The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 69 (Winter 2004).

LRP Challenged on Military Draft:

The Leninist Position on Conscription

by Sy Landy

The League for the Revolutionary Party has an absolutely unique position on military conscription in the imperialist countries. We share it with Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, but with no other group we know of on the American left scene. So it is little wonder that when we restated our communist position in the Winter 2003 issue of Proletarian Revolution (No. 66), we came under attack for allegedly calling for a revived draft.

The attackers include not only the fake-Trotskyist Spartacist League, for whom lying is habitual, but also the Detroit-based Communist Voice group, which descends from the Stalinist tradition that has its own notorious devotion to fabrication. Last May, Tim Hall wrote on its website that the Conyers-Rangel bill introduced in Congress in January calling for re-instating the draft had “received acceptance from a direction that will surprise many people – from the left, from a Trotskyist organization, the League for a Revolutionary Party.”

Misstating our name is one thing; butchering the truth is another. In fact, the very first sentence Hall quotes from PR says exactly the opposite of what he charges: “As revolutionary Marxists, we oppose all bourgeois armies, conscripted or mercenary.” To be specific, we are flat-out opposed to any support whatever to the capitalist military machine, drafted or volunteer, Conyers-Rangel or not. However, for anyone seriously interested in destroying that machine, opposition is only the beginning of the discussion over how to reach that goal.

“No Draft” Is No Answer

We are for a workers’ militia, an army totally independent of and opposed to the capitalist state. Our policy towards the bourgeois military is to seek to split it, to turn its base against the top, to turn imperialist wars into civil class wars, and out of that conflict forge the workers’ red army. We learned that from Lenin and Trotsky.

But it is ABC for Marxists that as long as the working class does not overthrow the bourgeoisie, state power will remain capitalist – and no state can exist without armed power. There is no way, except in pacifist fantasy, to eliminate the bourgeois military as a whole without overthrowing the bourgeois state itself through revolutionary class struggle. Within that context, any campaign against the draft represents a demand on the capitalist state to maintain a professional, mercenary army, since that is its only alternative. That is why we say “ ‘No Draft’ Is No Answer.”

A mercenary, “voluntary,” army provides long-term military training to those who choose to be professional soldiers. They are trained as an elite corps of thugs, in many respects effectively a police department that can be used against masses abroad as well as at home. On the other hand, a drafted army is more susceptible to the moods and attitudes of the masses and is more accessible to revolutionary propaganda and agitation. Over time, the class distinctions between the “grunts” and the officer corps in conscripted armies become sharper, and the discontent of the working class ranks accelerates. Further, a drafted army allows all workers to receive essential military training, which is absolutely crucial for the success of socialist revolution.

For these reasons, as long as some kind of bourgeois military is unavoidable, revolutionaries prefer a drafted army to a mercenary army. So while we in no way support the bourgeois draft and would never vote for one or call for its resumption, we argue against campaigns that oppose resumption of the draft. We also argue against those who advocate refusing to enter the draft, should it be resumed. As genuine communists have always done, we go with our fellow workers when they are conscripted. We call on all would-be revolutionaries to join us in the military if they are drafted and work within it to win other recruits to the revolutionary cause.

Hall’s accusation that we support the Conyers/Rangel proposal is thoroughly dishonest. In the PR 66 article that Hall attacks, we clearly described the real motivation for the Conyers/Rangel proposal: “In reality, like other ‘anti-war’ Democratic politicians, Rangel wants to carry out imperialist policies with a better cover.” We pointed out that Congressman Rangel tried to out-tough Bush on the need for a strong military; we quoted him as saying, “The administration has yet to address the question of whether our military is of sufficient strength and size to meet present and future commitments.”

We can add that Rangel claimed that those who rule will be more careful about launching wars if their children are to be drafted. That is sheer demagogy. Bourgeois drafts do not mean universal conscription: they allow millions of exemptions, officer posts and alternate service channels for ruling-class and often middle-class youth. These escapes are not available to young workers, especially those of color. Our propaganda has always exposed this fact. So much for our “acceptance” of Rangel’s call for a draft!

Lenin on Militarism: “Full Speed Ahead!”

Hall has to make a hash of Lenin’s position in order to attack ours. (He thankfully ignores Trotsky, because he does “not consider Trotskyism a revolutionary theory.”) Ignorantly labeling Lenin “a most determinedly anti-militarist revolutionary,” Hall tries to obscure the fact that Lenin time and again warmly welcomed the inevitable militarization of the masses because it advances the capacity of the workers to overthrow capitalism

In our pamphlet ‘No Draft’ Is No Answer!, and in the article Marxism and the Draft in Socialist Voice No. 9, we published extended citations from the major Marxist thinkers on militarism and the draft. For example, Engels wrote:

The more workers who are trained in the use of weapons, the better. Universal conscription is the necessary and natural extension of universal suffrage; it enables the electorate to carry out its resolutions arms in hand... .

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.)

Lenin spelled it out in his article, The Military Program of the Proletarian Revolution:

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, 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.

Further on Lenin says:

The women of an oppressed and really revolutionary class ... 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 it 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.”

And those quotations are just a sample.

In contrast to all this evidence, Hall tries to show that Lenin was in favor of campaigning against the draft by dredging up one isolated quote from a lecture that Lenin gave in May 1917: “It is difficult to conceive them [the American people] standing for compulsory military service, for the setting up of an army pursuing any aims of conquest.” But Lenin was just commenting here that the American bourgeoisie was aiming to change this mood by entering World War I: “The American capitalists have stepped into this war in order to have an excuse, behind a smokescreen of lofty ideals, for building up a strong standing army.” (War and Revolution in Collected Works, v. 24, p. 417.)

Lenin’s 1917 lecture was not about tactics and strategy for revolutionaries in relation to the military in general. It was about the character of the imperialist war and the broad nature of the revolutionary situations that would result from the war. It was also a product of a highly specific context. Marx had speculated that the United States in the 19th century, like very few other countries, might not need a violent revolution, in part due to its lack of a standing military machine. That was Lenin’s context. Can anyone seriously claiming to be a revolutionary contend that such a reference applies to the U.S. today?

Hall sucks out of his thumb the notion that this one sentence proves that Lenin was “a staunch opponent of conscription for the reactionary bourgeois military machine.” It doesn’t prove that at all, if Hall means that Lenin ever called for a protest against conscription. What it shows is Lenin’s general opposition to the imperialist military machine, conscripted or otherwise, in the American context. His fundamental outlook was expressed by his “Full speed ahead!” in relation to the bourgeoisie’s wartime militarization of the population; that is incompatible with campaigning against the draft.

In another 1917 speech, in June, Lenin saluted the fraternization that was taking place between “enemy” Russian and German soldiers at the front:

We must make fraternization conscious, we must see that it is transferred into an exchange of ideas, that it is carried over to the other fronts, that it kindles a revolution on the other side of the trenches. (Collected Works, v. 41, p. 437.)

A newspaper reported that he was asked whether workers should refuse to be drafted and sent to the front. (The Russian bourgeois government was drafting Bolshevik workers for that purpose.) Referring to Karl Liebknecht, the German communist leader who had himself been drafted, Lenin said:

Under the Tsarist power we had to go into the army and work there. Liebknecht put on a uniform to conduct agitation against the war. It is naive to think that the war can be abolished by separate anarchic action.

Hall just can’t get it that Lenin opposed the draft only in the sense that he opposed the entire bourgeois military. Yet later in his contradictory article, Hall observes that “Lenin said the workers should not recoil in horror at compulsory military service but should utilize it to acquire military training that will help them overthrow the bourgeoisie.” If Hall really understands that Lenin held this view, then why denounce the LRP for saying the same thing? It looks like CV’s leftover Stalinism has blinded them to the fact that Trotskyists are not only the authentic revolutionaries but are also dedicated to telling the truth about Lenin.

The Anti-Vietnam War Movement

The rest of Hall’s argument consists of painting the anti-war movement of the 1960’s and early 1970’s as if the anti-draft actions were the height of the movement’s militancy and most conscious anti-imperialism. He falls into calling the anti-war movement the “anti-draft movement” and glorifies the tendency to focus on middle-class anti-authority issues. And he totally ignores the fact that because of its class leadership it was incapable of mobilizing the industrial working class, the only force in the U.S. that can end all imperialist wars.

Citing the trend towards greater militancy among youthful demonstrators, Hall claims that opposition to the draft was the key. It is true that the movement often focused on the draft as a symbol of the war and that many advocated and practiced draft resistance. But the defining character of the anti-war movement remained its opposition to the war itself, not just to the draft. And the increased militancy Hall associates with the anti-draft momentum did not have the revolutionary content Hall imagines. Let us put the anti-war movement in its context. The force that really compelled the U.S. to pull out of the war was the massive struggle of the Vietnamese people against imperialism. At home, the ruling class faced powerful ghetto revolts and, by the 1970’s, a plunging economy and massive industrial wildcat strike wave. In relative isolation from these upheavals, the middle-class-led anti-war movement played a role, but not the decisive one.

Further, by politically limiting its goals to those acceptable to the liberal bourgeois Democratic Party officials, the anti-war demonstrators allowed the ruling class to get out of a losing and damaging war with the imperialist system left limping but essentially intact. We are paying the price for that today, Hall’s retrospective celebration aside.

Tragically, the leading role in policing the anti-war movement was played by various pseudo-revolutionary socialist organizations. These outfits detoured the militants whom they attracted into acting to ensure the liberal flavor of the movement. Hall is a latter day reflection of that disastrous “socialist” course.

Pacifism and Class Divisions

The pacifist viewpoint stresses the horror of universal military training (which Lenin urged workers not to recoil from, as Hall acknowledges). But for Hall, as for much of the student left in the 1960’s, breaking with pacifism simply means adopting macho tactics in the street. Confrontationism doesn’t break with the fundamental assumptions of the pacifists, expressed in the demands to end the draft so that “we” won’t be tainted with militarism. The militant tactics were merely stronger gestures disguising a fundamentally moralistic outlook not much different from that of the pacifists who insist on civil disobedience. That is why Lenin condemned even the militant social pacifists with as much anger as he condemned the overtly pro-war social patriots.

When the anti-war movement focused on the draft as the main issue, it was weakened politically. Aiming at the draft re-enforced the barrier between the middle-class anti-war activists and the workers, who as the war dragged on shed their illusions in the imperialist cause.

Most working-class youth who were drafted saw no other option. In the beginning of the war, patriotism spurred their acceptance. That soon wore off as reality set in, but young workers saw no alternative. The draft protesters were often seen by working-class draftees and their families as incomprehensibly naive or spoiled and cowardly rich brats. Those who concentrated on draft dodging deepened the gap. The anti-draft program pointed to no way out, had no content relevant to workers and was therefore not revolutionary.

As the war went on, working-class opposition to the war became more and more massive. It was greater among Black workers but also grew rapidly among white workers. But it did not translate into significantly greater identification with the anti-war protests for the reasons given.

The growing confrontationism in the anti-war movement did indeed reflect increased radical sentiments. Unfortunately, since there was no decisive class schism within the struggle, the greater militancy and confrontations on the street, which Hall regards as pro-revolutionary, were motivated by increasing frustration and desperation. The war went on and on, while the big protest demonstrations, featuring endless empty speeches by liberal politicians, led nowhere. But the street clashes were no threat to imperialism either, even though they were more satisfying than passive parades. Contradictory though it may sound, the anti-draft activists who furiously confronted cops in the streets were fundamentally enraged pacifists caught in another dead end.

Industrial Workers Were Key

What could have shaken the imperialist state would have been massive industrial strikes against the war and a conscious struggle against the war within the army. The latter did occur, as we described in our article, Vietnam: the ‘Working-Class War’, in PR 45. As for industrial action, that too occurred and had an important impact, but it did not match the anti-imperialist potential inherent in the working-class explosion that was being generated at the time.

In addition to their pro-liberal work in the anti-war protests, the phony socialist organizations attracted many students, including some who were sent into the factories to join the working class. These would-be revolutionaries constituted an important force, given the restive climate among workers. They mainly pretended to be mere rank and filists and pushed militant economic demands; thus, under the cover of radical rhetoric, they tailed the efforts of the labor bureaucracy to localize rather than generalize the explosive strikes that broke out at the time.

Many of the strikes were led by Black workers who did see broad social issues as integral to their struggles. But in general the “socialists” did not fight for mass working-class action consciously aimed at stopping imperialism and its war. And, very “practically,” they failed to propagandize for socialist revolution as the only real answer to the crimes of capitalism against workers everywhere.

If the “reds” had acted as authentic proletarian reds, they could have fought to convince militant sectors of the working class that the capitalists they were rebelling against were the same rulers who were conducting the war. They could have fought for a general strike against the attack on the workers at home and the imperialist war abroad. Had such a strike broken out, it would not only have accelerated revolutionary consciousness among workers; it would have forced many in the middle-class movements to recognize the power of the working class and the need for it to lead the struggle. It would have given a class definition to the rising anger of the ranks of soldiers. And it would have at least posed the question of revolution – which class should rule.

In counterposition to this strategy, Hall argues that the anti-draft middle-class students should have led the workers in uniform. Hall claims that the growth of the anti-draft movement increasingly affected the troops and that opposition to the draft raised the appeal of anti-war agitation among drafted soldiers. There was some serious work of this type, but Hall poses the class relation backwards. To the extent that workers in uniform looked to the anti-draft proponents, if Hall was really a Leninist and not a middle-class social pacifist himself he would argue that the class relationship should have been turned upside-down.

As for opposition to the war in the military, the resentment expressed by “fragging” – soldiers turning their weapons on their own officers – was of far greater importance. The problem was that while this resentment was working-class based, the soldiers were not conscious of that fact.

Even if Hall’s picture were true, what was the aim of the agitation he touts? For the most part the central message was that soldiers should desert. This could not have been seen by working-class soldiers as a realistic option. Only a small minority chose desertion, often with disastrous results individually. It would have been far better for revolutionaries to submit to the draft and carry out work within the military, not to induce individual soldiers to desert but to build a movement in the army to oppose the war and to turn the soldiers’ military training against the rulers who drafted them! As the war dragged on, the field became more and more fertile.

Black Soldiers and the Draft

Hall also tries to pose the militant draft resisters as a pole of attraction to Black revolutionaries. Referring to the militant confrontations in Oakland during the “Stop the Draft Week” in October 1967, Hall writes, “Actions like these encouraged Black revolutionaries like Malcolm X to see revolutionary forces in white America, undermining the narrow nationalism which justifies itself by claiming the isolation of the Black liberation struggle.” More thumb sucking rather than a serious investigation of the actual relationship: Malcolm X had been assassinated in February 1965.

In fact, some politically militant Black youth were attracted by the anti-draft activists. But far more working-class Black draftees looked with disdain on the white middle-class draft evaders. Of course, the most famous draft resister of all was Muhammad Ali, but he was exceptional in more ways than one.

What about the masses of Black soldiers drafted to Vietnam? Hall refers to Black militants at home and the impression on them that anti-draft activists might have made, but he says nothing about Black men drafted to Vietnam, who totaled well over 100,000. For working-class Blacks, as for most white workers, evading the draft was not a conceivable choice. The social horizons of the middle class and the strings that it can pull are different than those allowed the working class.

Warning: Militarization Ahead

As the world crisis develops, sooner or later there will be a growing movement towards war between the advanced imperialist powers. Already the Pentagon is saying it needs more soldiers and longer tours of duty in Iraq. This points to an inevitable intensification in the militarization of the masses.

Today the American bourgeoisie prefers a makeshift voluntary professional-hybrid army incorporating highly trained specialists employing advanced technology. The core of the army is the professional mercenaries, the “lifers.” However, the increased imperialist ventures abroad have already compelled the state to recruit a broader range of volunteers. It has already had to supplement regular army troops with reservists and national guard forces.

The military recruitment policies were deliberately designed to attract young workers who were looking not to fight abroad but to gain skills and move upward within the civilian work force. Given the recent high unemployment, this has been temporarily successful. But as Iraq demonstrates, the broadening of the army’s base has already resulted in a significant rise in discontent within the ranks. So there is little interest now in a far broader army that would be obtained through a renewed draft.

But the time will come when the ruling class will be forced to turn to a drafted mass army, because expanded wars, conquest and occupation require massive numbers of troops. This is why these issues are extremely important for workers to consider now, even though there is no draft on the horizon at the moment.

The key to building a working-class anti-war movement is to link opposition to a given war to defense of the working class. Pacifism and draft resistance are strategies that have always been rejected by the working class in practice. Proletarian communists advocate that revolutionary workers go to war with their class brothers and sisters and take the only possible course for defending our class: as Lenin stressed, we must turn the imperialist war into a class war.

To this end, revolutionaries help their fellow soldiers understand the class nature of the army and the imperialist nature of the war. When tactically possible, we raise, for example, the demand that the officers should be chosen by the soldiers themselves, so that workers are not turned into cannon fodder by racist, incompetent and anti-working-class officers. We fight for full political and union rights for soldiers. We oppose class privileges for bourgeois youth: no student deferments, no special officers’ academies, no ROTC. We show that military training and arms are essential tools for building a workers’ militia at home that can defend strikes and working-class communities against cops, scabs, thugs and fascists – and can be turned into a weapon for proletarian revolution and the end to imperialist wars.