Proletarian Military Policy
Revolutionary Communist Youth Newsletter, No. 13, August-September 1972
The sharpening inter-imperialist antagonisms upsurge in imperialist rivalry and “surprising” new alignments pose for the third time in this century the specter of a world war, this time with thermonuclear weaponry. Imperialist war has always been a decisive test for the communist movement. Such wars are the consummate expression of the inability of capitalism to transcend the contradiction between the productive forces, which have outgrown both national boundaries and private property relations, and the relations of production which define the two great classes of modern society, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Imperialist war brings only increased misery, enslavement and suffering to the working class, exacerbating the tensions of class society to a fever pitch. Marxists seek to use these periodic violent disruptions of decaying capitalism to bring about the liberation of the proletariat. This is due not to a “the worse the better” outlook, but rather is the necessary recognition of the objective conditions of crisis weakening bourgeois society which Marxists must seek to utilize in order to drive forward to the socialist revolution.
As the outlines and alignments of yet a third global inter-imperialist war begin to take shape, it is essential to examine the policy of the Trotskyist movement in World War II and to understand the role and nature of the modern bourgeois state and its army, in order to prepare ourselves for the coming period of increasing international conflicts and war. Failure to take the basic Leninist conception of the state as a starting point for any strategy towards the bourgeois army leads almost inevitably to major theoretical errors, as was the case with the Socialist Workers Party’s adoption of the “Proletarian Military Policy” (PMP) in 1940. A study of the PMP and of Trotsky’s writings on the coming war, fascism and military policy in 1940 reveal a sliding off from basic Leninist concepts of the bourgeois state and army.
The PMP was a misdirected attempt to turn the American working class’s desire to fight fascism into a revolutionary perspective of overthrowing its “own” imperialist state. The core of the PMP was a call for trade union control of the compulsory military training being instituted by the state. The SWP resolution on “Proletarian Military Policy” adopted at the SWP’s Plenum-Conference in Chicago in September 1940 states:
“We fight against sending the worker-soldiers into battle without proper training and equipment. We oppose the military direction of worker-soldiers by bourgeois officers who have no regard for their treatment, their protection and their lives. We demand federal funds for the military training of workers and worker-officers under the control of the trade unions. Military appropriations? Yes–but only for the establishment and equipment of worker training camps! Compulsory military training of workers? Yes–but only under the control of the trade unions!”
James P. Cannon, leader of the SWP, defended the policy, primarily against the criticisms of Max Shachtman who had recently broken from the SWP and founded the Workers Party. Essentially, the PMP contained a reformist thrust; it implied that it was possible for the working class to control the bourgeois army. The logic of the PMP leads to reformist concepts of workers’ control of the state–which stand in opposition to the Marxist understanding that the proletariat must smash the organs of bourgeois state power in order to carry through a socialist revolution.
Cannon “Telescopes” the Tasks
It is necessary to see the background against which the PMP was developed, and what the expectations of the SWP and Trotsky were in World War II, as these expectations were the assumptions which led them to the PMP. Cannon said at the 1940 SWP Conference:
“We didn’t visualize a world situation in which whole countries would be conquered by fascist armies. The workers don’t want to be conquered by foreign invaders, above all by the fascists. They require a program of military struggle against foreign invaders which assures their class independence. That is the gist of the problem.
“Many times in the past we were put to a certain disadvantage: the demagogy of the social democrats against us was effective to a certain extent. They said: ‘You have no answer to the question of how to fight Hitler…’ Well, we answered in a general way, the workers will fight to overthrow the bourgeoisie at home, and then they will take care of invaders. That was a good program, but the workers did not make the revolution in time. Now the two tasks must be telescoped and carried out simultaneously….
“We are willing to fight Hitler. No worker wants to see that gang of fascist barbarians overrun this country or any country. But we want to fight fascism under a leadership we can trust.”
Cannon strongly emphasized that capitalism has plunged the world into an epoch of universal militarism, and that from now on, “great questions can be decided only by military means.” For Cannon, “anti-militarism was all right when we were fighting against war in time of peace. But here you have a new situation of universal militarism.”
Trotsky and the SWP were attempting to take advantage of the intersection of the “universal militarism” of the bourgeois states’ preparation for imperialist war with the genuine anti-fascist sentiment of the masses. Trotsky’s writings of 1939-40 reveal an apocalyptic vision of the coming war which led him to see the need to develop some strategy to fairly immediately win over the army. Trotsky and the SWP vastly overestimated the extent to which the processes of the war itself would rip the facade off the (Anglo-American) bourgeoisie’s ideology of “democracy” fighting “dictatorship.” Trotsky, in conversations with SWP leaders in Mexico in 1940, said, “If the bourgeoisie could preserve democracy, good, but within a year they will impose a dictatorship. Naturally in principle we would overthrow so-called bourgeois democracy given the opportunity but the bourgeoisie won’t give us time” (discussion with Trotsky, 12 June 1940, Writings Leon Trotsky, 1939-40).
“Reformism Cannot Live Today”
As part of his projection, Trotsky also believed that reformism had exhausted all its possibilities: “At one time America was rich in reformist tendencies, but the New Deal was the last flareup. Now with the war it is clear that the New Deal exhausted all the reformist and democratic possibilities and created incomparably more favorable possibilities for revolution.” The SWP developed the viewpoint that as a result of the crisis resulting from the war, reformism could not survive. A section of the SWP Resolution titled “Reformism Cannot Live Today” stated, “In the first place the victories of the fascist war machine of Hitler have destroyed every plausible basis for the illusion that a serious struggle against fascism can be conducted under the leadership of a bourgeois democratic regime.” But following World War II, because of the hatred of the working class for fascism and the broad strike wave, the bourgeoisie was forced to reinstate liberal reformist ideology and parliamentary politics, in an effort to mollify the workers.
The Trotskyists took as the basis and starting point of their new policy, the deeply popular working class sentiment against fascism. The working class was being conscripted, and part of their acceptance of this conscription was based on their desire to fight fascism, the SWP reasoned, so therefore their acceptance of conscription has a “progressive” character. The PMP was based on the belief that the bourgeoisie would be forced to institute military dictatorships and thus would be forced to expose its reactionary character in the midst of war, in a situation when the working class was armed (by the state itself) and motivated by deeply anti-dictatorship and anti-fascist feelings. This would lead inevitably to a revolutionary situation, and very quickly at that. These were the primary assumptions of Trotsky and the SWP. They do not serve to justify the adoption of the PMP, however, but rather only illuminate the background against which it was developed.
The slogan, “For trade union control of military training,” implies trade union control of the bourgeois army. The PMP slid over the particular nature and role of the imperialist army as the bulwark of capitalism. Shachtman caught the core of the PMP’s reformist thrust and this sliding over when he wrote:
“I characterized his [Cannon’s] formula as essentially social-patriotic… Cannon used to say: We will be defensists when we have a country to defend, that is, when the workers have taken power in the land, for then it will not be an imperialist war we are waging but rather a revolutionary war against imperialist assailants.… Now he says something different, because the revolution did not come in time. Now the two tasks–the task of bringing about the socialist revolution and defending the fatherland–‘must be telescoped and carried out simultaneously.’”
-“Working Class Policy in War and Peace,” The New International, January, 1941
In 1941 Shachtman had not yet been a year on his uneven eighteen-year-long centrist course from revolutionary Marxism to social democracy. In the first years Shachtman’s Workers Party claimed to be a section of the Fourth International and argued for the “conditional defense” of the Soviet Union whose “bureaucratic collectivism”–as he designated the degenerated workers state–was still progressive relative to capitalism. And as late as 1947 the issue of unification between the SWP and the Workers Party was sharply posed. His revisionist break with Marxism was nonetheless profound from the outset: a complete repudiation of its philosophic methodology coupled with the concrete betrayal of the Soviet Union in the real wars that took place, first with Finland in 1939 and then the German invasion in 1941. Thus the SWP’s departure from the clear principled thrust of Leninism in advancing the ambiguous PMP was for the early revisionist Shachtman a gift which he was able to exploit because it did not center on his own areas of decisive departure from Marxism.
Ten years later, however, under the pressures of the Korean War, Shachtman’s revisionism had become all-encompassing and he advanced a grotesquely reactionary version of the PMP of his own. Writing of the anticipated Third World War he asserted that “the only greater disaster than the war itself… would be the victory of Stalinism as the outcome of the war.” From this he concluded that “socialist policy must be based upon the idea of transforming the imperialist war into a democratic war [against Stalinism].” And to achieve this transformation he looked to “a workers’ government, no matter how modest its aims would be at the beginning, no matter how far removed from a consistently socialist objective” (“Socialist Policy in the War,” New International, 1951). Shachtman’s “workers’ government” is clearly no dictatorship of the proletariat–without socialist aims!–but rather the blood relative of Major Atlee’s British Labour government, fantasized into an American labor government headed by Walter Reuther. Here the class character of the state has been disappeared with a vengeance. (Shachtman’s group, by 1949 the Independent Socialist League, entered the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation in 1958. In the early 1960’s nostalgic ISL types, most notably Hal Draper, gradually separated from the SP–especially after Shachtman himself defended the Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion. Draper et al. went on to found what has now become the present-day International Socialists.)
Trotsky on the PMP
The fragmentary material that Trotsky wrote on the subject in his last few months makes it clear that he bears responsibility for initiating the PMP; however, he was murdered prior to its full-blown public inauguration and development by the SWP. Trotsky’s prediction that the bourgeoisie would not give the workers time to overthrow the bourgeois state before they had to fight against fascism feeds directly into Cannon’s ambiguity over revolutionary defeatism and the “telescoping” process of combining national defense with the workers’ fight against fascism.
Trotsky writes in Some Questions on American Problems, “The American workers do not want to be conquered by Hitler and to those who say, ‘Let us have a peace program,’ we say, ‘We will defend the United States with a workers’ army, with workers’ officers, with a workers’ government, etc.’ If we are not pacifists, who wait for a better future, and if we are active revolutionists, our job is to penetrate into the whole military machine.” What is left out of this agitational approach is significant. Marxists do not defend the U.S.! At least not until the U.S. is a socialist U. S., only after the bourgeoisie and all its institutions, including the army, have been crushed. Marxists must oppose imperialist war; World War II was being fought not for “democracy” against “fascism” but purely for redivision of the world for imperialist ends. The workers’ army Trotsky writes of cannot develop organically out of the bourgeois army, but must be built up under conditions of class tension and revolutionary crisis through independent workers militias and by polarization of the bourgeois armed forces–that is, as the counterposed military arm of the working class organizing itself as the state power dual to the capitalists’ government.
The PMP’s thrust was that of supporting a war against fascism without making clear whose class state was waging the war. Because of the popularity of a “democratic war against fascism,” the actual effect of the PMP would have been merely to make the bourgeois state’s war more efficient and more democratically conducted.
Workers Control of the Army?
The logic of the PMP impelled the SWP to see the bourgeois army as only one more arena of working-class struggle, like a factory, rather than as the main coercive force of the bourgeois state. If Marxists can favor trade union control of industry, why not trade union control of military training? We agree that Marxists seek to fight oppression wherever it arises, including fighting for soldiers’ rights–but from this it does not follow that we should call for “workers’ control of the army” as a parallel slogan to “workers’ control of the factories.” There will always be a need for development of the forces of production; the proletarian revolution does not need to smash them for its own purposes. The army’s sole function is to maintain the dominant class in power through coercion and repression; during the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the revolutionary state will have its own army, organized to serve its own class purposes; a developed socialist society will have no need for this special repressive apparatus, which will gradually dissolve into the whole self-armed population, and then, like the state, it too will wither away. The army is not a class-neutral institution. As part of the “special bodies of armed men” which constitute the basis of the state, it cannot be a workers’ army unless it is the army of a workers’ state.
Similarly we do not delude the workers with slogans of “workers’ control” of the police or of the prisons either, since both are at the essence of the bourgeois state. If we called for “workers’ control of the prisons,” the blood of Attica would be on our hands as well as Rockefeller’s. The storming of the Bastille represents the only possible form of “workers’ control” of the repressive apparatus of the state–i.e., smashing it utterly.
The PMP was a proposal for the unions to make the bourgeois army more democratic and efficient to prosecute the war “against fascism.” But the bourgeoisie cannot fight fascism! The U.S. bourgeoisie wanted to fight the Germans and Japanese to further its own imperialist goals, not to “fight fascism.”
The PMP error can be most clearly seen in the case of an unpopular war: should we demand trade union control of military training in order to better fight in Vietnam? Obviously not. But the point is the same. Only those social chauvinists who support “their” government’s war aims can reasonably raise the PMP.
As an SWP programmatic demand, the PMP never took life and shortly was shelved, because the SWP did oppose the second imperialist war and therefore the autonomous social-patriotic implications of the PMP did not take hold. But neither was the error corrected in those years, and it has been a source of disorientation ever since for those young militants who seek to counterpose en bloc the revolutionary SWP of the 1940’s to the wretched reformist vehicle which today still bears the initials SWP.
The whole authority of the state is based ultimately on its ability to successfully employ its coercive power, which rests on its standing army, police and prisons; the coercive power of the state is the very essence of its structure. This development of state power is linked directly to the development of class antagonisms, so that while the state appears to stand above and outside of class conflict, as a “neutral” third force, in reality it is nothing more than an agent of the dominant, more powerful class in society. These considerations give rise to two major premises of revolutionary strategy: (1) that the existing bourgeois state machinery, including its army, must be crushed, and (2) in order to successfully accomplish this, the bourgeois state must be unable to rely upon its own coercive power; it must be unable to use it successfully against the revolutionary forces who seek to fundamentally change the class structure upon which the state rests. It is impossible to use the bourgeois army for proletarian ends; it must be smashed. The destabilizing of the bourgeois army, turning a section of it to the side of the proletariat, is inseparably linked with, but not the same as, the process of arming the proletariat.
For the Independent Arming of the Working Class!
The SWP was trying to use the bourgeoisie’s militarism for its own ends, and so it dropped entirely any fight against bourgeois militarism and patriotism as the main danger to the working class, and instead of exposing the nature of the imperialist armies, concentrated on attacking pacifism. Had the working class had such pacifist illusions of peaceful resistance to war, one could find more justification for this emphasis–however, as Trotsky recognized, the workers were “95 to 98 percent patriotic” in 1940, and thus accepted conscription into the army, because they were willing to fight fascism. Since the workers were for conscription, the pressure on the SWP to blunt a defeatist policy was strong. The SWP should have counterposed at every step the independent arming of the proletariat; but instead it undercut opposition to bourgeois conscription. Cannon attacks the fight of the social-pacifists against conscription because it “overlooked realities and sowed illusions. The workers were for conscription…a certain amount of compulsion has always been invoked by the labor movement against the backward, the slackers…. Compulsion in the class war is a class necessity” (Cannon’s speech at 1940 SWP Conference). Yes, of course compulsion is a class necessity–but conscription into the bourgeois army is a class necessity for the bourgeois class. The fact that the workers may have supported it does not alter the class nature of the coercion being applied. It is not the job of the proletarian vanguard to help the bourgeoisie wage its imperialist wars, to provide it with cannon fodder. Communists must call for revolutionary defeatism and the overthrow of the bourgeoisie in wars between imperialist powers–not for the working class in each country to “control” the fighting arm of its “own” bourgeoisie. The call must be to “turn the guns the other way,” not to control the military apparatus.
As Trotsky wrote in 1934 in his comprehensive systematization of the revolutionary Marxist experience in World War I in application to the approaching second World War, “War and the Fourth International”:
“If the proletariat should find it beyond its power to prevent war by means of revolution–and this is the only means of preventing war–the workers, together with the whole people, will be forced to participate in the army and in war. Individualistic and anarchistic slogans of refusal to undergo military service, passive resistance, desertion, sabotage are in basic contradiction to the methods of the proletarian revolution. But just as in the factory the advanced worker feels himself a slave of capital, preparing for his liberation, so in the capitalist army too he feels himself a slave of imperialism. Compelled today to give his muscles and even his life, he does not surrender his revolutionary consciousness. He remains a fighter, learns how to use arms, explains even in the trenches the class meaning of war, groups around himself the discontented, connects them into cells, transmits the ideas and slogans of the party, watches closely the changes in the mood of the masses, the subsiding of the patriotic wave, the growth of indignation, and summons the soldiers to the aid of the workers at the critical moment.”
-Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1933-34, Trotsky’s emphasis
The bourgeois state will only arm the workers for its own purposes–while this contradiction can and must be exploited by Marxists, it is utopian to expect that the trade unions could be able to use the bourgeois army for their own purposes. The modern imperialist armies created by the state have a largely working-class composition, but their function is directly counterposed to the interests of the world proletariat. The crucial task of Marxists is to always and everywhere smash bourgeois ideology in the ranks of the working class, to call for the independent arming and struggle of the organizations of the working class.
FOR WORKERS’ SELF-DEFENSE GROUPS BASED ON THE TRADE UNIONS!
FOR UNITED CLASS DEFENSE OF MINORITIES AND THE UNEMPLOYED! FIGHT FOR SOLDIERS’ RIGHTS THROUGH SOLDIERS’ COUNCILS!
TOWARDS THE INDEPENDENT ORGANIZATION OF WORKERS’ MILITIAS!