The following article appeared in Proletarian Revolution No. 78 (Fall 2006).

In Defense of Bolshevik Military Policy:

Once Again on Conscription

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The occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq are a nightmare for the peoples of those countries. They are proving to be a disaster for the U.S. ruling class as well. Thousands of American soldiers have been killed and tens of thousands wounded, while the anti-U.S. insurgencies continue to grow. With its armies slipping deeper into the quagmire, the imperialist U.S. ruling class is unable to credibly threaten military action elsewhere. Iran has so far been spared an attack that the White House had been planning. In the face of North Korea’s testing of nuclear weapons, Washington is reduced to making threats of economic sanctions, not military reprisals. The threat of military intervention that has historically been used to intimidate the masses of Latin America has retreated. This may change as the U.S. ruling class becomes more desperate to re-establish its superpower authority, but the weakness of its military forces has been exposed.

Capitalist politicians of all stripes complain that the White House has failed to send sufficient numbers of troops to subdue the resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, they recognize that the U.S. essentially has no more troops to send. Re-enlistment rates are falling and recruitment efforts are failing. As a result, the Pentagon has been forced to rely on the “backdoor draft” – compelling Army, Reserve and National Guard troops to serve repeated and extended tours of duty. They are also using, at great expense, huge numbers of mercenaries from guns-for-hire companies like Blackwater USA.

In this context, a few capitalist politicians, both Democratic and Republican, have proposed re-instituting conscription. But in spite of the military’s desperate need for more troops, the overwhelming majority of ruling-class politicians oppose the idea – at least for now. While defeat in Iraq is a major problem for America’s rulers, they actually fear a draft could lead to worse. An Op-Ed commentary in the New York Post hinted at the reasons:

It’s not just the civilian leaders [who oppose conscription]. Much of the military doesn’t want the burdens of training draftees, arguing that volunteers are more motivated and professional. (They also aren’t troublesome in unpopular wars, such as the current one.) The brass see a signature on the dotted line as a necessary safeguard against sagging morale. (Aug. 25.)

Allow us to explain what this bourgeois columnist lightly refers to as “troublesome.” The ruling class knows that conscription, by forcing the youth of the nation to go to war, would encourage popular demands for the government to account for the aims and conduct of its wars. It would spark the further growth of anti-war sentiment and threaten to bring that struggle into the ranks of the military.

The capitalists’ political and military leaders remember the last time the U.S. had a draft during the Vietnam war. Then, when mostly working-class youth were driven into the military, many brought with them their experience of the anti-war and Black liberation movements. Individual acts of insubordination soon grew into mutinous refusals by whole units to fight. Rank-and-file soldiers’ use of fragmentary grenades and other means to kill their superiors became so common (killing from 600 to 2,000 officers, according to Pentagon records) that the term “fragging” found a permanent place in the national vocabulary. Left-wing and anti-imperialist literature circulated among the troops, and growing numbers became politically radicalized and organized. “Troublesome” indeed! No wonder the ruling class did not even try to reinstitute the draft immediately after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when patriotic pro-war fervor was running high. Such historical experience is central to how Marxists approach the question of conscription.

War and Revolution

The League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) has taken every opportunity to join and build actions against the U.S.’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, from mass protests in the streets to demonstrations that have driven army recruiters from college campuses. These protests are crucial in spreading the anti-imperialist message, showing solidarity with the wars’ victims and giving protesters a taste of the power that comes from mass action. They have the potential to grow to hamper the ruling class’s war effort – although for now the anti-war movement has been run into the ground by its pro-Democratic Party leaders.

We have also brought to these actions a very clear message: while protests are crucial, the horror of imperialist wars will not end until the capitalist system that breeds them is overthrown. Socialist revolution is the only solution!

Indeed, as the world economy deteriorates and rivalries between the major powers intensify, capitalism promises humanity only bigger and bloodier conflicts, leading toward a Third World War. The further and dramatic militarization of society, including moves to reintroduce conscription, is inevitable.

Marxists understand that the battles waged by workers against their exploiters at the point of production in industry and other centers of the economy are the key to the class struggle. But in this epoch of imperialism in which war and revolution are inextricably linked, a “Marxism” that can only guide the working class through its peacetime struggles and not through the horrors of militarism is no real Marxism and no use to the working class. It is crucial that revolutionaries prepare now with a theoretical understanding of imperialist militarism and a program of struggle that can put an end to it.

Revolutionary Military Policy

Since the overthrow of capitalism by working-class revolution is our fundamental aim, revolutionaries of course oppose the existence of the capitalists’ armed forces and the rest of their repressive state apparatus. We maintain that the need to defend the working class against inevitable attack from the capitalists’ state means that the workers’ seizure of power will be anything but peaceful. Therefore, in the course of its revolutionary struggles, the working class will have to use force of arms to defend itself and smash the capitalist state in an armed revolution.

Marxists understand that the capitalist state’s armed forces are not all the same. Capitalist ruling classes generally prefer to separate the two, reserving the police for domestic repression and maintaining their military for prosecuting their interests abroad. We know that whenever the ruling class’s fundamental interests are threatened, it will not hesitate to try to deploy its armed forces for domestic policing. But we also recognize that the typical division between the police and military necessitates different approaches. The job of police recruits will be to enforce domestic law and order, but most military recruits would never imagine being asked to turn their guns on their brothers and sisters at home.

While we expect that a victorious revolution will have to destroy the police force from top to bottom without distinction between ranks and commanders, the army is a different story. Appeals to rank-and-file soldiers to not attack the working class, and even to rebel against their officers and political leaders and side with the workers, can succeed. Indeed, history has taught that no victorious working-class revolution is possible without a split in the military.

As the great Bolshevik leader Lenin summed up:

Militarism can never and under no circumstances be defeated and destroyed, except by a victorious struggle of one section of the national army against the other section. It is not sufficient simply to denounce, revile and “repudiate” militarism, to criticize and prove that it is harmful; it is foolish peacefully to refuse to perform military service. The task is to keep the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariat tense and train its best elements, not only in a general way, but concretely, so that when popular ferment reaches the highest pitch, they will put themselves at the head of the revolutionary army. (“Lecture on the 1905 Revolution,” January 1917.)

Given this perspective, it is important to recognize that there are two basic types of capitalist armies: mercenary and conscripted. Mercenary armies are constituted of professional soldiers separated from the rest of the population. Conscripted armies, on the other hand, draw more broadly from the working class. Their ranks are much more intimately connected with, and influenced by, the daily lives and struggles of their civilian brothers and sisters. As a result, conscripted soldiers are far more likely to rebel against their leaders than those of mercenary armies, as the New York Post columnist we quoted earlier alluded to.

The U.S. army today can be characterized as a hybrid force, that is, a mercenary army with elements of a conscripted one. It includes many enthusiastic volunteers. It also recruits many poor, working class, and particularly Black and Latino youth who, in the face of poverty and discrimination, are subject to an “economic draft.” They are lured into the military by promises of a steady income, the potential for upward social mobility through college tuition payments and the illusion of a color-blind military. While such recruits are potentially rebellious, this potential is undercut by the volunteer character of the army and its isolation as a “profession” from the rest of the working class.

Therefore, for as long as we face a capitalist army which we are unable to overthrow, revolutionaries prefer one that is a less reliable tool in the hands of the ruling class, one that is more prone to rebellion. For this reason, we prefer a conscripted rather than a mercenary army.

Conscription also has the advantage of giving broader numbers of young workers access to weapons and military training, material and skills that will be vitally needed in the coming revolution. Thus, not only do revolutionaries prefer to face a conscripted rather than mercenary army, but we look to take advantage of moves toward conscription to demand the arming and military training of the entire working class – a demand that can become popular, and threatening to the ruling class, at times of war when the working class of a given nation fears invasion.

The Marxist Tradition and Its Opponents

Preference for a conscripted rather than mercenary bourgeois army has been the position of revolutionary Marxists for well over a century. But that tradition has been buried by many who regard themselves as anti-imperialists and even communists. To better prepare current and future generations of revolutionaries for the challenges of wartime, we have made an effort to resurrect and critically examine this tradition. Our pamphlet “No Draft” Is No Answer! and our article “Marxism and the Draft” , both written when draft registration was introduced under President Carter, reproduced and re-argued the views of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. And we returned to this issue during the most recent wars following September 11.

This approach to conscription sets us apart from the entire left in this country which, multiply divided on so many other questions, is remarkably united on this one. We have already had two rounds of debate with the Communist Voice Organization (CVO) and its support for anti-draft campaigns (see PR 69 and 73). Since then the CVO has continued to argue with us in Nos. 36 and 37 of their magazine ( With their blend of selective quotation, illogic, repetition and pedantry, these articles add nothing new.

Our position has more recently come under fire from the Internationalist Group (IG) in their article “Which Side Are They On?”, published in the Summer 2005 issue of their magazine, The Internationalist. As would-be Trotskyists, the IG feels more pressure to attempt to reconcile their opposition to conscription with the authentic revolutionary tradition than does the “post-Stalinist” CVO. In particular, they are forced to directly confront their opposition to Trotsky’s approach to conscription, the Proletarian Military Policy (PMP). Defending the PMP will help us clarify how revolutionaries approach the capitalist military in the course of our struggle to overthrow it.

Unfortunately, the IG’s style of polemic, true to the Spartacist heritage the group derives from, relies heavily on putting down its opponents by means of innuendo and outright lies while blurring its own position under the barrage. The method of not “saying what is” reeks of contempt for working-class consciousness. We will return to the underlying cause, middle-class intellectual elitism, below. We begin, however, by taking out some of the trash that the IG has carted in.

What It Means to Prefer a Draft

To start, not once does the IG refer to our preference for a conscripted over a mercenary army without placing ironic quotation marks around the word “prefer.” In fact, they directly say that we are “for a draft imperialist army” and even claim that “the LRP yearns for a draft to send young workers into the army.” Elsewhere they say that the LRP “favors a military draft,” taking advantage of the fact that the word “favor” has a range of meanings from “prefer” to “desire” and “support.” We have already thoroughly refuted the charge that we call for or support a draft by the bourgeois state in our responses to the CVO – which the IG significantly avoids citing. Our position is also perfectly clear in the articles that the IG does cite, those in SV 9 and PR 66. The IG dismisses our point-blank statements as a “fig-leaf” and “empty rhetoric.”

The fact that revolutionaries, confronted with life under capitalism, prefer certain forms of capitalist rule to others because they are more favorable to working-class struggle flows from how we understand society. Utopian socialists had pipe dreams of constructing perfect societies outside of capitalism. Sectarian socialists lecture workers from outside of the class struggle. But the working class has to live and struggle under capitalism as it exists. Thus genuine Marxism looks inside the system itself for the means to overthrow it, and therefore prefers some circumstances to others.

For example, we base our entire strategy for social change on the consciousness the working class develops through collective struggle. While we hate all forms of exploitation and wish to see them all end at the first opportunity, we prefer to see capitalists running big industrial enterprises rather than small businesses: the former bring together larger numbers of workers with greater potential power to fight back. For example, we do not join in the small-business-is-beautiful campaigns against Wal-Mart that are currently in vogue. Instead we look forward to seeing Wal-Mart workers organize themselves in mass struggles against their multinational exploiter, struggles that lone workers in mom-and-pop stores could never imagine.

For any ostensible Marxist, such a preference should be obvious. Our preference for large-scale industry rather than small business is essentially the same as our preference for a conscripted versus mercenary army, as it is essentially a preference for the best situation for working-class struggle. Because we want to destroy the capitalist military, we prefer they have one that is more conducive to its own destruction.

We will show later in this article that Lenin made exactly this comparison, in particularly blunt terms.

The IG takes their first swing at “proving” that the LRP supports a draft by quoting us (from PR 66) – and missing the obvious point:

When black Democrats Charles Rangel and John Conyers came out for a draft on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, the LRP wrote:

“Since our ruling class must have an army, we prefer that it be drafted – not, like Rangel, because an all-out mobilization is necessary to fulfill imperialist goals, but because a ‘professional’ army is more easily disciplined and more loyal to its bourgeois paymasters.” ...

What grotesque concern for the needs of the ruling class!

The IG’s logic here is bizarre. Having quoted us saying that we prefer a conscripted army because a mercenary army is more disciplined and loyal to the ruling class, the IG declares that this shows “grotesque concern for the needs of the ruling class!” Of course we are concerned about the needs of the ruling class: our concern is that their needs not be met! They need a loyal professional army; we prefer an army that is more likely to become disloyal. The IG is so contemptuous of its readers that they are prepared to write any nonsense in the hope of getting away with it.

What Is the IG’s Position?

The IG’s own position on conscription is never stated explicitly but has to be deduced from their arguments against ours.

1. Preference for a Mercenary Army

To begin, the IG cannot claim that we support imperialist wars, but it still tries to make a case that our position is pro-imperialist:

The LRP can claim to be for the defeat of U.S. imperialism in Iraq, but by opposing struggle against the introduction of military conscription in wartime, the LRP is adding its grain of sand to promoting imperialist militarism. All the more so when it repeats its pseudo-Marxist arguments today as mounting U.S. casualties in Iraq have put the Pentagon in a bind. The Joint Chiefs of Staff need more troops to kill and die in enforcing their murderous occupation of Iraq? The LRP declares its “preference” on how to supply the “cannon fodder.” Trotskyists say instead that since the ruling class must have an army, in fighting for socialist revolution we fight against every means by which the imperialist war machine gets its manpower, whether by recruiters trying to hoodwink poor and minority students, or by a draft.

Of course, revolutionaries oppose the ruling class’s military, whatever form it takes. But the IG evades our central point that a conscripted army is more dangerous for the bourgeoisie. Nor do they address the fact that the ruling class obviously recognizes this. The imperialists have a better understanding of what a drafted army represents than do the supposed Marxists of the IG.

The IG asserts that it fights all imperialist armies and implies that it has no preference. But this is a dodge to not take responsibility for their own position. The IG’s argument that “since the ruling class must have an army ... we fight against every means by which the imperialist war machine gets its manpower,” means that they prefer a smaller army until the revolution overthrows the bourgeoisie. That means a mercenary army, not a mass army of conscripts.

Let us be clear: we do not mirror the IG’s approach and falsely say they are “for” or “support” a mercenary army. We only point out their unstated preference for it over a drafted army.

Moreover, right now there is no draft, and the issue between the LRP and the IG, as the IG itself puts it above, is whether to support “struggle against the introduction of military conscription in wartime.” (Emphasis ours.) We say openly that we will not campaign against the introduction of a draft. But if the LRP is promoting imperialism by opposing struggle against the introduction of a draft when the Pentagon needs it, as the IG charges, then the IG clearly must support such a struggle. Like it or not, that means they prefer not having a draft – that is, in reality they prefer to maintain the existing mercenary army.

There is a clear historical test to prove our point. In 1973, when the Pentagon abolished the draft because of the eruptions in the U.S. army over Vietnam, the Spartacist League (from which the IG descends and whose history it embraces) could have opposed the introduction of a purely volunteer army in order to stand against what the Pentagon needed at that time. They did not. For Marxists, practice is proof. Then as now, without acknowledging it, they preferred the ruling class having a mercenary army.

2. Pseudo-Militant Pacifism

The IG article continues:

Pacifists may push the illusion of “disarming” the bourgeoisie, but revolutionaries seek through protest and working-class action to hinder the bourgeoisie’s ability to raise an army for imperialist invasion and colonial occupation.

They go on to condemn the LRP for not “fighting for concrete proletarian action in the imperialist countries, such as workers strikes against the war, ‘hot cargoing’ military goods, etc.” In contrast, they boast “We call for workers strikes against the war, and for workers to refuse to handle military cargo.”

The LRP is, of course, also for mass protests and working-class action that hinders imperialist militarism. But the IG is wrong to argue that this is the alternative to pacifist illusions of disarming the bourgeoisie. Such actions can hamper the capitalists’ war efforts, but only temporarily. For as long as the military stands strong, it will find a way to arm itself. Any lasting success in mass action preventing the bourgeoisie from raising its army can only come when such action reaches into the military, splitting its ranks. To suggest otherwise is to raise pacifist illusions about disarming the bourgeoisie, and this is the essence of the IG’s position. The question of splitting the army is key to a really revolutionary strategy against imperialist war. It raises the central question of what form of bourgeois army is more vulnerable to be split in such a way – the very question the IG never addresses.

The IG hides their avoidance of this question with bluster about the many forms of anti-militarist working-class action it advocates. The LRP is also in favor of strikes against the war, hot cargoing and other working-class actions. But we recognize that at a time when the trade union bureaucracy hamstrings workers from striking even for basic economic demands, calling agitationally for political strikes is just hot air intended to sound super-radical rather than lead to any concrete action. It is, however, vital to propagandize for such strikes, to explain to the most politically advanced workers that the working class has the power and obligation to take action against the capitalists’ wars. But to agitate for political strikes as if they have a real possibility of being carried out by the mass of workers today is precisely “empty rhetoric” and a “fig-leaf.”

Genuine Marxists do not tail backward political consciousness among workers. But we must take into account current states of consciousness in formulating our calls for immediate action to actually take workers’ struggles forward and help raise their political consciousness. Thus while we are for socialist revolution, only crackpots would agitate for revolution as if it could actually happen now.

Similarly, and in contrast to the IG, both in our publications and in our work within the unions, we have been fighting for working-class strikes over issues which militant workers can accept as possible, even when they don’t agree with our specific demands. That is genuine agitation. We not only bring up the war; we stress that only working-class struggle can end imperialist wars. Since at the present time the mass of workers do not see mass action to stop the U.S.’s wars abroad as possible, our arguments are limited to propaganda: that is, ideas for struggle addressed to the more politically advanced workers to help prepare them to lead broad numbers of workers when such struggles are possible and when we can then agitate for them.

For over a century, revolutionaries have recognized that at the outset of most imperialist wars, the mass of the working class is almost always caught up in the bourgeoisie’s patriotic fervor, so that successful anti-war strikes are impossible. The IG’s bombast evades the real question. There will be a bourgeois army taking the field: which kind do revolutionaries prefer, so that when jingoism inevitably ebbs the struggle can best be advanced? Any working-class revolution will require a revolt in the bourgeois army, to undermine the state power of the ruling class. Revolutionaries openly proclaim their goal and work propagandistically towards this end even in conservative times. That preparatory work will be immeasurably more effective when young workers are being conscripted, trained and armed for imperialist wars and will rise up against their masters. The IG’s empty calls, when there is no workers’ movement even approaching our class’s political potential, and not connected to a revolutionary strategy aimed at splitting the army in the course of revolution, amount to abstract agitation and can only mislead.

3. Against a Draft – Until There Is One

The IG says that while they will fight the introduction of conscription, they oppose draft dodging. Complaining that “the LRP cynically equates all opposition to introduction of military conscription with calls for draft evasion,” they insist that they oppose avoiding the draft. After quoting Lenin’s statement that it is “foolish peacefully to refuse to perform military service,” they say:

Where there is an existing military draft, Trotskyists explain that individual ‘resistance’ is not only powerless but means radically separating themselves from the mass of working-class youth. If drafted, rather than proclaim “we won’t go,” class-conscious workers encourage struggle against the war from within the ranks of the military, while gaining military training. ... using the opening to raise the revolutionary consciousness of workers in uniform and train the best elements is quite different from favoring the introduction of a draft in an imperialist war.

What a mess of contradictions and flip-flopping the IG position is! As we have seen, the IG says that while they will “struggle against the introduction of military conscription in wartime,” once it is introduced they will oppose draft dodging and instruct revolutionaries to comply with being drafted. They make no mention of continuing their fight for the repeal of conscription, and one can only assume this means that they are for dropping their opposition to conscription once it is in effect. This is outrageous opportunism. What sort of revolutionary says something is horrible for the working class only to go along with it when it becomes a fact? The IG seems to have been forced into this ridiculous position by the fact that Lenin and Trotsky not only strongly argued against the “foolish” refusal to perform military service, but never once fought for the repeal of conscription.

Further, in an incredible admission, the IG describes the opportunity afforded by conscription to conduct revolutionary work inside the army as an “opening to raise revolutionary consciousness” – an opening they say they will do everything to prevent! The more the IG explains their position, the more embarrassing it becomes.

Engels on Conscription

We have documented so thoroughly the preference for a conscripted army in the writings of Engels, Lenin and Trotsky that the IG had to take a break from chest-thumping and retire to the library to come up with more scholastic forms of posturing. However, an examination of their historical claims actually provides additional evidence for the Marxist analysis.

For example, the IG discounts the preference for conscription expressed by Engels in an article we quoted in SV 9:

The more workers who are trained in the use of weapons, the better. Universal conscription is the necessary and natural extension of universal suffrage [i.e. the universal right to vote]; it enables the electorate to carry out its resolutions arms in hand against any coup that might be attempted.

The ever more complete introduction of military service is the only aspect of the Prussian army reorganization which interests the German working class. (“The Prussian Military Question and the German Workers’ Party,” 1865.)

Engels’ article, the IG complains, “was written in 1865, that is, in the pre-imperialist epoch when Germany was still divided into a plethora of semi-feudal principalities, and when the Marxists supported a war for German unification.” This is nothing but a pseudo-scholarly effort at kicking dust into the face of revolutionaries trying to study the question of conscription. Engels recognized that arming the working class and teaching it military skills through conscription would backfire on the bourgeoisie and be of great benefit to the coming revolutionary struggles of workers. This was not based on the fight for German unification but on general considerations of the class struggle. Thus Engels repeated his preference in the book Anti-Dühring, his classic defense of materialist dialectics and scientific socialism, written in collaboration with Marx and published 1877, six years after the unification of Germany. As it happens, we cited this passage as well in our SV 9 article, so the IG’s scholarly complaint is both deceptive and deliberately fraudulent. (In passing, the IG also accuses us of leaving out the words about an attempted coup from the 1865 quotation in SV 9, which we did not. These addicts lie in matters small as well as large.)

The passage from Anti-Dühring is all the more significant because here Engels states his preference in terms applicable not solely to Germany but to all the great powers of capitalist Europe, while foreshadowing the tremendous upheavals of war and revolution that would characterize the coming imperialist epoch. We requote this second passage at length, since it clearly distinguishes the Marxist method of opposing capitalist militarism from every attempt to evade it.

Militarism dominates and is swallowing Europe. But this militarism also bears within itself the seed of its own destruction. Competition among the individual states forces them, on the one hand, to spend more money each year on the army and navy, artillery, etc., thus more and more hastening their financial collapse; and on the other hand, to resort to universal compulsory military service more and more extensively, thus in the long run making the whole people familiar with the use of arms, and therefore enabling them at a given moment to make their will prevail against the warlords in command. And this moment will arrive as soon as the mass of the people – town and country workers and peasants – will have a will. At this point the armies of the princes become transformed into armies of the people; the machine refuses to work and militarism collapses by the dialectics of its own evolution. ...

What the bourgeois democracy of 1848 could not accomplish, just because it was bourgeois and not proletarian, namely, to give the laboring masses a will whose content would be in accord with their class position – socialism will infallibly secure. And this will mean the bursting asunder from within of militarism and with it of all standing armies. (Anti-Dühring, Part II: Political Economy, Chapter III.)

Engels recognized that militarism was becoming a defining characteristic of capitalist society, not only in Germany but throughout Europe. The socialist proletariat could not stand aloof from it, any more than it could from the factories, schools, parliaments or other oppressive institutions of bourgeois rule. It would have to prepare to seize the opportunity to make sure bourgeois militarism is “burst asunder from within.” And universal military service is what makes this possible.

Lenin on Conscription

The shift of capitalism from being an ascendant, progressive force, into its epoch of imperialist decay, and the accompanying transformation of imperialism from a mere policy of capitalist governments to the essence of capitalism in our age, does not change this strategic method but brings it forward to the order of the day. As Lenin summed up, this is “the epoch of war and revolution.”

In our pamphlet “No Draft” Is No Answer and our article in PR 69, we quoted from Lenin’s 1916 essay, The Military Program of the Proletarian Revolution, which provides his most extensive discussion of the question. Given its importance, we requote some central paragraphs here. The passage contains the comparison between industrialization and conscription, and Lenin’s blunt preference for both, that we mentioned above:

The bourgeoisie makes it its business to promote trusts, drive women and children into the factories, subject them to corruption and suffering, condemn them to extreme poverty. We do not “demand” such development, we do not “support” it. We fight it. But how do we fight? We explain that trusts and the employment of women in industry are progressive. We do not want a return to the handicraft system, pre-monopoly capitalism, domestic drudgery for women. Forward through the trusts, etc., and beyond them to socialism!

With the necessary changes that argument is applicable also to the present militarization of the population. Today the imperialist bourgeoisie militarizes the youth as well as the adults; tomorrow, it may begin militarizing the women. Our attitude should be: All the better! Full speed ahead! For the faster we move, the nearer shall we be to the armed uprising against capitalism. ... The whole of social life is now being militarized. Imperialism is ... bound to lead to further militarization in all countries, even in neutral and small ones. How will proletarian women oppose this? Only by cursing all war and everything military, only by demanding disarmament? The women of an oppressed and really revolutionary class will never accept that shameful role. They will say to their sons: “You will soon be grown up. You will be given a gun. Take it and learn the military art properly. The proletarians need this knowledge not to shoot your brothers, the workers of other countries, as is being done in the present war, and as the traitors to socialism are telling you to do. They need it to fight the bourgeoisie of their own country, to put an end to exploitation, poverty and war, and not by pious wishes, but by defeating and disarming the bourgeoisie.

In their polemic against us the IG picks out different sentences from the latter half of this quote but omits its point-blank statement – “Full speed ahead!” – regarding conscription. Instead, they quote another passage from Lenin’s article (which we also reproduced in our pamphlet):

We are not in favor of a bourgeois militia; we are in favor only of a proletarian militia. Therefore, ‘not a penny, not a man’ not only for a standing army, but even for a bourgeois militia, even in countries like the United States or Switzerland, Norway, etc.

The IG then rhetorically asks, “Was Lenin supporting conscription by the capitalist state to an imperialist standing army? Obviously not.”

This is a deliberate confusion of two different questions. In the latter quote Lenin is stating his opposition to all forms of the capitalist military, just like he opposes all forms of capitalist exploitation. Therefore, he repeats the traditional Marxist position, summed up in the slogan “not a penny, not a man,” to always vote in parliament against funding the capitalists’ military and therefore its ability to enroll soldiers. This does not address Lenin’s earlier very clear statement of what form of capitalist army he would prefer to see. Later we will cite other occasions where both Lenin and Trotsky raise demands for arms and military training from the capitalist state while at the same time opposing any vote for a capitalist military budget.

So we call the IG out: reproduce the above “Full steam ahead!” quote from Lenin in its entirety and then explain how it doesn’t clearly express a preference for conscription. (We’re not going to hold our breath for the IG to respond.)

And while we’re at it, we note that Tsarist Russia introduced conscription during Lenin’s time. Following the February 1917 revolution, the popular front governments that defended bourgeois power continued conscription, since they maintained Russia’s participation in the First World War. So if the IG is right that Lenin opposed the introduction of conscription, it should be easy for them to find at least one time when Lenin called for a struggle against it. We challenge the IG, put up or shut up: show us one time when Lenin called for a struggle against conscription or its introduction.

The Proletarian Military Policy and Lenin’s Demands on the State

The IG’s opposition to the Leninist approach to conscription is not their own innovation. Their article refers approvingly to the pamphlet Documents on the “Proletarian Military Policy” published by the Spartacist League (SL) in 1989, when the IG’s leaders were still prominent in its ranks. The title refers to Trotsky’s work toward the end of his life to codify the lessons of the Russian revolution on military questions. He put forward a set of slogans and arguments with respect to the coming Second World War which became known as the Proletarian Military Policy (PMP).

The first appearance of the PMP was in the Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian World Revolution, drafted by Trotsky in 1940. Here is the section titled “Workers Must Learn Military Arts”:

The militarization of the masses is further intensified every day. We reject the grotesque pretension of doing away with this militarization through empty pacifist protests. All the great questions will be decided in the next epoch arms in hand. The workers should not fear arms; on the contrary they should learn to use them. Revolutionists no more separate themselves from the people during war than in peace. A Bolshevik strives to become not only the best trade unionist but also the best soldier.

We do not wish to permit the bourgeoisie to drive untrained or half-trained soldiers at the last hour onto the battlefield. We demand that the state immediately provide the workers and the unemployed with the possibility of learning how to handle the rifle, the hand grenade, the machine gun, the cannon, the airplane, the submarine, and the other tools of war. Special military schools are necessary in close connection with the trade unions so that the workers can become skilled specialists of the military art, able to hold posts as commanders.

This and most of Trotsky’s other writings on the PMP were reprinted in our pamphlet, “No Draft”Is No Answer.

The SL’s pamphlet, which rejects the PMP as “shamelessly utopian,” is illuminating. We start with one of its footnotes, where the SL concedes that Lenin’s 1916 article on “The ‘Disarmament’ Slogan” “raises the demand for ‘voluntary military-training associations, with free election of instructors paid by the state.’” But, the SL continues, “whatever one thinks of this demand, it is hardly relevant to the ‘Proletarian Military Policy’ since the workers militia envisioned by Lenin was clearly not auxiliary to the bourgeois army, but counterposed to it.” (Documents on the “Proletarian Military Policy,” p. 31.)

No, this is not clear at all. Since Lenin was demanding that the Tsarist state fund the instructors of the “voluntary military-training associations,” he clearly did not presume that the latter was counterposed to the bourgeois army. The fact that such schools are not necessarily counterposed to the bourgeois state is key to the potential effectiveness of the demand. Both working-class soldiers and workers outside the army who were not yet won to the idea of overthrowing their rulers could join with revolutionaries in raising these demands. To the extent that the demands were won, the working class would be better armed and organized to defend its class interests. And to the extent that the ruling class opposed them, the more readily would working-class soldiers and workers be convinced of the revolutionary cause: getting rid of the ruling class.

Not only is Lenin’s demand relevant to Trotsky’s PMP, it is essentially the same as Trotsky’s demand that the state fund “special military schools” for the working class. Indeed as we will see, Trotsky’s PMP is little more than the statement of the traditional Marxist approach to militarism, enriched by the experience of the Bolshevik military policies that succeeded in splitting the Tsar’s army and securing the victory of the October revolution.

That this was Lenin’s approach becomes clear when we look at what he said in context:

We can demand popular election of officers, abolition of all military law, equal rights for foreign and native-born workers ... . Further, we can demand the right of every hundred, say, inhabitants of a given country to form voluntary military-training associations, with free election of instructors paid by the state, etc. Only under these conditions could the proletariat acquire military training for itself and not for its slave-owners; and the need for such training is imperatively dictated by the interests of the proletariat. The Russian revolution [of 1905] showed that every success of the revolutionary movement, even a partial success like the seizure of a certain city, a certain factory town, or winning over a certain section of the army, inevitably compels the victorious proletariat to carry out just such a program. (The “Disarmament” Slogan, 1916.)

Several of these slogans – election of officers, abolition of military law, and military training under workers’ control paid by the state – form the core of the Proletarian Military Policy. The SL/IG argument rises and falls on the use being made of those slogans. Lenin is demanding freely elected instructors paid by the Tsarist state in order to expose the state in the eyes of masses who wanted to be armed and trained properly and yet hadn’t been won to the idea of overthrowing the state. That method was put by Trotsky into the elaborated plan of the PMP – and so, contrary to the SL, it is very relevant. The SL recognizes its problem, because it introduces Lenin’s call for state funding with “whatever one thinks of this demand ...”. Lenin and Trotsky understood the possibility of turning the militia demands on the state into demands which could be raised within the existing army. And the Russians in 1917 proved that the workers’ militia could grow out of the Tsarist army itself to the extent that the working-class soldiers could be mobilized to overthrow the army’s commanders.

The PMP and the Transitional Program

Where the SL and IG try to fashion a phony Lenin in their own image, with Trotsky they take a different tack. In an authoritative tone, the SL informs us that Trotsky was wrong:

Trotsky erred in attempting to raise a positive set of demands for the war in the absence of a revolutionary situation. As a general rule revolutionaries prefer to raise negative demands on the bourgeois state – these are the most powerful vehicles for mobilizing the masses against the bourgeoisie. Positive demands on the core institutions of the capitalist state – the army, police and courts – are easily bent in the reformist direction of portraying the bourgeois repressive apparatus as somehow class neutral. (Documents on the “Proletarian Military Policy,” p. 15.)

This “general rule” is a pompous fiction. If Trotsky erred in raising positive demands, then so did Lenin with his military program just cited. Likewise did the entire Fourth International at its foundation, with the adoption of its Transitional Program. As we wrote in PR 67 [available on this website: Spartacist Anti-LRP Polemics Backfire], in response to the SL on this question:

The Transitional Program is chock full of demands made upon the bourgeois state: public works, expropriation of key branches of industry and the banks, the statification of the credit system, full employment, etc. The point of such demands raised by vanguard workers is to show the mass of politically less advanced workers, with whom we fight side by side against the bosses, to see that: “every serious demand of the proletariat and even every serious demand of the petty bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and of the bourgeois state.”

Trotsky pointed out that the essence of the communist program is socialist revolution; this always has to be stressed as our foremost message to fellow workers. The Transitional Program and its demands were the way to openly expose in struggle all illusions in the bourgeois state and thereby win our class to the necessity of socialist revolution. Transitional demands were not a substitute for the revolutionary strategy itself.

The IG attempts to dissociate the PMP from the Transitional Program, calling the PMP “a misdirected attempt to apply the methodology of the Transitional Program to an issue affecting the backbone of the capitalist state, the armed forces.” In truth, every demand of the Transitional Program trespasses flagrantly on capitalist property relations, the defense of which is the purpose of the capitalist state. The whole point of the Transitional Program is that its demands can be raised by millions of workers on the capitalist state so that workers may learn through their own experience that their needs cannot be won without the overthrow of the capitalists and the building of a workers’ state.

One could not tell this from the SL and IG’s summary of the PMP as “trade-union control of military recruitment and training.” This was a particular form that the demands took at the beginning of World War II, when Trotsky set himself the task of explaining the policy to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the U.S. section of the Fourth International. The emphasis on the trade unions reflected the political situation in the U.S. at the time: the very militant U.S. working class had just experienced its own power by building the massive industrial unions of the CIO but had yet to turn that power to the political realm. At the beginning of conscription, far-reaching proposals were still possible, although the worker-soldiers were still patriotic and non-revolutionary. Propaganda for the PMP had to be addressed to the advanced socialist-minded workers at the outset, so that the basis would be laid for agitationally reaching the far larger number of worker-soldiers who would be radicalized in the course of the war.

The PMP was a further concretization of the teachings of Engels and Lenin on military questions. If the capitalists were going to “militarize the population,” then revolutionary workers needed to raise tactics to organize working-class soldiers to fight for their rights and interests, independently of the bourgeois commanders – the better to prove to them that they need to split the bourgeois army and support the cause of proletarian revolution.

Reality of the PMP

The Proletarian Military Policy’s central demand toward undermining bourgeois control of the army is for the election of officers. The capitalist state trains a special, separate caste of military officers, tied to the ruling class and distinct from the ranks of the army, to whom the ranks are expected to show unconditional obedience. This caste uses the soldiers it commands as cannon fodder. Even when resentment and hatred of elitist officers is not as violent as it became in the Vietnam war, soldiers will seek ways to exert some power over the command, which can lead ultimately to their trying to put in officers they trust and control. The fullest application of this elective principle is possible only when training in the highest levels of military science is removed from the private control of an exclusive caste and is made accessible to the troops in general.

Hence the demand for universal military training under workers’ supervision. Just as capitalist industry shows a tendential drive toward de-skilling the individual worker, capitalist militarism wants to keep as much military know-how away from the working-class “grunts.” In the U.S.’s present-day army, there have been some countertendencies to this, efforts to cross-train troops for different elements of combat and support, but this is conditioned precisely by the desire to keep the armed forces “lean and mean” – that is, to recruit “volunteers” from a limited circle of the population, so that soldiers are less prone to rebellious acts. The capitalists also want military training to remain at all times in the iron grip of drill sergeants, linked to attempts at patriotic brainwashing. Only in exceptional cases, as in the colonial-settler state of Israel where patriotic war hype has broad appeal, is widespread military training compatible with the stability that capitalists crave.

In U.S. history, workers with military experience have repeatedly played a significant role in the class struggle. For example, World War I veterans played a key role in the West Virginia “coal wars,” mass strikes for union recognition that were only crushed by the combined power of the National Guard and hired thugs; and in the defense of the Black community of Tulsa, Oklahoma, against a white racist pogrom in 1921. Black veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam had similarly heroic roles in the Civil Rights movement and later struggles. At the end of World War II, GI demonstrations showing the mass unwillingness of troops in the South Pacific to remain abroad policing the world forced the bourgeoisie to bring them home far more rapidly than Washington wanted. This struggle was led by radicals, notably Emil Mazey, a militant CIO trade unionist.

In Vietnam, after the U.S. military was besieged by widespread dissidence and mutiny, reflecting the social ferment at home and the grievances of the ranks, bourgeois experts came to the consensus that a drafted military is not reliable. Their preference for a mercenary army reflects not only the internal problems created by conscripts (and by “volunteers” faced with conscription) but also the impact in the army of discontent at home on the troops abroad: the Vietnam years were an era of Black ghetto rebellions and waves of wildcat industrial strikes, as well as anti-war protests. The bourgeoisie also saw the accelerating effect that military training of young workers has on the class struggle at home. (See Vietnam: the “Working-Class War”, PR 45.)

When the bourgeoisie is compelled to override this preference and institute a draft, the task of revolutionaries is not to submit meekly to military discipline but to seek at all times to promote the independent organization and demands of the working-class soldiers inside the military. In imperialist states, revolutionary workers, from beginning to end must take a defeatist stance with regard to “their own” nation in any war. Of course, when to use agitation and when to use propaganda are conditioned by the mood of the ranks. The soldiers’ revolt in Vietnam, even though it did not lead to revolution at home, certainly aided the Vietnamese struggle against U.S. imperialism.

Lessons of the Russian Revolution

The fight for control of military recruitment, training and ultimately command by working-class organizations, while it can never be fully successful short of the smashing of the capitalist state, can win temporary gains that point out to workers and soldiers the necessity of revolution. Such working-class organizations may be unions, in situations like in the U.S. after the CIO upsurge. Or they can be other, new, broader mass organizations such as committees or workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils (i.e. “soviets”), as in the Russian revolution. The Bolsheviks pursued this strategy to destroy the imperial Russian army and with it, the Tsarist state. Trotsky, a leader in that revolution and the head of the Red Army itself, developed the PMP as a generalization of Bolshevik tactics in the First World War. It is impossible to understand the PMP otherwise.

When fundamentalists are forced to openly disagree with their prophet, they do so gingerly indeed. Thus the SL and IG implicitly concede the PMP’s revolutionary origins, even as they dismiss it as “shamelessly utopian”: “The working class cannot ‘control’ any aspect of the bourgeois army, except in a transitory revolutionary situation (e.g. one presenting certain elements of dual power).” (Documents on the “Proletarian Military Policy,” p.15.) No kidding! The question is how to achieve dual power. A close examination of precisely such a situation in the Russian revolution proves our point, not theirs.

Dual power means the contradictory situation in a revolution in which working-class organizations have begun to exercise powers normally monopolized by the capitalist state but have not yet taken the decisive steps to smash the bourgeois state. It does not simply appear spontaneously: a revolutionary situation has to be prepared for. One crucial way is through propaganda directed at arming the most conscious vanguard workers, those who will be inside and outside the army, with the tactical approach necessary. For example, look at Lenin’s popularly written article, explicitly directed to all European revolutionaries: Anti-Militarist Propaganda and Young Socialist Workers’ Leagues, (Collected Works, Vol. 41; reprinted in PR 69). It was originally published on October 8, 1907, seven years prior to World War I and ten years before dual power in 1917.

Everywhere anti-militarist propaganda among young workers has yielded excellent results. That is of tremendous importance. The worker who goes into the army as a class-conscious Social-Democrat [communist ] is a poor support for the powers that be. ...

As time goes by and there are more and more Social-Democrats in the army and the troops become increasingly less reliable. When the bourgeoisie has to confront the organized working class, whom will the army back? The young socialist workers are working with all enthusiasm and energy of the young to have the army side with the people.

Once the advanced workers are prepared, they engage in an agitational dialogue with their less advanced working-class counterparts, demonstrating through shared experience (like the developing fight for the PMP) the impossibility of continuing to live under the old rule. The victorious resolution of a revolutionary situation hinges on two factors: whether the advanced workers have been adequately prepared through propaganda beforehand; and whether they have been organized into a compact, trained organization capable of winning leadership and preparing an uprising – the revolutionary party. The most conclusive example occurred in the months following the February Revolution of 1917, which had overthrown Tsarist rule and inaugurated an unstable period of dual power. That culminated in the October Revolution led by the Bolshevik Party.

The chief mass organization arising from the February uprising, the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, could not become a genuine dual power organization until it had bodies of armed men under its own command. In practice, this came about not through a simple counterposition of a separate workers’ militia to the bourgeois army, but by undermining the command of the old officer corps and independently organizing the working-class soldiers within the Tsarist army. Dual power was fought for by the now revolutionary-minded soldiers and the trained cadres of the revolutionary organizations.

Learning the lessons from these past creative efforts of the insurgent masses can better prepare us for the revolutionary situations of the future. For this reason, we will examine the fateful days that paved the way for the first successful workers’ revolution. (For the following account, we are indebted not only to Trotsky’s classic History of the Russian Revolution, but also to Allan K. Wildman’s careful scholarly research in his two-volume study, The End of the Russian Imperial Army.)

Order No. 1

A decisive point in the development of dual power came with the publication on March 1 of “Order No.1” by the Soviet. This order gave the basis for relations between soldiers, officers and the working class for the following period: the formation of soldiers’ committees; the election of soldier representatives to the Soviet; the subordination of the military “in all its political actions” to the Soviet; the invalidation of any orders given by the bourgeois Provisional Government that might conflict with those of the Soviet; the disarming of the officers and the control of arms by the committees; political and civil rights for all soldiers. As we have indicated, Order No.1 did not arise out of nowhere and suddenly appear in the dual power situation.

The revolution began on International Women’s Day, February 23 by the calendar in use at the time, with protests for bread and against rising prices, initiated by women workers over the heads of the various party representatives. The government, anticipating trouble, had stationed troops it believed to be reliable throughout the city. Yet by the third day of the protests, all workers in the city had come out in a general strike, and the conscripted soldiers refused to fire on demonstrators or aid the police in arresting them. Trotsky cites examples of workers effectively persuading soldiers to bring their comrades over to the uprising, with their weapons. The building of the workers’ militia was thus tactically connected to, and developed by, the encouragement of a split in the army.

The Bolshevik strategy of fraternization between the revolutionary workers and soldiers, having been elaborated over the years, now met with remarkable success. By the morning of February 28, the Tsarist government could not count on any substantial forces in the capital. As the Tsarist order fell apart, the bourgeois liberals in the State Duma (parliament), who with the support of the Mensheviks and other pro-war “socialists” had begun to constitute the Provisional Government, worked overtime to patch it back together. Rodzianko, president of the Duma, issued an order on the 27th for the ranks to return to their barracks, the officers to restore “order” and the commanders to report to the Duma for “instructions” the next morning. This posed a danger for the rebellious soldiers, which required a prompt response. The election of officers first arose as a defensive measure initiated by the most militant soldiers, to secure themselves against any reprisals for their participation in the uprising. It was documented as a printed demand in a leaflet distributed the night of February 28 and the morning of March 1, after many units had already held elections, with others still to come. (The leaflet was produced by the Mezhrayontsy, the group Trotsky led after he returned from exile and which subsequently joined the Bolsheviks.)

On the morning of March 1, the militant soldiers, demanding “the election of officers and ... the establishing of new relations between officers and the lower ranks,” did not go first to the Soviet, but to the Military Commission of the Duma. Only when rebuffed did they turn to the Soviet, where the exact formulation of Order No. 1 was hammered out in hours of passionate debate. Distributed throughout the Petrograd barracks the next day and sent to the front by telegraph, radio and mail, its impact on the soldier masses was electric. Dual power became a reality. Sokolov, one of the Menshevik leaders of the Soviet, said at the time, “With the publication of Order No. 1 ... the Soviet suddenly perceived it was of a genuine magnitude, supported by a genuinely existing force – the Petrograd garrison. Also recognizing us as a force were the ‘friends’ of the Revolution from the Right, the Kadets and allied elements, who until then had only ‘tolerated’ the Soviet in the Tauride Palace.”

Having won “recognition” from the bourgeoisie, the reformist leaders of the Soviet were already preparing to sell out the soldiers’ hopes, to which they had been compelled to give voice. Frantically, the Executive Committee of the Soviet ordered the confiscation of the Mezhrayontsy leaflet and worked overnight to negotiate a deal with the Duma. The next day they attempted to publish a further statement penned by Miliukov, one of the leading bourgeois liberals, calling for “the harmonious, coordinated work of soldiers and officers,” as an antidote to Order No. 1. Though issued by the Soviet, the realization of Order No. 1 now required a struggle against the Soviet’s reformist leadership. This was a necessary prelude to the October Revolution. In the span of a week, rebellious soldiers, with the aid of revolutionaries and in the teeth of their official leaders’ resistance, achieved remarkable gains – the election of officers, the self-organization of the ranks and control by a workers’ organization over the army of what was still a bourgeois state.

This lesson from history is critical today. The PMP codifies gains won during the Russian revolution, which revolutionary workers can popularize and use to initiate the necessary dialogue with the ranks of the armed forces in the future, under conditions of heightened class struggle. By speaking to the democratic and class outlook (and the simple human desire to avoid being needlessly slaughtered) of the soldiers in the ranks, we can demonstrate to them that these gains can only be won through revolutionary methods – and finally made secure only through the smashing of the bourgeois state and the creation of a workers’ state. Though their realization is only possible in a revolutionary situation, convincing the more class-conscious workers and further popularizing them in advance are indispensable tactical weapons for achieving the onset of revolution. Only through the ongoing struggle for such demands, a struggle led by vanguard workers, can our class learn that its needs can only be fulfilled through socialist revolution.

Thus, the SL and IG’s objection to the PMP, that its demands require a revolutionary situation for their realization, is absolutely correct – and absolutely irrelevant. Revolutionary consciousness doesn’t descend from heaven or the pen of rationalists. It has to be prepared in advance by the most advanced layer of workers and then fought for in struggle after struggle.

From the Third to the Fourth International

The world-wide assimilation of the lessons of the Russian revolution by the proletarian vanguard was one of the key tasks of the Communist Third International. A lasting testament to these efforts can be found in the proceedings of the first four congresses of the International, but these could not cover all conceivable questions of strategy and tactics. In particular, the question of how to respond to preparations for a second imperialist world war was not high on the agenda; at the time, Communists expected that the international spread of the revolution would prevent that war. The increasing bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union, and the accompanying rightward shift of the International’s Russian section, tragically cut this political education short.

As the International transformed into an instrument of Stalin’s nationalist foreign policy, each newly betrayed revolution – China in 1925-27, Germany by 1933, Spain in 1936-39 – increased the likelihood of a new world war, compounding the disorientation of the Communist parties. A key task for the International Left Opposition and the Fourth International was preparation for the likely imperialist war, and the re-education of the vanguard in the spirit of revolutionary defeatism. Even in those sections of the Fourth International which had some continuity of personnel stretching back to the early years of the Communist International, like the U.S. SWP, Lenin’s methods had never been fully assimilated. Often they were confused with homegrown forms of petty-bourgeois radicalism.

In the United States, for example, the heritage of individualist protest was intense. During the First World War, the majority of the Socialist Party had refused to support the war and promoted draft resistance. Not only because of government suppression, but also because pacifism held little appeal to workers familiar with the unavoidable violence of life under capitalism, the pacifistic Socialists had little impact on the U.S.’s ability to carry out its imperialist war aims. To the left of the SP, many radicals were in the orbit of the IWW or anarchist groups. Recognizing conscription as a form of capitalist slavery, but having no perspective of splitting the army or preparing for the seizure of power, many took the route of self-preservation. After that war, “going to Mexico” had the same aura that “going to Canada” had among radical-liberals during the Vietnam War years. Radical theories that espouse serving as “moral witness to immoral deeds” and not risking one’s neck do not promote revolution. Their advocates stand outside and above the actual struggles of classes.

By 1940, with the imperialist democracies of Europe falling like dominoes to imperialist Nazi Germany, it was clear that leadership of the Fourth International (FI) would increasingly rest on the U.S. section. As the imperialist ruling classes prepared themselves for war, the FI’s sections were divided and confused on how to respond. In the U.S. the SWP had actually opposed the introduction of conscription. While Trotsky had been consumed in the preceding years by the need to address other more urgent issues of revolutionary strategy, he now turned to patiently changing the SWP’s views on military questions. These discussions with SWP leaders led to the formulation of the PMP.

Delineation of its fundamental guidelines, however, preceded the formal opening of the discussion in the SWP, with the publication in May 1940 of the Fourth International’s Manifesto, which we have already quoted. As a statement of the International, it was clearly meant to apply to other sections as well as the SWP – whether in belligerent or “neutral” countries, whether under Stalinist, fascist or “democratic” rule. The IG asserts that the PMP was narrowly focused, that Trotsky “was in fact appealing, albeit in a mistaken manner, to the workers’ desire to fight fascism” – but this is belied by the broad applicability of the Manifesto.

The IG mocks this broadness – “workers’ control of training for Hitler’s army?!” This is a pathetic argument: the idea of trying to rally troops of Hitler’s army against its leaders is no more unreal than Lenin’s attitude toward the reactionary Tsar’s army. Like all broadly outlined tactics, the PMP was to be adapted to specific conditions of time and place. In the case of the German military, obviously fascism had destroyed the workers’ movement and its organizations. Fascist domination of the military was more far-reaching than imperialist domination of the U.S. military, where the workers’ movement at home remained undefeated. There could thus be no immediate perspective of fighting for the working class to exert control over any significant aspect of the military.

But Germany’s armed forces were not fundamentally different from those of the Allied Powers: they featured a hard-core of committed killers like the SS, as well as masses of poor working-class draftees, including veterans of the Social Democratic, Communist and union movements. There was therefore potential to encourage rebellion over time even among the ranks of German soldiers. Indeed, with the publication of the German-language paper Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier), Trotskyists in Nazi-occupied France heroically reached out to German soldiers during World War II, encouraging opposition to Hitler’s imperialist policies and opposition to their officers’ dictates. As Germany’s military faced reversals on the battlefield and the Nazis increasingly turned to desperate measures using their ranks as cannon fodder, opportunities to encourage rebellion would no doubt have multiplied. Similarly, at the end of the war with the fascist forces defeated, the Allied armies continued to keep their troops abroad to occupy lands for their own imperialist interests, triggering mutinous uprising by British, American and other forces from the Middle East to Asia.

Trotsky Proposes...

In the three months between the publication of the Manifesto and Trotsky’s assassination, there were a handful of more detailed expositions of the PMP as Trotsky envisioned it, contained in his discussions with leaders of the SWP published after his death. In discussing the PMP, we have to carefully distinguish among three things: its essential characteristics that are applicable everywhere; specific proposals Trotsky made in order to adapt to political reality in the U.S. on the eve of its entry into the Second World War; and pedagogical formulations made to convince the SWP leadership of its necessity.

Examples of all these types of formulations can be found in the discussion held on June 12, 1940. (Writings, 1939-40, pp. 251-259). For instance, after a lengthy description of the development of the war to date, Trotsky introduces his arguments in favor of the PMP with a statement that applies as a global description of imperialist capitalism, particularly when it reaches the pitch of world war: “Militarization now goes on on a tremendous scale. We cannot oppose it with pacifist phrases.” Yet from there he proceeds to speak in terms that are clearly tailored to the political situation in the U.S., though by no means solely applicable here: “This militarization has wide support among the workers. They bear a sentimental hatred against Hitler mixed with confused class sentiments. They have a hatred against the victorious brigands. The bureaucracy uses this to say help the defeated gangster [the imperialist countries conquered by Hitler]. Our conclusions are completely different. But this sentiment is the inevitable base for the last period of preparation.” (p. 253.)

The fact that militarization cannot be opposed with pacifist phrases is not contingent on whether it is popular or not among the workers. It is an essential characteristic of capitalism’s imperialist epoch, and imposes a particular program of military demands upon those who would fight for proletarian revolution. In contrast, the particular agitational approach to take in popularizing the need to undermine the bourgeois army is impacted by the popularity (or its absence) of the war.

An example of Trotsky’s pedagogical formulations can be found in his response in June 1940 to a query about the usefulness of the slogan “not a cent for war”:

Suppose we had a senator. He would introduce a bill in favor of training camps for workers. He might ask 500 millions for it. At the same time he would vote against the military budget because it is controlled by class enemies. ... We are enemies of the bourgeoisie and its institutions, but we utilize them. War is a bourgeois institution a thousand times more powerful than all the other bourgeois institutions. (pp. 255-256.)

Later, he continues this explanation, comparing the army to the factory to demonstrate why one must be “the best soldier” no less than “the best worker” (pp. 257-258), in order to secure the trust of one’s fellows.

The same point had come up more sharply earlier in 1940, during a major faction fight inside the SWP. Trotsky reprinted a letter he had written to Max Shachtman in 1937, attacking him for advocating a “yes” vote in favor of the Loyalist military budget in the Spanish parliament during the civil war: “To vote the military budget of the Negrin government signifies to vote him political confidence. ... To do it would be a crime.” (“From a Scratch – to the Danger of Gangrene,” In Defense of Marxism, p.128.) That is, Trotsky applied “Not a penny, not a man” not just to an army fighting an imperialist war but to the army of a government at war with Generalissimo Franco’s fascist forces.

Thus Trotsky follows Lenin’s policy cited earlier of demanding of the capitalist state that it provide arms and military training to the working class, while remaining true to the slogan “not a penny, not a man” by opposing voting for a capitalist military budget. The point is to expose the ruling-class government for not arming and training the workers while giving no support to that government. It is further proof that the IG twists the truth by citing Lenin’s opposition to voting for war credits as evidence of his supposed opposition to conscription.

... The SWP Disposes ...

Even before Trotsky’s death, there were signs that, as in their trade union work, the SWP adapted excessively to pro-Roosevelt “progressives.” Poorly assimilated tactical suggestions and tendencies to adapt to imperialist patriotism all flourished in the SWP. This cannot be attributed simply to bad ideas. Various class pressures act upon the revolutionary party at all times, above all during a patriotic war. One, particularly in imperialist countries, is the influence of a strong labor aristocracy. Thus the PMP was put forward in the SWP’s paper Socialist Appeal not as a way to more effectively combat patriotism but as an implicit accommodation with it. A typical formulation:

Therefore we demand federal funds for the military training of workers and worker-officers under the control of the trade unions. Does that mean we want military appropriations? Yes – but only for the establishment and equipment of worker training camps! Does this mean compulsory military training of workers? Yes – but only under the control of the trade unions! (August 17, 1940.)

In this passage the spirit and content of “Not a penny, not a man” for the capitalist army is completely absent. “Yes” for military appropriations is a shocking deviation. It calls into question whether an SWP senator would have voted against bourgeois military appropriations.

An earlier misformulation was answered by Trotsky in a letter he wrote in July 1940 to Albert Goldman, who was writing on conscription for the SWP. Here Trotsky attempts in a comradely fashion to correct Goldman’s understanding:

We are absolutely in favor of compulsory military training and in the same way for conscription. Conscription? Yes. By the bourgeois state? No. We cannot entrust this work, as any other, to the state of the exploiters. In our propaganda and agitation we must very strongly differentiate these two questions. That is, not to fight against the necessity of the workers being good soldiers and of building up an army based on discipline, science, strong bodies and so on, including conscription, but against the capitalist state which abuses the army for the advantage of the exploiting class. In your paragraph four you say: “Once conscription is made into law, we cease to struggle against it but continue our struggle for military training under workers’ control, etc.” I would prefer to say: “Once conscription is made into law we, without ceasing to struggle against the capitalist state, concentrate our struggle for military training and so on.” (Writings, 1939-40, pp. 321-322.)

Goldman’s wording combines a whiff of pacifism with a hint of accommodation to the bourgeois state, first by fighting against conscription and then dropping the issue once it is made law. In effect, it is a precedent for the same opportunist flip-flopping on the question of conscription as the IG.

Trotsky’s reply emphasizes the distinction between conscription in general and under the bourgeois state in particular: We will not fight for conscription until we have a workers’ state. But short of that we do not campaign against conscription; it is the bourgeois state that we fight under all circumstances. We underline that Trotsky removed the words “we cease to struggle against it” (conscription) from Goldman’s formulation, because for him the struggle was not against conscription, and he was not for campaigning against its introduction.

Trotsky goes on to explain, “The very simple and very powerful idea of our fight against the war is: we are against the war, but we will have the war if we are incapable of overthrowing the capitalists.” In this and every other formulation on the subject, he combined immediate agitation over the U.S.’s upcoming entry into the war with propaganda about the need for the workers to overthrow the capitalists and create their own workers’ state.

... and Cannon Exposes

After Trotsky’s murder by a Stalinist assassin and under wartime conditions, the SWP was largely isolated from the rest of the Fourth International. Over time, in the absence of extensive controls by an authoritative International, the narrow national and trade-unionist interests of the labor aristocracy can corrode the integrity of even the most revolutionary of parties, especially during a popular war. Moreover, the SWP also wrongly isolated itself from the mounting class struggle during the war in an effort to “preserve the cadres.”

The initial effects can be seen in the writings and speeches of the SWP’s major leader, James P. Cannon, collected in the book, The Socialist Workers Party in World War II. At several crucial points Cannon and the SWP conceded ground to the myth that the war was between democracy and fascism instead of between imperialist rivals. For example, in his introductory speech at the September 1940 conference where the SWP adopted the PMP, Cannon provided this totally one-sided and thus wrong formulation:

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 that we can trust. We want our own officers – those who have shown themselves most devoted to their class, who have shown themselves to be the bravest and most loyal men on the picket line, those who are interested in the welfare of their fellow workers. ...The workers themselves must take charge of this fight against Hitler and anybody else who tries to invade their rights. (p.73.)

Of course every revolutionary socialist would fight Hitler. But the main enemy of the American working class was its own capitalist class, something that Cannon doesn’t mention. For the working class to “take charge of this fight against Hitler” requires not just working-class officers but workers’ state power, and that propaganda point was not made centrally. Cannon’s agitational approach, addressed to workers whose fear and hatred of fascism was being abused by the imperialists to fan the flames of patriotism, could all too easily be understood in the spirit of a better way to support the U.S. war against Germany. What was needed was propaganda to lay the base for a struggle for workers’ control when the pressure for patriotic class peace wore off.

Trotsky had already explained the importance of opposing the capitalists’ use of patriotic talk about “defense of the fatherland” to rally support for the imperialist aims. The Fourth International’s Manifesto on Imperialist War and World Revolution explained:

Official patriotism is a mask for the exploiting interests. Class conscious workers throw this mask contemptuously aside. They do not defend the bourgeois fatherland, but the interests of the toilers and the oppressed of their own country and of the entire world. The Theses of the Fourth International state: “Against the reactionary slogan of ‘national defense’ it is necessary to advance the slogan of the revolutionary destruction of the national state.”

In this context, Trotsky outlined how to pursue the PMP by explaining to workers who mistakenly wanted to “defend the [capitalist] homeland” from invasion that they should only be prepared to defend a land ruled by the working class:

That is why we must try to separate the workers from the others by a program of education, of workers’ schools, of workers’ officers, devoted to the welfare of the worker army, etc. We cannot escape from the militarization but inside the machine we can observe the class line. The American workers do not want to be conquered by Hitler, and to those who say “Let us have a peace program”, the worker will reply, “But Hitler does not want a peace program.” Therefore we say: We will defend the United States with a workers’ army, with workers’ officers, with a workers’ government, etc. (Writings, 1939-40, p. 333.)

The SWP never manages to hear about the “workers’ government,” since that was incompatible with their agitational approach. Nor do the SL/IG. In condemning the PMP, they assume that Cannon was merely carrying out Trotsky’s prescriptions, for which they partially excuse Trotsky on the grounds that his writings were only fragmentary. They do not see that Cannon and the SWP, despite Trotsky’s efforts, were missing the revolutionary essence of the Transitional Program method.

The True Heirs of Max Shachtman

Each blunder by the SWP in the direction of patriotism made things that much easier for Marxism’s betrayers in the radical movement. Not the least of these, in 1940, was Max Shachtman.

The IG’s article is, of course, full of ritual denunciations of the LRP as “Shachtmanite.” The flimsy basis for this is that we share neither Trotsky’s belief that the USSR remained a workers’ state after the culmination of the Stalinist counterrevolution, nor the IG’s (and others’) anti-Marxist view that “deformed workers’ states” were created without workers’ revolutions after World War II. (See our book, The Life and Death of Stalinism, Chapter 7.) As well, some of our founding members were adherents of Shachtmanism, from which they broke over thirty years ago. In contrast, the IG overlooks that their own position toward conscription is modeled on the Shachtmanite original.

According to the SL and IG, the sole reason the Shachtmanites split from the SWP was that they rejected the defense of the Soviet Union. In fact, on that question as on others, the Shachtman-led minority was an unprincipled bloc. Some held to one or another hodgepodge theory of “bureaucratic collectivism” in the Soviet Union, arguing that it represented a new kind of class society neither proletarian nor bourgeois. Others, including Shachtman himself, held at the time that the Soviet Union remained a degenerated workers’ state, but they refused nonetheless to defend it in the war. Yet others in the faction were for the defense of the Soviet Union but regarded the question of the SWP’s internal “regime” – i.e., their own rejection of democratic centralism – as superseding issues of theory and program. As Trotsky diagnosed, the common bond of the faction was acute sensitivity to petty-bourgeois radical public opinion. By splitting on the eve of war and thereby showing that they valued their standing in those circles higher than party discipline, the Shachtmanites demonstrated their own class nature.

One of the many issues on which the Shachtmanites, after the split, displayed their greater susceptibility to radical middle-class opinion was conscription. Eager to claim “Leninist” credentials for these politics, they published a number of polemics from Shachtman’s pen, which consisted mainly in going on at length about every blunder by Cannon, from the significant to the trivial. Yet the SL, in its pamphlet, shamelessly calls Shachtman’s lawyerly arguments a “devastating polemic.” (p. 54.) Closer examination reveals Shachtman’s desperate efforts to muddy the waters and cover his tracks.

Just two weeks before his assassination, in a letter responding to questions from the SWP leadership, Trotsky pointed out the direction Shachtman was heading in. He quoted Shachtman: “Let us have a program for peace, not war; for the masses, not for murder,” and interjected: “What does this mean? If we have war, we must have a program for war ... .” (Writings, 1939-1940, pp. 331-332.) For comparison, during World War I the overarching demand raised by Bolsheviks was “Turn the Imperialist War into a Civil War,” not the pacifistic cry for “peace.”

In the following weeks, Labor Action, the Shachtmanites’ newspaper, beat its drum against the introduction of conscription – and in the process, heaped praise on John L. Lewis, the reformist pro-war leader of the United Mine Workers and the CIO, who believed that no draft was necessary: greater inducements for enlistment would provide the ruling class with the mass army it needed. Thus they showed how far they had already drifted from the Bolshevik method of exposing and replacing reformist leaders, in favor of trying to goose them on through mixed flattery and gentle criticism. In the August 12, 1940, issue, while chiding Lewis for speaking in favor of “real, voluntary recruitment,” they pile on the glory: “John L. Lewis has given organized labor a lead.” “When John L. Lewis forthrightly blasts military conscription, we applaud his doing so.” And finally, “In his fight against conscription we are with Lewis one hundred percent.”

Trotsky demolished this argument:

We are not with Lewis for even a single percent, because Lewis tries to defend the capitalist fatherland with completely outdated means. The great majority of the workers understand or feel that these means (professional voluntary armament) are outdated from a military point of view and extremely dangerous from a class point of view. That is why the workers are for conscription. It is a very confused and contradictory form of adhering to the “arming of the proletariat.” (Writings, 1939-40, p. 392.)

Could Trotsky’s position be any clearer? A prominent union leader opposes conscription and Trotsky declares that revolutionaries do not share even “a single percent” of agreement with him. Revolutionaries are not for the defense of the capitalist fatherland, but we are for the arming of the proletariat, even in its most confused and contradictory forms.

Shachtman’s later “devastating polemic” against the SWP policy was a radical cover for social-pacifism and adaptation to labor reformists. His first salvo, a Labor Action article of November 4, 1940, reads as if the SL and IG had plagiarized it. Like the SL and the IG, he baldly counterposes the formation of proletarian armed forces to the attempt to undermine the bourgeois army, blithely ignoring the actual course of events in Russia in 1917:

“Trade-union control” of the conscript army ... is a slogan of class collaboration ... . That is why revolutionary Marxists have never put it forward and do not put it forward today. The bourgeois army cannot be “reformed,” transformed into an institution or instrument of the working class. The proletarian analysis of it, and attitude towards it, is the same as it is towards the bourgeois state, of which the armed forces are the principal physical constituent and characteristic.

The claim that the bourgeois army can never be transformed, which the SL and the IG repeat in various permutations throughout their literature, is deliberately confusing. The point, as Engels, Lenin and Trotsky all pointed out, is that the capitalist military can be transformed – but not peacefully. Masses of the rank-and-file can be mobilized in rebellion against the officers and government. Whole sections of the armed forces can be won to the side of the revolution. But a violent reckoning with the remains of the capitalist state is inevitable.

Even the gripes are the same. Shachtman denied Cannon’s suggestion that his opposition to conscription led to draft dodging, indignantly rejecting the idea that some of his young supporters were planning on “going to Tahiti.” Likewise the IG complains that “the LRP cynically equates all opposition to introduction of military conscription with calls for draft evasion.” The fact remains that the overwhelming majority of anti-draft radicals in this country do celebrate draft evasion. The IG argues, as we saw, that the expansion of the military via conscription is a bloody service to imperialism. Moreover, they use the traditional Marxist formula “not a penny, not a man for the bourgeois army” not as the parliamentary policy it was meant for but as an all-purpose moral slogan, as if every soldier kept out of the army is a gain for the working class. Even though that is not the IG’s intention, such opposition to conscription encourages draft dodging.

The IG, like Shachtman, insists that they are exceptions to this rule. Their alibis on this point have much in common. “If the imperialist government, because of our weakness, compels us to enter the army, we enter. If it compels us to participate in its war we participate.” Thus Shachtman. “If drafted, rather than proclaiming ‘we won’t go,’ class-conscious workers encourage struggle against the war from within the ranks of the military, while gaining military training.” Thus the IG. That is, where Lenin said “All the better” and “Full speed ahead,” Shachtman and the SL/IG say, in effect, “No, stop ... but if we have to... .”

What is striking is the focus on personal conduct rather than broad class perspectives. It is as if to say: If we must, then we will take the occasion “to raise the revolutionary consciousness of workers in uniform” (IG), but until then, we will kick and scream and raise our voices in a chorus of “No to the draft!” Mr. Capitalist, don’t draft us, or we might be forced to do something that would really hurt you! This is no way to train the proletarian vanguard to recognize that in the imperialist epoch, “all great questions will be decided by military means.”

Class-Free Marxism

There is a logic to the SL/IG position on the draft. The Spartacist heritage, as we showed in “The Marxism of the Petty Bourgeoisie” in Socialist Voice No. 4, includes the self-conception that its adherents are intellectuals who do not engage in the class struggle as part of the working class. Instead they lecture it from outside to guide the masses to socialism. In their own words:

Socialist consciousness is based on knowledge of the history of the class struggle and, therefore, requires the infusion into the class-struggle process of socialist conceptions carried by declassed intellectuals organized as part of the vanguard party. Socialist revolution does not occur through the intensification of traditional class struggle, but requires a leap from a vantage point outside bourgeois society altogether. (The SL’s Marxist Bulletin No.9, Part III.)

That is, the job of the revolutionary intellectuals is to stand outside the working-class movement while the workers struggle through their own experiences with objective reality. The workers’ revolutionary consciousness, they believe, will arise not from having to discover through struggle what they face and what choices, power and mission they have – with the guidance of fellow workers who have already arrived at revolutionary conclusions. No, for them consciousness comes through revelation from outside by the “declassed intellectuals,” the workers’ condescending saviors. Trotsky correctly dismissed such professorial elitism.

Of course, “outside” does not really mean “outside bourgeois society altogether,” because not even Spartacists or IGers really come from another planet. It simply means outside the central struggle in bourgeois society between capitalists and proletarians. Middle-class intellectuals often see themselves as objective, rational and altruistic people not caught up in the greed (in Spartacist/IG lingo, “appetites”) and shortsightedness of the two powerful classes, the capitalists and the workers. Their self-image of being outside the society comes from a middle-class intellectual social position that sees itself independent of the means of production and the relation of exploitation at its heart. Leftists among them often relate to the working class as the source of the social power they lack; for them the proletariat is controllable by superior intellects. It is a battering ram to be wielded, rather than a class that gains consciousness and creates its own vanguard leadership in the course of struggle.

The IG leadership’s empty agitational calls which we cited at the beginning of this article stem from this conception. Since they are abstract propagandists, the positions they take are not meant to have consequences in the actual struggle today. Abstract calls for strikes against the war or for shutting down a college are not concrete calls for action but simply markers that distinguish the declassed and unsullied from the benighted activists who raise partial or transitional demands in the effort to advance consciousness through struggle. Likewise, arguing against the draft is an abstraction, free in their minds from consequences like being for keeping the mercenary army. It is enough to denounce all bourgeois armies from on high without worrying about how to defeat them – until the day of dual power and revolution magically arrives.

The outside-the-working-class perspective is often claimed to be the essence of Leninism, because of what Lenin wrote in his pamphlet “What Is to Be Done?” before he experienced the Russian revolution of 1905. But even so, the Spartacist version is a grotesque distortion of the outlook that Lenin later corrected. Lenin’s real views were explained by Trotsky and further developed in our article “What Has Been Done to ‘What Is to Be Done?’,” in PR 29.

The PMP Today and Tomorrow

It is obviously not possible to apply the PMP today. As a small interventionary propaganda group, the LRP has the task of cohering and training the vanguard of the working class, not to try and leap over it to directly access the masses. Even the SWP in 1940 was a propaganda group, but it was significantly larger and had important implantations in key industries. This gave it much greater opportunities to test the validity of its propaganda through agitation and action. While putting ourselves to the test of agitation whenever possible, we recognize that our primary task is to politically prepare the vanguard for its coming duties through propaganda.

Thus the immediate tasks of revolutionaries today are to instill in those workers and youth who are coming to class-consciousness the indispensable lessons for a class fighter in this epoch. Among these are: to understand that there can be no peaceful resolution to the barbarities of capitalist rule; and to stand firmly against alien class pressures to say and act otherwise. Our position on the draft is in this spirit. Though agitation for the PMP is not on the near-term agenda, propaganda for its use in the future is an important part of Marxist education.

Reinstatement of the draft is highly unlikely now. But if it came about, despite the opportunity for revolutionary work it would portend, it would not be a victory for the working class. It would mean that U.S. imperialism is overextended in Iraq and elsewhere. But it would also mean that capitalism is pre- paring an even greater slaughter of working-class youth – for which the ruling classes have no choice but to overcome their fears of conscription.

We openly oppose the imperialism of our own ruling class. But we do not greet conscription with wails and lamentations. A revolutionary party trained in principled Marxist methods for winning over the masses, including the PMP tactic, would present another possibility for our class: turning the instruments of capitalist slaughter into tools for the socialist overthrow by bursting their hateful war machine “asunder from within.”

The stakes are high. But authentic communists dedicated to fighting for an end to imperialist war must meet the real world challenges, not with bombast but with a clear eye and a firm will.

Further reading