Duncan Hallas

Socialism and war

(May 1982)

First published in Socialist Review, No. 43, May/June 1982: 5, pp. 5–7.
Reprinted in L. German & R. Hoveman (eds.), A Socialist Review, London 1998, pp. 366–73.
Transcribed and marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We are not pacifists, we detest the Galtieri dictatorship, we dismiss the notion that the Argentinian seizure of the Falklands is progressive on anti-colonialist grounds. Nevertheless we believe that, in a war between Britain and Argentina, the defeat of British imperialism is the lesser evil. The main enemy is at home.

None of these statements, perhaps, is so self evidently true as to pass by mere assertion. Let us therefore return to basics. What are the criteria by which socialists determine their attitude to war in general and to a given war? An excellent starting point is the opening passage of Lenin’s Socialism and War written amidst the slaughter of 1915:

Socialists have always condemned wars between nations as barbarous and brutal. Our attitude towards war, however, is fundamentally different to that of the bourgeois pacifists (supporters and advocates of peace) and of the anarchists. We differ from the former 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, i.e. wars waged by an oppressed class against the oppressor class, by slaves against slave-holders, by serfs against landlords and by wage workers against the bourgeoisie, as fully legitimate, progressive and necessary. We Marxists differ from both pacifists and anarchists in that we deem it necessary to study each war historically (from the standpoint of Marx’s historical materialism) and separately.

War is always “barbarous and brutal”, often horribly so. Think of the bombing, the napalm, the defoliation, the atrocities perpetrated by US forces in Vietnam or by the Khmer Rouge. War is always an evil and it generates other evils too. Therefore, goes the “anti-war in principle” argument, it should be rejected regardless of circumstances. No more war.

There is a healthy and progressive strand in this attitude and it is often connected with a rudimentary kind of class consciousness. “It’s a rich man’s war but a poor man’s fight,” went the slogan of the opponents of conscription in the American Civil War.

I remember seeing, in an ordinary commercial cinema in Manchester a year or two after the end of the Second World War, a showing of the classic anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front. At the point where one German soldier says to another, “We should make the generals and politicians fight it out with clubs,” the audience, a fair number of whom must have been ex-soldiers, burst into loud and spontaneous applause.

That was a good spirit, a thousand times better than the patriotic flag waving of the Labour Party leaders then and now.

But by itself it will not do. Marx and Engels and their followers supported the North in the American Civil War. Some of them, mostly German exiles, fought voluntarily for the Union. And they were right. For in spite of the horrors, the slaughter, the mutilations, frauds and the fortunes made out of war profiteering, the war for the destruction of slavery was a just and progressive one.

The judgement is political, which brings us to Clausewitz’s classic definitions:

The war of a community – of whole nations and particularly of civilised nations – always starts from a political condition and is called forth by a political motive. It is, therefore, a political act ... 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. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to war relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses.

The peculiarity of the means is stated by Clausewitz with his characteristic brutal clarity and total lack of hypocrisy:

War is therefore an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will.

All of which is incontestably true and fundamentally important. One thing follows immediately. For revolution is precisely “an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fufil our will”. It is much more than that of course, but it is that or it is nothing.

But we cannot stop there. Since, in any class society, the ruling classes invariably resort to force to defend their rule, the rejection in principle of the use of force for political ends (not always, not usually, but in appropriate circumstances) is tantamount to abandoning the struggle for fundamental social change, for a classless society, for socialism.

Further, because wars cannot be abolished unless classes are abolished and socialism is established, the anti-war “in principle” position, if widely adopted by workers, guarantees the inevitability of future wars. The pacifist position, notwithstanding its humane impulses, is deeply conservative. That is why we are not pacifists.

But nuclear war, the threat of the nuclear holocaust, does that not alter the position entirely? It alters it certainly, but it does not change the underlying realities. There have been 100 or so wars since the United States Air Force dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, all non-nuclear (although some only just).

Nuclear war between the superpowers has not happened because it is not in the interests, rationally considered, of either of their ruling classes. That is not to say that it cannot happen, merely to say that the holocaust, an ever present danger, cannot be avoided by burying one’s head in the pacifist sand. It can only be avoided, in the end, by striking the nuclear weapons out of the hands of the ruling classes – by revolution.

From these most serious and weighty matters we turn to an affair that would be farcical if it were not so squalid and potentially dangerous – the Falklands (or Malvinas, if you prefer) crisis.

Back in the 1730s a certain Captain Jenkins, a smuggler and a pirate according to the Spanish authorities who then ruled much of South America, a peaceful and eminently respectable merchant skipper according to his friends, was arrested by the Spanish Guardia Costa and had his left ear lopped off in the scuffle. The then equivalent of the Daily Mail and the Tory backbenches went into paroxysms of hysterical rage.

The outcome, the “War of Jenkins’ Ear”, had about as much to do with the matter as the “right to self determination” of the Falkland Islanders has today. It was a transparent pretext. What was at issue was the slave trade, a highly profitable business in which British slavers came out on top through various wars.

There is, however, a difference. There was then a serious issue in dispute between the two ruling classes. The British bourgeoisie was determined to break into the South American markets and the rulers of Spanish America in Madrid were equally determined to keep them out.

In the “War of Jenkins’ Ear”, Jenkins was simply an excuse. Had he never been born, the outcome would have been the same, give or take a year or two. But now the excuse has become the reason. What we have now is the war, if it develops into a war, of Thatcher’s face (in the Chinese sense) and of Galtieri’s face too.

There is no longer a rational, if predatory, cause of dispute. The Falklands are of no great significance. Pure prestige and internal politics are the driving force on both sides.

True, there is talk of oil; but whether it exists or not is neither here nor there. After all, Thatcher’s government is busy trying to “privatise” the British National Oil Corporation, foreign oil companies hold a good deal of the North Sea and foreign multinationals operate freely in Galtieri’s Argentina.

The claim on the British side that Thatcher is motivated by concern for the people of the islands, that “the interests of the Falkland Islanders must be paramount”, is a masterpiece of impudent hypocrisy.

Under British rule, the inhabitants of the Falklands have never even been allowed a freely elected local government with the powers of a town council, let alone “self determination”. Many of them are not even allowed security of tenure of their houses but are forced to accept the tied cottage system operated by the British Falklands Company which owns most of the useful grazing land. No serious consideration to the interests of the Falklanders had been given by any British government until the Argentinian invasion. Moreover, both Thatcher’s government and Callaghan’s before it have had secret negotiations with successive Argentinian governments about the future of the islands without any reference to the inhabitants, let alone the referendum now bruited about.

In any case, the self determination argument is spurious to the core. A declining population of less than would make a respectable turnout at a fourth division football match on an off day, and lacking any social, ethnic, linguistic, cultural or historical features of its own, cannot be seriously regarded as a “national” entity. A far more plausible case could be made for national self determination for the Western Isles or the Isle of Man. And these more plausible cases would also be absurd and reactionary. For, as Lenin wrote:

If we want to understand the meaning of self determination of nations without juggling with legal definitions, without inventing abstract definitions, but examining the historical and economic conditions of the national movements, we shall inevitably reach the conclusion that self determination of nations means the political separation of these nations from other national bodies, the formation of an independent national state.

In the present case there is neither a national movement nor any possibility of a national state. The self determination argument is a fraud perpetrated to put a “democratic” gloss on support for Thatcher’s military adventure.

So far as the Falklands are concerned that is all that there is to be said but, to avoid misunderstanding, it is as well to point out that, in any case, we do not unconditionally support the right of self determination. We do not, for example, concede it to the Ulster Protestants, although they are indisputably a historically formed self conscious group with quasi-national characteristics. We reject the two nations theory for Ireland and we do so because its effect is plainly reactionary and not at all on the basis of legalistic quibbling about whether or not the Protestants do or do not have this or that “national” characteristic.

The “anti-colonialist” pretensions of the Argentinian dictatorship are not much better than the fraud of self determination. True, Argentina has some sort of more or less plausible claim to the Falklands on historical and geographical grounds and, certainly, the islands are a British colony. But these are legal forms and abstract claims.

We support anti-colonial movements as movements of struggle by oppressed people against their oppressors and we support them because, as Marx said, “no nation can be free if it oppresses other nations.”

None of this has much relevance to the Falklands. There is no Spanish speaking population struggling against British imperialism. For Galtieri, “anti-colonialism” is a convenient pretext to divert Argentinian workers away from their struggle against the dictatorship. The timing of the Argentinian invasion was no doubt influenced by the rising tide of demonstrations and strikes in Argentina. “National unity” in support of a foreign quarrel is Galtieri’s aim as well as Thatcher’s and “national unity” means the subordinating of the workers to the bosses.

We are irreconcilably hostile to both governments and both regimes. But we are in Britain and not Argentina and therefore the British government, the British state, is the main enemy for us.

The Labour Party leaders, and even some Tories who enthusiastically supported the Pinochet coup in Chile, have discovered that the Argentinian regime is fascist. That, of course, changes everything! Strictly speaking, the Argentinian dictatorship is not real fascism but let that pass. Also leave aside the Tories. It is the “left wing” variant of this argument that matters. In essence, it is a very old one.

In 1907 the Second International meeting in Stuttgart adopted the famous resolution on war which states:

The Congress confirms the resolutions of previous International Congresses against militarism and imperialism and declares anew that the fight against militarism cannot be separated from the socialist class war as a whole.

Wars between capitalist states are as a rule the result of their rivalry for world markets ... Further, these wars arise out of the never-ending armament race of militarism, which is one of the chief implements of bourgeois class rule and of the economic and political enslavement of the working classes.

Wars are encouraged by the prejudices of one nation against another, systematically purveyed among the civilised nations in the interests of the ruling classes, so as to divert the mass of the proletariat from the tasks of its own class, as well as from the duty of international class solidarity.

Wars are therefore inherent in the nature of capitalism. They will only cease when the capitalist economy is abolished ...

In the case of a threat of an outbreak of war, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries taking part, fortified by the unifying activity of the International Bureau, to do everything to prevent the outbreak of war by whatever means seems to them most effective, which naturally differ with the intensification of the class war and of the general political situation.

Should war break out in spite of all this, it is their duty to intervene for its speedy end, and to strive with all their power to make use of the violent economic and political crisis brought about by the war to rouse the people, and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule.

Five years later, at the Basle International Congress, this was unanimously reaffirmed, the British Labour Party delegates voting with the rest.

Two years after that, in 1914, the majority of the Labour and Social Democratic leaders in nearly all the warring states swallowed their words, abandoned the class struggle in favour of national unity’ and supported their “own” governments.

How did they justify this? Why, by pointing to the evils of the enemy regimes, of course.

The German Social Democratic majority, the most apposite comparison for our purpose, pointed to Russia. The tsar rules over the “prison house of peoples”, they said. “He has most bloodily suppressed the movements of Russian workers and peasants in 1905–07. His is the most brutal, backward and vicious state in Europe, the bulwark of European reaction for over 100 years.”

Of course all this was perfectly true. Tsarist Russia was every bit as vile, vicious and reactionary as Galtieri’s Argentina and a great deal more powerful. Moreover it had a long common frontier with Germany and the tsar’s armies were actually invading ethnic German territory in East Prussia.

What did Liebknecht and Luxemburg and Mehring and Zetkin say in reply? They said, “You are scoundrels, you are traitors. You have betrayed the German workers’ movement and the international workers’ movement. Tsarism today is no different to what it was in 1907 and 1912 when you promised to oppose war. The war, for Germany, is a ‘real political instrument’ of the German bourgeoisie. You have deserted to the enemy and this desertion will not stop at temporary support for the war” – as was indeed proved in 1918–19 when these same pro-war “socialists” organised troops to shoot down German workers.

In Liebknecht’s immortal words, “The main enemy is at home.” Not the only enemy of course. “The tsar is an enemy but support for the Kaiser actually weakens Russian workers’ opposition to the tsar and since the struggle against militarism cannot be separated from the socialist class war as a whole”, support for our “own” government strengthens reaction everywhere.

Lenin and Trotsky and Rosmer and Connolly and MacLean and Debs all said, with appropriate national variations, exactly the same thing. All opposed their “own” government and its war. And they were absolutely right. Support for “one’s own” ruling class in such a war is tantamount to abandoning the struggle for socialism. For their war is a continuation of their politics by other means. And so, exactly, with the War of Thatcher’s Face.

One good thing, at any rate, has come out of the Falklands crisis. The reaction of the Labour Party leaders has proved decisively, conclusively and irrefutably that the illusions of so many left wingers that there has been, since 1979, a real swing to the left by the Labour Party have as much substance as fairy gold.

Michael Foot, wrapping himself in the Union jack, and righteously denouncing the government’s neglect of British interests (and outdoing Denis Healey in the process!) is one thing. The support and applause he got from the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs are quite another. Not just the right but most of the left MPs enthusiastically cheered him on. They collapsed into jingoism at the first test. It did not take the courage of a Liebknecht or a MacLean to speak out against the Falklands expedition. Merely a modicum of principle and backbone. That, in the vast majority of cases, was more than the left MPs could muster. What really matters is the spectacular demonstration of the lack of elementary class hatred, the indispensable gut reaction against militarism and war, on the Labour benches.

Can any sane person now believe that this crew, even if reinforced by reselection and conference resolutions, could stand up to the bourgeoisie in a real crisis where bourgeois interests are at stake? If you can’t stand out, loud, clear, firm and, from the beginning, against a comic opera war in the South Atlantic, you will never resist the immeasurably greater pressures of the boss class against any attempt to impose economic policies they don’t want, let alone achieve socialism.

Nor can too much be said in favour of Benn and the handful of others (including that unreconstructed right winger, Tam Dalyell) who did not back Thatcher.

Benn’s position is basically, “Let the United Nations settle it.” The UN is a club of governments. We know some of them: Thatcher’s and Galtieri’s, Reagan’s and Brezhnev’s and so on, enemies of their own and every other working class. Benn’s position, in fact, is not very different from such important organs of bourgeois opinion as the Financial Times and the Guardian. It may well gain him some credit, especially if the expedition proves a failure, but there is not a spark of socialist internationalism in it.

As to the Labour leaders as a whole, left, right and centre, we have been fortunate to have a foretaste of their conduct in any future Labour government – cowardly, mean, chauvinist, grovelling before the ruling class.

Last updated on 5 October 2019