Defeatism (was: Re: Building a broad mass movement

LouPaulsen LouPaulsen at
Sun Jan 5 19:12:05 MST 2003

----- Original Message -----
From: "Tom O'Lincoln" <suarsos at>

Lou writes:
> >>The position of "defeatism" put forward by Lenin during World War I is
> rvolutionaries do not support any portion of their governments' war
> they renounce all the annexations by their imperialist governments; they
> for abandonment of all the imperialists' war plans whether
> "aggressive" or "defensive".  It means not compromising with the
> imperialist government. That is what 'defeatism' means in its essence -
> some ritual declamation.<<
> I would say this was Trotsky and Luxemburg's position. Lenin made a
> point of defeatism -- "a defeat for our own country is a lesser evil"
> he was trying to construct a clear alternative to the majority of the
> International (who had voted for war credits) and he thought people like
> were leaving them too much wiggle room.

We also have to remember that the context of the situation was much
different - it was World War I, there were trench lines along the
interimperialist borders, tank and artillery assaults, poison gas, air
raids, and in each of the imperialist countries there was indeed a real
possibility of actually being defeated, conquered, and occupied by one or
more of the other ones.  So you actually had to address the possibility of
'defeat', not just in the sense of being kicked out of some colony, but in
terms of having German troops march into Paris, or Russian troops march into
German cities in East Prussia, or France seize the Ruhr, or Belgium being
permanently annexed, and so on.  If you were a socialist in the German
parliament and voted for war credits, you could justify your actions by
saying "well, of course I am trying to talk the government out of invading
other countries, but after all we need an army, because we're at war and we
don't want to be defeated by France and the Czar."  So the question was
posed very starkly.

Today of course it is ridiculous to talk of the U.S. being defeated by Iraq
in that sense.  Of course Bush talks about how Iraq could destroy the U.S.
economy, but that's just craziness, and I don't think any more than a
handful of people believe this.  This should make it much easier to be an
anti-imperialist today in the U.S. than it could possibly have been in
Europe during World War I.  On the other hand it means that anyone who
opposed the war in Europe in 1914-1918 was pretty much driven into
Zimmerwald socialism (or, to put it another way, only Zimmerwald socialism
gave a clear strategy for opposing the war at all), whereas in the U.S.
today the non-socialist currents in the anti-war movement are much more
viable (to the inexperienced glance), and we find ourselves in much
different kinds of coalitions than the Bolsheviks could possibly have been

Furthermore, as Tom says, Lenin was dealing with the perceived necessity of
splitting the left from the opportunist wing of the Socialist International
and its parties.  So Lenin's distinctions of line were related to
distinctions among tendencies and parties.  In our current situation the
socialists are already split up quite well enough, and these distinctions
already reflect the opportunist vs. defeatist split.

So the way I would characterize it is that the principle of Leninist
defeatism means what I said it means, and that, in the specific context of
World War I, Lenin wanted this principle to be put into practice in a
certain kind of way in the circumstances.

Lou Paulsen

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