Marxism and war

01 May 1999

War is a bloody and brutal business. Our rulers deliberately airbrush the images we get of the wars they are involved in. The Gulf war against Iraq in 1991 was presented by the media as a computer-choreographed fireworks show in aid of ‘democracy’. Later, the pictures of hundreds of mangled and charred bodies on the road to Basra came to light. Iraqis had been wantonly slaughtered by the US, British and other forces.

We are now being treated to the same sort of propaganda barrage as our rulers blanket bomb the Balkans. They are having a harder time of it given Nato’s ‘mistake’ in bombing a refugee column and its targeting of journalists, television technicians and make-up artists at the Serbian television headquarters. But to soften the impact of the scenes of carnage, this time much emphasis is being placed on the ‘humanitarian’ objectives of the Nato onslaught.

Unlike our rulers, Marxists never try to prettify war in order to justify it. We tell the truth. Part of that truth is that war is an inevitable product of a class divided society and a world divided into competing nations. It is also a necessary part of the struggle to overthrow class society.

Unlike pacifists—who reject all wars—socialists oppose some wars, support others, and will be prepared to wage war against the capitalist enemy. Our aim is to create a world free of national divisions and in which classes have been abolished: world socialism. Only such a world can get rid of war altogether and to achieve that we will have to fight, arms in hand.

Clausewitz, a nineteenth century German soldier and philosopher, provided an important insight into wars when he wrote:

‘We see, therefore, that war is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.’

Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky all took Clausewitz’s insistence that war not something separate from politics as their starting point for analysing wars. They went on to analyse the class character of each particular war. Writing during the carnage of the First World War, Lenin noted that the key questions were, ‘what caused the war, what classes are waging it, and what historico-economic conditions gave rise to it.’

By posing these questions Lenin drew the conclusion that there were both just and unjust wars. In the former category he included wars fought by nations oppressed by imperialism—Ireland’s war for independence for example. In the latter category he pointed to the war then being waged between the major imperialist powers. He recognised that beneath the superficial question of ‘who fired the first shot?’ lay the decisive fact that those powers were fighting each other to divide the world between themselves. He wrote:

‘This is a war firstly, to fortify the enslavement of the colonies by means of a “fairer” distribution and subsequent more “concerted” exploitation of them; secondly, to fortify the oppression of other nations within the “great” powers, for both Austria and Russia (Russia more and much worse than Austria) maintain their rule by such oppression, intensifying it by means of war; and thirdly, to fortify and prolong wage slavery, for the working class is split up and suppressed, while the capitalists gain, making fortunes out of the war, aggravating national prejudices and intensifying reaction, which has raised its head in all countries, even in the freest and most republican.’

The imperialist system described by Lenin—and the wars waged by the ‘great powers’ in that system—retain the same reactionary characteristics he noted. The principal difference is that since the Second World War, most of the oppressed countries have been transformed from colonies into semi-colonies. That is, colonies have been given, or have won, formal independence but remain subordinated to the economic power and political pressure of imperialism.

Imperialism goes to war against such countries in the name of ‘democracy’—against the ‘military dictator’ Galtieri of Argentina in the Falklands/Malvinas in 1928, against the ‘tyrant’ Saddam Hussein in 1991 (and he is still being bombed by Britain and the US today) and against the ‘new Hitler’ Milosovic at the moment.

Socialists recognise that this ‘democratic’ pretext is a lie. In each case imperialism has used and backed the dictators in question when it suited them. Only when they went against imperialism’s will and threatened to upset its world order—and the profits of its multinationals or the stability of the regions it seeks to control—does imperialism turn against these countries.

Socialists have a clean conscience. We have fought these dictators while they were imperialism’s friends and we will continue to fight them, despite them becoming its enemies. But, in each case, the concrete question in the wars by imperialism is not the fate of the dictators themselves—Thatcher had no wish to overthrow Galtieri; Saddam Hussein was kept in power courtesy of George Bush, and Milosovic may yet be used as the guarantor of stability in the Balkans—but the subordination of the oppressed nation to the will of imperialism. If imperialism succeeds, it represents a defeat for workers internationally.

The Gulf war was fought by the imperialist-led coalition to keep Iraq in this subordinate state and to end any threat to their exploitation of the area.

The imperialists’ claim that they were fighting for democracy against a cruel dictator was a lie. Kuwait—the country invaded by Iraq and ‘liberated’ by imperialism—was a vile dictatorship in which workers and peasants were denied any democratic rights whatsoever. Its royal family, restored by the ‘liberation’, set about reinforcing its dictatorship under the protection of the USA and Britain.

The importance of this example is that it demonstrates why Marxists were not simply against the war in the Gulf. We were against imperialism’s war on Iraq, a war waged for oil and political control of the Gulf region. We supported Iraq’s war against imperialism. This was a just war—even though it was being waged under a leadership which we want to see destroyed by the workers and peasants of Iraq.

In the Balkans today we apply the same principles, but with one important difference. In Kosova, Milosevic himself is engaged in a reactionary war of ethnic cleansing. We therefore make a distinction between the war in Kosova and the war in Serbia itself. Different class issues are at stake in each war. We are against the policy being continued in Kosova—reactionary, nationalist ethnic cleansing, and therefore do not support Serbia. We are against the policy being continued by Nato—subordination of the Balkans and therefore do not support Nato. In Serbia itself, however, the justified defence of an ex-Stalinist country in transition to becoming a capitalist semi-colony against imperialism means we do support Serbia’s struggle against Nato.

Some ‘Marxists’ throw up their hands at this and plead for easy, catch-all solutions. But war provides no easy answers. Wars can rapidly change their character. Only by a class analysis, an understanding of the politics of each war, can we understand why some wars are just and some are unjust and only thus can we determine whose side we are on, if any.

This method has proved vital for revolutionaries in many wars, but none more so than the two world wars of this century. Both, despite the so-called ‘anti-fascist’ character of the Allied war effort in the Second World War, were unjust wars as far as Britain, the USA, France, Germany, Japan and the other imperialist states were concerned.

Neither world war was fought to preserve democracy. Both were fought in order to redivide the world for exploration between the imperialist powers. They were unjust, imperialist wars.

As Lenin put it regarding the First World War:

‘Picture to yourselves a slave owner who owned 100 slaves warring against a slave owner who owned 200 slaves for a more “just” distribution of slaves. Clearly, the application of the term “defensive” war or “war for the defence of the fatherland”, in such a case would be historically false, and in practice would be sheer deception of the common people … Precisely in this way are the present day imperialist bourgeoisie deceiving the peoples by means of “national” ideology and the term “defence of the fatherland” in the present war between slave owners for fortifying and strengthening slavery.’

Lenin formulated a policy for Marxists that went beyond simply analysing the class character of wars and supporting or opposing them. He developed the policy of revolutionary defeatism—waging the class struggle in your own country against your own bourgeoisie even at the cost of it being defeated in war—as a means of creating the conditions under which imperialist war could be transformed into a civil war, a war by workers on their own ruling class. He argued:

‘A revolutionary class cannot but wish for the defeat of its government in a reactionary war, cannot fail to see that its military reverses facilitate its overthrow … Socialists must explain to the masses that they have no other road of salvation except the revolutionary overthrow of “their” governments, and that advantage must be taken of these governments’ embarrassments in the present war precisely for this purpose.’

The successful application of this policy led directly to the Russian revolution and the establishment of the world’s fist workers’ state. But even the establishment of such a state, in a single country, will not eradicate war and its attendant horrors.

Until the socialist revolution is victorious on a global scale—freeing the world from the economic and national competition that causes war—the capitalists will resist each and every workers’ revolution since they stand to lose their fortunes, their privileges and their political rule. Always and everywhere they will fight arms in hand to defeat workers’ revolution. Civil war to defeat them will be necessary. It is a stage towards the creation of a world free form war, and such and objective justifies the use of warlike means to achieve it.

That is another reason why Marxists are not pacifists and are not in favour of general and abstract calls for ‘disarmament’. We known we cannot defeat a powerful enemy other than by revolution and civil war. To win such a war, we need arms. We are for the disarmament of the bosses’ by the armed working class. As Engels put it: ‘if the working class was to overcome the bourgeoisie it would first have to master the art and strategy of war.’

To say otherwise is a deception, one that will result in wars without end.


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