By Moshé Machover, CPGB website – 14 March 2013
The high-water mark of the anti-war movement was the great demonstration of February 15 2003, the biggest that I have participated in – and I am sure that is true for many others here too. It did not stop the war and it would have been very surprising if it had, but nothing very much seems to have come out of that movement. The question is why?
Of all the similar wars of intervention – what have been called ‘slaughter for humanitarian purposes’, perpetrated on behalf of the US-led ‘international community’ – the Iraq war was the only one that generated such protests. The first I can recall was Kosova in 1999, over which much of the left was confused; then there was Afghanistan in 2001; more recently there has been Libya, Syria and Mali. Remarkably also in the case of Libya much of the left was divided, and again it is worth asking why.
Some have claimed that the big Iraq demonstration 10 years ago was responsible for preventing war against Iran today. I think this is highly doubtful – there are many other considerations. Of course, the march was not without use – just the feeling of being in such a big crowd is a good thing. But my question is, why have we been unable to repeat such large demonstrations?
The attitude of the organised left – in Stop the War Coalition it was mainly the Socialist Workers Party and later the section of the SWP that split to form Counterfire – is that the anti-war movement provides an opportunity not to assert the revolutionary socialist view, not to assert a Marxist analysis of the impending war, but to use this movement for ‘leverage’. I mean leverage in the sense of using a small weight to move a larger one. A small group hopes to use the movement in order to move a much larger public through some kind of ‘united front’.
In my first real political activity I was sent by a Stalinist-Zionist movement to collect signatures for a worldwide peace petition during the cold war. Some communist parties were very small, but could ‘lever’ a lot of peace-loving people through these organisations. Of course, the Stalinists had no intention of making a revolution – they were about defending the Soviet Union – and on these terms the peace petition worked quite well. They did get leverage through a whole series of organisations that are very reminiscent of the types of bodies run by the SWP, Counterfire and so on that we have today. There was the Democratic Youth Movement, which had a succession of festivals in the ‘people’s democracies’, the Democratic Women’s Movement and a whole series of fronts for the various CPs.
But there is a price to pay for this doubtful privilege: you have to moderate your own analysis, as those people you are trying to lever are not entirely stupid: they do not want to be manipulated and they are prepared to form this kind of long-term alliance only provided that the left does not say things that they strongly disagree with. In February 2003 you could see SWP posters and placards, but there were many more Liberal Democrat placards – and, of course, Lib Dem support vanished not long after that – and there were also very big Islamic groups taking part.
Now, I am not implying in any way that far-left groups should not have taken part in this huge demonstration or in other anti-war movements. But they should have used the occasion to put forward their own specific revolutionary-socialist analysis of the situation. What was missing was a distinct, working class, leftwing presentation. The far left felt it had to adapt to what its bourgeois partners were thinking about the war.
Some of the people who march against war are pacifists, who just think that war is bad. Again, I am not saying that we on the far left should not concur that war is a horrible thing, but this is not the main argument – it is an additional, a supporting argument against war.
Others have opposed some interventions because they say they lacked ‘international legitimacy’ or ‘legality’. In the case of Iraq it was clear that, as Blair stated, there would have to be a second United Nations security council resolution, so even in his terms it was not legal. And this actually influenced a lot of people: the Liberal Democrats opposed the Iraq war (until it actually began) on the grounds that it was illegal. Had the UN passed a resolution making the invasion legal, then they would have had no argument. Again, it is not a bad idea to point out the illegality, but this is not our main argument.
Then there are those who oppose war because it is so expensive. In fact this ‘cost of war’ argument is made not just by those who oppose wars, but also by those who wage them. There is a certain conflict of interest here, because war is very expensive, especially in these times of austerity, when so-called ‘defence’ budgets are being cut. But there is also the so-called ‘defence’ industry, which does not want to cut back.
Some people oppose war on the grounds that aggressor states have evil or unjustified aims. In the case of Iraq it was a very widespread argument that what the Americans were really after was Iraqi oil, which is to some extent true, but I do not think this was the main reason for the intervention and this certainly should not have been used as a main argument by Marxists. For example, the only resource Afghanistan had going for it was lapis lazuli, used for blue dyes!
Another argument made against the Iraq war was that Saddam Hussein did not have the weapons of mass destruction which he was accused of stockpiling. But suppose that he did! And, by the way, no-one was seriously claiming that Iraq had atomic weapons. The term ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is in itself deceptive: it lumps together hydrogen bombs and mustard gas. And when Blair said that Iraq possessed WMD he was talking about poison gas. Again, what if Iraq did have this?
The problems of these arguments about the secret, evil intent of the aggressors are twofold. One, there may not always be obvious ‘evil intent’; the reasons given for war and intervention may be semi-convincingly depicted as humanitarian, as in the case of Libya. These rebels in Benghazi are going to be slaughtered so ‘we’ must save them. If your main argument against the imperialists’ intervention is that they are doing bad things, but this is not immediately apparent, then you are disarmed. And this is actually what has happened to a lot of people on the left – not just the usual suspects, but people who ordinarily should know better. They are confused and have justified (or semi-justified) the intervention in Libya.
On the other hand, if you are not ready to justify the intervention on such grounds but want to oppose the war on the basis of ‘good versus evil’, then you are pushed into actually idealising the victim of the aggression. This is very obvious in the case of Iran, where some of the bigger masses that the left groups seek to leverage are devout Muslims, who are not averse to a harsh theocracy. It is not that the planned American-Israeli war against Iran is ‘good versus evil’ in the way it is portrayed in the bourgeois pro-war press, but merely a reversal of this position – suddenly these regimes become staunch ‘anti-imperialists’.
I think that the lesson of all this is the need to organise independently – not in the sense of refusing to act together on a specific issue in a tactical way with people who have other motives. But one should do it in a way that does not inhibit us from putting forward our own analysis.
Who and why
The question then is, what should be our main argument against these interventions? At this point I cannot resist telling you a story from the Talmud. The Talmud is a huge compendium of Jewish legal and theological disputations ranging over several centuries, but it also contains various stories. Some of them are just fairy tales, but others are reports of actual events. One of them recounts a discussion between three sages towards the end of the 2nd century in Palestine, which was then under the rule of the Roman empire. The discussion was over the attitude that should be taken towards the Romans.
The first sage says that the Romans are not so bad. They build markets, bathhouses, bridges. They bring civilisation. The second sage keeps quiet in the discussion. The third sage says, look, it’s not what the Romans do, but what they are doing it for. They build markets as places for lodging whores. They build bathhouses for their own enjoyment, and they build bridges in order to collect tolls, to tax us. So don’t look at what is done: look at who does it and why.
According to the story, a fourth sage overheard this conversation, blabbed about it, and it got to the authorities. The first sage who praised the Roman empire was not touched. The second sage who had kept silent was sent into internal exile. But the third one had the death sentence passed against him and he had to go into hiding. I think this is a very instructive tale, which has a moral lesson.
The question is not whether or not the purported immediate aim is good or not – to save the rebels or whatever. The question is what the bigger picture is about: why are these wars being waged? You can make a whole list of interventions carried out for ‘humanitarian purposes’. It is a system, a method – although this method of justifying war is relatively new, a post-cold war phenomenon.
All the big wars in modern times, up to and including World War II, had been between the major capitalist countries over the competitive division of the world between themselves, over who could become the ‘top dog’ of the imperialist hierarchy. I think another war of this type is unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future. It may arise again – no-one can prophesy with certainty – but if it does it would be entirely catastrophic, given the weaponry that exists. So the last one in history for the time being is World War II.
Then during the cold war the world was divided, polarised, between the two main superpowers. They had a whole series of agreements to achieve this – Yalta, Tehran, Potsdam. In the period from 1945 through to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites, wars were tools for the policing by the respective superpowers of their own mutually agreed spheres of influence. There were also conflicts between the two big blocs in cases where the borders were not sufficiently clearly defined – Korea certainly was a war of this kind and Vietnam arguably so. But additionally there were wars within the blocs, where one power would exercise itself militarily within its domain and the other superpower would not intervene. For example, the USA and its allies did not intervene when the Soviet Union made a regime change in Czechoslovakia in 1948 (and again in 1968), or when it intervened very forcefully in Hungary in 1956. Some Hungarian rebels called for American intervention, but that did not happen, as it was contrary to the established agreements and would have been destabilising.
Nor did Stalin intervene when the west crushed the resistance in Greece. Immediately after World War II, the Greek Communist Party and its resistance movement were as important as they were in Yugoslavia. But in Yugoslavia the west did not intervene and allowed the partisans to take power, while in Greece the imperialists, Britain mainly, did intervene, because, according to the agreements between the two major powers, Greece was in the western domain. Stalin not only did not intervene, but he actively betrayed his communist allies in Greece.
That period ended in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and now we have a world which is structured differently, with one major power at the summit of the capitalist pyramid. It is not a case of the ‘imperialist countries’ versus ‘the colonial countries’ – each state has a role within this hierarchy. It is an intricate system, but certainly there is a top dog. And that top dog would like to assert its right to police the world as it wishes. So, instead of two domains, where in each case there is a major power policing its own backyard, we have one world, one domain, with one superpower that claims, along with its major allies – not least Great Britain and Israel – that it has the right to police the whole world.
It is on these grounds that imperialist war must be resisted. It is part of the capitalist system – and a vicious and dangerous part from the point of view of revolutionary socialists. What the US is trying to do is to legitimise and to normalise its role as world policeman, and it is this that we ought to oppose. This is the major argument that I think the left should put forward in opposing wars.
We should never support a war undertaken by our own ruling classes. Often they are undertaken for domestic reasons. Kissinger said of Israel: it has no foreign policy, only domestic policy; and this is actually true of most states – their foreign policies result from internal class contradictions.
Of course, there are additional arguments that are useful to mention in each case, but this main argument applies just as much to Mali, Syria and Libya as it applied to Iraq and will apply to Iran. It is in principle incumbent on the left to oppose this role of world policeman. Why? Because we know what would happen if there were the possibility of socialist revolution anywhere: this world policeman would bring its power to bear against us. That is why it is essential to build up our opposition both practically and theoretically in order to delegitimise these police actions.
Finally I think it is important to distinguish between a ‘single issue’ form of opposition and one based on class analysis. It is the difference between protest and the presentation of an alternative. In order to do protest you do not really need a single, mass organisation based on the working class, and armed with a socialist programme. All you need is an organisation like STWC, which resists bad wars. Then you have another organisation to resist the cuts.
But in order to actually present an alternative you need an all-round theory, an all-round strategy. You need an organisation, a party. A party that is not just about protests, but whose main purpose is about presenting an alternative to the existing order of things.
Moshé Machover is an Israeli socialist anti-Zionist activist and co-founder of the Socialist Organization in Israel (Matzpen). He is currently living in London, England. He is emeritus professor of philosophy, King’s College, London University. His most recent book is Israelis and Palestinians: Conflict and Resolution.
All IOA commentaries by Moshé Machover
1. This article is based on a talk at the ‘Ten wasted years?’ school, organised by the CPGB, 9 March 2013.
2. The first part of the meeting served also as a launch of the booklet Karl Kautsky on Colonialism:
In addition to an English translation of Kautsky’s “dreadful” 1898 article, the booklet contains a brilliant Introduction by Mike Macnair, in which he critically examines the influence of Kautsky’s false historical analysis on the writings on imperialism/colonialism by leading lights in the Second International (including Hilferding, Luxemburg, Bukharin and Lenin) – and beyond it, on the policies of the Comintern, as well as the Stalinist, Maoist and Trotskyist traditions.
Mike’s talk – highly recommended! – can be viewed at http://vimeo.com/61618080
3. My talk, on which this article is based, followed Mike’s and can be viewed at http://vimeo.com/61650988
4. Both talks can also be viewed on the Iranian leftist Rahekargar website http://www.rahekargar.net
5. The original source of the Talmudic story which I paraphrased in my talk is the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat, p. 33B.
An English paraphrase can be found at