By the beginning of the 20th century the world had been divided into colonies. The Western Hemisphere was a colony of the USA while Africa and Asia were divided between Britain, France and Russia. As the new industrial power – Germany – emerged on the foundations of Bismarckian rule, it found itself bereft of colonies to plunder for its growing industrial appetite. This laid the foundation for the first global war or World War I in 1914. Germany had formed a military alliance with Austria-Hungary and the Turkish empire while the older colonialists – Britain, France and Russia – formed the rival bloc.
When open hostilities finally broke out in 1914, each side hoped to win a decisive victory over its opponents which would provide the victors with the colonies and territories of the defeated powers as trophy. Fired by the most brazen national chauvinisms, people in each country rose up to fight for what was drummed up as their national rights and hundreds of thousands of young men marched happily to their death in the name of national glory.
By 1917 the War was in a stalemate without a clear victor or vanquished. But the crisis was most acute in Russia which was ruled by the autocratic Czar Nicholas II. Three years of unsuccessful military campaigns had emptied his treasury, demoralised his army and hollowed out his aura and legitimacy among the Russian people. Weakened thus, the Czar’s rule collapsed at the first sign of popular protests. In February 1917 the Czar abdicated his throne when faced with determined women protestors who stormed the streets of St. Petersburg in the cold of February demanding bread for their hungry families and the return of the soldiers from the murderous trenches. The first phase of the Russian Revolution of 1917 – the abdication of the Czar – was almost bloodless and surprised all contemporary observers with its effortlessness.
The Czar’s administration was replaced by a republican “provisional” Government which took control of the organs of the State. This “provisional” government represented the middle class democrats and the capitalist “modernizers” who wanted to replace the feudal Russian State with an industrial one. With a sulking Czar biding his time to return to power, a resurgent political mobilization of the Soviets (which were elected councils of workers and peasants and ran parallel to this “official” Government), an stagnant economy and a demoralised military, this provisional Government was itself quite weak. It also had to face continued popular protests on the streets. In this situation, this provisional government called on all political forces to unite to defend the Fatherland from defeat in the War.
This was a call which very few could resist. Even socialists and communists, who upheld Karl Marx’s famous slogan, “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win!” ended up supporting this call to defend the Russian Fatherland, to put “national interest” above political rivalries.
It was at that moment that Lenin emerged with the clear slogan of “revolutionary defeatism” and called on the Russian people to defeat their own country in the war. He reminded the people that this was a war fought to re-divide the world among colonial powers and was an out and out “imperialist and reactionary” war. He exhorted the Russian soldiers, whom he famously termed “peasants and workers in uniform”, to desert their army units and stop killing the German, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish soldiers. He called on them to disobey their own generals and refuse to fight for the defence of a State which was imperialist. Lenin, despite being the undisputed leader of the Bolsheviks, found it difficult to get the majority of this own party to accept his stand of “revolutionary defeatism” when he first spelt it out. It took him almost six months to convince the majority opinion in his own party about the moral and practical correctness of his stand.
But Lenin’s was not merely an exhortation to Russian soldiers to betray their own nation and army. Lenin argued that WWI was being fought by the colonial powers to re-divide the colonies among themselves and it was therefore a reactionary, imperialist war. He argued that it was impossible for a true revolutionary to take sides in such a War for or against one side. In fact, argued Lenin, it was the duty of true revolutionaries to oppose the War in their own countries and work to defeat their own armies.
He called on all soldiers – German, British, French, etc – to stop killing their fellow workers on the other side of the trench. He called on workers in all countries of Europe to strike work and disrupt the War and he called on working class parties in all warring countries to oppose their own country’s war effort. In fact most of the political parties which claimed affiliation to Marxist politics – they were called the social democratic parties at that time – had ended up supporting the war effort of their own country. The strongest social democrat party of Europe, the German party and its leader, Karl Kautsky, had supported the German war effort. Lenin led a series of political arguments with the German social democrats and Karl Kautsky where the political and ideological difference between social democrats and communists became clear. Lenin termed those who claimed to espouse the socialist idea of workers unity above national boundaries but in practice supported a national chauvinist war for division of colonial territories and wealth by their own countries, as “social chauvinists” – socialist in rhetoric and chauvinists in practice.
Lenin clarified that the greatest responsibility on anti-imperialists and communists was to oppose their own nation when that nation was an imperialist colonial power. He rejected the argument that it was possible to align with the less-powerful imperialist State to weaken the more-powerful imperialist State and yet retain one’s anti-imperialism. He argued that imperialism and colonialism were intricately linked with global capitalism and it was the duty of those who opposed these to stand up against all forms and all expressions of imperialism.
It was a spectacular political slogan. Unprecedented in its radicalism, revolutionary defeatism attracted people due to the clarity of its moral position and the courage of its anti-nationalism, its open call to betray one’s own nation for the larger good of humankind.
When Lenin gave this call for “revolutionary defeatism”, Britain was the strongest colonial power on earth. France too had huge colonial possessions while the USA had informal, but very effective, control over Latin America. Russia was the weakest of the colonial powers, eager to protect its Asian territories from German annexation, while Germany was a resurgent industrial power hungry for colonies of its own to plunder. World War I was a challenge to Britain’s pre-eminent position as colonial power by newly emerging imperialist countries, specially Germany. If Britain had been defeated in WW I it would have led to the dismantling of the greatest colonial power known to humankind till then. Despite this clear geo-strategic angle of a challenge to Britain’s imperialist hegemony, Lenin did not argue for an alliance of the weaker imperialist powers to oppose the hegemony of the pre-eminent imperialist power. He gave a slogan asking communists and progressive people to reject all imperialist powers and turn against the “national interest” of their own countries when they pursue imperialist policies. He said that it was the duty of communists to oppose imperialism whatever their national identity may be.
It was the adoption of this policy of “revolutionary defeatism” which led to the massive popularity of the Bolsheviks in Russia. Exactly 90 years ago on this day, (7th November) the first Socialist State emerged in human history as the workers and peasants led by the Bolshevik party captured power in St. Petersburg and Moscow. It was also this policy of opposing its own national interest in this imperialist dog-fight to corner natural resources of the world, which made the German communists, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, such a potent force and brought Germany to the doorstep of a socialist revolution. The Soviet Union may have collapsed in 1990 but the message of “revolutionary defeatism” remains as valid today as it was a century ago.
Today the world is dominated by the pre-eminent imperialist power, the United States of America. Western Europe, in the form of the EU is emerging as an economic counter to the USA but remains militarily tied to it. On the other hand, the military hegemony of the USA is being challenged by the emergent imperialist powers, Russia and China, who remain economically tied to the USA. Russia continues to maintain a sizeable part of its Soviet era military which was a technological match for the USA and its allies. China on the other hand, has successfully used its financial leverage in the US economy to build up its military and strategic autonomy. Despite their challenges to US domination in the economic and military arenas, all these countries remain closely tied to the international financial system – which Marxists term Imperialism – which has the USA at its helm.
Russia and China have come together to form, with other dependent States in their vicinity, a military bloc termed the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation which is primarily driven to protect the oil and other mineral resources of the “Asian theatre” from US domination. Within its area of “cooperation”, the SCO is opposed to Japan and Australia which are US military bases. They have been successful in weakening US presence in Central Asia and are now shoring up Iran in its confrontation with the USA. Given a chance these challengers to US hegemony betray their murderous and cynically anti-people nature, whether it is Russia in Chechnya and its other “Asian” republics or China in Tibet, Myanmar or with the oil concessionaires in Sudan and other parts of Africa. Simialarly, even those countries of Europe which seemingly stand up against US geo-strategic interests, for example France, is no better than the US in its own pursuit of imperialist plunder and military atrocities, whether its in Indo-China, Algeria or recently in the nuclear explosions in its Pacific colonies. In their brutality and cynicism towards people, these are no different from the US adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine.
It is important that those who identify with the world view of Karl Marx and the politics of Lenin, do not forget the central political tenet of Lenin’s anti-imperialism and not start taking sides in this contemporary inter-imperialist rivalry. Termed a geo-strategic battle for securing national interests (or energy security, which is but a particular version of that same thing), this murderous race across the planet to secure natural resources and cheap labour-power for one’s own industrial complex is no different from the imperialist colonialism Lenin railed against. If anything, it is more powerful and vastly more murderous.
The challengers to the hegemony of the USA may yet succeed in displacing the latter from the throne of imperialist top-dog, but that will do nothing to dent or destroy imperialism as such. Imperialism led by the European Union, China, Russia will be no different from imperialism led by Britain or USA. Communists do not have the choice of taking sides in this battle of imperialist rivalry and yet remain Leninist (or even Marxist).
The world and global capitalism have changed in various ways since the days of Karl Marx. But one aspect which has not changed is that working people – those who earn their livelihood by their labour – cannot benefit from these battles of the imperialists. The only way to effectively challenge capitalism and its contemporary form, imperialism, is for the working people of the entire world to put aside their national, ethnic and other parochial divisions and unite as one. The interests of the working people of this world cannot be the same as the “national interests” of imperialist countries or even those countries which aspire to a seat on the imperialist high-table. To give in to such “national interest” is not merely morally indefensible but politically incorrect too. It is to forget and forgo the most abiding political lesson of the Russian Revolution.
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A shorter version of this article was published in my weekly column in The Post on 7 November, 2007, the 90th anniversary of the Socialist Revolution of Russia.