Smashing the link between militarism and the system is a fixed task for our side, argues Dominic Alexander
Only twenty years into a new century, we have already seen a series of catastrophic wars tear apart whole countries, all due to imperialist interventions justified by the slogan of the ‘global war on terror’. The death toll of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya run into the millions, despite official efforts to obfuscate and diminish the real numbers, with appalling levels of destruction and brutalisation inflicted upon all these societies.
The anti-war movement warned right from the start that these invasions would lead to an increase in terrorism worldwide, and this has been proved to be absolutely correct. We must never forget the continued use of drone and missile assassinations, illegal rendition, black sites, and torture by the US, with UK complicity. Remember that the brutality of ISIS was born in the occupation prisons of Iraq.
None of this has been allowed by the establishment media to undermine its unqualified support for the right of (western) imperialist powers to military intervention whenever the ‘national interest’ is deemed to require it. The question is never how war, after all this bloodshed and failure, can be justified. Instead the commentariat is aghast and astonished by the idea that any serious politician would consistently oppose imperialist intervention. It is this which is judged to be beyond the pale, not the infliction of deadly violence upon the people of any country whose government falls out of favour with ours.
The frame in which war is a necessary part of our states’ ability to pursue its interests (not their state’s: Iran has no right of intervention outside its borders, but the US or NATO has an obligation, even, to intervene anywhere), depends upon a selective, even amnesiac, historical recall. However much the last war is discredited, the next war is morally justified and will not be tainted by war crimes of the past. This time the bombs really will be smart, and this time wedding parties will not be wiped out by mistake. In fact, the lesson of history is that atrocities and grave abuses invariably accompany war.
In the present century, war has been defended as ‘humanitarian intervention’ and the prevention of terrorism. However, just as in the past, these wars have been nothing more than plunder cloaked by ideology. Security and human rights have been mere excuses to cover the flagrant pursuit of strategic power, corporate profit, and control of resources, as has always been the case.
In the nineteenth century, the British Empire engaged in war after war, often in the name of a civilising mission, which included the noble promotion of free trade among nations. One example of this progressive pursuit of free trade were the two Opium Wars against China, in 1839–1842 and 1856–1860. The British wanted access to Chinese markets, but had little to trade that the Chinese wanted. A solution was found with plantation labour in India producing opium to sell in China. Alarmed at the ill effects on its population, the Qing state attempted to outlaw this practice. In the name of free trade, Britain sent in the gun boats and forced the Chinese to open their ports to whatever the British chose to sell. Never mind any Central American cartels of whom you may have heard, the British Empire was the greatest drug pusher in world history.
The history of British imperial and colonial wars is a litany of horrors, from the very long history of atrocities in Ireland, the genocidal treatment of Australian Aborigines, the suppression of the Indian ‘Mutiny’ in 1857-8 (people were executed by being strapped to the mouths of cannons that were then fired), the hypocritical and murderous conquests of Egypt and Sudan in the 1880s, to the invention of concentration camps to ‘protect’ civilians in the Boer Wars (in reality due to a scorched-earth military policy). The camps led to tens of thousands of African as well as Boer deaths. The eighteenth-century wars in India led to a racist nineteenth-century colonial administration which was responsible for tens of millions of deaths from starvation (meticulously detailed in Mike Davis’ classic book Late Victorian Holocausts). This was the reality of the British Empire’s civilising mission.
After the Second World War, our ruling class did not cede its colonial power willingly, and fought viciously to maintain its rule, for example in Yemen, in the Malaysian ‘emergency’, and in Kenya. In the latter, the Kikuyu people faced arbitrary arrest and imprisonment in camps, and were subject to disturbingly sadistic tortures and executions. The history of imperial war and intervention is not just one of violence and atrocity, but of the relentless imposition of a racist hierarchy which makes a mockery of claims that the British state stands for any kind of liberal values. The crimes against the Kikuyu in particular have been consistently covered up and denied; right into the era of humanitarian intervention.
The ferocity with which the Establishment denigrates and demonises anti-war and anti-imperialist voices is a clue to how central to its interests is the right to inflict terror and occupation elsewhere in the world. And yet, some on the left, in the face of the media onslaught, advise that socialists should put anti-imperialist issues to one side, in the hope of being allowed to achieve some measure of re-distribution and social welfare at home. Such a strategy has been a terrible mistake in the past history of labour and socialist movements anywhere in the world, and remains the gravest error socialists can make in the present.
The radical agenda of the 1945 Labour government was derailed precisely by its support for imperialist policies, from fighting to restore imperial rule across Asia, participation in the Korean War alongside the USA, to its commitment to Britain obtaining its own nuclear weapons. All of this not only diverted resources away from social programmes, but entailed attacks on workers and trade unions in order to maintain restrictive levels of austerity. The first charges for elements of health care in the newly created NHS was one direct result. All of this demoralised the left and the working class, preparing the ground for the revival of Tory confidence and the return of a Tory government.
In all circumstances, imperial policy and military intervention create conditions which are absolutely inimical to the achievement of socialist objectives. Wars enable the ruling class to demand unity in the face of threats to the nation. Dissent on all issues that touch elite interests becomes treason, and the needs of working people become subordinated to national priorities, that is to say the profits, power and wealth of the ruling class. Social interests are diverted into militarism, and people’s better natures are suppressed by chauvinism.
Wars entrench and worsen the violence of international racist power structures, and encourage racism at home. Of all the factors which have weakened socialist and labour movements across the world in the last two centuries, the various manifestations of racism have to be among the very most serious. To achieve socialist change, the values of solidarity and co-operation need to be in the ascendant: war and militarism have never done anything but undermine these social relationships. Anyone who imagines that internationalism can be served by our ruling class engaging in military intervention is clearly looking the other way.
There has never been a good war. Millions rightly believed that Nazism and fascism had to be stopped during World War II, but this war too was the creation of preceding policies of our own ruling class. World War I was rooted in the imperialist competition of the nineteenth century, and German attempts to carve out an empire for themselves were based entirely on the British and French examples. The victorious powers of the First created the conditions in which the Second World War became inexorable. The German working class overthrew their imperial regime in 1918, and strove to establish a democratic and socialist republic. It was the western powers’ imposition of massive reparation payments that contributed fatally to the context in which rightwing death squads, the Freikorps, could murder socialists, destroy the revolution, and prepare the ground for the Nazi counter-revolution.
Once Hitler came to power, the efforts of British diplomacy were entirely bent on provoking Germany towards a war of extermination against Stalinist Russia, rather than in discouraging Nazi ambitions. Moreover, if the western powers had supported the democratic republic in Spain during its civil war, fascist aggression could have been turned back, and the horrors of the Second World War might well have been avoided even at that late stage.
British imperialism, far from being the humanitarian hero of the twentieth century, is deeply implicated in all its most terrible conflicts. Imperialist war and intervention create the conditions for new wars and more violence. This was true in the nineteenth century, in the World Wars, and the Cold War, just as it has been in the Middle East and Africa in the present century.
These latest wars have cost countless billions of pounds, and dollars, which could have been spent on social and environmental benefits both here and abroad. They have brutalised the populations of many countries, while the violence has returned home in the use of military equipment and tactics for the racist policing of communities in the west, and also in the trauma suffered by the largely working-class soldiers of both the UK and the US.
Wars have consistently undermined every social value and any progress towards equality that socialists hope to build. They must be opposed as a core socialist objective, not as an optional addition to be discarded in the face of elite hostility. Only by opposing the cynical interventions and aggression of our own ruling class can socialists hope to build solidarity between working people across the world. Anti-imperialist and anti-war movements are central to achieving equality and social justice here and internationally. Socialism cannot be built in isolation.
Dominic Alexander’s book The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) is available here.
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).
More articles from this author
- How ruling class greed, not immigration, brought down the Roman empire
- Climate and growth: Why driving down living standards won’t stop climate chaos
- Free Speech and the Suppression of Dissent during World War I - book review
- Why inflation is not caused by workers
- Chartist Revolution - book review
- The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania - book review
- ‘The people are the waters’: social revolt in London, 1196-1381