Defeatism and the two Lenins
The text and history are clear: Lenin changed his position on defeatism. When will socialists catch up?
In 1915, Vladimir Lenin declared that “during a reactionary war a revolutionary class cannot but desire the defeat of its government.”1 In less than two years, with the Bolsheviks yet to take power, Lenin explained that “under Tseretelli and Chernov we were not defeatists.”2 Prima facie, the sensible explanation for these two statements would be that Lenin adopted one position, then abandoned it; but sensible is not a word I would use to describe most readings of Lenin today.
This is an eternal debate, but particularly in the context of Russia’s war with Ukraine there has been a dramatic uptick in arguments about defeatism among contemporary Leninists. Do anti-imperialists in the US have some narrow, exclusive obligation to oppose their own country’s participation in the war? Should we focus our critique on Russian militarism? Or do we have a broader obligation to oppose both? As Leninists look to the man’s writing for insight, I’d say support for the various the readings are breaking down something like this:
Let’s look at each in turn.