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  • Published in Theory
Tony Benn opposing war in 2003. Photograph: PA

Tony Benn opposing war in 2003. Photograph: PA

In the third part of 'Socialism and War' John Rees argues that we should oppose our own imperialist governments and their wars

Many people who are anti-war and who are utterly dismayed at the jingoism of all the establishment parties 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 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 governments 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. The break up of the Cold War pattern of imperial competition gave us two wars in the Gulf War in which the armies ranged against each other are of Second World War proportions, plus the neo-colonial occupation of Afghanistan.

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”. 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 government, 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 them”, 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 wars did 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 anti-imperialist. But Saddam fought an imperialist war on the United States’ 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 governments, hoping for their defeat. If defeat had come at Saddam's hands we would still have welcomed it. But we hoped for it at the hands of Iraqi workers who could have both crushed Saddam and proved far better opponents of imperialism.

Tagged under: Socialism
John Rees

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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