First printed in International Socialism 1:28 (Spring 1967)
Capitalist society is the most bloody and warlike in human history. The graveyards are piled high with the dead from two world wars, the Vietnam war and countless colonial conflicts. Yet the Labour Party has backed every war, great and small, since it was founded in the first years of the century. In spite of this workers have often taken to the streets to try and stop the carnage. In the First World War and the Vietnam war such mass movements were successful. This pamphlet looks at why capitalism breeds war, why the Labour Party backs war and what role socialists can play in ending the society that produces war.
1. Capitalism and War
2. Labour and War
3. Socialists and War
4. The War Against War
Capitalism is the most bloody and warlike society in human history. The armies of Alexander the Great were a fraction of the number of dead in the Vietnam War. All the weapons possessed by the Crusaders of the Middle Ages could not do the damage in a week that a modern fragmentation shell can wreak in seconds. The 20th century in particular has seen enough people killed in wars to have depopulated the known world in previous eras.
Capitalism was born a murderous infant and its appetite for slaughter has grown as it has aged. The first capitalist state, England, had no sooner settled accounts with Charles I and the old order than it turned to butchering the inhabitants of its first colonies in Ireland and Jamaica.
The American settlers had barely thrown off the yoke of British rule before they set about annihilating the American and Canadian indians. Meanwhile the British had found fresh blood to let in India, Africa and elsewhere.
The French Revolution saved the country from the ancient oppression of the monarch and his nobles, but as soon as the capitalist class was secure NapoleonUs armies set out to create an empire, the last shreds of which French forces still fight to defend today.
As industry spread across the globe, these first capitalist states were joined by othersQGermany, Japan, Italy, RussiaQin their hunt for gold and slaves, oil and opium, markets, cheap labour and strategic advantage. The competition between them gave us the First World War. The same development of industry which led to the imperialist rivalries that sparked the war also ensured it was the most bloody which had ever been fought .
Weapons of mass destruction unimaginable before the development of industry now killed millions. Tanks and machine guns, gas and aircraft made this the first war in which the majority of dead were the victims of other soldiers, not of disease. The British alone lost 20,000 dead in a single day on the Somme and one million dead in the four years of war. And if capitalist industry caused the war it also had to keep the war going. Directed labour, censorship, conscription and the bombing of towns made this the first total war, a war fought at home as well as on the battlefield.
The First World War did nothing to solve the crisis that had produced it. The economic crises of capitalism continued and the latecomers to the imperialist contest still chaffed at the limits set by the older powers. The Second World War broke out just 20 years after the peace conference that was supposed to set up a new international order.
The intervening years had worsened all the obscenities which characterised the First World War. More lives were eaten up by more terrible weapons, culminating in the United States' use of the atomic bomb against an already beaten Japan. Civilians were more than ever the targets of warfare, as the carpet bombing of Dresden and other German cities by Britain testified. The Russians alone lost 20 million dead.
At the war's end the major powers dusted themselves down and once again began preparing for another. Spending on arms reached unprecedented levels. Nazi rocket scientists were quickly brought to the US and Britain to help perfect the weapons they had begun work on under Hitler. Within five years the Korean War was under way, at a cost of 1.5 million lives. Within a decade of its end the Vietnam War had begun, in which 55.000 US troops would die. The Vietnamese struggle for liberation eventually cost 2.5 million dead. many of them peasants murdered by US soldiers, carpet bombing and napalm attacks.
But Vietnam and Korea are only the two best known wars to have gripped the world since the peace celebrations in 1945. In fact the world has not been at peace for a single day since then. Over 80 wars have kept the generals and the munitions industry busy. The death toll is somewhere between 15 and 30 million people. Today some 40 countries are in the grip of war, or civil war or are being destabilised by their neighbours.
And the victims cannot simply be numbered by counting those killed by bombs and guns. Today some 13 million have fled their home country and another 16 million refugees have fled their homes within their country. It is a migration greater than the homeless hordes who crossed Europe at the end of the Second World War.
Even when no shot is fired, the incalculable billions poured into the arms industry mean that every day babies and old people, the sick and the homeless, the poor and the dispossessed die because the means to save their lives has been used up in weapons production .
So why is our system so bloody? Why does the carnage grow with each succeeding generation? Could there be a capitalist .system without war? The key feature of capitalism, as right-wingers constantly tell us, is competition. Competition drives the least efficient to the wall, we are told, so that only the most profitable survive. Firms, be they the corner shop or the Ford corporation, are constantly looking tor new customers or markets, for cheaper suppliers and to pay their workforces less than their rivals. "The national interest" is defined as the defence of "our" markets and RourS industry.
In the economic textbooks this competition is portrayed as entirely peaceful, conducted only through the impersonal operations of the market. In reality it has never been peaceful. The capitalists have never stuck to the rules either when they deal with their workers or with their rivals. Hired thugs will break up union meetings and the army will break strikes. The police and the law, the press and the courts have always been at the beck and call of the employers to ensure that wages stay low and unions stay cowed. From the Tolpuddle Martyrs through the General Strike of 1926 to the Great Miners' Strike of 1984, that is the story of the class struggle in Britain.
When it comes to dealing with their rivals, the major capitalists are equally unscrupulous. Industrial espionage, price fixing, cartels and monopolies are part of the everyday functioning of the system. So is violence. In the 17th century English privateers raided their Dutch and Spanish competitors. As soon as the British capitalists got hold of the state they built a navy to do the job professionally. In the 18th century the troops of the East India Company, eventually backed up by the state, subdued India and threw out the rivals to English capitalism. In the 19th century British troops and the British navy extended the empire throughout Africa, Asia and the West IndiesQall to ensure that British capitalists could gain access to cheap raw materials, new markets and cheap labour.
All the while, but especially from the end of the 19th century, British troops fought not only the people of the colonies but their rivals from other capitalist powers. However. over this period the economic competition between different capitalist firms had changed the nature of capitalism. As competition bankrupted the least profitable firms. their markets and factories were taken over by the more profitable companies. Consequently the average size of firms tended to rise. Capitalism ceased to consist of a number of different firms competing in each industry and became a system where one or two large firms dominated each industry. Indeed they often dominated more than one industry.
As the corporations grew they increasingly burst through national boundaries. International monopolies or oligopolies dominated international markets. And as the firms became larger they became ever more intertwined with the state and its armed forces. Multinational capital depends on the armed forces of the state to defend it from its rivals and from popular revolts in countries where it has profitable investments, just as it relies on the police to protect it from its workers at home.
As the corporations grew, the state came to take a much greater interest in their running. After all, if there are a dozen aircraft or motor car firms in a particular country the state will not worry if one of them goes bust. But if there is only one giant motor car or plane manufacturer in a country the state cannot look on with a disinterested stare as it goes to the wall.
This is particularly true of the arms industry. Capitalists have often favoured state ownership of all or some of the arms industry, just as Tories favour close government control of the police. Their functions are simply too vital to the capitalists for it to be left to the vagaries of the market.
So as the 19th century came to a close the interests of the state and of big business were more closely interconnected than ever before. The same growth in industry meant that new and more terrible weapons were now available to the state. As the means of production grew, so did the means of destruction they could produce. And, unlike the 17th century when the Dutch and the English were the only two capitalist states battling for colonial power, there were now a host of competing great powersQBritain, Germany, the United States, Japan, Italy, France and Russia.
Marxists called this system imperialism. It has dominated the fate of the 20th century as the globe has been divided and redivided among the competing powers. The Russian state, under Stalin and his heirs just as under the Tsar, has been a major imperialist power. The brief moment of light that was the 1917 revolution was snuffed out by competition with the other imperialist powers.
Industrialisation in Russia was carried out at the expense of the peasantry and the working class because Stalin was determined to build an economic and military machine that could match those of Germany, Britain and the US. Nothing makes this point so forcefully as the scene recorded by Churchill at the end of the Second World War.
The Tory leader who gave the order to shoot miners in Britain sat down with the butcher of the Russian Revolution to divide the spoils. Churchill wrote on a sheet of paper that Russia would have 90 percent of the say in Romania, Britain 90 percent in Greece and so on. RI pushed this across to Stalin", he wrote. "He took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back. It was all settled in no more time than it takes to set down.S
That competition between the powers has never halted. Treaties and peace pledges have been broken. The League of Nations, set up to keep the peace after the First World War, failed to stop either the rise of fascism or the outbreak of a new world war. The United Nations, set up for the same reason after the Second World War, has either proved as impotent as its forerunner or has itself acted as a weapon of war. In whatever way the major capitalist powers have tried to regulate the military competition between them, they have always failed.
Competition, the drive to accumulate factories, banks and transport facilities faster than your rivals is at the root of war. It was so when capitalism was born and it is still so today, despite the fact that the consequences are more ruinous than they ever were. To rid society of war we have to rid it of the system that fosters war. To get rid of military competition we have to get rid of the economic competition that succours it. For the generals to be forced from the battlefield, the capitalists who arm them and on whose behalf they do battle must be forced from the factories and offices.
The facts are indisputable: the British Labour Party has supported nearly every war, great and small, since it was founded in 1906. Labour backed the First World War by joining Lloyd George's government. The Labour Party's national agent and half his staff left to join the recruiting campaign which sent tens of thousands to a grisly death in the trenches.
Lloyd George was relieved, admitting, "Had Labour been hostile, the war could not have been carried on effectively." Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour Party leader deposed for his pacifism during the First World War, admitted, "When this war broke out organised labour lost the initiative. It became a mere echo of the old governing classes' opinion.S
Between the wars Labour, in government and out, continued to support the repression of the colonies, ensuring that not one of them gained independence. In fact J H Thomas, the 1924 Labour government's colonial secretary, boasted the party was "jealous and proud of, and prepared to maintain, the empireS.
The declaration of the Second World War was greeted by the party's deputy leader, Arthur Greenwood, with this vow of loyalty to the Tories: "We have given proof...that we shall give wholehearted support to the measures necessary to equip this state with the powers that are desired...we shall make our full contribution to the national cause.S
Labour justified its position by claiming the war was for democracy and against Nazi imperialism. But at every turn Labour backed the anti- democratic and pro-imperialist actions of the Tory led coalition government of which it was a part. When strikes were banned, Labour agreed. When Jewish refugees who had fled from Hitler were interned, Labour agreed. When the miners of Betteshanger in Kent struck, Labour rounded on them. When the Indians demanded independence, Labour refused them. When revolution threatened in Greece at the end of the war, Labour supported the troops in brutally crushing it.
Again the right wing was grateful. As Brigadier-General Sir Henry Croft told the Commons, "I believe I am speaking on behalf of all those old Tories in the country that from the bottom of our hearts we welcome the speeches and the spirit of the opposition in this House and in the country. We feel that today we are all one brotherhood...and we pray that great unity will persist.S
After the war Labour went on supporting British imperialism in every grubby little war it fought--in Aden, in Malaya and at first over Suez, though party leaders belatedly called for a ceasefire once the United States signalled its disapproval. And. of course, the Labour government under Harold Wilson stood right behind the United States throughout the height of the Vietnam War.
More recently the self proclaimed "inveterate peacemonger" Michael Foot, then Labour leader, managed the improbable task of outjingoing the Tories at the start of the Falklands War. He demanded the government "prove by deeds" that it had not "betrayed" the Falkland Islanders.
Once more the Tories threw a scrap of praise to a loyal dog. In the Commons Tory MPs told Foot he had "spoken for Britain". Those who came back mutilated had less for which to thank the Labour leader-as they were first shunned and then forgotten.
At the start of the Gulf War the whole sickening charade was rehearsed one more time. Neil Kinnock echoed George Bush's most bloodcurdling statement of war aims and, in the Commons debate just before war broke out, rescued an incompetent, bumbling John Major by giving the US justifications for war with far greater passion than the Tory leader. Kinnock repeated the performance in his televised broadcasts.
The Tories followed the tradition of previous generations by congratulating Kinnock on his statesmanship and patriotism. They had already been told by Tory foreign secretary Douglas Hurd that "the country cannot go to war divided."
Of course, the Labour Party has rarely been unanimously in favour of war. From Keir Hardie's reservations about the First World War to Tony Benn's opposition to the Gulf War there have always been a few leading figures on the left of the party who refused to go along with the jingoism. That is enormously to their credit. But they have never been able to convince the Labour leadership, or even a majority of MPs, to oppose even the most barbaric or obviously unjust war.
Later, after specific wars are over, many MPs and other leading party figures often exaggerate the extent of their opposition to war. Today, for instance, you would be hard put to find a Labour spokesperson who will claim their party sent teenage boys to die on the Somme and at Ypres. Few are keen to recall Labour's wholehearted support for US policy in Vietnam. And as the Falklands War recedes into history there are many more leading Labour figures who are critical of the war than there ever were in 1982. Certainly, few like to recall that it was the actions of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, both regarded as left wingers at the time, which made that absurd waste of life possible at all.
Nor is this sad record limited to the British Labour Party. From the First World War to the Gulf War, labour parties throughout the world have been eamestly in favour of peace until it comes to a war. Then they bow to no one in their support for "our boys".
The most infamous capitulation to jingoism was the first. The years before the First World War had seen an unprecedented growth of labour parties throughout Europe. The biggest and most influential was the German party, the SPD. Millions of workers followed the party, voted for it in elections and were members of affiliated trade unions, sports and leisure organisations. Marxism had always enjoyed strong influence in the SPD. The German party was joined to other labour parties in the Second International.
The Intemational predicted the coming of the First World War and, from the turn of the century, reaffirmed at conference after conference its opposition to the war. Its 1907 Stuttgart conference, for instance, passed a resolution of which any socialist could be proud. It said, "Wars between capitalist states are as a rule the result of their rivalry for world markets... Further these wars arise out of the never ending armament race of militarism, which is one of the chief implements of bourgeois class rule and of the economic and political enslavement of the working class.
"Wars...divert the mass of the working class from the tasks of its own class, as well as from the duty of international class solidarity. Wars are therefore inherent in the nature of capitalism. They will only cease when the capitalist economy is abolished.
"In the case of a threat of an outbreak of war it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives...to do everything to prevent the outbreak of war by whatever means seems to them most effective. Should war break out in spite of this it is their duty to intervene for its speedy end, and to strive to make use of the violent economic and political crisis brought about by the war to rouse the people, and thereby hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule.S
It was a strong, uncompromising statement of the socialist position. But it was a dead letter as soon as war broke out in August 1914. The SPD, the French Socialist Party and most Russian socialists (apart from Lenin's Bolsheviks) joined the British Labour Party in backing their own govemments' war plans.
For each of them the justification was that the enemy abroad was worse than the class enemy at home. The German SPD claimed they were fighting autocratic Russian Tsarism. The Russian socialists claimed they were fighting despotic Prussian militarism--as did the Labour Party in Britain and the French Socialist Party, despite the fact that this allied them with autocratic Russian Tsarism. In fact, it was an imperialist war fought for colonies and profit by all its participants.
Yet the labour leaders could hardly claim no one would support an anti- war stance. In the last weeks before the war huge anti-war rallies and demonstrations organised by the SPD so frightened the Kaiser that he declared, "Those socialists are staging militant antimilitarist agitation in the streets; this must not be tolerated, definitely not now. If that continues I shall proclaim martial law and have the leaders, the whole damned lot of them, locked up in jail."
In France mass rallies for peace were held at the end of July and in Britain on 2 August Keir Hardie and George Lansbury took part in a huge 'Stop the War' demonstration in Trafalgar Square, part of a mounting political and economic struggle that had been rising against the govemment since 1909. In Russia a strike movement that began in 1912 with the shooting of miners in the Lena goldfields was cut short by the war.
It was not the lack of a movement which resulted in cowardice on the part of the labour leaders, rather it was the cowardice of the labour leaders which demobilised the movement just as it faced its greatest test. Of course, there was a swelling pro-war mood at the point that war broke out, just as there was when the troops were sent to the Falklands and on the day the Gulf War started. But, as the existence of the anti- war movement before the war showed, and the mounting opposition as it went on, the basis for resistance always existed. If the leaders of the European labour parties had stuck to their principles, they could have shortened, possibly prevented, the bloody war in which young workers from the Thames and the Seine slaughtered and were slaughtered by those from the Rhine.
So it wasn't lack of support which prevented the Labour leaders from fighting to stop the war (though, if it had been, what sort of socialist trades millions of lives for a few percentage points in the opinion polls?). It has been the same ever since. Labour Party support for the war in Vietnam never wavered, even when a majority of its supporters were against the war. Kinnock backed war in the Gulf in the very week opinion polls showed the country split 43 percent against and 47 percent for the war.
The same paradox exists on other issues. Labour accepted that cruise missiles would stay in Britain in the 1980s despite opinion polls which showed 60 percent of the population in favour of their removal. Labour Party policy insists that people should pay the poll tax, despite its deep unpopularity with the overwhelming majority of the population.
Of course Labour has electoralism as its guiding light. And that desperate search for votes explains a great deal. But, as the above examples show, Labour does not simply follow public opinion especially when public opinion is to its left on the most important issues of the day. There must be another reason for the Labour Party's craven capitulation.
That reason lies in Labour's belief that capitalist society is here for ever and that, although it may be open to partial reform, it is never open to total transformation. Even these partial changes cannot be forced on an unwilling capitalist class by strikes and demonstrations. They can only come by due process of law, as decided by parliament. The state machine is Labour's chosen implement for social change and any threat to that state, from within or without, must necessarily be resisted.
Such a perspective sees any threat to property or the state as illegitimate. It accepts the terms of competition between nations, just as it accepts the competition between firms and multinationals. When clashes arise with other national blocks of capital, then Labour inevitably backs "our" property and "our" state. Equally inevitably, nation comes before class.
Fabian socialist George Bemard Shaw typified this sentiment just before the First World War: "War between country and country is a bad thing, but in the case of such a war any attempt of a general strike to prevent the people defending their country would result in a civil war which was ten times worse than war between nation and nation." A general strike would certainly not have caused ten times the deaths that the First World War caused. Nevertheless the leader of the Labour Party at the time, Arthur Henderson, said he was "largely in agreement with Mr Shaw".
The thought that the rich and powerful might be fighting a war in which workers can only lose, or that "our" country might be fighting a war to oppress another people has never really carried any weight with the leaders of the Labour Party. Yet there are many examples where masses of workers have come to precisely this conclusion despite the influence of Labour leaders.
Most famously, Russian workers realised their participation in the First World War meant not only annihilation at the front but an excuse for their masters at home to deny peasants the land and deepen the oppression and exploitation of an already half starved workforce. The October revolution of 1917 was the most successful anti-war movement in history. Fought under the Bolshevik slogan of "Peace, Land and Bread", it pulled Russia out of the war. This, plus rising anti-war and revolutionary movements in other countries-notably Germany-ensured an early end to the whole war.
Likewise, the US war in Vietnam was halted by a combination of the tenacity of the Vietnamese national liberation struggle and by the effect of a growing and increasingly militant anti-war movement at home. In particular what frightened the US ruling class were the links being made between the anti-war movement and other struggles, like that for black liberation. As Muhammad Ali, then heavyweight champion of the world, put it, "No Vietnamese ever called me nigger."
Yet all such struggles have occurred in the teeth of opposition from establishment politicians of every hue. These struggles have often begun spontaneously or under the influence of very small groups of anti-war activists. But when those struggling have looked for ideas to guide them they have relied not on the Labour Party tradition but on a completely different tradition-the revolutionary tradition and its analysis of the relationship between socialism and war.
Many people who are anti-war and who are utterly dismayed at the jingoism of the Labour Party leaders believe that pacifism is the best way to prevent war. Many more, who are not pacifists out of principle, will argue that once war starts the best we can hope for is a ceasefire and the opening of negotiations between those in the conflict.
Any socialist will welcome such opposition to war when it comes from workers and students who are sickened by the barbarity of the society in which they live. Such outrage has always been a powerful motivating force in every anti-war movement. We should, however, be much more sceptical of the same sentiments when they tumble from the lips of politicians and trade union leaders.
The great powers do not always oppress others by armed force--sometimes the "peaceful" threat to wreck another nation's economy is enough. We cannot assume that simply because the shooting has stopped the great powers have not resorted to other, more subtle, forms of violence or that the exploitation and oppression in whose name they fight wars is not being continued by other means.
"Peace" has also always been the favourite cry of the politician or union leader who has their back to the wall. Facing defeat, either at home or abroad, the wily warmonger will always try to salvage what they can by becoming a sudden convert to a "just and negotiated peace".
This was just the reaction of many European govemments during the First World War as anti-war sentiment swept through the continent's working classes. It was a reaction mirrored many years later by Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War. Usually such protestations are combined, as in these two cases, with demands that we must continue fighting until the other side agrees to a "just" peace.
But there is a more fundamental reason why socialists reject the pacifist argument. It is because such a strategy leaves the causes of war untouched. So long as we simply aim at putting a halt to the latest barbarity in which our rulers are engaged we will always leave them free to prepare another war. We have seen that such a drive to war is inherent in the way capitalism works.
The history of the 20th century more than corroborates this analysis. The colonial wars of the early years of the century prepared the First World War. The end of that war laid the seeds of the Second World War. The imperialist rivalries between the victors of that war produced the Cold War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Now a new world crisis and the break up of the Cold War pattem of imperial competition have given us a Gulf War in which the armies ranged against each other are of Second World War proportions.
Simple calls for peace do not go far enough because they do not address the question of how we get rid of the system which produces war. Also they fail to address the connection between war and the domestic policy of the ruling class. War and oppression abroad always go hand in hand with repression and exploitation at home.
In every war some or all of the following are inflicted on workers: strikes are banned; socialists, anti-war protesters and "aliens" are jailed or interned; taxes are raised and welfare cut; the press is censored; conscription is introduced; wages are lowered and working hours are lengthened; and chauvinism and racism are stoked.
Inevitably all sorts of other struggles intensify in times of war, although the degree to which this happens depends on the scale of the war, the balance of forces between the major classes, the economic condition of particular economies and of the world economy, and so on. Nevertheless, battles over conscription, over the imposition of higher taxes, over attempts to ban strikes or worsen conditions will be intimately connected with a war.
If the peace movement does not reach out to these struggles, if it restricts itself to simple demands for peace and does not broaden the struggle into a class struggle, it will deny itself the best chance of stopping the war and of developing a struggle that can strike the power to wage war from our rulers' hands forever.
This is why socialists are not pacifists. We do not forgo the strike weapon when it will deny our rulers the taxes or wage cuts they need to fight a war. We do not deny ourselves the weapon of the general strike when it will bring down a warmongering government. And we will not renounce a revolution when it would end the senseless slaughter once and for all.
Lenin summarised these arguments during the First World War. "We differ from the pacifists", he wrote, "in that we understand the inevitable connection between wars and the class struggle within a country; we understand that wars cannot be abolished unless classes are abolished and socialism is created; we also differ in that we regard civil wars, ie wars waged by an oppressed class against the oppressor class, by slaves against slaveholders, by serfs against landowners and by wage workers against the bourgeoisie, as fully legitimate, progressive and necessary."
From this analysis Lenin drew the conclusion that the most effective way of fighting against war was to intensify the struggle against your own ruling class. Every demonstration weakened the government's claim that the population backed the war; every strike made it more difficult for the government to conduct the war; every revolt by people in the colonies, like the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, was a thorn in the side of the warmongers .
The great German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht, one of the few to stand out against the First World War, encapsulated a similar view in a famous phrase: "The main enemy is at home.S Lenin thought that all socialists should be for the defeat of their own rulers in an imperialist war. German socialists should be for the defeat of the German rulers, French workers for the defeat of the French govemment, British socialists for the defeat of the British and so on. His critics accused him of being illogical. Surely you realise someone has to win the war, they demanded.
Lenin's reply was twofold. First he insisted that unless you are willing to call for the defeat of your own government you will end up denouncing every protest and strike. The right wing will say, and they will be right, that strikes and demonstrations weaken the war effort and therefore court defeat. Unless socialists reply that we are striking and demonstrating precisely because we want to weaken the war effort they will be utterly dumbstruck by our rulers' argument. The right will undoubtedly howl, "But that means we'll lose the war." And we must answer, if it takes the defeat of "our" side to stop the war then that is the lesser evil.
Lenin's second point was that it is only people who have given up any hope that workers can change society who will argue that one ruling class or another must win in the end. He insisted that a war which starts as a war between nations does not have to end that way. The class struggle can develop during the course of the war in such a way that the war is brought to a halt by the struggle between the working class and the various ruling classes of the great powers.
The First World War ended in precisely this way. Revolution swept not only Russia but also Germany. Huge class struggles swept Italy, France and Britain. Lenin's slogan, "Turn the imperialist war into a civil war", became a reality. So Lenin's call for the defeat of Russia was not "illogical", any more than American writer and revolutionary John Reed's call for the defeat of the United States, Karl Liebknecht's call for the defeat of Germany and British Marxist John MacLean's call for Britain's defeat were "illogical". It was the only means of uniting workers internationally against the war and against all their ruling classes.
Of course, not every war is on the scale of the First World War and therefore not every war creates the conditions for turning a war into a revolution. But the general approach of turning an imperialist war into a class war remains. Whether we talk of a token protest strike or an insurrectionary general strike, the ruling class will always accuse us of damaging the war effort. We can only fight effectively to end war if we answer clearly that we put the interests of our class first, that we see no reason to join in the slaughter of other workers for the sake of the profits of those who oppress us at home.
There is also an important distinction to be made between the two major sorts of war which have taken place in the imperialist era. Firstly there have been wars between major imperialist powers, like the First and Second World Wars. Secondly, there have been wars conducted by the major imperialist powers against national liberation movements or to' conquer other nations whose independence is a threat to the imperial order. A prime example of the second case is the Vietnam War.
These two cases make little difference to the attitude which socialists should take to the great powers. In both cases socialists see the main enemy as their own rulers. But there is a difference in the socialist attitude to, say, the German Kaiser or Hitler on the one hand and Ho Chi Minh on the other. In a war between great powers a call for the defeat of one's own rulers does not mean we hope for the victory of someone else's rulers. "Socialists must take advantage of the struggle between the robbers to overthrow all of themS, Lenin argued. We realise that for the working class to be victorious over all the robbers we have to start at the struggle where we are, in our own country, by making our own rulers the main enemy, regardless of the military consequences.
Where imperialist powers are involved in colonial wars we hope that they are beaten. Such reverses can only weaken the ruling class at home and therefore increase the possibilities of ending the war and of securing gains for the working class at home. During the Vietnam War every Vietnamese National Liberation Front victory brought the war nearer its end and made the task of the peace movement easier. Every NLF victory made it harder for Nixon to get away with repression of the anti-war movement or the student protests or the struggles for black liberation. In the end the victory of the NLF seriously weakened US imperialism for 20 years. Their sacrifices saved tens of thousands of lives in other Third World countries like Nicaragua or Iran where, despite all the CIA subversion, the US no longer felt confident enough to fight an open war.
As Lenin put it, those who wish to see a pure revolution without nationalist revolts in oppressed countries, will never live to see a revolution. Such revolts can manifest all sorts of religious and nationalist prejudices. But Lenin argued the political complexion of the leaders of small nations--be they nationalist, fundamentalist, dictators or democrats--should not determine whether socialists in the major imperialist countries support them against imperialism. It is enough that a victory for imperialism would set back the cause of oppressed nations everywhere for socialists to commit themselves to the side of national liberation.
Whether the leaders of such nations are despots, or merely murderous "democrats" in the George Bush mould, it is the task of the working class of these nations to settle accounts with them. Any interference by the imperialist powers would only be to secure profits and strategic interests.
But socialists should not feel their opposition to imperialism obliges them to stand mute as the working class and oppressed battle against the ruling classes of the Third World. We should support their struggles and urge that, were socialists to lead those countries against imperialism, the fight would be all the more effective. We must not lend the leaders of nationalist struggles "a communist colouration", Lenin warned.
So, though socialists were as opposed to US imperialism as Ho Chi Minh, they were unsparing in their criticism when he murdered Vietnamese Trotskyists and when his repressive regime weakened the war against the US by attacking workers' living standards and right to organise.
Similarly, our wish for the defeat of the forces of imperialism in the Gulf does not mean keeping quiet about Saddam Hussein's repression of workers and refusal to grant independence to the Kurdish minority. To do otherwise might have strengthened Saddam's government while weakening the Iraqi workers' ability to fight the imperialist coalition ranged against them.
In fact this kind of criticism is even more justified in the case of Saddam Hussein than in that of Ho Chi Minh. The latter was at least a consistent antiimperialist. But Saddam fought an imperialist war on the United StatesU behalf against Iran in the 1980s. He would have come to such an arrangement again if the US let him.
George Bush went to war wanting the defeat of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi working class. He knew any US puppet that replaced Saddam would be no kinder to the Iraqi people than Saddam was when the US supported him. For his part, Saddam Hussein wanted the defeat of the imperialist forces. But he also wanted the defeat of the Iraqi working class. He was against the US in spite of his politics, not because of them.
Socialists want the defeat of imperialism and the victory of the Iraqi working class. We oppose our own imperialist govemments, hoping for their defeat. If defeat came at Saddam's hands we would still welcome it. But we hope for it at the hands of Iraqi workers who could both crush Saddam and prove far better opponents of imperialism .
There can be few more terrible indictments of our system than the disparity between the technology of war and the science of saving lives. The most advanced and costly technology in today's world is in the service of the military. Yet for those of its victims who live, but who have lost their arms and legs, there will be crutches and false limbs that have altered little from those given to the veterans of Waterloo.
Of course, the few very rich who are maimed will be able to afford microsurgery or false limbs with electronic circuits connected to the body's nerve endings. But no such facilities will be available to the majority of poor soldiers--it just isn't profitable. It certainly isn't as profitable as war.
To change such a system will take a titanic struggle. But war, because it introduces chaos and dislocation at home just as it does at the front, creates conditions under which people begin such a struggle. The workers' and soldiers' councils which made the German and Russian Revolutions during and after the First World War are the best, but not the only, examples.
The mutinies and soldiers' councils, the police strikes, the Irish Civil War, the great strike waves and the fight for women to get the vote, which shook this country during and immediately after the First World War, were a great opportunity for change, only finally frittered away by the labour leaders who sold out the General Strike in 1926. More mutinies came at the end of the Second World War and the great popular clamour for change was the occasion for Lord Hailsham's famous cry, "Give them social reform or they will give you social revolution."
The opposition to the Vietnam War shaped a generation and fed into the great revival of revolutionary thought and working class resistance that dominated the early 1970s. Today we see another anti-war movement springing up across the globe, just as the world economy slides into deep recession. Most of the protesters will be revolted by the barbarity they see before them, without sharing all the ideas in this pamphlet. Yet, if those who do share these ideas work consistently and determinedly alongside them, they can, in time win acceptance that such ideas are the most effective way of fighting the war.
Then we really will have a chance to build a fight, not just against this or that war, but against the society which produces war. We can connect the struggle against the war with the struggle against low wages, bad housing and unemployment. Then we will be fighting a class war, the only war that can end war.
Original URL http://www0.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/contemp/pamsetc/socandwar/socandwar.htm
Site author Rick Kuhn. Last revised 22 May 2011. Send feedback to Rick.Kuhn @ anu.edu.au