In defence of defeatism

Railway sabotage against the war in Russia

The capacity to wage war is a measure of the weakness of the working class, or its defeat.  National patriotism, the identification with the interests of the local branch of the ruling elites rather than with the working class internationally, is a surrogate marker for that defeat.  Despite an encouraging rise in militancy in response to the economic crisis, few would argue that national patriotism anywhere in Europe is currently in decline.  So we begin to oppose war from this position of weakness. 

What then do revolutionists do? Abandon revolutionary positions in equal measure? Or hold out the maximalist banner so it doesn’t sink beneath the bourgeois wave of manipulation of sentiment and militarisation?  For us as anarchist communists today this is necessarily where we must start – even from the pinnacle of retreat we say that this is what victory for our class looks like:  No to war; No to this war, no war but the class war!

Revolutionary Defeatism is a primary principle for internationalists.  Acting locally and coordinating globally against imperialist war is the internationalist task and responsibility of social revolutionary militants and our class everywhere.  But what does it mean?  The term coined in the first world war in 1915 was a response to the capitulation and collapse of the Social Democratic (Second International) movement in the face of national chauvinism and defending their own nation states, despite their pre-war commitment to class unity and resistance.

Even some of the greatest revolutionaries struggled to be truly internationalist in conflict.  Some favoured conditional support for their participants as a ‘defencist’ need to resist the greater ‘evil’ of the other side, be that for Kropotkin, Prussian militarism, or for most of the German left, Slav autocratic barbarism.  In much of Western Europe (including the Labour Party) against both, in favour of the ‘progressive’ gains of democracy. 

Internationalists recognised the global conflict remained between our class and that of the ruling class squabbling to defend their respective capitalist empires. Initially as tiny persecuted minorities they were the clarion call in the wilderness.

The principle is once again being questioned in the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and for similar reasons, sadly even by some claiming to be revolutionary internationalists.  Is there a bad side and a less bad side? Blatantly, but of no more significance to our view of the state than good cops and bad cops change our view on the police.

Russia’s tyranny and war crimes are increasingly well documented, often from the mouths of Russians themselves.  Recently The New York Times published Russian soldier’s letters home, one reading “Mum, there are bodies everywhere this is messed up.  They said it was a training exercise but they have told us to kill everyone. They lied to us – Putin is a fool”.  Should we not be arguing that Russian workers are being exploited and manipulated to kill their Ukrainian brothers and sisters? 

An article at the beginning of the conflict criticising ‘no war but the class war’ as “…not a very useful slogan.” argued that “The Ukrainian worker has made his or her decision, maybe to get out, maybe to stay and fight.” This misses the fundamental point, conned or coerced is not a choice.  The mitigation of ‘territorial defence’ doesn’t alter the fact that Ukraine now is an armed detention camp for 10,000,000 men aged 18-60. 

In 2018 Ukraine was labeled “Partly Free” by human rights organizations such as Freedom House. The 2014 Human Rights report accused It of not fully respecting diversity and excessively restricting media freedoms whilst being equally culpable in the violation of the laws of war in the Donbas – a conflict costing 14,000 lives.  In terms of good versus bad, it’s ‘Tuppence Ha’penny looking down on Tuppence’.

What makes the concept of defeatism so challenging?  For some it is a misunderstanding of the nature and importance of this as an Internationalist position; for others on the left, they are on the liberal wing of capitalist democracy and simply take sides, but for most it is the instinctive moral drive to tell good from bad leaving them open to the power of state propaganda.

The horror of war projected from afar inevitably produces waves of anger, sympathy, compassion, and a sense of helplessness which is itself exploited by our bosses and their states to channel any possible awakening resistance into the dead end of charity.   They manipulate us into false partisan choices in favour of one belligerent or the other. 

This is the true fog of war seeking to blind us from the what should be the obvious – The bosses on both sides are our enemy as the workers of both suffer and die awaiting our class solidarity in action.

Defeatism is not pacifism, it cannot afford to be whilst each rolling tank and falling bomb dismembers workers.  It is not, as Lenin described it, merely to “..desire the defeat of ‘your own’ government, wish defeat, favour nothing less than defeat” ushering in the victory of the most militarised and brutal power. 

Taking sides is the intuitive and easiest path to take.  We are taught from birth to do it and we inevitably draw on a nationalist instinct of the righteousness of our side when we do.  Whilst defeatism is not pacifist, neither is it neutral – we name the side ignored in the slaughter, our class on both sides and highlight that a capitalist peace is a defeat for our class and opens the road to the next war.

Revolutionary Defeatism is the active mobilisation of solidarity and defence of community against it’s forced militarisation and cooption, and resistance to the idea of a capitalist victory or a capitalist peace – the latter the bloody breathing space between blows. This includes blowing away the fog to see revolutionary defeatism in action.  In Ukraine and Russia, revolutionary comrades continue to recognise this as a conflict on the fault lines of global capital.  They continue to work together opposing nationalist propaganda, coercion and militarisation naming the conflict for what it is, an attack on our class.

Defeatism is not passive.  Makhno didn’t encourage passivity in the face of the Austro-German occupation.  Anarchists fought in Spain but neither for the monarchy nor the republic while more recently internationalists in northern Syria, whatever the subsequent compromise and decline from an imperialist imposed truce, fought not for state or caliphate, but for the Bookchinist experiment egalitarian (democratic) confederalism.  Defend yourselves, defend your communities but not your bosses or their state.  Organise for a revolutionary outcome.

Here we must hammer this message home, not just opposing the war but taking up our own class struggles enthusiastically refusing social peace and linking them in solidarity with our comrades in the global resistance.  Strikes are happening everywhere – soon will follow the accusations of ‘the enemy within’ and traitors.  Let them be right!  Class War IS the peace movement, the war against all wars.  There is no other non-binary solution, defeatism demands a single outcome, war or revolution!  Our choice is unequivocally clear!

Ukraine embassy in Prague defaced protesting forced conscription

Article by Dreyfus