of situations in which the various allies gradually entered the conflict: Austria-Hungary, with the support of its ally Germany, wanted to take advantage of the assassination of the heir to the throne in Sarajevo on the 28th June 1914 to bring the Kingdom of Serbia to heel, accusing it of stirring up the nationalism of the Serbian minorities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Serbia immediately received the support of its Russian ally, which had also formed the "Triple Entente" with Great Britain and France. At the beginning of August 1914, all these countries went to war against each other, followed by other countries such as Japan and Italy in 1915 and the United States in 1917. Similarly, in September 1939, when Germany attacked Poland, it was the existence of a treaty dating from 1920 between Poland, the United Kingdom and France that led these two countries to declare war on Germany, even though their bourgeoisies had no particular desire for such a conflict, as demonstrated a year earlier by their signing of the Munich Agreement. The conflict between the three main European powers quickly spread to the whole world. Today, Article 5 of NATO's Charter states that an attack on one of its members is considered an attack on all its allies. This is why countries that belonged to the Warsaw Pact before 1989 (and even to the Soviet Union, such as the Baltic States) enthusiastically joined NATO; it was a guarantee that neighbouring Russia would not attack them. Now, for the same reason, Finland and Sweden are joining after decades of "neutrality". This is also why Putin could not accept a situation where the Ukrainian state was threatening to join NATO, as it was written into its constitution.
Thus, the absence of a division of the world into two blocs means that a third world war is not on the agenda at present and may never be again. However, it would be irresponsible to underestimate the gravity of the global situation. As we wrote in January 1990:
“This is why in our analyses, we must clearly highlight the fact that while the proletarian solution - the communist revolution - is alone able to oppose the destruction of humanity (the only ‘answer’ that the bourgeoisie is capable of giving to the crisis), this destruction need not necessarily be the result of a third world war. It could also come about as a logical and extreme conclusion of the process of decomposition.
For most of the 20th century, the historic alternative of ‘socialism or barbarism’ highlighted by marxism has taken the form of ‘socialism or imperialist world war’, and in recent decades, thanks to the development of nuclear weapons, the still more terrifying ‘socialism or the destruction of humanity’. This perspective remains absolutely valid following the Eastern bloc's collapse. But we must be clear that this destruction may be the result either of imperialist world war, OR of society's decomposition”.
In the three decades since the adoption of this document by the ICC, events have clearly shown that even outside of a third world war, the four horsemen of the apocalypse that threaten the survival of humanity today are "ecological disasters, epidemics, famines, and local wars".
6) The “Orientation Text: Militarism and Decomposition” concluded with a section on "The proletariat and imperialist war". Given the importance of this question, it’s worth quoting large extracts from this part rather than paraphrasing them:
“More than ever then, the question of war remains central to the life of capitalism. Consequently, it is more than ever fundamental for the working class. Obviously, this question's importance is not new. It was already central before World War I (as the international congresses of Stuttgart (1907) and Basel (1912) highlighted). It became still more decisive during the first imperialist butchery (with the combat of Lenin, Luxemburg, and Liebknecht, and the revolutions in Germany and Russia). Its importance remained unchanged throughout the inter-war period, in particular during the Spanish Civil war, not to mention of course its importance during the greatest holocaust of the century between 1939-45. (...) In fact, since the beginning of the (20th) century, war has been the most decisive question that the proletariat and its revolutionary minorities have had to confront, much more so than the trade union or parliamentary questions for example. It could not be otherwise, in that war is the most concentrated form of decadent capitalism's barbarity, which expresses its death-agony and the threat that hangs over humanity's survival as a result.
In the present period, where the barbarity of war will, far more than in previous decades, become a permanent and omnipresent element of the world situation (whether Bush and Mitterrand with their prophecies of a ‘new order of peace’ like it or not), involving more and more the developed countries (limited only by the proletariat in these countries), the question of war is still more essential for the working class. The ICC has long insisted that, contrary to the past, the development of a new revolutionary wave will come not from a war but from the aggravation of the economic crisis. This analysis remains entirely valid: working class mobilisation, the starting point for large-scale class combats, will come from economic attacks. In the same way, at the level of consciousness, the aggravation of the crisis will be a fundamental factor in revealing the historical dead-end of the capitalist mode of production. But on this same level of consciousness, the question of war is once again destined to play a part of the first order:
- by highlighting the fundamental consequences of this historical dead-end: the destruction of humanity,
- by constituting the only objective consequence of the crisis, decadence and decomposition that the proletariat can today set a limit to (unlike any of the other manifestations of decomposition), to the extent that in the central countries it is not at present enrolled under the flags of nationalism (Point 13).
It is true that the war can be used against the working class much more easily than the crisis itself, and economic attacks:
- it can encourage the development of pacifism;
- it can give the proletariat the feeling of impotence, allowing the bourgeoisie to carry out its economic attacks” (Point 14).
Today, the war in Ukraine effectively arouses feelings of impotence inside the proletariat, when it is not, as in Ukraine and also, partly, in Russia, leading to a popular mobilisation and the triumph of chauvinism. In Western countries, it even promotes a certain strengthening of democratic ideology thanks to the torrents of propaganda broadcast by the mainstream media in which we are seeing a confrontation between "evil", the "dictator" (Putin) on the one hand and "good", the "democrat" (Zelensky and his Western supporters) on the other. Such propaganda was obviously less effective in 2003 when the "boss" of the "Great American Democracy", Bush Junior, did the same thing as Putin in launching war against Iraq (the use of the “big lie”, violation of UN "international law", the use of "forbidden" weapons, bombing of civilian populations, "war crimes", etc).
That being said, it is important to bear in mind the analysis that the ICC has developed around the question of the "weakest link" putting forward the differences between the proletariat of the central countries, and particularly those of Western Europe, and those of the countries of the periphery and of the former "socialist" bloc (see in particular our articles “The proletariat of Western Europe at the centre of the generalisation of the class struggle; critique of the theory of the ‘Weakest Link’" in International Review no. 31, and "Debate: On the critique of the theory of the 'Weakest Link' " in International Review no. 37). The war between Russia and Ukraine underlines the great political weakness of the proletariat in these countries. The current war will also have a negative political impact on the proletariat of the central countries but it does not mean that the resurgence of democratic ideology from which it suffers, will paralyse it definitively. In particular, it is already feeling the consequences of this war through the economic attacks accompanying the dramatic rise in inflation (which had begun before the outbreak of the war but which the latter is accentuating). It will necessarily have to take up the path of class struggle against these attacks.
"In the present historical situation, our intervention within the class is determined, apart of course from the serious aggravation of the economic crisis and the resulting attacks against the whole class, is determined by:
- the fundamental importance of the question of war;
- the decisive role of revolutionaries in the class coming to consciousness of the gravity of what is at stake today.
It is therefore necessary that this question figure constantly at the forefront of our press. And in periods like today, where this question is at the forefront of international events, we must profit from the workers' particular sensitivity to it by giving it special emphasis and priority. (Orientation Text: Militarism and Decomposition, Point 15)
“In particular, the revolutionary organisations will have to ensure that they:
- denounce with the utmost virulence the repugnant hypocrisy of the leftists who, in the name of ‘internationalism’ and the ‘struggle against imperialism’, actually call for support to one of the imperialist camps;
- denounce the pacifist campaigns which constitute a privileged means to demobilise the working class in its struggle against capitalism by dragging it on the rotten ground of interclassism;
- emphasise the full seriousness of what is at stake in the present period, including a full understanding of all the implications of the considerable upheavals that the world has just undergone, and particularly the period of chaos into which it has entered." (Ibid. point 15)
7) These orientations put forward more than 30 years ago remain entirely valid today. But, in our propaganda in the face of imperialist war, it is also necessary to recall our analysis of the conditions for the generalisation of revolutionary struggles, an analysis developed in particular in our 1981 text "The historical conditions for the generalisation of the working class struggle" in International Review no. 26. For decades, revolutionaries, by basing themselves on the examples of the Paris Commune (which followed the Franco-Prussian war), the 1905 revolution in Russia (during the Russo-Japanese war), and of 1917 in this same country and 1918 in Germany, considered that imperialist war created the best conditions for the proletarian revolution, or even that this could only arise from a world war. This is an analysis that is still widespread among the groups of the Communist Left, which partly explains their inability to understand the question of the historical course. Only the ICC has clearly questioned this analysis and returned to the "classical" analysis that Marx and Engels developed in their lifetime (and in part by Rosa Luxemburg), which held that the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat would arise from the economic collapse of capitalism and not from the war between capitalist states.
We can summarise the arguments put forward in support of our analysis as follows:
a) If within a country the war provokes a massive response from the proletariat, the bourgeoisie of that country can find a way to undermine such a response by putting an end to its hostile actions and exiting from the war. This is what happened in November 1918 in Germany where the bourgeoisie, conscious of the revolutionary events in Russia, was quick to sign the armistice with the Entente countries a few days after the sailors' insurrection in the Baltic. By contrast, no bourgeoisie would be able to overcome and end the economic convulsions that would be the cause of massive and generalised struggles of the proletariat.
b) "...the war produced victors as well as vanquished. In the defeated countries, as well as revolutionary anger against the bourgeoisie, there was a desire for revenge produced in the general population. This backward tendency penetrated even into the ranks of revolutionaries, as is witnessed by the tendency in the KAPD which advocated national-communism, and the struggle against the Treaty of Versailles which was to become the axis of the KPD's propaganda. Worse still was the effect produced amongst the workers in the victorious countries. As the aftermath of the First World War had already shown, and still more so the Second, what prevailed was a spirit of lassitude if not of chauvinistic delirium pure and simple...” (Ibid. International Review no.26)
c) The bourgeoisie has learnt the lessons of World War 1 and the revolutionary wave it provoked. On the one hand, it learnt that it was necessary to ensure a profound political defeat of the proletariat in the central countries before engaging in World War 2. It achieved this with the establishment of Nazi terror on the German side and anti-fascist mobilisations on the Allied side. On the other hand, the ruling class took multiple measures to prevent or nip in the bud any proletarian upsurge during or at the end of the war, particularly in the defeated countries. “In Italy where the danger was greatest the bourgeoisie (...) lost no time changing its regime and after that its alliance. In autumn ’43 Italy was divided in two; the south was in the hands of the Allies, the rest was occupied by the Nazis. On the advice of Churchill (‘Italy must be left to stew in its own juice’) the Allies delayed their advance towards the north and so achieved two things: on the one hand they left the job of repressing the proletarian movement to the German army; on the other they gave the ‘anti-fascist’ forces the task of diverting the movement from the terrain of the anti-capitalist struggle to that of the anti-fascist struggle. (...) In Germany… the international bourgeoisie acted systematically to avoid a repetition of events similar to those of 1918-19. In the first place shortly before the end of the war the Allies carried out the mass extermination of the population of the workers’ quarters by means of the unprecedented bombardment of large cities such as Hamburg or Dresden. On 13th February 1945, 135,000 people (twice as many as at Hiroshima) perished in the bombing. As military objectives they were worthless (moreover the German army was already thoroughly routed): in reality their aim was to terrorise the working class and prevent it from organising itself in any way. Secondly the Allies rejected outright the possibility of an armistice on the grounds that they had not occupied the whole of German territory. They were anxious to administer this territory directly as they were aware of the danger that the defeated German bourgeoisie would be unable to control the situation on its own. Lastly once the latter had capitulated, and in close collaboration with them, the Allies hung onto their war prisoners for many months in order to avoid the explosive mix that might have resulted if they had encountered the civilian population. In Poland during the second half of 1944 the Red Army too left it to the Nazi forces to carry out the dirty work of massacring the insurgent workers in Warsaw: for months the Red Army waited a few kilometres away from the city while the German troops crushed the revolt. The same thing happened in Budapest at the beginning of 1945” (“1943: The Italian proletariat opposes the sacrifices demanded for the war”, International Review no.75.
d) The revolutionary emergence of the proletariat during World War 1 was favoured by the characteristics of this war: the predominance of confrontations between foot-soldiers and trench warfare that facilitated fraternisation between soldiers of the two camps who were for long periods only a few metres apart from each other. The Second World War did not take the form of trench warfare; it was marked by the massive use of mechanical and technological means, particularly armour and aviation, a trend that has only become more pronounced since then as states increasingly call on professional armies capable of using increasingly sophisticated weapons, which greatly limits the possibilities of direct fraternisation between combatants on both sides. And last but not least, a third world war would at some stage call on nuclear weapons, which obviously radically settles the question of the possibility of a proletarian upsurge within it.
8) In the past we have criticised the slogan of "revolutionary defeatism". This slogan was put forward during the First World War, notably by Lenin, and was based on a fundamentally internationalist concern: the denunciation of the lies spread by the social-chauvinists who claimed that it was necessary for their country to gain a victory before allowing the proletarians of that country to engage in the struggle for socialism. In the face of these lies, the internationalists pointed out that it was not the victory of a country that favoured the struggle of the proletariat of that country against their bourgeoisie but, on the contrary, its defeat (as illustrated by the examples of the Paris Commune after the defeat by Prussia and of the 1905 Revolution following the failure of Russia’s war against Japan). Subsequently, this slogan of "revolutionary defeatism" was interpreted as the wish of the proletariat of each country to see its own bourgeoisie defeated in order to favour the fight for its overthrow, which obviously turns its back on a true internationalism. In reality, Lenin himself (who in 1905 had hailed Russia's defeat by Japan) first of all put forward the slogan "turn the imperialist war into a civil war" which constituted a concretisation of the amendment which, together with Rosa Luxemburg and Martov, he had presented and adopted at the Stuttgart Congress of the Socialist International in 1907: "In case war breaks out nevertheless [the socialist parties] have the duty to intercede to bring it to a prompt end and to use with all their strength the economic and political crisis created by the war to stir up the deepest popular strata and precipitate the fall of capitalist domination".
The revolution in Russia in 1917 was a striking concretisation of the slogan "transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war": the proletarians turned against their exploiters the weapons the latter had given them in order to massacre their class brothers in other countries. This being said, as we have seen above, even if it is not excluded that soldiers could still turn their weapons against their officers (during the Vietnam War, there were cases where American soldiers "accidentally" shot their superiors or lobbed fragmentation bombs into the officer’s tents), such facts could only be of very limited scale and could not constitute in any way the basis of a revolutionary offensive. For this reason, in our propaganda, we should not only not put forward the slogan of "revolutionary defeatism" but also that of "turning the imperialist war into a civil war".
More generally, it is the responsibility of the groups of the Communist Left to take stock of the position of revolutionaries in the face of war in the past by highlighting what remains valid (the defence of internationalist principles) and what is no longer valid (the "tactical" slogans). In this sense, if the slogan of "turning the imperialist war into a civil war" cannot henceforth constitute a realistic perspective, it is necessary on the other hand to underline the validity of the amendment adopted at the Stuttgart Congress in 1907 and particularly the idea that revolutionaries "have the duty to use with all their strength the economic and political crisis created by the war to agitate the deepest popular strata and to precipitate the fall of capitalist domination". This slogan is obviously not immediately feasible given the present weak situation of the proletariat, but it remains a beacon for communist intervention in the class.
ICC, May 2022 `