Imperialism, war and the socialist movement

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 100, April/May 1991

The brief span of the imperialist war against Iraq rekindled some interest in the Marxist position on war, especially as it was developed by Lenin during the first imperialist war. ROBERT CLOUGH examines Lenin’s position and contrasts it with the positions advanced by the British ‘left’ during the Gulf War.

First, the position of revolutionaries vis-à-vis any war depends on a concrete analysis of the political content or substance of that war. How do we disclose and define the substance of a war?

‘War is the continuation of policy. Consequently, we must examine the policy pursued prior to the war, the policy that led to and brought about the war . . . The philistine does not realise that war is “the continuation of policy”, and consequently limits himself to the formula that “the enemy has attacked us”, “the enemy has invaded my country”, without stopping to think what issues are at stake in the war, which classes are waging it, and with what political objects.’ (Collected Works (CW) Vol 23, p33)

In other words, Marxism requires:

‘ . . . an historical analysis of each war in order to determine whether or not that particular war can be considered progressive, whether it serves the interests of democracy and the proletariat and, in that sense, is legitimate, just, etc.’ (CW Vol 23, p32)

Lenin often quoted Clausewitz's famous dictum that war is the continuation of politics by other means. In fact, he took it a step further, saying, ‘War is not only a continuation of politics, it is the epitome of politics’ (CW Vol 30, p224), to emphasise that it was not a break from the norm of political struggle, but quite the opposite, especially in the imperialist epoch.

Second, in analysing the substance of any war, communists needed to determine what class aims were at stake:

‘The social character of the war, its true meaning, is not determined by the position of the enemy troops . . . What determines this character is the policy of which the war is the continuation (“war is the continuation of politics”), the class that is waging the war, and the aims for which it is waging this war.’ (CW Vol 25, p362)

In other words, the military and political issues involved cannot be separated.

Third, such analysis would establish that some wars – those for national liberation, for instance – were completely justifiable, and had to be supported by socialists. Lenin particularly dealt with the slogan of ‘defence of the fatherland’ advanced by the open opportunists of the warring imperialist powers during 1914-18. Concrete analysis determined that ‘the war is being waged for the partitioning of colonies and for the plunder of other lands’ (CW Vol 21, p185). Further, applying Clausewitz's dictum on war as the continuation of politics:

‘You will see that for decades, for almost half a century, the governments and the ruling classes of Britain and France, Germany and Italy, Austria and Russia have pursued a policy of plundering colonies, oppressing other nations, and suppressing the working-class movement. It is this, and only this, policy that is being pursued in the current war.’ (CW Vol 21, p304)

Hence the war was an ‘unjust’ war, since it was a war for the continued enslavement of the working class and oppressed nations. ‘Defence of the fatherland’ in this context meant the defence of the right of one imperialist power to oppress colonies at the expense of another imperialist power. However, socialists recognised the existence of just, legitimate wars, wars to overthrow feudalism, absolutism and alien oppression. Lenin again:

‘I am not at all opposed to wars waged in defence of democracy or against national oppression, nor do I fear such words as “defence of the fatherland” in reference to these wars or to insurrections. Socialists always side with the oppressed and, consequently, cannot be opposed to wars whose purpose is democratic or socialist struggle against oppression. It would therefore be absurd . . . not to recognise the legitimacy of wars of oppressed nations against their oppressors, wars that might break out today – rebellion of the Irish against England, for instance, rebellion of Morocco against France, or the Ukraine against Russia, etc . . . ’ (CW Vol 23, p196)

Such wars, of the colonial, oppressed nations against their imperialist oppressors would be completely legitimate,

‘irrespective of who would be the first to attack; any socialist would wish the oppressed, dependent and unequal states’ victory over the oppressor, slave-holding and predatory “Great” Powers’.’ (CW Vol 21, p301)

Lastly, socialists in the oppressor nation, in siding with the oppressed, would have to fight those who supported that oppression, in particular, the privileged labour aristocracy and its political representative, the bourgeois labour party:

'The fact is that "bourgeois labour parties", as a political phenomenon, have already been formed in all the foremost capitalist countries, and that unless a determined and relentless struggle is waged all along the line against these parties - or groups, trends etc, it is all the same - there can be no question of a struggle against imperialism, or of Marxism, or of a socialist labour movement.' (CW Vol 23, p118)

These then are some of the relevant principles for socialists to understand if they are to adopt a principled approach to any war that 'their' imperialist power carries on.

The war against Iraq

The trigger for the war against Iraq was the latter's invasion of Kuwait. This was a dispute between two factions of the Arab bourgeoisie over the price of oil. Iraq needed a high price to rescue its economy from complete collapse, while the al Sabah family in Kuwait wanted a lower price so as not to upset the imperialist economies in which it had enormous investments. In this dispute, the war aims of either party were entirely reactionary.

However, the Iraqi invasion upset the network of alliances which US and British imperialism had established to sustain their control of the Gulf and its oil in the post-colonial era. A greater Iraq could be a threat to the Zionist state. It might provide an avenue through which Japanese or German imperialism could obtain a foothold in the Gulf and undermine the stranglehold of the US and Britain.

Hence the war aims of Britain and the US were very simple: destroy the Iraqi war machine, re-establish the al Sabah family, and use this position to reassert complete supremacy over the Arab people. To these ends, they were quite happy to bribe the Egyptian bourgeoisie and allow Syria a free hand in northern Lebanon in order to co-opt them into their designs. Democracy in Kuwait, Syria, Turkey, or freedom in Palestine or Kurdistan were completely irrelevant to their designs.

Hence socialists supported a defeat for British and US imperialism for a very concrete reason. Yet they could not by the same token extend that to a call for a victory for Iraq, because its war aims were also reactionary. Some sects fought to distinguish between a military victory for Iraq (which socialists could support) and a political victory (which socialists couldn't). But this distinction is sophistry. A military victory for Iraq was always an impossibility: even if it were not, it could only mean a political victory for Saddam, with the continued enslavement of the Kurdish people and the Iraqi working class as its consequences.

The Iraqi war aims were then the war aims of the Iraqi bourgeoisie alone. And the turn the war took proved that beyond doubt. The Iraqi army collapsed, not just because of the terrible pounding it took from the imperialist forces, but because the conscripts that made it up did not want to fight a war in whose outcome they saw no interest. 'Victory to Iraq' sounds very hollow when we see that the hatred of the Iraqi army for Saddam was much greater than for the imperialists Saddam had summoned them to fight.

As we have shown, there is another aspect to the struggle against imperialist war, and that is the fight to expose those in the working class of the oppressor nation who support the imperialist war aims - the 'bourgeois labour party' Lenin referred to.

From the outset, Labour declared its support for British war aims. They needed no encouragement; indeed, Kaufman as Shadow Foreign Secretary boasted at the Labour Party conference that he had called for Iraqi reparations fully one month before Thatcher took it up. As the economic war turned into military war, and the wider war aims of imperialism were made public, Kinnock and Kaufman did not hesitate to support them. Most despicable of all, in the slaughter of the last 24 hours, not one word of protest was uttered, as Kinnock echoed the call for an unconditional Iraqi surrender.

If Labour fulfilled its role as defender of imperialism to perfection, we must not forget the part played by the Labour left and its admirers, Lenin argued that in a period of revolutionary crisis, when the working class becomes disaffected with the 'bourgeois labour party', a trend appears which seeks to reconcile the working class to that bourgeois labour party. During the first imperialist war, Karl Kautsky, a prominent leader of the pre-war international socialist movement, was such a conciliator. Kautsky argued that socialists should oppose the war by calling for a democratic peace: that since the war was in his view an interruption to normal politics, the fact that German Social Democrats openly defended German war aims should not be held against them, and they should not be expelled from the movement. Lenin wrote:

'Kautskyism is not an independent trend, because it has no roots either in the masses or in the privileged stratum which has deserted to the bourgeoisie. But the danger of Kautskyism lies in the fact that utilising the ideology of the past, it endeavours to reconcile the proletariat with the "bourgeois labour party", to preserve the unity of the proletariat with that party and thereby enhance the latter's prestige. The masses no longer follow the avowed social chauvinists...The Kautskyists' masked defence of the social chauvinists is far more dangerous.' (CW Vol 23, p119)

The Labour and Trotskyist left in their own small ways played this part to perfection. No matter how indignant Benn, Bernie Grant and other 'opponents' of Kinnock were, they were never going to break with the butcher's assistant. To the left, the SWP made sure that its formal commitment to 'troops out' never upset its friends in CND. As Lenin said:

'One of the common sophistries of Kautskyism is its reference to the "masses". We do not want, they say, to break away from the masses and mass organisations!' (CW Vol 23, p119)

How many times did the SWP plead that the Committee to Stop War in the Gulf and its associated organisations were the 'broad left forces' that were the only way to a mass movement? But as Lenin argued:

' is not so much a question of the size of an organisation, as of the real, objective significance of its policy; does its policy represent the masses, does it serve them, does it aim at their liberation from capitalism, or does it represent the interests of the minority, the minority's reconciliation with capitalism?' (CW Vol 23, p119)

The Committee, with its support for sanctions against Iraq and its opposition to the withdrawal of the imperialist troops, expressed the 'minority's reconciliation with capitalism'. And the SWP? Its 'masked defence' of the Committee was no more than a pale imitation of Kautskyism. Truly the one point on which the left puts no condition is its support for the Labour butchers.

The peace is a continuation of the war. The al Sabah family has regained control of its private fiefdom. The Palestinian population of Kuwait who make up the labour force are being subjected to a reign of terror. Even the tame 'democratic' opposition is persecuted: within days of the end of the war, one had been shot dead and another wounded. Within Iraq, whilst imperialism hopes for a coup organised from within the Republican Guard to topple Saddam, the Kurds fight on for liberation.

As we have explained, the issue for US and British imperialism was how best to reassert their domination of the Arab people. They could only have been defeated by the people of the Middle East as a whole acting to prevent their rulers from supporting the war. 'Victory to Iraq' could not express this standpoint; by pretending a military victory for Saddam was not a political victory it sacrificed the interests of the Kurdish and Iraqi people. 'Victory to the workers and oppressed peoples of the Middle East', the slogan of FRFI, was and still is the only legitimate standpoint of communists, since it alone states what is the case - that it is the united mass of the oppressed who can defeat imperialism, not the unwilling conscripts of a bourgeois dictator.

This article was also published as chapter 1.6 of The New Warlords: from the Gulf War to the recolonisation of the Middle East




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