The Leninist view of how to fight against imperialist war remains one of the most controversial and defining characteristics of the communist movement, because it means standing up to the capitalist class at the moment its fangs are bared.
Why do we think it’s important to study what Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin wrote and did during World War I, over 100 years ago?
There are two good reasons. First, Lenin’s Marxist analysis of war shows how capitalism in its highest stage, imperialism, has an insatiable thirst for new markets and bigger profits that drives it to war. That hasn’t changed.
And second, Lenin successfully used this working-class understanding of war to help bring about the socialist revolution in Russia.
In the pamphlet “Socialism and War,” Lenin called the war that had just broken out in Europe “a war between the biggest slaveholders for the maintenance and consolidation of slavery.”
Differentiating the communist position from the pacifists, who condemn all wars equally, Lenin said, “We understand that wars cannot be abolished until classes are abolished and socialism is created.”
He defined as just wars “civil wars, i.e., wars waged by an oppressed class against the oppressor class,” and wars of national liberation by oppressed countries.
“If tomorrow, Morocco were to declare war on France, India on England, Persia or China on [World War I era, pre-revolutionary] Russia, and so forth,” he wrote, “those would be ‘just,’ ‘defensive’ wars, irrespective of who attacked first; and every socialist would sympathize with the victory of the oppressed, dependent, unequal states against the oppressing, slave-owning, predatory ‘Great’ Powers.”
Communists “of the oppressor countries should recognize and champion the oppressed nation’s right to self-determination,” Lenin wrote. “The socialist of a ruling country who does not stand for that right is a chauvinist.”
“The defeat of one’s own capitalist government is the lesser evil in the struggle against the war,” he wrote. “A revolutionary class cannot but wish for the defeat of its government in a reactionary war, and cannot fail to see that the latter’s military reverses must facilitate its overthrow.”
Lenin’s thoroughly internationalist perspective is called revolutionary defeatism.
Instead of using the war as an excuse to pull back from the class struggle, Lenin and his co-thinkers argued that it was exactly the time to step up the struggle against capitalism.
It would be a hard road, especially during the first wave of patriotic propaganda. But as the war dragged on and the death and suffering mounted, more workers would turn against the government and capitalism, he argued.
This is the origin of the famous communist slogan, “Turn the imperialist war into civil war.”
Some people misunderstand what Lenin meant by this. They think it means you have to show up at the very first demonstration against the war with signs reading “Turn the imperialist war into civil war.”
In fact, Lenin argues in his pamphlet that communists should give strong support to all manifestations for peace. This is often the first step by the workers, youths and others toward anti-war consciousness.
All five Bolshevik deputies in the Duma, or parliament, took a strong anti-war stand, and the Czar exiled them to hard labor in Siberia. Factory workers passed anti-war resolutions. Strikes and demonstrations were organized. Agitation was conducted in the army, and fraternization with enemy troops was encouraged.
Because of their correct analysis of the war and their determination to continue and deepen the class struggle, the Bolsheviks were ready when mass anger at the war boiled over. In February 1917, the Russian people rose up and overthrew the Czar. Several months later, after a new pro-capitalist government showed it would continue the war, Lenin and the Bolsheviks led a successful workers’ and peasants’ revolution for socialism under the banner of “Peace, Land, Bread.”
The new Soviet government’s first act was to call on all countries to end the World War and renounce all annexations and occupations. It guaranteed the right of self-determination for all the peoples and nations oppressed by Russian capitalism.