Bill Bland on Just and Unjust Wars


[Excerpt from “The Soviet-Finnish War”]

“The Bolsheviks held that there are two kinds of war:
a) Just wars, wars that are not wars of conquest but wars of liberation, waged to defend people from foreign attack and from attempts to enslave them, or to liberate people from capitalist slavery, or, lastly, to liberate colonies and dependent countries from the yoke of imperialism, and;
b) Unjust wars, wars of conquest, waged to conquer and enslave foreign countries and foreign nations.”

(‘History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’; Moscow; 1939; p. 167-68).

The question of which side fired the first shot is, to Marxist-Leninists, irrelevant to the determination of the character of a war:

“The question as to which group dealt the first military blow is of no importance in determining the tactics of the socialists”.

(V. I. Lenin: Conference of the Sections of the RSDLP Abroad, in: ‘Selected Works’, Volume 5; London; 1933; p. 132).

The question of whether a war is just or unjust is determined objectively, assert Marxist-Leninists, by the effect of that war on the historical development of society towards socialism. If it helps forward that development, it is a just war; if it holds back that development, it is an unjust war:

“We Marxists differ both from pacifists and Anarchists in that we recognise the necessity of a historical study of each war individually, from the point of view of Marx’s dialectical materialism. There have been wars in history which, notwithstanding all the horrors, cruelties, miseries and tortures inevitably associated with every war, had a progressive character, i.e., they served the development of mankind”.

(V. I. Lenin: ‘Socialism and War’, in: ‘Collected Works’, Volume 18; London; n.d; p. 219).

In particular, a war being waged by a socialist state in which the working people hold political power, against a capitalist state is a just war irrespective of who fired the first shot:

“The Soviet Union is the true fatherland of the proletariat. . . This obliges the international proletariat . . . to defend the country of proletarian dictatorship by every means. . . . In the event of . . . a war against it, the international proletariat must answer by bold and resolute . . . alliance with the Soviet Union”.

(Programme of the Communist International, in: J. Degras (Ed.): “Documents of the Communist International;”1919-1943: Volume 2; London, 197l; p. 512-13).

Some Soviet writers agree with official Finnish sources that Soviet forces initiated the Soviet-Finnish War. For example, Nikita Khrushchev says in his memoirs:

“If they (the Finnish government – Ed.) didn’t yield to our ultimatum, we would take military action. . . . This was Stalin’s idea. . . . .
We had fired our salvo, and the Finns had replied with artillery fire of their own. De facto the war had begun. .

(N. S. Khrushchev: ‘Khrushchev Remembers;’, Volume 1; London; 1971; p. 152).

Nevertheless, Khrushchev, at the time of writing, retained a sufficiently superficial Marxism-Leninism, to recognise that this was not relevant to the character of the Soviet-Finnish war and that this was being fought, on the Soviet side, purely for necessary defensive purposes and was a just war:

“We had to guarantee the security of Leningrad, which was within artillery range of the Finnish border and could easily have been shelled from Finnish territory. Moreover, the Finnish government was following policies hostile to the Soviet Union. It was demonstrably flirting with Hitlerite Germany. The Finnish commander in chief, Carl Mannerhein, was a former tsarist general and a sworn enemy of the Soviet Union, Vaino Tanner was an old Social Democrat, but he remained an irreconcilable foe of our Marxist-Leninist ideology until the end of his days. Consequently, Finland represented a real threat to us because its territory could be used by more powerful governments; and it was therefore sensible, indeed crucial, for the Soviet State to take steps to protect Leningrad…
Our only goal was to protect our security in the North. . . . Our sole consideration was security — Leningrad was in danger”.

(N. S. Khrushchev: ibid,; p. 150-51. 152).

Indeed, many Western international lawyers accept the view that a state may legitimately intervene in another state where such intervention is necessary to its self-preservation.

Thomas Lawrence* writes in his ‘The Principles of International Law’:

“Interventions . . . are technical violations of the right of independence. . . . Yet in certain circumstances International Law may excuse, or even approve of them. .The duty of self-preservation is even more sacred than the duty of respecting the independence of others, If the two clash, a state naturally acts on the former.”

(T. J. Lawrence: ‘The Principles of International Law’; Boston; 1915; p. 127).

and Joseph Starke*, in his ‘Introduction to International Law’, agrees:

“The following are, baldly expressed, the principal exceptional cases in which it is claimed that a state has at international law a legitimate right of intervention: self-defence, if intervention is necessary to meet the danger of an actual armed attack”.

(J. G. Starke: ‘Introduction to International Law’; London; 1989; p. 105).

Many prominent Westerners who were not international lawyers agreed that the Soviet war with Finland was a just war. For example, the writer George Bernard Shaw* wrote in the ‘Daily Mail’ in December 1939, while the Soviet-Finnish War was still in progress:

“Finland has been misled by a very foolish Government. She should have accepted Russia’s offer for a readjustment of territory. She should have been a sensible neighbour. Finland would probably not have refused the Russian offer had she been acting on her own. .
No Power could tolerate a frontier from which a town such as Leningrad could be shelled, when she knows that the Power on the other side of the frontier . . . is being made by a foolish Government to act in the interests of other and greater powers menacing her security.
In Russia’s view, Finland can have no defensible objection to carrying out the exchange of territories which Russia had asked of her unless she is allowing herself to be used by America or the Western Powers”.

(G. B. Shaw, in: ‘Daily Mail’, 2 December 1939; p. 6).

Even Winston Churchill, who had savagely condemned Soviet ‘aggression’ against Finland at the time, changed his view after 1941:

“In the days of the Russo-Finnish war I had been sympathetic to Finland, but I had turned against her since she came into the war against the Soviets. Russia must have security for Leningrad and its approaches. The position of the Soviet Union as a permanent naval and air power in the Baltic must be assured”.

(W. S. Churchill: ‘The Second World War’, Volume 6: Triumph And Tragedy’; London; 1954; p. 318).


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