Lenin & Trotsky’s Dual Defeatism on the Balkan Wars
—Riley letter to Mikl, 26 May 2017
Dear Comrade Mikl:
When we discussed the position of dual defeatism in the 2016 coup against Erdogan (and the related issues of the Egyptian coup in 2013 and Iranian confrontation in 1979) you asked when, apart from inter-imperialist conflicts, Lenin and Trotsky ever took a dual-defeatist position—i.e., not taking one side or the other in a military conflict. I think I may have referred to Lenin’s dismissive attitude toward squabbles on a Pacific Island (see below) but I had difficulty coming up with more specific examples on the spot.
In general Marx and Engels tended to side with what they considered the more progressive force in inter-capitalist conflicts—often with what they deemed the “historic” nations against the smaller “remnant” peoples they considered to be slated for assimilation, and always against Tsarist reaction. In the 1870 Franco-Prussian conflict, for example, they first favored Prussia on the grounds that the consolidation of a German nation-state was historically progressive. When the French armies were driven off German territory and the Prussians kept marching toward Paris Marx and Engels reversed their position and sided militarily with France—because they considered the rise of Prussian militarism to pose a danger to the workers’ movement.
In the age of imperialism the criterion changed and in conflicts between capitalist nation-states it is by no means certain that either side represents anything historically progressive. The same is of course also true in struggles between competing bourgeois factions within a particular state.
Conflicts between capitalists where the workers’ movement does have an interest tend to be studied more closely by our movement (e.g., Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia; the Spanish Civil War, the Chilean coup, etc.) But over the years there have also been various coups and intra-bourgeois conflicts in which the workers’ movement has nothing much at stake and therefore the Trotskyist movement has not taken sides. One example would be the 1932-33 war between Colombia and Peru over a piece of the Amazon jungle; another the 1978 confrontation between Pinochet’s Chile and the Argentinian junta over a few offshore islands. More recently we did not take sides when in 1990 Saddam Hussein sent his army into Kuwait, an action that the U.S. promptly used as a pretext to attack Iraq (where of course we did have a side).
Similar conflicts occurred in the time of Lenin and Trotsky. One on which they both commented was the bloodbath in the Balkans prior to World War I. The First and Second Balkan Wars of 1912-13 unfolded in the context of a lengthy series of Great Power maneuvers and military conflicts over the course of which much of the territory of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire was seized by Tsarist Russia and various West European powers. In the Italian-Turkish war of 1911-12, for example, Italy took Libya as well as the Dodecanese Islands (between Crete and the Turkish mainland).
In the Balkans, Austro-Hungary had gained control of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1878 (despite newly independent Serbia’s claim to it). Russia, which aspired to gain control of access to the Black Sea via Constantinople, saw its influence among the Balkan Slavic states as a lever to advance its interests:
“The Balkan League [headed by Serbia and Bulgaria but also including Greece and Montenegro] was formed under Russian auspices in the spring of 1912 to take Macedonia away from Turkey, which was already involved in a war with Italy. The league was able to field a combined force of 750,000 men. Montenegro opened hostilities by declaring war on Turkey on Oct. 8, 1912, and the other members of the league followed suit 10 days later.”
In the first Balkan War (which did not end until May 1913) Serbia and Greece wanted control of Albania, which Austro-Hungary also coveted. Serbia and Bulgaria meanwhile planned to divide up most of Macedonia.
Lenin viewed this war as a reactionary conflict between competing bourgeois regimes in which any progress in freeing the peoples of the region from Ottoman domination was heavily outweighed by the drive by the various combatants to seize the territory of smaller or weaker peoples.
Lenin was particularly hostile to the role of Tsarist Russia, which was competing with the Austro-Hungarian Empire in carving up Ottoman territory in the Balkans. In an 18 October 1912 statement Lenin characterized the Balkan war as “the most important event in world politics,” while sharply denouncing a motion on the conflict passed by liberals in the St. Petersburg city council:
“This resolution is a specimen of bourgeois chauvinism, of the bourgeoisie’s abject servility to ‘the powers that be’, of bourgeois support for a policy which turns the peoples into cannon fodder.
“‘St. Petersburg,’ says the resolution, which is addressed to the capitals of the belligerent Balkan powers, ‘shares your hope of a bright future of independent liberty for the oppressed peoples, a liberty in whose name you are shedding your blood.’
“This is the sort of phrases that chauvinism hides behind! Never and nowhere has ‘liberty’ been won by the oppressed peoples through one people waging war against another. Wars between peoples merely increase the enslavement of peoples. Real liberty for the Slav peasant in the Balkans, as well as for the Turkish peasant, can be ensured only by complete liberty inside every country and by a federation of completely and thoroughly democratic states.
“The Slav and the Turkish peasants in the Balkans are brothers who are equally ‘oppressed’ by their landlords and their governments.
“That is where real oppression lies, and the real obstacle to ‘independence’ and ‘liberty’.”
—“A Disgraceful Resolution,” LCW v18, pp 353-54
The unexpected military successes of the Balkan League forces against the Ottoman armies posed complicated problems for the imperial powers. When Austro-Hungary, alarmed at Serbian expansion, began to mobilize troops to bloc Serb access to the Adriatic, Russia opted to try to end hostilities by offering to mediate:
“The Turkish collapse was so complete that all parties were willing to conclude an armistice on Dec. 3, 1912. A peace conference was begun in London, but after a coup d’état by the Young Turks in Constantinople in January 1913, war with the Ottomans was resumed. Again the allies were victorious: Ioánnina fell to the Greeks and Adrianople to the Bulgarians. Under a peace treaty signed in London on May 30, 1913, the Ottoman Empire lost almost all of its remaining European territory, including all of Macedonia and Albania.”
In late March 1913, at a point it seemed that hostilities were finally winding down, Lenin published another article on the subject:
“The Balkan War is coming to an end. The capture of Adrianople is a conclusive victory for the Bulgarians, and the problem’s centre of gravity has shifted from the theatre of operations to that of the squabbles and intrigues of the so-called Great Powers.
“The Balkan War is one link in the chain of world events marking the collapse of the medieval state of affairs in Asia and East Europe. To form united national states in the Balkans, shake off the oppression of the local feudal rules and completely liberate the Balkan peasants of all nationalities from the yoke of the landowners—such was the historic task confronting the Balkan peoples.
“The Balkan peoples could have carried out this task ten times more easily than they are doing now and with a hundred times fewer sacrifices by forming a Federative Balkan Republic. National oppression, national bickering and incitement on the ground of religious differences would have been impossible under complete and consistent democracy. The Balkan peoples would have been assured of truly rapid, extensive and free development.
“What was the real historical reason for settling urgent Balkan problems by means of a war, a war guided by bourgeois and dynastic interests? The chief cause was the weakness of the proletariat in the Balkans, and also the reactionary influence and pressure of the powerful European bourgeoisie. They are afraid of real freedom both in their own countries and in the Balkans; their only aim is profit at other people’s expense; they stir up chauvinism and national enmity to facilitate their policy of plunder and to impede the free development of the oppressed classes of the Balkans.”
—“The Balkan War and Bourgeois Chauvinism,” 29 March 1913, Lenin Works vol 19, pp 39-40
The interests of the popular masses in Lenin’s view were not advanced by supporting one side against the other, but rather by counterposing to the “bourgeois and dynastic interests” of the belligerents, a perspective of a struggle to unite “the Slav and the Turkish peasants in the Balkans” against their own ruling elites.
A Second Balkan War broke out in late June 1913 when the victors of the first conflict fell out over the division of the spoils. This time Bulgaria (whose armies had done most of the fighting in the first round) was pitted against Serbia, Greece, Rumania, Montenegro and Turkey. This second round of reactionary bloodletting ended with the defeated Bulgarians signing a peace treaty in August 1913:
“Under the terms of the treaty, Greece and Serbia divided up most of Macedonia between themselves, leaving Bulgaria with only a small part of the region.
“As a result of the Balkan Wars, Greece gained southern Macedonia as well as the island of Crete. Serbia gained the Kosovo region and extended into northern and central Macedonia. Albania was made an independent state under a German prince. The political consequences of the wars were considerable. Bulgaria, frustrated in Macedonia, looked to Austria for support, while Serbia, which had been forced by Austria to give up its Albanian conquests, regarded Vienna with greater hostility than ever.”
Less than a year later, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a disgruntled Serb nationalist in Bosnia in June 1914 (an expression of the bitter enmities that characterized the Balkan conflict) precipitated World War I.
Trotsky, who covered the Balkan Wars as a journalist, shared Lenin’s view that the conflict was a reactionary one in which workers had no side:
“The Balkan governments did not believe in an internecine war, and did not want one, but they were afraid of each other and could not make up their minds to disarm. Fear for the security of their booty meant they must keep the army in complete readiness for war…..They had fought the Turks in order to ‘liberate’ the Christians, they had massacred peaceful Turks and Albanians in order to correct the ethnographical statistics, now they begin to slaughter each other in order to ‘finish the job.’”
—The Balkan Wars, pp 328-329
Trotsky vividly described the all-sided bloodletting: “The Turks burned and massacred as they fled. The local Christians, where they had the advantage, burned and slaughtered as the allied armies drew near.” <p330> He suggested that if you wanted to understand the dynamic at work:
“The best thing would be to pick up a history of the Thirty Years War; thereby you will become more closely acquainted with this system and its economic and cultural consequences. Some historians estimate that between 1618 and 1648 the population of Germany fell from sixteen million to four millions. The work of mutual extermination was supplemented by epidemics. The country was turned into a desert. Starving, half-crazed people ate corpses. The Balkan War has, of course, up to now lasted fewer years than that one. On the other hand, it is peoples who are fighting it, not just bands of mercenaries….War in the age of factories and machines does in a month as much destruction as the old, ‘craft’ type of war achieved in a year.” <p331>
* * *
In 1916 Lenin wrote a series of polemics against his left-Bolshevik critics Nikolai Bukharin and Georgy Pyatakov, who, along with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Radek, argued that the right of nations to self-determination had no application in a time of inter-imperialist war. Lenin characterized this position as “imperialist economism” because it was based on the proposition that international economic integration via the expansion of imperialist finance capitalism had rendered struggles against national oppression obsolete. Lenin argued that this repeated the fundamental mistake of the earlier “economists” who focused on the narrow bread and butter struggles of the working class to the exclusion of larger social and political issues.
Lenin was particularly critical of Radek’s characterization of the Irish 1916 Easter Rising as a “putsch,” and insisted that Marxists had a duty to side with the rebels. Yet he also made clear that Marxists do not always have a side in military confrontations between bourgeois forces. He drew a clear distinction between struggles against national oppression on the one hand and petty nationalist squabbles on the other:
“We shall not ‘support’ a republican farce in, say, the principality of Monaco, or the ‘republican’ adventurism of ‘generals’ in the small states of South America or some Pacific island. But that does not mean it would be permissible to abandon the republican slogan for serious democratic and socialist movements. We should, and do, ridicule the sordid national squabbles and haggling in Russia and Austria. But that does not mean that it would be permissible to deny support to a national uprising or a serious popular struggle against national oppression.”
—“A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism,” August-October 1916, LCW, v23, p61, bolded emphasis added
In the same article Lenin went as far as to argue that while Marxists support struggles for liberation, this does not translate into automatic support for any and all struggles in the colonies:
“Imperialism is as much our ‘mortal’ enemy as is capitalism. That is so. No Marxist will forget, however, that capitalism is progressive compared with feudalism, and that imperialism is progressive compared with pre-monopoly capitalism. Hence, it is not every struggle against imperialism that we should support. We will not support a struggle of the reactionary classes against imperialism; we will not support an uprising of the reactionary classes against imperialism and capitalism.
“Consequently, once the author admits the need to support an uprising of an oppressed nation (‘actively resisting’ suppression means supporting the uprising), he also admits that a national uprising is progressive, that the establishment of a separate and new state, of new frontiers, etc., resulting from a successful uprising, is progressive.” <p63>
—Ibid., bolded emphasis added
Lenin was perhaps bending the stick a bit with this formulation, but it is clear that he considered it necessary for revolutionaries to make a careful estimate of what is at stake in every particular situation, and only take sides when the workers and oppressed have a stake in the outcome. Trotsky supported Hailie Selassie against Mussolini, despite the reactionary slave-holding regime he headed, because the issue was one of resisting colonial oppression. In 1982 in the Falklands/Malvinas war between Britain and Argentina we refused to support the “republican adventurist” attempt by Galtieri’s military junta to seize a few islands in the mid-Atlantic (as we explained to Workers Power in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 3). Leninists are not obliged to automatically support “a struggle of reactionary classes”—it depends on the concrete situation and what are the objectives of the struggle.