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Trotsky, Lenin and the communist attitude to war

Leon Trotsky’s article The Programme for Peace , written during 1915-16 is a landmark in the develop­ment of Trotsky’s political method.

The First World War demonstrated starkly that capitalism had outplayed its historically progressive role. “Permanent war or permanent revolution” were the choices that Trotsky saw as facing humanity.

The major tasks that had been inscribed on the banner of the bourgeois revolutions – national independence, the breaking up of the big estates, and equality under the law – remained unfulfilled for the great majority of mankind and unfulfillable on the basis of capitalist property relations in the new imperialist epoch.

In their turn, capitalist property rel­ations and the political forms of bourge­ois rule were themselves becoming ever greater impediments to the development of the productive forces. The national state, for example, served as a fetter on the rational international organisation of production required by the level of dev­elopment of the productive forces.

It was Trotsky, more than any other Marxist, who most sharply understood the major programmatic consequences of imperialism’s crisis and decay. For him it necessarily fell to the proletariat to take up as its own the unfulfilled democratic struggles of the oppressed and exploited, as part of its permanent revolution against capitalism. Only the proletariat was capable of giving effec­tive leadership in those struggles: their realisation could only take the form of a proletarian revolution, no longer of partial struggles for a minimum demo­cratic programme within capitalism. Only the international proletariat could sweep aside the nation states and mechanisms of exploitation that threat­ened mankind’s productive forces with stagnation and decay. The only answer to imperialism’s war and crisis, the only answer to the exploitation, oppression and misery of the masses, lay in the international proletarian revolution.

In this way, as we shall further see the Peace Programme projects onto an international scale the programme of perman­ent revolution that Trotsky had first systematically elaborated for Russia in his book Results and Prospects in 1906.

Although cramped in style because of its publication under the stern eye of the censor, Trotsky’s Peace Programme is the most codified and developed version of his attempts to develop a programme of proletarian struggle against the First World War. As such it must be discussed in comparison with the abject surrender in 1914 of the majority of the leaders of European socialism to their “own” national bourgeoisies, and also with the programme advanced by Lenin, Zinoviev and the Bolsheviks. In this respect, the article shows the develop­ment of Trotsky’s political method and the difficulties associated with some of his positions – and those of the Bolshev­iks – in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Scientific approach

At the time that the Peace Programme was written, Trotsky was not a member of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party. He did not finally join until July 1917. During the early years of the war, his writings were the subject of much hostile debate with the Bolshev­iks. Their disputes, and the problems specifically associated with this article ­most notably those around the slogans of “The United States of Europe” and “Defeatism” – can make clear to us the struggle waged by both revolutionary tendencies to elaborate a new programme for the new epoch, and to build a new International. The disputes also show the kind of rigorous and scientific approach that we need to employ today in the struggle to re elaborate the communist programme and to build a new revolutionary international.

The collapse of the Second International

The major parties of the Second (Socialist) International backed their respective bourgeoisies at the declar­ation of hostilities in August 1914. In the name of “national defence”, the massive French and German socialist parties became recruiting sergeants for the carnage created by their “own” bosses. The International was in tatters. Its leading sections were calling on their members to slaughter fellow workers in the name of the “national interest".

Only a minority of European social­ists stood against this stream of chauvin­ism and capitulation. A small left wing in the German party around Liebknecht and Luxemburg stood out against the war, as did others in Bulgaria and Russia.

Russian social democracy had exper­ienced its division into revolutionary (Bolshevik) and opportunist (Menshevik) parties prior to the war. Trotsky adopted an ambiguous centrist stance with regard to that division. He sought to unify the two parties through the intervention of the Second International. Trotsky’s initial response to the war was to reflect his stance towards the divisions in Russian social democracy.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks responded to the war in the theses “The Tasks of Revolutionary Social-Democracy in the European War” (September 1914). After denouncing the imperialist war and the social democratic traitors, the theses called for “all-embracing propaganda, involving the army and the theatre of hostilities as well, for the socialist rev­olution and the need to use weapons, not against their brothers, the wage slaves in other countries, but against the reactionary and bourgeois govern­ments and parties of all countries". 1

They raised “as an immediate slogan” the call for republics in Germany, Poland and Russia, and “the transform­ing of all the separate states of Europe into a republican United States of Europe". 2


By early 1915, Lenin had elaborated the consequences of this call for soldiers to turn their arms on the bourgeoisie, to turn the imperialist war into a civil war. In theses prepared for a conference of Russian social democratic groups abroad, Lenin advanced the following position: “In each country, the struggle against a government that is waging an imperialist war should not falter at the possibility of that country’s defeat as a result of revolutionary propaganda. The defeat of the government’s army weakens the government, promotes the liberation of the nationalities it oppresses, and facilitates the civil war against the ruling class. This holds partic­ularly true in respect of Russia. A victory for Russia will bring in its train a strengthening of reaction, both throughout the world and within the country, and will be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the peoples living in areas already seized. In view of this, we consider the defeat of Russia the lesser evil in all conditions” 3

For Lenin, the call for civil war against the ruling class necessarily meant that a defeat for the government and its army due to proletarian struggle was a “lesser evil” than an abstention from that struggle in the name of “defence” of the “nation".

Bolshevism also stood unequivocally for the need for a definitive break, not only with the Second International, not only with the outright traitors in its rank, but also with the opportunism

which had marked its life prior to the great betrayal of 1914. “The Second International is dead, overcome by opportunism. Down with opportunism and long live the Third International purged not only of “turncoats"…but of opportunism as weIl".4

If Bolshevism stood firm on a programme of international civil war, Menshevism splintered and divided under the impact of the war. Plekhanov, “the father of Russian Marxism", enthusiastic­ally embraced the Romanov war effort. Inside Russia, the Mensheviks advocated and organised workers’ participation in industrial war committees set up to increase productivity in war industries.

In exile in Paris, however, Menshevism’s historic leader – Martov – edited the anti-war newspaper Galas ("Voice").

It was in Galas that Trotsky first pub­lished his articles against the war.

War and the international

At the outbreak of war, Trotsky fled from exile in Vienna, where he was under immediate threat of internment, to neutral Switzerland – at that time also the home of Lenin, Zinoviev and their closest co-thinkers. In September and October 1914, during his stay in Zurich, Trotsky wrote a series of articles which were first published in Galas and shortly thereafter collected into a pamphlet War and the International.

The articles contain the analysis of the roots of the war which was later to inform the Peace Programme:

"The forces of production which cap­italism has evolved have outgrown the limits of nation and state. The national state, the present political form, is too narrow for the exploitation of these productive forces…The present war is at bottom a revolt of the forces of prod­uction against the political form of nation and state. It means the collapse of the national state as an independent economic unit".5

This understanding, whilst inferior to the theory of Imperialism which Lenin was to develop over the next years, was nevertheless clearly that of a revolution­ary struggling to come to terms with the new epoch of wars and revolutions, to provide a scientific analysis which could guide the world working class to victory.

It was this view of the contradiction between the internationalisation of the capitalist economy and the maintenance and reinforcement of national state structures – a global application of the perspective of permanent revolution which he and Parvus had developed during and after the 1905 revolution which was to eventually lead Trotsky to heavily emphasise the slogan of “The United States of Europe".

Trotsky’s programme

Both the analysis and the programme of War and the International contrasted sharply with that advanced by Lenin. Trotsky argued:

"’Immediate cessation of the war’ is the watchword under which the social dem­ocracy can reassemble its scattered ranks, both within the national parties, and the whole International". 6

The struggle for peace was not, at this time, posed as an explicit call to struggle for proletarian revolution and class war against the imperialist bour­geoisie. It is posed as a means of re­assembling the International’s “scattered ranks” and “a fight to preserve the rev­olutionary energy of the proletariat” 7 around the slogans:

"No reparations

The right to every nation to self determination

The united states of Europe – without monarchies, without standing armies, without feudal ruling castes, without secret diplomacy". 8

Despite Trotsky’s denunciation of imperialism and the social democratic. traitors, this programme lacks the explic­itly proletarian revolutionary character of the call issued by the Bolsheviks, and also did not raise the call for the build­ing of a new international. (It should be noted, however, that by the fifth issue of Galas – 8th January 1915 – Trotsky was raising the call to “gather the forces of the Third International” 9).

As the war proceeded, Martov and the “Menshevik-Internationalists” – as they called themselves – were increasingly cramped and restrained by their co existence with the opportunist majority of Menshevism’s leaders, and their consequent inability to fight opportunism. The hopes expressed by many, including Lenin, that the old divisions within Rus­sian social democracy had been overcome and that the possibility existed for a re-alignment of the Russian internationalist left were repeatedly dashed by Martov’s refusal to break with the opportunists.

However, in February 1915, Trotsky for the first time publicly broke with the Mensheviks. But he still refused to apply the logic of his position, and sought to occupy and a point midway between the two camps. His developing position on the war needs to be under­stood in this context.

Nashe Slovo

The articles that make up the Peace Programme were published in the Paris based Russian paper Nashe Slovo ("Our Word"), which began publication after Galas closed down under the harassment of the censor, in January 1915.

Nashe Slovo was published in editions of between 2 and 4 pages, and was heavily subject to the censors’ pencil, with white spaces where an article was disapproved of. Amongst its contributors were many who, like Trotsky, were not yet Bolsheviks, but who in the years to come were to play major roles in the Russian Revolution as members of that party. There were Menshevik Internationalists such as Antonov Ovseenko and pro-Bolsheviks like Lunacharsky and Manuilsky. Other contributors included Riazanov, to be a leading historian of the Bolshevik Party, Sokolnikov, future Commissar of Finance, and Karl Radek, Angelica Balabanov and Christian Rakovsky who were all leading members of the Communist International in the early 1920s.

Despite this wealth of talent, Nashe Slovo could not adopt a consistent and principled attitude towards the programme being advanced by the Bol­sheviks. Enormous strains developed within this group as Martov continued to refuse to break with Menshevik opportunism, and as Bolshevism exerted ever stronger pressure by virtue of the clarity and intransigence of its stance. Throughout 1915 – within international left circles and within the Russian émigrés Trotsky continued to attempt to act as broker between the two camps.


This was made amply evident during the Zimmerwald conference. On September 5th 1915, 38 delegates met in the Swiss mountain village of Zimmerwald in an attempt to organise the international forces of anti-war socialism. On the right were the German delegates such as Haase who refused to countenance issuing a declaration that denounced the social chauvinists as traitors. They refused to even issue an unequivocal call for voting against war credits. The Bol­sheviks constituted a left minority at the conference, and presented their anti­war policy in the form of a call for no restriction of the fight against the war “from considerations of the defeat of their own country", for turning “the imperialist war between the peoples into a civil war of the oppressed classes against their oppressors, a war for the expropriation of the class of capitalists, for the conquest of political power by the proletariat and the realisation of socialism". 10 They also argued for a remorseless struggle against social chauv­inism and the “centre” that would not fight it.

At Zimmerwald, Trotsky demonstra­ted that he had still not broken with his centrist waverings between Bolshevism and opportunism. His draft manifesto which was eventually accepted – attacked the social democratic leaders but did not call for a break with them. It denounced the war in strident tones but in the name of “socialism", advanced the “fight for peace – for a peace without annexations or war indemnities". Against Lenin’s call for civil war and defeat as a “lesser evil", Trotsky remain­ed an advocate of a peace “without victors or vanquished". 11

Peace without annexations

Trotsky’s calls were far more evasive and ambiguous than those of the Bolsheviks at this time. “Peace without annexations” is, in essence, not a position that is clearly counter posed to those these social democrats who like Kautsky, supported “national defence” and the war waged by their own bourgeoisie, as long as it was a defensive war with no annexations.

Much of the dispute between Trotsky and the Bolsheviks at this time centred on the question of “defeatism". We have already seen the early application by Lenin of the “defeat is a lesser evil” slogan. Throughout 1915-16, Trotsky stood firmly opposed to the slogan. Yet his arguments against it suggest that he did not really grasp the nature of Lenin’s position.


In 1915, Trotsky argued against Lenin in the following manner in the pages of Nashe Slovo:

"To the same extent that defeat, all other things being equal, shatters a given state structure, so does the victory of the other side which is implied by this defeat strengthen the state organisation of that other side. And we do not know of any European social and state organ­ism which it is in the interest of the European proletariat to strengthen, nor do we assign to Russia the role of the state chosen to have its interests sub­ordinated to those of the development of other European peoples.

But war is too contradictory, too double-edged a factor of historical development for a revolutionary party which feels firm class ground beneath its feet, and is sure of its future, to see in the road of defeat the road of political success. Defeat disorganises and demoralises the ruling reaction, but at the same time war disorganises the whole of social life, and above all, the working class…

Finally, a revolution which grows out of a defeat inherits an economy disordered to the utmost by war, exhaus­ted state finances, and extremely strained international relations". 12

Trotsky plainly fails to grasp that Lenin was not advocating Russia’s defeat at the hands of the German army, but rather at the hands of the Russian pro­letariat. Further, to hold back working class struggle for fear of the possible consequences of defeat, in the way that Trotsky outlines he, would be to necessarily encourage a “greater evil” the consolidation of the power of the imperialists against the world working class, and the respective national bour­geoisies against their national working classes. The question of “defeatism” remained a central point of difference between Lenin and Trotsky at this time, and Trotsky was not able to resolve this problem in the Peace Programme.

The basic analysis of the war put forward in the Peace Programme repre­sents that developed in War and the International. Just as small and medium sized enterprises are system­atically annihilated in capitalism’s dom­estic markets, so too the independence of the small and medium size states was undermined by the workings of inter­national capitalism:

"The fact remains that there can no longer be a return to independence for the small states. Whether Germany or England wins. in either case the question to be determined is who will be the direct master over the small nations". The development of capitalism itself rendered the re-creation of the pre-war world (status quo ante bellum) impossible. In this way Trotsky continues to show a profound grasp of the international nature of the imperial­ist economy, and the internationalist programme needed to combat it.

A step in the right direction

For Trotsky it follows that the “peace without annexations” which he, and others, had advocated, could only be secured at the hands of the proletar­iat. Here, in the second section of the Peace Programme, he openly addresses the fact that only a proletarian offensive – a revolutionary force – can achieve that objective:

"In order to wrest annexations from the hands of the victorious party, which is armed to the teeth, the prolet­ariat would naturally, regardless of its desires, be in need of a revolutionary force, which it will have to be ready to use openly".

This marks a definite step in the direc­tion of Bolshevism’s call for civil war and one which becomes clearer as the article proceeds.

Two burning tasks immediately confronted humanity in the midst of the war, according to Trotsky. On the one hand, the old nation states and tariff barriers had to be destroyed if the prod­uctive forces were to be freed from their fetters. On the other hand, there remained the task of safeguarding “to the national community its freedom of development (or dissolution) in the inter­ests of material and spiritual culture.” Imperialism is capable of achieving neither. Peace, the international organ­isation of production and the defence of the rights of national communities are only achievable as a result of proletarian revolution. “It is possible to overcome this regime only by means of a prolet­arian revolution. Thus, the centre of gravity lies in the union of the peace programme of the proletariat with that of the social revolution".

By this point, Trotsky was posing the struggle against imperialist war – its roots and its consequences – within the perspective of permanent revolution. He is explicitly combining the struggle against war and for key democratic slogans with the programme of social revolution in a manner which had not been apparent in War and the International or in the Zimmerwald draft.

Presuming that the international proletarian revolution must have as its object the international reorganisation of production so as to revolutionise the productive forces, it followed for Trotsky that the programme of social revolution must itself advance the nece­ssary slogans to achieve that goal. It is because of this desire that in the Peace Programme, pride of place is given to the slogan of The United States of Europe, as “the most integral part of the proletarian’-peace programme".

Kautsky and Ledebour’s use of the slogan

The slogan first seems to have been raised within German social democracy in the face of the mounting war threat. Ledebour for example had argued:

"We put …to capitalist society…the demand…that they (the statesmen) prepare to unite Europe in a United States of Europe in the interests of Europe’s capitalist development, in order that later on Europe shall not be completely ruined in world competition.” 13

Kautsky had also advanced the slogan, in 1911 in his own particular way: “Nevertheless the effort to peacefully unite the European states in a federative community is by no means hopeless. Its prospects are bound up with those of the revolution". 14

Kautsky, with his theory of “ultra imperialism", was later to argue that this form of rationalisation of European capital was perfectly possible in the “post imperialist” phase of capitalist development. He thus advocated it as a pacifist slogan for a non-imperialist capitalism.

As we have seen, at the outbreak of war, both Lenin and Trotsky raised the slogan, despite this murky pre-history. In “War and Russian Social Democracy” (October 1914), Lenin was to repeat the call: “The formation of a republican United States of Europe should be the immediate slogan of Europe’s Social Democrats".15 Lenin wanted to raise the slogan as part of a democratic programme which would be false and meaningless", without the revolutionary overthrow of the German, the Austrian and the Russian monarchies". 16

United states of Europe

But Lenin soon dropped the slogan and polemicised against it at the time that Trotsky was placing increasing emphasis on it in his Nashe Slovo articles. Trotsky however stuck to his position. In December 1917, for example, in the first English language preface to The Peace Programme, Trotsky explained: “Into the peace-programme we include also the ’United States of Europe’. This motto does not belong to the official programme of the government of workmens’ and soldiers’ councils, nor has it as yet received recognition from our party. Nevertheless we believe that the programme of democratic peace leads to a republican World Federation beyond a European one (and a considerable part of the pamphlet is devoted to the statement of this opinion). This question is practically put to the European proletariat by the further development of the revolution". 17

Lenin’s antagonism towards the slogan seems to have been prompted firstly by a fear of the economic consequences of the slogan, and also by hostility to the political practice of those including Trotsky – who placed such emphasis on the slogan. At heart, how­ever, his dissatisfaction reflects the very real problems that Lenin himself was having in developing his own “stageist” view of watertight divisions between democratic demands and struggles and the proletarian socialist programme.

Until he had completed his work on imperialism, this view led Lenin to still see the coming Russian revolution as having an essentially national radical democratic character. Only his realisation of the ripeness of the world imperialist system for overthrow at the hands of the world proletariat broke him finally from that conception, although in a manner that, at least initially, led him to misunderstand the potential dynamic of some key demo­cratic demands in the programme of proletarian revolution.

In rejecting the slogan of The United States of Europe, Lenin made a number of criticisms which, if they are aimed at Trotsky, do not stick. Lenin’s quarrel is not with the politics of the slogan. In

August 1915, Lenin wrote that it re­mained “quite invulnerable as a political slogan.”18 But Lenin presumed the demand was posed as a demand within capitalism, therefore while it was “invulnerable” as a democratic political demand, its weaknesses lay in its econ­omic consequences. He feared that its only outcome could be to create a cartel of European imperialisms in order to more efficiently exploit the colonial and semi-colonial world, and protect them­selves against other imperialisms:

"Of course, temporary agreements are possible between capitalists and between states. In this sense, a United States of Europe is possible as an agreement between the European capit­alists…but to what end? Only for the purpose of jointly suppressing socialism in Europe, of jointly protecting colonial booty against Japan and America".19

However, this argument does not offer us the basis for rejecting the slogan or Trotsky’s argumentation. In the Peace Programme, Trotsky unambiguously posed the slogan as the slogan of international proletarian revolution, not as a demo­cratic demand within capitalism, as Lenin thought. In his criticism of this slogan, Lenin showed that he had not yet fully grasped the fact that in the imperialist epoch, residual and unfulfilled demo­cratic slogans take their place in the arsenal of the proletarian programme, possessing their own revolutionary dyn­amic, to the extent that they are fought for in a struggle led by a vanguard workers’ party.

That is the sense in which Trotsky raised the slogan that is the sense in which we can say that it represented an internationalist development, a deepen­ing of the programmatic method of permanent revolution which was to bring Lenin and Trotsky together in 1917.

Stalinist critique

Lenin’s last argument against the slogan has been grist to the mill of every Stalinist critique of Trotskyism to this day. Even conceding that the United States of Europe could be advanced as a programme of proletarian revolution Lenin remained alarmed that it could consequently be interpreted as a demand for a simultaneous proletarian revolution throughout Europe or none at all. As Lenin put it “it may be wrongly inter­preted to mean that the victory of soc­ialism in a single country is impossible, and it may also create misconceptions as to the relations of such a country to the others". 20

Is this an argument for “socialism in one country", as the Stalinists would have us believe? Firstly, Lenin doubtless meant by “victory of socialism” a successful proletarian seizure of power, and not the final consolidation of social­ism as the Stalinists have always claimed. No other reading would be consistent with Lenin’s politics. More importantly, there is no evidence from a reading of the Peace Programme that Trotsky used the slogan in that sense – witness Trotsky’s own words: “It is profitable and necessary to reiterate the elementary thought that no single country in its struggle has to “wait” for the others, lest the idea of parallel international action be supplanted by the idea of pro­crastinating international action".

Lenin does not give adequate grounds for dismissing Trotsky’s use of the slogan “For a United States of Europe". In the way it is used here, it is a form “of the dictatorship of the European proletariat", not a part of a programme of rationalised ultra-imperialism.

The Comintern adopts the slogan

It is in this manner which Trotsky successfully argued for the slogan to be adopted by the Communist Inter­national in June 1923: “The slogan of ’the united states of Europe’ has its place on the same historical plane with the slogan ’A workers’ and peasants’ government’ ; it is a transitional slogan, indicating a way out, a prospect of salvation, and furnishing at the same time a revolutionary impulse for the toiling masses.

Is the realisation of a ’workers’ gov­ernment’ possible without the dictator­ship of the proletariat? Only a condit­ional reply can be given to this question. In any case, we regard the “workers’ government” as a stage toward the dic­tatorship of the proletariat. Therein lies the great value of the slogan for us. But the slogan ’the united states of Europe’ has an exactly similar and parallel sig­nificance. Without this supplementary slogan the fundamental problems of Europe must remain suspended in mid-air” . 21

In order to make the slogan more precise, the revolutionary aspect of the slogan was made explicit (in the manner put forward by Trotsky in his 1922 post-script) and the “Soviet United States of Europe” became part of the Comintern’s programmatic armoury.

Trotsky himself was later to dramatic­ally relegate the importance of the demand. After 1928 it was never raised by Trotsky in any of his major program­matic documents. He used the “Soviet United States” slogan again in a discus­sion on Greece in 193222. In the only other recorded use of the slogan, in a discussion on Czechoslovakia in June 1938, he used the formulation “the United Socialist States of Europe". 22

We have examined some of the strengths of Trotsky’s position. However, the truth is that Trotsky’s view that the United States of Europe demand was the most important component of the programme and the key slogan of the hour was profoundly mistaken. While the slogan had excellent propaganda value in the midst of the imperialist war, it did not have the organising role, mobilising power or tactical leverage that Trotsky seemed to invest it with.

In all these spheres it was Lenin’s slogans and tactics – and the party he built to fight for them – that proved indisputably more effective in develop­ing organised proletarian struggle against the imperialist war. On the question of defeatism, Trotsky was definitely wrong. Much has been made by socialist writers of this division between the two men, generally in an attempt to suggest that there was merely a difference “of propagandist emphasis".24 However, Trotsky’s later consistent use of Lenin’s formulation makes it clear that he felt that there was a significant difference between the two positions. In his major theses on the coming war, “War and the Fourth Inter­national” (June 1934), Trotsky explicitly embraces Lenin’s formulation, and in his famous “Transitional Programme” (April 1938), he quotes it verbatim:

"the defeat of your own (imperialist) government is the lesser evil". 25

There are other important differences between Lenin and Trotsky in this period, expressed in the Peace Programme, which deserve our attention, for they point to the rapid curve of development which Trotsky’s thought was undergoing during these years.

Trotsky’s desire to act as a “middle man” between Bolshevism and Menshev­ism stemmed from his failure to under­stand the kind of party the working class needs, and the kind of programme that party needs to be armed with.

Programme and tactics

Lenin and the Bolsheviks put forward a programme and a series of tactics that enabled them both to construct a discip­lined vanguard party in Tsarist Russia, and to intervene consistently in the struggles of the working class.

With that programme, tactics and experience, they waged an international struggle that laid the basis for the creation of the Communist International.

The approach was alien (although increasingly less so) to Trotsky during the war years. Not only did he reject much of the Bolsheviks’ body of progra­mmatic gains, he also barely applied himself to advancing key tactics that would enable a party to intervene in the class. Such tactics are notably absent from both War and the International and the Peace Programme.

Instead, Trotsky concentrates on the broad sweep of historical development, and addresses his programme to enunciating those tendencies, not to their intimate interaction with the struggles of the workers and poor peasants.

Part of the reason for this lay in his understanding of the epoch and of the role of “history". As was pointed out earlier, Trotsky’s understanding of the epoch contained great strengths.

It enabled him, unlike Lenin’s initial response, to see the coming period in Russia as one of socialist revolution, not a radical democratic stage. Lenin’s views coalesced with Trotsky’s in the rapids of revolution in 1917, when both appreciated the ability of the Russian workers and peasants to seize power and the necessity of a party to lead them in that task.

Lack of precision

However, his view of the epoch was also seriously flawed in a manner which led him to his errors over the split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, and his attitude towards tactical questions at this time.

The pre-1917 Trotsky tended to see the permanent revolution as an objective process, driven onward by the motor of history separate from, and regardless of, the intervention of organised forces to shape and mould that process.

Hence his advancement of an analysis of the causes of the war as being primar­ily “a revolt of the forces of production against the political form of nation and state. It means the collapse of the nati­onal state as an independent economic unit". 26

This view of a bursting asunder of national boundaries in the face of the needs of the productive forces is focused at a different level of analysis from that of Lenin’s more precise and scientific explanation of the imperialist role of the major powers in exploiting and carving up the world.

Both are correct to imply that imper­ialism was not “a policy", but a new and decisive internal development of cap­italism – its “highest stage” as Lenin had it. But Lenin’s approach led to a whole series of programmatic positions which Trotsky’s more abstract approach could only hint at. For example, in the early sections of the Peace Program me, Trotsky deals with Belgium – a minor imperialist power – in the same manner as Serbia, Persia, Rumania, Greece and other imperialised countries. Belgian imperialism was an early loser in the inter-imperialist clash of 1914-18. The imperialised countries were always the victims of imperialist domination, and as such a different set of tactics needed to be advanced towards them.

A similar lack of precision is shown in the section on the right of nations to self-determination. Because of his under­standing of the epoch, he correctly understood that the national question and the permanent revolution were intim­ately inter-related, but he failed to emphasise that the national question could be the beginning, the dynamic lead into the revolution, as had Lenin. Instead, the national question is com­pletely bound up with the political union of Europe – the socialist revolution. No independent role for the national ques­tion is envisaged. It is one thing to recognise that a revolution will be necessary to achieve national liberation. It is quite another to always bind the two together.

At the root of these problems with Trotsky’s approach at this time lies a certain “objectivism", a reliance upon the “laws” of permanent revolution and “history".-For this reason, before 1917, he tended to eschew ideological struggle with opportunism and the fight for defeatism in the ranks of the working class, and instead based his programme on ineluctable laws that would spontaneous­ly propel the working class towards the international revolution.

This reliance upon a “process” is a one-sided, under-developed element in Trotsky’s evolving politics at this time which has tragically come to represent “Trotskyism” for thousands of militants all over the world. The “objectivism” of pre-1917 Trotsky has come to be characteristic of post-war “Trotskyism".

The search for the epicenter of “the world revolution” has led these epigones to trail their coats behind every radical movement that has developed – from students, through petit-bourgeois nation­alism to Stalinism. Their approach is a caricature of Trotsky’s early method. They see the overall development of the “revolutionary process” and cheer from the sidelines whatever struggle is going on, dissolving themselves into the movement wherever possible.

At his worst, Trotsky was far superior to these characters: he was moving towards communist politics they are moving away.27

A higher synthesis

The arguments between Lenin and Trotsky, and the development of their respective positions, were of profound importance in the construction of the party and programme that were to lead the Russian proletariat to power in 1917. Lenin was breaking with the radical stageist programme that informed Bolshevism before 1914. Trotsky was applying on the international terrain the programmatic method that he had developed out of the 1905 experience. The enormous strengths and continuing weaknesses of the traditions they represented are still in evidence in the period examined here. It was only in 1917 itself that Bolshevism was able to transcend the two traditions, creating a higher synthesis that broke Trotsky from “objectivism” and centrism, and won Lenin in practice to the programme of permanent revolution.

The Peace Programme is not a perfect, finished document. It is one frame from the film of Trotsky’s political development at a key point in the struggle waged by Trotsky, Lenin and many other revolutionaries for a new communist programme and a new communist international. It is in that context that the article should be read and studied today.

The Peace Programme has had a chequered history, rarely being published in the same form over the past seventy years. Trotsky wrote the articles for Nashe Slovo in 1915-16, and then edited them into a pamphlet. In May 1917, Trotsky revised the articles, and wrote a new Introduction. This was published as a Bolshevik pamphlet in June of that year. In 1918 an English translation of the pamphlet was published in Petrograd.

The first English translation abroad was an abridged version edited by the veteran US socialist Louis C Fraina, which appeared in 1919 in the collection The Proletarian Revolution in Russia, by Lenin and Trotsky.

In 1942, the American SWP published a revised translation of Fraina’s edition, taking the final Soviet edition of Trotsky’s writings as their reference point. (It was for this edition of his collected works that the 1922 post-script was written).

In September 1944, the SWP published a new translation, taken direct from Trotsky’s collected works, and including the sections which Fraina had omitted.

Having consulted the Russian version in the Collected Works, and the 1918 Petrograd translation, we decided that John G Wright’s 1942 translation was in many respects better than that of 1944, especially in the early sections. We have therefore reproduced the 1942 translation directly from the SWP’s Fourth International of May 1942 (hence the American spellings). To enable the reader to judge the differences between the 1942 and 1944 versions, we have included all the substantive differences between the two, in the form of footnotes, together with explanatory notes for today’s reader. Abridged passages in the footnotes are denoted by square brackets.

We have been unable to check any of the post-1917 versions with the original articles from Nashe Slovo; it is not known how much Trotsky edited the articles prior to their publication as a pamphlet. The version we present here, however, is the best and most complete translation currently available.


1. Lenin Collected Works Vol. 21 p.18

2. ibid.

3. ibid. p. 163

4. ibid. p. 40

5. Trotsky War and the International Colombo 1971 p. vii. This 1915 pamphlet has only been reprinted once in English since 1918. The 1971 Sri Lankan edition can still be found in some bookshops.

6. ibid. p. 74

7. ibid.

8. ibid.

9. I. Deutscher The Prophet Armed Oxford 1970 p. 217

10. Lenin Collected Works Vol. 21 pp. 347"8

11. Trotsky op. cit. pp. 86-89

12. Labour Review (London) September 1980 p.246

13. Quoted in Lenin Collected Works Vol. 39 p. 383

14. Original emphasis. ibid. p.385

15. Lenin Collected Works Vol. 21 p. 33

16. ibid.

17. Trotsky What is a peace programme? Petrograd 1918

18. Lenin op. cit. p. 340

19. ibid. p. 34]

20. ibid. p. 342

21. Trotsky The First Five Years of the Communist International Vol. 2 p. 345 London 1953

22. Trotsky Writings Supplement 1929-33 New York 1979 p.130.

23. Trotsky Writings 1937-8 New York 1976 p.357

Trotsky never made clear his reason for this change of phrase, but it may reflect his coming to grips with the corruption of much of the experience and slogans of the Russian revolution under Stalin’s rule. For millions of workers, the term “soviet” increasingly did not imply the mass activity of the working class organised into workers’ councils, but the jackboots of Stalin’s secret police crushing workers’ democracy and instituting savage purges. As the chief revolutionary opponent to Stalin’s regime of terror, Trotsky may have sought to reappropriate the legacy of the Russian revolution in its prime, whilst not identifying with its symbolic title of “soviet” when it had degenerated into political counter-revolution. This could therefore have led to him formulating the slogan as “the united socialist states".

24. Deutscher, op. cit. p. 236. See also, for example, Workers Action (London) No. 108 June 24th 1978 p.6

25. Trotsky The Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution New York 1977 p. 13]

26 Trotsky War and the International p. vii

27. For a more detailed critique of the degeneration of the Fourth International, see our book, published jointly with the Irish Workers Group, The Death Agony of the Fourth International London and Dublin 1983


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